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Saturday, January 28, 2012

Live and Learn: Cruising 1.28.12

Cruising always seems like something of a luxury vacation…or one that is frequently taken by seniors and college kids. When I went on my first cruise ( I do expect to go on others at some point in the future), I didn’t really know what to expect. Cruising sounded boring to me, because we like to get up and go each day of our vacation. We were actually given the opportunity for a great deal, so we picked the most interesting sounded itinerary that would sail out of a convenient (read: affordable) port. The winner was Western Caribbean that stopped in Belize, Honduras, Cozumel and Grand Cayman. Now, I can’t really give you specifics on all cruises, as we only sailed on Carnival, but I suspect that (other) cruising doesn’t always go as planned, or even turns out to be what you anticipated at all.



While you could go in blind and see what happens, this Live and Learn might be especially helpful for those of you who have never cruised or have and feel like you are the only one who had things go wonky. We combined our cruise vacation with a short trip to Orlando, in order to visit Universal Studios’ Harry Potter World, but that’s a whole other post of mishaps. Hopefully, you can take something away from the following.

There is never enough time on a cruise ship. Cruises are like Vegas…Time slips away and before you know it, it’s midnight. How did that happen? You can clearly see daylight (or lack of it) while on the ship, but somehow you’ve had breakfast, lunch and dinner and it’s already time to go to bed to start over again the next day. With so many activities available, you want to get to as many as possible, so you plan your day accordingly and then realize your day is over all too soon. Was that just me? I mean, how can one be expected to get to 2 trivia sessions, a tutorial on doing the Thriller dance, watching a magician, playing adult dodgeball and laugh at two comedians all in one day? You're not, but different people have different tastes, which is why there are so many things going on at any given time...and they also happen multiple times during your cruise.

You can’t do everything. But you want to, right? Okay, maybe YOU don’t, but I tried to do as much as humanly possible. With cruise itinerary in hand, we would go from bingo game to art auction to welcome party to trivia time. Every day I planned to use the gym the next day and then, before I knew it, the day would be over. What the? Don’t plan to do everything. Just do what sounds fun – which should NOT be an art auction – and try not to overdo it.
The weather doesn’t always cooperate. Don’t have your heart dead-set on doing something at your ports of call, because you may not even get there. Just know it’s a possibility. We were all excited to get off at Grand Cayman to swim/wade with the stingrays. Unfortunately, when we got up, there was an announcement saying that the swells were too big and the weather was really bad, so we couldn’t pull into port and had to skip this destination. Sad news, but we had another “fun day at sea” and had to get past it. Also, because we booked with a reputable company that worked almost exclusively with cruisers, we were not charged and our deposit was refunded to us, as the weather and cancellation was not our fault.


Make time to actually use the gym. I really wish I had used any of the equipment or taken any of the free classes offered onboard. Even walking as much as possible and using the stairs a billion times a day, I still gained weight from having access to so much food. This is not what you want to happen on your vacation. Skip the morning or late night activity you were planning on “because you can” and go to bed a bit earlier and get up to use the gym while other people are stuffing their faces at the breakfast buffet.
Don’t drink on the ship. Are you cursing at your computer screen? I’m sure you are. I know lots of people look forward to a week of laying by the pool with a cocktail and then laying on the beach with a cocktail at their ports of call. Let me let you in on a (not so little) secret: alcoholic beverages are marked up 300% on cruises. I’m not making that up. You know how you go to a bar and gripe at a drink costing $6-8, when you could buy a bottle and have a dozen or more drinks for the price of two? Well, the cruiselines are worse, because they let you use your key card for everything and don’t really put prices on menus. THEN they add that little line for a tip, when you’ve already been charged 18% on top of the outrageous drink prices.


My husband insisted I get at least one drink on board, so I ordered a piña colada at one of the parties and when I was given my receipt to sign, it was almost $18! On top of that, it didn’t even get me buzzed. Imagine your final total – that they will be charging to whatever credit card you put on file – for an entire week of boozing it up. If you even went slow and ordered three drinks per day for seven days, that’s almost $400. FOR ONE PERSON. Perhaps you thought ahead and put $1,000 in your booze cruise fund, but more likely you don’t even have that kind of money to waste. Here’s a better idea of how to cut your drinking total:
·         Get free drinks at the captain’s reception. Everyone’s invited, you just have to put on some clothes and look presentable.
·         Get free drinks at the “goodbye, your cruise is ending” party. Hopefully, they will be better than the ones we had, that pretty much all tasted like window cleaner to me. Lime colada? Guck!
·         Sign up for an alcohol tasting. While you still have to pay for it, it will be considerably cheaper than any of the other drinks on board. I saw a tequila tasting for $24, where you got to sample EIGHT different kinds of tequila. $3 per drink is better than $18, in my opinion. If you know any sort of math, you know I’m right. You just saved $120 right there.
·         Wait until you get off at your port to let loose. The drinks will be considerably cheaper, possibly better, you’ll get to sample some of the local cocktails and you’ll be pumping money into a foreign economy. Try not to go wild and get blindingly, fall down drunk though, because you’re still representing your country (and who wants to be known as the idiot cruiser who made all your people look like jerks?) and you should be able to find your way back to the boat, as I suggest going a bit outside of the “recommended” port merchants. A bar in port is always going to take advantage of your eagerness to start drinking with higher prices than one that may be a couple blocks away.
·         Purchase cheap or unique alcohol in ports of call. While they will take them away to store in a locker until your cruise is over, you can enjoy it at home or on the rest of your vacation, if you’re extending it after your cruise. You can also just enjoy it in that port and save even more money. Make sure to pick up some sandwiches or other food before you start in on that bottle, though.
·         If you're a non-drinker, this is easy to ignore, but if you're a  recovering alcoholic/user, you will be happy to know that you can attend AA and NA meetings on the ship. I found that to be convenient and awesome for those that needed to get away from the many drunkards onboard and get back on track, because there is SO MUCH temptation to be found on a cruise ship.


