With a new year comes new resolutions. If being the savviest traveler you can be is on your list in 2011, then resolve to follow the tips below. From saving money to weathering unexpected complications, traveling smarter is sure to add value to your future journeys.
Factor in fees before you click the 'Buy' button
Remember the good old days, when the only extras you had to add onto that artificially low base airfare were taxes and fees? These days, the stakes are higher, with a la carte pricing on everything from baggage to seat selection. Since fees are here to stay, it's more important than ever to figure out the total cost of airfare before settling on the cheapest option. And while factoring in the fees you're likely to pay takes a bit of extra time, it's a vital step if you're budget conscious..
Know your (evolving) rights
Plenty of action in the passenger rights arena in the last year means travelers are now entitled to more in the event of delays and cancellations. From receiving food and water after two-hour tarmac delays to refunds in the event of cancellations and cash if you're bumped, knowing the rights outlined by the Department of Transportation as well as in your airline's Contract of Carriage can serve you well in the event of disrupted travel.
Make a money plan for international travel
You'd think that credit card companies would want to make it as easy as possible to spend money abroad, but that's not the case. In addition to determining how to get the best exchange rate and pay the fewest surcharges on foreign currency wherever you go, travelers to Europe now have to worry about whether their credit cards will work at all. As self-service kiosks at gas stations and metro stops have moved away from magnetic strip recognition and toward chip-and-pin card readers, travelers from the U.S.—where magnetic strips are the norm—have found themselves out of luck. With scant chip-and-pin options beyond a stored-value card with a bad exchange rate, there's currently no good solution to the problem. So awareness—and not depending on automatic kiosks at train, metro, and gas stations—is the name of the game for now.
Be smart about international smartphone use
How to stay in touch with home while on vacation, make the most of travel apps, and not end up with a $2,000 phone bill? That's the question that haunts plenty of smartphone-toting international travelers. Options range from purchasing international talk and data plans from your cell provider, to purchasing a local SIM card at your destination or leaving your phone in airplane mode and using free Wi-Fi connections wherever you find them.
Beware of OTA blind spots
Online travel agencies (OTAs) such as Expedia, Orbitz, and Travelocity help make short work of comparing airfares across airlines. But these one-stop shops have blind spots: airlines that don't list along with the others. The most well-known of these is Southwest, which only lists its fares on its own website. A more recent addition to the blind-spot pool is American, which just pulled its listings off of Orbitz. Expedia has also stopped displaying American fares. So while OTAs are still useful, you'll need to do a bit of extra legwork if you want the full picture.
Keep those frequent flyer miles in play
As with muscle, so with frequent flyer miles: Use 'em or lose 'em. If you're not a super frequent flyer, or have miles in a number of programs, you'll likely need to do some maintenance each year to keep your miles from expiring. Generating miles through flying, using a mile-earning credit card, or shopping in an airline's mileage mall are the primary ways to keep miles active. Since miles or points can expire after a mere 12 months of inactivity in some cases, making mile maintenance an annual task helps protect them until you're ready to redeem them for reward travel.
Consider alternatives to hotels
Before you reserve a string of hotel nights for your next vacation, take a moment to think outside the box, or in this case, the boxy hotel room. From B&Bs to vacation rentals, alternatives abound whether you're headed to Paris or Prince Edward Island. By looking beyond traditional hotels, you can often maximize value, either by paying less for more space, or by taking advantage of additional amenities such as kitchens, fireplaces, or beach toys.
Look for deals on Facebook, Twitter, and group-buy sites
No matter how you feel about social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Loopt, and Foursquare, there's no denying they are emerging as a reliable source for travel bargains. Airlines, hotels, cruise lines, tour providers, convention and visitors' bureaus, and restaurants publicize deals and unload last-minute inventory to travelers on social media sites. Steep discounts at restaurants, shops, and on services in cities around the globe are also available on group buying sites such as Groupon, LivingSocial, Bloomspot, and Wahanda.
Keep up on mergers, codeshares, and partnerships
As you look forward to travel in 2011, it behooves you to keep up on the latest in inter-airline relationships. From new and soon-to-be mergers like Delta-Northwest, United-Continental, and Southwest-AirTran, to codeshares and partnerships, these developments will impact the way you book travel and earn and redeem miles. For instance, you can now book travel to Mexico through Southwest, though you'll fly the South-of-the-Border leg on partner airline Volaris. The new year will likely bring a tie-up between United and Air Canada on U.S.-Canada flights. And JetBlue loyalists will find international travel easier than ever with a newly expanded partnership (and mileage plan link-up) with American, and the ability to book joint JetBlue-Emirates itineraries.
Plan to share more personal information when booking
In November, the Transportation Security Administration rolled out the Secure Flight program. Under the new rules, all travelers must provide their full name (as it appears on a government-issued form of identification), date of birth, and gender when booking. The program is meant to cut down on false matches of names on the assorted watch lists. So expect to input this information when you book.
What are your other tried-and-true tips for better, faster, smoother, or more affordable travel?