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Saturday, April 28, 2012

Backing Up and Organizing Your Travels Part 2 4.28.12

So, last time we talked about how it’s not so great to just leave everything to chance and only have one copy of your itinerary with you and just assume everything will go to plan. We all learned from Dr. Evil that things never go as you expect. What if you lose the one important piece of paper in your giant stack that you feel the need to bring on vacation with you? What if that one paper has your hotel name, number and address on it and you can’t remember any of those things? What will you do then? Probably go dig through your email until you find it and scribble it all on the back of another one of your many confirmation pages. Wouldn’t it be easier to whittle it all down to day-by-day needs and do away with piles of papers that could still be in your printer? Of course it would! It would also be nice to know that all your photos are safe and sound.

Dropbox – I can’t even tell you how much I love Dropbox. You start with 2GB of space for free, which doesn’t seem like a lot, but you can save so much stuff in there. I use it for my blog photos, all my budget travel book info (media contacts, revisions, cover images, marketing ideas and everything else associated with it) and all my personal things I don’t want to lose, like my resume and important documents. And I still haven’t used up all my space. Essentially, all your files are on an online drive, but you can add the dropbox folder to all your computers, your iPad, your phone and whatever else you might have to store info and have access to it anywhere you are and on whatever device you’re using. If you are just out wandering around and need a file, you can log on online and still be able to get to it in a matter of seconds! You’ll love it, sign up.

Why it’s good for travel is that you can make copies of your passport, visa, credit cards and add a document in there with all the important info you need, like hotel addresses and phone numbers, contacts you might need to get in touch with and anything else you deem important. This way, if something unsavory happens to your belongings, you aren’t completely lost. You can find everything you need wherever you are. And it’s more secure than keeping it in an email folder.

Evernote – I am a devoted Evernote user. I love it. Not only can you use it across all systems like Dropbox, but you can also edit and post to your blog from within it, copy links, pictures or full webpages with a click of a button and even share things to your social networks. I use it on my phone most often, though I’ve taken to writing blog posts with it, too. I have a long-running grocery list (paperless!) in a note, as well as party menus in another and add things that I find that I want to do on my vacations to another. If you see something that looks cool, but can’t really explain it, clip the whole page for later instead of writing down some code and months from now you don’t have to figure out what a Scottish Historic Monument Pub is.

You can have an endless supply of notes and access them anywhere. You can also speak your text into your phone for translation to type, but so far that has only be a source of amusement for me, because if you don’t speak super slowly, you get some really random things that do not make a good blog post. It’s pretty hilarious though!

Anyway, Evernote is great for everything and is a spectacular app for your phone, because you can jot things down if you think of something while you’re sitting in the doctor’s waiting room, waiting for a movie to start, getting your oil changed. Pretty much whenever it’s convenient to send a text, you can be making a list or blogging. So much better than the notepad, too.

Hopefully, you will get a lot of use out of these sites, as well as the two in my previous post. It’s never a bad idea to back up all your important info and things you like to have access to all the time. Emergencies happen, but you can be more prepared to deal with them now. 

Do you use Evernote or Dropbox? Are they favorites? 

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Backing Up and Organizing Your Travels Part 1 4.25.12

Ever had a horrible hotel experience? Check out mine at Interiors & Sources magazine. I realize now that this is the experience that has made me so obsessive about travel planning.

When you’re planning for vacation, do you end up with endless pieces of paper for hotels, car rentals and other stuff you’re doing? I know I do, but instead of printing out every last thing that I may or may not need, I now have learned that putting it all together online is a better method and helps me to know exactly where everything is and what I’m still needing. Once I go on my trip, I can print out the necessary things (3 pages vs 42 is easier to carry) and have a back-up for myself that isn’t attached to just my email. I also like to back-up and organize on-the-go, because if my camera gets stolen or I lose it, I will cry my eyes out over all the photos I’ve lost. This is why uploading at the end of each day to “the cloud” or online program is fancy, convenient and helps eliminate the needless worry of impending photo lossage. Yeah, I just made that word up!

Don’t let tragedy make you sadder than it has to. Use a back-up – or several – to keep everything within your reach, even when you lose papers, cameras, your laptop, phone or all your worldly (travel) possessions are stolen.

TripIt.com – Don’t you hate carrying around a novel worth of confirmations and check-in sheets with you while you’re in transit? Sometimes, it takes up so much room, you could have fit in an extra outfit. I have a secret, which is not SO secret anymore, but if you don’t know about TripIt, then you will jump up and down for joy. Okay, maybe just on the inside. Not only can you add an infinite number of things to your itinerary online, but you have space to write in confirmation numbers, phone numbers, addresses, times, who you talked to and how much it all cost you (helping you keep track of your budget…effortlessly!).

