The Best Travel Tips Wherever You Go
I've traveled all across the country and to Europe, and over the years I learned several great ideas for making the most of my vacation time and money. Some travel tips and observations apply to any destination you happen to be going to. Rather than duplicate these tips on every trip report, I'll collect them on this page. Here then are travel and vacation tips that apply to almost any place you want to go to.
Top Travel Tips:
#1 - Have an Itinerary - The single best tip I can offer is to set up a thorough, well planned itinerary far in advance of your departure. Three months before we left for Italy, we knew every major tourist attraction we wanted to see and what days we would see each site. We even knew the order of travel attractions each day, and in some cases, the exact time we'd go to an attraction. You think I exaggerate? Take a look at the itinerary application I set up for that trip. The application included hours, fees and addresses for each attraction, location and a map for each attraction (in Rome only) and notes that helped us prioritize the various sites. Particularly in Rome, we organized our sites geographically on a day-by-day basis and this worked out extremely well.
You're probably thinking I'm some anal-retentive type who alphabetizes his sock drawer. Seriously, I'm not - I typically don't wear socks anyway. LOL Planning to this extent isn't compulsive, it's being smart and cost-effective. This trip is costing you anywhere from $2,000 - $10,000 or more. Don't you want to get the most value for your very large investment?
The fact is, if you will take time to plan your itinerary well in advance of your trip, you will:
- Hit all the tourist attractions you intend to see - No running out of time, no forgetting a place until it's too late. No walking 15 blocks to get to a tourist attraction, only to find out it is closed that day.
- Be able to make reservations and buy tickets - Many places require advance purchase of tickets, especially in the tourist season. In virtually all cases, you can buy your tickets in advance and ensure that you get in to all the tourist attractions you want to see. Then, as you walk in to a place with no waiting at your appointed time, you can share a smug smile with the people who didn't plan ahead and can't get in at all because the place is sold out.
- Know that your plans are realistic - Invariably when we first list all the places we wanted to see, we assume we will be able to hit them all. As we started organizing the attractions and budgeting time, we usually realize we have to reduce our list. Some places are too far away and we couldn't fit the commute time as well as the visiting time into the schedule. In other cases, it was just not possible to pack everything in. The good news was that we work through all of this before we got there. We avoided arguing about what places to see or missing out on major attractions because we spent time on comparatively minor ones. Actually, based on the planning we did for our Italy itinerary, we actually decided to expand our vacation by a day and reallocate a day planned for Florence to Rome.
- Know your budget - We know down to the last cent (or last Euro) how much money we need for tickets, trains before we arrive. We can make very reasonable estimates on taxis because we knew how many we need. In many cases we purchase tickets well in advance so we didn't have to mentally set aside those dollars in our account during the trip to make sure they were available when we needed them.
- Save time - I talk about this more below, but taking this approach will save you a ton of time. I bet we didn't spend more than an hour of our trip to Italy standing in line for all attractions - combined. We saw many people stand more than an hour waiting just to get in to the Uffizi Gallery, and probably four hours waiting to get into the Vatican. You can invest several hours standing in line, or you can spend those same hours at the tourist attractions you want to see by following this advice. Think of it this way: If you give up two hours a day waiting in lines for tickets on a seven-day vacation, you spent 14 hours - pretty much the time you're awake for a full day - standing in line rather than enjoying your trip. Think about how much you spend for every hour of time you're on vacation . . . why would you waste that much money, let alone time?
- Reduce walking time and transportation costs - If you group each day's activities by the area of the city, you will spend less time walking from place to place, cut down on the distance you have to walk, and minimize the number of taxi or other transportation trips you have to pay for. Save time and money by covering one area each day.
You might object to this approach as too structured. That's fine - schedule things for only half a day each day, and leave the other half of each day open for "random touristing." You can still save money and time, while maintaining the flexibility to wander or discover. This also gives you fallback times in case weather interferes with visiting one of your scheduled attractions.
As you can see by our Italy itinerary, we left almost no flex time in our schedule. That wasn't because we didn't want flex time; we just had so many places we wanted to see that we filled up every day. On our more recent vacation in Washington DC we used the half-structured / half-flexible approach and liked that quite a bit. We set a pretty aggressive schedule for the trip, and were able to do almost all of it. Each day we scheduled half the day with prearranged attractions at specific times. For the other half of each day we plugged in tourist sites that didn't require reservations that were close to the ones we had reservations for. That gave us all the flexibility we needed to deal with weather issues but still allowed us to lock in the places that tend to sell out.
