Monday, May 22, 2006

Travel Tips - No Need to Cry

Princess Jami has a good post up for those who like to travel frugally. I fall into that camp. I love travel, and even moreso if I know I'm not spending lots of money. Check out her post for some great tips. Then, I'll share another excerpt from my Rather Long and Boring Travelogue of the Trip With Excessive Luggage to reinforce a point that Jami and I discussed briefly in the comments of her post...which is, don't bother taking Traveler's Cheques to Europe.

As background, I was experiencing a bit of a meltdown due to the language barrier in Croatia where English is not a 2nd language like it is in Western Europe. My beloved husband was born there and was my only means of contact with the rest of the world at this point. Being more than a little independent, the language barrier began to put a big strain on me. This took place after spending an entire morning in fruitless search of a camera battery:

At one point, I broke down, crying tears of frustration, when the bank refused to cash my traveler's checks because I had already dated them (at my bank, back home, when they were issued, as required by the teller who sold them to me). I couldn't convince MBH (my only source of verbal communication) or the tellers (who don't respond well to hand gestures) that they were wrong. Hmm, I’m sure this was good for me, but I was now officially…broke! We were counting on those traveler's checks! Oh sure, we had a few credit cards, an ATM/debit card and some U.S. dollars in our wallets, but have you ever tried to pay to use the toilet in Eastern Europe with a credit card? Or purchase a squealing pig from a farmer with your debit card? Or a few figs, some fresh goat cheese and sausage, from vendors who have no teeth, at the farmer’s market, with U.S. currency, when they have no way of converting it? Ahh, you see…I was officially broke and I had to pee! Please don’t ask me why I didn’t think to whip out one of these alternate forms of currency at the bank where I surely could have exchanged something for Croatian kunas…I guess I needed to indulge in a little self-pity over the traveler’s checks for awhile. It was the principle of the matter. So I begged to use the toilet for free and officially became…a panhandler! [thud]

As it turned out, there were ATM machines on every corner (not so on our last visit when none of the shopkeepers even took credit cards). The beauty of the ATMs was 1) I didn't need no stinkin' bank teller, 2) I could take out only as much as I was willing to lose in a day for a nominal transaction fee (i.e. I didn't need the security of traveler's checks), 3) I didn't have to pay their stupid 10% bank fee for the priviledge of cashing and exchanging my traveler's checks, and 4) the ATM spit out the local currency, using the optimal exchange rate (no longer at the mercy of the local banks and their usorious exchange rates). Even better? When I returned home, I discovered that all those ATMs were put there by my client, whose headquarters are in Kansas City! Small world.

But wait, don't go yet!

Here's my absolute favorite cheap travel tip: whenever I'm planning a domestic trip (as in someplace in the U.S., not a fall down your own stairs, or "tripping" over all the domestic chores you have to do), I use Priceline for the hotel and rental car reservations (but not plane reservations...their air fares are not much cheaper and you lose all your flexibility if you go with the bidding process). I usually consult Travelocity, Expedia, and/or Orbitz to get an idea of what hotels are charging in the area, and then go to Priceline and bid about 60% of the going Travelocity rate. This has only failed me once (on this past trip to Chicago when I couldn't find a single downtown room anywhere using any of the sites...downtown was all sold out which wasn't Priceline's fault). Priceline works so well that I will sometimes even book a last minute room someplace local just for a fun weekend getaway.

The secret is to bid first on the highest star level (and only on the highest level). If bids are rejected, you can't bid on the same star level again for 72 hours, but you can bid on the next level down. I've never had to go below 3 stars and I've never been disappointed. Don't limit your options by starting out bidding on a 3 star hotel because Priceline will search all star levels above the one you pick, but not below it, and eliminate them all for 72 hours. For an idea of what to expect, we've had the following successes (and this represents 100% of what I can remember):

