Saturday, July 27, 2013

Restaurant Review - Season's 52 Plano

You might think this is out of place in a travel blog, but isn't one of the great things about traveling discovering new places to eat?  I will occasionally spotlight restaurants I've visited, either here in the Metroplex if you're visiting here, or places I run across while traveling.

Season's 52 Fresh Grill ( bills itself as a "fresh dining experience", where every dish is 475 calories or less.  They apparently accomplish this by not using any butter, and by coaxing as much natural flavor out of the food as possible through grilling.  This would seem like an odd choice for me, and indeed, I was rather skeptical.  But, American Express sent me a coupon for $20 off.  And anyone that knows me well knows that I never let a coupon go to waste.  So it was off to Season's 52 for a date night with the wife.

A Guide to Driving Overseas

Highway in the Burren, Ireland

When traveling overseas, one of the first questions to consider is whether to rent a car, and try and drive yourself around to the various tourist sites you want to see, or whether you should rely on group tours and/or public transportation.  Today's article will focus on the pros and cons of driving in foreign countries, and a few things to consider.  NOTE:  for purposes of this blog post, Canada doesn't count as a "foreign country".  Driving in Canada is really no different than driving in the U.S., except that gas is a little more expensive, and your biggest hazards come from moose, caribou, and the occasional polar bear.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

North to Alaska! Part 5 - Juneau, June 26, 2013

I bite, just like this travel blog.
This is Part 5 in my series about my recent trip to Alaska.  This installment will cover our visit to Alaska's capital city, Juneau.  If you haven't already done so, I suggest reading the first four parts of my series:

Part 1 - Background Info
Part 2 - Seattle, Mt. Rainier, and Sailaway
Part 3 - Ketchikan
Part 4 - The Tracy Arm Fjord

If you would like to view my entire collection of photos of Juneau, you can find them on Flickr here.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Are Prepaid Hotel Rooms Worth It?

View from my room at the Marriott in Colorado Springs, CO
Let's face it - unless you're Bill Gates or something, all of us are looking for ways to save a few bucks when we travel.  Usually, it's just a matter of waiting for a sale or lucking out with a coupon.  Almost everyone today knows that cheap airfares are nonrefundable.  In other words, you pay when you buy your ticket, and if your plans change, tough luck, unless you want to pay a change fee, unless you're flying Southwest.  Hotels have always been different.  When you book, there's almost always a cancellation policy attached, but it's usually pretty lenient.  The standard terms usually require that you cancel or change somewhere between 6 P.M. the day of arrival or 48 hours before arrival, or you forfeit one night's room charge (I should note that policies can be much more restrictive in resort areas, national parks, and during holidays, though).  But what you might not know is that...

Hotels Are Becoming More Like Airlines (Sort Of)

Yes, that's right.  If you're looking to save a few bucks on a hotel room, the travel industry has come up with a new option - the prepaid, nonrefundable hotel room, which appears to have been pioneered by online travel agencies (OTAs) like Travelocity.  I first noticed this about 15 years ago, when planning for a road trip to Vancouver.  I used to book most of my hotels through Travelocity at the time, since that (or Orbitz, or Expedia, or whatever) was the easiest way to see all of your options in a given place in one sitting.  While searching for a hotel in Oklahoma City, what popped up at the top of the search results was something called a "Good Buy" rate.  If you use Travelocity, these still exist, as shown in the screen shot below:

If you zoom in, you'll see the "Good Buy" designation at the bottom.  What's not entirely obvious at first blush is that this rate is NONREFUNDABLE - once you book it, your credit card is charged, and refunds are not allowed for any reason.  If your plans don't change, it's no big deal, really.  You've saved a few bucks.  But if you decide you don't need the room, you're in for a surprise when you call to cancel - you don't get your money back.  No option to even pay a change fee; your entire purchase has been flushed down the drain with no recourse.  Which usually generates a reaction similar to this:

I'll call it the "Flaming Angry Hissing Cat Award", since this pretty well sums up what you want to do to the poor customer service rep on the other end.  (For the record - Hercules wasn't really angry in this photo.  He was just yawning.  Though a mouthful of cat breath in the face isn't pleasant, either.)

