I’m headed to New York City this weekend on a last minute trip. I am not sure what Deal Girl and I will do, but I know one thing we won’t do: visit the Empire State Building. That’s because doing so violates one of my rules for savvy travel. This provides me a perfect opportunity to share them with you. After 45 countries the list has yet to steer me wrong.
Dia’s Rules for Savvy Travel
Don’t Go Up to the Top of the Iconic Building
I’ve lived in Washington DC off and on for 30 years and have never been inside the Washington Monument. Why?
Because you can’t see the icon when you are in the icon.
A better choice for a prime Washington DC view is the Iwo Jima Monument, just outside Arlington Cemetery. From Iwo Jima you get both National Mall laid out before you from the hilltop. As a bonus, you get the icon that is Iwo Jima itself.
Many cities have a similar alternative location where you get both the view and the icon. The Hyatt Etoile in Paris, besides being a great points value, offers an unrivaled view of the city of light. If you don’t stay there, it’s still worth a visit. The Jingo Lounge at the Etoile is 34 stories high, which makes it the highest hotel in Paris and a perfect vantage point for the Eiffel Tower.
For New York City views I’d go to the Top of the Rock (Rockefeller Center) rather than the Empire State Building. Unless, of course, you are meeting the love of your life up there on Valentine’s Day.
I’d love to hear other alternative iconic viewpoints in the comments.
Don’t Skimp on Tours
I don’t do a ton of tours. However, when I do, I make sure they are special. I especially like tours that give you special access to a popular venue, such as Pie in the Sky in Chicago and breakfast at The Vatican. Both ensured I had a private experience in a very public attraction. The food was secondary. Well, maybe not the Giordano’s pizza in Chicago.
Natalia encouraged the kids to interpret the city’s history through their impressions of the sites. She used a combination of artistic expression of their impressions and questions with historical pictures to help everyone develop an intuitive understanding of the city’s evolution. Our eleven year old loves everything, but getting a teenage boy excited about anything that doesn’t require a charger? Ah-ma-zing.
Best of all, for the rest of the trip and even after our return the kids have expressed things they learned from the tour. For instance, much of Buenos Aires is inspired by the same Neoclassicism as Washington DC. On a recent visit to DC the kids pointed out details in common between DC and BA. I credit that entirely to Natalia and the Context Tour.
Know when you Vendome
The entire concept of Vendoming came from the fact that I couldn’t stand the “bloggers’ circuit” and the FOMO (fear of missing out) it created. For a long while it was as if you “weren’t doing it right” if you hadn’t visited the Maldives, flown first class on a middle eastern airline and yes stayed the Park Hyatt Vendome in Paris. What bothered me wasn’t that bloggers were writing it, but that readers were accepting it as gospel.
After a few years, “Vendoming” has evolved into a synonym for choosing the most luxurious option over a more logical one simply due to luxury. I Vendome every now and then. The problem arises when I do it without thinking.
An example of unconscious Vendoming: one of the Camp Mom possible destinations last year was Mendoza, Argentina. One reason it was high on the list is the fact that there’s a Category 2 Park Hyatt there. What a deal! However, Mendoza is wine country and we were traveling with 10 and 13 year olds. While Deal Dad and I might have loved it, I couldn’t justify Mendoza with them in mind.
An example is conscious Vendoming was my stay at the Grand Hyatt Cannes Martinez. It’s a landmark in the history of tourism and was on my radar as a hotel geek. While I’m not certain the room was worth $2,500 a night, I certainly don’t regret the stay. However, objectively the view from the Holiday Inn Cannes was better.
This one especially goes for family trips, but even traveling solo I’ve moved into what I would consider deep travel. I go out of my way not to move once we’re set up in a location. This means I plan activities based on what’s a do-able day-trip from our home base, and I plan our home base based on what we want to do. It takes more work on the front end and requires some flexibility on what you see, but I find it’s definitely worth it.
When I recap our trips, I try to document the failures as well as the successes. On our first Camp Mom trip, I fit four locations into two weeks. Almost every fail involved the movement from one location to another. We’ve missed the Eurostar, threw the kids and bags at top speed to make a 3 minute train connection, scrambled for flights and gotten lost in rental cars among other mishaps, and they always happen when we’re loaded with luggage and stressed to make a deadline. In Austria we made the firm check-in deadline for our castle only by the crazily efficient operations of Lufthansa at FRA.
