20 Ways to Travel Better
If you’re in the former camp, take note: with so much new technology available at your fingertips—and so many companies coming up with innovative solutions to travel dilemmas—there’s no reason to suffer in silence any longer.
For the past year, Travel + Leisure’s Trip Doctor news team has been testing and evaluating ways to travel better. Among our finds: a new breed of flexible airfare search tools that are making it easier to find lower-priced tickets that work with your schedule and travel parameters.
We also uncovered some enterprising services that will help you get paid—handsomely—when your flight is delayed or your luggage goes missing. And once you’ve arrived in your destination, we’ve identified simple ways that you can access a gym (a good one), stream your favorite television shows, connect to Wi-Fi for free, keep your business attire looking sharp, and ensure that your essential mobile devices never run out of batteries.
We even looked closely at the real reason some bags don’t make it to their final destination. And we asked Google Maps to analyze its traffic data to help us pinpoint the best (and worst) times to hit the road before a major holiday.
The result of all this research: your road map for how to travel better in 2015.
Reported by Lisa Cheng, Nikki Ekstein, Amy Farley, Katie James, Brooke Porter Katz, and Tom Samiljan.
This story ran in T+L's December 2014 issue.
No. 1 Get Paid for a Flight Delay
If time is money, then air travel collectively owes us all. Tipping the scales in travelers’ favor: Berkshire Hathaway’s new AirCare insurance, which offers generous compensation for a fixed rate of $25. Delays of two or more hours get you $50; if you miss a connection, there’s a $250 payout. And tarmac delays of more than two hours get you $1,000. (A bag delayed by 12 hours is worth $500.) You can purchase a policy up to 24 hours before departure time and payments are often instantaneous— wired into your bank or PayPal account.
Strict European Union regulations mean that passengers departing from any European airport (or flying a European carrier into the union) are eligible for compensation of up to $750 for a delayed, canceled, or overbooked flight. Here in the United States, travelers who are involuntarily bumped from a flight could be owed up to $1,300. AirHelp will go after your money for you, minus a 25 percent commission.
No. 2 Understand Code Shares
Think you’re getting credit for all your frequent-flier miles by traveling on a partner airline? Not necessarily. Each partnership works differently: some offer full mileage and elite-qualifying credit for tickets on other carriers; others offer reduced (or even no) credit. And because some domestic loyalty programs calculate miles based on dollars spent (rather than distance flown), you may even bank more miles if you buy directly from a partner airline. Check the terms of each code share with your preferred carrier before booking.
No. 3 Beat Holiday Traffic
When hitting the road on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving or the Friday before Christmas—among the busiest days of the year—planning down to the hour can make a difference. With the help of Google Maps, we’ve charted the traffic patterns around four of the country’s biggest cities.
The data from Chicago, D.C., Los Angeles, and New York City reveal that on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, 4 p.m. is the worst time to travel, while 5 p.m. is the worst time to travel on the Friday before Christmas.
Methodology: Google Maps analyzed the total number of cars on the road at a given time, looking at the speed of vehicles with location-services-enabled android smartphones. Traffic is measured for the year 2013.
No. 4 Use a Digital Assistant
If you’re a Google user, it’s time to get on board with the app’s built-in digital assistant, which puts Siri to shame. More than just a smart voice search, the service scans your Gmail and Google Calendar for booking details and appointments, learns your preferences via your browsing history, and monitors your daily habits to deliver relevant updates (local weather, currency conversions) within the app. What you’ll get:
Real-time Updates: Get info about flights, including delays and gate changes, starting 24 hours before departure.
Scheduling Assistance: Based on traffic and your preferred mode of transportation, it’ll tell you when to leave for the airport, a dinner reservation, and meetings and appointments.
Rebooking Help: If your flight is canceled, Google provides a direct link to Google Flight Search, which displays alternative flights.
Itinerary Management: A new feature launching this month pulls up your flight and hotel confirmations, restaurant bookings, and more. Simply say “OK Google, show me my trip.”
No. 5 Get Through Customs Faster
Good news if you travel to Asia on business: for the first time since its introduction in 1997, the APEC Business Travel Card is available to American citizens. What that means: preclearance and expedited immigration processing in 21 member destinations (China, Singapore, Australia, and Mexico, to name a few). If you are already part of U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Trusted Traveler network (Global Entry, SENTRI, or NEXUS), apply through CBP’s online system, GOES. Or start an account with GOES, and request to be enrolled in both programs at the same time.
No. 6 Earn More for Airline Tickets
Book a flight through an online travel agency, and you’ll get both miles from the airline and perks and rewards from the OTA’s own program. Here, three to consider.Expedia
How to Earn: Get one point for every $5 spent on flights; two for every $1 spent on hotels and cruises.
