Friday, September 16, 2011

And THIS is Why I Love the Ritz-Carlton

Yes, it’s been way too long. No, it hasn’t been because I lack inspiration – there’s tons to write about.  Now motivation to sit still and actually write? Hmmm, well let's see it’s kept me from you for EEP – over a year???!!  No way. It hasn’t really been a year. Oh my.

Ok, we can recover from this. Right now.

I’m hoping you know that yesterday the Ritz-Carlton launched a gorgeous revamped website and a brand new “Let Us Stay With You” campaign.  And if you didn’t, well now you do.

Just so we’re clear – this campaign WON the moment they went live. Everything that attracts us to travel - the romance, the memories, the adventure, the experiences, the glamour are completely captured by this campaign. Bravo to the Ladies & Gentlemen of the Ritz-Carlton. This is the most romantic piece of advertising I’ve experienced in ages.

The moment I followed their advice to “close your eyes” I remembered watching 4th of July fireworks from the deck of the Presidential Suite in New Orleans. I remembered making fast friends with the most personable Club Level staff ever in Atlanta & them insisting on using their car service to take my cousin to a venue when we simply inquired about the location/directions. I remembered losing time while discovering my inner "pool bum" at the pool in South Beach & watching the sun rise there.  I remembered the amazing experiences & exceptional service that made me fall in love with the Ritz-Carlton. Oh yeah, they “stay” with me. Always.

The fabulous, easy to navigate redesign of the website made me immediately start looking around to see where I could visit next.  Wouldn’t you?

Now a few weeks ago I couldn’t find a package I really wanted for my upcoming my birthday trip with my Mom & Aunt. While a package is my preference,  I was quite happy with our standard room at the Ritz-Carlton Lodge, Reynolds Plantation.  I mean look at these pictures of the resort. Plus the trip is a gift from my Mom so I want to keep it reasonable.  We got a good rate for a resort that frequently gets included on the Condé Nast Traveler “Gold List” – happy times.

As I was playing around on the new Ritz-Carlton site last night, I decided to recheck the rates for our stay. What did I have to lose? Lo & behold my favorite package “Reconnect” has been rebranded and is now the “Discover With You” package. And it was now available during our dates of travel to the Lodge!

I think I’ve written about this before but it’s worth mentioning again – this package is one of the easiest way to make a stay at a Ritz-Carlton more affordable. Particularly if you travel in “shoulder” seasons. It includes breakfast and a daily credit that can be used for food and other various amenities like the spa, depending on the resort.

Let’s talk real math here. I know we’re going to eat breakfast at hotel. This could cost me (yes me) $20-30 per person. I know we’re going to eat lunch or dinner there. This could cost me $30 per person. I know we may go to the spa. This could cost around $150 for me (hey I’ll pay for food but I’m not paying for all the Spa treatments on MY birthday trip).

Our package includes breakfast for 2 daily PLUS a $100 credit that we can use for meals and/or the Spa. That means we save around $160/day. The increase in daily rate for upgrading to the package is $70. Yes, $70. Basically what we’d spend on breakfast for 3 anyway. PLUS we get a S'mores Kit as a welcome gift! Yeah, I knew the s'mores would make you jealous. And I told you about it anyway. Plus I'm telling you there's a campfire lit at night. Cuz you needed to know that. 

So yes, when you get down to it they’re paying me almost $100 a day. I just have to spend what I’ve earned with them.  Here lies the upside for the hotel: I spend my money there & not elsewhere providing a beautiful win-win and what I’m certain will be a wonderful birthday experience with two of my most favorite people in the world.

This package, plus many other great ones, are available at most Ritz-Carlton properties. Depending on the time of year & your flexibility these deals can be just as lucrative for you.

Disclaimer: Any subsequent Ritz-Carlton addiction which then makes you book with or without a package is completely their fault for being so fabulous. Please remember I only took  you to the fabulous stream of spring water. I didn’t make you drink its delicious nectar or fall in love with it almost exclusively. I did not.

My “TripTip”:
“Always be checking” – is my motto when it comes to travel.  ALWAYS recheck the rates for your stay.  Savvy travelers save a LOT of money this way.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Disney Dollars (Grown Up Edition)

Just got back from our mega vacation. " Disney Girl Trip 2.0" starred Mommy, J (my cousin’s daughter and my honorary niece) & yours truly along with bunches of other friends – and it was amazing! You’ll be seeing my thoughts about this year’s vaca here and hopefully elsewhere in the blogosphere – you’ll just have to stay tuned to find out more.

