Friday, June 12, 2015

Trivago Schmago Bongo Drums-I'll Tell Ya How to Snake a Real Deal

After discovering there really were no accommodations to speak of for semi relevant human perspiration in Stinson Beach, we decided to keep pressing forward rather than back track to Bodega Bay.  We had a date at the DeYoung Museum in The City the next morning and we didn't want to make the journey there any further than necessary.   I thought maybe we could find a place to stay in Sausalito or something.  Seemed plausible.  We wound our way on Highway 1 around Mount Tamalpais and down into the quaint little hamlet of Mill Valley.

With my lovely wife on her smart phone exploring potential accommodation options, I was beginning to engage with some considerable traffic.  Considering it was the middle of the week and a little after 4:00 PM, yeah, that old north bay area commuter traffic was ramping up.  Traffic of any kind is one of those perplexing situations of travel I to live to avoid.  At just about any cost.  I used to travel an additional ten miles each way daily for a couple years on a work commute just to avoid a rather nasty little town tangle.  And Lo, I was being thrust into snarling confusion in the middle of a relaxing vacation and there seemed like there was no way out..  

We bumped and grinded our way into and around Sausalito and then back to Mill Valley exploring a couple options, but nothing was coming to fruition.  Part of the problem was our budget, both those towns can be a little pricey.  Another part of the problem was getting folks to answer the phone at 4:30 in the afternoon.  Like, what?  Were we interrupting happy hour for the front desk?  Or were half the folks on the highway also looking for a place to stay and all lines were busy?

Speaking of traffic, the streets, avenues and by ways were getting pasty, thicker and trickier.  A chaotic crisis of uncontrollable proportions and teeming madness was beginning to unfold.  I would rather undergo a night of colonoscopy preparation than deal with commute traffic.

Wait a minute.  No I wouldn't.  Who said that? 

One right turn led to a left, then a right, then a left, then we turned ourselves around.  Did it again.  That's what it was all about.  Somehow we ended up at a Sheraton in San Rafael.  I ended up entering Highway 101 North bound around 5:00 PM, right in the middle of when it turns into a parking lot.  Fortunately we only had to travel about six miles.  At ten miles an hour.   In the car pool lane.  It took about a half hour to get there.  Six miles.  How do the people that live there get anything done during any given day?

We ended up getting a great rate at the Sheraton.  Partly because it was a Wednesday night, but also partly because they were undergoing a huge renovation.  The main entrance was closed and once we found our room I had to trek about fourteen miles to get a bucket of ice.  The ice maker in our new wing wasn't hooked up yet, it was only paces from our room.  Instead I had to get on the elevator and go up to the 4th floor.  Then I had to walk almost the length of the hotel to get that damn ice.  And return.  By the time I got back it was water, but what the hell.  I needed the exercise.

We stayed in that night and ordered room service.  After spending the last five days in small town country where any semblance of traffic did not exist, we were a little shell shocked having just spent two hours trying to find a place to stay.  In peak extraordinary traffic conditions.  Yeah, we needed room service.  French fries and HBO.  On the sheets.  You bet. 

As we awaited room service, I began to reflect on our accommodations.  We had saved an average of $40 to $50 per night on rooms to that point, it seemed like it definitely paid to be traveling during the week.  And our savings would be off the chart once we hit The City.  And here I will explain a big part of our problem as far as paying extreme prices for accommodations is concerned.

Whenever I am looking into booking a room somewhere, I pull up Hotwire and Priceline.  Those are my go to sites.  I will end up booking a room from either of those two sites 99% of the time.

Hotwire almost always has a hard to beat lead in deal.  For instance, a few years back I was looking for a place to to take my lovely wife for a winter weekend.  Get out of Dodge.  Noodling around the Napa area I found a five star hotel with room service near Santa Rosa for $45.00 per night.  Regularly at least twice that price.  Room service on five star sheets.  Works for me.

This time I was looking for a place around Union Square in San Francisco.  Hotwire had a lead in deal near that location for $155.00 per night.  They don't tell you the name of the place at the time because (they say) hotels don't want to advertise prices that low. You get the hotel name after you book, so the hotel keeps its good image.  What.  Ever.  Don't care why.  So far I have NEVER been disappointed with the hotel or location when I've booked in this manner.
$155.00 per night near Union Square seemed like a pretty good deal, but I also wanted to double check with Priceline.  Priceline's got a new Express Deal option, which is better than regular, but the real savings can be made when you Name Your Own Price.  Here's a few secrets and tips I have learned about that process over the years.