How to Spend: Points can be applied to flights, hotels, and even meals (e.g., 3,500 points = $25 toward a room).
Status Perks: Spend $5,000—or book seven room nights—to attain silver status, which comes with bonus amenities (upgrades, complimentary wine) at 1,400 hotels.
Bottom Line: With a poor return on points, Expedia’s program is all about the VIP hotel service.Orbitz
How to Earn: Cash back on every purchase, in the form of Orbucks. The return: 1 percent for flights, 3 percent for hotel bookings.
How to Spend: One Orbuck is worth one dollar. You can apply your balance to any purchase made on the site.
Status Perks: Gold members (people who book four room nights a year) get perks such as upgrades and free in-room Wi-Fi at partner hotels.
Bottom Line: Instant rewards make this ultra-transparent program very gratifying.CheapTickets
How to Earn: The site offers reward credit for almost all airfare—as high as $50—but the amount you get is up to chance.
How to Spend: CheapCash credits can be applied to hotel bookings within 30 days.
Status Perks: None. This isn’t your typical loyalty program.
Bottom Line: It makes sense when you are planning to book both airfare and hotel through the site.
No. 7 Stay Connected for Free
No. 8 Know When to Carry On
Most travelers are aware that connecting flights are the primary cause of mishandled bags, accounting for 45 percent of delays. Less well known: a smaller—though not insignificant—proportion of bags are deliberately pulled because of weight restrictions. This happens most frequently at high altitudes and on hot days; when the temperature rises, the air thins, making it more difficult for planes to take off. So carry your bag when the mercury peaks in Mexico City.
No. 9 Watch Your Shows on the Go
Want to binge-watch the latest season of Game of Thrones at 30,000 feet or catch up on Downton Abbey from your Bali bungalow? Here, a breakdown of the best services to use, and when.Amazon Instant Video
Cost: $0.99–$4.99 per episode or $99 for a year
Streaming? In the U.S., U.K., and Germany
What to Know: Be sure to load up your device with content before heading abroad as you can’t download (or stream) everywhere.Google Play
Cost: $1.99–$4.99 per episode
What to Know: Purchasing while in a foreign country must be done via data roaming, but you can switch to a Wi-Fi network once your download begins.iTunes
Cost: $1.99–$3.99 per episode
Streaming? Domestic only
What to Know: Watch shows offline while you’re in the air, or anywhere on the planet. Download either at home or at a hot spot while traveling internationally.Dish Anywhere
Cost: Free with a Dish Network subscription
What to Know: Watch live TV, movies, and premium content on your DVR over Wi-Fi—or transfer recordings to your tablet to watch offline.Slingbox
Cost: $149 for the Slingbox M1
What to Know: Stream anything that you could watch on your TV at home, from sitcoms to sports, anywhere you can find high-speed Internet.
No. 10 Get Flexible with Airfare
The open-calendar strategy: Specify where you want to go and for how long, and Google’s bar-graph-style calendars will show you when fares are lowest over a three-month window. Adioso lets you search for flights nearly a year into the future.
The destination-agnostic search: Both sites will look for all flights under broad search terms: you can ask for tickets to “Europe,” “Caribbean,” or even (on Adioso) “somewhere warm.”
The price alert: Adioso’s alerts let you combine multiple open-ended search parameters and get e-mail notifications for flights that, say, “leave on Fridays” and “return three days later” in the “next six months” and go “anywhere in the Caribbean” for “less than $400.”
The fare-drop watch: The DealsRadar, from Adioso, collects price drops on flights from your area to a customizable set of destinations around the world. Among our recent finds: a $98 one-way fare from LAX to Denver (down 38 percent from the average).
The loyalist approach: Google makes it easy to search by entire alliance group (Oneworld, SkyTeam, Star Alliance) from a drop-down menu, helping you maximize your loyalty earnings.
No. 11 Don't Settle for the Hotel Gym
If hitting the stationary bike just isn’t enough, try GoRecess.com, which lets you search for fitness classes around the country by location and type (from cardio to martial arts to prenatal), and book on the spot. Visiting New York or (soon) Los Angeles? Try the Beautified app for last-minute access to highly coveted classes at Barry’s Bootcamp and Physique 57, among others. If your hotel lacks a gym entirely, head to the nearest fitness club and say you’re considering a membership—you may be given a day pass.
No. 12 Rent a Car with Style
Sometimes, getting there really can be half the fun. Case in point: Priceline’s new Fun Rides collection, which gathers the lowest prices for specialty cars (convertible Mercedes-Benz E350’s, Corvettes, Mini Coopers) at agencies across the country.
