Friday, November 30, 2012

Funky Friday ~ Introduction!

We've been talking around here about expanding our blog a bit and having some fun with it... I mean, we do have fun with it already, but we're looking to get a little funky!  We thought Friday would be the perfect day to have some fun and introduce a new blog segment - "Funky Friday!" On Friday's we'll be posting...who knows what! But it will be fun and it will be funky! That's enough of a build up or we're gonna have a lot to live up to!

Anyway, today was going to be my first Funky Friday post. Was being the operative word here.  This morning I got a call from our own Destination Wedding/Honeymoon specialist Christina (who also happens to be my daughter and the mother of my grandson :)).  Both her and Blake have been sick for several days and he is not the greatest sleeper to begin with.  She was exhausted and asked if I could come over on my way into the office for just an hour and sit with him while she got a little shut eye.  Is the Pope Catholic?!?  Come and sit with my favorite little man in the whole wide world? Music to my ears!  Here's a few photos from my day with Blake. Definitely worth putting off my funkiness until next week, don't ya think?

Although his nose is running a constant stream and he slept a total of one hour today - he's still the cutest and most precious little boy...EVER! 

Mimi (that's me!) and my BT! 

I even had some help from my niece Isabella!  Loved spending the day with her too and she is such a good 'big sister' cousin

So that's how I spent my 'Funky Friday'!  What did you do?

Until next time....

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

25 Things...Maria Style

Continuing with the theme of getting to know us better, here is my list of things you may not know about me!

1. I can make a mean batch of cookies, and follow any recipe, but I really can't cook. Nor do I enjoy it. Think Cher in the movie Mermaids.

2.  I love sports. I'm not a great athlete, but I love and understand competition. If there would have been more female sportscasters when I was growing up like there are now, I am sure I would have pursued that career. Michelle Tafoya rocks. Andrea Kremer does not.

3. I read the Twilight books in two weeks and loved, loved, loved them. Not at all a sci-fi fan, but a good romance gets me every time.

4. I've worn the same color lip gloss for over three years: MAC Lip Glass 'Oh Baby.'

5. Flowers are beautiful, but I don't like anything else floral: fabrics, patterns, scents. Ick.

6. My three sons all have the same middle name. I thought it was kind of a nice way to connect them, but some people think it's weird.

7. I sing in the car. Loud. Seriously, people in the car next to me laugh.

8. I prefer haha to LOL, but I can't stand bahaha.

9. Castles are one of the coolest tangible pieces of history. If you ever get the chance to tour castles in Europe, you have to do it. Put it on your bucket list!

Visiting the Tower of London remains one of my greatest travel experiences. You can still see the inscriptions of the prisoners in the walls.

10. I never liked the color pink until I had a daughter. It's slowly creeping its way into my wardrobe.

11. I like minivans. I think they're spacious and practical.

12. I had two dreams growing up: to be a mother and to win an Academy Award. One down, one to go - haha (see #8)!

13. Highly recommend color coded calendars. My personal calendar is so helpful for keeping everyone's activities straight that I used chalkboard paint to create a huge calendar on our kitchen wall. Everyone has their own color chalk, and we all know what's going on each day.

14. I sometimes speak to my kids in an English accent. No idea why. We mix it up and try some others, but that's our favorite.

15. I love Minnesota, but hate being cold. No skiing, sledding or skating for me!

Ski or beach vacation? Is there even a choice? :)

16. I won't mind if I end up with crow's feet. It will mean that I have smiled a lot.

17. The youngest of five, I've never understood why some people complain about hanging out with their family. Some of my favorite memories come from when we're all together. We love movie quotes and musicals, and generally have a lot of fun together!

18. I hate shopping. I know that's so odd but I can't help it. In the store, online, whatever...I leave that to my husband.

19. I feel more safe bringing my family to Mexico than to downtown Minneapolis on a Saturday night. I love Mexico.

20.  I'm fiercely loyal and usually give people the benefit of the doubt.

21. I think Parenthood is the best show on TV.

22. My kids' eyes are all different colors: blue, hazel, chocolate brown, and well, the youngest keeps changing. Currently they're a bluish green. I love it though. I always thought my husband's brown eyes would take over, but I guess that recessive gene is in there somewhere!

