July 11 2015

Finishing My Fredericton Trip Report and Pondering the Wisdom of Off-Season Travel

Posts from this trip:

 

For many, travel decisions are mainly driven by the destination. People decide where they want to go, then book flights and lodging accordingly.

That’s a perfectly reasonable approach, but it doesn’t work as well for me. Because my travel list is long. Basically, I want to go (almost) everywhere.

When “everywhere” is your preferred destination, specific locations are somewhat irrelevant.

Combine that with my other favorite sport – deal hunting – and much of my travel decisions are driven by economics. Where can I go cost-efficiently at this time? (To clarify, “cost-efficient” and “cheap” are not synonymous.)

With this strategy, I’ve had some fantastic travel experiences for nearly-negligible costs.

I jetted off to Amsterdam on a whim, staying in one of the finest hotels in the world, for a total cash cost of about $200 (flights, hotels, and sightseeing included).

I took a 12-day, luxury tour of Egypt for a fraction of the typical price.

Recently I stayed at – to name a few – the very nice Delta Fredericton for $25/night, the 4.5-star InterContinental San Francisco for under $50/night, and the new Staybridge Suites Birmingham (in England, not Alabama) for about $32/night.

 

But bargains occasionally entail compromise

For example, an award flight might not be available on my preferred date.  So I have to adjust my schedule.

Or – to the point of this post – I end up visiting a place during the off-season. Like the arid desert that is Egypt in the peak of summer.

Or Fredericton, the capital of New Brunswick, in the middle of winter.

My week-long Fredericton trip was almost entirely economics-based, with a total cash cost of about $100 – flights and hotels included. (I don’t typically count meals and ground transportation since I incur those regardless of whether I’m traveling.)

  • The flights were free. I didn’t even spend frequent flyer miles because I added Fredericton as a stopover en route to Birmingham, England. (On a round-trip international award ticket, United allows one free stopover.) I probably paid incremental airline fees and taxes, but I don’t have the breakdown for the Fredericton portion so let’s just say $25.
  • One night at an airport hotel for an overnight layover was $56.
  • One night at the Delta Fredericton Hotel was $25.
  • A week at the Crowne Plaza Fredericton cost $0 in cash. A PointBreaks hotel at the time, it cost 4,500 IHG points/night (the 5,000 PointBreaks rate minus a 10% rebate from my IHG credit card). I have a six-figure IHG point balance – earned through reimbursed business travel or other low-cost means – so this stay hardly made a dent.

In the on-season, my hotel costs would have been much higher as I doubt the Crowne Plaza would have been offered on PointBreaks.

 

So what’s Fredericton like in the off-season?

In a word: cold.

For those unfamiliar with Fredericton’s location, it is in eastern Canada, above the US state of Maine. So it’s basically like going to Maine in January. Except colder.

This was Fredericton’s town square when I visited:

Officers Square
Officers Square in Fredericton. Cold, eh?

Ideal for ice skating – if that’s what you’re there for.

Alas, I didn’t bring my skates. And everything else there is to do outdoors was severely constrained by weather.

Not that I had a bad time. In fact, it was a nice – if not optimal – trip.

I toured the Beaverbrook Art Gallery when it was otherwise devoid of visitors. While paying the entrance fee, the cashier made small talk and I mentioned I was visiting from California.

A few of the rooms were closed for renovation so he charged me half price, then left me to roam the exhibits. The collection was okay. For a small gallery in a remote-ish part of the world, you can’t expect The Louvre.

As I was about to leave, a staff member approached and said, “They told me you’re visiting from California. I’m sorry some of the rooms are closed to the public but if you like I can take you to see them.”  While I didn’t think much of the collection at that point, I did not want to refuse the gracious offer so I accepted.

Turns out, the non-public rooms held all the gems. There were some stunning paintings and tapestries. This person not only escorted me through them, but took time to explain many of the pieces and the general history of the museum, including how some of its treasured pieces were acquired.

It’s unlikely I would’ve been offered this very detailed tour of the museum’s restricted areas during peak season.

