How to travel MORE for LESS: Build Your Budget Travel Game Plan!

Modern Passenger airplane flight in sunset panorama

How do you do it?

I am frequently asked how I have managed to make travel such a consistent part of my day-to-day life. So I wanted to provide some tips for ways I have been able to accomplish this. Some sacrifices and compromises are necessary, and may not be for everyone. But I for one think they are well worth it! This is a long post – and that’s good news! It means there’s a lot of ways to save money on travel!

It really comes down to two obstacles: time and money. Often, people have plenty of one and not the other. Maybe you are retired or between jobs and have plenty of time, but money’s tight. Or maybe you have a very demanding job which pays you well but doesn’t allow you the time to enjoy it. Unfortunately, if you want to live a more nomadic lifestyle, it will probably require some compromises.

This may mean waiting until children are older, swapping jobs for one that allows more flexible scheduling, or passing on the big house, new car, and other luxury expenses to put money away for travel. But there are some easier solutions that may not turn you into a nomad overnight but could help you moving in that direction.

Los Angeles skyline with palm trees in the foreground

Los Angeles, California

Time can be your friend, or your enemy…

First, I’ll address the time issue. Life is short, and it’s up to us to make the most of that valuable, and all-too-limited commodity.  While that bigger paycheck is tempting, and could certainly help with travel, what good is it if it takes workaholic gymnastics to earn it and you don’t have time to enjoy it? There aren’t enough flex-time jobs out there – but they are out there. Jobs that allow telecommuting and/or setting your own schedule (like working monster hours the week before and after the trip so you can miss a week, or job sharing so you can take “turns”) are ideal for the aspiring nomad. If you are satisfied with your career and this is not an option for you, there are other ways to incorporate travel into your life in a bigger way. Take a look at what days you do have off. How many of those weekends or long weekends could be spent elsewhere? Think outside the box. Travel comes in many forms: long and short, close and far. And the world is more connected than ever. But what about all of those chores and errands you do over the weekend? Here’s where the compromise comes in. It may mean harder work the rest of the week – the job and all of these other things, to free up your weekend, or week if you work flex-time. (I can tell you first hand it’s worth it!)

Money matters.

As for the money issue – there are a number of ways to do more and save money doing it.

Here are some of my favorite ways to travel that save money:

  1. Road trips. Road trips force you to stay overnight on the way to your final destination (depending on distance), allowing you to see MORE, and that’s the idea. Not only is it cheaper than other ground transportation, it allows you more freedom. And compared with air travel it might cost you more depending on how many hotels you book along the way… BUT when you compare apples to apples – if you flew to all of those places you will be stopping at which one would have cost you more? And, obviously, the more people you are traveling with the greater the savings, since there are no individual tickets to buy! You may find some amazing surprises and hidden gems in places you never expected traveling this way.
  2. Cruises. Like long road trips, cruises allow you to visit multiple destinations. The difference? You have a floating “hotel” room throughout the trip. (No schlepping luggage once on board!) Many things are included, like meals and entertainment. And as for anything else, you can pre-pay practically everything now, which helps with eliminating the financial anxiety of unexpected expenses during travel. I don’t know about you, but that has been a concern of mine. I have found cruises to be an excellent value offering great peace of mind. Just don’t go “overboard” (pun intended!) on your spending on non-included shopping and other optional luxuries on the ship!
  3. Road trip to cruise port, then cruise! For the same reasons noted above! If your cruise port isn’t close by, consider road-tripping it!
  4. Seek out parking discounts. If you need to park and fly or park and cruise, research your options. The airports and cruise ports charge a premium for parking. A Google search for your airport or cruise port and “cheap parking” will yield you wallet-friendlier options with free shuttle service. Some hotels also offer cruise packages that provide parking. Google “hotel cruise package” and your port city for those.
  5. Don’t underestimate the value of more “local” travel. If you can’t afford a major trip, or your time is severely limited, see what your home city or state/province has to offer, or a neighboring one. You might be surprised what was in your backyard that you never knew about!
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Imagining history at a Civil War Battlefield, Fredericksburg, Virginia

Financial planning to facilitate travel.

Here are some of my favorite ways to facilitate saving for travel:

  1. Eliminate debt. Debt imprisons you. It forces you to work more hours to cover the bills (including interest), leaving you less time to travel, devours more of your paycheck (and, in some cases, most of your paycheck!), and cripples your ability to save for more travel. Sure, it’s nice to have a bigger house, newer car, and all of that cool stuff you can buy with credit cards. But the price is too high if travel is a priority for you. If you can (it may take time) pay those cards down to zero and save them for travel emergencies, or get travel reward cards to use for groceries, utilities, and gas that you have to pay for anyway and pay them off every single month. Big mortgages and car payments not only hinder your ability to travel, but put you at risk. So make more modest choices if you can. If a financial emergency comes up, and your home or transportation to work are at risk, travel will be the least of your concerns.
  2. This may seem obvious, but people don’t often implement it. Be more minimalist at home and save that money for travel. This is related to eliminating debt too. Smaller home, older car, going out less often at home… I have found that a smaller home has the added benefit of being more low-maintenance, which is more consistent with a nomadic lifestyle. Of course, with children you may need to wait to downsize these things. Look at your monthly bills and see if there is anything you wouldn’t miss. For example, I prefer video games at home to regular movie nights out. I can get unlimited (fun!) use out of that video game for the cost of a handful of one-time movie theater tickets. And I would rather go out to restaurants when I’m traveling than when I’m at home.
  3. Location over size in housing. I would rather have a smaller place closer to many destinations I’d like to visit than a bigger or more elaborate place that is more isolated. If you are in the market for a new place, are your “local” travel options abundant or scarce? This is even more important if your time is limited. I’ll be saving by getting a small condo… and increasing my travel options by purchasing in Florida (more to come on that in future blog posts!)

