How and When to Buy Airplane Tickets – Ask Alex – Travel Question Wednesdays

Ask Alex - Travel Question Q and A every Wednesday

This post is part of the Ask Alex, Travel Question Wednesdays weekly series. To see previous questions click here.  To submit your own; tweet it to @AlexBerger, ask it in a comment on this post or send it in by e-mail.

A quick introductory note – When I began authoring VirtualWayfarer in July of 2007 I never expected that I’d still be blogging on travel, adventures, study abroad and everything that goes with it nearly five years later.  Over the years I’ve had a lot of questions and luckily my friends, network, and more than a few random strangers have gone well out of their way to answer those questions. While I still find myself asking questions on a regular basis I’ve found that I can also pay it forward as a resource for friends, my readers, and strangers alike.  In an effort to share what I’ve learned from my various adventures I’ve launched Travel Question Wednesdays. I’ll be answering one reader-submitted question every week.  You are all encouraged to submit, and all past questions will be archived and available as a resource for readers of this blog. I’m going to take a very open approach to the topics I’ll cover, so feel free to ask me just about anything , just keep it somewhat travel related.

This week’s travel question is from Kate K. she asks,

Q. “When is the best time to buy plane tickets? Are the rumors on when to buy true?”

A. – The simple answer concerning many of the rumors tied to airfare is yes, they still hold true. Despite significant disruption within the industry and major consolidation over the last decade the actual dynamics of pricing and booking flights for more traditional airlines haven’t changed much. For the cheapest tickets, you should plan on flying on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Saturday. If you don’t have time to hunt aggressively for airfare, watch for airfare specials, or to fiddle with your departure dates, the conventional wisdom that booking 1-2 months ahead of time is also likely your best bet.

However, as with most travel related questions there are a number of exceptions. When booking airfare you need to differentiate between budget airlines and traditional airlines. While booking several months in advance with a traditional airline is likely to give you a middle-range/better than average price there’s no such guarantee with a budget airline. This is because budget airlines tend not to be that cheap on a standard flight basis. If we use industry leader RyanAir as an example their generic sticker price is often fairly comparable (and sometimes more expensive) when compared to a traditional airline. Users booking with a budget airline should always book at least 1 week in advance, but also need to monitor the company’s website regularly looking for one of their specials or sales. These sales are often held several times a month and will drastically alter the cost of your ticket turning $150 tickets into $10 tickets, etc. In these cases individuals booking ahead of time without doing their research are almost guaranteed to get an inferior price.

When booking with more traditional airlines it’s important to keep in mind that the airlines have a variety of tiers set up for seats on each flight. While the seats themselves are identical, the airline only offers a certain number of seats in each price range. The more demand, the fewer budget seats available and the higher the price. In the past when airlines were more inclined to under-book aircraft you’d see prices fall closer to departure as the companies rushed to fill empty seats. Now, with most flights overbooked you’ll find this happens far less often making last minute ticket purchases far more risky (and expensive!). This approach to pricing seats is why you’ll see significant fluctuations in pricing from day to day. The advantage of booking early is that it locks you into one of the cheaper ticket tiers. The challenge can be that it also means you may miss airfare specials, or price drops intended to help fill a flight that isn’t experiencing the same demand the airline expected. It’s also worth noting that in my experience airfare prices tend to be pretty stable 3+ months out. While prices vary somewhat, it’s really only in the three months before a flight that you’ll see prices start to shift radically from day to day.

If you know you’ll need to fly on a Friday, Sunday, Monday or close to a major event or holiday your best bet is likely to book as far in advance as you can. The same goes if you’re not able or willing to dedicate the time to monitoring and hunting for airfare. On the other hand, if you’ve got a little time to dedicate to the search, and are traveling on an off-peak period I’d suggest giving yourself a month or two to watch fares before eventually deciding to book. If you have a fairly inflexible schedule and are set on a specific destination, I usually recommend that people book airfare with a traditional airline at least 25 days before their flight. If, on the other hand, you’re looking at a budget airline I’d aim to have your ticket purchased at least a week before the flight.

More/specific questions about airfare? Let me know in a question and I’m happy to do my best to respond to them! You can also visit my Travel Resource List site for a selection of useful airfare search tools.

Kate, thanks for a great question!  To my readers – have a question of your own?  ASK IT!   Want to see previous questions? click here.

This post was brought to you in part by Waikiki hotels.

