Finding the Best Deal on Airfare – Updated

 

Several years ago, I wrote  How to Get the Best Deal on Airfare .  While many of the tips there are still good information, time has brought about a few changes.  Thus an updated article.  🙂

What HASN’T changed?  Airfare is still determined by the Law of Supply and Demand.  What has changed is the ‘demand’….and because of that, the ‘supply’.  Interpretation:  As consumer’s have purchased more tickets (demand),  airlines have listened and added planes and flights (supply) to meet the need.   That can mean good bargains for travelers.

  1. Time It Right: The best time to purchase airfare seems to be about 7-8 weeks out (more specifically 49-54 days) up to 3 wks prior to travel.  Booking less than 21 or more than 200 days out brings some of the worst fares.aircraft-holiday-sun-tourism-99567
  2. Don’t Pay Baggage Fees If You Don’t Have To:  At this time, Delta, United and American are offering 1 free checked bag per person to their credit card holders IF the reservation is made on their website and paid for with that card.  You can apply for the credit card right before purchasing the ticket.  After approval, you then use that card number to purchase the ticket. These cards typically have an annual fee associated with them, but most (though not all)  waive it for the 1st year.  After that ‘grace period’ we always cancel the card.  I refuse to pay a fee for ANY credit card…..EVER!!   Now, the last time we called to cancel, they offered us a ‘stay with us’ deal. We met their criteria and they waived the fee a 2nd year.  They did NOT offer that option the following year.
  3. Compare Total Costs: Southwest and Jet Blue do not charge baggage fees.  That doesn’tUS dollar necessarily mean their flights are cheaper though.  Sometimes, a ticket PLUS baggage fee is still less expensive than a ticket on one of these ‘no baggage fee’ airlines…  As you’re price shopping make sure you’re comparing the TOTAL COST (ticket + bags).  Note that these airlines don’t sell reserved seats.  Instead, they sell ‘boarding groups’.  You pay to board earlier and get first choice on seats.  Though we occasionally fly with these airlines, I really prefer to have a reserved seat….just my personal opinion.
  4. More Info About those Baggage Fees:  While we’re on the subject of baggage fees, American waives the baggage fees on a number of flights from the U.S. to Brazil, Europe or Japan. Find out more about this from their website..
  5. ‘WHEN you Buy’ Matters: The best day of the week to purchase airfare used to be Tues.

    Photo Credit: Dafne Cholet CC Lic.

    However, trends are changing.  Weekends have become the ‘new Tuesday’ when buying airfare within the US or to Europe and some great bargains can be snagged on Saturdays.  Worst day to purchase (any) travel?  Fridays!  (That’s when business travelors are booking.)

  6. Fly midweek (Tues-Thurs) rather than weekends (Fri – Mon) if possible to get bargain airfares.  Websites now show fares for  +/- 3 days of your selected date making this much easier to compare.  We’ve moved our vacation dates a couple of days to take advantage of lower fares – especially when buying 4 tickets.
  7. Include a Saturday Night Stay:  You’ll find some of the best bargains on round trip tickets if you include a Saturday night in your stay.
  8. Always check surrounding airports  Sometimes if you’re willing to just drive 20-30 miles, you can save significant money.
  9. Allegiant Air MAY…..I repeat MAY…. be a good deal  Just be aware that they take the whole ‘nickel and dime’ thing to the extreme.  They charge for things the major airlines do NOT charge for – carry ons, blankets, pillows.  Now, because their flights are sooo cheap, this may still be a good deal. You just have to crunch the numbers…and again, look at the ‘total cost’ rather than just the cost of the ticket.  Consolidate your packing (including carry on bags) and bring your own lightweight cover and/or inflatable pillow.  🙂

Saving even just $25/ticket -with free bags – for a family of 4 – round trip – amounts to a savings of $300.  Remember when compare shopping to figure in ALL of these (ticket, baggage fees AND any extras) to determine the best deal.

 

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Vacation By Groupon

 

File:G logo groupon green on white.jpg

 

I’ve been receiving Groupon travel/get away emails for several years.  Everytime I scroll through them…click on a few things, then exit out.  I’ve just been apprehensive about traveling that way.  This year, though, I decided to try it and we snagged a few really great bargains.  I will search for Groupons on all future trips.:)

Now….I found that the best bargains are for admissions, rather than hotels.  More on that in a bit…First…

Here’s my story:

Our vacation this year was a little closer to home –  Texas – Presidential libraries (there are 3), Johnson Space Center and 5 days in Galveston (a place we’ve cruised out of several times, but never taken the time to stay and explore)

In my vacation planning this time, I began exploring the Groupon website to find out what they had to offer.

  • George H. W. Bush Presidential Library 
Image result for free images presidential library

Photo Credit: Natl Archives & Records Admin. – Public Domain

I was shocked to see this. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a discount to a Presidential Library.  They all have ‘free days”…in fact, our visit to the Lyndon Johnson Library in Austin jut happened to be on his birthday Aug 27 and admission was FREE!  However, those free days tend to work better for locals who are there to take advantage of them.  That’s a little harder for tourists to do.  Other than the scheduled free days, discounts are rare.

But there it was…Admission for 2 for $10.  Then…as my luck was going, Groupon was offering 20% off of 3 purchases that day.  I didn’t have anything else more expensive I wanted to use that coupon on so I just used it on this.  I got the 2 tickets for $8.  Regular admission for this library was $9 per person.  Savings of $10

  • NASA/Johnson Space Center  Webster TX

This place is PHENOMENAL!!  I’ve been to the Kennedy Space Center in Titusville, FL several times.  Though we certainly enjoyed our visits there (That’s where they build the rockets)  Johnson Space Center (Houston) is Mission Control and it’s MASSIVE!  They have a extensive museum, with films, programs, demonstrations and activities as well as a couple of tram tours of the grounds. We arrived here at opening and stayed until they were about to kick us out.  It was a LONG day…but a really good one!  🙂

I snagged a remarkable bargain on this one.  The regular admission was posted on Groupon as $24.95.  Groupons price of $16 each was a good price.However, when we arrived, the admission was actually $31.00.  I basically got a 2 For 1 deal!!  I was patting myself on the back all day for that one!  haha!!!

  • There was one Groupon that I considered, but decided to wait until we got to Galveston to check out before purchasing. (Remember, Groupons are non-refundable) This was a place that rented bicycles, carts, surf boards, body boards, etc…  The groupon was $50/day for 1 paddleboard.  I wanted to check this business out before making a $50-$100 purchase.  When we got to Galveston, we found this shop and went in.  Well… I just didn’t have a good feeling about it….  We left.  I’m SO glad we checked them out first. I will mention here, if we had decided we wanted it, we could have either purchased the Groupon on our phone app  while standing there or gone back to the condo and Bargainsused the laptop for a little more security. With Groupons addition of the phone  app, you don’t have to print them, however, in cases where you DO need a printout, most hotels, condos, etc… have business centers with printers you can use.

If  you find something interesting, but still have questions/reservations about it, check the Groupon expiration date.  If you can wait on it, that allows you to check things out before making a non-refundable purchase.

Restaurants:

I checked out Groupons for restaurants too, but because we rent condos with kitchens and eat out sparingly, we had already used TripAdvisor to select WHERE we wanted to eat. There were no Groupons for those few places.  ha! I should note though, that Groupons DOES offer good bargains on restaurants if you find something you like.  That’s probably another thing I would wait to purchase until we arrived at our destination…just my personal opinion.

Now for hotels:

I really wanted to find a good hotel on Groupon. This was becoming our “Vacation By Groupon” and I kind of wanted to roll with that theme. Our hotel stays were in Austin, Webster, College Station and Dallas. (Our stay in Galveston was a condo through  VRBO  or it’s sister company Home Away  .   If you’re unfamiliar with  these, find out more info at  Finding Frugal Accommodations….) Anyway, in my search for hotels in these other cities, it seemed that Groupon just didn’t have what I was looking for. The hotels were either not in locations we needed or the rates weren’t any better than I could get going to the individual websites and using my AAA discount.

How Does  Groupon Sell Hotel Rooms:

  1. You purchase the certificate then call the hotel to make your reservations. (You’ll be limited to their availability AFTER you’ve purchased a non-refundable certificate)
  2. You purchase the certificate for the exact date you need.  That would typically be my preference, except with it being non-refundable, that doesn’t allow for any change of plans, emergencies, trip cancellation, etc…

When I realized that the Groupon rate advertised is the CHEAPEST they offer at any time…and typically, the night I needed would be significantly higher, I realized Groupon was NOT going to work for us for accommodations.  Oh well.  I learned some important things in all my searches.  It wasn’t wasted time or effort.  I ended up reserving our hotels on their websites using my AAA discount and got really good rates…and they were refundable if I needed to cancel.

Maybe someday I’ll find that perfect Groupon rate for a wonderful hotel stay…but for now, it just didn’t work.

Moving on…..

Cruising with Groupon:

I DID find some short cruises for really good rates on Groupon.  cruise shipsSomeday I think I’ll look into buying one of those.  They advertise the cruise line, ship and port.  (seemed to be a heavy presence of Carnival cruises…) Then you choose your date.  I never went far enough through the process to find out if you can also choose your cabin (which would be a deal-breaker for me…) because I didn’t want to accidentally make a purchase if I clicked one too many times. haha!  I’ll investigate this further someday….

Until then…Happy Grouponing!!  🙂

My Personal Step-by-Step Vacation Planning

These were originally posted as I was planning our vacation – It was 7 posts.  As I’ve  ‘cleaned’ things up in the blog and organized everything to make it more user friendly, I’ve combined them….

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January 30, 2015

As I plan our vacation this year, I’ll walk readers through the steps I go through….in real time…as I’m doing it.   My goal is to post every few days (early in the process when there’s much to do) and then every few weeks – detailing exactly what I did.  It’s really not as overwhelming as it may seem initially.

So….here goes…  🙂

Our vacation is in the spring this year – I have just a few months to plan it all.

