Wednesday, April 26, 2017

TRAVEL TIPS: Finding Deals and Saving Money on Your Trip

Our last two Travel Tips talked about money…specifically managing your money while traveling and getting enough money to take a trip. This last part is about making the most of your money. Particularly, finding deals and taking advantage of them.

When looking for a good deal it pays to be flexible. If you can travel over a range of dates instead of particular days, you can find deals. If you can stay somewhere away from the heart of the action, you can find deals.

Start with airfare. Check the big sites like Expedia, Travelocity, and Orbitz to get a rough idea of what your airfare will be for your trip. Next, check the airline sites themselves as they often strive to have the lowest fares for those who use their sites. Now, unless you need to travel immediately, sit back and wait (you can also check Kayak, which has a fare predictor that can guide you to when the fares should be lowest to buy).

We find that the lowest fares are not usually offered until about 2 to 3 months before you want to go. If you are checking 6 months in advance (as you should to build your budget), the fares you’ll find are not going to be the lowest. Keep checking every couple of weeks to see it they change. The lowest fares usually need to be bought 21 days before travel, so you can keep doing this until 3 – 4 weeks before you need to go.

Also, many sites have calendars that show you how much the fare can change based on the day you travel. You might see that traveling on a Wednesday might be $250 but if you left on Monday, you could go for $99. There is usually a box asking if your dates are flexible that you can check to see this calendar.

Another way to find cheap fares is to plan your route around bargain airlines like Southwest, Virgin America, or Jet Blue.  You can generally find good fares for these airlines on their websites but you can also use them for leverage on other airlines. For instance, if Southwest is offering a 99 dollar fare from Los Angeles to Chicago, you will find other airlines like American or United matching that fare.

Hotels have myriad ways to save, let’s start with the obvious…call and ask. Call the hotel and ask for their rate. Then  just ask, “can you give me a lower rate?” You’d be surprised how often they do. Don’t feel bad, the people at the front desk are used to it and a lot of the time they quote you a high rack rate first and have a lower rate in reserve for those who ask for it.

Next, it pays to belong. Have a AAA card? That will get you a discount at most hotels. Work for the government? Most hotels have special rates for government workers and many do not care if you’re actually traveling for work or not. Costco card? American Express? Walmart customer? Not as prevalent, but still, some places will also give you a discount for that too.

How about joining a hotel’s reward program? While I don’t see them offering too many discounts just for belonging (or offering a minimal discount if they do), we do see perks just for being members. Marriott is good for getting a late checkout, upgraded rooms, and more. Best Western and Marriott let you earn free nights very fast. Hilton lets you get points not only at its hotels, but at restaurants all across the country as well.

Since it’s free to join, it certainly doesn’t hurt to sign up and you will get some good perks and freebies over time. Of course, the more you use, the more you get.

Think about a vacation rental. This works especially well if you have a large group. Check sites such as for rentals at your destination. Recently, we had a group of five of us and got a three bedroom, 2.5 bath flat with living room, kitchen, dining room, two terraces, satellite TV, a/c, free internet access, and two pools in Cannes for $1,000 for a week. Divide by 5 and you see that each of us only had to pay $200 for a week in luxury in the South of France.

Consider staying in a different neighborhood. In Los Angeles, for example, you can get rooms in some of the suburban areas such as Pasadena,  Arcadia, or even by the ocean in Long Beach - all perfectly nice areas - for as little as half as much as you'd pay for a premium location like Beverly Hills or Santa Monica.

For both air and hotel, sign up for websites that scour the net for deals. One of the best is You can search the site for deals but the real sweet service is to sign up for their weekly e-mail of the Top 20 Deals. Another couple of sites we like to use for this is and Airfare Watchdog.

Examples of deals we’ve seen…and been able to take advantage of…in the last year included a $99 mansion room with meals in the Silicon Valley, an $89 room at a resort in Napa Valley, $12 per night all-inclusive in the Dominican Republic, $5 baseball game tickets, and much more.

