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plane taking off clock tickingThe perfect time to arrive at the airport, according to one mathematician, may be an unsettling one. Despite most airlines advising you to arrive at least three hours prior to international departure, Jordan Ellenberg, a mathematician and professor at the University of Wisconsin – Madison vies that the best time to arrive for your flight is as late as possible, and considers every hour spent waiting to board a plane as a “negative unit.”

According to the article in Huffington Post, Ellenberg considers optimizing your life by cutting it close to boarding time. “If we routinely arrive at airports three hours ahead of time, we’ll accrue hundreds of those lost hours over the course of our lives, and that’s not an efficient use of our time on earth.”

Ellenberg’s strategy puts forth only a one to two percent chance of missing your flight, but he doesn’t seem too concerned about the prospect, quoted as saying, “If you’ve never missed a flight, you’re not doing it right.”

10 Things Not to Do at Airport Security

Although Ellenberg’s theory seems to be about saving precious time, it gives me an anxiety attack just to imagine running late for a flight. I think the notion of saving time is a noble one, but let’s be honest: there are plenty of times in travel that we spend waiting — security checkpoints, hotel check-ins, you name it — but it’s worth it to ensure we have the best trip possible.

I don’t see how my life would be benefitted if I missed my flight — or needed an inhaler to catch one. Do you subscribe to Ellenberg’s time-saving maneuver? Tell us about your arrival-time preferences in the comments below.

– written by Brittany Chrusciel

tour guideThere’s no better way to get to know a new place than by meeting up with a local friend or family member who can show you all the secret hot spots that first-time visitors usually miss. Alas, even the most well-connected travelers can’t possibly have friends everywhere — and that’s where a site like Tripbod.com can help.

The site, founded in 2007 and recently acquired by IndependentTraveler.com’s parent company, TripAdvisor, bills itself as “your friend at the other end.” It helps travelers connect with local experts called Tripbods who can provide trip planning advice, put together a personalized itinerary, or offer unique experiences such as a photo safari in London or lunch in a Moroccan souk.

In some respects the site is like a modern version of a travel agent. One typical listing from a Tripbod in Guayaquil, Ecuador, offers “Skype conversation, emails, advice in how to make the most out of your time, best restaurants, budget hotels, and local operators so that you can develop your own detailed itinerary” for 23 GBP (about $38 USD). For travelers who enjoy planning their own trips, it’s an ideal way to get information and guidance without having to be led around by an actual guide at all times.

Tourist No More: Three Secrets for Traveling Like a Local

If you do want a guide, the site offers that too. There’s an enticing array of experiences and tours ranging from meeting indigenous populations in the highlands of Mexico to cycling through rice fields in Yangshuo, China.

Of course, there are a few caveats. Some of the experiences are on the pricey side — such as a homemade Icelandic dinner outside of Reykjavik featuring lamb, potatoes, salad and dessert for 75 GBP per person (more than $125 USD). I also encountered a few search glitches. When I looked for tours in Wellington, New Zealand, the site turned up results almost everywhere but (New Delhi, San Salvador, Glasgow, Muscat …). And while the site offers a space for past travelers to review each experience, none of the ones I clicked on had received any reviews yet, making it tricky to decide whom to trust.

Still, as a traveler who’s eager to meet locals and find experiences beyond the usual sights, I know I’ll be checking out the site before my next trip.

20 Ways to Blend in with the Locals

Would you give Tripbod a try?

– written by Sarah Schlichter

hotel front deskI usually love planning trips — second only to taking them! — but a few years ago, as I tried to hammer out a driving itinerary around the South Island of New Zealand, I found myself feeling unexpectedly stressed out. The problem: figuring out how long to spend in each place.

Would one night in Queenstown be enough, or should I tack on another? After driving three or four hours between stops, should we linger a little longer in each place before tackling the next chunk of our itinerary? Would we have enough time to detour through the Catlins in the far south?

Photos: 13 Best New Zealand Experiences

Around in circles I went, even though a few friends who’d been to New Zealand advised me not to worry about nailing down an itinerary. “You don’t need to book hotels in advance,” one said. “There are plenty of motels. Just do what you want during the day and find a place to stay wherever you happen to be.”

Her advice made perfect sense — but I didn’t take it. Here are three reasons why:

1. I’m a hopeless planner. While the idea of landing in a new place with no itinerary or bookings sounds like heaven to some travelers, it’s terrifying to me. I don’t have to plan out my day hour by hour, but the basics — activities I’m interested in, where I’ll lay my head — are a must.

