Archive for the ‘Travel Tips’ Category

Smart Strategies for Saving Time & Money When Flying

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2015

How to save money and time when flying

Over the years, I have been doing a lot more travel than I ever dreamed I would be doing. When you travel frequently, you quickly learn that:

  • you need a lot less than you think you do
  • proper planning will save you hours of frustration
  • and each trip is a lesson on how to do it better

I wanted to share with you a few tips to help you save time and money on your next flight. These are my tried and true strategies that I employ each time I fly and I hope they will help you on your next trip.

How To Save Money & Time When Flying

1. Check in Online

The biggest timesaver for me has always been taking the time to check in for my flights online twenty-four hours before my flight.  You can save so much time and can also avoid having to wait as long at the airport if you have checked in for your flight early. What would normally take an hour can now take twenty to thirty minutes just by using my computer at home.

While you are checking in online, print out all of the documents you might need for your trip and store them in a folder together. I keep all trip itineraries, meeting information, agendas, and check-in information for the returning flight together.  Pull this together with your freshly printed boarding passes and put this in your carry-on luggage or purse for easy access.

Pack light and smart for air travel

2. Keep Your Bags Light

Most airlines now charge for you to check in your luggage, not to mention the hassle of waiting at baggage claims for your luggage to arrive when you are anxious to start your trip.  The largest allowed size for carry-on bags is 22×14×19 inches, but you can maximize your packing by in a quality soft-sided carry-on bag, which will be roomier than a more rigid bag.  Just by packing light, you are able to shave approximately $50 on a round-trip flight!

If you are traveling as a family, divide the luggage up between each family member and consider investing in one small roller bag for each child that they will be able to maneuver themselves.  Child size luggage can be found at discount stores like Target, Walmart, TJ Maxx, and Marshall’s. Even with this investment, you can still easily save $25 on the way back because you won’t need to check a bag. The bonus is that they can use that bag for years to come, making it easy to recoup your travel investment.

The best part about keeping your bags light, though is that you can use this as an excuse to not buy so many travel souvenirs on your trip. Consider that light bag as not only a savings for not checking in, but the ultimate excuse to not indulge in those pricey gift shops.

If, in the end, you are unable to reduce your luggage to be carry-on compliant, paying for your checked bags online can sometimes save you a few dollars each way.


3. Pack Smart

It seems that it is always the people that do not take the time to pack wisely that become the most flustered or are asked to step aside by security. The most important thing to note is that Transportation Security Administration (TSA) rules require that passengers only carry liquids in three ounce containers in no more than one, clear, quart-sized bag.

Visit freebie sites like,, or and stockpile sample size toiletries and detergent for your trips that will comply with these federal guidelines. If you travel frequently, reusable travel containers can also be a fantastic investment that can be refilled with the items you already have from home. Make sure to store this bag right on top for easy access, as it will need to be removed from your bags when going through airport security.

Underneath the bag of toiletries, tightly roll your clothing to prevent wrinkling and to maximize the space within your carry-on luggage. Choose clothing that can easily be mixed and matched and make sure to prepare for what weather conditions may be awaiting you. There is nothing worse than being at an amusement park with your family during a torrential downpour and paying $15 for an umbrella or heading to a state with warmer weather and paying $35 for a junky tourist sweatshirt because you are freezing.

Last, make sure that any electronics that will need to be inspected rest on top next to your toiletries until you get through security.  The ones that will not need to be run through separately will be easier to scan if they are right on top and those that require a separate scanning will be easy to access for this procedure (remember that everything can be rearranged in the bag, once you get through security, to protect your electronics from harm during travel).

Pack dried fruit for travel

4. Thrifty Snacking

The days of meals and snacks on flights are long gone so it is important to have a thrifty snacking strategy to avoid spending $50 at the airport while waiting for flights. Pack food items that will travel well both ways to reduce your spending. Items like protein bars (avoid anything with melting chocolate), trail mixes, dried fruit, and apples are all great items to tuck away in your bag for a snack while you are waiting. If your flight is leaving during the lunch hour, spend a little time packing lunches that can be eaten in flight or while waiting at the airport. This little effort of planning can easily save you $7 per person.

While you are unable to bring any liquids through security, there is one easy strategy you can take to save on those $5 waters at the airport. Tuck an empty reusable water bottle in your bag and fill it at a drinking fountain when you get through security.


Travel Game Ideas

5. Frugal Entertainment

It is easy to keep everyone entertained on the flights, but it also requires a little strategy, particularly if you are bringing children. Consider packing one set of things to do on the way there and one small set of things to do on the way back to keep your children happy. Library books, magnetic travel games, coloring books, a deck of cards, puzzle books, and even your child’s portable gaming system are great ways to keep them entertained.

It is important to keep in mind that electronics do have to be turned off at the beginning and ending of each flight, so don’t just rely on that Nintendo DS, DVD player, or that iPod to hold their interest. They will be glad that you packed a coloring book or reading material when the time comes to switch them off. As an added savings, don’t forget to bring their headphones for these electronics, as the airline will happily charge you for each set you might have forgotten.

I hope that these tips will help you on your next flight and don’t forget to tuck those items away to save time for the next trip. There is nothing like having a bag of toiletries that are already packed, a special set of items that are already preset in your bags to keep the kids entertained, or  the travel pillow already packed in your bag to save you time for your next trip.

If you want more great tips on travel, be sure to visit our Organized Travel article before heading out for your next vacation!

What are some ways that you save time and money when you are flying? I would love to hear your success stories or lessons learned!

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Six Easy Ways to Save on That Weekend Getaway

Thursday, June 18th, 2015

Note: I’m reposting this article in honor of our Travel M Challenge with a new header and format that highlights these great travel saving tips that we continue to use to take short trips and stay on budget.

6 Easy Ways to Save on Weekend Getaways

When my husband and I celebrated nine years of marriage, we wanted to celebrate our anniversary in a special way so we decided to take a little trip to Traverse City, Michigan and enjoy a weekend getaway for just the two of us. My husband’s family was kind of enough to take care of the kids and we were off for two days of sightseeing, window shopping, and delicious eating.

We remained true to our budget through careful planning and research and I wanted to share with you a few ways we found to save on our memorable weekend getaway!

