The secrets to a hassle-free summer vacation seem simple enough: Keep a checklist. Read the rules, especially if you’re flying. Take photos of your rental car. Don’t make assumptions about your hotel. And remember your paperwork when you’re traveling overseas.
But simple as that sounds, in practice it’s not always that easy.
Let me say right from the outset that I hardly started out as the world’s smartest traveler. But over the past decade and more, I’ve learned, from my own wide-ranging travels and from the many problems I’ve helped resolve for readers, what not to do when you’re on the road.
So what are the most common mistakes that travelers make? And, more important, how do you avoid them? How, in other words, can you vacation like the world’s smartest traveler?
1. Be prepared
Bob McCullough, a sales representative for a cheese company in Hainesport, N.J., admits that he’s a serial procrastinator, so he decided to start packing for a recent trip a full week in advance. He even booked a flight leaving Philadelphia on a Sunday to avoid the Monday crush of business travelers.
“I got to the airport two hours before my flight, found the parking garage pleasantly unpacked, and parked in a spot I had never dreamed of finding on a weekday,” he says. “I opened the trunk and reached in to grab my suitcase — which wasn’t there. I realized then, in shock with a cold sweat building, that I had left my suitcase in its normal pre-staging area of my laundry room.”
The smartest travelers plan ahead, like McCullough, but they also have a fondness for checklists. Did you pack the right clothes? Remember all the power cords? Is your luggage in the trunk of your car? Lists are your friends. Smart travelers know when to wing it and when not to. Sure, your friends and family might poke fun at you for keeping a list for everything, but they’ll thank you when you’re the only one with a power adapter in France. Travelers who keep lists are far less likely to get into trouble on the road.
2. Read those airline rules
Airline policies can be counterintuitive, even bizarre. For example, a one-way ticket can sometimes cost more than a round-trip ticket on the same plane. A change fee can exceed the actual value of a ticket. Also, “non-refundable” means non-refundable, except when it doesn’t.
Confused yet? If it’s any consolation, even airline employees sometimes get mixed up about their own rules. Don’t laugh, I’ve seen it.
Kelly Hayes-Raitt remembers seeing an unbeatable deal for a flight from Los Angeles to Tampa, Fla. But when she arrived at the airport, she noticed her itinerary. “The plane landed in Phoenix, Dallas, Houston and New Orleans before finally arriving in Tampa,” remembers the writer from Santa Monica, Calif. “I still groan when I think of how stupid I was.”
Based on the cases I’ve mediated, my best advice is to familiarize yourself with the always-changing, often Byzantine rules developed by the airline industry — rules that are often created for the sole purpose of “protecting” an airline’s revenue or, to put it in terms that everyone else can understand, to separate you from your money.