Lessons Learned by an American in the Canary Islands

My family and I recently went to the Canary Islands for the first time. Even though I tried to do my research before we went, there were still some things that happened after we got there and I learned as we went along. I’d like to pass along some of these things that I learned in hopes of making things a bit easier for other first-timers to the Canary Islands.

Learn Spanish before you go to the Canary Islands. Don’t expect everyone to speak English. While some people know some English in the Canary Islands, in my experience, I came to assume that most people would in fact not speak English and I would need to speak Spanish. Never once was this an issue, however, and while my Spanish is ok, I’m by no means fluent. All that being said, there are a fair amount of ex-pats from the UK that live and work in the Canary Islands.

Carnival in the Canary Islands is a lot of fun and I highly recommend going during this time if you can. We watched a Carnival parade in Gran Canaria and it was everything I had hoped it would be. This was actually one of the items on my bucket list and I was glad to be able to experience it. Just learn from my mistake and either choose your accommodations very far in advance (several months to a year) so you can find a place within walking distance from the parade route or if you have a rental car like we did, park your car in a place where you won’t be blocked off by the parade route when you want to leave.

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One of many floats from one of many Carnival parades

Although the water is perfectly safe to drink in the Canary Islands, it does not taste that great so most people buy bottled water. One resort I stayed at even went so far as to say the water isn’t safe for brushing your teeth with, which is not true. You do get used to the taste over time, too, or at least I found it wasn’t quite as bad by the end of my two-week vacation.

Parking in Las Palmas on Gran Canaria can be difficult to find and free parking pretty much doesn’t exist but it’s not completely impossible. Although not free but pretty cheap, if you can find a turquoise-marked parking spot, take it. You will need to enter your car’s license plate number in the kiosk and put the receipt on your dashboard. There are also parking garages throughout Gran Canaria, especially the busier areas like Las Palmas. The same can be said for Tenerife, although we found parking to be a bit easier in general on this island than Gran Canaria.

Having a rental car is by far better than taking the bus to get around the islands. Driving in the Canary Islands is pretty easy for the most part. We found locals to be courteous drivers and not overly-aggressive. One of the worst parts about driving in the Canary Islands is how narrow some of the side roads are. I recommend getting a small rental car. Overall, the roads in Tenerife seem to be a bit wider than in Gran Canaria in general.

Playa del Ingles in Gran Canaria is an extremely touristy area. I personally don’t care for touristy areas, especially when it’s a natural setting like a beach, park, or other area like Niagara Falls but obviously some people like this kind of thing because touristy areas always seem to be over-run with people. I just don’t like all the mini-golf, kitschy shops, restaurants with mediocre at best food, and rows of hotels. If you can get past all that, this beach is a nice enough beach. However, it is clothing-optional so if that bothers you, it might be best to skip it. There are also touristy areas in the southern part of Tenerife as well but they didn’t seem so over-the-top as Playa del Ingles.

The sand dunes of Maspalomas that are behind Playa del Ingles are pretty cool, however, and are totally worth a trip to the area. We had so much fun playing on the dunes and even sliding down the hills of sand. Just be aware that you need to pay 50 cents to use the restrooms here and facilities are limited. In fact, we found several other beach areas on the islands where you had to pay 50 cents to use the restrooms.

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Maspalomas sand dunes. This place is enormous!

In addition to all of the beautiful and varied beaches in the Canary Islands, the options for hiking are also numerous and varied. We hiked through more canyons than I can remember and had so many experiences where we hiked to the top of a mountain and were rewarded with a gorgeous view. In addition to hiking up steep trails of mountainsides, we also had some wonderful strolls around small, quaint towns where we were also rewarded with seaside or mountain views. Plus, there are several botanical gardens around the islands that you can walk around, most of which are free.

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Hiking in Teide National Park

There is no central air conditioning and heat in the Canary Islands. In the cooler months people use small space heaters and blankets to keep warm at night. In the warmer months, people use fans and open windows. Because the islands are off the northwestern coast of Africa, the weather is pretty mild here year-round. It does help if you dress appropriately too and bring a jacket for the cooler months.

Gran Canaria and Tenerife are both extremely varied in topography and general vibe in different parts of the islands (i.e., North vs. South) so if you just stay at your resort in one little sliver of the island, you won’t get a real feel for the island as a whole. Likewise if you just go to one island you’ll miss out on what other islands have to offer. I feel like I missed out by only visiting two islands but that seemed reasonable for a two-week vacation. Next time I’d like to visit another island. I really liked Tenerife quite a bit better than Gran Canaria and would go back to Tenerife, but probably not Gran Canaria.

