Tuesday, February 23, 2010

5 ways to save $$$ while cruising

For many travelers cruising has become a top option when needing a break from reality. The prices may seem intimidating at first, but when it comes down to crunching the numbers going on a cruise doesn't have to break the bank. Here are 5 ways you can save money on your next cruise.

1. Putting 4 people in a room

If you are traveling with 4 or more people and want to save money, it is essential to maximize the number of people per room. The default settings for most online booking sites is 2 people per room, but many rooms can sleep up to 4 people. This includes the windowless interior rooms which is the cheapest option aboard. The key is that the 3rd and 4th passengers pay a highly discounted rate. The savings occur after you split the total cost of the room 4 ways.

Let's look at an example when booking the same interior room on the Carnival Miracle for 8 nights on Expedia.com. Our room is in on Deck 1 and falls under category 4A. The price is $779 per person.

Price of the room for 2 people: $779(cost) * 2 (amount of people) + $162.74 (taxes + fees) = $1,720.74 and therefore $860.37 per person.

Price of the room for 4 people: $779 (cost for first 2 passengers) *2 + $449 (cost for 3rd and 4th passengers) * 2 = $2456 + 325.48 (taxes + fees) = $2781.48 and therefore $695.37 per person.

Sorry for all of the math! But it clearly shows that by adding the two extra people to same exact room each person saves $165.

2. Cruising from your home city (or a nearby city)

There are many departure ports that sail to various destinations both north and south. New York City and Northern New Jersey offer itineraries to the Caribbean, New England, Canada and even transatlantic excursions to Europe. Of course Florida boasts a large selection of destinations due to its close proximity to the Caribbean. Aside from the greater NYC area and Florida, here are some other US cities that offer cruises to the Caribbean:

  • Baltimore, MD

  • Boston, MA

  • Charleston, SC

  • Galveston, TX

  • Mobile, AL

  • New Orleans, LA

  • Norfolk, VA

If you live in or around any of these areas you will likely be able to enjoy more cruise bang for your buck while saving money on airline tickets and avoiding stressful airport procedures. If you want to cruise to destinations such as Mexico or Alaska, there will be plenty of options on the west coast to leave from.

3. Skip the shore excursions

When docked at its location the ship offers a wide range of activities for all ages and interests, called shore excursions which come with a steep price. While some excursions such as swimming with dolphins sound amazing, they are very expensive. Some cheaper shore excursions could include lunch in paradise at a pristine white stand beach for the afternoon. There are times, with a little pre-trip research where you can get to the same destinations as the shore excursion without paying the high bill.
For example, when my friends and I went on a Norwegian cruise in 2008 that stopped in Tortola (British Virgin Islands) there was a shore excursion that offered lunch at picturesque Cane Garden Bay. I had done my research and already knew that Cane Garden was one of the nicest and most popular beaches in Tortola. We decided to go there on our own, and only had to pay round trip taxi fare. It was well worth missing out on the lunch to save a bunch of money.

4. Take advantage of all the free eating options aboard

Arguably the best part of cruising is the all-inclusive food options on board. Amazing food is all over these floating cities in the form of sit down restaurants, buffets, bistros and bars. No matter what you're craving and what time of day it is, you are covered. The ship will also offer various "premium" eating options where each consumer will have to pay an additional surcharge. These restaurants are spread out through out the ship and can feature such venues as steakhouses and sushi bars.

Don't get me wrong, I'm sure most of these restaurants serve excellent food, but if you're looking to save money, avoid them! There are so many free eating areas on the ship that serve fantastic food. Trust me, you will never go hungry & you won't have to worry about racking up the bill.

