Noticing how people spend their money is a great way to learn about them, right? For example, if you were to take a peek at (or a ride in) Paul’s creaking, rusting, 200k + miles-on-it Mazda Protege you’d learn that Paul doesn’t care too much about the car that he drives (as long as it has Bluetooth capabilities!) If you were to sit down in my living room and run you hand over the arm of my fraying-at-the-bottom, old, worn-out couch, you’d not only feel the many tiny tears that the claws of our long-departed cats left there but you’d also learn that I don’t care too much about the furniture in my house. IKEA nearby? Thriving Craigslist community? Great. We’re set.
Now, take a quick peek into my Instagram account and you could notice some pretty obvious things about us – that I love to travel and that Paul loves to eat good food : ) Let the car rust and the couch sag just as long as there are mouth-watering meals in new and exciting places around the world! Oh yes. Can I get an “amen?!”
(I’m only kidding. Kind of. I mean, I will replace the couch at some point. And I apologize to anyone who’s felt a slight panic when trying to pull yourself up and out of it after sitting down…way, way down : )
However, the universal problem with good food and great travel is that it tends cost something. There are exceptions, of course, but over the years I’ve come to realize that if you want excellent experiences, you shouldn’t surprised if they come with a price tag. If your past perusal of my pictures led you to believe that we are independently wealthy, that belief (though a lovely dream) would be incorrect. In fact, I’m something of a spendthrift. I keep a running account of costs in my head during any given trip – which is why I haggle with Paul over the price of parking spots and argue the merits of “breakfast included” when deciding on a hotel. So to reduce my spending without sacrificing quality, I’ve learn a few ways to get high-end perks without spending full price. Over the years, some friends have asked me to share those tips and tricks. Having recently traveled with Paul from one military training to another and enjoyed a layover in Atlanta for a few days during that trip, I figured that now was the best time to explain my methods, since they are still fresh in my mind. My guess is that this will turn into the first of two posts. We’ll see. Anyway, if you have any tried-and-true tips, please leave them in a comment! I’d love to hear them!
Get a good travel credit card
Right now, Paul and I have two credit cards from Chase, the Sapphire and the Freedom. We use these credit cards for everything possible. However, we do treat them like debit cards – only spending what we have budgeted – so if you have a spending problem, please disregard this suggestion and stick to your debit card.
For those of you who do use credit cards, might I suggest that instead of signing up for every card that offers 15% off at a store, you pick one card and stick with it. Then gather the reward points. Hoard them. Stockpile them like you want to get on that TV show that creeps me out and throws me into a cleaning frenzy every time I watch it : ) After a while, you’ll have enough points to help fund your travel desires – whether you use the cash-out option or book directly from your card’s reward program (which sometimes saves you about 20%. ) Truthfully, I consider those points my personal travel savings account. They fund most of my weekend trips while I continue saving for those bigger family vacations we try to take annually. Also, my travel card has no international exchange fees, comes with travel insurance options and offered enough sign-on points to fund the entirety of a sweet little weekend getaway to NYC one year.
Paul tells me that USAA is about to launch a new credit card that comes with a 2% money back guarantee for every purchase made. That is an amazing deal. Chase Freedom does 5% back but only on select stores for select months. I’m pretty sure we’d make more with USAA so if the rewards are even half as good as Chase’s, we’ll be switching once it’s available. Just an FYI for military families.
Don’t make snap decisions unless you are willing to pay for them.
