How to “Travel Cashless” On Your Next Trip

October 31, 2019 by · Leave a Comment 

As payment technology continues to transform the way we buy and sell things, it’s easy to see how we could one day become a cashless society. Not anytime soon, of course, but it’s already happening in other parts of the world. And maybe you’ll be traveling cashless there.

Recently, SmarterTravel.com wrote that some banking experts believe Sweden will eliminate cash as a payment method by the year 2023. Instead, all of their consumer transactions will use a digital payment method, such as credit and debit cards, RFID-embedded devices, or mobile phones and digital wallets.

There are other cities around the world that are also going cashless, says Smarter Travel, including Reykjavik, Seoul, Singapore, Stockholm, and several cities in China.

A debit card or credit card is one way you can travel cashless.While that won’t happen any time in the U.S. or Canada, it’s still a good idea to learn to go cashless when you travel. For one thing, it makes traveling in different foreign countries much easier. You don’t have to find a money exchange place, which I often had to do when I would travel overseas. If only we’d had the technology back then that we do now.

It’s also more secure. If you lose your phone or your wallet, you can shut off your cards and replace them. You can’t replace cash.

Here are a few ways you can go cashless before your next trip. It’s a good idea to start using these now so you get used to using them, rather than trying to figure it out on your first day in a new country.

Debit/Credit Cards:

The old reliable in cashless transactions. If you don’t do anything else with cashless payments, make sure you’ve got a credit card or two when you travel. You’ll use this to book your plane tickets, rent a car, and reserve a hotel room. If you can manage it in the months before your trip, pay for everything you can with your credit card and then pay off the balance each month. Get a card that gives you airline points and you could get yourself a free ticket.

Don’t ever use a debit card for these transactions though, at least for renting a car or hotel room. Those providers will put a hold on some cash on your card, taking it from your account. If you weren’t expecting it, you could find yourself in a sticky situation.

You can also get prepaid credit and debit cards to use when you travel. They function like regular credit cards. You can save up for your trip by putting some money on the card each month.

Apple Pay/Google Wallet

These are two easy-to-use apps that come with your smartphone. If you’ve got an iPhone or Samsung (or other Google-brand phone), you’ve got access to these digital wallets. You’ll connect one or more credit and debit card to them, and then tap your phone to the sensor to initiate payment.

Money Transfer Apps

Apps like PayPal, Venmo, and Cash tie directly into your bank account or debit card and let you transfer money to a friend, family member, or merchant. Some apps will charge the recipient a 2.75% service fee, although PayPal gives you a “family and friends” option which doesn’t charge anything.

There are also the apps WeChat Pay and AliPay, which are wildly popular in China. So much so, that AliPay became the biggest mobile payment service in the world in 2014, surpassing PayPal. It’s also changing the way China does business, as more Chinese people are paying with AliPay and WeChat Pay instead of cash.

If you’re traveling to China, you definitely want WeChat or AliPay. And because Chinese tourists are visiting other parts of the world, and they’re not using cash as much, more businesses are accepting these apps as forms of payment. So you could be in a different part of the world and find WeChat Pay and AliPay are also options for you.

Finally, if you’re trying to travel cashless, please skip the traveler’s checks. No one really uses them anymore, even though they’re still around. If you’re trying to pay with traveler’s checks, you may run into some problems as many merchants may not even know how to process them.

How do you handle your money when you travel? Do you do anything special to travel cashless or just part of your normal day? Share some strategies on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream.

Photo credit: Flyerwerk (Pixabay, Creative Commons)

How to Save Money and Time Attending a Festival in Another City

October 17, 2019 by · Leave a Comment 

I recently returned from Lowell, Massachusetts and the Lowell Celebrates Kerouac festival where I was invited to speak and be a special guest at several of the events.

Jack Kerouac, author of the definitive road trip novel On The Road, was born and raised in Lowell. They were commemorating the 50th anniversary of his death on October 21, 1969.

I was fortunate enough to attend and participate in several of the events, which were scattered around the downtown Lowell area. I’ve attended a great number of festivals and conferences, both alone and with my family, and there are a few things I’ve learned over the years.

