Traveling is about escaping the stress of the day-to-day grind, opening yourself up to something new and—just hopefully—finding some relaxation. Too bad it can be such a drag. Almost all Americans (97%) have at least one bone to pick with traveling, according to a survey, the major gripe being increasingly long security lines. Traveling is also expensive: Depending on where and when you’re flying, airline costs can still be astronomical and, yes, those seats really have shrunk over the years. Not to mention when you finally get to your destination, you may encounter the unpleasant surprise of an overpriced hotel that bears little resemblance to the carefully curated photos you saw online.
But you don't have to resign yourself to a future of stressful traveling experiences. Paying the right amount of attention to the little things adds up to a noticeable difference. You can get by with less hassle and, just as important to many of us, save money, too. Whether you’re flying around the world or packing a Subaru for an old-school road trip, here are the essential travel hacks that’ll help you get the most out of your next getaway.
The seemingly endless booking options available to travelers in the digital age can easily cause paralysis by indecision, stopping your vacation before it's begun. These travel tips will, at the very least, let you sleep easy knowing you worked all the angles to get the best deals.
Keep your options open (if you can): You may already have the perfect vacation dates in mind, but embracing flexibility can help you score cheap plane tickets and save overall on your trip. “The easiest way consumers can save a significant amount of money when booking both flights and hotels is by being flexible, whether that’s with dates, destinations or both,” said Liana Corwin, expert for the flight and hotel booking app Hopper. “If you’re booking international trips, for example, you could save upwards of $600 by being open to slightly shifted dates or alternate airports.”
Not too soon, not too late: Some people swear by the policy that booking earlier is better, but that isn’t always the case. “The costliest mistake consumers can make when booking airfare is not purchasing their flights at the right time, whether that’s too late or too early,” Corwin said. You’ll generally pay a steeper fee for being late, but there's a rule you can follow to figure out the sweet spot of when to book your tickets: If you’re headed to a popular business destination like New York City or Washington, D.C., you’ll find the best prices about three months in advance. If you’re headed to a leisure center like Hawaii or Cancun, expect the best prices about a month out.
Set up price alerts: Many travel companies, including Hopper and TravelPirates, offer the ability to get alerts that tell you the right time to buy cheap plane tickets for your trip. “Great deals don’t last long, so this is the best way to make sure you can grab them before they disappear,” said Calvin Iverson, travel expert at TravelPirates .
Figure out seasonal patterns Tourism ebbs and flows. Miami is exceedingly pricey in winter, when everyone is trying to escape the Northeast, and much more affordable when it’s hot and muggy in the summer (but, you know, still pretty gorgeous). “Understand travel patterns and trends” like low and high seasons for your destination, Iverson said. “Knowing when to travel to locations can get you more bang for your buck.”
Wield the customer reward: Even if you travel semi-frequently, you’re missing out if you don’t use loyalty programs and credit cards that give points you can redeem with hotels, airlines, restaurants and more. “I always have a membership/rewards number for literally every airline, hotel and car-rental company I use,” said Kelsy Chauvin, a travel writer for Fodor’s and Condé Nast Traveler. “It’s like free money, and even if points expire, you never know when they might add up to some kind of upgrade or other perk.”
Don’t ignore the last-minute hotel deal: If you’re willing and able to wing a last-minute trip and you’re not too picky about where you may wind up, apps like Hotels.com and HotelTonight specifically promote bargain-basement prices for hotel rooms in various cities stateside and abroad. Because even fancy hotels are looking to fill up their rooms when business is slow.
Pack like a pro
Whether you always seem to have too much to lug around or can’t unwrinkle that perfect suit, use these expert travel packing tips to organize your stuff like all the best frequent fliers.
Forget about checked baggage: Unless you’re planning to stay in town for at least two weeks, there’s just no point. Airlines are charging more for checked baggage, “and if you’re flying a budget carrier, you can guarantee that there will be a cost,” Iverson said. Besides, no one likes hanging out longer than they have to at the airport waiting to claim their check-in luggage.
Get innovative: Among the travel packing tips frequent fliers swear by? Packing cubes that keep shoes, clothes and accessories neatly separated and ready to toss inside your carry-on luggage. “Once you get these, you will never pack without them,” veteran traveler and author Nina Thomas said.
Use every nook: “Always put socks and underwear in shoes to save room and keep your shoes from getting smushed,” Chauvin said. “Roll jersey fabrics to save space in the weird corners of your suitcase.” You’ll be shocked how much more you can fit.
But keep the essentials on you: On full flights, volunteers will frequently be asked to gate-check luggage. If you’re not flying direct, there’s always the risk of your luggage getting lost. Be prepared. “Make sure key items like travel documents and contacts aren’t going to wind up out of your sight,” Corwin said.
Think about what you really need: The ultimate travel hack is also one of the oldest. “If you're not going to wear it more than three times, don't pack it,” Thomas said. Worst-case scenario, you have to buy a cheap T-shirt or some razor blades at your destination.
Improve the airport experience
Airports have gotten upscale makeovers over the years, but that hasn’t made flight delays and airport security checks any more pleasant. These travel tips can help you keep it together until you board the plane.
Download the airline’s app beforehand: “It’s the fastest and most convenient way for the airline to notify you of any changes to your flight, whether it be a gate change or a delay,” Iverson said. Bonus: You can often download your boarding pass straight from the app, saving you time at the kiosks, he adds. Pay to avoid long lines: TSA Precheck has significantly faster lines and only requires a straightforward registration process. But for international travelers, “Global Entry is a must,” Chauvin said. “Even though your photo, retina scan and fingerprints are on file, it’s worth being tracked just to skip the customs lines. Plus, it includes TSA Precheck and lasts five years.” One thing to keep in mind is that both Precheck and Global Entry come with a onetime application fee—$85 for Precheck and $100 for Global Entry.
