Raise your hand if you’ve scrambled at the last minute to fill a Christmas stocking. We’re all usually focused on bigger gifts, leaving stockings to get stuffed from the mishmash of small, nominally priced items in the checkout aisle of a big-box retailer.
This Christmas, I’ll be filling stockings with as much care as I hang them. Here are indulgent and practical items under $20 that your travel-happy loved ones will appreciate (listed in order from least to most expensive):
Mini-funnels: How many times have you tried to fill those travel-sized bottles, only to end up with shampoo oozing down the side? These little funnels prevent gooey messes. Price: $1.29 for three
Bottle-top humidifier: This is ideal for frequent hotel guests who find their rooms too dry. You simply screw the device onto a bottle of water and plug in using the included USB cord. Price: $5.61
Soft-sided bottle: Airports’ filtered water fountains and bottle refill stations are handy, but hard-sided plastic or aluminum water bottles don’t often fit well in the seatback pocket on an airplane. A soft-sided, pouch-like water bottle is a great solution. This one holds 34 ounces. Price: from $6.93
Waterproof labels for toiletries: I’ve used masking tape and Sharpies to make labels for my toiletries for years, but they look low-brow and don’t last very long. These vinyl, waterproof, reusable labels from the Etsy shop ElvaandJune are much prettier, with custom shapes and printed patterns. Price: $8.91
RFID-blocking passport wallet: Savvy hackers employ wireless devices to steal your identity by reading the Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) info on your credit card and passport. Thwart their attempts by using a wallet that cannot be penetrated by wireless signals. This wallet stows cash, credit cards and a passport. Price: $9.99
Lavender chamomile pillow mist: I use linen sprays like these to freshen up stale-smelling sheets, spritz worn clothing and help immortalize the memory of a trip, as I wrote about in September. This particular scent isn’t overpowering and could appeal to men and women. Price: $10
Luxury-brand toiletries: Most of us either refill bottles with the shampoo and lotion brands we have at home or buy whatever’s cheapest at the local pharmacy. Why not indulge your loved one with a luxury brand, such as Bvlgari or Kiehl’s? Price: from $10
Portable battery charger: Before you purchase a portable battery charger as a gift, make sure you know what brand of smartphone your loved one owns. This sleek, eight-ounce model works on iPhones, Androids, BlackBerries and other devices. Price: $11.45
Sleep mask: Not only does this mask do superb work blocking out light, but it also contours around your eyes — you can actually still blink when it’s on — and it doesn’t slip down your nose. Comes with free earplugs. Price: $12.80
Gadget organizer: This is the perfect companion for a long-haul flight: a nylon pouch with tons of tight elastic loops, pockets and pouches to keep all your little items organized. You’ll never have to root around on the floor for your lost pen or lip balm again. Price: $15.19
Neck rest: Unlike a standard neck pillow, the Releaf Neck Rest prevents you from becoming a sound-asleep bobblehead, because it supports all of your neck, not just the back and sides. Price: $19.99
Several weeks have passed since Leigh Smythe Merino hastily departed Paris following the terrorist attacks last month. The Alexandria, Virginia, resident had arrived for her first-ever visit to the French capital the morning of the mass assaults on November 13.
“I felt so many emotions at once,” Merino, 42, said in an interview this week. “I was so profoundly sad about the people who had died. I was scared for the people of Paris. I was anxious. I was conflicted about staying or going.”
She was staying at a friend’s apartment a short walk from the cafe where 19 people were killed and nine were injured. After several texts and a few phone calls with her husband back home in the States, Merino decided to leave Paris the next morning.
Now that some time has passed, Merino has had a chance to reflect on that day. She never before considered what to do in the event of an emergency departure from a city, but she feels better prepared now.
“I do not want to diminish the horror of the events of that day. But I hope my experience could help other people think on their feet and act quickly,” she said.
If you find yourself in a similar high-risk scenario — one that the U.S State Department has alerting us to in its latest travel warning — Merino offers the following advice:
Contact your airline as soon as possible to rebook your flight. Airlines will be aware of the situation and often will rebook you for free and with no questions asked. Merino was wise to email her husband back in Virginia and have him call United Airlines to schedule a new flight. Given the number of other fliers trying to rebook, Merino would have had a difficult time trying to get through to an agent in France. “My husband got through right away to a U.S.-based agent, and he easily got me on a new flight,” she said. “It took only minutes.”
