Risky Business: How safe are you in a budget hotel room?

Safety is sometimes overlooked when we travel on a budget.  Lately, with the crappy economy, we can be more concerned with price than the value of our life or belongings.  But safety should be your most important consideration when traveling.  What does your budget hotel's safety scorecard look like?

TREKTIP #1: Only stay in a hotel or motel with electronic locks on all the rooms.

Give your hotel 10 points for having electronic locks. The beauty of the electronic keycard systems, is they automatically re-key the room every time it is rented, and the old keycards automatically expire at the programmed checkout time.  Even if the guest checks out early and takes the key with her, as soon as a new keycard is used to enter, the old keycard is automatically disabled.  In addition, a room lock can be "audited" giving a readout of every person who swiped a keycard.  The front desk should keep a record of keycards issued to staff, identifying each staff member, and keep its master keycards under control.

Any hotel with the old regular keys in doorknobs definitely does not have your safety in mind.  If you absolutely MUST stay at a hotel with what is sometimes affectionately referred to as "European" keys, ask about their "key control" system.  If a guest fails to return a key to the front desk, then the lock should be re-keyed, every time.  Seldom do hotels re-key as often as they should.  In fact, I have heard of people "selling" non-returned keys on the street, whereby the "fake guest" sneaks in and stays in an empty room without paying the hotelier.  What are the chances of that room having you in it when the fake guest enters?  If you are renting a room with the old doorknobs and keys, be sure to inspect your room for intruders each time you enter, check the bathroom, around furniture, etc., and then always deadbolt the door while you are in it.  If the doors have no deadbolts, fuggedaboudit.

Other safety considerations include video surveillance systems, secured perimeter, well-lighted parking and public areas, and a 24-hour front desk.  If there are no in-room safes, take your valuables with you, or leave it behind the front desk while you are gone.

Safe travels!


Get Your Frequent Travel On: Secrets of a Frequent Flyer Revealed

You know those "elite" flyers who appear from nowhere and get to board before everyone else? And then a half hour later when you board the plane, you see them all smug in there cushy first class seat sipping champagne? Don't you envy them? They must be wealthy or famous ot something because first class seats cost a fortune!

Please don't hate me because I am one of those people. I am an ordinary person, just like you, who used to sit around the gate, waiting for that last call to board. "ZONE 6 can board now." You know the drill. No more space for your carry-on. Squishing your normal sized ass into a half-assed size seat.

How come I get to hang out in the exclusive Club Lounge, using their pristine bathrooms, eating their free food and drinking their cocktails before pre-boarding into a first class seat, all for the lowest fare price?
  • TrekSecret #1:  Get Hitched to a Single Airline
Seriously: Marry a single airline, and never cheat.  (Or, only cheat with a codeshare partner). Every trip you take, pleasure or business, use a single airline. Get your frequent flyer number, get your kids a frequent flyer number, and never travel with any other airline. Your goal is to rack up as many miles as possible. Choose your airline carefully. Review and compare all the benefits of their elite status, and frequent flyer miles trade-in value. Some airlines are more generous than others. 
  • TrekSecret #2:  Use Your Airline's Credit Card For Every Single Purchase You Make
Every single purchase you make goes on your airline's credit card. Don't get just any "miles" card. You need to get your airline's card - you know, the one you are now married to! Use it when you go grocery shopping, buy gas, pay your taxes, go holiday shopping. EVERY SINGLE PURCHASE. This is the only way to rack up miles for cashing in later on some fabulous trip.
  • TrekSecret #3:  Fly Often Enough to Achieve Elite Status
You have to be a frequent flyer in order to earn a certain elite status with your airline. This won't work for you if you take one pleasure trip per year. To reach the upper echelon of travelers, you have to be a frequent flyer, and again, rack up miles "actually flown" or rack up "legs." Your goal is to get elite status, even at the lowest level. To qualify for my airline, I need to either fly 25,000 actual miles, or take 30 legs.  For a plan like this, you need only fly 6-8 trips per year to qualify. Once you have elite status, you are entitled to automatic upgrades to first class for some airlines. I sit in first class often, and have never paid a first class fare. If I am not in first class, I am in a spacious exit row.
  • TrekSecret #4:  Once You Achieve Elite Status, Buy a Discounted Club Membership
The best relatively small purchase I ever made was buying a club membership pass. It cost a little over $300 for the year and it has paid for itself ten times over. Inside the club you have free access to the internet, superb bathroom facilities, free food and free non-alcoholic drinks. Plus, you receive premium "gate" service without having to go to the gate. You have access to the monitors inside the club and usually 2 or 3 attendants at your service - to check on your gate and any delays. In addition, if you have a delay or are in need of customer service, you can take care of all your concerns right there. They can print your boarding pass, change your seating or get you on another flight if yours is delayed. Plus they will check often for availability of your free upgrade!
  • TrekSecret #5: Utilize All the Benefits Available, to the Max!
Cash in your miles every year, even though it is a pain. Generally, you have to purchase a flight using your miles eight months in advance. But hey, it's free, and you can go anywhere in the contiguous U.S. Why not take a trip to the coast for rest and relaxation! Nothing feels better than taking a "free" trip. Go to Club every chance you get and relax in their luxurious accommodations and refresh yourself before your next flight. Take the free upgrade to first class every time, and leave your traveling partner in coach. After all, you earned it!


