7 Steps To Travel Of Joyousness And Light
I’m an occasional traveler. I have been known, every so often, to trudge along with a suitcase and an anti-terrorist ziploc bag. By which I mean that I’m on an airplane or in a hotel more often than I’m at home.
I love to travel; it’s fantastic in many ways. But this post is not about the wonderment and joy of travel, exactly. Because travel can also be stressful and irritating and suck your soul dry, so this post is about how I (sometimes) manage to turn the less-than-ideal parts into, well, not wonderment and joy, but perhaps less soul sucking moments.
These tips are likely not all that useful to the infrequent traveler. If you don’t travel all that much, then you just might want to book a cheap trip, because after all it’s only a few days, and it’ll get you there. Or you might want to go all out and splurge on an extravagant, relaxing vacation, with fruity drinks that feature umbrellas and a view of the ocean, and cabana boys fanning you with palm leaves, and… right. Business travel. Totally different. Rarely features cabana boys. Someone should work on that.
1. Join those annoying loyalty programs.
I was a complete hold out on this for a long time. I remembered Subway and the tiny stamps and how you were supposed to save this card and then paste these stamps on it and then at some point, after keeping track of teeny scraps of paper and licking unappetizing glue, you ended up with a free cookie. Thanks, I’ll buy my own cookie and clear some clutter from my life.
Fortunately, for the most part, loyalty programs have gotten easier to keep track of. And you get more than a cookie in the end. Although sometimes, you also get the cookie. And who doesn’t like cookies?
At some point, it even becomes useful to give in and do what these companies who offer these programs have been trying to get all of us to do all along — be loyal. I don’t think you should do it simply for the sake of the program, but if you find a company (airline, rental car agency, hotel, or whatever) that offers consistently good service, and provides some perks for returning, you’ve already saved yourself a ton of travel hassle. You don’t really have to think about it. If that company is available where you’re headed, just book it.
And by “consistently good”, I mean, of course, that they offer the Starbucks experience. It may not be the best latte in the world, but it probably won’t kill you and it should be fairly similar to what you got in Boston. And Philadelphia. And Washington DC. Sometimes happy traveling is all about avoiding the unexpected surprise of the hotel room of despair with its lack of a working heater and plastic folding desk chair.
Hotel loyalty programs sometimes start offering you perks just because you’ve signed up — free internet, bottles of water and snacks, free gym. The good rental car programs have a fee to join, but sometimes your company or one of your credit cards offers membership for free. I am Hertz gold for free through my American Express card, and whatever Budget’s program is through my work. Sometimes you just have to dig a little. But that extra five minutes of checking into it will be totally worth it the next time you don’t have to stand in line for an hour at the counter. Because then you might kill everyone around you and end up in prison which would totally make you late for that important meeting.
2. Speaking of annoying loyalty programs, be a frequent flyer on Alaska Airlines if you can.
If you fly a lot, you may as well stick to the same airline when you can, just because it really is worthwhile to gain elite status. However, as someone who is MVP Gold on Alaska and Platinum on American, I can tell you that not all elite statuses are the same. Generally, there’s not much you can do about this. You have to fly with whatever airline calls your home its hub. But I began to appreciate Alaska more and more the last time I called American.
Me: I need to change my flight.
Them: OK, that will be several hundred dollars!
Me: Er, do you waive the change fee or anything since I’m platinum? Alaska doesn’t charge me any fees.
Them: No, we don’t waive the fee, but we’re better than Alaska! We will upgrade you to first class!
Me: Right. Can you do that on this flight then?
Them: Sure, 72 hours before the flight, we’ll let you know if your upgrade went through. And then you’ll need to pay the upgrade fee.
Me: OK. You know Alaska upgrades me when I buy my ticket. For free. I’m just saying.
3. Book your own flights.
I could save some time by having someone else book my travel. But I’m sort of a control freak. And if you consider the number of hours of my life are spent traveling, well letting someone else book my travel would be like having someone else pick out my apartment. It’s worth a little extra time to explore your options sometimes too. Case in point: a few days ago, I was booking a flight from San Jose to Orange County, then from Orange County to Seattle. Alaska doesn’t fly direct from SJC to SNA, so I went to the American Airlines web site. They had lots of flights, so I picked some reasonable times and went to pay. Where I found neither flight was upgradeable. What’s up with that? Does American Airlines suddenly hate me? So I called them.
