Bargain travel

by Grace aka costofcollege

Despite her initial doubts, this NYT travel writer gave a positive review of a trip she took using a bargain package deal.

Looking for a Bargain Vacation? Don’t Rule Out Hawaii

For years I’d seen online ads for surprisingly affordable prefab vacations — airfare and hotel, with maybe a car and a tour thrown in — through unexpected vendors like Groupon and Costco. I remember thinking, “Do people actually buy vacations through Costco?” To me, packaged bulk trips were the five-pound tub of mozzarella balls of travel. Sure, it’s a bargain, but how bland? What quality could you possibly get for that impossibly low price? I was, in short, the worst kind of travel snob.

I regularly check deals that come my way, mainly Groupon Getaway and Travelzoo.  But I’ve never tried any.  Sometimes they seem too good to be true and sometimes they seem to scrimp more than I’d like.  (Are the hotels lacking?  Can I get an aisle seat on the plane?)  Sometimes they don’t seem like such a great value when I start to compare low airfares and housing options that I could assemble on my own.  But I keep telling myself that one day I need to throw caution to the wind and buy a five-night inclusive trip to the Caribbean for under $600.  How bad could it be?

Here are three travel deals I recently came across, all departing from New York:

  • 11-day Thailand & China Tour w/Air for $1499 that includes hotels, transfers, daily breakfasts, and several tours including one of the Great Wall of China
  • London & Rome 6-Night Trip for $799 that includes air, hotels, transfers, daily breakfasts
  • Punta Cana 5-nights all-inclusive beach side resort including air for $589

Do these sound enticing to you?  Have you ever bought one of these deals or have you considered it?  Do you know people who’ve had good or bad experiences?  Do you avoid these mainly because they’re too conventional and you prefer more personalized travel?  In other words, are you a “travel snob”?  Any advice for someone who’s considering buying one of these deals?

Also, do you have any travel plans coming up or any dreamy destinations that you’d like to visit soon?

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127 thoughts on “Bargain travel

  1. Obviously I am not the target customer for these travel bargains, but there are two types available.

    One is what was described in the article – a last minute discount hotel and air package. The hotel was a Fairmont, for heaven’s sake, guaranteed to be better than decent. The writer did all of the other legwork – renting a car, asking friends for travel tips, seeking out excursions and inexpensive dining options. Her family was not constrained by school or apparently by work schedules. I would say that purchasing a package like that to take within a couple of weeks is a no brainer, even to a foreign country. I booked one through Icelandair a few years ago and it was an all around success. DD2 (single) regularly books all inclusive Caribbean vacations with her friends this way, but they are not school constrained and are at work are choosing to work through the holidays.

    However, a super discount tour package is another kettle of fish. You have no idea who your traveling companions will be. The hotels are not specified or particular ones guaranteed, so you can’t research them and the exact location. Overseas travel is especially challenging. There is often not more than cursory involvement of a local guide or contact. You may get tickets for an intercity bus or plane and have to negotiate the transfers yourself. The tour company offering the package may not be reliable, and if there is lead time they often reneg on the details (the groupon had a typo is common). if it is a cruise, just imagine how you would have enjoyed it if this particular sailing turned out to be dominated by youthful bargain seeking party goers (assuming you are not looking for that.)

  2. We did our first ever group travel package this summer (NOT a budget group, but it was definitely a good value). I was pretty skeptical of traveling with a group & a guide, as that’s not normally our style, but it was fantastic. The only decision we had to make every day was food orders. It was so incredibly relaxing to just show up and be along for the ride. And because it was family oriented with other kids, our kids loved it as well.

    DH and I are currently planning a trip to Napa for just the 2 of us and I am super annoyed at all the decisions I’m having to make – something that never would have bothered me before. Next family trip will definitely be a group package again.

    Would love any tips on Napa – have never been. We are staying 5 nights, in the spring.

  3. I’d be scared to try any of those discounted tours because I don’t want to end up in a cheap hotel, have crappy flights, etc. I want to know exactly what I’m getting. Also, I really enjoy planning trips. We spent months planning our Iceland trip and had a lot of fun doing it.

  4. DH and I are currently planning a trip to Napa for just the 2 of us and I am super annoyed at all the decisions I’m having to make – something that never would have bothered me before.

    We cross-posted. I enjoy making the decisions – that’s part of the fun of traveling for me.

  5. @honolulu – can you please tell me the proper pronunciation of Hawaii? My mother says “Ha wOI E” I’ve hear people say “HaWeye” and I say “Ha WEye E” – really would like to know.

  6. Would love any tips on Napa – have never been. We are staying 5 nights, in the spring.

    Try the mud baths

    Food will be wonderful, try to get a reservation at The French Laundry. I’ve heard it’s great but have never been able to get in.

    Five Dot Restaurant is good for local beef.

    It’s Napa, how could it not be wonderful?

  7. Lark,

    What are you interested in seeing/doing?

    Wine, food, historical sites, gorgeous landscapes, ocean, forts, etc?

  8. I’ve done lots of those packages where you get X number of hotel nights, airfare, and coupons for some outings. For example, years ago we went to Rome at Christmas on a thing where you got 4 nights in a hotel, with a coupon for a dinner and another for a bus tour. We added on 3 more nights so we could do more activities. We went to Athens on a similar package – some number of nights, a coupon for a 1 day island cruise (that was a hoot – mostly Japanese with an intrepid group of Australian on the top of the boat slurping beer in the bracing January wind), and another dinner coupon.
    But, never, never, never go to China on a fully escorted tour. We did a 3 day escorted tour of Beijing and aside from the fact that we were seeing cool things, it was utterly miserable. In China, they keep the prices down on those tours bey forcing everyone to do these “factory tours” – the pearl factory, the silk factory – which are just high pressure sales presentations. Everyone I know who has done an escorted tour in CHina has joked about it. Plus, you have to go to the WORST restaurants, ones that cater to Americans.
    We did much better in China on a package that got us X numbers of hotel nights and a guide/driver for some of the days. It was really cheap, because all of the costs of travelling in CHina are just simply in getting there. And we used the guide/driver to good effect, to get us places that would have been hard to get to any other way, especially the spectacular Sanxingdui Museum which is outside of Chengdu http://www.chinahighlights.com/chengdu/attraction/sanxingdui-museum-in-guanghan.htm. The guide knew a lot about the art in this museum and was able to explain everything and put it in context. She also realized we were foodies and took us to a big vegetable market and told us lots of good restaurants to try. So my advice for CHina – get your package through a CHina specialist and go for the guide for the days you need to get to less accessible places rather than an escorted tour. The prices are not much different and you avoid the factory tours.

