J.R. Tolkien

"Not all those who wander are lost." - J.R. Tolkien

Friday, July 29, 2016

Adventuring in Baltimore, Washington D.C. and New York on the Chinese Bus

I spent my Jul 4th weekend hanging out with a parakeet on a Chinese bus headed for New York City.  I didn't have it planned out that way but it became a part of a week long budget traveling adventure that started in Cincinnati and ended with a 12 hour bus ride home by a very mistrusting bus driver.  Here's how it started.

I was heading to D.C. for a week long work trip so asked my husband to tag along.  I scored him round trip direct tickets from Cincinnati to Baltimore/Washington D.C. for $90 on Allegiant Air, (my coworkers paid $286 to fly from Louisville).  We had to drive to Cincinnati and then Uber to the airport, it costed only $4 when I used my discount.  Despite being a budget airline, the plane was new, clean and spacious.

Inside Allegiant Airline
We flew into the Baltimore airport, a quick 40 minute Amtrak ride away from D.C that costed $15/person.  Here's my husband's first Amtrak experience.  I love taking the train so I think there's going to be a cross America train adventure in my near future.  

The wanderlust that I am, I have to fit as many destinations in one trip as possible.  So before going to D.C., we headed to Baltimore's Inner Harbour, a short light rail ride away for less than $2/person.  Often praised as a model for post industrial redevelopment, this historic harbor is hodgepodge of attractions, restaurants, and museums that's ideal for exploring on foot.

We walked for 30 minutes around the area and ended up in Fell's Point, a lovely historic town established in 1730 with narrow side walks and red brick homes where locals and tourist alike hung out at restaurants and pubs.  Edgar Allan Poe's last stop was here at The Horse You Came In On, America's oldest continuously operated saloon.  Poe was found dead outside.   We came here specifically for Thames Street Oyster House for the lobster roll and crab cakes.  My husband took the photo below, bit into the lobster roll and then felt compel to take his phone out again to take another photo because it was so good. 

$24 for the lobster roll, but definite worth it.
$15 crab cake sandwich, a must have when in Maryland.
Two happy tummies later, we rushed back to the Amtrak station to catch the train to D.C. to spend our week.

After work each day, we did all the touristy things, visited all the monuments and historically significant sites.  D.C. is easily accessible via the Metro, by foot, or bike.  We walked 10 miles some days and biked everywhere using the bike share system, $8 for a day pass + additional fee for each hour used.  Washington D.C. architectural style pays homage to the Rome, it's like walking in a Roman city if it were still intact today.  For museum lovers, it's the place to be, since most major museums and attractions are free. 
Martin Luther King Memorial
The Supreme Court
Sample of the architecture.
The popular Lincoln Memorial
Washington Monument.
Got caught in the rain walking back. I LOVE rain.
I've been to D.C. a few times but appreciated it more this time because my coworker lived in the area and gave us a more intimate tour of the area.  The Wharf specifically rocked my world.  Here you will find fresh seafood for cheap.  My favorite meal is to head over to Jessie Taylor to get a few dozen fresh blue crabs, they then carry it across to the other side and steamed it with some Old Bay seasoning on the spot for FREE.  We paid only $25 for 2.5 dozens of fresh crab.  Pro tip: flirt with the guys and you'l get at least 3 dozens for the same price.   

We also made a quick trip to the historic port of Annapolis, Maryland right on the Chesapeake Bay.  I felt in love with its European-like charm, laid back atmosphere, and the sail boats gliding in the wind. 

As the week neared the end and the long weekend loomed ahead, I convinced my husband (he used the word "tricked") to take a trip to New York, promising to keep it as cheap as possible. It was a big victory for me since his fear of robbery, alien invasions and super hero show-downs kept him from wanting to visit New York.

To keep it as cheap as possible, I booked us tickets on Ilikebus.com for $20/each.  The website is a travel agent of sort for Chinese-owned bus companies, offering cheap travel along the East and West coast of the U.S.  Pick up and drop off locations are usually located in a Chinatown or in smaller cities, an Asian grocery store.  This is our bus and this is the shady looking office where we checked in:

Bus stop 
Our Chinese Bus
We sent several messages to friends notifying them to look for us if we don’t come back.

It wasn't luxurious travel, but it's wasn't bad either.  The seats were uncomfortable but the bus is clean and spacious.  It's the way to go if you're looking for cheap transportation (Bolt Bus, Megabus, Greyhound and Peter Pan are other options).  The highlight of our ride was our traveling companion, the parakeet.  She perched on the shoulder of her owner the entire time, squawking away periodically and her owner shushed her every time she did.  This went on for the entire 5 hour ride to NYC.  I regret not taking a photo.

We made it to New York in one piece.  We scored this awesome hotel for $105/night a few blocks from Times Square and the Rockefeller Center, making everything easily accessible by foot so we saved on transportation.

Photo source: The Roosevelt Hotel
New York in short for me was: big, loud, delicious, exciting, electrifying.  My husband’s description: SCARY, a cab driver almost ran him over within the first hour in NY.  To make up for his near death experience, I found some amazing places for him to eat:

Sushi burrito from Pokeworks
Long line for cookies at Levain Bakery
Large Levain chocolate chip cookie 
Rolled ice cream from I CE NY
Baos from Baohaus (Owner is Eddie Huang from Fresh Off the Boat)
Delicious $1/slice pizza from 2 Bros Pizza
Awesome Ramen from Ippudo
We saw some cool stuff:

Central Park
NY skyline
9/11 Memorial
Grand Central Station
Saw Rachel Platten in concert for free at the Today show

Times Square
John Lennon Strawberry Fields memorial in Central Park
And hung out with some New Yorker friends:

Friend not pictured only the macaron she bought us
We ended our adventure with a 12 hour bus ride home for $70 on another Chinese Bus.  We left New York with this image fading in the background.

