Travel hacks

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Travel is one of those activities where small failures cascade into large ones, and simple preparations make for an outsized impact on quality-of-life.


An unlikely event.

Almost every piece of advice below is the result of something that went wrong or something that could have gone better in the past six years.

In each of the past four years, I've flown over 100,000 miles per year and sometimes close to 150,000 miles per year.

Below are my tips on airlines, road trips, hotels and international travel.

As always, share your own tips so that I can post them there.


Update: I last overhauled this in Summer 2014.

General tips

Power splitters

Airports have become better in recent years about providing power outlets, but at peak times, there are never enough.

It's frustrating to lose workable time just because you couldn't get power.

Take a small power splitter when you travel, and ask if you can split in at a plug that's filled up. No one has ever told me no.

I preemptively split when I'm the first one there so more can share.

Lately, I've been using a portable splitter/extension cord:

Sometimes, hotels have only a single usable plug near the desk, and a splitter comes in handy in these too.

Ditto for conference halls with limited power outlets.

Portable power

For long trips and flights, bring an extra laptop battery.

For Apple laptops, I highly recommend the HyperJuice 2 External Battery external battery:

I recommend the premodified MagicBox adapter as well.

I still have and use my original HyperMac battery.

At four years old, it still doubles my MacBook Air's battery life.

I upgraded to the HyperJuice 2 so that I could make it on extremely long (24-hour) travel plans, and I've been very satisified.

Some planes have in-flight power. (Check under your seat.) For those that do, Kensington makes an auto/air power inverter.

If you're bringing devices that require batteries (like presentation remotes), bring a spare set of those batteries with you.

Cables and connectors

Wi-Fi isn't everywhere yet.

Always bring an ethernet cable with you, particularly when traveling abroad.

(Related: My make your own ethernet cable article.)

Many places that do provide a cable provide a short cable. In more than one instance, the provided ethernet cable could not bring my laptop within range of a power outlet.

A small, cheap ethernet coupler is all it takes to extend the range of the connection with your own cable:

After forgetting my iPhone charger on a couple trips, I bought a Nomad ChargeKey:

This has been great for quickly tethering and for charging my phone when I forget my cable or if my cable inaccessible. (I also have a spare charging cable in my dedicated travel bag.)

Sharing internet

If you've got Wi-Fi only devices with you, learn how to enable internet sharing on your laptop so that they can get online too.

On a Mac, this is under System Preferences > Sharing.

Working out

Travel can disrupt and destroy a regular workout routine.

When you're traveling, don't feel compelled to do the same workout you would at home, but do dedicate the same time.

The objective is to keep the habit rather than build strength or burn calories.

For lifting weights, resistance bands are a lightweight, compact solution:

Since many hotels do have gyms, I pack ultra-compact lifting pads instead of lifting gloves:

I prefer these to regular lifting gloves and use them for my home gym as well.

Related: I've written on the least resistance philosophy applied to:

GPS and smartphones

It's terrifying how easy a smartphone with GPS makes it to land in a strange city and navigate like a native.

(It's terrifying because I realize how much trouble I'd be in without it.)

Most often, GPS saves me by letting me discover quickly that I've taken the wrong bus or train. (Conversely, I get peace of mind on the right route.)

If you show a recommended route to a taxi driver on your phone, there's guaranteed to be no miscommunication.

Maps

Just in case your phone or GPS dies, print out any Google maps directions you'll need ahead of time.

If you'll be taking a taxi, print directions for the driver.

Update: Print the directions in the language of the destination!

Traveling with children

I mostly travel for academic work, so I'm always shocked by how much more difficult it is to travel with children.

A little technology makes life easier.

A car seat backpack makes them much easier to carry through airports:

(If you're renting a car, it may be worth the cost of renting a child seat to avoid the hassle of dragging one with you on a plane.)

A table-mounted portable high chair makes for more peaceful dinners, particularly in countries where restaurants may not carry them:

An iPad is a great portable babysitter for plane rides.

