Planes, trains and automobiles: Make me a better traveler
April 22, 2013 8:36 AM   Subscribe

I travel on a semi-regular basis and would like to become a better traveler, both in terms of trip planning and packing/unpacking/repacking. If you travel frequently, how do you do it? How can I up my game?

TL; DR: I would like to know how I can spend less on travel (short of traveling less) and/or make it less stressful for me and my husband. We're in a position where we can afford to pay for things that are a little more expensive if they will be less stressful. I am interested in hearing about loyalty programs, credit card rewards programs, helpful websites, packing tips and general travel strategies (if you buy a plane ticket during a full moon, the security line at the airport will be nonexistent).

I'm also interested in hearing tips on getting cheap airfare and vacations abroad. A friend explained that the trick is to travel when you can get a deal, not when you want, but if you have more advice along those lines, I'm interested.

My husband and I frequently travel short distances (less than 400 miles) to visit family or have fun for a few days at a time (usually long weekends) several times annually. In the first 5 months of this year, there will have been 6 such trips as well as a week-long work trip and a week-long vacation.

We usually fly where we're going except when we go to NY because the bus is so cheap. Southwest is often our airline of choice because they fly to my dad's town though we've flown a few times with US Airways recently. We usually rent a car when we go to places where public transportation is lackluster. Since we're usually visiting family, we don't need hotel rooms unless we're going on vacation.

Specific questions:

- Rental cars: I usually just book the cheapest one which I find using Priceline or Hotwire. I recently joined Alamo's membership thing because it's usually the cheapest but our minimal interactions with customer service are almost always unpleasant. Is there a rental car company program for which I can sign up that will give us points and where they won't behave insanely?

- Flights: We're members of Southwest's frequent flyer program but to fly with Southwest, we have to go to an inconvenient airport so I've been interested in flying more with US Airways, which flies out of a more convenient airport. However, I don't understand frequent flyer programs. In general, how many miles do I need to get a free flight? What does that mean in practical terms (10 short RT flights?)? Do you just need to check to see if you have enough miles for a free flight or do they let you know? Is it worth buying miles?

- Hotels: Similar to rental cars, are there loyalty programs or such that are reasonable and have good benefits? I usually pick hotels based on price but if say, the Holiday Inn offered a really nice rewards program and people who go to the Holiday Inn in any city generally have a good experience, I'd be interested in joining.

- Trains and buses: We usually take MegaBus or BoltBus to visit family in NY because holy crap it's cheap. That said, it feels like it takes forever and I have a hard time using that time productively, plus when I get where I'm going, I feel exhausted so I feel like by taking the bus, I am losing days of my life. I don't mind flying but the bus. is. so. cheap. Is there a way to get cheap flights from DC to NY? I feel like I heard that you could pay for a few trips on the DC to NY shuttle and get one free but maybe I made that up. I've also been told that you can take the train for cheap occasionally but I have never been able to find a train fare that was anywhere near reasonable (~$100 RT) unless I take the train at 4 a.m. Is everyone who says that you can get a cheap train a total liar or am I doing something wrong? How do you sit on a bus for 4-6 hours without going crazy? I take anxiety drugs and nap for a bit, read, listen to podcasts, but after about 3.5 hours, I am done and I start getting cranky.

- Packing: Since I run, I plan to leave pairs of semi-retired running sneakers at my dad's and in-laws' homes so that's one less thing I have to pack. I use packing cubes yet packing always feels like an ordeal. There is a spot in our apartment where I put our suitcases when we return and it feels like stuff just sits there. I am trying to be better about it - we returned from a trip Saturday night and I already put our suitcases away - but it feels semi-exhausting. I don't think I over-pack much and am trying to get better about re-wearing clothes but it's a work in progress. What are your tips for traveling lightly and packing easily? I am thinking of just putting aside all of the liquid things I take on trips that I can in one of those liter bags so I can just grab it. And maybe buying more underwear. I feel like I never have enough underwear. Should I make checklists? What do I tell my husband when he makes fun of me? (kidding. sort of.) Do you have cool products that do double-duty? I LOVE cool products that do double-duty. Please tell me all about them immediately.

- Anxiety: My husband and I both just get anxious about traveling. We take medication for it occasionally and I try to alleviate it by starting to pack a week ahead of time so then we don't have to think about it but then I worry that I'm just stretching out the amount of time during which we feel anxious. I also try to tell him, dude, we're visiting our parents, we don't have to impress people, but anxiety is irrational. We used to have a terrific way of dealing with travel anxiety but the burrito shop at the airport stopped selling margaritas. How do you manage travel anxiety? We also become a negative feedback loop between us.

- Credit cards: Are there rewards cards that would give us points or magic beans for flights, rental cars, hotels, etc.? I just feel like somehow, my friends all have platinum status on different airlines and I'm like, I check two bags for free on Southwest! Which is fine and I don't really care but if I could do something small differently that would improve our travel experience, I'm up for it.

God bless you for reading this far. I'm looking forward to hearing your thoughts.
posted by kat518 to Travel & Transportation (25 answers total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
Are there rewards cards that would give us points or magic beans for flights, rental cars, hotels, etc.?


Packing: Since I run, I plan to leave pairs of semi-retired running sneakers at my dad's and in-laws' homes so that's one less thing I have to pack.

I keep a toiletry box with a razor, toothbrush, toothpaste, etc. at my parents' house so I don't have to carry all that stuff with me when I stay with them.

How do you sit on a bus for 4-6 hours without going crazy?

By avoiding, as much as it is feasible, taking MegaBus and plan ahead so that I can take Boltbus.

Traveling very early in the morning helps a LOT because I am so tired that I sleep most of the way.

