Last month my son and I enjoyed a three-day getaway to Dana Point, California. Even though it was quick, we packed in a lot of fun and returned feeling rested and rejuvenated.
Some of my goals when we travel are to stretch our money, stay somewhere nice, maximize relaxation, and be as eco-friendly as possible. Here are 13 ways we made the most of our mini vacation:
Before the Trip
1. Plan (and Pay) Ahead of Time for Big Savings
I purchased our tickets on Southwest five months in advance. We enjoyed convenient travel times and the lowest “Wanna Get Away” fares of just $70 each way from Denver to Orange County, along with Southwest’s free checked bags. I also booked a rental car at the same time. Surprisingly, Hertz had the best deal — providing I was willing to prepay the full fee in advance. Our total was $80, including tax, for a Hyundai Sonata with unlimited mileage for three days.
2. Read the Fine Print
I’m a fan of hotels with local character, so we stayed at the Dana Point Marina Inn. It’s a mid-range hotel in a five-star location. Standard rooms not facing the water were $129.95 a night, but we wanted to see the ocean so we splurged on a deluxe room with two queen beds for $199.95 a night.
I appreciate that the room rate for this property includes free parking, Wi-Fi and breakfast. In today’s price-driven market, many hotels publish a basic room rate and then tack on extra charges. It pays to check the fine print on the property’s website, read TripAdvisor reviews, and call the hotel to inquire about fees so you don’t have any surprises.
Watch out for the dreaded hidden “resort fee,” which was $25 a day at one hotel I looked at for use of the pool, business center and fitness room. Sheesh! I once stayed at a property that automatically tacked on a 20% “service charge” of the entire bill for employee gratuities. If only I’d known that before I tipped everyone in cash all week.
With accommodation services like AirBnb, watch out for credit card surcharges, cleaning fees, service fees, VAT fees, and damage deposits.
If you’re staying at a chain hotel, it might be worthwhile to join the company’s free loyalty program. These programs sometimes give members discounted rates, complimentary Wi-Fi and room upgrades.
3. It Doesn’t Hurt to Ask…
I’d read on TripAdvisor that some rooms in our hotel had better views than others, so I e-mailed the hotel manager a few days before our stay and told him we were excited to stay at the property for the first time. I mentioned that we were from land-locked Colorado and would love a quieter room with a direct view of the water. He kindly accommodated us, and we loved our room and patio overlooking the harbor.
4. Create a Master Packing List
If we remember to pack everything we need, we won’t have to run to the store for something like forgotten sunscreen. Packing right and bringing only what we need helps us pack lighter, too.
I keep a list on my mobile phone’s Notes app, but you could also use Evernote, Google Docs or any file sharing program — or even a good old analog notebook. If you realize you forgot something on your trip, add it right then to your list.
5. Check Out the Local Water
No need to buy bottled water if the local water is good, right? If you visit the Environmental Working Group’s website, you can input the zip code of the town you’re visiting to check out its tap water ratings. We brought a couple of lightweight water bottles for excursions.
6. Bring Your Own Staples and Cutlery
For this trip I packed a small bag of my favorite fresh-ground organic Guatemalan coffee, round coffee filters (can be cut to size to fit the hotel coffeemaker), organic coconut sugar, granola, almonds to snack on, a folding knife, a small pair of scissors, and a couple of forks and spoons.
7. Bring Your Own Pillow
A substandard mattress will be less miserable if you have your own comfy pillow. It helps to put a bright colored pillowcase on the pillow so you don’t accidentally leave it behind.
8. Pack a Pair of Good Earplugs
No matter how carefully we plan, we sometimes end up in a room by the ice machine or elevators. I like Hearos ear plugs because they are soft and expandable. They’re inexpensive and do a really good job of muffling noise.
During the Trip
9. Make Time for Dolce Far Niente
Dolce Far Niente is an Italian expression that means “sweet doing nothing.” If you’re a doer like me, you may have to consciously will yourself to set aside time to really unwind.
During this trip, I took a walk early one morning and settled on a bench overlooking the harbor. I breathed in the glorious sea air, and watched the seagulls. A breeze stirred the boats, and the gentle clanking of the metal masts sounded like wind chimes. The sun came out and warmed my back. A man and a beagle stopped and greeted me. I walked down the pier, and a barnacle-encrusted baby whale rose up out of the water just thirty feet from me. That precious hour was one of my favorite moments during the trip.
10. Be on the Lookout for Eco-Friendly Features
Our hotel didn’t have many sustainable attributes, unfortunately. In our room, we discovered a special trash can with a recycling section under the sink that we brought out and used. The hotel had a sign in the room with instructions to re-hang towels that didn’t need refreshing, which we did.
On the negative side, the breakfast area used disposable Styrofoam plates — an all-too-common practice in the hospitality industry. When you consider that Styrofoam is a petroleum-based material that can take up to 4oo years to decompose, and think of the sheer number of plates and cups thrown away by hotels, the effect is staggering.
11. Stock Up on Good Drinks and Snacks
Our hotel room had an in-room refrigerator, so I bought organic milk, juice, Greek yogurt, string cheese, crudites, crackers, Honeycrisp apples and fresh raspberries. We also used the refrigerator to store leftover Chinese food from our dinner Friday night. Needless to say, we were never hungry.
If your room doesn’t have a refrigerator, you can pack a soft insulated bag to fill with ice and keep snacks cold.
If you’re staying at an upscale hotel with a stocked minibar, tempting in-room snacks or bottled water, instruct your fellow travelers not to even touch the offerings or you might incur a charge.
12. Join the Local Grocery Store’s Loyalty Program
It just takes a few minutes, and you’ll enjoy reduced prices on groceries. In a pinch, I politely ask the cashier if they have a card they might be willing to scan for the discount.
After the Trip
13. Provide Feedback
Because TripAdvisor’s reviews helped me plan this trip, I left a review of our experience at the hotel. I wrote the manager a short note a few days after the trip and thanked him for our nice room. I also mentioned that we’d love to see the property use a more environmentally conscious alternative to Styrofoam plates in the breakfast room, and shared some examples including a biogradeable disposable plate made from plants and wood fibers and a compostable product made from palm leaves.
How About You?
How do you make the most of a short vacation? Do you have any travel tips to add to my list? I always love hearing your thoughts and ideas.