After yesterday’s $50 Expedia hotel offer, which I considered very good, there is an even better one to share today!
Actually there are several promotions, but let me start with what I think is the best one.
Travelocity $40 off a mobile hotel booking of $100+ (link)
Pretty straightforward – book a hotel of $100 or more via the mobile app using promo code MOBILE40 and get $40 off. The catch is that this offer is only good until 11:59pm Pacific Time today (June 29), although you can travel through December 31, 2014.
It works on bookings of multiple nights. I played around and was able to find a 3.5-star hotel for $36/night before the coupon code. Booking it for 3 nights would get you to the $100 requirement, then applying the coupon would take the total cost down to $82 for three nights (taxes and fees included).
Tough to beat $27/night for a 3.5-star hotel!
There is a list of non-eligible hotels but it’s not terribly long and I didn’t have a hard time finding good eligible options.
The terms state “limit one (1) coupon per qualifying hotel booking,” which suggests to me that the deal can be used multiple times as long as you make separate bookings each time. [Update: Despite the language, I was unable to make a second booking using the same code on the same Travelocity account. The code would not “take” despite several tries with different hotels not on the excluded list. Your experience may vary.]
Travelocity $50 off a hotel booking of $300+ (link)
Use code SUMMER50 for this offer. Must book by August 31 and travel by December 31, 2014.
This offer via eBay states “today only” but I think I have seen it say that for several days now so I thought it was worth a quick mention.
The seller, GiftCardMall.com, is a reputable vendor (you’ve probably seen their gift card racks in grocery stores and the like) so it’s not as if you are buying from a random person.
Even if you’re not a Toys R Us shopper, this might be an indirect way to acquire other gift cards at 15% off. My local Toys R Us brick-and-mortar store carries a decent selection of third-party gift cards (including Amazon) which I have been able to buy using a Toys R Us store gift card. (Your experience may vary)
News & stories
Finally, enjoy a few recent stories from the world of travel:
When Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, it single-handedly obliterated the once-thriving ancient Roman city of Pompeii.
But the meters-thick layer of volcanic ash and rock that buried the town served to preserve it in stunningly minute detail for some 1,500 years – until its initial (and mostly ignored) discovery in 1599 and more comprehensive rediscovery in 1748.
Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Pompeii in its day boasted a 20,000-capacity amphitheater, a sporting arena, government and religious buildings, and commercial structures ranging from stores to restaurants to brothels.
To be honest, I hadn’t expected much of this visit. Having seen lots of ruins – Greek, Roman, Mayan, Egyptian, Turkish, you name it – I was kind of “ruined out.” On the other hand, the upside of having low (or no) expectations is that there’s nowhere to go but up.
However, Pompeii turned out to be quite interesting in its own right.
Because it is so well preserved, a visit to Pompeii affords an almost-intact look into the Pax Romana period – not only the structural and urban planning features of its towns, but also the daily life, occupational pursuits, and artistic expression of its citizens.
The amphitheater, located near the site’s main entrance, once hosted gladiator fights:
The streets are varied. Some, like the one below, are relatively straight and flat; others are rockier, narrower, and harder to navigate.
My guide seemed to talk a lot about brothels, so I ended up with many photos of them. Here’s one:
Likely a restaurant, given the oven:
As you might imagine for the ruins of an important city, the site is sprawling. To get the most out of your visit, I would read up beforehand on not only the site and its history but also the major structures. That way, once you get there you will know what to look for and navigate toward.
Likewise, be sure to grab a map at the entrance (or bring one), otherwise the site will seem like a huge labyrinth of rocks that start to all look the same. The place is very conducive to getting lost.
Audio guides are also available at the main entrance and from some surrounding shops.
Wear good walking shoes – there is a lot of walking to do, much of it on uneven surfaces. (Flip flops would not be ideal.)
Finally, while I did not have opportunity to see it, many advise that the Garden of the Fugitives is not to be missed. It contains plaster casts of several victims – in the position where they fell and died.
For this visit I pre-booked a tour with a guide and transportation. I’m not a big fan of tours (being too ADD to appreciate lengthy lectures on historical topics, no matter how skillful their delivery), but I was pressed for time before this trip so I did not follow my own advice and read up on the site beforehand or even research transportation options. I also didn’t have much time on the ground during the trip itself, so a tour saved all kinds of time and hassle. However, I am told the site is easily accessed by train from Naples.
