Last week, for the first time in three years, I hosted an in-person gathering to share stories with travelers. We’ve worked hard during the COVID-19 pandemic to keep the dream alive with virtual meet-ups on Zoom, but it was fun to get together and talk travel.
In addition to hearing of travelers’ adventures from Africa to Nova Scotia, everyone was eager to learn about the latest tips and tricks to make their journeys more rewarding.
Some of these tips are evergreen, meaning they’re good long-term strategies that every traveler should use, including:
1. Paying for either Global Entry or TSA Pre-check. The cost is between $85 and $100 for five years. Travelers shouldn’t have to do this, but the airport security apparatus is set up to serve those who pay more.
2. Take full advantage of your favorite frequent flyer plans. For most of us, that means the Alaska Airlines plan or Delta’s SkyMiles scheme. Basic steps include picking a travel credit card with a hefty sign-up bonus and enrolling in loyalty plans that yield free checked bags.
[Airlines are getting tough on ‘personal items,’ and it could cost you]
Still, most frequent flyers have one or two of their own travel secrets that they hold close. Others discover a trick out of necessity and are happy to share.
Bonni Labrada discovered on a recent trip to Mexico that the domestic bus system is the best way to get around the country.
“My advice is to find the cheapest ticket to a Mexican city, then ride the bus to wherever you’re going,” she said.
Labrada, from Anchorage, discovered the deluxe buses after flying into Lyon and riding the bus to nearby Guanajuato.
There are several private bus lines that crisscross the country. My favorite is ADO, although the website is all in Spanish.
On our last pre-pandemic trip to Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, we took the bus from Merida to the Cancun airport for our Alaska Airlines flight. Previously, we’ve taken the bus from the giant stations in both Guadalajara and Mexico City. The buses are outfitted with cushy first-class style seats. They are much more comfortable and less stressful than flying.
Labrada pulled out her phone to show me another important trick when traveling in foreign countries.
“The Google Translate app has a camera,” she said. To demonstrate, she pulled out a brochure with Chinese text. Inside the Google Translate app, she used pointed the camera at the text, which was then displayed in English.
“Sometimes, the translation is not that great,” said Labrada. “But it can be very helpful when trying to navigate a foreign city or airport.”
Soldotna residents Sharon Radtke and her husband were enjoying an evening walk in Barcelona after dinner.
“All of a sudden, there was a crash,” said Radtke. “A guy on a motorcycle went down and clearly was injured.”
At that moment, both of them realized they did not know the local version of 911 for emergency assistance.
“In a couple of moments, another woman was on the scene with her phone,” said Radtke. “Now, when we check in to a hotel, we ask for the number for emergency assistance and plug it in to our cellphone.”
During the pandemic, the availability of rental cars varied wildly — as did the price. While some of that pressure has eased, the prices still go up and down.
If you’re checking on a car rental and it’s super-expensive, consider renting on Turo, just to make sure you have a car. Then, you can babysit your preferred car rental site, or an aggregator like Costco Travel, where the major brands are displayed side-by-side.
I used this strategy to rent a minivan in Atlanta. When I first checked, the cost from Alamo was $1,067. Then, I booked a minivan at Turo for $550. A week before the trip, Avis showed a price of $467. So, I canceled the Turo, without penalty, and rented from Avis.
[Searching for travel deals can be painstaking. Here’s a guide to help you navigate the changing landscape.]
The same strategy works for air tickets, if you have the miles in your account to play with. If the fare to a particular destination is high, book a mileage ticket. Then, you can babysit the price to your destination by setting up a fare alert in Google Flights. You’ll get an email if the price changes on your specific itinerary.
If the price on your ticket goes down, you can cancel your mileage ticket and redeposit the miles in to your account. This works best if there’s no charge to redeposit.
Another recent change at Google Flights means you’ll get a refund on Alaska Airlines tickets if the price goes down. To qualify, you have to purchase your tickets through Google. It doesn’t work on all itineraries — but it’s worth checking.
Anchorage’s Betsey Wilson found a good trick for using the MVP guest upgrades that are available to Alaska’s elite travelers.
“Initially I booked the cheapest fare back from Honolulu to Anchorage,” she said. “But before my trip, I just called Alaska Airlines and asked how much it would cost to upgrade. It was $80.”
Often, I’ve tried to use the guest upgrades without success. But that’s because I, too, book the cheapest fare. Wilson was able to “upgrade” her fare to a qualifying fare class over the phone — something I couldn’t do online.
Wilson figured it was well worth the $80 to secure a first class seat for a six-hour flight.
I couldn’t agree more.
All travelers know airfares change all the time. Frequent flyers accept that some of the best tips and tricks come and go as well. That includes things like airport lounge access, credit card bonuses and upgrade algorithms.
That’s why it’s good to check in with other travelers to see what they’ve learned on their journeys, whether virtually or in-person.