Art auctions are not what they’re cracked up to be. I’m no sort of art connoisseur, but I have never heard of any of the artists these people were talking about being big deals in the art world, nor did I think any of it was worth paying hundreds or thousands of dollars for. I got sucked into the “win free prizes” element, which is all a big scam, if you ask me. I did win something…a plastic liter bottle that I could use to get a free drink at one of the ports of calls. I gave it away to another young couple who were looking to have a good time off the boat. I had better plans for my time. Also, that auction last, like, NINE HOURS! Okay, I think it was more like four, but surely my time would have been spent more wisely doing something else. Maybe actually using the gym.
Shopping seminars are a waste of time. Free is not always good. If you want free stuff, then go get it, but if you have done any research at all on your ship’s destinations, you don’t need maps and coupons to places in port that you won’t be shopping anyway. Sure, they will lure you in with “prizes!” (see post above) and “freebies!”, but keep in mind that the freebies are largely brochures and the coupons I just mentioned and then they will also try to give you free jewelry, or a voucher for free jewelry that you can redeem at merchants they want you to shop at. I found they weren’t very high quality, but if that’s not going to stop you from going “but it’s FREE!” then go get them and don’t get sucked into browsing the store and buying something else you don’t really want or can afford. I now have 10 charms for a charm bracelet I refused to buy, as well as several pairs of tanzanite studs that are almost visible.


Don’t get caught up in the gift shop crazy sales. I can’t even stress this enough. Near the end of your cruise the shops are going to have clearance sales and some will only last a few hours. If you didn’t like it enough at full price when you were there on Tuesday and Thursday, you aren’t going to like it at 75% off on Friday. Also, be aware of how much packing space you actually have. Eric got all excited about sale stuff that he bought bags and bags full of it, for Christmas gifts, mind you. Fantastic. Everyone is taken care of…and now we have bags that weigh 400 lbs. Actually, he was lucky I brought my newly purchased Travelon Pack-Flat Back Up Bag. It was its first test of strength and, luckily, it didn’t fail. In fact, I was surprised that the strap didn’t just disintegrate over the sheer heft of all our purchases. Once we got to Orlando, we ended up packing the majority of it and some of our other items we didn’t need with us into a box and shipped it home. Another unnecessary expense that couldn’t really be avoided at that point.
It’s okay to act like an idiot. I have a hard time with this usually, but this time I figured I was never going to see these people again, so why not have fun and look stupid. I mean, everyone else is doing it – which is not peer pressure, but joining in a non-dangerous activity with a bunch of strangers to make it more enjoyable for yourself. Sure, you could sit on the sidelines with your arms folded and a frown on your face because you hate the electric slide, but why ruin it for yourself and others. Go make a fool of yourself for once, even if you hate line-dancing or are totally bad at it (raises hand). Take pictures and point out how you did something totally out of your element, like played closed-eyes trivia and shook your hips like Elvis for your answer. Yeah, I did it, and it was fun.




Don’t book excursions on the boat or on the cruise line website. Either people are made of money or they have no idea they can even book their excursions on their own, but I found the rates for things through the cruiseline to be super high. Why would I pay $120 to swim with stingrays when I can get the same exact activity through a similar company for $40-50 per person? That is not a joke. I routinely found my own tours for 50-75% less through online companies. We saved a ton! You just need to make sure the company is reputable and has good feedback from travelers. Why are they so much less? The bottom line is that they get all the money. They don’t have to split it with the cruiseline, so you save huge.
Don’t tip. I am not one of those people. I’m not! If you read the fine print, you’ll see that everything that is a service to you on your cruise has added gratuity. You pay a set amount per day for your room steward and your waiters and everything else. You are charged 18% gratuity on anything that isn’t included in your package, like drinks, room service and even food in the fancy restaurants. If you add tips, you are making your expenses more for no reason. They count on you not knowing this, so you spend more.


A cruise is always going to cost more than the posted price. Sometimes double what you see. It’s true. A cruise with a going rate of $549, may end up costing you almost $1,100. It may not, but make sure you find out what port taxes and fees are before you get all excited to book and then find out the cold hard truth by the end screen just as you are about to hand over your credit card info. Our last cruise was “free” that we received through a timeshare presentation; however, we still had to pay taxes, and it still cost roughly $1,200 (and then whatever we paid for on the boat the wasn’t included, like the soda card – which saved us a ton – and onboard purchases…and our excursions). So, while the posted price may seem like a fantabulous deal, if you go into it knowing that isn’t the final price by any means, you will be less likely to be disappointed when you see the final total for just the cruise.
Have you been on a “budget” cruise? What are some of your tips that you can share from your experiences?

