Best travel tips from real travelers

Have you checked out Gadling’s 100% reader-generated feature, “100 words or less.” In “100 words or less,” YOU — the expert traveler — get to share your expert travel tips with Gadling and all our readers. Know a sure-fire way to score a cheap hotel room? Confident you know a trick to get an airline upgrade? Share it with us!

We’ve rounded up some of our favorite tips below. Enjoy.

Hotel tips
If you often leave personal items in hotel rooms, remind yourself by writing it down — but write it on a mirror with a dry erase marker instead of on a piece of paper you could easily overlook.

Today’s tech-savvy world requires a lot of equipment to stay “plugged-in.” Cell phones, laptops, and MP3 players all require power cords to recharge. Since these items don’t need to be plugged in all the time, it’s easy to forget your power cords when checking out of a hotel. Increase your chances of recovery by writing your name and contact information on a piece of masking tape and securing the tape to your power cord.

If you’re concerned about the cleanliness of your pillow, the inside of your shirt is probably cleaner (or at least more acceptable) to lie on than a suspect pillowcase. Simply turn the shirt inside-out, slide it over your pillow, and you’re good to go… to sleep.

Sleep better with these other hotel tips.

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Cruise trip tips

Packing a dry erase board and markers and attaching to your cabin door accomplishes several things, including helping you to identify your room and providing an easy way for your family to communicate their whereabouts.
Take an insulated travel mug on your next cruise and it may become your favorite accessory.

If you’re cruising as part of a big group of family and friends, it’s a lot of fun to divide into teams for a scavenger hunt. Items for the hunt can be dares, found objects, and fact-finding missions.

Get a key chain necklace and put your room key on it. Wear this around your neck at all times to avoid losing it or having it stolen.

Whenever we go on a cruise, my husband and I always plan to snorkel on at least one island. On our first cruise, we went on a shore excursion that provided the snorkel, but then we got smart.

Most cruise ships today are multi-deck mini-cities carrying as many as 5,000 passengers. And, unless you’re traveling alone, you may find yourself separated from your traveling party at some point during your cruise. How to stay connected? Give each member of your group a two-way radio, all programmed to the same frequency to help keep you organized and in touch.

Visit our other cruise trip tips.

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Road trip tips

To keep maps and directions safe during a trip, laminate them. For around $30, a home laminating machine will seal standard letter size pages. (Copy and print stores have the capability to laminate larger maps for a minimal fee.) Alternatively, you can use contact paper to cover paper maps. In addition to being more durable, laminated maps offer the advantage of allowing you to draw your route on the map and easily wipe it off later, if you change your mind.

To avoid hours of boredom, plan a “scenic scavenger hunt.” It’s easy. Just write down a list of 100 things you might see along the way, like landmarks, buses or bridges. The first person to complete the list wins.

Before embarking on a road trip, map out two different routes — a slower, scenic route and a shorter, faster (less scenic) route.

Motor through more road trip tips.

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Dining out on vacation tips
When traveling to a foreign city, you can usually find the cheapest and best-tasting food by looking for menus that are written entirely in that city’s native language.

You’ve spent so much money on just getting to Hawaii or Florida, why pay more to sit inside a restaurant? Weather permitting, you should be outside on the grass! Or on the sand. Or at a picnic table.

Before you go out of the country, make a few wallet-sized cards that list what you can and can’t eat in the native language(s) of the country you’re visiting.

Devour more dining out on vacation tips.

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Souvenir tips

T-shirts have always been my favorite travel souvenir. Many of them were sized for an eight year old and most were dreadfully stained, but I could hardly get rid of them. They were my mementos! Instead of tossing them, I cut out all the images and logos and made a travel quilt.

A great take-home and space-saving souvenir for wine lovers are corks from bottles you’ve enjoyed while traveling.

When you find yourself not knowing exactly where you’re going, ask a local to draw directions for you. Keep a store of interesting napkins or papers and a pen on hand to take advantage of the opportunity of being lost. Asking for directions might also lead you to start some great conversations and to gain a deeper insight into the locale you’re visiting.

Save some of these souvenir tips for later.

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Airplane tips
During your next flight, be considerate of the passenger in front of you. When settling down into — or, getting out of — your seat, don’t grab the seat in front of you for leverage.

