I have loved travel since my dad forgot his drivers license when he took us to California. I was in kindergarten.
My sister, her friend and I were standing at the rental car counter watching my dad madly excavate every pocket he, and we, had looking for proof he was legally able to drive.
When it was clear the drivers license search and rescue operation was floundering, my dad and the guy behind our piles of now emptied luggage, exchanged a series of quick and low words.
A few minutes later, my dad popped out of the alley adjacent to the rental car company in some Starsky and Hutch type automobile.
The three of us, all under the age of 9, and our armfuls of belongings, previously residing with our luggage, were thrown in.
At 5, I wasn’t familiar with the fineries, terms and conditions of car rental – but did all car rentals come with half drank bottles of coke and pictures that appeared to be the rental counter guy’s girlfriend?
This, it would turn out, was my first experience with travel hackers. Here are others I have learned since then:
Park for free at the airport
If you are heading out for a week or two of vacation and would prefer not to pay the $10 – $25 per day for your car to sit on a small piece of airport asphalt, try this travel hack – stay at an airport hotel the night before your flight. For the price of a stay, most hotels will give you a free shuttle to your terminal and allow you to keep your car in their parking lot for free. The cost of the hotel is often a fraction of what parking would set you back and you might get to sleep in and a free breakfast out of it. Check their website or call them for the details.
Be the first person to get food on flights
All special meals albeit a vegetarian option, a dairy free choice or a gluten-free Kosher Japanese inspired selection are delivered before they start the standard food service on airplanes. Select your “special meal” at the time you are purchasing your ticket and you will be fed first.
Cancel your ticket for free
Little known travel hack I learned when I bought the wrong ticket to the wrong destination once – most airlines and travel websites allow you to cancel your ticket without fees and a full refund if you do so within 24 hours of buying the ticket.
Change your ticket for free
When an airline changes your flight time, even if it is only by a few minutes after you have booked the flight – you can then change your ticket for any day or time without incurring change fees. And p.s. the earlier you book it out – the more likely they are to change the time.
Don’t wait in the customer service line when your flight is cancelled
I once got stuck in Tier 3 excuse of a Californian airport. The flight was cancelled and it was midnight. The entire 747 was waiting in the customer service line to rebook. I went to the pay phone, as you did in 1997, and came upon a woman about to hang up with the airline. I asked if I could talk to them when she was done. She passed the phone to me when her flight was confirmed, I got booked on the flight the next morning and then I passed the phone to the next clever passenger not willing to stand in the customer service line. Talking to airline customer service on the phone is consistently faster than talking to them in person – think having a call center available to you vs. three (if you are lucky) customer service reps. To double your luck – call customer service while you are waiting in line.
Stay in cheap tiny houses, off-the-beaten path settings and typically the least expensive accommodations in town
The idea of staying in someone’s home (with or without them there) is admittedly unsettling. But, when we got stuck once with no place to stay in Cheyennne, Wyoming we found the experience of shacking up with Airbnb to actually be a wonderful part, if not one of the best parts, of the travel experience. $25 off your first stay with Airbnb.
Sleep crazy comfortably in your car (Really)
I have a smart husband. The kind who realizes in order to do something he loves, it helps if I love it too. He wanted to camp. I hated sleeping in a tent. The Therma-no-rest deflates in the middle of the night leaving me to sleep on the cold stones piercing my ribs all the while trying to ignore I have to pee and having to wear what I would wear to shovel the snow – to “sleep” in. But, David had an idea: buy a Subaru Outback and a big, ultra cushy, feels-like-you-are-at-home-asleep-in-your-bed, memory foam “and camp” in the back. My friends, I challenge you to find a warmer, safer, dry, cheaper, faster to assemble, faster to disassemble, better bear attack preventing, lightning avoiding, rocks-piercing-your-ribs-free, cozier sleeping arrangement. We made a friend of ours try it out on a recent camping adventure. Her thoughts? “This is more comfortable than my bed.” Tents are so 2014.
Stay in mansions and beach houses for free
Although I have not used this personally, I did write about them, I do know people who have used this service (or other housesitting services) and this is on my bucket list re: one of the manners I will see the world when I retire (and intermittently between now and then).
Find a campsite even when the campground is “full”
How many times did David and I make a reservation to camp this summer? Zero. Last summer? Zero. Ever? Zero. How many times did we come upon a campground sign indicating it was “full”? Almost all of them. How many times did we end up camping in those campgrounds? All of them. This is how to do it.
#1. Ignore the “Campground Full” signs
#2. Drive around the campground and look for the sites have a “reserved” sign and look at the dates. If it was reserved for the day prior, it is it is likely the campground has a policy you can take it and/or the campground host will tell you, you can have it but if they show up you will have to leave. What we found is people are constantly making reservations and never showing up or showing up for a two night reservation and only staying one night.
