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17 Essential Rules Of Travel That I Absolutely Swear By (And You Might Want To Adopt Some Of These Too)

These little tips and habits will make travel more fun, seamless, and affordable.

I'm Hannah, and traveling is probably my favorite thing in the world. I've traveled to more than 35 countries, and I am constantly trying to save up so that I can spend pretty much every disposable dollar I have on exploring new places.

Me in Tuscany
Hannah Loewentheil

There are a handful of rules I stick to when I'm planning and traveling in order to have the most fun, seamless, memorable, and affordable experience as possible. So, here are my golden rules of traveling.

1. Always consider traveling during the shoulder season.

A sunny day in Italy
Hannah Loewentheil

If I could share one absolute best travel tip, this is it. The shoulder season is the period that comes between peak tourist season and before the low season. And depending on what hemisphere you're traveling to, the shoulder season can be different. Generally speaking, traveling during this period of time means better rates, fewer crowds, and really pleasant weather. This past October, I took a trip to Tuscany — a hugely popular summer destination — where I took advantage of discounter hotel rates, almost no crowds, and perfect, sunny early fall weather. If I had taken the same trip during summertime, I would have probably spent three times as much. 

2. And do your research about the best travel seasons before booking.

Horses playing on the beach in Indonesia
Hannah Loewentheil

Even within the same country and the same season, different regions can experience very different weather. For instance, even during the very same month, the climate in Northern Chile could look drastically different from that of Southern Chile. So before you book a trip, spend some ample time reading up online or in travel books about what weather to expect. If you can ask a local, they are often the best resource. 

I was trying to plan a trip to Indonesia in November, but blogs and websites warned that November is peak rainy season. This made me nervous, and I almost completely changed my plans. But after researching more and talking to others who traveled to Indonesia the same time of year, I learned that rain hardly ever lasts longer than a few hours. As fate would have it, I didn't experience a single drop of rain during my nine days in Indonesia. 

3. Give yourself at least a week or two to track flight prices before pulling the trigger.

A person typing on a laptop
Getty Images

Booking flights can be a real pain in the butt. Prices are constantly changing, and airlines even use dynamic pricing in order to adjust fares based on your search history. Sometimes, I'll check a flight on a Saturday and then find that it's hundreds of dollars cheaper on a Tuesday after clearing my cookies. As a result, I never immediately book a flight. There are some studies that show booking two to three months out is the sweet spot for finding the best flight deals. 

I use this as a general rule, but then I spend about two weeks tracking flight prices before I actually book. If I notice that the price of my desired flight dropped on a Tuesday and went back up the next day, I'll look the following Tuesday. If the price is still low, I'll pull the trigger. 

4. And if your travel plans are flexible, consider using the discover feature on popular booking sites like Google Flights or Hopper.

A screenshot from Google Flights explore feature
Hannah Loewentheil

When I'm thinking of planning a trip or even just day dreaming, I love to use Google Flights' "explore" feature. This feature lets you plug in your home base, a time frame (such as "one-week trip in February"), and additional filters like nonstop flights and flight duration to determine the most affordable destinations. Obviously this feature doesn't work great when you're sticking to a hard plan, but if you don't really have a destination in mind and just want to travel somewhere new, it seriously comes in handy.

5. Fly midweek whenever possible.

A plane landing in the sunset
Getty Images

The easiest way to get hit with expensive airfare is flying on a Friday and returning home on a Sunday. Of course, sometimes your schedule won't allow you the flexibility to fly midweek, but whenever possible, flying on a Thursday instead of a Friday or returning home on Tuesday instead of Sunday can be a real dollar saver. Same goes with holidays. Flying on a day like Thanksgiving or Christmas as opposed to before or after can be clutch.

6. And with hotels, too, keep an eye on prices before booking.

A hotel villa with a plunge pool
Hannah Loewentheil

Hotel prices might not fluctuate as much as airfare does, but they are also constantly changing. Certain hotels also have special early bird or last minute travel deals, so check the website before booking to see if there are any special prices that might apply to your trip if you can book early or late. Once I determine which hotel I want to stay at, I check the prices on Google every day for about two weeks to get the best possible rate. It might sound tedious, but it usually pays off.

