One of the greatest inventions for phone-dependent globe trotters was the SIM chip, that fingernail-sized card you slide in the back of a tri-band phone that gives you a local phone number while visiting almost any country in the world. Of course, you had to buy a separate chip for EACH country in order to reap the two biggest advantages of the chip: A local number (meaning calls within that country are dirt cheap) and, usually, free incoming calls from anywhere in the world.
Now there’s a new chip that allows travelers to Europe to cross borders without changing (and paying for) a chip in each country. You’re able to retain the same phone number–with a Lichtenstein country code–in 31 European countries (and Israel) and receive all incoming calls at no charge. You can also use the chip in dozens of other countries around the world (from Albania to Hong Kong to the US and Uzbekistan), but you’ll incur a per-minute charge (usually about 98 cents) when you accept incoming calls.
The Santa Monica-based company that supplies my public television film crew with SIM chips when we travel overseas, Cellular Abroad, offers this new chip that includes 30 minutes of talk time, but you can top off your chip with more minutes as needed. The price of this “Talk Abroad” chip is $79, but if you use the code “MAXA,” the price is $69. Remember, your phone must be able to accept SIM chips and be activated by your cell service provider for international service.
If you don’t have a phone that accepts SIM chips, you may rent a tri-band phone from Cellular Abroad. But if you’re planning on staying in Europe longer than a couple of weeks or if you’re planning return visits, it makes financial sense to purchase a tri-band phone WITH the new SIM for $179. Again, you’ll receive $10 off any order if you use the code “MAXA” when you buy on line at www.cellularabroad.com or by calling 800-287-3020.
Footnote: If you don’t use your number for nine months, you’ll lose it, and your SIM chip will have no value. You can make a quick call even if you’re in the US, however, and that activity will begin a new, nine-month cycle. The folks at Cellular Abroad can provide details.
If you don’t follow the travel industry as closely as I do–and why the heck would you?–you can’t be blamed for having missed the revolution in the way hotel rooms are sold. That revolution has played out mostly behind the scenes the past four years. It’s been a love-hate, tug-of-war relationship between hotels, especially large chain hotels, and so-called third-party suppliers, such as Expedia.com and Hotels.com. But all the hoopla has affected how you should shop for lodging today.
At the start of the Internet era, the airlines led the way in demonstrating how a travel supplier could alert customers to excess capacity effectively and inexpensively by launching a sale. Then the airlines began cutting deals with other companies’ web sites, such as Priceline.com, to sell empty seats at deeply discounted rates. The lure for airlines: Regular customers didn’t know how cheaply the airlines were selling seats. You made a bid for a ticket between two cities and didn’t know what airline you’d fly (or even what time of day you’d fly) until your bid was accepted.
The hotel industry entered the game a bit later. I remember making a presentation to the management of the Ritz-Carlton hotels in Atlanta about six or seven years ago, before Marriott took a stake in the company. A friend at the Ritz- Carlton was mildly intrigued by my description of the Internet as a valuable sales tool for companies such as hotels with highly perishable products. (The revenue on an unoccupied hotel room on any given night can never be recaptured.)
So I took my laptop to the company headquarters in Atlanta, plugged into a phone line, and showed several executives how some airlines notified customers every Wednesday by e-mail or via their web sites of special, weekend fares between city pairs where business was slow.
“It’s a great way to let people know of a sale on short notice, without having to buy expensive ads in hundreds of newspapers,” I said. “Plus, you can actually buy a ticket right here online, which allows the airlines to avoid paying a commission to a travel agent and decreases the number of callers who have to listen to a recording on toll-free reservation lines. You could do the same thing with hotel rooms.”
I was apparently a man before my time, because I might as well have been talking to the wall. Keep in mind I was neither selling anything nor charging for my time. (If I had been, my suggestions might have gotten more respect.) Eventually, of course, hotels figured out the value of e-mail, selling rooms online and using the Internet to announce sales. But I still marvel at the number of hotels that don’t capture guests’ e- mail addresses on a voluntary basis. Is there a more efficient way to track guests and reach them with news of sales or special promotions?
The rise of third-party sites
In the beginning, it was good. The birth of mass-appeal web sites such as Expedia and Travelocity (Orbitz.com came later) seemed like a boon to hotels, especially after Sept. 11, 2001, when the travel industry took a nosedive and hotelsfound themselves with too many empty rooms. Already, companies such as Hotel Reservation Network (which morphed into Hotels.com) and Quikbook.com had several years of experience buying up blocks of hotel rooms, ensuring hotels advance sales even as they relinquished rooms at alarmingly low prices.