  9. I enjoy making the decisions – that’s part of the fun of traveling for me.

    Normally it is for me, too. But we have more than usual going on – a renovation, holidays, slammed at work – and I’m finding I have much less bandwidth than usual. Lots of decision fatigue in my life at the moment.

    What are you interested in seeing/doing?

    Hiking, winery tours, and good food.

  10. While I don’t see any factory tours listed (and National Geographic tours are so expensive that I would really hope they wouldn’t do that), I would still ask about it. Also, this thing “This evening, enjoy a performance showcasing the music and dance of China’s golden age, the Tang Dynasty. Before the show enjoy a delicious dumpling feast featuring nearly one hundred different varieties.” is likely to be really cheesy. They do these on all the China tours – usually a vast tourist restaurant and a really weird show with piped in pop music, aimed at tourists. I sat through one in Beijing which was supposedly “the traditional dances of the Chinese minorities”, and another when I was at a conference in Nanjing which was the entire history of China in 45 minutes, complete with light show. I was with a whole bunch of academics, so we all were giggling through the thing.

  11. When I was a kid, my mom’s sister lived in Jamaica, and my mom joined The Last Minute Travel Club for the sole purpose of getting to the island cheaper. She went often, and I remember how thrilled she was that one of the deals came up right in time for one of my cousin’s birthdays — it was so nice for my mom to be able to be there for that. She and my dad traveled a ton when I was younger (and they still do) and we traveled a lot as a family, but never on any bargain deal, except for those Jamaica trips she took alone. My parents are careful spenders but they have always pulled out all the stops for travel.

    DH and I are their shadows in this regard. I would far rather pay a lot than get stuck on some crummy airline or in a bad hotel. We both travel well for work so perhaps our expectations are higher. Having said that, I’d totally do a bargain trip — to pretty much anywhere — as long as it wasn’t my only vacation for the year. If I’ve already had a great higher-end vaca or know one is coming up, I wouldn’t mind putting up with bargain-priced inconveniences for my second trip.

    I’m easygoing that way. ;)

  12. Lark – have not been to Napa in 10 years but we went for DH’s 30th birthday. We stayed at the Napa Valley Lodge which was perfectly adequate and about 1/4 mile down the street from The French Laundry, Bouchon, and Redd (we ate at all three). DH called on three different phones to get a reservation at the French Laundry and it was fabulous but very small and quiet. We sat next to a guy from the Riedel wine family and he was very loud and you could hear every word he said. We liked the Schramsburg tour because it was fun seeing the caves. I remember Joseph Phelps being really pretty. We have dear friends that go every year and stay at Meadowood which I think has reserved tables at the French Laundry so you don’t have to do the leg work.

  13. I remember everyone taking Hawaii trips through “Pleasant Hawaiian Holidays” from San Francisco. I never got to go, but lots of other kids routinely took those trips with their families to Hawaii. Finn and HM, do permanent residents of Hawaii hate those “Pleasant Hawaiian Holidays” groups? Is it all very “ugly American”?

  14. One of the reasons I know a bit about Chinese tours is because most adoptive families do The Homeland Tour at one point or another, and many opt for guided tours. On the adoptive family mailing lists, comparing tour experiences is a favorite topic, so I have read about lots of them. That is how I realized that the factory tours, which we experienced, are endemic, as are the dinner-show experiences. Also, if you go to Beijing on a tour, you will almost certainly eat lunch with a hutong family, and if you go to Chengdu, you will drink tea in a teahouse and have your ears cleaned (yep, you heard right), and you will go hug a panda (for a good chunk of money) at the panda reserve. In Guangzhou you will do the pearl factory and a dinner-boat trip.

    Some of the stuff, though, is standard just because it is so good: the terracotta warriors, the Sichuan opera in Chengdu (which is not a highfalutin’ opera, but rather kind of music hall style and very traditional), the historic walls in Nanjing, the Shanghai museum

  15. Pre kids we did quite a bit of off season travel but we booked everything on our own. We once booked through a travel agent pre Internet and that was good. Now that we have kids and a school calendar all our travel is planned and in peak travel times. If it is a budget tour DH would ask so many questions, that I would just pay more and do a normal trip.
    I like the idea of group tours like the ones Meme does and Lark mentioned but DH likes his own schedule. I would be ready to go on those types of pre arranged group tours.
    Also DH gets miles since he travels and we make use of those.

  16. RMS, for a number of years I used to fly back and forth a lot, so I’d buy annual passes on the airlines that carried those tour groups. It was about what you’d expect– a lot of pretty clueless people, and it was pretty clear that quite a few of them had very little, if any, experience on planes.

    But OTOH, those are probably the folks most likely to stay in Waikiki and the designated tourist spots and not wander off where they’d cause problems.

  17. We are taking another Road Scholar (fka Elderhostel) trip this Feb. Death Valley, starting in Vegas. 5 days total – that is about my limit for this sort of thing. We will visit with our snowbird best friends in Tucson the week before. It is not “budget” but the target group is retired teachers, so middle class. The group meals were my main complaint on our first Road Scholar trip to French Canada. The restaurants were not set up for large groups so it took forever, and the food quality was indifferent. They are used to tours in Death Valley, so that will not be a problem. I am planning to take the grandkids (one at a time) on some of their trips in a few years.

