Saturday, September 29, 2012

Travel: Teaching Fiscal Responsibility at (almost) Any Age

I've said it in previous posts and I'm sure I'll say it in future posts: We travel a lot. We're not rich by any stretch of the imagination, but we do what we can to make travel work for us.
Here's why: My parents lived the traditional dream: They'd talk at the dinner table and before bed about all the places they wanted to visit when Dad retired. Unfortunately, dreams don't always come true. After Dad retired, he was still substitute teaching. The idea of never going back into a classroom to teach again was too much for him to take and substituting offered him a chance to slowly cut back. In 2006, 6 months into his retirement, his vision (which had always been poor) started to leave him altogether. He had cataract surgery and didn't regain his sight. He was sent for additional tests and they found a stage 4 inoperable glioma (brain tumor). Within 3 months, Dad was gone. My mother and I were crushed. He never got the chance to go back to New Zealand. He never got to take a cruise. He worked so hard to prepare for the travel he wanted to do and never got to enjoy the fruits of that labor. Together, we pledged that we would not meet the same fate. We knew that Dad would have wanted us to go on without him and to do what he was unable to do. We started with Hawaii and we haven't stopped.

 This travel-heavy mentality is not an inexpensive one. Since we aren't wealthy, we've had to prioritize and figure out how to make travel work for us. Here are some of our top tips for parents who want to travel with their kids:

1. Make Travel a Priority. Know where you're going, when you're going, and how much you need to save in order to meet that goal. Example: The latch that opens the trunk of my husband's car hasn't worked in nearly a decade. We could fix it... or we could make do and travel more. That latch isn't getting fixed any time soon. The shower in our Master Bathroom is broken. The whole thing has to be ripped out so the cracked pan beneath it can be replaced. We could pay someone else to do the demolition on the shower... or we could rip out all that old tile ourselves and save some money for travel. We've busted out over half of that tile already. We know our goals. We know that our next trip will be in October 2013, that it will include our whole family (Grandma included) as well as some friends, and that we need to save at least $450/month for the next year so that we can do everything we want to do while we're away. We know what it takes to make that happen. We may take on extra jobs for awhile. We may put a complete stop to dining out and seeing movies in theaters for a month or two. Christmas will include things that the kids will want for the trip (Pin Trading pins, Disney Gift Cards, etc). We will be having breakfast in our resort room most mornings during our travels & we have planned for that by arranging for our transportation to take us to a grocery store before our hotel. We know what we have to do to make it work for us.

2. Invest in Your Passport. This is very important: DO NOT invest in your children's passports until you're actually ready to use them. If your child is at least 16 years old, go ahead and get their passport when you get yours. Any younger than that and you'll likely be throwing money away. Passports for U.S. citizens 16 years and older are valid for 10 years. Citizens under 16 must renew their passports every 5 years. So why should you get yours before you get your children theirs? PASSPORTS ARE EXPENSIVE. For Christmas or your Anniversary this year, talk to your spouse about getting each others passports. The gift of true mobility. It's sexier than you think. Once you've got your passports taken care of, it won't seem like such a horrific cost to get the kids passports when you're ready to go. Click here for more information on obtaining your U.S. Passport.

3. Examine Your Bucket List. If you don't have a bucket list yet, you might want to think about sitting down and making a list of things you want to do and places you want to visit before you meet your end. It doesn't have to be about the length of your life! You can easily call this part of your 5 Year Plan. Once you've figured out your travel priorities, find out which ones match the travel priorities of your loved ones. If, for example, Italy shows up in everyone's Top 5 - you know where you're going!