Are you dreading now having to input all that stuff more than carrying the stack of papers around? This is the coolest part: You can email your confirmations to TripIt, via their special email address and they will suck all the useful info out for you and instantly updates your itinerary. It says it can take a few hours, but when I’ve done it, it has been a matter of minutes. It’s magic, I tell you! Now, it doesn’t work with all confirmation emails, but many of them. I haven’t tried dining reservations, but I’ll be doing it for sure on my next trip.

Once you have your whole trip planned and input into TripIt goodness, you can share it with everyone you like (although, you can do that anytime) and even post the less detailed version on Facebook, so everyone you know can be jealous…and start plotting the raid of your house. Print out your complete trip plan before you go and whittle down your paperwork from War and Peace to a funner version of Pat the Bunny. And if you want to go totally paperless, get the app and view it all on your smartphone.
Shutterfly – If you take a ton of pictures like I do, it would be a serious tragedy if you lost all of them while on vacation. You would not see a meltdown so big unless I was shot in the leg or found out I had some sort of incurable disease. This is why I do multiple photo uploads on my travels. It may not be every day, but it depends on how many I took that day. The more often you upload, the less time it will take. I travel with a netbook, so when I get back to my hotel/apartment/timeshare/ship cabin in the evening, I pull the SD card out of my camera and dump all my photos. Once I have internet, I select and copy all of them to my Shutterfly folder. This way, if something happens to my netbook or my camera or my SD card all is not lost. Shutterfly has taken over what was once Photoworks, but the merge has made them much easier to use and uploading and editing is so much simpler. (If you currently use Kodak Gallery, Snapfish or York Photos, they will work just as well to keep your photos safe.)

We’ll talk about the rest of my favorite back-up organizational sites for planning and traveling in the next post. It will give you enough time to check out the first two and give them a shot. If you’re planning a vacation right now, even better!

If you currently use TripIt or Shutterfly, what do you think of them?

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Safe Travels 4.21.12

Vacationing is fun, but you can’t expect crime to cease to exist just because you’re having a good time. It’s still out there and many destinations are full of thieves that are playing Spot the Tourists and then quickly planning how to rob you blind. I hate to think of this side of travel, but it’s real and something to always be aware of. You don’t want your getaway spoiled by having your passport, credit cards or cash stolen or have even worse things happen to you. That’s a sure way to end up spending the rest of your time there trying to figure out how to get back home. So. Not. Fun. Here are some tips on how not to be a crime victim. While they seem fairly logical, I see people doing these things every time I travel, and sometimes even when I’m walking around Portland.

Research crime at your destination. You can never know too much about where you’re going. I know the best part about vacationing is discovery, but you don’t want to “discover” that muggers are ten times more likely to attack people walking around after dark when it is happening to you. One of the things I wish I had learned in Ecuador was that criminals look for cars parked on the street at night to break into and steal everything inside. Luckily, they only got away with a hat (I still don’t understand that) and my husband’s cell phone, which was easily turned off, but had no one been walking by at that moment, they would have had time to steal the computer board in the car’s dash and we would have been out way more money than what it cost to replace the broken window. Make sure you have the option of parking in a lot or garage that has 24-hour security. We learned the hard way, but it could have been much worse than a whole day of vacation wasted talking to the police and getting our window repaired.

Put away your map. Standing in the middle of the sidewalk with your nose in a map crease is just screaming to the world that you are a clueless tourist. Thieves are watching you and maybe trying to think of a way to give you a hand...by stealing all your valuables. Unless you want to be using that map as a blanket when you're forced to sleep on the park bench when all your money is gone, try to minimize using a map as a means to get around while you're on the street. Plan out your route and write down some directions either on a small piece of paper or on your phone. Nobody notices people who glance down at their phones every once in a while. 

Pay attention to your surroundings (quit texting and walking). Yes, I know I just told you to use your phone as a notebook, but don't be a wandering texter. Pay attention to where you are and who's around you. Being and looking aware is a deterrent to criminals. They want to attack and/or rob someone who is totally oblivious to what's going on, and that means those that are talking on the phone while walking down dark or empty streets (and subways) and those texting continuously instead of looking where they (and others) are going.

Travel with a friend. I don't often travel alone, because I have a husband who loves to explore new places, but those that aren't so lucky may benefit from traveling with a companion. Lone travelers are more susceptible to being mugged, but if you make sure you’re aware of what’s around you and where you’re going, you’ll be a lot better off. If you can find a friend that you are comfortable traveling with and you both want to go, then not only will you have someone to share expenses with, but you’ll also be less likely a target. It never hurts if that travel companion is big and looks like they could beat up anyone who bothers you either. Just sayin’.

