Traveling tips for a newly-minted flyer
September 7, 2015 12:32 PM   Subscribe

Just got over a fear of flying and now I want to go everywhere. Can you help with some first-time travel tips?

Recently conquered a flying phobia - hooray! I haven't traveled as an adult (I'm in my mid-30s) and now plan to make up for it. I'm a traveling n00b and am overwhelmed by thousands of Googled traveling tips. Can you help?

1. Tricks for traveling mid-range cheaply. So, not hostels or camping or couchsurfing - but hotels and AirBnBs and decent flights. I understand miles-rewards credit cards and hotel points exist, but is there something else I'm not thinking of? Tips for hitting the middle-cost sweet spot?

2. Since I'm new to this, I don't know what kind of traveler I am yet - but I suspect I'm an eating/drinking/lazy-rambler as opposed to a high adventure type. I like weird food and strong drinks and hidden eccentricities. What's the best path to finding these things?

3. When you first started traveling, what do you wish you had known? I'll mostly travel alone (I'm a woman in the US - Minnesota) and will be sticking to domestic travel (for now). What made traveling more efficient and more fun for you?

Thanks for indulging a new traveler!
posted by Zosia Blue to Travel & Transportation (13 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
My biggest suggestion is that if you're looking for the cheapest flights, use one of the big travel search sites (Expedia, Orbitz, I'm sure there are better ones others here can suggest), but then go book directly through the airline and hotel. Generally I find that I can get the same price on the airline/hotel sites, and then when/if something goes wrong or needs to change, there's no middle man. On one of my first big vacations of my life, many years ago, I booked through Expedia (months in advance), and then the airline canceled that route. Getting it fixed was a nightmare, because Expedia kept saying we need to deal with the airline and the airline said we need to deal with Expedia. Ever since then, I've used those search sites just to see #1 which airlines fly to where I want to go, and #2 what the price range is like.

Also, IMHO you should balance price with other stuff. If you can afford it, paying a little more for a direct flight is worth it. Also you may find that you prefer some airlines over others (I travel a lot and have very strong preferences - they all have their issues, but I find some less annoying than others for the routes I fly). I find that a lot of the complaints and troubles that less frequent flyers have are rooted in the fact that they shopped solely on price, and didn't consider other factors. With a direct flight you don't have to worry about missing connections, your luggage is far less likely to get lost, and your overall travel time is generally much shorter. Obviously you have to work within your budget, and if the choice is between having 3 connections (or an airline you dislike) and not going to where you want to go, then you just have to live with the less enjoyable flights. My point is just that it should be a conscious decision.

If you spend a lot of money on credit cards every year, it might be worth getting an airline credit card. This whole thing can be a time suck, and some people put a lot more into it than it's worth, IMHO. That said, since I travel so much I do have several travel-related credit cards. If you do it, choose carefully. Do research to figure out which airline (or at least alliance) flies to the most places you want to go from where you live. Also do some research to figure out which sign up bonuses are available for the card you're considering. Often you can get a bonus that's enough for a free flight right off the bat. Another option is something like the Chase Sapphire Preferred which lets you redeem points for a number of airlines and hotels.
posted by primethyme at 12:51 PM on September 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

On mid-range cheap travel: if you are going to go through Expedia et al. (I've never had a problem but I know others who have), it's surprising how good the combined flight + hotel deals can be. On a recent trip to Philly, for example, it was a few hundred bucks cheaper to get one of those (3.5* hotel) on Expedia than to purchase a flight and a separate AirBnb.
posted by Beardman at 12:53 PM on September 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

Congratulations on overcoming your fear! The world awaits :)
1. Airbnb - can't say enough about how great this is - not only in saved $ but also in meeting local residents. My only tip on this is to find and book your place early (2 months beforehand at least). As well, stick with those that are well-rated. I booked only with people that had more than 10+ solid reviews and so far have had a half-dozen memorable and fun stays.

2. I like the offbeat side too. So I usually google "offbeat + place name" and "secret + place name" (this works better with the big cities. Tripadvisor is excellent for checking out the food scene and sightseeing attractions.

3. Pack only carry-on. This may be tougher for women, but the hassles you avoid not having to juggle suitcases is worth it. Whatever luggage you do have, mark them brightly and distinctly so you can pick them out easily, if (for example) the plane runs out of overhead storage bins and you're forced to check your bag.
posted by storybored at 12:54 PM on September 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

Second the only carry on. Purse inside a second large laptop bag that will fit under the seat, with room for a book, a meal, trailmix. Take in an empty water bottle you can fill at a drinking fountain. Airports now have drinking fountains with water bottle filling stations. The water falls in a stream from directly above, no contamination. Only buy a rolling carry on. Tie a bright scarf to the handle so it is easy to find yours again, if you have to check it at the plane door. Put a business card in the luggage tag.

