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.
Read This Before You Travel Solo
Have you ever thought, “It might be nice to go on vacation by myself”? If so, you’re not alone. Roughly one in four Americans say they will travel solo this year, according to an annual survey by marketing firm MMGY Global. One of the benefits of vacationing by yourself, of course, is the freedom. “You can do what you want, when you want,” says Janice Waugh, author of The Solo Traveler’s Handbook and founder of the online resource Solo Traveler. Want to eat lunch at 4 p.m.? Go for it! Have no desire to see, for instance, that world-famous boardwalk? Just drive right by and on to your next destination. Solo travel can also make you more resilient. “It’s a huge confidence builder,” says Waugh. “When you’re on the road by yourself, you’re managing everything. You’re navigating new territory. You’re getting to know yourself better.” Furthermore, a recent survey of 2,000 American travelers by the tour company Intrepid Travel found that 57 percent of respondents said they enjoy traveling alone because there’s no pressure to take part in certain activities, 45 percent said it’s more relaxing, 31 percent said it makes for a better learning experience, 27 percent said it makes it easier to meet new people, and 20 percent said they do it because it's difficult to coordinate the same vacation time with friends. Planning your first journey for a party of one? Follow these five steps to make your inaugural solo vacation special. 1. PICK A SOLO-FRIENDLY DESTINATION Waugh recommends that first-time solo travelers stay relatively close to home. “Travel within your own country,” she says. “That way you know how to navigate the area and the culture and you know the language.” For U.S. travelers, Waugh particularly recommends Nashville—“it’s interesting, it’s safe, and it’s easy to get around,” she says. We echo that sentiment, and,of course, have tons of other awesome and affordable U.S. destinations to recommend. Feeling more adventurous? Consider taking a trip to Canada or Western Europe. In addition to obvious English-speaking choices such as Ireland and the U.K., Waugh says, “I’d suggest Paris or Amsterdam, because you’ll find English speakers in both cities easily.” 2. GET TO KNOW LOCALS AND OTHER TRAVELERS Traveling alone doesn’t mean you have to be lonely. Indeed, there are a number of ways you can immerse yourself with locals. Waugh recommends searching MeetUp (meetup.com) for a local group that matches your interests. “When I went to Hong Kong, the most popular MeetUp group was a hiking group,” she says. “I joined them for a hike and met a lot of people, and it showed me parts of the city that I never would have seen.” Similarly, mobile apps like MealSharing (mealsharing.com) and EatWith (eatwith.com) let you dine with locals in the area. Another way to meet people is through the Global Greeter Network, a group of volunteers in cities around the world that have offered to show visitors the sites and their favorite places. (You can search for greeters at your destination at globalgreeternetwork.info/location.) Connecting with other travelers can also be a great way to enhance your trip. You can meet these people by staying at hostels, taking free walking tours, booking a one-day group tour of a city, or searching for a travel buddy on a site like Trip Giraffe (tripgiraffe.com) or an app like Tourlina (tourlina.com), which is tailored specifically for solo female travelers. 3. AVOID PAYING THE DREADED “SINGLE SUPPLEMENT” Solo travelers often get hit with a “single supplement” (often abbreviated as “s.s.”) for hotel rooms, tours, and cruises. Single supplements range anywhere from 10 to 100 percent of the double occupancy rate—meaning they can drive up your travel expenses significantly. One way to avoid single supplements is by being flexible with when you travel. “If you travel during the shoulder season, you might be more successful in negotiating the single supplement,” says Waugh. In addition, some tour companies, including Abercrombie and Kent, Classic Journeys, and U.K.-based Solos Vacations, cater exclusively to singletons and offer supplement-free pricing. (You can also sign up for a monthly newsletter from Waugh’s Solo Traveler to receive deals on tours, cruises, and other travel products with no or low single supplements.) 4. FOLLOW THESE SAFETY TIPS Of course, safety is a top concern for solo travelers—men and women alike. Taking some common-sense measures can help you stay safe while traveling alone, including: Book accommodations in advance “You don’t want to arrive in town without knowing where you’re staying,” especially on your first night, Waugh says. Arrive during the daytime Waugh advises getting to your destination before dark. “If you get there and realize that it’s not a place you want to stay, you have time to make a change before it’s late at night,” she says. Book a room above the first floor Perpetrators have easier access to ground floor units, Waugh says, so reserve a room on an upper level. Share your itinerary Keep friends and family updated on your whereabouts. Also, consider scheduling a daily check-in with one of your emergency contacts. Stay in public spaces Meeting new people—whether they’re locals or other travelers—is one of the best aspects of traveling solo. But stick to public spaces like museums, coffee shops, restaurants, or bars when hanging out with your new pals. “If you just met someone, don’t go to that person’s house or some other private space,” Waugh cautions. 5. REVEL IN YOUR SOLO-NESS! A solo journey is often the perfect opportunity to focus on you. That’s not selfishness, that’s self-care, which is an essential ingredient to living a happier, healthier life. You can relax as much as you want, de-stress, do the things you’d never be able to do if you had the kids in tow. You have complete and total freedom. You have our permission to have a blast.
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.
