Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Our first vacation without the kids!

I spent the afternoon printing out hotel and airline confirmations, booking a Broadway play and Central Park pedi-cab tour, and finalizing dinner reservations and airport transportation.

But I still can't believe it's happening--our first vacation without our kids! And it's for a special occasion--our 10th wedding anniversary.

We have wanted to do this for a long time, but have never found anyone volunteering to watch our 3 children. I guess our persistence has paid off, and our kids and pets will be in good hands while we are gone.

Truthfully, I had a hard time planning this vacation because my mind-set is always all about my children. When I was looking for a Broadway play to see, I gravitated to Cinderella because of my daughter. I kept finding entertainment that I know my kids would love. But, we really wanted to pick things that we want to do that the kids couldn't do or wouldn't be interested in doing.

We are only leaving our children for 3 nights, but I am both nervous and so stinking excited to have this opportunity with my husband! This will probably be our only opportunity to travel without our kids while they are young.

I was able to book our flights on airline miles, and I got us a free hotel room for 2 out of our 3 nights. I'll write a detailed report of how that was possible when we return.

Have you gone on a vacation without your kids? Was it easy or difficult for you? Would you do it again?

Monday, August 25, 2014

How we saved 65% on our upcoming Disney Cruise vacation

Warning: this post contains a bunch of math.

I was chatting with a group of people about Christmas presents for our kids and budgets for gifts, and I mentioned that a certain electronic gadget that is popular with kids does not fit in our budget. And then someone said to me, "If you can afford to go on a Disney cruise, you can certainly afford to get that for Christmas!" That statement reminded me that a Disney cruise can be quite expensive, and I guess because we are going on one people might have the perception that we are loaded with discretionary spending money.

But that couldn't be further from the truth! Last month I wrote about 10 Tips to Save Money on a Disney Cruise, and we used many of those tips to save on our out-of-pocket costs on our next cruise. And just to keep this real for my fellow frugal readers and vacation enthusiasts, here are some hard numbers on our savings.

Back in February 2013, Disney released itineraries and schedules for the majority of 2014. Since prices go up as the ships are filled with reservations, this opening day is usually the cheapest price you will see a future cruise. I checked out the price for a 7-night cruise on the Disney Fantasy for the first week that my kids are out of school for the summer. The price was $8058 for the cheapest stateroom for my family of 5. But for a true picture of the cost, I would have to add in tips ($420 which is added to our on-board account automatically) and airfare for 5 from Dallas to Orlando (approximately $1000 for 5 people when a good deal strikes).

So the base line price for my family of 5 during the first week of summer vacation (and the cheapest week of the summer) was $9478.  Ouch!   Almost $10k.

But then I started attacking this cost in every possible way to reduce it and make it affordable.

Savings: Time of Year

So the first thing is that we decided not to cruise over the summer at all, and we booked a cruise when our kids are in school. We have had great experiences pulling our kids out of school for a week on previous family vacations (despite living in Texas, one of the strictest states when it comes to truancy laws). Moving the cruise date to the fall saved us $2961, and it was the biggest chunk of savings.

Savings: Booking on board
We were also able to save an additional $470.40 (10% of fare excluding port taxes) off the cruise fare by booking a cruise while on board our 2012 Disney cruise and moving it to our new date. Disney Cruise Line also gave us $200 in on-board credit for booking on our 2012 cruise that we could apply to our tips (or excursions, souvenirs, etc.).

Savings: Using a travel agent
We booked our 2014 cruise with a travel agent that gives on-board credit. We received $150 from Travel on a Dream just for booking with our agent (instead of booking through Disney directly). The cruise was the same price whether we booked through Disney or through an agent. Since we referred several of our friends to our agency, we also received $140 in referral credits that we can use on our cruise. Woohoo! The cost of our tips is now completely covered with all of our on-board credit.

Savings: Credit card rewards
We used Southwest Rapid Reward miles to book our flights to Orlando for (almost) free. Each ticket only cost $10 in taxes, so we saved approximately $950 on airline tickets. I applied for 2 Southwest Visas back in 2013 and earned a companion pass, so that one person in our family travels for 0 points and $0.