Airport car rentals won't take debit, only credit.
posted by Oyéah at 1:04 PM on September 7, 2015

Book in advance. We always end up procrastinating about booking flights and hotels and end up paying a premium for it. You can also save money going off-season - for example, New York is surprisingly affordable in January and February.

I find places I like to go through a combination of travel guides, internet (AskMe is great for travel tips), and word of mouth. We tend to choose destinations fairly randomly unless there's a particular reason for us to go somewhere (like a wedding or visiting friends). For food and drink-type vacations I think larger cities are a good starting point unless you're looking to do brewery/winery tours or something like that.

The one thing I wish I had done when I started traveling was to not be quite so penny pinching. I'd often skip things that I had been really interested in because $20 for museum admission are they crazy?! but in the end it's an adventure and if you can afford it you should just do it and not worry so much about it.
posted by backseatpilot at 1:21 PM on September 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

Most people overpack. Take only what you need and would be okay losing. You'd be amazed at how easy (e.g.) toiletries, tshirts, cheap shoes, etc., are to find everywhere. Be willing to leave things behind if you get sick of carrying them.

Say yes. Not only to splurging a bit for the $20 museum admission but anytime you get the chance to eat something, see something, or do something you wouldn't probably do otherwise or didn't know was available.*

If you're physically able**, consider a bag that you carry on your person rather than drag behind you. I hate your*** roll-y bag, but not (only) because you manage somehow to take up THE ENTIRE FUCKING CORRIDOR with it when I'm behind you (I walk fast). The bigger issue I see with travelers is that they forget that rolling the bag down the jetway isn't the crucial thing - it's lifting it into the overhead, or onto a train in a third-world country, or onto a pitching boat, or schlepping it two miles because there's no taxi stand near the awesome little AirB&B place you found. If you've just got a pack on your back, these issues largely disappear. Also, your hands are free, and your gear is secured. Get a good one, get it fitted properly.

I love Atlas Obscura for offbeat travel ideas.

One I'm still pretty bad at but still try to follow: no matter how scuzzy traveler/casual you're going, bring one (and only one) outfit you can spruce up well enough so as not to feel self-conscious if you find yourself in a social setting where people are dressed like grownups.

* Considerations of personal safety obviously acknowledged here.
** If you're not, no worries - I'm happy to help you lift that big sucker or even carry it for you if need be. Good on ya for getting out there.
*** Generic your.

posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 1:48 PM on September 7, 2015 [3 favorites]

From Minneapolis, attempt to fly first class on Sun Country (at about $100 each way).

Get a Global Entry (or better, NEXUS) card. Skip airport lines. Make sure your frequent traveler number is on file with the airline, so you can get Precheck status.
posted by gregglind at 1:51 PM on September 7, 2015

Welcome to the world of travel! Some tips:

- If you ever have a long (6+ hours) red-eye, this is an EXCELLENT post about how to do so in relative comfort. Seriously, I live by the advice here. The comments are a gold mine too.

- Budgeting is hard to figure out and very personal. But a good rule of thumb for is to multiply whatever your housing costs are by 3 - 1 for food, 1 for travel/souvenirs (this means travel within the country when you get there, not the flight there). So if you're spending $75/night on your airbnb, you probably want to budget for $225/day. Again, this is super-personal - it might turn out that you spend less (or more!) on food, or whatever. But this is a good place to start.

- Don't rule out hostels completely. They usually have at least one or two private rooms, and if you're traveling alone, they can be a good place to meet people to sightsee with or go out on the town with. And especially in other countries, they're not always just college-aged kids. Tripadvisor and yelp are a good way to find hostels that are not just for kids. Ignore anything that calls itself a "party hostel" obviously, but one that offers a free (or inexpensive) breakfast is probably a good bet for meeting people. And yeah, the people you'll meet will be other tourists, but they'll be from all over the world and that's a cool thing in and of itself.

- Airbnb can be hit-or-miss in terms of meeting people (locals or otherwise), but it's nice because you're more likely to be in a neighborhood, as opposed to the hotel (tourist) district. In Paris we had a great hostel in one of the oldest parts of town (La Marais). It was near all the sites, but due to the historic nature of the neighborhood, there weren't many hotels, and so it felt like we got to live a little like locals.

