Tuesday, September 30, 2014

My travel bucket list

Over the past few weeks, I've seen several travel bloggers post their travel bucket list (the list of places they'd like to visit before they kick the bucket). While that sounds morbid, I think it's good to have travel goals. And dreaming of these places is fun!

The more I read and talk to other travelers, the more my list changes. But here is my list for today:

1.  Alaskan cruise on Disney Cruise Line

I've been wanting to take an Alaskan cruise for years, but it's expensive (on Disney) and I want to wait until my kids are a little older to partake in some of the more adventurous port excursions.

We are shooting for 2017 for this vacation. My kids would be 13, 9 and 6 (almost 7). The cruise ports in Vancouver, British Columbia...which I hear is a wonderful place to visit.

Vancouver, British Columbia

2.  Summer Olympic Games

My husband and I have really gotten into watching the Olympics on TV, and we would love to travel to a future Olympic Games. We would love to see the opening ceremony in person, as well as some swimming and gymnastics events. Unfortunately, I don't think we will be able to swing the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics (because of #1 above). But one of these years....

Summer Olympics

3.  Tour de France--France

This one is really more my husband's dream...he'd like to watch the Tour de France in person. He is a cyclist, and he watches the race on TV every year.

Tour de France
We went to France for our honeymoon, and we'd love to take our family there someday. There is so much to see in Paris and in the Loire Valley.

4. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter--Universal Studios, Florida

What, you thought I only visited Disney parks? My family loves Harry Potter! Somehow my older kids don't know this park exists, so we've managed to escape visiting there on our Orlando trips. I want to wait until my kids are a little older before visiting this park because of the intensity of the rides. Brian and I visited the Universal parks before the Harry Potter sections were added.

Hogwart's Castle
I think we could surprise our kids with this trip on a 3-day weekend during the school year...in a few years.

5.  European Riverboat Cruise

My parents have gone on two riverboat cruises and they look awesome! This is probably a trip we would do when are empty nesters, because the ships are small and the cabins only fit 2 people.

6.  Glen Rose, Texas

And now for a local one...we've been to many places in Texas, but not yet to Glen Rose. This would be an easy weekend trip. This town is home to Dinosaur Valley State Park, Dinosaur World and Fossil Rim Wildlife Center.

Dinosaur World
What's on your travel bucket list? Have you been to any of the above places?

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Pulling kids out of school for family vacation: Yay or Nay?

I have written on this subject before, but I am continually surprised at how much controversy this subject gets on blogs and message boards. Pulling kids out of school for family vacation: Yay, or Nay?

If you couldn't already tell, I'm a "yay" on this topic. I recently turned in paperwork to pull 2 of our 3 kids out of elementary school for 5 days for our upcoming Disney Cruise. Why?

1.  Cost

On some vacations, the cost during the off-season is substantially lower than during summer or winter school breaks. Disney Cruise Line prices are drastically lower when school is IN session. The lower cost has enabled us to take a cruise vacation every year instead of every other year. Many hotels also have lower off-season pricing.

2.  Crowds/Weather

Some vacations are more enjoyable when it's not so hot and not so crowded. Disney World is a prime example of this. Have you been to Disney World during the summer? Hot, hot, hot! Not to mention the crowds. Even though the Fast Pass + reduces some of the ride wait time, you can still see more attractions during lighter crowd seasons.

We traveled to San Diego during January a few years ago and encountered great weather and minimal crowds, not to mention a steal of a deal on a condo rental for the week.

The wait is only 300 minutes!
3.  Scheduling

If my husband could not get time off work during school vacations, or we had the opportunity to go to a family wedding or reunion, I absolutely would pull my kids out of school for that.

I would not pull my kids out of school if they were struggling with grades or they were stressed about missing school. When my oldest starts middle school, we will limit the amount of days we take off school for vacation (maybe 1 or 2 days a year vs. a week).

Even living in a state with some of the strictest truancy laws, we have made these vacations work with no problems from the school district. (In Texas, if you have 10 or more unexcused absences, you may have to go to court).

My kids will remember the week we spent on the Disney Fantasy; they will not remember what they learned during a random week of school in the fall.

Have you ever taken your kids out of school for vacation? Would you in the future?

