Friday, May 15, 2015

Costa Rica is Pura Vida...When Done Right

You feel it as soon as you land in Costa Rica.  There is a sense of peace or relaxation that permeates the air.  Is it the people?  Is it the culture?  Is it the landscape all around you? Yes, yes and yes.  See...Costa Ricans have embraced a living and existence centered around "pura vida" which simply means "pure life."  People, friends and family are important.  The land around them that they work, live and play in is highly regarded and protected.  Every level of creation that co-exists with them is valued and loved.   While tourism is on the rise, Costa Rica is not willing to lose its identity for the sake of bringing in more and more tourists.  If you plan on visiting Costa Rica, you too must respect and value everything around you.  They do not tolerate visitors who want to come in and destroy things for the sake of pleasure or recreation.   But everything combined in Costa Rica is what sets it apart from so many other tourism choices and it is what makes it one of my most favorite places to visit.

I could write this whole article on why I loved the change in climate such as when you drive from the dry Guanacaste area and trek up to the lush rainforest that surrounds the Arenal volcano.  Or why I loved the smiles on literally everyone's faces.  Or why I loved the noises of the wildlife that are around you every day.  But I really want to focus this blog on one thing...where you stay in Costa Rica is probably the most important decision you will make in regards to your vacation.

Costa Rica does not take up a large footprint when it comes to land mass.  It is smaller than the State of Kansas.  So you would think you could stay about anywhere and be close to about anything.  But that is where so many make a mistake.  Getting around Costa Rica by bus or car can be an adventure. The roads are windy and rough in several spots which makes travel somewhat slow-going.  So while it looks like it should be only a 30 minute trip (as the bird flies) turns into a 90 minute trip by car due to having to slow for every corner and fender-dismantling bump in the road.  So staying in one area of Costa Rica can pretty much isolate you from a lot of other areas unless you like spending hours in a car each day introducing your kidneys to your tonsils.

But this is where Costa Rica is so unique.  One area has you looking down on the rainforest from your cloud-forest lodge while another area has you surfing with dolphins and taking in the beautiful sunset over the Pacific and those two areas can be separated by a 4 hour one way trek.  So splitting your stay between various areas is the ideal thing to do.  I know I know...unpacking and packing back up is not a fun exercise, but you will thank me when you get home.   Take 3 or 4 nights and spend them in the lushness and quietness of the rainforest.  Become one with nature.  Find your inner zen. Take lots and lots of videos and pictures.  You will want to because you will want to capture all there is to see so you can make your friends back home green with tree-frog envy.  Then pack up, brace yourself for the denture loosening drive down the mountains to the beautiful Pacific and enjoy a new sense of relaxation as you kick back in your hammock with a local Imperial (google it) in hand.

So you took my advice, you planned a split stay.  Yay!  Now here is another bit of free advice.  Choose a lodge or hotel that lets you actually experience Costa Rica.  We had the pleasure of staying in two different resorts during our stay.  One was the RIU Palace Costa Rica and the other was a boutique hotel called El Mangroove.  Go ahead...take a guess as to which one I am about to write a very favorable review for.  Any guesses?  How many think the RIU? Bzzzzzz!!  Wrong! For those that already guessed El Mangroove...ding ding ding.  You win.

When you come to Costa Rica, you need to stay at places that try to incorporate as much of the local decor, landscape and food into their resort as possible.  The RIU Palace came up with a big zero in all three.  If you go to a RIU Palace in Cancun. Take good pictures because you will not need to go to another one anywhere else.  They all look the same.  Same room decor.  Same lobby decor.  Same bland buffet choices.  Same non-local specialty restaurant choices.  Same drinks same everything.  It is really a shame.  You trek all that way to a new destination only to be welcomed by the same thing you would see in Jamaica, Cancun, Punta Cana etc.  It is just no bueno.  I read the reviews of those traveling to the RIU in Costa Rica and I shake my head at today's travelers, especially those from here in the US.  I read things like "best food ever" or "most luxurious place we have been" or "best resort ever" and it just makes me cringe.  What have we done?  Have we become a society that thinks travel to a foreign Country needs to be as homogenous as possible as to not take us out of our social comfort zone?  Have we become so used to mediocrity that we actually think bland food, stale bread, luke-warmed entrees are a step above what we normally get?

