Monday, November 3, 2014

Training for the Next Event

Most people train for a 5k or marathon...we are training for our next vacation!

One of the memories I have from our honeymoon in France (10 years ago) is that we spent one day miserably sore. We had done a lot of walking the day before and climbed the steps of the Arc de Triomphe (284 steps to the top) and Sacre Coeur (270 steps to the base and 300 steps to the dome)--what were we thinking doing both of those in the same day???

We will be hiking the Diamond Head volcanic crater on our next big vacation. I can't wait to see the views! But I would like us to be in reasonably good shape for the hike.


Diamond Head Crater from the side


Diamond Head from above
Diamond Head hiking trail

While the hike is less than 2 miles long, it has 225 stairs, part of which are inside an old military bunker.

Stairs
And now that the hot temperatures of summer in Texas are past us, we can resume our hikes around North Texas. (See Hiking in North Texas Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3).

Our training today wasn't a traditional hike; this time, we were practicing stair climbing. I found this run of 75 stairs with a gorgeous view overlooking a lake, so we climbed it 3 times and back.


And then as a bonus, we ran up this nearby hill and rolled down. Well, the kids rolled down, multiple times. There was a small playground at the bottom.
Let's see how our legs feel tomorrow.

Have you ever "trained" for a vacation? Are you glad you did?

Friday, October 31, 2014

Hawaii for 5 on (Mostly) Miles and Points

After my interview was published last month on Million Mile Secrets, several people have asked me to explain how I am getting my family of 5 to Hawaii next year on miles and points.

While I'm not comfortable sharing specific flight or hotel information until after our trip, I can shed some light on how we are making it work:

American Airlines Aadvantage miles for free airline tickets, and a combination of cash-back credit cards and travel reward credit cards for (hopefully almost) free hotel nights.


Our Southwest Rapid Reward miles and companion pass have served us well for travel within the continental U.S. But I wanted to start planning a bigger trip to somewhere farther away and have a goal to attain...we had talked about France, Russia, Hawaii and Alaska. We narrowed it down to France and Hawaii, and after much deliberation, decided on Hawaii.

For starters....I asked the miles and points travel experts. And I'm not one of them. My friends at Miles for Family, Mommy Points and Million Mile Secrets were all happy to answer my questions and offer suggestions.

The biggest task was to get enough miles for 5 round-trip airline tickets. And while there are many good options for getting to Hawaii on miles, we pursued American Airlines Aadvantage miles. We live near Dallas, the hub of American Airlines. And Aadvantage miles can be used to get tickets to Hawaii on partner airlines like Hawaiian Airlines, US Airways and Alaska Airlines. Tickets during the off-season require 17,500 miles each way, which is lower than Delta and United. When the tickets are booked with miles on an American Aadvantage credit card, you receive 10% of your miles back.

In 2013, I applied for a Chase Aadvantage credit card that offered 50,000 bonus miles after spending $3000 in 3 months. A few months later, I applied for the business version of the same card (I do freelance work that qualifies me for business credit cards) and received another 50,000 bonus miles. My husband had received an offer in the mail for the same credit card but with a 60,000-miles bonus. He already had around 20,000 Aadvantage miles in his account from business travel.

We spread out these credit card applications and charged our normal monthly bills on the credit cards. (We pay them off every month to avoid interest and other charges). Soon, mostly because of the credit card bonuses, we had nearly 190,000 Aadvantage miles, which was enough to get us all to Hawaii.

Accumulating the points was the easy part; finding flights for 5 on the week we wanted to go was harder. For about a week straight, I got up in the middle of the night to see if flights were available with miles. Unlike Southwest, most airlines have very limited tickets for award travelers. My husband thought I was crazy, I thought it was hopeless. But sure enough, one day early in the morning, I saw 5 flights available on miles. For our return, we could not find tickets all the way back to Dallas, so we booked a flight that landed in a Western state. We are using Southwest miles to get us back to Dallas the next day. 

Each ticket would have cost us around $1000. We only paid $50 total in taxes, so we saved $4950 by using miles.

Next, we had to think about our hotel strategy. As I was researching hotels in Hawaii, most of them did not allow 5 in a room. Now some people would argue that we should sleep one child on the floor, but many of the hotels require a wrist band for the pool area and would not permit 5 people registered to one room, so squeezing 5 people in a room would not work. Saving up enough points at any hotel chain for 2 rooms a night would not be the easiest option. And there was a certain hotel on the west side of the island that we had to visit, at least for a few nights...that doesn't accept traditional hotel points.



