It wasn’t that long ago that many travel photos were taken, developed and then dumped into boxes, rarely to be seen again — unless a basement flood forced someone to throw them all away. These days, things aren’t so different except that now the photos get dumped onto external hard drives, perhaps to await a hard drive crash instead of the proverbial basement flood.
But in most collections of vacation and travel photos, a precious few of the very best shots are often spared this fate — those photos that are somehow more enduring or more interesting, or (I think most importantly) that best capture the spirit and sensation of the trip. What is it that keeps these photos from the dustbin of our traveling history? Often they are simply better photographs. That is, the “keeper” photo isn’t of a favorite person, place or activity — it is better composed, better lit and thus simply more visually interesting than the run-of-the-mill vacation snapshot.
There are plenty of resources out there for folks with thousands of dollars of photographic equipment, but what about the rest of us — those of us with a point-and-shoot digital camera or even simply a smartphone? What can we do to get better, more lasting images from our travels? Following is a collection of low- and no-tech tips to help you improve your keeper count on your next trip.
Think “people, places, things.”
This old definition of the use of a noun is a handy guide to a great vacation photo: the best travel photos will often be about all three of these. To illustrate, let’s say you want to take a photo of the Tower of London on a rainy day. If you pull up your photo and snap the Tower in the gray light, you could get a decent photo. But if you put your kids in the photo (your favorite people) with the Tower glimpsed over their shoulders (the place of interest), visible just under the rim of an umbrella (a very specific thing that evokes the conditions), you have a great shot.
africa boyAs Robert Capa famously said, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” Taken literally, the closer you get to your subject, the more detail and interest you can capture.
There are a couple of ways to do this, both equally valid and effective. One is to use the telephoto features found on most cameras to zoom in on your subject. Before anyone cries cop-out, this can be a very effective photographic technique, and has resulted in countless compelling images in this age of big lenses.
The other is simply to walk closer to your subject. Not everyone is comfortable doing this, but the person viewing the photo will appreciate it; despite how close a zoom lens makes things appear, when viewing a photo the human eye can still sense the distance, and appreciates when an image has truly been taken up close.
Be in the thick of it.
A less literal read of Capa’s statement, and probably the one closer to his intent, suggests that Capa likes photos in which the photographer him- or herself seems to be part of what is going on, and not standing apart from the action. Capa’s solution to get more intimate, engaged photos is simply to be more intimately involved in the photo yourself.
Think about the light, not the view.
The human eye is vastly more adaptable and clever than the lens of your camera, and what you see when you are standing in front of your intended subject may not be what your camera ultimately reproduces. When staring directly into the sun, you may be able to make out colors and people, but your camera is going to reproduce mostly shadows. Or when shooting into shadows, you may be able to see features, but your camera will reproduce a lot of dark stuff. In these cases, it helps to …
Know where the sun is.
The easiest way to flatter your subject is to put it in the best light. If you want your subjects’ faces to shine, turn them so the sun is shining on their faces. If you want your photo of your cruise ship to look like the brochures, take the photo on the sunny side of the ship. Alternately, if you want to catch the glistening of light on the ocean, take the photo when the sun is low enough to bounce off the waves.
Consider the time of day.
This is a fairly simple story — there’s no time like sunrise or sunset to take compelling, interesting and even stunning travel photos. Sunrise in particular can produce very striking images, in part because most people are not awake at the crack of dawn, and so can still be surprised by a sunrise photo.
Turn the camera on its side.
In some situations, turning the camera on its side to take a vertical shot is just not good composition, it is almost essential — when taking a photo of Auckland’s Sky Tower, for example. But taking vertical shots also has an added benefit: it will enhance the interest of your overall photo collection considerably, adding geometrical variety as folks flip through your vacation slideshow.
Fill the frame.
When giving instructions to new photographer hires, I always tell them that the interesting parts of the scene should start at the left edge of the viewfinder and end at the right edge. That is, the subject should absolutely fill the frame such that the edges of the photo will include as little superfluous imagery and information as possible.
I find this tactic offers a couple of distinct advantages. First, the intended subject of your photo is absolutely clear to anyone who sees the photo. And second, the photo becomes a thing apart from how we usually see the world, which is more or less in 180-degree panorama thanks to our peripheral vision. A photograph can isolate and amplify our experience, which turns out to be one of the attractions of travel itself, as well.
Divide the scene into threes.
india woman doorway blue turquoiseIf you put something right in the middle of the frame, the photo is about that thing. Another great tactic for creating visual interest in a somewhat routine shot is to frame the shot such that your subject is not in the dead middle of the photo, but is placed off-center in the frame. An easy way to think about this is mentally to divide the frame into three sections (left, center and right), and put the main subject of the photo either entirely within the left or right section, or perhaps right on the line dividing two sections.
How to choose on which side to put the subject? This is easy — put it on the side that has the least background interest in the overall frame. This way, the viewer can be tricked into thinking you took a photo of both the subject and the background activities, with equal emphasis on both.
When combined with the tactic of taking a vertical shot, this can be very powerful — a vertical shot with the subject 1/3 of the way from either edge is one of the easiest ways to compose a compelling photo with minimal effort.
You can also divide the photo vertically into threes as well so that you have a grid of nine squares total to work with. This tactic has a name, long called the Rule of Thirds.
When taking a photo of a person, emphasize the person.
When taking photos of traveling companions, it is easy to prop them up in front of something interesting and then take the picture. If you go to some effort to get the attraction behind them, but cut off the top of someone’s head, or include a sloppy untucked shirt, or cut the photo off at someone’s socks, you have a good photo of the sight and a terrible photo of your friends. In this case, frame them first and then worry about the background.
I find that very often a decent photo could have been a great photo if I had just moved a little bit, whether to reframe the photo slightly, or to put something interesting into the background. This can involve moving a few steps forward or back, shifting to one side or the other, or crouching down. As a photographer, you have much more control over what you are doing and where you are standing than you do over the subject matter; if you just stand lead-footed in one spot, your photos will reflect this.
Zoom in and out until you like what you see.
If your camera has a zoom feature, and most do these days, you can help yourself to “move” by zooming in and out on your subject. I find that when you do this, at the point the scene becomes most interesting, your eye will notice it — that is, you’ll just like it more intuitively. That’s when you take the shot.
Pay the most attention to the edges and corners.
A great photo is as often defined by what is left in as by what is left out. You have considerable control here, and while it is normal human behavior to look directly and in a concentrated way at the things that interest us most, the camera behaves otherwise.
Very often you can take a photo that seems like it might turn out extremely well, but when you see the print of a photo, your friend is a speck in the middle of a nondescript background. Take all that stuff out, and you have a great photo.
In the same way, if you zoom in very closely on someone’s face, and cut out the monkey standing on her head, you missed the shot.
When zooming in and out, or moving around while looking through the viewfinder or at the screen to frame your photo, the first thing to scan is the sides and corners of the visible area. Is there anything of interest there? If not, consider moving again, changing the zoom, or tilting the camera up, down or to one side. When everything seems to fall into place, fire away.
At familiar sites, emphasize something other than the subject.
eiffel towerIf you are photographing the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben, Mount Rushmore or any other frequently photographed site, you would often do better to buy a nice calendar than take yet another point-and-shoot photo that will just take up space on your hard drive until it crashes.
But if you make it a photo about something else — your companion’s goofy hat with the Eiffel Tower in the background, or a bobby in front of the Houses of Parliament, or a motorcycle gang parked in front of Mount Rushmore — then you have a great photo.
When I take photos of people, almost invariably they try to set up the shot themselves, arranging themselves and companions in a way that they think might make a good picture. And as often as not, they arrange themselves such that I would be shooting straight into the sun, or with half of the group in shadows, or with one person almost completely obscured by another person. None of these will make for good photos. You’re the one with the camera — you set up the shot.
Look, then think, before you shoot.
Before taking a photo, if you just take a quick look at your surroundings, and give yourself a second to think about anything interesting that might be happening, you will get a much higher percentage of interesting photos than if you simply pull your camera to your eye and snap without planning what you want to capture.
Try to take photos where you didn’t “have to be there.”
If you want to take a great photo and not merely a snapshot of your traveling companions in a certain location, think about how a complete stranger would react to seeing your picture. Photos that are thereby intrinsically interesting will enhance and retain their interest to you as well.
Use your sense of humor.
Do not underestimate the value of capturing or expressing a little humor when taking travel photos. Travel is usually as much about how we felt and thought while traveling, not just where we went, and photos that capture some humor often bring back the strongest memories and sensations as time goes by.
Use a good printing company (or printer if you print your own).
Ansel Adams compared photography to a piece of music, stating that “The negative is comparable to the composer’s score and the print to its performance.” Clearly most folks no longer deal with film negatives, but if we let the digital file replace the negative, Adams’s truism still stands up. If you take a great photo but the print is washed out, grainy or otherwise sub-par, it doesn’t matter if the composition is great — the performance was not.
Knowing what to wear — and, more importantly, what not to wear — on a plane is crucial. Just ask Lady Gaga. In 2010, the pop star donned Alexander McQueen “armadillo shoes” and a wild outfit of black and yellow tape on a transatlantic flight. During the voyage, Gaga began to experience symptoms of deep vein thrombosis, a life-threatening condition commonly caused by a combo of in-flight risk factors like low cabin pressure, dehydration, immobility during a long trip and cramped seats (so says the American Council on Exercise); attempt to endure this environment in a confining getup of tape and 12-inch stilettos, and you’ve got trouble.
heels skinny jeans suitcase
Deep vein thrombosis occurs when blood clots form in veins, elevating the potential for a pulmonary embolism. Symptoms include swollen or red limbs, but individuals suffering from deep vein thrombosis often exhibit no symptoms. Luckily for Gaga, the star knew something was wrong. When she complained that her legs were swelling up during the flight, the cabin crew convinced her to change into something a little more comfortable (and a little less likely to incite an artery blockage).