Stay sober. Yes, I am a killjoy, but when you drink, your judgment becomes cloudy and you may make decisions that are not great, like trusting someone you just met. And yes, I know there are a lot of good people out there, but that doesn’t mean you want to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, especially in a different country full of strangers. If you need a reminder why this is on the list, rent Hostel. Yes, it’s extreme, but that doesn’t mean it has never happened.

Don’t trust everyone you meet. This goes along with staying sober. At home you don’t expect that everyone is your friend and telling you the truth, so don’t assume that on vacation either. I’m wary of everyone and remember the term I learned in driver’s ed: leave yourself an out. Make sure you are aware of exits, other people in the area, how you got where you are and any weapons. Sure, that might be a little zombie apocalyptic in thinking, but I have yet to be attacked on a vacation and I plan to keep it that way. I can apply the same rules to escaping from a sudden fire inside a building! If you need some movies to reference as to why this is on the list, you can Netflix Brokedown Palace with Claire Danes who ends up in a Thai prison or Turistas with Josh Duhamel. Just stay with the bus…oh, and don’t get drunk so strangers steal your things.

Keep your money hidden. Don't be one of those dummies that stands on the street counting your change you just got back in the store or the cash you just got out of the ATM. If you don't get robbed at that point, you should be surprised. Watch as the clerk counts back your money and put the small bills where they are easily accessible (because likely you will need those more than any big bills while traveling around) and put the larger ones in an inside pocket where you will notice if thieves try to get to it. If you think about it, you see that guy sitting at the outside café take out a big wad of bills to pay for his check and you wonder what the heck he's thinking. Apparently, he has money to spare, but since you don't, keep your money out of sight whenever possible.

If you are a victim of robbery or other crime, then be prepared. Have numbers to important people stashed in your bag or, better yet, your memory and have back-up copies of all your documents and cards. I’ll give you tips on the best way to do this in the next blog post.

Have you learned a safety lesson the hard way?

Friday, April 20, 2012

Super Useful Travel Links 4.20.12

There have been many cool things happening in the travel world this month, and some not even related to travel, but I've tried to narrow down the most fun and useful links for you, otherwise, I could easily post this series twice a week instead of twice a month. Enjoy and hopefully these will help you out on your own travels and planning.

Am I the only one who kinda wishes they can take their gaming console on the road with them? Dustin at Too Many Adapters has given me new options. Play classic Nintendo or arcade games anywhere you go. Say what? It’s true. You can download some of your favorites to your iPad, play on your Android phone or even bring your Wiimote and play on your laptop. I love it and I’m sharing the love with you. Get your kids addicted to Super Mario Bros or SpyHunter by using their downtime boredom against them. Those are so much better than Call of Duty. (As in they are less graphic. Who worries about the effect of pixelated mushrooms on children? Nobody, because they are fun!)

I've had no less than three people asking me about travel rewards credit cards...this week. Which one is the best? Where can I compare them? Did I get the wrong one? Well, I don't have all the answers, because I'm lame like that when it comes to credit card info, but I happened upon this useful article on CBS News that tells you the 10 Best Travel Rewards Cards. I have heard good things about the Capital One Venture Card, so now there is further proof that it is an all-around great card, but there are 9 more that might fit your life and travel style, so give it a read.

I'm such a fan of hop-on hop-off bus tours, which is funny, because I've never actually been ON one. Next time I'm in a new city that has one at a reasonable price, I will get me some tickets. Perhaps in one of these ten cities that Viator names that have the best hop-on hop-off tours. I particularly intrigued that the island of Malta has one. I've been dying to go there. Coincidence? I think not!

Who's ever forgotten something you needed on vacation? Guilty over here. In the last few years I've forgotten socks (luckily, there was the pair being worn and ONE pair stuffed in a corner of the suitcase), but a lot of washing at night was happening, and the iPod charging tip to my iGo. Oddly, we couldn't find either of those things where we were traveling. Maybe if we'd had this app, we wouldn't have had that problem...except for when we couldn't charge our iPod touch. Goodzer can help you find things you need, wherever you are, and includes pricing, too. Now that's a crazy good app. It only works in the U.S. right now, but it's possible they will expand it to other big tourist destinations.

Ever been scammed on vacation? If not, try to keep it that way by keeping up with the latest scams happening. Don't get all your valuable stolen while an "apologetic" clumsy diner tries to clean up the drink, food they spilled on you, or get taken for a ride (literally) by a fake cab driver. Here's what to look for an how to avoid falling victim. 

