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 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 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 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?

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Luxury Destination Spotlight: Costa Rica

Again I feel it is my duty to get people to think outside the box when it comes to luxury travel destinations.  As I stated in my post related to Mexico, too many travelers only associate luxury travel with destinations such as Paris, Florence, Antigua, St Lucia etc.  As is the case with Mexico, seldom do you also hear travelers say the words luxury and Costa Rica in the same sentence.  Maybe that is because so many view Costa Rica only as a destination suited for the young, adventuresome traveler. While Costa Rica is haven for adventurists and naturists, it offers a plethora of options for the luxury-minded traveler as well.

First...let's clarify a few things about Costa Rica.  It is NOT an island.  It is adjacent to both the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean, but it is also bordered by land to the south and to the north.  It's citizens speak Spanish and their currency is the Colon which is named after Christopher Columbus. It is a democratically governed Country, NOT socialist.  And it has more teachers than it does police officers if that tells you anything about safety and crime rates.

As is the case with Mexico, Costa Rica is easily connected by numerous major airports here in the US.  Since it is located in the central time zone, travelers will not have to deal with major time change issues whether arriving from the east or the west.

So there is really nothing keeping travelers from visiting this incredible country except for the perception of what the destination has to offer.  So let's get to what it does offer besides zip-lining, river rafting, waterfall repelling etc.  Again, what does the luxury traveler want from a destination? They want comfort, unique experiences, ease of transportation, and excellent dining choices.  We know Costa Rica offers unique experiences in the way of eco-tour opportunities.  Rainforest canopy tours are numerous.  But there is more to see and do.  Costa Rican art is unique and beautiful and can be explored in the historic capital city of San Jose.  Some of my favorite coffee comes from rich soil of Costa Rica.  So for you coffee connoisseurs, how about a tour of an actual coffee bean farm in Monteverde?  Or if pampering is what you want, Costa Rica has some of the best spa resorts in all of the world.  

But let's get down to the resorts themselves.  This is where Costa Rica truly shines as a luxury destination.  Not only can you experience unique activities away from the resort, but your resort can be a unique experience coupled with the pampering and service you would expect at a 5 star property.

For example...where else in the world can you reserve a private villa at a resort that is only accessible by raft?  Or a resort where you zip-line to your room or dinner spot? That is what the Pacuare Lodge offers.

I mentioned pampering so picture yourself soothing the cares of life away in one of the hot springs located at the Tabacon Grand Spa Resort.

Want more privacy?  Treat yourself to a private villa up in the beautiful cloud forest at El Silencio Lodge and Spa.

All three of these resorts highlight a unique experience while not compromising at all in the area of luxury.  They show the diversity of Costa Rica.  So are you tired of only hearing about the same ole same ole when someone talks about luxury travel?  Want a destination that is a bit "off-grid" without having to sacrifice comforts that you still want on a vacation?  Think Costa Rica...

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Disney's Villainous Halloween Party Tactic

For those that lose site of the fact that Disney is a corporation with shareholders that needs to make as much money for their shareholders as possible, I hope this post will awaken you to that fact.

Disney today is not the Disney that Walt dreamed of and created and nurtured.  In fact...most of Walt's family is long gone and has little to do with anything going on within the Disney corporation.  I think we all thought that Walt's vision would forever be passed down from generation to generation regardless of being an employed blood relative or not.  That was our hope anyways.  But recent moves by Disney have constantly shown that Disney is a BIG business...a VERY BIG business and their first responsibility is to their shareholders, like any corporation.

Many of us have watched the "magic" seem to dwindle more and more each year that passes.  New cast members come onboard and it seems that the magic is slowly but surely seeping out of some of the corporate cracks.  You can now occasionally run into some cast members who just don't seem that happy which carries over into the guests, whether at one of the parks or at one of their resorts.  Some bus drivers smile less and on occasion get snarky in public.  Some problems are now being met with, "I am sorry there is nothing we can do," when there was plenty that could have been done.  If you are a first time visitor within the past 2 years or so, you may not notice as much, but for those who have been patrons for years, those are the ones that can attest to the slow and subtle changes that are zapping some of the "happy" away from what used to be hands down, "The Happiest Place on Earth."