2. Booking early gives me time to compare prices and read reviews. I’ve been burned in the past by last-second hotel choices that cost more than I wanted to pay or didn’t live up to my normal standards of service and cleanliness.

3. When I arrive in a new place, I want to spend my time exploring and doing things — not driving around searching for hotels that don’t look too sketchy.

33 Ways to Sleep Better at a Hotel

In the end, I compromised. I booked all my hotels before my trip, but made sure I would be able to cancel them without penalty if our itinerary changed. Fortunately, all my exhaustive research paid off. I wouldn’t have changed a thing.

How do you feel about booking hotels in advance? Vote in our poll or leave a comment below!

– written by Sarah Schlichter

new york times travel showLooking for inspiration for your next trip (or simply an escape from all this winter cold)? If you’re in the New York metro area, don’t miss the New York Times Travel Show this weekend. Held at the Jacob K. Javits Center on Saturday and Sunday, March 1 and 2, the show features exhibition booths, giveaways, book signings and a full line-up of travel seminars.

Besides walking the exhibition floor, you can see IndependentTraveler.com contributor Chris Gray Faust give a talk on Sunday at 3 p.m. on how to “Chronicle Your Adventures Like the Professionals Do: Impress Your Friends and Family.”

If you’re interested in cruising, don’t miss Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor-in-Chief of Cruise Critic (our sister site), at the Ask the Expert Q and A, scheduled for 3 p.m. on Saturday. Carolyn is also speaking Sunday at 2 p.m. on “The Best Cruise at the Best Price: Everything You Need to Know.”

Other speakers include travel experts Arthur and Pauline Frommer, “10,000 Places to See Before You Die” author Patricia Schultz, CBS News Travel Editor Peter Greenberg and Conde Nast Traveler columnist Wendy Perrin.

9 Tips to Get the Most Out of a Travel Show

The show is open to the public Saturday, March 1, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sunday, March 2, from 11 p.m. to 5 p.m. Tickets cost $17 for adults, with children 18 and under admitted free. More information is at NYTTravelShow.com.

*Not in the New York area? See our list of 2014 travel shows around the U.S. and Canada.

– written by Chris Gray Faust

couple trip planning map laptopOn a recent work trip to Amsterdam, my first visit to this iconic city, I decided to treat myself to a little vacation time. My goal was to explore as much as I could within the four free days I had allotted myself, but, as is the case in most big cities, there were so many things I wanted to see and do: the Anne Frank House, the Keukenhof’s flowers, the Poezenboot, a canal boat tour, museums galore and, of course, the infamous Red Light District.

I figured my best bet would be to organize attractions of interest geographically to avoid wasting time racing back and forth across the city. The problem, though, was that I had no idea how to get started.
A quick Google search yielded a glorious link to Yahoo! Travel’s Trip Planner, which is still one of the most helpful travel tools I’ve ever used. Sure, it’s a fairly simple program, but that’s the beauty of it.

Sign up for an account (or use an existing one), create a name for your trip and search for things to do in your destination, either by checking them off of a prepopulated list of the most popular or by searching for things you already know you can’t miss. After adding them to your trip file, you can then click to see them arranged on a map of your destination, making it easy to group attractions by neighborhood. You can also share your trip with your travel companions … or with anyone who’s not going and wants to live vicariously through your itinerary.

Plus, as is always important when you’re trying to save precious time, you can click through to each attraction’s website to find hours of operation and purchase tickets in advance.

How to Create the Perfect Itinerary

If you’re already privy to the wonders of Trip Planner, you’re ahead of the curve. If you haven’t checked it out yet, what are you waiting for? Even if you don’t have your next vacation planned just yet, you can still create mockups for trips to every place on your bucket list so you’re ready when it comes time to book.

Which itinerary planning tools have you found most useful?

5 Trip Planning Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

spinning globeImagine this: you’ve planned a fun (or, depending on your circumstances, maybe not so fun) trip, and you’re at the airport, packed and ready to go. Then the vacation fairy comes along and offers to voluntarily throw a wrench in your itinerary. Would you take her up on it?

The idea comes from Heineken’s new ad campaign. It doesn’t involve a fairy, but, rather, four guys who are randomly plunked down in remote locations, and their adventures documented. As part of the promotion, reports AdWeek, Heineken’s marketing agency set up a game of “Departure Roulette” at New York’s JFK airport last week, asking travelers to forgo their scheduled plans on a whim by pushing a big red button to determine a new, more exotic destination (with hotels and spending money provided by Heineken).

