Tips for Booking with AirBnB or VRBO

A few summers ago, when we were travelling in the UK in mid-summer, we were looking for an affordable hotel room in downtown Edinburgh so we could be walking distance to all of the main attractions. When we saw the price of the least expensive hotel room, we decided there MUST be something better.  I’d heard of AirBnB but had been a bit afraid to try it.  Renting from regular people?  What about safety? What about guarantees? What about my money? But after doing some careful research and testing the waters with a one nighter, we have discovered it is a wonderful way to book something other than a hotel room, AND often save you money in the process. But like anything else, you need to be smart, ask questions, and read the fine print.

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A cozy one bedroom apartment in Glasgow.

Erik and I often enjoy renting a small apartment instead of a hotel room when we are staying in a major city because we have a little more room to spread out, a kitchen to make simple meals (and save money on food), and often a deck or patio to relax on. And quite often we’ve been able to rent an apartment for the same price or even less than a decent hotel room in the downtown core.  You can sometimes find apartments for rent on the hotel booking websites, but there are a few alternative sites that we have found really worthwhile.

AirBnB or Vacation Rentals By Owner (VRBO) are just a two of the many sites that allow you to book private accommodations. Relatively new on the scene, these sites have become increasingly popular as an alternate to a hotel room. Most are simply third party booking sites which provide a way for private owners to list their accommodations, and for travellers to search for them. Both of these sites charge a non-refundable booking fee to the traveller to cover the costs of running their sites, and for providing some measure of safety to the renters.

What is the difference between the two sites?

Airbnb is part of what has been termed the “sharing economy” and it is essentially a site that allows owners and renters to find one another.  It is free to sign up and Airbnb charges both parties a fee for the services they provide. Airbnb handles the financial transaction and hold the money until 24 hours after the traveller’s first arrival in order to ensure everything is as it should be. Be sure to contact Airbnb right away if you have any problems – I’ve heard they are great at responding to concerns.

Sites such as VRBO charge owners a fee for listing their properties in order to increase their exposure, and up until recently there was no fee for the traveller to contact or book with an owner on this site. However while I write this post, I have just learned that VRBO is now charging a 4-10% booking fee, and they were purchased by Expedia this past December. This is news to me so I will have to find out more about it and update this post as soon as I learn more. It is also important to note that VRBO does NOT handle the financial aspects of a booking – all transactions occur between the owner and the traveller.

VRBO is actually a “family” of about a dozen sites under the HomeAway umbrella.  Scroll down to the bottom of the front page of their site to see the other related websites.

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This pretty one bedroom apartment in Rome was central to all of the sights, and cost about the same as a decent hotel room.

Both of these sites have a wide range of offerings from a room, a suite, or an entire house or apartment. If you check out AirBnB, they even claim to rent igloos, treehouses, and other unique venues.  There is also a wide range in price and quality.  Some are used solely as a vacation rental, and others are clearly someone’s apartment that has been rented out for a few nights when they aren’t using it.  You can often tell if people live in the house by looking at the photos – are their books, toys, games or other personal items in the shot?   Often this is not a problem – I love checking out what other people are reading  – but once we stayed in an apartment in Toronto owned by a young man, and the fridge was filled with his food.  We actually felt a little uncomfortable about the place and from now, we are a little more cautious when booking.

 Check out other sites before you book!

I find more and more independent B&Bs and small hotels are listing on these booking sites in order to expand their exposure so they are no longer just private hosts. As I suggested in my hotel post, it’s often a good idea to check to see if a room listed on one of these sites has their own website and then compare prices or contact the owner directly to arrange a fee, based on the price you found on the booking site. You will find some accommodations are available on many sources – on their own website, on booking.com, AirBnB, BedandBreakfast.com etc. Find and compare. If booking directly is available, then it’s definitely worth trying to save the booking fee if you can.

AirBnB Tips

On AirBnB, you should set up your free account profile with as much information as possible so that potential owners can feel confident in renting to you. Remember, they are as concerned about ensuring their property is cared for ,as you are about not getting ripped off.

With AirBnB, once you’ve input your dates and city, you can choose what type of accommodation you’re looking for, then click filters and choose the amenities that are important to you. Once you click search, a list of potential rentals shows up on the left, with a map on the right. If you want, you can also move the map around, zoom in or out, to narrow in on specific neighbourhoods etc.

When choosing a place, look at the photos and read the reviews carefully, particularly the most recent ones, as well as reviews from the time of year that you will be visiting.  Look at the owner’s profile carefully as well. Is it complete?  If it is a new listing with no reviews, consider looking for reviews on other websites – TripAdvisor is often helpful, as are the other hotel booking sites (if the host is listed).  If there are no reviews, you may want to skip this one until you can feel more confident. When reading reviews, I look for ones that say “looks exactly like the picture” and mentions the cleanliness, quiet, and helpfulness of the hosts.

On AirBnB, sometimes the exact address is listed, but often it is not.  Still, you will usually have the street name and can use Google Streetview to wander up and the down the street and see if the neighbourhood fits your needs – consider parking, transportation, restaurants, shopping, and distances to the various sites you want to see.

