Stephen’s travel tips for 2018

Stephen’s travel tips for 2018

Having traveled to 53 countries and more than 600 cities, I have learned some lessons about what to take, how to take it, and what to leave behind. Now I share these little secrets, from gadgets to apps to packing tips, in what I call Stephen’s travel tips for 2018.

Clearly the smart phone is the new Swiss Army knife of travel, taking the place of a bulky camera, heavy books, flashlight, alarm clock, notepad, maps, and more. Of course, until it can open a bottle of wine, it won’t replace a real Swiss Army knife. There are now scores of smart phone apps we travelers depend on. Here are some of my favorites.

FlightAware app

1. Apps for the international traveler

WeChat app

Only around since 2011, this Chinese “app for everything” has an international version with some unbeatable features. Sign up your family and friends, and you can message (text, audio, and more) or call them (audio and video) for free over Wi-Fi from around the world. And this is only the tip of the iceberg for WeChat, whose payment system is turning China into a cashless society. No wonder there is more than 1 billion active users. Note: I still use Skype for one-time direct calls.

GlobeConvert app

How many Thai Baht to a U.S. dollar? What is 17 degrees Celsius in Fahrenheit? How many milliliters in a cup? GlobeConvert handles more than 160 currencies and 350+ physical units. If you are online, currency rates are updated every hour and saved if you are offline. Fast. Easy. Free. I use this app nearly every day in foreign countries.

GlobeConvert app

Metro map apps

Say goodbye to paper maps and clumsy guidebooks. There are numerous apps that give you clear navigation for public transportation systems around the world. I use several, each usable offline. MetrO gives you point-to-point directions in more than 400 cities around the world. City Rail Map has beautifully drawn maps for about 60 international cities and is good for offline use. I like Explore Metro for easy-to-read subway maps for numerous cities across Asia.

Beijing Explore Metro app

FlightAware app

I nearly always check FlightAware before I leave for the airport. It tells me if my flight is delayed before the airline alerts me. I use it right up to wheels up for accurate departure and arrival information. Meeting an international flight? You can track its progress across the globe, so you know precisely when to meet your arrival party.

Google Translate and Waygo apps

OK, there are lots of translation apps out there, but I like Google Translate for its simplicity and the fact it features about a zillion languages. I still prefer Waygo for visual translation of Chinese, Japanese and Korean. I just point my phone’s camera at the words and real-time translation is displayed, including pronunciation. Perfect for signs and menus.

Pocket app

See a lengthy Internet article that you don’t have time to read right now? Pocket it to read offline later. Is the flight attendant telling you to switch into airplane mode? Just Pocket and keep reading. I use this app so much the people at Pocket recently informed me I was in the top 5% of their users, having read more than 300,000 words in 2017. To me it’s more valuable than iBooks or Kindle (but I need those too!).

What are your favorite travel apps? Feel free to comment at the bottom of this post.

Pocket app

2. Simple electronic gadgets


I own two nice pairs of earphones, and I never travel with them. They just take up too much space in my carry-on daypack. These days noise-cancelling earbuds are the best answer for sound and size. And don’t forget to carry a two-prong adapter for planes that require that input.

Voltage converter

Even though phones and laptops and shavers pretty much handle voltage conversion, I find myself often using my little voltage converter. Sometimes it’s just a handy plug adapter; sometimes it’s needed for devices that might otherwise be damaged.

Surge protector voltage converter

Surge protector

I was glad I took a multi-outlet power strip on an international cruise, as even my suite had few outlets in hard-to-reach places. And who knows what kind of power surges you might encounter in Laos, when the whole town of Luang Prabang loses electricity in the evening? A small surge protector can be a good investment.

USB drive and standalone device charger

Sometimes in a faraway land you just need to print a document. I have found the easiest solution at an upscale hotel is to hand them the file on a USB drive. Lastly, I always carry a tiny device charger, so my phone never runs out of battery, even on 20-hour journeys halfway across the world.

3. Drug store in a Ziploc bag

This travel secret was important enough for me to write an entire post about the need to carry a quart-sized Ziploc bag for medicines and another for first-aid. My carry-on backpack is never without these. Check out the details and pictures here.

Ziploc drug store

4. Little things to pack for every trip

Leakproof plastic bottles

The airlines prohibit anything but small containers of liquids, but mouthwash and shampoos and conditioners and other lotions are sold in big containers. I have found the secret in leakproof plastic bottles. I found some at the Container Store, but they are easily available online. You never have to worry about spills in carry-on or checked baggage and you can take as many as will fit in a quart-sized bag.

