How to Make Vacation Costs Less Painful

March 29, 2018 by · Leave a Comment 

Before we moved to Florida two years ago, my family of five took an annual vacation down to Orlando every year for six years. It wasn’t always a Disney World trip, but it was a chance to get a break from the cold and snow of Indiana and to bask in the warmth of Central Florida.

And we didn’t always have the money for an expensive trip, but we were certainly able to have a fun time, all without breaking the bank or putting ourselves in terrible debt. It started with a little pre-planning the year before, which lightened the load. Here’s how we did it.

1. Driving is Cheaper than Flying

It may be a huge pain, but we would drive from Indianapolis to Orlando in about 20 hours. For a while, we did it in a single day, which was awful. After a while, we switched to two days which was fine, but usually added $250 to the trip, including the hotel nights and extra meals.

Still, it certainly beats five tickets at $400 apiece (although I certainly envy the two-hour flight time). We could drive 1,000 miles, visit the grocery store for breakfast and lunch, and then hit a decent restaurant for dinner, all for around $150. If we wanted to stop in a hotel, we would stay at the Holiday Inn Express near Macon, Georgia. We weren’t going for comfort and luxury there. We wanted something clean, comfortable, and safe. All told, the 2-day trip cost between $250 –$300 each way, and was still cheaper than flying. Plus we had our car once we were in town.

2. Buy gift cards throughout the year

Epcot in Orlando, Florida during the Flower and Garden Festival in May. One of my favorite vacations.

Epcot during the Flower and Garden Festival in May

One strategy we had to cut travel costs was to buy gift cards during the year and keep them in an envelope. My wife would buy $25 gift cards for Shell gas or Outback restaurant once a month. We had traveled enough times on this route that we knew where to stop to use them.

While it didn’t save us any money, we didn’t have to come up with a fistful of cash all at once just to cover the drive. By getting the gift cards, we were able to sock away some savings without actually putting the money in a savings account. (We tried that a couple times, but always had some emergency or other that required us to “borrow” from the savings and never put it back.)

3. Plan your activities, book ahead when possible

If you’re watching your vacation budget carefully, this is where you have to be hard-nosed. You will be sorely tempted to “just this once” add a new activity to your itinerary. It could be a tour or show, or some other amazing attraction that caught your eye, but it inflates your total costs. It’s worse if you show up without any plans at all, because you won’t really keep track of what you’re spending, and you can easily go overboard.

Instead, schedule out your activities and book the tickets in advance throughout the year. That way, you don’t have to cough up the cash right at that moment (see #2 above). Then, when temptation rears its ugly head, you have to stick to the schedule, and either refuse to be tempted or be willing to give up another activity (or activities) so you can pay for the new one. And if you’ve already bought the tickets, you’ll be even less tempted than before.

4. Plan for rest days

There’s a lot of truth to the old joke of “needing a vacation from our vacation.” When we would return home from Orlando, we would be exhausted, and not just because we drove 20 hours straight. We had spent days and days walking around the theme parks, visiting friends, or popping over to the beach for a day. We were exhausted. Plus, it’s expensive to do something every day.

We finally got smart and started blocking in rest days into our schedule. Those were the days we stayed around the rental house, spent time in the pool, or visited different parts of the city. We didn’t have anywhere to be, and best of all, we didn’t have to spend any money.

Even that one day of not doing anything gave us a chance to sleep in, take a nap, or just recover from the drive and last few days of activity. It also helped us reduce our costs, because we were just able to eat at home instead of going out.

How do you reduce your vacation costs without reducing the enjoyment? Do you have any cost-saving measures you can recommend? If you’ve got any tips, suggestions, or ideas, please share them in the comments below, on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream.