DISCOUNTED travel! Don’t pay full price, ever!

Here are my favorite ways to get DISCOUNTED travel!:

  1. Founders Card. This has been the number one most significant way I have been able to save on travel for the past several years. It is a selective program that requires application, but if you can get approved the value is endless. (Entrepreneurs and executives have the highest rate of acceptance). With this membership, I have annually been promoted to Total Rewards Diamond tier level, Hilton Honors Gold, and more. This year I was able to redeem for Marriott Rewards Gold. You can also get instant tier level upgrades on car rentals and airlines as well as discounts on many other travel and lifestyle products and services. There are also hotels that you can book directly from the Founders Card website for deep discounts. To give you an idea on how much I save with this card: I’ll give Total Rewards Diamond, at Caesar’s Entertainment casinos, as the first example. It takes 15,000 tier points to earn Diamond the “hard” way. How much casino play is that? One point for every $5 on slots and every $10 on video poker. Tables are variable, but it’s not any easier. I think the math is pretty clear here. The Total Rewards benefit alone pays for Founders Card several times over. Added bonus: Total Rewards is partnered with Wyndham, so your Diamond card automatically entitles you to Diamond tier level with Wyndham hotels, too. You also get a 4 night free stay at Atlantis in the Bahamas, a $100 celebration dinner every year, free valet, no resort fees, 20% discount on Norwegian cruises, and skipping all of the lines on Total Rewards Properties (skipping lines=priceless!) Another example: Hilton Honors Gold. This one requires 20 stays or 40 nights in one year at Hilton properties. But with no stays, I was already receiving the welcome gifts, free upgrades, and free $15 breakfasts at Hilton Garden Inn properties, for example. If I had to name the one thing that allowed me to save the most on travel, it would be Founder’s Card. To apply to join Founders Card, or get more information, visit Founders Card.founderscard
  2. AAA Membership. AAA has a membership fee, but is well worth the cost. My favorite thing about AAA is that I can get AAA discounts while still booking directly through my favorite hotel brand websites. It means I will earn rewards for my stay, while still getting the discount. Hotel websites like Hilton and Marriott have a “special rate” option with AAA listed. If I were to book through a travel website for a discount, like Expedia, I would not get credited through the hotel brand’s rewards program. The bonus with AAA is that I can also save on emergency road service (great peace of mind for long road trips), car repairs, and get free maps and other goodies. I have found AAA well worth it, and been a member for over two decades!aaa
  3. Costco Travel. Like AAA, use of this site requires membership. I consider the travel discounts, along with other benefits of the card (discounts on gas, groceries, and more), worth it. Car rental rates and theme park packages are especially advantageous on this site. Perks are often offered with cruise bookings, like on-board credits.costco
  4. Cruise line websites directly. A google search will get you to your desired cruise line’s website quickly. Many of the major cruise lines run promotions frequently. For example, the “Free at Sea” promotion through Norwegian is (at least as of this writing), very commonly found on their site, and it’s an outstanding offer that lets you choose from several coveted freebies. Best of all – even if you have a cruise voucher from a casino and aren’t paying for the cruise you are still eligible for the promotions on NCL (your results may vary here depending on cruise line.) I like to compare offers on the different cruise lines when I’m ready to book. You may still want to check one of the other resources listed here too for comparison.ncl
  5. Hotel Reward Programs. Google your hotel brand for the link to the rewards site where you can sign up for free. The perks you receive are based on your tier level, which increases depending on the number of stays you have purchased (or not, if you have Founders Card!) The “basic” level, at zero stays, usually has limited perks but will usually give you something, like free internet. As you increase in tier level you will start to see perks like free gifts at check in, free upgrades, premium internet, and free premium breakfasts.marriott
  6. Expedia and online travel sites for air travel and activities. As I previously mentioned, I don’t like these sites for hotel reservations because I cannot earn rewards through my loyalty programs. However, I have booked flights this way and still earned loyalty rewards from the airline. (Your results may vary depending on airline.) I have found that flight costs vary a lot more from airline to airline than hotel rooms of the same amenities category, and different airlines fly different routes, so I don’t necessarily want to stay “brand loyal” when it comes to flights. The ease of use on these sites is a plus too, especially if you need to book complicated open-jaw or multiple destination trips. Bear in mind you may need to make your seat reservation through the airline’s website or customer service number. Tourist attraction tickets can also be a good value on these sites.expedia
  7. BE CAREFUL with travel insurance. Some travel insurance offers are deceptively limited (ahem… Expedia… for example…). Many of them won’t pay except in EXTREME cases, particularly in the case of flights (read: documented death in immediate family or severe personal illness and nothing else!) Don’t expect them to necessarily pay because your transfer form of transportation didn’t arrive in time, work won’t let you go after all, or you made a mistake. There may be insurances that do cover this – although I’ve never encountered one, but make sure!
  8. Day Passes. These passes are available through online travel sites like Expedia, and direct through the pass vendors’ websites. Google “day pass” and your city for the vendor sites. They are available for many different cities, both in the U.S. and abroad. For one set price, you have access to many attractions to choose from. Sometimes the number of places you can visit for the duration of the pass is specified (you choose the places), or they are unlimited within the specified time frame. This can save you a great deal over purchasing tickets individually on-site, and they often include skipping the lines. The passes also frequently include transportation options to get you from place to place, like double-decker bus tours and water taxis!pass
  9. Groupon. This site offers a number of travel options, but where it really shines is with attraction tickets. You can often find cheap attraction tickets to theme parks and other tourist sites. Inventory changes frequently, so if you don’t find what you were looking for you may want to check back at a later time.groupon
  10. Casino Players Clubs. Aaaahhhh… my favorite way to cruise: with a FREE cruise voucher from a land-based casino where I had a free room and meal to go up and pick up the cruise voucher! My husband and I were offered 6 of these vouchers in one year. Do you have to play? Yes. Do you have to be a high roller? NO! You just have to play smart. (Disclaimer: if you choose to gamble, please play within your means and in moderation! If you play anyway, get rewarded for it!) So while you don’t need to be a high roller, you do need to be aware of something called your “ADT” or “average daily theoretical.” You aren’t rewarded on how much you play as much as how much you play on an average day you are there. This means: better to go less often and play more than go often and play less. DO NOT use your players card for comps at shops and restaurants, “small” play (like $20 on your way out), or even to check your balance on the kiosk on a day you are not playing. It triggers a new “trip” for the new day and hurts your ADT, leading to a reduction in your rewards. Spreading yourself too thin – playing at multiple casinos, hurts too so it’s good to settle on one, or at most two, brands. If you play the way that maximizes your ADT, the better rewards you can get, including cruise vouchers. (These are mailers I get which I respond to by calling to reserve the voucher and then traveling to the casino on the day of the offer to pick it up. You only pay port taxes and fees.) I also never pay for rooms and almost never pay for meals at the casino either. I’m partial to Total Rewards because of the Diamond upgrade I get from Founders Card and the huge number of locations to choose from. Caesar’s, Harrah’s, Bally’s, and Horseshoe are all brands within the Total Rewards family. If you are partial to a particular cruise line, Total Rewards gives Norwegian vouchers, Tropicana gives Carnival vouchers, and Resorts gives Princess vouchers. I can’t vouch for this first hand but others have told me MGM gives Royal Caribbean vouchers.TR
  11. Delta Skymiles Vacations and Cruises. I want to thank Mr Traveler on YouTube for this suggestion which I was not previously aware of. Delta is offering sweet perks for booking with them on travel arrangements besides air travel, and, as an added bonus, they will reward you miles in their Skymiles program for booking all kinds of travel with them.skymiles
  12. Demographic-specific discounts. Other groups that are often eligible for discounts include AARP members, members of the military (active and retired), students, and senior citizens. Always bring your ID cards (college ID, military ID, etc.) when you travel! These discounts are often available at attractions and are sometimes available on hotel rooms and transportation. For example, I typically save huge at museums with my student ID, such as a full year membership at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts for $10!