I fly to Boston from DC regularly. What I do is either book way ahead of time or notice, "Hey, it just so happens that trips are really cheap for such-and-such a weekend!" and book my flight based on that.
posted by deanc at 8:48 AM on April 22, 2013

I'm a business traveler that flies 100+ times a year and have accumulated lots of points and miles by the traditional way (by actually flying and staying at hotels). This is great, if someone else pays for it. I've probably gone on $20k+ of free travel this way.

Two years ago I started getting into really hard-core Credit Card churning, which takes advantage of special sign up offers for credit cards. I would highly recommend reading The Points Guy travelblog. This has revolutionized my travel ability. Next year I'll be spending maybe $100-$200 (fees and taxes) on a honeymoon to Japan and Hawaii using points I received just for signing up for credit cards.

Other comments:
-Priceline bidding is def best way to for rental cars, but I like using rental car codes.

One word of caution: travelling on the cheap is not for the faint of heart. I LOVE the organizing and calculating, but it can be very frustrating and stressful. But the rewards (being able to travel vs. not being able to travel) far outweigh the negatives, IMO.
posted by sandmanwv at 8:49 AM on April 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

I try to alleviate it by starting to pack a week ahead of time so then we don't have to think about it but then I worry that I'm just stretching out the amount of time during which we feel anxious.... How do you manage travel anxiety? We also become a negative feedback loop between us.

I was a multiple times a month traveler for a few years and also a bit of an anxious traveler. I basically stopped traveling in the middle of the last year and it's changed my whole life for the better. So part of this assessment for you is the "Is this trip really necessary?" sorts of things. If you dislike flying but that's how you start your vacation it may be worth thinking, for example, about whether vacations that involve flying are actually fun vacations. Similarly if you dislike flying but are involved in schemes that get you point for ... more flying, that's not maybe what you want.

I am a cheap traveler and I have found that while there may be benefits for the business traveler who can build up loyalty points, I was usually better off having no loyalty at all and arranging my travel around what was convenient to me and not stressful. I put expenses on a cash back credit card. Once you travel a while you get into a routine (learn how parking works, how long everything takes, how to roll with various setbacks) and your goal before that should be to find that routine point. I totally agree with you that starting to pack a week early is just prolonging the agita. Have a packing list or use one like the Universal Packing list. All you really need to plan in advance is things like laundry, shopping you might need to do ("Am I out of anything...?") and making sure you have ID, money and that's about it. Forgot a toothbrush? You can buy one when you get there. Very little is mission critical with modern travel if you're forgiving with yourself for making the occasional mistake.

Part of doing this well is making packing disrupt your life as little as possible. Have seconds of chargers or pajamas so you can have a travel set that stays in your bags. Have a place for all the things you need to bring (printouts, chargers, receipts, whatever) that are as modular as packing cubes. And yes buy more underwear. And tell your husband who is teasing you "We are on Team Travel right now, please help me and I will help you have the most relaxing trip given the circumstances" and then really try to make this happen. You guys are a team, you both find ways to keep the two of you relaxed. Remember HALT (hungry, angry, tired, lonely) as real stress and anxiety inducers. Things you can plan a few days in advance including getting enough exercise, eating enough food and getting enough sleep so that you can be rested and ready for a trip that may be a little discombobulating.
posted by jessamyn at 8:53 AM on April 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

The search term to figure out how many miles you need to get a reward flight for a particular airline is "reward chart". Check out Frequent Miler and View from the Wing for up to date advice about credit card rewards.
posted by caek at 9:01 AM on April 22, 2013

I have things that are "perma-packed" - charger that I can use in a car or with a wall outlet, ziploc bag of travel size toiletries + hand sanitizer etc (the typical airport zip baggie stuff), basic makeup (powder, eyeliner, mascara, lipstick, eyeshadow, a tweezer, etc), a small ziploc with teabags and a protein bar, some aspirin, etc.
Basically the things I was always forgetting and that it's easy enough to keep a set of for travel only and those just stay in the suitcase plus an emergency snack.
When I get home I unpack right away and then throw some basics in the suitcase - unders and socks, that kind of thing, plus snack replenishment, so I've got a head start on packing. It only takes a few minutes and makes a world of difference for me.
posted by mrs. taters at 9:04 AM on April 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

For rental cars, if you join National's Emerald Club program you can just walk up to the car of your choice and drive away. The most interaction you have will probably be talking to the guy when you get off the bus, then handing the gate guard person the packet of paperwork. I believe they're more expensive than most places but also way less hassle. The worst experience I had with them was they were out of the class I reserved and the next three tiers up, so the lady shrugged and put me in some ungodly awesome sports car for the price I'd paid. It was rough, lemme tell ya.

I used to travel a lot for business and I had (and still have) a completely separate wardrobe for travel, which means I don't have to worry about laundry or "oh, I meant to wear my blue shirt but it's got salsa stains on it from nacho night". It was expensive upfront but since I only use them when traveling, those clothes last a while and it's nice to have one less thing to worry about.

Also, a garment bag is miraculous for packing light. Put a full outfit on a sturdy, heavy wire hanger. 5 hangers means you've packed for 5 days. Toss a toiletry bag in the pocket and some underwear and socks in the bottom and you're done packing. Get a wheeled one with a carry strap and never deal with an enormous suitcase again.

For your anxiety, figures out what triggers it. Is it the chance of missing your flight, say? I hate that idea, so I get to the airport ungodly early and find a bar to chill out in. Is it the security line? A lot of airlines have a cheap upgrade to put you in the fast-moving one. Is it sitting in those godawful seats? It's worth the $25-50 to upgrade to the decent economy (and a first class upgrade is always worth it if you can swing it) if you can afford it. Is it the terrible food? Bring some with you. People make fun of me for having my bag full of snacks right up until they're stuck on a 6 hour flight and the only thing to eat is a $10 tube of Pringles.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 9:07 AM on April 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

I try to travel about as light as possible. Don't bring anything that you will have at your destination. Leaving running shoes at your families' is a great idea; you could leave toiletries and pajamas there too, for example. Don't bring towels, hair dryers, etc.

