VRBO v Hotel

When Emily and Brian decided their wedding would take place in Apopka, we delved into the world of VRBO for the first time. Unhappy with hotel offerings in the Apopka area and wanting to shorten our 75 minute commute from home, I searched the Vacation Rentals By Owner (VRBO) website looking for an answer to our wedding weekend accommodation problem.

I found a four bedroom house on the Wekiva River which served as our base of operation, housed eight for the weekend and hosted more than two dozen guests for a rehearsal party. It also created a beautiful backdrop for pre-ceremony wedding photos. What a find!

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A year and a half later, another wedding, this time in Virginia, I again searched the VRBO website for a house for nine. Success again and at a cost one third of what we’d have spent on hotel rooms.

Of course when planning a trip to Portland, I didn’t even look at hotels. Instead, we stayed in a house complete with raspberries and blueberries growing in the backyard, access to a washer and dryer and an ice chest for our day trips…all for only $100 a day.

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More good luck in Jacksonville for family weekend last August. Five bedrooms, pool and boat lift on the St. John’s River. A perfect place for family fun.

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And most recently, we found a small two bedroom apartment in the Little Italy neighborhood in Boston. We enjoyed being in the middle of the city’s best restaurants and again spent only half as much as hotels.

But staying in houses or apartments instead of hotels come with their own unique problems. The house on the Wekiva has some water issues and the one in Virginia had beetles. In Portland, the doorway to the bedroom was only an inch above my head (the sticky note warns of low ceiling) and while the house in Jacksonville advertised their covered patio as a great place to enjoy a meal cooked on their gas grill, the propane tank was empty and the oven didn’t heat properly. In Boston, we walked up to the fourth floor on the narrow stairway and yes, that’s a step to the toilet and a post in the middle of the small room.

These problems would not have been acceptable at a high priced hotel but were taken with a grain of salt due to other advantages offered by these VRBO properties.

HOWEVER, WHEN THINGS GO WRONG, THEY CAN BE VERY WRONG. Five good experiences…but the bad one in Toronto makes me a little nervous about future rentals. Upon arrival, we found the house extremely warm. The thermostat registered nearly 90° and no amount of adjustment helped. That’s when we found the window unit AC in the closet under a pillow. No wonder we couldn’t cool it off! And the patio touted as a highlight of the property was stacked with wood and overlooked a yard of weeds…nothing like the wonderful patio in Portland.

We didn’t stay in the Toronto property instead moving to two rooms at the Marriott in downtown. Everything worked out, but it can be difficult leaving a prepaid VRBO property uncertain about a refund and possibly exceeding the vacation budget. And we learned that the guarantees offered by VRBO provide little or no   protection.

Read reviews carefully. Try to use Google Maps to get extra information about the neighborhood and pay on credit card to protect yourself. Houses or apartments can be a great alternative to traditional hotel rooms, but do your homework and protect yourself.

Back up your pictures…again!

Last week a friend told me she had accidentally deleted all of the pictures on her phone. Two years worth of pictures. Every picture she had taken of her granddaughter. She was heartbroken. She wanted to know if I had any suggestions on how she might be able to recover the missing photos.

I asked if she’d ever backed them up on her computer. No, she didn’t trust her computer. It was on its last legs.

Did you back up to the cloud? No, she said. She doesn’t really understand the cloud and didn’t know if she trusted it.

My only suggestion. Call your cell phone carrier and ask if they could help. A long shot, but better than nothing.

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What, lose all travel pictures? And family pictures from 2010 to present?

I thought at the time how upset I’d be if I lost all of my pictures. I currently have over 3000 on my phone and just last month before going on a long trip, I’d moved 15,000 pictures from my phone to my computer so I wouldn’t run out of memory while on vacation. I’d also saved thousands of pictures in the cloud. No, I don’t really understand the cloud either, but I know that I’ve used the cloud to restore contacts, pictures and apps when I’ve purchased a new phone. It seems like a good back up plan.

