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9 travel hacks you'll wish you knew all along

Already taking a trip or just planning your next one? These tips will help you save time, money and sanity.

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Travel can be tricky. Did you pay too much for that flight? Forget to pack some important items? What happens if your flight is delayed or canceled?

As always, knowledge is power. The more you plan, research and prepare, the better off you'll be. With that in mind, I've rounded up these nine tricks to make your travels faster, easier and hopefully cheaper. Read on, and have a nice trip!

1. Game the points system

Don't think you can afford that trip to Europe? Think again: If you're willing to leverage various reward programs, you can take a big chunk out of the cost -- or maybe even travel for free.

Start by visiting The Points Guy, a site devoted to helping travelers rack up those valuable rewards. In particular, check the Beginner's Guide, which shows you how to develop a "points strategy" for airlines, hotels and credit cards.

Likewise, check out Rewardstock, a new service that also aims to help you travel for cheap or free by maximizing reward programs. After you set up a travel plan (dates and location), the service basically lays out what you need to do -- and how long it will take -- to earn the rewards you'll need. There's no charge for using Rewardstock.

2. Track those airfares

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The Hopper app can alert you to airfare changes and let you know the best time to buy.

Rick Broida/CNET

Airfares rise and fall as though strapped to a roller coaster. It's really challenging to know when to buy, because a flight that costs $450 today might be $325 tomorrow. Or it might be $600.

Assuming you're planning for a trip that's months down the road, start tracking those airfares now. Use a service like Google Flights, Hopper, Kayak and/or Skyscanner to check current prices and set up alerts that will notify you when prices drop.

True story: I'd recently set up both Google Flights and Hopper to track airfares to France. One morning, Hopper notified me of an incredible deal; Google Flights did not. In fact, the latter didn't even show those same airfares. Moral of the story: Don't rely on a single tracking tool. Set up several.

3. Get airfare refunds

Like I said, flight prices fluctuate like crazy. But if the airline lowers its price after you've purchased your tickets, you're out of luck, right? Actually, it depends on the airline and the size of the drop.

Yapta is a great resource for this kind of thing; it shows exactly which airlines offer refunds and how much of a price change there needs to be. (Spoiler alert: Only Alaska Airlines is cool, offering a refund for any price drop. Most of the major airlines won't credit you unless there's at least a $200 change.)

When you sign up for Yapta and supply your flight details, the service will notify you of any available refund. But it'll be up to you to call the airline and claim it.

4. Choose the best seat

Looking for the sweet spot on a Boeing 737? Or just want to ensure that your window seat actually has a window and not a bulkhead? Before you choose your seat, head to Seatguru.com and check the seat map for your flight. The site can also help you identify what amenities are available on your flight, like AC power and video screens.

5. Buy in-flight Wi-Fi in advance

In-flight Wi-Fi: great invention, right? Definitely, but it can be crazy expensive. Prices vary from airline to airline and route to route, but I've learned that it's almost always cheaper if you buy in advance.

For example, right now Delta sells a 24-hour Wi-Fi pass for $16. I've seen that same pass for twice the price when purchased in-flight. (Some airlines charge even more.)

Again, depending on the airline, you might also get a deal by purchasing your pass from Gogo proper: An all-day pass now runs $19 there (until recently it was $16 -- sigh), and it's good on any Gogo-equipped flight and airline. If you fly a lot, Gogo's Monthly Plan -- $49.95 per month for one device or $59.95 for two -- quickly pays for itself.

Bottom line: Whenever possible, buy Wi-Fi in advance. Chances are good you'll save at least a few bucks.

6. Pack like a boss

My wife and I have nicknamed ourselves Mr. and Mrs. Badpacker, because we always seem to plan poorly when taking trips. We either forget important things or don't bring enough other things.

Apps to the rescue! Packing Pro ($2.99), Packpoint Packing for Sheraton (free) and TripList (free) are among the many apps that can help you get organized even before the suitcase comes out. Packing Pro and TripList rely on categories so you can be sure to remember all the necessary clothing, accessories, toiletries and so on. Packpoint (the Pro version of which is currently being offered free by Sheraton) can connect to apps like Evernote and TripIt; it also checks the weather where you're going so you can pack accordingly.

My advice: Try a bunch of apps and see which one best fits your organizational style. And while we're on the subject of packing, here's a pro tip: Always, always pack an e-reader stocked with books. Even if your phone's dead, you have no Internet and the airport shops are all closed, you'll have an ample supply of reading material.

7. Be ready for delays

The Boy Scouts certainly weren't thinking about air travel when they advised, "Be prepared," but the motto definitely applies to anyone headed to the airport. Flight delays are a common occurrence, especially during the bad-weather months.

For starters, consider a bit of "trip insurance" in the form of Freebird, a flight-rebooking service that helps you out in the event of a canceled or significantly delayed (more than four hours) flight.

If the delay is because the plane you're supposed to be on hasn't arrived yet, use an app like FlightTrack to find out exactly where it is. (The information shared at the gate, if any, is rarely accurate.) That'll give you a much better idea how long the delay is going to be -- and what you might want to do about it.

Need to rebook? Assuming you didn't sign up for Freebird, call the airline while you're waiting in line at the service desk -- chances are good you'll get help much faster (and maybe be able to skip the line altogether). You can also go online to the airline's website and see about rebooking there.

Staring at a really significant delay? Here's one more tip...

8. Lounge around

If you're facing a lengthy flight delay or even a cancellation, and have nowhere else to go, consider seeking refuge in an airport lounge. Wait, aren't those only for frequent fliers or corporate credit-card holders? Not necessarily: Some lounges are simply pay-per-use, meaning anyone willing to purchase a day-pass can take advantage of the various amenities. These typically include comfy chairs, Wi-Fi, food and drinks, TVs, newspapers and magazines and sometimes even shower facilities -- items that could actually end up costing you more if purchased in the terminal.

You can see what's available where you are or where you're headed with the Loungebuddy app. It not only gives you the scoop on airport lounges worldwide, but also lets you purchase passes.

9. Send postcards

Yeah, you heard me. Anyone can post a bunch of travel snapshots to Instagram or Facebook. But when was the last time you actually sent a postcard? You know, that surprising, physical piece of hand-delivered mail that says, "I'm thinking about you. You matter to me."

On the other hand, do you really have time to hunt down actual cards, postage stamps and a mailbox? That's why I'm partial to Postagram, which turns any photo on your phone into a postcard that's delivered by mail, complete with your custom message. Each one costs just 99 cents, postage included.

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