6 Ways to Save on Weekend Getaways

1. Research Hotel Rates

There were tons of great places to stay in Traverse City and I wanted the place where we stayed to be close to downtown shopping to be a fun getaway for us. We checked Kayak for room rates and found the Grand Traverse Resort to be approximately the same price as the other hotels, but it had many amenities. The reviews on the hotel were great and we were thrilled to find a rate that saved us about $70 a night versus the hotel rates.

All of that being said, it seemed because we had booked this discount rate, we also got the discount room. Our room was the one without the view, on the ground floor, and smelled like a smoking room. We also had no idea that they would charge a resort fee of $9.95 a day for all of those amenities that we did not use.

We still did score a great rate, but realized that the amount of time we spent in our room was not worth the grandeur and we will find a less expensive place next time!

2. Request A Visitor Packet

While the visitor packet for this town lacked coupons, it did give us some ideas for good places to visit and offered great historical information on the places we planned to visit. Through this packet of information, I was able to jot down some ideas for places to eat and see while we were in the town.

3. Find the Best Places to Eat

I wanted to eat at the coolest spots in town and we were able to do that with just a little research on my part. I hopped on Chow and checked through the forums for information on the town we were visiting. People offered honest opinions on the best spots in town and we decided to eat at two of the restaurants that had been recommended.

The first restaurant we ate at was called Trattoria Stella – a fantastic Italian place in a renovated insane asylum. No, I am not joking! My husband, who watches many of those ghost-chasing shows, was thoroughly creeped out and it made for great conversation with our waiter. The food and wine choices relied heavily on local farmers and local wines which made for a fresh and delicious dinner.

The other recommendation was for Don’s Drive-In, which was absolutely everything that I adore about diner food. Greasy burgers, giant shakes, and the best fried mushrooms ever. We took our shakes to go and drove near the water for a view. It was far too cold to sit too long, but we prided ourselves on making the most of our two day getaway!

4. Talk to Locals

When someone comes to my town, I love to be a local authority. Isn’t it fun to share all of the hidden gems of your town? We talked to anyone who would chat with us and they shared their special places to eat, shop, and their favorite wineries to visit in town. People just love sharing about their home and that is how we were able to discover an out-of-the-way winery that was not listed on maps. It had closed by the time we arrived, but we were able to take some wonderful pictures of the view.

5. Put Together Your Own Tours & Packages

The Grand Traverse Resort offered a room package that included a tour of local wineries. The package included a two night stay and a tour of three wineries. The price? A whopping $224.50 per person. Since the tour wineries were listed on their website, I jotted them down and we decided to do our own tour. The price for us to do our own wine tour? Gas plus $3-5 per tasting at the wineries. With the money saved, we were able to take home a bottle of wine from each of the three wineries as a memento of our special anniversary! The two highlights for us were Shady Lane & Black Star Farms.

We saved ourselves even more time and money by trying wines at the restaurant and even picking up a bottle at the gas station. Through their wines, we discovered what wineries were not worth visiting and which ones we could not wait to enjoy at their winery.

5b. Put Your GPS/Phone Maps to Good Use for Your Tour

Using first a car GPS, and now our smartphone maps, has saved us so much money in gas and an inevitable divorce because we always get lost. It has been one of the best investments for our family- I truly could go on and on!

Program your device with all of the places that you would like to go before heading on your trip. I visited all of the sites of the restaurants, our hotel, even the downtown shops that I wanted to hit so all of the information was right at our fingertips. We enjoyed a scenic view to the town and we were able to navigate our way around without any problems to all of the places we wanted to see.

6. Stick To Window Shopping

I won’t say we didn’t make any purchases (I’ve already mentioned the wine…), but the majority of the trip was spent window shopping and picture-taking. I was able to take pictures of all the beautiful windows and antiques that we saw and that seemed to satisfy any urge I had to shop. We did enjoy oodles of free food samples downtown and shared a slice of pizza on a park bench to people watch over our lunch.

It was a happy anniversary that celebrated almost 15 years of being together! And staying on budget made it that much sweeter.

Do you have any weekend getaways planned? What is your favorite way to save on your vacation travels? Please share!

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Group Travel Tours: Are They REALLY a Good Deal?

Thursday, June 11th, 2015

Group Travel Tours: Are They REALLY a Good Deal?  from

My husband and I went for our first time out of the country this past month and it was the experience of a lifetime. In the upcoming weeks, I wanted to share with you a little bit about our experience with traveling internationally from how we saved the money to do it to packing for your vacation.  Since this is our first time out of the country, we lack the seasoned advice of travelers like Tsh from The Art of Simple (I have been just dying over their family’s incredible adventure, haven’t you?), but I hope we can bring a new voice to it about first-time international travel.

One of the keys to our success was utilizing a travel agent and going the group tour route for our first time traveling internationally. This surprised us so we wanted to share that experience with you especially if you are trying to travel internationally on a budget.

Group Travel Tours: Are They REALLY a Good Deal?  from

The savings plan (I will go over that next week) had been in place for many years so that our family would not feel the pinch when we decided to take our 15th anniversary trip. Since it was our first time out of the country we had to get our passports. We headed to the post office to get the paperwork filled out which I was pretty nervous about.  I have so many issues because I dropped my middle name when I got married and this has been the biggest headache of paperwork ever since because my license and Social Security card do not match (thank you, Indiana).

My husband’s passport showed up in our mailbox quickly and I, of course, got a letter that my name was not correct on my license. After it being put before a board to determine if I am who I say I am (Sam I AM), they sent the passport with my correct name and that is when we started moving on the booking of grandma (bless her Jesus-sized heart!) and the booking of our travel.

I asked my friend Erika Brown from Chic Shopper Chick to help us because she and her husband had taken an excursion to Italy and she is my go-to gal when it comes to travel.

Armed with her amazing advice, we reached out to Cheryl Oddo from Carefree Vacations (telephone number 800.683.4074 and her email is coddo(at)carefreevacations(dot)com) to assist us with booking our travel.

PS- She said you can reach out to her if you are interested in pricing for yourself and she is awesome. Please tell her you are my friend! 

