Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Airbnb

Since this blog is about saving money and also the joy of travel, I wanted to share what I think is the perfect combination of both: Airbnb.com! While this website is no longer the new kid on the block, Airbnb still offers something that is hard to find elsewhere: well priced accommodations, secure transactions, an easy user interface and success stories.

For those who don't know, Airbnb is a website that allows you to rent a room, apartment, or whole house from the owner. You book online like other travel sites, but can message the owner directly to ask questions beforehand, request specific time for check-in, have the fridge stocked, etc. It tends to be a bit cheaper overall than a hotel, offers a more local flavor and normally has a kitchen, allowing you to make some of your own meals (and save more money that way too).

Here is a referral link you can use to sign-up for Airbnb and get $25 off your first stay!  (Or, with a new email address sign-up.) Hope you enjoy your travels!

Through Airbnb, we stayed in this house in Bermuda.

Airbnb got us this condo in Iceland,
full kitchen and hot tub included, for less than a hotel!





Friday, January 23, 2015

SkyMall ~ In-flight entertainment

Previously I had written a draft of an article entitled "What not to buy from airline magazines." Apparently I was on to something, because it was announced today that SkyMall is declaring bankruptcy. With that news, I thought it relevant to share some of the goofy items I've come across in the magazine.

A purse that looks like an eyeball and "winks" while you walk… Worth $39?  

"Porch Potty" for $279…
Might be better to invest in housebreaking classes.

My favorite - A $2,995 ball pit.
I suggest saving a few bucks and just play on the grass.

"MagicShowerhead" that changes colors like at a nightclub for only $59.99.
What a steal!






Friday, January 16, 2015

My favorite websites to $ave you money!

When I started this blog, the intention was to combine my love of travel with money saving tips.  I feel the balance shifted more to the fun of travel, than necessity of money-saving.  So, I thought with this post I'd get back on topic! Here are some ways you can save money day-to-day, as well as when you travel!  I've used the websites described below, so they've been checked out and totally worth it! (Seriously, they are awesome.) Enjoy!

Cardpool

www.cardpool.com
This website allows you to buy (or sell) gift cards.  They offer a wide range of cards, including: restaurants, clothing stores, mega-stores (Walmart, Target), movie theaters, etc. You can purchase "physical" cards which they mail to you for free, or electronic cards sent to your email for immediate use.  Most cards are between 5%-35% off the card's value. The only things to note are you can't choose the gift card design, and the code on the back will be scratched off.  (This is how they verify the card balance.)

Bonus! If you use my referral link here: www.cardpool.com, you'll get $5 off your first purchase.

www.ebates.com
Ebates

This website passes along referral savings they earn when you use their site to link to whatever shopping site you want to purchase an item from. For example, if you want to shop at REI for travel gear, you go to www.ebates.com and then click on REI (they have a lot of stores to choose from).  Everything else remains the same, but ebates will keep track if you make a purchase and give you a percentage (1.5%-25%) of your purchase back!  It's super easy to use and doesn't require much effort to earn cash back!

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Beautiful (and easy to get to) Beaches!

Want a beach vacation near (or far) that is easy to get to (relatively speaking)? Here are some suggestions that are close to big cities or airports and still beautiful:

Waikiki Beach, Oahu
Waikiki Beach, Honolulu, Hawaii
La Jolla Shores, California
Santa Monica Pier and Beach, California
Ocean Beach, San Diego, California
Main Beach, East Hampton, New York
Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina
Oak Street Beach, Chicago, Illinois
Galveston Island State Park, Texas
Revere Beach, Boston, Massachusetts
Ocean Beach, San Francisco, California
Alki Beach, Seattle, Washington

Ocean Beach, San Diego






Santa Monica Beach, California

Miami Beach, Florida

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Picking the right size carry-on!

With most airlines charging for checked baggage, more and more people are trying to fit all their clothes into a carry-on. But, airlines are reassessing their carry-on sizing, making it confusing to buy a bag that will hold everything you need and at the same time fit into the overhead bin!  Before buying a carry-on, check your favorite airlines' websites for their allowable carry-on dimensions, and buy a suitcase that can fit within all those sizes. Here are a few tips to get the most space out of your suitcase...

1) A soft shell versus hard shell suitcase will be more flexible to fit into confined spaces (and often weigh less).

2) Having an extendable outer layer is great! It can serve as a carry-on one direction, but expand and a be a checked bag when heading home.

