Thursday, August 11, 2016

Pencil Case Fish Extender

If you're unfamiliar with the Fish Extender (FE) phenomenon on Disney Cruises, a simple Google search will quickly get you up to speed, but Dis gives an excellent description and this is one of my favorite blog posts about it.

For the past 8 months, we've been a part of an active Facebook group consisting of about 350 of our cruise mates.  It's fun getting to know a bit about our fellow-travelers.  If you are going on a cruise, I highly recommend you join DisBoards or Cruise Critic so you can connect with others.  Our travel group has created tee shirts, booked mixology classes, teamed up for excursions, shared stateroom door decor designs, and of course, organized a fish extender exchange...and a Halloween candy exchange....and an ornament exchange. (Don't let all this fun overwhelm you. We chose to participate in the FE gift exchange only, so you aren't required to do it all! It's meant to be fun, not stressful.)  We are looking forward to meeting up, though, for a group photo in the atrium.  It's been a very cool way to meet people we never would have otherwise.

Another positive of the FE is that it forces me out of my self-focus.  It's easy with trip planning to become absorbed with OUR fun. OUR plan. OUR budget.  The FE gave me time to focus outward and create something fun for people I've never met.

Check out her stuff! She's amazing!
https://www.etsy.com/shop/Gradysmommy
If money wasn't a consideration or if I had mad sewing skills, I would have made or purchased an FE like this one. I love this design! In fact, back when we had booked a cruise in 2009, I bought Disney fabric to start creating something like that. The trip was cancelled and I've grown wiser and more realistic about my lack of skills, so no attempt was made to sew one stitch.

While I can't yet share what we put together for our FE gifts (it would ruin the surprise!), I can share with you how I made our extenders.

As usual, I scoured Google images and Pinterest for ideas. These pencil case FEs sparked my interest, but had no instructions. I decided it was worth a try anyway.

Pencil cases at H-E-B were $2 each. I'm sure they can be found for less, but I was ready to get started and these were heavy-duty with a clear front, which was needed.   Initially, I planned to use hot glue to secure the ribbon, but while at Hobby Lobby, I saw the grommets and figured they would look nicer. I had no experience applying grommets to fabric, but this was a let's-see-as-we-go project.

Unfortunately, I didn't think to take step-by-step photos, but it was as basic as this:
  1. use the grommet and a pen to trace the hole size
  2. cut the hole with scissors (I'm sure a fabric hole punch would be better, but I don't have one)
  3. fit the grommet and use the tool to secure it (here's how)
  4. thread the ribbon through each grommet, starting at the bottom
  5. tie a knot under each grommet as you go so the pouch can hold some weight without slipping
The most fun was creating the designs for each pocket. We used Keynote (think Powerpoint...you could also use Photoshop or something like it) to bring in elements of each of our favorite things and characters, then had them printed on card stock at Office Depot.

I used the paper cutter at Office Depot to cut the signs to size, then slid them into the pocket so it would show through the window.

red ribbon - $1.50 on sale at Hobby Lobby
grommets - $3.00 at Hobby Lobby
grommet tool - $3.50 on sale at Hobby Lobby
burlap ribbon - $1 at Dollar Tree
pencil cases - $12 for 6 at H-E-B
color prints on card stock - $3
__________________________
$26, including tax, for two FEs!

Grommets and grommet tool
Dollar Tree and half-price Hobby Lobby ribbon


Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Planning A Cruise Excursion

This blog post is the "before" the cruise excursion.  It will be interesting to see how the "after" turns out!

Thanks to an excellent review from Joel Barish's travels Around The World, we knew we couldn't miss The Baths National Park at Virgin Gorda!  (His review of The Baths begins at 04:00) We've never planned a cruise excursion on our own; it's a bit scary!  There are pros and cons to going it alone, the biggest two pros for me being control and money.

Money
If all goes as planned, it's much cheaper to plan your own excursion than it is to book with your cruise line.  The greatest risk, and probably the main reason most people book with their cruise line, is the possibility of being left behind.  If a shuttle breaks down, if traffic comes to a standstill, if some act of God causes you to be late for "all aboard," the ship will not wait for you.  On the contrary, if you've booked through the cruise line, the ship will wait.  So when you consider the cost of literally missing the boat and traveling to the next port on your own dime, you could spend hundreds more by flying solo.  While the odds are low that you'll be late arriving to your ship, it's a gamble. You position yourself with the best odds if you plan ahead.

