How to Travel Better: A T+L Master Class
It's not January, but that doesn't mean you can't make a resolution — to be a smarter traveler.
And there's no better time to commit to improving your travel skills than right after summer vacation: Think back on the trips you took — or didn't take — this summer. Did you get a great deal on flights? Pay too much for a hotel? Did you avoid the crowds? What could have been better, if you did it all again?
Because every traveler has room to improve their travel skills, Travel + Leisure has put together a resource that can be your definitive source for traveling smarter.
This is T+L's travel master class, where you'll find insider tips and expert guidance. So if you want to know how to get the cheapest airfare, how to save on a last-minute hotel, and how to find the perfect travel shoe, you're in the right place.
Bookmark this page. You're going to need it.
Deciding on a destination
Let's start with something easy: finding a place to go. Notice we say “finding,” and not picking. Picking just one place, one locale, one single destination for your next trip? That isn't so easy.
But don't let the paradox of choice keep you from leaving the house.
If you already have a list of places you want to go, all the better. We'll get to what to do with your favorite destinations — where you visit family, or return for repeat getaways — soon. For travelers itching to explore the world, though, here's a starter list: T+L's best cities in the world and best cities in the U.S. Looking for something less urban? Check out T+L's best islands in the U.S. and best in the world for 2017.
Now to keep track of your destination bucket list. Consider using one of the many great to-do list apps — especially convenient if you're already using one for work or personal errands — to organize your list of places you have to see. Or just keep a good, old-fashioned notepad on your desk or stuck to your fridge.
Above: An arrival jetty, in the Maldives.
Knowing where to go when
Traveling during the off season is one of the easiest ways to score deals on everything from flights to hotel rooms and tours. A trip to Iceland during the winter, for example, can easily cost half of a peak season vacation. (But travelers will have to reckon with very little daylight and very cold weather.)
Shoulder-season travel has many of the same benefits (affordability and thin crowds) with still-pleasant weather. Between hurricane season and the holidays, for example, travelers can find incredible deals on trips to the Riviera Maya in November. And just waiting until the summer crowds dissipate in August can make European cities like Madrid and Florence significantly less expensive.
When to buy your flight
The key to saving money on airfare is timing. Both when you go, and when you book.
You've got the list of places you want to go, right? Now it's time to educate yourself on average fares, and set alerts for the trips you want to take.
While several studies can give you an idea of the average day to get the best fare, an average is not a magic answer to your particular flight search. So instead of planning to book 54 days or whatever ahead of your departure, you're going to get started as soon as you know where and when you want to travel.
While some expert advice for saving on airfare includes tips like “be flexible on where you're going,” we know that's not always possible. (Even though, if you ask us, Grandma should be totally down with celebrating Thanksgiving in Miami. So what if she lives in Seattle?) So first, how to save on airfare you need to buy. And then we'll get to those extra fun trips.
Booking non-flexible trips
Even before you're ready to buy, search for your flight and dates on Google Flights, Momondo, or Skyscanner to get an idea of prices — and to see how prices fluctuate around your travel dates. The goal of an early airfare search — say 4, 6 or even 9 months out — is not to necessarily book (unless there's an amazing deal); the goal is to get a sense of what airfares average for where and when you want to go. And to set up alerts.
Say you want to visit family in Denver for Thanksgiving. (By the way, you might want to book that already for this year.) Using your chosen search engine, add your origin and destination airport and travel dates. (You should also check airport options if you are close to more than one.) Depending on the search engine, you should be able to see how the fares vary in the surrounding dates. For example, on Google Flights click on the date field under the airport selection and the calendar menu will appear. Check a few months ahead and look for the green prices — those are the cheapest options.
If the dates you want to travel (assuming, again, that you're doing this far ahead of time) aren't a great deal, select “Track prices” in Google Flights, “Fare Alert” on Momondo, or “Get Price Alerts” on Skyscanner. For a great mobile fare alert service, download Hopper, which will alert you when a fare is at its lowest.
And for more tips on busy travel dates, bookmark our guide to when you should book your flight for around every major holiday.
Booking flexible trips
Have a place you want to go, but you don't know when? Have vacation time you're itching to use? Great news: The world is your oyster.
KAYAK Explore is one of the most fun tools to start your world exploration. Set your home airport, dates if you have them, a maximum price and flight duration, and see where your money can take you.
Sign up for sale alerts from DealRay, Scott's Cheap Flights, or Airfare Watchdog and travel inspiration will be delivered to you. And for a bucket list trip, say to Machu Picchu, set some potential travel dates within the next year on the Hopper app, and get an alert when the fare is at its lowest.