Do keep a toiletry kit packed and ready to go at all times. I have a tiny kit with tiny bottles of everything, and I refill them all when I get back. I can't keep absolutely everything in there because I use some of it (like my favorite contact lens case, or prescription meds) so I also put a checklist of what else I need to add INSIDE the toiletry case. I also love multi-use toiletries. Some of my favorites are an all-in-one shampoo, body and face wash (which I decant into a smaller bottle, of course) and Nivea cream which works as face moisturizer, cuticle cream, hand cream, even hair pomade if you use a very very light touch.

It helps me a lot to think of my packing in categories. My categories generally are: clothes, gadgets, toiletries, everyday carry (like my wallet, keys, etc.), and snacks for the trip. This way, I can pack up all my toiletries, for example, and be completely done with that part and not have to think about it again.

For clothes, make sure not to bring duplicates, and plan so that everything works with everything else. For example, bring one skirt, one pair of pants/jeans, and one dress, instead of two pairs of jeans. Bring just a few tops, cardigans and jackets that you can mix and match and layer. Here is a very helpful visual post on packing light in this way. I also try to pack clothes that multitask. You could bring two tech t-shirts, for example. Sleep in one, then run in it the next day, then wash it and sleep in the other while it dries overnight.

Finally, I find it really helpful to put sort of arbitrary limits on what I can pack by using small containers. I allow myself one tiny toiletry kit, only one packing cube for clothes, and everything has to fit in my small duffel bag (no wheels... ever).
posted by payoto at 9:11 AM on April 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

And remember what my dad always says - "what, they don't have stores where you're going?.

I <3 Southwest - at the risk of jinxing myself, they have been consistently less annoying than the other airlines, and they do have a rewards program. I don't think you're traveling enough to get super high end rewards benefits that will offset paying more.

Oh, do you park at the airport? At BWI by chance? Pay the $22 a day to park in the Hourly lot - it's like $22 a day as opposed to the $14 for the Daily lot but there's no bus, you can walk there in 10 minutes from the Southwest terminals. I never check bags (don't check bags if you can help it!) so I get off the plane (sit near the front, off faster) and go straight to my car, it's so much less hassle.

The Amtrak Regional DC-NYC is terrible. Stop/start and so crowded, and not that cheap. Acela is much more expensive but it's a far better train experience (wifi is notoriously awful though). I've never seen $100 round trip even on regional, except for crazy off hours.
posted by mrs. taters at 9:14 AM on April 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

I rarely fly (because I'm a combination of cash poor or time poor, usually) and I stay in youth hostels, so this is just addressing packing.

- Packing: Since I run, I plan to leave pairs of semi-retired running sneakers at my dad's and in-laws' homes so that's one less thing I have to pack.

This is a brilliant idea and I applaud it.

I use packing cubes yet packing always feels like an ordeal.

I hate those packing cube things; they always strike me as one of those ideas that sound good in theory but are a pain in the ass in execution. Yeah, it's good to have all your items contained so you can just pick what cube you need without unpacking everything, but then you have to unpack the cube to get at the specific t-shirt you want and then try to repack everything and get the zipper closed and then repack the cube in the suitcase itself and get that zipper closed and why am I doing all this unpacking and repacking still oh fuck it. I find that just paring down the clothes I'm bringing is way easier; if you're worried about staying organized when you're at your travel destination, just unpack everything into the closet or dresser drawers instead. (I do that myself, actually, when I'm not at a youth hostel.)

Which fits neatly into:

I don't think I over-pack much and am trying to get better about re-wearing clothes but it's a work in progress.

Unpacking all your clothes into the closet or dressers can help - you can better see what you have and it can help with dressing in the morning. Then you can just repack the things you won't wear again into the suitcase as you go, and the morning you need to leave you just repack whatever isn't in the suitcase yet.

As for deciding what TO pack - there's this foofy fashion site called Polyvore that's sort of like Pinterest for fashion. I realized that it's kind of a genius way of making a packing list - it lets you "save" certain pieces of clothing, and then you can create "outfits" from them, and then save them to "sets" of outfits and so on. It's meant for a fashion-ideabook-sharing social media thing, but I just used it to make a packing list for a trip - I picked a few clothing pieces and then played around with just those pieces to see how many outfits I could get from the least number of clothes. Once I had enough outfits for each day of my trip, I had my packing list. Try playing with that - that can help you spark ideas for how to re-wear clothes for different outfits.

Also, embrace accessories. You can totally re-wear something with a different scarf or necklace and it's a whole different outfit - but a necklace takes up way less room in your bag than does another shirt.

I am thinking of just putting aside all of the liquid things I take on trips that I can in one of those liter bags so I can just grab it.

I do that too - it also makes sense because you'll need to have it separate anyway for the TSA scanners.

And maybe buying more underwear. I feel like I never have enough underwear.

One of the very first things I do when packing is open my underwear drawer and start naming off the days I'll be away, throwing one pair of underwear into my suitcase as I go ("Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday....") and then add one extra. If you run out of underwear before you run out of trip, you do indeed need to buy more underwear or do laundry. You can also hand-wash on your trip if need be, but we'll get to that in a minute. (This is also how I pack my socks too.)

Should I make checklists?

....If it helps? I tried checklists but I realized I don't really use them so it was just an extra thing to clutter my brain with.

Do you have cool products that do double-duty? I LOVE cool products that do double-duty. Please tell me all about them immediately.

