Tuesday, 31 January 2017

January 2017 review

At the start of January I intended to slow down, stay focused, and accomplish three goals per day in the categories of Fitness, Finance, and Fun. If I achieved more than three per day, then great, however, I did not set out to be over ambitious.

Now that January is coming to an end, I’m pleased to see that I’ve achieved the goals I set for myself. I think I still need to practice "slowing down".

Fitness: In January, I exercised an hour every day. I chose to do walking, working out in the gym, and yoga to give myself a variety of activities. I’ve been really good to myself this month in the Fitness category.

Finance: I achieved my January savings target by sticking to mandatory expenses only.  Part of the savings target is for my travel plans later this year. We had our meals at home. I had about $19 refund for three grocery items due to scan code errors. The refund goes back into the Groceries budget.

Fun: I learned Spanish. My goal was to take the online lessons on weekdays, however, I’ve also taken the lessons on most weekends in January. I wrote seven posts on this blog even though I had planned for just five posts in January.

For February, I plan to continue with similar activities and goals.

Now your turn...How are you doing with your goals?

Bonus question: Do you recognize the city in the above picture? Hint: It is known for the Freedom Trail.

Saturday, 28 January 2017

Vacation rental

In the past few years, when I planned for family vacations, I’ve booked vacation rentals, as opposed to hotels. So far, we’ve stayed in a villa in Playa Grande, Costa Rica, an apartment in Albufeira, Portugal, a condo on the Gulf Coast of Florida, and a house in the Panhandle area of Florida. All four vacation rentals have met or exceeded our expectations.
A vacation rental in Florida
What I like most about vacation rentals:
  • Big savings on both accommodation and food, especially when travel in a group. In the four places that I listed above, I travelled in group ranging from 7 to 20 people. When we split the total rental and grocery expenses, the cost per person was very reasonable, which allowed me to save money for another trip.
  • We have room to stretch out and enjoy the amenities. Our vacation rentals were spacious enough for private space as well as family meal gatherings. They all had TVs, WiFi, DVD players, balconies and three of them had their own pools.
  • We can cook what we like to eat, and control the portions, or eat out. We can also eat on our own time. Our vacation rentals all had fully equipped kitchen and separate dining space. The owners stock the pantry with spices, some condiments, and kitchen supplies. Some supplies are leftovers from previous renters (e.g. detergent, cooking oil, aluminum foil, etc).
  • We can travel light. In our cases, we didn’t need to pack a lot as our vacation rentals had laundry appliances and the owners had plenty of linen, recreation or entertainment items that we could use.
  • We can get local information from the owners or their property managers who are local residents. Our vacation rental owners had brochures, instruction sheets, maps, and suggestions for sightseeing and activities on site, usually on the kitchen counter or living room table.
  • We can arrange for some services ahead of our arrival.  This is great, especially when you know you’ll be tired, or your children will be hungry and impatient when you arrive. I arranged for airport transfer, grocery shopping and delivery for our stay in Costa Rica. I also arranged for grocery shopping and delivery in Albufeira, Portugal. I’ll definitely do this again if the services are available.
  • We can relax, enjoy great family time, and create fun memories!
So...What’s the catch?
  • It takes time to research the properties. I reviewed the property descriptions, pictures, maps, reviews, cost details, and owner’s information before I shortlist a few potential vacation rentals to contact the owners.
  • Deposits and payments are non-refundable before arrival. Unlike some hotels that have 24-hour cancellation policy, vacation rentals typically require deposits and final payment weeks in advance.
  • Add-on fees add up. Some vacation rentals require damage deposit, reservation fee, cleaning fee, service fee, etc. I’d look for properties with minimal add-on fees. I also always check the cost details and make sure the total cost is what I’m prepared to pay.
  • Booking a vacation rental is taking risk and booking in good faith. Even though I do thorough research and speak to the owner before booking, I’m still taking some risks that the property may not be satisfactory.
  • Some independence required on the part of the renters to plan their own itinerary and activities.
Here's what I've done to ensure a successful vacation rental:
  1. Research thoroughly, read the fine print, and short list three to four properties. Use Google Earth to view the property and get a sense of how close or how far it is from places such as local beach, shopping centre, market, public transit, airport.
  2. Contact the property owner for details, see how responsive they are to my inquiries, and then decide on which property to book.
  3. Once booked, get confirmation of my booking in writing, as well as other pertinent information such as contact information, instructions to access the property and its WiFi network.
  4. Re-confirm arrival closer to my arrival date.
  5. Arrange for any immediate arrival needs to make my vacation more enjoyable (e.g. airport pick up, grocery delivery).
  6. Once I check in at the property, take a tour, note anything that is not working as expected, and notify the property owner to request repair as needed.
  7. During my stay, if something is broken, notify the owner.
  8. On my departure date, settle any outstanding bills and get a receipt.
  9. Send the owner a thank-you note. This is my way of giving feedback to the owner since I had a good stay.
  10. Refer or recommend the place to my family and friends. Some vacationers post reviews and feedback online. I think “words of mouth” are powerful, too.
Based on our positive experience with the four different vacation rentals, I’d consider booking another vacation rental again when I plan our next family vacation.

