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!!  🙂

Vacation Destinations –With Children

My original plan for this article was to list the great vacation destinations we have visited and share the gems we found & tips we learned through our travels.   Then I found  Frommer’s site  Top 100 Vacations with Kids….  frommers.com/100placesforkids    I tried to make my own article as ‘complete’ as theirs and it quickly became  overwhelming….and entirely too long! That’s when I decided to go back to my original idea of personal experiences –    By adding a link to the Frommer’s article  THEY could be ‘complete’ and I could return to the idea of offering tips.  That worked a LOT better!  🙂 Use them together.  🙂

https://i1.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/1/1d/US-NationalParkService-Logo.svg/256px-US-NationalParkService-Logo.svg.png

Photo Credit: U.S. Gov’t, Nat’l Park Service [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I have not put links to the locations as Frommers has done  -with one exception:  the  National Parks website.   Fortunately, that covers most of my entries here as we travel a LOT in National Parks. One Note:  When searching for information for the other destinations, be certain you find the OFFICIAL SITES  to avoid being pulled into packages sold by travel agencies/clubs, etc…   I have nothing against those but they will NOT save you money!! Another Note:  Our family is history and nature enthusiasts, so many of our vacations include those aspects in some form or another.

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SOUTH EAST

  • The entire East coast is FULL of history (Colonial history, Revolutionary and Civil Wars, antebellum plantations) and beauty (beaches, National Parks, lush green vegetation/climates).  Chose a state (area) and spend a week touring/visiting it to adequately SEE everything there.
  • Virginia:  With the variety of interests in our family, I was able to plan a Virginia vacation that had ‘something for everyone’.  VA has everything from history to beaches to nature/beauty to a Naval Base to theme parks.
    • Colonial Williamsburg/Yorktown/Jamestown Settlement:  You can easily spend a week in this area (including Norfolk and Richmond if you wish)  These are all National Parks/Historical Sites;  Busch Gardens for the amusement park enthusiast;  Virginia beaches;  NOTE:  In 2013, TEACHERS were given a 50% discount on admission to Colonial Williamsburg – I was not able to confirm that this program is still in effect, but it’s worth an inquiry.  You must present proof – school ID, I would assume.
    • Richmond/Norfolk –  These two towns flank the Williamsburg ‘triangle’ and give some variety to the sights.  Norfolk Naval Base gives tours;
    • Mount Vernon (George Washington’s home) or Monticello (Thomas Jefferson’s home), both in Virginia and both National Parks/Historical Places
    • Shenandoah National Park:  This is a small park that can easily be driven in a day;  hikes can lengthen your stay;  very beautiful
  • Washington DC:  In addition to the obvious places to see: Capitol, Monuments, Smithsonian, etc… DON’T overlook the Library of Congress and Supreme Court Building.  They are the most beautiful buildings in the area (imho).
  • Southeast Coast – Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia  (FL has its own category further  further down this list).
    • Lighthouse Tour on the GA and Carolinas coastlines  (There are a few up in VA too – just less concentrated….)
    • Kitty Hawk  (N.C.)
    • The history et. al. in Charleston, Savannah, Williamsburg/Jamestown/Yorktown, Appomatox, Petersburg is really more than can be seen in one trip….but we’ve tried. ha!  🙂
  • Smokey Mountain Nat’l Park, Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, TN;  The Smokey’s is the only National Park (in the lower 48)  that has no admittance fee.  You can drive through in a day, but if you want to hike or explore, plan a couple of days. This is a YEAR ROUND destination.  ALL seasons have something to offer.  Our Christmas there was INCREDIBLE!!  It snowed the day we were celebrating Christmas!  🙂  Autumn views can’t be rivaled anywhere.    🙂  Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge  (gateways to the Park) offers shows, outlet shopping and many ‘touristy’ things to do.  Combine this with a day trip to the Biltmore in Asheville, NC.
  • Asheville, NC:  Biltmore Mansion (home of railroad baron, George Vanderbilt)  Tickets are pricey for this, but well worth it.  Make a stop at the McDonalds in Asheville…even if just for an ice cream cone.  It’s unlike any McD’s you’ve ever been to.  🙂  Seriously!
  • New Orleans, LA:  Rich in history and French Creole culture;  One of the oldest cities in the US;  Tour antebellum mansions; enjoy some blues or jazz;  Enjoy the French creole cuisine and architecture but be certain to try the beignets at Cafe du Monde;

NORTHEAST:

  • Boston:   There are multiple ways to see Boston –
    • History which includes The Freedom Trail (takes a VERY full day) with its many historical sites including Old North Church, Paul Revere’s home and the USS Constitution,  Lexington and Concord, JFK Presidential Library and a little further south, Plymouth colony.  There is a Johnny Tremain tour that is great for children – all the sites in  Esther Forbes’ book
    • Literature:  Sleepy Hollow cemetery (where Nathanael Hawthorne is buried); Homes of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, Louisa May Alcott, Henry James, Charles Dickens, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, as well as Walden Pond with Thoreau’s cabin.
    • While on the Cape, I HIGHLY recommend a whale watch tour  if you can  fit it whaleinto the budget (it’s not cheap).   It’s PHENOMENAL!!!  MANY whales swim around the boat!!  Take motion sickness meds even it you aren’t prone to motion sickness.  (I learned this the hard way…)  The Bay waters can be QUITE choppy.  I loved our da, but if I had it to do over, I’d take the Bonine and enjoy myself much more.

There is so much to do in Boston for the history or literature buff, that this was by far my favorite vacation!!!

  • Cape Cod; Get a mile-by-mile guide online for information of things to do/see on the drive up the cape; Plimouth Plantation (living history museum) is north about 60 miles;  Beaches (though don’t expect the sun-soaking beaches of South Florida…this is Massachusetts),   Cape Cod Potato Chip factory (map on the back of the chip bag);  lighthouses; Provincetown  (Pilgrim Monument ) at the tip of cape   NOTE: Families should do their research before visiting Provincetown;
  • New Bedford Massachusetts:  Whaling Museum;  New Bedford is the setting of Moby Dick by Herman Melville.  This is an easy day trip from Boston or Cape Cod.
  • Gettysburg National Battlefield:  Battlefields are typically just roads/drives with narration or markers detailing what happened at each spot/pull out.  The REAL gem in visiting any battlefield is the Visitor Centers… with their films, museums, etc…  Don’t skip them!  🙂
  • Philadelphia:   History abounds here!  Birthplace of the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution; Liberty Bell; Everything “Benjamin Franklin”   🙂
  • New York City:  The list of things to do in NYC is endless.  An internet search will help you make the right choices for your family.  NOTE:  The NY Gov. has recently said that ‘conservatives’ and ‘Christians’ are not welcome in the state.   How serious was he?  I don’t know…just always be informed when you travel.
    • History:  Ellis Island, Statue of Liberty,  Staten Island Museum and Ferry, 9/11 Memorial and Museum,  Of course, the museums are too numerous to list.
    • Arts:  Metropolitan Mus of Art is a ‘must see’,  Music spanning from  Broadway to the Metropolitan Opera – or Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.  Search the internet for your specific tastes…
    • Brooklyn Bridge, Times Square, Bronx Zoo, Central Park, Empire State Building, Garment District :), Fifth Avenue shopping… Grand Central Station, Coney Island (amusement park)  Just a few ideas….
    • Sports:  In addition to games, there’s the possibilities of tours of stadiums, etc…  Now, Yankee Stadium  tours are the only tours I personally know about, but check websites for additional information.    🙂
  • Upstate New York:
    • Catskills
    • Niagara Falls  One of only 2 Nat’l parks that are ‘shared’ between U.S. and Canada.  You don’t need a passport to see the Canadian side as of the writing of this.  (This can change at any time, so check before you go….)
    • Adirondacks
  • Mystic Seaport Connecticut   (National Park)  This is a full day of a living history museum on the whaling industry of the 1800’s

