August 19, 2017

Sabbatical Data Part 2: Lodging Costs and Travel Tricks

If you are taking a year off work to travel, one of your biggest issues is likely minimizing costs.  And, one of the biggest costs of life (regardless of location) is the price of lodging.  So, I did everything I could to minimize these costs (while occasionally splurging because it was, after all, our big Sabbatical year, and some opportunities may never present themselves again).

Hard data:  we paid an average of $68.12 per night for lodging for the year.  That's a total of $25,477.26 for two people for the year+ (374 nights), spread over 25 countries of varying socioeconomic situations.

If we eliminate the 7 night live-aboard boat trip in the Galapagos, our average nightly cost for the year is $56.78.  The Galapagos was, no doubt, our biggest splurge, but there were a few others, and I'm confident that we could have subbed out one or two locations to replace some of the more expensive lodging with more reasonably priced options to get the average nightly lodging cost down below $50/night for 2 people ($18,250 for 2 for the year).

If you wanted to, you could push this number *much* lower. When not staying with friends or family for free, we always opted for a private room with its own bathroom (except in Iceland, where in-room bathrooms were too expensive).  There are many places in the world where you could spend significantly less than $68.12 per night for very safe and comfortable lodging for 2 with an in-room bathroom (we visited many of them).  And, of course, if you are willing to stay in rooms with shared bathrooms, or dormitory style shared sleeping areas with beds, you could definitely spend less.

So, how did we get to these numbers?

1. Stayed with Friends and Family. We intended to do this as much as possible, and we did.  In total, we spent 107 nights of the year with friends and family who offered to put us up for free (or dinner, or whatever).  Essentially, if you were our friend or family and had let us know you had a place for us to sleep, we did our best to route our travels near you to take advantage.  This came with all sorts of benefits we weren't expecting.  First, we went to a bunch of places we wouldn't have otherwise gone.  Second, you get to know people (and their children) on a level that is unique when you are in their living space.  So many of our friends and family welcomed us into their homes and as a result we became so much closer with them by observing, in situ, their realities.  The flexibility required by unplanned travel is *ideal* for staying with friends and family.  We were so not our typical American working selves -- no real expectations or needs around timing, just a general sense that maybe something like food or laundry or a shower should happen in the next 12 hours or so.  This made us very easy to insert into all sorts of friends' and family's lives and focus on what we could do to have fun with them in a manner that didn't disrupt their daily routines.  It was awesome.

2. Hyatt Points.  For several years prior to the Sabbatical year, I'd been playing the hotel, airline, credit card points/miles game -- I enjoy it the way people enjoy gambling -- I like to play against the house.  For the year of travel, I'd saved up and we maximized like crazy. 

First, I have a Hyatt credit card for my business.  For many years, I charged as many of my business expenses as possible on it, earning Hyatt points for each purchase.  Also, whenever I have to travel for work, I try to stay in Hyatts.  And, finally, when traveling for personal reasons, I also try to stay in Hyatts. 

So, the Sabbatical year, we spent quite a few nights at Hyatts, spending points and earning points to try to maintain my Diamond/Globalist status (which comes with several perks like late checkout up to 4 PM and free access to Hyatt Clubs on properties that have them - where you can eat dinner and breakfast for free, plus enjoy free non-alcoholic drinks all day, and free/discounted alcoholic drinks during a happy hour in the evenings).  All told, we spent 56 nights in Hyatts this year and we paid an average price per night of $79.29, which is much less than the average price we spent per night for non-friend&family lodging of $95.42.  Plus, our Hyatt nights tended to be luxurious breaks from more adventurous budget travel as they typically had amenities like free bottled water, fancy in-room coffee, a full gym, pool, hot tub, and, of course, the higher end properties had amazing views, locations, and Hyatt Clubs that we full utilized.

3 Nights - Calgary Hyatt Regency - $76 + points (discounted points+cash rate).
3 Nights - Chicago Hyatt Regency - $100 + points (discounted points+cash rate, plus a free suite upgrade).
3 Nights - Cleveland Hyatt Regency - $55 + points (discounted points+cash rate).
1 Night  -  Pittsburg Hyatt House - $55 + points (discounted points+cash rate).
2 Nights - Toronto Hyatt Regency - $84.80 + points for 1 points+cash night.  1 free night on points.
1 Night  -  Portland Old Port Hyatt Place - $81.75 + points (discounted points+cash rate).
2 Nights - Raleigh Hyatt Place - $50 + points (discounted points+cash rate).
2 Nights - Park Hyatt Mendoza - $55 + points (discounted points+cash rate).
1 Night  - Hyatt Regency San Francisco - $269 full rate.
1 Night  - Hyatt Place San Jose - $55 + points (discounted points+cash rate).
3 Nights - Grand Hyatt Seoul - $181 full rate.
1 Night  - Park Hyatt Busan - $97 + points (discounted points+cash rate).
3 Nights - Park Hyatt Taipei - $118 + points (discounted points+cash rate).
3 Nights - Manila City of Dreams - Free, entirely on points.
2 Nights - Singapore Grand Hyatt - $143.46 + points (discounted points+cash rate).
2 Nights - Kuala Lumpur Grand Hyatt - $94.16 + points (discounted points+cash rate).
4 Nights - Hyatt Regency Phuket Resort - $50 + points (discounted points+cash rate).
3 Nights - Ho Chi Min Park Hyatt - $100 + points (discounted points+cash rate).
2 Nights - Osaka Hyatt Regency - Free, entirely on points.
2 Nights - Fukuoka Hyatt Regency - $110 average per night (1 full rate, one discounted points+cash rate).
2 Nights - Hyatt Regency Tokyo - Free, entirely on points.
2 Nights - Hyatt Place Memphis - Free, entirely on points.
1 Night   - Nashville Hyatt Place - $177.65 full rate.
2 Nights - Hyatt Centric NOLA - $157.44 full rate.
1 Night - Hyatt House Dallas - $56 + points (discounted points+cash rate).
1 Night - Hyatt Place Santa Fe - Free, entirely on points
1 Night - Tamaya Resort Hyatt Regency, New Mexico - Free, entirely on points
1 Night - Hyatt Pinon Point, Sedona, Arizon - $226.45 full rate.
1 Night - Luxor, Las Vegas (MGM and Hyatt are partners) - $106.47 full rate