5. Drinking while exploring

If you like to drink and order your drinks on the boat, expect a very large tab at the end of your vacation. Think about going out to your city's most trendy neighborhood, how much would you say the drinks are? $10? $12? ... Well that's about how much you will pay for mixed drinks on your cruise. Come on, with all the free food on board the organization has to make profit somehow, and overcharging for drinks is one key way. If you must drink on the cruise, stick to beer which will probably cost $5-$7 each.
One option to score cheaper drinks during your cruise is to drink while visiting the ports. Once away from the dock area, there are bound to be cheap bars and restaurants. Why not kick back with some local residents and enjoy some ice cold cheap drinks at the neighborhood watering hole.

Cruising is an awesome way to spend a vacation, so don't be afraid if the prices initially seem high. Do your research, search multiple cruise lines and sources and follow these rules in order to enjoy this high seas without emptying your life savings.

Have any of you been on any cool cruises lately? If so, do you have any other money saving tips?

Saturday, February 20, 2010

How to get around Manila

The craziness of the streets in metro Manila can be very overwhelming for a first time visitor like myself. Pedestrians, passenger cars, taxis, huge buses, trucks, jeepneys, motorcycles and tricycles all come together to clog Manila roadways. All of this without the comforts of traffic lights, crosswalks and clear road lanes can turn a simple trip into an experience for an outsider. Jaywalking in busy Manhattan streets is a cakewalk when compared to navigating around Manila intersections. It's normal life for the locals, who use a "Frogger" approach to dodge vehicles in order to get across the street. After a couple of days I was getting pretty good at it - it just takes a little practice!

If agile walking does not sound appealing to you, here are some different ways to get around Manila ...

1. Jeepneys

This neat form of transportation was one of the first things I noticed when I arrived. There are a plethora of them in every neighborhood, and are often times full (with some daring riders even standing on the back). They reminded me of shuttles and are a popular and inexpensive way to get around town. They fit around 10 people and can be hailed down like a taxi. The coolest thing about the Jeepney is the individuality each one of them has. They all have a name which is clearly labeled on the front and sides.

This Jeepney is named Revelation:

They are very colorful and often times have lots of chrome and logos. Riding them can be a little frightening at high speeds, as the back is completely open. Rest assured though, there are handles to hold onto.

The inside of the Jeepney:

2. Tricycles

Tricycles are faster than walking, but overall remain a slow form of transportation. These man-powered vehicles are an effective way to travel down small streets. The driver peddles on the left while passengers relax on the right in the shaded sidecar. The sidecar is designed for 2 passengers to ride at a time, anything over that is stretching the roominess.

They are cheap and can be haggled down (but don't get too greedy). They are very easy to find, with lines of operators waiting at various locations. A good option if you need a break or feel like being lazy in exchange for a small fee.

3. Motorcycle Taxis

A convenient and faster alternative to tricycles are motorcycle taxis. They are very similar, with room for two passengers in the sidecar and space for one adventurous rider who wishes to sit behind the driver holding on for dear life. These could also be hailed down randomly in the street if vacant.
Since the motorcycle taxis are quick, they ride on major streets along with all of the other vehicles on the road. The one downside to this is the smog build up. It pays to cover your mouth and nose while riding, and I noticed that some locals wore masks over their mouth to help protect against the smog.

4. Sky Train

The sky train is often the quickest way around Manila, especially when traveling from one neighborhood to another. They are fast, clean, safe and easy to navigate. Depending on your destination you will sometimes need to take a quick taxi ride to and from the sky train station. When on the train you can clearly see all of the time you are saving, as the train shoots past the crawling vehicles on the traffic filled expressway beneath.

5. Taxis

Taxi's are everywhere and easy to flag down. The problem is that Manila's traffic is so bad that often times taxis seem unbearably slow. Nevertheless they are an essential way to get to certain places, and are inexpensive when compared to prices in the states.
Manila cabbies are often cowboy drivers, so be prepared for a wild ride with sudden stops.

It's nice to have have options when traveling around Manila. No matter what your time restraint or location is there is always a way to get around town. When traveling to nearby cities such as Batangas (about a 2 hour ride) express buses are the best way to travel. When traveling to other islands such as Romblon, long boat rides are usually the most direct way to travel. But when trying to navigate around Manila, there are plenty of choices to choose from.

