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.

June 2016 Bucket List Life Dare: 10 New Things to Try

June 2016 Bucket List Life DareHere we are, at the gate to the garden of summer adventures, ready to open the door. You have the key in your hand. Will you do it? Or will you pass on by and leave it unopened, unexplored, sticking instead to the safety of the familiar?

This month’s dare is about taking the key to adventure and putting it in the lock so you just have to turn the knob to enter into adventure when you’re ready. Here’s what that looks like: create a list of ten new things you want to try this summer. Get out a piece of paper or open up a blank document. Write down the numbers 1-10, then fill in the slots with experiences you want to have in the next three months.

You list could include local shops you want to check out, foods you want to grill, sports you want to try, bike paths you want to travel, road trips you want to take. Make it an eclectic collection or go with a theme. Work hard to come up with ten ideas that are doable – not too far or too expensive or too time consuming. Although don’t pitch the ideas that are distant, pricey or long-term. Those should go on your master Bucket List. This list is just a mini version limited to the scope of the June through August of this year.

Invite your kids to come up with their own lists. Ask your spouse to create one too. Spend time in the next week as a family comparing lists.

If you stick with a list of 10 New Things to Try, you could easily check them all off by going after one each week. Or use your list as an outline for how you’ll spend days off, if you take a vacation.

Here’s my list:

1. Visit a new-to-me cupcake shop in the suburbs.

2. Go zip lining (they have this at the camp my daughter is working at this summer, so my goal is to do this on one of our visits to see her).

3. Make homemade tiramisu using the recipe we learned in Tuscany.

4. Pick one of my Pinterest “Crafts to Try” board ideas and do it.

5. Eat at a Naperville restaurant we’ve never been to.

6. Volunteer at a Naper Nights concert.

7. Put my daughter on a plane to Europe with a friend (already planned, but every list has to have a “gimme”).

8. Take my husband to a comedy club.

9. Check out a new-to-me festival.

10. Go to a vintage baseball game.

Once you have a list written, you won’t have to wonder about what to do when you’re looking for adventure. Just pick something from your list and go!

Are you game to take this month’s dare? Share in the comments an idea or two from your list.

Nesting and Bucket List Experiences

What does a crafter do in advance of a bucket list experience? Create something!

Nesting & Bucket List ExperiencesI realized that this has been happening a bunch in my life lately, so I thought I’d share a little about it with the thought that it might inspire you. When you’re preparing for a bigger event in life, like a long-awaited trip, a move, or a graduation, there’s often this nesting impulse that takes hold. I would say it’s true for moms, but since I’ve seen my husband go there more than once (I can almost guarantee that a part of our house will be gutted and revamped in one way or another just a few days before we expect a bunch of guests), I’m thinking it’s an even broader phenomenon than that. In anticipation of seeming disorder or the unfamiliar, we crave control. Indeed, a study of nesting in pregnant women found a desire for control to be at work. We arrange, rearrange, organize and create to satisfy our need to have control.

For me, that means jumping into a new crafting project. Only five days before we left for Italy I found myself dashing out to the fabric store to buy some UltraIMG_2281 Fluffy fabric to make a neck pillow. I had come across more than one recommendation for taking one to make the long flight more bearable, while compiling my packing list. Which reminded me of a tutorial I’d recently seen for making one. And the urge struck.

I have to say that I was pretty relaxed about getting ready for our trip once I had the pillow stitched up. It did allow me to sleep better on the plane – well worth the mad scramble. Plus I can send it along with Katherine, my fifteen-year-old, when she heads out on her bucket list trip later this summer.

Now I’m in the midst preparing for another momentous occasion: sending our eldest daughter Bethany off to work as a lifeguard at camp for the. entire. summer. (Eek!) We’ve been shopping for a list of necessities – sport sandals, polarized sunglasses, sunscreen… And in the midst of the shopping and preparing, I found myself digging out scraps of fabric for another project. This time, I dove into making reusable snack bags for her to take to camp to carry munchies (when you’re buying Costco-sized boxes of Goldfish crackers, you start to wondSnackBagser about this kind of thing. I’m sure a whole bag will end up in the guard house at some point, but it’s nice to know she can take just handfuls of them along now and then too). I’d been inspired by another tutorial I’d seen and thought they’d be a fun gift to send her off with. Never mind that I gave them to her as they came off the sewing machine instead of wrapping them up with a bow.