Whether you’re attending an arts or music festival held in a park, a large film or theater festival scattered around a city, or even a comic book convention in a huge convention center, there are a few things to keep in mind to save plenty of time and money while you’re there

1. Parking will be terrible

Downtown Lowell, Massachusetts, home of the Lowell Celebrates Kerouac Festival

Downtown Lowell, Massachusetts. Jack Kerouac grew up and went to high school a few blocks from here.

Unless you’re an organizer with special parking, or you get to the location super early, you’re not going to find a great place to park. And it’s going to be somewhat expensive. When you’re figuring out your budget for the event, take your parking costs into account. I’ve seen parking go for as much as $40 per day for event parking in big cities. Meanwhile, people will stay in a hotel 10 miles from the event just to save $30 on lodging prices.

If you’re getting a place based on price, look at the price difference between the closer hotel and the cheaper hotel + ride-sharing/parking. You may find that it’s actually cheaper to get the closer, more expensive hotel because you’ll save money on parking or ride-sharing. Plus, you can come and go as you need to, rather than wasting time driving to and from the event.

2. Book your lodging EARLY

Depending on your schedule, you may be on site all day long, so you only need the hotel as a place to keep your stuff and to sleep. If that’s the case, you probably don’t care where you’re located or what kind of room you have. But if you have to show up at the festival really early or are going to stay late, you’ll probably want to be as close as possible to avoid driving time.

The closest hotels always go the fastest, which means you need to book early. In some cases, you may not even want to wait until this year’s festival is over; book now for the next year’s festival and be sure to confirm the reservation a couple of times between now and then.

Also, some events will make arrangements for special event pricing, so be sure to check in with the organizer to see if they’ve set that up.

3. Plan your schedule

Since I was in Lowell as a special speaker, nearly all of my events were already planned for me. I knew where I had to be and when, so I just spent my downtime at some of the other events or working at one of the local coffee shops.

If you’re already a regular calendar user and access it from your mobile phone, book all your events and appointments in your calendar, along with the address and any other necessary information. That way, you don’t need to access the event guide or even use their app.

Scheduling also helps you avoid conflicts and double-booking. Some festivals have multiple events and breakout sessions, others have events in different locations. Check Google Maps to see the distance between all the event venues to make sure you can make it from one to the other in plenty of time. Be sure to include the addresses in your calendar listing, because you can click the address and open up to your favorite GPS app to navigate your way there.

4. Compare the cost of Uber/Lyft versus driving and rental cars.

I think I made a big mistake in Lowell this time: I rented a car and drove everywhere. My rental car costs were $240, plus gas. I rented a car, because the airport is about 30 miles from where I needed to be. However, I think I could have saved about $40 – $50 if I had just used Lyft to go everywhere, even to and from the airport.

You can look up on Lyft and Uber’s website to get trip estimates and compare that with the cost of renting a car and gassing it up before you return it. And if you’re going to be staying in a hotel close to the event, you almost certainly won’t need a rental car, so consider ride-sharing and taxis for any surprise transportation.

5. Carry your own lunch and snacks

Event food is super expensive, although some of it can be pretty fun. I go to the Central Florida Scottish Highland Festival and Games every year, and always love the food trucks they have there. Otherwise, I try to take granola bars and a few sandwiches for a cheap lunch, rather than pay $12 for a burned-yet-still-frozen hamburger and small Coke.

However, don’t cheap out on dinners. Those times should be spent with friends, especially if you only see them at the festivals. Find someplace that’s not too close, but not several miles away either. Walking distance is usually packed with festival-goers and the ones that are far away require a lot of logistical headaches.

How do you travel for festivals and special events? What strategies do you employ to save money? Tell us about it on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream.

Photo credit: John Phelan (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons 3.0)

Six Things to Know About Micro-Cations

August 29, 2019 by · Leave a Comment 

The latest trend with vacations — other than creating a playful new word — is to take short trips that last no more than 4 nights.

No longer referred to as just “long weekends,” the travel industry is now calling these mini-trips micro-cations. Makes sense, since you don’t always have to do them over the weekend.

