Ten Tips For Smoother Travel

* We’re sending lots of love to everyone in Boston (our cousins were at the marathon but are thankfully safe).

Back in October we hardly would have called ourselves traveling experts. Honestly we only took a flight once every few years (we went to Alaska for our honeymoon in 2007 and didn’t get back on a plane for a family vacation again until 2012 when we went to Hawaii for our five year anniversary). But thanks to our book tour, we’ve been on lots of flights. 29 of them in four months to be exact. So while we still can’t quite claim expert traveler status yet, here are a few things we learned about planes and hotels along the way…

#1. If your airline is gate-checking bags, get on the plane towards the end of boarding (even if you’re invited to board earlier). On small planes where rolling suitcases & duffel bags are tagged at the gate and stowed underneath the plane, we found that often the last bags to go on were the first to come off. So if you’ve got a tight connection or just generally don’t like waiting for your bag, don’t be in a rush to board because your bag may end up at the bottom of the pile. Don’t be dead last and get left behind or anything, but try going on with Zone 4-5 people instead of Zone 1-2. Note: this works best if after you gate-check your bag, the only other carry-ons that you have can slip under the seat in front of you since overhead bin storage fills up while you wait to board.

#2. If you’re arriving to town before hotel check-in, just call ahead. Our flights often got us into town before noon – a few hours before the standard hotel check-in time of 3 pm. We used to think this required us to kill some major time, but usually all it takes is a call to get into your room early at no extra charge. We often called before getting on the plane (to let them know we were interested in an early check-in) and then again when we landed in that city (to hopefully secure something that was ready). This method only failed us once, but in about a dozen other circumstances when we arrived early, there was a room waiting for us.

#3. Be the bright spot in the front desk clerk’s day. Hotel employees deal with plenty of jerks each day (we witnessed more than a couple), so by being the friendly / smiley / not-engrossed-in-your-phone guests can sometimes earn you more than good karma points – we even scored a couple of random room upgrades.

#4. If you can’t reserve plane seats together, book seats that would be next to each other, even if they’re in different rows. All of our tour flights were booked by our publisher (many of them last minute). So on the few occasions where we couldn’t get seats together, we’d ask the desk agent, which worked in most cases. But for two instances it didn’t. So as a last ditch effort, we chose an aisle seat in one row and a window seat in another – even if it was a row up. Then we’d get on the plane and before the person in the seat we wished to switch with sat down and got settled we asked if they minded sitting one row up in the same exact seat that they booked. In those two cases, the person didn’t seem to mind at all (of course nothing’s guaranteed, but we thought it was worth a shot).

#5. Whenever possible, pack light and carry on. In all of our 29 flights, we never lost a single bag. This is because we packed light and carried on every single time. I just carried my purse (which also had our camera, our phones, our tickets, some snacks, and our itinerary) and John carried the backpack (with our books for reading on the plane, our computer, and signing stuff in it) along with dragging the carry-on-sized rolling suitcase along (full of clothes, shoes, etc). This is all that we brought with us, even when we were gone for nearly a week:

It might seem hard to get all of your stuff down to just a few bags, but our advice is to pack a few wardrobe staples that can all be interchanged (ex: don’t pack any tops that need specific shoes or pants that don’t go with anything else). In our case, a few pairs of jeans and tops along with one extra pair of shoes each, and some obvious things like underwear was all that we needed in our suitcase. When we travel with Clara we use one more rolling suitcase for her clothes, sound machine, blanket, and a few other comfort items, but since each person is allowed one suitcase and one carry on, we’re still good to go in that scenario without any bag checking.

6. Keep toiletries easily accessible in a plastic bag that you can pull out in two seconds at security. Many of the airports we traveled through were extremely strict about removing our liquid toiletries from our luggage when going through security (and it can really slow you down if you have to dig through your suitcase to grab them) so we learned to keep our plastic bag of contact solution and other small liquids more easily accessible. Rather than burying it with the rest of our toiletries in our suitcase, sticking it into the front pocket of the backpack made for easier grabbing.

Oh but they’ll take any and all fancy sodas away from you as you go through security 100% of the time.

#7. Make a travel document to use as a quick-reference itinerary for every trip. We put all of our hotel accommodations, flight confirmation numbers, and scheduled dates for departures & check-ins on one sheet of paper that we printed out before we left for the airport. It’s also a nice simple sheet to copy for a family member so they know where to find you in an emergency.

