TIPS FOR TRAVELERS
- Read Traveler Reviews
User-review sites have changed the way most people plan their travel, giving us an enormously useful tool for evaluating hotels, restaurants, tourist attractions and the like. TripAdvisor.com is the big kahuna, with more than 20 million reviews, mostly of hotels — but also less traditional lodging like B&Bs, villas and private homes — as well as restaurants and attractions. TravelPost.com is another, owned by Kayak.com and recently relaunched; like its airfare-aggregating parent, TravelPost.com collects reviews from various websites, such as Citysearch.com, Yahoo! Travel and IgoUgo.com. Check out Yelp.com for locals’ takes on restaurants, shops and other businesses, or OpenTable.com, which guarantees that reviewers have actually eaten at the restaurants they rate.
- Join Travel Forums
Years ago, travel forums — in which users answer other users’ questions — were hit or miss, with too many crackpots dominating the conversation. Certain forums, however, have matured to the point that you’d be unwise to ignore them. Forums like those on TripAdvisor.com, Fodors.com, Frommers.com and LonelyPlanet.com all handle destination advice well. But bear in mind that sites attract different kinds of travelers: Fodors users can skew older and wealthier, for example, while the Lonely Planet fan is typically younger and more likely to rough it.
- Suck Up to a Blogger
Every major city has bloggers who are obsessed with what’s new and great in their backyard, particularly in regard to restaurants. You can use Google Blog Search to find bloggers in whatever city you’re visiting. They’re a phenomenal resource, but don’t just read what they’re writing: Contact them for personal recommendations. The more specific your request — and the more you flatter them for their insight and wit — the more likely you’ll be to pique their interest and get a response. (“What’s your favorite vegetarian-friendly restaurant within walking distance of the InterContinental Hotel on Howard Street? We’re looking for a place with a romantic vibe, ideally, because it’s our anniversary. We’d be so grateful for your help, because you obviously know what’s going on in San Francisco!”)
- Update Your Status
Don’t forget social networks like Facebook and Twitter, which are useful not only for planning before you go, but also for once you’re on the road, since you can continue to access them through your mobile device. Ask in your status update: Does anyone know a good-value hotel in Rome? Coolest spots for dessert and coffee in New York? The best place to get cowboy boots in San Antonio? You’ll be surprised at the number and variety of suggestions you’ll get.
- Don’t Snub the Bus
Traveling by bus is not as uncivil as it used to be. So before you rush to book a flight or train for short hops, check out MegaBus and BoltBus. The buses are new and clean, with unexpected perks — free wi-fi and outlet access, for starters — and no funky bus smell. BoltBus, which is part of Greyhound, connects major Northeast U.S. cities (New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Washington), while MegaBus has a larger route map, traveling throughout the Midwest and Northeast as well as Eastern Canada and the U.K. Tickets rarely cost more than $30 each way, and sometimes cost as little as $1.
- Use Your Miles
There’s no advantage in holding on to frequent-flyer miles, as there’s no way of knowing whether they’ll be worth anything down the road. Miles typically expire within 18 months (though that deadline may be deferred if you keep your account active, either by flying or using an airline-reward credit card that is linked to your account), so get a free flight — or golf clubs, electronics, magazines or anything else the airline lets you trade miles for — while you can.
- Buy Insurance
Travel insurance is worth purchasing for big-ticket trips that are largely non-refundable. The typical plan will cover emergency medical expenses and baggage loss and delay, and recover at least some of the cost of your trip if your vacation has to be canceled or cut short (the amount is partially determined by which state you live in), including if the travel operator goes belly up. Note: Most insurers consider a layoff to be a valid reason to cancel a trip.
- Pack Light
The goal is to pack with one bag. As much as possible, pre-plan your itinerary, figure out the specific items you’ll need for your trip and stick to that list — if you start contemplating what to bring the night before you take off, you’re doomed. But packing light doesn’t have to mean going without. Just be strategic about what you bring. Mix and match everything, so you can coordinate more outfits with fewer clothes. If you pack all neutral pants or skirts, for example, you can use your patterned tops with any and all bottoms. Remember also that layering for colder weather is always better than bringing big, bulky pieces; on hot-weather trips, include a light sweater or jacket. Shoes are the big space hog, so limit yourself to two pairs (and don’t forget that you can pack socks or other small goods inside your shoes). Ditch your toiletry bag, since you’ll have to put all your stuff in a Ziploc bag to get through security anyway. And finally, remember the frequent-flyer’s best friend: wrinkle-free everything.