Category Archives: Travel

Our Early Retirement Didn’t Go As Planned… Our Net Worth Went UP Half a Million Dollars!

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In contrast to early retirement modeling that looks for all the worst cases and failure modes, our actual life the past almost four years illustrates that good things can offset the bad events in life.

Financial planning for early retirement is pretty straightforward.  Figure out how much you plan on spending in early retirement then save up till you have between 25 and 33 times your annual expenses in your investment portfolio.  We initially planned on spending $32,000 per year plus a large lump sum for the three kids’ college tuition.  Using the 33x multiplier (which represents a 3% withdrawal rate), that means we needed $1,056,000 plus another $100,000 to cover tuition, or roughly $1,150,000 in total investments.  That’s about what we started with four years ago but now we have a lot more.

 

The Good:

We plan for the worst and hope for the best.  Fortunately, the past four year have been very positive.  Maybe we used our luck making machine.  Or maybe we aren’t as lucky as we think.  We’re earning more than we thought and spending about what we expected, and future expenses don’t look too bad.

More Work, More Money

When I quit working in 2013, we expected Mrs. Root of Good to join me in early retirement within six months.  Then her employer decided to be really really nice to her so she kept working longer than expected.  Her employer met her requests to take a paid five week summer sabbatical in 2014, and again agreed to a paid sabbatical of twelve weeks in 2015.  The sabbaticals were on top of a 40 hour work week with negligible overtime, four weeks paid vacation, two weeks of holidays, and unlimited sick leave.  After returning from the second sabbatical in 2015, Mrs. Root of Good submitted her resignation and tried to retire.

Unsuccessfully as it turned out.  Her employer offered a flexible work from home arrangement where she officially works from home for four 10 hour days per week.  The boss gave her a **wink wink, nod nod** and said she just needed to work enough each week to make sure nothing fell through the cracks as they worked toward replacing her.  She generally worked Monday-Wednesday for six to eight hours per day and some Thursdays, probably averaging 30 hours per week.  While still collecting full time pay!  This part-time-for-full-time lasted about six months before Mrs. Root of Good finally called it quits and promoted herself from part time work to full time retirement.

Mrs. Root of Good’s extra two years of work netted us around $120,000 after taxes and work-related costs in my estimate (she was earning $70,000 gross per year and we paid nearly zero federal income tax but we stilled owed payroll tax plus state income tax).  Toss that $120,000 on the pile and watch it grow!

Mrs. RoG enjoying her first day of sabbatical.

Mrs. RoG enjoying her first day of the flexible work from home arrangement that doesn’t include working on Fridays.

 

Who knew you could make money blogging?

I always wanted to do something “internet-y” and finance related while working but never found myself in a professional role that fit that desire.  About two weeks after retiring, I started looking into this whole blogging thing.  Mr. Money Mustache had a pretty sweet site so I figured maybe it would be fun to do something similar.  I spent the weekend reading and googling and youtubing all about how to start a blog.  How great is it to be able to jump into a new exciting project head first when you don’t have to deal with work all day?!

Two days after I started the intense blog research I figured out enough to register the Rootofgood.com domain name, set up my hosting service, and then I sat staring at that blinking cursor waiting for me to start typing.  The first couple of words I typed were “HELLO WORLD” (of course).  My little homage to all things programming/internet-y. Then I deleted it and got down to business (first ever real blog post and ALL THE BLOG POSTS EVER).

Almost four years and three million pageviews later, this blog is a little dynamo.  Root of Good currently receives an average of 50,000 to 60,000 visits per month.  In late 2015 I started offering Early Retirement Lifestyle Consulting.  Since conception, the net profit from the blog and related activities was:

  • 2013 – near zero
  • 2014 – $12,000
  • 2015 – $29,000
  • 2016 – $31,000
  • 2017 – roughly the same as 2016

Toss another $72,000 on the pile plus whatever we earn this year.

Though not all early retirees start a blog, many early retirees have a side hustle.  Some early retirees turn a hobby into something profitable.  Others retire from full time work while keeping the door open to very part time, flexible work arrangements by only accepting those projects or clients that fit into their early retired lifestyles.  I did both when I started a blog for fun that turned profitable within the first year and I started consulting an hour or two per week (less when the weather is nice outside).

When planning for early retirement many years ago, I occasionally used a “part time income in retirement” line item for forecasting purposes.  At the time I used a tiny annual income for this part time work.  In one model, I assumed I might earn $6,000 per year doing something one day per week for $15 per hour.  This was based on a little side hustle related to engineering data collection that I had some success with during college.  But more generally, $15 per hour represents a pretty broad swath of potential jobs and hustles, and eight hours per week isn’t a huge impediment to otherwise enjoying one’s leisure time throughout the week.  I could mow lawns, start a handyman business, repair appliances, run errands for the elderly and disabled, or drive for Uber (which wasn’t a thing when I was completing my early retirement models and forecasts).

The very part time work for $15/hr was more of a Plan B “what if” scenario.  Adding $6,000 income per year to supplement withdrawals from an investment portfolio means you can get by on a smaller portfolio using the four percent rule.

As fate would have it, I’m blowing that $15/hr threshold out of the water (ER Lifestyle Consulting rates are currently $125/hr and I’m considering raising those given the demand).  Total earnings from my side hustles are running in the $30,000 per year range right now.  And I don’t think I’m putting in eight hours of effort per week.  Life is good as is the financial solvency of my early retirement plans.

 

Spending is in line with budgeted amounts

We started out budgeting $32,000 per year for 2014 and increased it to $32,400 in 2015 to account for inflation.  In 2016 we bumped the budget to $40,000 in light of all the extra side hustle income and better than expected investment results.

Actual spending since 2014 remained pretty close to our annual budget:

We were over budget in 2014 by a few thousand dollars but under budget all other years so far.  That underspending comes in the face of an almost $9,000 major renovation in 2014, an $8,000 minivan purchase in 2016, and paying for the bulk of a $10,000 nine week trip to Europe in 2016 and 2017 (along with several other multi-week or multi-month trips in previous years).  In other words, we have a rather robust spending plan to fund a whole lotta living and the budget seems to be working out perfectly fine.

Four months of spending at just under $10,000 (Personal Capital screenshot).

Four months of spending in 2017 at just under $10,000 (Personal Capital screenshot).

And this is with three kids!  They are now age 5, 10, and 12 years old.  I’ll admit that we’re still a year away from the oldest starting the typically more spendy teen years, but so far we haven’t noticed a significant spike in spending as the kids get older.

Since we’ve already replaced the exterior siding and the windows, and we’re in the middle of replacing the roof right now, we don’t have a lot of major home improvement projects planned for the near future, so spending on the home should remain modest.  We just replaced the car last year, so that should last us quite a while too.  Those big house-related capital replacement costs are amortized and included in our annual budget.

Another area that can bust a budget is healthcare and dental expenses.  We’ve been fortunate to spend very little in this category other than a few doctor’s visits and routine dental checkups (plus a few minor procedures at the doc and dentist).  We haven’t used up our whole healthcare/dental budget in any year of retirement.

We track all our monthly spending in Personal Capital.  It’s a free, easy to use, and automatically pulls transaction data from credit cards and bank accounts so you don’t have to spend any time inputting transactions manually (or maintain another spreadsheet!).  Review of Personal Capital.  It’s also a great tool to consolidate and track your brokerage accounts, IRA’s, and 401k’s so you can track your asset allocation and keep an eye on mutual fund expenses automatically.  Tracking spending is in my opinion the best way to stay cognizant of where your hard earned money goes and what expense categories are dominating your budget.

 

College won’t cost as much as we initially budgeted

By most objective metrics, we are wealthy.  I assumed we wouldn’t qualify for any need-based financial aid for the kids’ college.  I was wrong.  I found out the FAFSA financial aid form doesn’t include the home value nor does it include retirement account values in determining financial aid.  As a result we look relatively poor on paper due to having over 75% of our financial assets in retirement accounts and a modest adjusted gross income around $40,000 per year.

Upon entering early retirement in 2013, I expected to pay around $100,000 in total just for tuition for 3 kids and almost triple that amount if we cover room and board, books, transportation, and other living expenses.

After crunching some numbers on college costs using a few different assumptions, it looks like the worst case scenario will have us paying around $162,000 total while the best case scenario (which isn’t that far-fetched) has us paying just $31,500.  Those are totals for all three kids.  The updated forecasts come from better assumptions about scholarships and grants our children might qualify for given their academic achievements to date, along with a better understanding of how financial aid formulas work.  When I first retired, our oldest two kids were in second and third grade, and we really didn’t know how well they would do in school once the academics grew more challenging.  Several years later and they are doing great!

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Great stock market returns

Since I retired early, the stock market has been on fire!  As measured by the Vanguard Total Stock Market Index Fund (VTSMX), returns including reinvestment of dividends are:

  • 2013 – 33.4%
  • 2014 – 12.4%
  • 2015 – 0.3%
  • 2016 – 12.5%
  • 2017 (year to date through May 12) – 7.0%

International investments haven’t performed quite as well over the same period.  Our portfolio still managed to swell from around $1.1 million right after I retired up to $1.65 million today.  That’s a $550,000 increase in value.  About $100,000 of that increase can be attributed to Mrs. Root of Good’s extra two years of paychecks and my blog earnings (after subtracting the roughly $100,000 spent on living expenses during early retirement).  That still leaves us with roughly $450,000 of investment gains in the past four years.  Thanks Mr. Stock Market!

The returns have been so great that since the start of 2017 I have moved $90,000 from equities into the Vanguard Total Bond Market Index Fund (VBTLX).  Those bonds plus the $30,000 we have sitting in money market accounts will provide a multi-year safety blanket should the market decide that the party is over.  A six figure low-risk fixed income portfolio will help me sleep at night regardless of market volatility.

 

Successful travel hacking continues

I’ve been scoring huge credit card sign up bonuses and collecting points and miles from credit cards for over a decade.  Upon entering retirement in 2013, I fretted over the eventual end of all these easy bonuses that translate to free trips all over the world, even for our family of five.

It turns out I had nothing to worry about after earning 1,265,000 points and miles from sign up bonus offers in the almost four years of early retirement.  This gravy train keeps rolling down the tracks and shows no signs of stopping!  Some of the rules of the game have changed (Chase’s 5/24 rule is a key example) but there are still plenty of fish in the sea. So cast your net wide and don’t let all these delicious morsels slip past you.  Our credit scores remain a killer 800-something (out of 850 points) and card issuers generally don’t bat an eye at extending us even more credit.

All these free points and miles explain how we’re able to travel the world for weeks or months each year on a modest $5,000 to $10,000 annual budget.  Without free points and miles we would be incurring an extra $5,000-$10,000 expense per trip based on the past few trips.

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No more work = no more work related costs

I’m sure we save a small amount on lunches out and simpler wardrobes (shorts and polos just don’t cost that much, guys).  But the biggest work-related cost that disappeared was our second car.  We questioned whether we could cut back to one car and it turns out it’s not a problem at all with our current lifestyle.  It’s been almost a year since we dropped to one car and there have been just a few times where it would have been nice to have a second car.  But we made it work with just one car.

This one car does it all for us.

This one car does it all for us.

We walk, we can take transit, Uber is always a few clicks away (though we’ve never used it so far).  Postponing or combining trips and smartly scheduling appointments help.  We also enjoy spending time at home or within walking distance in the neighborhood, so there are multi-day stretches were our car doesn’t leave the driveway (but our feet still do!).

The money savings are unquestionable – maintaining one car costs half of what it does to maintain two cars. One set of tires, one set of oil changes, one set of routine maintenance, one set of inspections, registration/licensing, insurance, and taxes.  The time savings are even more important – fewer trips to the auto shop for repairs and maintenance.  It takes less time to check the tire pressure and fluid levels in one car versus two cars.

For us, simplifying saves time and money without being a detriment to our lifestyle.  Of course others’ experiences might differ.  We only drive about 300 miles per month (unless we’re on the road completing a multi-thousand mile road trip).  Many destinations are walking distance in the neighborhood. Our kids aren’t overloaded with after school and weekend activities (though we stay busy!).

 

The Bad:

I feel like we need a counterpoint to “The Good” so I’m sticking “The Bad” in here.

 

Health Insurance in a Post-ACA World

The future of health insurance is our biggest unknown going forward.  There’s a new sheriff in town and he’s adamant that the Affordable Care Act is horrible and must be repealed and replaced.  The replacement bill, the AHCA, recently passed the House and now sits with the Senate for further sausage-making.  What will we end up with?  Your guess is as good as mine.  The following is an excerpt from my April 2017 Financial Update article where I opine about the current health insurance situation in the US:

“Let’s look at the details of the AHCA as passed by the House.  Here’s the best summary I’ve seen of the current version of the AHCA compared to the ACA (courtesy of the non-partisan Kaiser Family Foundation).

Main takeaways:

  • ACA premium subsidies continue through 2017, 2018, and 2019 (so it’s not an immediate “repeal”). Your subsidy declines as your income increases up to 400% of the federal poverty level.
  • Starting in 2020 those buying individual coverage get a $2,000 to $4,000 tax credit per person for qualifying insurance (and policies don’t have to be purchased through the official Healthcare.gov Marketplace to qualify for the tax credit). Tax credits vary with age (older = larger credit) but not with income, however there are income limits where the tax credit phases out
  • Cost sharing reduction subsidies disappear in 2020 (currently available to those earning under 250% of the federal poverty level – it’s what makes my deductible $100, max out of pocket $1,200, and my copays $5-20)
  • In 2018, HSA contribution limits double to $13,100 for family coverage.
  • If a state chooses to allow it, insurers can charge more for pre-existing conditions for those that have a lapse in coverage. Possibly much, much more. Maintaining continuous coverage seems to be the way to go to avoid paying a lot more for pre-existing conditions.
  • Increase the age banding of premiums so that the premiums paid by older people aren’t capped at three times the premiums charged to the youngest people (under AHCA older people will pay five times what younger people pay – while only getting an extra $2,000 in tax credits)
  • No more individual mandate to have health insurance retroactive to 2016

Those are the basics but trust me, I’m leaving a lot out.  Medicaid and Medicare are tinkered with too.

The Senate will most likely make significant modifications to the AHCA, so it’s pure speculation as to what we’ll actually end up with once all the sausage is made.

My main takeaway as a 30-something early retiree that will be 40 by the time the ACA premium subsidies go away in 2020 is that I’ll be paying more for health insurance that will come with higher deductibles and copays.  Mrs. Root of Good and I will each get a $3,000 tax credit to use toward insurance that will probably cost $4,000-$5,000 per year per person for a basic plan, and possibly much more if healthy people choose to go uninsured (since the individual mandate will be gone and many people will pay more for health insurance, making it less affordable).  I don’t know what the kids’ policy pricing will look like or if they’ll end up on Medicaid (if that’s still an option given the possibility of AHCA-related changes to Medicaid), but I understand they’ll be eligible for $2,000 tax credits too (based on their age) if we purchase individual policies for them.

In conclusion, I’m mentally penciling in an extra $4,000 or so for health insurance and healthcare costs starting in 2020, but also accepting that a lot can change with the AHCA before passage (or it might fail altogether).  There might be a subsequent health care bill passed later on in 2018 or 2020 as the political winds change that could put our costs back in line with where they are currently under the ACA.” (end excerpt)

If this bill passes then the near-term damage of this law won’t be horrible.  But it’s still a lot of uncertainty in our early retirement financial plan.

A silver lining of the Republican controlled White House and both houses of Congress: tax cuts.  I’ve heard mutterings about higher child tax credits and larger standard deductions, which could save us some money on taxes to partially offset higher health insurance costs (or, rather, lower health insurance tax credits versus what we get under the Affordable Care Act).  Tax cuts can potentially benefit the economy depending on how they are structured, so it’s possible we’ll see investment gains too.

Stop and smell the roses

Stop and smell the roses

 

Have we reached the top in the stock market?

I’ll be the first to admit I have no clue but I know it’s been on a winning streak the past four years.  That’s not to say it can’t keep going up for several more years.  However, there’s a lower chance of strong continued gains year after year simply because there’s less room to grow when the market is already at high valuations compared to long term historical averages.  It’s the exact reason you would have expected big stock market gains in the long term back about 2009 when the market was valued at a third of what it is today.  From deep valleys rise tall mountains.

Our portfolio might experience several years of sideways movement or suffer a double digit percentage decline.  Either of those scenarios are fairly common in the recent history of investing and it’s most certainly not different this time around.  That’s not pessimism speaking but rather realism.  It won’t mean the end of everyone’s early retirements but it will certainly mean we will keep a closer eye on expenses and income.  However our $120,000 of bond funds plus money market funds will provide a lot of stability for several years in the event of a market downturn.

 

Spending more on travel

I roughly doubled our travel budget from $5,400 when I first retired to $10,000 today.  We didn’t really know how much we would travel since our working lives were filled with work work work and just a few weeks of vacation time each year.  Travel is our safety relief valve – when our portfolio fills up to the top, this is where we let out the monetary steam.  We spend more on travel.  If we have to tighten our belts we can cut back in this area.

We’re also taking advantage of geographic arbitrage by traveling to places where the foreign exchange rate makes everything cheaper.  In 2015 that was Mexico (though we would have saved even more by waiting till 2017!).  In 2016 that was Canada.  2017 is a perfect time to visit Europe with the euro trading at the cheapest levels of the past decade.  If foreign currencies grow significantly stronger (= overseas travel becomes more expensive) then we might knock a few US destinations off our bucket list.

And if our portfolio drops by a half million dollars, we can cut out a huge chunk of spending simply by traveling less or choosing less expensive destinations.  I’m sort of looking forward to spending a lazy summer at home at some point in the near future, and a financial reason to skip a summer filled with travel wouldn’t be entirely unwelcome.

Spending more on travel is a good thing because it’s so easy to trim this spending versus other areas of the budget that are more rigid like housing costs or transportation costs.

Wouldn't mind a summer hanging around our house at all. :)

Wouldn’t mind a summer hanging around our house at all. 🙂

 

Almost four years into retirement, where are we now?

