Monday, March 31, 2014

You can't beat a Homewood Suites

Note: The views expressed in this post are based solely on my own authentic experiences. I have never received nor been offered any benefit, perk or discount from a hotel chain in exchange for a positive review.

I'm not the fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants kind of traveler. Any hotel that I have booked in the last five years, whether it be for a one-night stopover or a week-long stay has been the product of significant research and planning. I can think of only one instance where this has steered me wrong. It was for a one night stay in Geneva, New York a couple of years ago. According to TripAdvisor the hotel I booked was ranked #1 of 9 properties in the town, so how could I go wrong, right? It ended up being one of the worst accommodations I had ever paid for. Since my stay the hotel has dropped to #6 of 9 in Geneva. I think I'll give myself and TripAdvisor a mulligan on that one. Maybe there was a change in ownership, or maybe the competition in the small Finger Lakes town just wasn't up to snuff at the time.

There are few constants in the world of successful trip planning. TripAdvisor's review aggregate is (almost always) one of them. Another is that you will be hard pressed to go wrong with a Hilton brand hotel. While the classic "Hilton" line of hotels are usually on the higher end of the price spectrum, there is a new entry in the brand lineup that simply cannot be beat for quality and value. Homewood Suites.

In order to truly appreciate what a Homewood Suites can offer you, you must first make one (and only one) simple concession. These hotels are not located downtown. They are found around airports and more suburban surroundings. In fact, there is one two minutes from my house in Mississauga. If you are comfortable with not being on the corner of Main Street and 2nd Avenue, the rest is money in the bank:

1. Free Breakfast

Sort of an American/continental hybrid, but always fresh and delicious.

2. Happy Hour!

Free "light dinner" and beer/wine from 5-7pm Monday to Thursday. This requires no further explanation.

3. Free Parking

Those hoighty downtown hotels wish they offered easy, free, valet-less, on-site parking.

4. Kitchenette

Save some money and make your own meals with a kitchenette and separate living quarters in every room.

5. Free Wifi

This seems like it should be standard everywhere, but sadly it's not.

6. Shuttle

Bus service to transit hubs often included.

7. New! 

Many Homewood Suites have been newly constructed. A little touch of modern to your stay.

8. Two-bedroom suites

Going with a big group and want more beds and washrooms, but are good with a single communal kitchen and living area? Two-bedroom suites are an incredibly cost-efficient option.

9. Free Newspaper

A fresh copy of USA Today waiting outside your door.

10. Great hotel bars

Don't expect a party, but solid selection, reasonable prices and daily specials will be found.

Trust the duck.
Check out some of my Homewood Suites reviews on TripAdvisor:

Springfield Virginia (DC Area)

Tampa Airport Westshore

Miami Airport West 

Have any questions about Homewood Suites? Have your own personal favorite chain? Love to hear from you in the comments.

Mike @Palms & Pints

Monday, March 24, 2014

The Sunshine State

Other than Algonquin Park here in Ontario, there may not be a vacation destination on this planet that I'm more familiar with than Florida. The "Sunshine State" is just one of those places I can travel to over and over again. While I love the Caribbean, there is something to be said about having both warm waters and fine sands intertwined with high standards of living and classic American culture.

The state of Florida is a peninsula separating the Atlantic Ocean from the Gulf of Mexico. While it is geographically in the "southern" region, I personally find it more culturally similar to southern California than it's own neighbours. It's dual coastlines give it two different, yet equally enjoyable beach experiences. In fact, I don't think it's possible to be more than a 75 minute drive from the ocean, anywhere in the state. 

Miami, while not the capital (that's surprisingly Tallahassee), is Florida's largest and most well known city. Miami Beach is a spectacular bustling beach town with tonnes of great food, nightlife, art-deco architecture, and of course that world famous sand and sea. For a foodie, there is no better place in the country for a mojito and Cuban sandwich. 

Orlando, sitting in roughly the middle of the state, is Florida's most famous non-coastal city, due in large part to it's legendary resorts Walt Disney World & Universal Studios, amongst others. Children from all over the world yearn for a live glimpse of their favorite Disney characters and the iconic castle. 

