Travel Tuesday: The Cost of Magic

blog 8.13.13

I’ve had a couple of conversations recently about the importance of staying “on property” at a Disney Parks resort.  For those not in the know, Disney owns and operates a ton of their own hotels at their resorts in the U.S.: three in California and, like, 45 or something down in Walt Disney World.  The phrase “on property” means you’re staying at one of these hotels and not, say, the Best Western in Downtown Disney or the Holiday Inn in Kissimmee.

There are several tangible benefits to staying “on property,” including the very significant free transportation to and from the Orlando International Airport and Extra Magic Hours (where on-property guests have access to the Disney parks a few extra hours longer than off-property guests).  The Mighty Men of Mouse podcast did a good job at boiling some of these costs down by the hour in one of their most recent episodes, demonstrating how much money you’re saving/losing with these features.

Disney resorts’ theming is also tangible (most off-site resorts are not going to have an extensive Pacific Northwest theme, for example), though not quite as quantifiable.

Now, before I continue, I want to preface by saying that this is my opinion, based on my own biases, budgets, and preferences. Lord knows I spend money on extravagance in different ways, so believe me, this is all about how I perceive the value of Disney resorts.

A lot of people prefer Disney resorts over off-site because of the above, quantifiable factors.  Many people (just read TripAdvisor reviews) also believe that on-site, particularly Moderate- and Deluxe-tier Disney hotels, offer a level of service and dedication to theme that creates an enveloping sense of magic (not so quantifiable).  And that’s great!  Who wouldn’t want an experience, particularly with a company built on pixie dust, to feel magical?

But how much is that magic worth to you?  I personally struggle to justify spending $200+ a night for something as immeasurable as “magic.”

Full disclosure: the only time I’ve even stayed on Disney property was at the Boardwalk Inn, a wonderfully themed hotel and one of Disney’s deluxe resorts.  We were able to stay there because of a very reasonable conference rate.  Without that, we could never have afforded to spend the $450+/night a Standard View room goes for.  The lobby was great, the music, the smells, the surrounding boardwalk area.  Fantastic, don’t get me wrong.  But, in my opinion, the room and the bathroom were small (and Lance and I are not big people).  And, I’m just gonna lay this out there: regardless of how thematically appropriate it is, I want a standing (not tub) shower in a $450+ hotel room.

Effectively, Lance and I are shut out of the deluxe resorts for budget reasons.  Even if we could afford $400+ night hotel rooms, I couldn’t justify the expense to myself. It’s not worth it to me.

Even the Moderates (your Port Orleans, your Coronado Springs and such) are often over $200 a night (and might drop down to around $150 with a discount at the right time of year), and these are for hotels that have exterior entrance to the rooms.  Yes, these are basically well-themed motels.  Granted, they have food courts and gift shops and many of the services you’d expect of a hotel, but if I can’t access my hotel room from an interior hallway, then it’s still a motel (this all goes for the Values as well, which are usually very reasonably priced at about $85-125 a night, but with a balanced dip in amenities/services).  You can put lipstick on a pig…

Part of what I struggle with regarding Disney hotels is knowing that I can get more of what I’m looking for at off-site hotels for the same rate or cheaper.  And if I can’t get it for cheaper elsewhere, I can usually play the points/best rate guarantee games with chains like Hilton or Sheraton and get similar accommodations off-site for a much cheaper price.  For example, if I were to book for this upcoming Saturday, Port Orleans–Riverside, a Disney Moderate hotel, would be $190 before tax.  The Doubletree Lake Buena Vista, with the same TripAdvisor score, is $96 before tax (and if you use Priceline or Hotwire, you can get a rental car in Orlando for less than $50 a day).  And with Hilton, Hyatt, Sheraton, Holiday Inn, and more, I could save a significant amount more via their loyalty points programs.  (And thankfully, I can redeem Sheraton’s Starwood Points for stays at the Swan or Dolphin hotels located on Disney property.)