Prepaid Rooms Carry Risks - Are They Worth It?

So now we've established the risk of booking a prepaid, nonrefundable hotel room.  You could end up with a big bag of nothing if you have to cancel.  But is the risk worth it?  If we use the Crowne Plaza (the first option) in the screen shot above, you'll see the following if you select it:

The prepaid, nonrefundable room is $18 a night cheaper than the standard rate, which allows you to cancel up to 48 hours prior (it's possible the savings is even less than that, if you are eligible for a discount through AAA, AARP, or the like).  That's why I said "sort of" in the subheading; while the difference between a nonrefundable and refundable plane ticket can be several hundred if not thousands of dollars, the difference in hotel rates is typically minimal, on the order of 10-20%.  If you're staying for a longer period of time, say, 5 nights, that means you'd save $90, but you also would have to plunk down $400+ today that you'd have to flush if you ended up not making the trip.  Is it worth it?  Guess it depends on your perspective, but you really should think before booking.

Another thing to be careful about - in the initial screen shot, unless you know what a "Good Buy" rate is, it's not obvious that the rate is nonrefundable. The same is true if you use a "metasearch" site like Kayak to do your initial search, or for that matter, even if you go directly to the hotel's website.  The rate that pops up in the display might be nonrefundable.  Make sure to click on the rate and read the terms and conditions before giving your credit card info.  Hotels tend to be highly unforgiving if you book a nonrefundable rate and then try to cancel, even a few minutes after booking.

So far, I've talked about nonrefundable rates offered through the hotels directly, through an OTA like Travelocity or Orbitz, or that you find on a metasearch site like Kayak. What I haven't covered, through, are the prepaid options offered through sites like Hotwire or the old "Name Your Own Price" feature on Priceline (despite Captain Kirk's recent attempts to downplay bidding on Priceline, Name Your Own Price does still exist).  These are a little different; you are offered a rate in a general area of a city, but you don't find out the name of the hotel until you pay.  You can often figure out what the hotel is by the features noted and the TripAdvisor rating, but I digress.  These deals are known as "distressed inventory" deals - in other words, the hotel can't get rid of the room - and as a result, they are often marked down substantially from the normal rate.  Here, the savings may well be worth the risk, especially at fancier hotels, since you could be talking half off or more from the rack rate.  But, there is a significant risk involved - the recent proliferation of "resort" fees, which aren't included in the rate displayed.

Personally, I think "resort" fees are pure evil.  It is usually something like a $10 a day additional fee, often buried in the mouse print, that provides "free" services like parking, pool towels, or WiFi.  The fees are mandatory, so there is no way of avoiding them.  I find these mandatory fees highly dishonest (they are a way to show a deceptively low rate, and dodge lodging tax and travel agent commissions on the fee in the process), and go out of my way to boycott any property that charges such a fee.  I am not a big government guy by any means, but this is one thing where I think the FTC needs to step in and order that mandatory fees be rolled in to the displayed rate.  If you get a room through Hotwire or Priceline, you are responsible for the fee in addition to the rate.  Trouble is, you don't find out about the fee until after you've already paid, at which point you can't ask for a refund.  So buyer beware.

In fact, I find resort fees so repugnant, they deserve THREE Flaming Angry Hissing Cats.










My Advice

Frankly, since I have AAA, I don't find the risk of a nonrefundable hotel rate worth the savings of maybe $10 a night.  If you really want to save some money, a better approach is to book a regular rate, then troll sites like Hotwire or Priceline as the date of your stay gets closer.  Often times, unsold rooms don't become truly "distressed" and marked down until a few days before you plan to go.  If a really swell deal comes along at the last minute - like say, $99 a night at the Four Seasons - you can always cancel the first room and then book the deal.  Chances are, by that time, you're going to be pretty certain of your trip, so the risk of canceling and losing your money is very low.