If you are not used to what I just wrote above, then the RIU Palace Costa Rica is not for you.  I will give the RIU Palace high marks when it comes to their staff.  For the most part, every staff member was friendly and happy and always greeted you with a friendly "hola." Our pool guy, Jose, was awesome.  He paid attention to what we liked to drink and was always around when we needed him and was a genuinely warm and friendly guy.  So the staff at the RIU gets an A!  The rest of the RIU gets a C...maybe C+.  The thing that really surprised me was how cheap things were done in the rooms.  Plywood and white paint were the two most-used supplies when decorating the room.  The coffee table, the desk, the headboard were all nailed-together plywood and simply painted white (and the paint job was not that good).  They then simply laid a glass top on the desk and coffee table which is something I have never seen before in a 4+ star resort.  The whole room was a "get up in the middle of the night nightmare."  The glass top on the coffee table had 4 sharp corners and were perfectly placed at shin level.  They then thought it a good idea to place the whirlpool tub directly between the bed and the bathroom and it too had some really nice pointy corners that would love to welcome a leg or a toe at 3am.   I just kept looking at the layout wondering, "what were they thinking??"  But here is where I get picky in case you think I am not being picky enough yet (HA)...our room was "ready" for us by around 2:30pm the day of our arrival.  We had found some trash that was had not been picked up when we sat our things down and then found the remote control  for the TV to be all cracked and busted.  I went to turn on the TV and nothing worked.  I opened the remote and discovered the batteries were in backwards.  Yes I know that is picky, but this is supposed to be a 4+ star resort.  If you tout yourself as a 4+ star resort, then attention to detail is a must.  If you replace batteries in a remote, the first little detail you should do is make sure it works.  And if you replaced the batteries, surely you noticed that the back of the remote was broken.  When you see things like that, it makes you start to look around.  Our rain shower head in the shower was broken to where it was more like a rain pour instead of a shower since water was coming up around the shower head and not through it.  Then once you see that, you notice that one of the glass blocks they used to separate the shower from the rest of the bathroom is cracked in half.  Would I have noticed all of this had the remote worked and not been busted up?  Maybe, but 4+ star resorts have to do better in my opinion if they want to be lumped into the "deluxe or luxury" resort market.  Other than the landscaping and staff, there was nothing deluxe or luxurious about this resort.

Now...lets move to the second part of our stay and get back to some more positive things.  El Mangroove does it right.  They thought things out.  The construction, the decor, the layout of the resort fits perfectly within its surrounding environment.  Service?  Impeccable.  Staff was friendly and there for anything you might need.  Rooms were what you expected at a 4+ star resort.  Clean, comfortable decor, tons of space for clothes etc.  Their rain shower head worked as it was supposed to.  Food and drink were excellent.  If you are a foodie or a mixologist...this is the place for you.  They did a good job of incorporating the countries abundance of fresh vegetables, fruits and fish into their menu.  The fish tacos at their pool/beach side restaurant were wonderful.  I am bragging on their food because it enhanced the stay.  The food and drink are a part of a hotel's success or failure and El Mangroove gets a A in the food and beverage department.  Service was great at their pool or in their restaurants.   Was it slow at times?  Maybe, but you are on vacation!  Why are you in a hurry for your meal to get over?  Central and Latin Americans are not on the same rushed schedule as we are here in the US which makes me quite envious to be honest.   The only other negative some might find with the resort is that a lot of the rooms will not have a view of the ocean.  They built the resort to go with the landscape, including existing trees and many of the rooms have wonderful mangrove views, but only a small handful have ocean views.  This is a small resort.  If you want big and sprawling and lots of restaurant choices onsite, this is not the resort for you.  If you want a relaxing, intimate, luxury, service-oriented resort, then check out El Mangroove for your vacation to Costa Rica.  They exude "pura vida."  You will actually know that you are in Costa Rica.

So before I end this article...I have to give a shout out to CATOURS.  We used them for our excursion up to the Arenal volcano area where we zip lined at speeds up to 50mph and at heights above 600ft over the top of the rainforest.  We also had the pleasure of having one of their expert guides along with us who helped us understand even more why Costa Ricans believe in pura vida. We also used them for our transfers from airport to hotel, hotel to hotel and then hotel back to airport.  They were wonderful and professional and I HIGHLY recommend using them on your next trip to Costa Rica.

So in summary...please do Costa Rica right.  Pick a place that let's you see the culture and the environment and for sure plan it to where you will come home knowing full well what pura vida really means.  You won't be sorry if you do.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

To Fee or Not to Fee...

