Monthly Archives: February 2015

Four weeks from today….

….and I’ll be on vacation.  Traveling to Italy.   Italy has been my dream vacation since I was in the eighth grade studying Latin and learning about Pompeii.  Then in tenth grade my Modern European History teacher sparked another interest of Italy for me as we learned about famous works of art there.  My Catholic roots have also always left me wanting to visit the Vatican.

Right now is the best part – the anticipation, the excitement.  I can’t believe I’m going to Italy in less than a month now.  I can’t believe I’m taking my kids with me.  Traveling with the kids is awesome.  The kids still talk about the castle we went to on the Rhine river and ask when we can go back.   I feel very fortunate that we are able to take the kids on trips like this.

So, here are the things I’m looking forward to the most.  First, spending time together as a family.  We are so busy in our daily lives that spending time together as a family can often be difficult.  Second, learning together as a family.  None of us has been to Italy before.  None of us speaks any Italian besides ciao.  The kids are excited for Venice, the Colosseum, and walking across an entire country in just one day (Vatican City).  While I know the kids won’t particularly be too enthusiastic at first, I’m looking forward to showing them the Last Supper, the Uffizi Gallery, and the Sistine Chapel.  Those are the places that they might not realize the significance now, but as they grow up they can one day say, “I was there.”  Similar to how we took them to the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam – I felt it was too important to skip, regardless if people felt they were too young to realize the significance.  Anyway, I’m also looking forward to the pizza, gelato, and wine.

I think the best day of a vacation is the day before the vacation starts.  It’s kind of like Christmas Eve.  You have all the excitement of knowing the next day is Christmas, but after Christmas it will just be another normal day.  Same thing with a vacation.  I love being on the actual trip…but also hate that too because I know that means the trip will end eventually.  Oh well, I guess that means after this trip ends I need to plan the next trip 🙂

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Five weeks to go

Five more weeks until our trip. I have all the tours and tickets booked. Now I am starting to look up restaurants. I am not looking for a restaurant each night but I am looking for a restaurant for every other night or every third night. Lunch and breakfast I never really worry about as usually those are quick meals in our house when we are on vacation.
In the past I have never researched restaurants and then we decide we want to go out to eat and have no idea where to go. Then things never go well. I can’t make a decision….or we pick somewhere the kids don’t want to eat at. So I am hoping to avoid that stress on our trip. Nights we are not eating out I figure I can make dinner in our rentals.

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Last Supper tickets

We will be in Milan overnight as we recover from jet lag. Originally I did not think we would get up to Milan, but since airfare was so much cheaper we start off there.

Since tenth grade I have always wanted to see the Last Supper painting. I decided since we will be in Milan to try to snag tickets for it.

The painting is not located in a museum, but in a church. The church only allows small groups of twenty five per group fifteen minutes timed entries to see the painting. Tickets go on sale about three to four months before you visit. You can buy very reasonably priced tickets directly from a ticket agency, or if you can’t get tickets that way you can buy an overpriced walking tour to see the Last Supper.

The charge to see the Last Supper is 8€ per adult. Kids are 1.50€. In reality the tickets are actually free but a €1.50 convenience fee is charged for making the reservation. So this is roughly $10 for an adult ticket and $2.00 for a kids ticket. Meanwhile a walking tour ticket is very easily over $50. I think I saw one tour advertised for 68€.

Anyway, I did not want to spend an arm-and-a-leg on tickets to this, especially since I have no idea what time we will be able to nap for the day. It will all depend on the time we can check into our hotel room. So my thought was if I could get the cheap tickets I would get them, if not I would re-evaluate and discuss with the family. If we had the cheap tickets it would not upset me if the rest of the family decided to sleep through the tour. But if we had the expensive walking tour tickets then I would be waking people from naps.

The tickets for the date we were going to be in Milan went on sale December 2. But they don’t tell you what time the website will be updated. So I set my alarm for 2AM which was 8 AM Milan time. I kept checking frequently. Finally at 3AM I decided to go back to sleep and try again at 4AM. I don’t think I slept so I was back up at 3:30. At this point I noticed tickets were finally going on sale. I had to keep refreshing until finally my date showed. Unfortunately the latest tour available was at 4:00 PM. I was hoping for a 5 or 6 PM showing. Also, the 4 PM came with an a Italian tour guide. I gave up and went to bed, hoping if I called in the morning I could get tickets that did not show online.

So at 8 AM I called and unfortunately the only tickets available through them were at 2 PM. I declined those tickets. It is in the middle of potential nap time. I decided to see if the 4 PM Italian tickets were still available. They were. So I booked these. I had to pay an extra 3.50 € per person for the Italian tour that none of us will understand. Oh well. It is still way cheaper than me buying a walking tour for each of us. Plus there are podcasts we can download to our devices before we go, or we can rent headphones there for 3.50€ per person as well. Also, we are just looking at one piece of art. It is not like we are touring a castle…

The two biggest points from this post: pay attention to when tickets to major attractions go on sale, and don’t be afraid to book a tour in another language if that is the only available option.

Categories: Italy | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

Keeping costs low – Vacation Rental by Owner (vrbo.com)

If we are going to be at a destination for three nights or longer I look for a rental property on Vacation Rental by Owner (VRBO.com). Usually I start by looking for a two bedroom, two bathroom place. If prices seem to high then I can lower my standards to two bedroom, one bathroom or even a one bedroom, one bathroom as long as there is a sleep sofa.

