Category Archives: Family Travel

Car Rental 101

Car REntal

This last week two different people asked me how to find the best car rental deals, so here goes.

When I book travel I have two great starting points, and I use Trip Advisor to check reviews on places to stay and things to do. I use kayak for airfare and car rental, mainly, but sometimes for hotels also.

I love because it searches all the carriers at once. You can even check the boxes at the bottom and let it search Expedia,, priceline and other options. It is, in short, a ONE STOP shop for travel prices. If you create a user ID and save trip information, it will then “watch” for low fares and email you suggestions for your destination.

That said, as I stated in my post about Airline Credit Cards (, I prefer to book directly with the vendor, rather than a third party like or travelocity. I use kayak to see who is the cheapest vendor with the best routing, in the case of airlines. I then click the link on kayak to take me to the vendor’s website.

Back to car rentals. At this point, I have rented enough cars and checked enough prices to fall back on two discount websites. Costco and American Automobile Association (AAA).

Costco Travel ( This web site used to be difficult to use because you had to pick a car rental company and discount coupon and then search, which sometimes required several tries to find the best deal. They have, in the last few months, changed their web search. It now searches all the car rental deals and gives you multiple search results in one screen so it is simple to compare. They call it their “Low Price Finder”. You do have to create a user ID with your Costco membership number to access this process.

AAA: I’m not including the web link because AAA reroutes you to the club for your area, by zip code. As example my AAA website is for Northern California, Nevada and Utah. Be aware that AAA has an “exclusive partnership” with Hertz. When you initiate a search it will take you to results for Hertz ONLY, but at the bottom of the screen there is a button that says “Search More AAA Rental Car Partners”. If you push this button, you will get a side by side comparison of multiple car rental options.

Both of these search engines take you to the car rental booking engine to book your rental. Be aware that you don’t provide a credit card number as with a hotel. You don’t get charged until you show up and take possession of your car. In fact I changed my mind at the airport in Denver once because the rental car kiosk for my reservation was unmanned and when I asked at another companies manned desk they offered to beat the price on the spot.

It is also wise to check at different points in time, like book the car six months in advance but recheck prices, at two months and two weeks. Sometimes you can get better deals at the last minute, so then simply cancel your old reservation and make a new one.

As with hotels and airlines, I join the car rental company travel perk programs. This usually means at an airport location you don’t have to go and stand in line, your car will be waiting for you with the keys in the ignition and your name on it. Took me awhile to figure this one out, after waiting in a line at San Diego for 30 minutes to rent a car I had already reserved.

NEVER NEVER NEVER show up without a reservation. I did this ONCE when my mother was hospitalized and I had jump on a plane on short notice. They gave me a terrible price when I showed up at the rental car place late at night and told me they had no compact cars, when there were at least 30 compact cars on the lot and lot attendant said I could just take one if I wanted, at the full size car price.

Now lets talk about car rental insurance. I would prefer not to, but it is a necessary evil. If you go to the desk they will push hard for you to take the insurance, threaten you with having to pay for “lost” rental days if your car is damaged and has to be repaired. Most credit cards offer some form of coverage, along with your personal auto insurance, but you have to deal with irritating rental car adjusters.

I speak from experience here. We rented a car in Sacramento simply to get us to the airport in San Francisco for our first EVER European vacation. When we got home we found a bill for $890 for damage they said we caused on this three hour drive from point A to point B. I was able to talk them out of it, but it was frustrating and not easy.

We travel enough and rent enough cars that I wanted an alternative option. Since, as stated above, we belong to Costco, we carry a Costco American Express card. American Express has a car rental insurance option. ( You have to pre-register for the program. There is no cost until you use your American Express card to rent a car and then there is a $24.95 charge ($17.99 in California) per rental, not per day. It is good for up to 42 consecutive days of car rental (30 days for Washington State members).

