The most useful item in a hotel room, plus other travel secrets

Those of us who love to travel always want to make sure we're doing it right. So we're talking to globe-trotters in all of our luxury fields - food, wine, fashion, cars, real estate - to learn about their high-end tips and off-the-wall experiences. These are the Distinguished Travel Hackers. 

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Samantha Brown was a breakout star on the Travel Channel in the early 2000s, when she hosted multiple different series, including The Trip, 50/50, and Great Weekends, logging visits to 260 cities in more than 60 countries around the world. This year, Brown returned to television with a new show on PBS, "Places to Love."  

She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two children, conveniently near the airport. "I have a back route to JFK - I know the back roads," she laughs. Brown's favorite airline is Delta Air Lines Inc.; she's a longtime loyalist and usually flies around 100,000 miles per year. Her husband, though, is an aficionado of Newark-based United Airlines, so the couple sometimes fly different airlines from disparate airports, traveling with one child each. Here are her travel secrets as to how to handle the pre-boarding process with young kids, where to get the best souvenirs, and why you should always order room service.  

- Divide and conquer the plane boarding process.  

Pinterest is great for quick travel tips; I always recommend it for travel hacks. One of them I found was how best to use the pre-board process when you're traveling with kids - I have twins, so we need all the tips you can get. Boarding a plane? It's the worst. Everyone's stressed, you can feel it in the cabin. Most people, when you get to pre-board, will take an entire family on, plus the car seats and the bags. But instead, parent No. 1 - that's my husband, in our case - goes in first to bring all the gear in. Then parent No. 2 - that's me - waits with the children until the last person of Zone Six walks onto the jetway. That's when I bring my kids on. They are worn out from all the standing, so when you walk on the plane they get in their seats, tired, and it removes young children from what is the most stressful part of the flight, the boarding process.  

- Pack your own massage kit.  

I always pack two pinky balls, which have been in my luggage for, like, 15 years now. Just don't get the hollow ones - get the solid ones. You can buy them at toy stores across the United States. When I'm bone tired and achy from long haul flights or being on my feet all day, I place these on the floor and position my back on them right between the shoulder blades. I push up with my knees and then roll them all the way down my back and legs, working out all the knots and kinks along the way. Then you can turn around and go down the front of your legs and calves. It's a $100 massage for $2.50.  

- The handiest item in your hotel room is not your Wi-Fi connection.  

I discovered how useful an ironing board could be when I was traveling with kids and there was no room for their coloring [books], so I brought it out and lowered it to their height. It's also a ton more counter space if the room has none. I like to stand up when I work, and it's a great stand-up desk. And you can put it in front of your bed and have a meal on it if there's no place to eat and watch TV.  

- Order room service, save money.  

The best advice I got was from a 10-year old at the Ritz Carlton, who told me: 'Listen, order off the children's menu, because they give you the exact same portions of spaghetti Bolognese with meatballs [as on the adult menu], but you're paying half the cost.'  

- Why the supermarket is best place for souvenirs.  

I love supermarkets when I travel, because they have products we don't. In a supermarket in Greece, I saw that Hellman's actually makes mustard; they package it in a little goblet, so when you're done with the mustard, you've got a nice little wine glass. That's brilliant. Supermarkets are also a great place to people-watch, and all the products are like language flash cards. Go down the canned goods aisle, and there are peas, but in France, they're les pois. You'll see all these foods you're probably going to see on a menu, and now you'll know what they are.  

- Avoid caffeine entirely, until . . . 

 A few days before I'm about to leave for a big time zone jump, it's no caffeine, so it completely exits my body. Then, when I arrive at my destination, especially in Europe, the airport coffee smells wonderful. But I don't take a coffee then. I check into my hotel - coffee in the lobby, too - but not then, either. When I'm walking around? No coffee. I wait until my body feels like cement, and I could just fall asleep on the sidewalk and then, and only then, do I allow myself a double espresso or the biggest coffee I can find. The caffeine hits my system so strongly, I'm good for the rest of the day. It's caffeine brinkmanship.  

- Staying safe is a two-step process.  

I'm not totally persnickety about hotel rooms, as long as they're clean and in a nice area. But whenever I'm going for a walk, I will go up to the desk and say "I'm going in this direction. Is that OK?" That does two things. One, it gives me information from a local. Two, there's a time stamp of when I've left; someone has seen me walk out. For women, if you're traveling alone: Touch in with the front desk. I'm very conversant, and I start conversations really easily. It's important to talk to strangers [when you travel]. But the other tip I give women is to keep a healthy skepticism when someone starts a conversation with me. In the back of my head, I search for any questions that might be too revealing, like "Oh, where are you staying?" or "Are you here with someone?" It's just good to keep a healthy awareness of who came up to you and what they're asking you: Is there something else going on that I don't know about?  

- How to strike up conversation, anywhere.  

As travelers, we're consumers and always in need of something, so the most important phrase to know [in a foreign language] is "May I please have . . . " And I never go up to somebody [overseas] and say "Do you speak English?," because that can be seen as challenging or even a put down. It's so much better to say - in France, for example - "No Français, Anglais?" You're basically saying "I'm in your country, but I'm sorry I don't know your language - do you speak mine?" It immediately changes the dynamic.

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