That is the number one prevailing question in the travel agency industry right now. Do we deserve to get paid for our time and expertise? Or should the general public expect us to give our consulting skills away for free?

Let's roll the clock back about 9 to 10 years ago. Some folks came into the travel planning industry and touted the idea that you should never have to pay any fees for booking hotels, airfare, car rentals etc. These new companies made it sound like you had been getting ripped off for years because you were walking into a travel agency office and sitting down with a real person, asking them questions, hearing their professional opinions and ideas and actually paying them a fee for that experience. Those new companies are what we refer to as OTA's in our industry. That stands for "Online Travel Agencies." The more famous OTA's are companies such as Expedia, Hotwire, Priceline and Orbitz.  These OTA's made it sound like you didn't ever need anyone's professional advice because you could go to their site, see every hotel in every part of the world (or at least they want you to believe you can), see the lowest price and simply book it yourself and save a lot of money. This basically lumped everything every professional travel person had done for years into this idea that they were nothing but middle men/women and order takers. So you could now avoid the middle person and place the "travel order" yourself.

These OTA's did a great job at marketing. Their "no fee" ads were causing hoards of travelers to run from professionals and turn to their one-stop shop for booking vacations, business trips etc. Mom and pop travel agencies were closing right and left because fees were needed to maintain employees, pay for office overhead etc.

A new breed of travel professional was born out of the ashes and I am not sure the big OTA's saw what was coming. Professional travel agents were learning to evolve with the change in market and many changed their work environment to where they too could operate without passing along fees and just live on whatever hotels, car companies and tour operators were willing to pay in the way of commissions. That's correct...hotels, car companies and tour operators pay travel agents commission as a thank you for bringing clients their way. And guess what...the large OTA's get commissions too.  They wanted you to think they were not a travel agent and you were cutting out the agent and therefore saving money, but guess what, they are middle people too and they get commissions and in many cases brow beat hotels and other travel related companies to give them even more than what most professionals would have ever received and then they turn around and kick some of it back to the consumer and call it "savings." You can imagine what that is doing to their relationship with hotels, resorts etc. But that is a story for another time.

Here we are now 9 to 10 years later and our industry is back stronger than ever and more and more travelers are turning to agents again because they are hearing that we no longer charge fees and they can still take advantage of our expertise, our experience and our relationships with key companies in the travel industry. And many have learned that when going through an OTA, you are taking on the role of the professional agent because YOU are selecting that hotel and YOU are choosing those flights and YOU are doing all of the research and YOU are left to deal with issues on YOUR own when you hit the "book now" button on their site.

So let's be clear of the difference between a professional and an OTA. A professional travel agent offers destination advice. They offer destination experience. They offer resorts that are vetted. They offer flights that actually exist with connections that make a vacation that much better. They offer great vacation value and experiences that make vacations memorable. They are trained and skilled in the art of travel planning. They are professional. OTA's are none of those...none.

And guess what...reading stuff on the internet no more makes you a professional travel consultant than does sleeping in a Holiday Inn Express. Reading things on the internet does not make someone a professional wedding planner or a professional interior designer or a professional style consultant etc.  And almost every person understands that going to a professional and seeking consultation or help will most likely result in a fee to cover their time.

So again..yes, we get commission from companies, resorts, hotels, car companies and tour operators that we sell. But we don't make a dime when offering professional travel advice to someone who then takes our advice and goes and books things themselves. Not a dime...until now. That is officially changing as of the posting of this blog. My agents and I love what we do. We love planning awesome vacations for families and clients and seeing their pictures and hearing their awesome stories. But we can't spend the time and energy we need on our valued current clients when we are chasing down info for those possible new clients who just want our free advice and have no intention of booking through our agency. We can't afford to work pro bono. So any new client coming to us as of now will be paying a "plan to book fee" that will be discussed with the possible client upfront. Many agencies in our industry have already been charging for their skill and expertise and it is time every professional agent is recognized as being a professional.  Professionals deserve compensation for their time.

Again...can someone go online and hit a "book now" button and do things themselves? Sure. Many do and will continue to do so. And they are on their own if things go wrong and if they made a poor vacation choice. But again, no one goes to a wedding planner and expects them to work for free and no one hires an interior designer and expects their advice and help for free. And so it is with us. No one should expect to call a travel agent and expect them to work for free. If you come to us and book your trip...we will discuss with you how that fee is applied, but coming to us and picking our brains for ideas and plans will cost you something if you take that advice and walk away with it.

