Wednesday, 28 August 2013

The "N" Word at Disney

Disneyland letters in front of parkI'm linking up with Deb from Focused on the Magic again this week for her Wordless Wednesday blog hop. In her infinite wisdom Deb has decided that this weeks Disney topic is to be the letter 'N', which is perfect for me. As the father of three teenage children, I love the letter 'N'. In fact, it forms half of my favorite parenting word....NO! I mean sure, I prefer to say yes to my children whenever possible, but there's so many places you can use the word "no" at Disney....

NO, you can't have a lollipop for breakfast...

Disney candy lollipop

NO, it's not real money...

Pirate treasure on Tom Sawyer Island at Disneyland

NO, we're not waiting that long...

Cars Land Radiator Springs Racers huge wait time

NO! Why would you even ask?...

On top of the Matterhorn in Fantasyland at Disneyland


Outside It's a Small World at Disneyland

And of course the most frequently used "no" sentence of all....

NO, we can't keep him.

Tigger character photo outside Winnie the Pooh

This post is a part of Wordless Wednesday over at Focused on the Magic. If you didn't get here from there, you should really head on over and check out some of the fantastic people that hang out there on Wednesdays. Some of them might even let their kids climb the Matterhorn if they asked. They're known as the "cool parents".

Written by Steve Pratt

Monday, 26 August 2013

10 Promos We Used This Summer to Keep Travel Costs Down

People think we're rich. Not One Direction rich, but the general consensus is that for the amount of travel that we do, money must not be a real issue for us. I promise you nothing could be further from the truth. We do our traveling on a shoestring budget (a little too shoestring sometimes) and it's only by endlessly chasing deals and promotions that we can afford to travel further than the grocery store down the street, and truth be told with the price of gas up here that grocery store had better be running a promotion as well.

If you've been following along with us on Facebook, you know that our summer has been full of fun and travel, but it's also been full of promotions. Here's 10 of the deals that we took advantage of this summer to help keep our costs to a minimum.

Free Night at the Fairmont Empress in Victoria

This is the only one of these tips that wouldn't necessarily be available to everyone, but it's the outcome of taking advantage of another promo a couple of years ago and being quick on the draw when the Fairmont Lifetime Platinum deal was available. We get one free night per year, so this year we used it at the Fairmont Empress. One of the nice parts about Fairmont is that they let you use a suite upgrade coupon at the same time as your free night coupon, so we paid for one night in a base room and got two nights in a one bedroom suite. Sure my family nearly killed me when they found out there was no air conditioning, but it was still a fantastic deal!

In front of the Fairmont Empress in Victoria

Using Points at the Hyatt Regency Valencia

I don't know what was going on, but on the days that we wanted to visit Six Flags the rates were through the roof at all the Valencia area hotels. I'm talking well over $200 a night in an area that usually costs around $100. Fortunately the Hyatt Regency Valencia is way under priced on points, coming in at only 8,000 Gold Passport points per night. We had that many points available in our account, but even if we hadn't we could have purchased 8,000 points for $192 directly from Hyatt and saved some money that way, even cheaper if we'd taken advantage of one of their frequent 50% bonuses when buying points.

Free Night at the Sheraton Universal in Los Angeles

About a year ago Starwood sent Lori an offer to stay one night with them at any of their properties and get a free night sometime in the next year. We spent a night at the Kamloops Four Points a short distance away from our home, and then held on to our free night until we used it this summer at the Sheraton Universal. Paying just over $100 in Kamloops to earn a free $200 night in Los Angeles was a great money saver for us (and it actually got us interested in the Starwood properties as well, so win/win).

Hollywood sign at Sheraton Universal

Free Nights at the Radisson in Buena Park

Disneyland hotels seem to be raising their rates this year. I used to be able to count on staying a few blocks away from the park for under $100 a night, but this year everything was closer to $200. That's too rich for my blood, so we decided to use some of our points that we earned in Florida last year during the Club Carlson 50,000 points per night giveaway. The entire week at the Radisson Buena Park only cost a little over 100,000 points, so the two nights we spent at the Radisson in Melbourne last summer covered our week in Disney this year. 

Disneyland Passes via Airmiles

I'm constantly in envy of my American friends and their ability to rack up huge points by applying and cancelling credit cards. Our options in Canada are pretty bad (unless you really want enough points for five free movies) and while I've all but given up on the Airmiles program, they still make Disneyland passes relatively affordable. We managed to get four of our passes from Airmiles, meaning we only had to shell out $300 for one five day pass. Of course this was our first time back sine our annual passes expired almost two years ago. That $300 seemed like a million when I had to pay it out.