Photo credit: Erik Deckers, used with permission

How to Travel Comfortably if You’re, um, Bigger

March 15, 2018 by · Leave a Comment 

I’m not a small guy. I’m 6′ 2″ and I weigh “I-buy-XXL-shirts” pounds. That means I’m taller than average and heavier than average, which makes it a bit difficult to travel comfortably. In fact, just last week, I flew from Orlando to Indianapolis and back again in 48 hours, and then drove to Tampa as soon as I landed. I’ll also be flying to Dallas next month and may be on a plane a couple more times this year. And trying to travel comfortably on the plane isn’t always easy.

If I want to be comfortable in my travels, there are a few things I do to ensure it’s not unpleasant.

Fly Economy Plus or better

I’m tall enough that if I ride in regular economy, my knees are always jammed up against the seat in front of me, so I always pay a little extra for the Economy Plus seating. The legroom is a little more,, and that alone is worth the extra costs. Plus, I’ve noticed that the seatbelts are a little longer, which means they fit better and I don’t crush my bladder whenever I fasten my seatbelt.

And as an Economy Plus member, I can always board right after their top priority club members and first class passengers, which means I can always get a spot for my bag in the overhead bin.

If you’re several inches taller than me, you can spring for an exit row seat or a first class seat. And if you’re wider than me, you may either have to buy a second seat (which some airlines require), or upgrade to business or first class. But give Economy Plus a try if you need just a few inches to spare.

Drive 7 hours or less instead of flying

The author at a reading in Pensacola, Florida. I try to travel comfortably whenever I have to go anywhere.

Yours truly reading humor at the Foo Foo Festival in Pensacola, Florida. We drove 8 hours to get there, because it was just easier and more comfortable.

When I lived in Indianapolis, I could get to Chicago in 3 hours, Nashville in 5, and Madison, Wisconsin in 7. Since a regular plane trip from Indianapolis to most places would take 6 hours from my house to my hotel, I always drove my car for any road trip that I could do in six or seven hours.

That’s because a normal flight, from door to door, took six hours. If I left my house at 6:00 am, I could drive 45 minutes to the airport, pay for parking, get there two hours early, fly for an hour, get a rental car, and drive 45 minutes to my hotel. And I would get there around noon.

Or I could drive my car round trip for the price of four tanks of gas. I would leave my house at 6:00 am, and get to the hotel by noon. I saved a lot of money, I took the same amount of time, but I was also more comfortable and had the use of my car to boot. (If I was going to be somewhere for several days, but it was a 7 or 8 hour car trip, I would still drive so I wouldn’t need to rent a car.)

Be confident

This is a tough one. On one of my legs up to Indianapolis last week, my seatbelt was 4 inches too short. Never mind that every other belt on every other flight was just fine. Airlines just seem to put random length seat belts on all their seats, although it’s worse in economy seating. Economy Plus seatbelts seem to be bit longer and I rarely find one that’s too short, which is another reason I pay for the upgrade.

But that wasn’t true in this case; this time, the belt was just a few inches too short, so I had to ask for a lap belt extension.

I didn’t like doing it, and I felt ashamed and embarrassed. But I’ve been able to fit every other flight I’ve been on, plus I’ve lost 20 pounds, so I knew it wasn’t me.

I decided confidence was the key to surviving this with my dignity intact. I held my head up high, looked the flight attendant square in the eye, and very quietly whispered, “Can I have a belt extension please?”

Trust me, it sucked. Like I had to admit I was too big to fly like a normal person. But the alternative was to be completely unsafe and embarrassed if the flight attendant publicly called me out for not fastening my seat belt. Plus I could have easily been hurt if we hit some major turbulence. So I asked for the extension and I was able to fly comfortably.

Traveling is difficult enough already, but it’s even more difficult when you need more room than other people. So you have three choices, be extremely uncomfortable, pay for the extra room, or never go anywhere. I personally like to see the world, but I don’t want to be uncomfortable, so I’ll drive or pay for upgrades whenever I travel.

And I’ll be happy with who I am and how I look, and if other people don’t like it, that’s tough.

Do you do anything special to ensure you travel comfortably? Do you have any tips for us? Share them in the comments below, on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream.

