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8 Easy Ways to Upgrade Your Vacation (Without Paying Extra)

When we talk about upgrading a trip, the first thing that comes to mind is a better seat on the plane, or a more expensive hotel room, a bigger rental car, or maybe some freebies. But there are a lot of inexpensive and even free things you can do to enhance your own travels in ways that go far beyond legroom and free GPS systems. Here are eight ways to upgrade your next trip, often without spending an extra dime.

Read Destination-Based Fiction or History Before Your Trip

A great novel, memoir, or work of history can transport you to a place while reading, and then when you visit, those places come alive in a way they might never have done otherwise. Headed to Italy? Read Under the Tuscan Sun, A Room with a View, or a history book on ancient Rome. Visiting Australia? Consider Bill Bryson’s In a Sunburned Country or Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds.

Sign up for Global Entry and/or TSA PreCheck

Long lines at security and immigration are a reliable source of stress, but there are ways to avoid them. American travelers who regularly fly abroad should apply for Global Entry, while primarily domestic flyers should sign up for TSA PreCheck.

Global Entry allows expedited clearance for pre-approved, low-risk travelers upon arrival in the United States, while TSA PreCheck is a security program that gives travelers access to expedited security lanes that do not require the removal of shoes, belts, and jackets. Global Entry members also receive the benefits of TSA PreCheck. Both programs require an application, background check, and in-person appointment (including fingerprinting).

If you travel frequently, Global Entry might be the best $100 you’ll ever spend. It gives you five years of never having to stand in an hour-long customs line after a tiring international flight, and it includes TSA PreCheck, too, which cuts down on hassles at the beginning of a trip.

Upgrade to a Better Room Location

Many travelers treat hotels primarily as a place to crash, but the location of your room can have a big impact on your ability to sleep. To avoid noise, consider requesting a room away from the elevators, on a higher floor, and/or on the opposite of the building from the main road. While front desk folks can’t (or won’t) always accommodate the request, there’s nothing wrong with asking.

Rent a Car with a Trunk

Sometimes the best upgrades are the ones that you don’t even notice. Years of travel have made me partial to a rental car with a lockable trunk that’s separate from the main cabin of the car; that is, where the storage space isn’t simply behind and accessible from the back seat. While there’s no guarantee that thieves won’t break into your trunk, keeping your valuables safely hidden in the trunk makes you less of a target. And that’s a definite upgrade over dealing with a major theft on your trip.

Visit at the Right Time

When visiting the Whitney Biennial last month, I had a choice of two weekdays that I could stop in, and a call to the museum helped quite a bit. The staff told me the museum was closed on Tuesdays and that Wednesday mornings tended to be the least busy time of the week.

A quick Internet search or call ahead can offer a lot of information on avoiding crowds at popular tourist attractions. For example, here are some tricks on visiting the Musee d’Orsay in Paris; it turns out that the museum is open late and costs less on Thursday nights, with smaller crowds to boot.

Tailor Your Sightseeing Schedule

Are you at your freshest early in the day? If so, it makes sense to see big attractions first thing in the morning, leaving the afternoon for activities like eating a leisurely lunch, wandering through residential neighborhoods, or kicking back in a park—anything but trying to get through a massive Roman ruin at 3:30 after you’ve been walking all day.

But if you’re a person who tends to get off to a slow start in the morning, it might make sense to save the biggest attraction for right after lunch, when you’re fully awake and well fueled.

Find the Best Morning and Evening Spots

 Rare is the city that does not show its best side in the so-called golden hour (the time around sunrise and sunset when shadows are long and the light is soft). It’s worth arranging your day to end up in the best spots when all the good views turn great. To find them, do an Internet search for terms like “best sunset views” or “best places to watch the sunrise” in your destination.

If you are a morning person, sunrises have the added benefit that you will likely have the place all to yourself.

Use Room Service

A little-known fact about room service is that the prices are almost always the same as those in the hotel restaurant; in fact, it’s usually the same menu. I use this option often, especially on the first and last day of travel when time is tight, as well as when I simply want to relax in my room after a long day.

Do you have any other tips for improving a trip without dropping a bundle?

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