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Taking a trip somewhere within the U.S. this summer? Take it from this seasoned traveler—you don’t want to leave these items behind when you hit the road:
1. Credit Card
Usually we're not fans of credit cards, but when you travel, these are a must. If you are going somewhere that does not have a branch of your bank, a credit card is crucial. There’s nothing worse than being stuck with no cash and no easy (or fee-free) way to get it. That said, we don’t recommend taking out a cash advance on your credit card unless you’re in an absolute emergency; if you’re in a bind, it’s better to pay a few dollars to use your debit card at an out-of-network A.T.M. than to face oppressive cash-advance fees.
Maximize your dollars by using a credit card that gives you travel points or cash back. If you travel a lot, an airline miles card such as Blue Sky from American Express (which has been well-received) might make sense. Otherwise, check out our top picks for credit card rewards.
Also, it goes without saying: Don’t forget your ID.
2. Unstoppable Contact List
Don't leave home without crucial trip-related contact information, including the numbers of your hotel, rental car agency, friends you're staying with, airline--in case you have to change your flight at the last minute--and any other person you might need to talk to during your trip. Many phones let you create "groups" of contacts (normally these could be "friends," "family" or "coworkers"), so we recommend creating a special group for this particular vacation with all necessary vacation-related numbers. That way, you can find everything without a moment's hesitation. In addition, bring a written list of those crucial numbers in case your phone breaks, is lost or doesn’t get service.
3. All the Necessary Baggage
Because most airlines now change for every checked bag, pack one or two larger suitcases rather than several smaller ones. Just make sure to check your airline's weight limit, and don't overstuff those Samsonites, because you won't be able to avoid fees if your bags are over the limit. Aside from limiting yourself to carry-on bags only, there are two other ways to dodge fees:
- Fly Southwest or Jet Blue because they don't charge for the first checked bag.
- Use an airline credit card that offers checked bag rebates.
If you are like many mothers who have invested in big, honking strollers, you’ll be stumped trying to fit the behemoth onto a plane. If you’re bringing a tiny tot, a marsupial carrier like an Ergo or a Baby Bjorn kills three birds with one stone: You won’t have to bother with a stroller, you’ll have your hands free for bags and tickets and your baby is likelier to sleep through the insanity of the airport because he’ll be comforted by your closeness. Otherwise, consider investing in a light, portable stroller like the Maclaren Volo, which weighs under nine pounds and retails for $130 (but we found it for $80).
If you’re renting a car, we highly recommend bringing a GPS unit with you, particularly if it’s your first time visiting this place. If you don’t own a GPS, it may actually make sense to pony up the small daily surcharge at the car rental place to ensure you don’t spend countless hours and gas dollars driving around lost.
(You might already have free car rental insurance from your credit card. Find out.)
6. Travel Apps
If you're traveling with a smartphone, you might as well reap the benefits. Before you go, load up your phone with the most helpful apps that you might need for your vacation. Here are some of our favorite free apps:
- OpenTable: If you're not sure where to eat out in a new city, this app will do all the heavy lifting. Just plug in the number of diners, the time you want to eat, the price range and style of cuisine--the app will not only tell you where to go but will also help you make the reservation right on your phone.
- Free Wi-Fi Finder: Updated weekly, this app will find wi-fi hotspots wherever you happen to be.
- Goby: This app hits its stride if you aren't sure what to do for entertainment in a new place. It will search events and activities near you, like live music shows, family-friendly outings or outdoorsy pursuits. Then, it'll plot them on a map with details and photos.
- SitOrSquat: Although we'd rather not talk about bathrooms in any context, we'd especially like to avoid talking about bathrooms when we are in need and simply can't find one. This app will find the closest restroom to wherever you are, including the hours it's open and whether it has a changing table.
- TripIt: This app imports info from your email inbox and creates an itinerary of all your flights, meals and car trips (and will store your frequent traveler points). You need only provide it with your flight numbers, hotel confirmations and driving directions.
7. Lo-Tech Activities
No matter how well you plan, travel is inevitably filled with at least a measure of downtime. (Like flight delays, to name just one example.) So, it's always smart to have plenty of fun ways for you and your companions to pass the time. Instead of sitting at the gate at the airport buried in mp3 players, Kindles and cell phones, suggest some non-digital entertainment, too. We like taking a break from books and magazines to actually hang out with our travel mates and play cards or even do Mad Libs.
8. Healthy Snacks
There's nothing worse than being stuck in an airport and having no food options other than greasy, $20 pepperoni pizza that's been sitting under a heat lamp for hours. Next time you travel, bring healthy snacks that you'll actually enjoy. Our favorite snack is fresh fruit (apples and oranges work well, but avoid anything squishable like berries or bananas) with nutty trail mix, since the protein in the nuts keeps us fuller for longer. For additional snack ideas, we have both expert suggestions and reader picks.
And a Few More Travel Tips …
When is it cheaper to fly instead of driving? We do the math.
Should you use Expedia, Orbitz, Travelocity, Kayak or something else? We’ll tell you.
Thinking of going international instead? A Condé Nast Traveler editor spills on international travel must-haves.
Beata Santora is a former editor at Condé Nast Traveler and an avid traveler herself.