Photo Credit: Aivar Ruukel on Flickr CC Lic.

FLORIDA

  • Everglades:  Bring mosquito repellant (with DEET) AND wear long pants and long sleeves. – no matter how wonderful your insect repellent is, it’s still no match for those insects in the Everglades!!  Don’t avoid this area just because of this.  It’s a great park… Just come prepared.  Include a trip down to the Keys if you have time.
  • Florida Keys:
    • Best snorkeling:  Bahia Honda!!  It’s better than John Pennekamp State Park (imho)
    • Hemingway’s home on Key West offers tours – and a chance to see his  ‘six-toed cats’  🙂
    • Over-seas Highway – from the Mainland FL out to Key West.  Seven Mile Bridge connects Knight’s Key  (Middle Keys) to Little Duck Key (Lower Keys)  It is CERTAINLY worth the drive!  If you’re a bicyclist, ride the ‘old’ highway and railroad bridge. It’s quite the experience.  The ‘old’ highway is also a great place to catch a sunset.
    • NOTE:  Families should do their research on the area before planning much time in Key West.
  • Pensacola:  white sand beaches;  Naval Aviation Museum;  Check to see if the Blue Angels are giving a show!
  • Orlando – Obviously, Orlando is home to The Mouse, but while in the area, don’t forget to take a day trip over to Titusville to see the JFK Space Center.  (This is the perfect break from theme parks if you need it)  🙂  I’ve written 2 posts on WDW:  Walt DisneyWorld on a Budget:  and More Walt Disney World Tips 

NOTE:  Teachers at accredited schools in Florida and Georgia can get complimentary admission to the Visitor Ctr and Educ. Resource Ctr with proof of employment – school ID I presume?  I have heard this MIGHT apply to all teachers but can not confirm it.  It’s worth an inquiry.  🙂 

  • St Augustine: boasts some beautiful pristine beaches!  🙂  It’s also the oldest settlement (fort) in the Continental US.  It’s also not far from Daytona.
  • Ft Lauderdale:  beaches – though crowded;  You may find Ft Lauderdale more ‘family friendly’ than Miami, not to mention cheaper to fly to.
  • Sanibel Island:  This area has the ‘to be expected’ beach vacation options with the added bonus of MILLIONS of sea shells!
  • Tarpon Springs & Ybor City (Tampa area):  Tarpon is the center of the sponge diving industry;  There are tours/boats to give visitors a look at the diving/divers though they do NOT take you to the actual sponge beds (locations are ‘secret’)   Go to the dock to see the boats come in with their day’s catch.  Ybor City is a Cuban settlement; taste Cuban cuisine;  cigar industry;

CENTRAL U.S. :

  • Branson, MO:  This is our weekend get-away of choice. The main attraction is country and folk music shows, but there is much more there. My post about all we’ve discovered there: Branson: Planning Your Trip and  Branson: What To Do – Shows Shopping  & More  Branson is VERY Family-Friendly.
  • St. Louis MO:  The Arch, dinner cruises (or sightseeing cruises) on the Mississippi, museums galore (we really like the Charles Lindberg Museum) and of course, Six Flags. Hannibal with all the Mark Twain ‘stuff’ is just north of St. Louis – a nice day trip.

THE WILD WEST (Which really isn’t in the ‘west’ at all)

  • Salt Lake City & Great Salt Lake:  A dip in the Great Salt Lake is an experience you’ll not get anywhere else…but do NOT get in if you have any wounds or scratches!  There’s a LOT of salt in it!!!
  • Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park – Montana – at the Canadian border. This is one of only 2 Nat’l Parks ‘shared’ with Canada. …    (Waterton is the Canadian side).  There is a very limited visitor season due to climate/weather – busiest months are July and August and that’s the only time I would personally plan a vacation there.  🙂
  • The Sierra Nevada’s are Incredible!!!  This includes everything from Yosemite and Lake Tahoe in CA to the mining towns south of Reno in NV…
    • Tahoe:  The main attraction here is skiing in the winter and water sports/activities on the lake in the summer.  All the casinos are across the stateline in NV.  While in Tahoe, take day trips to Carson City (NV)  Virginia City, (NV) and check to see if there are any local festivals in any of the surrounding towns.  On our last trip, we took in the Chili Cook-off in Virginia City and Cowboy Days in Genoa NV (OUR FAVORITE!!!)  I’ll write a blog post about it  soon.  🙂
    • Yosemite National Park is very beautiful but can be extremely crowded

      Half Dome in Yosemite National Park

      during the summer season.  If you can plan a trip in the late Spring, you can avoid some of that (Not too early as most of the roads don’t open until late April typically)  One difference between Yosemite and other Nat’l parks is that they DO have lots of eateries/restaurants/snack bars.  I”m not sure what that does to the whole “National Park experience”, but they’re there.

  • Yellowstone and Teton Nat’l Parks This takes a minimum of 5-6 days to really see it…
    Yellowstone National Park

    Yellowstone National Park

    These parks encompass everything from nature and wildlife to geothermal activity to hiking to beautiful vistas, sunrises, sunsets.  There’s more hikes than you could take in multiple visits.  Jackson, WY (gateway to the Tetons) is worth a visit/stay as well.  My post – linked above – gives details of our vacations to this area along with some tips for planning, budgeting, etc..