23. Doesn't take much to make me cry - songs, commercials, movie trailers...I'm a sap. I even cry at Oscar acceptance speeches (see #12).

24. I don't understand why everyone hates LeBron for leaving Cleveland. Wouldn't you leave a job you weren't happy in for a better one with more opportunities?

25. My musical tastes have broadened. I like pretty much everything but heavy metal and really twangy country.

Can't wait to see what the other 'escape artists' come up with!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Great Travel Apps for Family Vacations

Sitting in the airport on a recent trip, I glanced over at a family nearby. Mom and dad were on their phones, and their three kids were either listening to their iPods, or playing on their iPads. All five were plugged in. I know that I am always one of the few people holding an actual book rather than an iPad or Kindle, and I realize that when a family is waiting in an airport parents will do just about anything to keep the kids happy. But it occurred to me just how quickly technology has changed family vacations.

Time after time my clients call me and tell me their oldest child is graduating high school, and this may be the last family vacation they have together. I hear the pang in their voices, and I get it. Time goes too quickly when you're raising a family. Little Johnny has hockey and Susie has dance (or vice versa, not to be sexist), and you just don't think the coach would appreciate you pulling them out of practice for something as trivial as a family vacation.

Well, it's not trivial. And I'm not just trying to sell you a vacation. Whether you stay in the Presidential Suite at Moon Palace, or drive a few hours to a cabin in the woods, that time you spent together will forever go in their permanent hard drive - in their hearts and minds.

These were my family vacations: camping...REAL camping...up North.  That's me screwing around by the fire and one of my brothers in the background.  It wasn't fancy but they were the best memories ever!

But I'm not naive...with four children of my own, including a three year old that can fully operate every aspect of my iPhone, the notion that all will be "kumbaya" while you spend a week together is probably a fleeting one. You'll probably have to concede a little screen time to your kids while you're gone. But fear not, I have found some apps that should satisfy their electronic craving while still contributing to the greater family good!

Scribble Press
Voted one of Time Magazine's Top 25 Apps for Kids, this teacher favorite will allow your kids to document your family vacation by creating an actual book that they can publish. They can also turn a page into a puzzle, notebook or greeting card! Have your kids jot down ideas and take pictures during the trip, or use the 500 + drawing tools available to them. They can either work on it while you're away, or once you get home, but either way you'll always have a fun reminder of your trip.

My Story-Book Maker for Kids
Similar to the app above, this one may be more suitable for younger kids, as it also allows voice recording to make their stories. If there's one thing little kids love, it's recording and listening to their own voices. :) This app will allow your child to let their imagination run wild - picture visiting a castle with your 'little prince' then having him create a story based on what he saw!

Strip Designer
For the comic junkies, this app allows the older kids to create their own comic strips. Let them know that if they give you a couple hours of quality family time, you'll give them an hour to document it with an awesome family comic strip. Who knows? Maybe you won't be able to resist it yourself once the kids go to bed!

JetLag Genie
If you're traveling anywhere with a significant time change, you are going to want this app - especially with children. Plug in your travel dates and destinations, and you will get a step by step guide on how beat jet lag. The trick is following it. There aren't many kids that I know that would be cool with going to bed when it's still light out, or waking up when it's dark, but trust the'll have a happier child while on your vacation!

UV Safe Timer
An absolute must for fair-skinned children going to a beach destination. You simply create profiles for everyone in your family based on their skin tone ahead of time. Then, when you get down to the pool you enter your destination, SPF, and activity levels. The app does the rest! How many times have you gotten engrossed in a book or conversation and only noticed too late that your child's shoulders are red? Now you will get a reminder to reapply that sunscreen in time. Nice, huh?

Gate Guru
So you really, really wanted to take your kids to Beaches Turks and Caicos but there aren't any non-stop flights available. You're a little nervous about changing planes and how the whole process will go, so what do you do? You download this app and you book the trip. Armed with Gate Guru, you will know important information ahead of time to make the transition go smoothly, such as what gate your connecting flight is out of, how long it will take to get there, what restaurants/eateries are on the way, and if you're desperate, what bribe material is at the next airport ('If you stop poking your sister, and annoying everyone around you, you might have a chance at a Miami Heat t-shirt at the next stop.').