Reflecting on my trip and posting to a few discussion boards led to some serious pontificating about why I invest so much time & money in vacationing. I spend most of my time in planes and hotels for business - why didn’t I enjoy a “staycation” or use my (many) points to go somewhere other than WDW this year?

And.......Can I be honest? While I am incredibly blessed to do what I love and not have to worry about getting evicted anytime soon… I started this year very worried about how much I was going to spend on travel. And by very worried I mean near panic attacks. Every time I turned on the tv people were losing their jobs. I didn’t have 6 months of living expenses saved "just in case" - what was I thinking taking a vacation??? I had to have one friend talk me off the ledge of cancelling it all more than once. I didn’t want to do Disney on the cheap cuz I thought the contrast from the previous year would be too stark (for me)… but I felt terribly guilty and irresponsible even considering a luxury vacation in these “harsh economic times”.

As hard as it is for me to even type this… if you’re trying to be frugal a Disney World trip is NOT a great way to do it. Thank goodness this blog isn’t about being frugal. It IS about being smart with how you spend your time & money while enjoying the good life. Cuz nothing hurts (me) worse than overpaying or wasting time.

A Disney vacation can be a resource hog folks… both for your time & money and especially if you have luxurious tastes. Disney has a million and one ways to spend every dime you came with and then get a few more. I know I’m not the only one who’s done mental accounting for just “one more thing” I HAD to buy or experience while on vacation at “the World”.  This makes advance planning & research critical. There are a ton of resources out there to help people save money on a WDW vacation. Websites, Travel Agents, Community Boards and Online Newsletters are your best friend.

Yes this will make you obsessive compulsive.  SO???  You end up with money in your pocket & stress free time with your family, which is priceless. Btw - I saved almost $3000 doing this. That pays for quite a bit of therapy. Just saying.

That said, I still get this question from time to time in every possible variation: Why Disney? Or Disney again? And there are folks who would probably make me have my head examined if they knew how much money I give to the Disney Company on an annual basis. I posted part of my “why” this week on a community board in answer to someone’s question regarding the value of an onsite Deluxe Resort stay at WDW and thought it might be worth posting here too.
So here's my two cents... cuz I think this is a really great question...

If I was going to Miami and I had to pick between the Ritz Carlton & a Disney hotel on South Beach I'd probably stay at the Ritz. (Ok, take my card away. Lock me in DISjail, whatever). That said I would never consider the Ritz in Orlando (and it has probably one of the best spas in the country.)

Why? Because there's nothing (yet) that's like staying on Disney property at a Disney resort for a Disney vacation. And when I vacation there it is to experience this inexplicable atmosphere that is truly, forgive me, magical. Disney Deluxe Resorts do this best. They combine detailed theme, great locations, and luxury in way that is without peer.

It's there in the smile of Teena the greeter when she welcomes you back or chats with you at the Beach Club. It follows you as you stroll from Epcot past the jugglers & funnel cakes to the Boardwalk Inn. It tempts you to ask your retired mom and 12 yr old niece if they want to head to the Magic Kingdom at 11:45 at night cuz it's only one monorail stop away, the park's open until 2am for resort guests, & you've got a little more energy. And then it convinces them to say yes.

It makes your jaw drop when you check into the Animal Kingdom Lodge or the Wilderness Lodge for the 1st time and see their majestic foyers. It makes you wish you could freeze time for a moment when you watch your girls make sand castles on the Polynesian Resort’s beach with Cinderella Castle as their backdrop. And it reminds you of a time when you were 11 and thought the coolest thing in the world was a train going right through the middle of a hotel.

I can't get that in Miami, or Vegas, or at the Ritz Carlton or Four Seasons. I can only get it at Disney. Their variety of resort options (in one resort area) make it very tailorable to so many different types of people and their vacation styles/preferences. And while we may fuss (often & passionately) about the little changes that only dimly affect our amazing times at WDW, you can tell from the tickers that most of us cannot wait to go back and hear someone say "Welcome Home". 

