Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, Punta Cana (DR) - a stay review.

 
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Here’s my review of our stay at this hotel this summer. Please remember that this is a personal review and does not mean you will have the same experience as we did. Please comment below if you’ve stayed here and tell me about your trip!! I’d love to compare anecdotes!

Before we go into specifics, check out some Do’s and Don’ts when you vacation at an All-inclusive here.

THE LOCATION

 Aerial view of the resort. I found it from the plane! Do you see the pools?

Aerial view of the resort. I found it from the plane! Do you see the pools?

Hard Rock Hotel has locations all around the world. We chose this particular one due to a “deal” we found that lured us into looking at it. It is located in the area of Bavaro, in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic. You fly into the Punta Cana Airport and make your transfer to the hotel. I urge you to have your transportation set up before arriving. If you can’t or don’t know how to, don’t panic!! There is a counter FULL of transportation agencies right outside the airport with information and people eager to help you. It is just a good idea to plan ahead of time to avoid getting potentially scammed. We were recommended Dominican Plus, and they were very professional and reliable, so I recommend them. Just make sure you tell them that you want to be picked up at the group lobby when you go home, to avoid misunderstandings. The hotel has two lobbies and this can create confusion, and delays…believe me, you don’t want any delays when you are heading to the airport.

The hotel’s entrance is off a main road, but it was quite strange…the gated entrance says “Hard Rock” but it continues into a development of condominiums for sale. Perhaps those are part of the golf course? I don’t know, but after another mile or so inside the gated community, there’s another gate to the actual Hard Rock Hotel. So it’s pretty safe and private in there.

THE SERVICE

Service was OK. The front desk clerk was an absolute delight. Everyone else, not so much. For some reason, besides the entertaining personnel and a handful of waiters, most employees looked like they hated their job. Seriously. Rarely any smiles, not very good at interacting with guests (even when I spoke to them in Spanish), they just didn’t look happy. We witnessed a few guests being terribly mean to some waiters and bartenders, so I am sure they don’t get treated well by the occasional A$$(redacted)**. We tried to be nice and kind, and we received smiles and kindness in return. Just remember that.

THE ROOMS

Well, you have a variety of rooms to chose from, depending on your budget. But, just so you know, ALL rooms have a jacuzzi inside the room. Yes, I repeat. ALL ROOMS have private jacuzzi. All rooms are also equipped with a minibar full of drinks, beer, water, and liquor. You have access to a rum and coke 24/7. I do have to admit, the room was absolutely beautiful and comfortable. Very well decorated, with a large granite counter bathroom and double shower. You will feel like royalty.

ROOM SERVICE

Since all your meals are included in what you already paid…why not order some room service? Their room service was fast and they brought everything we ordered. Very easy to order and just as delicious as if you go eat at the restaurant. We opted to order breakfast for room service. Plenty of hot coffee and fresh fruit. It was great. I do have to say though, the room service menu was a little short, so not too many options for you to chose from.

GETTING AROUND

To get around this massive resort, you can either walk, take the trolley, or rent a golf cart for your stay. If you decide to walk, make sure you are wearing comfortable shoes, because you will be doing a LOT of walking. To get from your room to the pools, or to the beach, or to a specific restaurant, depending on your location, sometimes it’s a long way. If you take the trolley, fear not! There are trolley stations all around and they run every 5-15 minutes depending on the time of the day. There are also maps of the premises all around so you don’t get lost. If you want to have fast and reliable transport at anytime, you can opt to rent a golf cart. Parking for golf carts are conveniently located all around the resort, so it’s easy to get in and out.

THE RESTAURANTS

With 9 different restaurants on the premises, you won’t go hungry. Try them all!! You can walk in for lunch, but for dinner, make sure to have a reservation. Some of these restaurants book days in advance and they won’t let you in without reserving a spot. My tip: When you first arrive, head over to the front desk and make all your reservations for your stay. They have a booth dedicated to reservations in the group lobby of the hotel. BUT BE PATIENT… It can get crowded and the clerks take their time with each guest. When you bypass the waiting, you can decide where to dine each day of your stay. Enjoy anything from Mediterranean, Italian, Japanese, Brazilian steakhouse, Latin American, or artisan brick oven pizza (which by the way is absolutely amazing). When you are done with dinner, have a coffee and pastry at the coffee place, or enjoy some of their magnificent ice cream at the ice cream parlor (no reservations required for the coffee or ice cream!).

THE POOLS

13 pools, which includes 3 kid pools, and 4 swim-up bars. The central pool area (and most pools really) fill out rather quickly. My tip: Head to the pool right after breakfast and claim your seat. All pools have accessible bathroom conveniently located within a short walk, and towel booths. ALSO, all pools have bars nearby and snack foods available at all hours (mostly chicken tenders, french fries or pizza)… PERFECT for when the kids (or adults) say “I’m hungry” in between meals. No need to leave the pool for anything! Poolside servers will bring you a cold drink anytime you want. Make sure to tip them at least once guys. These men and women work really hard, long hours, in the sun. Spare a dollar or two.

Do not forget to check the activities schedule for the central pool. They host competitions and fun games each day for the whole family. You can always enjoy live music or an crazy foam party at the pool.

THE BEACH

The beach at this resort is breathtaking. Beautiful white sand, intense blue waters. My only complaint…the ocean is rough in this part of the island. And when I say rough, I mean ROUGH. Most of the time they won’t allow you to get in the water. It is still nice to sit on the beach and put your toes in the sand.

THE SHOPS and Central area

OMG this place looks like a mall inside. The long long hallways are full of stores on both sides. Clothes, shoes, jewelry, souvenirs, Hard Rock memorabilia, chocolate, and a liquor store. Pretty cool to browse around when you are waiting on your dinner reservation. Most restaurants are located in the central area of the hotel, right where all the shops are; and the bars. It’s a cool place to walk around.

NIGHT LIFE AND ENTERTAINMENT

The bars are right there in the central area. 4 bars which host different activities each night. The Moon Lounge has Karaoke every other night. Kids are welcome in, but only till 11pm…and then the adult party stars. Do you prefer live music? Or perhaps you want to dance all night? They got you covered.

The theater also hosts different shows each night to entertain the crowds of all ages. Check out the shows schedule and make your plans ahead of time. My tip: Plan dinner around the shows to get the most out of your stay.

THE CASINO

The casino is HUGE! 45,000 square feet to be exact. Seriously, you can find all the typical games like poker, blackjack, craps, roulette, and obviously slot machines. One thing I noticed though, they are extremely serious about age restrictions in this place. No one under 18 is allowed to even set foot in the casino premises. Not even if you want to take a shortcut to your room. NOPE. They uphold this rule to the fullest extend. Sorry kids, can’t play on the slot machines.

THE KIDS CLUB

Fear not! Kids can still have lots of fun while the adults enjoy an evening out. The kids club offers lots and lots of activities for the little ones. Most activities are musical related…but it’s the Hard Rock Hotel, duh!

During our stay, our daughter refused to go to the kid’s club and leave our side… but seriously, this was totally OK since there was so many other things to do at the pool and around the hotel, that we kept busy. She even sang karaoke with us one night. It was great. Other options for family activities are: the arcade, escape room, and mini-golf.

THE TOURS

When you book your room, you will get points, and their amount depends on how long you stay and what room you book. Either way, DO NOT FORGET TO USE YOUR POINTS.  It is not a scam.  Redeem them towards a tour or some souvenirs.  They are like hotel cash (kind of).  We booked a dolphin and snorkeling tour directly with the hotel and it was fantastic.  In fact, it was easy and cheap.  You only pay the tax, which we gladly did if it meant that we got to interact with a dolphin so close for about 45 minutes, and snorkel in the beautiful clear and docile waters of the Caribbean.  I am not sure of the location of the snorkeling waters, but they were very calm and clear, not like the waters around the hotel, which were deep blue and very rough.  Either way, it was amazing!!!

There are many other amenities at this hotel that we didn’t have time to check out.  The spa is supposed to be amazing, so it the golfing.  If you want to get more fancy, you can become a member and enjoy MANY member-only amenities they offer.  Things like private pools, private areas, private golf cart pick ups. But I’m sure it cost a pretty penny to do it. 

I would recommend this resort because of its many amenities and great restaurants.  However, I was very disappointed in the entertainment and the themes/quality of the shows they offered.  I have seen many, much better, more elaborate, and more impressive shows done by street performers in cities around the world.  Maybe I expected more because, you know, it IS the Hard Rock Hotel and I imagined concert like experiences. I was wrong.  Regardless of this, it was fun and memorable.  Have you been here? Tell us what you thought down below in the comments!

Always,

Mia.

Punta Cana: A guide to an all-inclusive family vacation

When hubby said, "We are going to Punta Cana" I was excited, but not incredibly thrilled as I've been with other trips. The truth is, I didn't know what to expect.  Either way, we packed our bags and headed to Dominican Republic, an island shared with Haiti, located between Cuba, Jamaica and Puerto Rico, in the beautiful Caribbean ocean.  

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First things first. We always look for the best travel deals and family friendly spots. For more information on how to travel on a budget read this first.  

When you budget for a vacation, it is important to remember a few factors. First, how many are traveling. Not to be obvious here, but the more people, the more expensive it can get, but even with large families, there's always the option of Airbnb.  

This time, we wanted to do an all-inclusive type of hotel.  Dominican Republic is known for its many resorts and beautiful beaches, so we gave it a chance. We found an amazing deal (Expedia unreal deals are great sometimes) at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino.  

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Granted that sometimes, if you book your hotel directly with the hotel's site, you can find even better deals. Sometimes this hotel (depending on the season) has up to 40% off and kids stay free.  Of course, they do these types of deals when kids are in school and chances are that you will only find adults there, but hey! If you can afford taking your family on a school week without missing any important tests or projects, this can be a very affordable option.  

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Either way, we always pack light. Even when kids are traveling. I've adopted a minimalist way of traveling and I'm loving it.  For a list of things to pack when traveling with kids, check this out.  

WHAT TO EXPECT AT THE PUNTA CANA AIRPORT

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It is hot. The plane landed and we got off the plane and onto a bus, which took us to their immigration port of entry. Lines were long, so be prepared to wait. Have your immigration AND customs paperwork filled out and ready. Once you go through immigration, you proceed to pick up your luggage and go through customs... which is technically just an officer collecting your form. They might do a random baggage search, but we didn't see any of that. In fact, there are people that work at the airport for a tip that will help you get your luggage through the side so you don't stay in line...most of them know the custom's officers and they let them bypass the crowd. Weird, yes, but it worked for us.  

Make sure you have transportation set up in advance. 

We were recommended Dominican Plus, and we are glad we used them. Very reliable, incredibly friendly staff, and we felt safe the entire time. Not to mention, very much affordable.  You can rent a van just for you and your family and they will pick up at the airport, and take you straight to the hotel.  Round trip.  No other stops, no other people in with you.  Private van for a very affordable price. You can go to their website or check them out on Viator (which by the way is highly recommended) to see their tours and other services while in Punta Cana.  

A TIP GOES A LONG WAY

One of the good things about an all-inclusive vacation is that tip is included in the price…well, that’s what they tell you. In fact, it is written on what’s included with your trip. But, look at it this way: yes, you might’ve paid enough to get there and have your dream vacation, so yes, it should be included in the price, BUT these people make no money out of it, and work incredibly hard every single day. They will not get rich if you tip them a little here and there, in fact, they will treat you like a VIP.

