Archive for the 'Travel' Category
Tuesday, August 18th, 2009
This is a follow-up to my 5-Step Guide to Finding The Lowest Rate For Hotel Rooms, which includes tips on using “opaque” sites like Hotwire.com and Priceline.com to save on hotel rooms.
Specifically, I’ll show you how to greatly improve your guess as to which hotel you’re actually bidding on Hotwire.com before pulling out your credit card. This was initially inspired by a helpful comment by reader Nasty N8, but I expanded and altered his advice a bit.
Finding The Hidden Hotel
When you run a search for hotels on Hotwire, you only get the price, star rating, and the general neighborhood. For example, here’s a search result for hotels near the Orlando airport (MCO) on 12/20/09.
Hotwire Participating Hotels
I see that I can get a 4-star hotel near MCO for $56+taxes. But which one? How do I know if it is any good? Using the Hotwire Hotel List for Florida at BetterBidding.com, I scroll down to the Orlando MCO section and see two listings: Hyatt Regency Orlando Airport and Renaissance Orlando Hotel Airport (Marriott). Again, this list is not 100% accurate, but it does provide a shortcut possibility and also another data point for later (see scenic route).
I click on the red box “Continue” to see the total with taxes per night ($69.45), and also learn more details about the actual hotel. If I scroll down I see some information from TripAdvisor.com:
With this information, I can usually reverse engineer the specific hotel from the TripAdvisor (TA) site. There are three points of interest here:
- Tripadvisor Traveler Rating (Out of 5). Based on customer reviews, this is an average rating of quality. Sometimes they won’t match up perfectly (i.e. TA will show 3.5, but Hotwire will round up to 4), but most of the time they will.
- Number of reviews. This will not be exact, but instead be rounded off to the nearest 20. So if TA has 35 reviews, then Hotwire will say 20+. If TA has 41, then Hotwire will show 40+.
- Date of last review. Simply look at the date of the first review you see on TA, and compare with this date.
Let’s go back to the initial hotel list. Here are the Tripadvisor pages for the Hyatt Regency (4.5 dots, 163 reviews, last on Aug 2009) and the Renaissance Hotel (4 dots, 57 reviews, last on Aug 2009). Remember, 57 is the same as 40+.
We see here that the most likely hotel is the Renaissance Orlando Hotel, with all factors matching. At Expedia.com, this hotel would have cost $112 per night with taxes on the exact same day. By doing a little legwork, you could secure a savings of over $42 per night (38%).
The Scenic Route
If you did not find a match, then the hotel may not be updated on the list yet. Here, you’ll have to run a search on Tripadvisor. Use the “Hotels” tab and act as if you want to book a hotel, using your travel dates and everything. Do not just use the search box. Now, the left sidebar will have a ton of options to narrow down your search results. Again, use your region, your Tripadvisor rating, and also the star class rating. (Note: The hotel class “star” rating by Tripadvisor will sometimes vary from the ratings from Hotwire, so you might allow one star difference either way.)
Here is a nice screenshot that shows how I narrowed it down to 6 hotels. As you can see, the only hotel left that matches the Tripadvisor stats is… again the Renaissance Orlando Hotel!
You can also do this down the line with all the different Hotwire search results. Now that you can figure out the actual hotels, you might feel that $50 a night at a 3-star Holiday Inn is better than $100 at at 4-star Hyatt. Happy hotel hunting!
Sunday, August 9th, 2009
US Airways is running a promotion where you can try out their Silver Preferred “Elite” status for 90 days. Normally, you’d have to pay $200 or fly 25,000 Preferred-qualifying miles (or 30 qualifying segments) within a calendar year. You must register by August 31st.
The perks of Silver Preferred include:
- Priority check-in, express security lines, and early boarding.
- First and second checked bag (free of charge)
- Free upgrades to first-class when available.
- 25% bonus miles flown on US Airways
A pretty good deal if you are making any US Airways flights in the next 90 days. I’m not sure how they count the 90 days, it may be a good idea to register near the end of the promotion if you’re traveling during the winter holidays.
