PCH: Planning the Details

Over this past week, there were two events that put money into the forefront of my mind: both myself and my husband and I got paid AND I booked flights to California. So now this trip is definitely happening. I don't have status with Delta (or any airline, really) so it's not like I can cancel or change my flights. What I have is what I have. And the cost of the flight? Well, that's the cost.

Which brings me to my first point:

Anytime you book a hotel, book using the refundable rate!

Even if it is more expensive at the initial time of booking, it can often end up saving you money in the long run. I have seen this time and time again as hotel prices fluctuate over time. Nothing makes you more upset than seeing the price for your hotel room drop the day after you book. Or, alternatively, finding a cheaper price on another website. If you have booked a refundable room, you can cancel your initial booking and rebook at the cheaper rate!

So, that's what I was doing this week. I was going through all of my chosen hotels and looking at their prices on TripAdvisor, Groupon, TravelZoo, and Club1Hotels. While TripAdvisor gave me a great beginning price point with which to work from, Groupon and TravelZoo, in some cases offered better deals for the hotels I was looking at – one of which included a free bottle of wine and room upgrade along with a cheaper price! Woot!

It's also a good idea to sign up for the hotel's rewards program to earn points, status match if you can with your status from another hotel, and use the google hotel search to find other hotels in the area that may better meet your needs or have a lower price. Of course, these are just things I do.

If you have a credit card that offers Visa Signature/Visa Infinite, Amex Fine Hotels, or Chase Ultimate Rewards, be sure to check those offers before booking as well. Sometimes they may cost a little bit more but offer you a free breakfast, food or beverage credit, or something else that will make it worth checking into.

Finally, click through cashbackaholic to get extra rewards for shopping. Just yesterday I discovered I could get an additional 4% back for a Hilton stay if I clicked through LeMoney before booking my room. While 4% isn't much, every little bit helps! And if you use a cashback credit card, you can get even more money back!

While I haven't finished booking all of my hotel stays for our California trip, I have moved on to begin work on our itinerary.

I began with research. What did we want to do during this trip? What could we reasonably accomplish within our time in California? I can't say I've gotten it down quite yet. There are certainly different variables that need to be considered that I have no way of knowing prior to the trip (traffic, road closures, etc…) but I can definitely do as much research as possible to determine what is open/closed and get a good idea of how many miles I can drive in one day. Visit A City has helped me with figuring out how long it will take to get from point A to point B, while bloggers and TripAdvisor have helped me narrow down what I want to do and get an idea for how long those activities will take. I shared many of the things we are considering doing in last week's post.

Knowing how expenses add up, I've spent a good bit of time googling "activity + discounts" or + coupon, + promo code, etc… In some cases, I've discovered cheaper prices on Groupon and Living Social. In other cases, people have recommended stopping by the local Costco (in southern California to be more specific) and picking up gift cards before purchasing the activity since the club store offers a discount through the purchase of the gift card (in this case, purchasing a $100 gift card for the Catalina Express ferry for $80 saving a total of $20). I also found discounts for activities through Club1Hotels, if you have a membership.

Beyond using the internet, with California I have had a unique planning experience wine tasting. It's hard to know what wineries you are interested in visiting if you haven't tasted the wine, right? So, that's what we've been doing. So far we have tasted approximately five different wines from the Napa, Sonoma, and Russian River regions of California. Not only am I getting a better idea of what wine I like, but it will save us money on wine tastings because I will avoid going to the wineries that I disliked during my at-home tastings. We even bought a book A Traveller's Wine Guide to California to help me learn more about California wine, what to look for with wine produced in specific regions, and what those numbers on the wine shelf below the wine mean (more alcohol, more of a fruity taste for higher numbers).

Next, car rental…

I'm actually still working on this bit as well. One of the sites I love to use to compare rental prices is AutoSlash. You put in your information and then they email you with the best price they can find. Or, if you already have a car rental booked, you can insert your car rental information for them to price watch for you. You then get emailed if they find a lower price that they think fits your itinerary.

For argument's sake, you can also check warehouse stores (Costco, BJ's, Sam's Club), company discounts through your work, Club1Hotels (yes! They do that too!) and forum searches (like Flyertalk, Slickdeals). One example where checking sites other than AutoSlash benefitted me was when I discovered Enterprise offers a $12.99-weekend special. If that works for you, you can save a lot of money on a car rental!

Finally, books.

A debatable topic, but I have found that travel books often help me plan trip more thoroughly than I might otherwise. Sometimes blogs and travel forums don't list activity options or places worthy of a visit. Other times blogs and travel forums offer even more information than a book does! It all depends! In my experience though, I don't feel like my travel planning is complete without a book. I prefer books with lots of pictures and detailed information regarding what there is to do in a place and why a particular hotel and restaurant is worthy of my time. Is there a historic reason I should visit? I find that books listing a higher proportion of restaurants and hotels to activities often go out of date more quickly than books that focus on tourist options.

For our trip to California, I spent an hour at Barnes and Noble looking through and picking out four books, two of which I purchased on Amazon for a cheaper price (used) and two of which I purchased at the store. My preferences trend toward the Eyewitness Travel Guides and the National Geographic Travel Guides.

In this instance, I got:
A Traveller's Wine Guide to California by Robert Holmes
DK Eyewitness Travel Guide: San Francisco & Northern California by DK Publishing
• DK Eyewitness Travel Guide: California by DK Publishing

and a book about Portland which won't be of much use to me on this trip.

So, how you plan travel and research for trips? Do you already use any of these methods to save money? Is there another website you find help that I didn't mention in this post?

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