Hotels

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Following on my travel theme, I’ll share my tips for the other major part of a vacation – where to stay.

i mentioned in my post on road trips, that for traveling across the US, there really is no need to plan it all out in advance (except possibly the weekends during a busy travel time). We would arrive in a city, find some free wifi at a coffeeshop or fast food place, and use a combination of http://www.hotwire.com and http://www.tripadvisor.com to find a hotel. Sometimes I would book the hotel the night before if we knew where we were heading the next day.

The number of hotel booking sites and options have exploded since we started going on road trips. Now there are a number of great comparison sites. Tripadvisor used to only provide reviews but now they provide rate comparisons too! This really saves time and work. I am tripadvisor’s number 1 fan! I can say that I have never been surprised by a hotel because I take the time to read through a number of reviews. Just watch for people that complain about things that are out of control of the hotel. You’ll also see that hotels respond to reviews. If you see a bad review, read the response to see the other side of the story. Try for hotels with 90% or higher approval rate. Between 80% and 90% you should still be ok, but anything below 80% is a risk.

Other good hotel booking sites. Trivago is another good comparison site, and I find Hotels.com tend to have good prices. Sites like Expedia and Hotwire make you pay the full cost of the booking upfront and there is no option to cancel. http://www.booking.com has options to book now and pay later and the ability to cancel for free. I have never had an issue with paying upfront, but for my upcoming trip I tried to avoid it because I am booking so far in advance. If you do book through a site where you have already paid, the hotel will still ask for a credit card for incidentals. If you don’t use the phone, mini-bar, movies while you’re there, they don’t charge anything.

When you’re choosing a hotel, know your hotel preferences. For me it’s a comfortable bed, free breakfast and wifi. I am not a neat freak and really don’t care if there is some dust on a shelf. Obviously a dirty bathroom is unacceptable but my standards are not as high as some of the reviews I’ve read. I know people who are fine with hostels. We primarily stay in 3 star hotels. With 4 stars I find the public areas to be more opulent and the beds to be a bit better, but they also ding  you at every opportunity; you usually have to pay for wifi, and the breakfast is outrageously priced. Even when I travel for business, I rarely eat breakfast at a 4 star hotel. They also charge for parking, and some even go as far as forcing you to use valet parking. Occasionally it’s a treat to stay at a swanky hotel, but I don’t find them good value for my travel dollars.

If possible, try to find a bed and breakfast. These really add to the travel experience because the hosts are usually very friendly people that have great advice. Also the breakfast is excellent! I know I have a thing for breakfast but I find if we eat a good breakfast, we usually only eat one other big meal in a day, which keeps our budget down.

My last tidbit is on the mystery bookings that hotwire offers. I have done it a number of times and it’s always worked out well. You just have to know the area you are ok with (in more expensive cities, sometimes we’ll opt to stay out near the airport because the hotels are a lot cheaper and just drive in). They give you an approval or recommendation rating. If you stick to over 90%, you’ll get a good hotel. My only complaint was the last time I used this with a Vegas hotel, I didn’t save any money. The amount they charged me was the same as it would have been if I had booked with the hotel. Hotwire lists the prices for regular hotel bookings, so check those before you select a mystery hotel to compare prices. Otherwise, we have gotten some great deals including a 4 star in downtown Toronto for $90/night (of course we had to pay for parking and internet on top of that, but still a good deal).  This photo is the view from the patio at the W hotel in Fort Lauderdale, which was another 4 star treat and one of our favourite hotelsImage

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Shopping for Flights

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Still on the travel theme because I’m in the process of planning our summer vacation to Japan, Thailand and Cambodia. Even when I’m not planning a vacation, I still “window shop” for vacations because I like to know the normal cost of things; this helps me recognize a good deal when I see one. This definitely applies to the cost of flights. Here are some of the things I’ve learned about shopping for flights online.

It’s pretty common knowledge that the season and the day of the week you’re traveling have a big impact on the price of the flight. If possible, try to fly on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Saturday. Thursday, Friday, Sunday and Monday are the high demand days to fly. If I need to fly on those days, I try to use airmiles because the number of miles needed to fly is only based on the season. If you’re looking to travel over Christmas, try flying on Christmas day.

What I didn’t know was the day of the week that you book the flights can also effect the price. Lately I’ve been checking flight prices every day, and it looks like it’s more expensive to book flights on the weekend. They go down during the week and up on the weekends.

