Five Ways to Use Google Maps That Aren’t GPS

November 14, 2019 by · Leave a Comment 

Google Maps was a major disruption to not only the printed maps and atlas industry, but it turned the standalone GPS market on its head too. As soon as I could mount my mobile phone in my car, I started using Google Maps as my GPS to find my way around town.

(This was unfortunate, as I had just bought a GPS unit a month earlier for $200. . .)

Of course, once I discovered Waze and its real-time traffic updates and speed trap notifications, I switched from Google Maps. But there are still a lot of things I use Google Maps for, on my phone or my laptop, in town or when I travel.

I wanted to share five ways you can use Google Maps beyond just being a GPS. You can start practicing on it now before your next road trip, so everything is easy to understand and use.

1. Plan routes before you leave

Whenever I’m driving to a new location, especially out of town, I use Google Maps on my laptop to plot out my route. There are usually a few routes to choose from, and I’m always looking for problems like construction and potential traffic jams found when traveling through a big city during rush hour.

I can select the time I’ll leave or want to arrive, and Google Maps will show me the expected issues I might encounter. A lot of this data is taken from Waze, which Google owns, so it can show you historic traffic patterns based on years of data. So it can tell you where certain traffic jams can be found and at what particular time, and help you plan accordingly.

2. Find a new restaurant

When I’m in a new city, I always want to try new dishes and restaurants, rather than relying on the same old stuff I can get at home. I’ll do a quick search in the Maps search bar, just like a regular Google search, for a particular cuisine. I can click on the different results, and read the reviews and ratings to make my choice.

I can also use Maps to plan out my hotel and dining. If I’m trying to choose a hotel location, I’ll look at a few different options on Maps and then click Nearby, and do a search for restaurants. If there’s nothing close to the hotel I’m considering, I try another one.

Or when you open Maps on your phone, there are four buttons you can tap for quick searches: Restaurants, Coffee, Bars, and Hotels. Maps will search for different nearby options, and will even show you star ratings, hours of business, and customer testimonials. Some restaurants even have their menus plugged into Maps, so you can scope out a restaurant’s offerings before you go.

3. Find a business address or phone number

Back in the ’90s, I knew people who would always keep a copy of the Yellow Pages in their car. That way, if they ever had to find a business, they could pull to the side of the road, find it, locate it on their paper map, and then drive to that location.

Now, you can use Google Maps like the Yellow Pages, and find a particular business just by voice search. Tap the Navigate button, and you can drive right there, using Google Maps as your guide. (I wish it would switch over to Waze for me, but that’s just me being picky.)

You can even call the business right from their listing. Tap the Call button, and you can be connected right to the place through your own cell phone.

4. Bookmark & share your favorite locations

Screenshot of Erik Deckers' Orlando indie coffee shops on Google MapsI’m a big fan of independent coffee shops and am always looking for new shops to visit. To help keep track of the different coffee shops around Central Florida, I created the Orlando Indie Coffee Shops map on Google Maps.

This is all part of the Save feature on Google Maps, where you can save different businesses and locations on a private, public, or shared map. You can create a private map to plot out your next trip, you can create a public map of favorite restaurants, and you can create a shared map, which is a semi-private map that only people with the link can see. (So you can share your itinerary with family and friends.)

If you want to get more involved in your community’s food scene, make special maps of your favorite cuisine and share the map with your friends on social media to help spread the love. This can also help you if you want to be a Google Local Guide.

5. Become a Google Local Guide

Those reviews, ratings, and photos aren’t just gathered from other online sources. People leave those reviews, ratings, and photos themselves when they visit a new place. Google Local Guides lets you contribute to the crowdsourcing of your community’s different businesses.

You can earn points based on the number of reviews and even photos you upload. The more points you accumulate, the higher your Local Guide level. As you progress, Google will provide little gifts and perks along the way. Once I got a six-month subscription to the Washington Post, and another time, it was a pair of quirky dress socks. The last two offers just came in yesterday: six month’s free use of the Google One membership program, and an $8 coupon on Slice, the pizza finding-and-ordering app.

Google Maps has a lot more features than just being a mobile map service. It’s Yelp, the Yellow Pages, and even a crowdsourcing service all in one. Start using it in your own hometown, get used to using it, and then try to use these different features on your next trip.

How do you use Google Maps when you travel? What are some hidden features I might have missed? Share your tips and stories on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream.

Photo credit: Erik Deckers (Used with permission)

How to “Travel Cashless” On Your Next Trip

October 31, 2019 by · Leave a Comment 

As payment technology continues to transform the way we buy and sell things, it’s easy to see how we could one day become a cashless society. Not anytime soon, of course, but it’s already happening in other parts of the world. And maybe you’ll be traveling cashless there.

Recently, SmarterTravel.com wrote that some banking experts believe Sweden will eliminate cash as a payment method by the year 2023. Instead, all of their consumer transactions will use a digital payment method, such as credit and debit cards, RFID-embedded devices, or mobile phones and digital wallets.

There are other cities around the world that are also going cashless, says Smarter Travel, including Reykjavik, Seoul, Singapore, Stockholm, and several cities in China.