So I ask the question to all of you, what is your preferred way to travel around your own city?

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

A Taste of Philadelphia

Quick ...

What is the first thing you think of when you hear Philadelphia?

Screw the Liberty Bell and the Eagles, I always think of one of my favorite foods, cheesesteaks! Meat, whiz and onions on a roll, so simple yet delicious. Here in Manhattan I have found my local haven for cheesesteaks at a tasty little shop called 99 miles to Philly. They are consistent and I usually leave very satisfied and full, but with the homeland of the cheesesteak only a 2 hour drive away I had venture out and see if the meat is tastier on the other side.

I woke up one morning, slightly hungover and hungry. The "Cheesesteak tour" was a small trip that I had been wanting to do for a while, and on this chilly yet sunny January morning I knew the time had come. I called a few friends up who were down and quickly browsed Philly eats online to have some sense of direction.

I looked up the proper ordering etiquette - I did not want to sound like an out of town New Yorker or anything like that. Come on Peter you can do it ... "1 whiz wit!" Which is Philly slang for a steak with cheese whiz and onions, piece of cake! Now it was time to choose our stops. The two places that instantly came to mind were Pat's and Geno's ... the old school rivals situated across the street from each other. I was surprised to discover that many Yelpers were unhappy with both places, with numerous complaints about dry steak and rude service - two things I was not about to follow through with after a 2 hour drive! I made the executive decision to overlook these "landmarks" and narrowed it down to 3 places.

After some strange directions from my GPS we arrived at our first stop in the northwest suburb of Roxborough. Roxborough had its own rivalry brewing between neighboring joints Dalessandro's and Chubby's. Dalessandro's was the first place to grace our presence.
Dalessandro's was a small place that fit around 10-12 people at the "bar" and had a few tight fitting tables, one of which we were lucky enough to snag. The woman at the counter was extremely friendly, and did not judge my non-Philly way of ordering.

"Um yes, two steaks with onions and cheese whiz please." The atmosphere got to me, I couldn't order like a local Philadelphian without buckling under the pressure.

She was very accommodating, offering us extra baskets since we were sharing. After a few minutes it was the moment of truth, and man they don't mess around with the size of their hoagies!

The first bite into this bad boy was complete bliss, the meat was chopped perfectly and packed a ton of juicy taste. The onions were thinly chopped and dispersed through out the sandwich with a healthy plop of delicious whiz on top. They recommended the sweet peppers on the table, so we topped it off and consumed. Our plan was to only eat halves at each place, to avoid hoagie overload. I was so tempted to order another sandwich, it was really that good! Dalessandro's set the bar really high.

We were hoping nobody saw us run literally across the street to our next stop, Chubby's. Chubby's was bigger and looked like a highway stop diner with both bar and booth seating. We hopped in a booth and quickly ordered our 2 steaks with whiz and onions and waited patiently.
After about 15 minutes the "delightful" waitress brought us our steaks. They were slightly smaller than their rivals but looked good. One clear difference about Chubby's steak was the larger onions that rested on top of the meat.

I sunk my teeth into the hoagie, and was a little disappointed. The meat lacked the flavor of Dalessandro's, and the bread was a little rougher. I was not a big fan of the larger onions either, but hey this is a freaking Cheesesteak! So of course I finished my whole portion.

Despite our stomachs putting their no vacancy lights on we were determined to make one last stop before heading home. That stop was at Tony Luke's in downtown Philly. A little stroke of unluckiness hit us, as we happened to arrive just as a home Flyers game was ending. Long story short, there were a lot of hungry hockey fans in front of us. We waited on the long winding line, placed our order and had the luxury to wait another 20 minutes before it would be ready.

This damn thing better be amazing!

"Peetahh" screamed out the tough looking girl behind the counter as I scurried up and snatched my brown paper bag. This steak definitely didn't have the overflowing meat like the previous two, and was very neatly packed.

