Category Archives: Travel Planning

Are museum passes a good deal?

Most major tourist destinations offer some type of museum or city pass that supposedly saves you money. But, do they really?

As you’re researching your destination, make a list of your “must sees” and the entry fee. Note: if you’re using a travel guide book, I recommend going directly to the attraction’s website to get admission fees. It’s not uncommon for a price increase to have occurred after the book’s publication and this can affect your overall savings.

After you total up your must sees, compare that to the city or museum pass price. Be sure to read the details….how many days is the pass good for, does it offer free admission to all sites or free to some and discounted for others. If the pass is about the same price or less than your must see admission prices, obviously it’s a good deal. Are museum passes worth the money

What if the pass is still more than your total? You might think you need to pass on the pass, but wait! There’s more to consider. One of the major benefits of a pass is that you become an instant celebrity at all of the participating pass attractions. Okay, not really, but you do gain special access through a line just for pass holders in most cases, and you’re going to feel like a rock star when you’re walking past all of the people who have been standing in line for an hour and a half waiting to get into the Louvre.

paris museum pass

Louvre, Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel

On a recent Paris trip, I purchased a 2-day museum pass for 42 Euros. I visited 5 museums so I probably only saved about 5 Euros. But, I was on a tight schedule and I’m guessing I saved about 2 hours of standing in line. Definitely worth more than a few Euros!

Another benefit of having a pass is you’ll be more open to popping in museums or attractions you might not have visited otherwise. In Florence, there were quite a few smaller museums that I wouldn’t have visited if I’d had to pay 8 euros or so to get into each one. Because I had a pass, I could stop in for a few minutes and if I was intrigued, stay a while to explore.

So do your homework and a little research and you’ll be able to make the right purchasing decision for your travel goals. I’ve visited the same cities and bought a pass for one trip and not for the next, and both were the right decision…for that particular trip.

 

 

Disney World Tips and Tricks, Part 2

In case you missed it, last week I wrote about several tips and tricks to save you time and money in the Disney World parks. This week, I’ve got some tips for planning and using points for your trip.

Disney world tips

When should we go? My standard answer to this question used to be “anytime school is in session”. That is no longer the case because the peeps at Disney are marketing geniuses and are the Jedi masters at getting people to visit the parks year round. April, September and the first half of November are usually good times to go but do a little research first. Marathons, cheerleading and dance competitions, or other special events can flood the parks, especially on the weekends. Avoid the weeks of Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s. These are the highest attendance weeks of the whole year and parks often reach capacity and close by mid-morning during these weeks.

 

Where should we stay? There’s no easy answer to this one so I’ll just give you the good and the bad of on and off property.

On property: Disney hotels are going to be a little pricier than off property, but factor in the fact that you get free transportation from the airport (Magical Express), in-park transportation and you don’t have to pay to park, it may even out. The downside is you can never leave Disney property and there’s no such thing as free breakfast at any Disney hotels.

Disney world tips

Disney does offer specials occasionally for a free dining program with resort reservations, usually during the slower times, which is when you want to go anyway. I’ve also found it’s easier to stay on property if you’re the typical family with 2 kids. Any family suite options for larger families are cost prohibitive, although adjoining rooms are an option. But, you’re still paying for 2 hotel rooms.

Off property: I have 4 kids and the bigger the kids get, the more room you need to spread out and the more bathrooms you need to accommodate teens who take a while to get ready. There are a ton of condos in close proximity to Disney. We rented a 3 bedroom, 2 bath condo this past summer for $1100 for 8 nights. Because we had a full kitchen, we didn’t need to eat out every meal and we were able to save our leftovers from restaurant meals to have for another meal later.

Keep in mind that off-property, you will need to rent a car and plan on paying $20 per day to park. For me, the money saved on food and lodging costs always seems to outweigh this disadvantage.

Where do I find condos to rent? Trip Advisor and Vacation Rentals By Owner are good places to look for a condo or home rental. Home Away and AirBNB are also good options.

What about hotels off property for points? All the major hotel groups are represented within just a few minutes’ drive of the Disney gates so if you’ve got points, you could easily have free lodging for the week. I especially like the Starwood Preferred Guest program since if you book 4 nights, the 5th night is free.

Are there discounts for park tickets? I have never found discounts of more than $10 per ticket that weren’t a time share presentation. My advice is to just accept the fact that this is the most expensive part of your trip and buy them directly from Disney and be done with it.