#2 - Know Where You're Going - Research - I'm amazed at how many people go travel to places, yet know almost nothing about them. I hear so many people talking as I walk through crowds, and so often they're completely ignorant about where they are. I think a lot of your cruise ship tourists fall in this category. They get off a ship and have five hours to "discover Venice," for example. After hearing many of them talk, I get the impression that they've spent no time at all learning about the city.
I just can't understand this mindset. You spend all that money for a trip, and then you don't even know what you're looking at?
These are the souvenir tourists. They go to some place, hit the gift shop to buy souvenirs, and press on. What a waste.
Don't fall into that trap. Spend time researching the trip. Read travel guides for where you're going. For Italy, I liked Rick Steves' books the best but we also read several others. In the United States you can find travel guides by Frommer's, Fodor's, Insight Guides, Insight Guides, ____ for Dummies and several others.
Start recording shows on TV. Look at the channel guides for The Discovery Channel, History Channel, Travel Channel, Military Channel and PBS. We wear our DVR out with shows about travel, history and more for our destinations. Use a broad filter on your show selections. You may be going to Italy, but a travel show on Austria or France might have some good general tips you can use. Shows by Rick Steves, Samantha Brown and Rudy Maxa are all good to watch. Go beyond travel shows as well. For our trip to Gettysburg, I watched countless shows on battles, famous soldiers, ghost experiences, etc. You won't find a travel video on Gettysburg. But you'll find a ton of DVDs on the history of the battle, ghost hunters' experiences and more.
Use your library to find books and videos about your destination. Save money and have access to a much larger collection of materials than what you'd want to buy for yourself.
After you've exhausted those resources, then you can break down and buy DVDs from amazon.com, Ebay or other websites.
We were surprised to discover that there are very few good travel DVDs for domestic destinations. For example, we found several DVDs about Washington DC through our library, but they appeared to be made 40 years ago and were very poor quality. Samantha Brown has started a series on weekend travel in the U.S., but the things she chooses to feature are . . . well, they aren't what I'd want to visit in those cities. You may have better luck searching for shows or DVDs on specific things at your destination (like Independence Hall for Philadelphia).
Look for Iphone apps. For example there are several good Gettysburg apps that help you navigate the battlefield and find things. Look for apps to help you at your destinations.
Finally, check out the countless websites on your destination. The formal websites for the various museums or attractions are good, but I really enjoy finding websites set up by people who just love a particular place or activity. Also look for photos of your destination at places like Flickr.com, YouTube, and all the other social networking places. And family websites too! Look for discussion forums where you can post questions and see what other tourists have to say.
#3 - Travel Essentials - The following things should be packed for every trip:
- Large ziplock baggies - These were very convenient to have. We stored our receipts in one bag, pens and small souvenirs in another, medications in another. Time after time we found them very helpful.
- Pen and paper - I get so MAD at myself when I forget to stick a pen and paper into my camera bag. Invariably, I need to write down a phone number, address, etc.
- Corn Starch - Didn't your mother tell you about corn starch? It is the miracle cure for heat rash, even better than baby powder. Just rub it on the insides of your legs, your arms, under your arms, anywhere skin rubs against skin as you're walking around, and you will avoid or minimize heat rash. It's so cheap that you can buy a box, take it with you and just throw away whatever you don't use when you come home. While traveling around you can (and should) keep the box in one of those large ziplock baggies. I would not suggest dumping a portion of the box into a container for easier carrying. Why? A small container full of nondescript white powder might look very suspicious to a customs agent or security agent . . . just leave it in the box.
- Comfortable shoes - I don't know how many women I saw in Italy who were wearing fashionable sandals or high heels . . . and band aids on their feet. I shot a picture of one of these geniuses at the Vatican (pictured right). This actually became a running joke for us, looking for people like this. Those kinds of shoes are bad everywhere, but especially in Rome where they have the stone paths around the forum area that are difficult to walk in any shoes. We wore Rockports and New Balance shoes; I have no doubt whatsoever that if we hadn't had these shoes we would have been unable to do everything we did. Buy good shoes; they'll pay for themselves by allowing you to do more and get more value from your trip.
- Band aids and Meds - Even with good shoes, we developed blisters on our feet in Washington DC from all the walking. Band aids saved the day - once we covered the blisters we were right back into the touristing. Along those lines, take aspirin and Ben Gay. If you don't need these at the end of each day, you're dogging it!