Keep your wits about you. Merino admitted she wasn’t thinking as clearly as normal. But she took a deep breath and took a moment to prioritize what was most important: making sure her wallet and passport were handy yet secure. To locate her emergency credit card, in case she needed it. To keep her cell phone charged. To make sure her Uber app was working to get a ride to the airport the next morning.
Try to get rest. It was impossible to sleep that night, Merino said. Sirens sounded all night. She and her friend stayed glued to the news. A thousand thoughts kept her awake. “There was no way I would have been able to fall asleep,” she said. “But I expected the next day to be tough and I tried to rest as much as I could.” Same goes for eating well, staying hydrated and otherwise taking good care of yourself.
Go to the airport far, far earlier than usual. Merino had an 11:55 a.m. flight. Anticipating large crowds and heightened security, she arrived at the airport four hours before her flight. As it turned out, the airport was packed, and security lines were chaotic and slow-moving. (In fact, her flight departed 90 minutes late because so many passengers were still in security lines.)
Muster the most patience you’ve ever had. The experience at Charles de Gaulle was frustrating to say the least, Merino said. There were few staff controlling extra-large crowds, and only a handful of officers were working that Saturday morning at passport control. Lines became masses, and people became unruly. “I kept reminding myself to keep perspective,” she said. “People were going through far, far worse in Paris. I could handle this.”
Register your trip with your government. In advance of overseas travel, Merino said she’ll now register her trip with the U.S. State Department. Doing so can give you access to information from the local embassy as well as help friends and family at home contact you in an emergency. (U.S. citizens can register themselves here; other countries have similar programs.)
Obtain international cell service. Merino also said she will contact her cell phone service provider to make sure that her phone has temporary international service; she recommends the same for all travelers who can’t currently use her phone abroad as part of their current plans.
Since giving up his apartment in April 2014 to spend all of his time traveling, Schlappig now flies around 400,000 miles a year, nearly all of it in first or business class. If that weren’t amazing enough, he only pays for a small fraction of his flights out of pocket. Instead, he relies on airline miles and credit card points.
How does Schlappig — a 25-year-old travel consultant and blogger who runs the website One Mile at a Time — do it? And can ordinary people like us capitalize on credit card points and miles, even if we can’t make such a task our full-time jobs?
We caught up with Schlappig via email while he was in flight between London and Los Angeles to ask.
IndependentTraveler.com: Must you be a frequent traveler to be able to take advantage of mileage or points programs?
Ben Schlappig: Absolutely not! In the U.S. nowadays, more than half of miles are issued through non-flying means. Mileage programs have really gone from “frequent flier programs” to “frequent buyer programs,” as the possibilities for earnings miles are endless. You can earn miles through credit card spending, online shopping portals, car rentals and more.
IT: Is it better to spend credit card points on free airfare or free hotel stays?
BS: The loyalty program landscape for both airlines and hotels has changed considerably, especially over the past couple of years. Ultimately there are pros and cons to both airline and hotel credit cards. Which type of card makes more sense for you depends on what you value most out of your travels.
What I recommend doing is accruing points in a “transferrable” points currency (such as American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards, Citi ThankYou and Starwood Preferred Guest), which allows you to transfer points to either airline or hotel transfer partners. This way you have a lot more flexibility with your points.
IT: Most people hoard their points, saving them up for a special occasion. Why is that a bad strategy?
BS: I have an “earn and burn” philosophy towards miles. That’s because miles devalue over time, as the number of miles needed for a given ticket creeps up. “Saving” miles long-term would be the equivalent of keeping cash in a checking account not accruing interest for decades on end. The best thing you can redeem your miles for is memorable travel experiences, and you’re generally best off doing that sooner rather than later.
IT: Do you tend to use airline miles more for free tickets or for upgrades?
