Road Trip Planning Help

Help Road Trip PlanningPlanning to head out on a road trip with your family soon? If you’re like me, the days leading up to your departure will be filled with trying to remember everything that needs to be done – stop the mail and newspaper, arrange for pet sitters or house sitters, double-check hotel reservations, check that the car is in good shape. And that doesn’t include packing. I always climb into our car for long trips with a sense of dread, as in “what have I forgotten.” Because all it takes is leaving behind one key item to throw a trip out of whack. On the flip side though, sometimes bringing along just the right item can turn the miles on the road from humdrum to delightfully memorable.

So for your sake and mine, I put together a list of Family Road Trip Must-Haves. These are the top 10 things I’ve found to make a positive impact on our trips. They’re the essentials I want to remember for every trip. Some of them might seem obvious (snacks!), but believe me, in the thick of preparation when mom is juggling packing lists for multiple family members, along with all those other duties, even the obvious can get overlooked. Some of the items I only discovered or only became available after years of traveling with kids (portable hotspots, anyone?). And others we learned to pack the hard way (cleanup supplies!).

I hope this list helps you as you get ready to head out of town. While you’re at it, I’d encourage you to also download the free 18 Summer & Family Vacations chart. It’s a simple way to plan and record how your family spends free time together. It allows you to see at a glance how you’re doing and what you want to pursue to maximize the years you have as your children are growing.

How about you? What is on your list of top things to bring on a family road trip?

I always enjoy hearing what other families can’t do without. I often learn how I can improve the experience for my crew.

Universal Studios Family Bucket List Trip on a Budget

Your teen loves Harry Potter. A trip to Universal Studios’ Wizarding World of Harry Potter would make her year. But you’re frugal. How do you reconcile the two? How do you create a bucket list experience of it, without breaking the bank?

The secret is knowing where to splurge and how to find deals. I’m going to share with you how earlier this month I managed to take four people on a five-night trip to Florida from Chicago that included airfare, hotel and 4-day Park-to-Park tickets for Universal Studios Orlando for just over $2,000, while still managing to wow everyone in the family.

Universal Trip InfographicThere are multiple methods for saving on each aspect of the trip. The details I’m sharing here offer just one example of how it can be done. What I want to key in on is how saving on some aspects of our trip gave us room in our budget to splurge on others (although “splurging” didn’t always involve money – but I’ll get to that later).

Here’s how it worked for us:

AIRFARE: 4 economy round-trip tickets from O’Hare International (ORD) to Orlando International (MCO) on American Airlines

COST: $36.39, plus 56,673 Citi Thank You Points

HOW I DID IT: Early in 2016 I applied for a Citi Thank You Premier card. The card came with a bonus offer of 50,000 points (now 30,000) after spending $3,000 on the card within 3 months. It earns 3 points per dollar on travel (airfare, gas, tolls, etc.) and 2x points on dining & entertainment. After earning the bonus I continued to use the card primarily for gas purchases. When it came time to book our flights, I looked for Economy MileageSAAver award seats on American Airlines using airline miles I have in my AAdvantage account. This would have cost me 25,000 miles plus $11.20 each, RT. But I couldn’t find anything available for four people during the weeks I wanted to go. Then I remembered my Thank You Points. I did a search for award tickets again, this time using the Citi Travel Center. That’s where I found the RT tix for 56,673 points and $36.39 (versus 100,000 miles and $44.80). SOLD!

I would call that an intermediate/advanced miles & points booking. Although award seat availability can be hard to find on American itself, you may have success doing a straightforward booking with miles there or with a different airline (especially Southwest, where you can book any available seat using miles). If you can use airline miles or credit card points (like Citi Thank You or Chase Ultimate Rewards*), your travel costs will drop dramatically. You don’t have to be a frequent flyer to accumulate those miles either, as I just demonstrated above.

HOTEL #1: 3 nights for 2 doubles at the Holiday Inn Express Nearest Universal Studios (not to be confused with the Holiday Inn Express Across the Street From Universal Studios – which was actually closer to the park gates).