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No pictures of lighthouses? Oregon? Washington? Vancouver?

Then Saturday when I tried to access my pictures so I could add some to a blog post, I found a message stating photos could not be accessed due to corrupted files. PANIC!

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What would I do without all the selfies and ussies?

A Google search suggested trying to access photos through iPhoto, and fortunately I found most of my photos. Not all, but most, just missing 2016. The 2016 pictures were the ones hanging out in the cloud. Safe and sound. Disaster avoided.

Sunday was spent backing up the files to a USB drive. A tedious task of copying pictures, making new folders and saving on another device. I’ll add them to a portable hard drive as well because I’ve come to realize that no single back up plan is full proof.

 

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I also realize that I need to clean up my picture files. Last summer I threw out thousands of printed photographs. Now it’s time to start going through my digital photos and deleting, organizing and editing. A good task to occupy rainy summer afternoons.

Get an International Calling Plan

After reading nightmare reports of people racking up cell phone bills in excess of a thousand dollars while traveling internationally, I spent months researching how to use our cells phones while in Iceland and the Netherlands. There are hundreds of articles online giving tips on how to make calls without breaking the bank. Some of the suggestions:

  • only use your phone at the hotel or other places with free WIFI
  • buy a SIM card for your phone when you arrive at your destination or order one to install in your phone before leaving (with warnings not to lose your original SIM card so you can still use your phone when your return home)
  • buy a cheap phone at your destination and use it exclusively (usually only providing talk and text, no data)
  • rent a GPS at your destination if the main reason for service is map and directions

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There are plenty of warnings about using international plans provided by cell phone companies, but fortunately I decided to check with Verizon’s website before choosing one of the other options. Without going to Verizon and without speaking to a representative on the phone, I was able to select an affordable Travel Pass to cover international talk, text and data. The daily international pricing plan allowed us to use our talk, text and data based on our domestic plan so we could make unlimited phone calls and send unlimited texts and use our regular 12GB of data.

Of course, there is an extra charge, but it’s affordable. While traveling in Canada and Mexico, the charge is $2.00 per day and while traveling in over 100 other countries, the charge is $10.00 per day, but the best thing is you are only charged on the days you use the plan, and since we were able to use our phone only on WIFI while in the Netherlands, we were not charged the fee on any day during our stay. However, since we needed to use Google Maps in Iceland, we were charged $10 for three days. Thirty dollars for GPS, Internet and the ability to send texts and make calls. Not too bad and definitely not worth all the stress of worrying about how to handle phone usage.

A lot has changed in international calling in the past year. Last summer I purchased a minimal amount of data for $25 for a few days when we traveled in British Columbia. This summer with the Travel Pass International Plan, it will only cost $2 per day to use my phone as usual while in Toronto. Much better!

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I’m sure Verizon isn’t the only service with reasonable international calling plans so check out your options and sign up for a plan.

 

 

It’s Game Day

Yes, it’s International TableTop Day, a day set aside for day-long celebrations of TableTop gaming. Not familiar with the term TableTop games? Well it describes all games played around a table as opposed to those using some sort of gaming device.

Card games, Dice games. Board games. All examples of TableTop gaming.

Events are planned not only throughout the United States, but throughout the world. John and I have never participated in an official event, but instead have pulled games off the shelf and played them at home.

This year we’ll be on the road, and not in a location where we can attend one of the events planned by a game store, restaurant or other group; but we’ll be playing games somewhere.

So what games did we pack in our luggage for TableTop Day (as well as for other down times during our travels)?

Hanabi and Japur, a couple of card games. Zombie Dice and Pass the Pig, both played by scoring points by pressing your luck with one more roll. And Qwirkle, a game of mixing, matching and scoring tiles.

What game will you be playing today?

 

Bedbug Awareness Week?

Did you know this week has been designated Bed Bug Awareness Week? That’s right, April 24-30, time for everything related to Bed Bugs.

