Lares Trek to Machu Picchu with Alpaca Expeditions- Day One

If you want to go to Machu Picchu in Peru you have many options. You can stay in Aguas Calientes and take the bus to Machu Picchu and tour the ruins with a guide, you can stay in Cusco and take the train to Ollantaytambo then the bus to Aguas Calientes then the bus to Machu Picchu, or you can take a guided hike and camp along the way finishing at Machu Picchu. The latter is what my family and I chose to do.

There are seemingly hundreds of companies that offer treks to Machu Picchu. As far as options for hiking routes, there is the more popular Classic Inca Trek, the more difficult Salkantay Trek, or the Lares Trek in addition to alternative treks. I decided to take the Lares Trek for several reasons:  it isn’t considered as popular as the Classic Inca Trail so it’s not as crowded, it has stops along the way at salt pans (which I find beautiful), thermal baths (which I find incredibly soothing and relaxing), at a local market where we would buy foods for local families along the trek, at a local school where we would talk with the children and give them some supplies and bread, and at a local family’s house. We chose the 4 day/3 night trek, which meant we would be camping in tents for 2 nights and at a hotel in Aguas Calientes for the third night then take the short bus ride to Machu Picchu the next morning.

I chose Alpaca Expeditions because it came recommended. I later found out Alpaca Expeditions is the most popular trekking company to Machu Picchu for Americans. They promise an English-speaking guide, delicious food prepared by an on-site chef, a horse if you need assistance along the hike, a satellite phone for emergencies, small groups, and much more. There are options to upgrade some things for your hike, which I recommend. Let me just say every single one of us said many times on the trek how glad we were to have the walking poles.

20190520_125406
Day one of the Lares Trek- just the beginning!

The evening before our trek began, we met at Alpaca Expeditions headquarters in Cusco. We paid the balance that we owed and met with the rest of our group, a family of four from Connecticut, which meant there would only be seven of us not including those working for Alpaca Expeditions. We also met with our guide, Abelito, who explained briefly what we would be doing each day of the trek. He told us that the porters and horsemen would be in charge of carrying the tents, sleeping bags and pads, all food, water, cooking supplies, and basically everything we would need on the trek except for  personal items in a small backpack. Each of us was given a duffle bag to put our clothes and personal items in, which we would get each evening. We only had to carry a small day pack with any items we would want along the trek during the day, like sunscreen, bug spray, camera, and things like that.

Day one of our hike began with a 5 a.m. pickup in a large van at our hotel in Cusco. We drove 3 hours on curvy, winding roads, where we had to pull over after maybe an hour so I could throw up on the side of the road (and yes, I had taken an anti-nausea pill before I got sick). After I no longer had anything in my stomach, I was fine for the rest of the drive. We stopped at a market in a small town and bought sugar, flour, rice, pasta, bread, and coca leaves that we would later give to a family and school children. We took a guided tour of the market and were told all about the vegetables and other things sold there. 

IMG_2159
Waterfalls!

After driving for a while longer, we stopped for breakfast at a spot along the roadside overlooking a mountain. This was our first taste of food prepared by the chef and it was a great start with fruit salad, bread with jam, freshly squeezed mango juice, hot tea, coffee, and more. After a short drive to the Lares Hot Springs, we put on our swim suits in the changing area and had 45 minutes to relax in the pools. There were multiple pools with varying degrees of temperature. I’m a huge fan of hot springs so I thought it was a great way to start the hike!

We drove the short drive from the hot springs to the trailhead for the Lares Trek, got a quick lesson on how to adjust our hiking poles and we were off! After hiking for 2 hours we had a huge lunch at a beautiful spot along the trail then hiked for 1 and ½ hours more when we stopped at our first campsite that was near a lake, aptly named the Blue Lagoon. We had hiked 7.8 miles for the first day past waterfalls, sheep, and mountains, and re-fueled that evening with a hearty dinner of pasta, soup, roasted chicken, vegetables, bread, tea, and hot cocoa. Before dinner was served, we had some light snacks like popcorn, which we all devoured.

IMG_2371
This was a short walk from our campsite. Listening to the water flow at night was soothing.

We all happily took our hot water bottles from the cook to sleep with and collapsed into our warm sleeping bags for the night. It was cold that night, as is usual in the Highlands of Peru, but the sleeping bag was the kind that goes around your head to keep you warmer and we also had insulated mats to keep us off the ground and a super-warm blanket (not sure if it was alpaca or wool but I got so warm in the middle of the night I took mine off and put it on my daughter). I should also note that there were two people max in each tent (my husband had his tent to himself), which was fantastic.