So to fee or not to fee...that is no longer a question with my agents and agency.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Google Flights...What You Should Know

There seems to be a lot of hubbub these days when it comes to Google and their dabble into the travel arena.  Some are saying it will transform our industry yet again while at the same time giving Google and particularly their new flight search site Google.com/flights way too many props for being some form of ingenious new way to book your airfare.  One recent travel writer made a claim that Google flights is even better than a travel agent.  So what I thought I would do is simply show what it does and explain how I even use it as a tool when looking for the best airfare for my clients.   Then you be the judge whether or not you think it is the best thing since sliced bread and professional advice from a experienced travel consultant.

First...let's be clear.  Google.com/flights is simply an airfare search page.  That is all it is.  It is not a vacation package booking engine.  It is not even an airfare booking engine.  It is simply a search site. Let me show you how it works and how I use it.  Let's assume you want to fly from good ole Nashvegas (that's Nashville to you lay-people) to Los Angeles during May of this year.  Let's even assume that your dates are flexible.  For the most part, regardless of advertising gimmicks, travelers and their schedules are usually not that flexible due to vacation times at work, school etc. But let's assume you ARE flexible and can travel at any point in May.

Here is what the search page would look like as you enter the originating airport, your destination airport and the dates of travel...



You can see that $322 round trip looks to be the best looking fare for the entire month of May.  So if I click on May 1st and then click on May 16th for my return...it shows me the following options for my outbound flight...


So after choosing the 6:00am departure...it shows me more details of that segment of the trip...

So in case you were unsure of what IAH stood for on the previous screen, you now know that your flight is connecting through Houston and has a 3+hour layover.   So then I went to the next step which was to select my return flight option.  To keep it in that $322 range, I decided to come home on the 1:30pm flight which connects through Chicago.

Now here is what I want you to notice.  I have the flights I want and it appears that the price is going to be $322 round trip for these flights.  So what is my next step?  Book them right here on the Google site? Is Google now also my booking engine? No, not at all.  In order to book this flight, Google is directing me to "book with United."  United's website is where I would actually go to book the flights.  So Google did a good job of showing prices and flights associated with those prices.  But did it offer advice on which airport is the easiest to connect through?  Did it tell you that a 48 min layover may not be enough time to make a connection through Chicago's O'hare Airport?  Did it advise you that taking the latest flight out leaves virtually no options in case a delay were to happen due to weather or mechanical trouble with an aircraft?   Did Google.com/flights offer any sound travel advice other than providing you with times and prices?

So does this new search site mark the end of the need for sound professional travel agent advice?  What is it doing that some search sites have not already done?  Is it neatly arranged and easy to navigate?  Yes!  That is why I use it to see which airline may be offering the best prices for a given destination during a given time.  I then take that info and head straight to the airline itself to book for my clients.  And here is something to keep in mind...it is not offering any better price than what you are going to get straight from the airline.  It is not a cost saver in that way...it is a search time saver.  So do I, a professional travel consultant, use Google.com/flights?  I sure do.  But let's not make it out to be more than it really is.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The "Splurge Affect"

How many times have you or someone else said, "let's splurge" when it comes to dinner choices or while out shopping for various things?  We all like to splurge occasionally and just enjoy ourselves and throw budgets to the wind.  Some of us splurge on a daily basis when we head down to our favorite coffee house and pay $4.00 for a cup of coffee that would only cost us $0.75 if we made it at home.  The splurging we do takes money out of one budget coffer and moves it to another.  Some of us call that other coffer the "fun money" or "mad money" coffer.  It is the money we give ourselves each month to just have fun with and, if you are like me, the fun only lasts for a few hours.

Now think about your splurging that you might do each month how much it might add up to if you took that splurging amount and saved it for a year.  How much are we talking?  $600?  $1200? More?

Ok, you know I am a travel consultant so surely you have figured out that I am going to bring this topic around to travel.  So here it goes.  I deal with traveler's budgets on a daily basis.  Some are good...some are not so good.  I define not so good as those budgets where someone only wants to spend $500-$750 per person on a 6 night trip to the Caribbean.  That is just not good.  No easy way to say it. It is a limburger cheese budget.  So that brings up the splurge affect.  Those same folks or in fact anyone who is looking to travel, needs to look at their splurging that is done on a monthly basis.  Maybe you don't feel like you splurge on anything.  Good for you.  But a lot of us splurge, we just don't call it splurging.  We call it normal life because we think eating out or buying a Starbucks cup of coffee is normal when it fact, that is something a lot of people around the world could never afford to do.  But I digress.