I have had this option for about ten years and have used their services twice. Once where I was hit by another car in a parking lot and once when the car had prior damage, that was alleged to be mine. Both times I called the folks at American Express. Both times they dealt with the rental car company. Both times nothing was paid, and both claims were dropped. These people deal with rental car companies all the time. They know how to do it. The cost is WAY cheaper than the car rental company insurance and, in my opinion, worth the peace of mind. This is also your primary coverage, so you don’t have to notify your personal vehicle auto policy.

Oh one last thing, don’t take the fill up your tank option, unless you are comfortable running on empty. They charge you for a full tank of gas, so if you turn the car in half full, you just bought an unnecessary half tank of gas. When I leave the car rental place I look for a nearby gas station to fill up prior to turning in the car. If I don’t see one, I use Yelp to find one on the last day.

So, that’s all for Car Rental guidelines. I hope you find this helpful.


Know Your Travel Style

What is your travel style?  Do you like to lay by the pool or on the beach?  Do you like to spend time shopping?  Do you prefer to be active, hiking, kayaking or snorkeling?  Whatever your travel style, it is important to understand and respect it.

Your travel style preferences don’t end with what you want to do when you travel, it also has to do with how you plan and what kind of trips you take.

When I travel I want to know where I am spending the night and I want to arrive before it gets dark (whatever time that may be).  Because of this, my lodging is generally booked at least six months in advance.  As I discussed in a prior post, I prefer to stay in a vacation rental or timeshare with a full kitchen, but I also stay at hotels.  My hotel stays tend to be one night stays, en-route to a week long location.

If I get a timeshare or vacation rental I’m going to stay a week and explore the surrounding area.  I don’t book activities in advance.  In this way I can be flexible and allow for changes in weather.  As example, if it is a rainy day, I’ll opt for a museum, as opposed to a garden tour.

I made the mistake once of letting a friend plan a trip and because I was working, at the time, I left all the details to him.  The trip was for a group of ten friends who caravanned in three cars.  I had my own rental car and maps (this was pre GPS).  It turned out we were only spending one night at each location and we kept crisscrossing ourselves, because the trip was not laid out in a logical order.

Each morning I would discuss our destination with the “leader” and what route we would take.  On three different occasions he missed a critical turn, getting lost.  I, however, made the turn and arrived at our destination hours before the rest of the group.  After eight days I was so frustrated that I opted to leave the group and head off on my own.  What a relief.

It turned out that our leader’s travel style was to get in the car and just drive in whatever direction suited him that day.  He would have no lodging booked and would stay in whatever town he happened to end up in at nightfall.  His freelance style and my need for order were in direct conflict.

In order to fully enjoy your travel, know and respect your own travel style.

Discounts and Road Service Too!

I am in the process of planning a three month trip to Australia and New Zealand for 2013.  I recently became aware of two memberships that can net substantial discounts.

One is my US Auto Club membership.  We can show our US Auto Club card and obtain roadside assistance and discounts at International Auto Clubs.  This is true in many other countries.  I had no idea when I rented a car in Europe that I could use my Auto Club card.  If you are in the US, check out this site  If you are in another country, check with your local auto club for reciprocal agreements.

The second savings tip is to join your country’s Youth Hostel Association.   They also provide discounts on rental cars, tours, attractions, travel insurance and other services.  You don’t have to stay in Youth Hostel’s although you might want to consider checking out my prior blog about Hosteling.

In the US Senior membership  for a year is only $18.00.  This member ship will save us 40% when we travel from Darwin to Adelaide on the famous Ghan train.

site - The Ghan - Main Image April 11

So those are my tips for today.

Two weeks in Alaska

Inside Passage by Small Ship

Entering Tracy Arm.

Let me begin by saying this was our fourth trip to Alaska and third cruise of the Inside Passage.  We have cruised on a 2,000 passenger ship, a 140 passenger ship and now on a 60 passenger ship.  The 60 passenger ship is the way to go.

We were on the Un-Cruise Wilderness Adventurer on an Ultimate Adventure  Two weeks of awe inspiring beauty, animal sightings and adventure.  Other bloggers have adequately covered the itinerary.  Check out and

I would like to give some specific tips, allay some fears and alter some expectations.  So here goes.