COST: $338.91

HOW I DID IT: I’m an IHG (Intercontinental Hotels Group) Rewards Club member. I have points I could have used, but not quite enough for all 3 nights. Or I could have used my annual free night (from having a Chase IHG Visa). But at $95.09/night, the IHG Rewards Club rate was low enough that I chose to book with cash and save my points and free nights for another occasion.

HOTEL #2: 1 night for 2 queen beds at the Holiday Inn Express in Spring Hill, FL.

COST: 10,000 IHG points plus $59.50

HOW I DID IT: As with Holiday Inn Express in Orlando, I booked through the IHG Rewards Club. This time I used a combination of cash and points (which is handy when you want to stretch your points stash). The regular points rate was 15,000 points, so effectively $59.50 bought me the additional 5,000 points I needed. Again, this was a good enough deal for me and allowed me to hang on to my free night for future use.

Note: I earn IHG points by using the IHG Visa. You can earn bonus points when you first apply for the card and spend $1,000 in three months (as of Jan. 2017 the bonus is 60,000 points, which would get you up to four free nights at one of many of IHG’s hotels). IHG hotels happen to fit our needs well, so this is a card I’m happy to pay for, especially with a free night certificate at your card anniversary. The $49 fee (waived the first year) is worth it!

HOTEL #3: 1 night for 2 queen beds at Sheraton Sand Key Resort in Clearwater Beach, FL

COST: 10,00 Starwood Preferred points

HOW I DID IT:  First of all, you have to know that this felt like a splurge! We had a room on the 8th floor (Club Lounge was on the 9th), with a partial view of the Gulf and beach. In other words, this was what Sheraton calls a “Deluxe” room. I had booked a “Classic” room, but I also let the hotel know that this was a special visit for us as it was our girls’ first time on the Gulf and I wanted to make it memorable for them. If there was a room available, would the hotel consider giving us a nice view. My request paid off and it had the exact effect I was hoping for. We were all wowed – not just by the room and the view, but by the hotel and its location in general. The pool area was beautiful and tropical feeling, the beach pristine and inviting. If only it hadn’t been a high of 50 degrees the day we were there! Our girls still enjoyed finding seashells on the beach and we all spent some time relaxing in the hot tub.

The other reason this felt like a splurge is that SPG points are harder to earn. I applied for the SPG Amex card in 2015 and received 30,000 bonus points after spending $3,000 in 3 months. So this one night cost a third of that bonus. In my book though, those points were totally worth that free night! The cash value if we had paid for that room would have been $483. The enjoyment we got from it? Priceless!

PARK TICKETS, FOOD & INCIDENTALS: $1,648

HOW I DID IT: Park tickets is one area where I don’t have many tricks to share with you, other than comparing prices between Universal and Undercover Tourist. Even so, the cost of park tickets doesn’t vary much (although if you know you’re going to visit Universal Studios, don’t wait to buy tickets as they occasionally implement price increases. It ended up costing us about $80 more through Undercover Tourist when I finally bought them than when I first priced them out – not a big deal, but every penny counts). That’s why it’s a good idea to maximize your savings on travel & accommodations.

If you’re not using points for the hotel and you belong to a warehouse club, then it’s definitely worth looking at their packages. We could have saved $150 on the cost of hotel and park tickets combined if we had thought to look at Costco’s offers before booking the non-refundable rate we got at the hotel.

RENTAL CAR: If you’re only visiting the theme parks, then you probably don’t need a rental car. Just be warned that the shuttles that run from hotels outside Universal Studios Resort have a limited schedule and limited seats. Don’t count on being able to hop on at any time. That said, we were comfortable walking from the Holiday Inn Express to the park. It was only about 25 minutes and for us it was good to be outside in the nice Florida weather (having left wintry Chicago the day before).

We did rent a car for our trip because we wanted to spend some time over on the Gulf Coast. I ended up finding the best deal through Costco. Which is to say, take a look at all the options you have for booking a rental car. AAA, warehouse clubs and even some auto insurance networks offer discounts on car rentals.