Just like Hotwire, Priceline won't name the hotel until you book it.  But they do divide where ever you're looking to stay into a number of specific sections.  For instance, San Francisco has 13.  The Wharf, Union Square, The Airport, Civic Center, Alviso, ETC.  With that many sections it's pretty easy to get in the vicinity of where you want to ideally be.  They recommend that you choose as many locations as possible to increase your chances of getting a place, but I disagree.  Start with one.  If you don't get a hotel on your first attempt, then you can add another.   

You also get to choose a star level for the place you'd like to stay.  Again, just choose one.  Start at the top.  Five star in the Tenderloin.  If you don't get a place on your first attempt, then you can go a star level lower.   Or keep the star level the same and add a new section.  Suffice it to say there's a variety of ways to play, just don't tip your hand all at once.  You'll get a better chance on getting a GREAT deal.

And the biggest tip of all: Don't be bashful when formulating your bid.  It's a computer for crying out loud.  When you punch in the star level you'd like to stay in, they come up with a median price for that quality of hotel in those specific areas.  They'd like to see you bid around 60 to 70 % of that median price, but I never do that.  I'll start around 35-40% and go from there.

When I start that low a little message will usually pop up stating my chances of getting a place at that price are about as good as Elvis being at the same hotel at the same time we'll be there.  But you never know.  He could be.  It'll only take you ten minutes to find out.  And maybe save you some money too.

When we were doing recon for our Portland, OR move we stayed at a Marriott Residence Inn for five days for $45.00 per night.  I felt like I was stealing from them every time we had a free breakfast.  We have also found three star places in San Diego for $75.00 per night. 

If your first bid is not accepted, then they ask you to add locations, maybe drop your star rating.  Raise the price.  So you add one location, drop a star level and add ten bucks.  Do it again.  And so on until you either get a place or give it up.

Which brings me to another point.  Sometimes you just can't snake a great deal on Priceline's Name Your Own Price.  Sometimes it's the destination.  Sometimes it's the dates.  Obviously your chances of getting a great deal will be easier during week days, but I've also hit some great San Francisco weekend rates.  It's always worth a few minute look see.

This booking was really easy.  Hotwire already had a great price at a great location.  All I had to do was beat $155.00.  I tried several bids on Priceline starting at $125.  Not accepted.  So I added an area, dropped to four star and raised my price to $135.  Nada.  Then I went to $145, keeping the star level and areas the same.  Zip.  Oh well, I already had a great deal.  I went with Hotwire.

We ended up at the Stanford Court on Nob Hill.  Next door to the Mark Hopkins.  Across the street from The Fairmont.  For $155.00 per night.  The Stanford Court's regular price for that room is $287.00.  Regular rooms at the Mark Hopkins and Fairmont are in the $400-500 range.  Of course, that price ended up jading us when we were looking for places to stay on the rest of the excursion.

"What?  Your bed and breakfast inn charges $300.00 per night?  When we're staying on Nob Hill for half that?  I've got news Hon, the view's OK but there ain't nobody's buttermilk biscuits except mine that are that good."

I have found these great deals on Priceline and Hotwire really only work for hotels and rental cars, by the way.  If you try to snake a deal on a flight from San Jose to San Diego they're going to send you through Des Moines.  For instance.  To save $18.00. 

Trivago's been getting a lot of air play of late so I thought I'd check them out too.  I found Trivago worthy as a clearing house for looking at comparable options, but their best Stanford Court price was $185.00, $30 higher than Hotwire's. I have also played with most all the other travel sites.  All of 'em.  I'll still take a look see now and then, but as I said before, 99% of the time I go with either Hotwire or Priceline.   

Thursday morning we lolled and lazed.  There was no way on earth I wanted to get on that freeway again during commute traffic.  A lobotomy sounded better.  We did enjoy a complimentary breakfast buffet, to which a family of four actually came to in their pajamas.  Even the parents.  We'll get to more fashion, apparel, and lack of concept thereof real soon.

After breakfast we moseyed on down 101 and across the Golden Gate Bridge into that fabulous world class City by the Bay, San Francisco.  Since my lovely wife and I grew up in the suburbs of the South Bay Area, we are no strangers to The City.  We've been there many times and done many things, usual tourist stuff and a lot of unusual otherwise.  A lot of rock shows.  And the Castro Street Fair for instance.  Which is a story in and of itself.  That one includes the wedding of our good friend we just left in Fort Bragg and a couple other very dear players who are no longer with us.  It's the stuff of legends.  

