Category Archives: Travel planning

Getting around Denver, Colorado

Denver16thStreetMallAre you planning a trip to Denver? I’m going to a conference here in the city later this month. For folks not familiar with how to get around this area, here are some tips.

  • You don’t hail cabs in Denver. You call them and wait for them to come to you. The hotel may have a taxis at the stand – or not. Uber and Lyft are very popular here. You can also use a car sharing service such as ZipCar.

    Bike Rental


  • Denver was also one of the first cities to have bikes to rent – B cycle . You can rent a bike for $9 for 24 hours at any B Cycle station – but you must have a credit card. These stations are all over the city – you can rent at one and return at another.
  • In downtown, use the 16th Street Mall Shuttle to get around. It’s free and goes from 16th and Broadway all the way to the Union Station Transit Center. There’s also the light rail and traditional buses. During the week, there are plenty of trains and buses. However, on the weekends, there are often fewer buses and so time between buses is much longer. Light rail is the same, fewer trains on the weekends.

    Light Rail


  • At this time, light rail does not go to the airport. You can get around downtown, and get to some outlying areas, like the Federal Center. Light Rail is mostly used by locals to get to and from downtown for work and special events. In 2016, there will be light rail from the airport. We’re all looking forward to it! Check out RTD for routes and costs.
Denver, Colorado
Union Station, Denver, Colorado
  • Pedi-cabs are also available downtown. You can flag these down on the street and talk to each operator about the cost. These are particularly nice in the evening on the way to or from a nice dinner and show.

    Parking


  • Due to the a building boom here, many parking lots and garages have been replaced by new hotels and office buildings, so parking can be scarce during the week, not to mention expensive. Check out the Park Smart Denver lots first for the best rates. There are also garages and lots just outside the main downtown that can be much cheaper if you’re willing to walk a few blocks either to your destination or to the 16th Street Mall Shuttle.
  • Most of the garages and lots take credit and debit cards. You might check at the outlying lots just to make sure.
  • And finally, parking meters. These are all over the downtown area. They take credit and debit cards as well as Smart Cards (visitors probably don’t have these) and change. Each meter has different costs and time limits so you must read the meter! You don’t want your souvenir from Denver to be a parking ticket.

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Traveler or tourist? 6 Tips for planning a vacation to Panama

Century Bridge
One of the two bridges that lead out of Panama City and into the countryside.

The gentle thumping against the window drew us out of the night. It’s raining in Panama City, which is not unusual in October. We’ve come to this  Central American country to enjoy the sun, play some golf, and explore. Flying in during the early evening, we’ve stayed in a hotel downtown to avoid driving at night from the airport. As we traveled in this country, we discovered several planning strategies to help make your trip to Panama more enjoyable. With the advent of non-stop flights between Denver and Panama City, more tourists may make the trek.

1. Be prepared with basic Spanish. English is not widely spoken or understood. Tourism is new to Panama. Aside from the Canal and Bocas del Toro, the country hasn’t been much of a vacation destination for English speakers and most folks outside of Panama City only speak basic English. In the city, those in the hospitality industry may be more fluent but our waitress in the hotel restaurant still was puzzled when I asked for unsweetened iced tea. Be prepared with some rudimentary Spanish.

2. Rent a car to explore. Transportation is problematic. Officially, taxis are pretty inexpensive in Panama City. In reality, if you don’t know what it should cost, they charge you as much as they can get away with. From the airport to downtown Panama City, legally it should be about $12.00. In reality, it costs about $30.00 for a tired, non-Spanish speaking gringo.

Traffic in Panama City
Weaving through Panama City traffic

Traffic is awful and this affects both private and public transportation. There is a country-wide bus system as well as flights to the major cities if you need to get to David or Bocas del Toro quickly. If renting a car, be prepared to drive very aggressively and take the comprehensive insurance.  The condition of the roads range from good on the major highways to challenging in the neighborhoods. While my husband drove on the side roads, I kept an eye out for potholes that would swallow the front right quarter panel. Since many roads aren`t marked or named, GPS is not very useful either in the city or in the smaller towns. There aren’t many roads outside Panama City, particularly compared to most American urban areas. A good map is as useful as any GPS.

3. Arrange excursions before leaving home. Know who you want to call when you get in country for excursions. Our experience was that businesses that catered to tourists didn’t reach out or do much advertising. For example, we stayed in Coronado, a well-known resort area. My husband was interested in learning to surf, and we knew there were several well-known surf beaches close to where we were staying. We never found any information about any surf schools in the area. The resort didn’t have any brochure racks that we saw, and we never found a tourist office in town. We did plan on a day trip to El Valle before we left, and were able to drive there and enjoy the area. If there is something you want to do during your stay, arrange it or gather the information before you leave.

