Travel Writers Reveal Their Top 25 Tips, Tricks, and Secrets

See the world and sell the story— that’s what travel writers do. They make a living in planes, trains, buses, taxis, and cars…on bikes, rickshaws, mopeds, horses, and scooters. They climb mountains, relax on beaches, wander cities, visit museums, eat out, take classes, connect with locals…all in the interest of helping you do the same, with less effort and more success.

Your initial taxi ride from the airport can prove fruitful.

They make the mistakes so you don’t have to. And you’d be hard-pressed to find a more savvy group of voyagers—which is why we asked a seasoned collection of them to share their best tips, tricks, and secrets for traveling better and saving time, trouble, and money along the way.

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See the world and sell the story— that’s what travel writers do. They make a living in planes, trains, buses, taxis, and cars…on bikes, rickshaws, mopeds, horses, and scooters. They climb mountains, relax on beaches, wander cities, visit museums, eat out, take classes, connect with locals…all in the interest of helping you do the same, with less effort and more success.

Your initial taxi ride from the airport can prove fruitful.

They make the mistakes so you don’t have to. And you’d be hard-pressed to find a more savvy group of voyagers—which is why we asked a seasoned collection of them to share their best tips, tricks, and secrets for traveling better and saving time, trouble, and money along the way.

Get the Most From Your First Taxi

Jim Santos, freelance writer

When you arrive at the airport in a new country or city, one of the first things you’ll likely do is hop into a taxi. That initial taxi ride can prove fruitful. After a few pleasantries, ask your taxi driver if he knows anyone who might be able to drive you around to a few popular sites. My wife and I have found that often the driver will volunteer himself or a friend (in Italy we often heard, “I have a cousin”) to do the job. In Ecuador, Peru, and Uruguay, we were able to hire a driver for around $8 to $10 an hour to pick us up at our hotel and drive us to whatever we wanted to see, waiting for us while we explored each site. What’s more, the drivers sometimes know those off-the-beaten-path places that can make a trip more memorable. If you are out for the day, it is customary to buy your driver lunch, but since he knows all the best places to eat, this is a win-win situation as well. And don’t forget to book this driver for your return trip to the airport.

Reach Out to an Instagrammer

Tuula Rampont, IL France Correspondent

Love it or loathe it, Instagram looks like it’s here to stay. While there are lots of ways to get lost in the app looking at cat videos or catching up on the latest celebrity gossip (guilty as charged), Instagram also has one very important benefit for would-be travelers: the opportunity to reach out to locals from all around the world. Before I travel, I type my destination into the Instagram search bar and have a look at some of the accounts that pop up.

Beyond the pretty photos, I look for tips on tucked-away restaurants, quirky cafés, and boots-on-the-ground insights. Is it really safe to walk around Rome at night, as my guidebook says? Will I look silly wearing tennis shoes in the Louvre? Is the Barcelona City Pass the best way to experience the city? Send your favorite Instagrammer a list of your most pressing questions, and you’re likely to receive a wealth of insider feedback in return. And it costs only a few “likes” and appreciative comments.

Enjoy Gourmet Food at Budget Prices

Allen Lycka, freelance writer

In my hometown of Edmonton, Canada, is the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology. It is known as a trade school, where students learn trades. One trade is becoming a chef and at this institute, there’s a hidden gem of a restaurant known as Ernest’s. Not only does it serve some of the best food in Canada, the food is reasonably priced.

Almost every culinary school around the world will have a restaurant. For example, the Basque Culinary School in San Sebastian, Spain has the Cafeteria, where visitors can see the trainee chefs in action and taste a variety of food from Basque Country, Galicia, Catalonia, and Andalucia (see: bculinaryclub. com/es/restaurante).

So, for a great meal at a great price, be sure to check if there’s a culinary school in the city you’re visiting.

Bring a Pen and Always Look Left

Sarah Greaves-Gabbadon, writer @JetSetSarah

The one thing I always carry when I travel, particularly when it’s internationally, is a pen. I always need it for bag tags and immigration and customs forms, and no flight attendant ever wants to give you theirs. Another tip for when you get off the plane and enter the immigration hall (or any room where there are multiple lines): Always choose the left-most line. Most people are right-handed and tend to swerve right, so the lines on the right-hand side of the room are usually much longer.

