I’m writing this to you on a plane, as most of my recent posts have been. By the time you’ll read this, I’ll be in an entirely different country, but as of now, I’ve just returned from Playa Del Carmen and my first ever trip to Mexico.
That entire last phrase is italicized because I’m actually from southern California, and yet had never driven the hour or so south to go visit our neighbors. This, despite the fact that I make a habit of flying around the world.
Anyway- I went down to Mexico for the very first time! And when I say “Mexico,” I mean “I drove straight to an all-inclusive resort and stayed there for the entirety of my trip.” I wouldn’t say I got the ”cultural experience,’ but I did have an amazing time.
Even better, this time I wasn’t alone! One of my best friends, Chrissy, came to meet me, and we had a blast catching up on girl gossip (boys!) and general life experiences.
I’ve got to say, I really needed a vacation. *cue world’s smallest violin.* Spending this time at this resort was probably one of the best trips I’ve ever had. All-inclusive resorts are all about excess, and boy did we exceed. Pristine sand, 80 minute massages, and unlimited ice cream were all part of our incredible vacation experience.
Now, the hotel was called the Barcelo Maya Palace, and it was one of about five in a sprawling complex that encompassed huge swaths of Playa Del Carmen’s beaches. Sorry, let me amend that, it was the best of about five of these resorts, which meant that our daily dinners consisted of things like filet mignon and creme’ brûlée, and we had tons of fun dressing up.
I’ve got a lot of photos, so I’ll split them between posts. Here are the first few:
So, I promised last post that I’d tell you guys some of the different tricks I used in order to save money at Disneyworld. Now, I’ve already gone over using points to pay for a hotel stay here, but to summarize, it goes like this:
Disney’s Dolphin and Swan Hotels
There are two resorts on Disneyworld property that are not owned by Disney. These two, the Dolphin and the Swan, are actually part of the Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) program, which means you can use points to stay there for free.
The Disney Dolphin is a category 4 hotel, which costs 10,000 points/night.
The Disney Swan is a category 5 hotel, which costs 12,000 points/night.
However, the SPG program also offers the 5th night free on any award redemption, meaning that you can score five nights at the Dolphin for 40,000 points and five nights at the Swan for 48,000 points.
In addition to this, last year Marriott bought Starwood, meaning that the two points programs have become interchangeable. Marriott points transfer to Starwood at a 3:1 ratio, so if you’ve got points to use in Marriott, you could always transfer them over and redeem a stay in that way. Transfers are instantaneous.
There’s one other thing I did in order to *really* get my money’s worth while I was out there. (Aside from the normal bring your own snacks/water, etc)
Booking an Official Disney Hotel
I booked a one night stay in an official Disney hotel. This was the first night of my vacation, and I did this for a number of reasons:
1. I was flying in and didn’t want to rent a car. Disney’s Magical Express offered me free transportation from the airport to the hotel.
2. Disney sends its resort guests MagicBands for free, and I wanted to get my hands on one of the new versions without paying for one.
3. Booking a package with Disney meant I qualified for special ticket offers. In this case, I received two free days on my ticket for booking a Magic Your Way package. In total, I got a five day park hopper for the price of a three day ticket.
4. Since you’re a resort guest, you get first pick on booking Disney’s Fastpasses online- a full 30 day head start over anyone else. This important when trying to get those elusive, really busy rides like Frozen Ever After and Seven Dwarves Mine Train.
5. I had reservations at a *very* expensive restaurant, and used the Deluxe Disney Dining Plan to score a discount on my eating costs for the day.
California Grill Restaurant
This last one requires some explanation. You see, Disney recently came out with a new brunch at one of its hotels. The restaurant, called the California Grill, is located in Disney’s Contemporary Resort and holds the distinction of costing $80/ person to enjoy.
Yes, that is expensive.
However, the California Grill is one of the best restaurants on property, and after reading EasyWDW’s review on the brunch, I felt like I had to go there. This is for a couple reasons:
First, eating brunch at the restaurant allows you to return at night and show your receipt, scoring premium seating for watching Magic Kingdom’s fireworks without the crowds.
Second, this brunch also features freshly made sushi, which you can watch the chefs prepare in front of you. Considering California Grill is known for its sushi (and its rolls can cost upwards of $24+ each), I figured getting to eat as much as I wanted was pretty great.
