John

Wine merchant and founder of DirtCheapWineCountry.com - helping people save money in wine country.

A Backdoor Way To Get The Flights You Really Want – But It’s A Gamble!

How often has this happened to you?  You finally get around to booking flights for your next trip, but the only flights available (that you can afford) are the the ones that nobody really wants.  You know – the crazy red-eyes with the four-hour connections? It’s no secret that the most ideal flights are nearly always the most expensive.Airplane At Gate

But if you’re a bit of a gambler, there is a backdoor way to get the flights you really want at the price you’re willing to pay.  And the airline coughs up the difference.  It doesn’t work every time, but it does work more often than you might imagine.

The key is to book early.  Travel pros (or their travel managers) are in the habit of what they call “harvesting” their reservations – that is, periodically checking on them for changes.  Seasoned travelers know that when they book flights months in advance, the schedule they booked is rarely the schedule they’ll actually fly.

This is because most airlines publish a “best guess” schedule about a year in advance of a given travel date.  That schedule is continually tweaked up until just a few weeks prior to your flight.   Typically the changes are minor – a few minutes here or there – maybe a flight number change – and usually their computer systems automatically rebook you onto new flights as the schedules are updated.

On occasion, however, something big happens behind the scenes:  maybe demand forecast was way off, an aircraft type was retired, or an airport began major construction.  These things will result in a major schedule change. (I’ve found that weekends and holidays are particularly vulnerable to schedule changes.)

Rather than get upset, you can use this to your advantage!  Because what the airlines don’t tell you is that if ANY of the flights in your itinerary are changed by more than 90 minutes (or 2 hours on some airlines) or a nonstop flight suddenly picks up a connection, you have the right to reject the new itinerary and your ticket becomes fully refundable… or FULLY REBOOKABLE.

That’s right – you get a one-time shot to rebook on whatever flights you want.  And the airline eats any price difference.

Plane TicketSome airlines will alert you to schedule changes by email, others  will simply throw up a warning message next time you log into your account.   An extreme schedule change will often prompt the airline to give you a call.

Web sites can be quirky, so in the event you qualify for a rebooking, I recommend doing it over the phone (telephone reservation fees are also waived).  If you call to rebook, there are a few general rules to play by:

– First, be exceedingly polite. This will go father than you imagine!
– Your origin and destination airports must remain the same.  Exceptions are made for cities with multiple airports (ie. New York, LA, Dallas) or certain Caribbean islands with multiple airports.
– You can re-route through another hub if you’d like.
– You can’t switch airlines, although in extreme circumstances supervisors and travel agents can override this.
– Within reason (a day or two) you can usually change dates.
– Any flight with enough open seats in the cabin you originally booked are fair game.

So if you’re debating whether to book your flights sooner or later, in my opinion this is a great reason to book sooner. My strategy is to book flights that I can afford with flight times I can live with if I have to keep them and then stay on top of my reservations with an eagle-eye for any changes.

While I have had success with this on American, Delta, and United, no such guarantees are offered on Allegiant or Spirit.  How Southwest handles these is a mystery.

Good luck, and happy travels!

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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 Priceline.com, 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 NakedWines.com

A couple days ago I received a phone call from the folks at NakedWines.com.  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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Tasting Room Etiquette – Tips and Tricks

Let me preface this whole post by saying that there is really no “proper” way to go about tasting wine. Wine is as individual as you are – that’s a part of what’s so great about it!

However, if you’re reading this, one of your goals for your next wine trip is probably to experience a bunch of really great wine without spending a fortune. This means that in the tasting room you really want the staff to be on your side.

Tasting room visitors can generally be lumped into three groups:Tasting room sign

  • Wine snobs (you might call them pretentious)
  • Booze tourists (they just want to drink – even better if they arrive in a limo or bus)
  • People with a genuine interest in wine (regardless of knowledge or experience)

Finding favor with the tasting room staff means that you really don’t want to be one of the first two.

