Failure to plan costs me

I think it’s important to not only let you know about my frugal successes but also my miserable failures. This weekend was not as frugal as I had hoped. My husband and I went to Washington, DC this weekend. We had been planning to go for a while but we’ve been so busy for the last two months that we were putting together our final plans on Thursday!

I didn’t want to pay to stay in DC so we looked at our options. We looked at the rail line and noticed that there was a commuter line from Baltimore to DC. Being from Massachusetts, I’m familiar with the commuter line in Boston and we’ve taken it a number of times to get into the city. It was going to cost us $6 each way to get into the city and the times worked with our schedule. Excellent, right?

So I travel over to Priceline.com to start bidding for my room. I tried DC first, just to see if I could get a room for $45 a night. Did not happen. Tried all the suburbs of DC as well, with no luck. So then I tried Baltimore. I got a 3 star room right across from Camden station (the station that we wanted to use to go to DC) for $45 a night. AWESOME!
Thursday, I sent my husband over the store to get some lunch meat and snacks so we could bring them with us on Friday when we left. We had an event Friday morning so we had to get up early. We’d be at the event all morning and then leave for DC. We packed up all of our stuff Thursday night and were ready to go. Friday morning we woke up, showered, made coffee and ran out the door… without our lunch supplies. Grrrr. We ended up getting fast food for lunch. At least I had coupons.

We decided to avoid toll roads on the way down there. While it saved us about $25 in tolls, it added over 2 hours to the trip. I didn’t really think it was worth it and we took the toll road home. While I hate tolls, I think I hate driving long distances even more.

We finally rolled into Baltimore, after eating dinner at Bob Evans. At least all the meals we ate were really inexpensive. There was a $21 a night parking fee at the hotel. I figured there would be a parking fee in the city and it was actually less than I had thought. I’ve seen parking fees up to $40 a night, so I figured that into my budget. Once we got into the room, I went to the Maryland Transit Authority website to check the schedule for the next morning. The chart I had seen the day before was replaced with a message that stated that the commuter line did not run on the weekends. Really? Are you kidding me? I started to freak out a bit. I was worried how we were going to get down there and how were we going to park the car.

Jeff jumped into action. It’s awesome being married to a former Army Cavalry Scout. He got on the laptop and started looking at all the DC Metro lines. He looked at the availability of parking and wrote down a number of stations we could go to. Luckily, parking is free on the weekends so it only cost us $1.85 each way per person. That little mix up actually saved us $16. That paid for the lunch we had to buy because we forgot our lunch supplies.

We had a great time in DC. I’ve got blisters on my feet from all the walking. We ate frugally while we were there. Not as frugally as if we were home but I think we did well. The room was very nice for $66 a night (including the parking). Baltimore was a cool city but we were so tired we didn’t see much of it.

How we could have done better:

Had we researched the DC Metro better, we could have stayed in a smaller city or town, where we would not have had to pay for parking. Potential savings: $42

We could have remembered our food. Potential savings: $25.

We could have taken the non-toll roads home. I think I would have gone nuts though and I don’t think it was worth my sanity. Potential savings: $24.

So we added about $100 to the cost of our trip, but we also saved some money on the trip:

We didn’t take the toll roads on the way down there. Savings: $24.

We were very frugal about the restaurants we picked, not that I could have gotten away with not feeding my husband Bob Evans. We ate there three times in three days. We also used coupons from our Entertainment book where ever we could.

Taking the DC metro instead of the MTA saved us a little over $16.

So the key to traveling is to do as much research as possible. Make sure you know how you are going to get around once you get there. If you have the chance to take public transportation into a major city, you can save yourself a ton of money on hotels and parking.

Was all the trouble worth it? I think so. Now to get some more sleep. I’m exhausted.

capitol-building

Bidding on Priceline

Kas asked for more info on Priceline bidding. Rather than putting this in the comments section, I decided to just put up a post about it.