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    Teton Nat’l Park

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  • Mount Rushmore/Black Hills: This is easily seen in a day including the hike/museum/Visitor Ctr. Plan to return to the park at sunset for the lighting of the mountain. (be prepared for congested traffic).  Catch one of the Cowboy/Folk Music dinner shows in the area if you have time.
  • Colorado:  Vacation  destinations ABOUND in CO…here are a few things we really like
    • Denver:  Museum of Natural History is a ‘must see’;  U.S. Mint offers tours, but requires security clearance which takes significant time and effort.  Research this (WAY) ahead of time.  Rocky Mountain National Park is approx.1 hr west of Denver
    • Rocky Mountain National Park (Include some time in Denver too)  This can be covered in a day, but with a few days, you can hike, attend a Ranger Talk and explore the park like it ‘deserves’ to be explored.  🙂
    • Durango/Silverton – and the Narrow Gauge Railroad between the two;  This affords views you cannot see anywhere else as the track goes where the road does not.  Views are spectacular and I highly recommend it!!  (great for kids – especially if they are ‘train’ fanatics) For those who don’t really want to ride the train all day long, (think of kids here….)  they offer a one way  train – with bus the other way.  My suggestion is to take the train TO Silverton and the bus back to Durango (thinking especially of kids here).  To get that option (and not be stuck doing it the opposite way)  you must make reservations early. Those tickets go fast!    If you prefer to drive between these two towns, you can take the “Million Dollar Highway” built back when a million dollars was a LOT of money!!  🙂
    • Mesa Verde Nat’l Park: Mesa Verde is cliff dwelling Indian ruins;  combine this with a visit to Durango/Silverton.
    • Jeep Trails: South/Southwest part of CO.  Reserve jeeps ahead of time in tourist season.  BEST TIP:  Rent the jeep 2 days in a row so you don’t have to return it by 5 pm…you can stay on the trails later the first night. I would say though, 3 days in a row is too much.  You’ll need a day to rest in between before heading out again. (imho)  There are enough jeep trails in the area to keep visitors busy for WEEKS.    Depending on where you go/stay, this could be combined with Durango/Silverton/Mesa Verde.
    • Colorado Springs:  Pikes Peak (drive or take the cog rail); Focus on the Family; Garden of the Gods
  • Utah National Parks:  Utah is a GREAT place for the outdoor enthusiast.  A family of children – young boys especially – will be thrilled with the climbing and exploring options. There are FIVE National Parks in SW Utah…all having their own special niche – and all fabulous!  Note:  I do NOT recommend going during the hottest part of the summer!!!  (just my personal opinion…)
    • Zion Nat’l Park:
      Zion National Park

      Zion Nat’l Park

      The main road of Zion is only accessible by shuttle. Arrive early in the day to be able to park inside the park. After the lots fill, you’ll have to park in Springdale and take a shuttle from there, then transfer to the Zion shuttle.

    • Bryce Canyon: Bryce is quite possibly the most unique park I’ve ever seen.  The valley is full of pinnacles formed from erosion.  There is a shuttle here too, but it’s optional.  Arrive early to avoid the masses…

      Bryce Canyon Nat'l Park

      Bryce Canyon Nat’l Park

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • Arches National Park:  All the canyons of SW Utah have arches, but Arches National park is a greatest concentration of them. – another very unique park and worth the time!
  • Grande Escalante:  This is a drive through SW Utah – en route from one National Park to another.  – very scenic
  • Canyonlands National Park

TEXAS

  • Dallas Metroplex:  Ft Worth Zoo (Our preference of zoos in the area) Six Flags/Hurricane Harbor; Dallas Art Museum;  Sixth Floor Museum (the JFK assassination story)  Arboretum;  George W Bush Presidential Library;  Ft Worth Stockyards, Our favorite DFW metroplex zoo is the Ft Worth Zoo. There are MANY things to do in the metroplex…search online for activities that fit your family.
  • San Antonio: Alamo, Riverwalk; Sea World; Fiesta Texas; Short drive north is  Schlitterbaun;
  • Austin:  the bats under the Congress Avenue Bridge come out every evening at sunset – there are tours, boats, etc..to make a full evening of this; LBJ Presidential Library; of course, the TX capital if you like to see different state capitals (we kind of like to at least drive by these for a quick look…)
  • 157Galveston/Corpus Christi….and the entire Gulf Coast has all the beach activities you would expect not to mention a lot of really interesting History – The “Wall Street” of the 1800’s and the story of the Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900 and the rebuilding and raising of the city  by 17 ft – an incredible engineering feat for the day.  Galveston, Texas
  • Houston has the museums and activities you would expect in a metro area – and just a little way to the southeast is Kemah and the NASA Johnson Space Center in Webster.
  • Padre Island:  This is a nice place to visit but be aware that in March/April,  it becomes a College Spring Break destination.
  • Brownsville:  Walk across the Rio Grande into Matamoras Mexico  (10 yrs ago, it cost .25 pp each way….)  At that time, a passport was not required but that’s been a while back.  Personally, I probably wouldn’t cross the border now, with the recent events and warnings from the State Dept, but it’s a matter of personal preference….

THE REAL WEST

  • California:  Cali has SO much to offer the vacationer.  Choose a region (south, central, north) to keep from being overwhelmed with the options.  🙂
    • Redwoods National Park
    • Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks
    • Yosemite National Park  (I detailed this above in the section on Sierra Nevadas)
    • Death Valley:
      Death Valley

      Death Valley

      This is actually quite interesting, but do NOT go during the Summer.  Their tourist season is WINTER.  We went in Sept and it was fine, though getting hot, even then.  It’s possible to hike this park during milder seasons (spring/fall) but only before 10 am each day

    • San Diego:  San Diego Zoo  has pandas!!
    • Disney Land:  This is the first Disney park but it has many of the same attractions as it’s partner in Florida
    • Golden Gate Bridge
    • LegoLand
    • San Diego
  • Grand Canyon National Park:   Those who tour this park in a day don’t really ‘see’ it!  You really need 2-3 days…..MINIMUM!!  Each rim (North and South) is different.  The Grand CanyonSouth rim is the most ‘popular’ and the most ‘populated’.  If your time is limited, see the “South” rim, but if you can make the long drive around the canyon to see the North Rim, you should.  We planned it a little differently than some might – Enroute to California, we visited the South Rim on the way ‘west’ and the North rim as we headed east (home). That eliminated the LONG drive around the canyon – and perhaps enhanced our enjoyment by splitting it into two visits. (no burnout)
  • Sedona:  Beautiful vistas, sunrises and sunsets over the red sandstone formations, shopping;  This can be combined with a trip to the Grand Canyon;
  • Hoover Dam:  This is 20 min. from Las Vegas;  It could also easily be combined with a trip to the National parks of Southern Utah OR the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.  Flights to Las Vegas are often very economical  I’ve written  Hoover Dam with more detailed information.
  • Crater Lake National Park:  Beautiful and easily seen in a day unless you want to camp or hike.  There are ALWAYS numerous hikes in any National Park.

