Tuesday, March 6, 2012
Whether you're a frequent traveler or only travel occasionally signing up for hotel, airline and credit card reward programs is a must do. It's surprisingly easy to earn enough points for free or reduced fare flights and free hotel stays. Some programs are partnered with rental car companies as well.
The best way to take advantage of these programs is to book with the same hotels and airlines when you plan a trip. Most hotel loyalty programs cover several different types of properties under the banner of their particular brand. That makes it easier to find the style of hotel you're looking for and still earn points.
Airline loyalty programs have changed over the years. You still earn miles for flying but you can also earn miles from purchases you make with an airline affiliated credit card. If you can use your miles earning credit card for most of your purchases and pay it off each month it's a good way to pump up your miles. Some airlines offer reduced mileage awards (American is one). Restrictions apply but you can get a mileage ticket for less miles at certain times. Definitely worth checking out. Keep an eye on your mileage accounts. Some of the programs now have miles that expire, use em or lose em.
Also worth noting are all of the travel sites available online. I usually check Expedia, Travelocity and Orbitz.
Also, Kayak.com. Kayak is nice because it consolidates fares from many different places and presents them all in one place. It can be a bit to wade through but worthwhile. Finally, check the airlines websites. Some of the low cost carriers (Southwest for example) don't list their fares with travel sites or consolidators. If it sounds like a lot of work, it is. But worth it to make travel more affordable so we can do more of it.
Many hotel chains also have affiliated credit cards. Typically you can earn extra points when using the branded credit card at the affiliated hotel. You can use the points for free stays or to upgrade to a better class of room. Most hotel loyalty programs cover all of the types of properties associated with the hotel brand. For instance Hyatt has at least a half dozen different hotel types under the Hyatt banner. Lots of options to chose from.
Pick an airline, hotel and car rental company and stick with them to maximize your earnings and potential rewards.
Getting Ready to Go
Over the years I've really changed the way I pack. I was never a very heavy packer but compared with today I used to pack like I was preparing for a long ocean voyage. I've really managed to scale things way down.
My go to suitcase used to be a 21" wheeled bag. It seemed small and compact compared to my past luggage and just barely held everything I thought I needed. Well, one struggle too many to get it in an overhead bin (IF you can find space in an overhead bin) and I knew I needed to downsize some more. My next bag was a 17" wheeled suitcase. Smaller and even more compact than the previous bag, I JUST managed to fit the absolute essentials into it. Fast forward to today and I've downsized yet again. My basic bag for a 7 day trip is a 16x9.5x6 over the shoulder travel bag. Fits under the seat on most planes so no fighting for overhead bin space. It has several pockets and easily holds everything I need.
Of course my idea of what I NEED has changed over the years too. For one thing I don't pack three different pairs of shoes anymore. I wear one pair and pack one pair. I roll all of my clothes for easy and compact packing. This pared down list works best for casual trips. However, if you need to dress up or have an event to attend you can still manage a small bag. If an item becomes too wrinkled to wear, most hotels will provide an iron or for a small fee you can have things pressed at the hotel. There really is no reason, short of a grand formal cruise, to ever need to lug a large bag with you on vacation.
You may have gotten the idea that I don't like to check bags. I don't. I stopped checking my bags even prior to the airline's new baggage fees. The reason for not checking a bag is this: checking bags slows you down. For me, waiting at the baggage claim carousel is its own circle of hell. Everyone packed around the conveyor, an army of black wheelie bags slowly circling. No thanks. I prefer to grab my bag and get out of the airport as soon as possible. Another reason not to check a bag is the ever changing flight schedules we deal with today. One delayed plane can cause undesired ripple affects throughout several flight schedules. Much easier to rebook or get on another flight with no worries about lost or delayed luggage.
If you have to check a bag, a few things to remember. NEVER pack valuables in your checked luggage. It's a sad state of affairs but there is more than a passing chance that your valuables won't arrive at your destination. NEVER pack your medications in your checked bags. If the bags don't make it to your destination you could be without the medication you need.
ALWAYS pack your bathing suit in your carry-on when heading to a beach or resort destination. A change of clothes too if you can manage it. That way if your checked bag is lost or delayed you can still enjoy the pool or beach and have something to change into afterwards.
What to bring, What to leave
Unless you are literally traveling to a third world country, and even then, you can leave most of your toiletries at home. Traveling with liquids is a hassle and will slow you down at security. Besides, most hotels provide shampoo, conditioner, lotion and even toothpaste. Large resorts can provide even more and depending on where you've traveled to, you can purchase these items at your destination. So don't struggle with small, leaky bottles of shampoo and conditioner, just use what the hotels provide. (I've stayed in everything from the Red Roof Inn to five-star resorts and all things in-between, they've all provided at least the basic necessities.) Bring any must haves in your carry-on; prescription medications, contact lenses, sun and eye glasses.
A few things to keep in mind
If you have to check a bag put a copy of your travel itinerary inside your bag. That way if you and your bag get separated you have a better chance of getting it back.
If you like to catch up on your reading while on vacation I highly suggest one of the new e-readers. The prices have come way down and there is no longer any need to lug 10 books along on vacation.
Get a cellphone with a good camera in it. Pretty easy to do these days and makes carrying a separate camera, unless you need professional quality photos, unnecessary. A good habit to get into is to upload your photos to a photo site as soon as possible. That way if your phone is lost or stolen you still have your photos.
Unless you have to work leave your laptop at home. With the capabilities of today's smart phones and tablets there really is no reason to take a computer with you on vacation. At most hotels you'll have access to a business center if you have to check email or print out boarding passes or look for info on local attractions.
Some of this is common sense and very obvious. But even the most seasoned traveler can use a reminder from time to time. It's easy to get complacent and overlook the obvious.
This list just scratches the surface. There are a lot of good travel sites online that provide everything from packing lists to how-to videos for helping you get the most out of your travel experiences. I like Budget Travel to name one, both the website and the magazine. You can find lots of tips from fellow travelers and great resources for maximizing your travel dollar. A subscription is very affordable and I find it to be a very valuable resource.
Just get out there and take advantage of all of the programs available to help make travel easier and more affordable. Whether it's a long weekend or a multi-week excursion, travel is its own reward.