Other sites like Travelocity, Expedia, and Mobissimo also let you sign up to be notified of deals.  It also helps to have a relationship with a local travel agent that can let you know when they find unadvertised offers.

If you’re taking a road trip, the big expense is fuel. Log onto a gas price comparison site like to map out the cheapest gas stations on your route. Become a Costco member to be able to buy their cheap gas and use to map out their locations on your route. Get their Citi Visa card to receive a 4% rebate on your gas purchases.

Make sure your car is in tune and running well to maximize your mileage. Plan a route that will allow for minimum stops and traffic.

Another way to save money is to get lodging that includes a kitchen. While we love to go out to eat at local restaurants when we travel…it’s one of the biggest highlights for us…we still like a kitchen where we’ll go to a local farmer’s market and cook some of the best and cheapest breakfasts you’ll find on the road.  We’ll save the money for a nice dinner later.

Speaking of eating, street food is enjoying a renaissance these days and you can get some fantastic food at rock bottom prices if you’re willing to give the street stands, food trucks, and hole-in-the-wall dives a chance. Check with the locals to find the best of the street.

If you have some other suggestions that we’ve missed, please feel free to post it in a comment below.

Copyright 2012 – Darryl Musick
All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, April 19, 2017


Here are some tips I've learned...sometimes the hard way.

Bring your confirmation - If you get a confirmation via e-mail, print it.  If you make a phone reservation, make sure they send you a printed confirmation.  BRING IT WITH YOU.  I always do this...and end up not needing it.  That is until the one time I forgot.

Recently, I had a reservation for a suite for $90 a night, Thursday through Sunday.  With taxes and one room service charge, the bill came to just over $300, or it should have.  I was presented with a $550 bill at check out and when I complained, I was told that the special rate wast just for a regular room, the suite was more, and, on top of that, only good for midweek so the weekend rate was charge at the rack rate of $230 a night.

I didn't have my confirmation.  I didn't have a way to retrieve it (it was on my work e-mail).  I didn't have a prayer.

Luckily, when I got back to work, I fished out the confirmation from e-mail and, low and behold, it said "Luxury Suite" for $90 per night...every night.  I e-mailed the manager, sent him a copy of both my confirmaton and bill.  To his credit, he refunded the difference immediately but I would have saved a lot of hassle and heartburn if I'd just followed my own advice.

Inspect the room before accepting it - make sure you're getting what you reserved and what you need, especially if you need accessible features such as a roll-in shower.  If it does not meet your confirmed room, they should give you one that does or make sure you pay no penalty if you have to cancel.

Get a refundable rate - Some hotels...notably the Hilton chain...are starting to come up with supersaver rates like airlines.  Rates that are discounted but non-cancelable, non-refundable.  I don't like this.  Who knows if the weather will take a turn for the worse, you get sick, or some other reason you cannot make it.  I look for a rate that will let me cancel with no penalty a day or two in advance.   I have a trip coming up to northern California.  The hotel has a 48 hour cancellation policy.  I'm going to check the weather forecast just before that window, if a big storm is on the way, I'm goint to go with my alternate reservations in Arizona which allows me to cancel with no penalty up to 12:00pm the day of check in.  That's flexibility.

Also, put it on the calendar to remind you before the cancellation deadline hits so you remember to cancel, if needed, and you don't end up paying hundreds of dollars for a room you forgot you had a reservation in. Keep a printed copy of the cancellation in case the hotel still charges you.

Tip the maid...everyday!  Leave a couple of dollars on the pillow.  Don't wait until you check out.  Appreciative maids clean rooms better and leave you better toiletries.  If you can't shouldn't be staying there anyway.

Compare total cost - Paying an extra twenty dollars for a suite with a full, hot breakfast will beat a room at the Motel 6, such is the case at many destinations. 