A debit card or credit card is one way you can travel cashless.While that won’t happen any time in the U.S. or Canada, it’s still a good idea to learn to go cashless when you travel. For one thing, it makes traveling in different foreign countries much easier. You don’t have to find a money exchange place, which I often had to do when I would travel overseas. If only we’d had the technology back then that we do now.

It’s also more secure. If you lose your phone or your wallet, you can shut off your cards and replace them. You can’t replace cash.

Here are a few ways you can go cashless before your next trip. It’s a good idea to start using these now so you get used to using them, rather than trying to figure it out on your first day in a new country.

Debit/Credit Cards:

The old reliable in cashless transactions. If you don’t do anything else with cashless payments, make sure you’ve got a credit card or two when you travel. You’ll use this to book your plane tickets, rent a car, and reserve a hotel room. If you can manage it in the months before your trip, pay for everything you can with your credit card and then pay off the balance each month. Get a card that gives you airline points and you could get yourself a free ticket.

Don’t ever use a debit card for these transactions though, at least for renting a car or hotel room. Those providers will put a hold on some cash on your card, taking it from your account. If you weren’t expecting it, you could find yourself in a sticky situation.

You can also get prepaid credit and debit cards to use when you travel. They function like regular credit cards. You can save up for your trip by putting some money on the card each month.

Apple Pay/Google Wallet

These are two easy-to-use apps that come with your smartphone. If you’ve got an iPhone or Samsung (or other Google-brand phone), you’ve got access to these digital wallets. You’ll connect one or more credit and debit card to them, and then tap your phone to the sensor to initiate payment.

Money Transfer Apps

Apps like PayPal, Venmo, and Cash tie directly into your bank account or debit card and let you transfer money to a friend, family member, or merchant. Some apps will charge the recipient a 2.75% service fee, although PayPal gives you a “family and friends” option which doesn’t charge anything.

There are also the apps WeChat Pay and AliPay, which are wildly popular in China. So much so, that AliPay became the biggest mobile payment service in the world in 2014, surpassing PayPal. It’s also changing the way China does business, as more Chinese people are paying with AliPay and WeChat Pay instead of cash.

If you’re traveling to China, you definitely want WeChat or AliPay. And because Chinese tourists are visiting other parts of the world, and they’re not using cash as much, more businesses are accepting these apps as forms of payment. So you could be in a different part of the world and find WeChat Pay and AliPay are also options for you.

Finally, if you’re trying to travel cashless, please skip the traveler’s checks. No one really uses them anymore, even though they’re still around. If you’re trying to pay with traveler’s checks, you may run into some problems as many merchants may not even know how to process them.

How do you handle your money when you travel? Do you do anything special to travel cashless or just part of your normal day? Share some strategies on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream.

Photo credit: Flyerwerk (Pixabay, Creative Commons)

How to Save Money and Time Attending a Festival in Another City

October 17, 2019 by · Leave a Comment 

I recently returned from Lowell, Massachusetts and the Lowell Celebrates Kerouac festival where I was invited to speak and be a special guest at several of the events.

Jack Kerouac, author of the definitive road trip novel On The Road, was born and raised in Lowell. They were commemorating the 50th anniversary of his death on October 21, 1969.

I was fortunate enough to attend and participate in several of the events, which were scattered around the downtown Lowell area. I’ve attended a great number of festivals and conferences, both alone and with my family, and there are a few things I’ve learned over the years.

Whether you’re attending an arts or music festival held in a park, a large film or theater festival scattered around a city, or even a comic book convention in a huge convention center, there are a few things to keep in mind to save plenty of time and money while you’re there

1. Parking will be terrible

Downtown Lowell, Massachusetts, home of the Lowell Celebrates Kerouac Festival

Downtown Lowell, Massachusetts. Jack Kerouac grew up and went to high school a few blocks from here.

Unless you’re an organizer with special parking, or you get to the location super early, you’re not going to find a great place to park. And it’s going to be somewhat expensive. When you’re figuring out your budget for the event, take your parking costs into account. I’ve seen parking go for as much as $40 per day for event parking in big cities. Meanwhile, people will stay in a hotel 10 miles from the event just to save $30 on lodging prices.

If you’re getting a place based on price, look at the price difference between the closer hotel and the cheaper hotel + ride-sharing/parking. You may find that it’s actually cheaper to get the closer, more expensive hotel because you’ll save money on parking or ride-sharing. Plus, you can come and go as you need to, rather than wasting time driving to and from the event.

2. Book your lodging EARLY

Depending on your schedule, you may be on site all day long, so you only need the hotel as a place to keep your stuff and to sleep. If that’s the case, you probably don’t care where you’re located or what kind of room you have. But if you have to show up at the festival really early or are going to stay late, you’ll probably want to be as close as possible to avoid driving time.

The closest hotels always go the fastest, which means you need to book early. In some cases, you may not even want to wait until this year’s festival is over; book now for the next year’s festival and be sure to confirm the reservation a couple of times between now and then.