Photo credit: Erik Deckers (used with permission)

Four Spring Break Ideas for the Whole Family

January 11, 2018 by · Leave a Comment 

The new year has begun and we’re already thinking about Spring Break ideas? Well, if most of you were hit by the sudden bomb cyclone weather last week, I’m sure you’re dreaming about warmer weather. Plus, I know a lot of people from New Orleans flee the city during Mardi Gras, while many Bostonians head south during the week of President’s Day, since they get the entire week off.

If you just want to get out of Dodge for a little while, but you maybe don’t want to hit the typical college hot spots, here are a few Spring Break ideas for you. There’s something to do for the whole family, but these are also great places to eat and experience the local culture.

1. Portland, Oregon

If I had to move anywhere else in the country, I’d head to Portland. It may rain quite a bit, but it’s usually a light rain, and not the major storms we get in the Midwest. It also has low humidity and surprisingly few mosquitoes. It’s a great place for excellent food and craft beer, as well as plenty of festivals, theater, and the arts.

There are several museums, including the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI, pronounced AHM-zee), the Portland Art Museum, the Portland Children’s Museum, and the Oregon Maritime Museum. There’s also the Oaks Amusement Park and North Clackamas Aquatic Park for some fun.

Plus you’re a couple of hours away from the beach (I especially love Lincoln City), and Mount Hood if you want to go hiking. If you like outdoor activities, Oregon has a lot to do, and you can do a lot of it within a couple hours of Portland. And the rainfall is less between winter and summer, so a March spring break trip wouldn’t be as rainy as, say, May or September.

2. Nashville, Tennessee

This city is great if you have older kids. While you probably can’t go cruising the bars with them, there are several restaurants that have musical acts in the late afternoon and early evening. Take them out for some music and dinner as you check out some of the sights around the city.

There’s also the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Nashville Zoo, the Parthenon, and Opryland (which also has an amusement park). If you want to pay homage to the entertainment pioneers of the south, there’s the Johnny Cash Museum and Cafe, Willie Nelson and Friends Museum, Patsy Cline Museum, and of course, Cooter’s Place in Nashville, a museum dedicated to the Dukes of Hazzard. Or if Spring Training is over, you could catch a ball game with the Triple-A Nashville Sounds baseball team, or a Nashville Predators hockey game.

Finally, if you’re a rock and roll fan, don’t forget to check out Third Man Records, Jack White’s record store and recording studio. He’s doing some interesting things with vinyl records, so it’s worth a look if you’re into vinyl at all.

3. Dallas, Texas

Actually, anywhere south of Nashville is going to be a lot warmer than the Midwest and Northeast at this time of year. But Dallas is a large enough city in one of the biggest states in the country, which means there’s a lot to do, and it’s going to be plenty warm.

You can visit the Dallas Museum of Art, the Perot Museum of Nature and Science, the African American Museum, and Dallas Heritage Village, which is like Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia or Indiana’s Conner Prairie.

If you’re looking for some fun activities, there’s Six Flags Over Texas or the smaller Zero Gravity Thrill Jump Park. But if you’re interested in sports, check out the Dallas Mavericks for basketball; the Texas Rangers will open at home against the Houston Astros on March 29th; and the Dallas Stars have a few games at home in March.

4. St. Augustine, Florida

Aviles Street in St. Augustine - one of my favorite Spring Break ideas

Aviles Street in St. Augustine, Florida

It’s right on the beach, but it’s not one of the college hotspots. As the United States’ oldest city, it has too much educational and historical significance to be of interest to college students. Or your kids, but who says Spring Break has to be all about amusement parks and kiddie fun time?

St. Augustine was originally a Spanish outpost and colony, so it’s known for its Spanish colonial architecture. Anastasia State Park is a protected wildlife sanctuary and you can check out the St. Augustine Wild Reserve, a nonprofit animal sanctuary. There are also plenty of old sites to check out, including the Fountain Of Youth Archaeological Park, Castillo de San Marcos, the St. Augustine Pirate & Treasure Museum, and the El Galeon Ship.