Credit Card Points and Frugal Travel – Ask Alex – Travel Question Wednesdays

Ask Alex - Travel Question Q and A every Wednesday

This post is part of the Ask Alex, Travel Question Wednesdays weekly series. To see previous questions click here.  To submit your own; tweet it to @AlexBerger, ask it in a comment on this post or send it in by e-mail.

A quick introductory note – When I began authoring VirtualWayfarer in July of 2007 I never expected that I’d still be blogging on travel, adventures, study abroad and everything that goes with it nearly five years later.  Over the years I’ve had a lot of questions and luckily my friends, network, and more than a few random strangers have gone well out of their way to answer those questions. While I still find myself asking questions on a regular basis I’ve found that I can also pay it forward as a resource for friends, my readers, and strangers alike.  In an effort to share what I’ve learned from my various adventures I’m launching a new Wednesday feature here on VirtualWayfarer.  Starting today I’ll be answering one reader-submitted question every week.  Anyone can submit, and all past questions will be archived and available as a resource for readers of this blog. I’m going to take a very open approach to the topics I’ll cover, so feel free to ask me just about anything  – as long as it is travel related.

This week’s travel question is from Lindsay B. she asks,

Q. “What’s the best way to use credit card points/miles to travel frugally? Recommend any cards/programs/strategies?”

A. This is a challenging one because it depends on a wide variety of different factors which vary from person to person, and are constantly changing. I’ve had a very mixed track record in the past, having gone so far as to swear off mileage plans after a particularly frustrating experience, before being lured back by Chase’s 100,000 mile British Airways signing bonus.

Let’s start with the basics.  Before you even consider getting a mileage/points card, you have to evaluate your spending and debt behavior.  Is getting a credit card something that  makes economic sense for you?  Can and will you pay it off completely each and every month? Keep in mind that if you carry a balance and are paying interest that’s airfare money going up in smoke.  You’re also going to need to tally up your monthly credit card expenses.  If you put less than $1,000 a month on your credit card you are probably not going to accrue more than 12-13,000 points a year without bonuses.  Given that many point-based cards cost $80-$150 a year and that mileage to fly internationally usually starts at 35,000 miles and is typically closer to 60-80,000 miles round trip, you may actually cost yourself money by getting a mileage card. Ultimately, this is the type of user credit companies are hoping for.  You should also keep in mind that many airlines are in the process of inflating the number of miles needed for various destinations which is in turn driving up the amount of miles you need. Others have discussed switching to a different methodology for counting how many miles are needed from destination to destination.  In general, as you might imagine, very few of these changes actually benefit us as consumers.

On the other hand if you’re flying regularly for business, have business expenses, or your monthly credit card total is over $1,000 then a mileage card might be right for you. These cards often offer airfare bonuses for frequent fliers and if you can accrue points fairly quickly that annual fee becomes less of an issue.  Most cards waive the fee for the first year and offer a hefty mileage reward for signing up for the card.  While most offer 20-40,000 miles for signing up periodic specials are offered where that can be more than doubled.  I mentioned earlier that I was lured back to a miles credit card after having sworn off of them.  Despite reservations the special that drew me back in was a super bonus through British Airways which offered me 50,000 miles for opening the card and another 50,000 miles when I spent $3,500 on the card within the first three months (be very aware that many of these cards have similar requirements).  These miles were roughly the equivalent of two round trip tickets to Europe. So far I’ve had fairly good luck with the British Airways frequent flyer program, and I was able to book my ticket to Copenhagen using these miles without any of the redemption issues I had previously.

As you might imagine, there are a subset of consumers who are focusing on accruing the signup mileage bonuses as an alternative to accruing points on a per-dollar basis.  Keep in mind that even though you may get your points through an airline branded credit card, the points themselves are actually held within the Airline’s mileage program.  So, I can technically sign up for a Chase British Airways card with a 50,000 point sign up bonus, and a Bank of America British Airways Mastercard with a 45,000 point sign up bonus giving me a collective 95,000 British Airways miles.  Many of these users then cancel the card after keeping it for most of a year (thus avoiding the annual fee) while also meeting the $3000-$4,000 minimum spend required to qualify for the points.  So far credit card companies haven’t been thrilled about these users, but have tolerated them. Given that a fair number of people no doubt read up about this way of generating miles and register for cards intending to churn them, only to end up keeping the card I imagine the banks are still doing quite well.