I have stayed in all kinds of accommodations – from sleeping bags in flimsy tents, to fleabag motels next to freeways, to mid-range business hotels when traveling for work, to luxury resorts with nightly room rates exceeding most mortgage payments.
When forming an opinion of an accommodation, I try to bear in mind the kind of property it is. At a St. Regis, it takes much more for me to say I had a good stay than it would at a Ramada Inn. After all, the latter costs far less (whether in cash or points).
But if someone is considering spending €500/night (more for some dates, less on others) – plus tax – for a room, I believe they’ll want an opinion on whether it’s worth the expense and not simply whether it’s nice. So let me approach this review from that perspective.
Compared to the other IHG property in town (which I loved, by the way), the Amstel is not as centrally located. It is by no means totally out of the way – in fact I could walk to Museumplein (the Museum Quarter) in about 20 minutes – but certainly farther from the city center than other options.
So if you are seeking a hotel that is convenient for seeing the city on foot (which I think is the best way to see Amsterdam, by far) then this one isn’t ideal.
On the other hand if you’re looking for a more tranquil location outside the bustle of the city center but still close to it, this would be perfect.
The hotel isn’t just near the Amstel River, it’s on it. In fact, it almost looks like a floating hotel given how close to the water it is.
Walking up and down the Amstel River is as pleasant as can be. It’s also a quick way to reach the Hermitage Museum, the Jewish Historical Museum, and Waterlooplein. And the photogenic Skinny Bridge is en route.
While the true city center is not close enough to be a comfortable walk in my opinion, there are metro and tram stops only a block away – although I have a feeling most hotel guests don’t use public transport. (When I declined the bellman’s offer to arrange a car to the airport saying I’d take the metro instead, he looked at me as if I was nuts.)
The view from my room was divine. Now, this is Amsterdam – pretty much everything is next to water. Even then, the view from this hotel must be one of the best in the city.
Not all rooms face the river so be sure to get a river-view room if that is important to you.
The Dutch décor isn’t my personal style, but that is purely a matter of taste (and I don’t think I’m the target demographic for this property).
The bathroom was large and luxurious with a tub, separate rain shower, and water closet. Bath amenities included robes, slippers, and even a nice jogging map for exercise-minded guests.
Of note, this particular room featured a step-down bedroom with several steps between the bathroom and bedroom.
While it added character, I thought about the safety implications. It is one thing to have character in your own home, where everything is familiar to you, but in a hotel this can be a hazard if you forget it’s there when you make a middle-of-the-night trip to the bathroom while half asleep.
While I don’t think the hotel can do much to remedy this, I do think it’s worth mentioning. And if you have trouble negotiating steps in general, then I would be sure to get a room without them.
As you might imagine, the service was most polished. It’s not the more laid-back, friendly type of service I described at the sister property across town, but there was no fault to be found with the service here either.
Check-in was seated at a desk, with the agent accompanying you to your room after completing the paperwork. Although I can appreciate that some guests like this extra touch, personally I have never been a fan of having an agent stand inside my hotel room droning on about its features. I find it awkward and unnecessary (I already know how to work a light switch, and I’m tired so please leave already).
Since I also dislike evening turn-down service, I hung up the do-not-disturb sign when leaving for dinner. I removed it as soon as I returned and, within 60 seconds of the sign coming down, a housekeeper knocked and offered turndown service. Maybe she was already nearby, but I thought that was very attentive and observant and I almost felt bad declining the service.
By the way, the embossed leather-like sign was so nice I wanted to steal it thinking it would’ve been a fun decorative piece for my home. (But I didn’t.)
As with my review of the Crowne Plaza across town, I completely neglected to take pictures of any hotel amenities on this trip. I will blame it on a senior moment (or more like a senior week), but please excuse the oversight and fire up your imagination as I describe them without visuals.
The lobby was decorated in the same old-world style as the guest rooms, with a grand staircase in the center making for a great photo spot. However, I never saw guests actually sitting in the lobby (the environment felt more uppity than cozy) and the view isn’t that interesting (the river is not visible).
