Thursday, August 27, 2009

Shameless self-promotion!

I need more votes! is having a travel writing contest for books self-published through their site. The winner gets a trip to the Frankfurt, Germany, Book Fair in October. The book fair is the world's largest, annually attracting some 300,000 visitors and more than 7,000 publishers.

Books about a different country are featured each year. This year China is the honored country. GuideGecko will be promoting by Parents Guide to Beijing there. Hopefully, with that many people they'll be able to sell a few of my books.
I've entered my book in their travel writing contest, and need votes so I can be at the fair with my book. The winner is determined by popular vote. You can vote for Parents Guide here. Buying the book is not required to vote for it, but you're very welcome to buy it if you want.
I got an email on 9/7 from GuideGecko saying I was third out of 44 guides entered, and only 10 votes out of first place. This is another election where every vote is going to count! You must be registered with them for your vote to count.

Even if I don't win the contest, I'm excited my books will be there. Books? What's this? Well, for the last month or so, I've been working on a major overhaul of my Do-it-yourself Beijing guide which I first published in 1999. I just finished the first draft last week. GuideGecko also wants to promote the updated book at the book fair, so I've got to hustle and finish it quickly. Looks like I'll spend the next couple of weeks chained to my computer.

My eguide, Cuandixia: an ancient mountain village in China, is also on GuideGecko, but, unfortunately it long enough and will be staying home. interviewed me

Glen Loveland, the Asia headlines specialist for, interviewed me about my travel writing on China. It's a nice article, in Q & A format, and, of course, the answers are stunningly brilliant! You can read it here.

In the "it's a small world" department, Glen is originally from Yakima, Washington, about 75 miles north of Kennewick, where I live. He's lived in Beijing since 2007.

For more information about travel in China, please see my website. If you have any questions about traveling in China, please email me.

P.S. The photo above is of Beihai Park's White Dagoba Temple, a landmark sight in central Beijing.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Tips for saving on lodging costs

Accommodations rank right up there with airline tickets for major vacation costs.

If you don't want to sleep on a park bench, a friend's sofa or a tent in a campground, what can you do to control the cost of getting a good night's sleep?

When I was younger and single, I used to stay in bed-and-breakfasts when I traveled in Europe. The opportunity to meet travelers from around the world over breakfast made up for the inconvenience of walking down the hall to the bathroom. Now that I'm older and married, I want a bathroom in the room, though I still like breakfast to be included in the room rate.

Other than that, I'm not too picky about where I stay, other than it has to be clean, in a good location and preferably cheap. If it's a place we're going to stay more than three nights, I'll probably upgrade to something a little nicer than if we're only going to be at a place one night.

So how do you find accommodations that won't break your travel budget?

Booking airfare and accommodations as a package using an online travel agency, such as Expedia or Travelocity, is one way to cut costs. In many instances I've been able to get a package deal that that is around the same cost as an airline ticket alone, booked from the airline's website. For example, when we went to Shanghai for 10 days in March 2008, I used Travelocity to book 10 nights in a Shanghai three-star, airfare and taxes for under $1,100 per person. The cheapest airfare I could find was $1,100. Three years ago, I found airfare, lodgings and taxes for five nights (three-star) in Beijing for $750 pp at; airfare alone was running almost $900. This system works best if you're going to be visiting only one city.

If you're going to be visiting multi-cities, want confirmed reservations and don't want to use a store-front travel agency, you're going to have to do some work to find reasonable accommodations.

If I know what hotel I want to stay in, then I'll check first with their website. Chains like Choice Hotels have properties in a wide range of styles and prices. So I'll check with them, if only to give me an idea of the price I have to beat. When we went to Birmingham, UK, this spring, I saved $15 a night by booking with Expedia rather than the Choice website. For our honeymoon on the Oregon Coast, I booked through the Inn at Spanish Head's website, and saved $85 a night. Sometimes I'll just do a search for accommodations in a certain city and see what comes up. Sometimes some little-known local booking agency comes up with terrific deals. I've used these a couple of times though I admit to being a little hesitant because I didn't know anything about the booking agency.

I'm also a big fan of the Motel 6 chain, having first stayed in one 40 years ago when the cost was $6 for a double. Motel 6 motels are good, basic accommodations, though sometimes the location isn't always convenient. When I had a dog, I always stayed there because they didn't hassle me about him -- he was as welcome as I was. I also like security features at check-in. Even if you're the only guest checking in, clerks never say your room number out loud, but point to it on the map, indicating how to find it. I once checked into a major chain hotel with a lobby full of other guests waiting to check in. In a loud tone of voice, the clerk announced my room number and told me where to find it. Not good, especially if you're a woman traveling by herself.