Try Preferred status on for size. See how you like it. At the end of your 90-day trial, you may want to keep it! Once you register, you’ll be Preferred within 14 days. [...] Just register between May 15 and August 31, 2009. Then, check your Dividend Miles profile to make sure we have your contact information so we can send you an email with your new status.
Wednesday, June 24th, 2009
Whenever I’m not traveling on the company dime, I usually run through a checklist to find the lowest price on hotel stays. Let’s say you’re like me and need to find a room in New York City for a few nights, checking in August 30th. I’d like to stay somewhere near Times Square in Manhattan, close to all the sights and action. I’m also leaning towards something reliable and not bargain basement – this is NYC and I don’t want a Hotel Carter experience involving bed bugs, roaches, and urine smells. (Note this for later: At their website, they charge $99 a night.)
1. Check the hotel’s direct website.
If you have some favorite chains due to corporate agreements or loyalty points, then this narrows your search down and you can try and check directly with their website. For example, there is Hilton.com, IHG.com, and StarwoodHotels.com for Sheraton/Westin/W Hotels. Here are some quotes (all prices not including taxes):
Hilton Times Square, $195
Hilton New York, $169
W NY Times Square, $272
Westin NY Times Square, $232
Sheraton Manhattan Times Square, $189
Four Points Midtown, $157
This gives me a benchmark to work from. Another benefit here is that they usually have some form of “Best Rate Guarantee”. Starwood will beat a competing vendor’s price by either 10% or give you 2,000 Starpoints.
2. Try to use loyalty program points.
An extension of the above, at times it is better to redeem your points, or some combination of cash and points. For example, the Westin NY Times Square would only cost 12,000 Starpoints per night, or 48,000 points for 5 nights (avg. 9,600/night). Keep in mind the point redemption even covers taxes, which would turn the $232 listed above to $268 per night. Too bad I’m low on Starpoints after visiting Madrid.
You can earn Starpoints faster and get up to 25,000 bonus Starpoints with the Starwood co-branded American Express card.
3. Use the travel search engines. Expedia, Kayak, Hotels.com, etc.
You know the drill. Actually, you can search most of these all at once through Kayak.com. Sometimes one site like Expedia may have special rates for a block of rooms that aren’t available on other sites.
From Kayak, I note that the prices for the Starwood and Hilton hotels were basically the same. After sorting by price, I see that the Holiday Inn NYC is slightly cheaper at $160/night + taxes. A bit farther away in Midtown East there is the DoubleTree Metropolitan at $149. Not too bad. Oh look, Hotel Carter is discounted at $67. Too bad it doesn’t include the cost of burning your clothes afterwards!
4. Use opaque sites like Hotwire and Priceline.
Finally, there are what are called “opaque” travel sites, because you don’t know the name of the hotel until you’ve paid for the non-refundable room. You must decide only based on the star quality rating and general neighborhood of the hotel, which means you can’t look up reviews easily either. Priceline is done using a reverse auction format, while Hotwire just gives you the price.
On Hotwire, I find that I can get 2-star hotel (examples given are Comfort Inn, La Quinta, Days Inn) for $93+tax ($112 total) in a large and vague area that basically covers everything south of Central Park.
5. Using database sites to reverse engineer the hotel information. Sites like BiddingForTravel and BetterBidding gather information from successful purchasers to remove some of the mystery.
For example, what exactly might be a 3.5 star hotel in the Midtown area? Does Hotwire call the Westin Time Square 4 stars, or 3.5 stars, or 4.5 stars? What if Priceline disagrees? What one site calls Midtown West might be Midtown Central to another.
Well, here is a list of hotels in NYC that Hotwire and Priceline has sold rooms for, complete with star rating and neighborhood. From this list, the only 2* in Central Park listed is WooGo Lincoln Center. Of course this might not be the hotel you end up with, but it is a good possibility and you get a sense of quality (mixed reviews).
In addition, you can find a list of winning bids posted by users, and BetterBidding even has a calendar for easy searching. Here are the applicable ones for my situation:
Hotwire Winning Bids
4*, Central Park, Empire Hotel, $139
3.5*, Midtown Central, Sheraton Times Square, $119
3.5*, Midtown East, Millennium UN, $116
Priceline Winning Bids
4*, Midtown Central, Sheraton NY Towers, $125
4*, Midtown West, Sheraton NY Towers, $115, $110, $126
4*, Times Square, Westin TS, $169
Putting things together, if Hotwire is offering me a 3.5* hotel in Midtown Central on these dates, it is most likely be the Sheraton Times Square. Or, in the same price range, I could likely get the Sheraton NY Towers. After reading some reviews, I chose the Times Square location. The prices keep fluctuating, but when I was searching it was at $113. That’s a pretty good price for a solid hotel.
