Friday, August 29, 2014

Destinations : Puerto Rico & Bruge

We're back today with my monthly series called Destinations.  Each month I am interviewing travelers all over the world near and far about destinations they've been to, what they packed, how they got there and so much more. 

Today I have 2 amazing bloggers sharing their chosen destinations with you.  I'm so excited to welcome Katie and Bailey to share some amazing places in the world with you today!



Puerto Rico

I love how much Puerto Rico has to offer. You get the outdoors (mountains, hills, waterfalls as well as beaches, of course), city-life, history, relaxation, adventure, great food, culture, and more. There is something for everyone, and one great thing about Puerto Rico is that nothing is too far away from something else. We were there with my whole family (11 of us) for my parents' 30th anniversary, who surprised us with a vow renewal on the beach the last night we were there.

We flew direct from Houston to San Juan, and drove to our hotel in Rio Grande, about 35 minutes outside of San Juan.

My whole family stayed at Wyndham Rio Mar Resort, which I actually wouldn't recommend. Too expensive and not enough bang for the buck, among other things. :) 

1. I would recommend to dive into the culture, especially the food. Stop and eat at the street food vendors or hole-in-the-walls, and embrace plantains! 
2. We went in August, and it was SO hot and humid. I'm used to that, being from Texas, but if you're from a less temperate region, I would recommend going any other time. 
3. Lastly, try something different. We were able to visit the famous Bioluminescent Bay and it was amazing, but we also zip-lined, hiked to waterfalls, cliff jumped, and snorkeled as well as doing things like beach-lounging and city-touring. 

Since the climate basically stays the same throughout the year (warm), you won't have to worry about packing for unexpected weather except during hurricane season (June-November). The culture is pretty casual, so walking around in swim suits with coverings is totally acceptable, even in non-touristy areas. Obviously pack swim suits and warm-weather clothes, but you could also pack hiking gear and a nice outfit depending on what you want to do. I basically wore my swim suit, shorts, and a cute casual lightweight shirt every day. Pack sunscreen, bug spray, and rain gear just in case.

1. Visit Old San Juan for sure. The colorful buildings are beautiful and fun, and there are gorgeous forts full of history for you to tour, like the Castillo San Felipe del Morro. 
2. Bioluminescent Bay on the island of Vieques is where you get to see blue-glowing organisms at night, and it is absolutely amazing. 
3. My favorite place to hike was El Yunque Rainforest where you'll find luscious plants and trees and gorgeous waterfalls. 
4. Lastly, basically any beach you find is gorgeous, and be sure to snorkel at some point.

The feel of the island is very laid back. Make sure to explore and find new things to experience, but don't rush or put pressure on yourself. Lay back and just be grateful that you're there!

I blog at the French Pemberley blog where I share travel, photography, and intentional living. I'm a yoga teacher and an advanced scuba diver so I also share tips for creating and maintaining a healthy lifestyle and being someone who has always loved good design, I share a little of that there as well. I live in the beautiful Southwest, but have become a prolific traveler. 2014 will find me in San Francisco, San Diego, New York City, Mexico, Maui, Las Vegas, Spain, France, Italy, and Monte Carlo before the year is over.

Today I am sharing Bruge, Belgium.

My first trip to Paris, I saw a brochure about day trips to Bruge, Belgium.  I wanted to take a day trip to Bruge, but did not have enough time. I promised myself the next time I was in Paris, I would make a day trip there a priority and I did! The following year, I was in Paris with my 5 year old (at the time) daughter and we took a bus charter day trip there. Last year found me in Paris again, this time with my husband and our two eldest daughters and we drove there from Paris.  

We did these trips into Bruge as day trips so we stayed at the same resort outside Paris each time.

Bruge is a charming locale to visit so anytime is a good time but if you go in winter be sure and bundle up, it gets very cold there in late fall-early spring. When staying in Paris, it is a full day trip to get there and back but is well worth the day if you wish to get in an additional country during your Paris holiday. Belgium is known for its chocolates and handmaid laces so it is a great place to pick up souvenirs for yourself and for family members.

 A camera for sure, as Bruge is one of the most photogenic destinations in Europe. Gloves, hat and scarf if you are there during cooler months.

Taking a boat ride through the town is a must, which allows you to see all the architecture and bridges. If you have little ones with you, the Chocolate Museum is a big hit. Be sure and visit at least one each of a tapestry, lace and chocolate shop while visiting. The stained glass and architecture of the cathedral in city center is also a must.  

Bruge is a wonderful day trip location if you are coming there from Paris. On its own merit, it is a city with much character and many charming hotels and bed and breakfasts waiting to accommodate you if you choose to stay a bit longer !