I’m also going to go ahead and address a question I get asked often since one of my daughters works for Disney: No, she cannot get you free tickets. If all 60,000 Disney World employees had unlimited access to free tickets, then hardly anyone would ever pay to get in the parks. As her family, we do have access to some passes but there are restrictions and limitations and half the time I visit, I pay for a ticket. So if you know someone that works there, please don’t ask them for tickets. It gets stressful after a while when you have constant requests for something you can’t provide.

IMG_0887

What days should we go to which parks? For the smaller parks, Hollywood Studios, Epcot and Animal Kingdom, the day you visit probably won’t matter as far as crowd levels go. I highly recommend a subscription to Touring Plans. This group has done nerd-level amount of research on crowd levels over the years and has recommendations for each park depending on your vacation dates. Typically, Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday are the slower days at Magic Kingdom.

A subscription to Touring Plans also gives you access to their app “Lines”. Lines is a great tool to have in the parks for wait times that I find to be a little more accurate than Disney’s.

How can I save on airfare? If you’re sitting on a gold mine of airline miles, then theoretically you could fly your whole family to Florida for free, but most people don’t have access to enough miles to fly multiple people nor is it the best use of miles for a domestic flight. There are a lot of discount airlines that fly to Orlando.

Spirit, Jet Blue, Frontier, and Allegiant all offer inexpensive flights to Orlando. We fly Allegiant almost every time from Tulsa. It’s a direct flight and I’ve never paid more than $150 round trip for a ticket. There are a lot of other fees involved with discount airlines so do your homework and you can avoid most of them.

If you use points for your hotel stay and a discount airline, then you won’t feel so bad about spending money on the Disney tickets. If there’s something I haven’t covered, leave a comment and I’ll be happy to answer any questions!

Disney World Tips and Tricks, Part 1

A few months ago we took the family to Walt Disney World, mainly since kid #3 works there now and it’s the only way we could get all of the kids together at once. I’ve seriously lost count of how many times we’ve visited the happiest place on earth, but it’s a lot. Since Katie moved there last January, I’ve been 5 times and I’m sure this year will be a repeat performance.

Some of the family with our favorite Minnie Mouse

Some of the family with our favorite Minnie Mouse

During this summer trip, I posted several tips on Facebook. Below is a recap of those tips. I’ll follow up with another post with more tips and some FAQ’s. Be sure to leave any questions you have in the comments!

Disney Tip #1: Build in afternoon breaks in your schedule. Every one will be happier and enjoy the vacation more if they’re not exhausted, even the teenagers and adults. This is especially important if it’s hot outside.

IMG_0510Disney Tip #2: A rainstorm is your best friend. A lot of Florida visitors don’t realize that the rain will last about 20 minutes and will result in a mass exodus from the parks. Find a spot to wait it out and your wait times will be minimal for about an hour after it rains. Our Epcot rain brought a rainbow!

Disney Tip #3: Don’t underestimate the value of arriving before the park opens. You can usually ride 3 “headliners” in the first hour with no wait. Save your fast passes for later in the day when lines are longer or use them for parades and fireworks. The newly opened VIP viewing areas for the Electric Light Parade and Wishes fireworks are well worth a Fast Pass, but you’ll need to schedule them as soon as you can since there are a limited number available.

Disney Tip #4: You can get free ice water at any counter service restaurant in any park. And you can bring in drinks and snacks. We all brought in a water bottle and would refill throughout the day with the free water. Beats paying $3 per person per water bottle every couple of hours.

Disney Tip #5: PLAN! Disney is not the kind of place you can just show up and hope everything falls into place. Touringplans.com is a good resource (Approx $12 annual subscription) for checking crowd levels at different times of the year and can even help you decide which park to go to on which day of the week. It includes access to their app “Lines” which gives you wait times (that I find to be more accurate than Disney’s). We refer to this app throughout the day to help us decide what to do next. My Disney Experience is the official Disney app that can be used to make dining reservations, schedule your fastpasses, and view parade and character greeting times.

IMG_0608

Disney Tip #6: Take a break from Disney. Disney can be a bit of a sensory overload, especially for the little ones, so take a day to chill at the hotel pool or go to a movie or charter a sailboat in Clearwater, like we did!

 

 

Disney's Electrical Light ParadeDisney Tip #7: Magic Kingdom typically has 2 showings of the Electric Light Parade each night. There are 2 strategies to use this to your advantage. 1) Go to the earlier parade and watch fireworks, then hit all of major rides that you want to ride again or maybe missed earlier in the day. Most people will leave the park right after the fireworks and wait times are minimal afterwards. Or 2) Ride attractions during the first parade while everyone else is at the parade. This saves you from having to line up an hour before the parade and you’ll probably have a better view since the majority of guests will watch the first one. You can still take advantage of shorter wait times after the 2nd parade on the nights the park is open later. And you won’t mind being up a little later because you took a break earlier in the day.

