How To Stay In Nice Hotels Without Paying Top Dollar

luxury hotel accommodation
UggBoy UggGirl, Flickr

I still remember the feeling of slipping into 600 thread count sheets after months of staying in backpacker hostels where the bedding was often akin to vintage potato sacks and the mattress boasted a giant dimple where thousands of other young unwashed explorers had slept before me. Settling onto an ergonomic, body-cradling bed, resting against down pillows, waking up to a buffet breakfast with more types of pastry than one could reasonably taste-test before 10 a.m. – it was glorious. There’s just something about a nice hotel that you can’t put a price on. Yet, of course, they do come with a price, and it’s typically a hefty one.

No matter your travel style, it goes without saying that you want to stretch your dollar as far as possible. That often means compromising on accommodation – staying in a bare bones room with questionable stains in the carpet – so you can spend your money on what really matters, which is of course, exploring your destination. Still, few of us would turn down the chance to stay at a nice hotel, especially if we could do it without forking over a whole lot of extra cash. And the thing is, you can stay in nice hotels without paying top dollar – you just have to know how to go about it.The first step, of course, is to search around for a good deal on your accommodation of choice and you’ll find no shortage of booking websites offering discounts (Expedia, Kayak, Hotwire and lastminute.com, to name just a few). But why limit yourself to what’s advertised to the masses? Here are a few other ways of scoring nice digs on a budget.

Haggle. It certainly depends on where in the world you’re traveling, but in many countries, haggling is an expected part of any transaction. So go ahead and ask the receptionist for their “best price” – you’ll be surprised at the number of times you receive a discount. This tactic works best if you haven’t already made a booking and the hotel risks losing your business. Of course, use some common sense and make sure you’re not being unreasonable in your demands, especially if you’re traveling in a developing country (where the locals need those extra few dollars more than you) and the price is already pretty good.

Ask for an upgrade. There are lots of places where negotiating would be frowned upon. I mean, you don’t exactly walk into The Four Seasons and start haggling over your room rate. But what you can do at these kinds of establishments, is ask for some kind of bonus, whether it be an upgrade to a better room type, being placed on a higher floor in the building, getting a room with a nice view versus one that faces the parking lot, or a free breakfast voucher. A surprising number of hotels will oblige your request if they have room available. Just be polite when inquiring and remember to tip when they come through with the upgrade.

Seek out new, independent hotels. A new establishment – especially one that isn’t associated with a major hotel chain – needs to work at attracting guests and building a name for itself, which means they’ll likely offer lower rates to get people in the door. As an added bonus, everything in the rooms will be sparkly and new, and the service will probably be better than usual because the owners are eager to impress.

Stay in business hotels. Hotels geared towards business travelers typically fill up during the working week, but come the weekend, they empty out. As a result, many of these hotels lower their rates over the weekend, making them ideal for leisure travelers looking to save a few dollars. The further away from the tourist centers the hotel is located, the cheaper it’s likely to be (many are found near conference centers or the local business district).

Look for a hotel away from the tourist haunts. Every city has its established hotspots that tourists generally flock to but if you can hunt down the emerging districts you’ll be able to nab accommodation at a much lower rate. Don’t be afraid to venture a significant distance from the downtown attractions – as long as there’s a good public transit system or affordable taxis, you won’t have a problem. In fact, chances are you’ll have a more authentic experience overall when sleeping, eating and shopping in the same district as the locals.

Have you ever had success negotiating down the rate on a nice hotel? What other tactics have worked for you?

International Budget Guide 2013: Athens, Greece

For budget travelers, there’s never been a better time to visit the Greek capital. Despite being on the Euro, the country’s debt crisis has made this popular tourist center dramatically more affordable than the balance of the European Union, making once expensive resorts now surprisingly reasonable.

As unemployment and other economic problems take their toll, Greeks have all but stopped taking vacations, which means most of the city’s tourism bookings rely on foreigners. Unfortunately, many visitors have been scared off by the tide of uncertainty. Fears of a Greek exit from the euro zone and strikes and demonstrations in Athens caused many potential visitors to cancel their bookings – in the first half of last year, the number of tourists visiting fell 9%.