LAND LUXURY FLIGHTS, PRACTICALLY FREE

Wendy Justice, IL Mexico Correspondent

With the right credit card, you can drastically reduce what you pay for worldwide flights. © 12EE12/iStock

An airline credit card that earns you frequent-flyer miles is worth having. I’ve always been budgetconscious, and I’ve struggled with the idea of paying annual fees for credit cards. However, I enjoy traveling, and accumulating frequent flier miles on cards like these really can save you in the end. I finally invested in an American Airlines card through Citibank and a United Airlines card through Chase. They were both fee-free the first year and cost $95 per year after that. (That exact deal may not be on offer at the moment, but there are always good deals to be had, particularly first-year offers that come loaded with extra-miles enticements.) I use these cards whenever possible for everyday purchases and pay off the balance in full every month.

Last year, my husband and I had to make a sudden trip from Vietnam to the U.S. Airfares were at a premium, but I had enough miles on my American Airlines’ card to buy us two business-class tickets. In addition to the flight upgrade, the card gave us passes into the luxurious business lounge in Narita, Japan, where we ate and drank for free during a long layover. We also had double the luggage allowance we would have had if we’d flown economy. I had to pay only $128 tax on the tickets.

Altogether, even considering the annual fee, we saved about $2,400 on that flight. And I’ve already accumulated enough miles for my next one.

Get the VIP Treatment During Hotel Stays

Jason Holland, IL Correspondent

With all the indignities in travel today, it’s nice to be pampered a bit. That’s why I book accommodation exclusively through Hotels.com. But you can do much more than just reserve a night.

As a registered member booking through the app, you accrue “stamps”— one per night. Get 10 stamps and you get your next booking free (or at a significant discount). It takes the average price of each night and that’s your credit. Ten stamps also makes you a Silver member, which gives you access to discounted pricing and priority customer service, as well as perks like free breakfast, free cocktail, free bottle of wine, voucher for spa service, and more. Each property has their own list. To find eligible properties, just look for the little VIP logo next to the hotel name.

Collect 30 stamps, like me, and you are Gold. You get all of the  above, plus guaranteed two-hour late check-out, as well as free room upgrades and early check-in, if available.

Get access to discounted pricing and free perks.

I’ve used my VIP status at eco-lodges in Costa Rica’s Southern Zone, beach bungalows in Placencia, Belize, and sleek high-rise hotels in Medellín, Colombia. The best freebies were in a boutique hotel in Playa del Carmen, where I got a mojito at the rooftop bar, a bottle of sparkling wine, a room upgrade, and early check-in.

Use an App for Splitting Bills

Sharyn Nilsen, freelance writer

I use the app Splitwise (see: splitwise. com) to track costs as my husband Tim and I travel the world. But it’s especially useful if you are on a trip with someone who doesn’t share your finances. For example, when Tim’s sister came on a road trip with us in Canada, we had AUD, USD, and CAD costs. So we logged the costs according to who paid: I booked a room on Airbnb, she paid for dinner. With Splitwise we could log the costs in the currency it was paid in and specify who paid it. At the end of the trip, the app split everything three ways and told us who owed what to whom and in what currency. We were able to square things up in one transaction. So much easier than splitting the bill at every purchase or keeping track of it on paper.

Get the Best Seat on Your Next Flight

There’s nothing worse than getting stuck in a row where seats don’t recline or ending up in a row by the lavatory with people hovering over you for the entire flight. I avoid this kind of mishap by checking SeatGuru before I choose my seat.

What is Seatguru? SeatGuru is one of the quintessential resources frequent flyers and points travelers use to optimize their seats. Expedia owns it.

SeatGuru is a website with a whole host of specific cabin information, seat details, and aircraft configurations for many airlines—almost 1,300 aircraft worldwide. SeatGuru will likely have plenty of information about your flight, all in one spot. It’s convenient to use, and I always visit the site before selecting my seat once I’ve booked a flight.

  • Allen Lyck, freelance writer

Find the Best Prices on Airfare, Hotel, and Car Rentals

Hopper is an online travel agency and app that tracks billions of pieces of information on airline tickets, car rentals, and hotel rooms to give you a clear idea of the typical fare for a given date. The data is then used to predict the best time to book—Hopper claims a 95% accuracy rate.

  • Allen Lyck, freelance writer

Don’t Take a Trip Without TripIt

What if there was one place where all your travel plans could be stored, and someone could give you a heads up when things change? My husband, Clyde, swears by an app called TripIt. He can make hotel reservations, book flights and even car rentals for multiple trips and TripIt will organize it all for him.