I've also used and to find accommodations. The drawback with these is that you don't find out where you'll be staying until after your credit card has been charged. You can, however, select your price range and general location. I've used hotwire a couple of times for trips to Seattle. We've gotten a Marriott for $55 a night plus taxes; the Marriott website lists room rates starting at $169 for this particular property. I used priceline to find out hotel in London last spring. I was reading online reviews of properties in our price range, and, let me tell you, they weren't good: linens that hadn't been changed in six months, smelly rooms, bed bugs, filthy rooms, etc. Nothing I would stay in. In desperation, I turned to, asking for a four-star in Kensington, figuring it had to be decent. I also bid $65 a night plus taxes. OK, so I was maybe dreaming a little bit, but guess what? The London Copthorne Tara accepted it! It was a wonderful hotel (pictured above) a three-minute walk from the High Street Kensington tube stop. The staff tried to sell us an upgrade when we checked in, but we held firm. The rate didn't include breakfast, but we were given discount coupons for breakfast. The breakfast wasn't that great for the price, so usually we went to a nearby McDonald's or tearoom. The Copthorne chain's website said rooms at the Tara started at $200, so we really lucked out.

You can also try negotiating directly with the hotel. Our trip to Beijing last fall was one of the few times I booked accommodations and airfare separately. Friends were going with us, so it would be two rooms for 12 nights. Because of this, I felt a discount was called for. The hotel gave us one night free for each room -- I probably should have held out for a larger discount, but it worked for us.

Also take advantages of business rates if you qualify, and AARP or AAA discounts if you belong to either of these groups. Properties will give discounts of 5 percent to 20 percent for these memberships. You will only get these discounts if you book directly with the property, however..

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Saving on travel, part 3

Airline tickets "purchased" using frequent flyer miles are a good way to keep travel expenses down. Unfortunately, if you don't fly very often, it's going to take a long time to build up the miles.

We go to China a lot, and that's about 13,000 miles roundtrip, so two trips is enough for a free ticket in the continental United States. But we just let our miles accumulate. A couple of reasons for this. One is that you need a lot of miles for a frequent flyer ticket to Europe or Asia. A second reason is that if the cheap seats are filled (where we usually sit -- hey! those first-class passengers aren't going to get there any sooner than we will), airlines upgrade those passengers with the most frequent flyer miles. This happened to us two years ago, when we were upgraded from the cheapest economy to business class between Munich and Chicago. Wow! Business class is the way to go, if you've got the bucks. Unfortunately, we don't.

We cashed in some frequent flyer miles when we went to London in May. United normally wants 55,000 miles for a ticket to Europe, but was having a "sale" for 40,000 miles to certain European cities. You do have to pay taxes and fees on frequent flyer tickets; this worked out to $112 for each of us. Taxes and fees depend on where you're going. We had considered going to Beijing, and that would have cost each of us $40.

I've been told by many friends that it's extremely difficult to use frequent flyer miles for tickets. For some reason I've never had this problem, and we got our first choice of dates for these tickets.

What's good about frequent flyer miles is there are many ways you get rack up the miles without setting foot on an airplane. Some of my friends have credit cards affiliated with the airlines, and charge even very small amounts just to get the miles. They pay the credit card bills every month, so it doesn't cost them anything to do it this way. Spend some time on your airline's frequent flyer program looking at ways you can earn miles.

I like online shopping as one way to earn miles. For example, if there's something I'm going to buy locally, I'll check the price at the store, and then order it through the airline's shopping mall. If I pick up the item at the store, then there are usually no shipping charges. One added benefit is that online store prices are sometimes cheaper. We also subscribe to magazines through the online malls; generally, you get 12 miles for every $1 spent, which compares favorably to the 1-2 miles for every $1 with other merchants.

I also earn miles on Northwest by taking surveys. Yeah, I know you're thinking of all those come-ons that say you can earn big bucks by taking surveys; you take the survey and nothing happens. I do surveys through They pay in e-currency which is redeemable for items such as magazines and airline miles.

I also earn miles by doing grocery shopping at Safeway, which credits my United account with 125 miles for every $250 I spend.

Granted the number of miles earned is small, but they're just enough to keep my frequent flyer account active. Each time I earn a few miles, it extends the expiration date of my miles. Over the years, I've probably lost 50,000 miles in various frequent flyer plans because I didn't use or add miles to them.

(Note: the above photo was taken in Birmingham in the West Midlands where we spent a week of our trip.)

Check out Parents Guide to Beijing: a kid-friendly city

If you're going to Beijing, with or without your children, you'll enjoy my eguide, Parents Guide to Beijing. It's filled with tips and things to do that will appeal to all ages.

For more information about travel in China, please check out my website or email me with your questions.