5-star Hyatt in La Jolla, CA for $75/nt (the best deal of them all!)
Doubletree in Omaha, NE for $55/nt (hey, don't knock it til you try it, there's lots to do in Omaha)
Mariott in Kansas City for $45/nt (a Valentine's Day treat)
Grand Hyatt on Union Square, San Francisco for $75/nt (at Christmas!)
Radisson Plaza-Warwick in Philadelphia for $65/nt
Hilton on Michigan Ave in Chicago for $65/nt
Sheraton in Alexandria, VA for $65/nt
Mariott in Charleston, SC for $65/nt
Mariott Suites in Savannah, GA for $65/nt

This doesn't work in places not populated by the big chain hotels, and it doesn't work for bed & breakfasts (I used to be a bed & breakfast person until I discovered Priceline; now, I'll take cheap luxury over friendly, but expensive, hospitality ;-). Another downside is that you can't filter your request, so that if you require a hotel that takes pets, for example, you can't specify that, and you may end up with a hotel that doesn't allow pets (you submit your credit card information with your bid, so you don't have the option of undoing the transaction after you've submitted your bid). Certain other choices like # of beds or non-smoking rooms can be handled easily enough, with a follow-up phone call to the hotel. Even though the process seems irrevocable and that can be scary, I've never had a bad experience with's always been reliable.<*/end commercial>

Be warned, there's more where this came from. ;-)


At 5:02 AM, May 23, 2006, Blogger Rach said...

Ha! I am just about to go and see my bank about travellers checks vs ATM machines vs Visa's for my trip over to your neck of the woods!

At 8:55 AM, May 23, 2006, Blogger beth said...

Traveller's checks are not worth it anymore. In the pre-ATM-all-across-the-land days they were a necessity but pretty much today you're good if you've got an ATM card (and I thoroughly second the fact that you get the best exchange rate with them vs. local banks.) I will caveat with the fact that I haven't travelled to places like Africa (less developed areas of the world) so I'm not sure that it would apply in those situations. But for Europe and the US, I'd say you're spot on.

I have one aside on the Priceline thing, though generally I agree with you. That is: if you use them for plane tickets (we did before there were quite as many cheap carriers) and if there are weather-related issues, be prepared to be treated like you don't exist by the airlines. Airlines despise Priceline and they know how you bought your tickets and they will not do anything for you if you miss your flight out of, oh say Houston, because of, oh let's call it a hurricane, and consequently miss your flight out of, oh why not - Atlanta. :) The only things that saved us were 1) my ability to be really obnoxious (I prefer the term "firm", but Tim was embarassed a little) and 2) the fact that I was currently a Platinum Medallion member on the airline in question. Otherwise, we'd've been hosed.

So, long way about, I second not using them for airfare cause you can get hosed rather mightily.

At 9:24 AM, May 23, 2006, Blogger Gwynne said...

Beth, my point exactly about the airlines and Priceline. In fact, if I remember right, I think Jen's honeymoon return trip fiasco was related to this very issue...Priceline and the airlines do not get along! If they had encountered the same situation with Travelocity tickets, the airlines would have been more accommodating, I've no doubt.

Rach, you definitely won't be needing traveler's checks in the U.S. (unless, like Princess Jami, you decide to go off into the far off reaches of Kansas, where they look at you funny if you carry plastic of any kind. ;-)

At 10:42 AM, May 23, 2006, Blogger beth said...

I thought Jen's honeymoon return issue was because Independence Air, sadly, stopped operating after they were already out there. Not sure about Travelocity, honestly, I've had some issues with tickets purchase through them as well - and Travelocity was ok but not great in helping out. Most of the time I now book directly through the airline website. 98% of the time I can get just as good a deal (sometimes better) going directly to an airline website. Bit of a pain since you have to do a tad more searching (vs. the convenience of multiple carriers on one screen @ Travelocity et al) but I will check out Travelocity/Expedia/Orbitz and get general ideas of what folks are charging, pick the cheapest three or four, and go look at their stuff directly to try and cut down on some of the madness.

I think I could easily be a full time travel agent. If there was still a need for such a thing in this day and age. :)

At 11:05 AM, May 23, 2006, Blogger Gwynne said...

I've done that before too...go direct to the airlines. I often travel Southwest which doesn't even offer its tickets to other sites. That probably is the best way to buy plane tickets.