If you have children…

If you have children, things are more challenging. I waited until my children were older to ramp up my travel ambitions. But here are some tips:

  1. Road Trips! With no individual tickets to buy, this is the cheapest way to travel with a larger group. Just remember – children are less patient with car rides. Plan frequent stops.
  2. Camping Trips. Camping is cheap, doesn’t charge by the person, and offers a lot of high-energy activities that are great for kids like hiking and swimming, as long as the adults can tolerate “roughing” it!
  3. Amusement Parks. Kids love amusement parks, and often you can find great deals on sites like Groupon. Sometimes you can find “rain check” tickets on Ebay too.
  4. Group Lodging. Some hotels charge a surcharge for extra people in the room. And most hotels have limits on how many people can sleep in the room, so it may not even be an option with a larger family. Rental cabins are a good solution.

Final thoughts…

Keep in mind, not all of these websites that offer discounts on multiple providers will offer every provider, so shop around. (For example, no Southwest Airlines on Expedia.) Finally, I have one more suggestion. A trip is only a good value if you have a positive experience! That’s why I often refer to Tripadvisor for reviews of hotels, restaurants, destinations, and more! Planning and researching ahead is critical to budget, and high value, travel!

I hope this post helps you save some money – and time – in your future travel ambitions! Next week: my series on my back-to-back cruise on the Carnival Pride will begin. I hope you will come along!

 

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Spring at the Sand and Sea in Atlantic City, New Jersey!

Atlantic City tourism is usually associated with summertime. But my favorite times to visit are spring and autumn. Ideal temperatures and smaller crowds make a stroll along the historic Boardwalk and views of the miles of public beaches idyllic! Casinos are more eager to please, because there are fewer visitors (specifically on weekdays) and perks are more abundant. And it is easier to find an empty seat on the Boardwalk tram – allowing you to see and do as much as possible – an irresistible prospect!

Caesar’s… a resort fit for an Emperor. Both the public areas and private rooms are dripping with luxury. The main lobby is a spectacular rendition of ancient Rome, down to the depiction of the Augustus of Prima Porta statue. He stands tall next to a fake but convincing palm tree that is home to a family of live birds that, from time to time, will fly along the backdrop of the cloud-painted ceiling, welcoming visitors. Or perch themselves on Augustus’ shoulder, chirping and drawing attention to the great Augustus, poised in contrapposto pose (art history speak for addressing an audience). This lobby is truly breathtaking and easily one of my favorite hotel lobbies I have ever visited. In my room, I enjoyed spectacular views of the beach while I contemplated how I would spend my day in this, one of my all-time favorite cities.

The Quarter at Tropicana’s decor is inspired by Havana, and provides a pleasant and inspiring place to dine in delicious restaurants, explore chic boutique shops, and, if you are so inclined, try your luck at the games. The Quarter is bursting with energy and eye-candy!

