Academic travel survival guide

The Geometry of Traveling (by Car) by Giampaolo Macorig
"The Geometry of Traveling (by Car)" by Giampaolo Macorig

Over the years, I’ve done a lot of traveling for school. I’ve hit the road for conferences and to do research, and I’ve gone to Chicago, Cleveland, D.C., Boston, New York, Dallas, and Philadelphia. No matter where I go, there’s one inviolable constant: I’m always broke.

I’m pretty much always broke anyway, but I seem to be brokest when I’m traveling. Yale doesn’t offer any guaranteed funding for conferences or research (which is shameful) and it seems as though my trips always hit right before payday.

Even if you’re not broke, academic travel can be kind of weird. If you’re traveling for research, there’s a strange disjunction between the frenzied hours you spend in the archive and the solitary time you spend in the evening. A lot of the stuff people recommend doing, like visiting museums and attractions, isn’t a possibility, since you’re spending every business hour in the archive.

Conference travel is its own weird scene. The whirl of networking and meeting-and-greeting can be incredibly disorienting when you’ve been working alone for a long time. And conference hotels are always too expensive.

I have a list of go-to resources when I’m planning a trip, and I thought it might be fun to put them in writing. So here goes:

Getting There

For plane tickets, I like Kayak, which pulls data from all the airlines and from the various budget sites (Expedia, Orbitz, etc.) and compares them in one window. One trick that often works for me is to use Kayak to find the lowest fares, then, using Priceline‘s pay-what-you-want feature, bid maybe 15% lower than that. You can often get fares that are cheaper than anything published.

Airline tickets are notoriously mysterious, rising and falling in price with total unpredictability. Well, maybe not total unpredictability — Farecast will take your travel days, compare them to pricing trends, and tell you whether you should wait to buy your tickets or buy them now.

Finally, one trick that’s been circulating lately on the internets is to use codeshares to save money. I’ve never tried this, but it entails figuring out when an airline is partnering with another airline, and buying directly from the partner.

If you’re not traveling by plane, consider the Chinatown bus. It’s cheap, but be sure you figure out the drill before you go. It can be a little confusing to find the right bus and make sure you’re going to the right place. If you decide to go the Greyhound or Amtrak route instead, check RetailMeNot to see if any online deals are available.

Staying there

There are a lot of options for the intrepid broke person. For hotels, I usually ignore the conference organizers’ recommendations and go my own way. I often use my Priceline trick: figure out the lowest published rates using one of the budget search engines and then lowball that price using Priceline’s pay-what-you-want feature. Priceline allows you to specify the general area of town where you want to be and the level of hotel (one- to five-star) that you want.

There’s also, of course, the option of staying on someone’s couch. I tend to be shy about asking this, but it really is a great solution, since, chances are, that someone will need a place to stay herself someday. Plus you have built-in companionship. Facebook makes finding someone to stay with a lot easier.

If you’re feeling a little bolder, you might take advantage of your academic connections. Try writing to the secretary of your counterpart department at the local university to see if any grad students are willing to lend their couches. I’m always happy to host students and I don’t see it as a burden — it’s fun to get to know someone in the same field, and I know I might ask them to return the favor someday.

If you’re feeling even bolder, you might try the website Couchsurfing. It’s an international community of people who are willing to provide free space for travelers to sleep. They’ve done a really nice job of using social-media techniques to ensure accountability and some level of security.

Then, of course, there’s always the hostel. I held out on hostels for a long time, having had unpleasant experiences in the past. But I’ve found that the Hosteling International network of hostels is usually really nice. They tend to have wi-fi, lounges, free breakfast, and even volunteer-led tours of the city. It’s not awesome to share a room with strangers, but it’s really not a huge deal. Just remember to bring a flashlight, a towel, and a lock.

If you’re staying for a length of time, you can use Craigslist to sublet someone’s room for a portion of the monthly rent. I’ve done this and had a good experience. Just be sure to get an agreement in writing.

Getting around

If there’s a public-transit system, use it. Most cities have online trip-planners, or at least a phone number you can call to get help. I often anticipate every leg of every trip I’ll take and then print out all the schedules and maps and carry them around with me in a file folder, because I am an unrepentant dork.

