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5-star travel on a 3-star budget

June 18, 2010

First and foremost, I’m excited to say that klutzy chef is celebrating 100 posts today.   Who’d of thunk it?

100 posts aside, with the summer season (aka vacation season) upon us, I thought I would dedicate some more posts to travel.  When we moved here, we looked forward to many things.  A new work opportunity.  The prospect of learning German.  Privatized health care.  But the travel opportunities seemed the most exciting.  Before leaving the U.S., Mr. K.C. and I already had a “to-go” list in hand.  From Zurich airport, you’re virtually anywhere in Europe in 1-2 hours.  Not to mention it’s a great international hub.

Of course, with the upside of travel comes the downside of budgeting.  Let’s be honest, my hostel years are behind me–I like my creature comforts.  But, we don’t pull Goldman bonuses and I certainly don’t have a trust fund to draw from.  That just means I’ve learned to be creative about getting my cake and eating it too when it comes to travel and now I want to share.  Of course, I’d love to hear some of yours!  Do you have any travel planning secrets?

1. Loyalty programs:  This is a huge one for me and I regret not signing up for all of them earlier in life.  In our three years here, I’ve managed to rack up enough miles to earn a status that allows me access to check in with first class (no lines, hooray), use of departure and arrival lounges (free internet, drinks and food, double hooray), avoid baggage fess and on the rarest of occasions get a free upgrade–emphasis on the rarest bit.  Flying these days sucks, but being loyal pays off.  Not to mention as the result of our loyalty, Mr. KC and I both traveled to Africa for free and are planning a trip to Australia (in business class!) next year using miles.   Talk about saving serious cash.  And for those of you who are just in it for the upgrades, it’ll buy you those too.  Same thing for hotels, SPG being one of the best out there.  They cost nothing and you only stand to benefit from them, so why the heck not?  Still not convinced?  Watch Up in the Air and catch miles fever.

2. Know your priorities. I’m fine with flying back of the bus in economy, I do it for work and vacations.   I can’t justify the extra cost of flying business knowing I could be spending that money on other things.  On any given trip, I figure out what’s  worth the most to me and I put values on that.  Flying is a no-brainer, cheapest seat on the most direct route available, please.  But hotels are different.  Cities like Paris are incredibly expensive when it comes to lodging.  I know I can get a nicer hotel that’s further out of the city, but that’s just not worth it to me, but might be to someone else.  When you’re out and about all day, I’d rather have a place that I can easily return to for a quick rest before heading out again.  It might be more expensive and I may get less bang for my Euro, but to me it’s worth it.

3. Sign up for emails:  As someone who gets her fair share of spam, I’m always reluctant to sign up for promo emails, but so many of our trips have been the result of these direct mailings.  Roundtrip tickets to Singapore on Lufthansa for $550 on a two-day sale.  Business class to London on Swiss air for $150.  All promotions I would have never seen without the emails.  I only choose a few sites, but I’m a loyal reader.

4. Plan your meals.  I cringe when I hear people claim to have eaten overpriced, crappy food in Berlin, New York, Paris, or heaven forbid…Rome.  Here’s the thing, people–if you eat at a restaurant with pictures on the menu, you’re going to get served crap food.  It’s just the way the world works.  Eating like a local takes planning.  Do yourself a favor and check out a few local blogs, the Chowhound forums and the coveted “36 hours in…” columns in the NY Times.  You’ll be singing a different tune and probably working off a few extra lbs from all the good grub.

With that said, you don’t want to kill the joy of discovering someplace on your own–leave yourself room for spontaneity.  Some of my favorite experiences have been hole-in-the-wall joints, but just remember to leave those moments to when you’re doing some neighborhood wandering and not immediately outside a major tourist spot.

5. Bargain travel sites. TC confession: Many, many moons ago, a friend and I planned a trip to London together.  Being young, stupid and poor planners, neither of us thought to book a hotel ahead of time.  What were we thinking?!  So, naturally, we book a hotel at the airport–again, one of my dumber moments.  We ended up in a “hotel” without a private bath, in a room where I slept with one eye open and when we did get around to showering, I showered with my socks on.  Foul.  And it wasn’t even cheap! Since then, I’ve been a planner and these days with all the sites available it’s easy.  My favorites?

  • Tripadvisor:  Perfect for starting a hotel list.  As of lately, I’ve  had mixed feelings about its value.  Given its wide-spread use and occasional abuse, you don’t always get good perspective.  I use it mostly for getting a sense of area, checking out photos and then vetting information in the forums.  Sharing is caring though, make sure to contribute as well as benefit.  It’s what makes the site great.
  • Daily Candy Travel:  My kryptonite.  I swear, I will do anything Daily Candy tells me to do. I actually traveled to Zanzibar because it was their first travel email and the seed was planted…I had to go.   It took 5 years to get around to it, but I finally went.  Generally pretty high-end hotel suggestions, but you can benefit from learning about cool neighborhoods you may  have not known about otherwise.
  • Kayak: So easy and reliable.  My first stop to get an idea of pricing for both hotels and flights.
  • Priceline: I am a sucker for their bidding system for hotels and rental cars (never flights).  Not to mention I love William Shatner.  A quick stop over to Better Bidding gives you the chance to check out what other people have bid and what they’ve won.  KC warning:  not recommended for cities where their neighborhood maps are broad or if you don’t like chains.  We used it for London (post sock-showering incident) and ended up in a Marriott that was out of the way and not the best choice in hindsight–but very nice.  On the other hand, we used it for Berlin with amazing success.
  • Agoda: Priceline prices but with a loyalty program.  Each booking earns you Agoda points which can then be converted into cash and applied to future bookings.  You’d be surprised how quickly they add up.  Three bookings later and I have a $100 credit towards my next reservation. Particularly good deals in Asia.

6. Haggle! This one isn’t for every one and I get that.  If all of the sites above haven’t come through for me or there’s a specific hotel that I’m dying to stay in, I pick up the phone and ask them for their best price.   If their best price is not what I want I do one of two things.

  • Say “Here’s the thing, I really want to stay at your property, but (enter name of competing hotel in the same area) is offering a price of (enter the price you want).  Is there any way that you might be able to match that price or at least come close?”  You’d be shocked at how often this has worked for me, especially for high-end hotel chains.
  • Ask if there’s a discount if you pay cash.  This won’t work at the 4 Seasons in Madrid, but it will easily knock 10-20% off boutique hotels in many countries.

What’s the worst they could do?  Say no?  At least you tried.  More likely though, you’ll get a better deal than you imagined and the hotel gets another guest.  Win-win all around.

Summary: Long post short–plan ahead, budget wisely and every now and again pick up the phone–you, your wallet and your vacation will be happy you did.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 18, 2010 12:01 pm

    I found your site on technorati and read a few of your other posts. Keep up the good work. I just added your RSS feed to my Google News Reader. Looking forward to reading more from you down the road!

  2. July 15, 2010 7:03 pm

    I love this post. I definitely agree with you on the hotel part. A comfortable sleeping place is all I want after a long day of wandering around.

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