Finally, (and most importantly) this is the only meal on the entire dining plan that also includes alcohol. That’s right, this brunch includes bottomless mimosas in the cost of your meal. Disney specifically excludes drinks from their program, so getting to do this was really cool.
So, the California Grill costs two “table-service” credits on the dining plan. A regular dining plan only includes one “table service” and one “quick service” meal per day.
However, the deluxe dining plan comes with three “table service” credits. The current cost for the plan is $106/adult/day. I wouldn’t normally spend that much on food for myself in one day, but considering my breakfast alone was going to run me $96 with tax, I went ahead and got the plan.
What did this mean? It meant that my brunch was paid for. The deluxe dining plan also comes with three snacks per day. Since one of the major reasons I was going to Disney was for the Epcot Flower and Garden festival, and its main features are pavilions offering different snacks, I was really stoked about having three different ones freely available. I ended up using them on snack that ran about $6 each, which isn’t the *most* value you can get from them, but I ate whatever I wanted.
Finally, it meant that my dinner was also included at another table service restaurant. I ate at Tutto Italia Ristorante, a meal which included an appetizer, entree, dessert, and drink, and whose total hovered at around $71.
So, I paid $106 for food for the day.
In turn, I had:
$18 in snacks
$71 at dinner
= $185 in food, were I to pay out of pocket. And again, I can’t emphasize this enough, drinks were included at brunch. This is important because prices for alcoholic drinks at Disney will usually run you about $10 a pop, so getting it in the cost of my meal represented a fantastic deal.
Ok, now let me break down the costs of doing the Disney hotel for you, versus what I would have spent staying at a different hotel.
Costs With a Stay at Disney (Using the Magic Your Way Package):
1 night at Disney’s Coronado Springs: $273
5 day park hopper ticket to Disneyworld: $350 (two days free)
Transportation to Disneyworld from airport: $0
1 day Deluxe Disney dining plan: $106
Costs at an Offsite Hotel:
1 night stay elsewhere: $150 (hotels can range anywhere from $50-$500, but I would fall around here)
5 day park hopper ticket to Disneyworld: $473
Transportation to Disneyworld from airport: $30
Out-of-pocket dining: $185
So you see, staying at a Disney resort actually saved me money in comparison to doing it all on my own. Of course the longer you stay at their resorts, the more that hotel price piles on, which is why I switched over to the Disney Dolphin for the next five nights. On the other hand, bringing more than one person along to share a hotel room brings down your per person costs significantly. (Obviously).
The Dolphin does continue to charge a nightly “resort fee” (the bane of my existence), so the total cost of my hotel for those five nights was $140 and 40,000 SPG points.
Compare that to the $2200 it would cost were I to pay out of pocket.
Ok, one more price breakdown for you all, so you can really see the difference in costs:
1 Magic Your Way package as detailed above: $729
5 nights at the Disney Dolphin hotel: $140 and 40,000 SPG points
= 6 night stay at Disneyworld: $869 (including food for a day and all park tickets)
Out of Pocket Costs:
Individual pricing as detailed above: $850
5 nights at the Disney Dolphin hotel: $2257
= 6 night stay at Disneyworld: $3107 (including food for a day and all park tickets)
Ta-da! Just like that, we’ve paid less than a third of the cost for the whole trip!
I’d like to note (brag) again that since I have elite status with Starwood, they gave me a free upgrade to a newly refurbished corner room with two balconies and two separate fireworks views. (My elite status comes free with the American Express Platinum card).
That room upgrade alone was worth over a hundred dollars/night (compared to the room I booked).
Disney doesn’t have a(n) (official) loyalty program, so upgrades are at the whims of the people working there.
So there you have it! This is how I did Disney this time around, and how anyone can save when taking this budget-busting vacation.
I’m currently on my way to another airport…as will surprise none of you, I’m guessing. This time I’m headed out to Cancun for my very first trip to Mexico! I’m not even alone- one of my best friends, Chrissy, is coming with, and we plan on spending an amazing four days at an all-inclusive resort. Obviously, I plan to tell you all about it.
For the last five days I’ve been in sunny Orlando, Florida, spending time at one of my favorite places in the world: Disneyworld! That may seem strange…given all the other places I go, but there’s something really special about this place. Really tugs at my happy strings.
