Archive for Travel Planning

If Ever There Was a Reason…

….to use a travel agent and purchase travel insurance, it is now. Now that Hurricane Irma has dissipated, we can sit back and assess the situation and what could have been.

Can you imagine being on an island in the Caribbean, knowing that a hurricane is headed your way in less than a week? Your flight is cancelled and you have limited internet and phone access. This could be a terrifying situation, but if you booked through a travel agent, you may have someone who might be able to help you. It may not always be the case that an agent can get someone out of a sticky situation such as this one, but wouldn’t you want to have someone who would be around to at least try to get you off the island?

I was fortunate that I didn’t have anyone in a situation like this when Hurricane Irma began her voyage through the Caribbean, but I did spend several hours on hold with Disney to reschedule an upcoming trip that was affected by her arrival. While this isn’t quite as big of a deal as being stuck in the hurricane itself, it was nice for my client to have someone else to deal with waiting on the phone all morning instead of having to do it herself.

When it comes to travel insurance, some people like to gawk at the price and choose the least expensive option, if purchasing any at all. Yes, most of the time you probably won’t have to file a claim, but it happens. In fact, it probably happened for a lot of people this week. Imagine the same scenario I described above in which you are stuck on a Caribbean island staring a hurricane directly in the eye. Even if your airline hasn’t cancelled your flight, you may want to leave on an earlier one to be sure you are off the island when it hits. This means you might have to be ok with forfieting what you already paid for the flight you no longer want to take AND pay for a last-minute flight that leaves earlier. Depending on how much your policy pays out for claims, you may end up spending all your claim money (maybe even more!) just to get home, so it might be worth it to make sure your policy pays out more than 100% of your trip cost for trip interruption benefits.

No, travel insurance doesn’t cover everything, but it covers some of the things you might encounter, and I cannot stress enough how important it is to have some sort of medical insurance when you leave the country; you may not have as much coverage (or any coverage at all) as you think through your primary medical insurance plan outside the United States. Also, all travel insurance policies are different, so be sure to read the fine print and ask any questions necessary.

What I have taken from the situations of the past week has been how important it is to have some sort of coverage to fall back on, as well as how important it could be to have someone standing in your corner when this kind of thing goes down. Just something to consider for your next trip…

Things to Consider When Leaving the Country

When we travel overseas, as we’re getting ready to do, there are a few things we always try to do.

  • Make sure you have a valid passport with at least 6 months left on it. Many countries will not allow entry if your passport expires within 6 months of your visit.
  • Make copies or take a picture of all the credit cards and your passport you will be traveling with. If some or all of these documents are lost or stolen, you will be able to contact your credit card company and still have your passport information. Take a copy with you and leave a copy here with a family member.
  • Call the credit card company and the bank before leaving so that they are aware you will be using your card out of the country. Some banks and credit card companies must unlock your cards before they can be used. This is very important to avoid being locked out of your account. Also, be sure that you know your PIN numbers on your debit cards and know the maximum amount of money your bank allows you to take out per day.
  • Register your trip with the US State Department at https://travelregistration.state.gov/. This lets the State Department know where you will be and when. The State Department will also send you notifications if there is a travel warning in the area you are traveling.
  • Know where the US Embassy is located in the country in which you are traveling in case something happens and you need to get there.
  • Bring a charger adapter, if necessary. Some countries require different chargers.
  • Be sure to purchase travel insurance, as your medical insurance likely does not cover you while out of the country. Bring copies of your travel insurance cards.
  • If you plan to drive while there, be sure to obtain an international driver’s license. This can be done at AAA.
  • Check with your cell phone carrier to see if you will have service in the country you are visiting and inquire about any international charges for use of your phone in that country.

Traveling outside the United States can be exciting and a great experience; it may just take a little extra planning, but it is totally worth it!

Need Help Planning a Trip?

They say that January through March/April is the busy season for travel agents because the holidays have finally passed and everyone is looking forward to spring break and summer plans. Now is the time do think about what you want to do this spring/summer!

I actually (mistakenly) always thought that it was more expensive to book trips through a travel agent, but the truth is, you just might find a better deal. It’s true that for some of the trips we have planned in the past, we have been looking for a specific type of hotel and we couldn’t get what we wanted through an agent, but in a lot of situations, we actually got a better deal, so it is always a good idea to have them price something out for you. If it’s better, then it’s better, and if it’s the same price, then you’re getting out of having to do all the work and letting her/him do it for you. There is just no reason not to have your agent check pricing for you.

