Review of Mardi Gras Grandstands Options

This entry is part 9 of 9 in the series Mardi Gras in New Orleans 2016

I had been putting off writing a “review” of Mardi Gras grandstand options for a while. Mostly because I did a pretty terrible job of photographing the actual grandstands and locations. Go me. But, I figured others may find information helpful, especially because when I was researching grandstand options, I couldn’t find much information. And anyway, we have plenty of pictures that we took FROM the grandstand locations, and I figure that’s what is most important anyway, right? The view?

Mardi Gras Parade Seating in Grandstands | New Orleans Travel

I covered in this post why we were interested in getting grandstand tickets for some of the parades. But, in case you don’t feel like clicking, here’s the excerpt:

  1. Well, first and foremost, we love taking photographs. So, I wanted to make sure we had a decent vantage point for taking pictures of all the parades! 
  2. I don’t like the idea of having to arrive at a parade route 4+ hours in advance to save a good spot. I’d rather use that time to see other sites in New Orleans! Having tickets for a dedicated spot will allow us to arrive pretty much whenever before a parade starts and have a good viewing location!
  3. I like the idea of having a place to sit if our legs get tired as the parade route passes. (I’ve found that some viewing stands are bleacher-like seats, while others are just platforms with no seating. I’ve been making sure to book the ones with bleacher seats! Even if people stand on the bleachers as the parade starts, we can still grab a seat.)
  4. Although the grandstands will be filled with people, I figure it will be LESS crowded than the streets and sidewalks, and that we won’t constantly be getting bumped into or anything. That’s just not my cuppa tea.I figure, if the parades really are THAT much more awesome in the midst of the crowds on the sidewalk, we can just cut our losses on the price we paid for the viewing stands and head down to the sidewalk.

Because we weren’t sure if any of the grandstands would be particularly better than the others, we decided to spread the love among the different options.

  • For the Endymion Parade, we chose the “Place St. Charles” zone for $40 each
  • For the Bacchus Parade, we chose the “Lafayette Hotel” zone for $40 each.
  • For the Zulu and Rex parades, we chose the Hotel Intercontinental Grandstands $75 each.

Not cheap, I realize, but because of the reasons I outlined above, it was money well spent for us.

So, how did we like the grandstands? They were great! One of the common complaints about the grandstands that we had read online was that people felt too far from the action or not like you were a part of the parade. I can say that is definitely not the case! And for what it’s worth, we also watched plenty of parades from the sidewalks when we didn’t have grandstand tickets (like the Krewe of Iris, Krewe of Tucks, and others). However, we just kind of happened-upon those parades. We didn’t stake out spots or watch them for hours on end. We did end up getting closer than what I thought we would though without grandstand seats.

It’s also worth noting that sometimes these parades were VERY VERY LONG. The Bacchus parade kept getting “stuck” and there were very long waits in between each float. So, it was nice to have a spot in the grandstands to sit while waiting for the next float to come!

For those interested, here are some of the various views from the grandstand areas!

“Place St. Charles” Mardi Gras Grandstands

It was night time, so please forgive how dark the photos are! But here are the Place St. Charles grandstands before the start of Endymion:

Place St. Charles grandstands during Mardi Gras | Krewe of Endymion Place St. Charles grandstands during Mardi Gras parade

The grandstands were not very high, so there weren’t that many people behind us, and although the grandstands were full, it didn’t feel overly crowded (as you can tell by looking behind us in this selfie). (For what it’s worth, the Lafayette Hotel grandstands the next night were much emptier).

Ken and I at Place St. Charles grandstands

In fact, some of the “best” photos I got of the Place St. Charles grandstands were actually taken from across the street the next day as we were walking to a different grandstand section! They’re the white boxed-in grandstands across the street:

Place St. Charles grandstands Place St. Charles grandstands

We were in the second row of the grandstands, and we still had a great view!