If a U.S. destination is in your future, you're going to want this one. How many times have you gone somewhere with your family and end up eating at McDonald's because you don't know where else to go? With Alfred, you won't have to do that anymore. Just tell him your family's preferences and he'll guide you to some incredible eateries that everyone will enjoy! It takes a little bit of work up front, but totally worth it in the end.

Hopefully these apps will be helpful to you on your next vacation! I'll leave you with a little treat...for those of you that didn't know, Theresa and I are sisters. Here is a pic from the family vault of us in the camper with our dog, Happy. Even when camping, fashion was her priority. We didn't have apps and we didn't fly all over the world, but we sure had fun! I hope you have as much fun wherever you go this year, and someday your kids will laugh at pictures like these.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Sometimes it pays to be Square!

With the busy 'winter escape' season right around the corner, I can say with complete certainty one of the questions I get asked most often is, "What's the best deal I can get to ________?"   Although it's a completely legitimate question and a really important one too, it's kind of like walking into your doctors office, telling him you don't feel well and expecting him to give you a diagnosis without even examining you!  There's so many components and variables involved in finding the perfect vacation at a perfect price that it's basically impossible to answer that without a little investigation...unless of course you have no problem being square!

A Square Deal is a great way to have an amazing vacation experience AND save a lot of money!  Basically you pick the departure date, the destination you want to travel to, the resort rating and Apple Vacations picks the resort!  Sound scary?  Not at all, but it does have a few requirements.  You must like wonderful surprises, you must be flexible, and you must be able to handle anticipation without driving your traveling companion (and us) crazy!

Here's a little Q and A to give you a bit more info:

What exactly is a Square Deal?
Square Deals are Apple Vacations best value vacation packages and are exclusive to Apple Vacations. They feature the lowest prices you’ll find for the promised hotel Apple rating.  You choose the destination, departure date and hotel Apple rating.  You'll be informed of your hotel just prior to departure.   In return for your flexibility, you’ll save hundreds! 

When you choose a Golden Apple Square Deal, you can be assured that you have made a great choice, because Golden Apple Hotels are selected by Apple Vacationers for consistently exceeding their expectations.  No matter when you plan to travel, Apple Vacations has Square Deal Savings for you.

Are there different types of Square Deals?
Yes, there are.
6 Apple Plus Square Deal:  When only the best will do! Luxurious accommodations, upscale amenities and personalized services.

6 Apple Square Deal:  Deluxe resort offering high standards and a wide variety of dining and guest amenities.
5 Apple Square Deal:  Superior first-class hotel with quality accommodations and guest services.

4 Apple Square Deal: First-class resort hotel or condo with a good selection of guest services.

Can I request a specific hotel? 
Because of the nature of Square Deals, no special requests may be made including a preferred hotel, location or room type.  Hotel Brand loyalists will love Apple Vacations Branded Square Deals, where you'll be guaranteed of staying at a hotel belonging to a specified hotel chain. 

When do I find out which hotel I will be staying at?
In departure gateways where there are Apple Representatives, you will be informed of your hotel when you arrive at the departure airport. Take this opportunity to inform family members and friends where you will be staying prior to leaving the States. In departure gateways where an Apple Vacations Representative is not at the airport you will be informed of your hotel one business day prior to departure. This procedure also applies to any scheduled air or land only Square Deals.

What if I don't like the hotel that has been chosen for me?
If you are unhappy with the hotel that has been selected, your Apple Representative will work with you to offer an alternative choice. The cost to change hotel will be at your expense and will be payable to the Apple Destination Management Representative in destination. Please remember that due to the special negotiated pricing of the Square Deal, the cost to change hotels in destination may be substantial. 

How do I know if a Square Deal is right for me?
If you answer yes to the following questions, a Square Deal is a good choice for you!
      1.  Are you looking for unbeatable value? 
      2.  Do you understand what types of hotels are included in each Apple rating and will you be 
           happy with your vacation as long as your hotel meets the criteria in that rating level? 
      3.  Can you wait until departure to find out where you’ll will be staying? 

