The Thinker

Some lesser known travel tips

While I do not do a huge amount of traveling, I do enough of it to have developed some useful tips. Here they are for your consideration:

  • Book a direct flight. Yes, direct flights tend to cost more and no, they are not always available. However, if a direct flight is available, it is usually worth paying extra for it because you are much more likely to arrive at your destination on time. Flight delays also affect direct flights, but they are just as likely to affect your connecting flight too. If they do not affect your connecting flight but do affect your departure flight, it may mean that you will be placed on a later connecting flight, so you are likely to have two (or more!) flight delays instead of one. In short, the probability of travel delays increase with every connection. The impact of a travel delay is also inversely proportional to the length of time between connecting flights. In most cases, unless you simply cannot afford it, the cost of potential delays justifies the extra cost for a direct flight.
  • Don’t book a late afternoon or evening flight. This advice applies primarily to the spring and summer, when thunderstorms and other major weather events are more likely. Weather causes most flight delays. In case you haven’t noticed, thunderstorms are much more likely to occur in the late afternoon or early evening after the atmosphere has been cooking for a while. So if you have a choice, leave earlier. As a bonus, airports will likely be less congested compared to later in the day.
  • How to pick the best window seats. If you enjoy looking out your window, your view is going to be improved if the wing is not obscuring your scenery. Otherwise, you might as well book an aisle seat. So pick a window seat either in front of the wings or way in the back of the plane. When booking a flight, most airlines will show you a picture of seats in relation to the aircraft’s wings. Unless you like the sun coming through your window, pick a seat where you are less likely to have to deal with sunlight. In the northern hemisphere, when traveling west, sit on the right side. When traveling east, sit on the left side. Similar rules apply when traveling north or south, although you also have to factor in the time of day you will be traveling.
  • How to pick the best aisle seats. If it is important for you to get up and move around during the flight, or you just need quick access to the lavatory, your best bet is probably aisle seats near the rear of the plane. The flight attendants will start services near the front of the coach section and work their way to the back. This gives you the opportunity to walk the aisle early in the flight as well.
  • Frequent flier programs are less than they seem. It takes quite a bit of traveling to get any value from a frequent flier program. Most programs require 25,000 miles in order to qualify for a “free” flight. However, your ideal “free” flight is probably not available. Airlines deliberately limit the number of these seats on flights, making them hard to get. They also tend to block useful dates, like holidays, or convenient travel times. Moreover, your miles usually come with expiration dates, which mean that if you travel only a few times per year then you are unlikely to ever take advantage of the program. What you probably will get instead is endless marketing and credit card offers. When you want to use your miles, airlines will push you to use your miles to buy “discounts” for various flights. You may be able to get a better deal by looking for a discount flight with the same or another carrier. The most likely use of your miles will be to occasionally upgrade to business class, which is quite nice, but takes many miles to earn even this privilege. In short, for many people mileage programs feel like a scam.
  • Use Hotwire for hotel bookings. If you feel confident that your travel dates and destinations won’t change, buy your hotel room in advance with Hotwire. Their savings on flights and rental cars are so-so, but not so with hotels. Since you don’t know precisely what hotel you will get until you pay, the first couple of times that you use Hotwire it has a dangerous feeling to it. However, before booking in Hotwire you can click on an area map to see whether the hotel with is close enough. In many cases, you can infer the actual hotel that you will get because there may be only a couple of hotels in the map area. Use Google Maps or Google Earth to see what hotels are available in the area shown on Hotwire’s area map. If you don’t like the hotels you see, then maybe you want to pay for precisely the hotel you want. What you do know up front is how much you will be paying, including applicable taxes, and the rates may astound you. So far, my experiences have all been positive. Nor have I ever gotten an undesirable room because I prepaid. Typically when I use Hotwire, I pay 25% to 40% less than an AAA rate at the same hotel. Particularly for extended touring types of vacations, you can save serious money using Hotwire, typically $500 or more. If you love dickering, you might get a lower rate on Priceline by negotiating your own price, but I haven’t found the time involved worth the hassle. Most of our hotels for our upcoming vacation are already booked using Hotwire.
  • “Free” baggage on regional jets? On many smaller regional jets or propeller driven planes, a carryon bag simply will not fit in an overhead bin. (They won’t fit in many wide-body jets either.) Since they don’t fit, the gate crew will check them at the gate for you at no charge. In my experience, they tend to gate check anything you can bring through security for free. Considering that most carriers are charging $25 a bag, this could be a big savings.
  • Take whatever you need for bed in your carryon. You are probably not planning to spend a night at some airport hotel, but I have inadvertently spent my share of them. If you do, you probably won’t be connected with your luggage overnight. Airlines also routinely lose luggage. This means you should consider carrying overnight essentials, like a travel-sized emergency kit of toothpaste and other things needed at bedtime (in three ounce containers or less), a hairbrush, medicines and a clean change of underwear in your carryon. At a minimum, always bring prescription medications in your carryon bag.
  • Join AAA. Few things in life are a genuine bargain. AAA is one of them. Their towing service, available anywhere in the country as well as some foreign countries, is alone worth the cost of joining. However, comprehensive AAA tour books and maps also help you plan a quality vacation and come at no extra charge. You should probably avoid many other AAA products, like their insurance plans and credit cards. These products are likely not the best deals on the market, nor are the companies that underwrite them necessarily the best either. Like AARP, AAA uses these products as profit centers.
  • Make, retain and reuse a travel-packing list. It is so easy to forget to pack items. Sometimes what you forget to pack can be a real time consuming hassle to deal with on the road. Write it once and refer to it when packing for every trip. You might also want to install an Android or iPhone travel-packing app on your smartphone. Of course, there is a web site that can help you as well.
  • Consider a netbook. When you travel, you typically need more than a Smartphone but don’t want the hassle of a full sized laptop computer. The sweet spot is a netbook. The better netbooks will also play DVDs. Most are reasonably rugged and lightweight, making them easy to put in a carryon bag. While typing may be a bit challenging, you won’t be using them a lot. You can get a good netbook for a couple hundred dollars.
  • Use the cloud. The internet is pervasive these days, at least if you are traveling in the first world. Assume that free or easily obtainable internet service will be locally available. Store all your email and important information in the cloud so it is accessible anywhere you need it. Google probably offers the best, freest and most reliable cloud-computing infrastructure. Import and move your email into a Gmail account and use it as your primary email. (Hint: if you use an email client like Outlook Express, set it up for IMAP use, so your email always stays in the cloud.) Since there is so much space, keep all your email in Gmail. Use Google Calendar as your calendar and Google Docs to store common structured and unstructured data. If you do it right, when you are on the road you have all your important information.
  • Take your passwords with you. Store your passwords in a password manager like Keepass and bring it with you on a USB thumb drive. Keepass is simple and straightforward and can be run right off your thumb drive. You never can tell but you may have to transfer some funds in a far away city and need your passwords.

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