Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Things I Will Not Do to Save Money on a Vacation

I'm all for saving money on vacations. Sometimes, getting the price down is the difference between going on a vacation and staying home. I'm sure some of you are thinking that there's nothing I wouldn't do to save money on a vacation. Not true! There are some things I won't do.

But first, here is a list of things I regularly do to save money on vacation:

Things I will do:

Use Credit Card Rewards. Of course I will do this! But slowly and responsibly. Our upcoming trip to Hawaii took a few years of strategizing with several credit cards.

Fly on discount airlines. Yes, I've flown on Spirit and lived to tell about it. Flights to my hometown are super cheap! But I know enough about the airline to avoid flying it right before a cruise or another major event, since Spirit doesn't have reciprocal agreements with the other major airlines in case there is mechanical trouble.

* Fly in coach. This seems like an obvious thing, but I'm always amazed by how many people will fly only in first class or business in order to go on a trip.

* Cook meals. We have stayed in condos and rental houses with full kitchens, and to save money we have gone to the grocery store and cooked breakfast and dinner in the condo. It saves a ton of money on going out to eat. I have no problem doing this, but I admit I also love NOT having to cook on a cruise!

Kitchen at Wyndham Bonnet Creek condo close to Disney World

* Bring lunch. Most theme parks allow you to bring in food, and sometimes we pack our own lunches. I recently read a trip report from a family that ate PB&J while they were sightseeing in Hawaii, and that's going to be us! We do like to splurge on some meals, though, but sandwiches for lunch is no big deal to me or my kids.

Eating a packed lunch of PB&J at The North Pole amusement park in Colorado

* Ask for and use discounts and coupons. If we know what attractions we're visiting ahead of time, I will research online to find discounts and coupons. Recently, I called a surfing school to ask if they had any coupons or discounts, and I was given a discount over the phone just for asking.

* Go during the off-season. Usually, this involves pulling my kids out of school, which so far has not been an issue. Crowds and prices are lower when school is in session. As my kids get older, this may no longer be an option.

What I Will Not Do: (and no judgement from me if you do any of these things! :) )

* Sleep overnight in an airport. At least not by choice. My whole family would be a mess if we had to do this during a layover. We had the chance to do this on our way back from Hawaii if we would have taken the earliest flight back with a 5-hour layover in the middle of the night in the Las Vegas Airport. But, no thanks. We opted to take a later flight and stay the night in a hotel. I realize that people without kids or people who sleep better in public places might not think this is a big deal to do.

* Listen to a timeshare presentation for a gift. Not while we're on vacation. My time is just too precious on a trip, the presentations always take much longer than they say, and we know we're never going to buy a timeshare (well, maybe a Disney Vacation Club one day.....)

* Buy discounted tickets from a questionable website. I saw a post a while ago on a message board about a website selling deeply discounted tickets to Disney World. Disney does not sell deeply discounted tickets, so there was no way I was jumping on that bandwagon. I read the site was shut down hours later. Not sure if people ended up with their tickets.

* Haggle/barter with vendors selling souvenirs. I know in some countries, this is standard practice. We were advised to haggle with vendors at the straw market in Nassau to get the prices down. But I'm just not too comfortable with this, especially since I feel the prices are already so cheap! I spent a few months traveling in Guatemala during college, and everything involved haggling--including taxi fares. It was exhausting and uncomfortable for me.

The Straw Market in Nassau, The Bahamas

Obviously, my choices of what I won't do to save money on vacation are based on my personal experiences and are very subjective. What are things you refuse to do to save money on a vacation???

Monday, February 16, 2015

$35 Balance and Other Hawaii Pre-trip Excitement

I wrote a post last fall about how we are taking our family of 5 to Hawaii for (almost) free using airline miles and points that we accumulated by reading and following advice from several travel blogs. At the time I wrote that post, it was looking like we would just have to pay $50 total in taxes for our airline tickets and a few hundred dollars total for 8 nights of hotel.

I'm excited to report that our current hotel balance is only $35.56! And it's looking like we are on track to pay off 100% of our hotel expenses through travel credit card rewards before our departure in a few weeks. Woohoo!

