Take a Trip: Planning

I found out a few days ago that I’m going to San Francisco for fun. If that sounds ridiculous, it kind of is, but basically the hubs got asked to go for work and asked me along. What S.O. in their right mind would say no?! So I’m going. We’ve been to San Francisco once before, but were only there for a day. Admittedly, it wasn’t a great day – I don’t really remember why, I just remember having a stressful, grouchy day.

This time around, I’m gonna have fun. To do that, I figured I should probably get an idea of what to do to maximize my trip and squeeze the most out of the city that I could in three days. If you ever find yourself in a similar situation, follow the steps I took to plan this out:

  • Document your parameters – I knew I’d have time to kill alone during the day while my hunny is working, so I needed a list of activities and places to eat at all times of the day; also, we’d be staying in Oakland, so I wanted to fill my days with a variety of activities so I wouldn’t have to traipse back and forth across the bay to the hotel. Finally, I would have most of the day Saturday, all day Sunday and Monday and super early morning on Tuesday before our flight back home.
  • Do the research – I went down the rabbit hole (read: pinterest & google) for a solid day and a half / two days. I took screenshots of stuff that looked good, made notes on my phone, pinned, etc. Once I had a solid idea of things to do and places to try, I wrote them all down along with their hours of operation and grouped them into the following categories (see example here – page 1):
    1. Breakfast spots
    2. Dinner spots
    3. Any meal spots
    4. Treats
    5. Things to do
  • Map your options – even though San Francisco isn’t a huge city (42 square miles), I still wanted to try to organize my time in a way that made logical location sense. That way, I could spend more time experiencing different parts of the city rather than getting there (this was a problem from the first time there – we basically just drove around all day, although it was in a convertible which was cool). To do this, I used Google Maps to create a map of my own (you have to be signed into google to save it). This site has really simple instructions to do it. It came out like this:

San Francisco Ideas

  • Plan your days – For this, see page 2 here. I kept my days blocked roughly and made notes about what/where and if I needed to do anything to finalize the plan. I may or may not end up getting to everything on the list, but I’m pretty excited for the trip and feeling well-prepared and motivated to start each day early and really absorb and enjoy every moment to the max!

As an aside, the real truth is that when I did this activity, it looked like the below (okay, it WAS the below). I decided to clean it up and make / share useful tools and better ways to do it instead.

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Take a Trip: Royal Caribbean Bahamas Weekend Cruise

This cruise was a celebration/gift for my sister’s 40th birthday. It was a girls’ trip and included my mom, two sisters and my niece (the adult daughter of the 40-year-old).  This trip was bound to be good no matter what because I love these 4 ladies; they’re probably my favorite people to be with. However, our choice of a cruise with Royal Caribbean to these destinations really made it over-the-top awesome.

If you check out my Large Group Getaway Planning: Make It Work, you can learn all about how I tackle working with a number of parameters for booking a trip with lots of parties involved. For this trip, I was working with the following:

  • Must be during summer (3 teachers in our bunch); ideally between July 22 – August 2 for various reasons
  • 3 or 4 nights max (both of my sisters have kids, so being away for too long can be tough on the hubs who also have to work)
  • Must be Royal (obvs – we’ve been Royal snobs since our first cruise in 2003)
  • Must go somewhere tropical

That left us with a few choices and ultimately we landed on the Mariner of the Seas out of Miami to Cococay, Royal’s private island, and Nassau, Bahamas. As a bonus, we learned that the Mariner was undergoing refurbishment and that we’d be sailing on the upgraded boat only a few months after it was removed from dry docks. It was AWESOME. More on that later.

For this trip, we were trying to keep costs low because we all had other vacations over the summer that we had to budget for, so we pooled miles to get airline tickets. Thankfully, we were able to get all 5 at no cost. That said, our airline experience with American Airlines was absolutely horrendous and at one point, my sister and I were in different cities, hours apart, on the phone crying together because we didn’t think we were all going to be able to make the cruise. Yes, you’re probably thinking, “why didn’t you fly the night before, everyone knows that.” Suffice it to say, we couldn’t for various reasons, but we also had a 6am flight booked and had it not been cancelled for mechanical problems, we would have been fine.