Krewe of Endymion from Place St. Charles grandstands Krewe of Endymion from Place St. Charles reserved seating

In fact, when people did “get in the way” of my photos, I feel like it conveyed how fun and festive the atmosphere was!

Krewe of Endymion from Place St. Charles reserved seating

For what it’s worth, the Krewe of Endymion approached from the LEFT of our grandstands at Place St. Charles.

“Lafayette Hotel” grandstands during Krewe of Bacchus

For this parade, I didn’t take a single photo of our actual grandstands. I’d say that I liked this location LESS than the Place St. Charles grandstands, although they were still just fine. My main complaint is that there’s a lot of excess light from the nearby buildings, which kind of “takes away” from the fun lights on the floats.

For example, whatever that building is here with the columns was a bit too bright and kept affecting my photo exposures:

View from Lafayette hotel grandstands | Mardi Gras View from Lafayette hotel reserved seating | Mardi Gras View from Lafayette hotel grandstands | Mardi Gras

However, there were more grandstands in this area (Lafayette Hotel) than there were in the Place St. Charles grandstands, so it felt a little less cramped. There was also more space between the first grandstand row and the metal street barriers, meaning there was more room for people to go and take turns to stand in front of the grandstands. We We lucked out with fairly empty grandstands at this location, although that might have been because it was very cold, and that the Bacchus parade was taking FOREVER to pass because it kept getting “stuck.” So there were long delays in between almost every float and a lot of people started to leave.

We got some great photos of the parade though!

Krewe of Bacchus from Lafayette Hotel grandstands during Mardi Gras Krewe of Bacchus from Lafayette Hotel grandstands during Mardi Gras

Oh, and in case you’re interested in the “St. Charles Reserve A” grandstands, those were right across the street (parade route) from the Lafayette Hotel grandstands, so we got some pictures of the St. Charles Reserve A grandstands:

St. Charles Reserve A grandstands during Mardi Gras St. Charles Reserve A grandstands during Mardi Gras

As you can see, those ones weren’t very crowded either. But again, not sure if that’s because it was so cold.

One upside of this area though was that we could hear the parade emcee. They must broadcast from that area. We didn’t even know there was a parade emcee the night before when we were in the other grandstands!

Intercontinental Hotel Grandstands during Mardi Gras

Again, keeping with my theme of completely forgetting to take photos of the actual grandstands, here is my best photo I have of the Hotel Intercontinental Grandstands:

Hotel Intercontinental Grandstands during Mardi Gras

As you can probably tell, it is more crowded than the Lafayette Hotel grandstands, and they had higher grandstands too. But the REAL upside of these grandstands was having access to clean bathrooms inside the hotel and having a place to go to warm up after being outside during the cold weather and not having to worry about losing a good spot! (Hotels are completely closed to non-guests during Mardi Gras. But since we had grandstand tickets, we were given wristbands to enter the Intercontinental. There are porta-potties available for other parade goers). We also ate lunch at the Intercontinental in between the Zulu and Rex parades. That was a nice option too since so many restaurants are closed on Mardi Gras (it’s essentially a holiday in New Orleans).

We were a few rows up, but people frequently transitioned in and out of the front “standing room” only area, so we were able to go down for some front row photos pretty often. We still had a great view!

Krewe of Zulu from grandstands Krewe of Rex Krewe of Rex

So, there you have it! Three Mardi Gras options tried and tested! Have you been to Mardi Gras? Did you opt for any grandstands? What did you think?

Mardi Gras Parade Seating in Grandstands | New Orleans Travel

Our Experience Shipping Luggage Ahead

This entry is part 12 of 12 in the series Alaska Cruise 2015

As you can probably tell from the first several posts in our Alaska Cruise trip report, we took quite a roundabout way to Seattle!  To recap:

Why did we ship our luggage? 

