Grand Ole Nashville

Hello Dear Readers!

I’m currently located in sunny California, taking my longest break from traveling yet this year (over a week!). I’ve been hanging out with family, shopping judiciously at Target, and getting back into a workout schedule.

In short, it’s been great.

However! Before I got here, I had to move all my things cross country- from Washington D.C. to Yucaipa, CA. Since I’m a huge weenie and was also driving alone, I planned my trip across a five day span, including a couple nights spent with family in Branson, Missouri. I figured if I had to be driving, I should at least make it as un-awful as possible.

Which is how I found myself detouring an hour out of the way to stop in Nashville. I’ve been meaning to come here for years, but never managed to find the time.

Nashville is…well…I have never been to a city that was so proudly country.

I know, I know, that should be obvious, but look:

Everything is loud and musical and packed with good old American honky tonk folk. Coming as a visitor, it was really cool and also a bit absurd. I mean, do you really need that boot?

Anyway, I had planned on doing the whole tour of Nashville with the Grand Ole Opry and whatnot (no, I didn’t manage), so to that end I found myself eating at a place called The Stillery right in the middle of downtown. This place is “best-rated” in Nashville, and it deserves its title. Good food, good music, and excellent cocktails.

Afterwards, I popped back into my hotel for a bit before heading back downtown. My hotel was close enough that I could walk, so I did.

As I made my way down the road, one of the many musicians littering the streets of the city struck up a conversation with me. He introduced himself as Mike, was on his way to work, and was totally impressed at my being a travel blogger. (I’m famous!)

“You can write about my band! I’ll give you the musician’s tour of Nashville!”

This seemed really cool, so I readily agreed.

Our first stop was at the most famous bar in Nashville, called Legends Corner, where he high fived the doorman and proceeded to take me up to the empty VIP section.

Super cool, right?

I was there for about two minutes before the bartender came and informed us that the VIP wasn’t available for us and we had to leave. *facepalm*

It was a great start to the night.

The tour of downtown then turned into a nighttime search for coffee so he could play his set without falling asleep. Then, having failed at that, he settled for ice cream, and we headed back to his bar to wait for his band to start.

Busy even on a Sunday

The conversation went downhill from there. I learned many *interesting* facts about him, until there were more red flags waving at me than at a communist rally. (I won’t elaborate here, as most things he said are decidedly less than PC).

At that point, luckily, he had to go start playing and I settled myself down to listen in safety. (What was he gonna do, jump off the stage at me?)

He’s the one on the left

First, though, I grabbed myself a beer. As expected, I was carded, but this I didn’t mind.

I then returned to my seat and began drinking it. Scarcely two minutes later, the bar’s enormous bouncer beelined straight for me.

And me only.

“I’m going to need to see some I.D.,” he told me. I tried and failed to look agreeable while handing him my license. I think I even accidentally rolled my eyes.

He squinted at it suspiciously, ran his fingers across the top as if to verify its legitimacy, and handed it back, returning to his corner with the satisfaction of a job well done.

At this point I was fairly irritated with my night in Nashville, having met a crazy musician and then been bullied by the bouncer, so I resolved to finish my drink and head back to my hotel.

Enter Shannon.

This woman came blitzing out of nowhere, loud and giggly, and asked me “are you here alone?”

Of course I replied that I was, and she gestured frantically back at her friend, (also named Mike), so they could come up and sit at my table. Wingman skills on point, amirite?

Anyway, we ended up having an awesome time. Shannon, who had already had a few drinks at this point, bought us each a round, which I enjoyed and Mike immediately dropped onto his pants. We then listened to the music and hung out, until Shannon, stumbling slightly, declared that she was ready to go home.

We cleaned up and I Uber’d back, because let’s be real I’m the laziest person alive.

Next up, Branson!

-Carissa “Honky Tonk” Rawson

Making Disney Work for You: Spend Less and Do More

Hello Dear Readers!

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

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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.

Ok!

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

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My 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

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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.

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So, I paid $106 for food for the day.

In turn, I had:
$96 breakfast
$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

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
MagicBand: $0
1 day Deluxe Disney dining plan: $106
= $729

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
MagicBand: $12
Out-of-pocket dining: $185
= $850

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:

Actual Costs

My 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.

Until next time!

-Carissa “Disney Nerd” Ragland

Doing Disney (Alone)

Hello Dear Readers!

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.

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For obvious reasons

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.

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I feel like this is me.

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!

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My morning view

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
Ariel 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.)

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Pictured: zero people

-Princess Carissa of Arendelle

Skiing With the Rich and Famous: A How-To Guide for the Poor (and Unemployed) Among Us

Hey guys!

Ok, so I’ve been sitting on this one for a while because I reaaally wanted to do it justice.

What is “it,” exactly?

Well, let me tell you!

It was our Valentine’s Day celebration that we celebrated in a totally planned and not-at-all last minute fashion! Ok, you caught me, it was like a week in advance and maybe I forced David to cancel all his plans. But trust me, it was worth it. So what did we do?

We went to Beaver Creek, Colorado! (It’s for skiing). More specifically, we stayed at the Park Hyatt Beaver Creek and skied our tails off on Beaver Creek’s many many ski runs.

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The view from our hotel room

Now, in case many of you guys don’t know, Beaver Creek is full of rich people. I mean like, “Oh I guess I’ll just spend ten thousands dollars this week and go to Beaver Creek” rich. Way above the likes of us. Luckily, and you guys guessed it, Carissa-the-Points-Queen was here to save the day. So how did I manage this?

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Yes. I live here.