Beaverbrook Art Gallery Sculpture
On the grounds of Beaverbrook Art Gallery

The museum has several famous works, including three Salvador Dali pieces and one by Lucian Freud (grandson of Sigmund). Of course, with my impeccable timing, all were on tour at the time.

So, as with everything else in life, off-season travel has its pros and cons.

 

Is off-season travel worth it?

On the balance, I’d say yes – in moderation.

At the extremes, it’s not worth it if you can’t at all enjoy the destination’s intrinsic appeal. To point out the obvious:

  • You can’t snow ski in summer when there’s no snow.
  • You can’t go sailing in winter when the water is frozen.
  • I wouldn’t try to hike the Inca Trail, which requires long days of trekking and several nights of camping, during rainy season.

Conversely, other destinations are only mildly inconvenient in the off season. In those cases, I’m willing to go if the cost-benefit analysis is favorable.

I didn’t mind Egypt in the summer. While it was hot, most of what I wanted to do didn’t require extended outdoor exposure or high physical exertion.

I was driven to the Pyramids and other sites in air-conditioned vehicles; I only had to get out and walk around a little once there, and that was tolerable with good sunscreen and proper hydration.

The remainder of the trip was spent gorging myself on gourmet food while sailing the Nile on an air-conditioned luxury boat. Do-able.

Sunboat
Outdoor dining patio on Nile River cruise boat

Wishing you, as always, safe travels.

 

April 21 2015

If You Don’t Ask, the Answer is “No”

I suspect this is a true concept in general, but I’ll just relate it to my travel experiences.

Many years ago I took my first grown-up trip – the first international trip without my parents.

In the infancy of my travel life, an eleven-hour flight from Los Angeles to London seemed really, really long. These days I have enough miles and points to “pay” for the comfort of a premium cabin. But at the time – long before my entry into the points and miles game – flying anything other than economy class wasn’t even in my frame of reference.

As it turned out, that flight was overbooked and they asked for volunteers to be bumped onto a later flight. In return, the airline would give monetary compensation (which is common) and an upgrade to first class on the later flight (less common but not unheard of).

I briefly considered volunteering, but the friend I was traveling with and I ultimately decided against it as we had plans on the other end we didn’t want to miss.

However, my friend chatted up the gate agent and jokingly said something to the effect of “we can’t volunteer for the later flight but we’ll happily volunteer to be bumped out of our coach seats into first class on this flight.”

VA Upper Class
Virgin Atlantic first class (or “Upper Class,” as they brand it)

The agent chuckled and left it at that. We returned to our seats and awaited boarding.

Right before boarding, we heard our names over the loudspeaker and were asked to present ourselves at the desk.

At the desk, the same agent asked us to hand over our boarding passes. She then printed us new boarding passes – for first class seats.

We were surprised (flabbergasted would be more accurate) but simply said thank you and booked it to the jetbridge. It was one of those times in life when you don’t ask questions; you just take your loot and run.

I never did find out why we were given the upgrade – a very generous upgrade at that, considering what a long flight it was – and literally cannot think of any reasonable explanation aside from the fact we simply asked. Neither of us had status with the airline; I doubt I even had a frequent flyer account with them at the time.

Now, this happened a loooong time ago. (So long, I don’t even have digital photos from the trip – hence the semi-random filler picture below 🙂 ). I cannot imagine it happening today, when upgrades are processed very procedurally – mostly by a computer, based on frequent flyer status and other non-subjective attributes.

u Liotru
u Liotru in Sicily

Nevertheless, it was an early lesson in the it-never-hurts-to-ask concept.

I don’t know if it’s fear of rejection, or perceived tackiness, or inherent meekness…but I think people oftentimes don’t speak up and ask enough. I suppose I’m the opposite (or have no shame), but I think taking 90 seconds out of my life to (politely and non-tackily) ask for a benefit is a good investment of time.

Even if I get shot down nine of ten times, 9 requests at 90 seconds each equates to losing a few minutes of my life. There is no risk (worst is someone says “no”) and high potential reward (retail price on a first-class flight from Los Angeles to London is several thousand dollars).

This morning I had another reminder.