I have to admit that I’m a planner, and one of my worst fears is being stuck someplace foreign without knowing precisely when I’ll arrive home (or, in this case, at my original destination). I don’t like disruptions to my itineraries, and, since not all destinations appeal to me, I’m not sure I’d take the risk (lest I end up like one fellow, whose planned trip to Vienna to visit his grandparents rerouted him to Cyprus instead).

Planning vs. Spontaneity: Which Do You Prefer?

Regardless of whether or not you like Heineken, it’s a crazy — but fun — idea. And it brings us to the question of the day: Would you switch (or have you already switched) your plans at the last minute in hopes of more exciting travel? What would be your ideal far-flung destination? Share your comments below.

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

frommers guidebooksEditor’s Note: Since the publication of this post, Arthur Frommer has purchased his company back from Google, ensuring that Frommer’s guidebooks will continue to be printed. Learn more in 56 Years Later: Europe on 5 Dollars a Day.

I wasn’t yet alive, let alone traveling, when Arthur Frommer wrote his very first travel guide, “Europe on 5 Dollars a Day,” back in 1957. But after years of toting more recent Frommer’s publications around the globe, I found myself mourning just a little bit when I read that the company has ceased publication of print guidebooks.

The death knell was sounded last week by Skift.com, who reported that many of the authors contracted for 29 upcoming Frommer’s titles were told by editors that the books they were working on would not be published. Extensive destination information is still available online at Frommers.com, and a limited number of “Day by Day” guides can be purchased as e-editions on Inkling.com. Frommer’s was bought by Google in August 2012.

The 5 Worst Trip Planning Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

On this very blog, we once asked, “Are guidebooks dying out?” I wrote then that I still used guidebooks — along with online resources — to plan every trip, and dozens of readers commented in agreement. Three years later, my position hasn’t changed: “The combination of maps, recommended itineraries, comprehensive reviews and historical context is something I haven’t found in any other single source, so I’ll continue to use guidebooks as long as they continue to be printed.”

Fortunately for those of us who wouldn’t plan a trip without them, other guidebook series such as Fodor’s, Lonely Planet and Eyewitness Guides can still be found on the shelves. But for how much longer?

– written by Sarah Schlichter

passports map sunglasses keys travelEvery Wednesday, we’ll feature one practical travel tip here, on our blog. Get our clever weekly tips and other travel resources in your inbox by subscribing to our blog or signing up for our newsletter.

In the run-up to my last vacation, I spent hours hunched over my laptop, a dozen windows pulled up on the screen and a couple of guidebooks open at my side. I was slaving over my trip itinerary, a Word document peppered with hotel names, important Web sites, parenthetical notes to myself (“Must check in by 8 p.m.!!”) and booking confirmation numbers marked in bold.

The document, dubbed “FINAL ITINERARY.doc,” was a step up from leaving my booking information scattered among 15 different messages in my e-mail inbox — but it was still a rather inelegant way to organize all the bits and pieces of my trip schedule. In How to Create the Perfect Itinerary, Caroline Costello and Ed Hewitt offer another strategy:

“Get crafty on the computer by using software to make your own itinerary. Owners of Microsoft Office can download free itinerary templates at Office.Microsoft.com, which are basically blank schedules with spots for you to record your travel information. Outer Level offers Knapsack, an itinerary program for Macs. The program’s features, from interactive maps to printed itineraries that appear professionally designed, make trip planning more fun than an in-flight movie.”

I decided to give it a whirl. I chose a template from the Microsoft site called “Family Travel Itinerary,” which offered a comprehensive Excel spreadsheet into which I could enter items like lodging details (arrival date, destination, number of nights, name of hotel, reservation number and notes), transportation schedules and even a packing list. It included a few additional fields I wouldn’t have thought to put on my own itinerary, such as emergency contacts and the blood type of each traveler. And it was aesthetically pleasing too, with color-coded charts and an orderly layout.

How do you keep your travel itinerary organized?

– written by Sarah Schlichter

stress travel stressed out traveler businessman suitcaseCountdown to departure: three days. Before I board a flight to Vancouver on Thursday, I have to finish packing, call my credit card company, do laundry, print boarding passes, clean out the fridge, confirm my reservations … so many details, so little time!