For the first flight, they told me that it was a regional jet, operated by American Eagle. So not only does the plane have no first class, but it’s a tiny plane. A plane that bounces around in the wind a lot. I’m not really a fan of bouncing around when high in the air. I asked if any of the other flights were on real jets — perhaps a jet that would more smoothly fly through the sky in a less-roller coaster type fashion. Turns out, a flight just an hour earlier fit this criteria. Excellent! Put me on that one! For the second flight, they told me they were codesharing with Alaska. And they can’t upgrade their elite members on Alaska. Great! I’ll book that separately with Alaska. So, in five minutes, I went from a scary tiny plane, squeezed in, eating peanuts, to drinking wine, playing with puppies, and being served peeled grapes by those cabana boys.
4. Consider your hotel room carefully and make it your home.
If you’re staying in a hotel room for only a couple of days, you might think the room doesn’t really matter. But when you realize that cumulatively, you’re spending more time in hotel rooms than in your house, maybe it does matter after all. I have a set of things I look for in a room and then a set of things I do once I get there.
- Please God, let the room have a coffeemaker. I mean, really. What the hell is wrong with this world.
- The hotel really needs room service. Otherwise, I have days like I did a few weeks ago, holed up in my room with my laptop, conference call, followed by email, followed by more conference calls, followed by… well, certainly no food all day. And the mini bar mostly had wax lips. OK, hotel, very whimsical. But when I’m STARVING, I’m not merrily amused by your nostalgic non-edible mini bar food.
- A comfortable desk chair would be too much to ask, I understand this. After what feels like thousands of painful chairs, designed for torture and cruelty, I have succumbed to the hotel chair directive. I will take the pain, and I will like it.
- I know I already asked for room service, but can I have a mini bar too? Sometimes I just really need a bottle of water. Yes, I know they are $10 in the mini bar, but you see, I don’t check luggage and I can no longer bring bottles of water with me because, you know, they might blow up the plane. But I pay the price for the the safety of all of you. And our country.
- Again, due to my great patriotism, I can’t carry on things like shampoo. Hotels should step up the patriotism too and provide me with something that will actually wash my hair and not leave it looking like I’ve been living under a bridge for a week. After all, people take a lot of pictures of the back of my head. My hotel-washed hair gets a lot of exposure!
- A warm bed. You think this should go without saying. But no. It’s late, you’re tired. You just want to sleep. You get into bed and you’ve got one teeny little comforter that generates no heat whatsoever. And since the heating system in the room is an impossible system of knobs that have absolutely no markings on them and seem to be hooked up to nothing anyway, you need some heat. So, you dig through the room for an extra blanket. You check the closet, the dresser, the mini bar. Nothing. For all you hotel rooms that have blankets stashed away, thank you. Really. Otherwise, it’s good to know you need a blanket long before you are so tired you can barely stand up, much less find the phone and explain about this blanket and wait the 40 minutes it will take to bring it up.
- Speaking of calling up and waiting for things, I have learned that it’s best to assess the state of the room right away, rather than let the drama unfold like a made-for-Lifetime movie. Too many times, I have been horrified and traumatized by surprise events. For instance, one does not want to discover that the room is stocked with only decaf coffee at 5am, when the email looms menacingly. Or when hungover. Um, not that the latter has happened to me.
- I know someone who calls and asks for different furniture and then rearranges the room, and while I realize this is a bit extreme, I also completely understand why she would do it. I generally don’t go that far, although there is no reason not to rearrange things a bit if they make the room more comfortable. Sometimes, a well-placed light makes all the difference. Hotels do often have things available if you ask (tea kettle, foam pillows, reading chair). Or are nice to the people who clean the room. The other day, someone brought me a soap dish, unsolicited. She said, “I just thought you might like this soap dish for the bathroom.” Well, thanks!
- The room does have a hair dryer. Really. Somewhere. Places to check: the shelf in the closet, the desk drawer, under the bed. Be warned they often hide it in a bag to make it even more difficult to find. Someone wants you walking around with wet hair and I’m not sure why.
- There’s nothing to be done about this, but I’ll whine about it anyway. Why do rooms provide you with an iron and ironing board if they don’t provide an electrical outlet anywhere in the room where you could actually place the ironing board? Why? If I want to iron, I almost always have to rearrange to the room, just to get at an outlet. And speaking of irons, you would think you could just turn it on and get to ironing. Don’t ever do that. Half the time, the iron will leave horrid black spots or otherwise scorch your clothes and make you look like a street urchin. Test the iron first, perhaps on a hotel towel. On anything, really, other than the absolutely only thing you have to wear to an event that starts in 10 minutes. Just a helpful tip from me to you.
