47 Insanely Useful Travel Tips from a Seasoned Pro

Table of Contents
  1. Set Up: Things to Do Before Your Trip
  2. How to Stay Healthy
  3. On Food & Drink
  4. On Hotels & Lodging
  5. On Car Rentals
  6. On Airfare
  7. On Keeping Your Stuff Safe

When I first started working, I was a little jealous of my management consultant friends who traveled all the time. They would fly out on a Monday, fly back on a Thursday, rack up all those airline miles and hotel points, and sleep in their own beds on the weekend.

My friends weren't Up in the Air types, seeking the 10 million miles club, but they got pretty close.

So when one of my friends, Melissa, a liaison for a pharmaceutical company took a liking to Wallet Hacks and asked if I wanted to publish an email she sends all her new colleagues…

… I screamed YES!!!!

Traveling can be stressful, it can be exhausting, and it can be expensive... it doesn't have to be. What if you had a few tips from a seasoned pro, a traveling expert, to teach you the little tips and tricks that help her get her through her travels?A little about Melissa, just so you have an idea of how much she travels. She's been Starwood Platinum Preferred Guest for four years, Continental and United Platinum for the first couple years, and she's been Southwest A-List Preferred for two years PLUS Companion Pass (the old fashioned way). She estimates she flies about 80-150 flights a year based on 2-4 flights depending on the week. I didn't ask her to go check her itineraries so those are just rough estimates based on her weekly flying… hence the large range.

To give you a sense of scale… Southwest A-List Preferred isn't something you can game (like I did to get Southwest Companion Pass), you have to fly 50 qualifying one-way flights a year or earn 70,000 Tier Qualifying points. Starwood Platinum Preferred Guest requires 50 eligible stays or 50 eligible nights. You can only get them if you travel a lot.

She's legit. And she's compiled a list of extremely useful tips that you should start using. If you're a seasoned traveler, some of these might not be new to you. If you aren't, get your pen and paper out because you might want to take notes.

Take it away Melissa!

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Set Up: Things to Do Before Your Trip

Getting frequent flier numbers for all major airlines and hotel chains, and at least 2 preferred car rental places can be very helpful. Keep these numbers handy. I have a little sticky in the front of my planner, Jim puts them all in an Evernote file along with other travel information. Make sure your numbers are entered into whatever service you use to book your travel to make it automatic and impossible to forget.

  • If you just traveled and didn’t use this number, you can call the company and get retroactive points (usually up to 6-12 months prior)
  • You can look at seat maps on flights to make sure the seat you choose isn't lacking a window, or doesn't recline. I like Seatguru.com. Also, I just had another business traveler tell me that when flying Southwest, if he can't score an exit row, he goes for a row in multiples of 9 on most of their 737's. Why might you ask? Because they divide the cabin by rows of 9, so his drink comes out more fresh with less melted ice!
  • If a flight is almost full more than 2 weeks prior, they tend to add extra flights if you are at a busy airport closer to the 2 week mark. Be careful though, it is around this time that most flights go up in price.
  • If you use a mobile boarding document, capture it with a picture setting and use the photo when scanning. It creates a more stable and quicker way to scan it at the door in case there's some problem with your Wi-Fi or cell reception.

On Packing: Never Check It!

  • For toiletries I use contact lens cases for overnight travel. One-to-two servings of stuff is all you need, and you can color code or label the tops so you know which is which. The Container Store is also a great place for the perfect sized containers for making your toiletries portable.
  • If you really want to save room, consider ex officio undergarments. You can wash them in the sink and they are dry in a couple hours to overnight (depending on the humidity of where you are staying).
  • For the lady constant travelers my motto is “see double”. Keep 2 of almost everything (powder, eyeliner, lipstick, etc.)—one set that stays in a travel bag, the other that stays in the drawer at home. This makes packing easier and you don’t have to worry about forgetting things. Just repack clothing and shoes, refresh any used toiletries from your bag when needed and you are all set.

I prefer to travel comfortable—if I’m going on a day trip, I travel in casual clothes and bring my business clothes in my carryon. It reduces wear and tear on your business clothes and also helps reduce the stink of travel when you go in to an appointment, and you feel more refreshed when you get there. For the ladies—foldable flats are the bomb for this purpose.

How to Stay Healthy

Wipe down your seat and tray table with a handy wipe. This saves you from any germs that can get you sick after travel. I've seen people put their feet or used kleenex on the tray tables or change dirty diapers on them. Scientists have found MRSA on most tray tables.