First – a confession….   We own a timeshare.  This is not something I’m happy about…or proud of, but it’s a fact, none-the-less.  That means that our vacations are often dictated by timeshare availability – to keep from wasting the yearly maintenance fees. Our plan is to get rid of this (SOON!!) but first to visit some places we probably wouldn’t visit otherwise…

Now….Here’s my thoughts and decisions over the last 48 hours:

  1. Our time share offered some great deals to Vegas, Tahoe and Daytona.  We been discussing these 3 options for a couple of weeks and decided we could go to BOTH Vegas and Tahoe in one trip…  This would give us the best value on our timeshare points.
  2. Allegiant Air had REALLY inexpensive flights to Las Vegas.  We could  fly there, spend a few days seeing Hoover Dam, Death Valley, etc… (we aren’t gamblers and don’t care much for Vegas ‘entertainment’)  Then we drive to Tahoe and spend the remaining 5-6 days there (Yosemite is not too far away).
  3. Thought process:  As I began looking into the feasibility of this plan, I discovered that the drive to Tahoe is 7 hrs  (Yosemite is another 4 hrs PLUS a hotel stay). Then of course, we’d need to drive BACK to Vegas to catch our return flight…..  (No Allegiant Air flights from Reno to home.) A one way flight from Reno on another airline would be VERY expensive.  This plan was quickly becoming a vacation of MANY driving days…longer than the time we had….and a LOT of money!!!  It was dying a tragic death….   Abandon Plan!!
  4. We made the decision to skip Vegas –  Instead, we’ll fly into Reno on a round trip ticket, go to Yosemite then spend significant time in Lake Tahoe.  More time to relax sounded really nice!  Now, it should be mentioned that Tahoe is mostly about skiing, water sports and casinos. Obviously, spring when we would be visiting would not be conducive to those things, but that was ‘ok’ with us.   We want to sightsee, hike, tour mining towns, visit museums and relax.  A ‘base camp’ in Tahoe would provide us with all of those things…away from HUGE crowds.
  5. The next day, my search for flights turned up Southwest and American Airlines as having the best fares.  Choosing between Southwest and American will happen later. NOTE:  I compare fares on the consolidator websites, but always purchase on the airlines official website to take advantage of perks there.  I do the same with hotels.
  6. Yosemite is a ‘must do’ for this trip. However, the 4+ hour drive from Reno would necessitate a hotel stay. We wanted to do this either at the beginning or end of our stay in Tahoe. Based on our flight times, I realized it would ‘fit’ better at the beginning. After a little research, I liked the areas of Sonora or Jamestown, CA for our hotel stay.  The area has historical significance so our evenings there will be ‘full’. The tentative plans is to land in Reno that morning and drive to the Sonora/Jamestown area that afternoon.  There will be time to explore this historical mining town that evening.  We’ll go to Yosemite Nat’l Park-  (about a 90 min drive)  the next day.  The following day (day 3) we’ll make a leisurely drive to Tahoe (200 miles)  stopping at anything interesting along the way.
  7. We could make our stay in Tahoe 6, 7 or 8 nights.  I spent a little time reading about things to do in the area.  Based on this, we opted for 7 or 8 nights.  Now, my husband just needed to request time off at work. Every thing (reservations) are on hold until he gets approval.
  8. Tomorrow, he will submit that vacation request.  IF they approve his dates (fingers crossed….)  then we’ll spend the weekend reserving the timeshare and buying airfare.  I’m feeling a little pinched for time.  I don’t want these timeshare availabilities to ‘disappear’.   🙂

For now, everything’s ‘on hold’   🙂

How much time did all this take?  I spent about 2 hours Wednesday night…then a couple of hours Thursday on the research.  I shared it all with my husband over dinner both Wed. and Thurs nights and decisions were made over coffee and dessert!  🙂    This is probably the most time consuming portion of the planning….

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February 1, 2015

Great!  My husband texted Friday afternoon saying that the vacation dates were approved.  Onward!    🙂 🙂

I won’t make any reservations until he gets home…It’s a ‘thing’ with us to make the reservations together.  ha!  In the meantime, I’ll decide between Southwest or American Airlines.

  1. Thought Process:  These flights are the same price – down to the penny… (benefit of competition….ha)    🙂  They both are offering a $100 statement credit  for applying for  their credit card AND using it to purchase the tickets.  American gives 1 free checked bag/passenger to their credit card holders.  Southwest doesn’t charge any baggage fees.  Things look pretty ‘even’ so far…but what about those pesky little annual fees?  Ahha…That’s where they differed.   American is waiving that fee for the first year.  Southwest will charge it immediately – $99.  That totally negates their $100 discount!!!   Decision made – we’re flying American!  🙂  I’m pleased as I don’t really care for Southwest’s boarding process – no reserved seats.  (NOTE:  We’ll cancel the credit card in 11½ months!!.  We REFUSE to pay annual fees…..)
  2. Now I want to know about visiting Yosemite.  This time of year (Spring) may present some off-season disadvantages (roads not yet opened; limited hours at visitor centers, etc…)   However, the advantages to traveling at this time is less congestion, lower rates, etc… I just need to confirm there will be enough roads  open in the Sierra Nevadas to make it worth our time.  This process proved a bit frustrating, unfortunately, as the NPS.gov site was NOT giving clear information and the phone number was automated.  That afternoon I stopped by the AAA office for Tourbooks (a WONDERFUL benefit of AAA membership, by the way) and there I found the information I was looking for.  There would be some closed roads, but we would be able to see as much of the park as we could fit into a day.  We can be happy with that.  🙂
  3. Hotels in Sonora:  We have to choose between a ‘historic’ hotel which will be all about the experience but forgo the amenities or modern updates….OR a modern hotel which would have the modern updates/amenities but omit the ‘flavor’ of the historic area.  After reading many reviews, I still couldn’t make a decision.
  4. Friday evening, we tried to make the timeshare reservation but their website was down.  I finally made a phone call and that ended up being a GREAT thing.  They offered me some incentives for another trip.  I made the timeshare reservation, got my ‘incentives’ and heaved a sigh of relief.  I had been worried the availability would ‘disappear’ while we were in ‘holding mode’.  🙂

Saturday morning:

  1. Time to purchase airfare.  We applied for the credit card to get the $100 discount then used the card to purchase the tickets.  🙂
  2. Now with confirmed flight times, we can reserve a rental car. My strategies for finding the best rate on rental cars is in   Finding Bargains on Rental Cars.  In reading that you’ll see that I don’t worry about rate when I reserve a car.  I just reserve it to get in the system, then cancel and rebook as the rate goes down. I research these on consolidators, but again, only make the reservations on the company websites.  The best deal there (today…) was with  Thrifty – $244.  I reserved it.  Then I grabbed a 3×5 card and wrote pertinent information (company name, confirmation # and rate)   As I find it cheaper I’ll reserve and record the new information there.  This will be my record as I cancel and rebook throughout this process.  I LOVE to go back and see what I have saved…  🙂 haha!!
  3. The last thing I did was to create a ‘vacation’ folder in my email and drop all the email confirmations from today into it.  They will be easy to locate if I have a questions or when I need to locate the rental car reservation to cancel/rebook.

It’s all Done!!!   🙂

Time Invested in This Part:

Friday:   about 1½ hours or research;    Saturday:  about an hour

The most time consuming things are done for now….From here on out, it’s just the ‘fun stuff’  🙂 🙂

Speaking of the ‘fun stuff’….  My husband had to go in to work this evening for a few hours.  It’s a dreary rainy day so I’m going to curl up with a cup of tea and my AAA Tourbooks.image  This sounds like an absolutely marvelous way to spend a few hours!  🙂  I’m not including this in the ‘time investment’.  This isn’t a necessity…this is just FUN!!!  🙂  🙂

I’m going to go read now  🙂

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February 11, 2015

Most of the decisions/reservations are made – so my main focus for this last week was to upload and edit pictures from the camera so the memory cards would be empty and ready for new and beautiful images of Lake Tahoe and Yosemite.  That seems to be the ONE thing I procrastinate with….then stress over in the last few weeks before our vacation because memory cards need to be empty before we leave.

My Accomplishments last week:

  1. I downloaded 600-700 pictures from the camera and began sorting, purging and  editing….   Kudos to those who stay on top of this task!!!  🙂 🙂 🙂
  2. Something interesting came up in a conversation with my husband this week.  I told him I had reserved our rental car – a ‘compact’.  With just the two of us and 2 suitcases, we like to get the best gas mileage possible.  He brought up an interesting point…the steep mountain passes would require a car with more power than a compact would probably have.  This was not something I’d thought of.  Our trips to the Rockies and Smokey’s were in our personal vehicle – which has power to handle the climbs.  He had a valid point – I changed the reservation.
  3. OneDrive is my planning program of choice, so I spent about 5 minutes  setting up my OneNote notebook.  I sent a few webpages there (NPS.gov) then  synced it all 🙂

Several days later:

4. Thoughts progressed to meals and groceries which we’ll need very soon after arriving.   I checked Walmart.com for locations of Walmart stores. Because I live in the “Land of Walmarts”,  I’m used to Supercenters every 3 miles. That is NOT the case in NV/CA. Not only are there fewer Walmarts….but most of what I found were not Supercenters (with groceries). I 2 and sent the maps to OneNote.  They’re not conveniently located so we’ll probably just find a grocery store when we get there.  NOT what I prefer, but not a tragedy by any means.  haha!!   🙂

5. Over the weekend, we went shopping – clearance sales (and ‘fun’)  At Macy’s, we came across this little dandy – “packable” down coats. The coat stuffs into the left hand pocket – In the picture below, there are TWO coats – the green one…..and the navy one packed inside the bag. Identical size, brand, etc…image  I expect chilly mornings – perhaps chilly days in Tahoe and Yosemite. Packing coats (with airline baggage fees) was not exciting to me. These are the perfect solution…extremely lightweight and compact  (approx. 12×6)  🙂    Best part…they were on clearance..  Regular $195 – with 60% off…then an additional 30% off…and a $10 coupon.  We paid about $50 each for them including tax!!  We’re planning an Alaskan cruise… someday….. and they’ll come in handy then too.  That makes it easier to justify the purchase.

Time Investment on all this?

I spent about 3-4 hours on Sunday afternoon with the pictures, however, I don’t include that as vacation planning time….  That’s something I should have done a year ago….  🙂 🙂

I’m also not including the shopping time in my estimates.  Shopping is NEVER a job….and typically takes all day!  haha

With the rest, I probably didn’t spend more than 30 minutes   🙂

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March 28, 2015

It’s been over a month.  With the major plans/reservations made it hasn’t been that ‘pressing’.  This can really all be done with minimal effort once the major decisions and reservations are done.   🙂

So….what have I accomplished this month?  The list is long, but remember, I did this over a month’s time.    🙂

  • I finished the photos and cleared the memory card.  Yay!  🙂
  • More Information Gathering for things to do in and around Tahoe and the Lake.  Everything isn’t open this time of year – or only open limited hours.  That meant I needed to know when they were open to avoid wasting time driving to things that were closed. Finding this info online was NOT an easy task but when I finally found it, I discussed it all with my husband one evening at our favorite coffee shop.  He had some opinions…  🙂  and we each made our “Top List” of things we wanted to do.  Other things went onto the “If we can” or “If we have time” List.  🙂  🙂  All this information goes to OneNote so it can be referenced later.
  • Nps.gov/Yosemite began giving updates on road closures and openings for the spring this month. Everything is still listed as tentative, but that’s better than no information at all.  Some roads were slated to open April 1 and others April 15.  A few won’t open until May but we’ll be able to see enough of the park to make for an enjoyable visit.  That being said, I knew that with the unpredictability of weather, I made a Plan b –just in case there was a huge snowfall in the Sierra Nevadas the week before we arrived.  Our secondary Plan was a trip to Sacramento.  There are quite a few interesting things to see/do there.  I certainly HOPE that Yosemite as a destination doesn’t fall through, but if it does, we have an alternative.  I’m prepared!!  🙂
  • The next thing on my list to think about is menus.

We stay in condos and cook most of our meals. In order to know what spices/seasonings to bring, and what to buy at the grocery store so everything is used and nothing is wasted (thrown away) on our last morning, I have to plan menus. I also bring a few of my own homemade ‘mixes’ for baked goods (cornbread, pancakes, etc…) in order to use whole wheat flour and organic ingredients.

My plan is to have leisurely mornings at the condo with big breakfasts – since we expect it to be cool outside.  Then, we’ll probably want light lunches (fruit, salads, etc….)  We’ll cook nice evening meals that are easy to prepare and require very few ingredients to minimize waste.

I came up with menus that could be planned for one night, then ‘re-invented’ later in the week as an ‘ingredient’ or side item for another meal.  For example, I’ll cook beans one night….then use what’s left in taco salad the next night and as a side item with the enchiladas 3 days later.  Left-over taco meat becomes a topping for the baked potatoes and/or chili on the hotdogs, etc…  Everything is inter-linked.

