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Saturday, July 30, 2011

Live and Learn: London 7.30.11

Last time we talked about all the things we learned on our trip to Ecuador. This time, you can learn from my own experiences in London. I feel like there will always be a learning opportunity whenever I travel, but this was my first time abroad, so maybe it was  just easier to find things I didn't know about. London is a beautiful city and it's easy to just assume it's the same as any other big city. With a giant park, an underground I really didn't know much about and packing mistakes, it may have been amazing that our trip went so well. Luckily, they speak English there. For the most part. That helped a lot, unlike when we went to Paris…But that’s another post altogether.

Carry a compass – Even when you’re in the middle of a city, you never know when this might come in handy. We had a map, but trying to cross Hyde Park to get from our hotel to Harrod’s wasn’t as easy as it looked, especially when you take the sidewalks and then end up in the middle of the park and can’t figure out which way you were headed in the first place. Amazingly, I remembered the compass and we were on our way – in the right direction, at that – in no time. We even made it to Harrod’s on time to meet my uncles.

Dress in layers – So, going on the knowledge that London and the Pacific Northwest have similar weather, we packed for cold weather, since we were traveling late October to early November. Well, we didn’t plan on it being unseasonably warm for the first four days we were there. How I wish I had packed a few t-shirts and cardigans instead of full-on sweaters and long sleeved tops. I could take off my coat, but couldn’t do much else about my too-warm clothes. Now, I always pack in layers: tank tops and tees that can go under something with long sleeves, like a ¾ zip fleece or similar. Columbia and ExOfficio have become my go-to online stores for great looking travelwear.

Never wear boots on a long plane ride – While this seems to be logical, I didn’t really think about it. I had some fantastically comfortable boots and left them on the entire flight from Portland to Dallas to London Gatwick. My feet swelled on the plane and by the time we got to our hotel room I had to peel them off my legs. They went back in the suitcase and never came back out until we came home. I simply could not get them back on. Luckily, I also brought along some great walking shoes, which I proceeded to wear everyday for the rest of the trip. Ideally, having two pair of walking shoes would get you by: One for casual outings and one for dressing up a little.

Cold weather travel clothes are a must – Do you know how long jeans take to dry after you wash them? Forever, might be an appropriate response. Had I known then what I know now, I would have bought and packed an array of travel clothing, instead of normal every-day clothes. This would have eliminated the need to spend almost $20 at the Laundromat down the street and we could have easily washed our clothes in the bathroom sink and hung them to dry. Even if we didn’t hand wash, we wouldn’t have needed to use the dryer three or four times in order to get everything dry enough to take back to the room, because it would have easily dried overnight.

Figure out how to get to your lodging from the airport before you leave – I’ve since learned this is smart. We didn’t do any research before we left on how to get from Point A to Point B and Day 1 turned into the day that we both hated each other and needed a break. Great way to start a honeymoon. I threatened to heave my bags into the street and get a cab, while my husband insisted the hotel was “right down the street”. It was NOT right down the street. The problem started when we got on the Underground and only had one plan on where to get off. That stop ended up being under construction, so instead of figuring out we could go one stop further, we stopped at the one before our intended station and walked a few miles before we finally did make it to our hotel. I was cranky and starving and I think the folks at the front desk could tell, because they kindly offered to hold our bags and gave us directions toward food. Halfway around the block, we saw an underground station that was fully-functional and would have been perfect to get off at. We used it for the rest of the trip to get to and from our hotel. A little bit of research would have been helpful in this situation.

When you see something being filmed, stop and see what it is – You’ve heard me complain about this before. Leaving Waterloo Station with our newly purchased London Passes to go to the aquarium, we saw an entire film crew and some very familiar looking people. We assumed it was for some commercial that we would never see and then months later found out they were filming the Bourne Supremacy and Matt Damon himself was on set and we walked right past him. Crazy!

Look at Eric savoring the experience
If you want a drink with ice in it, head to The Hard Rock – Seriously, Europe has some aversion to ice cubes. You order an ice tea and you get 3 cubes that have all but melted by the time it makes it to your table. You order a soda and you get a bottle (no refills!) from the cooler and a warm glass. If you want a refill, you order another bottle and pay another $4 for it. It’s better just order bottled water everywhere you go. Ask for still water if you don’t want it carbonated. On one of our last nights in the city, we made the pilgrimage to the very first Hard Rock Café. We took a chance and ordered sodas, since they claimed to be bottomless. When the waiter came back, we couldn’t believe our eyes. Giant glasses filled to the brim with ice and super cold diet beverage! I think this visit gave us a soft spot for HRC and we seek them out wherever we travel.