  • Stay hydrated—the easiest way to get sick on the road is by getting dehydrated first, which is easy to do when flying. Doctor's suggestion for travelers is 1 oz of water for each pound you weigh.
  • To stay healthy at hotels, I carry (you guessed it) disinfecting wipes. The tv remote, light switches, phones, etc. all get a wipe down when I enter my room, as these are not regularly cleaned by hotel staff. I also never use the crystal unless they are wrapped in something, I've seen too many investigative reports where hotel staff clean them with glass cleaner or worse.
  • Protect against bed bugs! Once you have a bedbug experience, it will haunt you forever (I unfortunately had a run-in with them in Belize…still leaves me shuddering). You can take them home too, and eradication is costly and arduous. Check the bed for signs of bed bugs before putting anything on or around the bed. Even if you don't see signs of infestation, put your used clothing into plastic bags and your bag up on a slick surface like a desk or valet.

On Food & Drink

If you want to go easy on your food budget, here are a few tips.

If you purchase anything at Starbucks they will give you a large filtered tap water with ice, or a grande cup of hot water for free–I carry tea bags on me for a little creature comfort and an empty water bottle through security, instead of paying $4 for a cup of tea or a bottle of water. They also have the Via instant coffee to carry on hand if you want a quick caffeine fix.

Jim: The empty water bottle tip is great but you can also bring food through airport security.

On Hotels & Lodging

The most common hotel chains you might use (depending on location) are Hilton, Marriott, or Starwood.

I chose Starwood because I love their beds, and it’s only 25 stays or 50 nights to platinum with VERY nice amenities for rewards members (vs. 75 nights for Marriott) but it will depend on your preference, cost, and location for which company to use.

Note that the sooner you make platinum, the more hotel points you will gain. Also check into credit cards for your preferred hotel chain; some give you free nights, points toward status, or automatic status for just signing up and spending a specific amount in a certain time frame.

Jim: We recently joined Starwood Preferred because their credit card gave us a boatload of points… that we plan to use on getting to Disney for free. 🙂
  • Pay attention to your hotel chain’s point benefits—they often run promotional programs you sign up for throughout the year where you can get you extra points at no cost (like if you stay at certain properties or stay for a specific amount of nights in a specific period). All they require is for you to sign up via email.
  • Look for great rates that include parking or breakfast the next day. These tend to save you at least 50% on those charges for including them.
  • Use AAA to your advantage. For instance, Starwood has flexible AAA rates that are lower than most regular flexible rates, but not much higher than pre-paid.
  • Use points toward other expenses. If you travel often, you can usually ask the hotel to use points for things like meals or hotel amenities.
  • Members of a hotel's elite programs can enjoy free water and wifi. When they ask you if you want to join, even if you are staying one night, feel free to jump in.
  • Different hotels offer different points values. For instance, a Four Points by Sheraton and Sheraton may be the same rate in the same town, but the Sheraton is considered a higher level. Therefore you get more points per night for the same amount of cash.
  • If there was an issue with your room, don't hesitate to mention it. Not a clean enough bathroom, but checked in too late to care? Mention it the next morning. “we're sorry” points sometimes can be applied by the front desk, but make sure to be courteous and constructive about your complaints.
  • Sometimes if you use a credit card from the same hotel chain you stay in, you get automatic higher levels of status (Starwood is gold, Marriott is silver I believe) along with double the points for your stays.
  • If you eat in your hotel, put the meal charge on your room, you’ll usually get the points for those charges (instead of just paying on a credit card.) If you pay with your hotel credit card, then you get double the points on it too.

On Car Rentals

Always sign up for the rewards program, you might get automatic status upgrades. I prefer renting from National because as soon as you sign up for their rewards program, you get immediate car upgrades (Emerald Aisle) and they have stellar service.

With a very small amount of rentals, you get bumped up again to Executive elite, where you get their top line upgrades for free. This means you can choose a clown car and end up with a town car for no extra cost. Service is stellar and I've never had problems with their cars. AMEX tends to reimburse for specific car rental programs, check your AMEX card for offers.

Use a credit card with car rental insurance. I love my Chase Sapphire card for this and for no foreign transaction fees. It's a credit card perk on a lot of cards.

If you have a problem with the car (like when it heats up it smells like dirty sweat socks or the transmission is sticky) don't hesitate to complain. This can help the company and the next patron, and maybe even get you a free day or extra points.

On Airfare

  • Pay attention to flight delay and cancellation requirements. If you fly Southwest, if your flight is more than 30 minutes late they will book you on another flight for free.
  • When considering a stop-over, it is always best to check the weather in the local area, and also consult the timeliness of an airport. My favorite place to check is the Bureau of Transportation Statistics Airline On-Time Stats and Delay Causes – avoid places with a lot of weather delays. 🙂

TSA PreCheck/Global Entry: TSA pre-check and/or global entry (domestic and international pre-check) programs are fantastic and can save you a ton of time and hassle at the airport. Global Entry is only $20 more, but includes both customs locations when entering the US from other places, and TSA precheck. It takes a total of 2-3 months to obtain (you apply and pay online, then schedule and go to an interview at your local airport) but once you are approved this gives you TSA pre-check on all airlines. Shoes stay on, and everything stays in your bag. It is much more pleasurable to travel this way (pre-9/11).