Chances are you don’t own a yellow and black tape outfit or 12-inch-high heels. But if similar things are lurking in your closet (you fashionable devil), I hope you’ve chosen to reserve such apparel for appropriate occasions, like directing traffic during a Mardi Gras parade — and certainly not air travel. Just as Gaga and other demigods of impractical couture should keep their costumes off the tarmac, those of us who fall into the jeans-and-sneakers category of fashion ought to also think carefully about what we wear on a plane.
Don’t: Tight clothing. Do: Natural, breathable fabrics.
We learned our lesson from Lady Gaga. Tight clothes can restrict blood flow in the already-confining space of an airplane seat. Is the reward of showing off your fantastically toned thighs worth the risk of deep vein thrombosis? Ditch the skinny jeans and don loose-fitting natural fiber garments (clothes made from cotton or linen are a great choice) to give your skin some breathing room.
Five Foods to Avoid Before Flying
Don’t: High heels. Do: Comfortable shoes.
Heels are restrictive, and they’ve been said to cause a long list of maladies, from chronic foot pain to hammer toe. Plus, unless you’re one of Charlie’s Angels, they don’t exactly facilitate a clean exit in case of emergency. Hiking boots are a good bet, as wearing the bulky shoes as opposed to packing them frees up some suitcase space — and you’ll be comfortable walking miles through endless airport terminals. Also consider slip-on shoes, which are wonderful for easing your way through security.
Create a Personalized Packing List
Don’t: Perfume or cologne. Do: Freshly washed clothes.
You’ve been in Europe for two weeks, you’ve only packed so much, and by your date of departure you’ve run out of clean pants and shirts. It may be tempting to throw on something that more or less passes the sniff test and head off to the airport. But remember: Odors are intensified on a plane, where passengers are cramped in close quarters and stale air is recycled throughout the cabin.
The perfect seatmate is one who doesn’t smell like anything. To achieve a zen-like lack of scent, be sure to reserve a clean outfit for the plane ride home. And go easy on the cologne. Better yet, don’t wear any. Scent is subjective. You may adore the delicate bouquet of CK One, but your seatmate could find its aroma noxious. In particular, folks with allergies or asthma could have a reaction to strong perfumes.
Don’t: Offensive clothing. Do: Anything you would wear to church.
In 2005, Southwest Airlines crewmembers booted passenger Lorrie Heasley from a flight because she was wearing a politically offensive T-shirt. The shirt depicted the faces of President George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Condoleezza Rice above the caption “Meet the Fockers.” After the incident, a Southwest spokeswoman told the Reno Gazette-Journal that the airline has the right to deny boarding to anyone wearing “lewd, obscene or patently offensive” clothing.
Two years later, Southwest’s flight crew/fashion police threatened to remove a second female passenger from a flight for wearing clothes considered inappropriate for a family airline. Kyla Ebbert, who was wearing a tight shirt and mini-skirt, salvaged her seat by offering to pull her skirt down and pull up her top, thereby minimizing her cleavage (oh, the horror!).
Whether or not you agree with what Southwest deems “inappropriate,” you’ll want to avoid wearing potentially offensive clothing to minimize a disruptive travel experience. Steer clear of T-shirts splashed with curse words or controversial statements, and anything that tends to raise eyebrows in public.
Don’t: Warm-weather clothing. Do: Layers, layers, layers.
Fliers must brave a multitude of temperature changes throughout their journeys. There’s the sweat-inducing jog through the sunny airport terminal, the warm 20 minutes while the plane sits on the tarmac pre-take-off and that in-flight arctic chill (against which paper-thin airline blankets do nothing). Layers are a traveler’s best weapon against such varying conditions. Furthermore, the more apparel you tie around your waist or throw over your shoulders, the fewer clothing items you need to ball up and stuff into your suitcase.
Planning to visit Grandma’s for Thanksgiving or spend Christmas in Rome? Traveling over the holidays can be notoriously busy, expensive and stressful, but the news isn’t all bad. There are still deals to be found, provided you shop carefully and plan ahead. Check out our 10 holiday travel tips and find some joy this holiday season.
1. Avoid peak travel dates.
At Thanksgiving, Wednesday is the critical outbound “avoid” day as a rule. Traveling on Thanksgiving day proper is often a breeze and more affordable; there are often cut-rate airfare deals on Thanksgiving day. If you can fly home any day other than Sunday, you’ll likely pay less.
At Christmas and New Year’s, the peak travel dates change each year depending on which days the holidays fall. You can generally guess which dates will be the most expensive for travel (consider which travel days would allow you to maximize long weekends without taking too many days off work — and that’s probably when everyone will want to go). If you’re not sure, use a search engine that lets you put in flexible travel dates; these will show you which date combinations will give you the best deal.
2. Shop around.
Whether you’re using booking sites like Expedia or metasearch sites such as Kayak, comparison shopping has never been easier than it is right now. During peak travel season, casting the net as wide as possible will help you understand all of your options.
For many travelers, price isn’t the only or even the most important factor, especially during the holidays. Thoughtful, deliberate use of the “search adjacent days or airports” features found on many websites may also surrender greatly improved fares and travel times.
For more help, see our Tips for Finding Cheap Airfare. Having trouble finding a hotel? Don’t miss No Vacancy? No Problem.
3. Know your airports.
Checking alternate airports is a pretty standard tactic, but this time of year it can really make a difference. At no time can the alternate airport gambit pay off better than during the holiday crush. You can score on almost every front — parking, rental cars, traffic to and from, nearby hotels — and save both time and money.
Keep in mind that smaller airports see fewer flights and, typically, fewer delays — not a minor consideration during the busy holiday travel season.
4. Plot connections carefully.
When booking flights, check your search results carefully for sufficient time during layovers, and build in some time for flight delays and weather woes. Particularly during the winter months, peak travel times often bring peak travel delays, and your connection is more likely to be jeopardized. Avoiding really tight connections might save you a sprint through the terminal or a missed flight.
Also, it is best if you can muscle your flight path into position so that connections are in places less likely to experience delays — specifically, airports in warmer climates. For more advice, see our Winter Travel Tips.
5. Leave early.
During peak travel times, much of the trouble you’ll face lies on this side of the security check-in, from traffic jams and full parking lots to absent shuttles and long lines. Rather than striving to “arrive at the airport early,” you may want to try to “leave for the airport early” to anticipate all the peripheral delays you may encounter.
6. Pack wisely.
In the past, you may have been able to fit everything into your carry-on without having to check any baggage — a strategy we still recommend. However, the TSA rules about liquids and gels make this a trickier proposition. For the record, you may bring liquids and gels in 3.4-ounce or smaller containers, packed within a single, quart-size, zip-top, clear plastic bag. You’re also allowed to bring any liquids (such as coffee or water) or gels purchased after you go through a security checkpoint onto your plane with you. If you want to bring more than the 3.4-ounce amount, you’ll have to pack the items in your checked luggage.
7. Take advantage of shortcuts.
The latest self-service developments in online travel can be tremendous time-savers during peak travel times. Whenever possible, print your boarding passes at home or even pull up your boarding pass on your smartphone.
If you buy most of your gifts online, have them shipped directly to your destination. This will cut down on luggage and the risk of them getting lost.
8. Travel early or late in the day.
As a rule, airports are least congested at times when normal human beings would rather be at home or even asleep. Delays are far less likely for morning flights, and airports usually unclog as the afternoon and evening peak passes.
Caveat: Staffing can be spotty for really early flights, so although your flight is highly likely to be ready to leave on time, check-in may take a while, along with other personnel-dependent steps like riding shuttle buses.
9. Consider package deals.
Peak travel periods can be the best time to buy package deals (such as air/hotel or air/hotel/car), even for folks who would normally never buy one, as the bundled pricing offered by packages can be very competitive. I’m traveling on a package over Thanksgiving, and am almost stunned at the offer; you can barely afford to stay home at these prices.
10. Keep your cool.
Don’t lose your temper, even if things go wrong. Airline employees have considerable power over your well-being. Unfortunately, some enjoy wielding it against you, and few respond well to anger.
It’s no secret holiday travel is stressful; and while there may be 47 million people heading out for Thanksgiving this year, there are simple ways to make it to your destination (and back!) without losing your holiday cheer. Read on for editor-approved tips that will make travel this season a breeze.
