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Thursday, May 31, 2012

Last-Minute Vacations for Less

Sometimes you just don’t have the time to plan your vacation, or you just find such a good deal that you have to book it and figure out the specifics while you’re packing your bags. When you have the luxury to travel in 90 days or less, then you can really find some great bargains. There’s no better way to travel on a budget than to find a package (or hotel) at a deep, deep discount.

Lastminute.com.au is the Australian site for LastMinute.com and has all the same great deals for last-minute hotels, last-minute flights and trip packages. How can they offer such good rates? LastMinute sells the last rooms and plane seats available in order to make the airlines and hotels money. They get customers and you get to save a bunch of money. Score!

I’m all for a site that can save me money to do things that I love. It’s also awesome when families want to get away, but their budget is tight and any savings can help them take their kids somewhere fun and not go into debt doing it. Whether they want to travel to other parts of Australia or want to explore the rest of the world, LastMinute has got them covered, and you if you want to travel to and stay in an affordable hotel in Australia. In fact, you can find hotels from the mid-$50s.

Have you ever wanted to fly on the fancy SingaporeAirlines or Qantas? You can do it for less! Save even more by booking on discount airlines like Jetstar and Virgin Blue. LastMinute has something to fit any budget, whether you are taking your annual vacation or need to fly last-minute for emergency or business. Make sure it’s your first stop for booking your trip.

LastMinute.com.au doesn’t just deal in quickly planned travel either. You can also book further in advance and still find money-saving flights, rooms and packages. This gives you more time to plan the finer points of your trip, like where you’re going to eat and what you’re going to do! You can find some excellent competitive rates, and for those of you who aren’t in or want to vacation in Australia, you can go to the main site and check out LastMinute for your country for airfare deals from where you live.

This sponsored post was brought to you by Lastminute.com.au.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Shop Local and Green 5.30.12

Don't forget to enter to win our open giveaways, including the awesome Anti-Theft Urban Tour Bag from Travelon and a bunch of cash you can put towards your next trip!

When I travel, I always try to hit up locally owned stores and restaurants, just to give back to the community. I mean, traveling is all about destination, so if I shop at Walmart and eat at TGI Fridays and McDonalds, not only am I missing out on the culture, I’m also not being a great tourist, because I am not spending money that will go back into the community. Yes, yes. I know I constantly talk about how I eat at both Hard Rock Café and Chili’s when I travel, but 95% of my dining experiences are at family-owned restaurants and pubs, food trucks, outdoor markets or buys from the local grocers. Not only is this good for their tourism, but it helps the environment as well. The food doesn’t have to be imported, which means fuel costs are minimal and local farmers, workers and owners can keep prices lower and benefit from my dollars.

This long holiday weekend, Eric and I took a little road trip to Bend and Sunriver in Eastern Oregon. It was a 3-hour trip from home, but still seemed like we were somewhere totally different. It’s been at least 6 years since we’ve made the trip, but there was a concert we wanted to see, so we made a mini-vacation out of it. We certainly did our part to help out the Bend economy, as we dined and shopped and explored Bend-only merchants and attractions. I’ll just quickly go over what the weekend held for us, as I will be going more in-depth on some of these things in future posts.

Our whole trip was just about 36 hours, including commute time, so we made the most of our time:

I love gas stations that have a shop that sells EVERYTHING.
Stopped in a tiny town on the lake called Detroit to get breakfast and gas. We found a great little coffee shop/café called KC’s and got some homemade breakfast sandwiches and lattes. A bunch of locals came and went as we enjoyed our feast and picked up a locally made item as a gift before we continued on to Bend.

