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Travel Tips & Tools
Some people tell me they never travel because they get lost doing the research. Hopefully this site gives you a head-start, but here are some other tips.
Choosing A Destination
Start with the end in mind. If you want a beach vacation, don’t start researching Ireland. What do you desire in your next trip? Nature, luxury getaway, girls trip, romance, downtime? Decide this first then keep that goal in mind when you start to wander. Don’t forget to consider time of year. Yes, it’s easy to pick the Caribbean when it’s winter in New England, but realize that it does get cold in Bermuda and Hawaii has a very rainy season – so even though these places evoke tropical breezes, it depends when you go. Take a quick minute to research the climate or “travel season” of your potential destination. TIP: Don’t be afraid to travel to a destination just because it is “off” season. That usually means less than perfect weather, but it also means less crowds and cheaper prices. Researching will also help you decide how far in advance you need to plan. While most trips don’t require much, if you want to attend the Running of the Bulls in Spain or a trip to the Galapagos, you may need to plan this more than a year in advance to have the best experience.
Google is ready to serve you. If you have no idea where to go, try Googling “best girl’s getaway weekend in March” or something like that. Read articles from travel sites and magazines like Travel & Leisure, Lonely Planet or National Geographic. Sometimes I’ll add these brands directly to my Google search because they are reputable and reliable for good info.
You can also just go to Google maps, and start with where you are. Zoom way in. Now drag the map around, zooming in and out to see what’s around you that you might have overlooked.
Need inspiration? Click through my destination pages above. I also have a Journal of Possibilities page where I’m building outlines of future destinations I plan to travel to.
How much time do you have? You can’t go to Europe for a long weekend. Start by figuring out your window – I like to group travel into 3 buckets: long weekend, week long and 2+ weeks. If you only have a long weekend, you can consider destinations in driving distance or places that are accessible by direct flight from your local airport. For someone that lives in New York, you can go nearly anywhere in the world direct. I’m in Louisiana so most flights require a connection, which takes hours out of a vacation day. If you’ll be flying, figure at least 2 hours from the time your flight is scheduled to land before you will have your bags, arrive at your home base and have a minute to freshen up. Add an hour for international destinations to allow for customs. If you try to go too far, your long-weekend just turned into only a few hours of actual destination time.
This is the hardest part for me. But it is a good idea to have a general budget in mind. If you plan to fly to your destination, it’s a good idea to price out flights before you get too far. That also gives you schedules which helps you carve out how much actual time you will have in your destination. Maybe the bulk of your budget can be allocated for accommodations because you’re going to be hiking or attending free festivals. But if you are headed to Disney, a big piece of your budget will be park tickets and food. You can pick modest accommodations because you’ll be too exhausted to care where your head hits the pillow.
Once I’ve narrowed down one or two possible destinations, I usually start looking at accommodations. How much time will you spend in your home base? I’m always tempted to go luxury and tend to pick places that end up being so much more than I needed. The purpose of travel is to explore and immerse, so all you really need is a safe, clean place to keep your suitcase, shower and sleep. EXCEPTION: There are exceptions to this general rule. First, there is beauty in booking a luxury hotel for a long weekend with the intention of staying in your room, ordering room service and having spa treatments. Another exception is a ski, beach or boat vacations where you might want a full kitchen, especially in remote destinations where restaurants and nightlife are limited.
Where To Start Your Research
Let’s assume you’ve got a destination in mind now. My first stop is TripAdvisor. I go to the location, click on “hotels” and sort by highest rated. If you are booking last minute, TripAdvisor has a booking tool built in so you can plug in your dates and not waste time looking at properties that are booked. Use the sort features – you can sort by best value, traveler rated, distance to a city center, etc. TIP: On the left side there are several filters you can apply. One of my favorite secrets is to click “specialty lodging” under “Property Types”. I’ve found some hidden gems by using this filter. It will sometimes include private rentals, Air B&B type properties or more mom-n-pop places. This tool helped me avoid almost booking a room in Europe that did not have a private bathroom!
- When researching a specific hotel, click “reviews”. Then sort by time of year, or solo travel, or families. Note the bars that quickly show the overall rating that previous travelers have given, from Excellent to Terrible.
- Ignore reviews that rant about bad experiences. They are usually one-off situations.