The whole family with Mickey on my 44th birthday.

The whole family with Mickey on my 44th birthday.

Disney Tip #8: Go to Disney on your birthday. Nothing else will give you the illusion of feeling younger than you really are. Seriously. It’s hard to be bummed about hitting middle age when you’re hanging out with Mickey.

Disney Tip #9: Talk to Castmembers. They can answer important questions like where the closest bathroom is or where you can get a turkey leg. You’ll also get the chance to meet people from all over the world who actually enjoy their job.

Disney Tip #10: When leaving MK at a busy time, follow the signs to the Resort Monorail and get off at the 2nd stop for the parking lot or TTC in Disney speak (Transportation and Ticket Center). Everyone else will be in the regular monorail line going to the same place. There will be thousands waiting in the direct to TTC Monorail line and only a few hundred waiting for the Resort Monorail. You’ll have an extra stop at the Contemporary Resort on the way, but you’ll still get there faster, I promise!

4441583477_d8d3e33691_o

Click here for Part 2 in this series. Have a magical day!

 

 

Travel Planning 101: Getting Started with Points and Miles

So how much do you think it costs to go to Europe for 10 days? Most would guess $7000 – $10,000. What if I told you it was possible with less than $2,000?

Learning how to utilize points and miles has opened up a world that I never thought possible and allowed us to take trips I would never have dreamed would become reality.

europe budget travel

The trip I’m currently planning is for 3 nights in London and 5 in the French Riviera. I haven’t finalized the trip cost yet but I’m estimating it will be around $1500 for everything. Miles have already paid for 2 round trip American Airlines tickets, valued at $2600. And I’ll be booking our hotels by mid February with points, valued at $2500.

I know this “game” can seem overwhelming, and yes, you will have to make an investment of time. But if spending a little time can help me go on a trip I couldn’t otherwise afford, then I’m all for it! The most important thing I will tell you is not to just collect points and miles aimlessly. Have an end goal and have a plan to get there. If you’re starting from ground zero in this process, I recommend planning at least 9 months in advance.

Here’s a few more tips to help you get started:

  1. Know your credit score. Why is this important? Read Here.
  1. Decide where you want to go and how you’re going to get there. Do you want to relax on Paris, Eiffel Towerthe beach or see the Eiffel Tower at night? (Name that country song!) Which airline flies from your home city to your destination? Look at the award chart to determine how many miles you need to get there. Pay attention to dates as the miles required varies depending on high or low season. (p.s. There’s a major change coming to American’s award chart on March 22, 2016. If you’re thinking of using AAdvantage miles for a trip, book before then.)
  1. Next, apply for a credit card that offers a sign up bonus to your preferred airline. The person traveling with you (even if it’s your spouse) can also apply for the same cards and you can each earn your own bonus. Don’t forget to earn miles through the ways we talked about here.
  1. You can also go ahead and apply for your hotel points bonus cards at the same time, but as always, only take on minimum spend requirements that are part of your normal monthly budget.

6. Get organized! You’ll need a system to keep track of accounts, passwords, spend requirements, bonus earning period. There are some apps available: award wallet (not a fan) or the TPG (The Points Guy) app is fairly good. I’ve found neither one always update accurately. Downloading an app for each reward program and credit card account seems to work best for me. Since the apps save the passwords, I don’t constantly have to re-log in to all of my accounts and these apps will give you the most accurate and up to date information.

7. Meet your minimum spend requirements for each bonus offer. My apologies to my Dave Ramsey following-friends, but never pay cash for anything! That’s like throwing away reward points. You can set up auto pay with a credit card for the majority of your bills—car insurance, cell phone, cable, and internet. Car payments and mortgages can only be paid by card through a payment service like Chargesmart, which charges a fee, usually about 2%. I only recommend using this service if you’re meeting a minimum spend requirement, not on an ongoing basis. Then just pay your monthly bills like you normally would according to your budget, but the payments go to your credit card.

Your bonus rewards will typically be credited to your account when the billing cycle closes IMG_1227after you have met the minimum spend requirements. And it’s a glorious feeling to see all those points or miles in your account! Now you can make reservations and start counting down the days till your dream trip!

