My New York City Trip Budget

September 30, 2016 at 7:24 pm

New York City Cafe

I’d heard New York City is one of the most expensive places in the world to visit for years, and to be honest that kept me from seriously considering a trip there until I started blogging about travel. As a point of reference it felt important to check it off. I felt pulled to see the 9/11 museum, which I’ll share about in the future and I needed that “New York” experience to put other cities into perspective. When an Expedia deal showed up in my inbox, I decided to just grab on and go for it. I traveled to Manhattan by myself for 5 days. How expensive was it? Let’s take a look:

Airfare and Hotel (Expedia Package)             855.00

Travel Insurance                                               59.00

Santa Barbara Airbus RT                                  88.00

Go Link New Jersey Airport Shuttle  RT           37.00

Uber                                                                  22.00

NYC Metro Card (7 day unlimited )                   32.00

9/11 Museum                                                    24.00

The Metropolitan Museum of Art                      25.00

Central Park Photo Safari                               100.00

Meals and Cocktails (5 days)                          340.00

Mementos                                                         70.00

*Gift (Einstein bobble head NY Public Library) 22.00 

Total                                                              1674.00

It averaged out to $335 a day, which does feel pretty pricey. For reference, our Denmark, Sweden and Germany trip averaged $206 per person, per day and our Japan trip averaged $148 per person, per day. Of course splitting costs is a great money saver(unless you’re the mom). So was it worth it? Absolutely! Was there a cheaper way to go? I’m not so sure about that. My hotel (The Jane, review coming) was definitely budget for Manhattan. My expenditures feel fairly modest. I passed on most entrance fees, tickets, cab rides and gourmet meals. In the end, the value of the trip felt balanced and I wouldn’t have missed those glorious Central Park days for anything.

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New York City Budget

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Einstein Bobble Heads

Einstein Bobbles-Creepy or Cute?

 

 

 

 

 

How to Just Get to The Damn Hotel!

August 4, 2016 at 6:49 pm

How to Just Get To The Damn Hotel

After tackling my fear of flying by embracing Xanax I was ready to eliminate the other anxiety producing situations that have the potential to ruin my trips. When I arrive in a new location I am usually tired and frazzled. I’ve dealt with airport security, finding the right train platform or producing the proper travel documents and am ready to just crash. I’ve found one of the most stressful parts of a trip is traveling to my hotel or Airbnb the first time. I feel like it should be simple, but there are a number of factors that make it pretty difficult just to get to the damn hotel! These are my top 6 tips for finding your accommodations.

 

Reserve

I always reserve at least the first night in advance. I know the fun of finding that charming hotel you’ve always dreamed of, but it is outweighed by the security of knowing where you would lay your head that first night. When you arrive at an unfamiliar spot the odds of finding the perfect hotel right off the bat are slim anyway.

 

Print

I always print out the name and address of my hotel or address of my Airbnb location in both English and the local language. This saved us many times in rural Japan where few people spoke English. I like to have an actual print out in case my phone dies.

 

Get Data

Before I land in the new country I plan for how to get data on my phone. I immediately set up this data at the airport. This might mean renting a portable Wi-Fi or buying a SIM card.  I don’t step out of the airport without data!

 

Ease in Slowly

Most major airports are quite a distance from the city center. I have a couple of techniques for dealing with this. In the case of Japan, we decided to stay in Narita the first night.  We took a 10 minute taxi ride to the hotel and this lovely small town was one of the highlights of our trip. We were about 45 minutes by train from the center of Tokyo, but had arrived in the late evening. The idea of wandering a busy city after a long flight was just too much.

 

Plan

I spend time researching online the best way to get from the airport to the center of town. Tripadvisor can be a great resource for this. Be careful to check that commenter’s advice is current. Rome 2 Rio is another great site for slowing all of the potential transit routes. We happily used HyperDia in Japan. The point is select a simple route without multiple changes that takes you to a major downtown location.

 

My Not So Secret Weapon

My secret weapon is actually the oldest trick in the book: take a cab! I have found that this is one of the nicest luxuries I can give myself on a trip. I’m tired, disoriented and ready to relax. The idea of facing commuters, subway platform changes, hauling luggage, stairs or unfamiliar addresses feels daunting. Hopping in a taxi and handing the driver my pre-printed hotel address feels great!

 

Using these simple tips has eliminated another stress from my holidays. Do you have any tips for getting to the hotel? Please share in the comments.