Don’t bring your whole closet – This is something that I’ve learned since traveling abroad. You’ll likely be traveling to your accommodation via public transportation. Be advised that these usually come with massive amounts of stairs. If you can’t lift your own luggage with ease, you have too much stuff in your bag. This was the first time I had ever even ridden the subway, so at the very least I had wheels on my bags, but that doesn’t help if you have to run up and down three or four flights of steps. My husband can’t be expected to carry 2 large bags like a mule. Pack light, carry-on and everyone will be so much happier. If you forgot to pack it, either you don’t need it or you can get it at your destination. Also, unless you use the space under your hotel bed, there’s no place to put full-size suitcases in your room. They’ll just take up valuable floor space that you need for standing and walking.

There are so many things to see and do in London and I can't wait to go back with all my new travel techniques and enjoy it even more. This time I hope to hit up the zoo, Wimbledon, Windsor and Stratford-Upon-Avon. If you are interested on how to do it on a budget, check out my previous London posts here, on Jetsetera and My Itchy Travel Feet

Did you know we now have a weekly newsletter?! Ever miss posts because you forget? Well, now you can get a nice little reminder of what’s happening here on the blog and over on Facebook. Find out about giveaways, new posts, useful products and gadgets and amazing deals! Sign up here.

Always know where you're going with Inside Out guides. These are some of the coolest guides, because they are pocket-size, have great pop-out maps, excellent info for your destination that works for us real people, including suggested itineraries and has a handy dandy compass and pen to make notes. They are available for all major tourist destinations, too.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Guest Post: NYC On A Budget: Where to Stay, Eat, Sight-See and Shop! 7.27.11

Today's post comes from Christina Lucas from Living Chic, The Blog Entourage and Kaitlin and Kylie's Apple Bar Blog (among others). Christina took a 4-day budget trip to New York City and was awesome enough to share with us her trip details and great free things to do in the city, as well as affordable options for dining, shopping and sightseeing. Please make sure to check out her sites.

Getting There:

If you live a state or two away and don't want to drive your own car, find a Megabus or Boltbus in your area. Just keep in mind you might have to walk a few blocks when you arrive, so you'll want to use rolling luggage. If you're flying, of course check expedia.com and priceline.com.

Getting Around:

If you've never taken a subway before, or if you're used to a cleaner Metro like in St. Louis or D.C., you'll probably be intimidated by the NY Subway system, but cabs are expensive and not everything is within walking distance, so suck it up and get on the subway. Besides, it's not like in Gossip Girl where the second Serena or Blair wave their pretty little hands, a cab immediately appears out of nowhere. Sometimes you can get to a subway station quicker than you can hail a cab. When you purchase your subway card, get the value card for $20.00 if you'll be there for a few days. Trust me, you'll use it up!

photo by Christina Lucas
Where to Stay:

You definitely want to find a hotel discount. At Hostels.com you can find cheap lodging. If you're single and on a tight budget, a hostel is the way to go. On that website, you will also find discount prices for regular hotels and inns at about $50.00 a night. You can always check out discount travel sites like Priceline.com if you want to stay somewhere nicer but still get a discount. Keep in mind that if it's your first time to The Big Apple (and if it isn't your honeymoon) you'll only be in your room to sleep, so just find something cheap and something that is within walking distance of a subway station.

Where to Eat:

To save the most money on dining, eat like the natives. Grab something cheap but delicious from a street vendor. For something nice and healthy but reasonably priced, go to Pret A Manger. For a New York hot dog, go to Nathan's. If neither of those are within walking distance, just find a local deli. New York is swarming with delis. If you see a hole-in-the-wall sandwich and salad bar cafe, go there! This is where the locals eat, and they do so because it's delicious, fast and cheap. At Naturally Delicious, you can get a breakfast or lunch for $10-$15.00. I got this full-size quiche, a salad, Vitamin Water and coffee for about $12.00.

photo by Christina Lucas

What to Do:

There are plenty of travel discounts at CityPASS New York for tours of The Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building and all of the major museums like The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art.

If you're really on a budget, these discount sites might not be for you as far as entertainment and dining goes. When I was searching for last minute Broadway tickets, even with a deep discount, my ticket would've been $80.00. Considering everything else I wanted to fit into my vacation, I wanted to spend between $20.00 to $35.00 on any one meal, event or tour. I stuck to my budget, and I couldn't believe how much we packed into four days. The best inexpensive entertainment in New York is sightseeing.