BEACH/COASTLINE:

  • N. & S. Carolina: not only the beaches, but numerous lighthouses (some open for tours, others only for ‘seeing’ from the outside;  Kitty Hawk and the Wright Bros museum/area is quite interesting;  Lost Colony of Roanoke;
  • Georgia:  beaches, Civil War history
  • The entire Gulf coast Shore from Galveston-Corpus Christie -New Orleans-Mobile, Alabama  Pensacola…. and of course, down the west (Gulf) coast of FL
  • Pensacola:  White Sand Beaches; Naval Aviation Museum; Blue Angels if they’re in town
  • Mobile:  In addition to beaches in the area (I like Orange Beach) there’s the U.S.S. Alabama WWII battleship in Mobile Bay.
  • California beaches – Expect crowds
  • Northern California/Oregon shorelines are not for sunbathing, but are absolutely breathtaking with their rocky shores

HAWAII: Beach

  • Oahu: Pearl Harbor Memorial;  Waikiki,  The North Shore and Banzai Pipeline;  the Banyan trees are a ‘must see’ in Honolulu
  • Hawaii/The Big Island:  Volcano National Park;  Coffee plantations;  Orchid plantation; Akaka Falls
  • Kauai:  Coffee plantations here too;  NaPali coastline can ONLY be seen by boat or by air – no roads!  It’s incredible!
  • Maui:  Haleakala National Park – plan to see a sunrise or sunset. Haleakala Road to Hana-  NOT for the faint of heart, but well worth it!  –649 hairpin curves!!!

 

 

This is certainly not a comprehensive list – that’s what the Frommer’s site is for.   My purpose was to give ideas, tips and my idea of the ‘Must See/Do’s’.

Happy Vacationing!!

Your Cruise is Booked, Now What? Part 2

Now that your cruise is booked, there are still a few more decisions to make and things to do before you actually pack those bags.

Questions about travel insurance, passports, shore excursions (or not), sea sickness (which needs to be addressed BEFORE you get on board)  need to be considered and decided upon.

First….if you haven’t yet booked your cruise, get tips on how to make those decisions and find the best bargains in Part 1 of this series:  Cruise Part 1: Finding Bargains and Booking 

HOW IMPORTANT IS TRAVEL INSURANCE?  

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Photo Credit: Ken Teegardin

While travel insurance is not something we purchase for ANY other type of travel, I absolutely recommend it for cruises.

  1. Unlike most other travel arrangements, cruises cannot be cancelled after final payment without financial loss.
  2. On a cruise, you are at the mercy of weather and decisions/events outside your control
  3. Cruises often take you OUT of the country where medical care may be harder to find or not covered by your regular health insurance.

Buy Travel Insurance!!!

The cruise lines offer insurance, but I’ve found those policies to be more expensive…with less coverage.  We purchase ours from a third party.  A good site for reviews on the various companies offering these policies, as well as tips on how to shop for a policy, what to look for, etc… is http://www.travelinsurancereview.net/

Policies can typically be purchased up to 2 weeks prior to your trip, however, to get coverage for  ‘pre-existing conditions‘, you will need to purchase your policy within a very small window of time – typically 7-14 days after the purchase of your cruise.  It’s a good idea to research insurance options simultaneously with shopping for your cruise so you can purchase the insurance within a few days of booking the cruise.

Policy costs are based on:

  1. Cost of your cruise
  2. Your age
  3. Level of coverage you opt for

The policies are really quite inexpensive but shop and compare before purchasing.  All policies are NOT equal  They all cover cancellation of your cruise, but some policies cover cancellation for SOME reasons and others cover for ANY reason.  They all have different coverage amounts for medical treatment, medical transport, lost luggage, travel delays, etc…  Obviously, the more coverage, the higher the cost.   Just find one that fits your age, your health issues/condition, and the health/medical condition of family members (as many policies cover cancellation for a death or illness of a non-traveling  family member that might interrupt your travel plans).

I read a story online recently about a woman who broke her arm in 3 places while on a Caribbean cruise.  She received medical care on the island per her insurance policy but upon returning home, had to have 2 repair surgeries due to the botched job by the hospital on the island.  Had she had premium insurance, they would have stabilized the arm, then flown her back to Miami and she would have avoided much of what she went through.  Just like anything else, you get what you pay for…  READ and ‘shop’ for your policy.

Claims:  We’ve actually submitted a claim on our insurance when travel plans were disrupted a few years ago.  We mailed receipts (needed in ALL insurance claims) and had to pay the charges upfront, but they reimbursed very quickly and with no hassle.  If we needed an incentive to always purchase insurance for cruises, THAT was it!  🙂

DO I NEED A PASSPORT?  

https://www.flickr.com/photos/thewidewideworld/2203253497/in/photolist-ypuRf-ptDUe-4mGfvg-9szuU-9XVA8-5TgAQz-g124wx-39Tmo4-czt4D-7hTQ7p-5J9Wnw-5EHaQi-is8fz-3C8MGd-9cBTjj-4NR3AK-bnNzzx-FXJTL-5frQG-6gTcVm-hHVM8-592W4k-6NfreC-b9SUT-7f3EV4-67WXwq-4Qgvkh-3BG2ey-4n4it1-dtQfPJ-4isEMY-4ioMSZ-4pkUst-6kXuWh-3PsiWz-wjvGF-mkYMv-9cBUiG-bt56EG-9VxeqP-4ppX6b-Nxxo5-9szyW-3AigFp-maar6-9KKF5F-g12QsW-6xDnQX-5UB8to-hJEnS6

Photo Credit; Craig James on Flickr CC Lic.

Obviously, if your embarkation port is out of the country, a passport is required to board your flight.  However, most cruise lines recommend passports for their passengers even when embarking from your home country or for cruises to the few Caribbean islands that don’t technically require a passport (for now).

Why??  If  you require medical or emergency transport or have to fly home for any reason during your cruise, you will NOT be allowed to board an aircraft in a foreign country without a passport.  Keep in mind, even an Alaskan cruise from a U.S. port cruises alongside Canada – which is a ‘foreign country’ to U.S. citizens. 🙂  An adult passport costs $110 but this is one expense that’s worth the cost….and these are valid for 10 years so could be used for several cruises. 🙂 🙂

NOTE:  For cruises departing from U.S. ports, the passport must be valid for 90 days from the END of your cruise.  Be aware, however, the ’90 day’ requirement is a U.S. requirement.  If you are cruising from another country, it can be up to 6 months – or more.  Find the information you need on this topic at http://m.state.gov/md231319.htm

ANOTHER NOTE: Make 2-3 copies of your passport’s information page.  Leave 1 copy with someone at home.  The 2nd copy is to take with you into ports (We leave our original passports in the cabin safe).  Another option is to scan the passport and e-mail (webmail) it to yourself so it can be accessed through any computer or smartphone. Some say that carrying the hard copy on shore is still a good idea even if doing this.  Bottom line is that there are varying opinions on whether to ‘take it (passport) on shore’ or ‘not take it on shore’…  I personally feel safer having copies with us….and originals in the safe.  We’ve never run into any problems. 