Pilot boat
A pilot boat comes to pick up the pilot that maneuvered the ship through the locks

4. Be ready to shop. Stocking items that are not necessities is not high priority for Panamanians. There were no vendors on the beach, unlike the beaches in Mexico where vendors constantly approach visitors. For those of you who expect to shop for souvenirs, Coronado has many stores, but they don’t cater to tourists. We did see a couple of stores for the local artisans along the Pan American Highway, but didn’t want to stop at the time. There are also many vendors in Casco Viejo with a large variety of handmade goods.  If you plan to return home with souvenirs, shop for them when you find them. The airport has mostly stores that cater to the high-end luxury goods crowd and very few T-shirts and shot glasses.

5. Ask about wireless service when booking a hotel. We had free Wi-Fi in the Doubletree in Panama City, at our resort in Coronado, and at the Country Inn and Suites on the Canal. My research indicates that not all hotels offer Wi-Fi, some offer it and charge, and some don’t. When booking accommodations, be sure to ask.

6. Talk to your cell provider. Cell coverage is fine in the bigger cities but may be less than stellar outside the most populated areas. We didn’t use our phone for calling or data on the cell network because it was too expensive. However, T-Mobile is offering international calling and data without additional charge. Check with your cell provider to determine what charges may be incurred in country. If you absolutely must have a phone, it is easy to buy a phone and load it up with minutes. Movistar and Cable & Wireless are the major cell providers in Panama and they have outlets in all the major Panamanian cities.

Coronado Beach
Coronado Beach on a Saturday morning.

Spending  time in Panama takes a bit more planning than the traditional resort vacation to, say, Mexico. Panama  is still up-and-coming, and hasn’t focused on tourism like some of it’s neighbors. For those who prefer to explore and travel rather than visit and be served, Panama is a great vacation destination. Go, meet the people, and experience the deserted beaches and beautiful jungles. You’ll plan to go back.

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Adventures in Panama

We have just returned from a ten-day trip to Panama. We had been eyeing a golf resort near the beaches of this Central American country and finally decided to book the resort and travel there. The planning for this trip was a bit different than others we’ve taken because we knew we were going somewhere that didn’t have a great tourist infrastructure. Our first step in planning this trip was to book the resort and our transportation.

Traffic in Panama City
Weaving through Panama City traffic

After we booked our resort stay through our timeshare company, we started investigating transportation needs as well as potential side trips and excursions. Although it’s possible to take a shuttle to the resort near Coronado, about an hour’s drive from Panama City along the Pan-American Highway, we decided we would rent a car and drive ourselves. We wanted to have the freedom of moving around the area without relying on public transportation or taxis. We’ve never rented a car in a foreign country before, nor have either of us driven outside the U.S. and Canada.  We were assured the car would have a GPS system when the reservation was made.

Since we were getting into Panama City after dark, we decided to taxi into the city, and rent a car near downtown instead of at the airport. Rumor had it that traffic in Panama City is awful, and it didn’t seem like a good idea to drive at night in a strange, foreign city. This turned out to be a very good idea, and we’d do it again. We were prepared with maps of the area, and had the concierge at the hotel call the rental car agency to get the address.

Getting around Panama City is not an easy task for an outsider. The roads are jammed with many more cars than is reasonable, and there are very few street signs. It is not unusual for taxis to go the wrong way down the street. Traffic signals are grudgingly adhered to, usually. Stop signs are only suggestions. The roads in the city are decent, but unexpected potholes loom.  We took all this in on a walk after breakfast, going from our hotel and finding the rental car office a few blocks away. In fact, after checking out of our hotel, and getting a cab back to the rental car office, we found it would have been faster to walk to the office than take the cab.

Panama City traffic
A quiet time on the streets of Panama City.

In any case, we made it to the office and handled the transaction. Unfortunately, they do not offer GPS systems in their cars – contradicting the information I had received from the customer service agent I had talked with earlier. Since there were few street signs anyway, how well would a GPS system work? We were undeterred, took the LDW insurance, and after waiting about an hour for the car to arrive from the staging area a few miles away we headed out of the city. The rental agent did create a Google Map for us from the rental car office to Coronado – in Spanish of course.