That rant over, let’s get on to the fun planning. We decided to do shore excursions at both ports, in part because it was only a 3-night cruise and we wanted to make the absolute most of it. So, I did some research in My Cruise Planner and pulled all the shore excursions available at each location (all of those that we’d be interested, at least) and created an itinerary of options with pricing, descriptions and reminders of other things we’d have going on that day (one day my sister got a massage, we had a dinner reservation in the Main Dining Room each night, which I HIGHLY recommend, and there were specified times that the boat docked and departed each day). Check out what I created here.

You can also book your spa treatments, beverage or internet packages, or other onboard activities all through My Cruise Planner up to three days before sailing. Sometimes there are even sales and you can get things for a discounted price.

I took the itinerary and printed out copies for each of my traveling companions so we could review the options together, make a decision and I could book. I also found and printed a map of Cococay, which was helpful for us to see where different excursions would be in relation to other parts of the island. Finally, I printed out everyone’s pre-cruise paperwork, including the Set Sail pass and luggage tags. In order to access these, you must login on the website and enter your personal details, upload a headshot and provide credit card details for your onboard Seapass.

To keep it organized by person, and to have a little fun, I took some super cute Kate Spade folders I received as a gift, along with coordinating Kate Spade highlighters and binder clips (who knew there were such things!) and put together little planning packs for each person.

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When I next saw my companions, I distributed the packs, we went through the itinerary and selected our excursions so I was able to book everything for us. We also decided to plan a few other things, like taking a shared big suitcase so we only had to check one bag, dividing up shared toiletries since we only had two rooms and how to bring the max of 4 bottles per wine (2 per stateroom). We were ready to go.

When we finally made it to the ship just in time (after a CRAZY morning), it was beautiful. Lots of pics below to give you a good idea. There were several things we liked about the Mariner of the Seas:

  • Promenade – this was a three-story open area in the middle of the ship, so you could walk across it down the middle from front to back. They had lots of activities here including shows and a balloon drop. Lining the Promenade were bars, restaurants, a coffee shop, Ben & Jerry’s, a late night cafe and onboard shopping. There was also a beautiful grand staircase, which was great for pictures in our formal wear (pictured further down).
  • Activities – So many cool things to do – we didn’t even have time to do them all; this ship had everything:
    • Basketball court
    • Racing water slides
    • Flowrider Surfing or Boogie boarding
    • Rock climbing wall
    • Mini golf
    • Adult and regular pools and hot tubs galore
    • Hammock area
    • Skypad Virtual Reality coolness
    • Lilypad-like climbing things
    • And so much more!
  • Shows – in addition to the short, party-like shows in the Promenade, there were also great shows in the main theater, including comedians, singing and dancing, and there was even an ice skating rink! We didn’t see an on-ice show, but we did visit the rink for a very hilarious adult game show.
  • The ship’s opulence – this was probably one of our favorite parts – the whole thing feels so extravagant and expensive and deluxe. In our normal life, we don’t enjoy a lot of luxury, so this is how we treat ourselves. Below are pics of one of the main staircases and our table in the Main Dining Room. As mentioned above, when you book your cruise, I encourage you to reserve a dining time. You can always do my time dining where you call and make a reservation on the day (not guaranteed) or eat at the Windjammer (always open) or one of the other restaurants (all of which incur an additional cost), but why not eat as much as you want of a 3-course meal with amazing servers?! It really is a no-brainer. Plus it’s fun to get all dressed up and go (but you don’t have to dress up anymore).

