Husband and I have been traveling a lot since November, moving across the country from California to the lovely South in Georgia, and then criss-crossing the states for contract and freelance consulting.
While traveling, it’s important to me to retain a sense of order and make it fun, especially when balancing expenses and taking pets, so I’ll be doing a series in 2013 about Travel and adding it as a new blog category.
Part One – Planning The Great Escape
1. Plan Your Route. Google Maps is helpful for me because you can map city to city and get an idea of how long it will take you between each stop. I find that 5-8 hours per day is a comfortable amount of driving, but 12 is doable if you’re hauling ass or wanting to cut down on hotel expenses… just be sure to stop every few hours to switch drivers or stay alert.
If you don’t have a smart phone with GPS, print out information and keep it in a folder, or Triple A offers a TripTik service which maps out interesting or preferable routes for travel. You can also use RoadTrip America.com
If you’re flying, use a search site for cheap flights; you can always book directly with the airline once you find the flight you need, instead of through a third party if you so choose. See the Resources at the end of this post for more info.
2. Research Hotels. Again, I like to use Google Maps to find hotels and price comparison that way. Sometimes a city will have several of the same hotels, but the property by the airport will be significantly less than the one downtown. If you’re just passing through, it may be worth it to save some money.
I rely on customer reviews, since I may not be familiar with the area and many hotels are franchised, meaning they are privately owned and vary much from property to property. If there are bedbugs or parking lot shootings, this is how you’ll know!
Since we have pets, I also cross-reference websites like PetFriendly.com to find area chains that accept our animals. I’ve compiled some links below of the websites I use. Once I have a general idea of several possible places, I go to step 3.
3. Get The Best Rate. Sometimes corporate discounts, priority club rates, or AAA membership perks actually increase the cost of, say, an extended stay rate or a company policy rate match. Your best bet for booking something at the cheapest rate after comparing properties and rates initially might be to call the local branch of the hotel you plan to stay with and talk to the person there. If you call a general reservations center and have trouble getting someone who knows the information or who will work with you on rate, hang up and call back – someone may be having a bad day or just be unhelpful.
4. Technology Is Your Friend. All of our hotel and travel info (including back up hotels in case something falls through) is stored in a Google Document that we can share and access on our phones or laptops, which makes it super easy to map out our routes and plan our activities once we arrive in a city.
If you’re caravanning, hand-held radios are a good idea since cell reception can be spotty. We got high-powered ones with an FCC license, because we’re tech nerds.
Google Maps – Helpful for planning routes, directions, booking hotels, and urban exploration
RoadSide America – Looking for the largest ball of twine? Want to pinpoint statues of Paul Bunyan? This website has a lot of information, map points, and images.
Orbitz – To search airlines and flights for comparing prices. Some people use Kayak, Hotwire, or Priceline, but I’ve never had accurate results with any of these websites; perhaps they’ve improved lately? Or maybe they’re good for package deals on hotel/car rental/flights, which I’ve never used.
Hotels and Urban Exploration
Trip Advisor – Good for reviews and route planning, also with a forum in case you have any specific questions.
Flavortown USA – fan site to Diners Drive ins and Dives with maps and links to various restaurants featured on the show. We stopped at a few places on the way across the country. Say what you want about Guy Fieri, but I like him.
UrbanSpoon – An ok resource for finding local restaurants, though I find the app doesn’t know how to differentiate between fast food and cool local spots. Oh well.
Living Social – You need to sign up, but it’s a decent place to connect with local businesses. One trick I use is to browse the deals in the cities I’m planning to visit, and then contact the business directly when I get there. Often times the LS deal isn’t a huge price break anyway.
Air BnB, Couchsurfing.org, or VRBO.com – If you’re traveling internationally, prefer homes to hotels, or like staying with or meeting up with locals, try one of these websites. If you have a home to trade, try homexchange.com. As always, use common sense caution when making plans to stay or meet with strangers. I’ve booked 2 condos on VRBO.com with great results.
Meetup – Meet and greet locals!
My Personal U.S. Hotel Picks:
Motel 6 – They allow pets for free and don’t discriminate with size or breed. They are cheap, and while the beds are hard, most are reasonably clean and comfortable. Check online reviews on a case by case basis, since some can be dirtier or more crime-ridden than others. A good option if you’re passing through with pets on the cheap.
Quality Inn – Great for the money, with a complimentary full hot breakfast. The one we stayed at had a huge comfortable king sized bed. They allow pets for a small but reasonable fee.
Drury Inn– New chain in the southeast which does not discriminate against pet breeds and has a lot of great perks. Depending on location, rates are very reasonable in many places. Ours had a heated indoor/outdoor pool and hot tub, with free drink tickets and popcorn. Rooms were very clean and cozy, but a good size.
Staybridge Suites – You can get a suite or one bedroom, and they allow pets (including large dogs) with a one-time fee. The property where we stayed was clean, with lots of on site perks like free food, happy hour, heated pool, board games, wifi, gym, free laundry, a nice lobby/lounge/media center, etc. Our kitchenette had stainless steel appliances and was fully stocked with dishes, pots, and utensils. The price range wasn’t bad for what they offered. For fewer perks and less money, Candlewood Suites also allows pets with a fee and proof of current vaccinations.