Here’s why.

We really want to go to Greece this summer. We’ve been thinking about it for years and I think we are really going to do it this year, but we were really discouraged by the fact that flights are almost $1500 apiece. That’s almost $6000 in just flights for the four of us and nothing else. When I looked in one of my supplier’s databases, I was able to find flights for the four of us and 3 nights in a hotel room in Athens for right around $3600. Yes, you read that right. $3600. Over $2300 cheaper than doing it outright and by just purchasing flights, we still wouldn’t have any hotels included in it. For $3600, we could get flights for all of us and 3 nights in Athens at a hotel. And this is before my agent discount. This is a deal I could get anyone. Is it the hotel we would have chosen on our own? No. It’s not. But that $2300 savings is the difference between us being able to actually go, even if we have to stay in a hotel that we wouldn’t normally have chosen, and not being able to afford to go at all. I will also add that there is nothing wrong with the hotel we would stay at. We just typically prefer smaller bed and breakfasts or apartments, and this hotel is a chain. But like I said, it is going to be totally worth it to spend 3 nights there if it gets us that kind of savings.

So, please always check with your travel agent to get pricing. You never know what you will find.

Other reasons to use a travel agent, besides the fact that they might get you a better deal:

1. They have access to all kinds of suppliers that are offering different deals that you would know nothing about. Sometimes suppliers offer deals that only agents have access to.

 

2. They can make sure you are booking a service with a reputable company. There are a lot of scams out there.

3. More than likely, they have a network of other agents to ask specific questions to if they don’t have the answers.

4. If something goes wrong with your trip, she/he might be able to help get things sorted out. The very first trip I booked had a glitch. I got a call early one morning from my client who was in London and had missed their flight to Vienna, which meant they were going to miss their train to Salzburg. I was able to call the supplier to have the hotel notified that they would be arriving late and I was able to get the name of the train station my client needed to go to and the times for train options that evening. I was also able to start their insurance claim.

6. Speaking of insurance, travel agents can get you a great plan…and on any big trip that has non-refundable parts to it (like flights) really should be insured in case you need to cancel for a covered reason. And anytime you leave the country (if you live in the US), you really need insurance because it’s very likely that your primary insurance does not cover you medically when you leave the country.

All this being said, please contact me if you need me to check any prices on anything. It is worth a try, and it costs you nothing to have me check something for you. You can contact me through email at RachelM@MyAmbassadorTravel.com. I will also be adding a travel contact page on my blog that will make it easier, but that is the way to contact me for now!

 

A New Adventure

I have briefly written about doing a travel school program. Well, I finished over a month ago and signed a contract to be a home-based travel agent with an agency just a few weeks ago. This means I am able to start planning and booking trips, so please keep me in mind if you need some help booking a vacation. You don’t even have to live near me; I can book trips for anyone anywhere. Also, it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Even if you are only needing certain things for a trip, I still might be able to help you out. You can contact me through my Contact Page.

I have actually seen some really great deals come up for this summer, so if by chance you are still looking for a great deal on something for this summer, contact me as soon as possible and we can get something set up for you!

 

 

Costa Rica!

If you read my post about my New Year’s intentions, you would know that we are now planning a trip to Costa Rica in July. This was originally going to be for our 10-year anniversary, which will be in October 2016, but for various reasons, we decided we didn’t want to wait to go. So we’re going in July, and we will figure out something else to do for our 10-year anniversary. Anya keeps calling it “Pacarica” and asking why we are calling it “Costa Rica.” Silly girl.

This is a little different for us because we are used to planning big European trips, but as it turns out, it’s not that much different. We are using the same resources (mainly Tripadvisor), and have consulted with our travel agent, who has been there. Here are our thoughts so far:

1. We are planning to fly into San Jose and transfer to Monteverde, which is famous for its cloud forest. We have found a lodge that has an enclosed balcony where you have a view of the forest and can see monkeys and other animals hanging out in the trees. We are excited about having breakfast on that balcony with our Costa Rican coffee. But the best part might be that it is only $70 a night. We will spend 3 nights here and will explore two different cloud forests and take a night tour.

2. We will then transfer to La Fortuna/Arenal, which is about 3 and a half hours away. We are considering a transfer that is a combination of a van, boat ride, and horseback riding through the forests. We thought it would be neat to make the transfer more of a tour. We have read that the views are fantastic and it sounds like a great experience.