Choices for inter-island hopping include taking a ferry or flying. When I checked into prices and options for going from Gran Canaria to Tenerife, the prices weren’t hugely different to fly versus take a ferry. We enjoyed the ferry to the San Juan Islands in Washington in the US and from Gozo to Malta so much that we decided to take the ferry to Tenerife. This was a mistake. The water was so rough both my daughter and husband were sick the entire time so they didn’t even enjoy it. Honestly, there isn’t much to look at either other than the water. Next time I would fly for sure.

Having a mobile WiFi or MiFi is a valuable tool to have when traveling abroad, and the Canary Islands are no exception. I first used a MiFi when I went to Malta last year and had such a great experience with it, I decided to rent one for the Canary Islands. I did have a bit more trouble finding a company with coverage in the Canary Islands, but I eventually chose California-based Vision Global WiFi, and we never had any problems  getting a signal with the one exception of once in Teide National Park. My husband anticipated this and downloaded the area from Google maps onto his phone so we could still drive around without getting lost. In addition to using Google Maps for everywhere we drove, we also used the MiFi several times to translate Spanish words or phrases or look up other information while we were away from our room.

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The MiFi is about the size of an adult hand so it’s easy to take with you.

If you do nothing else in Tenerife, go to Teide National Park . It was my favorite thing to do in Tenerife and it’s free too. If the weather had been better, we would have spent more than one day here and also taken the cable car up, but it was just too windy and rainy during the days we could have gone there. We did finally get to go hiking in the park, on our last full day in Tenerife, and loved every minute of it. Another piece of advice regarding Teide National Park is to stay until dusk. We had dinner at Mariposa, a restaurant close to the park that I thought was going to be touristy with mediocre food but it was actually really good. When we were driving out of the park, we got some cool shots of the sky and moon. Also, all of the cyclists we saw earlier when driving around the park were all gone, along with the majority of cars as well so driving out of the park was a breeze.

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Teide National Park at dusk with the moon

The Canary Islands are beautiful and remind me in many ways of Hawaii but they are unique in many other ways (it’s much cheaper here than Hawaii for starters). I would happily go back and explore another Canary Island, Lanzarote, which I hear is a hotspot for athletes. Who knows, maybe I’ll run a half marathon here one day Lanzarote Marathon and Half Marathon.

Have any of you been to the Canary Islands? What was your experience like? If you haven’t been, is is on your list now?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

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My First Experience with Mobile WiFi for International Travel

Based on a recent visit to Chile and going without WiFi  for a week, I started investigating mobile WiFi options for an upcoming vacation to Malta. I’m an American and my cell phone is locked and doesn’t offer me the option of putting a sim card into it from Malta, so I knew I had to find another way. In my mind I pretty much had three options- 1) buy a cheap phone in Malta for my time there and share it with my husband and daughter (not really an option), 2) rent a GPS for the car but possibly not have WiFi or have limited access (again, not really an option) or 3) rent a MiFi or mobile WiFi.

First off, what is mobile WiFi? Unlike WiFi which provides internet connectivity to wireless devices through fixed WiFi hotspots, mobile WiFi or MiFi provides connectivity when devices are on the move. The MiFi router acts as a mobile hotspot. In other words, you can have internet connectivity anywhere you are and have the MiFi  device, whether going down the road in a car, on the beach, in an apartment, etc. Anywhere you can pick up a signal, I should say. We never had problems getting a signal no matter where we tried in Malta.

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Many roads like this aren’t one-way in Malta!

There are many options for Americans who travel to Europe (which includes Malta) so I began comparing them. You can buy a device or rent one. I knew I didn’t want to buy a device at least at this point in my life so I looked at companies where I could rent one.

Skyroam seemed like a good option at $9.95 per day to rent plus $1.95 per day to upgrade to 4G LTE and includes up to five devices. You can have the device delivered to your house before you leave on vacation and return it upon arrival back to the States. Xcom Global also seemed like a good option at $7.77 per day plus an option of $1.50 per day extra for LTE upgrade for $9.27 total per day so I went with Xcom Global. I also paid $19 to have the device shipped to my home before I left for Malta and returned it at a FedEx facility upon arrival back in the US for no charge. After I returned from my vacation, I learned that Xcom Global closed their US facility mid-December of 2017. Since I was planning on using them for future international vacations, I’m sad this happened, but I’m willing to try Skyroam and see how they compare the next time.

More importantly how did the MiFi work? So well that we’ll be renting a device the next time we travel internationally and probably every time we travel internationally. We could have gotten by with just renting a GPS for the car but then we wouldn’t have had WiFi for all the times when we were in little public squares and needed to find a restaurant, cafe, pharmacy, or just where the historical site we were going to was after we found a parking spot several blocks away and getting thoroughly turned around.

