How could we afford a month in European luxury hotels?
We’re transitioning back to Kauai after over a month in Europe and Russia. More than one person has wondered just how could we afford a month, staying as we did at quite a few European luxury hotels, enjoying more than one comprehensive excursion, and traveling to a dozen countries or more? We most definitely are not wealthy, but that doesn’t stop us from preferring the comforts associated with high end experiences. We’re not the first people who prefer champagne on a beer budget. 🙂
When we answer that our trip was actually quite affordable, considering, these questioners still have trouble believing us. This post is going to share how we kept our trip costs from skyrocketing into the upper stratosphere while enjoying comfortable stays at European luxury hotels. Hopefully our experiences might inspire you to consider the prospect of long term travel, too!
When we began plans to attend the Winter Olympics, we were disheartened by the high cost of air travel to Sochi from Kauai, and the lack of hotel availability. When it became clear that we would be unable to use hotel points during our stay in Russia, we began to consider additional European locations. What we were looking for was relatively inexpensive airfare from Hawaii to a hub from which we could more easily travel into Sochi, which is located on the Black Sea. Preliminary research eliminated airfare options that we mistakenly thought would be viable: west from Hawaii through Asia and then a layover in Dubai, north from Hawaii over the Pole to St. Petersburg or a Baltic capital. Economy fares were in the neighborhood of a couple thousand dollars, as we had insufficient airline points for award travel. Not a promising start!
Finally, we settled on a roundtrip flight option into Munich for around $1600. Just as I was ready to pull the trigger, a travel agency email arrived touting a six night stay in Ireland, including air AND car, at five star luxury hotels and B&Bs for a couple hundred dollars less than the Munich flight. So, all of a sudden, we were headed to Ireland for a week, with a stay in a castle and the Four Seasons Dublin, among others, for the same amount! No-brainer.
So our next challenge was getting from Ireland to Sochi. We decided we’d like to do as much of that by land as possible. Plotting things out on a map with a couple of bucket list items thrown into the mix had us visiting the Normandy beaches, staying in Paris, then moving on to Zurich and Liechtenstein. Next up would be stops in Germany, and then Central European capitals: Prague, Vienna, Budapest and Bucharest.
We debated traveling by train across the Ukraine into Russia. Ultimately, we decided that was a lot of ground to cover and that we’d better fly. We’re thankful for that decision, as we all have learned how political winds do blow. So we booked a flight from Bucharest to Sochi, with a stopover in Moldova. Once we had the two bookends (Ireland and Sochi) taken care of, it was time to decide where we were staying in Europe.
We were fortunate to have accumulated significant hotel point balances during our pre-Kauai mainland road trips. I made a spreadsheet of the various locations in Europe, and plugged in the necessary point redemptions for properties from each hotel group. Starwood Preferred Guest (Westin, Sheraton, Le Meridien, etc), Club Carlson (Radisson, Radisson Blu, etc) and Choice Hotels (Clarion and Ascend in Europe) were the main three programs where we had significant point balances. We also had points available with Wyndham Hotels, Hilton, and IHG (Holiday Inns, etc).
Once my spreadsheet was made and I had our stay dates plugged in, it became a strategy of best allocating available balances in individual cities. I was determined we would stay in as many European luxury hotels as we could without paying for them. Here’s how things went:
Ireland: Our package included stays at self-selected B&B’s for three nights, and one night each at the Croke Park Hotel, The Four Seasons Hotel – Dublin, and Dromoland Castle – see our review of the castle stay. So we selected three B&B’s, one each in County Limerick, County Waterford and County Kerry.
France: We were three nights in Paris. Club Carlson’s boutique property, the first of the luxury hotels on the continent for us, is the exquisite Radisson Blu Le Dokhan’s Trocadero, which was a private residence in the 18th century. It got the nod for 50,000 points per night. This hotel has since been upgraded one category and goes for 70,000 points per night. Retail value of this redemption: more than 300 euros per night, so about $1000. Additionally, due to our status with Club Carlson, we were eligible for a room upgrade. Because it was Fashion Week in Paris, the hotel was fully booked, so we were apologetically provided with free breakfast in the hotel restaurant. This was a 30 euro value for each of us, so it was another $200 in perks. We appreciated that much more than we would have a larger room. All told, our total bill at check-out came to a measly 10 euro, as we’d needed a petty cash advance at the front desk to pay a taxi.
Liechtenstein: Peter was getting his wish to visit this tiny country, in which there was not an option to redeem points with any of our programs. Instead, I booked the Gasthof Loewen, a former stop on the medieval route between Vienna and Milan, brimming with history and charm. This delightful little gem did not come cheap, but nothing does in Liechtenstein, particularly not luxury hotels. Our bill for one night was 306 Swiss francs, or about $350.