#8. Do a night-before-check on your flight, print tickets at home, and double check your hotel reservation. This is another one of those prepping-beforehand-is-much-easier-than-panicking-later things. We liked to check on our flight the night before, just to be sure it wasn’t delayed or canceled and, if possible, even print tickets at home to save time at the airport. We also learned the hard way to check our hotel reservations – on one of our first tour stops, we arrived to find that our hotel was booked for the following night instead of that night and we had to kill a few hours while everything was straightened out.

And if you’re lucky, your room looks like this

#9. Everything takes longer than you think. Always give yourself a lot more time to do basic things like fly somewhere, catch a cab, check into your hotel, etc. In the beginning of our tour we tried to squeeze in a lot of things that we soon learned we’re close to impossible (ex: a house crashing after a delayed flight meant shooting a house in the dark and then eating a crazy-late dinner and collapsing into bed at 1am, which didn’t set us up well for our morning signing the next day). So it was a lot less stressful once we stopped underestimating the time it would take to do things and started being realistic about how much “fuzzy” time there is in there. You know, all those moments spent deplaning, waiting for a cab, or sitting in a restaurant waiting for the food can really add up.

#10. Hotel TV can stink. I know, this isn’t a huge deal for most people (us included) when you’re going to be staying somewhere for a few days, but when you’re traveling on and off for four months you definitely start to miss the simple comforts of home that help you unwind (your own couch, your own bed, and even your DVR). So we wised up in the last month of travel and got a free one month trial of Amazon Prime, which allowed us to watch Downton Abbey on our computer in any hotel. It sounds odd, but having this simple luxury really helped us relax and it made those random hotels feel a little more homey (instead of sitting on the bed watching Cops and missing “real life” like crazy).

So there you have it. Ten things that made all that traveling a little easier, more fun, tastier, and more comfy. Do you guys have other tips out there! I’m sure there are some we have yet to discover and a few that we’re forgetting thanks to scrambled travel brain. That’s a real thing, right?

Psst- Here’s a post about toddler travel that we did a while back, just in case that’s on the agenda for you.


    • AnnieM says

      We traveled to Italy for 16 days last fall, and I took only a backpack on the plane, and a carry-on suitcase. I didn’t want to check any bags. The backpack was great, because it fit a lot of stuff (multiple pockets that zipped–padded compartment for my DSLR) and was hands free when I wore it. I packed clothes that washed and dried easily (no dryers in Italy) along with a Rick Steeves clothes line. It worked fantastic, and soooo much easier than a big cumbersome suitcase. My husband did the exact same thing, and it was awesome. I spent many hours shopping online at Zappos, finding the right sandals to wear for lots of walking–with free shipping both ways, it was easy to try on and return–and I wore those sandals 99% of the time.

  1. says

    Great travel tips! I’ll never be able to get our stuff down to 2 backpacks and a carry on. We go places for 2-3 weeks at a time and the Mr is a chronic over-packer. We’ve never had to pay but before we bought a luggage scale we had to rearrange a few times. So there’s my tip, if you’re an over-packer like we are, invest in a manual luggage scale ($10 and has a hook that holds up to 70 lbs or so). This will save you time and stink eye from other passengers if you’re close to or just over the limit.

  2. says

    I travel A LOT, especially overseas, and these are great tips! The only one I would caution people about is the seat switching thing. Despite flying a ton, I hate it, and choosing my seat is a way to cope with the anxiety – but, as a single person, I’m one of the first people asked to move if this happens. Recently on a flight from London, a family of 6 had all booked seats all over the plane and then all wanted to sit together. I wouldn’t move (because it was an 11 hour flight and I was already freaking out) and the flight attendants treated me terribly because of it, even though I was visibly upset. So expecting people to be okay with moving can be both unpredictable and pretty awful for the people who are being moved.

    But YES to only carrying on!

    • Courtney says

      I love all your travel tips, but I have to agree with Amber. I don’t have any travel anxiety, but I do work to get just the seat I want. I travel alone a lot, so people think it is totally OK to ask me to trade seats. I used to smile and trade seats with people, but inside I was TICKED OFF! I started to nicely explain that this was the seat I wanted, and did not want to trade. I then became the jerk of the flight, try being hated by a plane full of people for 10 hours!
      Not to be a jerk, but just wanted to toss it out there… just because someone smiles and moves, does not mean they are really OK with it. My suggestion, book early if you really want to sit with your traveling mate. Or, if booking early is not an option, just realize that you won’t be sitting with your mate for several hours. Nobody wants to have to be the person to say “no, I really don’t want to move”. (Sorry, but this just happened in the last month, so I am still a little raw)

    • says

      Oh yes, I completely agree that booking early is best! In our case the publisher did all of the booking (some of it at the last minute) and there were only two flights where we had to switch. Before the guy even sat down we just asked if he minded sitting one row up in the same seat – it seemed especially easy for folks if they weren’t settled already. Both of us have switched seats for people when we’re traveling alone, so I guess we didn’t think twice about asking :)


    • Ashley says

      ITA about the seat switching thing. If you can’t find seats together when you book, you need to be prepared to just sit in your assigned seat instead of being rude and asking people to move to accomodate your lack of planning.