I started with Rockefeller Center. The outdoor plaza consists of beautiful statues, the famous Rockefeller skating rink, gardens and fountains.

photo by Christina Lucas

Inside Rockefeller Center you can do lots of things on a budget. Click here for a list of their shops and restaurants. Window shopping is an experience in Rockefeller Center. Don't miss this glammed-up couch in the Swarovski boutique. They'll even let you take a picture on it!

photo by Christina Lucas

You can't go to New York without visiting Times Square. Yes, it is just an intersection, but all of the lights and billboards are breathtaking, and it's free! Visit Times Square in the evening or nighttime to get the full effect of the bright lights.

photo by Christina Lucas

If you're an American, you can't go to NYC without visiting Ground Zero. You can visit the museum or take a walking tour, but you really don't need to spend anything to see the site. Across the street from Ground Zero is another free attraction, St. Paul's Chapel, otherwise known as The Little Chapel That Stood Still. Famous for remaining entirely intact despite it's vicinity to the Twin Towers, this chapel has become a museum and dedication to both the firefighters and policemen of NYC and to the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. And if you're a history buff, you'll be delighted to see the pew that was reserved for President George Washington.

photo by Christina Lucas

photo by Christina Lucas

MACY's on 34th street is an essential window shopping experience, especially if you're a fan of Miracle On 34th Street. It is their flagship store, and with eight levels, it is the world's largest department store.
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Grand Central Station is another great freebie. It's beautiful inside and out and has become an iconic New York destination.

Fifth Avenue is the best shopping destination in NYC, home to shops like FAO Schwarz, Louis Vuitton, Bulgari, and Tiffany's. If you're a fan of Audrey Hepburn's film Breakfast at Tiffany's, you'll want a picture in front of Tiffany & Co.

photo by Christina Lucas

Whether you want to shop at the Apple store or not, you'll love seeing it. The picture below is the top of the store. You get into a glass elevator and go underground to get to the actual store. If you want to do some real shopping, FAO Schwarz is actually a great place to get children's souvenirs. The store is known for rather large pricey items, but you can find very reasonably priced (and very unique) items there as well. If you want to do clothes shopping on a budget, head to 34th and 7th street in Midtown. You'll find a huge Old Navy, H & M, and Century 21.
photo by Christina Lucas

If you have children who are fans of the show Eloise, they'll get a kick out of seeing the real life Plaza Hotel.
photo by Christina Lucas

If you go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a great way to get back towards Midtown or Little Italy is walking through Central Park. It's another free attraction that is full of surprises. It is essentially just a huge park, but it contains beautiful walking trails, bridges, statues and even a castle.
photo by Christina Lucas

Little Italy and Chinatown are connected, so you can easily walk from one to the next. Chinatown, well...the whole place smells like fish. If you're accustomed to the Chinatown in D.C., you will be quite disappointed; however, there are interesting shops and outdoor spice markets, so if you have a thing for Asian products, it's worth a quick walk-through.

photo by Christina Lucas

Little Italy is a must-see. And you can eat on a budget there too. Again, pick the local hole-in-the-wall places. Those are the cheapest, most authentic, and by far the most delicious! I'd suggest Cafe Pallermo.

There are so many things to see and do in New York City. A travel guide for the Big Apple could go on and on. If you're planning a trip of your own to NYC, I'd suggest you start with http://www.nycgo.com/.


Saturday, July 23, 2011

Portugal: It's Like the California of Europe 7.23.11

When Europeans want to go on an affordable vacation, Portugal can often be on the list. Amazingly, Americans can also put it on the list of budget travel spots, as well as a beautiful travel destination. Portugal is full of amazing cities and has anything you could possibly want in a vacation choice. From bustling cities to alluring beaches, you'll find it all. Coupled with affordability, this makes Portugal our next stop in our Frugal Destinations Series. Add another country to your list of awesome places to go!

The economy in Portugal isn't all that stable and tourism is a major factor in getting the budget under control and helping to get the country back on its economic tracks. The country is also highly reliant on the service industry, so traveling there will help them reduce their debt and also help you by allowing you to take a frugal vacation. Us budget travelers who don't really want to go camping can visit Portugal for around $55-70 per person per day, including dining out at some nice restaurants and staying in a decent hotel. The busy travel season runs from mid-July to mid-September. Skip those times and end up skipping most of the crowds, higher hotel rates and the sweltering heat.

Aside from vacationing on the cheap, why pick Portugal? Well, if the above picture doesn't suck you in, here are some other great reasons to buy a plane ticket and pack your bags:

It's easy to walk within cities - You'll save on transportation costs (be it bus or rental car) by just walking around the city to get to attractions, plus you can walk off all your delicious meals.

Unique surfing opportunities - It's true! You probably wouldn't think of surfing in Portugal, even though it's right on the ocean, but it has held the World Surfing Championships at Praia de Guincho in Cascais. The undertow can be strong, so it is recommended only for experienced surfers.

Seafood heaven - Because of their location on the water, seafood is quite abundant in Portugal, which is awesome if you love fish and other seafood. 

