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10 for ’10 – Anna’s Top Ten Travel Tips for 2010

I love me some vacation time – as I’m sure you can guess, if you’ve been reading.  Fortunately, I have a husband who thinks nothing of driving cross country at the drop of a hat, and if an opportunity to visit someplace new presents itself, he jumps on the idea.  This has allowed us to see some of the country’s most incredible locations, as well as visiting some famous sites in Europe.

We try to stay budget conscious when we travel, which helps us get more places and go more often, but I encounter people all the time who ask why we go so often, and how.  I thought I’d put down some of our best travel tips to help you get where you’d like to go.

1 – GO – that’s right, you actually have to get out of your bathrobe, stop watching the Travel Channel and thinking you’re in Hawaii because you’re eating macadamia nuts, and GO somewhere.  For many people, especially in this economy, it seems that any type of travel is not an option.  You immediately begin thinking of expensive hotels, meals out, attraction tickets, and it seems like a much better idea to put SpongeBob on the TV and feel yourself transported to Bikini Bottom.  Don’t let the economy slow you down.  You may not be able to pack up the clan for a Trans-Atlantic voyage, but check out the area where you live.  There has to be day trips you can take your family to – whether it’s a park, the beach, the world’s largest ball of twine.  Check out your local chamber of commerce, hit a rest area on 95 where you’ll find brochures and maps suggesting highlights of your area, or pull out the old laptop and do some browsing.  Day trips allow you to pack a picnic lunch, so food won’t break the budget, and you are likely to find a bunch of free or low cost stuff near you to see!  We saw this on our last trip for absolutely free – and the kids LOVED it!

2 – JOIN – As they say, Membership has it’s Privileges.  Wherever we go, Jim likes to look into joining.  It makes him feel special to be part of a club.  Seriously, though, if we go to a museum, he’ll join for the year.  In many cases, the museum will have a reciprocal agreement with other museums, and when you travel to other areas, you can get into museums there for free!  We visited Chicago last spring, and we joined the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry.  Not only does that allow us to visit that museum for free for the rest of the year (when we’re in town picking up some Garrett Popcorn), it also allowed us to visit other museums throughout the country – including ones right here near us at home.  This is an awesome way to see some fantastic local sights when you go traveling, without it costing any more out of your pocket!  We generally find for our family of five, the annual museum pass pays for itself in just about two visits to a museum.

3 – Visit Our National Parks – Go ahead, check out the list of National Parks online.  You will find someplace to go and something to see just about anywhere you might be in the USA.  If you visit the National Parks website and click on a state, you will see what National Parks are in that state. http://www.nps.gov/findapark/index.htm

Some of the best features of the National Parks are you will typically find picnic areas, most have a junior ranger program for your kids to participate in for free, there is an educational aspect to the parks, and you can find clean restrooms, various types of recreation (biking, boating, fishing), and some type of snack bar or small restaurant.  You will also usually find a collection of books and souvenirs at each park, and the books are great resources for future school projects.

This is another instance where membership has it’s privileges.  Join the National Park Service when you enter your first national park, and you will get free admission when you visit other national parks.  This gives you more bang for your buck than if you had spent the same money on a one day trip or one weekend trip.  You can take as many trips as you’d like the whole year!  Be aware, some National Parks that offer overnight accommodations – like the Grand Canyon – sell out very quickly for summer months.  Book your overnight reservations well in advance if you’d like to spend more than just a day trip at our national parks.