It’s well worth it to see if you'll feel that way too. If you don't - well maybe I'll bump into you one day when I finally drive over to visit that spa at the Ritz 

So this is why we went anyway. I also paid off some personal debt ahead of time & did NOT go into debt taking my trip so my blood pressure is a low as ever and the panic attacks have stayed away, lol.  At the end of the day I am SO glad that we went on vacation and “did it up” the way I wanted to. It was just what I needed and, of course, I can’t WAIT to do it again!

Well? What do you think? Is my heart displayed prominently enough on my sleeve? How much is too much? What determines how you spend your pennies on vaca? Leave a comment – share your mental wealth!

My "TripTip"
If you’re gonna splurge – make it worthwhile. Go big or go home but DON’T spend money you don’t have  or more than other people are. The internet is your ally. Go explore. 

Friday, May 7, 2010

"Heavenly" Stays

Since the idea here is luxury without breaking the bank I thought I’d post my thoughts on a GREAT hotel brand that fits into this concept well and that most importantly offers AMAZING deals. 

Now keeping within my budget for business travel means I stay at more than my share of Courtyards in any given year.  Which is fine, it’s not vacation, it’s just a bed and an internet connection.  But I began to notice the most interesting thing last Spring as I compared hotel rates.  In many markets it cost just as much to stay at an “affordable” business traveler focused hotel like the Courtyard or Embassy Suites as it did to stay at the Westin.

Why?  I think it’s because the mid-level business hotels have already pre-sold you on their value.  They don’t think they have much to prove since they’re already perceived as the fiscally responsible choice during a time of heightened cost sensitivity.  (aka hard economic times…)

Not so for the higher end hotels – they’ve got more work to do to attract and keep clients who don’t want to seem extravagant or may be looking at expenses at little closer since 2009.  So brands like the Westin are cutting their rates and becoming VERY competitive.  I’ve found steals in Fairfax, Richmond, and South Florida for under $200/night with other perks like breakfast and parking included.

An example of these gems is in NY.  The Times Square Westin is the only hotel I’ve ever walked up to and paid rack rate for on impulse.  It offers a level of luxury difficult to achieve at their pricepoint in NYC which meant  I still feel like I came out ahead by paying around $300/night for a room in midtown Manhattan that should have cost me $500/night at any time let alone booked on the spot. 

And while I’ve already blogged about the WDW Swan & Dolphin I can’t say enough about these hotels.  The Swan is a Westin (Dolphin’s a Sheraton but the hotels are almost exactly the same in terms of bedding and amenities – only difference is bed size.) These hotels are literally in the middle of the magic and within walking distance to two parks yet their prices are amazing.  I booked an $88/night rate last year and was even able to stay there on reward points for New Years’ eve.  And I used my pocketed pennies to book the most amazing hot stone massage at the Dolphin’s Mandara Spa.

This is a great brand folks.  They were the first to market with 24 hour room service (in 1969) and luxury bedding and baths.  NO ONE in the fewer than 5 star hotel market cared about bedding until the Heavenly Bed® came into the hospitality marketplace in 1999.  And now everyone cares about thread count and duvets and pillow top mattresses.  It’s become such a selling point that the HGI I stayed in last week had an instruction booklet for the bed.  Seriously.  And Westin has also brought in a GREAT menu with tasty, healthy dining options in the last year along with “workout” rooms.  It’s nice to stay somewhere you can really enjoy your hotel and not worry as much about your wallet – so thanks Westin for delivering a consistently exceptional experience at a good price.

My “TripTip”:
You really can get a lot for a little – especially in this economy.  Don’t miss out on great deals.  Always search a hotel’s website and those of their membership programs (Starwood, Luxury Hotels of the World) for discounts and upgrades. There’s nothing worse than leaving money on the table that you could use for all the fabulous things you’ll want to do ON your trips.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Oh The Paces You'll Go... 2009 Recap & 2010 Trip Planning

Slightly shamed that this was originally titled "2009 Trip Planning".  But using the idea anyway to seed ideas for a 2010 post!