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Here’s what you do: Always tip your drivers and bell-person at the hotel. Pick your favorite bar and get to know your bartender or poolside server. Tip him/her well ($10 might not be a lot for you, but it is for people in other countries), that tip, at the start of your day will create a ripple effect… Your glass will not be empty, you will feel like a VIP, because they will treat you differently from those who do not tip, IF you are drinking alcoholic beverages (Why not?! It is all-inclusive!) they will make sure your drink is better than all others. Don’t believe me? Try it. You will be treated like royalty…it is your dream vacation after all.

HOTEL EMPLOYEES ARE HUMAN TOO. BE KIND.

This is something that you would think is obvious, but I was surprised by how many people treated hotel employees and drivers like they were trash. It was sad. Yes, they are there to help you and make sure you have a great time, but please remember that a kind word, a smile, and a simple thank you can make a difference in the day of others… and it will give you good karma points.

TRY ALL THE DRINKS

It’s free! Yes, if you are drinking a Pina Colada, and suddenly your taste buds decide you need something more dry…Do it! No outrageous-cocktail-price guilt attached. And after that try a specialty coffee to wake you up before karaoke night. Yes, you get the idea.

TAKE CASH

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We are all so used to plastic, that it’s easy to forget to withdraw some cash before your trip. Take cash with you because you will need it. American dollars are OK. It comes in handy when you tip or when you want to buy a quick souvenir. Keep in mind that most of these resorts have many stores and many choices to find small (or big) gifts.

PACK SOME FANCY CLOTHES

If this is your first time at an all-inclusive resort, you probably think that all you need is your swimming suit and flip flops. Well, yes, that is great if all you plan to do is to stay by the pool. But the truth is that you are going to want to try the amazing gastronomy that these resorts have to offer… INCLUDED IN THE PRICE.

Side note: To eat at some of these restaurants, you must dress up… a little. So pack a nice dress or two, and fancy flats or sandals. You will regret it if you don’t. By the way… it doesn’t really have to be so fancy, just something other than shorts and a tank top.


DO KARAOKE, GO TO THE DANCE BAR, GO SEE A SHOW

But, I have the kids with me! Yes, I know. We did too… Besides the casino and specific adult-only designated areas, most all-inclusive hotels that allow children are very family oriented and kid friendly. So, things like karaoke, shows, and dance night are open to all ages. They might have a curfew for kids, but it’s usually by midnight. Believe me, you’ll have plenty of time to enjoy yourself and your kids will love it too.

USE YOUR POINTS

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When you book at certain hotels, most have a reward system or point system that gifts guests with incentives. Get informed about their rewards and use it! You may think that it’s a scam to lure you into buying extra amenities or packages..blah blah. Not always. We used our points (given to us by just booking on certain days) and used them towards excursions. All you have to pay is tax. We were able to swim with the dolphins and snorkel in the Caribbean ocean for next to no money! Thanks to the points we cashed. No questions asked, no extra spending. USE YOUR POINTS! If you don’t like excursions, you can also use points towards the spa or even to buy souvenirs.

A side note: I did notice that the actual city of Punta Cana is quite dirty. The touristic sites are kept well and clean, but the rest of the city and streets are extremely dirty and full of trash. That sight made me double pledge to keep trash in bins and recycle ALL my plastic at home.

RELAX BY THE BEACH

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Chances are your resort is on the beach. If so, take advantage of the privacy (or semi-privacy) that all-inclusive resort locations have to offer. Depending on the location, you might find paradise in your back yard. It is easy to get lost in the amenities that resorts have to offer, just take at least a few hours to admire nature and put your toes in the sand.

RELAX BY THE POOL

This one is pretty straight forward. Just pick a pool and enjoy. Most likely whatever all-inclusive you pick is going to have several pools to chose from. The best thing to do is wake up early, have breakfast and head to the pool of your choice to reserve a chair. Pools get pretty packed starting mid morning and afternoon. But if you know that you will be spending your day doing nothing, sun bathing or enjoying cocktails while you read your favorite book (see suggestions here!), pick your pool and claim your seat. Get to know your bartender and/or poolside waiter, tip them well, and you will LOVE your day.

ALSO, HAVE FUN BY THE POOL

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In many hotels, they reserve the main or central pool to conduct family friendly pool activities. Take a day or afternoon to get our of your shell and release your inner weirdo… in a good way, and not in a creepy way. Pool entertainers are usually pretty outgoing and with a contagious sense of adventure, get lured in and participate. Fall off the giant inflatable in front of everyone, rock on in a pool of foam, paddle across the pool competing for best time, play polo or water sports. Just do relax, and have fun.

LAST THOUGHTS

All inclusive resorts are great if you have a budget and a family. You can drink, eat, and have fun without the guilt of overspending as everything is pre-paid. Want some ice cream at 10 pm? Get it! Decided to try all flavors of coffee and accompany them with different pastries…do it! No-guilt attached… other than the overload of calories you will intake, your wallet won’t suffer.

Go ahead! Find your best choice for your family and do it. Looking for deals might be a tedious task sometimes, but it is sooooo worth it when you finally hit the jackpot. Piece of advice: search on Wednesdays and/or Thursday nights, since I’ve found that many deals are released on those days. If you search for vacations on the weekend, chances are that you will pay more… this is not always the case, but it’s worth the try.

ENJOY YOUR VACATION!

Do you have any other tips or recommendations? Comment below! I would love to hear about it.

Always,

Mia

Disney's Hollywood Studios: Travel Truths

 
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If you are looking for rides, you will be utterly disappointed when you go to Hollywood Studios.  There are only a handful of actual rides in the park.  Everything else is split between various kinds of entertainment shows, greeting of characters, shops and restaurants.  

Perhaps my least favorite park of them all (to read the reviews of all other Disney parks, click here), Hollywood Studios is still a beautiful park to see.  If you are more into the spectacles, Hollywood glamour, or Star Wars, then you'll probably like this park.  Let me break it down on what to do while visiting Hollywood Studios in Orlando. (disclaimer: types and availability of shows may vary by season).

THE BEST

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We like the thrills and rides with the technology and special effects that Disney is known to offer.  If you are up for a super, very fast ride, head over to the Rock 'n Roller Coaster.  You get on a "limousine" courtesy of Steven Tyler himself, and ride on the streets of L.A. on an incredibly fast, loud, roller coaster full of spins and twists, that may or may not make you throw up.  All while rocking to the songs of Aerosmith.  You can't beat that thrill!.

Also, next to the Rock 'n Roller Coaster you will find the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror.  Now, I'd always wanted to ride this haunted elevator, since I was a kid.  Being a fan of the Twilight Zone since childhood, this ride was very anticipated.  You walk into a very haunted looking hotel lobby, with obvious spiderwebs and creepy decor.  Then you are taken to the elevator by the bellman.  You get in.  Sit down on the bench-like seat, fasten your seat belt (make sure to do this). 

The elevator goes up, and up, and up to the top floor, it opens a few times so you can see the scenery (pretty cool by the way) and then.... you scream.  The elevator drops several floors down.  Up and down, dropping with no warning.  It was fantastic.

The Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular was OK as well.  Not a ride, but a cool show that demonstrates how a film full of stunts is filmed (AKA Indiana Jones). 

FOR THE LITTLE ONES: 

Toy Story Mania was a cool little ride.  You enter the Toy Story world while shooting targets and collect points.  Play solo or challenge your friend.  It's playfully great! 

Also, if you reminisce of the good ole Muppets, the  Muppet Vision 3D, is the show to watch. It's sweet, funny, and just brings back good memories.  

FOR THE STAR WARS FANS:

Star Wars: Path of the Jedi, is a film experience that both parts of the movies, and real characters on stage.  The Jedi Training, will turn the little ones (4-12) into Jedi masters.  Star Tours: get in this simulator, travel the stars and feel the force.  

OTHER SHOWS:

The Voyage of the Little Mermaid, is a theatrical live short show with real characters, and special effects.  

For The First Time in Forever: Sing along to the songs of Frozen. Also, Beauty and the Beast Live on Stage, a Broadway style musical.  

Fantasmic: The one show you shouldn't miss.  Join Mickey and other Disney Characters on a magical musical adventure full of special effects and ... magic. 

Most of the entertainment in Hollywood Studios is in the form of short shows and meet the characters. The scenery is beautiful, but if you go with little ones, there is not going to be a whole lot to do (keep in mind that most "meet the characters" do not take the fast passes, so lines might be long).

Read our post on Disney's Do's and Dont's so you can plan your trip now!

There are plenty of restaurants, snack points, and shops along the park.  You will not leave without a souvenir! 

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I know I've said that Hollywood Studios is my least favorite park... Do you like it? What did I miss? Let us know in the comments and prove me wrong! (traveling is a learning experience). 

Always,

Mia

 

Iceland Excursions; Suggestions on what to see and do

So we have already shown you how/what to pack when traveling to Iceland and how to (somewhat) stay on budget. Now the most important part, what to see/do?!

Iceland is known for it's serene landscape and beautiful natural wonders and there is no end to the amount of amazing, once in a lifetime sights to see. 

This list will break down a few of our must see/do list while in Iceland. Of note, we booked all of our tours through viator.com. Not only were they the best prices around but they were efficient and organized which made the whole trip that much more enjoyable!

1) Cave Hike/Golden Circle Tour

This all day, action packed tour took us through the southeastern part of Iceland. We started out with an early morning exploration of a volcanic cave. There was lots of crouching, sliding, and some crawling involved but man was it fun! Check us out!

After a much needed lunch, we were refueled and ready for our afternoon which consisted of a hike around Thingvellir National Park, watching the roaring cascade of Gullfoss waterfall (insanely beautiful!), and awed over the massive Geysir eruption in the geyser fields.  

Because our tour guide was phenomenal (seriously Icelandic Adventures is the best!) we made a quick pit stop to feed and faun over some Icelandic horses. 

2) Waterfalls/Glacier Walk/Black Sand Beaches

This tour was a spur of the moment decision for us, we had booked and planned our entire trip prior to coming, leaving ourselves 2 free days in our week long vacation in case anything interesting appealed to us, and thank goodness we did! During our brew tour, we met a really cool couple who had taken this tour the previous day and raved about it, so we knew we had to check it out on one of our free days!

This all day tour took us to the waterfalls Seljalandsfoss and Skogafoss (stunning), where we hiked behind the falls and then just generally stood drooling at the sheer beauty,

Next in the tour was a stroll along the black sandy beaches of Reynisfjara. This unique beach is comprised of basalt lava and is utterly breathtaking. 

After a quick lunch in Vik, we headed out for our glacier hike at Solheimajokull Glacier. This serene and peaceful site looked like something from a land before time. You can totally imagine you are the other person in the world standing looking at the rolling hills and snow white ice. 

 

3) Blue Lagoon

Now after all those days of hiking, and sightseeing, you would be insane not to take an afternoon to soak and relax at The Blue Lagoon geothermal hotsprings. 

FOR A MORE IN DEPTH LOOK AT THE BLUE LAGOON- CHECK OUT OUR ARTICLE HERE

Your entrance fee gets you admission into the facility, one towel, 2 drink vouchers, and unlimited volcanic ash face masks. 