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Let the Good Times Roll

Mardi Gras is coming up super fast here and it got me thinking about Fat Tuesday celebrations and shakin’ what your mama gave you for some beads. It’s all in good fun, but what to do when you aren’t partying it up and watching parades? Believe it or not, there are loads of things to do in New Orleans when the light of day creeps through your hotel curtains and makes you reach for your shades.

Image source
Did you know that New Orleans is a great budget destination? I didn't either! Why not take a little detour from the revelers in the street and explore these options after a big plate of beignets:
Save on your trip to New Orleans with the Power Pass. Starting as low as $28 per day, gain entry to the must-see attractions of the city. Choose from places like the Musee Conti Wax Museum, Audubon Zoo, Cajun Pride Swamp Tour and much more! Available in 1, 2, 3 and 5 day durations. Add a 1-3 day MealTicket to eat at awesome restaurants for one low price. If you know you’ll be stuffing your face with étouffée, jambalaya and other Cajun deliciousness, this is definitely the way to go!

You can also take advantage of OpenTable’s deals for dining. With special menus at some restaurants, you can save money, or just reserve a table that will get you points towards a free meal in the future and ensure you don’t have to wait around if the restaurant is busy.


Here’s another fantastic way to save on meals. Fodor’s lists 10 places to eat under $10. You can’t beat that. Almost. Here’s the short list, but if you want to know more, check out the Fodor’s website for all the wheres and whys.
·         Angeli on Decatur
·         Balcony Bar & Café
·         Café du Monde
·         Clover Grill
·         The Joint
·         Juan’s Flying Burrito
·         La Peniche
·         Mimi’s in the Marigny
·         Parkway Bakery & Tavern
·         Trolley Stop Café


Like to be scared? New Orleans has always claimed to have a rich history in the occult and creepy myths. For an hour and a half walk among the darkened streets on the New Orleans Vampire Tour for only $20 per person. Many other walks are available, but who wouldn't want to believe in the undead and the horrible things that happen in the shadows of the city? Of course, if you’re heading to Louisiana for a little romantic getaway, you might want to pick a different tour…although, this will probably give you a fantastic reason to snuggle close to your significant other, even after the walk is over.

Bringing the kids with you? Take a trip to the Louisiana Children’s Museum. Admission is $8 for everyone ($10 if you wait to purchase tickets at the door) and children 1 and under are free. They have more than 30,000 square feet of interactive exhibits to keep you and your little ones entertained for hours and hours. Learn a whole bunch of stuff while you’re having fun, so you don’t even know it’s educational!


Hop on the Canal-Algiers Ferry for free (if on foot) and get some of the best views of New Orleans from the Mississippi. (Also, how many other times are you gonna get to travel the Mississippi?!) Before returning on the ferry, grab a bite at one of the many cafes and take a walk along the Jazz Walk of Fame.

The streetcar is a very affordable way to get from point A to point B while also giving you a city tour. It stops at a variety of attractions along the way and it only costs $1.25. Super cheap sightseeing!


Love your booze? Then take a tour of the Old New Orleans Rum Distillery. This is probably a much safer way to sample some cocktails than getting wasted on the streets with everyone else. For a whopping $10, you can tour the distillery, get free transportation there, a free rum cocktail and a tasting of all four of their rum products at the end.

If that was just too much fun for words, make you way to the Museum of the American Cocktail. Explore their collection of books, rare spirits, glasses, shakers, photos, gadgets and so much more to see how cocktails have evolved over the years. This, too, is just $10 per person. Unfortunately, all you get at the end is a trip to the gift shop, but then you can buy some fun books on vintage cocktails and go home and recreate them for friends in a funky retro party.


These are just some of the ways you can fill your time on your visit to the Big Easy that doesn’t involve crowds of people or emptying out your wallet. Check out my Facebook page for airfare deals that are popping up all over the place in order to make your trip even more “cheap” and Laissez les bons temps rouler.

Have you been to New Orleans? What are your budget tips for the city?

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Shereen Travels Cheap Wins an Award!

I know, lots of posts happening this week, but I couldn't wait to share with you the latest and greatest excitement at Shereen Travels Cheap. We won and award for best cover design in non-fiction. It's extra awesome, since three people who know very little about book publishing used their smarts to come up with this great cover that I'm super proud of. [Thanks to both Nancy Jennings and Mike Thompson for doing 90% of the work for it.] 


