6 ways to upgrade your travel experience before you walk out the door
I'm all about reducing stress and headaches en route to my destination. I have no desire to be in long lines, be surprised by unexpected fees or spend extra money unnecessarily.
Before you walk out the door to start your trip, regardless of where you're going, there are things you can do that will improve your travel experience. Here's a look at my favorite ways to make a trip better before it even starts.
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Insure your checked bags and understand what to do if they're lost or delayed
If you're checking a bag on a flight, make sure it's covered by some type of baggage insurance. Numerous credit cards cover delayed baggage or lost luggage. If you have paid for your trip (or at least the flight in question) with one of these cards, you should be covered in the event you arrive in Panama City, Panama, while your luggage went to Panama City, Florida.
Yes, airlines are responsible for reimbursing you for "reasonable expenses" you incur while they search for your bags. Policies will vary by airline, of course. The longer the delay, the faster these expenses add up. What if you're supposed to give a business presentation tomorrow and your suit is in the checked bag? Covering your bases by using the right credit card can help you when costs start multiplying.
If your suitcase doesn't arrive on your same flight, what should you do? Before leaving the airport, you need to stop at the baggage assistance desk and file a report. Ask for specifics on what expenses the airline will and won't cover while you wait for them to find your bag and bring it to you. Notice that I said "bring it to you." You should definitely ask them to bring the suitcase to where you're staying. If they can't for some reason, save receipts for any money you spend getting to the airport to retrieve your bag when it arrives.
Related: What to do when your luggage is delayed or lost by an airline
Always make sure that anything critical (medications, house keys or any other items you simply can't live without) is in your carry-on bag. My wife and I also pack a shirt, change of socks and clean underwear in the carry-on bag, just in case our luggage is lost or delayed.
Get free checked bags and priority boarding to reduce headaches
I'm on team carry-on. I try to avoid checking bags whenever possible, since I've had too many issues with delayed luggage. However, there are some instances where I have to grit my teeth and check a bag (looking at you, snowboard that doesn't fit in the overhead bin!).
Related: Carry-on vs. checked bags: Which is the better choice?
If you're going to check a bag, there's no reason you should pay for it with your own money. Not with all of the options available these days. Airline checked bag fees continue to climb, but having a cobranded airline credit card should give you a free checked bag when traveling with that airline. Additionally, cards like The Platinum Card® from American Express and the Bank of America® Premium Rewards® credit card offer reimbursement for certain expenses with airlines. Checked bag fees are eligible for reimbursement here. However, you should note that this applies only to your preferred airline, which you must select in advance, with American Express.
And, of course, if you have any kind of elite status with an airline, you will get free checked bags this way.
Related: Current airline elite status match and challenge options you should know about
These same two strategies can help you board the plane earlier. If you're worried about overhead bin space — families with young kids and all the things you need to bring on board — you want to get on the plane as early as possible. Having a credit card for the airline you're flying with can help you get priority boarding. Elite status will also help you here, but I find simply having the right credit card in my wallet is much easier than earning elite status.
Speed up the security process to get through the lines faster
Ugh, the lines. Can we agree that the security checkpoint is the worst part of going to an airport? Don't you wish the people in front of you would get their stuff ready before it's their turn?
Luckily, there are plenty of ways to speed up your security process. And this applies whether you're going by air, land or sea. Numerous credit cards can help you get free membership in TSA PreCheck, Global Entry and Clear, which you can use at a growing number of airports.
Related: Why you should get TSA PreCheck and Clear — and how you can save on both
For those who aren't flying, understand that you can use Global Entry for land and sea entry to the U.S. Also, you can use Nexus on flights departing select Canadian airports or when crossing the border between the U.S. and Canada by land, sea or air — in either direction. Several credit cards will reimburse your Nexus application fee.
The faster you can get through the security screening process, the faster you can get to where you really want to be. Take advantage of free and discounted memberships in as many of these programs as possible.
Improve your waiting time at the airport with lounge access
Waiting at the airport can be an interesting mix of wondering where people's manners are, sticker shock at the cost of food and drinks and the noise pollution from constant announcements.
I always head straight to the lounge after passing through security. Along with free food and drinks, the seating here will be much more comfortable.
The waiting experience should also have a lot less noise, and some lounges even have showers. If you flew overnight and have a layover on the way to your final destination, this can be a great feature.
Related: 7 do's and don'ts in an airport lounge
As much as I love airport lounge access, I would never pay for a membership out of pocket. Many credit cards offer lounge access as a built-in benefit of card membership, so you shouldn't need to pay for the membership on your own.
Make sure you understand two things about your lounge membership: the number of visits you can make in a year and the number of guests you can bring in for free, if any. Some credit cards offer lounge memberships with unlimited visits and allowing you to bring multiple guests. The other end of the spectrum has credit cards offering a set number of passes per year, and bringing a guest requires using one of these passes.
Enroll in car rental loyalty programs so you can skip the line
Once you've arrived at your destination, the last thing you want to do is spend more time inside the airport before leaving. I see the line for the rental car counter like the "final boss" in a video game.
You don't need any special status to skip the rental car line. Amazingly, just enrolling in that company's rewards program and booking directly with the company (not via a portal or online travel agency) should be enough to allow you to skip this line and go straight to your car outside.
Depending on what credit cards are in your wallet, you may be able to get rental car elite status for free and then match that status to other programs. Thus, you can skip the lines and take advantage of other perks like a free second driver or car upgrades — all at no cost to you while reducing headaches.
Figure out how to get free breakfast whenever possible
Free breakfast can save a lot of money on vacation. Just look at the prices that hotels charge for breakfast these days. And if you're traveling with family, this can really add up over the course of your trip.
Some hotels offer free breakfast for everyone. If you're staying at a hotel that isn't on that list, it's time to think about other options.
First, consider your status with that hotel chain, if applicable. How the breakfast perk works varies greatly by hotel chain. In fact, Marriott's system is overly complicated. However, having mid-tier or top-tier status with a hotel chain should help you get some kind of free food every day.
Second, think about how you're booking your stay. Programs like American Express Fine Hotels + Resorts, Chase's Luxury Hotel & Resort Collection, the Visa Signature Luxury Hotel Collection, Signature Travel Network and Virtuoso offer daily breakfast for two when booking this way.
Third, use options like club lounge certificates at Hyatt or book during promotions that include breakfast. While not free, you should also check "breakfast included" rates to see what the value is on these. Find out the cost of breakfast at the hotel, multiply that by the number of people you're traveling with and then see if these savings are worth booking a room rate that includes breakfast.
Related: 5 ways to get your hotel breakfast for free
If you can't get free breakfast at your hotel, consider this uncommon idea: not eating at the hotel. I find that hotels overcharge significantly for breakfast. The place across the street probably charges half the price for the same dish, simply because guests are paying extra for the convenience of eating at the hotel and charging it to the room.
As the saying goes, "Proper planning prevents poor performance." And proper planning can really improve your trip experience.
Even before you walk out the door, you can make your trip experience much better by removing pain points like long rental car lines, long security lines and fighting for overhead bin space. You also can plan ahead to save a bunch of money on breakfast every day during your trip and on food and drinks while waiting at the airport.
These benefits aren't something you can remember at the last minute as you're wrangling your kids into their car seats and heading to the airport. However, if you set them up in advance, it could make the travel experience much more enjoyable.