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South America Cruise – Come Join Us

I’ve written about this previously but was requested to write about it again for a reader and others who shown interest in this cruise.

In the past, I have put groups together for cruising, whether ocean or river cruising because as a member of a group, you get special amenities, special rates and sometimes both!  I’ve done it again and arranged special group perks for this next cruise.  We have booked a 14 night cruise on Princess cruise line’s Emerald Princess sailing February 14th, 2018 sailing around the southern coast of South Africa from west to east.. Sounds like an amazing gift for your Valentine.  We already have 18 in our group and with a group we got special amenities from this cruise line.

Our cruise departs from Valparaiso, Chile but prior to our cruise Blogger Hubby and I will spend a few days in Santiago and then we will be transported, via a few stops at some Chilean wineries, to Valparaiso along the Pacific coast.  We already have some tours set up in both cities that you are welcome to join.

Once on board the ship, we can take full advantage of all that the Emerald Princess offers us like the movie screen over the swimming pool so we could watch movies sitting along the pool deck under the southern stars including the Southern Cross.  The next day we will be among a small minority of people in the world that will get to see part of the solar eclipse that will be occurring over Antarctica.

In three ports, Ushuaia, Puerto Montt and the Falkland Island I have worked with several tour operators for small group tours (an additional cost but less expensive than what the cruise line charges).  Rounding the Cape of Good Hope we will sail through the famed waters that Magellan sailed through.  A stop that I am looking forward to is the Falkland Islands where I have hired Patrick Watts to take us in 4 x 4 vehicles to Volunteer Point to see Magellanic penguins, gentoo penguins and a 150 pairs of breeding Emperor penguins.

Ushuaia, another port that I am looking forward to, is at the end of the world, as the locals say.  In Ushuaia you have an opportunity to book seats on a boat to go out into the Beagle Channel to view wildlife or go to their National Park or just walk around the end of the world.  

Some of the amazing other ports that we will be going to include Punto Arenas, Puerto Madryn, you will cruise Amalia Glacier, spend a day in Montevideo and have an overnight on the ship in Buenos Aires.

One thing that I learned when researching this cruise was that Chile has more glaciers than all of Scandinavia.  I just can’t imagine that.

I’ve been on many different cruises.  The Eastern Med cruise transported me back into the ancient history class that I took in high school and I loved seeing all the buildings and structures that I had read about or saw pictures of in books or movies.  I’ve done the Panama Canal cruise twice and I am always amazed at the engineering skill it took to build the canal over a hundred years ago as I look over seeing the new canal being built. Our Australia to New Zealand cruise was a wonderful adventure and remains a favorite of ours because it was different – a combination of a few cities but mainly it was scenic and this cruise to South America reminds me of that.  The only two large cities that we will be cruising to are Montevideo and Buenos Aires.  We will be in smaller cities and cruising along beautiful landscapes like Amalia Glacier.

You can be part of our group as much or as little as you want but being in our group, at least in name, will give you extra perks.  This cruise does not include airfare but you can purchase it with your cruise from Princess Cruise Line.  If you are involved in the point game like I am, and I assume you are since you are reading this blog, please know that I just booked our flight down using AA points on LATAM airline, the national airline of Chile.  It is too soon to book award tickets for the return.

Speaking of the return, we are strongly flying from Buenos Aires to Iguazu, Argentina to see the magnificent waterfalls there that straddle Brazil and Argentina.  Iguazu Falls is the largest system in the world.   If you go to Brazil, you would need to pay for a visa approximately $160 USD.  There is, at this writing, no visa needed for US citizens to go into Argentina, Chile and Uruguay.  I’ve read numerous articles on visiting the Falls and the consensus is that you should see if from both sides.  One article suggested it was like Niagara Falls – Horseshoe Falls is on the US side but can be viewed best from the Canadian side.  Our plan is to spend one night on the Argentinian side and the second night on the Brazilian side.  From there we fly home via Lima, Peru.  All toll for us, this vacation will be about 3 1/2 weeks long.  I’m not sure if we ever get back down to this area of South America again so I want to see as much as I can.

We have come to enjoy traveling with others, whether old friends or newly made ones.  It’s nice to walk into a large room, pool deck or even Bingo on board and find a familiar face to sit down next to, someone w can ask questions of, compare daily experiences or sit and have dinner or a drink with.

Consider this cruise and if interested, leave a comment and I’ll get back to you.  I’ll give you the name of the travel agent who is in charge of our group block – you must book with our travel agent to be part of our group in order to get the extra amenities and pricing.

 

My Marriott Challenge and What it Gave Me

I recently learned about the Marriott Hotel Challenge.   It is an opportunity to earn top elite status provided you stay a certain number of nights within a certain period.  Once that is completed you receive platinum status.  I had done a Hyatt challenge a couple of years ago and have enjoyed my elite status with them when we have stayed at a Hyatt. Since we were driving down to Florida we knew we would have a few hotel stays and this seemed like the opportune time to begin the challenge.

I already was a Marriott Rewards member so I called them up on the phone and asked to be enrolled int he challenge.  I needed to stay for a total of 9 stays over a period of almost 5 months.

Once I had attained the Platinum status with Marriott, I knew that I was eligible then to get silver status with United Airlines by mere virtue of having attainted the platinum elite level.  I called up the Marriott Rewards number and explained that I wanted to be enrolled to get the silver status with United.  They gave a me a link to which register and within 7-10 days, I will have silver status.

As most of you know, a year or so ago Marriott purchased SPG.  I have linked the two accounts together.  What this means that that by having Marriott platinum status, I now have SPG platinum status.  With SPG platinum status, I am eligible for Delta silver status. All this from doing the 9 stay challenge!

Now that I have my 9 stays completed I’m concentrating on SPG stays since SPG points will transfer over to Marriott points at a 1:3 ratio.

Have you thought of doing the Marriott challenge?  Both of these hotel chains are having a summer promotion and I plan on taking advantage of these promotions.
******* It was just mentioned to me that you have to have gold status to first be able to do this.  You can get that status by having either a Marriott or SPG credit card.  I do not have the Marriott cc but I do have the SPG ad I am not sure how long that card will be around and, as mentioned above, those points transfer 1:3 to Marriott

A First Timer’s Experience in Paris

So much to see and so little time  to see all that I want to see, do and eat.  That’s how I felt about our time in Paris.

Today I was going through our Paris photographs in preparation for our making our photo album through My Publisher.  Looking at the photos brought back such wonderful memories.

After we checked into the Le Metropolitan, a SPG property that we booked on points when it was a Club Carlson property,  we immediately left not wanting to waste a minute of our time. We walked toward the Arc de Triomphe.  I was giddy with excitement and felt like jumping up and telling everyone that “I’m here, I’m actually in Paris” while I’ was walking around and viewing this landmark at the end of the Champs des Elysees. If you continue walking on the outside, not going into the traffic to get to the Arc, you’ll see a sign directing you to where the tunnel is to walk underground to get to the Arc.  The Arc, as I learned through a tour,  was commissioned by Napoleon Bonaparte to commemorate those who fought and died for France during the French Revolution and during the Napoleonic Wars.  Whenever you think of Arcs, this is the one that comes to mind.  The Arc sits in the center of 12 converging avenues that radiate out form the Arc. When we were there there was some type of bicycle event happening and they were at the Arc.  Police were there to control the traffic for the cyclistsp1060558

p1060548We walked all around Paris, stopping at an outdoor fruit market where we picked up some delicious fruit to bring back to our room.  It was convenient to a small city sized grocery store where we picked up some yogurts, pastries and other items to keep in our room.  On our way back to the hotel we passed an Italian restaurant and decided to eat dinner while we mapped our what we would do the next few days.  Instead of going right back to the hotel, we continued walking and I saw the Eifel Tower all lit up.  We walked to a great viewing spot directly across the river from it, along with a few hundred other people.  Vendors were there selling their wares, flashes were going off as everyone seemed to be taking pictures.  We caught out breath as we saw the light show on the Eiffel Tower.  This was a dream come true a million times over. Instead of walking back to the hotel this time I floated back.  Do you ever feel like that?p1060575

The next morning we were up and ready to put our plan into action.  Since we hadn’t been to Paris before, we thought a great way to get an overview of the city would be to get tickets on the HoHo bus (Hop on, Hop off).  Apparently there are several different companies who do HoHo bus tours but the one recommended by our hotel was the L’Open Tour bus.

p1060637There was a special promotion on the flyer with the HoHo bus.  You could purchase a bus ticket for one day for €33 or, what we did is purchase a 2 day pass that also include a river boat cruise on the Bateaux Mouches for €43.  What we liked about the bus we took is that there are four different lines, each going to a different part of Paris.  In addition to touring, we used the bus as public transportation.  A great map was on the flyer so we knew which colored bus to take and what we would see.  There were over 50 stops among all four colored routes.img_1657

We decided to do the boat tour first.  We walked, and walked, and walked to where the boats were (hint – take the subway, bus, uber or cab).  We bought our ticket, stood in line and immediately went to the upper level for viewing.  There really are no bad seats there but if I had to suggest a seat, it would be in the rear.  You go up and down so if a building is not on your side, wait till they turn around and it will be. We went pass the d’Orsay, Notre Dame  and so many buildings.  The narrative was good as well.  Would I recommend this? Definitely yes.  A great introduction to Paris.p1050103

 

img_1666After the boat tour, we walked to catch the HoHo bus.  Since we had one of their maps, we knew where the stops were and we knew which colored tour we wanted.  As we were walking to the stop, we passed by a memorial in honor of Princess Diana that was over the tunnel where her fatal accident took place.  Also at the location was a duplicate of the Statue of Liberty’s torch .p1060635

p1060633When we found our stop and boarded we headed up to the upper level for an unencumbered view of the city. When you board your driver will give you a pair of earbuds to plug into the box at your seat where you can dial in to your language to hear the audio.

We drove through the Montmartre section of Paris and saw the famous Moulin Rouge with their windmills.

p1060648A few blocks later we got off and walked uphill with a small crowd to Sacre Coeur.  Walking up the hill we passed numerous T shirt shops and other shops selling all types of souvenirs.  That didn’t interest us so we kept walking.  Once again we passed another carousel.  Europeans, we noted, love their carousels and we saw many during our visit to France.  We walked left at the carousel and followed the signs to the funicular for the quick ride to the top of the hill where the Basilica was built with an unparalleled view of all of Paris. I certainly enjoy the history and architecture of the many churches we have visited.

funicular going to Sacre Coeur
funicular going to Sacre Coeur

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p1060663Sacre Coeur was built in the 1800’s on the top of the hill in the Montmartre section of Paris.  This was the site where the Druids of Ancient Gaul would come to worship as well as the Romans who built their temples to honor Mars and Mercury.  There is a very long history on this location.  Soon after, we walked down the hill, across the street to catch the next HoHo bus to bring us close to our hotel.  We were traveling in rush hour and it seemed to take forever yet on the other hand, we went through the Arc on our way home. We seemed to always pass the Egyptian obelisk that, depending who is telling the story, was either given to the French or the French stole it from Egypt.p1060709

 

My first full day in Paris was wonderful and we had more days to come with more adventures including a cooking lesson for me.

Here are a few more random sights we saw on our travels.

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River Cruising and Viking Cruise Line – Strictly My Opinion

For those who know me and ask my opinion about which river cruise line to choose when sailing through some of the European rivers, I’m quick to say “avoid Viking”.  I know, many of you have had wonderful experiences on Viking and when things go right, then they have many satisfied passengers.

The problem in my mind is when things do not go right, how does each river cruise line handle it.  After all, high water or low water affects all the cruise lines and they handle these problems differently.

Last year when there was low water on the Danube and a few other rivers, most of the cruise lines let their passengers know ahead of time.  Some of their passengers had “cancel for any reason” travel insurance and they were able to cancel their trips rather than be docked for most of their river cruise and be bussed to their ports.  These passengers said that they paid for a river cruise, not a bus trip.  From my understanding after reading all the different threads on Cruise Critic – River Cruising thread, is that Viking did not alert their passengers to the potential that they would have a bus trip or have to switch ships halfway through their journey.

Another reason, particularly when the rivers are low, that I do not like Viking is that their ships have a lower draft to them and therefore are deeper in the water.  Last summer when their was low water levels in the Danube, Avalon, AMA Waterways, Uniworld and other lines were able to complete the majority of their cruises without interruption but not Viking.

Viking is the largest provider of river cruises in Europe and you will hear more negative reports about them.  It seems that some of the common themes is lack of communication to their passengers alerting them to a problem or the potential of a problem.  Having high water (like currently in Europe) or low water (like last summer) is nothing new and all the cruise lines should have some notion of what to do and have alternate plans in place.  They generally do a good job except for Viking.

Found this article about the high water that is affecting many of the central European rivers.  Which which cruise line is having to make alternative itineraries and which ones are not.

I have cruised both Avalon (Rhine River) and AMA Waterways (Danube and shortly the Rhone) and I feel that they are both excellent cruise lines with very good reputations.