The first day was pretty easy because the hiking we did was moderate and not for terribly long stretches. It was a good start for our trek and I was feeling really good about our decision to choose the Lares Trek with Alpaca Expeditions. We hadn’t yet reached the highest point in our trek, and I knew day two was set to be our most difficult segment of the trek. I was anxiously looking forward to what we would see and do the next day.

To be continued…

Happy travels!

Donna

 

 

Advertisements

Cusco, Peru- Things to Do and Places to Eat Plus a Day-Trip to Famous Rainbow Mountain

Many people go through Cusco on their way to Machu Picchu. My family and I were in Cusco for 3 days/3 nights before our trek to Machu Picchu (which deserves separate entries that I’ll post later) to help acclimatize to the high elevation and for another 2 days/2 nights after Machu Picchu before we flew to Arequipa. My immediate reaction when we were flying into Cusco was surprise at how much bigger it was than I thought it would be. There are just over 400,000 people in this city that sits at 11,152 feet above sea level.

On our first day in Cusco, my husband wasn’t adjusting well to the elevation, but he also had stopped drinking coffee cold-turkey so who knows how much of his reaction was to caffeine withdrawals. We just walked around the city and took in the sights before he asked to go back to our room to rest, where he did so for several hours then woke up feeling much better. My daughter and I both had headaches that first day but they were manageable and we adjusted pretty quickly to the elevation.

20190518_123214
Plaza de Armas in Cusco

We ventured out on our second day in Cusco and saw a parade going on at Plaza de Armas so we watched some of that (we had also seen a parade the evening before while we were at dinner). We did some shopping at the many markets and took a ton of photos. I found Cusco to be a beautiful city full of friendly people and on more than one occasion the locals started conversations with us (completely in Spanish). They weren’t trying to sell us things either, but they were being genuinely friendly.

On our third day in Cusco we were feeling pretty adventurous and decided to walk to Sacsayhuaman and the nearby Statue of Christ. The Statue of Christ is large but don’t expect it to be on par with Christ the Redeemer in Rio. However, the views of Cusco are amazing from here and worth going just for that. It’s about a 10-minute walk to Sacsayhuaman from the Statue of Christ, which is the real reason to come to this part of Cusco. These ruins are impressive and you can spend hours walking around and exploring. We walked here from the main section of Cusco, up what felt like a million stairs straight up through various neighborhoods. On the way back we smartly took a taxi which was worth every Sol.

20190519_143314
Sacsayhuaman ruins in Cusco

The evening of our third night in Cusco, we met with Alpaca Expeditions where we paid the remainder due for our trek to Machu Picchu, met with the family of four that would be joining us, met our guide, received instructions for the next day, and received the duffel bag that would remain with us for the trek although carried by porters during the day. We were all looking forward to the trek and ultimately to seeing Machu Picchu.

After we returned to Cusco from our Lares Trek to Machu Picchu, we went to hike the famous Rainbow Mountain, or locally known as Montaña de Siete Colores (aka Vinicunca). This was the one specific thing my daughter requested (insisted) we do in Cusco, although I was a bit skeptical after reading some of the reviews and blog posts about it. We booked our tour locally rather than online from the US and saved a ton of money by doing that; however, we didn’t do much research and just randomly chose a tour company, which maybe wasn’t the best idea (our so-called English-speaking guide barely spoke English but luckily we spoke enough Spanish to be fine).

Rainbow Mountain, while definitely worth doing, wasn’t even the best part of the day, in my opinion, but I’ll back up before I go there. We had yet another early morning wake-up (a consistent theme for us in Peru) in order to be picked up by the driver at 4:30 am and after driving around for another hour to pick up the other people (so much for a “guaranteed” small group) we finally began the drive to Rainbow Mountain.

After an hour and a half we stopped for “breakfast” at a roadside restaurant that didn’t have heat where they sat us (and was freezing at the early morning hour) and we had what amounted to about a half an egg, some bread with jam, and tea. Good thing our hotel packed a breakfast for us to take with us when we left that morning! We drove another hour and a half and reached Rainbow Mountain. We were given a wooden pole (better than nothing but by no means a walking pole) by our guide and were told to be sure to be back at the van in four hours at 1 pm. There was no commentary about the area, no information given, nothing other than I’ll see you later!

20190524_105413-PANO
Rainbow Mountain

I’ll tell you something about Rainbow Mountain you may already suspect- it’s extremely crowded. The majority of the walk there was pretty easy although it was at 17,060 feet at the peak (starting altitude is 14,189 feet), that is, until the final 400 meters, where it went straight up and I was huffing and puffing to get my breath. One of the women from our group wasn’t acclimated to the elevation and was having a really difficult time before she even reached the climax of the climb. There are horses there you can pay to take you up the mountain to the base of the final steep point, however, and many people were taking part in that.

