Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Planning The Perfect Getaway

I can't believe how long it's been since I last posted on our blog! Hopefully everyone is having a great summer and staying cool. I've been working on a lot of weddings and honeymoons lately which has kept me plenty these past couple months! Although today's topic is geared towards honeymoons in particular, this blog post could easily be useful for other types of travel as well, so read on :) Here are my main tips for planning the perfect getaway:

Tip 1: Start early and bundle
I recommend starting your research at least six to eight months out from your ideal travel dates (and booking shortly thereafter). Last minute deals and super cheap fares are not frequent anymore, so waiting will only cost you more money. Many hotels offer 'early bird' specials, so sooner is better the vast majority of the time. Also, as a general rule you'll get a better discount when you purchase travel components together, so try to book a comprehensive package when possible.

Tip 2: Buyer beware
Many times the pictures you see online are not what the hotel looks like in-person. Many of the star ratings are skewed and/or inaccurate which can lead to a pretty disappointing arrival and hotel stay (4 and 5-star ratings can often be used loosely). Because of this, it is always a great idea to consult with a travel professional. We have personally been to many of the resorts and if not, have insider knowledge on most properties so we'll be able to steer you away from the traps. Do not trust everything you come across online! The small agency fee is well worth it in terms of making the most of your money and ensuring that you have an enjoyable escape.

Tip 3: Consult!
I can't stress enough how helpful it can be to sit down with an agent to discuss all of your options. Many couples feel completely overwhelmed by the task of selecting a location and resort/hotel, but you'd be surprised how easy it actually is to narrow things down in a very short time. Do you want a cruise vacation or something land-based? Are you beach people or pool people? The adventurous-type or sun-worshipers? What about all-inclusive vs. a la carte? Caribbean or European? Budget amount? Adults-only or family-friendly? You get the picture! It sounds like a lot but we'll have your priorities narrowed down within the first conversation. This way you can avoid the countless overwhelming hours in front of your computer screen and move on to the next item on your 'To Do' list!

Tip 4: Honeymoon registries
Trend alert! In lieu of receiving as many traditional wedding gifts many couples are asking guests to chip in for their romantic getaway via honeymoon registries. Guests can opt to pay for anything from airfare to the hotel stay to excursions + adventures. Let me know if you're interested in this. It's truly quick, easy and pretty fun- Many of our MTS honeymooners have loved this idea so you might too!

Those are my main planning tips for today. I'll be doing another posting in the coming weeks where I get into even more honeymoon-related details such as packing light, the concept of mini-moons and reviewing average honeymoon price tags. Stay tuned!

One last thing: The Twin City Bridal Association has announced that the next Bridal Fair will be on Saturday, October 9 at the Convention Center. We participated in the last event and will be there again this time to meet all of the eager brides and grooms-to-be! If you want to order your tickets early here's a link to do so. I've attended this event as both a bride and a vendor and trust me, it's a great opportunity to get ideas, meet suppliers and enter to win lots of cool prizes! Hope we see you there.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

W.A.T.W: Cancun, Mexico...Is it safe?

One of the most frequently asked questions of recent months regarding Cancun is not "How much is it?" but, "Is it safe?" If you look to celebrities for the answers to such important questions, the answer is a resounding yes! Check out the latest celebrities who have made visits to Cancun and the surrounding areas in recent months.

Last fall, the U.S. Women's National Soccer Team took the plunge — into the dolphin pool — at Delphinus at Dreams Cancún. The women, who are among the favorites to win the Women's World Cup in Germany later this month, swam, played, kissed and got pushed around (via the controlled "foot push" routine) by the cute cetaceans.

Jennifer Lopez cozied up to a shirtless William Levy (the Cuban-born actor dubbed the "Brad Pitt of Mexico") on Turtle Beach near Tulum in April for her new music video "I'm into You." She also appeared in a low-cut snakeskin print dress and turban at Chichén Itzá, which gave her unprecedented access for the filming.

"Superman Returns" star and Calvin Klein Jeans model Kate Bosworth had lips flapping and paparazzi snapping when she doffed her bikini stop for a frolic on the beach in Cancún in April. She was on a girlfriend getaway to unwind after wrapping shooting on "Straw Dogs."

After getting hitched in Texas — both shod in cowboy boots — country singers Miranda Lambert and Blake Shelton snuck away in May for a secret honeymoon south of the border. Seems fellow star Reba McEntire's gift to the happy couple was the keys to her luxury vacation home outside of Cancun.