This was our first time working with a travel agent and it definitely will not be the last. Cheryl asked what we were most interested in seeing and looking for in a trip to Italy. She then sent to us several ideas for group travel packages that we could do and the pricing for each option. The pricing was carefully spelled out and told us what would be included (transportation, breakfast at our hotel, walking tours) and what wasn’t covered (airfare, additional excursions, tipping). We noticed the rates increased during the height of tourist season and selected one right before the rate hike for Italy to make the most of our money and the timing of our incredible grandma.

Here is where I keep things real….

I did not want to do group travel for my 15th wedding anniversary.

I did not want to be social.

Mostly, I just didn’t want to share my husband with anyone and I wanted to have a really romantic vacation with just him.

We weren’t thrilled.

Group Travel Tours: Are They REALLY a Good Deal?  from

At the same time, we had NEVER been anywhere out of the states and the idea of navigating Italy was, indeed, far too daunting for the two of us. My husband didn’t feel comfortable driving and I didn’t feel comfortable planning an itinerary and finding public transportation to everything. This did seem like the best option and what unfolded was quite glorious.

Here are 7 reasons why I think group tours are a great travel option (if you are a seasoned traveler or not):

Group Travel Tours: Are They REALLY a Good Deal?  from

You Can Avoid the Lines for Important Monuments

The lines at some of the important monuments and museums had minimum wait times of an hour or more. Since we were on a group tour, our guide knew what time to take us to avoid the crowds to get the best experience, and they had a VIP line for tours where you could bypass all the people who were not on a tour and just go right in to see everything.  For us, we were only able to spend seven days in Italy and we wanted to experience as much as we could in this short amount of time. Doing the tour allowed us to see multiple attractions in a single day and beat the crowd doing it.

Group Travel Tours: Are They REALLY a Good Deal?  from

You Have a Great Ride to See Everything Up Close

Our tour offered a motorcoach that even included WiFi so that we could share our photos and update email on the trip. Not only did we have an incredible guide, but our driver got us as close to our destinations as possible which helped us waste less time walking and more on the attractions themselves. The first night, for example, we got to see the lights of Rome and the bus pulled right up so we could take a photo. A nice touch of Andrea Bocelli singing Time to Say Goodbye certainly completed the mood while gazing upon the beautiful city.

Group Travel Tours: Are They REALLY a Good Deal?  from

Group Travel Tours: Are They REALLY a Good Deal?  from

You Learn SO Much Through Guided Tours

Here’s a little secret, I was a terrible student and listener.


It’s hard to hold my attention so I was on the fence if a guided tour was going to be my cup of espresso, so to speak.

Here’s another shocker.

It was.

The reason?

The tour guides were phenomenal. One of our guides majored in art history the other was doing archeology in Rome. These guides just didn’t know a little about these attractions, they knew everything. Standing at the feet of David would have still been a moving experience, tour or not, but when the guide told the story of Michelangelo and his passion for art as well as helping us discover details that we would have never noticed before, it made it an entirely different experience.


Group Travel Tours: Are They REALLY a Good Deal?  from

Group Travel Tours: Are They REALLY a Good Deal?  from

Group Travel Tours: Are They REALLY a Good Deal?  from

You Still Have Time To Shop & Explore On Your Own

Our big worry was that we would just be on a neverending tour everywhere, but that wasn’t the case. On some of the excursions, we were given a quick walking tour and then we were told where to come back for meeting and for other tours and you always had the option to opt out of any experience and do your own thing. For us, the travel into destinations would be more to cab it and try to navigate on your own then it would have been taking the motorcoach in and having the free time.

One day we skipped a tour to visit the Uffizi. We let our travel director know where we were headed and he not only checked to see if he could get us tickets (impossibly awesome to do this), but he walked us to the cab, told us how long we might expect to wait, and where could pick a cab back up. After three hours trying to get in, we walked in the museum to see my husband’s favorite work of art and had a glass of wine on the rooftop with an incredible view. When we got back, my husband hugged our tour guide with tears in his eyes because it helped make the impossible possible.

It was the sweetest thing ever.

Group Travel Tours: Are They REALLY a Good Deal?  from

Group Travel Tours: Are They REALLY a Good Deal?  from

Group Travel Tours: Are They REALLY a Good Deal?  from

You Will Know the Lay of the Land

No matter where you go there are good parts of town, bad parts of town, appropriate etiquette and tipping guidelines, and protocols  that you will need to know when navigating somewhere new. A guide can tell you where to find a bathroom (invaluable, if you ask me!), if you should tip someone, where to watch for pickpockets (and how they operate), as well as assist you if you have special dietary needs.

I thought being gluten-free would be an issue, but it NEVER was. I let our tour director know that I couldn’t have gluten and he let every single chef know wherever we ate. When on our own, he supplied incredible recommendations for where to get a bite to eat.

Safety would have been a big concern if we would have been on our own. We were advised how to hold our purses and where we shouldn’t be going to avoid having our money stolen.

Part of me disbelieved the hype until we stood in line at a museum and a girl told us how kids were distracting her and being cute in a seat next to her while they stole all the money in her purse on the subway.

Maybe this wasn’t just hype. Maybe we were really lucky to know this after all.

Group Travel Tours: Are They REALLY a Good Deal?  from

Group Travel Tours: Are They REALLY a Good Deal?  from

Group Travel Tours: Are They REALLY a Good Deal?  from

You Will Save A LOT

Not only did the travel agent provide good advice for making the most of our money, but the group tour option saved us thousands thanks to the affordability of group travel.  Factoring in the better budget accommodations, the transportation (by boat and by car), the included meals, and the walking tours, we really saved a bundle by going through a group tour.

Were all the meals spectacular? No. Were all the hotels fantastic? No.

We shrugged it off and worked around it. Most places we were there only a night or two so it was easy to laugh off. If we wanted better food, we could cab it somewhere better than the hotel offerings.

Group travel does require flexibility and it isn’t always perfect. For the most part, it was about the destination and the people…not necessarily the accommodations!

Group Travel Tours: Are They REALLY a Good Deal?  from

You Will Make Incredible Friends

You know those two people who just wanted to be ALONE and not be social?


We met people from ALL OVER THE WORLD.

I even met two bloggers/photographers (check out Better Family Photos & Kellie Carter Photography)- what are the odds?