As I’ve mentioned before, I have completely given up on carry-on only packing for long trips. I pack lots of camera equipment (including a tripod), and a lot of international airlines go by WEIGHT of carry-on bags instead of dimensions. So, although I can generally FIT all my items into carry-on bags, it always exceeds the airline’s allowable weight for a carry-on bag. Plus, for a cruise, I generally pack a bigger selection of clothes compared to other trips. Dressy clothes for dinner, casual clothes for the ship, and for this Alaska cruise, cold weather clothes and things like hiking boots. So, a checked back was definitely a necessity for us.

But yikes, the idea of lugging a big suitcase on all those different modes of transportation was kind of daunting. Plus, having to pick up our bag at LaGuardia then re-check it at JFK seemed unnecessarily time consuming.  So, we did something that we’ve never done before for a trip!  We shipped most of our luggage!

Looking for an easier way to pack and avoid lugging your suitcases to and from the airport? This was our experience shipping our luggage!

We briefly considered luggage shipping services like Luggage Free and Luggage Forward, but those companies just seemed like an unnecessary middleman, adding lots of cost without much additional service. So, I measured the suitcase we would normally use as checked luggage, and entered the dimensions into FedEx’s and UPS’s website, estimating about 50 pounds for our suitcase.  I also sent a quick email to our hotel in Seattle, the Grand Hyatt, to make sure that they would accept a suitcase FedEx delivery. They responded promptly that they could certainly accept the FedEx’ed suitcase. *   

The process for shipping our suitcase (and packing the bag)

The estimated price for FedEx’ing our suitcase would be about $60.00.  Considering we would’ve had to pay $35 to check our bag on our DCA-LGA flight (since we weren’t flying first class or anything on that leg), it seemed well worth an extra $25 to avoid the hassle of lugging our suitcase in and out of planes, trains, and automobiles.  We also signed up for a FedEx account, which was totally free, and that gave us an additional discount on the shipping. The only downside was that the cheapest option was FedEx ground, and that was a five-day transit time from our home to Seattle. Since we’d want to build in a little “cushion” to account for transit delays, that means we’d have to ship our suitcases a full week in advance. I don’t know about you, but, despite multitudes of detailed packing lists, I often think of so many things to pack at the LAST POSSIBLE MINUTE. Or, similarly, needing to rearrange items between checked bags and carry-on bags thanks to space or weight considerations. But, with no LAST POSSIBLE MINUTE available if we shipped our big bag far in advance, we’d have to plan our suitcase packing very methodically!  

Luckily, our planning went smoothly. We packed everything that we wouldn’t need for the first few days of our trip in the shipped suitcase. Those included things like our tripod, hiking boots, swimsuits, dress shoes, cold-weather items like long pants and sweaters, (Vancouver and Seattle would be quite warm .. the Alaska portion however was forecasted to be much colder, even in June), and frankly, the vast majority of our clothes we’d need for the trip.

We shipped our bag a week prior to our departure. I was a little nervous about how FedEx would label a suitcase (compared to like a box). I feared that their normal sticker labels would fall off the suitcase material.  But they actually have special luggage tags, not that different than what you’d get at the airport. (Just a quite a bit larger).  Those shipping labels attached to the suitcase handles.

For the next several days, I obsessively checked FedEx’s website for updated tracking information. Once I saw that the bag was delivered to our hotel in Seattle (which was actually the day we were departing JFK for Vancouver), I called the hotel to confirm receipt of the luggage. They had it, and I also confirmed my reservation and arrival date.

Once we arrived at the Grand Hyatt, we checked in, and the reception staff told us that they would get the suitcase out of storage and have it sent up to our room. That part actually took quite a while! We waited for more than 40 minutes for our suitcase to get delivered, despite one or two calls to the front desk to make sure they didn’t forget about us. At that point I was starting to get worried that our suitcase had been misplaced at the hotel.  

But, not to worry, our suitcase finally arrived in our room. We took a quick glance inside and everything looked in order.  And that was it! Now the only transporting of that suitcase we’d be responsible for is getting it from the hotel to the ship check-in!  Much easier than lugging it around on all those transportation modes!