Have you done a river cruise and which cruise line did you sail on?  What was your experience?  Were you sailing during a “normal time” or one when there were problems with the water levels?  I’d love to hear your opinion.

Seattle to Vancouver to Seattle – Which is better – Amtrak Bus or Amtrak Train

As part of our Empire Builder train trek, we were allowed to add on to our trip an extension to go up to Vancouver.  I had done research as to which mode of transportation through AMTRAK that I wanted to use.  Research aside, it came down to our schedules.  To go north, we used the AMTRAK bus that was scheduled (was being the operative word) to leave the King Street AMTRAK station at 1:45.  Now if you choose to use this method, go out the front door of the station and turn to the left, the far left and wait there for the bus.  There isn’t anyone outside to tell you this.

After standing in line and dropping our luggage off near the luggage compartments of the bus, we boarded and chose whatever seats we wanted. The seats are close together, my knees actually touched the seat in front – similar to that if an economy seat on an airplane.

The bus driver had a problem with the tickets and passengers not matching up, a broken water bottle that was full and a few other problems.  We left about 35 minutes late.  We were advised that because of this we would be in the middle of rush hour traffic.  Delightful!

Once we reached the Canadian border our driver instructed us that we needed to get off the bus, claim our luggage and go into the building where we would be interviewed by Immigration.  That took almost an hour with a full bus.  Border Control would then inspect the bus.  When this was completed we could recheck our luggage and get back onto the bus.

crossing the border by automobile
crossing the border by automobile

What was another surprise to us is that the bus didn’t go straight to Vancouver but instead made two stops at hotels.  The first in Surrey and the second in Richmond.  Since we were stopping in Richmond, we tok a different route into the city.  We finally made it to Vancouver at almost 7:00 PM – about a 5 hour and 15 minute trip.

With cabs being inexpensive in Vancouver and with the conversion factor in our favor, we took a quick trip to our hotel, the Weston Bayshore.

For our return we needed to leave on Sunday as the train on Monday morning would arrive too close to our scheduled departure on the Coast Starlight.  So that we would have some time in Seattle, we took the 6:30 AM train – being still on East Coast time, that was no problem for us.   You need to arrive at the train station about an hour before departure in order to fill out the forms needed for entry back into the United States.

departing Vancouver
departing Vancouver

We stood in the line, received our seat assignments and then proceeded to be cleared through US Customs and  Border Control right before we boarded.  We were also told that that Customs and Border Control would go through the train car by car and we needed to stay in our seat.  They would even check the restrooms if someone was in there.  Doing this at the station and on the train saved us some time but the route we took, along the coast, was longer than the road that the bus was on.  We also had much more room on the train and we were comfortable.

seats on the train from Vancouver
seats on the train from Vancouver

We left Vancouver at 6:30 and arrived at the King Street Seattle station at 10:55 a total of 4 1/2 hours.

It’s your choice which you choose but if I were to do it again, I’d take the train – more comfortable and a much more scenic route.

AMTRAK Bound

“The time has come,” the Walrus said, “To talk of many things.” That’s my idea behind this blog – sharing what I’ve learned and learning something from you, my faithful readers. I’ve got some sharing to do today and hopefully, if I have wifi, I’ll be doing it for a few days, week or more!

For those who have been with me for 6 months or longer, you may recall that Blogger Hubby and I booked a trip on AMTRAK for a transcontinental train trip – an epic trip by our standards. This was accomplished by transferring some Ultimate Rewards from my Chase credit cards to AMRAK (no longer a transfer partner) and it was before AMTRAK changed their miles program requiring more miles rather than the zone based award chart that I used.

Today we positioned ourselves to get ready to board our train tomorrow. Blogger Hubby was in Michigan, I was in Virginia. We both arrived in O’Hare about 30 minutes apart from each other. It was nice to see his smiling, welcoming face as I left the plane. That was our first hurdle – be able to meet each other though contingent plans were in place if either one of us was delayed.  By the way, neither one of us had problems with TSA though we were not at major city airports.

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We had made reservations to spend the night at the Holiday Inn and Suites on West Harrison Street in Chicago. We used the points that I had been accumulating for quite awhile through nights that I’ve stayed, promotions for stays as well as filling out 97 index cards to enter their winter promotion “The Endless Surprise”.

Getting to this hotel was much easier than I had expected and glad that I had done some homework. At O’Hare we were able to catch the CTA Blue line train in the direction of Forest Hills (tip – they all head for Forest Hills at O’Hare since O”Hare is at the end of the line). At the train station, you go to the kiosk and purchase a single ticket which costs $5, tap it at the turnstyle and then go down the escalator to the tracks. It took about 45 minutes to get to our stop – Clinton. We walked out to the right, up the stairs and in complete view of the Holiday Inn.

Walking in to the Holiday Inn and Suites we were warmly greeted – the warmest greeting I’ve ever had at any Holiday Inn. We were given tickets to a complimentary glass of wine in the attached restaurant, two bottles of water, 500 welcome points and a typed but had signed note from the Front Desk Manager welcoming us. We went over a few questions we had about where to eat lunch, dinner, where Union Station was, etc. A local map was given to us and they circled where we needed to go, including a grocery store and liquor store to purchase a bottle of wine to bring on board the train.

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We were upgraded to a suite with two double beds, and another room with couch, chair, television, refrigerator, microwave and more. The view was not much, a ramp going up to the highway.

I mentioned that I wanted Chicago pizza for lunch and they quickly directed us to Giordano’s, about a 7 minute walk from the hotel. One of the specials was a personal size pizza with soup or salad and a soft drink.  This was perfect for what we needed. Not sure if I liked this pizza – it almost seemed like an upside down pizza with pepperoni on the bottom, then the cheese and a layer of sauce on top. Like a pie, the crust came up the sides to the top. Unfortunately for me, it seemed almost too hard, not the softer crust that I was used it. It’s probably just a matter of preference .

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We continued our walking tour of Chicago, or at least of our neighborhood. Just up a block from the restaurant was the Hellenic Museum. Neither one of us is Greek but we did go to Greece a few years ago and I always enjoyed ancient history. The price was $10 each or $8 for seniors! They had a special art exhibit on the work of the actor Anthony Quinn. He had a special affinity for anything Greek since he was in Zorba the Greek.   We found his paintings, his sculptures and his story extremely interesting.   Upstairs were two more exhibits – one of the modern Olympics which began in Athens in 1896 and the other on the Creation of the Aegean Archipelago. The few personal stories that we read about American competitors were very inspiring. Since the Olympics were new, there was no American organization to sponsor them and many people had not heard of them. There were some competitors who were studying at Harvard who had to quit school in order to compete. If you go to this museum or are interested in this story, I’m sure you can google the information.

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As you might be able to guess, the Hellenic Museum was in Chicago’s Greek Town. The restaurant that had been recommended to us was Greek Islands. We went there to “scoped” it out. The menu looked authentic and the prices weren’t bad. We planned on eating dinner there till we hit a brick road in being very tired and ended up eating instead at the Holiday Inn restaurant. (It was so-so).

We continued our walking of Chicago finding the French Market, which have many different types food stalls in a converted warehouse. The sights, the smells, the French macaroons (my favorite cookie) and the cheeses all delighted our senses and we decided this was where we were going to eat breakfast the next day since the hotel did not have complimentary breakfast. I highly recommend coming here. When we came back the next morning, my breakfast was at the Crepe stand – freshly made crepe filled with strawberries, almonds and crème fraiche – what could be better. Blogger Hubby had the crepe that was filled with lox, cream cheese, red onions, tomatoes and spinach.

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Evening at the hotel – although I had indicated that I liked our hotel, how easy it was to get there on the train from the airport as well as to other places, what I didn’t like was the street noise. In part that may have been because we were on the second floor, not that far from the trucks and cars on the ramp going to the expressway. If you decide to stay at this Holiday Inn, ask for a room on a higher floor – you’ll thank me for your good night sleep. We did wonder as we got into bed if noise was going to be a problem when we saw ear plugs on our nightstand. We were so tired that nothing kept me awake.

Union Station – there are multiple entrances to Union Station. What we found for this journey was to not go into the iconic building with Union Station lettering on it. You will do a lot of walking inside if you are looking for the passenger assistance counter, the ticketing office or (for at least a few weeks) the lounge. Instead, go across the street where there is a black office building that houses the FTC (Fitness Training Center). Just after the FTC, you’ll see a sign for Union Station – go in that door, go down the escalator and you’ll find all that you need there. Since we had our confirmation number but no tickets we went to the ticketing counter the day before – we like to be ready and still remember last year’s misadventure when we were at the wrong train station in Budapest With ticket in hand we were ready to begin our traveling train adventure the next day.

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Are You Going to Change Your Travel Plans?

Our hearts go out to citizens of Brussels as well as the rest of Belgium.  We are still reeling from what happened in Paris last Fall.  It’s made some of us question our travel style and whether it will make any impact on our desire to travel.

paris brussels

This past June, we flew out of the Brussels Airport and we are scheduled to fly out of it this Fall.  Will the events the other day make me change my mind about flying out of this airport?  Absolutely not.

After our river cruise in the early fall, we’ll be in Paris, riding the metro, going to high visibility tourist attractions.  We are not renting a car but rather doing our touring through public transportation.  Will I worry and wonder if something will happen…..probably.  Will it stop me – not at this time.  We may alter when we do certain activities.  Perhaps go to the Eiffel Tower very early in the morning or very late at night.  Instead of the metro, maybe we’ll take buses.  We’ll also be in Bruges, Ghent and Brussels.  France and Belgium, at least this year, seem to be the “hot spots” for terrorism.

I find that a lot of people ask me if I worry about terrorism when I travel and honestly, up to now I haven’t.  Blogger Hubby and I were planning our first European vacation for June 2002 but then 9/11 happened and I got very nervous.  Living outside of Washington DC I had conjured up so many different scenarios that I wasted a lot of time worrying.  I packed an emergency bag for school (I worked in an elementary school) in case we got stranded there due to attacks, I had an emergency bag in my car and I had a big emergency box at home.  I made so many preparations just in case.  I felt uncomfortable going to Europe so instead we did an Alaskan cruise.  Nothing did happen and I missed out on an opportunity. That missed opportunity taught me to not do something because “something” could happen.

We will continue to make plans for our trip, try not to let the world events affect us but yet be so ever vigilant and, to a due, cautious and aware of our surroundings.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What Do You Do When You Have Extra Money

Last year I mentioned that both hubby and I were given 600 euros each when our award flight from Brussels was delayed seven hours due to mechanical trouble in the United States.  We received the money in the form of a pre-paid debit card.  Here is the post in case you missed it

With our trip to France on our mind, we planned on using the using the “extra” money to do some activities or dining that we wouldn’t ordinarily do – something extra and unique for us.  Now Blogger Hubby is suggesting that we use this extra money and apply to our normal type of trip so that we have less out of pocket expenses and not do the extra events that we would have done with this free money

That’s led to a debate between us.  Both are rational ideas and have merit to them and we aren’t sure what to do.  I’m sure it will be somewhere in-between; some money for extras we wouldn’t have done and the rest toward our trip.

What would you do?

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Snorkeling in Bonaire

Having never been to Bonaire I was super excited about this stop.  Bonaire is part of what is known as the A, B, C islands which lie about 50 miles off the coast of Venezuela.  Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao make up the A, B, C islands and are all part of the Netherland Antilles.  They generally do not get hurricanes because of how far south in the Caribbean they are and are in a perfect location if you want a fall vacation and want to stay out of the paths of hurricanes.

I knew that Bonaire was considered a diver’s paradise so I thought it would be great for snorkeling since I am not a diver.  I have gone snorkeling several times with Blogger Hubby but, this is confession time, I am not a confident snorkeler. On this cruise I wasn’t traveling with my husband but rather a friend and she was not a snorkeler.  I put on my Big Girl panties and decided to do a snorkeling trip by myself (of course there would be others on the boat).

After a recommendation from a couple on my Cruise Critic Roll Call (thank you Lisa and Travis) I booked with Woodwind on their catamaran.

Jane on boat
I have never had such a positive snorkeling experience.  Sitting on their catamaran as we sailed around the harbor and island near the capital city in Bonaire, it was a very peaceful and serene experience.  There was no music blaring, no racing to see who could drink the most in the shortest amount of time.  It was almost as if we were communing with the water.  There were about 16 of us on the cat and the two guides gave each of us their utmost time and attention.  They went to each of each to see if we had any concerns or fears and whether we had snorkeled before  I had told that that I had but was more of a tentative and nervous snorkeler.  When they asked what my concerns were, I told them and they assured me that I would be fine after listening to me.  Our guide actually stayed very close by two people who had never snorkeled before.

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Additionally, they told us that they had full face snorkel mask if anyone had problems breathing out of their mouth.  They also had about 4 pairs of prescription masks for those who wear glasses.  Clothing – they had plenty for us to borrow.  I put on a pullover top so I would not sunburn my back as I snorkeled.  The woman next to me, who was fair skinned, put on one of their skins, like a diving suit only thinner.  I borrowed a hood to put over my hair and to keep it from flowing into my face.  Fins were optional.  She had float belts, vests and noodles.  We didn’t need to bring anything – they had it all and much more!