Who knows what crafting urge will strike when it’s time to get Katherine ready. Maybe the already-made pillow will suffice. But I’m not counting on it. That nesting instinct can be pretty fierce. The psychology behind nesting before a big event explains why I do this. Understanding this urge allows me to give myself space to be that way. It allows me to be kind to myself and see the good that comes from something that otherwise looks like “distraction.”

How about you? Do you find yourself launching into projects – cleaning, organizing, cooking, crafting –  before a big event? Does it help knowing why you get this way?

 



Deciding When to Splurge on a Bucket List Experience

Deciding When to SplurgeThe nine days my husband and I recently spent in Italy were filled with dream-come-true events. Just being in that country and seeing the sights I’d heard so much about would have been enough. But the extra tours (and a class) that I booked, along with some first-class travel and hotels brought the trip up to the level of truly memorable.

In previous posts, I talked about how I saved money on airfare and lodging using points and miles. I’ve always been thrifty, so I knew any bucket list trip I took would be done on limited funds (we are saving to put three girls through college, after all). As I showed in those posts, bucket list travels don’t have to be overly expensive. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t occasionally splurge when it comes to once-in-a-lifetime experiences. It may be that those splurges end up being (to borrow from the well-known MasterCard commercial) priceless.

Don’t know when to splurge and when to save your pennies for another bucket list experience? Here are some criteria that worked for me:

  • Does this option represent the quintessence of my bucket list experience? One of the tours I booked for us involved having lunch and wine on the terrace of a vineyard in Chianti overlooking the Tuscan hills. You can’t get much better than that for experiencChianti Vineyarding the essence of Tuscany. Both the food & scenery were amazing.
  • Does it afford me an inside or behind-the-scenes look at something I have admired from afar for a long time? We happened into the chance to climb the Leaning Tower of Pisa, which gave us a perspective many don’t often gain and definitely became a memorable part of our trip (confession: we actually didn’t have to pay to climb, thanks to some generous fellow travelers, but having the opportunity made me realize why it might be worth shelling out money for options like that in the future).
  • Will I continue benefitting from it afterwards? We took a cooking class in Florence, which gave us know-how and recipes we’ll use for making meals at home. Also, I booked this because my husband loves to cook and learning to cook Italian dishes in Italy –  what’s not to love about that?In Tavolo Cooking Class
  • Is the incremental cost minimal compared to the benefit? We were able to book a first class train compartment on one leg of our trip at the same price as second class, thanks to an available discount. It was so worth it for the privacy and comfort, even for a three-hour trip. Again, having experienced it, I’m going to keep my eye out even more for upgrade options like that, if they come at little to no extra cost.
  • How does it fit the rest of my adventure? Will this particular splurge improve the rest? I booked two nights at the Park Hyatt Milan (can you say “Five-Star Luxury”?) for the end of our trip. And while I used a credit card benefit to get them, I might consider splurging on better accommodations similar to that in the future. The rest, relaxation, comfort and pampering we experienced there allowed us to return home more refreshed.IMG_2584
  • Is my bucket list experience itself a splurge? Maybe you’ve always wanted to fly first class or stay in a penthouse suite. Then saving up to make those happen, even if you have to pay full price (although on the first class flight I would argue that there are plenty of ways around it), would make your decision for you.
  • Do I have exclusive access through connections, or just being at the right place at the right time? This reason alone may not be worth the splurge, but combined with the above factors, could sway your decision.

Some splurges are obvious – ones that match a favorite hobby or interest or are somehow otherwise so perfectly suited to you or your family members. Others, aren’t so clear – but don’t blow them off. Give it some thought using the considerations I’ve listed above.

I spent years saving my pennies and skipping add-ons when it comes to our family’s experiences. Only recently did I discover how the occasional splurges can elevate an experience and add value well beyond the monetary cost. Hopefully the tips I’ve shared here will help you not miss out on special opportunities in your bucket list adventures when it comes to considering pricier options.