  18. Louise raises a good point. We have done a lot of whole-family free air travel because of the bazillion miles DH has. For that reason alone, we haven’t been attracted to bargain trips — can’t really beat the savings from flying 6 people someplace for nothing.

  19. My mother and her friends are putting together their own group of eight or ten – all retired couples they know for an Eastern European. They contacted reputed travel agents in the home country and are working through the details. They want to be sure of the hotels, meals, transport etc so it is more work. My parents have travelled to Western Europe before. I have been roped in as “another set of eyes” so I keep getting tour details even though I am not going on the tour !

  20. We did China by ourselves pre kid and had a ton of fun. We love to book by ourselves since DH likes to stay at Starwood properties to use/maximize his points and likewise for air travel.
    Our travelling has dropped significantly post kid, though we have a big trip coming up. Both of us are bit free next two weeks so we are looking to travel somewhere last minute.

  21. Moxie, it’s very often mispronounced, even here, even by locals. If you hear it pronounced correctly, it’s probably by a Hawaiian Airlines flight attendant (and probably not any other airlines), a Kamehameha Schools alumnus, a native Hawaiian speaker (we have an increasing number of those), or a tour guide, and there’s quite a bit of overlap between those groups.

    There are a couple key points if you really want to pronounce it correctly. The w is pronounced like a v, and there’s an ‘okina (glottal stop) between the two is. OK, a third point, the ai combination is a diphthong.

    Three syllables: ha vai i. No syllable gets a strong accent, although the 2nd may sound like it because of the diphthong, and don’t forget the glottal before the third sylla

    That said, a lot of locals say, ha wa i, with little to no separation between the 2nd and third syllables. Pronouncing it properly can come off as affected (or as a local might say, “trying”), unless you’re speaking like a flight attendant or tour guide who’s properly pronouncing all Hawaiian words and names.

  22. One of the best parts of the bike tours we took pre-kids was not having to make many decisions, either upfront or each day. The other cyclists on the trips were almost uniformly interesting, intelligent people, and if we had taken those tours more recently, we would definitely have stayed in touch via Facebook or other social media, if for nothing more than getting tips on other great bike tours.
    I have never taken one of the bargain tours described here, but it’s an intriguing idea for those winter periods where DH is tied up with work and can’t travel but I need to escape the snow. When we were visiting the Grand Canyon, we bought the Annual NPS pass and now I am realizing how difficult it will be actually to get to many of those parks from here during the academic year.

  23. I would love to do a train tour along montana , utah etc, similar to one of the posters here did in the past. But DH groans about how it is a old people tour and it will be all old people with us on the train etc. He likes to fly and I like to travel by trains.

  24. I sometimes get trip planning fatigue, so having most decisions made for me does sound appealing. And maybe because I have more free time now, the idea of taking a chance on a pre-packaged deal does not seem very high risk.

    On the topic of budget travel, my son took his first Ryanair flight last week and on his plane the seats did not have adjustable backs. Hmm.

  25. We bought a vacation package from Costco, and were totally satisfied. It was for the Disneyland part of a west coast trip, and included hotel and park admission, as well as some extras. The hotel/park admission pricing was very competitive, and the extras (e.g., early admission to the park) weren’t offered by other competitors in the same range.

    As with most things from Costco, they don’t offer a lot of choices, being often limited in date availability as well as hotel choices, but if one of their offerings lines up with your plans and expectations, our experience, as well as experiences shared with us by friends, suggest you’ll also be quite satisfied.

  26. Between visiting DH’s family in Indiana, the kids in Boston, and the house in California, that’s basically all the travel we’re going to be doing for awhile, I think. I am relieved that DH is liking the California place. One thing he hates about traveling is being lost or disoriented and having to make decisions about restaurants, hotels, etc., that might turn out to be bad ideas. Now that we know the locations of the grocery stores, restaurants, beach access points, etc., he’s much happier. He was tooling around on his new e-bike last week and figuring out all the shortcuts.

  27. The bike trips I did with DH pre-kids were all amazing, but a lot of the fun was that we didn’t do a huge amount of planning, especially the time we spent 6 weeks in Belgium and the Netherlands. We had a general idea of places we wanted to hit, and a student oriented guide that listed cheap hotels and campgrounds, as well as bike maps that we got when we first arrived, which also listed campgrounds. We would plot our route for the next day each evening. Campgrounds in those countries, no matter how full (and in summer they get very full indeed) will always take bike campers.
    We did a little more planning when we bike toured in Burgundy, and especially more when we did Quebec, mainly because the distances are further there and not making it to the next campground is a real possibility.

  28. Scarlett, I’d love to hear more about your bike tours.

    Back when I lived on the continent, several people I know took bike tours with Back Roads and were quite happy (once DW and I were driving from the Grand Canyon north rim with her parents and saw a Back Roads trailer parked on the side of the road, and a little further down the road saw one of those guys, on his bike).

    I may want to do something like that at some point. DW is strong enough to handle many of the tours (she rode around Crater Lake with me), but the kids don’t have a lot of cycling experience and I’m not sure how much they’d want to do something like that. A buddy of mine that I used to bike with a lot might also be interested in something like that.

    I’ve been very envious of Mooshi’s family trips that involved a lot of cycling. Besides being fun, I think they would have helped my kids become better cyclists and develop more fondness for cycling.

  29. The main reason my mother is putting together her own tour group is because she and her friends are travel snobs. They don’t want the typical budget tour experience. It is not totally custom either. A mix between the two. Interesting because I didn’t think of it.

  30. RMS, are the e-bikes being kept in the SC house? Do you like them enough to consider another set for your RM house?

  31. On the topic of budget travel, my son took his first Ryanair flight last week and on his plane the seats did not have adjustable backs. Hmm.

    Now we need all the other airlines to follow suit.

