Scarlet sweaters and duct tape: readers share their travel hacks


The next time you're on a plane, if the person next to you doesn't seem to be wearing anything but bright red, it could be Celia Paerels. Kindle case, sweater, sunglasses, headphones, charging cable, all in a striking scarlet color: this way you avoid leaving anything on the seat or in the seat pocket.

“Everyone notices the color red,” said Paerels, 62, of Hastings-on-Hudson, New York. “If you see a cardinal, you will know that he is a cardinal. You don’t notice a sparrow.”

Ms. Paerels is one of more than 180 New York Times readers who responded to our invitation in September to share their favorite travel hacks. Much of the advice focused on packing suitcases (Ziploc bags), sleeping better in hotels (curtain clips) or gaining more space on planes (strategies for getting empty seats abound). But some ideas stood out as especially clever or unusual.

Here, in addition to Ms. Paerels' color-coded tips, are nine of the best.

Technology has helped break down language barriers. Translation programs abound and travelers can always study before the trip with a few Duolingo sessions. But inevitably, you'll end up accidentally wishing someone “Goodnight” over your morning coffee while your brain struggles to retrieve the right words.

Derek Middleton, 42, from Dublin, has a solution in the palm of his hand. He takes a screenshot of common phrases like “Hello,” “Good morning/good evening,” “Please/thank you,” “Excuse me,” and “Do you speak English?” and he turns that image into the lock screen of his cell phone, so every time he looks at his phone, he gets a language lesson and has the correct terms on hand at all times.

“I found in my travels that if you put a little effort into speaking the language, people are much more receptive,” Middleton said, “and it usually starts with a laugh when I butcher the words.”

Goodwill goes a long way toward smoother flights, especially as planes become tighter and the prospect of unruly passengers sours the mood of flight crews. Mary Anne Casey, 57, from Alcochete, Portugal, has a way of sweetening the experience: When she and her husband board a flight, they give the crew an individually sealed bag of bite-sized chocolates to share.

He recalled that once, while getting off a flight in Lisbon, “the head flight attendant ran up behind us and started giving us little bottles of port wine. She felt bad for forgetting to thank us for the chocolates during the flight.”

There aren't many happy faces to be seen in the seemingly endless line at immigration after an all-night flight. Sarah Miller, 62, Corvallis, Oregon, recommends using the U.S. Customs and Border Protection mobile passport control app to shorten the wait.

I was able to avoid a long line in Portland when I returned from a trip to England last June,” he said. “The queue for standard passport control was several hundred passengers long and there was no one in the MPC queue. After opening the app, I was able to take a photo, answer a few questions (all done while walking to the correct line), and that was it.”

The Global Entry program offers some similar benefits but costs $100, requires an in-person interview, and currently has an application backlog of up to 11 months; The Mobile Passport Control app is free and available for use at 33 US international airports without any wait time. “It's a time-saving tool for those of us who don't travel abroad frequently,” Ms Miller said.

If you sign up for Global Entry, the ID card that comes with it can help speed up border crossings from Canada and Mexico, but it can also save your life if you're traveling within the United States.

When Charlie Bishop, 73, of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, discovered that his driver's license couldn't be scanned at a Transportation Security Administration checkpoint for a domestic flight, his Global Entry card allowed him to continue.

“Package it separately from your driver's license,” suggested Mr. Bishop, “so that if you lose your wallet while traveling, you can still board your return flight and worry about replacing the license when you return home.”

If you have enough frequent flyer points with multiple airlines, Robert Cohen, 79, of Bixby, Oklahoma, suggests using them to book backup flights on alternative airlines in case something goes wrong with your preferred flight.

“But don't forget to cancel backups for the day of your trip before your departure so that unused miles are rebanked,” Cohen warned. Those cutoff times vary by airline and can be as tight as 10 minutes before departure. You may also want to book round-trip flights separately rather than as a round trip, he said, because “some airlines don't allow cancellation of just part of the itinerary.”

Mary Jane Cuyler, 42, of Oslo, recalled being about 10 hours into a 15-hour flight from Los Angeles to Sydney (“I think the plane was a Boeing 777”) when she noticed there was no toilet paper in the bathroom. . She sought out a flight attendant, who pressed a lever under the vanity mirror and, “to my utter amazement,” she said, it opened to reveal spare toilet paper and paper towels. “Since then, I have been able to solve that problem myself (although it rarely happens),” Ms. Cuyler said.

Wall outlets have been a problem for international travelers for as long as plug-in appliances have been around. And even as more devices can adapt to different voltages, travelers simply bring more things that need power.

That's why Andrea Diamond of Montville, New Jersey, typically brings a five- or six-outlet surge protector on her international trips. “That way I only need one adapter to plug the power strip into the wall outlet and I can charge multiple devices,” she said.

She usually keeps the power strip in her checked luggage, but remembers that she was once stopped for extra screening at a security checkpoint, she said, because “I had a lot of charging cables in my backpack and I guess that looked suspicious in the “X-ray machine”.

If you take a lot of photos, the process of selecting what can become a headache after the trip. Fred Essenwein, 78, of Colonia, New Jersey, has a trick for that. “I take a photo of the city name or landmark, or even just an entrance ticket, before photographing the panoramic views,” he said. These “little bookmarks” help him remember each place while he puts together photo albums after each trip.

Essenwein has been using online services like Shutterfly for about 10 years to make his photo albums, whose themes include a cruise to Antarctica and classic American cars he saw in Cuba.

English travel writer Bruce Chatwin inspired Doug Colligan's decidedly analogue way of documenting his explorations. Since the 1970s, Colligan, 79, of Amherst, Massachusetts, has carried a thin Moleskine-type notebook, the brand said to be one of Chatwin's favorites, and a small roll of duct tape.

“It includes business cards from good restaurants or stores worth revisiting, as well as brochures from museum sites and exhibits, and ticket stubs from memorable concerts,” Colligan explained. “The notebook becomes a travel diary and a happy memory.”

Follow the travels of the New York Times in instagram and Subscribe to our weekly Travel Dispatch newsletter for expert tips on how to travel smarter and inspiration for your next vacation. Are you dreaming of a future getaway or simply traveling from an armchair? Take a look at our 52 places to go in 2023.

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