Be prepared. “For me, the strategy is all about advance preparation. Pack snacks, water, etc. into your carry-on in advance (where you can; with airports you have to get the water there, but you get the idea). Have your book in there, your headphones, iPad with pre-loaded movies. These are the essentials that go in the bag that’s closest to me, so that no matter where the delays come from—waiting to board, in transit, waiting for pick-up at my arrival station—I’ve got the things I need to carry me through it.”—Corina Quinn, Digital Travel Editor
Get TSA Pre-Check / Global Entry. “It makes a HUGE difference in terms of security lines, especially on busy travel days.” —Nathan Lump, Editor
Pack alcohol. For the flight… “If there’s one time to splurge on an in-flight beverage, it’s over the holidays. Since it’s the festive season, go for a proper cocktail with this carry-on kit, which has everything you’ll need to make a tasty (and soothing) Old Fashioned on the plane.” —Stephanie Wu, Senior Editor
…and during your stay: “This year, I’m bringing my own DIY cocktail kit to my family’s Thanksgiving dinner, which I expect will make me the most popular person at the table. After taking master bartender Eben Freeman’s cocktail class at Genuine Liquorette, I’m planning to use my newfound skills to create some delicious mixed drinks. All you need is a shaker tin, hawthorne strainer, and jigger or mini-measuring cup and you’re good to go. I’ll pick up some spirits and mixers on the way to dinner.” —Laura Itzkowitz, contributing digital editor
Go carry-on only: “”If at all possible, I avoid checking a bag. Not only will it get you in and out of the airport more quickly, but there’s also no possibility of lost luggage.” —Caroline Hallemann, Associate Digital Editor
Pack athletic clothes. “A brisk walk outside will help you burn off the holiday bloat—AND the pent-up steam that inevitably collects when a bunch of related people spend too much time under one roof. Be sure to pack athletic-wear and seasonally appropriate clothing that encourages you to spend some time outdoors.” —Sarah Firshein, Digital Director
Try Aromatherapy. “I love Tata Harper’s Aromatic Irritability Treatment – it’s an oil that you apply to your pulse points or palms. It smells like a spa, and, like a spa, it induces a relaxing sense of calm and well-being. Use when feeling annoyed or stressed. I love it on long flights (and short subways trips, too).” —Jane Bishop, Style Director
Turn traffic into an adventure. “Install a dashboard car mount for your phone, let Google Maps run, and don’t be afraid of veering off when you see too much red. Apps like Foursquare can help locate cool, noteworthy restaurants wherever you are; after all, unexpected surprises and local finds are one of the best parts of travel—any travel.” —Sarah Firshein, Digital Director
Video streaming services are your friend. “When you simply can’t stand any more redundant chatter between relatives, turn on and tune out. Suggest watching a movie together so you have an excuse to ask your rowdy siblings to keep the noise down. For emergencies, an entire season of Jessica Jones should do the trick.” —Adeline Duff, Editorial Assitant
“Amazon Prime Video is an in-flight savior: it lets you download free streaming shows to your smartphone or tablet for offline viewing, so I’m no longer racking up hefty iTunes charges to feed my media addictions. Rewatching Arrested Development makes a few hours in a cramped middle seat an almost-pleasant experience. Okay, maybe not pleasant, but…better.” —Lila Battis, Associate Editor
Do quick yoga sessions. “Subscribe to a service like Yogaglo, which lets you download yoga sessions that are as short as five minutes. All you need is your phone and a quiet corner–they’ll never even notice you’re gone. PS: You can filter for “stress reduction.” —Sara Clemence, News Director
Get noise canceling headphones. “Having the ability to tune out of the chaos of a train station, airport, or over talkative family members during the holidays is a must. I always bring a good pair of noise-canceling headphones, and have a playlist of both music and my favorite Podcasts ready before I head out the door.” —Ellie Storck, Digital Editorial Assistant
Bring a great book. “If you have something you’re engrossed in reading, it really helps pass the time when you have delays, long flights, etc.” —Nathan Lump, Editor
When it comes to you and your stuff, there is no telling how or when you might be separated, whether briefly or permanently, in your trek from your car seat to your airplane seat and back again.
woman witting on bench in airportHow safe are your belongings when you fly? In just the past few years, TSA employees have been caught running robbery rings and enabling drug trade. If security agents are robbing travelers, imagine what is going on among baggage handlers, gate agents or anyone alone with your stuff for the very brief moment it takes to steal something. Even fellow travelers have been caught nicking stuff from overhead bins during flight. You don’t have to be paranoid and suspicious every moment of your trip; start out by trusting everyone, but don’t make it easy for anyone.
Thousands of airline and airport employees do their jobs every day without even thinking of pilfering your bags. I have flown frequently for the past 30 years, and have been ripped off only once — clearly I have encountered a true heap of honest, hard-working people. But it’s not those normal folks you need to guard against; it’s the one person (or group) who has figured out how vulnerable we are while traveling.
Perhaps the most important thing to know to protect your belongings from that one person along the way is this: the best thieves know not to steal stuff that will be missed any time soon. They want you to figure it out when you get to your hotel room a few time zones away. I’ve come up with a few simple rules that, while they won’t protect everything you take with you, will protect the things that matter most.
All in One Place
Before you leave the house, put the important stuff in one place, and never lose track of it. A friend of mine has taken to putting her most critical and valuable items (identification, wallet, cash, jewelry) in a clear plastic bag that is obvious to everyone. “I ‘hide it in plain sight,'” she says. “Then everyone knows what is in there, they have no incentive to open it to find out what is inside and I can see immediately when I get to the other side of the security machines if anything is missing.”
You may not want to go the full Ziploc route, but a workable alternative is to reserve an obvious pocket of your carry-on bag to hold all the stuff you need in the airport and on the plane but can’t take through a security machine. The benefit of having a single, dedicated location for valuables becomes obvious when you don’t have to rifle your bags to figure out if your wallet is missing, or your boarding pass, or your driver’s license, or your medication, etc. — that 30 seconds before you finally find something in the bottom of a bag can take minutes off your life, oof. If you know exactly where everything should be, you won’t fail to miss it the moment it disappears.
Say It Loud
I have also found it useful to state out loud what I am handing over to an airport security or gate person. When you say, “This has my wallet, my ID and my watch,” and they hear you say it and see you put it down, they may be less likely to try to take something.
Two (or Three) Things to Have on Your Person on the Plane
There are really only two things you need to have on your person on the plane: your ID and a credit card (a third, which does not apply to everyone, is any essential prescription medications — more on that below). If someone steals every single thing you brought with you, these are really the only things you cannot replace quickly and easily, and that you will absolutely need to get you out of pretty much any jam upon landing.
Almost everything else you can replace — there are grocery and clothing stores everywhere — but without both your ID and credit card, you can’t rent a car, check into the airport hotel, buy food or, critically, get on a plane to take you back home.
Some folks would add their cell phone to this list, and they would have a point; if you are in a jam, having all your numbers and an easy way to call them (try to find a phone booth that works these days) could really make a difference.
close up of a credit card sitting on top of a passportHaving the credit card easily available on the plane has an added benefit beyond the safety factor: it’s usually the only way to buy a snack, a drink, headphones or an in-flight movie. Don’t be the person dumping the contents of the overhead bin into the aisle just to buy a turkey sandwich; keep your card in your pocket.
Finally, the third thing to keep very close is any prescription medications; these can be difficult to replace quickly, and being without them could create potentially dire problems for folks with serious medical conditions.
Bury Your Wallet and Cash in Your Carry-On
Once you board the plane, you will have no need for your wallet and cash, as few airlines still accept cash payment for things like food, drinks or (unbelievably) pillows and blankets. My recommendation is to bury these so deeply in your carry-on bag that the only way someone would ever find them would be to take your entire bag and overturn it on the floor back at their own home.
Bag Inside a Bag
Anyone who has traveled extensively since airlines began charging for the first checked bag knows that the gate area of a full flight today looks like the baggage claim area of a full flight several months ago. Everyone has at least one huge bag that would barely fit in a bathtub, let alone into the little metal cages indicating proper carry-on size.
When the overhead bins fill up almost inevitably about halfway through the boarding process, gate agents are forced to check the bags of anyone unlucky enough not to have boarded already, almost irrespective of the size and contents of the bags. (It’s gotten almost to be a joke; on a cross-country flight this long and cold winter, the gate agent announced, “We know it is very cold, but do not put your coats in the overhead bins, or we will check your bags.”)
You never know if they’re going to start taking your stuff from you at the end of the gangway, so my recommendation is to pack a small bag inside your larger bag in case you are forced to check your carry-on. This way you can take your most valuable (and most easily stolen) items, and put them in a small bag you can keep at your feet if necessary.
Anything You Really Care About, Wear It
You’ve heard the saying “You’ll get it when you pry it from my dead hands” — we all hope and pray it doesn’t come to that, but for your most valuable things, this should be a phrase to, well, live by. If you don’t want to lose it, wear it.
What to Let Go
Unless you are going to a truly remote location, you can pretty much buy socks, a toothbrush, a pair of reading glasses, a raincoat, a book or breakfast anywhere. My feeling is that if you can buy it at your destination relatively cheaply, don’t go out of your way to protect it — especially at the risk of distracting yourself from protecting the things you really need. If it’s cheap and ubiquitous, don’t sweat it during your travels.
Beyond the Airport: At the Hotel and in the Car
The airport is not the only place folks have opportunity to rifle through your stuff when you are not looking. Every time you leave your hotel room, you should remember that a large number of people have keys to the room. Read our Hotel Safety Tips to learn how to protect yourself.
You’ve waited all year for your vacation — so why ruin it by getting sick? Adding a few well-chosen products to your packing list can help you fend off germs, protect your skin and avoid common travel discomforts during your next trip. Below are nine must-pack items that will help you stay healthy while traveling.
One thing you won’t see in this list: medicine. You can find our recommended remedies in Medications for Travel.
A small first-aid kit stocked with bandages, antiseptic wipes and other medical necessities is always a wise thing to have on hand, particularly if you’ll be spending much of your vacation outdoors without easy access to a doctor. SadoMedcare offers one affordable, well-stocked kit that won’t take up too much space in your suitcase. An even more compact option is this 60-piece kit, which weighs less than 2.5 ounces.