Children and Passports:  Children need passports just as adults.  It’s less expensive, but the child’s passport only lasts 5 years.  I’ve written an entire post on cruising with children as there are a few other restrictions/requirements that parents need to be aware of.  Cruising with Children

GETTING TO THE PORT

Whether you’re driving or flying to the port, plan to arrive at your port city the night BEFORE you board if possible. You don’t want flight delays or car issues to cause you to miss the ship!!  These situations are outside your control….Don’t Risk It.  🙂

23 Hawaii G12 213FLYING: If you are flying, you can either purchase your own airfare, or purchase airfare FROM the cruise line. In the past, airfare purchased from the cruise line was VERY expensive, but that may not necessarily be the case anymore. Where I’ve previously not taken the time to check their prices, I am now beginning to at least give them a look. What I have found in my recent research though is that that devil is in the details…meaning, it’s the fine print that can get you into trouble. An important question to ask is ‘When am I ticketed’ – that can determine how easy it is to change/cancel if flights are changed or cancelled or choose your airline, flight times and route….and how moderately sure you can be that the flight you buy is still ‘there’ on flight day. Of course as with anything purchased from the cruise line, the advantage is that if there are any delays or problems, the CRUISE LINE will get you to the ship at their expense.  However, travel insurance will do the same thing…

Bottom Line:  Read the fine print before buying your airfare from the cruiseline.    On our upcoming cruise, I checked with Princess on their EZAir….I’m buying it on my own.

Photo Credit: Ryan Dingman on Flickr under CC Lic.

DRIVING;   For drivers, parking your car is the next decision you’ll need to make.

  • Search ‘parking while cruising’ in your port city to find not only the parking lots run by the Port but also any independent parking facilities (usually cheaper) that may have online coupons or discounts. (typically no coupons for parking lots run by ports…)  Reservations typically will secure a better rate than renting on the spot.  These lots will have varied levels of security, fencing/covering or surveillance/monitoring. Check their websites or call with your list of questions.

    Houston Bayport Terminal

    Houston Bayport Terminal

NOTE TO SELF ON CRUISE DAY:  🙂  After parking, write down or put in your phone the location of your car in the parking lot.  If you have trouble remembering a parking place at the mall for the afternoon, imagine what it will be like after a 5 – 7 – 12 day cruise.  🙂

  • Find a hotel that allows you to park in their lot for free (or at a discounted rate)  if you stay with them before the cruise.  Some have shuttles to the port (possibly for a fee); others will require you to get a taxi (which may STILL be less than paying for parking). Even if you pay a little more for the hotel and transport, free parking may balance it out.  The disadvantage is that though the lots may be ‘busy’ and well lit…they probably aren’t ‘secure or ‘locked’.  Another thing we think about is door dings on our car…Cruise parking lots open and close on embarkation/debarkation day only. The rest of the time vehicles are parked and no one is door dinging anyone.  Hotel parking lots, on the other hand, have cars in and out constantly.  It’s a choice you have to make.
  • Some hotels are starting to ‘rent’ their parking places to any cruisers…not just those staying with them the night before.  This is a new practice, but worth checking into.  They typically will shuttle you to the port.  The disadvantage to parking at a hotel, again, is that the lots are not ‘secured’ and there are higher chances of door dings or damage.

HERE’S A NOTE TO CONSIDER:   If you drive to the terminal and the ship is not in port….do NOT park and go in!  How do I know this?  We were ON the ship the day it was 14 hrs. late returning to port (fog) and people were sitting in the terminal  (with no food) 12-14 hrs.  The ship was still out to sea….but they still got in line to board.  Just by way of information….You can’t board a ship that’s NOT THERE!!!  🙂  Watch the port cams on your phone and find something to do until it IS there….go sightseeing, go shopping, have coffee…   Be aware that after the ship gets to port, it will take a minimum of 2-3 hrs. to disembark the current passengers.  The Port Authority/Customs, as well as the crew, will need a little time before they begin boarding new passengers.  That’s the time frame you have.

GETTING TO THE CRUISE TERMINAL ON THE DAY OF YOUR CRUISE:

You have several options for getting to the terminal if you you’ve flown in:

  • Transfers purchased from the cruise line from airport to cruise terminal
  • taxi or Uber
  • rental car (This may be the most complicated and expensive as you pay to rent a car, then pay to park that car…   However, in some cases, it may STILL be cheaper than buying transfers from the cruise line.  Comparison shop!
  • Stay in a hotel that offers shuttle service from airport to hotel to terminal.  Some hotels offer this service free while others charge.

 A Word About Sea Sickness:

This is something you need to think about BEFORE you board the ship.  Though most cruise lines dispense motion sickness pills to passengers free, do you really WANT to go to the medical facilities (where there may be people with Norovirus et al) to get them?  The generic versions are fairly inexpensive at Walmart, et al….  It’s just best to bring your own.

There are several remedies…

  • Pills:  Dramamine, Bonine  (generic -Meclizine & Dimenhydrinate)  We always purchase generics at  HALF the price – they are the EXACT same medication.  Confirm this by comparing ingredients on the box/bottle or speaking to your pharmacist.  The drawbacks to the pills are that they must be swallowed (when you’re nauseous), must be taken every 8-12 hours AND they tend to make you drowsy.  If you opt for the pills, CERTAINLY take the first dose BEFORE boarding!!!
  • Transderm Patches:  Transderm Scop Patch This is MY choice.  These are ‘behind the ear’ patches applied the night before (or morning of) your cruise.  They require a prescription.  🙂  The package contains 4 patches and each patch lasts 4-5 days, so 1 package should be enough for 2-4 people depending on the length of your cruise.  Read and follow the instructions for application carefully. On longer cruises, we often don’t apply the 2nd patch unless we actually need to. Typically, by mid-way through the cruise, we’ve gotten our ‘sea legs’ and motion sickness isn’t a problem. The problem starts when we get OFF the ship!!  🙂
  • SeaBands:  These bands apply pressure to pressure points on the wrist.  I have never personally used them but have friends who swear by their effectiveness. It’s a more natural approach if that is your preference.
  • Natural Remedies:candied ginger
    • Candied Ginger:  Some ships offer this with after-dinner mints.
    • Green apples can help alleviate nausea.  Some cruise lines carry these on board JUST FOR THAT PURPOSE.
    • Orange rind.  Peel an orange and hold the rind to your nose and inhale.   Nice smell too!!  🙂

I can’t personally vouch for these ideas, but am willing to try them on our next cruise.  I’m always looking for a more natural approach….as long as it works 🙂 

SHORE EXCURSIONS

Shore excursions can either be purchased from the cruise line or from vendors directly either before your cruise or on the pier after you dock.

