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Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Sailing the High Seas and Visiting Mickey 10.13.10

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Mahogany Bay, Roatan
Now, with all that out of the way, welcome back! I apologize for the lack of entry on 10/9, but I was feeling under the weather and mourning the end of my vacation to the Caribbean and Orlando. I was busy doing further research to help my fellow travelers travel better and get the most out of their trips! Okay, so I also had fun and was able to chill and get away from work. Everything I want in a vacation! I think I may have jinxed myself a bit with the last blog entry, but I'm one to look at the positives in things, so we will ignore that anything "off-schedule" happened.Here’s what I can now tell you about saving money and time on a cruise and Disney/Universal.

Who knew a cruise could be so Go, Go, Go? Not me, but this being the first one my husband and I have ever taken, we were pleasantly surprised. We followed the advice I give everyone and got an inside cabin to save money. We figured we wouldn’t be seeing our room all that much and we were right. Also, with the lights off, the room was so dark that we were able to REALLY sleep after long days.

Getting the most we could out of the cruise, every night we’d take a look at the schedule for the next day and map out our day to maximize our activity. We played trivia, sang karaoke (well, Eric did), went to the shows, played adult dodgeball, went to deck parties, attended an art auction, played mini golf, learned (I use that term loosely) how to fold towel animals and ate in the dining room every night and any other time we could, where we were already paying for people to wait on us. Eating at the buffet can be convenient, but we always had a table in the dining room, the food was better and you didn’t have to get anything yourself. We don’t drink, so that helped us save even more, though we splurged on the soda program for the week, which was $6 per day per person, but you could drink as much as you wanted for that cost instead of paying $2.95 for each soda you had. Drink 3 and you’ve already saved money. Plain coffee, juice and ice tea were free, but you had to go up to the buffet to get it.

We never once made it to the pool or gym, though every day we had plans to do one of those. We did our best to keep on the move from one activity to another by taking the stairs often and walking from one end of the ship to the other. It helped us walk off our extra desserts and gear up for port days, which promised more walking to sightsee and shop.

There will be more than enough to keep you busy on the ship without wasting time laying by the pool or drinking all day. I know a lot of people go on cruises to do just that, but you are paying for food, room and entertainment, so take advantage of it. If you lay by the pool all day, you’ve just paid a bunch of money to do what you can do closer to home (or depending on where you live, do AT home).

Drinking all day seems like an awesome idea, until you see your bill at the end of your stay. Not only are drinks marked WAY up, you are also charged an 18% gratuity on top of drink prices. Most people don’t know this and then also tip at the bar, paying what might be 3-4 times the cost of the drink. The goal is to save money and do more, not spend more and do less, so limit or cut these two activities out altogether. Your sign and sail card may seem like a magic wand, but they are still charging you every time you hand it over for anything and those charges can add up fast. If you still want to drink, here are some better options:
  • Attend the Captain’s dinner/party. Free drinks are generally served at this and, as far as I can tell, are unlimited until it is over.
  • Attend a liquor tasting. These can be free or come at a small price. On our cruise you could taste 5 different martinis for $20…and then probably not taste anything else until the next day.
  • Drink in the port cities. You’re on vacation. Party! It'll end up being much cheaper and you get the chance to enjoy the local drinks.
  • Buy alcohol while in port for WAY cheaper than on the boat or at home and then throw a “We bought a lot of cheap booze” party when you get home (because they’ll confiscate it until the end of your cruise)…or enjoy it on the rest of your vacation if you have plans to extend your trip after your cruise ends.
  • If you're worried about all the alcohol on board, friends of Bill W (and also Jimmy K) have the opportunity to take in meetings each day onboard.
Brahma Bull
Here are some other ways to save money:

  • If you can get something free, take it. If the jewelry seminar claims you can get free jewelry for attending, they will probably give you a coupon to redeem in port, but that is still free jewelry, so go spend an hour, enter the raffle at the seminar (because there’s always a raffle), get your coupon and then go to the store in port, get your free gift and continue with your day. The way they get you is by assuming you will hang around to buy something. Unless it was on your list to begin with, don’t get suckered in. Price compare! It’s likely that one of the “non-approved” stores farther away from port will have similar merchandise at a fraction of the price. We encountered a lot of this. Even stores in port would have the same merchandise as others and the price difference would be huge. Just because they are not on the “approved” merchants list you are given, doesn’t mean they are bad, just that the ship doesn’t get a commission from any sales they make.
  • Book excursions on your own before you leave home. I saved at least half over the cruise line’s excursion prices by finding reputable companies and booking online. Don’t worry, if your boat can’t dock, like we couldn’t in Grand Cayman, you won’t be charged and any deposit you put down will be refunded (or it should – read the fine print).
  • Save money on spa services by booking them on port days. You can get these discounts even if you book them before you leave for the day or after you will have come back on board. You can save up to $50 off sea day prices, but you need to book in advance. Take a spa tour or brochure to see what’s offered and then decide on the service(s) you want and book from your cabin phone. Personally, I wouldn’t pay more for these services than I would at home, so that’s another consideration.
  • Avoid the casino as much as possible. I love to gamble and can spend all my money at the slots if given the chance. Only take money to the casino that you can afford to lose and don’t use your sign and sail card (also known as your room key) to charge money to your account. If you don’t win, that amount is added to your charges at the end of your cruise. I know, boo. I was able to restrain myself and only spend a nominal amount on slot machines. I declared it money I would have spent in Grand Cayman on things I didn’t need.
Houses along Mahogany Bay, Roatan

On the end of our cruise we drove to Orlando and did 4 days at Disney and Universal. Here are some great theme park tips to save money and time:

  • If you plan to spend the whole day in one park, don't pay for the park-hopper option. At Disney, this can save you up to $54 per person per day. Park-hopping might be beneficial at Disney and most multi-day passes now come with it included, but in places like Disney World the time it can take to get from one park to another is time wasted that could have been spent on riding a ride again or trying a new restaurant or watching a great show.
  • Save time by purchasing an Express Pass (or Front of the Line Pass). While Disney has Fastpass that is clearly the best way for parks to handle long lines, most parks make you pay separately for this option. If you will have a limited amount of time in a park that has many shows or rides or both, buy one and save your sanity. Universal is great to spend the extra money on, because they have so many rides and shows, that if you only had one day to see it all, you would miss most of it just waiting in line for The Mummy or Jurassic Park...or even lunch. For $14.99+ per person (depending on the day and season) you can skip the lines to all the rides and get in a much shorter one, some shows will even let you in faster, and get more out of your admission than you would just being frustrated standing in long lines all day and only seeing a quarter of what you wanted. This worked out extremely well for us last year when we visited Universal Orlando. We did make the mistake of splurging on park-hopper passes, too, but it worked out in our favor when there were no lines for anything at Islands of Adventure and we were done by 3pm and then just went back to catch the few things we missed at Universal the day before. And since Universal closed later than IOA, we ended up having a bonus 3 hours. Score!
  • Save an extra day off your ticket prices if you'll be attending any special events. We bought tickets to Mickey's Not So Scary Halloween Party at Magic Kingdom. The official start time is 7pm, but with a little research, you will find that you can actually enter the park with only these tickets at 4pm. With the park closing at midnight, that's a whole 8 hours of park time. We decided this was enough for us and skipped buying equally priced tickets for the rest of the day. It gave us time to chill out and check out Downtown Disney and enjoy a leisurely lunch.
Shipwreck off the coast of Mahogany Bay, Roatan
  • Get to the parks as soon as they open. Either start at the back of the park and make your way forward or head straight to one of the rides that always has a super long queue, like Rip, Ride Rockit, Test Track, Splash Mountain or Toy Story Midway Mania. You'll beat the crowds by doing it early. You know the ride you want to get on THE MOST? That's the ride you should head for. That way, you'll be assured to get on it and not be disappointed later. Another smart tip, if you don't have to take a shuttle back to your hotel at a specific time, go close to park closing. As long as they are still letting people in, even if the line is an hour wait and will be running after closing hours, you'll still be riding it. Usually, crowds have thinned out near the end of the day, so lines are shorter and it's easier to jump right on.
  • Buy your tickets for everything online. This will save you from waiting in a long queue, before having to queue up again to get INTO the park, and in some cases it will even save you money. Universal knocks $10 off box office prices on their online tickets.
  • If you can, get a map and time schedule online before you go so you make a plan of action. This way you can work around any shows, concerts or parades you definitely want to see ahead of time and not have to stare at the schedule for 20 minutes with a pen and sticky notes and waste precious park time. Disney will post park hours and other information on their websites, but for more in-depth help, turn to sites like AllEars.net and my personal favorite for all things Walt Disney World: Tour Guide Mike
  • Enjoy the free shows and street festivals. Epcot and California Adventure have annual festivals, like the International Food & Wine Festival. During this Festival at Epcot, they put on the Eat To The Beat Concert Series. The featured band will play three 30 minute concerts per day over a period of 2-3 days and then will be replaced by a new band. At this time they also have food demonstrations and other free activities. Many other theme parks have similar festivals that are included in your regular admission. If you can go on vacation around these times, you'll get more out of your ticket prices.
Captain EO is back - see it at Epcot and Disneyland
  • Make reservations for dining. You'll be able to get in pretty much right away instead of having to wait for a table to open up. If you go during a busy time, try to make reservations a little before or after regular dining hours (11-11:30am or after 1:30pm for lunch and dinner from 5-6pm or after 7:30pm usually works well). Another idea is to leave the park for lunch or dinner. At Disneyland and Universal this is usually really easy, because right outside the gates you have Downtown Disney or Citywalk. The restaurants out there are generally less crowded than those in the parks.
  • Bring snacks. Save money by bringing your own snacks and not spending a bundle on unhealthy foods like churros, buttered popcorn, funnel cakes, ice cream and pretzels with cheese. Of course, sometimes you just have to spend the $5 and go for it. Make sure you aren't starving when you do it, so you can share with others in your party instead of having to buy everyone their own.
Sleeping Beauty Castle at night
While I was gone, I took along some extras that were totally invaluable to me, so I thought I would pass them along to you here:
  • Quikpod Tripod – while it’s not an actual tripod, it is super cool and handy, and you only need one hand to use it. Attach your camera to the top, set the angle on the Quikpod and the self-timer on your camera, pull out the telescoping handle, press the shutter button and pose for your picture. Now, no one in your group needs to be left out of another vacation photo, because you need someone to take the shot. I’ve been known to use window sills, my purse, glasses and more to take a picture of my husband and I. Now, I just whip this baby out and take a great photo and even get background in the shot. Otherwise, I could just photoshop our faces into any of my other great pictures. Lots of times you don’t want to ask a stranger to take a picture of you or there may not be anyone around. I love mine…plus, if you’re in a shady part of town, it can double as a weapon!
  • Travelon Pack Flat Back-Up Bag – This bag does exactly what it says. It packs flat into a full-size carry-on bag and takes up very little space. I just packed it between rolled clothes layers. If you have a smaller carry-on, you can bend it to fit that, too. When you buy souvenirs and way too much other stuff you don’t need (or Christmas gifts, which was our problem), unzip it and it unfolds into a full-size carry-on that can fit in the overhead of the plane or under the seat. It has reinforced handles and a shoulder strap. The bottom is flat, so it is easy to maneuver, too.
  • Healthy Back Bag by Ameribag – These bags come in a lot of colors and fabrics and several different sizes. I talked to a lady in Epcot who was asking about what fabric mine was because she wanted one like it to go with others she had. I have two different ones, but they are both nylon, because they are light and easy to keep clean. You can get them in microfiber, cotton and leather, too. I have a medium and a large. I take the medium with me if I’m going somewhere with my dog and need to take extra stuff and keep my hands free, though I could take it on trips, too. I take the large one on vacation, because it can hold my camera, keys, several water bottles, snacks and even a change of clothes or extra shoes if I need it to.  These are excellent for people who have children, too. They can double as a diaper bag and not hurt your shoulder. My husband doesn’t mind carrying it either. The best part about these bags is the pockets. There are pockets galore! The main zipper is also towards your body, making security awesome. The outsides are bit water repellant, too, so you don’t have to worry about anything inside getting wet if you’re getting on Splash Mountain.
  • I've taken a laptop on most of my vacations, but I recently got an Acer Aspire One netbook computer. It takes up half the space of the laptop and doesn't require me to take a special bag as it fits right into my purse. it is just as fast as my laptop and it even fits in the small hotel safes provided in most rooms. It keeps me connected and has a built in microphone camera for video chatting, like Skype. I will never go on another trip without it.

Frequent Flyer miles are really invaluable in getting free travel. Here are some great ways to get them right now: 
  • Book a Budget rental car through American Airlines and save 30% off your rental and receive QUADRUPLE AA miles. That's 200 miles per rental day! Valid on rentals booked through the end of the year.
  • Sign up for E-Miles and take short surveys and participate in featured opportunities to earn mileage.
  • Join e-Rewards and earn points to trade in for frequent flyer miles by taking surveys emailed to you.

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