12 of the best kept secrets of travel

In an attempt to cut through the noise and offer advice you’ll actually use, here are a few time-tested travel tips...

In an attempt to cut through the noise and offer advice you’ll actually use, below are a few time-tested travel tips:

1. Talk to strangers – and get creative.

Whether you’re talking to a local bartender, a tour guide, or a fellow traveler, there’s no more trite question than, “What’s your favorite [restaurant, city, etc.]?” Come up with at least two go-to questions that are a bit more inventive.

Getting more specific with these queries can lead to the discovery of true hidden gems. Try asking, “Where’s the best place for people-watching in this city?” or “What’s been your most memorable meal in the past six months?” instead of leaning on clichés, and you’ll be rewarded with equally thoughtful responses.

2. A dedicated pouch for cords is a necessity.

One downside of technology: an abundance of accessories. If you’ve ever spent 20 minutes digging through your carry-on for a portable charger, earbuds, or USB cord, you know how frustrating (and elusive) these items can be. A little pouch that’s specifically dedicated to these cords — and kept easily accessible in your carry-on — will save you serious headaches.

Pro tip: Some airlines give out little goodie bags with earplugs, an eye mask, and socks to every passenger. These baggies make perfect travel tech-cessory pouches. (I’ve been using one I picked up from Qatar Airways for the past year; it’s the perfect size.)

3. There’s an optimal number of alcoholic drinks to have while flying.

Downing four glasses of wine to relax sounds like a great idea during a three-hour layover or before a red-eye flight, but think twice before drinking half a bottle of Cab. Being on a plane causes dehydration and naturally messes with your circadian rhythm, and alcohol exacerbates both these things.

Too much booze can disrupt everything from your sleep cycle to your neighbor (who won’t be thrilled when you have to get up from the middle seat to use the lavatory six times). If you want a drink to take the edge off, that’s fine — but stick to one, one-and-a-half max. You’ll thank yourself later for having a little restraint.

4. Carry pens.

Sometime after smartphones became prolific, the practice of carrying pens fell into sharp decline. Nobody wants to be the plane neighbor who has to ask the surrounding three rows to borrow a pen to fill out a customs form (or a particularly tantalizing crossword puzzle in an airline magazine).

This one is an easy fix: You probably have an entire drawer filled with pens somewhere in your house. Grab a couple, toss them into your carry-on, and leave them in there as permanent fixtures.

5. Keychains are amazingly useful.

Especially if you frequently stay in apartment-style rooms or Airbnbs, it’s a good idea to carry a keychain so that you don’t lose the keys to your home away from home.

Here are a few of my favorites: surprisingly stylish Gorilla Tape; a sleek corkscrew wine opener (this one will fly with TSA); a tiny, powerful flashlight; and a simple carabiner. These gadgets take up very little space in luggage and come in shockingly handy in a pinch.

6. You can use a hotel room kettle to steam your clothes.

Wrinkles are the bane of a frequent traveler’s existence, and unfortunately nobody has yet invented a truly effective wrinkle spray. In addition to using a hair straightener or steam from a hot shower as a quick fix for wrinkled clothes, using a portable kettle as a steamer when you’re boiling drinking water or making tea takes resourcefulness to the next level. (If you’ve got extra room in a suitcase, these travel-sized steamers are a more conventional option.)

7. Make it a practice to take in 20 seconds of tech-free silence every day.

In a world in which little white earbuds have practically become appendages to our bodies (and in which we’re constantly glued to Google Maps), technology can be as much of a distraction as it is a valuable travel aid. And while friends or family can certainly add to travel experiences, being engaged in constant conversation with your travel companions means you may miss out on important solo moments that will later come to define your time in a new city or country.

So, watch a sunset in silence without trying (and, let’s be honest, failing) to capture it on a smartphone; look up from Google and actually take in the street you’re walking down. Find a way to remind yourself to take 10 or 20 seconds of each travel day to truly soak in it all in. (Downloading the 1 Second Everyday app is a fun way to develop this habit.)

8. Subscribe to every newsletter possible

Most people don’t like to get a ton of email, but travel hackers know that the best deals get delivered there. Subscribe to airlines that service the routes you fly most. You’ll also want to make sure you’re on the mailing list of every tour operator that interests you. It’s also worth liking all of their Facebook pages as that’s where many brands announce their promotions or contests.

9. Churn credit cards

The quickest way to earn free travel is to churn credit cards. Churning is when you apply for new credit cards, spend the minimum amount to get the signup bonus, and then cancel the card before your yearly fee kicks in. This may sound like a pain to some people, but think about the earning potential. Signing up with an Aeroplan affiliated credit card could get you 25,000 points. That’s enough points for a return trip to anywhere in Canada and the continental U.S. Now if you signed up for three cards for a total of 75,000 points, well now we’re talking about a free flight to Europe or Asia.

10. Use your miles wisely

Too often travellers underutilize their miles. They’ll gladly book a flight and pay the taxes because they’re getting a free flight. The thing is, every frequent flyer program has complicated rules, but if you understand them, you can book some pretty impressive itineraries. I’m talking about a mini round-the-world trip in business class for 150,000 points.

So how do you navigate all these rules? The easiest way is to use a site such as Award Hacker. Enter your route, cabin type, stops, and frequent flyer programs, and the site will tell you the best redemptions so you can make an ideal itinerary while maximizing your points. If that sounds like too much work, there are sites out there where you can pay a small fee and have someone find the routes for you.

11. Book your trip during early bird season

Many airlines and tour operators offer incentives if you book during “early bird season.” Generally speaking, this early bird season happens during the fall and winter (as in now), with the deals applying to the following summer. I’ve seen 10% off tours, included meal plans, and even kids cruising for free when accompanied by a paying adult. I should note that early bird season isn’t anything official, but there may be incentives if you book early.

12. Set up a price alert

Instead of spending hours searching for the lowest airfare, set up a price alert with KAYAK and get the latest prices sent to your inbox. Setting up a price alert is easy. Log in to your account and enter your search criteria. After clicking search, you’ll see a tab near the top of the screen that will allow yo tou track prices. Turn that on, and you’re done.

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