Monday, August 30, 2010

California Dreamin' – Choosing Accommodations in the USA

Jacksonville, Florida motel
While I prefer to stay in short-term apartment rentals when traveling, trips involving many brief stops in several cities make that impossible. Since David and I are facing that scenario on this California trip, we've followed our tried-and-never-found-wanting approach to getting a good room at the best price.

The first step is to check the Trip Advisor site. It is loaded with helpful information.

Hotels are ranked by popularity based on readers' reviews, and the reviews themselves supply invaluable information, even an occasional photo. David and I usually spend hours poring over the reviews because it is in this section that we learn vital information that is never available on a hotel's website. If we want to know if the noise from a busy street will keep us awake all night or if breakfast is worth the sacrifice of sleeping late, the reviews will tell us. If you prefer, however, to use your own criteria, rather than rely on readers' reviews, you can re-sort the listings according to a set of filters. Choosing a price range, room style, traveler ratings, hotel rating, location (Close to city center or train station?), and amenities allows you to customize your search.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

California Dreamin' - A Room with a View...Still Looking

Calle Colon - Ajijic, Mexico
After four years living in a small Mexican village, I experienced a number of culture shocks when I returned to the United States.

I had many embarrassing conversations with complete strangers because I thought the friendly, “Hello, how are you?” comments were directed at me. It took me weeks to realize people were talking into their cell phones, not to me.

Then there was the time I met a friend at a restaurant located in a popular mall. A restaurant with valet parking. In a mall! Whatever happened to the idea that the mall was an ideal place to go because there was ample, free parking?

I've adjusted to most of the changes I've encountered, but the final shock still bothers me the most—having to pay for parking at motels and hotels. Since the hotel industry exists to serve the needs of a transient population that frequently arrives by car, adding a surcharge to the bill to accommodate the car is an insult.

But insults in the travel business seem widespread these days. I have to pay extra to take my clothes along with me on a flight, and I've often got to pay extra to house my car for the night at a hotel.

All these extra charges do severe damage to a tightwad traveler's budget. Since David and I are committed to making our California driving trip a frugal one, we've abandoned AirBnB accommodations; most of the offerings in San Francisco require paying a meter or a parking garage. We're going to look for rooms that will allow us, and our car, to rest easy for the night without any extra charges. It might not be easy, but we'll persevere and tell you how we made out in the next installment.

Monday, August 23, 2010

AARP Says Mexico One of Five Best Places to Live Abroad

Puerto Vallarta - photo by Courtney Zimmerman

The September/October issue of AARP magazine, a magazine geared to Americans over 50 years old, lists Mexico as one of the five best places to live abroad.  An excerpt from Barry Golson's AARP article is printed below; see additional material in the Practicalities section regarding cost of living.  The entire article can be found by clicking here.

With its profoundly rich Indian and Spanish culture, its spectacular beaches and charming colonial hill towns, its real estate bargains and its proximity to the United States, Mexico is the undisputed number one destination for American retirees. It boasts thriving expat communities in Lake Chapala, near Guadalajara; San Miguel de Allende, in Guanajuato; Baja California; and Cancún, in the Yucatan. They all have their attractions, including a low-cost, laid-back lifestyle, but our choice in Mexico is the Puerto Vallarta region, located on the Pacific Coast in the state of Nayarit. Its combination of first-class urban amenities and charming palm-fringed villages have made it an appealing retiree draw as well as a popular tourist destination, without the serious crime that blights some other parts of the country.

(A quick word about crime and safety in Mexico: Yes, it's extremely dangerous in the cities bordering the United States and a few places elsewhere. Mexico, however, is also nearly three times the size of Texas, and most of the country is reasonably safe and secure, especially resort areas and tourist destinations.)

Puerto Vallarta's handsome beachfront promenade can be overcrowded with tourists, but venture a few blocks back from the bars and curio shops, and the town's Mexican charms are on display—whitewashed houses bedecked with flowers, and plazas where locals and expats alike greet, eat, and seat themselves on benches to watch the passing parade. In Nuevo Vallarta, the newer luxury area, you’ll find U.S.-style condo complexes and even a mall. You’d think you're back in the States, but at a steep discount.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

California Dreamin' - A Room with a View

I love quirky hotels. They're usually cheaper than the whether-you're-in- Poughkeepsie-or-Punxsutawney-the-rooms-all-look-the-same hotels, and they're always more intriguing.

Last August, I wrote about ways to find inexpensive motels when you're traveling major interstates (Click here for that article.), but for this trip, David and I are considering some alternative accommodation sites.

