Stress-Free Travel on a Budget
If you’re like us, you look forward to summer vacation like the paparazzi salivate over a Brangelina baby sighting. But you also obsess over the details. Will you get a good rate on a flight? Will you have a safe trip? Will lifting a piña colada be the most exercise you get (and will it go straight to your thighs)? We’ve compiled this travel survival guide so you won’t stress while you’re planning the damn thing and can truly relax when you finally hit the road.
Score the Best Deals
You could get carpal tunnel syndrome browsing through the zillion travel sites. Save your index finger with these 10 smart picks.
- For Last-Minute Types: Go to site59.com to save as much as 70 percent on a vacation up to three hours before departure. Click on categories like “Outdoors,” “Luxury” and “under $250” for current specials.
- For the Roadtripper: Worried about the cost of filling the tank? (Who isn’t?) Go to gasbuddy.com for the cheapest gas stations along your route. Not looking forward to sitting in gridlock on the Interstate? Check out traffic.com for free customized traffic information that can be sent to your cell phone or e-mail address.
- For the Comparison Shopper: Travelzoo.com and bookingwiz.com are more comprehensive than some of the other travel sites. They sometimes publish lists of airline Web specials, hotel packages, and the best deals offered by other sites. Another tip for those in the know: Book your flight on a Tuesday. Airlines traditionally release their weekend Web specials on Tuesday, so reserve early that day to ensure you have the best selection of available flights. Translation: You can score a really cheap round-trip plane ticket.
- For the Control Freak: If you hate being at the mercy of airline specials when planning your trip, set your own price by going to skyauction.com. You bid on a flight to a particular destination, like at priceline.com. However, with skyauction, you not only choose your destination, you also know what airline and departure time you are bidding on. Bonus: If your bid is accepted, you can often purchase up to eight tickets at the same price. The downside is that if it isn’t, you may have missed your window for booking a cheaper ticket the old-fashioned way.
- For the Adventurer: If you’re off to parts (fairly) unknown and there’s no Holiday Inn in sight, get traveler-reviewed hotel recommendations on zuji.com, mobissimo.com, or travelocity.com.
- For the Cruiser: Sail the Chilean fjords or Greek isles for dirt cheap by going to worldwidecruises.com. Although you can book a cruise that fits your own itinerary, the site specializes in inventory from the major cruise lines.
Disturbing but necessary facts about hotel safety and hygiene.
- Pass the glass.
The last time those paper-capped glasses saw a dishwasher may well have been during the Reagan administration (especially if your lodging is a far cry from four-star). Even if they haven’t been sipped from, they’ve probably been handled, putting you at risk for contagions like the stomach flu. “A robust virus can live on a glass for a couple days,” says Philip M. Tierno Jr., MD, director of clinical microbiology and immunology at New York University Medical Center and author of The Secret Life of Germs. Concerned? Ask for some new glasses from room service.
- Don’t let the bed bugs bite.
After being nearly forgotten in the U.S., bed bugs have recently made a comeback, even at the nicest hotels. (Some experts think the resurgence is due to international travelers bringing home the varmints.) Generally found in heavily trafficked urban areas, they have flat, reddish-brown bodies that are about one-quarter- to one-half-inch long. Their MO is to feed by sucking your blood. The bad news is that the bugs like to hide, so you may not know you have them until you wake up covered in bites. It’s worth inspecting the room when you arrive. Look in the nightstand drawer, under the mattress, and in any cracks and crevices around the bed or bed frame, says Xing Ping Hu, PhD, an associate professor of entomology at Auburn University in Alabama.
- Safeguard valuables.
An electronic safe is the best bet for keeping your items secure in your room. But don’t get too confident, says Amy Ziff, Travelocity’s editor-at-large. Stash serious valuables in the hotel safe. It can be a major hassle timewise, but the hotel safe is more likely to be insured. Other tips: Before leaving your room, close the blinds and turn on the TV and a light to discourage casual thieves. And skip the “Please Clean Room” sign — it’s a red alert that the room is prime for the picking.
Instant Fixes for Unexpected Problems
- Your flight got canceled. Immediately pick up a cell phone and call the airline reservation number, says Bob Jones, a travel expert at onetravel.com. An attendant behind the counter can put you on a new flight, but more agents are available via phone, so you may book a new flight more quickly.