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Travel Tips : Using Credit Cards Points for Travel

So let's talk about how to pay for travel, and I mean really get your money's worth, from credit card points.  I know this subject to some may seem like you never get a value from it, but let me tell you, if you know how to use them, credit card points can be incredibly valuable.  Just this year we've paid for numerous hotel stays, flights and weekend getaways on credit card points alone and I'm sharing some of my tips today to make the most of your points and put them to good use.

Let me preface this post by saying that due to my job, I put a lot more on credit cards than the average person, but that by no means is a reason that you can't use your credit cards to your advantage either.  It takes some planning and organization to get your credit cards to the point where you're earning lots of points but it's well worth the effort.  

My 3 favorite credit cards for travel are shown above: the Alaska Visa, Chase Sapphire Visa and the British Airways Visa.  All 3 are excellent at paying for travel through points and I've had great luck with all of them.  I've talked about their perks in this post before, but today here is how I use the points from these cards to pay for actual travel and save a lot of money in the process.

There are times when your travel dates happen to fall on weekends with high traffic or in cities that are generally very expensive and even if you found cheap flights, hotels might be astronomical in price.  That is when I use points on hotels.  I generally keep my BA card points stocked up for hotels, as I like their system and have had good luck with it in the past.  I also generally don't have enough for long haul flights through them, but I usually have a good stockpile of BA avios that work out really well for hotel stays (or short intra-Europe flights).  In cities like London where hotels can be over $300 a night for a decent hotel, points work really well and cost you nothing.  Or for example, for our upcoming trip to Denver in September, we found out after booking cheap flights that the weekend we are there there is a huge convention and hotels in downtown Denver were going for $389 per night.  There is no way I'm going to pay that for one night, so I reached into my BA points and got us a hotel on points.  

A great way to use points for airfare, particularly when you don't have enough for a full round trip long haul ticket, is to use it on one way flights and pay for the other way on cash.  I particularly like the Sapphire card for this purpose.  Booking through their portal you can see which airlines will offer rates for one way fares (not all of them do).  I usually do the research before hand to see if I can find an inexpensive flight for the other way to pay cash for before I book my one way on points.

For an example of this, on our trip to Spain in March of next year I booked us totally on points for our flight from the US to London (then we'll jump on an EasyJet flight to Spain) on Air New Zealand.  On the way home, I found a cheap flight from London back to the US on Norwegian Air for only $240 per person one way.  Which means, we're both flying to Europe for only about $500 total since we used points on the outbound flight.

This is also a great way to save on flights to and from major airports.  For example when we travel abroad, we generally leave from Seattle or LA, so to get from Portland to those airports, I'll use points to cover those connecting flights from our Alaska account.  Generally we never pay for those connecting flights, they are always on points since they are short and don't require a lot of mileage.

Credit cards points can be great for weekend getaways and can often cover everything you need in a couple days at a location.  Particularly in not as popular destinations, you can easily cover a weekend's hotels, car rental and airfare on points when used properly.

For an example of this, earlier this year Nick and I spent a weekend in New Mexico.  We covered our flights, car rental and hotels for the whole weekend on points from our Sapphire card.  This is especially easier after you've received your sign up bonus points for cards like this or if you've stockpiled points for a while, but nevertheless, there are lots of destinations that you can cover with points for a weekend getaway pretty easily.

One of my favorite ways to use points is to use them for rental cars.  Rental car costs can add up really quickly and I never pay for them anymore, instead always using my BA or sapphire points for our reservations.  To be able to save the $300 or more cost for rental cars for a few days, points can be a great way to save a chunk of cash when it comes to renting cars around the world.

Just in the past year, I've used points to rent cars in Ireland, Scotland, New Mexico and Southern California and not paid a dime for them.

*Note : Travel credit cards can be amazing in terms of paying for actual travel but keep in mind how much you're spending and be careful not to rack up credit card amounts just to get points.  Make sure your spending is in line with what you can afford, but also realize the advantage that with careful planning and responsible spending you can save up a lot of points that can then turn into travel opportunities.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Road Trip Itinerary through Northern Ireland

Multiple things lately have brought me back to thinking about our trip through Ireland last Fall and I can hardly believe that is was a full nine months ago now.  It feels like it was just yesterday we were driving through the green fields of Northern Ireland, eating sticky toffee pudding and taking in the land where my family comes from.  So in looking back at our trip, we managed to see a lot of the Nothern Irish landscape as we drove through it.  I've talked a bit about driving in the UK before but today I'm sharing an itinerary for the perfect road trip through the Eastern side of Northern Ireland.

Belfast is the perfect spot to begin a road trip through Northern Ireland, and in a country that's pretty small to drive around, you can do this itinerary in a day and drive back to Belfast at the end of it.  We based ourselves in Belfast and then took day trips as we needed.  Stop by the Titanic Museum before you get on the highway heading North.