The verdict is still out on just how negative the impact of this type of credit card churning can be on your credit. From what I’ve read it seems that those who tend to put a fair amount of cash onto their cards each month and maintain several old cards with a long credit history haven’t had significant issues.  On the other hand, I’ve also read reports from a number of users who have been blacklisted by various credit card providers.

This space is constantly changing, and varies from provider to provider so you’ll want to do extensive research before deciding what approach you take.  To do that research there are a number of communities that are dedicated to making mileage plans work for you. Keep in mind it’s a game and a complex one at that which is structured in the airline and bank’s favor.  Doing your research, having a plan and sticking to it is fundamental if you’re going to be able to successfully use your miles as a budget travel technique.  For research I suggest reviewing Chris Guillebeau’s posts on using frequent flyer miles via his Art of Non-Conformity Blog.  Additionally FlyerTalk is dedicated to all things frequent flyer based and is a great place to find out what cards are offering the best signup bonuses, how to get the most out of your mileage program, etc.

A few final thoughts – keep in mind that frequent flyer programs may give you the flight for free, but they often do not include taxes which you’re responsible for. For my one-way flight to Copenhagen I saved around $800 BUT still paid $250 in airport taxes and fees.  Also, if your work schedule is very limited it can be extremely difficult to redeem your miles on short (less than 6 months) notice.   On the other hand if you have a very flexible schedule, mileage can be great.  Another key consideration is the quality of the card itself.  Amazingly many mileage based “travel” cards are surprisingly not-very travel friendly.  While it is changing, many older mileage cards charged a 3% international transaction fee on all purchases made outside of the US, in addition to various other fees.  That adds up quick when abroad.   Lastly, consider the possibility of using your miles for a RTW (Round-The-World) style ticket.  These multi-destination tickets can be incredible, and often only slightly more expensive mileage wise than a long-distance international ticket. Though you’ll need to have more than a week or two to properly utilize them.

Hopefully that gives you a crash course introduction to mileage cards.  Make sure to head on over to FlyerTalk for more in-depth information and to do your own research.  To be clear, I’m not providing any financial advice in this article, or suggesting you employ any of the tactics outlined within this blog post.  Only that you utilize the resources available to educate yourself and make your own decisions.

Lindsay, thank you for a fantastic question!

If you end up using these tips to book a trip I’d love to hear about it! Good luck and safe travels!

If you’re looking for additional information, you can also explore what Nomadic Matt has to say. Matt is a premium advertising partner and also one of the most well recognized and respected names in the independent travel advice community.  He has a series of guides and informative posts that cover most of the relevant topics you need to worry about when preparing for a trip.  Of particular interest based on this post consider taking a look at his guide to the best travel rewards cards.  As a long-term traveler who has circumnavigated the globe he also provides a number of insights on how best to book and research round the world tickets.

 

Launching Ultimate Packing List .com

My last update mentioned a number of different projects. While most are still under way and keeping me terribly busy, I’ve completed and launched The Ultimate Packing List, which can be accessed through http://www.ultimatepackinglist.com.

I found myself regularly answering a multitude of questions for friends who were about to embark on their 1st, 2nd or 3rd trip abroad. More often than not I was able to contribute a lot, but left out important details – or found that they were too close to their departure date to act on some of the advice/suggestions I had to offer.

There are a multitude of great travel tip posts out there.  In fact, just about every travel blogger who’s spent any time writing has written up a tips and tricks post at some point or another.  That said, most have great information but are either too comprehensive (and have been turned into multi-page resource sites which are overwhelming) or too basic (and lack a succinct, yet comprehensive approach to delivering the tips and tricks needed).

Additionally, there’s not a one stop shop out there that streamlines finding and potentially purchasing hostel/backpacking specific gear. You can read through posts which randomly suggest (and even in some cases link to) various items they recommend but it’s usually scattered and leaves the travelers scrambling to claw together a solid list.  Which is a problem further confounded by big box stores which have too many options and completely unnecessary items.

My answer? Create a website with 3 basic pages. That’s it.  The K.I.S.S. principle in action – An extremely comprehensive travel tip post targeted specifically for 20-30 something travelers. A page to display videos outlining what and how to pack submitted by experienced travelers and a final page that interfaces with Amazon to deliver a storefront delivering rock bottom Amazon pricing on a very limited list of hand picked hostel/backpacking relevant and recommended items.

I’m currently looking for new packing videos and always open to travel tip or gear suggestions – so without further ado – hop on over, check it out and let me know what you think!