My Menus:

  • beans and cornbread
  • taco salad
  • baked potatoes with toppings
  • chicken enchiladas
  • hotdogs with chili
  • fried chicken strips and potatoes  and veggies

This is 6 meals for 8 nights, but having done this before, I KNOW that’s enough food- possibly allowing for a last-minute decision to try a local restaurant if we wish…  It will keep us fed all week!  🙂

Breakfast:

  • Fresh fruit  (A staple for us!)  🙂
  • cereal
  • steel cut oats and/or malt-o-meal
  • eggs, bacon and toast  (If we want Sante Fe omelets, I’ll have the ingredients )
  • pancakes (Our preference is waffles, but most condos don’t have waffle makers….)   😦

Lunch:

  • sandwiches & chips/veggies for picnics
  • salads for days at the condo/resort
  • Lighter lunch of fruit, almonds, peanut butter, crackers, etc… when we’ve had a big breakfast  🙂

I make/bring my own homemade baking mixes for cornbread and pancakes.    (I’m particular about ingredients….)  I’ll just add eggs, oil and milk to them.   🙂

Using every item and ingredient we purchase at the grocery store (without having to throw anything away on the last morning) has become like a game for me.  I’ve gotten pretty good at it over the years.  🙂

I come up with multiple ways to use things – I mentioned how I utilize the beans and/or taco meat.  I’ll buy a 5# bag of potatoes and between fried potatoes, hashbrowns, baked potatoes, etc… we should be able to eat them all.  If there’s any left, I can always make hashbrowns for breakfast.  🙂   Cheese is in almost every item on the list.  I’ll purchase a LARGE block of it…and HOPE it lasts the entire week without having to return to the store for more.  ha!

I actually bring cereal in our suitcases.  Why?   We could never eat an entire box of hot or cold cereal – certainly not more than 1 box if we wanted variety during the week. So, I bring 2-4 servings of each of the cereals (cold and hot)  in Ziploc bags in my suitcase and we get the variety that we want.  When it’s eaten, I have room in the suitcase for souvenirs.  🙂

Our last day’s menus are always ‘whatever’s in the kitchen’.  We may have some unusual combinations/meals, but it’s always good food….I’ve never heard complaints.    🙂

Now……..with menus decided, I can make my lists of things to take and what to buy at the grocery store in Tahoe.  Any seasonings I need (chili powder, garlic powder, salt and pepper) will be in my suitcase (prescription bottles, washed out, work great for this)  Then, a few weeks before we leave, I’ll pull out coupons for grocery store purchases to take with us.

Time Investment in this:   Photos:  LOTS of time!   Researching Tahoe, Yosemite and coming up with Plan b: 2-3 hours.  Menus & lists – probably 30 minutes.  This list doesn’t really change much from vacation to vacation.  I’ve found what works well to eliminate waste…..No need to ‘reinvent the wheel’ every year….

All of this was done over 5-6 weeks.    🙂  It’s not that much to do in a month and a half.

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April 6, 2015

The vacation countdown is beginning.   🙂

More Information gathering:

  • Day trips to nearby mining towns (Virginia City, Carson City, Genoa)
  • Nps.gov website for updated info on road openings/closing in Yosemite.  Because weather is constantly changing, I needed to keep on top of this.

I learned that Mariposa Road and Glacier Point Road will be open.  Snow has been lighter this year so roads are opening sooner than normal.  🙂 🙂

My searches through the NPS website also turned up an APP for Yosemite.  After so much frustration at the absence of information on their website, I found everything I needed in the app!!!

My Short-Lived Rant:  I understand the concept of putting info in an app.  That’s great!   But to NOT have that info on the Nat’l Park website as well just makes no sense to me.   OK, rant over!  🙂

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Next, I began researching Carson City and Virginia City.

I’ve noted through all this that California and Nevada don’t update their websites with the current season’s information until the season opens making advance planning very challenging. Typically, you would not have this much trouble gathering information as most tourist areas keep their websites updated year round.

What Did I Find?  Some wonderful local Festivals (we LOVE these!!!) going on while we’re in the area.

  • May 1  Free Museum admission to museums in Virginia City, NV   (called Flashback Fridays)

  • May 2-3 Chili on the Comstock in Virginia City
  • Apr 30-May 2  Cowboy Festival in Genoa
  • To NOTE:  Treetop Adventure Park (ziplining, etc…) is ONLY  open on weekends this time of year – i.e. May 2-3.  IF we want to do that, we’ll have to plan it for that weekend.

While we are  “museum people”….We’re also particular about the type of museums we go to.  We only want to spend our time on the really GOOD ones.  ha!!  There are several in Virginia City that I want to check out.

The wonderful thing about a ‘free’ day  (in addition to the ‘free’ part) is the fact that we can walk into a museum, look around for 10 minutes and decide if we’re interested in staying.  If we are, that’s great!   However, if we aren’t interested in what we see there, we can walk out without feeling like we wasted money on the admission.  NOTE:  Most museums have ‘free’ days… at various intervals.  Always check on this if museums are on your list of things to do.  🙂   .

{Edit after we returned:  To get the ‘tickets’ for free admission, we had to go to the Visitor Ctr.  There they told us they wanted a ‘donation’ to support their restoration efforts.  Again…no problem…until they told me what the ‘suggested donation’ was…MORE than it would have cost to come any day and pay the admission to the museums we wanted to visit.  They valued the ‘free ticket’ on someone going to ALL the museums listed.   I donated…but NOT what they ‘suggested’…I came away feeling like the ‘Free Museum Admission Day” was a ploy…joke.  Oh well.  We THOROUGHLY enjoyed the museums we visited….and I think we saved .50 each over what we would have paid for the admissions on a regular day.  ha!    

Looking at the dates above, I came up with a tentative schedule to make sure we don’t miss something that we want to see/do.

  • Apr. 30 Genoa Cowboy Festival:  I don’t know if we’ll like this, but we’ll check it out.  If we decide not to stay, we can head to Carson City  – we’ll be halfway there.
  • May 1 – Virginia City –  town and Museums
  • May 2 Tree Top Adventure Park –   We’ll go there and investigate -.  If we like it we’ll stay, if not, we’ll find something else to do that day.  🙂
  • May 3 Chili on the Comstock in Virginia City –  I think we’ll drive back to Virginia City for this.   My husband enters (and sometimes wins) chili cook-offs.  He’s looking forward to this!  🙂
      • NOTE:  Tickets for this have to be pre-purchased.  We’ll check in to this on our FIRST visit to Virginia City May 1)  🙂  I don’t want to pre-purchase them in case we change our minds….

Moving on…..

  • I’ve been checking the rental car prices every week since I first made that reservation.  The price hasn’t fluctuated until the last 2 weeks.  The rate has FINALLY started to come down.  I’ve saved over $50 by canceling and re-booking our reservation. (3 times)  It took about 5 minutes each time – to check rates, reserve, then cancel the old reservation.  Of course, these confirmations were always dropped into a folder in my e-mail, so they were easy to locate and cancel.

Time investment:  Reading, researching and sending pages to OneNote:  90 minutes;  Finding, downloading and “playing” with the Yosemite app:  30-40 minutes  🙂

Breakfast with hubby at Burger King (where they have wi-fi)  to discuss it all and find out what museums he’s interested in:  a very relaxing and lazy 2 hours (we enjoyed our time and had many refills on the coffee!!  🙂 🙂

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April 23, 2015

Things are getting really busy now so I’ll just give a quick bullet list of things I’ve done this week.

Websites Visited:

  • Yosemite National Park:  Re-checking roads to make sure nothing has changed.  🙂 They’ve had some snow this week but all looks good – no need to worry about Plan b.  🙂  
  • Hotel reservation for Sonora.  I wanted to get the best rate -which was the non-refundable reservation.  When I do that, I usually wait until the last minute to make sure nothing is going to interrupt our travel plans….  (NOTE:  This tactic would NOT work if we were traveling during the busy tourist season.  For off-season travel it worked fine. ) 
  • Rental car rates:  After that $50 drop in the rate a month ago, the rates have not changed.  This time, I deleted cookies in hopes that would produce a rate drop.  It didn’t…. I’ll continue to check every 3-4 days, but the rate we currently have is pretty good – $217 for 11 days
  • Gasbuddy.comThe map feature on this let me know that gas prices go up .50 at the CA border.  (lets me know that the price variance is a state tax thing….)   Our condo is 1/2 mi. from the border so getting gas in NV will not be a problem. 🙂

Last few things I did:

  • Typed up an itinerary for family – lists the airline flight numbers/times and phone numbers for hotel and condo in case we can’t be contacted through our cell phones. I’ll send these out  (Facebook or email) the night before we leave.  I put that on my “ToDo” list.  🙂  The night before we leave is always very hectic and if things aren’t on the list, they’ll most likely be forgotten….  
  • Made arrangements with our (adult) kids to be our ride to and from the airport.  It just so happens that our flight times work within their schedules so they can save us parking fees.  🙂  
  • Gathered coupons for items on our grocery list and a few fast food coupons  (thinking particularly of the airport).   I have 2 coupon envelopes – labeled – one for groceries; one for restaurants.  These go in my carry on.
  • We’ve accumulated quite a few brochures, AAA Tourbooks, etc… through this process.  All of those were very helpful while planning, but would be very bulky/heavy to take with us.  I want some of the information  (maps in particular as GPS is not always reliable – especially in the mountains).  I pulled JUST the pages I needed from those brochures. Everything else went in the trash.
  • I put together my folder and labeled the categories.  wp-1429755874416I’ll print confirmations next week and file them in there.

All of this probably took 2-3 hours over the course of a week….

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April 27, 2015

Well….  It’s almost time to pack and go!  For this post, I’ll write what  I WILL be doing rather than what I’ve already done….  The closer we get to ‘departure day’, the more I will need to be ‘doing’ and not ‘writing’.  🙂

WHAT I’LL DO THIS WEEK:

  • I have a small amount of grocery shopping to do (snack items for our carry on bags, etc.. )  I also need to make sure there’s adequate bread, milk, corn dogs, peanut butter and jelly for my college son who’s staying home. 🙂  (I’ll cook & freeze some of his favorite meals too, but he always asks for an ample supply of corn dogs and pbj)
  • I’ll put the spices/seasonings we’re taking in plastic prescription bottles (washed out very carefully).  Cereal (both hot and cold) will go in Ziploc bags.  I’ll make the baking mixes (cornbread and pancakes) and snack mix bags (dried fruit and nuts).  All of these go in a small Rubbermaid container in my suitcase – just in case something busts with airline handling.
  • Two days before we leave, I’ll cook food to leave here for my son –   He’ll be starting finals that week so I want to make things as easy as I can for him.  He gives me requests of the things he wants (it never changes year to year ha!)   I’ll cook ‘assembly-line style’ and have everything done in an hour or so.
  • Laundry (because clothes have to be clean before I can pack  🙂 🙂
  • Clean the House –  bathrooms, mopping, vacuuming and dusting.  Not only do I HATE to come home to a dirty house, but 2 days after we get home we’ll have guests.  I want to get everything ready for company before we leave.
  • Stop mail and newspaper and take care of the lawn (With all the rain this spring, we’re having to mow earlier than usual)  These things fall to my husband so I don’t really worry about them, however, I ALWAYS put them on my list so I can have the pleasure of marking them off without having to actually ‘do’ them first.  🙂
  • PACK!  🙂    That’s a ‘given’, right?  🙂

THE DAY BEFORE WE LEAVE:

  • Charge camera batteries
  • Print/Copy/Gather
    • Confirmations for rental car, condo, hotel, etc…  all placed in my  travel file folder.  (I’ll check rental car rates one last time before doing this.) wp-1429755874416
    • Auto Insurance:  Put auto insurance card in wallet and copied page from insurance policy showing coverage in rental vehicles in the folder.
  • Check in for flight and print boarding passes.  I like paper copies of these rather than phone apps.  Paper doesn’t break if you drop it…..  🙂
  • Clean the kitchen from top to bottom; run the dishwasher and unload it before going to bed (My son will clean up his mealtime dishes, etc… and put them in the dishwasher IF it’s empty.)
  • Check Weather.com to see if I need to make any last minute adjustments to our packing.    🙂

Time Investment in all this:  LOTS of time!!!  The week before we leave is always VERY full……  but I enjoy it!!  🙂

Cruises Part 1: Finding Bargains and Booking

Cruises CAN be a very economical vacation…it depends on several factors.  The claim from the cruise line is that because they are all-inclusive (accommodations, food, and transportation obviously!!  🙂 ), they cost less than other vacations.  This is (partially) true!  🙂

However, there are some factors that affect the cost of your cruise.  These decisions are what determines the final cost you will pay.