3) Compression bags are an amazing and inexpensive way to compact your clothes!

4) I think this is one of the most critical points… Buy a suitcase with internal wheels, versus wheels that extend underneath the suitcase. This actually gives you a lot more packing space, without extending the overall dimensions of the suitcase!


















Have fun packing!

Friday, December 12, 2014

Holiday Traditions Abroad!

No matter where you are from, you'll find holiday traditions vary from country to country. Take a look at some traditions from around the world - and leave a comment about what is your favorite holiday tradition!

Tio de Nadal
Spain - Instead of just celebrating Christmas Day, people in Spain have their main celebration on Three Kings Day (Epiphany). In Catalonia, the Tio de Nadal, or Christmas Log, is fed by the children of the house in December and then presents appear under the log at Christmas!

Venezuela - The holidays are a time for a fresh start - with new clothes for Christmas, and a fresh coat of paint on the house in early December to make it ready for Christmas decorating! Also, people believe wearing yellow on New Year's Eve will provide good luck for the year ahead.

Greenland - The country is so far north in the Arctic Circle that trees have to be imported for decorating. Also, there are very interesting foods served during the holiday season, including "kiviak," the raw flesh of an arctic bird, which have been buried in sealskin for months, until they reach the right stage of decomposition! Sound unusual?  Maybe they think the same of our gingerbread house tradition…

Parol Festival
Philippines - Instead of a Christmas tree, the most common decoration in the Philippines is the "parol," a bamboo pole with a lighted star on top, representing the star that guided the Wise Men.

China - Only a small percent of the population is Christian, so Christmas isn't ubiquitously celebrated. One tradition though is giving wrapped apples on Christmas Eve.  And, interestingly, even though many people don't celebrate Christmas, China produces most of the world's plastic christmas trees and ornaments!

India - Similar to China, only a small percent of the population celebrates Christmas.  But, for those who do, instead of decorating a traditional fir tree, a banana or mango tree is decorated. People also put oil burning lamps on their flat roofs to show that Jesus was the "light of the world."

Germany - Christmas Markets are a well known German tradition. They sell all sorts of Christmas foods and decorations.  Hand blown glass ornaments are popular!

Beautiful German Christmas Market
No matter where you are from, or what your holiday traditions entail… Peace on Earth!

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Missed Connections

If you're stuck at the gate,
here are some things to remember!
If you've ever missed a flight, or had a cancelled flight, you know what a headache it can be! On one international trip, it took me 72 hours (and a hotel and rental car) to finally make it home. There were several important things I learned during the experience, and I'd like to share those to make your unexpected travel interruptions more bearable…

1) Always, always keep extra clothes with you.  (You might say "I don't plan on checking a bag."  But, if the overhead bins are full, you want to make sure to grab extra clothes, just in case you and your bag don't reconnect immediately at your destination.) Make sure to have extra underwear, t-shirt, socks, etc. If you're stuck for days without your luggage in an airport or hotel with no way to do laundry, you'll be thankful for a change of clothes.

Always carry your travel documents,
don't put them in your luggage!
2) Keep all important travel documents (passport, license, phone numbers and addresses) with you.

3) Eat! Most delay/cancellation experiences involve long lines, phone calls, and a general lack of patience.  Don't delay meals.  Whatever your problem, it will still be there in 15 minutes after you grab something to eat.  And, with food in your stomach, you might be better able to handle the situation.

4) If the airline gives your a voucher for a hotel, don't leave the airport without calling to confirm the hotel has available rooms.  After what I'm sure is a tiring experience, you don't want to end up at a hotel with no vacancy. (Happened to me. True story.) If the airline's hotel is booked, get yourself somewhere else to sleep and…

5) Keep all receipts! With a well drafted letter, you can most likely get reimbursed from either the airline, or travel insurance you may have purchased.  (See this previous post on that topic.)

Friday, October 17, 2014

Visit these castles without leaving the country...


Thornewood Castle
(Photo from Thornewoodcastle.com)
Thornewood Castle - Lakewood, Washington
Originally built in England over 500 years ago, this English castle was reassembled in Washington state.  Complete with a sunken garden, a neat place to visit without needing your passport!

Biltmore Estate - Asheville, North Carolina
Built over a hundred years ago by George Vanderbilt, this massive estate can be visited just for a day or does have an inn at which you can stay overnight.