Eric testing out a kaleidoscope
How cute is this shop?
In Bend we stopped off downtown, since we had some time before we could check into our vacation rental. We wandered down to Saturday Market (way small compared to the one in Portland, but with many of the same things). We made a couple of purchases, like homemade, organic dog treats and a handmade colorful top. We tested out some other things, like fancy lotions and knitted ear warmers and scarves, then wandered back down the street and checked out a few locally owned shops, where we also found some goodies to buy before getting back in the car and asking our GPS how to get to our next stop:

Who doesn't love "free" candy?
Goody’s Chocolate and Candy Factory! Yes, we took a quick tour for just $2 each and saw candy being made and tried a bunch of samples. Not bad for $2. Somehow this turned into lunch (even though it wasn’t much, but breakfast was super filling) and we decided to find our rental and check in. Once there, I totally wished we were staying longer than one night. They had bicycle rentals, tennis courts and our room was right on the golf course…though it was super quiet even when some golfers came by on their carts to play through.

Amazing and huge
We got settled in, marveled at the gigantic space of our home away from home, enjoyed our porch and then looked up some dining options on Open Table. We ended up at a restaurant called The Phoenix and ordered off the 3-course menu and saved a bunch of money by not having to pay extra for soup or salad and dessert to go with our meals. After that, we were off to see Tenacious D inconcert. Amazing, but it was SO cold. Layer, layer, layer in the desert and maybe bring some of those hand warmers that are cheap and go in your pockets.

$6 per person for all-you-can-eat pancakes and waffles with fruit and sides.
We slept in a little and then packed up for our ride back home, but first we had some other things planned. First things first: Pancake breakfast!

Look at these cool ice rocks!
Fueled and ready to hit the road, we stopped at Newberry National Volcanic Monument and hiked the Lava River Cave. Super cool and eerie, you need to bring your own flashlight, headlamp or lantern or spend $5 to rent one. We brought one from home and saved and parking only cost us $5, which we could use all day at the national park grounds. Affordable! If you’re afraid of the dark, this cave is probably not something you want to do, unless – like me – you are going with someone else and it is a busy day for tourists.

Magma Elevator shows how volcanoes work!
We made a quick stop to check out the visitor’s center and then we drove on to visit the High Desert Museum. Oddly, it was less wildlife and more museum, but it was still pretty cool and informative and we learned about the Indians and animal life in the desert as well as the pioneers. We were entertained by a lynx, a playful otter and saw Smokey the Bear, then went in search of lunch on our ride home.

Looking for somewhere kitchy and unique, we ended up at a place called Bronco Billy’s in Sisters, where they had a great love of old Clint Eastwood movies and saloon style dining. The restaurant used to be a hotel and you can still reserve a room to dine in upstairs. We tried out their burgers, one of which boasted to have won “Best Burger in Oregon”. While it was not the best burger ever eaten by us – in or out of Oregon – they were still pretty darn tasty and filled us up for our ride home.

Total cost for the weekend: $300 and some change, not including gifts and other items we bought, but for our rental, gas, food and activities (including the concert). Obviously, we could have done it cheaper by bringing our own food and staying in a budget hotel, but not by much and a third of our budget was taken up by concert tickets, so that also would have cut our costs by a considerable amount if we had just gone to Bend to go to Bend.

I hope your Memorial Day Weekend was a success. What’s your favorite weekend getaway?

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Street Food for Frugal Travelers

Don't forget to enter to win our open giveaways, including the awesome Anti-Theft Urban Tour Bag from Travelon and a bunch of cash you can put towards your next trip!

It’s the time again: Farmer’s markets are open everywhere and the weather is starting to get nice enough to want to hang around outside for long periods of time. It’s the season for affordable eating. Between food carts full of delectable local cuisine and fresh veggies and homemade foods, like cheese and jam, you can definitely eat very well and for just a percentage of what you would pay if you ate every meal at a sit-down restaurant. Enjoy your food (and everyone could have something completely different if they wanted) while browsing stalls, sitting in a nearby park or as you’re walking to your next sightseeing destination. It’s the best way to meet locals, try foods from the region and also get some fresh air.

