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Monday, May 28, 2012

A Pinteresting Party

I'm protesting Pinterest. Okay, calm down... I know - EVERYONE is on it. 
I'm aware of how terrific it is... One place where you can view and categorized pictures and ideas for just about anything. You don't have to tell me - Pinterest is where it's at.
But to be honest, I just don't have the time to devote to a new time waster hobby. As I look at my google reader, I already have about 30 blogs that I follow. At lets be real, I just do not have the time to devote to my blogs and my reality TV addiction. As it is, I already get tons of ideas from my Martha Stewart Magazines and the blogs I follow... and although I'm sure there are endless ideas on the Pinterest, I don't need yet another reminder of all the crafts/recipes that I don't have time to make, decor ideas for rooms that I can't afford to decorate, or wedding color combos for a wedding that I'm not planning. Okay so now I've said it... I'M NOT ON THE PINTEREST! 

With that said, I do enjoy making crafts and getting ideas from lots of different places for said crafts. I also have many girlfriends who like making crafts too, and my friend Jessica had the great idea to throw a Pinterest Party. I offered to host the party at my house. And I apologize for not getting this blog up sooner, but this was in... February :)

We sent out an evite inviting some girls over on a Saturday afternoon, instructing them to each bring an idea for a craft they'd like to make as well as the supplies to make their craft. We set up the dining room for crafting by covering the table with newspaper and bringing in a card table for extra seating. 

I also made some yummy foods, which included Pioneer Woman's Pop Pulled Pork and these delicious peanut butter cup cupcakes with the famous Magnolia Bakery chocolate icing.
I substituted half of the amount of butter in the recipe for peanut butter, making the icing chocolate peanut butter and topped each cupcake with a peanut butter M&M

Surprisingly, I only managed to take pictures of these delicious cupcakes... maybe it's cause I spent so much time around the cupcake display :)

After the girls got their snack on, we moved to the dining room for craft time. 
Jessica discovered this yarn wreath craft on Pinterest, and I looked around to see if I could figure out how to make it. I found the wreaths for sale on They're for sale in many different etsy shops, however the ones I liked the best were in the Itz Fitz shop
From looking at them, I decided the base was probably one of those foam forms wrapped with some type of batting. On top of that, yarn is wrapped around, and felt is used for decoration. Here's the look I was going for:
This picture was taken from the Itz Fitz shop on etsy

 Below is the list of supplies you'll need:

  • Foam wreath form (I got the biggest one I could find, and I got one that was more flat on one side rather than rounded on all sides like a pool noodle). I got mine at Hobby Lobby. 
  • About 1/2 yard of batting for each wreath
  • Plain silver push pins (found in the sewing isle)
  • 2 colors of yarn (one big roll and one smaller one)
  • 2 colors of felt (2 sheets in total) if you want to do the argyle print. You'll need more if you want to do the flowers too.
  • Hot glue gun

I got a one pound roll of yard for the base color in my wreath because I wasn't sure how much I'd need. This was really unnecessary as  you could probably make 3-4 wreaths with a huge roll like this.
You'll first want to cut 2" wide strips of batting and wrap them around the wreath form using the pins to pin it in the foam along the way. 

Then you start wrapping the yarn around the wreath, using a pin and hot glue to fix it in the back. This step ended up taking FOR-EV-ER. It really takes about an hour to and hour and a half. But this is perfect for a crafting party cause that's when you get in your girl talk.

Once you get your wreath wrapped solidly... you might have to go in and fill in the gaps with more of your base color... then you are ready for your felt decorations. I decided to just do the argyle print, so I cut enough shapes (6 of each of the 2 colors) to go around the circumference of my wreath. We used a self healing mat with a wide ruler and a wheel cutting tool like this these.

Now this is VERY IMPORTANT! When you are cutting your felt with your wheel, cut AWAY from yourself. I know this sounds obvious, however 3 girls ended up hurting themselves at the party.

Once you've cut the shapes for your argyle print, use your hot glue gun to stick them to your wreath. Then lastly, use your second color of yarn to finish your argyle print.

Jaime and her completed wreath... she was done first out of all of us.... she's so crafty!
And here's my wreath.

Here's how it looks on my front door. I love it!!

And close up....
I like how it plays off the front porch light fixture.