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I personally wouldn’t want to drive a big car in Malta with so many narrow roads

The roads in Malta are not well-marked or in some cases aren’t marked at all. Without the verbal turn-by-turn directions from the MiFi (or a GPS), we would have gotten lost pretty much every day we drove somewhere. The one time we only had printed directions to a place with no address, we were only able to find it after stopping to ask someone for directions. The roads are fairly well-maintained in the more populated areas, but when you get out in rural areas, they pretty quickly get worse, meaning narrow, winding, completely unmarked, and sometimes downright insane. On a couple of occasions when the GPS said to go on a road, we looked at it and said no way in hell are we taking that road and circled around until the GPS found us another way.

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Road, sidewalk, or both? It’s actually both.

Beyond using the MiFi for driving and finding our way around Malta, we had the device at both the Airbnb apartment in Gozo and the hotel in Malta. Fortunately the WiFi at both places was sufficient that we didn’t need the MiFi but it was nice knowing we had it if we needed it. We’ve stayed at hotels before that advertised WiFi but it turned out it was only in the lobby, which of course isn’t ideal. I wasn’t 100% sure if this was going to be the case at our hotel in Malta and didn’t really want to take the chance.

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Look closely at this hillside- there are actually roads here. Yep, they can be like that in Malta.

After having MiFi for our vacation in Malta and being so pleased with it, we will absolutely rent another device for future international vacations. It makes the vacation so much less stressful and to me that’s worth every penny.

Have any of you used MiFi devices for international travel? Are there any ones you recommend?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

10 Things Travel Taught Me in 2017

In 2017 my travels took me to Las Vegas,Washington, Utah, where I ran a half marathonZion National ParkBryce Canyon National ParkAntelope CanyonBest Friends Animal Sanctuary in February, and Grand Canyon National Park in March. That’s a lot right there, so what did I learn in the first few months of 2017 from these places?

1). I learned I love visiting national parks even in the winter months (and I don’t like cold weather and snow). Bryce Canyon has a special feeling when you’re admiring partially snow-covered hoodoos and you’re surrounded by utter stillness and beauty.

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Snow-dusted Bryce Canyon

2). It’s possible and fun even to have a short stay in Las Vegas  with children and not spend much money. We had fun just wandering around, going through the massive casino hotels, taking in the views.

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Vegas, baby!

3). Volunteering when you’re on vacation rocks! One of the highlights of our time in Utah was our time at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary. I’d love to do more things like this in the future.

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Hiking with our little overnight buddy at Best Friends

After some time at home, we were back out on our next travel adventure, beginning with New Jersey in May. I ran the Superhero Half Marathon  in Morristown, and I finally got to visit the Statue of Liberty in person. From New Jersey we were off to our first visit to South America, beginning in Santiago, Chile. After spending the night in Santiago, we spent a few days in Vina del Mar, which we fell in love with, and spent a week in the Las Cabras Region of Chile. This final place in Chile is where I learned so much about myself in relation to travel.

4). Sometimes it’s good to get out of your comfort zone. Not being fluent in Spanish, not having wi-fi (mostly for maps and things to do), and not knowing the area well will force you to interact more with local people and figure things out on your own. I found I was more resilient than I thought I was.

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Chile in all of its splendor!

5). I learned so much during my time in Chile, I made a list of 15 lessons I learned there. Probably the biggest thing I learned was to learn as much Spanish as possible before visiting the country. Don’t expect others to speak English, especially in more remote and smaller towns. This is a lesson for many other non-English-speaking countries as well.

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I loved hiking on this trail in Chile

6). I also learned Chileans are some of the warmest, friendliest, most helpful people I’ve encountered on my travels. We were blessed with the kindness of strangers on several occasions in Chile.

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Our little fox friend in Chile

In August, my family and I headed back to one of my favorite cities, Charleston, South Carolina. We were fortunate enough to experience the total eclipse and that was definitely the highlight of our time there. Even though we were only there for five days, I learned something.

7). Sometimes your family will get on your nerves when you’re traveling. My daughter hadn’t been sleeping well for many days before we even went on this vacation. That on top of not sleeping well because she was in a strange bed in a strange house resulted in one cranky eleven-year-old. She whined, complained, and I lost my cool on more than one occasion. I didn’t let it ruin my vacation, however. I know there will be days like this, even on vacation, when everything’s not all rosy.

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Morris Island near Charleston

In November, we had a little mini-vacation in Huntington, West Virginia when I ran the Marshall University Half Marathon. While we were only here for the weekend, I did manage to learn something.

8). Weekend or long-weekend getaways are a great way to explore small towns. You don’t always have to go away for a week or more and you don’t always have to go to exotic places to have fun. My family and I had more weekend getaways last year than this year and I had forgotten how nice they can be.

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Huntington, West Virginia

For our final vacation of 2017, we headed first to Malta then to Miami. I was very much looking forward to going to Malta since visiting the Gozo Salt Pans was on my bucket list. Malta exceeded my expectations as far as natural beauty of the islands (Malta is an archipelago of three islands), food, and just about every thing we saw and did. I have a series of posts about our time in Malta and there is one thing I learned during that vacation.

