Thursday, January 30, 2014

All-Inclusive Vacation Planning for Beginners - Volume 2

In my last post I outlined a few ways in which some simple planning could insure you get the most out of your all-inclusive vacation, while taking the least out of your wallet. As I was writing I realized that there were still a few more tips left to uncover. AI vacation planning is something I have spent a significant chunk of time with over the years, and one blog post alone wasn't going to cover the topic. With that said, here are a few more tips you should keep in mind prior to punching in your credit card information...

1. Choose the right time of year.

It is somewhat of a misconception that the Caribbean and surrounding tropics are blazing hot and have crystal blue skies all year round. While this part of the planet is able to avoid the traditional "winter", that doesn't mean that 'time of year' and 'location' shouldn't be a factor in your planning. 

If you are heading down south during the dead of winter (mid-December to late-February), locations too far north may not be best. These include Cuba, Bermuda and the northern islands of the Bahamas. Varadero's daytime highs are in the low 20's (C) and nighttime lows barely crack double digits. Dominican Republic and southward is typically safe from anything that would remotely resemble "cold", year round. 

Also keep in mind that late-August to November is hurricane season. While the chance of a tropical storm hitting right where you are is low, at the very least expect much more rain during this time. 

A final consideration is for "Spring Break", especially if you are headed to a popular spring breaker destination like Cancun.

2. Understand hotel star ratings.

Ever been to a nice 3-star hotel in North America... say like a Hilton Garden Inn or Courtyard Marriott? They are nice right? Modern, decent amenities, good service. Well down south the star-rating scale is a bit different. In many cases you can easily subtract one star from a Caribbean resort when using a North American reference point. For example a 4-star property in Cayo Coco would likely not be comparable to a 4-star property in Toronto. Maybe a 3, but possibly even lower.

3. Who do I book with? 

There are a slew of online booking agencies craving your vacation dollar. Many of them are very reputable, including the likes of Expedia, TripCentral and iTravel2000 to name a few. These sites make it easy to punch in your criteria and see the pricing for trips. As mentioned in my previous blog, TripCentral has a great "pricing grid" tool that allows you to view how the price of several resorts coincides with several different departure days. This makes it easy to determine the cheapest possible day to fly out. One thing I also like to do once I find a good deal on a vacation package (flight + hotel booked together, which is pretty standard for AI's), is to check the price on the actual site of the vacation provider. For example if I find a package I like on Expedia, and it's with Air Canada Vacations, I will go to and see what the price is there. If the price is the same, and if the 3rd party travel site isn't providing any added perk (for example iTravel2000's "if it snows more than x inches on x day your trip is free" deal) then I am inclined to book directly with the provider. This is because if there is any confusion or mixup with my reservation, my contact is directly through the travel company and there is no middle man involved.

WestJet is one of Canada's largest vacation providers

4. All beaches are not equal.

Are you a looking for that true tropical paradise? Are you a lover of fine white sand and turquoise waters? Not all beaches are created equal. Some of the most renowned hot spots for beach lovers are Punta Cana, Aruba (Palm Beach), Barbados (Gold Coast) and Negril amongst many others. Puerto Plata, a very popular and affordable destination in Dominican Republic, is not known for it's beaches as they don't have that "Caribbean Postcard" look to them that the aforementioned locations do. Similarly, the Dutch islands of Curacao and Bonaire are prominent diving paradises, but not the best options for beach bums.

Nothing beats finding that perfect beach (Cayo Leventado)

Disagree with any of my tips? Have any of your own to add? I would love to hear from you in the comments section below! 

Monday, January 27, 2014

All-Inclusive Vacation Planning for Beginners - Volume 1

Booking the perfect all-inclusive vacation is one of the most difficult travel planning tasks to complete. Unlike a typical hotel, an all-inclusive property is responsible not only for your room but also your breakfast, lunch, dinner, drinks, entertainment and a large portion of your daily activities including the hours spent at the beach or by the pool.

On my first all-inclusive experience I winged it and booked on a whim. I didn't spend much time looking at reviews or searching out resources (like this one) which may have assisted me in finding the right place for the right price. The trip wasn't a disaster by any means, we had a great time and felt we got our money's worth. However it wasn't perfect, and when it came time to return to the Caribbean for our honeymoon a few years later, I was determined to not leave a single grain of beach sand unturned. What followed was literally months of intensive research, and eventually the perfect trip. While you may not be a trip-research nerd (ahem, "aficionado") like me, here are a few pointers to help you choose the right resort, get the most out of your travel dollar and reduce the chance that you make a rookie all-inclusive mistake. 