Panama City is not a large city by our standards, and we managed to get to the right road, get over the Bridge of the Americas and on our way to Coronado. Once out of the city, we did fine – although we took a detour we didn’t mean to take through a town that really wasn’t that interesting. But in about 1 1/2 hours, we were at our resort and checking in.

We’ve learned a lot from this experience. It’s great to be able to control where and when you explore an area by car. In Panama, there are many cars, but not much parking. On a trip to Farallon, we would have stopped and spent time on the beach, but there was nowhere to park the car. Driving is much slower there, mostly because the roads are not great, narrow, and often don’t have shoulders. You’ve got to “go local” and drive like they do or you’ll never get anywhere.

We took the Collision Damage Waiver insurance, something we’ve actually never done before. Our car insurance doesn’t cover us outside the U.S. or Canada, and although we could have covered the LDW under our credit card, we decided to just take the rental company insurance. The car was not damaged while we had it, but the roads were not great and an unnoticed pothole could have done major damage. In fact, when we returned the car, the agent didn’t really even look at it.

This is the first in a series of articles on our trip to Panama. Stay tuned for the next installment!

Five money-saving tips for travel budgets

Now that you have your budget estimate, it’s time to see how to bring it in line. There are lots of ways to do this. Here are my top five tips to saving money when planning a trip.

Keep your travel dates as flexible as possible.

Hotels and flights eat up most of your travel dollars. By keeping dates flexible, you can arrange travel on the least expensive dates for your trip. In general, traveling in the middle of the week is cheaper than the weekends. Traveling mid-winter is often cheaper than traveling mid-summer, and with fewer crowds. Sometimes, seasons make the difference. For example, we had planned a trip to Puerto Vallarta with another couple in October when the flights were in the $600 per person range. Unfortunately, something came up and we needed to re-book the trip. We ended up re-booking for the week before Christmas, and the flight costs dropped by half. We ended up having a marvelous time in the Mexican town, joining the Saturday night street fair and parade celebrating Advent. There were fewer people on the beach, and the weather was great.

Use rewards points or mileage accounts

I’m not a big fan of spending money just to accumulate rewards points. If it’s convenient to use that credit card or that rewards account, by all means carry on. I know that many folks are corporate travelers, and this is how they build up those points accounts. If those accounts are yours, use them. The airlines have a habit of reducing the value of the points over time, so accumulating points is not always the best move. I’m planning a trip to Panama in October, and we used my husband’s points to get him there and I paid for my ticket. Once there, we’ll use my hotel points for at least one night stay in the city. These two accounts save us nearly $1000 between the airfare and the hotel stay.

For accommodations, look beyond hotels

Hotels have gotten into the business of “fees”, the most noxious being the “resort fee.” Las Vegas hotels love their resort fees, charging as much as $50 extra per day over and above your room rate for amenities such as pools and fitness centers.  The most noxious part about this is that guests have no choice whether to pay this fee – but that’s another post. Check out other available accommodations such as VRBO.com or Airbnb.com. These options can be very cost-effective, particularly for larger groups or multiple night stays. In Spain, my friend and I stayed in two bedroom apartments, complete with kitchens, living rooms, and washing machines for less than it would have cost us to stay in a hotel. We were very comfortable and the hosts made a little extra money. Everyone wins! Pay attention to locations. It doesn’t save you any money of if you spend lots of time and money getting to and seeing the attractions you want to experience.

Do you really need a rental car?

In many parts of the world, renting a car is more of a hassle than it’s worth. Here in the United States, it’s almost a given that you will need a car. I’ve traveled in Europe and in Latin America, having never rented a car. In Europe taxis and trains are usually much more cost effective, particularly if you’re staying in one place for awhile. For our trip to Panama in October, we will be renting a car for the first time outside the U.S. We’ll be driving from Panama City to Coronado, using the car for day trips. Since neither my husband nor I speak good Spanish, we didn’t want to brave the bus system quite yet. Rental cars pose their own set of issues, and there are plenty of complaints about overcharging for extra insurance and phantom damage to cars. If possible, take time and date-stamped pictures of your rental before you leave the parking log, including the windshield. Return the car to the agency during the day, when you can talk with the staff and get a signed statement that the car was returned in good condition.

Travel light

Avoid overpacking. Most people take too much on their travels. There are many different sites, including www.onebag.com, that explain how to get the most from the room you have in a roll-aboard or carryon. In the United States, most folks are spending about $25 one way to check a bag, depending on the airline. At the end of the flight, folks are milling around a luggage carousel instead of hopping in a cab or on a train and starting their adventures. I spent 10 days in France in May taking just a carryon.  Most places have laundry facilities close by or in your hotel. In Spain, I rented apartments that included a washer and dryer. You don’t need any many things as you think you do. Or take your older clothes, wear them overseas, and then throw them away or donate them. Get rid of clothes you no longer want and lighted up your suitcase as well.

