Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Beach House - Our Hawaii Vacation Rental Experience

When we decided to take a family vacation to Hawaii, we knew that accommodations for all of us would be the biggest challenge.  We were able to rent a house right on the beach.  We found the house on the internet.  While obviously, it is difficult to verify the facts about a vacation rental that you find online and therefore, caution is advised when booking using the internet unless you book through a reputable company or realtor, for this private listing, we took a chance and saved a fair bit of money by booking it this way.  In the description of the house, it said that the house was located right on the beach, but in the pictures, there was something in the yard that looked like it may have been a road between the house and the beach.  We knew that even if it wasn't right on the beach, it was very close and decided to risk it.  When we arrived, we discovered that what had looked like perhaps a small road in the pictures on the computer was actually just a tiny seawall.  Our yard was bright green grass, exotic flowers, the seawall, a virtually private sandy beach, and the ocean!  What a pleasant surprise!

It was like our own tropical paradise!  As you can see from these pictures, the yard that we found upon our arrival was more than we could have hoped for in our wildest dreams!  
The inside of the house was also nicer than we had expected given the pictures.  It had the feel of a luxurious tropical vacation property.  

By choosing to stay at a house instead of a hotel, we saved an enormous amount of money on food and on entertainment.  In the two weeks that we spent in Hawaii, including our travel days, we only ate in a restaurant three times.  We went grocery shopping and bought all the food needed for snacks and meals. We also purchased sand toys for the kids at W*l-Mart and some boogy boards, which entertained them for hours on end every day.  
The house came with all the dishes and appliances that we needed and had a washing machine and a dryer so I was able to stay current on the laundry as well.  The house also came with a double kayak and a dingy which also got used every day.
By eating almost all of our meals in and having entertainment right in our own backyard, we were able to save money and have a relaxing vacation.  As some of our children were still very young, we did not have to worry about them waking so early in the morning and disturbing other guests, as we were in our own home.  My husband and I were also were able to rent movies or watch cable television in the evenings once the kids were asleep while we munched on nachos or popcorn or sat outside together in the yard overlooking the ocean.  It was quiet and somewhat secluded and soon began to feel like home.
All of us have the fondest memories of "our" beach house.  It was the perfect accommodations for our family given that we would not have fit in a standard hotel room (at the time of the trip, there were seven people in our family) and that it allowed us to be able to relax by eating our meals in and going for walks along the beach and lazing around in the yard.  Also, traveling with young children at the time, one still in diapers, having our own place enabled us the space and freedom to truly unwind.
Though certainly not all vacation rental stories turn out as well as ours did, we were able to save money and have our own little piece of paradise.  For us, even if the home had not been right on the beach or exactly as described online, the price (compared to staying in hotel rooms and eating out) would have made it well worth it.  I think the important thing to remember when booking a vacation rental online is that it is always a risk and you cannot go into it expecting too much.  If something sounds too good to be true, chances are it is!  In our case, we were just incredibly lucky.  Perhaps the next time we book a vacation rental online, we will not be as lucky.  I'll be sure to let you know either way!

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Eating Out on Vacation

Restaurants are one of the biggest expenses on any vacation, but with a large family, that expense gets multiplied.  There are many great ways to save on vacation by NOT eating in restaurants and those will be covered in other posts, but there will be times when eating out either cannot be avoided or where it can be a nice treat, so knowing how to cut down the costs is essential.

1.  Plan ahead.  In the same way that you would plan your accommodations before a vacation, plan your dining.  Decide ahead of time how many meals you will be eating in restaurants.  Plan out which restaurants you will go to by searching on the internet or asking friends for recommendations.  Most restaurants even have sample menus available on the internet, so you can see prices and food choices and get a better idea of how much money you can expect to spend.

2.  Coupons.  One way to plan your dining is to search for coupons for restaurants in the area you will be going to.  There are coupon books that often have two for one dinners for many of the chain restaurants.  Other restaurants often offer printable coupons on their websites.

3.  Budget.  Decide on a food budget ahead of time and agree to stick to it.

4.  Water.  The easiest and healthiest way to cut back on the bill when dining out is to have everyone order tap water instead of soda pop, coffee, alcohol, or other beverages.  Let your kids know ahead of time that this is what is going to happen so that there is no conflict in the restaurant and everyone knows what to expect.

5.  Kids Eat Free.  Many restaurants, especially those located inside hotels, have a Kids Eat Free program.  This can be a real money saver.  The thing to be careful of though is that most of these programs mean that one child can eat free PER paying adult meal, so for parents with four small children, two of the kids would eat free and two would not.  For parents who have older children and younger children, this can work to their advantage though.  As an example, we have two older children and five younger children.  In our scenario, we would have to pay for four adult meals, would get four kids meals for free and those four meals could easily be split among our five younger kids.