Alaska Airlines is one of my preferred airlines and that's why it's so nice to hear that they have taken traveling with your pet to a whole new level. While I haven't actually taken my poor little dog on the plane yet (mostly because I think she might have a heart attack and she probably would rather spend a week or two with her "Grammy"), if I do, Alaska will probably be her first experience with it. Banfield pet hospitals and Alaska have partnered together to make travel with your pet even easier. With a check-up and more when you book a flight for your pet, you will know your animal is happy and healthy. What's more, is the new regulations Alaska has put in place for animal carriers going into the cargo hold. They want you to have peace of mind that your pet is safe, even when you can't see them.

Are you on the lookout for unusual things to do in a city? It might be a tour, but not your everyday tour where there are 50 people and a guide that gives the same version 42 times a week? Well, check out Gidsy, where you can find tours and other cool stuff to do in a city with real people. Yes, I know those normal tour guides are "real", but so rarely are they personable. Why not let a local show you around their city or teach you to make chutney or walk you around the farmers' market to get ingredients for your cooking class that will end your tour? You can find all those things and more there in 6 major cities around the world (so far). Thanks to T+L for their spotlight on Gidsy.

Do you love the idea of cruising (visiting a bunch of different destinations), but don't really want t to spend time on a boat? Check out this new service from a site called Mauiva Aircruise. They bring you the same experience, but you travel by air instead of a ship. It's a definite splurge, and you could almost do it yourself for the same price or cheaper, but you do get to fly on a private jet this way. While the pricing isn't right, the idea is a fairly cool one, considering it can include all your meals and activities.

If you owe the IRS, you better stop saving for vacation and start using that money to pay them back. If a new bill passes through the House, your passport could be suspended for delinquent tax repayment.

So many people balk at my suggestion of carry-on travel, but I think it's just because they think they will totally miss something if they don't bring it. Lou from Zen Habits explains the art of ultra-light packing for his whole family. While I don't think I could get away with so little, it's inspirational. And if they can pack only one extra outfit, then you can surely fit a week's worth of clothing in a regular size carry-on. Just sayin'.

I hope you're enjoying this new series, as I am having a great time collecting links and finally getting to share them, too. Did you find something you wanted to share lately? Paste it in the comments!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Using Your Tax Refund for Vacation Time 4.18.20

Did you know that almost half of Americans are either not using any or all of their vacation time? According to Raddisson and USA Today, 48% use less than half of the 18 vacation days they earn from work. That is a travesty in my book. Seriously. You work so hard all year and you never reward yourself? Sadness! Is it because they don’t think it’s enough time to go anywhere and actually relax? One thing is for sure, most people feel like they need a vacation from their vacation when they go back to work. As much as I know there will be a big stack of paper waiting for me on my return, I need that time off more. One to two weeks of getting away is worth one or two days of harder work than usual. And with tax season ending, now is the perfect time to start planning a getaway of some kind.

I know, I know, like me you see house repairs and bills and probably even school-related expenses for you or your children (or both!), but if you don’t have that time to recharge your batteries, then you will be running on empty and feel more stressed each day. Trust me. You need it. So, figure out what part of your refund you can reasonably live without and put that towards your next vacation…and make it soon. Like within the next 6 months if you can. In fact, if you have the ability to travel in the fall, plan for an autumn getaway, because you can get more for your money, go further and also avoid the summer crowds. Just because you don’t have a lot to spend doesn’t mean you can’t go somewhere worth traveling to.

Budget Travel has come up with 7 affordable vacations you can take now, starting at under $1,000 per COUPLE. Not only are they budget-friendly, but they aren’t your typical vacations. The 7 destinations included are: West Virginia ($818), Folly Beach, SC ($947), Portland, OR ($1,145 – if you choose to come here, please let me know!), North Coast, Dominican Republic ($1,334), Amsterdam ($1,942), Zion National Park ($2,040 – You can visit St. George), Iceland ($2,210). Now, even if some of these places sound boring, don’t judge them based on their names – or prices – and let Budget Travel tell you why they are worth visiting and what you should see or do. Of course, Travel + Leisure has voted Portland the #1 Summer Family Vacation Destination, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t have anything to do in the other months. Portland is packed with tons of stuff, and if BT doesn’t convince you, I’m sure I can. You can also follow my Examiner column for cheap Portland activities.

If none of these destinations tickle your fancy, you could always check out the top 10 budget destinations for 2012:
  1. Azores off the coast of Lisbon
  2. Egypt
  3. San Diego, CA (visit Shamu!)
  4. Canada’s eastern seaboard
  5. Belize
  6. San Antonio, TX
  7. Poland
  8. Taipei, Taiwan
  9. Kansas City, MO
  10. Athens, Greece (terrible economy = travel bargains!)
For more info on these destination, like where to stay, when to visit and what kind of budget a trip there might fit in, check out the full article – also from Budget Travel.

