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?