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Steel Pier and beach

The Boardwalk trams were back after their winter hiatus, and for $3 ($6 for an all-day pass), you can cover the length of the Boardwalk. I took a ride down to the Steel Pier, enjoying the sites and scents of salt water taffy shops, massage and psychic parlors, arcades, and other bastions of fun along the Boardwalk on the way, many of them just waking up from their winter hibernation. The amusement park at the Steel Pier was not yet open – the one aspect of coming during this season I consider a disappointment. But it’s okay – because I can’t get enough of this place and surely will return in the summer. The Steel Pier is not only fun and exciting, but historic, still standing from the 1890s.

If you haven’t had enough shopping at the Quarter, The Tanger Outlets and the Playground provide additional opportunities for an endulgent shopping binge!  Between the casinos and the shopping, working overtime before your trip to Atlantic City never hurts!

If you have been following my posts and YouTube channel, you may be aware that my husband recently passed away. The most pressing reason of all I wanted to return to Atlantic City at this time was that this was his favorite place to visit. We traveled extensively, and internationally, and whenever a trip was over he would ask, “When are we going to Atlantic City again?” I have so many cherished memories of our time spent together here, and longed to be surrounded by that at this tremendously difficult time. It was a great comfort, and one that I hope, in some way, he was able to share in.

My YouTube video from this trip is posted, which you may view here!:

 

Spring in Charleston, South Carolina – and the Horse Drawn Carriage Controversy?

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Charleston, South Carolina is quaint, calm, colorful, clean, and a snapshot into the past, so a horse-drawn carriage seemed the perfect way to experience it. I was informed by my tour guide that a local resident has stirred up a “controversy” involving the horse-drawn carriages in the city, which are operated by several different companies. She asserted that the objections she was making about the life of the horses was a guise for her disapproval of having to share the road with the (slower) carriages. But we “pulled over” frequently to let cars pass, and the tour guide was eager to describe the ways in which her company was making a better life for the horses.

The tour guide explained that their horses are purchased from Amish auctions, where they are rescued from the potential of being bought by others which, in some cases, could result in their cruel treatment and even death. Not all countries regulate the humane treatment of animals, and the auctions generate attention from international buyers. Her happiness in describing the regular “vacations” the horses take, and far, far lighter workload than they had become accustomed to on the farms was very apparent. Horses are rotated on the tours and given plenty of rest, water, and food in between tours, and given regular days off out at pasture.

My tour guide’s explanations were compelling. I looked further into the complaints through a local newspaper, The Post and Courier. An article written by Gregory Yee indicates that the protesters are apparently complaining about five main issues. (Yee, Gregory. “Charleston’s carriage tour companies, animal advocates hold opposing events amid controversy over horse conditions,” The Post and Courier, Charleston, S.C., 2017: (https://www.postandcourier.com/news/charleston-s-carriage-tour-companies-animal-advocates-hold-opposing-events/article_e0421270-7a0b-11e7-852f-cb7ebfa7e48f.html).

The first issue is the way the carriages can stall traffic. But given that tourism is the top industry in the city, and the carriages have become a major part of it, I find it amazing a local would want to jeopardize a big part of the economic prosperity of their city to avoid a little traffic congestion. The second issue has to do with a horse “throwing” a tour guide off a carriage. But my response is that this is to be expected. Tour guides understand and accept this risk. Horses are intelligent animals, and can be stubborn and exercise a “mind of their own” from time to time. Anyone who has spent any time at all riding horses is probably aware of this. The third issue has to do with someone in a T-Rex costume spooking one of the horses. Again – my take is that this is normal and expected for a horse to get spooked from time to time – and has nothing to do with the carriage companies being “inhumane” to the horses in any way. The next complaint had to do with a horse tripping and falling – an accident that I would argue could easily happen to any horse at any time, anywhere. It’s an accident that can happen to even the most pampered horse – just as well as it can happen to even the most pampered human. The last complaint mentioned was that the horses are out in the heat. Yee quotes Broderick Christoff, Owner of Charleston Carriage Works as saying: “We never had a heat-related incident,” and that the horses’ temperatures are taken regularly, including after every tour. (Yee, Gregory. “Charleston’s carriage tour companies, animal advocates hold opposing events amid controversy over horse conditions,” The Post and Courier, Charleston, S.C., 2017: (https://www.postandcourier.com/news/charleston-s-carriage-tour-companies-animal-advocates-hold-opposing-events/article_e0421270-7a0b-11e7-852f-cb7ebfa7e48f.html).

After the tour guide discussed the way her company cares for the horses, it was time for some history. As someone who has visited Savannah, Georgia several times I found it interesting the way she described why Savannah has more Colonial architecture, while Charleston more Victorian architecture: due to fire damage Charleston suffered during the Civil War. The architecture is breathtaking, most notably on “Rainbow Row” where a plethora of pastel delights the eyes – both on the buildings and meticulously maintained gardens they hold. Quaint streets are dotted with the Palmetto palm trees the state is famous for, their leaves rustling in the gentle breeze. Inviting cobblestone alleys lure you to linger and get lost among the fine old buildings and luxurious gardens bursting with life and color.

Of course, no trip to Charleston (or anywhere!) is complete without a place to rest and a good meal after a long day of sightseeing. Hyman’s Seafood is a Charleston institution, established in 1890. The walls are covered with signed celebrity photos – customers of Hyman’s through the years, and tables sport placards with the names of who (famous) dined at your seat. It’s very impressive to see how many celebrities have been drawn to this place. I opted for the fried clams and collard greens, and local beer. The dinner provided a very satisfying and delectable finish to a very satisfying day! I wandered through their country store after my meal and could not resist picking up their “To think like a fish you need to drink like a fish” t-shirt, a fine souvenir of my visit here!