9). Mobile WiFi or MiFi can be a relatively inexpensive (roughly $10/day) but truly invaluable way to find your way around and stay connected when traveling internationally, especially if you’re driving a rental car. I have a post coming on this, so stay tuned!

Our time in Miami was spent a bit differently than many people would choose to vacation there since we were there to visit a dear friend of mine who lives there. We didn’t go to a single club or party at South Beach like many people would. Instead my friend took care of all of the planning for us and graciously took us to some of her favorite restaurants, on a tour of the Everglades, and to South Beach for the day to enjoy the ocean, play in the sand, soak in the sun, and thoroughly relax and enjoy ourselves. This brings me to the final thing I learned about travel this year.

10). Sometimes it’s nice to let someone else do all of the planning for you and just sit back and relax. You don’t always have to try to cram in a dozen “must-do” restaurants or things to do.

What about you all? Where has travel taken you in 2017 and what have you learned from it?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

Packing List- What’s in my Family’s Luggage

If you follow my blog, you probably know that I’m a huge advocate of traveling light so I don’t have to check a bag with airlines. As a family of three, we haven’t checked a bag since our daughter was old enough to carry her own luggage, many years ago. We’ve gone on multiple 3-week vacations around the world without checking a bag. I’ve gotten asked many times how we manage to do this. The key is to only bring a week’s worth of clothes at the most and do a load of laundry mid-way on your vacation.

There are several advantages to not checking luggage with airlines, the most obvious being the money it saves you from not having to pay a baggage fee with airlines but there are other advantages as well. I’m in the process of running a half marathon in all 50 states, and over the years we’ve flown 3 or 4 times a year for races (in addition to flying to other places purely for vacations vs. racecations). By having all of my running clothes and gear on the plane with me, I don’t ever have to worry about my suitcase getting lost and not having those things for the race. The first time I flew to a race without checking luggage, I remember what peace of mind it gave me to know I would have all of my running things with me and there was no way my things were getting lost before the race.

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My family’s main carry-ons

 

Having your carry-on luggage on the plane with you also has other perks. I remember being on a flight that was the absolute coldest I’ve ever been on in my life. It felt like I was at a ski resort instead of sitting on an airplane. I was able to pull out several articles of clothing to layer-on and keep me warm, and I was so thankful to be able to do that. I’ve also pulled out sweaters from my carry-on in freezing airports on more than one occasion.

But I don’t want to lug around all of my stuff, you say! Trust me, you get used to it. I always tell myself I really just have to carry my bag through the airport and from the airport to the rental car once I get to my destination. It’s really not that bad. Besides, with the size and weight limitations on carry-ons from airlines, it’s not like you’re going to be lugging around 100 pounds or anything crazy anyway. Speaking of carry-on rules, many airlines limit carry-on luggage to 9 inches by 14 inches by 22 inches ((22 cm x 35 cm x 56 cm), including handles and wheels. Some airlines do allow slightly bigger but some have even greater restrictions, so you should always check the airline you’re flying with in advance.

Since most airlines allow one carry-on bag and one personal bag, I always have my Patagonia backpack with handles and a cross-body strap for my carry-on bag and a backpack for my personal bag. I use the cross-body strap so I can still have a backpack on my back. Since my carry-on is a soft (i.e. flexible) material instead of hard-shell, I’ve always been able to stuff it on the plane, even small planes. My daughter recently asked for her own Patagonia carry-on like mine to replace her small roller bag, so she also has that plus sometimes a backpack but sometimes she’s been able to pack everything in her carry-on and didn’t need a backpack. You can buy the Patagonia Headway MLC from eBags here.

My husband recently down-sized from an already small carry-on bag to an even smaller roller carry-on bag. He also has a backpack for his laptop and other electronics, but he’s debated several times if he should leave his laptop at home so he wouldn’t have to lug it around (I doubt he’d ever leave it behind, though).

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My husband’s little roller bag

 

One of my husband’s new favorite things for travel has been a 100% Merino wool shirt I got him from Amazon. Wool is great for travel because it absorbs odor from sweat so you can literally wear it for days without it stinking. He even wore it on multiple days in Charleston, South Carolina in August when it was hot and humid with no smell. That was definitely a test for this shirt! Find the shirt here on Amazon.

I also am a huge advocate of rolling my clothes and using packing cubes. I like the 3-piece set of packing cubes from eBags, which you can buy here.

