Travelling ‘blind’

You can save big if you’re willing to book a hotel without knowing its name … and other online secrets

Yes, New York City is notorious for its $400 hotel rooms the size of the average Barrhaven bathroom. But I still wanted a weekend getaway: I wanted a beautiful hotel, an inspiring evening of theatre, some great restaurant eats, and of course … shopping.

My friends cautioned me that my budget would leave me hostelling with binge drinkers half my age and the reflection of rats’ eyes during the night instead of the glamorous lights of Time Square.

But after sleuthing about the Internet, I was able to prove them wrong. I found a huge number of sites purporting to offer great deals on everything from hotels, to flights, to Broadway shows. The trick was wading through the sheer volume. But fear not, gentle reader, because I have done the hard work for you.

Flights

I needed flights for two people and I wanted them to be direct from Ottawa. I was able to use my Aeroplan miles (Ottawa to New York City is considered a short-haul and rings in at 15,000 miles) and pay “only” the taxes and fees, which totalled $114, for one set of flights.

For the second, I used Expedia.ca. For those who have yet to use Expedia … what are you waiting for? The site allows you to view flights according to your priority: by carrier, by price, by time-in-air, or by departure time. The cost for each way was approximately $300, with the total cost for this flight coming in at $659.51 return, including all taxes and fees.

Hotels

My most interesting find by far was “blind bidding” or “opaque” sites. These are sites that will offer users as much as 50 per cent off the retail rate of a hotel, but will not disclose the name of the hotel until after you have made the purchase. It’s a win-win: hotels can book-out what would otherwise be empty rooms, without compromising their reputation, and guests can enjoy unbelievable rates.

The two biggest sites in this genre are hotwire.com and priceline.com. Hotwire posts unnamed hotels with a specific price. Each hotel’s amenities are listed, the specific location in the city, its star rating, and even reviews.

Priceline offers its users two ways to save: the first is a similar posting system to Hotwire’s. The second allows you to “Name Your Own Price” for deeper discounts, which, in effect, is an online bidding system. You name your price, then the system will respond to let you know if your price has been accepted. If your price has been refused, the system asks if you would like to raise your price.

And while it sounds simple, there are actually some fairly sophisticated strategies that users can deploy to snag the best price in the best area. My first attempts at bids were repeatedly refused. However, I managed to stumble upon an endlessly helpful site called betterbidding.com, where the administrator will even devise a custom bidding strategy for your specific needs. With betterbidding.com’s guidance, I booked a four-star hotel right smack in the middle of Manhattan for $120 U.S. (compared to the hotel’s website price of $279 U.S. for the exact same room).

A note of caution here: hotel bookings on these sites all tend to be non-refundable and do not provide you with options such as type of bed, smoking/non-smoking, or room with a view. However, in my case, I did call my hotel directly and didn’t have trouble securing my preferences.

Broadway

I love the theatre, so there was no way I could hit NYC without a stop along Broadway. For this trip, I researched the shows that were playing and was intrigued by Faith Healer. Showing at the intimate Booth Theater, it starred none other than The English Patient’s Ralph Fiennes. (Yes, Julie Roberts was playing down the street, but I much prefer Ralph.)

Through a tip from a fellow tripadvisor.com member, I learned of Broadwaybox.com, which provides users with a discount code. Using this freely provided discount code, I secured tickets at $66.25 U.S. each, instead of the regular $140 U.S. The seats were unbeatable: first row mezzanine on a Saturday night.

Restaurants

No special secrets here … I simply asked locals the names of their favourite restaurants. On our first night, we had a late-night dinner at SEA Bistro, which is a sleek place in the East Village (75 2nd Ave.). It was hopping busy, full of happy patrons, and offered a funky atmosphere. Its Thai food menu was ample and reasonably priced with appetizers from $3 U.S. and mains from $8 U.S. For $50 U.S., three of us ate, drank, paid our taxes and left a tip.

A second charmer in the East Village was Lil’ Frankies’ (19 1st Ave.), with its somewhat eccentric decor and laid-back service. The aroma of fresh cut herbs and cheeses hung in the air, making it necessary to try several different items to appease the senses. Authentic, beautiful Italian food; it doesn’t get any better. Two of us ate, one of us drank, and the total came to $57 U.S., including a healthy tip.

Shopping

I haven’t unravelled the mystery around how Carrie on Sex and the City manages to afford her designer digs, but I’ve uncovered what must be a close second: The Market NYC.

Open only on Saturdays and Sundays, this market features the fashions and accessories of up-and-coming designers from around the city. You can meander the aisles, meet the designers, check out the latest styles and even haggle to get a better deal.

A New Yorker tipped me off to this market and I spent a good couple of hours enjoying the wares. I left with a large blue and green swirl resin bangle around my wrist, designed by Saylor Sage, beautifully wrapped in a burgundy cloth bag tied with ribbon. All for the meagre price of $15 U.S.

The bottom line is that New York is fun and can be far more affordable with a little help from some online friends. I’m already booking my next visit.

Julie Harrison is an Ottawa writer who is addicted to travel and caffeine.

 

The websites
Cheap flights: http://www.expedia.ca www.flightcentre.ca
Hotel deals: www.hotwire.com, www.priceline.com, www.easyclicktravel.com, www.travelzoo.com, www.hotels.com
Broadway discounts: www.broadwaybox.com, www.nytix.com
East village restaurants: http://newyork.citysearch.com/roundup/40330/newyork/east_village_res taurants.html?

All rights belong to:
The Ottawa Citizen
Sat Sep 16 2006
Page: L2
Section: Style Weekly: Travel & Leisure
Byline: Julie Harrison
Source: The Ottawa Citizen

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