The Chanler at Cliff Walk - Newport, Rhode Island
Castle Hotel & Spa
(Photo from TripAdvisor)
Over a hundred years old and host to a prior president, this is now a luxury hotel.

Keswick Hall - Keswick, Virginia
Updated in 1990 from a private estate to a hotel, this "country house hotel"maintains a lot of the original charm.

Castle Hotel & Spa - Tarrytown, New York
Just an hour drive from the hustle and bustle of New York City, this castle and it's expansive grounds are worth a visit.

Castle Hill Resort & Spa - Ludlow, Vermont
The first home to be wired for electricity in Vermont, this resort has a mix of modern amenities along with original details

Castle Marne
(Photo from Railroad Glory Days)
Stone Castle by the Sea (aka - Norumbega Inn) - Camden, Maine
Recently updated, this bed-and-breakfast has history along with some modern conveniences.

Castle Marne - Denver, Colorado
A fun (and reasonably priced) place to stay near downtown Denver. Even includes afternoon tea!

Friday, October 10, 2014

Visit Austria, Hungary and Slovakia at the same time!

Following up on the last two posts about Slovakia, Tereza, a local, shares with us some fun things to see outside of the city center!

Bratislava is very walkable, but if you are interested in venturing beyond the city center, for example to the ancient Devin castle, which dominates a promontory at the confluence of the Danube and Morava rivers, you will find reliable and inexpensive public transportation that make it easy to explore more widely. Austria is on the other side of the rivers here, and this place holds a special importance for Slovaks. Until the fall of Communism in this part of Europe in 1989, the border with Austria here was marked by barbed wire fences and heavily-armed border patrols. Many people tried to flee the regime at this spot, and there is a poignant monument commemorating those who died trying to escape to freedom in the west. I still remember going up to the castle as a small child and gazing into free Austria, and then years later finally cutting the barbed wire after the Velvet Revolution. We still keep that piece of the border wire at home.

Devin Castle on the Danube and Morava Rivers
(Photo from Bratislava Tourist Board)

Another part of the city that I find especially interesting is located along the border with Austria and Hungary (Bratislava is supposedly the only capital in the world that borders two independent countries). The precise spot where the three countries meet is in farm fields, and you will need to ask locals for directions. It is nice to ride there by bike, along one of the many bike paths. There is only a plaque marking the spot, but it is kind of cool to be able to stand in three countries at the same time.  This part of the city is called Rusovce, and it also boasts a beautiful renaissance mansion awaiting renovation. Nearby is an ancient Roman settlement called Gerulata. A couple of more bus stops from there you will come to Cunovo, where there is a huge white-water facility (white-water sports are the only sports category in which Slovakia dominates, and watching professionals compete in international championships there is very exciting). For the art fans, there is a huge, beautiful, modern art gallery in the same area, called Danubiana.

View of Bratislava from the SNP Bridge
(Photo from Bratislava Tourist Board)
If you have more time and want to venture out further from the capital, Slovakia hosts an unusually large number of beautiful medieval castles (the huge Spis castle in eastern Slovakia shouldn’t be missed), several UNESCO World Heritage Sites (such as the towns Banska Stiavnica and Bardejov), and beautiful national parks (two of the most notable being the High Tatra mountains in the north, at the border with Poland, and my personal favorite, the Slovak Paradise, with a variety of gorgeous hiking trails meandering through deep gorges and alongside waterfalls, some routes necessitating the use of ladders and chains).

If you decide to come over (which I hope you do!), you’ll still be able to find an old street devoid of any tourists, which can be hard to find in more popular destinations.

Friday, October 3, 2014

"Must sees" in Bratislava, Slovakia

Following up on the last post by Tereza, a native of Slovakia, here is a post on what to do in downtown Bratislava:

Main Square in Bratislava
(Photo from Bratislava Tourist Board)
A “must do” in Bratislava is simply a stroll around the old town pedestrian area, better known as the “Korzo,” with its many palaces, churches, Michael’s Gate, the Main Square and the renaissance Town Hall. Hviezdoslav Square at the south end of the pedestrian zone transforms into the city’s public living room in the summer, with its many benches, sofas, and huge cushions where you can lounge and enjoy your ice cream or read a book taken from one of the available bookcases, or check out the revolving exhibits, listen to concerts, or just watch the passersby. A winter treat is a free skating ring set up in the square. At the end of the square you’ll find the beautiful National Theater, with Reduta to one side, which houses the Slovak Philharmonic. The US as well as other embassies are also located on this square.