3. Once in Arenal, we will stay at the Nayara Hotel Spa and Gardens. This will be our one indulgence. It is a super nice resort and each room (even the standard rooms) are stand-alone casitas with balconies, some of which offer views of the Arenal volcano. Luckily, our travel agent is able to get us a much cheaper deal on flights and our stay at this resort and we will save almost $200 by letting her book this for us. (By the way, people tend to think that booking trips or parts of trips through travel agents are more expensive. While that may be true in some instances, we have had several instances where the prices have been the same or even better, so it pays to look into it!) We plan to hike around the volcano area and see La Fortuna waterfall. We also want to visit one of the hot springs while we’re there, as well as take a day trip to Caño Negro. It is a little north of Arenal, closer to the Nicaraguan border. It is somewhat remote, especially in that there are no trails. You visit by boat. Supposedly, you have great chances of seeing wildlife while there as well.

4. After 3 nights in Arenal, we will transfer to Playa Hermosa on the Pacific side of Costa Rica. It was a huge debate about which side to visit, and we finally settled on the Pacific side, partly because it is closer to the other airport in Liberia, making our drive to get to the airport much easier, shorter, and cheaper. The pictures of the sunsets and the views we have seen are absolutely gorgeous. We have lots of options here, including a day trip to Nicaragua, a day trip to a park that features waterfalls and mud baths (Ok, I normally wouldn’t be into the mud bath, but where else would I do this?!), snorkeling in nearby Playa Ocotal, a sunset cruise in Playa Coco (only a 10-minute taxi ride from Playa Hermosa), and we hope to spend at least part of a day just relaxing on the beach. We have also found that there are several massage therapists who offer massages on the beach at a really inexpensive price, so we may be taking advantage of that as well. After doing some research, we found the perfect hotel. It offers free breakfast and amazing window views of the ocean from some of the rooms. It is up on the hill, which means it is a 5-minute walk to the beach, but we have read that it is worth it. Eric also read that the attached restaurant has happy hour each day and that drinks and certain food items are half-price at this time. Another great thing about it is that it is only around $100 a night!

Our travel agent will be booking our flights, the hotel in La Fortuna/Arenal, and our private transfers. We looked into public transportation but decided to go with private transportation so that we could leave whenever we wanted, and it will make for a quicker trip, which means we will spend less time in transit and more time enjoying our trip. We plan to book most, if not all, our tours, and the other two hotels.

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This was taken at the airport when we were heading to Jamaica on our 5-year anniversary. We are excited to get to do another trip on our own!

 

 

How to Keep a 3-Year Old Busy While Traveling

I have been posting a lot about our trip, and I’m sure many of you are wondering how we kept the kids busy. Felix was difficult. he was just starting to walk/cruise when we left so it was really hard for him to be in the stroller and on buses and trains all the time. Anya was much easier, thankfully. I came up with some projects for her to work on, though she called them “missions.”

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Finger puppets! I packed these and gave them to Anya a couple at a time.

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She was able to practice writing on plane and train rides.

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I created two different “photo hunts” where she had to take a certain number of pictures of certain things. These were awesome for outdoor tours. Sometimes she really got into them and kept pointing out when she would see what she was looking for.

Eric found this idea for how to make a sturdy folder to hold paper and markers out of a DVD case, so he made this before we left.

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It holds paper and markers!

 What have you used to keep your kids’ occupied while on vacation?

Souvenir Ideas

When we go on vacation, we like to get a few souvenirs, but what we don’t want is a bunch of new junk to find places for. I know everyone likes different things to remember their trips, but here are a few things we often look for when we travel:

1. Ornaments wpid-wp-1388850897739.jpg

I’ve mentioned this before, but we really love putting up our tree every year and seeing the ornaments from all the places we’ve been. Some places (especially in Europe) don’t always have ornaments, but we usually find something that we can make into an ornament, like a magnet or a key chain or something similar.

2. Earrings

I know this might be a little strange, but I love buying earrings on vacation. I remember where I bought all of them and every time I get them out to pick a pair to wear, I think about where I bought them. I’m sure I can get similar looking earrings anywhere, but I like buying things like this in markets and from street vendors when we’re on vacation.

3. Shot Glasses

This is totally my husband’s thing, and we have what seems like a million of them sitting upstairs in a room. He likes to find these on vacation when he has a chance.

4. Dolls and other Toys

When we took Anya to Europe two years ago, we let her pick out a couple of dolls from street vendors and she still has them in her room. We also think it’s kind of neat for the kids to have toys from other countries. We were in Prague before we ever had kids and bought a little puppet just because it was cute and we thought any future children we had might enjoy it.

