Kiwi Cool: Saving Money While Traveling In New Zealand

Saving money in New Zealand - supermarket lamb
Last month, I spent three weeks traveling through New Zealand, focusing mainly on the cities and culture. After living in Istanbul for two years, it wasn’t the culture shock, the jet lag, or the seasonal switch that was hard to adjust to, it was the prices. While I knew New Zealand wasn’t cheap (though their dollar is slightly weaker than ours), I was unprepared for the sticker shock. Dinner and drinks can easily run $50 a head or more, city buses can cost more than a NYC subway ride, and $3.50 for a bottle of water seemed offensive. I did discover a few ways to save money and still enjoy the Kiwi cool.

1. Drink locally, eat globally – New Zealand is known for its excellent wines, and starting to get accolades for their craft beer as well. Whether you’re dining out or picking up a bottle in a supermarket, it’s hard to go wrong with anything made in New Zealand; even the cheapest glass of house “Sav” is likely to be pretty tasty. Also note that many pubs are likely to be “tied” houses (unlike the excellent Free House in Nelson, pictured in my first “Kiwi cool” post) and will carry a limited range of brands, giving you an incentive to stick to the “house” tap. In contrast, for cheap eats, look for foods with origins outside the country; Asian cuisine like sushi, Chinese noodles, and Indian curries are often the most budget-friendly options and given the country’s ethnic mix, just as authentic Kiwi as roast leg of lamb and Pavlova.

2. Rent a car – This is one area where I didn’t follow my own advice, preferring to explore the country on public transportation as my husband is the only driver in the family and my baby is not a fan of car rides (yet she’s perfect on planes). Generally, public transportation in New Zealand is not cheap – a day pass for the Auckland bus system is over $10, taxis from the airport can cost up to $100, and the cost of two bus or train tickets between cities often exceeds the daily rate for a budget rental car. Kiwi companies Jucy and Apex offer older model cars as low as $22 – 34 per day, if you don’t mind a less than sweet ride.

3. Book transportation online – If you do choose to go the public transportation route, it can pay to make your arrangements online rather than in person. By booking tickets for the Waiheke Island ferry online, I saved $7 on each adult fare, even for a same day ticket. As part of the promotion for the new Northern Explorer Auckland-Wellington train, Kiwi Rail was offering two-for-one tickets, check their website for current promotions.

4. Check out motels – In my European travels, I’ve been using AirBnB and other apartment sites to book accommodations, as it pays to have extra space, laundry and a kitchen when you are traveling with a baby. The AirBnB craze hasn’t quite hit New Zealand yet, though you may find luck with BookABach (a bach is a Kiwi word for a vacation home that might be more basic than a typical house). I was more surprised by the quality of motels and motor lodges in New Zealand, they are often modern in style and comfortably outfitted with nice amenities like heated towel racks, electric blankets, and real milk for your coffee standard (a small pleasure compared to the powdered creamer typical in most hotel rooms). Motel rooms range from modest studios to sprawling apartments with jacuzzis. I found a useful directory of accommodations on NewZealand.com, and you can filter for features such as laundry or pool and check for special deals. Golden Chain is a quality collection of independent motels spread over both islands.

5. Create your own Wi-Fi hotspot – Another surprise I found in New Zealand is the lack of free Wi-Fi. Even many coffee shops only offer Internet for a fee, and some accommodations will limit your free connection to 100 mb or so per day. The city of Wellington has set up free hotspots in the city center, but I found the signal hit or miss. A more reliable and affordable option is to make your own hotspot by purchasing a pre-paid SIM card with data. Consult this helpful wiki for rates; I bought a SIM through 2degrees with 1 GB of data for about $20. One other tip is to find the local iSite tourism office for a short period of Wi-Fi access if you need to check email or make travel plans (they can help with booking travel and accommodation too, of course).

6. Shop vintage – After a few days in Kiwi Land, you’ll feel an urge to buy lots of nice merino wool clothing and gifts. For a country with apparently more sheep than people, it is everywhere and you can easily spend hundreds of dollars on new sweaters. Another option is to try vintage and thrift shops. I found a lovely baby sweater probably knitted by a nice Kiwi grandmother for $8 in an antique store, just as quality as the $30 one I bought at a market, and both far cheaper than most retail shops. Auckland’s K Road and Wellington’s Newtown have lots of used and “opportunity” shops, often with proceeds going to charity. Eco-friendly fashion is also becoming more widespread, and “recycled” fashion shops can be found in most cities.