But that is not what I am meaning to address in this post.  To me, the magical leakage is a result of a corporation slowly moving all of its focus to the dollar and away from the customer.  This week's announcement of Disney's new "ticket within a ticket" plan for an event within Mickey's Not So Scary Halloween Party" has made me somewhat disgusted at their attempt to earn more and more and take more and more away from the families that have to sometimes save for years before they can let their children experience Walt's vision.  For those that may not know what I am referring to...Disney has this special party every fall that runs for a few weeks and we refer to it as MNSSHP for short.  You pay for an extra ticket to attend this party.  On certain nights during the week, Disney closes the Magic Kingdom early for the MNSSHP event.  Those who have paid extra for the ticket get to stay for the event.  Those with just regular park tickets have to leave usually around 7pm.  Those tickets can cost a family of 4 an extra @$250.  That is in addition to the tickets they have already purchased to visit the 4 main parks that make up Walt Disney World.  The event has a special parade, an awesome fireworks show, some additional dancing and singing shows during the night and trick or treating opportunities for everyone.  It is a party I have attended and have recommended to my clients because it is a lot of fun.

Well Disney announced this week that they are going to offer another special ticket for those already attending the MNSSHP where guests can attend a special "villain event."  For those that want to be a part of this special event, you are going to have to fork over an additional $99 per person.  That's additional $99 per.  HELLO!!  Tap tap tap, is this thing on??  Did you get that?  So the party that already is not cheap to attend is going to try to milk another $400 out of a family of 4 so they can do the following:

"Set within the majestic halls of Cinderella’s Royal Table, this special ticketed event allows guests to meet a menagerie of malevolent special guests while they indulge in decadent desserts and specialty non-alcoholic beverages. Guests also will receive preferred viewing for the 8:15 p.m. performance of Mickey’s “Boo-to-You” Halloween Parade, as well as preferred viewing for the Happy HalloWishes Fireworks Spectacular."

So you are really paying $100 per person ($99 to be exact) extra to be inside of Cinderella's castle, snack on some goodies and meet some special villains.  You can see the fireworks and parade without any special seating needed.  So the goodies better have come straight from a 5-star restaurant for me to want to pay that much for characters and snacks.  For the love of Pete...a full meal inside the castle will cost you the same or less depending on the time of year.  So this party plus the event is going to end up costing a family of 4 @$650 by the time it is all said and done.  $650!!  A blogger I follow (Theme Park Insider) asked the question, "Does this sound like a good value to get a better experience at Disney, or does this sound like a plan that only a villain could love?"  My is simply villainous.

Disney...I hope you wake up soon before too much of the pixie dust escapes and you find yourselves on the list of "what used to be one of the happiest places on earth."  You keep raising prices.  You keep adding events that cost more money.  You keep increasing your more aggressive marketing and sales tactics.  You are a large corporation..we get that.  But I hope your "boardship" will stop and remember why these parks were created and the vision behind it all when the first piece of ground was broke.  When will you remember these simple words...

I only hope that we don't lose sight of one thing - that it was all started by a mouse.
-Walt Disney

Friday, August 15, 2014

Mexico...A Luxury Traveler's Haven

Too many people do not associate Mexico with luxury and that is a crying shame.   Mexico yells "luxury!!" but it seems not everyone is hearing or is willing to listen.  I know, when someone says they want to take a luxury trip somewhere, they usually think of places like the Mediterranean coasts of Italy or France or cities such as Venice or Paris.  Others that have more tropical destinations in mind usually equate luxury to St Lucia or Anguilla or some of the BVI's.  But few seem to say the words Mexico and luxury in the same sentence.  Well I am here to try to change that.

I have taken land-based vacations to Cancun, Puerto Vallarta and Los Cabos and each of these cities & areas  have 5 star, luxurious options for those who want to be pampered like a dignitary and surrounded by the best of everything.   For example...Cancun has the beautiful Banyan Tree Mayakoba or the Fairmont Mayakoba.  Both are 5 diamond properties and offer the best in luxury accommodations and experience.  They are easily accessible from Cancun's international airport and you can be whisked to your resort in the finest of SUV's or private sedans.