This day we were heading to the De Young Museum to check out a Scottish exhibit that was on display.  I know that doesn't sound too terribly exciting, especially if you start thinking about famous Scot artists.  I really can't think of any famous Scotsman, let alone artist, save for the first (and best) James Bond, Sean Connery.

The reason we chose to view the exhibit was that it was a traveling show of master pieces that were normally on display at the Scottish museum.  Which museum?  Hell, I don't know.  There's probably only one in the country.  I mean, isn't Scotland about the size of Delaware?  Or, you know, Times Square?  Seriously though, that slice of the island is home to some of the finest golf courses in the world as well as the finest Scotch's in the world.  It is also the birthplace of the family name of one of my oldest and dearest friends.  So it does have that going for it.

Works by most all  the famous impressionists, like Monet, Renoir, Manet, Degas, Cezanne and Van Gogh were on display as well as a number of other worthy fancies.  The Scots might not have a bunch of famous painters in their ranks but they sure do know what to look at.  Their curator has done a wonderful job acquiring the catalog.  It was great to view a number of the pieces since we'd probably never get over to Scotland to see them.  I mean, Scotland's not too high on the bucket list right now.  There's quite a few other places we'd like to visit before we ever went there.

Unbeknownst to we two impressionist oil painting aficionados, there was also apparently a very well known and highly anticipated floral exhibit going on.  Since, you know, fresh cut flowers generally have a shorter life span than say, an oil painting, the flower exhibit runs for a very short duration.  And since it only runs for a few days I think about 35% of every woman in the bay area from the age of 50 to 80 was there when we were.  The air was redolent with the scent of White Diamonds and Shalimar.

It might have been easier for us if the floral exhibits were all in one place, but nooooooo.  They were intermixed EVERYWHERE, behind statues and apparently in front of EVERY single painting I expressed an interest in viewing.  Sigh. 

We were out of the museum by early afternoon.  Since we couldn't check into the hotel until 3:00, we had a couple hours to burn.  There's a lot of fun stuff that can be done in that wonderful city, but we chose to simply pull out a blanket and laze in Golden Gate Park.  We were on vacation after all Nad looking at famous works of art can be exhausting.

We did do a walk by of one of the wind mills located in the western section of Golden Gate Park near the ocean.  There are actually two windmills over there, which at one time served a functional purpose for the city.   Built in the early 1900's, they were once responsible for pumping as much as 1 ½ million gallons of water on a daily basis.  Though currently in a state of semi-disrepair, they are still worth a look see.   Or at least one of them was.

After that my lovely wife was awaken from her nap by the site of a couple bison in a pen across the way from our meadow.  She thought the cows were getting antlers again.  And needed a hair cut.  Then she put on her glasses.

Bison don't "Moo" by the way.  They actually speak Latin. 

Check in at the hotel at three was as smooth as can be.  Valet parking, at $60 per day, was a wee pricey, but parking is pricey everywhere in The City.  Hell, it costs $30 to park for a ball game at AT&T Park.  Other than that, and the parking cost really was expected, we found the accommodations excellent.  The view was a brick wall, but we didn't care.  This room was for sleeping, not lounging.  The Stanford Court got a four star rating on Tripadvisor, we give it a five.  The location was stellar, the price ridiculous.  And it was right across the street from the Tonga Room, the location for our anniversary dinner that night.

I'd been to the Tonga Room as a young teenager, way back when.  Dear old Dad took my brother and I there, it was one of my first dress up dine out experiences.  There were some ladies involved too.  DOD's future wife, our future sister, and a future girlfriend.  Very fond memories.  And my lovely wife had never been there.  So the whole deal around staying in SF on that particular day kind of centered around the Tonga Room dinner, it was a special night.

When I was booking the hotel room I was hoping we'd end up a few blocks or at least walking distance to the restaurant.  Little did I know the Tonga Room entrance at the Fairmont was right across the street from our hotel entrance.  No need for a cab this night. 

Color us old fashioned.  Maybe we're from a different school, another time, another planet.  It just seems to both of us that there are certain times and places that require certain kinds of attire.  For instance, I think a tie for a man is appropriate when you go to church, court or a job interview.

Shirts with sleeves are generally appropriate when in public, unless you're at the beach.  Then you can wear or not wear whatever you want.  At no time anywhere is it appropriate to be out in your pajamas.  Especially when dining out.  Even for breakfast.  There is NEVER an appropriate occasion to be out in your PJ's.   Ever.

Dinner, anywhere, generally requires some form of pants.  Unless you're eating at a hot dog stand or Denny's.  And take your fucking hat off at the table.  For crying out loud.  