My husband and I also had over 100,000 Delta Airlines Skymiles (from opening Amex Delta credit cards in 2013) that we could not use due to limited flights and availability out of Dallas. So we decided to cash those in on the Delta website for $700 in Amex gift cards, which we then applied to our cruise balance.

We had some Disney rewards sitting on a Disney credit card that we opened up back in 2011 which totaled $253.15 that we applied to our cruise balance.

My Discover card also wooed me to spend more money on it over the Christmas holidays last year. I have owned a Discover card since I was in college and I don't want to close it since it's one of my oldest accounts. But I rarely use the card anymore since there are cards with better benefits. However, I received an incentive letter in the mail (snail mail) from Discover for a $75 gift card if I would reactivate my expired credit card. I also received 2 incentive offers in the  mail for extra cash back if I spent $1000 a month on the card during the holidays. So we shifted our normal spending to that credit card and received another $275 in Discover cash back that we applied to our cruise balance.

Note: We do not carry any balances on our credit cards, so we do not pay any interest or fees. 

So the math looks like this:

Summer cruise with tips and airfare for 5 people: $9478

Time of year -$2961
Booking on board  10% savings  -$470.40
Booking on board credit -$200
Travel agent credit -$150
Travel agent referrals -$140
Airline miles for travel -$950
Airline miles for Amex cards -$700
Disney reward dollars -$253.15
Discover gift card -$75
Discover cash back -$275

Total savings: $6174.55

Out-of-pocket cost of trip: $3303.45 (65% savings)

Although some people might still think that $3300 is a lot for a 7-day vacation for a family of 5, I think it's not a bad deal considering it's almost all-inclusive. That price includes our airfare, entertainment, stateroom, food and drinks.

Optional extras include a hotel night the night prior to the cruise if we choose to fly in a day early (which we are, it's hurricane season and we don't want to risk missing our cruise due to a flight delay), transportation from the airport to the port (which we are sharing with another family on our cruise to reduce costs), alcohol (we don't drink alcohol, but if we did, we would bring our own since Disney allows that), shore excursions (we have a few cheap ones planned but they will not break the bank) and souvenirs. But those extras are the same no matter what time of year you cruise.

We booked the actual cruise 20 months prior to the sailing, so the $3300 in out-of-pocket expenses breaks out to about $165 a month to save. It's also about the money we save over 2 years by mowing our own lawn and providing our own pest control.

So there you have it.

On our next vacation in early 2015 (which is NOT a Disney Cruise, shocker!) we are working on free flights and free hotels for the entire vacation by using miles and points.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Dressing up on vacation?

We are finally in the last stages of our long-awaited 7-night cruise on the Disney Fantasy, and our # of weeks countdown is in the single digits. We have been planning this vacation for over 2 years!

We are starting to plan what clothes to pack for our cruise. We usually pack very lightly on vacations, with 2 or 3 suitcases shared among the 5 of us. But this vacation might require more luggage, since we will be bringing costumes for the Halloween on the High Seas events and we will also be dressing up for formal night.

Our past cruises have been shorter and have only included an "optional semi-formal night." We always chose that night to go to Palo (the adults-only restaurant on Disney Cruises) and our kids ate in the kids' clubs, so they didn't have to dress up. The dining rooms on Disney Cruise Line are fairly informal, even on the dress-up nights. Almost everything is allowed except tank tops and swim suits.

We broached the topic of dressing up for formal night on this cruise with our kids a few months ago, and much to our surprise, the kids were very excited at the idea of dressing up! The boys asked if they could wear ties. We said yes. My oldest asked if we could buy him a tuxedo with a bow tie.  I hope they are this excited to dress up when they are teenagers.

Happy about dressing up?


My daughter will be easy to dress up--she is going to the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique before dinner on formal night since it is also her birthday. She will be dressed in a princess dress.

Dressing up boys is more expensive for us since they don't own many dress-up items. So we have to get shirts, ties, pants, belts and new shoes. Hopefully we will find another occasion to wear these items!

My husband was a little reluctant to bring dress-up clothes on our first cruise when I told him he needed them for Palo...but I think the food and quiet atmosphere won him over, and we've dined there on every cruise since.

Even on formal night, I imagine there will be some folks on our cruise that are not dressed up for dinner. And I'm totally cool with that. It's their vacation, why not be comfortable?