Same goes for Puerto Vallarta.  You don't have to skimp on service or luxury when you stay at the 5 diamond Grand Velas Riviera Nayarit or the St Regis Punta Mita.   This was the original destination of the rich and famous and was quickly named Mexico's Riviera which competed with any of Europe's top high-end destinations.

And you can't go to Cabo without acknowledging that this is the new hot destination for the luxury-minded traveler.   The luxury choices seem endless.  You can opt for the One and Only Palmilla or the Capella Pedragal or Secrets Marquis or Secrets Puerto Los Cabos Golf and Spa Resort.  All say "luxury" loud and clear.

Here is what all 3 destinations have in common and offer the luxury traveler:

1) Unique experiences.  Every discerning traveler wants something unique.  They want a special occasion option or an experience you can't get at every mass-traveled destination.  Mexico offers that in general, but especially in the 3 areas I am mentioning.  Maybe it is swimming with whale sharks or sipping a morning cup of coffee while watching whales breach the waters of the Sea of Cortez or seeing world-renowned art after dining at one of the world's best restaurants.  Or maybe it is taking in some of Mexico's UNESCO World Heritage sites (over 30 to choose from).  This is what Mexico can offer.

2) Easy Access.  All 3 areas have easily accessible airports from most major hubs in the US.  But what stands out to me is how close everything is to the airport.  There is no traffic to sit in (i.e. London, Paris etc) once you land.  The furthest you will travel to get to the resorts I have mentioned is 45 mins or less once you are in your private car.  Your private driver can give you a great run down on what to do, where to eat etc during the short transfer to your resort.

3)  Safety.  Contrary to what the news tries to tell you.  Mexico is a generally safe country. They have their bad areas just like we do here in the US.  We just like to talk about everyone else more than looking in the mirror.  All 3 areas offer a safe environment for the luxury traveler.  That does not mean someone should let their guard down just like someone should always be vigilant even while dining off of Rodeo Drive.  But the areas themselves are geographically removed from the more dangerous areas featured in the news.

4) Appeal to every generation.  Whether you are a generation Y luxury traveler or a baby boomer who likes the finer things of life, all 3 areas offer a bit of everything.  Want to learn about the ecosystem of the desert that sits between the Sea of Cortez and the Pacific Ocean and then ride a camel along the shore of the Pacific?  You can do that in Cabo.  Or maybe you want to sit in the quiet ambience of a small, chic restaurant and sip the finest of tequila.  You can do that too.  Or maybe you want to kayak out into the Sea or Cortez and get up close to a migrating humpback whale.  Or you want to try diving off into one of the many Cenotes near Cancun.  Or sit and enjoy a fine bottle of wine from your private balcony while watching the sunset in Puerto Vallarta or take a horse back ride into the lush mountains just outside the city. There is something for everyone and all can be done as a private or shared experience.

5) Privacy.  The luxury and discerning traveler sometimes needs a respite from their daily routine and people in general.  These destinations and their luxury accommodations offer that retreat.  From the luxury private pool villas at Banyan Tree to the Villa Cortez at the One and Only Palmilla.

So please not overlook Mexico when it comes to a luxury getaway.  It is my favorite destination and my wish is everyone would at least appreciate Mexico for its people, its beauty, its culture and rich history and yes...even its luxurious offerings.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Millennial Travel

It seems as though everyone has something to say about millennials these days. Despite growing up in one of the toughest recessions, this disillusioned generation remains optimistic and is hungry for adventure and new experiences. I recently attended a major travel industry show in Las Vegas and millennial travel was a major topic of discussion.

Accordingto the Boston Consulting Group, the millennial generation, defined as those between the ages of 16 and 34, is more interested than older generations in traveling abroad as much as possible—by a 23-percentage-point margin. And although millennials are not yet the core travel customers of airlines and hotels, they will be in 5-10 years, when they enter their peak earning, spending, and traveling years. So what’s important to millennials when it comes to traveling? Let’s take a look and see how this intrepid generation is changing the way we look at travel.

-     Why Wait? – Rather than wait for the golden years of retirement like their parents, this generation wants to see the world and they want to see it now. While millennials appreciate the importance of work, they also desire more of a work/life balance than previous generations. They want the flexibility and the opportunity to travel the world now and experience new adventures while they are young.

