Travel is stressful enough. Holiday travel can test even the calmest person’s patience and endurance, especially if you’re traveling with family. Sometimes shelling out a few extra dollars for special perks and privileges can provide a big payoff by lowering your tension and making your travels just a little bit easier. Since the worst hassles almost always involve airlines, most of my splurge suggestions apply to air travel. Here are eight little perks it may be worth paying for this holiday travel season.
Check Your Bags
Yes, $25 for a checked bag is a gouge, but if it helps you avoid schlepping your luggage through the airport this time of year, and fighting for an already overstuffed baggage bin, it may be worth it. My recent experience suggests that airlines have improved at getting checked bags to the baggage-claim area quickly—often before you get there yourself if your plane arrives at a remote gate in a big airport.
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Extra Legroom in Coach
Most big U.S. airlines offer a few coach seats with three to four inches more legroom than the skimpy legroom you get in most coach seats. And of those, all but Virgin America offer those seats at reasonable prices. Airlines typically talk about extra “legroom,” but for many travelers, the really big difference is at shoulder level or working level, where ordinary coach seats don’t provide enough space to use a laptop, tablet, or e-reader comfortably.
Extra front-to-rear space in today’s ultra-cramped coach cabins makes a big difference on whether you really enjoy your flight. The price for such an upgrade can be nominal for a short flight to near $100 on a long-haul domestic flight and up to $200 on an intercontinental flight.
Air travel really can be comfortable if you’re in first, business, or premium economy class. Normally first class (domestic) and business class (intercontinental) seats cost anywhere from three to 20 times as much as a coach ticket—a non-starter for most family trips. But you occasionally see some domestic upgrades and international business class or premium economy airfare sales at prices low enough to be tempting, especially when you include the “free” baggage, meals, and beverage service that the premium class ticket provides.
Some airlines advertise sale prices in advance, some ask if you want to “bid” for an upgrade at the time you buy your ticket, and some make last-minute possible upgrade offers at the departure counter.
Seat Assignment/Early Boarding
Some low-fare airlines these days charge extra for an advance seat assignment. Paying a small fee in advance to lock in seats you want can ease the stress of not knowing whether you’ll even be able to sit with your companion or family. With a confirmed seat, you don’t have to push and shove in the boarding line. It costs as little as $5 to select a seat.
On Southwest—the only big line that doesn’t make any advance seat assignments—the best way to assure a decent seat is to get into an early boarding group. If you check in early enough, you may get into a good group automatically. If not, you can usually buy your way into an early group for about $40. If you board early, you can also probably find baggage space in the overhead bin, but you may not need it because you can check two bags for no charge on Southwest.
First Class Railpass in Europe or Japan
Second class rail in Europe is a lot more comfortable than economy class air anywhere, but first class is a pleasant splurge for its wide seats and great legroom. First class railpasses generally cost 30 to 50 percent more than second class, but if you’re on a railpass, you’ll probably spend many hours riding trains, and the extra cost per hour in first class rail is a lot less than the cost per hour on a flight.
For senior travelers age 60 or over, the French senior railpass is a no-brainer: The first class pass for four days of travel during a 30-day period, at $265, is only $21 more than the corresponding second class pass. Senior BritRail passes cost about 25 percent more than second class passes. And some other railpasses are limited to first class only.
In Japan, standard seats are pretty small, so many North Americans—even those on a budget—opt to travel in roomier “Green Cars.” Prices for a seven-day nationwide Japan Rail pass: $316 in Green Cars; $237 in standard class. The seven-day pass costs only $5 more than a simple round-trip between Tokyo and Osaka, so the pass is a good deal for anyone who wants to go from Tokyo to the Osaka-Kyoto area and a great deal for travel to more distant Hiroshima.
Cruise Balcony Cabin
The appeal of a balcony cabin depends to a large extent on the area in which you cruise. If most of your time is on the open ocean, you might as well stick to the cheapest cabin you can find and use your money for splurges onshore. But in scenic areas, especially Alaska but also including parts of Europe, a balcony cabin can give you a great view of the passing landscape. Prices start somewhere around $200 more than an inside cabin, but can go much higher. Balcony cabins are sometimes available as last-minute upgrades. And balcony cabins are the norm on some European river cruises.
Superior Hotel Room or Suite
Compared with standard rooms, superior hotel rooms usually provide some combination of additional space, better views, or both. If you’re using your hotel room as just a place to sleep, the extra price of a superior room may not be a good value. But if you’ll be in your room a fair amount of time, more room and/or a great view can be really attractive.
In hotel-ese, a “suite” means different things to different hotels. In some, it just means a regular room with minimal cooking and refrigeration facilities; those are attractive if you want to prepare some of your means or snacks. In others, “suite” means an accommodation with two separate rooms: one furnished for daytime use, the other with the beds. The latter are great for extended stays.
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Private Sightseeing Guide
Conventional local guided sightseeing tours can be a major hassle. Typically, the guide delivers a canned spiel about each feature or stop, which can be either overly long or too short, depending on your interest level. Often, you have to stand there while the guide goes through the spiel in several languages. And many of them stop for extended periods at souvenir shops selected because of the kickback they give the tour company rather than the quality or value of their wares.
You can avoid the tedium of that kind of tour by hiring your own guide. The best tour guide I ever had was in Damascus (fortunately I got there during a lull in regional hostilities), where a local travel agency arranged for a university professor as a guide to the main historical museum. I don’t remember whether the professor charged more or less than two tickets on a tour, but whatever the premium, the guide’s knowledge was worth it. You can arrange local guides in a variety of ways: through travel agencies, online postings, recommendations, blogs, or universities.
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- 7 Mistakes You Should Never Make When Booking Airfare
Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuses every day at SmarterTravel.
(Photo: Shutterstock/Alexander Chaikin)
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