But for the tasting room staff, dealing with a genuinely interested wine person is a treat – sort of like dealing with a friendly passenger at an airport. So you might be amazed at how often the rules are broken: what’s printed on the tasting menu magically no longer applies, minimums are waived and extra “off the list” bottles appear from behind the counter.

So, if you want the red carpet treatment, here are a few tried-and-true-from-the-trenches strategies to help:

Appearance matters, so consider dressing in business casual attire – I usually default to nice jeans and a polo or casual button down. Shorts are fine if it’s a really hot day, but screen printed t-shirts are a big red flag.

Carry a small notebook and pen (bonus points if you pilfered it from your hotel room) and take a few notes on the wines you taste. It’s a small detail that says you’re interested in learning, and I’m always amazed at how quickly tasting room staff take notice.

Bring a bottle of water. Seasoned pros always have water handy – it’s a smart idea anyways, and it sends the message that you’re responsible which inclines the tasting room staff to be a little more generous with their pours.

Browse around the tasting room before you approach the bar (booze tourists always want to hit the bar ASAP). It scores you a few brownie points because you seem interested in the winery – bonus points if the staff invites you to the bar for a tasting. We’ve found this to be especially handy if we show up just as they’re opening up shop – that way the staff doesn’t feel as rushed to get set up.

Don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions, even if it’s for guidance on which wines to try. Most winery staff are passionate about their product, and they LOVE answering questions and helping you find something you’ll really enjoy.

Never make demands or ask for VIP treatment. This ought to be common sense, but I’ve been in the business long enough to know that common sense isn’t always so common.

As much as you may hate to waste wine, be in the habit of dumping what you don’t like. That’s what those buckets are for and nobody gets offended. Tasting room staff expect that most people won’t be in love with every wine they try.. in fact, the guy who polishes off every sample may get the hairy eyeball. On the other hand, if you’re dumping a bunch of stuff, this is where the “extra” bottles often come out – many tasting room staff are convinced they have SOMETHING you’ll like and they’ll rise to the challenge of finding it.

Don’t be afraid to say (politely) that you don’t care for a particular wine. Don’t insult them by calling their wine “bad” but there’s also no harm in saying “this one doesn’t do it for me” or “this one’s really not my style.” Bonus points if you can guide them towards your style, as once again, off-the-list bottles may start appearing for you. We had one pinot producer in Oregon bring our their entire reserve line for us when we identified one particular wine that we were in love with.

A note on spitting: Yeah, it’s gross, but wine professionals commonly spit out their samples rather than swallow them (due to the sheer quantity of wine they’ll go through in a day). It’s good practice at industry events and I’ve seen people recommend this practice to everyone. However, it’s rather messy, and honestly, in the dozen or so years I’ve been doing this, I can’t think of many occasions where I’ve seen people spit in tasting rooms. But if you’re driving and want to be cautious, bring a plastic cup with you to spit in rather than spitting straight into the bucket.

Over the years I’ve found these strategies to be worth their weight in gold. There will always be some tasting rooms whose staff are sticklers for policy, but if you employ some of these tips into your wine tasting routine you’ll be amazed at how much value will be added to your wine country experience versus that of the average tourist. You’ll have a lot more fun and the tasting room staff will be delighted that you stopped by.

What other tasting room strategies have you had success with? Add them in the comments and we’ll give them a try on our next wine trip!

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The Best Ways to find Free Tastings

Four years ago I launched a new section of the site devoted to free tasting rooms in wine country.  Given how many similar lists exist out there, I was surprised at the response.  But I guess I shouldn’t have been.  After all, for the wine lover what could be better than a free wine tasting?!

Wine’s a tough hobby for the budget-conscious.  I should know – I’ve been traveling through America’s various wine regions for over 15 years on a middle-class income; always slightly frustrated that some of my favorite once-free wineries now charge upwards of $40 per person for a basic tasting.  Tasting fees like that leave little room in the budget for buying wine!Tasting room sign

Adding to the frustration – nearly every free tasting room list on the web seems to be several years out-of-date.  I wish I were joking.. some of the more popular sites advertise free tastings at wineries long-ago closed or that have been charging for years.