If you have questions, email the owner and ask for clarification. In one apartment we looked at, the listing said it had a fridge but I couldn’t see one in the photos. I emailed and asked about it and was told there was a full size fridge behind the tall cupboard door.

Check the cancellation policy carefully.  AirBnB has a range of cancellation policies from strict to flexible, but in each case, at minimum, you will lose the booking fee if you cancel. If you are not positive about your dates, you may not want to book through AirBnB.

Once you’ve decided, you can message the host first to enquire about your dates or, if the host has an “Instant Book” link, you can go ahead and book it. You will get a confirmation email and usually more details giving the exact address etc.  Once you’ve been confirmed, your credit card will be charged and the money held in trust by AirBnB until after you’ve arrived.  Read the info notes on the website for more information on how AirBnB protects you.

At the end of your stay, you and your host will be given an opportunity to review one another.  You do not get to see each other’s review until both reviews are complete so you don’t have to feel any pressure to ‘say something nice’ in order to get a good review of yourself as a traveller. Try to take the time to rate your stay and write an honest but fair review.  The more reviews you get as a traveller, the more likely hosts will rent to you. You also have an option to send a private message to the host if you want to mention something without it showing up in the review.

VRBO (Vacation Rentals By Owner) Tips

VRBO is similar to AirBnB, but you and your host will work out the payment between you.  Most hosts want a downpayment, others want the full amount up front. Some take credit cards  while others use Paypal and expect you to cover the fees.  Each host has different guidelines, so read the info carefully. Like AirBnB, you can search the website for venues that meet your specific criteria, contact the owners to ask questions, read reviews, and look at photos. Again, be cautious and smart like you would with any online booking.

Feel free to bargain.  We contacted the owner of the Orvieto apartment we were interested in to ask the price for a 4 week rental (most hosts give long term discounts).  When the host replied with the price, we politely declined and told her it was a little more than our budget of X number of dollars.  We were pleasantly surprised when she responded and was willing to negotiate the price and we ultimately agreed to split the difference. We haven’t tried this on AirBnB, but I’m sure it’s worth a try.

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Our little apartment in Edinburgh was the bottom floor of this tower in what was formerly a private school.  Just a walk away from Arthur’s Seat!

These are just two of the many alternative rental sites for booking accommodations directly with the hosts. Once you start looking, you will find more, and if you have the time, it’s definitely worth searching more than one site.  On both sites, you can set up Wish Lists or Favourites.  Erik and I share a log in and we create lists for each city or area we are travelling to, then we add accommodations to the lists so the other can check them out as well. As I’ve said before, we have almost as much fun planning out our trips, as we do going on them.

If you decide you want to try out AirBnB, consider signing up on this –>> AirBnB Credit Link.  Because I’m already a member, you will get a $28 credit on your first rental, and I’ll get a credit for referring you.  No pressure. 🙂

Have you had any positive or negative experiences using these sites? Add your comments below!

Side note:  Erik and I haven’t had any problems with our rentals so far, but from what I read on Steffani Cameron’s blog post here on her Full Nomad blog, the AirBnB staff handles it very well. Check out her blog for more info.

Tips for Booking B&Bs or Farm Stays Online

It seems that, most commonly, people stay in hotels when they are travelling and in my previous post, Tips for Booking Hotels Online, I went into great detail on the topic. However, there are a myriad of other accommodation options out there if you are interested in trying something different. Here are a few tips to finding some of these alternate accommodations online.

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Often B&B’s will have a deck or patio like this lovely “Locanda” in Riomaggiore, Italy. July 2013.

As I’ve mentioned previously, Erik and I started travelling together in 2007 and initially we used a travel agent to plan our trips. I’ll never forget our first trip to Europe when the agent was asking us about our accommodation preferences.  We were relatively inexperienced in European travel and weren’t sure what options were available. However, our agent was clearly pro-hotel and said that he didn’t understand at all why anyone would want to sleep “in someone else’s house”.  Over time, I have learned I much prefer a B&B over a sterile hotel room because I feel more at home and it gives me the chance to talk with the locals (and often practice another language) and learn about restaurants and places to visit that are off the beaten track.  On top of that, if privacy is your concern, you just need to read the descriptions and reviews and choose accommodations that best meet your needs. Experience has taught us to be open and try different forms of accommodation, depending on where we are travelling, and B&Bs and farm stays have always been some of our favourite places to stay.

Bed and Breakfast

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We were served breakfast on the patio with other guests at our B&B in Uzes, France, July 2007.

By definition, a B&B is a room that includes breakfast, although obviously what constitutes breakfast from one place to the next can vary. They can range from a room and shared bath in a family home, to several rooms in what is more like a small boutique hotel. You will find styles of B&Bs vary in different counties – I find in North America, they can be quite fancy and as pricey (if not more expensive) as a hotel, but in Europe, they tend to be more homey and generally less expensive.

The term B&B is becoming more universal but you may also have to look for the term in the language of the country you are travelling in. For example, France calls them a chambre d’hote and Italy often refers to them as a pensione or locanda.  

B&Bs often work best for singles or couples as many are not set up to accommodate children. Read the description carefully to determine if you will be welcome if you are travelling with young ones. In addition, when the B&B is simply a bedroom within a home, the soundproofing isn’t always as good as a hotel. That being said, don’t discount them entirely as there are many that do cater to families – just read the descriptions to know if kids are welcome.