- Power outlets are good. Rooms should have more of them. I stayed at a hotel a few days ago that had a power strip on the desk. I could actually leave the desk lamp plugged in and still charge my laptop, phone, blackberry, and camera. All at the same time! It was a magical moment.
- A gym, any gym at all, even one I have to pay $15 a visit for, is great. A gym that stays open past 10 is even better. One with both cardio and weights? Almost too good to be true.
- Do I even have to mention the internet access? Why does it always suck? Fortunately, I now have a Cingular broadband card, so I scoff at the hotel’s attempts to make me cry with its slow connections that drop every 5 minutes and refuse to let me on VPN. But you may not have a broadband card, so just be prepared for the sobbing. And while I’m at it, couldn’t hotels provide phones that actually work and have connections through which you can actually hear the person you are talking to? I’m just wondering. You know, dreaming the impossible dream.
5. Pack lightly. But well. In good luggage.
I have always been a terrible packer. But I’ve had to buck up and figure it out, because when you’re on the road half the time, you really need the right stuff. And I always need more socks. Some people have an extra toiletry bag, always packed and ready to throw into the luggage. I have that too, although it doesn’t consist of much — just the ziploc bag of peace and freedom with a little toothpaste and a few other tiny terror-free items. But what I do have always packed and at the ready is a bag of electronics. It became ridiculous for me to unplug all my random chargers and things and pack them up every time I needed to take another trip. I’d be unplugging all day! So, instead, I have a set of chargers just for traveling. My little electronics bag has a few other things I might need: usb storage, ethernet cable (courtesy of Yahoo), card reader, spare headphones. It’s hard to see, but it looks a little like this:
You should also bring a CD or two if you’re renting a car. It’s doubtful you’ll be driving around in an area with good radio stations. For one thing, good radio stations don’t really exist.
I used to have crappy luggage, with broken zippers and uneven wheels. I finally splurged on some better luggage. Can you be in love with your luggage? I think I am living proof that you can be. Every time I fit everything into it and wheel it around with no fear of anything breaking or falling apart, I love it just a little more. I don’t pack much in the way of clothes. I figure if I have jeans, I can always grab an extra t-shirt somewhere if I need one. And hotels have same-day laundry service that can be handy. You can always get clothes if you need to. It’s the electronics you really can’t forget to bring.
And so as you can see, I don’t need checked luggage, because my bags consist of the following:
- more socks
- jeans and a t-shirt or two
- phone, blackberry, chargers for same, usb cable, ethernet cable, digital camera, reader for same, charger for same, usb storage, ipod, ipod charger, usb light, bluetooth headset, charger for same, headphones, laptop, charger for same (I would have a travel mouse, but sadly, it doesn’t seem to work), ninento ds lite (obviously, and charger), ds games (um, I’ll stop now to avoid looking like an insane person)
All that stuff totally fits in a carry on.
6. Don’t forget to take pictures.
It’s nice to have photographic proof of where you’ve been. Each city has a unique personality and charm. I’ve begun documenting my own travels this way, as seen by my flickr photo essay: views from hotel rooms.
7. Stay connected
I have the aforementioned Cingular broadband card that works pretty well. I also have a blackberry for those times when I just can’t have the laptop out (those are sad times indeed). A guy sitting next to me a few weeks ago saw my blackberry and jumped on the chance to share his fanatical love with a fellow blackberry addict. He showed me his super-special battery that makes the phone twice as thick but apparently actually lasts more than 5 minutes, unlike the normal battery of crappiness that I have. So, that might be good to get if you use your blackberry a lot. I told him that I just charge it from my laptop with a usb cable and he was shocked and amazed. (This is particularly useful when you need to charge it while on a plane, although that does run down the laptop battery, so you have to choose your powered device, which is sort of like in the Bible when Solomon had to cut that baby in half. Or something like that. I forget the story exactly).
I was using my laptop with my Cingular card on the plane earlier this week (before we took off! I was not in any way jeopardizing the plane’s sensitive electronics with my need for being online! Although to be honest, I would totally try to get online while in the air if I weren’t so terrified of the falling to the ground.). The guy next to me was barely getting a wireless signal from the terminal, but it was working OK. I told him about iPass (which I also have), which lets you get on most airport, hotel, and T-Mobile hotspot wireless spots at no charge. It looks like it’s about $30 a month, which is totally worth it since one day in a hotel can be like fifteen bucks. It even works at McDonald’s. Who knew McDonald’s had wireless?
I’m sure there’s lots more that can make all the difference in traveling, but I have to stop writing now because they’re calling my flight. What are your trips for making travel something other than a walk through the burning inferno of painfulness?