 

4 – Be Faithful – Whenver you travel overnight, try and stay with the same hotel chain.  If you join the rewards program for most of the big name hotel chains, you are rewarded with free stays at that chain!  Some offer free stays after so many nights, others work on a point system, where you accumulate points based on how much you spend.  If you choose a big chain – like Marriott – there are very few places you’ll be able to go and not find one of the many hotels in their chain (Residence Inn, Fairfield Inn, Courtyard, Springhill Suites, Renaissance, and full service Marriot hotels).  Also, keep an eye for promotions at the hotels.  When you are booking through the Marriott website, it allows you to check for special promotions.  You will sometimes find free breakfast buffets, free movie tickets, free tickets to local attractions, or gift cards for meals at the hotel restaurants.  Other chains offer similar rewards, but my family chooses Marriott because we can almost always find one, no matter where we are.  By participating in their rewards program and staying on top of special hotel promotions, we’ve stayed free in London and Rome; gotten free admission to the aquarium in Vancouver, and had complimentary room service breakfast on many occasions.

Marriott County Hall in London
Marriott County Hall in London

 5 – Look for Deals At Popular Locations – This past year, given the economy, even places like Walt Disney World offered incredible deals to entice vacationers to spend their vacation dollars with them.  Yeah, okay, you knew I’d work the Mouse in here somehow.  Disney World not only offered the very popular free dining promotion – where if you booked hotel and theme park tickets, your family could eat for free; but they also offered an incredible buy 4 nights, get 3 for free!  If you bought tickets and hotel for 4 nights, Disney added 3, to give your family a full week’s vacation for the cost of only a long weekend!  Right now, Disney is offering a free gift card up to $750 if you book a Walt Disney World vacation, and the gift card can be used towards any number of things – dining, special tours, souvenirs – pretty much anything you can think of!  Especially if your travel plans were to include Walt Disney World anyway, the offers are great ways to make the vacation even more affordable.

6 – Drive instead of fly – if you are going anywhere that you can get to within a day, consider driving.  My gang doesn’t even always like each other for as long as some of our road trips last, but it just makes sense for us to drive.  For us, being a family of five, there are very few places we could go where it would be cheaper to fly than to drive.  From here to Orlando is easily $1000 for the five of us, unless we get an awesome airfare sale – but then you have to factor in the price of transportation back and forth to the airport (or long term parking at the airport), the baggage fees the airline is going to heap on you, and then ground transportation when we arrive at our destination airport.  We can usually drive back and forth for about $300 in gas, and we do what we can where we can to minimize other expenses.  We pack snacks and drinks in the car, and some of the snacks are things that can substitute as breakfast (granola bars, miniature doughnuts or muffins, juice boxes).  Even if we have to stay overnight somewhere, we try to either use Marriott reward points, so it doesn’t cost anything; or we go for the best overnight rate, using a AAA discount or a web special.  It just makes more sense to save the money to use AT our destination rather than in GETTING there.

7 – Bounce Back Offers – Oh yeah!  You gotta love a good bounce back deal!  For those that don’t know, a bounce back offer is a deal that you will find while you are on vacation.  You will already be at your resort, having a grand time, and then they innocently leave an offer for you on your counter for when you come in one night, having spent a fun filled day in the area.  The deals can be amazing – as much as 50 – 60% off a night at a hotel.  Some bounce back offers are for hotel room only, and others include area attraction tickets.  If you’re on vacation, and having a great time, chances are, you’ll have an even better time if you book a bounce back offer and save some cash! 

Our best bounce back offer?  This past February, on a sailing of the Disney Magic, we had a code for a bounce back offer for $99 per person for a three night cruise.  Best part of the deal?  You could stay in the same type of accommodation you were in – and for us, that was a verandah cabin!  We were able to take the family on a 3 night vacation in October for only $99 – and on a cruise ship, that included all the meals, entertainment, and kids club!  AWESOME!

The catch?  In most cases, you will have to book your bounce back deal before you leave.

8 – Cruising – Remember that Trans-Atlantic cruise I mentioned a few tips ago?  Well, while that might not be in your budget in this economy, cruising somewhere just might be.  We find cruising to be one of the most affordable ways to vacation.  When you usually travel to a vacation destination, you pay for a hotel room (lucky to find one at a vacation hot spot for less than $100 a night); you pay for your meals; you pay for whatever entertainment you wish to participate in. 

