Confessions Of... A Hotel General Manager
I was a hotel general manager with a major hotel company and have over 22 years' experience. Now that I'm on the other side of the check-in counter, I'm able to divulge several powerful tools for saving on your lodging costs:
1. Negotiate with the hotel. When business is slow, no property will turn down a reasonable offer. Earlier in my career, as a front-desk manager, I would leave for the night and allow the desk clerks the flexibility of negotiating discounts should they experience resistance to the hotel's published rates. We found that by selectively reducing prices, we could avoid turning away any business when we needed it.
2. Though it's best to phone ahead, you can negotiate on arrival. If you walk in without a reservation and are unhappy with the rate you are quoted, tell the desk clerk and ask if there is a lower rate or offer a rate that you are willing to pay. Always wait until the desk is not busy. This will allow the clerks to quote discounted rates without being overheard by other guests who may be checking in. You'll be surprised at how often you are successful in receiving a discount on your room just by asking.
3. Despite the possibility of last-minute discounts, it's best to make your reservations long in advance. As soon as you are aware of your travel plans, call and make your hotel reservations. As your arrival date nears, the demand for that room will usually increase. As demand increases, the discounted rate will be sold out and only the high regular rate will be available.
4. Never call the 800 number. Dial the hotel direct! Usually, the rates quoted by the national reservations services (the ones you access by phoning the 800 number) are simply regular or premium rates. The majority of the discounted rates will be available only through the hotel itself.
5. Ensure that any special request you make will not trigger a "rate add-on." For example, asking for a golf view, a pool view, or a beach view usually means a more expensive room than one with a less desirable location. Always confirm the rate first-then, and only then, state any special preference or request. You'll avoid being given an add-on rate.
6. Always request a reservation number. Or the name of the person who took the reservation. This will become invaluable should a hotel renege on a rate.
7. Be sure to request super saver rates. Ask if the hotel offers any super saver rates, discounts, or specials. Most hotels will offer some type of discount off the regular rate if it encounters resistance from the would-be guest. This is also called a hotel "fall-back" or "bottom out" rate.
8. Or request an AAA or AARP rate, a senior citizen rate, or a hotel membership rate. Many hotels offer discounts of at least ten percent to such persons.
9. If you fit the bill, request a government or corporate rate. If you are in the military or if you work for a government agency or as a government contractor, you may be eligible for a government rate, which can be as much as 50 percent off; indeed, government rates are among the hotel industry's best rates. Similarly, if you're a traveler on business, always ask for the corporate or business rate, and let the telephone reservationist know the name of the company for which you work. If you are employed by a company that has an office close to the hotel, you may receive a substantial discounted rate that is aimed at capturing the majority of your company's out-of-town guests.
10. Occasionally, shareholders of hotel chains are entitled to discounted rates. Shareholders should inquire directly with individual hotel chains for details.
11. There are travel industry, hotel employee, long-term, and "good samaritan" discounts to be had. If a member of your immediate family is a travel industry employee, you may be eligible for travel-industry discounts. As a hotel manager, I have received numerous discounts at hotels, rental car agencies, and on airlines. Always ask. If you are planning on staying five to seven nights, ask whether discounts are given for extended stays. And lastly, keep in mind that many independent hotel operators and some major hotel companies offer good samaritan rates to guests experiencing hardships (stranded motorists, victims of storm damage or fires).
12. Tell the front desk you're willing to accept a "suite connector." Many times the staff cannot sell the entire extent of a multiroom suite at maximum price, and that leaves the sitting room portion, which is connected by a lockable door, available. Usually, the sofa can be converted into a bed, and this provides a nice accommodation at a considerable discount. Or you can request that a roll-away be placed into the sitting room (for which you'll be sure to receive a good discount).
13. Finally, mention that you're willing to accept an "out-of-order" room. Rarely are all the rooms in a hotel ready for occupancy. Housekeeping and engineering departments designate some rooms out of order because of some defect in the room (ranging from a small stain on the carpet to a faulty TV). Depending on the standards of the hotel, managers may allow these out-of-order rooms to be sold on a discounted, "last-sell" basis. Hotels rarely sell 100 percent of their rooms. They have to deal with no-shows, out-of-order rooms, early departures, duplicate reservations, last-minute cancellations, family emergencies, and a host of other empty-room-making contingencies. That's why hotels are more than willing to deal-under the proper circumstances-and you, the savvy hotel guest, can benefit from that policy.