Traveler’s 101 – The Complete Travel Tip Post

Guejar Spain Boot Shot by Alex Berger

**Please be advised that an updated version of this list is available on VirtualWayfarer’s new sister site http://ultimatepackinglist.com. In addition to a more comprehensive list, the site features additional travel packing videos and a hostel/backpacking specific amazon shopping list.

The following is a comprehensive list of general travel advice specifically tailored to backpack/hostelers and the Euro zone. However, I believe no matter where you are traveling or what approach you will be taking, you’ll find a lot of good – and some unique information below.

Money

Notify your bank & credit card company – Credit Card companies have a number of checks in place to help protect you from fraud.  Unfortunately, these checks can be a real nightmare if you forget to notify your bank/CC company that you’ll be leaving the country.  Make sure to call and notify them that you’ll be traveling.  If they start seeing a lot of charges from a foreign location, they may put a hold on your card thinking it has been stolen. Make sure to provide dates you’ll be gone as well as the countries you expect to visit.  There is nothing worse than trying to get a replacement credit card company while on the road.

Choose the right card – You’re going to pay a currency penalty no matter what you do.  However, how much you end up paying can vary widely.  Almost all credit cards charge a foreign transaction fee. These fees vary, but are often as much as 3%.  What percentage they charge varies from card to card and from bank to bank. Make sure to find out which of your credit cards gives you the best deal.  The same goes for bank ATMs and debit card use.  Find out what the fee is, and what type of ATM’s are in your bank’s extended networks.  Many travelers unwittingly spend $6+ on fees for every $100 in purchases or cash withdrawals they make.  The FlyerGuide.com wiki offers one of the best breakdowns/easy to use charts i’ve found.

Currency Exchanges – I avoid these if at all possible. By using ATMs and following the advice I’ve outlined for reducing ATM fees I’m able to get the best currency exchange rate possible. Exchange booths are expensive and take a fee.  They also tend to give outdated currency values.  When you use an ATM to withdraw funds you will typically receive a better, more up to date, fairer exchange rate.

Travelers Checks and Money Transfers – Travelers checks are huge in the movies, and so are money transfers.  In reality though, these two things are expensive and inconvenient.  I typically use Visa/MasterCard credit cards/ATM cards while traveling and have never had an issue.  Research the countries you’ll be visiting and figure out what cards are commonly used. In most cases credit cards or cash will be far more welcome than travelers checks.

Contact Information

Xeroxing important information – Few things are more inconvenient than losing or having your passport, important documents and/or credit cards stolen. Take the 5 minutes to copy the photo page of your passport, and both sides of your credit cards.  Make two copies.  One to stash in some obscure part of your backpack and one to leave with your stateside contact.  Remember to keep a close eye on the xerox copies – they’re a great asset if you lose the originals, but can also be used to steal your identity if they get into the wrong hands.

Email yourself – If you have a web based e-mail platform, e-mailing yourself scans/copies of credit cards, important documents and passport info is a great alternative to the xeroxed copies outlined above. It’s easier to access, less likely to be compromised/stolen, and guaranteed to always be on hand.

Community

Blog from the road – Do yourself, your friends, and your family a huge favor.  Set up a blog before you leave. It’s free, easy and a great way to update friends and family.  Sure, you can send a postcard out – but why not give them the chance to share your adventures with you?  I highly recommend using WordPress – you can get a free, hosted WordPress blog at WordPress.com.  In addition to saving you from writing 10-15 separate e-mails to friends and family, a trip blog creates a journal which you’ll be incredibly greatful for as you reminisce about your trip a year or two from now.  Be descriptive and share your adventures – it’s a wonderful gift to friends, family and yourself.  Internet cafes are common place on the road and the hour every day or two you’ll need to write an update can be a welcome rest period. Don’t know what to write?  Check out some of my past travel posts from the road.

Resources – There are a lot of wonderful travel communities out there.  It’s somewhat newer but TBEX or Travel Blog Exchange is a wonderful way of finding fantastic travel blogs and connecting with experienced travelers.  If you’ve got a question or are looking for ideas – I highly recommend perusing their members lists.  Need other sites or resources?  Just let me know and I’ll be happy to point you in the right direction.