As he makes reservations, he simply forwards the confirmation emails to [email protected] and the app does the rest. During our travels, we get reminders about hotel check in times, it lets us know if our flight is delayed or on time and even which gate we are arriving at.

There is a free version to try it out or for those who do not travel too often. For others like us, there is a paid version that costs $49 a year.

TripIt can be purchased from Google Play or downloaded from the Apple App Store.

  • Terry Coles, IL Portugal Correspondent
In Buenos Aires, your U.S. dollars might be more welcome than Argentinian pesos. ©iStockPhoto.com/holgs

Use Dollars—Not the Local Currency

When traveling from the U.S. to a country that uses a different currency, don’t be too quick to convert all of your dollars to the local money. First, take a quick look at the current exchange rate. An easy-to-use resource is XE.com.

Because the U.S. dollar is so strong right now, you may even be able to use U.S. dollars when you travel abroad…

For example, my wife and I took a trip to the beautiful city of Buenos Aires, Argentina. Known as “the Paris of South America,” there are wonderful places to visit and some great foods to be sampled. Of course, we also HAD to go to a Tango dinner show!

At time of writing, $1 is worth almost 137 Argentinian pesos, pretty close to what it was during our stay.

We found that we could get discounts if we offered to pay in cash with U.S. dollars. Our Tango dinner show went from $240 for two down to $200 when we said we were willing to pay cash.

In short, knowing the local exchange rates can be a great bargaining tool.

  • Jim Santos, IL Contributor

Pre-Printed Labels Make Foreign Mailouts Easy

I am that nerd who still loves postcards. No matter where I travel, I always end up at a local bookshop or souvenir stand sorting through all the gorgeous photos and hunting for the perfect postcards to send to my friends and family in the U.S. Back in the stone ages, I brought along my handwritten address book. Now I keep all those addresses in an Excel spreadsheet, so I graduated to a mail-merged address list printed and tucked into my luggage. Finally, I had a better idea that really works for me.

After finalizing your list of addresses, go ahead and print them onto mailing labels (the 30-per-page ones work well for postcards, as they are small). As you finish writing the postcards, just peel off a label and stick it on. Bonus: you know which people you still need to buy postcards for (because those labels are left) and double bonus: the post office in other countries can easily machine read computer-printed labels, so there’s a good chance the postcard will safely arrive in Grandma’s mailbox.

  • Michele D. Baker, freelance writer

How to Travel Light

I do all my traveling with one carryon-size roll-aboard bag. Your mileage may vary, but this works for me. Here’s how it goes.

I’ve found that there are few places I can’t go (even on work trips) in slacks and a polo shirt. So my travel packing revolves around these items. I take two polos (light and dark) and two pairs of casual slacks (light and dark). If I’m expecting formal dinners, I’ll add a dark dress shirt…maybe a blazer. If the blazer comes along, it’s worn, not packed.

I don’t wear shorts in public (you’re welcome), but since my wife, Suzan, is also my business partner and likes to do non-work things when we travel together, I take a pair of light nylon cargo shorts that double as a swimsuit. If she wants to go for a swim, get on a boat, or take a hike, I can go along.

My footwear is a pair of good walking shoes. They make acceptable dress shoes and can double as hikers if necessary. For pools and boats and strolls on the beach, I take a pair of flip-flops.

Throw in two t-shirts (light and dark), some socks, some boxers, some handkerchiefs, and a packable rain jacket. That’s it for clothing.

This base is adjusted if cold weather is expected…add a sweater or two. Expected weather will also determine which hat goes along…but a hat always goes along. As I’m wearing almost half of the above while actually flying, everything else takes up about 3/4 of the space in my roll-aboard suitcase. The rest of the space is filled with laptop, tablet, charging plugs, a plug converter (mostly for Europe), a Ziploc bag of toiletries, and the sweater if needed.

I can and often do travel with just a toothbrush, comb, plastic razor, and deodorant in that Ziploc bag. I’ve never failed to find anything else I might want or need at my destination.

And yes, if we’re on the road long enough, I rinse things out when needed and hang them about the room to dry. Unless I’m traveling with Suzan…then we find the laundromat or have the hotel do it. She has standards.