Munich: We used a total of 24,000 SPG points to stay at Le Meridien – Munich, which was conveniently located right across the street from the Munich Hauptbanhof, the main train station. A couple of stops on the U-Bahn from Marienplatz, this was a great choice for us. Unlike the other luxury hotels up to this point, Le Meridien – Munich had very contemporary appointments with an artsy vibe. Our room was beautifully appointed with our favorite waffle-weave robes, slippers and other amenities, and its value was around 200 euro per night, for a total of more than $550.
Prague: We used Choice Privileges points to book a standard double room at the Clarion Old Town. This is a mid-range property that was quite comfortable and within walking distance of the sights and neighborhoods we wanted to see. The staff was wonderful and the vibe was friendly, yet professional. Lots of business travelers stay here. We spent three nights and the value of our room stay was around $200.
Vienna: Back to SPG points to book the exquisite Hotel Bristol Wien for 12,000 points per night. This was a steal. Impeccable 5-star luxury and devoted staff who made us feel like royalty. The only downside of high end properties like the Bristol is how much the extras will cost you. We tried not to drink too much in the hotel bar, which was filled with revelers fresh from the Opera House next door in black tie each night, as it was quite expensive. One glass of champagne in the newly-remodeled restaurant was around 12 euro, or $15. The value of our charming, suite-like room was 285 euro per night, or about $400. Our three night stay would have cost us $1200 out of pocket.
Budapest: By this time, we were getting low on points balances. Rather than pay points plus cash rates with Club Carlson and stay at their trendy Art’otel property, I opted to save a measly $100 and book their Radisson Blu Beke property for 9,000 points per night. This was a bummer. The Radisson Blu room we were given had not seen a makeover since Soviet days. There were cigarette burns on the upholstery, deep gouges and scratches on the furniture, and the bathroom was 70’s vintage, but not charming. The going rate for our room is around 60 euros per night, so at least we didn’t have to spend the $166 on it. Radisson is inexplicably bumping this hotel up a category, too, so it will cost you 12,000 points to stay there in the future. Don’t bother unless you can specify a renovated guest room. That being said, the staff was very helpful and accommodating.
Bucharest: What a difference a city makes. The Radisson Blu Bucharest was a five star property in every sense of the designation, with a redemption to match: 44,000 Club Carlson points per night. We were so happy to check into this room after an uncomfortable overnight train trip through Hungary and Romania. This hotel is a gorgeous contemporary with an atrium layout, heated outdoor pool and hot-tub (yes, even in winter). We were upgraded to business class and took advantage of the business class lounge perks and services the following morning before our flight to Chisinau. Business class rooms with breakfast start at 900 Romanian New Lei or around $275 per night. We would have gladly stayed here more than one night.
Sochi: Our little Guesthouse Villa Deja Vu property was not affiliated with any points programs. The rate we got on Booking.com came to about $1500 for the 8 nights we were there. We’re sure this was inflated because of the Olympics. I’d imagine these very spartan rooms would normally rent for about $50 per night. Included in our stay was a gift card in the amount of 1600 rubles that we could use for meals in the hotel restaurant. This was quite generous as rarely did our meal exceed 200 rubles per time. At the time of this writing, the exchange rate is 100 rubles = $2.75 USD. You could live like a king on very little in Sochi.
Dublin in transit overnight: We booked the Hilton Dublin Airport for one night at a rate of 20,000 Hilton Honors points. These rooms start at about 90 euro, so we saved ourselves at least $100 bucks on some quality sleep and one last delightful Irish breakfast before heading back across the pond the following morning. This was a very comfortable room with straightforward service, which included a couple of complimentary drinks at the hotel bar. Coming as we had all the way from Russia, we made good use of the drink coupons. 🙂
LAX in transit overnight: We stayed at the Comfort Inn LAX – about 10 minutes from the airport by cab. The room was a little mini-suite, kind of cramped, but certainly comfortable and convenient. We used Choice Privileges points to save about $100 on the room, which included a serve-yourself breakfast. Not the most desirable neighborhood in Los Angeles, but we weren’t there to sightsee.
So, just adding things up, the total value of our point redemptions for our month in European luxury hotels came to about $3800, not counting the included stays in our Ireland package. If we would have had to pay for those, they would have added to the tab as follows: Croke Park Hotel: about $100, Dromoland Castle:between $350 – $400, The Four Seasons – Dublin: $250, and the B&B’s around $100 each. So, all in all, we enjoyed just under $5000 in hotel nights, without paying for them. Out of pocket for hotels during the five weeks? Less than $2000, $1500 of which was from Sochi. All in all, not bad.
If you aren’t a believer in hotel point redemptions, you might be now. 🙂