The Cheaper Hotels on the Las Vegas Strip
Wanna sleep cheap in Las Vegas? But comfortably? And within walking distance of the main attractions? It's all a matter of geography. The famous Las Vegas Strip (also known as Las Vegas Boulevard) runs north and south. The expensive hotels, with some exceptions, are on the west side of it. The inexpensive hotels, with some exceptions, are on the east side. Staying on the cheaper side of the Strip won't keep you from seeing the fountains in front of Bellagio, The Mirage's volcano, or the pirate battle at Treasure Island. In fact, you might have a shorter walk from across the street than if you were actually staying at one of the more expensive resorts. But this isn't about saving steps. The goal here is to save money. By choosing a hotel on the other (east) side of the Strip, you can pay as little as $39 a night for a room. Here are four cheap Vegas hotels (and one slightly costlier one) where you can do just that: Casino Royale and Hotel (3411 Las Vegas Blvd. S., 800/854-7666, casinoroyalehotel.com) hasn't got a lot of space, but all of the Casino Royale's 152 rooms are priced right. For example, rates are $49 for weekdays and $69 on weekends at the beginning of June. Guests are next door to The Venetian and Harrah's, and Treasure Island and The Mirage are across the Strip. The Fashion Show mall is a somewhat reasonable walk away. Barbary Coast Hotel and Casino (3595 Las Vegas Blvd. S., 888/227-2279, barbarycoastcasino.com) is another little place offering big value, and retaining its Old Vegas atmosphere among gigantic competitors. The eight-acre lake at Bellagio, which erupts nightly in a dazzling display of fountains and lights, is across the intersection from the Barbary Coast; Caesars Palace is directly across the street, and Bally's and the Flamingo are on either side. It has 200 rooms, and prices range from $39 on weekdays to $89 on weekends. Standard rooms are a respectable 400 square feet, compared with 510 square feet at Bellagio. Imperial Palace Hotel and Casino (3535 Las Vegas Blvd. S., 800/634-6441, imperialpalace.com) is a big place that frequently drops rates on its 2,700 rooms to $39 on weekdays, $59 on weekends. Callers and Web site visitors can get the best rates by checking the "Casino Gold Specials." Harrah's Las Vegas Casino and Hotel (3475 Las Vegas Blvd. S., 800/392-9002, harrahs.com), at 2,559 rooms and suites, is also a huge place and its regular rates will be among the most expensive among its competitors on this side of the Strip. But weekday rates in the $50-$60 range can be found here. Check the "Hot Deals" section of Harrah's Web site. Flamingo Las Vegas (3555 Las Vegas Blvd. S., 888/308-8899, flamingo-lv.com) is normally a pricey place with rates reaching $200 a night. But at certain times of the year, flexible travelers will find bargains among the Flamingo's 3,600 rooms and suites. Rates were at $55 for a few weekdays in July, although they jumped to $140 on some weekends. More tips for Vegas visitors Check out the Web sites of any Las Vegas hotel you find inviting. Many list special promotions and have guest books you can sign. That puts you on their mailing lists for some pretty attractive invitations, including lower room rates, two-for-one offers on show tickets and buffets, and coupons to better your odds on casino games. If you're planning a longer stay, consider changing hotels to take advantage of special rates. Let's say, for example, that you're going to be in town for six nights and find a great rate at Hotel A for the first four nights. However, the place is sold out the next two nights, or its rates aren't as attractive then. If an extra session of checking in and out doesn't bother you, drive-or simply walk-to Hotel B. You won't even draw a second glance from the other tourists, who will have seen stranger things in Las Vegas. Visit travel2vegas.com, which gives abbreviated versions of casino ads that appear in Sunday editions of the Los Angeles Times. The site is updated regularly, and you don't have to live in California to take advantage of the specials. You can find critical, and often humorous, descriptions of the hotels and casinos in Las Vegas at cheapovegas.com. The reviewers sometimes stretch a point in order to make a joke, but they're fairly accurate.
The Secret Hotels of Rome
True budgeteers will appreciate the irony: The only Rome hotel to rival the five-star Hassler (atop the Spanish Steps) for "Best Room with a View" is Albergo Abruzzi, a backpacker's haven overlooking the incredible 1,800-year-old Pantheon. Few cheap sleeps are so well situated, but among the best of the best, each has its own charms. I recently toured more than 70 Roman inns where doubles cost under $80 before choosing 20 that offer some combination of a good location, solid comfort, a modicum of amenities, and helpful management that strives to make each guest's stay a memorable one. These Little Wonder Hotels run the gamut from spare hospices managed by nuns to a pensione serving kosher breakfasts, from international backpacker pads to classy joints where you'll have to snatch a room away from traveling Italian businessmen. Whether your dream address is a block from the Spanish Steps or from the ancient Forum, whether you want to crash around the corner from the train station or from the Armani showroom, you'll find the perfect room at one of these budget inns. The hotels are found in four well-known neighborhoods: Centro Storico, Termini, Prati, and Trastevere. The centro storico (historic center) is where most