Category Archives: travel

Frugal Fun at the Wildlife Refuge

Definitely putting this on my to-see list next time I take the family on a trip down to Sanibel Island!

When I’m traveling, I’m not opposed to doing tourist-y things. But if I’m going to do them, I prefer to do them as affordably as possible. Sometimes you can’t avoid admission fees and exorbitant costs to experience once-in-a-lifetime activities, but I’ve gotten pretty good at finding frugal activities no matter where I go.

The recent Florida trip was no different. We were able to take part in two non-beach-related activities while we were in Fort Myers Beach: JN Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge and The Mound House.

Both were really cool, and I’m going to let you in on all the deets of The Mound House next week. But today I want to tell you all about our low-cost trip to the wildlife refuge.

JN Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge

national wildlife refuge

JN Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge is on Sanibel Island. We were staying on Estero Island, but the trip over to Sanibel was pretty darn short.

When we got there, we headed into the visitor’s center, which has a ton of fun educational displays and activities about the local flora and fauna. It also features the history of the refuge and JN Ding Darling himself.

Also, the visitor’s center is free!

While we were there, we learned about the refuge’s app. It looked pretty cool, and was going to be super interactive for the kids on our self-guided tour, but the sun was super bright and we had trouble seeing the screen while we were outside.

No complaints about the warm weather. I’ll take not being able to see my screen over the snow I was trying to escape any day.

The Trails

black bird sanibel island

From there we hiked the trails. It was really cool. The first portion reminded me of our hike down the Mayan-maintained walkways of the Yucatan rain forest. We were on a raised platform among low trees with wildlife potentially lurking all around us.

We mostly saw birds, but we also saw fish and spiders as we made our way through the mangroves.

The second path we trekked was made completely of seashells where you’d expect to see gravel. We made it to an observation center where I finally was able to conceptualize the Laetoli footprints.

Costs

heron mud florida

Visit the wildlife refuge is incredibly affordable. Like I said, the visitor’s center is free. And the three paths you can walk or bike are pretty darn affordable, too. The Bailey Tract is free, and the Indigo Trail is only $1/person.

You can also do wildlife drive, which can be visited via foot, bike or car. It’s closed every Friday–which is the day of the week we visited–but you can catch it every other day of the week for $5/vehicle, $1/pedestrian or $1/bicycle.

Whichever path you take, I highly recommend the refuge as a quality activity that you won’t even know you barely paid for.

Catch it on Insta

I’m currently documenting this Florida trip on Instagram, including some more pictures of the refuge, so be sure to follow along!

Bowman’s Beach vs Estero Island

Pinning for my next trip to Fort Myers!

The first place we visited in Florida was Fort Myers Beach. We were there for the Thanksgiving holiday itself. Our hotel had a full kitchenette, which was great. The night before we picked up turkey, rolls and sides from Honey Baked Ham. The meal was amazing, super low effort for a holiday meal, and cost us around $80 total, which is about what we would have spent on groceries to cook that meal ourselves, anyways.

We did a lot while we were in the Fort Myers area. None of it was too crazy expensive. But the cheapest activity was hitting up the actual beach. We did two this time around, and definitely had a favorite when all was said and done.

Bowman’s Beach

sanibel island beach florida

Bowman’s Beach is on Sanibel Island. To get to Sanibel Island, you have to cross this massive, elegant, white bridge which rises over the most beautiful blue waters you’ve ever seen (as long as there’s no Red Tide.)

To get across it, you need to pay $6. They only take cash, which is super convenient in 2019. If you’re like me and almost never carry cash, their security cameras will record your license plate number, using it to locate your address and send you a bill.

All the way at the tail end of the island is Bowman’s Beach. You’ll drive by quaint shops and nature reserves to get there. When you arrive, you’ll be greeted by a massive parking lot. Nab a spot, pay for parking at the machine located in the middle of the lot, and start down the trail towards the beach.

About a quarter of the way down, there are restrooms and changing rooms. They were pretty clean for a public access beach, but you’re still going to want to wear flip flops at the very least. There were also some outdoor changing cubicles, too, and outdoor showers to rinse off after you’re done.

The rest of the hike is over beautiful white sand. It’s not crazy long, but the walk is definitely going to range from cumbersome to inaccessible if you’re there with anyone who has mobility issues.