#3. Once you find a potential “no show” be extraordinarily polite and go ask the campground host if it is ok to have the spot.
It hasn’t failed us yet.
Book apartments, condos and hotels with last minute cancellation policies and hard to beat prices
Never pay for plane tickets
David and I have some pretty serious strategery with leveraging credit cards to get free tickets. (We almost never pay for air travel because honestly, given the choice – why would you?) He will open a credit card and get me one. We will spend the amount of money required to get the miles and then he will cancel it and I will get one and repeat. Our favorite frequent flyer programs:
Get a free domestic United ticket (or 30,000) with United miles after you spend $1000 in three months. Also, get two free passes to their airport lounges complete with free wine, snacks and cushy chairs. P.s. a travel tip for travel hacks: on occasion United has an offer for 50,000 miles (or the equivalent of two domestic tickets). If you are interested in this card – do a quick Google search – maybe you will get lucky and find the offer.
Get a free domestic Delta ticket or 30,000 Delta miles after you spend $1000 in three months.
Get a free domestic American Airlines ticket or 30,000 American miles after you spend $1000 in three months. Catch the right time of the year and you can fly to Europe with 40,000 American Airlines miles – round trip.
Pro tip #1: When you call to cancel, many times they will offer you even more miles to stay.
Pro tip #2: I have boycotted Frontier since 1) they charged us $25 per person per bag to use my frequent flyer miles to book a flight and 2) when we were traveling to Portland, our flight disappeared from the screen, no one I talked to knew the status of the flight and to seal the deal – a Frontier desk agent asked me if I knew where the plane was.
No more horrendous rental car lines
By joining the free Hertz Rewards Program, you bypass waiting in line, filling out forms and handing over credit card and drivers license information. You simply go to Hertz, with luck you don’t even have to take the bus, find the digital screen with your name on it and the location of your rental car, walk to your vehicle with the keys in it and drive away. You will, of course, have to show your drivers license to the parking attendant before you leave.
Stay in fancy hotels for free
The cost of a hotel room for a weekend is consistently more expensive than the plane ticket for a weekend away and the American Express Starwood Preferred guest program is like your rich, uber-connected best travel friend. With earned points you can get free or substantially discounted rooms. In areas where hotel rooms are cheaper – less points are required – and this is all run by one of the best run companies in the world – American Express. They won’t disappoint. Get 25,000 Starwood points after you spend $3,000 in three month.
Never fail tip on finding the best restaurants based on instinct alone
The rules around finding good food, reasonably priced food in a town you have never visited:
#1 The restaurants on the main street are, with rare exception, overpriced, underinspired and ranging somewhere from small to mega tourist trap.
#2 The restaurants one street off of or behind main street have to rest their laurels on good food and reasonable prices because they can’t foot the Main Street. Oh! And because they have not been subjected to parades of tourists too lazy to explore a town – they tend to be more cheerful than their Main Street counterparts.
#3 Rules #1 and #2 obviously do not apply when the main street – is the only street. If this is the case – check out the restaurants on the outskirts of the main drag.
And of course, there is always Yelp to help. Each time we pull into a new town we pull up Yelp on our phones (assuming we have a cell phone signal, another reason the plan above has saved us) to find the best place for stuffing our face in town. Often, the restaurants suggested are off the well-worn path and the chances of us finding them without the aid of our friend Yelp would be none and none.
Get any and every travel question answered accurately
Hands down the best place I have found to get every single random travel question I have – from what should my itinerary be to is it safe for women to travel alone to what hotel should I stay in or what taxi service should I take from the airport I have found on Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree Forum. Many if not most of the participants on these forums are expats who live in the area, people who have traveled through it extensively and/0r others who are passionate about traveling particular areas of the world.
Figure out how to get from the airport to your hotel, where to stay, the best things to do
David prefers Rough Guides which I find to be more positive and generally offers equally as valuable, straight-shooting travel advice as other travel guides.
TripAdvisor.com started as travel reviews and has since built itself out to be a site to book all travel needs. When we are discussing where we should go and trying to learn what is available to do – Tripadvisor.com provides awesome overviews (and reviews) of the top sites to see in the area. This high level look is sometimes all we need to know if it a place is a “go” or a “no”.
Time Out the best guides for cities are typically pocket sized and and take an off the beaten approach on activities, sights, places, food, drink and accommodations.
I typically use Lonely Planet guidebooks. I was / am a bit disgruntled with them because I feel they can be overtly negative (especially about the United States) but they do give good on the ground information and seem to be the go to guide for independent travelers. And when they say something positive about a site or place – well you know they really mean it.