- Look at the real traveler photos. Hotel websites always make the property look better than it is, so viewing real traveler photos ensures you don’t have too high of an expectation
- Another hidden tool on TripAdvisor under the Review section is “Room Tips”. This can be very helpful. You thought you wanted a room with a view until you read that it came with significant city street noise. Now when you book, you can save money by not reserving that view.
The great thing about booking most things is that you can cancel. Other than plane tickets, there is no reason not to go ahead and secure a reservation for a room, a tour, a rental car or a restaurant in advance. It might help you feel like you’re making progress to get one thing crossed of the list. Not to mention that it is very frustrating if you do all your research, pick the ideal hotel and then find out two weeks later when you are ready to book everything that it is full.
I often use sites like TripAdvisor and Expedia to quickly research prices and availability for hotels. But then I usually go directly to the hotel website to actually book. It is extremely rare for the price to be higher when you book directly vs. using a booking site. Yes, I realize that Travelocity will never sponsor my website if I tell you not to use them, but in my experience you always do better booking with the property directly. Why? If you use a mass-booking site and then have issues with reservations or rates, you’ve got to deal with 1-800-whomever. The hotel can’t help you. Have a special request? Or want to negotiate for an upgrade when you check in? The hotel can’t adjust your rate if you book through a booking site. So while they would have upgraded you to the penthouse suite for an extra $50 a night, you are out of luck because your rate is already locked in through the booking agency. TIP: Ask for upgrades! If you don’t ask, you won’t receive. Also specify things like “prefer a room farther from elevator” or “prefer higher floors” in your reservation. You’ll usually get it.
Credit Card Points
This is a treasure that I learned to take advantage of years ago, and I’m still stunned at how many people don’t. The key here is to pick one credit card and stick to it. If travel is what you intend to use your points for, pick a credit card that has the best dollars to points conversion. TIP: I did extensive research on this a few years ago. My conclusion was that the Chase Sapphire Reserve had the best system to accumulate points for travel, and their points got you more per point if that makes sense. I had American Express for years but their points just don’t go as far. I do keep my American Express Platinum card because I get access to their airport lounges which are just phenomenal. More on that in Air Travel Tips. If you are using your credit card points, you will want to do your hotel booking through their site. It may limit your choices, and I always advise that you consider if you are going to get a good conversion on your points. For example, if the Marriott you are looking at is going to take 10,000 points but you can book it online for $120 a night, you may want to save the points for the airline tickets. Airlines are just ridiculously overpriced in almost every scenario, so I just feel like I get more when I cash in credit card points for plane tickets. This is especially true for international travel.
Lay of the Land
Ok the accommodations are booked. Time to map out any key tours or activities. Two great places to start are the concierge at the hotel or just the front desk. A quick phone call can give you great free information. I also like to visit the official Chamber of Commerce page or destination pages. These are not sponsored by anyone so the info is unbiased and tends to cover the most interesting things all in one place.
Example: Park City, Utah
Click the picture to visit a standard informational site for this destination. This gives quick access to hotels and activities, and often a calendar of events. Can you imagine heading to New Orleans for a getaway weekend and not realizing it was Mardi Gras? This is how you avoid that.
Can You Over Plan?
Yes! You simply can’t plan every second. You’ll never get it all in. The best travel experiences are the ones that happen organically, in between the planned ones. A good rule of thumb is to leave an entire day free for every 3 days of travel. So if you have a week, plan 4 days of activities and leave 3 open for spontaneity or for downtime.
Trip Preparation & Packing Lists
I’m not your momma, so you’ll have to pack your own suitcase. But I can share some tips to lighten your load.
Obviously you need clothes, toiletries and medications. Always start there. I lay out clothes in a day-to-day lineup, walking through the various activities in my mind. Travel Day 1 – need comfy clothes and shoes. Hiking Day 2 – appropriate shoes, lightweight/water/windproof pants, socks, etc. Then I make myself remove at least 2 outfits and 2 pairs of shoes. You may have to sacrifice just a sliver of fashion to be smart, but if you challenge yourself and your closet you likely won’t sacrifice a thing. Here is my general packing process for one week of travel:
- Lay out travel-day clothes and shoes where you can see them, get out the appropriate sized suitcase and lay it out open. TIP: I refuse to check bags if at all possible. The goal is always a carry-on sized roller bag.