Anyway, we’d definitely call the luggage shipping experiment a success and we’d definitely try it again for future trips. One thing I might try in the future though is packing a duffel bag instead of a suitcase. Even though we have lightweight luggage, the suitcase alone is still about 11 pounds. Since most of the shipping cost is based on weight, we could’ve saved a decent amount by shipping something that was 11 pounds lighter!  But, of course that sets up the potential for damage to the items or the bag ripping.  Pros and cons to both options I suppose.  

Have any readers ever shipped luggage ahead?  How did it work out for you?  

* We did consider shipping services directly to the cruise port also. However, I really wanted to make sure that my bag was IN MY POSSESSION prior to boarding the ship. I wanted to be able to shop for last minute items in case my bag got lost or didn’t arrive as planned.

 

Looking for an easier way to pack and avoid lugging your suitcases to and from the airport? This was our experience shipping our luggage!

Tips for Planning a Group Vacation to Disney (Or anywhere really)

Like I’ve mentioned a few times now on the blog, Ken and I are planning a trip to Disney in the fall.  In addition to me and Ken, Ken’s sister, her husband, and their 7-year-old daughter and 1-year-old son will be coming too.  (And maybe Ken’s dad too).  We offered to pay for their airfare and hotel, and everyone will be responsible for getting their own Disney tickets. This will be mine and Ken’s first trip to Disney in SEVEN YEARS. My sister-in-law and her husband went to Disney for their honeymoon back in 2003, but haven’t been there since, meaning neither of their kids have been to Disney either.  

Planning a big group family vacation to Disney (or a vacation anywhere really!) Helpful spreadsheets to organize planning with the group.

We’re trying to keep things relatively flexible for that trip. We probably won’t all go to the same parks every single day, and we’ll probably have different eating and dining preferences too.  

I’m a bit compulsive when it comes to planning vacations, and I didn’t want to seem dictatorial to my sister-in-law’s family when making any decisions for the trip. (Ken, on the other hand, is used to my dictator-like style).  

I also didn’t want to overwhelm her with decisions to make in some marathon conversation.  

So, I did what I do best.

I created a spreadsheet.  

 

Using a Spreadsheet to Plan Family Vacations as a Group

I knew that my sister-in-law was confident using spreadsheets, so I figured this would be a good approach.  

I thought I’d share the spreadsheet with you all in case you’re looking for a decent method of planning a vacation with a group.  

In the first table, I put the dates of our trip, along with mine and Ken’s plans for where we wanted to go each day. Then, I highlighted the adjacent cells in pink, with a note to ask my sister-in-law where they wanted to go for that day, making clear that they shouldn’t feel obligated to go to the same parks we do each day.  

 

group vacation planning spreadsheet

To make things easier for my sister-in-law and her family, I entered in the hours, special events and crowd predictions for each of the parks to help guide their decisions. 

planning spreadsheet for disney vacation

 

On a separate tab in the spreadsheet (not pictured), I entered in specific questions I had or “things to consider.”  That way, she could take a look at the questions I have that I’ll eventually need to know for finalizing plans (like does she want to take her kids to the Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party?  And did she want to do any “character meals?”  And that she should create a “My Disney Experience” account and let me know her email address used to register for it so I can link our trips together. And whether she wants to take afternoon breaks back to the hotel for her baby’s naps and stuff.)  

I figured by having a centralized place to list all the questions would avoid back-and-forth text message responses and FB messenger chats that would be impossible to search for later when I needed to take the responses into account for planning.  