7. Speaking of hotels, always book directly.

A hotel room with an ocean view
Hannah Loewentheil

Even when the rates look seriously more appealing, I try to resist the temptation of using a third-party booking site like Expedia, Orbitz, or Travelocity. I've had enough frustrating experiences to realize the slight savings just aren't worth the headache. If you book directly, you can make any changes or cancellations easily without having to go through a third party. Plus, if you book directly, you're also way more likely to experience perks like room upgrades upon check-in. 

8. Rely on public transportation when necessary, but walk as much as possible.

A screenshot from the Health app
Hannah Loewentheil

One of the easiest ways to cut costs while traveling is avoiding the urge to take taxis and a ride-hailing service like Uber. Trust me, the last thing I want to do after a long flight is navigate the public transportation system, but most major cities have easy, cheap, and efficient trains or buses that will take you right from the airport to the center of the city. So whenever I'm feeling lazy and ready to hail a car, I always remind myself that I'd much rather take that $70 Uber ride and spend it on a great meal. 

Once I'm in a city, I take the subway, tram, or popular mode of public transportation if I have to travel far, but for the most part I try to walk as much as possible. Traveling by foot is my absolute favorite way to explore a city, and it often takes you to cool, off-the-beaten-path neighborhoods you could easily miss if you were to take the metro or a bus.

9. Don't be afraid to get a little bit lost.

The entrance to a tapas restaurant in Spain
Hannah Loewentheil

This sort of goes hand in hand with walking as much as possible, but some of my most rewarding travel experiences have occurred when I put down my map and just let myself get lost in a new place. Whether it's stumbling upon an unbelievable taqueria in an locals-only neighborhood in Mexico City, a closet-sized tapas bar off the beaten track in Barcelona, or a secret cove in Bali, I've found some of my favorite places abroad when I have zero plan and no idea what I'm looking for.

10. And pack really good walking sneakers.

My worn-in sneakers with holes in the toes
Hannah Loewentheil

IMO, if there is a single most important item of clothing you could pack for a trip, it's comfortable walking sneakers. And make sure you've broken those sneaks in ahead of time. I wouldn't dare travel without my All Birds Tree Runners. And no, this isn't an advertisement; they're just the comfiest walking sneakers I've ever worn. 

11. When traveling outside of a city, consider renting a car.

Hannah Loewentheil

It's easy enough to use public transportation to explore a city, but whenever I'm traveling outside of a city, I debate whether or not to rent a car. What I've discovered is that when in doubt, it's usually a good idea. My husband and I were taking a trip to Iceland and staying in Reykjavik, but every day we planned to take excursions to see the nearby waterfalls, lava fields, and black sand beaches galore.

A view of Tuscany from a car window
Hannah Loewentheil

It was easy enough to arrange guided group tours, but we ended up renting a car. Ultimately, that was the best decision we made on our whole trip. The ability to explore at our own pace and follow our whims even when they took us off the beaten path made our whole experience. The idea of renting a car in an unknown place often seems intimidating, but it always ends up being a breeze and an amazing way to explore.

12. Talk to locals and ask them for their favorite spots.

Hannah Loewentheil

In addition to traveling during the shoulder season, this is probably my favorite and most important travel rule. Locals know best. Whenever I'm traveling, I try to talk to locals as much as I can, whether it's a server at a restaurant, a bartender, the woman sitting next to me at dinner the night before, anyone.

An empty hot spring
Hannah Loewentheil

I love asking about the things they do for fun on their days off, the best restaurants only locals know about, the best places to shop, and the places that most tourists wouldn't hear about in guide books or travel websites. Of course, not everyone will have the same taste as you, but local advice makes a great starting point for doing your own travel research and winding up at some amazing spots. 