Look, there will always be appropriate moments for spontaneity. But they should be moments, not entire days. It’s a good idea to plan a basic itinerary at least a few hours in advance. For example, I’ll wait to book a hotel until the day I need it, but I’ll spend about 1 hour checking around for the best hotel at the best price. (This can be done in a Starbucks, over a latte, or while travelling towards your destination. It all depends on whether you have time and/or children. Because children won’t last an hour at a Starbucks.) Similarly, there are days when I don’t reserve/find a restaurant for a lunch or dinner, but then I know that I’m running the risk of a) not getting great food or b) having to pay alot of money because my options might be limited. For example, I didn’t plan for dinner one late evening in Atlanta. By the time I realized that most places close at 10:00 (what?!) we had very few choices left and ended up paying 23$ at our hotel’s restaurant for a hamburger and fries (which, frankly, weren’t as extraordinary as their price might lead you to assume.) But Paul was hungry, and if you’ve read this post about my hangry husband, you’ll understand why food is a non-negotiable in our relationship. Sadly, I had no granola bars in my purse than night : (
So instead, do a little work and plan ahead for the big things in a your trip. Spend an afternoon perusing websites about your destination (I’ve included some of the ones I used for Atlanta at the bottom of the page as examples.) Have plans for your lodging, most of your meals, your adventures etc. At the very least, have a few options ready and then spontaneously choose between them : ) For example, I had two hotels picked for Friday night in Atlanta, one north of the city and one downtown. Once we decided what we wanted to down on Saturday (based on weather predictions) I booked the appropriate choice. Similarly, I had one restaurant reservation made in Decatur GA for Friday night, but had a back up plan for going to a Foodie Market near downtown Atlanta in case Paul wasn’t jonesing for a sit-down meal. By sketching out a few options I was guaranteed that my meals would be good and my lodging would fit my budget.
Use technology to book hotels
I have three iphone apps (or websites, if using a computer) that I habitually use when investigating hotels. These three are Priceline, Trivago and Tripadvisor. First, I sketch out a rough plan for the coming day. So that I don’t have to get up at the crack of dawn and drive (wasting half the morning,) I try to find a hotel near that place. Second, by using the Priceline “express deals” option, I look at the different neighborhoods around my destination. I’ll see where hotels are gathered and this helps me narrow down my options based on my destination.
Ok, let’s say that I’ve decided that I want to see Midtown Atlanta. Based on what I’ve read online, it sounds like it would be super fun to stay there and just walk to all my desired destinations for the next two days. Now, I could drive in and park every morning, but where’s the fun in that? I’d rather start by seeing if I can get a 4 star hotel at a 2 star price : ) I begin by switching over to the “browse all hotels” tab in Priceline and set my filter to include the following: 3+ stars, under 250$ (because it is Midtown, nothing but the Red Roof Inn is less than 100$ – if doing this somewhere else, just set your price limit for whichever hotels you tend to like best – I’d use Hyatt Place, Holiday Inn or La Quinta as my baselines) and only in the neighborhood that I am interested in. Boom. I get ten (expensive!) options. I then check on Trivago to make sure that these prices are fairly standard. Sometimes I’ll find cheaper deals there. But let’s assume that I don’t. Still all crazy expensive. I then browse through all ten places, noting what they offer and how they describe themselves. Next, I go back to “express deals” and browse through those options for my desired neighborhood. There are usually only a few but, hey, there’s one for 83 dollars! It’s a 3.5 star, rated “good,” it’s pet friendly, has a fitness room, has a business center, has onsite dining and was originally 150$ a night. It’s description includes words like “outdoor hangout and indoor cocktails create a harmonic Atlanta stay.” Now (and you’ve probably guessed what I’m going to do) I flip back to “browse all hotels” and search through the “good” 3.5 hotels and see if any seem to match that description! I’m not booking a room right now, but I’d lay money that if you chose that 83$ deal, you’d be staying at the Crowne Plaza tonight. This system has generally worked well for me. I’ve never been too far off on my predictions and because I refuse to stay somewhere rated anything less than “good” or 3 stars, I’ve never gotten a lemon of a room.
Before you start doing a victory dance, I have to tell you about a few things that will add to the cost of your stay. These are taxes and fees, breakfast and parking. When booking through express deals you might end up paying a 10-20$ fee for choosing an “unknown” hotel. (Hotwire has consistently had higher fees than Priceline lately, plus, once they gave me a super sketchy hotel that was definitely not the 3.5 star hotel I was promised – which I no longer use Hotwire.) Parking is almost never free if you are staying in a city – so you’ll need to find a place to leave your car over night. Valet parking is usually about 20-30$ a night for most hotels. Gag. We’ll talk about that next. Not having a free breakfast in the morning will set you back about as much as you normally spend on breakfast : ) For Paul, that’s like 15$ although I can get away with the free coffee and apple provided in the lobby each morning. Oh, and if you don’t have unlimited data on your phones, some hotels charge for WiFi. So…these are things to keep in mind and plan for.