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The large packing cube unzipped

OK. So you have your carry-on bag and your packing cubes. Now you just need to fill the packing cubes. The great thing about the 3-piece set is you can use the bigger one for shirts, pants, undies, socks, and a small pair of shoes. The medium-sized one is great for when I’m traveling to a half-marathon and I can fit all of my running clothes and gear in that cube. If I’m not going to a race, I’ll use it for my swim suit and a couple of pair of athletic clothes for runs or working out in, or I’ve used it for things like warm hats, gloves, and a fleece jacket for layering if we’re going somewhere cold. The small cube can be used for beauty products or snacks for travel days or undies and swim wear if you don’t have enough room in your larger cube. The point is, you can categorize your clothes and things so that when you reach your destination, it makes unpacking and finding things much easier.

That covers the larger carry-on. As I mentioned, my husband and I also carry a backpack, and our daughter sometimes carries one. In my backpack, I have my tablet, my camera, cell phone, a paperback book (I’m old-school), medications, my baggie of liquids each 100 ml or less, headphones, snacks, and water bottle. My husband has his laptop, cell phone, sometimes a couple of paperback books, earbuds, snacks, baggie of liquids 100 ml or less, and water bottle.

And that’s it! Nothing complicated, just your basics really with some specifics but nothing crazy.

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Here’s a simple break-down:

  1. Patagonia Headway MLC carry-on for me and one for my daughter, roller carry-on for my husband
  2. 3-piece set of packing cubes typically containing:
    1. 5-6 shirts
    2. 1 pair of pants (if cold) or 2 pair of shorts (if warm)
    3. 6 pair of undies and socks
    4. 2-3 athletic shirts, 1-2 athletic shorts, 1-2 pair athletic socks
    5. Bathing suit
    6. Tank top and shorts for sleeping
    7. Eye mask
    8. Water bottle holder & bottles, running watch & charger, cell phone arm band, Nuun, snacks for race if running a half marathon
    9. Snacks (usually nuts, dried fruit, crackers, sometimes jerky, cereal bars)
    10. Small pair of shoes (slip-ons or flip-flops)
  3. quart-size ziplock bag with liquid toiletries, each 100 ml or less
  4. hair brush
  5. camera
  6. tablet
  7. cell phone
  8. 1 or 2 paperback books
  9. medications
  10. headphones
  11. water bottle

On the plane, I’ll wear a shirt with a lightweight cardigan-type sweater or hoodie, my most comfortable jeans, and my running shoes. If I’m going somewhere cold, I’ll also wear my winter coat and have my scarf, hat, and gloves in the pockets or stuffed in my backpack. I always wear my most bulky clothes and shoes on the plane, to save room for smaller items in my bag.

What about you guys? What do you like to travel with? Anything you’d never travel without?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

14 Practical Tips to Save Money Before, During, and After Traveling

I’m an American who works full-time with a husband who also works full-time and we have a daughter in school, and we all manage to travel as a family about six weeks out of the year. My husband and I aren’t wealthy, but we do manage our finances tightly and keep an eye on our budget. Over the years, I’ve learned a few tricks to help keep travel expenses under control. We don’t stay in hostels or live in a van when we travel, but we don’t stay in 5 star hotels either. I’d like to pass along a few tips for saving money for travel I’ve learned and share them with you.

1. Plan your vacations waaaaaay far in advance. I’m a planner so this one’s easy for me. By purchasing airfare several months in advance, you not only will pay less, you also have better opportunities for choosing your seats. You’ll also save on rental cars by making reservations in advance, but I personally haven’t seen a huge drop in prices for hotels or on Airbnb by reserving in advance. You will have a bigger selection of available accommodations the further out you look (within 11 months or less out usually), however, so you’ll have a better chance of getting more reasonably-priced accommodations rather than getting stuck with whatever happens to be left at the last minute. I know there are websites and apps out there for last-minute deals on hotels but I’ve never had a need for them since I plan well in advance.

2.  Fly to popular destinations during the off-season or even shoulder-season. For example, we’ve gone to  Colorado in June, Utah in February (but not to ski areas), and Italy in October. Each and every time I was thrilled we chose to go when we did. Not only was the weather great, the crowds were fewer, and prices were lower.

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Colorado in June was lovely

3.  Flying during the mid-week (Tuesday-Thursday) is usually cheaper but not always. Always check to be sure. Sometimes flying into a city like New York City may be cheaper on a Saturday because of all of the business travelers during the week.

4.  Watch what you spend on food and drinks when you’re at home. The more you eat out, go out for coffee, spend on drinks, etc., the less money you will have for those things when you travel. My family doesn’t eat out at restaurants that much when we’re home except for special occasions like birthdays so we can eat at restaurants when we’re traveling and don’t have to worry about how much we’re spending on food.

