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Saturday, January 29, 2011

School’s Out For Summer 1.29.11

When you start humming Alice Cooper’s catchy song and thinking of sunshine, beaches and sprinklers, it’s time for Summer Vacation. Unfortunately, you need to start thinking about your plans long before the leaves start turning green and flowers start to bloom. In fact, if you haven’t been making plans for June, July or August already, you need to start doing it now! It’s very hard to save on trips in these months, unless you can do so at the very beginning of June or the very end of August. Of course, this is also when kids are still in school, which is why they make it so unattainable. If you can’t afford to spend twice as much on a vacation just because you have to do it during Summer Break, let me show you some ways to lower your costs and try to get the budget under control. Nothing ruins a trip more than knowing you’ve had to max out your credit cards to do it and will probably have to eat ramen for two months when you get back to make up for it. You’re not a college student with a paper route, so let’s look at some ways that you can be an adult and not go into too much debt with this family vacation you’ve been looking forward to all year.

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Airfare deals are plentiful right now! Many of them are good through Summer, so pick a week (or two) you want to travel and snatch them up ASAP. Airfare is generally going to be your biggest expense, so if you can book right now, do it. I’ve seen airfare drop as low as $29 each way, but you can find affordable deals to Europe, Mexico, Canada and the U.S. right now, so better to buy it now when you see a low rate than wait until they drop. Here’s a piece of advice: the closer you get to Summer months, the higher rates will go. You aren’t the only one who wants to travel at this time, the whole travel industry knows it, so rates steadily climb from February on. Also, that great deal you just found may not be there in the morning, so don’t hesitate to book when you see it.

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Double your chances of getting reasonable plane fare by booking flights that travel on Wednesday, Thursday or Saturday. Also, look for airfare on Tuesdays and Wednesday, as those are the days the new prices are posted and, therefore, the cheapest. If you happen to see a rockin’ deal for an airline that either doesn’t fly our of your airport (i.e. AirTran or JetBlue) or will give you no benefit for your current frequent flyer account, chances are the bigger airlines will jump on that sale and offer the same prices, but usually for a limited time with only a handful of seats per flight, so watch for those and then book right away in order to take advantage of those sales.

It’s summer, which means you don’t need to take much with you. Getting everything in a carry-on will save you checked bag fees and also get you on your vacation as soon as possible after your plane lands. Keep your travel wardrobe to a minimum by taking one nice outfit and then several tops and bottoms that mix and match. This way, even if you took only 3 tops and 3 bottoms, they could make two week’s worth of different outfits. I then suggest taking two pair of shoes that will work with your outfits as well. Normally, I take a nice pair of sandals that can also work with dress clothes and a good pair of walking shoes. This way, you will be prepared for anything. Throw in a pair of flip flops (which I don’t count as shoes, since they take up almost no space) and you’re set for bumming around on the beach or at the pool.

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Look for an apartment/condo/house rental instead of a hotel. I keep saying this, but it really can save you a lot of money. Many times you can find something for $300-400 per week, when most hotels you find are going to be well over $75/night, and that’s only for two people. On top of the savings per night and per person, you’ll also be able to shop for your own food and make as many meals as you like. I tend to like to buy breakfast fixings, because I don’t usually like to go out for breakfast and I don’t like to rush in the morning. I can eat a bowl of cereal or a bagel while I’m getting ready for the day and I’ve saved at least $8/day just for me alone. A lot of restaurants charge more than that. Heck, you could easily spend that much at Starbucks for a muffin and a coffee. And if you come back in the middle of the day for a nap or to rest your feet, you can make yourself a sandwich for lunch, too!

How else can you save by renting an apartment/condo/house instead of getting a hotel room? Well, there’s always the free parking that’s sure to be included. Then, there’s your sanity. You’re not confined to one room with two beds and a TV with four feet of space to walk around in, where the only privacy you get is when you use the bathroom. Most vacation rental properties have a sitting area, a dining area and bedrooms, so if you’re sick of looking at other people, grab your book or handheld gaming device and go in another room. Being with people 24/7 can really make you cranky sometimes. Even if you’re just hanging out at the kitchen table playing on your computer while someone else is watching TV fifteen feet away, it can really make you feel like you have breathing room. It helps you relax, which is what vacation should be about. (Below are some useful sites to find vacation rentals)

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Going to the beach? You know you’re not the only one that thinks this is a good idea, right? No, you and millions of other people want to pack their swimming suits and sunscreen and lie on the beach and play in the water. Fake them out! Trade in the ocean for a nice lakeside location. Not only will it be a fraction of the price of an oceanfront property (or even an ocean“view” one), but you can do almost the same things you can otherwise. You can lay out on the beach, make sandcastles, go snorkeling, fishing, swimming, jet skiing and almost everything else you can do at the beach by the ocean.