National Theatre and Hviezdoslavovo Square
(Photo from Bratislava Tourist Board)
Since this blog is also about how to save money, I’d like to mention that I’ve noticed some young people wearing yellow T-shirts hanging out at the biggest square downtown (Hviezdoslavovo namestie), offering free walking tours in English that seem to be very popular. Another savings is live performances, such as classical concerts at the Slovak Philharmonic or operas and plays at the National Theatre tend to be cheaper than going to see a movie. Eating out is not as inexpensive as it used to be but it is worth noting you’re not expected to tip as much as in the US (10% is considered generous).  When it comes to food, cheaper alternatives, more popular with the locals, are pubs or trendy cafes.  Typical Slovak cuisine is distinctly central European: lots of fried meat and potatoes, Hungarian paprika is a common seasoning, along with cabbage, rich bean soups, and I shouldn’t forget our “signature” sheep cheese called “bryndza,” served with potato dumplings, called “bryndzove halusky." Recently we have seen an increase in the number of international restaurants, if your stomach is not up for heavy load of a typical Central European meal.

Bratislava Castle
(Photo from Bratislava Tourist Board)
You should definitely take the walk up to the castle (which looks new because it was restored in 1953, following a destructive fire in 1811, although its history dates back to Celtic and Roman times), where you will walk past St. Martin’s Cathedral, previously mentioned, and the flying saucer shaped SNP bridge, the Communist era construction of which destroyed the former Jewish quarter, along with its Synagogue. Besides its shape, the bridge is noted as the world's longest cable-stayed bridge to have one pylon and one cable-stayed plane. It is asymmetrical, with the pylon located at one bank of the Danube.  Inside the “flying saucer” at the top is a fancy restaurant offering 360-degree views of the city. It is possible to walk across the bridge, over the Danube, where you will find a number of good cafes and restaurants, as well as a forested park great for a picnic.

Another interesting walk from downtown is up the hill to the Slavin Monument, which is a military cemetery for Soviet Army soldiers who fell during World War II while liberating the city. It offers spectacular views of the city, and on the way up you pass a neighborhood of old, creepy villas.

Useful links:
Unofficial Bratislava Guide
Public transport planner

Check out next week’s post on what to do outside of the city center!

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Bratislava, Slovak Republic

Tereza, a native of Slovakia, wrote a few posts about her country.  If you haven't visited already, you will want to after reading this!

Main Square at night!  A city not to be missed in Europe.
(Photo from Bratislava Tourist Board)
Some of you may be wondering where in the world this place could possibly be.  Bratislava is the capital of the Slovak Republic, located in central Europe. Slovakia (as opposed to Slovenia, which is further south, and formerly part of Yugoslavia) became an independent country in 1993 after a peaceful split of Czechoslovakia into the Czech and Slovak Republics. We’re still good friends, and both Czechs and Slovaks feel at home in both countries and can understand each other perfectly (yes, there are two different languages). A tourist should be aware that the Euro is the currency of Slovakia, while the Czech Republic kept its Crowns (although both countries are part of the European Union).

So why would anyone want to visit Bratislava? The truth is, most tourists stop by for a day or two, traveling either from Vienna, Austria (Vienna and Bratislava are supposed to be the world’s closest two capitals, less than an hour apart) or from Prague, Czech Republic, on their way to or from Budapest, Hungary.  One large group of visitors, who are not quite so welcomed by locals, includes young British men going on “stag parties,” lured by cheap beer and cheap air tickets.

Old and New in the capital of Bratislava
(Photo from Bratislava Tourist Board)
With a population of some 500,000, situated on both banks of the Danube River, it is indeed small enough to see most sites within a day or two. You can get an idea of what it looks like from the movie, “Peacemaker,” which was filmed in Bratislava – the city serving as both luxurious Vienna and war-destroyed Sarajevo at the same time, often just a few streets apart. There remain many places that need to be fixed up, particularly the depressing suburbs full of concrete apartment buildings leftover from the Communist times; revitalizing the city means there will be a number of construction sites. In spite of that, the city does have a special and exciting atmosphere, particularly during warm summer nights, when the old town vibrates with people parading the pedestrian zone, sharing drinks and food outside with friends, or attending concerts in one of the old town squares.

