Hit the road enough and you eventually acquire a workmanlike knowledge that goes well beyond knowing what you want at the Panda Express in Terminal C before you even look at the menu. It doesn't take a travel writer to get a basic handle on the industry, which is why it always amazes me that you almost never find anything novel or particularly useful in those "savvy traveler" columns every magazine and newspaper in America trots out two or three times a year to announce for the millionth time that you should drink plenty of water while on a plane and "check the Internet" to find deals on hotels. Wow. I'll bet no mileage-club gold-level account rep crisscrossing the country ever thought to do that before.
After giving up on finding anything new in those workhorse rundowns of tired tips, I began keeping my own list of ways of making life easier away from home. Though constantly in flux, my list (abbreviated below) is meant to equip any 21st-century traveler with the knowledge to travel like a pro.
The best way to start packing for a trip is by reaching into the drawer next to the bathroom sink and grabbing a handful of trial-size toiletries ? mini shampoo, conditioner, toothpaste, aspirin, shaving cream, Band-Aids, sun screen. If you don't have a drawer like this, start one. Like old ladies who hoard cat food, I'm a habitual collector of handy-sized personal items, tossing random tubes into the basket every time I pass that shelf at the drugstore, lifting them out of hotel bathrooms, plucking them off of maid carts left unattended in hallways. Keep enough of these plastic bottles around and you can be out the door for Kabul ten minutes after National Geographic calls the house.
Hang up on morons
Because your telephone instincts are always right, disengage from halfwits as soon as you get one on the line. Not regarded as a keenly self-motivated group to begin with, telephone reservation agents perform a repetitive and stressful job for little money ? hotel and motel reservation clerks average less than $20,000 a year. They increasingly work from home, where the distractions of kids, dogs, dinner, and Oprah divert attention from the disembodied entity in Nevada looking for a deal on a Reno-to-Boise hop. Reservation agents quit all the time ? twenty-five percent annual turnover at call centers is considered good, a hundred percent is the norm in some places.
If the voice on the other end of the line suggests a creature with the problem-solving capacity of a juvenile Bonobo and the interpersonal skills of a Calcutta cabbie, cut your losses and hang up. Keep calling back until you're connected with a voice that conjures the competent, smiling woman in the headset they show on TV cheerfully booking first-class flights to Venice. There are more than 300,000 travel reservations operators working in the United States. Don't waste time on the 150,000 lousy ones.
Spicy is almost never spicy
In the U.S. when they tell you it's spicy, it's not spicy. In the rest of the world when they tell you it's spicy, there's a twenty-percent chance it's spicy. In Thailand when they tell you it's spicy, it's going to taste like someone shoving a blowtorch down your throat for the next twenty-five minutes.
Never eat airplane food
There's a reason the "bistro bags," box lunches, and assorted snacks ? as well as the meals served on longer flights and in first-class ? are referred to as "earthquake food" by the flight attendants who serve them. Anything with an unrefrigerated shelf life of up to a year ought not technically be considered "food." The smartest way to prep for a flight is to eat a big meal beforehand and pick up some fruit or deli items on the way to the airport. The same rules apply to international trips. And, yes, it's a long flight, but if you can't go ten hours without eating, you shouldn't be visiting Sri Lanka in the first place.
Pay through the nose ? and like it
If you're going all the way to the Grand Tetons or Virgin Islands or Rome, pay the upcharge for the nicer room with the panoramic view. You're on vacation ? let the travel writers worry about living like an animal on a scratch-and-claw budget. As Robertson Davies wrote, "When one is traveling, one must expect to spend a certain amount of money foolishly." Accept this inevitability with equanimity and you'll enjoy the trip more.
My complete list of travel tips, and other updated wisdom for the modern traveler can be found in Smile When You're Lying. Dispatches, reviews, a cool slide show with funny captions, and more book stuff can be found at www.chuckthompsonbooks.com.