If you’re flying with a first-aid kit in your carry-on, remember to double-check it for any items that might not make it through airport security. Small tubes of antibiotic cream, for instance, should go into your quart-size plastic bag of liquids and gels, while sharp items such as lancets or large scissors could be confiscated. Small scissors (with blades shorter than four inches) are fine.
Flight Ear Plugs
For fliers who experience ear pain during take-off and landing, ear plugs that help regulate pressure can be a godsend. Many travelers also find them helpful when driving through changing elevations in mountainous regions. EarPlanes and Flite Mate are two popular brands.
It can be tricky enough to keep track of your medication schedule at home; add jet lag, a different daily routine and a new time zone, and having a pill organizer can literally be a lifesaver. Stuff Seniors Need and Ezy Dose offer travel-friendly pill cases that don’t take up too much space.
Sunburn not only causes pain and unsightly lobster skin but can also contribute to heat exhaustion. (The Mayo Clinic says that “having a sunburn reduces your body’s ability to rid itself of heat.”) Banana Boat offers a set of six travel-size bottles that will keep you and your travel companions protected.
Note: If you’re planning on snorkeling, do the environment a favor and choose a reef-safe sunblock; chemicals found in most sunscreen brands, particularly oxybenzone, contribute to coral damage. Here’s one reef-safe option. The bottle is too large for a carry-on, so put it in your checked bag or pour it into a smaller travel-size container if you plan to fly with it.
In Avoiding the Airplane Cold, we reported that the low humidity in airplane cabins can dry out the mucus membranes in your nose, which are essential in preventing illness. Keeping these delicate tissues hydrated with a saline nasal spray during long flights could help you fend off germs from the guy coughing behind you. Ayr and Simply Saline are a couple of choices worth considering.
Antibacterial Hand Gel and Wipes
If you’ve ever been grossed out by those studies of how many germs are all over your airplane tray table (spoiler: a lot), you’ll understand why these made our list. Use an antibacterial wipe before using the TV remote in your hotel room or the seatback movie screen on the plane; use the gel when you’re eating on the go and can’t make it to a sink to wash your hands.
Recommended wipes include those from Wet Ones and Purell, both of which come in convenient travel packs. For travel-size bottles of gel, try L’Autre Peau (these come with carabiner clips so you can attach them to your daypack) or Bath & Body Works.
Back-country hikers and travelers in developing countries where the water isn’t safe to drink will benefit from packing some form of water purifier. Our top pick is the SteriPEN, a UV light that destroys bacteria, viruses and protozoa. We also like the LifeStraw, which is lightweight and effectively filters the vast majority of bacteria and protozoa. (It is not effective against viruses.)
Another interesting option is the GRAYL, a reusable bottle that works a bit like a French press to remove viruses, bacteria, protozoa and some chemicals as you force water through it.
Mosquitoes, ticks and other creepy-crawlies can transmit nasty diseases ranging from malaria to Zika. Traveling to an affected area? Stock up on insect repellent to use during your trip, and consider treating your shoes and clothing with permethrin before you leave.
Jet lag is a physical reaction to a rapid change in time zones. It affects most travelers, including seasoned fliers like flight attendants and pilots. Common symptoms include disorientation, irritability, insomnia, fatigue, dry eyes, headaches, irregular bowels and general malaise.
It doesn’t help that long-haul flying is so debilitating. Dehydration, unfamiliar foods, cramped spaces, recycled air, lack of sleep, uncomfortable clothes, continual low-level noise and connections that disrupt sleep all add to the misery of jet lag, and can even make you feel jet lagged when you’re just a little beat up.
Flying from, say, New York City to Santiago won’t produce jet lag in the true sense because both cities are in the same time zone — but the effects of the long flight might feel quite a bit like classic jet lag. In these cases, you’re just tired from the flight, and a good night’s sleep and perhaps some exercise will set things right.
On long flights — especially red-eye flights — you can lose several hours of sleep time, which can set you back considerably even without the jarring time change. If you live by a regular schedule (up at 7 a.m., in bed by 10 p.m. every night), watch out. Jet lag hits those with rigid body clocks the hardest. For parents, be sure to bring along books and toys your child can play with on his or her own, in case the jet lag hits you differently than it does your little ones.
A general rule of thumb to keep in mind before any long trip is the 1:1 ratio: allow yourself one day to recover for every hour of time difference that you experience. Some people find that they recover from jet lag more easily when traveling east instead of west (or vice versa).
Before You Go
Treat your body well before you fly. Exercise, sleep well, stay hydrated and stay sober. The worst thing you can do is get on a long flight with a hangover.
Some travelers like to exercise before they go to the airport. (This can actually help you sleep better on the plane.) Once you’re at the airport, avoid the escalators and moving sidewalks. Instead, walk and take the stairs on the way to your check-in area and gate connections.
Adjust your habits before you leave. If you are traveling from the East to the West Coast of the U.S., you’re facing a three-hour time change and you should try to adjust your internal clock. A few days before you leave, start to stay up a little later than usual, and sleep in a little longer. That way, if you become accustomed to falling asleep at 1 a.m. and waking up at 9 a.m. on the East Coast, it will be the same as falling asleep at 10 p.m. and waking up at 6 a.m. on the West Coast. Traveling west to east, do the opposite: get up and go to bed earlier.
Wearing two watches, one set to the current time, and one to the time at your destination, can help you prepare yourself mentally for the coming time change. Many business travelers also use this tactic to stay in touch with what’s happening back at the office.
During the Flight
airplane sleep man travelPerhaps the most effective way to combat jet lag while in flight is to treat your body well. Stay hydrated by drinking plenty of non-alcoholic, non-caffeinated fluids. Don’t be afraid to ask your flight attendant for extra water.
Get up out of your seat at regular intervals to walk and stretch. You can also do exercises like toe raises, isometric exercises, stomach crunches and shoulder shrugs right in your seat. This keeps your blood flowing and prevents it from pooling at your extremities, a common phenomenon in pressurized cabins.
Other tips: Get up to wash your face, brush your teeth or just stand for several minutes. Wear loose-fitting clothing that breathes. Bring a neck pillow, eye mask, ear plugs or noise-canceling headphones — these can be invaluable on red-eye flights. Also, avoid any snug footwear (high heels or wingtips); it is quite possible that your feet will swell in transit, making your post-flight trek to baggage claim a nightmare.
To help you get more rest in flight, see our tips for sleeping on planes.
Medications and Vitamins
Melatonin is a chemical in the body that helps regulate sleep cycles. It can be taken in pill form, and many travelers swear by it for fighting jet lag. However, as popular as melatonin is, it’s also controversial. Studies have indicated that incorrect melatonin usage can make you feel even more fatigued, so be sure to read all instructions and consult your physician before taking the product.
One widely available homeopathic remedy is the aptly named No-Jet-Lag. The company claims the chewable tablets address all jet lag symptoms, and offers testimonials from flight attendants and other frequent fliers. A bag of dried cherries is another natural remedy that some travelers use, as these are a good source of melatonin.
Some travelers use sleeping pills, antihistamines and motion sickness pills to induce sleep on planes and at hotels after arrival. While they work for some, others are left feeling miserably groggy. For more information, see Medications for Travel, and consult your doctor before taking any medication.
woman bench beach smile travelIf all else fails, try an alternate therapy. Light therapy has become a popular treatment for jet lag. At its heart, jet lag means you’re out of step with the rising and setting of the sun, so exposing yourself to light at the appropriate time can theoretically help you align your body with your new time zone. Unfortunately, the jury’s still out on the effectiveness of this. The debate centers on precisely which kind of light is best — natural, artificial, bright or dim. Some researchers and enthusiasts recommend simply spending 15 to 20 minutes in direct sunlight without sunglasses as soon as possible after landing.
Jet Lag Apps
Several smartphone apps have been developed to help travelers fight jet lag. Enter your flight details into Jet Lag Rooster or Entrain, and they’ll create a suggested schedule of when to sleep, eat and/or take melatonin to prepare for the time change. Both apps are available for iPhone and Android.
The so-called “jet lag diet,” an alternation of feasting and fasting for three days leading up to a long-haul flight, was very popular a few years back. The military tested the diet and concluded, basically, that it is bunk. Nonetheless, Ronald and Nancy Reagan used it during their White House days, and some travelers still do. If you’d like to try it out for yourself, check out the diet regimen.
Restrict your diet to foods that are easily digested, like those that are relatively high in fiber but not too rich. If you’re trying to stay awake in order to get your body in step with the local time zone, caffeine can be useful — but don’t go overboard. While it might seem tempting to guzzle several cups of coffee when your eyelids begin to droop, you could end up wide awake at 1 a.m. Be sure to implement all dietary changes in moderation.
While even cars have gone the way of reliable sticker prices, hotel accommodations remain a haggler’s game, with arcane and confusing rules and terminology that seem aimed to sneak dollars out of your pocket even when you think you’re making out well. Take the term “corporate rate,” for instance. Corporate employees travel a lot; they must get a good rate, right? Well, some of them do, but probably not the ones who ask for the corporate rate.
Following are some tactics for getting the best hotel rates any time you travel. Your mileage may vary, and some hotels are more flexible than others, but these 15 tricks should keep you on the winning side of the bargaining table.