Want to read more about my award and see the other winners? Check out The Book Designer site.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Review: Skyroll Garment Bag

Tired of trying to get all your business or formal clothes to your destination wrinkle-free? Sad you had to give up your trusty garment bag because of the crazy baggage fees airlines charge? Wonder how you can bring more clothing, but still pack light? Need an intro to the clothes rolling packing technique? If you answered yes to any of these questions, read on: 


Okay, I have to say I'm REALLY excited about this review today. Last week I received a Skyroll Garment bag on my doorstep and I was thrilled to try it out. The more I investigated, the cooler it seemed. Since I've mentioned this on the blog and my Facebook wall more than once, I was happy to find out that my original impression of the Skyroll was not an overstatement. I found this excellent carry-on on a trip to Men's Wearhouse and grilled the sales guy there about it while my husband was getting some tailoring done. You'll have to excuse the many photos, but if you're anything like me, you want to see stuff from a million different angles and a demo (or two) of how it works and what all can fit in it.


Your garment bag wraps around a barrel bag that has two compartments that can be used for shoes, accessories, toiletries, electronics or anything else you want to bring with you. One of the compartments comes with a hanging toiletry bag that can hold quite a bit. The garment bag does double duty. As you can see, it has zippered sections for packing necessities. You might use it for socks, underwear, undershirts, ties, scarves, etc. You get the idea. Behind these mesh, zippered pockets is the actual garment bag. You can unzip it on three of the four sides in order to pack it more effectively. It also has a slot for a hanger, so not only can you pull it right out of the bag and hang in the closet, but having the whole thing hung up once at your destination would make for a very organized unpacking experience.


My first thought about the Skyroll Garment Bag was that it would be perfect for cruising. Why? Because it's hard to pack light when you also want to enjoy formal nights on the boat. Suit jackets, dress shoes and accessories can take up a lot of room and while I always suggest not bringing things you don't need, it's pretty impossible to leave some things at home if you want to look good or don't want to spend those evenings in your cabin or at the buffet.


Above, I chose what I would want to bring on my next cruise for myself and Eric. I did go a little crazy and brought two handbags, though I chose only one pair of shoes for two dresses. For my husband, he only needs one outfit (pants, jacket, shirt), but can make two different looks by changing his tie. Obviously, I would have had to be a lot more choosy if all this was to fit in my bigger carry-on. I'll let you in on a secret: suit jackets and shoes take up a LOT of room. When we cruised, I had to leave some things at home in order to fit my husband's suit jacket (and it is lightweight)...possibly, that's how I ended up forgetting socks. If only I had this bag!


Jacket and dress shirt are hung up, while I faced my dresses the
other way to even out the thickness of the clothing in the bag.
In one end compartment I packed Eric's dress shoes, his belt and
one of my evening bags.
In the second end compartment, I took out the toiletry bag and
packed my shoes, the other evening bag and my jewelry roll.
Once packed and rolled up, I could see how much room this would save me in my other carry-on to bring all our other cruise necessities, like shorts and bathing suits. What's also awesome is that the Skyroll is compact. You can stash it under the seat in the airplane and then in the cruise cabin closet. 


Check out the size of the Skyroll compared to both of my other under-seat carry-ons above (Eagle Creek Emerson bag which was reviewed earlier and my trusty Travelon roller bag with many pockets). The advantage the Skyroll has, besides the aforementioned wrinkle-free packing, is that it has a handle on the end that will help you drag it down the airplane aisle without hitting anyone in the head or arm or roll over their toes accidentally. In fact, I discussed this feature at length with my husband, who also declared it "spectacular!"




This led me to my second packing sequence: packing for weekend or week away. I took clothing that would work for cool to cold weather, including five tops, three pairs of pants and a pair of boots. (You could also bring my book if you want!) On the plane I would wear my walking shoes and coat.



Not needing to hang anything up, I distributed my clothing evenly inside the garment section, added under things, socks and a tank top and shorts for pajamas.


In one end compartment I rolled up my boots (they're packable!), added my jewelry roll, book and 3-1-1 bag. I also planned to use the included toiletry bag seen below.


Once you roll the bag up, it will be a bit fatter, but it will still be compact enough to carry-on and be less cumbersome than some other bags.  Here's what mine looked like both times I packed it. 


Check out this handy-dandy pocket on the outside, too, that you can put your boarding pass or other items you need easy access to. Another plus is the top handle and also the great padded shoulder strap that can be removed, if you have something against carrying things on your shoulder. 


In my opinion, the Skyroll garment bag is a must for business travelers and cruisers who are determined to pack light. It's also a fun second carry-on for couples who pack together like we do. I would even consider this bag fantastic as a main carry-on for the regular traveler who doesn't mind a smaller tote or large handbag where they can fit their on-board necessities (iPod, notebook, magazines, snacks, etc.). In fact, I could see myself traveling alone with this and my Emerson bag and having enough room for everything I need, and for anything I might want to buy while I'm there, as long as it isn't too bulky. I would even be able to easily lift this into the overhead on my own if I wanted to store it there during my flight. (It helps that you can't really overpack the Skyroll, making this a more achievable goal.)

I was told that a Marine was able to use this bag as a replacement for a duffle bag, so probably with some strategic planning you could get more than a week's worth of clothing in it. I'm a pretty good packer, but I would love to watch that guy work his magic. 