So a cash-back credit card or travel-reward credit card was our best option for lodging. My husband and I each applied for the Barclay Arrival Plus credit card (at different times of the year). We completed the minimum spending of $3000 on each card over a period of several months and received $400 in travel rewards as a sign-up bonus on each card ($800 total). These dollars can be used to offset any expense on the credit card that is coded as travel, like hotels and airline charges. The card earns 2% rewards for every dollar spent and gives 10% of the reward points back after redemption. The Barclay card also has an online travel community that pays travel rewards for writers to share photos and travel stories, and I have enjoyed writing about our travel adventures on that site for extra money. With the bonuses, extra points for writing and charging our normal monthly expenses, we anticipate having the majority of our hotel expenses covered before our trip.

Food and entertainment are the other two major expenses of any trip. We have free breakfast for 7 out of 8 nights of hotel, and $100 food credit (which we will purchase with points) for one hotel. We have a full kitchen in  one of our hotel rooms, so we will buy some groceries for lunches and dinners. Of course, we will splurge for meals out a few times.

To save on entertainment costs, we will search for discounts and coupons before our trip. While we plan on doing a lot of free or lost-cost things like hiking and enjoying the beach/pools, we do have a few excursions in mind that will cost more money.

Kualoa Ranch


So that's how we are going to Hawaii with 5 people on (mostly) miles and points.









Thursday, October 23, 2014

Disney Fantasy Trip Report Part 10: Bloopers, Tips and Favorites

Trip Report Links:

Part 1--Getting There
Part 2--Embarking the Disney Fantasy
Part 3--First Sea Day
Part 4--Second Sea Day
Part 5--St. Maarten
Part 6--St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands
Part 7--Royal Court Royal Tea
Part 8--Day at Sea
Part 9--Castaway Cay

Part 10--Bloopers, Tips and Favorites

Bloopers:

Let me assure you that we were not always as happy as we appear in the video or in the photos. Most of the time, yes. But with 3 kids, there is sure to be some arguing multiple times a day.

Brian thinks I should make a vacation video someday of the tantrums, meltdowns and arguments. But that's not how I want to remember our vacations. Over time, we forget about that stuff and remember the good times.

When I'm on vacation, I delete photos as I go to ensure I have enough room on the camera's memory card, so I don't have too many "bloopers" to share. Here are a few:

"Get your hand OFF my shoulder!"
"Check out my new glasses!"

"Is it time for dinner yet?"

"Dinner has lasted way too long--we are gonna stir up some trouble!"

"I will not look you in the eye, Captain Jack Sparrow."
 

Tips:

*  Talk about what you want out of your vacation before your trip, and work to make it happen. Do you want to see all the characters and shows? That could keep you busy every day with not much time to relax, but that might be fine for some people. Do you want to relax and reconnect with your spouse? Then skip some things and make it happen.

*  Read the daily Personal Navigator (especially the one on embarkation day), and pay attention to events that require a ticket or signing up in advance.

*  Don't show up to dinner early; you will just be waiting in a big crowd until the doors open. Arrive a minute or two later, and you can just walk right in to your table.

*  Skip an evening show and go to the pools and Aqua Duck at night! Or go on a port day. Avoid the pools on sea days in the afternoon.

*  Ask DCL crew members to take a family photo with your camera in addition to the professional camera at character greetings. It's much cheaper than buying a ton of professional photos. (This service is not available at the professional photo backdrops).

To get more tips, visit www.disboards.com or a Disney Cruising Facebook group.

Favorites:

I asked each member of my family what their favorite thing was about our vacation on the Disney Fantasy.

Nathan (age 10): The pools and the Aqua Duck.
Joshua (age 6): The pools and the Aqua Duck. (Both boys were also very fond of the hot tubs near the family pools that had a view over the ocean).
Alyssa (age 4): Meeting the characters.
Brian:  Disconnecting from technology (phone, email, etc.).
Nancy (me): The moments of tranquility (eating at Palo, casual drinks at the Vista Cafe, reading on deck, the Rainforest Room, our entire day at St. Thomas)

Least favorite thing about our vacation:
Nathan: Alyssa's tantrums, waking up early in the morning because of his siblings.
Joshua: The long dinners.
Alyssa: Arriving very late the night before our cruise (she didn't say that specifically, but I am saying it on her behalf).
Brian: The sleeping arrangements (kids woke everyone up early).
Nancy: Getting sick!