The silver lining to this distress is that for the budget-conscious, it presents a great opportunity. Tourism is the backbone of the Greek economy making up more than 16% of GDP, so the travel industry is bending over backwards to welcome travelers. Hotels, which lost 10-12% in profits last year, have had to drop their prices dramatically to attract tourists. Visiting Athens now means fewer crowds and better deals than ever before.

Athens is also the jumping off point for travel to the Greek Islands. Like the country’s capital, the islands have also seen a reduction in the number of tourists and have had to lower their prices accordingly. As an added bonus, the strikes, demonstrations and closures that occasionally afflict the capital are not really felt in the islands.

Activities

The New Acropolis Museum. This modern structure opened a few years back but it’s actually one of the few newer developments in a city that has dramatically cut back spending. Even if you’ve visited Athens before, the New Acropolis Museum provides an excellent reason to return. The beautifully curated exhibition details the historical and archaeological significance of the Acropolis and is a great primer for a visit to the ruins. The museum also hosts various temporary exhibits, and this year visitors can see the caryatids – sculptures of Greek women who form part of an Acropolis temple known as the Erechtheion – being restored. Earlier this year, the museum also launched a series of workshops during which visitors can learn about ancient technology, modern preservation techniques and the production of replicas. The workshops, which are run by archeologists and conservationists, are free with museum entry on a first come first served basis. At 5 euro for entry (or 3 euro for reduced admission) the museum is a great value.

The Antikythera shipwreck exhibit. The National Archaeological Museum already boasts some of the most important artworks and artifacts from ancient Greece, and this temporary exhibit provides another compelling reason to visit. The Antikythera Mechanism is an ancient astronomical instrument that was lost for 2000 years when the Roman ship it was on sunk in the Aegean Sea. Experts have only recently come to understand the complexity of the mechanism, which has been referred to as the “world’s first computer.” The shipwreck exhibit is on display until August 31st and is free with museum entry, which costs 7 euro (3 euro reduced admission).

See a performance at the Odeon of Herodes Atticus. Situated on the slopes of the Acropolis, this ancient amphitheater comes to life as orchestral concerts, operas, plays, and dance performances take place during the warmer months. Spectators are provided with cushions to place on the tiered, marble seating of the amphitheater, which makes for a spectacular backdrop. Previous performances have included the Athens State Orchestra, a German contemporary dance troupe, and a tribute to Greek folk music. Tickets start at around 15 euro for seats in the upper tiers. Check out a schedule here.

Hotels

Athens Backpackers. Centrally located just a few minutes from the Acropolis metro station, this hostel offers easy access to all the main sights. Accommodation includes self-contained apartments as well as dorm rooms with access to a fully equipped kitchen. The hostel is air-conditioned and boasts a sports bar as well as a rooftop bar that is open during the warmer months. From 17 euro for a dorm bed, including free breakfast and Wi-Fi. backpackers.gr 12 Makri St, Makrygianni.

City Circus Athens. Located a five minute walk from Monastiraki Square, this budget accommodation option is found in a 20th century mansion complete with frescoed ceilings. The atmospheric hostel has been decked out with reclaimed furniture and was decorated by local street artists. There are a range of room types, including dorm beds and doubles with private bathrooms. Guests receive free breakfast and Wi-Fi and have access to a roof terrace with Acropolis views. From 16 euro for a dorm bed. citycircus.gr 16 Sarri St, Psirri.

Hotel Amazon. If you want to step it up a notch and stay in a hotel, this is a great budget option. Located right by Syntagma Square, the hotel is an easy walk to the popular Plaka area and most tourist sights. The establishment, which is part of the Best Western chain, has been recently renovated and provides guests with television, Internet and breakfast. The only drawback is that some of the rooms do get quite a bit of street noise. Official rates start at 80 euro for a double, but you can often find deals in the 40-60 euro range through secondary hotel booking sites such as trivago.com or opodo.co.uk. amazonhotel.gr 19 Mitropoleos & Penelis St, Syntagma.

Restaurants

Kostas. This hole-in-the-wall restaurant serves up juicy souvlaki at bargain prices and the long line out the door is a sure sign of its popularity. The closet-sized eatery is located in the same square as the Agia Irini church, and diners can either take the food to go, or eat it at one of the standing room only tables located outside in the small plaza. A serving of souvlaki or kebabs topped in a rich and spicy tomato sauce will fill you up for around 2 euro. 2 Plateia Agia Irini, Monastiraki.