These wreaths make great gifts too! I can't wait to make one for the holidays... maybe I'll try flowers too!

Peace, Love, and Pinterest,

Friday, May 25, 2012

Honolulu - The Disney World of Hawaii

Last month, I got the opportunity to go to Hawaii for 5 days. Malibu Ken was there taking part in a conference for his field. He actually was a presenter, which is pretty fancy when it comes to these types of conferences because you have to first do research on something only smart people would know about. Then you have to write a paper on some really nerdy topic, and then you have to be chosen to present it  (don't ask me what the topic was about, cause I have no clue)... So proud of him! Anyway, on the last day of the conference, I rescued him from nerdom, and we stayed an additional 4 more days in Honolulu. 
We did a lot of research before our trip, and so we figured this out early on, but if you're going to Honolulu, just expect to be a tourist while you're there. Honolulu is very tourist-y... Just embrace it... go with it.   Everything from 3 Coach stores all within a 1 mile stretch to mega hotels along the beach to the ABC stores (like 7-11) selling Hawaii trinkets on every single block lets you know you this place caters to tourists. Overall we ended up having a really great time, but I think it was because we came prepared to both be a tourist and also to "go off the grid", if you will, for a part of the time when we'd had enough. 
So here in no particular order are the must dos when you find yourself in Honolulu. 

A Luau
We chose Germaine's Luau from learning that it was featured on Diners Drive Ins and Dives through our internet research. This was the activity where I most embraced my inner tourist. First of all,  a gigantic tour bus comes to pick you up from your hotel, and you along with the other 75 tourists on your bus are harassed entertained by your tour guide named "Kali" who is quite possibly the worst comedian ever. But you roll with it because you are being held captive on your way to the luau, so you just laugh at with him. 

Here we are on the bus
Once you get to the Luau, you take in the view of the ocean cause golly it's real nice. At that point, you are forced to get your picture taken by the luau queen. And then (THIS IS VERY IMPORTANT), you then ask another nice couple to take your picture with your camera in that same position because it is a real nice picture. And also because the picture the luau queen took for you will be printed out in an 8x10 and presented to you for purchase for $20 on the return ride home. Since you have already gotten the same picture with your own camera, under no circumstances should you feel enticed to purchase an 8x10 picture of yourself on the beach... What is this the Superman ride at Six Flags?! And seriously, who needs an 8x10 of this?

Then you sit down to the community table and meet your new friends! Did I forget to mention this luau has about 500 tourists in attendance? We were lucky to be sitting across from some temporary natives (a military guy and his wife), so obvi we take the opportunity to ask them about the hot restaurants in Honolulu... How could I have known that was a recipe for disaster?  Because we were pointed to (and I quote) "a real authentic Italian restaurant, called Buca Di Beppo". No I'm not kidding. 

Here's our table. How much do you dig those necklaces?
Okay moving onto the food... it's what you came here for right? Wrong. No, you did not come here for the food cause if you did you would be seriously disappointed. Don't get me wrong, it was fine. Fine. We'll get to Hawaiian food later, don't you worry. The luau people do however cook the pig in the ground with a bunch of hot stones, and they ceremoniously unveil the roasted pig (and also remove the burning coals with their bare hands, without the aid of so much as an oven mitt)... that part was cool. What you really want to come here for is the show. It's sort of like being on a cruise, but I'd say the level of entertainment is better. Impressive actually. At one point there was a fire dancer... And those Hawaiian dancers, I don't know how someone moves their hips like that. The show was definitely worth it. 

And that's all I have to say about Germaine's. 

Real Hawaiian Food
I alluded to good food in the last section. If you want to know what good Hawaiian food tastes like, go to Ono Hawaiian Foods. It's a little off the beaten path (we had to take our rental car there), but it's sooo worth it. It's the kind of place where a line queues up outside, and the waiter sticks his head out every so often and is like "I'll take the next 2". You get inside, where there's less than 10 tables, and you basically just eat what they bring you, love every minute of it, pay with cash, and then get the heck out of there so some poor chump that's been waiting outside can have his turn. We learned about this place from Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations. Go there. 

