Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Travel Hacks from Flights to When Everything Goes Wrong

S.R. Karfelt/The Glitter Globe

This is my travel hack #101.
Check out flights on those low-price sites. You know like Ex-PEE-DIA and KA-YAK and OR-Bitz and Travel-O-City (all spelled wrong here because I don't need crawler programs putting ads for them all over my life).
Then when you find the cheap flight you want, write down the flight number, dates, and all data, then CLEAR YOUR COOKIES. Now go to the airline site and buy it directly from them.
(If you don't clear your cookies, and you go directly to the airline, they can tell where you've been, and likely you'll not be able to see that discounted flight.)
If you buy from those discount places and anything happens to change your flight (weather, birds, passengers dragged from plane), it is a royal pain in the rear to get anything fixed or changed. The airline employee will smile sweetly and tell you that you didn't book with them, you booked with so-and-so, so go call so-and-so and let them fix it.
Meanwhile you're in a bind.
That's how you end up spending three extra days in Huntsville, Alabama—not that that's a bad thing. I always prefer getting stuck at my destination than at the airport heading out.
Anyway, this is how I get reasonably priced flights, bought via the airline.

Travel hack #102.
Book the hotels first.
They're the hardest thing to get. Especially if you're going to a conference. You almost can't book them far enough ahead.
If I'm going to a conference, I try to stay at the hotel where the conference is, if possible. If it's a big conference, the hotel will usually have a block of rooms reserved at a good price. They sell out in a heartbeat. Sometimes you can't book those way in advance.
You have to wait for them to "become available". Put it in your phone calendar so you don't forget.
It stinks to stay offsite. Getting through traffic to the conference can be a daily struggle, and after an exhausting conference, it's often too much. Parking and rental cars are expensive also.
There have been times when I've had four hours to sleep (and eat) after commuting to and from convention centers. Every day.
If I play my cards right, I usually don't need to rent a car in a strange city when I'll be spending most of my time at a workshop or conference. That's a lot easier if my hotel is convenient. Walking is my workout during trips.
Plus, I love being able to play hooky from the conference for a half hour by hiding in my room and recharging my introvert batteries.

If it's NOT a conference trip, I still book my hotels first.
Hotels are the easiest thing to CHANGE. Much simpler than a flight change. Use caution if you pre-pay in order to get the best price (as opposed to just having a hold put on your credit card).
Usually if you pre-pay, you can still move the dates around, provided you are doing so well in advance of arrival. Ask and check the fine print before you book.
(WARNING: I've lost $ on pre-paid hotels when flights were cancelled, and neither trip insurance OR the airline would cover it. #SUCKSTOBEYOU I still do it. Way cheaper.)

Don't book the hotel through an offsite booking company if avoidable. Dig around and get the phone number for the hotel itself.
The phone number should be the area code for the city you're going to, and not an 800, 888, 877, 866, 855, and 844.
The way to know for sure is to ask, when they answer, "How's the weather in San Francisco today?" Or wherever. Trust your instincts if you suspect you've reached a wily call center person.
The less third party intervention, the better off you are. NOW you have a much better chance of getting whatever you'd like to score for your room, be it a crib, a king bed, a certain floor, or a certain room. Third party bookers will usually say, "Oh, I'll put that request in, but we can't promise."
I do this for international hotels too. Although I have booked those via travel agent with great results, email (time change convenience when calling with a 12-hour time difference is an issue), or Trip Advisor. 


In order to choose my hotel I always look at reviews on Trip Advisor. I look at pictures on Trip Advisor too. Not the professionally angled photos of the hotel website, look at traveler's photos.
There will always be some bad reviews. Life isn't perfect. Read those three star reviews with a jaded eye. Three star reviews are the best ones to read.
Also, three star hotels in international cities are PRICELESS GEMS. Especially those little independently owned ones. Five stars are insanely priced. Three stars offer comfort and service at an affordable price.
Now get on Google Maps. Look at your hotel from the Earth View. Look around the block. Look at the neighborhood. See if you're within walking distance of where you want to be. Can you run to the drugstore? The Colosseum? Or get lunch outside of the hotel? How far is public transportation? Do you see a taxi stand nearby?
(Business hotels/Some resort hotels are created so you can't leave, you are stuck in that hotel and getting out is a challenge. Sometimes it's worth being held hostage, sometimes not.)

Once I book the hotel, I put all the information in my phone so I can give the address to the customs agent, taxi driver, or try to google map it (ahahahahaha) and use public transportation upon arrival. Then I often print a map to stick in my backpack, so I'll know how to get from the hotel to the convention center/beach/friend's house/whatever.

Why do I print a map too?

Because I'll have that map when the data cell phone package I purchased ahead of time and set up my mobile phone doesn't work once I get to Rome, and I have to call someone back home to go to Verizon Wireless when it opens, and fix it for me (because I can't call either BECAUSE MY PHONE ISN'T WORKING).

Travel Tip 103.
Trip Advisor.
If you're not familiar with them, Trip Advisor is a site where people review restaurants, hotels, CITIES, tourist destinations, etc. etc.
It's my travel go to. I've been standing on a touristy street in Germany, and looking through the Trip Advisor app to decide where to go for dinner.
That's how I found Schweine Janes in Dusseldorf. You might consider it a hole in the wall place, but you also might notice the line stretches down the street and around the corner.
Trip Advisor is how I found a houseboat to stay on in Amsterdam. Last minute and cheap.
Trip Advisor found me a little ranch in Tucson with the most exquisitely decorated casitas you can imagine. Not last minute, but close, and reasonable especially considering how I could walk out the door and hike the Saguaro National Park all day.
Trip Advisor reviewers give you tips you'd normally have to get through experience. Like how to buy your tickets to the Colosseum in Rome ahead of time, and how you'd better, or you'll spend your day in Rome standing in line.
After the Rick Steves Travel Book to narrow down a hotel in a foreign city, it's Trip Advisor that will tell you which one of those places are for you—which ones might have a bike you can borrow, or a balcony that you really want (and you'd give up a bigger room for). They also help you narrow down WHERE in a city you'd be most comfortable staying.
The hotel reviews might suggest where to go for dinner, and where to pick up the bus/taxi/train.
It's free. It's priceless.
They're not paying me to tell you about it, but they probably should.
It's that good.

Travel hack 104.

What flight. What seat. What luggage you will carry on and what you will check through baggage claim. What you will eat. What you'll need on the plane.
What you'll need when you get off the plane.
What you'll do if your baggage doesn't come.
Carry all your paperwork. Also have photographs of it too for when you lose it. Email it to yourself.
Have all your cords.
Have a portable phone charger and adapters.
Know the address of where you're going. That way you can tell the taxi driver/customs agent/GPS/whatever.
Know what kind of transportation you'll take.
Know how you'll get local currency. (ATM airport.)
Know how you'll keep your valuables safe from pick pockets.
Know that your shoes are appropriate and comfortable.
Know that you can survive if your luggage went elsewhere.
Know where the embassy is. Have the phone number in your phone.
Know that you have a color copy of your passport somewhere that isn't WITH YOUR PASSPORT.
Double and Triple check all the details.
Have looked at a map and know the general direction of everywhere you're going.
NOW. Most importantly.
Everything will change now.
Roll with it.
Prepare to roll with it.
You've done all you can. You're good. Now is the fun part.
Drop all expectations.
Have a blast.

Anyway, this is what works for me. I plan, try to spend my money wisely, get comfortable knowing what's coming, and then fly by the seat of my pants to a new adventure when it all changes.
Hope these hacks help you.
Feel free to share your own!

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