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Have ADHD Will Travel: 10 Vacation Tips for the Forgetful and Stressed Out (Like Me)

Vacation doesn’t have to cause heart-clutching stress. Here is how I channel my inner Martha Stewart to make lists — and check them off until lift-off.

Vacations are relaxing breaks from reality, right? Not if you have ADHD. Then, vacation time is run-like-a-chicken-with-your-head-cut-off time. It’s stress-out time. It’s forget-stuff time. And that’s just before you leave

Once you arrive at your destination, you’ll be plagued by guilt and remorse as you run to the store to spend more money to buy more things you shouldn’t have forgotten. Or to feel out of place when the whole family heads out for a nice dinner and you packed nothing fancier than a t-shirt. Or out of touch when you realize you remembered everything but your phone charger, and you’re on an island, and they don’t sell your phone charger anywhere.

You need some help.

Luckily, after a decade of visiting my in-laws at least three times a year, plus coordinating yearly vacations to the beach, my family’s house, and other places, I’ve got this down to a science. Here’s vacation tips to make your trip less stress and mess.

1. Make necessary appointments one month to two weeks in advance. Write the appointment in your planner, along with the relevant phone numbers, and then do it. These appointments include locking down pet sitters or kennels or dog spas or whatever, hiring house sitters, holding your mail, as well as any important appointments you’ll want on vacation, like surfing lessons or special tours, which might get booked up. You do not need these last-minute scrambles.

[Vacations Are Supposed to Be Fun, Right?!?]

2. Start cleaning early. Coming home to a messy house? Ick. Or, if you’re like us, you need to clean for the house sitter. That’s a lot of work when you have ADHD, you’re prone to clutter and mess, and you’re prone to “do it tomorrow.” Divide your house cleaning tasks into days and do them in that order, writing them down if you have to. This is one time, too, when it might be a good idea to splurge for that cleaning service.

3. Decode the med situation. Pharmacies will not fill stimulant prescriptions across state lines; it’s illegal. Your insurance may also refuse to pick up the tab for your meds if they’re filled before a certain date; at the same time, it’s often impossible to fill your prescription before a certain date. Hash out everything with the pharmacist, your doctor, and the insurance company. Explain that you’re going on vacation. See what can be done. I usually end up taking a backup medication; I have extra of Vyvanse to Mydayis if I’m going to run out mid-trip.

4. Divide everything into categories. You need a lot of stuff to function. You can’t just sit down and make a list; you need to create and fill categories. Start with electronics, since that’s the easiest way to ruin your vacation, and do not forget to list chargers and cords separately. You may just want to list “makeup” or “face stuff” or “shower stuff,” because you know so intimately what that contains, but make sure to do a thorough sweep of those areas. Many times I’ve forgotten nail polish or my razor this way. Better to write. It. All. Down.

5. Decide what you’re going to wear. Base your wardrobe choices on what occasions you expect, whether they’ll be a washer and dryer available, what is most comfortable, etc.

How many outfits do you need and of what kind? Now lay out the outfits. Not the clothing, the outfits, whole and entire. These are sets of clothes that go together, so you make sure you don’t forget things. Count out the undergarments. Now, lay the outfits into your suitcase as outfits; they will stay together your entire trip. When packing for someone else, aka children, I pack outfits rubber-banded together. I own entire balls of rubber bands for this purpose only. Packing by outfit will also have the benefit of keeping you from grossly overpacking, an ADHD trait: We need to have options!

[Free Download: Master Packing List for Adults with ADHD]

6. Don’t forget your shoes. No, I’m not joking. Pick a few pairs that go with everything. A few.

7. Go for the toiletries. I can always stuff mine in a large Aldi bag, and I’m a makeup fanatic. I prune it for flying. For driving vacations, I pare it down to one or two looks, which I pack and leave out to use for a day or so beforehand (that way I’m not scrambling the morning of, a recipe for disaster). I tick off my haircare products and set them on the corner of the vanity a few days early. I clear out my shower, evaluating every item to see if I need it, then pile it all in the corner. I’ll keep returning stuff to the pile until it’s time to pack. Remember the TSA rule about liquids, and don’t pack stuff in your carry-on that violates it. You may have to pack most of your toiletries, other than makeup and toothpaste, and hope it makes it there.

8. The night before, lay out your meds and pack them. Set out your night meds, if you take them, and your day meds for the next morning. Pack up everything else in a separate bag and put it in your toiletry bag if you’re driving, your carry-on bag if you’re flying. Do not fly without carrying on your meds in their original containers. You don’t want to get there and find the airline lost your bags and you’re without medication for several days.

9. The morning of, pack stuff you couldn’t pack until now. You should make a list of this stuff beforehand. It will include things like chargers, cords, shampoo, makeup, etc. Seriously: make a list. Cross items off the list as you go. The mad dash to get out the door is when your ADHD brain is running on overtime and you’re most prone to forget things, like entire bags, which I once did.

10. You forgot something. It’s just a question of what. Seriously. On this last trip, we forgot my son’s beloved Paw Patrol stuffie and had to make a late-night Target run to buy a $6.99 cocker spaniel stuffie wearing a pirate hat. We forgot all the board games we swore we’d bring, which cost us a large sum at Barnes & Noble. Other than that? My husband’s shampoo was the only soldier left behind. This was cause for massive celebration.

Vacation doesn’t have to cause heart-clutching stress. Just make lists. Make lists like an obsessive, Martha Stewart type, and check them off. Get help if you need help cleaning; it’s not worth your brain space to stress over something like that. Make sure you figure out your meds, and make damn sure you remember your phone charger and your toothbrush. Because in the end, you can live without pretty much everything else.

Ask me how I know.

[How to Enjoy a Vacation When You Have ADHD]