Liquid dish soap

Carry it in leakproof bottles and you have your laundry soap for hand-washing clothes, quick stain removal, and other uses. Avoiding exorbitant luxury hotel laundry fees, this fits in with our upscale on a budget philosophy.

3-in-1 laundry sheets

Speaking of laundry, what if you are staying in a vacation rental property for a week, with a nice washer/dryer but no detergent, fabric softener or static control is provided? Stores usually only carry these in large containers. The answer is easy-to-carry 3-in-1 dry laundry sheets (available online). Throw one in with your load of clothes and voila!

Ziploc bags in various sizes

Plastic bags that zip shut are the Swiss Army knives of travel containers. Empty, they take up little room and weight in your bag. They are perfect for storing leftover food, that swimsuit that didn’t quite dry before your flight, pre-moistened hand wipes, and more. Unlike hard containers, they take up only as much room as their contents. I recently visited five countries in a month, and small Ziploc bags were handy for sorting the cash and coins of multiple currencies. I roll a bundle of empty bags and fasten with rubber bands and twist ties, which are handy in their own right.

packing cubes

5. Other packing tips

Packing cubes

I recently became intrigued by packing cubes, not only as space savers, but also as a way, on shorter trips, to live out of a suitcase for several days. Your clothes and other items stay pretty organized.

Stuff your shoes

It seems everyone has a method for saving space, which is really important if you want to take a long trip with only a carry-on rollerboard. Most of us travel with several pairs of shoes. I always stuff mine with socks. The space savings is noticeable.


I always take a pillowcase in my on-board Marmot daypack. Then, I roll my Mammut coat or a sweatshirt or sweater and place it inside for an instant pillow. I stopped carrying those bulky neck pillows, and go for the comfort of a soft pillowcase. It’s handy, even sleeping in business class, to have your own, familiar pillowcase to promote a good night’s rest.

Do you have any other packing tips? Feel free to comment at the bottom of this post.

ANA Japan Narita airport

6. Fly nonstop with carry-on only

I have had enough bad stories with connecting flights that I wrote this post to explain why pay extra to fly nonstop. Adjunct to this advice is to always try to fly with carry-on only and not check a bag. In addition to not paying exorbitant baggage fees, there is also the time savings from not having to go to the ticket counter or to wait at baggage claim. Recently, I went ahead and checked a bag because I was flying on a small plane within Europe. Sure enough, my bag failed to arrive, leaving me scrambling for 24 hours without valuable items. And I was staying at an Airbnb, which the owner later admitted was not legal, so he didn’t want luggage delivered to the address. The moral of the story I already knew: try to fly with carry-on only.

7. Travel checklists

This tip for 2018 is a simple one, but one of the most important. I created a spreadsheet of all the items I could possibly take on a trip. Then, when I start to pack, I check items off the printed list. Rarely do I forget to pack something since I started this process. It’s especially good for things I don’t use everyday but need for a specific trip (a tie, foreign currency, umbrella, power cables).

Speaking of lists, if you take a long trip with friends or family, you are likely to have a lot of luggage, shopping bags, backpacks, laptop bags, etc. I always do a count: “OK, we have 9 pieces.” Then, when we depart the hotel room or taxi, I count again. It is surprising how many times a piece has been almost left on a rental car bus.

Finally, don’t stress. Most things are replaceable. I’m always asking myself and travel companions, “Do you have your passport, wallet, cell phone?” Armed with those three things, you are ready to travel!

Passport wallet cell phone

8. Tips and advice for 2019 and beyond

Not that many years ago I would have recommended a slick portable DVD player. That was replaced by an external drive to my MacBook Air that I could take or leave home. Now, thanks to streaming services, DVDs have gone the way of cassette tapes.

So what tips for 2018 will we look back on and chuckle about that advice? Will we stop using cash altogether throughout the world and pay in every country via our phones? Will voice translation via our phones (or watches) become truly real-time, eliminating the need to even learn basic phrases in a foreign language?

Will all devices become solar powered, so we can ditch the voltage converters and power strips? Can we travel with self-cleaning clothes? Will aviation authorities start letting us carry large liquids, placed in bags of all sizes that fly for free? OK, we may never see that last one, as the trend is headed in the other direction.

Still, I look forward to updating this list with innovative new ideas every year. Safe travels!