Have you rented a vacation property before? How was your experience? Would you consider to rent a vacation property?

Sunday, 22 January 2017

Fort Lauderdale

I wrote about my experiences in South Beach, Miami a few days ago. With Florida sunshine on my mind, in this post I’m writing about my past trip to Fort Lauderdale.

Fort Lauderdale is about 37 km (23 miles) North of Miami. You can combine visiting Miami and Fort Lauderdale in one trip. I went with my sister in June and spent three full days there.

My favourite experiences in Fort Lauderdale:

1. A stroll along Fort Lauderdale oceanfront promenade. Good exercise, fresh ocean air and fun people watching. Remember your sun protection!
Fort Lauderdale oceanfront

2. Sun and swim at the beach which was across the street from where we stayed.

3. Cruising the Fort Lauderdale waterways by water taxi from late afternoon to early evening. Fort Lauderdale is known as “Venice of America”. This is a relaxing way to view the beautiful homes, the marina and some expensive yachts. The boat captain provided entertaining stories during the ride.
Water taxi, Fort Lauderdale
Nice house, Fort Lauderdale
Fort Lauderdale waterway
Expensive yacht
Fort Lauderdale Marina at dusk
Lights on!
4. Visiting the Everglades by airboat. We rode an airboat for the first time, and saw fierce-looking gators in their natural habitat up close. There was also a small zoo at the Sawgrass Recreation Park where we saw more gators, big lizards, Florida panther, peacocks and other animals.
Airboats at the dock
Airboat ride
Gator in sawgrass
5. Enjoying good eats along Las Olas Boulevard.
Las Olas Boulevard, Fort Lauderdale

6. An evening stroll along the Riverwalk which is lined with restaurants and small shops. After sunset, when the lights came on, it was very pretty.
Riverwalk, Fort Lauderdale

7. Shopping for good deals at Sawgrass Mills, advertised as the largest outlet and value retail shopping destination in the United States.

Getting from Toronto to Fort Lauderdale is easy with frequent, non-stop flights that take about three hours. Fort Lauderdale International Airport is simple to navigate. Savings tips: We boarded the water taxi after 5 pm and got $10 off per ticket. For our airboat ride in the Everglades, I got a 2-for-1 ticket deal from Travelzoo.

Have you been to Fort Lauderdale? If you have, what were your experiences when you were there?

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

South Beach, Miami

I first visited Miami, Florida, in the United States, with a friend in August several years ago. We had a good time despite the hot and very humid weather. I returned to South Beach, Miami the second time in April and the weather was sunny with much less humidity. Miami is not an inexpensive destination. However, I managed to keep my overall expenses low and still had many enjoyable experiences while I was there for three full days.

