iscribblings

Charting life's circuitous path


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The Seattle Series: Episode 2 – There’s no place like home

Growing up, my family used to stay in motel rooms on our two day driving trips to see my grandparents. The rooms always smelled faintly of smoke and seemed perpetually smudged around the edges.  Before we even got to the door, my mother would issue warnings to not touch anything.  She’d immediately whip out the cleaning kit and set to work wiping down surfaces until she saw them fit enough to touch (even then we’d still wear shower flip flops in the bathroom).  It wasn’t like we were staying in a roach motel, but her frequent cautioning meant that I grew up viewing hotel rooms with a deep suspicion. So it’s no surprise that when I think about staying in a hotel for two weeks a shiver of disgust runs down my spine. I imagine the bedbugs, the germs, the stray hairs and it makes my gross meter explode.  😯

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What my hubby looks like when he stays at a hotel.

My hubby is the opposite. He can settle right into a space just fine without worrying about what might be lurking on the doorknob. While I’m tiptoeing around to minimize feet to carpet contact, he’s right at home with shoes kicked off. (I used to ask him about shower shoes, but the quirked eyebrow had me packing only one pair.  I don’t ask him anymore.)  I’m envious of his nonchalance, his carefree nature because if I could settle more easily into a room like he can, then I’d probably be less wound up.

Let’s just say that our two week vacation to Seattle was causing me no little amount of stress. Hubby never gets excited about vacation planning, so I knew I was on my own. I wanted to pick out a nice, clean place with great reviews. Just like with my car rental, I started at the most obvious – Expedia.

My best friend lives smack dab in the middle of Seattle. Convenient, yes, cheap, no. Double occupancy hotel room prices ranged from $200 – $500 a night, and we’re not talking the Ritz here. Seeing as how we were going to be meeting up with hubby’s mother and her partner, we didn’t relish spending at least $2800 on lodging per couple. I wanted somewhere clean and nice, but I also didn’t want to spend our entire savings just to save my hubby the frustration of seeing me grimace any time he touched a faucet.

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And then there’s me . . .

So, I started thinking. Whenever we visited our relatives in England and went traveling with them, they’d rent a house. A whole house. We’d all have rooms, a shower and a kitchen to sit and chat and drink tea.  So I googled vacation houses to see if there were houses to rent just for vacations.

And found Homeaway.com.

It’s a website that lists the homes owners rent to travelers, usually with the caveat that you’ll be staying at least a few days. Unlike hotels or motels, you get the entire place, the yard (if it has one) and conveniences like a kitchen and laundry. (There are other sites out there, too, like VRBO and Flipkey.  Some houses actually still have the owners living in them, so double check to make sure in case rooming isn’t your thing.)

There were cute bungalows, townhouses and even beach studio pads! Every entry came with a list of amenities and pictures, and I spent weeks looking at house after house making a list of all the possibilities. We wanted something cheap (definitely under $200), would sleep four adults, have WiFi (there’s no way we’d be having a good time without it) and air conditioning.  Not too demanding, right?  😉  When I asked my friend about the air conditioning,  her husband laughed out loud.  Apparently people in Seattle don’t do air conditioning, but with our luck, it’ll be the hottest summer on record so I wasn’t taking any chances!

Even though I was beginning to go spare with all of my searching, it finally paid off! We nabbed a very cute house located in West Seattle, within 2 miles of Alki beach, and it has everything we want: 2 bedrooms, a kitchen, a laundry room, WiFi, parking and air conditioning. The pictures of the house looked both cute, comfortable but above all CLEAN. I could imagine staying here and not worrying about whose feet touched the floor. In fact, I could imagine myself living here.

The price was also right. For our two week stay, our party of four adults will cost us $1600! That’s $800 a couple for two weeks! I can’t exclamation point enough!! Even if we were going by ourselves, we still would have saved at least half the cost of a regular hotel room. Another perk? You could pay the owners with PayPal so your credit information stays safe.

If you’re going on vacation, just like with rental cars, take another look at your options. Instead of paying for a hotel (whose prices include the room cleaning and desk operator costs), see if a house is in your future. Surprisingly, you have a lot of choices when it comes to accommodations and it pays to look around.

I’ll post a review of the property once our vacation is over. Until then, I’ll make sure to only pack one pack of cleaning wipes. 😉

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The Seattle Series: Episode 1 – Car Rentals

In a month, we’ll be visiting Seattle for the first time and I’m beyond excited. :mrgreen:  This post is the first in a series on traveling to Seattle.  (I know, I start off with a real thriller!)seattle

Ah, Seattle!  The water, the coffee, the needle!  Not only do we get to see friends and family, but we get to explore a city that has been on my “go to” list for years.  I’ve trekked through multiple tourist websites and blogs focused on gleaming out the best of the city – the museums, bakeries, coffee shops, city tours and of course the numerous beautiful parks.

In amongst all of the fun planning and researching, we’ve been looking up rental cars.