There’s a fitness center with a heated indoor pool overlooking the river – which you must see even if you don’t intend to work out or swim – and an outdoor terrace with lounge chairs.
The two restaurants looked marvelous in terms of setting, and one of them – La Rive – is very well regarded. But as a general rule I prefer eating around town to eating in hotels so I cannot comment on the food except to say I’m sure it would have been great, albeit priced to match. (In fact I’ve heard exactly that from acquaintances who stayed on another occasion.) 24-hour room service is also available.
Overall this is a very elegant, classic hotel as you would expect from its reputation of being the best hotel in Amsterdam and one of the best in the world. However, I personally would not pay “retail” to stay here as (1) I like to explore on foot and the location is not ideal for that, and (2) the old-world style and décor are not my thing.
If you intend to use private transportation for your stay then the location is not an issue; it is certainly close enough to be a quick car ride to the city center.
Fabulous views of the Amstel River.
Not within easy walking distance of the city center (but only one block to tram and metro stations).
I redeemed 36,000 IHG Rewards points for one night. (It is actually 40,000 points, but I received a 10% rebate from my co-branded credit card.)
If you haven’t gotten on the Uber bandwagon, now is a great time.
Just this week Uber increased its signup bonus to $30 (from $10) off your first ride if you use a qualified referral link. While Uber’s bonuses occasionally change, sometimes without notice, $30 is currently the best offer I know of.
So find a friend with a working link, or feel free to use my referral link (thank you!).
Furthermore, when the company launches in a new market it sometimes offers free rides for a couple of weeks. Current offers include:
Be sure to use the appropriate promotion code specified for each offer.
If you’re not familiar with Uber…
The company has been in the news lately, and if its valuation of $17 billion (or $18 billion-plus, depending on who’s counting) is not enough to convince you, I’ll add my 2 cents below by (lazily) repeating part of an earlier post.
Uber is a car service where you request a ride through their mobile app. I’ve been using the service for a while and just love it. Among the reasons:
No waiting in long taxi lines at airports. After hitting the “request a ride” button on my app, I’ve never had to wait more than a few minutes for a car to arrive. The app tracks the car’s progress toward me and indicates the estimated wait time down to the minute.
No standing on the street trying to flag down a cab – and risking being run over in the process. I just wait comfortably in the hotel lobby until the car arrives.
The cars are clean and not smelly. I cannot say the same of most taxis I’ve been in.
No cash needed; payment is by credit card via the app.
uberX rates are generally comparable to taxi fares. Sometimes more (but well worth the small premium) and sometimes less. (Note that uberBLACK, which provides higher-end cars, is priced differently.)
And finally, but perhaps most importantly, I feel safer using Uber (or Lyft). Through hundreds (or maybe thousands) of cab rides over the years, I’ve occasionally pondered the possibility that if I were to hop into the “wrong” cab and a deranged cabbie decided to drive somewhere remote and kill me nobody might ever know. With Uber, a lot is electronically tracked – the driver’s identity, my pickup time and location, and even the route driven.
I am by no means suggesting that cabbies are bad people, but when it comes to rides from random strangers I would prefer to get into a tracked car over a random cab.
Total tangent: Whether all this makes the company worth $18 billion, give or take, is another matter. Personally I think we’re in a Fed-enabled and artificially inflated stock market bubble that is leading to hyper valuations of a lot of companies, but that’s just another of my $0.02 (and certainly not to be taken as any kind of financial or investment advice either way).
But hey, if they’re offering free rides, enjoy ‘em. When something’s free, I don’t complain about the price. 🙂
On Saturday, June 21, the first day of Summer, also known as the Summer Solstice, 21 hotels & resorts are offering one day only savings you won’t see any other time of year. Four-diamond resorts for $99/night, five-star hotels offering 50% off, free nights and more. Don’t miss the one-day booking window – offers are available for 24 hours starting at 12:00 AM EST on June 21, 2014.
I did a quick spot-check price comparison. At some properties this looks to be a very compelling deal, although at others it is just a modest discount.
Nevertheless, some very nice properties are included and the sale is worth a look if you are (or would like to be) traveling to one of those locations this summer.
