What I learned from our “almost free” vacation

Back in June I wrote a post about “How to get free summer travel.” I’d arranged a 5-day trip with my daughter to the Pacific Northwest using a variety of rewards programs. The trip, which we took over Labor Day weekend, was a heck of a lot of fun. Like most vacations, it wound up costing a bit more than planned but I also learned a few things.

Including:

Re-price your reservations before you go. I checked both hotel and car reservations a few days beforehand to see if prices had dropped. They hadn’t at the Doubletree in Portland, which was in fact sold out. But the rates at Enterprise car rental fell like a rock. Plus, Enterprise emailed me a last-minute 10% off coupon for being part of its frequent traveler program. My cost for the two-day car rental went from over $100 to just $37. I love that.

Don’t try to make a same-day connection on Amtrak. We took the sleeper car up from Los Angeles, and the train fell waaaaay behind schedule–five hours, in fact. That was good news for us, since we got to see some gorgeous scenery around the California-Oregon border that would normally pass by in the dark. Passengers who were trying to make a connection to the Empire Builder, the train that goes from Portland to Chicago, weren’t so happy. They had to get off in Klamath Falls and ride several hours on a bus to meet the other train. If I were to book an Amtrak trip that involved a connection, I’d try to arrange it so that we had an overnight stay in between.

Portland’s public transportation is awesome. There was a light-rail MAX station right outside our hotel, and it took us everywhere we wanted to go while we were in town, including the Saturday Market and the zoo. A day pass for an adult was just $5. Parking at the zoo alone would have been $4, and a hassle, since there are limited spaces. When it was time to leave, I took the red line out to the airport to pick up our rental car–easy peasy.

Check out the artist/farmers markets. Speaking of the Saturday Market: I was blown away by many of the vendors there. This weekend market along the river features some really skilled craftsman offering handmade stuff at reasonable prices. I stocked up for Christmas.

Splurge a little. My daughter’s a huge fan of the Great Wolf Resort and its indoor water park south of Olympia. The rates in the summer can be steep, but my sister and I decided to split the cost of a Kid Cabin room with bunk beds. That way, we got to spend more time together, our kids had a ball and we were each out of pocket $160 rather than $320.

Peach fritter with cream cheese? Might want to skip that. My friend Michelle Rafter suggested we meet at VooDoo Donuts for a treat. Yes, the long wait was worth it, but no, I don’t think I’d order the peach fritter again–it was almost as big as my head. Next time it’ll be the maple bacon donut, for sure.

5 things I’m glad we bought in Italy, and three I wish we hadn’t

One of the reasons we travel is to learn, and our latest trip to Italy taught us a lot. We learned about the country’s culture, cuisine and history. We also learned how quickly the euros can fly out of your wallet if you’re not careful (and sometimes even when you are). Here are some of the best purchases we made, along with a few I regret. Let’s start with the expenditures, big and small, that made it a better trip:

A Vivaldi concert in Venice. We heard the opera is pretty wonderful, but we weren’t sure our nine year old was quite up it—and the total ticket cost of over $300 was daunting. We looked for an alternative cultural event, and found it with Intrepreti Venezi, an outstanding string orchestra that gives concerts at Chiesa San Vidal (the lovely San Vidal church). The musicians were amazing, and where better to hear Vivaldi than in his home town? Tickets for the three of us were 75 euros (about $100), and well worth it.

“Paint your own” masks. Venice has a long tradition of mask-making and –wearing. I thought the “paint your own” places were kind of gimmicky, but it turns out they’re a great way for a kid to connect with Venetian history and culture. All three of us had a blast picking out blank masks (each shape has a different meaning and history) and painting up a storm. The masks aren’t cheap—30 to 40 euros each, including an hour of painting time—but they were a great activity for a family and a wonderful souvenir. (A tip: when they’re dry, have the shop wrap them for shipping even if you’re going to bring them home in a suitcase, as we did. They arrived safe and sound.)