Am I curled up, knees to chest, in a stress-induced stupor? Not exactly. I’ve adopted a few strategies for handling the pre-trip panic phase:

1. Make a list — or several.
This weekend, I jotted down a clothing inventory for each day of my trip, a more general packing list (medications, umbrella, etc.) and a list of everything I had to do before I left. Having everything laid out in writing helped me get organized … and gave me the satisfaction of whittling down my mountain of tasks one by one. (Our handy interactive packing list can help with this step.)

2. Start early.
Dumping drawers on the floor in search of your passport hours before your departure is, to put it mildly, poor planning. I headed off last-minute panic attacks by starting the packing process several days before my flight. As it happened, I discovered that my passport was indeed where I left it — score! — but that I was missing a few other odds and ends. Luckily, I still have a couple of days to run to the store. Crisis averted.

3. Have a plan.
As Ed Hewitt points out in 10 Things to Do Before You Travel, the first day of a trip is often the most nerve-wracking as you figure out how to get around an unfamiliar new place. He suggests making a plan before you leave: “Sketch out a walk near your digs, which can help you get oriented as well as shake off travel fatigue and jet lag. Also, check out any nearby amenities — like a rooftop lounge nearby, a balcony with a choice view or a heated pool for maximum chill-out at the end of a harried travel day.”

As for me, I looked up public transportation options from the airport to where I’m staying, so I know exactly where to go once my plane touches down. And I’ve scribbed down a few yummy-sounding neighborhood restaurants for that first night’s dinner.

4. Let go.
Once you’ve taken care of all the important stuff (the passport is packed now, right? RIGHT?), try not to waste too much energy on the rest. Slow down, take a deep breath and focus your fevered brain on how much fun you’ll have on your trip, rather than all the tiny little details you might have forgotten.

If you’re looking for me on Thursday, I’ll be in one of those airport massage chairs — having my last few twinges of travel tension gently rubbed away.

What do you do to reduce pre-trip stress?

– written by Sarah Schlichter

At the Airport By most accounts, the skies are expected to be a lot more crowded this summer. While domestic travel has yet to reach pre-recession levels, a recent story in the Los Angeles Times indicates that U.S. airlines will be carrying a record number of passengers overseas in the coming months. For this reason, I offer a cautionary tale.

This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever done on a trip overseas:

After firming up plans to fly to Venice last month on a business trip, I discovered that my wife Janet could accompany me at the last minute. (Woo hoo! No lonely dinners during which I pretend to read in dim light!) Problem was, if she was to accompany me on my Lufthansa flights, the fare would be a whopping $3,000 round trip. We’d save $2,000 if she flew US Airways to Frankfurt, where we’d meet and fly together to Venice.

So far, so good. I departed Philadelphia and stopped for a four-hour layover in Germany, where I chilled and I waited for her to meet me. With 15 minutes to go before the flight to Venice, she was nowhere to be found. The Lufthansa gate agent told me that her Philly flight had been delayed and that the passengers bound for Venice had already been rebooked on a later flight. “You can meet her at your hotel,” the agent informed me.

Here comes the stupid part: I had Janet’s itinerary in my carry-on. I’d forgotten to give it to her in the rush at the airport, and she had no idea where we were staying in Venice. I arrived in Venice in full panic mode, wondering whether I should wait six hours for her to show up or head to the hotel and try to reach out via e-mail (her phone didn’t work overseas). Jet lag won out: I headed to the hotel, a $50 cab ride away.

Turns out Janet was panicking a couple of time zones away and had borrowed a phone. I never thought to turn mine on. I sent her a half-dozen e-mails (when, really, one would have done the trick), but she never thought to log on to the Internet at the Frankfurt airport. Frazzled and exhausted, I grabbed a cab three hours before her expected arrival and headed back to the airport. I’d rather be waiting for her than the other way around.

But hold on … having hopped on an earlier flight, Janet was hunched over the luggage carousel when I arrived. She looked frazzled and exhausted as well. We grabbed each other’s hands and jumped into the same cab I’d caught at the hotel.

The lessons here: Don’t be careless when you’re traveling overseas on different flights. Share all the relevant information about accommodations and transfers before you part ways with your travel companion. Have two phones that can dial internationally, or set up a plan of action in case you get separated (i.e., check the Internet). Don’t rely on a gate agent who has only a passing interest in whatever predicament you’re in. And learn from someone else’s stupid mistake.

– written by John Deiner