Budget Travel Strategy: Smart Travel Uses For Your Tax Refund

tax refundIf a tax refund is headed your way, common recommendations include paying off debt; making a major purchase and paying cash, rather than putting it on a credit card and other assorted common sense moves. Travelers can benefit too by using some of the same thinking about what we spend on airline tickets, cruise fare, gear and more.

“Set aside some money for vacation rather than using your credit card and paying interest long after you have returned,” financial experts suggest at Kiplinger in “Ten Smart Uses for Your Tax Refund.”

Looking beyond financial guru tips that can include beginning or adding to a retirement fund, throwing much of that refund into the never ending bog of student loans, maybe some immediate feel good uses would be appropriate also.

Load up travel cards and accounts
Going to be traveling sometime this year? Load up pre-paid travel cards, perhaps a gift card received as a gift that has a few dollars left but was handy to use at the time. Starbucks cards, gas cards or hotel cards some to mind.

MasterCard’s Travel Money Cards are handy. While you have the cash, avoid worrying about it down the road, in several ways with the MasterCard version or one of a number of other cards.

Registering your pre-paid card protects travel funds in case the card is lost or stolen, with no liability, just like a credit card. Starting with a nice chunk of cash from your tax refund, then add to it between now and travel is a good way to save too.

I do this with a dedicated card that is just for my travel fund and believe me, adding to and carrying my “travel card” is a whole lot more fun than a savings account up front. On the backside, eliminate post-travel blues of a new payment to make on a credit card too.

Known Expense Buys
Thinking ahead here is the key.

If, on your last trek through the mountains, one of the last thoughts was “I’m going to need to replace this old backpack before I go again,” but travel is not happening until the fall, get ahead of the game. Buy it now and buy it wisely. Shop and compare various sources with plenty of time, looking for a sale price on the perfect gear.

That works for just about anything and even small items like socks, shoes or more of the pre-paid cards noted above are fair game also. On cruise vacations some travelers choose to pre-pay shore exploration packages, gratuities or beverage packages that can add up quickly on a cruise ship.

Looking ahead to more efficient travel and making the buy you have been putting off is a good idea too. Time for a new digital camera? Buying before the peak travel months this summer can often find lower prices on models those going on vacation are apt to buy.

Buy Now, Travel Later
Cruise lines – between wave season (the busiest booking time of the year) and summer buying season (when many travelers finally get around to booking) – have some of the best deals around right now.

  • Carnival Cruise Lines Friends And Family event, just extended through the end of the month, offer the best rates we have seen so far this year with maximum upgrades and lower fares. Often, it’s one or the other.
  • Celebrity Cruises 123 Go offer new bookers a choice of a free beverage package, free prepaid gratuities or free onboard credit if booked before April 15.
  • Princess Cruises Spring Into Savings Sale has big savings on Europe cruises and Alaska cruises and up to $100 onboard spending money and up to $500 air savings per person. Seven-day Caribbean sailings and seven-day Alaska Inside Passage sailings are also on sale.

Not just the exclusive domain of cruise vacations, other travel options like hotel packages, resort stays and prepaid expenses at destinations around the world are possible too. In Rome, for example, a taxi ride from the air or cruise port can be arranged and paid for in advance. So can tour packages separate from cruise line offerings or hotel-suggested tours, both of which have some of the cost going right back to the source that suggested it.

Beware Of Bargains
Knowing that a great many Americans get a tax refund in the second quarter of the year, sellers of travel and travel-related services feature package deals with refund-laden travelers in mind.

Many are a great value, bundling airfare with car rental and hotel, cruise or resort packages. Some are scams that lie in wait for us to receive that chunk of cash, so check with your trusted travel source or Better Business Bureau before buying.

Bonus Tip: there really is no “Royal Cruise Line.” That’s an old scam by online thieves to get “just $99” to pay the tax on your otherwise-free ride.

Some taxpayers even make spending their refund on travel an annual event. This video shows a bunch of travelers on their third annual tax refund trip.




