Maximizing Your Travel Dollars

We LOVE to travel, so I’m always looking for ways to maximize our dollars without sacrificing our experiences. Now that we are rapidly approaching the three quarters of a century mark, some of the things we found satisfactory when we were much younger aren’t quite so appealing now. These days, we are not interested in hostels or camping, but fortunately there are many other ways to make travel more affordable. One of them is find a travel company that meets your needs and then stick with them. More and more are offering loyalty programs to encourage you to look no further than their offerings.

If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you know that Mike and I have used a variety of companies, but lately we have found that OAT (Overseas Adventure Travel) has been providing maximum value for our travel dollars. We like the small group size, the itineraries, the guides, the activity level, and for us, the right balance of free time and structured activities.

It also doesn’t hurt that they have a great loyalty program. Here’s how theirs works. When you take a trip with OAT,(or with their sister company, Grand Circle) you earn a 5% credit toward a second trip, if taken within a 12 month period. If you take two trips within a calendar year, you get a $250 per person discount on the second trip.

Another way to save is to pay by check, 12 months in advance. That will earn you a 7.5% discount. Of course, if you do so, you don’t get the points on your credit card, and you may forgo some of the benefits you card offers. It isn’t hard to do a quick cost/benefit analysis. If you have one of the premium credit cards, it is worth checking out whether it offers generous trip insurance benefits. If yes, those benefits could outweigh the 7.5% savings for advance cash payments.

On your FIRST OAT trip, an easy way to save $100 per person is to be referred by another OAT traveler, so check with friends and family to discover if they have ever taken an OAT trip. When you make your reservation, you simply give their traveler number, and voila, you and your friend have both earned a $100 credit toward future trips. If you don’t have a friend who has traveled with OAT, I would be delighted to be your friend. Here’s my number: 001564068. After YOUR first trip, YOU can refer travelers, which will earn YOU a $100 credit toward your next trip. Easy, right?

More information about all of these programs is available on the OAT website.   Once you get there, click on the “Why OAT” bar at the top of the page and this is what you will see:

In addition to “Ways to Save”, you should also check out “Last Minute Travel Deals” if your schedule is flexible.

Normally, I plan our international travel MANY months in advance, usually well over a year, so we can take advantage of that prepayment discount. But there’s another reason. Because OAT groups are limited to only 16 travelers, the popular times fill up quickly. It seems we all want to travel when the weather is most favorable for our destination, but when it is not over crowded with tourists.

This year, however, we decided to do something different. A trip we have been wanting to take popped up as a “Last Minute Travel Deal” and it just happened to be the ideal time of year for us to visit South America. Sometimes, the last minute deals are for less popular travel times.

This last minute deal saved us $1,000 per person. And because we are taking another OAT trip later this year, we saved an additional $250 per person, for a total of $2,500. These savings really DO add up.

I was a little concerned that the airfare would devour all of our savings because we were booking so late. Fortunately, OAT was able to get us great seats on a direct flight to Santiago with LATAM Airlines.  Yeah, I never heard of them either, but a quick internet search allayed my fears.  It is the result of a recent merger between LAN Argentina and LAN Chile. Let’s hope it is a HAPPY union.

We are arriving a day early, just in case we get uncooperative weather –not unheard of in the New York/New Jersey area in winter. If we luck out, and arrive as scheduled, we will have an extra day in Santiago to combat jet lag and see the sights.

So, what about you? Do you have a favorite travel company? Ideas for extracting the most value from you travel dollars?

Mantua and Trent

Well, we are getting ready to hit the road (the one that leads to the airport) soon, so I figured if I had anything further to say about last fall’s trip to Northern Italy, now is the time to say it.

My last post was about the city of Verona. Although it was a lovely city, it was a bit crowded, so when we had the choice of spending another day in Verona, or going on an optional trip to Mantua, we (and everyone else on our tour) opted for the optional, and we were glad we did.

Yes, Mantua had the requisite castle, with beautiful frescoes, but the castle also had something I’d never seen before — a moat with lovely sculptures plopped in it. Were they ballerina or fairy costumes? I have no idea; either one works for me.

Mantua also had the mandatory clock tower, but this one was so beautiful, I felt compelled to include two photos of it- the one below to give you a sense of its placement and scale, and the one atop this post to show the beautiful craftsmanship. Just think how amazing it must have been before the frescoes were damaged.

Can you tell this tower has been repaired more than once?

Like other cities, Mantua has an object, which, if rubbed, promises thAt the rub-ee will grant the rub-er good luck. In Verona, it is Juliet’s right breast. In Mantua, it is Rigoletto’s hump. We avoided the fake Juliet balcony and statue, but we ladies couldn’t resist Rigoletto.