I had booked a hotel room at a breakfast-inclusive rate. The cost was an incremental $10; easily justified by the convenience of being able to eat onsite before leaving for an early morning meeting.

I ended up running late and did not have time for breakfast. On the way out, I swung by the desk and told the agent I didn’t have opportunity to use my breakfast benefit and asked if I might have a refund.

I expected nothing (it’s not the hotel’s fault I ran late) but hoped for a $10 credit.

The agent tapped a few keys on his computer, saw that I had eaten dinner in the hotel restaurant the night before (evident because I charged it to the room to maximize earning points), and removed the dinner charge (which was much more than $10) from my bill. Well worth the minute out of my life that it took to ask.

Just a few examples of other benefits I commonly receive for the asking:

  • Early check in and late check out
  • Complimentary room upgrades when I have no status
  • Free Internet when it’s normally not free
  • Waived annual fees on credit cards that assess them

Yes, the asking part is kind of an art. But remember, the worst that can happen is someone says they can’t grant your request. (And when that happens, I don’t get upset. I simply thank them for trying and get on with my life.)

Wishing you, as always, safe travels.

 

Category: Tips | LEAVE A COMMENT
January 17 2015

Quick Travel Tip: How to Get Free Bottled Water at Hotels

“Don’t drink the tap water” is common advice for travelers visiting foreign countries.

It’s not necessarily a value judgment about the water quality of other countries. Their water may be perfectly potable for locals but unsafe for foreigners whose bodies simply aren’t accustomed to it.

As a practical matter of health and safety, I stick to drinking bottled – or at least filtered – water when traveling.

But it’s a pain having to hunt down bottled water all the time. Water is heavy so you can’t “stock up” while traveling. There may not be a store convenient to where you’re staying. Your hotel may not provide complimentary bottled water in the room. The vending machine only takes coins you don’t have on hand. Et cetera.

So here’s my hack for obtaining free bottled or filtered water at hotels.

If the hotel has a workout room, there’s most likely a water cooler in it. Sometimes it’s the kind that dispenses bottled water from, say, a 5-gallon Arrowhead jug. Other times it’s a machine with a built-in filter.

Either way, it will dispense water the hotel deems safe for its traveling guests.

Here’s the workout room of a hotel I recently stayed at:

Gym

See the water cooler on the far wall? Here’s a close-up:

Water filter

I just took an empty bottle down to the gym and filled it up there.

Bonus tip: pack a foldable water bottle that flattens when empty, consuming less of your precious luggage space.

Wishing you, as always, safe travels.

December 21 2014

Quick Travel Tip: Use a Document Scanner App

Often I’ll get random pieces of somewhat-important paper while traveling – a receipt here, a document there.

After a while, it adds up to a pile of paper that I don’t want to (1) lug home, and (2) deal with filing away when I get home.

Even at home I’m paperless as much as possible anyway. Searching for a document that’s electronically filed is easier than trying to remember where I physically put a random piece of paper.

JetScanner Lite App

For scanning documents while on the road, I use the free Jet Scanner Lite mobile app (there is an ad-free paid version as well).

You just take a picture of the document with your phone or tablet. The app you lets make edits, then converts the picture to a PDF or JPG file. From there, you can email the file (to yourself and/or others) or send it directly to a cloud drive.

November 17 2014

How Hotel Housekeeping Really Works

I’ll be first to admit that when it comes to cleanliness and hygiene my standards are excessive. I’m a mysophobe, probably to a pathological degree. (It’s part of my charm.)

I also stay in hotels a lot. And unfortunately I think hotels are gross.

You’re sleeping on pillows that hundreds, possibly thousands, of strangers have put their sweaty, greasy head on night after night. (I’m not saying my head is any less sweaty or greasy; I’m just saying I don’t like sleeping on other people’s sweat and grease.)

If it’s a hotel room with those big heavy comforters, I am certain those things aren’t washed regularly. And don’t get me started about the shower. I have heard (even civilized) people admit to peeing in the shower; it’s one of those things I just have to not think about.

One of my habits when staying in a hotel is to put away all my personal things before leaving the room for the day.