Taken all together, for the two nights that we stayed in Midtown Atlanta, I paid 95$ for a room on the 17th floor at the Marriot Suites the first night and 105$ the second (yes, I checked out and then checked back after they offered almost exactly the same price : ) with parking and taxes included. Which is better than 180$ for the same hotel had I booked it directly or even the respectable 3.5 hotel at 125$ that was fifteen minutes away. Woot.
Ok, that’s for those splurge-worthy hotel stays. Let’s say that I just want a cheap hotel near a highway for one night. I still don’t just drive up to the closest one and wing it! No, I go to Priceline, do the same basic search but I change my filters to include free breakfast and free parking when “browsing all hotels.” Then I look at my pricing options. When it comes to free breakfasts, I like to be a little picky. What one hotel calls a free breakfast, I call a sad excuse for food. So I open my trusted Tripadvisor app. Once I find a few hotels in the general area that I want and within the price that I want, I check a few reviews of each of them. As you read, please disregard any complaints about rude hotel staff. I mean, who cares. Really. Unless you want to pay more just to have nice people behind the front desk. Instead, listen for complaints or praise about the breakfast, the beds, the noise level or the air conditioning/heating. These are the things that can make your stay miserable or memorable (in a good way.)
Once I do this I narrow down my choices to two or three hotels and then check the pricing again (including the taxes and fees!) from both Trivago and Priceline. I’ve seen hotels for 100$ on Priceline go for 75$ on Trivago. Also, sometimes Priceline charges higher fees that Trivago. It’s just a good idea to check both. Pick the cheapest option and enjoy your well-researched stay. We stayed outside of Atlanta at a Hyatt Place for 70$ a night with tax and it had a wonderful bed, fabulous breakfast and free copies of the Wall Street Journal in the lobby (which I thought was pretty cool : )
Never pay for valet parking!
Do you hear me!? Never!! One, your car will inevitably be trashed on the night that you decide to stay at a fancy pants hotel and you’ll be super embarrassed when you glance at the valet and watch him visibly cringe as he slides into the drivers seat. Two, you’ll always discover that you never have any cash on you when they drive up with your car and you’ll feel like a horrible person for not tipping the valet. Three, it’s crazy expensive.
Instead, download the handy little app pictured above (BestParking) and search for nearby parking that comes with a reasonable price tag. Alot of the parking in Atlanta was done via smart phone apps, which I thought was neat. You could literally “reserve” a parking spot, extend your stay, finish early and pay from your phone. Paul and I worked out a system where he would drop me off at the hotel with our luggage (we pack light) and while I checked us in he would go park the car and walk back. Sometimes we’d meet at a central location, like a nearby Starbucks, if he didn’t want to walk all the way back to the hotel right then.
So instead of paying 30$ for overnight parking at the hotel, we paid 10$ for a spot in a nearby parking garage. True, I suppose I could have worried that someone would break into our car since it was in a parking lot vs a garage, but then, have you seen Paul’s car? Yeah. It’s not screaming, “rob me, I have wealthy owners!!” : )
Well, I’ll stop here. I have a few more things to write but this is getting long and my kids are tearing around the house in a desperate attempt to wrest my attention away from the computer : ) So I’ll write more later. Hopefully it’s helpful. If I save you a little money, I’ll be happy : )
Here are some of the sites that I used to determine what we would do in Atlanta.
Most Walkable Neighborhoods in Atlanta (I wish there was a site like this for every city I visit!)
Eater (I search for Atlanta specifically and then used the site to find great breakfast, lunch and dinner ideas. Loved the map option!)
Tripadvisor (I assume that most of you already use this, but if you don’t….WHAT in the WORLD?!? It’s amazing. And helpful. And amazing ; )