This steak was very good, it was almost a breath of fresh air to have a smaller sandwich at this point. The whiz was evenly distributed and meat was lean and tasty. It wasn't exactly worth the 40 minute wait, but with the close proximity to the sports stadiums I could see why it's a Flyer fan favorite.

After it was all said and done it was a fun trip. There were plenty of joints we didn't visit, but the joint I will return to if I am ever in Philly is Dalessandro's.

4 hours of driving for 3 Cheesesteaks sure is a trek, even for the biggest food fanatic. How long would you travel just to eat food?

Monday, February 8, 2010

Trekking to Trunk Bay

St. John's Trunk Bay in the US Virgin Islands(USVI) is a beautiful stretch of beach that offers fantastic snorkeling in amazing surroundings with a few pleasant surprises. It's very easy to reach from St. Thomas, a 20 minute ferry ride followed by an adventurous 10 minute taxi ride. This is complete paradise, a setting resembling a dream wedding ... or a corona commercial. Yeah that's right, you gaze at that hot girl in the bikini walking by and I'm going to squirt this lime in your eye! The calm and pristine water is filled with a diverse group of colorful sea creatures. The bay's famous underwater snorkeling guide gives swimmers a little bit of information about the various sea life they are looking at. Make sure you are a good swimmer, as it gets deep quickly as you follow the guided path below. For a small charge flotation devices are available, and are a good idea even for active swimmers who want to tread and take a quick rest for a minute. To ease peace of mind, active lifeguards are on duty - something that isn't standard at many USVI beaches.

While snorkeling we saw the typical array of Virgin Island fish. There were Parrot Fish, Yellow Tails, Sergeant Majors and Sturgeon Fish among others. I didn't have to search far at all to find fish, there were plenty to go around, and some were very brave and not shy to braise my sunburned body. During our second trip out into the water to swim with our new friends we encountered something very cool, wild stingrays! The stingrays came very close to shore, and all of the tourists (including me of course) ran back to get their cameras and take pictures. Certain geniuses (a nice way to put it) thought it would be a good idea to chase after them tail first, and they scurried back further into the ocean.

I wanted to swim out and follow one of the stingrays from a comfortable distance, close enough so that I would see it clearly while leaving it a enough distance to make it feel comfortable. It was just me and the stingray, watching him and his little cleaner fish pal slowly mingle around the sand. It was very peaceful watching its wings flap elegantly as it calmly went about its business. After some negative media spotlight, it was clear to me that stingrays are naturally friendly creatures, but should be left undisturbed.

Trunk Bay is one of St. John's biggest tourist attractions. It was obvious that the crowd was primarily made up of vacationers staying on St. Thomas, St. John or in town just for the day from a cruise ship. I don't mind this because it makes for decent people watching, but the beauty of Trunk Bay is that you have the option to be secluded. It is a relatively long strip of sand, and most of the people camp out around the snorkeling trail (where conveniently, bathrooms and food are as well). It makes sense, all of the amenities are close and it's a short walk back to the taxi. So if crowds aren't your idea of a fun day in the center of paradise, simply walk a few minutes down the shoreline and find a nice spot away from everybody else and enjoy the laid back Caribbean atmosphere alone.

Here are some of my tips to get the most out of your Trunk Bay experience:
  • Bring your own lunch. The food is not good and is expensive, but if you do opt to eat at the bay, remember that Caribbean attitude is very laid back so your food will not arrive instantly.
  • If you choose to snorkel, invest the couple of dollars and purchase a flotation device. I am an above average swimmer, but it gets tiring after a while. The flotation device allows swimmers to use less energy and take quick breaks when they please.
  • Get there early for a prime spot. There are limited spots that offer shade, and those are usually the first to go. I would suggest sitting in the middle of the beach, as the area closest to the concessions and taxi stand get crowded.
  • Don't be afraid to snorkel away from the underwater trail. That's where the wild stingrays were hanging out.
  • On the way to the bay, ask your taxi driver to stop at the scenic overlook for a minute. It will block traffic, but the view is breathtaking!