- You’re seriously lost. When you’re circling the entrance to the Golden Gate Bridge for the twentieth time, again let your cell phone bail you out. Use your phone’s browser to access MapQuest Mobile ($4 per month, mapquest.com/mobile), which will instantly supply maps and directions for anywhere in the U.S. and Canada.
- You got robbed. Call your credit-card companies immediately to report the stolen cards. Ideally, you have with you a list of the card numbers, which will expedite cancellation. Have the company put a fraud alert on your file so that you’ll be notified if anyone tries to open a card under your name. If you’re now dead broke, ask someone back home to wire money via Western Union, which is available in more than 200 countries, says Ziff. If your passport was stolen, immediately go to the American embassy or consulate; they can reissue you one, but be prepared to wait a few days or (in some cases) even weeks. Having a photocopy of your passport may speed up the process.
- You’re wrestling with reservations. It may seem so 20th-century, but when you’re planning a trip or making changes on the road, call the hotel or local rental-car office directly. They’ll have the most up-to-the-minute information on overbooking or on deals that are suddenly available due to last-minute cancellations (like weddings). Plus, you can ask about any specials they are advertising locally.
If you still don’t have any luck, ask for the manager on duty or the director of sales, says Peter Greenberg, NBC’s travel editor and author of The Traveler’s Diet: Eating Right and Staying Fit on the Road. Managers tend have the power to make things happen for you, whether it’s an upgrade or a discount.
How to stay in shape when you’re away from home (and your local gym).
- TravelTrainer. Sculpt and stretch your entire body with this kit that includes an inflatable ball, pump, yoga mat, resistance bands, and an exercise CD (download it to your iPod). Rolled up in the bag, the entire set is 6 by 20 inches and weighs 4 pounds. It fits easily into standard 22-inch carry-on luggage. ($89.90, travtrainer.com)
- Yoga: A Set of 50 Cards. Relax your mind and sculpt your body with step-by-step instruction on 50 different positions and moves. ($12.99, amazon.com)
- Aquabells Travel Weights. Fill these dumbbells with water — up to 16 pounds each. When collapsed, they weigh less than 2 pounds and lie flat in a suitcase. ($59.95, aquabells.com
- iPod Workouts. In your hotel room, you can easily do any of these workouts set to your own iPod music. (Podfitness, starts at $19.95/month for a personalized, daily workout; podfitness.com. PumpOne, $19 for two total-body workouts; pumpone.com)
Healthy On-the-Road Food Picks
Vacations are for indulging, but you don’t want to go totally off the deep end. Charles Stuart Platkin, founder of dietdetective.com, reveals which treats are smarter.
- Lobster with Butter vs. Fried Clams with Tartar Sauce
EAT THIS: 1-1/4-pound lobster with 1 tablespoon butter: 185 calories, 12g fat (7g saturated) 3/4 cup fried clams with a serving of tartar sauce: 719 calories, 56g fat (11g saturated)
- Blueberry Pie vs. Vanilla Ice Cream
HAVE EITHER: One slice blueberry pie: 290 calories, 13g fat (2g saturated) One cup vanilla ice cream: 289 calories, 16g fat (10g saturated)
- Margarita vs. Daiquiri
HAVE EITHER: One 6.8-ounce margarita: 249 calories, 0g fat (0g saturated fat) One 6.8-ounce daiquiri: 259 calories, 0g fat (0g saturated)
- Beer vs. Wine
HAVE EITHER: One 5-ounce glass of white wine: 122 calories, 0g fat (0g saturated fat) One 12-ounce bottle of beer: 153 calories, 0g fat, (0g saturated) Or go for light beer: 103 calories, 0g fat, (0g saturated)
- Barbecued Chicken and Potato Salad vs. Ribs and Corn on the Cob
EAT THIS: Small serving of barbecued chicken with 1/3 cup potato salad: 350 calories, 20g fat (5g saturated) 3 ounces ribs with corn on the cob with butter: 413 calories, 30g fat (14g saturated)
- Nachos with Cheese vs. Fries with Ketchup
EAT THIS: Small fries with 1 tablespoon ketchup: 242 calories, 11g fat (2 g saturated) Six nachos with cheese: 346 calories, 19g fat (8g saturated)
- DQ Dipped Cone vs. DQ Blizzard
EAT THIS: Medium chocolate-dipped cone: 490 calories and 24g fat (13g saturated) Medium Oreo Blizzard: 700 calories and 26g fat (12g saturated)