Euro Trip 2019 Planning
Euro Trip 2019: Booking initial hotels (Part 1)
This is the time of year, as I plan travels in the coming months, that my thoughts turn toward Europe and strolls along the Seine or dining at a sidewalk café in a charming Italian town. Thanks to points and miles (and a good day job!), my wife and I have been blessed to take an annual trip to Europe, something we plan to continue in 2019. I have written previously about my approach to travel planning, but this year’s trip is different in a few ways which makes the planning process different as well. In fact, I encountered challenges I did not expect.
In the previous installments in this series, I wrote about having a blank slate for this year’s journey and selecting our transatlantic flights. I then discussed how I decided where we would actually go once we arrived in Europe. Today’s article is the first of two which will cover booking our initial hotel stays. I will describe my general strategy for making lodging reservations, along with the short-list of properties that I am considering and why they made the list. I will use Milan, Italy for this detailed discussion though I employed this approach for all bookings for this trip.
My trip is far from finalized
First, I want to be clear that the planning of this trip is still a work-in-progress. While the previous two articles dealt with stages of my preparation that are complete and essentially locked in, I have been more carefully considering my detailed daily itinerary based on some additional information I have learned recently about Swiss cities. As this comes together, the odds that I will rebook some of the hotels I discuss below is very high. Generally, I can’t confirm trains until two to three months before travel. While I do not anticipate these bookings to be limited to the point of forcing a schedule change. However, a scheduling issue that impact hotels remains a remote possibility.
Optimizing the travel experience = changes
On a more philosophical level, how one goes about selecting hotels then booking them would seem to be a very straightforward effort. In general, it is. What puts a small twist on this is that this selection are my initial bookings. If you read the previous articles in this series, you may recall this comment:
…my desire to optimize any choice I make; that requires assessing many alternatives…
Because I want to maximize my travel experience, I reconsider lodging options as a trip approaches, sometimes rebooking, sometimes even changing my itinerary. Sometimes I am looking for a better location or more luxurious property, other times I am looking for a lower rate in points or cash. I say this to emphasize that the bookings I discuss in this post are initial in that I needed to lock in a place to sleep for each night of our trip.
My initial itinerary
In my last post, I left off by presenting the cities we will visit on this trip including a general outline of the itinerary. I will pick up here by providing the specific itinerary. Please note, I am not providing exact dates for my travels since I do not want to wind up on PleaseRobMe.com. Instead, I note the days of the week since that obviously impacts hotel reservations.
Depart (Thursday): Depart Atlanta to Brussels (Delta Air Lines)
Day 1 (Friday): Arrive Brussels; fly to Milan, Italy; overnight in Milan
Day 2 (Saturday): Milan; overnight in Milan
Day 3 (Sunday): Bernina Express; overnight in Zurich, Switzerland
Day 4 (Monday): Zurich; overnight in Zurich
Day 5 (Tuesday): Colmar/Strasbourg, France; overnight in Colmar
Day 6 (Wednesday): Colmar; overnight in Colmar
Day 7 (Thursday): Train to Paris; overnight in Paris
Day 8 (Friday): Paris; overnight in Paris
Day 9 (Saturday): Fly to Atlanta from Paris via Newark (United Airlines)
My hotel booking strategy
My strategy for booking hotels combines several considerations, the first being location. When I travel in Europe, most of my sight-seeing is in city centers, so I prefer to stay in these areas. This is primarily to place myself in the midst of interesting places, with cafés, museums, parks, and the hubbub of European city life a short walk or easy subway ride away. While experience is my biggest motivation, there are practical benefits for making a city center my home base.
Staying close to the things I want to experience means less of my precious time devoted to commuting. Also, I typically do not have a car when in Europe, so I am dependent on public transit, ride sharing or taxis. While European public transportation is generally vastly superior to that in the U.S., there can be more transit challenges in European “suburbs” than city centers. Straying into neighborhoods not frequented by tourists increases the risk of language or cultural barriers that typically do not arise where locals are accustomed to the presence of starry-eyed foreigners.