I stayed at the Spring Hill Suites – Riverview. They have a shuttle which will run you into the historic district in the evenings and on weekends. I enjoyed a balcony, mini-kitchen, work space, ample room, and a very comfortable bed. The options at the free breakfast had been reduced since my previous visit and I wished the shuttle ran all day on weekdays, but other than that I had no complaints.

Charleston, along with Savannah, is a great stopover for people heading from the mid-Atlantic and northeast down to Florida, as I have often done on my way to the cruise ports. I will certainly want to return again and again! My YouTube video on Charleston is now live:

 

 

Source: Yee, Gregory. “Charleston’s carriage tour companies, animal advocates hold opposing events amid controversy over horse conditions,” The Post and Courier, Charleston, S.C., 2017: https://www.postandcourier.com/news/charleston-s-carriage-tour-companies-animal-advocates-hold-opposing-events/article_e0421270-7a0b-11e7-852f-cb7ebfa7e48f.html.

The Back-to-Back Cruise Experience

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As a back-to-back cruiser on the Carnival Pride this month, I wanted to share the process, what it felt like, and tips related to the back-to-back cruising experience. It was tremendous fun, and definitely something I would highly recommend!

We booked two seven-day cruises back to back on the Carnival Pride out of Baltimore, Maryland on April 8. The first week, the ship was sailing to Bermuda for a three-night overnight stay. The second week the itinerary included day stops in Grand Turk in Turks and Caicos and Princess Cays and Freeport in the Bahamas.

Nothing differed from the single cruise experience until four days into the first cruise, when a letter was delivered to the cabin inviting us to proceed to the Atrium on disembarkation day to join other back-to-back cruisers in being personally escorted off the ship, through immigration, and back on the ship again. The letter informed us that if we had the same cabin reserved (we did) that packing was not necessary. (If you were assigned a different cabin, the letter advised that the steward would be happy to help relocate your belongings.) On the last night, we did not pack, and simply relaxed and slept in followed by a leisurely breakfast. We proceeded to the Atrium at the appointed time (after the other cruisers had left the ship) where an employee took all five of us to an immigration officer who checked our passports and released us back to the ship. It took all of ten minutes. (I have to admit, it was a guilty pleasure watching other guests exit the ship and navigate long lines while we relaxed looking forward to the upcoming week!) Once back on the ship, a special “back-to-back” photo was taken of the group and we were treated to free mimosas at the bar. Perhaps the best part of the day, however, was the ability to have the ship to ourselves for about 45 minutes. It was quite a while before large groups started boarding, since VIPs were allowed aboard first in small groups. Rather than waiting until 2:00pm to visit our stateroom, we were of course free to return to our stateroom at any time. We later found out that the back-to-back photo was to be provided to us free of charge.

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The second week proceeded as usual. We were very pleased that many of the staff members we had encountered the first week remembered us and acknowledged us as back-to-back guests. We received our luggage tags and packed with everyone else on the last night, and disembarked as usual. But we were thrilled to have had a full extra week! We had a lot of time to really get to know the ship as well as to explore several different ports. The staff really made us feel special, like pampered, VIP guests!

Of course, we could have simply taken a fourteen day cruise, but it would have been a different experience. That spoiled feeling from getting special treatment, unique from other guests, would have been absent. On the other hand, instead of returning to the home port halfway through we could have traveled further. There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches. But I recommend the back-to-back experience at least once.

If you decide to book a back-to-back, I recommend these tips:

  • Try to arrange for a back-to-back with two different itineraries, so you are not visiting the same ports twice.
  • Request the same cabin for both cruises so that you don’t need to pack up and have your belongings moved to a new cabin mid-trip.
  • Fully unpack on the first day! I often don’t fully unpack on shorter cruises because I’m not sure if I’m going to need everything and re-packing is such a hassle. But I was glad I fully unpacked this time – I had easy access to everything without worrying about packing again within a week.
  • Enjoy greater flexibility in your activity schedule, but don’t assume the exact same shipboard activities will be available the following week. On our trip, two different comedians boarded the ship for the second week. Some shows were repeated and others were not. The evening movies were the same. If there’s something you really want to do, don’t assume it will be repeated on the second cruise – but if you do miss it the first time around watch for it again because there is a good chance it will be.

I hope you will have the opportunity to experience a back-to-back cruise (or that you already have!) Blog posts related to these cruises will be available in the upcoming weeks.

Harvest Caye, Belize: Port, and Excursion (More Wildlife “Bore” than Wildlife “Tour”!)

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The Grand Finale port of the Norwegian Dawn’s Western Caribbean cruise was Harvest Caye, Belize. I was amazed by the size of the port and number of amenities available. There are multiple huge beaches with an ample source of brightly hued blue and yellow lounge chairs and umbrellas, a gigantic pool with swim-up bar, the usual (only more of it!) shopping and restaurants, and a number of adventure sporting activities including parasailing and zip-lining.

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We enjoyed a local percussion band while we awaited our excursion. Sold by the description indicating there would be manatees to see on this wildlife tour, I was eagerly awaiting our departure. We boarded a small boat that sailed into an area called the “mangroves,” a kind of coastal swamp with trees forming bundles of dense, tangled roots. Apparently this setting is favored by much of the native wildlife, including manatees.