My favourite websites for flight shopping depends on what I’m looking for. If I’m looking to fly within North America, I like to start with Fly, http://www.fly.com/ca/  On the top, check out the Fare Calendars. This is a great way to see how the price fluctuates depending on the day. My other favourite comparison sites for all flight shopping are Kayak http://www.ca.kayak.com/?ispredir=true , FlightHub (who consistently had the lowest price for our upcoming multi-city trip) http://www.flighthub.com/ and Trip Advisor http://www.tripadvisor.ca/ . Check multiple sites, they are not all the same.

For booking flights, use Flight Network http://www.flightnetwork.ca because they have a lowest price guarantee, which will give you a credit if the price drops on your flights. If you’re booking for multiple people, this could really pay off. Otherwise, I always check directly with the airline because I figure it would be easier if things went wrong to be booked directly with the airlines.

When booking, know your insurance coverage! I once made a $5000 mistake because I didn’t know what trip interruption insurance was and incidentally didn’t have any when I needed it. I have gone with a credit card that has an annual fee, but provides travel and health insurance coverage. There are lots of insurance providers, so shop around, but read the details and understand what is covered and what isn’t.

My last tidbit is what they call travel hacking – how to travel for free by maximizing rewards programs. Here is a great post by a blogger I follow, Nomadic Matt ,http://www.nomadicmatt.com/travel-tips/travel-hacking-guide/  I was a loyal air miles collector for years but have recently switched to a new program because I am tired of the flights not being available and having to pay the taxes and fees. Now there are a number of bank associated programs that let you use your reward points for all of the cost. Now we put everything on our credit card, in the hopes of taking a big chunk off of our next vacation.

Any additional tips and tricks or comments are always appreciated – I’m learning about travel as I go. Happy travels!

Road Tripping

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I think we have mastered the road trip. As a family we have traveled from Alberta to Vancouver Island, the west coast down to Los Angeles, across Canada to Moncton, New Brunswick, down to Arizona and across to San Diego, and the monster of all road trips – down to Miami (actually the Everglades). We loved all of these road trips, but do not have the urge to drive to the east coast ever again. It’s a lot of driving!

We did bring camping gear on the first couple of trips, but the vast majority of nights were in spent in a nice warm bed in a hotel.

Rent a car. Why put all that mileage and wear and tear on your own car? Check the rules to make sure you can take the car as far as you’re going. I found Avis was the only company that gives unlimited mileage and allows you to take the car across the border. We usually rent a standard or full size car. I make sure I call the day before and request a car with rear cup holders and a usb connection. (A lesson we learned the hard way).

A GPS is worth it’s weight in gold! We don’t book anything in advance. We pick a direction and go. The first trip we got in the car and said where should we go? How about Seattle? Ok! And off we went. The GPS will take you on the shortest route which sometimes results in quieter roads and even going through residential neighbourhoods. Use your common sense. Sometimes I decide to stay on a major highway because I know it’s the one I need. Just ignore the gps when it tells you to turn and it will recalculate the route.

If you want to plan a route or just check out how far things are, use google maps and get directions. You can just type in cities and it will show you the route and the amount of time. This is where I figured out what was feasible.

Back to no plan. When we get to a city, or decide we’re ready to stop, we search for a fast food restaurant or a coffee shop with free wifi (you know who  they are) on the gps and go there. Use the free wifi to find a hotel. I use hotwire, expedia, and tripadvisor. Customer recommendation on tripadvisor should be at least 80%. I search by rating and go down until I find the first one in my price range. Book the hotel, have a coffee, put the address in the gps and go there. We have never been stranded.

We vacation attention deficit style, and find that 3 nights in a city is enough for us, but we’re not in to sitting around the pool, relaxing, or visiting a lot of museums or art galleries. At night I use tripadvisor to find the things and activities we’re interested in. In big cities with tourist areas, we just wander around.

Traveling in the US is a fair bit cheaper than Canada. Hotels are more abundant and cheaper. The changing landscape in the US makes for a nice varied experience. We have done Seattle, Canon Beach, San Francisco, LA, Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon in a 3 week trip.

My blog post is almost as epic as our road trips. The pic at the top was driving between Phoenix and San Diego. If anyone reading has any questions, feel free to ask!