To give you an idea of the savings for the excursion we are taking to The Baths, we anticipate spending $235 by taking the ferry, then a taxi there and back.  It would cost $845 if we booked with Disney or $525 through private tours.

Control
Photo credit: wikitravel.org
I do not enjoy the feeling of being at the mercy of an excursion.  I would rather decide how much time we want to spend at the beach, what time we'd like to head back to the ship, and if we want to stop at a restaurant or not.  You'd think I would hate cruising, since no one is letting me steer the ship, but I don't need that much control.

I do believe I'll be somewhat anxious flying solo since this is our first experience, but the planning and review-reading helps!

How Planning Makes the Difference

Compare Prices
Remember those spreadsheets I mentioned earlier?  Well, create a table to compare options: booking a cruise line excursion, booking a private excursion, or planning it all on your own. You can decide where your value lies within the price differences.

Research Research Research
The Internet has been my best friend while preparing for this trip; even more so when planning our own excursions.  Here are some of my favorites:
Cruise Critic - A great place to read others' trip reports, ask questions, and get references.
CruiseTimeTables - See what ships are docked at your port on the day you're there. This helped us feel comfortable knowing we would be the only ship in port at Tortola on the day we are venturing out on our own. We likely would have planned differently if we were one of 3 or 4 ships in port.
General Google Search - Check for holidays and special events that might be occurring on the day you are in that port.  Events such as parades or marathons will greatly affect your travel time, so be sure you're prepared.  We were also able to find the ferry time schedules, taxi rates, and check drive times via Google Maps to help build our itinerary.
Pinterest Board - Pinterest is a nice place to bookmark all of your findings and search for other articles and tips.

Make Plan A, B and C
Vacations are most fun when they are flexible! Be prepared for the unexpected. Our excursion from Tortola to The Baths includes a 40-minute ferry, then a 15-minute taxi ride each way, which creates a lot of room for the unexpected.  I created another trusty Numbers table, plugging in the ferry times and drive times, creating several scenarios depending on when we decide to leave the ship and when we decide to return.  No matter what, we do not plan to take the last ferry back to the island.  We want to give ourselves some wiggle room and we want to be back on the ship to have relaxed time before dinner.  I've also heard the last ferry back to the island can get very crowded, especially when there are many ships in port.
Our plan A: visit the Baths (various possible travel times).  Plan B: forego The Baths and instead sightsee around Tortola. Plan C: stay on the ship and relax.

I can't wait to see The Baths, as long as Plan A is successful, and will report back with my "after" tips!

Sunday, July 31, 2016

First-Class Flying on the Ground

I've only flown first class once in my lifetime.  It was a glorious 13-hour international flight with comfortable seating, personal service, and all the food and drinks we could handle.

When considering taking a bus ride, I had never envisioned a first-class setting...until I met Vonlane.

Earlier this month, I was headed to Houston for a professional conference.  My hotel room was reserved and I had even planned out my stops for a road trip.  A day or two before the conference, I learned that parking would be $16-$20 per day!  That added up to $80-100 just to have my SUV sit in a dark garage for 5 days.  With my low MPG, I was also looking at a $60 gas bill.

Knowing Greyhound busses would not be my cup of tea, I decided to check out Megabus.  Reading this blog review scared me, though, and I decided not to spend $20 one-way on an iffy experience.  When the author said to "lower your expectations" and "we've never taken a Megabus that doesn't leave at least 30 minutes late," it doesn't leave me with good feelings, even if the trip is cheap.

That's when Ken suggested Vonlane.  Vonlane claims to be a "private jet on wheels."  While I've never flown in a private jet, I can say I agree to the sentiment.

I argued with Ken over the justification for the $79 one-way trip.  He explained that if we are going to have to spend $100, he would rather spend it on something enjoyable rather than a parking spot. He's also the most thoughtful husband who insisted that I needed the break and the special treatment.  (awww)

I took to the internet again to read reviews and found nothing but praise for this bus line.  That sealed the deal.

