Since we’ve been married, we’ve visited nine countries and we’ll be visiting at least three more on our big trip in March. That means by our third wedding anniversary in June, we’ll have visited at least twelve countries together*. On top of that, we’ve taken several weekend getaways to New Orleans, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Orlando, Austin, Oklahoma, and more. You might wonder how we manage to do it all (sometimes even we wonder). While Kevin and I are both blessed to have very good jobs as engineers, we still have a mortgage, car payment, student loans, bills, savings accounts, retirement funds, and home renovation, not to mention a large furry family to take care of.
So how do we do it? This week we’re sharing the tips and tricks that allow us to afford to travel both domestically and internationally year in and year out while still managing to be (mostly) responsible adults. Check out Tip #1: Timing is Everything here and Tip #2: Planes, Trains, & Automobiles here!
Accommodations: Hotels and Rentals and B&Bs, Oh My!
Once you get where you’re going, you’re going to need a place to stay. We prefer the comfort of hotels, rentals, and bed-and-breakfasts. I know, I know. We’re forgetting hostels. I’m sure they’re great. I’m sure that some even give you your own bathroom and private bedroom… but we’re not college-age backpackers anymore. We’re spoiled and like our hot breakfasts, hotel soaps, and not having to tote our own sleeping gear wherever we go.
When Kevin and I travel to Europe, our first choice for a place to stay is always at at bed-and-breakfast. Typically, they’re a little removed from the heart of things but still within easy walking distance of the main attractions, they’re usually cheaper than a comparable hotel (and they include breakfast!), and B&B owners (or at least, all the ones we’ve met) tend to be ridiculously friendly, knowledgeable, and excited to share everything they can about their city with you. Our B&B owners in the Loire Valley, France pointed us to some awesome little wineries and lesser know sights we might have missed, while our B&B owners in Rome took the entire B&B out for a picnic breakfast on top of one of Rome’s seven hills (and went out for an amazing dinner with us… but that’s for tomorrow’s post).
We’ve found all our B&Bs using TripAdvisor. We love the ability to find smaller places that TripAdvisor gives you, and the photos and reviews aren’t bad either. Just remember when reading reviews not to be swayed by a single bad (or good) review – read lots of them.
After finding the perfect place, we usually book through Booking.com or Tingo because they offer refundable rates. This can be huge if you miss your train (like we did in Munich) or you end up in the emergency room with a dislocated shoulder (like I did in French Polynesia) or the country you’re trying to visit decides to stage protests against its Prime Minister (ahem, looking at you, Thailand). The point is even the best laid plans sometimes change, so having the flexibility to move your accommodations around can sometimes be a life-and vacation-saver.
Internationally, Kevin and I use TripAdvisor to find our hotels (if we’re not staying in a B&B) and Booking.com/Tingo to book them. We also use TripAdvisor and Fodor’s forum areas to help us find the best areas in a location to stay (this came in really handy when we were booking our Hanoi and Bangkok hotels).
Typically, we stay in smaller, one-off hotels outside the US rather than with a large chain. They’re usually much more affordable, have more local color, and are often just as nice (or nicer) than a chain you’re familiar with. And don’t worry… someone at the reception desk nearly always speaks enough English to check you in and point you to where you need to go. Also, don’t be afraid to stay a little bit away from the main attractions in a city. Not only will the hotels be cheaper farther away (as in a 10-15 minute walk), but you’ll get to see more of the real, less touristy city this way. Some of our favorite meals, drinks, shops, and encounters happened on the walks to and from our hotels and B&Bs.
If Kevin and I are staying in the US, we’re most likely staying in a hotel… and it’s probably a Hilton. Just like we’re loyal to American Airlines for the miles, we’re loyal to Hilton for the points. Kevin stays at Hiltons for work and gets to keep his points for personal use. It only makes sense for us to stick with Hilton for our vacations (woo free nights!). No matter what brand you like though, join their loyalty program. A few nights here, a few nights there and suddenly you have a weekend’s worth points for a free stay (even if it takes two years to earn it, free is free). Plus, loyalty members sometimes get free perks, depending on the hotel (hello, Hilton HHonors lounges).
If we’re not staying at a Hilton, chances are we booked our hotel using Hotwire‘s Hot Rate. You can specify where and the star rating, but you won’t know exactly which hotel you’re booking until after. We’ve not been disappointed yet.
Vacation rentals aren’t exactly anything new, but Kevin and I are pretty new to them. We got our first vacation rental in July 2013 in Siesta Key, Florida for the 4th of July holiday. We were so pleased with the experience that we’re trying it again, internationally this time.
Vacation rentals are usually homes or apartments that the owners rent out (usually through a brokerage company). For what you get, vacation rentals are often a much cheaper option than either hotels or B&Bs. We’ve used VRBO for both of our rental bookings and have been really pleased with them. We’ve also had family use airbnb.com to rent apartments in Paris and Rome (they loved them).
Make sure to research the neighborhoods you want to be in. Even though a listing may say “a short distance away” you might find yourself in the suburbs taking a commuter train to get where you want to go (this happened to our brother and sister). Also, make sure to double check what’s provided at your rental – our brother and sister got to their rental in Rome only to discover that toilet paper wasn’t included!
Check back tomorrow for our tips on eating on vacation!