Don't you love it and want one, too? Need more convincing? Here are more things that can be said about the coolness of this bag, including specs and a special offer: 

What is the Skyroll made of? Extra-tough 1200 denier ballistic fabric
How big is it? Empty, it weighs 4 pounds and measures 22" long and 8.5" wide. Add 2-4" to width when packed. The garment bag measures 47" x 22".
Where can you buy it? You can purchase Skyroll from their website or at the following retailers: Men's Wearhouse, Moore's Clothing for Men and now Macy's.
How much is it? You might think the Skyroll is spendy at a retail price between $129.99 and $149.99, but with the durability of the structure and fabric, I believe it will last you many, many trips. It also comes with a limited lifetime guarantee. 
Other items by Skyroll: If you think the Skyroll shoulder bag is cool, you can also get the Skyroll on wheels that can hold even more or the Skyroll for motorcycles, for those who like to take road trips on their hog.

Get a $5 rebate on your Skyroll purchase if you post a photo of yourself with your new SkyRoll on their Facebook page. Like the page and click on PHOTOS to upload yours when you get it and test it out. Heck, I'm sure they would love it if you just went right now and liked their page, too.



Disclosure: I was provided with a Skyroll bag for the purpose of this review, but all opinions are 100% my own.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Broadway Box for Affordable Show Tickets

Do you ever plan a trip to a place that is known for its high production shows, only to be disappointed when you go to book one and find the prices to be astronomical? I mean, how has $130 to waste per ticket on a vacation? Well, some people do and others try to build that cost into their travel savings, but seriously, if they are doing 6-10 shows per week and the place is packed, do they really need to charge so much? I suppose that’s the number one thing you learn when it comes to supply and demand, but it’s frustrating for those of us that want to see quality shows that people have raved about, but can’t afford the ticket prices. I think Broadway Box was made just for us.


Broadway Box pulls together lists of all the shows available in Las Vegas, London, New York and Orlando and scours the web for all the best discounts, too. You can’t book anything directly through BB, but you can click through the links provided and use the promo codes to book your shows at much lower prices. Save a bundle or even get package deals like dinner and a show. Actually, these are the best ways to buy your tickets, because many times the dinner and a show packages give you prices that might even include your dinner for free. If not, it’s really not much more to add a fancy meal to your night out to see a fantastic musical, play or other kind of performance. Save up to 50% off regular box office rates.


Not only that, but you can even get massive discounts on tourist attractions. Save big off things like Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum, tours, rental cars and receive shop discounts, too. Another bonus to using Broadway Box to find discount codes off everything you want to do is that you can pay for them up front and before you leave. It makes your vacation budget feel a little stretchier and pulls that total down a bit with each activity you pay for ahead of time. The more you already have booked, the less you’ll have to spend when you get there and, even though you still had to pay money for it, the easier it will be to fit more into your vacation, since there isn’t a huge dollar sign waiting for you on the day you leave. You know what I mean.

This:
$5,000 vacation total
-100   activity, paid for 12/30
-50     activity, paid for 12/30
-600   hotel, paid for 1/15
-300   park tickets, paid for 2/15
-120   activity, paid for 2/20
-200   dining certificates, paid for 12/30-3/1
---------------------------------------
$3,630 remaining balance needed on March 13th

Looks better than this:
$5,000 vacation total needed on March 13th


Hopefully, that total is just a fictitious one, since there are so many ways to save on your travels that, unless you’re doing a bunch of really expensive things, your total can be cut by hundreds – and, more often than not, thousands – of dollars. In your quest to save, check out Broadway box for activities and more! I’ll certainly be using it on my trip to London this fall. West End shows are like New York’s Broadway productions and I'm dying to see one or two.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Keeping Warm in The Middle of Winter 1.18.12


So, in the middle of watching the movie Piranha (not in 3D, unfortunately), I started to get wistful for the summer months and warm weather. I suppose that’s probably a weird reaction to watching people being eaten alive by flesh-eating fish, but since I’m pretty sure prehistoric piranhas don’t really exist, I was able to still feel a little jealous for those in bathing suits that hadn’t fallen victim to the scourge yet.


With winter in full swing for plenty of places in the Northern Hemisphere, many of you are probably in my same boat, except without the cheeseball horror flick. Are you tired of the cold, dreary weather? Irritated every day when you have to pull out another thick sweater and pair of wooly socks? Sure, you get to wear your rad selection of boots, but it’s not as much fun that you have to wear them just to keep your toes from freezing and falling off. Got some extra cash you can toss at a getaway of some kind? Well, then you can take advantage of some great vacation deals right now, like:


Cruises – Right now, there are a billion specials on cruises to Mexico and the Caribbean, as well as ones in the Mediterranean. Pack your swimsuit and summer clothing (and a coat for when you come back) and enjoy the beach and pool and everything else that you don’t have to wear 42 layers of clothes to do!


South America – It’s summer in the Southern Hemisphere, and South America is always affordable, so not only can you enjoy warm weather, but you can do it for less. Feel free to hike, shop, take pictures, visit museums and more without a coat and gloves.


Mexico – Say hola to the sun again and work on your Spanish while haggling for tchotchkes and printed tees that you will probably never wear once you get home. Grab a couple of margaritas while you catch some rays, but make sure you apply and reapply sunscreen, or you will end up like a lobster. You probably want to eat them, not look like one.