We can thank Discover card and Ebates for this extra "free" money. Over the holidays, Discover card sent me a letter offering an extra $120 in cash back bonus if I spent a total of $1000 on my card over a period of 4 months. It was easy for us to switch our normal monthly spending over to this card until we had accumulated enough for the extra cash back. I also used the Ebates portal for some online purchases of Christmas gifts, which gave us more "free" cash for our Hawaii hotel fund.

In other pre-trip news....we have spent the past few months learning about Hawaiian history and culture with our kids. We do this prior to every vacation, and there was a lot of accessible information for Hawaii at the library and online.

We checked out some kid-friendly books from the library:

And we watched some videos on Amazon Prime and YouTube about Hawaii and Oahu specifically.

But can you guess what my kids' favorite pre-trip activity has been??? Watching 3 episodes of The Brady Bunch where the family goes to Hawaii.

The Brady Bunch in Hawaii

My boys thought this show was HILARIOUS! And it actually shows a lot of the sights on Oahu. (See this post for The Brady Bunch Guide to Hawaii). They even asked to see other episodes of the show that were not Hawaii-related. I might have to download some on an iPod for airplane viewing.

So what's left to do before our trip? Buy new water shoes and sunscreen, figure out what we're going to pack and find things to occupy our kids for 9 hours on the airplane.

I can't believe this trip is really happening!

Monday, February 9, 2015

My Longest Flight Ever!

I read a lot of travel blogs that focus on collecting airline miles and points, and recently a few of them have had lively debates on flying overseas in business class seats vs. coach seats. And I seem to be in the minority of those blog readers who feel that traveling in coach is an acceptable option for long flights.

When it comes to vacations, I'm more in the camp of "it's the destination, not the journey." I'll fly Southwest, Spirit or any other low-budget airline if it gets my family safely to our vacation destination.

With that in mind, I'm going to share my longest/worst flight experience. The year was 2009. My husband, 4-year-old son and I had been in Russia to complete the adoption of our newest family member, 17-month-old Joshua. Due to cost and my husband's work obligations, we decided that my husband and oldest son would fly home to Dallas after our court hearing and I would stay the remaining 2 weeks in Russia by myself to complete the adoption process. This meant that I would fly home by myself with my new son.

Before our journey home, I was already exhausted. I had gotten a nasty sinus infection while in Russia and had been through some interesting medical procedures in the days leading up to our departure. I wasn't sleeping well due to my sinus infection and due to my new son's sleeping issues.

Our journey home was over 30 hours, door to door. That included 16 hours of actual flight time and time spent in the Vladivostok, Russia and Seoul, South Korea airports.

Waiting at the airport in Vladivostok, Russia

Our first flight from Vladivostok to Seoul was less than 2 hours in length. To board, we had to go down some stairs and board a bus that would take us to the airplane. My son was already screaming before we boarded the flight because we were stuffed into a crammed, padlocked waiting area for about 30 minutes prior to getting on the bus. Our flight was 45 minutes late taking off. Still screaming and crying.

At one point during the flight, I took Joshua to the bathroom to change him and noticed there was an empty row of seats at the back of the plane. I asked if we could move back there, and the flight attendant said yes.

Moving to our own row helped some. Keep in mind that my son did not speak or understand English and I was communicating to him with my limited Russian language skills.

We landed in Seoul at 11:00 p.m. and went straight to Burger King. I ate the best tasting Whopper I've ever had!

Our flight to Dallas didn't leave until the next morning, so I rented a room at the hourly hotel inside the Seoul airport. It's not as shady as it sounds. In the morning before our flight, we stopped at this airport playground to get some energy out.

But next was our big flight--over 14 hours straight from Seoul to Dallas. The plane was configured in a 2-4-2 arrangement, and Joshua and I had a row of 2 by the window to ourselves. I had high hopes that he would sleep for a good chunk of our long flight.

But of course I was wrong! But at least he wasn't screaming like on the earlier flight. The only way to keep him happy was to constantly feed him cheerios and Gerber puffs. I almost had him asleep on my lap at one point, but a flight attendant came over and started talking loudly to be and he immediately opened his eyes.

A 14-hour flight with a toddler is very, very long.