We chose to pay the extra admission fee to Red Valley, which is adjacent to Rainbow Mountain, and I liked that even more than Rainbow Mountain. When you’re walking through Red Valley, you can see all of the colors of the earth one at a time as you walk along, including black, white, red, brown, green, white, and purple. It may sound easy to hike back down the mountain, but I actually found that part even more difficult than going up. You pretty much slide down the mountainside, trying not to fall (although many people around me fell multiple times) while you “walk” down loose rocks and/or sand. On the way back to Cusco, we stopped at the same place where we stopped for breakfast for lunch that consisted of mediocre soup, baked chicken on skewers, salad, bread, red jello (really?), and some vegetables. Our guide also gave us a very brief talk about Rainbow Mountain that didn’t contain any information I didn’t already know.

On our final day in Cusco we discovered what I wish we had known about for the first part of our time in Cusco:  Avenida el Sol. This part of Cusco had a very different feel from the rest of the city to me. It felt more modern, cleaner, with more locals and less tourists. In addition to the shops, restaurants, cafes, and hotels, there is a nice mural and a large market where you can buy local items (sweaters and other clothing, jewelry, artwork, etc.). Maybe the best part is there were no baby alpacas on leashes held captive all day by women sitting around who want you to take their picture for a fee (absolutely horrible and illegal although it still happens).

20190525_121036-EFFECTS
Some cool artwork on Avenida el Sol in Cusco

A note about the temperature in Cusco in relation to hotels and hostels. Cusco is quite chilly at night and in the mornings so if you go be sure to dress in layers. I wore a light down jacket and gloves at night and early mornings when we were out and was comfortable but would have been cold in anything less. The hotels and hostels also often don’t have heating on par with what you’d find in the United States. I found our hotel room, which was the basement of the building to be downright freezing and the space heater they gave us was useless. Although our accommodation had two-bedrooms, two bathrooms with kitchen and sitting area for only $60/night, I “down-graded” us to a one-room, one-bathroom accommodation for $55/night that was higher up in the building in hopes that it would be warmer for our return stay after our trek to Machu Picchu. It was warmer but still not what I would consider warm, just tolerable. It’s not just me, either, I read review after review of multiple hotels where people said their room was too cold.

Some of our favorite restaurants in Cusco include La Bodega 138 (get the wood-fired pizza), Cafe Balkon Azul (phenomenal service and food), El Paisa (great seafood, huge portions, and good drinks), and Deli Monasterio. Nuna Raymi was good but the server was too pushy with the drinks, appetizers, and desserts and it was very loud when we were there (I realize this isn’t always going to be the case). View House Restobar has amazing views of the city but the service is notoriously horrible if you’re going for food (I heard nearby Limbus Restobar is great but they were closed when we went there).

If you want to book a trek from Cusco to Machu Picchu, I highly recommend going with Alpaca Expeditions. There are literally hundreds of options but I found Alpaca to far exceed my expectations, which were set pretty high.

Have you been to Cusco, Peru? If so, what did you think of the city and its people? Were you as surprised as I was to see how big of a city it is?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

 

Lima, Peru- The Good, Bad, and the Ugly

If you fly to Peru from the United States, you pretty much have to go through Lima, although I know you can sometimes fly directly into Cusco (perhaps other cities as well, but I’m not sure). On a recent visit to Peru, we flew into and out of Lima. On the first day we arrived in the evening, took a cab to our hotel, walked around the area surrounding our hotel for a few hours, took a cab back to the airport and flew to Cusco. All was good so I’ll start there.

Our hotel was in the Miraflores section of Lima. From everything I had read before going to Peru, Miraflores is the place to be in Lima. I found a pretty nice small property in Miraflores that offered free breakfast. It was clean and the breakfast was good. We enjoyed our time walking around Miraflores, with the ocean views, stopped for lunch at a cute little restaurant that was tasty, walked around a little more, then asked our hotel to call a cab for us to the airport.

We spent almost two weeks exploring the Highlands area of Peru, including Cusco, Machu Picchu, Aquas Calientes, and Ollantaytambo, then we flew to Arequipa and explored that area before we flew back to Lima. We had an afternoon flight from Arequipa, landing in Lima around 4:30. Since our flight back home wasn’t until 1 am, we thought we could explore Lima that evening instead of staying in the airport for several hours.

20190517_112233
Miraflores region in Lima, Peru

I found an airport storage facility where we could store our luggage. After a few wrong turns in the airport, and being told by airport workers they had no idea what we were talking about when we asked for directions, we finally found the place. We gave them our bags, saw them whisk them away into lockers, got a receipt, and went back outside to hail a cab.