Probably the only way to “play the game” to really get bang for your buck at Disney itself is by renting Disney Vacation Club points from a DVC member, meaning you can stay at the villas at some of the Disney Deluxe resorts for a great savings compared to the rack rates (say, $125 for an Animal Kingdom value room versus $200+).  You can rent points through more established companies (usually at a higher price per point) or, if you know a DVC member, you might be able to negotiate a lower price.  We’re looking into renting DVC points, even through a broker website, for a one-night stay on the tail-end of our Disney cruise next year, but the process is a little messy and it seems like you give up a lot of flexibility as a renter.

This all basically comes down to: how much am I willing to spend for that “magical” component, that Disney Difference?  Each person has to answer that question for themselves.  I’m not arguing for Disney to lower their prices–they’re a business, after all, and they can charge as much as they think the public is willing to spend (they aren’t gouging you if you agree to spend that amount, regardless of what my cartoon above suggests), but for me, as a Disney fan, the extra hours in the parks, the transportation, the theming, is not worth the extra hundreds of dollars per night.  The magic of their hotels is not a make-or-break for me in visiting the parks.

So, that’s me.  What about you?  Am I crazy?  If I really want the magic, should I just suck it up and stay at the Disney Value resorts I am willing to pay for, regardless of amenity disparity between those and off-site hotels for the same price?  Am I really saving any money after rental car costs?  Am I undervaluing immersive magic just for a standing shower? (This might be true.)  Obviously, Disney fans are passionate and I’m sure there are a lot of opinions about the value of the Disney resorts.

If you’ve got thoughts, please share in the comments!

[Tip of the hat to Estelle from This Happy Place Blog for sharing her thoughts on this topic and post.]

Advertisements

All Aboot Points, Eh

Next week, a few colleagues and I will be flying an aeroplane beyond Castle Black and the Wall to the Great White North, land of maple, moose and Molson.  You got that right: MINNESOTA!

Just kidding. I wouldn’t wish Minnesota on my worst enemy (I’ve actually never been there, but I wasn’t a huge fan of the mom on “Bobby’s World”, which is the only thing I’m basing my opinion on.)

No, silly, we’re going to Canada!  POUTINE! (That’s Canadian for “Yay!”)

As some of you know, I’ve turned into a bit of a hotel/airline points fiend in my old age, and a business trip is a great way to build up some points on somebody else’s dime.  No downside there, right?

Welllll…maybe.

(more…)

Travel Tip Thursday: How to Stay Like a Prince But Pay Like a Pauper

Image

I used to be of the opinion that traveling was all about experiencing the local culture, and the quality of the hotel was inconsequential.

However, after a series of seedy stays in hotels, ranging from the classic flickering-light drug-den in Miami to the Belvedere Hotel in Manhattan, where an Eastern European lady emerged from her room in a muumuu and curlers to ask me for help in opening her bottle of champagne (apparently she lived there), I decided to re-frame my approach to hotels.

Also, Lance is generally a snob and will sleep fully clothed on top of the covers if the room doesn’t suit him.  Oh, and he’ll involuntarily make this face the entire time:

Image

My new philosophy is this: traveling is about having a great overall experience, which includes where you stay.  It’s like going to out to eat; the food may be great, but if the restaurant looks like it’s the after-hours meeting place for our impending rat overlords, then that tarnishes your experience.

So when planning for your trip, how do you know if your hotel is up to your lofty standards? And how can you stay somewhere that’s within your budget?  Here are some tips for newbies:

TripAdvisor is your friend. TripAdvisor, for the uninitiated, is like Yelp, but for all things travel, particularly hotels.  Two things are great about TripAdvisor.