Also, some events will make arrangements for special event pricing, so be sure to check in with the organizer to see if they’ve set that up.

3. Plan your schedule

Since I was in Lowell as a special speaker, nearly all of my events were already planned for me. I knew where I had to be and when, so I just spent my downtime at some of the other events or working at one of the local coffee shops.

If you’re already a regular calendar user and access it from your mobile phone, book all your events and appointments in your calendar, along with the address and any other necessary information. That way, you don’t need to access the event guide or even use their app.

Scheduling also helps you avoid conflicts and double-booking. Some festivals have multiple events and breakout sessions, others have events in different locations. Check Google Maps to see the distance between all the event venues to make sure you can make it from one to the other in plenty of time. Be sure to include the addresses in your calendar listing, because you can click the address and open up to your favorite GPS app to navigate your way there.

4. Compare the cost of Uber/Lyft versus driving and rental cars.

I think I made a big mistake in Lowell this time: I rented a car and drove everywhere. My rental car costs were $240, plus gas. I rented a car, because the airport is about 30 miles from where I needed to be. However, I think I could have saved about $40 – $50 if I had just used Lyft to go everywhere, even to and from the airport.

You can look up on Lyft and Uber’s website to get trip estimates and compare that with the cost of renting a car and gassing it up before you return it. And if you’re going to be staying in a hotel close to the event, you almost certainly won’t need a rental car, so consider ride-sharing and taxis for any surprise transportation.

5. Carry your own lunch and snacks

Event food is super expensive, although some of it can be pretty fun. I go to the Central Florida Scottish Highland Festival and Games every year, and always love the food trucks they have there. Otherwise, I try to take granola bars and a few sandwiches for a cheap lunch, rather than pay $12 for a burned-yet-still-frozen hamburger and small Coke.

However, don’t cheap out on dinners. Those times should be spent with friends, especially if you only see them at the festivals. Find someplace that’s not too close, but not several miles away either. Walking distance is usually packed with festival-goers and the ones that are far away require a lot of logistical headaches.

How do you travel for festivals and special events? What strategies do you employ to save money? Tell us about it on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream.

Photo credit: John Phelan (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons 3.0)

5 Secrets to Traveling in a Big City

September 26, 2019 by · Leave a Comment 

I lived for so long in a smallish city, and later in a small town, that when I moved to Indianapolis — a city of roughly 1 million people — it was very stressful to try to find my way around. Even before then, visiting was a real country-mouse-in-the-big-city adventure. But after working and driving around downtown, I got used to the chaos and constant motion going on around me, and I could navigate like a pro.

When I moved to Orlando — 2 million people — I was able to quickly adapt and find my way around, even when the city was at its busiest. Central Florida gets roughly 60 million visitors per year, which can make getting around rather nerve wracking, but the residents learn to take it all in stride.

But when I was recently in Washington DC, a city with some of the worst traffic in the entire country, I knew better than to try to navigate my way around by myself. I typically won’t do it unless I’m going to be there for a few days and I have time to figure it out, or if I’m going to be in a lot of different places all over the city.

If you’re traveling to a big city and you’re not used to it, here are a few ways you can function and get around without pulling your hair out.

1. Know that parking will be expensive.

Free parking in the big cities is about as rare as a singing unicorn. And when you do find public parking, you can bet that the parking prices will be sky high. When I was in Chicago 10 years ago, daytime parking was $50 for 8 AM – 5 PM.

There’s a very good chance you’re going to have to pay for parking at your hotel too. My Washington DC hotel charged $50 per night for parking, but it was worth it because I didn’t want to park in a public garage. They also let me leave my car there until 3 pm, which meant I didn’t have to take it with me and fight for parking at my last appointment.

If you’re staying in the city, research parking options before you even get there. Make sure your hotel has it, and consider long-term parking in a different location, like an airport, and then taking public transportation to your hotel.

2. Pick a hotel based on location, not price.

Traffic is always a big problem when traveling to a big city.When you stay in a new city, there’s going to be a lot of temptation to pick the cheapest hotel, especially if you’re trying to stay brand loyal. The problem is the cheap hotels are nowhere near the good locations; you’re going to pay a little more for easy access.

Several years ago, my father-in-law traveled to a trade show in Atlanta and stayed in a hotel his company picked for him and the company executives because it was $20 per night cheaper than the hotel right next to the convention center. The executives swore they would never stay that far from downtown again after they spent $40 per day in taxis and had to sit in rush hour traffic for an hour each way.

You may save money by getting a cheaper hotel, but you’ll end up being so far away, you’ll spend all those savings in ride sharing, taxis, or parking. Not to mention, you’ll be up to 60 minutes away from your destination, which is going to put a serious crimp in your travel plans.

3. Study maps and GPS apps before you go.

Whenever I go to a new city, I plan out for the places I want to go: the restaurants, coffee shops, meeting sites, and other attractions. I’ll even start planning before I’ve booked my hotel so I can make the best choice. However, I’ve learned I don’t really understand the city and the traffic patterns until I get there and can actually see what the city is like.