To be the most aggressive, I would go onto Priceline and bid about 20% below the Hotwire price for a 3.5* hotel in the Times Square region, say $95. I don’t want to bid too low, because each time I get rejected, I must change a search parameter (star rating, neighborhood) to bid again. Also, I run the risk of getting another 3.5* hotel that I don’t like as much.
So I held my breath, used Hotwire… and got it. Whew! In the end, I got what I wanted at 40% off the “guaranteed” low price, $113 vs. $189 per night at the Sheraton Times Square.. Over few nights, that’s hundreds of dollars in savings.
To think, if you did no research, you might end up with the Hotel Carter for $99/night! If you have tips to improve this process, please leave a comment below! I know I could try hostels or even couchsurfing and such, but that’s not what I was looking for on this trip.
Wednesday, May 27th, 2009
Delta and Northwest Airlines are merging, and right now you can go ahead and transfer frequent flier miles between the Northwest WorldPerks and Delta SkyMiles programs with no fees. You can even move them back and forth as you like. This is nice if you don’t have enough of either individually to get an award, but after combining you do. Also, if you link your Northwest and Delta accounts by May 31st, you’ll get 500 bonus miles.
According to this timeline, they will eventually all be merged into SkyMiles anyway in December 2009.
Monday, December 29th, 2008
TripAdvisor is offering two free luggage tags. What a sneaky way to get my real info! The form automatically signs you up as a member of the website, but looks like that’s all. Use a spam e-mail if desired.
Although there is the occasional fake glowing review from management or unreasonable whines from uptight travelers, I do always check TripAdvisor for hotel reviews. There are some pretty bad ones out there. Check out the reviews for this awful hotel with camping cots for beds in London and this bedbug-ridden place in New York City.
Friday, November 14th, 2008
I just finished calling all of the issuers for the credit and ATM cards that I plan on using internationally – Capital One, Citibank, WaMu, and Bank of America – in order to avoid my cards being frozen due to fraud concerns. I remember doing this occasionally before, but not for all of them.
Surprisingly, every single card issuer seemed to have a specific protocol to handle such concerns. I was either forwarded to some sort of Fraud Specialist or asked to fill out a form outlining where I was traveling to and the exact start and end dates. It seems like their fraud monitoring systems are getting quite advanced. All of them thanked me for calling ahead of time, which made me feel like they’ve probably had to deal with a lot of angry (stranded?) travelers.
Oh, and they also told me the international toll-free numbers to reach their customer service from abroad. Using them is easy. Go to a pay phone, reach the operator, and call the number collect. I decided to simply write these numbers on the signature panel on the back of the cards. I’m glad I called!
For more information, see my other post on this subject: Travel and Money: Best Way To Get Cash, Best Credit Cards, and Safety Concerns. It includes why I hate traveler’s checks, why I use my Capital One card exclusively while traveling, and emergency numbers for Visa and Mastercard.
Tuesday, September 23rd, 2008
The tickets are booked and hotel reservations are made for our trip to Spain. Of course, all this economic turmoil makes me a bit nervous, but the fact that we finally finished saving up for our 6-month Emergency Fund makes me much more comfortable. Not that we feel our jobs are in trouble, but you never know.
We did try several things to minimize costs for our 7-night stay in Spain:
Airfare: Save 50% By Combining Trips
We already committed going to a friend’s wedding on the East Coast, and so as is our habit we looked to see we could “add on” a trip somewhere interesting in that direction. For example, the ticket from West Coast to East Coast was around $350, while tacking on the trip to Spain made the flight cost $750. Effectively, we only had to pay $400 each to fly to Spain – not a bad deal! (Other European countries were $200-$400 more for some reason.)
