Thursday, July 29, 2010

Sleep for Cheap

Stretching your dollarIn the first part of our cost-controlling series, "Stretching your dining dollar," we covered how to cut your eating expenses while traveling. The two remaining expenses, transportation and lodging, each have their own caveats. For the uninitiated, controlling these costs may seem daunting. With a little research and insight, learning to travel for maximum enjoyment on minimum dollars is within reach. In this second of a three-part series on controlling costs we'll look at ways to save on sleeping.

If five-star and 1000-thread count Egyptian cotton are a must, stop reading now. For the open minded … read on!

When talking "bang for you buck" it's hard to find it in lodging. From the standpoint that you spend only a few hours a night there … sleeping is expensive! To that end, after an exciting day in a new place, I just want to catch my forty winks and get back to exploring. When it is time to kick up my tired feet and reflect on the day I find there are really three options: Hostels, B&Bs and independent hotels. Putting aside what you've seen in the movies lets explore hostels.

There are two types of hostels … the "official" ones that belong to Hostelling International and the "independent" hostels. Official hostels are generally clean and have more rules than their independent counterparts. They also have a membership fee.

The HI web site doesn't list exact prices but it is typically just under $30 for a membership. You can buy the membership when you arrive or optionally pay an extra fee, around $5, and stay without a membership. If you stay six nights, even at six different HI hostels, while paying the extra fee you are then considered a member. Either way you're paying that membership fee!

Prices vary from location to location but for a single person the price is often between $25 and $30 per night. It's no frills and you're sharing a room and a bathroom down the hall with strangers but you're getting what you need most … a bed. And, the free breakfast is a nice touch too! O.k., not every hostel has breakfast but a majority do. And some, like one I've used a couple of times in Rome, offer deals on dinner to the tune of a four-course meal, with wine, for €10!

Hostels are not only for the young, mature travelers are always welcome. Some hostels even offer a "family" room. Though hostels stand as the least expensive option they don't offer much in the way of privacy or luxury. Use of laundry machines, wi-fi or free access to a limited number of desktop computers are about it in the line of luxuries. So, when you're looking for a little more that's when you look to independent hotels.

I avoid big chain hotels as much as possible. Because the chain hotel's culture trumps local culture you often find yourself removed from the local experience. When hostels won't cut it and a B&B is nowhere to be found turn your search to small, local-owned hotels. Though the service isn't usually on the level of a B&B it is often more than adequate. Hotel Orientale in Palermo, Sicily is typical of these types of hotels. Located next to an alley running to the Mercato Ballaro, one of the most famous street markets in the region, it is just a short walk from everything downtown Palermo and reasonably priced at about €40 for a room with two beds. The price ranges are typically slightly more than hostel rates (per person) and up to roughly that of the top end of the B&B rates. The best thing about these small hotels is that you can often haggle a better price if you're paying cash! Be aware though that many of these smaller hotels don't have bathrooms in the room. Sometimes rooms with their own facilities are available at slightly higher rates. When it comes to cutting costs a room with a shared bathroom certainly will save you money.

Prices at small hotels and B&Bs can overlap. So although a Bed and Breakfast is not really always the "middle ground" in pricing they do offers a more upscale, couples-friendly atmosphere. Many B&Bs welcome families and provide home-away-from-home amenities. Location usually dictates price. The closer to the action, the higher the rate.

When traveling in Italy I've used BBPlanet to find great deals near Venice and in Siena. Agriturismo da Merlo in Venice and Alle Due Porte in Siena both offered friendly and nearly pampered service … one of the advantages of a B&B. Unlike even small hotels, a B&B is all about making guests comfortable. Nightly rates vary and can be as low as about $80 per night. Typically the rates don't go much over $100 per night and, as the name implies, include at least breakfast in the nightly rate. For destinations outside of Italy I typically start at BBFinder. BBFinder, provides an extensive listings and reviews of B&Bs around the world.