[Photo credit – Flickr user robotson]

Cruise Line Brings Dining From The Sea To New York City

cruise lineEach cruise line seems to have its own focus and Celebrity Cruises is no exception. On board their “Modern Luxury” ships, Celebrity Cruises chefs create relevant, unforgettable dining experiences.

To take that message to New York City, perhaps to those who have never sailed before, Celebrity is coming to town with a pop-up restaurant featuring favorites from their onboard menus along with items that reflect the culinary feel of Manhattan.

Celebrity’s own James Beard-featured chef, John Suley, will be on hand for the event, which is open to the public with advance reservations.

To be held at The Kitchen NYC on January 29, 31, and February 1, 2013 for lunch ($40) or dinner ($75), the fresh-from-scratch meal also includes the services of master mixologist Junior Merino, aka The Liquid Chef, on hand with special (and included) concocted libations.
Proceeds from ticket sales will support the Celebrity Cruises Scholarship at The Culinary Institute of America, with a $10,000 donation guaranteed. Attendees will also be entered to win a Caribbean cruise for two on a Celebrity Cruises ship. Reservations are available from noon to 1 p.m. for lunch and 5:30 to 8:45 p.m. for dinner at celebritycruisespopupnyc.eventbrite.com.

This is not a first for Celebrity Cruises. Their pop-up restaurant debuted in San Francisco in 2012.

Want to know more about pop-up restaurants? Check out this video:


Gifts For Travelers: Consider The Person, Place And Travel Trends

gifts for travelersWhen it comes to gifts for travelers, there are a lot of choices. Leisure travelers, those who commonly associate travel with fun, vacation time and new places have their needs. Business travelers are a different story, often looking at their frequent trips to the same place as work and a hotel room their office. Adventure travelers and others have their own priorities as well. Each has different needs. Knowing what they put a high value on can help us pick the perfect gift. To find out, we checked a number of published packing lists for a variety of travelers.

Universally common and high-priority advice includes packing a passport, travel documents like visa’s, hotel and flight confirmations, boarding passes and a list of critical phone numbers. Basics like appropriate clothing, personal care products, smartphone apps and money round out the list. Nothing really shocking there but that’s the point of a packing list, to jog our memory so we don’t forget something critical.

All of the above considered, a document organizer might be a good idea for a less-than-organized traveler on your gift list. Victorinox, the Swiss army people, has a Travel Organizer that features: a large stash pocket and full-length zippered pocket to store tickets, a passport and most sizes of currency; a zippered pocket for coins; dedicated card slots; and a micromesh ID slot ($32).

But say your traveler already has something like that or is the type of person that you know will not use it. If they have not traveled in a while, they may not know about the current trend to travel light. OneBag, a website dedicated to “the art and science of traveling light” has some ideas.”There’s no question: over-packing tops the list of biggest travel mistakes,” says OneBag on its website, which promises, “going pretty much anywhere, for business or leisure, for an indefinite length of time, with no more than a single carry-on-sized bag.”

Benefits of traveling light include increased personal security with just one bag; that’s less to lose due to theft, damage or misrouting. Traveling light means no checked bags and a more stress- and hassle-free way to go.

So maybe “things” are not what we should focus on for the traveler on our list. That leaves gift cards, arranging for an appropriate gift to be waiting for them at their destination and well wishes.

Just in time for the holidays, Carnival Cruise Lines has launched its first-ever gift card program, a pre-paid card that can be used as payment toward a “Fun Ship” vacation or a variety of shipboard purchases. Celebrity Cruises (with a double your gift card offer) and other cruise lines have a similar program, as do airlines, car rental companies and major hotel chains like Marriott, Best Western and others.

A gift card from TravelSmith or REI Adventure products would take the pressure off of gifting, allowing the traveler to pick what they want or need. A better gift card would be for places your traveler might visit on a planned itinerary or serve as incentive to book that trip-of-a-lifetime.