-     Quick Communication – It’s not a surprise that millennials prefer fast and easy communication. This tech-savvy, on-demand generation prefers text messaging as the #1 method of communication followed by email. As a travel agent I am aware of the unique needs and preferences of all of my clients and make sure you get the information you need as quickly and effortlessly as possible.

-     Beyond the Beach TheWorld Youth Student and Educational (WYSE) Travel Confederation, found that young travelers are not as interested in “the traditional sun, sea and sand holidays” as previous generations are. Instead they are more interested in exploring remote destinations, backpacking, and extended trips that allow them to visit multiple locations and countries. By working with a travel agent like myself, I can connect you to some of the most remote, unique places around the world and create a custom itinerary that will not only save you time, but create one of a kind of experiences that you simply can’t book on a travel website.

-     The Real Deal – Simply put, millennials don’t want a “cookie cutter” vacation. They want to experience something unique and meaningful, to see and do what the locals do, and create memories that will last a lifetime. This is one of the main reasons millennials can benefit from working with a real, flesh and blood travel agent. I do not plan one size fits all vacations. I scope out travel trends, pinpoint the best locations, and orchestrate every detail for my clients to save them time and money. Top priority for me is researching where the locals eat, shop, play, and stay-cation, so I can pass this information on to my clients. From reservations, to accommodations, to private excursions, I tailor each trip to ensure the most incredible travel experience possible at the best price.

Ready to flood your friends' feeds with pictures of your own amazing getaway? Contact me today and let’s plan the trip of a lifetime. Adventure is calling. Why wait?

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Vegas...Where to Begin?

Confession...I just got back from Vegas and yes, for the very first time.  I know I know, a travel professional who had never been to Vegas.  I know it somehow breaks the "pirates code" so to speak, but I had just never thought of Vegas as my vacation destination of choice.

So let me clarify, this was actually not a vacation in Vegas.  I was attending a very large travel conference and frankly didn't get to do as much as I would have liked, but I feel like I was able to get the flavor of Vegas regardless.  You be the judge.

So where does someone begin when they try to describe Vegas to someone else who has never been? I feel a need to prepare someone for what they WILL see.  Vegas is not a destination for everyone and that is mainly due to things you see in Vegas that you just can't insulate yourself from unless you become a hotel-room-hermit.  By the time the strip wakes up around 10am, you will get an eye full of not-so-fully-clothed women and men who are lined up the street for photo-ops.  I mean, how is any trip to Vegas complete until you pay a thong & bra wearing woman $5 for being in YOUR picture? And this is not including the mobile "private dancer" ads that parade up and down the strip all day long or the variety of sunning/bathing attire at any of the hotel pools.  So would I send a church group with small kids to Vegas for a week of fun?  Uh, no.

Best way to describe Vegas is a mix of NYC, the Big Easy, Hollywood and toss a little Nashville in for good measure.  Lots of people until the wee hours of the night.  Lots of adult beverages being consumed as folks are walking up and down the strip.  Lots of energy and lights and honestly...a lot of excitement.

That is what makes Vegas, Vegas.  There is no place like it on earth.  Where else can you eat at 5-star dining venues, sleep in rooms that are more electronically sophisticated than all of Best Buy, enjoy a host of thrill rides (yes, roller coasters and such), see some of the best choreographed shows in the world (inside and outside of the hotels), dance in high-end, high-energy nightclubs until dawn, shop at some of the worlds' most high-end stores, tour casinos that rival any theming at some major theme parks and, to top it off, gamble 24hrs, 7 days a week?  Nowhere! That is what makes Vegas so different and so special for so many people.  It is a place that is very hard to describe to someone who has never been there, even though I am trying with this post.

Let me touch on the hotel and casinos I visited.  I stayed at Treasure Island.  Would I stay there again?  Most likely not.  It is nice or at least you think it is nice until you venture into Aria or the Venetian and then you wonder, "why am I at TI again?"  Oh yea, because it is cheaper than those.  The hotel lacked some of the nicer things you find at nicer hotels such as bell staff to take your luggage to the room, digital thermostats in the room or in fact, digital anything.  So I spent little time at TI and frankly more time looking at the other resorts on the strip.  You can sense that TI is for those who don't want to remember much the next day.  I say that only because of the amount of store-bought liquor I saw being carted into the hotel by a large amount of guests.  The room was very nice but the noise between rooms could be heard fairly easily.  So next time, the Venetian it is for me or maybe Aria.  I am judging those by the apparent differences you see as soon as you walk into the check in area of their hotels. Not to mention their food and beverage venue choices compared to TI.  You can tell how much I liked those casinos more simply by the amount of pictures I took inside of those compared to those I took at TI.  The conference was at Caesars and frankly didn't see much of it other than some of the food areas, the casino itself and the pool.  But holy cow, the pool was worth seeing.  I would stay at Caesars just to use their pool.

