Here are some of my best tips. They are just my opinion, but they have served us well throughout our travels. This is what I can think of at the moment; I’ll try to update the post if I forgot anything important. It’s long and mostly words, but I threw in some random pictures along the way. Also, I’ll do separate posts on money saving tips.
Especially if you are taking a longer trip…I had an excel workbook with a sheet for every destination and a couple for general stuff (flights, hotels, etc.). Again, you need to stay organized or you could be faced with some major issues if you accidentally mess dates up or forget to book something.
As a check when booking vacation rentals/non-chain hotels, I always give the date, year, and day of the week. That way, if I screw up the year when looking at a calendar (or anything else), the person booking will hopefully catch it by noticing that the day of the week is off. It also helps to keep them from making a mistake.
Print out every hotel, flight, rental car, etc. reservation. Don’t feel like it? Too bad – do it. You never know when you will need it. For us, the biggest occurrence was trying to enter the airport in Bali. To get in the airport, you needed your ticket; to check in, you needed to get in the airport. You can see how this could be a problem. Fortunately, they accepted my printed out confirmation. There were also several other countries that wanted to see proof of onward travel, but that is pretty standard.
Create a realistic budget and try to stick to it. If you’re going to Paris and enjoy eating out, don’t plan on eating SpaghettiO’s out of a can there because it is cheaper. Don’t neglect ancillary expenses. Add tax/gratuities whenever required. Don’t forget to count the gas if you’re renting a car. Add costs for taxis. And so on…
If anything, be on the high side. It is very easy to spend a lot more than you plan. If you start off behind, you don’t want to spend the rest of your trip trying to catch up.
Track your costs as you go. This is a big one. You know that excel spreadsheet you started earlier, use it to track your costs. At the end of everyday, just punch in whatever you spent that day (I like to do it by category). It takes like 5 seconds…and you’ll be very happy you did it.
Ever heard the phrase “Don’t sweat the small stuff”…forget it when it comes to costs – sweat the small stuff. Small things are generally meaningless and add up much more than you expect. $5 here, $10 there, and on and on adds up. And I’m not talking about just while travelling; I’m talking about at home too. Money spent on crap adds up fast.
And – to be fair – I practice what I preach. You can ask Alyce, I am the biggest miser on many little things. On the other hand…Well, you can see some of the places we ate out at and activities we did. The bottom line is just to make sure you’re getting something valuable for the money you spend.
Another thing is that (through status) it is possible to get breakfast comped at many hotels, and – if not – the breakfast rate is generally not that much higher than the standard room rate. In vacation rentals, you can cook a hearty breakfast for two for a couple bucks.
My point to that little breakfast sidebar is that a great way to save money and free up a portion in the middle of your day to do stuff is to skip lunch. If you eat a good breakfast and plan on eating a restaurant dinner, skipping lunch is not really a big deal. Trust me, you can do it…and the savings (time and money) really add up on a longer trip if you’re only paying for one meal a day.
My last little tip to saving money may be unpopular with many…But, if you’re on a tight budget, consider minimizing (or cutting) alcohol when eating out. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy wine with my meals. But, it adds up very quickly. Plus, you can recreate the exact drinking experience at home for a third of the price. Good luck recreating any sort of food found at a very nice restaurant at home in anywhere near the price/quality.
So, if your dining budget is tight, maybe skip the pre-dinner cocktail and order a glass of wine per person instead of a bottle more times than not. You can drink more before/after your meal. This advice probably doesn’t matter too much on a weekend trip, but on a long trip it can be the difference between eating at nice places and not eating at nice places.
My first rule is that I generally try to fly non-stop if possible. This gets you to your destination much faster, greatly reduces the chances of major issues (missed connections, major delays, etc.), and greatly reduces the odds of your bags getting lost. Sure, it may be more expensive sometimes, but if the difference is not absurd – it is worth it. Airline Route Mapper is a great and amazingly simple tool for determining who flies where.
Still there are plenty of times flying non-stop is not possible – either because it is too expensive or the route just does not have a non-stop option. In this scenario, I generally play it safe.
Yep, the airline website may allow you to connect in 36 minutes, but that doesn’t mean you should. The most important consideration in how close you push your connection is being aware of your alternative options should there be a problem. Chicago to New York early in the day…Every airline flies that route numerous times a day. Miss that flight and you can still get to your destination relatively easily.
On the other hand, when we flew from New Orleans to Hong Kong through Chicago, I made sure that we had plenty of time for the layover in Chicago because if we missed that flight, we’d be waiting a whole day for the next one (and probably not flying in first class).
Another factor is having elite status on an airline. That may allow you to push your connections a little harder…But if you have elite status you probably don’t need my advice…and if you have no idea what I’m talking about, don’t worry about it.
My first check when booking lodging was to check if there were hotels I could use points at in the city – and if it was worthwhile to use points. If so, I would then make sure that the hotel was good enough that I would have picked it (or at least considered it) regardless of points/status. This is as far as I went in many city bookings (thanks Hyatt).
If there is no hotel that I want to stay at for points/status purposes, location is generally my next major factor. I believe that location is a very important factor for lodging because it could be the difference in “settling” for activities/dining/etc. that are nearby vs. doing what you really want to do.
I always look in to both vacation rental places and hotels. There are many times that you get far better value from vacation rentals. Though generally, I end up in hotels in cities and vacation rentals outside of major cities…but that certainly is not a rule.
I used many resources in planning the trip. All of them were useful in some way. Here is a list of most of the good ones I can remember at the moment.
Books & Websites
There are plenty of resources out there, but books can still be one of the most helpful.
I relied heavily on Frommer’s when doing some of the major initial planning…where to go, for how long, etc. And yes, the physical books cost money, but they put the entire books on their website for free.