PURCHASING FROM THE CRUISE LINE: These excursions are typically over-priced however, some cruise lines (Carnival and Princess for certain) will price match if you find an excursion you purchased from them for less. For a long time, cruise line were the only one who would guarantee to get you back to the ship if a delay on a shore excursion caused you to miss sailing time. However, local vendors have realized the business they were losing because of this and have started offering that same guarantee.   Another advantage to purchasing from them is that if for any reason the port stop is cancelled, you won’t be charged for that excursion. Local vendors MAY offer that protection – just ask them. The remaining advantage to purchasing from the cruise line is that you may get an earlier disembark time or preferential treatment in that process from the cruise line.  As with everything else, you have to weigh the advantages and disadvantages to make your decisions.  We usually purchase from the cruise line in Mexico/Central America, but find great deals on our own from local vendors in Alaska or Canada (and possibly Europe).

NOTE:  If you choose to book with the cruise line, it will be less stressful to do so BEFORE you board.  Lines are long at the “Shore Excursion” desk and the more popular choices tend to fill up quickly.  Lines and disappointment are NOT how you want to spend your first day on board.

PURCHASING EXCURSIONS ON YOUR OWN:  As mentioned above, purchasing on your own is typically less expensive and with the venders now offering the guarantee of  getting you back to the ship at their expense if there are delays causing you to miss the ship, they are becoming more and more ‘attractive’ to cruisers. Always ask the vendor what their cancellation policy is if the ship skips the port (weather or other things outside your control).  You don’t want to be charged if you have no control over what happens.  Just read the fine print, check their policies and get pertinent answers in writing before purchasing anything.

WARNING: Be very cautious about giving your credit card number out when traveling to certain areas of the world.  If purchasing at the pier, cash is your best option.

 ONE MORE NOTE:

If you plan to use your credit card outside of the country, call your credit card company to let them know.  (NOTE:  Use your credit card with caution!!!  Cash is always safe.) Credit card charges from out of the country will set off red flags on your account.  When that happens, the company will attempt to contact you, but chances are, you won’t be able to receive that call (cell phone is turned off; landline has no one there to answer).  While on the phone with them, talk to them about other safe guards to protect you when traveling outside the country.

Make a copy of the front AND BACK of the credit card(s) that you will take with you.  Keep that copy in the room safe. (remember….it has your #)   If your card is stolen, you will not only need the CC number but also the 1-800 number to report it.  Though that number is available online, if you find yourself in that situation, believe me…anything that makes your next steps easier and less stressful will be good.

Other Posts on Cruising:

Step by Step Vacation Planning

https://www.flickr.com/photos/diamondduste/

Photo Credit: David Smith CC Lic. https://www.flickr.com/photos/diamondduste/

The ‘Planning Process” of vacation planning can begin FAR before any reservations and payments are made.  Even though job restrictions may keep you making any financial commitments, don’t wait that long to begin the exploration, fact-finding, bargain shopping part of the process.  Our family vacations were often in May or June and I began thinking and planning in the fall (Oct/Nov).

Confession:  We often begin discussing next year’s vacation as we’re returning home from the current one.  Really!!!   We begin throwing out ideas and discussing possibilities.

Of course, the OTHER reason I like to start this process early is that it spreads the work out over time.  My perspective is that the sooner I get ‘on’ it, the more time I’ll have and the less stressful the planning will be. It Works!!  🙂

Vacation Planning 1-2-3:

  • 7-12 months before the vacation:  Everyone gets in on the brainstorming process of places we’d like to go. We may be discussing 4 or 5 (or 6 or 7) options at this point…  We talk about our ‘time’ and ‘distance’ restrictions.  Details involved in Drive vs. fly?  (time, distance, cost)  How much time does each destination “require’?  For an EXTENSIVE list (along with tips) of some of our favorite destinations- Vacation Destinations –With Children
  • 6-8 months before the vacation:  Through this ‘exploration’ phase, we will narrow down our choices to 2-3 destinations.  Maybe I’ll do some ‘general’ cost-checking to get an idea of costs for these destinations. I need to be certain there aren’t any astronomical costs involved that would be prohibitive. I’m just wanting a rough estimate here so this doesn’t take more than 15-30 minutes.
  • Through this exploration phase,  one destination will begin to stand out. Maybe that will be because we find it more interesting.  Maybe it will be because it fits our budget or time constraints better.  For whatever reason, usually by 4-5 months before the proposed vacation date, we will have settled on ONE vacation destination.  (which is great, since one is all we can go on at a time)  🙂
  • 4-5 months before the vacation: Now it’s time for serious research

    • How much time should we plan for the trip?   A little research of the area will answer this question.  🙂   Are we ‘touring’? (i.e. driving and sightseeing as we go)  If so, how many nights do we stay in each place?  How many miles can we cover in a day and where will our hotel stops be?
    • Comparison shopping:  flights & rental car (if applicable) and hotels;  Kayak  has been my consolidator of choice in the past, though TripAdvisor and Trivago seem to be taking the forefront recently.        
    • Check the Dates: Are we traveling at the best time/best week to get the best deals?  (Sometimes we can be flexible with date; other times we can’t….)  If it’s possible to move our vacation date, would we save anything?   

Only once have we changed the destination this late in the game…but that one time, YES we did.  Decision was based on timing and other logistics…just fyi….

Once the preliminary research is done and decisions are settled, we can request vacation time from work.  This is somewhat of a ‘non-refundable’ request so we like to be VERY sure before making it. Obviously, we won’t make any reservations or pay deposits until AFTER vacation time is approved.   

After vacation requests are approved I can Continue On:

  • 4 months prior to the vacation
    • Airfare: According to Airfarewatchdog, the best time to purchase airfare is 49-54 days out.  What I personally have found is that when purchasing for an Alaskan cruise, 4-5 months out was the best price.  By 2 month pre-trip, the rates had gone WAY HIGH!!!  From that, I deduce that any time from 2-4 months is best…just start price checking as soon as possible so you know what a ‘good price’ is.   I actually track the prices on paper…..for a LONG time….
    • Rental Cars: If we need to rent a car, I make those reservations as soon as airfare is purchased…and maybe even before.  I never use sites that require a credit card to reserve.   This way, I can cancel if the rate goes down (which it usually does….)  I’ve detailed the process I go through to get the REALLY good rates on  Bargains on Rental Cars.      
  • 2-3 months prior to the vacation: 
    •  Itinerary:  If this is a driving/touring vacation, I need to set up an itinerary – where our hotel stops will be and how long we’ll stay at each place….  🙂      . 
    • Hotel reservations:  Finding Frugal Accommodations Part 1Part 2   has suggestions for getting the best rates on accommodations.  I ALWAYS make reservations.  It allows me to check prices and find the best deal.  “Spontaneous” almost always costs more money.