Do you ever dress up on vacation?  How about the kids? Or do you prefer shorts and jeans all the way?

Monday, July 28, 2014

Texas Road Trip: North Texas Jellystone Park (Burleson)

Our family traveled to Burleson, Texas this past weekend and stayed 2 nights at North Texas Jellystone Park. It is about 90 minutes from our house.

This was not part of our original summer vacation plans, since we had no plans. But when summer rolled around, we were bummed that we had no real plans. So my husband started investigating organized bike rides and fun places to stay near those rides. He was looking for something similar to the fun campground we tried last year in Wichita Falls. He had always wanted to ride the Goatneck Ride in Cleburne, Texas, and found Jellystone with a Google search for nearby lodging. We booked a cabin and pre-paid for activity wrist bands about 6 weeks prior to our stay.

We stopped for lunch in Fort Worth on our way to Burleson and arrived at the campground a little after 1:00 p.m. Upon check-in, we were told that our cabin keys would not be available for pick-up until 3:00 p.m., so we had time to check out some activities.

Our first encounter with Yogi Bear
The campsite was sold out for the weekend and was totally bustling with campers! We tried to park at the main building but circled twice and couldn't find a parking spot. So we drove to our cabin and parked there before heading over to the water park.

We stayed in a Premium Luxury Cottage, which was more like a duplex with 2 attached cabins in a long building.
We were pleasantly surprised at how nice and big it was inside! It had 2 queen beds...

And a set of bunk beds.

And some chairs.

Our room also had a microwave, refrigerator and coffee pot. Oh, and a large jacuzzi tub in the bathroom (my favorite part about the room). It was really a nice, big room with sturdy, rustic wood furniture.

We walked to the water park. It felt so good to be there, considering the temperatures were over 100 degrees the entire weekend!

The water park had 7 water slides. Three of them were geared for smaller kids, and my 3-year-old went down them many times. The other 4 slides were taller and longer.

After the boys tried all the slides, they gravitated to water basketball.
And this obstacle course.

We received an activities sheet upon check-in that indicated the activities where a bear would be present. We saw Yogi and Cindy Bear several times during our stay.

We rode the fire truck ride on Friday night...

The kids rode the barrel ride:

And we did the "Hey hey hey ride" around the campground.

The hay ride stopped at a campfire where we could roast marshmallows. We didn't bring any, but another camper was kind enough to share some. By this time, it had cooled down to about 95 degrees.

Across from the campfire was the Air Zone with about 10 different bounce houses and a rock climbing wall.

We visited the shady playground on Saturday morning.
The far side of the campground felt more like a campground to me. This is where the tent sites were, near the fishing lake.

We played tether ball both nights. There was also a sand volleyball court, laser tag and paint ball out there. But we were a little relieved the kids did not realize that, because we thought it was still too hot to run around playing those games!

Our activity wrist bands also included a free ride on the Frog Hopper and a $5 game card at the arcade. The kids accumulated enough tickets at the arcade to get some pretty good toys.

The arcade had an indoor play area similar to Kid Mania (in Plano). This was a great indoor activity to do while it was 104 degrees outside on Saturday!

The kids said their favorite activity was the water park, which we visited 3 times during our stay. Our wrist bands included some activities that we never got a chance to try, like bike rentals and an outdoor maze.

Money saving tips:

*  Go during the week for cheaper rates on cabin rentals
*  Rent an RV from the campground instead of a cabin (or bring your own RV or tent!)
*  Bring your own food (we brought some, but I wished I would have brought more stuff for lunches)
*  The water park does not allow outside food or drink. Cups of water are free at the water park. Also, the park sells giant chocolate chip cookies for just $1.99 that make a great snack for sharing.

The activity wrist band was totally worth the money!

Overall, we had a very fun weekend at Jellystone! Parts of it felt like more of a theme park than a campground. The employees and campers were all very friendly. If we go again, we will go earlier in the summer when the temperatures are slightly cooler.

Have you been to Jellystone? What did you think?

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

10 Tips for Saving Money on a Disney World Vacation

Earlier this month, I wrote about how to save money on a Disney Cruise.

Now it's time to talk about how to save money on a Disney World parks vacation!