Monday, September 15, 2014

New York Trip Part 4: Water Under the Bridge

In case you missed the earlier parts of our New York trip report:

New York Trip Part 1: Using Miles and Points
New York Trip Part 2: Friday Night Lights 
New York Trip Part 3: Saturday in the Park

We slept in a bit on Sunday morning and headed to the hotel breakfast buffet around 9:00 a.m. After breakfast, we walked about a mile to the pier to catch a Circle Line boat tour. We purchased tickets ahead of time for the 11:30 a.m. Landmark Cruise.

It was a beautiful day to see New York City from the water. The forecast originally predicted rain, but it cleared up early.

The boat held a few hundred people, and it was full. We sat on the top deck for this cruise that lasted approximately 2 hours. Even though it was a Sunday afternoon, there were only a handful of kids on board (and they seemed bored). If we come back to NYC with our kids, we would probably book a different boat tour, like this one geared for kids.

Our tour guide told us a lot of history and interesting facts along the cruise, including the history of Madison Square Garden, the early rivalry between the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building and the World Trade Center.

I took lots of photos on this cruise...here are some highlights:
Ellis Island

Statue of Liberty

Lower Manhattan

East Manhattan

The Brooklyn Bridge

The World Trade Center
After the landmark cruise, we were hungry. We stopped at this diner for some Italian and Greek food.

After lunch, we had the rest of the afternoon and evening wide open. We decided to take a subway and walk across the Brooklyn Bridge.

The bridge is beautiful. It was super crowded, though. The lane for walking is narrow, and there was not a lot of room to stop and take in the sights due to the constant push of people behind us. Perhaps it is less crowded on a weekday.

After the bridge, we walked to a bike shop for Brian to buy a souvenir. We were close to China Town and debated whether we should explore it...but we were pretty wiped out and it was getting close to the end of the day. Instead, we rode the subway back to our hotel and walked a few blocks to this restaurant we saw earlier in the trip.

City Lobster--decent seafood. We enjoyed our last quiet dinner together.

After dinner, we walked back to Rockefeller Center to buy a mug that caught our eye the other night. There were lots of people milling about outside there, and a band was playing to a small crowd.

Before turning in for the night, we said our last goodbyes to Times Square.
We caught the NYC Airporter bus the next morning with no issues to LaGuardia Airport. After a connecting flight, we made it to our house in the early evening.

We are so thankful we were able to go on this special trip! Thanks to Brian's mom for watching our kiddos. And thanks to a few of my favorite blogs (Million Mile Secrets, Miles for Family, Mommy Points) for all the tips for traveling on miles and points!

Of course, there are a lot of sights we did not get to see on this trip. We would like to go back in a few years with our kids. My ideal trip would be 3-4 nights in NYC, and then take a train for 3-4 nights at this place in the Catskills:

Mohonk Mountain House
Thanks for reading my New York trip report!

What is your favorite thing to do in New York City?

And the winner is....

By using random.org, the winner of the $25 Disney gift card is:


who said "I'd like to go to London." on her next vacation.

Congratulations, Kristen! Check your email for details on how to redeem your reward.

Thank you to everyone for entering the contest and checking out my blog!

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Welcome! And $25 give-away

Thank you to Daraius from Million Mile Secrets for interviewing me! (See this link for the interview). If you are reading my blog for the first time, my name is Nancy and this is my family of 5:

We live in Texas and love to travel. Over the past 2 years, we have ramped up the amount of travel we do on miles and points.

My most popular blog posts are:

10 Tips to Save Money on a Disney Cruise

How We Saved 65% on our Upcoming Disney Cruise

The Golden Ticket

And I'm in the middle of a trip report about New York City, our first trip without our kids!

I'm giving away a $25 gift card to one of my favorite vacation spots, Disney. To enter the contest, simply comment on this blog with the place you'd like to go on your next vacation. I will pick one lucky winner for the $25 Disney gift card after midnight on Sunday, September 14, 2014. You must comment by midnight C.S.T. to qualify. Open only to U.S. residents.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

New York Trip Part 3: Saturday in the Park

In case you missed the beginning:

New York Trip Part 1: Using Miles and Points
New York Trip Part 2: Friday Night Lights

Saturday, September 6, 2014

We woke up early (as usual) and went to the 5th floor restaurant to eat breakfast. The restaurant had a lot of empty tables.

The buffet had most of the things you see at normal hotel breakfast buffets...eggs, bacon, potatoes, fruit, cereal, bread, etc.
 Was it worth $30+ per person? Not in my opinion, but those are NY prices so I guess it's normal.