No. 13 Keep Your Battery Charged
The power strip: Can’t find enough outlets? The candy-bar-size Outlets to Go Power Strip ($20, pictured) provides four three-prong outlets with enough space to allow for even the bulkiest plugs.
The batteries: If your power is running low, try the Nokia DC-19 ($40, pictured), a compact battery pack that delivers one of the fastest charges around. For maximum power, try the Mojo Battstation Optimus 20400 ($130): it has two USB ports and stores enough power to fully charge your phone eight times.
The rechargeable phone case: The Mophie Space Pack ($250, pictured) protects your iPhone from drops, doubles battery life, and adds up to 64GB of memory (for more photo, video, and music storage). We also like the slimmer Jackery Leaf ($60), which offers an additional 110 hours of use time; it’s available for iPhone only—for now.
No. 14 Get Social With Your Hotel
What’s more valuable to hotels today: a loyal customer or one with a loyal social following? It may be the latter.
Case in point: the new Kimpton Karma loyalty program rewards guests who post selfies at the pool or tweet to the hotel’s customer service team, granting them expedited access to the “Inner Circle.” Once in, travelers get complimentary nights and a $50 restaurant credit at new properties. Marriott Rewards, meanwhile, is offering members up to 2,000 monthly points for social updates. (Instagram photos and Facebook “likes” are each worth 25 points.) Most interesting is the new Hotelied app (free; Android, iOS), which accesses travelers’ social networks and loyalty programs. Participating hotels can then use this information to offer discounts to targeted demographics—for example, 35 percent off for San Francisco–based techies.
No. 15 Switch to the Right Plastic
Widely used in Europe, chip-and-PIN credit cards are not only more secure than their magnetic-strip counterparts, they’re increasingly essential at unmanned metro stations and tollbooths abroad, which often don’t accept any other form of plastic. All U.S. banks will issue them by October 2015; get yours sooner by asking your provider for an upgrade.
No. 16 Put Your Airfare on Hold
Looking for a flight but not quite ready to pull the trigger? By DOT mandate, all domestic airlines must offer full refunds within 24 hours of buying a ticket. Some carriers go even further: American Airlines, Southwest, and Virgin America all have free 24-hour hold services, while United’s FareLock (from $6.99) lets you wait either 72 hours or seven days before booking. Options Away holds domestic fares for up to three weeks for fees ranging from $4 to $45.
No. 17 Book on an International Website
It is a truth universally acknowledged that airfare varies from minute to minute, website to website. But did you know that there can be differences between the rates you find on domestic and international versions of the same site? This often happens when travel companies are trying to gain market share in a new country, explains Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst at Atmosphere Research Group. That means you may find a substantially different ticket price for the same flight on Expedia.com and Expedia.co.jp, the Japanese version. (Don’t worry: it’s in English.) You can find similar discrepancies for internal foreign flights on an international carrier’s own website by changing your “residence” to the airline’s home country. One caveat: you’ll be booking in the local currency, so use a credit card that doesn’t charge a foreign transaction fee. We tested the theory.
No. 18 Rent a Camera Lens
Attention, safari-goers: there’s no need to pony up $1,700 for that super-zoom Canon EF 100–400 mm lens when you can get a weeklong rental for just $60. BorrowLenses.com, owned by Shutterfly, also rents camera bodies, lighting kits, video equipment, and even underwater cases for those beach getaways.
No. 19 Look Sharp
There’s nothing worse than getting caught with stained clothing on the road, far away from a trusted dry cleaner. Enter travel-ready solutions such as Tide to Go, a discreet spot-treatment pen that instantly lifts stains. The TSA-friendly Sea to Summit Pocket Laundry Wash packets contain detergent strips, great for washing clothes in the sink when you’re in a bind. And then there’s Downy Wrinkle Releaser Plus, a three-ounce spray that removes creases from any garment—an unpacking essential.
No. 20 Tally Up Your Cruise Bill in Advance
The base fare of a cruise is often just a starting point for what you’ll pay. Unless you go with an all-inclusive luxury line, you’ll likely be charged for dining at specialty restaurants, alcohol, gratuities, and more. So when comparing your options, keep in mind how costs can add up. To give you a sense, we averaged the per-person fare and additional expenses associated with a seven-night voyage in the western Mediterranean on three premium lines.
Base fare: $2,149
Airfare (from New York City): $1,250
Round-trip transfers (from airport to ship): $91
Three shore excursions: $248
Specialty restaurants (four visits): $182
Port fees, taxes, and fuel charges: $120