- Think about your activity days – start with the shoes you traveled in and lay out outfits that work with them. There is nothing better than hiking pants and tops that can roll up to virtually nothing. They weigh very little, can easily get washed in a hotel tub or sink and dry very fast. If you need hiking shoes for the trip, consider traveling in them or they take up precious real estate in your luggage and will quickly push you over the edge into a larger suitcase.
- Think about after-activity time – dinners, pool, sitting around the hotel. Pick one pair of shoes and match 4 outfits around them. Put the jewelry with them now. For pool time, don’t forget flip flops or sandals for to/from pool and a cover up so you aren’t cruising the hotel lobby in your bikini.
- Sleepwear. You probably only need one set.
- Undergarments and socks. Overdo underwear and socks.
- Sunglasses, hats, outerwear. If it will be cold where you are going, carry your jacket on the plane. You’ll be glad if your luggage doesn’t make it because coats are expensive to replace.
- Small backpack. This replaces your normal shoulder bag or purse. Extremely handy, doubles as a beach bag. This can be your one carry-on item. Sometimes I pack a set of clothes, especially if I plan to check bag, but I always pack a toothbrush, aspirin, motion sickness pills, antacids, hand sanitizer, an essential oil or relaxing aromatherapy lotion, lip butter, headphones, a book and a little refresher mist or skin toner for freshening up. These simple things can salvage the unexpected but sometimes inevitable miserable day of travel.
- Hairbrush and a good dry shampoo. I do not travel with a hairdryer. Ever. Release your au natural.
- A supply of plastic grocery bags and Ziploc bags. These are invaluable not only for separating the dirty laundry from clean, wrapping up shoes for packing and wrapping up anything liquid, but they are handy when packing picnic lunches during hikes or for wet clothes and sandy suntan lotion bottles on beach days.
- A small bottle of liquid laundry detergent for doing basic laundry in a hotel room. I will absolutely use hotel laundry service if available. IMO, a very under-utilized service and worth the money. But for small mishaps or days when the timing won’t work, a sink will do just fine. Tiny amount of detergent, rinse well. Shower rods make great clotheslines for drying.
- One credit card, cash and paper copies of your Driver’s License and/or Passport. TIP: You should take a screenshot of your Driver’s License and Passport and have it in your phone in case you lose the real ones. That expedites the replacement process and ensures you can check in to your hotel. NOTE: Once at your hotel, use the safe to store your ID papers.
- The one comfort item I always pack is a travel candle and matches. It just makes a hotel room feel more like home, and can eliminate unpleasant odors. The matches are key as hotels no longer supply them and cigarette lighters may get confiscated by TSA.
- Miscellaneous Essentials – My toiletry bag has the following items which I never unpack so I never have to worry about forgetting them.
- Band-aids and clear nail polish or skin glue
- Qtips, cotton balls, nail file, elastic headband, shower cap
- Toothbrush and toothpaste (the most commonly forgotten item – don’t expect your hotel to have it)
- Travel sized soap (some hotel soaps are just crap)
- Bug repellant stick
- Small pair scissors
- Travel sewing kit
- An airplane sized bottle of Whiskey (obvious reasons, plus it is an antiseptic)
- Small mirror
- Small bottle of Febreeze (less than 3 oz)
- Tide Stain stick
- Safety pins
- Ear plugs
- Cosmetics – Ladies, I want you to challenge yourself. Cut your make up by 2/3rds, take older products that you need to use up and throw away, convert necessary products to travel sized containers (label them). When I travel I bring good exfoliator and skin masks for a spa-like experience and stress relief. A tinted primer, a neutral eyeshadow, one liner pencil and a simple lip gloss. Let your real glow shine.
Never Leave Home Without It – My Two Must-Have Travel Products
Time to get it all in the suitcase!
Shoes first, wrapped in plastic grocery bags. Toiletry bag next rounding out the bottom layer. Tuck socks and undergarments in and around the shoes. Roll all clothing tightly. I’m telling you this is a magic trick that will allow you to get everything in that carry-on. Use the zipper pockets for extra grocery bags, belts, hats, hairbrushes and personal items. One carry-on bag should accommodate clothes for one week, assuming you may travel home in the same clothes you traveled in or that you might re-use or launder along the way. There is nothing more frustrating than hauling a big suitcase to the airport, waiting in line to check it, paying to check it and then staring at all the unnecessary stuff you brought at the end of the trip knowing you have to do it all over again.