Homemade goods make perfect souvenirs, too.
So fresh!
Amazing prices, because they are locally grown.
Some delicious finds from our food truck festival visit.
Ice Cream!
Gourmet "dumplings".
Do you look forward to warmer weather and "street" food? 

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Memorial Day Travel 5.23.12

Don't forget to enter to win our awesome giveaways: Travelon Anti-Theft Urban Tour Bag | Paypal cash from Blogaholic | OHSO Marko Travel Toothbrush

Do you have Memorial Weekend travel plans yet? If you don't, check out this fun infographic on the most popular destinations this year. If you do, see if you are in the majority of travelers. This is brought to you buy CheapOair, where you can find some awesome last-minute deals on vacations for this weekend.

Popular Destinations for Memorial Day Weekend
Cheap Flights to Las Vegas
Are you traveling to one of the most popular destinations in the U.S.?

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Review and Giveaway: Travelon Anti-Theft Urban Tour Bag

So, remember when I said that I love, love, love Travelon and all their awesome products? Yeah, only like every other blog post right? Well, so far we’ve had amazing Travelon giveaways, but they have now asked me to try out and review their new anti-theft line. These bags have a wire mesh in the lining to make them slash-proof and help keep you from getting ripped off on your trip. This is important because people don’t just try to steal your bag, so much as some will try to cut the bottom of your bag and let all your valuable belongings fall out without you even realizing it.
Well, I know you all don’t want to get robbed on vacation, but I also know that most of the bags I have reviewed and suggested on this blog are more attractive to women. This bag is a fabulous unisex bag. In fact, as soon as Eric saw it he threw it on and declared it would be his new commuter bag…then realized he didn’t actually need a commuter bag, but was excited for a useful and attractive bag and started to list all the things he was going to put in it next time we went on a trip. Yeah, I think that speaks volumes. While my husband still likes to wear pink and will hold my bag when I’m in the bathroom (without me even asking), he still wants manly accessories. This bag really complements his geek chic look, don’t you think?

Let me tell you about the awesomeness of this bag. It’s perfect for the gadget-lover, because it has room for all your electronics. In fact, it has a special iPad pocket, room for your camera, mini-camcorder and has a Smart Pocket that can hold your smartphone or mp3 player. The Smart Pocket is accompanied by another pocket that can wrangle your earphones or your sunglasses. It helps you stay connected and keeps your technology within reach.

We tested the Smart Pocket out with our iPod Touch and also with my smartphone that has a case that makes it a little bigger than normal. Both fit perfectly. The Smart Pocket is a stretchy mesh pocket that expands to hold whatever you want to keep in there: keys, ID, phone, camera, loose change. It’s great, because you can toss the bag all over and none of those things will fall out!

When I’m running around, I often like to have a bottle of water on hand. Like my other favorite Travelon bag, this one has a zip-out mesh holder for your favorite bottled beverage. I especially love this for plane rides and sightseeing, because it keeps my hands free to do other things and I’m not trying to juggle my bags and a water and my tickets (be they boarding passes or Disney park-hopper tickets).

Other fancy features include a zipper pocket in front to hold your money, credit cards and pens – or your lip balm, camera and snack. If you happen to be in a dark room (like searching for some money in a darkened bar), you can use the included pocket light. So smart, right? Never lose your keys either. Nope, there’s a great little clip for them or anything else you want to keep close at hand. There’s even a carabiner attached to the bag. I’d use it to carry my reusable grocery tote, but there are a thousand other uses for it, like what it's intended for: to lock your zipper for extra security. Genius, right?

With the Anti-Theft Urban Tour Bag you’ll never walk around complaining that the strap is digging into your shoulder, even if you pack it with bricks, because the strap is wide and padded, making it super comfortable. It’s also adjustable so it can conveniently fit Eric one day and then fit me the next. Not many bags are that versatile, considering our proportional difference. He’s 5′10″ and I’m a shrimp at 5′1″. Obviously, that’s not our only difference.