With a cruise, it’s virtually an all inclusive deal.  You will sail from port to port, seeing various destinations while only having to unpack once.  They will feed you breakfast, lunch, and dinner – plus various snacks and in between meals.  You can see stage shows, lounge acts, take classes, attend art auctions – all of which is included in the price of your cruise.  A quick check online finds a Carnival 7 day cruise that takes you to Cozumel, Mexico; Grand Cayman; and Ocho Rios, Jamaica for less than $450 per person.  That’s less than $65 per day per person – and they FEED you!  Incidentals you will have to pay for include alcoholic beverages or specialty drinks; spa treatments; and gratuities – but where else can you go for a week, be fed, and see some of the most gorgeous beaches – for less than the cost of a hotel room somewhere?

  We have cruised Thanksgiving week for $199 per person, and I gotta tell you, that was worth it just not to have to clean up Thanksgiving dinner!

You might wonder about the expensive excursions you’ve heard about – and they do exist.  But you are under no obligation to take them.  We have actually found that sometimes, on days the ship is in port, we have the pool very nearly to ourselves, and plenty of space in the dining room.  We have also gotten off the ship on our own, as many times you can see plenty of local culture with just a few minutes walk from the ship.  There is no cost to you to explore on your own.  No expensive excursion necessary!

And don’t forget – when you see a cruise that is $459 per person – that usually only applies to the first and second person in the cabin.  Wanna add kids?  Expect to pay about half of that – sometimes less – for each child.

9 – Rental Cars – Okay, this already doesn’t sound like it’s going to be a money saving tip, right?  Well, that’s not necessarily true.  To begin with – let’s go back to that being faithful thing.  Rental car companies, like hotels, reward customer loyalty with free rentals.  Some companies have you accumulate points that can be used at any time for a rental, while others will send you coupons for free weekend rentals after you’ve rented so many days.  If you are taking a long trip, you can stop and return your rental car during your travels, which helps you to accumulate points or free rentals more quickly.  Another bonus of renting a car for a road trip is that you save wear and tear on your personal vehicle, plus, if you have a gas guzzler, this allows you to downsize and save money on fuel.  If you are traveling, say, 1000 miles to Walt Disney World (see how that Mouse works his way in??), you’ll need an oil change on your vehicle – so factor that into your savings.  In the grand scheme of things, rental cars are not that expensive.  There are plenty of coupons and promotional codes out there online that will help you reduce the cost of the car; and if you count the wear and tear savings and the gas savings if you are trading down (or newer, which is also more fuel efficient), this can save you money in the long run.  If nothing else, you might get a newer, sweeter ride, with satellite radio, which will make a road trip more comfortable for the whole family.

10 – Piggy Back Business Trips – This is not an option for everyone, but for many of us, at least some time during the year, either ourselves or our spouses need to travel for business.  While you certainly can’t ask your employer to spring for your whole family to take a trip, in most cases, the room is paid for and the traveling employee’s airfare is paid for – and maybe some meals!  Unless the employee is required to share accommodations, there is no harm – and no additional cost – to bring family along to use the room.  While the employee will obviously have to attend to the work for which they are traveling, the rest of the family can visit some local attractions, enjoy seeing the sights, or even just have the hotel swimming pool and continental breakfast to enjoy.  If the employee has some flexibility in choosing hotels, consider something like a Marriott Residence Inn.  I know I seem like I’m on the Marriott payroll, but Residence Inn hotels really do give you all the comforts of home, including a full kitchen.  We have been offered a free breakfast at every one we’ve stayed at, and Monday through Thursday nights at many of the Residence Inn locations, you will find the “Manager’s Reception”.  This reception ranges from snacks like nachos and cheese up to a full barbecue – with burgers, hot dogs, and all the fixings.  Not only are you enjoying a bit of leisure time activity with your family, but you are curtailing your grocery budget for the week as well!