So to wrap up this simple summary of my first time in Vegas.  Vegas is not for everyone. But for those who want a trip like no other and want to have a vacation where you leave it all at your destination...Vegas is the place!  But always remember...what happens in Vegas...stays in Vegas (as even the sign in the airport reminds you as you head to your departing gate).   Maybe that is why this is such a short review. Not much I can tell...

Vegas 2014 from Oeshpdog2 on Vimeo.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Price vs Value: When Cheap Is Not Always The Best Value

When consulting with clients about their upcoming vacation, I usually ask the all-important question...what is your budget for the trip?  Quite often I get the reply, "We want it as cheap as possible."

But do you really want the cheapest vacation possible?  What if the cheapest price consisted of the smallest room at the resort in the furthest spot possible away from the pool, restaurants and beach and adjacent to the employee entrance and trash dumpster?  What if the cheapest price possible meant that you flew on a flight that left your home airport at 5:30am, connected through 2 different airports, had 2+ hour layovers at each airport and did not arrive at your destination's airport until 8pm that night?  And coupled with that, what if the cheapest price then included a shared transfer that stopped at 3 different resorts before finally stopping at yours...1 hour later?

Does that "cheap" price sound like a bargain now?  This is why value has to trump "cheap" price.  So many of us pay $3 or more for a java-house coffee than what we would pay for making a cup of Folgers at home because we put value over price (better experience over the cheapest).  But when it comes to the life-long memories we will make on a vacation, so many think "must go cheap."

So let me lay out what might be a better value and experience over the one I just painted earlier.  Now you leave your home airport around 7am, you connect one time with a 1 hour layover and arrive at your destination's airport @12:00pm.  Your travel consultant has arranged private transfers for you.  You get through customs and you are greeted by a person who is now your personal concierge for the drive from the airport to the resort.  He or she chats with you on your drive about the things to see and do and you and your traveling companions are the only ones in the vehicle and the only stop is your resort.  You arrive at your resort and are checked in by 1:00pm.  You are escorted to your junior suite overlooking the blue waters of the Caribbean.  You change and are at the pool sipping your first umbrella drink by 1:30pm.

Now, scenario number 2 is not the cheapest option for that trip.  But which one has better value and will offer a better overall experience?  Imagine you paying for scenario number 2 and you sit at the pool (the next day) by someone who has paid for scenario number 1.  You both left the same hometown airport, you are at the same exact resort.  But the person who paid the cheapest is telling you that he paid $200 less than you did.  If you didn't know the details of their package, you might think, "Hey, that is not fair. I paid too much."  But if the scenario number 1 person was honest and told you about their long layovers and that their luggage got misplaced between connection 1 and 2 and they missed out on dinner because they arrived too late and you can smell trash every time they open their room door, would you feel like you then paid too much?

Should "cheap" always be the driving factor?  I say no.  But here is what you can do to help your own personal travel consultant; come up with a budget that you would be comfortable spending for your vacation.  Let your travel consultant know that upfront.  He or she has knowledge of what a good vacation will cost for a variety of destinations.  And if your consultant says, "It will be difficult to put together a GOOD package to that destination for those number of nights for that budget," listen to him or her.  Make adjustments necessary such as cut back the number of nights or possibly think of an alternative destination, or possibly look at a different budget etc.  But whatever you do, don't run out to the internet and think your "cheap" vacation you just found is apples to apples to what your consultant was trying to advise you about.  That cheap vacation may be just

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Top 10 Reasons to Use a Traditional Travel Agent

Have you recently found yourself uttering the words “I need a vacation”? Well, you’re not alone. According to a new survey only 25 percent of employees with paid time off took all of their vacation days last year, and 15 percent took no vacation whatsoever! What’s even worse? Almost half of the people surveyed who went on vacation, ended up working at some point during their trip. I think the message is loud and clear – it’s time for American’s to take a break and enjoy their vacation for what it’s meant to be, an escape from the stress and strains of our everyday lives.