- Water bottles - You can keep buying bottle water for $3 a bottle, or you can take your own bottle and refill it as needed. I prefer to save the money and take a bottle with me. If we have a fridge in our apartment, house or hotel room, we freeze a bottle of water overnight and take it with us every day. We have cold water for most of the day by doing so.
#4 - Learn a Little of the Language and Customs - This just makes your trip more fun. When we went to Italy, I learned a little of the local language. Same thing when I visited New York City. LOL Seriously, I was so proud when I conducted a transaction at a lace store in Burano entirely in Italian.
It also helps to learn a little about how they speak English. I went into a trattoria in Rome and ordered something "to go" and they had no clue what I meant. If I'd asked to order something "to take away" they would have understood me perfectly. The travel guides and discussion forums are great sources for this type of information.
Likewise, learning the customs is also very important. Most Italians will recognize that you're a tourist, but they still have their ways of doing things and can take offense if you violate their protocols.
#5 - Consider Apartments or Rental Houses to Save Money - This has proven to be a fantastic enhancement for our trips.
Rather than just book a hotel room at your destination, consider renting an apartment or a house instead. In 2006 we traveled to Orlando Florida. I figured that we would simply get a hotel room but we started looking at rental houses. We discovered that in nearby communities we could rent a house for less than the cost of a hotel room. The house had a pool, air conditioning, a full kitchen - everything we'd want. We decided to give it a try and rented the house. We then invited other family members to go along with us since the house had plenty of space.
The house was great. We loved having our own pool. The house had four bedrooms, so sleeping space was no problem, even for seven people. With the full kitchen we were able to fix some meals (notably breakfasts) at the house and avoid expensive restaurants. The house ended up being better than a hotel, and it saved us a lot of money.
Based on that experience we looked at apartments in Italy rather than hotel rooms. Sure enough we found apartments in all three cities. Again, these places had kitchens, air conditioning, separate bedrooms for my brother and for us, as well as more space than we'd get with a hotel room. They all had washing machines - you won't find that in an Italian hotel. The apartments in Venice and Florence had fantastic locations, and Rome's apartment had a very good location. That meant that it wasn't a problem that we didn't have a rental car. We ate several meals at the apartments and bought sodas from grocery stores rather than eating at restaurants and buying drinks on the streets. Costwise, it was comparable to getting a hotel room - and cheaper than getting separate hotel rooms for my brother and for us.
For our trip to Antietam and Gettysburg, we branched out still further. While visiting Antietam we stayed in a log cabin on South Mountain. My understanding is that this is essentially a B&B. In Gettysburg we stayed two nights at the Cashtown Inn (a B&B famous for being haunted) and one night in a hotel.
Sometimes hotels turn out to be the best option. We went with a hotel in Washington DC because we didn't have a rental car and we wanted to be close to a Metro station. Same with Las Vegas - no rental car and we wanted to be on the strip. And New York City? Fugetaboutit.
As you plan your trip, check out these alternate lodging options. You'll find links to reputable apartment websites (VRBO.com and RomanReference.com) in the various Italy trip reports. I believe you can find domestic rental properties at VRBO.com as well. Check out the discussion forums at various travel websites for feedback on rental properties and websites.
#6 - Spend a Little More on the Hotel and Maybe Save Money Anyway - As you price out hotels, see what the cost difference is between a standard room and an upgraded room. If you can get a room with a microwave and refrigerator, you might be able to more than offset the additional room cost by having some meals in the room. When you have two hungry teens with you, meals can cost $50 - $80 each very easily. You can save a lot by having sandwiches or leftovers from an earlier dinner, and that fridge and microwave makes it much easier for you to do this.
As you choose your lodging, at least get the price differences in the various rooms and consider whether the increased price might be worth it.
#7 - Plan a Trip Within a Trip - We didn't really start doing this on purpose, but over time it has become a standard part of our vacations.
When we start planning a trip to a specific destination, we will look for another destination close by to visit as a day trip or overnight. In Venice, we did a day trip to the Dolomites Mountains. In Las Vegas, it was a drive to the Grand Canyon. For Washington DC, we drove to Gettysburg and stayed overnight there. On our trip to Orlando, I made a pilgrimage to Jacksonville with an old Air Force friend to see the Jaguars whoop up on the New York Jets. We ended our trip to New York City with a couple days at a bed and breakfast in the middle of nowhere in Texas (after flying home).