Visit the second largest aquarium in the world - The aquarium is always a fun thing for me and, if you have children, it's probably high on their list, too. The Oceanario de Lisboa features four large aquariums that represent the different ecosystems of he Pacific, Indian, Atlantic and Antarctic oceans, and one large one representing the oceans as a whole. For the price of admission (right around $15 for an adult) it's one of the most affordable aquariums you can visit, and with over 500 species on exhibit, you can even take a guided tour and learn even more. Plus, if you purchase your tickets online before you go, you'll save 10%.

Step back in time - See the amazing prehistoric rock-art sites in the Coa Valley. Paleolithic carvings adorn the rocks in Penascosa, Ribeira de Piscos and Canada do Inferno. Dating from 22,000 to 10,000 BC, the engravings can really tell you a lot about the past and also help us link to the present and future.
Visit Lisbon on an even smaller budget - Get yourself a Lisboa Card and get free or discounted entrance to museums, sights and tours. You can purchase a 1-,2- or 3-day card to gain entrance to over 80 attractions and it also includes transportation on all Metro, buses and trams. Visit awesome sites like the Christ the King Statue and the National Pantheon and then get discounts on participating shopping venues and get a free tour guide to help you plan your trip around the city.

Enjoy horseback riding and wine - Madeira is a fantastic destination within Portugal for a relaxing vacation. Enjoy the mountains, horseback riding, Madeira wine, hiking, diving, visit the lava pools and more. 

Remember that Portugal uses the Euro, so you'll be doing quite a bit of exchange rate conversions. You might want to utilize the calculator on your mobile phone to keep your budget from getting out of control. Luckily, with so many affordable options for a Portugal vacation, you can really do a lot more than on some other comparable trips to other countries.  It kinda is like the California of Europe, because it has a little bit of everything, just like different cities in California can give you totally different experiences and they're both easy to travel in! 

I apologize for the shortness of this post. It has been a busy week. Portugal really is very cool and a place I recommend visiting. I certainly have it on my travel list. I'm still working on my book and getting it closer to completion. We're working on a cover, edits and some additions that give examples of vacations booked with and without budget tips. If there's anything you REALLY want to see more of both on the site and in the book, please let me know, so I can make both the best they can be.

If you haven't brushed up enough on your Portuguese, or you don't feel completely confident in your language skills, the Point It Guide is pretty useful. When your words fail you, find the picture of what you want to convey to point to the person you're talking to and bridge the language gap. Not super sophisticated, but great in a pinch!

Do you have plans to visit Portland or do you live in the area and just want to get out more and still save money? Subscribe to my Examiner feed and get 2-3 great money-saving ideas per week! Not only does it help you find affordable things to do, but it helps me increase my readership and puts a few pennies in my pocket at the same time, which keeps me writing for you guys. (I actually do it for free, but a little compensation for the effort doesn't hurt either.)

Want to see your trip photos on my blog?
I can always use great pictures, especially from my readers. Use the email me button on the right to send me a few of your favorites. I'll credit you if I use them! (Make sure you include what or where it is.)

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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Harry Potter’s London 7.20.11

Can you believe the last movie raked in an amazing $158M in box office revenue in its very first weekend? By Friday, it had pulled in nearly $60M and half of that was in pre-sales! If only we had a cut of those earnings, we’d be able to go nearly anywhere we wanted and not have to get there on a broomstick. Although, I'm sure you helped contribute to that total, just like I did. Since there isn’t a floo network – that we know about – we still have to get places the old fashioned way: via planes, trains and automobiles. And because it’s been all Potter all the time in the news, papers and magazines, I’ve decided to dedicate this Wednesday’s post to my favorite fictional character and the Boy Who Lived’s hometown: London.

You all know my love and fascination with the metropolitan city across the pond, so it should come as no surprise to you that I plan another trip there in the coming years and will incorporate some Harry Potter goodness into my itinerary. Hey! I’ve already seen all the major tourist sites, so now’s my chance to see a totally different London – although I’ll probably still visit the zoo, which was missed on my last trip, due to the decision that we should check out something a little more unique instead and headed to Chislehurst Caves and Eltham Palace. Both totally worth the train and bus rides.  Not to mention getting to hear the train station’s lovely recording for incoming commuters – “Orpington, this is Orpinton.” – which made us feel like we were in a (classic) sci-fi movie.

So, let’s start with fun and funky Potter inspired tourism and then we’ll talk about some not-to-miss London sites as well as how to save on the outrageous ticket prices. I’ll tell you now that London is NOT a budget destination by any means, but with planning and saving, it can be done and you can still do it on about half the budget you thought, assuming you aren’t dying to eat at a variety of Michelin-starred restaurants or think you should take a black cab everywhere (or really anywhere…those things are cute to look at, but a total drain on your wallet).