My favourite and low cost experiences in South Beach, Miami:

1. Enjoying a cup of coffee at Starbucks on Ocean Drive, facing Lummus Park where the palm trees sway with the Atlantic ocean breeze.
Lummus Park, South Beach, Miami
2. A self-guided walking tour of the Art Deco buildings along Ocean Drive and Washington Avenue, between 8th Street and 14th Street. Here’s a sample of the pictures that I took:
The boxy-shaped and yellow Leslie hotel

The Cardozo hotel with its round edges

The Tiffany hotel with its deco-style neon spire

The 1935 Edison hotel
3. Reasonably-priced and good eats for about US$10 at La Sandwicherie, Pizza Rustica, 11th Street Diner, or Cuban food at Puerto Sagua. 11th Street Diner looks like a shiny aluminium, deco style Pullman car.
11th Street Diner, Miami
4. Sun, sand and swim at South Beach - The aquamarine water and the sandy beach were calming and rejuvenating.
South Beach, Miami
5. Taking pictures of the lifeguard stations along South Beach.  This is “colour therapy” after seeing mostly white and grey in Toronto for three winter months.
14th St. Lifeguard station, Miami
13th St. Lifeguard station, Miami
12 St. Lifeguard station, Miami
11th St. Lifeguard station, Miami
6. A visit to the Miami Beach Botanical Garden - Green plants, butterflies, beautiful flowers, and water fountains that sooth the soul. Free admission Tuesday to Sunday, from 9 am to 5 pm.
Miami Beach Botanical Garden entrance
Bougainvilleas, Miami Beach Botanical Garden
Pink bromeliads, Miami Beach Botanical Garden
Butterfly, Miami Beach Botanical Garden
7. Jogging along the oceanfront promenade, or I could cover more distance if I had a bike like this postal worker.
8. Window shopping in South Beach and at Lincoln Road outdoor pedestrian shopping mall. Some of the store displays showed wonderful and artistic creativity.

9. Strolling South Beach in the evening to see the nightlife and night lights.

10. Taking the express Airport-Beach Flyer Bus 150 to get from Miami International Airport to South Beach and vice versa. The ride took about 30 minutes each way. For US$5.30 return tickets, this bus route was definitely speedy and inexpensive. Once in South Beach, the best way to get around is to walk.

I used my “frequent flyer” points for my return tickets from Toronto to Miami. There are frequent, non-stop flights between the two cities that take about three hours.

Have you been to Miami? What were your experiences when you were there?

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Mid-January 2017 review

I received a Tim Horton’s gift card at New Year’s and plan to use it when I meet up with my friends for coffee. Tim Horton’s is a Canadian food service brand known for its coffee and doughnuts.

Tim Horton's gift card holder

Reflecting on the first two weeks of 2017, I’m happy that I was able to accomplish some of my goals and enjoy some fun activities.

  • I exercised one hour daily. This month I alternated working out in the gym with yoga sessions to give myself variety.
  • I also walked about an hour daily. We had some cold days these past two weeks. I just dressed in layers and kept moving at a brisk pace. The weather forecast calls for above freezing temperatures with some rain in the next two weeks. I’ll look out for sunny moments and try to go for my walk during those times.
  • No unexpected expense so far.
  • My savings are on target.
  • I did my share of the usual laundry, grocery shopping, cooking and housework.
  • All of us spent most of our free time at home and we love it! When it’s cold outside and everything we need is inside, we stay inside :-)
  • I wrote on this blog about my solo trip to New Orleans. It took some time for me to decide on which photos to post and to edit my writing but I got it done and got to re-live my favourite experiences in New Orleans.
  • I also edited my New Year’s Day post to add a picture of the greeting card that I received from my dear family.
  • I resumed my Spanish lessons on Duolingo. I had not done this for a while. I may be traveling to a Spanish-speaking country this year so it’s time to review the basics.
Grocery shopping is actually an activity that meets my goals for keeping fit, saving money, and caring for my family. I walk to the grocery stores and carry the groceries home. I pay attention to what’s on sale and buy what we consume when they go on sale. I try to prepare balanced meals so we can stay healthy. Bonus: I have fun browsing and comparing the store products.

