With most U.S. airlines implementing fees for checked bags this year, it was time to review my packing strategy to make sure everything could fit within a reasonably sized carry-on (fanciful footwear, out; monochromatic wardrobe, in). Only it turns out other people had the same idea: on my most recent domestic flights, the overhead luggage bins were stuffed well before most passengers had boarded.
These cramped conditions created a Lord of the Flies effect, where people felt no shame in shoving other suitcases aside to find space for their own overpacked rollies. Although the flight attendants did their best to control the chaos by gate-checking bags, the process backed up boarding for more than 15 minutes — and added stress to an already cranky atmosphere. As one packed bin flew open during takeoff, I couldn't help wondering how much the airlines were compromising safety to boost their bottom line.
Treat: New iPhone goes the extra mile
There are many reasons to rationalize buying the new iPhone, but I made my case after discovering and downloading a myriad of travel applications from the iTunes store. And what a difference they made, for trips both international and domestic. I used a currency tracker to convert dollars into colones in Costa Rica, consulted Yelp.com for restaurant recommendations in Vermont's rural Northeast Kingdom, and learned a couple of crucial French phrases (from a program that even provided pronunciation help) to ask for directions on Quebec's Ile d'Orleans. Plus the iPhone makes it easy to post pictures and update status lines on social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook. With flexibility like this, I couldn't have a better travel companion.
Trick: And good luck filling the tank
No Cobalt for you! Just as countless car dealerships are stuck with SUVs on their lots as gas prices surge, so too are the nation's car rental firms, prompting many travelers to be hit with the dreaded "involuntary upgrade." So even if you've reserved a frugal Ford Focus, you could easily end up with a behemoth truck at the counter.
Treat: Google Maps: Who needs GPS?
For those who haven't joined the GPS navigation revolution, you may be already holding a partial solution. Download the free mobile version of Google Maps on your smartphone, and you'll have many of the same navigation and travel services as a car-based system.
On a road trip through the busy Northeast Corridor this summer, I downloaded the tool on a BlackBerry. It immediately picked up the embedded GPS chip and helped me determine that an alternate route south would save me from New York City traffic. It then helped me find a non-fast-food restaurant along I-81 in Pennsylvania.
Did you have any unexpected pleasures – or hassles -- this year? Share your travel tricks and treats below.