After breakfast, we took the subway to Central Park. The subway entrance was literally just outside of our hotel door. We were a little confused, though, because there was no subway map inside the station. And we couldn't tell if the subway was going north or south. But we took a chance and hopped on...and luckily we were on the right one. Central Park was just 2 stops away. Not too many people on the subway on a Saturday morning.

We walked up the subway stairs and there we were...Central Park!

We walked to a nearby cafe to meet Vitoly from Peter Pan tours. We had pre-purchased a 1-hour pedi-cab tour through Groupon. Vitoly introduced us to our driver/cyclist, Alexei. Both young men were from Ukraine, and we talked to them a little about the current situation over there.

So Alexei started our tour through Central Park, all the while telling us about the history of the park and the famous landmarks. We did get out at several spots for photos.

Here is the famous boat house:

We watched this "bubble man" for a few minutes:

The fountain from "Friends":

It really is a pretty park. I can imagine how gorgeous it is when the leaves start to turn colors.

Before we knew it, our hour with Alexei was over. We paid him extra to take us up a few blocks to the American Museum of Natural History. (Also known as the museum from the movie Night at the Museum with Ben Stiller)

The architecture of this museum is gorgeous.

Front entrance

Inside lobby
We first visited the Rose Center for Earth and Space. We saw a planetarium show and another movie about space.

We grabbed a quick bite in the museum's food court downstairs, and then we headed back to more exhibits. The dinosaur and fossil exhibit was the most extensive I've ever seen.

The more we looked at the map, the more we realized we were missing. We spent 4 hours in the museum but didn't get to see nearly all of it.

But it was time to head back to our hotel to get ready for our special anniversary dinner and Broadway play. We caught a ride with Uber (which I'll cover in another post).

We wanted to eat somewhere special for one night, but I was overwhelmed with the number of restaurants in Manhattan. We got a lot of great recommendations from friends, but in the end we decided on Patsy's.

We chose the restaurant because it has good reviews, it was close to our hotel and theater, we love Italian food, and the restaurant did not have a fancy dress code. (We were dressed up for the theater, but some of the restaurants we looked into had stricter requirements). We walked to the restaurant since it was only about 1/2 mile away from our hotel.

Patsy's has 2 levels with a elegant decorations. We saw the owners at the host stand and their son was cooking in the kitchen. The head waiter came around to everyone's tables several times and insisted that we try the lasagna.

We had a great fresh appetizer:
Fresh mozzarella and roasted red peppers
 I had gnocchi with meat sauce:
 And Brian had the lasagna. He said it was the best he's ever had.
The head waiter came around with a dessert cart and sliced some cake for us...how could we say no to this??
Chocolate mousse cake
We had some time to look in the shops of Times Square before heading to our play at the Shoenfeld Theater. The theater wasn't much to look at on the outside, but the inside was gorgeous. It was built in 1917 and was re-named in the '80s. I didn't take any photos inside, but this video shows the intricate architecture.

The play we saw was called It's Only a Play.  It actually doesn't have its official opening until October, so we saw it in preview mode. It stars several big-name actors like Nathan Lane, Matthew Broderick, Stockard Channing, Megan Mullally and Rupert Grint.

I wish I could tell you that we loved it, but we didn't. I know it was in preview mode, so maybe it will change before its grand opening...and I hope it does. The first act was 90 minutes and it felt too long. The theater was hot and cramped. Both of us had leg cramps by the end of the first act, and I saw several people ask to stand at the back during the second act. I know old buildings don't have great air conditioning systems. But the bottom line was the play was just not our taste. It had its funny moments, and we both thought Rupert Grint was the best. I'll be interested to see what the reviews say next month. Maybe we are the only ones who didn't care for it.

We really packed in a lot of sights on this day!

Up next--
New York Trip Part 4: Water Under the Bridge

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

New York Trip Part 2: Friday Night Lights

In case you missed the beginning of this trip report, Part 1 is here.

Background: My husband and I have both been to New York City before. I lived in New Jersey until I was 5 years old and my dad worked in NYC. I remember riding the bus with him to work one day (my siblings and I each did this once a year). After we moved away and we went back to visit relatives, we would usually spend 1 day in the city. But back in the '70s and '80s, New York was still considered a little dirty and seedy, especially Central Park. I've been to NYC twice as an adult, both times for business. I didn't have much of a chance to do anything fun, but I did go to the top of the Empire State Building as an adult. My husband went to NYC on business and also did not have time to see much.