Favorite Ship:
We have sailed on the Disney Dream, the original Disney Magic, the re-imagined Disney Magic and the Disney Fantasy. The only one we haven't sailed on is the Disney Wonder (which is very similar to the original Disney Magic). It's really impossible to pick one favorite Disney Cruise Line ship. They all have great things to offer. So my family talked about which ships were better in some areas. This is totally subjective and based solely on our experience.


Best Kids' Club:
The re-imagined Disney Magic. Everyone in the house agreed on that. The Avengers' Academy is spectacular, and the new Andy's room with the slinky slide is a lot of fun. Since the ship is smaller than the Dream and Fantasy, our kids seemed to participate in more of the programs in the kids' club on the Magic.

Andy's Room on the Disney Magic

The Avengers' Academy on the Disney Magic


Best Pools and Water Features:
The Disney Fantasy. It has 3 additional pools/water features that the Dream does not have--the funnel puddle pool, Satellite Falls (for adults only) and the AquaLab splash area. My 10-year-old said he prefers the Aqua Dunk (on the re-imagined Magic) over the Aqua Duck (Dream/Fantasy) because it is more of a thrill slide.

Satellite Falls on the Disney Fantasy


Best Decor:
The Disney Dream. Totally subjective, but I liked the red and blue nautical colors in the atrium. On the Fantasy, the carpet and chandelier are decorated to look like a peacock. Just not my taste.

Disney Dream Atrium

Disney Fantasy Atrium



Best Restaurants:
The re-imagined Disney Magic and the Disney Fantasy, only because these ships have the Animation Magic show at Animator's Palate restaurant. This is the show where all guests draw a character and then see it animated on the screens at the end of dinner (but it's only available on 7-night cruises).

Best Adult Nightclub Area:
The Disney Fantasy. Not that we've spent a lot of time in this area (maybe on a future cruise), but the Fantasy has a bar that looks like a carousel! And one that looks like you're on the London Tube. And bathrooms modeled after some caves in Spain.

La Piazza on the Disney Fantasy
The Tube on the Disney Fantasy


Best Staterooms:
The Disney Dream and the Disney Fantasy, just from our perspective of a family of five. These newer ships have lower category cabins that fit 5, whereas the classic ships do not. Cruises are usually cheaper for us on the Dream and Fantasy because of this.

Category 8 Stateroom on the Dream/Fantasy--room for 5


Best Ship Size:
The Disney Magic and the Disney Wonder. They are smaller and easier to navigate. However, it's a trade-off, because they don't have as many amenities as the larger ships.

Best Characters:
The Disney Fantasy. Our recent cruise had the most number of characters on board. I compared the navigators from our cruise vs. the Magic (7-nights the same week), and the Fantasy had 31 characters vs. the Magic with 22 characters. (I didn't compare the Wonder and the Dream because right now they are sailing shorter cruises which would have fewer characters).



That is the conclusion of my Disney Fantasy trip report. Thanks for reading. We will not be going on a Disney Cruise next year (shocking, I know!). We hope to go again in 2016, because at this phase in our lives a Disney Cruise is a good fit for our family.

Please let me know if you have any questions.


Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Disney Fantasy Trip Report Part 9: Castaway Cay

Trip Report Links:

Part 1--Getting There
Part 2--Embarking the Disney Fantasy
Part 3--First Sea Day
Part 4--Second Sea Day
Part 5--St. Maarten
Part 6--St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands
Part 7--Royal Court Royal Tea
Part 8-- Day at Sea

Part 9--Castaway Cay

We woke up around 7:30 a.m. after a night of interrupted sleep. Our last few nights of sleep on the cruise were not so good. But we were still excited to go to Castaway Cay, Disney's private island in the Bahamas! It looked like another great, sunny day outside.

It appeared that we were sailing past several small islands. Then I saw this one and I knew it had to be Castaway Cay because of the one extra tall palm tree in the center of the island (that is actually a cell tower or something).



But we had some time since we weren't scheduled to port until 9:45 a.m. We had breakfast at Enchanted Garden and then we went to Deck 4 to watch the ship pull into Castaway Cay.

But first we had a quick stop on this motorcycle again:

Deck 4 was a great place to watch from as we backed into port.


Almost there!