BS: In general I try to redeem my miles for award tickets in international first and business class. These are the awards that tend to have the most value to me, given that the tickets would be disproportionately expensive if paying cash.
For example, if you’re redeeming American miles for travel to Asia, a business-class ticket costs less than two times as much as an economy ticket. However, if you were to pay cash, that ticket could cost five to 10 times as much.
IT: How much you’ve spent on travel in a year? And what’s the estimated the value of your free travel?
BS: Over half of my travel has been using miles and points. Given that many international first-class tickets retail for $25,000 or more roundtrip, I’d estimate the travel I’ve taken this year has probably retailed for somewhere around a million dollars. I spend a tiny, tiny fraction of that.
IT: What were some of your favorite destinations you’ve visited in 2015?
BS: This has been a great year for travel for me, and I have a hard time picking just a few. I’d say Egypt, the Maldives and Austria rank up there.
IT: Where haven’t you been yet that you really want to visit?
BS: I have a bit of an island obsession at the moment, as it’s not something I’ve focused much on previously. I’d love to visit Fiji, Mauritius, the Seychelles and Tahiti.
IT: The wanderlusters among us have been salivating recently at the exploits of frequent traveler Sam Huang, who scored a five-continent, first-class trip on Emirates Airlines for very little money by finding a (now-closed) loophole. Were you as jealous as we were?
BS: Every couple of months there seems to be a story that goes viral about someone redeeming miles for an incredible international first-class experience. Rather than the loophole as such, what I ultimately take away from these situations is that the general public really has no sense of how easy it can be to redeem miles for some amazing products. Most people never get to experience these products because they assume they could never afford them. But with miles it’s much more feasible than they think.
Having taken three weekend road trips in a row, it’s no wonder my back has been tied up in knots. And an autumn cold came on during this last trip, giving me lots more downtime at a West Virginia Airbnb cabin during the height of fall foliage season than I wanted.
I take good care of myself at home, but traveling requires a different set of healthy habits — ones I need to pay more attention to, even during long weekend getaways and small trips. Here are the articles I’ll turn to next time, and the best tips, from head to toe:
Avoiding Airplane Colds: We’re constantly lectured to stay hydrated on airplanes but rarely told why. It’s because humidity is lower at higher altitudes. This dries out the throat and nasal passages, which are the first lines of defense in preventing colds, explains IndependentTraveler.com’s Ed Hewitt. Best tip: Sip water throughout a flight to stay hydrated and you’ll be better poised to prevent a head cold.
How to Travel with Neck Pain: Best tip: Pack disposable heat wraps, or bring an empty resealable bag on a plane and ask a flight attendant for ice.
8 Expert Tips to Prevent Backache: If you must lift a heavy bag into an overhead bin, first lift it to seat level, then lift it to the bin. Don’t lift it from floor to bin in one fell swoop.
Preventing Traveler’s Diarrhea: Don’t be embarrassed — we’ve all been there. You probably know to tote hand sanitizer, but another good tip is to pack your own bar of soap and keep it in your daypack. Then you can use it at restrooms where soap isn’t provided. (For more advice, see our own guide to warding off traveler’s tummy.)
Shoe and Foot Care During Travel: I tend to travel with two pairs of shoes — one set of walking shoes and the other a nicer set of flats for the evening. But based on advice from experts, I’ll be switching over to two pairs of super-comfy kicks and alternating them by day. Best tip: Clean your shoes frequently. Clean shoes breathe better.
We’re already used to destroying bank statements, tax forms and other sensitive documents when we need to get rid of them; now it turns out you should add your used airline boarding passes to that list.
KrebsOnSecurity, a computer security blog, recently reported that the bar and QR codes on your boarding pass can easily be decoded, revealing not only your name and itinerary but also your frequent flier number and any other information associated with it (such as your phone number or future flight bookings).
The blog points to this website as a free online resource for reading bar codes. Anyone who finds your boarding pass could snap an image of it, upload it to the site and access your information. He or she could theoretically make changes to your frequent flier account and even cancel your future flights.
How likely is this to happen if you accidentally drop your boarding pass into a recycling bin? It’s hard to say — but I’m not taking any chances. I’ll be shredding my boarding passes from now on. Will you?