If you answer yes to the following questions, you may want to consider booking a traditional Apple Vacation.
      1.  Do you want to stay at a particular resort or location in destination? 
      2.  Do you have special needs or requests? For example, you should not book a Square Deal if 
          you are disabled or require handicapped accessibility or room accommodations. 
      3.  Are you traveling with a group on multiple reservations? Square Deal hotels may change
           at any time. We cannot guarantee multiple bookings on any given arrival will be 
           accommodated at the same hotel.

The moral of the story is, although the definition of what a 'travel deal' is has changed quite drastically in the last few years, there are still plenty of ways to find good vacation values today.  Our Escape Artists are passionate about finding ways to help you travel for less money, yet give you the vacation experience you deserve!
Until next time...

Friday, November 16, 2012

25 Things You Don't Know About Me

Midwest Travel Service is going to be busy doing some important website updates throughout the winter season (...when we're not busy helping you plan fabulous vacations and honeymoons, of course!).

One page we'll be focusing on very soon is the About Us portion. I was trying to complete my bio the other day and was surprised to find that it's really difficult to do for some reason... Everything I wrote seemed very impersonal and 'blah' to me. I thought that kicking off a new blog category called '25 Things You Don't Know About Me' (an idea borrowed from Us Weekly Magazine) would be a fun way to get our interesting quirks and personalities to shine a bit more!

My list is included below to get us started. Every Midwest Travel Service 'escape artist' as well as the owners will be posting one soon too. First, here's a picture of my main men!

Kyle :)
Blake :)
Ok, just one more!
So here's my list!
1. As much as I love a good chick flick, action movies are my favorite. They keep me awake and intrigued.

2. I like to listen to funk music because it always puts me in a good mood. I mean, who could be crabby with 'Brick House' or 'Play That Funky Music' on?!

3. I love to cook. Barefoot Contessa recipes never let me down :) I wish I was a better baker though.

4. These days, my favorite part of the day is reading bedtime stories to my eight-month-old son.

5. Saturday is without a doubt my favorite day of the week.

6. I feel the need to organize my clothes by color. That means my husband has to go by that too! He secretly loves it.

7. I tend to be a worrier. Some of the best advice I've ever gotten is to stop worrying about the things I can't control.

8. I am a very slow driver. I'm sure there've been a few people who wanted to run me off the road!

9. I'm a reality show junkie which I totally inherited from my Mom. I love the Real Housewives franchise on Bravo, Survivor and Top Chef.

10. I secretly would've loved to be a dolphin trainer. Too bad I'm a terrible swimmer!

11. I could eat Naan, Hummus and Palak Paneer (Indian food) every single week and never get tired of it.

12. I cry very easily at things on tv, but it takes kind of a lot for me to cry in real-life.

13. I rarely hang up the phone with my husband and/or parents without saying 'I love you.'

14. I love having a candle lit at home. I think it makes it much more cozy~ Pumpkin spice is my favorite in the fall, and balsam or pine in the winter.

15. I don't have a lot of celebrity crushes but for some odd reason, I like Simon Cowell... Kind of embarrassing!

16. I loooove playing Blackjack in Las Vegas. $5.00 tables is my maximum though. I'd be reallly upset thinking about all of the things I could have bought with that hard-earned money instead!

17. I could care less about most shoes but I really like a cute pair of boots.

18. Washington DC is one of my all-time favorite cities. There is so much there to see and learn.

19. I once tried cliff repelling in Utah with my husband and his family. It is definitely the scariest thing I've ever done.

20. My favorite thing to eat around the holidays are cookies. Family favorites include Spritz, Melting Moments and Raspberry Thumbprints. They're fabulous as long as I didn't help bake them!

21. I am a total homebody. A perfect day to me is being at home with Kyle and Blake and not having to go anywhere.

22. I have terrible eyesight but will only wear my glasses to watch stuff at home. The right lens frequently pops out and one of the ear parts has silver duct tape wrapped around it. I refuse to buy new ones because I like the ones I have!