  • Dan Prescher, IL Senior Editor

TAKE NO- OR LOW-COST WALKING TOURS

Marsha Scarbrough, freelance writer

Free walking tours are available in almost every city in the world, usually several times a day, and are a wonderful way to quickly get an overview of a new city. I try to take one on my first day when I arrive. Look for people holding umbrellas in the main square of any city. They are guides gathering up groups in different languages.

Though they are often billed as “free” tours, they generally require you tip the guide at the end. However, the guides are usually enthusiastic students, historians, or actors, who are knowledgeable and interesting. You will be inspired to tip generously. As well as giving me a great overview of a city, as a solo traveler, I often find a companion for lunch or further sightseeing among the other solo travelers on the tour.

Pack Like a Pro

My obsessively neat personality makes packing stressful for me. The idea of an unorganized

suitcase and not being able to find things is a nightmare. So, when my husband and I decided to live as nomads without a home base, I researched all that I possibly could about packing. What I discovered was packing cubes.

These Nifty nylon zippered cases come in various sizes and act like a drawer within my suitcase. My favorite ones even have the option to expand with an extra zipper. I can pack

blouses in one, pants in another, accessories in a third and so on. In hotels I simply lift out the

entire little cube. The cubes can be stacked on top of one another on hotel shelves or placed into drawers if we’re staying longer. And when airport security needs to rummage through my suitcase, the packing cubes keeps it all together.

  • Terry Coles, IL Portugal Correspondent

There’s an App for That

I despise packing. I would gladly let someone else do it for me—if I wasn’t so afraid I’d forget something.

But now there’s an app that—while it doesn’t do the actual packing for you—takes a lot of the hassle out of it…

It’s called PackPoint, and it generates packing checklists based on your requirements and weather changes. It’s geared toward everyone from last-minute throw-it-together packers to nit-picking perfectionists like myself who need an all-inclusive packing checklist!

  • Allen Lyck, freelance writer

Need Extra Suitcase Space on the Way Home?

Since I spend some time each year cleaning out my closet and paring down on clothes that no longer “spark joy,” I’ve started putting my donation items aside for upcoming travels.

I’m a fan of traveling with only a carryon—if you can swing it. The ease of rolling out of the airport on arrival can’t be beat.

Each trip, I gain a little extra space for souvenirs by packing a few “one-off” outfits. Perhaps a pair of jeans that are on their last leg, some well-loved t-shirts, or a worn-out sweater or two.

At the end of my stay, I’ll ask the hotel where I can leave the items for donation—happily clearing out space in my luggage for gifts and travel finds. Many a scarf, tote bag, and local food item (artisanal chocolates are my go-to) have found a home in my carryon.

  • Tuula Rampont, IL France Correspondent

How to Hack Airport Security

I have a couple hacks for airport security. I carry a small bag that goes crosswise over my shoulder and across my chest. It’s the size of a small fanny pack. OK, it is a small fanny pack, but I wear it across my chest instead of around my waist. Why? Two reasons.

First, when I carry it this way, it’s not quite a fanny pack and not quite a man bag, so I’m not quite as embarrassed.

Second reason…it’s utterly handy. It carries my travel documents within easy reach. And before going to the airport, I dump the contents of my pockets into it, along with my watch and all my jewelry. When I get to security, no time wasted emptying pockets, just put the bag in the bin.

I’ve also found that in much of the rest of the world, a bag like this is common for men. It’s secure, unobtrusive, and practical.

Back to the airport…I also have a belt with a nylon buckle, so no need to remove it for the scanner or X-ray. I also retie my shoes with slack in the laces before leaving the house. This makes them instant slip-ons if they have to come off for security. I’ve actually gone weeks wearing them this way.

  • Dan Prescher, IL Senior Editor

A Solution for Lost Bags

I never travel without Apple Air Tags in each bag…including the carryon, as some airlines may separate you from it at the door.

Air Tags—small round disks that go into each bag—work with iPhones and Android devices, and will help you locate your bags if they get misplaced.

  • Kiki Bakshi, freelance writer
Summers are busy in Europe… So why not visit a hidden gem—like Dijon, France—rather than a crowded beach? ©iStockPhoto.com/Leonid Andronov

High Season? Consider an Under-the-Radar Destination

Long lines at the Vatican, crowded Côte d’Azur beaches, and sky-high hotel rates can put a damper on July and August vacations to Europe. While many prefer to sidestep the summer season and plan their Old World adventures for later, or earlier, in the year, I’ve found that this period can be a fantastic time to travel to the region. If you know where to go.