That’s why an essential ongoing feature of Dirt Cheap Wine Country will be an up-to-date sleuthing of the free tasting rooms that are still around.  I’ll try to update it quarterly and only feature tasting rooms whose fees I can personally verify.

Personally, I want to express my gratitude for the handful of winemakers who still embrace the free tasting model, who are confident enough that their products can sell itself without sticking it to the customer.

There may be freebies lurking out there, and if you find them let me know and I’ll gladly add them to the next revision.

For now this is a North America-centric site and  I have lists up for Napa, Sonoma, Paso Robles and Oregon.

For 2019 I’ve added Washington and am working on SoCal and New York.  Virginia will be coming on line in the very near future.

Useful as my list is (at least I think it’s handy!) there are plenty of other ways to score free tastings as well.  Let me introduce you to a few of them:

  • Coupons!  Both digital and paper coupons still exist, but they’re dwindling in favor of “Passports” (which I’ll take about in a minute.)

 

  • Winery Referrals.  Similar to hotels, many wineries participate in informal referral networks.  A quick, “hey can you recommend any other wineries we ought to visit while we’re here?” will often reward you with tasting coupons for wineries that weren’t on your radar.  I’ve discovered some really fantastic wineries this way, and even joined a few of their clubs.  (I’ve also landed in a few regrettable ones….)

 

  • Yelp! & Foursquare Check-ins – Many wineries offer free tastings if you check-in using the Yelp! or FourSquare smartphone apps.  Unfortunately, there’s no central list of these offers and they change routinely, but many people do mention the free tastings in online reviews so if you’re planning in advance you’ll need to scour Yelp! reviews.  While you’re at the winery, look for the Yelp! or Foursquare logo on the door or near the tasting counter.

 

  • The VISA Signature/Infinite card.  If you have a VISA credit card (sorry debit card fans, it’s credit only) pull it out and look for the word “signature” emblazoned across the front of it.  If you see “signature” then congratulations! Show your card at any of 50 or so wineries in Sonoma County and you’ll receive 2-for-1 tasting and a purchase discount.  See the list and details here.

 

  • Passports.  Many wine regions have begun offering “wine passports” or “wine passes.”  They’re annual in nature and priced between $40 and $100 per person.  Generally I’m not a fan, as they seem to have been contrived purely as moneymakers for “winery guide” sites that needed a way to monetize.  The “deals” they offer can generally be found elsewhere for FREE  without paying an annual fee.  That being said, there are two passports that I DO think are a great value:
    • Oregon Wine Pass – At $60 for the year, this is a deal since each passport is good for -2- people.  80-ish participating wineries, mostly smaller labels that you may or may not be familiar with.
    • Napa Valley Tasting Passport – Not exactly a steal, but at $99 for the year I think it’s a pretty fair value for Napa.  Includes tastings at a well-thought-out list of 35 wineries.

 

  • Buy a bottle.  Recent marketing studies on how to best run a tasting room have indicated that a fee-waived-with-purchase model works better than giving away free tastings.  As a result, many wineries are switching to that model.  A single bottle purchase will often waive the fee (although, those same studies indicate that a 2-3 bottle minimum purchase to waive the fee is ideal, so some wineries go that route.)

 

