R. Craig Collins > Portfolio > How To: Travel
How to Travel like the Collins © R. Craig Collins, 2005/23
First the rules of Collins World Travel, focus on the 6 C's: Culture (Museums), Cuisine, Countryside, Castles, and Cathedrals (Architecture, especially old architecture), plus occasionally we add Creatures (wild life).
You are reading, so you must be interested in travel.
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HOW WE START
Our typical modus operandi is to travel abroad near Christmas and Spring Break... though finding a good time for the only the two of us is not an issue for us of late...
... while cold during Christmas, we don't have to face long lines at the airport or at the museums, we think we get a more local view of the city when there aren't as many tourists, and we can usually save money during this off peak time. Our trips abroad are often cheaper than traveling within the US, especially if you plan well in advance. And by planning in advance, we mean we begin SEVEN-TWELVE months out.
Also, use the Incognito version of your browser when hunting down your next trip, so they don't see you snooping around; because they'll raise prices on you if they see you continually coming back to their site.
OUR SECRET WEAPON
We get a lot of 'free' flights, as we use our favorite airline's credit card. When we need groceries, or go out to eat, we use the airline card, then pay it off right away. No interest, but tons of miles. Then of course we book the flights, hotels, and the occasional rental car on the airline card; it is usually about as cheap as if we just focused on price alone, but Gold Medallion status and companion fares more than make up for it.
Also, after finding a deal, we go to the air line's vacation sight... on occasion, we were able to get the hotel and airfair for the same price as the airfare alone.
We used to typically start with Google's travel tools, and restrict the search to our airline (ie google flights delta only, then click the Search Delta flights button. Then play with the dates and look around the world for deals.) You can also use Kayak, searching for cities on our bucket list, and using the flexible dates options.
Skyscanner, Expedia, and Travelocity can also be good if you are looking at air+hotel fares for a lot of cities on your short list; but again, recently we have broken airfare and hotels into separate endeavors as lately we can usually get better rates this way.... the air+hotel combos usually don't include the short term deals on flights we hunt for, or our style of hotel (nice but CHEAP).
Now you know how we search, let's talk about when you search: Regardless of the sites used, we start 6 or 7 months out, and monitor prices from two weeks to a month just on airfares, to try and get a nose of the high and low tides, as far as price goes, and we would finally choose a city. Use Fare Watch to get an idea of when prices may drop.
Top Tip on flying: when booking flights, look at the flights and rule out the ones with too many stops. Then jump on the airline site, to see if they have package deals to the same place. Usually they can't beat Kayak, Expedia, or Travelocity when hotel prices get factored in, but it is worth a check. One last note, if you see a huge price drop on a place you are interested in, BOOK IT IMMEDIATELY. The deal will disappear within minutes. This has driven almost all of our recent travel... we did not pick the place, the deal picked the place.
Once you book your flight, PICK YOUR SEATS NOW, if you can. Some airlines charge a small fee, it is worth it. We like near the restroom, often toward the back, where you can board first, and have a better shot at stowing your bags. P.S. We NEVER check bags.
We also will do a little looking around for hotels while searching for flights on our bucket list cities, but lately we had to book the flight right then to get a great price... and after the fact we started locating a hotel... Again, if possible check to see if booking together is cheaper, but for our last three big trips we had to jump on a great airfare, then pick a hotel.
But the steps are the same if searching in advance, or to finish booking your trip that you just bought airline tickets for.
1) Sign up for deals everywhere, and see if the place you like is included in the weekly email deals from Expedia and the gang. Our go to site lately has been Cheap Tickets to get really great deals for us lately on Hotels.
2) Determine what is important to you. We don't like 5 star hotels, we like little places close to public transport, with Wi Fi and at least a minimal breakfast, fairly close to the City Center, and NOT a US chain. Then search your Air line hotel tools, or Kayak or Expedia or Trip Advisor based on those criteria. (Venare is a great place to look for European hotels, but we found our Dublin hotel in 2011 searching a Dublin tourism site... cast a wide net!) Another trick is to open Google maps, and search the city for hotels. It will display a price, and you can even refine by price. Use Street view to look around the candidates.
3) Find out what others think about the hotel you are interested in... we always will go to TripAdvisor or Google to get a feeling for how nice the hotel is for what you are paying. Look up real traveler reviews of the hotels that are being offered (Expedia
and Travelocity also have this, but I like a disinterested party involved, too
I look at ALL the reviews, not just the average. Some people have way too high expectations. Look for local local flavor. Plus, as we won't spend too much time at the hotel, we don't immediately rule out small rooms, or you have to walk up a flight of stairs... if it is clean, with the amenities I mentioned earlier, it is a contender.
Top Hotel Tip: All hotels look alike when you turn out the light.