With my friend Mobley in Costa Rica
 4. Research! Research! Research! Memorable travel doesn't have to do with how much money you spent or how long you got to play hooky from work or school. Memorable travel has everything to do with the quality of the memories you're creating. Aim to do something completely new every time you vacation. You can do this with Stay-cations, too. How many people have actually visited all the highest rated tourist attractions in their home town? Not many. Examples of our memorable travel events: Swimming with sharks (in a steel cage) off the north shore of Oahu, Hawaii. Bungee jumping off of the Harbour Bridge in Auckland, New Zealand. Tricking the kids into trying "Beverly" at Club Cool (EPCOT) while visiting Disney World. During my solo travels, I've also collected some great memories. I'll never forget befriending a choloepus sloth named Mobley in Costa Rica or being invited to an underground music venue by members of a folk band in Seattle because they liked my karaoke chops. These experiences are priceless! Seek out activities that take you off the beaten path. Find out what other families thought about the activities you're considering. Make sure your activities are family friendly. If there are a lot of things you want to do without the kids, research the expense of bringing along a friend or parent to help watch the kids. The more research you do before hand, the less chance you'll have a nasty shock while traveling (Did you know a 2 ltr bottle of Coke is $6 in New Zealand? Yeah... neither did we).

5. Travel During the Off Season When you're doing that research I mentioned, you need to take a little time to figure out when Off Season is at your destination and WHY it is the Off Season. If it is, say, Hurricane Season... you're better off paying the extra to go during the busy season. If it is, however, just because that's when the weather is changing or kids have just gone back to school, this may be your ticket to huge savings. You may even find that you prefer Off Season travel. We tend to. Hawaii? Yup. New Zealand? Kind of. It's cold. Swimming is no longer an option. Disney World: YES! October can't be beat.
So it just depends. If your kids are doing great in school and a week away wouldn't hurt them academically, see if your vacation can count as an Educational Leave. We were able to count a week at Disney World in 2010 as Educational Leave (which does not count against you for truancy purposes, but still counts against their attendance record for any awards given at the end of the year) because we spent multiple days learning about science and social studies at EPCOT. We brought back tiny gifts for all the kids in their classes and slightly larger gifts for all the teachers & teaching assistants. The teachers were more than happy to sign off on our Educational Leave. As for the financial side of things; The season you travel in can make a huge difference. Example: We originally planned Jaime's big trip next year for March. Spring Break. Oops. When we found out Baby was on the way and that my due date was the same date our cruise was set to depart, we started bargaining with Jaime for other trip times. She loves Mickey's Not So Scary Halloween Party and October gives us enough time to recover from having a baby, so we started researching October. If we take our cruise and week at Disney World in October (Off Season) instead of March (Spring Break), we save $2000+ on the trip! That's even including the additional cost of adding a person (since babies need tickets on cruise ships, too). Instead of a trip for 5, we're getting a trip for 6 and we're saving buckets of cash. The cruise is cheaper in October. The hotel is cheaper in October. The flights are cheaper in October. Off Season is the way to go. 
6. Condos instead of Hotels Booking a hotel can be very stressful for a family of 5 or more. Most hotel rooms have a maximum occupancy of 4. Add one more person and you're actually adding a whole new room to your reservation. Double the rooms, double the price. This is why we often look into booking Condos and unused Timeshares when we travel. They often accommodate more people. We've found amazing deals on multiple islands in Hawaii, all around Bear Lake, Idaho, in Orlando, in upstate New York, Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming... all over. Condos may not have all of the amenities of full service hotels, but we haven't minded. Nobody is going to come in and clean your room daily, but that also means that nobody will come in and move your toddler's stuff. No worry of a potential tantrum there. Many include Pack N Plays or high chairs if you ask. Most condos include kitchens, too - which can be a life saver when all your kid wants is a sandwich or a bowl of Top Ramen. Hitting up the grocery stores & stocking a condo will save you money. I promise.

The back porch of our condo on the Big Island of Hawaii
Traditional post-nap Cheetos lunch in our condo on the north shore of Oahu, Hawaii

(They'll kill me for posting that photo, but I couldn't help it. I love their tired faces!)

The next set of tips directly involve your children. 
They teach important life lessons while they're keeping your budget under control.