We also THOROUGHLY enjoyed our shore excursions. We picked the following:

  • Beach Bungalows at Cococay – this was a great choice as well; since we had a group of 5, this was a perfect option as it was a flat rate up to 6 people; it included lunch, water, the covered couch, two sun loungers and two floating mats; we took a short shuttle to the secluded part of the island where these were located, but it was still close enough for us to walk/swim over to the floating bar for some drinks. Cococay is undergoing massive renovations to become A Perfect Day at Cococay, so these are probably some of the last pics where it will look like this on the way in
  • Pearl Island with lunch – this excursion was great; the people who ran it was super nice and friendly (the bartender totally hooked us up), we had a delicious lunch, the scenery was gorgeous and they even had fun in-water activities like kayak, paddleboard, and a trampoline; a few of us had been to Nassau before, so we wanted to check out something away from the city and this was about a 30 minute boat ride away, which also provided a scenic tour of the area from the water; after we returned to Nassau, we still had some time to hit the famous Straw Market for souvenirs before heading back to the ship

Finally, the rooms, though small, were still pretty okay. Our room attendant was very nice and made us fun little towel animals! My sister had a great idea to bring the following items which definitely came in handy:

  • Magnets – the walls are metal, so you can hang up the daily Cruise Compass that they provide with activities and times for the day
  • Highlighter – there are so many activities to choose from, so use this to identify what you want to do from the Cruise Compass
  • Hanging air freshener – just a simple one that you might put in your car; it helps keep the bathroom smelling fresh in such a small space after a few days onboard

We were very sad to end our vacation when we got back to Miami. We had about 5 hours to kill before our flight, so we decided to hit the Bayside Marketplace, which is about a 10-minute ride from the cruise port terminal. We shared some delicious appetizers and cold drinks at Segafredo, sat in the sun and played cards. Even though our cruise had ended, we were able to extend our vacation a little bit longer with this before we headed to MIA to go home.

Large Group Getaway Planning: Make It Work

I recently took a new approach to planning a large group getaway that I found very helpful due to the very narrow set of parameters with which I had to work. The group size is 21 – all my adult siblings and their families. My brother and his family come home from overseas every three years and this year, my mom had her heart set on a cruise (let’s be serious, we ALL were super down). More about my ladies’ cruise this past summer later…that’s what started cruising fever.

Here were my parameters. Regardless of the approach you take, defining these are the essential first step:

  • What/Where: Cruise somewhere warm on Royal Caribbean; we’ve tried a few other lines and didn’t love them quite as much. Royal is very opulent, but also accessible and not stuffy.
    • WHERE: Must depart from a port that we can drive to within a semi-reasonable amount of time (ie, not CA or WA since we are midwest). This left the East Coast tip to tail. Texas would be doable, but a bit of a stretch.
    • This could be what city/beach/area/country you want to go do AND what types of activities/vacation you want to have (hiking, biking, beach, shopping, sightseeing, wilderness, you name it). Also, don’t forget to consider travel TO the location (how long / how much / types of travel available).
  • When: Must occur between June 16th and July 6th (and be complete no later than then)
  • How Much: Must be comparably priced per person to the summer cruise we took (21 costs a lot more than 5)

To start, I got down to business researching. Using a number of filters on the RC site, I left Cruising To blank, but hand-picked Cruising from (my preferred departure ports) and the Departing time. From there, I got a number of results. I sorted by price lowest to highest and then created the document you can find here (we priced everything at an interior room – a balcony is a nice touch but the ocean view isn’t really worth it. I’ve personally found that I never really spend enough time in my room to justify the additional cost), stopping at my max budget per person.

I color coded the same cruises on different weeks all in the same color and used different colors for each unique itinerary. Each line contained the order of ports, price and ship name. I also included links to the ships, as the amenities onboard are important to us (but not deal breakers). If you’re looking for a certain ship, you can look at sailings on that vessel only. I wouldn’t recommend this, as it’s fun to try them all!

To make our final decision, we considered the following:

  • Destinations – we hit The Bahamas and Cococay on our recent cruise, my sister just got back from Bermuda, and we ruled out New England for its cooler temps. This left a combination of Key West, Havana and Cozumel.
  • Depart & return dates – we picked a cruise with Wednesday and Monday, which means air travel may likely be cheaper and less busy than a Friday, Saturday or Sunday; driving traffic too!
  • Boat – this really played into our decision; even though Mariner was our top choice in this category (it was what we just went on and it was AWESOME!), we felt the ship we chose, Majesty of the Seas, still had enough to do for both kids and adults.

From there, the decision was made and we’ve been working with a Royal Caribbean group specialist (available for room bookings of 8+ – they also allow for lots of nice perks with booking this way) ever since!

