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?

Northern Italy and the Dolomites

What could be better that Northern Italy in the fall?  Right now, nothing comes to mind, which is a good thing, because that’s where we will be for 19 glorious days.

We arrive in Milan 4 days before our OAT trip starts.  How in the world did it happen that one of the least fashion savvy women on this planet will be in Milan during fashion week?  I imagine the streets will be loaded with even more beautiful people than usual, wearing exquisite clothes.  Will that change my determination to travel with only a carry on and backpack?  The answer to that question is “not a chance”.   Initially the plan was for us to exit the plane and head for the train without a detour to baggage claim, but then we got a call from our trip leader.  She reminded us that although it will be warm in Milan and Tirano, temperatures will drop during our visits to the Swiss Alps and the Dolomites.  So, that means we will need bulkier items.  I was able to fit everything into my trusty Eagle Creek carry on, but Mike’s clothes are considerably larger than mine.  So, one of us will be checking luggage.  That’s okay.  I’ll get a chance to see whether international flights are as picky as domestic ones about carry on size.  On our last domestic flight, I discovered that United has changed the dimensions for allowable carry ons to 9″ x 15″ x 21″.  My trusty Eagle Creek bag is 10″ x 13″ x 22″,  or 2,860 cubic inches, versus an allowable 2,835 cubic inches.  Really?  Will the gate person play hard ball?  Because we will be waiting at baggage claim anyway, it doesn’t really matter.  I’m determined to pack light regardless, because after our first night in Milan, Mike and I will be going our separate ways, and I will be traveling solo by train, bus and boat.

Mike is heading off to Stradavari’s old stomping grounds –Cremona–to hang out with his violin making buddies.  While he’s there, I’ll be in Tremezzo, on Lake Como.  Wonder if George and Amal will need a baby sitter for the twins?  And will I have packed the proper outfit?

Ah yes, packing.  I did my usual clothes “auditioning”.  It didn’t take long for me to realize I needed to amp up my quick drying wardrobe.
For my last “one bag” trip, I  used a laundry service midway, because I spent half of the trip in just one place–Beja, Portugal.  This trip, however, I will wash as I go, because over 19 days, we will be staying in 8 different hotels.    This also took some serious retooling of my laundry aids.  The expandable clothes line I packed last time was pretty worthless when I couldn’t find two suitable attachment points that would also allow me use of the bathroom (thus the need for laundry service).

Thanks to my travel buddy Sally, I now own “clothespins” that can be looped over shower bars, and foldable hangers.

What I had never done before is something that bloggers Terri and James of Gallivance recommend: try living out of the bag for a week.  Of course, they were preparing for an around the world trip lasting several months, while I’m just going to one country for less than three weeks, so I didn’t feel the need to literally live out of my bag.  Instead, what I HAVE been doing is limiting myself to the clothes that I plan on taking and washing them out in the sink.  So far so good.  My LL Bean travel pants have been drying in less than 8 hours!

IMG_7519Some travelers swear by packing cubes.  In the past, I relied on my jumbo zip lock bags instead and they have served me well, but this time I decided to give a packing cube a try.  This cube opens on both sides, and is divided into two compartments–perfect for stashing things that  I will be using on a daily basis.  To my surprise, I was able to fit pajamas, underwear, toiletry bag and laundry supplies, plus a few small items–jewelry and scarves.  So, I can pull this out in every hotel, and I have the equivalent of two bureau drawers.  Take a look.

Best of all, it fits nicely into my carry on, leaving just enough room for everything else.  If you are interested in what I was able to jam into my bag, here’s a link to the Google spreadsheet.

Of course, this list could come in handy in the event that my luggage is lost.  (Which it was, briefly, on my trip to Portugal and Spain earlier this year.)

IMG_7535

I suspect the reason I haven’t used packing cubes was my carry on is already divided into neat sections.  As for whether I folded or rolled, the answer is, I did both.

Okay, so enough with the packing.  Full disclosure, although I sincerely hope that what I share is helpful to others, I REALLY have recorded it to help me, because I tend to forget what I took, what worked, what didn’t, if I have’t written it down.  Yes, a mind is a terrible thing to lose, or waste, or whatever is going on with that empty space atop my shoulders.

On to the other preparations.  I got tickets for the train from the airport to our first hotel, from this very helpful website.  There are others, but I found Trainline easy to use.  Who wants to deal with unfamiliar ticket machines, in another language, while jet lagged?  Not me.  Being a bit obsessive compulsive, I also got tickets for when I’m traveling solo to lower my anxiety level.   From the Como train station, I have a choice of taking either a ferry or a bus to my hotel in Tremezzo.  Thanks to the internet, I have the schedules for both, and can decide which option is most appealing once I get there.