Electronics and other sensitive or valuable items go in the safe – that’s a given. But I don’t even leave my toothbrush out as it would disgust me if housekeeping dropped it in the sink (which thousands of strangers have spat into) and put it back as if nothing happened (so I wouldn’t know to replace it).

When it comes to how hotel housekeeping works, I know I’m better off not knowing.

Unfortunately, I often get to see housekeeping in action.

I’m almost always working when I travel, even when not on a business trip per se. And I often work from the hotel room during the day, so I’m there when housekeeping comes.

Some very common procedures I’ve witnessed:

  • The housekeeper will go straight from cleaning the toilet to making the bed – without washing her hands or changing gloves. (I assume she doesn’t change gloves from one guest room to the next, either.)
  • Pillows are placed on the floor while the bed is made, then picked up and put right back on the bed without a change of pillowcase.
  • The same rag used to clean the bathroom is used to wipe down the desk and nightstand.

And these are just the things they do while I’m there. I try not to imagine how they “clean” the room when it’s vacant.

Well, as it turns out…no imagination is necessary!

A video taken by another traveler, which has gone viral, depicts not just bad hygiene practices, but actual snooping by a housekeeper.

She rummages through the guest’s luggage.

She picks up and tries to use the guest’s tablet.

She also attempts to access the guest’s laptop several times. (How much sensitive personal information resides on laptops and tablets?)

All this while wearing the gloves she cleaned the bathroom with.

Enjoy the video, and remember to lock up your valuables!

 

Category: News, Tips | LEAVE A COMMENT
August 21 2014

Travel Tip: Avoid Credit Card Foreign Transaction Fees

Credit Card

Credit cards are a great tool as long as you manage your finances well, don’t pay interest and fees, and can control your spending.

You can earn cash back (or miles or points) for your credit card purchases – which means you’re leaving money on the table when you pay with cash instead (assuming price is the same).

I try not to judge, but I literally cringe to see people pay cash when they could use a credit card instead.

And credit cards come with consumer protections that cash lacks. If your cash is lost or stolen, it’s gone unless you’re lucky and someone returns it. If you lose a credit card, you just call the card issuer to report it. The card is cancelled and you’re not responsible for unauthorized charges.

Whether or not I’m traveling, I avoid carrying a lot of cash. It’s safer and easier; there’s less to lug around and look after.

But this isn’t a sales pitch for credit cards. Rather, it’s a post to help you avoid a potential downside of credit cards.

The problem: foreign transaction fees

Many cards charge a fee when you purchase something in another currency. This often happens while traveling abroad, but can also happen when you’re using the card in your home country but buying from a foreign merchant.

The fee varies from card to card, but I have seen it as high as 3%. That may seem a small number, but it adds up if you travel frequently. And why pay it at all if it’s avoidable?

The solution: pay with a card that does not have foreign transaction fees

To determine if a card has these fees you can simply call the number on the back of the card and ask. Alternatively, look in the fee disclosure (usually labeled something like “pricing and terms” on the card issuer’s website).

Below is a random example, with the subject fee (3% in this case) boxed in blue:

Citi Fee Disclosure
Click to enlarge

There are plenty of cards that charge 0%, and those are the ones I use when traveling.

By the way, using cash to avoid this fee is usually not an ideal solution. You’d still have to buy the foreign cash – at a price. That price might be charged separately or it might be built into the exchange rate, but either way you are paying to convert currency. As an individual you have less negotiating power than a credit card issuer (usually a bank) so you’ll get an even worse exchange rate than you would using a credit card.

August 9 2014

International Phone Calls and How to Save 30% on Skype

I find Skype a great tool in general, but it has been even more useful lately as I’m planning a lengthy international trip.

When at home I use it to call international phone numbers if using my cell phone would be cost ineffective, and when traveling I use it to stay in touch with home.

You can do a lot for free on Skype, but some services are not free. For those, here are a few money-saving options currently available.