Early into the flight, my son had a big diaper blowout. It was so bad that I wound up throwing his outfit away. No problem, I had extra changes of clothes.

But the little girl in the row next to us was not feeling so well. She was throwing up about every 20 minutes all over the floor and her seat. The flight attendants would come around spraying air freshener after each round.

Joshua slept for 45 minutes, and that's it. I guess it's better than nothing!

One of the things that kept my spirits up on this trip was I knew that the moment the wheels touched down in Dallas, my son would become a U.S. citizen and our family would be complete! (Except, of course, that God had other plans!)

When we landed in Dallas, I carried Joshua in a baby carrier for 2 hours while we waited in the customs line (because otherwise he kept running all over the place). But we survived! I look back at this long flight now with humor and a sense of accomplishment.

We are taking our 3 kids on a 9 hour flight in the next few weeks, and we have plans to fly them to Europe someday. Most certainly in coach. And we will all survive and still enjoy our destination regardless.

What is your longest flight ever? Would you do it again?

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

What's In Our Wallet

It's no secret that I read several miles and points blogs to help me figure out how to achieve our family vacations for the least amount of out-of-pocket money. I do not profess to be an expert at collecting miles and points, but I've been asked by a few people what credit card we are currently using to collect miles and points.

And it's this: US Airways Premier World Mastercard by Barclay. We were really not considering this credit card because we were working on accumulating Southwest miles through Southwest credit cards, but so many bloggers were talking about the tremendous value of using the airline miles of this card:

The Points Guy--50,000 US Airways Dividend Miles and 10 Great Ways to Use Them
Mommy Points--US Airways MasterCard Increases Offer to 50,000 Bonus Miles!
Million Mile Secrets--Limited Time 50,000 Point US Airways Card Sign-up Bonus
and even potentially using the miles for hotel stays by Miles for Family.

The deal with this card is when you pay the $89 annual fee and make your first purchase (could be as small as a pack of gum), you get 50,000 US Airways Dividend miles. If your spouse also applies for a card and does the same, that's 100,000 US Airways Dividend miles for $178 in annual fees. And since American Airlines is merging with US Airways, in the second quarter of 2015 those US Airways miles will become 100,000 American Airlines Aadvantage miles. We will likely cancel this card within the year so that we don't pay another year of annual fees.

Most airline credit cards require a larger minimum spending over the first 3 months in order to qualify for the bonus miles, so just purchasing one small thing and paying an annual fee is a great offer for that many miles.

So what will we do with our 100,000 American Airlines miles? We aren't sure yet, but we will most likely use them for a trip in 2016 or 2017.

These miles could pay for 3 round-trip tickets to Hawaii during off-peak months:

Snorkeling near Maui??
Or 4 round-trip tickets to Vancouver, Canada to take a Disney Cruise to Alaska:

Or 4 round-trip tickets to the Caribbean or Mexico during off-peak months:


Or 5 1-way tickets to Europe during off-peak months:

It's fun to dream about where these miles could take us.

And that's what's in our wallet.

(Note: We pay off our credit card balances every month. Please don't consider applying for new credit cards before you read Mommy Point's Beginner's Guide or Million Mile Secret's Beginner's Guide.)

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

2015: The Year of the Science Museums

A little over a year ago, my family went to the Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas (see this post). It's a big museum with lots to see, and something we think our kids will appreciate even more as they get older.

So a few weeks ago, we received some information in the mail on a museum membership. At $110 per family, it would pay for itself if we visited the Perot museum just twice this year. So we wondered if we would go enough to make it worthwhile. We enjoyed ourselves last time, but the museum is kind of far from us and parking is a pain and not plentiful (at least on the day we went).

The Perot Museum, Dec 2013

As I was looking at the Perot museum membership information, I saw that it included reciprocal entry into other science museums across the nation that are members of the ASTC Passport Program (Association of Science - Technology Centers). And that is what eventually sold me on the family membership to Perot!

I realized that based on travel we have already booked in the next year, we will have the opportunity to visit 5 other museums with our Perot membership cards:

The Bishop Museum in Honolulu:

Volcano Eruption Display at the Bishop Museum
The Denver Museum of Nature and Science:
I haven't been here since I was a kid!
Daytona Beach Museum of Arts and Sciences:

Orlando Science Center:

So many trips to the Orlando area, but never to this place!