1. The "One Special Thing" Plan: We do a lot of theme parks. In addition to our multiple Disney visits, we live less than an hour's drive from Lagoon. While we love Lagoon, we do not love the price tag associated with all the prizes and treats. Because it's close to home, the kids know that we don't expect them to need any toys or trinkets in order to remember their time there. Because they know our expectations, they don't ask. Begging to play the carnival barker games, however, is something we've never been able to avoid. Here's our line: "Okay. I understand that you want to play that game. Keep it in mind. If, at the end of the day, that turns out to be the One Special Game that you really want to play, we'll let you play it." It's great. You're not saying no... but you're not caving in to every whim, either. It's very hard for a child to argue when you haven't actually said no. If they do start to argue, you can always follow it up with a kind-voiced, "Well, I didn't say 'no' before because you were behaving so well. I hope I don't have to change my mind." That usually does it. For bigger trips like New Zealand and Disney Parks, we've developed a similar "One Special Thing" script. Example: "Okay. I'm really happy that you found something that you want. That's great! Just keep it in mind and on the last day, if that's what you have decided you want most, we'll come back and get it. It can be your One Special Thing." Not only do we avoid an overload in our luggage, but we also save a ton of money on stuff they don't really care about. The kids learn to value the items they choose, too. It teaches patience and the ability to prioritize. Also important: Our kids know there are limits to what they can ask for. If an item is more than what we've budgeted for their "One Special Thing", they have to make up the difference with the money they've saved up for vacation.

2. Vacation Points. We've had chore lists and such, but until the Vacation Points system was introduced to our home, the kids didn't really care for the chore list prizes. Chores are now assigned Points Values that can be redeemed for travel related prizes. Example: Jaime has the worst time keeping her room clean. She can earn 30 points by spending the day cleaning all the toys, clothes, and garbage off of her bedroom floor, off of the floor in the closet, and off of the top of her dresser. It's a hard job, so it's worth a lot of points. If she keeps it clean for a week after the big clean up, that's another 20 points. If either of the kids give up all sugary drinks (opting for milk or water instead) for one week, that's worth 10 points. They can also earn 5 points every time they walk or run a mile on the treadmill without stopping. The rule there is that they have to go at a minimum speed of 2.0 and a maximum speed of 4.5 (injuries are sad). If they can do two miles without stopping, I usually give them a total of 11 points. We can add or subtract jobs as needed. A couple of weeks ago, everyone had been sick: Disinfecting all the doorknobs upstairs was worth a bonus point. Trying new foods without complaining is often worth a bonus point. Resolving an argument without yelling or tattle-telling is worth a point for each of them.

What exactly are these points worth?
It varies. Here are some of the prizes currently on our prize board:

- DJ POWER: During our next road trip, you can sit shotgun & control what we listen to for 1 hour per DJ POWER token you’ve earned! Note: Driver can still control the volume.
1 Hour Token = 15 points
Note: Our kids are both old enough to legally ride up front.

- EMAIL: Your own email address for keeping in touch with friends from school & new friends you may meet while on vacation. 40 Points
Note: This was extremely valuable to both of our kids. Zoey gave up soda and hit the treadmill hard to earn this quickly. Jaime wanted it, too, so there were days when it seemed that treadmill was on more often than it was off. We love offering prizes like this and DJ Power because they don't cost us a dime!
We have rules regarding their email addresses. We set them up (using their first initials in place of their first names) and we keep the passwords. If the kids are caught changing their passwords or if we cannot access their accounts, they lose all computer privileges for a week and they have to change the password back. They can only email people we've approved, too. So far so good. They send Grandma a lot of messages. We feel much safer giving new friends an email address that can easily be deactivated than our home address.

- $20 CASH: 100 points

- BUSINESS CARDS: A 100 pack of personalized business cards with your photo on them. If you have also earned your email address, we will add it to the cards. The cards may not include your home address, but can include your phone number.
Note: These are cool because it helps the kids stay in touch with friends from around the world that they meet while traveling. It's a great way to exchange info with kids at school, too. You can make custom cards with photos for a reasonable prize at You can use other sites like VistaPrint, but you get what you pay for. Zazzle is great for quality & price.

Add photos to your prize sheet.
- NINTENDO 3DS: 725 Points

- $50 Disney Gift Card: 100 Points
(We get kickbacks on these when we buy them through my husband's work, so it's better for us than giving them cash.)