FOOD: There are ways to save on food without buying groceries and packing sack lunches (which Universal Studios discourages). We did bring a handful of snacks along on our trip, a few of which we brought to the parks each day. That helped when we wanted a quick bite and didn’t want to blow a ton of cash on theme park snacks. I also made sure we stayed at a hotel with free breakfast. Yes, I know free hotel breakfasts often aren’t that great. But yogurt and fruit is about the same anywhere, if you’re okay with that. Cereal too. In our case the vacation was about the parks, not the food.

We also kept in mind portion sizes when ordering in restaurants. Even on site at Universal, the portions were large. For the most part, we would split meals, which always seemed to be enough to fill us. On occasion the girls or I would get soup or salad, which was lighter and less expensive. Lunch we ate at the parks because it was more convenient. And then usually we ate dinner at an outside restaurant. Having Chick-Fil-A Cow Calendar cards came in handy for Mike & I to save money on one meal (although the girls forgot theirs). I think also if I had planned ahead, I would have picked up a few chain restaurant gift cards from our Discover Cash Back rewards account. That would have cut the cost of dining when we weren’t in the parks.

We did occasionally splurge on dining though (remember, I’m all about splurging strategically). Trying Butterbeer in Diagon Alley and eating at The Leaky Cauldron were amazing experiences that we didn’t mind spending more on. And a seafood dinner in Tampa was another worthwhile splurge.

INCIDENTALS: I want to point out one splurge in this area. In a previous post I go into more detail about this, but I felt I would be remiss not to include a mention here as well: we bought our daughters each an interactive wand at Universal Studios Wizarding World. At $50 each, they were beyond our usual budget. So instead we made them part of our girls’ Christmas gifts (their dad presented them with bow-topped dowel rods on Christmas morning, with the promise of the real thing on our trip). This splurge, more than any other, made the trip for our girls. Again, read my previous post to learn more about that.

Phew! I know that’s a lot of information, but I thought it valuable to share with you details about how it’s possible to keep your budget under control while making an epic trip like Universal Studios that’s memorable for everyone.

Feel free to share your own tips for saving on a theme park trip in the comments below. It’s ideas like these that make it possible for families to take their own family bucket list trip sooner.

*While I don’t participate in affiliate programs, this is a personal referral link. This means I earn points when you sign up. I only include this because I highly value the Chase Sapphire Program and heartily recommend it to anyone who asks about traveling using miles and points.

Ensure Your Wizarding World Visit is Truly a Bucket List Experience

Family bucket list tripNext to Disney World, a trip to Universal Studios tops many family vacation bucket lists – especially with the addition and expansion of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in the last few years. And rightly so! Universal has come a long way in creating amazing experiences for their theme park guests.

UniversalSignSince our family enjoys Harry Potter, and our youngest, who is a big fan, was feeling left out of the fun after her two sisters had summer adventures (at camp and in Europe), my husband and I felt the time was ripe for a trip to Universal Studios Orlando. And while the trip alone would have been bucket list-worthy, we made a few key choices along the way to ensure it exceeded our kids’ (and our) expectations. And we made one or two goofs that I want to share about to spare you the same mistakes.

By the way, we’re a frugal family, and while theme parks don’t equate with small budgets, I did find ways to save significantly on this trip. I’ll share those tricks in a later post.

Here are the highlights of our Wizarding World experience (along with a few tips):

We arrived in Orlando during our kids’ second week of Winter Break. It also happened to be a lot of other schools’ winter breaks too, so the parks were crowded. At times, it was difficult to even walk through areas of Diagon Alley in Universal Studios or Hogsmeade in Islands of Adventure. We made the best of it, and generally were able to plan our tour of the parks to avoid the areas and attractions that were the most popular at the time (for example: on one occasion instead of waiting 60 minutes to ride the Hogwarts Express between parks, we chose to make the 15-minute walk). If crowds bother you, or you’ll only have one day at the parks, you may want to try to take your trip during a quieter season.