7. Stay in on public holidays – One upside to the high cost of a pint of beer is that tipping is unnecessary in New Zealand; the GST tax on goods includes service. However, you will note on many restaurant menus a surcharge for public holidays of 15%. This covers the owner’s cost of paying their employees more for the holidays. Try to avoid dining out on holidays or look at it as a special holiday gratuity.

A bonus tip that may or may not be relevant in the future: follow the rugby fan trail. Started for the Rugby World Cup in 2011 to ease traffic congestion and crowding on public transport, Auckland’s Fan Trail was revived for a match against Australia last month. The trail stretches two miles from downtown to the stadium and is lined with entertainment, food and drinks, and other activities, most of which are free. Even if you aren’t headed to a game, it’s fun to watch both the performers and the fans dressed up to cheer on their team. If you happen to be in Auckland during a future big rugby match, find out if the city plans to run the fan trail again.

Stay tuned for more “Kiwi Cool: New Zealand for the Un-adventurous.”

I hate you, hotel advertising TV channel

gadling hotel tv televisionI hate you, hotel advertising television channel. I hate that you’re the default channel every time I turn on the TV in my room. I hate it even more when you’re already on when I enter my room. Don’t you understand that if I hear noises in my hotel room when I enter, I’m going to think that there’s someone inside waiting to murder me and do odd things to my body? I hate that you advertise movies that I can purchase but that I wouldn’t watch if the hotel manager offered to pay me (I’m looking at you, 17 Again). I hate you for making it so difficult to navigate away from you and to other channels that may actually entertain me. I hate you so much.I hate that you default to a volume that drowns out jet engines. I hate that you make me find the strange menu buttons on the remote to navigate away from you. Don’t make me handle the remote anymore than I need to. It’s covered in bodily fluids!

I hate that you have spawned other in-house hotel television channels. Now there are hotel movie channels, hotel amenities channels (I do not want to see people with dead-behind-the-eyes expressions enjoying your spa), hotel restaurant channels (fact: bulk shrimp do not look appetizing on hotel televisions) and local attraction channels. Why are you pressuring me to do so many things? This is my vacation! This is my business trip! I don’t want to be bombarded by your nonsense when I’m in my room. I’m here to relax.

You know what I do want to watch in my room? The same garbage that I watch at home. Give me my basic cable channels. Give me a TV that works and displays high definition programming so that I can see rednecks running pawn shops and dudes mining for gold in Alaska in all their glory. I’m away from my DVR and need to stay caught up on my stories.

I don’t want to buy a movie. I don’t want to watch Carrot Top give me a tour of the Luxor (seriously, he haunted my dreams more than that asinine slanted ceiling did). I just want to see some sports highlights and Ron Swanson make dry-witted jokes about meat.

I hate you, hotel advertising channel. I hate you so much.

Five airline amenities making a comeback … and the one we want

airline-amenitiesWow, there’s a headline I never thought I’d write! Though I suspect it has little to do with actual customer demand – after all, the airlines don’t even call us customers – several are starting to bring small, small perks back into the cabin. Two factors help, of course: (1) they aren’t expensive and (2) airlines have shown solid profits this year (at least in the United States).

So, despite having to pay for extra bags and invoking ire at the mere request for orange juice, we’re finally going to get something back! What that is depends on where you are in the world, and some of these amenities are downright bizarre. But, the average passenger is probably at a point where even the slightest indication of humanity is incredible. We’re like hungry dogs, after all, and with these in-cabin perks, it feels like the airlines are waving a steak.

What are the airlines offering? Let’s take a look at five amenities, according to MSNBC:1. The “stretch bar”: SAS is installing a bar on some of its flights – and not the drinking kind. It’s an exercise rod that passengers can use to stretch out while on long flights. In continuing to cater to the vain, SAS is also adding mirrors to some seats, so you can make sure you look your hottest without having to leave your seat for a trip to the lavatory.

2. Lighting and sound effects: All Nippon Airways is using these tools to create “a calm cabin atmosphere that invites passengers to relax and rest,” MSNBC reports. The goal is to make flights more comfortable for passengers with late-night departures. The new “Relax” cards go with this – press a button and enjoy the lavender aroma.

3. Happy Moms: Asiana Airlines, based in South Korea, offers a “Happy Mom Service” at many airports, according to MSNBC, with a dedicated check-in line for families with small children. Nursing blankets, baby slings and baby seats are available on board the planes.

4. Locally-sourced booze: Horizon Airlines is kicking in free local wines and microbrews from the Pacific Northwest on its flights – even in coach!