Skip Santorini, Mallorca, and any of the splashy seaside destinations dotted around the continent—which are not only popular with foreigners in July and August, but also locals—and head instead to places that aren’t often considered.

Why not hit up the Black Forest in Germany or live like the locals in Brussels, Belgium? Split, Croatia is still largely off the tourist trail, and the French Alps are particularly beautiful in the summertime.

I took a memorable trip to Dijon, France—Burgundy’s colorful, half-timbered capital—one August several years ago. It was amazing. Roughly 80% of French vacationers were at the country’s beaches, so Dijon was almost empty. I took a bus (cost: $1.70) from the train station and did my own hop-on/hop-off wine-tasting tour along the majestic Côte de Nuits wine route. A few other travelers had chosen to cycle their way through the vines. We had the Burgundy countryside to ourselves.

  • Tuula Rampont, IL France Correspondent

The Best Service and Best Hotel Rates

Here’s a hack I use: Find a newly opened boutique hotel, or one that recently re-opened, post-renovation. Everything is brand new. Staff are keen to impress. Rates can be 60% to 70% lower in these early days as the hotel tries to attract customers and beat the competition.

When I booked the Residence Kaštelet in Split, Croatia, it had just re-opened. Rates were about half what I would expect them to be in a typical season. I do this time and time again—even in established beachfront destinations like Tulum, Mexico.

  • Ronan McMahon, Real Estate Trend Alert Editor 

You Need a Translation App

While English is widely spoken in a lot of countries, there are many where it is not. And a language barrier can ruin any trip. My wife and I found this out when we were in Japan. It was hard to communicate because the locals did not speak English and we, of course, did not speak Japanese. We discovered one of the pearls of travel only after we got back: translation apps.

If you’re traveling to a country that uses a different language, do yourself a favor and download Google Translate. You can even take photos of text and translate it in real-time.

Don’t like Google? There are plenty of other options, including Microsoft Translator, Speak and Translate, and Waygo (useful in Asia).

There are lots of websites that compare the various translation apps. Here’s one of my favorites.

  • Allen Lyck, freelance writer

Looking for a Good Restaurant? Ignore Your Guidebook

When I’m in a new place and looking for a good meal, I seek out restaurants that are packed with locals. These places are busy for a reason; the food and service are good enough to have attracted a loyal following at a price that local people can afford. Best of all, it’s an authentic experience, with food made to appeal to local tastes.

Whether I’m in Asia or in Mexico—and I’ve lived in both—I avoid any place with an English menu; restaurants that cater to tourists; or, worst of all, places that charge in U.S. dollars rather than the local currency. These restaurants often have the worst food, the most apathetic staff, and they consistently offer the worst value, too. I make it a point to ignore recommendations in guidebooks and on Tripadvisor for the same reasons.

It’s a much more rewarding experience to find new places where the staff is friendly, the food is tasty and authentic, and few tourists have ever been.

  • Wendy Justice, IL Mexico Correspondent

 Ask a Youth

A great way to find non-touristy restaurants…in a nice neighborhood…where the food is good but the price tag isn’t through the roof…is to ask the young people who work in museums and art galleries. They tend to be foodies—but don’t have much money. So they always know those little hole-in-the-wall finds—or places a block or two off the main drag that only locals know about. I’ve eaten more good meals on the heels of this strategy!

  • Jennifer Stevens, IL Executive Editor

Tiny Gifts Create Long-Treasured Memories

I still remember meeting two young ladies in the dining car on the train to Luxor, Egypt. They were from New Zealand, and we ended up talking for hours. As we pulled into the station, one of the women unclipped a keychain from her backpack and offered it to me: just a little “happy” to remember her by. The size of a walnut, it was a tiny, fuzzy brown kiwi bird stuffed with cotton, complete with orange felt beak.

To this day that memento lives in my jewelry box along with all my other precious things. Sadly, I don’t remember my acquaintance’s name, but I still treasure her gift.

Now I pay that kindness forward whenever I travel by taking along a small collection of Mississippi-themed postcards, ballpoint pens, individually wrapped hard candies, and dime-store finds like balloons, stickers, or holiday-specific knickknacks.

I’ve learned that one of the best ways to break the ice with a newfound friend is to offer a small gift.

  • Michele D. Baker, freelance writer

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