A really nice dinner should require a button down shirt, slacks or clean Levis and maybe a sport coat.  If it was a really formal dinner I might even splash on a tie.  Like I did as a kid the first time I Tonga'd.  This time I decided a sport coat would work without a tie.  And my lovely wife looked stunning, as usual, in a pant suit something or other.  Thing.

With a halter top and sweater.


I can't be certain and really have no idea.  I didn't take attire notes.  Don't quote me on this.

There was a long line to get into the bar and happy hour, but happily, since we had dinner reservations, we strayed right up to the front and were whisked into the restaurant in an instant.  A poolside table awaited, and we were immediately immersed into the charming romantic ambiance that pervades the dimly lit Polynesian themed room.

We found the menu extensive and hard to pronounce, so we chose one of their Prix Fixe options.  It was splendid.  And easy.  I pointed and said, "We'll have that one, for two."

We were reveling in the fine cuisine and thatched roof atmosphere; every thirty minutes sprinklers turned on over the pool that the tables surrounded.  Thunder and lightening added special effects to the several minute tropical rain revue.  And then sunshine would break through the clouds, birds would start chirping and the fresh, cool sweet air would wash over our sensibilities.

With all these fun diversions and exquisite cuisine, our taste buds on a gloriously delicious stroll through flavor filled fields of Polynesian fusion fancy, it was easy to ignore the two middle aged mid-west fashion challenged nimrods that were seated at the table next to us.  In their T shirts and shorts.  Which would have been fine at Denny's or Burger King, but not dinner at the Fairmont.  

I did a lot of home and garden shows for a company I worked for a while back.  Saturday and especially Sunday mornings we'd always see people who looked like they literally just rolled out of bed, put on some shoes and came to the show.  Wearing what they slept in.  Didn't even comb their hair.

Don't they know that's what ball caps are for?

I can kind of understand wearing sweats in public, even though my lovely wife refuses to be seen with me if I ever do.  Sweats should usually be reserved for athletic events or lounging around the house.  Pajamas?  Lounging or bed.  What are you thinking when you wear them in public?  Have you completely given up trying?

After a wonderful dining experience that even middle aged mid western fucktards in repose could not dampen, we wandered the halls of the historic Fairmont Hotel.  There, in thirty minutes, we got a grand history lesson just viewing the black and white photographs that grace the hallways.

Friday was a total play day, nothing on the schedule.  We took off walking towards Union Square, but I got us off in the wrong direction.  And that's one thing that can be kind of bad when your starting point is essentially on the top of a steep hill.  Six blocks, one way, downhill, meant there were at least six blocks uphill that would be required to get back to square one.  Which is where we wanted to go, Union Square.

So we hopped on a cable car, and imagine my surprise when I discovered the charge is now $6.00 one way.  By the way.  Each.  Which is fine I suppose if you're going the distance, riding it like it's a feature ride at Disney.  But we used to hop on and off for 25 cents a whack, apparently way back when.   Go a few blocks, hop off.  Pick one up later, no big deal.

Twelve dollars and six blocks later we arrived at Union Square.  That's one dollar per block.  Each, by the way.  Cabs are cheaper.  So are helicopters.  Probably.

We cruised the streets, stopping, be-bopping and shopping here and there, eventually ending up on Market Street.  I am always fascinated by the street scene and vibe in all the cities we visit.  Probably because we live in the country and I'm out here by myself all the time talking to squirrels and woodpeckers.  San Francisco is fabulous.  There's such a vast array of humans on the planet and I think most of the weirdest ones end up on the streets of San Francisco. 

After a day of meandering, wandering, shopping and soaking it all up we took a cab back to the ranch.  It was like seven bucks to go a heck of a lot further than we went on the cable car for twelve.

My lovely wife and I are both San Francisco Giants fans, I have been since 1962.  Her a little later.  It's been pretty wild ride these last few years, winning three world series after never winning since the team moved out to San Francisco.  I must admit, it's been kinda fun.  At any rate, we decided to go to the ball game that night since we were in town.  And they were too.  We could take a cab.  You know, save on the $30.00 parking.

Reasonably good seats and a ball park Polish Dawg didn't help us win the game, but we had a great time anyway.  We also discovered a night at the ball park was almost as expensive as dining at the Tonga Room.
In case you're wondering.

The next morning we moseyed over the Bay Bridge to Oakland and spent a wonderful day and night with our kids and grandkids.  We watched a little league game, dined on some great daughter cooked cuisine, hung out and had a blast.  It was a wonderful way to cap off a great week away.  Old friends, the California coast, a beautiful big city and family.  The best things in life all intermingled into one time warped week.  It couldn't have been better.