Archive for August, 2014

The Hidden Cost of Prepaid Accommodations (and why I avoid them!)

Many Napa hotels guests had a rude awakening Sunday morning as the region was rattled by a magnitude 6.1 earthquake. While it sounds like there was a happy ending for most, it serves as a great reminder of why it’s wise to avoid prepaid reservations.

Fueled by the “name-your-own-price” success of, prepaid accommodations have exploded in popularity. Today when you go to book a hotel or rental car, a prepaid option often appears, offering a discounted rate if you agree to “pay now.” While the savings are tempting, these “deals” can cost you in the long run.

A perusal of travel discussion sites quickly reveals that many travelers are unaware that prepaid reservations are set in stone and cannot be modified. If you’re like me and book your travel well in advance, this lack of flexibility can spell Prepay Car Rentaldisaster in a hurry.

Ordinarily when you book a hotel or rental car, you pay at the conclusion of of your trip. This allows you to work out any glitches before the company takes payment. However, when you prepay, no such opportunity exists. In fact, prepay customers are often given the worst hotel room on the property and the rattiest rental car on the lot. Even though that sort of treatment is officially against policy, anyone who has worked in the travel business can attest that is does happen.

Another hangup exists with the airlines. The airlines are constantly tinkering with their schedules, so the possibility always exists that travel on your original dates becomes impossible. If this happens, you could find yourself holding reservations that you’ve paid for but cannot use. Even a change of several hours could lead to your rental car being given away, a real headache should the agency be running short of vehicles.

A similar situation exists in the event of bad weather (or earthquakes!) Should your flight be cancelled or diverted, your prepaid reservation becomes an expensive piece of paper… and your replacement accommodations could cost you a small fortune.

I’ve always felt that the small premium you incur to “pay later” at a hotel or rental car counter is worth the added flexibility, and I have experienced enough travel hiccups over the years to prove my hypothesis. One particular experience with a New York hotel stands out. When my flight into New York was cancelled due to thunderstorms, the hotel manager literally told me “tough luck” and hung up the phone sticking me with the bill for a hotel room I never stayed in.

In the Napa, it looks like most of the hotels did a marvelous job of of taking care of their guests and providing alternate accommodations at other area hotels. But it’s important to realize that when it comes to pre-paid bookings, hotels and rental car companies are under no obligation to be so generous, and unfortunately, many aren’t.

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Getting Your Wine Home Without Spending A Fortune

Updated for 2019

I love a bargain. So for me, every trip is a treasure hunt for really good wine, at really good prices, that I can’t find at home. But a few years ago I received an expensive surprise.

After an amazing week in Sonoma I dropped our group off at the San Francisco Airport so they could check in for our return flight while I returned the rental car. Just as I got back to the terminal my phone rang. The airline (AirTran [now a part of Southwest]… yes, I’m bitter) refused to accept our wine as luggage. Six cases!… all professionally packaged in accordance with the airline’s published rules…  It was a non-negotiable local policy enacted by the airline’s local manager, and we had assumed that after ten years of hassle-free wine shipping with other airlines that this one would be no different.

The Wine Check - a popular luggage-style wine shipper

The Wine Check – a popular luggage-style wine shipper

At the time I worked for a large cargo airline, so I was able to pull some strings and got another airline to accept the wine as cargo. But several hundred dollars later a lesson was learned the hard way: hauling wine home can be an expensive proposition if you don’t have a plan. Wine transportation is heavily regulated – you can’t just drop it off at the local FedEx or UPS office (update: there are a few franchised UPS stores that now offer wine shipping.)

When it comes to wine, travelers generally have four shipping options:

1. Pack it home with you as luggage
2. Have the winery ship home for you
3. Drop it off at a wine shipping outlet
4. Pay a company to gather it for you and ship at your convenience

They all have their plusses and minuses and your choices may be further limited depending on which state you live in. Regardless of which you choose, understanding your options can save you a fortune.

The airlines.

I’m often surprised at how many people, even in the wine industry, don’t know that wine can be checked as luggage. It’s

Most "approved" wine shippers have fiber or styrofoam bottle inserts

Most “approved” wine shippers have fiber or styrofoam bottle inserts

usually the cheapest way to get your wine home – especially if you have frequent flyer status or a credit card that offers free checked bags.  And real-time baggage tracking allows you to verify that the wine is traveling with you.  Checking wine also circumvents most state wine shipping laws (see my related post if you’re traveling internationally.)

So long as it’s packaged properly, most airlines accept wine without question, but as we learned, always check policies before you leave. Expect to pay $25-$35 per case and sign a waiver releasing the airline from liability if your wine is damaged.  My strategy is to pack lightly enough to fit all of my clothing into carry-ons, thus saving the checked luggage allowance for wine.

To check your wine you’ll need a shipper of some sort. For a hundred bucks or so you can buy re-usable “wine luggage.” Since I’m cheap, I much prefer the cardboard case shippers with foam or cardboard inserts. Most wineries will sell them to you for $5-$10 and occasionally they’ll even throw one in for free if you buy several bottles (and ask really nicely.)

