Archive for August, 2011

A Journey of a Thousand Miles…

August 26, 2011

…begins with a single step.

Do you have a valid passport?  I got my first passport about 25 years ago.  In those days, I was single, working two jobs and dreaming of visiting exotic, faraway destinations.  Maybe international travel is just a dream for you as well but you can be one step closer to reality by applying for your passport.

New restrictions make a passport necessary for any international flight and even for vehicular crossings into Canada or Mexico.  The less expensive “Passport Card” option is available if you plan to drive to our neighbors to the north or south.  It also works for those on cruises sailing into the Bermuda or Caribbean.

Getting a US Passport is expensive – more than double what it cost me 25 years ago!  That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it!  Even if you can’t afford an international vacation right now, taking the steps now will make it easier to take advantage of last minute deals which are prevalent.

First step, you need pictures taken.  No, you can’t use those great glamour shots you had taken a few years ago.  These are official photos and you can have them taken any number of places where you see the “Passport Photos Here” signage.   I usually go to a FedEx/Kinko’s location when it’s time to renew mine or one of the family but Walgreen’s and a host of other places do them as well.  You can find a location offering this service from their websites using the links provided. Cost:  about $10 for the 2 pictures required.

Even if you only do this first step, it’s a start and an inexpensive one at that. Then this weekend when friends ask what you are doing, you can say you are working on getting your US Passport!

To get the forms and see the documentation required for a passport, visit the State Department website.  All the information is there.  You will need to get a certified copy of your birth certificate if you don’t already have one.  I had to have my mom go to the courthouse in my hometown to get a copy for me way back when but you can write to the State where you were born for a copy.  The link provided will take you to the website with the contact information by State.  Usually there is a small fee associated with getting a certified copy of your birth certificate so be prepared to pay between $9-$30 for most States.

The passport will set you back $135 plus the price of the photos and birth certificate.   By starting now, you both avoid rate increases and have time to budget for the expense.

First time applicants must apply in person.  There is no wiggle room on this one.   Since you are starting NOW and aren’t in a rush, you can avoid expedited handling fees and use a local passport application office.  Find one near you searching by zip code using this link.    Find out their times of operation and even give them a call to ask when they are least busy.  Then you can plan your visit accordingly!

There are services you can hire  such as TravelVisaPro.com to assist with the process but it’s really not that hard, especially if you aren’t trying to do it last minute.  The services can be helpful for Visas however, but you won’t know if you need one of those until you have selected a location and are closer to your date of travel.

I’ve now been on each of the 7 continents at least once.  Same is true for my husband and 2 of my stepsons.  My first international trip was about 18 months AFTER I got my first passport.

If you would like to travel outside the US, start by getting your passport.  You may be surprised how you feel when you first hold it in your hand and even more surprised how soon after you put it to use!

Planning Ahead Can Save Big

August 19, 2011

We all know to buy our airline tickets at least 2 weeks in advance in order to save some money and often, the further ahead you purchase, the better chance you have for snagging the lowest fare.

If you are planning a visit to another major city sometime during the next few months, sign up for both Living Social and Groupon for that city.  Do this for cities you visit regularly whether it’s for business to because you have family or friends there.

Create a new email address for your “out of area” offers so you can easily distinguish between the local and out of town offers.

While you probably look for great deals on manicures, dining or even car services in your local offers, keep an eye out for more tourist type activities in your other city.  

Recently, Living Social offered a significant discount on a 30 minute scenic flight for 3 or 5 with Seattle Scenic Flights.  Groupon had a bargain on a “Ghost Tour” of the Market and Post Alley - a “Top 10″ of national ghost tours.

Previously there have been discounts on a trip to observation deck on the Smith Tower and Segway sightseeing tours of downtown and West Seattle among many others.

Of course, there are always great deals on restaurants and lodging too.

To be sure you don’t buy “bargains” you can’t really use, use the map and directions feature so you don’t buy something for a location too far from where you will be staying.  It’s not a bargain if you spend what you saved on taxi fare to get there!

Also, don’t buy unless your trip is definite!  If you buy deals in a city where you have family or friends, you can always offer it to them if something should change but these deals are non-refundable so buy wisely!

Lastly, read the small print.  You don’t want to get a deal that’s only good during the week if you are only going to be there on the weekend.

These daily deal sites are a great way to save money both in your home city and in major cities you visit.  Sign up today (they’re free!) and start saving!

Winter Wonderland…in Shorts!

August 12, 2011

Mount Rainier got 25′ of more snow than average this past winter.  Where usually the base of the mountain is a field of wildflowers by August, this year it’s still a snowfield!  The presents a rare opportunity to have some “winter fun” in your shorts!  

While you can find snow there year round, it’s not often you can’t even see the paved trails because of it!  Grab your family and friends and go spend an August day sledding and playing in the snow on Mount Rainier.

Paradise is only about a 2 hour drive from most of the Seattle metroplex.  Admission to the National Park is $15 for a 7 day pass.

What to bring:

  • Ski or hiking poles (it will make climbing a lot easier)
  • Waterproof boots or just a spare pair of dry shoes to change into when you get finished playing in the snow.
  • Shorts work well (it wasn’t cold, it just takes a LONG time for all that snow to melt) because pants soak up too much water.
  • A sledding disc or even just some sturdy plastic to sit on if you want to slide down
  • A towel and change of clothes in case you get wetter than expected.
  • Your camera!

We saw people skiing and snowboarding down the mountain as well.  

Pack a picnic lunch or take advantage of the nice food served in both the restaurant and coffee shop inside Paradise Inn.  You can even get a room for the night (like we did) if you have more than a day to spend.

The Visitor’s Center is staffed with Park Rangers who can give you maps of trails suited to your interest and skills.

In addition to playing in the snow in August, just below the elevation of the Visitor Center and the Paradise Inn the snow has melted and the trails are open.  There are lots of great, short and easy hikes you can do.

The heavy snowfall and late melt also has the waterfalls flowing spectacularly.  Be sure to take time to visit both Christine and Narada Falls – both with turnouts for easy viewing.

 

 

On your way back through Ashford, just a couple of miles outside the Park’s Paradise Gate, stop in at either the Wild Berry Restaurant or the Copper Creek Restaurant for a delicious slice of homemade berry pie – the perfect end to a memorable summer day!

 

The Real Skinny

August 5, 2011

If it hasn’t happened to you, it has probably happened to someone you know. You look at the website for a hotel, resort or other vacation rental and it all looks great.  You book your room and dream of your wonderful time away.  Then you get there and find the photos were either a) taken YEARS ago, b) taken from the ONLY flattering angle or c) were taken with a wide-angle lens to give the appearance of space.

The same can happen regarding activities, museums, gardens, zoos, restaurants and other tourist attractions.

So how do you get the real skinny?  Wouldn’t it be great if you could ask someone who was just there?  Not a representative of the business – but an actual traveler like yourself?  That’s the premise of TripAdvisor.com.

What can you learn on TripAdvisor?  In preparation for our first trip to the Dominican Republic a couple of weeks ago, I visited TripAdvisor.  There I saw photos taken and posted by travelers who had been to the resort within the past 30 days which validated those on the resort’s website and added details far MORE than the thumbnails on the official site.

I read reviews of the food, the service and the overall maintenance of the resort. Being an “all-inclusive” resort, I didn’t have high expectations for the food – more like an average cruise ship buffet and that was supported by comments of recent guests.  Recent guests did have tips though regarding getting reservations at the couple of ala carte restaurants which insured we were able to get into our chosen dining locations.

When I couldn’t find some information on the official resort website such as the type of power in the rooms (it is a foreign country) I was able to directly email a user who had just returned from there.  They were more than happy to give me the skinny on the plug types and offered to answer any other questions I may have.

Everyone RAVED about the beach.  But reading that others had spotty housekeeping service or mix-ups on airport transfers helped me to prepare with documentation and mindset to help us past these travel hiccups.  As a result, we had a wonderful time!

 

Part of your pleasure or disappointment with anything comes down to how closely reality matches your expectations.  TripAdvisor helps you set realistic expectations.

So in addition to reading this blog, sign up for TripAdvisor.com.  It’s FREE and gives you access to the real skinny on places and activities you consider for your vacation.  This information will help you make informed choices, reduce stress and maximize your vacation dollar.


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