Traveling Can Make You Rich

Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be sending my high school age daughter to Thailand during a summer. But it happened. Is she that unique in her quest for travel to far away places, I wonder?

After some very diligent research, she decided upon Rustic Pathways, a travel program largely oriented around community service trips in the east. She knew friends with positive past experiences in the program, and I was impressed with the outfit. Overall, Rustic Pathways is very organized and communicates efficiently. They are thorough in trip planning, and have a huge variety of trips in exotic and far away locations. All of the trips sound interesting, and it is difficult to decide which excursion to take! There is an excellent online and print catalog. The only downside is: the trips are not cheap!
  • TREKTIP: Allow your child to plan a trip and do the research. Consider having your child save up and pay for most of a trip. This way the value is most appreciated!
J decided to go on the most extreme and difficult trip. (That's my daughter!) She chose Come with Nothing, Go Home Rich. It's a community service trip to northern Thailand where the students can only pack one outfit and toiletries. (When I dropped J at LAX, her bag for a one-month trip only weighed a record breaking 6.5 pounds!) They purchase everything they need locally, live a week at a time in 3 remote villages, in the villagers' homes. They experience cultural immersion, eat authentic food, sleep on the floor, use "squat" toilets, shower with cold water in a bucket, and participate in village activities. The most rewarding aspect is giving the village what it needs in terms of community service. One village required a brick wall built around their school. Another required a 2 kilometer ditch dug and PVC piping laid to bring water to the village. Upon leaving the village, the ceremonious gratitude the villagers show the group is the ultimate gift.

She and her fellow travelers experienced intense bonding, earned friends for a lifetime, and came away with the lessons of life that can't be taught at home or in the classroom. Now that's rich!


Don't Know Whether You're Coming or Going? Cure for Frequent Traveler's Dementia

Do you travel so often that sometimes you forget whether you are coming or going? Literally? This happened to me, and made me take note of the direction my life was going in general.

I frequently travel the same route, back and forth to my business. Out of Santa Barbara (SBA), stopover in Phoenix (PHX), onto Yuma (YUM). Then out of YUM, stopover in PHX, onto SBA. I usually travel roundtrip within 2 days and go monthly. It's a lot of back and forth. But I have my routine down to a science. Well, nearly.

  • TREKTIP: Don't worry, frequent travel can cause confusion. Before you catch a connecting flight, make a quick mental note of your final destination.

One early morning, I started from Santa Barbara and landed in Phoenix, and as usual, I checked the monitors for my next gate. I looked on the monitor for the next flight to Santa Barbara, when I should have been going onto Yuma. I had just arrived from Santa Barbara! I did not realize it at the time - I was just following my regular routine. So, I march myself over the gate for the flight from PHX back to SBA, and sat there - for about an hour, reading the paper, relaxing, drinking coffee. It's like the accidental elevator ride - you mean to get on the UP elevator, but instead you go DOWN, and then have to go back UP again.

After about an hour, I look up and realize I am the only one at the gate. The Santa Barbara flight had changed gates. A woman behind the counter called over to me and asked if I was headed to Santa Barbara. I replied, "No, Yuma." And the light bulb went on! Oh....my.....god. I had been waiting at the WRONG GATE for the WRONG DESTINATION for an hour. Did I have dementia? Early onset of Alzheimer's? What was wrong with me???????

As it turned out, I almost missed my connecting flight to Yuma. I ran from gate B22 to B1 and caught it just in time.

I thought about this incident for a long time - contemplating what is wrong with my life, such that I don't know whether I am coming or going? I decided that I just needed to pay more attention, be more zen-like, stay in the present and not mindlessly meander through a "routine." Now, every time I land in PHX, I take note of where I am and where I am going. TREKTHERAPY DOSE: As a matter of fact, no matter what city we are in, let's take note every morning: Where are we today, and where are we headed?


So Far Away, and Yet So Close...If You Have Facebook and Google That Is.

My daughter has the travel bug. She is 16. She is in Thailand. Isn't that almost as far away as you can be from your mother? I ask myself, why did she want to go as far away from me as possible?