Remember, sign up for travel alert emails, so you know when prices drop on your preferred destination(s). It’s the easiest way to save money, besides stalking my Facebook page for deals. Another great way to find deals, especially if you aren’t all that set on where to go and just want to go SOMEWHERE within your budget, check out the FareCompare Where-To-Go Getaway Map. Choose your date range and home airport to see rates across the globe!

Don’t forget the rules of packing light when you travel, because it will only save you more. No bags to check means no crazy baggage fees, less stuff to lug around (happy backs are nice on vacation, as are happy husbands/boyfriends) and no hanging around at the luggage carousel for ages. I bet you like to save time and money. I sure do! I’m also a big fan of being able to wheel my bag right off the plane, through the airport and get on my vacation ASAP.

Do you have plans for your tax refund that involves getting away from home?

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Planning Your Budget Travel Itinerary 4.14.12

Tomorrow is the last day to enter to win a $100 vacation credit to BookIt.com. If there are 100+ entries at the close, the winner will also receive a copy of my summer ebook.

So, it was brought to my attention that although (most of) you guys know where to find good deals, it’s difficult to also find things to do at your destination and Viator just isn’t cutting it for some. I understand. I’m a crazy Googler when it comes to planning my vacation, but I know that many just don’t have as much time, or the desire, to look at destination websites all day long. I’ll tell you, even I have trouble trying to remember some of the best sites to find things to do where I’m going and have to refer back to my own book. There are just so many good sites out there, but I’ll give you a few that I tend to go back to again and again.

Deer, deer and more deer at a wildlife museum
TripAdvisor – Cliché? Maybe, but I always find some weird things mixed in that people have done that really help me choose something new and different. Of course, this is one of those websites that has long lists of things if you are going somewhere very popular or large. If you are visiting a destination that is not quite as big, it can help you find the three things that they actually have to see, do and eat there. Luckily, you can choose how to sort the long list of possibilities. I usually start with Most Popular and then decide if the first 10-20 even sound remotely interesting to me before trying a different tactic.

Pamper yourself for half off or more!
Groupon – Yes, I know it isn’t so much searching, but it’s like finding buried treasure when you’re emailed a fantastic deal for something you really wanted to do and also wasn’t sure you could afford. 50-90% off is always a great price. Usually, these are good 6-12 months out, so you can sign up for emails for your destination(s) as soon as you know you’re going. We saved hundreds of dollars on our trip to Hawaii. Don’t forget, Groupon isn’t just for the U.S., it’s worldwide, so whether you are going to Florida or Finland, you can get deals!

LonelyPlanet – Their guides are great, but you can save money by using their online guides to plan your trip. The best thing about Lonely Planet is that they don’t assume you have unlimited funds. Nope. They are written by regular people like you and me who don’t actually get paid extra to stay in hotels or eat in restaurants, so they have honest opinions about things and suggest things they could afford, not what they get paid to write about.
Yup, that's an outdoor butcher.
What’s On When – It’s always nice to know about any festivals that will be happening when you get where you’re going. Nothing worse than getting home and realizing you missed some huge thing that everyone was talking about, right? Always go to What’s On When and not only will you see any special happenings going on, you can also look at ongoing events (farmers’ markets, shows) and find out where the good food, activities and shops are. If you’ve been to Vegas, you’ll notice that they have copies of the magazine everywhere. It’s just as informative, but way more convenient (and eco-friendly) online.

Uptake – I always find interesting cheap and free things to do at my destination on Uptake. 80% of it may be wonky things you’ve never heard of and people say sucks, but the other 20% is pure gold! (It really depends on where you’re going, because some destinations have better recommendations than others, but it’s still fun to look at things that are super random and you may not have found elsewhere.

Us at Pearl Harbor on a Groupon tour.
National Geographic City Guides (online) – You can find all kinds of free things to do in a destination with these.  I love it, because you end up finding some pretty cool stuff and it’s totally free. Some museums are only free certain days and times, but it will give you a starting point. And if you aren’t going to be there when the museums are free, many can have a reasonable admission fee, so don’t automatically dismiss them because you won’t be there on a Wednesday evening.

If you still aren’t finding things you want to do, maybe you are just being too picky or are going to the wrong destination, but I’m positive you will find more than enough things that you will think are exciting that are also affordable to fill your days with just by using a few (or all) of these sites. There is a great resource list of planning websites in my budget travel book, too.

Do you have a favorite site you go to for helping you plan your trips?

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Yay for Renting a Car 4.11.12

When we travel, we often get a rental car, unless we are in a place with an awesome (or at least usable) transportation system, like Honolulu or London. We have learned a lot about what to ask for before renting and how to make the most of a rental by using things we already own, like insurance. We have full coverage on both of our vehicles at home, which covers us in any vehicle we drive, so we can skip the insurance at the rental counter. We also use a credit card with coverage, so we are double covered in case of an accident or theft. Here are some other things to know when renting a car that could save you from giving them all your money before you even drive off the lot.