5. Paintings/Sketches

A Life in Tune - Travel Souvenirs

We bought this right outside the Musee de Orsay in Paris.

This is one of my favorite souvenirs. They are a little pricier than other souvenirs, but I love having paintings and watercolors to hang in the house. I don’t dislike what we currently have hanging on the walls, but my goal is to someday have only family pictures and pictures and paintings from our travels.

 

 

 

 

6. Music Boxes

Anya really enjoyed the music boxes we bought in Germany two years ago, so this is something we may start looking for. She still gets it down several times a week and plays with it.

7. Wine

Do I really need to say anything about this? It’s just too bad there is a limit to how much wine we can take home!

8. Home Decor

Sometimes we find little things to use as décor for the house. Another goal of mine is to have most of the décor be from our travels. It is happening slowly but surely!

What are your favorite souvenirs?

Preparing for a European Trip

Last week, I posted ideas for preparing small children for a big trip, but there are also things we tend to do to prepare ourselves as well. Besides all the physical and obvious preparations (accommodations, transportation, itineraries, etc.), there are lots of little things that help keep us excited about the trip (as if we really needed anything to sustain the excitement!).

1. Find books to read for the flights, trains, etc. I know that I am really weird about this, but I don’t like to read anything “scary” while I’m on vacation. Normally, I love a good vampire novel or a good historical fiction novel, but I don’t like to read anything too heavy while on vacation. I normally go for something that I can go back to and not have to remember a lot to jump back in. I never know when I will have a chance to read, especially when the kids are with us. A lot of times I end up with Chick Lit or “feel good” books. Anything with plane crashes or terrorist attacks are off the list!

2. Don’t watch any movies with scary plots. This means no plane crashes, terrorist attacks, or people being kidnapped or imprisoned abroad. (Basically, no Brokedown Palace or episodes of Locked Up Abroad.) I know this might seem silly but I really don’t want to watch movies about people catching a nasty virus on a plane or a plane being shot down right before I’m getting ready to get on one!

3. Peruse the forums and look at pictures. Nothing gets me more in the mood for a trip than reading others’ trip reports and questions/comments and seeing pictures of the places we are visiting.

4. Read books or watch movies that take place in or near the places you will be visiting. This is, of course, as long as the movie isn’t about how terrible and corrupt the city is!

5. Walk. A lot. We’ve been walking with the kids in the double stroller, as well as walking with Felix in the Ergo and Anya walking with us. She walked almost 2 miles the other day! It doesn’t seem like a big deal but I think people do a lot more walking in Europe than most people do here, at least where we live. We always try to make sure we are in decent shape when we go so that we are physically able to do the things we want to do.

6. Read about the sites you plan to see. I find that if I know more about the sites we plan to visit, it is much more exciting when we actually get there because I understand what it is I’m seeing.

7. Look up food to try while you are in Europe. Some cities have food they are known for, so we like to have a short list of things we definitely need to try. Langos in Budapest are a must, as are tapas in Spain!

8. Check the weather. As we get closer to our trip, I’ve been googling the weather in each of the cities to get an idea of how hot (or cold) it might be so we know how and what to pack.

Preparing for a Trip

This time around, there will be two little ones in the picture!

So I know a lot of these are probably overkill, but I get so excited when we get closer to the trip that I need something that helps me to contain the excitement!

What do you do to prepare yourself for a big trip?

 

You’re Taking Them With You?!

1. Take them off a strict schedule. I realize this is counterintuitive to a lot of people, but if you’re going to take a trip like this with your kids, it will be much more difficult to do if your kids are completely dependent on a strict schedule. Don’t get me wrong – a schedule is really great at home for lots of reasons, but on vacation, planes run late (so do trains and buses on occasion), and it’s not always possible to find food to eat at the times the kids are used to eating. Then, there’s jet lag and the time change to adjust to. We have been lucky that our kids have never been completely dependent on a schedule, and we have never been really great about implementing one, so traveling with the kids tends to go well most of the time. I do realize that lots of kids do better with schedules, so I’m definitely not saying schedules aren’t good. Just saying that they aren’t always easy to keep up on a trip like this.

2. Encourage them to try different foods. We purposely make different kinds of food at our house and visit different kinds of restaurants, so our kids are always trying something new. This makes it so that they are more comfortable with trying new foods in other countries. They may not always like it, but they will at least try it!

