Part 1: Booking
Once upon a time, booking a holiday was easy. You visited your friendly travel agent, bought some traveler’s cheques, and packed the family suitcase. Then off you went.
And then there’s today! There are so many more considerations when trip planning – booking the trip, accommodation options, luggage, smart phone use, credit cards. It can be a mine field. Let’s start with booking.
With so many travel booking sites, one might think getting a great deal on a flight is easy. But before you book that cheap fare, here are some things to consider:
- Wow! You found some really low prices for your flight. Check the fine print. What’s included and what isn’t. For example, can you select your seat in advance? You might have to accept a middle seat at the back near the toilet if the flight is full. That’s because low fares often don’t allow you to choose your seat without a charge. You may be able to change seats at the airport but by then, you may find the flight is full and there’s nothing better available.
- Always check the airline website. Many airlines these days offer the same very low prices on their sites. Note however, that these lowest rates on both booking sites and airline sites come with a codicil. The reservation is set in stone, which means that if something comes up, you cannot change anything. If you need to change the date, you basically have to start over.
- Super low prices will probably not include checked luggage, which can cost as much as $100 per bag, depending on the flight. On some budget airlines, they even charge for hand luggage. Check the fine print. You may find it’s cheaper to pay for the next step up ticket and have a free checked bag each way.
- Some airlines offer a step up from the lowest fare with the possibility of making changes ‘for a fee’. That fee can be substantial because it is usually a fixed fee of about $300 plus the fare difference at that moment in time. When my friend tried to do this in order to remain an extra week overseas, she found it was less expensive to book a cheap site’s round trip ticket (and ditch the return half), than to pay for the ‘for a fee’ change.
- There can be perks to booking with the airline rather than with a booking site. For example, I recently made a booking to LAX only to discover two hours later that I needed to fly to San Francisco instead. As do many other airlines, Air Canada offers a 24-hour change-your-mind policy. I was able to cancel and make a new booking without penalty. Had I reserved on a booking site, I would not have been able to make the change.
- Finally, it may seem old fashioned, but I still frequently work with a travel consultant, Elaine Silver at Joy of Travel, who seems able to find deals it would take me hours to find myself. “That’s because I work with travel suppliers all the time, so they go the extra step to be of service,” she explains. “When you call, it’s just for that one ticket so they won’t necessarily be as accommodating.” It can be worth building a relationship with a human being who can help when things go wrong.
Finding a place to stay and booking it seems easy enough online, and the deals can be terrific.
If you are quite certain of dates and locations, go ahead and book. But take note of the following:
- Did you know that many online bookings are not changeable or refundable? Sites like Expedia have both options on their site; others offer no cancellations. Check before you book. One is never sure what might come up. For example, when a recent flight was delayed 2.5 hours leaving Canada, I knew I would miss my connection in Zurich, and not arrive until one day later. Fortunately, I had booked directly with the hotel (difference in price: $18 per night). I was able to cancel the first night in the hotel and check in the next day when I arrived, saving myself $140.
- Do your homework. Where is that cheap hotel? It may seem like a great deal, but is the hotel in a convenient location? On a trip to Rome, I found a great deal on a hotel within a few kilometres of the city (a half hour at most on a bus, I thought). Unfortunately, there was no bus in the area. My taxi bills were more than the savings in hotel charges.
- Location becomes even more important where safety is concerned. Many years ago, in Teheran, I was very stressed because every time I left my hotel, men would actually try to touch me as they passed, even though I was walking with my husband. Two days later, we discovered why – we were in the red light district! The hotel was cheap but I suspect they wondered why we spent the whole night there! The curious thing was that it was recommended by a single woman friend!
- Options like Air B & B have created great alternatives, especially for family travelers or those planning to stay for a long time. The cost is lower and if there is a kitchen, you can save money on restaurant meals. Here again, make sure you do some research on location. In Sliema, Malta we stayed in an apartment building which seemed to be full of shift workers. They would come and go in the middle of the night, letting the building door slam, stomping around above us, and talking loudly in the halls. To make things worse, the apartment was at the top of a steep hill – a long walk at the end of the day. One way to avoid these problems is to carefully read the reviews of others who have stayed there.
- On Air B & B, take note of the ‘rules’ for the rental. For example, the owner of our apartment in Malta stated (and I missed this) that the 2-bedroom apartment was intended for more than 2 people, and if only 2 people were renting, they were supposed to use only one bedroom. This seems a ridiculous rule to most sane people. Had my friend and I not required two bedrooms, we would have rented a one-bedroom unit for much less money. The owner’s concern was the use of electricity in two rooms. I point this out as it is the sort of silly requirement you are may find under the ‘rules’. Check them out in advance.
More tips on luggage, smart phones, and more to come. Stay tuned.