      Otherwise, these are good tips.

    • says

      I’ll be happy to be a dissenting voice here. I often travel alone, and I am always happy to switch seats as long as I don’t end up with a different type of seat than what I wanted. I prefer window seats (I’m small and fit well there, and then I get to control the lighting and looking out the window). Nothing makes me happier than when I had to take a middle seat and then I end up with a window seat when someone asks to switch with me.

      It’s always one of those “read people well and be polite” circumstances. And to those who don’t want to switch, just say no — you don’t need to explain, and folks who want to switch need to accept that and move on.

    • Jeanna Strassburg says

      I’m not trying to be rude here- I honestly just want to know. What is so rude about being asked to switch a seat?! It seems like most of the seats on the plane are pretty indistinguishable! Unless maybe you are in an emergency exit aisle? What ever happened to being kind and courteous and helping someone else in need? Especially if your not sitting with anyone? Someone enlighten me.

    • Linda says

      I have two partners who are executive platinum fliers, so I book flights every day. In my experience, seats are not interchangeable, especially if you fly a lot. People do develop favorite seats, and have good reasons for doing so, especially if they’re flying solo and on business.

      I agree – if you can read your person and be able to give them a ‘equal or better’ seat, it’s ok to ask, especially if you’re flying with someone who obviously needs assistance. But for most healthy people, not sitting together for a few hours is not exactly a major problem in my book. I do agree that asking before they settle in is better, but do try to read your person before bringing it up, especially if you’re trying to switch into a “good” seat on the plane.

      And, there are web sites that show you which seats are popular. If you (generic you, here, not J&S) really want to sit together, request the less popular sections of a given flight.

    • -alex says

      We travel overseas once a year to visit my husband’s family and we NEVER can get seats together even if I book 8 weeks in advance for the four of us. The biggest culprit? Two people traveling together who ‘leave’ a seat between them when they book. If you look at the seating chart, there are only orphan seats left.

      I sympathize with the OP that being asked to move can be distressing, but the airlines need to do a better job at keeping blocks of seats for families that travel. If it were just my husband and I, I wouldn’t care if we are separated for the flight duration. It doesn’t make sense though, to ask a stranger to take care of my child because the airline only had single seats available in alternate rows up and down the airplane.

    • Laura H. says

      I think the two of you are good *people readers* and would not offend someone by asking to switch seats. We travel as a family of 3 and have been separated only twice (2 seats and 1 seat)– even with the best planning and travel agent. One time the plane was completely packed and we just sucked it up because there was no room to move and we were *close enough* but another time an intuitive couple saw me handing things to my young daughter and husband and they happily offered to switch.

      I was kind of surprised to see where it would bother people. But again….I don’t think you’d stick someone in a seat that was worse than their original.

    • Lauren says

      Have to say–if John or Sherry asked me to switch seats, I’d be super excited! And probably act all weird on the plane and gush and jump up and down…

      In all honesty though, if you’re going to ask someone to move, I think it’s totally cool if you are offering them a better seat, but kinda icky if you’re like, “Hey window-seat guy, would you mind sitting here in the middle so I can sit by my partner?” Then I’d probably pretend to not speak English (smile and nod, smile and nod…).

    • Emily says

      Totally agree. As a single person, I am asked all the time if I will switch seats. I used to switch, even though I didn’t always want to do so. These last few flights have been outrageously expensive and you know what? I don’t want to switch. I have anxiety issues and by the time I’m asked to switch seats I’m probably two pills to the wind and don’t give a crap what anyone thinks about me not switching. If one wants seats together so badly…book them that way.

      I might have some anger that was repressed from a flight…

    • Caroline says

      My husband travels 75% of the time. He books his own travel, lots of time at the last minute. He’s not a small guy: 6’2″ and 240 lbs. He normally sits first class because he’s able to with his travel points but when he sits economy, he pays the extra to book the seat he wants and will be comfortable in.
      It might be different in the States, but lots of Canadian airlines require you to pay up to $60 or so to book the seat you want in advance. If you don’t pay it, you get assigned a seat that is left at the time of check in. My husband has come across a few people who have wanted to switch and it’s always no (unless there is a small child involved). I would be upset if I’d paid for my seat only to be asked to move – no matter if the other seat is the same “type”.
      When my husband and I travel together, 50% of the time we don’t sit together. It’s no big deal, I can live a few hours without being attached at the hip.
      And Alex, 8 weeks is nothing, I consider that almost last minute for an overseas flight. Also, it’s an overseas flight – why would you want to sit in the middle?! You know that you’re going to be traveling once a year, book it early!

