I don’t know exactly how many trips to spring training I’ve taken in my life, but I’m probably getting close to 10 by now. I went to Arizona and Florida a few times before this became my profession, and over the last few years, I’ve been in charge of organizing the FanGraphs staff weekend trip to Phoenix. I’m nothing close to an expert on the area, but I have learned a few things from traveling down there with some frequency, and since I know many of you are likely considering taking a trip to Phoenix this year — especially with the WBC as an added attraction — I figured I’d share a few of the things I’ve picked up on during my trips to the desert.
Rent a car from a non-airport location.
I don’t think I can emphasize this one any stronger. Standing in line at the rental counters at Sky Harbor can be a maddening experience. The first time I tried to rent a car at the airport, I waited for approximately three hours, as there weren’t any cars to be had, and a couple of dozen of us waited for people to return cars so we could have something to drive away in. Since rental car companies have mostly conglomerated into just a few corporations with different sub-brands (Hertz/Dollar/Thrifty, Enterprise/National/Alamo, and Avis/Budget) and because all of the rental car companies are in one large facility, they share fleets, which means that your car may not be waiting for you when you get there. I have never been in the Sky Harbor rental car facility during March and not seen a long line of frustrated people.
And, as an added bonus, you pay a significant premium for the “convenience” of an airport rental. In order to pay for all of the various sports stadiums spread across the city, Phoenix adds on additional taxes and fees to tourists renting a car from PHX. For example, I just ran a search on carrentals.com for a one week mid-sized sedan during March, then picked Hertz as an example of a company that has both airport and non-airport locations. If you rent that mid-sized car from PHX, you’ll pay $370 for the weekly base rate, and then pay an additional $175 in taxes and fees for a total of $545. If you rent that same type of car from their location in Scottsdale, you pay $286 for the weekly base rate, and $52 in taxes and fees, for a total price of $338.
That’s a $207 difference for the convenience of standing in a very long line. The Scottsdale location is 7 miles from the airport, so you’re probably looking at a cab ride that costs something like $20 each way. Even factoring in that cost, renting off site will save you roughly $165, and you’ll probably be in your car sooner than you will be if you rent from the airport facility. And I’m just using this Scottsdale Hertz location as an example – there are off-site facilities within 5 to 10 miles of the airport in each direction, so you can get a non-airport rental from pretty much any of one of the major companies and save yourself a good chunk of money and time in the process.
One last car rental hint – if you happen to stay at a hotel that has an airport shuttle, many of them will also take you within a several mile radius of the hotel during your stay. For the last few years, our FanGraphs group hotel was about two miles from a Budget Truck rental that also rented cars, so I would simply take the airport shuttle to the hotel, check-in to my room, then take the shuttle to the rental car facility and pick up my car there. No cabs necessary. Depending on where you’re staying, this might not be an option, but it’s worth looking into, at least.
Consider not staying all that close to your favorite team’s stadium.
In most of the cases in Phoenix, the actual stadiums themselves aren’t in parts of Phoenix that you would want to spend a huge amount of time in. Peoria, Surprise, Goodyear, and Camelback are all well to the west of downtown Phoenix, and are essentially in areas where there’s not much beyond your basic strip malls and highways. If you enjoy spending time at Best Buy and Applebees, then you may like the areas, but if you’re looking for any kind of specific Phoenix feeling, you won’t get it in the suburbs. The five parks on the eastern side of Phoenix aren’t quite as far removed from interesting areas, but none of them are in particularly convenient spots either, especially if you’re considering going to multiple venues during your trip.
And you should absolutely consider going to multiple venues. Odds are pretty good that whatever team you want to see isn’t going to be playing home games each day you’re there anyway, so even if you’re following one team around, you should try to go to multiple stadiums and see the different complexes. In particular, if you’re looking for something really modern and comfortable, Salt River Fields is hands down the nicest complex in the area, and is basically a Major League ballpark on a slightly smaller scale. There are some other good places to watch a game, but in terms of overall quality, the Rockies/D’Backs facility blows everyone else away.