Acai Bowl
This stuff is like crack. I ate it 3 out of the 4 mornings I was there. I wouldn't have tried it unless Malibu Ken suggested getting the most healthy thing on the coffee shop menu (love that hippie). I'm so glad I did though. It's basically the acai berry (which has some kind of unicorn powers and cures cancer or something) blended up with strawberries and other goodness into a thick smoothie consistency and topped with sliced banana and granola. I literally could. not. stop. eating these things. 
Also, I had mine with a delicious macadamia nut latte... BEST BREAKFAST EVER.
Helicopter Tour of the Island
My boyfriend is sent from heaven as an angel of love and got this for me for my birthday. It rocked my socks off. Everyone should get the chance to experience this in their lifetime. 

This is Malibu Ken's 'boyfriend of the year' face and I am happy because I'm in a helicopter

Go Snorkeling in Hanauma Bay
Everyone (even the Buca Di Bepo lady) says Hanauma Bay is the place to go snorkeling. It's basically an inlet that has tons of coral reefs and lots of wild life. A lot of tourists go there, but the park people do a really good job of keeping the park clean and the waters pristine. We saw bunches of colorful fish and would have probably seen more if I didn't get scared of scraping myself on the coral whenever we got too close. It's definitely a great experience, and I highly recommend it as a must do. 

This is the bay
Here we are on the beach where you do your snorkeling. Look at that water!
Watch the Sunset
We finally were able to enjoy the sunset on our last night. We were so busy doing other things the rest of the time that we missed it on every other day. We watched it from the pier on the Hilton Waikiki resort property. It's just one of those things you must do. Let the pictures tell you why. 

You should also schedule a sunset watch because you'll have really good lighting for pictures of yourself and your handsome boyfriend.

In the end, I'm glad I had the opportunity to go to Hawaii. It was a first for me, and it's sort of a once in a lifetime thing, and hey, it may be my last. You never know... I'd definitely like to visit Maui or one of the other islands if it works out. I hear it's not as touristy, which is more our style...

Peace, love, and Mia Tais,

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Beauty In A Box

I recently received a monthly subscription to Birchbox from my trendy and stylish sister. I had  never heard of it previously, but I guess that's par for the course for this frumpy older sister because Birchbox is wildly popular amongst the kids. In fact, my sweet sister was on the waiting list to get me in with the "cool kids". Birchbox is a monthly subscription of 7 beauty and lifestyle samples. You can purchase the full size items from their website and review the products, earning points toward future purchases. So far, I've received 2 boxes. And since I received my May box yesterday, I'll share the Birchbox experience here. Here's my box.

May's theme is Gossip Girl, which offers products inspired by New York City's most glamorous events. Like I said, I'm not hip with the shows the kids watch these days so I don't know a lot about Gossip Girl. However, I'm totally down with the fabulous beauty and lifestyle products. Here's what was in my box.

From left to right: 
Stilla sparkle waterproof liquid eye liner - Navy sparkle eye liner, no explanation needed
Color Club nail polish in disco nap - gold metallic nail polish, pretty easy to understand
Birchbox note card - it's a cute note card
Kerastase cristalliste lumiere liquide - makeup designers like to create words to make their products sound fancy. In my words, this is a serum to put on your hair to make it shiny
Dr. Jart waterfuse BB cream - This is a moisturizing tinted makeup with sfp
Kerastase cristalliste bain cristal - Again with the fancy words... this is shampoo
Kerastase cristalliste lait cristal - And this is the shampoo's fancy conditioner counterpart

I have to say, I'm much more satisfied with this box than last month's. I think April's box was more of an introductory box. Unfortunately I had received 3 of the 7 of the samples with my Sephora orders previously. But that's ok... I still got some good stuff... like this:

fresh Sugar Rosé Tinted Lip Treatment SPF 15

This is some pretty stuff for the lips and it's tasty too! The sample size was generous... I've been wearing it almost every day!

I'm looking forward to see what's included in my June box. I'm undecided about continuing by subscription for future months, but I'm enjoying my makeup treat for now... thanks sis!

Peace, Love, and luminescence,

Friday, April 20, 2012

Power To Choose - A Scientific Approach

Here in the great state of Texas, we are able to chose our electricity provider. Sounds great, right? Yeah, it sort of is... but just like anything where you have a choice, that just means, well... that just means, you have to chose. And THAT my friends, is when the analyst in me comes out. Notice the first 4 letters of the word 'analyst'... yeah, I'm about to take it there. It's about to go from zero to full-on-nerd by the end of the next paragraph. 