I often get asked the question, “Why should I use a travel agent when I can book trips myself online?”

While it may appear the easiest way to book a vacation, you may want to consider your options before planning your next trip. Below I have listed the Top 10 Reasons you should move from an online travel agency such as Expedia or Orbits, to a Traditional Travel Agent (i.e. a real person with real experience). Here we go:

  1. We offer expert guidance - we know how to sort through the myriad of travel information
  2. We are internet interpreters - we understand travel codes and jargon
  3. We save time – saving you countless hours of research
  4. We offer convenience - we provide a one stop shop for all aspects of a vacation
  5. We offer a great value - we have access to information where we can find the best products at the very best value
  6. We offer added value - we can offer guidance to the best restaurants, excursions, etc.
  7. We offer personalized service - every client is different and we can adjust things to make sure we find what the client values
  8. We offer unbiased advice - we work for the client, not the suppliers
  9. We offer customer advocacy - we act on behalf of the client when things are not going right
  10. We offer professionalism - we are experts in our field and trained in our industry

And as if those aren’t enough reasons to consider making the switch, one of the best parts about letting a travel agent like myself plan your next vacation is that it’s absolutely NO COST to you! If you’ve never worked with a traditional travel agent before, I urge you to give it a try. I have a feeling you might be pleasantly surprised.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

The Brilliance of the Seas Review 2014

My wife and I returned recently from our February 10th, 5 night western caribbean cruise out of Tampa aboard the Brilliance and I wanted to give you a brief summary of our experience and explain why we love this class of ship.  The Brilliance is a part of Royal Caribbean's Radiance class of ships.  Back in the day, the Radiance class would have been considered a very large ship (weighing in at  90,000 tons), but compared to today's mega ships, the Radiance-class will look and feel more like a midsize vessel.  This was our second cruise aboard this class of ship.  Our very first cruise ever was aboard the Radiance of the Seas so this cruise held a lot of nostalgia for us.  While so much was still the same, RCCL has added some great features due to the huge refurbishment in May of last year (2013).

It is an easy ship to get from point A to point B which cannot be said of some ship designs and sizes.
The decor is still what I call modern, but elegant which is why I think Royal Caribbean as a whole appeals to a broader clientele.  They tend to not be as flashy (Vegas-like) as Carnival, but also not as dark and stately as Holland America.  But back to the Brilliance.  The additions of Vintages to the Centrum was a nice addition.  I loved the decor.  For wine-enthusiasts, this will be your favorite hangout on the ship.  The new restaurant called Izumi was also a new-addition home run.  I was a bit disappointed in the location of the "library" because it is not really a library anymore; it is more like a area used for photos that happens to have some shelves of books back behind it.  But that was really the only change that I saw that I was not fond of compared to the way it was pre-refurbishment.   I will post a link to the pictures so you can see the decor yourself and I won't have to blather on and bore you with details.

Let's get to the important things that most want to know about in a review:

1) Pre-cruise stay.  We drove to Tampa since we are only about 12 hours away.  It is hard to justify flights these days when you look at the overall cost compared to driving.  We enjoy our leisurely drives to various places in Florida.  So we arrived actually two days early because we were staying at the Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel and Spa.  We really wanted two days at this awesome hotel.  It is located just steps away from the pier.  By steps I mean it is walkable.  Our room was a standard room but had a great view of the city and was plenty big and comfortable.  There is a Starbucks on the first floor that offers free wifi in its seating area which beats the expensive wifi offered in the rooms.  The best thing about this hotel is its location.  You can arrive, park your car and not have to drive to any shopping or eateries before you head out on your cruise.  I particularly loved waking up early the morning of our cruise and standing by the waters edge as I watched our ship return back to port.  For sports fans, the hotel is across the street from the home of the NHL's Tampa Bay Lightning.  One of the hotel's staff members let us know that one of the stars of that team uses their hotel for his pre-game nap which we thought was quite funny.