Someone traveling to Disney World in Florida, for example, might appreciate a McDonalds gift card. That may sound like a dumb gift but just outside the gates of Disney World where dining can be expensive, is a McDonalds and the largest McDonalds in the world is not far. Oh, all of the sudden “dumb” is “thoughtful” and absolutely used, rather than set aside with other well-intentioned gifts.

Need some other gift ideas? Check this video from US Airways:


OneBag offers some other guidelines that can steer us in the right direction too, focusing on three areas that can lead to some great gift suggestions:

  • Packing List Usage, abandoning the folly of lugging around too much stuff;
  • Weight Reduction, finding travel-friendly versions of the stuff you do carry; and
  • Bag Optimization, understanding what to look for in efficient & effective luggage.

[Photo credit- Flickr user tikigod]

Stunning Cruise Line Art, Both In And On Ships

cruise

Cruise lines traditionally devote a great amount of resources collecting art that will adorn the walls of individual staterooms and public spaces. Thoughtful collections help ship designers tie in a central theme that often runs throughout the interior of ships and sometimes on the exterior as well. It’s a high-stakes game of procurement and placement that can transform a ship into a floating display.

Not Your Mother’s Art
Travelers who have done a cruise vacation on any number of mainstream cruise lines know about art auctions on board. That’s not what we’re talking about here.

Art auctions are a profitable revenue stream for cruise lines that entice participants away from the pool deck or casino with free champagne during the event. Called into question on numerous occasions, the value of art bought at sea is difficult to nail down and commonly appraised much lower on land.

Put that thought out of your mind. The cruise line art we’re talking about today is the real deal, featuring creations by top tier artists like Romero Britto, Thomas Kincade and Peter Max.

Bringing Big Names Along For The Ride
Partnering with obscure and well-known artists, works take the form of paintings, lithographs and sculptures ranging from the traditional to over-the-top custom pieces designed specifically for a certain ship.

Royal Caribbean brought Peter Max along for the ride on inaugural sailings of giant Allure of the Seas, the largest cruise ship in the world, and an on-board Britto store where works from Romero Britto are featured.

Thank cruise line art programs for sparking the idea of branding that has brought partnerships with celebrity chefs, big-name entertainment and normally land-based service providers to sea.

Not Just Inside The Ship Either
Norwegian Cruise Line announced recently that David Le Batard (AKA “LEBO” ) was chosen to create the hull art (pictured above) for the new 4000-passenger Norwegian Getaway to be based in Miami.

“Norwegian Getaway will be Miami’s ship and, therefore, we wanted to ensure that her hull was designed by an artist with strong ties to Miami and the Latin community,” said Kevin Sheehan, Norwegian Cruise Line’s chief executive officer in a press release. “Having begun his career in South Florida, Dave is an artist that is entrenched here. His work adorns the city and I’ve learned that he is also a genuinely nice guy. He is a shining star in Miami, as well as the global art community.”

Similar to the close pairing of sister-ship Norwegian Breakaway to New York City, the cruise line is going down the same road with Norwegian Getaway hosting a South Florida theme. On Norwegian Breakaway, it was Peter Max designing hull art that features images of the Statue of Liberty and the New York skyline.

On Norwegian Getway, set to debut in February 2014, Batard will add images of a mermaid, sun, swirling waves, palm trees and pelicans to support the ship’s South Florida theme.

Art, The Experience
Also on the exterior of a ship, the imagineers at Disney Cruise Line took the ship’s satellite transmitters, normally an eyesore, and made them into something unique. On the top forward deck of the Disney Fantasy, Satellite Falls is a new Disney Cruise Line feature that adds “a gentle water curtain to one of the ship’s satellite transmitters,” says Inside The Magic of this video. “The surrounding area features a relaxing open deck with views of the front of the ship”




Celebrity Cruises takes art to unique places as well. When last year’s Celebrity Silhouette, sister-ship to Celebrity Reflection debuted, Gadling reported that Celebrity had commissioned Kurt Werner, the inventor of 3-D street art, to create an innovative art installation at the New York Stock Exchange. Stock Exchange employees had fun “relaxing” on the hammock and “grilling” on what was then the industry’s first outdoor, interactive grill restaurant, called The Lawn Club Grill.

