More Things to Do in St. Petersburg, Florida

Previously, I wrote A Brief Overview of St. Petersburg, Florida- Where to Stay, What to Do, Where to Eat with some basics like where to stay and some of my favorite places to eat. In this post, I’m going to just talk about things to do since there are so many fun things to do in that area. I’ll start with outdoor activities since that’s my favorite. There are a crazy number of places in and around St. Petersburg to go walking, cycling, running, bird-watching, or just have a nice picnic lunch in nature. The town of Bradenton (a suburb of St. Petersburg) has a multitude of preserves so I’ll start there.

Preserves, Parks, and Trails in the Greater St. Petersburg Area

  • Robinson Preserve- 682 acres that is a mix of preserved mangrove, tidal marsh, and former agricultural lands that have been converted to coastal wetlands. The “Expansion” which has even more coastal wetlands and other habitats, a 2.5k rubberized pedestrian-only trail, additional kayak launches and trails, restrooms, picnic areas, and the Mosaic Center for Nature, Exploration, Science and Technology, or “NEST.”
  • Palma Sola Botanical Park- free. 10 acres. Yoga and other special events like Winter Nights Under the Lights the end of December. tropical plants, rare fruit trees, 3 tranquil lakes, a wealth of butterflies, screened pavilion and two gazebos.
  • Perico Preserve- trails, birdwatching, no dogs allowed.
  • Jiggs Landing Preserve- boat ramp, fishing, grills, open space, pavilion, playground, restrooms, trails
  • Neal Preserve- 20 foot tall observation tower, shell trails, and boardwalks that wind through the coastal environment (no bikes on trails; no dogs allowed).
  • Riverview Pointe- 11-acre site adjacent to the DeSoto National Memorial. Trails, fishing, wildlife viewing.
  • Ungarelli Preserve- trails, pavilion.

Nearby Anna Maria Island also has Leffis Key Preserve with scenic trails.

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Sunken Gardens

We visited Sunken Gardens in St. Petersburg and loved it! In addition to the botanical gardens with waterfalls, winding paths, and more than 50,000 tropical plants and flowers, there are pink flamingos and many other tropical birds. There are also special events throughout the year. Admission is a reasonable $12 for adults and $6 for children. We found a special buy one, get one free on Groupon, so it was an even better deal for us.

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Flamingos in Sunken Gardens

There are literally dozens of parks in the St. Petersburg area, some that are simply open spaces, while others have playgrounds, kayak/canoe launches, fishing, pavilions, soccer and baseball fields, tennis courts, swimming pools, splash pads, dog parks, grills, and so much more. You can check out this interactive map of parks and things to do in Manatee County.

Fort De Soto Park in Tierra Verde is on 1,136 acres made up of five interconnected islands (keys). In addition to the historic fort, there is over 7 miles of waterfront including almost 3 miles of white sandy beach, camping, seven miles of paved trail connecting North Beach, East Beach, the boat ramp and the camping area, two swim centers, 2 fishing piers, a 2.25 mile canoe trail, and short nature trails. There is a daily parking fee of $5.

Florida Botanical Gardens in Largo has 30 acres and over a dozen different gardens, aquatic habitats, artwork, a gift shop, annual events and programs, and best of all, it’s free. Also in Largo is the historical Heritage Village, set on 21 acres with 33 historical attractions including a variety of historic homes, general store, railroad depot, two schools, church, and more, and also all free.

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Stand up paddle boarding in Weedon Island Preserve

Weedon Island Preserve is an expansive 3,190-acre natural area located on Tampa Bay in St. Petersburg. There is a cultural and natural history center, guided tours and nature hikes, boardwalks and trails, and kayak/stand up paddle board rentals. Weedon Island Preserve is also a well-known birding and fishing site. Here’s the link to Sweetwater Kayaks, where we rented stand up paddle boards and paddled through the mangroves there. The guys working there are extremely nice and the launch site is literally steps from where you rent the boards or kayaks. There’s a link where you can check the tides, too since it can make a difference if you’re going through mangrove tunnels.

You can find more information on parks, gardens, beaches, and preserves for St. Petersburg, Largo, and Tierra Verde at the Pinellas County Website.

The Fred Marquis Pinellas Trail (most people just call it Pinellas Trail) is a linear trail currently extending from St. Petersburg to Tarpon Springs and is a multi-use trail that runners, cyclists, and walkers can enjoy. The trail was created along a portion of an abandoned railroad corridor, providing a unique, protected greenspace. My daughter and I ran on the trail a couple of times in different directions each time and absolutely loved it. It’s safe, scenic (cool mosaics, flowering shrubs and other landscape typical to the area) and pancake flat. Parts of it are shaded but other parts are not, so I suggest getting out early to beat the heat.