But the romance was always rocky, and as business began to return and more distribution avenues began eating into the nightly room rate hotels need to make money, chains such as Hilton realized they were competing against themselves. Savvy shoppers routinely ignored hotel companies’ web sites or central reservation numbers, certain they could find lower prices on the discount, third-party sites.
And they often could. I regularly impressed audiences by comparing a room rate I received on a discount hotel site with the rate I received moments later by calling the hotel’s toll- free reservation number. Sometimes the difference exceeded $100 a night.
Within the last year, hotels began negotiating a lot harder with third-party sites. Some withdrew inventory; chains began to insist their member hotels stop providing rooms to discount brokers altogether–or at least keep their minimum price as high as the price consumers could find on the hotel’s own web site. The most aggressive even published guarantees that the hotel company’s own web site would always offer the lowest room rates.
And that’s where we are today. Major hotel chains are trying to get control of their inventory after years of selling it cheaply to numerous other outlets.
That doesn’t mean, however, there aren’t bargains to be found.
How to begin shopping for good prices
First of all, the only way to know if you’re saving on any product is to learn the retail price. Of course, the retail prices of hotel rooms fluctuate wildly. For example, if there’s a huge convention in Las Vegas, hotel rooms cost twice as much as in the dead of summer, when the convention halls are empty. But if you know your date of travel, call a hotel or visit its web site for a price quote.
You may find an incentive on a hotel’s web site–a sale or special offer that the hotel’s own reservation line may not tell you about. Then do a quick search of hotels on a few third- party sites such as Expedia.com, Orbitz.com, Travelocity.com, Quikbook.com, and Hotels.com.
You can save time by checking dozens of web sites simultaneously by downloading a program called Travelaxe (at travelaxe.com) that gives a side-by-side comparison of prices each site is quoting for specific hotels. The hotel you’re researching may or may not be on any of those sites, but you’ll certainly get a snapshot of prices at comparable hotels in the same city.
If you’ve been shopping this way for a year or so, you may be chagrined to note that the price-spread between hotel company web sites and the discounters has narrowed. It’s not your imagination. A survey last summer by the banking firm Thomas Weisel Partners found hotels are more aggressively taking control of their pricing. That means you may now find the least expensive room rate on a hotel’s web site.
And there may be additional incentives to book with a hotel company’s web site. You may not be eligible for frequent- flyer miles or points in a hotel’s guest loyalty program if you make your reservation on a third-party web site. Or you may find yourself settling into the worst room in the house if you booked a rock-bottom rate on a third-party site.
The good news
On the other hand, large buyers of hotel rooms, such as the big-three travel web sites–Orbitz, Expedia, and Travelocity– do negotiate special deals with hotels. Increasingly, those web sites are trying to induce travelers to book packages that include at least airfare and a hotel. Or airfare, hotel, rental car, and admission to a theme park.
Here’s why: By bundling two or more elements of the travel experience together, travel suppliers can discount their prices without the consumer knowing who’s doing the price-cutting. If a package that includes a ticket on Airline A and a room at Hotel B costs considerably less than if you bought each item separately, how do you know where the discount is buried? By bundling, Airline A and Hotel B aren’t openly undercutting their retail prices.
So use packages to your advantage, if it suits your needs.
Last year, for example, I needed to travel from Washington, DC, to Seattle for two nights, and I’d missed the two- or three-week advance-purchase window. In fact, I was scheduled to leave in about three days. I couldn’t find an airfare less than $1,100 until I called United Vacations, the tour-package arm of United Airlines. There I found a ticket and two nights at a Holiday Inn for about $600. The key for me was that there was no advance-purchase requirement. For $500 less than the retail price of a last-minute ticket, I received not only an airline ticket but also two hotel nights. Even if I hadn’t used the room nights, I was still ahead of the game.
If saving money on a hotel room is your primary goal, then head over to an opaque site such as Priceline or Hotwire.com. The sites are “opaque” because you make a binding bid on a hotel room without knowing what hotel you’ll get if your bid is accepted. I find this a bit more comfortable than bidding on an airline ticket whose routing as well as departure and arrival time are unknown to me until I’ve paid my money.
On hotel bid sites, you at least know you’re buying a night in a hotel. Before you bid, you can choose the neighborhood in which you’d like to stay and the relative level of luxury you desire. And if researchers at Thomas Weisel Partners are correct, Hotwire offered an average of 39 percent off hotel prices compared with other web sites. Of course, you have to be a smart bidder. And you become a smart bidder by learning the going rates for hotels of the standard you want and in the neighborhood in which you’d like to stay–and then bidding below that rate.