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What surprised me was that the guides got into the water with us and stayed with those who had never snorkeled before and helped those of us who felt like we needed reassurances.  Our guide pointed out fish, two different types of turtles as well as different corals and sponges that were below us.  She would give us the hand signals that we learned before getting in the water checking to see if we were okay.  We had a full 90 minutes snorkeling and it was wonderful.  We saw two different types of turtles, brain sponge, needlefish, lion fish and so many more tropical fish that I do not know the name of.

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We all got back on board our boat and as we were heading back to the dock we were served a hot dinner – noodles, spring roll and of course Rum Runners.  It was delicious and I had no idea that I was even hungry.

IMG_8932Before we got to port, the guides came around to collect their money – either by credit card or cash.  For my tour, it was $55 US dollars.

One little antidote, as we were looking for a place to get into the water, our guide and our captain noticed another boat “The Coral Buddy” and our guide did not like what they were doing.  Some of their passengers were in the water standing on coral, they were anchored in a coral restoration area.  There were words in Dutch and strong feelings on the part of our crew.  I appreciated their feelings about coral restoration and doing no damage to the sensitive coral.  We all felt like we made friends with our guides.

IMG_8955To get to Woodwind, as you leave the port, bear to the right.  At the main street, turn right and you will see a casino sign.  Go through the gate and through the Divi Flamingo Beach Resort.  Woodwind is all the way down the sidewalk, past the swimming pool.  If you are with someone who doesn’t want to snorkel, the resort offers a day pass for $15 though when I walked through, there was no one collecting and I just sat down on one of the loungers and went swimming in the pool before my snorkel trip.

To reach them before your trip, you can call them at 599-786-7055 or go to their website. I do not receive any compensation for endorsing this group nor was my trip paid for by them.  I paid for it myself.

 

Cruise Excursions and How To Find Non-Cruise Line Tours

If you have been reading me for awhile then you may remember that I try to never book an excursion with the cruise line when I am in port.  There have been a few exceptions when I have had no choice – I’ll get to those later.

You may wonder why I would book non-cruise line tours.  Doesn’t the cruise line try to get me paranoid about arriving at the pier late from a private excursion and standing on the dock watching the ship sail into the colorful sunset.  I mean, I have heard many people tell me that if you are on a ship’s excursion and are running late then they will wait for you.  Isn’t this all true? NO, it is not.

The main reason that I book private excursions is that they tend to have fewer people on them and that they are less expensive and more interesting.  Do you enjoy being herded by cattle onto a bus that seats 44 people generally waiting for one or two who don’t feel that they need to be back at the same time as others on their tour?  If you found something interesting, wouldn’t you like the option of staying a little longer?

I have found that when I am on a private excursion in a foreign country (and I am excluding the Caribbean countries here since most of them take the American dollar), then you can pay in local currency which may have a better exchange rate for you than paying the cruise line in US currency.  Case in point: when we were in New Zealand, the excursion that I booked was $135 NZD which equalled about $83 USD.  The ship was charging for a similar excursion $150 USD.

With all the cruises that I have been on as well as the number of private excursions, we have never been late to the ship, not even close.  For me, I always inform my tour guide that we need to be back earlier than what we need to be.  I also look around as we are leaving the port city to see if there is construction or some problem that would take extra time in returning to the ship.  On one excursion a few years ago we were with passengers from another ship and we had a much earlier departure.  Our tour guide called a taxi to meet us and return us to the ship so we wouldn’t be late.  How is that for service!

Finally, the cruise line is not guaranteeing you that they will wait for you if you return late.  They will certainly try to but it is not guaranteed because they pay for their berth at the docks.  If it is too expensive to wait or if there is another ship coming in, they will leave.  However, they will get you to your next port of call.  If it is a large group, you all may not be able to get on the next plane; after all, most of the islands are connected by small island hopper planes.  This hardly ever happens so I would not worry about it but if you are concerned, bring your passport with you and a credit card.  That way if you need to get to another island, you will be able to.

Now that you have made the decision that you would like to try booking a private excursion, I’ll give you my trade secrets though they are not that secret.  I simply google “shore excursions in ____”.  I’ll also go to Cruise Critic and find their Ports of Call thread and look for my port of call.  I’ll read what others are saying about their tours. I will also go to Cruise Critic’s Roll Call where I find my cruise line, my ship and my sailing date.  Often times others in your Roll Call will organize a private excursion and are looking for others to join them.

Finally, I go to Trip Advisor and enter in the city/island that I will be visiting and then I enter “Tour Guide” or “Things To Do” in the search box.  Make sure you read all the reviews.  I tend to ignore the very best and the very worse and focus on what the majority are saying.

I’ll email the tour operator with any questions I may have.  During the busy season, I’ll give them about 3 three days to get back to me.

I mentioned earlier that several times I have had to take the cruise lines excursions. While on Half Moon Cay, the private island that the cruise line owns, rather than just spending time at their beautiful beach, we elected to take a Tram Tour of the island.  It was very interesting and something that I had never done.  I saw where they kept the horses for those who wanted to go horseback riding, Sting Ray City where the passengers feed the sting rays (that was amazing), the airport on the island (actually where seaplanes land in case of emergency), where 40 staff members live, desalination plant converts salt water to drinking water, power generators and so much more.  The other time I had to take a ship’s excursion was last year when we were docked in Gatun Lake in the Panama Canal. The only way we could get to land was to book an excursion.

I have had fantastic experiences, met some wonderful people who happened to be my guides and have no qualms about recommending them or their tour.  Everyone has different expectations of what they want on their tour and emailing your tour operator to express what you are seeking is a great way of ensuring that you have the right tour for you.

Don’t let the cruise lines get you scared or nervous.  Wouldn’t you rather have a tour more geared to you and your needs than a vanilla type tour where you are just a person in a seat.  A few days after I returned from my cruise I received a survey from Holland America.  Some of their questions had to do with excursions and they wanted to know how many I had booked with them and how many I booked independently.  they also wanted to know “why”.  I think they are finally getting the idea that many of us are going the independent route.  Hopefully they will make some changes but until then, I’m booking my own private tours and I hope you will consider them as well.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Getting to Fort Lauderdale, The Hyatt Regency Pier 66 and Boarding the Oosterdam

I was surprised to find that I couldn’t find any direct flights from Washington Dulles (IAD) to Fort Lauderdale on United for our cruise.  Perhaps since I had booked the cruise about 3 weeks prior to sailing, they were all filled.  Nevertheless, we found flights that would take us from IAD to Tampa.  Another choice was going to Newark but my rule in the winter is to never fly north for a connection – they may be having weather that we would not get. Flight was easy, nothing remarkable.  Apparently we arrived in a small terminal in Tampa and if we wanted to go to the main terminal, we would have to go outside to get a shuttle and then we came back from the main terminal, we would have to go through security again.  One of the reasons that people go to the main terminal is for the restaurants.  It was lunch time and we decided to stay where we were.  The Green Iguana was fine – real dishes but plastic utensils, styrofoam cups for soup but it was better than Pizza Hut or Quiznos for us.

Our connecting flight was with Silver Wings that we booked through the United website. These are prop planes that go to various different cities in Florida as well as to some of the Bahamaian islands.  We were a little delay getting on the plane and when I inquired why to the gate agent she said that they were waiting for “catering”.  Believe it or not, “catering” consisted of a small bottle of water or juice!

After we grabbed our bags, we headed outside to use Uber.  This was Blogger Friend’s first time using it.  Within 4 minutes we were picked up and taken to the Hyatt Regency Pier 66 in Fort Lauderdale.  Uber cost us $13.40 to go to our hotel, less expensive than what it would cost us if we used a taxi.  It is easy to use.  Just download the Uber app, associate a credit card to your Uber account.  When you open your app, it knows where you are and it tells you how close an Uber driver is to you.  After I push the black bar to call a driver, it then sends me a photo of the driver, his license plate and what his car looks like.  He then called me and I told him that we were standing under the sign so he could readily find us.

One quick point about Hyatt.  The night before we checked in, they sent me a text asking if they could do anything to make my stay more enjoyable.  I had asked them to have for us extra shampoo, conditioner (hey, two ladies cannot share one small tube of shampoo), extra bath towels and to have one bed with feather free pillows.  Upon checking it, I reconfirmed and showed them my text message.  We were pleasantly surprised that we were upgraded to one of the Junior Executive Suites in the Tower because of my newly gained Diamond status.  TIP:  There are 2 junior executive suites on each floor in the Tower.  If the room ends in “60” that is the first room from the elevator and you get a view of the grounds, the canals and Inter Coastal Waterway and partial view of the ocean.  If the room ends in “70” or “71” then those rooms are next to the room that has the ice machine and the service elevator which makes constant noise – almost like a gear rolling noise. You get a view of the ocean and  Port Everglades which is really interesting when ships are leaving port.  Neither of the locations, in my mind, are great locations for suites.  The hotel has no airport shuttles and that is why we used Uber though they do have a port shuttle for about $7 per person but we took a cab for $10.50 split between the two of us for $5.25 each and we didn’t need to wait for more people to join the shuttle or to drop them off at other ships.

hyatt 66 tower

When I checked in I was offered an amenity gift, mainly food but I chose the 1,000 points instead.  I also reminded them of my text asking for extra shampoo, conditioner, towels and feather free pillows.  They told me that they would remind housekeeping.

We walked around the resort and as nice as it was, I wondered why anyone would stay here if they weren’t associated with a conference at the hotel or going to the port or returning from the port.  There is the Tower where there are about 12 rooms per floor and a restaurant at the top.  You access the elevator for the tower rooms  in the lobby where there is a nice bar, business office and a shop with shirts, hats, and various sundries.  The lanai rooms are accessed by going outside of the lobby.  They are in two story buildings around the pool and grounds.  If it is rainy or bad weather, you do have to do outside while you do not if you are in the Tower rooms.

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We were the on a Thursday and from 4:00 to 5:00 they have free wine and cheese sampling in the bar area.  They also on one ofd the weekend mornings have Bloody Marys for their guests.  This was where we sat when waiting for our room to be ready.

There are restaurants at the Hyatt Pier 66 but after reading reviews on Trip Advisor, we decided to eat elsewhere. We took a cab that was in front of our hotel to Carrabas for dinner.  Since we knew that we would need a cab to go back, we asked for and received our cab drivers telephone number.  After eating we walked to the next little shopping center , Harbor Shops, where they had a Publix for some last minute items to bring on our cruise (wine, sunscreen, etc).  After finishing, we called our cab driver and he was there in about one minute.

Bed time came early for us as we had been up and at the airport early.  However, there still were no feather free pillows or extra shampoo and conditioner.  I was the first to shower the next morning and while I was in the shower my roommate when back downstairs to ask for shampoo and conditioner so she could use them for her shower.  Guess what – they never came.  As we were leaving to go to breakfast, I texted back to the hotel expressing my disappointment with their lack of follow through, particularly when they initiated the discussion.  Soon a phone call came asking if we had received all that we asked for.  Of course my response was “no” and they offered us breakfast menu tickets of which I already had since I was a Diamond Member.  Then they asked me to stop by the desk after breakfast.

I had the ticket to order off the menu but felt that there was no need to since it was quite an extensive buffet.  After breakfast, I stopped by the desk and was awarded 5,000 points for their failing to give us the items that we requested.   I’m sure that I received this due to the Diamond status that I have.   SCORE!!!

With excitement mounting, we took a cab ($10.50) to the port.  There was very little traffic as we were the only ship in port.  With more ships, it would most likely be more expensive because of the increased traffic).  This was less expensive than taking the shuttle ($7 each) and it would take us directly to our ship.

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We went right in to the terminal building, went through the scanner, filled out the Public Health form that we were not sick and then went upstairs to check in.  We were handed card #3 for boarding, had our photo taken for our Ship and Shore card, received our deck plan of the ship and then sat and waited.  I always look around the room seeing if there is anyone that I know, anyone familiar.  I really get so excited wondering who among this group will I get to know, will sit with us at dinner, be on my Team Trivia team.  I really enjoy cruising and the social aspect of it.  I’m generally the one introducing myself asking where you are from, if you have cruised before and what is your favorite cruise.

I gave my family the link to the webcam so they could watch us depart and listen to the ship’s horn “toot” as we left the port.  If you are interested, here is the link to the Port Everglades webcam.

We sat down next to a really nice couple, and actually they became our “cruise best friends” as well as members of my Team Trivia.  As soon as we were allowed onto the ship, around 11:30, my roommate and I split up.  Since we had booked it last minute we had the Anytime You Wish dining.  I had remembered that you could make reservations so my roommate went to find where you make the reservations for dinner (5:15 and 5:30 or 8:00 and 8:15).  We were hoping this would be easier than just showing up to get seated.