  32. Non-budget advice. Many of the upscale eco/cultural companies – Nat Geo, Smithsonian, etc. – have individually arranged tours – they go by some name like personal journeys. They can be used for a couple alone , but are more cost efficient for a family group with teens and up or several couples. The travelers can use miles or money or whatever for air arrangements to the starting point, and then the tour operator arranges hotels, intercity transport, special day tours, with a local guide or contact in each place along the way – the degree of guiding/supervision and the pre-arranged meals are negotiable. High end travel agents used to set these up routinely, but now it has been commodified a bit.

    The advantages are three fold. 1) You set the dates. 2) No worries about uncongenial or unsuitable travelers in your group, or even a multi week senior guide with a squeaky voice or inflexible cultural or ecological views. 3) You can set up an off beat itinerary and skip one of the usual tourist destinations in the area.

  33. “As with most things from Costco, they don’t offer a lot of choices, being often limited in date availability as well as hotel choices, but if one of their offerings lines up with your plans and expectations, our experience, as well as experiences shared with us by friends, suggest you’ll also be quite satisfied.”

    This was my experience. I booked an air/hotel/transfer package because the price was better for the exact same thing I was going to book on my own. I will usually at least check Costco prices. DH almost makes a sport of constantly monitoring rental car prices before any trip & will book and re-book as prices fluctuate. Often, Costco has ended up being the best deal, but not always. With Costco, you are booking through the rental company, but with a discount. So if there is a particular company you want to avoid or use, that’s not a problem.

    @RMS – I always thought that I would hate visiting the same place every year, but since we have been taking the same winter vacation to the same place in FLA for the past decade, I have grown to love how easy it is when you know a place like a 2nd home. The routine is relaxing in a way – knowing where to shop, what to do, etc. I still like exploring new places & trying new restaurants and seeing new things. But it’s nowhere near as relaxing as the FLA vacation, and I guess that is really the point of going every year.

  34. Mooshi, I thought about you when we were in Iceland and saw people biking on the highway with all of their camping gear. It looked totally miserable in the rain and cold.

  35. Finn, my kids didn’t have a ton of cycling experience either when we did it the first time (trip to Belgium/Netherlands 2 years ago). Once we decided to do it, we did take them out on some longer bike paths. And we also did not do a point to point tour as we did not think the two younger could cart gear. But they had a blast. The key is a careful mix of fun cycling and incentives (if we battle this North Sea headwind back to where we are staying, you can swim and get candy at the little store)

  36. Denver Dad, when we biked in Iceland, we were indeed often very wet little rats. We got even wetter and colder on the pony trek. But the pony trek ended with shots of Brennivin, and when we were around Reykjavik, we stayed at the municipal campground, which had an incredible swimming complex with really cool hot tubs that spouted water.

  37. RMS – how often will you get to your place in California? Did you end up renovating it–I recall there was discussion of that? And do you rent it out when you’re not there?

  38. Mooshi’s bike trips remind me of our family’s backpacking trips. It is a memorable family experience. But with reference to Milo’s article, it’s definitely a “trip” and not a “vacation”.

  39. My family has been on one organized group tour, and we really enjoyed it.

    However, it was not a generic tour. One of DD’s and DS’ classmate’s grandmothers (three sisters, one in DS’ grade, one in DD’s grade, and one younger) had promised her oldest granddaughter a trip to Japan after they’d studied it in 2nd grade. She asked a friend who’s also a tour guide (and retired teacher) to put together a tour specifically aimed the grandkids’ family. I don’t know the details, but I think they needed to come up with a large enough group to make the trip feasible, so they asked some of the kids’ friends families, including us, if we’d like to go along.

    So we already knew some of the others traveling, and our kids knew several of the other kids (most of the kids on the trip attend the same school), and we got to know the families as we traveled, already having a lot in common. And a lot of the places we went to were not places we were likely to have selected ourselves, but were great for our kids at that age.

    Interestingly, the grandma who started the whole thing retired as a school principal and is now a tour guide, working with the same guide we had on our tour. It seems that a lot of the local tour companies’ guides are retired people who love to travel; perhaps that’s something to consider in retirement.

  40. Finn – I still have Japan at the top of my places to visit but first I will have to eat properly with chopsticks. This is the first thing, I thought about after yesterday’s discussion.

  41. Concur with Finn re pronunciation of Hawaii. And because it might not have been clear, the way I and others say it is not with an ah sound like hah-wah-ee, more something between a short u sound and that upside-down e they use to show an unstressed syllable, the schwa. But you’re fine saying ha-wye-ee; even some people who live here say that.

    Re the big package tours, this is why locals avoid Waikiki ^_^. But I certainly don’t mind people doing their research and venturing out into other places — exactly what I do when I travel — except for those big groups of Chinese tourists who come stand around in the aisles at Costco on the weekend.

  42. The US or Australian tourists who come to Costco to fill their vacation rental’s fridge are not so bad because at least they’re treating it like a shopping run rather than a tourist attraction to be gaped at. Less disruptive to the traffic flow.

  43. I guess I was typing as Mémé was posting, but what my kids’ friends’ grandma did was similar– she got a custom tour set up aimed specifically at those kids, and thus was well suited for other families with same age kids, and they invited people they knew to join them. The tour dates were also shoehorned into the break between the end of school and the beginning of summer school for their (and thus our) kids.

    The prices weren’t great, but weren’t to bad either. We had to pay for the guides as well as have the tour company make a profit, but they also get better pricing. E.g., we stayed a couple days longer than the tour, and the tour company was able to book us rooms at a better price than we could get on our own.

  44. “really cool hot tubs ”

    I know what you mean, but the juxtaposition of cool and hot made me chuckle.

  45. Louise, if that’s the only thing holding you back just pack a fork! No one will care. They don’t expect someone who doesn’t look Japanese to act Japanese.