For 30% off

Purchase Skype credit from TigerDirect while combining the following offers:

  • A $15 off $100 coupon from the merchant. To my knowledge there are two coupons currently available – one expires August 10 and can be generated here; the other expires September 30 and can be generated here.
  • The Amex Sync offer giving a $15 statement credit when you spend $50+ at TigerDirect. The offer, mentioned in this post, expires August 31. (I don’t believe this offer is on Twitter or Facebook so it would only be available to those who have it in the “Offers For You” tab on their Amex account.)

Your net cost should be $70 for $100 worth of Skype credit.

TigerDirect GC Order
Cost of $100 in Skype credit BEFORE Amex Sync rebate. (Click to enlarge.)

For 10% off

Another Amex Sync deal offers $25 off a $250+ purchase at Best Buy (discussed here) through September 2. Best Buy sells Skype gift cards.

$250 is a lot of Skype credit (more than I’d personally buy at one time) but you can always buy a lesser amount and make up the difference by purchasing other items at Best Buy (*cough* Amazon gift cards *cough*).

I don’t know of any at the moment, but if you find a discount offered by the retailer that works on Skype gift cards, it should combine as well.

Not Skype, but another option worth a look

I have not researched this product, but currently Amazon has a OneSimCard (with $10 of credit) for $40.52.

OneSimCard
Click to enlarge

On the surface this is not a deal because you can get the same thing for $39.95 directly from OneSimCard.com ($29.95 for the card and $10.00 for the airtime credit).

To make it a deal, use the Amex Sync offer for a $10 statement credit when you spend $50+ at JCPenney (blog post), which sells Amazon gift cards in store. It’s a two-step process because you have to go to JCPenney and buy an Amazon gift card, then use the gift card to buy the SIM card. Personally I wouldn’t make a special trip to JCP, but I’d certainly drop in when the store is on my way anyway.

Remember that Amazon prices can change any time so be sure to double check your cart before paying.

Enjoy the remaining weekend. I know many of us bought the Europe/Asia mistake fare a few months ago and are now busy planning for those trips, so I hope this is useful.

Category: Amex, Deals, Tips | LEAVE A COMMENT
August 5 2014

Tip: Always Register for Miles & Points Promotions

There are tons of hotel points programs and airline miles programs. And they’re always running various promotions. OCD as I may be, I simply don’t have the time or mental bandwidth to keep track of them all.

So every time a new promotion comes out, I register for it even if I have no known plans to participate. It only takes a moment, so as soon as I see the email I just sign up. Then I can forget about it, and if travel plans crop up that fit the promotion I don’t miss out on the points or miles because I neglected to register.

And it’s always nice to get “surprise” points after the fact.

Blue Mosque
Inside the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. Miles got me there for free!

A few months ago I mentioned a particular American Airlines promotion where you could earn about 1,000 miles for spending a few minutes on their website and potentially several thousand more bonus miles for flying. I registered myself and several other people (whose frequent flyer accounts I manage) and then just forgot about it.

Today I logged into one of those accounts and, lo and behold, it showed not only the 1,000 free miles, but 4,000 bonus miles attributed to the same promotion. Apparently my mom had a flight during the promotion period that I didn’t know about and it triggered bonus miles. I only manage her loyalty accounts; I don’t manage her travel plans (half the time I don’t even know where in the world she is on a particular day) so I always just sign her up for everything.

Moral of the story… always register when there’s no cost to do so. And don’t forget to check our permanent Travel Deals Page for promos you may have forgotten to register for.

Anyway, have a great rest of the day. Since that “where in the world” quip will probably earn me a you-should-call-your-parents-more-often lecture, my next task will be to make a pre-emptive phone call. 🙂

Category: Tips | LEAVE A COMMENT
July 26 2014

Thoughts on Air Travel Safety

Regular readers (hi mom and dad!) may have noticed things were quiet here this past week. One reason is logistical as I was occupied by a work project. But the more relevant reason is that my capacity to think about travel was consumed by the aviation tragedies of the past week. Posting about some airfare sale or whatever just felt trivial in light of such calamity.

First and foremost, my thoughts and condolences to those directly affected. Malaysia Airlines, TransAsia Airways, Air Algerie – any one of these incidents alone is a tragedy and catastrophe. All three in a week is beyond devastating.