I’m on board with the micro-cations trend though. According to a study by Allianz Travel Insurance, (n)early three-fourths (72 percent) of Millennials took at least one micro-cation in the last year, while 69 percent of Gen X’ers and 60 percent of Baby Boomers did the same.

It makes perfect sense! After all, it’s hard to get away for a week or two when you have to deal with work, school, and family obligations. But grabbing 3 or 4 days, even in the middle of the week, can be a nice way to take a break, and even take a break more often.

Here are six things you can do with micro-cations.

Man and woman jumping into a pool fully clothed. This is the kind of crazy stuff you can on micro-cations, if you're so inclined.

  1. You can add them onto a business trip. This is also called a bleisure trip, where you combine business and leisure travel. You’ll already be in the area, so there’s no need to pay travel costs, and you only have to pay for your personal lodging, food, and so on, but you’ve saved on the travel costs.
  2. You can visit some places in the off-season. One thing that’s great about living in Orlando is that we can visit the theme parks whenever we’d like, and we know to avoid them during the peak tourist season. So the best times to go are right before Spring Break, right after school starts, and right after Fall Break. You can take your own micro-cation in an off-season and miss the biggest crowds.
  3. Things may cost a little less in the middle of the week. Not only are crowds smaller, but prices may be lower. There could be special mid-week packages or even special hotel rates. Just stay away from the hotels popular with the business crowds: Those prices are higher during the week and lower on the weekends..
  4. You can take more of them. Nearly a third of Millennials in the Allianz study took three or more micro-cations in a year. If you only get two weeks of vacation (10 working days), that makes it hard to see very many places in a single year. But you can get three or even four micro-cations in a single year. Combine them with a weekend, and you can get your money’s worth while still only taking a couple days off at a time.
  5. It’s financially easier to take shorter trips. How many of us (or our parents) would save for a year or two for that one big vacation? You might have saved a lot of money and still ended up paying for it after you got home. But with micro-cations, you don’t spend as much, which makes saving up for them a lot easier.
  6. If you decide you don’t like it, you haven’t wasted your entire trip. Have you ever been on a vacation that just went miserably? I have. Believe me, they’re not fun. And it’s worse when one goes south on day 2 of a 7-day trip. Now, I’m not saying this is a positive point of a micro-cation, but I am saying that if you end up having a vacation that goes south (figuratively), you won’t have to put up with it for too long before you can go home again.

Micro-cations are becoming the new trend, especially for Millennial and Gen X travelers: 25% of Millennials don’t want to spend more money on a longer vacation, and 40% of Gen X-ers say it’s easier to take time off work for a short trip.

What do you think about micro-cations? Have you taken any, or would you take one? If you took one, what did you like or dislike about it? Tell us about it on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream.

Photo credit: PXHere.com (Creative Commons 0)

Things You SHOULD Buy Before You Travel

June 27, 2019 by · Leave a Comment 

While there are many things you can probably go without when you travel — miniature sleep tents for airplanes, battery-powered neck-warming pillows, airplane bathrobes — there are a few things you should have.

Smarter Travel recently published an article on seven things you shouldn’t buy before you travel, and I found myself disagreeing with about half of their items. The list includes:

  1. Travel insurance
  2. Private Passport Expediting Service
  3. Seat Assignment
  4. Prepaid Credit Cards
  5. Platinum-Economy Seat Upgrades
  6. TV Show Downloads
  7. Expedited Security

As a former road warrior turned frequent road tripper and couple-times-a-year flier, I think you’re making a big mistake if you follow this advice. There are a few items I absolutely insist on getting, and a couple items I could go either way. And, of course, there are some you should absolutely never, ever pay for. Ever.

To start with, I agree, you should not pay for private passport expediting services. You’re basically paying someone else to fill out a form and/or stand in line for you. You can pay for expedited service from the State Department anyway, which is what the private services are going to do. You can also get “life or death emergency” passport services. If you can do it yourself, do you really need to pay a few hundred dollars for someone else to do it?

I also agree you shouldn’t pay for TV show downloads, unless you’re already doing it. Download Netflix or Hulu episodes if you’re a subscriber (that’s included in your subscription), but don’t buy new episodes just for a trip. You’ve probably had plenty of items on your Netflix watchlist for many months if not years, so watch some of those. Save the purchased episodes for when you get home.