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This chambre d’hote in southern France had 4 rooms with private patios and a shared swimming pool and kitchen.

Like hotels, B&Bs come with a variety of amenities so you need to determine what is important to you (again see my hotel post) and then ensure the room you are considering has the things you need. Some have fridge and microwave, some kitchen access, and others are little more than a room with a bed and chair. Do they offer wifi or TV? Are there communal areas? Private or shared bath?  And once again, I can’t stress enough how important it is to read the reviews.  The photos and descriptions are usually accurate but not always. When you read the reviews, look for common themes, positive or negative, about the criteria that is important to you. Often the reviewers will say “the room was exactly as described”, “breakfasts were amazing”, or “the wifi was weak”. Read them.

In most cases, we always try to find a room with an ensuite bathroom, although we have stayed in some B&Bs that offer private bathrooms down the hall.  We generally avoid rooms with a shared bathrooms but that may not be an issue to you.  Often the rooms in a B&B are larger than a standard hotel room and sometimes also have a private sitting room and/or patio or deck.  Check to see if there are any shared areas of the house. Often you are invited to use a common living room or you may have use of the family kitchen.

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This was only part of the amazing breakfast offered at our B&B in Bournemouth, UK, July 2014.

Breakfast can range from a help-yourself (self-catered) continental breakfast to a full gourmet breakfast that will last you most of the day. It may be served in your room or in a common area with other guests. And unless the meal is self-catered, you will usually be asked when you would like breakfast and be given a time range to choose from. You don’t always have a choice in the prepared food but the owners will likely ask you if you have any food allergies etc.  If you have specific dietary needs, it’s best to let your host know ahead of time so they can make appropriate arrangements.

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This was actually breakfast in a cafe in Vienna, but you get the idea.

The breakfasts in France and Italy tend to be coffee and pastry, sometimes with yogurt, muesli, fruit, cheese, and/or cold meat. The UK often offers a large English breakfast including eggs, toast, beans, sausage or bacon and black pudding. I’ve yet to finish an English breakfast.

You can now book many B&Bs directly on many of the hotel booking sites that I listed in my previous post.  In addition, there are B&B listing websites for many countries and a google search can often point you in the right direction. One such listing service is BedAndBreakfast.com which allows you to search and book B&Bs in different countries all over the world.

To further confuse things, some hotels offer a “B&B option” which is simply breakfast included in your hotel room fee.  To me, these aren’t true B&Bs because they are missing the personal experience.

Prices for B&Bs can vary widely from pricey 5 star establishments with multiple rooms and hotel-like service to small, homey family run rooms with a shared bathroom.

Farm Stays – Also called Agriturismo in Italy or Casa Rural in Spain

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We had a small 2 bedroom house to ourselves on this farmstay in New Zealand. March 2015.

Similar to a B&B, these accommodations are found on a working farm or ranch. They are generally more rustic, but they are also very homey and can be an interesting experience. Because they are found in rural areas, they are usually quiet and peaceful. Farmstays are generally family run and are often set up to supplement the farm income.  Some are simply a room in the farmer’s home, while others are a more organized business with
multiple rooms available for booking. Sometimes you will be given an opportunity learn about the farm as part of the experience, offering tours or demonstrations (free or for a charge). Not surprisingly, you will often need a car if you are staying in a rural setting. Check to see what transportation options are available, especially when looking for restaurants, although some farmstays offer a dinner option as well.

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The owner was threshing the seeds from the lavender at this agriturismo in Tuscany.

We’ve enjoyed our time staying in Agriturismos in Italy – one was in an olive grove (it would be be cool to be there in the fall when they are pressing the oil) and another was a lavender farm. We were lucky enough to be there in summer when the farmer was threshing the seeds from the plants. Both places had multiple rooms and the B&B was definitely an important source of income for them.

Depending on the country you are visiting, you can search for and find websites that list most of the farm stays in a particular area and, like B&Bs, they can often be booked on the same booking sites I mentioned in my previous blog post.

In my next post, I will share some tips and tricks for booking accommodations at vacation listing sites such as AirBnB, VRBO, and Homestay. If you have questions or thoughts to share, please leave a comment below and feel free to share this post if you found it helpful!

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This was the view from our bedroom in an agriturismo in Tuscany.  Yes, we needed a car to drive 2 km to a restaurant, but the peace and beauty of the countryside was stunning.

Tips for Booking Hotels Online

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The Covenanter Hotel in Falkland, Scotland in July 2014. We found out later it was a filming location for Outlander. Cool!

As I mentioned in my previous blog post, Tips for Booking Flights Online, when Erik and I started our travels in Europe in 2007, we used a travel agent.  The agent would ask us questions to determine our preferences and our price range, and then he would book our hotels accordingly.  However, over the past 5 years, the opportunity to research and book your own travel plans online has exploded, and Erik and I find almost as much joy in researching and planning our trip as we do in actually being there. Almost. If you are ready to delve into world of travel planning online, read on!

When I started to write this post, I found I had so much to say that I needed to break it into three chunks. This post will specifically be about booking hotels, and the next post will be about B&Bs, apartments, and other vacation rentals, and a third post will be about finding places to stay for free!