As we start to build anticipation over the next 9 months, we’re planning a few different things, like must-packs for a cruise list & assignments, themed dinner attire on a few nights, and some sort of coordinated item. We’re thinking lanyards, as it’s a nice thing to have to carry your Seapass card. As we make decisions, I’ll come back and update you here. Pics will be included as they become available. And I’m trying something new with the linked document above, so leave me a comment if you aren’t able to access it. Thanks!

 

Take A Trip: Las Vegas

This past weekend, I went to Las Vegas with some girlfriends. As with 99% of my personal travel, I started planning this trip by creating a powerpoint with options for flights and hotels and ideas of things to do, along with an estimated cost per person. When you’re planning a trip with friends or family (or really, even at work), this is an important first step. If you’re familiar with “business,” you might say you’re creating a business case (what/why) and part of that is budget.

I considered a few different hotels for our Vegas trip:

  • The LINQ
  • MGM Grand
  • Excalibur
  • Luxor
  • The Flamingo – ultimately, this was the one we went with; we liked that it was on the strip, relatively centrally located, one of the originals and fairly priced. Overall, it was fine. I’ve never been to Vegas before, so I have no comparison, but here are a few noteworthy things:
    • POSITIVE: They offer luggage hold for before or after you’re checking into/ out of your room AND they’ll bring it up once you get checked in.
    • POSITIVE: They have a very clearly marked Uber/Lyft area; this may seem simple, but we visited a view other hotels for shows / bars and it was pretty tricky to find where to meet our driver at most of the other properties.
    • POSITIVE: They have a range of food options – at least 2 cafes, a buffet, a grab-n-go station, two restaurants and a few bars. Plus, it is right off a pedestrian mall that has other options, like Starbucks, In-N-Out, Sprinkles and other places to get tasty treats. Walk across that and you’re in the LINQ, another hotel with many other restaurants/bars/etc. The LINQ is also the hotel that operates The High Roller, which is a massive enclosed ‘Ferris Wheel’ (think ~20 people per pod, some of which have a bar inside!). It was nice to be so close to this.
    • POSITIVE: When you check-in, you can get a Total Rewards card, which gave us a free drink and a free prize slot play. With the free prize slot play, we won a BOGO for the High Roller.
    • NEGATIVE: The adults-only pool cost $11/person, even though we were hotel guests; it was a weekend day (Saturday), but still seems excessive, especially when we were already being charged a daily per person resort fee.
    • NEGATIVE: The room wasn’t quite as advertised. We booked the Fab Executive and in the pictures, a couch is shown. We had a party of 3, so we requested two queen beds, but figured the couch would be good for hanging out. However, the room we received didn’t include a couch, but rather a chair. All in all, not a huge deal, but somewhat of a letdown.
    • NEGATIVE: Random, unexpected security check. My friends were sitting outside and I was heading to meet them when I got a knock on the hotel room door and Security announced themselves and asked to be allowed to do a random inspection of the room. There were two men – one entered the room and went to the phone to enter a code and the other stood at the door. It was really quick, but just odd and not anything the hotel informed us could happen.
    • NEGATIVE: We also attempted to hit the family pool, but were turned away because we had water bottles. We’re not sure if it was the fact that they didn’t know what was inside or that we had the bottles themselves, but we were told we couldn’t bring them inside (not asked to dump them).
    • NEGATIVE: The bathroom was pretty tiny and outdated.
    • NEGATIVE: The A/C was just okay – it was about 110 degrees, so I get it was working hard, but I wouldn’t say it was ever “cold” in our room.

We also explored a variety of options for what to do:

  • DID: Magic Mike Live at The Hard Rock Hotel & Casino; this show was excellent. If you’re looking for a Chippendales or male strippers, this is not the show for you. If you like cool dancing, ripped fellas and humor, you will enjoy this. I highly recommend you watch Magic Mike XXL prior to seeing this show, as it will make you appreciate it all the more.
  • DID: Drag Supper Club at Senor Frogs (inside Treasure Island); this show was ALSO excellent. The ladies were incredibly done up with gorgeous dresses/costumes and very well done routines. There were even some cool acrobats throughout as well. We got the VIP option and had great seats, decent food, open bar and a short meet & greet with a photo with the girls after! They also have a brunch option.
  • DID: High Roller; as mentioned above, this is a 500ft. tall observation wheel. We went at night and it was very cool to see the strip all lit up.
  • DID: Fremont Street – this is the old strip with some cool, classic casinos, random shopping, street performers (and extremely interesting ones, at that), a number of bars, a zip line and cool overhead light show in the evening. Definitely a neat place to walk around and people watch. Oh, and did I mention you can hit one of the bars and walk up and down the pedestrian mall with your alcohol?
  • DID: Hit the outlets – we opted for the North outlets (there are north and south options). Both are pretty close off the strip. We decided on North after reviewing the list of stores at each.
  • DID: Experience a self-driving Lyft!! This was such a cool experience. Sadly, it was only for a super short drive and we weren’t allowed to take pics or video, but the car still took over and drove! It was a BMW 5 series, so a pretty swanky car, but does have a small backseat, so three was a squeeze.

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Finally, we had some damn good food.

  • Holstein’s (inside The Cosmopolitan) – this place has insane adult milkshakes. Like, never in my life have I been served a milkshake of this kind. They also have yummy burgers and fries (plus a few other options). Below is the Donutella and the Cookies & Cream.
  • In-N-Out (just outside The Flamingo) – I live on the East coast of the Midwest 🙂 so I don’t get this option all that often, unless I’m traveling. If you’ve never had it, do. The burgers are yummy and you can customize and the fries are thin and have a nice crisp. Milkshakes are good too.
  • Sprinkles (just outside The Flamingo) – BOMB ASS CUPCAKES. This is an LA-based cupcake shop that has expanded to Las Vegas. They also have a super fun cupcake ‘atm’ for after-hours cupcake needs. I got the red velvet and it was so creamy and just melted in my mouth. HIGHLY recommend. (Oh, and they had a vegan option!)
  • Nacho Daddy – this is just off the ‘old strip,’ aka Fremont Street; nachos are huge and delicious, the desserts and margaritas were also yummy and they have a number of good vegan options. Below are blood orange, strawberry and mango margaritas, the BBQ nachos, fried ice cream and the churro dessert.

I hope this helps you with some ideas of what to explore in Vegas. I highly recommend doing some research (if you’re looking for other interests beyond the above) and planning ahead / pre-purchasing tickets before your trip. Also, you really only need ~4 days there. We had three full days and nights and that was plenty (but we didn’t gamble).

Travel Carry-on Essentials

The idea for this blog really started with a gift for my mother-in-law. Mother’s day is coming up and on top of that, we’re going Hawaii with the in-laws in June. To marry the two, I decided to put together an air travel carry-on essentials kit for the MIL. She doesn’t travel often and is a nervous flier. On top of that, the trip is pretty long from where we live and we’ll be making it with two of my nephews who are both under 3. This seemed like a fun idea for a gift to make the whole ordeal better her. And since I’m a pretty well-traveled individual (lots of work travel globally), I figured I had the expertise to make it perfect.

I started by thinking about must-have items and came up with the following list:

  • Chapstick (the air is so dry!) – since our destination is Hawaii, I opted for some that could pull double duty of hydration and sun protection
  • Lotion (see note above) – be sure you get a bottle that is 3 oz or less to comply with carry-on rules
  • Power pack – especially for long flights when you plan to watch movies on your phone or tablet, this is critical to keep your tech juiced up; I opted for a solar chargeable one (you can plug it in too)
  • Tylenol – Babies on a plane – ’nuff said
  • Zzquil – see above (for the adults not caring for them, of course); this is an essential for me on all overnight flights. I generally sleep well on planes (especially in business), but sometimes I just need a little help getting there
  • Hand sanitizer – planes are perfect for finger food (nuts, chips, sandwiches, etc.) so this is a necessity to keep you well while encountering countless people and their germs
  • Tissues – ever cried or sneezed on a plane and DIDN’T have some? Yuck.
  • Water bottle with carabiner – while perhaps not everyone would agree with me, I feel that traveling without a reusable water bottle is crazy. Most airports now have water bottle fill stations, so rather than paying $4/bottle, I opt for my water to cost $0. It’s also great and super convenient to have in whatever destination you’re heading to. Also, let’s try to save the planet a little, okay?
  • Gum (or mints) – sometimes you just need a quick breath refresh and if you have problems with pressure changes, gum is great to get your ears to pop