We booked the one-way trip online and saw there were only 6 of the maximum 16 seats filled.  The next afternoon, Ken dropped me off at the Hyatt Regency downtown where the slick-looking bus was waiting for me.

Services included
I was greeted by the attendant, Melanie.  She showed me to my seat and asked if this was my first trip.  She shared the run-down of our trip, the services offered, and that she used to be a flight attendant who enjoyed the more personal touch of Vonlane.

On the drive to Houston, I enjoyed binge-watching Grey's Anatomy, working on my Macbook, having a few snacks, and simply taking in the view.  Melanie checked on me frequently, but would not interrupt my work or sleep.  It truly was a relaxing 2 1/2 hours.  Melanie also served the bus driver, offering him drinks and snacks as well as updating him on road conditions and travel time.  It gave me peace of mind to know he could simply focus on driving while she took care of other details.

They offer noise-cancelling headphones that are legit!  When I put them on, my ears popped due to pressure.  I didn't use them to watch the bus TVs, but plugged them in to my iPhone to enjoy Grey's. The wi-fi was fairly reliable throughout the trip.  There were some parts of the drive when certain apps such as Netflix or Snapchat didn't respond, but work-related sites such as my assignment scheduling platform and Blogger always responded.

On the subject of work, they offer a conference room in the back, complete with a large table, door for privacy, seating for 6, and noise-cancelling headphones with a built-in mic so you can work and even conference while on the road. What an awesome way to do work travel!  The conference room typically must be reserved, but if you're with few passengers as I was, they simply offer the use of the room to whomever might need it.

The bathrooms.  They were not only clean, but were a lovely design.  Much better than the "vomit-worthy" possibility I read about on Megabus.  The seats recline to a very comfortable position and some busses have leg/foot rests, which help shorties like me sit for a long period of time without our legs falling asleep!

I highly recommend you take Vonlane if you're traveling among the tricities they serve. (Dallas, Austin, and Houston.)  It could be a fun friend's trip or a way to get work done while you travel.
The bus back home did have leg rests

The first bus didn't have leg rests
Roomy! Nice flooring.
This is the bus BATHROOM, ya'll!


TV if you choose to watch.
View from the bus, arriving in Houston










Friday, July 29, 2016

Using Google Maps to Plan a Road Trip

KevinAndAmanda.com already have an excellent tutorial, so I'm not going to re-create instructions.  Visit their site for all of the how-tos and I will share how I've used Google Maps to create a plan for our road trip. 
Using Google Maps, I was able to find an alligator overlook
at one of the rest stops in Florida!
The Internet is a fabulous invention! Sure, it, like anything, can be used for evil, but when it's used for good, it's SO good!

I first created the route from Austin to Orlando.  Next, I began looking along our route for rest stops and visitors' centers with restrooms and a play area.  I had the best luck finding them by searching on Google Maps, "safety rest" or "rest stop" as well as "visitors center".  Street view shows you what it looks like and often has user-submitted photos.  Stopping at safety rest stops offers us (in our experience) clean restrooms, a place to run and play, and usually a good photo opportunity with a state sign.  Stopping at rest stops also helps us avoid making pricey gas station and fast food purchases.  I labeled regular rest stops with a diamond icon and added a "sightseeing" icon to any stops that I know have a good photo op or something interesting to see.

Since we do have a food budget while on the road, and we have limited storage spaces, I located some grocery stores that are just off the interstate for when we need to make stop and restock snacks and lunches. Trader Joe's has a great selection of trail mixes, dried fruits, and other healthy prepared food we can pack for the drive and stash in our hotel fridge.  We located Costco for a cheap lunch in the cafe and clean restrooms.  Our favorite grocery store that also has low-priced gas is HEB, so I labeled a few of those along our route in case we need to make a stop.

Note: The tutorial explains how to add images to your notes, but you're also able to make your own map icon, as I did for Trader Joe's.