For example, I once traveled to Boston and got a hotel that I thought was easy walking distance to a conference center. And it was, as long as I didn’t mind walking along a five-lane parkway with no sidewalks. That didn’t show up on Google Maps, and I didn’t realize it until I got there.

4. Leave plenty of time to get where you’re going.

One thing you can count on in big cities is that there will always be traffic jams. You could have a traffic jam on I-4 in Orlando at 2:00 AM. (Trust me, I know.) And you could get stuck in major traffic, even traveling around the downtown area in the middle of the ay.

So check out the traffic conditions on Waze before you head out to your events to see if you need to add a little more travel time. Do the same if you’re using a ride sharing service, because they’ll be stuck in the same traffic. However, they also know the city better than you, so they’ll know the side streets to duck down to avoid the worst of it.

5. Use ride sharing or taxis

I’ve been to Washington DC twice in the last six months, and I can tell you that the smartest thing I did was to leave my car in the parking lot and take a Lyft everywhere. I was already paying for my parking but the cost of traveling everywhere on Lyft — $9 – $12 per trip — was less than I would have spent to park somewhere else.

And even if the ride sharing would have cost a little more, it was worth it to not have to drive around and around and around trying to find a parking space even remotely close to the place I needed to be. That would have added time to the actual commute time, not to mention the extra minutes spent walking from my car to the destination. And if it had been raining or beastly hot, that would have just been worse. At least with Lyft, I was able to go from door to door to wherever I needed to be.

What are your travel strategies when you’re in a big city, especially a new one? How do you find your way around? Tell us about it on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream.

Photo credit: FrTed (Flickr, Creative Commons 2.0)

Five Reasons to Take a Fall Vacation

September 12, 2019 by · Leave a Comment 

Now that summer is over and the kids are back in school, this is the best time to start thinking about a fall vacation. But it doesn’t have to be a two-week trek to a whole different part of the world: Micro-cations are the new trend, so you could spend 3 – 4 days (a long weekend, really) and lay back and relax.

Maybe you can take a few days this October or November and spend it in a new city, enjoying the fall colors and cooler temperatures. Or if you live in Florida, you can head to the theme parks or the beach and enjoy the fact that the crowds have all gone back home.

Here are five reasons you should take a fall vacation (or micro-cation) for a few days.

1. The prices are lower for hotels and airfare.

Now that the peak travel season is over, the prices are lower for most vacation costs. You can get an airplane ticket for less than the summer prices, and your hotel costs are lower as well. This means you can stay an extra day, stay in a normally-more expensive hotel, or even fly at a more convenient time for the same amount you would have spent in the summer.

2. Fall vacation crowds are smaller.

Mackinac Island is a great place for a fall vacation.One of the best time to hit the Florida theme parks are right after school has started: all the kids are back in school, which means most corporate vacation seasons are also over. That means a smaller crowd inside the kid-friendly places. I can tell you that Wednesdays in October are thoroughly enjoyable in the Orlando theme parks.

It’s the same in all the other vacation attractions around the country: Museums tend to be a little less crowded, as are restaurants, sightseeing tours, and other tourist attractions. Lines and wait times are shorter and you can often get reservations at that hotel or restaurant you’ve been dying to try.

3. The temperature is more enjoyable.

Summers are plenty hot, which makes going outside a bit of a challenge. You have to stay plenty hydrated, and sometimes your day is just spent walking from shady spot to shady spot or spending the entire day inside for the air conditioning.

In the fall, the temperatures have cooled to a more manageable level, and you only have to put on a light sweater or even a sweatshirt to deal with the cooler days. It’s not so cold you have to wear a parka and mittens, so you can still enjoy your time outside.

4. There’s a bigger emphasis on relaxing.

When I was a kid, summer vacations were always about going somewhere and doing something. Even when we vacationed in Florida, we were always on the go. A day at the beach was hardly relaxing, because we had to drive there, fight for a spot in the sand, complain about the heat, wait in line for snacks, wait for a table at restaurants, and then whine about the sunburns and sand in our swimsuits. It wasn’t that fun, frankly.

With a fall vacation, I always feel more relaxed. Maybe it’s something about the lower temperatures, but it always makes me slow down. I’m more interested in going for a walk, especially in the woods. I can hang out, meander around a new city, or drive around and look at the leaves. Fall is more about seeing and enjoying, not rushing and doing.

5. It’s the last chance for a breather before the holidays.

Most of us have hectic, chaotic holiday seasons coming up: there are the different office parties, friends’ parties, and various different parties, shopping, and kids’ events you’ve got to attend. You can easily get overwhelmed with everything you have to do.

A fall vacation is the last chance to relax before the busy holidays begin, starting a week or two before Thanksgiving, and not ending until after the new year. Take a break at the end of October or early November, and spend a few days relaxing and taking it easy while you still can. That way, you won’t feel so wound up from summer vacation just as you start the silly season.

Are you going to take a fall vacation? Have you taken any, or would you take one? If you’re taking one this year, what are your plans? Tell us about it on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream.