    Plus, you’ll still be way, way better than the lady in the Kyoto market hall who was yelling in English at the stall-keeper trying to show her the total of her purchases on a calculator, “DISCOUNT? NO DISCOUNT?!” Yeah, Japan doesn’t do haggling and everyone else is paying the stated price, but you get the special English-only discount.

  46. Finn, the e-bikes are indeed in Santa Cruz. I’m kind of going around in circles about getting one for Denver. Right now it’s cold and icy so bikes seem like a generally bad idea. But I don’t know. Maybe.

    Risley, I’ve been going out at least once a month. We got a very nice house that doesn’t need renovation. There’s a certain amount of tension because I, the unemployed one, could go out a lot more often, but DH understandably gets resentful. And then all the friends out there are mine — DH didn’t go to high school and college in the Bay Area so they’re all my friends, not his. There is one couple he’s warmed up to, so we try to get together with them when we’re out. But some of the other ones are a little too earthy-crunchy for his taste, and then there’s all the “Remember the time Mr. Curran assigned a 20-page paper over Christmas break?” conversations that are super boring if you never met Mr. Curran.

    We can’t rent it out because of the HOA, and I have been unsuccessful in talking anyone into staying there for free. We did hire a terrific gardener who is a UCSC student (and she has a horticulture degree from the local community college) and she parks her car in our driveway and hops a bus to campus, so at least it looks sort-of occupied some of the time.

  47. “But with reference to Milo’s article, it’s definitely a “trip” and not a “vacation”.”

    My family has yet to take a “vacation,” but I think we will soon. We’ll go to the Ritz Carlton for two nights during the break.

  48. “Yeah, Japan doesn’t do haggling and everyone else is paying the stated price, ”

    Ha-ha! Totally different from China, where you have to haggle. I bet Chinese tourists drive the Japanese nuts.

  49. “Re the big package tours, this is why locals avoid Waikiki ^_^.”

    That and the parking issues.

  50. “The US or Australian tourists who come to Costco to fill their vacation rental’s fridge are not so bad ”

    Not as bad as a tour group, but they can get annoying. A lot of them seem to think that everyone else there is also on vacation and move so slowly and don’t accommodate anyone moving at a faster pace.

    This is especially true in Kahului. where it’s right next to the airport.

  51. RMS – sounds like the perfect place for you. Hopefully your DH will bump into Mr. Curran one day, so it can be more fun for him, too. ;)

  52. I am chuckling because we always go to Costco to stock vacation rentals. It is always a bit difficult to figure out the layout of a new Costco, even though I have a detailed list. The bread and milk seem to be in very different areas in each Costco. And some have a big dairy room, some don’t. It definitely slows us down. And to call back to my earlier post – I do know where everything is in the FLA airport Costco. I am ready for retirement already!

    Why would the Ritz with kids not be a vacation? Sure beats the Holiday Inn Express with kids.

  53. I often like to wander through grocery stores when I travel. Now I know the locals must be muttering and rolling their eyes at me. :)

    “No worries about uncongenial or unsuitable travelers in your group, or even a multi week senior guide with a squeaky voice or inflexible cultural or ecological views.”

    Yeah, sometimes the unexpected annoyance like these can take away from the enjoyment of your vacation experience. I don’t think I’ve ever taken a group travel tour with total strangers, but I imagine some can include incompatible fellow travelers.

  54. I am contemplating a trip to Japan this summer with kids. No personal connection, but seems like a place you could be ignorant and English-speaking and only embarrass yourself (instead of end up without your passport while dying of Dengue). There is no such thing (as far as I can tell) as a cheap tour of Japan, but I think I can figure out enough to do. Unclear if DH can get the time off (more like unlikely, but I’m holding out hope), so I will likely take my littles and my mother (who is a good travel companion, good help with the kids and can be counseled to not refer to everyone as “Chinese” or “Oriental”. )

  55. Finn, I haven’t stayed at a Ritz Carleton specifically either. I just have a horror of trying to navigate a fancy formal hotel with kids. Almost as bad as trying to deal with one of those antique-and-floral-chintz B&Bs with kids, or a canal boat filled with seniors.

  56. “I often like to wander through grocery stores when I travel. Now I know the locals must be muttering and rolling their eyes at me. :)”

    I like to do this too, especially in other countries (even if it is just Canada).

  57. I stalk secret flying . com every day – great place to find cheap airline travel, often because of weird sales or mistakes. It is the only spam email I let in to my good inbox. A friend last year was able to take the family of four to Australia for under 2k (on United, so there’s that).

    Curious if Lark is willing to share the name of the tour company she used. I also spend a lot of time surfing the Intrepid Travel website – their family tours look lovely (and affordable). I’ve priced out National Geo and Adventures by Disney and can’t imagine that we could ever have enough money that it felt like a reasonable value (though I have heard great things about both).

    7 nights in Italy for our family of 5 would be roughly 30k, 6 nights in Costa Rica around 20k (with Disney – airfare not included). National Geo is 25k for France, and 25k for Costa Rica. I think we could do quite well planning our own trips to those countries on 4k/day.

  58. Ada, I’ve gone to Japan for work a couple times and Japan is doable for a non-English speaker with kids. My vendor was in Kyoto/Osaka so I got to see historic buildings and we visited the local temple on Children’s Day. At least 15 years ago, prostitution was advertised more openly than it is here.

  59. Supermarkets in China are awesome fun. I dont care if we look like idiots oohing and aahing over the 30 different seafood flavors available on the potato chips. We are so obviously foreigners that anything we do in a Chinese supermarket looks idiotic.

  60. When I was visiting at a university that required faculty to compete for travel/research funding, a conference paper I was supposed to give didn’t get funding (because a visiting prof can’t improve an institution’s rep with work done before appointment). I bought a last minute package on Expedia that included airfare and the conference hotel at less than half the usual rate, considerably lower than the room rate the organization had negotiated for.

  61. “We are so obviously foreigners that anything we do in a Chinese supermarket looks idiotic.”