Go to a camping store and check out some of the cleaning stuff for campsites. Or, just get some Dr. Bronner's liquid soap. It can stand in not just for body wash and face wash, but can also be shampoo in a pinch, and it can work as laundry detergent (if you need to wash underwear!), or even dishwashing detergent. And, if you get the peppermint scent, a shower with that can also offer relief if you're somewhere where the air conditioner is bust.

What do I tell my husband when he makes fun of me? (kidding. sort of.)

Tell him that if he doesn't back off you'll make him carry your suitcase.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:16 AM on April 22, 2013

I've also been told that you can take the train for cheap occasionally but I have never been able to find a train fare that was anywhere near reasonable (~$100 RT) unless I take the train at 4 a.m.

What you should do is sign up for Amtrak's sales email list; there are often seats for as low as $25 between Philly and NYC or DC, and slightly more for DC to NYC. To be honest I think the time/cost works out fairly well for Amtrak vs. flying between DC and NYC, because I find airports really annoying and love the convenience of being able to step onto the train fifteen minutes beforehand not two hours for a flight. That's even aside from the cost of parking or getting to and from the airports. I have an Amtrak credit card and it's 4000 points for a free ride (one way) on the Northeast corridor, which is helpful for the times when it's $176 during a peak holiday season. Amtrak beats Megabus for DC to NYC, hands down, but the Acela is definitely a nicer experience overall.

If you belong to any professional organizations or alumnae groups, you can check to see whether you get any perks through them. My college has a decent deal with the Club Quarters and if I drove, I could get better rates on rental cars from another group that I belong to.

And yes, buy more underwear. It is 100% useful and practical, and you will never regret the extra four ounces. Keep it and some extra socks in a spare lingerie bag in your suitcase, along with the liter bag of your extra toiletries which you should also buy.
posted by jetlagaddict at 9:23 AM on April 22, 2013

First, let's address the packing thing.

I like doing it all without checking luggage for short jaunts. I fly out of ATL-Hartsfield, and it's massive. Going from the parking lot to your gate means that you might walk about 2.5 miles. (No exaggeration.) Even still, although my arms want to fall off by the time we get to the plane, it's easier and less hassle than checking bags.

Packing light is the thing. Don't overpack, you can always pick stuff up where you are.

Wear your heaviest shoes on the plane. So running shoes on your feet. Get some with velcro to make it easier through security. If you're into loyalty, stay at the Westin, they have a thing where you can rent New Balance shoes and workout gear, less to pack.

Wear your heavy jeans on the plane and your big sweater. (Unless you're traveling for business, then wear your suit.

Only have one-color outfits. I used to go to Pittsburgh every other week. I'd wear a black suit up, with new shirts, scarves and undies in my bag. I'd wear the suit for three days. Same shoes, same purse. The next time, I'd go Navy. The time after that, Red.

Update your 1 Qt plastic bag with liquids after you return. Top everything off and put it in your rolly bag for next time. Keep the liquids in one bag and the other stuff in another. So Q-tips, powder, stick deodorant, etc can go in another bag and stay in your rolly bag.

Keep the one you have to take out and put in the bin at the very top of the suitcase. Better yet, find a very large shoulder bag and put your purse, e-reader and your baggie in it.

When you get to security, have a routine. Whip the baggie out, in the bin. Shoes off, in the bin, computer out, in the bin. Bags on the belt. Get it down to a science. At Hartsfield, there's a line for experienced travelers, there's a line for Frist and Business too. Use it.

As for frequent flyer miles. Southwest gives you points based on segments, so, X segments to a free segment. US Airways (soon to be American) uses points. Typically 25,000 points/miles for a free ticket. The more you fly, the easier it is to build up points. Use their credit card, certain routes will have bonus points, staying in a hotel affiliated with the airline may give you bonus points. Etc.

Car rentals can be very cheap if you book with the airline, so can hotels. Always check that out. I once got the InterContinental Barclay in New York for $200 a night because we booked it in advance with American. It's usually about $400 a night.

Rent the smallest car you can, more than likely you'll get an upgrade. If you're willing to take the Minivan they'll give that to you with a smile. Ask, you never know. I always hondle with the guys at the rental counter:

Me: So, what kind of car do you have for me?

Them: Hyundai Sonata

Me; EW! Does it have Satellite radio? I want satellite radio.

Them: No.

Me: What about the Mini-van? Is that in?

Them: You want that?
Me: Sure. It's not extra is it?

Them: Nope, Joe, bring around the red Caravan!

I use checklists, but that's just me. I once forgot a nightgown! Oh well, I bought one there. No harm, no foul. Just don't use a checklist to justify bringing the whole house with you.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:23 AM on April 22, 2013

We just got back from a five-day trip in the car, staying in an AirBnB rental. Most of these tips are in agreement with other posters, but I'll add my own thoughts.

Definitely agree on having seconds and pre-packed things. I have ADD, and it is SUCH a pain for me to remember where my deodorant is or whatever. You should still do a check before you go, just to make sure that your stuff didn't turn into a brick since last time, but it's great to just grab and go.

What are the things that are the most important to your usual routine at home? What are the things that make you feel the most discombobulated when you're away? Focus on those things, and do things that make YOU feel good, even if they may look a little silly to others. If you're breathing easier in one area, it'll spill over to other areas and make those easier too.

One thing we've started doing is taking our own bedding with us. We have a couple of those giant blue IKEA bags that cost like 2 bucks; they're perfect for dragging a comforter or pillows around. We can just pop them in the back of the car and go. We can LEAVE them in the back of the car, so we can stay overnight if we happen to be at a friend's cabin and want to hang out.

