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Sandra’s top travel tips — planning and packing

by Sandra Hutchinson

I’m constantly getting notified of posts on blogs and on Pinterest that list writers’ travel tips and hacks. They tend to be repetitive, in my opinion, so I’ve decided to share my own.

Apps and websites for booking airline tickets and planning your trip (these are just a few of my favorites):

Seat guru: check this site — seatguru.com —before you purchase your airline tickets — enter the flight number and airline, and you can find detailed seat maps of your particular aircraft. What looks like a great seat on the chart when you book online through your booking site, may in fact be less than optimal. It may be lacking a window, for example, be next to a bathroom, or not recline for some reason. On the seat guru site, hover your cursor over a particular seat, and a description pops up telling you whether there are any issues. Just make sure you have the correct seat map for your particular aircraft. This image is a portion of a seat map for a large aircraft.

When booking airline tickets, I may search on google flights, but I almost always book directly on the airline website. This usually ensures that you can reserve a particular seat. I have found that on third party sites, you may not be able to select your seat when booking, and will be forced to later call the airline directly to reserve a seat, or worse, not select the seat until you’re at the gate (and that usually means they select, not you). It’s even more difficult with international carriers.

Maps.me: download this app on your iphone or iPad and you have an extremely useful navigation aid that works offline. I have used it extensively in London, and it even tells me which double decker buses to take between various points. It provides best routes between destinations for walking, driving and public transportation. Excellent.

Download free guides on Kindle Unlimited: If you have the Kindle app on your devices, for $9.99 a month for Kindle Unlimited, or for a free, 30-day trial, you can download various travel guides and avoid having to haul around heavy books. I have accessed a number of Lonely Planet travel guides for various locales through Kindle Unlimited.

Culture Trip: check your destination on this site, Culture Trip: Created for the Curious — for recommendations for sights to see, restaurants, things to do, etc. It led me to a great outdoor bar in Cartagena, Colombia with a view of the setting sun, and I’m using it to help plan my explorations of the university colleges in Oxford, England, during an upcoming week while (whilst) I’m taking a class there. It’s a website as well as a downloadable app. Many different writers with various points of view.

Packing for a long flight:

If, like most of us, you can’t swing first or business class on a long flight, there are some things you can bring to make your flight more comfortable.

Not all travel pillows are created equal. Do your research and don’t just buy any old foam pillow in the newsstand before boarding your flight. One of my favorite pillows actually buckles under the chin, thereby extending the support under the chin. It’s made of memory foam and when compressed, packs down into its own pouch. It takes up a decent amount of space in my carry-on, but I know I’ll regret it if I ever leave home without it.

The air is dry up there and the light can be bright. Bring an eye mask, lip balm and a small tube of hand cream. Oh, and lots of water. Airports are increasingly installing water bottle fill machines in terminals so you can easily fill your own bottle. Why be forced to pay $5 for a bottle of Aquafina in in the terminal after you’ve gone through security?

Portable battery block for recharging devices. I’ve been on planes which purportedly have an outlet below the seat, but you’d have to be double jointed to twist yourself down there to find it and actually plug something in. My battery pack has short cables that pop out which charge both my Apple devices (lightning) and my Bose headphones (micro USB).

Handbag advice: I generally do not carry a handbag on the flight, opting instead to put everything in the Bric’s carry-on that I keep under the seat in front of me. But once I arrive at my destination, I use either a crossbody nylon bag or a crossbody sling, which I can easily position so the section containing my valuables rests across my chest. I’ve got bags from Tumi, Baggalini and Travelon. Travelon has models with special security features, such as a metal wire inside the strap (hopefully preventing someone from slashing the strap and grabbing the bag), as well as locking clips on the zippers to prevent theft. I was very happy with my Travelon crossbody with these and other security features during a three-city trip to Colombia. It My model even has an exterior pocket for a water bottle.
The image of the bag is just one style of many that Travelon manufactures.




Headphones: I travel with a set of Bose noise-cancelling headphones, not only for excellent sound quality of music, podcasts, etc., but to protect my hearing from loud noises, such as those one experiences in small planes (I usually fly every summer on a very small plane, typically Cape Air, and these are an absolute necessity). My headphones are wireless, so if I’m on a (larger) plane with an entertainment system, I need to bring regular ear buds that I can plug into the port.

Protect your hearing, especially on small planes, with noise-canceling headphones or good ear plugs.

Some luggage and clothing suggestions

Brightly colored luggage tags and/or eBags digitally-encoded luggage tags: since it is indeed true, as the airlines warn you, that many bags look alike, I usually hook a large, brightly-colored luggage tag on any checked suitcase to quickly distinguish it on the conveyer belt. I also have digitally encoded luggage tags from eBags that feature a code that can be scanned by someone finding your lost bag, which then sends you an alert about its location. You must download an app onto your smartphone in order to use this. I’ve never had to use the features of this luggage tag, but it does give me some peace of mind.


I often bring a large but lightweight wool scarf or pashima that I can drape across myself for some warmth on the plane. It also works as a fashion scarf, and when opened up, as a shawl or cover-up.

I always bring a zip-up, lightweight, stretchy knit jacket on any trip (think Danskin or Columbia brands), that can work with many different outfits. Plus, you can tie it around your waist when not wearing it.


On long trips when I know I’ll be shopping and bringing items home with me, I like to bring a lightweight nylon duffel bag that I can fold and slide into a pocket in a suitcase (see the beige bag, below). When I’m packing to come home, I can fill it with clothing and then pack other items in my suitcase that will be checked. (The satchel handbag was a purchase from Cumbria, England, made of tweed woven from the region’s native Herdwick sheep — not the kind of bag I would travel overseas with, but here I was heading home and it was then packed inside the suitcase.)

I love the various travel clothing options from Orvis. They’ve got a lot of practical and lightweight items, including my favorite, the Pack-and-Go Travel Jacket. Packs into its own little pouch. Many of their travel garments like dresses and tops are made from a great fabric that is lightweight, barely wrinkles, and can be easily washed and air-dried. They also have UV-protective clothing and lightweight, compressible down-alternative vests and jackets. Great quality all around.



Zip-lock plastic bags are your friends. Not only for small liquids to get through TSA, but to keep things like cords, cables, small personal items, etc. easily visible and accessible.


If you have your own tips, please add them below in the comments section! Thanks for reading!





4 thoughts on “Sandra’s top travel tips — planning and packing

  1. Good advice Sandra, I always use SeatGuru when deciding where to sit and usually book flights on the airline’s own website as I find it often to be best value and as you say, offer benefits of seat selection at the time of booking or earlier than with Expedia, etc. I do sometimes book short-haul flights with Expedia if I’m wanting to combine with accommodation as they can be slightly cheaper booked together. I used to take a neck pillow on board long flights but gave up with the idea a long time ago as I couldn’t be bothered carrying one around and I find the seats comfortable enough. I seem to have developed the art of sleeping on planes, it’s one advantage of being only 5’1″ !


    • Hi Marion! Thanks for your additional insight. I won’t book a flight without checking seat guru. I hope I don’t look too ridiculous sleeping on a plane with my noise canceling headphones, eye mask and neck pillow!

      Liked by 1 person

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