Breaking Down Our Madeira Beach Vacation

A couple of weeks ago, I was enjoying life a little bit more.  As they say, life is always better at the beach!  We took a family trip down to Florida.  Here are some things I thought I’d share about our Madeira Beach vacation.

Familiarity Helps

We rented a condo that worked out great for us.  What really helped is that we’ve stayed in this condo complex before.  Back in 2010 we took a trip, also with my in-laws and stayed in a different unit.  On top of that, this area was where my wife and her family vacationed when she was a girl.  So, knowing so much about the area in general was a big help too.  Familiarity definitely helped improve our Madeira Beach vacation.

We Saved On Travel But Added Stress

Originally we were planning to drive, but ended up flying.  However, since all public schools in Michigan are off at the same time, the airlines all jacked up their prices flying out of Detroit.  We found some great fares out of Columbus, Ohio, which was about a four hour drive.  Saving money was great, but the added stress of driving kept me on edge.  After all, it would only take one accident along the way to take away our cushion.  Luckily, we were fine, but I was nervous.

Walking Distance

Because of our familiarity with the area, we knew that we could survive without a car.  And we did just fine!  We

Madeira Beach Vacation 2017

ended up taking Uber rides wherever we needed to go. All told, our Uber rides added up to about $125 plus tips, which was a significant saving over renting a car to drive while there.

Pool And The Ocean Added Up To Fun

We had warm, sunny weather for most of the trip, which was great.  However, a good portion of our trip was very windy.  This made being near the water very difficult with blowing sand.  But, having a pool right there definitely kept us exactly where we needed to be.  Having both options was great.

Renting A Condo Was Great

We had a really great condo that we found.  It was two bedrooms.  Each bedroom had a TV.  Having a TV in the kids room was great because they could have some down time after coming back tired from being at the water.  It was also fully furnished and had lots of supplies needed for the pool and water.

Supplies When Renting A Condo

The condo had just about everything we needed, but we ended up forgetting a few things on our shopping trip.  Paper plates, napkins, and salt and pepper were all things we would have liked but didn’t think of.  There was nothing we didn’t have but lots of things we would have loved to have had.  We made a list!

Eating In And Eating Out

We ate at a lot of different restaurants, but also made quite a few meals in.  This mix kept our costs down a bit, and made a good mix of ‘on the go’ versus enjoying the moments.  We ate all of our breakfasts in, and then would generally have lunch or dinner out.  It still wasn’t exactly cheap but it kept things in check.

We Loved Our Madeira Beach Vacation

If you can’t tell we loved our vacation.  All of us came back tan.  We all came back tired. Our son came back with a sore ear from all the swimming.  All told, those are all signs that we had lots and lots of fun.  And we did.  So much so that we already put a deposit on the same unit for next year! And did I mention that repeat visitors get a 10% discount?  Woo-hoo!

Readers, do you have any great family spring break stories?  Please let me know what you did in the comments below.  Thanks so much for reading!

Copyright 2017 Original content authorized only to appear on Money Beagle. Please subscribe via RSS, follow me on Twitter, Facebook, or receive e-mail updates. Thank you for reading.

March 2017 Updates

It’s March!  Did you know that even though Spring doesn’t officially start until later this month, that from a meteorological standpoint, spring has started?  That’s right, from a meteorological perspective, the seasons start on the 1st of the month of the calendar change.  I guess they know something we don’t!  I hope that things are going well.  Here are some March 2017 updates and goals.

Fitness

I recently wrote about some renewed focus on my fitness.  So far this is going well!

  • As of the end of February, I’ve dropped 5.8 pounds.  I’ve also dropped my body fat percentage from 21.0% to 19.0%.  These are both since the beginning of the year.  Both of these numbers make me happy.
  • I’m getting to the gym around 4 times per week.
  • I’m mostly running and walking.
  • I haven’t got as much weight lifting done as I’d hoped.  I had hernia surgeries years back, and the weight lifting has caused some minor pain in the area.  I got things checked during a recent visit, and I haven’t done any damage.  Most likely it’s pulling on the scar tissue.  The doctor recommended that I skip the weights until I’m pain free, then see if I can narrow it down to figure out what’s causing the pain.  If that works, I can eventually cut out just the portion of my workout that’s causing the stress.