  • Wine clubs.  Many wine clubs offer reciprocal benefits to their members at partner wineries or other wineries owned by the same company (not to mention, at their home winery as well).  As a club member, you may not even be aware of these benefits.  Here are three of the best examples I know of:
  1. Foley Family Wineries – Club members at any of these wineries enjoy free tastings at: Acrobat, Chalone Vineyard, Eos, Firestone Vineyard, Foley Estates, Foley Johnson, Foley Sonoma, Kuleto Estate, Lancaster Estate, Langtry Estate & Vineyard, Lincourt Vineyards, Merus Wines, Roth Estate Winery, Sebastiani Vineyards & Winery , The Four Graces, and Three Rivers Winery
  2. Wilson Artisan Wineries – Club members at any of these Northern California wineries enjoy free tastings at: Wilson, deLorimier, Matrix, Soda Rock, Pezzi King, St. Anne’s Crossing, Jaxon Keys & Greenwood Ridge.
  3. GEMS of Napa/Sonoma – Club members (minimum club spend may apply) at any of these Napa and Sonoma wineries enjoy free or heavily discounted tastings at: Chappellet, Robert Biale Vineyards, Flora Springs, Frog’s Leap Winery, VGS Chateau Patelle, Robert Craig Winery, B Wise, LaRochelle, Medlock Ames, Hall Rutherford, Patz and Hall, WALT, and Vineyard 29.

What are your favorite strategies for scoring free tastings?  Put them in the comments and I may add them to future revisions!

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Tasting Room Closeouts – Are They Really a Deal?

Tasting Sheet

If you’re like me, you love a good bargain; and bargains abound in wine country tasting rooms. But are those “deals” really a deal – who’s getting the last laugh? Turns out, you are.

Savvy wine buyers know to be wary of wine shop closeout bins. Like a yard sale, there can often be some real finds there for the person who knows what they’re looking at, but just as often you’re looking at junk. They’re taking a loss and dumping the slow sellers regardless of reason. In the tasting room, however the economics in play are quite different.

When a winery brings their wine to market they have a couple of options (I’m ignoring the bulk market for now.)

  •  Sell direct to the customer (through tasting rooms, wine clubs, online where legal.)
  •  –  Low sales volume, but the winery keeps 100% of the revenue.
  • Sell through the (inter)national distribution network (ie. the “three-tier system.”)
  • –  Massive sales volume, but only about 30% of the retail price goes back to the winery.

See our post on June 22 for more detail on how wine pricing works. It’s really helpful!

When a tasting room puts something on closeout, even a huge one – say 50% – they’re rarely losing money.

But is the wine any good? Believe it or not, probably so. In my experience, when a tasting room is running a closeout, it’s usually to make room for the next vintage of that particular wine. These wines were either never put into distribution (if the winery distributes), or there wasn’t sufficient quantity remaining to attract the interest of a distributor. It’s probably on the tasting menu and if not, they often have a bottle open behind the counter if you ask. I’m only leery if they absolutely refuse to let you taste it.

Think of it this way – the tasting room is the public face of the winery, and most of them (if they’re well run and actually make good wine) won’t knowingly sell junk in there. There are too many other ways in this business for wineries to get rid of lousy wine and still make a buck.

So feel free to gobble up those tasting room closeouts, knowing that you’re getting a decent bottle of juice, saving some coin, and making the winery happy.

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Breaking Down The Cost of a Bottle of Wine

Trader-Joe-2-Buck-Chuck-10004153

Breaking Down The Cost of a Bottle of Wine

I found this article earlier in the week and thought it would serve as a great intro to a piece we’ll have out later in the week on tasting room wine discounts.  In case you’ve ever wondered how much a winery gets paid for that $15 bottle of Malbec you just bought, why restaurant wine prices are so outrageous, or how, exactly, Trader Joe’s can afford to sell wine for $3-a-bottle,  I think you’ll find this a fascinating read.  Have a great rest of the weekend!  

And thanks so much for stopping by!  Our first week “live” generated a surprising amount of traffic.  Thanks again for taking the time to check us out!  We appreciate all of you.

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How to save a few bucks on your next rental car

The art of getting a deal on a rental car is complex enough that I figured it warranted its own blog post.

For the wine country traveler looking to save a buck, renting a car can be maddening.  Over the past few years rental car companies have been steadily raising their rates; gone are the $16-a-day Thrifty specials.  Fortunately, there are still a few tricks of the trade you can employ to save a bundle.

ImageAt Dirt Cheap Wine Country, we’re able to reliably get our cars down to half of what  Kayak, Orbitz, and  Expedia are quoting, and we can often beat Priceline!

