Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Road Trip to Toronto, Canada

For the Memorial Day weekend, I wanted to go for a road trip to Toronto, Cananda. It wasn't difficulto to persuade CJ, my geeky husband, to join the trip. We decided to get a GPS as my belated birthday gift (I am directionally challenged) and then I told him this trip to Toronto will be a great chance for him to play with the GPS. Of course, he fell into the trap and happily enjoyed the long drive with his new toy!

1. Hotel

Again Priceline did not disappoint us this time. I decided to do something crazy and bid for a four star hotel at $50 per night. Well, to my disbelief, we got Le Meridien King Edward hotel at $50 per night! We were so exhilarated since their normal rate goes at least $130 per night. It was at a perfect location for tourists like us, and the quality of their bedding - mattress, sheets, and comforts- was very impressive!

2. Food

Toronto is known as the most diverse city in the world, and their diverse range of cuisine is one of the things we wanted to explore. We did not dine at extravagant restaurants, but we didn't skimp on our meals, either. On the day we arrived at Toronto, we had dinner with our friend at Pho Aimy Restaurant, a Pho place in Chinatown. For three of us, we ordered an appetizer, three Pho's and Pho Xao (stir-fried noodle dish). Their pho was the best that I've ever tried. However the stir-fried noodle dish was way too salty. The whole thing came out to be $34.47 (CAD).

On Sunday, CJ and I decided to explore the city separately. I tried a prime rib at House on Parliament which was being offered as Sunday night special at $14.95 (CAD). The meat could be marinated better, but overall, it was a very good meal for that price. Meanwhile, CJ, strolling up and down the streets, ended up having a boring dinner at Johnny Rockets.

We brought an ice box full of bottled waters, fruits, and other snacks, so we did not spend money for snacks or water. For breakfasts, we got some bread and milk from a local grocery store nearby the hotel.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

All Inclusive Vacation Package to Cancun, Mexico III - Cost

By now, I know everyone is very interested in how much this vacation cost us. Here is the summary:

All Inclusive Package (Air, Hotel, Food, Drink, Tips, Transportation to/from airport)=$1563.78
Tips, Haircut for CJ, Local bus fares, Excursion to Xel-Ha, Food purchase at the airport & local mall, Souvenir shirt for CJ=$220
Long-term parking at O'Hare Airport=$45

TOTAL = $1828.78 (4 nights & 5 days for two adults)

*Regarding currency exchange, I did some research before we left for Cancun. It turned out that as a Bank of America customer, we can use Santander Serfin ATMs in Mexico without fees or service charges. Santander Serfin ATM s were easy to locate throughout the Cancun area and using the ATM gave us a very good exchange rate. For safety reason, we didn't use our credit card at all while in Cancun and everything was paid with cash.

For Part I, click here.
For Part II, click here.


Wednesday, May 20, 2009

All Inclusive Vacation Package to Cancun, Mexico II - Hotel Review

We stayed at Riu Palace Las Americas. There are 3 Riu hotels in Cancun: Riu Caribe, Riu Cancun, Riu Palace Las Americas (RPLA). RPLA is the newest of the three.

1. Room

At check-in, we were upgraded to an ocean-view room on the third floor, which gave us a great view of the ocean and pools. The room was very clean and spacious. However, the bathtub was kind of small and we could use more light in the bathtub area. Not having a fan in the bathroom was always a problem after shower. There was a safety box in the closet where we kept valuables. Airconditioner worked well. It was nice to have a laundry hanger in the balcony.

2. Food

There are 5 or so restaurants inside the hotel, but when we were there, not all of them were open everyday. Don Roberto was the only one open for all three meals and snacks throughout the day. First night, we had dinner at Sakura, a Japanese restaurant. We didn't have a reservation. However, we decided to be TAPO and just went to the restaurant and asked to be seated. Fortunately, not all tables were taken and our TAPO-attitude worked! Service was great, but food was rather Chinese style than authentic Japanese style. For the second day, we made a reservation for Krystal, the famous French restaurant. As we have heard so much, the food was awesome! Third night, out of lack of options, we tried the Brazilian steak place. Since we had heard a lot about how awful the food is, we had some light dinner at Don Roberto beforehand. Food at the Brazilian steak place was nothing but disappointing. Fourth day, Krystal was open again for dinner and we lined up at the front desk at 8 in the morning to make a reservation for that place. Again, the food was gorgeous!