RoadsideAmerica.com is a must-surf before any roadtrip, no matter how short.  We have found so many cool and weird things to see along our drive.  Dancing frogs off a frontage road?  Texas' own "Nessie" hiding in a field off the interstate?  A giant catfish in the back of a truck, just 1/4 mile off the highway?  Yes, please!  Getting out to snap a picture breaks up the monotony and gets our circulation going.  The photo also serves as a great road trip memory.  I never would have found these places without Roadside America.
One of several sculptures in an unassuming park in a tiny Texas town.
Giant dairy cows!
Take advantage of Google Maps Street View!  Street view allows me to "look around" the hotel we've chosen, locate a safe walking path, and truly see what's there before going. (Keep in mind that time has passed since the street view was recorded, so things might have changed.) I used this feature to help me locate ideal rest stops and travel areas, took a virtual walk around and inside our hotel in Mobile, Alabama, and even was able virtually tour the USS Alabama, which helped me decide buying tickets would be worth it if we have time!

Orlando Informer created an awesome and useful Google Map of the walking distances between resorts and the parks.  It's a fantastic example of a custom map.  If you make one that would be beneficial to others, make it public! Share away!

Go ahead and try out Google Maps for your next road trip!

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Planning, Planning, and More Planning

By nature, I'm a procrastinator.  I've been one who says "I work best under pressure" and it's most often true.  It's not often than my "type A" side shows up, but when it does, it comes on strong! Numbers spreadsheets? Yes! Planning out activities months in advance? Please and thank you! Painstakingly researching and comparing prices? But of course!

Planning a trip awakens my inner geek!

After Ken and I crunched broad numbers and decided we could book a Disney Cruise, I began searching for ways to get to the port (drive for fly?), where to stay overnight (hotel or Airbnb?), and even the best rest stops along the way. That blog is coming up next.

First I created a spreadsheet in Numbers where I could plug in...numbers...and calculate things such as gas prices and compare hotel costs.  Typically, I'd go straight to Airbnb, but since we were looking for one quick overnight stay in Mobile and a possible night near Port Canaveral, hotels are our best bet.  (Airbnb stays typically require a longer visit.)

Numbers for Mac
Our family stays in Hilton family hotels 95% of the time.  Staying in Hilton hotels builds loyalty, which converts to major savings and free nights.  We enjoy Hampton Inn, Double Tree, and Embassy Suites, all in the Hilton family of hotels.  Since we've stayed in these hotels all over the country, we know what to expect in terms of cleanliness and quality.  Breakfast is always a nice perk as well!

As I started calculating numbers, I saw we could spend a few extra days in Florida. After a bit of discussion, we decided to vacation full-force and spend 4 days in Universal Orlando. We considered visiting Disney World, but because of our family's current interests, Universal was a better fit this time.  (Harry Potter, Superheroes, Dr. Seuss, and Jurassic Park!)

I made another spreadsheet to compare staying on-site and off-site.  Figuring in convenience, meals, transportation, parking, hour-early entry into parks, and "stay more, save more" specials, we opted to stay on-site at the economy on-site hotel, Cabana Bay Beach Resort.  The prices are great, in part because they don't include an express pass (EP) like the more pricey on-site hotels.  Since we are going in off-peak season, we don't think the EP will be worth the money. Additionally, EPs can be purchased the day-of for the same price, so it's always an option.  The real clincher for us was the hour-early admission into the parks. That is the prime time to visit Gringott's and Forbidden Journey without an hour-long wait!

Since we booked way in advance, the rate for Cabana Bay was less than neighboring hotels!  As a family of 7, we have to get two rooms, so any small savings we can find adds up a lot!  We considered booking the family suite, which includes a kitchenette.  The cost was $40 more per night.  That equals $80 per night and the only reason we'd book it is to safe money on breakfast and snacks.  We can buy food items from Trader Joe's that don't require refrigeration or microwave and use the $400 savings elsewhere!

Next, I calculated Universal ticket prices. Many travel websites claim to have discount ticket prices, but I never found that to be the case. I made a spreadsheet (see a trend?) of ticket prices, plugging in any new websites I came across listing discount ticket prices.  After looking for a few weeks, the lowest price was always, 100% of the time, Universal.  My original table compared 3-day, 4-day, single park, and park-hopper.  The 4th day in the park only cost $10 more per person at the time we purchased, so purchasing that extra day was a no-brainer.