Just like a Disney Cruise, if you pull up the Disney World website and start to price a vacation package that includes hotel, park tickets and food, you might get discouraged at the high price. A week in early December (which is off-season) for my family of 5 starts at over $4000 for the least expensive option! And that doesn't include airfare.

But there are many ways to reduce the price of a Disney World vacation, so consider some of these strategies:

1.  Stay off-site

Staying in a non-Disney hotel is one of the biggest ways to save money. I realize this is not a popular option with some people, but hear me out.

You can stay in a really nice off-site hotel for $100/night or less. Some have free transportation to the parks. There are many time-shares and condos for rent in the area that run $120-$150 a night for a 2-bedroom condo. Think of all the space you will have, and how you can save money if you can prepare some meals in your hotel room.

In 2010, we stayed 8 nights at the Wyndham Bonnet Creek time-share property. It is actually ON Disney property but is a non-Disney resort. It is located right next to Disney's Caribbean Beach Resort, and we could see that from our resort. We shared a 4-bedroom condo with my extended family, and our portion of the room was less than $100 a night. We ate breakfast and dinner in our room because we had a full kitchen.

Wyndham Bonnet Creek Resort

Awesome pools

To get the best deals on off-site properties, try sites like Last Minute Travel or Priceline. For time-shares, it's almost always cheaper to rent points from an owner than to book directly on the resort's website. Check for point rentals on Ebay or with companies like Vacation Strategy and Vacation Upgrades. Read about current hot deals on off-sites properties on travel forums like the DIS.

Keep in mind that if you stay off-site, you may need to add in the cost of a rental car and theme park parking to your budget. 

2.  Go during the off-season

Most hotels and Disney resorts are cheaper during off-season times. For example, a standard room at Disney's Caribbean Beach Resort varies from $182/night to $284/night, depending on the time of year. Some Disney restaurants also have an up-charge during peak seasons, like summer and Christmas.

Riding in the front of the monorail with the driver, back when it was still allowed

3.  Book a value or moderate resort

If you really want to stay at an on-site Disney resort, pick a value or moderate resort instead of a deluxe resort. The difference in price can be huge!

For example, on a random day in Dec 2014, the rates are as follows:

$130/night Pop Century (value resort)
$201/night Caribbean Beach (moderate resort)
$566/night Grand Floridian (deluxe resort)

Value and moderate resorts still come with all the benefits of staying on-site (Magical Express bus from airport, buses to theme parks, Extra Magic hours, etc.) Most moderate resorts have hot tubs, water slides and zero-entry pools.

Disney's Caribbean Beach Resort

4.  Use a travel agent

I said it for a Disney Cruise, and I'll say it again for the parks. Use a travel agent! One that lives and breathes Disney. Here is why:

If you book a Disney resort or vacation package online 6 months in advance, you may think you booked early and got the best price. However, Disney frequently offers discounts and promotions as you get closer to your vacation date. If a discount for your same room comes along, Disney does not automatically apply the new lower rate. A good travel agent will look out for promotions that can apply to your reservation, and automatically adjust your reservation to get the discount.

Examples of discounts include a percentage off your hotel room or a free dining package.

In 2012 when we stayed at the Caribbean Beach for 3 nights before our cruise, our travel agent was able to adjust our price down twice before our vacation!

Breakfast at Chef Mickey's

5.  Reduce your park ticket cost

Park tickets are super expensive! There are not many ways to get a discount on the tickets.

For a slight discount, subscribe to the newsletter, which gives a discount at Undercover Tourist. I have done this before, and it's legit. It is not a huge discount, I think it only saved me about the amount of tax on each ticket.

Skip the park-hopper tickets. That saves $60 per ticket. Especially if you have young kids, I think visiting one park a day is enough.

Also, consider going to the parks for fewer days and taking breaks throughout your vacation where you enjoy the pool and other free stuff at your hotel. Your feet will thank you.

The best seat on Main Street U.S.A.

6.  Bring your own food

Eating at Disney World is expensive. Many hotels now have small refrigerators. Consider bringing some food with you from home for breakfast (Nutri-grain bars, granola bars, etc.) The parks allow you to bring in food and drink. Fill a water bottle in the morning and refill it throughout the day in the parks.