 

Our 2015 Denmark, Sweden and Germany Trip Budget

July 22, 2016 at 3:31 pm

tOur 2015 Denmark, Sweden and Germany Trip Budget

In the interest of comparison, I’ve decided to take a look at our budget and expenses for our 2015 Europe trip. You can read about our 2016 Japan budget here. We knew we wanted to go back to Europe after spending two weeks in Ireland, London and Paris the year before. We weren’t sure where we would go, so we watched for airfare deals in countries we might want to visit. When a good deal on a flight to Copenhagen popped up we jumped on it. Scandinavia is well known for being pricey, but was definitely on our bucket list. We had heard wonderful things about Berlin, so we added a week in Germany. Once again, there were three adults and the trip was my treat. So here’s what we spent:

Airfare (American)                                            1954.

Hotels: Copenhagen (3 Nights)                       460.
Stockholm (3)                                                      354.
Hamburg (2)                                                        361.
Copenhagen Airport(1)                                     267.

Airbnb Berlin(5 nights)                                     459.

Eurail Passes and Reservations                     1028.

Stockholm Subway Pass                                      60.
Hamburg Subway Pass                                        62.
Berlin Subway Pass                                             137.

Tours: Hamburg Miniature Museum               38.
Berlin Fat Tire Bike                                             165.
Berlin Trabi Tour                                                 132.

Starting Cash (euro, Kroner, etc.)                   500.

Spending Money                                               2700.

__________________________________

Total                                                                   $8677

 

The conclusion? This was a 14 day trip for 3 adults. We averaged $620 per day and $2892 per person. Again, certain expenses were shared, so the average doesn’t reflect what a single traveler would pay. Compared to our Japan trip(18 days, $7989 total, $444 per day,$2663 per person) we spent quite a bit more. I’d say we’re learning.

 

Our 2016 Japan Trip Budget

July 6, 2016 at 2:10 pm

Takayama Village

We decided to go to Japan on a whim when we found a Black Friday sale on Singapore Air. My daughter had been lobbying to go there for a long time, so the opportunity to fly for just $600 a piece was too great to pass up. I had heard that Japan was expensive, but also that this was a good time to go with a strong dollar and weak yen. I purchased first class Japan Rail passes so that we could reserve seats. To be honest, I was excited to experience the Japanese rail system at it’s best and we had 7 cities to visit, so the extra splurge felt justified. I reserved all of our accommodations two to three months ahead and was pretty careful to balance our needs and budget. I decided to spend about two thirds of our time in Airbnb rentals to give us a bit of extra space, the chance to do laundry plus the ability to cook meals ourselves. During the planning stages, my budgeting felt prudent, not too decadent.
When we arrived, as has happened before, I began to worry that I was spending money hand over fist. I seemed to waffle between one minute throwing caution to the wind, because we may never have the opportunity again and other times running constant numbers in my head. I think because the yen doesn’t simply convert to dollars and taking large sums of cash out at a time saves transaction fees, it was easy to feel like we were barreling through money. So, how did we actually do? When I got home I looked at our spending and jotted down some figures.

 

Airline Tickets (Singapore Air, Black Friday Sale) 1900.

Japan Rail Passes (First Class)                             1648.

Airbnb   Tokyo (4 nights)                                         621.

              Kyoto (3 nights)                                           349.

              Hiroshima (2 Nights)                                 233.

              Asakusa Tokyo (3 nights)                          361.

 

Ryokans Narita  (1 night)                                         161.

               Kanazawa (2 nights)                                  272.

               Takayama (2 nights)                                 348.

               Yudanaka (1 night)                                     149.

Sumo Tour (Viator)                                                  363.

Starting Cash                                                             500.

Spending Money                                                     2568.

___________________________________________________________

Total                                                                     $7989.

My conclusion? This was an 18 day trip for three adults, averaging $444 a day. At $2663 per person, it feels quite reasonable. Granted, it’s not realistic to average all costs because accommodations and many meals were split, but I’m still content with the final figures. I think the important lesson is to do my best to plan wisely, include some extra padding for unexpected costs and then relax and enjoy the experience.

 

Put Away Your Smartphone and Bring These 5 Items on Vacation.