Europe 2018: 5 Money-Saving Tips
From the jaw-dropping natural beauty of Iceland to the ancient ruins of Sicily, from the fjords of Norway to the late-night tapas feasts of Spain, Budget Travelers ask us all the time, “Can we afford Europe?” And we’re more than happy to answer, “Yes, you can.” Here, our five best tips for doing Europe on a budget. 1. BOOK A BARGAIN HOTEL Our hotel booking tool is showing reasonable rates across the continent this spring, including Dublin city center from under $150/night, a few London hotels well under $300/night (that’s an extraordinary savings for London, but do be careful not to book yourself too far from the points of interest you most want to visit), Paris hotels from under $200, and well-reviewed Rome lodging from under $150/night. 2. SAVE BIG ON AIRFARE Airfare will, of course, be your big-ticket purchase when visiting Europe, and our friends at Skyscanner (Skyscanner.com), who mine discount airfares to deliver the lowest of the low, are uncovering spring deals such as round-trip to Dublin from under $500, Paris from under $500, and Milan from under $600 (with one or two options under $500). We also recommend that you follow the major air carriers on social media and sign up for their e-newsletters, which can give you the inside track into flash promotions and other good deals. 3. TAKE THE TRAIN Speaking of Milan, Rail Europe (raileurope.com) is now offering direct service tickets between that Italian business and fashion capital with Frankfurt, Germany’s business capital, significantly shortening train travel time between those two countries. Rail Europe is one of the most efficient and affordable ways to explore, including Eurail One Country passes for 23 countries and Eurail Two Country passes for certain regions. New 2018 initiatives include One Country passes for Turkey and Serbia and a Two Country pass for the Czech Republic and Poland. 4. CONSIDER A PACKAGE TOUR It’s one of the open secrets of the travel business: Hotels and airlines are willing to offer rock-bottom rates in order to fill their inventory, but the best way for you to take advantage of those super-low rates is to participate in a package tour. Budget Travel contributors and readers have loved the European tour experiences offered by Monograms, Contiki, Friendly Planet, G Adventures, and other tour companies. Today's package tours are a world away from the "touristy" treks your grandparents may have undertaken. The best tour company's offer exceptional guest services, plenty of independent exploring time, some great group meals and celebrations, informative guided tour options, vibrant people-to-people cultural experiences, and much more. And if you briefly crunch the numbers to compare the overall price of a European package tour with a vacation that you book yourself “a la carte,” you’ll almost always find that you’ve saved big. 5. DOWNLOAD THIS TRIP-INSPIRING APP Our colleagues at Budget Travel's parent company, Lonely Planet, cover Europe like no other travel brand on earth, and we’re hooked on their Trips app, which allows you to browse a wealth of travel stories and images from Lonely Planet’s worldwide audience, editors, writers, and photographers. Of course you’ll find great intel on some of the popular European destinations we’ve touched on here, but you’ll also uncover hidden gems, locals-only secrets, and up-and-coming destinations where your travel dollar may stretch farther than you could ever imagine.
5 Bargain Destinations for February
Whether the phrase “February travel” conjures images of a romantic getaway, American history, or a warm beach vacation (or all three), we’ve got good news: Airfares to some popular mid-winter destinations are down. Our friends at Skyscanner crunched the numbers and came up with some trip-inspiring data. Here, five U.S. destinations where airfares are surprisingly affordable. 1. CHICAGO Domestic airfares to the Windy City are down around 32 percent compared with last year at this time. That means the taste of Lou Mitchell’s incredible breakfasts, Seven Lions’ muffalettas, and, of course, a classic deep-dish Pizzeria Uno, are all within reach. Not to mention the views from Skydeck Chicago in Willis Tower, the astounding art collection at the Art Institute of Chicago, and selfies at Anish Kapoor’s iconic Cloud Gate sculpture (better known as “The Bean”). And while you’re at it, tell Sue, the massive T-rex fossil at the Field Museum, that Budget Travel says, “hi.” 2. HOUSTON With airfares down around 28 percent, the U.S.’s fourth-largest city is ready for winter visitors. While you can expect a heaping portion of Southern hospitality down here (BBQ, comfort food, and steaks, anyone?), you’ll also love the decidedly chic shopping, cutting-edge cuisine, and crowd-pleasing hotspots such as the Johnson Space Center’s Space Center Houston (where kids of all ages will love the array of spacecraft, moon rocks, and learning activities) and the city’s vibrant Museum District (comprising 19 institutions, including the Children’s Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts). 3. WASHINGTON, D.C. Airfares to our nation’s capital are down around 16 percent, and the city’s major cultural and historical institutions are all free to the public, making it the ultimate destination for commemorating President’s Day and Black History Month. Don’t miss the new National Museum of African American History and Culture, the National Gallery’s peerless art collection, the inspiring monuments along the National Mall, and the cool neighborhoods such as Adams Morgan and Dupont Circle where locals enjoy some of America’s finest eateries and unique shops. 4. DALLAS Flying to Dallas, with its awesome shopping and dining in West Village, history at Highland Park Village National Historic Site and the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum, and superb art collections at the Dallas Museum of Art and Crow Collection of Asian Art, is about 15 percent less than last year. 5. MIAMI Warm beaches, from tony South Beach with its array of stately hotels and iconic Art Deco style to the quieter, family-friendly vibe of the North Beach area, are within reach, with fares down around 15 percent. When you bite into your first cubano sandwich, you'll thank us for the airfare tips.