  • Transportation TO the port: Driving, even if it takes 2 days and requires a hotel stay en route, will almost always be more economical.  Airfare is typically more expensive.  Of course, IF your drive is 3+ days and 2+ hotel stays….or if you find that ‘once in a lifetime’ bargain airfare, by all means, FLY!!! 🙂  NOTE:  If cruising out of FL, check Allegiant Airlines.  They service the tourist areas and offer some great fares. Be sure to add into your budget all the extra charges (carryon bag fees, pillow, blanket, etc…) they add in when you board to get an accurate idea of the cost.
  • Cabin Type and Location:  Cabins are priced from interior (least expensive) up to Luxury Suites (most expensive). They are also priced according to location – from forward (cheapest) to Aft (mid-price) to mid-ship (most expensive).  The lower decks are sometimes cheaper than higher decks.  Each of these factors affects the price of your cruise.   
  • Activities in Port:  Cruise sponsored excursions are more expensive than excursions purchased on your own.
  • What you Spend On Board:  This of course, is just like anything else.  YOU determine what you spend

If you’ve decided that a cruise is for you, then consider these questions/decisions:

SHOULD I GO THROUGH A TRAVEL AGENT?

Though I don’t advocate going through a travel agent for any other type of vacation, with a cruise it really doesn’t make any difference in the price you pay (Find a travel agent who doesn’t charge for his/her services).  Their commission is paid by the cruise line – NOT by you.  They can sometimes offer perks that make purchasing through them a bargain.  In doing this though, it’s important to find a GOOD agent – but get  recommendations from friends. I DON’T recommend finding one through an advertisement.

Advantages To A Travel Agent:

  • If you’re a first time cruiser unfamiliar with the differences in the cruise lines (what they offer, who they cater to, what ‘experience’ they offer)  a professional can direct you to the cruise line that can best meet your wants/needs.  Finding this information on your own can be challenging as the company websites don’t typically advertise this information. ha!
  • They will take care of all communication between you and the cruise line – if you need a price adjustment or want to change your dining arrangements, cabin location, or anything associated with your reservation.  In fact, if you book through a travel agent, all communications MUST go through them.  You won’t be able to call the cruise line yourself and make any changes to your reservation.  That can be an advantage or disadvantage depending on how you look at it.
  • “Full service agents” MAY print cruise documents and luggage tags for you.  You pick them up a few days before you leave.
  • Cruise lines sometimes offer incentives (shipboard credits)  to agents.  The agent decides if he/she wants to keep that for him/herself….or share it with you….   As you’re ‘shopping’ for an agent, ask if there are any special ‘incentives’ or ‘perks’ available for booking through them?
  • AAA members can secure some bargains when booking through AAA.

NOTE:  Before choosing an agent, make sure he/she does NOT charge a booking fee or ‘change’ fee to make any adjustments to your reservation (cabin changes, upgrades, etc…)  There are plenty of agents who don’t charge for these services.  Go with one of those.  🙂   

Advantages to Booking Yourself:

  • You are able to contact the cruise line directly to get any price adjustments or make changes/upgrades to your reservation. You don’t have to ‘wait’ on anyone else to do it.
  • If there is an upsell offer made, you can ‘jump’ on it quicker.  (Upsell is when the cruise line offers higher category cabins to their BOOKED passengers for an up-charge.)  These offers are emailed to whoever did the booking (either you…or a travel agent)  – but they are time-sensitive.  Getting that email yourself could make a difference in whether you are able to take advantage of the offer…or miss it.  (some travel agents are better than others about passing this info along QUICKLY!)
  • The last time we booked though a travel agent, we qualified for 2 price adjustments.  Our travel agent got those reductions for us, but it was SOOO apparent that she didn’t really want to do it. I’m sure she lost commission every time our fare went down…  😦  and even though I found the reductions in fare, I couldn’t call the cruise line to get those credits to our account…I HAD to go through her.  End result was that I was made to feel guilty every time I contacted her for a price adjustment.  (I asked anyway because it was a family cruise – price adjustment X 4).

NOTE:  Travelocity, Kayak, Expedia etc… ARE travel agents.  If you book through them, you will have to go through them for any changes to your reservation.  This can be an advantage or a disadvantage depending on your perspective.  They are HUGE companies so carry clout and offer good bargains and perks…but when you call them, you will never talk to the same person twice. On the ‘up side’, their call centers now takes messages and call you back eliminating the ‘forever on hold’ phenomenon…   Again…it’s all a matter of preference.

MY THOUGHTS:  I have determined that for our needs, I prefer to book directly through the cruiseline myself – waiting for the specific promotion or sale that I like. (they’re constantly changing)   Unless the incentives from the travel agent or broker are just SOOO wonderful that I simply can’t pass them up, I find it more of a hassle to communicate only through a 3rd party.  I prefer to do it myself.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/jamesgood/122007935/in/photolist-8ZvcDg-9B7iSC-iXx6p-5BLiYj-hLnY1Y-4gKS7g-dL7Cv3-7MmpUC-7sTMJk-9Bic2z-bMjH6-dcnSXe-bNpk3z-gmpJ63-bymgHn-ebCuwp-bG3cQM-8R7b2y-4HPfXX-4FRAbJ-4DwFhG-3e7jb5-iuZJCa-dtRGcZ-ch6aA7-ch6HQ3-d4tSj5-qycks-eG8ejF-ch6awS-e92145-e8Vm1Z-jg3LoW-9NGKrb-dbdGGh-ch6arq-ch6b7u-ch6aUw-ch6b3j-ch6aRs-ch6aWE-ch6b5m-75d52f-gu4dD-4HPg48-3yentU-77bpMD-7RgoVy-5Qfmdi-4B4Zpk

Photo Credit; James Good on Flickr CC Lic.

CHOOSING THE CRUISE LINE

Because the cruise lines are each different in their own way, it’s a good idea to find the one that ‘fits’ you.  Each company caters to a different type of traveler.  For example, Carnival ‘seems’ to cater to the younger crowd while Holland America ‘seems’ more for the older crowd.  Regent is for the ‘discriminating traveler” (as they put it, ha!) looking for 5 star accommodations and  dining.  They also give FREE airfare and unlimited FREE shore excursions (though in reality, their prices cover those costs….and then some….  haha)    Having said that, I must say that all the lines are making attempts to cross these generational (and income) boundaries so Stay Tuned!!

If I had to put them in order and categories based on level of luxury (and price), I would do it like this:

  • Carnival
  • Royal Caribbean;  Norwegian;
  • Princess
  • Holland America;    Celebrity;
  • Cunard;   Crystal;   Regent

Disney is a category all its own because it is so different from any of the others.  Do not think that ‘The Mouse’ is only for the kids, though.  Disney Cruises are just as nice for adults, honeymooners, grandparents.  They, too, are trying to NOT be put into a box.  You will pay for all the perks of a Disney cruise though.  They can be twice the price of the same cruise on Carnival.

Obviously, the more you pay, the higher level of luxury and pampering you will receive.  You get what you pay for on this as with anything else.

Best Cruise line for Kids and Families: Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, Princess, Disney
Best Cruise line for the ‘Over-50’ Crowd: Holland America, Celebrity or Royal Caribbean
Best Cruise line for singles: Carnival, Norwegian, Cunard, and Royal Caribbean

NOTE:  Most cruise lines have a policy about pregnant women sailing….  They will not allow a woman who is more than 24 wks. pregnant to board.  BE AWARE that this policy MAY not be ‘advertised’ on the website.  IF this pertains to you, search for this information or call the cruise line and inquire.  They WILL refuse boarding at the terminal to any pregnant woman determined to have passed the 24 wk. mark….possibly with no refund.  This probably should be in a more prominent place on websites, but so far I haven’t seen it there…

FINDING THE BEST PRICE ON A CRUISE

  • PROMOTIONS: All of the cruise lines have constantly changing promotions (Free this or that…Reduced Deposits…On Board Credit – i.e. credit put on your ship account to be used with ship purchases… Paid Gratuities…)  Spend some time finding out what options your cruise line offers..and book during the promotion that gives you the most of what you want)
  • DISCOUNTS:
    • Resident Rate: Many cruise lines offer a discount to residents of states with ports.
    • Military Discount:  This is pretty standard.  If you’ve served in the military  🙂 🙂 be sure to ask.
    • Discounts for various jobs:  Teachers, Fire/Public safety personnel
  • Timing plays a big role in pricing.  The BEST PRICES are usually found the day the cruise is put on the market.  If you can’t book that far in advance (18 mo??) then the next ‘best price’  and cabin choices will typically be found 90-120 days before the sailing date.  (of course, that’s also when you have the most limited choice of cabins…it’s a trade-off)
  • Cabin Type and Location determines pricing too:  Prioritize!
    • Is ‘less motion’ important to you?  Book mid-ship.
    • Is ‘quiet’ important to you?  Check what is directly above and below your cabin – and book a cabin away from elevators, atriums or doors….and possibly “white areas” on the deck maps.
    • What are you willing to compromise on?  interior cabin?  lower deck?  perhaps forward or aft (rear) of the ship if you aren’t bothered by motion. (Mid-ship is most expensive)

Every decision you make in this area either increases or decreases your price.

  • You can save money if your vacation timing is flexible. It all goes back to the Law of Supply and Demand and prices vary by week.  Cruising ‘off-season’ or when everyone else is NOT cruising is always less expensive. A little comparison shopping will quickly show the most economical times to cruise. Holidays such as Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years and Valentines  as well as summer when kids are out of school are usually pricier.
  • Weather Patterns – hurricanes, et al.:  Hurricane season in the Caribbean is June-Sept….especially Sept.  Traveling during those times is a risk…but it is also usually a bargain.  You have to decide if you’re willing to take the risk to get the bargain.  I recommend travel insurance for all cruises….but ABSOLUTELY for cruises during hurricane season.  I will say, my family has traveled during this time and it worked out fine for us….but we bought the insurance….and we understood the risks we were taking.  🙂  We also USED that insurance!!!  🙂
  • Photo Credit: K Sawyer Photography on Flickr CC Lic.

