Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Traveling Well - for Less!

Roadboy's Travel Tips: Part 3 Hotels

Time to update my "Traveling Well" post.

I believe that travel should be something to remember. Never a chore. So I plan trips to experience unique places. I just like to do it in comfort at a fair price. The next three posts will cover how to select and get the best possible prices for Airlines, Rental Cars, and Hotels.


Great hotels offer one-of-a-kind experiences. They are close to where you want to be. They are tomb quiet, have great beds, shower drains that flow freely, they have immaculate rooms and public spaces, and cultivate caring staff. They discourage "Spring Breakers".

Great hotels are never "Cheap", but all too often they are overpriced or conceal a raft of hidden fees. The key is simply to get a price where their benefits equal their value.

The Good Stuff:
1. Concierge Lounges
If you travel a lot you may well be have access the Concierge Lounge. The free continental breakfast can save a family mucho dinero. Regrettably, many hotels are cutting back and phasing out these rooms. I contend a first class hotel MUST have a concierge lounge. If it doesn't then the hotel should immediately be penalized a full star.

2. Free Shuttles
Check to see if your hotel offers free transportation to/from the airport and/or train station. I find that many hotels offer free shuttle service to nearby businesses or monuments but do not advertise it. Of course you should be generous with a tip to the driver.

The Bad Stuff:
1. Daily Resort Fees. 
This is the hotel industry version of checked baggage charges. In essence it allows them to charge extra for something that should, of course, be included in daily room rates. Before you arrive call to see if you can have this charge removed if you do not plan to use the services these fees are supposed to provide.

2. Parking
Most hotels love this one. They now typically charge $12 to $75 / night for parking. I recently checked into a hotel in Seattle (the delightful Hotel Max) simply because it offered a special with free parking and internet.

3. Internet
Why do mid-priced hotels offer this essential service for free while prestige hotels try to outdo each other to see how ridiculous a price they can command for their daily internet service (which in most hotels is painfully slow). The worst offender I've encountered so far was the Hilton Diagonal Mar in Barcelona ($45USD / day for internet). Ok, you cans top laughing now. Of course Roadboy just enjoyed a caramel sundae each each day across the street at the McDonalds where internet was free.

Star Rating:
There are two ratings. The one issued by rating agencies like Michelin or Mobil. The other is visitor ratings listed on sites like Trip Advisor.

I start my searches with 3.5 star or above rooms.  If there has been recent rating by visitors, I tend to assume they are the best indicators of what t expect.   

Here is how I stack up the chains

• Marriott 
The Marriott brand is huge. JW Marriott, Marriott, Renaissance, Autograph, Residence Inn, Courtyard, Towne Place Suites, Springhill Suites, and Fairfield Inns. I find that something in the Marriott chain usually works for me depending on the duration of my trip and budget. I avoid Fairfield Inns, as they are frequently icky. 

Marriott is clinging to its pre-depression (vastly overpriced) rate structure. 

As such, in 2009 Roadboy experimented and tryed some darned good non-Marriott hotels. Marriott's strategy to engender loyalty should reward frequent guests with a platinum grade price break, not just a small welcome gift.

Note that although Marriott manages Ritz Carlton's it exempts them from Marriott Rewards points.  I'll wager that will change in 2010.

Marriott Rewards:
If you achieve Marriott's 75 night a year platinum status they treat you well. Personally, I resent the 75 night requirement to reach platinum. Hilton offers comparable benefits at Diamond status after just 28 stays!

Redeeming Marriott Rewards points at their premium properties is frustrating. The points get you the room, but if you want an "oceanview" room, well that is extra! Try this fun exercise! Attempt to redeem your points at a premium property in Rome or Paris. Website assures there are "no blackout dates". First search Marriott's website for a paid reservation, you will find lots of rooms available. Now, switch to "Redeem Points" and try again. Rooms are no longer available. I have well over a million Marriott Rewards points, I know this happens all the time. Shame on you Bill!

• Hilton
Hilton's new luxury flagship is their Waldorf Astoria Collection. This new marque includes wonderful historic properties and premium resort classic's. Of course they also offer chic Conrad hotels, flagship Hiltons, Doubletrees, Hilton Garden Inns (a favorite of mine), Homewood Suites, and Hampton Inn and Suites. I avoid old style Hampton Inns (with tiny windows in the corner). Hampton Suites are typically very nice.