25 useful Chinese phrases for travelers

25 useful Chinese phrases for travelers

No matter what country you travel to, it is helpful to learn a few key phrases. For China this is important, because most people don’t speak English, and Mandarin is very different. Fear not. Try to learn a few words, and locals may point you in the right direction!

Chinese on Wanfujing Street Beijing

Before we begin, let’s clear up a few things:

The common words I present here are only intended to show people that you respect their language and have made the effort to learn a tiny bit. It is more for setting the tone for your interaction.

Speaking of tone, Chinese is a language of sounds, where a word can have vastly different meanings depending on the tone used. That is too complicated for this exercise. Fortunately, if people understand the context (“How much does this cost?” while you are holding an item in a store), they will probably understand you. I will also help by showing phonetic spellings here.

You won’t be able to read Chinese characters, but sometimes words might be written in both characters and in pinyin, the English alphabet version of Mandarin. I also include pinyin here.

4-star toilet sign Beijing

Keep it simple. I have seen guidebooks that teach you how to say in Chinese, “What types of hotel rooms do you have available?” If the desk clerk actually understands you, she will rattle off a long answer in Chinese, and you won’t have understood a word of her reply.

Learning how to say, “Do you speak English?” in a foreign language is a waste of time. That is the one question you should ask in English! The answer will range from, “yes” to “a little” to a headshake. Take it from there. She may even be anxious to try out her English on you!

While all written Chinese is the same, there are two very different spoken versions of the language (besides lots of dialects). Mandarin is the official version, which I present here. But if you are in the south of China or Hong Kong, you may hear Cantonese spoken. It is different, although most Cantonese can understand Mandarin. Got it?

I must reiterate that this is just a way to be polite and show you are making an attempt to communicate. Don’t forget to use apps for other purposes. For example, Waygo enables you to point your phone camera at a sign written in Chinese, and the app will translate it into English. Some apps allow you to speak and listen, but note, Google doesn’t work in China.

Hilly road sign Beijing

That said, let’s get started with some common, useful Chinese words for travel.

1. Hello, hi

ni hao (written in pinyin) pronounced as (nee how)

This is the most common greeting and can be said to everyone.


2. How are you?

ni hao ma? (nee how ma)

Just add “ma” to ni hao. Easy, right?


3. Good morning

zao (dzow)

A common, friendly greeting in the morning, instead of ni hao.


4. Hello (answer phone)

wei (way)

You will hear people answer their phones with wei instead of ni hao.


5. Good

hao (how)

Hopefully, it’s your answer to the question “ni hao ma?”


6. Very good

hen hao (hen how)

If you have made it this far, then “hen hao.”


7. Thank you

xie xie (shyeah shyeah)

This is the most mispronounced phrase by foreigners. Don’t say “shee shee!”

It is softer: sh-yeah sh-yeah or even see-yeah see-yeah.

Group smiling on Great Wall of China

8. You’re welcome

bukeqi (boo kuh chee)

If someone thanks you, say this in return. They will smile at your politeness.


9. No problem, it’s nothing

meishi (may shrr)

You may hear this often after you thank someone.


10. Sorry, excuse me

duibuqi (dway boo chee)

“Sorry” is usually in my top 10 for any language, because I say it a lot!


11. Good-bye

zaijian (dzeye jee-en)

Zaijian is somewhat formal. The good news is, you can just say “bye bye!”


12. 1, 2, 3

yi, er, san (ee, are, san)

Try saying this just before taking someone’s picture. It always brings a smile.


13. How much?

duo shao (doo-ah shaow)


14. Money, cost

qian (chee-en)

Duoshao qian would therefore mean, “how much does this cost?”

Stephen Henson Beijing restaurant

15. Bottle of water

ping shui (ping shway)


16. Cola

kele (kuhluh)


17. Waiter, attendant

fuwuyuan (foo woo yoo-an)

It’s all right to say that loudly in a restaurant to get his attention.


18. Please give me…

qing ni gei wo (ching nee gay wuh)

Then order a bottle of cola or water!


19. Bathroom or restroom

cesuo (tser swor) or weishengjian (way shung jee-en)

“Bathroom is where?” would be “weishengjian zai nar?”

Restroom door in China

20. U.S., America

Meiguo (may gwah)


21. China

Zhongguo (joong gwah)


22. Person

ren (ren)

So, for example, American is Meiguo ren


23. Yes, no

dui (dway), bu (boo)

This is trickier, as dui only means “correct,” not other ways to say “yes.”

