Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Don't You Ever Stay Home?

My husband and I love to travel.  In fact, being a good traveling companion was kind of a deal-breaker for him when we first started dating.  I’m happy to report I passed this piece of the compatibility test with flying colors when we took our first trip together to Rome nine years ago.  Even though the act of packing for that trip (and many others since) totally stressed me out, it was one of our favorite trips to date!  In fact, it was a picture taken of us in front of the Vatican that sparked our reunion after a brief break up (but that’s a post for another day).

This year, we’ve been lucky enough to venture to Milan and Florence, Beijing and Shanghai, to Arkansas to visit the family, to Madison, WI where I volunteered at the CrossFit Games, to Miami which we combined with a cruise to Key West and Havana, and most recently, we traveled to San Miguel de Allende for my nephew’s wedding.  We have one more trip planned this year, much to Keith’s chagrin (he’d love it if we could fit in another trip, but considering we’ve just demo’d one of our bathrooms, we need to keep our feet on the ground). 
I’m regularly asked how is it that we’re able to travel the way that we do.  For those of you who have asked, this is for you. 

Make no mistake, Keith and I both know how incredibly blessed we are to do the things that we do.  We’re incredibly lucky to have the flexibility to travel so often, with me being retired and him being his own boss.  And that, more than anything, has been the key.
Years ago, pre-Sharon, when Keith realized all work and no play was making him a dull boy, he committed to taking one vacation each quarter.  So on New Year’s Day, he and then we, would sit down and schedule four trips for the upcoming year.  That process has evolved over the years, as we (*I*) put on my travel agent hat and put together our trips using many available resources.

Using a plethora of travel tools, we’ve had many a memorable trip since that first one.     
Take for instance December 4, 2009, where we had booked a trip to Mazatlan using air miles and RCI.  We spent roughly 18 not-so-luxurious hours at Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport because of a single snowflake (and then another and then another).  The airport closed, all flights were delayed, and our luck was not as good as we’d hoped when we didn’t make it on standby once the airport re-opened mid-afternoon.  We survived with the help of United Club passes while we waited for our 11:30 p.m. flight.  We finally boarded at 1:30 a.m. and sat on the tarmac and waited and waited.  Because that’s what you do when you’re 26th in line for the airport’s sole de-icing machine.  We took off at 3:30 a.m., some 17 hours after our originally-scheduled departure.  I can still smell the jet fuel which permeated the cabin whilst we sat on the tarmac.  A week’s worth of relaxation was in store following that whole ordeal.      

If you’re current or retired military or a civilian employee of the DOD, you can’t beat the deals found on Armed Forces Vacation Club!  For $369/week, we celebrated our anniversary in the Mayan Riviera near Cancun.  Our 1-bedroom villa (complete with separate living area and full kitchen) was beautiful.  Which was beneficial seeing as a tropical depression settled over the peninsula for the entire week we were there and we spent most of the time in our room.  Want to get dinner?  Fantastic!  There were something like 4 different restaurants available on the resort – just pick one based on whether you were wearing shorts or capris because you had to choose between whether you wanted to traverse ankle-deep or knee-deep water to get there.  Grab a garbage bag to cover yourself and go (because the pathway to the gift shop, where they had umbrellas and ponchos, was flooded too)!  Thanks goodness we were on the third floor – because no one wants to sleep on a soggy mattress, such as were on the first floor. 

We don’t always suffer such challenges when traveling.  We’ve had wonderful trips using Hilton Grand Vacation Club.  I mean … when a week in Hawaii cost you less points than a week in Miami … what’s not to love?  We do, however, find there are limited properties/locations available to us and navigating HGVC and trying to convert points to Hilton Honors is a bit of a pain.  Still … it’s a nice resource to have seeing as we bought the timeshare second-hand, on the cheap.  For me, buying into Disney Vacation Club would make the most sense financially, but seeing as Keith is not as fond of Mickey as I am, I haven’t been able to convince him … yet.

Air miles are nice and all, but we've noticed in recent years, how utterly stingy our preferred airlines has gotten with their points.  Enter my stepson, who introduced us to the wonder that is Scott's Cheap Flights.  *Note:  this is not a paid advertisement.*

Scott’s has two different “subscription levels”.  A free one, which will get you 3-4 deals per week (sent via email).  And a paid one, which, for $39/year, will get you 5 or more deals sent per week AND you can identify your preferred departure airports, which I think get you even MORE deals.

So how do the deals work?  With Scott’s, flexibility is key.  They scour whatever websites they scour to find the deals.  The emails you receive will read something like this: 

Flights to: Europe Starting at $400
From:  certain cities (hopefully there’s a city near you)
To:  certain cities (hopefully there’s a city you want to visit)
Good for:  this month to this month (usually, the deals are good for a 3-4 month window that begins about six months from the date of the email)
How long will these deals last?  x number of (hours or days) (I’ve seen deals that last 12 hours and deals that last 1-2 days).