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Restaurant with a view in Valparaiso, Chile

5.  Eat at your hotel, Airbnb place, or wherever you’re staying whenever possible. If a hotel offers free breakfast, by all means partake in it. If they don’t offer free breakfast, buy some groceries so you can make your own breakfast. Depending on what you have in your room or apartment you may be able to have dinner in your apartment a couple of times too, which saves even more money. My family also likes to pick up sandwiches and snacks from the deli at a grocery store before we go on a hike when we’re traveling. That way we don’t have to cut our hike short, go back to find a restaurant and have lunch, then go back to the trails. We get to have a picnic lunch while overlooking some gorgeous scenery, all while saving some money- bonus.

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We recently had a picnic lunch at this gorgeous national park in Chile

6.  If you’re in the United States, look for deals at restaurants through GrouponRestaurants.com, or Entertainment mobile app. While you won’t be able to find every single restaurant that exists, using these three apps together should help you find some good restaurants and save you a ton of money. I’ve gotten many free meals through the Entertainment app, after buying one meal at regular price, or I’ve also gotten deals like 20% off our entire bill pretty commonly.

7.  Seek out free things to do. Be creative! When my husband and I were in Sedona, Arizona, we opted out of the touristy pink Jeep tours that cost starting around $100 per person and decided to go it on our own in our ordinary rental car (not 4 x 4 or anything special). We kept coming to spots where the pink Jeeps had just been or were just leaving and laughed to ourselves. While we may not have had 100% access to every single trail, we certainly had no problems hiking around the area for a few days just using our rental car to get us to trailheads and never once did we get stuck or not be able to go where we wanted. The best part- we didn’t pay a single penny extra and we could go where we wanted when we wanted without relying on someone else.

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San Diego is expensive but hiking in most areas is completely free

8.  Play the credit card game and collect frequent flier miles. Many cards give a 50,000 mile sign-up bonus, which is pretty significant. Make sure you’re earning miles every time you buy airfare, pay for hotels, eating out, and all of your every day expenses as well such as buying gas, groceries, and everything else you can put on your card. Just make sure you pay off the card in full every month, otherwise what you pay in interest could wipe out any potential benefits. Also check to see what airlines are affiliated with the card you’re getting. If you always fly with a certain airline but your miles aren’t redeemable with that airline, find another credit card that is affiliated to your favorite airline.

9.  Be loyal but up to a point. I’m a loyal Delta flyer but only because it’s the most convenient airline for where I live and where I fly most of the time. I recently flew with Southwest, however, simply because the flights for my family were cheaper and direct flights (versus Delta’s more expensive flight with a layover). I have the Delta credit card, so I did at least earn miles with Delta by buying my airline tickets with my card, just not as many as I would have if it would have been a Delta flight.

10.  Speaking of flying, you will save hundreds of dollars, especially if you are part of a family for just one round-trip flight if you can pack minimally and not check any bags. My family and I have flown to multiple places around the world including two weeks in New Zealand, three weeks in San Diego, and two and a half weeks in Chile without any of us checking a bag for years now. At $50 for a suitcase for each flight segment, which is a pretty common fee charged by most airlines, that adds up.

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Flying to New Zealand is expensive but we saved money by not checking any bags

11.  I use Hotels.com. For every 10 nights you stay, you get one free, with no blackout dates or restrictions. There are also different tiers and once you become a higher level tier, by more stays, you are eligible for deeper discounts than those available to everyone else. I’ve saved thousands of dollars by using this website. No kidding.

12.  I also use Airbnb. Sometimes it’s cheaper in the long run if you can rent an apartment with a fully furnished kitchen rather than stay in a hotel room with no cooking facilities so you’re forced to eat out every single meal. Many times you can also wash clothes, so you don’t have to over-pack, and can save money by not checking bags. You can sometimes negotiate the price with your host as well.

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Dinner one evening at our Airbnb in Chile

13.  When you do eat out, eat where the locals eat. Not only will the food taste better, it will be a fraction of the price of a meal targeted at tourists. If a restaurant has menus in English but English isn’t the native language, say no thank you and find another place.

14.  Shop around to find the best market in the neighborhood where your rented apartment, condo, or house is. Each of the small markets will have different varieties of foods and other items they carry so try multiple markets to find one you like best. We had the good fortune of finding a supermercado in Chile that had their own baker in the back of the shop. We quickly learned to pick up hot, fresh bread straight out of the oven for dinner most days. Luckily we did a lot of walking to counteract all of that bread!

How do you all save money when you’re traveling? What tips do you have?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

How to Plan a Vacation to Charleston, South Carolina, Part 2

In ““How to Plan a Vacation to Charleston, South Carolina-Part 1” I went over how to decide when’s the best time of year to visit, based on your interests. I also went over some of the best places to stay, also based on your interests. Now I’m going to dive into some of the best places to eat and things to do.