Taxes

  • We got our taxes submitted to our CPA, and it was done in record time.  That was the good news.  The bad news is that the refunds were a few hundred dollars less than I’d hoped.  Oh, well!
  • We already got our refunds!
  • The refunds came so quick that we didn’t even have a chance to allocate the money, so we’ll have to do that.

Florida Trip

Our spring break trip is just around the corner!

  • Both of the big bills for our upcoming spring break trip have been paid: Renting our condo and our flights.
  • Our biggest to-do (except for packing) is to plan our trip back and forth to the airport.  We’re actually driving about 3.5 hours to an airport in Ohio.  The flights were about 50% cheaper versus flying from Detroit.
  • We won’t have a car while we’re down in Florida.  We can Uber to and from the airport.  There’s a trolley line that runs from our hotel to nearby grocery stores (we also plan to use Amazon Prime Pantry).  All of the restaurants and beaches we plan to visit are within walking distance.

Other March 2017 Updates

  • Lawn – I’ll be working in the backyard.  Since we had some tree stumps removed, I’ll have to dig out the shavings, fill in with top soil and put some seed down.  We have a number of other spots throughout our yard that could use some fill in, so I’m debating just getting a load of top soil delivered.
  • Fridge – Our basement fridge is one that we borrowed many years back.  It’s a mini-fridge (bigger than a box fridge) but has worked well.  We knew that the owner might want it back, and it’s been our plan to move the old, ugly white fridge in the kitchen to the basement and get a new kitchen fridge.  Well, our ticket was finally called.  Unfortunately, it was about two weeks past President’s Day, which is when you can get some good sales.  So, while we’re not going to rush to buy a new fridge and overpay, we may be down to a single fridge for awhile until we find a deal.  As we’re often at capacity with our current two fridges, this could be troublesome.

Readers, how are things going for you this March?  

Copyright 2017 Original content authorized only to appear on Money Beagle. Please subscribe via RSS, follow me on Twitter, Facebook, or receive e-mail updates. Thank you for reading.

Planning Our Spring Break Trip To Madeira Beach, FL

Our last big family trip was to Disney World in November 2015.  It was great and we had a great time.  As soon as we were done, we started thinking about our next trip.  We didn’t want to do anything as big as Disney, but we wanted to do another trip to Florida.  This time we were thinking Spring Break.  In order to give ourselves time to catch up financially, we targeted the spring of 2017 for our trip.

Well, spring break is almost here, and we’ve gone ahead and planned most of our trip.  Here are some of the details.

Picking Our Spring Break Destination

We knew that we wanted to do a beach trip.  Our family loves camping in the summer and most of our trips seem to be centered around the beach.  We both have had various trips in the past to Florida, so we initially looked at two locations.

  • Panama City Beach. I did a six month assignment in 2005 down in Panama City.  During this time, I fell in love with the beaches and knew that a vacation there would be awesome.  I had a good feel for many of the areas and was able to get a good start on looking for places.
  • Tampa Bay area (Maderia Beach, to be exact).  When my wife was younger, they did family beaches to this area.  We actually went a few years back with my in-laws.  My son was only a baby and my daughter hadn’t
    Image from MorgueFiles courtesy of Lash.

    even been born yet.  Still, with us having been down (my wife many times), we again knew the ins and out.

We actually started planning last fall and the price comparisons weren’t even close.  Since we were limited to the week that the kids are off for spring break, we knew we’d be hitting peak times.  The pricing for comparable units (we planned on renting a condo) was about 30% different.

So, Madeira Beach it was!

Lodging

Our lodging was the first thing we addressed.  We knew that things would be pretty full with us competing with peak spring break times. There were a few different options along the beach and near a popular boardwalk and started contacting owners or managers.  We ended up finding a unit in the same building where we took our last trip.  The pricing was pretty high, but we knew that it would be going in.

We put a deposit down and were able to cross a big item off of our checklist.