On the first day is the time for us to begin planning what we wanted to do on the ship.  We made appointments for the Spa and if you are going to the spa the best deals are offered on the first day though you do not have to do them on the first day.  Also they have daily combination specials which are very good as well.  I booked a cooking lessons with one of the chefs in a group of 12 passengers.  Our luggage was delivered and it was time to unpack and get settled into our upgraded room.  I love the location of being on Deck 8 since we are one deck below the Spa, Lido Buffet and the Lido pool and the Seaview pool.  Our room happened to be below the changing rooms in the spa so we had no noise at night.

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We found out that on our ship was a group of about 375 people with JazzSea.  There were those who were musicians and brought their instruments, two bands were there to perform for their group during private functions.  Many people cringe when they find out that there is a group on board.  Did it impact us – yes, but very little.  They had the Crows Nest every night for their music, the Piano Bar during the day, function rooms for jam sessions, etc.  However, they also brought a lot of energy and enthusiasm to the ship.

After going to the show lounge, meeting the staff and playing the penh slots for a little bit, we went to bed.  The next morning was our beach day at Half Moon Cay.  We were both looking forward to getting into the water as well as some time in the sun and for taking our tour of the island, the only Holland American excursion that I booked.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

January Travel Plans

I find that I have started many posts but have found with the holidays, sickness and lack of time I never completed them.  I’m truly sorry about that.  My New Year’s resolution is to do a better job in 2016!  Hold me accountable and we’ll review it at the end of 2016.

Some of you may remember that last year a friend and I took a last minute cruise on Holland America to the Panama Canal.  We enjoyed it very much and decided then that we would try it again this year.

last-minute-travel-featured

I had been watching a cruise that I was interested in, eleven night Southern Caribbean, but it was too expensive, even at last minute – $1700 for an inside stateroom.  Nope, not going to do that.  Part of the reason for last minute was the less expensive staterooms.  We knew we wouldn’t get the best room however we knew we wouldn’t be in our room often.  Last year we received a partial obstructed stateroom with floor to ceiling windows and only half the window was blocked by a lifeboat.

We found a cruise that we both liked about 3 weeks before sailing on Holland America again.  We will be sailing 10 nights to sunny and warm locations in the Caribbean.  We will be going to Samana, Dominican Republic (a new port to me), Aruba, Bonaire (another new port), Curacao and Grand Turk.  With taxes, port charges and our stateroom it will cost us about $1000 each.

seafarer

In additional to that, since I own 100 shares of Carnival Cruise Line (the parent company of HAL) stock, I will receive a $100 On Board Credit (OBC) by faxing in a statement from the past six months that shows that I own the stock.  I know that we will get an OBC from our travel agent as well.  Those credits will help to offset the gratuities that we pay to all the works and is charged directly to our stateroom.

With the room all booked, it was time for the flights and the hotels.  Since my friend lives very close to IAD, we will be flying out of there.  I couldn’t find a roundtrip flight that was just what I wanted or the price that I wanted.  I found we had a better selection of flights and prices if we booked two one way tickets.  In reviewing the flights and prices, I found higher prices on the day the cruise ended since it is MLK Day.  Rather than paying an extra $170 each, we decided to extend our vacation and go home the next day.  Even with the hotel and meals, it will be less expensive.

Airline Travel Tip– I went back and forth on United’s site hoping to find something a little less expensive.  When I found what I wanted to book, after checking with my friend, I found that the price was no longer there – it was more expensive, really!  And it was only a matter of minutes.   I tried a little trick that someone told me.  Rather than going straight to the United site using my regular browser, I went to “private” or incognito” browsing.  That way they had no history of me looking at those flights and the lower price was there.  Tuck that tip away in your arsenal of finding less expensive flights.

A few weeks ago, Hyatt had a promotion that if you proved that you had status with another hotel chain, they would grant you their top Diamond status.  I actually have Spire Elite with IHG which is their top elite status.  I sent them proof of my IHG status and proof that I had stayed with IHG within the past few months (remember my road trip) and was awarded Diamond status.  Their Diamond status means more at certain hotels than others.

When I have cruised out of Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale,  I have stayed at the Hyatt House in Fort Lauderdale (17th Street/Convention Center) because of its proximity to the Harbor Shops shopping center even though you don’t get any perks at the Hyatt House.  I like staying there because we are within walking distance of all the stores and I often have to run into Publix to get last minute items or a bottle of wine to take on the cruise with me.  I decided that I would try another Hyatt – the Hyatt at Sixty Six Pier, just down the road, adjacent to the marina.  To get to the shops, we could take the Sun Trolley for $1 or use a cab or Uber.  This hotel was also less expensive than the Hyatt House.  Worth a try.  The ground on their web site look amazing.  I’ll report back on the hotel with my impressions of it.  We will also be staying here after the cruise unless I dislike it so much that it would be better to go elsewhere.  As it was getting closer to our departure I began doubting myself that this was the BEST hotel that I could find.  I went back and double checked other hotels. Though some did have shuttle service from the airport and to the cruise ship, It was $80 more – didn’t need that.  Other hotels were about $150 more that what we were paying.  I guess I did make the correct decision.

Now my time was t be spent looking for excursions that were not ship related, as I really don’t like to be crammed into a bus of 44 people where someone or a few always run on their own time.  I’ll report what I found.

Have you ever booked a last minute trip in an attempt to get something less expensive?

 

 

 

 

Mammoth Cave, Kentucky – one of our National Parks

Leaving rainy, cold and windy Lexington we headed on the road again to Mammoth Cave, Kentucky.  It was so cold and rainy that we drove through the drive through lane at McDonald’s for salads to eat in the car.  We didn’t want to get wet or cold.

Before we left on our trip Blogger Friend Susan made reservations for us for two tours at Mammoth Cave.  Though reservations weren’t required, we didn’t want to drive there and find out that there was no room on the tours for us.  To give us enough time to drive from Lexington to Mammoth Cave, we chose the last tour of the day which happened to be the Dome and Dripstone Tour at 3:00.

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We arrived at 2:30 and walked around the visitor center.  The announcement was made for the tour group to meet at Pavillion B.  As I headed to the door, Blogger Friend reminded me that we were in Central Time zone and that they were actually calling the 2:00 Tour.  Shucks – we knew that Kentucky was in two time zones but we weren’t sure where the divide was.  We tried to get change our tickets to go on the 2:00 tour but they wanted to charge us $3 per ticket since we had ordered them online- we passed on that.  If we had purchased them there, there would have been no charge.  Instead, we walked around the visitor center, did our shopping and found that they and a very interesting exhibit and a few videos of the cave to watch.  Before we knew it, they were calling out group.

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We listened to the park ranger explain about the tour.  He told us that Mammoth Cave has over 400 miles of caves that have been explored to date – interconnected with each other making it the largest cave system in the world.  To get a visual, he said to imagine a bowl of spaghetti, turn it upside down and take the bowl off.  That’s what the cave system looks like in his mind.

He began to tell us about the tour and he said it was moderately strenuous and we would be walking briskly as well as a lot of stairs.  Wait a minute – that’s not the description that was on the website.  For the listed tours, they were rated easy, moderate, strenuous, very strenuous, and extremely strenuous. e said “moderate” meant moderately strenuous though that was not our interpretation. Also nothing had been mentioned about walking “briskly”.  Walking is not a problem but how fast or slow is briskly?  That was our concern as well.  We were also a little concerned since the other members of our 120 person group were high school FFA members (future farmers of America) and their sponsors.  Our ranger had us be the first two people in the line behind him.  We were driven to a cave entrance where we quickly descended about 280 narrow, windy (think spiral stairs at times) stairs to reach the cave floor.  One warning that should have been in the description is that it is not for the overweight or obese because of the narrow ness of the stairs against the rock walls as we descended.  At the bottom of the staircase were wooden benches for us to sit on while the ranger gave his presentation.  Afterward it felt like a race that we were always trying to catch up to the ranger.  It was much more than a brisk walk – it felt like a race.  We  weren’t the only ones having a difficult time keeping up with the ranger, the high school students were huffing and puffing as well.  There was no time to stop and take any photographs or admire the cave.  The was a second area that we could sit on and both Blogger Friend and I heard independent of each other that the ranger was going to “skip” part of the tour.  Toward the end of the tour was an optional climb down 50 steps to the Frozen Niagara.  We did not do this as we knew that we had walked down 280 steps and was saving our energy for the climb up.  We were very surprised that there was no stairs to climb to leave the cave.  If we had known, we would have gone down to see the Frozen Niagara.  Our tour was shorter than what was advertised and we were disappointed.  I have since read some reviews about this tour and a number of other people felt that it was rushed as well.  I would not recommend you take the Dome and Dripstone Tour.

The next morning we had another scheduled tour – The Great Onyx Lantern Tour.  Once again we had warning before the tour – whether you suffer from being in narrow places, dark places, walking in dimly lit areas.  Once again we looked at each other and decided to go ahead and do the tour.  We are so glad that we did.  Literally it was Night and Day.  Every 4th person received a lantern to carry, about 40 steps to go down into the cave.  This ranger took his time, always giving you geological and historical information.  He held us spellbound as he wove stories for us.  The caves were extremely wide and tall – a train could have fit in here.  There was plenty of light even though it was dim, for us to feel safe and secure.  Also, many parts of the tour had hand railings that you could hold onto. This tour I would recommend.

lighting the lanterns for our group
lighting the lanterns for our group
you can see how wide this cave is
you can see how wide this cave is
The nativity formation
The nativity formation

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P1040746Mammoth Cave no longer has the boat rides that they were famous for.  The explanation that we were given was that the underground river would flood and cause damage to the boats and to the docks.  They gave all their boats away to the Lost River Cave in Bowling Green, Ky.

There are many other tours to consider when visiting Mammoth Cave, about 15 minutes from the interstate near Cave City and Park City.  That night we stayed in the Holiday Inn in Glasgow, about 30 minutes from the cave.  This seemed like a good area and the restaurant recommended by our hotel, A Taste of Texas, was good as well.  It seemed like a larger city with more stores if you needed anything.
We left the cave and got back in my car and began our ride to Memphis – home of barbeque and Elvis!

We stopped for lunch and ice cream at Chaney’s Dairy Barn listed in the tour book as the best ice creme in all of Kentucky.  How could we not stop and try it out.  Our sandwiched and ice cream were very good.

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Credit Card Housekeeping – What’s in our Wallets?

Disclosure:  I do not receive any compensation from my links or discussions of the various credit cards.  I have and use these cards and the opinions, are mine and mine only.

The latter part of the summer and this fall seems to have gotten away from me.  We have been really busy and sometimes feel that I haven’t had time to take a quick breath.  I have fallen behind on keeping track of my credit cards and it stresses me out somewhat.   I like to feel organized with all the cards we have and feel good when they are organized.

We have applied for and received a few new credit cards and I hadn’t had time to add them to my spreadsheet or to even begin my spend on them.  We also received notice from our American Airlines AAdvantage Red Aviator credit card, which used to be the US Airways credit card, that our annual fee would be due this month for both my credit card and Blogger Hubby’s card as well.  What I really needed was to have a day of credit card Housekeeping and it is today!

First off was to call my American Airlines AAdvantage Red Aviator credit card to let them know that I was thinking of closing my account.  The reason that I gave was when it was US Airways, we received a companion pass.  I explained my dilemma to the first agent who then transferred me to another agent.  I told them my story again and explained further that I don’t use the card very often and I just didn’t want to pay the annual fee.  They offered to waive the fee as well as give me for 90 days triple points on gas, groceries and utilities.  SUCCESS!

aviator

My husband then called and they offered him the same thing as well as an extra 5,000 points if he spent $1000 in the next 90 days.  This will be in conjunction with an offer he received in the mail, that I didn’t, about earning an extra 15,000 plus 1,500 miles earned if he spent $500 in November, $500 in December and $500 in January.  That promotion would give him 16,500 points.  The two promotions, I was told, would run concurrently so he would stand to receive 21,500 points for $1500 dollar spend.  I can see those VISA gift card purchases looming in our future.  Chalk this one up to another successful phone call.

Next up, my personal Southwest credit card.  There were no offers, no waiver of fees – they offered me nothing when I called yesterday.  Knowing the rule of HUCA (Hang Up, Call Again) I tried again today and still…..no retention offer.  Since I am auto pay and have a balance, once that is paid I’ll call again and have them transfer my credit limit to another one of my Chase cards.

southwest

For Blogger Hubby’s SPG card, we just transferred his points to my account (mine is less than a year open) and once they are transferred, we will close his account unless they offer us some type of retention.  We’ll give it a few days after the transfer to make sure it happens before we close.

spg

I used to love Club Carlson credit card since it gave us a free award night when we booked a minimum of two nights.  We used to book two nights under my credit card and then two nights under Blogger Hubby’s credit card for a total of four award nights – it only tok points for two of those nights.  They changed the award program effective May 31st where you do not get the second award night free.  It is still a good program but we don’t need two cards anymore.  We called and transferred Blogger Hubby’s award points to my account.  After we saw that they were in my account, he called up and canceled his card.

club carlson

Last May I opened two Alaska Air credit cards through Bank of America and then a couple of weeks ago I applied, and was approved, for a third Alaska Air credit card.  I will close one of the first two cards in December.  What I have learned is that you can apply for a new Alaska Air credit card every 91 days.  After you are approved you’ll earn 25,000 points and will receive an annual companion pass from $121.  After having the card active for six months, then  will begin closing them while still applying for them.  Here is the link that I used.  I do not receive any compensation from Alaska Air or any other credit card company.

alaska air

That’s what I accomplished so far.  I need to go back tomorrow and look through other credit cards that I have.

