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Don't wait until it's too late to take that vacation

Some years ago, Joan B. was among my wife's circle of close friends. She was in her mid-40s, active, intelligent, happily married with two good kids, keeping a comfortable suburban home and generally living the typical suburban, middle-class life. Always busy, she often expressed the desire to travel to various exotic places, but she dismissed that yen as impractical and relegated it to the "maybe later" category.

Sadly, for Joan, "maybe later" never came. One day, without any warning, she suffered a catastrophic brain hemorrhage; after two months in a coma, doctors and family reluctantly decided to remove life support. Since that time, whenever any of that group of friends discussed delaying some adventure or trip because of day-to-day pressures and preoccupations, the others countered with "Remember Joan" and urged them to go ahead while they could. My wife and I, too, often used this rationale -- for which I am very grateful, because we took some great Joan trips before an unexpected stroke grounded my wife for the remainder of her days.

The better-known term for a Joan trip is, of course, "bucket list trip." But bucket list implies foreknowledge of some imminent dire consequence, which should not necessarily be the case. The idea is to take a Joan trip while you're still on top of your game, not to wait until you get some sort of bad news or, finally, the inevitable death sentence.

I'm in the process of planning my own Joan trip, using some frequent-flier miles piled up over the years when I thought I was too busy to travel. Yes, I was busy then, and I still am, but because of repeated postponements, my wife can no longer come with me. So I'm going now while I'm still able.

I have enough miles that my Joan trip will be a big one: I'm taking a month to fly around the world in business class, with a total transportation outlay of miles plus $199.25 in taxes and fees. My trip will be a combination of stops in places that I never had a chance to visit before, including Beijing and Istanbul, with return visits to the places in Europe I've visited and loved for years.

My Joan trip won't be entirely fun and games. I'll be schlepping a notebook computer, and every hotel I've booked has Wi-Fi, so I'll be able to keep up with my columns. And will post an online "Ed's Joan Trip Journal," which I will file every day or two. Look for it if you're interested.

Your Joan trip doesn't have to be expensive: It can be as simple as a camping trip you postponed, or a quick trip to a nearby seacoast or lake, or taking the kids to that theme park you've always promised. Or how about taking in that music, theater, art or cooking festival you've always wanted to attend, or a fishing trip with your buddies.

The idea isn't to spend a lot of money. These days, many of you are pretty squeezed, and you're worried that "maybe later" will morph into "probably never." Try to avoid total negativism and figure something that would be fun and within your means. Remember, money can be replaced -- albeit sometimes with difficulty -- but time cannot.

Neither frequent-flier miles nor people improve with age, so burning off any surplus miles you might have is a good way to cut the financial bite out of a Joan trip. Obviously, you don't have to blow as many miles as I did -- 50,000 miles will take a couple most places in the United States and to nearby Canadian, Caribbean and Mexican spots; 120,000 miles will get a couple to Europe. Sure, it's hard to score low-mileage-level seats, but be flexible about time and specific destination and go when your airline (or a partner line) has seats. There's nothing wrong with being frugal; just don't wait as long as Joan did.