Now for the bad part of the story. We had learned from earlier experiences you must ask before you even get into the cab how much the fare would be and how long the ride would be from taxi drivers in Peru, since none of them have meters. After settling on a reasonable price with a driver who was wearing taxi credentials and being told it would take about 40-50 minutes, we were off to Miraflores. Then things started going downhill.

At first the cab ride to Miraflores was uneventful, if you consider traffic in Lima to be uneventful that is. On the best day, traffic is insane in Lima. It’s more the norm than the exception to have several near-misses with other cars and buses, and the drivers usually will speed up all of a sudden, only to slam on the brakes two minutes later, and/or jerk the car suddenly.

After maybe 10 or 15 minutes in the cab, we could see things were not going well. The driver told us the ride would take more like 2 hours to get to Miraflores (we knew that was a lie). He also told us it would take longer to go by the beach than through the city (also a lie) and he would have to pay a toll if he went by the beach (also a lie), which would cost us more money. He kept insisting that all of this was true and we would have to pay 10 soles more than we agreed to at the beginning, which we of course disputed with him.

After about a 45-50 minute ride (which we noticed he took some crazy turns simply to add on time, and even questioned him about but he blew it off like it was nothing), we could see on Google maps that we were close to where we wanted to go. I should add that he pretended to only know how to speak Spanish, but by now it was apparent he knew more English than he put on, because he laughed when my daughter made a sarcastic remark about him in English.

When we were close to getting out of the cab, he informed my husband that he didn’t have any change and required exact change only. He went so far as to pull out his wallet (a fake one, I’m sure) to show my husband that his wallet was empty. Luckily my husband had a bill small enough that the difference was only $1.50, so he threw the bill at the cab driver, saying “Take your blood money!” and we all got out, glad to be out of that car.

By this time, we were all pretty worked up and didn’t even feel like doing the shopping and walking around that we had planned. We just found a restaurant, had dinner (it was fine but nothing special and certainly not worth the cab ride), found another cab for the ride back to the airport (this guy was honest and fair and did everything he was supposed to do), picked up and paid for our luggage from the storage place, went through security, and waited for our plane.

IMG_2057
Surfers in Lima

And now for the ugly part of the story. Since we had a 1 am flight out of Lima, it wasn’t until we reached Atlanta several hours later that I went to pull out my cell phone from my backpack. It was missing. I thought maybe I had inadvertently stuck it in my other bag and told myself I would empty out everything at home and surely it would be there. It wasn’t. My cell phone was obviously stolen by someone at the luggage storage company at the airport. I’m positive it was in my backpack when we stored our things there and since we never check our luggage, other than storing my two bags at the Lima airport, they were with me the entire time.

I tried to find contact information for the storage company but only found an email that I’m not even sure is the same place, but I sent an email anyway, telling them my phone was missing from my backpack that was stored there. Of course I didn’t get a reply back and I don’t expect to. I called my cell phone company, explained what happened and got a new phone. As far as I can tell now, everything is OK. My phone didn’t have a locator on it, but you can be assured my next one will. It was at least password-protected and it was a piece of crap that I hated, so there is that as well.

So yes, I think Lima is a pretty awful city and would not spend any time there ever again. I loved Peru and would definitely go back again. Unfortunately you have to go through Lima airport to fly to the places I want to go back to so I’ll just plan on spending however long the layover is in the airport and not leaving. Also, I wouldn’t judge a city just by a couple of bad people, but we talked to someone in Arequipa that was from Lima. He told us Lima is a very dangerous place, filled with theft, corruption, and people are even sometimes kidnapped. No, thank you.

Have you been to Lima, Peru? What was your experience if so? Have you been to a city while you were traveling and you had a bad experience?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

 

How to Keep Your Airline Miles Once You Earn Them

I previously wrote about how I saved a ton of money using my Delta Airlines-branded American Express card, which you can read here: How Flying with Delta Airlines Has Saved Me a Boatload of Money. However, Delta Airlines isn’t the only airlines my family and I fly with. Occasionally, if a flight is substantially less with another airline, we’ll fly with them. Currently, I have airline miles with American Airlines, United Airlines, and Delta Airlines. I have no plans in the next several months to fly with American or United Airlines, but you never know what may pop up so I want to keep the miles I have with them just in case.