As an example, I can get a very nice, large room for around $80 or a two-room suite for around $100 at most Drury Inns. Sounds a bit expensive until you include an expansive hot breakfast buffet for everyone in the room; a light dinner; three cocktails; unlimited popcorn and soda from afternoon to the evening; free wired or wireless Internet; free use of their Internet terminals; free long distance calls; free local calls; pool, spa, and fitness room.

How much extra would all that cost at a cheap, motel?

Are there any special events taking place when you get there? - If you want a quiet stay, you probably don't want to go during "Bike Week."

Ask ahead of time what kind of view the room has - parking lot or beach?

Any tips you want to share?

Copyright 2011 - Darryl Musick
All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

TRAVEL TIPS: Money Management While Away From Home

Money…it not only makes the world go around, it’s the power behind your vacation.  We’re going to do a couple of Travel Tips about it. First, how to manage it during your trip.

Most people by now, but by no means all, realize that you shouldn’t carry big wads of cash with you to pay for things on your trip.  There are several ways to accomplish this with minimal cash…
Credit cards are the most handy forms of payment for the traveler. No cash involved, quick transaction, and a list of your spending is provided to you on your next bill.
We like to use a card that is accepted widely and offers us a rebate for using it. Others like to get points, like frequent flyer miles, when using their cards.  I try to put all travel expenses on the same card so I can get a running total, check for errors, and pay one bill for the entire trip.
Beware that you still need to stick to your budget. You don’t get that list of expenses until well after you’re home so keep track of what you’re spending…it’s very easy to ignore when you’re using plastic.  Also be aware of how credit cards work in other countries. Restaurants in France, for example, don’t have the separate tip line that you see in the U.S. on the credit slip. You need to leave your gratuity in cash.

Other countries, in Europe in another example, use credit cards that have RFID chips in them and many places and ATMs won’t accept cards without them…at this time, most American credit cards do have them embedded. Look for the gold chip on the front of the card. Check with your card issuer before you go to see if you will have a problem.
Also check with your card issuer before you leave to let them know you’ll be traveling.  Many credit card companies will suspend a credit card that is used far from home automatically to prevent fraud. You can clear that up with a call but that call may be hard and expensive to make in a foreign country. Much easier and cheaper to do it before you leave...a toll-free number to call is usually listed on the back of the card.
If you don’t have a credit card or prefer a cash-like “pay as you go” system, use your bank’s ATM card with a Visa or MasterCard logo to make purchases on your trip. This works just like a credit card but you need to be aware that the money is instantly deducted from your account. Keep scrupulous track of debit card use to make sure you do not overdraw your account and incur a fee.
For both credit and debit cards, most come with extra foreign transaction fees on every purchase made outside of your home country. Again, check with your issuer before you go. There are some cards that come without these fees.  Here’s a list of some cards without them, , and another one here: .
One difference between credit cards and debit cards in general is that credit cards offer better protection against fraud and also come with perks like damage insurance for your rental car.

As much as we’d like to go cashless, it is not quite possible to do completely. You’re going to need some. Like we mentioned in our Travel Tip about tipping, we like to go to the bank first and get a hundred (or two) dollar’s worth of ones and fives for tips.
On vacation, travelers used to count on traveler’s checks. Don’t bother with these relics anymore…it is very hard to find merchants now who take them and you’re going to have to find a bank teller to cash them now.  In a pinch, you can also usually cash a check at your hotel’s front desk.

Instead, use your ATM card. You usually get the best exchange rates and can get your cash quickly and conveniently. Know that you’ll get dinged with fees so don’t use an ATM for a small sum. Get a hundred dollars or more to make it financially feasible.
Also, make sure you do it discreetly and safely.  Use a money belt and your hotel’s safe for large sums.
Finally, don’t go into hock for your vacation…only spend what you can afford. Also, only go where you can afford to go…don’t get to the point where you have to take out a loan to pay for it…and have fun!
Copyright 2012 – Darryl Musick
All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, April 5, 2017


This edition of Travel Tips is well named because it deals with that minefield known as tipping!