Add up the splurging you do and be honest about it and annualize it.   Now think about that amount and the how much time of enjoyment it really gives you.  Now let me show you how the splurge affect can relate to your next vacation.  Most people will take a 5 to 7 day vacation these days.  So while that upgraded cup of coffee or dessert or entree may bring you enjoyment for an hour or so, vacations bring enjoyment for a minimum of a few days if not for a lifetime.  So if you splurge in the amount of $50 per month, that same amount of "fun money" could get you:
  • Upgraded from coach to business class
  • Upgrade from an ocean view (window only) to a balcony stateroom on a cruise
  • Upgraded from a "garden view" to an ocean view room at a resort
If you splurge on the order of $100 a month, you could
  • Upgrade from coach to business or first class
  • Upgrade from a balcony to a junior suite stateroom on a cruise
  • Upgrade from garden view to an ocean front with premium club privileges or to a larger suite
Naturally these upgrades depend on destination, time of year etc, but I want you to see that we all make choices.  Maybe the ocean view or even the inside stateroom is all you really want and that is ok.  Maybe a tropical or garden view room is perfectly acceptable which is 100% fine.  But make sure you have factored in the splurge affect before saying that your travel budget is all you can afford and that is what is driving your choice of accommodations or cruise choice etc.   Am I writing this in hopes of getting every client to spend more money on their trips?  Not at all.  I respect every client's budget when it it is given to me.  But what I want you to see is how much it actually takes to possibly enhance an experience that lasts a whole lot longer than some of the things we splurge on daily.   Add up that amount and you might be surprised.   I am also writing this because we travel professionals have too many potential clients these days who come to us with incredibly unrealistic budgets and those same travelers need to go back and re-evaluate their budgets before only allotting a certain amount to their family's vacation.  And trust me, I am not immune to the splurge affect.  I have decided to do some upgrades myself for my next trip and take some of my "mad money" and use it for something other than my Frothy Monkey coffee habit etc.

So there it is...the splurge affect.  I am sure economic students will be seeing this phrase pop up in text books very soon.  

Monday, January 19, 2015

Hawaii...No Passport Required

Now for some of you, the title of this post may seem a bit absurd.  Of course there is no passport required to go to Hawaii if you are a US citizen.  It is a State for Pete's sake.  But you would be shocked to know how many of our fair countrymen and countrywomen have no clue that Hawaii is a no-passort-destination.  Some must think that the amount of water between one place and another determines whether or not passports are required.  Now those same folks who apparently flunked US geography in school must have a hard time with Canada and it's passport requirements because the whole non-water thing is really throwing them off now.

But I digress.  The reason my post is titled the way it is, is because I want travelers to understand that Hawaii offers a true cultural experience that is far different than any other US destination, and even some international destinations, but we have the luxury of not needing a passport to get there.

I hope this post catches your attention if Hawaii is a place you have never been interested in or have thought you would never be able to visit.  I want Hawaii on the forefront of your minds by the time you read this article.  So let me confess something right upfront...Hawaii was not on the top of my places to visit before this past November.  But that has all changed.  Hawaii and especially the islands of Maui and Kauai have topped the list of "my favorite places I have been around the world."  Why you ask?  Well let me tell ya.

First, the beauty of Hawaii is hard to match.  Some might argue that Fiji or Tahiti or the Maldives surpass the beauty of Hawaii, but that is not the case when you consider the diversity of the landscape that makes up the Hawaiian islands. There are not too many places on this planet where you can go from a sunny, tropical beach and drive to an snowcapped mountain...all on one island.  You want to see a lush rainforest?  Hawaii has it.  You want to see an active volcano? Hawaii has it.  You want to see the most incredible sunsets while walking along a palm tree-lined beach?  Head to Hawaii.  You want to watch a sunrise from an elevation of 10,000 above sea level?  You can do that in Hawaii. Everywhere you turn, there is something to see and try to hurry and capture with a picture because you know what you are seeing is going to be hard to give justice to back at home when telling your friends of the awesome things you saw in Hawaii.