When your travel is truly flexible, you'll also want to get some basic info about your destinations' peak season. In some cases, off season — as we mentioned above — is off for a very good reason (like rainy season in the Northern Territory), so the cheaper airfare and hotels might not be worth it. But in other destinations, like the Caribbean, off and shoulder seasons might be perfectly agreeable — and perfectly priced.
Again, the key to this is timing: If you familiarize yourself with the average fares for the dates you want to travel, you'll know a good deal when you see it.
And when you see a good deal on airfare? Don't wait. Buy.
Don't forget the fees
Whether they were paying attention or not, travelers have entered a new era of air travel: The Ancillary Age.
Remember when a flight longer than three hours included a complimentary meal? When the first two checked bags were free? When Frontier gave you a warm chocolate chip cookie? Hold tight to those memories because that was the past, and in the present it's all about the fees. Airlines make billions (with a “b”) on fees for “extras” like seat assignments and more legroom, and consumers need to educate themselves to avoid spending more than expected. Or, to look at this as a glass half full, understanding the different fare classes and the value of each service is key to getting the best value.
Basic economy is a relatively new addition to modern air travel. While the fares are cheaper, travelers booking basic economy should be comfortable with a middle seat, not be carrying much baggage, and value price over comfort. More on getting the most from basic economy.
Premium economy, meanwhile, is becoming almost like a new business class (while business class gets fancier and first class becomes more rare). In this age of fees, an important thing to remember is to estimate how much you'll be paying in total with fees. For example, depending on the airline, booking a regular economy ticket but paying for priority boarding, two bags, and in-flight drinks might be almost as expensive as the next fare class up that will include some of those extras. So do the math before you book. More on getting the most from premium economy.
Choosing a seat
Even though your purchased airfare is only really service from point A to point B, every traveler knows the difference between a seat that doesn't recline in the back of an old aircraft and a new leather seat in the exit row. Luckily, you don't have to board the plane — or even book that flight — without knowing ahead of time what your seat circumstances will be.
With just your flight number and date, you can look up your exact aircraft on SeatGuru and check the seat pitch, in-flight entertainment devices, and availability of power outlets. You'll also see warnings for seats that are less than desirable, whether they're too close to a lavatory for comfort, or even just because they don't line up with a window.
Routehappy will also give you important seat and aircraft information, so when you go to pick a seat online, you're fully informed.
Each airline has a slightly different boarding process, and while they're all mostly the same, the exceptions are too important to skip.
American, Delta, United, Alaska, and Frontier all have fairly typical boarding groups, where passengers needing extra assistance go first, followed by premium passengers, all the way until the final boarding group. Southwest, for those unfamiliar, has unassigned seating on the aircraft. Thosein early boarding groups are most likely to get the best seats.
TSA PreCheck and Global Entry
Imagine a dream world in which you can skip the majority of the airport security line, keep your shoes and belt on, your liquids and laptop in your bag, and breeze right through. This is called TSA PreCheck, and you could be living the dream in a matter of weeks.
Depending on where you travel the most, you may prefer TSA PreCheck or Global Entry. Learn everything you need to know about them here.
Dealing with delays and cancelations
The good news: Flight cancelations are at an all-time low. The bad news: Delays and cancelations still happen.
The first step to avoiding problems is choosing your flights wisely: Fly earlier in the day and you're less likely to be delayed. If you have a choice of airports, check which has a better record for on-time departures. Also tools like Google Flights can tell you if a flight is frequently held up: Tap or click on the downward arrow to the right when looking at a particular flight, and note any red warnings that (as an example) a flight is “often delayed by 30+ minutes.”
Once you're booked and nearing your travel dates, pay attention to the weather forecast. Airlines frequently issue fee waivers days ahead of time if severe weather is likely to impact schedules, and the best way to avoid hours at the airport is to be proactive.
At the airport when your flight is suddenly canceled? Call the airline's customer service while you get in the physical line with all the other passengers. If you get through on the phone first, you've just saved yourself some time. And if you're having a hard time getting help over the phone or in person, there's always tweeting. No matter which platform you use to contact the airline, remember to always be polite.
Dealing with lost baggage
Airlines are now about 70 percent less likely to lose luggage than they were 10 years ago. Less than .03 percent of passengers experience mishandled baggage — the lowest rate since the Department of Transportation started collecting data on bags in 1987 — but if you're one of the lucky few, here's what to do.
First: Contact the airline. Describe the bag, and check on home delivery options if it's nowhere to be found at your airport. Second: Check on compensation if your bag is delayed for more than a day. And third: Avoid losing it in the first place. Choose nonstop flights when you can, make sure layovers are long enough not just for you to switch aircraft but for your baggage to as well, and remove any old travel tags that could get scanned and send your bag to where you took your last vacation. And use a tracking tag (or smart suitcase) or your airline's tracking — like American's new service or Delta's — to keep track of your bag along your trip.