In a few months I’ll celebrate four years of early retirement.  From a financial perspective we are doing great.  We earned close to $200,000 extra that wasn’t anticipated due to starting this blog and Mrs. Root of Good working a couple years longer than expected.  Our investments have grown by an even larger sum.  And we’re keeping our spending generally at or below budget.

Our living expenses in retirement are funded from roughly $10,000 dividends and interest per year plus $30,000 income from Root of Good.  That means we don’t really have to sell any investments on a routine basis for living expenses.  Nor do we have to worry about withdrawing investments from IRA’s, 401k’s or my 457 account.

It also means the Roth IRA Conversion Ladder I planned to set up is partially on hold for now.  I still managed to convert around $4,000 from traditional to Roth IRA in 2016, whereas my Roth IRA Conversion Ladder plan called for conversions of $24,000 per year.  However, I was able to contribute $18,000 to my solo Roth 401k and $11,000 to his and hers Roth IRAs during 2016.  Yes, I have a Root of Good 401k plan and I play a shell game by living off the income from Root of Good while shuttling taxable funds into the Roth accounts.  You could say I’m “living off my portfolio like a real early retiree” and saving the $30,000 Root of Good income, which is also a legitimate way of describing my early retirement finances if one wanted to downplay the significance of the side hustle income (I don’t).  It’s a game of semantics.

The net result is $33,000 of additional Roth assets from conversions and contributions during 2016.  In other words, I didn’t follow my original plan but I accomplished a similar goal – increase the amount of funds in the Roth space so I can withdraw the contributions/conversions penalty free and tax free well before age 59.5 should that be necessary.

The unexpected income from Root of Good also means my decision to choose the Roth IRA Conversion Ladder over the competing 72(t) Substantially Equal Periodic Payments method of withdrawal was a sound one.  The 72(t) method is extremely rigid in the amounts you must withdraw each year once you start your initial withdrawals.  However, I knew going into early retirement that my income needs would vary year to year and there was always the chance I would have earned income (or get bored and go back to some form of work).  As a result, I rejected the 72(t) withdrawal method mainly because of the lack of flexibility in withdrawals.  I would really hate to be taking $30,000 of 72(t) taxable IRA withdrawals while earning another $40,000 between this blog and dividends and interest.

 

Now where are we headed?

Things look pretty rosy.  I took my financials and dumped them into the wonderful early retirement calculator at cFIREsim.com and determined that we could spend somewhere around $65,000 per year with almost zero chance of running out of money before age 90 even when we make conservative assumptions about income from the blog and other side hustle income.  Helping shore up the forecast is roughly $25,000 of expected Social Security income that we’ll start drawing in a little less than 30 years.

I don’t know that we’ll spend $65,000 per year but it’s reassuring to know that money isn’t a real constraint to our lifestyle.  We could increase our budget by 50% to cover a lot of unknowns such as higher health care/insurance costs and higher kid-related costs during the teen years.

Four years into retirement and our potential standard of living is approximately double what it was when I quit working.  It’s not entirely surprising given the conservatism of the worst case analysis performed under the “four percent rule”.  Most of the scenarios modeled in the four percent rule (which is closer to a three percent rule for very early retirees) leave the retiree with several times their initial portfolio value.  End result: a growing net worth in real terms for most very early retirees.

However I keep in mind that we might be at the top of a stock market bubble that’s about to burst and that we might see hundreds of thousands of dollars of our net worth disappear in a short period of time.  In that case, I’ll have to revisit what we are able to spend.  Until then, I’m not gonna worry about money and I’ll keep an optimistic but flexible attitude toward the future.

 

 

Any early retirees in the audience that ended up with substantially more than they started with?  Or did early retirement lead to new ventures or interests that turned profitable?  For those planning on retiring soon, do you have any plans to hustle on the side?  Let me know!

 

 

Summer Vacation for 5 in Europe: 9 Weeks, 8 Countries, 14 Cities, $10,000

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The Root of Good family is ramping up for an epic adventure across Europe during the summer of 2017.  The five of us will spend nine weeks traversing an all new (to us) continent by train, plane, bus, car, and foot.

We really struggled to narrow down the itinerary to something feasible for a family with three young children.  As a result this trip will NOT include London nor Paris nor a dozen other cities we would have loved to visit.  What we will see are museums, parks, castles, palaces, cathedrals, caves, mountains, seas, rivers, lakes, and canyons scattered about the rest of western and central Europe.

Many will view this as a “trip of a lifetime” or a “dream trip” but I choose to view this as just another cool vacation in a series of vacations we have already taken and will continue to take.

However, this Europe trip is in some ways the realization of a dream.  As a wistful traveler / college student yearning for adventure before embarking on my 10 year corporate grind, I ordered a stack of maps from AAA back in the dark days before the invention of Google Maps.  What better way to think, plan, and dream about where you want to explore than a pile of maps for all the countries in Europe?  For 15 years I kept these maps in a shoe box in the closet.  Now I’m figuratively dusting them off and planning on hitting the road soon (I’ll leave the maps at home since I’m going all digital with Google Maps on my computer and phone!).

Dreams fulfilled. Finally getting to bust out these maps of Europe.

Dreams fulfilled. Finally getting to bust out these maps of Europe.

This Europe trip is unique compared to our typical budget travel two months in Mexico and road trips through the US and Canada.  We’ll spend two or three times as much as we usually do on our grand summer vacations. And it’s Europe – a place we have never visited before, and in a cliché way, a must-have on every legitimate traveler’s resume.

 

Where are we going?

In mid-June we depart Raleigh for a flight across the Atlantic to Lisbon, Portugal where the adventure begins.  From Portugal we fly to the Andalusia region of southern Spain for a bit over a week before flying onward to Italy for a week.  After landing in Italy we travel overland through Slovenia, Austria, Germany, and the Czech Republic before arriving in Amsterdam where our vacation ends with a flight back to Raleigh.

The itinerary for nine weeks:

  1. Lisbon, Portugal 5 nights
  2. Malaga, Spain 2 nights
  3. Granada, Spain 3 nights
  4. Seville, Spain 4 nights
  5. Milan, Italy 4 nights
  6. Venice, Italy 2 nights
  7. Ljubljana, Slovenia 7 nights
  8. Bovec/Bled, Slovenia 4 nights
  9. Salzburg, Austria 2 nights
  10. Munich, Germany 7 nights
  11. Prague, Czech 7 nights
  12. Berlin, Germany 7 nights
  13. Koblenz (Mariaroth), Germany 7 nights
  14. Amsterdam, Netherlands 3 nights
  15. Back to Raleigh!

 

 

Transportation: Getting around town. And country. And continent.

To get around Europe, we’re relying primarily on buses and trains.  We are also taking a pair of flights for those travel segments that are difficult, expensive or take a long time on ground-based transit.  Overall, transportation in Europe is quite a steal IF you can snag the advance purchase cut rate fares.  Budget airlines aplenty such as Ryanair and EasyJet offer tickets for USD$10-20 in some cases.

Buses and trains can be even better deals for families with kids since children’s tickets are often heavily discounted or free altogether.  I looked into rail passes and quickly decided purchasing tickets a la carte would be much cheaper and easier than understanding the rules for different regional rail passes and days of validity versus days of travel.

All together, we spent 300,000 United Airline miles plus USD$544 cash for plane tickets.  More than half that was taxes on our transatlantic flights from Raleigh to Lisbon and Amsterdam to Raleigh.  The other bit is a roughly 1,000 mile flight from Seville, Spain to Milan, Italy on Ryanair at just under USD$40 per person (and a meager 2.5 hour flight time).

The flight from Lisbon, Portugal to Malaga, Spain was free since we booked an award flight to Europe.  You get a one way flight within the region you’re visiting with United Miles redemptions.  The award flights that we booked for 300,000 miles plus $350 in taxes would have cost $6,000 to $7,000 had we paid cash.  In the end we obtained between 2 to 2.2 cents per mile of value out of these points, which is pretty good for United miles.  All thanks to travel hacking some credit card sign up bonuses over the past few years.

To add to the value, we picked up the Chase Sapphire Reserve card earlier this year which gives us free Priority Pass Select membership.  Priority Pass admits us to certain business/first class lounges in the airports we’re traveling through so we can stop in and grab drinks (alcoholic or non) and some basic grub before and after our flight in lieu of paying for the same at an overpriced airport restaurant or rushing to get to a food establishment before the kids starve OMG literally to death (or so they would claim, literally).

Plane Tickets: Points Cost
United: Raleigh, North Carolina to Lisbon, Portugal x5 150,000 $175
United: Lisbon to Malaga, Spain x5 0 (free 1 way tix with United miles award booking) $0
Ryanair: Seville, Spain to Milan, Italy x5 0 $194
United: Amsterdam, Netherlands to Raleigh x5 150,000 $175
TOTAL 300,000 $544

 

For buses and trains, we spent between USD$40 and $69 for all segments with travel times between roughly two to four hours.  One exception is the Berlin to Koblenz train trip which is closer to six hours.  Since it was a longer duration than other trips, we decided to indulge in a little luxury and spring for first class tickets on Deutsche Bahn for $32 more than second class tickets (that’s $32 total for the entire family!).

Though second class seats on German trains are more than adequate, we opted for the upgrade to get comfier more spacious seating (including a private compartment) and more importantly, first class lounge access for the day.  We’ll be feasting on the all-inclusiveness with pastries, fruit, coffee and hot chocolate for breakfast in Berlin.  After a four hour high speed train ride from Berlin, we’ll grab a quick bite and pop some champagne during the 35 minute layover in Frankfurt before transferring to another high speed train bound for Cologne, Germany.  We have a three hour layover in downtown Cologne to explore on foot and have lunch with some beer or wine (and maybe an early dinner if time permits) in the first class lounge before heading a few minutes down the tracks to the airport for our rental car pickup.  A day on the rails in first class, three snacks or meals in their lounges, plus a quick city tour for $84 for the five of us.  That’s how you travel in style on the cheap!

Bus/Train: Cost (total for 5 tickets)
Bus from Malaga to Granada, Spain $41
Bus from Granada to Seville, Spain $40
Train from Milan to Venice, Italy $49
Bus from Venice, Italy to Ljubljana, Slovenia $69
Train from Bled, Slovenia to Salzburg, Austria $41
Bus from Munich, Germany to Prague, Czech $40 (estimate; not yet purchased)
Bus/train from Prague to Berlin, Germany $53 (estimate; not yet purchased)
Train from Berlin to Koblenz/Cologne, Germany (higher cost due to 1st class tix) $84
Train from Koblenz/Cologne to Amsterdam $40
Total $457

 

We’ll be renting cars for three different periods during our trip.  I’m unable to drive a manual transmission vehicle so I’ll be paying the 20-30% markup for automatic transmission vehicles.  The extra $100 will be recouped dozens of times when I don’t stall the car or inadvertently roll into oncoming vehicles or back down the hill onto the hood of an about-to-be-angry driver.  The frugalist in me says “learn to drive a stick to save a few bucks”. Then the realist shouts “This is why we saved up all this money. To afford small luxuries and conveniences.”  Though learning to drive stick while destroying someone else’s clutch does have its merits.

I’m shocked at how cheap the rental rates are since we are doing one-way rentals for at least two of the rentals (and possibly the third rental in the Koblenz area if I can find a decent one-way rate).  Another lesson learned is the lack of rental office availability on Sundays (note: never plan on conducting business or shopping for groceries on Sunday in Germany).

I’m also shocked at the opaqueness of rental car pricing. It jumps all over from hour to hour and day to day. And there are quirks.  Sometimes the price to rent for seven days is the exact same as for five days. And sometimes the total price DROPS if you extend the rental period.  Our Ljubljana, Slovenia rental was $20+ cheaper for a 13 day rental compared to a 10-12 day rental.  Ummm, okay, I can store your car for you for a few days in exchange for $20.

Rental Car: # Days Cost Cost Per Night
Ljubljana, Slovenia to Bled, Slovenia 13 $161 $12
Salzburg, Austria to Munich Germany 4 $113 $28
Koblenz, Germany (Via Cologne) 7 $181 $26
Total/Average 24 $455 $19

We will be taking public transit during about two thirds of our trip.  Most cities have multi-day or weekly transit passes and discounts for children (or they ride free with an adult pass), so transit costs should be fairly moderate overall.  Except in Venice where it’s $8 per person for a boat-bus called a vaporetto!  I’m sticking $750 in the budget for all transit costs.  Other miscellaneous transportation costs include parking and tolls at $75 and gas for the rental car at $250.  The gas cost is based on 1,375 miles at 33 miles per gallon with gas at $6/gallon.

Gas for Rental Car $250
Parking, Tolls $75
Local Transit $750
Total $1,075

To sweeten these deals, I’m always checking online cash back shopping portals like Ebates.  In this case, I didn’t have much luck finding the European train and bus companies on Ebates (but there are some travel consolidators that sell train tickets and qualify for cash back).  However, most rental car companies qualify for 4-5% cash back (like Hertz and Sixt) and the big travel sites like Expedia and Travelocity offer a couple percent cash back on rental car reservations.  I booked two out of three rental cars through Ebates so I should get another $10-20 cash back once the car rental is complete this summer.

If you’re interested in getting cash back at hundreds of sites where you are already shopping online, check out Ebates.  And click through this link for $10 bonus cash back for new members!

 

Lodging

At first we planned on a combination of hotels for short stays of two or three days and apartment rentals for longer periods.  After digging in to available hotel and apartment offerings, we quickly discovered that apartment rentals offered a much better value even for short stays.  Most hotels in Europe offer standard rooms that sleep two or possibly two plus a kid.  And you pay extra for guests in the room beyond one or two people, including kids.  For our family of five this put us in large hotel suite territory (think $$$) or paying for two rooms, the second of which might come with extra person fees for the third kid.

We moved on to Airbnb, our choice for vacation apartment rentals.  I’ve used VRBO in the past when I couldn’t find anything on Airbnb.  But this time around, the inventory and options available in all the cities we are visiting was simply overwhelming so I didn’t need to expand my search beyond Airbnb.

I love their search tools because you can filter out properties that don’t meet your criteria and then save your favorite properties on a map so it’s easy to see where your most desired properties are located.  Once you know exactly what you’re looking for, the thousands of properties in a city drop to several dozen or several hundred.

My typical search criteria was:

  • Whole house rental (not “shared room” or “private room”)
  • 2+ bedrooms (unless there aren’t many properties or they are super expensive or we’ll only be there for a couple nights, then 1+ bedroom)
  • 4+ guests (many times there’s an extra bed or couch where a small kid can sleep or a huge bed where multiple kids can sleep; 5+ guest weeds out too many perfectly acceptable rentals)
  • Air conditioning if it’s hot (summertime anywhere in Spain, Portugal, Italy)
  • limit price to a max of 60-80% of the average for the city (and increase price limit to show more properties if nothing cheaper looks appealing)

Though not included in our search criteria, we highly desire:

  • washer, and preferably dryer
  • internet
  • non-smoking
  • pet free

I find that limiting a search based on these latter four factors will eliminate nice properties that will work for us with some flexibility.  Sometimes there’s a washer available on site for free or a small charge that isn’t included in the listing.  One place we booked charges €3 per washer load, for example, but costs $40/night less than other comparable apartments!  If the cost savings are huge (as in $100+), or the property is really luxurious or in a sweet location, it might be worth making a trip to a laundromat a couple times to make the apartment work for us.

airbnb-montreal-2

Pretty decent bedroom (with a VERY firm bed) in our airbnb rental in Montreal a few years ago. We booked nicer places during our 2017 trip to Europe.

Internet is another weird one. Almost all rentals that aren’t absolute bare-bones have internet these days, but some don’t list it or only list “wireless internet” or “internet” (they are two separate check boxes on Airbnb’s search).  However, virtually all that have “internet” have a wireless router.  The key is reading the description or asking the owner if it’s in doubt.  Again, if the cost savings are huge or the property is otherwise wonderful we could forego internet.  However, I can’t recall seeing a really nice property that didn’t have internet, which is why I ignore this as a search term but double check that internet is available before booking.

We also looked for places that had ratings of 4+ stars with at least a few written reviews.  There’s no way to limit this with the search terms, but I would often skip over properties with poor ratings or no ratings.  Too many other polished gems out there to research!  However, if you’re on a very tight budget or not able to find much availability, there are certainly hidden gems waiting for you to find them.  We’ve had to stay at a few places with zero or one review due to reservations falling through at the last minute and suddenly needing to book a new apartment on short notice.  They all worked out fine after discussing the properties with the owner.

Amazing last minute booking in Mexico City with only one review. It was around USD$45 per night and beautiful inside and one block from the subway.

Amazing last minute booking in Mexico City with only one review. It was around USD$45 per night and beautiful inside and one block from the subway.

If you haven’t tried Airbnb yet, you should do so on your next vacation.  It’s an incredible way to save money, stay in a much larger, nicer accommodation than a hotel room (especially relevant to families!), and end up in a cool non-touristy neighborhood surrounded by locals (part of the reason you’re traveling, right?).  Right now you can take $40 off your first Airbnb stay through this link.

Here are all the apartments and houses we booked for our nine week trip:

Destination Nights Cost Cost Per Night
Lisbon, Portugal 5 $389 $78
Malaga, Spain 2 $124 $62
Granada, Spain 3 $201 $67
Seville, Spain 4 $252 $63
Milan, Italy 4 $343 $86
Venice, Italy 2 $332 $166
Ljubljana, Slovenia 7 $600 $86
Bovec/Bled, Slovenia 4 $180 $45
Salzburg, Austria 2 $260 $130
Munich, Germany 7 $618 $88
Prague, Czech 7 $351 $50
Berlin, Germany 7 $697 $100
Koblenz (Mariaroth), Germany 7 $383 $55
Amsterdam, Netherlands 3 $517 $172
Total/Average: 64 $5,247 $82
20% savings w/ gift cards   $4,198 $66

We booked 14 different properties for a total of 64 nights at a cost of USD$5,247, or $82 per night.  Most are apartments with two bedrooms, a full kitchen, a living room, and one bathroom.  A few places are three bedrooms with multiple bathrooms.  All but one place booked for three or more nights have a washing machine.