Those giant bags are a lifesaver for pretty much any situation. They're perfect for collecting and transporting dirty laundry. I don't know why I didn't think of just plain asking people if I could use their laundry facilities; it makes things so much easier. We actually didn't even pack bags this time; we just put stuff in a laundry basket.

Along those same lines: if you're staying with friends or family, just ASK. Ask ahead of time for the wireless internet password, or whether they'd mind if you came in at 11 p.m., or if they mind if you watch your favorite TV show on Thursday night. Obviously a lot of this depends on whether you and your hosts are ask/guess people, but most likely the worst thing they can do is say no.

The nicest thing about asking questions is that you can often start really great conversations or make better connections.

Don't stress out if you forget something (well, something other than prescription meds). A trip is never complete without a stop at Target! Honestly, I almost think of it as a souvenir sometimes. On the trip to Chicago when my husband proposed, we had to stop there because I'd forgotten my shirts. Now I always remember that trip when I wear my "shirt of good things" that I bought that day :P

Really, it's the same principle as buying and storing/hoarding STUFF around your house. It's a self-esteem and self-reliance thing: you want to know that you'll be prepared in any eventuality. But you know where to find stuff, or whom to call, right? So don't pack quite so much STUFF; pack your smarts in your head and friendship in your heart :) (Okay, that last bit is cheesy as hell, but seriously: anyone who wouldn't lend you an iron or hair dryer isn't worth hanging out with.)

But also... especially since you're a frequent traveler, don't hesitate to buy or acquire EXACTLY what you need. If you have something that's not quite right, but you keep putting up with it (a bag with a wonky wheel, or a little black dress that requires ironing every time you wear it), it'll affect everything you do when you see it. Often, too, you'll keep buying other things that aren't quite right to make up for it. So spend a little money now on the right thing, and you'll save time, money and crankiness in the future.

Other products that are really great:
--If you're a woman who has periods, I absolutely cannot recommend the Diva Cup or a similar reusable cup highly enough. Whether you're camping or going to another country or just wondering if you should stay another night over the holidays, you never have to worry about "oh, geez, do I have enough tampons?" or "They don't sell my brand here... CRAP!" or "I know I'm supposed to pack in and pack out, but used stuff is gross." Plus it holds more than other methods, is easy to clean/reposition, and is environmentally friendly and cost-effective. Seriously, it changed my life.

--There are loads of places where you have limited choices for beverages (and hydration is SO important while traveling!), but you will almost always have access to either bottled water or a drinking fountain. This is where little packets or bottles of beverage flavoring stuff -- Kool-Aid for adults -- comes in super handy. That Mio stuff hasn't really won me over, but Trader Joe's sells iced teas, Crystal Light has all sorts of "On the Go" packets or liquids, and even Starbucks now sells these non-coffee Refreshers like the Very Berry Hibiscus Cooler in packet form. So I really didn't want to drink Diet Pepsi all the time, and I wasn't allowed to bring outside drinks in, BUT I just poured that stuff in and had a delightful drink.

--You can use conditioner as shaving gel :)
posted by Madamina at 9:30 AM on April 22, 2013

Packing - I'm a girl and a huge proponent of rolling my clothes instead of folding them while packing. It seriously works in saving space and prevents wrinkles. Check and for more info
posted by BitterYouth at 9:38 AM on April 22, 2013

I am a big fan of checklists for packing, I think it takes a lot of the packing stress away, but that may just be me. I have a very detailed method - my boyfriend does tease me about it, but then he asks me to put things on “the list.” I have a spreadsheet on my computer that contains multiple tabs with packing lists for different types of trips (work, camping, beach vacation, visiting parents, etc.) When a trip is coming up, I start looking at those lists and either start a new one or modify an existing one. They are organized into 3 columns – clothing, toiletries, other stuff. I try to be as specific as possible – I don’t just write “shower stuff” on the list, I list shampoo, face soap, shaving cream and so on. And I don’t just write “sweatshirt” but “blue hooded Gap sweatshirt.” And I put everything on the list, everything! It doesn’t matter if I am sure I won’t forget something, it still goes on the list. I usually don’t start actual packing till a day or 2 before I’m leaving, and I pack from the list and check each item off as it goes into the suitcase. The goal is to make the actual packing as stress free as possible – I don’t have to think about what I need to be packing, I just need to follow the list. For me this takes away any anxiety about forgetting things or over packing. Another thing that I do to help not over pack is to write out my outfits for each day of my trip. Otherwise I tend to just start grabbing things and end up with like 8 outfits for a 3 day trip.
posted by Sabby at 9:45 AM on April 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

I've also been told that you can take the train for cheap occasionally but I have never been able to find a train fare that was anywhere near reasonable (~$100 RT) unless I take the train at 4 a.m. Is everyone who says that you can get a cheap train a total liar or am I doing something wrong? How do you sit on a bus for 4-6 hours without going crazy?

FYI, only the Acela will get you from DC to NY in ~3 hours on a good day; the Northeast Regional, which is the slower and cheaper of the two rail services, generally takes the same amount of time as the buses do. As with all the other travel providers (hotels, airlines, etc.), you'll want to sign up for Amtrak's promotional e-mails so you can be aware of sales and discounts.

You might be interested in the AmEx platinum card, which has quite a few travel benefits associated with it. YMMV, but even with the annual fee, it works out cheaper than buying day passes to airport lounges or paying to upgrade rooms for the good doctor and I.
posted by evoque at 9:52 AM on April 22, 2013

I tend to pack from a list but that's mostly because I can write up the list during downtime at work and then just put the stuff in the bag when I get home.