In this economic climate, family vacation time is often pushed to the back burner.  But in truth, you NEED time to regroup, reconnect, and refresh so that you can continue to tackle the stresses of the working world.  A change of scenery, even just for a day, is healthy for your family.  Whether you find time to transport your family to another time by taking a day trip to a Renaissance Faire; or whether you’ve saved your pennies and reward points for a trip to some exotic locale, I hope these tips help you find time in 2010 to get away and enjoy life with your family.

Walt Disney World Christmas Vacation Day 2

My plans for the day included nothing more than dinner at Kouzzina.  I figured we’d probably hit a park, and since my friend Dori and her daughter Aviva are also here at Disney World, I had assumed we’d meet up and take all the kids together.

Then Jim enters with what he likes to call the JDF. The JDF, for those not in the know, is the Jim Discretionary Fund.  Jim spends 11 months and 20 days telling me I spend way too much money on everything trivial, I am driving us into bankruptcy with my daily trips to Starbucks, and if there were poor houses still in existence, I surely would be the Queen of Poor House Row, having driven our family there faster and with more enthusiasm than any other family headed in that direction.  And then, after all those months of making me regret ever getting the kids hooked on things like food and clothing, Jim turns up with miracle money that is to be spent on bonus Christmas presents for the family.  This is both good and bad.  It’s good because it’s always nice to be able to run out and pick up a few last minute things for the kids.  Even if it looks like the mountain of presents I have will become the 8th greatest wonder of the world, there is almost always something I wish I’d had the budget to add.  It’s bad because I know whatever I purchase today is going to have to be wrapped.  By me.  And then, when we head home, packed in the already full suit cases.  By me.

So, Jim asks Brighid if she’ll take the girls to the park while we hit the mall and see if there is anything we could sneak under the tree, and Brighid says she’ll do it – yay, Brighid.  She is going to meet up with Dori anyway, so the kids will all have a really good time playing and hitting their favorite attractions together.  I’m sorry not to get to spend the day with Dori, but we still have days ahead to get together, and the JDF is offered for a limited time only!

Much of the day is a blur.  It was spent with me talking Jim out of buying our eight year old child an iPhone – seriously, is the man delusional, or what? – and then debating what last minute things we really needed.  I also had Christmas money my mother had given me to pick up some things for Eilis, so I had fun at Justice for Girls and Best Buy, picking up an awesome suitcase that Eilis is going to love, and some DJ turntable Wii game that I know for sure I am not coordinated enough to get out of the box, let alone play the darn thing.

After a long day shopping, we just make it back in time for our Kouzzina reservation.  I find out through Brighid that Dori also has a reservation, so I ask when we check in if we can add the reservations together, only to be told it’s going to add 45 minutes to our wait time.  With Jim having to be out the door by 2:30 AM for his flight to DC, the 45 minutes is a deal breaker, so we have to dine separately 🙁

Kouzzina – review to come – is fabulous!  We love it, and I can’t wait to eat here again.  We head back to the car through the lobby of the Boardwalk Inn, just in time to see Minnie and Mickey at the tree – what a nice surprise!

Best news ever?  The massive snow storm that we barely escaped yesterday has closed government offices in DC.  Jim doesn’t have to fly out!  YAY for an extra vacation day with the hubby!

Skamarakas Family Disney Christmas Trip-a-palooza – Day 1

I blissfully go about life getting stuff done when it needs to get done.  As a result, I do all of my best packing last minute.  If I pack too soon, I start second guessing what I need to bring, why I need to bring it, and end up packing way more than I need.  If I wait until the last minute, I pack the bare minimum, wearing the same underwear four days in a row sounds like a good plan to save space in the suitcase, and having Eilis and Granuaile wear the same outfit on alternating days seems like a brilliant idea.  It’s all good.

Then of course Jim comes behind me.  He wants nothing to do with packing at all, except to carry the filled suitcases down to the car.  Until everything is all packed and on its way out to the car.  Then he starts asking, “Did you pack….?” “Don’t we need……?” And it becomes a chore to have to shove into whatever space we have left all of the things he thinks are urgent to bring.  Plus some.