In every case, the "trip within a trip" has turned out to be one of the most memorable activities of our vacation. This is partly because our day trips tend to be a big contrast to the rest of the vacation, so they stand out. After a hectic time in Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon was a welcomed respite. Same with Venice; going from the crowded walkways and canals of Venice to the open countryside and mountains of the Dolomites was a wonderful change of pace. And Gettysburg . . . we loved our trip there so much that as soon as we got home from DC, we started planning a trip back to Gettysburg to take place only one month later.
We travel hard. We don't go some place to sit and do nothing; we keep busy all the time. That can get very tiring over the course of one or two weeks. A day trip out of the hectic itinerary breaks up the routine, gives you a whole different experience and (depending on what you do) gives you a chance to rest.
#8 - Pack a Suitcase in a Suitcase - I love writing this tip because I know it really irritates you racehorse travelers who pride yourselves on packing only one bag. LOL
Here's the thing. I have lots of relatives and for some reason, we always seemed to get roped into buying souvenirs for every one of them!
All right, I'm kidding (a little). We do bring back a lot of things for friends and family, and for ourselves as well. Invariably, the suitcase that held our belongings so comfortably on the flight TO our destination seems to fall short for our flight back home. Especially since we tend to take a lot of clothes with us rather than plan to wash clothes on the trip in most cases. (See the About Us page for an explanation as to why we do that.)
At first, we considered taking two suitcases that were half-full each, knowing our penchant for shopping. Unfortunately, the airlines are adding all these service charges for checked bags now, and we hate paying those fees for half-full luggage on the way to our destination. We have, on occasion, mailed some things home to avoid carrying them - and narrowly averted disaster with a very expensive Venice mask.
We compromise. If we think we're going to be getting a lot of souvenirs or items on the trip, we pack all our things in a regular size suitcase, then put that into a slightly larger suitcase. We then check the bag within a bag as a single checked item on our outgoing flight. If we buy a bunch of stuff on our vacation, we can separate the bags and fill them both up - at least we avoided the second checked bag charge on our first flight. If we don't get a bunch of stuff, we just double-bag the suitcases again for the flight back home.
For one vacation, we got a bunch of stuff unexpectedly and didn't have the second suitcase. That time we found a Goodwill Store and bought a cheapo suitcase for a couple bucks. We used that for the trip home, then gave the old case to one of the kids. This is an alternative for those who just can't stand the thought of double-bagging the cases. It does take time out of your vacation, though, to track down a store and find the case.
I know, this tip is enough to send Rick Steves into an apoplexy. If you know you're going to bring a bunch of stuff back from your vacation, put a bag in a bag and be ready. Then go shopping and have fun!
#9 - Sold Out? Don't Believe It - As you are checking around for hotels in the area where you're vacationing, take their "room availability" information with a grain of salt. When planning our trip to Gettysburg and Antietam, we found several hotels that appeared to be sold out online, but when we called, they had several rooms available. The same thing happened when I booked our rooms in Utah. A hotel showed as fully booked. I called and talked to the lady, and she was able to shift around some things and dump some abandoned reservations so we had rooms. If the website says there is no room at the inn, don't believe it. Call and confirm it before you write that hotel off.
#10 - Subscribe to Email Newsletters - When you're planning a trip, you should get on all the email newsletter lists you can. Hotels, restaurants, local media, specific tourist destinations, etc. Create a separate Groupon account that places you in your destination city rather than your home city. Look for city and state departments of tourism - they LOVE to send you things and they can be a gold mine of informaion.
You will get discount offers on lots of things - hotel rooms, tours, entrance tickets, food, etc. etc. You may get updates on what is happening at your destination. The newsletters may include articles that give you new ideas on what to do at your destination.
I know what you're thinking and I agree. I hate spam. You hate spam. And we all know that getting on email lists for companies' newsletters generates lots of spam. So let's be smart about it.
Set up a second email account at Yahoo Mail or Gmail for your trip planning. It's free and it takes 5 minutes. Then subscribe to all the email lists and newsletters there. That way you get the newsletters and your primary email account doesn't take the hit for all the spam this will generate. You can then abandon that email after your trip or use it for planning the next vacation. Having this second account will allow you to have a separate Groupon account as well.
Be smart about your new email account, ok? Don't use your name or location in the email address. Don't use the same password you use for other accounts. Practice safe surfing and treat this as a temporary account that gives NO information about you.
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