Photo credit: Michael Sprague (Flickr, Creative Commons 2.0)

Six Things to Know About Micro-Cations

August 29, 2019 by · Leave a Comment 

The latest trend with vacations — other than creating a playful new word — is to take short trips that last no more than 4 nights.

No longer referred to as just “long weekends,” the travel industry is now calling these mini-trips micro-cations. Makes sense, since you don’t always have to do them over the weekend.

I’m on board with the micro-cations trend though. According to a study by Allianz Travel Insurance, (n)early three-fourths (72 percent) of Millennials took at least one micro-cation in the last year, while 69 percent of Gen X’ers and 60 percent of Baby Boomers did the same.

It makes perfect sense! After all, it’s hard to get away for a week or two when you have to deal with work, school, and family obligations. But grabbing 3 or 4 days, even in the middle of the week, can be a nice way to take a break, and even take a break more often.

Here are six things you can do with micro-cations.

Man and woman jumping into a pool fully clothed. This is the kind of crazy stuff you can on micro-cations, if you're so inclined.

  1. You can add them onto a business trip. This is also called a bleisure trip, where you combine business and leisure travel. You’ll already be in the area, so there’s no need to pay travel costs, and you only have to pay for your personal lodging, food, and so on, but you’ve saved on the travel costs.
  2. You can visit some places in the off-season. One thing that’s great about living in Orlando is that we can visit the theme parks whenever we’d like, and we know to avoid them during the peak tourist season. So the best times to go are right before Spring Break, right after school starts, and right after Fall Break. You can take your own micro-cation in an off-season and miss the biggest crowds.
  3. Things may cost a little less in the middle of the week. Not only are crowds smaller, but prices may be lower. There could be special mid-week packages or even special hotel rates. Just stay away from the hotels popular with the business crowds: Those prices are higher during the week and lower on the weekends..
  4. You can take more of them. Nearly a third of Millennials in the Allianz study took three or more micro-cations in a year. If you only get two weeks of vacation (10 working days), that makes it hard to see very many places in a single year. But you can get three or even four micro-cations in a single year. Combine them with a weekend, and you can get your money’s worth while still only taking a couple days off at a time.
  5. It’s financially easier to take shorter trips. How many of us (or our parents) would save for a year or two for that one big vacation? You might have saved a lot of money and still ended up paying for it after you got home. But with micro-cations, you don’t spend as much, which makes saving up for them a lot easier.
  6. If you decide you don’t like it, you haven’t wasted your entire trip. Have you ever been on a vacation that just went miserably? I have. Believe me, they’re not fun. And it’s worse when one goes south on day 2 of a 7-day trip. Now, I’m not saying this is a positive point of a micro-cation, but I am saying that if you end up having a vacation that goes south (figuratively), you won’t have to put up with it for too long before you can go home again.

Micro-cations are becoming the new trend, especially for Millennial and Gen X travelers: 25% of Millennials don’t want to spend more money on a longer vacation, and 40% of Gen X-ers say it’s easier to take time off work for a short trip.

What do you think about micro-cations? Have you taken any, or would you take one? If you took one, what did you like or dislike about it? Tell us about it on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream.

Photo credit: PXHere.com (Creative Commons 0)

How to Manage It When Your Flight Is Canceled

August 15, 2019 by · Leave a Comment 

My wife and daughter flew to New York a few weekends ago to visit some family, and were meant to fly back on a Sunday afternoon. However, this was a weekend of major storms (there was flooding in Brooklyn!), and all the flights in the New York area were canceled on that Sunday evening.

After standing in line for a couple hours, all they could manage to get was a standby flight the following evening. They went back to my wife’s cousin’s and spent the day there again. They returned to the airport at the appropriate time, and it happened again: All the flights were canceled.

This was Monday evening, and my daughter had already missed a class and a day of work, and was about to miss another day of work on Tuesday.

My mother-in-law came to the rescue however. She drove up Monday night from Central Florida to Newark, New Jersey, arriving Tuesday evening. They turned around and drove back to Florida that night, getting home on Wednesday afternoon, nearly 60 hours after they were supposed to leave

Thunderstorms may require you to make other plans if your flight is canceled

Dark Night Thunderstorm Lightning Sky Storm

Given the crazy weather patterns, the way airlines fill up (and sometimes overbook) their flights, and the frequent occurrence of Murphy’s Law — “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong” — it’s a good idea to make contingency plans for your vacations and business trips, to ensure you don’t run into the same kinds of problems.

But you don’t want to start making contingency plans when you’re standing in a 3-hour line with the faint glimmer of hope of getting a standby flight. Here are a few things you should do to prepare your contingency plans in case your flight is canceled.

First, make sure you purchase travel insurance before your trip. Get it as soon as you book your tickets, in fact. If your flight or trip gets canceled due to natural disasters, it doesn’t cover you if you bought it after the natural disaster occurred. That is, if you buy travel insurance two days before you leave because a hurricane is just boiling up, you won’t be covered. You needed to buy the insurance well before the hurricane was even a tropical depression in the middle of the ocean.

