I was fortunate to grow up in a family where my parents valued experiences gained through travel. Even though we didn’t have deep pockets, we’d spend our summers road tripping throughout California, camping, or cramming into budget hotels around the country. No matter where the destination was, the excitement for the unknown was always palpable. When I turned 16, I visited my ethnic roots in Vietnam for the first time. I was utterly blown away by the scent blend of fish sauce, humidity, and motorbike exhaust, which I now affectionately call the “perfume of Saigon”. Since then, I’ve visited numerous countries, scoured for hundreds of flights (especially during my years as an executive assistant), and have now transitioned into being a full-time adventurer to learn all that I can from this big beautiful globe. I’d like to share my favorite golden tips to travel smarter with you in hopes it’ll make your journey just a little bit easier.
1) If you want a cheap flights, be knowledgable and flexible.
Finding good flight prices can be a headache. In the past, there used to be certain days (such as Tuesdays) that had better fares. Those days are gone. Promotions run throughout the entire week so there isn’t necessarily a single day that’s better than others. But, never fear; there are three things you can do right now to set yourself up to find cheap flights:
- Sign up for Scott’s Cheap Flights email newsletter. This is best for international travel and customizable so you can opt to only get emails for flights from your airport hub. There is a free version which sends a portion of the flight deals and a premium membership for all of the deals (and well worth the annual fee).
- Sign up for The Flight Deal email newsletter, which is another free resource. This is great for domestic travel. Although the newsletter is a bit more cumbersome to read through versus Scott’s Cheap Flights, it is worth signing up for because it covers many more destinations per email.
- Sign up to be on the email list for airlines. While it can be annoying to get spammed with frequent emails, you’ll also be the first to know when a promotion is going on. Some of my favorites are Air Canada, Southwest, and Alaska Airlines.
The first step is knowing which places you’d like to visit and how many days or weeks you’d like to spend there. Keep that list somewhere handy because you’ll feel much more confident booking a flight as soon as a flight deal pops up. Hemming and hawing on a decision can be costly since prices can go up within several hours as they are generally based on demand. The next step to capitalizing on cheap flights is to be flexible with your dates. Couple this with your list of destinations and you’ll have so many options in front of you. Finally, if you are still on the fence, keep in mind that most airlines have a 24-hour cancellation policy. If they do, you can always book the flight and continue to research the feasibility of your trip within that time period. Cancel the flight if things don’t work out; no harm done.
2) Carry on instead of checking a bag.
Losing your luggage at the beginning of a big trip has the potential to turn into the #worstdayever. I prefer to pack more efficiently, bring less, and carry on my belongings so there is no time wasted at baggage claim or added stress about losing my luggage. The key to packing smart and fashionably is to bring items that coordinate easily (neutral tones and solid colors with a few prints), do laundry during the trip, and change up your outfit with different accessories such as scarves and hats. Of course, there are some instances where you will be checking in a bag. If you have to do this, consider buying travel insurance. Certain travel-focused credit cards such as the Chase Sapphire even has lost luggage reimbursement programs, so check to see if you have similar perks.
3) Use Wikitravel, TripAdvisor, and blogs for trip planning.
If I’m starting at ground zero for trip planning, I always begin by reading the destination’s Wikitravel page to take a pulse on history, climate, transportation, things to eat, and notable features. From there, I’ll head over to TripAdvisor, type in the destination and look at the “things to do” list. Most of us only have a limited amount of time in a place and it’s hard to decide between the hundreds of activities or landmarks to see. I tend to look at the top 20 items on these lists to get a sense of which sites are worth visiting. Of course, every traveler has specific interests, so don’t write anything off if it doesn’t rank well; this is just a basis for comparison.
After that, I will read travel blogs to get personal opinions from those who have visited the same areas. Travel blogs can give you a different perspective of a destination and might also come with hilarious stories that’ll prepare you for anything. There are travel blogs for every kind of niche out there– solo female, amputee, history, vegan, couples, food, fashion, and more. Guide books and generic websites simply can’t convey these kinds of perspectives. Some of my favorite travel blogs include Expert Vagabond, Practical Wanderlust, and Legal Nomads. You can also check out this list of friends in my travel community that I’ve met in person and broken bread with.
4) Create a single Google document for your ideas.
Once my flight is booked and I’m ready to plan, the first thing I do is create a google document and share it with my traveling companions. It’s not fancy, it doesn’t usually have tables, but I rarely skip a beat with this method. I’ll write out every single date from trip departure to return such as “Friday, November 24” with blank bullet points underneath each day. This helps me arrange my ideas and paint a realistic picture of where I need to be and when. Every day has the city/activity listed at the top, accommodation information, and a few lines on what is happening.
I’ll throw general notes at the bottom of the document with different sections such as “dishes to try”, email correspondence notes, or other random bits of research. The beginning of the document is a great place to highlight general information such as currency rates, languages spoken, visa requirements, travel shots required, or safety precautions. Having one document will ensure all of your notes are consolidated and will make it easy to manage when you are ready to go.
5) Print copies of your itinerary and passport.