It never felt lonely or isolating when you had people to talk with.  Everyone has a story and I tried to put my listening ears on (see above why this is hard) and really listen and learn from these incredible people. My heart was so full and we had so much fun together that I was teary-eyed when it was time to go. Not to just leave this incredible country, but to leave these incredible friends. How lucky we are to have a place like Facebook where we can continue to follow one another.

There you have it.

Group tours are not only far more affordable, but they are officially the Clark jam.

We can’t wait to do another one!

Have questions? Ask me! Have a personal experience doing a group tour? Share it here! See more photos of our trip on Instagram (I’d be honored!) xo

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m challenge: What’s in Your Carry On Bag?

Monday, June 8th, 2015

Carry-On Bag Essentials Ideas from

I have gotten the chance to travel a lot with my job which has been an unexpected blessing for this blogger. I had always been a nervous and scared traveler, but now I don’t even lose sleep the night before my trips because I feel relaxed and prepared.

Today I wanted to share with you a few of my favorite carry-on essentials that I keep with me when I travel.

Carry-On Bag Essentials Ideas from

Cozy Items

I hate the cold air blowing on me in a plane so I always try to keep a couple of cozy items in my carry-on bag.  The first thing I always have is a nice cushy pair of socks especially if I am traveling in sandals where that cold air can blow right on my freezing cold feet.

The other thing I always have is a wide scarf or poncho to keep me warm. I discovered this Kerisma Poncho (found at Ali on the Boulevard for $36- you can contact her if you want one. Just call 574-274-3110, they can take your CC by phone and ship to you!). These come in a variety of colors and can be worn five different ways including as a scarf when traveling.  The nice thing about this poncho is that it folds up really small so it is easy to transport. Although this says it is a dry clean only item, I ran it through a handwash cycle and line dried it with no problems at all.  I keep this with me, not only for travel, but for a light covering at air-conditioned restaurants or as an easy layer on cool summer mornings.

Carry-On Bag Essentials Ideas from

Items to Help Me Sleep

After taking a ten hour flight, I now understand the true challenges of international travel. I always travel with a sleep mask, some Celestial Seasonings Sleepytime Extra Tea (not the regular stuff, the extra stuff- read the reviews why!), and I pop a Tylenol PM as soon as I hop on the plane so I can try to knock myself out for my flight. Combining that with my poncho and socks… I can usually get a great sleep on the plane with this winning combination.

Carry-On Bag Essentials Ideas from

Great Snacks

Being gluten-free and traveling can be a tricky combination so I always try to keep lots of snacks in my carry-on in case I have trouble eating anywhere. I always carry a big bag of almonds and these Think Thin Creamy Peanut Butter Protein Bars are a go-to because they are gluten-free, have 0 grams of sugar, and 20 grams of protein. If I end up not being able to stop for a bite to eat between flight connections, this is often my lunch or dinner.

I also try to bring an empty water bottle with me for filling. Our airport (as do many) offers a water bottle filling station so I bring it empty to get through security and then fill it once I am at my gate. Filling this up saves me several dollars and keeps me hydrated while flying. I recommend a style like this for optimal flavor and easy transport.

Carry-On Bag Essentials Ideas from

Fantastic Entertainment

For me, it is all about reading on the plane. My last trip, I managed to consume four books which would be ridiculous to try to carry around in my suitcase. I use the Overdrive app from my library and load up my Kindle app on my iPad for reading on the plane. I also purchased this Logitech iPad Keyboard that is my favorite gadget of all for travel. It basically makes your iPad into a mini laptop. I am able to answer emails and update my social media channels, but it also acts as a fantastic holder for holding my iPad to watch shows or for reading on the plane (I just rest this on the tray or on my lap).  If you are looking for some great books to read on your next flight, be sure to visit our book review section of the site!

Carry-On Bag Essentials Ideas from

Items to Freshen Up

I try to keep a couple of items to freshen up with when traveling on long flights. These Listerine PocketPaks are a great substitute for brushing your teeth in the tiny lavatory. I also use these Yes to Blueberries wipes that I buy off of ePantry (I love drugstore deliveries) for a fake shower, wiping down and refreshing. I also am a big fan of my Burts Bee’s lip balm (did you see the documentary on this guy- that is one interesting man!).  After a little refreshing, I feel a lot better after hopping off my flight.


What are some items you always carry in your carry-on bag? Share them below!

Choose Your Own Adventure Travel Idea

Thursday, June 4th, 2015

Choose Your Own Adventure Travel Idea from

As my kids get older, we have found that they need and want less and less.  We have also found that we desire less clutter and more moments with our kids so my husband and I hatched up a Choose Your Own Adventure gift for the holidays this year that we gave them in lieu of gifts.

Do you remember the Choose Your Own Adventure books? They were my favorite when I was a kid because each time you read a book, you could make a choice that would take you down a different path. I think I reread this one a million times, returning the well-worn pages back to the library, only to to check it out again.

That idea of choosing your own adventures still lives on and I decided that this year, our family would make travel a top priority. I want my children to have big adventures and see the world so at Christmas, we gave them the unique opportunity to, truly, choose their own summer adventure with us as a family.

I tell you this now instead of in the winter because this one requires a chat with your kids about gift expectations and it also requires saving money for your adventure. 

Choose Your Own Adventure Travel Idea from

We asked our kids if they would like to do a vacation instead of gifts this past Christmas and they were so excited to do this which thrilled us to no end.

Since my husband is a web designer, he came up with the genius idea to create a retro travel brochure (complete with a typewriter smear) that would make it look like this package was designed just for them that they could open on Christmas morning. Since there would be no gifts under the tree, we really wanted to give them something to enjoy on Christmas morning and to create a new tradition of gift-giving in our family!

The Mom & Dad Travel Agency (making dreams come true since a few minutes ago- ha!) cover sheet was designed with their names on it and placed on top of the gift.

Choose Your Own Adventure Travel Idea from

The first package they opened outlined the rules of the adventure.  If you decide to do something similar, you can create your own rules, but these were the rules we set up to make sure that things went smoothly. 

Found below are the rules we gave our kids! 

Rules for Our Choose Your Own Adventure Travel Package

ONE- You must agree TOGETHER on the trip. We know that this will be tough, but it is also a great opportunity to work on your teamwork skills. Take your time coming to your decision and read through each of the files carefully. In it, we have outlined how you will get to your destination, where and who you might visit, as well as the exclusive adventure you will get to take.