When I started considering 2009 travel here's what I was looking at:   

  • Cabo San Lucas - extending a business trip by a few days - brilliant!
  • Barcelona - turning three days off from work into a 5 day trip.
  • Disney - Polynesian Concierge. I could hardly wait!
  • New Orleans (of course) - back to the big easy once more.
  • And on my Fall wish list: London/Paris
2009 Reflections
I actually got to everywhere I’d pre-planned in 2009 except NOLA. Not bad.  Cabo and Barcelona were heavenly.  The Disney trip ended up also including a few nights on the Animal Kingdom Lodge Concierge (reviews are coming).  I took 4 Fall trips to Walt Disney World (blog posts about fan events and festivals are coming)!  I spent a long weekend enjoying a town just north of Sacramento and plugging into some seriously healthy living. 

Most importantly I got amazing discounts and actually afforded all this jet setting by keeping plugged into destination fan sites and hotel/airline special offers.  And I planned a Labor Day weekend trip & my New Year’s trip (the week of) using only points and free night vouchers (I love Starwood & Southwest)!

I consider 2009 a winner – except for the part where I was so busy travelling I forgot to write about it!

For 2010 I’m already moving fast and furious.  Mardi Gras, a fan event & a 5K are already under my belt. Destination weddings, girls’ weekends, and many, many Disney trips are planned. Oh and the Mommy and I are going to Jamaica to see family.

But I’m really, really missing Europe.  I have no idea how I’m going to work it in since I’m certain I have no vacation time but I’m going to try. Oh and I really want to see Captain EO at Disneyland.

Wondering if all these plans are impossible or Kim-Possible. What do you think? Is there such a thing as too much travel?

My “TripTip
A few of my trips last year utilized my new favorite luxury travel saver - cost sharing. Airfare for my Cabo trip and one of my Disney trips were covered by my company – I simply extended the trips for a few personal days on my own dime.  If someone else can help pay for your travel (and it's reasonable/legal/responsible) let them!

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Blogging from 30k feet...

So I'm sitting here on a flight and I had a thought for my blog. Yes, the blog that I've been horrible at updating but really love. I promise I have 3 or 4 half written posts on my computers. They just get stuck there. And never, never move.

I've decided to figure out how to get back on track for the 2 of you who actually read this. (Thanks Mom! Just kidding - Mommy doesn't actually read the blog. But she would. If I ever remembered to mention it. Cuz she's the coolest retired mom on the planet... and now I'm getting back on topic.)

First step is a bit of diversity. I've started painting myself into a corner topic wise (fab and frugal tips) and couldn't get out. Remembered just now that it's my blog and I can write about anything I want to. So I will. ;)

Anyway on to my travel thought for today - how do you choose your next adventure? I've shared before that every year I start with a rough idea of where I may want to go or have to go. My destinations may be inspired by a magazine or newspaper article I've read or by my friends and family. I also typically have 2 trips already on the calendar before the year begins. And I'm finding that a significant number of the trips I've taken in the last 6 months have been inspired by fan activity/meetup events. But that's another blog post. (Hey Disney peeps!)

The book I'm reading on this flight, though, reminded me of a goal I set for myself last summer - to visit all the states in the union by the time I'm 40. I think I'd like to visit every continent on the planet except Antarctica before I'm 70, too.

And this has made me super curious about what goes into the plans of others - how do YOU choose your next adventure?

So, new take on the blog content/format and new travel goal. Super excited. The air up here is doing wonders for my state of mind.

My “TripTip”:
Inspiration for travel can come from anywhere! Open your horizons and get inspired! I wish you safe travels.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Trip Planning

I’ve decided to dedicate this post to trip planning. I honestly believe one of the biggest ways to save money and time (which equals money in my book) is with a good plan. Note: I’ll admit upfront for my “Type B” people that this blog post probably isn’t for you. Sorry. I’ll make it up to you.

I think of trips as an investment. They make us better, happier, and enriched people if we’re lucky. And luxury travel, even on the cheap, is a big investment. So a HUGE pet peeve of mine is spending thousands of dollars on a vacation and then getting to your destination and wasting the little time you have there figuring out what to do. You wouldn’t buy a washer/dryer or plasma TV without doing some level of research, would you?

I’m all for being flexible – we’ve had great experiences by being willing to get great advice and changing our plans as we go along. I also try not to be TOO structured or over plan and to give everyone in my group choices, but I REALLY need to know my options before I hit my destination.

