Best Travel Camera Bag – EVER!

About 6 years ago we upgraded from a small Sony point and shoot camera that could fit in my pocket, to a big ol’ Nikon D3100.  Yes it takes great pictures, but more often than not, I would leave it at home because it was just too big and bulky to carry around.

Tamrac6

 

We were using a Tamrac backpack camera bag.  It held absolutely everything we needed to take pictures, but it was a pain to access your camera when you needed it. By the time you took the bag off of your back, set it down and unzipped the bottom compartment, the moment had likely passed.

As I was planning my trip to Romania (which was AWESOME and I am really going to try to write about it soon) I knew I wanted to take the big camera, but I was dreading the backpack.  Especially since I would not have Matthew with me to carry the load!

On a previous trip to Europe, I carried my camera in my purse, which was not the best idea.  There was absolutely no padding and the particular purse I was carrying did not even zip or snap shut.  Bad idea.

I wanted a camera bag that looked more like a purse than a camera bag.  I started researching bags, but most of them still looked like a camera bag.

Then I found the Lowepro Passport Sling. This bag is awesome.  It fit not only my big Nikon D3100, but also an additional zoom lens if I was so inclined to take it with me.  (Which I was, but did not use it even once)  The front part of the bag expands by about 30% when you open the zipper.  This was great for carrying my wallet, my Go Pro, my phone and even a light cardigan! There are outside pockets also, but they have no zipper or velco closure so you can’t put anything valuable in there.  But the outside pockets were great for water bottles and metro tickets.

The best part about the Lowepro bag was the padded insert for the camera.  It wasn’t as heavily padded on the bottom as I would have liked and I’m not sure why they didn’t pad the bottom as well as the sides.  But it made a nice little cocoon for the camera to ride in and as long as I was careful not to throw the bag on the ground, I felt that the camera was well protected.

I actually purchased the original version of the bag on amazon.com.  There are still some available here.  My main reason for choosing the older model is because of the khaki color.  Most all camera bags are black and red and I thought the khaki color looked more like a purse and would blend in better.  And well, let’s be honest, it’s almost half the price of the newest model.  But it looks like the newest model has a compartment for a tablet, which could be useful if that is something you like to walk around with.

The bag is big, but at just over 5’8″ I did not feel overwhelmed by it.  A smaller person might find it bulky, but it is very light.  Even when it’s stuffed full!

paris

The bag blends in well and doesn’t scream “CAMERA BAG!”

 

 

My “Last Hurrah” with Club Carlson – Plus a Mini AOR

Ahhhh….Club Carlson.  I have only had your credit card for 1 year now and in the beginning you were full of promises and Bonus Nights.

But now? Now you are like a cheating lover who has punched me in the heart and destroyed my faith in all hotel loyalty programs.

Too dramatic? Yeah.  Maybe.  But the past couple weeks I have been seriously stressed out by the looming devaluation of the Club Carlson Rewards Program.

It is crazy easy to earn Club Carlson points without ever staying in one of their properties.  You earn 5 points per dollar spent and they offer an 85,000 point sign up bonus for their Premier Rewards Visa Card.  After your sign up and initial spend, you’ve got a cool 97,500 points to redeem.  Factor in the Bonus Nights (R.I.P.) and you could spend 4 nights in a 4-star European hotel for just $75.  (that is the annual fee that is not waived for the first year)

Granted, their US properties are not the greatest (with a few exceptions) but many of their European properties are quite nice.

As you all know by now, the Bonus Night perk went away on June 1, 2015.  Between Matthew and myself we had about 350,000 Club Carlson points that would be worth half as much after June 1. (it was 337,000 but Matthew stayed at a Radisson on business and earned more points)  And to add insult to injury, they were also making a bunch of Category changes on June 1, with most properties moving UP a category.

I spent the last 2 weeks of May trying to decide what speculative bookings to make, hoping I would be able to make them all work.

What I Did

I am planning a trip to Australia in June 2016.  That much, I know.  I do not really know the exact dates, but I have a general idea of when I would like to go and how long I would like to stay.  I also know that I would like to end my trip in (and fly home from) Sydney.  So I took a big gamble and booked 4 nights at the Radisson Blu Plaza Hotel Sydney.  I used 50,000 miles from my account and 50,000 miles from Matthew’s account.

raddison-blu-sydney

Radisson Blu Plaza Hotel Sydney

It’s a beautiful 5 star hotel within walking distance of the Sydney Harbor Bridge and the view of some kind of  futuristic looking Opera House.