people want to be: Along the boutique-lined streets radiating from the Spanish Steps, or tucked into the knot of cobblestone alleys and antiques shops surrounding Piazza Navona, the Pantheon, and Campo de' Fiori with its morning market and nighttime bar scene. Rome's best bargains are clustered amid the Termini train station's nineteenth- century grid of bus boulevards, budget shops, and recent immigrants trying to scrape a living. Though central enough, this is Rome's least interesting neighborhood-dreary, dirty, and slightly disreputable (especially just south of the station), and a half-hour hike from the centro storico. I've pinpointed the shining gems of hospitality and stylish frugality amid Termini's sea of seedy flophouses and tour-bus chain hotels. Across the Tiber River are Prati, a great, non-touristy neighborhood that surrounds the Vatican; and, to the south, the restaurant- and pub-filled alley-ways of a gorgeous medieval artisans' quarter called Trastevere. Unless otherwise specified, all rooms come with private bathroom and telephone, credit cards are accepted, and the range of rates is seasonal; you pay top dollar roughly from Easter to October (but excluding August and sometimes July; rates used here based on E1=94¢). To call Rome from the United States, dial 011-39 before the numbers listed below. Centro Storico Pensione Panda Via della Croce 35, tel. 06-678-0179, fax 06-6994-2151, www. hotelpandaparadise.com. 20 rooms, 12 with bath. Double room E62 ($58) without bath, E83ÐE93 ($78Ð$87) with bath. 10 percent discount for paying cash. No breakfast. For the best balance of comfort, style, and price in the very heart of Rome, the Panda wins hands-down. The washboard-vaulted ceilings are frescoed (second floor) or trimmed in stuccoes (first floor) over terrazzo flooring, wrought-iron wall sconces, and firm new bedsprings. Even rooms without private bath have sinks surrounded by antiqued stone tiles. That cash discount keeps it under $80. All that and it's just two fashionista-teeming blocks from the Spanish Steps amid Rome's toniest shops. Hotel Smeraldo Vicolo dei Chiodaroli 9, tel. 06-687-5929, fax 06-6880-5495, www.hotelsmeraldoroma.com. 50 rooms, 44 with bath. Double room E68ÐE78 ($64Ð$73) without bath, E104ÐE114 ($98Ð$107) with bath. Breakfast E5ÐE8 ($4.70Ð$7.50). This is the first place in Rome I call for a room. You just won't find a better place at these prices in the very heart of Rome. You get burnished chestnut veneers, stone-tile floors, marble sinks, and all the electronic comforts of home (satellite TV, hairdryers, even A/C). The price for rooms with full bath rises above our $80 ceiling but all rooms have sinks and bidets. The industrious owners have also just renovated the old Hotel Piccolo (it's now called Hotel in Parione; tel. 06-6880-2560, fax 06-689-2330) across the street. Casa Kolbe Via San Teodoro 44, tel. 06-679-4974, fax 06-6994-1550. 63 rooms. Double room E80 ($75). Breakfast E6 ($5.60). Those rooms that don't open onto the peaceful courtyard's palms and orange trees look instead across a little-trafficked street onto a romantically overgrown, semi-excavated portion of the ancient Palatine Hill. The Roman Forum entrance is just a few hundred feet away. The Kolbe exudes that somber quiet that only a former mon-astery can muster, but it's comfy enough. The built-in units are austere, with heavenly orthopedic beds sporting blankets in the most hideous shades of brown and yellow the 1960s had to offer. Hotel Mimosa Via di Santa Chiara 61, tel. 06-6880-1753, fax 06-683-3557, www.hotelmimosa.net. 11 rooms, 7 with bath. No phones. No credit cards. Double room E67ÐE83 ($63Ð$78) without bath, E83ÐE98 ($78Ð$92) with bath. Breakfast E5ÐE6 ($4.70Ð$5.60). Tucked into a golden location between the Pantheon and Piazza Navona, the family-run Mimosa has somehow been overlooked by Rome's tourism machine, happily continuing to offer simple but sizable, clean, and comfy rooms at laughably low rates. Largish rooms one, two, and three were recently redone with quirky touches: wrought iron or brass bedsteads, sinuous mirrors, Oriental rugs, giant ceiling beams, or brilliant blue curtains. Only one room has A/C (an extra E10/$9.40). Fraterna Domus Via Monte Brianzo 62, tel. 06-6880-2727, fax 06-683-2691, firstname.lastname@example.org. 18 rooms. Double room E78 ($73); students E30 ($28) per person. Breakfast included. If you don't mind monastic simplicity, tiny bathrooms with curtainless showers, and a decor that begins and ends with a small Crucifix nailed above the bed, this hospice just north of Piazza Navona run by a lay sisterhood may be the ticket. The beds are firm, the tile floors kept next-to-godliness clean. The bad news: An 11 p.m. curfew (but you might get a front door key if you stay a week). They also offer excellent full meals for a paltry E12 ($11), as I recommended in "The Little Wonder Restaurants of Rome" (Budget Travel, July/August 2000). Albergo Abruzzi Piazza della Rotonda 69, tel. 06-679-2021. 28 rooms, none with bath. No phones. No credit cards. Double room E95 ($89). No breakfast. The Abruzzi is $9 over our limit, but what's a few bucks more when you can open your bedroom window and practically poke the Pantheon with a stick? Of course, there are no private bathrooms (each five-room floor shares just one and a half baths), no amenities whatsoever, no backbone to the mattresses, and no double-glazed windows to keep out the considerable pedestrian noise from this popular piazza. It takes a die-hard architecture buff and/or Rome aficionado to appreciate the Abruzzi's charms. For me, it's worth the annoying, late-night din for at least one morning of waking up to that view, which is best from the large corner doubles with windows on two walls. Pensione Jonella Via della Croce 41, tel. 06-679-7966, fax 06-446-2368. 