And this week in Cancun, a laundry list of celebrities attended the Summer of Sony 2011 event at the Ritz-Carlton Cancun. They were there to promote this summer's hottest movies. Those tourists lucky enough to be in the area could rub shoulders with the likes of Angelina Jolie, Julia Roberts, Jackie Chan, Salma Hayek, Adam Sandler, Christina Aguilera, Eva Mendes, Dwayne Johnson, Mark Wahlberg, Cam Gigandet, David Spade, Emma Stone, Kevin James, Seth Rogan, Jaden Smith, Justin Timberlake to name-drop just a few :)  Even the Smurfs were in attendance! 

Katie Holmes, Santiago Segura, Eugenio Derbez, Adam Sandler
Jonah Hill, Brad Pitt, Bennett Miller
Brad Pitt
Sofia Vergara
Cameron Diaz
Jonah Hill, Brad Pitt, Bennett Miller
Daddy Smurf, Hank Azaria, Sofia Vergara, Neil OAtrick Harris, Raja Gosness, Jordan Kerner, Smurfette
George Clooney

MTS Owners Theresa, Maria and Andrea
j/k...this is us a few years ago celebrating 'girl power' in Cancun
 In all seriousness, Cancun is noted as one of the safest places to travel in Mexico and is known throughout Mexico for its relatively lower crime rate. Of course you may find the normal petty thievery found in all tourist destinations, but major crime in the tourist zones is almost non-existent.  Furthermore, the neighboring tourist areas of Riviera Maya, Playa Del Carmen, Isla Mujeres, Cozumel and Tulum are considered to be some of the safest travel destinations in the Caribbean.

Of course, as is the case with any travel, there are some things to be aware of when traveling to these areas of Mexico:

Arrival at Cancun Airport:  Passing through customs upon arrival in Cancun and making my way outside to hook up with prearranged transfers has always felt like the story of Jesus in the temple with the hawkers and the peddlers, yelling and reaching out to all who pass trying to sell their wares.  Avoid them like the plague!  Proceed to your transfers located directly outside of the exit from the Cancun airport.  They have nothing to offer you and you'll be glad you did!

Most resorts offer amenities galore to their guests that for the most part there is no reason to leave. That said, there are times you may want to venture from the resort and explore on your own.  If you do, there are a few dangers to be aware of:

Taxi's: A great and reasonably inexpensive way to get around, always prearrange rates before entering the cab. Not all, but some taxi drivers have been known to charge whatever they think they can get away with. Prices should posted in front of your hotel, or simply talk with the bellman. Also, most fares include the tip. Feel free to give a little extra if your driver provides additional service.

Renting a Car: A typical Mexico car rental story is rent a car, get pulled over by police, pay bribe for speeding or worse, be declared intoxicated, pay bribe, pay towing fee, pay extra money to rental car agency, pay police bribe, and before you know it, there goes your spending money! While it's not uncommon for tourists to rent cars in Mexico, familiarize yourself with the laws and road system before hitting the road.

Time Shares: Don't get sucked in. The time share sellers are experts at convincing you to attend their presentation. They offer you free gifts, complimentary tours and the like. Before you know it the professionals have you signing on the dotted line. Congratulations! You've just purchased your first timeshare in exchange for a free tour. Forego the seminar, spend the money for the tour and spend the three hours with the dolphins. They're much less expensive and way better company!

Water: Simple. Don't drink it. Drink bottled water instead.

Silver: Make sure the silver is stamped with .925. If not, don't buy it. Most vendors and retail shops will sell you quality silver at exceptional prices. Don't be taken advantage of by vendors with 'quality silver' and no stamp. Deals like that will have your finger turning black before your plane touches down on your home turf.

Most importantly, educate yourself before going to Cancun, Mexico or anywhere else for that matter. So much of it's charm is because of the locals, who work extremely long hours to support their families and show off a culture they're proud of. You'll find them honest, courteous and so willing to share their beautiful county. For me, it somehow makes it easier to part with my hard-earned dollars.  I know their very existence depends on tourism and the fact that I can contribute AND spend time at a heaven-on-earth makes me a willing participant!!  See you in paradise!

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

For the Love of Family Vacations

"Hey, hey easy kids. Everybody in the car. Boat leaves in two minutes...or perhaps you don't want to see the second largest ball of twine on the face of the earth, which is only four short hours away?"
- Clark Griswold

Ahhhh, family vacations! When I was young my childhood friend, Katie, would drive to Florida every year with her parents and five siblings. At the time I thought it must be the most glamorous vacation ever. Now that I have four children, all I can do is admire her parents for their patience!