In addition, we managed to book an open-jaw trip into Madrid and out of Barcelona for the same price. This allows us to spend more time in both cities, and we don’t have to pay to travel back to Madrid for the return flight.
We still have to decide whether to take train or plane from Madrid to Barcelona. The train is more expensive, but might be more fun? Airplane looks to be both slightly faster and cheaper, though.
Hotels: Cashing in Rewards Points
A hostel in Madrid would starts at about $25 per bed per night, for a total of $50 per couple. But after getting married, I had to put the hosteling days behind me.
It’s okay, I get a better night’s sleep in a hotel. A basic hotel in a decent location with a double/queen bed starts at around €80 = $120 per night. It goes up really quickly from there.
However, I have collected a fair number of the ever-useful Starpoints, mostly from my Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express, so I decided to look at what was available. I found the Westin Palace Hotel, first built in 1912 by King Alfonso XIII as a place for his wedding guests to stay (naturally). Rated Spain’s #1 Hotel by Condé Naste magazine, it runs €305 = $450 per night!
However, I could book a room for only 12,000 Starpoints. On top of that, if I booked 4 nights, I got the 5th free. So now I had 5 nights for only 48,000 points total. At the $450 rate, that made each Starpoint worth 4.7 cents. Put another way, my Starwood card was earning me 4.7% cash back. Even at the budget hotel rate of $120 a night, I still was getting 1.25%. Except now I’m sleeping on a Heavenly Bed and staying in a palace!
Barcelona was even more expensive, but we found a simple hotel for €85 = $125 per night.
We both hate guided tours, so we usually just plan things out by ourselves with guidebooks and the internet. We like Rick Steves, Rough Guides, and Lonely Planet the best. We usually buy one guidebook that we can highlight and mark up, and also bring along three other ones + a language phrasebook from the library. Of course, we risk losing the books in which case we’d have to replace them, but I think it is worthwhile. This time around, I even checked out some Spanish language CDs. Dos cerveza por fa vor!
Standard procedure is to try and find a grocery store, and stock up on water and local snacks. A few picnics for lunch with regional junk food is always fun and tasty. Ethnic foods can also be a great value. The best tasting falafel I have ever eaten was in Paris and cost €5.
Of course, I don’t want to skimp to much on food. I will be looking forward to consuming large amounts of tapas and house wine at every hole-in-the-wall I can find. I can’t wait to try chocolate con churros! If I generously estimate about $40 a day per person for food, and given that we would pay about $10 a day for food at home, that’s an added cost of about $30 per day.
We briefly considering eating at El Bulli with Ferran Adria, but it only opens from April to September each year. Besides, I don’t think I’d be willing to drop $400 on a single meal, even if it was voted the best restaurant in the world.
Adding this all up – airfare, hotel, and food should cost an estimated $400 + $125 + $210 = $735 per person. Add in remaining transportation and sightseeing, and I think we will still come in under $900 easily. A lot of money still, but hopefully resulting in some lasting memories.
Friday, September 19th, 2008
I wouldn’t say my wife and I are well-traveled, but we do try and experience other cultures whenever we can. Given work constraints and Corporate America’s hatred of vacations (2 weeks a year??), we are lucky if we can manage one trip per year. However, I think we’ve worked out a pretty good system of managing money needs while abroad.
I never buy travelers checks. You often have to pay a fee when you buy them, and then you might have to pay a fee for exchanging them to local currency. Or you’re searching all day for the American Express office. Less and less stores accept them for purchases, due to fraud and theft. If your signatures don’t exactly match, they give you grief. If you get them wet, they are useless and you have to replace them.
Most importantly: Any place that does take them will most likely accept credit cards, which are a better alternative (see below).
Best Credit Card For International Travel
Whenever possible, I use a credit card for making purchases while abroad. Hotels, transportation, sightseeing tickets, and so on. However, most credit cards are pretty expensive when it comes to foreign currency purchases. Visa and Mastercard charge a standard 1% “conversion” fee on top of the wholesale “interbank” exchange rate. Many major credit card issuers like Citi, Chase, and American Express charge you another 2%-3% on top of that. You’re losing up to 4% off the bat.