Health

Vitamins – Yeah, yeah I know.  It’s basic.  However, it’s something commonly overlooked. When you’re traveling – especially if you’ve just started the trip, vitamin intake is a lifesaver. It’s not enough to just take your daily vitamin.  Keep in mind that you’re exposed to a whole spread of new foods, new germs, and are temporarily drastically changing your lifestyle.  During the first 3 days of any trip I double up on my multi-vitamins with a heavy focus on making sure I have a very high B vitamin intake. B vitamins are fantastic, they’ll give you more energy, improve your metabolism and help repair the added strain/damage your body is taking. I’m also a huge fan of anything with amino-acids in it. Especially if you’re doing a lot of foot-based touring. One great source is products like EmergenC.  It has B vitamins, amino acids and a boatload of Vitamin C all in one hit.  Sure they say it doesn’t work, but I call baloney.  2 or 3 of those a day and you’ll be doing yourself a huge favor.

Hydrate – Sure, drinking water is common advice…but it’s a pain so most people don’t do it.  Big mistake – especially if you want to reduce jet lag.  Sure, it’s difficult to know when your next bathroom break will be, but do yourself a favor – amp up your water intake and skip the soda/carbonated beverages for a few days.   Taking your vitamins and staying hydrated will keep your body much healthier, improve recovery time, and increase the resilience of your immune system.  Getting chapped lips or peeling cuticles?  Drink more water – you’re dehydrated.

Timing is important – In my experience one major element that contributes to jet lag is that of mental adjustment.  If you’re traveling trans Atlantic make sure to set your watch forward as soon as you board the plane.  Use the 14 hour flight to adjust mentally instead of spending 14 hours in flux and then trying to adjust once you’ve arrived.  Once you’re on that plane operate exclusively on destination time and try not to think about what time it is at your point of origin.  It sounds silly, but it makes a huge difference.

Packing

Leave the suitcase at home – Even if you aren’t planning to “backpack” in the conventional sense of the word, ditch the suitcases and trade them in for a quality backpack. A suitcase with wheels is all well and good, but 8 out of 10 times those wheels will only be useful 5-10% of the time. A backpack is effective 100% of the time.  It also encourages you to pack more effectively.  Wearing the pack also gives you increased security but more on that later. There are cheap options out there, the blue pack in the video’s I’ve attached below was made by Outdoor Products, cost $45 and was purchased at Walmart.

Keep the straps in mind – The one downside to a backpack is the need to protect the shoulder straps, waist belt, and clips. A lot of newer backpacks have zip up covers which allow you to protect your straps when traveling by bus, plane or train. If yours doesn’t, you might consider purchasing a small, cheap duffel bag which you can roll up and strap to the outside of the backpack while traveling. This also makes securing your bag in hostels or hotels significantly easier.

Roll your clothing – Folding may be all well and good for a suitcase, but it’s terribly inefficient and can result in badly wrinkled clothing.  A far better option is to tightly roll your clothing. It naturally eliminates a lot of the air which takes up spare space, allows for easier access to your clothing, and allows you to fit significantly more into the same space. Don’t just roll pants and shirts though! Make sure to roll it all, towels, jackets, boxers and sweaters!

Bulky items – Inevitably I find most people (myself included) lose a lot of space to 2 or 3 bulky items.  Sometimes it’s unavoidable – let’s face it, jackets are big and puffy.  However, usually at least one of the items isn’t actually necessary.

Towel time – Ditch the bulky bath towel. There’s only one way to go when traveling – microfiber travel towels.  I’ve been using PackTowl Personal for years and love them. They dry quickly, are soft, are incredibly absorbent, and roll up to take virtually no space. To top it all off, you can get what you need for less than $20.

Pants and shirts – Take whatever you’ve packed and halve it. You don’t need to take a week’s worth of outfits with you. In fact, I can tell you right now you’ve over packed.  If you are not 110% confident that you’ll need and wear the items you’re packing multiple times, don’t pack them.  Have more than two pairs of pants? You shouldn’t.  More than 4 t-shirts?  Time to axe a few.

Power converters – It’s often a lot easier to get these once you reach your destination. However, don’t rule out picking up converter plugs before your trip if you know where you’re going.

Bags & shoelaces – Sure, you can get them at any time during your trip but I highly suggest throwing an old pair of shoelaces into your bag, a plastic shopping bag, and a few Ziplocs of differing sizes.  Think of these as your traveler’s duct tape.  You never know how or when they’ll come in handy. Example: While exploring the Scottish Isle of Skye we spent a day in nasty light rain and strong winds…not enough to keep us inside, but enough to damage any non-waterproof camera.  Luckily I had a ziploc bag on hand and was able to create a waterproof case for the camera. The result?  A bunch of amazing photos I would have otherwise completely missed out upon.