When you go to Priceline, there are two different ways to work the site. You can purchase from the site based on the listed prices on the site or you can “make your own price”. I always use the name your own price option. Here is how it works for hotels:

You type in the name of the city or town you want to visit, the dates you want to go and how many people. The next screen will break your city or town into multiple areas. When I was bidding for Hershey, PA, there were six areas to pick from: Harrisburg, Harrisburg East, Harrisburg West, Hershey, York and Carlisle. There were also a bunch of star ratings, from 1 star to 4 stars.

The first thing I do is click on each area individually to see the star ratings that appear for each area. For example, if you click on Harrisburg, you might have hotels in the 1 to 4 star range, but when you click on Harrisburg East, there may only be hotels in the 1 to 3 star range. I list each area from highest to lowest star range on a piece of paper.

When bidding on Priceline, you have to pick at least one area, then at least one star rating and then you type in the price you want to pay. If your bid is rejected, you have to add one more criteria, either a new area or a lower star rating to be able to bid again. So on my first bid, I’ll put in the area I really want to stay in or the one that has the nicest hotels available, then the highest star rating and I bid LOW. I’m talking 75% off the average price for a hotel in that star rating. The website will actually give you this info after you check off an area and a star level. My first bid is usually rejected. I will then add another area and increase my bid by a few dollars. If that is rejected, I will add another star level and increase my bid again. Sometimes when I add the lower star level I won’t increase the bid just to see if including that gets me the deal I want. I progress this way until I get the deal I want, each time adding one new area or decreasing my star rating but never both at once. Sometimes I don’t get the deal I want and need to wait 24 hours to try again. Generally, the closer I am to the time when I want to go, the better deal I get unless it’s a holiday weekend. Holidays you need to start a bit sooner.

It is important to note that you do not get to select which hotel you want to stay at, just the star rating and the area. Once you submit your bid for a 4 star hotel in Indianapolis – Downtown, you could stay at any 4 star hotel there. You will get a 4 star hotel and it will be in Downtown Indy, but you don’t get to pick which one. I’m not brand loyal when it comes to hotels and I’ve used this method about two dozen times to get hotel rooms. I’ve been pleased everytime. I’ve even gotten free upgrades to club level rooms in New York City (at the time I got a $359 room for $74 a night, which is an incredible deal to stay in NYC).

If you are going to use this method, you need to be patient. It might take you a couple of days to get the deal you want. In the case of Hershey, PA, I couldn’t get the deal I wanted because it’s a very expensive place to stay. I decided to go to Boston instead. I never thought it would cost more to go to Hershey than to go to Boston but hey, we roll with the flow.

When booking flights, I’ve found the least expensive way to go is through the airline sites. You need to be careful of the booking fees on many of the travel sites. Their price might be a bit less than the airline but once you tack on the booking fees, all your savings go right out the window. I’ve never used Priceline for flights because I don’t like layovers when flying. I want to get where I’m going nonstop and I’m willing to pay extra for that (see I’m not cheap with everything, especially when we are talking about my time).  I also like to fly early in the morning so I have less chance of my plane being delayed. With Priceline you have to give them a time range. AM is usually from 6am to 10am. That’s a big difference if you want to fly somewhere and actually want to do something the day you arrive.

I’ve also gotten rental cars through Priceline with excellent results. When we went to Indy, I paid $12 a day for our compact car and when we got there we were upgraded to a crossover vehicle. The retail price on the compact car was $22 a day and the retail on the crossover we got was $40 a day. Not too bad.

I hope my little tutorial on Priceline has gotten you excited to start bidding. I want to hear about your winning bids.

Vacation anyone?

Every year, Jeff and I go away for the weekend of our anniversary. It just also happens to be the weekend our town has this huge Shad Derby (it’s a fishing thing, well not really but it used to be). Originally, we were going to go to Hershey, PA but it was a long drive and I couldn’t get the deal I wanted on a hotel so we decided to go to Boston instead. Well, sort of. We are going to stay in Framingham for two nights. We’ll spend one day in Boston and one day in Worcester at an armor museum. Since I lived in Boston when we started dating ten years ago, I think this trip is pretty fitting.

