Sunday, May 11, 2014

MTQ Travel tips and lessons learned

I recently returned from a terrific family road trip.  Most of our planning worked out well, but as with any trip we encountered some unavoidable bumps and lessons learned.  In this post I am going to identify what worked well as well as those areas where we might do something different the next time.

Planning:  There are numerous iPad apps that are great for planning a trip.  The most basic that I used were 2 mapping apps which included the standard Apple app as well as the Google app.  These tools helped to identify the routes for a long road trip.  One thing I did encounter is that when you are on the go, these apps are dependent on Wi-Fi.  Fortunately, my wife had printed the instructions.  Regardless, my preference is to avoid printing paper when I can and I was not able to identify a way to send the instructions from either app to my email.  Instead, I ended up going to to run the route and send the instructions to my email where I could access it on my iPad and have it as a reference even without a Wi-Fi connection.

Hotel Reservations:  I found that Kayak was my best bet.  Using Kayak, I was able to identify what hotels were in a given area and the range of rates which was useful to narrow down my choices.  If any questions arose as to the hotel, I rely on Trip Advisor for reliable traveler reviews.  Tip:  When making the actual reservation, I recommend going to the actual / official hotel site and looking for options with a very generous cancellation policy (for example 6pm on day of check in is very good).  This strategy will allow you the greatest flexibility as you can change or cancel the reservation as needed directly with the hotel.  This permits you the safety of knowing you have a reservation, but the ability to continue to shop for something you like better.

Reservation or no reservation:  One of our dilemmas was that our road trip would span two days which meant an overnight somewhere.  It is always difficult to plan the location of the overnight stay as you may encounter traffic OR you just may not feel like driving as far as you thought OR you may feel like driving further than you thought.  Thus, if you make a reservation you may commit yourself to travel that may not end up being comfortable.  On our way out, we gambled (and lost) with no reservation.  Apparently that stretch of I-81 was exceptionally busy as we went to 6 hotels before finding one with a vacant room with 2 beds.  On our way back (via a different route along I-79), we made a reservation, but found that winding your way through the Appalachians took more of a toll than open highway driving and it was an extremely long day in the car.

Loyalty / hotel clubs:  These cost nothing to join so even if you don’t think you travel often, I recommend you join them and start collecting points.  I will also note that in some of these clubs, your points never expire so if it takes you 5 years to earn a free night, so be it.

Flexibility:  You may not think you have flexibility, but if you are staying for several nights it may be hidden.  Our family was staying for 4 nights in Greenville, SC.  We had booked at a Holiday Inn Express for the 4 nights that we were to be there at an average nightly rate of $129 per night.  After running the dates on the hotel’s site several ways, I found that if I dropped the first night (a Saturday night) and booked only 3 nights, the average nightly rate dropped to only $83 per night.  My wife found an alternate hotel using her points for Saturday and we easily saved over $200 using this strategy.  Conversely, you may find that some hotels will provide a discount if you are staying a minimal number of nights so it may be worthwhile to run that scenario on the hotel reservation site as well.

Discounts:  Don't forget AAA, AARP, Entertainment Club or government employee or even union as possible sources for discounts.  (If you are a government employee, you will want to verify that the hotel extends a government rate for personal travel; many do.)

Breakfast counts:  This is particularly true if you are traveling with a family.  Even the cheapest breakfast at a restaurant is likely to average over $5 per person so if the hotel includes breakfast, it adds value.

Wi-Fi (and parking) counts:  Don't assume it is free; some hotels charge a hefty daily rate.  Ditto for parking.

Consider desired amenities:  An indoor pool is always a plus for me.

Pack a night light:  Ok, I realize you probably aren’t afraid of the dark, but hotels seem to have super bright bathrooms and there is nothing worse than that blast of blinding bright light when you're half asleep and need to pee in the middle of the night.

Bring your man bag:  I covered this in last week’s post.

Patronize the local Salvation Army or Goodwill:  These are often fun places to shop, plus you're supporting a good cause.  Better yet, if you fall in love with something chances are that you can afford it.  I find that stopping by these shops while on travel often opens the door to affordable goods that may be beyond what is typically in the stores in my home neighborhood.  For example, on our recent trip, I scored a book about the mind of a dog (written by a psychologist) and a new pair of slider flip flops.  My son scored a DVD that helped entertain him on the long drive and my wife was delighted to find a pair of gloves to replace the pair that she had left at home.

Happy Trails!