Travel Hacking 101

We aren’t those travel bloggers who give up everything, leave behind family and friends, and spend years seeing the world. Though we might like to be at times, we recognize that living life on the road would just be too hard for us. We couldn’t be away from our family, friends, or church for that long. I could do a year or two, but Kristina would struggle to be away from everyone for even a summer (which will happen soon, oh yes, it will happen). That’s part of the reason we started this blog, to reach out to people like us, who love travel but, for whatever reason, can’t or won’t throw caution to the wind and permanently hit the road.

But if we were those travel bloggers, we could afford to be a little more flexible with how we travel. We could roll out of bed and see what we feel like doing that day. Stay in and read all day? Sure. Walk around town, meet some locals, wander in to whatever eatery sounds good? Why not! Brave the crowds and visit a tourist attraction? I guess. The world would be our oyster and we would take our time exploring it. Unfortunately for us, and I am guessing most of you, our vacation time is finite, and expensive, and the part of the world we are visiting likely won’t be seen again for quite a while, so we work our tails off to try to pack in as much of that locale as we possibly can.

And that’s what this post is, everything we do to prepare for a trip and everything we do to save time and money while we are away, all in one post. You’re welcome. So where shall we start? How about the beginning.

Step One: Choose a destination

This is the fun part…the part that the dreamer in me yearns for. It’s so full of possibility and adventure. Kristina and I have a running hit list for our travels, a top-five list of countries or sites or activities we would most like to see/do. Right now our list includes the Maldives, India, Croatia, Italy (again), and Machu Picchu in Peru. Most of you likely have a similar list.

One thing we try to do is bundle our trips. Because the flights across the Atlantic or the Pacific are the most expensive part of the trip, we try to see as much as we can once we are over seas. For example, our last trip was Los Angeles –> New York –> Paris –> Prague –> Munich –> Los Angeles. The trip before that was Los Angeles –> Madrid –> Barcelona –> Canary Islands –> Marrakech –> Sahara Desert –> Tangier –> Algeciras –> Gibraltar –> Granada –> Cordoba –> Seville –> Madrid –> Los Angeles.

We took trains, small planes, boats, cars, sleeper trains, and camels (in the Sahara, of course) to make this happen. Now we know that most people don’t want to be this mobile while they travel; apparently some people like to relax on vacation, which is fine, I guess. But we like to see as much as we can see. So if you are willing and able to bundle your trip, start with the main place you want to see and then just look and see what’s close to that. Make a list, but be flexible. These additional destinations might not be on your top five list, but they will certainly be amazing and really help to make your trip as robust as it can be.

Step Two: Booking your travel

Your primary flight, the one that crosses an ocean, will be expensive. You can find some great deals if you are able to travel on off days, or if you can be a little flexible with your departure and return dates, but it will still be the most expensive leg of your trip. I like to use google flights to help find the best deals. They have a calendar feature that shows the cheapest days to travel to a given destination, which is useful, but can be found at a number of other travel booking sites. The thing that sets google flights apart for me is the destination cost map. You can choose a departure city and then look at the cost of traveling to different cities around the world from that departure city. This is incredibly useful when you are trying to bundle a trip because it will help you weed out the cities that are just too expensive to visit as well as plan the most cost-effective route.

Screen Shot 2017-06-21 at 11.07.50 AM

Here is a picture of what it would look like with Marrakech as your departure point right now. If you are looking to get to Spain, or example, Madrid would be your best bet at $158 dollars per person. Also be sure to check out train schedules and tickets, ferry tickets, and overnight buses to make sure you find the cheapest or fastest or most scenic option for you. Whatever you’re looking for is possible, it just takes some leg work. In this exact situation two year ago, we opted for the overnight train to Tangier and then the ferry to Algeciras, which had a total cost per person of about $55, but it took 17 hours (though we were sleeping for 9 of those hours and it saved us the hotel cost for that travel day).

Quick tip: book flights that arrive just before dinner time, regardless of when they depart. I can’t sleep when I travel. It’s awful. There are tons of trips where we get to our destination or back home and I have been awake for 24 or 30 hours. The current record is our trip to Thailand that, because of a delayed flight through Seoul, had me up for 44 hours. So arriving around dinner time is great. There is nothing better after a long day or two of traveling than having a quick shower, grabbing a bite to eat, and then hitting the hay. It also works wonders with jet lag. I have never once been jet lagged, regardless of timezones crossed, all because of this little curse and the travel hack that helps make it a little less painful.

Step Three: A comfy place to stay

Once you have the travel all booked, or at least the flights and major train rides, the scaffolding for your trip is in place. Now you need a place to lay your head. This is fairly straightforward and is going to be determined by your budget, the exact neighborhood you want to be in or the proximity to attractions or public transport you want to have, and your need for certain luxuries. As Kristina and I get older, we are willing to spend a little more for a nicer, better located place. Our hostel days are behind us (thank God).

Our primary concern when booking a hotel is location. Of course we want a certain level of comfort (I search only 4 star hotels and above now), but because we move around a lot, proximity to public transit is a must, and a good, safe neighborhood that Kristina things is “cute” is also a must. Cute is in quotes because there is no way to qualify this, it’s strictly a judgement call on her part, and I am at her mercy with this one.