So what do I use? My favorite card, hands down, is my credit card from Capital One . I have used this card from China to France with no issues at all. Capital One charges you only the interbank currency exchange rate. They pay the Visa/Mastercard 1% fee for you, and they don’t have any self-imposed surcharge. Finally, this specific card gives you 1% cash back on all purchases (2% for groceries/gas) and has no annual fee.
Net result: Not only do I get the best exchange rate possible, but I actually gain 1% cash back on my foreign purchases. It’s better than cash!
(I only use this card internationally. While in the US, I prefer these cash back credit cards.)
ATM Cards / Getting Cash
I used to worry about bringing some local currency with me, but it is usually expensive to get this done in the US. (Always compare their rates with the interbank rates at Oanda.com.) Nowadays, if you are arriving in a large international airport, there is hardly any chance they won’t have ATMs available. I do bring $100 in US $20 bills in my money belt as an added backup.
When it comes to getting cash in local currency from ATMs, there are also fees to be aware of. The local ATM may charge a fee, although bigger banks are less likely to. Your bank may also charge a fee for using a non-network foreign ATM. Finally, they may charge a surcharge for the currency exchange itself.
Because I use a credit card for most large purchases, I usually only need cash for restaurants and other small things. Therefore, I usually take out all the cash I expect to spend during my stay all at once, as it is no more than a few hundred dollars. Since I only have to pay these fees once, I don’t worry about them as much.
For example, on a $300 withdrawal using my normal WaMu Free Checking account, I will be charged a 3% exchange fee + no ATM fees. I am okay with paying a one-time fee of $9 for this convenience. My backup card is with Bank of America, where it would have cost $8 total (1% + $5), though they do have some partner banks with no fees. I like sticking with big banks here.
A good comparison of all these card fees is located here.
Money Belt and Wallet
After experiencing firsthand how slick a professional pickpocket can be in an Italian train, I don’t go anywhere without my trusty money belt keeping everything hidden safely underneath my clothes. I usually put in my week’s worth of cash, my backup credit card, two ATM cards, emergency numbers, and my passport.
My wallet only holds a day’s worth of cash (~$40) and my primary credit card. I usually also have travel pants with zippered pockets. This way, if it gets stolen I am only out a small amount of money and one credit card.
Lost Your Credit Card While Traveling?
You can easily report your lost card to the major issuers while traveling internationally by calling these US numbers collect. Write them down and keep in your money belt, along with any credit card numbers.
- Visa: 410-581-9994
- Mastercard: 636-722-7111
- American Express: 336-393-1111
Monday, July 7th, 2008
If you collect Delta SkyMiles like I do, here is a peculiar offer from Delta and Avis/Budget. You can actually earn 9,999 bonus miles for making a single car rental:
Now through August 1, 2008, you can earn 9,999 bonus miles on your next rental placed through delta.com (maximum of 3 bonuses total per customer on both Avis and Budget. [...] To qualify for this promotion, you must make your Avis or Budget rental reservation through delta.com with your SkyMiles number. [...] Offer may not be used in conjunction with any other AWD number, promotion or offer.
I guess it is to promote getting a car rental from the Delta website. Just make up a flight to the airport you want to rent from, you don’t need to book a flight at the same time. With flights these days costing so much, using frequent flyer miles has become a better deal again. If you value your miles at a conservative penny per mile (30,000 miles = $300 ticket), then this is like earning a $100 bonus for a 1-day car rental. If you needed to rent a car anyways, you probably just got a a free rental! If your city has cheap rates, you could theoretically even rent a car for no reason and still come out ahead… You can repeat 3 times until 8/1.
A Better Credit Card For Delta Regulars
You may not know that you can get 1.25 Delta Skymiles per dollar spent with the Starwood American Express Card, which is 25% more than the 1 mile per dollar from the regular Delta Airlines – Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card (which a lot of people I know have) and even has a lower annual fee.
However, if you fly with a partner a lot on Delta it may be worthwhile to upgrade to the Delta Platinum AMEX because you get a free companion ticket voucher each year. Again, with rising ticket prices this voucher is very valuable. I just used one of these vouchers (via my parents) to travel cross-country for a wedding in November, and they didn’t make me buy an overly expensive base ticket – it was the lowest price shown online. Saved me nearly $500!