Anyway, this was my first time ever doing Disneyworld alone. It was definitely different, I’m not going to lie. I spent a lot of time considering whether to even come, but in the end I had already paid for a lot of it- and I’m a huge Disney nerd, so I made the choice to do it.
I posted previously about how I was going to stay on points, and the Disney Dolphin did not disappoint. Since I’m a Gold Starwood Preferred Guest member, they even upgraded my basic reservation to a brand new corner room with two (two!) separate balconies. This meant I could watch both the Epcot and Hollywood Studio fireworks from my room. So cool!
So what was it like going to Disneyworld by myself? Well..it was a lot of things.
It was really awkward every time I went to a restaurant as a party of one. People don’t expect people to show up to Disney by themselves. One morning, I went to order a coffee from the breakfast bar downstairs.
“One coffee, please,” I told the barista, pulling out my wallet.
“Two coffees?” She asked, looking over my shoulder for my nonexistent companion.
“…no. Just the one.”
This happened repeatedly, everywhere I went.
“Oh, are you with those kids? A group of three? Is that why you’re sitting alone?”
My favorite was the single rider line at Epcot’s Test Track ride, where the employee informed me and the guy behind me that our party was going to have to split up in order to get on the ride. Faking concern, I turned to the guy behind me and asked, “is that ok with you?”
He definitely thought I was hilarious.
However, there are many, many pros to going it alone. If anyone has ever gone to a Disney park with me (hi family!), then they know that at Disney I ain’t playing around. I walk a zillion miles per hour, weaving through the crowds and sliding past strollers like a ghost. I frequently disappear and end up waiting impatiently at the front of rides waiting for my party to show up. So! It was really cool to just…slip in everywhere and not have to wait for the other slowpokes to catch up.
In addition to this, there are tons of times where just a single spot remains on an attraction, and I was pulled from the line no less than three times in order to fill up a seat. That was pretty awesome. Being alone also meant that I was able to do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted, with no arguments or compromises. Super cool.
Now, I’m assuming many of you are familiar with Disney’s Fastpass+ system. If you’re not, it’s essentially an online ride reservation system. You pick the things you want to go on in advance, and have an hour long return window in which to come back and skip the line. Disney lets you pick three fastpasses up to sixty days in advance, and on the day of, you can make additional choices after you’ve used your first three. Most people will get a 4th and maybe even a 5th one, if they’re lucky.
Guys, the Fastpass system is amazing for single riders. I spent an entire day at Magic Kingdom during a very busy season, and didn’t wait once in a line. I showed up at park open, 9am, walked onto a few rides before lines built up, and then used Fastpasses the entire rest of the day.
Now this is going to sounds braggy, but only because it is. From 9am until 8:30pm, when I left, I rode:
Seven Dwarves Mine Train 3x
Space Mountain 7x
Peter Pan 3x
Pirates of the Caribbean 5x
Haunted Mansion 4x
Big Thunder Mountain 3x
Jungle Cruise 2x
People Mover 1x
Mickey’s Philharmagic 1x
Monster’s Inc Laugh Floor 1x
Buzz Lightyear’s Astro Blaster 1x
It’s a Small World 1x
For those of you who aren’t super familiar with Disney, that is a ton of rides. I just refreshed the application on my phone and went from ride to ride, skipping all the lines. It was great!
Anyways, while being at the parks alone was sometimes a little sad (who am I going to share these memories with?), it was also a lot of fun. Would I do it again? Definitely.
I’ll share some tips and tricks I used to keep costs down on this trip later this week. In the meantime, enjoy those landscape photos of Disneyworld! (This is because it’s really creepy to take pictures of people while alone in a theme park full of children. I know better than that.)
Tired of hearing about Bali yet? Don’t worry, this is my last post! I don’t normally write about every day of a trip, but then again I also don’t do incredible things Every. Single. Day.
Have I whined enough about my lack of sleep? Trust me, this was a vacation in the sense that we were far from home and doing cool things, but absolutely not in the sense that we were sitting around relaxing.
Anyway, on our last day in Bali our flight didn’t leave until 9:45pm. Obviously, that meant we could squeeze in one final activity. What did we pick? As may be obvious from the title, we did an ATV ride through the island!