This seems like the perfect opportunity to share a delightful fact about bed bugs I learned last summer. Bed bugs aren’t relegated to beds and hotels. Airplanes can also be home to these creatures. A fact I found out after being bitten by bed bugs on a flight from Houston to Portland.

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I never saw a bed bug on the plane nor did I feel a bite, but shortly after landing and before reaching our accommodations I developed hives that continued to spread for days.

The unbearable itching lasted four days but they sapped my energy for weeks. To be fair, I can’t prove bed bugs caused my discomfort, but there are numerous reports of bed bugs on planes, and it makes sense. If a passenger picked up the pests at a hotel, it’s quite possible to carry them onboard in luggage.

I haven’t flown since, but I have four round trip flights scheduled in the coming months. I don’t know how to prevent being bitten on a plane, but I know I will make sure I leave as little skin exposed as possible to avoid another unhappy start to a vacation.

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The NPMA recommends the following bed bug prevention tips when traveling:

At hotels, pull back sheets and inspect mattress seams, for telltale bed bug stains. Inspect the entire room before unpacking, including sofas and chairs and behind the headboard. Notify management of anything suspect and change rooms or establishments immediately.

If you need to change rooms, don’t move to a room adjacent or directly above or below the suspected infestation.

Keep suitcases in plastic trash bags or protective covers during your stay to prevent bed bugs from nesting there.

When home, inspect suitcases before bringing them into the house and vacuum them before storing.

Wash all clothes – even those not worn – in hot water to eliminate any bed bugs and their eggs.

It’s Read a Roadmap Day

A map…the real old-fashioned kind…made of paper and a nightmare to fold, they’re being celebrated today on Read a Roadmap Day. It’s hard to find many people who still use roadmaps having replaced them with new technology. We’ve been through a series of roadmap substitutes. First, a Garmin GPS device, then the wonderful human voice of an OnStar operator, but mostly using Google Maps on a cell phone. All of these devices have served us well, and in fact, I sometimes wonder how I ever got around without the use of technology and GPS.

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But this summer while road tripping it to Maine, we found the old paper technology still has its advantages. The most obvious reason to keep the roadmap in the glove compartment: lack of cell service. This seems especially important when traveling in the state of Virginia. Sure, cell service is no problem in Richmond or Alexandria, but near the Shenandoah Parkway, in a town called Damascus or even driving in the outskirts of Charlottesville, service is sketchy at best and if you’re relying exclusively on technology, you may be disappointed. (Of course, this is also a problem in the Ocala National Forest.)

And if you aren’t interested in the shortest route from Point A to Point B, but instead would like to make detours along the way, having a map is important to guide you in plotting a route including covered bridges, or lighthouses, or springs or tacky tourist traps. This can best be accomplished by finding the destinations on the map and then adding to your device. Sure, I know you can just Google addresses and add to the GPS, but without knowing a little about unfamiliar places, I could have made the route from Maine to Vermont twice as long by adding the locations of covered bridges in an illogical manner or including ones far from the most direct path.

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I admit to being totally addicted to Google maps, even for getting to new places close to home, but I’ve got a well organized stash of road maps tucked away in the car for use when traveling. So next time you take to the road, don’t forget a map.

And when you return home, instead of trashing all those maps, try some of these cool crafty ideas:

 

Make coasters

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Or ornaments

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Maybe even gift tags

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Happy Read a Roadmap Day!

Tick Time

We’ve all heard of Lyme Disease and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, but did you know there are fourteen tickborne diseases that can be transmitted to humans in the United States? That’s a fact that could be used as an excuse to hunker down in the safety of air conditioned retreats like malls, restaurants, movie theaters or the comfort of home. But signs like this one we encountered on a recent hike should not be considered a reason to avoid hiking or biking in wild areas:

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Instead, let it be a reminder to take a few simple precautions so you can enjoy spending time in nature.