If you are not renting a car, you can get groceries delivered to your resort through Garden Grocer or WeGoShop. I used Garden Grocer on a past trip, and we definitely saved money by having those groceries delivered and eating breakfast (and a few dinners) in our room.

Eating at our hotel

7.  Reduce souvenir costs

If you are trying to stick to a budget, the really annoying thing about the Disney parks is that every ride dumps you out into a gift shop. So be prepared!

Add Disney gift cards to your family's birthday and Christmas wish lists. Buy Disney souvenirs at home before you go (from Target, the Dollar Store, etc.) and bring them with you to surprise your kids.

Talk to your kids about a souvenir budget before you go into the parks. Trust me, the merchandise is hard to resist!

Figments from EPCOT

8.  Go with a group

If you have the chance to go to Disney World as part of a convention or group, you can get a drastically reduced rate at the resorts and a discount on park tickets. In fact, if you have a group that requires 10 or more rooms, you qualify for a Disney group rate.

So maybe it's time to organize a family reunion!

I took my 2 sons to Disney World last summer for a big reunion, and we stayed at Wilderness Lodge on a big discount (around 40% off).

Disney's Wilderness Lodge

9.  Eliminate or reduce transportation costs

A Disney World vacation is much cheaper if you don't have to buy airline tickets to get there. If you can't drive in a reasonable amount of time, considering opening a credit card for your favorite airline that goes to Orlando. For my family of 5, Southwest Airlines provides the most flights and flexibility for miles and points travel.

Be flexible with the days you fly. Many times, flights out of Orlando back home are more expensive on Sundays, when everyone is trying to fly back. Search your airline's calendar to find the days with the lowest fares. Many airlines have reduced prices for mid-week travel.

Fun times on the plane

10. Use credit card rewards

Just like with a cruise, you can collect rewards on your credit cards to help reduce the cost of your vacation. Open a Disney Chase credit card and collect dollars to use all around Disney World. Or, open a Barclay Arrival card to offset your hotel expenses. Use any hotel points you have accumulated to stay off-site on your drive to Orlando or for your first night.

What are your top money saving strategies for Disney World???

Thursday, July 17, 2014

5 Reasons Why I Love Southwest Airlines

Last year, I applied for 2 Southwest credit cards. Each card awarded a 50,000 mile bonus after spending $2000 within 3 months. Chase advertises these 50,000 bonus cards as "2 free round-trip tickets" cards, as you can easily get 2 tickets for 50,000 miles (or less). However, I think that Chase and Southwest are totally understating the value of these credit cards. I made the minimum spending on each Southwest credit card and charged our monthly expenses for a year (and paid off the balance very month) and ended up with over 120,000 Southwest Rapid Reward miles. And thus began my love affair with Southwest Airlines.

My family has gotten so much value out of those miles. Here are 5 reasons why I love Southwest Airlines.

1. Companion Pass

Because I earned over 110,000 qualifying miles in one calendar year, Southwest awarded me a companion pass in June 2013 that expires at the end of 2014. I chose my husband as my companion, so he flies for free with me whenever I fly on Southwest. I can fly using cash or miles, and he can still fly with me for free. What a deal!

Before my companion pass expires, my husband will have traveled with me for free on 3 round-trip vacations (twice to Florida and once to New York). His tickets for these trips would have cost us around $700 cash.







2. Low Mileage Rewards

Southwest does not have a standard mileage reward chart like most other airlines. The miles required to redeem for free travel depend on the price of the ticket and the type of fare. The Wanna Get Away fares are the cheapest seats and stretch your Rapid Rewards the farthest. While most domestic airlines (like American, Delta and United) charge 12,500 miles for a one-way ticket within the U.S. (or 25,000 miles round-trip), you can get many Southwest flights for much fewer miles.

For example, I just booked a flight on Southwest from Dallas to Denver for 4819 Rapid Reward miles. The same flight would have cost 12,500 miles or more on most other domestic airlines.

Our upcoming anniversary trip to New York City cost approximately 18,000 Rapid Reward miles round-trip, and that is the cost for my husband and me combined! This trip would have been 50,000 miles or more on American Airlines for 2 round-trip tickets.