So our cab is due to pick us up at 5 AM on Saturday morning, 12/19.  As with most Skamarakas family trips, it just wouldn’t be the same unless something went wrong or something exciting happened.  In this case, we are about to be hit with a record breaking snow storm.  The timing as it currently sits has the snow arriving in our area around 3 AM – but the heavy stuff not coming until during the day Saturday.  We are due to fly out at 7:55, so we begin hoping and praying that we will make it out before the baddest of the snow comes.

Jim and I get up at 4, peek outside, and it looks calm.  By 5, when the cab arrives, it is snowing steadily.  We still feel confident we’ll beat the storm.  Three hours later, as we pull through the de-icing bay, we are grateful to be one of the last planes out before the airport closes.  Whew.

Our arrival into Orlando is safe and smooth, and we are so glad to be here and not digging out from what will end up being 26 inches of snow in our area.  The original plan is to take Magical Express to the Polynesian Resort, but since we are now packing all of our winter coats and the extra essentials Jim decided we needed, he has called ahead and asked Brighid to meet us at the airport to get all of our stuff to the hotel.  She arrives with Russell, and as Jim takes out the coats and carry on bags, I wait at baggage claim.  We ended up packing the two Christmas present filled suitcases into Russell’s van, along with the coats and a few other things, so Jim and I head to Magical Express with just a few things – plus the bags they are picking up on our behalf.

I have wanted to stay at the Polynesian since I was a little girl.  My first trip to Walt Disney World was with my dad, and we stayed at the Contemporary.  It was lovely, but we went to the luau at the Polynesian one night, and the sights and smells were just amazing.  There was the sweet smell of gardenias everywhere, and the brilliant colors of the hibiscus flowers.  The memories are as vivid to me as if I was there yesterday, but everyone with me that first time through the resort is gone.  That first vacation we took was with my dad, my sister Bean, and my Grandmom Bilbrough, and none of them are here now to share the excitement of coming to the Poly.  I actually do get a bit teary eyed when the cast member at the front desk hands me the leis for the family.

Then we check into our room.  I think it can’t get any better than actually being here, until we walk in and see our view from the balcony.

We really have an awesome – much more than these photos show – view of the castle, Space Mountain, and the Contemporary Resort.  We can’t wait until it’s time for Wishes!

Because we are running so late, I miss the meeting I was supposed to have with Diane L and Jo Y from the Disney Moms Panel!  OH NO!!  I text Diane to update her about how late we are, and fortunately, they are able to meet me at the Grand Floridian before we head in for tea.  I love my Moms!

So, as I mentioned, things often don’t go according to plan during our family vacations.  We are supposed to meet for tea at the Grand Floridian at 2:20.  This is our birthday gift to Jim’s mother, and I’m excited, as we’ve never done tea here before!  We phone Brighid and find out that at 1:30, they have not yet arrived at Jim’s mother’s house to pick her up to bring her to the restaurant.  By 2, they haven’t gotten out of the gate at their community.  By 3, they are still at least 45 minutes away.  And By 3:15, they are giving our table away to another large party.  They can, however, squeeze Jim and I in for tea, and since we haven’t eaten and I’m starving, we head in.

The tea is just wonderful, and the holiday decorations are so pretty – very Victorian.  Visiting the resorts during the holidays is really a must do.  Each wreath and tree is themed to the theme of the resort, and you get a different flavor of the holidays each place you go.  We love it.

 

The remainder of the evening is spent at the Polynesian Resort.  I love this resort, and we are so fortunate to have a room that has a magnificent view of anything important – the castle, the Electric Water Pageant, Space Mountain, and best of wall, Wishes!

     

 

We were so exhausted, that by the time Jim’s mom and stepdad left, it was all we could do to get into pajamas and hop into bed.  A long vacation looms before us, and I think we’re going to need a full eight hours to get a running start!