4 rooms, none with bath. No phones. No credit cards. Double room E52ÐE68 ($49Ð$64). No breakfast. Think of this as your budget penthouse: Way up on the fifth floor with no elevator and no reception desk (call when you get to the station and they meet you with the keys), but a killer location between the Spanish Steps and the Corso. The rooms are spacious and fitted with framed Roman prints and wonderful old Deco armoires and mirrors. Room 1 has an elegant bedframe and a balcony; enormous Room 4 fits four beds and a dining room-type table with plenty of room to spare. If you hear a message in Italian when you phone, stay on the line; it's just call-forwarding. Residenza Brotsky Via del Corso 509, tel. 06-361-2339, fax 06-323-6641. 24 rooms, 19 with bath. Double room E50ÐE70 ($47Ð$66) without bath, E60ÐE90 ($56Ð$85) with bath. Breakfast E5 ($4.70). A boarding house straight out of a Fellini film-dusty and worn at the edges, but full of character and astoundingly cheap for its prime location on Rome's main passeggiata (strolling) street. A melange of worn old furnishings and oil landscapes crowds the spacious rooms, and bathrooms were overhauled in 2000. Brotsky's saving graces are the creaky parquet-floored breakfast room, narrow Room 10 with its Corso balcony, and the roof terrace's personable panorama of Roman rooftops, the Villa Borghese's umbrella pines, and St. Peter's dome beyond a thicket of TV aerials. Termini Hotel Des Artistes Via Villafranca 20, tel. 06-445-4365, fax 06-446-2368, http://www.hoteldesartistes.com/. 45 rooms, 32 with bath. Double room E45ÐE100 ($42Ð$94) without bath, E98ÐE179 ($92Ð$168) with bath. Breakfast E7.75 ($7.25). Discounts of E5ÐE15 ($4.70Ð$14) if you pay cash (usually). Paintings and prints brighten this frugal haven where some of the large rooms can sleep up to six (perfect for families). The beds are orthopedically sound and the arte povera furnishings are among the nicest I've seen. Rooms with stylish private baths come with A/C (bathless ones get a fan). The entire hotel-including the TV/chess/Internet terminal lounge-is nonsmoking, save the sunny roof terrace, where you can breakfast in summer. The price range reflects complicated seasonal variations; except during the busiest spring and fall periods, you will likely get a room with bath for under $80, especially if you pay cash. Check the Web site for deals. Hotel Papa Germano Via Calatafimi 14A, tel. 06-486-919, fax 06-4782-5202, www.hotel papagermano.com. 17 rooms, 7 with bath. Double room E52ÐE68 ($49Ð$64) without bath, E68ÐE83 ($64Ð$78) with bath. Bed in shared room without bath E18ÐE21 ($17Ð$20). No breakfast. Gino believes that being a host involves more than just providing beds. Most small hotels suffer from a drafty, dreary feel, but Papa Germano is perhaps the most comfortable, cozy hotel in its category. First take a powerful mix of double-glazed windows, bright lighting, and richly patterned fabrics and futon chairs. Add modern climate control, amenities such as TV and hairdryer, and a relaxing lounge with Internet stations. Finish it off with those low rates and the warm welcome of the impressively friendly, hyperhelpful Gino, and you can understand why Papa Germano books up early. Fawlty Towers Via Magenta 39, tel. 06-445-0374, fax 06-4938-2878, www.fawltytowers.org. 16 rooms, 5 with bath. No phones. No credit cards. Double room E62 ($58) without bath, E67 ($63) with sink/shower, E77 ($72) with bath. Bed in dorm E18 ($17) without bath, E23 ($22) with bath. No breakfast. Early flight? Try crashing around the corner from the Termini station at this easygoing hotel that emanates that youthful, friendly, backpackers-of-the-world-unite hostel ambience-but without the dismal dorm atmosphere or party-hard agenda. Rooms are basic, but the mattresses are new. About half the accommodations are private; half are shared, hostel-style (but with only four cots each). The (generally) young guests hang out in the TV room, solarium (microwave, fridge, Internet station), and flower-filled terrace, trading travel tips and often heading out as a group for pizza or a pub crawl. Hotel Tizi Via Collina 48, tel. 06-482-0128, fax 06-474-3266. 24 rooms, 10 with bath. No phones. No credit cards. Double room E52 ($49) without bath, E62 ($58) with bath. Breakfast E7 ($6.60). The Tizi family actually lives here, so you'll find them and their purring Persian perennially hanging around their kitchen/ dining room across the hall from guest-room doors. Rooms enjoy fresh wallpaper and Murano-style chandeliers, and old blankets stretched across firm beds. Second-floor rooms sport swooping metal bed frames, high stuccoed ceilings, and older baths, while ground-floor accommodations are larger but more dismally furnished. They are renovating another ten rooms in the building. Hotel Fenicia Via Milazzo 20, tel./fax 06-490-342, www.hotelfenicia.it. 14 rooms, 1 with toilet in hall (shower/sink in room). Double room E75ÐE85 ($70Ð$80); discounted in winter. Breakfast available during some months upon request E7 ($6.60). A gem amid a slew of budget dives, offering one-star prices for three-star comfort-including TV and A/C (which costs an extra E10/$9.40 to turn on). Spanking new modular units and firm beds rest on modern parquet floors surrounded by matching fabrics. The bathrooms are (for Rome) remarkably spacious. The hotel is spread across three elevatorless floors: The first (standard rooms), second (classiest digs), and fourth (older, and generally smaller, rooms-except rooms 18 and 20, which are big and newly refurbished and have tiny balconies). Most cheap hotels yell at you for doing laundry in the sink; the Fenicia provides retractable clotheslines in the baths. Suore di Santa Elisabetta Via dell'Olmata 9, tel. 06-488-8271, fax 06-488-4066. 