Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Devil Is in the Details

No matter where you go or how you get there, there’s lots of planning involved. The way we travel now is significantly different from the way we went places 30 years ago. Way back then we simply threw the camping gear in the Jeep and took off. Now we are more likely to explore places that are a flight or two or three away, making getting there much more complicated.

The plane, the plane…

Waiting to board an American Airlines flight
Choosing an airline isn’t particularly complicated. If you don’t have a preferred airline there are several ways to go about finding flights that fit your schedule and budget. There are many websites (Expedia, Priceline, CheapOair, Cheap Tickets, OneTravel, CheapFlights, Kayak, Orbitz, etc.) that will compare multiple carriers over a particular set of days and times. However, cheaper isn’t necessarily better. Some airlines have an extra charge for everything, including water. By the time you add on the ‘extras’, your cost may equal what you would have paid on a more well-known airline. Once you’ve chosen an airline from one of the ‘compare-all’ sites, it’s a good idea to take a look at the actual website for the airline. It’s not unusual to find additional flights, equal or better prices, and other information that you won’t find on sites such as CheapOair. You’ve probably heard that Wednesday is the best day to purchase your tickets and this is generally true, but the best day to fly is Thursday. On Thursday flights you can generally get better seats and have a better chance of an upgrade. My first choice is American Airlines and their affiliates partly because I live near an AA hub which makes getting good flights easier and cheaper. Several of my friends choose United Airlines for the same reason: they live near a United hub, making their travel simpler and less expensive. I also choose AA because Dave and I rack up ‘mileage points’, letting us qualify for upgrades, better seats, and free entry into the airline clubs and so forth. There is another website that is really helpful when you’re getting ready to travel: TSA. This site will tell you what you can and cannot take on a plane. If you’ve ever wondered what happens to things that are confiscated by TSA be sure to visit ‘What happens to things that are left with TSA’.


We’ll leave the light on…

Finding a hotel is substantially more challenging for me than finding a flight. Generally I’ll stay anywhere that’s clean, comfortable, and convenient, but there are a few caveats (see Reading the Reviews for what I feel is an ‘excellent’ hotel). There are a host of hotel sites
One of the nicer hotel rooms in Russia
(Expedia, Kayak, Hotels.com, Hotwire, CheapHotels.com, BookingBuddy, Orbitz, etc.). Whether I’m going to be in the US or abroad determines which website I look at first. If I want something overseas, I start with Booking.com. You may be surprised by room size and number of beds in hotels in foreign countries. A king room in Australia, for instance, can be a large room with a double bed. In many places, the largest beds available are queens; if there are two of you and you are both large or need more space to sleep, choose two twin beds! If my destination is within the US, I begin with Priceline; I tend to choose a specific area and four stars or better, then bid on the hotel; I’ve gotten some really good prices in nice hotels. One thing to be aware of is that the prices you may see advertised on various social media sites may only apply to a specific time period. Once you’ve entered the dates of your stay into your chosen travel site, you’ll get more accurate results. For instance, right now the ads for hotels in Hawaii that appear on Facebook feeds do not apply to the time we will actually be in that state. As with flights, keep in mind that additional services can drive up the price of an inexpensive hotel. Think about where you’ll park, if you have a car, and how much that will cost; what it will cost (time and money) to eat breakfast somewhere other than the hotel; how much you’ll pay for WiFi access. It may be that these extras make staying at a three-star hotel just as expensive as booking a four-star hotel with add-ons included. One trick I always consider is changing to a hotel close to the airport the night before I have to fly. I would rather pay a bit more to be within a few miles of an airport than to chance a delay that would cause me to miss my flight.

Guiding lights…

I don’t book many tours because I usually have my own agenda and can figure out how to get from point A to point B. In fact I’ve only taken seven tours since 1985; all were booked
One of the many cruises that leave
from Sydney, Australia
by putting in a tour location, activities I wanted to do and wading through the websites. One tour was very early in my traveling life and I didn’t have a clue how to get myself and my friends around Europe; fun, but not long enough in any one spot to really understand various cultures. The second was through a country with a language I couldn’t puzzle out even with a phrase book; absolutely fabulous with a great guide and time to see the things that were of personal interest. The third was along the inside passage of Alaska in a small boat; another great tour, particularly since we were the first group of the season and there were very few tourists in the areas. The fourth was on a huge cruise ship; great for a few days, but like taking a trip with a bazillion of your closest friends. The fifth and sixth were live-aboard dive trips. One was super but the other put two couples who didn’t know each other in a single room; a horrible trip for this and many other reasons. Last minute tours are inexpensive but you will have to settle for whatever accommodations are left (two couples, one cabin); this could be an inside, lower deck cabin on a ship or a hotel room with a view of the hospital emergency room. The seventh is a river cruise coming up this year. I have already learned a lot about booking with this tour company. For instance, even though you pay your fees up front, they do not book your airfare until 90 days prior to your departure. This pretty much guarantees that there will be no exit row seats or possibilities for upgrades left on the plane. They do, however, let you know what hotels you’ll be staying in early on and they are concerned about any food allergies you might have.

Zoom, zoom, zoom…

Renting cars is fairly easy. Now car rental agencies familiar to folks from the US have cars available world-wide. This doesn’t mean that I stick to well-known groups. I look for decent
With co-pilot, Barbara, taking science teachers
on week-long field trips
size cars with unlimited miles at a good price. How many people are traveling and for how long determines the size of the car I rent; there is no reason to spend several days being cramped together holding various pieces of luggage. You will always pay extra for insurance and a GPS. For me, both of these are necessary; I don’t want to waste time being lost and I don’t want to pay a premium for some small nick in the paint. For booking cars in Great Britain and Australia I go to VroomVroomVroom.com, but there are many other websites (Expedia, Priceline, Kayak, Orbitz, Hotwire, BookingBuddy, CarRentals.com, etc.). One issue that has come up recently is some countries put an upper limit on the age of a person driving a rent car. In some cases (Australia) there is an extra insurance charge; in others, people over a certain age may not rent cars. As with hotels in the US, I go to Priceline and bid on a rental car. And since I have a GPS that works in the states, I take it with me when I rent a car here. As a rule of thumb, gas is less expensive in the US than in other countries; diesel may be less expensive overseas than in the US.

This year it looks like I’ll be traveling more in the US than abroad. Here’s what’s coming that I know about so far…

January = a day trip or two to nearby towns
February = Hawaii for some sun and sea
March = Tyler, TX to see local artists and perhaps do some shopping
April = Bentonville, AR to see the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art
May = Prague to Paris on our guided first river cruise, with a couple of extra days in Paris to visit the Louvre one more time
June = Milwaukee, WI for beading classes then Amsterdam, Kingdom of the Netherlands to present research about children in libraries
July = Yellowstone National Park, WY to breathe some cool mountain air
September = Black Mountain, NC for more beading classes, great shopping and fabulous white pizza
October = San Diego, CA for still more beading classes
November = Waxahachie, TX because we’ve never done more than just driven through
December = who knows, but surely somewhere that will be fun
Hopping around the Las Vegas airport
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