Well, the Hyatt brand happens to be a transfer partner of Chase. If you guys remember, I’ve got a few different Chase cards, which have earned me almost 200k Chase points. However, I also happen to have the Hyatt Chase card, which has a sign-up bonus of 2 free nights anywhere.

Now, I had originally planned to use those free nights at the Maldives, but a quick search showed me that I could save myself some points and swap those free nights over to the Park Hyatt Beaver Creek.

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Why? Because the Park Hyatt Maldives is only a Category 6 hotel, which costs 25,000 points/night, and the Park Hyatt Beaver Creek is a Category 7, costing 30,000 points/night. So, by using my two nights at Beaver Creek, I could save myself 10,000 points over a 2 night stay. Well worth it, in my opinion.

For reference, the Park Hyatt is currently going for almost $1000/night, so this was a pretty big deal.

With the hotel taken care of, all we had to do was get there. Starting from Washington D.C., roundtrip flights were around $700/person. Ew. Too much for me.

However, after a stupidly long amount of time, I found some Southwest flights from Philly that were $180 roundtrip. And you know what flying Southwest means, right? David comes for free! (I also redeemed points for our flight) So we drove our happy butts two hours up to Philly, spent a night in Denver, then rented a car and drove the additional two hours to Beaver Creek.

Pause for a moment here. At the request of David, I need to enthusiastically tell you guys how great our rental car company was. I rented from Silvercar, which gives a 30% discount to Visa signature card holders (Chase Sapphire Preferred/ Reserve) They only rent out Audis, which is the coolest thing ever, so we cruised to Beaver Creek in style. It’s also worth noting that the cost of our Audi was $269 for the entire weekend, while a shuttle roundtrip would have cost us $349. I’ll take the leather seats, please.

Let me just say, our hotel was awesome. It was located at the bottom of the ski slopes, so you literally left the hotel and got onto the chair lift up. Super cool.

Now, if you guys happen to know me, you happen to know that I had tried skiing exactly once in my life before this. Suffice to say, it went badly. (So so badly). So I was fairly concerned about attempting to ski again. David had been before, so he was all set, but I opted for ski school. And I mean like “how do I put boots on?” ski school.

Of course I was obviously the best at it (why? I’m normally so clumsy). In fact, I was so good that my instructor had me go it alone on the ski lift. He called me athletic and sent me on my way, which meant that I immediately fell over and ate shit as soon as I tried to get off. Very encouraging.

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Look how perfect I am.

Overall the day was fantastic and made huge ski fans out of both David and I. Unfortunately, since the skiing up there is so bleeding expensive, we only managed to make it out for one day. The other day we spent wandering around Beaver Creek village (they hand out free chocolate chip cookies!) and watching a concert with Glen Morrison, who is some guy from Glee and also other famous things.

Did I mention that David opted for no ski school? He says he had a great time, but he also had a GoPro strapped to his and oh my God you guys need to see the videos of him wiping out. He promises he’s uploading them to YouTube soon so I’ll link you guys as soon as they’re up.

Otherwise, we had an amazing weekend which we could have in no way afforded without points. True, ski rentals and ski school cost us out of pocket, but a free hotel and free flights meant we could afford this awesome opportunity without breaking the bank. Totally worth it!

Carissa “Snowbunny” Rawson

Disneyworld on Point(s)

Hey guys!

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So if you know me, you definitely know I love to spend time at Disneyworld. It’s honestly one of my favorite places to be, and David and I go down as often as possible. However, the cost is prohibitive for many families. A lot of the time, we’ll go and stay at a cheap hotel because they’re everywhere around Disney. But sometimes, we want to stay somewhere nice. Somewhere with a little more…magic.

So how do we do this affordably? Everyone knows that the Disney ecosystem is built to suck every last penny from your wallet, but there’s definitely something special about getting to stay within the resort and revel in the benefits that being on property brings. However, oftentimes, the costs of the hotels can get as high as $800/ night. I don’t know about you guys, but I am totally not rich enough for that.

Fortunately for us, there are two hotels within the Disney resort that are no longer owned by the Disney corporation. Starwood bought them some time ago, which means…you guessed it! You can use points (from the SPG Amex cards) to stay for free at Disneyworld.

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The two hotels, the Dolphin and the Swan, are a little older than the rest of the hotels, and their theming isn’t *quite* as nice as some of the others, but they are walking distance from Epcot, and get their own special entrance. Because they’re part of the Disney resort, guests staying there also receive the cool extra benefits, such as early entrances to the parks and free transportation everywhere. This can save a bundle in parking fees at the resort.

The Dolphin is considered a Category 4 hotel, which means staying there will cost you 10,000 points per night. However, on award stays, Starwood gives you the 5th night free, effectively bringing the cost down to 8,000 points/night. For a hotel that regularly costs over $300/night, this is a fantastic redemption value.

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And did I mention that it’s on Disney property?

So, when David and I are heading down in May, the room rate for the Dolphin is $329/night, not including taxes and fees. All told, the total for five nights would be $2117.59. Instead, we’re spending 40,000 points (5th night free) for the entire stay!

That is a serious chunk of change, and totally worth it for families who are heading down to Disneyworld.

For my Georgia and New England readers, there’s also a special going on right now for a third night free in honor of the Super Bowl. All you have to do is call to book before February 28th, and stay anytime before January 31st, 2018. There might be a way to stack this with the Citi Prestige’s 4th night free offer, but I haven’t tried.

Anyway, these are some tips for saving money down there. If you guys are interested in learning more, let me know! I have tons of info, and obviously love talking your guys’ ears off.

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Such grace. Such Beauty.

-Princess Carissa of Arendelle