2) Embarkation.  I had heard mixed reviews of Tampa's port.  Most of the negativity was directed at disembarkation, which I will get to in a minute.  But as far as embarkation is concerned, we left our hotel around 10:30am, drove the whopping 5 mins from the hotel to the pier and opted for the valet parking service.  For about $20 extra, you drive up, give your bags to the porter and watch your car get whisked to the lot that is right there next to the terminal.  I am all about convenience and I highly recommend their valet service.  You pre-pay for the valet parking right at the bottom of the escalator that takes you up to the check in area.  It took no more than 5 mins to pre-pay and and no more than another 10 mins to get through security and checked in.  We waited another 10 mins or so for our boarding group to get called and we were on the ship by 11:00am.  30 mins from the time we left our hotel until the time we were looking at the decor of the ship...not bad at all.

3) Stateroom. We were in a Category D2 which is the deluxe ocean stateroom with balcony.  One of the highlights, other than the balcony, was the abundance of storage.  We could not fill up all of the storage areas in our room.  The stateroom was spacious and very comfortable.  We were on deck 9 in #9614.  Not too far from the stairs and only 2 decks away from the pool deck and the Windjammer which is the main buffet eating area on the ship.

4) Food and Dining.  Seems like the food is becoming more and more bland in the main dining
rooms and the buffets these days.  We just found the food to be OK.  Breakfast was...OK.  Dinner in the main dining room was...Ok.  The highlight as far as the mass-produced food goes continues to be Royal Caribbean's french fries.  They are awesome!  And if you have had them, you know what I mean.  Our best meal by far was in the new Izumi Restaurant which is near the back of the ship in the area that used to be the Seaview Cafe.  It is a made-to-order Japanese/Asian restaurant and it was excellent.  We did not make any advance dining reservations before we boarded and we were able to call the day we wanted to try it and we got right in.  Great new addition and I highly recommend it. And for the first time, we tried the "My Time" dining option for the main dining room.  Unlike NCL's "Freestyle" dining, RCCL's version is a little more structured, or at least it can be.  With "My Time," you can still pre-select a set dining time for each night of your cruise.  You can select the same time for each night or mix it up a little.  Or you can simply opt to show up at the "My Time" level of the main dining room and wait for the first available seating.  We opted for 6:30pm every night.  We had the same table every night and the same waitstaff, but we had different table mates every night.  Nice option and we may opt for that again on a future cruise.

5) Entertainment.  The comedian was great.  The juggler/comedian was great.  The guest singer was great.  But some of the other musical groups throughout the ship left something to be desired.  If it had not been for the main performances in the main theater, we might have felt a bit bored at night after dinner.  RCCL has added some new acrobatic shows in the Centrum and they were OK, but you need to get to the Centrum early if you wanted to be able to get near the railing so you could have a good view of what was going on.   Our cruise director was good, but not the best compared to our other cruises.

6) Ports of Call.  Since this was only a 5 night cruise, we had two ports of call; Grand Cayman and Cozumel.  This was our 3rd visit to each of these ports.  We hired a taxi driver in Cozumel and negotiated a private tour of the island.  For $35 per person, we had an entire van to ourselves and a nice tour of the entire island including at least 4 stops at various areas of the beach so we could get out, take some pics, get a beverage, shop etc.  It was a great way to see so much of beautiful Cozumel.  One of the stops was at the new area call Paradise Beach which is an area really built for the day tourist.  You pay a one time fee and you are given access to a nice pool and also a great stretch of beach including lounge chairs and hammocks.  Food and beverages can be purchased at an additional cost.  While in Grand Cayman...we opted again to do some shopping and enjoy a day at leisure.  We did happen across a great Thai restaurant for lunch which happens to offer free wifi if you are a patron.  It appeared to be a popular spot for cruise line employees to eat and chat with their family back at home.  We also had to stop in at Breezes and enjoy a cool beverage on their open air balcony before heading back to the ship.