Our goal isn’t to stay in the cheapest lodging possible, but rather to balance cost with comfort, luxury, convenience, cleanliness, and location.  We could have saved 20-40% in most cities if we were traveling on a bare-bones budget and didn’t mind making sacrifices.

We have enjoyed a half dozen very positive Airbnb rentals and only one “rental from hell”.  Feel free to read more about the latter experience.  We learned to be wary of the lowest price properties and go with our guts when it comes to Airbnb places.  If there’s a hint that a place is unclean, it doesn’t make it on our list.

I amplified the cost savings on apartment rentals through Airbnb by buying Airbnb gift cards at a 20% discount through Giftcardmall.com.  Lots of them.  Roughly $5,800.  I clicked through Ebates to make the purchases at Giftcardmall, thereby adding ANOTHER 1% discount to the deal in the form of cash back.  Sadly the Giftcardmall promotion ran for just a few days in December. However, keep your eyes open at discount sites like Slickdeals and you’ll occasionally see Airbnb gift cards on sale for 10-20% off face value (usually in limited quantities).

And don’t forget Ebates for cash back on hotels if you don’t go 100% Airbnb.  Most hotels qualify for 3-6% when booked directly at the hotels’ website (12% for Hilton!!) and about the same if booked through Travelocity or Expedia.  If you go the Hotels.com route (possibly with discounted gift cards from somewhere like Raise.com), you currently earn 6% cash back through Ebates on hotels.com purchases.  Sign up for Ebates through this link for $10 bonus cash back for new members.

To summarize, you should be able to take at least a few percent off the cost of lodging using Ebates, and possibly 10-20% by combining discounted gift cards and shopping through Ebates.

In my case, I paid $4,198 cash for the gift cards used to purchase $5,247 worth of Airbnb rentals, a 20% cost savings (plus I got 1% cash back through Ebates).

 

Eating all the food

Most of the other areas of our trip are pretty well planned out, booked, and paid for.  Food is the one area where we’re going to make it up as we go along.  Belly rumbling means it’s time to eat.

Since we’ll have a full kitchen in all the Airbnb rentals, we have the option to cook essentially all meals.  We (and specifically the kids) enjoy basic breakfasts including cold stuff like fruit and yogurt or cereal and milk.  Sometimes we might get fancy and make some meat or eggs.  Or get pastries from a nearby bakery or grocery store.

For lunch we’ll grab lunch on the go while we’re out sightseeing during the day.  Some days we might pack a picnic lunch if we happen to have good ingredients on hand.  Otherwise, it’ll be a mix of street food and sit down or casual restaurants and cafes.

Dinner will be a mix of cooking at the apartment and getting take out, with some dining out mixed in.  You can’t go to Spain and NOT enjoy some tapas with wine or beer, right?

I know lunch is usually less expensive than dinner at restaurants, and we’ll naturally be consuming a higher proportion of lunches at restaurants given our schedule as tourists.

I found an app called “Too Good To Go” that I’m excited to try. The concept is simple – for a heavily discounted price, you purchase unsold food from a restaurant at the end of their meal service for pickup at a pre-determined time (usually around 3 pm or 8-9 pm).  The price is generally USD$3-4 for a take out plate.  I gather that sometimes it’s a mystery what they give you, and other times they give you a takeout tray to pick from their selection behind the counter or from their buffet.  Definitely an interesting concept, but it leaves me wondering how fresh the offerings will be by the time you pick them up.  So far the app is confined to a handful of countries in Europe plus 10 or so restaurants in New York City.  Of the places we are visiting, the only city with a major Too Good To Go presence is Berlin with 50+ restaurants offering dirt cheap surplus food.

As far as groceries, I always enjoy visiting new grocery stores to see what’s new and different versus our experience at home.  I’ve scoped out a few sales circulars for grocery stores near our rental apartments and confirmed that (1) Europeans do indeed buy food at grocery stores just like us Americans and (2) the prices are roughly the same on average, with some things a little more expensive and many things the same or cheaper.

A grocery run from our last Canada trip

A grocery run from our first trip to Canada. Pastries, fruit, bagels, and yogurt for breakfast or snacks. Broccoli, fries, salmon, tuna, and beef steaks for lunches and dinners.  And jello.

For budgeting purposes I’m making an educated guess that we’ll spend an average of $20 per day on dining out and $20 per day on groceries (with the understanding that we can greatly exceed this budget if we find awesome places to eat!).  That works out to roughly $1,250 each for restaurants and groceries, or $2,500 total for food.

We won’t dine out every day but we might end up dining out twice per day for several days in a row while we’re on the fast paced segments of the trip that find us staying in each city just two or three days at a time.  We’ll have access to free food and drinks on some of the travel days at the airport lounges and the first class train lounges, so we might spend next to nothing on food for a few days of the trip.

 

Having fun

We’ll be on vacation for nine weeks and don’t plan on packing in the museums, castles, and tourist attractions every day we are overseas.  But when we do venture out for the day, we’ll inevitably buy numerous tickets for those museums, castles, and tourist attractions.  I am pleased with just how cheap admission fees are in general.  Many cities have castles, museums, and churches open for free visits all the time or on certain days of the week.  We also enjoy walking around the historic districts, taking the kids to the park, and exploring natural parks and waterfronts (most of which are free or have nominal admission fees).

I’m budgeting $750 total for the various attractions that cost money.  There are a few “must sees” on our trip that cost $40-100 for family admission:

  • El Alhambra in Granada, Spain
  • Postojna Cave and Skocjan Cave, outside Ljubljana, Slovenia
  • Dachstein Ice Cave near Hallstatt, Austria
  • Neuschwanstein Castle (admission is part of Bavaria pass)

We haven’t nailed down every single place we want to visit, but these locations stood out in our preliminary research as places we have to go.  We’re brainstorming fun stuff to do and see in each city and we keep track of all that info in a spreadsheet. Then once we arrive in a new city we’ll dig through our list of local attractions to see what we’re up for at the moment.

 

Packing

Our goal is to pack light.  By light, I mean everything should fit into regular size bookbags.  The idea is we’ll be agile and mobile. We can hop on trains, toss the gear in lockers for a couple hours if necessary, stick the bags in overhead compartments (and carry them on board planes for free), and walk a mile or so with the bags on our backs (remember, we have kids including a soon to be five year old) to get from intercity train/bus station to public transit to our apartment.

The family with all our gear on our backs. Pack light and a mile or two is nothing!

The family with all our gear on our backs. Pack light and a mile or two is nothing!

We’ll probably take three changes of clothes since we’ll have a washing machine in every apartment and can do laundry frequently.

We will keep electronics gear to a minimum.  Phones for the adults, Amazon FIRE tablets for the kids.  We have a pair of ultralight laptops for the adults (the 13″ HP Probook 430 G3 at 3 pounds).  All travel guides, leisure reading books, and entertainment will come from our tablets, phones, and computers.  For photography, we have a basic DSLR, the Canon EOS Rebel T5i with a few lenses including a 75-300mm zoom lens.

Beyond clothes and electronics, we’ll have the regular assortment of toiletries and travel meds, snacks, water, and travel documents.  That plus a spirit of adventure is all we’re taking, folks.

I admit it feels weird to walk out your front door for a two month journey with nothing more than a bookbag slung over your shoulder, but we did exactly that in 2015 when we spent nearly the whole summer living out of our bookbags while traveling around Mexico.  It worked out just fine before with only 52 pounds of gear between the five of us.

This is all we packed for seven weeks in Mexico.

This is all we packed for seven weeks in Mexico.

The only tricky part about this trip is cold weather gear. It’ll be mild to warm in most destinations but the ice cave in Austria is supposed to be around freezing even in summer.  I hate to bring a heavy coat and winter gear for this one cave visit, so I need to figure out a solution.  So far I’m considering wearing socks on my hands, a long sleeve shirt, and accepting that it’ll be cold temporarily.  Or find a thrift shop somewhere in Slovenia or Austria then ditch the clothes after the ice cave visit.

 

Challenges

We are traveling with our three kids who will be five, ten, and twelve during our trip.  The pace of the whole trip takes that into consideration which explains why we’re going pretty slow.  We’re big fans of slow travel and loathe the idea of “popping off to another country for a quick weekend away”.  Slow travel and kids go hand in hand.

The whole idea is to spend a relatively small proportion of the trip on a bus, train, or plane and most of the time relaxing or enjoying the places you are visiting.  Initially we laid out a bold plan to visit 12-15 countries including 25 cities in the same nine week period.  After realizing this was idiotic, we started amputating amazing destinations from our itinerary.  Places like Paris – nope. The French Riviera – nope. Switzerland – nope. London – nope. Rome – nope.  Belgium – nope.  Budapest – nope.  We eventually settled on eight countries with stays in 14 cities.

We designed our itinerary with plenty of time in most cities so we can take a day off every second or third day.  This means we won’t see everything in every place we visit and that is okay, as long as we have a generally good time and all get along.  Nine weeks on the road with exhausted children and frazzled adults is not a good time.

These “do nothing days” are golden.  What a luxury to travel half way across the globe and NOT have to spend every waking moment sightseeing.  It’s like a rainy Saturday back home when you don’t go out and spend the day reading, relaxing, catching some Netflix, and maybe an afternoon nap.  Great way to battle travel fatigue.

Homesickness is a related issue we’ll face.  We crave the familiar and the routine as much as we crave uniqueness.  Sometimes you get tired of arguing with the guy behind the car rental counter or stressing out that you’ll miss your train.  I find the “do nothing” days help it feel a little more like home as much as they provide relaxation and a day of respite.  A nice juicy burger or a familiar home cooked meal helps too.

Along with homesickness is the yearning for people who just speak plain ole “regular” English.  Conversing in a foreign language is tricky and mentally exhausting.

Foreign languages are challenging too.  We are proficient in Spanish which will help for the nine days in Spain.  I’ve completed a few dozen modules of German on Duolingo but I’m nowhere near being able to carry on a conversation.  Otherwise, I’m hoping Italian and Portuguese are close enough to Spanish to let me catch a few words here and there.  We’re totally screwed in Slovenia, the Czech Republic, and Amsterdam since languages spoken there aren’t familiar to us at all.

I hope what they say is true – that everyone speaks English in Europe.  For those that don’t, we have Google Translate on our phones along with mad charade skillz to mime what we need.  I’d like to spend some more time on Duolingo learning the basics of Portuguese and Italian and refreshing my very rusty and basic German.

 

How we planned the trip

We started planning this trip in September of 2016 so that we could book plane tickets as early as possible in order to get the best flight schedules with convenient layovers.  Our transatlantic flights are only 7.5 hours to Lisbon and 8.5 hours returning from Amsterdam (plus a one hour hop from the Washington DC airport to Raleigh here in the States).  Seven or eight hours in coach isn’t ideal but overall our transatlantic flight itinerary is hard to beat.  It’s only two hours longer than flying to the west coast from here and people do that without hesitation.  And they still give out those tasty bags of peanuts, right?  We might even get two bags on the transatlantic flights.

Once the flights were booked we had our trip bookends. We are flying into Lisbon, Portugal in mid-June and flying out of Amsterdam a bit over two months later.  Then we had to figure out where exactly we wanted to visit in Europe and how we were going to travel between cities.  Portugal and southern Spain made it on the list as did northern Italy, Slovenia, Austria, Germany, Czech Republic, and the Netherlands.  The biggest jump of the trip is between southern Spain and northern Italy, so we decided on flights between these two points.

Other cities were close enough together that buses and trains offer reasonable transit times.  As a form of due diligence I checked the prices between cities along our route to ensure that a bus or train link was available at a reasonable price (it was).  Then we started booking Airbnb apartments in all our destination cities before all the cheap and good places were reserved.

Once the lodging was finalized, the train and bus schedules for our specific travel dates opened up and I booked most of the intercity bus/train tickets.  All intercity travel is booked at this time except the segments into and out of Prague which go on sale at the end of April.

The only remaining bookings are a few of the most popular tourist attractions like El Alhambra that can sell out a month or more ahead of time.

In general, we booked the big ticket items first to lock in good prices and options, then drilled down to smaller details on the itinerary once we knew for certain we were staying in a particular city and traveling by a certain method.

This method has worked out well so far except for the rental car pick up in Germany.  We are doing four one week stays across Germany and the Czech Republic and switching apartments on Sundays.  The apartments are already booked and paid for, and come with cancellation fees to change the dates.  We are stuck with Sunday travel days.  Many rental car offices aren’t open on Sundays or open for just a few hours so we’ll end up driving an hour longer to pick up the car at the rental company’s airport location instead of their downtown city locations.  A lesser inconvenience is the German grocery store. It’s closed on Sunday so we’ll have to make do for our Sunday evening meal and get some groceries on Mondays.

To economize on the trip, we used a few tricks:

 

Conclusion

There you have it.  That’s how you do a nine week vacation in Europe for a family of five for around $10,000.

Trip Budget Cost
Planes $544
Buses/Trains $457
Rental Car – 24 days $455
Misc. Transportation $1,075
Lodging – 64 nights $4,198
Restaurants $1,250
Groceries $1,250
Admission Fees $750
TOTAL $9,979

Most of the trip is already booked and paid for, so the hardest part is done.  Now we get to enjoy the fun part of reading about each destination and figuring out what we want to do while we are bumming around Europe.

In some regards, this will be a budget trip because we’re not staying in fancy five star luxury hotels nor dining in three star Michelin restaurants (well, probably not).  In other regards, this really IS a luxury vacation because it won’t be rushed and the itinerary is customized to our interests and tastes.

As this post goes live, we have just under three months till we leave for Europe.  Soon we’ll be packing our meager possessions in our bookbags and bidding farewell to home so we can spend the summer exploring the world.

 

 

Are we crazy?  Can this be done?  Any suggestions on the cities we are visiting? General tips on travel in Europe?  If you’ve been to any of these places, what is number one must see on your list?

 

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Cruising the Caribbean aboard the MSC Divina

st-maarten-msc-featured

What’s the best way to fight off winter’s chill?  Spend a week cruising the Caribbean of course!  Right before Christmas the Root of Good family did exactly that. I wanted to share a few pictures from our eight day, seven night cruise aboard the MSC Divina sailing out of Miami, Florida.

After two lazy days at sea, we reached the island of St. Maarten where we watched airplanes zip by just feet off the beach.  The next day we docked in San Juan, Puerto Rico where we explored the city and toured the Castillo San Cristobal fort.  Then we enjoyed another relaxing day at sea before we reached Nassau, Bahamas.  We didn’t get off the boat in Nassau since we seem to visit the island on every cruise we take.  Relaxing on the ship while everyone was on shore proved to be the perfect way to spend the last full day of our vacation.

Since this is a finance blog, I’m compelled to share the numbers for our trip.  We spent about $2,100 total on this cruise.

  • Cruise tickets for five: $1,600
  • Gas to/from Miami from Raleigh: $150
  • Hotel on the drive down: free with Marriott points (travel hacking)
  • Parking at South Miami Park and Ride lot: $40
  • Local bus in St. Maarten: $14 round trip
  • Mandatory gratuities for housekeeping/dining staff: $294

MSC offers a “kids sail free” promotion on many of their Caribbean cruises for kids up to age 10 or 11, and a steep discount for older kids up to age 17.  Their mandatory gratuities are also halved for kids ($6 per day compared to $12 for adults).  MSC served up an incredible experience along with great value for our family.

It’s also worth mentioning that we’ll get around 10% cash back from buying the cruise at Expedia after clicking through the Ebates online shopping portal. After factoring in the cash back, the final cost will be closer to $2,000.

 

The Beautiful MSC Divina

The MSC Divina is your typical monstrosity of an oceangoing cruise liner.  At almost 1,100 feet long and a displacement of 140,000 tons, it’s big. The crew of 1,388 works hard to make things happy for the more than 4,300 guests on board.  Built in 2012, it’s the newest cruise ship we have sailed on.

Our ship, the MSC Divina, sits to the right while docked in St. Maarten.

Our ship, the MSC Divina, sits to the right while docked in St. Maarten.

The kids' balcony room, sleeps four.

The kids’ balcony room.  Sleeps four.

The Atrium connects all the interior common areas of the ship.

The multi-story Atrium connects all the interior common areas of the ship.

Main pool deck

Main outdoor pool deck

Indoor pools if you like a bit of shade

Indoor pools if you like a bit of shade

Formal dining room. Fancy eating!

Formal dining room. Fancy eating!

Enjoying the view!

Enjoying the view!

 

Entertainment options – How to never get bored

Every night we saw a wonderful show in the theater. Mostly singing, dancing, and acrobatics.

Almost every night we saw a wonderful show in the theater. Mostly singing, dancing, and acrobatics.

The hula hoop guy performing in mid-air while dangling from a rope strapped to his head. Seems safe.

The hula hoop guy performing in mid-air while dangling from a rope strapped to his head. Seems safe.

The guys on stage enjoyed throwing this lady 20 feet into the air.

During the “Pirates” show, the guys on stage enjoyed throwing this wench 20 feet into the air (look for the upside down lady hovering above the skull if you missed her at first glance).

The Italian opera night reminded me that opera isn't my thing.

The Italian opera night reminded me that opera isn’t my thing.  They were pretty good though.  It’s also the first time I have seen a cruise ship performance troupe with a pair of dedicated opera singers.

Other musical options: piano music in the Atrium (occasionally accompanied by a violinist)

Other musical options: piano music in the Atrium (occasionally accompanied by a violinist)

Or you could listen to Greg jamming out classic hits

Or you could listen to Greg jamming out classic hits.

Or check out the Black and White lounge for more live music and dancing

Or check out the Black and White lounge for more live music and dancing.  Not shown are several other live music venues on board.  My only complaint is they mostly performed in the evenings.