For example, the JW Marriott Cancun Resort & Spa currently shows a $289/night average rate on Expedia for summer dates.
With this sale, rates are potentially $175/night with a $50 daily resort credit.
On the other hand, Miami’s Lord Balfour hotel is only modestly discounted. Expedia has it for $149/night:
And the flash sale event advertises rates “starting at” $129/night.
Thoughts & tips
This can be a good – even great – deal in some cases, but as always I would comparison-shop at other third-party sites like Expedia and Orbitz as well as the respective hotel’s website. My screen shots show prices at the time I checked them, but they can change any time and it’s possible other sites will match the prices of this CyberSummer sale when it goes live.
I would also:
Check cancellation policies. In skimming the T&Cs I did not see one way or the other if these flash sale rates are prepaid and/or non-refundable. You should definitely confirm if you intend to book.
Be mindful of potential resort fees. These fees, charged by many (not all) resorts, are usually “mandatory” but not included in the quoted rate. You might find them in the fine print, but if in doubt check with the hotel directly. At nice properties, resort fees can be substantial (I have seen ones at $60/night, though most are not quite that high). Usually they’re assessed by the resort, not the booking site, so it probably won’t matter whom you book through as far as the resort fee is concerned.
Finally, remember that the flash sale is only for 24 hours starting at midnight EST.
Every time I say this someone flames me, but I find some of China’s more mainstream attractions underwhelming.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say I think the Great Wall would be more aptly named the Pretty Good Wall, mostly because I would like to think the problem is mine for having only seen a small (and very touristy) portion of it.
But you know you’re in a tourist trap when they’re peddling this:
However, one spot in China that captivated me was the Stone Forest in Yunnan Province.
Part of the South China Karst UNESCO World Heritage Site, the “forest” is actually of stone – tall, imposing pillars of limestone that form a vast, surreal landscape.
Features of the 90,000-plus acre site include a lake, caves, and of course the stones.
Many stones are so intricate they’re named after the animate figures they resemble.
If you didn’t come with a guide, one can be hired on the spot – although I thought the process appeared a bit odd.
Available guides, dressed in the traditional attire of the Sani (the ethnic group of the surrounding area), wait in a “Tour Guide Service” area to be hired. I had arrived with a guide so I didn’t participate in the “selection” process, but from appearances it just seemed not the most tastefully handled. Almost “meat market-y,” for lack of a better description. On the other hand, perhaps it beats the chaos of an alternative system.
Either way, I would say hiring a guide is a good idea (but not essential). The rocks start to blend together after a while and it’s difficult to know what you’re seeing without guidance.
And if you’re interested in the legend behind the forest, read up on the story of Ashima, the young girl after whom one of the stones is named.
JetBlue’s out with a sale ending tomorrow (June 18). Though the ad says “fares from $59” there are a few for less (go figure), like the one below:
Here are a few terms, but as always be sure the read the full T&Cs carefully:
Book June 17 – 18, 2014 (the earlier of 11:59 PM ET or local time).
Travel September 3 – October 29, 2014 (blackout date: October 13, 2014). Must fly Tuesday and Wednesday only.
Different or additional day of week restrictions, travel windows, and blackout dates may apply and vary by route. Click on a fare for details.
An interesting side note…While poking around this fare sale, I also checked fares to Anchorage for a trip I’m considering. My travel dates are outside this promotion period, but some fantastic fares turned up, like this $99 one from Long Beach (near Los Angeles):
I don’t know if this is a mistake fare or a random (unannounced?) sale, but fares on that route are typically more than double, sometimes triple, the price.
Moving on to hotels, Accor’s “Super Sale” started today.
Here are some terms, but again you should always read the full T&Cs:
Non-members get 30% off. Members get 40% off and free breakfast for two. (But note certain brands do not offer free breakfast.) Since membership is free, you know what to do…
Book by June 27, stay July 11 through August 31 (or later in some markets).
Bookings “cannot be changed, cancelled, exchanged or reimbursed” – so be super sure of your plans before committing.
Note that not all brands are participating and no properties in the US are participating.
Tip: Check other booking sites to make sure you’re still getting the best deal with this promotion. By my sporadic and unscientific observations, the company’s “Super Sales” usually do yield significant savings. However, they also seem to jack up rates right before the sale, with the result being the net discount is not really 40%.