While I have been to both of these places, and agree they are fantastic, it is some of the more lesser known parts of Florida which draw me back time and time again:

Cocoa Beach - sitting midway down the Atlantic coast, Cocoa beach is the perfect "chill spot" for a true Florida beach vacation. Billed as "Orlando's closest beach", CB provides fantastic swimming, top notch hotels and a bustling enough beach town to keep you occupied when you're not getting your tan on. You are also quite well located for a day trip Cape Canaveral to witness a live rocket lauch. 

The famous Ron Jon Surf Shop in Cocoa Beach  Source

Fort De Soto County Park -  A 40 minute drive from Tampa is a beautiful piece of beachland where waters are as calm and as clean as they get this side of Cuba. A beach connoisseur such as myself will notice the Turks and Caicos-esque sand bars. Not much in the way of facilities, but pack a lunch and come for day of R&R. 

Catching some rays in Fort De Soto

Key West - A little bit of a pain to get to, but well worth it. A (beautiful) 3 hour and change drive from Miami, Key West is that hipster little town that marches to the beat of it's own drum. I was surprised to discover that there isn't much in the way of quality beaches here, but the town is charming ...and hey,  you can say you visited the "Southernmost Point in Continental USA"! 

The boys were super excited for this famous marker (or maybe it was just me)

Note - When driving to Key West, be sure to stop for a swim at Bahia Honda Key Park. Quiet, pristine beaches and incredible sunsets. 

Tough to beat a sunset on Bahia Honda Key

Been to a part of Florida I haven't? (panhandle, north-east coast, Naples/Marco Island area?) I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments! 

Mike @ Palms & Pints 

Monday, March 17, 2014

My Next Trip to Europe (yes, already thinking about it!)

It's been barely a month since I have been back from Europe, but I'm already catching myself day-dreaming about my next visit. The sad part is, my February trip ate up most of this year's vacation time, and the days I do have left are going towards a friend's December destination wedding in Punta Cana. (Don't get me wrong, I'm pretty stoked for that as well). My next trip across the pond will have to wait until at least 2015, but that won't stop me from doing what I do best… scrolling across Google Maps, planning routes, whilst researching destinations on the next tab. If I'm really feeling adventurous I might even price out some flights, but sadly that's about as far as I can take it at the moment. Oh well, I can always live vicariously through the full-time nomadic travellers and fellow bloggers I follow on Twitter. With all of that said, here is a (very) rough potential itinerary of my next European adventure!

1. Fly into Berlin, Germany

We had a fantastic time in Munich, which just barely beat out Berlin for the first stop on this year's trip. I love Germany! There is something about it that pulls me toward it a little more than some of the other countries I've visited. My barber (who spent 10 years in Greece) claims that the country operates with a structure a little more reminiscent of North America which differs from Mediterranean Europe, so maybe there is a comfort factor involved. It may also be that I love good beer and enjoy eating pork and baked goods. Whatever it is, I must make my way to the German capital. What it lacks in Bavarian culture, it replaces with fascinating cold war era history.

Berlin - Source

2. Fly into Belgrade, Serbia

I'll be honest, at this point in time I have not done much research on this city. As mentioned in a previous blog, I was intrigued by the decidedly "Eastern" feel upon my arrival in Prague. I felt as though I wanted to continue further east and explore this under-appreciated side of the continent. I'm thinking Belgrade, being a hub of south-eastern Europe, would be a fantastic place to start.

Belgrade - Source

3. Train/Bus into Dubrovnik, Croatia

The famous walled city of Dubrovnik. No visit to this part of Europe is complete without a glimpse of this ancient gem. Croatia has always been high on my travel list, and I think this would be my first stop in the nation. I'm imagining it to be a photographer's paradise, and while I wouldn't go to Europe for the beaches, a dip in the warm Adriatic would be the perfect ending to a day filled with incredible sightseeing.

Dubrovnik  Source

4. Ferry/Train into Calabria, Italy 

I have been to a few places in Italy already, most notably Rome and Venice. The sightseeing there has been phenomenal and worth every bit of the hype. Going forward, however, I would love to immerse myself in the "natural" Italy. Where palms grow alongside lemon and fig trees, where the heat is dense and the crowds are thin. This would be the perfect end to the trip, with a simple focus on eating the world's best food and relaxing with the sounds of the sea.