Just a note – many of my links below are for the Canadian version of a site. You may have to adjust this if you live elsewhere.

There are many ways to save money when travelling. The most obvious is to use loyalty programs such as airmiles, credit card points, online specials such as “groupon”, or hotel “accounts” to get good hotel deals. If you like chain hotels and travel often, it’s often worthwhile to sign up for the hotel’s loyalty card. At the very least, you will get a free room or an upgrade from time to time. You may also be eligible for hotel discounts based on your work, your age, or your other associations.

I was a teacher for 10 years before I learned that as a government employee, I could get half price rooms in BC. Now when I travel to Vancouver, I generally book directly with the hotel sites and get a better deal than I can find at any other online booking site.  Are you over 50? Over 65?  Check for senior rates. Every hotel is different so you need to know what you may qualify for.

And even if you do decide to use one of websites discussed below to search for and book hotel rooms, always go back and check the actual hotel site to see what they offer before you book on the third party sites. You might find the same or even better price by booking directly. You may even want to call or email them with the price you’ve found online and see if they’ll match or beat it. After all, they may be saving the money for a 3rd party fee if they can get you to book online.

However, this post is about the alternatives – booking hotels via 3rd party booking sites.

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OK we didn’t really stay here.  This is Bilbo’s home – Bag End in The Shire, filming location for The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit when we were in New Zealand, March 2015

Hotel Booking Sites

Third party hotel booking websites allow you to search for and book a hotel room at just about any hotel using a set of predetermined criteria. I will list a few of these sites below, but first, here are some tips and tricks to keep in mind when using these websites.

Most hotel booking sites give you an option to filter your search results based on your specific needs. Most will have either check boxes or sliding bars where you can indicate your price range, your desired star rating, the neighbourhood, the amenities and other considerations you find important. Once you do the search, the available hotels pop up with room and pricing information. Some rooms are cancellable, others are not. In general, the better the deal, the tighter the restrictions so read the information carefully and make sure you know what you’re booking.

My first bit of advice when booking hotels online is to compare more than one booking site. Yes, you will often find the exact room for the exact same price on every site, but this isn’t always the case. And then, once you’ve found the best price, go to the hotel’s actual website and check the prices there. Sometimes you can find the same or even better deals.

My second bit of advice is to READ the details CAREFULLY and make sure you fully understand the conditions.  Cheap rooms often come with a trade off – some you can live with, others you cannot. Only you know what’s important to you. Make careful note of any cancellation dates and write them on your calendar so you don’t miss them in case last minute changes if necessary. They can vary widely. Remember to check things like room size, parking, smoking, extra beds, cribs, street noise etc.  I always write down all of the details about a room or I take a screen shot, so I can show it to the hotel when I get there in case there is any disagreement. I’ve been able to use this to my advantage twice – once in Portland when  they lost my booking (I had a paper and a digital copy), and once when we splurged on a special view room on the Amalfi Coast and all we had was an alley view with a skinny bit of ocean between two buildings.  Erik complained and showed them the picture of the room in our booking and they moved us.

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Super minimalist but spotlessly clean airport hotel room in Copenhagen, 2007. $140 CAD!  Yikes!

My third bit of advice is to read the reviews carefully. Often you can filter these reviews by who has written them – mature couple, family, singles etc which may help better match to your own needs.  Don’t just go by the review score, read some of the most recent reviews.  We also like to read reviews from the season we intend to be travelling in so we can get a feel for noise and weather considerations (for example will we want a/c?).

We usually read reviews but last fall we were lazy when booking a B&B for a weekend in Victoria, and we ended up with a sub-standard experience.  Afterwards, we checked out the reviews for the B&B more carefully, we realized it had been sold 6 months before. That stirling 9.4 score was no longer relevant and most of the more recent reviews were poor. Lesson learned. Don’t just assume a 9.4 means it’s awesome.

Google Street View – often when we are considering a specific hotel, we will find it on google street view and go for a “walk” down the street.  You can’t always tell what a hotel is like by its exterior, but you can get an idea about the neighbourhood – we look at the buildings nearby – stores, restaurants, hotels, bars – the size of the street to get an idea of potential noise level, and the location of local transportation, sidewalks, pathways to the sites we might want to visit etc.

Finally, before you start searching, make a list of the criteria that is important to you, and set your filters accordingly to speed up the search process.  If you don’t find what you’re looking for, drop a filter that isn’t as important and search again. See Erik’s and my list at the bottom of this article for some ideas.

Here are some of the most popular sites.

Booking.com – this is probably the site that Erik and I have used the most.  We have set up an account and always log in when we are using the site so we can get better deals. We usually cross check the prices with a few others sites, as well as with the hotel site directly. Sometimes we are positive we aren’t going to change our minds and book a non-refundable (and therefore cheaper) room. Other times, we want more flexibility and we pay more to be able to change our mind later. We always note the cancellation date and record it on our calendar so we don’t miss it.

Expedia.ca – Again you check off the filters you want and see what’s available. Expedia has many other travel booking options as well, including flights and rental cars. We found that when we booked our flight to Italy through Expedia last year, we were able to take advantage of additional 10-15% off certain hotels booked through the same site. It has a point system so if you use it a lot, you can earn cash and free nights.

