What I’m about to share with you has been in the works for almost a year! For some backstory, in December 2019 Choice Hotels Canada reached out to partner with me so I could share some content about how to travel smart by using points to save money. This would involve myself and my husband (also my videographer) going on a short trip to Quebec City, which I was so excited about because I’ve never had the opportunity to work with a brand that allowed me to talk about personal finance and travel — two things I love!
The trip was going to take place sometime in early spring and just as we were about to set dates and book flights, we all know what happened next. Lockdown put a halt to our travel plans and we had to sit tight and wait for things to become safer to travel once again.
Well, we waited 6 months and as Ontario started to open up again, we decided to stay safe and travel locally to Orillia, staying at the Champlain Waterfront Hotel, an Ascend Hotel Collection member. Not only was Orillia close, but I knew it would be full of fresh air, patios that would be easy to social distance on, and we sure timed it perfectly since the trees started changing colour as soon as we arrived.
With all that said, I want to share what we got up to on our trip and how we were able to travel smart by sticking to our travel budget, taking advantage of discounts, and of course using Choice Privileges® Points.
Full disclosure, for this trip I received 64,000 Choice Privileges points from Choice Hotels Canada to book my accommodation and to use to redeem for gift cards for my trip, so I could have the experience of using points on my trip like any other Choice Privileges member.
Travel Smart Tip #1 – Book Your Stay During the Week
The first thing we did, which is such an easy way to stretch your travel budget, is we decided to book our stay during the week instead of the weekend. This was a great idea not just because it meant the town would be less busy, but it also meant accommodation would be cheaper. Not only that, if you’re a Choice Privileges member and you book your stay any Sunday through Thursday night, you can earn additional perks and hotel offers, like:
- 400 Choice Privileges points
- 100 airline miles with participating carriers
- $2.50 Amazon.ca® credit
- $5 Starbucks® coffee card
- $5 Tim Hortons® coffee card
We stayed Monday and Tuesday night, and it was definitely a good call. We got to explore the boardwalk, dine on patios, and walk around the town, and we felt super safe because it wasn’t as populated as it would have been on a weekend.
Travel Smart Tip #2 – Get a Discount with Your Car Rental
Typically, when my husband and I go away on a trip, we like to rent a car different than our own. Mainly because we’ve got a very loud, very old hatchback that isn’t as luxurious as any of the new models you can get at a car rental place.
We rented a much nicer, newer car for this trip from Avis, and there are some extra benefits to doing so as a Choice Privileges member. Firstly, you can save up to 30% off your rental at either Avis or Budget. Secondly, you’ll earn 1,000 Choice Privileges points for renting your car too, and from now until December 31, 2020, you’ll earn a bonus 1,000 Choice Privileges points! Just make sure to mention your Choice Privileges number when you book or provide it at the counter at the time of rental.
Travel Smart Tip #3 – Use Points to Redeem for Gift Cards
Gift cards are a great way to stay on budget when dining out during your trip, but if you’ve got points you can use to redeem for gift cards, that could help you get a few free meals too! I had 32,000 Choice Privileges points to use, so I redeemed 16,000 for a $50 Starbucks gift card and the other 16,000 went towards a $50 Ultimate Dining gift card. But, there are over 20 gift cards to choose from and being a Choice Privileges member means you also have access to member-only promotions. For instance, right now if you redeem any gift card, you’ll get 10% of your redeemed points back!
Also, being a Choice Privileges member means you have access to member-only promotions. Right now, if you redeem points for any gift card, you’ll get 10% of your redeemed points back! Just make sure you’re opted-in to communications (check the Communications Preferences in the Choice Hotels mobile app or online) to make sure you don’t miss out on these great offers.
I knew we’d want coffee either on the road or each morning, so the Starbucks gift card was a no-brainer. I also knew we’d be eating out the entire time, so $50 for dining at a variety of restaurants seemed like a good idea too.
And I was right. One of the restaurants I could use the gift card at was literally right next door to our hotel – Fionn McCools. Not only that, the restaurant gave anyone staying at the hotel 10% off their meal. We ordered an appetizer, 3 drinks, and two mains which came to $68.75 before tax. With the 10% discount it came to $64.02 pre-tax, but with my $50 gift card, our total ended up being $14.02 plus tax. Not bad for a night out!
Travel Smart Tip #4 – Save Money with Shorter Excursions
In terms of tourism, we were fairly limited in what we could do. Many of the outdoor excursions were closed for the season and some galleries and museums were closed or only allowed for limited-capacity entrance.
But since we were only doing a short two-night trip, we really only had plans to walk along the boardwalk to enjoy the views of Lake Simcoe, eat some meals outside, and do one really cool excursion. We ended up deciding on doing something neither of us have ever done before…fly in a small float-plane to see the beautiful landscape of Orillia from way up high.
Now, this excursion wasn’t cheap but we were able to actually save some money on it. When booking it through Lake Country Airways, we were given two options: a 30-minute plane ride or a 1-hour plane ride. Typically, when you’re comparing excursions, dollar per minute you’ll get better value from the longer excursion. In this case, the 30-minute flight cost $210 pre-tax, and the 1-hour flight $376 pre-tax. But just because the longer flight is cheaper per minute, it’s still $166 more than the shorter flight.
For this reason, we decided to do the shorter flight and save that extra $166. I mean, when you think about it, $166 could be used for so many other things like meals or even an extra night’s stay. Moreover, having now done the flight, 30 minutes was plenty! We had a great time, but I think I may have started to have a mini-panic attack if we were in that tiny airplane any longer than half an hour.
Travel Smart Tip #5 – Plan in Advance
As much as I love the idea of going on a trip without a plan to be more spontaneous, in practice my trips are always way more enjoyable when I do some pre-planning. This means calculating what your actual travel budget is, such as setting a maximum you can spend per day and how an overall total amount noted down for the entire trip cost. It also means booking accommodations and excursions in advance, since it’s never fun to find out a hotel is fully booked or you can’t book excursions the day of, plus more you’ll pay more if you book anything last-minute.
It also means signing up for free points programs like Choice Privileges in advance so you can start earning points the moment you become a member. There’s literally no downside. It’s free to join, you can earn points right away, you can use points to save money on future travel, and you can take advantage of member discounts as well as limited-time promotions when you subscribe to their email list.
If you’d like to become a member for free or would like to learn more about the benefits of being a member, click here.
Although this wasn’t the original trip I had envisioned back in December 2019, it was still such a great experience. Travelling during a pandemic is never something I thought I’d do, but we practiced safety protocols the whole time (as did the hotel) and honestly after being cooped up at home for so many months, we really needed an escape from the city. I mean honestly, the last time we’d even stayed in a hotel was last December!
Although we have no idea what’s going to happen in the few months in terms of travel restrictions, what I hope you take away from this blog post is that you don’t have to wait to start planning your next trip. Maybe it will be someplace more local, or maybe it won’t be until sometime next year. But it’s never too early to plan to travel smart, make your travel budget stretch, and while you’re at it, make sure to take advantage of programs that could save you money like Choice Privileges.