Online booking – delete your cookies

I have come across an interesting article by Philippe Hulesch based on the analysis of global travel trends by Credit Suisse.  According to the report the online travel reservations market has been significantly growing in size and more and more people are using online service providers like Booking and AirBnB. The report claims that nowadays hotels have to cooperate with the online service providers if they want to stay in the game and be competitive. Having said that, booking though online provider does not necessarily mean we will get a better deal than booking directly with the hotel. The analysts advise to contact the hotel directly in order to compare the available options and choose the best deal.

Accommodation – The practical side of planning a trip Part 2

I hate to admit it but I happen to judge the place I’m visiting by the accommodation I’m staying at. It’s unfair but it does influence the overall experience. Few years ago we went for a short city break to Madrid and decided to treat ourselves to a very nice, although a bit quirky, hotel. The hotel was far from the city centre which meant it took us ages to get into town any time we wanted to visit a museum and have dinner in a local restaurant. We ended up spending most of the day in town and were coming back too exhausted to venture out again later in the evening. This time, even though the hotel itself was great the location was not convenient at all. We had the opposite experience in Nice, France, where we were staying two blocks away from the main square, but I can still remember the stale smell of our tiny hotel room.

I know it’s almost impossible to find a perfect accommodation in a perfect location when your budget is limited… For the last couple of years our best solution was AirBnB, where we rented apartments and private rooms instead of hotel rooms. This way we were able to stay in Manhattan during our New York trip in a lovely bright (and big for NY standards) apartment and we didn’t have to travel for hours every day to get to the heart of NYC. On our last trip to the US, we have decided to go for private rooms/Bed&Breakfast. It worked out even cheaper and it was a perfect solution for the road trip, as we stayed in one place for no more than 3 days. Thanks to that we met wonderful people, both fellow travelers (with whom we shared our experience during breakfasts) or our hosts who, as locals, suggested places to visit and bars/restaurants to go to.

While looking for a place to stay I always rely on suggestions from family and friends and the reviews from AirBnB, TripAdvisor and Booking.com. However, it takes time and skills to filter through the reviews that actually apply to your travelling style. I find it most difficult to find the perfect location – very often “close to city centre” does not mean it is a great place to stay as every district, even in smaller cities, differs significantly and so do people’s tastes. After so many years and so many travels I still think that in a good deal of cases I would stay in different places if I ever returned there. Does it mean my research methods are not efficient enough? I prefer to think that our tastes are a bit more original!

Location and appropriate standard/cleanliness are the most important aspects when booking accommodation. If it happens that a hotel staff is nice, welcoming, helpful and resourceful then perfect! If not, then it causes more trouble for the hotel/management and overall quality of the service than my personal well-being.

The view always adds value… both to the quality of the stay, memories you take out from the trip and your experience but unfortunately to the final bill as well.

If booking hotel we try to compare prices between the third party websites and directly on the hotels’ websites. Even though booking agencies/websites give some payment security it happens that rooms booked through third parties are of worse quality. We got a doggy little room with no windows when we checked-in to our hotel room in Lagos, Portugal, and only after a complaint we got a bigger and brighter one (with no view, but better!). The receptionist was very frank with us and said that we got the initial room because we did not book directly with the hotel. I’m not saying it’s a rule! I’m just sharing my own experience.

In some places and certain situations mobile apps like HotelTonight may come in handy as they provide discounted prices (for up to a half price) for hotel rooms on the day of your stay – just look for a room in the morning of your arrival. It’s not for everybody but when you have flexibility or you’re going to a place like Las Vegas where there will always be a spare room in one of the hotels, then it works great.

A room with a view

A room with a view

Thai curry straight from Thailand

Two months ago, in September, my husband and I had our third wedding anniversary, which we happened to spend with a bucket of buffalo chicken wings in a shabby motel somewhere on the road to Las Vegas. We made up for it the very next day in a luxurious hotel where we had a fancy dinner in a Thai restaurant.

We were lucky enough to be able to spend our actual honeymoon in Thailand, on Koh Samui. One day during our stay, the hotel was organising a cooking lesson – I didn’t have to be asked twice whether or not I want to attend it!

Each participant prepared a four course meal that was later shared with a partner. I can tell you that the portions were so generous that we couldn’t even eat half of it (and it’s not because it was uneatable. Or so I hope)

The meals were as follows:

  • Sesame and Prawns Toasts
  • Spicy Prawn Soup – Tom Yum Kung
  • Chicken in Red Curry – Kaeng Phed Kai
  • Bananas in Coconut Cream – Kluai Buat Chi

Today, I wish to share with you the Red Curry recipe that I’ve been making ever since at home

Chicken in Red Curry

Ingredients:

  • 2 tbs of red curry paste (but fresh home-made one is preferable!)
  • 1 & half cup(400ml) of coconut cream (I use coconut milk instead)
  • 50g Thai baby eggplant (I can’t get it in Dublin so I use small chopped courgette or eggplant)
  • half a bunch of Thai basil leaves
  • 2 tsp  palm sugar
  • 2 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 200g chicken fillets, sliced
  • 2 kaffir lime leaves, torn
  • red chilis, sliced (amount depends on how hot you like it)
  • 1 tbs fish sauce