23. I don't entertain on a large scale often but I collect enough glass & tableware to accommodate an army. For whatever reason, I have a hard time resisting pretty wine glasses and holiday dishes.

24. I keep a running To-Do list at all times. I love the feeling of satisfaction that comes from crossing something off the list, even if it's as trivial as running to the cleaners or printing recent pictures of my sweetiepie.

25. I feel grateful every single day to have such a loving family, both immediate and extended. I have no clue know what I would do without them!

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Celebrity Babymoons

Other than the topic of weddings I'm also very interested in anything baby-related being that I have an 8 month old at home. I thought it'd be fun to mesh the topics of babies and travel together by highlighting several celebrity babymoon spots!

Although I'm certainly not a celebrity I wanted to share our babymoon destination from 2011 with you. My husband and I visited the El Dorado Casitas Royale by Karisma Hotels in the Riviera Maya last October and we absolutely loved it! It was a super luxurious place to fit in some extra R & R before our little boy joined us in March. My favorite aspects of this resort are the rustic room balconies, the swim-up bars and the delicious gourmet cuisine. If you'd like to browse our photos of El Dorado Casitas Royale, you can check them out here.

I apologize for the extreme close-up... We really could have used a camera tripod!

Ok enough about us! Here's a fun collection of celebrity babymoon hotspots:

Nick and Vanessa Lachey
Saint Lucia

Kate Hudson and Matthew Bellamy

Hillary Duff and Mike Comrie
Big Island

Marissa Miller and Griffin Guess

Kourtney Kardashian and Scott Disick
Joe Francis' private estate
Punta Mita, Mexico

Bill and Giuliana Rancic
Vail, Colorado

Kristin Cavallari and Jay Cutler
Off to Cabo San Lucas

Holly Madison and Pasquale Rotella
Orlando, FL

Sienna Miller and Tom Sturridge
Portofino, Italy

Camila Alves and Matthew McConaughey
Ibiza, Spain

Uma Thurman and Arpad Busson
Sailed St. Barths

Mariah Carey and Nick Cannon
Palos Verdes, California

So if you could pick any one of these spots for your babymoon which one would you pick? They all sound wonderful to me!

Friday, November 2, 2012

Destination Wedding Etiquette: Dos and Don'ts

I have worked with many destination wedding brides over the past several years, and just as it happens with local events, there are tricky situations to work through and tough decisions to be made. Should the bride and groom pay for some of the wedding party's expenses? If so, how much? What if someone wants to bring a guest who was not originally invited? Should activities be planned for each day? There is so much to consider! The toughest part about all of it is that there's not one right or wrong answer. 

One site I recently came across ( posed some great questions pertaining to destination weddings in particular. I thought I'd share some of the common ones with you, along with my two-cents regarding each Q & A. They're definitely not going to be the 'magic answers' for everyone but at least hopefully they provide some guidelines and food-for-thought!

1. "Are my husband and I obligated to spend all our time with guests? We want to be able to have some time to ourselves."

Martha's team says: "No, especially if you don't fill every moment of every day with mandatory group activities. That said, you'll have plenty of alone time on your honeymoon. In other words, you don't have to act like a cruise director, but you shouldn't be antisocial, either... If it's possible, you may want to consider honeymooning somewhere else entirely. That way, you won't feel required to spend time with any guests who have decided to stick around for a longer vacation."

My two-cents: What about going to your destination a day or two early on your own? That way you can kick off your trip with some quality alone-time and also tie up any loose ends before tying the knot? Is everyone following or am I getting too carried away with puns?! It's Friday so I'm a little more silly than usual as I write this ;-)

2. "Are we required to book and pay for the flights and hotel rooms for everyone in the wedding party?

Martha's team says: "According to traditional etiquette, it's the party's responsbility to get themselves to the wedding, destination or not. That said, if you know someone won't be able to afford the trip, it's wonderful to offer to help out. If you are both discreet about it, it isn't necessary to extend that offer to anyone else. Though some etiquette sources say the couple pays for attendants' lodging, this is seldom followed. So if you book the rooms to save them the effort, be clear about who will pay."