Transportation – Driving

When we started planning the trip, we said that we would drive down. With every 4-5 hour trip we took, we lamented on how things would go for a 19 hour drive, which is about what it would take.  Our plan was to do a considerable amount of driving at night, splitting time for the overnight hours.

Our driving options would likely be centered around renting a minivan or SUV to get down there.  I have a pickup truck and it would be ill suited to drive down with all of our stuff.  My wife does have an SUV but we are leasing, and putting the miles plus the wear and tear were just not something we wanted to do.

Renting a minivan or big enough SUV looked to be around $700-1000 for the time we were looking.  Additionally, we factored gas to cost at least another few hundred.

Transportation – Flying

We started looking at flying.  For our last two trips to Florida, we’ve flown Delta.  Their prices were ridiculous.  It would cost around $3,000 to fly down there.

Then we found Southwest Airlines.  We’ve never flown but have heard great things.  They’re cheaper.  You don’t pay for bags.  And, the prices were a lot more reasonable.  Still, flying down from Detroit would cost around $2,000.

My wife did some reading and someone suggested checking different airports.  We looked at the other airport in Michigan that they fly out of and the pricing was no different.  However, we started looking at airports in neighboring Ohio and the difference was staggering.

We ended up finding a deal where we fly in and out of Columbus (about a four hour drive) for a total cost (with all taxes and fees) of $1,220.  This is a non-stop flight there and a quick (1-hour) layover on the way back where we don’t even switch planes.  All at times that were ideal.

We decided to do this and sign up for a Southwest Airlines credit card that will give us 50,000 free points.  This, combined with our mileage, will likely earn 1-2 free flights the next time we want to fly down to Florida.

A Night At A Luxury Resort

The pricing on our flight had us flying down one day earlier.  If we would have flown down on the original day we’re staying, it would have cost around $300 more.  So what are we going to do for a day?

Stay at a brand new 4-star resort for a night.  The room we’re staying at would normally go for $475.  How much are we paying?  Not a penny.

Last spring we surprised my son with a one night trip to Great Wolf Lodge for his birthday.  It was just for him and he loved it, as this is about his favorite place in the world.  We stayed one night and we were having such a good time that we decided to rent a room at a nearby hotel so we could stay at the water park until the end of the day.  We booked online at a Howard Johnson a couple miles up the road.

When we got there, there were huge problems.  The manager was rude to us, rude to his employees (he made someone cry in front of us) and the place was filthy.  We ended up walking out.  I contacted Wyndham, the parent company, and explained what had happened.  They provided me a free night at any Wyndham location in the United States.  So, when we found that we could use the points on our early arrival at a 4-star high rise on Clearwater Beach, we jumped.

Other Costs

We won’t have a car while we’re down there, but that shouldn’t be a big deal.  We’ll take Uber rides from the airport to the hotel to the condo and back to the airport again.  We can probably use them to go out and make a grocery store run when we get to the condo.  Everything else we need is within walking distance.

We’ll have to pay for parking at the Columbus airport, which is around $7-10 per night.  This is a welcome surprised since Metro Airport (Detroit) is at least double that.

All in all, we are really looking forward to our vacation.  We love the beach. The kids do as well and we’re excited to show them the ocean, as well as build some more great family memories.  Since we’ve worked hard to find savings in multiple areas, we’re excited to have a great time on what looks to be an affordable budget.

Readers, do you have any spring break plans or big trips planned?  How have you saved money?  Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Copyright 2017 Original content authorized only to appear on Money Beagle. Please subscribe via RSS, follow me on Twitter, Facebook, or receive e-mail updates. Thank you for reading.

8 Things Your Travel Agent Should Be Doing For You

Planning a trip can be a very exciting time.  Still, there can be a lot of stress to go along with it. Sometimes it’s OK to plan things yourself.  This applies if it’s a simple trip or if you have made arrangements before.  But, if you’re taking a trip that involves going somewhere new and/or has a lot of detailed planning, you might find value in using the services of a travel agent.

We’ve used a travel agent twice in planning trips.  Both of them fit the criteria above, as the first was for our honeymoon trip to Hawaii back in 2007, and the second was for our family trip to Disney World last fall.