So here's the thing about the whole "power to chose" scenario. Me as the consumer gets the choice in which electricity provider I use, so that means there's a bunch of competitive offers out there to chose from. My contract is up with my provider in May, so it was time for me to figure out what my next move would be... Either stay with my current provider or change to a new one. I received 2 offers in the mail for $100 and $150 rewards to switch, so I decided to assess what the best option was. 
There's a website called that lists all the different contract offers by each electricity provider. The main thing to look at is what each provider is offering for price per kilowatt hour (kwh).  I'm no electrical engineer, but a kwh is the measuring unit that tells the electricity company exactly how much electricity you used per month. So the total price of your bill is the pre agreed upon price per kwh multiplied by how many kwh you used. Allow me to show you in an equation. Let's pretend your rate is 10 cents per kwh.

Total Price of bill = 10 cents/ kwh * 1000 kwh

Allegedly, this bill would be about $100 for the month. Right? 


Yeah WRONG. Big fat WRONG!!!!!!!!

Why? Because there are tons of other loopholes and stupid 'gotcha' charges that have to be taken into account.
Let's talk about the first 'gotcha'. This is where the advertised price per kwh only applies when you use 2000 kwh per month. So don't be fooled by the advertised rate... In the last 3 years in this 2500 square foot, 2 story house, keeping the temperature at a balmy 73 even in the hottest months in freaking HOUSTON... I have NEVER EVER used more than 1300 kwh in a month. So this means that attractive advertised "low" rate is totally inapplicable to my situation. 
So what does one get charged instead of that nice low advertised rate? Good question. The answer is A WHOLE LOT MORE. 
Yay! Being green is awesome and it saves me a lot of money! NOT
In order to figure out exactly how much you're getting charged, you must open up the fine print, which is located on the power providers' websites. You'll see that there's a much higher penalty charge for using 500 kwh per month and a slightly higher charge for using 1000 kwh per month. 
Moving on to the next 'gotcha'. That would be the fee for using too little electricity per month. Yes, really... there's a fee for not using enough electricity.
Being green is good.... Being green is good.... Being green is good.
Maybe if I say it enough times, I'll believe it.
This fee ranges from as little as $5.95 to $10.95 per month depending on the provider and is for using anywhere from under 500 kwh to 800 kwh per month. A few providers just charge a flat fee regardless of the usage. Just a data point, I use less than 500 kwh per month about 6 months out of the year, so this fee would apply to me about half the year.
So now that I have explained the loopholes and fees, we can move on to the next topic: the historical electricity usage in my home. I have made a nice little chart for this.

So you can see in the hot months, the price goes up to around $120 per month, and in the cool months, it's around $50. Also, a little over 50% of the time, I paid my electricity provider's fee of $6.95 if my usage was under 500 kwh. 

For the next part of my assessment, I averaged the kwh usage over the course of the last 3 years. And I used that average to project my usage for the coming year. 

This first assessment is if I stayed with my current provider, Amigo.

So you see here that Amigo wants to charge me 9.8 cents per kwh if I used 500 kwh and 8 cents per kwh if I use 1000 kwh. Oh, and that fancy "low rate" they advertise? That was 7.7 cents per kwh. See what I mean about not really getting the promised rate? 
Another loophole that applies to this contract is that they want to charge me $6.95 if I use under 800 kwh a month. I've highlighted in yellow the months that I think this will apply. I've also added into that fee the $3.40 meter fee that every provider now charges each month. This is a fee passed onto the consumer from the power company because of the smart meters that were installed last year. You can read more about it here:
Don't even get me started....

So based on previous years' usage, you can see my projected monthly bills in the pink column as well as the "real price per kwh", which includes all the fees and the actual price per kwh that I will be charged. I did not include the taxes, since they cost like $1.50 each month and I don't know how to figure out how much they'll be. That my friends is called a "negligible" expense. Then in comparison to last year, I've done a comparison where I show the delta between what I paid last year and what I project I'll pay this year, if I chose Amigo. Note: "Delta" is an engineer's way of saying "difference". You're smarter now for knowing that.
Ok, so it looks like I'll actually be saving money this year if I chose to stay with my current provider, and I expect to pay around $847 for the next year. 