Now all I have to do is hope I can secure 3 business class seats home on Virgin Australia using Delta miles when the schedule opens up in mid July!  Of course I also have to hope that I can secure 3 business class seats on Cathay Pacific using American miles to even get there in the first place!   Hopefully all the planets align and the dates I want/need will be available.

Next up – Spring Break 2016.  This was a tough one, but yet a very easy one at the same time.  I had tossed about the idea of going to Cancun to visit Chichen Itza.  I also considered Peru and Machu Picchu.  Some kind of Mayan phase I was in, I guess.  I had also seriously considered Egypt.  Parker is fascinated with Egypt right now and has had an Egyptian themed birthday for the past 2 years! But Egypt is so hard to get to! (read: it costs more miles than I am willing to spend) I could not find what I thought was a reasonable redemption to get us to Egypt so I put it back on the shelf for a while.

I asked Parker where he would like to go for Spring Break next year (other than Egypt) and, without hesitation, he said, “Paris”.  Done and done.  You really do not have to ask me twice to go to Paris.  I am going for 2 days in October of this year, but that’s ok.

paris

So.  I booked 4 nights at the Radisson Blu Paris Champs Elysees.  50,000 points for 2 nights from each of our accounts.  Now this redemption worries me just a little bit.  The 50,000 point redemption is for a “Deluxe Room” which has one queen size bed.  The 3 of us cannot really sleep comfortably in one queen bed.  With each of us having Gold Status (by renewing the Visa card for another year) I am hoping we will be upgraded to a Business Class room with a king bed or a room that will accommodate a rollaway bed.  It’s a gamble and I know that upgrades are never a sure thing.  I could have redeemed 105,000 points for the Business Class room.  But you know I would never do that.

radisson-sas-hotel-paris-champs-elysees-paris_240920100908461791

Radisson Blu Hotel Champs Elysees Paris

My original plan was to book 6 nights at the Champs Elysees, but as luck would have it, they did not have availability for 2 nights in the middle of my stay.  My solution was to spend 2 nights at Disneyland Paris.  (Euro Disney?) At 7, I don’t think Parker will have outgrown it yet.

Using 50,000 points from Matthew’s account, I booked 2 nights at the Radisson Blu Disneyland Paris.  I’m not sure what to expect of Disneyland Paris, but I do not expect an American experience.

rdaissondisney

Radisson Blu Disneyland Paris

Matthew and I are huge geeks.  Especially when it comes to Halloween.  One of our favorite Halloween attractions is Halloween Horror Nights in Orlando, FL.

My favorite time to go is early October, but I going to Romania with my paranormal team in early October.  I also have lots of things planned for later in October so my only option for Halloween Horror Nights was the last weekend in September.  I do not have any flights booked yet (I am hoping for a deal on Frontier) so I took a chance and made a speculative booking at the Country Inn and Suites Orlando Universal.  I used 28,000 points from Matthew’s account for 2 nights.

I also made a speculative booking at Country Inn and Suites Sandusky OH over the 4th of July 2016.  Matthew’s birthday is July 4 and in the past we have gone to amusement parks for his birthday (see above statement about being geeks), so why not next year? Parker has never been to Cedar Point and he is big enough for almost all the rides. Another 28,000 points from Matthew’s account for those 2 nights.

As of May 31, I was left with about 15,0oo points in my account and Matthew had about 30,000.  I could not let them go to waste!

We love California and have gone every year for the past 10 or more years.  Since I will likely buy a Platinum Cedar Fair pass next year (to go to Cedar Point on the 4th of July), if we went to California we could go to Knott’s Berry Farm.  And of course Disneyland.  I found the Radisson Suites Hotel Buena Park which is walking distance to Knott’s Berry Farm.  Big problem though! The Radisson Buena Park was 38,000 points.  Neither of us had enough points.  Club Carlson will allow Gold Elite members to transfer points to another member’s account by calling their Customer Service Center.  The Customer Service Center is closed on weekends and the reservation agents can’t (or won’t) do it.  Remember, the Bonus Night was going away on Monday, June 1.

At this point I was determined not to lose that point redemption and went so far as to install Google Voice on my phone and call the Club Carlson Australian Customer Service Center!  I waited on hold for 18 minutes (and 36 cents) before my call was answered by their Dallas TX reservation center.  What?  Apparently the Australian Service Center was getting so many calls, they were being routed back to the US.  The lady on the line wanted to know why they were getting so many calls about transferring points.  (Really?) I told her I was actually calling Australia to talk to Customer Service and the call was routed back to her.  She said Customer Service was closed on weekends and she could not understand that it was actually Monday morning already in Australia and why in the world would I call Australia??? I hung up before wasting another 2 cents.