First up on my list of must-dos for the Potter fanatic – you know who you are – is the as-yet-to-be-opened Warner Bros. owned Leavesden Studios. I loved, loved, loved Harry Potter: The Exhibition when I trekked up to Seattle for the weekend to see it, but nothing is going to be quite as awesome as walking the “halls” of Hogwarts and the sets from the movies. Can you beat actually standing in the Great Hall or Dumbledore’s office? I think not! Of course you’ll have to take the train out to Watford, a good 20 miles outside of London, but you can make a day of it. Doors are expected to open in Spring of 2012, so that’s about all I know.

Harry Potter Walking Tour of London is another must. I’ve wanted to do this since I heard about it. Unfortunately, when I was there, it was not on the list of tours I could take through the city. Also, we walked everywhere, so by the time we got back to the room and looked at the schedule, we basically decided to relax, go eat dinner and then come back and crash until morning. On one of our walks back from the Tube, we stopped at a place called the Italian Pizza Connection in Paddington and grabbed a pizza and some tiramisu, that turned out to be the best tiramisu we’ve ever had.

But, I digress…do you want to see the real Diagon Alley? The Leaky Cauldron? The Millennium Bridge that was destroyed by Death Eaters? Platform 9 ¾ at King’s Cross Station? Okay, while there isn’t a real platform 9 ¾, there IS a barrier between platforms 9 and 10 that you can take a picture in front of. Brush up on your Harry Potter trivia and take a walk with other fans on this magical (surely, it must be!) tour that rings in at $32 per person. While not totally cheap, it’s a great way to experience London and get some exercise while also hanging with a fun crowd and seeing amazing sites from one of your favorite series of movies.

If $32 is too steep for your budget, consider a different tour with London Walks. They are the best walking tour company anywhere (they got an award and everything!) and they offer several Potter walks. You could do two for the price of the big one above. They will have the same stops along their route(s) – if not more – as well as smaller groups for each tour. You don’t have to book ahead. You just show up with your money…so if you find you’re too tired when you planned to go, you can rearrange your plans and go the next time it’s offered.

Do your own walking tour and stop by these awesome sites for free! (unless there’s an admission price)
·    London Zoo – When Harry is introduced to us in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, he visits the zoo with Uncle Vernon, Aunt Petunia and Dudley and fids out he can communicate with snakes, when he lets loose a large Brazilian python and traps Dudley in the snake exhibit.
·    King’s Cross Station – Take a picture of you and/or your travel companions in front of the famed barrier on the platform between 9 and 10. You won’t be able to board the Hogwart’s Express like Harry and his school friends, but you WILL be able to stand where they stood.
·    Millennium Bridge – You can cross this one without fear of it snapping in half and sending you hurtling into the Thames. It is nicknamed the Wibbly Wobbly Bridge, though, for the sway and give it has during windy days.
·    Picadilly Circus – Go here by night for the full effect, then maybe take in a show or get something to eat. I’d recommend that sad little diner the trio ducked into, if I knew what it was called.
·    Australia House – Home of the marble-floored exhibition hall of the Australian Embassy, but known better as the wizarding bank Gringott’s.
·    Borough Street Market – Remember the knight bus in The Prizoner of Azkaban? Harry wishes he couldn’t, but you can visit the end point of his journey – The Leaky Cauldron – in Borough Street Market on Stoney Street near the Market Porter Pub.
·    London Eye – One of the awesome sites that whizzed by during Order of the Phoenix’s getaway broom ride. You can see all of London from the rotating pods and get some excellent pictures of the city and the river.
·    Big Ben – Another site seen from Harry’s broom. A visit to London just isn’t complete without a photo of it.
·    Buckingham Palace – Yet another London staple shown during the opening scenes of Order of the Phoenix.
·    Leadenhall Market – You probably can’t buy an owl or school robes or a Quick Quotes Quill there, but it is still the setting for Diagon Alley in the Sorcerer’s Stone. You can take home your own finds from here, to remind you of your trip.
·    Phone booth to enter the Ministry of Magic – Still cool, though it doesn’t take you anywhere, you can find this red telephone box where the Strand, Agar St and William IV St meet near Charing Cross Station.

There are probably loads more places to visit on your trip to soak up the history of Harry Potter, but that ought to keep you busy for a day or more. When you’re ready to do some other cool sightseeing, check out these awesome sites that I highly recommend:

Thames River Cruise – If you have a London Pass, the cruise to Greenwich is included on your card. If not, you can view the different cruises and pricing here. Greenwich was definitely a cool place to visit, plus you can stand at 0° longitude, or what is known as the Prime Meridian. Home of Greenwich Mean Time, which is the worldwide time reference. Of course, you can also see the Queen’s House, National Maritime Museum, Old Royal Naval College, University of Greenwich and whole mess of other cool stuff. I highly recommend a trip into the Queen’s House. It will be host to some of 2012’s Olympic games, and while we were there we experienced an amazing photo exhibit of Princess Diana.