When we got to the beach it was crowded. That wasn’t entirely unexpected; it’s a popular beach known for its shells. There was a barrier of them about halfway up the beach, and then another band of them for about 5-10 yards after you stepped into the water, after which you got to silky sand under your feet.

Honestly, they ended up hurting my feet more than amazing me. We got there in the afternoon so I’m sure it would have been more of thrill if we had gotten there first thing in the morning before things were picked over.

Bugs make me grumpy.

But I was also unusually grumpy, though I still tried to wear a smile. This may have affected my shell love. You see, there were tons of no-see-ums. They’re tiny little bugs that leave big, itchy bites.

These little guys loved me, and to top it off, I had some type of allergic reaction to the bites. The inflammation turned the cold I was almost over into bronchitis, which led to an Urgent Care visit. They got me the meds I needed and it was a free visit since I had already met my annual max deductible on my health insurance (yay?). But I’m definitely going to have some scars from those bites.

Last year when we went to Sanibel it was for a wedding, and we visited the beach via the family’s private property. It was breathtakingly beautiful, but I did also get bit to hell and back on that trip, too. There wasn’t enough calamine lotion in the world.

So for the bugs alone, I don’t think I’ll prioritize Sanibel as a destination in the future. That doesn’t mean I don’t fawn over its impossibly blue waters and white sand shores. But it does mean that I’m perfectly satisfied with seeing those same waters and beaches over on Estero Island where I don’t think I was bit once.

Estero Island

fort myers beach florida

Estero Island is in Fort Myers Beach. It’s a long skinny island with only one bridge back to the mainland. We stayed right about in the middle of the island, across the street from the beach.

It was glorious.

All the impossibly blue waters and white sand shores. None of the bugs. Enough people that if you needed help someone would notice and be able to call 911, but not so many people that you could hear the people next to you converse.

Granted, we were there during the week of Thanksgiving. We were also staying far enough down the island that I would imagine the crowds started thinning out before they got to us, staying closer to the bars and restaurants near the bridge.

Wanna hear something funny? We even found this huge cache of shells. It was amazing. I only thought to take a picture once we had cleared most of them out, but we brought them home so I got an after shot:

flordia shell cache

Which is better–Bowman’s Beach or Estero Island?

For me, Estero Island was the clear winner. There’s probably tons of people who would disagree with me. But the cheaper-than-Sanibel hotels, comparative absence of no-see-ums while we were there and the lack of feet-cutting shell beds won it for me.

Also, because we were staying on Estero Island, it was a cheaper beach because we didn’t have to pay for parking.

 

 

Free Entrance to National Parks in 2019

This is incredibly useful and is going to save me some money! It tells you how to get into national parks for free--in the US and Canada.

Over four hundred of America’s national parks are free everyday.  But 118 of them aren’t.  Luckily, the park system does offer free days, so you can go enjoy our beautiful country while remaining completely and totally frugal.

National Park Free Entrance Days for 2019

In 2018, the National Park System dramatically cut back on the number of free days. This year things are marginally better, with five free days instead of four–though prior to the 2018 change there were weeks worth of these free admission dates. While things are moving back in the right direction, if you want to visit on a free entrance day, you’re going to have to plan a little more carefully.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

Fees will be waived on January 21, 2019 in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

First Day of National Park Week

Before 2018, there were five free days in the month of April recognizing National Park Week. Ever since last year, though, you only get in for free on the first day of the celebration. This year, that date is April 20, 2019.

National Park Service Birthday

This is the fifth free day added by NPS this year. To celebrate the National Park Service’s 102nd birthday, you’ll be able to gain free admission to parks on August 25, 2019. There’s even word of some fun activities on this day, so keep your eyes open!

National Public Lands Day

Admission will be free on September 28, 2019 in honor of National Public Lands Day.

Veterans Day

You can get into national parks for free in celebration of Veterans Day on November 11, 2019.

Which National Parks require an entrance fee?

I’ve been lucky to travel a good bit in my time. National parks always bring such a sense of awe and wonder. It’s one thing to wander around in the woods in your backyard. It’s a completely different thing to spend time in pristine, protected wilderness.

Some of my favorite national parks that will be waiving their fees on free days are:

There’s a ton of others, too. I was surprised to find the ones in my own back yard that I never knew existed. To find some near you, you can check out the National Park Service’s website.

