Vacation planning ideas for you to consider.

Vacation planning ideas for you to consider.

My wife and I wanted to go on vacation this summer but gas costs being so high we decided not to fly or travel by car too far.  Our family decided to vacation in San Diego.   Trying to find the best accommodations was a chore probably because we tend to comparison shop and kept at it for three days.  Here are some tips for you to consider when looking for the best resort/hotel/motel.

1. When looking at brochures and web site images just beware of the following;

  • Most hotels and resorts put a LOT of money into the front lobby area to impart a good impression when you enter and for promotional materials.  Then when you get into your room, you find all the money is in the lobby and your room is cramped and short on amenities.
  • Images taken by cameras typically distort distance and rooms look larger in photographs than in real life.  When you see photos of rooms just keep in mind that the rooms will be a lot smaller than what you see.
  • Our family judges rooms not by the lobby images, not by room photographs but by actually staying in the room.  If you are like us, we take great stock in good honest reviews found on the Internet.  Beware that some establishments pay staff to put in glowing reviews into web sites and some web sites and magazines might receive considerations for presenting just the glow.

2. Make a list of places you think you want to stay on a pad of paper or computer and start taking notes on each place.  A number of book guides are available to help you find good places to stay.  Check the Internet sites for recommendations and read reviews.
3. Narrow your search.  We do not include places with bad reviews and low review scores.  You pay more for better locations such as view of the sea; mountains, lakes, etc so know what will make you happy when you arrive.
4. If you have a computer and know how to create and use a spreadsheet program like Excel or Numbers (Mac), you should consider putting information onto a sheet.  If you do not know how to do spreadsheets consider using a word document.  When I did my spreadsheet, it became quite large.  Doing the spreadsheet made me realize the importance of some data fields, knowing certain facts about the cost structure.  Here is my list of data fields:

  • Hotel Name The name of the bed & breakfast, hotel, resort or motel.
  • Square feet Not all hotels offer this figure unless you call.  Our family loves large rooms and this is a great way to figure out if your going to be cramped or not during your stay in the room.
  • Rating Expedia has a 5 point scale.  Priceline has 5 stars.  AAA has 5 stars being the highest ranking.  Most people want a high rating establishment but the more stars the higher cost to you.
  • Available? For the dates we want to stay, are the rooms available?  You might ask, why put any data into a spreadsheet if the rooms are not available.  The reason is you have gone to a lot of work up to now so why not enter the data.  A neat trick is to call about 10 or 11 am the next day or check the web site to see if there was a cancellation.  You just might get lucky.  I did this to get into the Grand Canyon when all the rooms were booked.
  • Source Where am I getting the cost data from?  This field is where  I will put in for example, AAA, Expedia, book, brochure, etc.
  • Total Nights How many nights show being available?  For San Diego, we found rooms were unavailable starting Thursday.  Rooms were available usually Sunday though Wednesday it seemed.
  • Cost per night. This is your cost per night, bare bones rate, with all other charges stripped off such as taxes, parking fees, package charges, etc.  For purposes of comparing costs with other facilities we core down to the basic fees and then compare each establishment at that level first before adding on what we think we need such as parking, Internet, “free” meals, etc.  We need to know the floor factor the room charges without any added fluff.
  • Number of nights. This is the number of nights that will be used to compute the total cost for your stay.
  • TMD Fee.  This is the San Diego Tourism Marketing Assessment fee which costs you 2.00% of the room fee.
  • Parking. We have seen parking fees as high as $22 per night.  If you stay a week, that is $154 out of your pocket if you arrive by vehicle and need to park it on premises.
  • Adjustment amount. I had to put this field in because some establishments would give you one night free if you stayed a set number of days or charge higher for a weekend stay, etc..
  • Adjustment reason. This field just reminded me of why I was paying more or less in the “Adjustment amount” field.
  • Offers. Just about every hotel offers package deals.  I only entered packages that were truly a discount to us.  This can be difficult to figure out.  Typically you pay for any package and this field could easily be done away with.
  • Sub Total I decided to come up with a sub total field to help me add the “Occ Tax” into the total cost.
  • Occ Tax This column calculates the bed tax as a percentage of the total rack rate.  For a week’s stay I found a rate as high as $414.04.  I definitely wanted to track this cost.  I found that the Occ tax was a constant, for the city of San Diego, so I put the city tax rate of “0.106” into a cell some place on my spreadsheet that was out of the way but I could easily find and refer to it.   That cell location would be entered into a column calculation.  The column calculation for “Occ Tax” is as follows:  Sum=(sub total * Occ tax).
  • Total. This would be the total cost to stay at that particular hotel.  Pay special attention to this field because this is what is going to be sucked out of your bank account.  If you did your spreadsheet correctly, this total should be pretty close to what you are going to be charged.  But, I can almost guarantee that you will not be able to discover all the fees so take this figure as being a close estimate.  Do compare this figure to any totals you receive from travel agents and web sites.   If your figure is unacceptable to you, too much in error, find out why.  If you are not that savvy with spreadsheets, the problem could easily be your formula for arriving at the total cost.