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Running on the Pinellas Trail

Museums and Galleries in St. Petersburg

Like the wide array of outdoor spaces available, there is no shortage of museums and galleries either. If I was short on time and had to choose just two or three, I would choose the Chihuly Collection, The Dali Museum, and Imagine Museum, but there are others that are fabulous as well, depending on your interests. Here are the major ones in St. Petersburg:

  • Chihuly Collection presented by the Morean Arts Center- glass art by world-renowned artist Dale Chihuly.
  • The Dali Museum- an impressive collection of works by Salvadore Dali and similar artists of his time.
  • Imagine Museum- a stunning collection of American Studio Glass, rotating exhibitions, and a growing collection of International Studio Glass.
  • The James Museum of Western & Wildlife Art- over 400 works of art inspired by the history of the American West.
  • Morean Arts Center- located in the Central Arts District with three other facilities in St. Petersburg.
  • Morean Glass Studio- watch glassblowing demonstrations and sign up for classes to make your own masterpiece.
  • Morean Center for Clay- watch local artisans at work and purchase some locally made pottery.
  • Museum of Fine Arts- over 20,000 works of art from ancient to contemporary.
  • Craftsman House- gallery with a collection of fine craft and artwork by American artists.
  • St. Petersburg Museum of History- featured displays include Schrader’s Little Cooperstown, the largest collection of autographed baseballs and the world’s first commercial airline flight.
  • Great Exploration Children’s Museum- designed for children ages 10 and under and filled with hands-on activities to stimulate learning through play and exploration.
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Some of the impressive artwork we saw at the Dali Museum and Imagine Museum

St. Petersburg does not seem overly touristy to me, although there are places that fit the bill for that, such as the cheesy miniature golf spots, cheap beach-themed shops (where you can buy an umbrella that probably won’t last a full day at the beach), and other similar places. You won’t find a plethora of chain restaurants, though of course there are some here, but there are also a decent number of locally-owned restaurants. You also won’t see row after row of towering chain hotels like you see at some beach areas.

If you’d like more information on the beaches in the St. Petersburg area or Anna Maria Island, check out my previous post, as mentioned in the beginning of this post.

Have you been to St. Petersburg, Florida? Anything I missed here that you enjoyed doing while you were there?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Brief Overview of St. Petersburg, Florida- Where to Stay, What to Do, Where to Eat

I feel like I’ve seen an awful lot of the state of Florida, from Pensacola in the far western edge to Tallahassee then over to Daytona Beach on the eastern part, down to Orlando, then south to West Palm Beach and further south to Ft. Lauderdale, Miami, the Everglades, and the keys all the way to Key West. I’ve also been to Naples and Ft. Meyers and those surrounding areas. Somehow I had never been to St. Petersburg before, though. I was truly missing a gem of the state!

Recently I went to St. Petersburg and also checked out areas around it including Anna Maria Island, Bradenton, and Gulfport. I absolutely loved the area and wondered how this had slipped under my radar before. While we were there we met with one of my husband’s friends he’s known since they were children who lives in Bradenton, so I also was able to get some input and the “insider’s scoop” from him.

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St. Pete’s Beach- one of many white sandy beaches!

There are soft powder-like white sandy beaches all along that area, some with sand dunes (which I find especially beautiful), great restaurants, friendly people, and tons of things to do ranging from water sports and botanical gardens to top-notch museums. Winter reigns supreme here. During the winter months you can expect highs usually in the mid- to upper-70’s and lows in the mid-50’s to mid-60’s. Best of all, it’s sunny most days with little rainfall. What’s not to like about that?

So what’s there to do in St. Petersburg? Well, if you like beaches, there are plenty of them. We visited several different beaches in the area and most of them were pretty wide to accommodate plenty of people. Some were more crowded than others, but they all had the same white, soft sand. Some of my favorite beaches were Pass-a-Grille Beach and Manatee Public Beach but St. Pete’s Beach and Treasure Island Beach are also nice, just a bit more crowded. Bean Point Beach on the tip of Anna Maria Island is beautiful as well, but smaller than some other beaches in the area.

There are also some fun, unique shops on Anna Maria Island, like Pineapple Junktion, Island Charms, the Island Cabana, plus more locally owned gift and clothing shops. Although it was closed when we were there, the Anna Maria Island Historical Society (a museum) looked really cool. You can see the remnants of the original Anna Maria City Jail, which had no windows, no doors, no bars, and no roof, meaning the people who stayed there were eaten alive by mosquitoes and suffered in the heat. According to the posted sign, no one “misbehaved” after spending one night in the jail. There’s also a historical home and some signs with interesting historical information. Just be aware that traffic can get pretty bad during the winter months if you’re going to Anna Maria Island during peak times.

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Anna Maria Island City Jail photo op!

There’s certainly no shortage of places to stay in all price ranges in the St. Petersburg area. Of course there’s Airbnb with hundreds of homes, apartments, and sometimes quirky places to stay like an Airstream travel trailer. There are also hotel chains, local hotels, plus bed & breakfasts in all price ranges. If you really want to splurge, you can stay at the TradeWinds Island Grand Resort. If you’re into massive resorts with activities, a kids’ club, water park, etc. and don’t mind paying for it, this is the place for you. Note, I did not stay here (I stayed in a house through Airbnb).

Likewise, there are so many great restaurants in the area, with prices to suit every budget. Some of our favorites were:

  • Alesia Restaurant- Vietnamese/French/Chinese (trust me, it works)
  • Snapper’s Sea Grill- seafood restaurant
  • Caddy’s St. Pete Beach- sandwiches, salads, burgers, etc. with a nice water view (although not oceanview but more on that in a second, and don’t let the exterior deter you; it’s nice inside)
  • 3 Daughters Brewing- plenty of beers on tap plus good food and fun outdoor seating area; there are tons of other breweries in the area as well
  • Cafe Soleil- a French bakery and deli serving breakfast, lunch, and delicious flaky pastries

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There are two main airports in the area, St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport and a little further away but still not that far and a bigger airport serving more cities, Tampa International Airport. Check prices into both airports and see which is best for you. Primarily Allegiant is the major airline in St. Pete-Clearwater Airport, but there are also flights through Sun Country Airlines and charter services to Gulfport-Biloxi, Mississippi plus Sunwing Airlines has a couple of flights to Canada. Tampa Airport has many more airlines serving them but is also harder to get into and out of since it’s more crowded.