Or you could order up most major newspapers in a variety of languages.

Or you could order up most major newspapers in a variety of languages.  This selection caters to the wide range of international guests on board.  I never did figure out how they delivered newspapers while we were in the middle of the ocean.

Not a bad view sitting on deck watching the ocean

Not a bad view sitting on deck watching the ocean

For the kids, there's constant fun in the kids' club. Ours didn't participate as much since they are getting older (and the little guy wanted to do everything his sisters did!).

For the kids, there’s constant fun in the kids’ club (and it’s free!). Our children didn’t participate much since they are getting older (and the little guy wanted to do everything his sisters did!).

 

Time to eat!

Overall, the food on the MSC Divina was great.  Possibly the best we have enjoyed at sea.  Compared to the past few Carnival cruises, the buffet restaurant was amazing.  The formal dining room wasn’t as impressive this time around.  Since most of the formal dining room’s appetizer and entree choices appeared in the buffet restaurant, we tended to dine in the self-serve buffet restaurant for most meals during this cruise.

Many of the dishes reflected MSC's Italian heritage.

Many of the dishes reflected MSC Cruises’s Italian heritage.  And then there was the seafood fried rice.

For display only, but technically food. The Caribbean's warm, balmy weather made us forget it was almost Christmas.

For display only, but technically food. The Caribbean’s warm, balmy weather made us forget it was almost Christmas.

Fancy some caviar?

Fancy some caviar?

It pairs well with the free champagne at the "Welcome Back" cocktail party.

It pairs well with the free champagne at the “Welcome Back” cocktail party.

Pool-side ice cream for dessert.

Pool-side soft serve ice cream for dessert.

 

Port of Call: St. Maarten

This was our second time visiting the island of St. Maarten.  We hopped off the ship and walked about a mile into the center of town where we picked up a local “bus” (minivan).  Then we made our way to the nearby Maho Beach.  The beach itself is pretty but not great for swimming.  The airplanes landing a few feet away made up for it.

The St. Maarten city "bus"

The St. Maarten city “bus”

The "not great" Maho Beach

The “not great” Maho Beach

maho-beach-plane

The airport runway is immediately adjacent to the beach. Most inbound planes were smaller than this Delta jet.

View from the bus

Mountain view from the bus

Just another day in paradise!

Just another day in paradise.

All the customers' yachts

Nice boats!

 

Port of Call: San Juan, Puerto Rico

The last time I visited San Juan twelve years ago I didn’t have time to visit the massive fort watching over the harbor entrance.  During San Juan round #2 I finally got to tour the fort!

Castillo San Cristobal fort. Since Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States, the US National Park Service maintains the fort.

Castillo San Cristobal fort. Since Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States, the US National Park Service maintains the fort. My mom was on the cruise with us and she bought the $10 lifetime admission Senior Pass for all US Parks which admits her and three other guests.  Score!  The rest of us avoided the $5 park admission.

Our view from the cruise dock.

The fort from the cruise dock.

Man the cannons!

I bet the soldiers loved defending the island while enjoying that view!

The view from the fort's bathroom.

The view from the fort’s bathroom.

This cruise ship was slightly cheaper but we opted for the more luxurious and modern ocean liner for this cruise.

This cruise ship was slightly cheaper but we opted for the more luxurious and modern ocean liner for this cruise.

A friendly San Juan caterpillar.

A friendly San Juan caterpillar.

The streets of Old San Juan.

The streets of Old San Juan.

 

Port of Call: Nassau, Bahamas

Our cruise stopped in Nassau on the last full day.  Being lazy, we decided to enjoy a day on board the ship (which is basically a floating luxury resort) instead of muscling our way through the throngs of tourists and touts in the port terminal.  We have probably visited and explored Nassau a half dozen times in the past, so we’ve seen most of the noteworthy destinations on the island.

Our home for the day

Our home for the day next to the world’s second largest cruise ship, the Oasis of the Seas.

Junkanoo beach, minutes away from the cruise terminal (taken during a previous visit)

Junkanoo beach, minutes away from the cruise terminal (taken during a previous cruise in January 2016)

The mighty vessels of the Bahamian Navy

The mighty vessels of the Bahamian Navy

The sun setting on our neighbor

The sun setting on our neighbor

City lights of Nassau as we sailed out of port

City lights of Nassau as we sailed out of port

 

Miami and the drive to Raleigh

The sobering reality of dawn: we're back in Miami and it's time to get off the ship.

The sobering reality of dawn: we’re back in Miami and it’s time to get off the ship.

The Raleigh-Miami drive is about 800 miles. At least we enjoyed distractions like this!

The Raleigh-Miami drive is about 800 miles each way along I-95.  At least we enjoyed nice distractions like this sunset.  Our minivan once again proved its worth as a great “road trip” vehicle after rocking it on this summer’s Great American Canadian Road Trip.

 

Land ‘Ho!

We had a great time as a family and really enjoyed the MSC Divina and the warm weather. Cruises are our time to relax and enjoy some modest luxuries.  That’s why we saved all this money, right?

Although $2,100 is more than we typically spend for a week of vacation, it would be hard to beat that price for the five of us at a land-based all-inclusive resort.

Interested in cruising? Check out all the posts in my “Going on a Cruise” series:

Going on a Cruise Part 1: Overview

Going on a Cruise Part 2: Getting the Best Deal

Going on a Cruise Part 3: Save on Board and on Transportation

Going on a Cruise Part 4: The Food!

 

 

Ever been on a cruise?  How did it compare to a land-based resort or other kind of vacation?  

 

 

Trip Report: Toronto, Mammoth Cave, and Niagara Falls Road Trip

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The Root of Good family made it back from our 3.5 week road trip a couple weeks ago.  Here’s an after action battle report on our trip including highlights from all the places we visited plus a complete cost breakdown of our trip budget.  Skip to the end for some travel hacking tips to save big bucks on your next epic vacation!

 

Trip summary

We traveled for 24 days with stays in the following cities:

  • Between Charlotte and Asheville, NC – staying with family 3 nights
  • Nashville – 1 night
  • Bowling Green, KY (Mammoth Cave) – 3 nights
  • Detroit, MI – 2 nights
  • Toronto, Canada – 12 nights
  • Niagara Falls (Canadian side) – 2 nights
  • Washington D.C. – 1 night
  • Back home in Raleigh!

When I describe this summer’s big crazy road trip to people, their first reaction is to drop their jaw, drool, and say “wow, sounds like an awesome trip!”.  Their second reaction is to scrunch their eyebrows, and ask in a puzzling way “wait, Nashville and Toronto – those… aren’t anywhere near each other are they?”.

They aren’t.  But we’re not complete geography noobs either.  We wanted to visit Nashville and Niagara Falls (near Toronto), and decided to embrace the triangular path between those two locations, with Raleigh forming the third vertex of the triangle.  And visit some cool places along the way (some of which you, dear gracious readers, suggested!).

For more detail on our trip planning, check out “The Great American Canadian Road Trip – Summer 2016 Edition“.

 

Nashville

We only spent one night in Nashville, so we had to play the role of stereotypical tourist and see what we could during our limited time in town.

Honky Tonkin' - It's what Nashville is all about, right?

Honky Tonkin’ – It’s what Nashville is all about, right?

 

Nashville riverfront

Nashville riverfront

 

Who put the Parthenon in the middle of Nashville?

Who put the Parthenon in the middle of Nashville?

 

Tennessee State Museum

Tennessee State Museum

 

World's largest iPad (at Nashville Public Library).

World’s largest iPad (at Nashville Public Library).

 

Who has time to visit places that cost money when libraries are free and come with bridges and skyscrapers?

Who has time to visit places that cost money when libraries are free and come with bridges and skyscrapers?

 

Lunch.

Was it the #1 Cheesesteak in the world?  Probably not, but it was good.

 

Grand Ole Opry Resort. One of three hotels we visited in Nashville because the interiors are mind-blowing.

Grand Ole Opry Resort. One of three hotels we visited in Nashville because the interiors are mind-blowing.  They have a boat. In a canal. Inside the hotel lobby.

 

Bowling Green, Kentucky and Mammoth Cave

We only spent one night in Nashville so that we could spend two full days exploring Mammoth Cave.  We stayed in the city of Bowling Green about 30 minutes from the Cave entrance.

Airbnb rental in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Way better than a hotel!

Airbnb rental in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Way better than a hotel!

 

The descent to Mammoth Cave

The descent to Mammoth Cave

 

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Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. The reason we only spent one night in Nashville.

 

mammoth-cave-4

 

mammoth-cave-3

 

mammoth-cave-2

It’s hard to capture the scale of these rock formations but they were about 50 feet tall.

 

A rainbow wished us well as we departed Bowling Green.

A rainbow wished us well as we departed Bowling Green.  Also symbolic of post-retirement life.

 

Dayton, Ohio (Air Force Museum)

Thanks to all the commenters and Root of Good friends that suggested the Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio.  It was a perfect break from our seven hour drive from Bowling Green, Kentucky to Detroit, Michigan.

Before the museum we stopped for lunch at Gold Star Chili. Considering the tiny portions and food that's not that great, a more accurate name would be Bronze Star Chili.

Before the museum we stopped for lunch at Gold Star Chili. Considering the tiny portions and food that’s not that great, a more accurate name would be Bronze Star Chili.  Don’t get me wrong.  The chili itself was pretty good.  Both tablespoons of it.  My hand isn’t abnormally large in the pic.  It’s an optical illusion because the plate is tiny.

 

dayton-air-force-museum-1

 

"Oh, that's just a thermonuclear bomb, son. Move along."

“What’s that? Oh, that’s just a thermonuclear bomb, son. Move along.”

 

Kennedy's Air Force One.

Kennedy’s Air Force One.

 

Detroit, Michigan

Exactly zero people got excited when I mentioned that we were spending two nights in Detroit.  It’s not exactly the kind of place you visit while on vacation apparently.  My perception of the big D included active gang warfare, rounds flying overhead, and houses going up in smoke as the innocents suffered collateral damage to life and property.

We needed a place to stay half way between Toronto and Bowling Green, Kentucky, and Detroit was almost in the middle.  And they have one of the only four Category 1 Starwood Preferred Guest hotels in the nation (the Four Points By Sheraton Detroit Airport was beautiful, by the way).  So it was settled.  We would pause for two nights, rest, relax, and possibly test out the thickness of the sheet metal on the minivan as we drive through the inevitable war zones.

Sadly, there was very little going on in Detroit.  It was very quiet.  No people.  Almost eerie.  Mid-day on a Saturday and there were basically zero people in downtown.  Traffic was light.

We rolled around town to check out the blighted areas and they didn’t disappoint.  Through the window, block after block rolled by.  We saw more cleared or reforested lots than abandoned houses.  Most blocks had no more than one or two inhabited houses.  We didn’t see any crime probably because there were no people.  Zero corner boys slinging their trade.  No one running from the non-existent cops.  No gunfire.  Just a very peaceful drive around a mostly deserted part of town.

Upsides included the Renaissance Center on the waterfront and the burgeoning Mexicantown (which was booming!).

I bet this place was a beauty 50 years ago. Where did the neighbors go?

I bet this place was a beauty 50 years ago. Where did the neighbors go?

 

Looks more like a country house than what used to be densely packed center city blocks.

Looks more like a country house rather than what used to be densely packed center city blocks.

 

The Renaissance Center. The only place we saw a bunch of other people in Detroit.

The Renaissance Center. There were some people here, but not a lot.

 

Hey, look kids. It's Canada across the water! We're going there next!

Hey, look kids. It’s Canada across the water! We’re going there next!

 

A buck fifty each for some authentic chorizo street tacos from Taqueria del Rey in Mexicantown. Amazing.

A buck fifty each for some authentic al pastor street tacos from Taqueria del Rey in Mexicantown. Amazing.  Who knew you could get these in Detroit?

 

Toronto, Ontario Province, Canada

We spent 12 nights in Toronto in an Airbnb rental in the Roncevalles neighborhood a few miles west of downtown.  Since we had our van, we skipped the streetcars and subway in Toronto and chose to drive or walk everywhere.  Downtown was about 15-20 minutes away by car.

 

Very cool Airbnb rental in Toronto. Probably the nicest one we've stayed in.

Very cool Airbnb rental in Toronto. The nicest one we’ve stayed in.

 

Full kitchen and dining area.

Incredibly well appointed kitchen with eat in dining area (pic taken from the living room).

 

A second living room in the upstairs bedroom/loft area let us all have our own space at times.

A second living room in the upstairs bedroom/loft area let us all have our own space at times.

 

Enjoying the rooftop patio.

Enjoying the rooftop patio.

 

 

We made use of all that space by hosting lunch for dynamic blogging duo and fellow 30-something early retirees Kristy and Bryce of Millennial-Revolution.com fame.

We took advantage of our Airbnb’s spacious layout by hosting lunch with dynamic blogging duo and fellow 30-something early retirees Kristy and Bryce of Millennial-Revolution.com fame.  Bryce is the weird one not wearing pink.

 

A city perpetually under construction. The orange traffic cone must be the city's mascot (at least for the six weeks of summer when construction goes gangbusters).

Toronto, a city perpetually under construction. The orange traffic cone must be the city’s mascot (at least for the six weeks of summer when construction goes gangbusters).

 

You like the pretty buildings at sunset, eh?

You like the pretty buildings at sunset, eh?

 

View of downtown skyline from the Centre Islands ferry.

View of downtown skyline from the Centre Islands ferry.

 

The Lake Ontario beachfront on Centre Islands.

The Lake Ontario beachfront on Centre Islands.

 

Familia Root of Good

Familia Root of Good

 

Public art in City Hall. A sculpture made from tens of thousands of nails. Why didn't I think of something like that?

Public art in City Hall. A sculpture made from tens of thousands of nails. I don’t think you’re actually supposed to touch them though.

 

A metropolitan city, full of culture and life. The Art Gallery of Ontario proved impressive (and free on Wednesday nights).

A metropolitan city, full of culture and life. The Art Gallery of Ontario proved impressive (and free on Wednesday nights).

 

An art gallery of another breed. Graffiti Alley (a few blocks south of Chinatown) is more my style. You can see (and smell) the strong influence of the medical marijuana dispensaries located just around the corner.

An art gallery of another breed. Graffiti Alley (a few blocks south of Chinatown) is more my style. You can see (and smell) the strong influence of the medical marijuana dispensaries located just around the corner.

 

Don't worry, it's not really a pot shop for kids.

Don’t worry, it’s not really a pot shop for wee little kids.

 

The massive High Park was walking distance from our house.

The massive High Park was walking distance from our house.  We visited several times during our stay.  High Park has it all.

 

Beautiful wildlife.

Beautiful wildlife.

 

Castles for a playground.

Castle playground.

 

Comfortable park benches for weary travelers.

Comfortable park benches for weary travelers.  Possible food coma in progress (see following pics for explanation)

 

Chinese pastries from the Ding Dong Bakery (great name by the way). This mother lode was just under $15 USD.

Chinese pastries from the Ding Dong Bakery (great name by the way) in Chinatown. This mother lode was just under USD$15.  Some sweet, some savory, some meaty.  All delicious.

 

Vietnamese vermicelli noodles with pork and spring roll from Bun Saigon in Chinatown. USD$8

Vietnamese vermicelli noodles with pork and spring roll from Bun Saigon in Chinatown. USD$8

 

A heaped up plate of Korean bbq pork ribs, chicken, and beef. Plenty for two hungry people. USD$14

A heaped up plate of Korean bbq pork ribs, chicken, and beef with tempura zucchini, potsticker dumplings, and rice. Plenty for two hungry people. USD$14

 

A homemade creation. The salami bagel.

A homemade creation. The salami bagel.  One of the benefits of staying in an Airbnb is having a full kitchen so you can cook big meals (or toast a salami bagel, in this case).

 

Niagara Falls

After leaving Toronto, we headed south to spend two nights on the Canadian side of the falls.  On the way down we stopped at Welland Locks to watch a ship transit the canal up river.

Once we arrived in Niagara Falls, we planned to do the Maid of the Mist (also called Hornblower Cruises on the Canadian side) but learned that the wait to board the boat can be two hours.  Poor planning on our part because we visited during the busiest time of year on the busy weekend.  Instead, we explored the falls on foot and by bus from the US and Canadian sides.

 

Looking up river from the observation deck

Welland Locks, about 30 minutes from Niagara Falls.  Looking up river from the observation deck.  The ship in the lock to the left waits for the water level to rise even with the upstream water elevation.

 

Niagara Falls from the American side.

Niagara Falls from the American side.  We took a day trip to the US to get a different vantage point of the falls.

 

View of both falls from the Canadian side.

View of both falls from the Canadian side.

 

Falls at night.

Falls at night.

 

The Niagara River forms a massive Whirlpool a few miles downstream from the falls. Circling the Whirlpool are a number of (free) overlooks.

The Niagara River forms a massive Whirlpool a few miles downstream from the falls. Circling the Whirlpool are a number of (free) overlooks. Pictured is the not-free Aero cable car suspended above the Whirlpool where you can enjoy waiting in line and then, for a few minutes, get a slightly different vantage point compared to what we enjoyed.

 

Washington, D.C. (Smithsonian Air and Space Museum – Udvar-Hazy annex)

Washington, D.C. served as our last waypoint on the trip.  We spent the night at an Aloft hotel near the Dulles airport (free with SPG points, of course) then woke up, played some pool, and departed for our last bit of tourism of the vacation.  The Udvar-Hazy Annex of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.

It’s got a bunch of cool planes, missiles, rockets, and spacecraft of various types.  But the most awesome vessel in the hangar is the Space Shuttle Discovery.  This bad boy flew to outer space 39 times over the past several decades.  And we got close enough to almost touch it.

For anyone thinking of replicating our trip, the Air Force Museum and the Air and Space Museum had a lot of overlap (once you’ve seen several hundred planes from the various eras of flight, several hundred more planes don’t add a lot of marginal utility).  Air and Space is still an awesome museum because of the Space Shuttle.  The Air Force Museum stood out for having a few historic Air Force Ones that used to fly former presidents (and you can walk through the Air Force Ones).  Both museums are free except for a $15 parking fee at the Air and Space Museum.