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Bangkok Street Food

When roaming around the streets of Bangkok on an empty stomach, sampling neighborhood street vendors is a must do for the thrifty food loving traveler. There were some things that I was a little hesitant about at first, because of the following reasons:
  • The language barrier. Sometimes it was tough to order in English, but local consumers who spoke English helped us out. Just remember to be patient and kind, and most likely you will end up receiving what you want.
  • Not being able to tell what specific items were (if signs were in Thai). For example there were deep fried balls of some kind of meat on a stick.
  • Perceived cleanliness of equipment and freshness of ingredients.
  • Not many other tourists around (which actually is a great sign for authenticity).

After a day of exploring the Grand Palace we were starving and stumbled upon a small sidewalk “restaurant” with a large cooking pan set up in front. I took a look at the menu and quickly ordered the vegetable noodles, which cost a mere 30 Baht (about $1 US). A young girl who appeared to be in her mid teens was our chef.

She greeted us with a warm smile and proceeded to cook right in front of us. A few minutes later she presented me with a very generous portion of noodles, which was very tasty and spicy! I enjoy spicy food but after walking around all morning and into the afternoon in 90 degree weather I resorted to adding a little sweet chili sauce to cool it down a bit.

This was definitely an eye opening introduction to the quality of street food offered in Bangkok.

The sky train stations offer some eating options as well. We opted to try waffles at Anne’ Shop, a small stand which we later found out had multiple locations throughout the train system.

It was mid afternoon, so it was probably off peak hours to buy a waffle. The waffles we had didn’t taste extremely fresh, but were decent. They were sweet and didn’t need syrup. One unique ingredient infused into the small waffle was corn. These waffles are a good option for a quick and cheap breakfast snack while rushing to catch the train.

In the midst of the hustle and bustle of congested and exhaust filled Silom road in central Bangkok, we encountered a breath of fresh air … well not exactly, but fresh milk tea! An excited young girl walking home from school strolled past us, taking a big sip of a bright orange iced tea. We immediately turned around and approached the cart she had just left. We smiled and said hello to the woman behind the cart. “One iced tea please” we asked with eager smiles on our faces. She gave us a confused look and replied with a “huh?!?” expression. I looked over to the sign on the side of the cart, but there were no words in English to point to. We tried saying “orange” and “tea”, when finally she asked us “milk?” Yes!! We shouted with glee and smiled. She smiled back and started to make our bright orange masterpiece. Very sweet yet delicious, our milk tea refreshed us and gave us some energy to keep walking around and exploring.

Chatuchak Market is the biggest outdoor weekend market in Bangkok and one of the city’s most famous destinations. It draws a lot of bargain hunting tourists, but I was delighted to see a good mixture of locals as well. After a few hours of browsing, haggling and buying we were ready to eat. There were a few food options all in a specific area away from the shops. We decided to stop at another restaurant with a similar large pan in the front and a shaded seating area behind. I looked at the menu and saw “Dungken Noodle”.

Back home in the states my favorite Thai dish is “Drunken Man Noodles”, and I thought to myself this must be the real deal and ordered it with chicken and a milk tea on the side. The silky texture of the broad noodles was just right and packed a significant amount of heat. It looked so simple, yet was extremely delicious!

So if you ever find yourself in Bangkok or any city for that matter, follow the locals and don’t be afraid to try the street food!

  • It’s a great way to save money when in comparison to eating out at a restaurant.
  • The food is really good and made fresh right in front of you. Be on the lookout for spots with a bunch of locals. Think about the city you live in and where you would want to eat, that’s what they’re doing!
  • Stay away from the flocks of tourists. Some of the restaurants do have good food, but for the most part lacked the authenticity of the food at the stands. They seemed to cater to the foreign palate.
  • There is a friendly and often times family run atmosphere. Always remember to stay calm, be patient and smile often.