Obviously, Scott’s is not like the airlines’ websites or even something like Travelocity where you can enter your preferred destination and dates. 
This works for us – because we have a bucket list and when a deal comes up for something on our list, we grab a calendar, jump online and see if we can make it work.

One other thing to note is the phrase “starting at …”.  I mean … who wouldn’t love to fly to Europe for $400/person round trip?  But if you can’t leave on one of the dates with the $400 fare, you can probably find a date that will work for you for just a little more.  Still, you can’t deny it’s better than paying full price!

The first trip we booked with Scott’s was from Austin to Milan.  At $524/person round trip (on American Airlines, no less!), we thought it was a steal!  And … it got us back to my absolute favorite country!  Seeing as we were traveling with my stepson and his girlfriend, we thought sharing an Airbnb would be the way to go.  We split our time between Milan and Florence, enjoying the rusticity of Florence and the fashion-forwardness of Milan, with a bullet train ride in between. 

Our next trip using Scott’s also departed from Austin and took us to Beijing.  For $541/person round trip, I got to spend my birthday hiking The Great Wall.  We flew on a Chinese airline and based on our flight over, I questioned using Scott’s as I thought perhaps we had landed a deal with the Chinese BUDGET airline; the aircraft was old and rattled for the entirety of the 11-hour trip between Seattle and Beijing.  Further, the most recent movies available on the in-flight entertainment system were “Toy Story” and “A Walk to Remember”.  Oh boy.  Based on the hoops we had to jump through to get Chinese VISAs, not to mention the language barrier, we felt it best to stay in hotels both in Beijing and Shanghai.  With hotels booked through hotels.com, we stayed right in the city center and within reasonable walking distances to the major tourist attractions.  Following a bit of a snafu getting the train back from Shanghai to Beijing, I’m happy to report that the airline wasn’t necessarily budget-class after all; a brand new Dreamliner transported us home.

If our past and future flights booked on Scott’s are any indication, we usually snag air fare that’s roughly half of what you can find on the airlines’ websites.  And really, who doesn’t love a good bargain?  Just today, there were flights to Rome for $377 round trip!  $377!!!!

So what happens if we have our heart set on a destination and there are no deals to be had?  We use air miles or Travelocity or Orbitz or some other search site.

Keith and I each have our favorites.  You’re probably not surprised to know that I love the Disney Parks.  I can plan a Disney trip with my eyes blind-folded and my arms tied behind my back based on years of research I’ve done.  Thanks to Keith's military service, we manage to get both park passes and rooms at a significantly discounted price through MWR and Disney's Military Discounts.  Enough that he has occasionally acquiesced and we've visited both the west coast and east coast parks in the same year.  Yet another reason I love this man!    

Keith, on the other hand, loves to cruise.  I must admit … there’s a lot to like about unpacking your suitcase once and seeing several different cities.  Our go-to cruise site is VacationsToGo.  We’ve found some crazy cheap deals (mostly military discounts or old-folk discounts) using this site and we just wouldn’t go any other way.  And because we’ve booked a number of cruises with them, there is usually some form of complimentary something or another from them, awaiting us in our cabin.

So how do we decide on what to do once we get where we’re going? 

Simple:  we use Trip Advisor.  As the designated travel planner, I scour the list of top things to see and do, and together, Keith and I narrow down our choices.  I love working in Excel, so I put together a rough itinerary with things we can see and do each day, including rest days and time to just wander.  I also buy tickets ahead of time if possible.  Is this over-planning for some?  Yeah, it probably is.  But we’d prefer to be sure and plan for everything we want to see because in most instances, we’ll only visit once.  And besides, who doesn’t love having all their information in one color-coded spreadsheet?  (oops – the geek in me just slipped out, didn’t it?)
That’s not to say we plan every minute of every single trip.  We don’t.  But if we’re certain we’ll only visit a destination once, I want to be sure and get the most out of it!

So is this the only way to plan travel and get the best deals?  Absolutely not.  And I, by no means, am an expert nor am I a certified travel agent (though I think I would absolutely love it!)  I’m quite certain there are a multitude of ways to find travel deals, as well as different ways to explore.  But for those of you who have asked, here’s how we do what we do. 

I cannot emphasize enough how fortunate we are to have the flexibility to travel this way.  And I realize those of you whose nests aren’t quite empty might be a little more restricted.  Just know I’ve seen plenty of deals come across for spring break and even the summer months.  Those cheap fares could be worth the cost of the (free) subscription alone.

Bon Voyage!

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