  • TREKTIP: Encourage your child to travel and support his/her excitement even though it is sometimes hard, or seemingly unbearable.

My facebook status for days has simply been, "I miss J." It says it all. She is off the grid. Traveling from northern Thailand village to northern Thailand village, doing community service. She has built a wall around a school and taught English. She is having the "time of her life," she states in the one email message sent to "Everyone." It must be the "Thai massage" she got after sleeping on a bamboo bed for 4 nights. Maybe it's the cool friends she bonded with before takeoff from LAX.
  • TREKTIP: Traveling as a youth breeds independence, awareness, worldliness, tolerance and human consciousness!
In any event, I have been waiting for her to resurface, for over 10 days. And there it was, a comment to my facebook status: "I miss mommyyy." And then, "I'm online if you want to chat!" I am reading this from my iPhone, at a restaurant, wondering how fast I can get home to my MacBook. I get home, sigh, and slump my shoulders. I comment back on my status, "I missed you by 17 minutes. Ugh." And there she is! She pops up on google chat. We tried to video iChat, but it didn't work. We just google chatted, without video. Whatever worked! She is still having the time of her life, but most of all she misses me. TREKTHERAPY DOSE: My daughter may be as far away as possible, but she is closer to home than ever.


How I Got A 2-Bathroom Suite in NYC for less than $250 per night

I do a lot of research before I travel, and well in advance. I knew I was going to New York City, and I had heard you can't get a room for less than $500. As I researched, I learned that wasn't entirely true. You really could not get a decent room for less than $350. That's still a lot of money, when you are planning 4 nights in the city!
  • TREKTIP: Research. Research. Research. And Then Book Early.
So, I made reservations at a few places in February, to hold rooms for June travel. I wasn't satisfied with my mediocre choice, but the $350 included breakfast, and I was convincing myself it was a good deal. After going on and off the travel sites every few days, I finally found a great deal. The Regency in the heart of the Upper East side. (http://www.loewshotels.com/en/Hotels/New-York-City-Hotel/Overview.aspx). Okay, not the hippest neighborhood, and Soho is pretty far south, but heck, rooms were $236 a night, fully paid in advance (Internet Special). So, I jumped on it, knowing The Regency is a pretty nice place to stay. It was, after all, featured on Celebrity Apprentice - so it couldn't be that bad!

  • TREKTIP: Don't Freak Out When You Arrive and Your Room is Gone!

When we arrived (traveling with 16-year-old daughter), after a long travel day from the west coast, we were told our reservation did not exist. TREKTHERAPY DOSE: Remain calm. Do not react negatively. I smartly carried my internet receipt and pulled that out to quietly show them. As it turned out, their records showed us checking in on Friday, and today was Saturday. They crossed us off their system as a "no show." My internet receipt clearly had us checking in on Saturday. They were very apologetic and offered me a smoking room. As a past asthmatic sufferer, that was a deal killer. I smiled, and politely declined and very calmly suggested they refund my prepaid funds, and help us find another room in the city. I was so relaxed and nonplussed about the whole thing. I surprised myself at how in control I was, considering how utterly tired we were. The desk clerk went behind closed doors and came back out and started clicking frantically on her reservation system keyboard. AHA! A non-smoking room magically appeared! But...it was very small, she said. Two twin beds, in a standard room, and not the Deluxe Double I had booked. She convinced me, with her manager standing over her shoulder, that was really all they had to offer. I believed her, but I hesitated. The manager stepped in and offered $100 toward breakfast, and an upgrade starting Sunday, as soon as rooms opened up. At this moment I sensed opportunity, so I asked, upgrade to what? And he said a very nice Executive Suite, and assured me I would not be disappointed.

  • TREKTIP: Know When To Say "Yes Please!" and "Thank You So Much!"

I knew the front desk had made a grand effort to accommodate me, and this was the moment to appreciate their excellent customer service. While it wasn't ideal to have to move from one room to another, unpack and repack, I felt they did what they could, so I said, "Well, that sounds great! I appreciate your efforts, and thank you so much!" Everyone was smiling and laughing and we moved forward with the transaction. TREKTHERAPY DOSE: It pays to be super calm, and super nice because you get free stuff! As we were settling in to our tiny room, there was a knock on the door. It was room service carrying a complimentary bottle of red wine, two wine glasses, a plate of cookies smothered in m&ms, and a glass of milk in a bucket of ice! Compliments of the manager. That felt good. The next day morning we ordered an insane brunch of lox, bagels, cream cheese, coffee and fruit. There went the $100 credit! And in the afternoon we were moved to a TWO BATHROOM suite, with a King size bedroom, and living room. Our friends visited later that evening, and when they arrived in our "apartment in the city," I offered them a glass of wine. We had the most marvelous vacation, all on a budget - with style!


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