Do you go through your credit cards and give them a tune up or as I like to say a Credit Card Housekeeping?  Tomorrow I’ll be going through the rest of my cards and will probably be making a few calls as well  Do you go through your credit cards to see if you still need them?  What cards do you need to add to your portfolio?

Road Trip Time

I know that I have recently been writing about our travels through Europe by plane and train but remember, the title of this blog is “Air, Land and Sea” so it only seems fitting that it’s time to write about a Road Trip.  I have a friend who is willing to go on a Road Trip with me.  We did one a couple of years ago through Charleston and Savannah and we were still speaking when we got back – or rather I should stay we were still friends when we got back as she had laryngitis.  Too much talking and laughing.

She wanted to go to the beach, I wanted to go someplace that I haven’t been before and after about an hour, we made our decision.

We are planning to be gone about a week give or take a day.  We will drive first to Lexington, Kentucky to see if any of the horse farms are open to visitors and visit the International Museum of the Horse.  I was told today that the road between Paris and Georgetown is beautiful and with the time of year that it is, it should be spectacular.

The next day we will continue touring a little and then head to Mammoth Caves.  Never having been there, I’m excited but was also disappointed to find that they no longer offer the boat tours through the caves.  We did go ahead and reserve a tour for Tuesday afternoon and then another for Wednesday morning.

After our tour and lunch we plan to continue driving to our furtherest point – Memphis!   have been looking forward to visiting Graceland for decades and that will be one of the first things we’ll do.  We also are interested in walking along Beale Street, eating really good BBQ, taking a riverboat ride on the Mississippi and also Sun City records where Elvis recorded some of his early hits.  We also want to go to the Peabody Hotel to see the duck walk?  What, you haven’t heard of the duck walk.  Follow this link and you’ll learn a little bit more.  Of course, I’ll take photos to show you.

Three days is what we have planned for Memphis and then we move on to Nashville on Halloween.  We had wondered what we would do on Halloween and we came up with a great idea – The Grand Ole Opry.  Now to get tickets – wasn’t easy a week before but we managed to score them and when I write about it I’ll tell you how we did it.  Lots of things to see and do in Nashville particularly if you are a country fan.

I’m hoping to add some more IHG property nights to my Accelerate promotion that I wrote about here.  I’m on a quest to get more points.

Wish me luck and I’ll keep you updated on our travels!

EU 261 – Help for Those who Need Assistance in Making a Claim

Last week I posted about EU 261 which dealt with delays and compensation because of the delays from EU country to EU country OR flying on an EU carrier to an EU country from a non-EU country (like the United States) OR flying home from an EU country to a non-EU country on any airline.  If you want to read that post again, click here.

We had a seven hour delay which entitled us to the compensation of 600 euros.  I’ve heard from many people that it is difficult to get reimbursement from the US carriers.  They often deny that mechanical is a valid reason for getting compensation even though the EU Court of Justice did rule that mechanical delays allowed for compensation.

This weekend, as I attended the Chicago Seminars, I learned of a company that could help you out.  It is Get Air Help.  Your flight can go back three years and they will still work for you.  They gather all the paperwork and submit it to the airlines.  If they are still unsuccessful they will even take them to court!  Of course there is a fee and that is 25% of your reimbursement from the airline.

Howie, over at Frugal Travel Guy, wrote last week about another company Botts & Co, solicitors in the UK.  They will do the same as Get Air Help however their commission rate is 25 euros plus 25 % 27% of your reimbursement.  If you are awarded nothing, then you owe nothing to the company.

If you have been delayed and didn’t know to do anything or had difficulty with the airlines, you might want to consider one ofd these companies to help you get your legal reimbursement.

I have not dealt with either company and do not have personal knowledge but thought that I would pass the information on in case you want to learn about these companies and know that there is help for you.

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The Chicago Seminars

By the time you read this, I’ll be winging my way to Chicago for the Chicago Seminars known in my family as the Miles and Point Conference.  Yes, there will be hundreds of us (between 400 and 500 hundred) going to the seminar over two full days.  We will be  learning more about traveling, manufacturing your spending, using Expert Flyer, using ITA for flights, Best Rate Guarantees in Hotels, breakout sessions for the airline of your choice as well as the same for hotels from the bloggers you have grown to respect and follow.

This is my 4th year attending these seminars.  The first year I was completely overwhelmed and they were all talking a language that I was just learning.  The second year I felt that I was beginning to “get it”.  Last year I felt more confident.  I was beginning to recognize people that I had seen in previous years, made friends that I have stayed in contact with and I knew what to expect and I was actually able to participate by offering travel tips.

The conference, in my mind, is extremely reasonable in price.  It runs from Friday evening through Sunday afternoon and costs $100.  The Holiday Inn in Elk Grove Village is the host hotel and they do have overflow hotels.  I have been fortunate to stay at the host hotel for my past three years and will be there again this year.  I book immediately so I will be at the host hotel.  The hotel gives us a great breakfast and the conference fee gives us lunch whether or not you are staying at the hotel.  Sunday, when everyone is leaving, the hotel hires school buses to make sure everyone gets to O’Hare for their flights home.

I have learned so much at these seminars and feel like I am one of their biggest fans and supporters.

In addition to what they do for us, they also run a raffle with donated travel items and all the money raised goes to Wounded Warriors.  How great is this!

I urge you to consider attending next October.  Information usually comes out in May and I’ll write about it here.  I’ll have reports on the seminar in the following weeks.

Target Prepaid Redcard and VISA/MC Gift Cards

Sorry to be the bearer of bad news but rumors had been floating that in some Target stores in different locales around the country  their registers were hardcoded so as to not accept gift cards which to load your Redcard with.   Loading gift cards that are pin enabled have become my favorite way of meeting minimum spend on credit cards as well as just manufacturing points.

Paying attention to those rumors I went yesterday to my handy dandy Target store to load two gift cards that I had just purchased at a Simon Mall. After trying numerous times, the clerk called over one of her managers and they as well had no luck in allowing me to load with the gift card (pin had been set to use it as a debit card).  She looked up in her clipboard for a memo or something that might explain it.  All she could tell me is that it is a computer glitch and they are working on it.  She didn’t know if this would be permanent or just a temporary snafu but I am betting on it being the way things are to come.

For those who have gift cards that have not been loaded on to your Redcard like me, I plan on going to WalMart and getting some money orders.

I mentioned at the beginning of this post that I went to Simon Mall for my gift cards.  They are the property owners for many, many malls within the United States.  At their information counter in the middle of the malls, they have a rack of gift cards though the VISA gift cards are locked in a drawer.  If you ask the attendant for them, you can purchase up to $1000 per day and the cost for each card is only $3.95. a few dollars less than what you would purchase them from in a grocery store.  Here is a link to the location of Simon Malls.  If you are in one, you might want to consider purchasing a couple.

As soon as I hear anything, I’ll let you know.

EU Rule 261 – Important if you Fly into or out of Europe

I’m going to take a little break from my trip report in Europe to talk about a different subject that may, at one time or another, affect you. That subject is a flight delay or cancellation while flying from an EU country to another EU country OR from an EU country to elsewhere OR flying into Europe on a EU carrier.  In my case I was flying from Milan via Brussels to Washington Dulles this summer.  Since I had a delay, I’ll be addressing that and will not write about flight cancellation.

BACKGROUND – We were flying on an award ticket that we had booked through United Airlines.  We flew from Milan’s city airport – Linate – at 6:30 AM to Brussels on Brussels Airlines and then we were booked on the noon flight on United Airlines to Washington Dulles with an arrival time in IAD at 3:00 PM.  While in Milan I was received  email alerts  informing me that our flight from Brussels would be delayed one, then two hours.  We arrived in Brussels around 8:30AM and after we went through security we went immediately over to the Passenger Assistance desk.  Interestingly enough, there were two lines there – one for Chicago passengers and one for Washington Dulles passengers.  When it was my turn, I was then told that the delay would be seven hours long!  Once I had processed that information, I then began asking questions.  Was there another flight that would leave Brussels before 7 PM?  I was told “yes” but it was through Chicago and it would arrive 30 minutes before my rescheduled flight.  I asked about flying into another city such as Boston, Philly, etc then taking a flight to Washington Dulles.  “No, there was nothing else”, I was told by the agent.

They offered us a 14 euro voucher for lunch, but not dinner and that was it.  We sat down and tried to strategize.  I powered up my iPad and found that there was a flight to Munich that would get me into IAD much earlier.  I got back into the very long line and by the time I reached the agent at the desk, it was too late to try and make the flight to Munich. in order to change planes to get to IAD.  I could have made it if they had rerouted us when I first approached the Passenger Assistance desk.  I expressed my displeasure that they did try to find other flights to get us home other than the one via Chicago.

Remembering that there was some rule about delayed flights in Europe, I asked the agent about it and they gave me a pamphlet about filing a claim.  Apparently they have to have the information on the counter but they don’t have to tell you anything or really answer any questions. Beyond that they were not helpful.

EU 261  – sets out the compensation that passengers will receive in the event of a delay or cancelation, or when they are denied boarding because of overbooking, or when the airline is unable to accommodate them in the class that they had booked their seat in.  You must be departing from any airport in the EU or arriving in the EU on an EU carrier or one from Iceland, Norway or Switzerland.   You must have a confirmed reservation and have checked in; your ticket was purchased at a fare available to the public and that includes an award ticket from a frequent flyer program.  You are not entitled to compensation if you are denied boarding on the grounds of health, safety, security or invalid travel documentation.

DELAYS – if your flight is delayed 4 hours from your scheduled departure, you may be entitled to compensation between €250 -€600 depending on the distance of the flight.

If you are within the EU and are traveling  1,500 km or less –  you are entitled to receive €250.  If you are traveling over 1,500 km then your compensation would be €400.

If you are traveling between the EU and a non-EU country and are traveling 1,500 km or less  then your compensation is €250.  If you are traveling 1,500 – 3.500 km then you may receive €400 and if it is 3,500 km or more then you may receive €600.

ADDITIONAL COMPENSATION – the airlines have to provide meals (vouchers for meals), two telephone calls , fax or email messages for you.  We were given phone cards that could only be used in Belgium.  As I stood in line, I heard the agent calling an elderly couple’s son in the United States to let them know what was happening.  If the delay causes you to spend the night, they will provide a hotel and transportation between the airport and the hotel.

If your airline offers  you an alternative flight with a similar schedule, the compensation may be reduced by 50%.

You also have a choice with either the above compensation OR reimbursement within seven days of the full cost of the ticket at the proce at which it was purchased for the part of your trip not flown

You may not be entitled to the compensation if the delay or cancellation is caused by extraordinary circumstance such as bad weather.  This does not include mechanical.

WHAT I DID – I sent a message to United asking for compensation under EU Rule 261.  After two weeks I heard nothing.  I then sent another message and within a week I received an email from United Customer Care apologizing for the delay.  I was given two alternative options instead of the €600.  The first option was a $1000 voucher for travel on United or United Express for one year.  At first glance, the idea of each of us receiving a $1000 voucher sounded great.  We had another river cruise planned for next year however…..we could only use the voucher on United and we could get to Paris but we would either have to pay cash or use points to get to Marseille where we were staying before our cruise.  This is what we were told:

Travel Certificate(s), including but not limited to (1) the validity
period of one year from the issue date with no extension, (2) there
will be no refunds, (3) the Travel Certificate(s) will not be reissued
if lost or stolen, (4) the certificate may be redeemed for credit up to
its face amount only towards the purchase of an electronic airline
ticket(s), where eligible, from United, and (5) if the face amount of
the certificate exceeds the cost of the ticket for which it is
surrendered, any residual amount will be applied to the same Pin for use
toward another ticket until either the original issued amount is
depleted or the expiration date has been reached, whichever comes first

Our second option was 30,000 miles deposited into our Mileage Plus account.  Valuing each point at 1.5 cents, then this would be valued at $450.00, less than the €600 we were entitled to.

Upon further thinking, we had been saving up the miles in our account and as nice as the 30,000 points would have been, I think having €1200 in our pocket would certainly make our trip next year even nicer.  By choosing to not accept any of the alternatives, we have the flexibility to use the cash as we want, we aren’t locked into only using United Airlines – this is the best decision for us.

What I do now is to fax to them the signed form indicating what I am electing to so and it will be processed in six weeks. I will not receive a check but instead will receive a prepaid VISA debit card.