    Families or groups who can stay 3 or 4 (or even 5) in a room will pay less per person than those in cabins for 2.  Rooms are crowded with 4 in them,  but there ARE ways to make it work.  If you only plan to sleep in the room, it isn’t that important to have ‘lots of space’.  🙂   This pic is of a room set up for 4 – The upper beds are folded into the wall during the day and the steward pulls them down at night.  Beds are configured any way you request them – i.e. queen or 2 (or 4) twins.   NOTE:  Carnival has the largest cabins in the industry when comparing equal rooms (interior to interior;  oceanview to oceanview, etc…)

  • Cruises are not priced with “adult” or “child” rates.  They are based on a “passenger” rate.  Every person, regardless of age, is a “passenger” so is charged as such.
  • Some cruise lines offer special perks for getting their credit card (discounts, points, onboard credit, etc…).  After you’ve chosen your cruise line (but BEFORE booking) apply for the credit card.  (Using the card to pay for the cruise often secures extra benefits!  🙂   NOTE:  Keep in mind that applying for a credit card ‘dings’ your credit.

 

CHOOSING YOUR CABIN:

  • CHECK THE DECK PLAN of your ship paying special attention to what is above and below the cabin.  Cabins directly below the galley, pool deck, casinos or bars can be noisy until 3 am each night.  “White” areas on the deck plan are ‘unknown’s’    Sometimes these are perfectly fine…no noise.  Other times they may be crew closets, crew laundry rooms, etc…. that CAN be noisy.  You can always call the cruise line and ask those questions, but don’t expect good answers.  If they know, they usually DON’T tell….sorry… :/
  • A “Guarantee” cabin means you pay for a category and the cruise line assigns your cabin location with their remaining inventory – typically a few days before the cruise.  Guarantee cabins are less expensive, but might put you in an undesirable location  (near noisy areas,  directly above the anchors or FAR Forward). Some people consider ‘guarantees’  to be a ‘bargain’…others consider them to be ‘too risky’. It’s a matter of personal preference, but just know what you’re getting when you book ‘guarantee’.
  • Deck Plan Genius  http://deckplangenius.com/Home.aspx is a good resource for advantages/disadvantages to your cabin. This is ‘generic’ information based on the deck plans rather than anyone’s personal experience, nevertheless, it IS a good site to check before choosing your cabin.  For more ‘personalized’ information, google your ship name and room number.  You MAY find personal reviews by other cruises who have stayed in that exact cabin …..  🙂
  • Cabins are small, but plenty spacious for 2 people.  They are laid out in a ‘space efficient’ way.  Putting 3-4 in a cabin is certainly ‘doable’ (and economical) but you may need a few things to maximize your space….I’ve listed some things we found valuable here: Part 5:  Cruises: Clothes and Personal Items to Pack.
  • The center of the ship has less movement…  The front has the most movement.  If you are one who is HIGHLY susceptible to motion sickness, it might be a good idea to splurge on the (more expensive) mid-ship cabins.  However… EVERYONE should bring motion sickness remedies (multiple options) with them…

13 Prom. Deck 7 115

THE MOST IMPORTANT THING TO KNOW ABOUT CRUISE PRICING:

To really understand how cruise pricing works, you need to understand something.  The basic fares are often very inexpensive…It may even appear as if the company is losing money.  This is all part of their financial ‘plan’.

Here’s how it works.  These mega ships are HUGE….with a LOT of cabins to fill.  They don’t mind filling them at a loss because their profits don’t come from the cruise fare. Their profits come from the money passengers spend AFTER they’re on board –all those little ‘extras’ like drinks, shopping,  photos, gambling, specialty restaurants, spa treatments, excursions, and on and on and on.  Knowing this going IN to the cruise will help you make wise decisions with your ‘cruise dollar’.  Beyond the initial purchase of the fare, YOU are in control of what your cruise REALLY costs based on how many of these ‘extras’ you buy and how many you ‘pass up’.   🙂

 Best Advice:  Know the advantages and disadvantages of your choices so you can make the most informed decisions.  🙂

Other Posts on Cruising:

Walt DisneyWorld on a Budget

 

What family with young children doesn’t want to go to Disney World?  Doing Disney on a budget can be challenging, but NOT impossible.  (I’ve learned a few things on our trips there. )   Now, there’s really NO WAY to do Disney ‘cheap’, but it CAN be done for less than some people think…and for less than most people do it.

First Things First:  For the most thorough and updated information on what’s going on at the parks, refer to the Disney World website. It’s VERY detailed!  There’s no need to re-write that information here.  This will be personal insights on things not on their website…

Some OTHER GGGGRRRREAT websites for discounts and the planning process:

  • MouseMisers:  GREAT sit for discounts on all things Disney (Disney World, Disney Land AND Disney Cruises.)
  • Allears: ditto above  AND contains menus AND PRICES to all the restaurants on Disney properties
  • Disney has created an excellent Planning Guide
  • My Disney Experience app:  This has helpful information on park activities, special events and wait times on more popular attractions.

No, I’m not advertising for or compensated by these sites….just fyi.  🙂

Buying Your Tickets Tickets are less per day the more days you purchase.  On our trip in 2009, we had originally planned to buy a 4 day ticket until I realized that we could add an extra day for only $3pp. The cost of an added day is more now, but then, for$12 plus the cost of 1 more hotel night and food, we had an extra day in the parks. If your schedule allows for this, it’s great!

AAA Members can get discount tickets to Disney parks, but they MUST be purchased from a AAA office. They are NOT available at the park.

Tickets can be purchased at all the parks, Disney Hotels, online at   http://disneyworld.disney.go.com  or by calling 1-407-W-Disney.   Note:  There is $5  S/H charge added for tickets mailed to your home.  There is no charge for the ‘Will Call’ option.

Food and Snacks:  Keeping tummies full can be a major expense in Disney World.  As would be expected, prices are “theme park” prices (i.e. grossly over-priced).  Now, that being said, the quality of food in Disney parks is EXTREMELY GOOD!  It is possible to eat with special or restricted diets or eat healthy fare if you wish.  You will find an abundance of grilled meats, vegetarian selections and WONDERFUL ethnic fare, as opposed to burgers, fries and ice cream as in most theme parks.  Perhaps that will make you feel a little better about paying more for the meals.

But….Is there a way to save money?

YES!!!  First, Snacks….  Disney now allows outside snacks to be brought into the park. (that’s a change)  I always bring high protein snacks (nuts, dried fruits, peanut butter)  to fill up little tummies so they aren’t begging for everything in sight.  We eat a BIG high protein breakfast then postpone lunch until early afternoon.  Then, dinner can either be a lighter meal or postponed to later in the evening (7 pm) — or we leave the park and run through a drive through for a more reasonably priced meal.  Though that’s less healthy, it’s also less expensive than a meal in the park.

In budgeting, plan to spend approx. $11+/adult per counter service meal in the park…..more for the upscale restaurants.  We found that our 2 children could split an adult meal and have the same amount of food for less than the cost of 2 children’s meals. If you’re able to switch things up a bit like that, it will save significant money over the course of your trip.

Probably the single BEST money saving tip concerning meals is to consider portion sizes in various venues.  Many of the full service restarants have meals that can easily feed 2 adults (provided they’re not huge eaters…)  It’s cheaper to buy 1 meal even if that meal is a little pricier if you can feed TWO people with it.  For counter service, some of the sandwiches served are HUGE.  They can easily be split between 2 people, certainly an adult and child (or 2 children if your kiddos are picky or small eaters.)  Along these same lines, adults can order from the children’s menu… They offer some appetizing options, not just hotdogs or grilled cheese…and portions are plenty for most adults (unless you’re just a HUGE eater).

Eating at Downtown Disney is less expensive than eating in one of the theme parks.  It’s a 15 min. bus ride.  If you have time, that’s a good place to go at supper time.

If you simply MUST do a Character meals, they are less expensive at breakfast or lunch than in the evenings.  The menu will be slightly different, but they characters are the same..and it’s the characters you were going for anyway, wasn’t it?  I promise…your  kids won’t even CARE about the menu!!!  🙂 🙂

I can’t leave this section on meals without mentioning the Disney Meal Plans.  We don’t buy these as they are only offered to guests staying on Disney property, (we always stay off property) but here’s the information:

Disney Meal Plans:  

These meal plans are only offered to guests of the Disney resorts.  As you would expect, Disney advertises these as the “greatest deal since sliced bread”, and they MAY be a good idea for you, but before making that decision/purchase, consider a few things.

The only way to really get your money’s worth with these plans is to eat ALL your meals on Disney property. If you eat off property, you won’t break even. Word of Caution (and the reason we don’t buy these plans) is that they can quickly begin to ‘rule’ your vacation if you want them to be a ‘bargain’….  Of course, if they’re not a bargain, then you’re paying more for meals that necessary…hmmm….

To Note:

  • Each day’s meal credits expire at the end of the day.  No carry-over
  • Because table service or character meals take such a chunk of time from your day, it may necessitate the addition of 1-2 days to your vacation plan in order to do those AND see and do everything you want to see and do.
  • Character meals require advance reservations (made up to 180 days in advance) at the more popular venues/times.

Quick Service Plan     ($37-40 per person/day at the time of this writing)

  • Includes 2 counter service meals (entree or combo meal) and 2 snacks per day per person
  • Does not include special/character meals.

Basic or Plus Dining plans

  • Includes 1 table service meal  (entree, dessert and beverage),  1 counter service meal (combo meal/beverage)  and 2 snacks.  
  • It takes planning to make this a good value

Deluxe Dining plan

  • Requires VERY diligent planning  (and some ‘hoop jumping’) to make this work to your advantage and not lose money
  • Includes 3 meal credits per person (one meal = appetizer, entrée, dessert, beverage OR a buffet OR Counter Service combo/beverage) and 2 snack credits.
  • Because of the amount of special meals, this plan would almost REQUIRE an extra 1-2 days in the parks.  (imho)

For our family, we did not consider these to be a good bargain.  Instead, we stay off property (nice places, but less expensive) either in a hotel with breakfast included or a condo where we cook our own breakfasts. Then we can make our own dining decisions rather than having our days ruled by an eating plan.  🙂

A Word About Eating at Epcot :  Epcot dining is a truly wonderful experience.  The World Showcase offers a variety of ethnic foods…my favorite is the Quiche  (and pastries) in France  🙂   The chocolate in Germany makes wonderful gifts but be sure to get a few bars just for yourself while there.  🙂

….and Drinks:  Bring empty water bottles to fill at water fountains. (Though they allow you to bring in full water bottles, they’re heavy to carry!)  🙂

Timeshare Presentations are a Dime a Dozen in Orlando:   Orlando is FULL of timeshare companies. Though I would NEVER suggest purchasing a time share, (MANY reasons which I’ve detailed in Timeshares)  the presentations can work to your advantage if you have the time.  They offer many incentives (WDW tickets, free meals, local tourist activities)  if you give them 2 hours of your time for their sales pitch.  (Don’t fall for the ’90 min. promise…. It NEVER works that way)  Especially in Orlando, they will have a room for childcare with caretakers, toys and/or movies.  Parents may not enjoy the experience, but the kids will have a blast!!!!  🙂  We’ve attended our share of these and they ARE REAL and LEGITIMATE!  You WILL receive what you are promised….  but it will cost you in “time”.   It’s a decision you have to make – but don’t worry that they are scams.  They aren’t.