Second, make sure you understand your passengers’ rights when a flight is canceled. You need to know things like the airline doesn’t “owe” you anything if it’s canceled due to weather or other events outside their control (riots, strikes, war)> But if it’s canceled because of something in their control (mechanical issues, plane change, crew shortage), they have to help you out: food vouchers, hotels, even switching to another airline. Be sure to review your rights so you know what you can ask for and what they won’t cover.

Next, consider booking your flight and vacation with a travel agent. This is not a more expensive option.

Let me say that again: It does not cost more money to book your plans through a travel agent. They get paid in commissions from the airline and hotels, you don’t pay them. If anything, they may save you a little money.

But if there’s a problem, you can get your travel agent to start working on it, and they can make other arrangements on your behalf. (Plus, if anyone needs to wait on hold for an hour or more, wouldn’t you like to skip that yourself?)

Install apps for your favorite rental car agency on your phone. When my wife first thought about driving home, she went down to the rental car agencies — she had to take a shuttle after standing in line for nearly two hours — and not only were the cars gone for the night, there was a 48-hour hold on renting out any more cars. But if she’d had, say, Enterprise’s or Hertz’s app on her phone, she could have booked the car as soon as the flight was canceled and still gotten one. Or she could have booked a car at a facility several miles away and caught a Lyft or Uber there.

Install your airline’s app too. When a flight gets canceled, it’s the responsibility of the airline to book you on the “next available seat.” And they’ll notify you by text or email when they do it, but you could also get notifications through your app. You might even be able to make some arrangements via the app, although don’t make that your first strategy. Maybe try that while you’re standing in line.

Speaking of standing in line, go to another gate to rebook your flight. When a flight gets canceled, a lot of people will run up to their original gate to get rebooked. But there’s nothing magical about that gate: Every gate in the airline is connected to the same system, so any agent at any gate should be able to help you. Leave your gate and walk to another one where the flight has just left, and ask them for help.

Note: Some airlines are going away from this model. My wife said that her airline would not provide that service and everyone from all the flights that had been canceled — and that was all of them — had to stand in a customer service line, which only had five people working at the desk. She waited for nearly two hours and there were 40 people in front of her. When she looked behind her, she estimated there were at least 150. So if you learn there’s going to be trouble, make a bee line for the customer service desk immediately.

If you find yourself in that situation, that’s the time to call the airline’s customer service hotline. Even if you have to wait on hold while you wait in line, do both. Either way, you’ve got both bases covered, and you’ll reach a real person.

Another thing my wife learned is that the airline will only match your flight with an identical flight. So if you have a direct flight, they will only put you on a direct flight. You can’t get a one-layover flight to a different city. For example, if your layover city is the place with weather problems, you could fly to a different layover city and get home from there. But if you flew a nonstop flight, they won’t do that for you. And the reverse is true: if you have a layover flight, they won’t put you on a nonstop flight.

Finally, don’t get upset at the agents helping you. These are not the people responsible for the weather, making the decision to cancel your flight, or the kink thrown into your plans. Yelling at them won’t make them find you a better solution, but I can tell you from personal experience that being kind and sweet to them will make them want to find you a solution as quickly as possible.

(I once watched a guy bellow at a gate agent, and she apologized but said she was not able to help him. At. All. When it was my turn, I was all sweetness and sunshine, and I got a ticket on an alternate flight right away.)

Bottom line: Don’t wait until you’re in a sticky situation before you start looking for solutions. Make a few arrangements beforehand, even if it’s working with a travel agent and installing a couple apps on your phone, so you aren’t trying to figure out what to do when you learn your flight has been canceled.

How do you cope with major disruptions to your travel plans? What are some of your tips and tricks? Tell us about them on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream.

Photo credit: Maxpixels.net (Creative Commons 0)

Skip the Chain Restaurants When You Travel

July 25, 2019 by · Leave a Comment 

Years ago, when I worked for a software company, my boss and I made the drive from Fort Wayne, Indiana to Minneapolis, Minnesota for a conference. I had never been to Minneapolis, and I was looking forward to the trip and visiting a new city. It was my first business travel trip for this new company.

We stayed in a hotel which was situated right near a Chili’s restaurant. I’ve never been a great fan of chain restaurants, but when I lived in a small town in northern Indiana, those were often our best options available to us.

Still, whenever I visited a big city, I went on the prowl to find some of the better local restaurants, which were always going to be better than the boil-in-a-bag fare at the big-name chains.

Not for my boss, though. Our first night, he made a beeline straight for the TGI Fridays, dragging me along with him. It was fine, if mediocre, but I figured I could put up with it for one night. The next night, I got to choose, and we tried something a little more exotic — tapas, I think.

The next night? Back to Fridays. My boss’ reason? Because it was predictable, and it tasted the same as the Fridays back home.

“That’s exactly my point,” I said. “If I want Fridays back home, I’ll get Fridays when I’m back home. We’re in a city filled with people from a whole different part of the world, and this is our chance to eat something we’ve never tried before.”

If anything, this was exactly what he did not want. My boss didn’t want new, he wanted reliable. He wanted predictable. He wanted to eat the very same thing that he had at home.