Walk around historic St. George Street, and you can see the oldest wooden school, the old jail, and plenty of interesting shops. You can also ride around on the hop-on-hop-off trolley tour to get around town and hear a little about the place while you’re riding.

The last time we were there, my family and I ate at The Conch House Restaurant, which is right on the main pier overlooking the Bay. But if you’re in the mood for seafood, there are more restaurants than you’ll be able to visit in a single week. And since they’re right on the water, the seafood is always going to be fresh.

Where do you go for Spring Break? Do you have any good Spring Break ideas? Share them with us in the comments below, on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream.

Phoo credit: paulbr7 (Pixabay, Creative Commons 0)

How Waze and Google Maps Work on Your Phone

August 31, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

It was May 2016, and I was on my way to Indianapolis, driving from Orlando. As I was nearing Atlanta, my phone beeped frantically. It was my GPS app, Waze, telling me to exit in a half mile.

I had learned from experience to always follow Waze, so I got over and exited onto some county highway just in time. As I exited, I saw cars stopping on the highway, backing up almost to the exit, the line stretching up as far as I could see

I followed the new directions, driving along county roads east of Atlanta. It took 30 minutes, and Waze finally deposited me back onto the highway, 10 miles north of where I had exited, back into the traffic jam I had left. I was back in the same line of traffic, but only for one mile, and I was only stuck in it for 20 minutes.
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Travel Tech to Make Your Trips A Little Easier in 2017

August 17, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

Every year, there are new gadgets and apps to that promise to make our traveling life a little easier. Whether it’s a cell phone attachment that works as a digital scale and a battery charger, or a coffee shop guide app that shows you all the coffee houses in the world’s major cities, there are lots of new things that can help you make your next trip much easier and enjoyable.

These are a few of the different gadgets, gizmos, and gewgaws to consider getting before your next family vacation.

Waze is one of my favorite travel tech options when I'm on the road

Waze is one of my favorite travel tech options when I’m on the road


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Does Your State Have a Tourism Trail?

July 27, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

If you’re ever looking for a short vacation you can do close to home, but don’t know where to start, try a tourism trail. A tourism trail typically focuses on food, alcohol, history, or sports, and is usually created by tourism boards or local businesses.

For example, Indiana has six separate wine trails, all created by the Indiana Wine Grape Trail. Covering different parts of the state, you can spend a day or two each on trails in southeastern Indiana, northeastern Indiana, or Indianapolis.

But if you don’t want Indiana wine, there are wine trails in nearly every state. Check out America’s Wine Trails to pick a wine trail in your favorite part of the country or something close to home.

When I was a travel writer in Indiana, I even devised an Indiana Microbrewery Trail. It’s a fantasy beer trip around the Hoosier state, in three parts, each taking two days.

The Woodford Reserve Distillery is part of the Kentucky Bourbon Tourism Trail

The Woodford Reserve Distillery is part of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail


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How to Eat Healthy On the Road

February 17, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

Trying to eat healthy on the road can be difficult because my family has a lot of food allergies and sensitivities between us. One can’t eat gluten, another can’t eat dairy, another has a peanut allergy, and the fourth can’t have a lot of processed meats. I’m the only one who escaped any kind of food issue.

This makes eating on the road very difficult. We can’t just buzz into a fast food restaurant for a quick lunch. We need to carefully plan and plot our trip, so everyone can get something they want without being shortchanged.

Plus, eating healthy is a good habit to be in, and every meal on the road shouldn’t be ordered at a drive-thru window anyway.

Here are a few ways to eat healthy on the road, whether you’re just trying to watch calories or if you have food allergies that limit what you can eat.

1. Pack your food

A nice salad helps you eat healthy on the road

Those are figs in the center. I never knew what a fig looked like.