Travel to cold-weather locations. While it may still be popular, it will be a little less crowded there. When the Northern Hemisphere is in Summer, the Southern Hemisphere is in Winter. This can work in your favor if you aren’t set on catching some rays in your bikini.

Skip flying and take a road trip. I love a road trip, but if you don’t have unlimited time to get to your destination, it may be inconvenient, and it may not save you money if it takes you 3 days to make it there. Between gas and lodging, you’ll have to weigh your options. Don’t forget to take into account any family feuds that happen anytime you’re in the car for more than 20 minutes. If you all can get along and get with the spirit of road travel, this can save considerably…plus, the journey can be part of your vacation if you plan many fun stops along the way, which is half the fun of road tripping! Sure, Trees of Mystery of the World’s Largest Thermometer may seem hokey, but they can actually be really fun if you have a good attitude and count them among “attractions” to see on your way to Disneyland, or wherever you happen to be traveling to.

Take a cruise out of your home port. Of course, this only applies to those people who live near a cruise port, like Los Angeles, Seattle, Orlando and Miami. Of course, there are a lot of port locations, and if you can take advantage of just driving across town, or, even better, being dropped off, you can save hundreds of dollars per person by not requiring a plane ride. It also means your cruise vacation can start right away! Many people don’t really take advantage of the travel and sightseeing opportunities in their own area. My family likes to be tourists in our own community, so we travel all over just to see what cool stuff we have around us. This has saved us money many times when wanting to get away for a few days or even for the afternoon. If we could cruise out of our own town, we would have done it many times already.

So, now that you have some ideas how to get the best deal on your Summer Vacation, start making your plans right away. Talk to your family and nail down a few destination choices. If you can find a deal to any of them, seize them right away and then you can sit back and relax while you fill in the rest of your itinerary. Then, use TripIt to organize all your confirmations, addresses and phone numbers and share with all your travel companions and friends who might want to see what you’ll be doing each day. Keep all your info at your fingertips by printing out your schedule and/or accessing it via your smart phone, so you’re always on time and have everything necessary to keep your trip going smoothly. (And don’t forget to call and confirm any lodging reservations a week or two before you travel. You may have a confirmation number and email, but it’s better to just be safe since computer systems can glitch.)

One last idea: Portland, Oregon has been named as the #1 Summer Vacation destination by Travel + Leisure. Now, I may be biased because I live here, but with all the festivals, day trips, shopping opportunities and awesome residents, I would have to say I agree and that everyone should visit the Northwest at least once. Our summers aren’t too hot and you’re sure to have a very relaxed and fun stay. Check out what you can do in the summer months here with What's On When.


Coming soon: Tax Day is coming! Put that money to good use by earmarking it for travel! It’s like an instant vacation fund! Let me show you some of the best deals of the moment that can get you the most bang for your tax refund.

Do you wish this blog had even more budget travel tips? If you already subscribe and follow me on Facebook and/or Twitter, then why not check out some of these sites that were super welcoming to me and let me write posts for them? I hope to do more in the near future, but if you haven’t already read my posts for these sites, please do. Also, give them some love by poking around their sites and maybe even subscribing to them, too.

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Thursday, January 27, 2011

Independent Travel. Simplified. With Monograms

* * * BONUS BLOG POST * * *
I know how vacation planning can get complicated, especially when you are also trying to save every penny you can. What if you could purchase a package deal for a low price per person and have your entire vacation planned and all you had to do was show up? Sounds good, right? Monograms can do just that for you. Tailor your trip to meet your own comfort level with your choice of hotels for long or short trips. You’ll be given an itinerary, all your stops are planned out, with several blocks of free time for you to do as you choose, whether it’s to go back to see something on your tour, do some shopping or take a nap. Not only can Monograms offer you this, they can offer it to you at affordable prices. Since everything is included in the price, except some meals, you won’t have to plan much of a budget for while you’re away. Even your transportation between cities is included. 

It’s a great way to travel for novice-travelers or for those who just like to let others do the planning. You’ll see all the major attractions in each city you visit, get VIP access and have a local host at each destination, making your visit homier and more informative. Travel everywhere on the globe, from Boston to Kenya to Tokyo!

How can you personalize your own trip?
  • Monograms pre-screens hotels and gives you many options to choose from for your stay in each destination.
  • Choose which activities and excursions you want to go on when you book or even while you’re on your vacation. I don’t know of any other tour company that lets you do that!
  • Choose from a short getaway to a longer trip.
Follow your itinerary each day and leave all the planning to Monograms. You won’t be stressed out from figuring out scheduling, transportation and budgets before you even start your trip. Each day you’ll look at your schedule, meet your tour guide and let them take you to different points of the city.
Would you like to receive a brochure on Monograms current tours available to decide which vacation fits you and your family best? No problem! Choose from the Winter Vacations brochure of the 2011 Vacations brochure. They are free to receive and you can ask for a e-brochure you can keep on your computer, a paper brochure you and your family can flip through or both! Request a travel brochure.

