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AARP Smart Guide to Travel

31 tips for ensuring your trips are smooth and enjoyable


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Whether you’re plotting your first getaway, or you’re ready to brainstorm the adventure of a lifetime, you’re in luck. We spoke with a dozen experts to gather their top travel tips for dodging crowds, meeting locals, saving money, using points, and improving the transit experience. Here are 31 tips on traveling well. 

 

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PLANNING YOUR TRIP

1. Use deals to pick your destination 

If you want to save money, let the flight deals dictate your travel destination, says Willis Orlando, senior product operations specialist for Scott’s Cheap Flights, a travel-deals website. Orlando suggests starting with a broad itinerary and seeing what’s out there. “Instead of saying, ‘I want to fly from Chicago to Paris from Dec. 23 to Dec. 30,’ say, ‘I want to fly from any airport within two hours of my house to somewhere in western Europe in late December,’ Orlando says. Enter these more vague options when you have the flexibility and want to save on flight costs. “You may stumble across a destination you had never considered,” Orlando says. “And if you’re really set on getting to Paris, you’re still pretty likely to be able to find a way to get there after booking a cheap ticket across the Atlantic.”

2. Consider a U.S. cruise

Traveling on an international cruise may not be in the cards with pandemic risks still at hand, but cruise blogger Mikkel Woodruff of Sometimes Sailing, a website that shares cruise information, says the U.S. has a budding cruise culture of its own. “A lot of people don’t realize there are great river cruises that leave from the U.S.,” she says. Her recommendations include cruising Alaska, the Snake River, Columbia River, Mississippi River, and the Great Lakes.

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3. Try house sitting

For a hyper-local and low-cost way to experience a destination, Nora Dunn of the travel blog The Professional Hobo recommends house sitting — an accommodation option that lets travelers tend to a home, from watering plants to caring for animals, in exchange for a free stay. “House sitting is an amazing opportunity to stay in a local neighborhood and have a local, authentic experience while enjoying the comforts of home — and still getting the chance to be abroad,” says Dunn, who house sits frequently. She recommends websites like Trusted House Sitters for finding safe opportunities.

4. Download Google Maps offline 

Cell service and WiFi are rarely reliable while traveling, especially internationally, so Dunn suggests using your phone to download the Google Map area for your destination before you leave — a tip that will help immensely with in-the-moment directions. “You can see where you are on [the map], and which way you’re facing to make sure you’re walking in the right direction.” To download the map offline, open your phone’s Google Map app, type in your destination and scroll across the menu at the bottom to the download option.

5. Create and follow Google Maps lists

To keep tabs on all of the sights she wants to see, Dunn uses Google Map’s lesser-known “lists” feature, which lets you save spots to a custom Google Maps list, such as “restaurants in Paris.” You can keep your list private, or share it with travel companions. To make a list, open the Google Maps app, enter the location of the attraction, hit “save,” and add it to an existing list or create a new one. “Whenever we’re in a different area of town, we could open up Google Maps and see, hey, there’s a restaurant nearby that’s saved on our list,” says Dunn.

6. Get a National Park Pass

If you’re visiting more than a few national parks that require entrance fees, it’s a good idea to get the America the Beautiful pass, says Emily Pennington, national parks columnist for Outside magazine. Travelers aged 62 years or older can receive a discount via the lifetime senior pass, which costs a one-time fee of $80 for access to all parks and public lands across the country.

7. Understand NPS permits

Due to overcrowding, the National Park Service instituted permit requirements for certain parks, such as Rocky Mountain National Park, in 2021. These regulations are ever-changing, says Pennington. She recommends calling the park several months before your trip to understand what’s required for a visit. “Don’t be afraid to pick up the phone to actually call the ranger station before you go, and also utilize amenities like visitors centers once you’re there,” she says, noting this is how she finds the best trails.