Fireworks in the shape of Mickey Mouse at Disneyland

Obtaining Hilton Gold in Edmonton

I like having hotel status. It's not the self-important feeling of being able to say "But I'm a diamond guest!" It's the actual perks and benefits that appeal to me as a way to save money. Free breakfasts and free internet have a definite value to our family, but staying 16 nights at one chain doesn't seem like a cost effective route to obtaining that savings. Fortunately, there's often a shortcut. This year Carson Wagonlit Travel offered a promotion to it's customers that would provide Gold status in the Hilton program after only four stays. We decided to bounce back and forth between two different Hilton properties in Edmonton for the four nights we were there, and now we have Gold Status in Hilton until March of 2015. This didn't necessarily save us any money this summer (although it didn't cost us any either...both hotels were running about $100 a night) but the first time we use our status for free breakfast it'll start paying off big time. 

United Airlines Fare Sale

Do you know what the hardest part of booking a vacation is? It's waiting. I know that if I wait long enough there will be a sale, but sometimes I don't realize which price was the sale until it's too late. My target price for Seattle to Anaheim is around $75 base fare. The airlines were sitting at about $85 this year, and I was wondering if maybe prices had just gone up and $85 was as good as it was going to get. I held on until three weeks before we were planning on going, but just as I was about to throw in the towel and pay the $85, United had a sale for $59. Sure we had to route through San Francisco (a few days after the plane crash there), but at least the price was right.

United Airlines Plane in San Francisco

Jonas Brothers Tickets

No, you're not the first to suggest that the easiest way to save money here would be to just not go to the show, but this was the catalyst for the entire run to Vegas. There was no trip until Travelzoo put the Jonas Brothers tickets on for $15. That 75% markdown led to us spending a week in Vegas and visiting the Grand Canyon for the first time. It meant my kids got to see their second Cirque show, and it introduced us to the magic that is the Krispy Kreme milkshake. It meant we got to play KISS mini-golf and meet up with both old and new friends while spending time in the desert. Truth be told, the Jonas Brothers probably cost me a lot more money than I saved, but it was a really good deal on the tickets. 

Posing with Jonas Brothers poster in Las Vegas

Mandalay Bay / Royal Caribbean Promotion

Vegas promotions are a little different than everywhere else. It's almost unheard of to book a room in Vegas that doesn't come with some kind of room credit or free drinks. On occasion however, they overdo it. We were looking for a couple of nights at the beginning of the week when somebody pointed out a cross promotion between Royal Caribbean and MGM. Essentially what they were doing was attaching ridiculous amounts of food credit to the rooms. For example, we booked two nights at Mandalay Bay for $62 a night and it came with $150 food credit. Even factoring in a crazy $25 per night resort fee, the net cost for one of the nicer hotels in Vegas was only $12 per night. At that price we decided that it would be nice to have some extra space so we booked another room under Lori's name and got a total of $300 worth of food credit. Ever told your kids to go crazy in Starbucks then signed a $115 bill without even the slightest cringe? It's fun. I highly recommend it. 

ISIC Car Rental Rate

Car rentals aren't as cheap as they once were. I used to be able to get a mini-van in Vegas for $15 a day. Now it's closer to $75, and that's if they're available at all. Alamo has a deal with a company called the International Student Identity Card which provides a crazy low rate, all the insurances, and a prepaid tank of gas. The only catch is that you must be a member of ISIC to get this rate. You know what it costs to become a member of ISIC? $20. That's money you'll easily earn back on your very first rental, even if you only factor in the tank of gas you don't have to replace before returning your car. 

Written by Steve Pratt

Friday, 23 August 2013

The Living Flag in Victoria 2013

I've mentioned that they didn't tell us, but if the RCMP had announced the foiled terror plot for Victoria in advance, my first choice of activities on Canada Day would not have been to gather with 3000 people in one tight spot on the Legislature lawn. Talk about making it easy for the terrorists. However since we didn't know, we decided to join our fellow Canadians at the parliament buildings on Canada Day to form a Living Flag.

Canada Day 2013 Victoria Living Flag

They make it pretty simple, supplying participants who were willing to wait in a really long line with free red or white t-shirts (we brought our own) and mini Canada flags for us to wave. Of course you can't give Canadian kids sticks and not expect things to get a little combative...