- ARCADE BUCKS: Our cruise ship and our resort at Disney World have arcades. You can use your points to earn credits at the arcades!
4 pts = $1
18 pts = $5
30 pts = $10
60 pts = $22

- TRADING PINS: Pin trading will be available at Disney World and on our Disney Cruise!
 5 Pts = 1 Pin
15 Pts = 4 Pins
25 Pts = 7 Pins
100 Pts = 40 Pins
(Note: We've participated in Pin Trading in the past and the kids love it. It's a great incentive for them. If you buy your pins at Disney, you're going to spend a fortune. I highly recommend purchasing your pins in bulk, 6 months in advance, via eBay. Just make sure you're getting official Disney Pins.)

-THE SEAS AQUA TOUR: Guests swim on the surface of the 5.7-million-gallon saltwater tank inside The Seas with Nemo & Friends Pavilion at EPCOT theme park. Guests use a supplied-air snorkel system and do not need to be scuba certified.
Valued at $140!
Points needed: 300
(Note: There are age restrictions on tours like this one. Make sure your children are eligible before offering prizes like this one. For what it's worth, the kids are super excited about this. It's the next thing Zoey's saving up her points for.)

- BEHIND THE SEEDS (EPCOT TOUR): A one-hour indoor walking tour of the greenhouses seen during the Living with the Land attraction at Epcot theme park.
60 Points per person

Other ideas we've seen include Ride Power Tokens. Ride Power Tokens work great for kids who argue about what ride you're going on next. Our kids don't do that, so the prize wouldn't mean much to them. If your kids have a hard time with taking turns, consider the Ride Power Tokens (make them out of scrapbook paper & print a cute logo from your computer to glue on top of a thick cardboard) as an addition or alternative to our DJ Power option. When we get closer to our trip, we'll allow the kids to start trading in 30 points for Ice Cream Tokens that they can trade for a Disney ice cream treat while we're in the parks.

3. Befriend Your Coffee Maker. Find out what amenities your room includes and use them to the absolute best of your ability. Figure out which of your kids' favorite foods can be prepared with just hot water. Challenge your children to brainstorm this one with you! It's great critical thinking practice! If your room includes a mini fridge and a microwave, you're sitting pretty. There's almost nothing you can't make with those two items (popcorn, easy mac, tv dinners, frozen bagged veggies, etc). If, however, you're equipped with just a coffee maker, you're going to have to get creative. Use your coffee maker to heat water. Hot water can become lots of things! We've traveled to conventions and packed along a backpack full of Top Ramen or Cup O'Noodle meals, packets of hot cocoa with bags of marshmallows, instant oatmeal packets, and more. We've been known to stash microwavable popcorn in our checked luggage when we know a microwave is available. If you want more variety, visit your local camping store. You'll find a wonderland of dehydrated meals. Just be careful: Sometimes those specialty items cost more than going out to eat. The goal here is to save time and money!
(Fun note: If you're traveling around a major holiday and a grocery store is easy to access, bring back some hot cocoa packets and seasonal Peeps to serve as festive marshmallows on your hot chocolate! The kids love it and you won't have half a bag of marshmallows left when it's time to check out of your hotel.)  

All of these options keep excursions, souvenirs, and treats valued high. They help children to understand that they can't have what they want just because they want it. They have to earn it. This lays the groundwork for fiscal responsibility as they age. The most successful adults prioritize their spending every day. What better way to teach your child to be responsible with money than to teach them the importance of working for what they receive?

EDIT: I realized that I left out a whole section that might be of interest.

Ground transportation can mean a number of things. Shuttles. Rental Cars. Subways. The all important shoelace pony (aka: walking), taxis, and… limousines? Yes. Limousines.

If your destination is the sort where a rental car is reasonable and affordable (Two different things: Learning to drive on the opposite side of the road may or may not be reasonable for you and has nothing to do with money.) then you can and should start looking into that. Get prices from various car rental locations and think outside the airport! Airport rental car shops can be $50/day more than the same brand of car rental shop just 30 miles further into the city! "But how am I going to get there?" By bus, light rail, cab, or shuttle. Seattle is a prime example of this. I will never rent a car from one of the Sea-Tac airport car rental places. I will happily take their light rail from the airport into Seattle and then take a bus up to North Shore to rent a car there. Considering what I pay to park that rental car when I'm in the city, I want to save as much as I can on everything else.