With the exception of Delta Airlines, all miles earned with airlines in the United States have an expiration date. For United Airlines, miles expire after 18 months of inactivity; Southwest Rapid Rewards points expire after 24 months of inactivity. In general American Airlines AAdvantage miles expire in 18 months if you don’t fly with American or one of their partners, but if you have an American Airlines-branded credit card, your miles earned using that card will remain valid as long as you use the card.

mountains blue sky plane airliner
Photo by Hazyrah Mokhlas on Pexels.com

Most of us that have earned miles by flying with a particular airline have received something in the mail stating we can buy a magazine to stop our miles from expiring. Maybe you’ve even done this yourself; I know I have many years ago. That is, until I found out this isn’t really the best way to keep your miles from expiring.

It’s a pretty well-known fact that simply flying with an airline isn’t the best way to earn miles unless you fly for work and literally fly every week or you fly first class all the time. Once you accrue those hard-earned miles the last thing you want to happen is for them to expire so you can’t even use them. As long as there’s some kind of activity on your mileage account within the limit (as I mentioned above, usually it’s 18 to 24 months) your miles won’t expire.

What counts as activity? You could purchase magazines, as that indeed counts as activity on your account. You spend a small amount of your miles to buy the magazine, so the miles are deducted from your account, but it re-sets the clock on your account, thus further extending the expiration date of your miles.

An even better way is to have an airline-branded credit card that you use for everyday purchases. As I stated above, when you use an American Airlines-branded credit card, your miles earned using that card will remain valid and don’t ever expire. I use my Delta Airlines-branded credit card when I shop for groceries, get gas for my car, buy clothes, go out to eat, and pretty much everything else I can, in addition to buying airfare for myself and my family.

One thing many people don’t know about is you can earn miles simply by shopping online through your airlines-branded credit card shopping portal. For example, you can earn 2 miles per dollar spent by shopping at Home Depot with many cards, or Bloomingdale’s or Target or Macy’s, and the list goes on and on. The number of miles you earn per dollar also varies greatly, from 1 mile to as much as 15 miles per dollar but I’ve even seen some places offering many more for large purchases. Often, stores will offer limited-time promotions where you may earn say 8 miles per dollar when you normally would earn 2 miles per dollar. This only applies to online shopping, however. Still, it’s an easy way to rack up the miles simply by doing something you were going to be doing anyway if you needed to buy something online.

Many airlines-branded credit cards also have dining programs. Simply by enrolling in the program with your credit card, you earn miles by eating out at certain restaurants. If you eat out a lot, the miles would really add up quickly this way. Even if you don’t eat out that often, it’s another way to keep your miles from expiring.

It’s really not as hard as some people may realize to hold on to their airline miles. You have several options to earn miles by doing things that most of us do anyway.

Have any of you done any of these things to keep your airline miles from expiring? If so, please share your experiences below!

Happy travels!

Donna

 

 

 

Delaware in a Weekend

I’ve lived in West Virginia, Tennessee, and North Carolina and I’ll admit I knew almost nothing about Delaware before I went there recently. Since I only went for a weekend, I still know almost nothing about the state but at least I can say I’ve at least seen some of the coastal areas. Other than being known as the first official state in the United States, many Americans in general don’t seem to know much about Delaware unless you happen to live in an adjoining state.

Let’s all give a little love to Delaware and learn a bit about this state. Coming in as the second-smallest state, Delaware is 96 miles long and 39 miles at it’s widest. Delaware is flat, with the highest point a mere 442 feet above sea level. There are only three counties in Delaware and some of its most popular cities include Rehoboth Beach, Wilmington, and Dover.

When I was choosing which half marathon to run for my race in Delaware (I’m running a half marathon in all 50 states), several people suggested I run a race along the coast. I thought about running the Coastal Delaware Running Festival in April with a start and finish on the Rehoboth Beach Boardwalk, but then I found the Seashore Classic Half Marathon in May in Lewes, Delaware, just outside Rehoboth Beach. The Seashore Classic Half Marathon is a much smaller affair than the Coastal Delaware Running Festival and I really like smaller, local races.

20190511_112259-2

My family and I drove up to Delaware from North Carolina and stayed in Rehoboth Beach in a house through VRBO. The house was close to everything in the area and allowed us to easily check out everything. Within an hour of Rehoboth Beach, there are a ton of things to do such as visit a couple of state parks and multiple beaches, go to an amusement park or water park, rent bikes and ride along the Junction and Breakwater Trail, or visit some historical sites in Lewes, the first city in the first state in the United States.

The afternoon of the day that I ran a half marathon, we went to Cape Henlopen State Park to walk our dogs. Part of the race was through the state park and I wanted to check out some other areas that I didn’t see on the course. We paid our $10 entrance fee ($5 for Delaware residents) and drove to the Seaside Nature Center, where we quickly found out dogs were not allowed, even though this is where we were directed to go at the entrance gate (and the woman saw and commented on our two dogs in the car).