Moving onto the next provider... Green Mountain sent me a solicitation and said I'd get $100 if I switched to them. Here's my analysis for Green Mountain:

As you can see, Green Mountain's price is a bit higher per kwh, and they charge a $5.95 fee each month regardless of usage (plus the $3.40 meter fee that everyone charges).  The total electricity cost for the year is $971, putting it around $120 more expensive for me to switch to Green Mountain, even if I add in the gift card they were offering.

Lastly, I did the same comparison for Reliant, another company that offered me $150 to switch.
Reliant's cost was slightly lower than Green Mountain for 1000 kwh usage but wanted to charge me $9.95 if I used under 800 kwh (vs. Amigo, who's fee was $6.95 for under 800 kwh usage). Reliant was also going to offer me the largest incentive to switch, but as you can see by looking at the total price, I would only save $1 in the long run. 

In the end, I decided to stay with my current provider. And while this assessment did take a little while to do, I can be confident with my decision. Another plus is now I have it already built, and so next time I want to analyze my electric provider, I can just plug in the numbers to my spreadsheet.

What I learned in engineering school was right.... Don't be swayed by what seems like right answer. Do your work... let the numbers speak for themselves. 

Advertisements don't always tell the full story, but math never lies!

Peace, love, and happy calculations,

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Frozen Yogurt Is The New Cupcake

Some of you may remember my obsession with cupcakes... the tasty single serving of dessert... the perfect match of cake and sugary icing... a wonderful vehicle for crazy flavor combinations. How I love them so much!

Cupcakes are still a love of mine, but I've started a new favorite dessert affair... Frozen Yogurt! I have to admit, for the longest time, I thought it was some kind of hippie dessert. I mean, really... Frozen Yogurt?! If you're going to eat the calories, why not eat something decadent like real ice cream or better yet, a cupcake. And who are all these dessert wimps eating frozen yogurt anyway? Calories, smalories... sheesh. And so I must admit my flawed thinking, because truly, frozen yogurt is the bomb.
You see, it's really Malibu Ken's fault... that California tree hugger recommended we try it one day (of course he did). So we went to the new frozen yogurt joint across from work. It's called Tutti Fruitti, and it was pretty much my gate way drug into the world of frozen yogurt. Tutti Fruitti stores are all over the place, so you should be able to find it sold all over the country. I think the first flavors I tried were chocolate and mint, and I must have topped it with something naughty like oreos. I couldn't believe how creamy and delicious it was, and frankly I was surprised at how naughty it tasted. I ended looking up the calorie count because I'm all, how can something that tastes so good be good for me? I found out that for about 4 oz of yogurt, most flavors were about 100 calories. So in fact, it was nice, not naughty... which just made it that much better.
So to sum up Tutti Fruitti, I give it a 7 overall.

Picture from
 Moving on to my next Fro Yo (that's what the kids call it these days) experience, I tried Red Mango in the Dallas airport. BIG MISTAKE. I think I had pomegranate. It just wasn't as creamy as I expected, and it tasted... well it tasted.... healthy and watery. Red Mango is also all over the place. I wouldn't go back but hey, maybe it's your thing. Who am I to judge? (side eye, yes, I secretly judge you). I give Red Mango a 3.

Picture from

Then I tried Berrylicious, and this is when everything changed for me. Berrylicious is a locally operated joint in the area I live in. There are 2 locations, and they should really open up more... like on every block, like Starbucks. Because I could really eat it every day. At Berrylicious, they have tons of flavors all the time, and they change them out every few weeks. So far, I've tried the chocolate, cookies and cream, pistachio, mint, fresh raspberry, coconut, cheesecake, white chocolate macadamia, and fresh strawberry. This yogurt needs no toppings. It is that good. And finally, they have coupons. I give Berrylicious a 10. If you live in the Clear Lake area, you NEED to try this place.