My 120,000 Southwest miles have provided us free tickets for 2 different round-trip vacations to Florida (for my entire family of 5!), an anniversary trip to New York City, and a ticket to Colorado for my parents' 50th anniversary. I still have enough miles left over for a one-way ticket to visit a friend in January. Crazy! The tickets to Florida (2 trips) for my family of 5 would have cost 250,000 miles on American or United. In total, we got over $2500 in free tickets from these miles.
Riding to the baggage claim at our favorite airport (Orlando)

3. No Change Fees

Southwest doesn't charge any fees for changing your flight, whether you bought your flight with cash or miles. Most other airlines charge $200 if you have to change or cancel your flight. Southwest also lets you get credit or miles back if your flight goes down in price. You can use the credit toward another flight within a year.

This free change policy has really come in handy for us over the past year. On our first trip to Florida on Southwest miles, I saw that our flights had gone down in points since I originally booked them. I was able to re-book us on miles at the lower price, and the miles I saved were instantly redeposited back into my account.

On our next Florida trip, I changed our return flight twice because we kept changing our minds when we wanted to return. Each time I changed our flight, the price was cheaper and I got points refunded.

Southwest at Dallas Love Field airport

4. No baggage fees

Southwest has no baggage fees for the first 2 bags per person. This is huge, no matter if you are flying on a cash ticket or a miles ticket. We usually bring 3 suitcases for our family of 5, so this saves us about $150 per trip in baggage fees.

Free! All of them.

5. One-way flights

Most airlines allow you to book one-way flights, but on some major airlines the cost is sometimes almost as much as a round-trip ticket. Southwest has reasonable one-way flights and does not require round-trip tickets on cash or points.  I didn't fully appreciate this until I tried to book tickets on Delta Skymiles, which allowed one-way tickets but they cost the same as round-trip tickets!

Inexpensive one-way flights are also convenient if you are running low on miles and you need to book one way with miles and the way back with cash.
One-way to Denver International Airport

I know that Southwest is not the most glamorous airline, and it does not have assigned seating or fancy food. But it is such a good value on miles and points to get from point A to point B. Because of these 120,000 Southwest miles, the cost of flights was taken out of the equation for our vacation budget and we can afford to travel more.

Southwest--do you love it as much as I do?

PS--Southwest is not currently offering the 50,000 bonus cards, but it is likely to offer them again before the end of the year.

PPS--I do not work for Southwest. :)

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Vacation Anticipation

We are 80-something days away from our big Disney Fantasy cruise vacation. My youngest keeps asking every day if we are going "tomorrow". My 6-year-old wants to know the exact number of days. We just gotta get through the rest of the summer and our trip will be almost here!

To keep our kids' interest levels and excitement levels in check for our trips, we always do some pre-trip activities. The anticipation of each trip is half the fun! For previous cruise vacations, we have constructed paper cruise ships and practiced snorkeling. 

For this upcoming trip, we did another search at the library for any new books or videos we could check out before our cruise. We had already checked out some books that taught us ship terminology (like port vs. starboard, aft vs. forward, etc.) My oldest son found two chapter books about mysteries on cruise ships.

We also found a video at the library about cruise ship ports that covered our two island destinations, St. Thomas and St. Maarten. The video gave a brief history of each island and covered some of the things you could do there on port excursions. The kids got really excited when they saw all there is to do!

We watch a few YouTube videos each week that show people's vacations on The Fantasy. The kids also like watching our YouTube videos of our previous cruises. This week, Disney Cruise Line released a new promotional video that describes some of the extra activities on board in September and October for Halloween on the High Seas (which was tested last year in a limited way and is being expanded this year):

The video gave me the idea to rent The Nightmare Before Christmas, since I don't think my kids have seen that.

I've been chatting with other adults on our cruise on a private Facebook page. It has been great sharing ideas about port adventures and asking/answering questions about the cruise.

I've been accumulating graphics to make into magnets to stick on our stateroom door:

I'm also busy trying to figure out what we will hand out as gifts for the Fish Extender Exchange, as well as brainstorming on costumes for the costume party and pirate night.

When we get a little closer, we will make and put up the countdown chain.

We're in the home stretch now!

Do you do any fun or educational activities in preparation for a vacation?