Rip your kids' DVD library to it.

Traveling with a wheelchair

My son uses a wheelchair, so I've become attuned to the challenges of traveling with one.

In general, checking a wheelchair at the gate is no problem, but detach any loose or weak parts (like arm rests) that should not be used as a grip. The attendants always treat a wheelchair carefully, but they don't know where it's safe to grab them and you won't always have an opportunity to tell them.

Sadly, it's often much easier to stay in the wheelchair and opt for extra security screening than to go through the trouble of getting in and out of the wheelchair to pass through a metal detector.

So far, every TSA agent has been courteous and understanding of my son's disabilities in this regard. But, I do have to make it very explicit what he is and is not able to comply with for screening.

Local transportation

Never discard a subway or train ticket!

Some systems require you to supply them when you get off.

Research local transit before you arrive.

Take note of routes you plan to take, and save system maps as PDFs in a DropBox account that you can reach from your phone.

Receipts

Keep a designated receipts pouch if you plan on filing for reimbursement.

Transfer receipts from wallet to pouch every night.

Making room for gifts and souvenirs

I often take underwear and undershirts nearing the end of their time on trips and ditch them to make room for souvenirs and gifts.

Stretching clothes

For long trips, take woolite travel soap with you so that you can wash socks, underwear and undershirts in the sink:

If you keep these items clean, your other clothes stretch much further.

Amazon prime

If you forget a small but important item (like a phone power adapter), it's often competitive in cost to have it shipped priority one-day through amazon prime to your hotel than to have someone else ship it from home.

Digital backups

Always back up your laptop hard drive before you leave.

I keep a portable hard drive on my desk for the sole purpose of backup:

I travel with an encrypted portable hard drive so that I can make backups on the go, and there's no risk of sensitive data theft if the backup hard drive is lost as well.

Use a travel wallet

Bring a second wallet on trips.

When outside the hotel, transfer one form of id (if needed), two credit cards of different networks and enough cash to this wallet.

Put everything else away in the hotel safe.

Take your debit card to use ATMs, but otherwise keep it in the hotel safe.

Analog backups of critical data

Lost and stolen wallets happen.

Using a travel wallet limits the damage, but you'll quickly find that you don't know the right phone numbers to call.

When you reach your hotel room, write down the phone numbers (found on the back of credit cards) to call in the event that you lose your cards.

Also write down your driver's license and passport number.

As a further backup, I keep this information in a PasswordSafe-compatible database on my laptop.

Notifying card companies

It's a good idea to file a travel plan with credit and debit card companies before you travel, especially internationally.

I've had a card suspended with a fraud alert mid-trip, and this can quickly turn into an embarrassment or a nightmare.

Rain

Each of my suitcases has an assigned umbrella.

I used to check the weather ahead of time, but I forgot to do this and got soaked just enough that it became worthwhile to brute force the problem.

Umbrellas aren't expensive enough to waste time and good clothes on minimizing the number you own.

(I'm not totally satisfied with any umbrella I own, and even the best umbrella on amazon only has a four star average. If you know of a particularly good umbrella, please let me know.)

Bryan Kennedy suggests buying a pocket-sized disposable poncho:

and keeping it in your handbag.

A small pharmacy

Travel boosts susceptibility to injuries and illnesses.

It's not always easy to reach a pharmacy.

My travel kit contains enough bandaids, antacids, painkillers, allergy medication, and cold and sinus pills to last a week.

Warning: Be careful taking "over-the-counter" medications across national boundaries. What's legal in one country is not always legal in another. Pay extra attention in Japan.

Packing technique: Roll; don't fold

To save space, roll clothes into cylinders instead of folding them.

There are a variety of techniques rolling techniques out there, but they all seem roughly equivalent.

I can often fit 1.5 to 2 times the clothes by rolling instead of folding.