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Some things to keep in mind:

Winter is the “peak” season here, meaning it’s more crowded and hotels and restaurants are a bit harder to get reservations for. Traffic is more congested. The weather here December through February is absolutely perfect, in my opinion, and still warm enough to go to the beach. Spring break is of course more crowded, so plan on that if you’re going in April. The summer months are hot and humid, but there is a nice ocean breeze to help a bit. Fall is also nice, once the temperatures drop in October.

Traffic tends to bottle-neck in certain areas that have only one way in and out, like Anna Maria Island and Fort DeSoto. Plan accordingly and allow for extra time.

“Water view” does not mean ocean view. It means you’ll have a view of a bay or other body of water but not the ocean. St. Petersburg is on the western side of Florida, with Tampa Bay on the east and the Gulf of Mexico on the west (technically there’s Pinellas County Aquatic Preserve and then the Gulf of Mexico).

Have you been to St. Petersburg, Florida? If so, what did you think of it? What did you do there?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

 

Which US Airlines Have the Least Legroom?

If you’re a relatively tall person like I am, at 5 feet 8 inches, legroom matters on an airplane. I’ve been on planes before where my knees are literally right against the person’s seat in front of me. If they decide to suddenly put their seat back, well, let me just say it’s not pleasant and for that reason, I almost never put my own seat back unless there’s a small child sitting directly behind me. Airplane courtesy aside, I know some people like to know what they’re getting into before they fly, especially if it’s going to be a long flight.

Of course when you’re comparing airlines, you should compare apples to apples. It’s not a fair comparison to look at economy seats with one airline and business or first class seats for another airline. Let’s focus here on economy class seats in the Main Cabin. The numbers shown refer to seat pitch, which is the distance from the back of your plane seat to the seat in front of you. To make things simpler, I’m going to refer to seat pitch and legroom interchangeably here.

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Photo by Sourav Mishra on Pexels.com

Most legroom in economy class:

  • JetBlue: 33-34 inches.
  • Alaska Airlines: 32 inches.
  • Southwest: 32 inches.
  • Hawaiian Airlines: 31-32 inches.
  • American/United/Delta: 31 inches.

JetBlue is an economy airline that shines compared to other economy airlines, with the most legroom of any US airline being just one of their many perks. If you are able to pay more, JetBlue offers passengers the ability to upgrade to “Even More Space” seating. In addition to providing an extra 6 inches in seat pitch, JetBlue’s “Even More Space” provides passengers with early boarding privileges, early access to overhead bins, and a fast track through security (only available in select cities). “Even more Space” pricing varies by route length. These seats can be purchased from JetBlue directly at the time of booking or at check-in. Pricing will be dependent on duration of flight.

Alaska and Southwest Airlines offer similar legroom on their airplanes. If you can manage to snag an exit row or bulkhead seat, you will be rewarded with even more legroom on a Southwest flight. However, since Southwest does not have pre-assigned seating and no upgrade options, unless you’re in the front of the line for the first boarding group, there’s no chance you’ll get those seats. You can choose bulkhead and exit row seats with Alaska Airlines, however, and upgrades are available, for a fee.

Hawaiian Airlines seats usually have 31-32 inches of legroom, but on the smaller Boeing 717s mostly used for inter-island service, travelers will get 30 inches of legroom. On the flip side, for longer flights coming from the mainland US, you can purchase “Extra Comfort” seats. These extra-cost seats are available on Hawaiian’s Airbus A330 and A321 flights and offer a seat pitch of 36-inches.

American Airlines seats tend to vary widely because they currently operate many different airplanes. In general though, most seats have 31-32 inches of legroom, with the majority closer to 31 inches. You can purchase a “Main Cabin Extra Fare,” which will give you 2-3 more inches of legroom, depending on the aircraft you’re flying.

United Airlines seats are pretty standard with 31 inches of legroom, with a couple of exceptions on some Airbuses and 737 aircrafts that have 30 inches and the 787-8 Dreamliner that offers 32 inches of legroom. For their “Economy Plus” option, you’ll be rewarded with an extra 3-4 inches of legroom.

Delta Airlines is similar to American in that the have a wide array of aircraft, with varying legroom. The average legroom is 30-32 inches, with 31 inches the most common. For your extra money with Delta Comfort+ seats, you get an extra couple of inches of legroom. If you’re able to pay for “Delta Premium Select” seats, you’ll get a comfy 38 inches of legroom in return.

Least legroom in economy class:

  • Allegiant Air:  30 inches.
  • Spirit:  28 inches.
  • Frontier:  28-31 inches.