 

We saw several different varieties of birds, and some creepy jellyfish, but I did not see a manatee. A few poked their noses out of the water – and otherwise stayed submerged. I know – a wildlife tour is no “guarantee” that you’re going to see wildlife… but it’s still disappointing, especially when the brochure shows the full body of a manatee as an enticement… It did not seem as though they liked coming up out of the water. All in all, it ended up being the least enjoyable cruise excursion I’ve ever been on. I think I will probably avoid these wildlife tours in the future, because of the potential for this problem. When you’ve only got a limited amount of time in a place, like at a cruise port, you want to make the most of it and not risk a bust. This was supposed to be a wildlife “tour,” but it turned out to be more of a wildlife “bore.” The only manatee I saw was the carved wooden one outside of the entrance to the tour.

 

That said, I still ended up having an amazing time, because the port had a lot to offer and I had time when we returned to enjoy it (though, regrettably, we did not spend a full day in Belize.) I immediately headed for the beach to soak in the incredible view of palm trees blowing in the wind, a beautiful lighthouse in the distance, people playing volleyball on the beach, and zip-liners and parasailers zooming, and floating, by above. It was a gorgeous day basking in the sun, and listening to the crystal clear water splashing up onto the beach.

 

Like many cruise ports, the shops here were touristy and pricey… but still fun to explore (especially the free tastings at the chocolate and rum shops…) The chocolate was out of this world – especially the chili and coffee flavored varieties. Enough so that I was determined to take my chances and try to make it back to the ship with some, through the 80s degree heat, hoping it wouldn’t melt before I could get back!

Harvest Caye was definitely worth future visits – but next time with a different kind of excursion. In the meantime, I hope they introduce a jaguar preserve excursion, which I was hoping to find this time but no such luck! (I’m sure the other cat lovers out there will completely get behind this request!)

Here’s the YouTube video from my channel covering this port!:

Roatan, Honduras: Dolphin Encounter & Port Tour 2018!

Roatan, Honduras was the third port stop on our Norwegian Dawn Western Caribbean cruise. There are multiple ports on Roatan, and this one appeared to be Norwegian-specific. It was a very small port with expensive shopping, restaurants… and excursions. And I would definitely go out on a limb and say definitely plan an excursion of some kind if you are docking here. The port can be seen entirely, at a leisurely pace, in about a half hour. Of course, there’s always the option of just sitting, soaking in the sun, listening to the musicians, or people-watching over a coconut latte coffee (delicious!), ice cold Corona, or giant plate of chicken nachos… (somehow they’re just not the same on the ship!)

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Fortunately, I had an excursion reserved: the Dolphin Encounter. Now I know that objections have come up to this activity. But not all companies that run this activity are created equal. This excursion was run by the Roatan Institute for Marine Sciences. The dolphins are not tracked by gps or otherwise, are allowed to swim free, have lots of wide-open space in a rural environment, and return by choice after venturing out. They also are not forced to do anything, and only interact with people when they feel like it. I shared the ethical dilemma some others feel about this activity, and because of that I made sure to visit one which treated the dolphins humanely. If you feel the way I do, you may want to visit this particular one, or one like it, to experience a dolphin encounter.

The other major advantage of taking this excursion here is the fact that you are allowed to use your own camera. You do not have it the whole time – your “one-on-one” with the dolphin is photographed by their professional photographer. But both photography and filming are allowed for the majority of the encounter. Several other companies do NOT allow you to film or photograph. I was very pleased with the photos they took and chose to order them to keep along with the footage I captured myself.

We were divided into smaller groups, each with our own dolphin and trainer to interact with. My group’s dolphin was named “Polli.” It was a thrilling experience to interact with her! She was very talkative and playful throughout the visit. She showed us some fast swimming, jumps, and “moon-walking” on the water’s surface. The trainer told us about the dolphins and how they are cared for. It was both fascinating and exciting! But that was nothing compared to the ultimate experience of the day: petting, hugging, and getting kissed by the dolphin! It was honestly one of the most memorable, cherished experiences I have ever had.

There was also a swimming with the dolphins option, which requires full submersion in the water and the donning of required gear (which is provided). Here you even get to interact with the dolphins underwater. I passed on this due to a shortage of swimming skill and due to the significantly higher cost, but it is something you may want to consider.

You can see video footage of this adventure on my YouTube channel!:

Costa Maya, Mexico: Segway Adventure Excursion, Town, & Port

Stop two on the Norwegian Dawn Western Caribbean itinerary was Costa Maya, Mexico. Though touristy, I was impressed by the size of the port, and the attempt made to emulate the colonial style in architecture and layout. Surrounded by bright, pastel buildings complimenting the abundant sunshine highlighting them, it felt like paradise. Upon arriving at the port, we were welcomed by brilliantly-colored-costumed local performers.

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A warm welcome!

I signed up for the “Segway Adventure” excursion, and it was to be my first attempt using a Segway. Despite poor balance and osteoarthritis, I found the Segway extremely easy to control, and great fun! I wished I’d had more shock-absorbent shoes, because something about the motor under your feet is a little bit of a strain on them, but it did not impede on my enjoyment too much. After a short training session and feeling very comfortable on the Segway, we were off and into town!

We rolled through a long stretch of town parallel to the beach (don’t think I would have wanted to try to walk it – it was very spread out!), lined with alfresco dining opportunities, street vendors, stores and bars, and more masseuses offering massages than I’d ever seen in my life! (Sorry, Atlantic City Boardwalk!) It was the epitome of hedonism, all of this indulgence on massage tables, listening to the waves crash on the shore, sun-drenched skin, and an abundance of blissful smiles.