Venere.com – Erik and I have booked European accommodations through Venere several times although we haven’t yet used it for hotels closer to home.  We’ve been happy with all of our bookings to date. In addition to hotels, you can also book B&Bs and apartments.

Hotels.com -I have not used hotels.com myself but I know people who are quite happy with it so I think it’s worth mentioning. It works the same as the other sites but it also has some special options to save you more money – if you set up an account, you can collect nights (get a free night for every ten you book), and/or other special deals.

Trivago.ca – here is another very popular site, but I have not used it myself. I like the way it is set up though and it seems easy to use.

Meta-Sites for Searching for Hotel Deals

Kayak.com – this site allows you to check up to 5 different booking sites at one time and compare prices. It is able to search Priceline, Hotels, Travelocity, Expedia, and Booking.

Bookingbuddy.com is another meta-search site that searches a number of travel booking sites sites. Once you plug in your dates and destination, you can choose up to 7 different sites to search all at once. Similar to Kayak.

There are many more booking sites – these a just a few. If none of these sites meet your needs, just google “hotel booking sites” and you will find a long list to try.

“Name Your Own Price” and Other Hotel Deals.

My first introduction to online hotel booking and saving was with Hotwire and Priceline.  These sites are a little more restrictive but the savings can often be bigger. They are not for the faint-of-heart and can be a nerve-wracking way to book a hotel because you must book the room without knowing the name of the hotel until after you’ve paid. Both sites now offer regular hotel booking system like the sites listed above is you are less daring but the real deals come from a willingness to take a chance. I prefer to use these two sites when I’m going to a familiar North American city such as Vancouver because I know the area well and have a pretty good idea of what I want. In addition, I only use these sites when I’m certain I will not be changing my plans.

With Hotwire, you plug in your dates and city, choose a neighbourhood, a star level, some specific amenities such a free parking or wifi, and if you want, a minimum review score.  When you click search, you will see a list of hotels that meet those criteria. The description will not only tell you the price but will often include additional hotel info such as restaurants, pets etc. The only thing missing is the hotel name. If you want to book the room, you pay for it and then find out where you will be staying. As long as you have a fairly decent understanding of the hotel star system, you shouldn’t be disappointed.

Hotwire also allows you to compare their prices with those of other sites such as TripAdvisor, Hotels.com, and Triage.   In addition, they  now allow you to book flights, car rentals, and vacation packages using a similar system, however I have not tested this.

With Priceline, you follow a simpler but more restrictive process.  You choose the city and dates first. Then plug in your desired neighbourhood and star level and bid price indicating what you are willing to pay for a room – it does NOT includes taxes or fees and you have no option to choose amenities.  In order to have a successful bid, you need to have a good idea of a typical hotel rate for that criteria so you can make a realistic low offer.  Once you bid, you have to input your credit card info because you will be committed to purchase the room if a hotel accepts your bid. You cannot change your mind after it is accepted.

Priceline then takes your bid and searches to see if any hotel matching the criteria is willing to accept it. Whether your bid is accepted or not depends on how busy the area is on that particular day and how many rooms are available. A hotel would rather have a room filled at a low price than leave it empty.

Once you click “bid”, you find out pretty quickly if it was accepted and the name of the hotel that accepted your bid. In the past, we were able to book a 4 star hotel in downtown Vancouver for $75, much less than half the normal rate at the time, and less than any other deals out there.

An important note – Priceline only guarantees a room with a double bed.  You may get 2 doubles, or 2 queens but you can’t request it.  If you are travelling with more than 2 people, you are best off booking through another format because you may only get one bed. The trade off to using Priceline is that you can’t make any changes or requests – well, you can try, but there is no guarantee that they will meet your request. You get what you get.

If your bid is NOT accepted, you have to wait 24 hours before you can rebid on the same criteria with a higher dollar amount, or you can make a significant change to your criteria (bump down the star level or change neighbourhood) and rebid immediately with a higher amount.

Another hint – if you really enjoy the excitement of Priceline, you should also check out this forum that has been set up solely for people to share successful bids on priceline.

Obviously, these booking sites are not for everyone but you can definitely save a LOT of money at certain times and places.  We’ve found they are especially useful when we’ve gone for a weekend in a larger city.  We know the area of town we want to be in and we always choose 4 star or higher so we are sure it’s a nice hotel and then we throw out a lowball bid and take our chances.  But if you are travelling with children, or have a disability, or for some reason need very specific amenities or bed type, then this format is probably not for you.

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Are there cafes or restaurants nearby? Paris, 2013.

Things to Consider When Choosing a Hotel

When we travel, we stay in a wide variety of places – from cheap airport hotels for quick getaway, to mid-priced boutique hotels off the beaten track, to chain hotels in the downtown core, to a fully equipped apartment in a major city, to classy B&Bs for a fun get away weekend, to special treat accommodations with a view of the ocean.  We try to save money and go cheap on some nights so we can splurge on others.

Regardless of where you like to stay, it’s a good idea sit down with your travel partner (if you aren’t travelling alone) and determine your priorities. What is your budget? What do you look for in accommodations? What are your must-haves? Would-be-nice? Can live without? Can’t have? Where do you need to compromise?