Not surprisingly, Allegiant, Spirit, and Frontier are all budget carriers, and all offer their passengers the least legroom. As with the other airlines, however, you can purchase extra legroom with Allegiant’s Legroom+ and get an extra 4 inches. Legroom+ seats are in the first-row bulkhead section of the plane and exit rows over the wing. Another thing to note, none of the seats on Allegiant recline, which means no opportunity to bang the knees of the person sitting behind you. Also, Allegiant’s seat backs slope downward at an angle, so the seat in front of you isn’t even with your knees, shins, and feet. I recently flew with Allegiant Air and didn’t feel cramped at all.

It seems appropriate that the much-hated Spirit Airlines offers the least legroom of all airlines. You do have the opportunity to pay extra for “Big Front Seats” with a whopping 36 inches of legroom in the front of the plane. However, when you add up the cost of those seats in addition to the many, many other things you have to pay for with Spirit, you may see any savings you thought you’d have by flying with Spirit dwindle away.

Budget carrier Frontier seats do have a bit of a range in what you get, depending on the aircraft, but only a few of the older aircraft have the 31-inch pitch, and those are being phased out. Frontier’s newer aircraft have on average 28-29 inches of legroom. You can purchase “Stretch” seats which will get you a nice 36 inches of legroom and if you choose row 13 over the wing, you’ll be rewarded with a lucky 38 inches (something to remember if you’re flying with Frontier).

A bit all over the place in economy class:

Sun Country:  29-33 inches.

Minneapolis-based Sun Country is increasing the number of seats on its 737-800 aircraft, which will shrink the seat pitch to 29-30 inches, more aligned to its fellow budget airlines mentioned just above. Some of the aircraft will still have a 33-inch pitch, but they will also come with an additional fee. Depending on your route, it’s possible to have 31-32 inches of legroom but it seems inevitable that those aircraft will also eventually be retrofitted to the smaller seat pitch.

Do you even pay attention to seat pitch/legroom on airplanes or is it even an issue with you because you’re not tall enough for it to matter? Do you always choose an aisle seat and that’s good enough for you or do you prefer the bulkhead seats? Did you know about Frontier Airline’s mysterious extra pitch in row 13?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

How to Use Google Maps to Plan Your Next Vacation

I work with someone who I believe has a slight addiction to Google Maps. Often, after he and I discuss a place either he’s never been to or neither of us have been to, he’ll open up Google Maps and start “looking around” that place using the satellite view and street view options. If you’ve never done this, I encourage you to choose a place where you’ve never been and check it out. This can give you an idea of what a city, street, or neighborhood really look like. That’s just a fun aspect of Google Maps, but that’s not what I’m going to focus on here.

Beyond just being able to visualize a place and of course the main reason people use Google Maps for directions, you can also use Google Maps to help you plan a vacation. To begin with, open Google Maps and navigate to Menu (at the top left with 3 bars) then open “Your places.” There are four options:  labeled, saved, visited, and maps. Under maps, you can click on Create Map then start creating a new map. Type in a city, restaurant, hotel, or other place. If you see a place of interest on the general Google map for that area, you can click on it and then click on “Add to map.” You can add labels, add directions, add a marker, and calculate distances. You’ll also need to name your map. All changes are saved in Google Drive. If you already have a Google account, you should be good to go, otherwise you’ll need to set up a Google account to save everything. When you’re done, you can share your map with other people.

You can also create a map using the “Saved” option. This is a bit easier to navigate in some ways, in my opinion, so you may want to start with this option, especially if you have trouble with the “Create Map” option. For example, when I went to Wyoming, I saved a bunch of places that we would be traveling to there and sent my saved map to my husband. That map that I called “Wyoming” had 16 places on it, with everything from where we would be staying, the airport, places where I wanted to hike, hot springs, and packet pickup for the half marathon I ran there. I’ve created maps this way and shared them with my husband when we went to other places on vacation as well.

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Screenshot of some of my saved maps in Google Maps

I’ve already started a map using the Create Map option for our upcoming summer vacation to Spain and Portugal. Let me tell you, it’s already ridiculously full of places where I want to go plus the places we will be staying. I think there’s something like 40 places including beaches, restaurants, shops, historical sites, and other places of interest on there. When I’m done with it, just before our trip, I’ll share it with my husband so he has it too.

There’s also a feature some of you may not be aware of that you may either love or hate. If you click on “Visited,” you can see everywhere Google Maps has record of you going to. Obviously you have to have had your phone turned on and you need to be logged into Google in order for the places to be recorded. I checked and mine goes back about one year. I’ve had my Google account for longer than that so I’m not sure if it’s just a default to just keep data for a year or what. Some people may not like the idea of being “tracked” by Google, but this can actually be a good thing. Say you’re trying to remember the name of that cute little cafe by the water you ate at on vacation three weeks ago. By using this feature, you may be able to figure that out. What may also surprise you (it surprised me), if you also use Google photos, any photos you’ve saved to Google photos will show up in your timeline for those days.

Have you ever used Google Maps to plan a vacation or create a map before a vacation? What’s your experience been like?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

 

Travel in my 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s. What’s Changed and What Hasn’t?

When I was in college in my 20’s, I feel like I barely traveled anywhere. I won a free trip to the Bahamas, which you can read about here:  How a Free Cruise to the Bahamas Changed My Life. Like I said in the post, I feel like that trip to the Bahamas opened up my eyes to the world and whet my appetite for travel. Nonetheless, I was a poor college student through my mid-20’s and I just didn’t have the money to travel nor did I have the time when I was in graduate school.

