Quick Guide To Saving Money On Airfares, Hotels, Cruises, and More

Since the dawn of the Internet, we’ve praised the transparency and research capabilities it offers travelers.  Remember when we had to call an airline telephone reservations agent to book a flight and had no idea what alternatives we had unless we tripped upon an especially kind agent?  Or we went during business hours to a travel agent who may or may not have worked hard to find us the least expensive options?

Now, with a plethora of web sites, the consumer has an array of tools to compare prices and, in some cases, even name them.  The hotel field, in particular, has suddenly seen a robust new crop of sites delivering hotel rooms, especially high-end ones, at deeply discounted prices.

Here’s my list of sites every traveler should access if savings is a goal.

AIRLINES

FareCompare.comCheck out average fares on specific routes per month to learn the least expensive time to fly.  Maybe you’ll want to take that vacation in June rather than July?  Compare prices on different days to see if time-shifting your travel might be worth it.

Yapta.comAfter you’ve booked a flight, let Yapta know, and the site will track prices on your flight and alert you if they drop before you begin travel and might be eligible for a refund.  (Normally those refunds come in the form of a future flight credit on the same airline.)  Keep in mind, however, many airlines charge change fees–as much as $150 a ticket by some major carriers–so the price drop has to be significant to make it worth your while in those cases.  Two airlines that don’t charge change fees: JetBlue and Alaska.

Kayak.com & Momondo.comTwo fare-comparison web sites in hot competition with each other.  Denmark-based Momondo is especially good at finding fares on discount European airlines.  Remember, however, Southwest Airlines does not permit any third-party site to list its schedule AND fares, so you’ll have to go to the airline’s web site for those.

Flightstats.comThis site gives an historical range of prices on specific flights as well as their on-time and cancellation histories.  That makes this site especially helpful in determining when the least expensive time to travel might be on a certain flight or route.

HOTELS

Jetsetter.comThis is a membership-only site that serves up an astounding menu of high-end hotels and resorts around the world at deeply discounted prices.  But there’s no fee to join, and membership is easy to obtain–just request it.  Or ask a friend who is a member to “nominate” you on the site.  At 6 p.m. one recent weekday, I picked up a hotel in Manhattan for that night–The Carlton, a member of Preferred Hotels at Madison and 27th–for $180 a night before taxes.  The retail price?  A 14-day, advance-purchase reservation runs $305 before taxes.  Sales usually last a few days, but you can often book out two, three, or more months.

VoyagePrive.comThis French company recently arrived in the US determined to claim a share of the market.  It, too, offers classy hotels at discounted rates and also has a loose “membership” requirement that costs nothing.  Its calendar display is clunky compared to Jetsetter’s clear presentation, but it’s worth keeping this site on your radar.

Bloomspot.comRecently unveiled by a couple of former Yahoo.com executives, this site for now focuses on New York City, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.  It offers hotels, too, but also restaurants, spas and sports clubs.  I recently bought a four-course dinner for about 45% off at Le Cirque in Manhattan.  The “discount” which is really simply a code you tell your waiter–is good for a year’s time.  Yesterday I paid $75 to buy $145 worth of facial and massage services at the spa at a fancy hotel in Los Angeles as a birthday gift for my girlfriend.  More cities will come on line with time–I know this because my son works for the company.  No membership required.

Kayak.comThis airfare comparison site has joined the hotel-discount club.  Click on “Private Sale” on the left-hand column of Kayak’s home page and join the hunt.  Its offerings aren’t as deep as the aforementioned companies, but it’s worth a look-see.

Travelocity.comThe latest entrant is the well-known, third-party travel booking site famous for its television commercials starring a globe-wandering travel gnome. This past week it launched “Travelocity’s Top Secret Hotels,” though obviously Travelocity hopes nothing about it remains top secret.  The site is promising up to 45% off hotel room nights.  Use your American Express card to book at least a two-night stay right now and get an additional $20 off. 

All these discount sites take excess inventory from hotels (or restaurants, spas and health clubs), negotiate a deep discount, add a bit on the top for their profit, and pass the savings along from you.  As long as the hotel business is under pressure as it is now, these bargains can be quite impressive.  This is one way to take advantage of the economic downturn. 

VACATION HOMES

PackLate.comThis terrific site was launched two months ago by the owner of two condos in Park City, Utah.  When he and his wife would put them up for rent, they’d lower the price the longer they went unrented.  He eventually decided to bring that tactic to the rest of us.  PackLate has contracted with property managers at major luxury resorts in Utah, Colorado, Nevada, and California to take excess inventory and offer condos for at least 30% off retail.  But here’s the good part: The price drops the longer the condo goes unrented, so you can play chicken and watch a few condos and hope no one rents them ’til their prices drop even further.  At the moment, individual owners of units can’t post their places as they can on, say, VRBO.com (Vacation Rentals By Owner).  I really like this site, and you can save a bundle using it.  From one-bedroom condos to five-bedroom vacation homes, the menu is large and the photos appealing.  For the moment the site focuses on the Western US, but it will expand its reach over time.