You may often hear it quickly repeated, dui dui dui, like yeah, yeah, yeah.

And bu can be a little strong, which sometimes is bu hao or “not good.”


24. Beijing

Beijing (bay jing)

I include this city because Americans say bay-zhing, which drives me crazy.

It is a “hard j,” like jingle bells.


25. Shanghai

Shanghai (shahng high)

Mispronouncing this to rhyme with twang also drives me crazy.


Beijing China airport sign

How to make this work? If you and a travel partner are making your first trip to China, I suggest you practice this on each other during the flight there. Then you can say “ni hao!” to “Zhongguo ren” on arrival.

And, if you’re looking for a bit more perspective on the adventures of trying to speak Chinese, take a few minutes to read one of my other posts: Welcome to China, where you can’t speak, read or write.

Look for a future post about useful Spanish phrases for travelers!

8 reasons to cruise upscale

8 reasons to cruise upscale

I have never been in love with cruises. I like to figure out itineraries, ride trains, explore on my own. Besides, aren’t cruises just for old people and honeymooners? I finally take the plunge on a Baltic cruise and provide 8 reasons to cruise upscale on a budget.

I am attending a conference in Stockholm and thought it would be a cool idea to take the family on a Scandinavian trip. So I start charting our course. We will take a train from Stockholm to Oslo. Wait, that’s going to take most of the day. It’s the same with getting to Copenhagen. And there’s no good way to get to Finland except by boat. Plus, hotels are pricey. This is getting complicated, time-consuming and expensive.

Royal Caribbean Serenade of the Seas Sweden sunset

1. Wake up to a different country every morning

Some itineraries are simply tailor-made for cruising. In this case, with a cruise ship we would have all day to explore a city and wake up the next morning in a new country. We will see Sweden, Finland, Russia, Estonia and Latvia, all in a week. No hassles with airports or connecting trains or traffic jams. This is supposed to be fun, right?

The same concept applies to the Caribbean, where I took a Disney cruise years ago. Awake each morning to a different island. Cruising is a good way to get a taste of a new destination to determine if you want to return or not.

Swedish archipelago from Royal Caribbean ship

2. See lands from a vantage point only offered by sea

It takes us three hours to reach the Baltic Sea as we cruise from Stockholm through the beautiful Swedish archipelago, topped by a spectacular sunset. And we get bonus views post-sunrise on the return leg. A ship is simply the best way to see this amazing scenery. The same could be said about the Alaskan coast, the Rhine River and many other lands, now becoming popular cruise vacation journeys.

Royal Caribbean Serenade of the Seas Grand Suite

3. Unpack once

I’m not revealing anything new here, but it bears repeating. Even though we pack light (a carry-on and a backpack each), there is something to be said for putting everything away in drawers at the beginning of the trip and not rummaging through a suitcase. Also nice to not have to pack and unpack every day with each new location.

Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood St Petersburg Russia

4. Easy to plan a complex itinerary

Thinking of going to Russia? It’s already one of my cruise stops. But Americans need a visa that isn’t a simple process. Not to worry. Whether you take an excursion through the cruise ship or an independent one, the Russian visa is taken care of as a temporary cruise ship visitor. In our case, we select a 2-day SPB Tour, a company that specializes in custom tours for smaller groups (15 of us) at a much lower price.

Royal Caribbean Serenade of the Seas activities

5. No, you won’t be bored onboard

I am one of those people who can only lie on a beach or at a pool for about an hour. I get bored easily. What am I suppose to do with a “day at sea?” It turns out that there are plenty of diversions for all ages and types of people.

No, I am not trying the rock-climbing wall, and I don’t gamble. My daughter and I do manage to get in a round of miniature golf. Then she goes off for a pedicure at the spa. I catch a live oldies rock ‘n’ roll concert, while a movie plays at the theater next door. Want something more physical? There’s a pick-up game of basketball on the opposite end of the ship from the large fitness center.

We barely scratch the surface of non-stop activities. I have brought a book, but rarely have time to read more than a few pages. I’m good with a day at sea, though I’m not sure about two or three.

Royal Caribbean Serenade of the Seas fitness

6. Don’t be afraid to ask

In the main dining room my spouse happens to mention to our waiter that she really likes shrimp, except for those darn shells. He proceeds to bring her a double order of shrimp and then removes each one from its shell for her.

We order sparkling water the first night, and it magically arrives at the table each night thereafter. My daughter enjoys the pasta, but not the sauce, so they immediately come up with a sauce to her liking.

