How to Save Money at AAA’s Top Restaurants
AAA has unveiled the 68 restaurants that have earned its top Five Diamond rating over the past year (aaa.com), including eight new honorees. If your first reaction is, “I can’t possibly afford a restaurant that good,” we’ve got some good news: While, yes, these eateries are among the very best foodie hotspots in North America, and prices can be sky-high, there are also a few strategies that may help you enjoy certain Five Diamond restaurants (and AAA’s Four Diamond and other top restaurants) without breaking the bank.
RIGOROUS RESTAURANT EVALUATIONS
AAA has been inspecting and evaluating lodgings and restaurants since 1937 and has been publishing a Diamond rating system since 1985. Inspectors are experienced food-and-beverage professionals who evaluate restaurants in person with an eye toward quality ingredients, unique preparation, great service, and overall environment, as well as emerging culinary trends. AAA inspects and approves more than 31,000 restaurants, and only about .2 percent earn the Five Diamond rating.
RESTAURANTS THAT EDUCATE AND ENTERTAIN
“Five Diamond restaurants have evolved over the years to meet the changing expectations of restaurant enthusiasts who are increasingly sophisticated about cuisine,” says Michael Petrone, director, AAA Inspections & Diamond Ratings. “Guests want to learn about cooking techniques, ingredient sourcing, and the latest trends. They are looking for a wide-ranging dining experience that includes being educated and entertained. No longer does world-class necessarily mean formal attire and opulent surroundings. And that’s where AAA’s Diamond Ratings can help guide the discerning diner.”
Among the eight new additions to AAA’s Five Diamond list this year are McCrady’s, in Charleston, South Carolina, which shares a space with a tavern that offers a more casual menu; and The Catbird Seat, in Nashville, Tennessee, which grows its own produce in a patio garden and offers a $115 tasting menu that, while certainly splurge-y for Budget Travelers, is a relative bargain in the high-end restaurant world.
HOW TO DO FIVE DIAMOND RESTAURANTS ON A BUDGET
Speaking of menu prices, we asked AAA’s Petrone if it’s even possible for bargain-minded diners to partake of the bounty at Five Diamond restaurants. Although some Five Diamond honorees offer only a fixed-price tasting menu that may surpass $200/person, there are some money-saving strategies that will work at some Five Diamond restaurants, as well as at AAA’s Four Diamond honorees and other top restaurants:
Save money at lunchtime
Consider eating at a restaurant for lunch instead of dinner; check in advance as there is sometimes a separate lunch menu with more affordable prices.
Eat in the lounge
Instead of eating in the restaurant itself, eat in the lounge area, where more casual fare may be served and prices are sometimes less expensive.
Share or snack
If the restaurant allows more casual dining, look for shareable menu items or order snacks to get a taste of what’s cookin’ without going bust.
Check out the chef’s menu
Look for a chef’s menu with or without wine pairing, as that is often the best value.
Have You Saved Money With These Travel Innovators?
In our insatiable quest to explore new travel trends, we’ve been devouring Fast Company’s newly published 2018 Top 10 Most Innovative Travel Companies list (fastcompany.com), and having our usual reaction, a mix of “of course,” “really?” and “wow, I didn’t know that.” Among the most relevant news for Budget Travelers: HOPPER USES ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE TO SAVE YOU MONEY Hopper, the mobile flight-booking platform, doesn’t just try to book you on an affordable flight, but increasingly employs artificial intelligence and push notifications to help you zero in on the kind of getaways you’re looking for, potential alternative airports, travel dates, and even alternate destinations. Fast Company reports that 20 percent of Hopper’s bookings are now for flights that users were not initially even looking for. GRADUATE HOTELS IS CELEBRATING THE GREAT AMERICAN COLLEGE TOWN Graduate Hotels develops lodgings near college campuses, integrating its hotels and overall aesthetic into the community. It’s no secret that Budget Travel has celebrated America’s Coolest Small Towns for more than a decade, and we’re psyched to see how Graduate Hotels expands from its current 10 hotels. CELEBRITY CRUISES IS GETTING A MAKEOVER Debuting in November 2018, Celebrity Cruises’ new Celebrity Edge was designed in 3D, allowing for an innovative look that provides passengers with bigger staterooms, more public space, and an overall airier approach to the cruise experience. We're adding the Edge to our 2018 cruise to-do list. HAVE YOU SAVED MONEY WITH THESE TRAVEL INNOVATORS? In addition to the three brands mentioned above, Fast Company also cited, among others, Away for its innovative suitcase design, Delta Airlines for streamlining the airport process, and Budget Travel’s parent company, Lonely Planet, for its cool Guides and Trips apps and inspiring video platform. Have you traveled with any of Fast Company’s 2018 honorees? Have you saved time, money, or hassle thanks to their efforts?
