Road tips from savvy travelers

05/18/2014 12:00 AM

05/17/2014 12:33 AM

Say you are standing in that mirthless conga line that is airport screening, fumbling to get the photo ID out of your wallet while trying not to spill your venti mocha frappuccino as the strap of your overstuffed carry-on bag slides down to the crook of your elbow. On your left, a man in a smart, wrinkle-free suit breezes past in the pre-approved line, not needing to worry about prying off shoes or fussing with a belt buckle.

You hate this guy, just a little bit. But you envy him a lot more.

Say you are aboard a transatlantic flight, at the mercy of whatever the air carrier deigns to re-heat and shove onto your tray table for sustenance. But the woman next to you – well, two seats over, since she thought well ahead and reserved a window seat – reaches into her seemingly bottomless satchel and brings out small, clear containers packed with creamy tahini hummus and Ak-Mak crackers, spiced almonds, free-range turkey jerky and Valrhona Noir 85 percent cacao dark chocolate squares.

You look at your, uh, entree, and think in hash tags, like “#travelfail!”

Or say you land in some city in flyover country and need to rent a car. You endure the lengthy checkout interrogation, fend off the agent’s gambit to bump you up to a full-size when all you need is a sub-compact. Then, you clutch your agreement envelope like a lifeline as you hunker down in the waiting room for a someone to lead you to the vehicle. Meanwhile, you see some guy hop off the shuttle, flash a laminated card at an obsequious worker and stroll directly to a gleaming mid-size with keys already in the ignition and engine humming.

You seethe, wondering, who is this VIP?

These people leading seemingly charmed lives in airport terminals and hotel lobbies are not necessarily preternaturally travel-savvy. They are simply road-hardened, ultra-experienced in what it takes to eliminate or reduce delays, headaches and the vague existential ennui that can sour a trip.

Whether you are flying to Dubai for a long vacation, or driving all night to Des Moines for a sales conference, a few small tips and tricks of the trade can make all the difference.

We quizzed and debriefed frequent travelers – two businessmen who log major air miles, foreign or domestic; two entertainers whose gigs have them behind the wheel on lonely highways and holed up in budget hotels off the Interstate; and a couple who took a year off the career hamster wheel to travel and volunteer in 23 countries – asking them how they cope away from home, eliciting their tips for road-trip survival, and how to be open to unexpected experiences that arise along the way.

Phil Johnson, stand-up comedian

A nationally touring comic who, when not sharing his observational humor, fronts a band called Roadside Attraction, Johnson estimates he drives about 60,000 miles a year to comedy gigs, either behind the wheel of his trusty 2005 Toyota Corolla or in a car rented in a “hub” city he’s flown to. He’ll only have to drive a short way from his home in San Jose to Sacramento’s Laughs Unlimited, where he will do a three-night engagement starting May 30.

How to stay awake and pass the time when driving long distances

“It can get pretty insane, but I pass the time by listening to a lot of podcasts. I think I listened to all the ‘Harry Potter’ books in about two months on audio books. It actually keeps me engaged (while driving). I’m listening to the story, but if I’m lucky, there’s nice scenery too. Much as I love music, I find if I listen to music in the car, I start to drift off. Plus, I’m a musician so I’m always analyzing the music, like ‘Wow, what type of compressor did they use on that track?’ And then, ‘Oh, there’s a car coming at me.’

“I’ve found if you leave the vent on, so that you get outside air coming in, it helps you stay alert. I found, driving so many hours, that I was becoming oxygen-deprived. Once I opened the vents and got fresh air, I perked right up. It makes a big, big difference.”

How not to get morbidly obese while eating at roadside joints and fast-food outlets

“I was listening to the ‘Freakonomics‘ podcast in the car, and they talked about the Dollar McDouble as maybe the healthiest and (most cost-effective) fast food thing you can get. So when I do have to stop at a McDonald’s, it’s not bad to eat, and it won’t totally kill your diet. But I do try to stay away from McDonald’s. You can get too much of it. I’ll do a Wendy’s half-salad and bowl of chili. Chipotle is good. Get the bowl version instead of the burrito. Subway has salads, but they are horrible. If there’s nothing else around, I’ll do a Subway salad.