I love pockets, too, and this bag has plenty of them. From the security pocket in the front, the mesh pocket on the inside of the main compartment and the great pocket in the back. You can use this bag for almost anything. Don’t have an iPad? Put your netbook in that pocket instead. Don’t want to carry around a bottle of water? Zip up that pocket and make the bag a bit smaller. Need to keep your boarding passes and passport safe? Slide them into that front pocket to keep them together and easily accessible, but out of reach of thieves. Want to bring your portable gaming device? It can easily fit into the back pocket or main compartment.

The wire mesh does not add weight to the bag like I thought it might and the bag fits snugly to your body, too. This bag is obviously a winner with the men, but I think women who want an unassuming bag that doesn’t look like a traditional handbag will love this one as well. If Eric didn’t already claim it for himself, this would be a fantastic day bag for me on vacations, too. It’s sporty looking and very handy for everything you need to carry with you.

More information
Where you can buy it: Travelon online
How much it costs: $75.00
Colors it comes in: classic black
Other specs: RFID blocking card slots (so people can’t use an electronic scanner to steal your card numbers), 11″ x 10″ x 3″, slash-proof shoulder strap, nylon fabric that is easily wiped down if you spill on it, handy loop on back to hang bag wherever necessary.

Now you can win your own Travelon Anti-Theft Urban Tour Bag!

Saturday, May 19, 2012

How NOT to Do a Theme Park Vacation 5.19.12

There are giveaways galore happening right now. Enter them all with this round-up and cross your fingers! All the things you’ll need for summer travel. Good luck!

Believe it or not, there are things you can do totally wrong when visiting a theme park, especially in the summer. Since we are coming up on June and the kids will be out of school soon. That means shortly after, you’ll be hearing the chorus of “I’m bored!” starting. Hopefully, you’ve already started planning your summer vacation already, but if you haven’t, you need to get on it in order to save any money at all. I read a crazy stat the other day stating that significant percentage of people who book their trips spend less than 10 minutes planning the entire thing. I’m not sure what that says about me who spends hours a day planning my trip, 6+ months before I actually leave, but if you are in the group that has hatred of planning, summer is NOT the time to just “go with the flow” and see what happens.

So, what should you plan for in order to not go broke and make the most out of the budget and time you have? Here is a list of what you SHOULDN’T do when you travel during the summer to a theme park.

Sleep in – You will end up waiting in 2+ hour-long lines during the hottest part of the day and be crushed by the crowds if you don’t get to the park before it opens.

Have no game plan – Get a copy of the park map online before you leave home and map out what rides you absolutely have to do and then come up with a plan on how and when to do them. Also make sure you pencil in any shows, fireworks or parades you want to see and work around those times, otherwise you will find you miss everything good and spent your time going from one end of the park to the next and not really accomplishing anything.

Have no tickets – Don’t be the sucker who makes his kids stand in line to wait to get tickets. Plan ahead and buy your tickets before you leave home. You will save money and time and not have to waste all that time with the other lame people at the ticket booth who didn’t think to buy ahead. The best ticket deals can be found here.

Pay someone to build your vacation for you and show you were to go to get the best deals. Soon, Shereen Travels Cheap will be offering a new travel planning service that will help you save your valuable time and also money by creating the perfect vacation for you. All you have to do is make reservations, buy tickets, pack your bags and go. Answer a few questions and get a customized itinerary for you trip with links for you to easily click and buy with.

Buy snacks in the park - $4 for a bottle of water and $6 ice cream adds up quickly, especially if you have to buy for more than one of you and multiple times a day. Pack a bag with healthy snacks like tuna and crackers, fruit, nuts and granola bars, and bottles of water. Not only will you save, potentially, hundreds of dollars over the course of your trip, but you won’t end up standing in an hour line for a churro. (Been there, done that.)

Stay from open to close – After two days of this, you will want to kill yourself, because you will have had so little sleep that you would gladly just give your tickets to someone walking by. Go early, take some downtime in the middle of the day when crowds are heaviest and then come back after a refreshing nap or lunch. If you start feeling sluggish, there’s no shame in just going back the hotel and not coming back until the next day.