IMG_2037

I asked inside the Nature Center exactly what areas of the park were dog-friendly, and was told basically everything south of there but nothing in that area or north of there. We decided to drive to the campground and parked just before the entrance to the campground. From there, we walked along parts of the Bike Loop, the Salt Marsh Spur, Walking Dunes Trail, and Gordons Pond Trail. We got turned around several times and had to use our GPS to figure out which way to go, especially on the Salt Marsh Spur, which wasn’t marked well. Overall, Cape Henlopen State Park is very scenic and a place I highly recommend going to if you’re in the area.

There is also a plethora of shopping and dining in the Rehoboth Beach area and surrounding cities. I’ve been told many people that live in nearby Maryland cross over the border to go to the outlet mall in Rehoboth Beach to save money. There are also local, unique shops with a wide range of products and services, especially in Lewes. As far as restaurants, we ate at Kindle, The Pickled Pig Pub, and Dogfish Head Brewings and Eats. My favorite was Dogfish Head, which only fortified my claim that breweries almost always have great or at least really good food.

IMG_2043
Cape Henlopen State Park

As I mentioned earlier, there are multiple beaches in the area, and I would venture to say the beaches are the primary reason why people come here to visit. Lewes Beach, Rehoboth Beach, Gordon Pond Beach (within Cape Henlopen State Park), and Dewey Beach are the most popular beaches as far as I can tell. Originally the plan had been to rent stand-up paddle boards from Delmarva Board Sport Adventures after the half marathon, but that wasn’t in the cards. It looks like a fun option for kayaking or paddle boarding in the area, though.

While we managed to just get a little taste of Delaware, it turned out to be a pretty state (at least what I saw along the coast) and we had a nice time there. I do have to say that it was quite congested with traffic around Rehoboth Beach on Mother’s Day weekend, so I can only imagine how much more congested it gets during the busy summer months. The area is also pretty expensive, so be prepared for that and budget accordingly.

Have you ever been to Delaware? If so, where did you go? Do you have plans to go there?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

 

 

Travel Ideas for Animal-Loving Families

My family and I are huge animal-lovers. We have two rescue dogs that only travel with us on road trips (see my post Tips for Traveling with Dogs) so we love interacting with animals of all types when we travel to fill that void of missing our dogs. Over the years we’ve had many different encounters with animals. When our daughter was very young we would sometimes visit zoos when we traveled but that seemed to get less and less. Now we prefer to visit places that are rescue centers or see animals in their natural habitat when possible.

Our interactions with animals during our travels have run the gamut, with some places more positive experiences than others. My list of top places includes mostly dogs, exotic birds, bears, moose, butterflies, sting rays, and iguanas. I’d like to share some of the places that stand out more than others here.

When I was planning our trip to Utah, a co-worker who has been to Utah a few times recommended a place called Best Friends Animal Sanctuary. I looked it up and it did indeed look like a place my family and I would be interested in visiting. Not only did we visit there, but we had lunch upon arrival, stayed in one of the cottages on-site, toured the facilities with a guide, volunteered with some puppies (PUPPIES!), and even got to have a sleepover with one of the puppies in our cottage. It was even better than I could have imagined. I highly recommend staying here if you’re in southern Utah. You can read my full post on Best Friends here:  Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, “Save Them All!”.

IMG_0149
Walking a puppy at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary

San Diego, California is one of my favorite places in the world. Not only is it beautiful but it’s absolutely full of things to do. When we were there a few years ago, we stopped to visit a bird rescue just outside San Diego called Free Flight Exotic Bird Sanctuary. This is a place my daughter and I still talk about because it was such a unique experience for us. We had been to animal shows before where birds perform silly tricks and such, but we’d never been allowed to touch and interact with exotic birds before. One of our most memorable interactions here was with a bird called “Peanut,” who serenaded us and made us laugh. You can read my blog post on Free Flight Exotic Bird Sanctuary here:  Off-the-Beaten Path Things to Do in Del Mar, California.

dsc04109
Some of the birds from Free Flight Exotic Bird Sanctuary

Many people visit Alaska to see bears, moose, puffins, and many other animals. When we visited Alaska, we definitely saw our share of many different types of animals. One of my favorite places to see animals was at Denali National Park. We went on a bus tour (an on-and-off bus where you could get off and hike then catch another bus to get back out of the park) one day and saw tons of bears, many different kinds of birds, caribou, and dall sheep. You can read about Denali National Park here:  Denali National Park in Alaska. Another animal encounter we had while in Alaska that turned out to be my daughter’s absolute favorite is when we went to Seavey’s Sled-Dogs in Seward, Alaska. What’s not to love about getting to hold adorable Alaskan Husky puppies? Going on a sled-ride pulled by some eager dogs around the grounds was a ton of fun as well!