5. In-flight wifi: since a relatively small number of passengers has been using this service, some airlines are seeking out sponsors and offering it up free to passengers. On Delta, AirTran and Virgin America, Google Chrome is ponying up the cash for free passenger use through January 2, 2011.

So, what’s the one amenity not being offered that would make flights so much more comfortable? How about an alternative to the lav for mile-high club membership? It’s not easy to pull off, and there has to be a better way than this.

[photo by PhillipC]

Hotels keeping up the pace with new technology

iPod docking stations are so last year. Today, hotels are making a more concerted effort to upgrade their guest rooms and common areas with the newest technology that keeps guests connected, educated, and often times inspired, during their stay. While many hotels bring in iPads to keep their guests entertained, other hotels are getting super-sexy with some unique high-tech initiatives.

Check out the Royal Mansour in Marrakech. The property was created completely by Moroccan artisans and craftsman trained in the traditional arts of carving, silk weaving, and mosaics, but the hotel added cutting-edge technology throughout. For example, every guest room has a touch screen wall that enables guests to control lighting and temperature levels (tres chic!) and in case you tire of the personal butler service (although we can’t imagine why you would,) there is a ‘Do Not Disturb’ button on your wall for ultimate privacy.

Guest rooms at Pavillon des Lettres in Paris are perfect for the aspiring storyteller. Opening this autumn, Pavillon des Lettres is a small 26-room upscale hotel with a novel idea: guest rooms that are devoted to a letter of the alphabet that corresponds with a famous writer. (Think: H for Hugo or B for Balzac.) Passages from the writer’s books will appear above the bed and a hard copy of the book can be found on the nightstand. C’est magnifique! Closer to home, the quaint New England island of Nantucket is getting into the high-tech crazy. Nantucket Island Resorts offers Flip Video Camcorders for guests to use at each property, so you can record the sunsets, the hikes, the storms and the endless display of Nantucket baskets that parade around the island every summer. (Hint from this New Englander: Grab a seat at the White Elephant at sunset and capture the boats coming into the dock – it’s one of the best, and most unique, New England moments). You can enter a one-minute video clip in the Flip Out on Nantucket Sweepstakes for the chance to win a grand prize Nantucket vacation worth $15,000.

We couldn’t do a post about high-tech hotels without mentioning one of the newest and techiest hotels to hit the New York scene: Andaz Wall Street and the newly opened Andaz 5th Avenue. Thanks to technology, guests skip the front-desk altogether and use mobile tablets to check in with the hotel’s floating ‘hosts’. Have a rough day? Enjoy a glass of wine while you check-in. In a hurry? Check-in from the elevator on the way to your room. Guests just swipe their credit cards and a room key is created on the spot. Genius!

Gadling readers: What new technology would you like to see in hotels?

LetMeGo to pit hotels against each other directly

Normally, I’d think that a website inviting hotels to beg for bid on the insane and detailed requests of travelers would be a nonstarter. But, we’re in the middle of a brutal travel market recession. And, this decade has been awful for airlines and hoteliers alike. So, if the industry is going to learn any lessons from this turbulent decade known as [well, nobody really figured that out what to call it], the first should be that it needs to make a regular practice of going every extra inch to pull in a new guest.

So, the success of new business LetMeGo.com, which will create a marketplace in which travelers can indicate the specific amenities they want – from bunny slippers to cheese plates – will depend on whether the travel and hospitality industry has figured out that it will always be prey to a fickle economy. If the service providers in the hotel business realize this, they will understand that the extra effort is necessary, even when the travel market is on fire.
Using LetMeGo.com’s website, which is still in beta, companies peddling hotel rooms, vacation homes and other forms of lodging will be able to view the itineraries posted by prospective guests. They can bid for the affections and dollars of these travelers, with this data being used by the traveler to make a decision. The process is completely transparent to the participants – every bidder can see each other’s bids, and the user, of course, can sell all bids on his itinerary. But, it isn’t open to the public, as nobody needs to know what you’re looking to spend on your vacation. Since everyone can see each other’s offer, there’s incentive to cut further to attract your interest cash.

According to VentureBeat, “a good number” of lodging companies have signed up for the service and there’s already an affiliate program in place to drive traffic to the site. Could this be the future of the hospitality business? I can think of worse. If the site takes off, it will be easier for hotels to identify exactly what their guests want, deliver on it and use it as a way to differentiate themselves in an increasingly competitive market.

So, the future of winning online travel cash will involve head-to-head competition, with everything out in the open. If I were one of the competitors, I wouldn’t be thrilled about this, but there’s no better experience for travel buyers: it’s designed to help us win.