Following interviews with travel professionals — foodies, mileage-point wizards, flight attendants, business travelers and servicemembers — USAA compiled their tips into the top 10 ways to make your next vacation the best one yet.
1. Book air travel six to seven weeks in advance.
Procrastinators, fear not. Some airline industry groups and airline booking websites have found that travelers tend to get the best ticket prices for domestic flights six to seven weeks before the departure. If you miss the mark, though, there's still time. Typically, prices don't start increasing until 14 to 21 days before the flight.
Now the caveat: "We're not advising people to purchase tickets only at this time during the cycle, as there is no guarantee they will receive the lowest price," says Chuck Thackston of Airlines Reporting Corp. "It's just what the data indicates, and we have seen this pattern over the last four years."
2. Read your email.
Glance through those emails from airline or credit card companies before you hit the delete button. JJ Montanaro, a certified financial planner with USAA, scored on a recent trip by going through his inbox. "On the eve of a business trip to Alaska, I received a triple-miles offer," he says. "I earned an extra 10,000 miles for opening an email and signing up for a temporary program."
3. Save — and reuse — your packing list.
"When I first started traveling, I would re-create the list every single time," recalls Colleen Lanin, founder and editor-in-chief of TravelMamas.com and author of the new book "The Travel Mamas' Guide." Now, she keeps the packing checklist on her computer and prints out a copy for each trip. Surgeons use checklists to avoid leaving tools inside patients; certainly you can use one to make sure the underwear gets into the suitcase.
4. Get off the beaten path.
Go where the people aren't. You'll spend less and have an easier time redeeming mileage points. "The cool thing about doing the contrarian destinations is that there isn't a well-worn tourist path," says FrequentFlier.com founder Tim Winship. "It's more adventurous that way."
5. Check your luggage.
While some travelers would rather stuff every last item into a carry-on than pay the baggage fee, many travel experts recommend leaving vacation luggage at the check-in counter. The fee will seem like pennies when you're hauling that heavy, overflowing bag between airport terminals. And according to a 2012 Department of Transportation study, the rate of lost, damaged and delayed luggage has reached an all-time low of 0.31 percent.
6. Find a great place to stay.
Many travel sites offer consumer reviews. Before arriving — and by then, it's too late — you'll know what to expect, good and bad, at hotels the world over.
For apartment, cabin or other rentals, check out Vacation Rentals By Owner and you can also ask the landlord about nearby restaurants. Low-budget travelers who don't mind crashing on a couch or in a spare room can try airbnb.com and couchsurfing.com.
7. Create a travel toy stash.
Parents know the drill: You buy a great new toy for the plane ride, and then when your family comes home, it disappears into the toy box, never to be played with again. When the next trip rolls around, the kids expect a new travel toy.
Break the cycle by stashing those toys. "Put the toys away somewhere the kids can't find them," Lanin advises. "A hidden toy is a forgotten toy."
8. Eat well in transit and at your destination.
The GateGuru mobile app can help the hungry airport traveler find a good restaurant — on the right side of the security gate. GateGuru also can alert you when to put down that burger because your flight is boarding.
Once you arrive at your vacation destination, check food blogs to discover where the locals eat.
"Food blogs are the best resource for things like this," says food and travel blogger Melissa Kronenthal of travelerslunchbox.com. "If they care enough about food to write a blog about it, generally, they have some taste."
Kronenthal enters the name of her destination and "food blog" in Google; she says it works every time. And once you find one locavore (someone who eats food grown locally), others will inevitably be linked to that blog.
9. Enjoy breakfast in the room.
"Kids wake up, and they're hungry right away," says Lanin. She advises stocking your hotel room with bagels, yogurt, juice and fruit. "You can feed them right away, and it also doesn't eat into your day."
Many hotels will let you store items in the minibar without paying, as long as you ask first. Some hotels will even provide an empty minibar if you're traveling with kids.
10. Send a postcard (without having to find stamps).
With the Postagram mobile app, you can turn your travel photos into real postcards. Shoot a photo with your phone and enter a message, and your chosen recipient will get a stylishly personalized postcard delivered by their mail carrier.