- As for finding cool/offbeat/weird food stuff: most large-ish cities have at least one tour company dedicated to the offbeat or niche interests. It may even just be one enthusiast who shows people her favorite stuff every Sunday. I poo-pooed tours for a long time but have really come to enjoy doing tours like this. They're usually 2-4 hours and give you insight you wouldn't otherwise get AND will give you ideas for other things to do. Also, this might sound cheesy, but whenever I'm going somewhere, I watch one of Anthony Bourdain's shows about it. He tends to focus a lot on (obviously) food/drink but also offbeat stuff, and so sometimes it gives me good ideas.

- The other thing you can do to find good stuff is just ask around. Figure out a few local delicacies you want to try, or local interesting thing you want to experience, and ask a few locals: your airbnb host, the friendly barista at the cofeeshop - or even metafilter!
posted by lunasol at 2:51 PM on September 7, 2015 [3 favorites]

I'm from Chicago and I'm currently in Minneapolis on a $100 round-trip ticket I got through Southwest. I can't recommend Chicago highly enough for a cheap, chill weekend getaway!

-You can get good deals on Southwest but you have to fly into Midway. Midway is right off the Orange train line; from there you usually transfer to another line. O'hare is off the Blue line; I live off the Blue Line, so I'm biased and think it's slightly easier to get to, but don't let fear of transferring trains scare you into paying more to fly into ORD.

-There are so, so, so many places to eat, drink, and stare off the Logan Square, California, and Damen stops of the Blue Line. These are the hipster parts of town; our equivalents of Greenpoint & Williamsburg to downtown's Manhattan, to use an imperfect NYC analogy. I'd recommend an air b'n'b in Logan Square or Bucktown over a hotel downtown any day; that's what my family did on their last visit.

-Check to see if you can get a room in Longman&Eagle's upstairs inn, even if just for one night. Totally worth it.

If you take this advice post another ask and I'll tell you specific stuff to do!
posted by Juliet Banana at 2:58 PM on September 7, 2015 [2 favorites]

Oh AND a piece of advice about trip-planning: I am a similarly lazy-rambler-type traveler, and I've found that traveling works out best for me when I pick about one or two things I want to do each day. Could be something big and touristy like the Taj Mahal, or something more rambly like "check out the thrift stores in Grünerløkka" (which are amazing btw). Any more than that and I feel like I'm just checking things off on a list. If you pick just one or two things a day, that gives you time for wandering. There are some things you just HAVE to do when you're in certain places, but IMO the best experiences and memories come from the things that happen when you're wandering.
posted by lunasol at 2:59 PM on September 7, 2015

Just want to chime in about carry-on only if you can, but don't overstuff --- remember that you'll have to lift it over your head to put it into the bins (and the crew are forbidden to do it for you!), and the airlines are getting stricter about carry-on weight/size limits (because everybody is trying to avoid checked luggage fees).

And whether you carry on or check, do something to visually distinguish your bag: there are a TON of bags that all look the same! You can tie a pompon or scarf to the handle, or --- for something that can't be cut off --- get some fabric paint and stencil a pattern on, front and back.
posted by easily confused at 5:18 PM on September 7, 2015

Nthing what everybody says about considering itineraries and customer service level of the airline you're travelling with, not just the ticket price.

The real downside of checked luggage is not that it will get lost, because it rarely* does, but that it can take a very long time to get off the plane and back to you - nothing is more irritating than waiting for your bags for 45 mins after a domestic flight when you have a car to pick up and places to go and things to do! And some airports are a lot worse at turning luggage around than others.

*3 bags delayed in the last 8 years and probably 200+ flights - 2x because my connection was too tight after inbound flight was delayed and I made connections but bags did not, 1x because the connecting airline's computer had a glitch and they could not verify who on the passenger list was actually going to be on the plane and who wasn't until boarding so didn't load the bags of the unconfirmed passengers onto the connecting flight.

So yes, connections and yes, if you're travelling long haul pack some clean underwear and a clean t-shirt in case it goes wrong. You can do emergency shopping if the bag is not just delayed by a few hrs but you really don't want to have to do that stumbling off a plane after an 11 hr flight so being able to get through the first 24 hrs without a bag is key.
posted by koahiatamadl at 9:36 PM on September 7, 2015

If you can get to the airport early enough, use the self service kiosk to check in and look for possible upgrades. I've gotten first class upgrades as low as $99 and it's definitely worth it.
posted by tremspeed at 2:00 PM on September 8, 2015

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