Calabria - Source

I may not get back to Europe anytime soon, but my research never stops. As long as I have a map to follow and bloggers to learn from I will continue to acquire knowledge and ensure my next trip is even better than the last.

Have you been to any of these locations? Any tips to add? Recommended detours? I'd love to hear from you in the comments!

Mike @ Palms & Pints.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Travel - As Seen Through The iPhone

About a year ago I purchased my first digital SLR camera. This was quite an upgrade from the point-and-shoot options I had been travelling with for years. I love my Canon Rebel T3i and this blog probably wouldn't have been possible without it, however there is one item in my travel arsenal which no expensive camera could ever replace. My iPhone.

I have owned an iPhone since the first day they came to Canada back in the summer of 2008 and it has accompanied me on all of my trips since then. While no camera phone will ever replace a DSLR (they aren't terribly far off these days), the iPhone is worth it's weight in platinum in the travel photography world.

It is constantly available whenever a photo-op may arise. It is lightweight, quick to use and discrete for those times you don't want to come off overly touristy. It is also a fantastic option for sharing your photos on social media or sending them to friends without a computer having to enter the equation. I have taken dozens of fantastic travel shots with the iPhone, but here are a few of my favourites:

Towering Palms - Palm Springs, California

Deer Sighting - Muskoka, Ontario

What to do next? - Prague, Czech Republic

Sand and Surf - Cayo Levantado, Dominican Republic

Mojitos with the boys - Miami Beach, Florida 

Spruce Boardwalk - Algonquin Park, Ontario

Mike @ Palms & Pints


Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Getting the most out of TripAdvisor

As mentioned in several of my prior blog posts, my go-to website when booking hotels is TripAdvisor. (Once again they are not paying me to say this, but I wouldn't turn down the cash if they were!). TripAdvisor is an extremely simple website to use, and millions of real reviews have been posted from users and for hotels all over the world. With that in mind, I have come up with a few tips that will help you get even more out of this fantastic travel resource.

1. You can't please everyone

Even the top rated hotels will have nay-sayers. Have a closer look at the small handful of people who gave a bold one-out-of-five rating to a strongly reviewed hotel, chances are these reviews will have a singular focus. For example, they may say that the hotel was overpriced, or that their reservation was lost. These are valid grievances don't get me wrong, but alone are they enough to discredit the entire stay? Some people will dish out a poor rating in anger over a single issue, and forgo mentioning the many ways in which the hotel succeeded.

2. Prioritize the most recent/relevant reviews

Hotels can change management, they can degrade (or improve) over time. The more recent the review, the more likely it is to be reflective of your upcoming stay. Are you planning on going to a particular Punta Cana resort in January? Try to focus on reviews during that time of year, as factors such as crowdedness, beach quality and even food selection can be very dependant on time of year.

3. Check out the photos

You know how the photo galleries on hotel websites always look fantastic? Don't be one of the many who claim "the website photos were misleading". TripAdvisor allows reviewers to post their own photos, which all accumulate in the "Photos" section for each particular hotel. These can be sorted based on category and each photo has a link to the review it came from. Nothing gives you a better idea of what to expect that an actual traveller photo.

4. Identify your demographic

TripAdvisor keeps track of what type of traveller submitted each review. This can be useful when tracking which demographic is most often staying at the hotel. A hotel with a majority of "couples" reviews will most likely have different amenities and a different vibe than one with a majority of "family" reviews. Also, you can select a specific travel demographic and view only reviews by that type of traveler.

5. Read the management responses

Hotel managers have the opportunity to respond to reviews. These response can sometimes be key in evaluating the credibility of the initial review. While some responses may simply be a generic "We are sorry you had a bad experience, we hope you give us another shot.", sometimes you will get detailed insight about what management did to try and solve the issues that were mentioned. Managers will also respond to positive reviews and give their thanks for the kind words. While these responses are no easier to validate than those of the customer, it's always beneficial to see both sides of the coin.

6. Give back to the community

TripAdvisor is a community, and it grows stronger with each review. Remember all those reviews you read before booking your dream vacation? Spend some time and submit your own experiences for your fellow traveler!

Click here to see my collection of TripAdvisor reviews! Have any questions/comments regarding TripAdvisor? Post in the comments below!

Mike @ Palms & Pints