How Our Travel Agents Earned Money

In both cases, our travel agents worked for us and we got the same pricing for the services or goods that we purchased as we would have had we gotten them on our own.  (Trust me, I checked!)

How they work is to establish relationships with a variety of providers and will often guarantee a certain number of sales, so the agent collects the full rate from you, but will pay the vendor (e.g. a hotel) a ‘discounted’ rate, and pocket the difference.

I know there are other models that come into play, but since both of ours were very high volume areas, there are an abundance of agents who have established these relationships on the back end.  Point being, if you travel to a lightly traveled area, you might not be able to take advantage of this, and might have to pay full price plus pay a fee on top to the agent.

What A Travel Agent Should Provide

Having worked with a travel agent twice, I now have a certain list of things that I believe a travel agent should provide, and will expect any future agent to provide should we use a travel agent in the future.

Specialty knowledge tailored to your needs.

One might think that with the Internet, you can find out everything that you need to know.  This is absolutely true. The problem with this when you’re setting up travel plans is that you’re going to find all that and a million times more, and weeding out what’s applicable to you can be daunting if not impossible.  You should expect a travel agenmb-oars201308t to ask you questions, and provide planning based on your specific needs.  Let them be your Google.

Provide options specific to your needs.

A well seasoned travel agent will have knowledge and relationships available with a variety of vendors, and should be able to provide you multiple options that meet your needs.  For example, when we booked our Hawaiian vacation, our agent provided us a few different hotel options.  I’m sure that he had relationships that were to his benefit, but we never felt like we were being steered in a direction we weren’t comfortable with.

Be timely and responsive.

We’ve found that when in both of the trips we planned using an agent, we had a lot of questions.  A lot of the answers would generate follow-up questions, so we found that timely and thorough answers were very important.  You can’t expect an agent to respond within 15 minutes of every e-mail.  Still, you should establish a reasonable expectation up front and expect most responses in this time.  I think one day is more than reasonable.

Tell you what to do.

Our agent for the Hawaii trip was great because he sat down and listened to the list of things that we had created for our to-do list, and took it one step further.  He basically said “Since you like these things, here’s some other things I think you might enjoy”.  In some cases, we declined, and in other cases, we changed things around, and for the most part, he was right!

Tell you what not to do.

In going along with the item above, we had some items that we thought would be fun, and he steered us away from them.  Now, again, you don’t have to take their recommendation if you don’t want to, but the point is that they should be working to provide you the best time you can have, as that will reflect solidly and favorably on them.

Provide an itinerary.

Your agent should provide you an itinerary of your trip, definitely including all services for which you used the agent, and they should also be open to adding in items that you might book yourself.

Discuss the stuff that might not be fun.

Things can always go wrong on a trip.  Hopefully they won’t, but sometimes they do.  Your agent should give you a run-down of what you should do if your flight is delayed or your room is not up to par or your rental car isn’t working.  Should you call the agent or escalate with the actual company?  The answer in many cases is probably “It depends” but your agent should run through that, at least on a high level.

Follow up (a.k.a. say thank you).

This one seems like a no-brainer but in fact, it may not.  Our agent for our Hawaii trip contacted us after the trip to make sure that everything had gone well.  He even sent us a Christmas gift later that year!  Would we have used him again had we wanted to go back to Hawaii anytime over the next few years?  Absolutely!  (He’s since retired)  A lot of that has to do with the fact that he followed up.  I’m sure that he learned that doing so is a good way to set up ‘the next sale’.  Our Disney agent never followed up.  This left a poor taste in our mouth.  As a result, she will not be getting any future business from us.

Those are some of the things that we found are important.  Little things can separate an average travel agent from an exceptional one.

Readers, do you use a travel agent to plan your trips?  What are the must have attributes you’ve found, if they’re not on the list above?  Please share in the comments below.

Copyright 2017 Original content authorized only to appear on Money Beagle. Please subscribe via RSS, follow me on Twitter, Facebook, or receive e-mail updates. Thank you for reading.