As difficult as it was sitting in an airport for about eleven hours, getting home at 9:00 PM, leaving the airport at 11:00 PM it is nice receiving some compensation for it.  It’s even better that we were on a reward ticket!  I’m sure that most requests for compensation do not go as smoothly as ours did, but we are very satisfied.

If you are delayed, save all your paperwork as they will ask you for your flight number and ticket number.  I also wrote notes to myself to put in my letter when I asked for compensation. I do not know if that helped or not but I am hoping that when they read that we were not offered other flights, that they could understand why we were upset.  Also, you have to apply for the compensation – the airlines are not going to voluntary come to you.  They do have to have information on the agents counter but they don’t really tell you what it is.  Be proactive, ask questions, save everything and research and file when you get home.

Remember, if you have a delay, cancellation, in a different class ticket than what you were booked in, involuntary bumping – there are compensations for you but you must seek them out.  The main exclusion to these is extraordinary circumstances (click on link for examples) such as bad weather and a list of other reasonable reasons why there would be a delay.

If you have received a denial letter from your airline because they consider mechanical delays to be extraordinary circumstance, know that they are wrong.  Send a copy of your letter seeking reimbursement and their letter denying your claim to the National Enforcement Body of the country you were flying out of or on whose airline you were on.  Here is a link to the list of the various enforcement bodies.

Have you been delayed?  Have you applied for compensation?  If so, what was your experience?

 

UPDATE – I was successful and received my prepaid debit card for $677 for both myself and Blogger Hubby.In this instance, it was not as difficult as I had been led to believe.  Thank you United Airlines.

Taking a Few Days Off

Last parents alive un my mother-in-law passed away.  I envy my husband, who is 71 years old, in having both of his alive until last evening.  By the time I was 55 I was the only one left of my family.  With all the planning that needs to be done whenever there is a funeral, I’ll be quite busy.  I’ll need to take some time off to attend to my family/

When I return, I’ll write about Regensburg, Vilshofen, our cruise on AMA Waterways down the Danube and so much more.  I hope you have enjoyed what I have written so far about Amsterdam, Nuremberg and Prague.

If you enjoy reading my blog, please consider signing up as a subscriber so it will be delivered to your mailbox every time I write a post.  Also, please consider sharing my blog with your friends – I appreciate it!

Jane

Some Exciting Numbers About this Blog

When I began this blog about two years ago it was primarily designed to help family, friends and friends of my family learn how to travel using points and miles.  Everyone kept asking how Blogger Hubby and I how we were able to do it since we are on a “fixed income” as two seniors.

I’ve enjoyed sharing the about credit card sign-ups, understanding your credit score, what miles/points that I particularly like and why and of course sharing some of our trip reports and how we did it with miles.  Sometimes I seemed to have more information that I wanted to share and other times it seemed to be a struggle. I really wanted to set myself apart from many of the “mainstay” bloggers.  I tried not to write about the new hot subject that I knew would be covered by all the other travel bloggers.

I am truly amazed that this little blog has readers in 132 countries – that’s about 100 more countries than I’ve been to.  I have also had over 33,000 views of my blog.  I am continually amazed at these figures and I sincerely thank you for your loyal readership, your questions and your comments.  I thank you for sharing my blog with your friends.  Word of mouth helps my blog be seen by more travelers.

Here’s a map showing my readership.  Help me fill in some other countries.  Anyone know anyone in Greenland?

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Manufactured Spending while on a Cruise

As my friends would say, I’m always thinking about ways to earn more points especially if I do not have to spend any money in doing so.  For those new readers of mine who are not familiar with manufactured spending it is spending to meet your minimum spend on a new credit card and/or a way in which to accumulate  additional miles/cash back. There are many different methods to manufacture spending, but the end goal is all the same. You are  “spending” money by using your credit card and then later getting back the dollars spent in the most cost efficient way possible.  To see an example, go to this link to read about the Redbird.

Now most of you who cruise and are aware of manufactured spend may be scratching your head to see how I was able to manufacture points on my recent cruise.

Let me begin by telling everyone that when you cruise you either need to register a credit card for your onboard expenses or put down a set amount of money.  We always give them a credit card number to use for those expenses – no need to keep track of what we have spent and if we’l run out of money that we put down for the cash deposit.

For this cruise I used a credit card that I had only received the week previous and I knew that I needed to meet my minimum spend.  Since it was a Citi card doing the Redbird method at Target was not going to work as Citibank codes the loading of my Redbird as a cash advance but I was curious if my new way would work.

On most cruise ships there is a casino and in the casino you can either feed those hungry machines with cash OR you can charge a certain amount of cash to your Ship to Shore card which is your stateroom account.    Let me explain this in a little more detail so you’ll understand.  If I decide to play the slots, I would put some money in and after I win, change does not come out of the machine but rather it shows on the slot machine itself.  After I’ve played for a little bit, I might decide to quit or to move on to a different machine.  When I push the “Cash out” button there is not clanging of coins into the tray nor is there a paper ticket to insert in another machine.  What I have to do is to cash out to my card.  When I move to a different machine I can then punch in my “PIN and transfer some money from my card to the new slot machine.

Another method to begin to play is to push another button and to charge money to go on your Ship to Shore card.  You are not putting any physical cash in the slot  but rather charging your slot money to your card.  There is no fee to do this from the casino or from the cruise line.  For purposes of clarification, I was on Holland America but I believe it works on all cruise lines this way.  I would then charge $300 to my account.  At the end of the evening, I would take my Ship to Shore card that it was charged onto to the  cashier in the casino and cash out.  I collected all my money that was left after playing.  I did this for several nights and came home with cash.

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Once I arrived home I deposited the cash into my checking account to use to pay my credit card where the charge for the cash would show up.  Looking at my statement from Citibank, the casino charge is bundled with other items that I charged on my Ship to Shore.  It was all coded under General Purchase.  This sounds much more complicated than it is but trust me, it is quite easy.  The only trick is to not use the cash that you need to deposit back into your checking account either in the casino or elsewhere.

Now I realize that we can’t go on a cruise every week, at much as we would like to, but if you are on one this is a way to manufacture points while you are sailing the high seas.  I believe that you can charge about $2000 per day  to your ship account.  An easy way to manufacture spend for points and/or a minimum spend for a new credit card.

Have you ever done this or thought about it?

Preparing for My Cruise

I’m rushing around like a chicken without her head.  Remember, I booked this cruise five days ago.  With so little time to worry about what clothes I was packing it took much less time.  I am also trying to bring less in general – per Blogger Hubby’s suggestion (err…orders).  He does have a point because when we do our river cruise in 2015, I’ll need to pack less because we will be schlepping around Germany, Prague, Budapest and northern Italy.

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It always seems that I bring so many shoes.  I need some for the white pants I’ll be wearing, some for city walking, a pair for pool deck that I can slip on and of course other evening shoes.  I just wish I could find an answer for my shoe dilemma.

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With the cruise lines, you download your luggage tags and print them out on your printer paper.  I have never liked this always fearing that the luggage tags will rip.  When yo download your tags, there are instructions of what to fold first, second and third.  I did that and rather than staple them onto my luggage, I took the folded take to Staples and had them laminate the tags.  I brought them home and punched a hole at one of the tags.  I attached them to my backpack and will attached them to my luggage with a pice of ribbon tied on with a square knot.  I feel safer with some weight and protective covering to the tag

Today I notified my Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card that I would be traveling.  I am using that card as it has no foreign transaction fees associated with it.  I also notified the Charles Schwab Bank since I will use their debit card at ATM’s while traveling (if needed).  I use this card since there are no ATM fees and it saves me money and who doesn’t want to save money?  Schwab will reimburse you for all ATM charges.  If you don’t have this debit card, you should consider getting one.  Drop me a note and I’ll  send you information about how to get an account.

Other things I have been doing today

  •  Drugstore for any refills that I needed for the trip
  • Little water spray bottle to squirt water onto some of my clothes to get the wrinkles out (it works like a charm.
  • A small bottle with a little liquid laundry detergent so I could rinse out small laundry items.
  • Dollar Tree to picked up a few clothes pins to hang up these wet items
  • books downloaded to my Kindle
  • a few snacks packed
  • wine opener
  • to the bank to get some one dollar bills for tipping
  • hotel reservation in the port city we will be departing from

I think I am set!  Good bye frigid temperatures – I won’t miss you.

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IHG and Club Carlson promotions + Ebates

As you know, I like to save money – who doesn’t.  I know that in my last post I spoke about the hotel promotions for IHG (Holiday Inn, etc) as well as for Club Carlson’s Radisson Hotels.

In addition to those promotions, you can also get some money back if you first go to Ebates.com.  By going to their site, you will get a cash back check from them when you book through their portal.  Once you sign on and are directed away from Ebates site, you will be taken directly to the hotels’ site.  They do not know that you went to Ebates first.

Instead of typing in IHG, you need to list it as Holiday Inn.  The cash back for this month is:

  • Holiday Inn Coupons & Cash Back 4.5%
  • Holiday Inn Club Vacations Coupons & Cash Back 4.5%
  • Holiday Inn Express Coupons & Cash Back 4.5%

Also, you can get cash back for the stays you might be booking with Club Carlson for your Radisson stay (remember the 7500 American Airlines points).  They have all different types of discounts from government rates to seniors and so much more.  In the search box type in “Radisson Hotel”.  I found that the cash back was about 2.5%

I have used Ebates.com for nine years and I love receiving my checks every three months.  If you haven’t signed up for Ebates, please consider using my link   I’ll earn $20 for the referral.  If you choose not to use my referral, that is fine.  I wanted to be upfront and honest with you.

Quick Observations from our Trip

Finally, I’ve made it to an internet cafe where I can jot down for you a few observations on our trip.

When we left the United States for South Africa via London Heathrow, we knew we had a 15 hour layover which we planned to take full advantage of.  After all, all we would have would be our carry-on that we could handle quite well.  Not so fast.  As we were checking in our luggage at our first airport and photographing our luggage and tags I noticed that the tag said LHR and not JNB (Johannesburg).  The agent told me that you have to claim your luggage when you have a greater than 13 hour layover.  The best laid plans weren’t so great however since I had done so much research prior to this (obviously I missed the part about claiming your bags) I was aware of Baggage Express in Terminal One (where our next flight would depart from) where we could store our bags for 24 hours for 10 pounds each.  Lesson 1:  know the requirements of hen your bags will go straight through  or when you have to claim them.

We flew United’s 767 from IAD to LHR.  We were in the Business Class facing backward – a little strange at first but no problem other than the magazine that were between us went flying on the floor as we took off.  I noticed how friendly our crew was, which was not ike many United flights I had been on.  Turned out they were a British crew.  They had a jolly good time.  Unfortunately for us, we were the last row, facing into the galley, where we heard and saw all of their fun happenings.  Lesson 2: don’t sit in  front of or behind the galley

Along with the noise from the galley, the flight attendants overhead bins (two of them) were directly over us and they were getting into them all, let me repeat, ALL night long.  Lesson 3:  don’t sit in the first row or in the row in front of the galley

Last lesson on this leg of the flight. If you are flying business or First Class, your luggage is tagged Priority.  What they did in LHR as well as in JNB, was to pull our luggage off the conveyor belt and put them in a special spot.  I know that sounds strange but truly we, and others, could not find our bags.  I was glad that I had taken a photo of our b bags and our luggage tags since Blogger Hubby couldn’t find the receipts they gave us.  Baggage Claim knew that they had been checked in and thought they were on a stuck belt.  They restarted the belt and no luggage came out.   Finally we walked around and saw them sitting in a pile.  Lesson 4:  if you can’t find your bag look around and around – they may be in a secret spot.

 

Thank you all for your patience in the lapse of blog writing.  I hope you h ave been enjoying some of the guest blogs that have been written by friends.  I didn’t bring a computer with me and honestly, we have been so busy that I’m not sure how many blogs I would have written.  When I write about our safari trips you’ll understand.

Alternative Lodging Options – B&B’s

While I am still in South Africa on vacation and my friend Vivian (Mtnbound) has graciously offered to write a guest post. Mtnbound and husband never take the same vacation twice. They just returned from a two week trip to Italy. You an read about their adventures on her blog, From the Mountains to the Sea and the Cities In-Between
When you hear that a traveler stayed in a “bed and breakfast,” do you imagine a Victorian mansion filled with antiques and a full breakfast cooked by an elderly woman? We’ve stayed in lots of bed and breakfast inns over the past 25 years and only one or two of them have fit this description!

When we travel as a couple, my husband and I prefer to stay in B&Bs for several reasons:
1. B&Bs are an authentic way to experience the culture you are visiting. Bed and Breakfast inns are usually in a typical residence, decorated in the fashion of the people living there. It is much easier to understand the culture when you are living in it, rather than in a hotel room that looks the same if it is in New York City or Sedona, Arizona.

2. B&Bs provide personal customer service and show pride of ownership. Most Bed and Breakfast inns are run by the owner of the inn, who has a vested interest in providing great customer service. Innkeepers are in the business because they want to be. No rude reception staff!

