During a recent workshop I gave at FOWA Miami, I made an off the cuff comment about my obsession with the travel industry and the pleasure I get from "hacking" airfares and hotel rates. There was a stunned silence and a voice from the back said "Oh dude, you can't just say something like that and not share that shit!" Consequently we spent a good chunk of time after the workshop officially finished talking about travel, airfares, loyalty programs and the tactics I've used to get cheap flights and hotels. At the request of some of the attendees I started jotting down a few nuggets of experience. After I finished the 4th page of scrawled notes, it seemed to make sense to turn it into a series of blog posts because so much of the travel "advice" I've read over the years was clearly written by people who have never left their house, let alone the country. And that's how I arrived at this, the first of what I hope will be many travel related posts. I plan to cover the basics, "hacking" airfares, airline and hotel loyalty programs, and the fear of flying, amongst other things. I hope you dig! So without further ado, here's some basic travel tips that so many of us seem to overlook.
- Don't buy flashy/expensive luggage. It's a good tip to thieves that the contents will also be flashy/expensive. Your criteria should be; durable, expandable, wheelable. That's it.
- You can leave the kitchen sink. When you're packing, get everything together you think you need, lay it out on your bed……now put half of it back. You don't need it, you really don't, and there's nothing worse than having to lug around a heavy bag that's full of crap you're not going to wear or use. You can easily pick up extra clothes and necessities if you need them, hand-wash small items, or run them through the hotel laundry. Incidentally, my ebook reader was one of the best travel investments I've ever made - I have a library of books with me without the need for chiropractic spinal care when I get home from lugging my holiday reading around.
- Hoard travel-size toiletries. I have a whole basket of them at home and I always stock up at Boots, Target, etc…..or in hotel rooms. This makes packing for a quick trip so much easier and you don't have to deal with buying full size toothpaste, shaving cream, etc at each destination or packing them in your checked-in luggage.
- Prep for security. I know this sounds obvious but prep for airport security BEFORE you get to the conveyor belt. So many times people with a jacket, laptop, liquids, 2 pieces of carry on, a scarf, thigh- high boots, a hat and a water bottle screw it up for the rest of us by spending 15 minutes disrobing while the conveyor belt drags their bag away from them, flustering them even more. Loosen/remove your belt, take your jacket off, untie your shoe laces (or even better, wear slip ons), unzip the pouch on your bag where your laptop is stored, put your sunglasses, wallet, keys, phone etc in your carry on while you're in line - the people in line behind you will thank you.
- Don't go nuts with the booze on a flight. Not only do the physiological effects of alcohol increase at altitude but it dehydrates you, can make jetlag worse, and you really don't want to be "that guy" on the flight. This especially goes for those who aren't comfortable with flying - more on that in a later post.
- Ease through immigration. If you travel even moderately frequently, the government sanctioned immigration, customs, and security "fast pass" programs can be a huge timesaver. The UK's IRIS system is one of the best.
- Tip the right people at the right time. Tip hotel housekeeping staff a lot at the BEGINNING of your stay, like on the first day. They work hard and it will ensure a pleasant stay. It irks me that we tip people for opening doors, showing us to our table, bringing us a soda but not for cleaning up our hotel bathrooms and beds each day. I'm completely with Chuck Thompson on this one. Oh and to my British friends traveling in America, the easiest way to (roughly) calculate the baseline tip on a restaurant bill is to double the tax - that usually gives you between 15-20%.
- Buy the local transport system's commuter card. If you're in a city for more than a day, pick up their transport system's stored value card (like London's Oyster and Hong Kong's Octopus) and put a few bucks on it. Not only is it much easier than buying a ticket for each journey, in many cases (e.g. London) it's substantially cheaper than a normal ticket and will allow you to travel on undergrounds, buses, trains, trams, etc. Also, the lines for ticket machines at busy stations can be unbelievably long, especially during tourist seasons.
- Don't eat in hotel restaurants. They are expensive and almost always uninteresting and sterile. Unless your hotel is in the middle of nowhere, there's going to be interesting local food just around the corner which will almost always be cheaper, tastier and a far better reflection of local culture and cuisine. Don't be afraid of "street" food either, I've had some of my favourite meals from hawkers, dai pai dongs, taco trucks, etc.
- Let your bank know you're going to be out of town. If your bank is anywhere near as "proactive" as mine, as soon as you use your ATM or credit card overseas you'll trigger red flags in their system. Enough "suspicious" activity and they'll disable or even deactivate your card. There's not a whole lot worse than your ATM card not working when you're 4500 miles from home.
- Bonus Tip for people visiting the US. GET TRAVEL INSURANCE. If you go to the US and get hit by a car or something (heaven forbid) and you don't have insurance, be prepared for a logistical, legal, and financial nightmare. So get travel insurance, it's not expensive and can save you from disaster. Check with your bank or credit card provider as many of them have insurance services built into their account/card products.
- Bonus tip for people visiting London. The Heathrow Express and Gatwick Express are a rip off. The tube will get you to central London quickly and easily from Heathrow, and the scheduled national rail services from both Gatwick and Heathrow are a quarter of the price and not much slower than their overpriced "Express" cousins. Actually, I think there's a whole blog post on visiting London.....expect that soon.
Finally, if you have any basic travel tips, leave them in the comments, I'd love to hear!