As you make all the reservations, (flights, hotels, tickets et al)  drop the confirmation e-mails into a “vacation” folder in your email program.  Also, add the totals to your vacation budget sheet (You can create a computer spreadsheet for this, but honestly, a sheet of notebook paper works too….and takes a lot less time…).  This will help you to always know ‘where you are’ with costs.  More info on this topic:  How To…Vacation Budget Part 1 and  Part 2  

  • 6-8 weeks prior to the vacation: 
    • Information Gathering:  What do you need to know about the activities, sightseeing, et al. you want to do?   Confirm hours of operation…so you’re not disappointed by arriving on a day it’s closed. Confirm that GPS directions are correct…ugh! Of course, you can always get or print a map.   Search for coupons or ‘offers’  online and either save to your phone/ipad or print them. If you print, put them in an envelope and add the envelope to your list of ”Things to Take”.
    • Meals:  What will you do about meals?  Bring your own food? Eat out?  Vacation Meals on a Budget will give you suggestions of easy-to-prepare meals if you decide to provide some or all of your own meals.
    • Budget:  Pull together all the budget numbers: hotels, airfare, rental car, admission/tickets, food/meals, fuel, PARKING! etc… as you make plans. Don’t forget to budget some money for purchases – souvenirs, ice cream 🙂  etc…
  • Photo Credit: Matt McGee on Flickr CC Lic.

    4 weeks prior to the vacation: 

    • Gather coupons:  Do you need grocery coupons?  Fast food venue coupons? Online coupons for the theme park or museum?  Collect these and put in an envelope or save to your phone/device.  Make sure your coupon envelop is on your “Items to Take” list.  
    • Shop for sales on snack items you want to take.  We like microwave popcorn (which NEVER goes on sale, ugh!)   😦
    • Make Lists:  Miscellaneous items are the ones most easily forgotten…that’s the reason we need lists.  
    • If flying, how will you get to the airport?  Do you need parking arrangements for your car? Reserving that spot in advance may get you a discount (it does at our airport…)  or is there a coupon for the airport parking?
    • If travel will take you to areas where you may not have cell phone service (cruise, Alaska, National parks etc..) call your cell phone carrier to find out coverage areas, roaming charges, et al.
  • 2 weeks prior to the vacation: 
    • Make arrangements for your home, pets, newspaper, mail.  Notify a trusted neighbor that you will be gone. Begin creating an itinerary with hotel locations/phone numbers for family member(s) or neighbor/close friend(s).  SOMEONE will need a way to contact you (IN ADDITION TO your cell phone)  if your phone is out of service area or you are otherwise ‘out of contact’.
    • If driving, take care of any car maintenance that is due.  New spark plugs can improve gas mileage.
  • 1 week prior to the vacation: 
    • Finalize and send your travel itinerary to the people you’ve chosen as your ‘contacts’.  I find this important because we have traveled in areas of Yellowstone or Yosemite…or on cruises etc.. where our cell phones did not have service.  Family needs a way to contact us OTHER than our cell phones.  Make sure you can be contacted through landlines – typically at your hotel if traveling to these types of areas.  🙂 
    • Make a final contact/confirmation with those who are taking care of your home or pets. Confirm with the Kennel? 
    • This last week is reserved for laundry and packing (and making peanut butter cookies  🙂  )  
  • Go on Your Vacation and Have Fun!!!

I plan to write a post about that final week – ‘Crunch Week’ as we refer to it.  Planning that week carefully and tightly makes things a LOT more pleasant.  haha!

How To Create a Vacation Budget (Part 1)

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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.

Organization During the Planning Process

Vacation planning involves gathering of LOTS of information. – Multiple hotel choices with their amenities, rates, etc…  Options for ways to spend our vacation days -choices of the things we COULD do with their hours, costs, etc…  Airline flight times that we COULD choose from with their prices, credit card offers and benefits.  It’s a very long list.  As I’m planning, I collect all the choices.  From those choices, I’ll make decisions…but during that decision making process, I’m inundated with LOTS of information.

I HAVE to keep all that organized or it quickly becomes overwhelming.

How do I do that?  OneNote!!    http://office.microsoft.com/onenote 

  • Send webpages there for easy access to information. When OneNote allowed us to put these stored notes in the cloud and therefore accessible from any computer it got even better.  When you send webpages to OneNote, the entire page goes there….I then delete all information that isn’t pertinent to our specific travel plans, or I already know and don’t need to have recorded. For example, when planning a trip to a Nat’l Park, I don’t need the information about group rates and minimums. I delete it from my OneNote page. When I do that, it puts at my fingertips the information I DO need.
  • I make my lists in OneNote – There’s the “To Do” list and of course all the ‘Take’ lists.  I like the list making features.  Of course, I print these lists when it comes time to pack (It would be too time consuming to try to pack from a list on a computer/phone.  Paper is MUCH more convenient.)
  • Once we get ON our vacation, I use the OneNote phone app (don’t use it often in the planning process as it’s not as easy to ‘input’ on.  Having everything on my phone  means I can leave that laptop home when we go if I want to (and I typically ‘want to’….)  I just don’t like the hassle of getting it through security, worrying about leaving it in a hot car, worrying about ‘securing’ it.  I just often think it’s more ‘trouble’ than ‘help’.   The inclusion of the phone app gives me access to all the information I’ve put in OneNote. ark the websites you use most frequently.  This makes accessing that information very quick!
  • Print:
    • I print budget sheets, hotel grid sheets used to compare hotels with their amenities, rates, etc… and
  • I put the pages I’ve printed in a 3 ring folder…perhaps in sheet protectors depending on how many pages there are.

The OneNote phone app simplifies a lot…I  can access and read/work on various aspects of vacation planning anywhere.  I don’t typically take my computer on vacation (It’s just one more thing to tote along) so that phone app becomes my source of information while traveling.  NOTE: The OneNote computer program IS necessary in the planning stages however, as you can’t “send” things to OneNote from your phone.

Every travel industry company has it’s own app.  I think perhaps my favorites are Trip Advisor and Kayak  http://www.kayak.com/  Everyone is familiar with TripAdvisor…and Kayak is my consolidator of choice when it comes to all reservations – airline, hotel car rental, etc…     I like the fact that I can forward e-mail confirmations to the site and it sends constant updates on flight or gate changes, etc…or any other updates I need to know.  The day I became impressed with this process was on my last flight.  Within 20 min., our gate changed THREE times. (It was the weekend of the AA restructuring…).  Kayak sent the gate updates before they made the announcement over the speakers.  We would be on our way to the new gate as that announcement was being made.  Yes, the airlines have their own apps but honestly, I don’t know if they work as affectively as Kayak…I don’t know because I’ve never downloaded them.  Kayak did it ALL….in ONE app.  Less is always my preferance.  One app rather than an airline app…and rental car app….and 4 different hotel chain apps.  🙂

 

Happy Planning!!

Finding Frugal Accommodations Part 1

 

hotel room- doubleSelecting accommodations can be challenging as I try to find a place that’s clean, safe and comfortable while still staying within budget.  Of course, hotel websites make many claims about their quality but the claims   may or may not be accurate. 🙂 .