 

The Space Shuttle up close.

The Space Shuttle up close.

 

'Merica!

‘Merica!

 

Not the space shuttle.

Not the space shuttle.

 

Something I could possibly pilot.

They let me in the cockpit.

After 2,432.3 miles and 25 days on the road we made it home in one piece.  Another great vacation on the books!

 

Trip Budget

We budgeted $2,100 for the whole trip.  We’re good at optimizing expenses on the fly and miraculously managed to spend only $954 for our 3.5 week road trip.  Of course we’re travel hackers, so that total doesn’t include several thousand dollars worth of free lodging expenses (including 4 room nights at a USD$300-400/nt hotel in Niagara Falls).  First I’ll show the travel budget with actual expenditures, then I’ll reveal some travel hacking tips so you can replicate some of my success.  All amounts in US dollars with the US to Canadian dollar exchange rate hovering around USD$1 to CDN$1.30.

Lodging – $157 (budget: $476) 

  • 12 nights Toronto Airbnb rental – $43 (after $345 airbnb referral discounts, $85 cancellation/rebooking credit and $500 Barclay Arrival Card travel rebate/bonus, plus a $56 damage charge for our kiddo breaking a fancy pants light fixture)
  • 3 nights Bowling Green, KY Airbnb rental – $47 (after $250 Airbnb gift card from Amex credit card reward bonus)
  • 1 night hotel in Nashville from Hotwire – $66
  • 2 nights x 2 rooms – Four Points by Sheraton Detroit Metro Airport – $0 (8,000 SPG points from Starwood Amex)
  • 2 nights x 2 rooms – Four Points by Sheraton Niagara Falls Fallsview – $0 (12,000 SPG points from Starwood Amex)
  • 1 night x 1 room – Aloft Dulles Airport North – $0 (4,000 SPG points from Starwood Amex)

We initially booked a two bedroom Airbnb apartment on the east side of Toronto.  The landlord cancelled a month before our trip so we had to re-book a different property.  Airbnb offers a rebooking credit of 10% of the amount you initially paid to help you find a replacement property.  The new rental was a big win because it was cheaper and nicer.

Now for the bad news.  Our four year old pretended one of the light fixtures was a steering wheel.  He drove it hard.  It broke.  We agreed to the landlord’s request for $56 in damages to replace the light fixture.  Otherwise the 12 nights in Toronto would have netted out to negative $13!

In other lodging snafus, let’s talk about the $66 Nashville hotel we purchased through Hotwire.  The room itself was okay, but the hotel had serious issues with management.  We showed up around five or six in the afternoon expecting our hotel room to be ready (check in time was three pm).  It was not ready.  We grabbed dinner nearby then checked in with the hotel.  Still not ready.  We gave up checking in at that point and decided to spend the rest of the evening touring around downtown Nashville.  Fortunately when we returned to the hotel around nine pm our room was ready.  The hotel had many cautionary reviews, but these weren’t visible until after we booked the room through Hotwire and they revealed which mystery hotel we booked.  Next time around I think we’ll either book a higher class of hotel through Hotwire or book directly with a hotel and not roll the dice.  Though at $66 for a room with clean sheets, clean bathroom and free breakfast in the morning, it wasn’t a horrible deal in spite of the six hour delay checking in.  I might be able to get a partial or full refund if I fought and fought and fought, but it’s simply not worth $66 to me.

 

Transportation $264 (budget – $500)

  • 2,432 miles – $148 (most gas was below $2/gal)
  • Tolls – $6.50 ($5 bridge crossing in Detroit; $1.50 bridge to US in Niagara Falls)
  • Parking and Transit – $110 ($18 for 24 bus pass in Niagara Falls; $92 for parking)

I used the Gasbuddy app to find the cheapest gas stations along the way.  Most were under $2 per gallon.  We filled up just before entering Canada because the average gas price north of the border is around USD$3/gal, so we only had to purchase a few gallons in Canada at those prices.

We somehow managed to avoid toll roads everywhere other than the one international bridge crossing from Detroit to Windsor, Canada (USD$5).  We also walked to the American side of Niagara Falls for the day and spent USD$1.50 for the privilege of making a pedestrian crossing on the international Rainbow Bridge.

We budgeted $200 for parking and/or transit and spent almost half that.  I used the Best Parking website to find the best deals for parking and frequently paid USD$3-5 for all day parking in downtown areas that might have been $20+ otherwise.  Except one day when there was a Drake concert and the “event rates” kicked in.  You win some, you lose some.  For us, driving proved cheaper than transit so we went with the less expensive option.

 

Food $435 (budget – $720)

  • Restaurants – dining out about once per day – $435 or ~$20 per meal
  • Groceries – slightly less than what we usually spend at home ($125-150/wk) – $0 extra (but $208 total, mostly in Toronto)

It seems like we ate out constantly, but looking at the numbers, we only ate out once per day on average.  At $19 or $20 per meal, this roughly matches our average from our Canada trip two years ago.  Some of the meals were very inexpensive at $10-15 (think fast food dollar menu or BOGO falafel wraps), other meals were closer to the $20 average (inexpensive take out from a “real” restaurant), while several meals were $35-45 at regular sit down restaurants.  We usually drink water with our meal and skip alcohol at restaurants.  That plus the weak Canadian dollar meant some really good eats for under USD$50 for our family of five.

 

Entertainment/Admission Fees $98 (budget – $400)

  • 2 days of Mammoth Cave tours – $96
  • Touristy stuff at Niagara Falls – $0
  • Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto – $2

The two days of Mammoth Cave tours was the only big museum or park admission cost during this trip.  So many other museums are free all the time (Air Force Museum; Air and Space Museum) or certain days of the week (like the outstanding Art Gallery of Ontario).

We also visited the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto – a “name your own price” museum where I dropped two American $1 bills into the donation slot.  It was worth every penny (they had Shaq’s boot available to touch and smell!) but not a lot more.  Regular admission was crazy expensive so it’s unlikely I would have visited without the name your own price option.  The museum wasn’t crowded even on the day you can get in for free, so I imagine the regular admission days are really desolate.

 

Souvenirs $0 (budget – $0)

  • 5,024 pictures and tons of  memories – $0

I don’t like souvenirs.  Toronto’s City Hall handed out free TORONTO pins, so technically we received a few souvenirs but paid nothing for them.

 

Budget Wrap Up

  • Lodging – $157
  • Transportation – $264
  • Food – $435
  • Entertainment – $98
  • TOTAL: $954

At $954 for 3.5 weeks of life on the road for a family of five, I’d say we did okay.  Our goal wasn’t to travel this cheaply.  It just happened.  We also had several hundred dollars of Airbnb referral credit that brought costs down which might be hard to replicate if you don’t have a blog.

We saved about $200 on utilities while we were out of town primarily by setting the thermostat on 90 degrees and therefore using very little electricity.  We also consumed zero water and almost zero natural gas for the hot water heater.  Does that make our net vacation cost $754?

 

Travel hacking tips

When we plan a trip we try to leverage our existing stash of airline miles and hotel points for free flights and hotel rooms.  For stays over two nights, it’s often cost effective to stay at a short term rental located through a service like Airbnb or VRBO.

Large credit card sign up bonuses are our main source for miles and points.  Some cards entice new cardmembers by offering $400-500 reimbursement for any kind of travel expense (like the Barclay Arrival Card and the Capital One Venture card).  Other cards provide 30,000 to 50,000 hotel points or airline miles.  A third variety of cards, like the Chase Sapphire Preferred and Sapphire Reserve cards, offer points that can be transferred to a variety of hotel or airline programs or redeemed at the Chase site for 25-50% extra value (compared to redeeming for cash).

We slashed the lodging expense significantly by careful use of our credit card points.  We redeemed the $500 sign up bonus from our Barclay Arrival card on the Toronto Airbnb rental.

I picked up a $250 Airbnb gift certificate by redeeming 25,000 of the 150,000 American Express Membership Rewards points we earned when we signed up for a pair of Amex Business Gold Rewards cards in December last year.  That slashed the total price for three nights in an Airbnb rental in Bowling Green, Kentucky from $297 to $47.

We booked nine nights at Starwood Hotels (including Four Points by Sheraton and Aloft hotels) using 24,000 Starwood Preferred Guest points from a single Starwood Amex sign up bonus offer.  The most amazing redemption of the bunch was a $400 per night (in Canadian dollars) room in Niagara Falls for 3,000 points per night (and one of our rooms was upgraded to the Falls View executive room priced over $500 per night).

Overall, we slashed what would have been $3,000 in lodging expenses to under $200 using credit card reward points and hotel points.  Not a bad deal at all.

Travel hacking is how we traveled through Mexico for seven and a half weeks in 2015 for $4,500.  If you like free travel as much as we do and want to get some of these same cards, check out these credit card offers.

Airbnb is an incredible way to save money while on vacation, particularly if you’re traveling with a family.  We booked decent two bedroom apartments and houses for much less than the cost of a crappy hotel room suite.  The biggest benefit beyond having tons of space is that we get a full kitchen so we don’t have to dine out for a month straight.  If you haven’t tried Airbnb before, check them out for your next vacation and save $35 off your first stay.

Cooking at our house or apartment helps bring the food cost down.  This doesn’t mean you can’t try new restaurants and cuisines while you’re vacationing, but simple things like cereal, yogurt, fruit, and eggs for breakfast are much cheaper when prepared at “home” rather than purchased at a restaurant.  For lunch and dinner, we made a variety of wraps, sandwiches, and salads (on the easy end) while frequently delving into more complex culinary pursuits by cooking ribs, sausages, tortellini, spaghetti, and tacos during our two week stay in Toronto.

A few technological innovations helped us immensely.  The GasBuddy website/app shows the cheapest gas stations along your route.  The Best Parking website/app shows the cheapest parking for your area and time of day.  Google Maps is another great free resource and allows offline download of maps with navigation (we didn’t have data on our cell phone while “overseas” in Canada).

It’s worth mentioning the financial benefits of slow travel.  When you aren’t trying to hit all the bullet pointed sites in your travel guide within the typical American week long vacation, you can take time to relax and enjoy the trip more.  Schedule a “do nothing” day every two or three days of the vacation and spend the day strolling around the neighborhood, take the kids (or just you!) to the pool, catch up on your Netflix queue, or cook a big feast in your kitchen.  When you’re paying a weekly or monthly rental rate instead of a nightly rate at a hotel, it doesn’t cost much to take the day off from the sightseeing trail.

I also find tracking expenses and seeing where your travel dollars went to be a useful exercise.  I don’t really manage our spending against the budget while on vacation, but that could be useful if you are on a really tight budget or need to conserve cash for another upcoming trip.  Personal Capital is a great (and free!) app and website tool to track your spending automatically.  Then you can see where your travel dollars go without spending lots of time manually tracking expenses.

 

Where to next?

For 2016, we increased our travel budget to $10,000.  However we most likely won’t spend it all this year.  Year to date through August we have only spent $3,100 for travel.  That total includes our Canada road trip, $810 for a recently booked cruise in late November, partial payment toward another cruise in December, and some miscellaneous travel related expenses throughout the year.  We should spend another $1,000 to $2,000 for the remainder of the second cruise and other cruise expenses.  We will likely end the year with half of our $10,000 travel budget unspent.

Not to worry, as we are already talking about spending the summer of 2017 in Europe, so there’s a good chance we will use most of the $10,000 travel budget next year, and the $5,000 not spent in 2016 might come in handy too.

 

 

What epic trips have you taken?  Where do you want to travel next?  

 

 

The Great American Canadian Road Trip – Summer 2016 Edition

city-wall-quebec

I dropped some hints about our big summer plans in my last post, and now it’s time to make it official!  We’re going on an almost month long road trip to Canada by way of Kentucky and Michigan.  For those following along with my early retirement journey for the past few years, you might be experiencing deja vu because doesn’t a month long road trip to Canada sound familiar?

You aren’t experiencing deja vu. In 2014 we did set out on what was supposed to be a month long road trip to Canada that turned into a two and a half week road trip when we came home early.  The exhaustion that comes from superintending a rambunctious two year old combined with a disappointingly dirty Airbnb apartment rental persuaded us that it was time to return back home to Raleigh for some true R and R.

The 2014 Canada trip included visits to Montreal and Quebec City.  After leaving Quebec City we intended to visit Ottawa and Toronto, then stop by Niagara Falls on the return trip south to Raleigh.  We never made it to Ottawa, Toronto, or Niagara Falls.  On this summer’s trip we are headed back to Canada to enjoy the mild summers and hit some of the stops we missed two years ago.

 

The Great Triangle

This road trip evolved from our desire to see Niagara Falls and Nashville.  Students of geography know those two cities aren’t near each other.  They aren’t even in the same direction if you start in Raleigh.  In fact, the straight lines from Raleigh to each of those two cities are approximately perpendicular.  For the record, Mrs. Root of Good chose Niagara Falls and Nashville as our summer destinations (she’s less a fan of maps than I am).

If we want to travel along two perpendicular lines, why not make a triangle spanning the eastern half of the United States (and extending into Canada)?  By combining my clever knowledge of geometry with Mrs. Root of Good’s shotgun approach to destination selection, the Summer 2016 road trip was born.

Instead of taking a 17 hour round trip to Nashville then a 22 hour round trip to Niagara Falls for a total drive of 39 hours, we decided to make a triangular shaped journey from Raleigh to Nashville to Niagara Falls then back to Raleigh that would take 30 hours.  By taking the hypotenuse of the triangle in a northeasterly direction, we shaved nine hours off of our total driving time.

Back in our working days with the constraints of a one or two week vacation upon us, we might be happy with seeing the booming city of Nashville and a natural wonder like Niagara Falls.  But we have all summer and wanted to add some value to this road trip.  If I’m driving 30 hours I’d like the trip to be more epic than “just” Nashville and Niagara Falls.

That’s when Toronto re-entered the picture.  Arguably the most metropolitan city in Canada, Toronto was on our wishlist during our 2014 Canada trip but it didn’t happen.  On Canada trip round #2, we’re going to make it happen.  It’s only two hours north of Niagara Falls.  A very logical addition to our road trip since we’ll already be “way up north”.  It’s also a destination with tons of stuff to see and do, unlike Niagara Falls which is mostly just a waterfall (though admittedly a very very big impressive waterfall with lots of water).  Nothing wrong with a two week layover in Toronto when you aren’t in a hurry, right?  Just another benefit of the slow travel mindset.

Along with Toronto, we decided to add two full days exploring Mammoth Cave in Kentucky.  We’re staying down the road in Bowling Green, Kentucky.  After leaving Kentucky, we will head north toward Toronto with a two night pit stop in Detroit.  On the return trip back to Raleigh from Toronto and Niagara Falls, we will stop for one night in the outskirts of Washington, D.C. to visit the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum near the Dulles Airport (the kids didn’t know what the Space Shuttle was, so we’re going to see one up close).

The trip will cover around 2,100 miles and 34 hours (assuming light traffic).

So far we don’t have anything specific planned in any cities other than visiting Mammoth Cave, Niagara Falls, and the Air and Space Museum in DC.  Eventually we’ll get down to business and find something cool to do in Detroit and Toronto (and feel free to suggest anything worth seeing in the comments!).

The whole trip will last 24 nights with stays in the following cities:

  • Between Charlotte and Asheville, NC – staying with family 3 nights
  • Nashville – 1 night
  • Bowling Green, KY (Mammoth Cave) – 3 nights
  • Detroit, MI – 2 nights
  • Toronto, Canada – 12 nights
  • Niagara Falls (Canadian side) – 2 nights
  • Washington D.C. – 1 night
  • Back home in Raleigh!

 

Trip Budget

We usually put together a rough budget for our big summer trips.  For the 24 days we’ll spend traveling through North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, Michigan, Canada, New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Washington D.C., and Virginia, we expect to spend around $2,100 after our valiant travel hacking efforts.  Numbers for the curious:

 

Lodging $476 

  • 12 nights Toronto Airbnb rental – $363 (after $220 airbnb referral discounts and $500 Barclay Arrival Card travel rebate/bonus)
  • 3 nights Bowling Green, KY Airbnb rental – $47 (after $250 Airbnb gift card from credit card rewards)
  • 1 night hotel in Nashville from Hotwire – $66
  • 2 nights x 2 rooms Four Points by Sheraton Detroit Metro Airport – $0 (8,000 SPG points from Starwood Amex)
  • 2 nights x 2 rooms Four Points by Sheraton Niagara Falls Fallsview – $0 (12,000 SPG points from Starwood Amex)
  • 1 night x 1 room Aloft Dulles Airport North – $0 (4,000 SPG points from Starwood Amex)

 

Transportation (Gas, Tolls, Parking, Transit) $500

  • 2,400 miles at 22 mpg and $2.50/gal. gas = $275
  • Tolls = $25 (2 international bridges; PA/NY going south toward DC)
  • Parking or Transit – $200 (10 days at $20/day)

 

Food $720

  • Restaurants – Once per day at $30 per meal average = $720
  • Groceries – No more than what we usually spend at home ($125-150/wk) – $0 extra
A grocery run from our last Canada trip

A grocery run during our last Canada trip

 

Entertainment $400

  • 2 days of Mammoth Cave tours – $96 (already booked)
  • Touristy stuff at Niagara Falls – $100
  • Random museums/parks/etc in Toronto and elsewhere – $200

 

Souvenirs $0

  • lots of pictures and memories – $0

 

All of the lodging and $96 of the entertainment expense was paid in March.  The other $1,600 we’ll spend in July and August during the trip.

 

Travel hacking our way to glorious savings

We slashed the lodging expense significantly by careful use of our credit card points.  We redeemed the $500 sign up bonus from our Barclay Arrival card on the Toronto Airbnb rental.

