A compendium of expert advice on using a travel agent, decoding hotel jargon, tipping, and more.

By Bora Chang, Elizabeth Jenkins, Sara Reistad-Long, and Genevieve Roth
Updated April 17, 2009
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A green hotel
| Credit: Klas Fahlén/Art Department

When to Use a Travel Agent

When you are strapped for time. Earmarking guidebooks and comparing hotel prices can take weeks. A travel agent can quickly steer you to the right locations and hotels and book everything for you (but you still have to do the packing). And while agents do charge a fee, it may not be more than an extra night at a hotel.

When you have a complicated itinerary. Visiting several cities? “We know the fastest trains, where there’s a lot of traffic getting in and out of a city, and when it’s too much trouble to have a car,” says Judith Wolf, a Spain specialist at Frosch Travel, in Deerfield, Illinois. Agents also specialize in certain countries, so they know which sites sell a limited number of tickets and what days a landmark is closed. And since some agents work in large offices, “there are 70 other people I can go to if I don’t know something,” says Wolf. To find a local agent, consult the American Society of Travel Agents (asta.org) and search by ZIP code.

How to Enlist the Help of a Concierge

Ask nicely, says Jonathan Nicholson, chief concierge at the boutique XV Beacon Hotel, in Boston. “It’s my job to help everyone, and I will, but I prefer to work with people who are polite,” he says. Translation: You’ll get better service, above and beyond the standard restaurant reservations. “We can give you ideas of places to shop or help you pick the order in which you visit museums so you can fit them all in,” says Nicholson. As for the timing of your requests for help, an hour heads-up is good; a day or two is best.

How to Tip Wisely

Anna Post, Emily Post’s great-great-granddaughter and the spokesperson for the Emily Post Institute, shares, well, tips on what to hand out when.

Doorman: $2 for help with bags, $1 for a hailed cab.

Taxi driver: Ten to 15 percent. Add an extra dollar or two if he helps with the bags.

Airport porter: Most porters charge $2 for the first bag. If they don’t, you should pay at least that. Add a dollar or two for good service.

Other airport staff (ticket agents, flight attendants): Don’t tip them. It can be tempting to slip an agent a $20 bill in the hopes that you’ll get better treatment, but that comes off as smarmy.

Bellhop: $2 for the first bag, $1 a bag after that.

Housekeeping: $2 to $5 a day. Leave this tip daily, as you often have a different person cleaning your room each day. (Include a note so the housekeeper knows the money is for her.)

Concierge: $5 to $10 every time she helps you with something above and beyond the job description, like scoring hard-to-get tickets to a show.

How to Get Your Passport in a Jiffy

What should you do when you plan an international trip and realize, mere weeks before departure, that―gulp―your passport has expired?

Your Best (and Cheapest) Plan of Attack

Contact the U.S. State Department (travel.state.gov) to set up an appointment for an expedited passport at one of the 13 regional passport agencies. This will run you $60 in addition to application fees and overnight fees for a three-week turnaround, as opposed to the regular four- to six-week wait for a passport, says Cy Ferenchak, deputy spokesperson for the Bureau of Consular Affairs. Passport seekers can also visit the Bureau of Consular Affairs website (travel.state.gov) to get more information.

Next Best Option

Enlist the help of an expediter service (there are more than 200). Although these services are pricier than the government route, most guarantee your passport to you in as little as 24 hours. One expediter service, rushmypassport.com, for instance, offers 24-hour service for $299, plus a $135 government fee. Expediter services usually have passport forms online, and the process includes mailing the forms along with original documents, such as proof of identification. Once your passport has been processed, your documents, along with the passport, are sent back to you. But before you send in documents to an expediter service, call ahead, says Robert Smith Jr., executive director of the National Association of Passport and Visa Services. These services have application quotas, so customers may need to contact several companies before they find one that can help them.

How to Decipher Hotel Accommodation Claims

Susan Stellin, author of How to Travel Practically Anywhere (Mariner Books, $16, amazon.com), loosely translates travel phrases that can be misleading.

Beachfront condo: There might be a highway between your condo and the beach, so don’t assume you can walk barefoot to the ocean’s edge.

Ceiling fan: No air-conditioning.

Cozy: Tiny.

Family-friendly: Expect cannonballs from the pool diving board. Not necessarily a good choice for romance.

Garden view: Usually the opposite of ocean view, meaning you could be staring at a parking lot.

Hip: Often affiliated with a high-profile architect (even if he designed just the washcloths). Tends to signal insufficient lighting in rooms, impractical furniture, and guests who may not be sympathetic to your child’s meltdowns.

Lively nightlife: Bring earplugs.

Remote: There’s one restaurant…if you’re lucky.

Rustic: Sometimes refers to a ski lodge with pine paneling, but this could also mean that your only heat source will be a fireplace.

Walking distance: That walk to town may feel more like a hike.