Sunset on Oasis of the Seas

Packing for a Cruise

As we begin to get ready for our upcoming cruise, I realize how much I hate packing! But for those folks who have never been on a cruise, I thought it might be helpful to create some lists of what and what not to pack.

Packing a Carry-On

Once you arrive at the port, your luggage will be taken by porters and you won’t see it again until later in the day in your cabin.  Pack a carry-on that includes items that you’ll want with you before your luggage arrives.  You might not get your luggage until after the ship leaves port, so keep that in mind as you pack.

Packing a carry-on bag

Packing Your Luggage

As you begin to think about which clothes to bring on your cruise, take a look at your schedule for each day.  That will help you plan your wardrobe.  Lay out all the clothes you plan to take.  Now put half of those clothes back.  That should be accurate!

Plan your wardrobe so that you can mix and match your clothes.  It really is okay to wear things more than once!  No one will know or care, I promise!  There are days when I’ll wear something for an hour or two before heading to the pool or dinner.  You better believe I’ll re-wear those clothes!  I also like to bring a sweater or pashima because I’m one of those girls who are cold all of the time.  Even in the Caribbean.

Packing list for suitcase

Items to Leave at Home

Irons and steamers need to stay at home.  Hair straighteners and curling irons are totally fine!  Candles should be pretty obvious, but I do like bringing battery operated candles for those cruises when I have a nice balcony.

Prohibited

To pack a lot into one bag and avoid those wrinkles, I roll my clothes for maximum space.  Also, Downy Wrinkle Releaser works miracles!  Seriously, I spray a light spray on any wrinkles and pull or flatten my clothes to work the wrinkles out.  It also has a nice, fresh smell!

Do you have any packing tips you’d like to share?  Let’s hear ’em!

Would You Ever Cruise Solo?

After I posted about How to Plan a Cruise, I received lots of feedback from Solo Cruisers who asked specific questions about keeping their costs down.  While I haven’t cruised solo, I know lots of people who do, so I pulled together some information that I hope might be helpful.

Keep Checking on Those Deals!

This is something I do, regardless of whether or not I’m traveling alone or with someone else.  Cruise lines can adjust their pricing at any time, so it pays to keep checking to see if there is a Price Drop, especially if you’re outside of the Final Payment Date.  I have been on 10+ cruises and I have saved money on every.single.one of them by doing a quick price check every day.

Do a Mock Booking

You can do this by doing a mock booking on your cruise and compare your pricing to what you have already booked. If the cruise line is offering a lower price and it is not after final payment, call the cruise line and request the lower price.  They will honor it.  After final payment, you will not receive any money back, but it can be worth your time if a nicer cabin becomes available for the same price you paid.

Cruisecritic.com as a Resource

A great resource for all things to know about cruising is Cruisecritic.com.  This website offers reviews and Forums with a variety of subjects; solo cruising is very discussed here!  Take a look at this thread that is dedicated to deals and lower solo supplements for solo cruisers.  How awesome is that?  There’s also an entire Board dedicated to Solo Cruisers found here.

Royal Caribbean

Every Thursday, Royal Caribbean releases their weekly sales, which also shows any solo supplement deals (if any).  Bookmark this page, because it changes every week.

There are a few cabins within the Radiance class of ships, as well as the Anthem of the Seas and Harmony of the Seas that offer ‘studio cabins’ meaning a cabin for one person. These can be hard to find, as they book quickly, but they may also not be the best bang for your buck.  They are tiny but honestly you can probably find a deal that is probably the same or better price and a nicer cabin.

And Now For the Big Question – Should I Really Cruise By Myself?!

Of course you should!  Seriously, I can say that since I am an avid cruiser.  People who cruise a lot generally fit into a certain ‘bucket’ – they are adventurous, like meeting new people and are pretty welcoming.  I can’t begin to tell you how many solo cruisers I have met over the years who just love it!  I’m sure the first trip came with a certain amount of apprehension, but at some point, they fell in love with it.

travel So, what do you have to lose?

Secrets Maroma Beach – A Long Weekend

 

Ah…..Mexico!  Heading down to Mexico for a long weekend is pretty easy for us since we’re in Texas.  Houston has many direct flights into Cancun that are not very expensive if you keep your eye on the flights.  While Cancun can be great if you’re heading down to get your groove on with young party-people (not that anything is wrong with that – we’ve all been there), we like the less commercialized parts of Mexico.  I just need a pretty beach, good service and I am a happy girl.

All-Inclusive Resort in Mexico

Secrets Maroma Beach meets my criteria, which is why I have been to this resort several times.  It is all-inclusive, which makes it easy to budget your money.  There are extras you can spend money on, like spa treatments and romantic dinners by the beach, but you can still have a wonderful vacation without doing those things.

This resort is huge, with the buildings being shaped in a ‘V’ and the pool in the middle of that ‘V’.  There are seven different restaurants on the property, as well as a buffet venue, so you will definitely find something to eat!  One thing to keep in mind – there is a dress code for some of the restaurants at night, so be sure gentlemen bring a pair of slacks and a few nice shirts for dinner.  You can find the dress code for each restaurant here when you look for more info at each venue.

The rooms are scattered among the property in different buildings.  Make sure to pay attention when booking your room; ocean view is not the same as ocean front.  You can also book a swim-out room, which is on a lower floor.  These rooms open up into a pool that is shared with two other rooms and are nicely covered by trees and other shrubs for privacy.  We have not stayed in one, but they look nice.

Don’t Forget Your AAA Card

When booking your room, make sure you look at their special offers before you book. They generally have some sort of special running.  You can also use your AAA card in this section for discounted rates.  I was able to save almost $500 on our last trip using my AAA card!  If you don’t have one, get one.  It’s roughly $100 a year and most hotels have AAA rates that are lower than the rack room rate.

Tips for Getting Through the Cancun, Mexico Airport

  • Secrets Maroma Beach is about a 45 minute drive from the Cancun airport.
  • As you get off the airplane, you will enter the immigration area, where you will show your passport.  There are usually quite a few border agents, so this is generally a quick process.
  • After you get through immigration, you will go find your luggage.
  • After you find your luggage, you will go through the customs area.  The customs officer will ask you to press a button; if the light turns green, you are good to go.  If it turns red, the customs agent will ask you to open up your luggage to be searched. This is not a big deal, I promise!
  • After you clear customs and are still in the building, you will start to have people ask you if you need a ride or need to find your ride.  Nicely say no thank you and go outside to meet your transportation if you have set it up prior to your arrival, which I highly suggest.  This way, you and the driver have agreed on a price ahead of time and you won’t get ripped off.  I use Cancun Transfers each time I go and they are awesome to work with.

Service That Makes the Trip Worth It

One thing that sets Secrets Maroma Beach apart from other resorts is the service, which is a strong statement coming from me since I travel quite a bit.  The staff at the resort go overboard to making you feel welcome. There are some vacations I book where I just want to show up and not worry about anything, and this is that kind of place.  The resort can appeal to just about anyone; if you want to party and play pool games, the staff keeps the crowd entertained all day and the swim up bar is always busy.  If you are a beach person and just want a beautiful beach, Secrets Maroma Beach has a gorgeous beach that is constantly maintained to get rid of the seaweed that washes up.

Playa Del Carmen is about a 20 minute taxi ride into town.  The resort helped us set up a taxi driver who dropped us off and then set up a specific time and location to be picked up, along with his cell phone number in case we needed to change anything.  This made is easy to check out 5th street and do some shopping for the kids.

Let me know if you have any questions about our time at Secrets Maroma Beach.  If you travel to Mexico, where do you like to stay?

Are you going to ACL?

All photos courtesy of ACL Festival

ACL, which is actually the Austin City Limits Music Festival, takes place every fall at Zilker Park in Austin, Texas.  Tickets have gone on sale, so if you are planning on going this year, it’s time to get those tickets!  This year the event is October 6-8 and October 13-15 and the lineup looks pretty spectacular.  You can get tickets and festival information here at the ACL Festival site.

lineup

If you don’t know anything about ACL, here are some quick facts:

  • As you can see from the above event poster, the festival is not about one music genre; there’s something for everyone.  Multiple stages are set up are Zilker Park, so you can wander between stages to check out booths and people watch.
  • When you buy your ticket, you’re actually buying a wristband, which is non-transferable after you use it.  You can sell your wristband before the festival for face value only – you cannot mark that baby up to pocket some extra cash.  This is to prevent ticket scalpers from buying wristbands and selling them for ridiculous prices like they do for concerts.
  • Not all bands play both weekends, so pay attention to the lineup and make sure you select the weekend that works best for you.
  • Even if you don’t go to the actual festival, being in Austin during ACL is pretty cool! Kid #1 ran into the band of Foo Fighters one night out on 6th street.  Dave Grohl was not with them that night, as he had just broken his leg.  Other artists will play at random bars, so you never know who you will run into when you’re out and about Austin.
  • Uber and Lyft are no longer in Austin, so keep that in mind when you’re thinking about transportation.  Ride Austin is a good alternative.
  • If you’re coming in from out of town, book your hotel room now.  You seriously don’t want to wait on this, as rooms get booked and more expensive as the timing of the festival gets closer.  Also consider Air BnB.  Many local Austin folks actually leave town during festival time and rent out their homes.  This is a great alternative.

Have you ever been to ACL?  Let me know if you’re planning to go!

The Caves – Negril, Jamaica

Do you ever want one of those vacations that allow you to drop off the face of the earth for a little while?  If so, then check out The Caves in Negril, Jamaica.  Not only is it beautiful, but the service I have experienced there has made me return several times over the years.

The Cave in Negril, Jamaica

The Caves is a small, boutique hotel in Negril, which is at the very western tip of Jamaica. When I say small, I’m talking about 12 cottages and one beautiful villa.  It’s all-inclusive: You can order just about anything you want for breakfast, then for lunch and dinner, there are set menus to choose from, all fresh, local cuisine.

The resort provides snorkeling equipment, so you’ll definitely want to take advantage of that!  We’ve seen some beautiful fish within the swimming area that is roped off.  For the more adventurous folks, book some time with their Ocean Expert, Paul.  He can take you beyond the swimming area, which is a real treat.  If you can’t find Paul, just look for the guy jumping off the cliffs.

The Villa

The ocean-side of the resort is where all of the action happens; it is also where all of the cottages are.  The villa, called Clandestino, is away from the resort.  You have to walk under the main road to get to it, so if really getting away from it all is your thing, this is the place to do it.  Staying at the villa means you get a butler and we got Leon, who became a life-long friend and is seriously one of the greatest men you will meet.  The villa has four bedrooms, a full kitchen, a pool, washer and dryer….anything you could want.  During our stay, we invited some of the other guests to come see the villa and Leon helped set us up with cocktails and snacks.

The Resort

Each morning, we chose to have our breakfast by the pool…talk about peaceful!  After breakfast, we headed over to the cliff-side of the resort to spend the day snorkeling and chatting with other guests.

Let’s say you need a cocktail after the bars close?  No problem!  You can help yourself behind the bar.  Want to feel like you’re on The Bachelor?  The staff at The Caves can plan a gorgeous dinner in one of their various caves full of candles and personalized service just for you and your special someone, who in my case, was my best friend. Super romantic, right?  I did actually bring my husband to The Caves because it was just the easiest, most relaxing vacation ever.

Cave Dinner

The resort is located about an hour and a half from Montego Bay.  The Caves staff can help you arrange transportation (which we did) or you can do it yourself.  The staff can also arrange excursions outside of the resort.  Just check with the lovely ladies at the front desk and they will be more than happy to help.

Please let me know if you have any questions and tell Leon and Paul I said hello if you decide to go visit The Caves.

Introducing Las Olas Travel

All Photo Credits go to Las Olas Travel

I was recently contacted by the co-founder of Las Olas Travel, Rachel Wilson, to find out if I had ever done volunteer work during my travels.  While I haven’t yet, it is definitely on my bucket list in the very near future.

Las Olas Travel focuses on volunteer travel in Costa Rica and Nicaragua, providing projects in reforestation working with orphanages and exotic animal rehabilitation. Sounds amazing, right?  The opportunities are endless; not only are you giving back to the community, but you are having your own adventures while doing it!  Want to snuggle with a sloth?  You can do that in Costa Rica!  Want to teach English to Elementary School students?  You can do that in Nicaragua!  These two-week trips are not all work; there are some adventure excursions along the way, as well as Spanish immersion.  It’s important to learn the language!

If you want to take your travels to a new level, give eco-tourism a try.  The folks at Las Olas Travel can book you with an existing trip or they can customize a trip for you.  I’ve linked their web site for you to check out, so let me know your thoughts!

Andaz Peninsula Papagayo Resort

Review – Andaz Peninsula Papagayo Resort, Costa Rica

My husband and I were able to make a quick trip to Costa Rica last fall, using Hyatt points to stay at the Andaz Papagayo Resort.  We have always wanted to go to Costa Rica, but between work and kid commitments, we could never get our schedules to work.  We had a long weekend magically open up and I had some points to burn from my Chase Hyatt credit card, so we booked the trip!  If you don’t know about this credit card, check it out. Among it’s many perks, you get a free night per year plus you can use your points for other free nights or upgrades.

Getting There

We had a direct flight from Houston (IAH) to Liberia (LIR) and I had arranged transportation to the hotel ahead of time.  Less than 45 minutes later we were greeted at the hotel with cold towels and cocktails!

Since our room was booked on points, it was a standard room overlooking another section of rooms, but for our short weekend it was just fine.  Had I done a little research, I would have figured out that is was still rainy season during our visit.  Although it didn’t rain during our days there, we did hear the rain at night and it was actually kind of peaceful. However, the mosquito’s were insane at sunset, so we were grateful for the cans of bug spray that the resort has readily available.

The Resort

The resort is gorgeous and huge!  Staff was happy to pick us up in golf carts if we were going from one side of the resort to the other, which was nice after dinner when it was raining.  We are normally beach people, but because of the rainy season, the beach just wasn’t….well, pretty.  I’m sure it is much better during different times of the year. We stayed by the adult pool where the cocktails were perfect and the monkey watching was fun.

A Typical Day

On Saturday afternoon, we ventured into Guanacaste to watch the Ole Miss vs Alabama football game.  Kid #3 goes to Ole Miss and was in the front row of the student section during that game.  It was pretty cool to see her on TV while watching the game in a Costa Rican bar!

For dinner, we ate at Chao Pescao’s restaurant at the resort.  While this restaurant claims to have ‘small plates’, we found them to be quite large and plentiful and we were stuffed both times when we rolled out of there.  The service, food and live music make this place a wonderful addition to the resort.

We used this quick trip kind of as a fact-finding mission to see if Costa Rica was a place where we’d like to spend a longer vacation and it definitely was.  We knew we wouldn’t have time to see any volcanoes or other Costa Rican sites on this trip, but on a longer vacation, we’ll be sure to see more of the beauty that Costa Rica offers.

Do you Like to Cruise?

Do you like to cruise?  I generally find that folks either love it or hate it.  Most of my family really like to cruise, but my husband only goes because I force him!  Here’s the thing – how else can you visit a variety of different places but only have to unpack once? For me, cruising gives me an opportunity to see if I really like a port enough to go back for a longer vacation, which we have done.

We prefer to cruise with Royal Caribbean (I have cruised with Carnival a long time ago) and like the perks of their loyalty program.  We are planning a cruise next month for Kid #2’s college graduation on Harmony of the Seas, so here is some advice for you new or not-so-new cruisers if you are planning a trip.

Here are some tips:

  • You do not need to book your cruise through a travel agent, but you certainly can. And sometimes that agent will give you onboard credit, a bottle of wine, or another nice gift for booking with them.  Since I travel so much and admittedly am kind of a control freak, I like to book the trip myself on the cruise line’s website so that I have total control of my reservation.
  • If you are leaving from a port that you have to fly to, plan on flying in at least the day before. Even though we leave out of Houston and there are lots of flights going to Florida the day of our cruise, it is too risky to fly in the day of the cruise, especially if the cruise is leaving around 4:00 or 4:30.  Passengers generally have to be on board two hours before the ship leaves for a variety of reasons, so that leaves very little wiggle room for flight delays or missing baggage.  You do not want to be that cruise passenger who is decked out in clothing with the cruise brand logo on them – you can spot them a mile away!
  • This is for Royal Caribbean specific ships:  If you are booked on any of the Oasis class or Quantum class ships, you should book your show reservations before you board, along with any dining reservations that are important to you.  I didn’t know this the first time I sailed on Oasis of the Seas and we ended up waiting in endless lines for shows.  You can reserve your shows online free of charge and it will help you plan out your day ahead of time.  You can always modify your schedule when you get on board.
  • The drink package…is it worth it?  The drink package is offered by RCCL as opposed to being charged per drink.  It covers alcohol, but it also covers water bottles, soda, and smoothies.  I like it because if I don’t like something, I don’t feel forced to finish it because of the cost; I can just try something new.  If you’re not a big drinker, it may not be for you, but just do the math.  The cost of the drink package also includes gratuities, so you are set!
  • In booking excursions, I rarely go through RCCL anymore because I am more comfortable with making my own arrangements.  But if you book an excursion through the ship, and the excursion is late getting back to the ship for whatever reason, the ship will wait for you to get back.  If you did not book through the ship, you are out of luck!  So make sure you give yourself plenty of time to get back on board before the ship leaves.  As a side note, it is kind of fun to watch the runners who are late getting back on board.  Cozumel is a great port for runner watching!
  • Dining:  You have two choices for eating dinner in the main dining room – Traditional Dining and My-Time Dining (again, this is specific to Royal Caribbean). Traditional Dining has two seating times, usually around 6:00 and 8:30.  My Time Dining is just that – you decide what time you want to eat.  You can either walk up when you are ready to be seated, but be prepared for a line or you can make a reservation for that day or a standing reservation for the week.  All ships also have Specialty Restaurants for a small upcharge, which is a nice break from the main dining room.  If we sail on an Oasis class ship, we generally will skip the main dining room altogether and try the many specialty restaurants for the variety.
  • Travel Insurance: Just get it.  Seriously.  It’s not that expensive and covers anything from lost luggage to medical evacuation.  Ever hear about those helicopters picking up cruise passengers from the ship?  That’s not cheap!  A great site to look at options is www.insuremytrip.com

In the next few weeks, I’ll post more about our upcoming cruise plans.  If you have any questions about cruising, please let me know!

United Airlines – Customer Service?

Unless you’ve been living under a rock during the last two days, you’ve probably heard the news about the passenger being physically dragged off a United flight on Sunday.  So many things had to go wrong for this to happen, so let’s take a look at the facts.

Timeline of Events

  • The United flight, departing from Chicago O’hare to Louisville, Kentucky had already started boarding passengers when four United employees presented themselves at the gate, claiming they had to be on this flight in order to be in Louisville for a flight the next day.
  • United gate personnel then started asking for volunteers to stay overnight in Chicago and take a different flight Monday afternoon.  The going rate only got up to $1000, which no one took, before United claims they randomly selected four people to be forcibly bumped from this flight.  Three passengers left without incident; one did not.  And this is where everything went horribly wrong.
  • The passenger was asked to leave.  He did get belligerent, understandably so since he was sitting in a seat he paid for and was already sitting in.  Then security was called to manhandle him out of the seat, hitting his head on the armrest and dragging him down the aisle.
  • Passengers filmed the incident from various views and were visibly upset.  Children were crying.  Somehow the bloodied passenger appeared back on the plane, but did not stay on the plane.
  • The four United employees took their seats and the flight took off two hours late.

Who was Really in Charge?

The series of events for the horrible treatment of a human being is just not because of one person.  Where was the Captain?  The Flight Attendants? Gate Personnel? Head of Security?  Did this poor man get medical help as blood was dripping down his face?

I have even more questions.  Why is the bad planning of getting these four United employees to their destination more important than that of the revenue generating passengers who depend on United to get them to their destination?  Think about how you book your travel – you look through the available flights and pick the flight that works best for your schedule.  You assume that if you show up at the right gate on time, get on the plane and sit in your seat, you are going to get to your destination. Sure, there are problems with weather altering plans, but this was not that situation.

Now let’s talk about the CEO’s response:

United

Whut?

That is the worst ‘apology’ in the history of apologies.

I live in the Houston area and United has been my airline of choice, but I am so disappointed in how this entire event was handled.  Ever heard the term ‘throw some money at the problem’?  Gate personnel could have gone higher than $1000 before booting passengers off of this flight.  Easily.  And I guarantee someone would have taken a higher number.  The amount of bad press that this incident is causing will cost the airline way more than what it would have cost to accomplish getting their employees where they needed to be without bashing someone’s head in.

Leggings-Gate

This comes right on the heels of the Leggings fiasco, which was so stupid and honestly actually not United’s fault, but also could have been managed much better.  Family members who are flying on non-revenue tickets do have to adhere to a dress code.  These were just not random teenagers.

United Airlines, are you listening?

Quick Trip to Austin, Texas

Visiting Austin

I had to visit Austin last week for business, which happens every once in a while since my main client is there.  It also gave me a chance to see Kid #1 and his fiance (Kid #1.5?) and Kid #2.  It was booked kind of last minute, but I was able to get a room using my Hyatt points and was upgraded to a Sweet Suite at the Hyatt Regency on Lady Bird Lake. This hotel has been recently renovated and I am very pleased with the outcome.  The room was beautiful and way more than I needed for the night, but it was a nice little perk due to my status with Hyatt.

Fresca’s

For dinner, my son chose Fresca’s on South First, which is a cute Mexican food restaurant in South Austin.  We chose to sit outside, where they have a variety of picnic tables under huge oak trees.  Patrons bring their dogs, so we got to meet several while we enjoyed our meal. Apparently their Avocado Margarita is amazing – I didn’t have one, but my son and his fiance did and said they were fabulous.  I highly recommend Fresca’s and would go back again in a heartbeat!

frescas