What was MOST memorable to me, however, was the “relic” in the Basilica of Saint Andrew. According to the plaque, the soldier that stabbed Christ (Who later became a saint –Longino– but not all that popular, because I’d never heard of him before. Had you?) was prescient enough to know that the blood soaked earth was worth preserving, so he did. For thousands of years. Quite a story, and I’ll leave it at that.

The legend
The relic repository
The artist’s interpretation of the event

Our next stop was Trento, the site of the Council of Trent, where Catholic bishops got together and did something important that I learned about in high school but have since forgotten. Here too, we encountered a magnificent cathedral. Could this be The Stairway to Heaven that Led Zeppelin sang about? Take a look. It sure doesn’t seem to lead anywhere else. If you took a tumble from the top, Heaven may be where you’d land, but probably only if you went to confession first.

Right outside the church, beside Neptune’s fountain, it was quite festive. Lots of young people holding flowers and plaques, wearing laurel wreaths on their heads were milling about.

Our group is nothing, if not astute. We immediately figured this was some kind of commencement celebration. I’ll tell ya, if I had been given the choice, I definitely would have gone with the laurel wreath instead of the mortarboard monstrosity we had to put on our heads.

If this cold weather continues, I may get it together to do one final post: the last days of our trip in the Dolomites and Alpine villages. Ciao!

A Unique Flying Experience

After thoughtfully packing my carry on, I discovered that my trusty Eagle Creek, which had happily fit into MANY overhead compartments, mysteriously grew. It no longer fit into that silver box by the boarding gate door.

According to United’s website, the approved size is 9″ by 14″ by 22 “. Did these dimensions change? When I get home, the measuring tape is coming out.

I’m thinking a small duffel might be the way to go when I absolutely MUST do carry on.

It actually was no big deal. I would have had to gate check from Denver to Jackson Hole anyway. But I AM going to see if I can get the bag on for our flight home.

But THAT certainly was not my unique flying experience. You ready?

Once on board our flight from Denver to Jackson Hole, we learned that there would be a delay because of thunder storms in Wyoming. After about a half an hour wait, the crew told us the plane would have to be lightened. It seems that the Jackson Hole runway is “short”. Short, plus wet, plus heavy equals danger because, we learned, the pilot might not be able to get the plane to stop when it should. Oh dear.

How much weight? The equivalent of 18 passengers (about 20%) would need to disembark before the plane could take off. What? How will they decide who has to get off? Will they bring in a scale and have each of us step on? In all my years of flying, I never had anything quite like this happen.

Turns out, the crew had a better idea. Volunteers would be compensated with a $500 voucher for a future flight, plus a meal voucher (no value mentioned).

Well, we did a quick analysis of the situation. Although we were meeting our son at the airport, HIS flight might also be delayed, and even if it wasn’t, I could email him our confirmation for the car and the hotel, so he wouldn’t be stuck waiting at a tiny airport with nothing to do. We didn’t have any pressing work or family obligations, so why not help out those who did? And hell ya, that $500 voucher put a smile on our faces as we walked out of the plane, as did all the “thank you’s” from the passengers and crew.

So how did it all work out for us? Amazingly well. There was no weigh in, but enough tall and well proportioned men volunteered so that the 16 of us who DID, were deemed heavy enough. And we were a very congenial group, smiling as we waited in line to get all of the paperwork sorted out.

We were truly impressed by the professionalism of the United team in Denver. They were able to locate a plane with crew and get them to Denver amazingly fast…within two and a half hours. Wow! The 16 of us had the plane to ourselves. And because Mike and I were the last volunteers to get our paperwork processed, we were made the solo passengers in first class because we were so patient (or brain dead… I forget which).

Anyway, kudos to United for treating us so well for a weather related problem. And yes, my checked bag was waiting for me when we arrived.

Additional positives: we were pretty hungry, so getting off the plane allowed us to get something to eat. Okay, it was airport food, it was expensive, the $10 voucher per person covered less than half the cost of our burgers and beverage, but if you are hungry enough, you don’t care.

As for our son, he arrived on time, picked up the car, checked in to our hotel and returned to fetch us when we landed.

One more plus (?). Enterprise upgraded us from the Toyota Camry to the biggest SUV I have EVER seen. This Prius driver would definitely have refused the upgrade, but turns out it WAS good to have on some of the park roads.

This Nissan Armada Platinum was well named. It FELT like we were riding in a warship!

Off to a great start for our visit with our son.