I keep toiletries, chargers, etc. pre-packed (liquids in their quart-size baggie), and although I do still sometimes run out and forget to refill/replace stuff, I always have *most* of what I need (I have not yet died of having to use shampoo instead of soap or vice versa). It occurs to me I could keep a half dozen pairs of underpants in there too, and that would be plenty for most of my trips and enough to get by with (with washing) if necessary on longer trips.

And speaking of underwear, I try to only travel with things that I can wear with a black bra (with exceptions for special-occasion-wear). It's sort of a corollary to the everything-goes-with-everything-else rule.

Finally: there really are some awesome credit card deals out there if you have good credit. I have a British Airways card that I'm going to get multiple nearly-free trips to Europe out of, and I'm going to sign up for some more cards soon!
posted by mskyle at 10:01 AM on April 22, 2013

1) In terms of airlines, hotels, rental cars, etc., you can either save time or save money. It's hard to do both. When traveling, I typically stick to one airline, one rental car chain, and known hotels. They're usually quite reasonable offers – not the lowest cost and not the most luxurious, but solid value.

The reason that I do this is because saving money takes a lot of time. When looking at coupons/vouchers/discounts/etc, they are designed to segment consumers into the time-rich category. Those that would rather save money than spend money. Yet there is a cost. Always chasing the lowest-cost rent-a-car meant I was always dealing with a new process for renting a car, different locations, different rules, etc.

Now I just use Fox Rent A Car if available, or Hertz if not. The reason being that I know what I am going to get with each of those brands. Whilst the Fox lot is quite far away from the terminal at LAX, for example, I know the timing of the shuttles, the process for taking the car, exiting the lot, where to gas up on the way back, and the returns process. Same with Hertz.

It's down to the difference of having a brand's customer service being programmed into the mobile phone. When there's the problem, it's the difference of looking up a number, versus finding a number.

So consider that the process for searching for a deal is exponential in time. For ever increment of savings, one has to spend more and more time looking for the discount. Sometimes, you just have to ask. Other times, it's possible to spend a lot of time and energy, for what amounts to very little actual savings, especially where stress is concerned. I wonder if this is playing into your anxiety as mentioned below.

2) Packing: The mistake I used to make when packing was to try and replicate the closet on the road. Thinking about what I would wear at home and then taking that with me. The reality is that at home, there are few limitations, whereas on the road, there are a lot more.

The result has been to have three travel outfits, that are not specific clothes but styles of clothes. Things that interact. A grey suit, a pair of nice jeans, and a pair of not-so-nice jeans. A pair of black shoes, running shoes, and flip flops. Three collared shirts – one solid white, one solid blue, and one patterned. Four white t-shirts. Four pairs of underwear. Four pairs of socks. Two ties. One clip on bow-tie.

I can go to a black-tie event acceptably underdressed, or I can go hiking slightly overdressed. I can go to a meeting at a bank (suit with tie) or to a press evening (suit jacket, nice jeans, no tie).

All of this fits in one European carry-on rolly-bag. For the travel kit, I have everything duplicated. Toothpaste, toothbruch, floss, hair wax, etc. and in the bag already.

If it's low-cost enough (toiletries), buy a separate inventory and leave them in the bag. For clothes, choose standard outfits. Accessories go a long way (hats, sunglasses for me) at very low weight.

3) Anxiety: I notice travel anxiety in two situations. The first is when I am trying to stretch out money literally as far as it will go. I don't do that anymore. Now I either make sure I can do it comfortably, or don't do it. It's just not fun to have everything stretched so razor thin that there is no margin. There were a couple of trips early on in my travels where I was literally trying to save money to the point where I didn't get to do or see anything. Yes, I was in an amazing city. I was so stretched, I sat in a cafe reading a book. Not the worst experience, but also not really very much fun.

The second (and for me) more anxiety-prone situation is trying to stretch time. I dislike waiting and I was always trying to wait as little as possible. That was so stressful. Then I started getting to the airport two hours ahead with a newspaper. It's so relaxing. Sitting in the terminal, calling a friend to catch up. I turned it from what I considered wasted time, into my own time, to do all the things I don't get to do most days. The vacation begins at the airport now.

And this extends along the entire chain, from booking taxis (booking the night before versus when needed). Basically, the antithesis to anxiety (for me) is planning and building in margin.

Overall, I don't think your experience is all that uncommon. A lot of people like to travel, and try to save as much money as possible. It's possible to go amazing distances, provided one is willing to be very uncomfortable. I would say stop trying to chase the best deals. That will drive you crazy, as you build yourself into a pretzel to save as much as possible.

I'll give you an example. When I first went to India, I took a night bus from San Francisco to SFO, then a red-eye from SFO to Chicago. Landed at 8AM. Flight from Chicago to Milan leaving at 6PM. Landing in Milan at 10AM with a five hour layover. Flight to Mumbai. Land in Mumbai at midnight, followed by a few hours in a capsule hotel and then an all-day train in third class to Goa. That whole journey cost me less than $500.

And I would never do it again, as I almost went mad. It was amazingly inefficient but I do not think I have ever been more uncomfortable in my life. Last time I went back to India, it was two direct flights, full stop. I booked ahead, so I got a good deal. About $1000. Double the price, but very much worth it.

So in short:

1) Find mid-market brands that offer good quality for good price, and enjoy the habit.
2) Don't expect that you can replicate your closet in a suitcase.
3) Go for comfort, and build healthy margins into your time and money planning.
posted by nickrussell at 10:21 AM on April 22, 2013 [6 favorites]

A few more tips:

- Definitely play the credit card game to get free miles. Check out for more details and to hang out with the real travel trick pros.