TWO- Although we will do our best to book the places we have outlined for you, these will also be subject to availability. Do you know what that means? It just means, it depends on if the places or owners have space for us. For example, if the place we show you ends up not being available when we are able to go, we promise to find something as close as possible to what we have shared with you. That is the MOM & DAD TRAVEL AGENCY guarantee.

THREE- We will book the destination of your choosing as soon as possible, but the trip will be taken in the SPRING (sometime between the months of MARCH-MAY). Again, all of this will hinge on the availability and the ideal weather for wherever you select.

FOUR- HAVE FUN! Again, the MOM & DAD TRAVEL AGENCY is so pleased that you want to do something with… well…, your MOM & DAD as a gift. How many parents get to say that? We are so proud to take this trip with you and look forward to serving all of your travel needs.

Choose Your Own Adventure Travel Idea from

Choose Your Own Adventure Travel Idea from

Choose Your Own Adventure Travel Idea from

Choose Your Own Adventure Travel Idea from

I designated one file folder for each package idea and my husband created retro cover sheets for each package. For our family, the three destinations were to Florida (Universal and our Mimi), Boston (renting a houseboat and seeing where my son was born), and California (to see the Redwood Forest). Each package was wrapped individually so they had three files to open in the morning.

Choose Your Own Adventure Travel Idea from

Choose Your Own Adventure Travel Idea from

Choose Your Own Adventure Travel Idea from

I then typed up travel itineraries that we hoped the kids would love reading together in the morning. We really wanted to make each of these special and a true gift in the morning.

Upon opening all three, they had a little conference session on their own to decide the trip that they wanted to do.  As outlined in the rules above, they had to decide together.  We knew this might be tough, but there was also the option of one picking one year and the other picking the next year.  

In fact, we are planning to recycle one that wasn’t chosen (that seemed to get a lot of buzz) and add a couple of new options.

Choose Your Own Adventure Travel Idea from

Over our annual Christmas Tree Cinnamon Rolls, they shared that Universal was the chosen holiday for the year. I am proud to say it wasn’t really about seeing the Harry Potter world at all… it was, in fact, getting to see their amazing Mimi that really sold our Mom & Dad Agency package.

Choose Your Own Adventure Travel Idea from

Choose Your Own Adventure Travel Idea from

I hope this idea is inspiring to your family! We are so excited to take adventures with our kids this year and in the years to come and are so happy they enjoyed this gift as much as we enjoyed creating it for them!

*This post contains affiliate links!
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Family Disney Travel Tips

Thursday, June 4th, 2015

Note: this is a combined post from our first article about the tips-and-tricks to get the most out of a Disney trip and the follow-up I wrote a few years later of all our best Disney tips. Together, they provide the best family Disney travel tips that goes along perfectly with our June M Challenge on Travel! I know a family Disney trip is high on most of your wish lists, so I hope that these things we learned and still use will be helpful to you in planning your own Disney trip!

Family Disney Travel Tips on

Our family has LOVED our Disney trips, and one of the reasons we’ve ALL loved them is because we have learned a few things that make the planning, preparation, travel, and time at the park much more enjoyable. Once you take your first trip, you learn a few “insider tips” and my hope is that if you’ve never been to Disney, you can use these family Disney travel tips to make your first time run as smoothly as if you were a seasoned Disney traveler!

Our Best Family Disney Travel Tips:

Preparation is Key

1. Financial Preparation- Set aside money into a separate savings account to prepare for your trip – consider talking with your bank about opening a special account. Have an automatic transfer made for $25 or more each month put into this account all year long and then you will have the money saved when it is time to make your family trip.

Savings can be had when booking your travel through places like AAA and additional savings can be found while visiting in Orlando by printing a free Orlando Magicard to take with you when visiting restaurants and attractions while you are in Orlando.

2. Safety Preparation- I don’t need to tell you that Disney is a big place and safety is very important when visiting theme parks.  Each child was assigned a buddy to be their partner throughout the days and they were to hold their buddy’s hand while we were there.  We took additional safety precautions by printing out recent pictures of our children to keep in our wallet and bags just in case something should happen and they were separated from us. With a handy Sharpie, I wrote my cell phone number on their arms so if they were separated from us, someone could call us and reunite us quickly.

3. Meal Preparation- You can bring snacks and drinks into the park with no problems. We packed fruit snacks, granola bars, and bottles of water for our day in a bag with no objections. Rely on these snacks and bottles of water to help cut some of the costs. I recommend visiting this MouseSavers page to find the best cheap eats while you are at the parks.  We did get table service for the evening, but you want to call ahead since reservations can be made up to 180 days in advance of your vacation. Since we called the reservation number that morning when we arrived, we ended up at the Plaza. The table service was about twelve dollars more than the fast food service in the park and quite a bit better with a lot more food included with our meal. If you want to explore the menus before you go, you can view all the menus for the parks here.

4. Souvenir Preparation-  Souvenirs are a big expense and children can be plagued with horrible cases of what our family lovingly calls, “a case of the gimmies.” At the same time, I remember the amazing souvenir ears I got and how much I wanted those items when I went to Disney.  I hit the local Disney store for t-shirts and small toys which were a third of the price as they were in the shops and a girlfriend recommended picking up ears at a local party store (only $5.99 each). The kids were thrilled with their ears and shirts which they wore throughout the park and they did not even ask for anything while we walked through thanks to this little bit of preparation.

5. Navigation Preparation- When you pick up your tickets, you can pick up a handy map of the park. Thanks to my iPhone I was able to get some reinforcement on the map with Disney’s Magic Kingdom Tour Guide GPS+ from CXI Gaming (cost was $1.99) that helped us navigate the parks easily and find what we needed quickly. We also had everything in our GPS before we left for getting to the park and how to get back to where we were lodging.

Disney Family Travel Tips

Getting the Most Out of Your Ride Time

1. Make a Plan of Attack- Along with your Navigation Preparation, discuss as a family what rides are most important to you and order them in a list of importance. The rides with the longest wait times we rode first so that we could make sure that we got those out of the way before the crowds and wait times got really long.  If you aren’t’ sure what rides would be best for the age group of your kids, I do recommend buying the Disney’s Magic Kingdom Tour Guide GPS+ from CXI Gaming (cost was $1.99) because this actually gives you a plan for your day based upon your age group. Oh, and one brilliant suggestion from a reader is to start at the back of the park and move forward while most other people will be doing the opposite!