Super Glue – I’d suggest only purchasing this when needed to avoid having it explode in your bag.  That said, Super Glue is phenomenal for quick on-the-road repairs.  I’ve used it on multiple occasions to reinforce ripped seams on my backpack/bags/shoulder straps, on small cuts and as a quick way to make other general repairs.

Footwear – Two fundamental sets of footwear you’ll need for any trip.  The first is a good pair of shoes walking/hiking shoes. I’ve been using Keen’s Men’s Targhee II for years because I love the fit, price and support. Make sure the shoe fits, can be worn in a variety of settings and is light enough for days spent exploring cobblestone streets but capable of slugging through rural highland mountains. Make sure to try them on in a store before you buy.  Find one that works?  I saved $30 by ordering the shoes off Amazon.

The second piece of footwear you shouldn’t be caught without is a pair of plastic shower thongs/sandals. Make these as cheap and light as possible. All you want is a basic, plastic $2 pair that dries fast.  You do NOT want a nice pair of sandals and definitely should avoid sandals with leather.

Flip Video Camera – Recording your trip is always a challenge, especially as a hosteler/backpacker. You need something portable, affordable, but still high enough quality that the video is worthwhile. The new line of portable video cameras are great. In late 2008 I shot the two packing videos below with a first generation Flip Ultra. I liked the product so much that I’ve since upgraded to the Flip UltraHD Camcorder which records up to 2 hours, has better audio quality and shoots in HD. The cameras range in price, but the top of the line versions run right around $200. They’re the size of a cellphone and work beautifully for capturing video – most people think they are a cellphone.

Here are two videos from my last trip – a December voyage to Spain. The videos illustrate the rolled packing technique and provide a step by step walk through of things I took with me.  Note: Despite going out of my way to pack light, I still over packed:

Hostels

Not your parent’s hostels – The modern Euro hostel is totally different than what the movies and old stories have probably led you to believe.  Most are clean, modern, and have fantastic amenities. In fact, it’s not uncommon for hostels to provide communal kitchens, en suite bathrooms, free/charge internet access and all sorts of organized events. Heck, believe it or not – a lot actually have on-site bars!  Oh, and the whole…bring your own sheets or a sleeping bag…Not anymore! In fact, leave the sleeping bag and spare sheets at home. In order to prevent bed bugs and for health reasons mainstream hostels now provide linens and in most cases prohibit you from using your own. One thing to be prepared for (and personally I think it’s a huge asset) is mixed-sex dorm rooms. While almost all hostels provide female-only rooms, the vast majority offer rooms in a mixed gender dorm format.

Booking – Depending on what time of the year you’re traveling, you might want to book ahead.  Regardless, you’ll want to do some research (no better way to avoid bad experiences and bedbugs). There are three fantastic resources for booking and research.  The first (and largest) is hostelworld.com The site allows easy booking and has a huge database of user submitted reviews which are invaluable.  Slightly smaller, but equally valuable is hostelbookers.com.  A third and relatively newcomer to the hostel database/online booking industry is the industry travel site bootsnall.com.  Keep in mind that it’s sometimes possible to get a discount rate by booking with the hostel directly, and that many hostels have an extra cache of beds available (so even if one of these sites isn’t showing availability – sometimes another will have access to vacant beds).

For those of you traveling in Europe – one word of caution about Hosteling International hostels.  HI was one of the first major hosteling groups and still clings to the outdated hostel model.  A lot of their hostels have lockouts, group showers, charge extra for linens and are dirty. They are most prevalent in Italy where hosteling outside of major tourist destinations can be tricky.

Lockouts – Most hostels have abandoned the lockout model, but you’ll still find some shoddy ones that have lockouts.  When booking online always make sure to check if a hostel has lockouts before you book.  The standard lockout process means that the hostel locks the front doors during the day and late at night.  For example, a standard lockout would be from 10AM-4PM and from 11Pm to 6AM.

Basic Hostel Etiquette – There are basic rules. I’ll cover them in greater depth in a different post, but here are four main ones to keep in mind.

*Noise – you are sharing a room with a number of strangers.  Be respectful.  If you know you’ll be returning late in the evening, or leaving early in the morning make sure to pre-pack/unpack.  Most hostels have 24/7 receptions.  That means you’ll have the option of getting back at all hours of the night.  Follow the golden rule.