- Don't worry about packing. AT ALL. I grew up in a family where it was hugely stressful and oh-my-god-what-if-I-forget-the-shampoo every time we traveled. Most places in the world have stores. If they don't, there are people there who wash their hair somehow. So, just buy things there. It's a nice souvenir and when you get home you can wash your hair with your NYC shampoo (or whatever). Same with clothes. If you don't have business dress requirements, you can just buy some new t-shirts at Target (or insert your fancier store here) and then your shopping is done too!

- Keeping duplicates of heavy or important items is a great idea. Chargers, running shoes, boots, etc.

- Snacks are very important in my experience. Buy some bags of nuts or trail mix at Trader Joes for a protein-packed, relatively cheap food to carry with you. Then you're not at the mercy of airport food.

- This might be controversial: unless you have breakable items, use soft bags. They are lighter, easier to smoosh things into, and can carry on or check easily.

- Buy good luggage. Luggage that doesn't break and lasts forever is about 2x the price of luggage that you have to buy every year and that always gives you problems.

- For anxiety, I completely agree with Nickrussell. The man said it perfectly. :)
posted by 3491again at 10:27 AM on April 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

I have been a frequent (multi-trips/month) business traveler for about 15 years and there are a variety of strategies I've developed, not all will be appropriate if you primary goal is cheap (often my primary goal is speed and convenience), but in no particular order:

> Flyertalk if a good source for understanding airline loyalty programs/promotions, etc
> Seatguru is the best place to figure out where to seat when you reserve a seat on a flight
> Rental cars . . . if I'm on leisure trip I will aim to find cheapest deal, if it's business I use Avis as "Preferred Status" (which just means you have credit card on file) means I don't wait in line, go straight to my car, get email receipts--substantially less hassle
> Luggage . . . I spend (what I thought at the time) was a lot of money on a TravelPro rolly over a decade ago and the thing is both at the max limit for carry ons and incredibly durable and has a lifetime warranty. It's what many flight crews use.
> Permanently packed toiletries and tech . . . I have "sub bags" with a duplicate toilet kit and one filled with various chargers, tech items *and* a simple 6 foot extension cord that has made my life so much better in countless hotels. This mini-wall charger with USB is super helpful and I also carry a USB car charger.
> I use an Eagle Creek Pack-it folder for nice shirts, etc
> I always travel with a reusable plastic envelope because invariably I'll collect scraps of paper etc and this contains them
> I have all loyalty numbers and itinerary information in Evernote so all my logistical details are in one place
> I am a huge fan of Ex Officio underwear--this stuff is incredibly comfortable, really really durable, and you can successfully wash in a hotel sink and it will dry overnight. It seems expensive but it's one of those items that more makes up for the initial outlay over time.
> Noise cancelling headphones are another item that might seem like a luxury but I never fly without them (and they'd be good for a bus ride too) and usually am just using them to cancel noise and not listening to music . . . they have a positive and noticeable impact on my travel fatigue and anxiety.
> Special rate codes: When booking hotels, rental cars, or other things outside my preferred providers I alwasy spend 10 minutes searching the Web for "offer codes for _____" or "corporate rate code for _____" and >50% of the time I find a way to save money. Corporate rate codes can be awesome (don't be stressed, nobody ever checks your employment at said company and said company won't care as their discount is a function of nights booked per annum on their code so you're helping them). A few weeks ago I had an unplanned personal trip and tried over a dozen corporate codes at a hotel property until I found one that worked, which saved me several hundred dollars.

Happy Travels!
posted by donovan at 10:58 AM on April 22, 2013 [3 favorites]

I travel a lot and can be a worrier. My basic rules:

- If spending more money will reduce my stress, I spend the money. For me, loyalty programs were a source of stress and limited my options, so I gave up on them.

- If I'll be moving every few days, I pack just one bag, regardless of the length of the trip. If I'll be settling in one place, I check a bigger bag. Example: 6 weeks in Australia and Asia, changing cities every 4 days = one small bag. One week in one hotel in the US: a big checked bag.

- As many have said above: I have a plastic baggie already prepared with the usual liquids, topped off, and a mini-cube full of the usual electronic doodads. I bought extras of the stuff I use a lot so it's always packed.

- When I was getting started traveling, I used a packing app on the iPhone to reassure myself that I'd packed everything. Other apps that can reduce anxiety:

-- Tripit: all your plans in one place, exportable to iCal and viewable offline on your iPhone

-- FlightTrack or something similar: Find out if your flight is delayed, the gate has changed, etc. before you go to the airport

-- Airshare or something similar: Put photos or scans of your passport and other travel docs on your iPhone (which, of course, you've protected with a passcode)

Finally, here are some things I pack that can reduce anxiety:

In the purselike/backpack bag that goes onto the plane/bus with me:
- Earplugs
- Eyeshade
- iPhone loaded with music I love and in-ear headphones
- Kindle loaded with fascinating or comforting things to read
- Bonine (for me, better than Dramamine for motion sickness, plus it makes me mellow without the hangover that Dramamine gives me)
- Face wipes
- For crossing oceans, an inflatable pillow that holds my head upright
- Important meds in case my other bag is lost

In the bag with the clothes:
- A thermometer. Priceless for when you know you have a fever but aren't sure whether to worry about it.
- A few tabs each of decongestant, tylenol, ibuprofen, and whatever else: Yes, you can buy it at your destination, but that takes time. So bring a little with you to tide you over while you go out shopping for a bigger supply.

Finally, my ritual that starts 24 hours before departure:
- Check in online and make sure I've got a good seat.
- Start packing, with a goal to be finished two hours before departure.
- As I head out the door, think, "What would be the worst thing that I could have forgotten?" and reassure myself that I have it.
posted by ceiba at 11:54 AM on April 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Hi all, thanks for the terrific feedback. When it comes to rewards credit cards, my main concern is ensuring that the rewards outweigh the costs, especially since many of them charge an annual fee, and being careful not to screw up my credit. Is that something that any of you have looked into?