“Plus, I carry a lot of food in the car. If I’m driving long distance, I’ll pick up nuts, beef jerky and peanut butter, bananas and apples. The key is to find a grocery store. Those (convenience stores) are always more expensive. I don’t buy anything from a store that doesn’t put the price on the package. I’ll buy a case of water in advance, so then I’m not paying two or three bucks for a bottle of water every stop.”

How to find cool and unexpected places on the road

“When I’m in a town, especially for a couple days, I want to find out what I can do in that town that I can’t do anywhere else. I’m big on finding local-color restaurants. In Klamath Falls, Ore., I finally found a good place to eat. Klamath is a terrible food town, but there’s a little diner, a waffle place, that cooks with sugar crystals in the batter. It’s super sweet. ... I was in Minnesota, can’t remember what town, and I found a Cuban restaurant. I thought, no way. But it was opened by a Cuban guy from California, and it was amazing.”

Trish Moratto Litke, travel blogger

In 2012, Sacramento’s Trish Moratto Litke and her husband, Ryan Litke, put their careers on hold and went abroad for nearly a year, visiting 23 countries doing volunteer work and sightseeing for her travel website, The couple is back in Sacramento and gainfully employed, but Moratto Litke says, “We try to leave the country at least once or twice each year, and we do domestic travel all the time.”

How to pack for an extended trip to countries with varying climate

“Last year my husband and I were abroad for 11 months visiting drastically variable climates with one backpack each. That packing approach is completely different than if we take a two-week trip within the U.S. with suitcases. After trial and error of multiple packing scenarios, my philosophy is now ‘less is more.’ If I’m going somewhere comfortable that has infrastructure for tourists, one mid-sized suitcase is fine. If I choose to go somewhere like Central America, South America, South East Asia or even some parts of Europe, then I typically take a backpack. I’m petite, so if I’m carrying the weight of my belongings on my back, less is more.

“I have a few high-quality staples that are quick-dry, wrinkle-free basics and can be washed in the sink. I pack versatile items like the Twelveways ( multi-use (clothing) or convertibles that go from pants to capris to shorts. You have to hunt to find the ones that don’t look ugly. Something that has helped my packing process is the Eagle Creek Packing Cubes ( system. ... This allows my backpack or suitcase to feel like a dresser where everything has its place.”

How to pick hotels and B&Bs

“I’ve partnered with and stayed in some of the nicest hotels in the world in order to write reviews for our website. In contrast, I’ve stayed in 100-plus-people dormitories while hiking the Camino de Santiago across Spain. Both are wonderful experiences based on what your goals are. We are extremely fortunate in this technological age because we can now leverage tools like Trip Advisor and Yelp.

“I usually start by deciding what neighborhood of a city I want to stay in. Then I dig into the Trip Advisor reviews and figure out what accommodations offer the best value for our budget. Sometimes these are hotels, sometimes Airbnb or sometimes just small room rentals accessible through the local tourism commission. I love staying in people’s homes, because you can get a more authentic cultural experience, especially in foreign countries.”

How can a woman traveling alone stay safe?

“If you have a concern about safety, do research and make choices to limit risk. As Americans, we are no strangers to violence. We assume other countries are as violent as we are and people worry that you will stumble into a bad situation. I don’t want to live in a bubble, so I just exercise caution and I’ve never had an issue. Personally, I rarely go out after dark, and I feel safest when staying with locals that know the neighborhoods and the dangerous places or activities. Americans tend to fear what they don’t know while conveniently forgetting that just in our backyards there are drive-by mass shootings, rapes, robberies and gang violence. I’ve traveled through 35 countries and have never experienced any violence. I can’t say the same for life in the U.S.

“Here are some tips for basic safety for women: Don’t accept drinks from anyone but bartenders and watch them make your drink. Then don’t let it out of your sight. Don’t walk alone at night if you choose to go out. Pay for a cab and ideally travel with a group to and from your hotel. Don’t wear fancy jewelry. Don’t drink in excess. That’s probably the one thing that puts you most at risk.”