We soaked our weary travel bones until we were sweaty prunes, and then soaked some more. With a swim up bar, we could honestly have stayed forever. The steamy haze and sheer size of the pool made the experience intimate and despite the crowd when checking in, spacial and relaxing. It was definitely one of our more memorable experiences. 

4) Food/Brew Tour

You all know by now that we are huge self proclaimed foodies who make it a mission to try all the local cuisine, including, strike that, especially the strange and unusual. Singing up for a food/beer tour will definitely knock off some of those must eat items from your list. We booked one that paired a local brew with a local sample sized serving of food. Expertly timed courses and great explanations of flavors, this was a fun one.

If you want to wing it- we recommend checking out this restaurant which offers a seven course meal which highlights all the unusual foods Iceland has to offer. We chowed down on horse, puffin, and whale to name a few. The step price tag of 70USD per person was worth it in my opinion to sample all these rarities in one stop.

5) Northern Lights Hunting

You can't visit Iceland and not try to catch a glimpse of the illusive Northern Lights. Hailed as one of the seven wonders of the world, this scientific phenomenon is simply put, magical. Our nighttime tour took us several hours outside of Reykjavik to literally, the middle of nowhere. Our gregarious tour guide kept the late night ride entertaining with old folk lore, Icelandic facts, and interesting stories along the way. While they (obviously) can't guarantee that you will see the lights, they do everything they can to make it the best possibility (they have scouted out several prime locations, kept a close eye on cloud coverage, and are flexible with viewing spots, etc) and will even offer to reschedule you free of charge for another day of your trip if the lights don't cooperate. While the lights weren't out in full force for our hunt, we did catch some truly magical glimmers. 

**Download the Northern Lights app if you are an iPhone user before you go and take pics from there with a steady hand for your best shot at catching the lights on camera. If you don't have a fancy one that is.***  

In addition to these stunning sights around the countryside, there is plenty to keep you occupied in the city of Reykjavik as well. A few must see places/activities within city center include:

- Weekly Fleamarket, Kolaportið which is opened every Friday/Saturday and features some really unique hand crafted items including jewelry, wool sweaters, hats, etc. 

-Saga Museum: Play dress up like a Viking and enjoy this 50 minute self guided tour through some of Iceland's history as depicted through wax figures. 

-FREE city walking tours" You don't want to miss the opportunity to take advantage of a FREE walking tour all through downtown Reykjavik. Sponsored by the city, this guided tour will show you all the historical spots around town in this two hour guided tour. 

-Elevator ride up to the top of Hallgrimskirkja church. Check out this view! 

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-Puffin/Whale Watching Tours: Depending on what time of year you travel, be sure to check out the puffin and/or whale watching tours. This was a fun (if cold!) few hours on the sea and a good alternative to hiking around the countryside if you have physical limitations or just need a more relaxed day. Experience the beautiful landscape from the sea!

Ballin on a Budget; Planning your trip to Iceland

As you guys know, we recently returned from a week long jaunt in Iceland, and had the time of our lives. 

We had heard that Iceland was an expensive country to visit, but were woefully under-prepared for just how expensive things could be. So we have complied a list of tips and tricks to make the most of your trip, without breaking the bank. 

1. Cheap flights:

With the emergence of bargain airlines, flying doesn't have to be as costly as it once was. Airlines including Spirit, Allegiant, and WOW can take you to many tourist destinations for a fraction of the price. The tricky part comes in scheduling which airport to fly from (they don't have hubs at all international airports), and understanding baggage and carry on rules.

WOW is the bargain airline which operates to and from the US to Iceland (and parts of Europe). Check their website to see out of which cities they operate. We took these cities listed, and looked to see which we could fly to on the cheap. A couple hours of research later and we were able to book flights from Charlotte, NC to Boston, MA to Reykjavik, Iceland all for the low low cost of $550 USD per person. (We also had some credit card points to redeem so our cost was under $500 per person- score!) Red eye flights are also considerably less expensive. We never flinch at a red eye, especially when it's international. Arrive in time to see the sunrise and you're ready to explore!

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Being a bargain airline, WOW makes up there revenue with charging for all bags, carry on, movies, and in flight drinks and snacks. No complimentary conveniences here! To save on the insanely overpriced snacks (there is no way I am spending $6 on a mini can of Pringles), I packed some snacks for the ride (Lance cracker, packages of nuts, some cookies), although I did cave and buy a Coke ($3) due to airline restrictions of boarding a plane with liquids. 

Each passenger is allowed one carry on (laptop case or smaller) and you must pay a fee to use the overhead bins. You also pay for each checked bag, and the weight limit was 35 lbs per bag which meant we had to be very careful in our packing and clothes selections. (I tend to overthink everything which inevitability means overpacking!)   

CHECK OUT WHAT I PACKED FOR OUR TRIP HERE!

2. Lodging:

While there are plenty of nice hotels in Iceland, if you are planning on staying for more than 2-3 nights, we highly recommend looking into renting through Air B&B. Not only is it less expensive per night, but they usually offer discounts for extended stays of more than 5 days.

We also took advantage of our kitchen/fridge to stock up on cereal/milk/snacks (which saved money on our food budget). One with a washer was an extra perk that allowed us to pack lighter and be able to wash clothes mid trip. We opted to stay in the Marina district. We were a mere 2 blocks away from the pick up spots for our tours and an easy 4 blocks from center city. It was the perfect location! 

3. Food/Drinks:

Food and drink prices are astronomical in Iceland, but there are ways to save money where you can. If you don't mind hotdogs/warm sandwiches/noodles, there are some really great stands throughout Reykjavik where you can pick up an inexpensive lunch (under $10).

One of my favorite parts about traveling is sampling the local cuisine, so I personally don't like hitting up the same spots to eat every day, I much prefer to try a new place everyday. BUT with as busy as we were, sometimes a quick lunch on the way to our next activity worked in a time crunch (and made our wallets happy).

Download the app "AppyHour" (Itunes and android) to locate where all the best drink deals are happening every afternoon. (Because no one wants to pay $14 for a pint or $22 for a cocktail!). With this app you can quickly locate drink deals across Reykjavik. (Typically BOGO or 50% deals). 

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Here are a couple of our fav cheap eats:

Baejarins Betzu Pylsur: Hot dog stand.  Good hot dogs, simple, but very reasonably priced.

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Ramen MOMO:  This little tiny restaurant is a hidden gem.  Only sits 10 people at the time, so you will have to wait.  They won't cook your food until you find a seat.  A must have! (And for $5 USD per bowl- a real money saver!)

 

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4. Sightseeing:

Iceland does not have a large scale public transport system like can be found in most large scale cities in the US, and across Europe. Mostly due to the vastly undeveloped landscape of the country, and the fact that the entire population is under 400k, there really isn't a need. This leaves you with 2 options: 1) Rent a car or 2) Book tours which include pick up and drop offs.

Keep in mind that gas prices (like everything else) are quite high. Roughly $3.00 per liter, and sights are very spaced out, so know this when deciding how you want to get around. We opted for tours which included pick up, and drop off as it was a more cost effective, and convenient option for us. The tours through viator.com were very reasonable and well run. (Note that this website is not Iceland specific- you can use it for booking all manner of international tours!)

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 You simply  cannot  travel to Iceland and not explore the beautiful countryside. I mean, check out this view!

You simply cannot travel to Iceland and not explore the beautiful countryside. I mean, check out this view!

NOT SURE WHICH TOUR TO BOOK? CHECK OUT OUR ARTICLE ON WHICH TOURS WE RECOMMEND!

5. SOUVENIRS

Like everything else in Iceland, souvenirs are also very expensive.  Yeah, you want to bring your mom, or your friend a bottle or Icelandic Liquor, or a taste of sea salted chocolate, or perhaps even a wool sweater.  Be prepared to pay a pretty penny for all of the above.  Almost all souvenir stores around the center city are very high in price.  We made the "mistake" of purchasing some very costly small items on our first couple of days, but soon realized that there are other ways to find the same items way cheaper.  How?

If you are looking for good quality wool sweaters, all the fancy stores around the city will charge you a couple hundred dollars for something nice.  Go to the Reykjavik flea market on Saturdays or Sundays and you will be able to browse a vast variety of hand-made authentic Icelandic wool items at a much cheaper price.  Even though this is a "flea market" the wool merchandise, and costume jewelry is hand-made and new. Yes, it's still a little pricey, but cheaper than a downtown store.

We also found that souvenir shops NOT in center Reykjavik have way cheaper prices. We shopped for small items and collectibles at the stores located outside the city when we went on tours.  

IF you happen to spend over $6,000 Icelandic Krona (roughly $60 USD) in one transaction (excluding food) keep your receipt, you might be eligible to receive up to 14% of your purchase back! Simply, take the receipt and fill out a form at the tax office located inside the airport, and they will reimburse your sales tax directly to your credit card AND, while at the airport, hit up the Duty Free store! Seriously, you will save a whole lot of money by buying booze and candy to take back home there, instead of a liquor store.  

There are not a whole lot of ways to save tons of money when visiting Iceland.  You have to do what you can to minimize the impact on your pockets.  Everything is expensive, but it's cheaper if you plan ahead. Planning is key.  Plan where you want to eat, buy your cold gear before arriving, purchase your alcohol at the duty free before leaving the airport, and definitely use the viator app for tours, and the appy hour app to search for half off dining and drink options.  Follow this and you will save some moolah.  Buy your souvenirs outside city center, and walk everywhere.  Taxis are costly.  Do you have any other tricks or tips? We would love to know!

Please comment below or shoot us an email! 

Safe Travels my friends! Have fun in Iceland.

XOXO,

Coco

 

 

 

THE WIZARDING WORLD OF HARRY POTTER- a review

 

By the way... this is a real live photo I took.  It's that out of this world it looks fake to the eyes!

I was still a teen when I got hooked on the magic of a boy named Harry.  I can honestly say that reading these books changed, and saved my life in ways that many people don't understand.  How can a kid's book change your life? Well, it did. 

You can read my open letter to JK Rowling HERE.  It remained secret for a long time, but it feels good to tell the world that being sad, or depressed shouldn't be a stigma.  

So because of this, and many other things that I won't go into detail with now, I can say that I'm a Harry Potter super fan, or simply (and proudly) a Potterhead.  

Going to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Universal Studios, and Islands of Adventure Florida had been my dream every since it was announced in 2007. 

HERE ARE THE MAIN THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW:

If you are going to the park for the first time, there are certain things you should know so you can make every second count.

1. GET A MULTI-PARK TICKET.

You have the choice of purchasing a single park admission (Universal Studios OR Islands of Adventure) or a multi-pass or park hopper ticket.  GET BOTH.  WHY? The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is actually split in both parks. While Islands of Adventure opened the HP World in 2010, an expansion of this magical world was opened in the Universal Studios area in 2014. Both areas are connected by the Hogwarts Express.  YOU WON'T BE ABLE TO RIDE THE HOGWARTS EXPRESS unless you have a ticket for both parks.  Believe me.  It's worth it.

2. HOW THE WIZARDING WORLD IS DIVIDED

Islands of Adventure houses Hogsmeade, many shops and restaurants, the Flight of the Hippogriff, and the Hogwarts Castle with the Forbidden Journey ride.  Take the Hogwarts Express to King's Cross (located on the Universal Studios side) and enter the mysterious Diagon Alley where you can find Gringotts Bank and a fire breathing dragon on top of it.