Here is a list of things Erik and I usually take into consideration when booking hotels.  

  • a comfortable bed, the bigger the better (watch this in Europe where double beds tend to be small and queen/king are much less frequent than in North America). They are often listed in centimetres rather than north american sizes.  180+ cm is king, 152 cm is a queen, 137 cm is a double.
  • a private ensuite bathroom – I don’t know why but I tend to judge accommodations by the bathroom. I’m not a fan of a shared bath unless I’m really trying to save money.
  • excellent reviews, in our case, we look for reviews by mature couples.  We don’t care too much about negative reviews by families for example, or by people who complain about the lack of an elevator. Make sure the reviews match your needs.
  • clean! I look for good reviews that mention the cleanliness of the hotel. Dated and/or worn is sometimes ok if the hotel is very clean.
  • good wifi, preferably free. Find out if they have limits. We found NZ allowed 250 mb per day.  That isn’t much if you like to upload your photos to the cloud when you get to your hotel.
  • air conditioning in summer (in most places we visit). If there’s no a/c, I read the July/August reviews and see if people mention the heat. Sometimes a ceiling fan is enough, others times, not so much.
  • room size – often booking sites will have the room size in square feet or metres.
  • location – proximity to restaurants and shops, major sites, and public transportation. This depends a lot on where we are. Again, check google street view.
  • parking – if we have a rental car – proximity? price?
  • quiet location – what do the reviews say? Is there a noisy bar nearby?
  • price – we have stayed in really cheap hotels and we’ve splurged and stayed in beautiful places.  We try to balance it out on our trips. Know your budget.
  • cancellation policy – this varies depending on the flexibility of our plans.
  • free breakfast?  – depending on where we are, we sometimes make good use of a this if it is offered. However, we seldom pay for a hotel breakfast, and would rather grab a coffee and croissant or a piece of fruit somewhere along our travels.
  • in room fridge, microwave, coffee maker? – I love having a fridge to keep cold drinks or some yogurt or fruit, even if it’s just the minibar. The other appliances can be handy if you are trying to save money on restaurant meals.
  • pool, hot tub, weight room – these are treats for certain places but definitely not a necessity for us.

We can live without many of the things listed above, depending on the type of trip, the city, and the time of year, but our basic needs of a comfortable, quiet place to sleep, a private bathroom, and good wifi are the three most important things to us. What is important to you?  Got any tips to share? Leave a comment below!

Hotels are only one type of accommodation, and to be honest, we probably stay in hotels only one third of our stays.  In my next blog post, I will write about booking other forms of accommodations such as B&Bs or farmstays, and I’ll discuss how to use sites such as AirBnb and VRBO.  In a third post, I’ll give some suggestions on how to find FREE (or almost free) places to stay.

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Our amazing hotel room on the Amalfi Coast.  We had booked a sea view room but were put in a room on a side street alley with a tiny sliver of sea view between two buildings. Thanks to Erik’s polite but firm complaint, we were upgraded to this amazing room for our next night.  Sigh – I wish we were back there!

 

Tips for Booking Flights Online

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Erik and I setting off from Kelowna.

Erik and I have flown to Europe five times now and each time, we have found better deals for our flights. In this post, I thought I’d share some of the things we’ve learned and a few tips and tricks for successfully booking flights online.

On our first trip in 2007, Erik and I worked with a travel agent and we don’t regret that because it was our first trip and we didn’t really know what to expect.  However on our next two trips, in 2009 and 2013, we decided to step out of our comfort zone and we booked flights ourselves on a Canadian charter service called AirTransat. The seats were a bit squishy, but the price was better than any regular airline flights we were able to find anywhere else.

In 2014, we flew to London and tried using third-party booking sites and found the best price using Expedia. Last year, we booked flights to New Zealand in March, and to Rome in August, and our upcoming trip using Flighthub.com.

There are a number of things to consider and be watchful of when booking flights with discount 3rd party services and I will go over some of the things we have learned so far. However, we are still learning so this list is by no-means an exhaustive one.

Travel Agents

If you have never travelled abroad, have no idea where you want to go, have no time or interest in researching information online, and money is not a concern, then by all means use a travel agent. They have tons of first-hand knowledge and connections, and can often make suggestions or find deals that novices will miss.

Booking Online directly with the Airline

If you know where and when you want to go, the next easiest thing to do is to go directly to your favourite airline site and book online. You can try a variety of airlines to compare prices and then choose the flights that suit you best.  Often you can use promo codes, airlines points or airmiles to reduce the costs.  The advantages of booking directly at an airline site is that you are not dealing with a third party so it’s easier to book seats, make flight changes, or deal with any problems that may arise because you are working directly with the airline.

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We’ve flown with Air Transat several times.

Booking Online using Third Party Sites

You can definitely save money using third party booking sites but you need to be very careful when using them, read all of the fine print, and make sure you have a clear understanding of the rules and regulations of that particular site.  You can find a long list of complaints about many (most? all?) of these sites but in most cases, they are because people did not read the fine print.