Mani Mani. Located in the leafy Makrygianni neighborhood close to the New Acropolis Museum, this restaurant serves up food traditional to the Peloponnesian region of Mani. The restaurant is tucked away on the 2nd floor of an unassuming building, but once inside, there’s an open kitchen and warm, modern vibe. Dishes have a haute cuisine feel and include a type of traditional pasta known as chilopites, a pork belly cooked for 17 hours, and a desert flavored with mastic liqueur from the islands. Mains cost around 10 euro, but most plates are also available in half portions for half the price. manimani.com.gr 10 Falirou St, Makrygianni.

Tzitzikas & Mermigas. Despite being in the heart of Athens and close to the tourist sites, this restaurant seems to attract a large local clientele. The décor has a kitsch feel with shelves of jarred and canned goods lining the walls. Butcher’s paper covers the old-school wooden tables and you’ll find your silverware stashed inside drawers beneath them. Dishes include saganaki (cheese fried in olive oil and spices), traditional greek salads, and chicken with a mastika sauce. The mezedes (small plates of food) cost around 5-10 euro and diners are treated to a free shot of ouzo. Be sure to check out the unusual tomato can sinks in the bathrooms before you leave. 12-14 Mitropoleos St, Syntagma.

Logistics

Getting Around

If you’re staying in the downtown area of Athens, you’ll find many of the tourist sites are easily accessed on foot. For traveling longer distances, the metro is cheap and efficient. Individual tickets are good for multiple trips within 90 minutes of being validated in the machines at the train stations. Tickets cost 1.40 euro from the vending machines and can be used on buses as well. While you’re at the metro stations, keep an eye out for artifacts that are on display – these were found while the metro was being constructed.

You can also get to the international airport via metro although you need a special ticket that costs 8 euro. Buses to the airport also depart from Syntagma Square. Tickets cost 5 euro and are available from the bus driver.

Seasonality

Summer is the peak travel season and hotels raise their rates (sometimes doubling them) during this period. The temperature in Athens can also shoot into the high 90s and beyond, making sightseeing feel like an exhausting Olympic sport. But if those things don’t deter you, summer is a great time to visit with the Hellenic Festival taking place – the summer arts event that involves music, theater, and cultural programs. However, for those who prefer lower prices and milder temperatures, the best times to visit are spring and fall when the mercury hovers around 70 F.

Safety

Like with most large cities, you should beware of pickpockets, especially when traveling on packed buses and trains. At night, some parts of the city can feel a little unsavory. While most tourist haunts such as the popular Plaka area are fine, it’s best to steer clear of Omonia.

Given the economic unrest in Greece, you should be careful when sightseeing near the parliament building on Syntagma Square, which is often the site of demonstrations. While it’s still safe to visit this area, it’s a good idea to keep abreast of the latest political developments to avoid getting caught up in any potentially violent protests.

Lastly, it’s worth being aware that Greece has been cracking down on illegal immigration and recently made headlines after a number of tourists got caught in the net.

[Photo credit: Flickr user Panoramas]

How Cheap Is Nicaragua? How About $2 Beers In A Luxury Hotel Minibar

minibar pricesIf I ruled the world, I would issue a decree commanding every hotel to install minibars stocked with $2 bottles of beer. But since that’s never going to happen, you might have to go to Nicaragua to experience such an enlightened minibar alcohol policy.

I’m a frugal traveler – a cheapskate, if you will. And so I rarely – almost never, in fact – use the hotel minibar (unlike David Samuels of The Atlantic, who recently wrote a long and bizarre piece about how hotel minibars provide him with companionship). But last week while staying at the Hotel Plaza Colon in Granada, Nicaragua, I made liberal use of a hotel minibar for the first time in my life. The Plaza Colon is probably the most luxurious hotel in Granada and it’s one of the finest places to stay in the country, but I was shocked and delighted to discover that ice-cold bottles of beer cost just $2 in my room’s minibar. Bottled water cost $1, and a small bottle of rum was just $6 (or $8 if you wanted higher quality stuff).