 

RELATED: UNIVERSAL STUDIOS AND ISLANDS OF ADVENTURE- TRAVEL TIPS.

WHAT TO DO FIRST.

The very first thing a true fan should do is to get your own magic wand at Olivander's.  Whether you enter through Universal or Islands of Adventure, both sides have an Olivander's store.  This should be your first stop as the lines can get long, and there's no fast pass for it.  They will let about 20 people inside at the time for a "mini-show" to meet the man himself, Mr. Olivander.  He will pick a random lucky person from the group to hold wands and recreate the famous scene when Harry's wand chose him.  It's a very cool experience to see so close and in person.  But don't worry, if you are not chosen (they only chose ONE person per group- usually a kid, duh!) You will be then guided to the shop, where you can purchase your own wand.  

RELATED: DIY Harry Potter Rug. Step by Step.

WHAT KIND OF WANDS DO THEY HAVE? 

You can choose regular, character-based wands, interactive character wands, or your own wand based on your birthday.  If we talk about looks, some wands tend to lean towards the "dark side", but it's pretty cool to see what wand you'll get.  The store personnel is usually standing by in robes ready to assist you.  The interactive wands are more expensive, but totally worth it.  WHAT DO THEY DO?  With your purchase, you'll receive a map of Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade with every single interactive point in the land, along with the specific magic spells that will allow you to showcase your magic skills...

WHAT DO YOU MEAN BY "MAGIC SKILLS"?

Step on the symbols marking the magic spots (carved in gold on the ground), wave your wand in the way it specifies as you say the spell and just watch what happens.  You will see it rain on other bystanders, lights flicker, things float, etc.  There are dozens of places for you to practice your magic with your wand! But remember! The WAND chooses the wizard, not the other way around.

3. RIDE THE HOGWARTS EXPRESS

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One of the most memorable moments of my life - don't judge- was when standing in line, there I was, awaiting patiently at King's Cross, right at platform 9 & 3/4 (which you can find between platform 9 and 10 - wink wink) when suddenly, I hear it. The powerful whistle of the Hogwarts Express as it approached our station.  I think I didn't cry just because my daughter was watching me, but I almost did.  I did squeal.  This amazing replica of the iconic locomotive is as beautiful as it looks on the films.  When you board, they will seat about seven to eight people per cart, and close your door.  The cart compartments look EXACTLY as they look in the movies.  Before departure, pay attention to the glazed doors of the cart.  You'll see shadows of the characters "talking on the hallway", the Trolley lady, and even dementors looking to take you to Azkaban.  Watch the window when the train is in motion to observe the beautiful landscape and the view to Hogwarts/Diagon Alley. You are not supposed to take pictures or video inside the train... (sad face). 

4. RIDE EVERYTHING.

Besides the Hogwarts Express, there are only a couple of actual rides inside Harry Potter World's, but there is SO much to do! Go into the Hogwarts Castle and see it inside while waiting in line to ride Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey.  Look around, enjoy the magic! 

Before you enter the Forbidden Journey ride you will have to put ALL your belongings in a locker.  No backpacks, no lose items are allowed in this ride.  Do you remember the scene when Ron took the old Ford for a ride and landed on the Whomping Willow? Well, this ride will feel like this.  The magic bench (in which you will be seating) is controlled by a robot arm.  Combine this with the most amazing flying simulator, incredible props, and special effects, and you go on the ride of your life. 

The flight of the Hippogriff is a roller coaster designed to feel as if you were flying on Buckbeak, the hippogriff. It's fun and short, but not as amazing as THE ESCAPE FROM GRINGOTTS.  Yeah.  You literally (or simulator-ally)  go all the way down into the vault in one of those little carts guided by a goblin.  Then it gets intense.  That freaking dragon, man! It's a great thrill! You almost have to ride this twice to be able to appreciate everything there is to see as it goes magically fast. Oh, before I forget, stay outside Gringotts for a while and watch the dragon on the top of the building breath fire. We timed it to be every 15-20 minutes or so. It's great!

5. DRINK BUTTERBEER.

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I'm not a fan of sweet, creamy/sparkling drinks, but I obviously had to try butterbeer.  I've had it before at a different venue, but NOTHING, and I repeat, NOTHING compares to this butterbeer.  IT WAS AMAZING! Not too sweet, not too simple. It was just the perfect combination of sparkling, and creamy buttery flavors.  I opted to have it cold, but apparently you can also  order it hot.  

6. DINE AT THE THREE BROOMSTICKS, Leaky Cauldron OR have a brew AT HOG'S HEAD.

Great food, simple menu and the portions are big.  Two can split some plates.  Reasonably priced as well (for a theme park).  The atmosphere is cozy and the service is quite organized.  

7. THE SHOPS!!!! 

SO many shops! Most have basically the same merchandise but organized differently, so it's fun to see the props and different decor of each store.  Definitely don't miss Weasley's Wizard Wheezes trick and candy store.  It's very entertaining. Also, I was a little disappointed to see that they don't have a lot of small souvenir items for sale (other than key chains).  I was hoping to find cool Harry Potter inspired jewelry, or car stickers, or you know, things like that... nope.  Most stuff was apparel, and expensive collector's items.  There are stores dedicated to Quidditch items and apparel, others to robes, and you can even get your own post owl!

8. EXPLORE DIAGON ALLEY.

When you are in Diagon Alley you must adventure towards a small, not so crowded, alleyways and you'll be surprise what you'll find.  If you dare, you'll find yourself in Knockturn Alley.  There you'll see Borgin and Burkes, a store dedicated to the dark arts, just like the one Harry fell in after saying the wrong name with the floo powder. A replica of a moving, very life-like Nagini is showcased on the store's display.  

9. DON'T FORGET TO STOP BY GRIMMAULD PLACE AND THE KNIGHT BUS.

Outside Diagon Alley, on the Universal Studio's side, you can see a beautiful replica of Grimmauld Place.  It's funny that I got excited to see it, but most people walk by it thinking it's just a decorative building... well... it is, but you can still see it and take a pic, while imagining you were part of the Order of the Phoenix. The Knight bus is next to it.  Go inside.  Take a selfie.  

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10. WATCH THE CASTLE AT NIGHT. 

Since we only did one day at Universal (first mistake), we stayed there ALL day and into the night, to be able to do most attractions.  When night falls, it's a wonderful spectacle at Hogsmeade.  Yes, you need to make your way towards Hogwarts and watch the light show.  Just like they do it at Disney on Cinderella's castle, Hogwarts has nothing to be ashamed of.  It was actually superior than the one at Disney (READ THAT REVIEW HERE). They play a very familiar tune that dances to the marvelous lights reflected on the Castle.  I have no words to describe it, so watch this video instead and see for yourself: (disclaimer, it was Christmas time celebration when we were there, so they probably change it according to the season). 

 

SO MUCH TO DO! The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is fascinating, and truly a magical experience.  From the snow covered roofs of Hogsmeade, to the whistle of the Hogwarts Express, you will be delighted with this world and will want to go home and read (or reread) all seven books.  Yes.  Do it.  I know you want to.

IF YOU WANT TO READ THE BOOKS, GET THIS SET: Harry Potter Books 1-7.  It's worth every penny. 

Till next time.

Always,

Mia.

 

 

New York City: Sleep No More will blow your mind.

A few years ago, we visited NYC to attend NYCC (New York Comic Con), which by the way, was AMAZING.  This was before we started blogging our adventures and shenanigans. While we were in New York, we also wanted experience NYC style theater, so we attended a play that was highly recommended by a good buddy.  "Sleep No More".  

So we bought four tickets (2 couples) and just showed up for the show. I have to admit that I did some research beforehand, and learned that most people recommended wearing comfortable shoes and clothing.  What? To a play? Yes. Here is why:

SLEEP NO MORE IS LIKE NO ORDINARY PLAY.

This is the epitome of interactive theater. Sleep No More is not only a beautiful play, but also an immersive experience. You are the audience, but you are allowed to live the play. You are FREE to explore, investigate, and solve the mystery as the act develops in front of you. You can touch things, read letters, discover secret passages and hidden characters, eat candy, have a drink with the actors while in character (if you are chosen), follow any character to learn their story, or just explore around this magnificent place.

THE SET UP.

The first thing you need to know is that the play is set at the McKittrick Hotel.  The entire five story building is the set. The McKittrick Hotel does not look like anything fancy from the outside. In fact, when we got there we were utterly confused about the location. There weren't any big signs or fancy billboards that would tell us we were at the right place. We knew the address was correct, so we stayed outside the double doors where our phone GPS indicated as the spot (we were a little early). Then we noticed that people began to gather outside the door, so we got in line. There's a VIP line (you pay extra for it) and a standard ticket line. We purchased the Maximilian's Guest tickets which allowed us to skip the long line and be escorted inside to a bar (the Manderley Bar) to a reserved table while we waited for our turn. 

They also give you a poker card and a white creepy mask...don't lose it.

Ok, so let me back up a little. The McKittrick Hotel hosts several venues that are all basically connected. The Manderley Bar, which is a jazz cocktail lounge; the Heath, which is a restaurant that has live performances; The Gallow Green, their rooftop bar; and Sleep No More.  

So, when you are escorted in the hotel, you check in your coat (if any) and you are taken to the Manderley Bar. Then the fun begins. NOTE: While you are in the bar, there are some actors that are in character and walk around. You'll be able to spot them.

Remember the poker card they gave you? Well, that's how they call you into the elevator and how they chose the floor they dump you on.  

THE PLAY

There are five floors in the McKittrick Hotel. Each floor has different sceneries. The play revolves around a redefined version of Shakespeare's MacBeth. You don't need to know about the play to understand it. I was very afraid that I was going to be lost, because there is SO MUCH going on around you that could be overwhelming; but you quickly catch up to the act and to what is happening. 

Before the play begins, they give you the rules. Basically, you must wear your white mask AT ALL TIMES, and you cannot say a word, take pictures, or be interrupting (touch the characters, or interfere with their act, etc). This is how you know who is an actor and who is the audience.  Every single audience member is standing around wearing the masks (kind of how the death-eaters look when they are standing around Voldemort). It looks cultish, but it's super cool. You feel like a ghost. You are free and anonymous. Nobody knows who you are, and no one cares.  There are a few people wearing the same masks but black...those are the guards; they make sure people obey the rules at all times ~ they better not catch you with a cell phone or speaking. They are super strict~

The play begins with a ball. The actors dancing (they are all amazing dancers), and the emotions, and dialogue is basically expressed by dance and body motions. There are very, very, very few words spoken by the actors. Some of them say nothing at all in the whole play, yet, you can understand everything. 

THE EXPERIENCE

After the ball scene, the actors break out into their own characters, and scatter around the building. At this point I recommend that you pick one actor and try to keep up with him/her.  Remember when I said to wear comfortable shoes? Well, you will be running at times if you wish to keep up with your character. You will learn the play through his/her point of view.  Each character have their own unique scenes and adventures that intertwine with all others. 

 Photo from Vanity Fair* (sorry folks, we were not allowed to take pictures while inside!)

Photo from Vanity Fair* (sorry folks, we were not allowed to take pictures while inside!)