  • If you have a corporate or platinum Amex, this charge can be reimbursed on your statement. Check your card for details.
  • Put your number into Concur or your frequent flier profile under “Known traveler number” and it will automatically be added to your ticket. NOTE: TSA precheck is not 100% reliable though, sometimes you may have to go through regular security
  • TSA precheck checkpoints are not always at all security checkpoints or in all airports—if it’s a new airport to you, you may want to look and see where it is located
  • Inflight Wifi and Entertainment: Some frequent flier programs give you free Wi-Fi if you hit a certain status. Also, if you fly a lot, you can purchase a yearly membership to your airline's wifi provider.

On Keeping Your Stuff Safe

I use a travel wallet with only the essentials I need when I travel. That way if I ever (god forbid) lose my wallet, only a few cards are gone, and it’s much lighter than my beast I normally carry. Keep a copy of your credit cards and ID in a separate place that is always on you (not in a checked bag). If you ever lose your wallet, it is easier to find the right numbers to call.

  • If you just recently changed your address or got a new license, and they didn't confiscate your old license, you may be able to use your old one it until it expires for travel, leaving your new one safely at home (only if you are not driving at your destination. You will need an updated license if you are driving). Note most airlines are requiring a specific type of driver's license to travel after 2017).
  • Carry cash on you at all times—enough to pay a hefty cab fare ($80) in small bills. Do not carry large wads of cash in a wallet that is easily removed from your body, like a back pocket.
  • If you pay for taxis on a credit card, double check your statements every month. Taxis are known for ripping people off (charging more than stated, stealing your number, etc.)
  • Check for credit card foreign transaction fees before traveling abroad.

Lastly, consider getting travel insurance if it's a big trip.

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Jim Wang

About Jim Wang

Jim Wang is a thirty-something father of three who is a frequent contributor to Forbes and Vanguard's Blog. He has also been fortunate to have appeared in the New York Times, Baltimore Sun, Entrepreneur, and Marketplace Money.

Jim has a B.S. in Computer Science and Economics from Carnegie Mellon University, an M.S. in Information Technology - Software Engineering from Carnegie Mellon University, as well as a Masters in Business Administration from Johns Hopkins University. His approach to personal finance is that of an engineer, breaking down complex subjects into bite-sized easily understood concepts that you can use in your daily life.

One of his favorite tools (here's my treasure chest of tools,, everything I use) is Personal Capital, which enables him to manage his finances in just 15-minutes each month. They also offer financial planning, such as a Retirement Planning Tool that can tell you if you're on track to retire when you want. It's free.

He is also diversifying his investment portfolio by adding a little bit of real estate. But not rental homes, because he doesn't want a second job, it's diversified small investments in a few commercial properties and a farm in Illinois via AcreTrader.

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  1. Our Next Life says

    Wohoo for the lady biz travelers! 🙂 I’m a United 1K/Marriott Platinum (just passed 75 nights on the year, so already re-upped my status for next year), so I can vouch for how solid all of these tips are. I’m a big fan of never unpacking — just take out the dirty laundry and add new clothes next time — but otherwise keeping a duplicate set of everything (toiletries, charger cords, etc.) in my travel bag. Also never ever checking a bag. And I never even use the glasses in hotel rooms if they are wrapped — I just assume they use the rag to wash them that washes everything else. No thanks! 🙂

    The tip I’d add would be to choose your hotel and airline loyalty program based on how you travel in your personal life. Starwood is great if you want to stay at higher end places when you cash your points in, since it does give you higher status faster. We chose Marriott, though, because they have more low-end properties (Fairfield Inn, Residence Inn, etc.) that we can use to stretch our points farther when we use them for our own travel. I love that I can earn points at the Ritz but use them on some crappy place to make them last longer. 🙂

  2. Paul Andrews says

    Wow, what a comprehensive article! It’s easy to find the same tired advice about traveling, but I got a lot of new information here. I had never heard of that “TSA Pre-check/Global Entry” program; I’m super excited to apply! Great post, really glad I stumbled on your site!

    • Jim Wang says

      Thanks!

      TSA precheck is awesome and if you travel with any regularity, it’s a must. Amazing that TSA has gotten us to pay extra just to be treated decently. 🙂

        • Jim Wang says

          Yep! — https://www.americanexpress.com/us/content/expedite-your-travel.html

          “The application fee credit for Global Entry or TSA Pre is available to American Express Gold Corporate Card Members, Consumer Platinum Card® Members, Corporate Platinum Card Members, Business Platinum Card Members, Consumer Centurion® Members, Corporate Centurion® Members, and Business Centurion® Members.