2. Use FASTPASS to Make the Most of Your Day-FASTPASS isn’t anything you need to sign up for, it is simply a way to place a reservation on rides with long wait times. On your map that you receive when you come in, it will have a FASTPASS icon next to the rides that you can FASTPASS. Head to those rides specified and a machine will be available to insert your ticket and a receipt will print out when you can come back to the ride with a one hour window that you can cash in on. Head to other rides with shorter wait times and then come back at the designated time to go through a faster line.

3. Add a free Wait Time App to Your Mobile Phone- No need to invest in a pricey Wait Time App, just the free Disney World Wait Times app will work perfectly since all wait time information is user generated. Check the wait times on the rides and use that to help decide which rides you want to go on.

Disney Family Travel Photo Tips

Capturing the Magic

The last thing you want on your kid’s magical day is terrible pictures that don’t showcase just how amazing the day was.

1. Capture Their View-  When Emily saw the castle for the first time…well, I could start bawling just thinking about it. I wanted to see that moment over and over so I captured her first gaze at the castle and then got to her eye level and took a picture at her level at exactly what she was seeing.  Having pictures of your kids seeing this magical beauty and the magical beauty itself are things that your family will never forget.

2. Capture the Movement- How can you capture the hilarious and dizzy feeling of some of those rides without movement in the picture.  Capturing motion in photography is so much fun especially when riding on moving things like the teacups. My tip is to focus on one thing (like a bag, etc.) as you spin. I recommend this article if you are looking for more tips on how to capture motion blur in your pictures.

3. Take Fun Pictures on the Go-  My camera equipment can get awfully heavy so we took turns with the big camera and I relied on my mobile phone when I wanted to capture details quickly and easily. I love Camera+ and Instagram for sharing fun pictures on the go. It is such a fun way to take a quick photo, add an effect, and send it to family and friends to keep them updated on how your day is going.

Disney Family Travel Tips for Photos

4. Get a Family Photo- I looked for someone who had a camera like ours to take our family picture. If you have a point-and-shoot,  finding someone to snap a picture should be really easy. When I handed off my camera I switched it to Aperture Mode (Av on my Canon) and changed the Aperture to f/7.1. I then used a photo editing tool (like PicMonkey) to crop as many of the background people out of our picture.

They also have people all over the parks taking pictures and you can have them snap your picture for their portrait and then ask them to take one with your camera too. They know the best spots with good lighting and backgrounds for your family photos. Best of all, they know how to work cameras.

Disney Nighttime Photo Tips

5. Capture the Nighttime Magic- Nighttime magic was tricky to photograph and may require a little research on your part. When I took pictures of the castle I was so disappointed. The colors were off and lights were blurry. It was not the magical pictures I had hoped for.

Over dinner, I went on this Disney Photography Blog and found this information how to capture the nighttime parade. I took test shots after our dinner until I was happy with the lighting and able to capture some of the nighttime beauty at Disney!

So, to recap, here is a condensed version of our family disney travel tips (just in case you’d like to print them out to help you prepare!):

1. Advance Preparation Tips

  • Financially: start saving and looking for deals as soon as you start thinking about your trip.
  • Safety: print out current photos to carry of each child, bring a sharpie to write cell phone numbers with, and assign buddies.
  • Meals: plan for snacks and drinks before heading to the park.
  • Souvenirs: buy them at a local Disney store or the party store and pack them with you!
  • Navigation: load all needed GPS info beforehand.

2. Ride Tips

  • Make a family plan: list the rides everyone wants to go on by importance.
  • Visit rides with longest wait times first.
  • Use FASTPASS to get through longer lines faster.
  • Add the Wait Time App to your mobile phone to check ride wait times.

3. Photograph Tips

  • Capture your children’s view – not only of them seeing things, but how they see it (get down to their level).
  • Capture the moment – as many of the hilarious ride moments as you can!
  • Take pictures on the go, too – in the car and at the hotel – using both phone and regular cameras.
  • Remember a family photo: scope out someone who can take a picture of your family in front of something you like.
  • Capture the nighttime magic – do a bit of research in advance to know your camera settings so you can get some good memory shots of the fantastic light displays.

What would you add? (Head to this post and read the comments for even more tips!)

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Our Best Disney Tips

Tuesday, May 14th, 2013

Disney Tips

Our family is currently having the time of our lives at Disney World for the Social Media Moms Conference and I was reminded of our family’s first experience visiting the Magic Kingdom and what we learned during that trip.

Are the tips I shared then still helpful? You bet! In fact, coming into this trip armed with the “insider” tips we learned during our first visit has made this one a lot smoother, even though it’s a bit different because I’m also attending a conference.


So I thought I’d take a moment to share again how we planned for Disney and what we learned (for further information on each tip, be sure to read the original post), and give you the opportunity to add any of your tips or tricks you’ve learned in visiting Disney World in the comments!

1. Advance Preparation Tips

  • Financially: start saving and looking for deals as soon as you start thinking about your trip.
  • Safety: print out current photos to carry of each child, bring a sharpie to write cell phone numbers with, and assign buddies.
  • Meals: plan for snacks and drinks before heading to the park.
  • Souvenirs: buy them at a local Disney store or the party store and pack them with you!
  • Navigation: load all needed GPS info beforehand.

2. Ride Tips

  • Make a family plan: list the rides everyone wants to go on by importance.
  • Visit rides with longest wait times first.
  • Use FASTPASS to get through longer lines faster.
  • Add the Wait Time App to your mobile phone to check ride wait times.

3. Photograph Tips

  • Capture your children’s view – not only of them seeing things, but how they see it (get down to their level).
  • Capture the moment – as many of the hilarious ride moments as you can!
  • Take pictures on the go, too – in the car and at the hotel – using both phone and regular cameras.
  • Remember a family photo: scope out someone who can take a picture of your family in front of something you like.
  • Capture the nighttime magic – do a bit of research in advance to know your camera settings so you can get some good memory shots of the fantastic light displays.

Now it’s your turn – what can you share with us about the best way to experience Disney?