July 2, 2016 at 4:54 pm


Put Down Your Smartphone and Bring These 5 Items on Your Next Vacation
Since we have started traveling together in their adulthood my kids and I have been lost looking for the little mermaid statue in Copenhagen, one block from our hotel in Stockholm, driving through the countryside in Ireland and pretty much every square inch of Tokyo. It doesn’t matter if we’ve been by the same spot three or four times, one of us always swears we’ve never been there before. We all diligently drop a pin on Google maps for our hotel or Airbnb location the minute we check in. We have been led to our destination by literally dozens of kind locals who have taken pity on us. Sadly, most of this confusion has taken place even with the use of SIM cards, Google maps, TripIt, HyperDia and many other technological aids.

 

Back before the smartphone we traveled in a completely different way. Sure, there were occasional clueless bumblings but on the whole we had a far deeper sense of where we were going and what we were up to. An uncharted territory felt less like a mistake and more like an adventure. Another great aspect of this old-fashioned, retro style travel was that when we got there we looked around, we participated and were present. We didn’t need to check Instagram for the best angle to photograph the Eiffel Tower. We looked at it! While I would not recommend traveling without a smartphone, including these five, old-school items in your bag can change your perspective and enhance your trip.

 

Maps

 

Some benefits of paper maps are obvious. More than once we’ve been lost and worried our phones would go dead because we forgot to charge or didn’t bring a charging device. Using a real map forces us to look around instead of staring at a dot on Google. We’ve been known to run across town from one attraction to another, when there were interesting things to see right in the same neighborhood. Successful map reading leaves us with a sense of self reliance and opens our eyes to our surroundings.

 

Guide Books

 

Sometimes expert advice makes a great difference in how you experience a new place. In today’s world of Yelp and TripAdvisor reviews, everyone can represent themselves as travel critics. Fodor’s and Lonely Planet guides provide valuable, well researched background on the sites we come to see. We have walked through Japanese temples clueless about their history when if we’d used a guidebook we would have gained more appreciation for them.

 

Postcards

 

It can be fun to pick up a few postcards from each location you visit and write some impressions to yourself and friends during your down time. If you mail them from your hotel or a local post office, they will provide you with a special written memory of your trip when you get home complete with local stamps and postmarks.

 

Sketch Books

I’ve written before about the enjoyment I get from using a sketchbook to record my memories. They force me to slow down and look around, really taking in the sites of a new place. My sketches aren’t great art but I’m improving and spending less vacation time on Facebook.

 

Binoculars

 

There were so many times on our last trip when a small pair of binoculars or opera glasses would have made the trip more fun. We saw sumo wrestling matches and spent a lot of time on our phones taking photos to view later. Binoculars would have given us a better picture of the spectacle in the moment. They could be used to examine buildings up close and wildlife that is normally unapproachable.

 

I’ve spent loads of time researching travel hacks and smartphone apps, but I’m beginning to think it’s time to start traveling “old-school.” Maybe our parents were on to something? What do you think?

 

5 Ways to Save Beautiful Vacation Memories

June 26, 2016 at 10:17 pm
What Will These Guys Remember?

What Will These Guys Remember?

In my early 20’s I made two summer trips to London England by myself. These were wonderful, life altering adventures that I will remember always. It’s funny but the smell of exhaust will instantly transport me back to London in the early 80’s. I know, pretty crazy! Most people have negative associations to it but to me it brings joyful memories. One of the most important parts of travel in my opinion is the way it creates lasting memories. Here are five simple tips to enhance those memories.

 

Include Special Scents

 

Smells can powerfully transport us back in time. The scent of pine forests or lake waters will remind us of places we visited as a child. When I was 14 on my first trip to Europe I wore Bonnie Bell Lip Smackers piña colada flavor lip-gloss. Now, whenever I smell piña colada I think of that trip. I like to select a special travel size perfume and wear it every day while I am away. Then I only need to open up the little bottle when I get home to be reminded of the special place I went. I have included scented sachets in my luggage to keep my clothes fresh and create a memory.

 

Create a Playlist

 

The sounds of a place can create poignant memories. Whenever I’m in a natural setting I make a special point to listen for the birds, water flowing, or sound of the breeze in the trees. You can create your own special sound remembrances by downloading playlists of special music to Pandora or Spotify to listen to on the train or plane. Think of all the gorgeous Parisian songs like La Vie En Rose, La Boheme or the entire soundtrack to Les Miserables. How about Abba’s greatest hits when you stop in Stockholm? Then each time you hear these songs you will think of your trip.