I woke up Monday morning, sad that I lost out on one last Bonus Night award redemption.  But wait…what’s this? Notifications on my computer that Bonus Night bookings were still going through! I hopped on the phone and had points transferred from my account to Matthew’s.  As fast as I could, I logged on to the Club Carlson site to book the Radisson Suites Buena Park.  Score! And guess what else? The Radisson Suites Buena Park actually moved DOWN a category on June 1.  So not only did I get the Bonus Night, I also saved 10,000 points!

As a side note, the Radisson Blu Paris Disneyland also moved down a category and was now 6,000 points less than what I booked it for.  I thought about canceling my reservation and rebooking at the lower rate but either my computer or the Club Carlson website was acting funky and I was afraid of losing it completely.  In my opinion, it was not worth it to potentially lose 38,000 points for the sake of maybe saving 6,000.

So…my Club Carlson Tally:

4 nights Radisson Blu Paris Champs Elysees – 100,000

2 nights Radisson Blu Paris Disneyland – 50,000

4 nights Radisson Blu Park Plaza Sydney – 100,000

2 nights Country Inn and Suites Orlando – 28,000

2 nights Country Inn and Suites Sandusky OH  – 28,000

2 nights Radisson Suites Buena Park CA – 28,000

We each have just over 10,000 points left in our accounts.  Hopefully we will be able to find some use for them in the next year or two.

Mini App – O – Rama

Because I feel like I am not doing anything if I am not actively earning miles and points, and because I just finished the minimum spend on Matthew’s most recent AOR,  I decided to do one for myself.

I don’t feel like making one of my little charts, so I will just tell you what I did.

1. Citibank AAdvantage Platinum Select Mastercard.  I will earn 50,000 AAdvantage miles after spending $3,000 in the first 3 months.  $0 annual fee for the first year.

  • Reason: you can NEVER have enough AA miles! I am using a big chunk for Cathay Pacific business class to Australia and I want to make sure I have some in the bank.

2. Bank of America Alaska Airlines Signature VISA.  I will earn 25,000 Alaska Airlines miles just for signing up.  No minimum spend required.  $75 annual fee is not waived for the first year.

  • Reason: This is not the greatest sign-up bonus but I am going to start stockpiling Alaska miles to use to get to Fiji in the next 2 years.  As of now, Alaska BOA cards are highly churnable.

3. Barclay’s Frontier Mastercard.  40,000 Frontier miles after spending $500 in the first 3 months. $69 annual fee is not waived for the first year.

  • Reason: My first thought was to use Frontier miles to get to Orlando in September for Halloween Horror Nights.  But it will depend on the fare.  If I can get a good value for the redemption, I will use the miles.  If not, I will pay cash.  I can still use the miles for a ski trip I plan to plan (“plan to plan”, I like that!) for January 2016.

I am getting 115,000 airline miles for $144.  Not the biggest or the cheapest AOR I have ever done, but I have a somewhat immediate need for these miles.

So that’s it for now! I am also working on a post about my recent Manufactured Spending experience.  Hopefully I will have that one up in the next couple days.

I know I don’t have a huge following, but for the handful of people who do read my blog – I appreciate it! Maybe if I would write more…..

Summer 2015 May Not Be Exotic

I am almost ashamed to say that I have not booked any travel for next summer.  It’s been very hard to plan in advance with Matthew’s travel schedule being so unpredictable and now that I have a better idea of when we can go, the pickin’s are slim.

Why do I feel like I am not “traveling” if I do not go to Europe? Or Asia? That’s a mindset that I need to shake off.  Parker loves California and has talked about the Grand Canyon, so I have a feeling the Boring Rolands will be going west this summer.

I have some award tickets on hold with American until Dec 9, so I need to make a decision before then.  Matthew has a work trip to Albuquerque in late June.

Breaking-Bad

OF COURSE I would do this if I have time!

My plan is for Parker and I to fly in to Albuquerque on the last day of his work trip (June 26) and drive to the Grand Canyon from there.  

We could spend a couple days at the Canyon and then drive on to Las Vegas, with a stop at the Hoover Dam.  I’m not sure Vegas is a great place for kids, but I think it would be worth at least a day.  Parker would probably love the lights and action and I’m sure we could find some kid-friendly things to do.

From there, we would fly on Southwest to our favorite place, San Jose CA.  The Southwest fares seem to be around $75 one way, so that’s not bad at all and better than driving!

We love love love love love the Santa Cruz area.  Especially the Boardwalk.  We would spend at least 2 days there.santacruz

For the 4th of July weekend, we would head back up to San Jose to spend the weekend with family and hopefully attend Matthew’s cousin’s 98th birthday party!