Next Post:  More Walt Disney World Tips

Vacation Meals on a Budget

One of the largest expenses on a vacation after accommodations (or airline tickets) are the meals.  Obviously, meals are NOT something we can eliminate from the plan, 🙂 so how do we make it economical?    Picnics or cooking on a camp stove are pretty common ideas (and we do that a LOT) but that’s ‘common knowledge’.  In addition to those ideas we also prepare simple meals right in our hotel room to help us afford family vacations.

What are the advantages to this?

  1. Economics:  We can eat our own food for less than going out.
  2. Convenience:  After a long day of ‘fun’ we often prefer to go to the pool, shower and relax….not get dressed again and go out.
  3. Healthy:  Fast food is NOT healthy and more upscale restaurants with healthier options are MUCH pricier.  If we do that twice a day, it could easily cost my family $75-$100/day….  Multiply that by a 5….or 7…..or 10 day vacation.  You get the idea….

Kitchen in condoFor that reason, we come up with our own meal plan for vacations – using a camp stove, the kitchen/kitchenette at a vacation condo (justified cost-wise with the savings from simple meal prep), the hotel room microwave 20140808_105744or sandwich grill/George Foreman grill brought from home.

I DON’T want to devote a lot of time to meal prep while on vacation.  I need easy, quick but HEALTHY meal options.  That requires a little “out of the box’ thinking.  Use my ideas as a springboard to come up with ideas that fit YOUR family’s eating preferences.

Bring:

  • paper plates or bowls (some cheap ones, some sturdy ones – for different meals)
  • plastic silverware
  • roll of STURDY paper towels  (to serve multiple purposes)
  • salt/pepper
  • MAYBE a handheld can opener, a paring knife (if you’re NOT flying) or the Foreman or sandwich grill.

Most hotel rooms have cups and there’s always an ice machine.   You’re set to go!

Breakfast (Many hotels these days provide breakfast…but if they don’t  – Nat’l Parks come to mind – here are some ideas):

  • cereal and milk  (This one’s easy…) snacks for travel
  • Fresh Fruit – or canned if that’s all we can do  (My family loves it when I make a  fruit salad…)  🙂
  • Breakfast or Protein bars
  • Pop Tarts or pastries are a less healthy but quick choice
  • Bring From Home items:  boiled eggs….and sometimes I’ve brought bacon I cooked at home and brought in a Ziploc  (remember, rooms have microwaves)
  • microwave oatmeal  (bring toppings 🙂 )

Lunch/Dinner

Of course everything is easier in a kitchen but many of these can be made using just a hotel room microwave – or camp stove.

  • Hotdogs – This is SO easy!  My family loves it!!  🙂
  • Sandwiches/Soup/Salad in any combination: Sandwiches aren’t a ‘new’ idea for vacation meals…but if our travel plans allow for it, I bring a sandwich grill.  That changes the whole ‘mood’ of the meal 🙂   Soup can be heated in the room microwave. Salad can be purchased ready-made.  Any combination is great!  🙂
  • Photo Credit: Kathleen Franklin on Flickr CC Lic.

    Prepare a favorite meal/casserole at home and bring it to heat in the hotel room microwave. (The possibility of this is dictated by the type of travel we’re doing)  I make these weeks ahead of time and freeze it.  Then it serves as “ice” in the ice chest)  My family’s favorites include Mexican casseroles, homemade  lasagna, or chicken n dumplings.  This works great if you have those with allergies or restricted diets.  You CAN travel with these restrictions… you just have to bring the food with you.

  • Cheese nachos:   This is super easy and my family LOVES it!  We add toppings that many might not think of…everyone ‘personalizes’ their own nachos – and they enjoy it!!  Rotisserie chicken from Walmart, Target et al, is always a ‘winner’ on Nacho night. It could be possible to cook your own meat on the George Forman Grill, but that could be a little challenging.  We usually prefer to buy it at Walmart…preferably late in the day so discounted.  🙂
  • Microwaveable meals: These will be more

    Photo Credit: Felke Kloostra on Flickr CC Lic.

    pricey than other options, and sacrifices the ‘healthy’ criteria, but it allows you to ‘personalize’ everyone’s meal.  🙂  Of course, I ALWAYS add salad to all our  meals.

  • Canned meals such as Ravioli, Spaghettios, et al. if you have young children who like this sort of thing.  Pair this with salad or a vegetable heated in the microwave for a little ‘healthier’ meal.  My family never liked these canned things, but for those who do, this is super easy.
  • Grill chicken breasts (at a picnic area with grills) for grilled chicken salads.  Bring Cooking supper on the campstovesalad toppings, salad dressing and of course, crackers! 🙂   Because doing this is pretty time consuming, we will cook 2+ lbs of meat when we do it – leftovers can become chicken salad, nachos, etc….
  • In ANY ‘outdoors’ location, the camp stove or grill brings so many options….  We take our Coleman Stove when vacationing in Nat’l Parks (road trips)  – and always use it several times.  🙂  (hotdogs, burgers, chicken…even steak if we’re willing to spend the $$)
  • Hobo meals are a great ‘total meal’ idea.  These are complete meals wrapped  in foil and slow cooked over the fire.  They’re VERY good!  There’s a ‘Basic’ recipe here:   http://www.ehow.com/make-hobo-stew and a website with video  instructions for putting your hobo meal together (and a few more variations) here:   http://www.squidoo.com/hobo-meals    NOTE:  Search online for even more recipes…. or create your own with ingredients/seasonings your family likes.
  • On a recent trip to Hawaii, my husband and I bought pineapple, mango, papaya, Hawaiian bananas,  IMG_2946coconut, etc… at one of the many roadside stands.   We then made fruit salads for supper.  It was enough to satisfy us.  Now, if our children had been with us, we might have needed something more substantial, but for just the two of us, it was a perfect evening meal.   🙂  Pineapples and bananas ripened on the plant are SOOOOO much better than what’s available at the local grocery stores.

 

A Word about Allergies or Gluten-Free Eating:  For those on restricted diets, travel can present a whole set of challenges.  Restaurants are beginning to cater to these in small degrees, but it can still be hard to find options –and ‘trusting’ a restaurant can be a little scary.  I recently found an article about preparing/taking gluten-free meals while on the road. http://modernmrsdarcy.com/solution-vacation

A Word About Nutrition:  The challenge for me with vacation meal planning is how to get healthy foods/vegetables into my family.  Fruit is fairly easy…we take it with us or buy it local.  I’m always handing someone an apple or grapes or a peach, et al.   It’s the vegetables that are the toughest.  As often as possible, I try to make salads for meals…pre-cooked chicken on salads, chopped ham and cheese on salads, ANYTHING that can go on a bed of lettuce is fair game for us.  🙂  The rest of the time, I just try to incorporate vegetables into our meals as much as I can.  Carrot and celery sticks always accompany the chips with sandwiches, and there’s FRESH produce/veggies in the evenings whenever I can make it happen.

A FEW HOBO MEALS/TIPS:

Photo Credit: slworking2

These are only ‘doable’ when you can build a fire or have a Coleman Stove but when you do…this opens up a LOT of options!!!

The traditional hobo meal is a beef patty, sliced potatoes, carrots, onion, Worcestershire sauce, salt and pepper.  A little butter or cooking spray keeps it all from sticking. (The butter tastes better….  🙂 )

HOWEVER….there are HUNDREDS of variations to this basic recipe using chicken, ham, fish, pork, and even steak (cubed).  By varying the  vegetables and seasonings, you can create your own personalized meal. It would be possible to plan an entire vacation menu using only hobo meals.  With all the variations, the family would hardly notice the fact that it’s hobo meals every night.  🙂

  • You NEED fat content to keep it from sticking.  Either use meat with a higher fat content (80% works well) or add some butter/margarine.
  • ALSO, spray the tin foil with cooking spray.
  • heavy duty aluminum foil

    My Dollar Store ‘find’

    Use HEAVY DUTY Foil ONLY!   THEN, double wrap it. It’s just not worth it to have the foil rip and your meal end up in the coals. I get mine (pictured) at the Dollar store –  Their Heavy Duty foil is pretty good and since I’ll be double wrapping, I don’t want to pay a lot for it.

  • Completely seal the foil around the top  (fold it over several times) to keep the juices in and keep your meal from getting dry or burned.
  • COOKING;  This can either be done by placing the meal down among the coals/embers of a campfire (tastes the best…) or by placing meals on a Campstove (takes less time and is easier…but looses that slow-cooked in the embers factor)
  • Campfire Cooking:  Let the fire turn to hot coals or embers
    https://www.flickr.com/photos/slworking/2976930678/in/photolist-5EX5AK-8hfem1-aneRq3-5hQTnf-5x4xM1-5EXm6M-5HxxJY-5m61HL-PEkEr

    Photo Credit: slworking2 on Flickr CC Lic.

    before placing your meal into it.  Putting the meal into flames will cook it too quickly and burn it. If your meal(s) have a lot of food in them, it’s helpful to actually cover the meal with coals (just make sure they’re sealed tightly.  🙂  )  Use a good set of camp fire gloves and LONG metal tongs for this…

 

Photo Credit: J. Stephen Conn on Flickr CC Lic.

 

 

Interesting Variations:

  • Ham:  Ham pieces, pineapple slices, mixed vegetables, dash of teriyaki sauce
  • Ham & Potatoes Au Gratin:  Cubed Ham, chopped potato, onions, grated cheese
  • Fajitas:  Marinated Fajita Meat, onions, green peppers. You’ll need tortillas, cheese, salsa, etc….
  • Stuffed Potatoes:  Core small to medium potato, insert a pre-cooked sausage or hotdog link. Cook 45-90 min. (depending on the size of the potato) over the coals.  Add sliced cheese, chili or toppings of your choice.
  • Mushroom Chicken:  Boneless chicken, frozen peas and cream of mushroom soup.  Put the chicken in; add a spoon or two of soup and serving of peas.  Cook on coals for 20 minutes, turning every few minutes

HAPPY EATING!!

How to Create a Vacation Budget (Part 2)

If you haven’t read the first post   How To Create a Vacation Budget (Part 1), you might want to start there.  🙂

After you have collected all of your budget numbers, you’re ready for the next step:  putting it all together.

Two Ways To Put Your Budget Together:

  • Organize by Day (Total Cost for Day 1: hotel, fuel, admission, food etc…     Total Cost for Day 2 for those same things….etc…)
  • Organize by Category  (Accommodations costs for the entire trip, Fuel costs for the entire trip, Admission costs for the entire trip, etc….

    Photo in Public Domain: http://401kcalculator.org

Again, it really doesn’t matter HOW you combine or organize these numbers, as long as you DO IT!