Sick of hearing about a stranger’s dysfunctional family or odd medical conditions? Avoid conversations all-together by doing a simple thing: wear headphones. They don’t even need to be plugged in.

Your seats are reserved. There’s no circulating air until the plane takes off, and even if you’re the first person on the plane, you’re going to be hot, you’re going to have to move, and you’re going to get elbowed — and maybe get luggage dropped on you. Also, if you’re not the first person to board, you’re going to spend 20 minutes slowly creeping down the crowded walkway. So… stay out in the relative open space of the terminal waiting area until the gate agents make the final boarding call.

Take off with these other airplane tips.

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Traveling with kids tips
Buy at least one disposable camera for each child on the trip. These are inexpensive and will keep your child entertained for a long time. Tell each child that they should take pictures of things on the trip that they find interesting.

The front passenger is always the navigator when I’m traveling with my family or a group. However, I discovered that you can turn your children into junior navigators while helping them learn geography at the same time. It helps eliminate them from asking, “Are we there yet?”

Rather than lug boxes of baby necessities around, consider ordering supplies online — diapers, food, etc. — and shipping them to your destination. You’ll have more room in your car; there’ll be less to pack and unpack; and your neck won’t be so sore from hauling boxes in and out of the house.

Grow up with these other traveling with kids tips.

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Packing for travel tips
Contact lens cases with screw-on lids make great travel accessories. When you want to take small quantities of hair gel, sculpting wax, eye make-up remover, an essential oil, Aloe Vera, or under-eye cream, you can’t beat contact lens cases. They’re small. They don’t leak. They can hold one week’s worth of lotion or gel in each little section.

When traveling over the holidays with gifts, never pre-wrap! Wrapped items may need to be inspected by the TSA, and that could mean they’ll be unwrapped by security before you even get to your destination.

Here’s a way to pack your smallest, but most expensive, items without losing them or space in your suitcase: find a typical pill box and place your precious metals in there. Anything from rings to necklaces will fit.

Store these additional packing tips.

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International travel tips
Guidebooks are all well and good, but they rarely take you off the beaten path. Before arriving in an unfamiliar place, pick an unusual food to track down in your destination; it’s even better if you can find the same food in multiple countries.

Always carry a small calculator when you travel internationally. It will save the day when you are trying to figure out how much things cost in “real” money.

When traveling abroad, get at least a small amount of foreign currency for tips and other unexpected cash expenses before leaving the airport or crossing the border.

Explore the unknown with these other international travel tips.

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To submit your own tips, sign up for a free account at Seed, filter the assignment list by the category “travel” and look for assignment requests with the words “100 words or less.” (And yes: if your tip is published, you will be paid!)

[Photos: Flickr | Fly for Fun; StrudelMonkey; StrudelMonkey]

How to save money while on board a cruise ship

One of the biggest appeals of a cruise ship vacation is its all-inclusive aspect. Your meals, port stops, and on board activities are pre-planned and available for your enjoyment, pretty much whenever you feel like enjoying them. Unfortunately, a cruise ship’s “all-inclusive” element doesn’t mean it’s an on board free-for-all. All those port excursions, soda and alcoholic beverages, beauty services, and photos are made available for an extra charge.

Because your cabin key functions as an on board credit card, it’s easy to go overboard with your spending. If you’re not careful, you could end up with a hefty bill when your cruise ends. Here are a few tips to save money while on board a cruise ship.

Stay away from on board gift shops.
If you’re trying to save money on the cruise ship, staying out of the ship’s shops should be your first line of defense. Duty free shops are always tempting. After all, there’s no sales tax!

It’s easy to get carried away, but keep in mind that, while the items are tax-free, the prices may be inflated. A small-ish, inexpensive memento is fine, but if you go on an all-out shopping spree, you may get home and wonder, “Why did I buy this?”