Start at the front of the park – 95% of park visitors do this and then by the time you get to the big stuff in the back of the park, it is totally crammed. Head toward some of the bigger attractions near the back as soon as the park opens and save yourself hours of time in line later in the day when everyone else has made their way back there.
Go to lunch at noon and dinner at 6pm – Everyone else has this idea, too, because it’s normal dining times. Go to lunch around 11am and then dinner at 5pm or after 7pm and avoid the crush of starving people. It helps if you also have dining reservations. Once the crowds start flocking to the eateries, you’ll have way shorter lines and wait times.

Stay in the theme park resorts – There is almost no situation in which this will save you money (except probably Paris in the Fall). You are paying for a name and all that goes along with it, but really, how long will you even be in your room? Exactly. So, why spend twice as much on a room that you will barely see? But it comes with a dining plan, you say! If you do the math, you would have to eat a lot of food to even break even on most dining plans, so unless you have some teenage boys in tow, I would skip it and pay for each meal as it comes. The big money is in snacks anyway, and they barely cover them.

Stand in line for hours – If FastPASS or a similar program is in place, make sure you USE it. Get a FP on your way into the short line on a popular ride when you get there early (as you’ve already learned is key) and then ride the ride, go ride something else and then come back at your designated time to ride it again and bypass all those folks who figure waiting in line is fine by them. Suckers!

Assume your kids can keep up – Chances are that your kids have a normal routine at home. It probably includes a nap and regular bedtime. If this is true, then try to keep them on as close a schedule as possible. Keeping them up until midnight when they are used to going to sleep at 7:30 is just asking for a meltdown that will make you all hate each other and get dirty looks from all the park-goers around you. You can fudge the time a bit and keep them up a little later – like 9pm – and then go back and sleep it off until the next day. If you have kids of all ages with different bedtimes, switch off nights to go back with the little ones while the other adult(s) hang out longer with the bigger kids in the park.
Buy everything you see – Buy some small souvenirs in the parks if you must, but if you are going with a crowd, stop by the nearest discount store (i.e. Target, Walgreens) and pick up some affordable items for the kids and save big bucks while also attempting to head off any major hissy fits over buying overpriced stuff inside the park gates.

While there are many other things you can do wrong, these are the major ones. Plan well and you will not only have a great time, but also make the most of your visit and money. Don’t forget to also pack your camera, extra batteries and lots of sunscreen!

What are YOUR best tips on what not to do when visiting a theme park?

Friday, May 18, 2012

Super Useful Travel Links 5.18.12

It’s that time again. I’ve been collecting some interesting links while posting and reviewing like mad this week. I hope you’ve been entering some of the contests that are happening in conjunction with REVIEWapalooza. Early next week I’ll be reviewing the new Travelon Anti-theft Urban Tour Bag and also giving one away. I think this bag is going to be very appealing to the male readers and travelers, though it’s also a great bag for the ladies that don’t like a traditional day bag that looks like a purse. Eric will be doing some modeling as well this time, so you can see how well it works for everyone.

I’ve not see a ton of amazing things out there in the last few weeks. Mostly, the same story from AAA saying that Memorial Weekend trips are up and Summer vacationing is iffy, because of the economy and travelers worried about personal finances and job security. Obviously, more travelers will be road-tripping it over Memorial Weekend, myself included, which makes it a little more affordable, so while the stats are interesting, they are totally surprising and I definitely didn’t need 400 links to the study. In between deleting another email telling me of this revelation, I found some stuff that isn’t common knowledge to share with you.
You all know I love travel gadgets. Travel gadgets that make your life easier are always the best, especially when it can help you get through airport security faster and with less hassle. If you are a frequent traveler, then CLEAR might be something you want to check out. Right now it’s only available in Orlando (MCO) and Denver (DEN) airports – which is great if either of those are your home airport – but can speed you through the security process, so you don’t have to wait in long lines.  For $179/year (or $50 more to upgrade to the family plan, children under 18 are free with your subscription), you get a special CLEARcard, that has all your information on it and you are verified by fingerprint and iris at the fancy CLEARcube kiosk at participating airports.
Other airports will be joining the program, so you can sign up to be notified of new ones when they are available. Know someone who travels and uses MCO or DEN as their home airport? You can buy them 6 months of CLEAR for just $79. Of course, you could probably by yourself 6 months at that price and if you like it, then buy an annual subscription. It only saves you $11, but that’s still a savings!

