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These days I'm traveling, on average, about 2-3 times per month. Basically, I'm living out of a suitcase (I don't even put it in the closet any longer between trips). A while back I shared some travel tips, but since then, I've learnt a great deal more that I thought I'd share with you.
Do you have a hierarchy of booking preferences? I do. When I didn't travel quite as much, I would just look for the cheapest flight. Now that I travel frequently and I've been through various levels of hell with airlines, airports and booking services, I've created a hierarchy that allows me to book smarter. Even if you don't travel frequently, you may find it advantageous.
My hierarchy looks like this:
1. A trusted airline/hotel/car rental/etc.
One that hasn’t tried to screw me or a friend in the past. Everyone makes mistakes. I get that. But how they handle themselves when they make those mistakes is what I consider the test. For instance: I have used a third party site in the past (it may have been priceline? I can’t recall) and when I went to check into a return flight, it was canceled and they hadn’t notified or rebooked us. So, I called them and they said, “Sorry, can’t help you.” I was furious. They couldn’t help? So, we called Air Canada directly, who not only rebooked us (for free), but paid for our hotel one more night, and gave us a refund of $300 on each ticket.
Factors include: service, flexibility, friendliness and good website UI. I love the airlines that will SMS me with delays (Southwest). I don’t mind paying for my own meals or movies. I like being able to upgrade myself to an exit row for an extra couple of dollars. That sort of thing.
Currently on my ‘fly’ list are: Southwest, Jet Blue, Virgin, Air New Zealand, Air Canada, Frontier, Alaska, and all of the european airlines. On my ‘no fly’ is: American, United, Delta, and US Airways (and pretty much every major US airline). See the awesome article in today's New York Times that explains why service has gone so awry with these airlines. Basically, they don't give a damn about us cattle class passengers...as most of their revenue comes from the business and first class passengers. My favorite part? An email from Spirit Air's CEO to his staff:
“Please respond, Pasquale, but we owe him nothing as far as I’m concerned. Let him tell the world how bad we are. He’s never flown us before anyway and will be back when we save him a penny.”
2. For flight: fewer connections
I will also pay a premium to get fewer connections. Luggage gets lost too many times on connecting flights. I’ve had it lost too many times now and I get paranoid. Plus, I’ve also had extremely tight connections that were missed OR really long layovers that were time suckers.
3. The right time of day/night.
I don’t like getting up really early if I don’t have to. I also am okay with redeyes as long as I don’t have something early the next morning. So, I will often pay a higher price to get a better time of day.
I’m not rich, so I still have to watch my wallet. I also travel alot, so budgeting is still an issue. I wish it wasn’t. I’d like to take this off of my list (wouldn’t everyone?)
Searching for Flights & Hotels
I relayed some trouble I had with Expedia.com a couple of weeks back. To be fair, this wasn't the first time I've experienced difficulties with third-party booking sites. Out of the 6 times I have used one of these sites, 4 times I have had trouble. Once, my flight was cancelled and nobody informed me (I found out when I went to check in online). Twice, my hotel booking wasn't found when I got to the hotel. And the other time, the car rental agency I THOUGHT I was booking through the site wasn't the car rental agency the site booked me with (I wasn't impressed as I didn't particularly like the agency they booked me with). So, it isn't only Expedia.
Sometimes the deals are better through the third party sites, but not always. In fact, in an extensive search (if I use Kayak.com and check off the boxes for the search to go to all of the sites), I quite often find that the hotels or airlines, themselves, offer the lowest price.
It's also advisable to click through to the airline or hotel's actual search results page because more than once, I've found even better deals (and options) right on their websites.
As well, because of my complicated tastes and frequent travel, a friend advised me that I get an assistant or a concierge service...it may actually save me money. I'm currently looking into this and will get back to you. As well, don't forget that you can always use Couch Surfing if you are on a tight budget. We've used it successfully in the past.
What is one to do when they aren't particularly loyal to a single brand? Well, some point systems reign better than others. I heart Air Canada's Aeroplan very much. You see, it doesn't matter that I don't fly them every single time, because I can use their points for other great stuff. I get Bloomingdale's gift certificates from them all of the time. I have also found that points are awfully hard to cash in (maybe it is me?). It takes finding a flight on the exact right date for the exact right amount to actually use them.
This being said, I can see why having points is a good thing if you want to be upgraded to that coveted first class (where you will be treated like gold), loyalty to a single airline that will get you points is good. I just haven't found an airline that goes to all of the places I need to go that I can stand for longer than one hellish flight to get to that point. It will take me a little longer, but I'm close to high status on Southwest, Virgin and Jet Blue. And I've told you what I do with the Aeroplan points (which I get more out of, imo, anyways...my favorite pair of designer jeans were purchased with 3 gift certificates at Bloomingdales...I would have never paid $200 for a pair of jeans. ;)).