Don’t use the phone or Internet services.
Many of the convenient technologies we depend on in our normal, everyday lives are nearly nonexistent on a cruise ship. You’re not going to have cell phone service while at sea, and Internet services are priced at a premium, by-the-minute fee, usually around $0.75 to $1.00 per minute. (This isn’t even counting the one-time “activation fee.”)Instead of paying cruise prices, try using your cell phone while on land at a port-of-call — chances are, you’ll get reception. (Consider calling your cell carrier before leaving home and arranging for an international calling package, making these calls cheaper still.) Also, Internet cafes can be found in most ports and are often less expensive than the ship’s service. If you’re planning on emailing your friends or updating your blog, consider typing the text offline to save time. Finally, don’t be afraid NOT to call or email home. Your friends and family know you’re on vacation and probably don’t need to hear from you.

Book port excursions independently.
By booking an excursion on your own, you’ll save money, you’ll be with a much smaller tour group, and you’re less likely to have a tour guide that takes a twenty minute “bathroom break” conveniently located near or at the gift shop.

Make sure to book your independent excursions before you leave for vacation, as they fill up quickly. However, if you’re an inexperienced traveler or if you have anxiety about getting back to the ship on time, you might want to book via the cruise ship for that extra peace of mind.

Don’t feel obligated to take excursions at all.
Excursions are part of the appeal of a cruise ship vacation, but don’t feel like you must book one for every port in which the ship stops. If there’s nothing in the port-of-call that piques your interest, skip it. Sometimes walking around the port is an adventure itself.

Just say, “No!”

It’s the simplest rule of all, but it can be the most difficult rule to follow when on vacation. The advertising spiels start the minute you board the ship — from the loudspeaker announcements, to the advertisements in your daily newsletter, to the aggressive bartenders hawking pricey cocktails. You feel like you’re being beaten over the head with a nonstop sales pitch, and it can be difficult to stand your ground.

Learn to say, “No thanks.” Remember, you won’t be the first to decline a sales pitch — and you won’t be the last.

Avoid the specialty restaurants.
Your cruise ship fare includes access to the dining room and the all-day buffet, but these aren’t the only eateries on the ship. Several specialty restaurants are available — for an extra charge — and serve “premium meals,” such as sushi or gourmet pizza.

These specialty restaurants offer a nice break from the dining room, and it’s great to enjoy a meal with folks from your own party instead of eating dinner with Bob and Judy from Des Moines, Iowa. These restaurants can get expensive, though, and often times the food isn’t anything special, so use with caution.

Pass on the pictures.

Most cruises offer trivia games. These fun events are free to play, and winners receive champagne, certificates for restaurants, and drink coupons.

On most cruise lines, the ship’s photographer snaps photos of you and your party twice during your cruise vacation — once when you board the ship and once during formal night. While these pictures are nice, they’re obnoxiously overpriced for what amounts to a simple snapshot of your group in front of a tacky backdrop.

You brought your camera, right? Chances are, your own pictures will turn out much better than what the ship’s photographer provides.

Skip the soda card.
Cruise lines offer free water, iced tea, fruit punch, and lemonade, but soda is extra. Soda typically costs $1.50 to $4.00 per can, unless you purchase a soda card for the entire length of your stay. A soda card often will not pay for itself unless you plan on drinking soda nonstop for the duration of your cruise.

If you must have soda, think about buying a few cases before boarding the ship. Some cruise lines allow you to bring outside non-alcoholic beverages into your cabin, but check your cruise line’s FAQs before dropping serious cash on cases of pop. You don’t want to get denied entry at the last minute, just because you’re toting a case of Diet Pepsi.

Finally, DO play trivia games.
Most cruise lines offer trivia games for all ages. These fun events are free to play and winners receive prizes such as bottles of champagne, certificates for the specialty restaurants, and drink coupons.

In the end, vacation is a time to relax, not to worry about penny-pinching. Don’t deprive yourself or your family of a once-in-a-lifetime experience for the sake of saving $10. However, you don’t want to come home from your cruise ship vacation knee-deep in debt with a major case of buyer’s remorse either. Use discretion when purchasing extras and you and your family will come home from your cruise vacation happy!



Soda Cards on Cruise Ships: What You Need to Know

Cruise lines are still spreading the myth that everything is included in an “all inclusive” fare. First-time cruisers, however, are often shocked when they learn that soda is NOT included in the cost and must be purchased separately.