I found myself in awe during my trip last November.  At certain points I even felt moved spiritually. That was especially true on the island of Kauai.  When you land on Kauai, it is easy to see why so many movie makers head to Kauai for their sets.  The lush rain forests and tall mountains coupled with the beaches and blue waters of the Pacific make it a perfect backdrop for any movie.  I now know why movies such as Jurassic Park and Indiana Jones, Raiders of the Lost Ark and countless other films were shot on location in Kauai.   But my spiritual moment came one early morning when we boarded a luxury catamaran for an early morning snorkel and cruise along the Na Pali Coast.  I was not expecting that day to be such a "bucket-list" experience but it became that and more.  It is difficult to not feel a connection with creation when you are sailing along seeing the sun rise behind you and the Na Pali coast ahead of you.  In case you don't know, the Na Pail coast is a stretch of coast line that is only accessible by hiking, boating or by air.  The road that circles the island of Kauai ends at each end of the Na Pali coast.  It is completely preserved in its natural beauty and "beauty" is not giving it justice.

So just when I thought the trip along the coast was already perfect, things were kicked up a notch.  As we approached the main area of the coast where the jagged cliffs and mountains appear to fall straight off into the Pacific, where the mist of the crashing waves climb up those same cliffs and paint the most serene and awe-inspiring picture you have ever seen...all of the sudden the water became like glass and pods of spinner dolphins appeared out of nowhere almost as if to say, welcome to my paradise.   The dolphins jumped and played and swam along side and time felt like it stopped.  I remember just sitting there trying and I mean really trying to take in what I was seeing and it moved me.  It showed me or at least reminded me what travel is all about and it has forever changed me.

Now you probably think that there couldn't be much more but there is.  Just when I was already moved and deeply affected in such a positive way, one more thing happened that made me understand why I was already moving Hawaii to the top of my favorite places to see and visit.  On our way back to the dock, we were all resting and trying to take in what we had seen when again something magical happened.  The captain slowed down and asked us all to head to the bow of the boat.  First the blowing of air from its blow hole and then there it was, the large tail fin of a humpback whale.  That has always been a major bucket list item for me and now, thanks to visiting Kauai, is officially checked off the list.



All of that in just one day on the island of Kauai.  Now when you add our visits to Waimea Canyon (the Grand Canyon of the Pacific), the Na'Aina Botanical Gardens (where we not only learned about but saw an albatross nesting in their natural habitat), our kayaking adventure on the Hule'ia River, there is no wonder why I am now in such awe of what Hawaii offers.

There is not another single domestic location that can touch Hawaii when it comes to scenery and cultural experiences, not one.  The "aloha spirit" is still alive and well on the islands of Hawaii.  I wish I could really go into more of the culture and history that makes Hawaii so unique, but the post is getting long enough.  But please please understand that Hawaii is not like a trip down to Destin or southern California or Miami or any other domestic coastal vacation option.  You will feel like you have stepped off the plane and onto a place that is exotic and as "international" as Fiji or Thailand, or New Zealand etc., except for the fact that you are still on American soil where everyone speaks YOUR language and there is NO PASSPORT REQUIRED.

Hawaii has something to offer every type of vacationer.  Whether you are a hiker/biker, foodie, history buff, naturist, or just someone that wants to sit on the beach and sip an umbrella drink, Hawaii is the place for you.  Whether you prefer the finer things when it comes to accommodations (Grand Hyatt Kauai), or you are more budget-minded (Mana Kai in Maui), Hawaii is for you.

So if you are getting weary of the same old beach vacation choices and want to experience something new and exotic and exciting, please think about Hawaii.  And if you have been to Hawaii before but only Honolulu, don't let that be your only visit and make sure you try some of the other islands. Aloha!

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Disney "Land and Sea" Preview

We are within the final countdown stage of our upcoming Disney "land and sea" adventure.  I wanted to write this preview because I am excited about some new experiences we are about to have.  Most of my readers know that we have been to Walt Disney World numerous times and have sailed on the Disney Wonder several years back, but this fast approaching vacation will have several first-time moments.

We start our adventure a few days before the cruise on December 6th.  As we normally do now, we are driving down from our home in middle Tennessee and are scheduled to have 2 pre-cruise nights. Our first night will be spent at the Orlando World Center Marriott.  Our plans the first night will be to head to Downtown Disney for a little shopping and eating fun and see how some of the new construction is coming along.  Then on Sunday morning, we will pack up and head out to the Port Canaveral area where our next night will be spent at the Courtyard Cocoa Beach Cape Canaveral.  But one of our first time experiences occurs on this day.  I have always wanted to sit at Fish Lips Waterfront Bar and Grill and enjoy a tasty drink and meal while watching the various cruise ships meander by on their way out to sea.   For those that take a peek occasionally at the Port Canaveral webcam, it sits atop Fish Lips.  So our plan is to get there early, grab a table outside and watch Royal Caribbean, Disney and Carnival ships sail by which will make the excitement build for our cruise that sets sail the next day (Monday the 8th).