Other than the free trip to the Bahamas in my 20’s, I went to Ocean City, Maryland for a beach trip for a couple of days one summer, I drove to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania a few times to go out with friends, went to New Jersey for a weekend with friends, and some other random places like that when I was in college. These were all low-cost, low-frills, short trips of 2 or 3 days at the most.

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A fun trip to see a friend in New York City in my 20’s

When I finished graduate school and started working, I branched out a little more and went to places like Jamaica, Mexico, and Harbour Island in the Bahamas (a far cry from Freeport in that it’s about a thousand times nicer plus it’s perfectly safe). I also went to Hawaii, and Napa Valley and Yosemite National Park in California, and some other places in the United States like Charleston, South Carolina, a city that’s still one of my absolute favorite places in the world.

Still, I don’t feel like I traveled that extensively until I was in my 30’s. My boyfriend and I went to Costa Rica and this was such an eye-opening vacation for me. So many of the people we came to contact with only spoke Spanish or very limited English. This was before the travel boom happened in Costa Rica, before it was more common to travel to the country, so things were a bit more rough and rugged. Still, we were at a nice resort where all of our meals were provided and we didn’t have to worry about figuring anything out on our own so we were a bit sheltered in that sense.

After Costa Rica came vacations to Miami (I had been to Miami in my 20’s as well), Ft. Lauderdale and Everglades National Park, a few places in California including San Francisco, Long Beach, Los Angeles, and Napa Valley; my wedding in St. Kitts and honeymoon in Nevis and St. Martin; Philadelphia; several cities in Italy; Phoenix, Sedona, and Grand Canyon in Arizona; and Colorado. Then we slowed down a bit when I was pregnant through the first year or so after my daughter was born and just traveled to places a couple of hours away by car.

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Napa Valley when I was in my 30’s

When my daughter was not quite a year and a half things picked back up for us travel-wise, and we flew to Naples, Florida, then shortly after that to Vermont, and a few months after that to Hawaii. This was when I was well into my quest to run a half marathon in every state and was running about four races a year, one in each season basically. We also went to other places during my 30’s like Disney World in Florida, Disney Land in California, Key West, Marathon (Florida), Miami, Aruba, Banff and parts of Alberta, Canada on the west and Niagara Falls and parts of Ontario, Canada on the east.

Not only did the amount we traveled increase in my 30’s, the variety of places we went to also started to increase. Because of running a half marathon in all 50 states, we went to many places in the United States that we never would have otherwise. More often than not, we ended up falling in love with the area but regardless we were always glad we went because of the experience. We also began to stay in nicer accommodations in my 30’s, going from the cheaper places that my husband and I might have stayed in before our daughter was born, to nicer places in safer neighborhoods after she was born.

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Hobbiton in New Zealand

My 40’s are when I feel like I became more of an educated traveler. After planning my family’s vacation that began in Munich, Germany and had stops all over tiny little towns in Austria like Werfen, Bad Gastein, and Fusch without any trouble at all, I felt more comfortable planning our vacations in other countries. In addition to the states we were going to for half marathons, we began going to a different country about once a year (sometimes two a year) in my 40’s.

I’m still in my 40’s and in addition to the countries I listed already, we’ve gone to Greece, New Zealand, back to Canada to go to Montreal, Chile, Malta, the Canary Islands, Grand Cayman Island, and Peru. Although New Zealand, Montreal, and Grand Cayman Island were all very easy to communicate with others there and easy to get around, the other places were more difficult. However, by branching out more and more, I felt like it kept getting easier to get out of my comfort zone.

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One of my favorite places in the world- the salt pans in Malta

Our two weeks in Chile was especially a time when we were pushed out of our comfort zone, since we came upon numerous people who didn’t speak any English at all and we had no cell coverage or even Wi-Fi at times. There was no guide to help us, no one to tell us what to do or where to go. In other words, we had to figure it out on our own, and of course we did. The people were extremely patient with us and helpful and kind. I think this vacation in particular showed me that I am resilient and most people in the world are helpful and nice although there are bad people everywhere of course.

Peru showed me that the world is so much more than checking off boxes to see the “Wonders of the World,” like Machu Picchu. Not that I went there solely to check off a box, but what I mean is the experience of the trek leading up to seeing Machu Picchu was actually more special to me than the “grand finale” of seeing the ruins. As special as Machu Picchu was, it was the icing on the cake after the trek. This was the first time I ever took a several-day-long hike so it was my first time experiencing something like that.

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Machu Picchu in Peru

My 40’s is also when I started staying at properties through Airbnb. By now, I’ve stayed at Airbnb properties throughout the United States and around the world. More often than not, I’ve had exceptional stays, but there were one or two that were a disappointment. One place reeked of cigarette smoke but we stayed there anyway and I didn’t say a word about it. I re-read Airbnb reviews while we were there to see if I had missed something and sure enough, someone had complained of cigarette smoke. However, the owner rebutted by saying no one had ever smoked in the house and the person basically was too sensitive and didn’t know what they were talking about. If you’re reading reviews and come across something like that, you can either believe the person who wrote it or you can believe the owner. My lesson learned was to believe the person who wrote the review in a case like this so now I pay more attention to the reviews and don’t just skim the top couple before I make reservations.