All you really need in Punta keys, towel tickets, and tip money.

First, know that just about anywhere you go, you will be expected to tip at some point. Some places more that others. While there are places that tipping is inappropriate...Japan comes to mind...most destinations will have someone that expects one.

For me, when in doubt, I leave something to let the person know I appreciate their service. I've yet to see someone return the money I've given them.

So who do you tip? The list can be daunting...waiters, housekeepers, pool boys, concierges, drivers, bartenders, and just about anybody that goes out of their way to make sure your vacation is special.

Some bills include the tip, or gratuity, automatically. Check your bill before you leave a double tip.

The way you tip can also make a difference. You should tip the maid who cleans up your room. I recommend daily so the tip can make a difference during your stay. If you leave the tip somewhere money might be left by mistake, like the top of the dresser, the maid will probably figure it is not a tip and leave it. The common place for a daily tip is to be left on top of the pillow on your bed. Money left there is known to be a tip. (Note: some travelers have let me know that they also leave maid tip money on the bathroom sink)

What about all-inclusive resorts where tipping is included in the price? This is a sticking point to some people, but I do leave or give a token tip for services. You will still get service if you don't but you will get better service if you do. Leave a dollar or two to the bartender, the person who gets your towels, the person checking out your sports equipment, etc.  

Not only will you get better service, but a lot of times you'll be making a noticeable difference to someone who does not make a lot of money.

Some will say tipping adds to an already expensive vacation. I say, if you can't afford to give a dollar or two here and there, you can't afford the vacation in the first place.

To get ready for tipping, I'll go to my bank just before leaving on a trip and take out $100-150 dollars in one dollar bills and another $50 or so in five dollar bills, just to have something to tip.

I'll also study up on my destination before going to see what the local tipping etiquette is. One good site is .

No matter how hard you prepare, you will come across someone who you don't know if you should tip or not. In this quandary, if they did something a little extra for us, I'll tip them a couple of dollars.

If someone does something completely exceptional for you, like our pool boy in the Dominican Republic who reserved a special spot by the pool for us everyday, I'll make sure to find them when we leave to give them a special, larger than normal tip.

What if you don't know what the proper amount to tip is locally? In the absence of information, tip as you would at home. 15 - 20% of the bill in a restaurant is normal here in the U.S., so that's what I'll do abroad. A dollar a bag, with a minumum of $5 for the person who takes our bags to the room is what I pay here, so that's what I'll pay there, and so on.

Tipping is a personal decision, don't let me tell you exactly how it should be done...this is just my personal policy but, as Steve Martin said in My Blue Heaven, "tip everybody!" Maybe not quite everybody but don't be stingy either.

Copyright 2010 - Darryl Musick
All Rights Reserved

Sunday, April 2, 2017

The Cocktail Hour - Wine

Today, we're taking a break from cocktails and just enjoying a chilled bottle of Chardonnay we picked up last week.  Many wineries in Napa Valley are really taking advantage of the number of tourists showing up.  Prices of up to twenty dollars, just to taste, are not uncommon.  It was nice that we found a coupon in the local weekly for free tasting at Folio Winery in Napa, off of highway 12 between Napa and Sonoma.  It was devoid of the big crowds up the road and also the pretention.  Just a relaxing little winery where you could sip wine on your time by a roaring fireplace.

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Folio handles about a dozen different labels.  I ended up getting a three-pack of Hangtime wines.  This week, we are cracking open the Chardonnay with grapes from the Edna Valley, just inland from San Luis Obispo, that are allowed to hang for a long time ripining on the vine (Hangtime...get it?)  The number on the label corresponds to how long the grapes have been left to ripened.  On this bottle, it was 134 days.

This has a nose of lime and pear, with hints of pear and apricots in the taste.  A slightly buttery smoothness lessens the tartness in the throat.  Very good for a warm day of birdwatching on the patio.  A quick check online shows prices in the $18-20 range, which corresponds well with the $17 dollar price we paid at the winery.