Here's a video highlighting our trip.  Photos and Video Credit: Frank B.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Budget Travel Tips: The Hotel Hustle

1.  Compare Airfare
2.  Smart Car Rental
3.  Hotel Hustle

I’ve stayed in some shady (I am actually thinking of another "s" word that’s less appropriate) places in the past to save money.  An example, I stayed in a room in Hanoi, Vietnam where I can almost touch the walls by stretching out my arms.  We shared the showers and flushed the toilet using a string attached to a broken handle, which was perpetually damp.  And when we checked in, the resident rat scurried across the room as a way of welcoming us.  The upside, we paid $4/night for it.  Here’s what the room looked like.
$4 a night hotel in Ha Noi, Viet Nam circa 2010
Now that I’m a little older and have been spoiled a bit by some nicer options, it’s harder to go back to the rough and tough days.  I’ve increased my hotel spending limit to above the $4 range and upgraded to the rat free option.  Surprisingly, it’s not hard to find great hotels for very good prices if you are willing to do some digging and to be a little adventurous.  

Here are a few of my favorite ways to get great rates on hotels at reasonable rates.  My main criteria for a good hotel: great location, clean facilities, and $100 range.    
Use Hotelcoupons.com. There’s no easy way to book cheap hotels, you just have to look around and compare prices.  But the easiest way for me is to go to hotelcoupons.com.  The site shows me a list of hotels in the area that offers walk-in rates and special discounts, many times 50% cheaper. You risk not having a hotel room if there’s no availability that day.  But this works especially well in smaller cities, in off holiday season and if several hotels in the same area are offering the same discounts (giving you more options if your first choice has no availability). You can also call ahead or check on their website first to gage if they have enough availability.  On a weekend trip to Columbus, we saved 65% on a very nice hotel room.

Try non-traditional hotels.  Hostels, state parks, home stays, bed and breakfast offer some really great rates and a one of a kind travel experience.  Hostels are great for super budget/single travelers and a great way to meet other travel enthusiasts.  They offer dorm style beds for as low as $10-$20/night, though you'll have to share bathroom facilities.  Hostels also offer private ensuite, we paid around $50 - $60 for nice private hostel rooms in Europe (try: Hostels, Hostel World, Hostelling International).  Home stays are fun as well.  I did a home stay in Bali and loved living in a traditional housing compound completed with a temple and roosters for alarm clocks (try: Airbnb and read guide books for your specific destinations).  The weirdest thing I've booked yet, a pod hotel in Japan for $40/night (surprising spacious and comfortable, even for our 6 ft + friend).

A pod hotel in Kyoto
Check out Apartments, vacation homes, and condos.  These are great for a large group.  You save by splitting the cost and using the cooking facilities to save on food (try: Airbnb, Flipkey, HomeawayVRBO).  You'll get the home away from home experience.

Take advantage of your memberships.  A lot of hotels offer special rates for AAA, AARP, seniors, and military members.  So always keep an eye out for these options when booking a hotel.

Sign up for hotel membership.  You can earn points as well as perks if you sign up for a membership at chain hotels.  On a business trip to St. Louis, I got upgraded to a larger room, free water bottles and checked in earlier than the rest of my party because I was a preferred member.  Memberships are free and just require a few minutes to sign up. Hilton and Marriott both offer free internet for members.

Grab a mystery hotels.  This is my favorite new way to save on hotel.  Priceline has the Express Deals where you can save 50% or more on your hotel.  The catch, you won't know the name of the hotel until after you pay and it's nonrefundable.  They do provide you a general area on a map, a list of amenities and customer ratings.  My tip, make sure it's in a good location, choose only hotels with 4+ star ratings and at least 40% savings.  I did it for the first time on a recent NYC trip and scored a $224/night hotel for only $105 in an amazing location a few blocks away from Times Square and Rockefeller Center.  Hotwire also offer the same mystery hotel options on their Hot Rate hotels.  

Our $105/night hotel in NYC. Source
Bundle.  Booking hotels with car or flights in a package can save you some major bucks.  I usually end up getting free car rental or paying as little as $9/day for car rental.  My hotel rate also end up being lower. Just choose the package option when using aggregate sites like Expedia and Travelocity.   These sites now also allow you to book your flights first and come back within a certain time frame to book your hotel at a discounted rate. 

Give up your amenities.  I've stayed at some fancy hotels ($400+/night) and found that the main draw is the amenities.  While nice, I never have time to enjoy them.  I want to be out exploring as much as possible and come back to the hotel to rest at night.  Choosing a cheaper hotel with less amenities can mean big savings.  Also, the more expensive hotels rarely offer free breakfast, parking, computer usage, which can add up. 

Expand your search area. If you can't find a great rate in your area of choice, consider looking beyond that area. Sometimes, driving an additional 15 minutes out or taking a subway in can save you a lot of money.  For example, last week I couldn't find any cheap hotels in the D.C. area, I found a hotel across the bridge in Arlington for $100/night (which was nicer than my $400/night hotel).  It was just a short subway ride away.

Research Obsessively.  I always compare prices from different hotels using aggregate sites like Expedia, Hotels.com, Travelocity and ALWAYS read customers reviews.  My go to is Tripadvisor to read reviews from other travelers on hotels, tours, restaurants, etc. before finalizing my purchase.  That hotel might look shiny and new on the outside, but only people who’ve stayed there can give you insight on the service, facility conditions, things to do around the area, etc.  Take overly negative and positive reviews with a grain of salt, read a few reviews and look at the overall ratings to make up your own mind.