Of course, one of the classic quandaries of travel is what is balancing getting that glimpse into authentic local life versus minimizing difficulties. I think city centers can favor both sides of the this equation and allow a traveler to achieve a nice balance between the two. All factors taken together, I am willing to pay a premium in points or cash for lodging in the heart of a city.
As I have noted in previous posts, for this trip, I want to book as many nights as reward stays as I possibly can. That means I was primarily looking at Marriott, Hilton and IHG properties. The good news is that most of our destinations have numerous choices among these brands.
I had three prongs to my reward nights strategy:
Over the course of the trip, I wanted to spread my stays across several loyalty programs so as not to decimate my points balance in any one program.
I wanted to avoid using Marriott Bonvoy points if at all possible since these points are so useful in transferring to frequent flyer programs
By the time of our trip, I would have at least two free night certificates from two of my credit cards. This were not available at the time of initial booking, so I could rebook using the free night once it posts to my account.
My first step was to identify what properties of each program had availability for our stay. In addition to being willing to use more points for a centrally located hotel, I was also open to spending a few more for a nicer property. Of course, paying a premium for a luxury property would have its limits because I did not want to burn an excessive amount of points since I doubt we will spend much time in the hotel.
Milan, Italy: Candidate Hotels
In Milan, the following hotels satisfied my criteria and made my candidate list:
Hilton Honors - Hilton Milan (66,000 points/night)
IHG Rewards Club
Holiday Inn Milan - Garibaldi Station (30,000 points/night)
Crowne Plaza Milan (40,000 points/night)
AC Hotel Milano (25,000 points/night)
Four Points by Sheraton Milan Center (25,000 points/night)
Westin Palace Milan (50,000 points/night)
Excelsior Hotel Gallía (Luxury Collection) (60,000 points/night)
Hotel Viu Milan (Design Hotels) (60,000 points/night)
All of these properties are located close to either Garibaldi or Milano Centrale train stations and are a short Metro ride to the city center. Our train departing for Tirano and the Bernina Express will leave from Milano Centrale, so this favored the Excelsior Hotel Gallía, Four Points by Sheraton, the Hilton and the Crowne Plaza. Though a little further from Milan Centrale, I also considered the Westin Palace is closer to the tourist sites we intend to visit. The other properties were less convenient, situated closer to the Garibaldi station.
While my main priority was not luxury, I was definitely intrigued by the Excelsior since I would almost never pay cash to stay in a premium hotel (the Excelsior is ranked as the 9th best hotel in Milan by TripAdvisor). One of the things I love about points and miles is that I am more open to enhancing my travel experience using rewards to stay at hotels for which I would never be willing to pay cash. The luxurious appointments of the property were very appealing, and the location could not be beat: it fronts a plaza which includes both Milano Centrale and the Centrale metro station which is only an eight-minute ride to the heart of Milan. The Crown Plaza (76th ranked), the Four Points by Sheraton (79th ranked), and the Hilton (101st ranked) were only slightly less convenient to the rail stations.
The Westin Palace seems to be similar to the Excelsior in terms of quality, thought its TripAdvisor ranking is only 86th. It is not as close to the train station as the other properties but is located on an axis between Milano Centrale and the heart of Milan. This would not be as convenient when leaving for Tirano since we would have a longer walk with luggage, taking luggage on the Metro (which I generally avoid when possible) or using Uber. While it is slightly closer to the central city, it is not close enough - it’s still over a mile away - to offset the inconvenience upon departure.
With these qualitative considerations in place, the question came down to economics: what is the points cost relative to the cash cost and is any premium in cost worth the enhanced benefits of a given property.
My approach to booking hotels is probably a bit more analytical and involved than that of the average traveler. I don’t expect that everyone will want to approach their trip planning in the same manner. However, I hope something in this discussion will help you the next time you are pondering where to stay on your journeys. In the next installment in this series, I will pick up by analyzing the value of points versus cash for each candidate property. Also, I will weigh the non-economic advantages and disadvantages for these options. Finally, I will make a decision and book my stay.