Skip prepaid credit cards, unless you can’t get your own credit cards. You should instead get credit cards that give you travel miles, so you can help pay for your next trip.

And the seat assignment thing is a little iffy. If you check in immediately 24 hours before your flight — like, right at 23:59:59 before you leave — you could probably get a good seat. However, just remember that there are people like me who purchase the Platinum-Economy Seat Upgrade, and I can reserve my seat when I book my ticket two months in advance. But if you’re on a less-popular flight or route, you’ll probably be okay.

You Should Absolutely Get These Before You Travel

However, I think you should get these things before you travel, especially if you fly more than once a year. (There are a few exceptions for each of these though.)

1. Buy travel insurance if you’re going on an expensive trip.
I don’t always get travel insurance, but there are plenty of times that I do. If nothing else, your travel insurance is going to help pay for any and all lost pre-paid tickets if you ever have to cancel or cut short a trip because of weather or illness.

Imagine saving up for a family vacation and canceling all those non-refundable airline tickets because someone got the flu two days before the flight. Sure you can recover or postpone the park/cruise/adventure tickets, but it’s a lot of hassle and time, not to mention the loss of any nonrefundable fees. Travel insurance can help you avoid all those headaches, and it’s not that expensive.

Check the different travel insurance options — and make sure you know what they cover and don’t cover beforehand — before you book your first ticket.

2. Get the platinum-economy seat upgrades.
As I’ve said before, I’m bigger than average. I need more legroom, but I don’t want to upgrade to business class. The Economy Plus (or whatever each airline calls it) is completely worth the extra costs.

The difference in seat pitch between Economy and Economy Plus may only be a couple of inches, but those couple inches mean the world of difference to me. I’ve spent two hours with my knees jammed up against the back of a seat, and I’ll change my entire itinerary before I ever do that again.

3. Pay for expedited security.

TSA security line at Denver International Airport

TSA security line at Denver International Airport

As the Smarter Travel article said:

Expedited security can be a really awesome perk when you’re faced with a lengthy line that snakes off into the distance. On the other hand, when there are three other people in line and the sound of crickets in the air, it can feel like a rip-off.

Even if you only fly once a year, expedited security is totally worth it. The cost for TSA PreCheck is $85 and it lasts for 5 years: $85 ÷ 5 = $17.

So your cost for having PreCheck is $17 per year. For a round-trip flight, that works out to $8.50 per trip. Would you pay $8.50 to not have to stand in line at security? I would.

I can tell you that never-have-I-ever been in a security line with only three people in it, but I’ve been in plenty of lines that snake off into the distance before. And there are some days where I would just pay 85 bucks to skip that line, let alone have five years’ worth of skipping.

If you’re a very infrequent traveler, or you’re small enough to fit into the regular economy seats, maybe you can skip these three “should buys,” but for the most part, I always recommend them to anyone who’s average height or above and flies at least once a year. Otherwise, take a good, long look at what you’re giving up, and see if the gains make up the possible headaches that will arise if something goes wrong.

What kind of “must haves” do you get before you travel? Are there any we can skip or items we should never leave the house without? Share your tips on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream, and be sure to connect with us on Instagram.

Planning and Packing Tips for Your Family’s Spring Break Trip

January 17, 2019 by · Leave a Comment 

Spring break is coming up in a few months, which doesn’t seem possible, since we just finished with [insert preferred winter holiday here]. But Spring Break happens in March and April for most of the country, and many families plan some sort of out-of-town trip for that time period.

If you’re heading somewhere warm, like down here in Florida (or over in Texas, Arizona, and California), there are a few planning and packing tips you should plan on (and a few you should avoid) as you’re preparing for your next vacation.

One of our packing tips is to not overpack your car; ship things ahead if you need to, or buy items when you arrive.