If there are certain foods you can and should have, pack them in special airtight containers and tuck them in your suitcase. That way, even if everyone else wants fast food, you’re not watching them eat.
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Five Apps You Need On Your Next Road Trip

February 3, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

As a frequent driver, I love what my mobile phone can do. It’s a mini computer and camera that lets me make phone calls, and thanks to the various apps that are available, I could leave my house right now, and drive all the way across the country without a laptop or pre-planning, and navigate the entire trip.

But I couldn’t make it without my phone.

That’s because I use certain apps just to find my way around anymore. Whether it’s ordering coffee, booking a hotel, or finding somewhere to eat, there’s an app that’s sure to help any traveler on any trip. But there are a few that are perfect for road trips. Here are my top five.

Siri/Android Virtual Assistant

First, let’s get this out of the way: I don’t text and drive (and you shouldn’t either). Instead, I use Siri to send and read my texts.

If you have your mobile phone plugged into a power source, you can call out “Hey Siri” and she’ll answer. I plug the phone into the AUX jack on my stereo, so I can hear everything going on. When I say “Hey Siri, read my texts,” she’ll read any new texts, then ask if I want to respond. I dictate a short response to her, including all punctuation (because I’m a geek that way) and she sends it for me. There will be occasional errors, based on my pronunciations, like “will” instead of “we’ll,” but the people I text understand when I’m dictating, and will figure it out.
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Should You Drive or Should You Fly? A Vacation Formula

January 27, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

When heading out on vacation, the biggest decision you’ll make is how to get there. Do you drive or fly? If you fly, you can get there sooner and spend more time at your destination. Driving is more budget friendly, but it takes a couple of extra days out of your vacation time.

In my travels, I’ve driven and flown to dozens of destinations. On some airplane trips, I would have been satisfied with driving, and on some car trips, I wish I’d been born with wings. But for the most part, we made the best decision we could with the information and resources we had. If you’re trying to decide, here’s a handy 3-step formula you can use to help make your decision.

How far is your destination?

Kids on a planeI typically won’t fly anywhere if I can make the drive in less than six hours. If I fly, I get to the airport two hours early, and it takes me at least 45 minutes to drive, park, and get inside. My flight will take at least one hour. Then I have to disembark, walk to the rental car counter, get my car, and drive to the hotel, all about two hours after the plane touches down. And if I take the hotel shuttle, then I’m without ground transportation.

This all takes at least 5.5 hours.

But if I drive, I can take the same amount of time, and have my car with me in a new city, which lets me explore on my own. I’m in control of my progress and circumstances.
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How to Travel With Teenagers

January 6, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

Going on a road trip with your teenagers seems like a lot of fun, until you realize, you’re going on a road trip with teenagers. Whether it’s a three-week summer road trip to trace Route 66, or a quick three-day weekend to visit family, travel with teenagers can be a little stressful. They don’t always want to do what we’d like them to do, their idea of fun may not match up with the rest of the family’s, and their interests seem, well, unusual.

(Not like when we were teenagers! We were a delight and never gave our parents a single problem.)

The Family Truckster from National Lampoon's Vacation. The "perfect" car for travel with teenagers.

The Family Truckster from National Lampoon’s Vacation. This is on display at the Auto Attractions Museum in Roscoe, IL.

I’m the father of three teenagers, and I know the struggle of trying to get your teenagers to be excited about family vacations. If you can get your teenager in the car, here are a few things you can do to help them enjoy their time with the family, and maybe even look up from their phones and video games for a little while.

Teach them how to read a map. This is one thing my dad did for me when we would go for long trips. He would hand me the map and ask me to navigate for him: Find the route, determine our current location, and calculate our arrival time based on our distance from the final destination. Turns out, he already knew all that information, but he would explain how to determine all of that based on the map and then let me figure it out. Not only did it teach me to read a map properly, but it made me feel invested in the actual journey. We may have GPS to do all of that for us now, but I think people who know how to read a map have a better understanding — and appreciation — for how their GPS works.
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