How are you doing with your goals?

Friday, 13 January 2017

New Orleans

In this article, I’m writing about my four-day solo trip in early December to New Orleans, Louisiana, in the United States. I had enough “frequent flyer” points to make a short-haul trip and was looking forward to a four-day getaway to satisfy my travel curiosity. After doing some research, I chose to visit New Orleans for its history, architecture, music, food, comparable costs (to Toronto), and walkability to the main sights.

My Favourite Experiences in New Orleans:

1. Beignets and Cafe au lait at Cafe du Monde - This coffee place opens 24 hours! For about 5 dollars, I got a seat looking out to Jackson Square. It was great to watch people, the horse carriages, and a live band playing music while sipping hot coffee and enjoying the warm French-style doughnuts.

Beignets and Cafe au lait at Cafe du Monde
2. A stroll through the French Quarter is a feast to the eyes and mind. Beautiful old houses with lace iron, plus numerous unique shops and art galleries. The famous Bourbon Street is here, too.

Lace iron home in the French Quarter, New Orleans
Bourbon Street, New Orleans
3. A ride on the historic St Charles Avenue streetcar to the Garden District. For $1.25, I got a window seat to see the neighbourhoods along the way.

St. Charles Avenue streetcar, New Orleans
4. A walking tour through the Garden District to admire the elegant houses and the beautiful oak trees.

5. Jazz at Preservation Hall and reading up on some of the famous musicians.

Statues of 3 musicians in New Orleans
Preservation Hall, New Orleans
Iron bench at Preservation Hall, New Orleans
6. A visit to Jackson Square and St Louis Cathedral, the oldest continuously operating cathedral in the US.
St Louis Cathedral, New Orleans
7. Reading the street signs and their history.

New Orleans sign
Calle Real street history
Horse-shaped post
8. Listening to live band playing in the middle of Royal Street.

9. Browsing antique shops and visiting the Historic New Orleans Collection museum on Royal Street in the French Quarter.

10. Riding the Canal Street ferry from Canal Street to Algiers. For $2, this is a fabulous ride across the mighty Mississippi River!

Getting from Toronto to New Orleans was easy with a non-stop flight that took about 3 hours. For getting from and to the Louis Armstrong International Airport, I used the airport shuttle bus. The weather in New Orleans in early December was sunny and cool, just great for walking and exploring. The best way to explore the French Quarter and the Garden District is on foot. Public transit such as the streetcars, or ferry was inexpensive. I was very happy with my decision to visit New Orleans.

Have you been to New Orleans? If you have, what were your favourite experiences while you were there?

Sunday, 1 January 2017

New Year's Day 2017

It's New Year's Day of 2017!

A clear, sunny day in Toronto with the following weather data (exactly nine hours of daylight):
  • Sunrise: 7:51 AM
  • Sunset: 4:51 PM
  • Chance of snow: 10%
  • Humidity: 50%
  • Wind: SW 16 km/hr
  • High will be 3C
  • Low will be -2C
Similar to previous years, I've set a number of SMART goals for myself for 2017. My goals continue to focus on three categories: (1) Fitness, (2) Finance, (3) Family and Friends. Having just the top 3 is easy to remember and manageable for me. If I add any new category during the year, it's a bonus!

I consider today a great day: I've done my workout in the gym this morning. I've walked outdoors to enjoy the sunshine. I've put some savings in my bank account. I've enjoyed breakfast, lunch and soon dinner with my family. Bonus: Now I'm writing this post to mark a new day in a new year.

Wishing all my family, friends and readers a Healthy and Happy New Year!