1. Ask for a lower rate.
This sounds simple, even doomed, but very often works like a charm. Ask whether the hotel is currently running any promotions or packages, and then see if any of the following special rates might apply: AAA, senior, family, hotel membership, weekend, government discount, frequent flier, convention, shareholder or corporate. Hotels sometimes even have what is called a “fallback” rate for travelers who are resisting the quoted rate.
2. Shop around online.
For the latest hotel bargains in locations around the world, be sure to check our discount hotel deals daily. In addition, check the Web sites of your favorite hotel chains; often they will run promotions exclusively for Web bookings.
Hotel discount reservation services like Hotels.com can also help you save considerably on hotel rates, as can general travel booking sites like Expedia and Travelocity. Note, however, that these sites may charge booking fees, so often your best strategy is to shop around to find the lowest rate and then call the hotel directly to see if they can match it.
You may also want to check aggregator sites like Kayak or Mobissimo, which search a wide range of hotel chains and travel sites, and then send you directly to the provider for booking.
3. Book by price, not by property.
If you care less about a specific hotel than getting the cheapest deal, you may want to consider choosing your own price on Priceline or shopping the anonymous (but deeply discounted) hotel inventory on Hotwire. On these sites you often won’t know which hotel you’re staying at until it’s booked, but you can request the general location and quality (three-star, four-star, etc.) — and you could save a significant amount of money over other booking sites.
4. Call the hotel directly.
Many times specials are offered at the hotel that can’t be submitted through the 1-800 central reservations system. The 800 agents have no direct access to room availability, and are often not authorized to negotiate. Hotel agents are generally more in touch with availability and specials, and are therefore more flexible with rates.
Many chains allot only a select number of rooms to the central reservations system, so 800 agents may even tell you a hotel is sold out when in fact the hotel is discounting rooms because of low booking rates!
5. Be flexible with your dates.
Hotel rates can vary widely based on the time of year and the time of week when you travel. If you’re staying at a property that serves mostly business travelers, you may find great weekend deals, while B&B’s and other leisure properties tend to have lower rates midweek. On a broader scale, know when the peak seasons to visit your destination are — such as wintertime in the Caribbean or summertime in Europe. Rates will be sky-high at those times of year, so scheduling your trip for a less popular travel time could save you big bucks on your hotel.
6. Take advantage of last-minute specials.
If your travel plans are flexible, you could get a great rate by waiting to book your hotel until the last minute. Hotel managers are often willing to lower their rates to fill their last remaining rooms.
7. Consider a package deal.
If you’re looking for both airfare and hotels, shop around and see if it’s worth booking the two together as a package deal. You may not have as many hotel choices as you would if you were booking your lodging separately, but the discounts could be worth the lack of flexibility.
8. Consider a private sale.
Private sale sites Jetsetter.com and TabletHotels.com/privatesale/ offer exclusive deals on hotels and resorts, but you must be a member to access them, and most sales don’t last very long. If you’re open-minded about where you want to go and when, these sites can help you land deep discounts at upscale properties.
new orleans courtyard9. Look beyond the big hotels.
If you’re seeing high rates at big chain hotels, consider some alternatives. These could include bed and breakfasts, vacation rentals, hostels or independently owned small hotels — most of which can’t be found on big booking engines. For advice on how to research these, see our guide to finding hidden hotels.
10. Know the full cost.
You may think you’ve found a great deal, but keep in mind that the base rate isn’t the only thing that will determine your total bill. Be sure to ask what taxes, resort fees, parking costs, energy surcharges, and other odds and ends will apply to your final tally. Even if one hotel has a lower base rate, it may end up being a more expensive option once all the extras are added in. For more information, see Hidden Hotel Fees.
11. Keep an eye on your credit card statements.
Occasionally, buried in all that junk stuffed in with your credit card statement are vouchers or guarantees for good hotel rates offered in conjunction with your credit card company. Typically, you have to request a specific rate code, included in the “literature,” and reserve and pay for the room with that particular credit card (or one issued by the same bank or company).
12. Use coupon and voucher books.
The number of discount coupon and voucher companies, both in print and on the Internet, is almost mind-boggling. Everywhere you look, you can tear off, cut out, download, print out or merely mention a discount coupon rate, and you can save on just about every aspect of travel. Do a Web search for “coupons” for your destination or hotel chain for some links to local and online coupon distributors.
In the midst of this abundance, one discount book stands head and shoulders above the rest: Entertainment Books published by Entertainment Publications. The great majority of discounts available come in at half price, whether they’re two-for-one meals or movies, or straight 50 percent discounts on hotel rooms. The company publishes books annually for dozens of major U.S. and Canadian destinations. They can be purchased online for $25 to $50.
13. Follow up.
Once you’ve booked your hotel, don’t just rest on your laurels. Call back or check online in another month or so and see whether rates have gone down. If they have, cancel your booking and rebook your stay at the lower rate. (Read the hotel’s cancellation policy carefully before doing so to make sure you won’t have to pay any penalties.)
14. Use your points.
Can’t find the rate you want? Try paying with hotel points instead. If you belong to a hotel’s loyalty program and have accumulated enough reward points, you can often use them to pay for your room (or for an upgrade to a better class of room).
15. Leave your bags in the car.
Planning to negotiate when you arrive? Don’t haul a huge piece of luggage into the lobby and then tell the agent that you’d just as soon go elsewhere if they can’t bring their rates down. You’ll look tired, hassled, sick of lugging bags and, to a shrewd hotel clerk, ready to pay handsomely to unpack that suitcase.
Our story on how to get the best hotel rate contains most of the standard tips to start with when you’re trying to save on a hotel. But if you’ve been traveling for a while, you’re probably looking for a few more advanced strategies to shave a few bucks off your hotel bill. Here are some expert tips for folks who know all the standard hotel booking tricks and want to take things a bit further.
1. Check prices online before extending a stay.
If you have ever seen a calendar grid of hotel room prices, you know that prices change from day to day and from room to room. If you decide to extend your stay — or shorten it — doing the advance research on how much your room costs for the night or nights in question can be extremely helpful.
In this situation, the easiest way to extend your stay is simply to talk to the folks at the front desk, as that way you can typically stay in the same room, have the additional night appear on the same final invoice, leave your incidentals on the same card, etc. — in short, you don’t have to create a completely new booking with a new confirmation code.
But before you do, you will still want to research the price online first, for two reasons. First, if the new night is a peak night for the hotel, you won’t be surprised if the price is jacked up considerably — and you may even be able to negotiate it down to be closer to the rate you are already paying. Conversely, if the new night is a slow one for the hotel, you won’t merely extend your reservation at the same rate, only to find out later that the additional night should have been priced much lower.
This is especially the case for summer travel, where weeknight rates can be a fraction of weekend rates. For example, on a recent search for a Labor Day weekend hotel, I noticed that prices came down from around $200 per night to under $100 per night on Monday night as off-peak autumn pricing kicked in. If you didn’t know this, and the front desk offered you another night at the same rate you had paid previously, you would be out a lot of money you could have pocketed.
Similarly, if you shorten your stay, you will want to know the rate for that night so that your bill is adjusted correctly. In short, research prices just as you would for a new booking.
2. When booking flights, check prices at airport hotels.
If you find you can save lot of money on airfare by shifting your flights a day, or by flying very early in the morning, take a look at prices at airport hotels, as they are not always as expensive as you might think. In fact, I have found airport hotels to offer extremely competitive prices, especially in major cities where hotel choice is extensive and the airport hotel tends not to be a first choice except for folks who absolutely need to be in that area. If the airfare difference is more than the cost of the hotel, tacking on an extra night’s accommodations could actually save you money.
3. Speaking of airport hotels…
Many airport hotels also offer free or cheap parking for a few days. A hotel at which I stay occasionally near the Philadelphia airport offers four days of free parking with a one-night stay at the hotel, as well as a 24-hour airport shuttle. So a short stay at an airport hotel can sometimes result in a cheaper flight, completely cover the cost of airport parking, and offer an extra hour or more of sleep and a free breakfast to boot.
4. Check for a “best price” guarantee.
Many of the major booking sites offer a “best price guarantee” for flights, lodging, car rentals and more; this can mitigate the hassle and anxiety of searching for a rate on a booking site, then checking the hotel site, then checking the discount sites, etc. This way, if you see a good deal and want to book it straight away, you have options if you later find the same room for a better price elsewhere.
Expedia, for example, will refund the difference if you find a cheaper room within 24 hours of booking, and give you a $50 travel coupon; book a room, then see if there is a better price out there when you have a little time (within 24 hours, of course). Orbitz’s guarantee is a little more time-limited for airfares, and a little less so for hotels and car rentals.
5. Check hotel Web sites for deals and better customer service.
As hotel chains get into the act of driving customers to their own Web sites with the offer of otherwise unadvertised discounts, they are also withholding some of the best rooms in the hotel for folks who take the bait.
As often as not, you will find very similar prices on booking sites as compared to the specific hotel Web sites (in part due to a controversial practice called rate parity, in which booking sites exert influence to make sure hotel Web sites don’t undercut their prices). But a little-known fact of booking directly is that you tend to get slightly better service with direct bookings than with third-party bookings. Hotels make more money on direct bookings because they don’t have to pay commissions, which can be up to 25 percent, so they tend to show appreciation for the extra revenue by giving those folks slightly better rooms. It gets worse the less you pay; when a reservation shows it was booked at an almost obscenely low price on an auction site, it has become more or less standard operating procedure to withhold the best rooms in the hotel for folks who paid more and paid directly.