  1. Avoid the college crowds. Some families make a mistake venturing into the college spring break destinations — Panama City Beach, Miami, Daytona Beach, etc. — not realizing how much they’re going to have to explain to their young children. Plus, these places will be so packed that you’ll have a tough time finding a place to stay, and everything will be very expensive. Keep in mind that many of the popular destinations — Disney World, Disneyland, most beaches, etc. — will be super packed too.
  2. Don’t pack your pool toys. If you want to get your kids a bunch of pool toys, bucket and shovels, and so on, wait until you get to your destination. There’s no point in packing something you can easily get at any drugstore or Walmart (we have those here in Florida). Save your luggage space and weight. In fact, consider leaving them behind when you go home. They’re cheap to buy and easy to replace, and unless you have a pool at home, you’re not going to use them for several months anyway.
  3. Don’t pack baby food and diapers. Again, we have baby food and diapers for sale down here. I’ve seen parents of babies pack an entire week’s worth of diapers in their own suitcase, only to discover their hotel is literally two blocks from a grocery store. Since extra bag fees can be as much as $50 per bag, you’d be money ahead if you just shipped the diapers. So avoid the hassle altogether and just buy the diapers once you arrive.
  4. If you fly, leave on a Friday and return on a Sunday. Flights are cheaper if you can leave on a Friday and/or return on a Sunday. So if you’re spending a whole week on vacation, make it a 10-day trip and get the lowest possible price for the time out.
  5. If you drive, leave in the middle of the night. The south-bound highways are packed on Friday and Saturday before Spring Break, and the northbound lanes are packed on Sundays. You can avoid a lot of that traffic if you leave at 3:00 in the morning. We did this for years when we drove from Indianapolis to Florida, and we saved ourselves so many headaches. Also, use the Waze app on your mobile phone to get up-to-the-minute traffic alerts.
  6. Make dinner reservations right now. If you’re staying in a Spring Break hotspot, and there are some great restaurants you want to try, book the reservations now because they’ll be gone by your vacation. If you’re not sure what you’re in the mood for, book a couple restaurants for the same night and then cancel the others a couple days beforehand, once you make up your mind. (But don’t just fail to show up. That’s inconsiderate and rude.)
  7. Avoid the clichéd destinations. Of course, the temptation is to leave the northern states and head south for warmer weather. And since it’s the middle of January, you’re probably looking at us here in Florida, wishing a January blizzard on us. (Don’t worry; we make up for it with furnace-like summers.) But Spring Break in Florida is packed! Head to a less-traditional Spring Break destination — Atlanta, GA; Savannah, GA; Charleston, SC — and skip the crowds, but enjoy the warmer weather.
  8. Protect your money. Never carry all your money in one place, and never show it all when you pay for something. Carry only one or two credit cards at all times, so if you lose one, you can still operate with another you hid in your suitcase or the hotel safe.
  9. Don’t tell social media you’re on vacation. Posting photos of your vacation only tells crooks that your house is empty, as well as your whereabouts. Thieves and other criminals browse social media for check-ins, photos, and notices that people are either not at home, or are at places not familiar to them. Save the photos for when you get home.
  10. Get travel insurance. You may only be taking a relaxing vacation at the beach to read books, but that doesn’t mean things can’t go wrong. You can get sick or injured and get hit with unexpected medical costs or miss out on tickets and reservations you already paid for. Get insurance that will cover medical costs and replacement costs for reservations.

Where do you go for Spring Break? What kinds of packing tips do you have for those of us who will be heading out for a much-needed respite from winter weather? Share your thoughts on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream.

How to Get Tax Deductions for Part of Your Vacation

July 26, 2018 by · Leave a Comment 

One thing I’ve learned as a small business owner and a freelance writer is that you can take tax deductions on certain parts of your vacation, but it has to be done very carefully.

Previously, I’ve talked about “bleisure travel,” which is the practice of tacking a small vacation onto the beginning or end of a business trip. Then, if you’re visiting a city you’ve always wanted to explore, you can take a couple days off or stay over the weekend, and pay for your added hotel and food expenses yourself. It’s a great way to get to see a part of the world you might otherwise never visit.

But this is a little bit different. Taking tax deductions on your vacation means tacking a little bit of work onto your leisure time, not the other way around.

Before we go any further, let me issue two warnings:

  1. This is not professional tax advice. Talk with your accountant before you actually do this to make sure you’re deducting the right activities and so forth.
  2. You’re not going to be able to deduct your entire vacation, so don’t get ideas of taking a world cruise on the government’s dime.