1. Know your AI (all-inclusive) options.

 The "big three" AI destinations for Canadians are Cuba, Dominican Republic and Mexico. These offer by far the largest selection of AI resorts and thus the most competitive prices. Cuba is the most affordable of the bunch, with week-long AI's as cheap as $500. (all price estimates are for flight and AI hotel per-person in CAD, including taxes). Low-end vacations in the other two will come in slightly higher than that, and all three have high-end resorts which can exceed $2000. 

Moving beyond that you have the next group containing the likes of Jamaica, Costa Rica, Aruba, Bahamas and Barbados. These locations offer a great selection of AI options, but tend to lean towards the higher-end of the price and luxury spectrum. Finally there are several "premium" islands that have very limited (and very pricy) AI's, which cater to honeymooners or other splurge vacations. These include Antigua, Puerto Rico, Turks and Caicos, St. Lucia, St. Kitts etc.  

If you aren't looking to score originality points, and don't mind mega-resorts with thousands of people, you can do very well with a vacation in one of the 'big three". Your money goes a long way in these countries and for as little as $1000-$1200 with the right research you could land a 4-star, well-reviewed resort. This can surely not be said for the other locations. 

2. TripAdvisor is your best friend and will not steer you wrong.

I swear I'm not getting paid by TripAdvisor (however it would be really cool if i was!), but you simply cannot book any hotel, especially an all-inclusive resort without them. Their collection of reviews is the only benchmark that matters when it comes to assessing the quality of a property. Even the most rundown roach-filled resort will have a nice website that says it is the perfect spot for your vacation. You need REAL reviews from actual travellers to tell you it is worthwhile. Basically if a resort isn't in the top 25% of resorts in a specific location on TripAdvisor, it likely has some clear flaws. For example, Punta Cana, a hugely popular AI destination in Dominican Republic has 101 hotels listed. Anything out of the top 25 probably isn't worth you time. I'm not saying that the 26th ranked hotel is bad, but simply noting that you will likely find several options in the top 25 that fit your budget. 

Seeing a pristine beach photo like this one uploaded by an actual traveller
says so much more than the same photograph on a resort website.

3. Flexibility is key.

I know it's not always feasible, but when planning an AI, try to make your dates as flexible as possible. I get it, it's nice to leave and come home on a Saturday, but if you can save $200 per person to switch that to a Wednesday, wouldn't it be worth it? Due largely to flight demand, prices for the identical AI vacation fluctuate greatly by changing your departure by as little as one or two days. The more flexible you are, the more power you have to bring down the price to the absolute lowest amount possible. TripCentral is a fantastic site for seeing how prices vary based on date, as they utilize a super-convenient "pricing grid" tool. 

4. Contact your resort ahead of time.

This is by no means a guarantee, but emailing your resort a couple weeks before your arrival can't hurt. Tell them about your honeymoon or 25th wedding anniversary. Let them know that you loved reading about how great their resort was and are hoping they can make your vacation a memorable one. If the hotel isn't full they may consider upgrading your room or at least giving you an ideal room/view in the category you booked. It can't hurt to try, as there is so much competition for tourist dollars at these locations, they know that a small gesture will go a long way in turning you into a repeat visitor. The TripAdvisor forums are a great resource for finding the email contacts for resorts. Guests that have had luck will provide you with the exact email addresses they contacted so you may do the same. 

I informed the resort it was my honeymoon, and was rewarded with this fantastic view!

5. It's the little things in life (and in AI's).

So you've glanced at the reviews for a resort your interested in. They seem to have great food, an awesome beach and modern clean rooms. All set right? Well almost. How about you read a dozen or more reviews from top to bottom and get some more useful information for your big decision. Does the resort suffer from the (sadly) common "not enough beach loungers after 8AM" issue? Is it a major "family" destination, which translates to "probably not the best honeymoon destination"? Are there annoying vendors and/or time share sharks prowling the beach every day? All of these questions can be answered by previous reviews on TA. If you have a specific question try a Google search with the resort name, chances are someone else has asked it already or included the answer in a review. 

Stay tuned for volume two on this topic when I cover even more AI booking tips, including choosing the perfect beach, avoiding potential hazards, advanced TripAdvisor techniques and more! 

For now I'll leave you with a review of my own honeymoon trip from this past April.

Any AI related questions, comments or tips? I would love to hear from you in the comments! 

Mike @ Palms & Pints 

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

How much do you know about Palm Springs?

It's an early February afternoon. We step off a domestic American Airlines flight from Dallas-Fort Worth. It's a balmy 23º C and there isn't a cloud in the sky, which is visible from the mainly open-air terminal. We had just landed in Palm Springs, California.