    I’m not sure I’ve ever mentioned this here, but my DH lived in Taiwan for 10 years after undergrad. He’s a tall, blond, strong Westerner, so he stood out like crazy for his entire time there. He said it was freeing — he could do all kinds of things there he might not do at home, because he was a “weird freak” there anyway no matter what he did, so why not go for it?

    (In the USA, he’s had a few hilarious experiences where people are speaking to each other, about him, in Mandarin, assuming that because he looks American, he surely can’t understand a single word, let alone be completely fluent).

  62. Has anyone tried Google Translate? You can take a picture of a sign or a menu in Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, etc. with your phone and it translates the imagine into English.

  63. (In the USA, he’s had a few hilarious experiences where people are speaking to each other, about him, in Mandarin, assuming that because he looks American, he surely can’t understand a single word, let alone be completely fluent).

    The video quality is bad but it’s still a classic.

  64. Super Sushi Ramen Express is a fun book (and probably a good holiday present for someone on your list) – a culinary tour through Japan, with a few nods toward kids and families. Written by a British food writer, he describes a few months there with two small children. He also writes about being a loud foreigner – asking to see how food is made, asking pointed questions – he was able to get away with a lot because of his “foreign-ness”.

  65. @ Ada – it was one of those you mentioned. :) It WAS expensive, but to me it was worth every penny.

    Also, just to be candid, we live totally on DH’s salary, and even a little less. My income is used for retirement savings, early debt payoff, and travel. This allows me to mentally justify spending whatever I want on travel (as long as I feed the retirement and debt monsters first)

  66. I am at the shopping plaza near my house. It has my grocery store but it also has a few reasonable but money pit kind of stores. Plus it had causal dining options. All that means come Christmas unlike other times parking is hard to find. Super annoying and like the tourists in Costco, I wish the Christmas shoppers would be gone and leave the plaza to us locals.

  67. Has anyone tried Google Translate? You can take a picture of a sign or a menu in Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, etc. with your phone and it translates the imagine into English.

    It was life-changing on our recent trip. We were the annoying gaijin in the conbini standing there taking pictures of things-that-could-be-cough-drops on a phone.

  68. I thought you were joking about the Ritz Carlton and kids. They’re really nice to kids!

    It is hard to go back to budget once you start staying at high end places via work. In the good old days before the financial crisis, the banks would allow you to stay in Ritz Carlton, Mandarin, Four Seasons etc. They negotiated awesome corporate rates and you could generally get the same rate for personal use if it was available. We stayed in the Mandarin in San Fran for a vacation for the same rate that I could get at the Holiday Inn. Those days are over, but we’ve stayed at those resorts so now it is hard to go back.

    We couldn’t find any decent rates for the feb break, so we are using Marriott points to stay at the Ritz. One night was free if you used enough for four nights, and it was actually a really good deal. I was surprised at the value that we are getting for our points.

    I definitely think that some Ritz Carlton’s aren’t up to snuff, as compared to when it wasn’t part of Marriott. We stayed in one this summer in St Louis for a wedding. It was inexpensive due to the wedding rate, but it could have been any nice hotel. Nothing special, and the service wasn’t up to their old standards.

    DD likes when we stay at the cheaper places like Residence Inn because she generally gets her own room/TV/bathroom since it is a suite. Plus she loves the breakfast buffets in the lobby.

    I like that the places such as Residence Inn or Hyatt House generally have free parking, wifi, breakfast etc. I can’t stand when places think they can still charge for wifi , or tack on another $30 per night for “resort fee” for a towel at the pool and wifi.

  69. “It is hard to go back to budget once you start staying at high end places”

    Yeah, I hope I’m not spoiling my kids so they can’t stay at Motel 6 any more.

    “Plus she loves the breakfast buffets in the lobby. ”

    How do you rate those? IME, Embassy Suites is far above the others I’ve tried.

  70. I have started getting brochures for the Viking River Cruises in Europe. Has anyone ever gone on these? I don’t like ships and wouldn’t want to go on a trip on the ocean, but a nice flat bottomed boat that goes down the river (and where I feel like I can swim to shore if necessary) is appealing.

  71. I’m enjoying a rain-filled trip to the Bay Area since Weds. Can’t stand the traffic (though my drive from SFO to my folks’ house 30 miles away in the east bay only took 30 mins at 130 the other morning!).

    We just bit on a discounted stay at the Westin Kaanapali ( the more condo version, not the hotel) whicg we’ll use in the spring. 6 days 5 nights $798. Like Meme says above…it’s a Westin so it’ll be plenty good for our needs.

  72. Finn, the free breakfasts can vary by location and chain. She likes them because she has simple tastes and she likes sugar. There seems to be a lot of junk, but I actually can find healthy stuff that I am looking for because they all seem to have yogurt and fruit. I’m not looking for a hot breakfast buffet unless I am paying for it. I know some people do like that, and I think Embassy Suites is better than Residence Inn, Homewood Suites or Hyatt House etc.

    We usually have free breakfasts included at the high end hotels too because we book with Amex Platinum and that includes breakfast. Those are a totally different experience, but also seem to range from very good to great.

  73. Fred, I would take the rain in the bay area vs. the snow at your home. I wish all of that snow would stay upstate! I am not ready for any snow days or delays on Monday even though it is Dec.

  74. I like resorts which are right on the beach but detest their lack of laundry facilities and breakfast buffets. We are Marriott Rewards members so we usually stay at Marriott properties including JW. I actually prefer the Residence Inns to the JWs. If I were by myself it would be different but with the whole family the mid range hotels are quite adequate.

  75. I am neurotically attached to laundry facilities. It’s one of the things I really like about the second house! And when I travel I try to find motels with laundry facilities. Fortunately even cheap-o places often have them.

  76. Ssk – I am guessing your age at 50ish. Viking will be delightful for you – in twenty years.

  77. RMS, in my recent travels to Asia many of them had laundry facilities. Many of them were combo washer/dryers, a single unit that performed both functions.

  78. a single unit that performed both functions.

    Not well though. It’s more like a washer with an extra-zorchy spin cycle. You still have to hang stuff up to dry.

  79. Lauren – DW says we’ve only gotten 1-2″ so far. More tonite maybe 3-4″ but done by morning. Much more east of us (syracuse) and north of there.
    17yo DS gets a chance to do some snow driving 5miles to work tomorrow (awd car and new all season tires).
    All in all what we’re used to.

  80. Meme – good to know! You are right on my age. It sounds like a fun “school” in San Francisco that is for people 50 and up, but I signed up for a class and realized I was younger (by about 20 years) than everyone else! I’ll save it for a few years downtime road.

  81. Lauren, the Mandarin for the price of a Holiday Inn is an awesome rate. The closest I’ve come to that is when I went to Tahiti for a conference. The owner of the little hotel (called itself a B&B) had overbooked, but had a deal with Le Meridian for their overflow guests to stay there at the same price as their place.
    Mooshi, your family are the swimming pool experts :)
    I’ve never been on a river cruise, but my parents enjoy one of Vikings competitors. SocialiIng is encouraged by sending everyone a roster of passengers, with address and university / graduation/ profession, iirc. I get the impression that there are a few on either side, but the decade of ones 70s seems to be the sweet spot for passengers. As far as swimming for safety, the Upper Rhein is less than 1.9 meters deep in places; ocean-going vessels can’t pass, so they load things into barges. The flow rate of the Mississippi is about 7 times as heavy as the Rhine. and over twice as much as the Danube. Some of that has to do with speed, of course, but it’s also related to volume.

  82. How do you rate those? IME, Embassy Suites is far above the others I’ve tried.

    ITA. They have far and away the best breakfast.

  83. RMS I am with you on laundry facilities. Midway through our Alaska trip we stayed at a place that catered to Hikers, with great laundry room. 4 dollars got all our laundry clean, and I was disproportionately pleased about it.

  84. Man, and we thought it was bad having to get all our shows cleared by a dean before the game (there had been a joke that was not received well) . . . my sympathies to the Stanford Band.

  85. I have no sympathy toward the band, they brought it on themselves. From http://news.stanford.edu/2015/05/15/band-reform-statement-051515/

    “Stanford initiated the joint inquiry after learning of concerns regarding several band events, including off-campus trips, that the band held for its members between 2012 and 2015. The investigation found that, on several occasions, the band violated university policies regarding alcohol, controlled substances, hazing and/or sexual harassment. Violations included a tradition in which a band member was given an alcoholic concoction intended to make that individual vomit publicly; an annual trip in which some band members used illegal substances; and a band selection process in which individuals were asked a number of inappropriate questions on sexual matters.”

  86. a band selection process in which individuals were asked a number of inappropriate questions on sexual matters

    That sounds like the application for the Raunch Bus back in the day and on the other side of the continent . . .

  87. Another band horror story is Florida A&M, about 5 years ago.

    Rocky and others who value laundry services while vacationing, do you stay long enough that you need to wash clothes to wear again while you are there, or do you like to go home with clean clothes?

  88. Louise, what part of Eastern Europe? The countries along the Adriatic (and the coast of the Black Sea in Blugaria) are a very different story than, say, Romania or Ukraine. Estonia, as well.

  89. Laundry facilities facilitate wearing clean clothes throughout the trip without having to pack a huge amount. That’s especially valuable if you’re changing lodging frequently.

  90. Rocky and others who value laundry services while vacationing, do you stay long enough that you need to wash clothes to wear again while you are there, or do you like to go home with clean clothes?

    Like Finn said, it allows you to pack much lighter. You can go on a 7 day trip with only three days of clothes, for example.

  91. do you stay long enough that you need to wash clothes to wear again while you are there, or do you like to go home with clean clothes?

    Both. Also, I tend to wear my meals, and I perspire freely.

  92. Denver, I’m not very sympathetic to the Stanford Band either. Though I have dear friends who were in it, the band as a whole was always a bunch of sexist, obnoxious assholes. They’ve been trying to reform it for at least 10 years, and it just doesn’t take.

  93. RMS – the Stanford band has no Musical Director and is student led. They seem to be behaving like an out of control sorority or fraternity except their behavior is very public.

    SM – my parents are traveling to Poland, the Czech Republic and one or two other countries. Their fly in airport is Munich.

  94. Louise, good observation about the Stanford band. Good to hear that your parents’ trip won’t be so logistically difficult.

    I agree with those who have said that laundry while traveling can be useful in extending the trip, or taking less luggage. My mother and one sister seem to find it ideal to have clean clothes to put directly into drawers upon return home. My mom has finally (I think) accepted that if I’m traveling, even “just” to visit her and Dad, I have better things to do.

  95. My mother and one sister seem to find it ideal to have clean clothes to put directly into drawers upon return home.

    This is me too. For me not having a mound of laundry to do upon return home, makes it easy to get back into the home/work/school routine. The house is cleaned as well, so when we come back there is minimum to do. This year we will be traveling to visit family but the Jan 2nd holiday on Monday makes things more relaxed.

    I have been watching Mozart in the Jungle on Amazon. Watched it because someone recommended, was skeptical but it is quite good and entertaining.

  96. DH’s office Christmas party tonight. My go-to person to talk to won’t be there. Let’s see. “Are you traveling for Christmas?” “What’s on your Christmas wish list?” “You’re just sucking up to me because I’m the department head’s wife, aren’t you? No, that’s fine, I’m cool with it, please continue.” “What school are the kids going to this year?” Other topics?

  97. Thanks for the NOLA recommendations.

    Cafe Beignet was a hit for me but not my travel companions. Busy though.

    Cafe soule is a huge hit!! Thanks you!!

  98. Rocky, lots of recent topics on this blog would work.
    Check out sports before you go.
    What are you doing/eating/ making for Christmas dinner? Favorite cookies to eat and to bake?
    Department head? As in academics? What are you working on over break? How did classes go?
    Your ebikes
    The kids
    Any house guests?
    Christmas decorations–where are nice ones to look at, what do they put up, are they done?
    Is the CIA being taken over by liberal lefties or what?
    Rudolph was on tonight (actual tv sets only :( ) What are your favorite annual specials?

  99. Arg. I spent so much time fighting with the stupid gravitars that I logged out and tried again, and forgot the best one in my rewriting:
    Who should the Nobel in lit have gone to instead of Dylan? Patti Smith (who accepted it for him today)?

  100. Good suggestions, S&M! Fortunately this year everyone seemed determined to hold up their end of the conversation (not always the case!) so it all went fine.

  101. And no, he was (until a few days ago) the department head of his division at the law firm. He handed it over to a young woman and has basically been tap dancing about how all the office politics are not his problem anymore (and I’ve been tap dancing too! It’s been a real grind.)

  102. I just got around to reading the post from a couple days ago–planned to skim it, but then wanted to see how Ada would reply to people asking how you get things on your fork other than with a knife. The answer came eventually, but from Mafalda–use your bread! That’s one way I’m weird in Germany–there is no way I can eat the amount of bread that is traditional there. My FiL was of the old-fashioned variety who always had a hunk of bread just above his plate, off to the side (left side, I think).
    I’m right-handed and eat with my fork in my right hand, unless a knife is required for cutting, maneuvering or folding. Then the knife is in my right and fork in my left. I may switch a few times during the meal, depending on what I’m eating, but certainly not every bite. It is strange to me to see how many times people referred to “shoveling it in” with American style switching going on. Seems to me that the back-and-forth precludes shoveling. The first time I was consciously aware of the European style was seeing one of my host brothers suck down some crepes on his mid-morning break from work, slicing and eating with zero switching. Very efficient! I suppose eating with your hands is efficient. I was surprised at the etiquette required, which was taught to me by a friend who had little kids. The possible inefficiency comes from the hand-washing needed if you’re eating pasta or rice with sauce.
    I cross my sevens, but refuse to put little tails on my 1s. The rest of my handwriting is too horrid for it to be seen as precious, but in Germany I’m a barbarian. Countless post office clerks, front desk receptionists and others have frowned at me as they made a show of putting the little tail at the beginning of the “1”. I did my best not to roll my eyes.
    I’m with Rhett on billable hours–fine to call them that, but then give up the pretense of sick days, paid time off (time off is clearly not paid), etc. Seems better to me than butt-in-seat time.
    On taking vacations days, I recall a colleague in Germany who took her six weeks for one year at the end of the year, and six weeks for the next year at the beginning; she and her partner took a three-month driving trip across Asia, ending with a little time in Indonesia and Australia. That kind of time completely away and involved in a very different kind of life just seemed magical. And she was ready to dive back into work which, from an employer’s perspective, is what vacation is for, getting rested up to have energy at work again.

  103. Rocky, I thought he was a lawyer, didn’t know the phrase “department head” applied. Ignorance on my part. And your party was too early for my suggestions to be any good. Sorry! I’m guessing it was an end-of-the-workday kind of thing,.

  104. New Yorkers: where is the best place to get a burger (or similar) and watch a basketball game in the midtown area of NYC? (We could, of course, watch in our room and order food, but I thought it might be more fun to go out).

  105. I just looked at my United account and I’ll be Premier Gold in 2017. Woot. Yeah, I know, it’s still United.

  106. I am not sure if it is too late, but PJ Clarke’s is a classic NY experience with good burgers.
    Also, not sure if you are staying east or west, but there are some local places on 1st , 2nd or 3rd aves that are closer to the residential stuff. Most of these are pub like places and they will get crowded with 20somethings on a Sunday for football. If you are looking for more of a restaurant with lots of screens – that might be a little less rowdy.

    there are a few locations of Black iron burger. One is midtown west. I haven’t been to that location, so I am not sure about TV. The burgers are good.

  107. How many times can one see The Nutcracker. Too many to be counted. Today saw it with DD who wanted to go to a community performance to watch her friend perform. She knew a few other dancers from school. My DD was so happy to see her friends.
    Very different experience from taking my kids to see the performance when they were younger.

  108. RMS, is it because United has hubs in Denver and SFO? I’m thinking that you’ll make good use of that status now that you have your vacation home.

  109. We watch a lot of HGTV in our home because we can all watch the shows together since we know the content will always be appropriate for any age. We like to watch Flip or Flop so I was surprised to read a headline earlier today that Tarek and Christina split up. I’m glad the brothers are twins so I can keep watching all of their shows.

    I know DD has already discovered that she can download some of her favorite Netflix series vs. streaming. We didn’t tell her, but it probably took a day until she heard about it, or realized that she could download in time for some long car rides.

  110. Finn, United also flies into SJC, which is the closest airport to our house. So yeah, it will be useful.

    Tarek and Christina split up? Oh no! This is as bad as when Sonny and Cher split up. Okay, maybe not.

  111. The assistant principal squashed DW’s request for an alternative language arts option for DD, as I figured he would.

  112. I was working for about ten years when Sonny Bono died in the accident. It was early internet, and we were searching on the internet for pictures of Sonny and Cher to show some of our first year employees because they only knew Cher as a singer. They were too young to remember them as a couple!

  113. Tarek and Christina? What is this world coming to. Maybe critics can give Chip and Joanna Gaines a break on the social side. They are, after all, an interracial couple (her mom is Korean), they have redesigned homes for black-white interracial couples, divorced and remarried couples, and live their faith without ever making it an issue for the viewer. OTOH, what she does when she repurposes a classic midcentury home and adds shiplap and distressed wood is an aesthetic crime.

  114. I was thinking of going to Cuba. Have been able to find something around $1000. Any tips on something cheaper or a better place to visit close by? I’m from Toronto.

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