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To say there are no shortage of top-notch restaurants in Charleston would be an understatement. Charleston must have some kind of record for most “foodie-friendly” restaurants per capita or something. If you want southern classics like fried green tomatoes and shrimp and grits, Hominy Grill is a popular choice. I personally had some of the best shrimp and grits I’ve ever had at High Cotton. There’s also the ever-popular Fig, Husk, Poogan’s, Magnolia’s, and I could go on and on. For something a little different on our last vacation to Charleston, we went to Leyla and had some truly delicious Lebanese food.

Many of the restaurants in Charleston are upscale but there are also some great casual restaurants. The Grocery is great for brunch and lunch, with a wide array of meals to choose from. Brown Dog Deli  has great chili, hot dogs and sandwiches, and you can try She Crab soup here if you’ve never had it before. If you want to try chicken and waffles go to The Early Bird Diner.  This is just a sampling of some casual fare in Charleston. On our last visit to Charleston, we had milkshakes at Kaminsky’s and they were some of the richest, creamiest milkshakes we had in a long time.

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I’m a big fan of staying in Mt. Pleasant when I go to the Charleston area, so I would be remiss to not mention some of my favorite restaurants in Mt. Pleasant. It seems like every year there are more and more great restaurants in Mt. Pleasant. One of my favorites on my last visit there was The Obstinate Daughter. We also had some great BBQ at Home Team BBQ, which has locations in Sullivan’s Island, downtown Charleston, and West Ashley but we ate at the one in Sullivan’s Island.

Just like there is a long list of great restaurants to choose from, there is a long list of activities in Charleston. If you enjoy history, Patriot’s Point is home to the USS Yorktown Aircraft Carrier, USS Laffey Destroyer, USS Clamagore Submarine, Vietnam Experience Exhibit, aircraft, and a museum. You can even sleep on the USS Yorktown, like my daughter’s Girl Scout troop did one year.

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USS Yorktown

The Old Exchange is another great historical site to visit. My daughter enjoyed being able to handle replicas of historical money thanks to a volunteer who gave us a bit of information about each piece.  She also got to sign a replica of The Declaration of Independence. We all thoroughly enjoyed our guided tour of the dungeon and learned quite a bit about the area. If you have younger kids (around 4-6), the Children’s Museum of the Lowcountry might be a better fit for your family. America’s first museum (from 1773) is also in Charleston, The Charleston Museum, with a focus on the Lowcountry’s cultural and natural history.

Fort Sumter and Fort Moultrie are great options for families as well.  Although Fort Sumter does not charge a fee for entrance to the national monument, it is only accessible by boat and there is a fee for that.  Fort Moultrie is accessible by car at 1214 Middle Street, Sullivan’s Island and you can buy a family pass that covers up to 4 adults for $5, with free admission for children 15 and younger.  See more information here National Parks Service.

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If you’re interested in seeing a historical plantation, Boone Hall Plantation and Gardens is a fun way to spend an afternoon. Included in one fee ($24 for adults, $12 for children), you get a presentation about the Gullah culture, a house tour, plantation coach tour, black history exhibit, slave history presentation, butterfly pavilion, and garden tour. There are also special events throughout the year such as for Christmas, a strawberry festival, and oyster festival to name a few. There are several historical homes you can tour, such as Nathaniel Russell House and Edmondston-Alston House.

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There are also many different tours to choose, from carriage rides, walking food and/or drink tours, ghost tours, and general walking tours. One of my personal favorites is a nature boat tour offered by the company Sandlapper. We took their guided nature tour and cruise of Charleston harbor recently and it was a highlight of our vacation other than the total eclipse. You can read more about our nature boat tour here if you’re interested in more details.

If it’s shopping that interests you, you can shop for everything from jewelry at Crogham’s Jewel Box, shop for unique gifts and sign up for a candle-making class at Candlefish, or browse fine books and gifts relating to Charleston’s history at the Preservation Society Shop.  To meet with locals and shop their wares, stop by Charleston City Market, which is busy day and night.

Finally, the Charleston area has some beautiful beaches. Two of my family’s favorite beaches are Isle of Palms and Sullivan’s Island. They are completely free and open to the public.  Another option for a beach near Charleston is Folly Beach. Lifeguards are on duty mostly during the peak summer months of May through part of September. Check out more info at Charleston County Park & Recreation Commission.  A word of warning about the waves, as they can be quite rough.  We found the water to be considerably calmer at an inlet we were able to walk to at Sullivan’s Island going through neighborhoods to the far end of the beach.

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There are also some options for side trips if you have several days in Charleston. If you’re a runner like I am, the Kiawah Island Marathon and Half Marathon is a great race that I’ve personally ran (read more about that here if you’d like) and I have friends that have ran it multiple times. It’s only about a 45 minute drive to Kiawah Island from Charleston. Another fun city full of fantastic restaurants and southern charm is Savannah, Georgia and it is about a 2 hour drive from Charleston.