So on the 8th is when a lot of new experiences begin and they are all related to the category of stateroom we are staying in on the Disney Dream.  I decided to splurge a little since this is a short, 4 night cruise so I booked us a category 00T which is a one bedroom, concierge suite.  Can I get a whoop whoop?! Uber-excited am I.  So here is why I am so excited; when we arrive at the pier and after clearing security, we will be able to head to a nice, less-congested check in area designated for concierge level guests as well as platinum Castaway Club members.  Once checked in, we will also be in the very first boarding group once embarkation begins.  So that is new experience number 2. Once onboard, we will have the choice of heading to the buffet, which is our normal cruise routine, or heading for the concierge lounge where snacks and beverages are served only for concierge-level guests.  I have a feeling we will be heading to the lounge which will be new experience number 3.  The cool part about the lounge, besides the exclusivity, is that they serve snacks during the day as well as free "adult beverages" at certain times each day. That can actually offset some of the higher cost of the stateroom assuming you are an "indulger" of such a beverage.

So 3 new experiences already and we will be only 3 days into our 9 day trip.  But one of the biggest new experiences of them all will happen once we step inside our one bedroom suite.  The suite has over 600 square feet (including the verandah) and comes with 2 full baths.   The master bath comes with a large tub as well as a walk-in shower, double vanities and a tv built into the mirror while the second bath comes with a single vanity and a walk in shower.  There is a separate dining area as well as a living area with a convertible sofa, 2 chairs and a large flat-screen tv.  The bedroom comes with a  queen sized bed and upgraded bedding.  I am leaving a lot of the little details that are included out because they will be covered in my full review after the trip.  But needless to say the suite is large as well as the verandah and I am excited about it all!

So I will lump the suite into one big new experience making it the new experience number 4 on this trip.   We sail to Nassau and Castaway Cay which will not be new to us, but we have a new excursion planned for our day in Castaway Cay.  We are going to try Parasailing for the first time.  I am a little nervous and excited about it all at the same time.  It will be a great opportunity for some cool GoPro camera footage.  So adding them up so far...that makes new experience number 5.

So before this preview gets too out of hand as far as a word count goes...let me jump ahead now to the "land" part of the trip.  After we disembark on the 12th, we are heading for Disney's Yacht Club Resort.  This will be new experience number 6.  We have stayed at several onsite properties such as the Grand Floridian, Beach Club, Boardwalk, Swan and Dolphin, Polynesian, Caribbean Beach and the Pop Century.  But this will be our very first time at the Yacht Club and we are excited to be back in our most favorite area of WDW...close to Epcot and Hollywood Studios.  No upgrade for us at this resort but excited nonetheless. We are staying 3 nights...yes I wish it was more, but from the time we leave home until the time we get back home, this will be a nice long trip.

So two more new experiences I have yet to mention.  New experience number 7 will be breakfast at Captain's Grille.  We have heard good things so I will let you know what I think again in my trip review post.

And finally...new experience number 8 will be getting to ride Seven Dwarfs Mine Train for the very first time.  I was excited about this attraction when when the first renderings were released and I am anxious to see how the new riding technology really feels.  We have not been back since it opened so getting a little giddy about finally being able to ride it.

So there you have it...a land and sea adventure chalked full of newness.  If any of these new experiences are new to you as well, make sure you subscribe to my blog so you will be notified of my review once we return in mid-December.



Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Universal's Cabana Bay Beach Resort...WOW!

I have always said that a successful travel consultant is a person who travels and sees things first-hand. I make it a goal every year to try to visit either a new destination or a new resort or a combo of both. This year has not been an exception.  I was fortunate to be invited to a travel agent event at Universal Orlando earlier this month.  While this was not a new experience overall to me, I was able to visit and experience all the new additions that Universal Orlando has to offer such as Hogwarts Express, Diagon Alley and two of the new restaurants in City Walk; Vivo Italian Kitchen and Antojitos.  All of it was incredible.  I will try to write a more comprehensive review of those experiences a little later.  