Fodor’s is another good one. I don’t know that they give quite as much away for free on the website, but it can be useful. Lonely planet is another series, but I did not rely too much on that.
WikiTravel is a great site for getting an overview of a place. It was usually one of my first stops when I just wanted to learn a little bit about anywhere.
Most destinations also have specialty books available, which may be worth the purchase if you really plan on zeroing in on a single area.
Same thing for websites…A lot of locations will have both official and unofficial tourism websites – both can be helpful.
Blogs may be the most useful thing in planning your travels…you just have to find them.
Travel blogs (especially the non-monetized ones) generally provide great information, and you can get a feel for the people writing the blogs to see if they have similar interests to you. Plus, they can be on many topics – general travel, dining/restaurant reviews, flights, hotels, etc.
The best blogs are typically the hardest to find – again, because they are typically not monetized and paying to be bumped higher on Google…or however that works. So how do you find them? My #1 travel resource – Google.
You need to search for whatever it is you’re looking for with key words…and don’t be scared to scroll through many pages of results. After your first round of results, search the same keywords again, but this time add the word blog to your search…You may get some new hits. And we’re just getting started…
Do the same two keyword searches (with and without the word blog) in Google image search. This is typically where you will get some of your best results. Also, it can be easier to pick out blog pictures from professional pictures, so you can sort out the sites that way quickly.
Google also now allows you to search blogs (under the search option “more”). So you can also try your keyword search there.
Now, go back and do it all again with some different keywords…It might seem like a lot, but getting very efficient at web browsing can help you go through all of the above (including weeding out plenty of sites in no time. Learn to use things (if you don’t already) like tabs, mouse gestures, and shortcuts.
Here were some of the blogs I felt were good enough to dump in my spreadsheet:
Message Boards can be very helpful…not just in travel, but in all things you are attempting to research. As opposed to review sites, there is some actual discussion/back and forth. Plus you can read a couple posts from a poster and get a feel for whether or not that person is an idiot. Sidebar: Science states that 1 out of every 2 people on the internet are idiots. I’ve yet to determine which side I fall on since I’m now on the internet.
While I caution to not rely too heavily on tripadvisor reviews, the forums can generally be very helpful…And learn to search forums, chances are a question you have has been asked before and can be found by a search.
In addition to the Tripadvisor forums, Frommer’s and Fodor’s also have good forums for general travel…and there are many more out there. Use your old friend Google to help you find them (and subsequently search them). You can also use the trick mentioned above and add “message board” or “forum” to your search term to have a greater chance of finding message boards.
Chowhound and egullet can have decent reviews on restaurants.
Flyertalk and Milepoint are great resources for miles, points, flights, and chain hotels.
I’ll even search tigerdroppings for travel advice occasionally to get a different perspective. Note: if you venture to Tigerdroppings.com beware that the internet/idiot rule will be in full effect.
TripAdvisor, Yelp, etc. Proceed with caution.
Like all internet reviews, there is an art to reading them and determining what is important. In travel and food, I hate to say it – but there is not too much to be learned from online review sites. Everyone has such a different idea of what constitutes good travel and what does not…and it’s even worse with food.
Take cruises for example. One person may wax poetic about the benefits of cruises; another person may make it sound like they’ve been imprisoned by being forced to be on a ship for a week with spring breakers. Neither person is right or wrong; it’s just their opinion.
For food, you can get an idea of varying opinions from this Olive Garden review that went viral….Maybe you think the review is absurd…Maybe you love Olive Garden. It doesn’t matter. The point is that unless you know the reviewer’s food likes/dislikes from somewhere else, an isolated review is meaningless for anything other than providing you an idea of something to further research.
To summarize, the problem with review sites is that you have no idea what type of reviewer the person is – unless they have reviewed many things, which you can easily peruse.
So after all that crapping on review sites, I will say that they serve a purpose.
Patterns of specific, objective concerns in reviews can point out a major red flag. And in general, I put way more stock in to a trend of negative reviews than positive ones.
Second, these sites can give you ideas of things (restaurants, activities, etc.) to research further. Even if those ideas don’t pan out, they can help you find good sites/blogs/etc.
Vacation Rental Sites
I love vacation rentals. Check out our New Zealand reviews and you should see why.
The problem is that vacation rentals can be harder to find – especially in foreign countries.
In the US VRBO, AirBNB, and Tripadvisor are a great starting point…And tripadvisor is also a great starting point for international vacation rentals (people speak highly of AirBNB internationally as well but I do not have much experience with it).
Still, many countries will have different (local) sites for booking rentals. These sites will often have more selections, pictures, information, reviews, etc. I’ve even seen rentals priced significantly cheaper on the local sites. How do we find these local sites? You guessed it – Google.
Once you’ve found a couple names of vacation rentals off of Tripadvisor, take those names (preferably unique names) and search Google for them. Do it for a couple names, and you’ll likely have found all of the local vacation rental sites.
Another way to find good vacation rental sites are the message boards for that location.
Perhaps you’ve noticed, but I’m very fond of Google/the internet.
The internet is an incredible resource. Google is the easiest way to find things you’re looking for. With some basic search knowledge and efficient web browsing skills, you can find just about anything you are looking for.
That said, it is criminally underused by many. Alyce used ask me random questions while she was sitting on her computer. My response was another question – “does Google come on that computer?” That may or may not have gotten me punched a couple times, but Alyce is now much more capable of finding things on the internet.
So while I’ve listed it last, never discount just a simple Google search when researching travel – or anything else – on the internet.
That’s the planning stuff I can think of at the moment. Stay tuned for some posts on money saving tips.