Picture from
Next, Malibu Ken and I tried Orange Leaf. This is another one of those big chains, and I have to say, definitely the best out of all the big yogurt chains. I really liked their flavors, and they had alot of really different toppings.  I had the chocolate cheesecake and the white chocolate strawberry with no toppings, cause I'm a purist like that. I wished I had just filled up the entire bowl with the chocolate cheesecake after I started eating it. Malibu Ken had the coconut and some other healthy flavor... I did enjoy the coconut though. I have Orange Leaf a 7, so it's tied with Tutti Fruitti.
Picture from
Lastly, Malibu Ken and I tried Pinkberry. Pinkberry franchises are all over the place, but I just can't figure it out. Besides not being able to serve your own frozen yogurt or toppings, it seems to cost way more than the other places too! And the fact that it doesn't even taste that great doesn't help me figure out why Pinkberry franchises keep popping up everywhere. I ordered the chocolate swirled with the salted caramel, and I have to give it a 3.5 (slightly higher than Red Mango, but still not a good score). Malibu Ken had the plain with the cinnamon crunch topping and some shaved almonds. Apparently he felt very restricted in his topping choices because he wasn't allowed to top it him self. As a no topping kind of gal with no interest in meshing weird toppings together, I don't really get this, but I'm assuming there's some kind of judging that goes on when someone else adds your toppings.

Picture from
 So this is my synopsis of the frozen yogurt choices that are springing up everywhere. I know there are others out there... does anyone have any comments or preferences? How about toppings? Am I missing out by keeping it simple?

Friday, March 16, 2012

Thrifty Travels - How to save big on vacations and still feel like a high roller

Lately I've been doing a lot of traveling. This is due to the fact that my boyfriend, Malibu Ken, lives 1500 miles away. We manage to see each other about once each month, however this adds up to mega traveling. I've just completed my first trip where my airfare was fully paid for via frequent flier miles, so I feel like I now am officially an expert on the subject of travel. Let me share.

See, I'm clearly a trustworthy traveler... I take cheesy tourist photos in front of  Rodeo Drive signs in Beverly Hills, you should definitely trust me....

When people think about traveling, they mostly consider the major expense of airline tickets and hotels, and yes, this is expensive, but there are many other "gotcha" expenses that get added in. Airport parking, travel to and from the airport, meals out, convenience items at the airport or on the plane, and travel accessories are just a few of the extra costs of travel.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not complaining about the costs incurred from traveling to see my honey. Did I mention, he travels just as much (if not more frequently) to see me. Plus it doesn't hurt that I get to travel to sunny Southern California to spend time with him. Not to mention that we both are lucky to live in big cities, so we get to plan to do some really neat things duirng our visits. And we have both been blessed with great jobs that allow us to carry on with this lifestyle. But with all those bonuses, it's important that we handle our finances with care. We certainly look forward to many years together, and after this special time period of 'jet setting' is over, then I hope we have done a good job of using our money wisely and preparing for our future together. So after all that rambling, here are some tips we have learned in the last year. 

Pick an airline and stick with it. My bff of the moment is Southwest (and no, Southwest is not paying me to promote them... I don't think that 18 followers on Google reader really constitutes this blog as worthy of paid advertising). For flights from HOU-LAX, we quickly learned that Southwest was the consistently the best value for our money, and with pretty frequent direct flights, no baggage fees, and flights from HOU instead of IAH (which is farther for me), they are the big winners in my book. When I first started dating Malibu Ken, I made the mistake of searching Expedia and booking a trip with Delta, and although I don't have anything against Delta, I wish I would have flown that trip with Southwest, adding to my airline miles. Because... After about a year of faithfully flying Southwest, I earned a free ticket! Imagine me rollin' through the airport with my hard side flower print spinner carry on... I'm all "High roller right here folks, coming through..." 
No not really (maybe a little bit). 
I thought you would want to know what my carry on looked like, so here it is (the one with the aqua flowers). I know you all want one now, so it's from Overstock. 