To me, this was a boring way to live, so I took the rental car and found a new place, leaving him to his decidedly un-fun food. (He even took an industry colleague to dinner, although I think that guy may have wanted to go with me.)

Leave the Tourist Areas When You Travel

Paris on Ponce & La Maison Rouge restaurant. Go to a place like this when you travel.This has always been the rule in my family whenever we travel: When we go somewhere new, we eat somewhere new. You’ll never find us in a national chain restaurant, and we won’t eat the same things we can get at home.

I used to tell my kids the same thing my dad told me when I was a kid: “I didn’t travel all this way to eat food from home.” I never understood what the big deal was until I realized what I had been missing. That’s more or less when I stopped eating in chains in general, and especially when I travel.

In Orlando, near the tourist part of town, are all kinds of restaurants geared toward the tourists. Sure, there are some chains for the less adventurous, but there are some unique and adventurous restaurants and a fun and interesting place to visit. Sure, they’re huge, designed to seat a few hundred people all at once, but they’re there for the tourists who want something new.

But if you really want good food, if you really want to find the best the city has to offer, ditch the tourist areas and find out where the locals go. Where are the trendy parts of town? Where are the cool neighborhoods? Check out Yelp and see which neighborhoods they list in their filters. Look for the best restaurants in the area, or do a search for the best restaurants that serve the food you’re interested in. Make it a rule that if you recognize the name of the restaurant, you avoid it.

Another option is, if you’re traveling in a large city, pick up their local alt-weekly — the weekly entertainment and dining newspaper that’s geared toward locals, not tourists — and read their restaurant reviews. (Most of these papers also have a website, if you can’t find a paper.)

And of course, you can do all this research online before you ever leave home. Do a Google Maps search and look for restaurants in a certain part of town, near your hotel or Airbnb, or even just a certain type of food.

If you’re traveling with a group, take turns deciding what restaurants you’re going to visit. Make sure you take any allergies and other dietary restrictions into account too (Yelp has some great filters to help you find what you need). And then avoid all the tourist traps and tourist-attracting restaurants and eat where the locals eat.

What kinds of restaurants do you like to visit when you travel? Do you prefer your favorite standbys or do you like to explore and find something new. Share your thoughts with us on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream.

Photo credit: Marilyn Chen (Flickr, Creative Commons 2.0)

The Benefits of a Bleisure Vacation

July 11, 2019 by · Leave a Comment 

Bleisure — a portmanteau of “business” and “leisure” — is an excellent way for families to take small vacations, or for overworked business travelers to relax for a day before jumping back into the swing of work. And if you’re a frequent traveler who visits all kinds of cities but never actually gets to see anything, like I was for several years, it’s a great way to see a new city without the added travel costs.

Essentially, a bleisure trip just means tacking an extra day or two onto the beginning or end of a business trip. For example, if you’re traveling to Orlando for a conference, you can pad your schedule by a couple extra days, book your plane ticket according to the new schedule, and then play to your heart’s content for those two extra days.

You’ll need to pay for those extra hotel nights yourself, as well as any expenses — meals, events, car rental, admission tickets — but otherwise, you’re already there, so treat yourself to a day or two in a new city.

Photo of a laptop on a beach. This would be a great way to spend a bleisure trip.The nice thing about a bleisure trip is you’re already paying for a plane ticket or driving to that city. There’s no need to pay for transportation to return to the city a different time.

Plus, your schedule may afford you some of that extra time already. It’s very rare for a business conference or trade show to run over the weekend, and most of them end on a Friday, if not a Thursday afternoon. Nearly all the conferences I have ever attended tried to get you home on a Friday, so it should be easy to extend your stay to Sunday; no one is expecting you at the office on Saturday morning.

Also, extending your stay can sometimes lower your airfare significantly. The two cheapest days to fly on are Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and the next two are Thursday and Saturday. And the most expensive are Sundays and Fridays.

The reason for this is because most business travelers prefer to fly on Mondays and Fridays, and most vacationers prefer to return home on Sundays.

So if you had a conference that ran on a Thursday, and Friday, you could book a Tuesday – Saturday flight, and get a much cheaper ticket. (I would even try to get a very early flight on Tuesday and a very late flight on Saturday.)

In some cases, this could even save enough money to get the company to pay for an extra hotel night. I remember once that a plane ticket cost $300 less if I flew home one day later. My hotel was only $120 for the night, so I stayed the extra day.

Being on a bleisure trip can also give you some extra time with your family, especially if you’re a frequent traveler, like I was. Fifteen years ago, I was going to attend a conference in Orlando, and I decided to tack on a 5-day vacation.

The company paid for my own plane ticket, and I paid for my family’s. We all stayed in the same hotel room, and after the conference was over, we spent a few days at Disney World and flew home the following week.

My wife and kids would hang out at the pool or go shopping while I was at the conference, and they got to enjoy a few extra days in Florida at (almost) no cost. We were responsible for our own meals — I would pay for mine separately on the company card — and we got to spend a few extra days together, avoiding the cold Indiana winter for a few days.