Corollary to Nos. 4 and 5: The hotel and booking site wars are only just now heating up; more and more travelers are hearing the words, “Well, you booked this on a third-party site” when checking in or asking for amenities and room changes, so the hotels are clearly using this as a bargaining chip.
hotel front desk check in coupleThat said, while the booking sites are engaging in rate parity practices, not all the hotels are doing the same, and just because you are booking on their Web sites doesn’t mean they will give you the best price. That means you can use the booking sites’ best price guarantees as your own bargaining chip with the hotels. If you see a much better price on Expedia, as I did for a hotel booking in Atlanta recently, give the hotel reservation number a call directly and ask if they can match it.
6. Beware of auction sites, but use if you must.
While I recommend blind auction sites such as Priceline for car rentals, especially from the major rental companies, they can be quite risky for hotels, almost more so than for airfares. This is because some of the steepest discounts are offered by hotels that might be less attractive when you know exactly where you will be staying, whether due to poor reviews, ongoing construction, inconvenient or shady neighborhoods, or maybe even a listing on a bedbug registry.
That said, when your search is extremely specific — an airport hotel might be a good example — use Priceline’s neighborhood mapping guide in an area where you know hotel choices are pretty limited, and you could do really well.
7. Are you a member? There’s a deal for you.
Most Americans are members of one association or another — most commonly AAA or AARP — and most membership associations offer member benefits that include hotel discounts. I am a member of USRowing, which offers 15 percent off the best available rate at all hotels in the Hilton family. My AAA membership offers deals at Best Western, Starwood, Marriott, Hilton and Hyatt hotels. Your credit card company probably has even more relationships.
That said, I know truly almost no one who has ever taken advantage of these offers. Most of us go online, search for and find a price, book it, and forget about it. But 15 percent off a $199 booking is a fair chunk of money, and the vast majority of us leave it on the table. For more on these types of offers, have a look at Take the Ouch Out of Hotel Pricing: Four Common Discounts.
If those types of deals are too old-fashioned for you, try Groupon, LivingSocial and other social media-based offers; there are truly heaps of them out there as startups tussle over your loyalty and small margins.
8. Ask your hotel if it has an airport shuttle.
Many hotels that are not necessarily in immediate proximity to the airport still run airport shuttles; it just might not be very widely advertised (especially on larger booking sites, where specific hotels do not always have detailed control over the content of their listings). Finding this info will usually require a phone call directly to the hotel.
9. Ask your hotel for taxi recommendations.
If the hotel doesn’t have a shuttle, it will often have a relationship with a taxi company that will offer consistent pricing and service to its lodgers. On a recent trip to Europe, the front desk not only called a taxi for us, but also negotiated a price and sent the car out to pick us up at the end of the day. While we were sightseeing, I decided to ask another taxi company for a quote back to our hotel, and it was more than double the price the front desk had negotiated for us. Not bad.
10. If you miss breakfast, get a to-go box.
On the same recent trip to Europe, the hotel staff knew we had a very early flight that would require us to check out before the hotel breakfast was served, so they made a to-go box breakfast for us to take with us to the airport. Not all hotels offer this amenity — I haven’t seen much of it in the U.S. lately — but it’s worth asking the night before you leave if the hotel can bundle up some muffins or the like for you in the morning.
Not enough legroom. People climbing over you. Noise from movies and video games and screaming children. Sunlight pouring in your neighbor’s window at 35,000 feet. With all the distractions and hassles of air travel, what doesn’t make it tough to sleep on planes?
If you struggle to get some shuteye each time you take to the air, you’re not alone — but choosing the right seat, bringing the right gear and making a few small changes in your flying habits could help you sleep better on your next flight. Read on for our travel-tested tips.
people sleeping on a plane
Choose your seat wisely.
Your seat location could be one of the most important factors in how well — or how poorly — you sleep on a plane. Try to get a window seat if possible; it will give you something to lean against and get you out of the way of other folks in your row, who won’t have to scramble over you each time they need to use the bathroom. You’ll also have some control over the window shade.
Think twice about bulkhead or exit row seats. Sure, the extra legroom is great, but some exit row seats do not recline (so that they won’t be an obstruction in case of emergency), and some bulkhead seats have armrests that can’t be raised. Sleeping in one of these is like sleeping in a straitjacket, especially if the seat next to you is unoccupied, or worse, the entire row is empty (as happened to me on a flight from Australia — 14 hours in the air, an empty row and the worst flight I’ve ever had). What could have been a nice sleep nook is now more like, well, an airplane seat.
Travel writer Andrea Rotondo also cautions against bulkhead seats because they “are often reserved for families traveling with babies or young kids, [and] can be noisy.”
Another area to avoid is the last row of the plane. Again, the seats may not recline, and they’re often located right near the lavatories — where both noise and odor could be an issue.
Aside from the very last row, there are pros and cons to sitting near the front of the plane vs. sitting near the back. Seats near the rear of the plane may be noisier due to the planes’ engines and clink-clanking from the galley, but it’s also more likely that you’ll have a couple of seats (or even a whole row) to yourself back there — and the extra space could make up for the extra noise.
To help you choose your seat, check out SeatGuru.com, which offers color-coded seating charts for nearly every plane on every airline. And don’t miss our tips for getting the best airplane seat.
Cut down on your carry-ons.
If you have two full-size carry-ons, one might end up under your feet, limiting your legroom and making it harder to sleep. Instead, pack lighter so you can fit everything into a single bag. Keep a few small necessities near the top of the bag — a book or magazine, a snack, a bottle of water. Before you stow your bag in the overhead compartment, pull out the important items that you’ll need during the flight and put them in the back of the seat in front of you.
Editor’s Note: The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) cautions against the stowage of personal items in the seatback pocket for safety reasons, but states, “If small, lightweight items, such as eyeglasses or a cell phone, can be placed in the seat pocket without exceeding the total designed weight limitation of the seat pocket or so that the seat pocket does not block anyone from evacuating the row of seats, it may be safe to do so.” Keep the items you stow in the seatback pocket to a minimum, and be aware that flight attendants may ask you to put the items back into your carry-on bag.
Skip the caffeine.
Especially on a daytime flight, where even the view out the window can be a distraction, you’ll find it much harder to sleep if you have caffeine coursing through your veins. Avoid the temptation to have a cup of coffee or a soda before boarding, and stick to water or juice when the drink cart comes around.
pills spilling out of bottle
Try a sleep aid.
I am not a doctor and will not attempt to advise you on what drugs you should take as sleep aids. That said, here are a few products I’ve used with some success:
Melatonin: This is a naturally occurring substance — it’s the compound that triggers our sleep patterns, and it’s as natural as eating. The level of melatonin in our bodies declines as we age; this is why older folks often sleep less as they advance in years.
As it is a gentle approach, melatonin doesn’t seem to work for everyone. One Olympic doctor I know, who counsels athletes on beating jet lag, advises that you begin taking melatonin three days before you travel. Your number of winks may vary.
Dramamine: This motion sickness remedy is a pretty common over-the-counter drug, but beware; it will make you very drowsy, and the advice not to operate heavy machinery (like, say, a car) is to be heeded. If you are on a shorter flight or need to be alert when you wake up, you may want to avoid this one.
Blankets and pillows — stake your claim.
There never seem to be enough blankets and pillows to go around. Board early and stake your claim. If there isn’t a set in your seat, immediately ask the flight attendant for one.
Bring a neck pillow.
Many travelers swear by their supportive neck pillows (TripAdvisor travel advocate Wendy Perrin likes the Komfort Kollar). Personally, I’ve found few neck pillows that really work the way they’re designed. They’re too big in the back, which tilts my head forward, and then offer no support under my chin to hold up my noggin that has just been pushed forward. I turn them around; this works like a charm. Experiment a bit and see what works for you.
Free your feet.
This is a controversial subject. Some people slip their shoes off as soon as they get on a plane; others wouldn’t dream of it. Further, there’s the issue of keeping your circulation flowing; going barefoot permits your feet to swell.
Take care of your dogs and wear clean socks. Opt for shoes you can slip on and off easily — this way you’re not pulling at shoelaces and flinging elbows mid-flight. On overseas flights, some airlines give you socks that will keep you warm and encourage circulation in your feet.
Use headphones with discretion.
Save yourself the five bucks and catch some more winks by passing on the airline’s headphones. TV and movies can keep you up the entire flight. On one transatlantic flight a few years back, I sat awake until three in the morning watching “Man in the Moon”; I laughed out loud and definitely enjoyed myself, but the next day in Europe, I yearned deeply for the two hours of sleep I lost to Jim Carrey’s depictions of Andy Kaufman and Tony Clifton.
On the other hand, listening to soothing music can help tune out distractions and lull you into a peaceful sleep. For best results, try Bose’s popular noise-canceling headphones; they’re pricey, but they’re the best product on the market for frequent fliers looking to escape engine noise and other in-flight distractions. (Ear plugs are a less effective but much cheaper alternative.)
Make sure you won’t be disturbed.
Jayne Bailey Holland, a former airline staffer, recommends notifying your flight attendant that you want to sleep — that way he or she will know not to disturb you when the drink or snack cart comes around. If you’re under a blanket, be sure your seat belt is buckled over top of it so the belt is visible at all times.
man sleeping on plane
Recline your seat — but be courteous.
On a night flight, expecting someone not to sleep is like asking them to put down their window shade during a flight over the Grand Canyon or Haleakala. Ideally, everyone has the same idea and seats will tip backward soon into your flight.
However, you should always look behind you to make sure the coast is clear before pushing the button to put your seat back. It gives the person behind you a heads up if they have coffee in front of them or have their head down on the tray table.