A few general considerations before we get started:
  • Loyalty Programs will save you from waiting in a long line at the rental counter, and put you on the list for members-only coupons.  They’re also the ticket to free upgrades, so it’s worth the time to sign up.
  • Car Size: book the smallest car you think you can get away with.  Gas is expensive, rural wine country roads can be narrow and winding, and winery parking lots are often a tight squeeze. Be aware that cases of wine rapidly fill up trunk and back seat space, so consider a mid or full-size car if you plan on buying a lot of wine.
  • Car Color: the lighter the better.  Dark cars absorb more heat, which puts your wine at extra risk of cooking.  If you’re pre-assigned a dark colored car, a polite request to change to something lighter is rarely denied, especially if you’ve already spotted something on the lot and can given them the parking stall number of the car you’d prefer.
  • Discount car companies: Stick with one of the “majors” (Alamo, Avis, Budget, Dollar, Enterprise, Hertz, National, Thrifty).  The regional guys often have lower rates, but their reputations can be less than stellar and their locations are airport-only.  You’ll be doing a lot of driving in remote areas, so you want a company that will work with you if you get into a jam and has a neighborhood location nearby.

Here are some of our best tricks:

Associations and Employers

     The first (and easiest!) step to securing a cheaper rate is to see who you’re already affiliated with.
  • USAA, AAA, and Costco are known for having some of the most generous discounts, sometimes as much as 30%.  Often, additional driver fees are also waived.
  • Government employees and contractors, even on leisure, are often eligible for Government rates.
  • If you work for a large corporation, odds are your corporate travel department has pre-negotiated rates, and they are nearly always valid for personal travel. (You may have to ask your HR department for the rate code).
  • Airline, Hotel, and Credit Card programs also often offer aggressive discounts to their members.

Coupons

     Rental car coupons are nearly always digital.  Often they are listed on the rental car comapnies’ web sites (or, for AAA/USAA/Cosctco members, through their respective travel portals.)  More obscure coupons can also be found on Internet message forums such as Flytertalk.com and FatWallet.com and are e-mailed to loyalty program members.  Old-fashioned paper coupons are also printed in the nationally-distributed Entertainment Books.
  Carrentalsavers.com is another particularly useful coupon finder.  Most coupons rotate out on a quarterly basis.

     It is often possible to “stack” coupons on top of association/employer discounts, allowing you to receive a double discount!  While most rental car sites are pretty straightforward, some have multiple boxes in which to enter a discount code; you may have to do some finagling to get the appropriate code into the correct code box.

Hotels

     This is a trick that was only recently pointed out to me.  At ultra-major airports such as LAX, some of the larger nearby hotels will have a rental car office inside the hotel.  Their rates may or may not be any cheaper, but since they’re not technically at the airport they usually don’t charger the expensive airport taxes.

     To use this trick,
  1. Book the rental like normal, only  selecting the hotel location rather then the airport location.  (For instance, instead of the Hertz @ LAX airport, you would select the Hertz @ the LAX Hilton.)
  2. Upon arriving at the airport, catch the appropriate hotel shuttle rather then the rental car shuttle and complete the rental at the hotel.
  3. If you’re traveling with several people or lots of luggage, I’d recommend leaving at the airport while you go fetch the car.
  4. Some hotels will even allow you to return the car to the airport for free, while at other locations this will trigger the airport taxes.  Try changing the return location to the airport when you book to see if this applies.

Weekend/Weekly Deals

     Rental car companies are desperate to unload their cars on weekends, so if you’re taking a weekend trip, Hertz and Enterprise both offer weekend specials – usually in the ballpark of $10-$15 per day.  Often the most aggressive coupons and discounts are also applied to weekend and/or weekly rentals.

Local Specials

     These are few and far between, but there are a couple worth noting.