Our goal was to escape the winter deep-freeze for a week, while maintaining the comforts of North America. I love the Caribbean as much as anyone, but sometimes it's nice to be able to freely walk the town, do some shopping and grab a Starbucks without sacrificing any of the conveniences of home.  At that time of year your options are fairly limited. Remove Hawaii from the equation, and your only real option for probable 20º+ heat is south Florida, beyond that you are rolling the dice.

Sometimes it's nice to travel without leaving behind the comforts of home.

Palm Springs is famous for golf and is considered one of the premier destinations in North America for the sport, especially in the winter. I joked at the airport that it was so easy to find our luggage on the carousel, was the one that wasn't clubs. Outside of that circle it doesn't really resonate with sun-seeking travellers. After having spent some time there, I almost wish it would stay that way, for my own personal benefit of keeping costs and crowds to a minimum. 

The landscape is magnificent, the city is situated in a valley surrounded by mountains. (This is what keeps it insulated from weather systems and thus dry and warm). Towering, and I mean towering(!) palm trees dot every road and open space. If beautiful scenics are your thing, Palm Springs is just begging for you to try out that pano feature on your new iPhone. 

A quick glance around town and you can see where it got it's name.

A little height perspective

The downtown is small and quaint (and fantastically walkable!). If you're looking to party, you're in the wrong place... Hollywood is only an hour away. However if you want to find a cozy and romantic spot for a great meal or a few drinks, there are more than enough options to satisfy. Check my review of Trio, a chic, top-rated restaurant downtown.

Looking for a great day trip? How about taking the famous Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. The views are unmatched. Or take a drive up the San Jacinto mountain to the town of Idyllwild. The road is aptly named the "Palms to Pines Highway", as the temperature and landscape change in a hurry as you gain altitude. 

I swear flip flops made sense down in the valley!

Sure it doesn't have the ocean like Florida, or the glamour of LA or Vegas, but Palm Springs brings an element of beauty, adventure and winter escapism that is hard to find anywhere else. 

Hotel Tip: Check out my review of San Giuliano, an incredible boutique hotel that is almost like your own personal villa in the city! Note that prices have gone up a bit since I stayed in Feb 2012, as this hotel has shot up the TripAdvisor ranks, with 5-star review after 5-star review.

It is difficult for any future hotel expirence to match San Giuliano!

Any questions or comments about Palm Springs? Let me know! 

Mike @ Palms&Pints

Monday, January 20, 2014

Welcome to Smashville! … and other great NHL cities to watch a game.

Back in 2005 my dad and I went on a road trip to Pittsburgh to see a Pittsburgh Penguins hockey game. I have always been a massive hockey fan (I'm Canadian after all) and the Penguins are my favorite team. The trip to Pittsburgh was awesome and ended up being the first of many NHL hockey adventures for me. Between then and now I have seen NHL hockey in 10 different cities, with at least one new destination being crossed off my list each year. My goal is to see a game in all 30 rinks, however until then I will lay out my top three hockey trip destinations to date! 

#3 - Columbus, Ohio

Just a hop-skip-and-a-jump from my home in the Toronto area (if you consider a 7 hour drive a hop-skip-and-a-jump), Columbus has always been one of my favorite spots for hockey action. The tickets are dirt cheap and there is plenty to do right outside the arena afterwards. Like another city on this list, they have built an entertainment complex around the arena, to provide fans with a great full-night experience. The "Arena District" as it is known, is built on the site of the former Ohio Penitentiary.  

With the ticket deals available, getting a great view 
like this at Nationwide Arena isn't out of the question!

#2 - Phoenix, Arizona

When you think hockey, the "Valley of the Sun" doesn't really come to mind right off the bat. It should. The warm Arizona winter is the perfect getaway for those coming from Canada or the northern US. The desert landscape is beautiful, and like Columbus, the tickets are cheap and very easy to come by. One downside is that the team isn't actually located in downtown Phoenix, but instead in the suburb of Glendale. That doesn't mean there isn't tonnes of options before and after the game though, as the "Westgate" entertainment complex hosts plenty of top notch bars and restaurants including Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville. 

Two things not lacking at Westgate … Palms & Pints!
Photo Credit - hdgeeks @ Flickr

#1 - Nashville, Tennessee 

"Smashville" as the team likes to market it as, can't be beat for a fun night of hockey down south. The rink is ideally located steps from the main tourist drag, so after the final buzzer sounds, you are only a quick stroll away from some southern girls bar dancing Coyote Ugly style! The vibe in this town is unlike anything I have experienced before, it just breeds fun. Hockey with passionate fans, country bar after country bar, southern cuisine, what more could you want?

Welcome to Smashville!

Have any questions about these locations? Can you recommend another great hockey trip city? I would love to hear from you in the comments section! 

Mike @ Palms&Pints