We all heavily rely on our phones, but there may be a time, place, or situation where you can’t use it. Maybe you drop your phone in the toilet on day 2 of the trip when you are in a remote village in Vietnam… s*** happens! Always have a printed copy of your full itinerary with contact information for accommodations and tours. Have enough information so you’ll still be able to get from A to B with your itinerary. You should also carry a printed copy of your passport just in case anything should happen to the real one. On that note, always keep your passport in the most secure location at all times (which is usually on your body). Losing that little book could easily transform your trip to the #worstweekever.
6) When you arrive in a new place, take a walk around by yourself. Listen and observe.
Coming into any new location can feel overwhelming at first, whether it’s a new job, school, or country. You might feel like an alien on a distant planet with no idea where to go, what to do, or how to communicate. Alternatively, you might also be chomping at the bit to hit the pavement with a list of places you intend to visit. Either way, I find it incredibly helpful to take 15 to 20-minutes to walk around a new place. This helps me understand the vibe in a non-intrusive way, familiarizes the neighborhood where I’ll be staying, and sparks curiosity about the people I have yet to meet. Subtle head nods and smiles can go a long way even if you don’t speak the same language.
7) Download offline Google Maps.
I don’t usually travel with constant access to wifi, but I regularly navigate using Google Maps to get around. Download an offline map so you can keep tabs on yourself without draining your data or burning your hotspot battery life. Keep in mind certain features such as bike routes, transit details, and walking directions won’t work offline, but you will still be able to search addresses, businesses, and get yourself over to them.
Instructions to download offline maps
- Download Google Maps on your phone
- Type in the city or area, such as “Quito, Ecuador”
- Click the 3 line menu bar in the top left corner, then select offline areas
- Under “download an offline area”, click “custom area”
- Zoom out of the area as far as it can go, and hit download
- Once the download is complete, you can rename the area you’ve downloaded so it makes sense, such as “Quito, Ecuador”
- Offline areas are kept for 30 days and then expire automatically
- If you need to keep the area longer than 30 days, click on it and hit “update”
8) Traveling to another country isn’t necessarily the time to for you to go “off the grid”.
Speaking of wifi, I make a point to have access to it whenever possible. In this day and age, it’s practically impossible to fully separate yourself from work messages even during your vacation. I completely understand how tempting it is to go “off the grid”. As frustrating as connectivity to work can be, having the ability to access the internet can enhance your travel experience that much more. Having wifi when traveling abroad helps with researching contextual information, translating languages, finding restaurants, communicating, and navigation. Often times, I’ll walk around a neighborhood and will stop when I see something that intrigues me. When this happens, I’ll usually spend a few minutes to do some quick research on my phone to get a better understanding of what I’m experiencing.
In terms of setup, I prefer to operate solely off of wifi. I’ll turn my phone to airplane mode and then use the Skyroam wifi hotspot. Hotspots are my favorite because you can tether up to 5 devices. This is especially useful when you are traveling with other people because you can all have access to the internet and split the cost of the rental. Of course, you can also get a sim card or arrange an international data plan with your cellphone carrier. I’ve also heard that Google’s Project Fi is a good lower cost phone option with no contractual obligations, unlimited talk and text, and data packages that work in most urban places around the world.
**If you end up using Skyroam, please use my affiliate link at no additional cost to you. It will help me to continue producing helpful content for this site!
9) Order what they’re having.
How will you discover your favorite local dish if you never get a chance to taste it? It may seem like common knowledge, but don’t forget to use your intuition when it comes to travel and food. If a restaurant is crowded with people and it smells good inside, you’ve likely hit a gastronomic jackpot. Don’t know how to read the menu? It’s all good (and perhaps even better that way). Just look around, spot something that piques your interest, and order what they’re having. The very worst thing that might happen is that you don’t enjoy the dish and will have to order another one. Not a lot to lose and much to gain by unearthing a tasty treasure.
10) Global Entry will save you precious time.
So, you’ve gone on your epic trip, gotten a bit sunburnt, had a few late nights with great food and drink, miss your pets terribly, or desperately need to shower after a 10+ hour flight. The last thing anyone would want to do is to be stuck in a heinous customs line. I’ve been in that situation several times before and would have given my left kidney to bypass the line. Luckily, now that I have Global Entry I can keep my kidney (and sanity) intact.
If you fly more than 5 times per year, I would recommend getting Global Entry. It’s great because you can breeze through processing lines, you don’t have to fill out customs paperwork, it is available at major US airports, and it also gives you TSA PreCheck eligibility. The application fee is about $100 and if you are approved, your Global Entry status is good for 5 years. While it can be a small pain to get (there’s an online application and in-person interview process), I think it’s well worth it. Time is the one commodity we cannot gain back.
Currently, the TSA PreCheck application fee is $85 and is also good for 5 years once approved. This program will get you through security without having to remove your shoes, laptops, jackets, and liquids at participating airports. It still requires an online application and an in-person interview. For that much effort, I think it’s worth paying a little more for Global Entry since it covers TSA PreCheck anyways.
Traveling can seem daunting at times because there are so many components involved– saving, research, strategy, wrangling people together, contacting companies, and the list goes on and on. It’s a labor of love that we do because we’re curious about the world and we’re compelled to see it with our own eyes. I hope my golden tips help you travel more efficiently. Do you have any advice of your own on traveling smarter? I’d like to hear about it in the comments below!