  • First, many of the listings include photos taken by travelers themselves, not just the gussied-up professional photos you get from the hotels; this way, you’re getting a taste of what it’s really like to stay in these places, as opposed to the image that the hotels uses to sell itself, which could be vastly different.
  • The second great thing about TripAdvisor is their review system (0-5…circles? Owl eyes?) is a more honest representation of their quality than the B.S. star-system you see on Expedia or Orbitz.  Guess what? That star rating you see on hotel sites is totally bogus and is established by the hotels themselves! I’ve recently come around to semi-pro traveller Paul Carr (highly recommend his book The Upgrade for this and other useful travel tips infused with dry British humour), who sticks to the rule of only staying at places that have earned 4 or more TripAdvisor owl eyes; anything else isn’t worth your time.

Subscribe to yet another e-mail alert! Sign up for the weekly e-mail alerts from Travelzoo and Sherman’s Travel.  These sites have staffs that pull together some great deals on vacations, flights, and hotels from all over the world, and every once and awhile they’ll announce that the hotel you want to stay in is having a great promotion.

A little legwork will pay big dividends on your room rate.  The worst part about wanting to go to a place like New York or San Francisco is that, daaaaayyymn, hotels are ‘spensive. But, there’s a way you can sometimes beat the system and stay somewhere nicer than the Tenderloin.

Almost all of the major chains (Hilton, Starwood (which includes Westin, Sheraton, Aloft, etc.), Hyatt, Best Western) have a price-match guarantee, so if you see the same room on the same night cheaper than what’s listed on their own company website, they claim they’ll match and also give you a bonus, like an American Express gift card (Hilton) or a credit for your next stay (Best Western).  Unfortunately, most of these chains have a trick in their process so that you’ll almost never be able to match: for example, Hilton, Starwood, and Best Western require that you fill out a form online and give their customer service reps (CSRs) 24 hours to get back to you; if the lower rate is still available at the time they check, then they will match.  Keep in mind, though, that most hotel sales through sites like Expedia or Hotels.com only last for 24 hours, so the likelihood of that lower rate you’ve found being available by the time the hotel CSR checks is slim.

I’ve had the most luck with Hyatt’s Best Rate Guarantee. Unlike the other chains, you can actually call and get a real live person on the phone to check if your price match is valid at that very second. Not only that, but if it is valid, they’ll match, and then give you an additional 20% off on the room rate!  This is how we were able to stay at the Andaz Wall Street last year for $120 a night, a steal in Manhattan and definitely the nicest hotel…shower I’ve ever experienced.

Now, things to consider here: these best rate guarantees are VERY particular about a few things, especially that the room type be listed as exactly the same, word-for-word, on their website and a competitor’s.  You also can’t use sites with “auction” features (i.e., paying for the room before knowing exactly which hotel you’re staying at), like Priceline and Hotwire.  Lastly, they won’t honor any vacation bundles (like, if your flight and hotel price are combined on a site like Travelocity)–it has to be the room all by itself.

When looking for a possible price-match, I with check the following sites to make sure I’m covering all possible options: aggregate sites like Room77 and Kayak, but also American Airlines Vacations, which isn’t usually included in sites like those above and can often surprise with lower rates than you can find elsewhere.

Lastly, dealsdealsdeals.  Besides Groupon and LivingSocial, which rarely offer nice hotels in desirable locations at a rate I would consider a steal, there are often deals going on through the hotel chains themselves, or through other vendors, that can be worthwhile.  For example, for the next few weeks, American Express and the U.S. Travel Association are running some solid travel deals through their annual Daily Getaways promotion.  Earlier this week, I bought 32,000 Wyndham Rewards points for $110, which I was able to redeem for a Friday and Saturday night stay at the Wingate Manhattan Midtown. That’s $55 a night for a room that’s currently going for $335 a night on Expedia and Orbitz!

You can usually find out about these deals from sites like The Points Guy or Mommy Points, so I suggest liking them on Facebook or follow them on Twitter so you can keep abreast of the latest deals.

All right, so now that I’ve shared some of my tips with you, share some with me! Particularly, where are some non-sucky places to have dinner in NYC?  No matter how many times we go, Lance and I always seem to get stuck at really terrible over-promise/under-deliver restaurants.  Recommendations in the $ to $$$ range?