My name is Maria Anderson and I round out the team of co-owners here at MTS. The travel industry is such an exciting world to me because it is ever-changing. I love being a lifelong student of geography, tourism, economics and let's face it - leisure! I recently got back from a fun-filled weekend up north with some high school girlfriends. Every year we go on a little getaway where we laugh, relax, and laugh a little more. This year was no exception. On the way home we started chatting about how expensive it's gotten to rent a cabin and it got me thinking about family vacations. If we thought that cabin was expensive and we were only paying for a quarter of it, imagine the cost for a family that has to pay full price!

I know that airfares have been elevated in the past few years. We used to see last-minute deals for as low as $99 round trip, and it's just not happening anymore. Last year, if families waited until January or later to book their Spring Break vacation, they were stuck paying $700 a ticket or staying home! Many wise families have now opted to put a deposit on their trips early to lock into a good rate and take advantage of Early Bird discounts that many resorts offer. The other trend I've been seeing is families forgoing their warm weather Spring Break destinations and instead driving to a cabin or resort up north.

It sounds like a great idea, right? Rent a two bedroom cabin for three nights, go fishing, take long nature hikes, roast marshmallows by the campfire, sing Kumbaya (or in my family's case growing up, playing Rambo along the trails of Gooseberry Falls). Oh yes, the memories you can make with your kids up north are truly priceless, they just aren't as price-less as you might think. Yes, you are saving on airfare and depending on the size of your family that can mean all the difference. But remember that two bedroom cabin I mentioned? It was $479 per night. It was clean and comfortable, but definitely not the lap of luxury you would expect for that price. It did not have a kitchen or fireplace, just two bedrooms, a little sitting area and a small deck. While you could certainly bring some snacks and a cooler for drinks, you would still be paying for meals elsewhere. Your inexpensive family getaway has quickly become much more than you had planned. The cabin alone has set you back $1437. Factor in gas, three meals a day, a drink or two at the pool or beach, watersports such as a pontoon or jetski rental, and all the myriad of incidentals that our kids can talk us into (t-shirts, candy, ice cream, slushies, that one bouncy ball that they HAVE to have and lose in three minutes) and you suddenly have yourself a $2000 vacation.

Well, the good news is this: it is still possible to take a warm weather family vacation at an affordable price, and the best way to do that is all-inclusive resorts.You pay one price up front, and do not have any surprises after that. The kids can eat whenever they are hungry, and most all-inclusive resorts have at least one buffet-style restaurant, so you and your little sweeties can pick out what they will actually eat and they will finish their plate. (How many times have you paid for each of them to have a meal only for them to take four bites and say they're full?!?) There are also kids' programs and non-motorized water sports available so you'll never hear, "I'm bored!"

One of the deals I found is a three night August getaway at the Holiday Inn Sunspree in Montego Bay, Jamaica, where kids 11 and under stay for free. A family of four can pay as little as $1650 for their entire stay! This includes round trip airfare, transfers to the resort, meals, beverages, water sports, tennis, mini-golf, nightly entertainment, hotel taxes and gratuities.

This resort is perfect for families because it is just a short ride from the airport (no "Are we there yet?") and there is so much for your little bundles of energy to do. There are seven different dining facilities and a wonderful children's program where kids can play pool games, all kinds of sporting activities, crafts, put on their own concerts and hang out in the kids' disco. There is also a large family activity pool where you can all rest and play together, which is something families rarely get the chance to do anymore. Sounds like paradise!

Another option is the Sea Adventure Waterpark and Resort in Cancun. No "spring breakers" or honeymooners here! This is truly a resort that was made for families from top to bottom. A family of four will pay as little as $1690 for three nights at this waterpark/resort, and the best part about Cancun is that you can often find great rates on non-stop flights, which makes traveling with children a LOT easier!

Surrounded by tropical palms and fragrant flowers, this classic oceanfront retreat offers families comfortable accommodations, decorated with bright colors and authentic Mexican decor. But the most rewarding moment will be seeing your munchkins' eyes light up when they see the waterpark that they will automatically have access to, where waterslides, mini-golf and playgrounds will keep them active and entertained throughout your stay.

If the Caribbean is not your style or you don't have time to get passports, consider Orlando for a nice getaway. While a full-time Disney vacation might be something you'll have to save for, there are ways to cut costs in Orlando. Three nights at the Clarion Inn Lake Buena Vista with airfare costs as little as $1140 for our imaginary family. Now, this is not an all-inclusive resort, but kids stay free, and kids nine and under receive free breakfast and/or dinner when accompanied by an adult. This hotel also offers free shuttle service to Disney, Universal, and Sea World, so if you wanted to add on a day pass to any of those parks the choice would be yours.