 

Sketch Your Trip

 

I think we all know the importance of taking photographs to remember a vacation but I have recently discovered the joy of sketching. There are a many marvelous little books like Urban Sketchbook that will teach you to draw what you see. I practiced drawing bowing dear, snow monkeys and geisha on our recent trip to Japan. Sketching encourages you to slow down and be in the moment, noticing things you wouldn’t catch in a photograph.

 

Create a Video

 

There are plenty of apps like imovie and Splice that will help you make a simple video of your travels. One of my favorite bloggers, Laura Gummerman, created this sweet video of her trip to Paris. https://youtu.be/CIfZGiBa_ew

This is a great, simple article on making travel videos: http://www.wikihow.com/Make-a-Good-Travel-Video

 

Have a Slideshow

 

I miss the days when neighbors, friends and family would get together to watch slideshows of each other’s vacation. This was a fun way to spend an evening at home. Invite friends who have also recently been on a trip to share their photos. Keep it short with each group contributing 5-10 minutes of their favorite photos. Mix up some cocktails, clear a space on your wall and use a projector to hold your own travel club.

 

How do you keep travel memories fresh? Scrap booking? Instagram? Let me know in the comments.

 

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Is it Safe to Swim in Our Vacation Rental Pool or Spa?

June 11, 2016 at 7:02 pm


On my last couple of trips, I discovered the joy of staying in a vacation rental house or apartment. I love shopping at the local markets and cooking unique breakfasts while we get a lazy start to our day. Nothing beats feeling at home in a new neighborhood and getting a private glimpse of how the local residents live. Many of these rentals come with amazing amenities, including swimming pools and spas. Hot tubs at ski chalets in Mammoth and private pools in Costa Rica offer great opportunities to relax and keep grandchildren entertained for hours. However, I am reading about more and more cases of outbreaks of illnesses attributed to unsanitary pools and spas. There is nothing worse than planning and saving for months to take that fabulous vacation you’ve  dreamed of only to come down with a mystery illness that derails the whole trip. Public pools are inspected by local health departments but how can we tell if a vacation rental pool is safe and clean? Here are a few tips to help you decide whether or not to swim.

Ask the owner or manager of the property how often the pool or spa is serviced and if it is done by a certified professional. Swimming pool water should be tested at least once a week to determine if it has the proper chemical balance and level of sanitation. Spas and hot tubs should be serviced between each set of guests. If the guests staying before you had a communicable illness and the spa wasn’t properly sanitized there is a strong possibility of transmission. Pool professionals take rigorous courses and must pass a comprehensive exam to be certified.

Carefully observe the pool before you jump in. Is the water completely clear? Can you easily see the bottom? Is the water line clean or is there a ring of scale or greasy buildup? Are there any unpleasant smells? A properly sanitized pool will not smell of chlorine. If you detect a strong scent of chlorine it is most likely chloramines which are present when ammonia from sweat and urine hasn’t been eliminated. Observe the drains and check they are covered to prevent entrapment. Is there a ground fault circuit interrupter to switch off the electrical current in the event of a fault when current is flowing through water?

Lastly, it may be wise to purchase some pool or spa test strips to tuck away in your suitcase. They will provide you with a simple measure of the sanitizer in the water. In this case chlorine is our friend. The CDC recommends chlorine to kill bacteria and viruses in public swimming pools.

By taking these simple steps, you can insure your family is swimming in safe, sanitized water.

 

 

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5 Tips for Your First Trip to Europe

September 11, 2015 at 5:28 pm


5 Tips for Your First Trip to Europe

On my first trip to Europe in 1980 I only visited London but made memories that will last a lifetime. I won’t lie, though, I had a bit of a rocky start. I got off the train from Gatwick Airport at Victoria Station and nervously hailed a cab. I read out my hotel address and the cab driver drove me the two blocks to my hotel! Clearly, I had a thing or two to learn. I settled in and was thrilled to visit the classic museums, hang out in the parks and shop in the iconic London department stores. I learned a trip like that can be a great introduction to travel abroad. You don’t have to have a crazy, adventure experience to make wonderful memories. While I am by no means an expert, in the last couple of years I have learned more about traveling through Europe and how to make it a comfortable AND fabulous experience. These are my quick five tips for a first European vacation.

1. Start in a small country. Often fares to Ireland, Denmark, or Portugal are less expensive than the biggest cities. These are great destinations to start out your trip. Small countries have smaller airports and the logistics of getting to your hotel or Airbnb are much simpler. Starting your trip at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris can be really overwhelming. I found the people in smaller countries tend to be friendly and helpful to first-time visitors.