What a difference from my travel days in my early 20’s, when I got on a plane to Colorado without any reservations, with very little money, and only a vague idea of where I was going and what I was going to do when I arrived.   With google maps, trip advisor and the internet’s search options, I can be somewhat spontaneous, while limiting the risk of bad decisions.  (The thought that a bad decision was possible never crossed my mind in my younger days!)

Hope you’ll follow along on this next adventure.

Six Things I Learned From My Packing Challenge

It is time to start packing for another adventure.  Anyone wondering whether I am now a firm believer in One Carry On (OCO) packing?

The short answer is–it depends.  My one month packing experiment taught me a thing or two and  I am happy to share everything I learned.

  1. Climate matters.  Big time. OCO is much easier when the weather is consistently warm because those clothes are SMALLER and lighter weight.
    It gets challenging when the weather at the destination is changeable.  Sometimes warm, sometimes cold, like our upcoming spring trip to Yellowstone.  Yes, yes, I know. Dress in layers.   Still, when the weather is expected to fluctuate between 33 and 75 degrees, with the possibility of thunderstorms and even snow, it becomes tricky.  I can wear my waterproof hiking boots on the plane.  My parka?  I don’t think so.
  2. Self knowledge is powerful.  I learned I really hate doing laundry in hotel bathrooms.  It wasn’t bad during my two weeks in Portugal, because I was in the same hotel the entire time and had my own room.  So, draping my underwear from every available surface didn’t inconvenience anyone else.  When I met up with my husband in Spain, however, and shared space, I was glad that I had used the laundry service in Beja, arriving with everything clean, so the need to do laundry was limited.
    Another insight?  At home, I wash clothes far more than I need to.  Because I have access to a washer and dryer, I wear something once, then toss it into the laundry basket.  Why? It isn’t as if I spend my days mud wrestling or cleaning sewage ditches.   Okay, work out clothes and underwear are “one wear” items, but my black travel pants?  I discovered I could easily wear them two or three times with no ill effects.  Better for my clothes, and much better for the environment.  I’m now doing “multiple wears” at home.
  3. Traveling solo is different from traveling with a group.  If I am on my own, as I was getting from Portugal to Spain–by bus, plane and taxi, then OCO makes sense.  The hassle of doing laundry is much less than the hassle of lugging a bigger bag when moving from one mode of transportation to another.  If I am on a group tour, or traveling with family, then once again, it depends.  Why carry on, if you have to wait for others held up at baggage claim?  On our group tours, our bags magically move from outside our hotel doors to the van or bus.  So easy.  On family trips, I have my personal baggage handler, who never expects a tip.  Still, if we are only spending two or three nights per hotel, it is so much easier if your wardrobe choices are limited.
  4. The airline may make the decision for you. Just because you PLAN to carry on, doesn’t mean the airline will ALLOW you to do so.  If the flight is too full, the airline may force you to gate check your bag.  Bonus discovery–if you gate check, your bag is one of the last ones on the plane and one of the first ones rotating around that baggage carousel.  Not a bad deal.  I’m not sure how it works with connecting flights.  THAT could be problematic, especially on international flights, if your bag is not checked all the way through.
  5. Planned activities are an important factor.  Will I need a “dress up” outfit?  If so, then I will need the appropriate footwear.  Sneakers or Keens just don’t look right with a dressy outfit.  Normally I limit my footwear to two pairs (one worn on the plane, the other packed-and jammed full of small “stuff”).  If I need something dressy, sandals are a good option, don’t take up space and can sometimes be good for walking.  And yes, I either use the hotel’s shower cap or a plastic bag from the fruits and vegetable section of the grocery store to protect my clothes from my shoes.
    Will we be using a pool or going to the beach?  Fortunately flip flops don’t take up much room, and bathing suit coverups can sometimes do double duty.
  6. Packing skills can make or break OCO.   There are those who swear by packing cubes.  I’m not one of them.  I find that zip lock bags work better for me.  I can see what’s inside, the bags weigh next to nothing, and they can be smooshed to fit into odd spaces.
    A combo of rolled and flat methods allow me to maximize space, with small things tucked into any available space.
    For long trips, I find compression bags helpful (except I seem to keep losing the little closure thingy.)  Sometimes kneeling on my zip lock bag achieves the same effect.
    I LOVE my hanging toiletry bag, especially when traveling with my guy.  The hanging bag allows me to let him have the space by the sink, which is usually too small for two.  BUT if I am doing OCO, I will give up my beloved hanging toiletry bag, and revert to zip locks in a plastic grocery bag, which I can hang over the bathroom door knob.  (Most of the time I use cloth grocery bags, but for the few occasions when I end up with plastic, I save them for this purpose.)

So, there you have it.  Before each trip the pros and cons are balanced.  Sometimes one carry on makes sense–and other times, my large duffle does the trick.   How about you?   any packing insights you want to share?