My tickets on hold have us flying home from San Jose on Tuesday July 7.  Matthew would have to fly back to Albuquerque before flying home, unless he can work out his travel to allow him to fly home from San Jose.

That is more days than I planned to spend on this trip, but it was the only way I could make low level award tickets work.  I will keep checking, though, and see if anything else opens up that might let me shorten it by at least a day.

Boring, huh?  We go to California every year.  So I guess it’s all perspective.  We love it, and that’s what matters.

But I still have the itch to go to Europe.  (always) So I was checking Delta availability and I found 3 low level awards to London for July 1-July 9.  Of course you have to pay $300 per ticket for the privilege of flying out of London, but still.  Those dates are perfect and I  have been wanting to go to London and Scotland to visit my (dead) relatives.

On the bright side, I am still planning a trip to Romania in Oct 2015 with a friend, so I guess that will be my Europe fix for 2015.  Better travel plans await in 2016 – The Year of Australia!

So what travel plans do you have this summer?  What am I missing?  Do you have any suggestions of places to go where I still might be able to find low-level availability?  I know travel is “free” , but I still refuse to pay medium or high level for awards.  It’s a matter of principle.

Happy Travels!

Am I Burned Out?

Say It Isn’t So!

It’s a funny thought.  When you have the world at your disposal and enough miles and points to go absolutely anywhere you want, the desire to do so starts to fade away.  I think it’s an ugly truth that most miles and points bloggers would never admit to.  But here I am.  Admitting it.

I have traveled a lot this year.  And I mean, A LOT (for me). All thanks to miles and points!  Look at my year so far:

  • 3 weeks in Thailand
  • 10 days in California
  • 1 week in Europe
  • a weekend drive to West Virginia

It’s only July and I’m still not done!  Coming up, I still have a wedding in Baltimore in early August and a week at Beaches Turks and Caicos in October.  And then, I will be done with 2014 travel.

Maybe to some of you, that’s not much at all.  But it’s all individual perspective.  To me, it’s been a busy year and I am actually looking forward to a bit of downtime.

But it’s time to think about next year! The booking windows for summer travel are about to open.  And I have Absolutely No Clue where I want to take my family next summer.  Nothing sounds appealing to me.

decision-making-scaled500

I am planning a trip to Disney World in Florida for Spring Break next year.  I have tentatively booked a condo through my father-in-law’s timeshare.  Parker and I are going with his friend Nick and Nick’s mom Monika.  I am hesitant to use points for things I am sharing with someone else.  Maybe I’m stingy, but I feel it is a better value to use them for my family traveling alone.  When I travel with someone else, costs are split so the points have less value.

I’m also thinking about a quick weekend trip up to Snowshoe Mountain Resort in early March.

But that’s it for next year!

No, wait.  My friends and I were thinking about going to Romania next fall and checking out Dracula’s Castle.  But that’s it! That’s all for 2015.

I have to watch my money next year because I went way over budget on travel this year.  Remember – free travel is not completely free.  There’s still food and activities.  And we like expensive activities like scuba diving and snow skiing. I’m planning a post about travel budgeting and how I do it.  Add that to my list of things to do….

Back to Summer 2015

So that brings me back to summer 2015 and where to go.  I honestly have no clue.  I could think of places *I* would like to go, but they are not places that a 7 year old would likely appreciate.  For example, I would enjoy touring around England, Scotland and Ireland for a couple weeks.  Last year I got into the whole genealogy thing and traced my ancestors back to England and Scotland.  I would love to visit the towns where they lived.

I would also enjoy going to France.  Paris is my favorite city in the world and I would like to explore more of France as well.

I have also tossed around Croatia, Italy, Greece and Portugal.

I asked Parker where he would like to go for summer vacation next year and he answered exactly as I expected him to.  California.  He has gone to California every year since he was born. In fact, it would feel weird to NOT go to California next year.  But I want to go some place Different.  But let’s not rule out California completely.  I could plan a trip out west to coincide with Comic Con in San Diego.  (an event that has always been on my Geek Bucket List)

parkerinandout

Parker’s first trip to California at 4 months old!

Decision Time

I need to make a decision soon or I will just be out of luck with no award seats.  There is a part of me that wants to stay stateside next year.  I’m sure Parker would love to go to the Grand Canyon and see some of the National Parks out west.  (side trip to California included, of course) Sometimes I feel like a domestic trip is not really traveling.  It’s not exotic enough. That is completely ridiculous.  Of course I know that.  The United States is a beautiful country with so many different things to see and do.  I briefly tossed about the idea of going to Hawaii.  But, In My Opinion, it’s way too far and if we want tropical beaches, we are just as happy in the Caribbean.