In general, sodas are sold individually (usually $2 to $4 per glass). Alternatively, you can purchase a soda card. Passengers purchasing a soda card receive unlimited amounts of soda for the duration of the cruise. At as much as $60 to $80 per card, though, the price tag could send you into sticker shock! How do these soda cards work — and are they worth the hefty price?

How does a soda card work?
Soda cards go on sale as soon as you board the ship and usually include a souvenir cup. Save some money and avoid paying sales tax just by waiting to purchase a card until the ship splashes into international waters (50 miles 12 miles from shore). Soda cards must be purchased for the full duration of the cruise. In other words, you can’t buy a soda card for one or two days.

Soda cards are sold per person and cannot be shared. Most cruise lines place the guest’s name on the soda card when purchased. Sodas are available at the bars, and bartenders serve one soda per visit. (Pro tip: Of course, there’s nothing stopping you from giving that soda to another family member to enjoy. Cruise lines don’t have security officers patrolling the decks, looking for soda card abusers, so it’s up to you on how ethically you use the card.)

Note that that $60 to $80 price tag doesn’t buy you a very wide selection. Cruise lines offer a limited range of soda flavors. Check with your individual cruise line for details, but typically cruise lines only serve Coke, Diet Coke, and Sprite, along with ginger ale, fruit juice, and club soda. If these options don’t appeal to you, don’t purchase the card.
What drinks are free?
Cruise lines offer unlimited amounts of lemonade, water, and iced tea. Free juice and coffee are only available at breakfast. Some people drink soda because they want something tasty and sweet, so if lemonade will do the job, don’t bother with the card. Keep in mind that these free beverages are sweetened, so if you loathe syrupy drinks, water is your only free option.

How much do you need to drink to make the soda card worthwhile?

Unless you guzzle soda all day long, a soda card will not pay for itself. If you only plan on having an occasional soda, purchase it by the can.

There’s nothing stopping you from giving that soda to a family member to enjoy. Cruise lines don’t have security officers patrolling the decks, looking for soda card abusers, so it’s up to you on how ethically you use the card.

If you are purchasing the soda card for a child, remember that children rarely finish an entire glass or can. Kids take a few gulps and put the soda down. By the time they want more, their sodas are warm and watered down — and guess what?

Right. They want a new one.

Getting a soda can be a hassle
Since soda is only served at the bars, you’ll find yourself running around the ship, trying to find an open bar. Once you find a bar, you’ll likely be waiting in a long line. Conversely, free drinks are self-serve and there’s almost never a line.

Bring your own soda.
Cruise lines won’t let you bring alcohol, but some do allow you to bring your own soda on board. If you have time before boarding the ship, stop at a grocery store and pick up a few cases of soda. Crystal Light individual drink mix packets are a great option if you don’t like sugary beverages and need to pack light. Get a glass of ice (or ice water) from the bartender, and you’re all set! [Ed’s note: you may want to call the cruise line before trying this, as not all companies allow this.]

Soda cards on a cruise ship are expensive, but if you’re a soda addict, it makes sense to purchase the card if you don’t feel like schlepping soft drinks on board. For the occasional soda drinker, however, it’s best to purchase soda by the glass. Or, if you don’t really go nuts for soda anyway, skip all the paid beverages and rediscover your love for iced tea!


Pick your dining slot – Cruise tip

Cruising can be a great vacation, but some passengers find that cruise ships are overly crowded with children — especially around meal times. If you would prefer to dine without children running about, pick a dining time slot that’s later in the evening.

Not surprisingly, five o’clock dining times are the most packed with children, while the later ones usually have fewer children milling about.

Bonus: eating later gives you the chance to work on your tan for just a few more minutes!

Get the right cabin for you – Cruise tip

Not all berths are created equal.

Keep in mind the following tips when choosing a room on a cruise ship:

  1. The quietest rooms are in the middle of the ship and – if you really want to sleep later – you won’t see any signs of a sunrise in an inside cabin.
  2. Unless you like to climb stairs, choose a floor that’s close to the main deck.
  3. Elevators on cruises are slow so you don’t want to rely too much on them. Also, rooms near elevators can be noisy.
  4. Finally, call right before your cruise to see if upgrades are available. If the ship isn’t full, the cruise line may give you a better cabin for little or no extra money.

Happy cruising.