Hyde Park – A great freebie for those wanting to take a stroll, people watch or have a picnic lunch. The park is massive and you can easily spend the whole day just wandering around the place. Hit up Kensington Palace where you can see where many royalty have lived, the royal wedding dress collection and more.  We really enjoyed our tour through the palace, and if you are smart enough to go earlier in the day, you can have lunch or tea at The Orangery. Keep an eye out for the oversized squirrels frolicking on the lawns, if only to marvel at their size in comparison to normal squirrels.

Victoria & Albert Museum – Another free activity, V&A claims to be the “World’s Greatest Museum of Art and Design”. My trip was so packed full of stuff, I never made it here, but it’s certainly on my list for my next visit. View clothing and architecture, jewelry, paintings, prints, furniture and quite a bit more. Some special exhibits have an admission fee, but otherwise, you can walk right in and spend as much time as you want without ever opening your wallet.

OXO Tower – Want to see all of London from the top? The OXO Tower viewing platform has an awesome 8th floor gallery to see across the Thames. If you’re feeling splurge-y, make a reservation at one of their restaurants and take in the view while having a fantastic meal.

Do you want to pack a lot of sightseeing into your trip? Consider a London Pass. It works just like CityPASS and gets you into a multitude of attractions, as well as giving you discounts to dining, shops and other touristy stuff. If you don’t plan on walking everywhere – which you probably could do if you were very ambitious – you can also add transportation to your pass and jump on tubes, busses and trains with a swipe of your card. We took advantage of the London Pass while we were in the city and saved gobs of money, because it enabled us to do much more than we even planned to do, including the Aquarium, Sherlock Holmes’ house and Shakespeare’s Globe Theater. We were always busy doing something and had a great time.

Dining on a budget is super easy in the city. Use TopTable to make restaurant reservations and get deals like 50% off, 2-for-1 dining and special prix fixe menus. You can also eat in cafes, split entrees or stay where you have a kitchen(ette) and make some of your own meals. There are groceries all over, so picking up some food stuffs is relatively easy and usually on your way back to where you are staying.

For more London tips on saving and what to do, you can check out these other posts I did on Jetsetera and My Itchy Travel Feet. Even in the absence of Harry Potter it can be a magical place to visit. We had a wonderful time and can’t wait to go back. You’re probably lucky I didn’t try to fit in more photos. It’s hard to choose favorites when you come back with hundreds!

Do you have plans to visit Portland or do you live in the area and just want to get out more and still save money? Subscribe to my Examiner feed and get 2-3 great money-saving ideas per week! Not only does it help you find affordable things to do, but it helps me increase my readership and puts a few pennies in my pocket at the same time, which keeps me writing for you guys. (I actually do it for free, but a little compensation for the effort doesn't hurt either.)

Want to see your trip photos on my blog?
I can always use great pictures, especially from my readers. Use the email me button on the right to send me a few of your favorites. I'll credit you if I use them! (Make sure you include what or where it is.)

Don't forget to join me on the awesome new Savvy Living Community sponsored by Ebates. Not only will you learn how to save money by better utilizing Ebates, but you will also be able to read Savvy blog posts and join in discussions and live chats with Savvy Leaders (like me!) to learn how to save money on all aspects of your life. With 16 bloggers who are experts on everything from travel to family life, you're sure to learn a lot of new information, find some great new blogs and even make some friends along the way. Join Ebates.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Hotel. Motel. Holiday Inn. 7.16.11

You’ve decided where you should go on your vacation and booked your airline tickets. Now what? I suppose having a place to stay is high up on your list. I know a lot of people don’t even bother making hotel reservations and just wing it when they get to their destination. This is scary to me because, 1.) I like to be prepared and 2.) I don’t want to end up in a dump. Although, I guess staying anywhere with a roof is better than getting there and not finding anything and having to sleep on a park bench or the train station. In any case, I like to do my research ahead of time, make my reservations and also get the best deal possible. If you travel on a whim and just choose a hotel when you get there, how do you know you aren’t settling? You can’t really shop around at that point.

In any case, I know you budget travelers are also planners, because that’s how you end up with a smokin’ deal that gives you extras and is located conveniently (usually). I have loads of websites I like to hit up, as you can see by my favorite links list on the right sidebar and you will also get the entire list when my book comes out*, but today I’m going to talk about my top five go-to sites. Why do I use them and why are they useful? While I’m sure you have plenty of your own preferred sites, you might find a new one with this list, especially when you see that they all offer something different.