We could have saved a couple hundred dollars purchasing the tickets in January before Universal raised prices, but we hadn't planned for it that early, so opted to wait.  Always scour the internet to learn if and when prices will be raised, but it seems if prices will go up, it will happen early in the calendar year.

Spreading out expenses
Notice multiple tabs for various aspects of planning.
After all the major decisions were made, another Numbers spreadsheet was created to keep track of our shopping list and upcoming expenses.  With columns of months and rows of weeks, I plugged in expenses such as "update passports," "cruise payment," "water shoes," "new suitcase," and even "suncreen."  Since we're a family of seven traveling to the Caribbean, we'll go through about one container of sunscreen per day.  That's $70, which isn't such a hard hit when I buy one bottle every few weeks.  Same goes with all of the other items on our shopping list!

What's cool about Numbers (and same probably goes for Excel) is that I can take any cell from any table and plug it into another table. So as I calculated tickets, gas, hotels, and groceries in various tables, I plugged the totals each into a master budget table, so when any changes were made in one table, it would automatically update the total budget.

To keep everything in one place, I created pages for our itinerary and packing lists.  The next blog will show how we've used Google Maps to plan out the details of our road trip!


Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Vacation Travel Must-Haves

SafetyTat.com
Other than the obvious: travel documents, sunscreen, tickets and reservation numbers, there are some things we've learned we can't live without while traveling.

Safety Tats
This year, we are using these Safety Tats on our trip.  Mostly when we are inside the parks or at various ports of call, we want the boys to have an easy way to share our phone number in the event they are separated from us. When our older kids were young, my sister made ID cards with our contact information for the kids to wear on a clip, like a name tag.  These tattoos are a brilliant, less intrustive alternative! We don't have to worry that other adults won't understand the boys.  If they are upset or crying, all they have to do is hold out their arm. These are customizable, so we can add, "I sign!" or "I use ASL" in addition to a phone number. We hope these won't ever be needed, but why not be prepared when these are so easy use?  I'll give you all a thorough review after the boys have worn them for two weeks!

Hanging with pipe cleaners instead of hooks
Bath Items Organizer
We purchased this item years and years ago and it's been invaluable on our trips.  Whether you're staying in a hotel, RV, or ship stateroom, a hanging organizer allows you to keep at hand all of your health and beauty items in a small space.  I prefer the half-door size because it fits tight places and is easier to carry around.  I've also found that shoe organizers cost less than a "toiletry organizer" even though they are basically the same thing.  Clear pockets are ideal so you can see all of your items easily.  

Over-the-door organizer
Be sure to take some pipe cleaners along with you so you can hang the organizer on a towel rack or hook. Many hotels (and definately Disney Cruise Lines) do not allow the hooks to hang over the door due to damage it causes.  This link shares photos of a ton of great portable organizing tools for your trips or day-to-day use. 
Multi-USB Outlet
5/7 of our family have iPhones. TJ also has a GoPro and Hannah has her DSLR camera. The boys have iPads for long car rides.  Ship staterooms (and some hotel rooms) have very few outlets, so be prepared with a multi-USB outlet like this one.  Disney Cruise Lines have prohibited extension cord outlets since our last cruise, but these USB outlets are allowed.  It will be a life-saver and peace-keeper for our evening charging needs!  Don't forget your charging cables!

As the trip draws closer, I'll post our actual packing list. After the trip, I'll share things I wish we had taken with us! The next blogpost will address one more must-have: Google Maps!

Monday, July 11, 2016

How We Chose Our Disney Cruise

There is a huge debate out there in the Interwebs that starts with the question, "Is a Disney Cruise worth it?"  Seriously, just Google that and you'll see for yourselves.   Like I mentioned before, the answer to that question is completely subjective, depending on what's important to you.  For us, the only other cruise Ken and I have taken was on Disney Cruise Line.  The Disney "magic" cannot be denied!  It also happened to be the name of the ship we sailed back in 2008.

When we began considering a cruise, we did look at other cruise lines.  They cost significantly less. (Click here to read about ways we found to save for a vacation.) My parents cruise extensively, enjoying a few cruise lines, and had taken our older kids on a Royal Caribbean cruise, each on their 13th birthdays, so we knew Disney wasn't the only option. Mackenzie said the Royal Caribbean trip was her favorite cruise, but she wants to see how cruising Disney as a teen will compare.  Ken and the kids were adamant that they wanted Disney.  I read the "is it worth it" articles, looked back at our own photos from our 2008 cruise, thought about our little boys especially, deciding that special Disney magic was worth the extra expense.

