Okay, I couldn’t wait until I was already in the air — I had to do one more update prior to taking off.
I was thinking about how to travel these last few days, like what are some tools and tips that people might be unaware of that make the experience easier, more convenient, or even more fun.
I am not a ‘professional’ traveler, in the sense that I don’t work in an industry related to travel nor do I frequently travel on business. But I do enjoy traveling and making my way to a handful of countries each year. Because I rack up the miles, I routinely get asked questions like where to find the cheapest flights, what are the best hotels, which programs have the best benefits, and things like that. So with my #5nights5cities tour coming up, I figure I’d tackle some of these questions below.
Buying airline tickets
This is a difficult question to answer. Imagine if somebody asked, “How much is it to take a holiday?” Your answer would depend on so many variables, and it’s the same with booking websites.
The larger question is one’s socioeconomic status and the amount of traveling a person plans to do. It will cost more for sure, but sticking with an airline alliance (like Oneworld or Star Alliance) could really pay dividends over the long run in terms of free flights, lounge access, and upgrades.
If this is you, then I would look at credit card promotions that help accumulate miles for your chosen airline and remain pretty committed to booking with them on their website. It might take a year to reach a status level that begins providing benefits, but once achieved it’s relatively easy to maintain. In short, you’ll pay more at the outset, but you’ll get that back and more long term.
If you’re based in the United States, I highly recommend reading The Points Guy and One Mile at a Time, which I mentioned in Part 2. Both of which are rich resources into credit card promotions and tactics for maximizing benefits.
I’m in Hong Kong though, so these sites don’t work as well. Cathay Pacific is the local flagship and is part of Oneworld. If you want to collect Asia Miles, which are used on Cathay and its partners, Standard Chartered has a very popular Asia Miles card at the moment, but also check with American Express and Citibank which also have good options. This changes frequently, so always keep an eye out for the latest deals.
Now let’s say you just want the cheapest fare possible — the good news is there are plenty of options. If you are flying to Mainland China, Ctrip is one of the most popular travel sites in the world. You can also check Qunar and Elong, which used to be owned by Expedia (until it was sold to arch-rival Ctrip). The other benefit of being in Hong Kong is the wide variety of nearby international airports; I have often found cheaper flights from Shenzhen or Macau, and if the price difference is big enough it’s sometimes worth it to fly from these other airports. (I even flew from Guangzhou once, when a return trip from Guangzhou to Phnom Penh, Cambodia was only HK$1,500 but HK$6,000 from Hong Kong.)
If you’re looking specifically at Singapore or Southeast Asian destinations, always check discount carriers Tiger Air and Air Asia directly on their websites. Their flights are often not listed by the large ticket resellers. For Japan, check with their discount carriers too, like Peach Airlines.
For flights further afield, I usually use Hutchgo, but I know everybody has their own favorite.
Finally, among the best resources for finding cheap flights is Google’s popular Skyscanner service. It will list nearly every possible combination of flights between two cities along with a wide range of agents with prices attached. I will often start on this site to get an idea of options and prices before moving to one of the other websites.
There are literally hundreds of apps out there meant to make travel easier, and I don’t have space (or patience) to do a thorough review of them all. Suffice to say I’ve looked at a lot of them, and I’ve settled on two main ones that I use every single time I travel. They match my needs, but they may not match yours, so I would definitely investigate what’s out there.
- App in the Air
I can’t remember where I heard of this app, but it has been a mainstay of every trip I’ve taken since. App in the Air is a full featured app for iOS and Android that provides a lot of expected functions, like flight information and departure/arrival times. But it goes many steps beyond that.
App in the Air showing my upcoming flights.
First, it is extremely fast with any changes to the flight. That means you’ll get a notification when check-in opens and how much time you have to check in and get to the gate. You’ll get alerts if there is a gate change (extremely handy), and also notifications once boarding starts. This often means you can squeeze in one more glass of champagne at the lounge!
App in the Air also has a great Apple Watch app. Some apps just provide notifications, but you can go through the app on the watch to get other flight information which is handy in a rush.
The Apple Watch app provides useful notifications, sure, but it also puts all kinds of flight information right on your wrist.
App in the Air also contains other airport information such as the expected wait at immigration and security, as well as the on-time record of that particular flight. It also lets you know what the immigration situation is like at the arrival airport, contains reviews of airport services, and the phone number and other information related to the airline you are flying. Finally, it also has an automatic check-in feature, so it will check you in as soon as check in opens for your flight without you needing to do a thing. Fantastic.
I only have two quibbles with the app: with all that information it’s a tad bit messy, though the different widgets are customizable so you can remove any you don’t need. Also, the app isn’t cheap: for all of the premium services you’re looking at $4.99 a month, $29.99 a year, or $49.99 for a lifetime membership. I went with the $49.99 plan a couple of years ago and have relied on it since.
- Lounge Buddy
This app, also on iOS and Android, is loved or hated by frequent travelers. The app is a comprehensive directory of lounges at airports around the world, complete with photos, reviews, maps, and entrance requirements. You can also tell the app which credit cards and airline status you have, and it can show you which lounges you have access to.
Lounge Buddy is like a Yelp for airline lounges worldwide.
The best part of Lounge Buddy is the reviews. It is a Yelp for airports. I regularly consult it when I get to a new airport to pick the best lounge, and sometimes Lounge Buddy itself will have specials that provide access to certain lounges. I’ve found the UI/UX to be a bit clumsy, though, and sometimes it says you don’t have access to a particular lounge when in fact you do. So it’s not always reliable. Nonetheless, it’s had a regular spot on my iPhone for years and I open it frequently when traveling.
A few things I do when traveling:
- Travel light: You mostly likely don’t need multiple pairs of shoes and wide variety of clothes. Think about where you’re going and what you’ll be doing there, and take as little as possible. The biggest mistake people make when traveling is thinking “But if we go to a nice dinner, then I will need….” You *won’t* go to a nice dinner. Just take what you’re sure you’ll need. You can always pick something up at the destination if some surprise situation arises.
- Take a carry-on only, if possible: Obviously, this isn’t always possible, but for trips of four days or fewer, it should be. Going the carry-on route saves a lot of time at the arrival terminal; it’s great to walk off a flight, go through immigration, and right out to a taxi while everybody else waits for their bags (and hope they didn’t get lost).
- Empty your pockets *before* security: I have a little pouch in my backpack, and it gets coins and keys and other loose items that were in my pocket long before I reach the security line. This way you aren’t fiddling around at security, but can just throw your bag down and walk through.
I’m in the midst of packing now, as by this time tomorrow night I should be at 35,000 feet over western China. ‘Til next time…
You can read Part 4 here.