    • -alex says

      @Caroline. I would love to book my tickets earlier, but financially, I can barely afford the $1000+ a ticket that the 8 week mark usually costs. I have tried booking 3 and 4 months out and the tickets are $2000 a piece. I have been tracking prices since January for our trip in June and it’s scary expensive. Yes, we could go back every other year and save the money, but my MIL would never see her only grandkids. (BTW, I am 12 weeks out from departure and tickets are now down to $1550 each.)

      Again, I think the airlines need to do a better job of keeping blocks of tickets together. Yes, if you book your ticket last minute, you can expect bad seat assignments, but I’m guessing many of those asking to swap were not booking last minute.

  3. Mia says

    Tripit.com is really good for corralling your itinerary stuff. Once you have an account, you can forward confirmation emails directly to trip it and they will auto-add it to your itinerary. You can also manual add stuff if you want.

    • Kathi says

      I second the tripit recommendation – and they have an iphone app so all of your itinerary details can be carried on your phone as well….and you can share your trip wiht others so loved ones at home know where you’re staying etc.

      The other cool thing about it is that you then have a history of all your trips in one place. Great if you ever go back to a city (so you can remember where you stayed, what you did, restaurants you ate at etc).

    • Amy in Pittsburgh says

      Tripit is AWESOME. And the basic app, which covers most of what you’d use it for, is FREE!

  4. says

    You guys have had QUITE a year! :) Life is interesting, isn’t it…

    I love that one of your tips is “Be the bright spot in the front desk clerk’s day.” SO you guys. Especially in travel we can get so wrapped up in what we’re doing…

  5. says

    Great tips! I knew some of them, but there were others here (like the Amazon Prime thing) that I totally didn’t realize.

    Oh, and this isn’t even my blog, but this well-traveled fashion blogger has an awesome system for packing a few pieces for a whole lot of outfits while on a trip: http://outfitposts.blogspot.com/2012/12/summary-one-suitcase-beach-vacation.html. I used it when we went on our cruise in December and it was the most stress-free dressing-on-a-trip scenario ever.

  6. lizzzzzzzzzzzzzzzy says

    When you fly internationally and in coach (or at any time you’re on a flight where a meal is served that doesn’t require you to cough up ten buckaroos), go ahead and order a special meal like vegetarian, low sodium, low fat, etc.

    It’s a nice way to get your meal before the masses, and you don’t have to decide between lasagna or chicken only to find what you really wanted was given to the guy two rows ahead.

    Oh, and when you fly internationally, make sure you – ahem – wear breathable fabric. It’s not the time to wear tight, restricting jeans. Especially if you’re a female. You know what I mean. Take an extra pair of undergarments just in case. Besides, you never know if your 15 hour flight will suddenly turn into 42 hours of horrific travel… and what you want most in the world (besides a hot shower) is a clean pair of undies.

    • Alissa says

      Amen on the “breathable” pants! I always make sure when flying to wear yoga pants or a maxi skirt — never jeans. Also slip-on shoes for the security check.

    • Jen says

      Ditto! I fly international several times a year for work…and while not terribly business appropriate, I have my travel wear down to a science. Jersey maxi skirt, T shirt, slip on shoes (preferably sandals)…and TMI here, a cloth panty liner. I’m perfectly comfortable for the entire flight and can change the liner as needed.

  7. says

    Great tips! I traveled a lot before I got married and those are great tips that I have learned from experience as well!

    Glad your cousins are ok! I had cousins and a friend there as well who are all thankfully ok! Prayers to Boston!

  8. says

    Great tips! I travel often for work and I 100% agree about building a wardrobe that will fit in one suitcase. Wrap dresses and nude heels (that go with EVERYTHING) are my best friends. Also – I always keep a spare phone/ipad charger in the front pocket of my suitcase should I forget mine in a hotel along the way. Side note: Hotel front desks usually have a big box of lost and found chargers so you can always ask them to “borrow” one for the night.

  9. says

    Some great tips! The real gem is waiting to board when gate-checking bags. So smart! We also have netflix on our laptop so that makes for good hotel TV/movie watching even if it’s older shows. :)

    We’re supposed to be taking a trip, just me and the bf – but I got a new job (I guess a month and a half ago is not new anymore… Ha.) so vacation time is minimal in the first year. Here’s hoping we can swing it!

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