As it turned out, I much preferred the Crowne Plaza over the InterContinental. However, both were very nice properties; a preference for one over the other comes down to a matter of personal taste.
I’ll review the InterContinental in a separate post in case you find yourself debating between the two, but the rest of this post focuses on the Crowne Plaza.
This was the hotel’s best attribute in my opinion. It is just two blocks from Central Station, Amsterdam’s main transportation hub (and where I first arrived in the city upon leaving the airport).
I easily walked from the hotel to everything on my to-do list: the Anne Frank House, Westerkerk, Dam Square, the Royal Palace (unfortunately closed to visitors during my trip), The Spui, the Red Light District, and of course the maze of canals for which the city is famous.
(The only exception was Museumplein, home of the city’s main museums. But that was walkable from the InterContinental so I just saved it for my InterContinental stay.)
That said, the property fronts one of Amsterdam’s larger streets, Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal. While that’s great for people-watching, it also means traffic noise. Furthermore, trams run literally yards away from some of the rooms.
The tram was quieter than I would have thought, but if you’re noise-sensitive I recommend requesting a room away from the big street. The tradeoff is that you’ll likely get less natural light (due to facing a narrower street) and an inferior view (of the adjacent building’s wall rather than the interesting street life). But it’s better than losing sleep if street noise affects your sleep.
Since I’m not sensitive to street noise, I loved the location of my room on Level 1 (which is actually one level above street level; Level 0 is street level) facing the big street. With a floor-to-ceiling window, it provided a front-row view of the city outside – although after sunset I dimmed my lights as I didn’t want the people-watching reciprocated.
The bed was comfortable, I think. I hadn’t slept the night before due to being in flight so I probably would’ve slept like the dead either way.
There was a small desk next to the window. Perfect for people-watching while you work.
The bathroom was modern albeit on the small side for an upscale hotel, with only one sink. The stand-up shower was roomy but there was no tub.
There were robes, slippers, and an in-room safe in the closet. There was also a coffee selection on the counter.
Here’s my thing about the service at some upscale hotels: often it seems fake, sometimes to the point of being bizarre. As in, I’ll be asked “how may I have the honor of serving you today?”
I mean, no one talks that way in real life, right? That kind of “service” just weirds me out.
And should one respond in kind? “Why yes, if you would process my check-out I will be forever grateful for your capable service.”
Instead, to me service stands out when it’s genuinely friendly.
That’s my long-winded way of saying I really liked the service at this hotel. Everyone was friendly and helpful – in a genuine way. Polite but not stiff; eager to help without seeming to linger for a tip afterwards.
My only nit about the service is that, 15 minutes after arriving in my room, there was a knock at the door. It was someone delivering my IHG Rewards member amenity (chocolates). The amenity was appreciated, but I would have preferred that it were left in the room ahead of time or given during check-in. It’s not ideal to disturb hotel guests in their room unnecessarily.
As a complete oversight on my part, I neglected to take pictures of any common areas or amenities (sorry!!). But if my written description fails, you can always see photos on the hotel’s website. 🙂
For a hotel of 270 rooms, the lobby might have been a smidge too small. But it was nicely done – looked modern yet felt cozy. The lit fireplace was particularly nice given the chilly weather outside.
The hotel was hosting a business conference during my stay, and during conference breaks the lobby was overrun with folks socializing or talking on cell phones. At those times it felt crowded and noisy, but most hotel guests probably don’t use the lobby much in the middle of the day anyway.
In addition to 24-hour room service, there is an onsite restaurant and bar. However, being close to so many other walkable options in the city, I never took advantage of the on-site dining so can’t comment on it.
There is also a business center and small fitness room, but again I preferred to get my exercise from walking the city rather than being on an indoor treadmill.
Very central location.
Fantastic people watching (with the right room).
Friendly, helpful staff.
Some rooms face the big street and can be noisy, especially with the tram line just yards away. I recommend specifically requesting a quieter room if you’re noise sensitive.
36,000 IHG Rewards points for one night. (A normal redemption is 40,000 points but I received a 10% rebate from my co-branded credit card.)