Darn Good Digs is a great place to start because they list only the best locally or independently owned accommodations around the world that cost less than $150—usually much less. There's no snobbery here as the site lists hotels and B&Bs as well as hostels. The only qualification that matters is that the accommodation be extraordinary. Much as we would love to stay in a Darn Good Digs-suggested property, there's only one listing on their site for California, and it's nowhere close to our travel route.

We're also checking AirBnB. It's an interesting site which is fun to read even if you don't plan to use the service. You can,”Rent nightly from real people in 6975 cities in 157 countries,” and, as the site says, “Travel like a human.”

The site allows private individuals or commercial companies to list their extra space whether it be a spare room, a treehouse, a castle, or a complete apartment. There are reviews, e-mail addresses so you can contact the owners, and a secure on-line transaction system, all of which help you feel more confident about making a reservation. We have corresponded with two AirBnB hosts, but have yet to make a final decision.

Practicalities -
Former NY Times Frugal Travel writer, Matt Gross, rented from AirBnB in San Francisco.  To read the article, click here.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

California Dreamin' – Planning Stage

The books are scattered in the living room. All the ones David and I have collected from library sales, used bookstores, or yard sales for 25 cents to a dollar. We hope they'll help us plan an itinerary that misses none of the beauty between San Francisco and San Diego. With luck, they'll even teach us a tightwad trick or two so the trip stays within our frugal budgetary guidelines. We've got a lot of homework to do.

I've said many times that we believe the best vacations are those that start with a few days or a week apartment rental, (Click here for that discussion.)  but with only one or two nights in each location, that approach isn't feasible this time. Still, we believe that by doing our homework, we can find reasonably priced hotels or B&B's or even someone's spare room (See Matt Gross's article in the NY Times about AirBnB, an organization that specializes in renting individuals' extra rooms or apartments.) which will suit our budget and our taste. They won't be the most luxurious or the most romantic places, perhaps, but they will be well under $100 a night and clean and comfortable. At least that's what we're aiming for.

During the preliminary planning, we realized that our most expensive lodging location is going to be San Francisco, so we're planning the ten-night trip so we're in the city at the least expensive time of the week—Monday through Thursday.

We've also realized, sadly, that there's no way we can stay in Big Sur. Rooms topping $600 are too steep for our budget; even $150 exceeds the amount we want to spend. So, our plan is to overnight some place relatively close and leisurely drive down that area of the coast, perhaps stopping for lunch in Big Sur instead of staying there.

So, right now, we've got the time frame we're dealing with, ten nights, and we know we'll be in San Francisco Monday through Thursday. The rest if up for grabs! Time to get busy.

Monday, August 16, 2010

California Dreamin'

On the East Coast, summer's always been the slap of a screen door, the scent of swimsuits drying in the sun, a wardrobe of shorts and T-shirts, and morning birdsong wafting in through an open window.

This year, in Southern California, summer's been sweat pants and socks.

The weatherman, during this coldest summer in 77 years, has run out of cute names. May Gray gave way to June Gloom and July was dubbed Bummer Summer. But no matter what the title, the result is the same day after day—overcast gray skies and temperatures in the 60s. August is no exception.

I've complained so much David refuses to listen any more and simply responds with one of his canned retorts. When I grumble as I grab a sweater to go outside, he reminds me that we could be in Tucson where the high was 105 today. Or he launches into his, by now, practiced speech about how it's easier to get warmer by adding layers than it is to cool off on a hundred-degree-day.

Still, I'm not buying it. I miss the hallmarks of summer and find little comfort in knowing that we're better off than other parts of the world. There's no solace, either, in the prediction that we'll have an unseasonably warm winter. Who wants 80 degrees on Christmas? We need 80 now.

So, in desperation, David and I are doing what we usually do. In order to fall back in love with this state, we're taking a road trip. It'll be three nights in San Francisco, a city whose charms will win me over, David says, and then a drive down the coast on one of the most beautiful stretches of highway in the world, Highway 1.

He's promising trolleys, cable cars with “a gripper” who keeps the cars from rolling down impossibly steep hills, sourdough bread, foamy ocean waves, wind-twisted trees, and craggy coastlines. I'm promising to appreciate it all and stop complaining. And, of course, we're doing it all on a budget—a tightwad traveler's budget.

Stay tuned for the planning and check back to come along for the ride. But don't forget to throw a pair of socks in your suitcase. Just in case.