I objectively know that commercial air travel is, statistically speaking, exceedingly safe. Indeed, many of the week’s reports cite aviation experts attesting to that fact, and as many offer statistical data to support it.

So I won’t rehash the stats here, but rather share my personal, subjective reasons for considering air travel safer than any other mode of transport.

View from Above
One of my favorite views

Trained pilots

I live in a car-crazy city; it is simply not practical to go about life here without driving every day. Yet every time I get in a car, whether as a driver or passenger, I’m nervous.

I can be the most cautious, defensive driver ever – but I still can’t control the fact I share the road with all kinds of loons. Drivers who are drunk, texting (even though it’s technically illegal), applying makeup, otherwise distracted, or simply reckless. Heck, I myself am guilty of some of these occasionally.

In fact, people don’t even need a license to get behind the wheel. (Legally, yes. Logistically, no.)

When flying, the pilots operating your aircraft are specifically trained to fly it safely. Further, the pilots of every other plane up there are trained as well. In ground travel you share the road with the aforementioned loons, but at 30,000 feet everyone piloting is trained and screened.

Even the amount of time off a pilot is to have before flying is regulated, which is more than can be said of surgeons and other professionals whose job is (or should be) equally focused on preserving life.

And note the plural noun – pilots. On commercial flights there is not only a captain but also a first officer at the controls. You don’t have that kind of “back-up” in a car or even most other mass transportation such as a bus or train.

Regular maintenance and safety inspections

I have seen (or heard) cars on the road with brakes so worn they sound as if they’re grinding metal at each stop. I know someone (coincidentally, a doctor) who put 60,000 miles on a car without changing the oil because she didn’t know it was something you’re supposed to do. Again, you are sharing the road with these braniacs (and their poorly-maintained cars) when you drive.

In contrast, I am confident there is a long list of maintenance work that commercial aircraft undergo regularly and an equally comprehensive list of pre-flight safety inspections that occur before every commercial flight takes off.

Even non-mechanical things are checked – the weather, for example.

I’ve had many flights delayed or cancelled for mechanical or weather reasons, and when it happens I try to remember that inconvenience is a relatively small price to pay for safety.

Conclusion

None of these things guarantees a perfect experience (as the tragedies of this past week remind us), but in the big picture I still consider commercial air travel exceedingly safe compared to the alternatives.

As I wrote in a prior post on travel safety tips, everything in life has risk – from bungee jumping to driving your kids to school to merely sitting on the couch. It’s not a matter of avoiding risk (which is impossible because everything has risk), but of managing risk well.

July 8 2014

Quick Travel Tip: Charge Electronics Before Going to the Airport

b-Pic cell phone

In case you missed it, over the weekend the Transportation Security Administration announced “enhanced security measures.”

While the announcement did not contain many specifics (by design, I’m sure), the takeaway is that you should charge your electronic devices before going to the airport.

Security screeners may ask you to turn on a device, presumably to demonstrate that it’s really a cell phone or tablet and not a bomb in disguise.

If it does not turn on, the traveler (1) will have to leave the device behind, and (2) may be subjected to additional screening.

Without elaborating, the announcement says the measures will be implemented “at certain overseas airports with direct flights to the United States.”

I always favor safety and am not complaining about the policy at all, but I’m horrified at the thought of abandoning my personal device to a security screener in another country. So I will make certain all my devices are charged when approaching security!

If your device is drained hopefully they would at least let you pull out a charger and provide you with a place to plug it in and prove it does turn on, but I have learned to never assume in such cases. I rarely travel with my devices drained of power anyway, but this might even compel me to lug an external battery pack on trips.

Here is the text of the TSA announcement, pasted it in its entirety:

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Last week, Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson directed TSA to implement enhanced security measures at certain overseas airports with direct flights to the United States.

As the traveling public knows, all electronic devices are screened by security officers. During the security examination, officers may also ask that owners power up some devices, including cell phones. Powerless devices will not be permitted onboard the aircraft. The traveler may also undergo additional screening.

TSA will continue to adjust security measures to ensure that travelers are guaranteed the highest levels of aviation security conducted as conveniently as possible.