How to Travel Like a Pro: 17 Tips to Take Control of Your Trip

Looking up at a Japanese tea garden display at Bellagio Las Vegas (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Looking up at a Japanese tea garden display at Bellagio in Las Vegas; some creative Googling sent me to see the hotel’s free, 24/7 garden area (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

You’ll spot them at the airport; the folks who are lugging enormous suitcases and standing in line to check in for their flight and get a boarding pass. The pro traveler usually walks right by, because he or she packs lightly, has already checked in online and already has a boarding pass in hand (along with a photo ID so there’s no fumbling in the wallet.)

Read on for more tips to help you handle travel like a boss ….

1)   If you do not have to stay at a specific hotel, look at packages rather than booking hotel, flight, and rental car separately. Sometimes you can save a lot by buying things together.

2)   Sick of flying and don’t want to drive? Look into point-to-point bus options like MegaBus and BoltBus. They often go from one downtown to another, so you arrive exactly where you need to be, and tickets booked ahead of time online are often ridiculously cheap. They are clean, and there are power plugs at each seat, lots of room, and free WiFi, which beats the hell out of just about any flight these days, most of which are like being in a bus in the air.

3)   Consider membership in AAA (American Automobile Association.) It covers battery jumps, towing, and tire changes for your car, so there’s that peace of mind, but I’ve also found that the AAA discount at hotels are usually cheaper than anything else. There are also AAA discounts at lots of attractions like museums and amusement parks. They have free maps for hundreds of locations; I recommend backup maps for long drives in areas where data coverage is nil, because Google Maps won’t save you if you get lost. AAA also has travel agents, which I never use but might consider for a complex, expensive trip like a safari or a cruise.

4)   Check into your flight online the day before and either print your boarding pass or have it sent to your phone. This is another line or two you can skip. Allegiant Airlines even charges for boarding passes printed at the airport.

5)   Learn how to pack a carry-on suitcase. I very rarely check luggage; it’s one less crisis if there’s a delay or missed connection, and I like as much control as possible over the travel experience. Use checklists, pare it down to travel outfits that work several ways, and wear your bulkiest shoes and jackets on the plane. If you forget something, they almost certainly have stores where you are going! Include a small umbrella and a bathing suit; they don’t take up much room and when you need ’em, you need ’em.

6)   Comfortable shoes that you can walk in that look decent and aren’t blinding white “I’m an American tourist” athletic shoes: this is the Holy Grail of travel comfort. Do not skimp on buying them in multiples.

7)   Check the weather at your destination before you pack. I know you’re thinking, “well, DUH,” but I’m amazed at the people who show up with the wrong clothes as though Weather.com or Weather Channel do not exist.

8)   Don’t believe the airline website when it only shows crummy middle seats available unless you upgrade. They may indicate that when you buy the ticket – because they want you to spend money for “Economy Plus” and up – but keep checking. Better seats on the aisle (my preference so I can get up and move around) or window almost always open up as the departure draws closer. You can ask at the gate, too.

9)   Carry an empty water bottle through security, then fill it at the water fountain on the other side. You need to drink a lot of water in the Sahara-like atmospheric conditions on a plane, and a little cup of it from the flight attendant every few hours is not enough.

10)   When flights are cancelled or there’s some other scheduling crisis, have the airline 1-800 number already in your phone, and sort it out with an old-fashioned phone call rather than standing in line to see a gate agent. The people who can help you are all using the same database. You can be re-booked and racing to the new gate while others are still standing there, waiting their turn.

11)   Always have a few energy bars and maybe a Starbucks Via instant coffee packet with you. Assume starvation and be pleasantly surprised when you actually have time to find and eat an airport meal.

12)   Keep your toiletries bag stocked. Don’t forget duplicates of key items like tweezers, the sort of device that you don’t need until you really need it. Include a small flashlight (so you can find things in an unfamiliar hotel room without waking up everyone else) and a nightlight.

13)   If you don’t already know how to do it, learn to set up and use your phone’s hotspot capabilities for those annoying hotels that insist on charging you for internet access. This blog post was written using a T-Mobile hotspot in my hotel room, not schlepping down 26 floors to use the free WiFi in a lounge. Make sure your data plan can handle it, though.

14)   Speaking of phones, if you live on yours as I do, remember ABC – Always Be Charging. Carry a backup portable phone charger, too.

15)   Expensive parking in big cities can really hammer your budget. See if there is a municipal parking garage across the street or around the corner from your hotel; it will often cost a lot less. If you’ve packed just a carry-on bag (see tip #5 above) it’s not a hassle to walk over to the hotel.

16)   I saw this clever idea on Smarter Travel – if you have coins and change from another country and there’s a Starbucks at their airport on the way out, use the money to load up a Starbucks card, which you can then use anywhere.

17)   Did you arrive at your destination without doing much research ahead of time? Simply Google “things to do OR see in XYZcity.” The capital OR means it’s a Boolean search – learn more Google travel search tips here. A variation is “free OR cheap things to do OR see in XYZcity” and “must see OR must do in XYZcity.” Search results have led me to interesting spots all over the world.

That’s a lot, isn’t it?! What did I miss? Head below to the comments to share YOUR tips for traveling like a pro.

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