Free Entry to National Parks Year Round

If you fall into any of the following demographics, you can get a free national park pass. You only need one per vehicle to get into the park, so if anyone in your family falls into one of these categories, you could theoretically get the entire clan in for free.

  • You are a US citizen with a documented disability.
  • You are a 4th grader. Eligibility starts on your first day of fourth grade and ends on your first day of fifth grade.
  • You are a member of the military or a military dependent.

You can learn more about each of these programs here.

Free National Park Admission in Canada

In 2017, Canada was giving away free national park passes in honor of their nation’s 150th birthday. That program has ended, but there are still a couple ways to get in for free.

The first is via a Cultural Access Pass. These are reserved for those who have become Canadian citizens in the past year.

A new program was rolled out in2018 that allows anyone under 17 years of age into national parks for free. It continues in 2019. Find out more about the youth program here.

 

We’d love to hear about your national park experiences! Tell us about them in the comments section.

Cheapest Ways to Rent a Car & Get Discounted Accommodations

I had never heard of this trick before! She really did find the cheapest way to rent a car.

Now that it’s almost Christmas, wanna hear what I was up to over Thanksgiving?

The short answer is I was traveling. The long answer is I’m going to tell you all about the fun and the ways I made it more affordable over the next couple of weeks.

Today we’ll cover a basic overview of where I went, how I got there, and how I paid for accommodations.

Thanksgiving at the Beach

This year, Thanksgiving happened at the beach. Fort Meyers Beach, Florida, to be exact. It was absolutely gorgeous. The water was warm. The sand was white. The beaches weren’t crowded, and there wasn’t a hurricane in sight.

On the way home, we made a stop in Orlando to visit Disney World again, but we’ll get to that in another post.

My money lessons from last time we went to Disney can be found here.

Finding the Cheapest Car Rental

As I was trying to decide what the most cost-effective way of traveling would be this time around, I did some math and decided driving would be cheaper than plane tickets. The only problem? We didn’t have a vehicle big enough to get everyone and everything down there. So I started looking for a car rental.

I scoured plenty of sites. Renting a car is an expensive venture, but it was still going to be cheaper than plane tickets. After getting pretty much the same results everywhere, I finally found a booking site that got me in the door for over $100 less: AutoEurope.

The way it worked for our trip was like this:

First, I went to AutoEurope and did a search.

Then, they showed me the best options for my needs and dates of travel, connecting me with a bunch of local rental places. The best option ended up being with Budget. Budget had been listed on the other sites I searched, but at a much higher price.

I looked into my affiliate network, and AutoEurope was on the list. I was fortunate in this way. They ended up giving me a coupon, making the rental even cheaper than it already was.

We ended up getting a Ford Explorer, which had room for all the people and things. It was an easy vehicle to drive and had all the bells and whistles we needed (and some we didn’t!)

Gas

Gas was another added cost of getting down there. Luckily for us, the further down the East Coast you go the cheaper gas gets. You can actually follow along with the lowering of gas prices and then watch them as they rise as we go back by following me on Instagram. In between, I’m featuring photos of the beautiful things we got to experience while it was snowing back home.

Accommodations

Getting to Florida was more than a one-day drive. We needed convenient places to stay overnight. Because I had Airbnb credits, I was able to book two amazing places that were right off the highway in super safe neighborhoods. One was an entire house, and the other was a basement suite inside someone’s house with a backyard fully accessible to us. It was so much better than staying in a hotel, and with the credits, I only spent $30/night total.

If you want to get started on earning Airbnb credits, too, this referral link will get you $40 off your first stay.

Accommodations at Fort Meyers Beach

Because we were visiting during the off-season, accommodations at the beach were crazy cheap. Like 50% off what you would spend at peak season. Plus, I got 10x points through a promotion Hotels.com is running with one of my credit card carriers.

Hotels.com also gives you one free night after ten paid nights. I’ve almost reached that point, so I’ll be getting a free stay sometime soon.

Accommodations in Orlando

I’m super lucky and have a family member who has a time share in Orlando. Like the last time we visited, they were gracious enough to gift us a week stay there. I’m so, so grateful. Because of them, we were able to stay for free.

What did I do in Florida?

So much. I’m excited to tell you about the funnest parts in the coming weeks. Be sure to check back or subscribe to the newsletter to receive notifications!