IMG_1568
One of the puppies from Seavey’s Sled Dogs

Ostriches and butterflies probably aren’t the first things you think of when you think of Aruba. Many people visit Aruba for the powdery white sandy beaches and while they certainly didn’t disappoint, we also discovered a couple of places for animal-lovers. Simply known as The Butterfly Farm, this is one of my favorite butterfly farms I’ve been to anywhere. There are hundreds of butterflies here from around the world as well as caterpillars. A guided tour is included in the entrance fee, and the guide will show you how to safely handle butterflies when they inevitably land on you. We also visited the Aruba Ostrich Farm and loved it here. In addition to the tour of the ostriches (which you can feed and even go on a short but wild ride if you’re little and lucky enough like our young daughter was), you can eat lunch here, and view their African art pieces. There’s also a souvenir art shop full of local art work.

IMG_5213
My daughter feeding ostriches at the Aruba Ostrich Farm

Charleston, South Carolina is another one of my favorite places to visit, and I’ve been there many times over the years. On a recent visit, I discovered The Center for Birds of Prey, which is just outside Charleston in a city called Awendaw. Here, we took a guided tour and saw many different types of birds, watched a flight demonstration, and saw newly-hatched baby owls. Many people think of historical sites, gourmet food, and beaches when they think of Charleston, but The Center for Birds of Prey is also a great place to visit if you’re in the area and are an animal-lover.

IMG_1320
One of the beautiful birds at the Center for Birds of Prey

The next place I’m going to mention is definitely touristy, but a lot of fun nonetheless. As they say, some things are popular for a reason. When we were recently in Grand Cayman Island in the Caribbean, we went snorkeling with a tour group that took us to Stingray City. Here, we were able to touch these gorgeous creatures as they glided past us on the shallow sandbar. Our guides offered to let people hold or even kiss a sting ray (it was said to bring you good luck), but I was content to just gently touch them as they swam past me. We also thoroughly enjoyed seeing the endangered Blue Cayman Iguana on our guided tour of Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park. While you can’t touch the iguanas on the tour (they bite), you get to see them up-close on the behind the scenes tour of the breeding and recovery program. You can read my blog post on stingrays (and more) here:  Grand Cayman Island- Beautiful Beaches, Bioluminescent Water, Stingrays, and More and my post on the botanical garden (and more) here:  Exploring Grand Cayman Island on Foot-Crystal Caves, Botanical Gardens, Hiking a Trail, a Historical Site, and Hell.

20181129_112942
A Cayman Blue Iguana at Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park in Grand Cayman Island

The final place on my list where my family and I interacted with animals is Hawaii. Over the years, I’ve been fortunate enough to visit the islands of Oahu, Maui, Kauai, and Hawaii (a.k.a. The Big Island) multiple times and I’ve seen many different kinds of animals like huge turtles both in the water and on beaches on the Big Island, peacocks in Kauai, and whales off the coast of Maui. However, one of my favorite animal experiences was when we visited the Kauai Humane Society and took one of the shelter dogs on a field trip. At the Kauai Humane Society, you get to choose a dog from their best-behaved dogs and take them for a walk or wherever else you’d like for the day after paying a donation and getting some items for the day. The dog we chose, Priscilla, was extremely well-behaved in the car and on her leash. Taking Priscilla on a field trip that day was one of the highlights of my vacation in Hawaii and given all of the amazing things we saw and did in Hawaii, that’s really saying something! You can read about my vacation in Kauai here:  Rediscovering Kauai, Hawaii and Some of My Favorite Things.

IMG_1938
Sweet little Priscilla from the Kauai Humane Society

Are you an animal-lover? Do you try to incorporate visits to animal rescue centers or otherwise interact with animals when you go on vacation? What are some of your favorite places to visit animals?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

How Flying with Delta Airlines Has Saved Me a Boatload of Money

I started keeping a spreadsheet of how much I pay for flights late in the year 2017. Before that, I would of course search several places to get a good deal and search on Google Flights to see if flying on a different day would save money. Over the years, my family and I have mostly flown with Delta but not exclusively. We unfortunately don’t have an airline with a “hub” where I live, which means we often have to fly through other cities before our final destination and we also don’t get as good of flight deals as we would if we had an airline hub where we live. For many places where we fly, however, Delta has been the best choice considering both price and time for my family.