Preparation

  • Fry the curry paste in oil until fragrant, reduce heat and add 1/2 a cup of can coconut cream, a little at a time, stirring until the coconut cream begins to have an oily sheen
  • Add the rest of coconut cream and the sugar. Add fish sauce to taste, and heat. When boiling, add the eggplant, kaffir lime leaves and cook a short time
  • Add slices of chicken and cook a short time
  • Add basil, red chilies and remove from heat
  • Serve with basmati or jasmine rice

I can get most of the ingredients in Dublin (dried kaffir lime leaves and fish sauce is available for example in Tesco) and some are only available in Asian stores. It is easy though to find replacement and use brown sugar instead of palm sugar and our good old European sweet basil instead of the Thai variety. I don’t use coconut cream as I find it perfectly fine, although slightly more runny/watery, with coconut milk. I also like to add a bit or sweet & sour kick to it by adding fresh pineapple

It is a very easy and quick recipe and always tastes delicious. Any suggestion on how to make it even better?

During our cooking class we got a recipe for a home made red curry paste, which is not so complicated at all and most ingredients are easily available. I won’t publish it here as I can’t make out my scribbles and I am not sure about the proportions of the ingredients…

Booking Flights – The practical side of planning a trip Part 1

It takes a long time to plan a trip but more often than not it’s worth its while. Obviously (for me) the purpose of planning is to find the best value (flight, accommodation, food) and get the best experience and culture out of the places visited. If my memory serves me right, the only time I was on a ‘package holiday’ I was probably 18. It was in Greece, where there was nothing Greek about the place, nor there were any local people living there as they vacated the whole town after the summer season. Nice. Since then I tried to plan everything ahead myself, research and choose the best places to stay and try to find the ‘local flavours’. For some it might take the element of surprise away, but I keep being surprised (in a bad and in a good way) anyway.

Flights

Assuming that I have a destination in mind I look for flights first. I start with Skyscanner http://www.skyscanner.net and Kayak http://www.kayak.com to get a rough idea what airlines fly there and what are the possible connections. Mind you, low-cost airlines (I.e. Ryanair, Norwegian, WizzAir) are not always displayed there.

I always compare the prices directly on the airlines’ websites (and I usually book directly too). Prices often differ between airlines on the same flight on the co-shared flights. For example, the same return flight from Dublin to San Francisco on American Airlines was cheaper on their partner airline Iberia, even though it was operated by American Airlines…

I also check the website of the destination airport. It shows what airlines actually operate there and gives you the idea where to look next. The airport’s website is also a great source of practical information how to get to/from the airport into town..

When it comes to low-cost airlines I try not to book connecting flights to avoid missing the next flight and ending the trip there and then… With commercial airlines like Lufthansa, British Airways and Scandinavian Airlines the are more chances to get to your destination eventually. Sometimes 24 hours later flying through 4 different airports but getting there (it really happened).  Speaking from experience, there are more chances to get to your destination on-time together with your luggage when flying Ryanair than any other airline (last year the Christmas gifts arrived 2 days after me…).

Usually the price is the main factor. When looking for a flight I need to know whether I need luggage. For example if I’m flying home for two weeks during Christmas then I need stuff, a lot of stuff . This year, as every year during Christmas, for this very reason I chose commercial airline over low-cost one as there was 23kg included in the ticket price and the overall ticket with luggage worked out much cheaper this way. I chose a flight with a stopover (and extra legroom, comfy seat, free coffee and Euro Bonus Miles) over a direct one, hoping that this year the gifts and clothes will arrive at the same time as me. If I go for a city break or a short trip I put priority on the duration of the flight or the most suitable time of the day over the price (within reason…) and I don’t check-in the bag anyway.

Any suggestions on finding the best value flights (without being too flexible on dates)?

To be continued.

Planning & travelling

I’m a rather organised person and I like to have things planned. I’m not as bad as Monica from Friends but somewhat close… It’s clearly visible in many aspects of my life (I’ll mention some of it sooner or later), for instance when I’m in a process of planning next travel, whether it’s a city break, trip home or holidays. Surely, some of that is strongly connected with the nature of my job, where I can’t allow much spontaneity and flexibility and I have to count and treasure every day of my annual leave as much as possible. Having said that there is room for some freedom! I’ve learned through experience that when I have things planned they are more prone to happen and less time is wasted. I like to know well in advance when and where we’re going, where we’re staying and how we’re going to get there.

At the moment we’re considering a short skiing trip with our friends! Most probably in March in Italy – with at least a crowd of four. I’m far from being a skier, let alone being a good one. Still, I enjoy it and hopefully one day I’ll see a progress… Being terrified of heights and not being too skilful with sports equipment, it makes the whole process a bit complicated. Nevertheless, the last trip to Madonna di Campiglio in Italy was fantastic, and I didn’t mind the fact that I could not move for two weeks after three days of skiing.

Don't look down!

Ok, it’s not very high, but don’t look down!

Enoying bombardino with the view

Enoying bombardino with the view

I put on a brave face!

I put on a brave face!