26 Best Trip-Planning Hacks Straight From Travel Agents
Travel experts share their best tricks to avoid common travel mistakes.
If you've ever had to plan a vacation, you know the responsibility—and pressure—of the task. There's browsing endlessly for affordable airfare (that seems to fluctuate every hour), finding a central hotel with all the amenities, and spending hours booking restaurant reservations. Thankfully, travel agents are here to help. Below, we've compiled their best trip-planning hacks, so your next getaway will be seamless.
Look at the hotel's fine print.
Once you've found your dream hotel, be sure to read the fine print. From booking fees to daily hotel resort fees to cancellation fees, there are many hidden costs that can leave you paying more than you bargained for.
"These hidden hotel resort fees are designed to confuse consumers and distort the actual price," says Erika Richter, spokeswoman for the American Society of Travel Advisors (ASTA). "Sometimes they're called 'facility fees;' make sure you ask before you book."
Create a detailed itinerary.
Nothing is worse than arriving at your destination and feeling overwhelmed by all the things to do and places to see. So, James Ian, travel expert and founder of the online travel publications Travel Collecting and Parks Collecting, recommends making a detailed itinerary.
"When creating an itinerary, I always create a Google Doc that I can share with my travel companion(s). I create a table/ calendar with the dates of travel," he shares. "Then I research all the things to do… noting opening hours and days, travel times, locations, websites with links, etc."
"I then move these activities and places into the calendar. I cross reference locations so that I'm not jumping around the city or country, but instead am spending each day in the same area," he adds. "This has an additional advantage that I can access it on my phone during the trip if necessary."
Another way to figure out which stops make sense for which days is to pin the locations on Google Maps, suggests Kelsea O'Donnell, co-owner and chief travel planner of Out of Office Mindset. Then, you can see them all in one place to easily know distances.
But also leave yourself some wiggle room.
Itineraries are great, but there's only so much we can account for in advance, which is why you'll want to leave at least a little bit of room to readjust.
"As a Type-A person myself, I find that I always want to have everything planned out to the minute, but over the years I've learned that this just isn't the way to go with trip-planning," shares Brittany Mendez, travel expert and chief marketing officer of FloridaPanhandle.com.
"You never know when something is going to happen that will throw a wrench in your plans—maybe a sudden storm will appear, you'll wake up with a migraine one morning, a location you'd planned on visiting is temporarily closed for a few hours, etc.," she points out. "And if you haven't allowed any wiggle-room in your plans, that will throw everything off."
Bring a spare outfit in your carry-on.
If you're checking luggage, be sure to pack a change of clothes or a versatile outfit in your carry-on (including undergarments and socks). "If your luggage gets lost and takes a while to get to you, you'll be so grateful that you've got a change of clothes ready to go," says travel agent Kalyn Franke.
Keep a pair of slippers in your carry-on.
Whether it's an amenity pair from a previous hotel stay or a cheap pair from the drugstore, Betsy Ball, co-founder of Euro Travel Coach, recommends wearing slippers on the plane for comfort and sanitation.
"If your feet swell during the flight, you'll still be comfortable, and you can walk down the aisle of the plane with something on your feet," she says.
Save a copy of your itinerary in your checked bag.
On the topic of lost luggage—no one ever thinks it will happen to them. But even if you don't have a tight connection, a number of factors can cause your bag to get delayed. This is why Amina Dearmon, owner and travel advisor at Perspectives Travel, suggests printing a copy of your itinerary and packing it on top of your checked luggage, so airlines can easily return it to you.
"If you're only in your first destination for a day or two, the airline will know where you're headed next and [send] your bag to your new location," says Dearmon.
Buy a colorful passport cover.
Kim Parizek of Boutique Travel Advisors suggests getting "a very colorful and flat passport holder that is easy to find in a flash." She personally carries a pink one, which allows her to spot the passport in her carry-on amidst the chaos of customs or security.
Know when to book flights.
It's long been a commonly held belief that Tuesday is the cheapest day of the week to book flights. Ivan Saprov, founder and CEO of flight-booking site Voyagu, says this is true, but he adds that there are other hacks, too.
"Booking a flight in the middle of the night could also save you money," he shares. "According to our experience, airlines release better seat availability at 4-5 a.m., when there is less activity in the market. This is because airlines use a revenue management system to control how they distribute seats, and they release cheap seats during off-peak hours to attract customers."
"Also consider flying midweek for better rates, as there's a huge demand to travel out early in the week and return on Saturday or Sunday," he adds.
And be flexible with your airports.
Mercedes Zach, a travel expert at ASAP Tickets, says you can also potentially save money on flights by being flexible with what airports you fly out of and into. For example, she suggests looking into "open-jaw tickets," or tickets where you don't arrive and depart from the same airport.
"If a direct flight is too expensive, look into connecting flights and, where possible, check out pricing for flights to secondary airports," she notes.
Double- and triple-check your name details.
After booking flights, hotels, and excursions, check that your name on all the reservations and tickets correctly matches your ID or passport. "Make sure it is spelled exactly the same!" says Ball. A misspelled name on a reservation can cause delays and even cancellations depending on the airline or hotel policy.
Travel on shoulder season.
"After you settle on a destination, make sure you find out when it's peak season and plan your trip before or after that time," says Richter.
Peak travel times are typically predictable, like spring break, holidays, and summer months. The influx of visitors forces prices to increase during these times, thus traveling in the shoulder season allows for a cheaper and less-crowded getaway.
Or travel to lesser-visited destinations.
If peak travel times are your only option, you can also consider visiting a less "popular" destination, says Sarah-Leigh Shenton, director of marketing at luxury travel company Red Savannah.