I picked up a $250 Airbnb gift certificate by redeeming 25,000 of the 150,000 American Express Membership Rewards points we earned when we signed up for a pair of Amex Business Gold Rewards cards in December last year.  That slashed the total price for three nights in an Airbnb rental in Bowling Green, Kentucky from $297 to $47.

We booked nine nights at Starwood Hotels (including Four Points by Sheraton and Aloft hotels) using 24,000 Starwood Preferred Guest points from a single Starwood Amex sign up bonus offer.  The most amazing redemption of the bunch was a $400 per night (in Canadian dollars) room in Niagara Falls for 3,000 points per night.

Overall, we slashed what would have been $3,000 in lodging expenses to under $500 using credit card reward points and hotel points.  Not a bad deal at all.

Travel hacking is how we traveled through Mexico for seven and a half weeks for $4,500.  If you like free travel as much as we do and want to get some of these same cards, check out these credit card offers.

Another travel hack of ours is renting apartments for a week or more.  Airbnb is an incredible way to save money while on vacation, particularly if you’re traveling with a family.  We booked decent two bedroom apartments and houses for much less than the cost of a crappy hotel room suite.  The biggest benefit beyond having tons of space is that we get a full kitchen so we don’t have to dine out for a month straight.  If you haven’t tried Airbnb before, check them out for your next vacation and save $35 off your first stay.

 

Hitting the Road

We are leaving in mid-July and returning home in mid-August.  We have our new (to us) minivan which will make for a very comfortable and luxurious touring vehicle for this road trip.  One of the goals of the trip is to skip the typical rush rush rush that accompanies the normal one week American vacation and travel at a slower pace.

Other than the hotels and apartment rentals, our daily routine is very flexible so that we can take a vacation from sightseeing if we’re feeling lazy or exhausted. We’ll have a swimming pool at our hotel or apartment during most of the trip.  The kids promised to make the pool an often used luxury.

The trip budget includes dining out once per day.  We spent an average of $19 per day on restaurants during our last trip to Canada, so $30 per day should let us dine out more than we did last time.  The Canadian dollar is about 20% weaker this time around so our USDs will go farther.  We’ll probably dine out more when we are staying in hotels and less frequently when we’re settled in to our Toronto apartment for almost two weeks (if Toronto’s amazing food scene doesn’t prove overly tempting!).

Maybe we go absolutely crazy and spend way more on dining out than we budgeted.  That’s okay too because we increased our travel budget to $10,000 this year.  Beyond the $2,100 budgeted for this trip and a little under $2,000 budgeted for our December Caribbean cruise, we won’t be spending much on vacations during 2016.  With around $6,000 going unspent in our 2016 travel budget, I think we can afford to live it up a little while on vacation.  Though we’re already talking about a big 2017 trip (Mexico again? Europe?) so any unspent money could be used next year.

 

 

Any tips or hints for the cities we’re visiting?  Any hidden gems?  Free family fun? Any can’t be missed favorites?  

 

 

Going on a Cruise Part 4 – The Food!

seafood-ftd

This is the final post on cruising for a while.  And it’s a food post!  In my first post on cruising I talked about the basics of cruising. In the second post, I showed how to get the best deals when booking a cruise.  In the third post, I provided tips on saving money while on board and on your trip to the cruise port.

I’m all out money saving tips, so here’s a picture post of the different types of food you can enjoy on board.

In my first post on cruising, I mentioned you can get “Five star dining every night.  Or all you can eat buffets, burgers, pizzas and ice cream.”  One poster took exception to the “five star dining” comment, claiming that’s just hyperbole, and that the food is just adequate.

We thought the food was pretty good, but not everyone agrees.  The food varies from cruise line to cruise line, ship to ship, restaurant to restaurant, and even night to night.  It’s possible we’ve had a string of good luck with the food on the five cruises we have taken so far.

We really enjoy the variety of dishes because we get to experience things we don’t routinely cook at home.

Are we foodies?  I hate the connotations that go with the term “foodie” – snobby, elitist, holier-than-thou, overly concerned with authenticity and presentation instead of taste.  We just like to find good food, cook in our kitchen, and eat.  We also love to try new foods while on vacation like we did in Mexico this past summer.  So I’m not sure if we are foodies or not.

Here’s what happens when you sink too far down the foodie rabbit hole and lose your common sense (and taste buds):

“The taste is a lot richer.  It’s pure, it’s pure.”

 

Now it’s time for some good cruise eats!  Bon appetit!

 

A staple of cruise lines. On many ships, pizza is available 24/7. These slices are topped with prosciutto

A staple of cruise lines. On many ships, pizza is available 24/7. These slices are topped with prosciutto.  I love pizza and this was some pretty good thin crust (“NY Style”) pizza from the Costa Atlantica (an Italian cruise line)

 

Prime Rib

Filet Mignon with a side of… well who cares, it’s filet mignon.

 

For the kids - bacon macaroni with fries

For the kids – bacon macaroni with fries

 

Lobster and shrimp

Lobster and shrimp

 

indian-medly

Indian medley of (clockwise from top) dough balls in a creamy curry, curried potatoes, dal lentils. A delish vegetarian dish for those into shunning meat

 

Frog legs with parmesan on top. Tastes like dark meat chicken

Frog legs with parmesan on top. Tastes like dark meat chicken

 

Crab cakes so good I ate at least eight of them. Plus scallops with penne pasta, meatloaf, chicken drumstick, and pan-seared tuna

Crab cakes so good I ate at least eight of them. Plus scallops and shrimp with penne pasta, meatloaf, chicken drumstick, and pan-seared tuna

 

Chili relleno (stuffed chili pepper) with rice and beans on the side

Chili relleno (stuffed chili pepper) with rice and beans on the side

 

Spanakopita (greek pastry with spinach and feta inside), pepper stuffed with couscous. Another good vegetarian entree. Goes great with a side of steak (you can order a second main course any time you want).

Spanakopita (greek pastry with spinach and feta inside), pepper stuffed with couscous. Another good vegetarian entree. Goes great with a side of steak (you can order a second main course any time you want).

 

Snack plate with salami, provolone and parmesan cheese, octopus, and smoked salmon with wasabi

Snack plate with salami, provolone and parmesan cheese, octopus, and smoked salmon with wasabi

 

Lots and lots and lots of parmesan. There's even a bowl made from the rind of a huge ball of parmesan cheese.

Lots and lots and lots of parmesan. There’s even a bowl made from the rind of a huge wheel of parmesan cheese.  In case you want to eat it by the fist full.

 

Smoked salmon

Smoked salmon with capers

 

Salmon, scallops, muscles, clams, and shrimp on penne pasta

Salmon, scallops, muscles, clams, and shrimp on penne pasta

 

From the buffet - fish, ribs, eggplant, salami, pasta salad, seafood salad (clams, mussels,

From the buffet – fish, eggplant, salami, pasta salad, seafood salad (clams, mussels, shrimp, squid, octopus), olives.  With a rib on top.

 

Corned beef and pastrami reuben panini

Corned beef and pastrami reuben panini

 

Prosciutto, salami, and fried shrimp

Prosciutto, salami, and coconut fried shrimp with alfredo pasta.  We eat an embarrassingly large quantity of prosciutto on every cruise.

 

Mexican food from our cruise to Mexico. Almost as good as the real deal in Mexico.

Breakfast from the Blue Iguana Cantina Mexican restaurant on the Carnival Glory.  Breakfast is usually a pretty tame event on cruise lines, but not with this Mexican restaurant on board!

 

hot-chocolate

The kids enjoying hot chocolate on our balcony

 

A typical meal

I found a copy of the menu from the formal dining room.  The menu changes each night.  Here’s what you get to choose from for just one night:

Appetizers:

  • seared tuna
  • broccoli salad
  • veggie spring rolls
  • navy bean soup
  • gazpacho andalouse
  • tortilla soup with braised chicken
  • shrimp cocktail
  • flatbread w/ apple, bacon, and parmesan cheese
  • a variety of salads
  • braised rabbit

Mains:

  • veal parmesan
  • seared Tilapia
  • rosemary lamb shank
  • baked ziti
  • chick pea biscuits with roasted squash and peppers
  • vegetarian Indian medley with ~5 different veggies, papadum, yogurt sauce, etc
  • steak tacos
  • salmon fillet
  • flat iron steak
  • chicken breast
  • pork chop

Sides:

  • corn and veggie succotash
  • loaded baked potato
  • sauteed beans with bacon
  • mashed potatoes
  • basmati pilaf
  • steamed broccoli

Dessert:

  • chilled rhubarb almond strawberry soup
  • chocolate melting cake (unimpressed with this one!)
  • passion fruit flan with a coconut/tapioca/basil syrup
  • coconut lime cake
  • fresh tropical fruit plate
  • cheese plate
  • ice cream assortment
  • pie a la mode

That’s all free. There was an extra charge on this night for lobster, surf and turf, filet mignon, and NY strip steak (though that stuff was free at other times on the cruise). This was their “American Table” menu focused on traditional American cuisine with some twists thrown in, plus a couple things to recognize the port of call for the day (tortilla soup and steak tacos for Cozumel, Mexico).

That sounds like a foodie-approved menu to me.  I know almost all the food we received was well executed in terms of seasoning, texture, temperature, flavor, and presentation (how I usually evaluate a plate). The buffet restaurants of course are much closer to average, and you can definitely find the cafeteria grade eggs for breakfast for example (just skip those and go to the egg/omelet station for a fresh omelet, sunny side up, over easy, scrambled, or however you take your eggs).

 

Desserts

It’s hard to save room for desserts when the main courses are so good.

 

The best chocolate cake I've ever eaten.

The best chocolate cake I’ve ever eaten.  I remember being very full from lunch and saddened by the fact that I could only eat a slice of this cake.

 

Cheesecake,

Cheesecake, coconut cream cake and banana custard

 

Chilled mango soup

Chilled mango soup

 

Key lime cheesecake (left), Napoleon almond cake (right) - Mrs. Root of Good's favorite

Key lime cheesecake (left), Napoleon almond cake (right) – Mrs. Root of Good’s favorite dessert ever

 

Fudge cheesecake, strawberry cream

Fudge cheesecake, strawberry cream, chocolate cream cake

 

Blueberry cheesecake (left)

Blueberry cheesecake with pistachios (left), cherry cream filling on top right, gelatin with fruit on bottom right

 

cr

Crème brûlée custard with caramel popcorn on top

 

Strawberry cheesecake,

Strawberry cheesecake, assorted cookies and cakes

 

Dessert buffet

Dessert buffet

 

Brownie

Brownie

 

A triumvirate of chocolate cakes

A triumvirate of chocolate cakes

 

I’ll let the reader decide for themselves whether cruise food might be worth trying based on these pictures.  I can’t say with certainty that everyone, including foodies, will be happy with the cruise cuisine, but in our experience the dozen or more restaurants on board offer enough variety to satisfy burger-n-pizza folks, picky tastes, healthy eaters, carnivores, vegetarians, and low carbers.

 

Check out all the posts in the Going on a Cruise series:

Going on a Cruise Part 1: Overview (this post)

Going on a Cruise Part 2: Getting the Best Deal

Going on a Cruise Part 3: Save on Board and on Transportation

Going on a Cruise Part 4: The Food!

 

Could you manage a week on a cruise ship with all this food? 

 

 

Going on a Cruise Part 3 – Save on Board and on Transportation

caribbean-cruise-clear-water-featured2

This is part three of my series on cruise vacations.  In my first post on cruising I talked about the basics of cruising.  In the second post, I showed how to get the best deals when booking a cruise.

In this post I want to cover other ways to save money on cruises while on board and while traveling from your home to the cruise terminal.

 

Saving money while on board

Be a cruise deadbeat like me. Cruise lines lose money on your basic cruise fare but they make it up by selling you extras while on board. Skip or limit all the extras like the photos, spa, art auction, alcohol, and in port excursions and you, too, can get a cruise subsidized by your spendthrift fellow passengers!

From reviewing Carnival’s annual report to investors, they take in around $700 per cabin per seven night cruise from selling all the extras while on board. That’s roughly the amount we pay per cabin for our entire cruise! Those sales come with an 86% gross profit margin for the company since they are selling to a captive audience once you’re on board and don’t need to set competitive prices. If you want a frozen margarita, you’re paying whatever they’re asking or you’re not getting it.

Some people claim the fun of cruising is going crazy on board and buying all those expensive drinks. And that’s okay, but it certainly changes the value proposition if you buy all that pricey booze.

You can hang out here and sip coffee for free!

You can hang out here and sip coffee for free!

Some unscrupulous souls manage to sneak alcohol aboard, thereby depriving these poor corporations of their outsized profits. I can neither confirm nor deny whether the Root of Good household has engaged in this morally ambiguous behavior. But if one were so inclined, here’s a few tips on how to do it:

  • Buy a rum runner. With these flasks, you can sneak alcohol on board like the pros during prohibition.
  • Buy a small bottle while in a port and don’t turn it over to security when you walk back on board. Odds are you won’t get caught if it’s a 375 mL bottle. If you get caught (“oops, sorry I forgot!”), they confiscate it and return it at the end of the cruise. No biggie.
  • Empty a disposable water bottle and fill with clear liquor. Or do the same to an apple juice container with amber colored spirits.

Most cruise lines allow you to bring one bottle of wine per person, so this might last you for much of the cruise if you enjoy a small glass once per day.

costa-atlantica-hallway

While on the topic of alcohol, it’s worth mentioning the bargains you can find in the liquor store on board ship or in your ports of call. On most cruises, we find some incredible deals on liquor at prices about half of what they are back at home in North Carolina. For example, we picked up a few one liter bottles of Jose Cuervo tequila for $8 each ($29 in North Carolina) and one liter bottles of Crown Royal whiskey for $16 each ($40 in North Carolina).

There is supposedly a one liter per person limit on what you can import to the US duty free but we’ve routinely bought more (like 7-8 liters for 2 of us), declared it on the Customs form, yet never paid any duties. Just smile at the Customs agent and play dumb. YMMV of course, but we “saved” $160 on top shelf liquor on our last two cruises, and even if there was an import duty assessed, it would be much less than $160.  We buy the stuff at home anyway, so we aren’t falling into the trap of spending “extra” money just because it’s cheap.  It’s been over a year since the huge liquor haul, and we still have around half of the liquor we bought.

Live performance on stage? Yep, almost every night.

Live performance on stage? Yep, almost every night.

Here’s another radical way to save while on board. Become a shareholder and get free on board credit. If you purchase 100 shares of Carnival (ticker: CCL) or Royal Caribbean (ticker: RCL) then you will get $100 per cabin on a seven night sailing on the respective cruise line or their operating subsidiaries. Carnival owns Costa, Princess, Cunard, and Holland America while Royal Caribbean owns Celebrity. You get a smaller award for shorter cruises and a larger award on longer sailings (up to $250 on 14+ night sailings). When Carnival and Royal Caribbean were trading in the $30-40 range in recent history, it wasn’t too expensive to pick up 100 shares. Both companies have done well and now trade around $50 and $90 per share, respectively, so it’s much more expensive to acquire 100 shares just for the shareholder benefit alone.

Water slide on the Costa Atlantica

Water slide on the Costa Atlantica

While you are in port, you’ll probably want to get off the ship and see stuff. The cruise line sells prepackaged excursions at near-usurious markups, but it’s easy and convenient so many cruisers buy these excursions. Save a fortune by booking your own excursions with private providers ahead of time. Even better, skip the excursions and DIY your time in port. For a cheap cab fare or bus ticket, you can usually get around town and see a few sights on your own.

Some ports, like Nassau in the Bahamas, have a few attractions within walking distance or not far away by water ferry. On our first visit to a port we like to walk around the port or town and get a feel for the area without planning any big activities.

The free aquarium at the Atlantis Resort in Nassau Bahamas. Manta ray!

The free aquarium at the Atlantis Resort in Nassau, Bahamas. Manta ray!

 

Consider the total cost of the entire vacation

Think big picture. Your cruise ticket covers almost all of your expenses from the time you hop on board until your last day of the cruise when you sadly mope down the gangplank and head back home. In addition to the cruise fare, you’ll have to pay for travel to your port of departure. Squeeze out the savings on that part of the trip budget, too.

Cruises leave from all over the US coast, so check for local cruises. Paying a little more for a cruise that departs from a nearby port may save you money overall. For example, I can book a 5 night cruise from Charleston, South Carolina that’s a 4.5 hour drive from home instead of sailing from Miami that is 11.5 hours drive time from home. I’m willing to pay more (or accept a slightly worse itinerary) for a local cruise to avoid the cost and inconvenience of driving an extra 7 hours or having to fly instead of drive.

The water is still clear, the sun warm, and the breeze calming no matter how much you pay for the cruise.

The water is still clear, the sun warm, and the breeze calming no matter how much you pay for the cruise.

Cruises leave port around 4 pm on the day of departure, so you’ll typically want to get to the port around 12 or 1 pm to maximize your time on board and to make sure you don’t miss the cruise if you’re running late. If we’re driving to Charleston, we can leave early in the morning and make it there by noon, whereas if we’re driving to Miami or Fort Lauderdale, we definitely have to spend the night somewhere along I-95 on the way south.

The mid-day cruise departure time usually makes it impossible to fly down the day of the cruise unless you’re fortunate to have access to a very early non-stop flight to the airport near the cruise terminal. Add in a hotel night and the possibility of a taxi from airport to hotel and hotel to cruise terminal and you’re talking a large additional expense versus driving. Which is why we tend to drive to the cruise terminal, even when we’re departing from a Florida port (a 7 to 11.5 hour drive from Raleigh, NC). In addition, airfare for a family of five is way more expensive than gas for the drive to and from Florida since we can all ride in the same car.