Shuttles are great… if you're not going too far. Disney World has one of the best shuttle systems I've ever seen. They have a shuttle bus called "Disney's Magical Express" that will pick you up from the airport, take you to your resort, and even handle picking up and delivering your luggage. Oh, did I forget to mention that IT'S FREE!?!? If you're going to the Orlando area exclusively for Disney World, there is absolutely no excuse for renting a car. If you're planning on venturing off Disney property however… well, that's a different story.

Busses/Subways/Light Rail: Fabulous option for budget savvy travelers. NOT a fabulous option if you don't know the language where you're going to be traveling. Remember: You must be able to read the signs to know where you're going. Getting lost saves you nothing. I personally recommend the public transportation systems in Honolulu/Waikiki, Seattle, New York City, and Salt Lake.

Walking: The best way to save money, hands down. Walking costs you virtually nothing. Before you go off planning your next trip via shoelace pony, ask yourself a few questions: Am I physically able to handle the distances required for this trip? Is my family physically able? What will the weather be like? Is it worth the amount of time it will take to walk? And probably most importantly: Do I enjoy walking? Our entire group loves to hike. We mistook how much we enjoyed hiking when we visited South Pointe in Hawaii. We started at the wrong trailhead with a water supply that did not match our 8 miles (each way) hike. The kids were miserable, everyone was sunburned, and we spent the next 3 days trying to catch up on water. The green sand beach was beautiful, but now every time we ask the kids if they want to join us on a hike we haven't been on before, they ask if it will be anything like the hike in Hawaii.

Exhausted in Hawaii. 8 miles down... now to get back to the car.

Taxis & Limousines: I saved these two for last because neither is exactly what it advertises. This is going to be counter-intuitive. Here goes: I do not take taxis with my children. If I am traveling with our normal group (Me, Abe, my Mom, and both of our daughters) I invest in a limo. It sounds crazy, yes… but when you have more than 3 or 4 people, you cannot fit everyone into a standard sized taxi. Van taxis are dirty and cost you a bundle. Add in that you're being charged for time and mileage (sitting at a stop light has never felt so long) and there's a good chance that a small limousine will save you money. Example: The shuttle offered by Disney between MCO (the Orlando airport) and Port Canaveral (where our cruise departs from) would be $70/person each way. Let's add this up: We've got the 5 of us that normally travel together plus our new baby. We've got 3 friends confirmed as travel buddies. That's a minimum of 9 people. 9 x $70 = $630 just for transportation from MCO to the Port. This doesn't even start with what we would have to pay to take a shuttle or cab after our cruise. Instead of paying $630 for a one way trip, I've invested in a limo that seats 14 people. How much am I paying for this lavish, black, Excursion SUV limousine? I'm paying $928 after taxes and fees and tip. But wait… $928 is a lot more than $630. Where are the savings? The $630 covers from MCO to the Port and nothing else. The limo is only $300 from MCO to the Port. The rest of what I'm paying the limo for is to pick us up after our cruise, take us to Disney World to drop off our luggage, then take us to Universal Studios to spend the day playing there. When we're done at Universal, the limo will pick us up, take us to a local grocery store and then drop us off back at our Disney resort. There is no cheaper way to do this than traveling by limo. If you have a small group and all of you can fit in a standard sized taxi with your luggage - awesome. Go for it. But if you don't… I highly recommend finding a limo service. We've also done this in Hawaii. It can save you hundreds of dollars and you won't have to share your leg room with your luggage. Another nice perk: Many limo companies will bring along a car seat or car seat base should any of your children require one. Most won't even charge you extra for it. On top of the money you'll be saving, this will be a memory that will stick with your kids. They'll think you're the coolest parents ever and I can almost guarantee that they will tell everyone at school or church about it as soon as they get the chance.

Grandma's birthday limo in Hawaii

Do you have any money saving tips for traveling with children? Please share in the comments below!

Peace, Love, and Hope,


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