Travel tips

28 03 2013

Some travel tips I picked up on my most recent trip to the US…

Phones

  • If you’re travelling from Australia to the US and are a Telstra Mobile customer, then SERIOUSLY consider getting a US SIM card for your phone if you’re taking your personal phone, not a company one. It will save you an absolute packet — hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars (see this horror story of a $12,000 bill for 13 days in Thailand: http://www.news.com.au/breaking-news/victorian-man-hit-with-12k-roaming-bill-after-thailand-holiday/story-e6frfkp9-1226618187589). You won’t have your usual Australian phone number for the time you’re away (text or email your new number to all those back home who need to know), but you will get MUCH cheaper calls, texts, and data charges than you would if you used Telstra’s global roaming. See this blog post of mine for details on using a T-Mobile Pay-per-day SIM: http://cybertext.wordpress.com/2013/03/21/telstra-to-t-mobile-settings-on-phone/ Update July 2015: You can now buy T-Mobile and other SIM cards at a kiosk at Sydney International Airport (I think Melbourne too), and you may even get your new phone # allocated before you take off.
  • If you’re staying in expensive hotels in the US (or pretty much ANY hotel in Australia!), they’ll likely want to charge you big bucks for using their WiFi or wired network to access the internet. Instead, use your smartphone as a modem and tether it to your laptop — you might only get 3G signal strength, but that’s often better than you’ll get in hotels that advertise ‘highspeed broadband’ anyway. Some hotels have free WiFi in the lobby, so if you only need to check email, then sit yourself down there with a wine or a coffee instead.
  • While many places in the US have free WiFi, don’t assume that because you’re going through WiFi on your phone with your Telstra SIM that it will be free — it won’t! So get yourself a US SIM (see above).

Hotels

  • Some hotels have day rates, but these are REALLY hard/impossible to find via their websites. Day rates are ideal for a long layover (e.g. arrive at LAX at 7 am, but your next flight doesn’t leave until after midday; arrive at DFW for your 10 pm flight to Australia, but Qantas check-in doesn’t open until 6 pm and it’s now only 2 pm). But you have to ask for a day rate! In my experience, asking via the hotel’s email contact form, Facebook, or Twitter account may not get you a response, so pick up the phone (Skype is CHEAP from anywhere, or use your phone with your US SIM when in the US and make a free call) and call the hotel and ASK a real person. Call the direct number of the hotel — don’t go through the reservations call centre for all hotels in the chain. I’ve been able to score a day rate at the fabulous Grand Hyatt at DFW Airport and at the not-so-fabulous Hacienda Hotel near LAX. In both cases, the day rate was for a specified number of hours (typically 6 to 12 hours) and was cheaper than an overnight stay. The big advantage of a day rate at an airport hotel is that you can shower, repack, rest (though I’ve avoided that temptation in case I miss my connecting flight!), have some quiet time away from the airport bustle, etc. If you don’t want to fork out for the day rate at the Grand Hyatt in Terminal 4 at DFW, then ask about using their fitness centre — when I was there in 2012, the guy at Reception suggested that paying $30 for one-off access to their fitness centre might suit too, if I only wanted to use the shower facilities. I didn’t take him up on it as I needed to repack and figured there wouldn’t be room to do that effectively in the fitness centre. But it was an option I hadn’t thought of before. Update: I found two websites that only feature reputable hotels with day rates (there are plenty of not so reputable ones in a Google search results list!): http://between9and5.com/en/ and http://www.bookadayroom.com/; interestingly, neither of these listed the two hotels I mentioned above.
  • If you’re on the road in the US and need to stop somewhere for the night, check sites like Hotels.com and Priceline.com on your phone on your way to the location (NOT while you’re driving, of course), or even in the hotel’s carpark, to get current rates for the hotel that night. You can either book there and then via your phone, though I’ve found that just walking into Reception and mentioning that Hotels.com (for example) had the rate at $XX is enough to score the same rate… or even less. Beats dealing with filling in awkward forms on a small device like a phone and hunting out your credit card etc. If the hotel won’t match the price and you really want to stay there, walk outside (or even do it at Reception!) and make the booking via Hotels.com, etc. Or go somewhere else. Unlike Australia, there’s a plethora of hotels in the US near interstates or major towns/cities willing to compete for your dollar.
  • If you’re turning up late-ish in the day and haven’t booked your hotel room, you might be able to score a further discounted rate. Some hotels discount their rates late in the day just so they can get customers in the door. I scored a $99 room (already discounted from $119) for $69 at a Hampton Inn in Texas (Hampton Inns have another advantage in that they have a decent free breakfast in their locations too, so you can save by not buying breakfast; some even have soup and crackers and vege sticks in the evenings too, so if you’re not up for going out for a meal or even for a big meal, you can get sustenance there as part of your room rate. And they have really comfy beds!).

Airport lounges

  • Got a long-ish layover, but not long enough to get a hotel room near the airport? Consider buying a ‘day pass’ into an airline lounge. Some airlines have this option, but not all. Each airline will have its own rules about allowing access to non-members, and some may not allow you in if you haven’t got a ticket flying with them that day, or if the lounge is likely to be full, but again, it doesn’t hurt to ask. Oh, and you’ll have a better chance of getting in if you are dressed appropriately (no scruffy track pants, uggs, torn jeans [unless you really are a rock star, of course!], etc.), and don’t be loud and brash about insisting on getting in — you can catch more flies with honey than with Vegemite! Alaska Airlines used to offer a day pass for $30, but when I was in LAX a month ago I noticed that it’s $45 there. Also, there are no showers at the Alaska Airlines lounge in Terminal 6 at LAX either — just in case you were hunting a shower! The Alaska Airlines people told me that Delta (or was it United?) in another terminal at LAX has showers in their lounge, with a day pass of $30 for lounge access. I didn’t check this, so I can’t confirm it. Of course, if you’re heading home to Australia via LAX and are a member of the Qantas Club or  flying Business Class, you’ll have access to showers in the Qantas lounge (THANK YOU, QANTAS!!).

My adage when travelling is “Ask. The worst you can get is ‘No’.” More often the answer is a ‘Yes’!


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