  • If you’re flying into LAX, Hertz offers a flat rate of $45/day.  It’s a Disney special, but all LAX travelers can use it (CDP 2002500)
  • Hertz waives one-way surcharges for Alaska Airlines customers flying into certain Washington airports using CDP 2015337

Foreign Web Sites

     While not a trick for the novice traveler, some people have reported great success using the rental car companies’ own foreign sites (ie. budget.co.uk vs. budget.com) for domestic rental booking.  This works by taking advantage of currency exchange rates as well as specials designed to attract foreign visitors to the US.  Sometimes the rates are cheaper, and since they’re quoted in foreign currency the conversion may work in your favor.  This is especially useful for folks with an overseas address.   Be aware that if you have a US address your reservation MAY be rejected.  Also be aware that some of these rates include insurance for which US residents are not eligible.

AutoSlash

     AutoSlash.com offers a terrific service for the Dirt Cheap Traveler (we’re not affiliated, we just love ’em!).  Once you book your reservation, you can plug the details into their web site and it will re-shop your reservation daily..  If the price drops, they’ll send you an e-mail with instructions on how to re-book.  On our last trip, AutoSlash found a promotion that saved us over $30 on a 4-day rental!

If all else fails…

     There’s always Priceline.com and Hotwire.com.  One very useful strategy is to check Hotwire first, and then go over to Priceline and bid 25% lower than the Hotwire rate.  We use these only as a last resort because
  1. Priceline/Hotwire reservations cannot be canceled or changed.
  2. The other tips outlined above can often yield a comparable rate.

However, there is the occasional trip where they’re the best option.  On a recent trip to Napa, the San Francisco airport was completely sold out of cars.  Priceline came through at $30 a day when, even with the best of discounts, $70 a day was the lowest price to be had anywhere else.

I  hope you find this guide useful.  If you have any other tricks you’ve picked up as you travel, put them in the comments and we’ll include them in the next revision!

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Welcome to Dirt Cheap Wine Country!

Today I’m re-launching the blog as Dirt Cheap Wine Country and I hope that you’ll find it a refreshing departure from the usual wine blogs.  Why the change?

In 2012, wine blogger Tom Wark issued a challenge on his massively popular Fermentation blog – The Top 10 Wine Stories Needing to be Written. One in particular caught my eye:

Dirt Cheap Wine Country It’s a counter intuitive wine country travel story—and probably difficult to write.  But it could provide a fantastic counterpoint to the luxury-oriented wine stories that proliferate. Is there a way to “DO” wine country dirt cheap? From cheap hotels and cheap food to no-cost tasting room?

Indeed, why isn’t anyone telling that story?! There are many who want to live the “wine lifestyle,” and for whom travel to wine country should be the ultimate luxury experience.  It often seems like every wine writer on the planet caters to these aspirational travelers.

There are countless others however, who travel to wine country for one reason and one reason alone: the wine and the connection to the people and places that make it.

They may or may not be budget-conscious, but they come to spend their money on wine, not lifestyle.  They appreciate the quality of a few nights at the Renaissance, but are just as happy at a Best Western.  They would like a nice meal or two, but in a pinch a taco stand will do just fine.  They hope to bring home a few trophy bottles, but will fill the rest of their cases with bargains, or at least reasonably priced daily drinkers.

You see, my friends, as a regular wine country traveler for the past ten years, this is exactly how I travel.  And as my high school english teacher taught me, for every one person with an opinion who chooses to share it, there are countless remaining, silent glad someone spoke up.  I know that’s true because I meet you on every trip: whether you rode into Napa in an RV, were slumming it with us at the Holiday Inn Express, or gnoshing on biscuits and gravy at the Paso Robles diner.  And we compare notes in the tasting rooms of some of the best wineries on the planet.

Until now my fellow budget traveler, aside from a few coupon sites, there’s really nobody talking to us.  And that’s what Dirt Cheap Wine Country is all about.  This is not a coupon site, or a wine review blog – there are plenty of those.  This is how to “do” wine country dirt cheap!  A wine country resource and community for the rest of us.

So welcome to Dirt Cheap Wine Country!  I value your input and comments. Until we meet again in the tasting room – cheers!

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