And the Astronaut Memorial Planetarium and Observatory near Cocoa Beach:

I can't guarantee that we will visit all 5 of those museums on our trips this year, but we will definitely hit a few of those combined with a few visits to the Perot. Will we get sick of visiting science museums? Maybe. But I hereby declare 2015 as the year of the science museums!

Do you have a membership at the Perot Museum or another one? Have you used your membership at reciprocal locations when you travel?

Friday, January 23, 2015

Disney Without Kids? Part 3: Epcot

I went on a short trip to Disney World without my husband and kids. In case you missed the beginning:

Part 1: Kidani Village
Part 2: Sanaa
Part 3: Epcot

Sunday morning came, and we were well-rested.  I woke up at 6 a.m. (5 a.m. Dallas time!) because I had gone to bed so early the night before. We wanted to be on a bus to Epcot by 8:30 a.m.

We both brought some stuff from home to eat for breakfast in our room (oatmeal, nutri-grain bar) and I supplemented with a cheese stick I bought from the mini-mart in the lobby.

This is the two of us on our balcony before we left for the day:

We made the trek downstairs to the bus stop and a bus for Epcot was pulling up just as we were walking up. We made it to Epcot by 8:50 a.m. and the gates were already open. I should mention that the weather was beautiful for all 3 of our days here...sunny and in the low '70s.

We had 3 Fast Pass + reservations: Spaceship Earth 9:10-10:10, Disney character photos 11:20-12:20, and Test Track 2:15-3:15 p.m. For more info on Fast Pass +, see this blog post.

Since we had some time to spare before our Spaceship Earth time, we headed straight for Test Track and walked right on in the single-rider line. I hadn't been on that ride since it was refurbished in 2012.

Next, we headed to The Seas with Nemo and Friends ride and looked around the aquarium. After that, we did the Living with the Land boat ride and then Journey into Imagination. No lines for any of these! Soon it was time for our character photo op, then back to Spaceship Earth, then Ellen's Energy Adventure. We had accomplished all of the rides we wanted to hit before lunch with virtually no lines! (We chose not to ride Mission Space and Soarin'....I vow to never ever ride Mission Space again since I got really sick on it, and I've been on Soarin' a lot and it was the only ride with a sizable line).

As we moved into the World Showcase area, we passed by these cadets from The Citadel:

And we stopped by Club Cool to sample some free coca-cola drinks from around the world:

Our photo with Mickey:

Some garbage-can drummers in Future World:

We had a lunch reservation at Chefs de France in the France pavilion in the World Showcase section. I've eaten there twice before, and it is delicious. I had a quiche and salad, and Beth had a crepe filled with ham/cheese/potatoes. But the best part was the dessert!

We had a really nice leisurely lunch. It lasted 2-3 hours! Then we started to explore the countries, one by one. This is the section of Epcot that I feel like I haven't enjoyed as much since I've had kids because they just don't have the attention span or the reading ability to enjoy all of the entertainment and education available in each country.

We watched the movie in France, Impressions de France. Since Beth and I had both been to France, it was cool seeing the places we've been that were featured, and drool over some places we'd like to visit again.

We also watched these jugglers/gymnasts in France:

And in Morocco, we listened to this Moroccan band play while some guests danced along:
We spent quite a bit of time in Morocco looking through the shops and viewing a small museum with necklaces and body adornments.

We spent some time in Japan looking at a folklore vs. anime museum display. By the time we got to Italy, we were starting to get tired.

But we couldn't throw in the towel without listening to the Voices of Liberty in the U.S.A.:

And then we went upstairs to see the theater show:

We stopped to get a quick drink and snack, and I snapped this photo of Future World and the remaining countries:
Mexico is my favorite Epcot country, so we went inside and waited for the Gran Fiesta Tour boat ride. That was our longest line of the entire day, but it was only 10-15 minutes.

Inside Mexico

We decided to head back to Kidani Village and skip the fireworks. It's hard to tell from this photo, but there are stars that light up on the ground at night:

And one last shot of Spaceship Earth as we left, around 6:00 p.m.:
We had a fabulous day at Epcot! I spent time at places I wouldn't normally linger on with my kids. That said, I did miss my kids terribly, and I would often see something that I'd call out that my kids would have loved.