Others opted for water sports and swimming in the refreshing, aqua ocean waters, glistening in the mid-day sun as if crystals were floating upon it. The beach area did not extend far into land because of all of the other services on the beach, but it was very long so there was room for everyone. The Segway tour included a post-Segway “Beach Break,” during which I wandered up and down the street and beach, greeting locals in Spanish, and getting hassled by street vendors…

The scenery was beautiful, and the Segway was a marvelous way to take it all in. We were able to cover a lot of ground quickly while enjoying the soft, warm breeze on our faces (and a quick getaway from the more aggressive street vendors!)

Costa Maya is definitely a port to which I would love to return. Granted, it may not be the most authentic experience, and I probably saw as many tourists as locals (if not more) during the stop here, but it was fun nonetheless and the amazing scenery provided an excellent explanation why the place has become so attractive to tourists. It is very clean, well-maintained, and abundant with relaxing things to do, and I look forward to my next visit!

Please visit my YouTube channel for video footage of this stop:

Cozumel, Mexico: Horseback Ride through Mayan Ruins & Port

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Horses for waiting for the Mayan Ruins ride

Continuing from last week’s blog post, today I have the first port and excursion of the Norwegian Dawn spring break cruise: at Cozumel, Mexico. When I found an excursion that included a horseback ride through Mayan ruins I was sold – I love horseback riding and Mayan ruins! So I thought I’d hit the jackpot there!

The port at Cozumel is huge! There is a lot of shopping, a pool, lots of restaurants, fish pedicures…(!) The downside is that it feels a bit like a tourist trap and feels extremely commercial. So, while I had fun walking around, and definitely had fun listening to the Mariachi band welcoming people off the ship, I didn’t partake in the shopping here.

 

Of course, the real highlight of Cozumel was the horseback ride excursion. Admittedly, the Mayan ruins were somewhat underwhelming in their size, but still very interesting. They consisted of ruined buildings, statues, caves, and similar artifacts. The wooded area was peaceful and, other than the ruins, untouched nature. The horses were very friendly and well-behaved (for the most part…!), and the ride lasted a very satisfying hour. My horse was more interested in food than the Mayan ruins… he was quite the gourmand and intent on giving me the “culinary” tour! Once the ride finished, we returned to the stables for some very rainbow color inspired shopping (at better prices than the port) and a trip to a beautiful rocky beach with a small bar and very relaxing hammocks.

 

There are a lot of activities to enjoy in Cozumel. This was my second visit, and, again, I had to make a decision between many, many choices of what to do. (I visited the Mayan ruins at Tulum last time.) I would say the Mayan ruins (the BIG ones!) are definitely a must on the first visit – but the horseback ride was a very fun second choice! One thing I would not want to do in Cozumel? Stay at the port (for the reasons discussed above!)

I posted a vlog on this visit to Cozumel on my YouTube channel:

More coming from Mexico next week, this time from Costa Maya!

It’s a New Dawn for the Dawn – Norwegian Dawn Cruise 2018

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Atrium of the Norwegian Dawn

We are fresh back from a thrilling 7 day cruise to Central America out of Tampa, Florida on the Norwegian Dawn, and I am glad to be able to share another boots-on-the-ground travel blog with you after the past couple of posts. This was our second cruise on the Dawn – we sailed the Dawn to the Southern Caribbean back in December (2-part blog post from January is available related to that trip – click January 2018 on the sidebar to find them.) I’d like to provide a review of the Dawn here.

The Dawn went through an extensive drydock in 2016 – and consistent with the title of this post it looks incredible! The ship is extremely well maintained – I noticed absolutely no sign of wear and tear, and there is nothing outdated about the decor which was very fresh, trendy, and modern. There is a dizzying array of dining venues to choose from (5 of which are complimentary!) as well as bars. I felt as though the food in the main dining rooms, Aqua and Venetian, wasn’t as good as it was back in December, but that was okay because we had Bamboo (an Asian restaurant) and O’Sheehan’s (an Irish pub) to dine at instead on the remainder of our free dining nights. There is also a buffet – but I generally do not partake in buffets on cruise ships at all with the exception of breakfast (on any cruise line) because I am not comfortable in huge crowds and found that I’ve liked the food in the dining rooms far better as a general rule. But if you do like buffets, the Garden Cafe on the Dawn has magnificent views, a large selection, and comparatively nice decor for a cruise ship buffet.

One of the greatest benefits to booking on Norwegian are the promotions they offer in their “Free at Sea” program. With an interior cabin you choose one perk, and as you upgrade in stateroom category you get more to choose from. We usually start with the unlimited beverage package for our first perk, and the 3 nights of free specialty restaurants as our second perk (excursions, extra people in your cabin, and wi-fi are some of the other perks). We had an oceanview cabin and were able to book both of these perks, and the specialty restaurants we visited were outstanding. We returned to the Italian restaurant, La Cucina, and the steakhouse, Cagney’s, because we enjoyed them so much last time. We also decided to try Teppanyaki for the first time – where the chefs prepare your meal entertainment-style right in front of you (which you can watch in the YouTube video below!) We also visited Los Lobos again, the Mexican restaurant, for specialty margaritas (the best drinks I had on the whole ship) and homemade guacamole and chips. We really enjoyed Le Bistro – the French restaurant, last time but we didn’t have a chance to return this trip. So many options, not enough time!