Local ports along the east coast from north to south:

  • Boston
  • New York City
  • Cape Liberty (Bayonne, NJ)
  • Baltimore
  • Norfolk, VA
  • Charleston, SC
  • Jacksonville, FL
  • Port Canaveral, FL
  • Fort Lauderdale, FL
  • Miami

Local ports along the Gulf coast from east to west:

  • Tampa, FL
  • Mobile, AL (starting in 2016)
  • New Orleans, LA
  • Galveston, TX
  • Houston

Local ports along the west coast from north to south:

  • Seattle
  • San Francisco
  • Los Angeles
  • San Diego
Carnival Fascination waterslides

Carnival Fascination water slides.  Departing from Jacksonville, Florida

From my east coast perspective, the biggest down side to choosing a local port instead of a major south Florida port like Miami or Fort Lauderdale is that the cruise won’t get to the Caribbean as quickly. You’ll probably spend additional time at sea transiting to your Caribbean island paradises, and you might not have as many days in port in the Caribbean. Your destinations might only include the Bahamas instead of other islands further away. For wintertime cruises, a non-south Florida departure might mean experiencing chilly winter weather for a day or two of your cruise (and that’s what you’re trying to escape, right?).

That’s not a complete downer, since I really enjoy time on board the ship and don’t care as much about the destinations. But it’s not as much fun being above deck in the wind when it’s 55 degrees and cloudy instead of 75-85 and sunny.

It's hard to get bored

It’s hard to get bored when there’s mini golf on board

We look at every expense of getting to the cruise terminal and try to keep those to a minimum. For cruise parking, we always skip the in terminal parking at the port that usually runs about $20 per day. Instead, we find a private off-site parking provider that typically charges $4 to $7 per day and provides a free shuttle to the cruise terminal. We’ve done this in Jacksonville, Fort Lauderdale, and Miami. Quality of service varies, so be sure to do your due diligence and read the reviews.

Another popular option is a “stay and sail” hotel where you get a room the night before the cruise and it comes with free parking for the duration of your cruise and a free shuttle to/from the cruise terminal. We’ve never done this but prices tend to be around $99-159/night (roughly the cost of in terminal parking).

I could also DIY a “stay and sail” package. When we stayed at the Jacksonville Aloft hotel, they said we could leave our car there for the week while we went on the cruise. Then I could have hopped on a $15 Uber ride to the port (and you can save $20 with that link). So many options to avoid $100+ in parking fees at the port.

We usually stay at hotels for free using Starwood Preferred Guest points obtained through credit card sign up bonuses on the American Express Starwood Preferred Guest card (more on credit cards), and free flights are easy to obtain as well using credit card sign up offers. I just wish I could find a good credit card bonus offer to cover a cruise fare!

 

Check out all the posts in the Going on a Cruise series:

Going on a Cruise Part 1: Overview

Going on a Cruise Part 2: Getting the Best Deal

Going on a Cruise Part 3: Save on Board and on Transportation (this post)

Going on a Cruise Part 4: The Food!

 

Where would you draw the line on frugality?  Limiting drinks?  Smuggling liquor?  Driving 11 hours instead of flying? 

 

 

Going on a Cruise Part 2 – Getting the Best Deal

cruise-mexico-featured1

This is part two of my series on cruise vacations.  In my first post on cruising I talked about the basics of cruising like what the cruise fare covers (and what it doesn’t) and life on board the ship.

In this post I reveal how to get the best deal on cruise fares.

 

Finding the best cruise fare

Cruise fares are highly seasonal, so you’ll save a lot of money by traveling during the off season.  For cruises, low season starts in September once the kids are back in school and the odds of a hurricane in the Caribbean skyrocket. The low season ends sometime in February as the spring breaker business picks up, with higher rates in the late spring and throughout summer.  Peak season cruises during summer are usually two or three times the price of off season cruises.

We love booking in the low season.  In the fall, it’s a little cooler in the Caribbean so you don’t burn up as much.  In the winter, we escape the freezing temps at home.  The only problem is the kids’ school schedule so we try to pick a week where they have one or more days off school.

costa-atlantica-deck-panoramic

Hurricanes have never caused any problems in our cruising itinerary, and even if there was an active tropical system in the Caribbean, the cruise ship will typically detour around the worst of the storm to visit other ports that aren’t impacted by inclement weather.

For the absolute lowest fares, last minute cruise deals are the way to go.  When we’re thinking about taking a cruise soon, we’ll start checking prices and watch for a really good bargain to show up.  Prices are typically the lowest during the three or four weeks before sailing, so be ready to hit the road not long after booking if you go this route.  Be flexible as to cruise line and ship, departure port, and ports of call, and you can usually find some great last minute bargain cruises at $40 per night per person or less.

Another great source of low fares, sometimes even lower than last minute cruises, are “repositioning” cruises.  Particularly cheap are transatlantic repositioning cruises.  Each April and May, cruise ships leave the warm waters of the Caribbean for a summer of cruising in the warm season in Europe.  In October and November, these ships leave Europe and return across the Atlantic for the warm Caribbean winters.  Hop aboard one of these Europe-bound cruises in the spring or a Caribbean-bound cruise in the fall and you might pay as little as $30-35 per person per night plus tax.  I’ve also seen similar rates on a repositioning cruise from San Diego, California to Chile.

These repositioning cruises are a smoking hot deal if you can devote two weeks to the cruise and deal with one way airfare to or from Europe.  We’re hoping to take advantage of the repositioning bargains to or from Europe some day, and get free one way plane tickets by redeeming airline miles from credit card sign up bonuses.  While we’re in Europe, we can do some sightseeing before returning home.

Just shootin' some hoops. On a ship.

Just shootin’ some hoops. On a ship.

 

Picking a cabin to save money

The cheapest rooms aboard are “inside” cabins.  This means they are in the interior of the ship and do not come with windows.  The next category of rooms are “oceanview” cabins where you get a porthole or window so you can see the ocean.  Upgrade once more and you get the “balcony room” where you have a door to your own private balcony overlooking the water.  The ultimate upgrade is the suite that comes with a balcony and usually has separate living and sleeping quarters and is more spacious than the lower category cabins.

All the cabins have access to the same dining rooms, shows, and entertainment while on board, so the extra cost that comes with the upgraded room is really just a nicer room.  You do get some extra perks with the suites depending on the cruise line (like an on-call butler).

Being cheapskates we tend to book inside rooms.  Sure, we can’t see the ocean from our room but we don’t stay in the room very long anyway unless we’re asleep.  If you like to sleep in, it’s really nice to have the absolute darkness that comes with a room devoid of all windows.  I like looking around the formal dining room and thinking of all the guests that paid five or ten times what we paid even though we’re chowing down on the same filet mignon and lobster.

If you’re flexible on your room assignment, you can save even more with the “guaranteed inside” cabin category.  Book a “guaranteed inside” cabin and you’re guaranteed some cabin on the ship but the cruise line gets to pick where it is.  It’s typically one of the lower cost cabins but one time we received an outside cabin with a window view (partially obstructed with a lifeboat).  You’re doing the cruise line a favor by soaking up their excess inventory of cabins and in exchange you save some dough.

View from our cabin's balcony

View from our cabin’s balcony

 

Booking a cruise with kids

When booking a cruise, you’ll see the advertised price.  Double that and add in a bit of tax and that’s what you’ll typically pay for a cabin with two people in it.  Our $199 cruise last September was actually $650 for a two person cabin with taxes included.

The two person cabin is the commodity good of the cruise industry.  Drop to a person traveling solo, and you’ll pay almost the same price as a two person cabin.  Add in a third person to your room and you’ll usually get bumped to a higher category cabin that costs more for the first two cruise fares.

Disco party for the kids

Disco party for the kids

As a result of the increased cost for cabins accommodating three or more people, it’s often about the same price or sometimes cheaper to book two cabins if you’re traveling with four people.  If you’re traveling with kids, it’s nice to have that second cabin so the kids have their own space and the adults have their own, too.  We usually book me and one kid in one cabin, and Mrs. RoG and the other kid(s) in the second cabin since they want an adult present in each room.  Then we switcheroo once we’re on board.  Our cabin attendants knew what we were doing and they never raised it as an issue when our two year old stayed with his 8 and 9 year old siblings in one room while the adults stayed down the hall.

We booked “inside guarantee” rooms on the last two cruises and lucked out with cabins near each other.  If being in a room next door to your kids is a must, you’ll have to pay up for a particular room and forgo the “inside guarantee” savings.

Conversely, sometimes it’s significantly cheaper to book a four person cabin if the cruise line has a “kids sail free” promotion.  We snagged a steal on Costa a few years ago where a balcony room for four of us was under $1,100 total for a seven night cruise.

Our children love the kids clubs on the cruise

Our children love the kids clubs on the cruise

 

How to search for and book your cruise

If you’re focused on finding the best cruise value, you should be looking at the “price per night” metric.  Travelocity used to have a very nice search interface with filters and screens for cruise length, departure port, cruise line and other features and also allowed sorting by price per night.  Unfortunately they revamped their website and it’s now harder to use.  I contacted them a year ago to suggest a “sort by price per night” option but never got a response.

Travelocity is still a pretty solid option for searching for cruises, and my preferred option for completing the cruise booking.  Travelocity lets you sort by price for the whole cruise.  But if you want to be able to sort by price per night, Vacationstogo.com is a better option for the search.  They have a 90-day ticker for last minute cruise deals and a full search function for all cruises for the next couple years.

I like booking with Travelocity because they offer very competitive sales and incentives to get your business.  They occasionally have sales that beat the rates available at Orbitz or other online travel sites.  Travelocity also offers “on board credit” promotions when you book cruises through their site.  For example, the cruise you want to purchase might be $259 per person at every cruise site on the internet while Travelocity also offers $50 or $75 back in the form of an on board credit you can spend while on the ship.  I use on board credit to buy bottles of alcohol to take home or to pay the mandatory gratuity (around $12/day per person), so it’s almost like a cash rebate.

Speaking of cash rebates, don’t forget to use your favorite online shopping portal.  We usually get $40+ back on each cruise just for clicking through a shopping portal like Mr. Rebates or Ebates.  Looking at those two sites for purchases from Travelocity, I see 4% cash back at Mr. Rebates and 7% back at Ebates on cruises right now.  7% of a $1000 cruise is an easy $70 in exchange for 10 seconds of clicking.  I find the cruise I want to buy, then click through the Mr. Rebates or Ebates site and complete the purchase for some quick cash.

costa-atlantica-atrium

The atrium on Costa Atlantica. Look out below!!!

Another neat site for booking cruises is CruiseCompete.com.  It’s like a reverse auction for cruises where the travel agents bid for your business.  You pick the cruise and cabin you want and submit to Cruise Compete, then wait a few hours and get a number of quotes from different travel agents.  For the bargain basement last minute cruises in the lowest room categories that we usually buy, I haven’t received any great offers through cruisecompete since I’m usually getting a promotion from Travelocity and stacking it with 4-7% cash back from Mr. Rebates of Ebates.  From talking to travel agents I found through Cruise Compete, they have mentioned the higher priced cabins and more expensive sail dates typically have more wiggle room to offer free cabin upgrades or on board credits to win your business.

You can also purchase cruise tickets direct from the cruise lines or through your own travel agent.  I’ve found that a lot of the discounts go away if you’re booking straight with the cruise line, though that is how we got our amazing deal on Costa a few years ago.  If you have a preferred travel agent, you’ll get great service from them although you might not get the best pricing or promotions (then again, you might).

 

Check out all the posts in the Going on a Cruise series:

Going on a Cruise Part 1: Overview

Going on a Cruise Part 2: Getting the Best Deal (this post)

Going on a Cruise Part 3: Save on Board and on Transportation

Going on a Cruise Part 4: The Food!

 

 

Do you have any tips or tricks for getting a great bargain on a cruise?

 

 

Going on a Cruise Part 1 – Overview

Pool deck on the cruise

In the past year, the Root of Good family went on two cruises in the Caribbean.  I wrote about the first cruise in my September 2014 financial update, and a few people wanted to learn more about cruises.

I think cruising gets unfairly painted with a broad brush.  My advice is to discard any preconceived notions you have about cruising such as “it’s for old people”, “it’s boring”, “I don’t want to be stuck on a ship with 3,000 other people”, or “no thanks, not interested in plastic wrapped vacations”.

Just think of a cruise as a floating resort hotel with free food and free transportation to a few sunny and sandy destinations.  With free entertainment for kids and adults, 360 degree oceanfront views, and maybe some sea spray if it’s windy.

We probably don’t fit the stereotype of the typical cruise customer.  We’re big on slow travel.  We spent seven and a half weeks bumming around Mexico this past summer and set out on a five week road trip to Canada last year (though we returned home half way through the five weeks).  Travel is so important to us that we devote about a sixth of our overall early retirement budget to it.  Now that I’ve established my independent traveler street credibility, let’s talk cruises.

 

Cruise Basics

Cruises come in many shapes and sizes.  Big boats, small boats.  Except don’t call it a boat, it’s a ship.  The smallest ships carry as few as a couple hundred passengers while the largest ships carry 5,000 or more passengers.  Most of the ships from the big brands like Carnival, Royal Caribbean, and Norwegian Cruise Line carry around 2,000 to 4,000 passengers.  Add that to another 1,000 crew members, and you have a lot of people on a big hunk of floating metal.

How long is a typical cruise?  Seven nights is the standard cruise length (if there is a standard) and what I would recommend for a first time cruiser.  There are plenty of three and four night cruises, and also many cruises of two weeks or longer.  The three or four night cruises are very affordable but won’t permit a lot of time to relax and enjoy the time on board since three nights aboard equates to only two full days aboard.  Cruises of two weeks or more can be nice, but if it’s your first cruise I wouldn’t commit to more than a week in case you really don’t like it.

If you’re in the US, most cruises visit the Caribbean or Mexico and depart from ports on the east coast (mostly in Florida) or from the west coast (Los Angeles).  There are other ports of departure with limited sailing dates up and down the east coast, the gulf coast, and the west coast.  You can also visit Europe, Central America, South America, Asia or really almost anywhere in the world.  Sometimes these more distant destinations are part of a multi-week cruise departing from the US, but just as often you will depart from a port near the continent you will be cruising around.  Cruise ships only cover about 500-600 miles per day so it can take a week or two to cross the Atlantic or Pacific ocean or skirt the shores of a continent.

Are cruises cheap?  They can be very inexpensive.  The cruise we booked last September was $650 per two person cabin including taxes for a seven night cruise.  I can’t find a land based all-inclusive resort for that amount, and certainly not one within driving distance of North Carolina.  A three night cruise from Florida to the Bahamas can be under $300 per cabin.  Cruises can also be expensive.  A 32 night cruise from Florida to Chile (by way of Cape Horn at the tip of South America) can set you back $8,000 per cabin.  Some luxury cruises last a month or two and approach $100,000 for the cheapest cabin (which I bet isn’t too shabby).

The advertised cruise fare can be misleading.  The cruise we booked in September was advertised as $199.  That’s per person and doesn’t include taxes.  A cabin is what you are actually booking, which means two or more people.  On our cruise, taxes of $125 per person increase the advertised price by more than 50%.  That’s usually the case for the least expensive cruises.  The advertised price is often for the cheapest cabin on board, and if you want to upgrade to something luxurious, you’ll pay more.

 

What the cruise fare covers (and doesn’t)

What do you get for the $650 cruise fare (or whatever you pay)?

  • Food.  Five star dining every night.  Or all you can eat buffets, burgers, pizzas and ice cream.  We enjoyed fifteen different restaurants on our last cruise including a fish and chips counter, a fresh burrito joint, and the formal dining room with favorites like lobster, filet mignon, and crab cakes.
  • Some drinks.  Juices, coffee, hot chocolate, tea, and tap water are pretty standard.
  • Entertainment.  Broadway stage shows, dance clubs, live music, DJ’s, comedy clubs, magicians, game shows, and outdoor movies
  • Port visits.  What you do while visiting the port is up to you.  We visited Mexico, Honduras, and Belize on our last cruise.
  • Kids club.  Free childcare for kids.  Our kids love it.  Those still in diapers may not qualify for the kids club, and some cruises charge extra for childcare on port days.
  • Fitness and recreation.  Gym with treadmills, weight sets, and stepping machines are standard.  Table tennis, basketball courts, volleyball courts, mini golf, rock climbing, zip lines, water slides, swimming pools.
Mexican food from our cruise to Mexico. Almost as good as the real deal in Mexico.

Mexican food from our cruise to Mexico. Almost as good as the real deal in Mexico.

What the fare doesn’t cover:

  • Excursions while in port
  • Internet
  • Alcohol and sodas
  • Premium restaurants on board
  • Gratuities

In our experience, cruises are pretty good value propositions.  You pay a lump sum price for the entire vacation and as long as you don’t overindulge on extras, cruises can be a rather inexpensive way to vacation and experience a taste of luxury.

 

Life on board

While you’re on a cruise your day can be jammed packed with activities or laid back and filled with nothing more than seaside lounging with a good book with occasional breaks to dine at the seemingly endless assortment of restaurants and dining spots on board.

Each evening you receive a newsletter outlining the next day’s schedule of activities on board as well as the restaurant schedules and food themes.  Glancing back at the daily newsletter from the first day of our cruise, I see the programmed activities started at 7:00 am with a free morning stretching and fitness class at the spa and the day ended with a midnight comedy show in the cabaret lounge at the rear of the ship.  Throughout the day there are dozens of planned activities like:

  • a cooking demo in the ship’s steakhouse
  • sports trivia, music trivia, and entertainment trivia in the lounges
  • karaoke awesome party (they seriously put “awesome” in the name of the party on the schedule)
  • family friendly comedy shows
  • cornhole competition
  • mini golf tournament (did I mention the ship had a full mini golf course?)
  • two different broadway style musicals in the evening.
  • acoustic guitar performance
  • live jazz music
  • hairy chest contest (can’t say I’m sad I missed this one!)
  • ping pong tournament
cruise-newsletter-schedule

The daily schedule

Those are all covered in your basic cruise fare.  There’s also a huge array of organized activities to essentially separate you from your money like the art auction, designer watch seminar, bingo, slots tournament, Texas Hold Em tournament, “free” diamond gemstone consultation, spa tours, and jewelry by the inch sales.

Between eating and lounging, we usually didn’t make it to more than the main broadway stage show each night and a little ping pong, mini golf, and swimming sprinkled throughout the day.