We decided to go a bit more of a coastal route to take in views of the coast as we headed North from Belfast.  Our fist stop was the little town of Ballycastle to grab lunch at a local pub and take in views of the Irish coast.

Next up along the route of the Northern Irish coastline are the cliff views throughout Dunseverick.  There are some great spots to pull over along this stretch of road and admire the rocky cliffsides, the jagged ocean and many little houses tucked in here and there throughout the rocks.

The Giant's Causeway is a must see when venturing through Northern Ireland (a mere hour and 15 minute drive when going straight there from Belfast), this UNESCO world heritage site is incredible. The rock formations here, the way the ocean spills in the inlets and the landscape the surrounds the coast here is truly breathtaking.

Just about 5 minutes up the road after the Giant's Causeway are the ruins of Dunluce Castle.  The hilltop location of this ancient place has sweeping views of the coastline and a pretty incredible story that used to be a huge mainstay of the Irish coast.

Finish your day with dinner at the Bushmills Inn before jumping back on the highway towards Belfast.  This little gem of a town (famous for its whiskey) houses this adorable little B&B and restaurant.  Our meal there was one of the freshest tasting meals I've ever had!

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The 5 Hardest Parts of Blogging

Continuing on from yesterday when I talked about my favorite 5 things about blogging, today we're exploring some of the negatives of this ever changing industry.  I've been seriously blogging for almost 2 years now (I was blogging long before that but never really did it seriously or to add to my income) and in that time, the blogging environment has changed tremendously.  I started from scratch, grew my readership over time without pushing too hard to gain followers and as I mentioned yesterday, this blog is not and never has been my only job, it's simply a side project I enjoy.

During my time in the blogging world, I've come across bullying, criticism and ignorance.  I've seen bloggers I know and admire be put through the ringer by readers, comments that aren't meant for anything but to cause harm or exude jealousy and I've been there too.  The internet is a place that many feel they can say whatever they want without any hint of reality, truth or consequence.  It's always been my belief in the blogging world that I'm not going to agree with everything everyone does or says, but at the end of the day, does a mean, jealous or snotty comment help anyone?  No it does not.

And so on that note, there are lots of ways that blogging is hard and that bloggers get hurt in the process.  Here are my top 5 hardest parts of blogging from my own experiences.

Perhaps the most vicious part of blogging, people can be just plain mean.  Between comments on posts attacking bloggers on auxiliary sites like GOMI and criticism in comments (90% of the time unwarranted), it can be a hard thing to get used to.  When someone writes something about you that's totally untrue but put out there for the world to see, it becomes both uncomfortable and degrading.  I've started to move forward from this part of blogging (after having it happen to me quite a few times) knowing that the majority of the time, attacks on bloggers have nothing to do with them, but everything to say about the person writing them.

*On another note, constructive criticism in blogging can be quite a good thing and knowing what your readers want or how to make certain things better are always, in my opinion, ok.  I love when I hear feedback from readers, but following the golden rule, be nice about it.

The blogging world is full of assumptions.  We read someone's blog and we think we immediately know everything about them.  Or we follow them on Instagram and read into things that we see.  Unfortunately, that's the nature of the beast of social media and an online world, but we can also realize as bloggers and readers that what we're seeing isn't always the full story.  For example, I get the comment all the time, "How do you guys miss so much work to travel?"  The whole truth of the matter is that we use our vacation days, the same amount of vacation days that everyone else in the USA gets.  We just also use weekends and holidays to supplement our days off.  Many times the assumptions we make about people we know online aren't true at all and it's worth stopping for a moment and thinking about it, and if you want to know more, just ask.

Blogs are, somewhat misleadingly, incredibly time consuming.  And often, readers aren't ever going to know how much time went into the post they just read.  It's hard as a blogger, who's put hours into graphics and writing posts to not be able to show off the time it takes and the upkeep that is required if you want your blog to succeed.  When new bloggers ask me what is something I would have liked to have known going into this, I always answer that it's a huge commitment, especially if you're going to blog seriously.

I mentioned yesterday how rewarding the blogging community is and how many amazing people I've met along the way.  One downside to this however is distance.  There are bloggers, both that I've met in person and that I have yet to meet, that I'd love to call and meet up for a cup of coffee.  Or times when I'd love to have some of my favorite bloggers closer to where I call home so that those relationships could grow.  That's very rarely the case and for me, it's something that I think about often.

This industry is complicated and when you first start out, there really is a lot to learn.  The truth is though, when it comes to the work it takes to grow your blog, there really is no right or wrong answer.  Everyone does it differently and what works for me, might not work for you.  But I will say this, blogging is like a race, you need to pace yourself if you're going to be here for the long haul.