Air travel

The ultimate travel bag

Shortly after I wrote the original version of this article, a reader wrote me to point out the Red Oxx Air Boss travel bag:

This bag came to life after travel bag nerd Doug Dyment created a list of requirements for the ultimate travel bag.

Red Oxx made it happen.

It is rugged, light, easy to carry and soft-bodied (for squishing into tight overhead bins).

Everything from the choice of zipper types (and their special tassles) to the pockets has been fully optimized for durability and efficiency.

It's so durable that it looks and feels brand new despite almost 400,000 miles of air travel.

I've been traveling exclusively carry-on with the Air Boss for three years, and I can fit a nine days of clothes for international trips.

My only gripe is that the default detachable shoulder strap is not padded enough.

I replaced mine with a high-end shoulder strap:

Frequent flyer programs

If you're going to do more than 25,000 miles in a year, route all your travel through one airline to gain frequent flyer status.

One overseas trip plus a few transcontinental trips will hit 25,000 miles.

Even low-level frequent flyer status smooths over many of the hassles of air travel with free baggage, priority boarding and a few first-class upgrades.

At 50,000 miles and up, expect frequent upgrades to first class, priority check-in, priority baggage, priority security screening and many other perks.

At 75,000 miles and up, expect first class on almost every flight.

At 100,000 miles and up, expect a slew of extra perks.

Most airlines have credit cards that will get you to (or close to) frequent flyer status (plus plenty of miles) just by using them for regular purchases.

Some airline credit cards bring a few of the perks of frequent flyer status just by having them.

Lounge access

For frequent travelers, lounge access is a necessity.

Airline lounges turn layovers into bursts of productivity with free wi-fi, snacks, drinks, comfortable seating and plenty of power outlets.

Some airlines include lounge access in the top tier of their frequent flyer programs, but some also include it as a perk for their high-end credit cards.

In some cases, the annual fee on the credit card is close to the cost af lounge membership for one year.

Airline mile-hacking

If you want to ramp up on miles, look for flights that have multiple legs. Often, these are much cheaper, yet oddly, they get you more miles and closer to frequent flyer status.

It's not hard to ramp up miles earned by 20-30% this way.

The key to mile-hacking with multileg flights is to make sure you can have a productive day of work while at airports and in the air.

Some credit cards bring free access to fully-stocked, Wi-Fi-equipped airline lounges--a great place for getting work done.

Some airlines also offer Wi-Fi passes that are good for a 24-hour period on any number of flights.

Check your airline's web site for current promotions. There are often limited-time promotions on hotels and rental cars that will double or even triple miles earned while still granting big discounts to frequent flyers.

Electronic boarding passes

Some airlines charge less for bags if you check in online.

Many travelers don't do this because they think they need a printer and can't access one at a hotel.

Most airports now support electronic boarding passes mailed to your phone.

For those that don't, you can print your boarding pass (even after "checking in") at an airport kiosk.

Seating

Don't sit in a bulkhead row. You'll have to put your carry-on up for take-off and landing.

The exception to the bulkhead rule is when you're traveling with an infant overseas. You can request a bulkhead crib on most planes.

Exit row seats often have more leg room, but some exit rows don't recline.

You can change your seat online. Get the aisle seat when you book.

If your party can't get adjacent seats, get aisle seats as far forward as possible. These have the highest value when trading with other passengers.

Apps and aids

TripIt fills in some of the functionality that a travel agent used to provide when it comes to keeping your travel smooth.

Their free service will keep tabs on your flights and notify you if anything goes amiss.

Most airlines have an iPhone app, and some are surprisingly useful.

Delta's app will let you book flights, or even rebook when you miss (or before you miss) a connection.

Airline meals

Nine out of ten times, the vegetarian meal beats the non-vegetarian meal.

Never, ever, eat airline chicken.

My colleague Rajeev Balasubramonian (blog: Utah Arch) notes that on trans-Pacific flights in particular, you may have to request the vegetarian option when you book.