Girls at OllivandersWhen we entered Universal Studios Theme Park on the first day, after jumping into the line for Minion Mayhem (which turned out to be an excellent choice because we only waited about 10 minutes and never saw a line that short afterwards), we immediately went to Ollivander’s Wand Shop in Diagon Alley to buy interactive wands for our girls. Now you can either go directly into the shop itself to buy a wand, or you can wait to see a show in which the Wand Maker helps a wand choose a park guest. Since the line was short for the wand choosing show, we went to it –  but even so we still waited about 20 minutes. We enjoyed the show, but I wouldn’t suggest waiting much longer than a half hour. For our two girls (13 and 15 years old), finding wands on their own in the shop was much more exciting.

Bucket list tip for The Wizarding World: The interactive resin wands (either character wands or Ollivander’s “wood”)  are not cheap at $50 each for a wand and map of spell locations in a classy box. But all four of us agreed they added a priceless dimension to our visit. I’ve advocated before for strategic splurges that take experiences to the next level. The interactive wands would fit that category. Being able to “cast spells” to make it rain or turn on lights or reveal invisible ink (shh! that one is at a secret spell location), was cool! And the fact that the wands had to be swirled and flicked in just the right motions showed that Universal Studios knows their audience well.

KPygmyPuff

Pygmy Puff Naming Ceremony

Another tip: If you have a child who loves stuffed animals and they want to “adopt” a Pygmy Puff (and who wouldn’t, they’re so adorable!), make sure they go through the naming ceremony at Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes. Katherine, our fifteen-year-old did this and was enchanted by the process, and by Genevieve, her pink fluffy Pygmy Puff.

Our bucket list “miss” in The Wizarding World: We didn’t have our girls buy costume accessories early on. All throughout the parks we saw folks decked out in wizarding gear, some in full Hogwarts uniform, many others just in their house robes. Being surrounded by people in costume made the experience more immersive – being in costume herself would completed it for Evelyn, our Harry Potter fangirl. However, in our case it wasn’t until the last day that our girls chose their souvenirs. Evelyn bought the Gryffindor tie and headband, along with a patch for us to iron on robes we’ll sew ourselves ($110 for official robes was too much for her souvenir budget). If I had it to do over, I would have encouraged her to buy the accessories on the first day to wear throughout the rest of our visit.

What makes The Wizarding World of Harry Potter so magical is how immersive it feels. Both areas are fairly well hidden/shielded from the rest of the parks – Diagon Alley more so than Hogsmeade (we even had other park visitors stop us to ask where it was, when they had just been standing right outside it, unaware). Music from the movie soundtracks plays continuously in the background, one of my favorite parts of being in those areas, and no detail is spared in the buildings themselves. In fact, keep your eye out for actual props used in the movies. You can also eat in both The Leaky Cauldron (Diagon Alley) and The Three Broomsticks (Hogsmeade) – for sure you want to try the Butterbeer!

Platform 9 3/4If The Wizarding World is on your family’s bucket list, consider splurging on those elements that complete the immersion: buy the interactive wands (or one for the family to share), let the kids dress up in costume (save money by making or buying your own before you go), and have a meal in one of the Wizarding restaurants. You won’t regret it!

Editors note: You might want to hold a Harry Potter movie marathon in the weeks leading up to your trip. We did and it was great to have the scenes fresh in our minds to recognize the significance of everything we were seeing at the park.

Daddy/Daughter Trip to the Olympics

David Williams and his wife Sarah are longtime friends of mine. One of the things I have always admired about David is his desire to see the world. In his 20s, David made it his goal to travel to every continent (so far he’s made it to 6 continents and 80 countries). But he didn’t leave that goal behind when he become a dad – he uses that passion to shape his parenting. He takes his kids on trips to places you and I only dream of going (like Fiji, Australia and Paris, to name only a few) – because that fits his vision for his family.

WilliamsOlympicsMost recently, David and his fourteen-year-old daughter Lydia traveled to Rio for the Olympic games. I thought it would be fun for you to hear from David about this once-in-a-lifetime bucket list trip.

When did you get the idea to go to Rio for the Olympics?