The prepaid gas option is usually a rip off. Here’s the deal: people like convenience and if they can skip a step and get on with their lives, they might be willing to do it. Unfortunately, $9 per gallon is a bit steep. Even if they tell you that the rate is comparable to what’s at the pump, confirm what you will be paying for. When they told me I could pay less than $4 per gallon when I came back at less than a full tank I kind of got excited, but then I asked if I would only pay for what they put in the tank (like if I had half a tank, I would only pay for the other half), but was told that you pay for an entire tank no matter what. Good deal? I think not. We chose to fill up down the street before we returned the car.
Keep your gas receipt. Possibly this is just in Vegas right now, but make sure you keep your last receipt anyway, just in case you need proof that you actually did put gas in the car. I was told there had been a lot of incidences where people didn’t want to pay for gas, so they filled the rest of the tank with water and returned the car at “full”. To avoid getting fined, you must bring proof of receipt.

If you pay cash, you will be asked to pay a deposit. If you steal that car or wreck it, they want to be sure they are covered. It is more likely that there will be a scratch when it is returned than either of those scenarios, but you are looking at either the cost of the rental or up to $350 for a deposit. (This can vary when you rent out of the country.) Make sure you find out if it refundable BEFORE you sign all the paperwork and hand over your money.

If you use a debit card, you will be asked to pay a deposit. To a rental company, a debit card is pretty much just like cash. You can’t guarantee that money will be there when you bring the car back, so they put a hold on it while you are driving it around. Once the car is returned, they refund your card, assuming all is fine with the car. This doesn’t help you if you are counting on that money for your trip, though, so always try to bring a credit card with you for rentals.
If you use a credit card, you may be charged a deposit. I have rented from a company several times and been charged a deposit sometimes and then not other times. Usually, they charge your rental fee and taxes and a deposit that can be up to your rental fee (not more than $350) and refund you when you turn your car keys in. My last rental cost $250 (with taxes) and I only paid a $100 deposit. Bottom line, if you are on a tight budget and need to know exactly what you will be paying for, call ahead and ask.
Rental agencies at the airport can cost you more. Airports impose fees on rental agencies that are on-property for each rental they do. This isn’t something they can get around, so they pass that fee onto you, making them a little more money than they would have made if they paid for it themselves. Sometimes it’s significant enough to look for an off-site rental location, so make sure to compare before you rent.

If you live in the same house (married or not), the second driver is free. This has always been true for any rental I make, but I have learned that not all rental companies are created equal. Dollar enforces a $10 per day fee for each additional driver, which caused us to only add me on as the driver of the car, since I do most of the driving on our trips. This is another thing you may want to read the fine print for, especially if you think only having one driver listed will be an issue.
Bring your own GPS. If you own one, bring it with you, because you’ve already paid for it and know how to use it. Plus, you save up to $16 per day by not using one from the rental company. And if it gets lost or stolen, even if it was a spendy model, it will probably still be cheaper to replace than if you borrowed one and something bad happened to it.
Always reserve the smallest car you can get away with. Bigger cars cost more to fill up and drive around. Also, upgrading seems like it’s not so bad when it’s “just” $13 or $20 more, but multiply that by day and you may have just added $200 to your rate, especially since you also have to pay taxes on the overall total. So, if you can all comfortably fit in a compact, reserve that. I don’t care if I look cool to people I don’t know. I just want to save money and get around. Also, less people want to steal a Kia than a Mustang. Just sayin’.

Unless an upgrade is free, don’t take it. This goes back to the tip up above. Why spend an extra $100+ if you don’t have to. Besides, if they don’t have the class of car you reserved, they have to upgrade you for free (they will never downgrade you). In Vegas I had asked for a compact and ended up with a full-size. I was certainly not going to complain about choosing between a Cadillac and a Crown Victoria, though it took some getting used to. It would have cost me twice as much to rent if that is what I had reserved in the first place. Once I figured out how to use all the buttons and knobs and which got my seat to the correct position, we cruised down the highway in (elderly) style.
If you want a lot more tips on renting cars, you can find them in my book, Shereen Travels Cheap, now available for purchase on Amazon, Kindle, Smashwords and other online bookstores, like Powell’s and Barnes & Noble.
Have you had any weird/awesome/aggravating car rental experiences?

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Vacation Rentals for Group Travel 4.7.12

You’re probably sick of me talking about how vacation rentals are awesome, but since I genuinely think they can stretch your travel dollar further and use them myself, I will keep telling you until you do it – and probably afterwards – and see for yourself. Though we often stay in timeshare properties when it’s just the two of us, it is even more beneficial for travelers who go as four or more, because it gives you room to stretch out and also get away from people if you need to. Being cramped up in one room with people can give you a bit of cabin fever, especially when you’re also spending all day with them. We had 4 adults, 3 kids and a baby in a 3 bedroom and it was almost like hanging out at home, except not boring.