An iPhone makes your life a lot easier in this respect. If, like me, you have an iPod Touch, you can spend $2.99 on an application called OffMaps that allows you to download and save maps. I also like to download PDFs of all the relevant bus schedules and sync them to my iPod using Simple PDF Reader.

If you have to rent a car, check RetailMeNot to see if there are any online coupons available (there always are). And remember not to get sucked into any extra insurance or whatever. Here are some sneaky tips on getting a good deal. Also, remember that you’ll either need a credit card (a debit card is not good enough) or a deposit of a few hundred dollars.

Eating There

Pathetic as it sounds, I’ve found that a loaf of bread, a jar of peanut butter, and a bag of apples can cover two meals a day for quite a while. Hear that, Yale? That’s what I’m reduced to! Oh, and a lot of hostels and hotels offer free continental breakfasts.

If that doesn’t sound appealing, one option I totally love is Roadfood. The term refers to cheap regional specialties, and Jane and Michael Stern have a fantastic website and books with lots of reviews. I always check out the local roadfood, wherever I go. It’s cheap, it’s unique to the locale, and it will take you to parts of town you wouldn’t otherwise check out. That’s how I ended up eating at Sokolowski‘s in Cleveland and at Wiener’s Circle in Chicago.

You should also check out Chowhound, which is the best restaurant board. The people there really know what they’re talking about.

If you’re on the go, there’s always UrbanSpoon on your iPod or iPhone. Just maybe call ahead — I’ve followed UrbanSpoon to nonexistent restaurants in the past.

Entertaining Yourself Once You’re There

Especially if you’re traveling in the summer, there may be a lot of free entertainment options. Check out the city’s official website — there’s usually a list of public events. I especially like street festivals and outdoor movies. Also check out the city’s alternative weeklies for suggestions. Because I am, as I mentioned, a huge dork, I’ll sometimes make a spreadsheet of options, just so I know what they are.

Ask Metafilter has some wonderful recommendations for things to do in a lot of cities. You may even find someone willing to show you around. Couchsurfing, in addition to offering places to stay, allows people to specify that they’re interested in meeting up with travelers for coffee. You might also try Meetup to see if any interesting groups are getting together while you’re in town.

If you’re me, wi-fi is a necessity. Since Starbucks are ubiquitous, one of my favorite tricks is to buy a $5 gift card at Starbucks, which, once it’s registered, entitles you to two hours per day of free wi-fi at any Starbucks. You just have to have used the card in the last 30 days.

If you’re at a conference, twist other students’ arms to get them to come out with you. Some of my best experiences on the road have been misadventures in an unfamiliar city with people I don’t know that well.

I also like to take advantage of dead-time while traveling by finding a bookstore with a magazine rack and just parking myself there for a few hours. It’s not the most exciting option, but when you’re exhausted and overstimulated, it can be a huge relief.

Other Pointers

If you’re traveling to give a conference presentation, bring your presentation in every conceivable format: USB stick, CD, portable hard drive, etc. Maybe it’s overkill, but if you’ve ever seen someone’s face as they realize their presentation isn’t going to work, you know what I’m saying. If you’re using your own laptop and you have a Mac, be aware that you’ll need a VGA adapter. You also might want to take note of the local Kinko’s, since I have heard that some people don’t finish their conference presentations until they’re on the road and have to print them out then. Though, of course, I would not know this from personal experience.

If you have an iPhone or an iPod, you may want to spend a few dollars on a battery backup accessory, in case you can’t find a power source.

The goodwill and buzz from a conference wears off really quickly, so if you’ve exchanged business cards or email addresses with someone, be sure to follow up right away.

Take the archivist out to lunch! He or she deserves it.

2 Replies to “Academic travel survival guide”

  1. Hey, Miriam!
    Thanks for sharing these tips. I’ve only done minimal traveling for conferences/research, and I think I’ve wallowed in the discomfort of the experience more than embraced the adventurousness of it all. As I embark on a year + of research and antics next year, your advice will definitely come in handy!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *