Recently I was asked about my travel strategies, so I’ve decided to share them along with a few recommendations. There is no one size that fits all when it comes to travel. It is a matter of personal taste. One person might be a luxury traveler while another might prefer a no-frills, bare bones travel experience.
I started traveling 30 years ago and my travel taste has evolved through trial & error and experience. After visiting 27 countries, taking 18 cruises and countless other trips around the U.S. here are a few of the things that work for me.
Destination – First I identify and select a destination. That entails doing thorough research on the weather, currency exchange rate, food, culture and political climate. For instance, I visited Istanbul, Turkey several years ago and look forward to going back, but in light of the current events in the region I would not plan that trip right now. Once I select a destination I look at dates and pricing.
Cost – The next thing that I consider is cost, since every trip is driven by my budget. My mindset is that every trip is an investment, so I research my trips as thoroughly as I research my stock investments. I want to get the biggest and best return possible for my investment. There are literally hundreds of travel websites, tour companies and travel sellers. However, I use my resources and expertise as a travel professional to narrow my search. There are many factors to consider when it comes to financing a trip and several payment options are available: cash, credit card, payment plans, etc. All have their pros and cons. I prefer to pay cash, so in order to do that I keep an ongoing travel fund that I contribute to regularly. That way I always have money available to travel. I have also used payment plans since they work very effectively if the trip is booked far out in advance. Some travel packages can be booked with small deposits – sometimes as low as $100 – and the final payment isn’t due until 45 days before departure. That way the trip is paid in full before I leave.
A travel budget can be set aside very easily. For example, if you work Monday-Friday and spend $5/day on lunch or Starbucks, you’re spending $25/week and $100/month. If those monies were put into a travel fund instead, you’d have $1200 each year to put toward your travel.
Getting the Best Price – It seems like everyone is in the travel business these days; Costco, AAA, AARP and hundreds of online choices. It can be overwhelming and very time consuming. So how do you narrow it down? The simple way is to consult with a legitimate, experienced travel agent. You need to vet that travel agent the same way that you would vet a doctor or dentist. Find out about their qualifications, certifications and travel experience – don’t do business with a travel agent who doesn’t travel. They will be able to find the best prices for your selected travel dates. Or if you’ve already done research they will let you know if they can beat the deal that you have found. It doesn’t cost anything to find out if they can beat what you’ve found.
Keep in mind that many online prices are not the bottom line prices. The advertised price is always the lead-in price and does not include taxes, fees or other hidden costs. So a cruise that is advertised for $799 can easily cost in excess of $1000 once all components have been added. So when you’re looking at an online price be sure to walk it all the way through to get the true total.
Getting the most out of your trip – You need to determine what you want to get from that trip – relaxation, adventure, luxury, nightlife, culture, nature, etc. You also need to determine your own personal preferences. If you don’t like hot weather, you wouldn’t book a trip to Dubai in June. Or if you don’t like cold weather, you wouldn’t go to Alaska in December. I prefer not to drive in foreign countries, so I take public transportation, taxis and tour buses. It’s all a matter of personal preference.
I have gotten the most out of my travels by using professional tour guides – and I’ve used them all over the world. I have used guidebooks, maps and doing it on my own, but they do not compare to having a professional tour guide who can provide hidden secrets and personal knowledge. For instance, in China our tour guide added several special activities that were not on our tour itinerary. We had dinner in a private home and even took a Tai Chi class that he arranged. I’ve had guides who arranged special entry into museums, mosques and many other attractions – allowing me to avoid long lines.
Using a local guide also adds an element of security, which is very important in today’s travel arena. They are your eyes and ears and will alert you to potential dangers. In Paris she pointed out pickpockets. In China our guide warned us about vendors who often give counterfeit money with change and even taught us how to recognize it. The benefits of using a local tour guide are endless.
Packaged Tours – Booking packaged tours is another good way to save and get the most out of a trip. Air/hotel packages are often much cheaper than booking air and hotel separately. The more components you add to the package (rental car, excursions, show tickets) the better the value.
I also recommend booking packaged international tours that include air, hotel, tours and most meals. For instance, our recent 10-daytrip to China (Beijing, Suzhou, Hangzhou and Shanghai) included round-trip flights from LAX, in-country flights between Beijing and Shanghai, bus transportation, entry to museums, 4 star hotels, tours with English speaking guides, daily breakfasts and several dinners – all for only $1399 per person. Booking that trip a la carte could easily have cost $5000 per person. There was no stress involved because everything was planned for us. And we still had plenty of free time to explore on our own.
I have learned as a travel professional and frequent traveler that like most things that you purchase, you get what you pay for and there are really no giveaways. Travel vendors are in business to make money. Some prices are lower than others, but it just depends on when and where you go. To get the very best rates, you have to be able to travel ANY time. However, if you have specific dates, those deep discounts may not apply. The bottom line is, you have to do your homework to find the best rates for your travel dates and preferences. Happy traveling!