One advantage to staying in a property through Airbnb is you have a kitchen so you can cook some of the meals and not have to eat out all the time. Not only does this save money, it also saves time of sitting in restaurants waiting for your food to come and then for the check to come. If you don’t feel like cooking, there’s always the option of picking up something from a grocery store deli. We’ve had some delicious meals this way and they’re quick, easy, and cheaper than eating out.

Now I’m looking forward to visiting some more countries, some of which my husband and I are considering retiring early to, like Spain and Portugal. I’d also like to check out some countries in Central America and maybe Ecuador as potential retirement spots. Also high on my list for places where I want to visit but not live are some places in Eastern Europe like Slovenia, Croatia, and Montenegro. I’d also like to finally visit some countries in Asia. Who knows if I’ll be able to go to all of these places while I’m still in my 40’s; most likely not all of them but definitely some of them.

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Croatia- eventually I will get here!

One thing that’s changed over the years for me is the amount of travel has gradually increased. We currently take about five to six weeks of vacation each year. That’s not going to change from now until I retire since that’s the maximum I can take with my job (yes, I’m extremely fortunate in that sense). The diversity of places we go to has also changed over the years. We seek out some of the more off-the-beaten path areas even in more popular areas we go to.

What hasn’t changed is my love for travel. No, I take that back. My love for travel has changed over the years because it’s continued to increase. When I was in my 20’s, I feel like travel was something I wouldn’t even give much thought to. In my 30’s, travel began to feel like it was becoming a part of me, and now in my 40’s, I can’t imagine not being able to travel because it’s such a huge part of what I do and what I enjoy. So I can’t think of anything that hasn’t changed with me when it comes to travel from my 20’s to present day in my 40’s. I guess it’s true what they say that travel truly does change your life.

“Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.” – Anthony Bourdain

How has travel changed for you over the years? Or should I ask, how has travel changed you? That’s probably a topic for another day!

Happy travels!

Donna

 

Do You Really Save Money by Flying With a Budget Airline?

In the United States, there are several budget airlines:  Allegiant, Frontier, Spirit, Sun Country, JetBlue, and Southwest Airlines. I’ve flown with and/or have purchased tickets with all of these airlines except Spirit and Sun Country Airlines. I’ve found out the hard way there are some things to keep in mind before you hit the button to purchase tickets with budget airlines.

We’ll break it down by airlines, beginning with Frontier Airlines. Frontier Airlines often has sales for flights, sometimes cheaper than it would take you to drive to a place, especially if it would take you several hours to drive there and you’re going by yourself. However, you do have to pay for every little thing, which can and does add up. If you want to sit with someone else or you want a specific seat (like an aisle), you have to pay extra for that in advance, otherwise you will be assigned a seat for free upon check-in. You also have to pay extra for carry-on and checked bags. To save money, it’s cheapest to pay for bags online, more expensive if you pay at the ticket counter, and even more expensive if you pay at the gate. The size restrictions are strict, so be sure to measure all of your bags to make sure they are within the limits.

With Frontier Airlines, you also have the option of bundling to save money. You can purchase “The Works,” which includes a carry-on bag, checked bag, seat selection, priority boarding, flight flexibility, and 100% refundable ticket. “The Perks” includes all of that except flight flexibility and 100% refundable ticket. You can also save money by joining the Discount Den for $59.99/year. For that you will get access to exclusive low fares, free flights for a child age 14 and under with every adult on valid Kids Fly Free flights, and Frontier miles for every purchase. One final thing to note is you are often limited by the available days to fly. For example, if you need to fly on specific dates, Frontier may not be an option for you. I’ve also found that you may see a really cheap flight on the outbound flight but then the returning flight is much more expensive, negating the potential savings over other airlines.

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Allegiant Airlines is a smaller airline with not nearly as many flight options as far as destinations. Similar to Frontier, you will pay extra if you want to choose your seat in advance, otherwise a seat will be assigned to you at check-in. You also pay extra for checked and carry-on luggage and there are strict weight and size limitations. However, you can buy a bundle when you purchase your ticket (not later, though) to save money if you know you would like to choose your seat in advance and save on baggage fees. You will also save money if you print your boarding pass at home or have it on your phone; if an agent prints it for you at the airport, there’s a $5 fee. You also have to pay for any drinks or snacks onboard.

JetBlue is my favorite of the discount airlines. With JetBlue flights, you get more legroom than other airlines in coach, free snacks and non-alcoholic drinks, free wi-fi, movies and TV shows, plus you’re allowed one personal item and one carry-on item at no extra charge. There are several options, depending on your specific wants/needs for a flight:  Blue Basic, Blue, Blue Plus, Blue Extra, and Mint (for some coast-to-coast and some flights to the Caribbean).

Only Blue Plus and Mint fares include checked bags. As you might imagine, you get only the very basics with Blue Basic, plus no changes are allowed and you board last. Both Blue and Blue Plus allow changes or cancellations for a fee, but changes and cancellations are allowed for free with Blue Extra and Mint. You board first with Blue Extra and Mint while both Blue and Blue Plus are with general boarding. You also get special discounts and reductions or deductions of fees with JetBlue’s membership program, Mosaic. You can qualify for TrueBlue Mosaic by earning 15,000 base flight points within a calendar year or by flying 30 segments plus 12,000 base flight points within a calendar year. Base flight points are the 1-3 points per dollar spent that you earn on the base fare of JetBlue-operated flights.  Blue Basic fares earn 1 point on the base fare and Blue, Blue Plus, Blue Extra and Mint fares earn 3 points on the base fare.

