Friday, January 8, 2010

Planning a sports road trip


Next week I fly off to Atlanta to begin my first big trip of 2010. When I started this blog, I wanted to help other roadtrippers with some tips on how to make your trip as cheap but enjoyable as possible. So to that end, here are some of the sites I use to make my trips easy on the pocketbook without sacrificing convenience.

Choosing the Games

The first step in any sports road trip is obviously figuring out which games to go to. For me, there are three big draws in the US. The first is a new baseball stadium, the second is a Toronto Maple Leaf road trip, and the third is the Blue Jays playing an interleague series in a National League West ballpark. This year, all 3 are on the calendar: there's the Leafs trip to the south in January, the Jays are in Phoenix in May, and I'll visit the Minnesota Twins' new Target Field in July.

Of course, there are other reasons to visit. There are cities I haven't been to in a while, I have friends scattered around the States, and most important is the family back in Ottawa. Too bad Ottawa is the worst sports city in North America. Whatever the case, I am always scouring the schedules looking for a reason to start planning a trip. I plan far more trips than I take, because it costs nothing to plan and it's always fun to imagine the possibilities.

Once the main games for the trip have been decided, I look for other games nearby. All of the major leagues have their own schedules, but it helps to know the minor league schedules and teams as well. Minor League Baseball has a great site that shows all of their teams on a map of the United States, excellent for road trip planning. The American Hockey League also has a very good website and teams throughout North America. But there are plenty of other, smaller leagues that offer entertaining options when on the road. To find these leagues and teams, I use Our Sports Central, a site dedicated to minor league sports. They have links to many different minor leagues and it's there that I discovered such nuggets as the Southern Professional Hockey League and the short-lived Florida Winter Baseball League. Unfortunately, they also consider the Canadian Football League as a minor league, but I can overlook that.

By finding teams in the area and using Google maps to determine driving distances, I'm usually able to attend games 6 nights a week during a trip. For example, on the upcoming trip, the Leafs play 4 games in 6 nights in Nashville, Atlanta, Tampa, and Florida. But by looking at other leagues, I've added 3 NBA games, 2 East Coast Hockey League games, an SPHL game, and a National Lacrosse League tilt in expansion Orlando. There's even some NCAA basketball and tennis action to fill the calendar. It takes a while to plan a trip like this, but it is a lot of fun. It's a great feeling to look at team's schedule and find a game on the night you are driving through.

Game Tickets

You might want to get your game tickets in advance too, particularly for popular games. I personally have a hatred for TicketMaster, which is now charging $2.50 for will call orders, plus the convenience fee per ticket, plus an order fee. When you travel by yourself and see as many games as I do, these charges add up fast. So I usually try to get a ticket on game day from the box office. Single tickets are almost always available, and in the case that they are not, there is always somebody with an extra. Only once have I been shutout of an event (Cleveland Indians home opener in 2002 I think) and that was a last-minute plan that didn't quite work out.

Another option is to use ticket brokers such as StubHub. I have never used them myself as I find prices there to be severely inflated as people selling the tickets are trying to make a profit. There seem to be dozens of ticket sites these days, although I suspect that they all have the same inventory. Ticketmaster now offers season ticket holders the option to unload their extra tickets online, but again there are significant markups. Some people use E-Bay to auction their tickets and you might get lucky there. A final option is the tickets section on Craigslist, which has a page for every major city in North America. It's a good place to find extra tickets at the last minute. In this last case though, there is always the risk of paying in advance and not receiving the tickets; you really have no redress should you be ripped off. It is best to meet in person to exchange the dollars for the ducats.

Booking the Plane

Once the schedule is set, it's time to find the plane ticket. Traveling from Japan is not cheap, but it's not outrageously expensive either. I always start with Kayak to get a good idea of the price of the trip. I like to vary the dates on either end as sometimes there are large changes in price from one day to the next. Once the dates are set, I check a variety of other sites to see if there is a cheaper deal - some examples are Expedia, Travelocity, and the airline sites themselves. For those living in Japan, HIS often has great deals, but they don't reveal the carrier or flight schedule until after purchase.

I also recommend that you become a member of the frequent flyer programs for whichever airline you use. Air Canada, United, and ANA are members of Star Alliance which is great for traveling to North America, while Delta, KLM, and Air France are members of SkyTeam which is useful for Europe trips. The third airline alliance is OneWorld, where Qantas, American, and British Airways reside. If you fly, you should sign up for at least one if not all of these programs. They're free to join and do provide real benefits if you fly regularly.

Hotels

Once the flight is set, it's time to figure out where you'll be on each day. The first step is to list all the games you are planning to see and double check the game times. It's not fun arriving at 6 pm for a 1 pm game. You should then figure out the driving distances between the cities and plan where you'll stay each night. It's always better to split a long drive (say more than 6 hours per driver) into two days.

Once that's done, you can start to look at hotels. I generally use 3 sites to book accommodations. When I'm staying in a downtown core, I find that Priceline and Hotwire have good deals. In Priceline's case, you make a bid for a hotel by selecting an area of the city, the star-level of the hotel, and the price you are willing to pay. Be aware that Priceline adds $10 or more per night in taxes to your bid. Once you add your payment details, the site tries to find a hotel that meets your requirements and will accept your bid. If one is found, you are notified and your credit card is charged.

Hotwire is similar in that the hotel is unknown, but in this case, the price is known in advance. The hotel's general location and amenities are also listed. In both cases, once you have booked, there are no refunds and no cancellations.

Of course, there are risks you might end up with a hotel that is inconveniently located or not as nice as expected. You can minimize the chance of a poor result by using Better Bidding, a Priceline/Hotwire forum that lists the results obtained by others, as well as hotel lists. For Hotwire in particular, you may know the result of the hotel in advance; of course this is never guaranteed. But if you are spending a lot of time on the road, these sites are very useful in keeping your expenses down.

When you are traveling between cities, I find that Wyndham Rewards, which includes the Days Inn and Super 8 chains, is decent enough. The hotels all have free wireless and usually a small breakfast, which helps before hitting the road in the morning. As well, the rewards program leads to free nights after about 10 stays. Admittedly, there are some terrible hotels in this system, but you can always visit Trip Advisor to check the overall ratings for the hotel. I often find that people there expect 5-star accommodations for 2-star prices and many of the reviews need to be taken with a grain of salt (e.g. "Rude front desk clerk - will never stay there again!!!!"), but you can get an overall impression of the hotel from this site.

By using these different sites, I'm always able to find decent rooms at reasonable prices. Sure beats trying to find a place after a long day's drive.

Rental Car

The final step is to book the rental car. Again Priceline and Hotwire offer deals sometimes, but I usually go with CarRentals.com, which doesn't require pre-payment. It's often cheaper to book from a non-airport location, so try to check transit options as well to see if you can find a better deal in the city. Last year I saved $100 by renting in Phoenix and Denver outside of the airport.

It's also useful to check some of the rental car sites such as Avis, Enterprise, or Dollar. They sometimes have specials that don't show up on the aggregator sites.

Finally, I use Car Rental Tips to find other specials and discount codes. If you are a member of a frequent flyer program, try a rental car site with your specific rate code and you might be surprised. I've saved 20% by using an Aeroplan number with a weekly rental.

Enjoy your trip!

Now that you've got everything booked, you can sit back, relax, and wait for your departure date. Have a great time on your sports road trip!

Best,

Sean

2 comments:

  1. Nicely written! I've marked quite a few new sites in my Favorites. Meg

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks Meg. Let me know your next trip!

    Sean

    ReplyDelete