 

 

How I Scored Two Free Flights to Japan

This post is in collaboration with PenFed Credit Union. All opinions are 100% honest and my own. PenFed is federally insured by NCUA.

I've looked into traveling to Japan, and these tickets would normally cost me about $2,500. She managed to get them for free. Mad frugal blogger respect.

I’ve been writing a lot about my recent trip to Japan lately. We’ve covered how I got my accommodations for fifteen days for a grand total of $387.50. We’ve talked about all of the breathtaking beauty the country has available for free.

But I don’t think I’ve told you guys yet about how I actually got to Japan. At least not in detail.

I flew myself and my sibling from my home in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to Tokyo for free. And not free as in, ‘I only paid fees!’ I mean free as in I didn’t have to pay for those, either.

How We Flew to Japan for Free

This was a long process that took place over many years. I was saving up miles for emergency situations, but also I had this trip in the back of my mind. The way I did it was I picked one specific airline, opened up credit cards which awarded me with miles for that airline, and then earned the bonuses. Whenever I travelled for business or took a trip just for fun, I made sure to use that same airline, and doubled my miles by using one of their branded cards to pay.

That resulted in a large stockpile of miles, which I then used to book a flight to Tokyo. I really wanted to fly first or business class because after our initial layover, it was a thirteen-hour flight. But when I went to book, they didn’t have any awards seats available in business class for the dates I wanted to travel.

It turned out okay. Because I was the one “paying,” my sibling took the middle seat on all the flights. I got a neck pillow which was the best $20 investment ever. And even in economy seating, the number of free movies and games to play on the seatback kept me entertained during the periods when I wasn’t trying to awkwardly position my laptop.

Would business class have been better?

Absolutely.

But economy wasn’t as big of a nightmare as I thought it would be, and now I still have a ton of miles leftover for whatever my next sojourn may be.

When I booked my flight, I used my miles, but I used a different credit card to pay the fees. This card allows me to use each point as a penny when I redeem against travel purchases. I earn two points for every dollar spent. I had enough points built up to completely cancel out the $100 in fees for the two tickets.

How You Can Get Started on Your Next Free Flight

When I first started my travel hacking journey, I chose to hone in on one airline. It worked out fine, but I did have a little trouble finding flight availability. I’ve actually thought about taking this trip prior to the cherry blossom season of 2018, but I guess it’s a popular route and my travel dates weren’t flexible enough.

If you want more flexibility with your travel dates and rewards redemption, you’re probably going to want to look at a credit card that accrues points which are redeemable against travel purchases—regardless of the airline. A great one that just recently came out is the PenFed Pathfinder Rewards American Express Card.

A lot of rewards cards will waive the annual fee for the first twelve months, but then you have to pay a fee every year after that just to keep the card open. With the cards I have, that fee has been anywhere between $79-$95, but it can be much higher.

The Pathfinder card doesn’t have an annual fee. At all. Even after the first year.

When you sign up for the card, you have three months to spend $2,500. If you meet this minimum spend, you will be rewarded with 25,000 bonus points.

You earn 1.5 points on every purchase, and 3 points on all travel-related purchases. If you’re a member of the military or have a PenFed Access America Checking Account, you’ll earn 4 points on all travel-related expenses.

Let’s say in those first three months you don’t spend any money on travel, but you do meet that $2,500 minimum spend right on the nose. You’d earn 1.5 points for each dollar spent, giving you 3,750. Add in the 25,000 point signup bonus, and you have 28,750 within three, short months.

You must redeem your points within the PenFed rewards portal. However, within the portal you can book with your choice of eleven different airlines:

  • American Airlines
  • Alaska Airlines
  • Delta Air Lines
  • Frontier Airlines
  • JetBlue Airlines
  • Hawaiian Airlines
  • Spirit Airlines
  • Southwest Airlines
  • United Airlines
  • Allegiant Air
  • Virgin America

The Points Guy estimates that each point earned is worth 0.85 to 0.90 cents when you redeem for airline travel. That means your 28,750 points are potentially worth $258.75 towards your next flight. Not a bad start!

Like I said, this was a trip years in the making, but I’m glad I got started with rewards points and miles when I did. The timing ended up being perfect as we visited Japan at one of the most beautiful times of year during one of the years when I needed to see beauty most.

 

Have you ever used rewards points to book a free flight? Tell us your story in the comments!