But what I want to focus on in this post is the brand new resort that Universal Orlando introduced this past Spring (2014)...Cabana Bay Beach Resort.  If you are a fan of Disney's Pop Century Resort, you will love Cabana Bay.  You may even love it a little bit more than the Pop.  I did and I am a fan of the Pop and have stayed there more than once.  The theming at Cabana Bay is a throwback to the 50's and 60's with more of a touch of Florida thrown in.  Unlike the Pop, Cabana Bay is strictly themed to those two eras with virtually no Universal theme park plugs thrown in.  What I mean by that is Disney's Pop Century is themed to various eras as well, but they also make sure you know you are at Disney with Pluto making appearances in the theming as well as gigantic statues of Lady and the Tramp.  At Cabana Bay, you really feel like you have stepped back in time.

The beauty is in the detail.  Universal and Loews did a great job keeping you in the theme all the way down to the VO5 shampoo, Zest soap in the bathrooms and an analog clock in every guest room.  Love it!  


The Bayliner Diner (food court) is well designed to accommodate the possible 4000-6000 guests that could be at this resort assuming full or near full occupancy.  For as big as this resort is, you feel like you have room to breathe.  I like that there is more than one food and beverage venue.  In addition to Bayliner, you have Starbucks, the Swizzle Lounge in the lobby, The Hideaway Bar and Grill and the Atomic Tonic pool bar out near the pools. 

The standard guest rooms are around 300 sq. ft. compared to the Pop's 260 sq. ft. standard rooms.  You feel the extra space.  Standard rooms come with 2 queen beds. That's right...queens!  Again that is compared to the Pop's 2 full sized beds.  Family suites are even larger.  The come in at around 430 sq. ft and can sleep up to 6.  Some rooms offer indoor entry ways depending on their location which is a plus with me.   All of the public spaces are well designed and again make it feel like you can move around freely even if you were there during peak times of the season.  I loved the bowling alley and Jack Lalane fitness center.  It saddens me to think that a lot of guests won't have a clue what VO5 is or who Jack Lalane is, but it fits the theme perfectly.  My tip...google those before you arrive and you might appreciate the detail even more. 

The resort's color scheme is vibrant and cheery, but not gaudy or over the top. You will feel at home upon arrival.  The pools areas are well designed to accommodate guests, even at full occupancy.  



I walked away from Cabana Bay anxious to book a stay there for myself and most likely will very soon.  But I know some are going to be Debbie-downers (sorry Debbie) for one big reason...no unlimited express for guests even though it is an on-site property.  You have to understand Universals' reasoning before judging.  I was one who did NOT like that until I understood more of why.  Unlike Disney's FP system which is available to anyone, Universal's unlimited express is a resort guest perk.  Non-resort guests can buy an express pass add-on, but they are not unlimited.  Universal's express pass line is intended to be a true benefit meaning having an express pass should truly allow you to be on a ride a lot quicker than stand by line folks.  Universal controls those lines by knowing exactly how many guests have unlimited and limited express passes.  Based on capacity at their 3 deluxe resorts, they then offer the limited express pass for sale, but only a certain amount.  It is simply crowd and line control. Imagine if Cabana Bay was at full capacity with almost 6000 guests and how much more crowded that would make the express pass line.  The express line would be too congested and the benefits of having an express pass would be negated.  So that is what went into their decision.  And I get that now.

So I know some of you are thinking...then why would I stay there if I have to pay for an express pass?  Won't that make the cost more in line with one of their deluxe properties?  The answer is yes, yes it would.  So here is my suggestion when it comes to the decision to stay here or somewhere else:  If you are a huge fan of Harry Potter and that is where you plan to spend the majority of your time, then this resort is a great, more budget-friendly option.  Since the Forbidden Journey, Gringott's and Hogwarts Express are not even on the express pass system, you are not losing anything by staying here and not having the unlimited express pass.  You are gaining being much closer to the parks, being able to take advantage of a much more regular transport system, charging privileges at the parks and early entry.  

Why stay at an offsite resort when you can stay at Cabana Bay?  That is the ultimate question.  If you were staying offsite in order to save money, Cabana Bay should now be your resort of choice.  And if you schedule your trip during low crowd periods, you won't miss having the express pass that much.  I have visited both parks during low season and have seen stand by lines be as fast as the express pass lines.  


So the long and short of it is this...I LOVE Cabana Bay Beach Resort.  It had that "wow" factor for me.  I like the uniqueness of the theming.  I like the feel and look of everything.  I like how roomy all of the public areas are.  I suggest giving it a try.  If you are a huge fan of the Pop Century, you for sure need to visit Cabana Bay and see what I am talking about.   Have you already visited Cabana Bay?  If so, what was your overall experience like?