ITINERARY MANAGEMENT & FINDING COOL STUFF LOCALLY
This is the most important section, methinks. For someone who travels as much as I do and on as many different airlines, etc., I need strong itinerary management. That is why I heart TripIt in a serious way. (I should also note that we've advised TripIt)
It allows me to email the itinerary items I get from each hotel, airline, booking site, etc. and it automagically fills it in for me in a nicely printable itinerary (although, the printed portion could use a little compacting). It also has an SMS interface, so if I want to save trees or lose my itinerary, I can just SMS it with something like "get flight today" and it will send me my details straight to my phone. They also have a cute little wallet card with these commands, so I don't have to memorize anything. The only thing they need is the SMS the other way so I can send something like "save dinner at Chez Pierre tonight" or the like.
So, then now that I am no longer trying to check into the wrong airline, what helps me when I get there? Well, I also use another service I heart to pieces, Dopplr (I have lots of invites to both of these). Dopplr is unique and simple. It, basically, allows me to input where I'll be and when and then comes back and tells me which of my friends (on Dopplr or Twitter) live there or will be traveling there at that time, too. This is an awesome accelerating serendipity tool. Nobody to have dinner with? Check Dopplr and drop someone (or a group) a line. I've had multiple spontaneous dinners this way. Wondering what is good to see? Eat? Do? Drop a note to a local on your list. Locals always know best.
Between the two of these services (which really should work together, btw), I have way better travel experiences these days. Other great sites: Yelp.com (mostly for US cities, but great restaurants found there) and Yahoo!Travel (for more remote vacation ideas and decent tips from other travelers).
PACKING & LUGGAGE
If you are going to travel a bunch, I would recommend investing in good luggage. I did tons of research on this and recently invested in luggage that I'm really happy with.
What to look for in luggage:
- Weight - this is very very very very very (did I say very?) important. Not because you will need to lug this beast around, but because in many countries internationally, there is a seriously low weight limit. Like 20 kgs. After that point, they charge mega $$ for overweight. When you buy inexpensive luggage, you are usually saving money because of the materials it is made with. It may be sturdy, but it weighs 10kg. That is half of the weight allowance and doesn't give you any budge room for extra knick-knacks for the family. My 30" suitcase is 4.8kg.
- Color - a funky color makes it much easier for you to find your luggage on the turnstile (the number of people with black suitcases, flipping over every single case that comes by and checking the tag is staggering at airports), but baggage handlers have no respect for a pretty baby blue case. In about 3 trips, your baby blue case will look like a smeary gray case. Darker colors work the best. I got mine in a medium blue and they stand out enough for me to spot it from far away, but are dark enough not to show wear after 10 flights with them.
- Wheels - Four wheels are funky and provide you with different ways to wheel your luggage, but on most of the four-wheel suitcases, these wheels are flimsier and stand out further (plus, they add weight). That being said, four wheels are good through transit turnstiles and other tight spaces.
- Features - I didn't buy the suitcases with these because of their weight (Samsonite Black Label drooooool - but heavy!), but some suitcases come with amazing features like magazine pockets, toiletry kits, laundry bags, shoe bags and integrated suiter systems. These are super handy, but you can, of course, add your own. It is kind of nice when they match, though. ;)
- Hardside or Softside? - this is kind of a preference, but softside will always 'give' more (stuff the heck out of them), while hardside stands up to the test of time (the right hardside that is) and looks better, longer. Both hardside and softside come with expandable zips, which are preferable.
- Handle - we bought some luggage a while back with a funky 'ball' grip. Not a great idea. It was heavy and rubbed our palms painfully when lugging long distances. The 'T' handle is the best if you can find it, but the 'U' handle built in a really light (aluminum or titanium) is very comfortable as well.
If you want to find a really stylish suitcase, good brands to look at are: Mandarina Duck (the suitcases I bought), Samsonite Black Label, Rimowa (they have a way cool bendable rubber type hardside and a very durable aluminum) and Victorinox. Both Tumi and Heys are extremely heavy for some reason. Stylish but heavy.
I also love to shop at Flight 001 for amazing travel goodies, but it's only in SF, LA, Chicago & NYC for the moment.
Here is where the gaps exist. Every new country I visit has new rules in their airports. Here are some rules I've learnt thusfar that are different:
LONDON - only one carry on. Not one carry on + personal item. One carry on. Period. AUCKLAND - 20kg max for checked in luggage and 7kg max for carry on luggage. They will make you check (and pay for) anything over the 7kg. AMSTERDAM - you go through the security at your gate. Very efficient, methinks. MEXICO CITY - the immigration is a friggin' nightmare here, so leave LOTS of time between flights if you have them. As well, if you are running out of time, don't be afraid to go to the special delegates desk. CHICAGO (O'Hare) - leave loads of time for connecting flights here as this is a HUGE airport and often flights are delayed because of winds. CANADA (any city) - you go through US immigration BEFORE you leave from Canada, so be at the airport extra early for Canadian flights leaving to the US. I will talk a little more about VISAs in the next section.