How do you save money when travelling? Let us know in the comments below.

Creating a budget for your trip – part 2

PlanningExportIf you haven’t read the first part of this series, go here to start.

So, you’ve had some time to think about where you want to go and what your transportation, lodging, and food might cost when you get there. Hopefully the number you came up with is not completely out of the park for this vacation, and now we can begin to add in some fun activities to make this trip the best ever.

1. Research the activities you’d like to do while on your vacation. Don’t worry about how long anything takes or how many days you’ve decided to stay. Pull together a list.

2. Prioritize that list. Look at each item and determine whether or not it’s a deal-breaker to see that sight or participate in that activity on this trip. For example, on a recent trip to Spain, I determined that I must see the  Familia Sagrada in Barcelona. It didn’t really matter if I d id anything else while in Spain for two weeks, as long as I visited this church. It was my number 1 priority. Number two seemed to be visiting Seville and experiencing the classic Andalusian  hospitality. We ended up doing both.

Pick your must-sees and put them at the top of the list.

3. Estimate the cost of those sites or activities and make sure they are available when you plan to visit. The internet is a great resource for the costs as well as the times and dates that the sites are open.

4. Look at your prioritized list and start fitting your must-do activities into your planned time frame. Remember that many sites are open late on certain days of the week, making them less crowded. In some cases, sites close for maintenance or special events. Hopefully your important activities fit into your stay schedule. If all your important activities don’t fit, then start at the lowest priority and eliminate activities. Or, you could increase the length of your stay.

5. Finally, compile your lists. Add the excursions, activities, and sites you’ve decided to your lodging and transportation list. Put your estimates in a column and add them up. You’ve got your first cut at a budget!

Lodging

$500

Transportation

$500

Activities

$200

 Total

$1,200

What if your original estimate is lower than this final number? In our next post, we’ll explore some ways to lower those costs.

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Myanmar adventures, an elegant bed and breakfast in Salida, and a quiet beach in Florida

Florida
Visit Florida

This week’s deals include an adventure in Myanmar, a bed and breakfast in Salida, Colorado, and a quiet getaway in Daytona Beach Shores, Florida.

Seasoned travelers are venturing to Myanmar as that country has opened to international tourism. If you’re ready to experience this tiny place, Travelzoo.com and Indus Tours have partnered to offer an eight-night tour of Myanmar for $2850 including airfare from Los Angeles. This package includes flights on Singapore Airlines to Yangon as well as intra-Myanmar flights and transportation in an air-conditioned vehicle, and hotel accommodations in Yangon, Bagan, Mandalay and Singapore. Also included is daily breakfast, an English-speaking tour manager, and tours to the Buddhist temples of Bagan, the entrance fees to sites, arrival and departure transfers, all taxes and surcharges. The $2850 price is valid for April 16 or September 24. Other dates are available for an additional cost. Visit Travelzoo.com by February 28 for more information and to book your vacation.

Livingsocial.com and the Tudor Rose Bed and Breakfast in Salida, Colorado have teamed up to offer discounted room rates through May 2014. Stay for two nights in the Blue Room, the Lancaster Room, or the Ponderosa for $99. Or, stay for two-nights in a Chalet for $185. You can combine multiple vouchers for an extended stay. Salida is a mountain town known for its arts scene and the great whitewater rafting. The Tudor Rose is set on 37 acres of pinyon pine and includes five chalets on the grounds and six guest rooms in the main house, each with mountain views. Visit Livingsocial.com by March 5 for more information and to book your mountain getaway.

If you prefer beach to the mountains, The Atlantic Ocean Palm Inn in Daytona Beach Shores, Florida is offering stays from $44 per night for two in an Ocean View room, with nights available through May. This quaint property is located a few steps from the beach on the southern end of Daytona Beach. Enjoy the oceanfront pool and lounge in the deck chairs while soaking up the sun. You’ll be 90 minutes from Disney World Resort and Universal Studios if a day trip is in your plans. Of course, you’ll be close to restaurants, shopping, golf, and the famous Daytona Beach Raceway. Visit Groupon.com by March 6 for more information and to book your beach vacation.

Like this article? Click the subscribe link on the page to get the latest information by email when it’s published. For more fun deals and information, go to www.debtalkstravel.com and follow Deb on Twitter at debtalkstravel.