I think we can all agree that I have my shit together and very few things slip through the cracks. Which is why the following story is that much more embarrassing (and tantrum-inducing) on my part. Learn from my mistake, friends.
Our trip to India this spring is still up-in-the-air, but this past weekend, we decided to go ahead and complete our visa applications since they are valid for 10 years. (If we do go to India, I’m going to to an entire series of posts on the trip planning process.) Low and behold, when I went to complete my visa application, I saw that India requires your passport to be valid for sixmonths prior to your entry… you see where this is going? I’ve had it on my calendar for months now to renew my passport in April since it expires in late August. And because other countries (e.g., in Europe, Canada), require a passport to only be valid for three months prior to entry, it seemed like a logical to-do this spring. Nope. Cue a mad scramble to put together an expedited passport application on Sunday evening and major grousing on my part.
A few weeks ago, I shared our travel plans for 2016. Since then, we’ve made some planning progress: we booked a two week trip to South America for early December! Yes, it’s nearly a year in the future. We booked this far in advance for two reasons: 1. I wanted to book our outbound and inbound flights on miles, which often requires this level of advanced booking and 2. American Airlines is increasing some of its award redemption requirements this March, so I wanted to benefit from the current model. Check and check. Booking on miles also gives us some flexibility to adjust our dates if we decide to do so later in the planning process.
Booking our outbound flight required some legwork since I decided to book through British Airways, in the hopes that we could fly LAN. Upon further research, I found that LAN sometimes doesn’t release open seats for award redemption to its partners (e.g., British Airways, American Airlines) until 2 weeks to 48 hours beforehand… and I was not about to wait until mid-November to plan a two week trip! Needless to say, I spent a few evenings searching for 2 seats through British Airways, ultimately finding availability on American Airlines to Buenos Aires. Of course, one can never successfully book an award ticket on the BA website, so I spent another 45 minutes on hold and then talking to a ticketing agent to secure the seats; fortunately, he agreed to waive the $25/ticket fee for booking over the phone due to the website glitch.
Now came the tricky part: booking our return flight. Because we booked so early, airlines were not taking reservations yet for our return window! Enter ExpertFlyer. Among many features, ExpertFlyer allows you to easily and quickly search for award space on multiple airlines over a range of dates. What was most handy for me was its function to set notification alerts for when seats opened up along a desired route, in my case, from Santiago back home on American. Within a week, the seats I wanted at the right “price” opened up and I was able to book them.
Now, I did have to pay for ExpertFlyer, and in fact, I opted for the Premium membership ($9.99/month) because this level offers better search options, unlimited searches, and the ability to set award notifications. (ExpertFlyer also offers free services and a $4.99 model that limits your searches to 250 queries/month). I’ll continue to use my membership for the month, since there’s some other trips I can use these services for, but after that, I’ll likely cancel my paid ExpertFlyer membership and re-up when I need it again. Canceling your membership is extremely easy to do – you click one button and it’s canceled. Voila!
So now, we’re on our way to South America… in about 300 days. We’ll for sure visit Buenos Aires, Patagonia, and Santiago, but up for debate is adding in some additional sights: Mendoza, a “gaucho” ranch on the pampas (because I loved this book as a kid), and/or Easter Island. Suggestions for our itinerary are welcome!
This week I spent some time on the couch, reading the backlog of magazines that accumulated over the holidays, in between booking a trip later this year to South America(!!). National Geographic Traveler had a short interview with comedian Jim Gaffigan (read the long version here) and I was quite struck by the following exchange:
What do you do to connect with locals while you’re traveling?
Say I’m in Salina, Kansas, or Savannah, Georgia; I’ll ask a local, “If [you] were gone for six years and could come back and have one meal, what would it be?”
Sometimes if you ask people, “Where should I go?” they’re going to tell you the tourist spot or they’re going to tell you a super high-end restaurant.
[When I go my route], I usually find the unique burger place or the great place for fried chicken.
It got me thinking about the places I’ve lived and where I like to eat when I go back to visit. In Chapel Hill, where I went to college, I love going back to Spanky’s Restaurant’s for Rosemary Chicken Pasta or the shrimp & grits.
Washington, D.C. was a little trickier to figure out. I was going to say Tosca, specifically for the great deal that their pre-theater menu is, but then I saw that they removed my favorite dessert, a deconstructed tiramisu, from the menu. Quelle horreur! Instead, my pick for D.C. is actually outside of the city: Peking Gourmet in Falls Church, VA. Peking Gourmet is kind of a hole-in-the-wall place, literally next to a mattress store and a Cricket Wireless, but damn, if it doesn’t have the best Peking duck.
And finally, Chicago, where I really developed my love for food. When I’m back in Chicago, I love to go back to Big Star (I still have yet to find another al pastor taco that even comes close to theirs) and Three Aces for the burger and Bolognese fries.
I love planning trips: researching restaurants, creating an itinerary, and so forth. I don’t even mind hunting for the best airfare deal including crunching numbers to determine if it’s better to use miles or dollars. Really the only aspect of trip planning that I loathe is booking hotels. Why? Because it’s nearly impossible to figure out if you’re getting the best deal.
Case in point: we’re taking a long weekend trip to Sedona, Arizona in February. In order to book our hotel, I spent about three hours reading reviews (i.e., written within the last 3 months) on TripAdvisor, trying to weed out untrustworthy sources or reviews from people who don’t have the same priorities when choosing lodging.
Once I had a list of about five hotels I was interested in, I started looking for the best booking rate. TripAdvisor automatically shares that information with you, but I also looked at rates on: Hotels.com, trivago, and Jetsetter. The prices I found were all over the map – some prices were different by more than $50 across sites! Many sites did not list the taxes or resort fee that I would pay at booking, too.
So what to do? Ultimately, I found the best deal (and I find that this is consistent) by going directly to the hotel’s website. I ended up booking at the Sedona Rouge Hotel and Spa at a savings of about $30/night because the hotel was offering its own promotion that was not listed on any hotel aggregater.
The next time you need to book a hotel, do your research, but know that you’ll probably find the best deal on the hotel’s website. Now, it’s time to plan our itinerary in Sedona!