35 rooms, 25 with bath. Double room E51 ($48) without bath, E66 ($62) with bath. Breakfast included. Kindly Polish nuns have welcomed guests to their convent just south of Santa Maria Maggiore for more than 100 years. The rooms are spare and simple, but comfortable, with a painting or two in addition to the requisite crucifix. Like a prudish 1950s sitcom, the narrow twin beds are kept strictly separated in all rooms. Baths are old, but well cared for, and a few rooms have terraces. Guests can wander the panoramic roof terrace and the peaceful palm-shaded garden of orange trees, roses, and kiwi-vine arbors. Kids under 12 stay at a discount. The big drawback: An 11 p.m. curfew. Book well in advance. Hotel Katty Via Palestro 35, tel. 06-490-079, fax 06-444-1216. 23 rooms, 15 with bath. Double room E26ÐE51 ($24Ð$48) without bath, E39ÐE77 ($37Ð$72) with bath. If you pay by credit card, add 3 to 5 percent to these prices. No breakfast. It's a bit of a walk from the station, but the kindly owner, bargain-basement prices, and quirky decor of the large, spare rooms earn the Katty a place amid Rome's budget bests. Rooms without bath are kitted out with battered modular furnishings but fantastic floors of chipped-stone mosaics. Private-bath rooms are brand new for 2002, with shiny tile floors, nice built-in units, A/C and minibar (in some), and double-glazed windows. A few have balconies on the courtyard. Rooms 203 (a triple) and 206 (a quad) sport frescoed ceilings. TV available upon request. Across the river (Prati & Trastevere) Hotel Colors Via Boezio 31, tel. 06-687-4030, fax 06-686-7947, www.colorshotel.com. 7 rooms, 1 with bath. No phones. No credit cards. Double room E68 ($64) without bath, E78 ($73) with shower/sink, E83 ($78) with bath. Bed in co-ed dorm without bath E20 ($19). No breakfast. The folks who founded Fawlty Towers (above) now run this fifth-floor walk-up near Vatican City. It's a few blocks from the best food shopping in Rome-indoor and outdoor markets, plus Franchi and Castroni, two renowned grocers-so you can put the communal kitchen and small shared terrace to good use. The simple, spacious rooms are vibrant in a supersaturated, whimsical, accident-at-the-Crayola-factory way. Only one room is shared dorm-style, and the largely young backpacking clientele tend to be of a more reserved, mature stripe. The washer/dryer costs less than a laundromat. Locanda Carmel Via Goffredo Mameli 11, tel. 06-580-9921, fax 06-581-8853, email@example.com. 11 rooms. Double room E80 ($75) without bath, E85 ($80) with bath. Breakfast included. What very well may be Italy's only officially kosher hotel lies in a quiet corner just two blocks from Trastevere's daily market on Piazza di San Cosimato. In 2001 they spread wonderfully colorful quilts over firm new mattresses, and finally soundproofed the doors and windows. A battered wooden chair and bedside table constitute "furnishings," but all rooms have A/C, an (unstocked) mini fridge, and a TV. The solarium of squishy couches opens onto a lovely, plant-filled terrace shaded by vine arbors. Pensione Lady Via Germanico 198, tel. 06-324-2112, fax 06-324-3446. 8 rooms, 4 with bath. Double room E85 ($80) without bath, E100 ($94) with bath. No breakfast. Staying here, in the heart of Prati, feels a bit like moving into an arty friend's apartment: There's the homey living room with its deeply cushioned couches and exposed wood ceilings (a feature that graces about half the rooms), a mix of Liberty and unfinished country-style furnishings, and framed prints on the walls. Only the bathless rooms fall into our price category, but all have sinks (one even has a shower). Pensione Joli Via Cola di Rienzo 243, tel. 06-324-1854, fax 06-3600-6637, firstname.lastname@example.org. 18 rooms. Double room E83ÐE93 ($78Ð$87). Breakfast included. The drab entrance on a bustling middle-class shopping boulevard gives no hint of the lovely hotel high above, where spanking new furnishings and firm beds (personally tested by the staff) rest on polished plank floors. The Spartan baths, however, are overdue for an overhaul. In front rooms, you can hang out the window to glimpse St. Peter's dome; from those on the courtyard you can spy Rear WindowÐstyle on the Italian neighbors. TV is free for the asking. The moderately classier Hotel Florida (tel. 06-324-1872, fax 06-324-1857), taking up the three floors below, charges E70ÐE75 ($66Ð$70) for a double without bath and E93ÐE110 ($87Ð$103) with bath. Pensione Paradise Viale Giulio Cesare 47, tel. 06-3600-4331, fax 06-3609-2563, www.hotelpandaparadise.com. 10 rooms, 8 with bath. Double room E50ÐE60 ($47Ð$56) without bath, E75ÐE83 ($70Ð$78) with bath. No breakfast. The Paradise doesn't enjoy the location or style of its sister Panda, but it's right at a Metro stop and only a few blocks from St. Peter's. Mirrors help open up the smallish, minimally furnished rooms. Still, the beds are new-and, in singles, wider than usual-and the sparkling baths sport heated towel racks (great for drying laundry). They're installing TVs this winter.