Royal Caribbean Serenade of the Seas dining

I say that I can’t wait to try the key lime pie tonight, so our waiter brings me a double order. The moral of the story is don’t be afraid to ask for what would please you.

7. One size does not fit all . . . lots of cruise options

I am pleasantly surprised to see a lot of diversity in the passengers on our Baltic cruise. Young and old. Singles, couples, and families. North Americans, Europeans, Asians. What we all have in common is an eagerness to learn more about this region of the world.

The options are now limitless. You can cruise on a 12-passenger boat through France. You can cruise on a ship with more than 5,000 guests and 2,000 crew members. You can cruise through a dozen ports in Southeast Asia or sail around the world.

Royal Caribbean Serenade of the Seas at Tallinn

8. Fits upscale on a budget

All those options play right into our goal of being upscale on a budget. Work with a travel agent and check out sites like Cruise Critic for good deals.

In our case Royal Caribbean’s Serenade of the Seas has a schedule that fits our plans well, ending just a few days before the start of my TBEX travel conference. It’s considered to be a mid-sized ship, with fewer than 2,000 guests and about 850 crew. I decide to go upscale, securing a Grand Suite with balcony on the “bump,” mid-ship. We are on the highest passenger deck 10.

The Grand Suite comes with amenities that make all the difference over the course of our journey. We have access to a Concierge Club, with free drinks and hors d’oeuvres. We proceed to consume hundreds of dollars worth of champagne and exotic drinks in this intimate atmosphere. We have breakfast each day in one of the specialty restaurants. We get early boarding and late disembarking. The list of other amenities is too long to list here.

Royal Caribbean Serenade of the Seas reception

Best of all, we have our own friendly private concierge, who handles everything from reservations to general advice. He even plays bass at a private sushi party just for suite guests to meet the ship’s officers.

In a nutshell, you don’t have to choose a luxury liner to get a near-luxury experience.

Going upscale pays numerous dividends, but we are still on a budget. We get senior discounts and my daughter pays just 20% of the price. Significant onboard credits help with those unplanned expenses.

My only complaint on the whole voyage is abysmal Internet service, even when paying for the premium version.

All in all, the reasons for upscale cruising have never been more obvious. I guess I’m now a cruiser. What about you? Do you cruise? Do you have any tips and advice? Feel free to comment at the bottom of this post.

What’s upscale?

Reserving a Grand Suite on Royal Caribbean’s Serenade of the Seas provides a spacious room with balcony and a host of amenities, including a private concierge and free drinks in the private lounge.

Using SPB Tours in Russia was convenient, smaller group, customized.

What’s budget?

You can still get a good deal and be a big fish in the pond without having to book a luxury vessel.



8 ways to save on rental cars

8 ways to save on rental cars

I know Chicago can be an expensive city, but the rental car quotes seemed really high, even though I had used Costco’s Low Price Finder to compare four brands. Then I decided to add an extra day to my rental period. Voila! The total price actually went down by $100.

You have to work at it, but there are numerous ways to save on rental cars. I will show you 8 ways to keep your budget in check, so you can splurge elsewhere. Please note this post is written for car renting in the U.S. only. Some of my tips may apply internationally, but I haven’t tested them outside the U.S.

Harry Potter car Universal Studios Orlando

1. Use the right credit card for insurance

I think most people know by now not to check the boxes for insurance coverage. First, find out what your personal auto insurance covers. It is probably everything, after a deductable. Second, use a credit card that provides even more coverage. I now exclusively use my Chase Sapphire Preferred Visa card because of the free rental car insurance it provides.The card covers the entire loss, damage or theft of your car rental without reporting it to your insurance company, It’s safe to say I have saved thousands of dollars over the years by not checking those little boxes on the rental form.

2. Use a comparison tool

You can save both time and money by using an online tool that compares various car rental brands. My favorite is the Costco Low Price Finder, which applies all the discounts it knows about and then shows you all the cars from several brands. At the time of this writing, they featured Alamo, Avis, Budget and Enterprise. If you belong to one of those services, simply enter your ID number, and the reservation goes into their system too. I do this to ensure Budget’s Fastbreak service, where I can skip the rental counter.

3. Play with different days and lengths

It helps to know a little about your rental location. Chicago and San Francisco need lots of cars for business travelers during the week, but those cars sit idle on weekends. Therefore, a weekend rate at SFO or ORD can be significantly lower than weekday. Play with the booking tool to see when weekend rates apply. Arriving Thursday morning? You may benefit by picking up the car after noon.