Now, I’d never ridden an ATV before, so I was a little nervous, but it was actually really easy. We had the quads for two hours, which meant we rode down across the beach, through the waves, over coconuts and all kinds of driftwood, and up into a little local village, where all the children ran to stand at the door and wave to us as we went by. It was awesome!
I only put sunscreen on my face so now I have a really sweet v-neck and farmer’s tan line. Such is the price I pay for my adventures.
We stopped a few times for photos, and once a cow even tried to attack Deja on her ATV. Like, I’m not gonna say it was hilarious…but it was. Cows are sacred in Hindu, so there wasn’t anything she could do about it. Eventually, our guide ended up holding the line the cow was attached down so she could ride over it and escape. It was great.
Unfortunately, traffic in Bali is absolutely atrocious. It takes at least an hour to get anywhere, and more often two hours. As an example, our ATV place was located fifteen miles away, and took a little over an hour and a half to get to. This meant that we were a bit late getting back, and David and I had to rush in order to pack and get to the airport. I know, I know, I’m a procrastinator. But for good reason!
Anyway, the flight back from Bali was the worst…a full 24 hours to get back to Houston and an additional four more to get to Orlando, where I’ve just spent the last five days. I’ll tell you guys all about it next.
So, I’ve come to admit that I…*may*…have a bit of a traveling addiction. One of my first posts on this website detailed my schedule for the upcoming year, and back in January I thought my schedule was jam-packed.
Well…I’ve since added a few new trips, the most recent of which is a five night stay in Tahiti. You may wonder why/where I get my ideas for travel, and honestly it’s an amalgamation of flight sales that I find, good opportunities for reward points redemptions, and sometimes even just places I want to go.
So how did I come to the idea of Tahiti? Well, I’ve mentioned before that American Express has offers that it passes out, some of which come in the form of a statement credit, some in the form of bonus points, etc. A couple months ago, they came out with an offer that gave you 20,000 membership reward points if you spent $1,000 on Air France. I’ve gotten a similar offer to this before (Spend $1,000 on Japan Airlines for 20k bonus points), and I’d been sitting on this offer for a while. I actually received it on a few different cards, but I obviously don’t have multiple thousands of dollars to be throwing around.
Anyway, it was the final day for the offer, and I’d been chewing on some different ways I could use it. Scrolling through Air France’s website, however, I saw that they had a monthly special on direct flights from Los Angeles to Tahiti for a cool $1000 round-trip. So, redeeming this offer, I bought the ticket and received 25,000 total membership rewards points (including the bonus categories rewards for purchasing airfare), which equals- at the minimum- $500 worth of airfare on American Express. I can also transfer it to other partners in order to get better value for my points, but I usually prefer to keep things simple.
Having booked my flights, I needed to find a place to stay. In case you didn’t know this, Tahiti happens to be…fairly expensive. However, there are quite a few different hotels out there, so I had plenty of options.
You all know that I’m very partial to Hilton hotels, (It’s the status, really) so the first place I looked was at the Hilton website. Well…it’s not cheap. The Hilton Moorea is currently going for $1500 for a two night stay:
However, there are often times when the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal will offer you lower rates on the hotel than the hotel website itself. Such was the case of the Hilton Moorea, where after much searching I found the same 1000sq ft bungalow pictured above on Hilton’s website for a mere $677 for two nights. ($772 after taxes) That’s a savings of 54% off the original price. (This works much the same way as Priceline, in that you get a discounted room rate by booking through a third party.) Even better, however, is that Chase allows you to redeem Ultimate Reward points at a value of 1.5 cents each if you have the Chase Sapphire Reserve card, meaning that the two nights only ended up being 52,000 points total.
For reference, the total amount of points required to redeem on Hilton’s website is 396,000.
Since the Hilton was such a splurge, I didn’t want to stay more than the two nights. Thus, I needed three more somewhere else, but where?