You know you’re in a delightfully cheap country when a luxury hotel prices beer in the minibar at $2 and, sure enough, Nicaragua doesn’t disappoint on the value scale. Tim Leffel, author of “The World’s Cheapest Destinations” considers Nicaragua to be one of the world’s cheapest countries and after a recent visit there, I have to agree.


Two dollars is actually a pretty high price for a beer in Nicaragua, where most places charge $1 for a 12-ounce bottle of local beer. The Hotel Plaza Colon is an outstanding hotel and room rates there hover around $100 a night. Basic hostel beds go for $3-8 and in many parts of the country you can find a decent hotel room with A/C for $30 or less. If you are very, very frugal, you can travel for about $15 a day in Nicaragua.

If you patronize a restaurant that caters mostly to locals, like Asados Juanita in San Juan del Sur, you can eat a big dinner of freshly grilled meats, plantains, rice, beans and salad for about $4 (see video above). At the other end of the spectrum, you can eat at a touristy place like Abuelos, which is right on the gorgeous Laguna de Apoyo, for roughly $8-10 each. At Abuelos, you can gorge yourself on freshly grilled meats and then take a dip in the lake to cool off (see video below).




Car rental isn’t particularly cheap, but even in the most touristy areas of the country you can hire a driver to take you around for $50-60 for a full day, depending on how far away you want to go. A ride on a local chicken bus will cost about 60-80 cents an hour and more comfortable minibuses aren’t much more. A short ride in a taxi in Granada and other cities can cost as little as 50 cents each because the drivers stop to pick up other passengers. The one hour, twenty minute ferry ride to Ometepe island costs less than $2. A good one hour massage will set you back about $15-$25.

Entrance fees to tourist attractions, like the volcano parks and other natural wonders, rarely exceed $5. We paid just $3 to get into the Ojo de Agua, a gorgeous natural spring on Ometepe, and thought we had died and gone to heaven (see video).




After a budget busting week in pricey Costa Rica, we were thrilled to arrive in much more affordable Nicaragua. I don’t think it’s the cheapest country in the world, but it’s definitely the cheapest country that is close to the U.S.

[Photo/video credits: Dave Seminara]

Meet In The Middle: Plan Group Travel With TripCommon

TripCommon group travel planning toolHave a friend in Austria while you are in Austin and want to take a trip together this summer? How do you figure out where to meet? Do you choose a destination in the middle, or one with regular cheap flights from both of your destinations? A new website just launched in beta, designed to make planning group travel an easier process. TripCommon is a flight search engine that computes the cheapest common destinations, giving you the option to filter by region (maybe you’ve both always wanted to explore South America), activity (make it a beach trip), and where you have local friends (if you link up to Facebook).

What makes TripCommon genius is that it doesn’t just find random points on the map that are midway between you and your friends (you can enter up to six cities for big group travel planning), it finds destinations that have the lowest average price. Maybe you are in grad school and have a fixed budget; you can find places with the lowest cost from your city. If you have frequent flier miles to burn and your friends are the ones looking for the cheapest seats, you can sort by lowest price from one of their home cities. You may discover destinations you never thought about (Canary Islands sound nice for summer!), and make the trip planning process a lot more equitable.

Start planning your group trip at www.tripcommon.com.

[Photo credit: Trip Common]

How To Ride A Bike In Paris


Everywhere I travel, I try to ride a bike. It’s one of those weird obsessions that I have; the need to discover everything on two wheels. Be it Afghanistan or Amsterdam, game on.

Here’s the thing about riding a bicycle in new places: it’s like learning how to ride a bike all over again. No matter how used to the bicycle you are – at home in Portland I don’t even own a car – discovering a new city on two wheels makes you fall in love with cycling all over again. It’s a challenge. Navigating streets you have never walked down before, learning the ins and outs of local bike culture, figuring out how traffic works. There’s a flow to cycling, and each city has its own variation.

Paris is no different, and a few days into taking the metro I knew that underground transportation wasn’t going to be a sustainable option for me. Cram yourself into a few too many metro cars during rush hour traffic and you’ll be sprinting for an above ground office as well. Biking is a welcome solution.