Florida – The Orange State might be in the middle of winter, too, but it’s much milder than the rest of the States, meaning you can visit and bring some warm clothes, but less bulky and cumbersome than those you’re probably wearing at home. During the day, you can likely get by with jeans and t-shirt.


Hawaii – Aloha beach and sunshine. Go snorkeling, hike a volcano, eat delicious seafood and do it all in flip flops and shorts. Right now you can find some amazing rates on hotels in more popular cities.

Where would YOU go if you could travel someplace warm right now?

P.S. I recommend Piranha for those of you who like “scary” movies and find unrealistic gore hilarious, which I do. All those people who only gave it one star have no sense of humor and were, obviously, expecting something from something that will end up being shown a bunch of times on SyFy. 

Monday, January 16, 2012

Secrets to Summer Savings Ebook

I have been asked approximately one million times how one goes about saving any money on their summer vacations and how not to have to take out a second mortgage on your home to pay for it all. Well, I’m coming to your rescue with an ebook on summer saving secrets. Anything that can possibly help you save a buck (or hopefully much more) will be in this thing. You’ll be able to download it as a PDF for the low, low price of $2.99 in the coming months. (Shooting for a March release.) It's a great way to get a taste of what you can expect to find in the Shereen Travels Cheap book, too.
Not only will you learn how to save as much as possible on airfare and lodging, I’ll also show you how to get discounts and spend less on theme parks, dining and activities and more! Now, you could wait until this is out, or you can get all these tips and a whole lot more, including packing advice and super useful websites for booking, by buying my book right now. It’s the best way to spend $14.95 and will save you hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars off each and every trip you take. Whether you’re going to Vegas for the weekend or going to Europe for three weeks. I promise you that it's an easy read as well. If you're a fan of Rick Steves' practicality in travel and budget, then you will also appreciate a book that follows those same values, but injects a bit of humor and fun into saving money. Travel should be fun and so should a travel book. If it reads like your geometry textbook, you wouldn't want to read it...and, frankly, neither would I.
Other cool stuff coming soon: Do you always overpack? Do you desperately need help choosing what to bring even for a weekend away? Does your bedroom look like that picture above when trying to find just the right outfits? Well, fear not! I’m working on packing lists for you to download and use for all your packing. You’ll know how many shirts, pants, shoes and pairs of underwear to take with you no matter what kind of trip you’re headed on. How can you get access to these handy dandy lists? Make sure you sign up for my newsletter, as they will only be available for subscribers. Look for them to be downloadable sometime in February. You’ll know exactly how I plan for trips now, because I use the same ones anytime I travel.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Passport to the World! 1.14.12

Blog tour update: Don't forget to go check out Hobbies on a Budget this week. Not only because I'll have a guest post there on something fun and travel-related, but also because you could win a copy of my book, see a review and the blog is AWEsome. I also have a guest post on a new blog called The Travel Guru on traveling to London on a budget.

International travel is exciting, but preparing for it can be a little more involved than just packing a bag and printing out a boarding pass. Actually, if only all travel was like that, I think more people would be inclined to go somewhere more often. Unfortunately, there is money involved and actually finding things to pack, whittling down your things to pack, planning what you will do based on what you can afford, sobbing because you can’t afford everything you want to do, doing conversion math to find out you did the exchange rates wrong and cried for nothing, reading through countless reviews of hotels, resorts or properties within your price range, finding the perfect outfit and hairdo to make your passport picture perfect, disappointment in how not perfect your passport picture turned out…and oh yeah, actually getting your passport in time for you to go to Mexico or Hungry or Lithuania.


Overwhelmed yet? Don’t worry. Getting a passport isn’t that difficult, unless you’re a terrorist or can’t prove your citizenship. If that were true, you probably can’t even get on a plane now anyway, so you might have bigger problems than figuring out where you are going on your yearly vacation(s).

By now, we all know that a passport is a handy thing. If you ever want to leave the country you live in, it’s a complete necessity. Also, if you want to go somewhere, but don’t have the motivation, going through the trouble of getting a passport will make you think about actually using it. Suddenly, going to North Dakota doesn’t seem so glamorous, especially when you can spend the same amount of money and go to Peru or Jamaica. Stretch your dollars and expand your travel radius to go somewhere truly new.


How soon do your need to apply for your passport? A reader asked me this recently and it occurred to me that this might not be a question many people know how to answer. If you are planning a trip, then the sooner you can go in and take care of this crucial step, the better. Typically, it takes about 6 weeks to get your passport after you apply. You can cut that down to 2-4 weeks if you expedite it, but if you don’t need it in a hurry, save your $60. Use that towards airfare to your exotic destination. I would suggest you apply no later than two months before you are set to leave. It gives you a little bit of wiggle room.

How many millions of dollars will it cost you to get a passport? Luckily, it won’t even cost you a whole million to get your passport and be able to travel (almost) anywhere you want in the world for the next 10 years – when you will need to renew it. In fact, it’s only $135, which includes your application fee ($110) and processing fee ($25). Of course, you also have to pay for photos, which are pretty specific. Those can be anywhere from $8 to $25, depending on where you go. My suggestion would be to contact your nearest postal branch and see if they do the whole kit and kaboodle. You can fill out your application, get your photos taken, give them money and then go home and wait for it to show up…in 6 weeks.