3. Chase Points.  The year prior to the Sabbatical, I'd been watching credit card incentive offers to try to find a travel card that would be a good main card to use for most of our Sabbatical spending.  When Chase released the Sapphire Reserve Card, it was the most successful incentive credit card release in the history of the field.  The benefits were beyond anything I'd ever seen before and I joined as soon as I could.  After spending some initial amount on the card, I received 100,000 Chase Ultimate Reward points, plus I was earning points on every purchase we made with the card.  Chase Ultimate reward points are redeemable for flights (which I did a few times) as well as car rental (also took advantage) and hotel reservations.  All told, we enjoyed 14 nights of free lodging thanks to the Chase Sapphire Reserve Card and Chase Ultimate Reward Points.

2 Nights - San Sebastien Legazpi Doce - Free, entirely on points.
1 Night  -  Eurostars Palermo, Sicily - Free, entirely on points.
1 Night  -  NH Catania, Sicily - Free, entirely on points.
5 Nights - Maritim Antonine, Malta - Free, entirely on points.
2 Nights - Hotel Alexandra, Copenhagen - Free, entirely on points.
1 Night  -  Baymont Inn & Suites Amarillo, TX - Free, entirely on points.
1 Night  -  The Big Chile Inn, Las Cruces, NM - Free, entirely on points.
1 Night  -  Wyndham Green Valley Canoa Ranch Resort - Free, entirely on points.

4. Starwood Points.  I have a Starwood Amex for my business as well.  I use it to stay at Starwood properties for business travel when Hyatts aren't available.  I had a few points left from the sign-up bonus, plus some others built up from travel and partnerships Starwood has with folks like Delta and Hertz before we left.  So, when our travels put us in locations where it made sense to use the points and/or pay for Starwood properties to earn points and maintain status, we did so.  Overall, the Starwood card and rewards program provided a huge value of 18 nights at the bargain average price of $29.51 per night.

1 Night   - Bogota Starwood Airport Aloft - Free, entirely on points.
2 Nights - Bogota 4 Points Sheraton - Free, entirely on points.
1 Night   - Medellin 4 Points Sheraton - Free, entirely on points.
3 Nights - Panama Aloft - $35 plus points (discount points+ cash rate).
2 Nights - Cordoba Sheraton, Argentina - $42.35 plus points (discount points+ cash rate).
3 Nights - Salta Sheraton, Argentina - $66.55 plus points (discount points+ cash rate).
1 Night  - Starwood 4 points Emeryville - $100
1 Night  - Starwood 4 points LAX - $100
2 Nights - Sheraton 4 Points Huntsville Airport - $32.37 average (1 free night, 1 points+ cash)
2 Nights - Starwood boutique, Dijon - $154.89 full rate.

5. The Rest -- Common Sense.  For the remainder of the lodging, we usually did cost comparison online and went with one of the cheapest options.  If we were going to be somewhere for more than 2 nights, we'd price out AirBNB vs other options.  For 2 people with an ensuite bathroom, AirBNB was hit or miss vs. budget hotels in most of the places we visited.  But, when my mother came to join us and we needed 2 rooms, or when we wanted a kitchen, AirBNB was usually a clear winner. 

Expedia was a very helpful tool -- they have a 10% points plan where you can use points earned on previous stays as payments against future stays.  They have loyalty status as well, and once you've stayed 10 stays booked through them, you get elevated support including them working with the properties to help you manage errors.  In two cases where the property and rental car company were horrible to deal with in a foreign country, Expedia gave me a credit voucher as an apology for the lack of professionalism on the part of the 3rd party business.  Interestingly, I found that the Expedia pricing was usually (but not always) best when going through the US-based Expedia site and not the localized in-country version of Expedia.

On the road trip in rural Argentina, we often weren't able to reserve in advance and just showed up and negotiated for rooms on the spot.  The average price of those rooms tended to be below $40/night, but this value did come with a little bit of concern regarding what we would do if they didn't have any availability in the town where we'd planned to stay (since the next town was likely very far away).  I got the sense from the backpackers we spoke with in almost every destination we visited that if you are willing to take the risk that a room may not be available and invest the time to negotiate in person, you could get your nightly pricing much lower than ours was, as we typically paid the requested rate for private rooms with a bathroom and the comfort of knowing we had a reservation before we showed up.


Jen said...

Appreciate the logistics breakdown - I'm sure it would be helpful for anyone pondering a similar trip!

bt said...

@Jen -- thanks. I posted it because when we were planning I looked for data and couldn't find detailed granular stuff. I had a good idea of what we were in for and we were conservative, so we ended up spending less than budgeted, but I figured it could be helpful for others, and *in particular* it's become clear from people we spoke with that they thought the year was going to be *much* more expensive than it actually was, which if that's what's stopping people from doing the same thing, it shouldn't.

Jen said...

Yes to the last part of your reply! I was surprised at the final price tag - I thought it would've been much higher. You were really smart about maximizing reward points too.