Here is my formula:

Sub total =sum(cost per night + TMD fee + parking) * Number of nights + adjustment fees.  (This implies that “adjustment fees are one time and not reoccurring).  I then put in one spreadsheet cell the “Occ Tax” which was a constant for that city of 0.106.  I then factored in the Occ Tax by then creating a total cell column and put this formula in place into the first cell and pasted the formula down the page into the same column.
Total=sum(sub total + Occ Tax column total).  I guess you could easily do away with the Occ Tax column totals and just perform this calculation:  Total=sum(sub total * Occ Tax cell constant).  As it turned out, my spread sheet was $7.44 (error) off for a week’s stay from our actual confirmation sent to us by the resort.
My final column calculated the “Cost per Night” which, for me was the crowning achievement.  We all want the lowest cost per night we can find and in this column the truth is revealed.  The formula is simple: Cost per Night =sum(Total / Number of Nights).

5. Check with a good reputable Internet travel web sites.    When doing so there are a number of web site items to be aware of:

  • Look at the prices you see per night.  Are they with or without local taxes included?  Local taxes and city charges can be quite high.  Bed taxes typically account for a percentage of the rack rate.  We found when comparing prices that some Internet sites only showed rack rate and not the full rate you would be paying each night.
  • Check for package deals that are only offered though Internet sales.  You just might get a good deal.  Some big web sites have large blocks of rooms exclusively to sell.  This is especially true for your large gambling cities like Los Vegas.   Our experience is package deals are not typically a savings but you will pay full price for what you might think is a discount.
  • You are usually going to save a significant amount of money if you can make your own reservations on line.  It is not unusual to shave off a 20% fee that a travel agent might charge.  If you need hand holding, just call the hotel and ask for reservations.  The people in reservations typically do a wonderful job of explaining the fee structure and where to find the best deals.
  • Check with the AAA guide if you have this service.  We went to our local AAA location and talked to a travel agent.  We got prices on a couple of places and a lot of good information.   At the bottom of the price quote sheet was the statement that we would pay a commission fee but I do not think it was factored into the price sheet we were given.
  • It is very important to next go to the web site for the hotel, resort or motel you are interested in.  We were quite surprised to find that Paradise Point Resort and Spa offered some lower prices than Expedia!  Again take a close look at the prices per night to see if they include or not the local taxes.
  • When booking on line, pay special attention to what you are doing and do not be afraid to use the “Back” option to review all your options over and over again.  At one web site there was a pull down menu for incentives.  We did not choose “All” but selected “AAA”.   We used the “Back” option on the web page and then selected “All” to discover that the AAA rate was significantly higher than a special summer rate the resort was running.

6. After you go to the general travel agent web sites and you narrow down your search for two or three hotels, I next suggest you go to the web sites for the hotels directly and see if they offer you a better deal.  We did find out that Paradise Point Resort and Spa offered a special deal we did not find on the Internet and we did choose that option with significant savings.
7. I will next recommend that you call the hotel or resort using their 800 numbers.  Ask for reservations (not the front desk).  Have a list of questions ready.  Here are some samples:

  • What is your best rate?  Where do we find it? When we called Paradise Point, we were told there were two good rates and the code words to look for on their web site.  At one resort we were told it was best to look at and pay the basic rates without any package deals being included and when we arrived just pay for what we needed at the time.  In other words the package rates did not offer any true discounts.  This is not to mean that other hotels and resorts will not offer true discounts.  Just make sure you know what you are buying.
  • Are your rates better from your web site or from some Internet site? This is a key finding.  You really want to know which is the best portal to enter to get the best price.
  • Where do you recommend we stay, what part of your resort or hotel? I asked this question when calling Paradise Point and I was told to ask for the Orchid area.  If you stay at the Hotel Del Coronado, we have been told to stay in a room with full view of the ocean and in the main old hotel.  We returned to a then favorite hotel in the Pacific Beach area of San Diego years ago and were put in a room over the laundry room.  It was awful.  The whole room shook. We immediately went to the front desk and asked for another room and were told there were none.  The hotel helped us find accommodations at a very nice hotel up the road.  We now know that the best rooms face the ocean and not to accept a room at the other end of the building.
  • How much for Internet service (if not free)?  Our family are all computer geeks and need Internet connectivity.
  • Other. Do you have any other concerns that you need answers too?  Example: I found the Lodge at Torrey Pines had a terrific rating (5 star AAA) but it did not show rooms for two adults and two children, only two adults.  I called reservations and discovered that they do not publicize the fact that they have a few rooms called Palisades that offer 2 queen beds.
  • Also, ask for the name of the person you talked to and if they have a direct number in case you need to call again.  I find some times this really helps in case you need to call again.

Print out your confirmation and take that document with you to the hotel as proof of the transaction.  In any case, make sure you record the confirmation number.  Funny thing is when I had to call back to reservations to add a day to our stay; they could not deal with the reservation number but asked for my name.

Finally, call the resort a few days before you leave and confirm your reservation.  Make a note of the person’s name you talked to, what date and time you called and take this information with you.

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