The best time to come is definitely summer, not just because of the weather (although it can get quite hot) but mainly because of the rich (and mostly free) programs in the streets of downtown and at the hilltop castle. These programs are known as the “Cultural Summer and Castle Festivities.”  It is a good idea on arrival to stop by the Tourist Information Center, for information regarding both the summer festivals and other musical and cultural events on offer at any time of the year.

Beautiful at Christmas!
(Photo from Bratislava
Tourist Board)
One notably interesting event occurring the last weekend in June is the “Coronation Festival.” During the period of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Bratislava served as the coronation city (then called Pressburg in German or Pozsony in Hungarian); eighteen kings and queens were crowned in St. Martin’s cathedral. Each year, the coronation ceremony is authentically reenacted for a different king or queen.

If you come during the Christmas season, you will find a traditional Christmas market (food and crafts) in the Main Square and in the courtyard of the Town Hall, with the standard warning that goes with all crowded places, be aware of pickpockets. This time of the year there are a number of cultural events in the streets of the old town, while the New Year’s Eve concerts in the Main Square are very popular and showcase famous local bands playing well past midnight.

Check out next week’s post for specifics of what to see in downtown Bratislava!

Friday, September 12, 2014

Alternatives to Airport Parking

With so many people jet-setting, there have become more and more options for airport parking. While last minute on-site airport parking is a must for some, there are often cheaper options just outside the airport's grounds.  In particular, one fairly new option is FlightCar. While I haven't tried it myself, it seems like a neat idea.  In short, you leave your car at their lot near the airport, FlightCar provides you a town car ride to and from the terminal, as well as a free car wash and vacuum. How much does it cost? Nothing!  How? Well, the idea is that they try to rent out your car (insurance included), and will pay you (per mile) if your car is rented out.  If not, you still got yourself free parking.

I'm sure people with brand new or luxury cars might be hesitant to try it out, but I'd be curious to hear from anyone who has?  Seems like a good idea for people with slightly older cars, as a way to save $15/day parking cost + $10 car wash!

Here is a description of FlightCar's services (from their website).



Saturday, September 6, 2014

Passenger Bill of Rights

Following up on a previous post regarding trip interruptions and airline delays, I wanted to share something new within the last few years - the US Department of Transportation's Passenger Bill of Rights.  It covers lost bag fees, reimbursement for being bumped from flights, tarmac delays and more.  Details can be found on the Department of Transportation's website. If you think your rights have been violated, make sure to mention this bill of rights in your complaint letter (or Email) to the airline.  Letting them know that you are an aware consumer makes it more likely they will take you seriously and address your concerns!

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Food Festivals

A fun part of traveling is experincing the local cuisine. Many cities offer local food festivals, which is a great way to try samples of what each region is famous for!  Here are some festivals to check out next time you're in the area! But remember, these are just a small sampling of all the festival the USA has to offer!

New Orleans - Every spring this festival is full of samples from dozens of restaurants. A celebration for your tastebuds! More information at: nowfe.com

View of Chicago from the Ferris Wheel
at "Taste of Chicago!"
Chicago - Personally I like the annual "Taste of Chicago," but this big midwestern city offers many festivals throughout the year, including: Food Truck Rally and Ribfest.

North Carolina - Having experienced North Carolina BBQ myself, I can say it's well worth a trip to this mid-atlantic state. Tryon, NC, holds it's Blue Ridge BBQ Festival.  Check it out!

Maine - Take a guess what type of food festival is held in this state?  It's none other than the tasty Maine Lobster Festival, and has been occurring for more than 65 years! A visit to Maine's coast is spectacular in the summer, especially with some lobster on the menu!

New Mexico - What's a trip to the Southwest without a little spicy foods?  The Hatch Chile Festival is the largest in the state of New Mexico and is held over labor day weekend every year.

California - With a state so large there are many festivals to attend, but since California is known worldwide for it's wine, I think Flavor! Napa Valley Food and Wine Festival is a good representative choice!

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Latin America Photography

To follow up on a previous post about travel photo tips, here are some images I captured traveling in Central/South America.  Enjoy!
Old Church in Panama City, Panama.

Transiting the Panama Canal.

Colors galore in Cartagena's Old Town, Colombia.

Exploring the rainforest in Costa Rica.

Old Town Panama City decorated for Christmas.

The Castillo San Felipe de Barajas in Colombia.

Pura Vida in Puerto Limon, Costa Rica.

Marketplace in Colombia.

Sunset over Roatan, Honduras.