Help me out.  Inspire me.  What are your travel plans for 2015?  Have you booked them yet? Maybe there is some fabulous place I just haven’t thought of yet.  Tell me in the comments…..

 

How I spent $20,000 in 3 months…Without Going Broke!

I did it all for 200,000 American Airlines Miles!

Earlier this year, Citibank began offering their Citi Executive / AAdvantage World Elite Mastercard with a sign up bonus of 100,000 American Airlines AAdvantage miles! That was too good to pass up.  There were a couple obstacles that made me pause though.  The spend requirement: $10,000 in 3 months.  And the annual fee: $450 not waived for the first year.  Although they do give you a $200 statement credit, so you can actually say the annual fee is only $250.  Still very high, but if you were to purchase miles from the American Airlines website, it would cost you $2,200 for 80,000 miles (the highest amount they sell) and $250 would only get you about 9,000 miles. Continue reading

Club Carlson Devaluation Tomorrow 3/15

 Devaluation

I cannot stand that word.  But it always happens this time of year.  Hotels and airlines move things around in ways that aren’t always beneficial to Award Travelers.  They usually announce such changes in advance though, so you have time to prepare yourself and plan ahead.  (ALWAYS plan ahead)

Club Carlson is introducing a new Category 7 which will be 70,000 points per night.  There are 9 hotels that will be making the jump from Category 6 to Category 7.  Overall, there are 114 increasing and 67 decreasing.

Club Carlson hotels include Country Inn and Suites, Radisson, Radisson Blu, Park Inn by Radisson and Park Plaza.

This will be the new award chart beginning March 15, 2014

Category 1: 9,000 points per night

Category 2: 15,000 points per night

Category 3: 28,000 points per night

Category 4: 38,000 points per night

Category 5: 44,000 points per night

Category 6:  50,000 points per night

Category 7: 70,000 points per night

Some of those higher end hotels sound like a lot of points per night, but you have to remember how easy it is to get Club Carlson points.  Applying for the US Bank Club Carlson Premier Rewards VISA gives you 85,000 bonus points! 50,000 points for your first purchase and another 35,000 points after spending $2,500 in the first 3 months.  Plus you earn 10 points per dollar spent in Carlson hotels and 5 points per dollar spent everywhere else.  Those add up quickly.  Plus, as a cardholder, you get the last award night free! (redeem points for 2 nights and the 3rd is free!)

You can find a complete list of category changes here.  But here are a few changes that interest me.

Radisson Blu Resort Trysil Norway

For the past couple of weeks I have been seriously considering going to Norway for Christmas Break 2015.  Two reasons I want to go to Norway: The Awesome Family Friendly Ski Resort of Trysil and to see The Northern Lights.

Northern-Lights-on-Show-for-Next-Few-Days-650x365

 

The Radisson Blu Resort in Trysil is a ski in/ski out property with an 8 lane bowling alley, 4 indoor pools with a FlowRider and rock climbing wall above the deep pool, and lots of activities for children.

This property is currently a Category 5 at 44,000 points per night, but after tomorrow it will be a Category 6 at 50,000 points per night.  6,000 points per night is not a HUGE jump and it would be relatively easy to earn the extra points.  But I think I might go ahead and book a few nights now.  If my plans change, I can always cancel and the points will be returned to my account.

Originally, I wanted to spend a few days in Trysil and then travel north to Tromso Norway, which is north of the Arctic Circle.  Looking at it now though, that will take too much travel time, and with school schedules we don’t have that luxury.  I have read about Northern Lights excursions from Trysil, so I’m hoping if we stay there 5 or 6 nights, we can get lucky at least once!

A few other hotels going up in Category are The Radisson Blu Le Metropolitan Hotel, Paris Eiffel, Radisson Blu Hotel Champs Elysees, Paris and The May Fair in London.  Those are all going from a Category 6 to Category 7.  But let’s face it, they probably should be there.

mayfair

 

I want to stay in a pink room at The May Fair in London!

Fortunately the Radisson Martinique on Broadway in New York City is NOT changing categories.  I was planning to stay there for a couple nights either around Christmas or to see the Thanksgiving Day Parade!

In conclusion

If you are holding on to some Club Carlson points, I suggest making a booking now if one of your planned destinations will be increasing in category. If your plans change, you can always cancel.  (though be sure to check the exact cancellation policy for every booking you make)

In spite of this devaluation, I still strongly recommend getting the Club Carlson Premier VISA card.  It gives a lot of points and comes with many benefits!

Happy Travels!