3. B&B owners are happy to share inside information about places to go. Bed and Breakfast innkeepers are experts on the activities, restaurants, and sites in their area. They can provide tips about how to access that off-the-beaten track hiking trail or where the locals go to eat the specialty of the region.

4. B&Bs offer an opportunity to interact with other travelers. Breakfast is often shared at tables where you are seated with other guests with whom you can swap stories and ideas about your travel experiences.

5. B&Bs are quiet. There will be no girl soccer players staying in a B&B, kicking a ball down the hall at 11:00 PM. (True story of a hotel stay)

What is a Bed and Breakfast? The simple definition is that the lodging is provided in a private home or building similar to a residence. Breakfast can be served in a variety of ways, from being delivered to your bedroom to sharing a table in the dining room to being given a voucher to the restaurant down the street. Most B&B rooms have en suite bathrooms. However, we recently stayed in one where our private bathroom was across the hall from our bedroom.
Selecting a Bed and Breakfast I usually locate Bed and Breakfast lodging through websites such as TripAdvisor, Hotels.com, Booking.com, and AirBnB. We read through the reviews carefully to look for the recommendations and warnings from other travelers.

Wikitravel offers these considerations for choosing a Bed and Breakfast:

 Is the location convenient to attractions and your transportation plans?
 Do the hosts have pets? Are guests able to bring pets? Important if you are allergic to animals or will have a pet with you.
 Are children welcome? If you are planning to bring your children, you may need additional rooms.
 Is the building or designated rooms non-smoking?
 Is the lodging compatible with your expectations for level of luxury? Facilities can range from basic to spa-like. Some accommodations are only a bedroom, others are suites or studio apartments with a kitchen.
 What are the amenities in the room? Bed size, bathroom availability, toiletries, hair dryer?
 What are the breakfast details? Is there an extra fee for breakfast? Times served? Can special dietary requirements be accommodated?
 What are the check-in and check-out times? The innkeeper may not want to stay up past his/her bedtime for your arrival!

Of course, B&Bs are the not the solution for everyone. They are not practical for families because most rooms only accommodate two people. People who like to have amenities such as a fitness center or business center also will prefer hotel facilities. Some travelers may like to have the security and familiarity of a hotel chain that they know and trust.
Notable Bed and Breakfast Inns

Here are a few of our favorite B&Bs, near and far:

Virginia: Cedar Post Inn, Big Island, VA – The owners built this cedar log home as a bed and breakfast lodge and their residence. There are beautiful mountain views and the breakfast is outstanding. Sally and Kevin were so warm and welcoming that we left there feeling as if we had just spent the weekend with friends.

 

North Carolina: Augustus Zevely Inn, Old Salem, NC – We stay at this inn when we visit our daughter in college. The inn is located in historic Old Salem, a lovely Moravian settlement. This house is filled with antiques, but is not stuffy or formal. Breakfast is very nice.

 

Hawaii: Poipu Plantation, Poipu, Kauai – We had a spacious suite in the main building. Breakfast was always delicious and included Hawaiian fruits. The host spent time with us every morning to provide advice for our day’s plans and to explain Hawaiian customs.

 

Italy: Ca’ San Vio, Venice, Italy – This B&B is in a great location away from the tourist spots, but close to one of the bridges that cross the Grand Canal. The bathroom for our room was across the hall. Other bedrooms had en suite bathrooms. Breakfast was delivered to our room when we let the host know that we were ready. Our only complaint was that the wifi did not work in our room. But, hey, we were in Venice! Who needs the Internet?

Italy: 50 sm Studio in the Historic Centre, Bologna, Italy – We loved this unique studio apartment. The walls were from Roman times and the owner has preserved a well and wine container that were found when they renovated the basement space. The kitchen was handy for us to prepare simple meals. This accommodation does not include breakfast as there is a wonderful pastry shop across the street. The apartment is walking distance to the main town square and very convenient.

My Secret Weapon for Cheap Hotel Rooms

While Jane is away, she invited me to submit a guest post.  I blog over at Fishing4Deals, about how to travel cheap, save money, and have fun.  My focus is on budget, domestic travel, and I fancy myself as the Priceline Queen.

Priceline is my workhorse for finding cheap hotel rooms.  I usually have pretty good luck booking rooms at half the going rate.  I love the thrill of the chase, and the suspense of wondering if my low bid will be accepted.

There are some times though, when my best efforts on Priceline have failed, and I need to find a room for the night.

Last Minute Rooms with HotelCoupons.com

If you like to do road trips, you’ve probably seen those hotel coupon magazines they give away at highway rest stops, gas stations and fast food joints.  They used to be called RoomSaver, but they have rebranded as Hotel Coupons, and they are online at HotelCoupons.com.

Okay, I know what you’re thinking:  those coupons are just for one star hotels like Rodeway Inn, Days Inn, or Econolodge.   Not so.

Not Just One Star Motels

To be sure, you will find many offers for roadside motels that cluster near the exits on the Interstate, but you can also find coupons for last minute stays with solid mid-range chains like Holiday Inn, Holiday Inn Express, Hampton Inn, or Fairfield Inn.

You can also find coupons in some markets for upper-mid-range hotels like Crowne Plaza, Embassy Suites, or Homewood Suites.

But what may surprise you is that you can sometimes find coupons for independent hotels, at rates far below the regular walk-in rate.  When we were exploring the Oregon Coast, for example, we found lovely beachfront hotels in Seaside and Newport through the  coupon guide.  These were not cookie-cutter chain hotels, but nice places with real local flavor.

Would you believe that one of the most vaunted hotels in Washington, DC, the historic  Willard Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue, is also listed on HotelCoupons.com?  The Willard is a five star hotel!

Needless to say, you should always shop around to make sure you are getting the best possible rate.

Be aware, also, that the hotel will not always honor the coupon rate.

Earn IHG Points on the Coupon Rate

If you book rooms with most online travel agencies like Hotwire or Priceline, you will not earn loyalty points for your stay.  HotelCoupons.com has an arrangement with IHG properties:  you will receive the IHG Best Rate Guarantee and IHG Rewards Club points for rooms booked via HotelCoupons.com.  The IHG family of hotels includes Staybridge Suites, Holiday Inns, Crown Plazas, and Intercontinental Hotels, among others.

Have you scored any deals with roadside coupons?

If you enjoyed this article, you can find more stories like this on my blog, at Fishing4Deals.com.

Leaving on a Jet Plane

Actually, we drive down tomorrow to spend the night near the airport that we are departing from Tuesday morning.  We have our check list out because honestly there is no memory left in my head.

jet plane

I try to make it easier on myself when I land in a foreign country by bringing with me some foreign currency.  I know – there are ATM machines in the airport but what if there was a problem.  Well, one time there was.  When we were in Mexico last year, I couldn’t get the ATM to work since all the instructions were in Spanish and there was no English option.  What I do is to go to our big bank that is an hour away from us and order foreign currency.  None of the smaller banks near us do that.

The South African rand are beautiful.  So many exotic animals on their currency.  They also have Nelson Mandela on their currency as well.  What do you think of these bills?

rand3rand4rand2 We also got some Danish Krone.  When we arrive in Copenhagen it will be late and we would have been traveling for over 24 hours.  I imagine we’ll just want to go to the hotel and crash.  Having the money will allow us to immediately get on the train to go to the hotel.

Today I scanned our passport and sent an email with them as an attachment to myself, my husband and our children.  If we should lose our passports, at least we’ll have the information with our passport number, issuing office, date of issue and expiration date.  By doing this, nothing will ever happen – the reverse of Murphy’s Law.

I called our Schwab Bank so when I use our ATM debit card (and there are no ATM or foreign transaction fees with Schwab) there will be no problem.  I also called the credit card companies that we will be using to alert them to foreign charges particularly important with the new security breach by the Russians.

I emailed our kids a copy of our flight details and itinerary including hotel.

I reconfirmed all of our hotels.

Got prescriptions filled.

I checked the weather to where we are going to make sure I have the right clothing.  When we land in London, we’ll leave the airport and tour and I don’t want to have too much clothing and get hot or too little and be cold.

I do have a few guest bloggers lined up while I am away.  Please forgive me if I am out of contact for a little while.  Might not get good service in Kruger.

Now, can someone get me a cup of hot tea to help me relax?

Travel Tidbits and Reviews of Special Offers

I wrote yesterday about Rocketmiles and how you can earn Frequent flyer points with them.  If you sign up through my link, you will earn 1,000 points and to further sweeten the deal, if you then go online and book three nights, you’ll earn 5,000 miles.  Here are the details.

Hyatt just announced their newest promotion – Endless Possibilities – which begins on January 15th and continues through to April 30th, 2014.  During this promotion, you’ll have the opportunity to decide if you want to earn free nights or points.  Registration begins January 9th, 2014.  After five nights of stays you can earn a free night at a Category 1-4 Hyatt OR you can earn 5,000 points.  It’s your choice.

United and Marriott continue their relationship.  As originally written here United and Marriott will continue there joint venture.  You do need to have status with one of them either Gold for United or Platinum with Marriott.

When encountering delays during your holiday travels, try using twitter to get the airlines to help you.  Many people have had great luck with @DeltaAssist, @United, @USAirways  Rather than waiting in line with the gate agent, tweet to try and get help alittle sooner. If you have access to a lounge, go to the lounge and the agents there will help you and the line may be a little shorter than waiting at the gate for one of the agents who are helping everyone.

Get either 8 points per dollar from the Ultimate Rewards Mall OR 12% back from Ebates when you order my favorite travel purse – the criss cross anti-thieft bag.  Here is my blog that goes into detail about my favorite travel purse.

 

2 United Airline Lounge Passes – Giveaway

I have two passes for the United Lounge – worth $50 each.  Since I have such faithful readers, I wanted to make them available for you.  They need to be used by December 31st, 2013.

ual lounge pass

To be eligible for the passes leave a comment on where you are flying – make me green with envy.  I ask that there be only one entry per person. The deadline to enter Tuesday, December 11th at  8 PM EST.   The winner will be chosen by random.org and I’ll notify you that same evening.  You must respond back to me within 24 hours.  If you are the winner and have a need for only one pass, I’ll choose another reader from the entries already submitted for the other pass.  If you cannot use these passes, please do not enter.

Register your AmEx card Today for Small Business Saturday

Registration for the American Express® Card Member Offer for Small Business Saturday® opens Nov 24 on ShopSmall.com. Register any eligible American Express Card to get a one-time $10 statement credit when you spend $10 or more on November 30th, 2013 in a single, in-store transaction at a qualifying small business that appears on the Small Business Saturday Map. Supply is limited so register – Nov 24. There will be full offer terms on ShopSmall.com.

Last year I went to a small local business and they were supporting Small Business Saturday.  The problem was they didn’t accept American Express so I knew that they weren’t “officially” part of Small Business Saturday.  It pays to check their site to see if your favorite local store is listed.

Let’s support our local business owners and buy local.

Chase Sapphire and Freedom News

Have you recently applied for an received either of these two cards?  If so, they have increased the bonus miles you can earn as long as you notify them within 60 days of being approved for the card/s.  Simply go into your online account with Chase and click on “Contact Us”.  You can send a SM (secure Message) to them letting them know that you recently found out that they are offering more miles and you would like them to do the same for your new account.  I’ve done it several times and not once did I have a problem.  Again, the only caveat is that it must be within 60 days of being approved.

Intergenerational Trips Grandparent/Grandchild Travel

This post isn’t for everyone – or maybe it is if you are a grandparent and want to do something special with your grandchildren or if you have children that you want to be able to have a special time with their grandparents.

grandparents

This is something that Blogger Hubby and I have been thinking about.  We weren’t sure if we would be able to “entertain” our 10 1/2 year old granddaughter for a full week or if she would even enjoy just being with us for a full week.  We began to explore options.  We had heard good comments about the Intergenerational Programs with Road Scholar (the new name for Elder Hostel) and decided that we would look into the program they had.

Programs, they had plenty of them and they seemed to fit what we were looking for.  Whether it is learning to sail on a windjammer in Maine or learning about the circus, hiking, acting, etc they had just the right program for any grandparent and grandchild.  We chose a few trips and sent them on to our granddaughter and her parents.  We’re waiting to hear back on what she decides. Please click here or go to the Road Scholar site for more information on their programs

Tauck Tours have family trips where you travel with other families.  My friend took her daughter and her 10 year old son to the Galapagos Islands a few years ago with Tauck Family Trips.  They were thoroughly impressed with the professionalism of their tour guides, the accommodations and the trip in general.  If interested to see what they are offering, please go to this site.

If you do travel with your grandchildren make sure you have a notarized letter from the parents giving permission for medical care.  Also have copies of the grandchildren’s insurance cards. Don’t forget prescription cards, cards for dental insurance and secondary insurance cards if applicable.  Make sure you have a passport if one is needed.  To check what the requirements are for the country you might be visiting, be sure to go to the Department of State’s website – some countries require 6 months left on your passport; other require so many empty pages.  Better to be safe than find out at the last minute that you need your passport updated.  Some sites also suggest that if you are with children that you have and carry with you a limited power of attorney.