CRUISES

CruiseCompete.com & MyBestFareFinder.comBoth of these sites are “reverse auction” sites, which means you enter what kind of cruise YOU want–time of travel, destination, style of cruse line, and so on.  Then travel agents and cruise lines send you offers via e-mail that ought to be significantly below retail.  Just sit back and let them bid for your business.

RESTAURANTS & OTHERS

GroupOn.com: Daily discounts in many cities on all kinds of restaurants and other services.  Register at the site and wait for the offers to tumble into your e-mail box.

BloomSpot.comAs mentioned above, this site offers significant discounts at restaurants, spas, and health clubs as well as hotels.

LastMinuteTravel.comNeed a ticket at the last minute?  Don’t pay full fare.  Check out this site for deals on airfares, hotels, vacation packages and rental cars at, as the name implies, the last minute. 

The Complete Guide to Cloud Storage

“I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host of golden daffodils.”

– From The Daffodils by William Wordsworth (1770-1850), famous English Romantic poet.

What is Cloud Storage?

There was once a time when an online search for the term “cloud” would inevitably return results of the above kind, speaking about those puffy progenitors of precipitation. However, nowadays, there’s a good chance that such a search query would yield results related to “cloud computing.” And cloud storage is an integral part of cloud computing.

For those who don’t know what cloud storage is about, it has nothing to do with storing data in the skies. Rather, the “cloud” in “cloud storage” refers to the ubiquity of the data and how it is perceived by the end-user. Thus, although the data is stored in multiple servers at multiple locations, the user does not view it as being at a physical location but a virtual “cloud.”

More often than not, these servers are run by third parties, greatly reducing infrastructure costs.  These cloud computing companies then sell or rent out this storage space to interested parties who do not wish to invest in multiple physical servers to store their data.  The storage space may then be used to hold and access data as the customers see fit to, at a mere fraction of the cost of a physical, or several physical servers. The stored data can then be accessed through the internet, either by using a web-based interface or an application programming interface, or API for short.

Cloud storage is usually offered as a utility service, the same way as electricity. In other words, you only pay for what you use. The parallel with an electricity connection doesn’t end there. The same way that a consumer doesn’t have to pay for the infrastructure to generate and transmit electricity but only for the units consumed, a cloud storage customer is not concerned with storage and transmission of data – all that are taken care of by the service provider. While a consumer can connect to the electricity grid to get connected, the cloud storage customer logs on via the Internet for access.

From big enterprises to SMBs (small & mid-size businesses) to individual home users, everyone can benefit from cloud storage. While some advantages favor one user category more than the other, it is obvious that the net effect of shifting to the cloud is always positive, irrespective of the size of the consumer.

Advantages of cloud storage vis-à-vis traditional storage on servers

•    Cost savings

This is one of the primary advantages of going on the cloud. Not only do you save on the capital expenditure of buying storage equipment, your operational expenses also reduce due to the fact that you don’t pay for unused resources.

Now, servers also occupy a lot of space. In other words, a company has to pay rent for their storage media. Also, they require regular maintenance, necessitating the presence of full-time staff that has to be paid salaries and benefits. Finally, servers consume a lot of energy, and not only for normal operations. Servers get heated up pretty quickly and need to be cooled down, again something that requires energy. Consider all these costs, and the net cost savings of moving to the cloud add up to a substantial amount.

•    Mobility

With cloud storage, you have access to your data from anywhere that has an Internet connection. Therefore, wherever you go, your data travels with you – but without the weight of baggage. This ability to access data from remote and multiple locations also allows for easier sharing of information. In an increasingly connected and mobile world, these are great advantages to have.

•    Disaster recovery

Murphy’s Law says, “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong” – and storage systems are not immune. However, cloud storage is much more resilient to outages than traditional storage due to their distributed nature. Thus, even if one server location goes off the grid, the others ensure that your data is not lost. Whether the disaster is natural like an earthquake or man-made like a disgruntled employee pulling off wires, data recovery is a breeze with cloud storage.

•    Scalability

The ability to scale up, and equally importantly, scale down storage infrastructure at short notice is one of the major advantages of cloud storage. For example, if you use traditional storage media and your storage requirements double overnight, you would be faced with the difficult prospect of going out and buying servers in a hurry, most probably paying extra for the rush. But with cloud storage, you can purchase additional storage at the click of a mouse.