2. Start in a country where English is common. Europe is wonderfully different from America even when you don’t factor in the language differences. If you begin your trip in Edinburgh, you will get a taste of those differences and yet still be able to manage the challenges of being in a completely new place. Again, Denmark, Sweden, and Ireland are great starting points. We struggled to find the Ice Bar in Stockholm and needed to stop at least half a dozen people to get directions. Everyone spoke perfect English and was incredibly helpful.

3. Explore your neighborhood first. Fight the urge to run to the Louvre the minute you hit Paris. After years of waiting to see the spots on your bucket list, it can be tough to hold yourself back but if you spend some time making your neighborhood a home base your entire trip will feel more comfortable and relaxed. Naturally the big sites are packed with tourists and can feel overwhelming. If you spend some time sitting in a local café, people watching and getting the lay of the land you will learn so much about the amazing European culture you came to see. Then see the Louvre!

4. Plan the important stuff and leave the rest to chance. We always make sure we know how to get from the airport to the hotel and what form of transportation we plan to take in a new city. We check online before we leave to see if our most important sites require advanced tickets or have unusual hours. We would have waited in a huge line at the Hamburg Minatur Wunderland if we hadn’t bought our tickets before we left home. This was an important stop for us so we made sure to plan ahead. Also leave some things to chance. The parks we just stumbled on in Hamburg turned out to be a highlight of our time there.

5. Meet the people. On the train from Copenhagen to Stockholm we chose to not sit together and this led to a lovely morning chatting with a Swedish gentleman headed to a month alone on his family’s own island. The times we got out of our comfort zone and asked for help or were just willing to start a conversation with a stranger led to some of our favorite memories. It really is about the people.

Do you have any tips for first timers?

 

 

 

 

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5 Questions to Ask Before You Take the Hop-on Bus

August 17, 2015 at 11:03 pm


Hop-on Image

Two years ago on the first day of our Europe trip, we enjoyed a fabulous day exploring Dublin with the Hop on Hop off bus. We didn’t realize how lucky we were until later in the trip when Dubliners kept telling us how unusual the warm, sunny weather was. On this beautiful day we explored Trinity College, Grafton Street, Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, and the Guinness factory. The pre-recorded audio guide helped us to see more of Dublin than we ever would have on our own and we were free to decide which sites we most wanted to view up close. This hop on hop off experience helped make Dublin one of our all-time favorite spots. Eager to repeat this fun day, we signed up for the hop on hop off bus in Paris a week later. Sadly, this was one of the worst days of our trip. It was sweltering and the crowds were very thick. There were long lines for all of the sites we wanted to see and The tour itself didn’t live up to our expectations. What made the difference? Here are our top five tips to help you decide whether or not to take the hop on hop off bus:

  1. How is the audio portion of the tour presented? In Dublin we listen to a pre-recorded broadcast in English. In Paris we were issued earphones and could connect to an outlet at each seat which broadcast the tour in the language of our choice. On a tour in Hamburg the next year, we listened to a young man who delivered most of the tour in German but occasionally provided English commentary. Sadly, his English was very poor and we missed most of the information about each stop.

 

  1. Could you purchase a city transport pass that would allow you to use their bus system for far less money? Hamburg offers an amazing pass that you can purchase online prior to your visit. We printed out our voucher and showed it to the drivers as we entered each bus. By using city buses we were able to make complete loops of areas that we wanted to see. The buses were clean and comfortable and we saved a bundle!

 

  1. What types of sites do you want to see? If you want a general overview of the city and to do a variety of small stops hopping on and off can be a great choice. However, in Paris you may want to spend all day at the Louvre, Notre Dame, or a side trip to Versailles. The Paris bus route highlighted epic sites that take all day to see. There really wasn’t a point in using a hop on hop off bus.

 

  1. What sort of day is it? Hot, July days sitting in a crowded bus can be miserable! Can you get an early start to make full use of your pass? If you are travelling in May or September the weather can be beautiful and the crowds are much lighter.

 

  1. What is included in the price of your ticket?  Will you be able to get into museums for free or at a dramatically reduced price? Is the bus system linked to a ferry or water excursion service?  Do they include a second day for free? When does the last bus stop running? These are all valuable things to consider.

 

When you only have a few days to see a city the Hop on, Hop Off Bus can make or break your experience. We would definitely hop on again but have learned to carefully consider these variables. Have you used the Hop On Bus?