Plan Ahead. This is pretty much the theme of all savings tips. But it really really pays off when it comes to air travel. I'm signed up for the Southwest weekly emails announcing sales and deals, and like the deal stalker that I am, I check every. single. one. of those dang emails and perform a search from their website looking for the flight I'm interested in. This requires us to plan about 3 months in advance for all our trips and requires us to re-book flights sometimes 2 or 3 times before we actually ever make the trip, as sales sometimes fluctuate and prices continue to drop (another reason I like Southwest - no fees to re-book). In the end, we average about $230 per trip on airfare. For a 1500 mile direct flight, I'm thinking that's not too shabby. 
Planning ahead pays off when it comes to hotels too. We end up staying in hotels a fair amount. Not in Houston obvi, but when we I visit LA, because it makes more sense to stay in the city where all the action is instead of the desert where Malibu Ken lives, and there isn't even a Starbucks (sorry babe, you know I love LA). We've also gotten the unique opportunity to be able to meet up with each other when one of us is on a business trip in a cool place like Savannah or San Francisco. We typically extend the trip for a few days for the actual visit since one of us is working (duh, it's a business trip). So this also requires us to book a hotel. We usually book the hotels pretty far in advance as well. I'll get into that process a little later. 

Do your research. Also, another common tip for thrify-ness. This comes into play mostly in the hotel arena. Here is our scheme. We go on and sort on the hotels in the area we want to stay based on "guest rating". We find that the traveler reviews are better indicators than stars just because they are real people's reviews based on real experiences, not how many restaurants are inside the hotel or some other random point system that is used to determine how hotels get their stars. From the list sorted best to worst traveler reviews, I skip over the hotels that are out of our price range and open up each hotel in our price range starting from the one with the best ratings. The key here is to find the happy medium between price and and rating. When reading the reviews, I look for things like free parking, free breakfast, free coffee, free internet, noise level, cleanliness level, and customer service. When selecting a hotel, beware of fees for extras like internet and parking. When comparing hotels, choosing one that includes these things can save up to $50 per night.  I also look for manager responses to the reviews. It is a good sign when the hotel manager takes a moment to read the reviews and respond to the comments. 
As you can see hotels with virtually the same guest ratings have prices that vary greatly

Don't be afraid to ask. Once we have narrowed down the hotel we'd like, Malibu Ken makes a call to the hotel's direct line and asks to book the hotel at the same price they've advertised on (He takes such good care of me) We do this because we want to protect ourselves if plans change. Hotels are non-refundable or have a penalty fee for cancellations if booked from Expedia or So just in case something happens, we'd like to avoid these charges. 100% of the time, and sometimes after negotiating a bit (thanks, babe), we get the deal listed on the discount site. So far, we've never had to cancel, but you never know what can happen. 

Sign up for ALL the rewards memberships. Hotels, airlines, rental cars... ALL of them. And make sure your membership is tied to your reservation prior to your trip. I'm not particularly married to any particular hotel chain, especially because hotel prices vary so much. I just feel it's best to cover all my bases. We got a free night in Ventura (near the biggest outlet mall of my life) last year which we paid for by combining our hotel membership points for that certain hotel chain. We've learned our lesson by not doing this one or two times, thinking "oh when am I going to stay in a Doubletree again?". And I'm still kicking myself when I realized that I did indeed stay in a Hilton again on another trip. 
Another perk of the memberships is you get little freebies here and there.... free water bottles at check in etc. It's not a lot, but hey, who doesn't enjoy a free water bottle after a long flight?
Another place where this paid off big time was at airport parking. I use the preflight parking garage at HOU (there is also one at IAH) and get rewarded with 1 free day for every 5 days spent parked. Over the last year or so, I've earned 374 points, which equates to 9 free days of parking (about a $72 savings).

Sign up for Groupon and Living Social. As soon as you know you'll be visiting a city, sign up for  the Groupon and Living Social deals of the day. Sure, your inbox will be flooded with daily deals, and you'll spend about 5 minutes every morning sorting through them, but it's totally worth it. Have you caught on yet? SAVING MONEY TAKES TIME. Oh you wanted to save tons of money without having to lift a finger? That's super interesting because I'd really like to lose 10 pounds without ever having to exercise or watch what I eat...
So anyway, Malibu Ken and I have gotten some really sweet deals and enjoyed some very nice meals through these sites. Groupons, coupons, I got 'em all and I'm not afraid to use them!
Dinner in Beverly Hills? Ummm yes please!
So I think I've covered all the major lessons I've learned during this journey. Does anyone have any other tips that I haven't discovered yet?