Avoid using a third party site if there is any chance that that you will have to change or cancel your flight. Discount fares are almost always subject to fees to change flights, and some cannot be changed at all.  There are also often extra fees for booking seats and for luggage although this varies widely depending on the airline and the particular seat sale.  Again, read the fine print.

Some third party sites are harder to deal with than others if you have any problems to resolve or changes to make, and airlines will often send you back to the third party site rather than deal with your problems if you haven’t booked with them directly. Keep in mind even airline sites will charge you to make changes to a booked flight, but if you use a third party site, you will have to pay change fees to both the booking site and the airline.

Tracking at Third Party Sites

As you probably know, many websites track you when you’ve been to their site. I believe that many have algorithms that watch to see if you keep checking prices for certain flights and then bump up the prices accordingly.  To avoid this, my husband and I often search for flights on different computers (home, work, on tablets etc) and often use “private” browser mode so the website is unable to track us. Most browsers have a private viewing window that can’t track you Safari or Firefox, open a window called “private”, with Chrome, use “incognito”. This can also be a useful tip for visiting any shopping site.

General Tips for Third Party Sites

We’ve found the cheapest flights when we’ve booked as far ahead as possible. I keep reading that flights are cheaper when booked on a Tuesday but so far, I haven’t seen that. Your miles may vary. When I start looking for flights, I usually check the prices every day for a week or so and then book once I’m fairly certain I’ve found a good deal, or at the very least, I price I can live with.  In general, mid-week flights tend to be cheaper but not always – it often depends on where and when you are travelling. It’s easiest if you are flexible and can consider other flights a few days before or after your preferred date.

Keep in mind that airlines can sometimes change their flights if you book them a long way ahead of time. Last summer, our flight to Toronto was pushed forward by two hours meaning that we would be unable to make our connecting flight to Rome. Flighthub contacted me and gave me several options to rebook the flight, but you can’t always rely on them checking for you. You need to be vigilant and check that your flights haven’t changed from time to time. Flighthub did not charge me a fee for changing the flight because it was the airline’s fault, although the flight choices were less desirable than before. Overall, I was satisfied with the changes the rebooking went smoothly.

Erik and I booked our Spring flights (Kelowna to Paris in April and Rome to Kelowna in July) at the beginning of October and only paid $880 CAD each for our round trip flight, taxes included.  In the past, we have paid as much as $1500 each for a flight to Europe. We have a stopover in Vancouver on the way there, and in Toronto on the way back.)

You must keep in mind, we are flying out of Western Canada – flights from major cities in the US, or Eastern Canada are likely to be less expensive. In addition, we live in a smaller centre and there are no direct flights (although WestJet has just started service to the UK this month) so we normally have to fly first to Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, or Montreal before finding a direct flight to our destination. Some destinations are cheaper than others so you can definitely find better deals depending on where you are going.

In addition, there are a number of cheap discount airlines in Europe  (Ryanair and Easyjet are just two), that will get you to another city once you are in Europe.  You may want to fly directly to a larger European centre, and then take a discount airline to your final destination. You need to look at all of your options to determine if this is worthwhile for you.

Check the currency. Check the currency. Check the currency.  For me, the 3rd party site default tends to be in US dollars.  I can’t tell you how many times Erik and I have found a great deal only to realize we forgot to switch to CAD.  This happens most often when we are in “private” mode because the site doesn’t have cookies and so always goes to the default.

Trip Insurance 

Most third party sites will push for you to purchase their add-on trip cancellation or medical insurance.  In fact, some sites have it already included in the price and you actually have to find the button to deselect it.  Erik and I already have good trip cancellation and medical insurance so we do not purchase this through the site. Before you travel, find out if you are already covered though work or your credit card. If not, talk to your insurance person and find out what coverage is offered, then compare it to the policy from the website. You may find you have more confidence purchasing insurance purchased through your own insurance agent. It’s up to you.

Booking Your Flight

When it comes time to book your flight, check over every detail CAREFULLY before you click “book”.  I cannot stress this enough.  I usually read it aloud to my husband and together we check it over very carefully.  When you are comparing a variety of dates and flights, it’s easy to accidentally input the wrong information when you are ready to book.

Input your name and passport information carefully. Make sure every detail is correct. Make sure you have selected or deselected the insurance option. When you are ready – book it! My heart always pounds when I hit that button.

Once you’ve booked your flight, get your booking number and log into the airline website. Sometimes the third party site booking number is different from the airline number so look for both numbers on your confirmation. (Once I had to email the site to find out the correct booking confirmation number). Most airlines have apps as well which are really handy when checking into the airport.  Most airlines allow you to check in online and use a digital boarding pass but not all do. Read the information and make sure you know what to do when it’s time to fly home.

Erik and I also like to create an email folder specifically for each trip.  Each time we send or receive an email about our trip, we CC each other and put the email into the trip folder. It saves time searching for information later.

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Flying over Kelowna.

Booking Seats

Because Erik and I tend to book cheap flights, we do try to find the best seats we can afford and most often, this means paying a little extra to book our seats ahead of time. For example, I think we paid an extra $20 per seat to book decent seats on our upcoming flight. Erik likes an aisle seat and I like a window seat. Since most seats are in sets of 3, this means that I usually have to sit in the middle, which sucks. Therefore, we often try to find seats in sets of two, which are usually near the back, where the plane narrows. Our favourite spot is the first set of two seat behind a set of three because Erik has extra space for his legs. The downside is that we tend to have to wait longer for our meals but I figure my comfort is well worth this minor inconvenience.