Whatever you do, DO NOT use the flimsy retail boxes. They are not designed for shipping!  Airline employees have told me stories of wine waterfalls flowing from the baggage compartments of airliners as a result of these boxes.

Getting a winery to ship your wine will usually be the next cheapest option.

This is especially helpful if you:
  •  Didn’t travel by airline.
  •  Bought way too much wine to affordably check as luggage.
  •  Are on an extended trip where hauling your wine for a couple of weeks in the trunk isn’t practical.

Most wineries will gladly ship wine for customers who purchase wine at the winery and wine club members may receive extra shipping privileges. Wineries receive generous shipping discounts

NEVER ship wine in retail cases!

NEVER ship wine in retail cases!

with FedEx and UPS and generally pass those rates along to their customers. Expect to pay $30-$50 per case for ground shipping, double that for air. (Be aware that most wineries will only ship via air during the summer months.)

If you’re buying by the case, most wineries make the offer to ship as a standard part of the transaction. Upon request most will hold onto your shipment for a week or two if you won’t be home for a while. If you’re a wine club member they may even bundle it into to your next wine club shipment and you can probably sweet talk them into shipping a mixed case that you’ve compiled from other wineries.

Cost aside, the only downside is that you need to live in a state where the winery is licensed to ship.  Frustratingly, this varies from winery to winery so it may behoove you to check the shipping policies of any wineries you plan to visit.  Usually, this info is readily available on their web site (often hidden in the signup info for their wine club.)

Dropping your wine at a shipping outlet can be a good option if you can find one.

Most wine regions have at least one wine shipping outlet that will work with the public, although some are easier to work with than others. The process is usually as simple as dropping off your wine and filling out some paperwork. Expect to pay $40-$60 per case for ground shipping – add a few dollars if you need them to pack it up for you. (You may be able to save a few bucks by billing the shipping to your own FedEx or UPS account, though some retailers won’t allow this.)

There are three huge pros to using these outfits

1. Everything is packaged professionally and all of the supplies are right there.
2. Easiest way to ship mixed cases of wine from multiple wineries.
3. They often have licenses to ship into states that wineries can’t.

The biggest con is that everything ships immediately – there’s no option to hold back your shipments.  This is important if you still have more traveling to do, if the weather is too hot at home for wine shipping.

We highly recommend Buffalo’s Shipping Post in Napa.  Sonoma County Tourism maintains a good list of wine shippers there.  and Wine Country Pack & Ship in Paso Robles. [Update: August 2018, I’m told that Paso Robles travelers are running into zero options getting wine shipped home.]

Paying a company to gather your wine and ship it at your convenience is the most expensive, but also the most convenient method.

Often these companies will gather your wine purchases for you from wineries and hotels, or you can save a few bucks and drop it off yourself. Your wine is then held in a climate-controlled warehouse until you tell them to ship it. This is a huge pro if you’re traveling in the summer and don’t want to risk heat damage, or if you don’t want to cart your wine around with you. The cons are that they are expensive (between $40 and $150 per case plus $30-$100 a month for storage), and somewhat restricted to how many states they will ship to. The smaller ones also only have agreements with certain hotels and wineries, which may limit the convenience factor.

Two of the more reputable companies are Safe Haven (California Central Coast) and 55-Degrees (Napa/Sonoma).

As always, thanks for stopping by and we welcome your feedback!

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Big Changes Coming at

A couple days ago I received a phone call from the folks at  A victim of their own success, they are closing their Angels program to new members – new applicants will be placed on a waiting list – and they wanted to grandfather me back into the program prior to the mid-August deadline.

According to the representative I spoke with, they had inadvertently angered a number of their most loyal supporters. Most of their wines are produced in relatively small numbers, and with too many Angels in the program their most popular wines were selling out more quickly than they had projected.

In case you’re not familiar with them, NakedWines is a crowd-funded winery… really more of a custom crush.  The crowd funders (known as Angels) pledge $40 a month to NakedWines.  In exchange they get a $40 monthly wine allowance and a 40-60% discount on wine purchases.  The money is passed along as startup capital to a handful of independent winemakers who agree to distribute their wines exclusively through NakesWines.

I’m a fan of these guys and have ordered several wines from them in the past.  Their customer service is consistently outstanding, and their prices are compelling.  We all need a source of inexpensive “everyday” wines to stock the cellar with, and NakedWines has fit the bill on more than one occastion.  By combining their ultra-aggressive promotional offers with free shipping, it’s often possible to pick up a full case for around $100.

Their wines are well-made crowd pleasers.  Nothing terribly complex, but nothing you’re going to take offense at either, which is pretty much what you’re looking for with an every day pop-and-pour.  At full retail I think they’re overpriced, but a fair value with the Angel discout. 

So if you’ve ever been curious to try NakedWines, your window is quickly coming to a close.  The rep couldn’t give me an exact date, but sometime mid-August is the cutoff for new signups. And next time you’re in Napa or Sonoma, swing by one of their tasting rooms. It’s free for Angels and only $10 (unlimited tastings!) for everyone else.

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