Flash forward to New Year's Eve 2016. I was en route to Chicago to meet a friend and sat next to an incredibly friendly traveler: Cait. She was on her way back from spending two weeks in Cyprus. Why? Because she just felt like exploring. I want to say she was a teacher at the time? Hearing her incredibly approachable and relatable stories to how she started collecting passport stamps, I spent a lot of my trip to Chicago thinking about how easy it could be to travel. Ladies and gentlemen, I started 2016 with the travel bug and I haven't been able to shake it off since.
I'm the first to admit I made pretty irresponsible decisions when I started traveling. I was already using the Delta Skymiles credit card and had racked up a few points to my use, but I spent a lot of money traveling that year (more on this will come to light over the next few weeks, oy vey). I didn't really understand what a "deal" meant, and I was still living this "omg I have a salary" attitude which meant not knowing how not to throw away my money. My reason for traveling that year was:
"I want to collect as many Snapchat location filters as I can, and travel somewhere every month."
I accomplished it that year. With a little bit of work and leisure travel I hit more than 12 cities, including Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Austin, The Bahamas, New York (multiple times), Washington D.C., and more. With each new experience, I became much more well versed in travel and allowed myself to spend less time on the "how to do it" and more brain power appreciating each unique place I was visiting.
In 2017, I vowed to keep the momentum going. This time it wasn't for Snapchat filters (can someone please smack 24-year-old me?), but it was to further explore the world and connect with friends or strangers (#solotravel). I learned a lot from my mistakes and triumphs, but here are the highlights:
Start a travel savings account
One of the many times I'll tell you, don't be Lissette. Traveling is much more fun when you don't have leftover debt from your last trip looming over your head. Aside from tactics like setting aside money each month toward travel, I use Digit to automatically save money each day. Their nifty algorithm takes into account your spending habits and sends moola to a savings platform, which you can set up with categories like "travel." It's incredible how at the end of a few months, I've got enough for at least 2 flights without having moved a muscle. Another indirect way to save is making sure you're taking advantage of frequent flier programs. Even if you think you won't be using that airline more than once or twice, you never know where those benefits come in handy. And you're also missing out on a ton if you don't have a points card. I'm a personal Amex evangelist and started off with the Delta card before switching to Platinum (here's 40,000 points, you're welcome).
Do your deal-search.
There are hundreds of very legit deal seeker apps and websites. I personally use Kayak as my go-to for booking flights because I feel I'm getting the most comprehensive, and cheapest, results. Google Flights is where I get my second peek, with Amex Travel as my final destination since I get bonus points for booking through them. If you're looking for something to track flight prices, Kayak provides a nifty tool for that or Hopper is another crowd favorite. If you have no idea where to go but you know you have dates in mind, I'm obsessed with Skycanner's "Everywhere" search tool which shows you the cheapest flights around the world on your chosen dates. I'd also recommend following top bloggers in this space like The Points Guy or Scott's Cheap Flights. Take advantage of signing up for your favorite airlines' newsletters as you'll get the best deals in real-time. The biggest takeaway is to never take the first price you see as the end-all-be-all. There's probably something much cheaper out there.
Book the damn flight.
The hardest part about travel is booking the flight. And more often than not, the most expensive part. Once you feel you've done your due diligence and squeezed every reward, deal, tracker, etc., for the cheapest flight available, it's time to hit the "purchase" button. So much of the rest of the journey will be easy to figure out, especially if you're flexible, once this piece is done. If you're trying to corral a group of friends for a trip, make the first move. Once one person is in, others will follow. Four of my major trips last year involved friend groups of more than 3 people and I was always the first one to kick things off (cc: Cuba, Mexico City, Summer Euro Tour, Morocco).
Take advantage of AirBnb or phone a friend.