No matter what you decide to do for your family vacation, rest assured that in the eyes of your little darlings, you will be a hero. In this day and age of year-round sports, dance, band and seemingly endless activities, it is important to take the time to just get away from it all and be together. Even if they won't stop poking each other or bickering like the brothers from Ocean's Eleven, some day they will look back and laugh with each other at the memories created on these trips, and I promise you, you will never regret it.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Marival Residence in PVR

Never say never! Those are words I truly need to remember. If you would have asked me a year ago whether I would ever write a blog I would've looked at you like you had three eyes and given you a stern “hell no!” Well here I am eating those words just 365 days later. My name is Andrea Wallace and I am one of the co-owners of Midwest Travel Service. I have worked in the travel industry for seventeen years and not a day goes by that I wish I was doing something else. This industry is exciting, ever changing and best of all, it has fabulous perks. While many of my colleagues spend their vacations visiting museums, taking city tours and checking out local landmarks, I prefer to lay in a lawn chair on a sunny beach (actually that isn’t entirely true…I am much more of a pool gal than a beach gal) and drink in the sunshine. I guess you could say I am a warm water expert. You won’t find me on an Alaskan cruise or in Paris checking out the Eiffel Tower, but if you want to check out the newest hotel in Playa del Carmen or Anguilla count me in! 

Pool at the Marival Residences

I’ve just returned from what can only be described as heaven on earth!  My family and I spent nine glorious nights at the Marival Residences and World Spa in Puerto Vallarta. This was our second visit to the property and we enjoyed it even more than our first visit (which I didn’t think was possible). 

Aerial of the beautiful resort

We had traveled all over the Caribbean as a family but last year decided to give Mexico a try. Our biggest concern was the size of our accommodations. In the past we have rented large villas where my entire family stayed together under one roof.  We spend a lot of time together, whether it be hanging together in the pool, enjoying afternoon happy hours or board games at night.  We do everything together and wanted someplace that allowed us that opportunity. 

Residences Plaza

The Marival Residence and World Spa offered space and a whole lot more!!! Their smallest room is 1400 square feet and offers a full kitchen, dining room, living room, bedroom and two bathrooms with a stocked fridge with beer, soda and water. In addition to the large rooms, the resort is seriously all inclusive. The food is ala carte and fabulous. They offer top-shelf liquor (try a Paloma- it was tasty AND refreshing) and the service is the best I have ever encountered at a resort. If that wasn’t enough for me to give the resort a “10," they throw in unlimited golf and unlimited tours. Can I tell you how much fun it was to zipline with three generations?  Yep, ziplining was on my Mom’s bucket list and she can now check that off! We also enjoyed a dolphin and sea lion encounter.  Our final tour was a sunset cruise around Banderas Bay where we spotted dolphins chasing our catamaran.

Two Bedroom Suite
Living Room & Dining Room

The resort has a rooftop bar/restaurant called Insu. They serve small plates (tapas) which are delish!  I can almost guarantee you won’t find a better place in all of Puerto Vallarta to watch the sunset.   Don’t worry about getting chilly, as Insu offers two fireplaces to keep you warm should the need arise. The waiters are fab and they play great music at night. Want to see Insu for yourself? Check out my video tour of this area.  Excuse my appearance and stumbling of words, as this was the first time I have tried this. I am pretty sure the Travel Channel won’t be calling me any time soon.

A second all-inclusive resort is included too! The Marival Residence has a sister hotel (the Marival Resort) which is just a two-minute golf cart ride away. This resort sits smack dab on a beautiful beach. Guests at the Residences have full use of all the restaurants and amenities of the Marival Resort.  And the best part? The private VIP Beach Club. This area is strictly for Residence guests and offers beach beds, padded chairs and high end food & drinks. There are beach butlers available for your every need! We spent several days here enjoying the ocean, napping, soaking up the rays and people watching.

The weather throughout our vacation was unbelievable! There wasn’t a cloud in the sky for nine straight days. We have traveled to other parts of Mexico and the Caribbean where the weather in April can be 'iffy,' but not there!  It was gorgeous. What was the best part of my vacation?  My sister’s boyfriend proposed!  They have decided on a destination wedding at the Marival Residences next April surrounded by friends and family.  I am thrilled to be returning.  April 2012 can’t come soon enough for me!
If you want to check out other videos of the Marival Residences check out our YouTube channel here. Have a happy 4th everyone!