If bidding is a passion for you, then bone up on other people’s experiences on the largest bid site, Priceline, by visiting BiddingForTravel.com. For real bidding junkies only, it’s a site where bidders compare notes and track successes and failures on Priceline/a>.
- Armed with the retail price, check major travel web sites such as Orbitz, Expedia, and Travelocity . If you need airfare, too, price packages that include an airline ticket and hotel room. You’ll almost always save at least 15 percent compared to buying each component separately and, increasingly, you can pick and choose the hotel that is part of your package.
- Compare online prices by downloading Travelaxe, software that checks dozens of web sites and displays prices side by side.
Boston should be on everybody’s list to visit right now, even if only for a weekend getaway. With the Big Dig getting closer to completion, traffic problems have eased up considerably. It’s time to look again at what this beautiful city has to offer.
But once you’ve decided to make the trip, where to stay? There are many luxurious and pricey downtown hotels including 15 Beacon, the Four Seasons, and two Ritz-Carltons. We asked Contributing Editor Sheridan Collins to track down 11 stylish smaller hotels tucked away around town. We wanted elegance, style and personal service. Sheridan found that most are converted brownstones with fewer than 50 rooms, nicely integrated into their neighborhoods, and, on average, under $200 a night. They have personalities that reflect their neighborhoods and are starting points for great walks. Staying in one of these gems is like having your own apartment, with the same feelings of comfort and familiarity.
How about a floating hotel?
The most unusual lodging in town is The Golden Slipper, a bed & breakfast afloat a 1960 Chris-Craft cabin cruiser docked at Lewis Wharf in the North End. From Logan Airport, it’s a $10 water-taxi ride almost door to door. Gretchen and Jack Stephenson rent the boat to a maximum of four people at a time.
“They should be family or good friends,” Gretchen told Sheridan, “because it’s like a private party.”
There’s an aft cabin with double bed, a living/dining area with pullout couch, and one head with a shower. An aft sundeck set up with wicker furniture is a perfect place for watching the water traffic or taking in the stars. The Golden Slipper never leaves the slip, but you can; it’s an easy walk to dozens of restaurants and historic attractions. Continental breakfast is provided. She’s available from May 1 to Nov. 15.
Barely six blocks away is La Cappella Suites Hotel. As the name implies, this started out as a one-story chapel, built by Italian immigrants in 1941. Converted into a five-story B&B, it is located on North Street, steps from the Freedom Trail and the Italian restaurants of the North End. Here, location is everything. Paul Revere’s house is a few doors away, and the roof offers a killer view of the harbor, the downtown skyline, and Old North Church. La Cappella has three rooms, one on the fourth floor and two on the fifth, and each floor has a living/dining area and a kitchen fully stocked for breakfast. Large rooms, high ceilings, private baths, and quiet nights make this B & B a great place to settle if you’re following the tracks of Boston’s history or the smell of linguine with clam sauce.
The best-known part of Boston is probably Beacon Hill, the posh, old section of town north of the Common that boasts handsome, Federal-style homes with purple glass windows and the antiques Mecca of Charles Street. The Beacon Hill Hotel & Bistro opened on Charles just three years ago and has become part of the local scene. Two brownstones were joined together to create the hotel of 13 charming rooms, each one slightly different in shape and design. A terrace between the two buildings looks down on Charles Street. The location isn’t always quiet, but the atmosphere can’t be beat. With the room comes a full breakfast in the bistro.
Down a block and across the street is The Charles Street Inn, a boutique hotel opened four years ago in an 1860 Victorian townhouse that is on the National Register of Historic Places. The nine rooms–each named after a Victorian patron of the arts–are beautifully appointed with period antiques, original paintings, and working marble fireplaces. Canopy beds, chandeliers, and oriental rugs reflect the elegance and refinement Beacon Hill is known for. Breakfast is delivered to your room each morning, to be enjoyed privately in your spacious room.
Continue walking to Charles Circle and discover John Jeffries House on your left at the foot of Beacon Hill. What a pleasant surprise! This 46-room inn used to be the nurses’ building for the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary across the street. Renovated as an inn 18 years ago, rooms are pleasant and comfortable with large private baths. A spacious sitting room on the main floor offers 24-hour coffee service and continental breakfast in the morning along with a sunny view of the river. Fourth-floor rooms facing the river are best.