When we planned the trip, we talked about what we'd like to see and accomplish. We don't like to see a ton of things in one day and run ourselves ragged. When we vacation with our kids, we usually plan one major thing per day and spend the rest of the day lounging around. We knew we could probably accomplish a little more without our kids before we would feel tired. Similar to the Top 3 List by Have Heart Will Travel, our priorities for the trip were:

1.  See a Broadway play (and not a Disney-themed one)
2.  See an aerial view of the city
3.  Visit Central Park

If we had time, we also wanted to visit a museum, walk on the Brooklyn Bridge, see a comedy show, etc.

Friday, September 5, 2014

We left our house at 7:00 a.m. We had to drop one of our dogs off at the boarding place before heading to the airport (we didn't want to stick Grandma with 3 kids AND a rambunctious puppy). We hit a lot of traffic on our way to Dallas Love Field airport, but we still made it in plenty of time to catch our 9:20 a.m. flight. Love Field was recently renovated and is very spacious and clean.

Our flight had a short layover in St. Louis, but we landed at LaGuardia airport in NYC around 2:30 p.m. I had booked tickets online for the NYC Airporter bus, which had stands and friendly employees very close to our baggage claim. We arrived at our hotel around 4:00 p.m.

When I called to book the Doubletree Times Square with my free weekend certificates, the employee on the HHonors help desk was very helpful. He asked if we were going to NYC for anything special, and I told him that we were going to celebrate our 10th anniversary. He said he would make a note in our reservation for a possible upgrade.

Our check-in process was quick and easy (and included the hotel's signature warm chocolate chip cookie). We were assigned to room #903.

It had a sitting room with a sofa, desk and TV.

The cabinets held a microwave, refrigerator and safe.

There was a separate bedroom (with a door) that contained a king-size bed. That was our first clue that we had received an upgraded room, because we reserved a room with a queen-size bed.

I'm sure the room was just like every other suite at a typical Doubletree hotel. But then we looked out one of the windows and saw this: Times Square! The Doubletree hotel is tall and narrow, and only 3 rooms on each floor face Times Square. We were ecstatic with our lucky upgrade!

Our outward view:

The view looking down:

The view to the north:

We spent some time just looking at the scene below us. We were close enough to the ground that we could people-watch. (As a side note...our room had some great blackout curtains and we could not see any light nor hear any outside noise in our room).

We were starting to get hungry, and we asked the hotel concierge to recommend a casual restaurant. The concierge pointed us towards Junior's.

On the way to the restaurant, we saw the Naked Cowboy in Times Square.

Our dinner at Junior's was pleasant. We sat on the patio and saw interesting people walk by while we ate.

Junior's is mostly known for its desserts, and the cheesecake and black and white cookie did not disappoint.

After dinner, we walked to Rockefeller Center (home of NBC studios) and purchased tickets for the observation deck (Top of the Rock). Since I had seen the view from the Empire State Building, we wanted a different perspective (and reading this article convinced us we made the right decision).
We had just a short line to buy our tickets, but our reserved deck time was one hour away. We were free to explore the sights of Rockefeller Center.

The ice skating rink from winter turns into a cafe during the warmer weather:

We visited the Lego store across the street. This sign is made of thousands of minifigures on their sides.

A mural made of Legos on the ceiling:

I thought the Lego store would be cooler and have more New York things in it, but it mostly just looked like a regular Lego store. (The store in Downtown Disney is much cooler!)

While we waited for our elevator time, we saw a meet-up group playing cards:

At 7:40, we boarded the elevator to take us to the top. It was dusk and the city was not entirely dark yet.

The view to the south with a great shot of the Empire State Building:

The view to the north (Central Park):

The view to the west (Hudson River):

The view to the southwest. The bright lights are Times Square.

There were 3 observation levels, and we visited all of them. The views were stunning. As it grew darker, we could see the Tribute In Light for the World Trade Center towers. These lights are only visible in the days leading up to 9/11.

After we gazed at the city lights from above, we made our way back to Times Square. I wanted to go to the Disney Store since it was just a few doors down from our hotel, but we weren't sure if it would still be open.
Times Square
We discovered it is open until 1:00 a.m. every night! When a cast member asked what we were doing in NYC and we told him we were here for our anniversary, he lead the entire store in a song and cheer for us.

The most surprising thing about our first day in NYC was how polite and friendly all of the employees and visitors were. The bus employees and the Top of the Rock employees asked us and everyone where we were from and helped us find our way if we looked lost. This continued at other places throughout our weekend. I did not expect NYC to be so friendly.

Up next--
New York Trip Part 3: Saturday in the Park