Canada Day Victoria 2013 Living Flag

...Yeah...those darn kids....

Canada Day Victoria 2013 Living Flag

At the appointed time they had everybody file in to a pre-marked area on the Legislature lawn according to what color you were wearing. This is the part I was kind of dreading as it was crazy hot out and I thought being packed in tight with a bunch of other people was going to be unbearable. Turns out, you don't have to pack in all that tight at all. In fact you probably had more personal space in the flag than you did standing in line to be let in.

Canada Day Victoria 2013 Living Flag

One by one the firetruck ladder took up photographers who wanted to take pictures of the event. Looking around I couldn't believe that there wasn't going to be large stretches of green in the middle of our flag, but we did our part and waved our flags frantically every time a new photographer went up...

The Living Flag event in Victoria on Canada Day 2013

...and sure enough when the pictures were published the next day, the flag actually looked pretty good.

Canada Day Victoria 2013
Photo via Victoria Times Colonist
It got me thinking though. Each person in the flag has a reasonably large influence on the overall look of the picture. With our family of five people, we probably could have played havoc with the picture by just moving our location a little bit. I would have loved to see the photographers face if he went up in the bucket and instead of the maple leaf he saw this:

Flag of Japan

Written by Steve Pratt

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

The Top 100 Canadian Travel Blogs (& Other Lists We Belong On)

So I just finish writing an article about how eating at the BC Legislature made me feel important and almost an hour later my mailbox starts filling up with people congratulating me on making the list of the Top 100 Canadian Travel Blogs. I really feel important, or at least I did until my kids asked me how on earth I managed to end up on such a list. Nothing like a little family support to keep a man grounded. 

Top 100 Travel Network Blogs

Despite my children's disbelief at my inclusion, I'm really honored to make the list and I'd like to take a second to thank whoever nominated me, all those who voted for me, and the Flight Network for putting the list together in the first place. Looking through, the list is populated with some fantastic travel blogs, some great blogging friends of mine, and plenty of people whose work I've admired for a long time. In fact, the more time I spend looking at the quality of some of the people included in this list, the more I start to share my kids wonder at me being included. Maybe I have a relative at Flight Network?

It did start me thinking though. While Top 100 Canadian Travel Blogs is not a list that I might have necessarily expected to make, there are some lists out there that I would fully count on being included in. In fact, there's some that I'm pretty sure I'd be the first name mentioned for. You want some examples? Here's some lists that I guarantee you'll see our name on, if anybody ever gets around to making them...

Top 100 Bloggers Likely to Bog Down a Hotel's Wi-Fi Connection

Hotel Wi-Fi overload

Can somebody explain to me why all three of my kids need to stream the same video on their own computers instead of just watching it on one? We may be the only family out there that looks at the hated "resort fee" of $25 a day and thinks, "It includes internet? Yeah that sounds about right."

The Top 100 Bloggers Who Take Signs Literally

Sarcastic sign funny

We'd also easily qualify for the Top 100 Bloggers who take signs sarcastically. 

Top 100 Bloggers Getting Value From Their Travel Insurance

Hospital visit LA Canadian

This is where I have a bit of an advantage over my co-bloggers as I tend to be a little bit older than most of them and thus less durable. Combine that with my son's love for extreme theme park rides and my desire to still seem somewhat "cool" to him and it's pretty much a given that I'll be on this list for quite a while.

Top 100 Bloggers Likely to be Asked to "Move Along"

BC Legislature family pose

We were taking some pictures on the steps of the parliament buildings in Victoria when my daughters decided to bust out this pose. Seconds later a security guard told us that he needed us to move along as he needed to clear that area out. Coincidence? Maybe, but I'm still saying we make this list.

Top 100 Bloggers Likely to Miss Something Spectacular

teenagers at the grand canyon

I'm sure what's going on here is that they're just texting each other their thoughts on the amazing Grand Canyon. That's gotta be what they're doing right? Right?

Written by Steve Pratt

Monday, 19 August 2013

Feeling Important: Eating Inside the BC Legislature

When visiting Victoria, the provincial capital of British Columbia, it's fun to try and get a little taste of what it would be like to be a political big wig. After all, this is where the major decisions are made for Canada's westernmost province. Just being in the area when parliament is in session gives you a small sense of importance and it's natural to want to try and find some way to participate in the political process. What can you do though? You most likely can't speak, spend, or pass laws like a politician (Unless you count making a motion to reduce your kids allowance, a motion that was sadly defeated when it went to vote.) but don't despair. There is one thing in Victoria you can do exactly the same way that your elected representatives do. You can eat like a politician. 