Back Bay way
The sophisticated residential and shopping area of Back Bay offers a choice of hotels. For style and trendy location you have to sacrifice something, and that something is quiet nights. Chances are you’ll be out late anyway, enjoying the action at restaurants and watering holes nearby. The Newbury Guest House is a fabulous find, with large, comfortable rooms, feather beds, high ceilings, and free parking behind the hotel. It was built in 1882 as a private home and now offers 32 private rooms decorated in Victorian style. There’s a wonderful sitting room on the main floor where you can meet friends or just read the paper. Breakfast is served each morning on the ground floor.
Across Massachusetts Avenue, Oasis Guest House is 22 years old, the second-oldest B&B in the city. Joe Haley is the long- time owner and he’s made sure the inn lives up to its name. Oasis was created out of four, three-story brownstones broken up into 30 pleasant rooms filled with old oak furniture. There’s a deck on the back of each building where guests can gather. A continental breakfast is laid out each morning in the kitchen off the front sitting room. The tree-lined street is a quiet contrast to the lively Back Bay atmosphere just three blocks away. The Oasis is a terrific value in every way.
One of Back Bay’s landmarks is the stately Eliot Hotel on the corner of Massachusetts and Commonwealth avenues. Originally part of the Harvard Club next door, the Eliot was built in 1925, and the 95-room hotel follows genteel European models. Most of the rooms are suites, with bedroom and sitting room separated by French doors. The rooms are decorated in chintz and Queen Anne-style furniture, and a number of them have minibars or pantries. Guests receive complimentary passes to the Boston Sports Club. The Eliot is pricey, but seasonal or package rates can lower the rate by as much as half.
The Gryphon House is another B&B created from a 19th-century, single-family home. It now houses eight large, beautiful suites, all with queen beds, gas fireplaces and private baths with tubs. It’s a contrast to find such elegance so close to the student life of Boston University. A continental breakfast and free on-site parking, plus its great location near Symphony Hall and other landmarks, can make reservations hard to get.
The mood is sleek and modern at the two-year-old Charlesmark Hotel. This 19th-century Back Bay mansion has chosen a different style than its neighbor, the Old South Church. The second-floor lobby, in grey, red and black, doubles as a computer lounge and breakfast area. Elegantly spare, the guest rooms are appointed in marble and wood and feature muted lighting, wireless internet and surround-sound. This inn aims to attract the harried businessman, and comfort and service are important here.
The South End is a fast-growing area of the city often overlooked by sightseers. Block after block of Victorian townhouses line the streets, so it is easy to miss the Encore Bed & Breakfast, itself a converted brownstone. This is one of Boston’s most diverse neighborhoods, with lots of new restaurants opening around the corner on Tremont Street. Reflecting the artistic interests of owner Reinhold Mahler, the three rooms in this small inn are named Bernstein, Sondheim and Albee. Sleek furniture in the guest rooms suggests Bauhaus, and masks from around the world cover the wall of the breakfast room.
When you book any of these hotels, it’s wise to ask for specials. Even small hotels make price adjustments based on the season or the economy. Choosing is the hard part; each one boasts something special.
Just the Facts: Boston’s Small Gems
The Beacon Hill Hotel & Bistro: 25 Charles St.; 617-723- 7575; beaconhillhotel.com. Rates are $245 to $365, parking $20 extra.
The Charles Street Inn: 94 Charles St.; 617-314-8900; charlesstreetinn.com. $200 to $425.
The Charlesmark Hotel: 655 Boylston St.; 617-247-1212; thecharlesmark.com. $120 to $180.
The Eliot Hotel: 370 Commonwealth Ave.; 617-267-1607; eliothotel.com. Prices start at $295, valet parking $29 extra.
Encore Bed & Breakfast: 116 W. Newton St.; 617-247-3425; encorebandb.com. $120 to $190.
The Golden Slipper: Lewis Wharf; 781-545-2845; bbonline.com/ma/goldenslipper. $175 for two people, $35 each additional person.
The Gryphon House: 9 Bay State Road; 877-375-9003; innboston.com. $149 to $265.
John Jeffries House: 14 David G. Mugar Way; 617-367-1866; johnjeffrieshouse.com. $95 to $175, parking $19 extra.
La Cappella Suites Hotel: 290 North St.; 888-523-9020; lacappellasuites.com. $95 to $210
Newbury Guest House: 261 Newbury St.; 617-437-7666; newburyguesthouse.com. $125 to $175 for one person, $15 each additional person.
Oasis Guest House: 22 Edgerly Road; 800-230-0105; oasisgh.com. $80 to $140, parking $15 extra.