What if your passport is expired? If your passport is expired, you can easily renew it. Hopefully, you have a bunch of stamps in there and made it worth your while to get one in the first place. If you must renew, know that the same rules apply as getting a new one. It’s easier if your current one is undamaged, has your (now) legal name, was issued within the last 15 years and when you were 16 years of age or older. The only thing you save is the processing fee, though. You still have to fork over $110 and a new photo. (At least this helps if your current one is just terrible and you want a do over.)

If you have children, know that they will also need a passport to travel with you. If they are under 15, it needs to be renewed every 5 years until that age. Application fees and processing are a little more affordable, totaling $105, but renewals will cost the same price each time.

Hope your picture turns out better!
What’s the deal with that passport card? If you plan any kind of international travel, I would suggest a regular passport. It enables you to go anywhere. If you’re an avid cruiser, a passport card can be a useful tool. Travel between the U.S. and Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean can be done with just a passport card, as long as you aren’t flying to any of those destinations. If you will be entering by car or ship, you don’t need a full-on passport, but wouldn’t it still be fun to have an actual passport to get a stamp in? I think it would!

One tip I can give you is to get a passport before you actually make plans to go anywhere. It enables you to fit it into your budget and not have to spend vacation money to get one or more for your trip. $135 is not a huge amount of money, but what if you have your spouse and three kids? That’s almost $600! That is a severe chunk to lay down at once, but also could be the stumbling block to actually going anywhere, or having to eat PB&J for the whole week you’re gone. Yum for one meal. Yuck after your 6th or 7th one in a row.

For more info on passports or passport cards, check out the Government’s travel site.

{All photos courtesy of lovely users at weheartit. Click thru for originals.}

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Frugal Vacation Destination: Nassau 1.11.12

Blog tour update: Next week you'll be seeing a guest post by me on Hobbies On a Budget. This week they'll be opening up a giveaway for a copy of my book in conjuction with Sharon's review of it. Please go check it out. Coming soon: A guest post on traveling London on a budget on a new blog called The Travel Guru. And I've been picked up as a regular weekly contributor on FareCompare! Here's my latest.

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Ah, the Bahamas. They sound so tropical. So exotic. So…Expensive. It’s true. Many places can be, but you can pretty much find affordable things to see and do everywhere you go if you know where to look. Lucky for you, I have come up with 10 (actually 14) things that you can do that are fun, educational and won’t break the bank. I really had no expectations of what Nassau would be like, but aside from the obvious poverty, the city was colorful and the people were so lovely and welcoming. Where else can you meet a homeless man who can tell you the whole history of the island in 10 minutes and then chat to you about your favorite basketball team (that would be the Portland Trailblazers)? Okay, possibly that is more common that I think, but if so, this is the first and last time I have encountered it.
Government buildings
Zoo – Ardastra Zoo is a little bit off the beaten path and probably unlike any other zoo you’ve ever been to. The dangerous animals in cages don’t have a barrier to keep you from getting up close and personal with them. Some animals aren’t even in cages and roam freely. You can also see a stand (flock) of flamingos demonstrate how they can be trained and respond to commands. And again with my love of the lorikeets. For just a few dollars you can go in and feed them unlimited amounts of apple slices – which is much better than fruit juice, because you don’t end up with half the juice down your arm and 9 birds trying to stand on one tiny cup. The admission fee is a little steep, but you can spend a good part of your day here.


Remember to follow the signs and just walk the few blocks from the main road to get to the zoo. You’ll end up going through a neighborhood, but it’s free. We snickered as we saw some tourists drive by in a cab. They were obviously too afraid to take the bus or walk. At least they left their resort though, so I'll give them that. If you have some extra time and they’re open, you might try stopping into the botanical gardens. They are right on the way to the zoo from the main road and only $1!

The Cloisters
Versailles Gardens – This is probably one of the coolest things you will see anywhere, well, probably garden-wise and outside of Versailles. It’s a short walk from the Atlantis, which is a somewhat longer walk from downtown Nassau (even though it didn’t look that far on the map). The gardens are beautiful and make a nice romantic backdrop, since it’s also very private. All of the statues that live in the gardens were shipped from France, as well as The Cloisters, the remains of a 14th century monastery, which is set in its own plot of land. Originally purchased by William Randolph Hearst, it was purchased and finally pieced together by Huntington Hartford, the (then) owner of what is now known as Paradise Island.