3. Simply talk to them about what’s going to happen on the trip. This doesn’t really work with our son yet, but our daughter did well with this on our last trip two years ago. We talked a lot about where we were going, how we were going to get there, and what we were going to do when we got there. I really think this helps them to have some idea of what to expect, especially if they have never gone somewhere like this.

4. Show them pictures of where you’re going. Again, this is something that works for Anya but not Felix. I’ve been showing her pictures of the places we are going, especially the ones I know she will enjoy and she has been really excited about it. We’ve also been listening to flamenco music.

5. Take them out. Anywhere. We purposely take our kids to places so they learn how it is to be in public. It’s not always pleasant but for the most part, they do pretty well. On our last trip two years ago, we migrated from the “cry room” at our church back into the general population because we wanted to be able to attend Mass in some of the countries we were visiting. By sitting with the congregation in our own church, we were able to do that. We also have been taking Felix to places with a considerable amount of noise so that he is more used to crowds. He doesn’t do as well with lots of people around as Anya did but is starting to feel much more comfortable with this.  

6. Find something for them to do during the “boring” stuff. It is definitely worth your while to go through your itinerary and identify things that might not be exciting for them. Then, come up with something for them to do during that time. We are working on things like finding new apps for the Ipod/Ipad, creating a book of search and find pictures, and coming up with “missions” for Anya to do. We also plan to do outside things or go to the park (or something else they will probably enjoy) for the other part of the day.

The bottom line is that kids will throw fits and there will be problems at some point during your trip, just like there would be at home. But hopefully, with a little preparation, these kinds of situations will be minor and most of the trip will go smoothly!

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The kids trying out their new ride for the trip!

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Anya and I enjoying a playground at Schonbrunn in Vienna.

How to Read Travel Reviews

I have mentioned more than once that we use reviews on Tripadvisor to choose hotels, apartments, and research things to do on vacation. But how do we sort through the millions of reviews? Here are a few tips.

1. Consider the time frame. We usually try to look at the most recent reviews when possible. This isn’t to say that the older reviews aren’t helpful, but if there was a problem with a hotel three years ago, it may have been fixed. So if we happen to notice an issue that was complained about in the past, we read recent reviews to see if it is still an issue.

2. Consider the source. Not everyone thinks the same way. Some people are looking for a luxury accommodation and are unhappy with the small B&B they booked, but if luxury is what they were looking for, they would never be happy with the B&B they stayed in. We see complaints about the small rooms on hotel reviews in Europe, but the truth is, rooms in Europe are just small. There is no getting around that. If the only thing people complain about when reviewing a hotel is the room size, we typically toss that aside because it is just a given when visiting Europe. There are also tons of people out there traveling the world, but they don’t always do thorough research, so they may just be complaining because they didn’t get what they expected and not because the hotel wasn’t a decent place to stay. Of course, there are things that really have no excuse and would cause us to just cross a hotel off our list. These are things like bed bugs, dirty rooms, broken locks, plumbing problems, etc.

3. Consider the time of year. Certain times of the year are more crowded than others. Reviewers may complain of noise, but if you are traveling in the off-season there may not be as many people around, making this complaint a non-issue for you. Complaints having to do with heating and air may not be a big deal depending on when you are traveling.

4. Consider what you enjoy. Someone may give an attraction a bad review simply because they didn’t like it, but that doesn’t mean that you won’t like it. If they aren’t interested in art and give an art museum a bad review, it doesn’t mean that you won’t want to visit it.

5. Consider the wording. Are the reviewers specific in their complaints? Or are they just complaining about general things? We tend to look for specifics when we read reviews. I hate to say it, but some people are just born complainers and if there isn’t something specific that was really wrong with the hotel or the attraction, then chances are, there really isn’t anything wrong with it.

6. Look for tips. A good reviewer will give tips on how to see an attraction. For example, they will say whether or not it was crowded when they visited or will recommend going at a certain time when the weather is nicer, etc. Or if it is a review of a hotel, the reviewer may recommend requesting a certain room in order to keep out noise or to be near the stairs, etc.

You can learn a lot from reviews but it is important to look at each one with a critical eye and ask yourself if what was being complained about would bother you. If you can sleep through anything, noise outside your window probably won’t bother you. If you are fit and don’t mind climbing stairs, the fact that there is no lift or elevator in a B&B may not bother you, but if you have knee trouble, this may not be the place for you. Don’t be swayed by just the complaints but really consider what the complaints are about and how it would affect you if you were in the situation.

Happy travel planning!

How to Read Travel Reviews

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