Finally, if you have Membership Rewards points from American Express lying around, you can currently get a 20% bonus on transfers into Delta Skymiles. So 1 MR point = 1.2 SkyMiles until 7/31.
Friday, February 22nd, 2008
I’ve already shared my habit of trying to get bumped off of airline flights on purpose for the free tickets. I haven’t been bumped recently, but here’s another frugal travel quirk that most people don’t seem to do…
Sometimes even those us who like to pack light end up bringing a lot of bags or heavy boxes. At the baggage claim, you’re then faced with the prospect of paying $3 for a cart to hold your stuff for 8 minutes. The horror!
Your bags usually take several minutes to be loaded onto the carousel anyways. So instead of going straight to baggage claim, after I get off the plane I go directly to the check-in ticketing level. Usually, especially if there are baggage scanning stations, there are plenty of discarded carts. I grab one, take the elevator down one or two levels to baggage claim, and proceed to load my bags on my free luggage cart. I’ve wasted no extra time, and my success rate is around 90%.
Friday, January 18th, 2008
Most hardcore independent travelers will agree that you can pack for a year ’round the world in just one carry-on. Being able to fit your life into one backpack is almost a meditation exercise for me. It makes me feel free. But since this is a money blog, here are some financial benefits of packing light:
- More fun time. You don’t have to arrive to the airport as early, and you don’t waste time waiting around at the baggage claim after arriving. Now you have more time to soak in the culture!
- No lost luggage. You don’t have to worry about lost or damaged checked luggage, and spending money replacing items in a foreign country.
- Increased airport flexibility. Being one unit allows you to easily be “bumped” onto another airline, or you might go standby on an earlier flight. Similarly, if you miss a connection, you don’t have to pray that your luggage will still show up.
- Cheaper transportation. You can take public transportation everywhere with ease – subways, crowded trains, even hanging off of a farmer’s truck. You can also walk longer distances without suffering.
So I thought I’d share some of the somewhat specialized gear that I actually don’t mind spending money on. I would have to say 75% of my stuff was bought at either the REI Outlet or Columbia Outlet stores.
Luggage – REI Tour Pack
I don’t think REI makes this anymore, but it’s a pretty simple bag and cost about $125. It’s basically a big squarish backpack exactly the size limit of a carry-on, with nice padded shoulder straps and compression straps too. Good quality, YKK zippers. There is also a small detachable daypack – perfect for carrying your rain jacket, maps, guidebooks, and bottle of water when out and about. A similar bag would be Rick Steves’ Classic Back Door Bag
The general idea here to have it be lightweight, look casual, and be fast-drying. That way you can just hand wash them at night in the hotel room and have them ready to go in the morning. I love my REI Sahara Convertible Pants. They convert to shorts easily, so it’s one less thing to pack. You can also buy hiking or “travel” shirts, socks, and even underwear that can be hand-washed and will dry overnight. My next purchase will be some nice travel boxers of Ex Officio. Technically, you could simply buy one of each of these, and just wash as needed! I think I’ll spring for at least 3 of each.
I always bring a good fleece jacket, but since I own one already that isn’t an extra expense.
Silk Money Belt
This “personal lockbox” allows me to sleep in hostels and walk around busy areas while keeping my passports and credit cards safe. It’s highly unlikely someone will poke around there without me noticing. Besides, it’s actually pretty comfortable. Here’s an example for $13.
Extra Toiletries Kit
I basically bought some cheap travel-sized (and TSA approved) plastic bottles, and made a duplicate of all the personal products I use everyday. I don’t move things in and out of my toiletry bag, it’s always 100% packed. Contact lenses, toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, comb, whatever. So when I need to pack, I just grab it and go.
I would like to say I have a sleek 3 lb. laptop and some nice GSM cell phone/internet hookup, but I actually don’t pack anything electrical with me besides my camera. Just about everything I need can be accessed by finding an internet cafe. I can post to blogs from anywhere, or even log into my computer remotely if desired.
Packing Light & Right – Rick Steves
Carrying off the art of one carry-on – SF Chronicle
The Travelite FAQ
Please share your own tips as well in the comments! Right now I’m trying to figure out how to fit in a week in Thailand in March or April. Gotta work on my mid-term goal