I think you're right that Independence Air was the root of their problem, but other airlines will honor the tickets of bankrupt airlines (as rqd by law) in more agreeable fashion (not rqd by law) if they're not Priceline tickets. ;-) My guess is that Priceline is not good about reimbursing the airlines for their cost, but that's just a guess. At any rate, it's good to have some leverage with the airlines, regardless how you get it. I now have frequent flyer points with several bankrupt airlines. ;-)

At 8:16 PM, May 23, 2006, Blogger mis_nomer said...

What useful tips. Must keep them in mind. Thanks!

At 8:42 PM, May 23, 2006, Blogger Eric said...

Yeah, I also appreciate the Priceline tips, although with Abbye's health conditions we're having to put a lot of travel plans on the shelf.

At 11:59 AM, May 24, 2006, Blogger Foo said...

Thanks for the tips on using Priceline. I've never actually used them, because I'm always afraid they're going to stick me with a place that's cheap because it's right in the middle of a block of crack dens or something. Is your thinking that by bidding on only the 5-star places, you're more or less eliminating the possibility of a bad neighborhood clear across the city from where you need to be?

Also... when we recently returned from our cruise and started tallying our expenditures, I found it interesting that the single largest expense—excepting the item-that-shall-not-be-named—was the tips we had to shell out every few steps.

It was especially bad in Miami, where we had to pay American Airlines $2/bag to curb check, then another $1 per bag to lessen the odds that the porter would intentionally lose our bags in a fit of pique. Then, a tip for the shuttle ride to the hotel, another for the ride back to the airport the next day, and another for the shuttle from the airport to the port.

At the ship, we turned our bags over to the baggage handler who actually looked me in the eye and said, "This will be the last time you see me, so you should tip me now to make sure your bags don't get lost 'r' somethin'."

Automatic 15% tips for every soda or bottle of beer purchased on the boat, as well as $140 (for the two of us) in automatic tips for our waiters and stateroom tidy-uppers. Then, at the end, the request to voluntarily increase this amount, as well as a "suggestion" that we pay off the maître d', whom we never even saw except on the last night when he came by to see if we had an envelope for him.

Then, more tips to get from the ship back to the airport, check bags, etc.

I wonder if I can work this angle for myself. By definition, I don't get paid for any of the volunteer web work I do, but I wonder if I could start extorting tips from people who want me to make updates for them.

At 12:22 PM, May 24, 2006, Blogger Gwynne said...

Good heavens...that's a lot of tipping! Almost sounds like you were in a foreign country where bribes are the everyday means of doing business. I hate "automatic" tipping...just the thought of it makes me not want to tip. I've only been on one cruise and all tips were included in the fare and they made a big deal out of disallowing tips (of course, this is just another form of automatic tipping, but I felt better about life on the ship knowing that my fate didn't depend on my tipping practices).

As for using Priceline and ending up in a crack den (heh ;-), you can select which portion of the city you prefer and Priceline will only select a hotel in that area. The secret then is to know the city and know where the crack houses are located. Most large chain hotels steer away from those neighborhoods anyway, so I've never had that happen. And I just start with the 5-star category, but I usually end up with a 3-4 star hotel at the price I'm willing to pay (which, before Priceline, would have normally placed us smack dab in the middle of crack heaven). ;-)

At 10:08 PM, May 24, 2006, Blogger Eric said...

Foo's tipping stories make me want to forego any cruises. That's ridiculous.

At 3:47 AM, May 28, 2006, Blogger Princess Jami said...

I'm looking forward to more of these posts!! :-) Your travel tip is great! I didn't know that about the stars.

And, yes, it's good to have money for the restrooms overseas. I had to giggle about that, because we were sure surprised to find out about this in Germany.

I'm so glad Southwest is finally in Denver. Yay!!

At 3:50 AM, May 28, 2006, Blogger Princess Jami said...

Yeah, the far-off reaches of Kansas. Tee-hee. Largely credit card-free out in the southwesterly portion of the state.


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