7) Disembarkation. is where some of the negative reviews about Tampa's port were correct.  This has nothing to do with Royal Caribbean.  Royal Caribbean is at the mercy of the customs department when it comes to how quick guests can actually get off the ship.  The customs area at the pier is chaotic at best.  They just don't seem to know how to organize everyone.  The Getting off and getting your luggage is the easy part.  But then the line to get through customs just seemed to be a mess as if no one seems to know what to do.  Employees were trying to get people to follow a certain line path, but nothing was marked very well and the lines were backing up fast.  So here is a very important tip; when it is your time to disembark, grab a porter as soon as you get into the baggage claim area.  Porters are allowed to escort you to the front in a different line and you can be out of there in no time at all.  That is what we did and it took no time at all and we were off the ship and in our car in about 15 mins.   And this is where having your car valeted helps. We walked out, handed our claim slip to an attendant and our car was quickly brought to us curbside.

Regardless of what some might consider negative comments, the cruise was awesome.  Can't say enough about the beauty of the ship.  Our stateroom was kept spotless and our attendant was there if we needed him.  Our service staff in the dining room was wonderful.  Everyone we came in contact with on the ship was friendly and helpful.  The public areas, including the restrooms (keep in mind that this cruise was shortly after the big moro-virus news aboard another RCCL cruise), were spotless.  The weather was ideal...lots of sun and warmth.  The Brilliance is, well, Brilliant.

If you have any specific questions about any part of the cruise or the ship that I did not address, please leave a comment and I will make sure I respond.

For more photos of the can click on these links:

Brilliance of the Seas Part 1
Brilliance of the Seas Part 2

Caribbean Cruise 2014 from Oeshpdog2 on Vimeo.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Top Trending Destinations in 2014

Are you tired of visiting the same ole' destinations? It may be time to switch things up and add a little adventure to your life. According to a recent article from Travel Agent Magazine, here are the top trending destinations to visit in 2014:

Douro River Valley, Portugal
Vineyards, castles, and monasteries -- oh my! Port wine gets its name from this locale and you can find world-renowned wines here. There are also plenty of historical sites to see. Cruise the river, experience the riverfront, or choose a stay with seaside terraces for breathtaking views.

Black Sea Region
This coastal region includes parts of Turkey, Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria, Georgia, and Russia. Whether you choose to cruise the Black Sea and its 17 ports along the coast, or take it in from your hotel's rooftop bar, you are sure to enjoy its beauty.

Puebla, Mexico
This is the place to visit if you are looking to break out of the "party" atmosphere that dominates many tourist spots in Mexico. With live bullfights, an outdoor market along colonial stone streets, an active volcano, and rich art in the form of murals and architecture, you'll definitely want to spend an extended vacation here.

Nicaragua, Central America
With 37 miles of beaches and perfect waves, it's no mystery why this spot is so popular with surfers! Whether you choose a private beach villa or an exclusive resort, you're sure to enjoy a "carefree luxury" stay.

At the northern border of Thailand, you'll find high-end boutique hotels and cultural landmarks. This spot has been steadily gaining popularity with American travelers since its political climate has become more favorable.

Projected by travel experts to be one of the world's leading tourist destinations by 2021, this international Riviera is located off the southern coast of China. The city of Sanya features ultra-high-end hotels and resorts, including future plans for an Atlantis resort.

Take a safari in the Serengeti! See zebras and wildebeests in their natural habitat during the day and return to your luxury hotel at night. Or, take a walk on the really wild side -- there is a tented camp located in the Serengeti National Park.

St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands
White sand and blue water made this the perfect location for The Bachelor in 2013. You can take a diving expedition to explore reefs, wrecks, or one of only three underwater museums in the U.S. Or, if you prefer, experience championship golf. This island features 18th century architecture and botanical gardens, as well as the Cruzan Rum Distillery.

Samana, Dominican Republic
Great news for travelers who hate layovers -- you can take a direct flight to Samana. Resorts feature access to beachfront, a lagoon created by a fresh water spring that runs down from the mountains to the ocean, as well as exclusive swimming pools, a spa, restaurants and bars, water sports, a playground for the kids, horseback riding, tennis courts, and bike trails. The family won't want to leave, even if it is a nonstop flight.

The setting for 2012's The Bachelorette, this Dutch-European cultured Caribbean island is located 40 miles off the coast of Venezuela. It belongs on your list because of its "sophistication, ecotourism and pristine diving conditions."

Are you ready to have an adventure this year and visit one of these incredible destinations? I would love to help you plan the trip of a lifetime! For more information about any of these locations feel free to send me an email at