Some trips require more planning than others. All a beach trip requires for me is deciding what swimsuit to wear and where to eat dinner. But I’ve learned that we have the best time for more involved trips when we’ve done a bit of research ahead of time. Places like Walt Disney World (especially during peak crowd seasons) require a decent of amount of planning and structure, but that time is paid back ten-fold in terms of less time spent in long, hot lines with tired cranky people we don’t know, lol. And it allows us to come back from what could be a very tiring vacation very happy and relatively rested and relaxed.

Here are three things you can easily research online that make a BIG difference on a trip:

Dining –as I have family and friends who are vegetarian, considering where and how we eat is always a biggie for me. Do we always stick to the plan – NO! We quite often change our plans. But I have a good handle on which fish are kosher and can ask about vegetarian dining in 3 languages.

Tours – are you going to do a lot of walking? Will you need different clothing and most importantly good SHOES? How much are tours going to cost? I must be the only person in the universe who didn’t know when I went on my first cruise that excursions and SODA were extra. I thought once you got to the boat everything was pretty much free. I was disabused of that notion minutes after boarding.

Weather – have you checked the forecast preceding you trip and considered indoor and outdoor activities based on weather? Nothing’s worse than getting stuck outside in inclement weather. I learned last Fall that packing flip flops (my shoes of choice on vacation) can work against you in 50 degree weather! I now own the most amazing pair of flat shoes EVER made (God bless Clarks) that are cute enough and kept my feet covered and VERY comfortable this Spring in Barcelona.

My TripTip":
A good plan goes a long way in saving you time and money on trips. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Google is your friend. Lonely Planet, guide books, unofficial guides, online forums and articles are abundant for most destinations – so whatever it is, wherever you go, spend time making sure your time is well spent.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Vive La France!

Okay so it’s taken me forever to write about my trip to France here. Partly because I’ve been this weird combo of lazy and busy. But mostly because it was too cool a trip to put into words. So I’ve decided to type up a few observations as they come to me.

I heart France. Maybe not as much as Spain, but still quite a bit. The language barrier wasn’t so difficult (thanks to earworms learning, podcasts, and a dictionary) and it turned out to be a just like any other major city in terms of getting around. (I even have a great stuck in Paris when the Metro was closing story.) People were nice enough (hey, I’m a NY’er) the food was great and it was beautiful! I can’t wait to go back.

Get out on the open road! I didn’t drive in Paris, but did throughout the countryside. Thank God for countries that drive on the same side for the road as us and universal signs. I also used a European car rental company to get a GREAT deal on an automatic.

Hot bread! I honestly don’t know how I survived this long without a neighborhood patisserie in my life. It was so great to start my day with a REAL croissant and pick up a baguette on the way home. And it should be against the law to pass off the crap some places call croissants in this country.

Make new friends! We met an American who worked at our resort and he was a HUGE help to us. We made way better day trip choices due to his quick and easy insight and saved time and money with his advice. He also helped us navigate a customer service issue during our stay to our best advantage.

Speaking of our issue I am reminded again to ALWAYS speak to a manager when you have a problem and keep at until you’re properly recompensed. My friend got 90,000 hotel points because our hotel couldn’t remember to replace our towels every day. Sound trivial but when it’s 9pm and you’ve returned from a cold, wet and dirty city and all you want is a hot meal and shower as you stumble into your place but there are no towels (AGAIN) and the lid to the trash can is on the counter where you prepare food…. you get the picture. BTW, 90,000 points with Marriott amounts to almost a week’s stay and it can be used worldwide.

Why am I still dreaming of and going on trips in the midst of these harsh economic times? Opportunity is knocking. Airline fares are the lowest they’ve been in YEARS. I just spent a third of what I did two years ago on airfare to Spain. Hotels & restaurants want your business and are offering sweet deals to get it. Pay your bills, save some money (for now and later) and if you can – go travel! I doesn’t have to be for weeks at a time, it doesn’t have to be to Europe, but go!

My “TripTip”:
Use your miles/awards points. Never spend a dollar without seeing how you can get the most out of it. We stayed at a $400/night Sheraton in Paris for $20 using Starwood points. I used credit card rewards points to stay at a Ritz Carlton in New Orleans last summer.
Renting cars from local companies can save $$$ overseas. Especially if you’re the typical American who doesn’t drive a manual (like me, LOL). Make sure to compare the prices on their local sites to the us versions.
Sign up for weekly airline and travel discount emails. Between a cheap flight and using points you can have a quick and fun getaway for a lot less money than you think.