Confession: I’m a habitual under-packer. On the surface that seems like a good thing — I never have to worry about lugging a heavy bag or paying checked baggage fees. But this seemingly good habit attracts other problems: I end up cold because I refused to pack a sweater that I declared too bulky, or I run out of hair conditioner midway through a trip and look like a fuzzy-headed mad scientist in half my photos.
Most people aim to pack less. I aim to pack smarter.
Thankfully, I discovered a smart woman who’s helping me: Sonia Gil, an online travel expert with an array of practical packing videos on her YouTube channel. After nearly two decades spent researching travel packing tips, I thought I’d heard it all. But I actually learned some new things from Gil, a spunky 34-year-old from Venezuela.
For instance, she doesn’t merely parrot rules about liquids needing to be in 3.4-ounce bottles — she actually recommends specific bottles, such as ones with wide mouths and made of ultra-squeezeable materials. (One of my biggest travel pet peeves: When half the lotion or shampoo remains lodged in an already-tiny bottle.) Check out her thoughts on “How to Achieve Carry-On Perfection” below:
Other great tips from Gil:
– A hotel hair dryer can do an adequate job of de-wrinkling clothes. No need to whip out the iron and ironing board (if your room even has one).
– If you’re traveling to a cold-weather destination, put a pair of insoles in your shoes. They’ll help keep your feet warmer.
– Use masking tape to seal toiletries so they don’t leak. Seal the opening itself and run a loop of tape around the lid seam. Before learning this tip I had put my toiletries in individual zipper bags, but that often left me with a mass of sticky bags that ended up going to waste.
– Tuck a few Band-Aids in your wallet. I always pack them in my toiletry bag, but how’s that useful when you’re out touring and end up with a cut or a blister miles away from your hotel? A no-brainer.
Chris Chesak is the executive director of the Family Travel Association, a new coalition that aims to simplify the sometimes dizzying complexities of planning a family trip, among other goals. Chesak has more than two decades of experience in the travel industry, including stints with the Adventure Travel Trade Association, the American Hiking Society and the American Alpine Club. As the father of two school-age daughters, he has now turned his career to focus on family vacations.
IndependentTraveler.com: Many grandparents talk of wanting to spend their money with their grandchildren, rather than leaving it all to them. Is this a trend you are seeing? Chris Chesak: There is an overall trend within our population of people starting to shift their vision of personal wealth away from the acquisition of inanimate things to more experience-based wealth. Instead of purchasing more and more “stuff,” people are valuing experiences. And as older generations are entering the wealth distribution phase of their lives, they are using their wealth to facilitate creation of deep, lasting memories rather than just a larger pile of money to leave to the kids when the grandparents pass on.
IT: Have you ever traveled with grandparents? CC: Just this summer I had the amazing opportunity to travel to China with my wife, 8- and 10-year-old daughters, and mother-in-law. What an incredible thrill to stand on the Great Wall of China. But standing on that icon with your kids and their grandmother? Absolutely amazing! And while we were able to take a gondola to about mid-mountain, we still had to then climb 299 steps to get to the wall itself. What a great achievement for our little girls and their grandmom to be able to do that, and do it together!
IT: Which destinations would you suggest for independent travel for family groups?
CC: My wife and I are outdoors people and there is so much for families locally with state parks, Forest Service land and national parks. We recently went to Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky and had a brilliant (and literally “cool”) time exploring the caves. Cities like Boston and Washington D.C. are iconic destinations with a wealth of museums and history for kids and adults alike, but also great lodging and food and shopping. For the adventurous, there is always big, beautiful Alaska. Quebec is excellent and readily accessible from the U.S. but a very European experience. For the more adventurous, I’d suggest Iceland and Namibia.
IT: What tips do you have for an independent multigenerational group to ensure a successful trip?
CC: Independent travel offers the greatest amount of flexibility and spontaneity, often at the best possible price. However, it does take quite a bit more time to research and plan. I would certainly do as much research as possible, leveraging some of the great family travel blogs out there like WanderingPod.com, MyFamilyTravels.com and CiaoBambino.com. (Editor’s Note: Our sister site, Family Vacation Critic, is another useful site to check out.) Also, the destination’s own websites can be great resources. Visit Costa Rica has a good example of this, with an entire page devoted to family travel. VisitMaine.com has some great search options for family travel too.