One afternoon, we ordered a room service for snacks. It was delivered in a swift manner and food was delicious.

Alcohol and non-alcohol drinks were provided all day in the lobby and pool area. Snacks were available throughout the day.

3. Beaches and Pools

As we had heard, RPLA's beaches were not as good as Riu Cancun's. Since neither of us are beach-person, it didn't matter at all. However, twice when we went down to the beach, we went to Riu Cancun's side.

RPLA has two pools. One is quiet with no swim-up bars. However, that pool did not have any shade until later in the day. The other pool can be pretty noisy and lewd with loud music, volleyball games, ping pong games, and drunken people. There are two swim-up bars in the second pool and it gets some shade throughout the day.

4. Staff

All the waiters and waitresses at restaurants were very nice and professional. Even though all tips and gratuities were included in our vacation package, we tipped at dinners and also for housekeeping ladies.

Front desk staff were knowledgeable and helpful. However, a few times when we called to ask for more bottled water and mineral water, there was quite a bit of delay.

For Part I, click HERE
For Part III, click HERE


Sunday, May 10, 2009

All Inclusive Vacation Package to Cancun, Mexico I - Finding a great deal

Right, in the middle of swine flu frenzy, we are going to Cancun this week. It wasn't easy to fight all the well-meaning worries and confrontations from family members.

Ok, now before moving on, I need to make a very self-contradicting comment: Following the crowd is not always the wisest way to go, but sometimes it is the best way to go.

I. Finding hotel/resort - Follow The Crowd

When it comes to finding a hotel/resort to stay, I believe it's important to listen to what people say. For our Cancun vacation, I read tons of reviews of different hotels located in Cancun, Mexico. While checking official rating websites such as Travel Buddy or Yahoo Travel is a good starting point, I like to read personal blogs of people who have been there.

After a few weeks of reading reviews at different websites and blogs, I narrowed the choices down to two resorts: Riu Cancun and Riu Palace Las Americas. Both places got good reviews in their cleanliness and food, which were the most critical elememts I looked for.

Then I began to compare the two. As Riu Palace Las Americas was a newer construction than Riu Cancun, reviewers noted Riu Palace's facilities are cleaner than that of Riu Cancun. Other reviewers noted Riu Cancun's buffet is better than Riu Palace's buffet. Others noted Riu Palace's pools are smaller than Riu Cancun's.

For a while, I found myself going back and forth between these two hotels. However, shortly thereafter I found out that since they belong to a same hotel group Riu, they share their facilities and people who stay at Riu Palace can use Riu Cancun's restaurants and pools and vice versa. So the decision was made: Riu Palace Las Americas.

II. Booking 1 - Do Not Follow The Crowd

Skip the agency & work directly with the resort.

Forget Applevacations, Expedia, or whatever out there. They are the 3rd party, anyways. See if you can work directly with the resort. At the beginning of the process, I found out reserving through Riu's website is at least $800-1000 cheaper (for two) than going through Applevacations!

Also, I heard many "experts" saying that airplane tickets or vacation packages are cheaper on Wednesdays and Thursdays and more expensive on Mondays and Fridays. Do not buy into that! When I flew to New Jersey in March, I bought bargain tickets on a Monday. When we booked for this Cancun vacation, we found the rock bottom price on one Friday.

III. Booking 2 - Play the Game

Give yourself enough time to watch the price for 3-4 weeks. When you see the price hike, don't freak out. Relax ~. If you make haste, you will lose the game.

I watched the price change for two and a half weeks. During that period, the price went down by $300 (for two). Once I figured out that there is a pattern of price fluctuation, I was able to tell when the price hit the bottom. So without hesitation, I booked a package with the most convenient flight schedule available at the lowest price.

In conclusion, the secret of finding a great vacation package deal is being TAPO (Tenacious, Assertive, Persistent, Obnoxious).

Monday, May 4, 2009

$3 Dinner - Wonder Pizza #1

We, especially C.J., do not necessarily crave for vegetables. C.J. loves meat, and for me, I can think of dozens of recipes with meat but only a few with vegetables.

Recently, I found a way to feed us more vegetables: Wonder Pizza. I like making pizza from scratch - it's not only cheaper than buying, but also more healthful. For the toppings, I use whatever we have in the refrigerator and pantry: Olives, bell peppers, onions, mashed potato, corn, lots of garlic powder and all kinds of frozen or grated cheese. With the strong flavor of tomato sauce, the presence of unsightly vegetables goes easily unnoticed.