High/low travel strategy: Mixing luxury and budget travel on the same trip
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While my favorite way to maximize travel is through points and miles, my husband and I have come up with a few other tricks over the years to find that elusive balance between my love of budget travel and his taste for the finer things. Our go-to technique for a vacation with the right mix of off-the-beaten-path adventure mixed with pure luxury and true downtime is our "high/low" technique.
Much like pairing an Ikea mirror with an Eames chair in your living room, mixing high-end travel with lower-cost experiences in the same trip can work well. It also has helped us tame our children's unrealistic expectations around travel.
High/low in practice
On a past trip, our budget for accommodations during a weeklong vacation in Vietnam was an average of $350 per night. This was on the higher end, but it turned out to channel us toward hotels that we found didn't cater to families.
Instead, we chose to look for somewhere in the $75–$100 per night range for four nights followed by somewhere in the $500–$750 range for the next three nights. We also tried to find a third or fourth night for free through select hotels in Amex’s Fine Hotels & Resorts (FHR) program. FHR is available to holders of certain Amex cards, such as The Platinum Card® from American Express.
Tips for the lower end
The key to the "low" end of the stay is to realize that while it may cost less, it isn't actually less enjoyable because it's culturally rich. During the "low," we do lots of sightseeing and driving, eat at local restaurants or cook and keep costs relatively low by engaging in the local economy rather than staying insulated within a resort economy.
Our family is able to see areas we wouldn’t normally get to enjoy if we were only sheltered at luxury hotels and resorts. Plus, we often travel with our two young kids and want an Airbnb or family-run hotel for reasons beyond budget.
Tips for the higher end
When we head over to the "high" end, we enter pure resort mode — we don’t have to worry about driving or where to go for lunch because everything is right there. We often do not leave the grounds because we’ve already explored and just want to stay put. We like to book the luxury piece at the end of the stay and utilize early check-in and late check-out to really stretch the stay (FHR benefits and elite status are great for this).
This can be a fantastic time to use a high-end redemption to bring down costs and use the savings for extras such as cooking classes or a spa experience.
During a 10-day trip to Bali, for example, we spent five nights in a low-cost villa and then made a five-night redemption at The Ritz-Carlton, Bali (Category 6, from 40,000 to 60,000 Marriott points per night), taking full advantage of its incredible kids club and inexpensive babysitting.
Lower end: Rural Vietnam
In Vietnam, our lower-end stay was in the Bong Lai Valley at Phong Nha Farmstay for $85 per night, including breakfast. It was essentially a backpackers spot, but had a large family room next to the owner’s apartment. My older son became fast friends with the owner’s son, Howie, and talked about him for months afterward.
In Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, we rented a private 14-seat boat for just the four of us where I could easily breastfeed the baby. The privacy gave us the flexibility to turn back if our 2-year-old was scared of the caves. The three-hour cave gondola ride was $15, plus a $6.50 entrance fee for the national park. Rather than a scary experience, the ride turned out to be peaceful and done at the perfect pace for our family.
Another day, we took advantage of the advertised free bikes at the farmstay. The only family bike had a flat seat on the back. We used my sarong to tie my older son on the back, and my husband wore the baby on his front over the bumpy, muddy roads to the only local attraction called The Duck Stop.
Using a hand-drawn map, we found the family-run spot, which offered a package of food and a visit to see their raft of ducks ($4, kids free). Suddenly, we were in borrowed sandals and feed was being thrown on our feet. The ducks chased us while trying to bite our feet with their bills as the owner screamed, “It’s like a massage!” We then greeted the resident water buffalo before heading back on our bikes. These are the types of peculiar travel experiences that I had while backpacking in my 20s and love having again with my family (my husband less so).
Higher end: Four Seasons The Nam Hai
As much as I love reliving my backpacking days, entering the Four Seasons Nam Hai was extraordinary. We booked through FHR to get the fourth night free, which brought the cost down from $750 per night to $660 per night for a one-bedroom, ocean-view villa with an included exquisite breakfast.
Yes, that is pricey, but that is why we balance it out with more affordable accommodations. We also considered the Intercontinental Nha Trang, Vietnam using IHG Rewards Club points.
The magical thing about a luxury resort is that they pretty much know where you are at all times and can reach you. With the kids safely in childcare, we attended a Vietnamese cooking class arranged by the hotel that included a visit to the local market. When we returned from the market with our fresh ingredients, the cooking assistant notified the babysitter to bring my youngest son to me at the cooking school via a golf cart because he needed to breastfeed.
When the baby finished his lunch, his babysitter whisked him away again, which made me feel like a mother in “Downton Abbey.” We could not have dropped the fresh shrimp into hot sizzling oil with our tiny children in tow. The Cooking Academy was $115 each and included our fantastic five-course lunch of grilled calamari skewers, grouper in banana leaf and wok-fried prawns in tamarind sauce.
To round off the experience, on our last night we went into the photogenic Hoi An to see the lanterns lining the streets. We wandered the streets until our children melted down, and then hopped in a taxi back to the hotel and into bed.
When packing the next morning, we realized that my DSLR camera was gone and must have been left in the taxi. Normally, that might been adios to the camera, but the hotel quickly pulled the license plates off the security camera of us arriving the night before, located the driver and had my camera back in my hands by our 11 a.m. departure.
That could have been a sour note to end the vacation. Instead, we were happy to be staying somewhere where we were just taken care of — our problem suddenly became their problem. We enjoyed the bountiful breakfast buffet rather than scrambling to track down the camera and avoided the sadness of losing all the photos from our trip in Asia with the kids. It was also a reminder to make sure I know what insurance protections my credit cards have.
The adage goes that a vacation with kids is just a trip and never a vacation. After enjoying sightseeing and adventure time, end your family trip at a luxury resort with safe, reliable on-site childcare so you have time to truly unwind and maybe even have a date before returning home. Using this high/low method, you can average out the costs either with points or cash while enjoying both secluded luxury and local culture.