It was Spring Break (mine too!) so the crowd was rowdier than last time. “Party hardy” is not our favorite atmosphere – despite my college student status I prefer peace and serenity on my cruises. I didn’t spend much time on the lido deck (despite the good Caribbean band that performed there often) but found a great quiet spot on the promenade deck to relax and contemplate the view. We didn’t need the lido pool because we reserved the Thermal Suite at Mandara Spa. There is an extra cost – but it’s worth every penny. The thermal suite includes a sauna, steam room, pool, 2 different jacuzzis, heated loungers (with an amazing view), and relaxation rooms. (The men’s locker room apparently also has 2 plunge pools that are not included in the women’s locker room – which I was disappointed to discover!) It’s quiet, relaxing, and there’s rarely a crowd. At night we often had the place all to ourselves. The jacuzzis and heated loungers were exactly what I needed after walking and exerting myself all day on excursions and getting around the big ship. I slept so much better after my blissful visit to the spa, all of my tension lifted and my sore muscles soothed!

Another benefit to booking with Norwegian is the stateroom upgrade bid program – where you can tell them what you’re willing to pay to upgrade your cabin and if they have one they can bump you up to they will. We got upgraded from an interior to a balcony last time, but we didn’t have any luck this time (probably because they were fully booked with Spring Break), but we were very pleased with our oceanview cabin nonetheless. It was comparatively roomy for a cruise cabin, had bright, cheerful decor, and lots of storage space. Our steward did an amazing job taking care of our room twice a day for us.

The entertainment was spectacular! Norwegian has our favorite shows for a cruise line. There was a great variety on this trip, from acrobats, to a Vegas-style production show, to magic, to comedy. These were some of the best shows I’ve ever seen – not just on a cruise ship but also on visits to Las Vegas and Atlantic City. We enjoyed spending our nights going to a show, the casino, and relaxing at the bars after dinner.

Staring at the incredible views out at sea, particularly the spectacular sunsets, is another of my favorite pastimes on cruises, and this trip did not disappoint. We sailed through the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea to Cozumel, Mexico, Costa Maya, Mexico, Roatan, Honduras, and Harvest Caye, Belize.

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Sunset View from the Promenade Deck

Service was excellent, and highly exceeded expectations. It was friendly, courteous, and efficient throughout the ship. We were extremely impressed that a couple of the servers even remembered us from 3 months ago!

This time I filmed a complete stem-to-stern tour of the Dawn for my YouTube channel which I have to share with you:

The next several blog posts will cover my adventures at the different ports. I wanted to try some new things this time on excursions, and had an absolute blast! I look forward to sharing these experiences with you over the next few weeks. And two weeks from now we will be sailing again – this time on the Carnival Pride out of Baltimore on a back-to-back to Bermuda, the Bahamas, Turks & Caicos, and Princess Caye, so I will have a lot more cruise travel coverage coming in the immediate future!

Sensational Travel: Traveling with All 5 Senses

More travel experiences are coming next week (on my way back from the latest adventure right now!) In the meantime, I want to share my greatest tip for getting more out of your travel.

The term “sightseeing” is synonymous with travel. Unfortunately, “sightseeing” is only one fifth, and possibly even one sixth, of the optimal travel experience. We need to remember to really immerse ourselves in our travel experiences by tapping into and noticing all of our senses.

Sure, seeing is the first (and sometimes the only) sense we think of when we think of travel. The sights to behold on this spectacular planet have a way of distracting us from our other senses. But these sights will be enhanced if appreciated in cooperation with our other senses. An obvious example would be watching native dancers. Of course, the dance makes a lot more sense when you are listening to the music. But even when the connection is less obvious, it is still an important part of the total experience, whether it is the blaring of taxi horns in Times Square, the bells of the slot machine ringing at a casino, the crashing of waves against the shore at a remote beach, or the cracking sound as the bat hits a home run ball at the baseball stadium. We often only notice these things as an afterthought. But what if they became part of the forethought? Enjoy the sound of the birds. How many different birds do you hear? And that foreign language people may be speaking – do you hear the rhythms of it? The world is full of interesting sounds, and these sounds can often even tell us a lot about the place they are originating from rather than just being irrelevant background noise.

Smell and taste are often linked, because when we think of aromas we often think of foods. But what if we took a deep breath on the beach and smelled the salty air? Or took the time to smell the flowers in the park? Does one neighborhood smell different from another in this new city?

When we taste in our travels, are we tasting local offerings? Travel is a great excuse to try that local microbrewery beer (or better yet, flight of beers!), that locally crafted cigar, or the local specialty on the dinner menu. That McDonald’s hamburger is diluting your travel experience! Remember how important food is in the culture of a place. The term “comfort food” refers to familiar food in your culture – and emphasizes the importance of the culture your food hails from. What foods comfort the locals in the place you are visiting?

Touch is often not considered while traveling, but there can be many opportunities to do so. Is the country you are visiting famous for their textiles? How do they feel? Are there animals to pet? Is there water, sand, rocks, sculpture, snow, rain to touch? Why not see what it feels like? From the warmth of the sun to the cool breeze brushing across your face, the world feels good!

And what about the sixth sense? Have you ever pondered what your intuition is telling you about the people you encounter? Wonder what that person is thinking, or what they are like, and then ask them! Nine times out of ten I have found locals are happy to talk to visitors. When you can “see” a place through the “eyes” of a local, you are having the ultimate travel experience.

The object or place we are viewing becomes an experience, not a “sight”, when we use all of our senses in our travels. We are completely immersed in a place. That is really the only way to truly “see” the world. If you are not already using all of your senses to travel, give it a try next time and see how it enhances your experience!