The act of traveling abroad, particularly by air, can be a grating experience. Long lines, delayed flights, customs forms, expensive food, small uncomfortable seats, endless waiting at airports, getting almost naked to clear security, lack of affordable cell phone coverage, overpriced hotels … the list goes on. Fortunately, there are lots of little hacks to make it MUCH more seamless and enjoyable.
Although I'm not a business road warrior by any means, I've had my fair share of experience traveling to far-off destinations thanks mostly to airline miles, reward points, and cheap hotel tricks. I am currently at the airport on my way back from FinCon 2014 which took place in New Orleans, so it's the perfect time to share all the little hacks I've developed over time.
Before You Leave
- Be sure to pack the following:
- Noise isolating headphones (i.e. ear buds). These will help you sleep, relax, entertain yourself, and get work done. That way you won't have to pay to buy something cheap and inferiour.
- Pen and paper. You'll need a real pen to fill out those customs forms and for jotting notes if your cell dies.
- Portable phone charger. There are usually outlets at airports and sometimes on planes, but do you really want to be stuck in one place charging your phone? Portable chargers are so cheap, just get one.
- Empty water bottle. You can fill it after you clear security so you can always stay hydrated without buying expensive drinks.
- Credit card(s). There a many things you just can't do while traveling without one. More than one is preferred in case one gets frozen, which commonly happens while traveling.
- A good book. Electronic devices often aren't allowed during takeoff and landing on most airlines but books are fine.
- Figure out a better plan for your cell phone. You actually don't need to pay through the nose for talk, text, or data in foreign countries (see how here).
- Get your hotel accommodations in order:
- Check Trip Advisor for traveler tips and photos for your hotel so you can request a newly renovated or well-located room. Not all rooms are created equal.
- Call and confirm reservation and dates to make sure the hotel has you in their system, especially if you booked through a third party. Mix-ups do happen!
- Give your rewards program number if they don't have it already, especially if you have some sort of status.
- Get the right room. Ask for the type of room you want or even an upgrade. This is also the time to provide them with any special requests you may have.
- Ask for a discount. If you're booking directly with the hotel, you can try calling them and asking for a discount instead of booking online. Tell them you'll just go to Priceline or Hotwire if they can't give you a better rate.
- Print out your reservation confirmation to take with you.
- Check-in online 24 hours in advance:
- Many airlines don't let you choose your seat until the time of check-in unless you pay extra. Checking in online as soon as you can gets you the pick of the best seats.
- Your goal is to have your seats chosen, your boarding passes in hand (or on your phone), and your baggage tickets ready before you hit the airport.
- Now you'll be able to skip through the check-in line and get to security much faster.
- All of this can usually be done via your phone if you want to take the time to set it up.
- How to pick the best seat on any airplane:
- You typically want to be near the front of the plane:
- You can get off the plane much faster, which also helps with lines at security, customs, baggage claim, and getting a taxi.
- You get food and beverage service first so you can settle in or go to sleep faster.
- There is less engine noise at the front of the plane.
- Your window view won't be obstructed by the plane's own wing.
- You'll probably be closer to bathrooms (at least on larger planes).
- Type your flight number into Google or sites like SeatGuru to see the exact plane type and layout along with information about each seat:
- Some seats have more leg room (exit rows or bulkheads).
- Avoid seats that don't recline (back of plane).
- Make sure you get an electrical outlet.
- Avoid seats without a window and more…
- If you can't find your exact flight on SeatGuru, figuring out the plane model using your flight number through Google and then punching that directly into SeatGuru can help.
- You typically want to be near the front of the plane:
- Sleep really well the night before you leave. Pack a few days early and force yourself into bed at a reasonable hour the night before you leave. You'll have a much better time when you arrive if you do.
- Learn how to put your electronic devices in airplane mode. Do this when you are on the plane and after you land to both conserve battery (it drains really fast when the phone can't get a signal), comply with airline regulations, and avoid costly data charges in foreign countries.
- Confirm flight departure times. Type your flight number into Google to make sure it is on schedule. Call the airline if you want to be extra sure.
- Check airport parking rates and options before you leave.
- You might be able to find a coupon online, especially if you're using Park 'N Fly.
- Get a friend to drive you or take public transit if that is possible.
- Research airport transfer options at your destination airport:
- Options typically include bus, subway, shuttle, taxi, or limousine.
- For some airports, getting a taxi is totally worth it. For others, public transport is quick, cheap, and easy. Be smart and not excessively frugal here.
- Look for coupons or discounts if you book in advance.
At The Airport
- Put your boarding pass(es) inside your passport and keep it somewhere very easy to access. You'll need it A LOT.
- Empty your pockets. Keep as little in your pants pockets as possible to make going through security easier.
- Check restricted items. Make sure all liquids and other restricted items are in your checked bags or they will be confiscated (unless they are in a clear plastic bag and under the size limits).
- Take advantage of premium benefits if you are traveling in business class or have a premium credit card:
- Use priority lanes at check-in, security gates, and customs.
- Relax in one of the airport lounges. Apps like Lounge Buddy will help you figure out which lounges you have access to for free and where they are in the airport.
- Occasionally, some credit card issuers will have a nice seating area at the airport that isn't a real lounge. Keep your eye out for those because even lower level credit cards are often good enough to get into these areas (i.e. any MasterCard branded card).
- Fill your empty water bottle at a fountain or sink after you are through security.
- Use your luggage straps if you have multiple bags. Look at the flight attendants for inspiration when they walk by because they always carry their luggage really well!