Take the bus – Jitneys, or vans that are used as a bus system, can be found on most of the main thoroughfares. They still cost just a little over a dollar, plus US dollars are accepted everywhere, so you never have to change your money. In fact, I’m a little disappointed that I never saw a Bahamian dollar the whole time I was there. The regular bus will cost a bit more if you want to go to further out, like we did when we went to the Bacardi factory. Again, don’t expect any personal space on jitneys. At particular times of the day, they become quite crowded and fold-down seats make the aisle non-existent. Say hello to your neighbor – 2 inches away. Once we came back on a totally full jitney with a lady who had just rescued a cat at the animal shelter. Wonder how she got him back to the States…

Not for the claustrophobic either...
Explore the Straw Market – While most of the market stalls have the same things (fake Coach bags, fake Louis Vuitton wallets, fake Kate Spade bags, fake Raybans, etc.,) you will find some interesting handmade merchandise here and at very good prices. You can practice your haggling and also take home some fun souvenirs. Hold on to your wallets though, because 9 vendors will start yelling at you at once telling you that they have what you want. They probably don’t. If you can’t say no, this probably is a bad place to go, or just leave your wallet with someone else (preferably trustworthy) in your party. My husband came back with a selection of wallets and I ended up with two faux Coach purses and some shell necklaces. So not what we needed to go home with.


Visit the Slave Museum – Located right next to the entrance to the Straw Market you will find the Pompey Museum of Slavery and Emancipation. I always like to check out the local history of a place. Not only was this the story of the Bahamians, but also of slaves in America. You aren’t allowed any pictures inside the museum, but if I could have taken them, all of what you would see would be really depressing. The museum is pretty interesting, for the subject matter. I learned a lot that I didn’t know and probably wouldn’t have wanted to know about how slavery worked and what they had to endure. Personally, I think they should charge more for entry fees for all they have there (original documents, photos, shackles and other artifacts), but at just $1 per person, it’s quite a budget education. A lot of reading is involved, but the museum itself is small, so there won’t be much walking. There is even a cute little gift shop at the end to purchase books, handmade goods and local Bahamian treats.


The history of the Pirates of Nassau be here – Yarr! Enter at your own risk! Okay, it’s not so much risk, but it is a pretty interesting museum all of its own. This is one of those places where they tell tourists not to go; however I saw it from the bus and was like “Pirates of the Caribbean? A tour and a gift shop?? I’m in!” At $12 a ticket, it’s not cheap, but it took us several hours to walk through the entire thing and learn a lot we didn’t know about pirates, like the Pirate’s Code. Did you know they had one? Neither did I! Learn about famous pirates, pirates you’ve never heard of, how captured pirates were punished by the government and by other pirates. At the end you can peruse some of the fancy weaponry used. Guns and swords? What’s not to love? I’m still using my fancy skull and crossbones mouse pad I plundered from there. I mean, I gave them money for it and then ran down the street holding my bag of loot in the air as a sign of my victory over their gift shop. And I ran all the way to the Hard Rock…


Hike up to Queen’s Staircase and Water Tower – Unfortunately, I did not run all the way to the Queen’s Staircase and so I never made it to this gem. You can go to the top for free and see amazing views. We didn’t realize there were three separate forts in Nassau until too late and then couldn’t figure out how to get to the one this is closest to. According to TripAdvisor travelers, we could have easily just followed the signs from downtown. Ah well! It’s not the first time we have been bad at maps.


Pretend to defend the island – As mentioned above, there are three forts on Nassau. We made it to two and they also offer amazing views at free or cheap rates. We actually got to one right at closing, but the guard let us in for free to roam the grounds and take some pictures. Budget! I would go earlier next time though, so you could do an actual tour and learn more of the history and how they were used. You can still see all the original tanks and most of the walls still stand.


Watch a game of cricket – Why isn’t cricket more popular than baseball? Like, why don’t we play it in America and televise it for the world to see? Unfortunately, when we visited, there were no games going, but you can watch a live game on a cricket pitch right in the middle of Nassau. At the Cricket Club Restaurant and Pub, you can have a meal and sit on the balcony and watch cricket on the weekends or just admire the ocean. Of course, if cricket isn’t on the menu, you can always watch other sports on their many TVs. Enjoy both British and Bahamian fare here with a full English breakfast or guava duff.

Loved this place. Sit out on the balcony and listen to live music.
Eat out – Despite what people told me, I found the price of food in Nassau to be extremely affordable. Of course, we also ate at local joints and hole in the wall places most tourists wouldn’t even think of entering. Bahamians love fish and they also love to fry fish. So, unless that fish was no good to begin with, you’re going to be pretty safe with any choice you make. You simply cannot go to the Bahamas and not order a batch (or 12) of conch fritters. It’s pronounce conk and it looks like a giant snail, but don’t think about that when you eat them, because they are delicious. If you love ceviche, then try it with conch. Eric swooned. One place not to miss when dining out is Café Johnny Canoe’s. It’s a landmark, affordable and on weekend evenings you can experience karaoke and Junkanoo! I read that since my last trip they closed, but were looking for a new location, so if they have, make a point to drop in at least once. We were only there a week and ate there twice.

That's a conch there. Kinda like a snail...or mussel.
So, don’t think that the Bahamas are too rich for your blood. Nassau was a wonderful vacation destination and, if you stay away from tourist trap restaurants like Señor Frogs, it can be fairly easy on your wallet. Save that money to bring home amazing handcrafted ceramics and linens from their more upscale boutiques to make your home Bahama chic! Or just waste it on conch fritters and rum cakes or expanding your pirate wardrobe. It’s your vacation afterall.
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