*The light switch – after 11PM the lights stay off with few exceptions. Sure, you can turn them on, but unless the room is empty or your party makes up the sole occupants – do whatever you need to do in the dark.  Same principle as with noise applies – have your stuff ready and easily accessible. If you slap the lights on at 3AM in a drunken stupor, you’re going to look like an idiot and make a lot of enemies very quickly.

*Clean up after yourself – hostels are usually staffed by other travelers.  If you’re lucky enough to stay at one with a kitchen or common area, don’t leave a mess and then walk away.  There’s no housecleaning and there’s no maid – that’s why you’re paying pennies on the dollar for the room.  When you leave a mess, you’re punishing everyone else.

*Be friendly and inclusive – One of the best parts of hosteling is all of the people you meet. Don’t be bashful when it comes to reaching out to fellow travelers, and make an added effort to invite your fellow hostelers to tag along. Don’t worry, it’s not weird to ask a perfect stranger if they want to head over to the nearby market with you.

Internet Cafes – There was a time when taking a trip meant complete disconnect from the rest of the world. Of late, it’s become common for travelers to travel with laptops, mobile phones, and other similar peripherals leaving them connected in ways previously unimaginable.  However, some of us enjoy a happy medium.  If you’re planning on traveling and are worried about staying connected, but don’t want to take a laptop – don’t worry. Internet cafes are significantly more common in Europe than the U.S. and Canada.  Rates are also typically very affordable (In Europe they range from 1-3 Euro an hour in most locations).  Keep in mind, however, that the connection quality can vary widely.  Also, it’s not uncommon to find internet cafes that are running specialized software which at times restrict the use of peripherals (Double check that you’ll be able to connect and access your camera before you settle in).

Security

A locker lock – Security in hostels is fairly lax and can take some getting used to. That said, there’s seldom need to worry.  Most hostels provide security lockers for your gear and/or valuables.  The standard approach is to provide a locker (think back to your high school days).  Lockers are typically associated with your bed and are present in the room.  I’ve seen them in all different shapes and forms – from metal, to wood, to enclosed caged racks.  One thing is always the same though: you provide your own lock should you decide to use one. For this reason it’s advisable to pick up a small but sturdy lock that will fit a wide variety of locker types. I used a small luggage lock and very rarely had any issues.  Be mindful that larger, sturdier locks may not always fit.  It’s also important to note, that some hostels also provide in- room, programmable safes. These are a luxury and convenience, but also a growing trend.  Typically an electronic key card is provided when safes are available.

Don’t stand still – Know that annoying guy at the airport or on the subway that just won’t stand still? Sure, he won’t stop moving or pacing and it’s a bit annoying, but it’s also a fantastic way to avoid pick pockets. Train yourself to perpetually move, even if it’s as simple as shifting your weight from side to side. By randomly moving and not standing perfectly still, you’ll make yourself a more challenging target. Thieves and pickpockets will have to deal with a moving target, and risk bumping you – both of which increase the chances that you’ll be alerted to their presence. No need to pace, but a little minor motion can go a long way to helping discourage criminal fingers.

Abandon your back pockets – I love to wear jeans when I’m traveling and as a guy I’ve always got a wallet on me. Like most guys my wallet is usually in my back right pocket and fairly bulky.  When I hit the road though it takes the place of my car keys in my front pocket, where I’ve trained myself to casually brush my hand on a regular basis. My back pockets?  Reserved for things like maps, bulky papers, fliers, and random tickets.  I like keeping my maps in my back pockets (folded) because it adds the appearance of bulk/a wallet without endangering valuables.

General

Photo & Video backup CDs – Any time I’m on an extended trip I’m always paranoid about losing my photos and videos. What if my camera gets stolen or the memory card dies? Most camera stories have digital development kiosks.  For less than $10 and 15 minutes you can usually create a backup DVD with all of your photos on it.   Or if you’re game to do a bit more work, you can usually save a few dollars by burning your own DVD at a local computer cafe.  I suggest making backups every 4-700 photos. One thing to definitely keep in mind – don’t delete the photos after burning the backup.  DVDs scratch fairly easily, especially while traveling.  Keep the DVD as a backup – not – as a replacement.  Hopefully you’ll never need it, but if you do – it sure beats losing your images, or the quality loss that occurs when you try and re-download photos you posted to Facebook.