But, back to the original point — unless you just don’t like driving, I’ve found the overall experience to be more enjoyable if you stay in a more central location and then drive to the stadiums, rather than staying near the stadiums and then driving away from those areas when it comes time to do something besides watch baseball. If you want to spend the entire day at the ballpark on the back fields watching prospects, then there’s probably an advantage to staying close to the ballpark, but if you’re just going for the Cactus League game itself, you’re only going to be at the park for about 16% of your day, so the rest of it may very well be more enjoyable if you are staying in an interesting neighborhood.
The last few years, the FanGraphs staff stayed at a hotel in the Biltmore neighborhood, which is a bit of an odd mix of a business park, an upscale mall, and some interesting food options. The hotel we stayed at has been converted into a Hampton Inn, which promptly raised the rates and started charging for the airport shuttle — a big deal to us, given how many FG authors come into town — so we’re switching to a different location this year, but I actually enjoyed that neighborhood, despite it not being all that close to any one stadium. It’s close enough to the airport that a cab ride isn’t all that expensive, there are some decent restaurants around, and it’s close to the highways, making it fairly easy to get to just about any of the stadiums you want to get to within 30-40 minutes.
For eats, just trust Keith Law.
At this point, Keith might be as well known for his food conversations as his baseball opinions, but given that he lives in the area, goes to all of these stadiums regularly, and actually knows what good food tastes like, his opinion is probably the most useful you’ll find during your trip. He’s got a bunch of posts on his blog detailing different reviews of places he’s eaten, and we hit up a nice selection of his recommended places last year, with those spots pretty much being a hit across the board.
Obviously, people have different tastes and different budgets, but there’s enough good food in Phoenix that you shouldn’t have to settle for generic chain dinners unless you just really want to. If you want to go beyond just Keith’s list, I’d also recommend the Phoenix chowhound board, as there’s some pretty good information in their archives as well.
If you’re not attached to Cactus League play, consider going the second weekend in March.
The SABR Analytics Conference will be going on from March 7th-9th, and Pool D of the WBC first round will be taking place during that same weekend. If you’re not coming to see your favorite team play, it’s hard to imagine a better combination than attending the conference during the day and then heading over to see the evening WBC games on Friday and Saturday, before catching the Sunday afternoon WBC game after the conference ends. You’d get to see the U.S. squad play all three of their games, watching a match-up against each of their pool opponents in Canada, Mexico, and Italy. It’s not necessarily a classic spring training trip, but it’d be a pretty fun weekend in Phoenix, and the WBC only happens once every four years.
Buy seats in the shade.
Phoenix can be very hot. The games are played in the hottest part of the day. Most of the seats at most of the stadiums are not covered by any kind of overhang. If you sit near the field or down one of the lines, you’re almost certainly going to bake for three hours. Look at the seating charts ahead of time and figure out what areas are covered. If you’re going to a popular stadium, consider buying those tickets in advance – they usually fill up. You can buy tickets at the gate to nearly any stadium as long as you’re willing to sit in the sun, but everything is more enjoyable if you have some shade.
If you’re going for a prolonged trip, take a break from baseball in the middle.
Phoenix isn’t the only thing in Arizona, though it may feel that way when you start to drive out of the city. But, two hours north, the Red Rocks and Sedona make for a nice day trip. The Grand Canyon is another hour and a half from there, if you want to really see the beauty of northern Arizona. Even within the city, there are some mountains to hike and scenery to be enjoyed. If you’re only in town for a few days, you might want to maximize your baseball viewing, but if you’re staying a while, consider seeing what else the area has to offer.
Those are my suggestions, but I’m sure you guys have plenty of your own. So, experienced spring training travelers — especially ones with Florida experience, since I’m kind of useless when it comes to the Grapefruit League — feel free and put your own suggestions in the comments below.