8. Pack for souvenirs

Lauren Maternowski, editor at travel-tips blog Pack Hacker, suggests planning ahead for mementos you’d like to bring home. “I recommend leaving a little extra space in your suitcase regardless of whether or not you plan to pick up souvenirs. Sometimes you come across something in your travels that’s too good to pass up,” she says. “Packable [spare] bags are also great to have on hand if you’re the souvenir type. Ultimately, it depends on what kind of traveler you are.”

 

POINTS AND FLIGHTS

9. Track prices via Google Flights

If you’re not in a rush to book your travel, Zach Griff, senior reporter for The Points Guy, recommends setting flight alerts on Google Flights to snag the best deal. “You can track the historical price of a given route, and get notified if the price drops.”

10. Earn miles at home

Booking flights isn’t the only way to earn airline miles, Griff says. “A great way to boost your balance is to use an online shopping portal when making purchases on the internet,” he says, noting you can earn miles while paying for everything from clothes to electronics via these platforms. “Many retailers will award miles simply by clicking through a specific portal.”

11. Buy a TSA-friendly belt

Nothing’s worse than setting off the airport or museum metal detector — especially if you’re in a rush. To avoid this, Maternowski recommends a TSA-friendly belt, free of metal, such as those from Klik Belts, Jelt Belts or Carbon Fiber Belts. This wardrobe update, plus “avoiding any jewelry so you have fewer things to take off” will streamline the security process, she says.

12. Fly on off days

Urban legends abound about which days are best for booking flights — but Orlando says generally, there’s no “best” when it comes to day of the week to actually book flights. “However, there are some days of the week that are best to travel due to simply supply and demand dynamics. Flights that take off on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays will be among the cheapest you’ll find.”

13. Forgo inflight points purchases

It may be tempting to use spare points for inflight perks like champagne or WiFi, but Griff recommends resisting the urge if you want to get a good deal. “Your best bet is to save the miles for award flights — those usually offer the best value and bang for your buck.”

 

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ON THE GROUND

14. Take a free walking tour

Dunn suggests joining free walking tours to get a lay of the land upon arrival. “You can find locals who are enthusiastic about their destination and will offer you really creative walking tours. It’s great because you can ask your local guide questions, such as ‘What should I check out?’” Dunn says her go-to site is GuruWalk.com, and notes that “free walking tours aren’t completely free in that guides are generally reliant on tips for their time and efforts.” Similar sites include Freetour.com and Civitatis.com, which offers budget and free tours around the world.

15. Be spontaneous with a “plan B” itinerary

With enhanced travel technology and guidebooks galore, it’s easy to overplan with no room for spontaneity. But travel writer Seth Kugel, author of The New York Times’ “Frugal Traveler” column from 2010 to 2016, suggests using each day’s itinerary as a plan B. “I plan the day, then I try my best not to do it. Your plan is your backup plan,” he says. With a strict itinerary, you may avoid a spontaneous stop or side-street stroll because you’re worried about getting to the next place on time. “Whatever is on your agenda, that’s just a suggestion if you don’t figure out something else to do.”

16. Translation tools for the win

The Google Translate app is a go-to for understanding new-to-you languages, but it can also come in handy when reading foreign signs. “Google Translate has a feature where you can point your camera at a sign, and it will translate the text into your language,” says travel blogger Alexa Renee of Lil Ms. Awkward.

17. Snap better smartphone photos

Professional travel photographer Tiffany Nguyen says the biggest smartphone photography mistake she sees is overexposure. But, there’s an easy way to fix that, she says: “Tap on the area that’s overexposed, usually it’s the sky, by holding down the area and sliding your finger down to decrease the brightness.”

18. Swap the phone for a journal

Smartphones make it easy to slip away into the comfort of social media or your favorite Kindle book if you’re dining alone, but Kugel says it makes you less approachable — and, if you’re hoping to spontaneously meet locals, it could hurt your chances. “Carry around your notebook, like an old-fashioned travel diary,” he says, noting you should use this while dining instead of a phone. “That, or a sketchbook, is much more approachable to people.”