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Dinosaurs Alive! Exhibit at Brookfield Zoo

Tuesday, April 9th, 2013

Ever since my son was small he has been obsessed with dinosaurs. He did not speak for the first two years of his life and when he did decide to talk, his first words were about two of his favorite dinosaurs-  pachycephalosaurus and coelophysis. I had thought he would outgrow dinosaurs, but last summer his love for them was sparked again and I found him pouring over his encyclopedias and watching documentaries about them.

That is why we were so excited when Brookfield Zoo contacted us about a sneak peek media day to explore the Dinosaurs Alive!  exhibit that opened on April 6th.

What is Dinosaurs Alive!?

Dinosaurs Alive! will run through October 27th and takes zoogoers down a winding trail of animatronic dinosaurs that make a variety of sounds and movements. There are 24 dinosaurs in all and each offer interactive displays that give you the chance to move them by pressing buttons and well-thought information. Our kids got a kick out of the fun facts in creative tabloid-magazine displays with shocking facts like, “I didn’t even know I was laying eggs,” that parents will truly get a chuckle out of while enjoying the exhibit with their children.

The new indoor display of Feathers and Fossils highlights the most recent findings that include scientific discoveries demonstrating how birds evolved from dinosaurs. The room literally roars as you walk in, and hear all of the dinosaurs chiming in together as they move around in this display.

Kids can be like real paleontologists and dig in a Dino Dig area where they can brush off  fossil displays in the back of the Feathers and Fossils exhibit. Our kids absolutely loved this hands-on element of the Dinosaurs Alive! exhibit.

Is This Just for Boys? Heck no!

If you think this exhibit was just for the boys, you would be wrong. My daughter loved this one just as much as her brother and we had a hard time pulling them out of this exhibit to explore other areas of the zoo. She loved the Dino Dig area, making the dinosaurs move, and the interactive displays and information that made this exhibit so charming.

Since he is such a big dinosaur lover, Ethan is going to share with you about the new Dinosaurs Alive! exhibit at Brookfield Zoo. He truly enjoyed talking to the knowledgeable employees and many offered him a job at the zoo to volunteer at the exhibit as he spouted off his facts. Sadly, the zoo is a 2 1/2 hour drive for us or I think he would have began working there that day.

Dinosaurs Alive! at Broofield Zoo Review by Ethan (Age 10)

Dinosaurs Alive! exhibit was a place that was a fantastic dinosaur-filled adventure that seemed like it was already done, but it was actually still in the making. I’ll give it 4 stars. only a few mistakes, but I could hardly see most of them. It still was astonishing, though!


Dinosaurs Alive! is $5 for adults and $3 for children and seniors over 65 in addition to regular zoo general admission of $15 for adults and $10.50 for children and seniors over 65. Children 2 and under are free. Beginning in April, discounted-combo general zoo admission and Dinosaurs Alive! tickets will be available for purchase at participating Dominick’s stores. Zoo members can take advantage of half-price admission to Dinosaurs Alive! Or guests can now pay for a day and come back for the year with the Zooper Fun Pass. For the same price as a one-day all-inclusive ticket, the Zooper Fun Pass offers admission to Dinosaurs Alive! and to each of Brookfield Zoo’s six other special attractions. And with the Zooper Fun Pass, guests can also come back to visit again and again throughout 2013. For more information, visit this page.
We would like to say a huge thank you to Brookfield Zoo for such a fun excursion over our Spring Break. We brought our best friends and they represent three different age groups and they all equally loved this interactive display. We spent almost two hours in this area alone, making it truly worth the price of admittance, especially with the fun new dino facts they each came away with. When asked what their favorite part of the day was at the zoo, they all said the Dino Alive! exhibit!
We can’t wait to come back and see it all again!

Our family received free admittance in exchange for our thoughts and opinions on the Dinosaurs Alive! exhibit. All opinions expressed are our own and we received no additional compensation.

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Family Travel: Exploring Saugatuck, Michigan

Tuesday, June 26th, 2012

Our family spent the most glorious week in Saugatuck, Michigan last week and we wanted to share with you our experience traveling to this fun little Midwest destination for your family travel. Words like epic, most relaxing vacation ever, and best vacation of our life may have flown out of our mouths. Sometimes the sweetest destinations are the simplest and lurking practically in your own backyard.

Saugatuck is a little harbor village that celebrates diversity and offers a fun artsy community for visitors to explore. Recently The National Trust for Historic Preservation selected Saugatuck/Douglas as one of the “Dozen Distinctive Destinations” in the U.S. and the writers and editors of Midwest Living Magazine ranked Saugatuck/Douglas fifth among the top 100 vacation destinations in the Midwest. Saugatuck happens to be just an hour and a half from our home, yet it seemed a world away and happened to be our first visit to the town.

Rental properties abound in this town and it is just a matter of selecting your house early enough and finding one in your price point. We searched on HomeAway to find our own dream property. I took on a freelance job and squirreled the money away for our vacation and when we saw this rental in Kingfishers Cove, we knew it would be perfect for us. A gorgeous little log cabin with modern amenities was our heart’s desire and we made it happen.

To save on this expense, you could definitely split the property with another family, book during the week instead of paying for weekend rates, or cut expenses by selecting a smaller size property. Remember that the properties book quickly and you need to plan a couple of months in advance to grab the premium spots in town.

When I asked around on Facebook about the best things to do and see while we were in the area, everyone had their own favorite spots in the town and a bucket list of fun activities to do there. We made a list of everything we wanted to do from the responses (this one from Travelmomiac was among my favorites) and we did everything on our list.  After our week of exploration, here are our family’s top recommendations for fun in the Saugatuck area.

Swoon Over Retro

The antique stores in Saugatuck are phenomenal and full of thoughtfully curated antique items that will have you wishing that you brought a moving truck to take it all home with you. We stopped at so many fun little shops along the main drag, but our favorite was the Blue Star Antique Pavilion. You could literally walk the store for miles and miles and never see the same thing twice. The store is over 50,000 square feet and it was named the best of the best in  Antique Mall in Michigan, Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin by Lake Magazine (July 2005).

You can end your visit with a delicious lunch next door to their building at the Saugatuck Brewing Company.  This award winning micro-brewery has 2 chefs delivering fresh and innovative food that is the perfect way to end a day of antiquing. There are always 12 different beers on tap, and a Hard Cider, that tastes like champagne, and loads of other fun drinks. Emily highly recommends their root beer. She said it was the most amazing thing about the brewery.