Jetlag

Everyone has their own technique for jetlag.

I use the "power-through" approach, where I stay up until 10pm in the destination time zone using as much caffeine as necessary.

I set my alarm for 6am, and I hit the streets as soon as possible.

Staying in the sun helps. Leave the shades open to catch morning light.

Stomachs are the last organ to adjust to a new time zone. Bring antacids.

Tweet your discontent

When traditional channels for resolving a situation fail, I've had some luck tweeting my discontent at airline accounts.

Dealing with security

Getting priority security screening through frequent flyer status (or a credit card) helps take the edge off a routinely miserable process.

I feel like the following tips ought to be common sense, but repeated trips through TSA lines have proven otherwise:

  1. Wear a shirt with a front pocket into which you can stuff your ID and boarding pass.
  2. Wear shoes that are easy to slip on and off.
  3. Pack your belt, phone, wallet and loose change into your carry-on bag while you're in the security line.
  4. Keep your laptop in a neoprene sleeve to avoid the risk of static discharge after examination.
  5. If you prefer not to receive the backscatter radiation scan, aim for the line where these are not in use. I've taken 40 flights since these were introduced, and avoided the need for an opt-out in all but one of those.
  6. Calculate in advance how many buckets you will need.
  7. Send your shoes through first. On the other side of the belt, slip your shoes on, stack your buckets and carry them to a recombobulation area. (Do not reassemble yourself at the security belt itself.)

Getting TSA Pre

Expedited TSA screening is available as part of the TSA Pre program.

Most airlines allow frequent flyers of a certain tier to enroll in the program.

Even without frequent flyer status, applying for Global Entry, which brings expedited customs and immigration upon entry to the U.S., brings TSA Pre domestically upon approval.

I can usually clear the TSA Pre security line in less than five minutes, and sometimes in just one minute.

Headphones

I've been through a couple sets of headphones and earbuds. For the quality/price, I like the Sennheiser HD:

for headphones, and the audiohm noise-reduction buds:

for earbuds. (Note: These are simple (yet effective), passive noise-reducing plugs, not active noise-cancelling buds.)

Most airlines have a two-prong audio adapter. On some flights/airlines, the adapter is free. On others, it costs money.

Keep one on a flight where it's free.

Luggage

Take a photograph of the contents of your luggage before each trip and save it to DropBox.

If the airline loses your luggage, you'll want this to prove its value.

Check to see if the credit card you bought the ticket with carries lost-luggage protection. Many American Express cards do.

Lost or delayed luggage

Luggage does get lost or accidentally taken from time to time.

Make your luggage easy to identify.

Put a business card in the card flap, and inside the luggage.

"Medium-sized black suitcase" won't do you much good when you're describing it to the agent.

I recommend colored handle straps to help differentiate your luggage:

Bryan Kennedy recommends creating a pet identification tag for your luggage at one of the vending machines at a place like PetSmart, and then attaching this with a ring that requires more than manual force to remove.

If your bag is delayed, request a toiletry kit if they don't offer one.

Carry-on

Some airlines will allow you to board early if you have their credit card, even without frequent flyer status.

Early boarding is the key to making carry-on work on crowded flights.

I put my thin laptop bag under the seat and main bag overhead.

With the laptop out, it can fit in the overhead on all but the sub-hour-flight aircraft, and it carries about a two-day supply of clothes.

If overhead space runs out, the whole case fits under a seat with a nudge.

Missed connections

A couple times, I've missed a connection that left me stranded overnight.

It's always been weather that causes the problem, but every time, I've had some degree of grief in getting a hotel room covered by the airline.

Be polite but persistent in demanding a hotel room.

If you have a frequent flyer card, show it to the agent.

Hotels

Internet access

Some hotels give free internet access to members of their (free) loyalty program.

Some hotels charge for internet in the room, but make it free in the lobby.

Some offer free internet for a limited time and track identity through cookies. Clear your cookies to get more time.