Wearing repellent is always a good start, but also wearing light colored clothing so you’ll be more likely to notice the poppyseed like spots on your clothing that indicate you’ve come in contact with these nasty critters. It’s also helpful if you can wear long pants, long sleeve shirts and hats to create a barrier between you and the ticks.

While we associate these disease carrying insects with hiking, camping and other activities in the woods, many more people come in contact with ticks in their yards. So don’t forget to regularly check pets and keep your yard free of piles of leaves that provide a moist habitat for ticks.

Recommendations from the Center for Disease Control (CDC):

FIND AND REMOVE TICKS FROM YOUR BODY

Bathe or shower as soon as possible after coming indoors (preferably within two hours) to wash off and more easily find ticks that are crawling on you.
Conduct a full-body tick check using a hand-held or full-length mirror to view all parts of your body upon return from tick-infested areas. Parents should check their children for ticks under the arms, in and around the ears, inside the belly button, behind the knees, between the legs, around the waist, and especially in their hair.
Examine gear and pets. Ticks can ride into the home on clothing and pets, then attach to a person later, so carefully examine pets, coats, and day packs.
Tumble clothes in a dryer on high heat for an hour to kill remaining ticks. (Some research suggests that shorter drying times may also be effective, particularly if the clothing is not wet.)

And if you do find one or more ticks (like we did this week), don’t panic, and don’t rely on any of those old wive’s tales about finger nail polish or hot match tips. Instead,  follow the CDC’s guidelines on tick removal:

  1. Use fine-tipped tweezers to grasp the tick as close to the skin’s surface as possible.
  2. Pull upward with steady, even pressure. Don’t twist or jerk the tick; this can cause the mouth-parts to break off and remain in the skin. If this happens, remove the mouth-parts with tweezers. If you are unable to remove the mouth easily with clean tweezers, leave it alone and let the skin heal.
  3. After removing the tick, thoroughly clean the bite area and your hands with rubbing alcohol, an iodine scrub, or soap and water.
  4. Dispose of a live tick by submersing it in alcohol, placing it in a sealed bag/container, wrapping it tightly in tape, or flushing it down the toilet. Never crush a tick with your fingers.After spending time outdoors, check for ticks.

Get outside, but check for ticks!

Go Go G.O.E.S.

Complete the application, pay the fee, make an appointment, get interviewed…pass GO and speed through the airport skipping most of the lines.

Well, at least that’s how it’s explained by U.S. Customs. Successfully completing  the G.O.E.S. (Global Online Enrollment System) process enables travelers to be designated with the status of Trusted Traveler, and as such makes it possible to pass through customs in under 60 seconds. (I can only hope!)

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With two international trips planned for 2016, it seemed like G.O.E.S. should be pursued. So what’s involved?

  1. Set up a GOES account.
  2. Complete the application online.
  3. Pay a $100 application fee.
  4. Schedule an appointment for an interview.
  5. Complete the interview, get fingerprinted and have your photo taken.

If approved, a Trusted Traveler card arrives in the mail with instructions for activation.

The application was relatively simple to complete and while dishing out $100 was not pleasant, since Trusted Traveler benefits last for 5 years, it’s really a small price to pay to make the airport experience more pleasant. And the benefits extend to traveling within the U.S. as well as internationally.

Have you ever fumed while standing in a long line waiting for everyone to empty pockets, take off shoes, remove laptops from bags and take off jackets and belts for the TSA screening? Ever notice the nearly empty line of travelers walking through security wearing their shoes and belts without removing coats or laptops? Well, that’s another benefit. Trusted travelers qualify for the TSA Pre-Check program.

It’s official, I passed the background check and interview. My Global Entry card arrived in the mail. I’m anxious to put my card to work. I can hardly wait to be the envy of those barefoot travelers wondering what makes me so special.

For more information on Global Entry: cbp.com or Trusted Traveler Programs: dhs.gov

 

 

It’s Spring Break…Use Protection!

