Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Travel Tuesday: Where to Stay

Welcome to my new project, Travel Tuesdays!

I have been doing a fair bit of traveling since we moved here. I've always loved to explore new places, and I am a bit of an armchair traveler regardless, always reading travel stories and travel guides and doing a bit of planning in my head for that next trip. I've picked up some useful tips along the way. I thought it might be interesting/helpful for others with small children to hear about our experiences traveling with a toddler, and to here my tips and tricks for making it work. We take Miss M. pretty much everywhere, so I'll be covering all sorts of topics. And T. is so entirely sick of listening to me talk about the trips I'm currently planning, so I sort of need a new audience!

First up: Lodging.

It goes without saying that one of the biggest components of travel costs, after transportation, is lodging. I have three core approaches to lodging, as follows:

1. I generally start by reviewing guidebooks and online listings regarding hostels in the area I will be traveling to. Although I'm a bit old to stay in a hostel dorm room, and most hostels don't allow toddlers in their dorm rooms anyway, many hostels DO also have double or family rooms. It's worth checking out this option, as you can sometimes find really cool options which are also VERY inexpensive. The downside to this option is that they are often booked way, way in advance, as hostels tend to have only a small amount of such rooms on offer. It's always worth a shot, though. Plus, hostels tend to have cool community living rooms and kitchens that you can use, and we've met loads of interesting people that way.

2. My second stop is usually Price.line. But wait. . .I don't just go on Price.line and bid. I have developed a STRATEGY, based on a very helpful website called Better Bidding. The website is useful in a few different ways: first, it has entire sections devoted to areas where you might want to bid (each American state, Caribbean, "other countries", etc.). Say you want to travel to Boston. You can look under Massachusetts, and then see what deals people have scored recently (or during the same month last year or the year before) for Boston hotels, so you have a ballpark estimate on the amount of money you might need to bid to be successful (if you've ever bid on Price.line, you know why this is important. . .you can only bid so many times before you have to wait 24 hours to lodge another bid). The Better Bidding website also has reviews of hotels, as well as lists of what hotels Price.line has put in which zone, and what classification (how many stars) Price.line has given those hotels, so you have some inside information on how to bid on a hotel that you actually want. But, perhaps most useful is the part of the site that talks STRATEGY. You see, Price.line is based on zones. Let's say there are five zones in the city you are bidding. You can actually play with the zones to discover whether there are any four or five star hotels in those zones. If there are NOT, you have basically won yourself the ability to bid an extra time without adding a zone. So, say you want to stay in the "center city" zone, but looking at "really far away from center" zone, you notice that it has no 5* hotels, nor does "north of center." You bid $70 on 5* hotels in "center city." If you win, great, but if rejected, you can take another bite at the apple right away. You add a second zone ("really far away from center"), because you know it has no 5* hotels, and bid $80 (you are still only bidding on "center city", because "really far away" has no 5* hotels. . .but Price.line doesn't recognize that and lets you bid a second time, anyway). If rejected, you then bid a third time, adding "north of center," because it also doesn't have any 5* hotels. And so on. If you are reasonably accurate in your initial assessment of what a successful bid will be, by looking at prior bidders winning bids on the Better Bidding website, you can usually use this strategy to land yourself a good deal. If you cannot, it's likely you are bidding during busy season, or in a really expensive city. Sometimes hotels will also pop up few weeks down the road, if you can wait a bit longer.

Some caveats about this: I only bid on 4 star and 5 star hotels on Price.line, because I think quality just gets too unreliable when you go down to 3 star hotels, and although Better Bidding also gives you info on Hot.wire, I never use it, as I don't think the deals are as good (if you are so inclined, however, Better Bidding can help you figure out what Hot.wire hotel you are bidding on, BEFORE you bid on it). I have stayed in very nice places all over, using the aforementioned Price.line strategy. Most recently, we paid $85 for a newly renovated hotel in Brussels which had a fantastic pool. The best available rate online was about $140. I really, really wanted a hotel with an indoor pool, and was fairly confident that I could get this one, based on my Better Bidding research, and was thrilled when it worked out.

3. My third go-to option for finding reasonably priced lodging is to rent an apartment. Pretty much every area that caters to tourists has short-term apartments for rent. We just stayed at a gorgeous place in Amsterdam, with a small yard, huge living room, full kitchen and bedroom, for less than we would have paid for a crappy hotel room per night. We never could have afforded to stay at a 4* hotel in Amsterdam--even the budget places were crazy expensive. From the apartment we rented, we could walk to tourist locations, and we were also right near a tram. It was perfect in every way. It was beautifully decorated, and the owner had left maps and other materials there for our use. It had a television, cd player, cd's, books, linens for our use, pots, pans, dishes, dishwasher, and all of the usual appliances. It was really fantastic.

I was resistant to renting apartments for a long time because I was concerned about getting conned, but it's so much more convenient than a hotel when you have a small child. You can keep things in the fridge, and eat meals on your own schedule. It's nice to have coffee in your own place in the morning while the baby plays. Having a kitchen also saves you money. I do like a good meal out when I travel, but it's so much easier to be able to have some meals at home. As far as eating meals out go, I find it's generally cheaper to splash out on a big meal at lunch than dinner, anyway, and then have a simple supper at home. You get to enjoy the local cuisine at a fraction of the price of dinner--and, restaurants are more open to toddlers at lunch than dinner!

I find apartments by locating a reputable rental agency, and checking through their listings for something that meets my budget. I'm not too particular on number of bedrooms, since it's sometimes cheaper to rent a two bedroom than a one bedroom. I more look at overall price, the location of the apartment, and the location of the places that I would like to visit in the city. Again, I consult guidebooks and online message boards to find good rental agencies. I also try to find reviews of individual apartments from people who have rented the apartments in the past. Note that an apartment might be listed by different/competing rental agencies for different prices. I discovered two agencies were renting a unit that I liked for an upcoming Italian vacation, and there was a 60% difference in price between the two agencies! So, it's worth googling the name of the property to see if anyone else has it listed for a better price. However, note that some rental properties might be rented under multiple names by different/competing agencies for marketing reasons, which can make it a bit hard to compare prices. I only found the two agencies were both marketing the property I was interested in because I had looked at a LOT of apartments online while searching, and the photographs of this one apartment were particularly striking and identifiable. (I was also able to get a 5% discount from my preferred rental agency, when I mentioned I'd found the unit listed by someone else!). Many of these agencies also accept credit cards, which makes me more comfortable, but the chance of fraud is obviously a small possibility. I do a lot of research before I commit to an agency, to try to make sure I'm dealing with a reputable agency.

I've used each of these options in the U.S. and abroad. There is no one option that works every time, but one or the other generally seems to come through for me. I rarely simply go online to book a hotel. And, I always stay someplace nice, at a reasonable price, because vacation is about enjoying your surroundings. Even if you don't spend piles of time in your room, it still adds a little something to stay in a nice place with a bit of character.

Next Travel Tuesday: Amsterdam


~Jess said...

What a great post! And a great idea! We love traveling, but haven't managed to do very much of it. I'm looking forward to reading all of your advice :-)

Email me if you would like access to my blog
jess.white05 at gmail dot com

Darla said...

Thanks for the tips! WE too travel to Amsterdam and Italy, with our new abode location and I love tidbits of advice, especially from people I trust!