There are times that the scenes might get boring if you didn't follow one of the main characters. You can either hang out and just observe, or switch gears to a new character.  Sometimes you will lose your character, so don't panic! You will find him/her again at some point. Or just explore room by room, floor by floor (you can move freely throughout the floors), scene by scene, trying to learn the play piece by piece. It will all come together in the end.  

You will see bloody murder, fights, love scenes, creepy witchery cult ceremonies, naked people really close to you (be prepared...there's a lot of this- but don't freak out! Enjoy the art and remember that no one is judging you because no one knows who you are). There are secret passages that you should explore and discover so you can see extra scenes. One of the floors has a forbidden forest kind of setup that will blow your mind. (Go to the tree house at the very end...there's a secret there).

Some of the actors will chose audience members to whisper secrets in their ears OR to take them away into secret rooms and show you secret scenes, so don't be scared! This is all part of the act and the experience.

Become a detective and try to solve the mystery.  Perhaps the actor you chose to follow is the killer or the victim, or neither. You will know something that other audience member don't know yet.

After a little while I was worried that I would miss out on other scenes, but then I realized that some scenes were repeated. Yes, in order for everyone to get a chance to see everything (mostly everything) the whole play repeats three times while you are in the hotel. So yeah, at some point you can follow the killer, and then the victim, or the people investigating, and you can see the play through each point of view. It's a dream come true!

At first, I paired with Coco and the hubbys paired together, and coordinated to meet back at the bar at the end. If I had the chance to do this experience again, I would just adventure solo - no offense Coco!-.

Let me explain.

It's cool to have a partner to talk about the scenes with at the end, but it's extremely difficult to keep up with your character AND with your partner at the same time. We got separated several times and it was challenging to find each other since everyone is wearing the same mask!  So, for the sake of the experience, walking around by yourself is the way to go, even if you go with a group.

Bottom line. If you go to NYC, you much go to Sleep No More and just live it yourself. It's been a few years since we saw the play, and I'm STILL obsessed with it. If you do end up going (or have been) share your opinion of the play below! I would love to discuss!

Till next time. 

Always,

Mia

***WANT TO EXPLORE WITH US? CHECK OUT OUR TRAVEL BLOG!

My First Disney Trip: Preparation Stage

I'm *** years old (I reserve the right to that number) and I've never been to Disney. My hubby has been there a few times as a kid, but it's been my dream since childhood to, one day, say hi to Mickey in person.

My daughter is now 7, and we both agreed she's old enough, tall enough, and mature enough to grant a trip to Disney.  Well... he didn't have to convince me. I said yes before he even finished the word "Disney".  

The one thing I didn't know is how much preparation it takes to make this trip, not only affordable, but also hassle free. Just to start, we've been planning for months!

RELATED: HARRY POTTER MIDNIGHT RELEASE

The trick is to do a little at a time. If you try to book everything, and try to figure out the fast-passes, the dinner reservations, the accommodations all at once, you will go insane. So, take a deep breath and know that you can take your time so that everything is not rushed at the last minute... Let me explain:

1. DECIDE WHICH PARKS TO VISIT

You can pick and choose which parks to go and accommodate your budget accordingly. Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Animal Kingdom, Hollywood Studios. Additionally, Universal Studios and literally hundreds of other attractions (not part of Disney but in the vicinity).   

This is your first step.  Do you want to visit all parks? Or just Magic Kingdom? Do you want to spend one or two days in one park? This will determine your length of stay, which will determine your hotel accommodation as well. 

2. STAYING INSIDE DISNEY OR A NEARBY HOTEL?

Now that you know which parks you want to see, you can calculate how many days you need to spend, and where to stay, another important decision when it comes to budgeting. If you decide to stay in one of the many Disney Resorts, you will get a MagicBand with your stay.  This option is awesome, because these waterproof bracelets will allow you to link everything together. You can open your hotel room, access the parks, make purchases, link your pictures to your photopass (if you get one) and much more. You can also use a hotel shuttle, monorail or boat to get to the parks (depending on where you stay), complimentary with your booking.  That will definitely save you the hassle of parking.  

Staying outside Disney, in the vicinity, is also a good, cheaper option. You won't get a MagicBand, just an access card to the parks, but the prices are considerably lower. You do have to, however, find your own transportation to the parks.  Using AllTheRooms,  Airbnb or HomeAway to find a home or condo nearby might be a great alternative for large groups or families.  

RELATED: Check out this Alltherooms.com list for traveling with kids!

3. GETTING THERE.

Unless you live in Florida, traveling to Orlando can be a bit of a long road trip. So, the next thing you need to determine is if you want to drive or fly. Many budget airlines like Allegiant Air, Spirit, or Southwestern Airlines offer round trips to Orlando for very low prices. But here's the catch: usually, these flights don't depart everyday. There are only certain dates and days that these low-cost air tickets are offered. 

RELATED: PACKING LIST WHEN TRAVELING WITH KIDS

You also must consider that if you are traveling with lots of luggage, you might want to chose a regular airline instead. Just remember, low-cost airlines charge for every, single, anything.  They charge for carry-on, for printing your boarding pass, for any drinks or food, etc. in the end, you'll end up paying the same price as in a regular flight IF you are not careful.    

The alternative?  Road trip!

RELATED: LOOKING FOR HAPPINESS? JUST TRAVEL

4. MEAL PLAN and MEMORY MAKER PHOTOPASS

When you stay at a Disney Resort, you can also purchase a Disney Dining Plan or the Dining Plan Deluxe. This includes two meals (3 with the deluxe) -counter or table restaurants- per day, a snack, and drink.  If you do this, make sure to make restaurant reservations at least 60 days in advance so you don't lose the opportunity to dine with your favorite characters. Even if you don't purchase the dining plan, you should go ahead and make reservations in advance.  

Another great feature I came across is the Memory Maker photopass. Now, I still think you should take candid pictures and maybe a selfie or two while you are there, but with the memory maker pass, you don't have to worry about asking people to take a picture of you and your family, because one of the hundreds of professional photographers at the park will do so, and will link your picture to your Disney online account by using your Magicband or card.  it's that easy. This is particularly great for a mom that is ALWAYS taking pictures of every family member having fun, and there are NO pictures of mom. Yeah. That's me. If it's not a selfie, there's not a picture of me posing in cool places. I'm actually excited about this feature!

RELATED: DOLLYWOOD: FUN FOR THE WHOLE FAMILY

5. FASTPASS

Want to skip the line? Get a fastpass! Everyone is eligible to get a fastpass to the most popular attractions. You get 3 fastpasses a day, and once you used them, you can obtain more fastpasses using your Disney Experience app or by logging on into your account (use the app...it's way easier).  So, you schedule a time for a specific attraction, and you have up to 1 hour to show up for your ride and skip the line. Trust me, you want to go ahead and schedule your fastpass+ times at least 30 days ahead of your visit (60 days ahead if you stay at Disney Resorts). Times fill out rather quickly, so don't forget to do this for each park!  

Go online or on the app and explore each park and learn about each attraction to determine which ones to get the fastpass to.  (I will tell you about my experience with this later this year!)

Planning can be exhausting but, in my opinion, it's well worth it. We are leaving soon, so expect a recount of my experience and other tips! I feel much more comfortable once I know where, how, why, and what we are doing. Visiting a new place is always exciting, but it can be stressful if you don't know anything about it. So, get familiar with it, look it up online, read other's experiences and advice, and enjoy!

Do you have any suggestions for me before I go meet Mickey???? Let me know! Please comment below.

See you guys later!

Always,

Mia

 

Travel Wanderlust: Plan, budget, pack, and go!

You have a busy life. We get it. We do too. Traveling is not in your budget... We get it. It's not in ours either. But excuses like "Right now it's just not the right time to travel." We... well... we don't get that.

Maybe because we suffer from a condition called travel wanderlust. Travel wanderlust has no cure, and those who suffer from it have to find alternative ways to cope with the effects of this syndrome.  

Symptoms associated with travel wanderlust include: An immense desire to see other places, uncontrollable road-trip fever, constantly checking air fare and hotel websites, memberships to HomeAway and AirB&B, flashbacks of previous vacations, browsing of pictures from yours or friends vacations (and unashamedly, complete strangers), and obsessions with Google Earth, amongst others. 

Ok, ok you got me. Yes, we always have travel wanderlust, and it is not easy as being a blogger, a full time worker, a full time mom, a wife (AND everything that comes along being a mom and a wife that is not in the job description), our schedules are more than FULL. So, yes, needless to say, we are talking to YOU too.

Yes, YOU.

YOU, the single mom (dad) that has no time for herself/himself because she/he spends all her/his time caring for her/his kids and her/his job(s).  

YOU, the couple that doesn't see each other much because you are forced to work alternative shifts (freaking child care is expensive, man!).  

YOU, young and ambitious person that just graduated college and has never taken a vacation, because, let's be honest, college kids survive on ramen noodles and cans of tuna.  

YOU, the family with or without kids that doesn't think traveling is important.  

I'm going to give you travel wanderlust..... 

STEP 1. PLANNING

Planning where to go is the most important and also, not so important. Let me explain.

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The best trips I've been to have been spur of the moment trips, last minute deals (Expedia's mystery deals are great!), or just "why not" road trips. But also, there have been times when I've been mad for not researching and planning for weather, holidays, or travel conditions. The devil is in the details!!  

An easy way to decide a location (or narrow it down) is to answer these series of questions: Beach or mountain (determine weather), air or car (determine transportation and accommodations), active or passive (determine the amount of activities: lots of sight seeing vs relaxation), kids or no-kids (trust me, we need breaks from our little humans too, and some places aren't as kid friendly as others), Hotel vs B&B (depending on the amount of people per room, sometimes it's WAY cheaper to rent an apartment. We use HomeAway or AirBnB).  Brainstorm your location, plan your destination, and start daydreaming...

STEP 2. BUDGET

Budgeting is THE hardest part of ALL. Yes, it is indeed. We are not going to lie. We travel a lot it seems like, because we save our pennies, but boy it's hard!

SO. Saving your money when you go paycheck to paycheck is the hard part. I already said this. BUT I'm saying it again because you are going to finish reading this article and go on with your life and not actually do what I'm telling you to do, EVEN THOUGH YOU KNOW YOU NEED TO DO IT.  

SO HERE:  Maybe this will help:  SAVE MONEY AROUND YOUR HOUSE AND TRAVEL

Make a promise to yourself that you will at least try.  

You can do this.  Budget your money little by little because you deserve it. You might not go to Paris tomorrow, but you will one day. You don't need the latest IPhone or the latest designer handbag, you need to see the world. You can eat a home cooked meal instead of spending money at a restaurant and save yourself those dollars. Make a travel jar and actually label it "travel money", it's a good incentive... but don't spend it on cigarettes or beer or candy or whatever it is that tickles your fancy!

To help budget your travel also do some research on airlines and airplane tickets.  Discount airlines like Spirit, Southwest, Allegiant and even Jetblue fly from regional airports and offer super discounted flights. Score some tickets for next to nothing if your have flexible schedules or if your are flying light on baggage. Always do your research... We will post more about this at a later time.  

STEP 3.  PACK.

Oh packing, once a nemesis of mine, conquered by a brave backpack. I'm proud to tell you that I can pack for a ten day trip in one, ONE, comfortable backpack/carry on. No more check-in your luggage for me. Well, unless you go with kids, then yes, because we have to take "the" blanket AKA cobija... the sacred, furry, and very ancient mother of all blankets, the one and only thing my child will not go without. EVER.  