Europe Vacation Packages 
And right now, if you book a vacation through Monograms by February 15th to select European destinations you could save $200 per traveler!

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Stay tuned for more regular blog posts, including one on a romantic budget getaway in Paris, ways to use your tax rebates for a family vacation, last-minute Valentine’s Day ideas and more!
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Follow @shereentrvlschp on Twitter for deals, tips and more info like those posted on Facebook. We will also be doing some giveaways to loyal tweeters when we reach 2,000 fans.

 Good luck!
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Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Lost in The Mile Maze 1.26.11

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Frequent Flyer Miles…does the phrase make you cringe or get angry? Well, it shouldn’t, because when you know how to effectively use your mileage programs, you will get more miles than before and earn free flights faster. Have you ever earned a free flight? If the answer is no, you definitely need to keep reading, because not only is it wonderful to be able to erase airfare almost entirely from your vacation budget, it is deeply satisfying when you get on a flight that you paid practically nothing for. All that money can be saved for a future vacation or spent on a longer or more fun-filled trip. Here are some great ways to maximize your miles and get yourself on (just about) free flights more often.

Sign up for Frequent Flyer programs. This is probably the most important part of being able to use the programs. If it wasn’t already a given. If you aren’t interested in getting email related to the airlines, you don’t have to, but it is one of the best ways to know about upcoming airfare sales from your home airport and/or to your preferred destination(s).

Favor one or two airlines. If you only fly once or twice a year, this is especially important. The fewer programs you can build points on, the easier it will be to reach your goal. Seems relatively logical, right? Surprisingly, a lot of people don’t think about it and just book on the cheapest airline.  There are many competitive airlines out there that will match other airfare sales, so if you are a mileage member of one of the big airlines (i.e. Delta, United, American, Alaskan), chances are you will be able to get a comparable rate with a bit of searching. If you end up with 5 flights on 5 different airlines, it’s going to take much longer to reach a 25,000 mile reward seat than if you flew those same 5 flights on just 1 or 2 airlines. Also, with the way miles can roll off your account after a set amount of time, it allows you to keep your miles active longer.

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Photo courtesy of Brad Jennings
Sign up for dining and shopping reward programs associated with your airline’s frequent flyer program. The dining program is one of the easiest to use. You register up to three credit/debit cards online and then anytime you dine at one of the listed restaurants, you get miles! Mileage varies by day and each restaurant, but you will see how many miles you accrue for each dollar you spend. We dine out whether we get rewards or not, so it’s always a plus to get an email that says X number of miles were credited to my account. The shopping programs are a bit more complicated, though not much. Most are only available for online merchants, which you may or may not even use. If you do, then you will need to follow each airline’s rules. Some ask you to register a credit card, some ask you to use the links through them to the merchant. It does take extra steps however you look at it, so it’s not as easy as the dining, since it requires more thought.

Look for “bonus” deals through airfare partners. Many times you can find deals and book hotels, car rentals and activities through your airline and receive miles for the dollars you spend, in addition to the points you’ll get on the rewards programs for hotels and car rentals. It’s like double points for doing what you were going to do anyway. Airlines can partner with these other companies to get you even more rewards. Here’s an example: As a reward for booking an Avis rental car through American Airlines by a given end date, you can get double mileage, a great deal and points for your Avis membership. All at once you’re closer to a free plane ticket, upgraded or discounted car rental, and you’ve chopped a bit off your vacation budget.