My signature worst experience (and my incentive to NEVER let that happen again) was when we attended a funeral in a small town. There were very few options available and money was particularly tight for us at the time.  I based our decision SOLELY on price and it was NOT a good experience.  :/   After that, I vowed that would never happen to us again.

Please Note: There is a BIG difference between “frugal” and “cheap”.  “Frugal” is using the blessings you’ve been given with wisdom….getting the most value for your money.  “Cheap” means lowest cost no matter what –with decisions/choices based ONLY on price. After our experience that night, I concluded that I don’t much care for “cheap”….I prefer “frugal”.

Finding Frugal Accommodations:

  • Make a Chart: To simplify and clarify the process of ‘hotel shopping’ I’ve created a basic gridform in Excel (easy to create grid lines).  It took about 2 minutes to create.  🙂  Because I’m ‘visual’, once I can see all the info about the hotels/amenities on the chart, I have clarity in the decision making process. I begin by deciding what’s important for that night – pool? laundry facility? ease of access? microwave?  Breakfast?  Those things become the column headings and I’m ready to begin gathering information.  Of course, this could be written on a blank sheet of paper…or opened on 12 windows on the computer, but that isn’t ‘organized’ or easy to assimilate. A grid form is. The generic form is saved on the computer so I can change headings as necessary and use over and over.
  • Call the Hotel Directly:  When checking rates, always call the hotel directly. The employees at the 1-800 call center are not authorized to reduce rates.  The only person who can do that is management AT the hotel. Before making that call, find the best rate on a consolidator website (Kayak, Trivago, etc…)  Ask the person at the hotel to beat that rate.  They are actually VERY interested in reclaiming the business they’ve lost of late to these consolidators. They (Kayak, Expedia, etc…)  have become the ‘necessary evil’.  Hotels HAVE to use them to get the business, and yet, they lose money every time someone books through them….necessary evil.  Give them the chance to ‘win you back’.   
  • Hotel Breakfasts are a bargain:  These have become almost standard in mid-range hotel chains though you won’t find them in the upscale downtown hotels.  These save alot of money over the course of a vacation…especially if you have hungry boys in the family.  🙂

    More and more you can find hotels offering a HOT breakfast. Even though the cost MAY be higher for that hotel, the savings can be significant if you have hungry boys to feed. One more note while we’re on the subject of breakfast: In an effort to reclaim business from the consolidators, some hotels are ONLY offering the breakfast to those who book through them.  Read the fine print

  • Check out Budget Traveling 101   for more tips and a list of questions to ask when calling the hotel directly.

What about Bidding Sites such as Priceline or Hotwire:  These sites seem to have lost popularity in recent years, though they ARE still around. The thing I found was that the rates weren’t that much better than you could get with a reservation and avoid the gamble of a ‘blind’ and non-refundable bid. I’ve actually only used Priceline twice in all my travels.  On one of those experiences, I ended up standing in line behind a couple checking in who got the same room that we did –for $4 less. I had risked ‘blind’ bidding on a random hotel…and they got the exact same room for less money!!  While we were happy with our night, I realized it wasn’t worth the gamble.  I preferred to be able to shop for and purchase a hotel with the amenities I wanted.

So, that’s my ‘take’ on Hotel and Travel Bidding sites…just not enough savings to justify the ‘gamble’.

Accommodations are a huge part of any vacation budget, but with research and a little work, it is also where you can find some of the greatest savings.

Happy Traveling!

More Information:

Budget Traveling 101

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Photo Credit: Ken Teegardin

Traveling on a budget starts with a few basic things.

  1. Make Reservations:  Spontaneity may work well in many other areas, but when it comes to travel, ‘last minute’ will always cost more money.  (Have you ever shopped for airfare 48 hrs before you want to fly?)  Check sites like TripAdvisor, or consolidators like Kayak, Trivago, etc… to compare rates and read reviews. When it comes to hotels, my experience is that if you’re looking when the family is tired and/or hungry, you will be tempted to spend more than you would if you had the time to ‘shop’ for that night’s accommodations.  Airfare is ALWAYS a better bargain when booked in advance. It’s not at all unusual for flight prices to fluctuate 10-20% over a month’s time. Shopping in advance also gives you the opportunity to check prices over several weeks and ‘catch’ them when they’re ‘lower’.

More Information:

Frugal Accommodations Part 1

Frugal Accommodations Part 2

Reading Between the Lines on Hotel Reviews

2. A Good Tourist Trap can be fun…as long as you can avoid the “Trap” part:    We love a good tourist trap like anyone else, 🙂  but have learned to walk in;  look around a bit; take in the flavor of the place, then leave. Don’t fall for the sales pitches or trinkets for sale….They’re typically over-priced and low quality.  Save that money for something of real value…

3.  Have a plan.  You’ve heard the adage:  Fail to plan; Plan to fail.  Plans keep us “on target”.  For more information on this check out these posts:

It really does help to keep the budget under control if you make a plan, write down what you spend, and keep the “extra” purchases within your planned budget.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/teegardin/5916140780/

Photo Credit: Ken Teegardin on Flickr

4.  It’s all about choices.  Saving on one thing means you can spend on something else.  Better to splurge on that “once in a lifetime” whale-watch tour rather than whittle away the money on snacks and sodas purchased on a whim.  Make your expenditures “memory makers” rather than impulse buys or money black holes.

5.  Call directly when making HOTEL or RENTAL CAR reservations – and ask some questions

  • What is the best rate you can offer me?  Never just assume that published prices  are ‘firm’.  They may be…but they also may be flexible.  The manager is the one who can lower the published price…never the operator at the 1-800 call center.
  • Can you beat the price I found on (Kayak, Expedia, etc…)? Listing their rooms on these sites is necessary for these hotels as so many do their shopping there.. However, they LOSE money when you book through them.  They have interest in getting you to book directly through them.  Give them the opportunity to offer you a better rate to ‘win back’ your business from these sites.
  • Has the price changed? Rates in the travel industry fluctuate drastically. Check for rate decreases and don’t be afraid to ask for the lower price if there’s been a reduction. This is most likely to work with hotels as rental car rates typically go UP when booked at the last minute.

6.  Go ahead and ask for that upgrade   Hotels and rental cars are about the only area in the travel industry where free upgrades are still given but you just might get that  corner room or upgraded rental car.

7. Sign up for loyalty programs.  Sometimes there’s a discounted rate (cars or hotels), but there’s ALWAYS some type of perks: expedited check in/checkout, free 2nd driver, free nights after ‘x’ number of stays, early boarding or free baggage fees.

8.  Check out sites like Groupon and Living Social and ‘like’ the FB pages of  hotels, restaurants, museums, etc.. you’re interested in.  Check back on these several times before you travel to find things that pop up at the last minute.   Reminder:  Groupons are non-refundable and have expiration dates.  Always read the fine print.  Also, check out Vacation By Groupon

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