I have a list of things to pack if you travel with kiddos :  LIST HERE  and if you want to learn about packing all your stuff in ONE back pack, check it out HERE

STEP 4. GO

Seriously, go! What are you waiting for! You worked so hard budgeting your money, and whether it is a night at a bed and breakfast just twenty minutes from your house, or a beach, or the mountains, or another country, it doesn't matter. What matters is the fact that you are traveling and getting out of your routine, alone or as a family, it will make your life better. It will make you happier. How? Because when travel wanderlust kicks in, it will ignite a desire to explore the world. It will wake up you most inner desire to be human and to live, to see your planet, to love your planet.  It is so contagious, and so wonderful we want you to have it.  We want our kids to have it. We want to teach you how to do it.  

TRAVELING MAKES YOU HAPPY

Follow us as we try to figure this out and share it with you. WE CAN DO THIS!

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Always,

Mia

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Cruising Do's and Don'ts: When I planned ahead and when I didn't plan with my head.

Being that this was my second cruise I thought for sure I was adequately knowledgeable about the ins and outs of what to expect and what to bring. Turns out packing/cruising for 7 is a tad different from the small party of two that was the last trip. 

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-BRING A LANYARD: I don't know why I didn't think about or remember this from the last trip- but please for the love of god bring a lanyard to keep your sail and sign card on. Since cruises are non cash accepting zones, these things are needed for everything (get on and off the boat at port, buy drinks, pick up souvenirs in the gift shop, play in the arcade/casino). They are linked to whatever CC you set it up with (or pre-loaded cash) and I can't tell you how annoying it was to have to keep it in my wallet the whole trip which I was then forced to carry around on the ship the entire 7 days. Mia was smart and brought one as a "just in case" item. They *do* sell them on the boat, but my cheap ass wasn't paying $13 (per lanyard) for both my husband and myself. Lesson learned. Bring a lanyard! 

-IF GOING IN A GROUP, A WALKIE TALKIE IS A LIFESAVER:

Being that we were traveling outside of the US (without an international data package) we knew we would not able to communicate with each other using cell phones while on board. Even our normal tricks of using WiFi to text via WhatsApp wasn't an option being that Carnival charges a daily Wifi fee that I was definitely not going to fork over (cheap ass remember?) Thank goodness Mia came up with the brilliant plan (she comes up with most of them if I'm being honest) of bringing a set of long range walkie talkies with us in the event that we wanted to split up so we could still communicate when/where to meet back up. Or to prank call each other from our rooms at night/in the AM, whateves. The boys scoffed at us, but they quickly realized how useful they were and everyone was happy we forked over the $15 per couple to buy them from Amazon. 

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-CHEERS! PACKAGE OR NAH?

So the Cheers! package is an unlimited alcohol package for when you are on board the ship. At about $50 per day per person- this one isn't for the casual drinker. We weighed this option very carefully and did ALOT of math when determining if it would be worth it for us (see kids, math DOES come in handy when you are adulting- tabulating drink costs on a cruise ship for 4 of age adults is no joke!). In the end we decided to fork over the $800 per couple total cost just to have the peace of mind of not mentally tabulating our sail and sign bill each time we ordered a cocktail. (I should clarify that *I* didn't worry about calculating that bill but hubby saw that as the total to beat and kept track of every drink we each had in order to calculate if we really got our monies worth...we did....and then some in case you were wondering). At between $6 and $10 for your most bought beer and cocktails, they can add up quick! Throw in 3 full days at sea with no ports (and let's be honest- three kids who while adorable and lovely- can drive you up a wall)- and we easily met our moneys worth. We were also able to use them to get the kids some fancy (non alcoholic) drinks and sodas that we would have normally had to pay for, so all in all it was a good deal for us. 

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- TO TIP OR NOT TO TIP- THAT IS THE QUESTION:

When given the option to pre-pay for tips up front when we booked the cruise, we opted out. (Now hold your horses people- we are really great tippers and always tip well when we receive a service- over 20% in fact). We were unsure of how the staff was actually tipped out from this option and wanted to tip individually to those who provided us with services (room stewards/bar tenders/waiters) to ensure that our tip money was actually going to those serving us. Turns out, everyone is charged a flat fee for tips, they just give you the option to pay it up front or your card will be charged at the end of the cruise. We found this out the night before setting sail which was kind of an annoyance (my husband had already taken out a couple hundred dollars...in ones...) but c'est la vie. Because we firmly believe in over-tipping, especially when the service is phenomenal- we went ahead with our original plan and tipped our servers individually anyway. These guys were some of the most friendly, efficient, hard working service industry professionals I have ever met and they deserved every dollar (and more), so when given the option to tip- do it. 

- DOWNLOAD THE CARNIVAL HUB APP-

A free app with cruise specific info, this thing was a life saver most days at sea. Set it up with your own unique login and password, and it keeps an electronic tab of all your purchases on the boat as well as a schedule of all the events going on onboard each day. It allows you to mark items you are interested in and it will alert you when they are coming up we found it really handy! The best part? The app will work on the boat and will not charge you for wifi (app is free and to use is free even in international water). Score! 

- WHAT TIME TO DINE?

Upon booking your cruise you will asked to choose a dining time for dinners at your assigned dining room. Three options are given, Early, Late, and 'Your Time". I would choose the "Your Time" dining option as it is the most flexible of the three, allowing you to go early or late depending on what other activities you guys have going on on any particular day. With so many fun and exciting activities both onboard and onshore it's nice to have this flexible option. 

- BEACH TOWEL BONANZA: 

Carnival does provide beach towels for your use (one per person will be folded up for your use in your room) BUT if you loose one during the day they charge your room $20 for a replacement. Since they all look alike and the whole boat had them, it is very easy for people to pick them up thinking they are theirs and they are YOU are stuck with a bill (happened to me on our first cruise- so annoying!) So I say bring your own distinct beach towel so no one mistakes it for theirs.

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-WATERPROOF CAMERA IS A MUST!

I originally planned to just get a water proof case for my phone but I chickened out when it came to the deep blue ocean... I mean, let's face it... even though my phone is ancient, I paid like an arm and a leg for it, so I didn't want it ruined! I did test the case, and it did have good reviews, but I'm a nutcase and I couldn't make myself submerge my iPhone under the sea. In a pool, yeah. In the ocean. No. So I went online and bought a (Yuntab Action Camera Sport) cheap version of a goPro, and OMG that little camera is awesome! Paid just $20 for it, plus $10 for the 32gb memory card, and I have to say that the pictures and the video quality are off the hook! This tiny (super tiny) camera with a very good waterproof case did wonders under water... here's a video of me snorkeling:

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-JOT DOWN YOUR MEMORIES.  

Take a journal. Yeah. It might sound a little juvenile to you, but taking trips down memory lane 20 years from now when you find your journal in a drawer or in a box will be awesome. (You are welcome in advance.) Also, pick your favorite picture from your trip, print it, and throw it in there. You'll eventually forget about it, but when you find it, it is sure to bring a smile to your face. 

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-FOR GOODNESS SAKE, CHILDREN, GIVE OCEAN CLUB A CHANCE.

 Do it for your parents. They deserve a break. Our little humans were excited to go check it out and were there for about two hours. When we picked them up, we could see them dancing and laughing and doing crafts, but as soon as they saw us they changed their attitude. We asked "Did you like it!?"... "Nah" They all said they didn't want to come back, they all wanted to spend 24/7 with us because (and I guess this is partially our fault) they enjoyed the activities that involved music, and singing, and trivia, and games, and although family friendly, they weren't catered to children. Oh well. Next time we will probably approach it in a different way and maybe they'll have more kid time and we can have more adult time.  

-TAKE AN EXCURSION! We took ours in Grand Turk. Reserved through the Carnival website. They took us snorkeling to two locations, over the coral reef, and then swimming with sting rays. Yes, those things are scary looking. After our outing we were treated to some rum punch they even fed us freshly prepared (caught in front of you) Conch salad. n awesome experience and highly recommend!

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There are many "Do's and Dont's" that I can write, that may or may not pertain to you, so bottom line, go have fun! Enjoy the sun, the water, the people, don't forget that the people that work there are people too and those people are super cool actually... as they have met sooooo many more people than you. Be kind and you'll have a great time!

Bon Voyage!!! 

And then...I fell. Traveling as a clumsy person.

I fall... a lot.

When I met my husband, one of the first things he said was "Wow, you're accident prone!" as I bumped my knee with the table for the 100th time the week we met. Do you know those kids that can't have a cup of milk on the table because it will be spilled? Yeah, that was me. Or the girl that decides to dress up and wear high heels for a party, and falls in the middle of the dance floor? Yep, guilty as charged.  

I'm not kidding.  

I fall, bump by knees, my head, my limbs...a lot. I'm so used to it that it has become part of who I am. I like to look at it as one of my quirky, endearing qualities. Yeah....

For the most part, I try to avoid dangerous activities as I know what the outcome could (probably will/eventually/inevitably/certainly) be. Although I have run a 5k obstacle course without a trip to the ER! **insert proud face here**  But then again the first (and last) time I tried paintball I got injured, like, bleeding injured.  Well, there as that time I went ziplining and survived! (another proud moment of my life).  So, from time to time, I do risk it a little...You've got to understand that what seems normal and fun for most, it's risky business for me.

Now that you know how my limbs and coordination fail me from time to time, just imagine what happens when we travel. We have been horse back riding in the Andes mountains, hiked up to a natural hot springs waterfall in Colombia, climbed to the top of Notre Dame, and the Saint Peter's Cathedral's dome - 37 stories high!-, walked hundreds of miles on the streets of New York, New Orleans, Paris, and Rome...a lot of falling is bound to happen for someone like me.  

I remember a couple of years ago when we spent our family Christmas vacation in Daytona Beach, FL. We rented a huge place to house 17 people for a long week. I was excited to explore the place, and as I was walking through the rooms and entered the playroom, I missed a step, fell forward, bumped my head on the table, and my knee bruised almost immediately. Oh well, what could I do other than laugh about it?. So I put myself together, limping through the rest of the house.  

The next morning we drove a few miles south to visit some friends, and again, as I was outside on their back deck, I accidentally took a step backwards, missing the fact that I was up on a deck...falling down backwards and turning in mid air-matrix style-, landing on my knees.  Bloody accident that was. I think I still have that scar.  

One of my most memorable falls was while walking through the gorgeous gardens of Versailles Palace in France. It was a rainy day, but the rain had subsided for the most part. The gardens are so big, you can literally get lost in them. We did. For a long while. We stopped a few times to try to find our way by puzzling out a (French) map of the grounds. I mean, the place looks like a maze of beautiful plants and rose bushes (it smells delicious). The maze-like part where we got lost has high bushes that serve as walls, giving the illusion of large corridors of green walls, and dirt floors under the blue (cloudy that day) skies. A little science lesson here for you guys:

Dirt plus water equals slippery mud.  

I learned that the hard way. We knew it was slippery. In fact, we were all walking quite carefully through the muddy patches. I think I was thinking to myself about how proud I was to make it so long without incident...and then it happened.  