Well, I think that about covers the highlights anyway!  I once heard a podcaster talking about Charleston and she said to allow two days to spend in Charleston, and I couldn’t believe it.  There’s so much to see and do in Charleston, there’s no way you could even scratch the surface in two days. I would recommend spending 4 or 5 nights in Charleston, adding another day if you do a day trip. You wouldn’t have to have a rental car especially if you’re staying in the historical area, but if you want to be able to get out of downtown Charleston and explore on your own, a car is highly recommended.

Hopefully I’ve piqued some of your interests about Charleston and you’ll see for yourself why so many people voted it number one city in the United States by Travel and Leisure.

How many of you readers have been to Charleston?  Do you love it as much as I do? How many people have never been but would like to go now?

How to Plan a Vacation to Charleston, South Carolina-Part 1

Once again Charleston, South Carolina was chosen best city to visit in the United States by Travel and Leisure for 2017. In fact, Charleston often makes the top ten list for many travel companies, whether chosen by the editors or readers. However, to make the most of your visit to Charleston, some planning is involved. Hopefully that’s where I come in.

While I don’t claim to be an expert on all things Charleston, I have been there many times through the years, both before kids and with my daughter so I do have the perspective of what young couples and families might be interested in. When it comes to planning a vacation anywhere you first have to ask yourself what are you interested in doing or seeing there. For Charleston, what you do may be dictated by what time of year you go.

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The walk along Battery Park is lovely no matter what time of year it is!

If you’re not familiar with the weather of Charleston, the summers get quite hot and humid. The average highs in July and August are 91 and 89 F and the lows are 73 and 72 F. For someone coming from a much cooler climate, this might be a bit much, even for relaxing by the beach. You might want to wait until October when the average high is 77 and the low is 57. The water would still be warm enough to swim in the ocean this time of year as well. The average highs in December and January are still quite comfortable, at 62 and 59, respectively, with average lows then 40 and 38 F. This is definitely too cold for most people to swim in the ocean and even relax at the beach in a swimsuit, however.  All that being said, my family and I have taken our annual beach trip to Charleston in August several times and we’ve always had a great time but we are from the south, so we’re used to heat and humidity.

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The beaches are very clean with soft sand and dunes scattered about
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Morris Island, an uninhabited island accessible by boat

What if you’re more of a foodie and are primarily interested in partaking in some of the fabulous restaurants that Charleston has to offer and have zero interest in going to the beaches? In that case, November would be lovely, or alternatively you’ll find near identical temperatures in March (70 for the high, 47 for the low). These times of year would also be great if you’re a history buff and are interested in seeing historical sites in the area.

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USS Yorktown at Patriot’s Point

Now that we’ve got time of year down, we can move on to specifics, like where you’ll stay. There are no shortage of hotels and inns, such as the number one rated hotel in 2017 by Travel & Leisure The Vendue. Other highly rated accommodations are Zero GeorgeFrancis Marion Hotelthe Meeting Street Inn, and Governor’s House Inn. There are literally dozens of inns and bed and breakfasts in the area, so if this is where you’d like to stay, there are no shortage of this type of accommodation. Many of the inns are in the heart of the historical district of Charleston, so as you may guess, they are not exactly for the frugal traveler. The advantage of staying in the historical district is you can walk to many restaurants, shops, and art galleries so you don’t  have to worry about parking which can be difficult to find and/or expensive.

If you’re traveling as a family with young children, be advised, some bed and breakfasts do no allow children to stay at their establishments, so a hotel would be a better option. Basically, the further you get from downtown Charleston, the more affordable your accommodations are. However, I do not recommend staying in North Charleston, which is also where the airport and convention center are. North Charleston is very residential (which that alone isn’t necessarily a bad thing) and the stores and restaurants there are generally not independently-owned so you would be spending much of your time in your car to get to places of interest and the better (in my opinion) independently-owned restaurants. Unless you enjoy eating at chain restaurants and shopping at chain stores, in which case, you’d be very happy here.

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City Market

Personally, I like staying in Mount Pleasant, which is located in-between downtown Charleston and the beaches of the area. I’ve stayed in both hotels and Airbnb lodging and was always happy with my choice. No matter if you’re going to historic Charleston, Sullivan’s Island, or Isle of Palm, you won’t be any further than a 20 minute car ride there, and often it’s only about 15 minutes. However, if you have no interest in going to the beaches in the area, I would stay closer to downtown Charleston. Again, there’s no shortage of hotels or Airbnb properties.

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Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge connects Mt. Pleasant and Charleston

Now that we’ve worked out the when to go and where to stay, we’ll move on to where to eat and what to do in my next post.

How many of you have been to Charleston or would like to go there someday? If you have any questions or comments about Charleston, I’d love to hear them!