Intro to Flight to Hawaii and Update on Keeping Track of my Luggage

As you might know, Blogger Hubby and I are on the island of Oahu, traveling tomorrow to Kauai.  IT was a quickly put together trip using my American Express Membership points, transferring them to Singapore Air and then redeeming them to fly on United at fewer points that I would have had to spend using the United Award chart.

Once onboard the flight from Houston to Honolulu, which was our longest leg of the trip, I wanted to get into the tropical mood.  When the flight attendant came by and asked what we wanted to do, that was my request – something tropical.  Soon we had Mai Tai’s in our hands.

Image

You remember from this post how I now use the funky duct tape that is found in Staples, WalMart, etc to put on my luggage.  I do it so that I can identify my luggage immediately AND to prevent someone from thinking that my luggage is theirs.  In fact as I was telling a friend of mine about this last week, he admitted that he accidentally took someone else’s luggage by mistake.  

Anyway, thought you’d like to see a few pictures of our luggage coming off the conveyer belt onto the luggage carousel.  

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I’ll be writing more about this trip but for now…aloha and mahalo for reading Air, Land and Sea.Image

 

Welcome New Readers

I’ve noticed in the past few weeks that I have gained a few new readers.  I want to welcome you to my blog.  I hope that you are able to take away a few tibbits of helpful tips for travel as well as new places to go and explore.  When I first began writing this blog I wanted to focus on all facets of travel and for me that was road trips, places that I could get to by flying and my love of cruising – hence the name Air, Land & Sea.

If you occasionally drop in, may I suggest that you join almost 300 other people and become a “follower”.  All you have to do is click in the box to the right that says “Follow Me”.  You’ll have to get a user name and password.  A suggestion to you, if you decide to use your name as a user name, add only you initial to your last name rather than your full name or come up with a catchy name like Travel 4 Me.  My goal is to reach 500 Followers by New Year’s Day.  You can help me out by referring my blog to your friends if you enjoy it.  You can check my progress of reaching by goal by looking at the right side where you sign up to become a follower – it will list how many I have to date!

I’m always looking for guest bloggers so if you have a trip you’d like to report on, a travel product you can’t live without (perhaps that’s an exaggeration but you get the point) or something you’d like to share, let me know at AirLandAndSeaBlog@gmail.com

Enjoy your weekend!

Jane

And the Winner of the $50 VISA gift card is………

The winner of the $50 VISA gift card is Vivian who wrote comment #11about the AMTRAK post:
I enjoyed your post about Amtrak. Their college visit promotion is a great deal – something that airlines don’t offer! When you buy one full-price ticket, the second ticket is half-price. The companion must be a parent or guardian of the prospective student. The details are here: http://www.campusvisit.com/amtrak/

We traveled from Harper’s Ferry to Pittsburgh and found the train to be very relaxing. There is plenty of leg room and you can walk around whenever you like. Trains also usually go right into the city, making it less expensive to get a taxi or shuttle to your hotel.

 I’ve sent you an email asking for your address to mail out your VISA gift card.
For all my new readers, thank you for visiting.  If you like what you have read so far, please consider becoming a “Follower” by clicking the tab on the right.  Help me reach 500 readers by Thanksgiving by referring your family, friends and co-workers to my blog.

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$50 VISA Gift Card Drawing tomorrow

Don’t forget to leave a comment on this blog (click on the highlighted words) about a previous post that you really liked for a chance at the $50 VISA gift card give away.    This is in honor of Air, Land & Sea’s three month anniversary.

As soon as the drawing is over, I’ll notify the winner and they will have 48 hours to respond back to me with their address for mailing the gift card.

 

Good luck everyone!

AirBnB – a Housing Option when Traveling

airbnb
airbnb (Photo credit: Gustavo da Cunha Pimenta)

Have any of you heard of AirBnB?  I bet you know what VRBO (Vacation Rental by Owner) is.  Well, this is something similar.  Whether it is renting an entire house for a vacation or a room in someone’s home for a few nights, you will find what you need on this site.   There are many reviewers that share their experiences.

They describe themselves as “a global community marketplace that connects travelers seeking authentic, high-quality accommodations with hosts who offer unique places to stay.  With Airbnb, guests can access truly amazing experiences – from stays in castles to holidays in treehouses, caves, or even private islands.”

You can find some unique and very different accommodations   There are properties in 192 countries.  This is a great alternative to a stay in a hotel particularly when you are with your family and want to give your  grandkids or your children room to spread out   Some properties will also have kitchen facilities which will make it convenient. If you don’t know where in the city to stay, let them help you with the neighborhood guide.

Head on over to AirBnB and see if it might meet your need when traveling.

Hotels and Points for Hawaii

Our to-do list for Hawaii

tickets booked to and from Hawaii  –  checked

inter-island flights – still need to do

car rental – researching

tips from friends and readers where to go and what to see  — checked

hotels booked on two island  — checked

Yes, we booked our hotels.   We had SPG points, Hilton points and 2 free nights at a Hyatt from our credit card.  We really want to use points to pay for our hotel stays.

I needed first to find out if there were any Hyatts on Kauai and the Big Island.  Turns out that there is one and it is on the island of Kauia – just as I had hoped.  I went on their website, clicked on the Gold Passport tab, put in my dates and waited for the great news that we would have a lovely room for two nights – for FREE!!!!  Except, that didn’t happen.  Apparently there were no rooms available for redemption.  My heart sank.  This was the Grand Hyatt Resort and Spa.  Oh, I wanted to be bathed in luxury.  I needed to think more about this.  On the website site I decided to send a message explaining that this was my first time in Hawaii and I had some difficulty navigating their website and could they help me use my free night certificate for the nights I wanted..  I really didn’t help but I needed to say something to them.  I sent the email off and waited patiently for their reply.

Grand Hyatt Kauai
                       Grand Hyatt Kauai

Meanwhile, I needed to continue with our planning.  My next best option was to use the SPG points.  I found a nice Sheraton on Kauai that I made a reservation for 12,000 points per night.  I could always cancel this reservation if Hyatt came through. We booked it.

Then it was on to our stay on the Big Island of Hawaii.  They also had a Sheraton and although I didn’t have enough points for free nights, they do have the option of paying fewer points and combining it with cash.  That was a doable option.  I looked further and there is a Hilton although it is requiring 50,000 points per night and we are planning on staying three nights.  I have plenty of those points but I hate burning through that many points but it was an options.  In my mind, I play out the different scenarios.  IF the Hyatt free nights come through, then I can cancel the nights on Kauai with the SPG points and then use them on Hawaii and cancel the Hilton points.

hawaii hula

We checked our email and we had a reply from Hyatt asking us to call them.  We did and explained what we wanted.  No problem and we were booked.  I felt like doing a dance.  I know, it’s rather silly but I was so excited at staying at such a beautiful property and the fact that we could use our free certificate would be icing on the cake.

Now, we need to cancel the Sheraton hotel that we booked with points on Kauai and have the points redeposited so that we can cancel the Hilton property and use the SPG points on the Big Island.  Sure, it has taken me a little time to figure all this out but I knew what my options were and I had a Plan B.

As you could tell, Hilton properties require more points but for me they are very easy to obtain.  With my AmEx Hilton Honors card, I get 5 times points in grocery stores.  I can purchase Vanilla Reloads at a grocery store here.  Last week I bought $2000 worth of  VR’s with my Hilton card and earned 10,000 Hilton points!  SPG points can be used at several hotels, require fewer points but can be more difficult to get those points. I think since I am using about three quarters of my SPG points that I need to move this card up toward the front of my wallet and replenish and grow my SPG points for the future.

I have a lot of Club Carlson points but they didn’t have any properties in Hawaii.  They are now saved for our big trip in 2014 to South Africa..

What hotel points do you have and collect?  Are you happy with the redemption values? Are you thinking about becoming a loyalty member of a different brand and is so, why?

Radisson Hotel and Suites, Sydney, Australia

With all the Club Carlson points that I accumulated during their big promotion last year we decided to stay with them when we were in Australia.  Radisson has two hotels in Sydney.  One is the Radisson Hotel and Suites near Chinatown and the other is the Radisson Blu in the Central Business District.  They both were valued at 50,000 points per night.  I asked some friends from Sydney which they would choose and they thought the one near Chinatown would suit our needs the best.club carlson

Being near Chinatown and away from the Central Business District opened up a variety of meal choices that the one in the central business district didn’t have.  We would also be within a block of one of the main streets (George Street) where we could get on city buses and we were also within walking distance (a few blocks) of the Harborside Park where there were parks, kiddie playgrounds, restaurants, aquarium, etc.

our bedroom
our bedroom

I emailed the hotel concierge a few months before our arrival to inquire the best way to get to the hotel and to request that a room be ready for us even though we were arriving around 9 AM.  She gave me several suggestions on how the various ways of getting to the hotel and then her recommendation.

Since we were Club Carlson loyalty members and had gold elite status due to our Club Carlson VISA card, we were given a very nice one bedroom suite with a full kitchen and balcony with two chairs and a table.  Elite status does pay off.  Additionally, the last night of our stay was FREE because we were Club Carlson members and we were booked our hotel room with points.  You only have to stay two night to get the last night free.  If I had been thinking clearer I would have booked the first two night and then have Blogger Hubby book the second two nights.  That way we would have gotten two night even free-er. )Yes, I know that is not a word!).  You need to think and strategize when using points and miles.

kitchen
kitchen
living room
living room
balcony
balcony

We found that the employees who worked the front desk were extremely helpful to us.  We would inquire as to where we could find a store that sold wine and wasn’t outrageously expensive as specialty wine stores can be; where we could eat a moderately priced dinner; where we could pick up a few groceries, etc.

If you are going to Sydney and would like to stay someplace that has lots to offer, I would suggest the Radisson Hotel and Suites on Liverpool Street.

FTU, Tampa; Chicago Seminar and Online Communities

I’ve mentioned how I quickly learned about the value of points and miles when we wanted to go to Australia/New Zealand earlier this year.  I took a crash course in points and miles so I could book our flight and get our tickets and then I tried to fill in the blanks in my education of points and miles.

What really helped me was attending the Chicago Seminar last October as well as Frequent Traveler University this past April.  I felt that I needed to go at least twice.  My brain was on overload in October though I came home with lots of information.  These seminars are fairly inexpensive and the groups get a discount with the hotel and lunches are included as well as a cocktail party. There is always time in the evenings to meet others and share experiences or to ask questions.

Seminars last all day and many times you have two choices of what classes to attend.  My son Chris attended with me this past April and he came away with quite a bit of knowledge and appreciation for the information that was being shared as well as the Grand Prize that was given in the raffle (they always have a raffle and the money goes to worthy organizations).

Frequent Traveler University will be holding another seminar – this time in Tampa, Florida on September 27-29.  Accommodations will be at the Grand Hyatt with a negotiated rate of  $119 per night (and you get your points too!).

Friday night begins with a welcome reception and the actual seminar starts ay 9:00 AM. The seminar cost $100 and includes lunch for both days.  If you are interested, go to this link: Frequent Traveler University

I am going back to Chicago in October for the Chicago Seminar which are being held October 11-13 at the Holiday Inn in Elk Grove Village.  There are shuttles from O’Hare to take you directly to the hotel.  Many of the speakers will be the same at both seminars.  For more information on the Chicago Seminar, click on this link: Chicago Seminar

I also urge you to read both Milepoint and Flyertalk.  Both of these are online communities of frequent flyer enthusiasts who will share information, answer your questions, sometimes get snarky with you and other will expect you to do your homework and not have everything served to you on a silver platter.

How to Get and Have a Great Experience at a Bargain Price

I’m always looking for a bargain as well as an experience when I travel.  When we traveled to Sydney recently, I signed up for Groupons for Sydney.  I would daily get an email listing of their daily deals.  I wan’t interested in meals, massages, etc but rather things to do.

I felt like I scored big when we bought tickets for a Tall Ship cruise out of Campbell Cove (in The Rocks area).  Our tickets cost $59 each and included a two hour tour of Sydney Harbour, live entertainment, open bar with hot appetizers and a salad dinner (seafood or pasta).  Before I purchased the tickets, I emailed them to see if there was space for us on the date I wanted.  Once that was confirmed then I pushed the Buy button.  We then added this event to our calendar!

We are so glad that we did this tour as it was one of our highlights in Sydney.  It was overcast so we brought our raincoats with us but as we found out later, we didn’t need to as they had plastic raincoats that they passed out for free.  Luckily it didn’t rain very hard nor for very long.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe live entertainment was a guitarist who sang songs that we all knew and sang along with him as well as some Aussie songs – always “Waltzing Matilda” and “Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport”.

We could all join in as they hoisted OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAup the sails .  There was also a crow’s nest where you could climb up and get a beautiful view of the harbor.

Our tour was at 5:30 so we were able to see the sun as it began setting down over the horizon.  All in all, it was a great experience.

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If you have time before your next trip, sign up for the Groupons for that city and see what great deals you can get.