An excellent site for comparing seats is SeatGuru. Here you can get detailed information about individual seats on specific aircraft. If you have a flight booked, you can input your airline, flight number, and travel date to find out specific info about the seats on your flight. You can also compare general information about different types of airplanes.

For each specific airplane, you can find out the seat width (distance  between armrests), seat pitch (distance between the rows of seats indicating legroom), how far back the seat reclines, and whether it has inflight TV, wifi, or power. You can also see where the seats are in relation to the bathrooms and the location of any bulkhead seats (with a wall in front, more legroom but usually a swing-out  TV in the armrest). You can even read reviews about the various airplanes and their seating.

As a special note – Air New Zealand offers you the opportunity to pay to have an empty seat beside you. The downside is that you can’t do this online, only when you check in at the airport. If there is an empty seat on the airplane, they will ensure it is next to you and charge you about $75 CAD for the privilege.

When I flew alone to NZ last March, I had a middle seat in a row of 3 and I paid $75 for the empty window seat. Then I sprawled myself across the two seats for the entire 14 hour flight. It was lovely. I had to explain to the lady in the aisle that I had paid extra for the empty seat so that it was mine to use. She didn’t love it but overall we got along.

Some Third-Party Sites to get you started

Some sites do part of the search for you – you plug in your date and destination and then a half dozen windows pop open with various flights at various sites. Googleflights, Kayak,  Skyscanner , Hipmunk, and TripAdvisor are examples of meta-search sites that I have used. However, I find the multitude of window popups annoying so I generally search each site on my own.

Below is a list of third party sites that I have used. There are many more sites and although they sometimes have similar sounding names, they each have different policies so read the fine print carefully. In addition, just to further confuse you, some sites have more than one name.

The sites I have tried so far are: FlightHubExpediaOrbitzPricelineTravelocity

So – got any flight booking tips you want to share?  Let me know in the comments below!

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Where you’ll usually find me at the airport. #PluggedIn

Preparing for the Camino: Physical Training

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Kelownagurl in the Cotswolds July 2014

2016 will be a HUGE year of change for me.  I plan to retire on March 31, and then on April 9, my husband Erik and I will embark on a three month trip to Europe that will include approximately 40 days walking 800 km on the Camino Frances from St Jean Pied de Port, France to Santiago de Compostela, Spain.

Taking on the challenge of walking 20-30km per day for over a month requires some planning and preparation. I have run 5 half marathons, one full marathon, and completed three half ironman races, and Erik and I backpacked for 4 days on the Cotswold Way in July 2014, so I know I have the endurance capability to do the Camino, but maintaining a daily 20-25km for 40 days is a different kind of challenge and I will require good general fitness and core strength if I hope to enjoy the walk.

I was a bit lazy exercising in 2015, but I don’t think I will have any trouble getting myself fit and healthy again if I train consistently for the next 3 months. What I really need to do is build up my general cardio fitness so I’m not huffing and puffing along the way, work on my strength and core training so I do not fatigue so easily when carrying a load, and get used to walking longer distances with a 12-15 lb backpack.

I’ve read many books and blogs about people’s varied experiences on the Camino and the preparations they made before setting off. I’ve considered  their advice about what worked and what didn’t, paying particular attention to the stories from people who are similar to me in age and fitness level. I think I know my body well enough to have a pretty good understanding of what I need to do now to prepare.

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A cute cat along the Cotswold Way in July 2014.

So here is my training plan for January 1 – April 9, 2016.

  • Walk home from school (3-5 km) at least 4 days a week.
  • Do core work 3 times a week (15-30 min).
  • Do 30 min strength training at the gym twice a week.
  • Walk 5-10 km on weekends, slowly building up to 15-20 km as the weather warms up. Include some back-to-back days.
  • Do other forms of cardio once or twice a week such as snow shoeing, running, cycling, rowing, or elliptical.
  • Eat healthfully and lose at least 5 lbs.
  • Do yoga or Qi Gong as often as I can.
  • Sleep well.

Over the next three months, I will post regular updates on how my training is going, as well as posts about our other preparations for the trip.

Erik’s training plan is to continue what he has been doing for the last two months – hit the gym every second day and do 30 minutes of cardio (usually running) plus a complete strength training circuit. He also plans to do increasingly longer walks, usually with me on the weekends.

When we arrive in Paris on April 10,  we will spend 2 weeks in Southern France, and will do as much walking as possible in order to maintain our fitness. Our plan is to begin the Camino on Monday, April 25, 2016 and arrive in Santiago no later than June 3rd.

If you want to follow along with my training more closely, you can find me on Daily Mile or Facebook.

If you have questions or you’ve done the Camino and have info to share, please leave a comment below!

PS Here’s a link to my podcast where Erik and I walk about our preparations for the Camino.

KG’s Adventures: Fitness and Travel into Retirement. Episode 6

or you can subscribe to the podcast by clicking the link below.

KG’s Adventures on iTunes