Travel Tips Not From a Travel Agent

I like to travel a lot. I always have. If I’ve stayed put in one place for more than 60 days, I start to get incredibly anxious for a new adventure. Below is a map of our travels (the U.S. is mostly conquered, but I didn’t think it was necessary to tag every single state):

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[The floater in the left (Pacific) is Hawaii, the floater on the right (Atlantic) is our jaunt to St. Maarten/St. Martin.]

As you can see there’s still much of the world we have yet to hit.

We know I surprised Chris with a trip to Iceland back in January, but now we are well into April. Luckily we have another trip planned over Memorial Day to visit my Uncle and his family, and celebrate my cousin’s Eagle Scout award and 18th birthday. And if you’re going to visit southern Florida, why not get some dinner at your favorite Cuban restaurant in the world and pop down to the Keys for a relaxing vacay?

Especially when you’ve received nearly two feet of snow in the last two weeks alone, that impending beach time isn’t coming soon enough.

And speaking of the Keys—I had someone tell me that Key West was always on their bucket list. For reals? What are you waiting for? The Keys are one of the easiest trips you can make! Find a flight to Miami and rent a car. If you can drive a car, you can get to the Keys. Please, cross that baby off your list now.

I get a lot of questions like “How do you coordinate all of this?” or “Do you book online?” or “Where do you find these amazing deals?”

So I figure I might as well write about it in a blog post, and what I have to say may or may not be useful to you.

I like planning my own trip. 5 years ago I thought I might ease the stress of planning our honeymoon by working through a travel agency. Our agent wasn’t responsive, and she only gave me 2 hotel options (with so-so reviews online).  I was unconvinced she would find the best options for us and so I took matters into my own hands.

Or maybe I’m a control freak. I was getting married and decided to plan our honeymoon (Italy + England because we won an American Express deal), the wedding, complete my MBA and buy a home (all at the same time, of course). It was stressful, but I did it. Even on a limited budget I found deals at several 4-star hotels, all walking distance from the train station and in nice areas.

For me, planning a trip always starts with the airfare. Generally Chris and I have an idea of where we want to go, but for that idea to become a reality we need to find some decent airfare prices.

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Browsing my favorite site, TravelZoo, helps too.

Unless you want to travel to France during one of the highest gas-price periods of all time, then you just have to bite the bullet.

I’ve been told that one finds good rates when booking airfare and hotel together. Sadly I’ve never experienced this for myself. I might find a savings of $50, but then you’re pretty locked into that reservation. Experience has taught me that those “savings” are really just the added fees that aren’t factored into the price until you’re nearing the end of your transaction.

Start with your airfare. Booking on the airline’s website is always best; I always find the lowest fees, and there are always new promotional offers each week. Sure it’s a bit more work than using Kayak, but I promise it’s 100 times more reliable for locating the best deal possible. Picking your airline really depends on the individual; we all have miles with one airline or another. For me, I prefer Frontier for domestic travel mostly because they tend to have the best rates in my area and nonstop flights. I don’t think I’ll ever fly with layovers for domestic flights ever again—what a waste of time. For international flights whoever has the best times/cost wins my ticket.

So you have your airfare now, great! Now move onto your hotel.

I wish I could say I was a carefree  sort, just flying to a new city or country and staying at whichever place struck our fancy. Unfortunately this romantic notion fails on 2 counts:

  1. Acquiring the best deal possible
  2. Clean, quality accommodations

Call me paranoid, but the quickest way to a vacation #fail is if I feel unsafe and unclean (that’s why an 8-day river excursion doesn’t excite me at all).

My hotel selection always boils down to price, location & customer reviews.

First, check TravelZoo for any hotel deals. I scored an amazing price on a 4-star hotel in the center of Paris (a couple blocks from the Champs-Élysées and metro stops) for a really great price. I also found out about a great deal on a Westin in New York. It was right before Christmas, when the average price for decent hotels in the city were $500/night. The Westin Grand Central was in the midst of a $75 million dollar renovation of the old New York Helmsley, so their rates were down to $250/night. A simple call to the front desk confirmed that the renovations (only the lobby was left) were nearly complete, and the re-opening ceremony with the Mayor was slated for October. We wouldn’t be there until December. Perfection.

Keep in mind that hotels will drop rates during these construction projects, but sometimes the construction might be completed by the time you get there. In our case, the hotel was pristine, the beds were brand-new, and we couldn’t be happier with the location.

In addition to finding a solid price, customer reviews are huge. I like doing searches on Google Maps—you get the reviews & location in one place. From there, review what reviews are on Google, check out the folks on TripAdvisor, and if all looks good then take the plunge and reserve! Typically I opt for the 20% prepaid internet rate. There are no cancellations, but you save a decent chunk of change. Plus I’m always a fan of spreading out the expense burden—the more you pay before the trip, the more you can enjoy that shopping or dinner splurge during the vacation itself.

With your hotel and airfare taken care of, you’re 98% of the way there. The only other things I reserve in advance is a rental car, and possibly a dinner reservation at a popular restaurant.

I love planning trips; I like the research involved, learning about area and culture (if we’re traveling abroad).

Plus I always buy a Frommer’s guidebook before our major international trips. It’s fun reading, and for drivers like us the maps were invaluable in France, St. Martin, & Iceland. Don’t pay extra for a GPS—reading a map is a lost skill it seems.

And if you’re like me, you plan most of your trips over holidays and/or long weekends. A quick 4-day jaunt somewhere refreshes and inspires you, plus it makes the most out of your paid vacation time.

What’s next for Chris and I? We’re not sure! I know Chris is eager to explore the Southern hemisphere and view some different skies. As individuals and partners we grow with each new experience and trip. Traveling is something we will always prioritize in our lives, and the experiences are something we will never forget. Below are just some of the pictures from our travels.

Where are you headed next?

  • Definitely beach time in the summer! Gotta go for that 85 degree surf, sun and warm breezes! August, yep, that works for me!

  • And I also forgot! Travel during the OFF season. Don’t go to Disney on Memorial Day weekend, visit Iceland in the middle of winter, and save beach time for the summer when you’re eager to dip your toes in the water. You’ll save money, run into less crowds, and have an overall more enjoyable trip.

  • Nick

    I wanted to add a tip for those looking to save on airfare: Be creative with your flight searches and explore booking flights through major hubs. When I flew from Istanbul to Denver, instead of searching IST -> DEN I booked a flight to New York. I spent a night in Brooklyn and then flew out on a separate flight to Denver the following day. This saved me over $400 (!!!), and gave me the opportunity to visit a friend who lived there!

    • Great point! Thanks for stopping by! :)