Hilton HHonors:
The Hilton frequent stay program HHonors is near perfect. You reach their top tier of elite status fast. If you combine their credit card with their double dip program, you will rack up points even faster. Their rewards let you stay at many of the best hotels in the world. I know, I have.

• Starwood
The Starwood chain includes the hip "W hotels, tragically dysfunctional Sheraton's, elegant Westins, cheerful Aloft's, and mostly shabby 4-Points.

In a bizarre move Starwood let many of its flagship Sheraton's become intolerably shabby. Albeit late, Starwood has finally started to correct the situation. They waited almost too long.

I avoid any renovated 4-Points hotel. The new 4-Points like the one in Savannah\'s Historic DistrictAre nice.  

Starwood's Preferred Guest program is very good giving access to some really beautiful properties worldwide.

• Hyatt
Hyatt Hotels run from stylish to mediocre. They tend to be pricey for what you get. This uneven chain needs to quit believing its own hype and start fixing things.

Just last week I stayed at the beautiful Hyatt Regency Lost Pines Resort near Austin. It has lovely grounds, great restaurants, an amazing pool, and free cruiser bikes. Despite all that it was hard to overlook broken lamps, non-existant water pressure, and some pretty mediocre customer service. At check-out they added that annoying "resort" fee (allowing me to pay for all those facilities I did not have time to use).

Hyatt is expanding its product line with the purchase and conversion of Amerisuites now rebranded as "Hyatt Place". They have also acquired the Summerfield Suites chain.  

Hyatt Gold Passport is a decent frequent frequent stay program.

• Fairmont, St. Regis, Four Seasons, Leows 
These are the Uber luxe properties. I avoid these "full of themselves" hotels like the plague. They are priced far far above what they deliver. I don't want to buy real estate, I just want to rent a lovely and quiet room.

To be fair Fairmont includes a number of well located, historic, properties (like the Banff Springs Hotel) that can be a very nice option when rented at off-season pricing.

• Holiday Inns or Intercontinental
Old legacy Holiday Inns suck. For highway travel, Holiday Inn Select's and Holiday Inn Express' are great.

• Country Inn and Suites, Comfort Inn's, and Wingates.  
Nice roadside motels, I just don't do road trips very often. The new Cambria Suites has great promise.

• Best Western
If the best hotel in town is a Best Western, then the "town" is probably not one Roadboy has on his "To See Before I Die" list. Best Western's in Europe are frequently great!

• Druggies and Bikers
If you want to live among addicts then Ramada's, Red Roof's, Super 8's, and Motel 6's are for you! Smelly rooms, bad beds, and mildew Yippee! My visits to Motel 6 ended after finding a used syringe under my pillow.

• Little Treasures
Kimpton Hotel's (unique, well priced, and spotlessly clean hotels)
Hotel Monaco (nice, just not many of them)
Rockresorts (lovely, OK in the off-season)
Historic Hotels and Inns of America
Preferred Hotels
Bed and Breakfast's

Get the Best Hotel Rates

1. Shop, Shop, Shop. Start checking early and don't hesitate to replace a reservation if something better comes along. Sometimes the best rates are offered early. Sometimes they show up at the last minute. Watch out for the pre-pay, no refund rates. They mean it. Change your plans and you lose it all.

2. Get a Triple AAA Card. I compare rates and find that once in a while the AAA rates are well below other rates.  I more than pay for my annual membership from the savings from one multi-night trip.  

Also, if you ever lock your keys in a rental car, no one will help. Locksmiths refuse. The rental car companies ignore you. After everyone else says no, AAA unlocks the car for free.

3. Always check for promo rates. 

4. Check "Farechase" by Yahoo , Sidestep, and Kayak.com. These sites scan all of the other sites! 

5. Check Expedia and the hotel section of airline websites. They frequently negotiate great hotel rates.

6. If the trip is a for sure thing, consider Hotwire. You buy blind, so always buy based on stars and location. I frequently come up with rooms at less than 1/2 the "Best Price" shown on the hotel's website.

7. Check Quikbook.com. Once in a while this website has some great deals.

8. Personally I find Priceline "bid thing" too time consuming and rarely find great hotel deals. 

9. If you are booking a block of rooms call hotels direct. They frequently horse trade in the off season.

10. If you are a government employee, check the government rate. Sometimes you have to search for it.
On the Ritz Carlton website you type in "GOV" in the box that says "promo" to get the rate. These used to always be the best rates, now government rates frequently exceed promo rates. 

Thats how Roadboy does it. 

Roadboy's Travels © 2010

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