Of all the tools, our current favorite when searching for a hotel is Google Maps. Because you can see what is in the candidate's neighborhood, look for public transit, stores, restaurants; Google now displays typical rates so glance around for those that fall within your price range. Again, use Google Street View to walk around the neighborhood, to see if there are food shops, grocers, etc., nearby. Then go to TripAdvisor, or Google, and review the ratings there.
Google travel can also help you with things to do, and you can later see your trip reservations in Google Maps on your phone if you forward the reservations to your GMail account.
Then, when we decide on a hotel that is the best for us, then we book fairly quickly. For our 2011 trip it took us a week after booking the airfare before we booked the hotel, but at least we had an idea of hotel prices were. Don't wait too long. Small hotels go out of availability fast if they are nice and meet our criteria.
PLANNING what to do once you get there, and how to get around.
Now that we know where we are going, and where we are staying, we immediately we go to Google's Travel guides https://www.google.com/travel, and TripAdvisor's Top Spots to visit, to help us decide what to do while there.
In the past we also used Rick Steves books and DK Eyewitness books to help us decide on the sites to visit. We would also buy an area map (MyMaps at Google maps is great for building your own custom map that you can access on your phone or tablet, and even use phone GPS to get around; hotels have some pretty good maps, too.).
The key is to start finding what we want to visit, and see what is over rated.
Build a calendar and add details as you go. Flight times, flight numbers, hotel confirmation, etc.
Build a bucket list of sites to visit, with web site info, open hours, entry price, or if you can buy tickets in advance (a huge time saver at the Louvre).
Of course, Travelocity, Orbitz, Expedia, and even TripAdvisor will offer to sell you entry tickets to churches and museums, day tours, parking transfers, etc. You can add those later, too. If they offer a 'city pass', I research price and get it IF it pays for itself with admissions to where I want to go, or with discounts, and/or with transit passes. Lately, we just go to the mass transit web site for the city, and order either 3 day or one-week passes. (Usually the 1-week pass is a great deal, but sometimes the three day will suffice, when we take side tours into account; but bear in mind you might have to get to the tour departure point, if not included in the tour. Please, don't by individual transit rides. Block-day passes are much easier, and often much cheaper, than individual rides. And much easier if you have it the passes in hand when you arrive; see if you can buy in advance, or pick up at the airport tourist office.
Aside from the museums and sites, we used to do at least two tours: a overview tour the first full day to get the lay of the land, then normally we take at least one out of town trip, or one day tour.
The nice thing about a day tour is you don't have to worry about getting around the other town or figure out what that neat building is that you just passed, if you are on a tour bus with a live guide or recorded narration. As noted earlier, many times tours even pick you up at your hotel. But don't be afraid to get on a train or Intercity bus to visit another town or country if it is close by, instead of booking a day tour. We have been known to buy train tickets, gather a lot of brochures and Online guides to get the info, and go on our own to avoid two things:
1) some of those day tour take you to a few places on the way that you aren't interested in, and
2) sometimes I hate doing the group lock step... they take the whole group here when we want to go there. If doing a tour, pick one that give you some free time to explore. Again, you may need to budget a little extra for food on these tours, as there aren't as many options.
1) I usually like to leave one day completely free, usually the last full day, so we can go back to things we were really interested in, or things we passed earlier in the week that interest us.
2) Search for airport transfers, and airport parking. Taxis are expensive, but we have been using Uber and Lyft lately. Yes, you can take the bus or the train in London or Dublin to the City Center and you get a good price (especially if you do a round trip transfer), but bear in mind you are tired from traveling, and now you have to get from the City Center to your hotel, dragging luggage on a tram or metro. Shared rides are often as cheap as the train in from the airport, and they take you to the hotel door.
Viator, Expedia, and Gray Line have transfers, but normally they are high for private transfers, again look for shared rides or Uber, as all passengers travel for one price, and you don't need to worry about flight delays. Or, just browse the web for airport transfers in your target city, or email the hotel to see if they offer or recommend transfers.
If it is a well know service, such as Blacklane, pay in advance by credit card to minimize currency you need to carry; but if you are not sure about the company, you might want to look for ones that allow you pay the driver... so you
don't get your credit card charged and no driver shows up.
3) Don't forget airport parking... you can often reserve in advance; nothing worse that driving from lot to lot because of a bunch of full parking spots. I know, the lot is usually empty when you drive by... it will not be empty when you are needing a spot.
4) The last thing big thing to buy is local currency. Many credit cards don't work in Europe, where they use Chip and Pin cards instead of the swipe and sign cards used in the US, and a lot of the neat little places we like to eat at just don't take cards. Figure out in advance how much you might need. Add it to your planning guide with your museum lists info.