Hotels.com – Yes, they are one of the most popular hotel booking sites, but with good reason. They have a fantastic low-price guarantee and also offer the Welcome Rewards program where after staying a collective 10 nights in hotels booked through their site, you receive a free night. Of course, it’s not just ANY hotel. You can’t have stayed in Motel 6s and put in a claim for a free night at the W. They add up what you’ve spent all 10 nights and then take the average of those. You can either spend a night for free within that budget or use that as a credit towards a higher-end lodging. Hotels.com is always having some promotion going, so it’s a lot easier to save than you think. Right now you can get 30% off participating hotels and a $50 gas card. That’s awesome if you plan to rent a car or go on a road trip. And if you don’t, use it at home to save money driving to and from work or taking the kids to camp.
Venere – I found this website when it was first starting out and only had accommodations in the UK and big cities in Europe. It’s come a long way since then – I found several hotels in Seaside, Oregon the other day – with worldwide listings. There are many great things about Venere, but my top three include not having to prepay, excellent hotel reviews from travelers and listings for accommodations that you can’t book online. Now, that sounds tricky, but usually, if you can’t book a hotel online, you also can’t FIND it online. Now, Venere doesn’t have the no prepay deal on all their hotels. It depends on where you are traveling, but about half of what I’ve searched now doesn’t require you to put down anything when you make a reservation. I love this! As much as I like to have everything paid for by the time I leave, what if I find a better deal elsewhere? I’m not saying I will, but I might. It’s a pain to have to cancel a booking, wait for your card to be refunded and then rebook elsewhere. To be clear, I’ve used Venere many times and have always been happy with my choice of accommodation and their rates and have never had any issues at all. They have a larger selection to choose from than a lot of sites, especially when you’re looking for places to stay in Europe and the UK. They even include apartment-hotels and B&Bs.

HotelClub – This is another site that has grown successfully over the last few years. Now covering worldwide destinations instead of just the UK, HotelClub offers a new twist on booking your accommodations. They give you cash back (which I call cash forward) towards  your next booking with each completed reservation you make through them. At first, this may seem like a ploy to get more of your money – let’s face it, it’s mostly that – but you can also see the value in getting a discount on hotel rates after making just one reservation through the site. Unlike other booking sites, HotelClub has attainable tiers that give you even more for your money. Your very first booking gets you 4% cash forward and puts you at Silver Club Membership. Bookings 2-5 put you into Gold Club Membership and get you 5% cash forward. On your 6th booking you become a Platinum Club Member and get 6% of all bookings as credit toward your next one. The only break in these is when you make a last-minute reservation, which only garners you 2% credit. You must keep your account active over a 24 month period in order for your credit to not roll off your account, but that’s easy enough if you take at least one vacation a year. Even better, you don’t even have to use your club bucks on your next booking. You can save them up and choose to use them towards any reservation you choose. 2.5% cash back

BookIt – You hear me say again and again how many great deals can be found on BookIt. I don’t say this because they pay me to. I say it because it’s true. I just told someone on Facebook that I have used them and recommended them to friends and family and we’ve all had excellent experiences with them. She was checking with me, because their prices were so low, she thought they might be too good to be true. I’ll admit, that was smart of her to be concerned, because not all sites out there are legit. BookIt partners with hotels and airlines to bring you the best deals on popular tourist destinations. Book just your hotel, book a package with airfare and even add activities. I found their prices for Disney tickets were even BETTER than those for AAA, which had by far been the best deal I’ve found, and they even had a small, but significant discount on Universal tickets. All in all, great value can be found on BookIt, whether you’re going to Jamaica or Las Vegas. If it’s a beach destination you’re after, I would definitely check here first, though they cover much more than sandy locales.

BedandBreakfast.com – I just discovered this gem a few months ago, because I never thought I’d actually want to stay in a B&B, or that I could afford one. Amazingly, BedandBreakfast.com has a lot of affordable options in very convenient locations. Some of the participating B&Bs are even cheaper than hotels. I’ve seen rates as low as $45 per night for beautiful home in a quiet neighborhood. The benefit of staying in a B&B over a hotel is that a meal is included in your price, making it an even better deal that many hotels. The accommodations are usually homey and also offer the peace and quiet of being in a lovely neighborhood instead of next to a busy freeway or bars, though they are still close enough to get to shopping and nightspots by foot or on public transportation. In addition to included breakfast, some B&Bs offer more extras, like cocktail hour or tea time. If you like to get to know new people everywhere you go and get treated like one of the family, a bed and breakfast is certainly for you. Traveling with your dog? Don’t worry. There are many pet-friendly accommodations on the site, too!

 Do you?

