From long security lines and cramped seats to surly flight attendants and obnoxious fellow passengers, the indignities suffered by travelers today can ruin any trip. But as our experience traveling thousands of miles across the globe has shown us, it doesn’t have to be as bad as that, and we’ve picked up a few tricks along the way. Whether you’re traveling by plane, train or automobile, staying in a hotel or a vacation rental, or just going on a day trip, you can lessen your stress with the following tips, apps, services and devices.
Get a Travel Manager
Sure, you could print out your itinerary with confirmation numbers, hotel addresses, departure times, and frequent flier numbers, but what good is a static list of reservations when your flight is canceled or delayed? Premium travel manager apps like Worldmate Gold ($9.99) and TripIt Pro ($4.09/month) not only keep your itineraries in one place, but they also automatically update you when your flight is delayed or canceled, and usually make it easy to rebook, if necessary, with just a couple of clicks. Adding your plans is as easy as forwarding any confirmation emails for plane, hotel, car and restaurant reservations right to Worldmate or TripIt, though they’re both also able to automatically ingest the information as soon as confirmation emails arrive in your inbox.
Worldmate is the easiest to use and offers handy features like currency exchange and hotel price drop notifications that enable you to directly rebook your already reserved room for a lower rate right from the app. TripIt Pro has a point tracker that helps you manage all your airline, car, hotel and credit card loyalty programs, as well as automatic notifications when a better plane seat becomes available and direct links and directions for getting refunds if a fare on an already purchased ticket goes down. Both services offer free versions, too, without realtime flight notifications, rewards program management and extra rebooking features.
Join the Clubs
It’s tempting to always book the lowest fare or room, but if you fly more than a few times a year, you should pick one airline alliance and stick with it. That way, you’re more likely to rack up enough points to reach elite status, which gives you perks like better seats, waived check-in baggage fees, early boarding and access to better and faster customer service lines (you know, the services that used to be standard for all travelers, regardless of status). But even if you don’t fly much, you can take advantage of some benefits by simply signing up.
Free membership in Hertz Gold Plus Rewards, Avis Preferred and most other rental agency loyalty programs, for example, means your car will be ready and waiting for you as soon as you land, with no need to go to the rental counter — a big time-saver, especially during holiday travel. Same with hotel rewards programs; smaller chains such as Kimpton and Omni offer free wi-fi with their loyalty programs, while Hyatt Gold Passport will bump you up to elite status after staying at a Hyatt for just 10 nights, meaning you can get perks such as free room upgrades and late check outs. Don’t want to stick with one brand? Not to worry. Even online travel agencies such as Expedia and Orbitz will give you access to faster check-in lines, free wi-fi, and better rooms once you reach elite status with their respective rewards programs, no matter where you book.
Bring a Charger
Publicly available USB charging stations may be on the rise, but travelers are still often stuck fighting over a single AC wall outlet at the airport gate. And there’s nothing more nerve-racking than running out of battery life when you get to an unfamiliar destination and need Google Maps to get you to your hotel or vacation rental. So bring a charger with you; it doesn’t have to weigh you down.
For charging up a smartphone once, the credit card-sized Mota Power Card ($40) will do just fine, especially since it fits discreetly in your wallet, while the pocket-friendly, aluminum-cased Just Mobile TopGum ($80) can juice up a smartphone 3 times. For faster (and full) charging of tablets, make sure to get a battery pack with 2.1A fast charging capability and at least a 6,000 mAh Lithium Ion battery, like the iWalk Trio ($75). And if you do have to share that one available wall outlet and have an Android smartphone or tablet enabled with Qualcomm Quick Charge, then you get up to 60 percent charge on your device in as little as 30 minutes. But the ne plus ultra of external battery packs is the Mojo BattStation Optimus ($130), which has a 20,400 mAh battery that can charge 8 iPhones without needing to be re-juiced. It’s heavier, of course, but not much bigger than a stick of butter, making it ideal for camping and hiking trips away from the grid, or 20-hour flights to Tasmania.
Become a Trusted Traveler
Arduous, lengthy and demoralizing TSA security lines at the airport are just one of many indignities suffered by plane travelers these days, but you can make the process almost painless by signing up for TSA PreCheck. Run by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), the service lets you go through a special line at more than 120 airports across the US without having to take your laptop out of your bag or your shoes off your feet. It costs $85 for five years, and requires an application, fingerprints, and a clean criminal record, but you can also get free access if you’ve already signed up for other Trusted Traveler programs such as Global Entry (also recommended if you travel internationally and want to breeze through customs lines), as well as frequent fliers with elite status on airlines such as Alaska, American and Delta.
Another program, Clear, provides expedited and dedicated lines at 10 airports (and counting) across the U.S. for $179 per year, and has similar application requirements as the Trusted Traveler programs, but can also be joined for less with certain credit cards and memberships (with TripIt Pro, you get 4 months for free). It gives you biometric ID cards that let you skip to the front of the regular security line, though you still have to take out your laptop. Given that sometimes even TSA PreCheck lines can be long, Clear can be an added insurance that you’ll get through security more quickly.
It may sound obvious, but despite our best intentions, most of us inevitably bring too much on our trips. And yet the advantages of having a light load are many, allowing you to walk down that long airport walkway without straining your back, not to mention the time and money saved when you don’t check in any bags (a relief when, say, your plane gets in early and you want to catch an earlier connection). Clothes don’t weigh much, but don’t bring more than a week’s worth; you can always do laundry locally (or, in the case of quick-drying ExOfficio underwear or Outlier pants, in your hotel sink with Woolite Travel Laundry Soap). Try to limit yourself to one pair of shoes, preferably of the multipurpose variety in a darker color that can double as gym and workplace shoes.
Gadget-wise, it’s become even easier to keep the luggage weight down. There are new ultralight laptops, such as the Lenovo LaVie Z ($1,100), which weighs only 1.87 pounds and gives the 13-inch MacBook Air ($899+) a run for its money (the Air is about a pound heavier), while super light and slim tablets — the iPad Air 2 ($399+) at .96 pounds and the Dell 8 7000 ($400) at 0.7 pounds — are hardly noticeable in your bag (just add an even lighter and slimmer Logitech Keys-To-Go keyboard ($70), and you’re good sans laptop, too).
Lastly, if you’re going to go all-carry-on, make sure to prep an inflight go-bag — basically a carry-on-within-a-carry-on that contains all the items (headphones, tablet, pen, eye shades, travel pillow) you’re going to want to use in flight. This can be anything from a shopping bag to a small backpack to a messenger bag — it doesn’t matter, as long as it can be stuffed into your main bag so you stay within the airline’s carry-on restrictions as you’re boarding. Then just take it out once you get to your assigned seat.