Peace, Love, and early boarding,

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Leave it to me to find a coupon for wine

QUICK!! What are two of my favorite things?
Those who know me for a hot minute know that I love a nice glass of wine... sauvignon blanc to be specific. And those know me for about 2 more minutes know that nothing makes me happier than a coupon or a sale. So combine those two and what do we get? 
Wine made of coupons?? No no silly. 
Wine coupons!! 
And who finds coupons for wine? 

Let me take you back to last weekend when Ken and I were planning a nice jaunt up to Sonoma after a work week for me in silicon valley. Like any sane person, I was doing my winery research, and as I was finishing my thesis writing up my findings, I stumbled across a website that advertised wineries and associated coupons. Peeing my pants with excitement, I cross referenced the highlighted wineries that had a coupon with the ones I had already narrowed down to visit (or potentially visit - using a method we'll investigate later in this post). And yes!... Almost every single winery I had on my list also had a coupon!! I texted Malibu Ken (I think he was asleep, oops) with something like OMG I FOUND COUPONS FOR WINERIES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

The weekend is over, and I'm still kind of excited about it. Or at least excited about the fact that we saved a ton of $$

So let me share the method to my madness.
I first started here at Sonoma Tourist Guide. I found the website simply by typing "Sonoma Coupon" into the google search. As always with searching for coupons, be patient and check out at least 6 or so links to find the best coupons. I think this one was found on attempt #4. Anyway, after I discovered it and realized most of the wineries I had already written down had coupons, I just researched each contender, looking for the same criteria:

  • Tasting fees
  • Winery features (view, picnic area, art gallery etc)
  • Winery feel (stuffy, friendly, eclectic, etc)
  • Tasting room hours
  • Current releases - I mostly like whites so I wanted to make sure the had plenty of those on the tasting menu. You can usually tell by looking at a wineries current releases. If they are low on the whites and have only listed 1 or 2, then you can bet its gonna be slim on the pickins. 
  • Wine prices - I like to buy when I visit a winery, so if the cheapest release is $36 for their Chardonnay, then it's going to turn out to be an expensive visit. I like to keep it close to $20 per bottle, and definitely under $30.
  • Distribution - Because I like to bring home a few bottles (err... 12), I like to only buy them at the winery if I cannot get them at home. It doesn't make sense to schlepp home a bunch of bottles in my luggage that I can get at the local grocery store. 

So how does one find out this info? Well first, I visit the website Wine Country Getaways, which has suggested wine route tours of many California wine country areas. You basically just find the area you are going to and then figure out which trails will meet your needs. For this trip, we knew we were staying in the southern area of Sonoma, so I just looked at the wineries listed on each of those trails. Then I go to each of the winery websites looking for the above qualities, and as one looks good, I write it down. Next I visit and and read the reviews for the wineries. As I'm reading, I am sure to note all the criteria next to the winery's name. You can get a good feel for the atmosphere by reading the reviews. Keep in mind, just because it's got a lot of stars, if it doesn't have the feeling you're after, then it's not a good fit for you. We like laid back wineries, and so even though some of the wineries had really good ratings, if the overall feel was fancy, then it just wasn't going to be my thing. As wineries make the cut, I either star or double star them. Double star means a for sure visit. One star means it needs to be re-reviewed before it goes on the list. Malibu Ken and I reviewed the stared ones and we made our final selections by highlighting them on the map we had printed out. Whew!
It looked like this when we were through.

Lastly, and most importantly, the coupons were printed out from the links to the coupons on the Sonoma Tourist Guide website I found, or I ensured the wineries were on an app that the website mentioned. An App? Yes, an app for wines. I know, this story keeps getting better...
Anyway, the app's name is Winery Finder, and it's AWESOME. 

This is what it looks like (bottom left corner)
The winery app finds where you are and lists all the wineries  with coupon deals

All I had to do was check in on facebook (per the directions on the coupon) and show the coupon to the winery attendant to get a buy one get one free tasting. At first, I kind of felt like a dork doing it (come to think of it, no I didn't, but I guess I should have), but I saw at least 2 people doing the same thing at one of the wineries on Saturday. Overall, we visited 9 wineries and saved $75 on our tastings. And THAT'S no chump change. 

Anyone out there have any tips on how to save on travel or would like to share their winery searching methods?

Peace, Love, and Tannins,