I’ve included many photos of us enjoying our space that was not a hotel room with two beds and a tiny table with chair. The 3 bedrooms were perfect, because everyone had their own room to go to if they were feeling tired or annoyed by being with other people. Sometimes that just happens when you are on vacation. It can be a bit stressful spending that much time together. Here are some other reasons why I love and recommend a vacation rental, be it condo, timeshare, house or apartment:

You can spend as much time in your rental as you want. Not that you can’t do that in a hotel room, but generally you don’t want to, because it’s a bed and a TV, or the maid will come and disturb you while she’s cleaning and trying to do her job. There’s no Do Not Disturb sign you need to hang on your door when you rent, because you don’t have maid service (usually). In some rentals, if you stay a certain amount of days, they will come once to change out your sheets and towels, but that’s pretty much it. Your room is equipped with anything you might need from towels for the pool to a vacuum cleaner.
Save money on longer stays. Hotels will almost never give you a price break when you stay longer, unless it’s a special they are running. On vacation rentals, you generally get a better deal on weekly stays than on nightly stays, which means if you stay a week, you may spend the same as if you only stayed and paid for 4 nights.
Save money for more guests. When you stay in a hotel, you pay more for anyone over two guests in a room. Unless children stay free (which they do at many hotels and resorts), you can end up paying $20+ for each per night. This sucks especially when there are four adults sharing a room with two queens. Obviously, this room was not made for just two people, but they are charging you an arm and a leg for having the appropriate number of guests. You could spend that same money on a suite to give you more space or spend it on a rental that comes with useful amenities and separate bedrooms.

Save money on dining out. This is a big one for a lot of people. Why spend $10 per night to get a fridge put into your room for a week when you can have an entire kitchen and plates and cups and serving dishes and flatware…and sometimes a BBQ? For real! You could spend every meal out and go broke just eating or you could go to the grocery store and grab some necessities and stock your fridge and cabinets with things you like to eat for breakfast or lunch and keep some money in your pocket by only dining out for a few meals. Dining out with 7 people was not cheap, but we hit up the grocery store and for $70 we had food for all our breakfasts, a couple lunches, a dinner and a yummy dessert for our 4 days we were there. We may have gotten away with less if I didn’t want to make a fun Indian stew, but I had also packed all of the dry ingredients in a plastic container, so I wouldn’t have to buy rice and spices that we wouldn’t use and I already had.

Get separate rooms. Yes, I’ve already explained this, but I include it because this was even more useful to us in a mixed crowd, because the baby could be put down in a room and not be kept awake by us in the main room. If one of the kids was bad or needed some alone time, they had somewhere to go and we weren’t all punished or had to watch the same show they wanted to watch. We didn’t all have to go to bed when the kids went, so we could stay up a few hours later and play games and hang out while they slept down the hall. Also, when Eric and I had to leave earlier than them on the day we were checking out, we didn’t wake anyone up taking showers, putting on clothes and dragging our luggage out.

Pack less and do your laundry. I’m always going to tell you to pack light. For four days, we packed one large carry-on and the Eagle Creek Emerson shoulder bag. That’s it. For two of us. I even packed some pantry items (see dining out above), a package of naan, activities for the kids and an extra pair of shoes. You might check to see if your rental has laundry facilities, but most do or are close to a Laundromat. We were fortunate to have a washer and dryer right in our rental. It even had a door, so we could throw clothes in and close it off and not disturb everyone. Not that it was that loud. While we didn’t need to use it, we still did laundry before we packed to go back home so we would have clean smelling clothes and baggage. We have stayed at ones that have had laundry facilities on-site and also carried our clothes down the street to do them. It takes very little time and gives you a chance to plan your next day, catch up on email, play a game or read the book/magazine you brought. Downtime is good.

You don’t need to lock up all your valuables every day. Because you don’t have daily maid service, you don’t have to round up everything you brought with you and stash it away, even if it’s just dirty clothes and receipts. We leave our netbook out where we use it, throw dirty clothes in the hamper we bring and spread out our toiletries in the bathroom like we like them and don’t have to worry about putting them in a drawer before we leave so they can clean up after us.
Get free parking. Generally, this is true, but with some condos and apartments, you may have to pay to park your car. We have been lucky so far, or haven’t rented a car at our destination.