"Instead of Barcelona, for example, consider San Sebastian, a beautiful Catalan town on Spain's Bay of Biscay coast, noted for its delicious food scene," she suggests. "The Amalfi Coast gets horribly crowded in the peak summer months and the coastal road becomes more stressful than scenic—head instead to the more tranquil region of Puglia where you'll discover fine beaches and fascinating villages."
Research holidays and open hours.
It's a no-brainer to research attractions in advance, but don't forget to look at the timing, including holiday hours.
"Take special note of days when museums are closed. Don't plan to be in a city for only one day to see a special exhibit and find out later that it is closed that day," says Ball.
She learned this the hard way when she was in Prague. "The only day we had was a Saturday," she shares. "What I really wanted to see were the Jewish sites, and they are closed on Saturday, their holy day."
Book online to skip admission lines.
Parizek advises paying for museum tickets in advance, particularly for any experiences that offer a 'skip-the-line' fee.
"The crowds can be overwhelming as over-tourism becomes an issue in most popular destinations. Your time is valuable and waiting in line for two hours to see the Louvre is not a good use of it," she notes.
Make those restaurant reservations.
There was always a good chance that highly sought-after restaurants required reservations well in advance. But after the pandemic, even more restaurants are reservation-only.
This is especially true in Europe, says Shenton: "Remember that many book several months in advance—Brett Graham's The Ledbury in London, The Waterside Inn in Bray, and Gigi Paris, with its Eiffel Tower views all require bookings well ahead."
Arrange airport transportation in advance.
"There is nothing worse than arriving from a long flight and having to deal with taxis and being ripped off," says Tina Dahmen, a luxury travel advisor in Bali.
Ask your hotel concierge to book a car if there's no shuttle available, or ask your Airbnb host how they recommend getting to the apartment.
This may seem self-explanatory, but the more you travel, the more you realize you don't always need everything you pack. Browse your itinerary and check the weather a week before you travel. Then make a list of essentials and outfits you can easily mix and match.
"Packing light is always a good idea to avoid last-minute, stressful stuffing situations," says Georgina Blasco of Freetour.
She adds that this also ensures you'll have extra space to bring home keepsakes: "One of my favorite parts of taking a trip is buying souvenirs for my family and friends. That is what I take into account when packing."
Use travel cubes.
One of the best organizing and space-saving techniques is to use packing cubes.
"If you are on a tour and moving from hotel to hotel daily, it is key to have your items packed in cubes so you're not looking for socks while mulling through sweaters, shirts, and underwear," Parizek says.
Bring copies of your important documents.
Make two copies of your important ID documents. Then, put your actual passport in the hotel safe, carry one copy with you at all times, and give the other to a friend or family member you're traveling with.
"You may need them at the most unexpected places to prove your credentials," says Saurabh Jindal of the Talk Travel App.
Make a reading list.
It goes without saying that guidebooks and travel blogs are an easy way to learn about a destination. But Shenton has other creative recommendations that might "add some deeper appreciation."
"Perhaps a novel set there—Elizabeth Gilbert's portrayal of Italy, Bali, and India in Eat, Pray, Love is compelling—a documentary or historical perspective—Mary Beard's SPQR stands out—or a biography of a well-known resident—Chanel in Paris, for example.
Take jet lag into account.
If you're coming off a long-haul international flight, you want to adjust to the time zone both physically and mentally. This means taking a light stroll in the sunlight and not booking any strenuous activities for the first day.
"Ease into your plans so you have more flexibility in the beginning and more tightly scheduled activities at the middle or end of your trip," says Franke.
Set a travel budget.
Stressing over finances can completely derail a trip, which is why Zach suggests setting a budget ahead of time.
"Whether you decide how much you want to spend daily or come up with the total costs you can allocate for the trip, that will help you feel less stressed about spending too much or not experiencing everything you wanted," she says. "Also, knowing at least an approximate amount of money you need on top of the flight and accommodation costs allows you to save it up in advance so that you don't end up using all your current savings."
If you're traveling to a major city or another country, it's also important to take into account how prices differ. "That is especially important when going to more expensive places where even a bottle of water can cost five times more than you are used to," Zach adds.
Have small cash for tipping.
To ensure you pay credit where credit is due, exchange smaller denominations and set that aside for tipping. Do this prior to arriving, Parizek recommends: "I can't tell you how many times at arrival, I am having to explain that I have no small currency for luggage porters and drivers."
If you aren't able to exchange small denominations of cash prior to your trip or from the local ATM, Jindal says supermarket self-service machines and cashiers can usually break large currency notes that small vendors typically don't accept.
Get a credit card with no foreign transaction fees.
Outside of small bills for tipping, it's not wise to carry around a lot of cash when traveling. But swiping your credit card over and over can incur tons of foreign transaction fees—which is why Kimberlee Evans, luxury travel advisor and owner of An Extraordinary Traveler, says it's so important to get a card without them.
Consider travel insurance.
Evans says she always recommends her clients purchase travel insurance, even if they're traveling domestically.
"Travel is still not quite what it was pre-Covid. There are flight cancellations and delays every single day. It's best to protect your investment," she explains. "So, although most travelers think of insurance from a medical perspective, there are so many other reasons to be protected. Baggage loss is sadly a BIG reason in today's travel climate."
Hire a travel advisor.
To save time and money and to gain access to exclusive experiences, this is the number one trip-planning tip from agents across the board.
"Consider working with a trusted travel advisor to book your hotel… it may lead to some free amenities," suggests Jessica Copquin, a luxury travel advisor at Tzell Travel Group. "As an advisor, we send a note to the hotel as soon as a reservation gets booked to VIP our travelers. This is another benefit of working with an advisor as you get stellar treatment while on vacation."