My budget for the weekend trip is $300, including lodging, food, entertainment and fuel. Whenever I plan a trip, I head over to hotels.com, travelocity.com or some other travel site to see what hotels are going for in the area I want to travel to. Then I go to Priceline and bid about half what the other sites are publishing for their rates. For this trip, we are staying at the Sheraton in Framingham, a three-star hotel for $50 a night. The lowest price I found for this hotel was $99 a night, which was also the lowest price I found for this level of hotel in the area. When I travel, I like to stay at nice hotels because I don’t travel very often. However, just because I like to stay at nice hotels, doesn’t mean I like to pay the nice hotel prices.

Whenever I use Priceline, I always use the “Name your own price” feature. I start dirt cheap and work my way up in price until I get the deal I want. It requires some patience but I have gotten some really great deals. I generally save at least 50% off the lowest price I find elsewhere. Last summer, we went to Indianapolis for a wedding. We stayed at a four star hotel in downtown Indy for $46 a night. When I went back to compare prices after I won the bid, the lowest price I could find for the same hotel was $219 a night. Not a bad deal.

Here are a few things to consider when trying to get a good hotel deal:

Location, location, location – how much time will you spend traveling once you get to your destination? Do you want to be able to park your car and walk around the city or town?

Parking – If you stay in a large city, you may need to pay to park. When we stayed in Indy, we had to pay $20 a day to park. I didn’t mind since we had gotten such a great deal on the room. I could have stayed outside the city but It still would have cost me more than $66 a night and we were in the heart of the city.

Quality – I probably could have stayed in a one or two star hotel for a bit less, but I’ve never been disappointed when staying in a three or four star hotel and with Priceline, I’ve always gotten a great deal.

So out of our $300 budget, we’ll spend $118 for the hotel (including taxes and fees), the museum Jeff wants to go to will cost $18. I’ll use about a tank of gas so another $25. We are going to take the commuter line into Boston and take the “T”, Boston’s subway system to get around while we are there. I’m figuring about $20 for that. That leaves us with $119 for food and fun for two days.  We’ll do cheap eats while we are there. Since I lived in Boston for a year, I know my way around cheap eats. I’ve also got $40 budgeted for “BLOW” money this month which I think I’ll take with me in case I get inspired. Usually when I go away I buy a skein of sock yarn to commemorate the trip. It’s much less expensive than most souvenirs and more meaningful because I get to make a pair of socks with the yarn and then I’ll think of the trip every time I wear them. It’s good stuff.

So today, I’ll be doing laundry, packing and cleaning up a bit to get ready for the trip. Tomorrow we get in the car and off we go! I’m so excited. This is our 8th wedding anniversary. I can’t believe we’ve been married that long. The time has just flown by. It’s been a crazy road but a fun one.

It was also ten years ago this week that I left Boston to come home for good. I spent my freshman year in Boston and it just wasn’t my thing. It was really expensive to live there so between work and school, I was completely drained. After finals, I was asked to work commencement. I stayed a few extra days, working 12 to 14 hours a day and then hanging out with everyone at night since we were all leaving for the summer. Some nights I got in at 3 or 4 in the morning, then had to be to work for 6. I didn’t get much sleep that week. I came home the last morning at about 6am and started packing. My mom and Jeff were coming to pick me up that morning to take all my stuff home. Jeff and I had been dating for about two months at that point. I ended up falling asleep while packing. I must have turned off my alarm when it went off and I was so sound asleep, I didn’t hear the phone ring when they called from downstairs. My mom got worried and had security call the resident assistant on duty. The RA said she would go upstairs and get me. When the RA returned, they had the wrong kid. The RA tried to convince my mother that this girl was in fact her daughter. The RA tried to convice the girl that this was indeed her mother and her boyfriend. Not a very bright RA. My mom just about blew a gasket. She was fairly certain that this $35,000 a year (at that time) university had lost her daughter. They finally let her come upstairs and let her into my room. She was not pleased at all! I was so tired after four or five days with no sleep, the only thing that could wake me up was the sound of my mother having a panic attack in my room. At least she bought me breakfast and I lived to laugh about it ten years later.This really has nothing to do with saving money on vacations but it is a really amusing story.

What’s the best vacation deal you’ve ever gotten?