Simple common courtesy applies here.
For more on this topic, see The Etiquette of Seat Backs and Elbow Room.
Stay away from the light.
The animated flash of movie screens, reading lights, cabin lights, sunlight bursting in on an eastbound flight — all can disturb your slumber. Get yourself an eye mask. Some airlines provide them, but it’s best to keep one in your traveling kit just to be safe.
When it’s time to wake up…
The worst part of sleeping is waking up, I always say. It’s even worse on a plane, when you’re waking up to fluorescent lights, luggage carousels and sunshine so bright you can practically hear it.
If it’s a long flight, consider setting a watch or cell phone alarm for 45 minutes before you have to land. That gives you time to go to the restroom, gather your gear, tie your shoes, watch the approach to your destination — you might even convince an attendant to pour you a cup of coffee — and walk off the plane fully awake.
Traveling with pets is a growing trend, but even the most precious pet does not necessarily a good traveler make. Whether or not you bring your pet along for the trip is not so much a question of “can you?” but a question of “should you?”
golden retriever puppy looking out car window
No one knows your pet better than you, so no one is more qualified to answer that all-important question. If the answer is a resounding yes, keep reading — we’ve compiled a list of tips and resources for all you pet lovers who can’t bear to leave their furry friends behind.
General Pet Travel Tips
Check whether pets are allowed. Many destinations don’t permit easy entrance for pets. Hawaii, for instance, has a quarantine period for dogs and cats of up to 120 days, as Hawaii is free of rabies. However, dogs and cats meeting specific pre-arrival requirements may qualify for a quarantine of five days or less, or even a direct release, at Honolulu International Airport after inspection.
Don’t underestimate the cost. Between crates, air and hotel surcharges, toys, extra food, unexpected vet bills away from home, and more, traveling with your pet can add up. Be aware of the costs and allow a little wiggle room in your budget. (Our Travel Budget Calculator can help you estimate your expenses.)
Use proper identification. Put a tag on your pet’s collar that includes rabies vaccination information, your name, your address and phone number, and local contact numbers. It could save your pet’s life.
Train your pet. A pet that responds to your commands will save you considerable trouble while on the road. From the airport to the hotel, a pet that is friendly and obedient is the most pleasant traveling companion.
Learn about your pet’s health. Knowing a little about your pet’s normal temperature, pulse and respiratory rate, prescription medications, and other health issues can save you time, worry and money on the road. Consult your vet, and make a checklist of these issues.
Bring a pet first-aid kit. A pet thermometer, tweezers, gauze, antibiotic ointments, ear drops and other items available at most stores will work; consult your vet for a complete list.
Buy a crate. A pet crate is not something to skimp on. It should be sturdy and correctly sized for your pet. A crate that is too small will be very uncomfortable; a crate that is too large could allow your pet to be tossed around during handling. If you’re bringing the animal on a plane, be sure to read your airline’s requirements regarding crate size, weight, material and design. Airline-approved crates must have ventilation on the sides (in addition to the door) and have food/water trays that are refillable from the outside in the case of a delay.
Most crates come with stickers indicating that an animal is inside. If your pet is house-trained, consider putting a blanket, liner or cushion in the crate for comfort. If she’s not house-trained, a clean carrier floor is best.
Crate train your pet. A long flight or a lonely hotel room should not be the place your pet becomes acquainted with a traveling crate. Buy your crate well before traveling, and work with your pet until he’s familiar and comfortable in the crate. Normal training techniques should work, such as the use of food, praise and other incentives to get your pet used to staying in the crate.
Car Travel Tips
Don’t leave your pet unattended. This is one of the great “don’ts” of pet ownership. Even when temperatures are mild, a car can get dangerously hot or cold. In most situations, you are putting your pet at risk by leaving her alone in a car.
Some other don’ts: Don’t let your pet hang his head out the window. Don’t leave your pet loose in the vehicle; use a leash tied to a seat or a stable crate. And don’t let your pet ride in the passenger seat. It’s dangerous for the animal and potentially distracting for you as a driver.
Walk your pet frequently. Plan to stop the car on a regular basis. Many pets love to get out and explore, and they may need to be taken outside to relieve themselves more often while traveling than at home.
Provide adequate food and water. You should always keep food and water with you in the car — the heat of the vehicle, the stress of traveling and your pet’s excitement often cause increased thirst.
Fend off carsickness. Pets are as prone to carsickness as humans, if not more so. Partially open windows and frequent walks help, and there are many remedies available from pet stores and vets as well. Consult your vet for more information.
dog and cat in hotel room
Pet Hotel Tips
Find pet-friendly hotels. Many hotels gladly accept pets, such as Kimpton and La Quinta Inn & Suites. Find a list of additional pet-friendly properties at PetsWelcome.com, BringFido.com, Pet-Friendly-Hotels.net and PetFriendly.ca.
Stay on a lower floor. It’s far easier to get your pet in and out of a hotel without incident if you are on the ground floor — no elevators, stairs or altercations with other guests.
Keep your pet clean. Wipe mud, dirt and water off your pet’s fur before bringing her back into the hotel. If your pet stains the hotel’s carpet or linens, you might have to pay for cleaning or replacement costs.
Keep your pet in a crate. Hotel employees, neighbors and your pet are probably best served by this step. Your pet can relax in familiar surroundings, the room stays clean and you can relax as well. Don’t leave your pet loose and unattended.
Use the “do not disturb” sign. If you do have to leave your pet in your room, put the “do not disturb” sign on the door so hotel employees don’t enter and become frightened — or get accosted — by your pet.
Walk your pet in approved areas. Ask hotel management where they would prefer that you walk your pet.
Consider a vacation rental. If you’re having trouble finding pet-friendly hotels in your destination, consider a vacation rental through a site such as Airbnb or FlipKey; some owners allow pets.
Flying with Pets
Consult your vet. Many pets are simply not suited to air travel due to health, age or breed concerns. (Breeds that have restricted breathing, including short-nosed dogs such as Boston terriers and bulldogs, as well as Persian cats, are considered at risk when flying.) Animals under 8 – 12 weeks, or older than 10 years, might not be physically prepared for the stress of air travel.
Get the required documentation. You need a health certificate if you want to get your pet on an airplane, usually issued within 10 days of your flight. Most veterinarians can supply you with everything you’ll need. If you’re on the road and your pet gets into a fight or bites someone, you’ll want documentation that the pet has had rabies and other vaccinations.
Know your airline. Keep in mind that the airline you booked with may not be the airline you’re actually flying for all legs of your trip. Melissa Halliburton, founder of BringFido.com, notes that codeshare partners do not always have the same requirements for traveling pets, so you’ll want to double-check with each carrier.
Carry your pet on the plane. If your pet is small enough (typically about 10 pounds or less), your airline may permit you to bring him into the cabin. (Fees apply.) This is typically safer than checking your pet’s carrier and having him fly in the cargo hold. Remember that many people are allergic to pet hair or simply do not care to be forced to deal with an animal during a flight. Be considerate and keep your pet in his carrier for the duration of the flight.
Watch the temperature range. Airlines generally will not transport checked pets if the temperature is below 45 degrees or above 85 degrees Fahrenheit. For this reason, it is best to travel early in the day during the summer, and at midday during the winter.
Purchase nonstop or direct flights. Your pet is at the most risk for mishandling during connections, especially tight connections. A direct or nonstop flight is your best safeguard against these types of problems.
Feed with caution before flying. Avoid feeding your pet large meals before flights. A small meal will stave off hunger, and you can feed your pet again at your destination.
Walk your pet. Imagine if you had to be inside a cargo hold with no bathroom for a long flight. Your pet will be most comfortable if you take him out as close to flight time as possible. (As a bonus, exercise can also help tire your pet out so he’ll sleep better on the plane.) Similarly, walk your pet immediately upon arrival.
Get to the airport early. Arrive well in advance of your flight to allow time for any necessary special handling by the airline and for a last-minute walk. Your pet may also need a little extra TLC if he’s nervous or afraid when flying.
Administer drugs with caution. Sedatives for pet air travel create risks for some animals, including difficulties at high altitudes, and are not recommended by the American Veterinary Medical Association. Consult your vet. If you decide to give your pet a sedative, the timing and dosage are critical. Bring your veterinarian’s instructions with you to the airport.
cat in crate
Prepare the crate. Colorful, large, easy-to-read labels and sufficient water and food are essential for your pet’s well-being. Some travelers label crates with their pet’s name, and you should always make sure that your pet, as well as her crate, has identifying information — such as a baggage address label and a name tag on the animal’s collar including your contact information both at home and at your destination.
Several years ago, I wrote a paean to small airports titled The Pleasures and Pains of Small Airports that outlined the whys and hows (as well as some warnings) for small airports, but overall left the finding of those airports to travelers. The absence of this info was expressed recently by an IndependentTraveler.com staffer named Matt Leonard, who told us, “To me, there is nothing in life better than getting that rare flight from Trenton. Easy access, no Newark or Philly. Where are the Trentons of the world? Which airlines fly from them and what flights do they offer? To me, that would be the ultimate travel tip.”
Reading between the lines of Matt’s suggestion, let’s apply the following criteria when choosing some favorite small airports:
1. They must have a decent selection of commercial flights (this seems obvious, but what good is a small airport that only flies a single route to Sheboygan?).
2. They should have easy access in one way or another, such as a location near a highway or close to a traveler’s likely final destination.
3. They should be near at least one major city, so they can act as true alternatives to big airports.
4. They should probably have some additional traveler amenities, such as a car rental counter.
5. Finally, the World Airport Awards defines a small airport as one serving fewer than 5 million passengers per year, so let’s stick with that number here as well. You can see the organization’s top-rated airports here.
Loosely following these guidelines, here are my recommendations for 13 airports to consider on your next trip, more or less from west to east.
Long Beach Airport, Long Beach, CA
Alternative to: LAX or pretty much any other Southern California airport
Airlines: Alaska, Delta, JetBlue, US Airways
Why We Love It: Popular perception might have it that Long Beach is more of a medium-sized airport, as JetBlue arguably made its bones at LGB, but some fairly restrictive noise rules have kept the airport to a maximum of 41 daily commercial flights, and that number doesn’t seem likely to rise dramatically any time soon. The fact that the airport serves one of the world’s biggest cities, is only 18 miles from LAX and hosts airlines that offer flights to a truly solid collection of major airports nationwide put it at the top of many savvy fliers’ favorite lists. Add to these that the airport lies right along I-405 for easy access, and is about four miles from the beach, and Long Beach wins a lot of fans.
I have used Long Beach frequently when traveling to San Diego, which is less than two hours to the south, with a whole lot of beautiful coast (and a number of great surf breaks) along the way.
Bellingham International Airport, Bellingham, WA
Alternative to: SeaTac or Vancouver
Airlines: Alaska, Allegiant, Frontier
Why We Love It: Situated between Vancouver and Seattle, Bellingham offers a very low-key entrance into the Pacific Northwest via what used to be mostly a paper mill and cannery town, but has of late become an enclave for outdoorsy types who don’t want the bustle of Seattle but still want quick access to the San Juan Islands, the Olympic peninsula, the Cascade Mountains and more.
The airport is 90 easy miles from Seattle, and 50 miles from Vancouver — take your sweet pick!
Waco Regional Airport, Waco, TX
Alternative to: Dallas/Fort Worth
Why We Love It: Waco serves mainly as a connector airport to DFW two hours to the north, but man, can you save yourself some hassle and expense by flying out of Waco and then connecting through the much larger, much more intense and much more expensive DFW airport. With free parking, under-stressed airline and security staff, and way lighter automobile traffic, you can get yourself and your bags checked into American Airlines’ system in Waco, and then travel light onward to the countless airports served by DFW.
Flying from Waco can also be very cost-effective too. In addition to money saved on parking, tolls, miles, etc., fares appear to be lower. The Waco airport folks have put together this useful cost comparison chart — see for yourself.
Note: The airport in Austin tends to get favorable reviews from travelers, so I don’t recommend Waco as an alternative to that one just yet (although the Austin airport is getting busier all the time, so that may change in the future).
Blue Grass Airport, Lexington, KY, and McGhee Tyson Airport, Knoxville, TN
Alternative to: Indianapolis, Nashville, St. Louis
Airlines (Blue Grass): Allegiant, American Eagle, Delta, United, US Airways
Airlines (McGhee Tyson): Allegiant, American Eagle, Delta, Frontier, United Express, US Airways
mcghee tyson knoxville airportWhy We Love ‘Em: These two airports offer entry points to the U.S. South in a very low-key way. Lexington is well located if you are headed to a number of Southern and even Midwestern cities such as Indianapolis, Louisville, St. Louis and Nashville. Meanwhile, the airport in Knoxville, and indeed the entire Knoxville area, may offer one of the most demure, pleasant and uneventful travel experiences in the U.S.; travelers seem more prone to remember the airport’s rocking chairs and fountains than its security lines, check-in woes or parking hassles.
One important benefit of flying into and out of airports in this part of the country is the relatively low population density, which mitigates somewhat the fact that Knoxville isn’t a large metropolis itself, and is some distance from its other, larger Southern neighbors.
Charleston International Airport, Charleston, SC
Alternative to: Savannah, Atlanta or Charlotte
Airlines: American, Delta, JetBlue, Southwest, United, US Airways
Why We Love It: Like a number of the better smaller airports, Charleston is a joint civil/military airport, and it serves about 2.5 million passengers per year. Situated just outside Charleston, the airport features a number of rental car companies, which keeps the cost of transport into town low. Karl Frederick, an attorney based in New Brunswick, NJ, flies to the airport frequently and offers the following advice on getting around:
“The cab fare to downtown Charleston or Mount Pleasant is about $50, but CHS is one of those places where you can rent a subcompact for around $20/day. For a short trip, renting a car is cost-competitive, although once you are downtown you can pretty much walk anywhere or hire a pedicab, so you don’t need wheels if you are staying. If you can get a ride into town, that works best.”
CHS meets easy-in, easy-out requirements of fans of small airports, but it is the staff that gets the most praise among airport experts and critics. Southern hospitality seems to go far at CHS, which is a helpful issue at a small airport, where delays can sometimes be a fact of life.
Daytona Beach International Airport, Daytona Beach, FL
Alternative to: Orlando
Airlines: Delta, US Airways
Why We Love It: A straight 50-mile shot up I-4 from Orlando and Disney World, Daytona Beach offers its own brand of theme park — it’s like the Jersey Shore with a lot more motorcycles and tattoos, and a much longer season. Funky but still family-friendly in many ways, the town (and the airport) is not Orlando or Miami, which might be all the draw some folks need.
Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport, Newport News, VA
Alternative to: Washington D.C.
Airlines: Allegiant, Delta, Frontier, US Airways
Why We Love It: Newport News/Williamsburg International lies right in the middle of a formidable stretch of historical sites and beach towns, including Richmond, Williamsburg, Norfolk and Virginia Beach; it’s even convenient to the Outer Banks. The airport is currently undergoing considerable expansion, which may cost the airport some of its charm while picking up a number of amenities and conveniences along the way. The “international” in the airport name derives from seasonal flights to Cancun.
Newport News is a fair pace from Washington D.C., around 170 miles, but many people who visit the D.C. area make day trips to out Williamsburg and even the beach, so you can do the same, but in reverse, to a much cozier airport.
Trenton-Mercer Airport, Ewing, NJ
Alternative to: Newark or Philadelphia
Why We Love It: Trenton-Mercer Airport is nearly equidistant from those in both Newark (52 miles) and Philadelphia (42 miles), is located right off a very quiet stretch of I-95, and has a growing roster of commercial flights run by Frontier Airlines. Of all the small airports I have been through, the Trenton airport offered the most effortless experience overall. Its on-again, off-again use by commercial airlines has been a source of frustration over the years, but the current residency by Frontier Airlines seems to have some legs, as the airline extended its lease at the airport this summer through 2018. The airport also recently received substantial funding from the FAA to improve runways and address other safety and modernization issues, so hopefully more airlines are inclined to join Frontier in Ewing, just outside Trenton.
MacArthur Airport, Islip, NY
Alternative to: JFK or LaGuardia
Airlines: Pen Air, Southwest, US Airways Express
Why We Love It: A favorite of many travel pundits, MacArthur Airport has become the go-to airport when TV talking heads and the like mention avoiding the unquestionably gnarly New York area airports. Southwest makes Islip a real player in New York, but be careful; it is a solid 50+ miles to Midtown Manhattan, most of that on the Long Island Expressway, which can be brutally congested at times.
T.F. Green Airport, Providence, RI, and Bradley International Airport, Hartford, CT
Alternative to: Boston
Airlines (T.F. Green): Cape Air, Delta, JetBlue, Southwest, United, US Airways
Airlines (Bradley International): Air Canada, American, Delta, JetBlue, Southwest, United, US Airways
Why We Love ‘Em: T.F. Green is a great option if you are traveling to the Boston area, but don’t actually want to go into the city, and in particular if you are headed to Cape Cod and other regional summer destinations. If you are headed into town, it’s only about an hour from Boston, so the drive isn’t that bad — save for the infamous Massachusetts drivers.
Bradley is a bit bigger airport than most of those on this list, but its status as an alternate airport serving a major population center is pretty solid, so it’s worth a mention here. Bradley isn’t in a romantic destination itself, but is located right in the middle of New England, and can serve as a great launching pad for leaf-peeping excursions, American Revolution tours, outings to the New England coast and more.
Bangor International Airport, Bangor, ME
Alternative to: New England
Airlines: Allegiant, Delta, US Airways
bangor airportWhy We Love It: If you are looking to airdrop yourself into a New England forest, look no further than the airport in Bangor, Maine. BGR is in the middle of nowhere, admittedly, but a lot of good comes from that — such as $8/day long-term parking, $2/hour short-term parking, and free parking for pick-ups and drop-offs. Flying into BGR during the peak foliage season will make your eyes pop; book a window seat.
Five Lessons Airports Should Learn
How to Find Other Small Airports
This list is only a small sampling of the potential alternate airports you might be able to fly into, particularly if you are willing to purchase “hacker fares.” To help you find the perfect airport near the perfect destination for an upcoming trip, here are a couple of tactics you may want to try:
1. Check the flight maps of the “alternate airlines.” The airlines most likely to fly to these no-hassle airports are sometimes the most-hassle airlines (the fee-crazy Spirit Airlines comes to mind), but not always, with Southwest and JetBlue the most notable exceptions. From there, check the route maps of AirTran (currently merging with Southwest), Allegiant, Frontier, Porter, Spirit, Vision and the various “Connection” and “Express” adjuncts of the majors.
2. Use the “nearby airport” search function available on most major flight booking sites. You can often find great options there.