Get the best travel credit card: “Most travel credit cards will come with some perks, such as lounge access, Global Entry and TSA Precheck,” best-selling travel author Matt Kepnes said. “Sign up for travel credit cards to get the most out of these perks, but also make sure you know what each card offers so you can take advantage of the included services.” You can check out some of the better cards out there here.
Relax in the airport lounge: “Access to lounges is going to cut your airport bill in half and make your wait much more enjoyable,” Kepnes said. “So make sure you sign up for at least one travel credit card that includes a Priority Pass.” Because the free food and drinks are, hands-down, so much better than a $10 soggy to-go sandwich.
Hydrate for free: “I never, ever buy stupid-expensive water in an airport because I bring my own water bottle to fill (usually plastic, but metal if I’m going someplace where I can drink the local water),” Chauvin said. A few sensible snacks, like fruit and pretzels, won’t hurt either.
Make your in-flight experience better
There’s no guarantee that once you’ve boarded the plane it will be a bump-free flight. The TV’s not working? Your seatmate is an armrest hog? The bathroom line is 10 people deep at all times? Flights are rife with potential perils, so heed some pro workarounds.
Try for a new seat: Stuck in the middle? There may be a solution. “Always ask if there are any empty rows in the back,” said Andrea Bartz, a travel journalist for Vogue. “Having a row to yourself near the very back beats getting your dinner earlier any day.”
Drown out the sound: “Noise-canceling headphones are your friend,” Iverson said. “If you didn’t invest in a pair of these after the first time a baby kept you awake on a red-eye flight, what are you even doing with your life?” Earplugs could work in a pinch, but then what about your tunes?
Fall asleep, for once: If you’re not one for sleep medication, try a savvy digital alternative. “Use an app to actually fall asleep on a plane,” Bartz said. Calm, for instance, uses soothing nature noises to lull users into peaceful ZZZs.
Make sure your diversions are at the ready: “I always have Netflix shows pre-downloaded in case I must have emergency entertainment,” Chauvin said. Same goes for ebooks.
“Hello” never hurts: There’s risk, yes, but you may actually find yourself having an enriching conversation with the person next to you. “Be the kind of seatmate that you would want next to you,” Corwin said. “Passengers tend to take their cues from each other.” Plus, if things go south, you always have those headphones.
Travels by highway
If you're hitting the road instead of taking to the skies for your next vacation, there's still plenty of expert travel hacks you can deploy to guarantee a smooth trip.
Assume the worst: Breakdowns do happen. “Don’t skip your car’s checkup,” Iverson said. “The last thing you want is to get 20 minutes down the road only to find that your car’s tires are too low or your oil needs to be changed. Do a thorough evaluation of your car about a week before you head out so that you have time to fix anything ahead of time if necessary.”
Skip the fast food for fresh food: Cut up fruits and vegetables to take on the go. Your body and energy levels will thank you later. “You eat so much salt and other garbage,” Thomas said of rest-stop options. “It's nice to have something fresh.”
Find a truly worthwhile stop: “I like to break up road trips with stops,” Thomas said. “I use the Roadtrippers app or TripAdvisor to see if there's a park or roadside attraction where we can stop and take in a site. It makes the drive less tedious and gives you something to look forward to.”
Less music, more reading: You might love your playlists, but they will get old. “I’m a huge fan of audiobooks,” Thomas said. “I've listened to some great books from comedians who actually read their own books (among them Aziz Ansari, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler). It's sort of like listening to 10 hours of stand-up.”
Synchronize bathroom time: It’s easier on your seatmates and cuts down on the wait time when you go one after the other. “Make a rule that absolutely everyone pees every time a bathroom is available,” Bartz said. “Even if you don't have to go, just try!”
Now that you’ve arrived…
The struggle doesn’t end when you get to your hotel or Airbnb. These travel hacks will elevate even the most underwhelming of accommodations into a five-star experience.
Find problems before they find you: “First, make sure everything is as it should be,” Iverson said. “Are the sheets clean? Is the bathroom stocked? If you’re in an Airbnb, are all of the amenities the host promised available and easy to use? If anything seems out of place, alert the hotel concierge or your host right away.”
Hotels have apps, too: Check on arrival. “Often it'll include discounts or freebies as a thank-you for downloading (such as a free round at the hotel bar),” Bartz said. Apps like Hilton Honors will also let you choose your room the day before your check-in.
Stock up your Airbnb first thing: “Make a list of the things you'll need, and go to the grocery store first,” Thomas said. Once you return from the store with all of your healthy snacks like potato chips (it's a vegetable!), you can unpack your bags without worrying about needing to run out later.
Why Uber when you can shuttle: “If you’re traveling only a short distance from the hotel (i.e., 5 miles or less), check to see if the hotel has a free shuttle service,” Corwin said. “Many hotels will offer free rides in the neighborhood, and some will even shuttle passengers to and from the airport. Call the front desk in advance to see what kinds of transportation services they offer.”
Get local: Seek out the person who looks like they know their way around the area. It doesn’t have to be the concierge or the Airbnb host—it could be a waiter or the barista at the corner café. Ask them, “What’s good around here?” You’d be shocked at the hidden gems awaiting you.