Of course we need to use sun protection year round, but Spring Break signals beach time and sunbathing so it’s a good time to remind everyone to protect yourself from the harmful rays of the sun.

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Use sunscreen EVERY day. It’s easy to protect your face with moisturizer and makeup since most include sunscreen, but don’t forget other parts of your body exposed to the sun.
Apply 1 ounce of sunscreen to your entire body 30 minutes before going outside and reapply every two hours. This is especially important for days at the beach, boating, fishing, or any other all day outdoor activity.
Wear a broad brimmed hat to protect your face and head from the sun (and this goes for men as well).
Wear UV blocking sunglasses to protect your eyes and eyelids.
Clothing serves as a great protector from the sun. Long-sleeve shirts and pants work wonders. The more skin you cover, the better.
Whatever you do, DO NOT BURN! According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, your risk of melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, doubles if you burn 5 times in your life.
And don’t forget to examine your skin from head to toe regularly. I’ve had basal cell skin cancer in my scalp which is hard to explain since my scalp has always been covered with a head full of hair, and I’ve had a variety of treatments to take care of skin cancer on my face, arms, and back.

Living in Florida is like living in paradise. The perfect place to enjoy swimming, boating, fishing, bicycling, and theme parks in the famous Florida sunshine; however, as Floridians we’re also exposed to more UV radiation than those living farther from the equator so we need to take more precautions. Exposure to UV radiation increases the risk of cataracts, suppresses the immune system, and prematurely ages our skin, and of course it causes skin cancer. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s “only skin cancer”…because it’s still cancer. Be smart. Enjoy paradise, but use precaution when in the sun.

Yes, it’s Spring Break, time to remind everyone to use protection…protection from the harmful rays of the sun!

Originally published on Mom’s Monday Memo March 24, 2014.

Make International Calls…Cheap

Are you planning a trip outside of the United States? Do you need to call a hotel, car rental company or tour company using an international number? Are you concerned about the expense of an international call or about the process of making a call outside of the U.S?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, Google Voice may be for you.

In the past month I’ve needed to call an international number twice.

  • The first problem: I really didn’t know how to dial a number outside of the U.S.
  • The second problem: Would the person who answered the phone be able to speak English?
  • The third problem: How much would this call cost?

After playing on my phone trying to make a call to Iceland for about ten minutes, I realized I already had the perfect solution since I have a Google Voice number. Using Google Voice, I simply click the CALL button and a drop down menu appears so I can type the number, BUT by clicking on the FLAG icon, I can change the destination of my call from the U.S. to another country…no need to know what numbers to add for a successful call.

  • Problem 1 solved: I successfully called Iceland to reserve a camper van for an upcoming trip.
  • Problem 2 solved: Sigrun spoke perfect English so we had no difficulty communicating.
  • Problem 3 solved: The five minute call cost less than $1.00 (15¢/minute)

I used Google Voice working as an online teacher since it made it possible for me to communicate with my students by phone without giving them my actual cell or home phone numbers. When you sign up for a Google Voice account, you choose a phone number which can be given to others and then the calls are forwarded and ring to any phone you desire…even multiple phones. It even accepts text messaging. Now that I’m no longer teaching, I still use this number for rewards cards or others that I’m not sure I really want to hear from and just use the call screening feature.

All calls to the U.S. or Canada are free using Google Voice and other international calls can be made for as little as 1¢/minute to Italy (a number my daughter called on Saturday). Most range from 3¢-15¢, and by adding a few dollars to your account with a credit card, you’re good to go.

If you aren’t interested in applying for a new phone number, Skype provides a similar plan, but their rates are 3-5 times higher than those on Google Voice. While that’s still a bargain, I don’t believe it’s as user friendly.

Google Voice takes care of two of my concerns about international calling…if only there was a way to guarantee the person on the other end of the line speaks English.