The Beach Resort of Isla Mujeres
The next time there's a cheap flight to Cancun, grab it! But don't even slow down for Cancun itself. Take a shuttle van directly from the airport to the Puerto Juarez ferry terminal and sail on to Isla Mujeres (Isle of Women). This small island (approximately five miles long by a half mile wide) has all you need: comfortable accommodations, calm beaches, good food, and inexpensive prices. Forget Cancun's high-rise hotels, expensive meals, and crowds. Isla Mujeres is within eyesight of that gaudy hotel strip but many miles away in ambience and price. Despite the boatloads of Cancun tourists who come on quick tours for part of the day, the island retains its relaxed atmosphere. English is widely spoken and American currency is accepted, although paying in pesos instead of dollars is often cheaper, and it is always courteous to learn as much of the language as you can. Arrival and orientation The shuttle trip from the Cancun airport to Puerto Juarez (on the northern edge of Cancun) takes about half an hour and costs 77-144 pesos ($8-$15) depending on the number of people sharing the van. Buy your ticket at the kiosk in the airport. The fast ferry from Puerto Juarez to Isla Mujeres takes 15 minutes and costs 35 pesos ($3.70) per person. The island is long, narrow, and nearly flat. The town of Isla Mujeres itself is on the north end and is only about 24 blocks. Most restaurants, shops, and small hotels are in this area. Moving south, the island narrows near a small airport and then widens into a residential area, and the south end of the island is the highest, widest, and least developed. When you arrive on Isla Mujeres, you will be in the downtown area on the north end of the island. The tourist bureau is across the street to the left. Taxis will be waiting to take you anywhere on the island for 7-20 pesos (75¢-$2.10). You are within walking distance of many downtown hotels, but for mid-island or south-end lodging, you will want a taxi. During the day, buses make the circuit around the island for three pesos (30¢). If you are staying in the residential area in the middle of the island and you like to walk, you can go on foot from the middle to either end in about 40 to 60 minutes. Rental vehicles on Isla Mujeres run heavily to golf carts or mopeds. Both are perfect for transportation around the island, and discount coupons for them are found on the island's Web site (www.isla-mujeres.net). A golf cart rents for about 400 pesos ($42) per day, with bargaining permitted. Beaches and picnics Most island visitors will spend their time on the beaches, visit the high-quality crafts shops (hidden among the T-shirt shops) downtown, eat in a different restaurant each evening, and relax in the warmth of the air and the people. Playa Norte has to be one of the country's best beaches. It is a public park right on the edge of downtown and it spreads its white sand along the beach and out into the clear, calm water. On my most recent stay, there weren't many people on the beach, although on Sunday afternoons there were small pleasure boats anchored in the area so a few more people were around. If the wind is too strong on the north side, just move around the corner to the west to Playa Caribe where the beach continues and locals congregate. Other beaches are found on the south end of the island in Garrafon National Park, somewhat beyond the end of the bus line. It consists mostly of beach, and since it is run by a concessionaire, there is an atypically high entrance fee of 144 pesos ($15). Don't pay it. Right next door is the Playa Garrafon de Castilla resort. For an admission charge of 20 pesos ($2.10), there is access to a small beach with good snorkeling around the pier and the artificial reef. There are chairs, tables, changing rooms, bathrooms, a snack bar, and a gift shop. Mexican beaches are very civilized. Little restaurants dot the edges, and tables and chairs and/or lounges are usually free or nominally priced. As long as you buy soda, drinks, snacks and/or meals, waiters are happy to serve you and (if it is not too busy) will watch your things while you swim. Where to stay and dine My own favorite, Villa Chiquita (998/888-0173, email@example.com), is about in the middle of the island in a residential area. The bus line runs half a block away, so it is convenient to everything. Owners Jose and Zandra built the four one-bedroom apartments only a few years ago, and they are spotlessly clean, well