First, the trip is not a “free for all”.  Don’t expect to be able to go ashore and hike wherever you like or kayak on your own route, outside the view of the ship.  ALL hikes and “kayak trips” are escorted and planned by the adventure crew, with the exception of “open kayaking”, which I will discuss later.  That said, the opportunities are varied and depend on the itinerary.

On our two weeks there were three “long kayak” trips offered.  These were 5 hours long and included a packed lunch for your time away from the ship.  There were also several short 2 or 3 hour kayak trips. These are active trips with steady kayaking for a long period.

Long kayak cuing up with Jenny the adventure guide.

“Open kayaking” is offered when the ship is at anchor.  You can kayak as long or as short as you like, they just ask that you don’t go out of sight of the ship.  This was the option my husband and I took advantage of three times over the course of the trip.  Our friends tried a 3 hour trip, but they like us, prefer to kayak for a while, then rest and just enjoy the view or sounds of nature.  They decided that the open kayak option was better suited to their kayaking style.

Open kayaks coming in.

Second, I’ll give you some packing advice.   The Un-Cruise recommends layers.  Layering is a good idea, however, don’t leave all your heavy layers at home.   I brought thermal shirts and pants, a wool sweater and a down jacket.  I used all of these layers.  The day we went through Tracy Arm to Sawyer Glacier, everyone was out on deck viewing the ice on the water.  It was cold and the glacier produces cold air.  I was toasty warm in my ski pants and down jacket.  I was sitting next to a woman from New York.  She looked at me and said that she wished she had brought some heavier clothes.  When they said to bring layers, she brought all light layers and left all her heavy winter gear at home.  I had brought my down jacket in a “space bag” with the air all compressed out of it, so it took up little space in my bag.

Foot wear has been a topic of frequent discussion.  We took four pairs of shoes, rubber boots, hiking boots, sneakers and water shoes.  We used all of these at least once on the trip.  If I was going to leave something at home, I would leave the water shoes and wear my sneakers in the kayak, knowing that they may get wet.  Also, I was asked by a couple from Israel to tell foreign travelers to leave the rubber boots at home.  The boats have about 30 pairs of rubber boots for loan.  If you have a very small or large size, then for sure bring your own rubber boots.

Third, what does the cabin look like and where will I stow my gear?  We had the smallest cabin offered and had plenty of room under the beds to stash our two 25” rolling duffel bags and a 20 inch carry-on, along with an odd assortment of shoes (rubber boots are kept in the hallway, along with your rain gear).  We use packing cubes and these proved to be invaluable.  There is no hanging closet (this is also true in the larger cabins).  There are four hooks and a shelving unit.  Our packing cubes stacked up very nicely on the shelving unit.

NOTE:  These photos and comments only relate to the vessel Wilderness Adventurer, cabins on other Un-Cruise ships may have differences.

Under the other bed there is plenty of room for two 25″ rolling duffels.

Cabin storage worked great for packing cubes. Note that the larger cabins have a deeper version of this shelving system.

Under bed storage side one with electrical box also under bed.

Sink and medicine cabinet.

Window and table storage (note there is a small cabinet with doors that close under the window. With this cabin configuration you have to be careful when you open the window, because things could fall out.

Lastly, please note that the itinerary is subject to change due to weather or wildlife.  Our second week was scheduled to include a visit to a village, but there were six foot swells in the sea we would need to cross, so the captain advised us that we would visit Devilfish Bay and that he was excited because he had never been there.  We spent a day anchored at the bay and were able to kayak out of sight of the ship, although the crew had a skiff in the water with us.

The next day we spent looking for whales, but ended up putting skiffs in the water to check out a colony of bachelor sea lions.  They put on quite a show for us.

Bachelor sea lions resting and singing to us.

In closing remember my travel mantra, “Be flexible”.  Life is too short to get locked into things and you may miss some awesome experiences if you stick to one plan and never alter.

We stayed on deck late watching two whales making bubble nets.