Scarlet Sweaters and Scotch Tape: Readers Share Their Travel Hacks

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The next time you’re on a plane, if the person next to you doesn’t seem to own anything that isn’t bright red, it might be Celia Paerels. Kindle case, sweater, sunglasses, headphones, charging cord, everything in shocking scarlet: It’s how she avoids leaving anything behind in the seat or the seat pocket.

“Everybody clues into red,” said Ms. Paerels, 62, of Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y. “If you see a cardinal, you’ll know it’s 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. A large number of the tips focused on packing (Ziploc bags), sleeping better in hotels (binder clips for the curtains) or eking out more space on planes (strategies abound for snagging empty seats). But a few ideas stood out as especially clever, or unusual.

Here, in addition to Ms. Paerels’s color-coded advice, are nine of the best.

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

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

“I’ve found on my travels that if you put forth somewhat of an effort to speak the language, people are much more receptive,” Mr. Middleton said, “and it usually starts with a laugh at me butchering the words.”

Good will goes a long way toward make flying smoother, particularly as planes get more cramped and the prospect of unruly passengers sours the mood for flight crews. Mary Anne Casey, 57, of Alcochete, Portugal, has a way to sweeten the experience: When she and her husband board a flight, they give the crew a bag of individually sealed bite-size chocolates to share.

She remembered once, as they were getting off a flight in Lisbon, “the lead flight attendant ran after us and started giving us small bottles of Port wine. She felt bad that she had forgotten to thank us for the chocolates during the flight.”

You don’t see many happy faces standing in the seemingly endless line at immigration after an all-night flight. Sarah Miller, 62, Corvallis, Ore., recommends using the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Mobile Passport Control app to shorten the wait.

I could bypass a long line in Portland when I was returning from a trip to England last June,” she said. “The line for standard passport control was several hundred passengers, and no one was in the M.P.C. line. After I opened the app, I could snap a photo, answer a few questions (all done while I was walking over to the correct line), and I was done.”

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 to use at 33 U.S. international airports without any wait time. “It’s a timesaving tool for those of us who don’t travel abroad often,” Ms. Miller said.

If you do 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 be a lifesaver if you’re traveling within the United States.

When Charlie Bishop, 73, of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., found that his driver’s license wouldn’t scan at a Transportation Security Administration checkpoint for a domestic flight, his Global Entry card allowed him to proceed.

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

If you have enough frequent flier points with multiple airlines, Robert Cohen, 79, of Bixby, Okla., 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 the backups on your day of travel before they depart so the unused miles get redeposited,” Mr. Cohen warned. Those cutoff times vary by airline and may be as tight as 10 minutes before departure. You may also want to book the outbound and return flights separately rather than as a round trip, he said, because “some carriers won’t permit a cancellation on just a portion of the itinerary.”

Mary Jane Cuyler, 42, of Oslo, recalled being about 10 hours into a 15-hour flight between Los Angeles and Sydney — “I believe the plane was a Boeing 777” — when she noticed there was no toilet paper in the lavatory. She sought out a flight attendant, who pressed a lever beneath the mirror vanity and “to my complete astonishment,” she said, it popped open to reveal spare toilet paper and paper towels. “Ever since then, I’ve been able to take care of that problem myself (although it rarely occurs),” Ms. Cuyler said.

Electrical wall sockets have been bedeviling international travelers for as long as there have been appliances to plug into them. And even as more devices can adapt to different voltages, travelers are simply bringing more things that need juice.

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

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

If you take a lot of photographs, the process of sorting out what’s what can turn into a post-trip headache. Fred Essenwein, 78, of Colonia, N.J., has a trick for that. “I take a photo of the name of the town or landmark, or even just an admission ticket, before photographing the scenic views,” he said. These “little bookmarks” help him remember each place as he puts together photo books after each trip.

Mr. Essenwein has been using online services like Shutterfly for about 10 years to make his photo books, whose subjects have included a cruise to Antarctica and classic American cars he spotted in Cuba.

The English travel writer Bruce Chatwin inspired Doug Colligan’s decidedly analog way to document his explorations. Since the 1970s, Mr. Colligan, 79, of Amherst, Mass., has carried a slim Moleskine-type notebook, the brand said to be a favorite of Chatwin’s, and a small roll of Scotch tape.

“I tape onto its pages business cards from good restaurants or shops that are worth revisiting, as well as brochures from sites and museum shows and ticket stubs from memorable concerts,” Mr. Colligan explained. “The notebook becomes a travel diary and a happy souvenir.”


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