I usually start my search by plugging my dates and location into their website. Then I start adding filters such as properties with wifi and washing machines. Next I start going through the listings. I am prone to contact a place that has had lots of reviews as that tells me this is an experienced renter and the property probably has everything I need.

One thing I have realized is listing price might be a low amount. Depending on when you go, you should expect actual prices to be higher. For example prices are typically higher over holiday weekends, or the summer for a beach rental. Generally you will get better rates if you stay for a week. And expect that there will also be a cleaning fee tacked on to the rate. Finally, there is the hassle of needing to coordinate time to pick up the keys and check out.

Despite the price fluctuations, cleaning fees, and key hassles, I still find these properties to be a great deal. We once stayed in downtown Charleston in a two bedroom, three bathroom, two story rental for less than what we would have paid for a hotel. We stayed at the top of an overlook in Pittsburgh in a two bedroom, once again cheaper than we would have paid for a hotel room without an incredible view. In Sedona, Arizona we stayed in an awesome three bedroom house surrounded by amazing views. In Santa Fe, New Mexico we had another amazing house in the downtown area.

With our upcoming trip we have two VRBO.com rentals. Both are two bedroom, two bathrooms and both have washing machines. One is in the historical area of Florence – a block from their famous duomo and walking distance to sites such as the Accademia and Uffizi center. In Rome our lodging is right next to a metro stop, a large museum, and a block from a large park. My husband and I can go to the museum without the kids if we want (by taking turns) and we can all run around in the park if we want. Both of these places are cheaper than a small hotel room.

Other advantages of renting an apartment/home versus a hotel room include access to washing machines without having to go to a laundromat. This enables us to pack super light. A huge advantage for my husband and I is having the extra space and separate sleeping area from the kids. Another advantage is that if we don’t feel like going out to eat we can just cook something on our own or have take out delivered and we don’t have to eat that take out on a bed.

So, the next time you go on an adventure and need lodging for more than two nights I highly recommend checking a site such as VRBO.com or Airbnb.com (I have never used that site). We have had great luck with VRBO.com (and hopefully I have not jinxed it with this post).

Categories: Financial, Lodging | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Next Planned Vacation – Drum Roll Please…..

To my faithful blog followers – we’ve got a big trip coming up next month.  The family is heading to Italy.

I wrote a post a while ago about researching flights before buying them, and I just want to reiterate the importance of this.  When we’ve gone abroad I have now gotten in the habit of booking airline tickets first before I start making hotel and train plans.

I first approached my husband about going to Italy in September when I saw a cheap fare on US Airways out of Philadelphia.  By the time I convinced my husband to agree to Italy, that fare was gone.  He also said he would prefer if we flew in an upgraded economy ticket (one with extra leg room).  I knew I spoiled him in August when we were in the exit row going to and from the United Kingdom.

Well, I really wanted to go Italy, but I also didn’t want to spend an arm-and-a-leg on airline tickets.  In my head I had a set budget per ticket I was willing to pay.  I thought now that I needed the upgraded economy tickets that there was no way I’d find a good fare that I was willing to pay.

After a couple of hours of research – I found our magic fare.  We are flying Delta, connecting in JFK and arriving in Milan.  Milan was the magic location in Italy that was at least $400 cheaper per ticket than Rome.  If we took a train up to JFK we could have saved an additional $150 per person…but getting to JFK via Amtrak is slightly trickier than getting to Newark on Amtrak…so this time I opted to fly out of the DC area.  The downside of this means we now need to get from and to Milan to other places in Italy.  But the positives outweigh the negatives.  I love train travel (especially in Europe).  And I was initially disappointed with our originally anticipated itinerary because I did not think I would get to see the Last Supper Painting, but now we will be in Milan with enough time to see the painting (blog post to follow soon on that booking) and possibly their Cathedral.

Anyway, back to booking airfare early.  Another advantage of booking early – the seats that we have booked are the “green seats” on seat guru.  I do believe that the longer you wait to book tickets, the fewer “great” seats you can choose from.

Finally, there’s also the benefit that the earlier you book, the more likely your airline schedule will be affected.  This could be a negative, but has more potential to be a positive.  We’ve had our schedule affected three or four times now.  Twice I’ve had to call and request different flights, but those flight changes haven’t cost me a thing because the schedule changed affecting our itinerary.  When we went out west to Arizona and New Mexico a few years ago I had been dreading our eight AM flight with a three year old and five year old, but then there was a schedule change and I was able to switch to a ten AM flight instead – at no additional cost.  When I had initially booked our tickets the fare for that flight was too costly to book.

When I know I want to travel somewhere I don’t start looking at air fare costs when I’m ready to book that ticket.  I start looking months and even years in advance.  Other destinations I will periodically query are Alaska, China, New Zealand, and Australia.  I still think it will be a while before we get to those places, but I like to keep an eye on air fare trends.  That way when I see a great fare, I know it is a great fare and feel good about my decision to pay that price.

So – stay tuned for additional blog posts about our upcoming trip.  I’ve also listed our expected expenses in an Excel sheet and after adding everything up – our costs for airfare, lodging, and transportation for four people are LESS than the cost for ONE person to participate in a tour such as National Geographic Family Expeditions.  Those tour prices don’t even include air fare, where as my calculations do.

Categories: Airplanes, Financial | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

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