furnished, and extremely practical. (Having an apartment makes it possible to fix occasional meals and lunches for beach trips.) Units rent for 2,345 pesos ($245) per week or 335 pesos ($35) per day in high season (mid-December through April), and 239 pesos ($25) per night at other times (May to mid-December), with discounts for longer stays or small groups. A bonus: The local softball, baseball, and soccer fields nearby seem to have games every evening, and the local people are welcoming. Closer to the main activities is Hotel Roca Mar (998/877-0101, firstname.lastname@example.org), perched on a rocky, windward cliff with great views on the edge of downtown. While rooms on the ocean rent for 660 pesos ($69), you can get a town-side double room for 431 pesos ($45) in high season and still enjoy the lovely garden, pool, and restaurant, which also have views. Other recommendable downtown hotels include the family-run Hotel Osorio (998/877-0294), one block from Playa Norte and with a small courtyard. A double room is 258 pesos ($27). Que Barbara Studio Apartments (to book, contact Mornings in Mexico, www.sundreamers.com/mim/home.htm) is two blocks from the beach downtown. It has rooms with kitchenettes for 287-431 pesos ($30-$45) per night and 1,914-2,776 pesos ($200-$290) per week. Finally, toward the south end of the island, Mar y Sol Beachfront Apartments (also book through Mornings in Mexico) has three efficiency units right on a secluded beach just past the end of the bus line. They each rent for 287 pesos ($30) per night or 1,914 pesos ($200) per week year-round. Villas Punta Sur (998/877-0572, email@example.com), set amid palm trees and tropical vegetation, has six apartments renting for 431-479 pesos ($45-$50) for one bedroom and 622-670 pesos ($65-$70) for two bedrooms (high season, less by the week). Budget meals Your most memorable low-cost meal will be a tiken-xic (fish fry) at Playa Lancheros toward the south end of the island, where fish is caught fresh during the night, cleaned, split, and scored, then rubbed with salt and spices and placed in a handheld grate for grilling over an open wood fire. You watch the cooks in action. Fifty pesos ($5.25) brings enough for two to eat, along with seasoned rice and cabbage. Meals are served on Mexican time in early afternoon. La Cazuela M&J, which is open only for breakfast and lunch, is located next to the Roca Mar Hotel on Avenida Nicolas Bravo at the edge of downtown. Sitting at outside tables watching the sun and waves crashing on the rocky east coast is a really good way to start the morning. Breakfast specials include a fruit plate with yogurt and granola, cazuela mexicana (a baked dish of tortilla, ham, and refried beans covered with a fried egg and mild salsa), and omelettes, all served with coffee and all costing 35 pesos ($3.70), less a 10 percent discount with the coupon found on the Isla Mujeres Internet site. At Balcon de Arriba on Avenida Hidalgo, on a balcony overlooking the downtown street, you can have red snapper in a mild salsa, cole slaw, and rice with a cinnamon seasoning for 60 pesos ($6.30), or beef fajitas with spiced potatoes and cole slaw for 50 pesos ($5.25)-both of them memorable dishes, in my experience. And at Jardin de Delicias, a small French restaurant on Avenida Matamoros, two of us recently split a salad Nicoise (30 pesos/$3.15) and an order of filet of fish in garlic sauce (40 pesos/$4.20), which made for an entirely filling meal of tasty food. Walk along Avenida Hidalgo downtown and look at the menus posted in front of other restaurants. Pick one that looks good and enjoy. Excursions and visits Apart from beach-lolling, swimming, and dining, the top thing to do is visit the Tortugranja (turtle farm) at the south end of the island, where loggerhead and green turtles are protected while they lay their eggs, and their babies are then kept in tanks until they are released. Turtles of different sizes are also displayed in shaded pools for educational purposes, and there is a small museum/aquarium. The short guided tour here costs 20 pesos ($2.10), and you can spend the rest of the day on the nice beach. Because there are so many cheap fares to Cancun, Isla Mujeres is a real bargain. From luxury to budget, everything is available-and it's all superbly described on the island's Web site, www.isla-mujeres.net, which contains numerous recommendations to add to my own. Get there quickly before the word spreads!
Travel Insurance: When Do You Need It?