1. Part of your vacation has to be work-related, like a conference or business meeting.

A trade show floor. You need to do some work on vacation if you want any tax deductions.To begin with, taking a vacation closely related to your work qualifies. This is sometimes referred to as a busman’s holiday, which is a vacation spent following or practicing one’s usual occupation. In the days of bus conductors and bus drivers, a busman might spend a day off riding on a pal’s bus or even take the bus to get to his holiday, hence the name.

A professional writer could visit a writer’s conference or research a particular location or city for her book; a house builder might spend a holiday week repairing and building houses for his church’s missions trip; a museum director would spend her holiday visiting museums in other cities or countries. Even a theater teacher heading to New York to watch Broadway plays could count that as professional development. In essence, if you are doing an activity that helps you improve your business, your work skills, or expand your knowledge, that can be tax deductible.

2. Schedule any business appointments before you leave.

According to Quickbooks,

. . .you must have at least one business-related appointment set up before you leave. It’s not possible to deduct any expenses if you leave with the idea that once you arrive, you will meet contacts and conduct business on the fly. The IRS expects you to establish a “prior set business purpose,” and keep a copy of your correspondence and books showing the scheduled appointments.

So, schedule your meetings and events before you ever leave. Mark them on your calendar, and save all the emails related to scheduling. This way, you can show you set the meetings before you left, if there’s ever a need to prove your deductions.

3. If you travel on a weekday, that can be deducted as business travel.

If you’re attending a conference or setting business appointments, travel during the week to get there and back. If your trip is being used primarily for business (i.e. you’re not taking a two-week vacation with one day of business meetings), you can deduct your transportation costs, whether it’s airfare or mileage. You can also deduct expenses on business days, like lodging, taxis/ride sharing, and 50% of your food.

4. Keep track of everything.

According to the IRS, you don’t need to keep receipts for anything under $75, but you do need to keep track of when everything happened. Whatever you do that’s work related, keep track of it in a diary or on your electronic calendar. Appointments, travel times, meals, conference sessions, you need to keep track of anything that ties into your business travel. That way, if the IRS wants to check, you can prove that you have legitimate charges and aren’t just counting handing out business cards at the hotel’s happy hour.

You can also get by with electronic copies of your receipt. I use Receipts by Tidal Pool Software to take photos of all my receipts, regardless of the amount. You could also use Evernote or just take photos of everything and upload them to a designated folder. I like Receipts because it keeps track of the amounts and I can export reports for the year’s taxes.

5. Just remember, you can only deduct your portion, not your family’s.

If you fly to get to your vacation, only your ticket is deductible. But if you drive, the mileage is deductible, and you still managed to get everyone there. Just remember, if you take the tax deductions, you can’t claim the expenses too (e.g. gas costs). You can only do one or the other.

It’s the same with food (only 50% of your cost is deductible), the hotel room (if you need two rooms, yours is deductible), and you certainly can’t deduct any entertainment expenses (unless that’s your actual job, and this is a research trip).

Finally, remember, your family wants to take this vacation with you, so don’t spend all your time working in an attempt to make this vacation as cheap as possible. They’ll accept a day or two of you working while they go off and have fun, but the whole reason for the vacation is to get a break for a while. Take advantage of it.

While you won’t pay for your entire vacation, you can at least see some tax benefits from tacking a little work onto your time off. Just remember to talk to your accountant or other tax professional before you book that three-week Hawaiian “business trip.”

Have you ever taken a busman’s holiday or deducted business expenses on a family vacation? How did you do it? Share your tips and tricks on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream.

Photo credit: ADunwoody07 (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons 4.0)

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

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)

Take Vacations During Off-Peak Travel Times

November 30, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

One of the greatest joys I have as a traveler is going to a normally-busy place sometime in the off-season and feeling like I have the entire place to myself. Mackinac Island, Disney World, overseas trips to Germany and The Netherlands. They all feel like a private playground when I visit while everyone else is at work or school.