I've long felt that Hotwire, in some ways, hits the sweet spot for me in between wanting to save money but not spending a ton of time doing it.

Identifying the source of travel anxiety is a great idea. My husband used to be totally comfortable with traveling but unfortunately, at some point, it started making him anxious as well so we sort of feed off of each other in a bad way. I'm happy having a drink at the airport or popping some anti-anxiety drug to mellow out but he usually gets stuck with driving if we're getting a rental car so that's less of an option for him.

I guess I'm always concerned that I'm forgetting *something* so maybe having this written down in some form will help. I'm accustomed to planning our trips and last year, I somehow just forgot to do part of it. I had booked plane tickets but forgot to rent a car or request time off from work. Obviously it was fine but it was a little stressful. Similarly, when we were heading to our wedding a few days early, we left my mother in law's dress and our birth certificates at home. We have friends who stopped by our place and took care of it but that was definitely stressful. Since then, I've been trying to think way ahead about things I will need to take when I travel certain places.

I'm pretty comfortable with my security line routine and our luggage choices. Regarding packing, I was pleased with myself during my last trip because I managed to pack jeans, some comfortable knit black pants, a variety of colorful t shirts and some cardigans and hoodies. I also brought a pair of comfortable knit black shorts that I used as pajamas mostly but could have used also for yoga or going to the pool.

Packing is an area where my husband needs a little hand-holding, though. While I am rolling my clothes and stuffing things in my sneakers, he throws a hooded sweatshirt in a suitcase and says his bag is full. I noticed the other day, though, that he had attempted to roll his clothes so maybe there's hope.

Also, I find it impossible to leave the house with less than three books. I will work on using my iPad more effectively.

Thanks for your feedback thus far and please keep it coming!
posted by kat518 at 2:07 PM on April 22, 2013

You can get Amtrak DC-NYC for $49 (regional only, not Acela) but you have to buy more than 2 weeks in advance. It's well worth it because you can always cancel at the last minute for no penalty (if you take the 'refund' in Amtrak credit) or a small penalty (if you want it back on your credit card).
posted by Salamandrous at 2:18 PM on April 22, 2013

Similarly, when we were heading to our wedding a few days early, we left my mother in law's dress and our birth certificates at home.

I have left my passport in a lot of places. At last count, I've misplaced it at least 10 times. But never missed a trip, thanks to building in margin.

Normally, that happens when I pack at the last minute. I started packing earlier and noticed something. When I travel, I always put my passport in a different place. Inside pocket of a suit, if I'm wearing one. Backpack top pocket, if I have it with me. Front pouch of rolly bag, if I have it with me. Back pocket of jeans (if I'm in a rush). Hoodie pouch (if I'm wearing one).

It was an endless source of anxiety. I like to count thing, so I started counted how many things I took on a trip. How many independent little variables were there on these journeys? Even a short trip of 6 – 8 days often saw at least 100+ items, when you count socks, iPad charging cable, cufflinks, toothbrush, passport, and such.

I then thought that a source of stress may well be that there was absolutely no system or order to my process. Cables shoved in shoes to save space, toothbrush in a plastic bag... somewhere. Hoody balled up, eat up 1/3 of the suitcase.

That is when I decided to adopt Serious Travel Zen. I got a handful of zipper cases. Bought an extra iPhone charger. An extra iPhone cable. An extra iPad cable. In the zipper case with the audio cables for rental cars. The cable case. In the front pouch of the rolly bag.

Manpurse the size of an iPad. iPad in manpurse with passport in a passport-sized pocket. Two pens in the pen compartment. Extra cash in the outside zipper-y thingie. Lightweight, still room for a book.

Then I realised that one can compound bags. I always figured since I had a rolly bag and a backpack, why not fill them both to the brim? Serious Travel Zen said that the point of the backpack was not extra cargo, but for carrying around things in foreign places. So it can actually go in the rolly bag. My god, what a discovery.

Serious Travel Zen:

1) Take as little as possible, not as much.

2) A place for everything, and everything in its place. Put it back where you got it from.

3) If you don't have enough space, don't pack what you own. Buy things to pack. Fluffy wooly things are awesome but do not compress well. Neither do super-hoodies. Equally as warm are a thermal layer, a lightweight cotton shirt, and a windbreaker.

Serious Travel Zen: because it's hard to enjoy the journey when you're carrying around 100 individual things, and none of them has a home. It's easy when everything has a place. And it doesn't have to be expensive. It's about extra iPhone cables, Zipper cases, and cheap thermal layers.
posted by nickrussell at 3:06 PM on April 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

Definitely have doubles of stuff like chargers, personal products, makeup, etc., so that you don't have to think about them to pack (other than occasionally refilling travel-sized containers, and it's easiest if you do that right when you come back). My fiance for some reason empties out his travel containers after every trip which seems absurd to me!!!
posted by radioamy at 5:37 PM on April 22, 2013

If you're looking for a very low-impact way to find cheap flights, I'm a big fan of AirFare Watch Dog. I tell it where I like to go, it emails me when there are cheap fares. Sometimes it's months in advance, sometimes weeks, but it is very very handy.

As for packing, this is super hokey, but my dad taught me this trick and it has served me very well. Talk — OUT LOUD, LIKE A FOOL — through what you need for each day, from your head to your feet. "Well, I'll take a shower in the morning, so I need shampoo, conditioner, facewash, qtips, [whatever]. Tuesday's the party, so I'll need my hat, my earrings, my necklace, a bra, the dress, underpants, stockings, and the blue heels." And so on. This is doubly fun with a partner to listen to/be heard by.
posted by Charity Garfein at 7:48 PM on April 22, 2013

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