Other reasons you might like a vacation rental:
·      They can be a lot quieter.
·   Nobody is running up and down your hall at 3am, keeping you awake (unless it’s someone you brought with you)
·      No one sees you coming or going like they do in the hotel lobby.
·    It’s still cheaper to split the cost with several travelers than it is to get separate hotel  rooms.
·    You have a fridge, so you don’t have to run back and forth to the ice machine if you want a cold drink.
·      It’s like living at your destination.
·   The kitchen is stocked with all the necessities, including basic spices. We made a lovely rub for the chicken we grilled with what was in our cupboard. We felt creative.
Check out these sites for vacation rentals: FlipKey | RedWeek | Roomorama | VRBO

Need more budget travel tips? Summer is coming soon. Download my new ebook, Secrets of Summer Travel for just $2.99 and learn how to save a bundle on the year’s most expensive time to vacation. It’s packed full of ways to stretch your bucks and will be good for this summer and 10 summers from now. A bargain at twice the price!
Do you rent instead of staying in hotels? What’s your favorite benefit?

Friday, April 6, 2012

Super Useful Travel Links 4.6.12

Don’t forget to enter to win a $100 vacation credit for BookIt.com!
This week I’ve noticed that I’ve found a lot of really useful links lately. I can’t really post them all on Facebook – even though I try – because travel tips and deals are the norm there. Instead of clipping them and posting them all at suitable intervals, I’ve decided that I will save them up and make a twice monthly post of said useful posts, where they can help you, you can see them all at once and won’t be posted 6 months from now when there is a spot open on my Facebook feed. Let me know if you like this new feature!

One of my favorite travel blogs Glampacker is written by an Australian cutie that lives in London and travels as much as possible while saving money and looking great. This week she writes about how to do London on a budget. Obviously, you know why it caught my eye, but I wanted to share with you as well, in case London is also on your travel list, or any of the other UK towns she mentions great stuff in.

I hate it when I have to pay for internet, but I hate more when I pay for it and can only use it on one device at a time (or at all). Wouldn’t it be nice to plug your laptop into the Ethernet cable, but also share your connection via WiFi to other items, like a second laptop (for bloggers among you or those that travel in groups), an iPad or phone? The smarty pants writers of Too Many Adapters has solved this problem for us technologically impaired travelers by showing us the secret to how to share an internet connection with other devices!

The Harry Potter Studio Tour is open in London! Leavesden Studios takes you on a three-hour tour of the adventures and school life of The Boy Who Lived. If you loved the movies, then this is a must-see. Check out the time-lapse video of the construction.

Too lazy to actually plan anything for your trip or found a last-minute deal that you couldn’t pass up? Check out Plnnr.com and they will send you a super detailed itinerary that will make your trip “perfect”…if you’re traveling to one of the 20 cities they have available. They’ll even find a hotel for you to stay at. Just pick the dates you’ll be there, what kind of trip you’re into (with kids, outdoors, etc) and Plnnr does the rest.

You know I love anything that will make my life easier, whether I’m traveling or not, but this list of the 50 ultimate travel apps (so far) is quite useful and there are many on the list that I currently have or plan to get (with the exception of Kayak, as I don’t book travel on-the-go and I also don’t think their regular website is as helpful as many others. I would, in fact, choose Yapta or FareCompare instead, but that’s all personal preference.)

Myths can be fun. Travel myths = 10 times more fun! Are flight attendants really robots? Of course not, but why do they talk like them? Actually, many of these aren’t that interesting, but I loved the one about airline food being icky so much, I went back and read the rest of the list. Check out 6 In-Flight Myths Busted!

Do you get to your hotel room and throw all your crap on the floor and immediately jump on the bed like a 6 year old? That isn’t on the list of How NOT to Behave in a Hotel Room, but it’s on my list. Here are some others will help you keep out of trouble. Oh yeah, please don’t walk down the hallway at 2am talking loudly like you are in a cone of silence either.

In my quest to find a way to use up my bananas and coconut, I found these lovely banana coconut chocolate muffins that look yummy. Of course, they aren't travel-related, though you could make them and pack them for your trip. Since they sound so good, and are on my list for things to make this week, I thought I'd share. Also, I think I'm now addicted to Technicolor Kitchen's many recipes. I see a lot of nutritious, delicious and portable treats. Better and cheaper than airline food, for sure...engine noise or not.

Before I go, I also want to do a little self-promotion: Over the past couple of weeks, FareCompare has published several posts that I’ve written that have been very popular. In case you’ve missed them, you can check out How to Create a Grab-and-Go Carry-On, How to Combat Airfare Hikes for Summer Travel and one that I feel could definitely be called back to: Meal Choices for the Vegetarian Traveler.
Coming soon will be a guest post for Ebates, another post on CheapOAir’s blog and this week I was interviewed for a travel article for the Christian Science Monitor.
So, what do you think? I'll be posting this series every 1st and 3rd Friday of the month. Did YOU find anything cool this week? Post it in the comments!
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