It is something I have always wanted to do. I always liked watching the Olympics and I thought it would be cool to go. It seems like lots of people talk about going, but not many actually go.

About nine or ten months ago, I booked award [airline] tickets, but didn’t book anything else. I didn’t know whether I go. As the year progressed, I started thinking it really would be fun. And I imagined Lydia would have fun if we went. So I booked a hotel and bought event tickets [a few weeks before the opening ceremony].

Did you have any concerns about going to Rio?

Everyone was saying “you’re crazy. You’re going to get kidnapped. There’s Zika. That’s the worst idea I ever heard.” My theory was that it was incredibly important to the country of Brazil that these Olympics go okay. They will do whatever it takes to make the Olympics go well and make sure visitors are safe. Because their national reputation is at stake.

And that was the case. I didn’t see one mosquito the whole time. I felt incredibly safe. The people were super friendly and there were tons of [Olympic] volunteers.

What were some highlights of the Olympics?

I sat next to the father of Britain’s best Olympic swimmer and World Champion in the 200m freestyle. It was pretty cool.

Also, we had tickets for three sessions of swimming. But nothing else. So after dinner the first night I decided we should go see something else. We looked online at beach volleyball, for tickets to the game the next morning. And they had no cheap tickets (B & C level) left, only A level (top tier). But they were only $22 each. So we went to a beach volleyball game.

Just you and your daughter Lydia went to the Games. Why her and not the rest of the family?

I knew it was going to be expensive. My wife wouldn’t want to go, my eldest was busy with high school marching band and I had taken my son to Tokyo earlier in the year. But I knew my middle daughter Lydia would love it because she likes swimming.

Did that trip impact your relationship with your daughter?

Any time you spend extra special time with your kids, it will help your relationship. I’m all about experiences you remember. This is something Lydia and I will remember for the rest of our lives.

Lydia is a really laid-back person. But she had the biggest smile the whole way home. She got to see Missy Franklin, Michael Phelps, and Katie Ledecky. It was a great experience that went off without a hitch and she had a great time.

I want my kids to realize what a big world there is and to be interested in the rest of the world because they experienced it.

Any advice for other parents?

I’m very thankful that I’m able to do a few things like this. I try to do it at a very reasonable price. Just being flexible is the key. If you’re flexible and willing to sit on a plane for a while, it’s worth it to go to some of the famous cities of the world and experience them with your family. It costs money. But I do think it’s worth it.

Everyone should check out theflightdeals.com. You can find amazing airfares if you’re willing to go wherever and aren’t set on a particular destination.

What’s next on your bucket list?

I’m planning on taking my son to Hong Kong in November, thanks to a really good airfare I found.


CoursePromoImageWant to bring your family closer by creating and living out bucket list dreams like this one? I can teach you how. Check out my book in e-book or paperback or take ”my online course,” now only $15!

Little Free Libraries, Bucket List Cooking & More

Before July is over, I wanted to share with you some of my articles from this month’s parenting magazines (plus highlight a bucket list-related interview I did).

1607RochesterGVHave the mailbox-type buildings with books in them been popping up around your town? They’re called Little Free Libraries and we built one to share our love of books with our neighborhood last summer as one of our bucket list pursuits. My article about the process, “Shh! How to Create Your Own Little Free Library,” appears in this month’s issue of Rochester & Geneses Valley Parent.

1607FPEdAppsThinking of downloading some apps for an upcoming road trip and want to pack in some educational value while you’re at it? Fredericksburg Parent features my “Best Educational Apps” in their July issue.

1607MauiFamilyIf you’ve taken a beach shot that looked washed out, or had shadows darken the faces of people in your vacation pics you know that summer photos can be tricky. I rounded up a few tips on the subject for Maui Family in my piece, “Capturing Summer’s Moments.”

Also, just last week I was featured in an interview over on the women’s travel site, Pink Pangea. There I talk about my bucket list adventures in taking a Tuscan cooking class in Florence, Italy. Check it out!


CoursePromoImageWant to bring your family closer by creating family bucket lists? I can teach you how. Check out my book in e-book or paperback or take my online course, now only $15!