In my example above, I needed a car in Chicago for 5 days. When I played a bit, adding a sixth day, it recalculated into a weekly rate, actually lowering the price. As there was no penalty for an early return (they can rent the car again), I used the vehicle for the original 5 days at the lower price.

Mazda at Shanghai Auto Show

4. Reserve far in advance then recheck

I knew I would need a rental car for a week on Maui. Because I booked the airline tickets far in advance, I decided to book the car too. However, I noticed a “featured coupon” on the Costco site was expiring before my trip and couldn’t be applied. I booked the car anyway. Then I went back a month later to discover a new eligible coupon and rebooked the car at a lower price.

I always suggest booking far in advance and then rechecking. For a one-week trip the airlines changed my flight times, arriving two hours earlier. I called the rental car company to simply arrange a pickup a little earlier. They were happy to do it because it meant recalculating my price at the latest rates – $130 more for the week! Needless to say, I declined, left the reservation alone and picked the car up early anyway – no questions asked.

Another lesson there. When in doubt, negotiate with the people at the rental counter. They know what the inventory looks like. Your car may be ready early. Or maybe you can score an upgrade, because they have a glut of vehicles one class higher than what you rented. They have more latitude than a phone agent.

Nissan at Shanghai Auto Show

5. Try a service that rents by the hour

Sometimes you fly into a major city for a business meeting the next day, then fly home. Rental car companies love you, having no qualms about charging over $100 for a 24-hour weekday rental. Your hotel loves you too, easily tacking on $60 to $80 for overnight parking. But you can win this game by using a car-sharing service that rents by the hour.

I have used Zipcar many times in San Francisco. Cars are conveniently placed all over the city. I use BART (the train) to get into the city from the airport ($18 round trip) and then rent a nice Prius to drive to my meeting at about $10/hour for a few hours. Total transportation cost: around $50 instead of more than $150. Please note that Zipcar does require a small annual fee to belong.

6. Investigate new, specialty providers

I usually stick with the traditional brands, but sometimes a new rental car company can be right for the traveler who is upscale on a budget. Silvercar is one that comes to mind. All of their cars are semi-luxury Audi A4s, in silver of course. They are not cheap, but come equipped with a sunroof, black leather, satellite radio and even Wi-Fi baked into the price. That makes them compare favorably with other providers’ prestige offerings. There are deals for first-time renters, and the experience is 100% online.

Honda at Shanghai Auto Show

7. Watch out for add-ons

I have rented a minivan in San Francisco to drive clients down the Pacific Coast Highway through Big Sur to Los Angeles. Fortunately, there was no drop-off charge at LAX. Look out for that.

Sometimes the added fees can really cut into apparent savings. Take this case: shows a full-size car on a weekday in Chicago as $78 – already too expensive in my book. But wait, that doesn’t include an airport concession fee recovery, customer facility charge, energy surcharge, and taxes. Together they add more than $36 a day to the price! The real price is $114! (Note: at least Costco’s tool presents the total price in its calculations, not the unbundled cost. They also waive any additional driver fees if you reserve through them.)

Hertz would also like you to sign up for “convenience options.” Think $8/day for satellite radio, $14 for a child seat, and a whopping $17/day for GPS – you know, the feature that is on your phone for free. Watch out for add-ons!

8. What I personally don’t do

Everybody has an opinion about how to save money. You have read some of mine. Here is what I don’t do. I never prepay for a gas. Yes, filling up just before returning is one more thing to remember, but the savings is significant.

I don’t prepay for the vehicle. I know there is a savings, but it comes at a price. I like to be able to change my mind and cancel a reservation without a penalty. (Your mileage may vary).

I don’t often choose off-airport locations. Yes, sometimes they can be a little cheaper; but the hassle and expense of getting there and back, usually older inventory, and fewer choices make this a non-starter for me. Be careful, too of business hours. What if your plans change, and you need to stay in town for dinner, catching a later flight. But wait, that off-airport location where you rented from closed at 5:00pm. Now what?

Charlotte Ye Tesla

Don’t forget to splurge!

If you follow these tips you are certain to save money. Since we are upscale on a budget, we usually like to take those savings and spend them elsewhere. How about next time renting a shiny new Tesla?

Why go to a travel show?

Why go to a travel show?