- Check the flight board as soon as you arrive to confirm your gate and that departure is on time. Check again as departure time nears to make sure your gate or departure time hasn't changed.
- Sign up for the Nexus program if you are a frequent traveler to the USA. It pre-approves you for access into the USA and the lines to get through security are so much shorter and faster it is ridiculous.
- If you are late for your flight or connection, tell one of the attendants. They will rush you through the line ahead of people who have flights that are departing later.
On The Plane
- Sleep on the plane:
- So many people complain of jet lag and tiredness when they travel and when asked if they slept on the plane, they always say no.
- Do whatever is necessary to fall asleep:
- Tell travel buddies not to bug you.
- Get a window seat to avoid being woken for bathroom runs.
- Put in your earbuds to drown out the noise.
- Close the window and turn off the overhead light.
- Buy or bring a neck cushion if that helps you.
- Avoid the temptation to watch a movie or use other in-flight entertainment. I know it's hard, but it's worth it!
- Turn the screen off on your in-flight entertainment system so it is black and the light it normally emits won't bother you.
- If you slept well the night before, and you sleep the whole way on the plane you will be rested and ready to go when you arrive.
- Even if you will be sleeping soon after you arrive, this still helps!
- Keep your seatback upright:
- My tailbone always hurts like crazy when traveling on planes. I've noticed when reclining the seat, unless it is lay-flat, it hurts much worse.
- By being more upright, you are putting pressure on your bum cheeks instead of your spine and tailbone.
- Do this even while you sleep otherwise you soon won't be able to sleep at all because it's too uncomfortable.
- Food and beverages:
- Only long international flights have food now, so be prepared with a snack. Grab some from the lounge if you can.
- Ask for the whole can when the drink cart comes by or multiple beverages. They have no problem doing this but they will only give you a single small glass of something unless you ask for more.
- Fill up your water bottle with bottled water. If you ask the flight attendant to fill your empty bottle with water, they will do this. I've done it several times and have never been refused.
- In flight entertainment:
- It is a little known fact that you can fast forward most commercials. Try it!
- You may have to do this a couple of times to get through all the commercials because it often resets to regular speed part way through.
- If you only make it part way through a movie, you'll usually have the opportunity to finish it on the way back. Fast forward to where you left off.
- Wait, why are you watching a movie anyway? You should be sleeping!
- Put your phone in airplane mode and use the book or eReader you brought during takeoff and landing.
When You First Arrive
- Insert your new SIM card in your phone if you have one for a visit to a foreign country. Turn off data capabilities if you don't have one to avoid getting charged.
- To get your luggage fast, stand near the mouth of the luggage carousel where the luggage drops out to pick up your bag quickly.
- If you're taking a taxi, get to the line as fast as you can to avoid long lines and no available cabs due to other passengers from your flight.
- Stop by a tourist information booth on your way out to ask any questions you may have about the city or getting to your hotel.
Where You Are Staying
- Check in early. Try to check in as early in the day as possible because that is when the best choice of rooms are available.
- Greet the person at the front desk with your warmest smile.
- Confirm everything. Don't be surprised if any special requests you made in advance aren't offered to you automatically. Confirm everything that you want with the person at the front desk.
- Ask for what you want. Don't be shy! Typically ask for a newly renovated room on a high floor with a good view and with the type of bed that you want.
- Remember to show your loyalty card, especially if you have status and ask for a room upgrade if they have one available.
- Try the $20 trick if you're brave by discreetly offering a tip to the attendant if they can "find" you a good room or suite. This can really pay off for long stays and worst case you are out $20. If the hotel is particularly empty, they may give you something really nice.
- If you need anything, call the operator and ask. Things like extra towels, razors, shaving cream, toiletries, and even makeup are usually available for free.
- Ask for free WiFi if they don't offer it by default. Remember to get the password. Tether your phone if you have a data plan with it to avoid paying the crazy rates if asking for free service doesn't work. Being on a high floor will help with cell reception.
- Ask if breakfast is included or if they have any discount vouchers for the restaurant they can give you.
- Look for free coffee and tea. If they don't offer it in your room, often times they will have a place you can get it.
- Use the concierge if they have one for restaurant and attraction recommendations.
In The City
- Get the Trip Advisor app on your smartphone:
- Great for hotel, restaurant, attraction, and shopping reviews.
- Let's you focus on what's nearby and what's bound to be good to avoid disappointment.
- The "near me now" feature is fantastic along with the "point me to it" feature that integrates with Google Maps.
- Consider the Yelp and Urban Spoon apps for even better restaurant recommendations.
- Use Google Maps to help you get around the city. It gives great walking directions along with driving directions (put it in walking mode).
- Get a map of the public transit system from your hotel or use an app or Google Maps to give you the same info on your smartphone.
- Look for coupon books. Ask your hotel where to get a coupon book to save on restaurants and attractions.
- Consider buying an Entertainment Book or City Pass for the city you are going to before you leave.
- Enlist your credit card concierge, if you have one, to find and book unique tours and attractions along with helping you get into popular restaurants and attractions.
Want to save a crazy amount of money on travel?
This book by fellow Canadian blogger Steve Zussino is the ultimate guide to travel hacking for Canadians. It will teach you to get your airfare and accomodations for free or very cheaply anywhere you want to go in the world.
What Travel Tips Do You Have?
I know I'm not the world's most efficient or experienced traveller, so for those of you that travel often, what tips do you have to make the experience more enjoyable and frictionless?