It was a gorgeous June night in Disney’s California Adventure and I wanted a picture. Like an idiot, I left my wallet atop a trash bin and wandered off to place my tripod and camera in just the right place.
Ten minutes later, I realized my mistake and rushed back to the bin. No wallet.
This seems the right moment to admit that maybe sometimes I spend too much time talking about the unquantifiable wonders of travel — the way it enlarges our understanding, refreshes our souls, breaks down barriers. I believe all of that, but let’s face it, every trip is also about protecting your wallet.
That’s why I’ve pulled together this list of the best and worst travel values I encountered on the road this year. As Travel writer for The Times, I accept no freebies or media discounts, so I’m out there chasing values like every other consumer. Even after more than 20 years, every trip teaches me a little more. But no trip is predictable.
On that June night in Anaheim, for instance, as I approached the trash bin, a Disney worker saw the look on my face, asked a quick question or two, then told me my wallet had already been rescued and one of his teammates was halfway to the park security office with it. Within minutes, the wallet was in my pocket again, and I had received the most valuable customer service I would find all year. I wish I’d gotten their names.
But in these other cases, good and bad, I did take names.
Best music value
I wrote a lot about music this year, which meant paying:
►$77 to see the Decemberists at Red Rocks Amphitheater near Denver
►$71 to see the Cleveland Orchestra at home in that city’s Severance Hall
►$46 to hear the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra play Carnegie Hall
►$43 to see country singer Whitey Morgan in Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium
►$26 to enter the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland
►$25.95 to enter the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville
►$12 to hear a succession of guitar heroes at Kingston Mines blues club in Chicago
►Nothing to hear the Tabernacle Choir rehearsing in Salt Lake City.
This was all time and money well spent. But the best music bargain I found all year was at Nashville’s Station Inn on a Sunday night. That’s bluegrass jam night, and for no cover charge and no minimum order, you can sit and listen as a dozen great local players welcome all comers, including accomplished bluegrass hounds from all over the country and the world.
To hear banjo players from Australia, Norway and Japan go blazing through “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” with a dozen adept Tennesseans — well, it doesn’t get better. And if you do get thirsty, a beer costs $5.
Least valuable directions
The least valuable directions I got all year were from New York City tour salesman Kossivi Malm, who stood in the middle of Times Square on a frigid January day and told me I could find Carnegie Hall at 49th Street and 2nd Avenue.
Then he corrected himself. It was at 53rd Street and Fifth Avenue, he said.
I already knew that the hall stands at 57th Street and 7th Avenue. (I spent an afternoon asking New Yorkers for directions to Carnegie Hall. Fewer than half of them knew the old joke.)
Most affordable airport-downtown connection
This one is a tie.
I don’t want to know how much I spent on parking and ride-share fares to LAX and the Burbank airport.
Most offensive additional airline fee
There are, of course, many contenders for the title. But the one that annoyed me most in 2018 was having to pay extra to be sure my family (three of us) would sit together in economy on a transatlantic flight.
No matter how far ahead you book those economy seats, many airlines won’t promise to sit you together unless you pay extra. (Here’s United’s president defending the practice.)
In my case, the carrier was British Airways, the extra cost was not clarified until many screens into the online booking process, and I had to hand over an extra $30 per person.
The U.S. Department of Transportation has some advice on how families can try to sit together without paying extra, but it amounts to begging the airline and fellow travelers for help, and there are no guarantees.
Best airport meal
No contest here. I flew through Phoenix’s Sky Harbor International Airport in April and August and on both journeys I had time to savor the sauces and steak at the Barrio Café in Terminal 4. Two tasty meals, both less than $25.
This wasn’t a coincidence. Every time I have to book connecting flights on Southwest Airlines, I try to do it through Phoenix so I can eat at the Barrio Café.
Best value meal (more than $50 per person)
State Bird Provisions in San Francisco gave me the best kind of fussy food in a pleasantly bustling dining room. The Bull in the Alley (a mysterious Tulsa, Okla., restaurant with cozy booths, dangling sunburst lamps and no sign outside) cooked me a great steak.
Worst value meal (more than $50)
Friends, I give you the Russian Tea Room on 57th Street in New York. I’d heard it was a tourist trap trading on long-ago glory days, but I wanted to see the old samovars and gold ceiling and taste the beef Stroganoff for myself. It was perfectly edible. But at $42 for the entree, it should have been more than edible.
Worst value dessert
My worst dessert investment was a $17 milk shake ($15 plus a $2 “supplement’) just a few blocks away at Black Tap Craft Burgers & Beer. Legions of young customers love this increasingly global chain, which offers lively music, playful servers, craft burgers and Instagram-ready, candy-sprinkled shakes.
But those hypersweet, ultra-gooey creations are definitely made primarily for snapping, not tasting.
Best value meal (less than $20)
This is a three-way tie.
In March, I had a brilliant breakfast among the fresh baked goods of Singl-end Cafe & Bakehouse on Renfrew Street in Glasgow, Scotland.
In April, I had a mouthwatering lunch sampler at Tulsa’s Burn Co. BBQ.
In a May trip to Colorado, I landed at Woody’s Wood-Fired Pizza in Golden, outside Denver, where pizza comes with honey to drip on the crust. Why didn’t I ever think of that?
Best hotel value abroad
I slept in a lot of adequate hotels this year, most of them priced between $100 and $200. Looking back, the Quinta Real in Puebla, Mexico, a converted 16th century convent in the city’s historic core, stood apart, an excellent bargain at $120 per night. (Many nights it’s as low as $99.)
Best domestic lodging bargain
Within the U.S., I’m still smarting over the hotel find where I haven’t actually slept yet: the Chicago Athletic Assn., which doesn’t even sound like a public lodging. It’s a gorgeous 1890s building, its public area full of amazing old woodwork (and a tempting bunch of bar games), all within a block of Millennium Park.
I hadn’t heard about it until my friend Michael, a local, led me into the lobby, and that led to a tour of a few guest rooms. Winter rates start around $175, occasionally less. But I was already booked elsewhere.
The best domestic lodging bargain that I actually did get: the Blakely New York, a low-key, genteel haven on West 55th Street where winter rates drop as low as $164 if you pay up front.
Best foreign museum bargain
The slinky creature above — which some say was designed to suggest the curve of a woman’s neck — is the Museo Soumaya. You could call it Mexico City’s answer to Disney Hall, given its shiny, curvy skin of aluminum scales.
The collection, assembled by billionaire Carlos Slim, is a mix of Mexican portraits, European Old Masters and Impressionists. It stands in the upscale Plaza Carso commercial area and it’s free. I’m not saying you should avoid the ultrapopular Frida Kahlo Museum (a.k.a. the Casa Azul), just that it will cost you $11, you’ll probably stand in line for a while, and inside you’ll find lots of atmosphere (this was her home) but not much art.
Best value in a domestic museum
I came with no particular expectations to the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa, a mansion packed with European and American art. It grabbed my attention, beginning in the first gallery with William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s painting “The Shepherdess.”
I loved eavesdropping on the docent introducing a school group to the work of Kehinde Wiley. And even though it was drizzling, I wandered the spectacular gardens outside. Adult admission is $9.
Yes, I know plenty of museums elsewhere are free, especially in Washington, D.C. But the Philbrook gave me a jolt. And for the right kind of jolt, I’ll open my wallet every time.
Follow Reynolds on Twitter: @MrCSReynolds