My two-cents: Speaking from experience it is much easier to let everyone book their own air + hotel (...with a romance specialist from Midwest Travel Service of course!). That way the bride & groom don't have to spend time playing 'travel agent' and each person can customize their trip as they wish. 

If the bride and groom want to financially contribute to various reservations they can still do so, especially if it's booked through one of our agents (we collect a deposit up until 45 days prior to departure, whereas certain online sites would require full payment up-front). Basically with this scenario each guest can secure a custom itinerary and then the bride and groom have time to decide how much they want to contribute before the full balance is due. 

3. "Is it tacky to register for gifts if we're having a destination wedding?"

Martha's team says: "It is not tacky at all to register for gifts if you're having a destination wedding as long as you make sure your wish list covers a wide range of prices -- after all, you don't want anyone to feel pressured to spend more than they're comfortable with. Remember that your guests will be spending lots of money to get to the wedding, and that's a huge gift in itself. If creating a wish list makes you feel uncomfortable, suggest that guests make donations to your favorite charity instead, or skip it altogether."

My two-cents: What about a honeymoon registry? Again, that's something that Midwest Travel Service can help you with (like how I fit that in again?). A honeymoon registry is a great way for guests to give money in a way that feels more personal... and it's also a lot easier than hauling bath towels, pots + pans and board games off to your exotic locale. Ok, I don't think anybody has ever really tried that, but I thought saying so really proved my point! 

4. "Are we expected to set something up for the guests to do each day?"

Martha's team says: "You absolutely can provide something for your guests to do every day, but it's really a matter of your own preference. At the minimum, have some sort of welcome dinner on the first night so everyone can get acquainted, and provide information about the destination on your website so guests can plan their own activities."

My two-cents: I think it's best to try setting up at least one group event. It could be a welcome dinner one of the first nights, or maybe even a day in the middle of the trip where the gals go to the spa and the men try out deep-sea fishing (just as an example). I think that would be a nice way to get everyone together and to thank them for traveling such a long way for your celebration. 

If something like that isn't in the budget, you could always suggest fun things to do in the area and include details in a 'welcome basket' in each room. The point here is to try and make info regarding local attractions and activities accessible and convenient for each guest.

My husband and I parasailing in Mexico about 5 years ago :)

5. "One of the guests showed up with a date, but wasn't invited with one. What's the best way to handle that?"

Martha's team says: "If ever there was a time to use the phrase 'Don't sweat the small stuff,' this is it. When you're hosting an event, the comfort of your guests (yes, even the unexpected plus-one) should come before yours -- even on your wedding day. Your response, no matter how perturbed you are, should be to "smile, say you're glad he or she could make it, and ask the wedding planner or caterer to add a place setting."

My two-cents: Although I don't totally agree that the 'comfort of your guests should come before yours - even on your wedding day' (I think it would be absolutely exhausting to plan a wedding if you had their suggested mentality the whole time), I do think that it's best to accommodate the unexpected addition and be as pleasant as possible.

6. "What are the dos and don'ts of making our guests feel welcome at our wedding while not pressuring them to attend?"

Martha's team says: "Do let your guests know that you'll absolutely understand if they can't make it. After all, you don't want anyone to feel obligated to attend, especially since it's likely that they'll have to spend much, much more than they would if you were getting married locally. Don't be overly effusive about this; otherwise, guests will start to wonder whether you actually want them there at all. Saying you won't feel bad if they stay home is one thing, but putting it on repeat will only make them feel like B-listers."

My two-cents: I agree with them on this one. Do your best to strike a balance between the two extremes... It's important for your family and friends to know that you'd love them to be there, but you also completely understand if they're unable to make it ( guilt trips, just a destination wedding trip! Ohmylord, someone help me today!!). In all seriousness, one challenge with a destination wedding is the fact that not as many people can join you based on the cost compared to a wedding at home, and you have to be ok with that aspect going in. My opinion? For those that a destination wedding is a good fit for, the pros far outweigh the bad.

I think it's time to wrap this post up now before the giddy-Friday-word-play and cheesy jokes get even worse! Thanks for reading~ Hope you all enjoy the weekend!