For many of these hotels, ssh works just fine.

Some hotels offer free internet for a limited time, but track this through your MAC address. Change your MAC address to get more time.

Some hotels restrict access by redirecting DNS (but routing appropriately). Use OpenDNS servers to get online at these hotels:

  208.67.222.222
  208.67.220.220 

There might be a coffee shop nearby that provides internet access cheaper than the hotel. And, it comes with coffee.

Internet proxying

If you plan to travel to a country that restricts internet access, set up a proxy before you leave.

I run a secure proxy on my linode for my family for just this purpose.

Unpacking

It's no fun forgetting something in a hotel room.

I use a simple system to prevent forgetting items:

  • Clear the desk of all folders, pamphlets, etc.
  • Keep all loose items on the desk.
  • Use only one power outlet (with a splitter).
  • Never put anything in a drawer.
  • Put your hangers on top of your suitcase.

Toiletries

If you forgot basic toiletries, tell the front desk when you check in.

Most front desks are stocked with travel-sized versions of everything.

On the road

Taking a few precautions before road trips can make a big difference.

Emergency kits

I carry a self-jumper in each of my cars:

On average, I've used each about once a year because I left the lights on.

I also keep air compressors in each car in case a tire springs a leak.

Auto power inverters

For long road trips, it's handy to have an auto power inverter.

AAA membership

If you're on a long trip, a AAA membership provides peace of mind.

Each year, my AAA membership has paid for itself through discounts at hotels, and in some years, by having my car towed for repair.

I frequently stay at conference hotels where the conference has set up a discounted "group rate," and often times, the AAA rate is cheaper than the group rate.

Rental insurance

Car rental companies will rip you off for insurance.

Most American Express credit cards include loss/damage coverage if you put the rental on that card.

Your current policy may also cover you for rentals. Check with your agent.

Apps

Use the Trapster app for iPhone to get warnings on speed traps.

International travel

International travel brings a few extra hassles, and substantially greater risks when things go wrong.

Cultural sensitivities

Be sure to research cultural sensitivities for areas to which you travel.

It's polite, and you get points for trying.

Language barriers

At a bare minimum, learn: "Please," "Thank you," "Yes," "No," "Excuse me," "Restroom," "One" and "Two."

It's often worthwhile to learn a phonetic alphabet for where you're traveling.

This helps in deciphering street signs or scribbling down a request for help.

There are many smartphone and tablet apps to help with "survival" skills in another language; grab these plus a translation dictionary before you go.

For countries that display meal options in front of a restaurant, take a picture of what you want and show that to the waiter in the absence of a foreign language menu.

Finally, learn to gesture.

Power adapters

Check the acceptable frequency and voltages on all devices you'll be taking, and make sure they won't need a transformer for the country you'll be in.

Most devices will work world-wide with just a plug adapter.

Apple makes a world-wide plug kit that works with both iOS devices and laptop power adapters.

If you forget a plug adapter, the front desk will probably loan you one.

International data plans

Without an international data plan, the GPS feature of a smartphone will be prohibitively expensive.

International data plans aren't cheap, but they are worth it just to get GPS.

Skype

Even with an international calling plan, voice is expensive.

An international data plan is expensive too, but it's often cheaper to route voice calls over a data plan with a Skype subscription than to pay for voice.

Exchanging currency

Your local bank probably offers the best rate for exchanging currency.

Some debit cards, like the Charles Schwab Visa check card, charge no currency exchange fees, and they even cover ATM fees.

Check the policy for each card you own.

Some charge exorbitant currency exchange fees.

Global Entry for expedited entry into the U.S.

U.S. customs and immigration can take a long time to clear.

Global Entry, which brings expedited customs and immigration upon entry to the U.S., also brings TSA Pre domestically upon approval.

With Global Entry, I can clear customs and immigration in less than five minutes, every time.

As a result, I can make much shorter connections when returning to the U.S.

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