While researching lodging on the Internet it's easy to get caught up in pretty pictures. Read reviews and Google the name of place you think you might want to stay to see what more you can find out about it. With any of these places you can request to see the room before agreeing on it … but obviously only once you've arrived. Booking in advance isn't always necessary but should be considered during the "high season" for the destination.

When traveling I find I get more enjoyment from the trip if I travel as a local instead of as a tourist. Hostels give you direct access to locals as well as travelers from around the world. Small hotels often give more central access, moderate pricing and knowledgeable patrons. B&Bs tend to be more pampering. All three provide a different and wonderful, cost-effective option to chain hotels. They all keep you closer to the culture in which you're traveling and provide a place to rest your weary head after a long day of living like a local.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Stretching your dining dollar

Stretching your dollarThe three biggest expenses in travel are transportation, lodging and food. For the uninitiated, controlling these costs may seem daunting. With a little research and insight, learning to travel for maximum enjoyment on minimum dollars is within reach. In this first of a three-part series on controlling costs we'll look at ways to save on dining.

For the hard-core foodie who has a hard time dining on anything less than gourmet or the latest trend, stop reading now. For the open minded … read on!

Whether within the U.S. or around the world the first rule of dining on the cheap is “street food”. From the red hots cart in Chicago to the panelle stand in Palermo, Sicily, street food holds the distinction of being the “food of the people.” Primarily regional, these tasty treats are often overlooked by travelers as not fresh, or worse … contaminated. Truth is that the ingredients are usually very fresh, despite the condition of the makeshift booth or cart they are being sold from. Whenever I travel, especially abroad, I seek out these delicious and cost-effective treats that give you a taste of the local culture. But, how do you find them?

Begin your travel planning by researching the local cuisine of your destination. A little pre-planning will give you a heads up on not only what to look for, but, if you're lucky, the best place to get it. Google the city, state/country and the words “street food” and you'll be surprised at what you might find. Once you find a particular item you think you might like to try, refine your search using specific names of the foods. Let your adventurous side take over and soon you may have a list of places you might want to add to your itinerary.

Though these quick meals are great when you're on the go, and as a great alternative to what is considered typical “fast food,” sometimes you just want to sit down and dine in a restaurant atmosphere.

When dining at restaurants while traveling, especially abroad, you must get away from the “tourist trap” areas. Typically, the closer to tourist attractions, the higher the cost. The owners of the restaurants know that many tourists don't want to stray far from “the beaten path.” Taking time to explore the side streets and alleyways going away from the tourist areas can turn up some surprising results. Often what you'll find are the places where the locals like to eat. The “mom & pop” type places that are full of atmosphere, tradition and reasonably priced local cuisine. But, what happens when you want to try that “hot spot” that everyone is talking about?

Sometimes there is a place like the “House of Blues” in Chicago that you just want to check out. Common sense tells you that you're not dining cheap there … so what can the frugal traveler do? When traveling in the United States, go to www.restaurant.com.

The first step is to register. Registration is free and registered users get access the the best deals. The web site allows you to search by zip code, major city or state. Once your results are displayed you can then refine the search alphabetically, by cuisine, by city or any number of other ways. What they offer are discounted gift certificates. Typically you have a choice of a $10 certificate for $4 or a $25 certificate for $10. On occasion you'll run across a special that allows you to buy at even a deeper discount. On a recent trip to Chicago I purchased a $10 certificate for under $2! These discounts do come with stipulations.

To use the $25 certificate your bill must be $35 or more. To use the $10 certificate your bill must be $25 or more. Sometimes, like at the House of Blues, a gratuity is automatically added before the discount is taken. All the information about the stipulations are listed before you make your purchase so there are no surprises. Done right you can save as much as 30 percent at some of the touristy hot spots!

When traveling I find I get more enjoyment from the trip if I travel as a local instead of as a tourist. Dining on street food and in the places that the locals frequent tend to give the best bang-for-the-buck when it comes to eating. Next time you travel forgo the big names and the fancy signs and find your self a little piece of the local flavor. Your tummy will thank you for it!