North to Alaska! Part 4 - The Tracy Arm Fjord, June 26, 2013

Anyone up for an ice cream social?
This is Part 4 of my series of trip reports about my recent trip to Alaska.  This installment will cover our visit (or more correctly, our ship's visit) to the Tracy Arm Fjord, about 100 miles south of Juneau.  If you haven't already done so, I would suggest reading the first 3 parts of my series.

Part 1 - Background Info
Part 2 - Seattle, Mt. Rainier, and Sailaway
Part 3 - Ketchikan

If you would like to view the entire collection of photos covering the Tracy Arm Fjord, you can view them here.  Disclaimer:  some people apparently believe that all photos of glaciers look alike.  There are a lot of photos of glaciers both in my Flickr set, and in this post.  View at your own discretion, and don't say you weren't warned.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

North to Alaska! Part 3 - Ketchikan, and a Major Personal Milestone - June 25, 2013

Overcast skies and rain greeting our arrival in southeast Alaska

This is Part 3 of my series of trip reports about my recent trip to Alaska.  In this post, I will cover our visit to Ketchikan, our first port-of-call in Alaska.  If you haven't already done so, I suggest reading Parts 1 and 2 first.

Part 1 - Background Info
Part 2 - Seattle, Mt. Rainier, and Sailaway

If you would like to see my entire collection of photos of the Ketchikan area, you can see view them on Flickr here.

North to Alaska! Part 2 - Seattle, Mt. Rainier, and Sailaway

Mt. Rainier, Washington

This is Part 2 of my series on my recent cruise to Alaska.  In this post, I'll cover our time in Seattle on June 21st and 22nd, prior to boarding our cruise on the afternoon of the 23rd.  If you haven't already read Part 1 of the series, which provides background on the trip, you can read it here.

If you'd like to see the complete photo album of our time in Seattle, you can find them on Flickr here.

Please note that this series is a report on the trip in general, and not specifically the cruise.  I'll post a review of the actual cruise separately.  In the meantime, if you can't wait, you can read my review on Cruise Critic here.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

North to Alaska! Part 1 - The Background

South Sawyer Glacier, Tracy Arm Fjord

I've been wanting to go to Alaska for a really long time.  Finally, the chance presented itself this past week.  Along with my mom and dad, my brother, and my youngest sister and her husband and son, we took off for a 7-day cruise to Alaska, with a day in Seattle to start off with.  This will be a multi-part trip report, as we saw a whole bunch of stuff, and honestly, each port we visited is deserving of its own write-up.  This will serve as Part 1, some background on how this trip came together.

Scheduled Posts Starting Saturday

Now that I've (sort of) gotten the hang of this blogging thing, I've decided to start posting on a set schedule.  I'll make one last exception with my first post on my recent trip to Alaska tomorrow, but thereafter, all posts will go live Saturdays at noon.  That way, I won't have to waste your Facebook feeds with announcements of new posts, and also, won't have to promise more than I can deliver when work is busier.  In weeks I have a lot of stuff to write, I'll have several posts going up at once.  I may occasionally make an exception and do an unscheduled post if there's something that's just really burning a hole in my brain, but I'll try to avoid that as much as possible.

Thanks for your readership!

Monday, July 1, 2013

The Ethics of Exploiting Travel Pricing Errors

Nothing gets travel bloggers, not to mention the travel industry's customers, more riled up than the issue of "pricing errors" when it comes to car rentals, hotel rooms, and airfare (though the problem tends to be most acute in the area of airfare).  Today, I'll compare the competing views on whether or not it's ethical to take advantage of pricing errors, and my personal take on the issue. 

For those who are dying for a report on my recent trip to Alaska - relax.  I'll start putting posts up later this week.  It takes longer than you might think to sift through photos and write up an article that's interesting to read, after all.

No, This Blog Isn't Dead...

...the author has just been on vacation.  I will have a multi-part trip report to post about my recent visit to Alaska, starting later this week.  In the meantime, I'll venture into the world of "travel ethics" in today's post, appearing later today.