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Trade miles and points between programs. You can’t do this with all mileage and rewards programs, but there are many that will allow you to do so. One of the easiest ways to see all the options you have available is through Points.com. Enter all your rewards numbers/user IDs and passwords and Points.com will show you if you can trade points from programs like MyPoints, Enterprise, and Marriott to other rewards programs or mileage plans. One example is that you can turn your Hilton Honors points into American Airlines miles. 10,000 HH points convert to 1,000 AA miles. Seems like a lot of work for only 1,000 miles? Not really. Here’s another smart idea:
Sign up for online rewards programs. There are a bunch of these, like MyPoints, Freeride and so on. Here are a few that can directly impact your mileage totals:
  • E-miles: Sign up for free and then choose your reward carefully, because you can’t change it unless the airline or hotel is not offered in your area anymore. I chose Delta for some reason, and now realize I could have used it for Hilton Honors points. E-miles will send you an email when “offers” are available to you. You log on to the site, click on offers and get 5 miles for each one you look at and complete a few survey questions for. Of course, you can earn more miles if you take the offer, which can be anything from donating to World Wildlife Fund to ordering a subscription to National Geographic Kids. Once you reach 500 miles or points, you can move them over to your chosen membership. Super easy to get miles without much effort and to keep your accounts up-to-date.
  • E-rewards: If you aren’t averse to taking a bit of time to complete surveys a few times a week, this is a great program. Each survey tells you approximately how long it should take and how much “money” you’ll get when you complete it. Sometimes you won’t qualify for the survey, but you’ll still get some credit anyway. You rack up dollars and cents in rewards money, which you can then trade in for coupons, magazine subscriptions, frequent flyer miles or hotel points. It’s fairly easy to keep up on and they don’t bombard you with surveys every five minutes, so it’s not tedious, but it does take some time to build up your account credit. The downside to e-rewards is that it's by invitation only and the only way to be invited is by signing up with one of their rewards partners.
  • MyPoints: It’s been around for a long time, but still some people haven’t signed up for it. You click on emailed offers. You get 5 points for each one you click on and more if you complete an offer, which could be signing up for a newsletter, ordering flowers and anything in between. It’s fairly painless. You can also earn points by making purchases through participating online merchants. You just log on to your account and then click through the merchant on the site. While you can only trade for United frequent flyer miles, you can also trade your points for travel merchant gift cards, dining gift cards and more that can be used on or for your travels. I tend to use mine on things like Rainforest Café, Chili’s or Shell gas gift cards that I know I will use on vacations. It gives the budget a tiny break.
  • Ebates: Use Ebates for cash back on different travel merchants, including Expedia, Hotels.com, HotelClub and more. See my article on the Ebates blog for more information on how this can save you money.
Keeping track of your miles. I talked to you about Travelgrove on Saturday, so today I’d like to show you other ways to keep track of your miles. Points.com is one of them, which I showed you above.
  • Another one is TripIt Pro. While you know I’m a big advocate for TripIt, because it keeps all your confirmation numbers, dates, times, phone numbers, addresses and more, I also want you to try the Pro version. You get a 30-day trial version to test if you like it and, if you do, you pay $49/year. I would suggest this only if you’re a frequent flyer, as it is a bit spendy and won’t really save you any money in the long run if you don’t use it enough. What makes TripIt Pro different from plain old TripIt? A lot of things: Get flight delay, gate change and cancellation alerts, keep track of all your miles, get trip refund alerts (if the fare on your flight drops after purchase and the airline allows refunds to be given), elite membership for certain rental car companies and more.
  • Award Wallet is free and keeps track of all your mileage and reward programs. Not only that, but they will alert you when your miles are going to expire and what you can do to prevent yourself from losing them. When you have any sort of point increase or decrease, you receive an email with that information. You never have to remember your member IDs or passwords once you put them into Award Wallet. Instead, you just log on to Award Wallet and click on the program you want to go to. It automatically logs you in so you can do everything you need to do as seamlessly as possible. No more digging in your emails or in your purse to find your number or PIN. You can get even more benefits if you upgrade your account to Award Wallet Plus, including history of your accounts, by inviting 5 friends to join Award Wallet (upgrade is then free) or by paying a small annual fee. 
Hopefully, this can get you on your way to accruing more miles for your frequent flyer accounts and closer to free airfare. You will have to pay a small fee to use your miles when using them for a rewards ticket, but it is, by far, much cheaper than paying for the entire ticket out of pocket. One last piece of advice for trading miles for flights: In order to get the most out of the miles you’ve collected, try to get the biggest airfare for free that you can. Right now, with 25,000 miles usually being the total needed for a round-trip flight, 1 mile is the equivalent of 2 cents, so in order to make them work in your favor, you need to trade them in for a ticket that costs $500 or more. Luckily, this can be easy to do and even easier when you only have to worry about scheduling and available reward seats. If you trade your miles in for a fare less than $500, you are basically giving the airline part of their money back, so if you can make it over that cap, you are saving money and also making the most of your miles.

With these tips in mind, start racking up your miles and flying further for less!

MP3 player speaker
While I have not had a post in a while with any cool gadgets, I feel it’s time to give you some more ideas on what to gift yourself and other travelers in your life who also love gadgets. Budget Travel Magazine (one of my faves) has put out this Top Ten list of fancy new gadgets that travelers are going to be drooling over, myself included. From Lady GaGa inspired camera glasses to a carry-on that doubles as a place to sit in a crowded terminal. None of them are necessary, but they sure are fun!

Don’t forget to check back on Saturday for tips on how to save on your Summer Vacations. Yes, you should be thinking about that already. While things will still be more than they are almost the whole rest of the year, there are still ways you can get some deals and save a few bucks. Also stay tuned for ways you can spend your tax rebates and what you can still do for Valentine’s Day to surprise your Sweetie.

Can’t wait to read more? How about checking out my articles for the following sites and then taking a look around them and seeing how awesome and useful they are to your travel lives! I hope to add more to this list, so I’ll update as they are available.

My Itchy Travel Feet

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