It’s like I’ve discovered a secret location that only a few people know about. We all stroll casually around, smiling at each other, knowing we’re in on the same secret. You can walk up to rides, there are no lines for museums and exhibits, there’s no one on the beach, and you can get seated within minutes during normal meal times And you’re spoiled for choices when choosing a hotel room at an inexpensive rate. It’s glorious!

I’ve also been in Disney World, Chicago, and several resort towns during peak vacation times, and it’s — well, let’s just say I didn’t feel so special on those days. Hotels are expensive, traffic is evacuate-before-a-disaster heavy, you’ll wait for a week at a restaurant, and the crowds are so big that even an extrovert like me just wants to crawl under the covers for a week.

As a result, my family has been a regular practitioner of traveling during off-peak times. Hotels cost a lot less, there are often discount packages available for some destinations, and you can get a more personalized experience as the staff can focus more attention on you, or at least not be so harried when they try to help you.

So I’m very interested in Offpeak.io. It’s a website that analyzes the travel times in major cities and give you an idea of what’s a peak travel time versus an off-peak time in a chosen city, so you can book your travel plans accordingly. The site is still in beta, but what I’ve seen so far is pretty spot on.

You can use Offpeak.io to find out if there are any major events going on in your chosen city — sporting events, festivals, and holidays — what the weather should be like, and even check the average hotel rates and number of available hotels.

The results appear in a bar graph showing occupancy rates. The smaller the bar, the more rooms there are; the higher the bar, the more crowded everything is going to be. The hotel room rates follow the median price for a hotel room too: higher bars mean higher expected rates.

The occupancy/room rate graph from Offpeak.io will let you know about peak and off-peak travel times.

The occupancy/room rate graph from Offpeak.io will let you know about peak and off-peak travel times.

The end of January and early February are always off-peak travel times because there are no major holidays, and everyone is back at school (which makes running around Disney World a dream!). You can find hotel rooms for a median rate of $78 on a February weekday in Edinburgh, Scotland, but then the weather is cold and rainy at that time. A comparable hotel in Boston will cost $189, which is pretty cheap for Boston, but the city is going to be most likely buried under a foot of snow.

Offpeak.io has information on 111 cities, including Amsterdam, Mexico City, Osaka, Cape Town, and Melbourne. But no Indianapolis, Offpeak? Seriously? You’ve got Cleveland in there, but not Indianapolis? (Hint: The end of May is horrible for finding a hotel in Indianapolis, especially on the west side. If you’re not going for the Indy 500, stay on the northeast side.)

Be sure to pay attention to the weather in your area, and plan your travel methods accordingly. You may find a cheap hotel rate in Boston and Chicago in January or February, but you can almost count on the weather being a factor in any cancelled flights, highway closures, and hotel availability. On the other hand, when are you going to find hotel nights that cheap in Boston and Chicago at any other time of the year?

When do you like to travel? Do you go the same time as everyone else and just fight the crowds? (You’re a better person than I am!) Or do you like to go when no one else is around? Share your strategies with us in the comments below, on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream.

Family Vacations: Airbnb Versus Hotels?

October 26, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

How do you feel about staying in someone else’s home during family vacations? I don’t mean visiting family during your holiday break (which is no picnic, let me tell you). I mean renting someone else’s house for a night, a week, or even a few weeks?

If you’re traveling somewhere for a few days on one of your family vacations, would you rather rent a hotel room with a brand you can trust so you can get an experience you can expect? Or would you rather be adventurous, stay in a place that lets you experience the real part of a city, and have a lot more space than you would in a cramped hotel room?

I’ve had a chance to stay in both Airbnbs and hotels over the years, and I’m actually having a hard time deciding which I prefer. Not my wife though. She’s insistent: no staying in other people’s houses. She’s only done it once, and then only because it was way cheaper than a hotel room. Otherwise, she doesn’t like it.

She just doesn’t like the idea of sleeping in a stranger’s bed, using their sheets, occupying their space. I’m less worried about it. For one thing, they always put clean sheets on the bed. For another, they’re never around (I always get the “whole house” rentals, never an “own room”).

Airbnb is a great way to find an inexpensive place to stay during family vacations
Read more

Last updated by at .

Next Page »