Similarly, if your storage requirements decrease, you can either carry unused server inventory or sell them off at a loss. But with cloud storage, you simply reduce the storage you are subscribed to. Therefore, not only are your storage requirements satisfied at short notice, they are satisfied at lower cost.

•    Load balancing

For traditional storage, heavy traffic can cause a bottleneck. For example, if several employees try to access company data from the same server, the speed of access will be considerably slowed down. This is because the data that can be read from the server and the data that can be transmitted over the optic fiber both have maximum limits.

However, with cloud storage, multiple servers at multiple locations ensure bottlenecks are few. Also, traffic can be dynamically rerouted to ensure high speed of access for all users. This is called load balancing and is a prime advantage of cloud storage. Therefore, cloud storage allows for optimum use of resources by consolidating and reallocating them based on utilization and capacity. In contrast, traditional IT paradigms are inflexible and cannot respond to changing demands, thereby creating inefficiencies.

•    Ease of use

Cloud storage services trump traditional storage as far as ease of use is concerned. For one, it can be completely automated. Thus, you don’t have to concern yourself with manually backing up your data, or syncing it to multiple devices. Secondly, data is stored in an organized manner that precludes long searches. Most offer inventoried list of contents, making it easier to find what you want, when you want it.

•    Security

With cloud storage, all security processes are the responsibility of the service provider. While some would find this undesirable, it’s actually a great advantage for smaller customers who cannot afford enterprise-level security that a service provider can provide. For example, most cloud storage providers employ complex encryption codes that make hacking your files nearly impossible.

In addition to information security, physical security is ensured through heavily-guarded server farms. These include state-of-the-art motion sensors and 24/7 secured access, camera surveillance and security breach alarms. To protect against natural disasters, these locations have 24/7 backup systems, elevated floors, HVAC temperature control systems with separate cooling zones and seismically braced racks.

As is obvious, all these cost money and beyond the budgets of many customers. Thus contrary to popular perception, outsourcing data security can be desirable for many. As an analogy, consider the following: Does the President of the US carry a gun or entrust his security to the highly-trained Secret Service personnel?

Concerns with cloud storage

As with any technology, cloud storage is not without its flaws.

•    For one, it is a comparatively new technology. Consequently, there is a marked lack of standards making contracts and key success measures difficult to define. Also, this affects portability. In other words, there are several migration issues that need to be overcome in order to move your data from one provider to another.

•    Secondly, since data is accessed through the Internet, a reliable and secure Internet connection is critical to use cloud storage services.

•    Finally, there is the privacy and security angle. Since data is under the guardianship of the service provider, there can be certain concerns about data privacy. Also, confidential data may be inadvertently shared while in storage or in transit. However, this is true for traditional storage as well.

It is clear that the advantages far outweigh the potential dangers of using cloud storage services. What’s more, these risks can be most easily mitigated by ensuring that there is a stable and reliable Internet connection and by choosing a reputable cloud storage hosting company.

Therefore, the next question you need to ask is “How do I choose a cloud storage provider?” Here are a few suggestions:

How to choose a cloud storage provider

•    Define your requirements

Like many technologies, cloud storage works better if you go by the “horses for courses” adage. In other words, the provider should optimally meet your requirements. And for that to happen, you need to clearly define those requirements. Some things you need to consider are whether the storage is for personal or business use, how much space you require, whether you want a feature-rich interface and extensive customer support (which will obviously cost more), etc.

A feature-rich service may include the following:

  •  Ability to schedule backups
  •  Ability to perform incremental backups
  • Ability to auto sync across different devices
  • Ability to selectively sync files and folders
  • Ability to securely share documents and collaborate
  • Compatibility with both Macs and PCs
  • Compatibility with smartphones and tablets
  • Ability to stream multimedia

A cloud storage provider that allows you to pick and choose the features you want is definitely recommended.

•    Have a transparent selection process

Transparency should be employed both within and outside the company. While intra-company transparency ensures organizational buy-in, transparency with service providers ensures strong relationships all around.

•    Ensure risk sharing contracts

Choose a service provider who is willing to take on some of the risk of implementation. This will ensure that the provider has a stake in the project.

•    Avoid sub-contracting

Select a service provider who has in-house expertise for the entire implementation. This ensures stricter control and integrity of the project.

•    Look at provider work history

This is true for almost any kind of history. While past performance is no guarantee of future results, a record of successes does point to competence.

•    Define measures of progress and success 

It is important that the customer and service provider agree on how to measure progress and success of the implementation. This is especially important considering the lack of industry standards in this field.

•    Consider service provider selection to be a strategic decision

Choosing a cloud storage service provider is a strategic decision that must not be dictated by short-term gains. Therefore, a provider who can provide long-term support and not necessarily short-term cost savings should be chosen.

Cloud storage is the way everyone will store and access data in the future.

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