To an extent!  Here are some ways we saved money while booking a Disney cruise.

We travel during off-peak seasons.  That is often the only way we can afford to travel with a family of 7.  We plugged in our musts: Dream-class ship, at least one stop at Castaway Cay, 7 nights, sailing from either Galveston or Port Canaveral. Then we literally selected the sailing with the lowest price. Once we are onboard the ship, if we book another cruise we can get significant savings (10% discount and the luxury of paying only 10% down rather than 20%) .  We would have time to cancel if we had to, but it's a good way to get future savings.

As for school absences, our older kids' school loves the idea of the kids traveling and has no problem with them missing 9 school days in order to do so.  Our younger boys' school is also open-minded, but it is a government school, so counted absences are a big deal.  They are allowed 14 absences. They will miss 9 days for this trip.  If they aren't "excused," then we will just hope the boys won't need to miss school for the rest of the year.  Some families actually un-enroll, then re-enroll their kids in order to remove them from school for an extended trip.  We didn't need to do that, but it's an option.

Another way to save is to check the internet for discount cruises coming up in the near future. That didn't work for us since we needed to plan way in advance, but if you're flexible on dates, you can save significantly this way.  Check out DisneyCruiseLineBlog for up-to-date specials.

Check to see if a port is near you, so you can drive and save on airfare. If you're in Texas, Galveston is a good option, especially if it's your first cruise. (We are driving to Port Canaveral, but more on that later!)
Our stateroom verandah on the Magic 2008
We did choose a cabin with a verandah. Again, this extra cost all boils down to preference. I know some cruisers who would never pay for more than an interior room because they only sleep in their cabins anyway.  Disney ships have a cool LED interactive "porthole" that cruisers love so much, the inside rooms get booked fast!  For us, we are a big family with boys that will likely sleep before we are ready to call it a night. The verandah allows us to maximize our time on the ship, enjoying the view, water and air even while the boys sleep.  With 7 of us getting ready, the verandah is a nice place for the early birds to hang out while the stragglers finish getting dressed.

We don't book excursions and we choose the earliest port arrival time.  There is so much to do on the ship! That's what we paid the big bucks for!  On our first cruise, when arriving in port, we stepped off the ship for a short look-around, then promptly got back on, enjoying nearly empty pools, decks, and fun events.  No need to budget for extra meals and entertainment when I've already paid for that!  This trip, we have planned some excursions on our own.  More on that later.  As for the early port arrival time, it boils down to value.  We don't have to get on the ship until 3pm, but why not board early and have 4 extra hours to enjoy what we've already paid for.

Mouse Savers, one of my very very favorite sites for Disney (and Universal) trip planning, keeps a running list of deals.  While you're over there, get lost in the plethora of information.  Seriously everything you'll ever need to know can be found there.

I agree with Mouse Savers: book with a travel agent.  While the Disney website is super easy to use and it's where we planned and priced our cruises, agents have "inside info" that we aren't always privy to without a ton of digging.  Travel agents cost us nothing, but can add so much value.  Find an agent who has actually cruised and knows the ins and outs.  We booked with Lange Travel, an agency with a stellar reputation in our Deaf community and beyond.  (Supporting Deaf-owned businesses is important to us, so that was an added bonus!)

My Incredible guys 2008.
Now my guys are doubled!
When you book, either directly through Disney or through a travel agent, you can get hundreds of dollars in onboard credit.  It's enough that it usually covers our cost for tips.

If you are a Type A personality who can use credit cards and pay them off every single month, avoiding interest fees, then consider using a Disney Visa to earn $50-100 onboard credit and other perks. We don't do this for reasons I've explained.

Now, before you think we are just Disney fanatics who will always choose Disney for everything, know that we are visiting Universal Studios, not Disney World, for 4 days before we set sail. (I can't wait to share my budgeting and planning spreadsheets for all of this stuff!)

We will consider another cruise line for a future vacation, but for this one, we decided DCL was worth the extra money.