While we realize that actually traveling with a car in downtown Seattle is more hassle than its worth (Frommers has a good article about this), we do plan to travel up to Vancouver and down to Mt. St. Helens.  We’ve rented cars before when our own car needed fixing, so we aren’t total newbies, but we had never rented a car for vacation.

Hey, I’m savvy! Bring it on!  😎

Little did I know that I was about to learn differently. . .

Cue Twilight Zone music

You are about to enter another dimension,

a dimension not only of sneaky fees and extra small print but of insanity.

A journey into a nightmare land of terms and restrictions.

Next stop, the Car Rental Zone!

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No, I didn’t look like this before I began renting a car.

Navigating through the fine details involved in renting a car can make you feel like you’ve slipped into a different universe.  There are the countless acronyms, scary sounding insurance plans and the sheer cost of hiring a car to contend with before you even settle on which company to trust (as much as you might trust a 10 foot starving python, anyway).

So, I started like everyone else by searching Expedia.  Then I searched Priceline, then Hotwire, and ultimately Happy Cars.  Notice the trend? I was getting desperate.  The rates were horribly high and even the mother of a used car salesman would balk at the “deals”.

There were so many fees and taxes that my eyes crossed and don’t even mention the numerous restrictions.  I spent more than a few hours looking up rates and reading up on advice.  I asked a LOT of questions (a big thank you to you-know-who-you-are!) and finally started to get some answers.

In the end, we actually discovered quite a few things that helped us nab a car at a decent rate!

So, if you want to rent a car and it’s your first time, here are the fruits of my labor.  Perhaps they’ll help you in your quest for the best deal!  🙂

Tips for Renting a Car

A couple caveats before I begin: One, I assume you’re over 25 and two, you’re living in the US. Also, this is all based on experience – take it for what it is.

  • Begin by checking whether or not your current auto and health insurance covers rental cars and if so, how much. If your car insurance doesn’t, check your credit cards.  Some offer coverage while others don’t. Also see what you’re covered for while you’re at it – in case it’s very skimpy and doesn’t cover beans.

Why?  You can skip paying the CDW (Collision Damage Waiver), SLI (Supplemental Liability Insurance) and LDW (Loss Damage Waiver) – depending on your coverage.  LDW can cost nearly $30 a day and most of the waivers and insurance protections they try to sell you are covered by either your health insurance, car insurance or credit card.  We’re covered for everything they’re trying to sell, so we’re saving hundreds of dollars by declining.

(Another tip:  double check what you’re signing when you arrive to make sure that they don’t opt you back in under your nose.)

  • Next, check if you can rent a car somewhere other than the airport.  Not all cities are people friendly, but if you’re going to a place like Seattle, be aware that there’s a rail link that takes you straight downtown where you can rent your car.

Why?  You pay a fraction of the cost that the same company will charge at the airport.  The reason seems to be the fee that they tack on from the location – the airport seems to charge a lot more than, say, a hotel for the privilege to rent a car.  The company we went with wanted to charge a bit over $1000 for a two week rental, but the same company was asking $600 if you went downtown.  Seeing as how the rail ticket costs about $2, you can guess what route we’re going to take!

  • Finally, comparison shop, but also look into other avenues to save.  Are you a member of a club?  See if they give you discounts on rentals.  Does your work place offer you savings as an employee?  Check it out!  Do you even need the car for the entire stay?  If not, book for a shorter time!

Why?  You can get a great deal.  Our work place is a member of Motivano and so we can get a deal through them on a weekly rental – $36 a day.  The same car without the discount would have cost us $58 a day!  More cups of coffee for us!  Plus, Seattle happens to have a good public transit system, so for the first week, we plan to take the bus and walk rather than pay for not only the car but the parking fees (which can be $30 a day).  This will save us at least half the rate, if not more.

It can definitely be daunting to rent a car, but once you educate yourself about your destination and do a bit of research on your option, you can feel confident about your choice.

Oh, yes, one more suggestion: Don’t go for the cheapest car out there.  We found that there were slightly cheaper rates than the one we got from other companies, but some of those companies charged for your spouse to drive and others wouldn’t let us into Canada.  Most of those companies also had bad ratings on sites like Yelp.  So definitely read the fine print on their terms and conditions.  If they aren’t clear, then I’d suggest renting from a company that isn’t afraid to spell it all out.

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Wheeeeee! Now that’s a happy car!


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Une Excursion de Trois Jours

Say you find yourself with three days and decide to go to Paris.  (As bizarre as this might seem to us Americans, there are people who are  lucky enough to live THAT close.)

What to do?  How do you plan?  There’s so much to see that you immediately create a “go to” list in your head.

STOP!

If you are short on time, take our advice:  make the trip personal.

When we planned our trip, we had to think about what we wanted and prioritize.  It was tempting to pile on the sights and events, but we had to be realistic.  We weren’t likely to eat our dinner on the run, so time had to be allocated and we had to think about what we would like experience.

Task One:  Where to stay?