Do you love travel so much you want to take it home with you? I’m not talking about turning your house into Fiji, though that would be super cool, but having an airline seat as a chair in your guest bedroom, or a drink cart for parties. Travel + Leisure has discovered that you can buy parts of retired commercial airplanes from a company that sells on eBay. Father’s Day is coming up and maybe your dad is a plane fanatic. Buy him something truly unique, like his own airplane lavatory! (Loving that idea for a tiny guest house in your backyard. Not sure how the plumbing would work, but it’s a great space saver.)

So, you all know by now that I am a guest contributor on FareCompare. Rick Seaney, CEO of FareCompare and airfare expert, has some fantastic travel tips, especially regarding summer travel and when you should book your flights and what prices you can expect to pay. I love that he gives actual numbers for you to work from when trying to find a deal on summer airfare. Not only that, he gives some practical tips for those that need a dose of reality when it comes to finding low prices. The long and short of it is that you probably will find very few deals from now on, but if you’re lucky enough to spot one, you’ll know to jump on it.

For those of you in the majority that are taking a long weekend away for Memorial Day, Techlicious gives you some tips on saving money on gas. While most has been covered before – speeding will burn more fuel, try the most direct route, keep your car up-to-date on maintenance like oil changes – there are still some new ones, like using apps to find the best deals on your way and to avoid crap traffic getting to your destination.  

I’ve covered frequent flyer miles several times before, but even for me it can still be a mystery. Conde Nast Traveler’s Daily Traveler covers 6 Starter Tips for Stockpiling Frequent Flyer Miles and Points for those that are still clueless and need help just figuring out where to start. There are many things you can do to accrue miles and earning them can really help you save on your trips, especially when you have enough to trade in for a free ticket, as airfare is one of the most expensive parts of almost any trip.

In case you missed it, Ebates is celebrating their 13th birthday and, as a gift to everyone else, over 130 online merchants are offering 13% cash back. If you need any travel gear – clothing, carry-on bags, toiletries – make sure you head over and make some purchases. If you aren’t yet an Ebates member, it’s super easy to join and totally free. Actually, they pay YOU to sign up. Get $5 or a $10 gift card of your choice of three available. They have hundreds of online merchants to choose from and you can earn up to 25% cash back, more if a merchant is a daily double.

Want to earn points you can trade in for gift cards you can use to buy travel items or use on vacation? Sign up for Swagbucks. It’s free and easy and you can earn points by just doing an internet search each day from their site. I earn enough for a gift card each month and hardly do anything. Who can’t use a $5 credit for Amazon? You can also turn in your points for Paypal cash, prizes and restaurant gift cards. Get extra Swagbucks points for finding secret codes, too! Here’s a special celebration to entice you more into signing up:
The Swagbucks Carnival has started, and it gives you an opportunity to earn bonus Swag Bucks each day just for earning the way you normally would. Check the meter on your homepage and you'll see you daily goal and how close you are to hitting it. Every day you hit the goal, you add to your bonus! As if that wasn't enough, you'll get additional bonuses based on how many days of the Carnival you're able to hit your goal! To top it all, Swagbucks is having a Swag Code extravaganza on Monday - that means lots of codes, lots of Swag Bucks and lots of fun! Don't miss it!
Got any good travel links you want to hook us up with? Post 'em in a comment!
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