Also, we kind of cheat when it comes to our hotels. We mentioned in another post that we have the most amazing travel cards in the world (personal opinion and no one is paying us to say this, though we wish they would). There is a whole post about it and we won’t bore you with that now, but we try to use the points from our card to book our hotels. On our last trip, our hotels in Prague and Munich, as well as our flight from Paris to Prague and our flight from Munich back to LA were all paid for using points, which means they were free. I know. And our hotel in Prague was the nicest place I have ever stayed.

Of course, we cross-check every hotel on TripAdvisor to read reviews and see what other guests have to say, but it’s worth the effort. Again, the work you put in on the front end will help you get the most out of your trip while you’re there because you won’t have to deal with all of this as you go. It’s way easier to handle these things from your house, on your computer, with your wifi, than while on the road, on your phone, with the wifi at some cafe or your hotel. It won’t solve all your problems, but you’ll be able to get to where you need to go and you’ll have a place to stay when you get there…and that’s not nothing. Now, the fun stuff.

Step Four: But what kind of traveler are you?

Are you active or do you like to sit around and soak up the sun or culture? Are museums or natural sites or eateries most important to you? Can you travel light or do you need a ton of luggage (more on this later)? We tend to spend the majority of our planning time looking into restaurants in the cities we are visiting. Shocker, I know. Kristina is amazing at this.

Quick tip: As we are booking tours or excursions or speaking with the host at our AirBnB or the concierge at our hotel, Kristina will ask for recommendations and places that are favorites of the locals. She is a total sucker for a recommendation, and people are more than happy to share their favorite spots with you, so don’t be afraid to ask.

Once we have our eateries in mind, we will look and see what attractions are nearby, or some other things we can do while we are in that part the city or town. We both love museums, so those always seem to creep into our itinerary and, if there are major tourist attractions to see, we will see those, too. I mean, who goes to Paris for the first time and doesn’t do the Louvre or the Eiffel Tower? Nobody.

We also try to walk as much as we can. There is something magical about wandering a new city to soak in all the local flavor. It’s also a great way to stumble upon a little cafe that has a long wait or a small bakery with a line out the door. If the people waiting all speak English, you can move along. But if none of them speak English, you’ve found a local hotspot…which is like reaching into the back pocket of an old pair of jeans and finding a hundy. It’s that good.

So we like to bundle or cluster this part of the trip as well. If you are only in a city for a couple of days, it just makes sense to try to see all the things at the north end of town while you are up there trying a great restaurant, or to stumble upon an amazing little cafe while you are walking toward a great museum on the west side of town. This is especially helpful in large cities like New York or Paris where the subway (or metro) system is great but the city is huge. Having a good plan and clustering your activities and food will help you spend more time outside than under the city waiting for the next train.

Step Five: Packing

We already wrote an article on how we packed for two and a half weeks in New York, Paris, Prague, and Munich for Christmas. It was cold. Very, very cold. So we needed layers and pants and coats and stuff. It would have been impossible to fit it all into carry on luggage only. We checked ONE bag and the rest was carry on. Seriously. It was almost miraculous. But we’ve had lots of practice packing light (it all started with lost luggage on our honeymoon to Greece – our only checked bag – the one with all our clothes in it. Don’t worry though, we got it before we left for the islands. Praise Jesus).

The moral of the story is that we do our very best to get everything in to just our carry on luggage now. The trick is bringing pieces that you can mix and match for different outfits. So when we spent two and a half weeks in Hawaii, for instance, I was able to get by with one pair of pants, four pairs of shorts, three pairs of board shorts and some shirts and t-shirts. Obviously it’s easier when you’re traveling to tropical/beach destinations, but learning to pack light has been one a really handy trick to have on hand.

Step Six: Once you’re there

When we travel we try to save where we can. One thing we have yet to pay for is an international data plan.  On some of our earlier trips we turned off all devices and found our way around with the help of maps and tourism booths (Kristina is a great navigator – I try to guess the right direction on every trip and am wrong like 90% of the time).  Now we’ve gotten a little more advanced, as have the hotels we are staying at, and utilize free wifi whenever we can.

Below are some of Kristina’s best tips and planning practices for finding your way around without GPS.

Tip One: Take copious notes. These are some pages from K’s travel journal. It’s where she writes all her dreams, wants, and wishes before we leave for the trip. She often makes lists, like you see above, of different restaurants we want to try or things to do in each city (see above). For NYC and Paris, she made lists based on the different neighborhoods or arrondissements as well as the collected recommendations of friends and family (I told you, sucker for a recommendation).

Tip Two: The phone is still useful, even without the interwebs. When we are in the airport, or hotel, we would use the wifi to find places, check google maps for fastest routes, or check out train routes/schedules and then simply screen shot the crap out of those bad boys. Here are some screenshots from travel blogs and Instagram Kristina saved to her phone for future reference.

Tip Three: the concierge at any hotel will have maps of the city you are visiting. But nothing says tourist like walking around with a giant map in your face. So Kristina will plan things out on the physical map and then take pictures of it. Everyone is on their phone, so pulling yours out to check a map is a sly way always know where you are and where you’re going without broadcasting “tourist” to everyone around you. All without any wifi connection at all.

For more detailed information like subway stops or smaller streets that may not be on your larger map, screenshots are, again, the way to go.

Finally, enjoy yourself. Travel is about enjoying this massive, marvelous world, and there is no right way to do it. We hope this is a helpful tool to assist you in making the most of your trips. If you have a question that isn’t answered on this post, or have a suggestion that we need to add to the post, please shoot us an email at homemadesuitcase@gmail.com

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