You need travel insurance when you go on a trip. Buying it before you leave is a necessary part of smart travel planning. But I'm not talking about the policies that insure you against the wings falling off in mid-air. Flight insurance is silly protection against an infinitesimally small risk. I'm talking about the many lesser travel mishaps that all the world except us regards as reasonably likely. Next time you're in a foreign country, go into a travel agency and look at the inside back cover of its tour brochures. There you'll find an insurance policy. Nearly all the English and French, the Germans and Japanese, the Latin Americans and Koreans, buy travel insurance when they go on a trip. Nearly all Americans don't. We are the eternal optimists, products of a frontier psychology, confident and smug. We're not gloomy worry-warts like those people from the Old World. And yet travel is an uncertain activity that can often go wrong. And we are fallible, fragile human beings whose life can never be entirely uneventful, and who sometimes fall sick while traveling, or need to cancel a trip for a dozen reasons, or interrupt it in mid-course. Just as bad, travel companies sometimes go out of business, stranding travelers abroad, or canceling travel with no word of a refund. We need travel insurance, and it's easy and inexpensive to obtain, the most basic type of coverage costing about $5.50 per every thousand covered. However, prices will vary by the type of coverage you choose and your age (an 81-year-old will usually pay higher premiums than a 35-year-old). You can buy travel insurance from a travel agent or tour operator, but you could have a problem should the company you purchase from go belly up. As well, some travel agencies press insurance that protects them and not you, should a mishap occur. We'd recommend making your own arrangements. You can purchase insurance directly from a half-dozen major companies that now issue comprehensive policies against every conceivable sort of travel mishap (illness, hospitalization, dire medical emergencies requiring evacuation home, trip cancellation for business reasons, trip cancellation or interruption because of the death or illness or a relative, tour operator insolvency, many more). The best-known name is: Travel Guard International, 1145 Clark Street, Stevens Point, Wisconsin 54481-9970, phone 800/826-4919, Web: travelguard.com. Its comprehensive policy insures against a wide range of travel mishaps and losses, including trip cancellation and interruption, financial default of the airline, cruiseline or tour operator, various medical problems, loss of baggage or delay in delivering baggage; and the premiums average $100 per person for protection up to a thousand dollars per person, $15 per person for protection up to $1,500, $200 for protection up to $2,000, $300 for protection up to $2,500, and so on (as we said before, these rates can vary). These are fairly standard premium costs charged by most travel insurance companies. See Travelguard's brochure (obtainable by calling the above number) for the precise details. Among the other reputable names for standard travel insurance (trip cancellation, luggage, and the like) are GlobalCare (800/821-2488), CSA Travel Protection (800/873-9855 or csatravelprotection.com/), Access America (800/334-7525 or accessamerica.com/), Travelex (888/867-9531 or travelex-insurance.com/) and Travel Insured International (800/243-3174 or travelinsured.com/). Among the prominent issuers of medical assistance policies (hospital insurance, physician care) for Americans traveling abroad are Wallach & Company (800/237-6615 or wallach.com/). Before you work with any of these companies, make sure that they cover "insolvency"; a number of major companies stopped covering the bankruptcy of a travel provider after September 11, 2001. Some companies specialize in medical evacuation insurance, agreeing to fly you to the nearest modern hospital from the jungle or island or mountains where you may have been far from civilization when you were suddenly struck down by illness. Among the big names in this field are are Travelers Emergency Network (TEN) (800/ASK-4-TEN or tenweb.com/), International SOS Assistance (800/523-8930 or internationalsos.com/) and Air Ambulance Card (877/424-7633 or airmedassistance.com/). What makes insurers balk If you're headed to the Caribbean during hurrican season when prices are cheap--travel insurance seems like a sensible purchase. By the time some policyholders figure out what's covered, however, they're battling it out with a claims adjuster. "The onus is on the insured to know what's in their policy," says Peter Evans, executive vice president of InsureMyTrip.com. "If it's not specifically stated, there's no coverage." Log on to insuremytrip.com, quotetravelinsurance.com, and tripinsurancestore.com to compare plans; what they cost, cover, and pay out varies widely. But after reviewing a policy, there's one important question left: When are you not covered? You bought insurance after a weather warning was issued "Preexisting conditions" aren't covered by health insurance, and events deemed "foreseeable" aren't covered by travel insurance. To safeguard against the weather, your insurance must be purchased before the National Weather Service (nws.noaa.gov) issues a storm warning. The weather's not bad enough Insurers will only pay when travel gets delayed or canceled. If the airlines and the cruise ships are operating, you can either go on the vacation or lose your money. Your cruise itinerary changes When a port is expecting a rough storm, cruise lines often substitute a different port where the weather is more promising. If the cruise takes place--even if the new ports are second-rate--the insurance company doesn't owe you a dime. Plead with the cruise line instead; it might give out vouchers for future cruises. You're not delayed long enough Benefits don't kick in the moment your flight is delayed. Instead, there's a waiting period--typically 5 to 12 hours, depending on the policy--before you can book a hotel for the night and expect to get reimbursed. The delays have made you want to cancel The initial flight on your seven-day trip to St. Thomas is postponed overnight, and you have to stay at an airport hotel (covered under your policy, thank goodness). The next day, flights are still delayed. You want to scrap the trip, but you can't--not if you hope to get reimbursed. With some policies, more than half of your vacation has to be delayed before you can cancel and be covered. The hotel is ruined, but the airlines are flying A hurricane hits Jamaica two weeks before your trip, ripping the roof off your hotel. If flights are running on your departure date, insurance might not do you any good. Even if your hotel is completely destroyed, most policies don't have to pay, as long as you can still get there. One exception is from Travel Guard, which words its policy more broadly than others and ponies up if the destination is ruined.