Victoria Parliament Buildings Canada Day

It's not widely advertised, but there is a restaurant in the basement of the BC Legislature. Its primary purpose is to feed the members of parliament when they're on break from session, but when the dining room isn't busy serving the local policy-makers, it's open for the general public to enjoy. Well...kind of open. To eat in the Legislative Dining Room you first have to pay a visit to the security office and surrender your driver's license, passport, or other official form of ID. In exchange for this you are given a badge which literally unlocks the door to the secret world of political power dining.

BC Parliament Building Victoria

I have to admit that having a pass made me feel pretty important. I walked confidently down the Legislature hallway (my kids used the word "strutting") showing my pass to everybody in sight, most of whom were tourists wondering why this strange man kept flashing his red and white card at them. Eventually came the end of the hallway and the most exciting moment of the journey...a door marked "No Public Access". With a wave of my badge (actually five or six waves, and some help from an elderly gentleman walking by) there was a beep and the door opened to reveal the inner hallways of the BC Legislature...

BC Legislature Victoria Parliament Building

...which truthfully looked exactly like the outer hallways of the BC Legislature. To my disappointment there was no guard there to check the validity of my pass (There's never a guard when I actually have a pass.) so we proceeded down the hallway. Not only wasn't there a guard present but there weren't any people at all. We were wandering around in the off-limits area of the BC Legislature with nobody around watching over us, one day after a terror plot was thwarted at this very building. It was kind of a strange feeling, but being the good, law-abiding citizens that we are, we didn't do anything that would be cause for concern. We simply obeyed all the posted signs and followed the path towards the dining room. 

Victoria BC Parliament building
OK...Maybe we disobeyed one sign....
After making our way downstairs we arrived at the Legislative Dining Room at 10:30 am. It's a very fancy room (we were definitely underdressed) with about 30-40 tables. There was some concern about time as we'd been told that the dining room closed at 11:30 to serve members of parliament during their lunch break, but the greeter assured us that the members never showed up on time for their lunch break and that we would have plenty of time for breakfast. We were seated immediately (there were only two other tables occupied) in a little nook off to one side of the restaurant and presented with what turned out to be the biggest surprise of our dining experience.

Breakfast Menu for the BC Legislative Dining Room
A reasonably priced menu!
It seems that the BC Legislative Dining Room is taxpayer subsidized. I probably should have guessed that, considering it's designed to be used by politicians, but the very fair prices on the menu were a fantastic surprise. I'm pretty sure if I'd ordered the same food back at the Fairmont Empress it would have been at least $20 a plate. With no worries about breaking the budget, everybody was free to order whatever they liked.

BC Legislative Dining Room Breakfast

Breakfast at BC Legislative Dining Room

Breakfast at restaurant inside BC Parliament Building

Breakfast restaurant at Victoria Parliament building

Every single thing we ordered was fantastic, but the food was definitely second to the ambiance. The room is covered with pictures and news clippings of famous BC politicians and I couldn't help but wonder just how many important deals were brokered at the very table we were currently eating our breakfast at. Our waiter, who was super friendly but made it clear that he wasn't at liberty to talk politics, explained to us that we were seated in a section of the restaurant reserved for members of the opposition party. That took a little bit of the glamour away, but it was still very cool to be sitting in a room so full of history.

Restaurant inside the BC parliament
Don't we look governmental?
We finished our meal just as the wait staff was beginning to set up for the arrival of the members of parliament. Tables were being pushed together and reserved signs were being placed out at every available setting. I'll admit that all the activity helped to give me a bit of an ego boost and I may have tipped more than normal in my attempt to justify the feeling. Not a big deal as it really was well deserved, and we all left feeling like we had just eaten somewhere pretty special. If our importance meter still wasn't maxed out though, we had one more chance to top it up. After making our way back up to the security office to return our badges, we exited the Legislature to find this scene outside...

media outside Victoria Parliament Building

I gave it serious consideration but in the end I decided that it really wasn't the best time for me to hold a press conference. With my swelled sense of importance I might have done something ill advised like announce an election or declare war on Saskatchewan. Besides, I was already feeling really full from a great breakfast and I probably wouldn't have been looking my best for the reporters. They say the camera adds 10 pounds and there's an awful lot of cameras down there.

Written by Steve Pratt