I will say, while I love independent travel, booking family travel with a small, independent tour operator can come in very handy, while still providing a true, authentic experience for small groups. We planned a trip to the interior of Costa Rica through JourneysInternational.com, which has been running family trips for more than 30 years and is family owned. The itinerary was perfectly balanced, with just enough activities to keep us all engaged, but also with the perfect amount of down time for naps, reading books and playing in the pool.
IT: How do you balance the travel needs and interests of younger generations with older ones? In other words, how to keep peace, so that, say, the teens get their screen time yet the grandparents get real face time too?
CC: During the trip, the key thing you need to do is respect the pace of your itinerary. You can’t run your grandparents or smaller children ragged with an aggressive, “let’s see it all” itinerary. While we generally like to limit time spent on devices with our kids, when we are in transit or in a hotel room, the kids can use the devices as much as they like. I will say that for long-haul flights, devices like iPads and the seatback entertainment systems are a godsend. Teens can be a bit more of a challenge, as they tend to be more aloof and get bored more easily. But the beauty of multi-generational travel is that it naturally brings about face time, forcing it actually. When you are stuck on a train or bus, there’s so much to watch, talk about, etc. that it naturally breaks down barriers and brings people together around their shared experience.
IT: Where are you and your family planning to go next?
CC: We’re looking at Panama for early 2016 and starting to plan a trip to South Africa too. I can’t wait to take my girls on safari — it will blow their little minds!
All great vacations must come to an end sometime, but the feel-good aftermath of a trip doesn’t have to.
The New York Times’ Stephanie Rosenbloom suggested in a column this summer that surrounding yourself with tchotchkes, receipts and photos can help ensure your post-trip satisfaction lasts longer. My travel memory-extending tricks go beyond that:
Use a linen spray during your travels, then resurrect it when you’re home. I won a travel tip contest on Rick Steves’ website almost 20 years ago with this tidbit, and I still use it today. When I travel, I bring along a small bottle of scented linen spray, such as the five-ounce aromatherapy pillow mists that Bath & Body Works sells. I use it to spruce up two-day-old clothing, stale-smelling bed sheets and musty rooms.
When I get home, I tuck the bottle away for a couple of months — this is key, because the scent won’t hold trip-specific memories if you continue to use it on a daily basis. After time, I bring it out and give it a spray, and I’m suddenly taken back to my week on the beach on the Costa del Sol in Spain. I can even recall the breeze coming in my hostel window — smell memories are that powerful.
Mail yourself postcards. Okay, so postcards may be passe in the big bad Digital Age, but that doesn’t make them any less nice to receive. When I first arrive in a city, I buy a few and tuck them away in my bag. When I’m having a relaxed moment — one time, it was while polishing off a no-name red table wine in a side-street taverna in Rome — I take the time to jot a postcard.
Usually I’ll merely describe what I’m doing in that moment. At the time it might feel ordinary, but later it becomes a special memory, full of detail I might not otherwise remember — the weather, the people at nearby tables, how thankful I was to be wearing a dark sweater when I dribbled half a glass of wine on myself.
Continue to follow the social media feeds of your destinations’ tourist boards. Before a recent trip to New Mexico, I started following the Facebook feeds for Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Taos’ tourism offices. The pages were useful for building ideas for my trip.
But I’ve found it even more enjoyable to follow them in the months since. Oh, the band I saw perform at the Mine Shaft Tavern in Madrid, NM, is there again this weekend! Look — the chef who made that fabulous green chile cheeseburger we devoured late one night just won a cooking contest! Snow is starting to fall on those mountains we hiked!
This is a great way to stay connected to the places you fell in love with.
Buy yourself gifts at a grocery store. I usually blow all my money on gifts for other people, but lately I’ve started buying meaningful foodstuffs and ingredients that I can bring home for myself.