I’ll admit that I’m not a huge Southwest Airlines fan, but I also haven’t flown with them in a while now and I know they’ve made some changes in their policies since then. Two nice perks for everyone that flies with Southwest is there are no bag fees even for up to two checked bags and no change fees if you change your reservation. You can pay an extra fee (from $15 one-way per passenger, which really adds up if you don’t have direct flights and are flying with your family and thus have multiple tickets) to give you automatic check-in, a better boarding position (but not necessarily an A boarding position) and earlier access to overhead bins.

The main reason why I don’t like Southwest is the fact that you don’t have the option to choose a seat until you board the plane. Southwest’s boarding has been called a “cattle call,” because the people are like a bunch of cattle being round-up. When you check-in for your flight, you’re assigned boarding group A, B, or C and a boarding position from 1-60. Those in boarding group A have first-dibs on seats and those in C are the last to board. Even though you’re not supposed to, I’ve seen people trying to hold seats for other people who are boarding later than they are. If you’re traveling with family members that you like and actually want to sit beside, you have to be in group A to even have much of a chance at that, especially if you’re a family of four or more and even then there are no guarantees. I’d rather just have the option to purchase a seat in advance.

Although I’ve never flown with Spirit Airlines, I hear they have a pretty bad reputation especially for delayed and cancelled flights. Spirit Airlines has a similar program to the Discount Den from Frontier Airlines, which Spirit calls the $9 Fare Club, with a fee of $59.95 per person per year and similar discounts like those with Frontier but not actually $9 flights. At the time of purchasing tickets, you have the option to “Book it,” and you’ll be assigned a seat and can only bring on a personal item. You have the choice to pay for a seat, bags, and other options separately. Alternatively, you can “Bundle It,” which includes a seat that you choose up to and including the exit row, a personal item, carry-on bag, one checked bag plus 10 lbs. extra, early boarding, one-time ability to modify your flight, and 2X flight miles. For an example, when I was playing around with booking a one-way short flight, I was given the option to bundle it for $68.99 per person per way, which they said was a savings of up to $174 per person. Spirit Airlines also has a frequent flier plan, Free Spirit.

Sun Country is based out of Minneapolis–Saint Paul International Airport but they also have flights out of Madison, Wisconsin; Portland, Oregon; St. Louis, Missouri; Mankato, Minnesota; and Duluth, Minnesota. Baggage fees are similar to the rest of the airlines mentioned here, with only a small personal item that fits under your seat included. You have three options for your seat:  1) Standard, which includes a USB port and free entertainment streamed to your personal device for most flights, 2) Better, which includes that in standard plus an extra 2 inches of legroom, and 3) Best, which includes that in standard plus an extra 4 inches of legroom, 150% more recline, preferred boarding (zone 2), and one alcoholic beverage.

When I played around on the Sun Country website, I was forced to put in traveler information including an email address and phone number (of course I made up phony ones) before I could even see flight information. Immediately, the fees began. A carry-on bag was $30 and a checked bag was $30 for the first bag then $40 for the second and third. If you want priority boarding in zone 1, that’s an extra $5. Seats ranged from $33-$39 in the front of the plane to $15-21 in the zone behind the first one to $24 for the emergency exit row and $9 for the seats at the back of the plane. I chose a standard seat for $15 and $30 for a checked bag so my extras were as much as the price of the ticket when I started out. For comparison, a similar flight on Delta that included seat selection and a carry-on bag cost a few dollars less.

One last thing to add is these budget airlines often run sales a month or two in advance. If you’re like me and purchase your airline tickets farther out in advance (say four months out) you may end up paying more than if you would have waited. An example is I purchased tickets through Allegiant Airlines only to get an email a couple of months later with much lower prices than what I paid for the same destination. I changed my reservation and re-booked the same route but instead of getting my credit card refunded, I was given an online voucher to use on a future Allegiant flight, good for one year from my date of original purchase. In other words, unless I book another flight through Allegiant within a few months (which I wasn’t planning on doing), I’ll never actually see that refunded money. Lesson learned here is I should have waited to purchase my tickets until I saw a sale, as is common with Allegiant (and Frontier and most of the other budget airlines).

So do you really save money by flying with a budget airline? The answer is, maybe. The bottom line is you should check around with different airlines before you make your reservations. Just because an airline is a low-cost airline doesn’t mean that’s the best choice for you. If you don’t care where you sit, bring your own snacks and water bottle on a plane, don’t have to fly on specific dates, and only fly with a small backpack, you could likely save some money with one of these budget airlines. However, you really need to put in all of the information and look at all of your options first.

Have you flown with any of these budget airlines? What was your experience like?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

 

National Parks in the United States That Are Even Better in the Winter

I love national parks, whether they’re in the United States or elsewhere. However, for the purpose of this post, I’ll focus solely on national parks in the United States, specifically ones that I’ve been to during the winter months. There are several advantages to traveling to national parks during the winter versus during the summer, including they are less crowded during the winter and prices for flights and hotels are often lower during the winter than during the summer.