Fortunately, Paris is equipped with the Vélib system, a well designed, and much talked about, bike-share system that boasts over 20,000 bikes around the city. Launched in 2007, the Paris Vélib system is the largest bike-share system in the world, used by tourists and locals alike.There is something freeing about being on a bicycle, the fact that you and you alone are responsible for getting anywhere. There’s a sense of accomplishment unlike any other when you have made it from point A to point B, successfully navigating a maze of bike routes and busy city streets.

Admittedly, I was slightly nervous and a little scared, so my first foray into the world of Vélib was with a friend.

“Just make sure you tell me where to turn!” The worst part about biking in a new city is your lack of navigation skills. I trust my ability to keep an eye out for cars and scooters, but trying to identify the names on the blue signs on the corner of every old Parisian building is something else entirely.

But then it occurred to me: cycling, much like traveling in general, is about giving up control. Accepting the fact that you will get lost, and that that’s OK. In fact, there is beauty in those moments when you find yourself in a place you hadn’t planned on being, and there’s a pure sense of accomplishment when you miraculously end up at your final destination with no help but from anyone other than yourself.

So I went alone, mapping out my route before I left, but remaining open to a bit of serendipity. Those first few pedals were freeing. I have been cycling since before I can remember, but this was different – a new feeling. I was learning how to ride all over again, and the thrill of it was impressive.

I managed to work my way through a busy roundabout, navigating around cars, buses and other cyclists more familiar with the ways of Parisian velo life than myself. I took a deep breath and pushed through. This was no Portland, and that’s what made it fun. Then came the time to find a spot to park the bike. Station one was closed due to surrounding roadwork and the next two were full. The fourth time was a charm, a reminder that once again, when you travel, you are rarely in control, and all you can do is keep going until things go your way.

And so with my first solo Parisian bike tour, I was addicted.

I pedaled down from Montmartre in the moonlight. I cruised by the Moulin Rouge, dodging a couple of scooters along the way. I manoeuvred my way around the mess of roadwork surrounding Republique. I sat next to a policeman at a stoplight, the policeman looking at me and rubbing his hands together to ask if I was cold.

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This was the real Paris. As the Vélib card says “La ville est plus belle a velo.” The city is more beautiful by bike. La vie aussi.

Want to check out The City of Lights on two wheels? Here is a basic guide:

Buy a pass

If you have traveled in Europe before you will know the frustration with a lack of security chips that all European bank cards have. This makes it difficult to use your debit or credit card in the Velib machines. There are, however, a couple of simple solutions to this problem:

  1. Buy a one or seven-day pass online. You will be given a code that you will type in every time you want to access a bicycle.
  2. Buy a Navigo pass (just the card itself, not the full metro pass) and put your Velib one or seven-day pass on it. Buy a Navigo pass in a metro station, and then you can add your Velib pass to it by purchasing one online. This allows you to forgo typing in your pass every time you want to pick up your bike, and you can just swipe your Navigo pass at the bike station.
  3. Buy a Vélib pass. If you are staying in Paris for an extended period of time, consider getting a yearlong pass. For 29 euros, you get a yearlong pass that allows you up to 30 minutes of free bike use each time you ride. For 39 euros you get the same thing, but up to 45 minutes each time you ride. You can pick up a card at the Hotel de Ville and then pay for it online and activate it at a Velib station.

Keep a map on you

Whether you download the PDF of the main bike routes in the city, or keep an electronic version on your smartphone, the map provided by the City of Paris is useful for navigation. There are over 200 kilometers of bike routes, and most of them are well marked.

Learn to use your bell

Many of the protected bike lines are right next to pedestrian routes. Don’t assume that the pedestrians will see you, or move out of your way for that matter. Make yourself heard.

Check that your bike works

When you arrive at a Vélib station, do a basic check of the bike before you take it. Make sure you can pedal it, that the brakes and lights work and that there aren’t any other major problems. You will notice that often bikes will have the seat turned in the opposite direction – this is the local Parisians’ way of telling each other that the bike isn’t functioning.

Be aware

This may go without saying, but you have to be on guard for pedestrians, scooters, cars and buses at all times. If you are ever unsure of where to turn, find a place to stop and pull out your map. Or just keep riding and go with the flow of getting lost for a few. You might just discover something unintended.

Resources

Vélib – English site
G
éovélo - a site that uses Google Maps to help map your route
City of Paris Bike Route Map