Mr. P Chill, rapper

A Sacramento-based rapper, Mr. P Chill ( is on tour in support of his new album, “Persistence.” He has been a nationally touring artist for more than 20 years, releasing nine solo albums and playing with his funk/soul band, Trunk of Funk.

How to pick a rental car for an extended trip

“Being out three to five weeks at a time, I need something with good gas mileage. I let Enterprise (rental car) deal with the problem. I’ve rented from them every time and no matter how badly I’ve jacked up the car when I brought it back, they don’t charge me any extra money. On my national trips, I’ll get a small SUV or van. I’m bringing out all merchandise and need more room. If you’re going to spend a month in it, you want to be as comfortable as possible. I’ve got caught out in wild weather. I feel better in a big vehicle. The first time I drove into a blizzard, in 2007, I got a white-knuckle crash course – maybe that’s not the right word – on driving in snowy conditions.”

How to avoid getting stuck in a seedy hotel

“We keep it on a budget, and a lot of the places are pretty grimy. Let’s be honest. Some have blood stains on the wall, pimps and hookers in the parking lot. I’m being real, too, totally honest. You need to check places out. In Boise, Idaho, this little mom-and-pop hotel had cheap rates, and the room looked OK. So, all right, I’ll stay there. But I found out some chick got knifed to death in one of the rooms. I’m like, ‘Let’s try the next hotel.’ But then, if I don’t know someone got knifed to death in the room, that’s peace of mind enough. If we have an off day, I try to stay somewhere nicer, like, a La Quinta, some place less likely to see shady activity going on. But if you’re on a budget, you got to be careful.”

How to pick the right roadside diner

“I travel with this guy from Lancaster. His name is Cleen. He proposes a rule: no chains. I’ve been really surprised at how good some of the food is. I’ve also been equally as appalled at some things put in front of me. It’s hit and miss. If it’s something inside of a strip mall, generally, it’s not as good as a stand-alone building. If it’s called Barney’s Chicken, you don’t want to go there and have the fish.”

Brian Jones and Kyle Calcagno, business travelers

Brian Jones is an independent marketing consultant based in Sacramento who travels often to Europe. Kyle Calcagno is a management consultant at Pricewaterhouse Coopers in Sacramento, and travels weekly to San Diego.

How to avoid delays at airport check-in

Calcagno: “I always take the 6 a.m. flight out (to San Diego) because you know the airport patterns. You know what to expect from the lines. It’s pretty consistent, week-to-week, even on the return flight. So you can time your arrival at the airport. People who don’t travel as much, a common mistake they make is that they spend and waste too much time at the airport. And get the preferred fly-by line for security – that’s an advantage – but it’s all about timing it right to know the pattern. You can maximize your work day or your sleep.”

How to pass the time on overseas flights

Jones: “My iPad is my life on a long flight. I can’t sleep (on planes) so I usually have one or two shows I specifically don’t watch any season of until I go on a plane. Then I do some binge viewing. I’ll load up my Nook app with some books, too. The truth is, most airlines these days, especially Delta Sky Team, have got a decent selection of on-board entertainment. But the screen’s small and not really good quality. I bring my own.”

How to avoid checking baggage even for business travel

Calcagno: “I have to wear a suit (for work), so I’d always wear the suit on the flight and then just wear the same suit all week. To look different, you just change the shirt. The client doesn’t notice or care. The key to the shirts – because they’re going to be scrunched into your small carry-on bag – is to put them on hangers in your (hotel room), steam up that shower, close the door and it steams them wrinkle free. Don’t waste time ironing.”

How using Airbnb can save money and enhance experience

Jones: “Coming off a 12-hour flight, having some kind of familiarity, something that doesn’t seem totally sterile, like some hotel rooms can, is crucial. I find Airbnb is helpful getting over jet lag and culture shock. If you’re sharing a room in an apartment with people, nine times out of 10 ... they’ll take me out and show me good places to eat. I’ve used Airbnb 30 times, maybe 40 times, and I’ve never had anything but a fantastic experience.”


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