Google the Big Mac index for the city you will be staying in... this tells you how much a Big Mac costs where you are going, and gives you a rough idea of the premium beyond the currency exchange you'll be paying for food and goods.
For example, using figures in July 2008:
a.) the price of a Big Mac was $3.57 in the United States (Varies by store)
b.) the price of a Big Mac was £2.29 in the United Kingdom (Britain) (Varies by region)
c.) the implied purchasing power parity was $1.56 to £1, that is $3.57/£2.29 = 1.56
d.) this compares with an actual exchange rate of $2.00 to £1 at the time
e. [(2.00-1.56)/1.56]*100= +28%
f.) the Pound was thus overvalued against the dollar by 28%
So if you normally budget $20 for lunch and $30 for dinner
you would need to budget $26 for lunch and $38 for dinner.
(Remember, we eat at hotels with breakfast included, and load our pockets for a mid-morning snack.)
We eat cheap, seeking out small local eateries... we love Kabob and Pizza for occasional cheap meals, and actually avoid McDonald's... but we will normally splurge once or twice to make sure we get a spectrum of the local fare. Lunch is better for the splurge, and estimates of a lunch taken during a bus tour needs to be doubled, by the way. More on our food choices below)
Count up money for meals, museums, transfers, then add in some for souvenirs, and allow a pad. We know we can charge one or two things, but we try to avoid that. Other experts will tell you to just use your ATM card to get just enough for the day, as you usually get a good exchange rate at ATM's, but not all cards or banks allow this option in Europe; don't get caught short.
PS, we used to spend the left over foreign cash on snacks for the flight back, and last minute gifts. Now, we just save it for the next trip...
When to buy foreign currency?
You could watch the market for a week or two to see if the dollars is improving against the local currency and buy, though recently the dollar seems to lose ground daily, so we buy almost as soon as we can... but see if you can detect a pattern and buy when you get the best value. Wells Fargo lets you buy currency in many of their branches for about a $7 fee, often cheaper than getting it there.
Recall, some trips will require several currencies... such as when we went to Republic of Ireland (Euro) and Northern Ireland (Pound).
5) If traveling to a non-English speaking country, go to DuoLingo.com and practice, to get an ear for the language
Then, buy or build a phrase book, and practice:
and some basic food and drink items.
I used to buy a CD language lessons to listen to while driving...
Yes, almost everywhere we went, someone spoke English... but they appreciated the effort, and we think got better treatment because of it.
Other Apps, Phones and Wifi
If you don’t have CLEAR or Global Entry, get the Mobile Passport app. It requires you to fill out details just before you land, but will save you a ton of time when you come back.
Create offline maps of the areas you are going to visit on your phone in Google Maps.
Consider getting a mobile hotspot for constant wifi access or consider getting a phone that works in country. TMobile phones have a plan that just works where ever I go; I can even make calls to the States for free using wifi calling at the hotel. On the road, free wifi, and cheap local calls.
MORE ON FOOD CHOICES
We like the smaller, local restaurant, where you get the deals and real feel of the place... but they less likely they are to speak English.
(We prefer to spend money on the museums, not food, so in addition to small places that offer the regional foods, such as train station food courts, we also like to check out the local variations on ethnic food. Thank goodness that almost every place has pictures of what they serve, and often some have English menus... a favorite for us for the quick cheap meals are Gyros or kabobs (donner is lamb, by the way), and almost every Italian place has a good cheap pizza Margharita.
(For many years we would also try to find a local Chinese restaurant... but what we think of as Chinese is often not what they consider Chinese... It was the same with Mexican; we now avoid those places... though it was often fun to see the end result.)
Street food is the cheapest, but after long walking tours you typically wanted to sit down, and maybe warm up (or cool off) in an indoor location.
While we will try to find places to eat in advance with Google Maps and Street view, they often don't pan out... nose around the hotel to see what is close by. (You HAVE to explore around the hotel... take a different route each time you leave... and keep your eyes out as you tour the city. Also, find a corner convenience or grocery store for cookies and aspirin, etc. These places can be as much fun as any city tour.)
Now, with our big check list complete, we sit excitedly for five or six months paying off the credit cards, so when we head to the airport almost everything is already paid for.
When the big day finally arrives, we pack a few digital cameras/phones, iPad, empty water bag or bottle, umbrellas, layers of clothing to adapt to changing temperatures... and we make sure what we take will fit in a carry on (especially under the seat). DON'T OVER PACK, no one cares if you wear the same sweater twice, as you probably won't see anyone twice! And again, DO NOT CHECK LUGGAGE. Only carry on.
Finally, include a blank notebook to make a journal nightly of what you did... you'll be glad in the years to come for the written record of your great trip.