Google Goes High-Fi
International travelers looking to stay connected used to have limited options: buy an unlocked phone and switch out SIM cards from country to country, put a smartphone in airplane mode and take advantage of free wifi whenever possible, or suck it up and shell out for those insanely overpriced roaming fees. But with the introduction of Google’s wireless service, Project Fi (fi.google.com), in 2016, peripatetic Android users got an extra boost, receiving coverage in more than 135 countries for the same rates they pay domestically—including free texting, wifi calling, and reasonable data plans.EASIER TO USE THAN EVER Now Google has gone one step further, expanding coverage to even more countries and territories (170 and counting) and adding a new feature that takes the guesswork out of the planning process. Starting today, if a destination is covered, the international flight info in subscribers’ Gmail will automatically ping their Project Fi app with a notification detailing data costs for the upcoming trip—no more run-around calls with customer service or nasty surprises when you get home and open the bill. DOES YOUR SMARTPHONE SUPPORT PROJECT FI?One caveat: You do need a smartphone that works with Project Fi (and the selection is fairly limited), but if you’re in the market for a new service provider and spend a lot of time overseas, it’s well worth a look.
3 Big Travel Trends for 2018
Short of consulting a crystal ball, tarot cards, or a fortune-teller, there’s no way to say for sure what 2018 will bring, but occult efforts aside, travel-industry intelligence brand Skift’s annual Megatrends report is as good a predictor as you’ll find. Thanks to a wealth of data-driven analysis and inside baseball–style information, the report considers the factors that will affect how we travel in 2018—and beyond. Here are three things to watch for in the months to come. 1. WEATHER THREATENS THE STATUS QUO From hurricanes to wildfires, last year saw a host of natural disasters, and extreme weather conditions show no signs of abating in 2018. With coastal cities at risk of flooding and temperatures changing permanently in regions once known for their steady climes, tourist destinations are adjusting their approach to global warming—and tourists themselves should do the same. That means establishing new routines in the planning stages of your trips: researching travel insurance before you buy and choosing “cancel for any reason” coverage, opting for accommodations with flexible cancellation policies, planning activities that aren’t solely weather dependent, and, when necessary, choosing alternate destinations entirely. The effects of global warming are wide-ranging and long-term, so this one is less of a trend and more of paradigm shift. Don’t expect things to get back to normal anytime soon. 2. DESTINATIONS ACCOMMODATE LOCALS AND VISITORS When a wave of anti-tourism protests swept across Europe last summer, it was the result of long-simmering local frustration with overdevelopment and the crowds that go hand in hand with unrestricted growth. Cities that once welcomed the tourist dollar—often at the expense of their own residents—are experiencing heavy backlash and scrambling to course-correct: Authorities in Barcelona, for example, are cracking down on everything from unlicensed Airbnb rentals to Segway tours in the city center, and cruise-ship ports such as Venice and Dubrovnik now restrict the number of visitors allowed at a local attraction or hot spot at a time. With these cities serving as a cautionary tale, many destinations are adopting a “share the wealth” policy to fix the congestion problem, funneling visitors from high-traffic urban areas to lesser-known pockets of the country—which is great news for travelers who prefer a more niche experience. This year, look for an increased focus on hyper-local culture, cuisine, and industry (think: sipping cava in the Spanish countryside instead of tooling around on a scooter in the streets of Barcelona). 3. RESTAURANTS OFFER AN IMMERSIVE EXPERIENCE If you’d rather starve than patronize yet another cookie-cutter establishment with a predictable menu and cliched decor, have we got good news for you. The new crop of restaurants is moving away from the farmhouse-chic aesthetic, embracing maximalist design, and creating an atmosphere that highlights a sense of place and personality, from quirky, Instagrammable details like neon signage to full-on immersive experiences that turn a place a destination. In an increasingly crowded marketplace littered with eat-in and takeaway options, restaurants are looking for a leg up on the competition, and unique, inviting spaces provide just that. There’s never been a better time to be a destination diner—in 2018, expect to see even more restaurants aiming to be places where guests feel at home, put down their phones, and participate in every minute of their meal.
Would You Pay Extra for First-Class Perks in Coach?
For many Budget Travelers, saving money on flights is not just a practical priority but a point of pride. We find a good deal, reserve it, then we try to beat it. We keep checked bags to a minimum, pack the right snacks, and, of course, resign ourselves to a narrow space in coach with minimal amenities. But some airlines are playing games with the whole concept of coach lately, as reported by Brian Sumers on Skift.com yesterday, offering first-class and business-class perks to coach passengers. For a price, of course. FIRST-CLASS FOOD IN COACH Many of the new perks are on flights to Europe. On British Airways, for instance, passengers can pay more than $20 for a “Taste of Britain” menu. If you’re flying Austrian Airlines and can’t wait till landing for your first bite of schnitzel, it can be yours, for a price. Air France takes things a step further, offering passengers from some U.S. cities an upscale menu similar to the one in business class, including real plates and stemware, for $25. PAY FOR YOUR PAJAMAS One airline is taking the pricey perks to an extreme: Etihad Airlines, the national airline of the United Arab Emirates, will sell coach passengers a pair of pajamas just like those offered for free to passengers in its first-class “apartments,” for $35. Etihad is also selling coach passengers onboard amenity kits, Champagne, and, on the ground, access to its business- and first-class lounges. WHAT DO YOU THINK? Although we’re leaning firmly against the notion of paying extra (and not just extra, but an inflated price) for ephemeral perks that won’t really make our lives any better (why not spend that money at your destination instead of in the air?), we’re always curious to hear what you think. Have you ever paid for first-class perks in coach? Would you consider it?
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