En route to the airport in Nairobi for my departing flight, I asked my taxi driver to stop at a supermarket, where I bought several boxes of Ketepa Pride tea bags. Even today, when I prepare a cup, I always remember the afternoons on safari when all the other guests were napping and I stayed up to caffeinate myself and watch the zebras and wildebeests grazing on the savanna just across a ravine from our camp.
It’s hard to admit you might never be back — standing on the shore of southern India at sunrise, staring down into the faces of the Terra Cotta Warriors, even sitting in the lobby of a local beach club. Whether it’s due to distance, financial/unforeseen circumstances, health or simply a lack of time, there’s no telling when we go someplace new whether we’ll ever make it back. That’s why traveling in the moment (much like living in the moment) is so important — especially with screens and lenses constantly competing for our attention.
From a family’s trip to the World Trade Center weeks before the 9/11 attacks to the beaches of my very own New Jersey, standing with a wedding party days before Hurricane Sandy destroyed the venue, sightseeing and celebrating would mean so much less if I didn’t take the time to appreciate my surroundings. These are both extreme cases where the destination will never be the same whether I am there or not, but for many places we visit in a lifetime, who can promise we’ll get to experience them all over again? Do you want to collect memories or likes on your Facebook account?
Traveling through Vancouver on my first real solo trip this past July, it could have been devastatingly easy to tap my smartphone mindlessly over a meal or while sitting alone in a park, but I didn’t. Call it a test, call it a conscious effort, but from the first breakfast at the cafe counter downstairs from where I was staying, I tucked my phone away and did anything else — read a paper, looked around, focused on how my food tasted — without taking a photo and posting it to Instagram. This might sound ridiculous to those who haven’t been initiated into the demanding universe of social media, but to me it was a whole new world. Having a picturesque cocktail and multicourse feast in an underground Lebanese joint reminiscent of Casablanca — and not posting a thing about it — was like sharing a delicious secret with myself.
I constantly struggle with a strong yearning to document my travels, but capturing the moment to look at it later isn’t always the best option. There’s so many times I look back and wish I had simply been present in that instant without any other distraction — a community center performance in South Africa, any cathedral in Europe. Pictures and videos can be a poignant way to share an experience, capture a memory to look back on, create something artistic, but there’s a time to put the camera down. In an oversaturated, media-sharing-obsessed society, that time is increasingly difficult to gauge, but the instinct should continue to live in the guts of travelers who do so for the pure reason of savoring the experience; listen to that instinct.
Which place do you wish you could go back to and be more “present”?
There’s good news and bad news when it comes to buying airfare. The good news: It is possible to time your flight for the lowest possible price. The bad news: That time will almost never be summer. According to a recent analysis of airfare data by Hopper, a flight search app, seasonal travel price drops can be predicted and taken advantage of — just start planning trips for fall, winter and spring.
Using the drop-down of the 15 most popular U.S. origin airports on Quartz, the cheapest time to fly to major worldwide destinations can be determined by seasonality, but also based on your domestic airport. We all know Europe is generally cheapest to travel to during winter, but for Dallas, a flight to London is actually cheaper in the fall.
Don’t believe prices can fluctuate that much outside of holidays and peak times? If you’re looking to head to Istanbul, you might want to reconsider that notion. Of all the major flight paths analyzed, three of the five with the largest seasonal price difference are en route to Istanbul — starting at a 50 percent price difference originating in Washington D.C. and totaling as much as 57 percent more on flights from Chicago in the summer. Flights from Los Angeles to Barcelona and London are 52 and 53 percent more, respectively, in the summer season.
If you’re set on one of the elusive flight paths that are actually cheaper in summer, Dallas is your best bet followed by the capital of Taiwan: Boston to Dallas, Houston (Bush) to Dallas (and reverse), Houston to Taipei, New York (La Guardia) to Taipei and D.C. (Reagan) to Toronto all run low in the summertime. (Think of the heat.)
Maybe this is a concept we always knew about air travel, but finding my familiar home airport, and watching the lists of destinations appear in conjunction with the cheapest season, is reassuring. With everyone already bemoaning “the end of the summer season,” it gives me three more seasons (and potential trips) to look forward to.