Then, I thought about what other things would make the trip easier / create convenience for her / keep her sane. Here’s that list:

  • Ear plugs – I’m not a personal user of ear plugs, but they can definitely help drown background noise when needed
  • Sleep mask – most long or overnight flights give you a little care package; however, I noticed our flight offers ‘meals for purchase’ on the 7 hour leg, so I’m not holding my breath that they’ll give us anything extra
  • Nail file – there is nothing more annoying than breaking a nail and not being able to take care of it (I’m exaggerating, I realize, but you know it would drive you nuts for the entire flight)
  • Wet wipes – if you can snag a resealable package for cheap, these are nice for wiping down arm rests and table trays; I got this pack at the Dollar Tree
  • Organizer – I found this one on Amazon and managed to fit everything on this list in it (except the water bottle and nuts)
  • Healthy snacks – I picked up a box of almond and walnut 100 calorie pack blends from the grocery store and added a small bag of pistachios to add some variety
  • Aromatherapy roller ball “Travel” blend – as a recently converted user to essential oils, I saw this and thought it’d be a fun addition; I got this one here on Amazon; the brand has other blends, like Sweet Dreams and Energy
  • Curvy Man – headphone organization was never easier and he even has a baby carabiner
  • Flossers – double duty between the travel and your destination, these are light and easy to toss in your carry-on

 

Large Group Getaway Planning: Getting Started

Let me start by saying that this post is from the perspective of a woman with adult siblings with families. The information may be applicable to any family (young or old) or even a group of friends, but is particularly relevant for large family gatherings with lots of opinions, schedules, and ages to accommodate. Now, let me set the stage. My mother-in-law mentioned she and her husband wanted to arrange a family vacation for all of her children and their families. My husband has three younger siblings, two of whom have young children. My MIL was having trouble getting started to put the family vacation in motion, so I decided to lend a hand. Researching, planning and presenting are basically my favorite things, so here’s a what I did.

Establish the search. Where my MIL got stuck was at the very beginning – where to go. This can be a difficult question for many. But it’s easy when you start with a couple key parameters:

  • Do you have any travel restrictions? (within driving distance, domestic-only, flights under $x)
  • What’s your target environment? (hot, cold, beach, adventure, cultural, city, country, time of year, etc.)
  • What activities are you looking to do? (relaxing, sight-seeing, water activities, etc.)

Do some research. This doesn’t have to be a TON at this stage, but I like to look up a couple of suitable lodging options, a list of activities, and at least one picture. I put all of this into a themed template in Microsoft Powerpoint. (If you don’t have a Microsoft Office suite, you can download a great tool called Open Office that is completely free and features a lot of the same functionality offered by Microsoft products.) For graphic designers, this is probably elementary, but for the average person, this looks pretty slick. I usually make an intro page and a few additional pages to detail out each option. See example below:Family Vacation Example

Get everyone on the same page. If you have a lot of people in the decision making process, it can make things tough. However, if you’re family is anything like mine, you’ve got different schedules to contend with, so it’s important to get input. What I have found to be particularly helpful at this stage  is to create a super simple online survey. You can use a simple free tool like Survey Monkey and create a survey in under 5 minutes to send to your family alongside your presentation of options to collect their feedback. This is the survey I put together to collect some key pieces of information for our family getaway:

Make a decision. Now that you’re armed with everyone’s preferences, deal-breakers, and best availability, you can finalize when and where you’re going and start making your plans!

 

To learn about the next steps to Large Group Getaway Planning: Getting Started, read Large Group Getaway Planning: Book It.

For a related post about how I pitch vacations to my husband to get a yes response every time, check out my 360 Guide to Planning a Getaway.