19. Attend special-interest-group meetups

Another great way to meet locals who share similar interests? Attend a meetup, says Dunn, who often attends Rotary Club meetings in other countries. “If you like hiking, there’s almost guaranteed to be a hiking group in your destination, or there’s also Toastmasters [a public-speaking group],” she says. “Find these groups on websites like Meetup or even Facebook.”

20. Print your memories in a coffee-table book

Don’t just take photos, use them — and Nguyen’s best advice is printing pictures through a photo-book service such as Snapfish. “Make a coffee-table book with your favorite moments from a trip,” she says. “It’s always fun being able to share your moments with others.” 

 

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MIND YOUR MONEY

21. Get a travel-friendly ATM card

Jada Yuan visited dozens of countries while traveling the world as the New York Times’ “52 Places” columnist in 2018. One of her biggest pieces of advice: set up a Charles Schwab Investment Bank debit card “because they reimburse ATM fees.” This alleviates the pressure of determining how much money to withdraw at a time. “It will make you feel better about getting out smaller amounts multiple times.”

22. Always pay in local currency

A common question when it’s time for the check is whether you’d like to pay in the local currency or USD. “You have to pay local currency,” says Kugel. “If you pay in dollars, you get their exchange rate, and that’s always going to be worse.”

23. To bargain or not to bargain 

Bargaining with street vendors is a long-debated topic, but Kugel has a good rule of thumb on when it’s right to barter. “If the difference is under $5, I don’t bargain unless I’m sure the merchant is really well off — it’s just not a good look to be in a poorer country and haggling for sport.”

24. Use excess cash before flying home

If you’re left with too much foreign currency, Yuan recommends asking your hotel if you can pay part of your bill with cash and part with credit card. “Spend it all except for one paper bill in the lowest denomination — I keep that as a souvenir.”  

 

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STREET SMARTS

25. Disguise direction mishaps

Getting lost is part of travel, but poring over maps or your smartphone can make you a target, says Renee. “Walk like you know where you’re going, and don’t spend long periods of time pausing and staring at maps on your phone,” she says. “If you’re lost, I suggest popping into a bathroom, café or store to reorient your directions.”

26. Delay social media posts

Posting your whereabouts in the moment can attract the wrong attention, whether it’s strangers scouring social media geotags and showing up in the same restaurant — which has happened to Renee’s friends — or alerting those back home that your house is empty. “Letting the most important [people] know where you are is important,” says Renee. “But if I post on social media, it’s always delayed by several hours, or several days.”

27. Enable “find my friend”

Keep your loved ones back home in the loop on where you are via the iPhone’s built-in Find My iPhone feature, says Yuan. Go to the iPhone settings, then “Find My” menu, where you can click “Share My Location” for friends and family. Google offers a similar feature for Android via Google Maps.

28. Use a VPN

To protect yourself from online hackers and identity theft, Dunn recommends using a virtual private network (VPN) when connecting to WiFi while traveling — even on password-protected networks. “[A VPN] encrypts your online activities, and makes sure everything you’re doing appears like it’s coming from a different IP address, so you wouldn’t even show up if a hacker was looking.”   

 

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STAYING HEALTHY

29. Go to the grocery

For trips longer than three days hit up the local grocery store, says Katie Conroy, a travel registered nurse now based in the Carrollton Medical Region Center Emergency Department in Texas. “Eating out two to three times a day comes with excessive caloric intake,” she says, noting prepackaged salads, bananas, apples and granola bars are her go-to buys.

30. Sport compression socks

Tackle long-haul flights with gear like compression socks, Conroy advises. “They help with circulation for those sitting for longer periods,” she says. Her other long-flight tip? A lumbar-support pillow to relieve spine tension.

31. Mind your hands

Surfaces like handrails and kiosks are a haven for germs. That’s why the Mayo Clinic suggests limiting contact with frequently touched surfaces and washing hands, or using hand sanitizer, immediately after. Additionally, avoid touching your nose, eyes and mouth in public places.

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