You know your standards are out of whack when, after visiting three spectacular castles filled with centuries-old antiques and feasting on gourmet cuisine, your primary concern is whether the towel bars are heated. That’s how picky Contributing Editor Heidi Daniel and her husband, Phil Meany, became after immersing themselves in three of Ireland’s most luxurious hotels: Ashford Castle, Adare Manor and Dromoland Castle.
Their first stop was Dromoland, in one of those lyrically named Irish towns, Newmarket-on-Fergus.
Dromoland has all the things you’d want from a 16th century castle: oil paintings and stuffed animal heads on the walls, carved paneling, and the requisite turrets and towers. There are also other amenities today’s travelers expect: a golf course, tennis courts, a spa, and fishing in a river flowing through the 400-acre estate.
Dromoland also presents some extra pleasures: Dinner plate- sized showerheads make you feel like you’re standing under a waterfall, Heidi says, and the outlet by the desk in the room is wired with 110 as well as 210 voltage. Before meals, the wait staff presents fingerbowls scented with rose petals and lemon slices, and napkins are unfurled in your lap–even at breakfast.
Dishes at Dromoland make the most of local ingredients such as Limerick ham, Irish salmon, and cutlet of Clare lamb. But what makes Dromoland a standout is the Irish conviviality. After leading Heidi and Phil to their dinner table, maitre d’ Dermot Fetton asked about their day. They mentioned they’d driven to the Cliffs of Moher and stopped in Doolin. Fetton, prefacing his reply with, “Do you have a bit of timeŠ” in lilting Irish brogue, launched into a hilarious tale of his youth playing the Bodhran, a goatskin drum, in a band in a bar in Doolin.
Heidi and Phil’s next stop was Adare Manor Hotel in County Limerick. Adare is one of the most charming towns in all of Ireland. A clutch of thatched roof cottages line the street outside the castle gate, and lively pubs and shops are scattered throughout town.
Adare Manor is set amid 840 acres, with the River Maigue, one of Ireland’s best trout streams, gliding through the property and forming the backbone of the Robert Trent Jones golf course.
The house dates to 1832, with a wing added in 1989. Lady Caroline Wyndham originally conceived the castle as a project for her husband, the Second Earl of Dunraven, who, crippled by gout, couldn’t participate in the usual pursuits of the landed gentry. The outside is a riot of gargoyles, chimneys, bay windows and visual allusions to famous Irishmen of the time.
The interior echoes the exterior excess. A gargoyle, head resting on his palm, juts into the lobby, where gilt mirrors hang above intricately carved fireplace mantles. But the most exquisite room by far, in Heidi’s opinion, is the Minstrel’s Gallery, used for private functions. Inspired by the Hall of Mirrors at Versaille, the 132-foot-long room is lined with 17th century Flemish choir stalls.
The dinner menu is just as majestic. Some of the offerings when Heidi visited included roast suckling pig, beef Wellington, and loin of venison. Among the desserts: spiced apple, raisin and hazelnut strudel; and baked cappuccino custard.
Golf, horses and falcons
Ashford is the oldest of the three castles (dating to 1228) as well as the most massive and grand. But what you might notice, after crossing the bridge over the River Cong and getting an eyeful of the turrets and ramparts, is birdsong. The sound is so pervasive Heidi at first thought there must be an aviary somewhere on the property. Entering the castle, you can’t miss the fresh flowers everywhere, the scent of lilies trailing you from room to room.
Located in Cong, County Mayo, the castle is set on 350 acres that back up to a river teeming with salmon and trout. Ashford’s golf course is only nine holes, but its equestrian center is world-class and the falconry school welcomes beginners. Visitors can take a ride around the estate in the horse-drawn sidecar used in “The Quiet Man,” filmed here in 1951.
The opulent George V dining room serves sophisticated cuisine made from the best of local ingredients. Some sample dishes: an appetizer of crispy duck leg confit on warm bubble and squeak (potatoes and cabbage) with herb jus, a main course of pave of turbot on roasted red peppers and a vegetarian offering of asparagus ravioli on a compote of wild mushrooms. After dinner, local performers sing Irish folk music in the Dungeon Bar.
Heidi’s room was fit for royalty, complete with a mahogany table set with a decanter of Irish whiskey, cut crystal goblets, and, of course, a bouquet of flowers. And, yes, the towel bars were heated.
The Royal Treatment
Adare Manor Hotel & Golf Resort
Adare, County Limerick
Prices range from $484 to $866 including VAT and service charges.
Cong, County Mayo
$427-$930 including VAT.
Newmarket-on-Fergus, County Clare
$506-$1,176 (But check the web site for package deals).