In 2016 I applied for and received my first American Express credit card associated with Delta Airlines. It was the Gold Delta SkyMiles Credit Card, which has no annual fee for the first year then is $95/year. You get 1 mile per dollar for everyday purchases and 2 miles per dollar for Delta purchases. There are no foreign transaction fees and your first checked bag is free.

However, in 2017 I began receiving information in the mail about upgrading to the Platinum Delta SkyMiles Credit Card. Like the Gold card, you get 1 mile per dollar for everyday purchases and 2 miles per dollar for Delta purchases. There are no foreign transaction fees and your first checked bag is free. However, the annual fee is $195. I debated whether it was worth it until I saw the part about the Companion Ticket. You get a free coach companion ticket every year at card renewal. Unless I use it for somewhere that’s always cheap to fly to (like New York City), that’s a no-brainer that it would more than pay for the extra $100 in annual fees over the Gold card and even cover the $195 annual fee.

airplane wing towards clouds
Photo by Sheila on Pexels.com

There is also a “Miles Boost” available to Platinum Delta SkyMiles card-holders that isn’t available if you have the Gold card. Basically, you get 10,000 bonus miles and 10,000 MQMs after spending $25,000 in a calendar year. If you spend $50,000 in a calendar year you get an additional 10,000 bonus miles and 10,000 MQMs. This is probably a bit more information than most fliers are interested in, but I did want to throw it out there for you true “travel geeks” who are into that kind of stuff. If you have to ask what an MQM is, you probably don’t need to worry about it (Medallion Qualification Miles if you do want to know). Long story short, this could potentially put you into elite status simply by just using your credit card.

Now to get to my actual numbers and how much money having the Delta SkyMiles credit cards have saved me. I’m going to list some recent flights here, since I didn’t even start putting my numbers into the spreadsheet until late 2017, but you should know that flight prices vary for most cities throughout the year greatly and from one year to the next. Still, there are some exceptions; if I buy a ticket to New York City, I know it should cost me roughly $200 round-trip including taxes and fees throughout the year but it could be considerably more for last-minute tickets or the day after Thanksgiving for example.

Here is an example of some of the total airfare costs (basically taxes and fees) I paid per ticket using Delta miles (all were in the range of 28,000-37,000 miles per person):

One-way flight to JFK (New York City) from North Carolina:  $8.20

One-way flight to North Carolina from Miami:  $41.80

Round-trip flight from North Carolina to Boise, Idaho:  $11.20

Round-trip flight from North Carolina to Idaho Falls, Idaho $53.80 (using Companion Fare), $11.20 for separate ticket using miles, thus 2 flights were $65.

Let me go into more detail for the last example because it is by far the most striking. Full-price airfare for the round-trip flight from North Carolina to Idaho Falls, Idaho was $565.80 per person. You can see the Companion Fare ticket saved $512 ($565.80-$53.80=$512). Using miles for the third ticket saved $554.60. By using the Companion Fare for two people and miles for the third person, we paid $630.80 for three round-trip tickets. If we would have all three paid $565.80, it would have cost us $1697.40, so we saved a total of $1066.60! The Companion Fare alone more than pays for the $195 annual fee for the Platinum Delta SkyMiles credit card, not even taking into account using basic earned miles and paying only $11.20 round-trip for that other ticket.

window view of an airplane
Photo by Alex Powell on Pexels.com

I should note that I have absolutely no affiliation whatsoever with Delta Airlines, American Express, or any other credit cards. I don’t get any kind of benefits if all of you rush out right now and sign up for a Platinum Delta SkyMiles credit card or any other credit card and I’m not even going to put a link here. I’m sure you all know how to apply for a credit card.

You may come across some articles where people are bashing Delta Airlines because of what’s called “devaluation of miles,” which basically means Delta’s miles aren’t worth as much as some other airlines’ miles. I’m not going to get into the nitty gritty of all of that, but suffice to say Delta isn’t the only airline to devaluate their miles; many others have also done the same thing.

One important point is if you never fly anywhere with Delta, then obviously you shouldn’t get a Delta-affiliated credit card. If you mostly fly with American Airlines or United Airlines, or another airline, I encourage you to look into their credit cards. If you just use the most basic card with no or a low annual fee and only fly once or twice a year, it’s still a potential way of saving big on your future flights. One final advantage Delta has over other airlines is their miles never expire; they’re the only airline with that policy.

It also should go without saying but is an important point if you have credit card debt, your savings are negated by the interest you pay. However, by paying for most things with an airline-affiliated credit card and paying off the bill in full every month, you can easily save hundreds of dollars in airfare.

Do you use airline miles to pay for flights? Do you have an airline-affiliated credit card to help you earn miles? What else do you do to save money on flights?

Happy travels!

Donna