Of course, if you can travel with just carry-on bags, you'll also save time at the airport.
There are several factors to consider when packing: the type and length of your trip, your itinerary, the weather, the size of your luggage, weight limits imposed by your mode of transportation, and more. It’s easy to overpack or underpack, especially if you’ve waited until the last minute, but with some practice (and maybe some packing cubes) you can become a packing expert.
And don't forget that “personal item,” for which we recommend a backpack. (If you're carrying a purse or other small bag, leave room in your carry-on for it so you can stretch that “one carry-on, one personal item” allowance further.) And before you write off the idea of carrying around a Jansport (which are great, by the way), know there are many more sophisticated options, including great carry-on backpacks, great travel backpacks for men, leather backpacks for women, and luxury backpacks worth the splurge.
Packing with style
This one is a two-parter: First, the clothes to travel with, and second, determining your packing style.
So what should you pack? We've got ideas for you if you value comfort, are traveling to a cold climate, are traveling to a warm climate, are traveling to somewhere in between, need clothes that go from day to night, are headed to the beach, or even if you want to get Kate Middleton's style.
Now on to packing style, and we're not talking about fashion. No, we're talking about cubes, rolling, or folding: Which packing style are you? Take a look at T+L's guide to rolling and folding, and then if you know what's good for you, you'll order some packing cubes.
Booking your hotel
Now for booking your hotel. Like airfare, hotel rates are about timing — though that timing is completely different from flights.
Book at least a month or two in advance — if not more — to get the best selection of available rooms and to avoid spikes in popular destinations. Comparison shopping is the name of the game for hotel rooms, since — unlike airfares — rates can vary across sites and across platforms. Check OTAs (like Expedia and Hotels.com) as well as property websites, and don't forget your phone: Rates can be cheaper on mobile for the exact same room.
You can also save by booking last-minute (although you'll be partly leaving your accommodations up to fate), with apps like Hotel Tonight, which offer rooms at great properties at (sometimes greatly) discounted rates, up to one week in advance.
The first thing Marriott's CEO does when he gets in his hotel room is open the curtains. The daylight (or darkness) will acclimate to the local time zone, and — hopefully — you'll have an immediate opportunity to enjoy the view.
And it may sound simple, but it bears repeating: You can get more out of every single hotel stay simply by asking for what you need. “I don’t think people realize that hotels tend to carry almost everything,” said hotel executive Barry Goldstein, “even the most obvious elements like medicine, undershirts, ties, or chargers, so they tend to go out and buy it.”
During your stay
Tip housekeeping every day, and leave a note so they know it's for them. Lizzie Post, the great-great-granddaughter of Emily Post, told T+L that a few dollars a day, left every day with a note, is the way to go. And speaking of housekeeping, this is how messy you should leave a hotel room.
And on the off chance something goes wrong, here's what to do if you damage your hotel room.
There's no vacation more classically American than a road trip. And although summer is the most popular season for this tradition, there's no time of year when the open road isn't calling. (Just pay attention to weather advisories.)
Before you begin your adventure, make sure your car — if you're driving your own — is in good shape. Check the oil, other fluids, maybe even take it in for a checkup on the brakes, and double check that your documents (including insurance and numbers for roadside assistance) are in the glove box.
Renting a car
You can typically reserve a rental car without paying upfront, so it's never too early to do so. Compare prices on Expedia, KAYAK, or other metasearch platform, or if you have a favorite company, go directly to the site. Book a car as soon as you know you're heading somewhere, then check once or twice before your trip dates to see if cheaper options are available.
Other money-saving tricks include looking to lesser known sites, like Costco and AAA, and be wary of fees for services (often overpriced) like toll transponders and GPS navigation systems (you already have one in your smartphone). Paying for insurance will also bring a rental price way up, so study up on whether or not your credit card will cover you.
Also, check with the rental company on any geographic limitations. Many rental company contracts allow you to drive within the contiguous 48 — but there are exceptions, and they can be costly.
Following the law
With the number of people on the road every year, safety should be priority number one. The driver should avoid distractions, and pull over (and switch drivers or take a break) when sleepy.
If you're crossing state lines, check local laws for driving with devices. Many states have outlawed talking on your cellphone, and some have banned using your device at all — and that includes maps.
One of the keys to getting the most out of every trip is to make sure you're always getting something back.
First, you'll need to choose the right rewards card for you: What are your personal travel goals? Your spending habits? Should you be collecting points, miles, or getting cash back? Get tips on picking a card.