If you haven’t yet signed up for Ebates, it can really help you save even more on your travels (and everyday purchases). In fact 3 of these 5 sites are eligible for cash back with Ebates Travel: Hotels.com gets you 3.5%, HotelClub gets you 2.5% and BedandBreakfast.com gets you a whopping 5%. And not only hotel booking sites are on the list. There are dozens of fantastic travel merchants that partner with Ebates to get you the best deals around, including AmericanAirlines, Orbitz, Club Med, Courtyard, Enterprise rent-a-car, Delta, Golden Tours and Luggage Point. You’re seriously losing money by booking with the participating sites and NOT using Ebates. Just because you think two to three dollars isn’t worth your time, think about adding up several $3 worth of cash back. It doesn’t take long for a few dollars to be ten dollars and then even more. I’ve earned hundreds of dollars in cash back over the last 8 years I’ve been an Ebates member. That extra money has come in handy when traveling, too. I’ve used it toward spending money on my trip or for paying for things before I go!

*Shereen Travels Cheap will soon be a book! Do you want a free copy? Of course you do! We can help each other, because my book is LOADED with amazing travel tips, money-saving tactics, awesome sites, packing tips and suggested products. You want a free book, I want your great feedback: If you have praise for Shereen Travels Cheap (as a site) or if you’ve saved a good deal of money because of my tips or deals via this site, Facebook, Twitter or a guest post, leave a comment on my blog – or use the email me button – with your quote, first name and last initial and city/state or country. If I use your quote, which is highly possible, as I have very few to work with, I’ll contact you for your shipping address and you’ll get one of the first copies. I’ll even sign it for you!

Join me and Kristin from BonBonRoseGirls on Monday the 18th at 5pm PST/8pm EST for a live chat on travel fashion for your upcoming late summer and fall trips. Learn how you can incorporate the latest trends into your travel wardrobe while still packing light and flying with only a carry-on. The Savvy Living Community on Ebates is where it’s at!

There will be a lot of useful information and you can share your own ideas and fab finds with us! Like I shopped the Betsey Johnson BOGO sale last week and got two amazing necklaces that are definitely making it into my travel bag for Hawaii. They will be fantastic for dressing up my outfits when I go out in the evening. It’ll save me room, because I won’t have to pack any extra clothes! Kristin is a wonderful blogger and is on top of all the new trends, be it clothes, shoes, jewelry or makeup. It’s going to be a fun hour, for sure.

I’ve been slacking on your cool “gadgets” and deals lately, so I feel like I should make it up with a couple extra things for you to ogle over. Look fantastic, smell fantastic and prepare fantastic food with these fun goodies.

Stila make-up palettes – Take all your make-up staples with you in one slim palette. Stila includes an eye shadow quad (great for a fabulous smoky eye and a pop of color), blush and a bronzer in a sleek, easy to pack case. It even includes instructions on how to get a perfect look every time. You just supply the applicators – or use your fingers like I do.

Soak wash – You don’t always know if you’ll be staying in a hotel that has or is close to laundry facilities, and even if you do, who’s to say that there will be enough to make doing your laundry convenient during waking hours? Soak Wash is a revolutionary detergent for hand washing your clothes on your trips (though you can probably toss it in the washer, too) that requires absolutely no rinsing. No more squishing your clothes forever trying to get all the suds out. Throw some Soak Wash into the sink with your clothes, let it set, wring it out and hang it up to dry. Easy!

Travel spice kit – If you find that a lot of places you go could use some spice, or simply plan to cook your own food, the travel spice kit is a must for you. With 15 spices included, you can make nearly everything you want just as you would at home. Most vacation rentals or hotels with kitchenettes only have the basics in their spice racks, if they have anything beyond salt and pepper. Kick your travel cooking into high gear and dine with flavor!

Did you miss getting an Entertainment Book this year, or need one for a travel destination? Right now you can buy 2 books for just $10. You can't lose with this deal, because even if you only use one coupon, you've already paid for the book!

Everyone wants a relaxing vacation in an exotic locale. How does and Italian spa vacation sound? Totsy has decided to offer travel deals and one of the first ones sounds awesome: a 6-night stay for two at the Grand Hotel and La Pace Spa that includes 8 spa treatments for each of you, free WiFi and free unlimited soft drinks for $2,532. Purchase this package by Thursday July 21 and stay by January 9th, 2012. (With each travel package you book on Totsy, you'll receive a $100 Totsy credit.)

Take a break in Morocco from KGBDeals: £99 for a three-night break for two at the stunning Dar Tassa Moroccan guest house  an eco-friendly mountain retreate  in Marrakech worth £265, including breakfast and taxi transfers. Purchase by Wednesday, July 20th.

Do you need some new walking shoes for your trips? Get an extra 25% off sale shoes on Shoes.com through 6/18 with promo code: 25SALE They have popular shoe brands for men, women and children. You also get free shipping!

Visit Hawaii and Waikiki Beach with this awesome Living Social Deal: 5-night stay for 2 in the Waikiki Gateway Hotel, which includes daily breakfast, free parking, free internet access, Hawaiian chocolates and a $25 activity credit. Blocks to the beach and close by major shopping and dining. Book by Tuesday July 17. Must stay by November 1.

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