Disembarking on our Castaway Cay day was more hectic than any of our previous times. On our prior cruises, the ship was already docked when we woke up, and passengers were already exiting the ship after 8:00 a.m. But since we had to travel a longer distance to get to the island, we arrived later and most people were already awake and anxious to grab a beach lounger. There was a huge line of people on the stairs on Deck 3 waiting to go down to Deck 1 to exit. We waited until it appeared the line was moving, and we were off the ship around 10:00 a.m.

First, we waited for a photo with Chip and Dale:







And then Minnie (the boys couldn't be bothered):


The tram had a line, so we walked to the entrance of the first family beach. There were still some empty hammocks:

But the kids wanted to play in the sand and water.


Both of the boys swam out to this platform with various ladders and ropes over the ocean. It was hard work! This was something we hadn't visited before.


At some point during the morning, Brian and Joshua participated in the crab races (another first for us).

This was our 4th time on Castaway Cay, and we have always rented bikes. But because I was under the weather, I didn't feel like it. We decided to drop the kids off at the club on the island (Scuttles Cove) so that they could eat lunch there and we could eat lunch on the adult beach. On our way to the tram, we stopped at this dance party for a bit:

So Brian and I took the tram to Serenity Bay, which is reserved for ages 18 and over. We had ridden bikes past the beach, but had never stopped.

We ate at Serenity Bay for the first time, since we heard it has different food choices than the family restaurants. I think the only item that was additional was the ribeye steak.


After lunch, we decided to check out the adult beach. And what a difference from the family beaches! Beautiful and not crowded.

The water was very clear and very shallow--we could walk for a very long way, and the water was never over waist-high.

At 1:30 p.m., we picked up the kids from the club for more beach time. Originally they wanted to head back to the ship by 2:00 so that they could see the movie Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day that was playing at 3:00 p.m. But, we hadn't had a lot of time on the island, and we felt we should enjoy the beach while we were here instead of seeing a movie we could see back home. So we persuaded the kids to stay. We took a tram to the other family beach:

The boys wanted to go down the water slides at Pelican Plunge. So we enjoyed the beach on this part of the island.


We met some others from our cruise group over here, and our kids attempted to build a big sand castle together.


Castaway Cay has optional excursions available, like a stingray experience, jet skis, glass bottom boat ride and parasailing. But we haven't felt the need to do any of those yet, as the beach and slides and club have been enough for us. All of the food on the island is included, so Castaway Cay usually ends up being an inexpensive port for us.

Castaway Cay was a fairly relaxing day for us. The kids said "hi" to Olaf before we returned to the ship at 4:00 p.m.

We took showers and cleaned up before our last dinner on the ship at Animator's Palette. This was the night we had been looking forward to the most, because we would get to draw our own characters that would be animated on the screens.

At the start of dinner, each person received a sheet with instructions for creating a character.

We all received our characters back at the end of the evening, and I laminated them to serve as place mats at home.

Alyssa was so tired from the beach that she slept through most of dinner.


And at the end, everyone's character was brought to life! The screens in the different areas displayed the characters from nearby tables, so each screen looked different. It was really neat!


And just like our cruise on the Dream, we had a wonderful baked Alaska for dessert.

Our server with the boys:

After dinner, we dropped the kids off at the clubs so that we could pack. We had to have our suitcases in the hallway by 10:30 p.m., and we had a lot of packing to do. One last photo in front of the pumpkin tree:

Our last towel animal:


We got our suitcases packed by 9:30 p.m., and I picked up Alyssa from the club and took her to the pool deck to have a snack (since she fell asleep during dinner). Brian picked up the boys around 10:15 p.m. The last night on the ship is never as fun.

The next morning, our assigned breakfast time was 6:45 a.m. (since we had the earlier dinner seating). Usually this means we have to wake up around 6:15 a.m. to get everyone dressed and to breakfast. On our past cruises, we've all been so tired and grumpy on disembarkation day. So this year we decided to change things up, and we skipped breakfast. We woke up at 7:30 a.m. We had acquired some milk and cereal from Cabanas the day before and stashed them in our refrigerator for this morning. Brian even went up to the Cabanas buffet and it was open for breakfast, so he grabbed some additional things to bring back to the room. The extra hour of sleep was so necessary! We had a quiet breakfast in the room with no drama. We were off the ship a little after 8:00 a.m.

Next up:  Part 10--Bloopers, Tips and Favorites