Mum has been reporting back on her trip round the western USA, encompassing many of the things I have done, and some more besides! I have asked her to reflect on the trip and to let us know what she might do differently or keep the same if she were to do it again.
Our trip had been a year in the planning and booking. How could I make use of any hotel benefits, or points? Should I book everything via Travel agent, or go it alone?
In the end it was a combination and I would do things differently if I need to plan another roving trip!
Things I did to save money
1. Booked the flights myself using BA AmEx 2for1 voucher to get 2 Club World seats, open jaw INV-LHR-PHX//SFO-LHR-INV. The outbound was on a 747 and the return an A380. These were booked T-355 with the Inverness legs added on later by calling up and the, with an additional phone call to upgrade them to Club Europe when this was released. Whilst these flights cost around £1000 in taxes, it is a huge saving compared to the cost of buying them outright.
2. Traded 2000 Accor points for a £40 off our Sofitel T5 stay. I would have done the same thing, as I don’t think I will ever earn enough points to redeem for a free room. I would try to use these to ‘upgrade’ into a room with Club Access, as it is a much nicer environment to relax in than just the room.
3. Booked Heathrow Express tickets 90 days in advance for cheapest tickets. These can be as low as £5.50 each way on a weekend and given that it is £3.10 on the tube which takes 51 minutes minimum compared to 21 minutes every time, I am happy to pay the extra! I also tend to pay the extra £1 or so for a Business ticket at the weekends, especially on the way home, as it means I am guaranteed a seat, usually get an empty carriage and a copy of the FT and, most importantly, am at the front of the train to get home as quickly as possible!
4. Renewed IHG Ambassador status and received 10,000 points, free weekend night voucher (to use later in the year) and other benefits; it even meets one of my summer Accelerate targets, so another 5000 points into the kitty! This is always worth doing if you know that you are going to be able to use the free night voucher as the cost ($200) is a lot less than you can pay for a night. It saves money by guaranteeing the late check out so you don’t need to pay extra if you have a late flight home.
5. My bookings were on a cancelable basis, and as such was able to keep an eye on the prices. This enabled me to cancel the InterContinental in San Fransisco and immediately rebook exactly the same room for $200 less, four days before turning up! Likewise, other bookings had increased in price, so I was pleased I had booked when I did! This is exactly what I did for the same hotel in August and saved about $175 I think – well worth it!
6. With demise of IHG Barclaycard several months ago, I upgraded to the IHG Creation Premium card with a £99 annual fee giving 4 points / £ spend abroad and in IHG properties, and 2 points / £ in UK. This also gives Platinum status for the lifetime of the card so worth having if you are staying in a few IHG properties.
7. Took my Supercard with me to avoid foreign exchange fees, and linked it to my IHG card for points. It worked once and was refused all other times. We used a Halifax Carity card instead with no foreign exchange fees except when in IHG properties. I was exactly the same in my last trip abroad, except the Supercard didn’t even work once. Now that it is being phased out, I will probably just stick to the Halifax card for simplicity.
Using a travel agent
8. My Travel Agent booked the Best Western hotel at Bryce Canyon, the Venetian in Las Vegas and Pointe Hilton in Phoenix; had I had my wits about me, I would probably have been better booking these myself as I am a Best Western and Hilton Hhonors member, so lost out on points for those stays. I booked the Best Western Grand Canyon , Holiday Inn Express Moab and the InterContinental in San Fransisco myself so I got points for all the stays and a good rate of exchange along with IHG benefits. I booked Tenaya Lodge and Penrose B&B through booking.com, but should have gone through Topcashback for an additional bonus. I alway book direct as I can usually get a better price and, more importantly, get the benefits of status and the points. As Mum says, using Topcashback can often give an additional uplift and, as of last week, IHG are now back there for an 8% bonus!
9. The one way car hire from Phoenix to San Fransisco with Alamo which was booked via my travel agent was, in my opinion, a good deal . We got a car upgrade, 15 days for £700, which was fully insured with no excess. I am not sure if this was a good deal or not, given that I haven’t looked at the details. Certainly having a free tank of fuel on a long journey makes it easier at the end, as you don’t need to fill it up, although I tend not to go for that option as I feel it is not good value. I would have like to have seen what Avis would have charged, given that £700 would have been almost enough to put me into their next loyalty tier. I also always use http://www.insurance4carhire.com for an excess policy so that I don’t have to worry about any additions.
10. For some places, the travel agent made bookings as I was unable to do it on line myself: Zion Lodge, Wuksachi in Sequoia and The View in Monument Valley. I think this was because I was booking a year out and prices weren’t available online, but behind the scenes, agents can make contact. Wuksachi was great value, £139. The View was expensive £350. This is clearly where a good travel agent comes into their own, getting things that you cannot do yourself. I guess it is also much easier in handing it all over to someone else, but given that I enjoy the planning almost as much as the travelling, I can’t see myself going to TrailFinders anytime soon!
All in all, a great trip