13. Vow to eat just about anything.

Shirako, or cod sperm sack, at a restaurant in Tokyo
Hannah Loewentheil

Now I'm not a picky eater, but I'm not the most adventurous eater either. That being said, whenever I travel I try to eat pretty much whatever presents itself, even if its not a part of my ordinary diet. If I'm trying a tasting menu or sitting at the chef's counter, I say I have no dietary restrictions, and if a waiter or local suggests I try the local specialty, I am always game.

A piece of fish with a side salad
Hannah Loewentheil

As a result, I've eaten some of the most delicious meals of my entire life by being adventurous. But it's also led me to some pretty strange dishes from cod sperm sack and raw chicken sashimi in Tokyo (yup, you read that right), to ant larvae and grasshopper in Mexico City, and even heart in Rome. And while I wouldn't necessarily order many of those things again, I did feel like trying them in the moment gave me an interesting look into the local culture and cuisine. Plus, they make for some pretty memorable culinary experiences that I can look back on later.

14. And do some things that are out of your comfort zone.

Me jumping off a cliff into a lake
Hannah Loewentheil

Daredevil is not a word that I'd use to describe myself, not even in the slightest. And there are some activities — like sky diving or bungee jumping — that I would never ever consider. But whenever I travel, I try to go outside of my comfort zone, even if it's just something small like spending a night in a remote part of the Sahara Desert (I get pretty freaked out when I'm totally off the grid), zip-lining across the canopy of a rain forest in Costa Rica, or jumping off a cliff into a hidden lake in Indonesia.

For some, these might sound like pretty small feats, but for me they were moments that challenged me to get outside of my comfort zone and take a risk. And looking back, some of my favorite travel memories are these moments that felt really scary at the time. 

15. Never eat right near popular tourist attractions.

A picnic lunch in Paris near the Eiffel Tower
Hannah Loewentheil

Yes, I'll eat pretty much anything while I'm traveling, but I have a hard and fast rule about avoiding restaurants located very close to popular tourist attractions. If there's a restaurant next door to the Colosseum in Rome, a bar along bustling Las Ramblas in Barcelona, or a bar overlooking the Acropolis of Athens, you can almost guarantee it's going to be a tourist trap and a rip-off. If I'm dying for a meal with a view of the the Eiffel Tower, I'll avoid the overpriced restaurant and pack myself a picnic.  

16. Find a good balance between splurge meals and budget bites like street food.

A plate of spaghetti carbonara
Hannah Loewentheil

IMO, food is one of the most important parts of traveling. That's why whenever I go somewhere new, I budget to spend some money on really amazing, delicious meals. At the same time, I am obsessed with street food, and taking advantage of a city's affordable, on-the-go eats is a great way to complement those more pricey, splurge meals. 

Me holding an egg salad sandwich in Tokyo
Hannah Loewentheil

And while I'll forever remember the incredible omakase sushi meals I ate in Japan, I'll also never forget the $2 convenience store egg salad sandwiches, the cheap onigiri — rice balls filled with spicy tuna and wrapped in nori — and the delightfully greasy okonomiyaki I ordered from market stalls in Kyoto. And I'd be lying if I told you the extravagant tasting menu at Pujol in Mexico City was any more satisfying than the street food al pastor tacos that cost me about 20 cents.

17. Have a loose plan, but leave room to be spontaneous.

A view from a boat in Kyoto
Hannah Loewentheil

Whenever I travel, I try to plan enough in advance so that my trip has a little bit of structure, but I like to leave room for spontaneity, too. Maybe I booked a dinner reservation and then a local tells me I absolutely have to try this hidden gem of a restaurant, or perhaps I had a day trip planned to one town when a fellow traveler tells me about an unforgettable excursion they took somewhere else in the opposite direction. Whatever the case, I always find I have the best experience when traveling with a loose itinerary that allows for flexibility and spur-of-the-moment changes. 

Do you have any "rules" for the best possible travel experience? Tell us in the comments!