The next hotel I looked at was the Intercontinental Moorea. Again, there are tons of hotels in the area, but this one had the benefit of being amazing and also near to the Hilton, so my transportation between the two wouldn’t be a problem. Paid rates for a room here for three nights equal out to about $1000:
However, back in January, I got the IHG credit card by Chase. Its sign-up bonus is 60k points after 1k spend in the first 90 days, and after my spend was done, I had a total of 70k points sitting in my account. The Intercontinental Moorea is redeemable for a total of 40,000 points a night, or you can use a combination of points + cash in order to redeem a stay. IHG works differently than other hotel chains with its cash + points offers, in that it has you “buy” points at a reduced rate and then make a full award redemption, as you can see below:
The combination I chose was points + cash, in which I spent 80,000 points and $200 in cash for all three nights. Since I was 10,000 points shy of the 80,000 I needed, I transferred over points from my Chase Sapphire Reserve card to cover the difference. And then I booked my room! So, all told, I’ll be staying a total of five nights in Tahiti, at some really awesome hotels. My costs are as follows:
In return, I am earning 25,000 American Express rewards points, which equal out to at least $500 worth of airfare. In addition, I’ll be earning thousands of Flying Blue miles on Air France, which I’ll put to use when I move to Scotland later this year.
Were I to pay completely out of pocket, my total would be this:
Hotels: $2499 ($1511 for the Hilton, and $988 for the Intercontinental)
-Total Cost: $3,537
That’s 65% off! I’m pretty excited, as I’ve heard amazing things about both of these hotels.
So, now you guys know all about my sad SCUBA failures. Seeing myself incapable of accomplishing my certificate, I suddenly had two free days in Bali.
What to do?
I ended up spending the time with Steve and Deja. Our first day, we went to Kuta Beach, which is Bali’s most famous beach. It’s beautiful, but the persistent hawkers are really aggressive and won’t leave you alone. It kind of ruins the experience.
We ate lunch at Tony Roma’s. I know. But it was delicious!
It also happened to be David’s birthday, so Steve and Deja arranged for a cake for him and I booked us some reservations at a restaurant. I literally googled ‘best restaurants in Bali’ and this place came up. Called ‘Barbacoa,’ it took us an hour to get there…but the food was beyond incredible. We had fresh street tacos and Cuban sliders, followed by the world’s most amazing creme’ brûlée. Not to brag, but I picked basically the best place ever.
The next day, while David went off to finish his diving cert, Steve, Deja and I headed off on a tour of Balinese Temples.
I think this was actually my favorite day in Bali overall. It took the entire day, and we stopped in so many cool places.
The first temple, named Batukaru, was located deep in the mountains:
Then we stopped off at Bali’s largest rice paddies to get some incredible photos:
After this, our guide took us to the top of a mountain, where we could see Bali’s twin lakes, Tambinglan and Buyan:
And listen you guys, I’m a total sucker for animal photos. While we were walking around taking pictures of the lakes, I saw a guy advertising photos with a bunch of different animals. I mean, I couldn’t say no to holding a bat! I even peer pressured Steve and Deja into doing it, which is how we got these photos:
I still crack up every time I look at them.
After hanging out with all those guys, we headed down to the lake temple, Pura Bedugul, which is apparently really famous and iconic, but I’m kind of clueless so I didn’t realize:
Also, here’s a photo of our guide accidentally taking a selfie while trying to photograph us:
We ate lunch here, which like all the rest of the food in Bali, was delicious. We didn’t have a single bad meal while we were there.
Finally, for our last stop, we headed to the cliff temple, Pura Tanya Lot, which is Bali’s most famous. The reason why is obvious:
After all this, we headed back to our villa to meet David for dinner. Yes, it was great.
You guys remember how I talked about going to get my SCUBA open water certificate? Remember how excited I was?
Our third day started all right, as David and I headed out to the dive center in order to begin our certification. After 5 hours of classroom work (sitting and watching videos), we finally managed to get out and get our gear. Every certification class starts with pool dives, to teach you all the basic skills before trying your hand in open water.
It wasn’t so bad, at first. Our instructor made us swim laps and then float around to prove our competency in water (easy), and then we climbed into our wetsuits. We figured out our air tanks, slipped into the water, and then pulled the gear on. Not bad, right?
I have to tell you, the feeling of breathing underwater is pretty unreal. Snorkeling does a decent simulation of it, but nothing prepares you for those first few breaths from a regulator and air tank.
Now, I have claustrophobia, which almost never impacts my life. I simply loosen seat belts, avoid tiny boxes, and otherwise stay out of possibly compromising situations. Do you guys see where this is going? If so, you’re smarter than me, because I didn’t.