*Always remember that if you accumulate debt in this process, the rewards are no longer free which defeats the purpose. You might as well just pay for that trip and save yourself the trouble.

 

 

Venice Travel Guide

Venice. The destination of 22 million visitors per year and at the top of most people’s dream trip list. I’ve had the privilege of visiting twice in the last few years.

Getting There: You can ride the train from Milan in about 2.5 hours or Rome in 3.5 hours. Once you arrive at the main train station on the island, there are no cars so be prepared to pull that suitcase over cobbled streets. Pack Light!

Venice travel tips

 

Where to Stay: I highly recommend staying as close to the train station as you can and on the same side of the Grand Canal as the train station if possible. You have two options for transportation in Venice: your feet and a watercraft of some sort. Taxis are ridiculously expensive.

Ponte degli Scalzi, Italy

 

My hotel was directly across the canal from the train station but required going over the Ponte degli Scalzi (see photo above) and another bridge with a large suitcase. I inquired about a taxi…70 Euros minimum. The ride would have taken less than a minute. I dragged that suitcase over those bridges like a boss.

Transportation options

Vaparetto are the public water buses of Venice. A one-way trip will cost you about $8 (depending on the exchange rate). You can also buy a one-day or multi-day pass but I’ve never found them to be worth it. My favorite way to explore Venice is to catch the vaparetto at the train station stop and ride down the Grand Canal to St. Mark’s Square. Then I put my feet to work exploring all of the little side streets and smaller canal bridges as I make my way back to my hotel at the end of the day.

Gondolas are synonymous with Venice. Gondolas are also crazy expensive. Typically you’ll spend $100-$140 for 2 people. Rates vary due to the time of year and time of day. You’ll just need to decide ahead of time if that is something important enough to you to commit to spending that amount of money. And that Hollywood image of the gondolier serenading you as you float down the canal? Totally false, unless you make arrangements ahead of time.

Venice, Italy

I’ve never been able to justify the expense in my mind so I haven’t splurged on the experience. There is another option that will provide you with a short ride in a large gondola with 10 of your newest friends for about $2, called traghettis. There are several crossings on the Grand Canal. Just watch for the signs as you’re exploring that will point the way or ask the locals, “Dove traghetti?”

Must Sees

Basilica de San Marco, Venice, Italy

St. Mark’s Basilica

 

St. Mark’s Basilica where you can see the burial place/altar for Mark the Apostle. During tourist season, April to October, you’ll want to make a reservation. Visiting is free but the reservation fee is $2.

 

 

Doge's palace, venice, italy

Palazzo Ducale

 

Palazzo Ducale (The Doge’s Palace) is beautiful, ginormous, and will give you great insight into the history of Venice. It’s a little pricey for entry but well worth it. Venice offers a museum pass that is a good deal if you’re going to see the palace and any other museum. You’ll also skip the ticket lines if you purchase the pass.

 

Venice, Italy

Bridge of Sighs, Palazzo Ducale

 

Venice is filled with many palaces turned museums and gorgeous churches. With your museum pass, you can pop in and explore most of them without having to pay each time.

To me, the best part of Venice is wandering aimlessly, eating gelato, and perusing the souvenir shops. Know that you’re going to get lost at least once, most likely multiple times. Don’t rely on Google maps to navigate or find your hotel, trust me!

Venice, Italy

What about Carnivale?

Carnivale is the Italian equivalent of Mardi Gras and has been around since the 11th century. It typically occurs sometime in February each year and is a level of crazy I’m not entirely comfortable with. Having experienced Venice during Carnivale and not, I choose not. The crowds are intense around St. Mark’s Square especially. I found myself being overly nervous about pickpockets and didn’t feel like I could relax. But, that’s who I am, introvert extraordinaire.

Carnivale, Venice Italy

My oldest daughter and I, 2015

Venice, ItalyA few more tips:

Stay at least one night in Venice. There are just no words for how beautiful it is at night with the lights reflecting off the water. This also helps the local economy which has been hurt by cruise ship day tourists in recent years.

The best restaurants will be on the smaller streets away from the main tourist attractions. Never eat anywhere that offers a “tourist menu”.

Venice is an American word. The name of the city is actually Venezia and that is what you’ll find on all of the souvenirs and maps.

Internet. Your hotel might advertise that they have internet/wifi but they’re probably lying. Not really,  but the only place we found wifi that worked was at the McDonald’s just down the street from the train station. I kid you not, there’s a McDonald’s in Venice.

Italy 121

Questions? Leave a comment.