 

Here’s what a typical Daily Budget would look like on my “budget page”

  • Gas:   350 miles/25 mpg/$3.50 per gallon – Cost  $50  (I always round UP on fuel costs! )
  • Accommodations:  Days Inn   $74.87
  • Meals:  Breakfast at the hotel/ Picnic for lunch/ Supper at a park with the camp stove/ ALL food brought from home  Cost: 0  (My ‘take’ on this is that we would eat if we were home…  Since all the food is brought from home, it’s not a cost of vacation)

    http://401kcalculator.org

    Photo Credit: CC Lic. http://401kcalculator.org

  • Admission:  Museum  2 adults $7; 2 children $4. – $2 coupon for 2 adult admissions:  $18

TOTAL DAILY COST:  $142.87

A Category Budget would look something like this:

  • Accommodations:  $386.91  (entire vacation)
  • Fuel:  800 miles total/25 mpg/ 3.50 per gallon:  $115  (rounded up, of course)
  • Meals eaten “out”:  $65
  • Groceries:  $50  (We’d buy groceries if we were home so this isn’t a cost associated with vacation)
  • Admission to museums, state parks, :  $76 AFTER coupons
  • Souvenirs/Purchases:  $50

TOTAL VACATION COST:  $742.91

As you can see, it doesn’t matter how you compile the budget number.  It’s only important that all the expenditures make their way onto the list.  You can do this on the computer, or write it out with a pencil and paper.  Just get all the numbers down.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

To reiterate what I said above about food from home or grocery costs….  Though I need to budget for that money so we have the funds available for those grocery store trips, I do NOT consider it an actual ‘cost’ of vacation.  Buying groceries is something I would do even if we were home.  We HAVE to eat regardless of whether we’re at home or on the beach…or in the mountains…   🙂

SIDE NOTE:  As long as I have to buy those groceries and prepare those meals, isn’t it  MUCH More Enjoyable to do that in Yellowstone….or Pensacola beach…..or Yosemite than in my own kitchen at home?  🙂

NOW…..Add all your numbers up….

…And you have a vacation ‘cost’.

Last Thing:  Add a ‘cushion’ to your budget.  This is the ‘extra’ money for unexpected expenses.  For a vacation with a $740 budget like above, we would plan for $840 just to allow for unexpected EXPENSES…  This is not to cover unexpected expenditures (purchases or souvenirs); it’s to cover unexpected expenses (like that unexpected trip to Wal-Mart mentioned in Pt 1 of this article).

Are you done now?

Well…..Now, here’s the clincher.  This budget ONLY WORKS IF YOU FOLLOW IT WHILE ON VACATION.  Simply writing it all out beforehand, then going ‘wild’ with spending once you’re on your trip will NOT work so well….

On your trip, write down what you spend….every single expenditure.  Write down every time you fill up with gas.  Write down what you spend when you check into that hotel.  (no surprises here as you knew the cost before you left)  Write down what you spend when you buy the tickets for your planned activity.  ESPECIALLY write down what you spend at that unplanned ice cream stop.  (Just the act of ‘writing this down’ will help to keep this type of thing ‘in check”)

As I said, we’ve never come home OVER budget.  We almost always come home UNDER budget…a few times we’ve come home right ON budget.  We do this by planning (reservations and bargain shopping) writing out a budget beforehand, then tracking expenditures while on vacation so we always know where we are with the budget.  That keeps us on track.  This really DOES work!!  I know, because we’ve done this for 25 years!!

 

How To Create a Vacation Budget (Part 1)

 www.SeniorLiving.Org

Photo Credit: Ken Teegardin on Flickr CC Lic

I am the person who NEEDS to know what a vacation will cost BEFORE  leaving town.  I don’t like surprises especially when it comes to money.   I wonder if the reason people THINK they can’t afford a vacation is that they have returned from past vacations to a mountain of credit card debt and they’re scared to get into that mess again….OR they’ve never actually put numbers on paper to figure out what it really costs…. OR possibly, they’ve never been introduced to the ways to make it  economical.

There are no (or very few)  surprises on our vacations….I know what the vacation will cost before we ever back out of the driveway.  If possible we pre-pay things.  (helps with budgeting as well)   I can say, honestly, we’ve never gone OVER-budget on a vacation.  We almost always come home UNDER budget…

Lastly, to leave town without a “plan” (i.e. budget) is a recipe for over-spending, over-indulging and over-doing.

ALWAYS have a ‘plan’.  🙂

Recently, I came across an article by Dave Ramsey about vacation budgeting….or should I say, vacationing WITHOUT a budget.  :).    “Six Ways to Go Broke on Vacation”  http://www.daveramsey.com/6waystogobroke    This has always been my philosophy, but I LOVE the humor that Dave Ramsey uses to get the point across.  🙂

My “Plan” for Creating that Budget:

  1. Make Reservations   There are those who like to vacation spontaneously.  The problem with that is that you don’t have the opportunity to shop for bargains, compare prices/rates so you can make cost saving decisions.  Research and  reservations allows you to do these things.  Knowledge is Power!  🙂 🙂
  2. Write Everything Down  Once you’ve found and booked the best rates for accommodations, airline tickets, rental car, etc….write those numbersdown these costs….down to the penny.   You can record these things by ‘day’….or by ‘category’.  It doesn’t really matter how you record it, as long as you do.
  3. Figure Fuel Costs    While fuel costs can be a little tricky because they’re

    futureatlas.com/blog/

    fluctuation, you don’t have to go into this ‘blind’.  With http://www.gaspricewatch.com/ (or any other gas costs app/website) you can get a general idea of fuel prices in the area.  Take the number of miles you drive each day (or figure this for the whole trip), divide by the mpg your vehicle gets, then multiply by the cost of fuel.  After I get this number I usually ‘cushion’ the cost a little – I ALWAYS round UP on fuel, and write that number in your budget.   NOTE:  EXPECT to pay SIGNIFICANTLY higher prices for fuel in National Parks or ‘touristy’ areas (or within 100 miles of them….).  Keep this in mind as you plan WHEN and WHERE to fill up.  🙂  I do these calculations early in my vacation planning process…but always revisit gaspricewatch.com the week before we leave.

  4. Now, it’s time to figure some of the extra costs –  Admission charges – You probably have a general idea of where you’ll go and what you’ll do and the costs involved.  Put those numbers on your budget sheet.  Subtract any coupons/discounts you’ve found.  WRITE DOWN that you have that coupon so you don’t forget to actually  use  it…. (Can you tell I speak from experience??)  ha!
  5. Food!  This is possibly the toughest to ‘guesstimate’.  You’ve obviously  made a plan for feeding the family.  Will you bring food from home?   Will you go to the grocery store after you arrive to shop?  Will you eat out some?  or all the time?  If you’ll be eating out, will you go to nice restaurants or fast food places?  You probably know what it costs your family to eat out.  Add these numbers to your budget page.  NOTE:  Though it may be different than you’ve ever done before, consider at least a ‘partial’ plan for meals before leaving….  “Knowing” will help you with the budget process.  If you struggle with this idea, consider the idea that ‘no plan’ means a budget gone awry.  Planning keeps the budget under control.
  6. Add some money for souvenir shopping  Does your family like t-shirts? or trinkets?  Do you want a remembrance of your vacation?  Allow room in the budget for this. There is opportunity here to talk to your children about ‘investing’ in ONE thing that is quality and will last and ‘remind’ them of their trip rather than ‘nickel and dime-ing’ it at every stop with things that will be broken before they get home.  So many things in souvenir shops are just garbage…honestly!!!  I’ve written a post about that ‘perfect’ souvenir here:  http://wp.me/p3db0l-1aT

  7. Lastly, add a “cushion” to your budget   This is the extra money you bring along for the unexpected….  While this cushion COULD finance that “once in a lifetime’ experience that you determine is definitely WORTH the un-budgeted cost, that’s NOT the purpose of the ‘cushion’. Be careful about spending ‘cushion’ money like that….  In fact, Dave Ramsey would say not to do this at all…  🙂  This category is actually for the unexpected costs such as that toothbrush that Susie forgot to pack….or the antiseptic ointment after Johnny slipped on the rock in the creek….or the flat tire or car battery that has to be fixed/replaced.  These are very real scenarios…and you DO need to include some ‘cushion’ money in the budget for them.  If you end up not needing that money for the unexpected, you come home with extra in your pocket and it feels REALLY nice.  🙂 🙂

How to Create a Vacation Budget (Part 2)  will detail how to put all of this together in a way that it will be easy to work with WHILE on vacation…to keep you on track with the money.

Hawaii – On a Budget Pt 1

These are a few tips I discovered in the planning process for our recent trip to the Hawaiian islands.  Just an fyi, Hawaii CAN be visited for less than many people think.  🙂

oahu sunset~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Hawaii is certainly not an inexpensive vacation destination. It’s going to cost some money (flight, accommodations and food is more expensive than we pay in the central part of the US) but the trip can be done for less than you might think…certainly for less than a travel agent will quote.

How do I know this?  We went to AAA for a quote.  The agent planned a trip for us, 10 days on 3 islands,  airfare from the Mainland, 3 inter-island flights, accommodations on 3 islands and rental cars on 2 islands (no car on Oahu). Her quote was $7000 and that didn’t include any food, fuel, activities, baggage fees (FIVE flights) or souvenirs. We tried to contain our shock…but failed…   🙂  She made some modifications and gave us another quote.  It was still $4000…and still without any of the above mentioned things. The cost for the TOTAL trip, doing it her way, would have been $6000-7000. I realized I’d better try my own hand at it. I did and we just returned home from that trip. I keep a record of everything we spend…down to quarters for coin-operated laundry. ha! Our total expense for the trip, (for two) start to finish, including airfare, 3 inter-island flights, accommodations on 3 islands (we have some accommodations with our timeshare), THREE rental cars and fuel, all food, activities, baggage fees and souvenirs was $3806.41 (Side Note:  This includes the purchase of 2 MORE airline tickets + airport booking fees when one of our inter-island flights was cancelled.)   Even with that debacle, it’s still less than the amount the travel agent quoted just for airfare, accommodations and rental car!!!   Of course, planning it myself meant I did all the work….but the savings was worth it.

My ONE disclaimer:   As I mentioned above, we used our timeshare on 2 of the islands for accommodations.  Of course, we paid, not only for the time share, but the annual maintenance fees so WE PAID for those accommodations!!!  (ugh!!) but they aren’t included in the $3800 cost.  We DID rent our accommodations on Oahu, and we did that through my favorite site – vrbo!!!

Accommodations:  VRBO!!!  VRBO.com This is the best site for rentals to just about ANY vacation destination.  Read more about vrbo in Frugal Accommodations Part 2    HomeAway.com is a ‘sister company’ to VRBO and runs much the same way.

When choosing where to stay, units with cooking facilities (even limited cooking facilities) can save a lot of money.  There are units in Honolulu and Waikiki Beach area with kitchens or kitchenettes, if that’s where your heaKitchen in condort is set on going, however, staying out of the metro area means much less congestion (not to mention parking fees) so it’s worth consideration.  We  stayed in Kailua on the east (other) side of Oahu.  It’s only a 20-25 min. drive to the airport and areas in Honolulu…a little further to Waikiki.  Kailua is a quaint little town with everything you would need as far as dining, groceries and a beautiful beach.  🙂  There’s a beautifully landscaped shopping area in the historic town that draws a lot of tourists.  The particular vrbo rental that we selected had a kitchenette, private porch area outside our unit

Through those double doors is a reading or relaxing room available to tenants. On the other side is the pool, which unfortunately, I did not get a picture of 😦

back door, and a pool in a landscaped garden complete with tables, chairs and a large gas grill. The owner had grilling tools and we grilled steaks one night and hamburgers another night. We were the only ones staying there so we had a romantic private poolside meal both evenings!   It was wonderful!!!

Meals:  When we landed in Oahu, we were tired and hungry so before checking into our accommodations we stopped by a Burger King.  The price on their basic #1 combo meal (Whopper) was over $10 (2013).  That was quite an introduction into “Hawaiian prices” and served to encourage a trip to the grocery store that evening. 🙂  At the grocery store on all the islands, we purchased things for sandwiches (lunch each day) as well as items to prepare simple meals in the evenings (the hamburger and steak we grilled).  I brought a few easily packable things from home that I would NEVER want to purchase – seasonings, salt/pepper, etc… or items that I only wanted a small amount of or things I knew would be REALLY expensive in Hawaii. Being able to prepare simple things, especially in a full-sized kitchen, is MARVELOUS and such a great way to save some money!!!!  I planned menus before we left, (to know what seasonings to bring) then made my ‘bring list’ and grocery list(s).  (We had to grocery shop on each island)  I brought grocery coupons that I knew I’d need.