We knew that we were going to the Louvre, so we wanted a hotel that would be near, spacious, and romantic.  We also knew that we were going by Eurostar, so I began by searching their site for packaged deals.

I went through what felt like countless options before narrowing it down to a few nice hotels.  All were beautiful and at great locations.  I had never selected a hotel on my own, so it was all overwhelming.  I basically went with reviews, but the reviews were all positive and it felt more like a selection between a cream puff and an éclair.  😕

What sold the Hotel Regina to us (or me, I should say, since hubby didn’t really mind where we stayed) was the spaciousness of the hotel rooms.  This seemed important since we would be traveling in a cramped train car for hours and the last thing I wanted was to be staying in more cramped spaces.  The décor was of the antique/romantic variety and many said that they were treated well (something I was really worried about, but was met with only kindness and courtesy).  I booked for two nights and chose a mid-level room.  With the hotel done, it was time to fill out the itinerary.

Task Two:  What to do? Plan a few activities! (but be realistic)

Museums are like black holes – you enter and only barely escape with aching feet and blurry eyes.  They can suck a complete day away and while we can be fast gazers, we have been known to get carried away.  According to Wikipedia, Paris has 153 museums. 😯 That’s a lot of stuff to look at.  With only three days, we acted like complete tourists and opted for the grandest of them all – the Louvre. 

However, we decided to go with a guide group to see the highlights.  Reason:  the black hole effect.  The Louvre is massive and with so much to see and so many people, we thought it would be a good use of time to go with a tour guide and have them do all the hard work (we went with Cityrama).  This turned out to be one of the best bits of the trip.  Our guide was informative, knew the layoutlike the back of her hand and she was considerate to the group.  We got more out of our few hours in the Louvre than if we had just stumbled in with map in hand and nothing but the barest of insight (not to mention we got to skip to the head of the line).  If you’re going to go to a museum like the Louvre, I highly recommend a tour guide.  It might be more costly, but the experience is incomparable.

Seeing all of Paris in three days is obviously impossible.  We knew we wanted to see the Eiffel Tower, but beyond that, we weren’t sure.  There’s too much to see and do that you have to be a native to get to point A and B (through Z) with efficiency.  So, we hired a native (or at least someone more native than us).  I searched around and saw advertised a bike tour of Paris.  Biking in Paris during the spring?  How much more romantic can you get without the Seine, a sunset and a lovely bench?

The Fat Tire Bike tour group met under the Eiffel, so we were able to see the gigantic tower and hear some interesting facts from our animated guide.  We then walked to the tour office and were passed onto our bike guide who was funny, loud (essential when navigating the busy streets), and fluent in French (she was Canadian).  The tour took us around the Dome Church, the Military School, the Great and Little Palaces, the Louvre, and the Eiffel Tower.  We saw more in less time than it would have taken otherwise, and it was an adventure.  I would never have thought we’d be able to bike Paris, but we did and it was a great way to get around and feel a part of the beautiful city.

The two tours were on separate days, which left us the afternoon and evening free.  This free time was a bit trickier to plan.  The weather conspired against us, so we didn’t get to just stroll about like I wanted to (no Orange Center Madeleine for us, boo!).  Instead, we hazarded the Champs-Elysees, which took all afternoon and a stroll along the Seine the next afternoon.  While the Champs-Elysees was a bit of a waste of time (outside of the Pierre Herme store and the Arc de Triomphe, there really wasn’t much more to look at than what we could at our own mall), the Seine was more scenic and was a great way to see the river and Paris without the crowds.

Task Three:  What to eat?  A bit of what’s expected and what’s familiar.

Being a vegetarian meant that I wasn’t all that excited about French cuisine.  Most of what everyone gushed about weren’t places we could actually go to, so I opted to splurge more on desserts than meals.

Our first restaurant was Aki – it’s always good to try out a cheap Japanese joint when traveling abroad.  We know the food well and it’s easy to order.  Aki was a tiny restaurant with tables nearly joined together to the next, but the food was superb and cheap.

The other meals were a combination of cafes (both in the Tuileries and the Louvre) and McDonald’s.  I know.  You go to Paris where the food is purported to be the best, and you eat at McDonald’s.  I should hang my head in shame.  😳  Grant it, the food was subpar to even our own Mickey D’s, but it was fast, easy and stress free (except for being yelled at for trying to take a picture of the menu).

What I cared more about, however, were two things: macarons and a patisserie for breakfast.  We found both and we didn’t penny-pinch.  I bought a 12 assortment of macarons from Pierre Herme that I can only now dream about and so many croissants, palmiers, and montblancs (the montblanc was from Angelina’s) that life was buttery and good.

Planning a three day trip can be stressful, but it’s a lot of fun if you try to keep in mind your own interests.  We never felt rushed off our feet and we had enough to do without wandering the streets.  Were there things I wish we could have done?  Sure!  I wish we could have gone to the Opera National de Paris, Notre Dame, and the catacombs.  The way I see it, we will just have to go back, won’t we?  :mrgreen: