A Long Weekend in Phoenix

As I mentioned on Wednesday, my sister and I took a Labor Day vacay to Phoenix. Why Phoenix? Why not? While super hot and not totally glamorous, it is the sixth largest city in the U.S. and is totally drivable from San Diego.

desert-landscape

There is something about the beauty of the desert that makes a drive like this relaxing. A long and straight highway lets driver and passenger focus on the scenery in a way that’s a bit more difficult on a windy mountainous road. Everyone should drive through the desert once in their life, whether it’s to see saguaro cactus like we did, or to see the painted desert closer to the north part of Arizona and New Mexico.

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We stayed at a really cute Airbnb that did nothing but exacerbate my dreams of owning a home with a casita out back to host my own out of towners. The decoration was feminine and cute while still managing to be desert-y. Small touches like a pastel colored Mexican blanket and drinking glasses with a desert motif helped remind us where we were.

The first evening we got there, we headed to the Desert Botanical Garden, but balked at the price ($22!) since we only had a few moments left of daylight. There were a bunch of kids arriving with flashlights and headlamps for a night guided tour—how fun! If I were visiting for longer, I’d definitely carve out a half-day to see the whole garden. The following day we ate our way through the city. We started with donuts and coffee, moved on to lunch with my old coworker and friend and then did a bit of thrift store and antique shopping.

The heat was surprisingly draining. We spent a disproportionate amount of time just recuperating in our air-conditioned airbnb. This makes sense though—while we were out and about I was struck by how empty the streets were. One of the main design things I noticed about Phoenix is that keeping the sun (and thereby the heat) out of homes, restaurants, etc was of paramount importance—even more important than making the outside of places terribly attractive. However, I did see it done in some unique and beautiful ways, particularly in the Coronado Historic neighborhood where we stayed.

petroglyphs

On the way to Phoenix, I noticed a road sign that pointed out Native American petroglyphs. On the way back, I insisted on going to see them, even though I wasn’t sure what to expect. It was fairly out of way way, 11 miles off the freeway, but I think it was worth it. Seeing artwork created by ancient people, thousands of years ago, really left me speechless. The desert is such a hostile and inhospitable place, it is mind-boggling to think of humans roaming the area in such a primitive time.

steph-and-i-at-petroglyphs

dateshake

Before the trip, my co-worker and Arizona native told me that while making the drive we had to stop outside of Gila Bend and get one of Dateland’s famous date shakes. I’d never really heard of a date shake before but I was diligent to take her up on the recommendation. The date shakes were so delicious, Steph and I were sure to get them again on the way back to California!

Sometimes getting away for even just a couple of days can be really refreshing for a couple of reasons. Checking out a new city can be so energizing—but getting home to familiar settings and routines can be comforting in a way.

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Where is your go-to escape for a three day weekend?

Tips for Traveling: Money and Packing

I hope you were able to learn something from my last post of travel tips! I had a fun time writing them and thinking of things that I wished I knew in the past. Sorry for the delay in posting this part II, but it’s finally ready: This post will go over a couple more things I think are crucial to getting the most out of any trip you plan: Money and packing, which are tied closer together than you may think.

There’s a famous phase that my friend Val reminded me about on facebook: “Bring half of what you think you’ll need, and twice as much money.” This is so true! I used to be a chronic over-packer. I’d pack “outfits” so that each day I’d have a unique look. Now I try to pack [fewer] clothes that all mix and match well with each other. My other epiphany is that most of the time, if you forget something, the place you’re headed to will sell what you need. This takes a lot of pressure off!

Ace Hotel Portland

Money and Savings

As far as paying for the trip itself, like I’ve shared in the past I am a chronic planner. For me planning the trip is a huge part of the experience. So much so that I’m constantly looking up fares on Kayak and Airbnb just to see what the going rates for things are.

So to budget for a trip I do it just like any other big purchase: I get the total and work backwards. For a longer international trip let’s use a ballpark figure of $2,000 (for our purposes: something like a $900 flight, $100 per night hotel, plus money for attractions and food). I think of when I’d like to visit that place, count how many months away it is, then divide. If there’s no possible way I could put that much away per month, then the trip gets pushed back so the monthly savings amount is lower. Even if I don’t have something coming up I still try to prioritize putting a certain amount away each month. My “present self” has thanked my “past self” on many occasions.

If this sounds like poor planning because I’m saving for my trip as it approaches: well, you probably have a point, but I also have a strategy. I book things in installments if I’m pretty sure the price of that aspect is going to stay stable. Remember, for an international trip I start booking things a pretty generous six months out. So after a few months of saving, I have enough to book the flight, so I do. Then a couple months later I have enough to lock down my hotel or Airbnb, so I do. Doing this in waves (instead of all at once) gives me more time to daydream about what I want from the trip, research neighborhoods, and learn what good lodging prices are. Then for the remaining months before the trip I put aside money for food, sightseeing and shopping.

Cash

As far as spending money for each day, it really depends on your lifestyle. Something we did on our last trip that worked out well was just dealing in cash. With cash (overseas), you only have to pay the bank ATM fee once (sometimes it’s a percentage of money withdrawn plus a foreign transaction fee) and you end up with what basically works as your budget to go on. Of course if something unexpected happens you’re able to get more out of the ATM, but dealing with cash in hand and avoiding being hit with bank fees twice has a way of being pretty persuasive on where you want your money to go.

london-14

As an example, here is how we dealt in cash on pour last trip. When we arrived in Heathrow, the ATM would only let us take out 300 pounds. So, that was our budget for the three days in London: 100 per day. London is so expensive!! We put a couple pricier items on our credit card (the pricey Arsenal stadium tour, an expensive keepsake from Liberty, for example—and do use credit not debit when swiping; fewer fees) but other than those things, the £300 carried us through with 60 pence to spare. We did the same in Paris and Madrid. 6 days, 600 Euros. Paris was more expensive than Madrid so it was probably more like €125/day in Paris and €75/day in Madrid. (Remember, this was for two people).

I try to avoid cash exchange windows and just deal with the ATM. If the ATM claims to be “fee free,” even better. They often have these in airports just before you get out of Customs. I don’t know if they really are “fee free,” but it is better to at least try avoiding fees of up to $8. Regardless, make sure you are using a reputable ATM at a major bank (not a convenience store). Before you travel, you can look up the terms of your credit or bank card and see if they have any particular foreign partner bank. If not, at least you’ll know what your foreign transaction fees will be and can plan your number of withdrawals accordingly. Also, take a moment to add a travel note on your account so it doesn’t get frozen (when the bank sees international spending they try to protect your money by shutting it down). This is super important!

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Make your money go farther by scoping out if any of your must-see sites have free days or free evenings and plan around that. Alternate between sit-down restaurants and street food (which is usually delicious, more “typical,” and cheap!) Buy or bring snacks to keep on hand and you can probably get by on two meals a day, if you really want to scrimp.

Packing

Packing, especially when planning a trip with a significant other or a relative, can get heated. One person always wants to bring something the other person thinks is totally unnecessary. You’ll want to check with your airline(s) in regards to what kind of bags incur charges and which are free, and plan accordingly. I’m making great strides in being more minimal. When laying out clothes to bring, make sure everything mixes and matches together. It all depends on where you’re headed, but consider wearing things twice, or doing light layers. You can pack with dryer sheets in your suitcase if you are worried about – ahem – scents, but my bet is that nobody will notice if you re-wear an outfit. If you still want to cram more in, roll your clothes to create more room. I don’t know how this voodoo works, but it does.

Madonna Inn

Here’s something important, though: If you are checking a bag, make sure that your carry on bag contains what you’d like to have if you are stranded without your luggage, say, overnight. Put some comfy clothes and a toothbrush, at the bare minimum, alongside your device chargers and light airplane reading. My friend Laura recommended, “as someone who has been stuck in an airport more than once overnight without access to luggage… I would suggest always having on you when flying: 1 change of clothes (with undies), an extra pair of socks and sweater (airports and planes are cold), a toothbrush and toothpaste, a few snacks, and cash (one time I was stuck in an airport because there was a power outage and the only way to buy things was with cash).” Remember! If your flight is grounded you could be spending unexpected hours in the airport.

As for that other random thing you are on the fence about bringing along? You probably don’t need it or won’t have time to use it. If it doesn’t jump to your mind as essential, it probably isn’t.

Thanks for reading! If you have tips or something you swear by, please put it in the comments below! I’m always looking for helpful ideas.

Tips for Traveling: Flights and Lodging

I thought I’d wrap up my recent string of traveling posts with some tips I’ve learned along the way to help out someone (you?) who is thinking of planning a “bigger” trip. I realize that a big trip to one person could mean going more than a couple states over, or a big trip to another could be a three-month backpacking trek across South Asia. For my purposes, something I consider a “big” trip is: more than a week, or out of the country, or some combination of the two.

Note: I was planning on writing one big post, but when I got on a roll it was turning out to be very long, so I’m breaking it up into two posts. The second one will be published Thursday! 

I’ve gone abroad 4 times since 2005. Some things have changed and some things have stayed the same. Hopefully, even if all of these tips don’t apply to you, you can find something of value here. I opened the question to some of my friends on facebook and got good talking points and tips from them as well.