I’ll begin with Everglades National Park in Florida. Last December, I visited a friend of mine who lives in Miami and she took my family and I here. She often takes friends who come to visit her to Everglades National Park and she told me it’s much more pleasant to come during the “cooler” months than during the summer, not that it cools off that much in the winter, but when you live there, it’s winter to you and you notice the drop in temperature. We didn’t see any mosquitoes or other bugs, but she told me when she was with a visiting friend earlier that year in the summer, they were nearly eaten alive by bugs at Everglades National Park.

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Airboat tour through Everglades National Park

We took an airboat tour through Everglades National Park, which I had done before on a previous vacation to the area several years prior. You’ll mostly see some alligators and many different types of birds as you zip around the wetlands. There are also manatees, the Florida panther, and turtles in the area that you may see if you’re lucky (well, probably not a panther because they’re so elusive).

My post on Miami and Everglades National Park

National Park Service link to Everglades National Park

I also visited some national parks in Utah during February one year including Bryce Canyon National Park and Zion National Park. Both parks are located in the southwestern part of Utah, about an hour or so from each other by car. When I think of Bryce Canyon, I think of watching the falling snow on the hoodoos and red rocks while we were walking around the serenely quiet park, with almost no one else there but the three of us. There’s a winter festival scheduled from February 16-18 in 2020 that includes cross-country ski tours, photography clinics, ranger-led snowshoe excursions under the full moon, and guided fat bike rides. There are two ski resorts nearby, Brian Head Resort and Eagle Point. We stayed at Ruby’s Inn, which is the closest lodging to the park entrance, and they even have an ice-skating rink across the street during the winter.

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Bryce Canyon National Park in the winter

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah in the Winter

National Park Service link to Bryce Canyon National Park

Zion National Park is bigger and more people go there annually than Bryce Canyon National Park, so chances are you won’t be the only ones hiking there even in the winter but the crowds will be thinner than during the summer. Zion National Park is known for its slot canyon, Zion Narrows, which you can wade through given the right conditions (I did not do this). Winding through the main section of the park is Zion Canyon Scenic Drive. The Virgin River flows to the Emerald Pools, which have waterfalls and a hanging garden. Another famous part of Zion National Park is Angel’s Landing trail, known for its sheer drops on either side of the narrow trail. We stayed at Cable Mountain Lodge, which you can literally walk to the park from, and the rooms are spacious, clean, comfortable, and quiet.

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There wasn’t nearly as much snow in Zion as Bryce Canyon in the winter

Hiking in Zion National Park in Late Winter

National Park Service link to Zion National Park

It’s possible to combine Bryce Canyon, Zion, and the Grand Canyon National Park all in one vacation, like I did (plus we had a couple of other stops as well). Grand Canyon National Park as you might imagine is one of the most visited national parks, so going there in the winter is a great idea. If you can go during the week as opposed to on a weekend in the winter, not only will there be less people to contend with, you’ll have an easier chance scoring a place to stay within the park. Seeing snow on the Grand Canyon is something I will always remember. I’ve been there twice during the winter months and both times it was beautiful and peaceful.

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The Grand Canyon is beautiful any time of year but less-crowded in the winter

Grand Canyon National Park in Late Winter- the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

National Park Service link to Grand Canyon National Park

Although not a national park, San Antonio Missions National Historical Park is a great place to visit in the winter. In the 18th century, dozens of Spanish missions were constructed across southern Texas. Four of the best preserved are in San Antonio, and can be visited as part of the national historical park. The 12 mile route near the San Antonio River is connected by the Mission Trail and links The Alamo with Mission Espada.

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Photo by Viajero Cool on Pexels.com

I have a brief post on the half marathon I ran in San Antonio, which also discusses the area, that you can find here:  Marathon of the Americas and Half Marathon, Texas-10th state.

National Park Service link to San Antonio Missions National Historical Park

Honestly, there isn’t a bad time of year to visit Hawaii, so visiting during the winter months can only be good. Not only would you get a break from your current winter weather, the crowds will be (a bit) thinner if you go after New Year’s Day and your airfare will be (a bit) lower than if you go in July or August. The temperature doesn’t change that much from one month to the next, but it will be a few degrees cooler in January than August. For example, the average temperature in Kona on the Big Island is 81 degrees in January and 87 degrees in August.

I’ve been to Hawaii three times, once in the fall (October), once in the summer (August), and once in the winter (February). All three times, I was swimming in the ocean, snorkeling, hiking, and loving life. I know my airfare was considerably more when I flew there in August and the lowest when I flew in February. I didn’t notice the crowds being any less in one month than another, however. The first time I went to Hawaii, I visited Haleakalā National Park in Maui and Volcanos National Park in Hawaii (the Big Island), but I wasn’t a blogger then so I don’t have a post on either of those parks but I can say they are both worth spending at least a day at. I’ve been to Volcanos National Park twice and would love to visit it again someday (plus go back to Haleakalā). I went to the islands of Kauai and Oahu on my most recent visit, neither of which have national parks, but still plenty of incredible hiking, including the Nā Pali Coast State Wilderness Park in Kauai and Diamond Head State Park in Oahu.

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Waimea Canyon in Kauai during the “winter” month of February

Rediscovering Kauai, Hawaii and Some of My Favorite Things

My First Time in Oahu, Hawaii- Even Better than Expected

National Park Service link to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

National Park Service link to Haleakalā National Park

What national parks do you like even better in the winter months? Have you been to any of these parks in the winter and/or other times of year? Any national parks in other countries that you loved during the winter?

Happy travels!

Donna