A family museum pass. Lines to get into Florence’s most famous museum can be hours long, even in the off season. You can skip the line with reservations if you plan ahead, which we didn’t. So we “bought” our way in by buying a “Friends of the Uffizi” family pass. For 100 euros (about $130), this pass gets two adults and two children into not only the Uffizi but about two dozen other local museums, including the Academy (home of Michaelangelo’s David sculpture) and the Pitti Palace. The pass quickly pays for itself in entrance fees alone, but skipping the awful lines? That’s priceless. You need to bring your passports to an office near entrance #2 of the Uffizi and fill out a short application

A “Get Art Smart” book in Florence. This spiral-bound sticker book for kids turned the Uffizi museum into a scavenger hunt. Each page showed a small portion of a painting one of the galleries. Once our daughter located the painting, she could put the corresponding picture on that page. The book asked her a few questions about its composition that highlighted interesting developments in Florentine art and culture. Actually, this book for kids did a far better job of explaining the transition from Gothic to Renaissance art than any of the placards or other information available to adults. We found the book for less than 5 euros at a small bookstore near the Uffizi’s entrance, but I’m guessing you can find it at other museums in Florence, as well.

Gelato. Even mediocre gelato is pretty darned good, but for the most amazing varieties we learned to look for places slightly off the beaten path that had a line out the door.

What we should have skipped:

The water taxi from the airport. Venice is best approached by water, our guidebook told us. What it didn’t tell us was that the tiny windows in the water taxi wouldn’t allow us to see much…or that the schedule was a bit, shall we say, casual on Sunday nights. Our taxi took off almost an hour after it was scheduled to depart, so we missed the sunset and instead arrived in the dark. Next time, we’ll take the clean, comfortable bus into Venice and then the water taxi from the bus stop. We would have saved about 10 euros, and gotten to our destination a lot faster.

Audioguides at the Doge’s Palace. Audioguides really enhanced our experiences at other museums, both abroad and in the U.S. The best ones provide context for the exhibits and help you understand the time period in which they were created. The audioguides at the Doge didn’t do that—instead they droned on about which doge commissioned which artist to do what. By the third segment, we’d stopped listening, so that was $15 euros down the drain.

The rental car in Florence. On our last day, Hubby wanted to take a drive in the Tuscan countryside, which sounded lovely. Unfortunately, we hadn’t made a car rental reservation and it was a Sunday. Our hotel concierge made the arrangements for us, but the car cost us over $200 for the day—oh, yeah, and the GPS hadn’t been updated to reflect recent changes in the direction of Florence’s many, many one-way streets. The unit repeatedly instructed us to turn the wrong way onto said one-way streets. Getting out of town was nightmarish, to say the least. Getting back was worse, if anything—we could see our hotel, just blocks away, but we couldn’t get there. We finally hailed a cab to lead us home. We learned a few lessons. One: If you’re going to get a rental car, book it from home—it will be a heck of a lot cheaper. Two: Book it from the airport, which will be far from medieval cities’ byzantine streets.

 

Our credit cards worked in Europe. Mostly.

We just returned from 10 days in Italy, with a plane change in Zurich. After writing about the troubles some U.S. travelers faced using their credit cards overseas, I’m happy to report that we were able to use ours in most places with no problem at all.

Of course, we visited tourist-centric locales (Venice and Florence) where the merchants are used to seeing our old-fashioned magnetic stripe credit cards. Our U.S.-style cards are less secure than the “chip and PIN” model embraced by other countries, but restaurant staffs and shop clerks accepted them without a fuss.

There were a few exceptions:

  • We were out of luck when it came to the automated kiosks at most vaporetto (water bus) stops. As I wrote in my column, such kiosks require the more secure cards. We brought our British Airways card, which is a “chip and signature card,” but that proved useless. Without a PIN, the card wouldn’t work at automated kiosks. (U.S. debit cards wouldn’t work, either.)
  • A few merchants insisted on cash. I ended up withdrawing more money than I expected from ATMs, and ran into a glitch there—turns out the 250 euros I kept trying to withdraw equaled more than my daily limit. Once I got the currency math right, I was able to get cash when I needed it at a decent exchange rate—which was somewhat offset by the $5-a-pop transaction fee.
  • The bad guys in Europe were quick to exploit our less-secure technology. Two days after we returned, somebody used our Capital One card to make three fraudulent charges of $442.58 each in the Netherlands. Fortunately, users aren’t responsible for fraud on their credit cards. For exactly that reason, I wouldn’t use our less-secure debit cards anywhere but an ATM attached to a bank branch. I don’t want to give the scamsters access to my bank account.

For our next trip, I might arrange to get a true chip-and-PIN card, like the one Diners Club now offers its members. Another option is the prepaid Cash Passport card. Or maybe, by then, U.S. issuers will get with the program and make true chip-and-PIN cards available here. I can dream, can’t I?