My thoughts betrayed me as my feet unintentionally moved in a skating motion. In slow mode, my brain was thinking "what is happening?" while my legs were trying really, really hard to keep the balance. All of a sudden, my whole body tilted right and my legs gave up to the idea of saving me from the inevitable. 

I fell into a pool of mud.  

I fell so hard I thought I broke my wrist. The entire right side of my body was saturated with brown, wet, mud. My shoes, my jeans, my very white jacket...brown. Good thing I know how to handle these things with a sense of a humor and a little decorum. I was not ashamed of finishing my day, walking through a French Palace, covered in dirt.  

 GO travel and see the world! even if you fall...

GO travel and see the world! even if you fall...

So, dear fellow travelers, and fellow dreamers.  Don't hesitate to go see the world, and to do risky things from time to time if you are like me. I'm the queen of clumsy, but life is good, and clumsiness makes for great stories.  

What is your most memorable fall? Also, as you read this, can you guess how many bones I've broken? 

***Read about our travel adventures here!***

2016 Travels: The Good, the Bad, and the Funniest

2016 was good to us.  We were able to travel to and explore four different states in the US and two countries in Europe. We saw, ate, learned, and enjoyed different cultures, languages, food, and people. Our traveler spirit shone bright this year. We usually tell you the good and the best places to go and eat (we are all about positive thinking here!), but there are a lot of unsaid things when we post our articles. We thought it would be a good idea to actually tell you about the good, the bad, and the funniest parts of our experiences... because, let's be real, you are bound to have something funny happen when you are clumsy and curious at the same time.

NEW ORLEANS, LA

THE GOOD: We visited the amazing city of New Orleans this past spring. This is a city that has my heart and my soul and I will come back to visit any chance I get. That's a promise. I can't get enough of the beautiful architecture, the folklore stories, Bourbon St, hurricanes at Lafitte's, ghost and vampires, the gorgeous cemeteries, and of course, the food. If you haven't been to New Orleans, book your trip today!

THE BAD:  Nothing too bad in this trip. But I can say that in this trip we learned two things:  always bring comfy shoes, and rain gear. While we walked towards the Harrah's Casino on day 3, a torrential rain poured down suddenly and with no warning. People, when I say torrential, I mean TORRENTIAL. We stopped at a little store and were able to get umbrellas...that lasted 10 minutes, because ALL of our umbrellas were turned upside down by the wind, and we ended up getting soaked.  every single inch our our body was soaked.  It's no fun to gamble at the casino, and walk around with wet clothes.  

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THE FUNNIEST: While we eventually found the humor and were literally "dancing in the rain", one of the funniest parts was when Coco's hubby felt fearless and thought it was a good idea to climb a post on Bourbon St.  He was actually successful in his first few attempts, but he was abruptly stopped by the massive amounts of grease covering his last targeted post. His hands (and parts of his clothes) were saturated by gooey, greasy, gunk, which, by the way, was very hard to clean off.  After that, we danced with a parrot, a rabbit, a pig, and a turtle, and sang "Eye of the Tiger" at a piano bar.  Yeah, that happened.  

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PIGEON FORGE AND GATLINBURG, TN

THE GOOD:  Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg are great places to visit with the family.  Home to DOLLYWOOD, we had an amazing time this spring.   

THE BAD: Nothing too bad happened while we traveled to TN, other than terrible traffic due to construction. Unfortunately, due to the recent wildfires in the area, many of the city's iconic sites were lost. Our thoughts are with the wonderful people of these two great towns.  

THE FUNNIEST:  Another torrential unexpected rain. While in Dollywood, and towards the end of the day, the skies broke down and rain poured like an open faucet.  We sought refuge at the main gift shop inside the park, and were able to buy an overpriced yellow rain poncho (good quality though). Thank goodness it wasn't cold, as our little 6 year old was not a happy camper.

CAROLINA BEACH, NC

THE GOOD: This trip was great.  It was Memorial Day Weekend, and the weather was perfect. The craft beer at Goodhops Brewery was fantastic, and the fire works at the boardwalk rounded off a fun filled night.

THE BAD: We wanted to stop by and tour the USS NC, in Wilmington, but, and I'm guessing it was because it was Memorial Day Weekend, the lines were long, and the kids were whinny.  We saw it from a distance and learned a little about too. Maybe next time.

THE FUNNIEST:  There is a town fair at the boardwalk. Our daughter made us laugh hysterically when she compared a Carousel Rooster to her daddy (my hubby). I guess she found the similarity in the long neck and height? Either way, it was a hoot!    

PARIS, FRANCE

THE GOOD: This trip was almost perfect. We couldn't get enough of the food, the wine, the cheese, the coffee! So many places to go, so much to see, so much to do. It was simply amazing! My favorite part was when we got some wine and food to eat picnic style at the Tuileries Garden, in front of the Louvre. It was relaxing, and uplifting, and one of my favorite memories.  *Read our articles on what to eat, and what to do in Paris*

THE BAD: While we were in Paris, the EuroCup was in progress in France. Because of that, security in Paris was extra strict, which is good, but also, drunken soccer fans were everywhere.  And let me tell you, roving bands of loud drunken peoples, especially in a city you are not familiar with can be a bit scary. The Eiffel Tower perimeter was barricaded with police and body searches, and we weren't able to see the Eiffel Tower at night. Next time it is. ALSO, there was a very limited access to free WIFI around the city.  Cafe's and restaurants will lure you into thinking you can use their WIFI with "free wifi" signs, but it's a lie! They just want you to sit down and eat/drink something.  When you ask for a wifi password they will give you a bogus one. This happened in MANY cafe's (not all though) in the touristic areas. Won't fall for it next time. 

THE FUNNIEST: Everywhere we go, it seems to rain, torrentially. But luckily, this time we were prepared! We had rain jackets, umbrellas, and waterproof shoes. Bring it on rain! What I didn't count on, was the fact that rain makes dirt slippery. Imagine this: Walking down the beautiful vast gardens of the Versailles Palace, when suddenly your feet move in a skating motion trying to avoid your body from hitting the ground. You fail, and you must spend the rest of the Palace tour COVERED in mud. Covered. Did I mention I was wearing white?  Yay me! 

ROME, ITALY

THE GOOD: The food. Oh the fabulous food. *what to eat while in Rome** The historical places were amazing as well. The Coliseum was breathtaking, and the weather was just perfect.

THE BAD: Our flight to Rome got cancelled. - Insert full panic mode emoji- We got a heads up that it was cancelled by calling home (to the US) and talking to a family member who happened to look at our itinerary. We spent hours on the phone with the airline trying to reschedule a flight for 6. Our flight was rescheduled for later that same day and we got complimentary food vouchers while we waited at the airport.- insert happy emoji here-. Finally, beware of pickpockets. While we didn't have any experiences with stolen goods, we were very well aware of our surroundings. Pickpockets and thieves will try to lure you into thinking you are watching a street show, or will force you into buying something you don't want. Keep all of your belongings on you at all times when navigating the streets of Rome. Sadly, many thieves will use children to lure you, so don't fall for those puppy eyes.

THE FUNNIEST: Pigeon poop.  Yes. When a pigeon scared Coco (she actually screamed) and pooped on her later. That, my friends, was epic.  On another note, while at the Rome's airport, we thought it was a good idea to stop by Starbucks and get a latte.  They asked for hubby's name (Chase), and the attendant didn't understand the name and asked again, and again...then she gave up and just wrote it down... this is what was on his cup, and that's how I will spell it forever.  

HELEN, GA

THE GOOD: Oh Helen, Georgia, home of Oktoberfest in the south. We pack our bags every year in October, and head to the mountains of Georgia. This little gem of a town, welcomes us with open arms and lots of brews and great food. We all wear our Alpine hats full of pins that we have collected over the years as memorabilia of our adventures, and try to match our outfits, and dance Polka at Festhall...yeah, I know, dorky...but it's fun! 

THE BAD: We have always been very fortunate and have had a place to stay while visiting (thanks Stephanie's parents!) but if you plan to visit this town during the Oktoberfest festivities, better book your hotel way in advance. The town is small, and the few rooms available book out very fast. It's almost impossible to find a hotel within a few weeks of the fest.  

THE FUNNY: Das Boot is always fun to play. Drink as much brew as you can from this massive boot-shaped glass and pass it along.  IF you finish all the beer in it, the person that went before you buys the next round.  We also tried some Stroh.  This exotic rum, smells delicious (butterscotch), but as soon as you taste it, it will burn your throat, like gasoline.  It tastes nothing like it smells, and it will make you cry. Yeah, it was pretty hilarious to see the boys try it.  

This year we also found wild bunnies roaming around in the parking lot, and we tried to catch them...unsuccessfully of course. But it was good exercise. 

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Remember how I mentioned we like to match? That includes the matching suspenders bought for our party of 8 to wear. Those little boogers can be tricky to hook and unhook, just ask Coco. In an unfortunate bathroom incident, she simultaneously had her suspenders fly off her pants, into the toilet behind her, all while a drunken alpine dress wearing Oktoberfest goer barged into her stall. I'm sure the entire Festhall heard her startled screams.  Oh, I love Helen times!

 

 

2016 was a great travel year for us and we are grateful to have shared our memories with all of you.  Stick around to see where 2017 will take us! It's going to be epic!

Always,

Coco & Mia 

*** FOLLOW US AROUND THE WORLD! READ ABOUT OUR TRAVEL ADVENTURES HERE***

What we learned while backpacking. Paris and Rome.

Before we travel, I always make it a point to research the places we are planning on visiting for things like weather, customs, special laws, walk-ability, transit and transportation arrangements etc.  Often times I find it very useful when I read tips and suggestions from other travelers and their experiences.  SO, I thought I would put together a list of tips and suggestions from our own experience while we traveled in Europe.

1. TRAVEL LIGHT.

There is no need to carry a million items. Remember, people live there and there are many places to buy the essentials like toiletries and other products should you need them. So packing travel size items is totally the way to go. Your luggage will be less heavy and your back will thank you.

2. TAKE AN UMBRELLA/RAINCOAT

I guess this one depends on where and when you travel, but generally, I always take a small travel umbrella and a light raincoat. Many times in the past I've failed to take these items and the result? I get miserably soaked by the pouring rain. Especially if you are out and about sightseeing. A travel umbrella is so small, you can place it in a side pocket of your backpack with no problem and it is TSA approved. As far a a raincoat,I opt for a light raincoat (C0lumbia Sportswear worked perfectly).  Make sure it is waterproof and not just water resistant (believe me...great difference).    

3. PORTABLE CELL PHONE CHARGER

I use my cellphone to take all my pictures while traveling.  I mean, the convenience of just having a small device which you can also use as a camera/phone/GPS and mini computer is just a great perk of living in the twenty first century...as such, I also have to deal with terrifying "low battery" pop up message that is inevitable when traveling. A small, portable cell phone charger is a life saver. You can check out all our pictures now and thank the creators of such neat device later.

4. PORTABLE SELFIE STICK FOR PICTURES

When we exerted ourselves up 37 stories just to reach the top of the Saint Peter's Basilica or the Notre-Dame top level to see the mystic gargoyles, it was worth it. But we also realized there's an incredible potential for amazing pictures that cannot be achieved with just stretching your hand.  A selfie stick was the solution.  A picture perfect solution. 

