Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Saving and Traveling- Hotels!

So, we all have this dilemma. Hotels are expensive. Always. Like, several times more per night than my rent (even in the middle of nowhere, and I rent in the land of overpriced beachyness... or beachiness- I'm not sure of the correct grammer there). The good news is there are a few benefits to them.

1) You don't need your own shampoo. Unless you're really picky and/or allergic. I rarely use all the things they put in the room, but I find they generally replace them after day 1 because I put them in the shower (where I... use them!) instead of on the counter. So I like to take these and keep them as an emergency stash. They also work really well paired with guest towels to make your company feel plush (if you have a borderline rediculous stockpile of J&J buddies, I may have stolen and tweaked this tip from you). I also take them with me if I'm staying with friends or family (particularly the soap bars) for some occasion.

2) Rewards. Again it depends on the chain. Hilton does points + miles so you earn both, but the amount of points needed to redeem a free room can be about twice as many as their nemesis Marriott. (Disclaimer: I mostly stay at Hilton b/c my coworkers prefer it and we try to share rental cars, but I worked at a Marriott through college and I think the brands are pretty comparable). Smaller chains tend to offer less predictable rewards- for example Omni gave me a get your second weekend night free certificate awhile back when I checked in, but they don't have a specific point based program. Even online brokers are beginning to get into the deal (unlike airlines who mostly don't award miles through expedia/hotwire type purchases). However, they are usually specific to their purchase website, not the brand or all stays. I hear Radisson (part of Gold Points) has some of the best rewards, but unfortunately I really, really dislike their sleep-number beds.

Of course, there are also things to watch out for:

1) Parking. To me, this is the equivalent of a checked bag fee on airlines. Once you're there, you are stuck with it. So when you're looking around, check the prices. Especially if you are staying downtown or near a touristy area (sporting stadium, zoo, etc) where parking is premium.

2) Breakfast. This can be huge, depending on who you're traveling with. For families I think it is almost always better to stay somewhere with a free breakfast, but if that isn't possible look for rates that include it. Usually the price difference is about the amount of one adult breakfast, making your spouse and/or children nearly free. Also, even if breakfast is crazy expensive and you have no option 2.5 (see directly below), pastries from the local grocer are always cheaper than dining out.

2.5) Mini fridge or fridge. The mini is ALMOST as good as free breakfast. You can buy groceries for a fraction of what eating out costs. Mini fridges are getting relatively common at "family friendly" hotels, but always check. Full size fridges are even better, generally found in long term hotels (which do take short term reservations) which often times feature full kitchens. These hotels allow you the flexibility to make breakfast and dinner at your hotel and only eat lunch out during your daily activities, but can cost more depending on the area.

3) Internet. If you just need directions somewhere the desk staff should be able to take care of that, but if your teenagers are addicted to facebook (and the prospect of listening to them whine about it all week makes you queesy) or you need to check your work email to ensure the world didn't end (you might be an earthquake specialist in San Francisco... I don't know), this is a free bonus to look for.

4) Pools. If this is important to you, call ahead! You'll want to make sure they aren't painting the thing or doing work on it for the duration of your trip, and get an idea of the pool size, indoor or outdoor, and if there are other pools you can use (like if sister hotels are adjacent, they will usually let guests of either hotel use their pool- especially if one is indoor and the other outdoor).

5) Transportation. If you're flying in, see if the hotel offers a shuttle service that would keep you from needing a rental car or cab.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Saving and Traveling

These are two words that don't always go well together. After all, most of the things associated with traveling are pretty expensive- hotels, airfare, rental cars, eating out. But, there are ways to save yourself moola from these activities. Since I've been traveling a lot lately and it's reduced my other hounding, I'd like to share some of the ways I've found to do this. And today is... airlines!

Airfare- I like to check, and I hear airfarewatchdog is also an excellent site. But the bottom line is to look around. Even if you try to stick with the same airline, make sure they aren't way above market price for your flight. If you can, buy in advance. About 2 weeks before is a pretty good time, mostly you want to avoid the window within one week of travel. I've found that booking really far in advance is hit or miss because of the speculation of fuel costs in advance, but early is almost always cheaper if you are planning to go somewhere around a holiday.

Baggage- Check the policies before you book! You almost have to think of it as part of the price of the ticket. Some airlines let you check one free, but most charge $15 for your first bag and $25 for your second. So if you're going on a weekend thing and can handle carry-on, no biggie. But if you're checking a bag odds are you need to tack $30 onto your round-trip airfare when you're comparing.

Airline rewards- Always, always, always sign up! Even if you fly an airline only one time, you may earn enough "miles" or rewards to get something that helps you. For example, Northwest's program allows you to get newspaper subscriptions in a lot of cities. I can get the LA times for a whole year for 887 miles if I just want Sunday, or 1000 miles for weekend (Fri-Sun) service. Wa-la! Free coupons for a year from a single roundtrip flight! I get a fair amount of magazines this way too, I'm hoping "all you" will someday be an option on at least one airline.

If you do fly a lot, it's beneficial to stay with the same airline when you can since elite status usually garners you bonus miles to get free flights faster, some forgo the bag check fee for elite, and you are more likely to get upgraded. If you usually fly long flights it may benefit you to pick one which rewards based on mileage. I usually fly shorter flights, so I like Southwest which doesn't care how far the flight is. Also check what the fees are- many airlines now charge $50 to book your "free" flight. Keep in mind where they fly too. I fly Southwest a lot, but they'd be a bad airline to pick for rewards if my goal was to go to Hawaii considering they don't leave the continental US.

Credit Cards- Completely depends on the card and how much you use it. Make sure to check out all the benefits and costs. The ones with annual fees usually give you better rewards, but if you don't use it much it's not enough to defray the cost. Some like Continental also give you benefits like not paying to check your first bag when you have their card, I think Alaska gives you a free companion pass each year which acts as a buy one get one for $50 (booking fee). Only you know what works for you. I don't have any of these cards, but I'll admit I'm considering the Southwest one since I fly them a lot.

Next up will be hotels :-D