Rental Car:  The best website I found for rental cars in HI was http://hawaiidiscountcarrental.com/.  At first I was skeptical of them as their rates were FAR below other published rates.  (that’s usually an alarm for me) However, both  TripAdvisor.com  and AAA magazines gave them raving reviews (I trust those sources).  The reservations were with reputable companies (Avis, Enterprise, Budget, etc… ) so I took the risk.  Before we left, I called the companies where our reservation was (Avis and Enterprise)  and they confirmed my reservation at the price I was quoted. It was legitimate!! The savings was WORTH IT!!! Our Maui rental car was previously $217 through AirportRentalCars.com (formerly Breezenet – which I normally recommend) and it never came down over a month’s time as I checked (I was accustomed to rates coming down).  Through  hawaiidiscountcarrental.com, I paid $160 for those days with Avis.  I saved $56 with a few clicks!!!  (We had no problems with this reservation)

Coupon Books are in displays at every airport.  They contain discounts for shopping and activities. When you first arrive at the airport, collect the books from all islands/locations you’ll be visiting. This gives you a chance to look through them BEFORE you get to a particular island. WORD OF CAUTION: A coupon only saves you money if you planned to do the activity/make the purchase anyway. If you go somewhere or buy something BECAUSE you have a coupon, you haven’t saved money…you’ve spent it.  🙂

Wal-Mart Stores are not as plentiful on the islands as they are in the continental U.S., but they ARE there.  Go to Walmart.com  to find locations. Groceries are expensive in Hawaii but you’ll find “better” prices at Wal-Mart than Safeway or Foodland.  Now…the Walmarts on the islands are NOT SuperCenters i.e. full grocery stores.  They have ‘limited’ groceries….with ‘no’ or ‘limited’ produce.  We found, however, that with the fruit/veggie stands along the roads, we were able to get what we wanted.

Photo Credit: Jimmy Smith on Flickr CC Lic.

Hawaiian Fruit:  There are roadside fruit stands set up by the locals outside of town. You’ll also find Farmer’s Markets in Honolulu, et al., but look online for their days and hours of operation.  These are DEFINITELY worth the stop, however prices vary (greatly sometimes) so shop around.  Some stand owners are willing to negotiate; others aren’t.

The fruit grown and ripened on the vine is markedly better tasting than the grocery store variety so take advantage of this if you can. Be sure to get some Hawaiian bananas. They’re very different from what we get at home. They’re only 4″ long and not particularly attractive on the outside.  They will have black spots if they’re ripe….but when you peel them (I mean, seriously….do we eat the peeling anyway??) they are the sweetest things you’ve ever tasted. Don’t be deterred by their looks;  just try them!!!  As far as the pineapples, someone told us that the pineapples grown on the islands are ONLY for the locals and tourists there. They are NOT shipped to the Mainland stores. They taste so much sweeter!!! Be sure to try one while you’re there!!!

After a day in the heat, nothing hits the spot quite like a fruit salad – made from ‘ripened on the vine’ fruit from a local fruit stand.  We put in pineapple, mango, papaya, Hawaiian bananas, and slivers of coconut as well as 1-2 tablespoons of the coconut water (from a fresh coconut).  It was a PERFECT meal for us.  Now, if we’d had children with us, we might have needed something a little more IMG_2946substantial, but for just us, it was perfect!   I’d never had a fresh coconut/coconut water before….we tried it this time for the ‘experience’.  I don’t know that I’ll ever drink coconut water again…but I DID like the shaved coconut in our fruit salad.

 

Other News About Fruit: 

  • Oahu pineapples and Maui pineapples are different. If you go to both islands, try them both.
  • Banana bread stand on Road to Hana

    One of the many banana bread ‘stands’ along the road to Hana

    On the Road to Hana (Maui) there are multiple stands that sell banana bread made from the wonderful Hawaiian bananas.  If you’re on the road early, the bread will be hot – just out of the oven!!  You haven’t tasted banana bread until you’ve tasted THIS banana bread! 🙂

Other Articles in this Hawaii Series:

Gasoline: Is it Possible to Save?

https://www.flickr.com/photos/teegardin/5569380818/in/photostream/

Photo Credit: Ken Teegardin via Flickr

With the average price of gasoline soaring, you may be feeling the sting; but don’t lose hope for that summer trip just yet.  When I began this article, it was for the purpose of sharing places to find discounts on gasoline, then as I did some online research, I came across ideas for conserving fuel once you have purchased it. I’ve compiled the info from several reputable sources to help you save some money. Some you may already know, but I’l list them all anyway.

Obviously, some aspects of fuel costs you CAN’T change – cost of fuel, number of miles you have to drive, etc.  however in the midst of all these variables, there are still  a few things you can control.

 

Gas Price Websites and Apps:  Use a website/app to find out gas prices in your destination BEFORE you go.

Why would this information be important?  While the actual price for the gasoline doesn’t vary much, the state taxes DO.  Sometimes, crossing state lines will show a change of  .10 – .20  (or more) per gallon.  These apps will alert you to these spikes or decreases in fuel taxes, giving you the opportunity to choose what side of the state line you purchase your fuel.

Also, there are times when just getting out of a metro area will save you  from .10 – .30/gal.

Knowledge give you the ability to make good budgeting decisions.

There ARE Discounts for the Savvy Shopper:

  • Cash Discounts: Since businesses are charged to process credit card payments, they offer discounts to customers paying with cash.  This can be .03 – .10/gallon.
  • Cash Back for Credit Card purchases of gasoline:  These would be with your regular credit cards but the offers change quarterly (or monthly).  Check the websites for your cards.  Also, check the frequency they pay out.  Quarterly payouts will give you the most value for your dollar.
  • Gas Company Credit Cards MAY offer savings when you use their card:  They may begin and stop at different intervals, so do your research to find this savings!
  • Costco & Sam’s Club sell gas at a discount. Consider their annual fees as you determine if they will be a savings for you.  Experts tell us we need to drive more than 12,000 miles/yr. to come out ahead on these.
  • Wal-Mart Murphy’s gas stations offer a discount when you use a Wal-Mart gift card at the pump.  It’s an  immediate discount at the pump of  .03 – .10/gal.  There’s no waiting for a check to arrive.
  • WalMart Credit Cards offers an even greater discount when using that card.  Weigh the discount against the financial pitfalls of using a credit card.  If you don’t pay the bill completely when it comes in, the interest will negate any discount you might have gotten.  This is a nice discount, IF you use it wisely!!
  • Some hotels are beginning to offer gas cards to families who stay with them – to encourage families to travel in spite of higher gas prices. These will be advertised on their website.  Evaluate the costs of the hotel with the savings to make sure it’s really a good deal.  These offers come from higher end hotels.

NOTE:  Applying for multiple credit cards will have an effect on your credit score so make wise decisions in this area…chose carefully and sparingly.

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Photo Credit: futureatlas.com on Flickr CC Lic.

TEN Tips to Improve Fuel Economy    (Sources: Driving Skills for Life – Ford Motor Company; fueleconomy.gov; consumerreports.org)   ALL trusted sites!

  1. Slow down and watch speed – Fueleconomy.gov estimates that for every 5 mph you drive over 60 mph, you will spend an extra .20/gal on fuel. (decreases gas mileage)  Pumping the accelerator or jack-rabbit driving costs you money.Use cruise control (on flat roads ONLY) and aim for a constant speed when possible.
  2. Accelerate and brake smoothly – Accelerating smoothly and braking softly conserves fuel. Fast starts, weaving in and out of traffic and hard braking wastes fuel. Maintain a safe distance between vehicles to allow for more time to brake and accelerate gradually.
  3. Limit the idling when possible – Today’s engines don’t need a warm up before driving.  Even in cold weather, idling for 30 seconds is enough. When Consumer Reports left a Buick Lucerne idling/warming up for 10 minutes, it burned about 1/8 gallon of gas.  According to the CA Energy Commission, you can warm an engine just by driving it gently.  Idling in traffic is also a fuel waster.  For every two minutes a car is idling, it uses the same amount of fuel as a mile’s drive.  Certain GPS units study traffic trends and can help improve your route to minimize idling in traffic.
  4. Check your tires – Properly inflated tires (refer to your vehicle’s manual)  increase fuel economy.  For every 1  psi drop in pressure, gas mileage decreases by .3%, (fueleconomy.gov) The Toyota Camry,  according to Consumer Reports, experienced a 1.3 mpg loss in fuel economy when its tires were under-inflated by 10 psi.   NOTE:  This becomes even more crucial as the weather gets colder: For every drop of 10° F in temperature,  tires will lose one pound of pressure  (NPR Car Talk). Replacing a worn tire when  necessary could save you more than $100 a year in fuel as well.  (consumerreports.org)  Bottom Line:  Check the air pressure in your tires before heading out on a trip.
  5. Be kind to your vehicle – Proper maintenance will increase fuel efficiency
    • Keep the engine tuned-up
    • Keep wheels aligned
    • Replace air filters
    • Check and top off fluid levels
    • Replace worn shocks  (Personal Note:  The last time we did this, we immediately noticed a SIGNIFICANT increase in gas mileage.)
    • Replace the oxygen sensor   The sensor monitors the amount of oxygen in  the exhaust and adjust the air/fuel mixture accordingly. If it’s functioning improperly, the car will run poorly and waste gas  (as much as 40 % on gas mileage)  (fueleconomy.gov).
  6. Read & Follow Your Owner’s Manual:  Use the fuel recommended by the manufacturer to keep the engine performing efficiently.  Not all vehicles need the high-octane fuel with its extra additives. It’s .10 – .30/gallon more expensive so don’t buy it if your car doesn’t need it. The same thing applies to the oil.  Using oil that is too thick (wrong grade) will will cause the engine to function less efficiently.  The Federal Trade Commission suggests finding motor oil that says “Energy Conserving” on the performance symbol.
  7. Travel light – A fully loaded trunk will decrease gas mileage.  An extra 100 lbs in the trunk reduces a typical car’s fuel economy by 1-2% (approx. .04-.08/gal)  A fully loaded roof rack can decrease fuel economy even more – by 2-5%.  This Is Significant on a long trip!!  Even a decrease of a few pounds can make a difference.
  8. Selectively use the heater or air conditioning – Using heating or a/c only when you really need it will reduce the load on the engine. I’m not saying to be uncomfortable…I’m saying to THINK before automatically turning it on.  If temperatures allow, use the vent.  When you use the A/C, ALWAYS open the windows at first to blow out the hot air as this will decrease the “load” on the a/c and reduce fuel consumption. (avis.com)
  9. Close windows at high speeds – Don’t drive with the windows open at speeds over 50 mph. This increases aerodynamic drag and lowers fuel economy.  NOTE:  If weather allows, opening windows at speeds below 50 mph can increase gas mileage
  10. Limit the number of stops:  Several short trips taken from a cold start uses twice as much fuel as one trip of the same distance when the engine is warm.  (Federal Trade Commission)  Avoid an excessive  number of stops when possible.

Using these tips is not going to decrease your travel budget by GREAT amounts, but it might save you enough to splurge on something else later.   Every penny counts when you’re on a budget.  🙂