6.  Avoid the Kids Meal Trap.  Other than in the case of a Kids Eat Free program, or the case of a 99 cent or $1.99 kids' meal, they are usually a giant waste of money.  For five, six, seven, or even eight dollars, you can order a kids meal that consists of a handful of french fries, a few chicken fingers, and a pop or a small plate of Kr*ft Dinner (which we all know can be purchased by the caselot for the cost of one kids' meal!).  With few exceptions, ordering individual kids' meals will be the most costly dining option for a large family.

7.  Share.  By ordering an adult portion of chicken fingers and fries for $10 and splitting it between two kids instead of two $6 kids meals, you will save money and probably get more food.  The same goes for having the kids split a spaghetti plate.  With the portions served in most North American eating establishments, a spaghetti can easily be split among three children.  Pizzas are something that the whole family can share, not just the kids.

8.  Gratuity.  Watch your bill carefully.  At many restaurants, gratuity is often added to parties of 8 or more.  As there are nine in our family, that means that a large gratuity is often automatically added to our bill.  If we do not read carefully, we could be paying double the gratuity!  In addition, if you are not happy with the service provided, it is well within your rights to ask the manager to have the automatic gratuity removed from the bill.

9.  Restaurant Reviews.  For me, dining out is a treat and I do not want to spend money on something that I am not going to enjoy.  Therefore, I often read restaurant reviews prior to going and choose something that is a favourite of locals in that area.  I am usually not disappointed!

10.  Ask for a Group Discount.  Though most restaurants don't advertise it, many offer platters or meals for larger groups and especially if they have advance notice, you may be able to get a meal for your family that would cost less.  Remember, it never hurts to ask!  

Monday, October 4, 2010

Plan to be Spontaneous!

By doing some simple planning ahead of time, you can be prepared to go on a last minute trip.  Here are some things that you can do all year long that will enable you to be able to say "yes" when opportunities to go on a spontaneous getaway present themselves.

1.  Be on the lookout for items on sale that you can buy and store for road trips.  At our house, we have a locked storage area that I keep the items in so that the kids don't get their hands on them before I need them.  Items that I look for are things that can be used to entertain and feed the kids on a long drive.  I buy juice boxes, water bottles, treats, snacks, notebooks, pens, small games or toys, books, activity books, and mind bender types of puzzles.  I look for after season sales.  After Hallowe'en, candy and small chocolate bars are on sale for pennies on the dollar.  After Valentine's day, I can often pick up inexpensive heart shaped notebooks and pens.

When we decide to go on a last minute road trip, I can quickly go up to my locked storage room and fill a bag with drinks and snacks for the road as well as a small bag for each of the kids with activities to keep them occupied on a long drive.

2.  Be on the lookout for items on sale that can be used while on a trip such as goggles, bathing suits, and snorkel gear.

3.  Keep a well stocked pantry.  A well stocked pantry can save money on your regular grocery bills if you buy in bulk (be careful as this is not always the most cost effective, but it can be if you know your pricing) and buy on sale.  A well stocked pantry can also be useful when you have an hour to pack for a trip where you will need to bring food with you such as a camping trip or when you will be staying somewhere that has a kitchen or kitchenette.

4.  Be as caught up as you can be on your laundry.  When you only have an hour to pack for many people, having things clean, folded, and put away is half the battle.

5.  Have a typed out packing list that is current for your family.  If you have smaller children, your packing list will be very different as when you don't, as it will include things such as diapers and sippy cups.  By keeping an up-to-date family packing list at the ready, you can check things off as you go and ensure that you don't forget anything.

By taking these steps ahead of time, you will be able to pack up and get on the road within an hour.  A spontaneous trip can be a lot of fun!  One of the reason that many of our family's trips tend to be spontaneous is that if you are able to go at the last minute, you are able to get some of the best deals on flights and accommodations.

Hope you enjoy your last minute fun!!!

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Unique Challenges

As any parent with more than two children knows, traveling with a large family presents unique challenges.  Most hotel rooms are designed with four or five people in mind.  The cost of eating in restaurants adds up quickly when you are feeding many people.  Seating configurations in airplanes often are not conducive to adults sitting near their children if there are more than two or three children.

The logistics of planning and packing for a large number of people can be a challenge as well.  This blog will attempt to offer suggestions that will help in the planning of family vacations for those traveling with more than two children and help to make those vacations less stressful, more relaxing, and an opportunity to create lasting memories together.

As our family grew from two to seven children in a short period of time, we still desired to be able to travel as a family.  At first, it seemed impossible, but as we were not willing to give up on the dream of continuing to enjoy family vacations, we set out to discover doable and affordable vacations that we could all benefit from.