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Booking

I like to book whenever I’ve made my mind up that I’m serious about the trip and have the finances in order. Then again, I am a big-time planner. So, for our last Europe trip, I did my research all throughout January and booked the tickets at the end of the month. For the trip we are going on this winter, I watched prices for a couple of months, and went ahead and locked my tickets down a couple weeks ago. If you are able to plan six months ahead, you can get a good price for going abroad. For domestic trips, about three months ahead has been a pretty good time to make plans. Of course, sometimes airlines have flash sales, so if you aren’t as much of a planner, but more of a money hoarder, you can look for sales or Groupon Getaways and get some good deals.

Always plan ahead. I use Kayak.com fanatically. Their predictive tool shows you the way prices have fluctuated and recommends you to “buy” or “wait.” Kayak doesn’t show you all carriers, so go straight to the source for budget airlines like Southwest or Spirit. The rule of thumb is “always book on a Tuesday.” This is when airline websites announce sales, and the rest of the market reacts to this. If you are wanting to save every dollar you can, you can follow this advice—or you can refer to the paragraph above and just book as soon as you’re ready.

UK Ireland 2010 422

If you plan to travel at least a couple times per year, it is worth it to sign up for a loyalty plan. OneWorld, SkyTeam, and Star Alliance are the “big three” that span the globe. Before you sign up with one, you can think back to which airlines you happen to have flown the most regularly and consider if that trend will continue. Personally I’ve signed up with Alaska Airlines because they have lots of flights out of San Diego and their points can be used on a broad variety of carriers. I also collect OneWorld points too—all of my overseas flights have been on American Airlines. They key to accumulating airline points is to make sure you don’t let them expire. Look into alternative ways of earning points to keep them “fresh.” With Alaska Air, I can shop through their website and take online surveys to make sure that the minimum number of points are added per year. I’m a member of a handy website called Award Wallet that tracks amount of points and expiration, but a spreadsheet or Google Doc could work too.

I’ve got a cousin and a few friends who play the credit card game—opening up cards and reaching “minimum spend” to get mileage plan credits then cancelling (or setting aside) the card. This is attractive because sign-up bonuses are usually enough for at least one round-trip ticket. However, airlines are increasing minimum spend or reducing miles, making “the game” harder to play since there are some devoted people on the web teaching others how to work the system at the airlines’ expense.

The Vatican

I never purchased “travel insurance,” but back in June when our Air France flight got cancelled, I wished I had. We ended up getting our money back a month later, but with post-Brexit exchange rates we lost about $10 on each ticket. For our upcoming trip to Mexico the travel insurance was only about $3 per ticket so I added it on. From my friend Wayne: “Check if the credit card you used to buy the flight includes travel insurance. Might include compensation for flight delays or cancellations. For cancellations, don’t automatically accept hotel/food vouchers from the airline if it requires an overnight stay. The credit card company usually will give you more than the airline.”

Hotels

Hotels, I have found, are one of the biggest question marks when traveling. From my aunt Joyce: “Some of the hotels look wonderful but when you get there… Not everything is as glossy as the brochure.” This is so true! Sometimes a place looks good online, but when you arrive it’s the size of a shoebox and is dingy (this happened to us in Paris, 2012).

There are a couple different directions you could go with hotels: book something really cheap and take what you get (you will free up more spending money this way) or, if creature comforts are important to you, diligently read reviews: and not just one or two of them. Some fussy people leave a bad review for minor infractions (sub-par breakfast maybe), and some people give a high-star review but couch a few gripes in their written portion. I don’t spend too much time on the Tripadvisor forums, but I do check their reviews on hotels since the site is just so widely used. This site, trivago, is a search aggregator and has parameters you can use to narrow down lodgings. When I was searching for places in Europe, the trivago engine brought up the greatest number of places at a wide variety of price points (even including hostels).

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Of course I’ve been singing the praises of airbnb for a while now, and it’s what we used on several of our latest trips. When I search airbnb, I always set the parameters for “superhosts.” This way you will be matched with highly reviewed hosts—by using this to narrow down my rentals for safety and accuracy, I have yet to be disappointed. To me, searching airbnb and trivago are interchangeable to help me find the right room, in the right part of town, for the right price, so I don’t lean one way or the other. We are definitely going to book an airbnb for the group trip we’re doing in December, so I guess if I was traveling with a group regularly (like, a family) I’d go with airbnbs because you’ll get more space to spread out and not be in each other’s hair– for less than booking two or more rooms at a hotel.

In my next post I’m going to do my best to tackle money and packing. Anything you’ve always wanted my opinion on? Any tips you want to give me? I might add an “oh yeah, and…” post Friday for anything I forgot to include!