          The benefit is also available to Additional Card Members on eligible Consumer and Business Card accounts. To receive the statement credit Additional Card Members must charge the application fee to the eligible Additional Card account.”

  3. Kayla @ Shoeaholicnomore says

    Wow! There are so many good tips I’m not sure where to start! I liked the part about doing a small cleanup of your hotel room when you first get there. That is an EXCELLENT tip! You never know what those tables have had on them, so it definitely doesn’t hurt to wipe them down.

    • Jim Wang says

      Thanks Kayla! — that one tip has stuck in my mind, you always assume things are clean… but are they really???

  4. Sandra Wing says

    Here is a tip for you if you have a smart phone. Instead of using the remote control for your TV use your phone as your remote. My smartphone and I’m sure most of them today have the ability to be used as a remote control.

  5. Suze Wannabe says

    My husband is a million-miler and we have seen a lot of the world.

    I will remember the wipes-great tip.

    VIA coffee, powdered stevia and Tang mini bottle water flavor are Godsends. Also, a Dieuretic can help get rid of swollen limbs (then you need to rehydrate).

    My favourite thing is to keep my toiletries on a hanging ladies folding toiletry bag at home and on the go. I found a Trina Turk trifold with all sorts of nifty velcro and zipper pouches for about $20 at the Nordstrom Rack.

    A handy trick is to put creams, pills etc in stackable clear bead rounds from Michaels craft store.

    The Global Entry is really super.

    One warning: if you receive gifts, OPEN THEM before your US return. UScustoms is the MEANEST on the planet, barking and shouting (I’m convinced German Shepard dogs, armbands, and flashlights are next..I digress). My husband received Chinese New Year meat and pretzel like snacks once and now is on some horrid blacklist. So, while I sail through customs, he is trapped in the 2-hour “international meat-smuggler” line with hundreds of others.

  6. Boonie says

    I’m not a complainer but when traveling sometimes you do have to say something about a dirty room. Especially if it’s a higher end hotel, while staying at a Ritz we had brown stains on our sheets, it looked like burnt marks for the dryer. My husband was very upset so I did take pictures and was given $100 credit. I just wanted the sheets changed!

  7. The Money Wizard says

    Love the tips! I travel a ton, had over 100 flight segments last year, and still many of these tips were new to me!

    Particularly loved the multiple of 9 row trick on Southwest. I get so impatient waiting for those pretzels!

    Along the same lines, I always think twice about sitting in the exit row. Sure, you get more legroom, but if there’s two rows, the first will not recline. Most exit row seats also shave an inch or more off your seat width to accommodate the tray table, which must fold to the side instead of on the seat in front of you. Exit row seats are often colder as well, since the exit door seems less insulated than the rest of the plane.

    • Jim Wang says

      Ha for me it’s the drinks, especially on shorter flights (we fly a lot to Long Island and it’s a 45 min flight) because sometimes they suspend drink service!

      • Suze says

        Speaking of drinks, you can buy drink coupons on eBay for less than $8 a piece. Well worth it.
        Also, if you like Bloody Mary’s, ask for 2 vodkas, ice and a can of mix. Saves everyone time.

        More tips from our last journey to France. Don’t fly through Frankfurt. No mixed drinks on Luftansa and you have to deplane on the tarmack then ride a crowded bus to the next terminal and go through double passport check. It’s efficient given the circumstance, but harrowing if you’re trying to make a connection within an hour.

        • Jim Wang says

          You can buy drink coupon sets (4) for $8 (I know this is what you meant but people might read that to mean $8 per individual ticket) — good tip on the Bloody Mary’s. 🙂

          I’ve done airplane boarding and departures that way. It’s kind of cool to be walking outside (weather permitting) but if you have to transfer, it can be very stressful!

  8. Sam @ Financial Samurai says

    Man, I must be lazy or just out of it. B/c no matter when I look at my points balance, it never seems to be ENOUGH to go anywhere nice RT for two! And I do travel a ton. But I guess I don’t spend a ton.

    My best travel hack is to just start a business and use your friend’s excess vacation days at his world vacation membership program 🙂

  9. Suzewannabe says

    I forgot one more important one for long hauls. Buy some throw away slippers-(one for destination, another for return trip) because late in the trip, the bathroom floors are wet and gross.

  10. Kerissa says

    This is great advice! I would add that packing cubes are a great way to squeeze in a couple more clothing articles for long trips. And if you put a dryer sheet in the cubes, your clothes will smell fresh! The security guy in London couldn’t believe how organized my bag was after a 3 week trip.

    I also keep a handful of granola bars, pretzels, dried fruit, and nuts in my carry on for snacks while en route. So much cheaper than buying snacks at the airport! Most airports also have fountains where you can fill your water bottle.

    I also keep a handful of the TSA ziplock bags in my suitcase. That way I’m never worried about going over the carry on liquid limit.

    Happy Travels!

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