Spare No Expense On Art
Setting sail this week for the first time, new Celebrity Reflection features a $4.1 million collection of art that in one way or another supports the “reflection” theme on the ship. Over 6,000 works make up the ship’s collection, part of the Royal Caribbean International company inventory that spans over 40 ships.

What goes into creating an at-sea art collection? Purchasing art works or commissioning specific works by international emerging, mid-career and established artists is key as we see in this video:




Engaging Passengers
Art runs through ships as an element of the cruise experience we don’t hear a lot about. Its there and those who take the time to look are often surprised by the captivating quality of works at sea. Also at sea, some lines engage passengers, teaching and challenging them to try something new, creating art of their own.

Celebrity Cruises has a hands-on program on their Solstice-class ships and others that have been “solsticized” adding popular features to older ships. The Art Studio, a new venue on The Lawn Club has along for the ride two artists-in-residence who offer hands-on classes in many creative arts. Master Artists from The ArtCenter South Florida also host art classes, lectures and demonstrations on topics ranging from jewelry making to sketching and painting.

Passengers on Princess Cruises can choose from about 20 courses per voyage from four core subject areas – Culinary Arts, Visual/Creative Arts, Photography and Computer Technology. Ceramics or pottery are popular with passengers who fire their creations on board to take home later. Digital travel photography and watercolor techniques are also offered.

Just about every major cruise line has an onboard art collection they are proud of and they want passengers to know all about it. Hosting tours, both with an art expert along and self-guided, cruise lines take passengers on a voyage within a voyage. Enabling those who appreciate fine art an additional at-sea experience, the art we find at sea adds an extra dimension worthy of our consideration.

[Photo Credit- Norwegian Cruise Line]

Egypt Protests Scatter Cruise Ships, Concern Tour Operators

EgyptEgypt’s tourism business has been suffering since the 2011 uprising that forced President Hosni Mubarak to step down. This week, in response to protests in Egypt, the vital industry received another blow as cruise lines and tour operators began making alternative plans.

“In an abundance of caution, Royal Caribbean International has decided to cancel Mariner of the Seas’ next port call to Egypt,” says a notice sent to travel agents Thursday. “Mariner of the Seas, which departs Rome (Civitavecchia), Italy, on Saturday, September 15, will no longer call on Alexandria, Egypt, on Tuesday, September 18. Instead, the ship will now call to Sicily (Messina), Italy, on, Sunday, September 16, and Valletta, Malta, on Monday, September 17.

That caution also applies to sister lines Azamara Club Cruises and Celebrity Cruises. It’s the up side to cruise ships, often called “floating resorts.” When trouble presents itself cruise lines simply sail in another direction.

Princess Cruises, the first to return to Egypt after the 2011 uprising, is staying the course, for now. “We haven’t made any changes yet to our upcoming calls to Egypt,” Princess Spokesperson Karen Candy told Gadling. “We’re closely monitoring the situation and will of course make any changes we feel necessary in order to ensure our passengers are safe.”

Security, it seems, is an ongoing problem in Egypt. Last Sunday, about 150 tour guides demonstrated outside of Cairo’s Egyptian Museum, saying the lack of security is complicating attempts to lure tourists back.

“There is no security. This is not a joke,” Dina Yacoub, a 29-year-old guide told the Associated Press in a Washington Post article published just before this week’s anti-American violence in Libya, Yemen and Egypt this week. “We are asking tourists to come back … how would they unless there is security?”

The cruise line positions this week mirror their posturing after the 2011 unrest/chaos when they played it safe by keeping ships and passengers out of harms way.




[Flickr photo by archer10]