The next most expensive part is usually the accommodations piece. The only time I've slept at a hotel in the last two years is when it involves work travel and the booking is outside of my control. I live by AirBnb (here's a discount code for that). There's something so special about staying in a home vs. a stuffy hotel. Many times, if you do enough research and book in a timely manner, you're getting amenities and a value that is incomparable to what you would get at a hotel. They're also adding AirBnb "Plus" now, so you can get that more upgraded vibe that you would get at something like a boutique hotel. If you're feeling social and on a super tight budget, don't forget to peek at Hostels. And, of course, if you're lucky enough to have friends at a destination don't be afraid to come clean about wanting to crash. I know I am incredibly flexible about letting friends bunk with me given that so many have opened their home for me in the past.
Use an itinerary app or digital assistant.
Remember the days of using a travel agent? This was a booming industry for a reason. There's a sense of peace to having someone else do all the work for you, so in this DIY culture I'd still recommend you get a digital travel assistant of some kind. If you follow along my stories, you'll see that I hold all my travels under Kayak's handy app. I can't even bother to write about other recommendations because I've simply found nothing as useful as this. For starters, you can link your e-mail address to it so that any travel-related communication gets stored and created as a "trip." It's also smart enough to know the pieces that belong to a trip, rather than starting a whole new itinerary with every incoming message. For example: When you book the flight, you've got a new "trip" created but once the accommodations, activities, rental cars, etc., roll in, they're simply added under the same cover. The app also includes a simple-to-read guide for your confirmation number, security gate wait times, airport maps, receipts, phone numbers, addresses, etc. And it's also incredibly up-to-date so you'll get delays and gate changes in real-time on the app.
Stick to a carry on, I believe in you.
If you want to live the frequent traveler life, you've got to sacrifice on space. And I promise, it's actually a huge benefit. You're saving the hassle of going to the gate to drop off, waiting for your bag afterward, or risking lost luggage during an important trip. I always travel with my Raden carry-on (hooray for charging ports) and my Madewell Transport Tote for the laptop, snacks and things I need at hand. A few times, I've added a Herschel Fanny Pack if I want an added layer of ease (plus, it's mad cute and affordable). I also live by the "rolling your clothes" technique, which I learned on a trip to NYC with my friend Dani from her aunt after I had a hilarious overpacking experience. It also helps to cut down by only bringing what you'll use. Making lists in advance helps filter through this. Ok, I get it, this topic deserves its own post and I'll get it to you soon. Note: many airports are following the Euro-centric rule of putting liquids in a clear ziplock bag. You're safest if you keep all things in a pouch of your choice and make sure to pack the clear bag to get you through security if you're asked to remove it from your bag. They made me take it out of my carry-on in a U.S. airport recently, yikes!
Sign-up for TSA Pre-Check or Global Entry.
There's nothing like showing up to the airport 40 minutes before your flight, making it to the gate without running, getting to your seat without problems, and enjoying a smooth ride to your destination. Well, the only way to save yourself about an hour at the airport is by signing up for TSA Pre-Check. It is one of the handiest helpers, and I'm unsure how people travel without it. You keep your shoes on, no one gives you major issues, and the lines are usually a 5-15 minute experience. If you travel abroad a lot, or plan to, Global Entry might be a better fit and that comes with Pre-Check already. Global Entry makes the customs experience on your return a smooth 5-15 minute experience. #HackAlert: Mobile Passport App is free, has been even faster for me than Global Entry sometimes, it's my favorite thing to share with friends!
Step out of your comfort zone.
Wether you're traveling with a group or alone, the most important advice I can give you is this. Some of the most memorable travel experiences are when you go somewhere new (obviously) and when you do something a little different. Maybe it means staying at someone's home via AirBnb, or booking a guided tour of the historic center with a local, maybe you want to do something adventurous, maybe you just make it a goal to strike up a conversation with locals while riding public transportation. Just be flexible and open minded, and take it all in like a sponge. I'm personally a huge fan of journaling while traveling and use these travel-friendly notebooks to doodle in.
After writing this, I realized there's no way to consolidate what I've learned in anything less than an 100-page book of travel hacks. And I am the first to admit I am seriously overdue in sharing this information with you all. Would love to hear more about what sorts of travel topics you want to hear more about from me. Is it planning? Is it time management? Is it cutting costs? Packing? Things I take with me? City guides? Etc. Let me know in the comments below or send me a message on social.
Bon voyage, friends!