Head Downtown

Downtown Saugatuck is full of cute little shops to visit and spend an afternoon browsing in. Many of the shops seemed very tourist geared, but there were some hidden gems along with lots of shops offering wine tastings and food samples to try.

We visited the Saugatuck Drugstore and grabbed ice cream at the soda fountain counter for a midday pick-me-up. The cone pictured above is a SMALL so we recommend ordering a kid size cone so you don’t end up with a belly ache from all the ice cream. There is nothing like sitting at an old-fashioned ice cream counter and the kids loved their delicious treats.

Marro’s Restaurant was on our family’s agenda for our last night of vacation celebration feasting and it did not disappoint. You can order small/lighter portions to save a little money or order the regular size portion (seen in my picture above) and split it between two people. We ordered the Linguine Ala Pescatore and it was a generous portion of mussels, clams, shrimp, and scallops tossed in a spicy red sauce that was absolutely divine.

My daughter ordered the mac and cheese which came out on a platter and looked like chicken nuggets. Deep fried macaroni? Perhaps the world’s most delicious kid food ever.

We ended our downtown visit with a stop at Tuck’s Treats and grabbed a cupcake ($3.99 each) to split for our dessert that evening. It was rich, moist, and decadent. It is a cupcake that you can share among two or three people due to its richness and size.

Catch a Sunset

The sunset was absolutely breathtaking and worth catching in the evening after a great meal together. We caught a sunset over at Pier Cove and it was worth every moment of effort. My daughter actually said this was her favorite part of our trip and, as you can see from the photos, the view was absolutely stunning.

We are adding more sunsets to our family’s travel agendas since this is such a fun and free activity to partake of. The sunset in Saugatuck did not disappoint and the kids loved dipping their toes in the water.

Head to Holland

Holland, Michigan is just thirteen short minutes away from Saugatuck and happened to be one of the highlights of our trip. The shopping in Holland offered fabulous unique and boutique options that could have you window shopping for days. I actually enjoyed the shopping in Holland more than Saugatuck because of the variety of shops they offered and how cute the town was itself.

They offer an amazing Famer’s Market (Open Wednesdays & Saturdays 8am – 4pm May 16 – Nov 24 and Saturdays only thru Dec 15) that had just about everything your heart could desire.

New Holland Brewing Company is a fantastic spot to visit for a great sandwich and pint of their Mad Hatter Beer. The sandwich options were so delicious that my husband and I ordered the two we liked best and split them. The kid’s menu offered generous portions for big appetites.

We ended our feasting and took back slices of Crane’s Pie (located in downtown Holland) for dessert and did a pie taste test. I loved the cherry while my daughter was in love with the red raspberry. It was the perfect way to end a day of fun shopping and eating.

Go On a Dune Buggy Ride

We ended our travels with a Dune Ride together and I have to say that the Saugatuck Dune Ride was one of the highlights of our entire trip. The driver shares the history of the dunes along with a fun comedy routine that keeps families engaged with the historical information. The buggy ride is like a fun roller coaster and you can ride up to 60-65 miles through the hilly dunes.

The ride takes you to the highest dune where you have ten minutes to let your kids run around like crazy down the dunes, where you are able to take pictures of the prettiest scenery I have ever seen in my life, and where the driver will even happily take your family portrait for you.

We ended our trips with sand in our mouth and aching faces from smiling so hard which is the way all vacations should, perhaps, end.

We hope you enjoyed the review of our family’s experience in Saugatuck. Be sure to visit our Travel section for more ideas on great family travel!

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Notebook Experiments: Can I Make My Hotel Stay Better?

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2009

Experiment: Can I make my hotel stay better?

Experiment Taken From: Notebook Entry 10.30.08

Materials Needed: Please see Digital Bliss for the full instructions. This post was written by Angie, over at Blog Coach, so please be sure to check her site for additional great blogging resources!

Results: While I am off traveling, I wanted to share with you two of my favorite sites to use while I am away from home. If you are ever away (with kids or without), give these sites a try… especially if your room comes with free Wi-Fi!

iSerenity was perhaps my favorite resource on that list because I hate all the sounds from my neighbors and out in the hallways of hotels. In our house, each of us has a sound machine in our rooms so I really love having some type of white noise when I sleep. I tuned into the sounds of the ocean and it helped so much to cut down on the background noise so I could get some sleep. This would have been a great resource too when my children were smaller to help them sleep better too.

The other site that I used was Kukuklock. Is it just me or does anyone else have trouble figuring out how in the heck to set these alarms in the hotel rooms? A little manual would be helpful! I set my alarm on my phone in my room, but I like to have a back-up alarm just in case. I went ahead and set it to the rooster setting and it was as easy as pie to set.

I headed to bed and woke up to the sounds of the ocean with roosters crowing over the waves. Yeah, it was pretty freaky and I thought I fell into an alternate universe for a moment there, but it worked like a charm.

I plan to use these sites every time because it helped me sleep better knowing I would wake up on my time and I could eliminate the background noises in my room. I hope you can check these out on your next trip!


I am so excited to open our Notebook Experiments up to everyone and I hope that you will be able to participate this week or in weeks to come! I will be posting this each Wednesday so please mark your calendars if you plan to participate. You can post your entries at any time throughout the week and then leave your entry in the links below.

We have this handy banner that you are more than welcome to use, but it is not a requirement! It is just something you can add to add a little sparkle to your entry.

Rules for Participation:

1. Choose anything from any of our notebook entries (past or present) to do with your family. We have hundreds of bookmarked links of crafts, ways to save money, and organizing ideas.
2. Complete an experiment from the notebook and share about it on your blog or website. We would love to see pictures of what you accomplished or a detailed description of how your projects turned out. Please include a link to this entry, a link to the original posting of the entry (at the original craftster’s blog), and (to help us relocate the project) the date or link of the notebook entry where you found it. You can use the same formatting as our entries or you can just include that information in your post in your own unique way!
3. Post a link below. Please include your name or blog name & a fast description of your project. Example- MomAdvice (WHO bread)

I can’t wait to see what you create and what you find inspiring!