Travel Cards – Websites like Facebook and Twitter have made keeping in touch with fellow travelers much easier.  Add e-mail into the mix and you’ve got a pretty cool tool to keep in touch with the amazing people you meet during your trip.  However, it’s often difficult to track each other down/get accurate contact information.  I can’t tell you how many people I missed out on keeping in touch with because I couldn’t read their handwriting or the note I’d written on a random scrap of paper had gotten smeared.  Consider creating travel cards – basically business cards – but to share with fellow travelers.  You can get 250 business cards for 20 minutes and $20 or less through Staples or another similar service (cheaper options online).  Things to include:  Your name, blog url, twitter url, e-mail, website, and if you can shorten it – the link to your Facebook profile.

Travel

Airfare – There’s a lot more to getting a great rate than just booking in advance. I’ve found that airfare tends to spike about 30 days before the departure date.  Also, conventional wisdom is to try and book on a Tuesday or Wednesday if at all possible – and in my experience this still holds true. If you’re flexible and looking for a great deal I suggest utilizing airfare search sites like Kayak.com. I’ve done very well by signing up for an account and running flexible date searches.  Don’t stop there though, most people check once – then book.  That’s a major oops (airfare typically fluctuates hundreds of dollars from day to day).  If you’ve got time, set up several searches to airports in the area/region you want to explore and for different dates, then sign up for their (free) daily e-mail updates for each. Once a day you’ll receive an e-mail with the current airfare and the $ change from the previous day.  Monitoring prices this way works well, but you need to be ready to book when you see a great deal.

Another thing to keep in mind is specials. Airlines are always operating specials of some sort or another.  Usually these are only so-so deals, but with a little research and patience you can usually find a fantastic deal. Sites like TravelZoo.com and Airfarewatchdog.com typically provide a good summary of current airfare specials.  It’s also important to note that you should not limit yourself to the airlines that immediately come to mind. A lot of travelers (especially North Americans) forget about the wealth of high quality foreign airlines. These airlines are almost always extremely safe, usually offer better service than domestic airlines and can be much cheaper.

Discount Airlines – Don’t forget your discount airlines. The quality is usually rough, and you’ve gotta do your research to make sure you don’t get stuck paying any number of random fees – but the price is usually right.  If you can book a day or two ahead discount airlines like EasyJet and RyanAir are typically cheaper and faster than long distance train rides.  Keep in mind they also lack the amazing cross country view that train and bus rides offer.  If you’re flying with a discount airline read up ahead of time.  They typically fly into secondary airports which can result in costly/timely commutes between the airport-actual city if you’re not prepared. For a complete list of budget airlines world wide check out whichbudget.com.

Rail – When available, travel by rail is an excellent option.  It is scenic, relatively comfortable and in western Europe, typically drops you off in the heart of the old city. Faster and more comfortable than bus travel, rail travel is typically also somewhat more expensive.  If you’re traveling to eastern Europe be aware that bus travel is probably a better option as countries like Greece and Croatia have poor rail infrastructure.   When buying rail tickets you typically have 3 options.  You can purchase online, in advance, or the day of.  Online and advanced tickets are typically significantly cheaper.  Also, most countries have regional trains that, while slower moving, are 2-3 times cheaper than the faster commuter trains. Once you purchase your ticket, be sure to validate it before getting on the train. In Italy, for example, tickets are good for several months. To assure that they can’t be used multiple times, you have to validate the ticket in the yellow machines readily available in the train station. If you are riding without a validated ticket, there are stiff fines.

Conventional travel wisdom is to use a rail pass – do your research.  Rail passes are no longer as good a deal as they once were – many countries (eg: Italy) charge seat reservation fees which can cost more than a lone ticket would.  That said, in countries like Germany where rail travel is significantly more expensive, a rail pass can save you a lot of money.  Another must explore site is seat61.com which has a lot of general information for those considering rail travel.

Bus – Far from the most comfortable way to travel, buses are a cheaper and still pleasant option.  It is not uncommon for long distance buses to have bathrooms and many are equipped with ceiling mounted T.V.s providing entertainment.  If you’ve got extra time or are traveling in eastern European countries, bus travel is a fantastic option and will give you a great view of local villages and rural countrysides.  The air conditioning can be a bit rough, but it’s also a great way to interact with and meet natives.

*Special thank you to Cody Paris for the ongoing suggestions and feedback he has contributed.

Have a question or tip of your own?  Please post it in comment form below.  Also, please note that I will be constantly adding to this list as new tips, tricks & information come to mind.