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Take the Vacay: The Biggest Takeaways From Our Travel Panel

Was ‘travel more’ one of your New Year’s resolutions? If so, we have some tips for you! Last Thursday, we hosted a travel panel at Fourpost MSP on how you can take the vacation you’ve been dreaming about. The audience heard from local travel experts MLJ Vacay, Thrifty Traveler, Urban Undercover, and Look About Lindsey.

From tools to simplify traveling to itinerary planning to how you can score great flight deals, these experts covered it all. Watch our video from the event below and check out the biggest takeaways from the discussion:

Smart & Safe Solo Traveling

Be aware of your surroundings.

It may seem obvious, but try to avoid staring down at your phone when traveling in an unfamiliar place. When it’s clear that you’re a tourist, or you’re just alone somewhere new, you need to be aware of your surroundings.

“If you’ve got your head in your phone, there are two things you should know. One is that you’re missing everything from A to B that you could be seeing and didn’t know that you wanted to see, and then it’s just not safe to not be aware of your surroundings,” says panelist Sairey Gernes, owner of travel clothing brand Urban Undercover.

While you shouldn’t be staring at your phone, you still want to make sure you have it with you. If you’re in an unfamiliar or uncomfortable location, keep your location tracking on. Let a family member or friend know where you’re supposed to be and check in with them occasionally. You should also keep to lit and busy areas, especially at night.

If you’re new to solo traveling, one of the best places to get started in is New York City. You generally won’t feel like you stick out in a crowd, and you’ll blend in, even when alone. Plus, it’s a fairly safe city packed with tons of things to do and see. No matter where you go, make sure you research where you’re staying beforehand, so that you don’t walk into a bad situation.

Packing light will also help you stay aware of your surroundings as you’ll be less concerned with carrying a ton of stuff. Plus, it will make it easier for you to get around.

Act confident.

If you’re in a new city, walk with confidence—even if you’re not feeling it. You will look less like a tourist because you’ll seem like you know what you’re doing and where you’re going. Look people in the eye instead of shying away, and act like you’re comfortable there.

If you’re just starting out as a solo traveler, pick a domestic city that is easy to walk around or has reliable public transportation. This will help you build confidence as a solo traveler as you work up to unfamiliar international destinations.

Be open to new experiences and talk to locals.

When traveling in a new place, Sairey from Urban Undercover suggests talking to your bartender or other locals and letting their advice guide you. Be open to new people, new places, and new experiences. One of the best parts of solo traveling is meeting new people and learning from them.

Making the Most of Limited Time

Maximize your weekend trips.

You don’t have to take a long vacation to get the most out of traveling. However, if you’re taking a short trip, you probably want to maximize the time you have. One way to do this is to make sure you take non-stop flights. Spend as little time in airports as possible and more of it at your destination. This might mean that you pay a little extra for your flight, but it will also give you more time exploring your destination.

If you change your mindset about what a vacation has to be, you can actually get quite a lot done in two full days. Lindsey Ranzau, one of our panelists and a local travel blogger for Look About Lindsey, says that the majority of her trips are weekend trips. When she and her husband travel, they pretend like they’re locals. They try to do what they believe a local would do. “We don’t feel pressure like we have to see every single thing there is to see, because that’s when it gets overwhelming,” she says.

Travel locally.

Lindsey and her husband also travel quite a bit locally. Since they don’t always have a ton of time for long vacations in exotic locales, they explore different spots around Minnesota.

So if you find yourself with limited time or travel funds, but want to travel and see more of the world, start at home. Explore small towns around your state. Look for hidden gems or up-and-coming foodie destinations. Local day or weekend trips are much more attainable and you still get to experience new, interesting places.

Travel Tip: Explore a local destination

Make loose plans.

Whether you’re traveling locally or internationally, however, the key is to make loose plans that allow you to try new things while still being efficient with time. Don’t try to cram in every sight you think you should see. Our panel moderator and founder of MLJ Vacay, Melissa Johnson, suggests focusing your itinerary on what you actually want to do, rather than what you think you should do.

“It’s about finding the items that you enjoy doing and building your itinerary around that, and not the items that you’re ‘supposed’ to be doing,” Melissa says. “That’s what will make your vacation.”

Sairey also suggests letting that itinerary be fairly loose, so that you’re open to experiencing new things beyond your plans. Plus, you’ll feel like you’re getting more accomplished on your trip. “The looser your itinerary, the more you feel you actually get done because you’re not looking at a list and stressing—you’re actually enjoying it,” says Sairey.

Flight Deals & Credit Cards

Start slow.

The world of miles, flight deals, and credits cards can be incredibly confusing for beginners. That’s why panelist and Thrifty Traveler founder, Jared Kamrowski, suggests starting with just one new credit card for miles. He recommends either the Capital One Venture Card or the Chase Sapphire Reserve Card.

Both Jared and Sairey say you should put a bill on your card that you pay every month anyway, such as rent. Whatever card you open, pay it off every month, so that you aren’t hit with interest fees. And make sure that the card is benefiting you more than it’s costing you. “If the benefits that you get don’t outweigh the annual fee, always close it,” says Jared.

Don’t fixate on getting the most value per mile.

Jared says that people get ‘points paralysis’ when they try to squeeze every dollar possible out of a mile. They end up never using their miles because they’re worried they aren’t getting the best deal.

Instead of fixating on getting the most per mile, try to take a trip you normally wouldn’t be able to take. And if the cost of a flight seems similar to the amount of miles you’d spend, then just go for it. It doesn’t have to be the lowest cost or an exact match to still be a good idea to use the miles. Miles are never worth more tomorrow than what they are today—they devalue over time. Melissa says you shouldn’t get into the comparison game. Focus on the deals and trips that are relevant to your life.

However, if you’re trying to get more out of your miles and destination isn’t as important to you, Jared suggests watching for Delta SkyMiles Flash Sales. He also recommends buying flights at least 45 to 60 days in advance, especially for international trips.

Tools for Better Traveling

For Flying

Google Flights is one of the most powerful flight tools you can use for finding great flights. If destination isn’t important to you, you can simply leave it off when doing a flight search and just look for the best deals around a particular date. Or you can search for flights to a destination with flexible dates.

Google Flights can also compare prices for similar dates, show you recent price trends, track prices for the best deal, and compare prices for nearby airports.

For Planning

You can save a ton of time by using a travel planning company, such as Melissa’s MLJ Vacay. However, if you’re planning on your own, Lindsey recommends using Pinterest and Instagram. Simply search by location, save whatever looks cool, and come back to it later when making your plans.

You can also use Google Maps to save all the fun spots you want to go to, so that you know where everything is when you’re out and about. If you don’t have a good international data plan or wifi, Google Maps now allows you to download entire cities offline. This way, you can still map your route without being connected to the internet.

However, if you are looking for a good data plan for your trip, Jared recommends trying Google Fi. Their plan only costs you $10 for each GB of data and works in over 200 countries.

For Experiences

Depending on where you’re going, tours can be pricey. However, Airbnb Experiences is a great alternative. Like a house or room on Airbnb, these experiences are hosted by locals. And you can generally find anything from Instagram photo sessions to local history tours to snorkeling to crafting classes.

Panelists from left to right: Lindsey Ranzau, Melissa Johnson, Jared Kamrowski, and Sairey Gernes