We were exhausted from standing and walking most of the day. We ate back at our resort (Beth ordered room service, I picked up something from the mini-mart). We saw a lot of wildlife in the savannah that evening.

The next day was our departure day already! Beth had to get on the airport bus at 10:30 a.m., but I had an evening flight that had me catching a 4:30 p.m. bus. So I took a different bus to Downtown Disney first.

I ate at Earl of Sandwich (I actually had a coupon for a free sandwich there that you can get if you join their club. The coupon is good for a month--thanks to a tip I read on the Disboards.)

I really wanted to ride in this balloon called Characters in Flight. I hear the views from the top are spectacular! I've tried to ride this during 3 separate trips, and each time it has been closed due to high winds like it was on this day. As I left on the airport bus later that day, I saw it had started running. There's always next time!

After I returned from Downtown Disney, I still had a few hours to kill. So I read a really good book at the pool. And I took one last look at the savannah before getting on my bus. (One last selfie on the savannah, because I love the way the sun looks in this photo).
So that was my quick trip to Disney without my husband and kids. I am looking forward to returning there this summer with my family to a new (to us) resort and meeting up with a large group of people for an organized reunion. We also plan on visiting some places outside of Disney World on our next trip for a change. Adventure awaits!

Have you taken a trip to Disney without your kids? Would you do it again?

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Disney Without Kids? Part 2: Sanaa

Link to Part 1: Kidani Village

Part 2: Sanaa

We arrived in the lobby of Kidani Village shortly before 5:00 p.m. We could hear the staff of the Sanaa restaurant singing and playing music to signal the restaurant's opening.

We didn't have a reservation, but were told there was room for us. We waited outside in the savannah viewing area until our buzzer went off. Sanaa is in the rounded part of the building on the lower level, with large windows that face the savannah.

We were seated after just a few minutes. The restaurant is described as "African cooking with Indian flavors."
We lucked out and got a table right by the windows. I ordered a drink called the Striped Lemur, and it was really good. I noticed the entire restaurant was full about 20 minutes after we were seated.
This bird kept coming by to see what we were eating:
On the advice of our server, we ordered this bread sampling platter with 3 different kinds of naan bread and 9 dips:
A few of the dips were super spicy, but we found a few favorites.

We split this lamb slider appetizer:
And some tandoori shrimp:
Overall, this was a great dinner at Sanaa. The view was outstanding. The food we had was maybe a little too strong on curry content, but we figured every now and then we should stretch our palate with different flavors.

After dinner, we went back outside to the savannah viewing area. The fire pit was going, and a cast member was handing out night-vision goggles to view the animals. That was cool!

Our dinner lasted a few hours, and by this time it was after 8:00 p.m. We decided against going to Downtown Disney and instead we wanted to find a hot tub for the evening. So we went back to our room to change and then walked to the pool area only to find that the pools and hot tubs closed at 8:00 p.m. Major bummer! One of the cast members said that the hot tub by the fitness center might be open, so we soaked in that for a while and nobody kicked us out.

Ahhhhh.......peace, serenity. What a relaxing trip this was turning out to be!

We went to bed early since we were both wiped out from traveling and because we would be getting up early to go to Epcot in the morning.

So did I enjoy Animal Kingdom Lodge more this time than I did in 2002? Well, yes. But I think the biggest difference was having a savannah view. We saw a lot of animals from our balcony during the day and night. I don't think I would stay at Animal Kingdom Lodge (either side) without a savannah view again.

Kidani Village was so quiet and peaceful. In the late afternoon, many people were out on balconies viewing the animals. And it was soooooooo quiet. I had a chance to hang out at the pool on my last day, and the pool area was also very quiet and laid back with soft African music playing. It was almost impossible to tell we were even at Disney World.

However, while I think this was a great resort for my girls' weekend, I don't think it's a good match for my family. My kids are very loud and boisterous and I feel that a few of the other Disney resorts that have a more festive atmosphere are a better fit for us. It's totally my personal opinion about the  vibe of the resort compared to others.

Next up: Epcot