Have you ever considered a trip to India? What about a cruise through the Mediterranean? Do you dream of going on a safari in Africa or maybe hiking to the bottom of the Grand Canyon? How would you decide? Who would you ask? Where do you even start? The answer is to attend a travel show, where hundreds of experts are gathered together to help you begin your research.

You will come home with a head full of ideas and a bag full of glossy brochures. It’s low pressure. It’s entertaining. It’s informative. It’s a day of fun!

Rock climbing Travel Show

In the U.S., my favorite is the Travel & Adventure Show. Held on a Saturday and Sunday in some major market convention centers, they are just the ticket (and tickets are cheap). In 2016, the show is in San Diego, Chicago, Dallas, Washington DC, Los Angeles (Long Beach), SF/Bay Area, and Philadelphia. A complete rundown can be found at

First, this show features hundreds of exhibitors across a wide range of interests and geography, from the Taiwan Tourism Bureau to Himalayan High Treks to the Zulu Nyala Game Reserve.

Second, you can listen to keynote speakers, such as Samantha Brown, Patricia Schultz, Pauline Frommer, and Rick Steves, as they share their travel insights

Third, there are performances from cultural to culinary – dance and music groups to cooking demonstrations from notable chefs.

Folklorico dancers Travel Show

Fourth, there are activities for you, which range from rock climbing to zip lines to Segway riding.

Finally, there are prizes, show-only specials and other travel giveaways.

The same company runs all the Travel & Adventure Shows. But some U.S. cities have their own travel shows, such as New York and Boston. You will have to do your own research to see if there is one in a big city near you.

Of course, the U.S. isn’t the only country to get in on this act. For example, the International Tourism and Travel Show in Montreal covers three days in October. And ITB Berlin claims to be the World’s Leading Travel Trade Show. These bragging rights are backed up some 10,000 exhibitors from 185 countries for this 5-day show for both the trade and public.

A rather exhaustive list of worldwide specialty shows can be found at It is a great place to begin your search.

So what have we learned from the celebrity speakers so far?

Samantha Brown - Stephen Henson

Shown above is the always enchanting and affable Samantha Brown, from the Travel Channel. She is someone I could listen to for hours. Why? Her speeches are always fresh and full of wide-eyed stories from the road. She really embodies all that is magical about travel in a down-to-earth manner.

Some of Samantha’s messages this year:

The most memorable travel is never in the must-sees, always in the mundane.

Her two pillars when on a trip are 1) go for a walk and 2) create a ritual. After viewing artwork and monuments and history to the saturation point, she likes to just ramble – to take two hours and go for a walk. No expectations, except to encounter the local people.

Samantha creates a ritual by doing the same thing every day – her way of settling into a new place. In her case it is often to visit the same coffee shop every day, eventually striking up conversations.

I will have to agree that the absolute best travel memories for me involve people more than places; the special connections you make in an otherwise foreign environment.

Patricia Shultz - Stephen Henson

I met Patricia Schultz, shown above, for the first time. She is the celebrated author of the best-selling “1,000 Places to See Before You Die.” She talks with passion about her love for Italy (she is half Italian, half German) and especially Venice. Who would disagree?

Patricia’s speeches this year remind us to try new locales – not just Prague and Budapest, but Romania; not waiting for things to “settle down” before venturing to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv; seeing both St. Petersburg and Moscow; exploring Africa.

Pauline Frommer

Pauline Frommer, pictured above in a pensive moment, is sort of travel royalty. Her father is Arthur Frommer, who practically invented the travel guidebook, and who, at age 86 is still quite the traveler. Pauline now runs the Frommer’s publishing empire, but is as approachable as she is smart.

Her speeches are always a wealth of information, based on research done by the company:

The best airline search engines for finding low fares are surprisingly, and

The best site for hotels is, followed by, and for Asia. is the place for comparing those kinds of cruises.

To simplify travel insurance, check out and

Pauline Frommer on stage

Peter Greenberg, the Emmy award-winning investigative reporter and CBS News Travel Editor also spoke at the show I attended, but unlike Samantha, Patricia, and Pauline, I didn’t get a chance to speak with him. He gives a no-nonsense speech about travel though, and delivers a lot of detailed advice on how to do battle with the airline and hotel industry.

You should allow a half-day just to listen to these celebrity travel speakers. You will come away much smarter.

Samantha Brown cited a study by that found 4 in 10 American employees finished the year with unused time off. It resulted in 429 million unused days off. The rest of the civilized world thinks we’re crazy. They’re right. Get out there and travel! A travel show is a great place to get started.