There are tons more, and I will add yours if you leave them in the comments below. I would, personally, LOVE to see TripIt or some other travel service automagically give me the particularities of each airport I'm flying in and out of BEFORE I get there.
This is my personal hell. I'm on a TN1 Visa - this is the NAFTA Visa that makes it simpler for certain workers from Canada, Mexico and the US to work in the respective countries. Only, it is easy in some ways and really frustrating in others.
There is a whole blog post on VISAs and the icky experience of being a non-US Citizen (hello? what happened to the American dream, dude?) at some point in the future, but for now, I will list the best airports to travel through for those of you with VISAs.
Calgary - if you want to obtain a TN1 from a Canadian city, travel through Calgary. There isn't as much of a demand (shorter lines) and they are super friendly. Try to avoid Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal at all costs. Unfortunately, I had an 'incident' at SFO this last trip in and they removed the piece of paper that proves my TN1 status and my next trip is through Montreal. I'm totally not looking forward to this.
IN THE USA
New York - the immigrations officials in NYC know their stuff. They are super well trained and understand the ins and outs of all of the VISAs. They put their top-notch officials in there. Now, SFO, where I come through too frequently is a mess. I never see the same people and I get a different story every time. It's so bad, I'm having my lawyer put together a fact sheet for next time (I will post it here when it is complete). The TN1 has been around for 20+ years. Sigh. Oh...and I've heard LAX and Houston is pretty good as well.
So, there you go. More travel tips to come most likely in the future, but that's it for now...
Based on some horrific experiences with them recently, I actually have a list:
- Their prices are actually HIGHER in many cases for a hotel room you can book directly. 9 times out of 10, if I've done a search on Expedia and found that they charge at least a couple of dollars more to book through them (all things in).
- We showed up at a hotel the other night that had no record of our reservation. We understand that mistakes happen. This hotel receives their reservations via fax machine (yep, old skool), so perhaps there was a paper jam that day? Either way, I just wanted options as the hotel was fully booked. I got on the phone with Expedia, who refused to take any responsibility for the mishap. "But ma'am," I said, "I booked at Expedia.com, giving you my credit card and trusting this to be taken care of, yet you say you can't rectify it now? You can't put us in a similar hotel?" Nope. In fact, she indicated that it would take a couple of weeks to refund the money I paid for this hotel room and I would have to pay for whichever replacement hotel room I could find."
- So, being quite upset, I asked to speak to a manager. After being on hold for well over an hour (it was after midnight at this point), I got fed up and found a hotel that cost me 3x the rate of the other hotel. Not only did a manager never manifest, but they don't have a 'system' for calling me back the next day. Apparently, managers at Expedia don't call customers. :|
- Understandably, I was quite put off by this experience, so I went into my itineraries to 'unbook' a hotel and car reservation set in the future. Turns out that they have no tolerance for such things and charged me $34.99 to cancel a booking over 2 weeks into the future. $34.99?!
- I logged back into my account this evening to see that the booking for the hotel that never was is still there, so nothing has been done to begin my refund (obviously, this is why it takes several weeks, right?), so I am now on hold (again), this time for 65 minutes already. I was warned, though, that they are experiencing quite high call volume. No shit. I would assume that if this sort of thing happens often. Oh, wait...it does. (There is an entire site dedicated to awful Expedia stories)
So, the experience continues. I'm weary and now broke and it makes me very angry to think that this company cares so little about its customers but is still in business. How does this happen? And how can we change one or the other variable?
Well, personally, I usually make it a rule to book directly. For some reason, I clicked on the 'expedia' option in kayak.com the last couple of times (or was it pre-clicked? I can't recall). I thought, "What they hey" and booked. I may have been a little lazy that day. But in general, I've found that booking directly with an airline, hotel and/or car rental gets me a better deal than going through a third party site and having experienced multiple issues with third party sites (although they have never extorted money for a cancellation in due time before and have refunded my money promptly for their errors) has kept me from being lazy.
I remember when my mother went to a travel agent to get everything booked. These individuals made very little money, like $15/booking (the agency got kickbacks, though) and provided top notch service. Sites like Expedia came along and pretty much put them all out of business. Now, certainly, in the beginning, it made us our own travel agents and provided awesome deals, but somehow, somewhere along the line, these virtual agents forgot that they are not in the business of booking travel, but they are in the business of easing our minds. That was my mom's travel agent: mind easer.
Well, I've finally learnt my lesson. No more third party sites for me, no matter what 'package deals' they offer. Thankfully, I have Tripit to pull it all together for me (and they are not in the itinerary business, but the business of easing my mind as well), which makes booking on multiple sites a breeze.