Unusual travel tricks that really work

At SmarterTravel, we're big fans of "lifehacks," or MacGyver-like workarounds for common problems. From making the elevator go directly to your floor to fixing a broken zipper, these not-so-well-known tips make travel a little bit easier.

Expedite your elevator trip


Here is a trick that pizza deliverymen have supposedly been using for years: If you want to upgrade your elevator to VIP status, simply press the desired floor number and the "door close" buttons simultaneously for several seconds. The elevator will override other requests and skip all other floors, whisking you away to your destination and making you feel like a big shot in no time.

(While elevator manufacturers claim that this may not work on all models, a quick bit of scientific "research" in a condo building's elevator proved that it does—much to the chagrin of my neighbors.)

Cancel for free

This is a no-brainer, but it's something that many travelers don't think to do. If you missed the cancellation window for your hotel, restaurant, or car booking but can still change the reservation date free of charge, move your reservation back by several weeks or months. Then call back to cancel with a different representative. Sneaky? Sure. But it works, and you'll never get stuck with a lousy cancellation fee again.

Some reservation services, like OpenTable, allow the representative to see the "history" of the booking, but many pressed-for-time agents won't bother to check.

Defend your legroom

We've already tackled the etiquette of reclining one's airplane seat, and about 32 percent of our readers said that it was their right to tilt at will. For those passengers sitting behind the reclining ones, we have some solutions to defend your legroom from encroachment. The first is the controversial Knee Defender ($19.95), a pocket-sized plastic device that locks onto your tray table and prevents the seat in front of you from reclining. It won't win you any friends, but it is approved by the FAA for use.

The second solution? Just ask. I've had good luck with politely asking the flyer in front of me if they would refrain from reclining while I ate or used my laptop.

Fix a broken suitcase zipper

It's happened to everyone: Your suitcase zips just fine when you leave, but upon packing for your return trip, it fails to close. Rather than replace your luggage, consider these quick zipper hacks. If the zipper appears to be stuck, rub Vaseline, lip balm, or bar soap on the teeth to get it moving. Zipper teeth no longer staying closed? Usually a single tooth is bent out of shape. Feel along the length of the zipper until you find the one that sticks out, and then a quick adjustment with pliers will do the trick. And if the zipper handle has snapped off from the slider completely, replace it by looping a souvenir keychain through the slider, creating a makeshift zipper pull. (An eye-catching keychain will also help you identify your bag on the luggage carousel.)

Find free Wi-Fi (really)

Paying for Wi-Fi access is a traveler's pet peeve, especially when stuck in an airport on an infinite layover. Never be left analog again: This handy Lifehacker article, "The Definitive Guide to Finding Free Wi-Fi," rounds up a number of ways to locate a hot spot free of charge. (Caveat emptor: Some are of questionable legality.) Our favorite (above-board) tip is to download a program such as NetStumbler, which goes above and beyond your computer's built-in Wi-Fi detector by locating "hidden" Wi-Fi networks your PC might have missed. If you're on a Bluetooth-enabled Mac, iStumbler will provide the same service. Smartphone users can get apps like JiWire's Free Wi-Fi Finder, whose directory tracks the exact location of nearly 150,000 free networks worldwide.

If all else fails, find the inevitable Starbucks. Many locations offer free Wi-Fi (and you can usually perch right outside the entrance and secure a connection).

Ask for a free phone charger

Just landed, only to realize you forgot to pack your phone charger? Don't run out to replace it just yet. We’ve recently discovered that the most common item left behind in hotels is the phone charger. So before you buy another, check with the hotel's front desk for a spare.

And if you forgot your copy of "Fifty Shades of Grey," don't steel yourself for disappointment. Budget chain Travelodge reports that they recovered 7,000-some left-behind copies last year, making it the most popular book abandoned in hotel rooms … although whether you want to request it from the lost and found is up to you.

Check international airline websites for deals

When booking international flights, don't forget to compare fares with those on the airline's foreign-language website. If the airline is running a sale in a different regional market, you may be able to score sizeable savings on your overseas flight.

For example, a recent search on Polish airline LOT's English-language website found a March flight from New York to Warsaw priced at $968.75, but the Polish-language website (with help from Google Chrome's translation feature) turned up fares from 2,641.01 PLN (around $849.64)—for the exact same flight. If your credit card has a low international-transaction fee, the savings could be well worth it.

Avoid commission fees … with coffee

(Photo: FaceMePLS / flickr)
(Photo: FaceMePLS / flickr)

Starbucks addicts, rejoice! SmarterTravel Editor Caroline Costello shares a clever way to avoid having to pay a commission fee to convert that last bit of foreign cash to US dollars at the end of a vacation. First, pick up a free reloadable Starbucks Card before your international trip. Then, Costello says, "If you have leftover money in the local currency when you’re on your way home, use it to reload your card at the Starbucks location in your international airport." The money you'll save on commission fees might just cover that triple-shot-no-foam-cinnamon-soy-mocha-frappuccino with extra extra sprinkles.

Smart self-defense hacks

We've recommended the use of a dummy wallet before, but it bears repeating. Purchase a second wallet or money clip to carry while traveling. "Pad the wallet with some small bills and make it look more real by slipping in one or two of those sample credit cards you get with offers in the mail," recommends SmarterTravel Senior Editor Christine Sarkis. "In the scary and unlikely case of an actual mugging, it also gives you something to throw and run, buying you time to escape with your safety and your actual wallet."

And if you're concerned about safety but don't own pepper spray (or are in a destination where pepper spray is illegal), we have two words: Aqua Net. Anyone who has ever accidentally sprayed an aerosol hairspray in a confined space knows that it's just as painfully effective as pepper spray. Carry a small bottle in your purse if you're traveling alone or are in a questionable area; if the bottle is less than 3.4 ounces, you can even pack it in a carry-on bag.

Are you a travel MacGyver? Do you have any clever or unique travel tips? Share them in the comments!