I did all right, all the way until we were required to remove our air supplies and throw them away. We then had to find them, put them back in our mouths, and clear them of water. Unfortunately for me, my mask was crappy and ill-fitting, which meant every time I cleared the regulator, my mask popped off my face and filled with water.
This gave me the very real and uncomfortable feeling of drowning.
We had to do this several times, and every time my discomfort grew, until finally I couldn’t take it anymore and popped up out of the water. Dragging my mask off my face, I tried to calm down, while the instructor looked on in concern.
There were only 4 of us total, David and I, who were learning, the instructor, and a guy named Paul who was learning to become a Divemaster. Thus, when I had to pause, everyone surfaced and spent 5 long minutes staring at me. Anyone ever calmed down under pressure? Yeah, I thought not.
I finally managed to catch my breath and get situated again, so back down we went. Our next task was then to purposefully fill our masks with water and sit with them on your face. I did manage to do this, as horrific as it was, but my panic levels were sitting pretty near the surface.
Thus, when the next task came, and the instructor came to take away my air supply, I scrambled away.
It was too much. I surfaced again, and this time I couldn’t calm down enough to try again. The feeling of all that water overhead, with no way out and no way to fix things if something goes wrong…it was not something I could handle. I usually pride myself on being able to take on most anything, but you guys, it takes a certain kind of person to willingly fake drown themselves under 60 feet of water. I am not that person.
David is though! He successfully completed his SCUBA certification, and has provided me with lots of lovely photos for the blog:
I spent the next two days hanging out with Steve and Deja, which I’ll tell you guys about soon.
Have any of you ever had an idea that sounded really good in theory? And then when you went to carry it out, your expectations were nowhere near reality?
Yeah, me too.
Enter Kawah Ijen, the blue fire volcano. Located on the island of Java, it’s one of two places in the world (the other being Iceland) where you can see blue flames burning in the middle of an acid lake.
Which means you have to hike the volcano in the middle of the night, so you can see the lights. It also means you get to see the sunrise from the lip of the volcano, an unparalleled view in a world where raw beauty is rapidly disappearing.
Sounds amazing, right?
Since we were on the island of Bali, we had to make the trek down to the tip of the island, take a ferry, and then drive all the way to the volcano. Our driver picked us up at 7pm, and we got to the volcano at midnight. We were early, so we sat around for an hour before finally beginning the journey.
Now, I had read reviews of this hike, which called it “easy,” “disappointingly short,” and “not at all difficult.” So I had some pretty simple expectations for the hike. I mean, it was 1am, in the dark, and it was raining. An easy hike was what I was looking for.
I can only assume that the people who wrote those reviews are crossfitting maniacs who enjoy grueling and painful punishment. It took us several hours to get to the top, slipping through the mud and trying to work through calf, quad, and butt cramps.
But the reward was going to be worth it!
The blue flames are actually a result of sulfur gas burning, which means that the air is really toxic. Thus, they give you gas masks in order to get near the flames, which sounds really metal. So we were pretty excited when, after a few hours, we finally crested the top and caught our first glimpse of the flames.
It was unreal.
Aaaaaand that was it.
Since it was raining, we weren’t able to actually go down into the crater. We didn’t need our gas masks, we were stuck on the windy top of the mountain, and it was raining. We had also gotten separated on the way up, which meant we had to wait around for over an hour to get together, at which point dawn was near.
Our guide told us we could hike another half mile up, if we wanted, to go see the acid lake and the sunrise.
So we ran up to the top as quickly as we could in order to catch the sun coming up. We needn’t have worried, of course, as the rain clouds obscured the sun anyways.
But! We did get some really cool photos of the acid lake!
It then took another hour and a half to hike back down, and we ate breakfast at the restaurant at the bottom. All told, we finally left Kawah Ijen at 7am, making it back to our villa at 4pm the next day. Yeah, it was nearly a 24 hour trip. To say we were exhausted would be an understatement.
Although almost everything failed due to the rain and cold, we still had a decent climb going up, and seeing the sulfur lake was pretty awesome. Was it what I was expecting? Not in the slightest. But pretty cool anyways.
Speaking of unmet expectations, just wait until you guys hear about my SCUBA adventures.