Why it pays to be loyal to a hotel chain

Why it pays to be loyal to a hotel chain

The hotel in Bangkok gave me a luxurious suite. In the morning I feasted on their sumptuous buffet breakfast. They granted me a 7:00pm checkout, since I was taking a late-night flight. All for free. It pays to be loyal – in this case, to be Starwood Platinum.

To be upscale on a budget almost requires one to be loyal to travel programs from hotels to airlines. Yet, I have met so many people who say, “Oh, I just stay in the convention’s recommended hotel.” “I just picked a flight on Expedia.” They are missing out on a chance to move upscale, while still holding to a budget.

Barcelona Le Meridien

Personally, I made a decision more than a decade ago to try to stay in Starwood properties whenever possible. They offer plenty of choices across a range of prices, with The Luxury Collection and St. Regis on the top end, then Westin, W, Le Meridien and Sheraton, and specialty brands, like Aloft and Elements. With more than a thousand properties in 100 countries, I can usually find what I’m looking for. I first achieved Gold status. Then 50 nights in a year led to Platinum privileges. Finally, 10 years in a row of Platinum earned me Starwood Lifetime Platinum.

Beijing Westin Financial St Hotel front

So what? Well, for example, as a Platinum member I usually book the cheapest room possible, because I know the hotel will upgrade me, often to a suite. Breakfast is included, as is a 4:00pm checkout. Lots of things that we all hate to pay for are complimentary, such as Internet, bottled water, fitness centers, and club-level rooms. I can even book a room when the hotel is sold out. I earn bonus points, which keeps me playing the game. If I absolutely require a suite, say on a family trip, I get 10 suite nights a year to tap into. The list goes on.

Sheraton Grande pool overhead

By now you may be thinking, “Is Starwood reimbursing him to say nice things?” No, and there are other good loyalty programs out there, depending on your preference. We vote each year in the Freddie Awards, and Marriott usually edges out Starwood for Program of the Year (note that Marriott now is planning to buy Starwood). In 2015, Starwood won for Best Redemption Ability and Hyatt for Best Elite Program. Just do your research and select the right program for you. Then stay loyal!

Bangkok Grande Sheraton library

I’m planning a trip to Stockholm for the TBEX conference. The closest hotel to the convention center is the Radisson Blu, with a special TBEX rate of about US$200, including tax. I would be tempted to stay there, with the convention just a 5-minute walk from my 24-square meter room. But just 3 minutes further away is a Starwood hotel (Sheraton), where I could probably score a 37-square meter junior suite, buffet breakfast, etc., for the about the same price. Or I could drop the price to US$110, if I wanted to use 6K points each night (cash and points option) or free, if I wanted to cash in 10K points per night.

Shanghai Le Meridien suite

Ah, the points game. It’s not just about using airline miles. If you stay in 10 different hotel chains over the course of a year, you will rack up a scattering of points in each, basically of little value. But if you stayed loyal to the same brand, you may have earned enough points for a free night. The hotel in Bangkok I mentioned at the beginning of this article was the Sheraton Grande Suhkumvit, a Luxury Collection hotel. Besides the 4-room suite, amazing world-class buffet breakfast, and free drinks and food in the Library, I was staying for free (using points).

Bangkok Sheraton Grande library appetizer

Don’t forget the almighty credit card. There is a reason the Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) American Express card is one of the most popular among frequent travelers. You earn Starpoints fast. I use this card whenever possible, and it gives me enough points for about 10-12 free nights every year. Okay, I spend a lot. Damn you, Costco! But if you figure an average upscale room in a major city costs about US$300 per night, including taxes, that Amex card can save me more than US$3,000 a year!

You need to figure out what a point is worth to you. In my Stockholm example, to cash in 10K points in lieu of paying about US$200 a night, would make each point worth only 2 cents. The cash and points option is worse; each point is worth about 1.5 cents. I should pay the full rate and save my points for a better deal. I recently spent a weekend at the Westin Miyako Kyoto, Japan, where my room would have cost about US$500 a night. However, I was able to get a suite for just 10K points a night, so each point was worth 5 cents!

Beijing Westin Residence apartment

If you travel a lot and follow my advice, you can build up zillions of points to use in select situations, like my Kyoto example. So get out of that cramped room and enjoy suites and other amenities you might be missing out on today!

Coming up I will explain why it pays to be airline loyal too. Subscribe in the box below, and I will let you know when that post is written. And feel free to comment below the box.

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