We went to Guatemala the kids were 4 and 7. We made the decision to skip Tikal because we were based in Antigua. Instead we visited Iximche. Was it as tall as Tikal? No. But it was 90 minutes from Antigua and was almost entirely deserted. Deserted except for the actual Mayans who still used the site for their holy rituals. And we didn’t have to pack up and board a plane.
The only real fail in our Guatemala trip? Taking an overnight to the beach. We didn’t have to unpack entirely, but between the 3 hour drive each way and our hotel being a far cry from our “home” 2 bedroom condo in Antigua it just didn’t measure up to the rest of the trip.
I went to Puebla, Mexico, with two friends for Cinco de Mayo. We had four days and considered adding Mexico City, but I lobbied for doing the entire trip in Puebla. If we had gone back to Mexico City we might have missed a local festival in nearby Cholula. We shared Tequila and Squirt (soda) with locals while fireworks ignited. In the church courtyard. Because Mexico.
Minimizing transitions nicely dovetails into my next rule:
Plan Down Time.
This one is especially for families, but everyone gets tired out while traveling. These days I plan one day off for every two days in full tourist mode. It took me a while to get Deal Dad on board (and sometimes he goes Clark Griswold on me), but down time means less illness, less stress, and more fun.
On longer trips, I aim for one “enriching” activity daily. The Kids and I have developed a rhythm that works most of the time. Not always, but most of the time.
One thing I’ve learned is that “enrichment” comes in many forms. Take the photo above, for example. Yes, the kids spent 30 minutes playing a video game found at a department store. But I made them get their own change, in Spanish. Deal Kid also found a great deal on $3 T-shirts- meaning he’s figuring out the currency. And Deal Girl ordered lunch on her own at the store snack bar. Baby steps.
Run an Errand
It’s not always about what you wear, where you go, or where you stay. There’s one thing you can do every time you travel that immediately will make you feel less like a tourist: run an errand.
I’ve noticed that most trips involve some mundane task that becomes an adventure due to not being done at home. It’s not like I take my to-do list with me on the plane but the little things that happen along the way are the things that stick with me long after the trip ends.
It’s the reason I’m such a fan of slow travel. I’ll do a whirlwind weekend if I’ve no other choice. However, I really believe to begin to “get” a place you’ve got to go deeper than the Hyatt Lounge. I don’t think you need a semester to do it, but you do have to be willing to get out of the bubble.
Grocery stores and laundries are tailor made for this, especially if you follow my next piece of advice:
Space Equals Luxury
I asked “What makes a hotel luxurious?” last year and you guys had some great answers, but the one I go back to is space. I recently spent time at three Disney on-property resorts including two deluxe resorts. In one of them bedding consisted of a queen and a pull out couch and in another two doubles. The Deal Kids are now 14 and 11. Deal Kid will NOT sleep with his sister at this age. In one room we went “boys in one bed, girls in the other”. In the other Deal Kid slept on the floor. Remember here we are talking about a “deluxe” hotel room that goes for $500/night.
Last year I stayed in a two bedroom condo at Westgate Town Center. The second bedroom had two double beds- the Deal Kids would have had plenty of room to spread out. Not to mention the living room, second bathroom, kitchen, and enclosed balcony. The cost? $300 A WEEK using a certificate.
Unless the resort is the destination or my trip is short, most searches I do these days are not on hotel sites, but on AirBnb. This has changed my credit card strategy as well because flexible points are more valuable than hotel points.
“Free Breakfast” isn’t Free
I argued recently that hotel status matters less for families. The main rebuttal I heard is that hotel status offers free breakfast at many properties. I have many issues with this argument, but the biggest one is that in many cities food is a main reason you visit the city in the first place.
In Buenos Aires we visited a local bakery and a grocery store. We picked up fresh pastries, orange juice, local salami, and coffee. I’d take that over a “free” hotel buffet any day of the week.
If a Nun is Selling it, Buy one of Each.
What are your rules for savvy travel? Please share in the comments.