5. TAKE A SCARF

Yes, It is HOT in many places in Europe in the summer days. This was especially true when we visited Rome. You will be tempted to wear just a tank top and shorts, or a sleeveless maxi-dress. It's the perfect attire for the warmth of this spectacular place...BUT be aware that MOST (if not all) churches, and sacred places in Rome - including the Vatican- will NOT let you in if you don't cover your shoulders (and your knees).  A scarf is the perfect alternative to wrap around your neck and shoulders.  and it also provides a very stylish way to accessorize your outfit. Locals in both, France and Italy wear scarves all the time, even in the summer months - and especially at night.

6. GIRLS, MAXI OR SUMMER DRESSES ARE A MUST

A perfect outfit when backpacking is one that you can dress up or dress down with ease.  A maxi dress or a cute summer dress provides the perfect combination of style and comfort. Dress it up with a scarf or custom jewelry, or just wear it as it comes during the day. You can't go wrong with a dress.

7. TENNIS SHOES ARE TOTALLY OK

One of the things I was most worried about was the fact that I wanted to pick the right pair of shoes for Paris and Rome. I didn't want to look like an obvious tourist.  I googled a million times and read a million blogs to investigate what kind of shoes other people were taking on their trips. All suggested comfortable walking shoes, and flats for women. Many stated to stay away from white tennis shoes. Let me tell you what I saw. An unbearable amount of both men and women wearing tennis shoes (as in Nike and Adidas). I also saw a lot of locals wearing white tennis shoes (usually Converse or Keds). So I wish I would've known this before picking my shoes. I opted for taking a pair of gray Bobs (by Sketchers) with the memory foam inserts. They were very comfortable walking shoes and they looked just fine with my outfits.  Just remember, whatever shoe you pick, make sure they are made for walking (we walked an average of 10 miles per day), and make sure you break them in in advance!

8. WATERPROOF YOUR SHOES

I learned this one the hard way.  Remember when I said we've gotten soaked by pouring rain in the past? Well, this includes our shoes. Let me tell you, there is nothing worse than walking around in wet soggy shoes all day. So this time, I knew better. I got a water-proof spray (make sure it works on fabric) and waterproofed my shoes all the way around.  The result was as expected, and my feet did not get wet at all when it rained -Even when I accidentally stepped in a big puddle!.

9. PARIS PASS/TRAIN PASS 

Is it worth the money? Well, the answer depends on your needs.  There are many alternatives on packages that you can get while in Paris.  We definitely recommend to get the travel card even if you don't end up getting the whole Paris pass deal.  Let me explain.  The Paris Pass is a package deal that you can purchase online and pick up when you arrive at one of the many locations they offer. It includes a museum pass, an attraction pass, and a travel card.  You can get it for two, three, four, or six days, depending on your needs. If you purchase the whole pass, you have access to over 60+ museums and attractions and unlimited metro, RER, and bus travel, a bus tour, fast track access to many museums, and a guide book. So here's how you decide.  Make a list of the museums and attractions that you want to visit for sure, and if it's more economical to just pay for them individually (you can find the prices online) and if you are not interested in taking the bus tour either, then just get the travel card and a museum pass, or just a travel card and pay for the museum entries individually. We got the pass for convenience and peace of mind. For us it was worth it since we visited many places. 

RELATED: PARIS: CITY OF LOVE AND MANY OTHER AMAZING THINGS

10. USE YOUR MANNERS

I'm embarrassed to admit that many Americans are perceived as rude in Europe. And unfortunately it is true. I observed how many of us forget to use our manners when talking to strangers in Europe. I'm going to give ourselves the benefit of the doubt and state that it could be (perhaps) the language barrier. Many people (including myself) get nervous and forget the few foreign words they know when someone speaks to them in another language. But either way, it's not an excuse. Don't forget to use your hellos and thank yous in the respective language.  You will see a huge difference in the way locals respond to you.

11. DON'T FALL FOR STREET SCAMS

There are MANY scammers scampering the streets for their next victim. From innocent looking kids trying to convince you to sign a petition - while his/her friend steals your cellphone or wallet, from very young women posing as old and disabled gypsy ladies begging for money - you know they are not real when they won't show you their face.  Many pickpockets and fake street performers that only want to distract you so you are an easier target. Also, there are many street sellers that will literally hand you an item and once you have it in your hand they will demand payment.  Best thing to do; be vigilant of your surroundings and your belongings and you will be fine. 

12. TRY EVERYTHING (FOOD/DRINK)

Forget diets! eat everything you can and enjoy a different culture through their cuisine.  You only live once!

RELATED: ROME MUST EATS

RELATED: PARIS FOODIE EDITION

13. FACE THE HEIGHTS

The most beautiful views in Europe will be from the top of a mountain or building. We climbed Norte-Dame, Sacre-Coeur, and Saint Peter's Basilica (at 37 stories high) by foot.  Hundreds of steps later, you will be awed by the incredible views you will find once you face your fear of heights and tight spaces. Especially in Paris, prepare to climb many, many steps all around the city.

14. CARRY A MAP

If you don't have constant internet access it's impossible to rely on your phone's GPS when you get lost in the city. Having a good map with clear street names can potentially save you your sanity when the time comes. This is a good advice also for a metro or RER maps. Plan  your route in advance so you don't waste precious vacation time trying to figure out where to go and how to get there with no map.

15. SUMMER CAN GET HOT

I said it before, but I'll say it again. Summer can get hot, especially in Italy.  If you are planning on visiting in June-August, plan accordingly and pack summer clothes. Shorts, dresses, sunglasses, and lots and lots of sun screen when you go out sightseeing.

RELATED: WHEN IN ROME

16. AMERICAN EXPRESS- NOT ACCEPTED EVERYWHERE

We wanted to minimize the amount of cash we carried, in case of pickpockets. Didn't want to risk getting robbed of all our money. We thought it was a good idea to pay with a credit card whenever possible. For the most part this worked great. BUT be advised, only Visa and Master Card are accepted in most places. Coco had an American Express card that was barely used because apparently Paris and Rome (even the very touristic places) do not accept American Express.

17. THE WI-FI SCAM

One thing I would like to point out is the fact that almost every cafe, restaurant, and shop in Paris advertises free Wi-Fi for their patrons. LIES. Now, this is only a theory based on observation, but it seems to me that advertising free Wi-Fi is a good tactic to get people to have a seat and order an espresso while they figure out their maps or they make a call using internet access (namely, us).  But 8 out of 10 places do not really have this free Wi-Fi access. You have to request a password to access their network, and (if they provide it to you) the connections don't work. Our group was pretty technologically savvy and none of us could connect to most networks. When you ask the waitress for a correct password, they will say it is the password it was already provided and that it should work. Verdict: false advertisement just to get tourists to sit down while hunting for that precious Wi-Fi.

We all have different experiences every time we travel. It's our mission to share these with fellow travelers for informative purposes. We would also love to hear from you and your experiences! Comment below and tell us about your trip and backpacking experiences! 

***TRAVEL WITH US! READ ABOUT OUR OTHER ADVENTURES HERE!

Backpacking 101 (for amateurs)

As a lover of clothes and shoes (and feeling the need for options when traveling) the idea of fitting 10 days worth of clothes, shoes, and toiletries into one backpack for a trip around Europe was daunting to say the least. Despite my reservations, the idea of backpacking and all that it implied (freedom, adventure, experiences) has always been something that appealed to me. Turning 31 this year (shhhh don't tell anyone), I realized I'm not getting any younger and what better time to chase your dreams than the present. Luckily my husband of 10 years has the same sense of wanderlust as I, and my bff/partner in crime Mia does as well; they both jumped right on board, no hesitations to make my dream trip a reality.

Once the flights were booked and the lodgings arranged, we began the arduous task of finding "the backpack" for the trip, and the even more arduous task of packing. 

RELATED: what to pack when you travel with kids

Hubby and I opted for the Cabin Max Metz Backpack that we found on Amazon. The reason this backpack appealed to us was it's ability to be packed like traditional luggage. The zipper went all the way around the pack which made it much easier when looking through the pack versus rifling through the top of a traditional backpack and digging to the bottom for desired items. The straps and back offered some extra padding and cushioning which was greatly appreciated when we got lost walking around Paris looking for our hotel (that's a tale for another day...). The front flap also had little storage zippers inside for small items like socks, undies, and toiletries.  

Mia and her hubby went with the OutdoorMaster Hiking Backpack 50L with Waterproof Backpack Cover. A more traditional backpack style, this bag offered extra support as it straps around the waist and chest.  The side pockets offered a perfect place for a travel umbrella, and other small items, and the front (open) pocket provides a great place for a light jacket or any other item that you might need to get easily...but beware of pickpockets since this front pocket is a very easy target (just don't put anything valuable there).  It is 50 liters so you can pack a lot of stuff in this backpack, but this specific one is a top loader, so it can get tricky to pack it up. The solution? Packing cubes. This amazing little invention is a life saver. The idea is to organize your stuff in separate piles. Use one cube for underwear/socks, one for tops, one for bottoms, one for miscellaneous items or to store your dirty clothes after you wear them. This way, you won't have to take everything out, and spread your stuff around while searching for a specific item. You just take your cubes out and everything will stay organized and in place.

RELATED: WHEN IN ROME

Ok, so backpacks have purchased now what to pack?

Knowing that space was very limited here is how I packed:

  •  One pair of thin (Dollar store brand) flip flops for the communal shower at the first lodging in Paris. 
  •  2 pair pants
  •  One Maxi dress
  • a mini-travel size dual voltage hair straightener. They are not very good but It comes in handy!
  • A world traveler Adapter- if you are going to Europe.  Believe me, you'll need one.
  •  Combination 8 tank/ short sleeve shirts.
  •  10 pair undies/socks ( In hindsight really could have packed half that and washed my undies in the shower with me everyday- leaving out to dry while we gallivanted around during the day).
  • 2 bras (black and white) I opted for sports bras just because they are super comfy.
  •  Lightweight fleece jacket (Paris got a tad chilly at night!)
  •  Rain jacket (I really liked my Columbia jacket purchased at Dicks Sporting Goods)
  •  Travel sized umbrella (this saved the day quite a few times in Paris- the weather was super fickle when we traveled)
  •  Travel towel- I purchased ours from Amazon and was very thankful when we saw the towels provided by the first lodging (more like hand towels than bath towels!)These things folded up super thin and didn't take up much room at all, really great investment for only $12.99
  •  Quart sized plastic bag of toiletries (remember nothing over 3 ounces- TSA rules!) I packed shampoo, conditioner, face wash, sea salt spray, argon oil, bar soap, extra contacts).
  •  Small makeup bag (I actually used an ipsy one) with one eyeshadow, one mascara, and one eyeliner. 
  •  Glasses- in case of a contact fiasco I wanted my glasses for backup
  •  Large cross body purse: Inside I packed my camera/case, small wallet with my ID and one credit card, small hand sanitizer, chapstick, extra hair ties, neutral colored scarf, & passport. 

**I didn't think to pack a small pack of hand wipes but I suggest throwing them in your purse too, they really were a life saver (thank you Stephanie) on two occasions when I had a pigeon poop crisis in Paris (I don't want to talk about- I'm working through it in therapy). 

***TRAVEL WITH US! READ ABOUT OUR ADVENTURES AROUND THE WORLD

Have you all gone backpacking before? What were some of your must haves while on the road? Anything tips or tricks you can share about backpacking?  Please comment below and let us know!