Early Retirement Interview

Eating, swimming, and lounging all day.

On sea days, you’ll have the chance to get off the boat for most of the day until around 4 or 5 pm and explore the day’s destination.  On our cruise, the ship stopped at Cozumel and Costa Maya in Mexico, Roatan Bay in Honduras and Belize City in Belize.

Sabbatical

Who wants to get off the ship and explore when the view from the deck is this nice?

While on board, dress is pretty casual most of the time, but this varies by cruise line.  The only time there is a dress code is in the formal dining room.  During our cruise, the dressiest night in the dining room required “Cruise Elegant” attire (“shorts, t-shirts, jeans, flip flops, bathing suits, sleeveless shirts for men, sportswear, and baseball hats are not allowed in the dining room”).  I translated that to mean khakis and a polo shirt or button up shirt with no tie should be fine if you don’t mind being surrounded by some folks in tuxes and cocktail dresses.  So far we’ve never been tossed from the dining room for dressing inappropriately.

While on the subject of the dining room, it’s worth mentioning the social opportunities aboard ship.  You can choose to dine with your own family or group at a perfectly sized table, or you can choose to sit at a larger table with random strangers (that soon become friends).  We’ve never opted for the “dining with strangers” program, but for the extroverts it should work well.

With the advent of the internet, you can also meet strangers online (sounds like fun!) before your cruise departure date and then meet up in person once on board the ship.  If you’re interested, check out the “roll call” forums at cruisecritic.com (a great resource in general) or search facebook for the ship name and sail date for the facebook group for your sailing.

For those traveling with kids, you are in luck.  Most cruise lines operate some form of kids club which is basically all day babysitting for ages 2 or 3 up to 17.  These kids clubs are generally free though some cruise lines charge for late night service or on days that you are in port.  Our kids love love love the kids clubs because it’s like summer camp with a bunch of other kids.  The adult staff get paid to entertain kids all day.  What do the kids do?  Arts and crafts, music, video and board games, sports, and sometimes on stage performances in front of the whole ship.  On our Costa cruise a few years ago, the kids club ended each evening with a kids’ disco party in the night club complete with a real DJ, flashing lights, and awkward dancing.

And not only can you ditch your own kids in the kids club, you can also get away from all other kids on board in one of the adults only areas of the ship.  On the Carnival cruise line ships, the adults only area is called “Serenity”.  The adults only swimming pool and hot tubs were serene other than the occasional drunk 22 year old stumbling around.

 

Check out all the posts in the Going on a Cruise series:

Going on a Cruise Part 1: Overview (this post)

Going on a Cruise Part 2: Getting the Best Deal

Going on a Cruise Part 3: Save on Board and on Transportation

Going on a Cruise Part 4: The Food!

 

 

 

Ever been on a cruise?  How did you like it?  If you’ve never been, what kind of preconceptions do you have about cruising?

 

 

The Gear Post: What We Packed For A Seven Week Trip With Kids

All of our gear for seven weeks in Mexico.

For those following our crazy seven week adventure in Mexico, you might be wondering what we packed for our trip.  Here’s the answer!

First a bit of philosophy.  While we were on our trip, we wanted to be nimble and not encumbered by heavy bags.  Large luggage with wheels means checked bags on airlines and the need to flag a taxi if you’re going more than a few blocks.  We chose to pack light and take smaller bags so we could walk a mile or so if necessary without needing to take a taxi.  Light bags mean we can stop at a store and grab something quickly without fumbling with huge luggage.  Packing light also let us hop on and off local buses and subways instead of calling a taxi.  This meant spending $1.30 USD to get to and from the airport in Mexico City, for example, instead of $20+ for a taxi.  It also means we can exit the plane with all our luggage in hand and proceed directly to our destination and not wait 30+ minutes at baggage claim (if the bags ever show up at all!).

Our light packing made us look a little silly at times.  We sometimes get the question “where is your luggage?” because we’re only carrying bookbags for a two month trip.

Another constraint on our gear is our general frugality.  We’re cheapskates, so we don’t like to pay much for anything.  This applies to luggage, tech toys, clothing, foot wear, and all the other stuff we brought with us on the trip.

 

The Luggage

We checked out larger backpacks that are designed for backpacking through the wilderness but often used by those “backpacking” across Europe or Mexico (usually by bus or air).  Two packs we checked out were the 43-liter Kelty and the Osprey Farpoint 40 liter pack.   Then we realized we might not need to buy larger backpacks if we commit to packing light.

We already had a pair of brand new largish book bags we picked up for free back in the days of Office Max giving away free book bags and other goodies via their Maxperks rewards program.  The bookbags’ thick padding on the back and shoulder straps plus good, sturdy stitching and fabric made them worthy candidates for our gear hauling needs.  An added bonus is a laptop sleeve built into the main compartment that fit my 15.6″ Dell laptop perfectly.

After a test run, we determined we could fit all our clothes, tech gear, and footwear into the book bags we already owned.  They are the Ful Sweet Melissa Daypacks.

A casual daypack great for primary school. The Sweet Melissa features two main compartments, organizers, and stash pockets in the backpack

From this description at Amazon, it sounds like we’re traveling the world with an elementary school student’s day pack.  I’ll take that as a compliment to our packing skills and minimalism.

We picked them up on sale for $30 each at OfficeMax a couple years ago (they were free after the Maxperks Rewards).  Seven weeks in, they are holding up well even though I’ve loaded mine to max capacity with 20-25 pounds of gear (once I throw a few bottles of water in them).  They are also fairly light at two pounds in spite of plenty of padding and thick fabric.

For the three year old, we went with a plush monkey bookbag ($8 at Aldi) that was a Christmas present.  He likes it and is usually okay carrying it.  And it makes people smile.

The older girls used old bookbags they used to carry to school every day.  They are generic bookbags ($8 from Toys R Us) and the quality reflects the price.  I had to stitch one of the straps back onto the bag to prevent it from ripping off completely.  Otherwise, the bags are decent – lightweight and comfortable with enough pockets to be useful.

This is all we packed for seven weeks in Mexico.

Yep, packing for seven weeks in bookbags.  52 pounds of luggage for the whole family.

We have two smallish thin lightweight sacks (weighing 1 oz and 4 oz respectively) that we put any overflow into. Good for packing light stuff, maybe some snacks and water, and random crap that won’t fit into our backpacks.

The Ful backpacks are pretty big but easily fit into the airplane overhead bins. They fit in some bus’s overhead compartments and fit underneath the seat fine.

 

Tech Toys

If weight weren’t an issue, we would each carry a full size 15 inch laptop.  They are cheap, offer a large viewing screen and are very versatile.  We can play games, watch movies, edit photos, surf, read, write, research, manage finances, and video chat all with one device.

The downside is the weight.  A standard 15 inch laptop itself weighs about five pounds.  Add in a mouse and the power adapter and it’s closer to six pounds.  As a result, we decided to bring only one full size laptop and rely on tablets and a phone for other computing and entertainment needs.  The 15 inch screen size worked well for watching Netflix movies or TV shows late at night after the kids were in bed.  A little taste of normalcy while on the road, sometimes accompanied by popcorn.

I skipped a laptop case to save on weight (and money) and relied on the laptop sleeve built into my Ful bookbag.  Once in my bookbag, the computer is padded by the plush back lining on one side and my clothes on the other so it’s fairly safe from damage while on the road.

I bought a refurbished Dell 3537 laptop a year ago for well under $300 and it has proven a good choice for our trip.

In the future if we do more extended traveling, I’ll be looking closer at ultrabooks and Chromebooks.  Both of those share one thing in common: they are light weight.  Otherwise they are completely different machines.

Ultrabooks tend to pack quite a bit of computing power into a compact form and usually weigh around three pounds (a two pound savings over run of the mill 15 inch full size laptops).  Prices range from $700-$1,000+ but you get a lot of features even at the lower end.  It’s like a half price Macbook that runs Windows.

Chromebooks go the opposite direction.  They tend to have lower end CPUs, storage, and RAM but come with a price tag of $180-$300 to match the lower specs.  Many come with smaller screens around 12 inches which pushes the weight down to the 2-3 pound range for the smaller devices.  Since chromebooks run on Google’s Chrome OS, I would lose access to some Windows programs and games that I own and that I’m already familiar with.  On the upside, I’m a power user of Google apps and services that tend to be well-integrated with Chrome.

In addition to a laptop, we packed three Amazon Fire HD 7″ tablets so each kid could have their own dedicated device.  These were new purchases for this trip, and we found each tablet for around $60-70 on eBay.  In hindsight, the Fire HD 7 is a great tablet for kids (and Mrs. RoG enjoys playing Call of Atlantis on it, too!).  The Amazon App Store has a ton of free stuff for the kids including books for them to read.

I spent $7 worth of virtual Amazon Coins I acquired somehow on Minecraft Pocket Edition which all the kids installed on their own tablets.  That’s been a big hit with all of them.

The Fire HD 7 is solidly built.  The three year old dropped his tablet (without any protective case) at least 20 times yet it still works flawlessly.  Battery life is okay to great.  Minecraft, for example, chews through the battery in a couple of hours but reading an e-book or surfing the net lets the battery last at least 5-6 hours.

One kid asked to buy an iPad but after seeing the price tag of 5-10x the cost of a Fire HD 7, she quickly decided that the Fire HD 7 was about the same as an iPad without the cost.

If these tablets ever do break, at least they were very inexpensive and won’t be burdensome to replace.  If I wanted a tablet for myself, I’d probably spend a little more and get some form of android tablet like the 8″ Samsung Galaxy Tab 4.  There are a few apps on the Google Play store that aren’t currently available on the Amazon App Store for the Fire HD like Google Drive.

Otherwise, the Fire HD 7 is a nice little tablet for goofing off and surfing the web.  It only weighs about 12 ounces, so it’s great for carrying on the road.

electronic-gadgets-for-mexico-trip

Five devices, five people. 7.5 pounds of computing firepower.

I brought my Samsung Galaxy S3 smartphone that I have activated on Freedompop in the States.  The service doesn’t work in Mexico, but it’s a great device to use for offline maps with Google Maps.  That’s been our go to navigation tool in Mexico.  I’ll research places to visit and save them through google maps in my Chrome browser on the PC, then the saved locations automatically show up as little golden stars on my phone’s Map app.  Pretty nifty, Google.  It’s also really easy to select a city you’ll be visiting and save the whole city in an “offline map” so you can view all the streets even if you don’t have cellular data or a wifi connection.

The Galaxy S3’s Battery life is wonderful.  I routinely make it through a whole day of intense navigation and other use and rarely exhaust the battery.  It’s also not a brand new phone so if it’s stolen or I break it, I’m not out $500+.

We brought another phone, the Nokia 1616 dumb phone.  It’s just a few ounces of extra weight and it’s been very handy a few times when we really needed to make a phone call but couldn’t get the phones or internet to work where we were.  We’re on T-mobile’s prepaid plan, and calls in Mexico eat about $1.80 USD per minute.  For an infrequent minute or two, that’s not a bad price since we have a big unused balance on the phone and rarely use it at home.

We unlocked the phone before leaving, so we would have the option of buying a Telcel or Movistar SIM chip for $5-10 USD if we needed to make calls more frequently.  Telcel has a prepaid plan where you can put 20 pesos ($1.30 USD) on the phone and pay under 1 peso per minute (about 6 US cents) with the airtime lasting at least 10 days.  Excellent choice if you need to order a pizza or call a taxi without using your own phone plan’s international rates.

The final tech item in our bag is the Canon A3100 12 megapixel point and shoot digital camera.  It’s not a dSLR so the pictures are just okay.  But it’s compact and weighs very little.  If we were going to upgrade, it would probably be to something like the Canon EOS Rebel T5.  Three times the price and three times the weight of our Canon A3100 point and shoot camera, but probably three times the quality, too.

 

Clothing

For each person, we packed:

  • 4 shirts
  • 4-5 undergarments
  • 4 socks
  • 2 shorts/skirts (no skirts for Mr. RoG)
  • 1 pants (except for Mr. RoG)
  • 1 swimsuit/trunk

This turned out to be plenty of clothes since we had a washer and dryer for 99% of our trip.  The Aloft in Cancun (where we are currently staying) even offers a free washer and dryer though we probably won’t have to use it.

We could have economized by packing half the amount of clothes and doing laundry every 2-3 days instead of every 4 days, but we had enough room so we went crazy and packed a four day clothing supply (with some extras for the three year old).

 

Footwear

I bought a new pair of shoes before our trip because my old ones were falling apart.  Since I didn’t want to have inferior footwear for 7 weeks, I bought what I hoped was a good name brand piece of footwear, the New Balance 750 V2 running shoe (around $30 on sale).  At first, the shoes were a little uncomfortable while breaking them in at home.

While on the road they performed beautifully.  Great on flat pavement, grass, sidewalks, rough trails, rocks, and slippery surfaces.  The only problem I had was walking on the wet, slick, polished cobblestone pavement in San Miguel de Allende since the soles are very flexible and pliable.

I doubt there is a good shoe to handle these streets.

I doubt there is a good shoe to handle these streets.

The shoes themselves are well built with a light foam sole and a grippy but flexible rubber lining on the tread surface.  The toe area is covered with a highly breathable material (great when it’s hot, sucks when it’s freezing out).

I didn’t buy any special socks for my trip and just packed my normal every day socks (the 8 pair for $7 plain white socks from Walmart).  Small mistake.  They are thin and lightweight which is usually a good quality for a sock.  Until it wears through after walking miles and miles.  When this happens at home I toss the socks out.  On the road, I didn’t want to buy socks that don’t match the ones I already own so I tried sewing up the holes without lasting success. My workaround was wearing the socks upside down.  This is a great way to get two times the life out of a sock, but now I have holes in my socks on top of my foot.  Time to get new socks when I get home.

holy-socks

How many MPS (miles per sock) do you usually get? And check out those brand new kid’s shoes after 7 weeks of busting it down dusty Mexican roads and trails.

On our next long term trip, I might invest in some Thorlo socks.  They are supposed to be the gold standard in comfortable and durable footwear.  However they come with a gold plated price tag at roughly $10-13 for a single pair (around 10 times the price of the cheap but less durable socks from Walmart).  The Thorlo socks get excellent reviews at Amazon and I’ve heard strong personal endorsements from many people.  I feel like spending $60 on five pair of socks is crazy, but maybe it’s worth it if I amortize the sock cost over a very long period of time.  Perhaps I’ll compromise and splurge on a brand new $7 bag of Walmart socks right before our next big trip.

 

Miscellaneous gear

We each packed a lightweight rain poncho except Mrs. RoG who packed a compact umbrella.  We’ve used the ponchos once or twice.  The umbrella gets used a lot to protect us from the rain and to provide shade.  The ponchos only weigh 1-4 ounces whereas the umbrella weighs 8 ounces.  We economized on weight by only taking a single umbrella.  This mixed solution worked perfectly and lets one of us run out quickly and easily in the rain without donning the cumbersome poncho.

We carry one hand picked first aid kit with:

  • tylenol and ibuprofen pain meds
  • anti-diarrheal tablets
  • dayquil and nyquil tablets
  • Zyrtec (cetirizine) allergy tablets
  • Benadryl allergy tablets
  • menthol cough drops
  • bandaids
  • tums antacid

So far we have used half the stuff in our med kit.  All of this stuff is available locally in Mexico but we already had it on hand from the $0.88 generic medicine section at our Walmart in Raleigh.  And when you need medicine, you need it bad.  I didn’t want to have to rush out and navigate the streets and stores of Mexico to track down these meds, so I packed a well rounded med kit ahead of time.

The only possible addition would have been a series of cipro antibiotics, but with our high deductible health insurance plan, it would be a very expensive doctor’s visit to get a prescription for “just in case”.  It’s easy enough to pick up while in Mexico by paying $2 USD or so for a consult at the pharmacy or $20-30 USD for a real office visit with a real doctor.  We didn’t need antibiotics, so it worked out in our favor to not get those meds ahead of time in the US.

We brought basic personal hygiene items like a safety razor, floss, toothpaste, toothbrush, and deodorant.  We purchased shampoo and conditioner once we arrived in country since it’s so heavy.

Other random items on our packing list include a sewing kit, fingernail clippers and file, deck of playing cards, small pad, pen, hat, and sunglasses.

Mrs. RoG’s electric hair dryer didn’t make the cut for our final packing list.  It’s probably a pound or two and pretty bulky.  As it turns out, she still had access to a hair dryer for roughly half of the seven week trip.  It was a sacrifice for her but probably a smart move since it would have pushed her into a larger piece of luggage.

The kids couldn’t bring any stuffed animals with them, and the only toy we packed was a small Thomas The Tank Engine for the three year old.  I can’t tell that we’ve inflicted any long-lasting psychological damage by depriving them of thousands of toys like most kids their age have.

That rounds out our packing list.  We tried to split out the loads fairly evenly between the adults and kids based on ability to carry loads.  I carried around 20-25 pounds in my pack, Mrs. RoG carried about 14 pounds, the 8 and 10 year olds each carried around 7-8 pounds, and the three year old carried 3-4 pounds in his monkey bookbag.

 

Closing thoughts on travel gear

Every time I saw someone with huge backpacks or multiple large pieces of luggage, I thought about how we made the right choice in packing light.  No regrets at all.

We knew we would miss some things while we are away from home, but we didn’t miss much of our stuff.  Even though we have thousands of pounds of stuff at home, the 52 pounds of gear that traveled across Mexico with us proved perfectly adequate.

The only specialized purchases with this trip in mind were the three Fire HD 7 tablets.  Everything else we already owned (like bookbags) or needed to buy anyway (like shoes).  I anticipated spending a lot more to gear up for our big trip.  But as it turns out, most of what we already own was “good enough” to get us out the door and all over Mexico.

 

 

If you were limited to just one large bookbag for a seven week trip, what would you put in it?  What item would be hardest to leave at home because it wouldn’t fit? 

 

 

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