Bleisure travel is becoming popular and important enough that many businesses are encouraging their people to take an extra day or two while they’re traveling. (If you do it right, it won’t even count against your vacation days.) So if you ever have the chance to visit a new city or country while you’re on business, take the chance.

What kinds of bleisure trips have you taken? Do you go by yourself or take your family? What do you like to do when you’re traveling? Tell us about it on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream.

Photo credit: Laura Hoffmann (Flickr, Creative Commons)

Things You SHOULD Buy Before You Travel

June 27, 2019 by · Leave a Comment 

While there are many things you can probably go without when you travel — miniature sleep tents for airplanes, battery-powered neck-warming pillows, airplane bathrobes — there are a few things you should have.

Smarter Travel recently published an article on seven things you shouldn’t buy before you travel, and I found myself disagreeing with about half of their items. The list includes:

  1. Travel insurance
  2. Private Passport Expediting Service
  3. Seat Assignment
  4. Prepaid Credit Cards
  5. Platinum-Economy Seat Upgrades
  6. TV Show Downloads
  7. Expedited Security

As a former road warrior turned frequent road tripper and couple-times-a-year flier, I think you’re making a big mistake if you follow this advice. There are a few items I absolutely insist on getting, and a couple items I could go either way. And, of course, there are some you should absolutely never, ever pay for. Ever.

To start with, I agree, you should not pay for private passport expediting services. You’re basically paying someone else to fill out a form and/or stand in line for you. You can pay for expedited service from the State Department anyway, which is what the private services are going to do. You can also get “life or death emergency” passport services. If you can do it yourself, do you really need to pay a few hundred dollars for someone else to do it?

I also agree you shouldn’t pay for TV show downloads, unless you’re already doing it. Download Netflix or Hulu episodes if you’re a subscriber (that’s included in your subscription), but don’t buy new episodes just for a trip. You’ve probably had plenty of items on your Netflix watchlist for many months if not years, so watch some of those. Save the purchased episodes for when you get home.

Skip prepaid credit cards, unless you can’t get your own credit cards. You should instead get credit cards that give you travel miles, so you can help pay for your next trip.

And the seat assignment thing is a little iffy. If you check in immediately 24 hours before your flight — like, right at 23:59:59 before you leave — you could probably get a good seat. However, just remember that there are people like me who purchase the Platinum-Economy Seat Upgrade, and I can reserve my seat when I book my ticket two months in advance. But if you’re on a less-popular flight or route, you’ll probably be okay.

You Should Absolutely Get These Before You Travel

However, I think you should get these things before you travel, especially if you fly more than once a year. (There are a few exceptions for each of these though.)

1. Buy travel insurance if you’re going on an expensive trip.
I don’t always get travel insurance, but there are plenty of times that I do. If nothing else, your travel insurance is going to help pay for any and all lost pre-paid tickets if you ever have to cancel or cut short a trip because of weather or illness.

Imagine saving up for a family vacation and canceling all those non-refundable airline tickets because someone got the flu two days before the flight. Sure you can recover or postpone the park/cruise/adventure tickets, but it’s a lot of hassle and time, not to mention the loss of any nonrefundable fees. Travel insurance can help you avoid all those headaches, and it’s not that expensive.

Check the different travel insurance options — and make sure you know what they cover and don’t cover beforehand — before you book your first ticket.

2. Get the platinum-economy seat upgrades.
As I’ve said before, I’m bigger than average. I need more legroom, but I don’t want to upgrade to business class. The Economy Plus (or whatever each airline calls it) is completely worth the extra costs.

The difference in seat pitch between Economy and Economy Plus may only be a couple of inches, but those couple inches mean the world of difference to me. I’ve spent two hours with my knees jammed up against the back of a seat, and I’ll change my entire itinerary before I ever do that again.

3. Pay for expedited security.

TSA security line at Denver International Airport

TSA security line at Denver International Airport

As the Smarter Travel article said:

Expedited security can be a really awesome perk when you’re faced with a lengthy line that snakes off into the distance. On the other hand, when there are three other people in line and the sound of crickets in the air, it can feel like a rip-off.

Even if you only fly once a year, expedited security is totally worth it. The cost for TSA PreCheck is $85 and it lasts for 5 years: $85 ÷ 5 = $17.

So your cost for having PreCheck is $17 per year. For a round-trip flight, that works out to $8.50 per trip. Would you pay $8.50 to not have to stand in line at security? I would.

I can tell you that never-have-I-ever been in a security line with only three people in it, but I’ve been in plenty of lines that snake off into the distance before. And there are some days where I would just pay 85 bucks to skip that line, let alone have five years’ worth of skipping.

If you’re a very infrequent traveler, or you’re small enough to fit into the regular economy seats, maybe you can skip these three “should buys,” but for the most part, I always recommend them to anyone who’s average height or above and flies at least once a year. Otherwise, take a good, long look at what you’re giving up, and see if the gains make up the possible headaches that will arise if something goes wrong.

What kind of “must haves” do you get before you travel? Are there any we can skip or items we should never leave the house without? Share your tips on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream, and be sure to connect with us on Instagram.

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