To help centralize planning resources, I created a “resources” tab with links to helpful sites, like reviews for our Disney hotel, links to things like all the restaurants on Walt Disney World property to help us figure out where we’d need to make dining reservations, Disney “hacking” links, like buying discounted gift cards to use for Disney purchases, and links to events I had found that I thought her kids might be interested in.  For instance, her daughter loves to draw, and I thought she’d like to know about the daily drawing lessons offered at the Art of Animation resort.  

disney planning links

Finally, I added a “to pack and other ideas” tab.  This is just a list of random things I had come across and wanted to make sure I remembered for our trip.  Like making sure we pack (or buy at a store once we get to Orlando) ingredients for s’mores.  The resort we’re staying at offers evening marshmallow campfire roasts, but only includes the marshmallows and charges an arm and a leg for chocolate and graham crackers. Since this is an unusual packing item, I wanted to make sure I noted it somewhere!  

I also had another tab to help us decide what meals to eat in the different parks, but that’s a topic for a whole different post!

I think that this shared spreadsheet approach could be valuable to any sort of group vacation planning effort.

How have you planned group / family vacations in the past?  What methods do you recommend?

My Disappointing Experience (x3) Trying to Use VRBO.

Ken and I are planning a trip to San Francisco in the summer. One of Ken’s friends is getting married in the Bay Area, and we decided to make a vacation out of it. The original plan was to do four nights in San Francisco, as well as four nights in the Monterey Bay or Big Sur area.

Hotel options in the Monterey and Big Sur area seem fall into three categories: 1) Lower end chain hotels far from the beach and other scenery, 2) Uber budget motels that would have been fine for my taste 8+ years ago, but no longer, and 3) Ultra high-end expensive beach front hotels for $300+/night. Many $600+ per night. Yikes.

So, I decided to look for vacation rentals on VRBO.  After a bit more itinerary finagling, we decided on two nights in Santa Cruz and two nights in Big Sur.  We limited our search to properties that allowed a minimum of two night stays (since many properties have minimums of 4+ nights). We found a few properties that looked fantastic, weighed the pros and cons, made our choice, and reserved it.  Done and done.  

Except, not.

First message we got was from our reservation in Big Sur.

VRBO rental 1

Then why don’t you change your minimum stay requirements?  I saw plenty of properties on VRBO that specified different minimum stays for different times of the year.  Instead, we had fallen in love with the idea of this vacation property only for our reservation to be rejected.  🙁

Second, we got a message (err, a lack of a message) for our reservation in Santa Cruz.

VRBO rental 2

 

The property owner never responded within 24 hours, so our reservation was automatically cancelled.  I sent the owner a separate follow-up message, and he just responded vaguely saying that the property wasn’t available those days.  I continue to re-check, and it’s still available according to the calendar for that property on VRBO!  
So, we decided to readjust our strategy. I booked two nights at a chain hotel, the Highlands Inn Carmel, which is a Hyatt property. So I was able to use Hyatt Gold Passport points for a hotel near Big Sur.  Score!  Saving money, saving money! We just had to find another Santa Cruz property. We decided to submit another VRBO reservation for another lovely looking home close to the beach in Santa Cruz.  This one also had two night minimum stays.  

And another one, now our third, rejected. She responded saying she has strict three-night minimum stay requirements during the summer.  Again, nowhere on the property page was that indicated.  Just the two night minimum stays.  

VRBO rental 3

 

We were beyond frustrated. And frankly, it makes me hesitant to try VRBO again in the future.  I spent a decent chunk of time researching and comparing properties before submitting reservations on VRBO. But it was all a total waste of time. So, why would I spend time in the future searching for properties that fit my criteria, only to have them rejected?  I hate to be whiny over such #FirstWorldProblems and all, but seriously, this is a vacation rental business.  I expect to be able to RENT VACATION HOMES! 

I’m not sure who is at fault – the property owners or VRBO? Maybe VRBO makes it difficult to alter minimum stay requirements on their website? Maybe there are additional charges that VRBO imposes if you have longer stay requirments?  Or maybe it’s just flaky owners. Hoping a “better” guest will come around and stay longer at their property?

Have you used VRBO?  What were your thoughts?

How we Picked Shore Excursions for our Alaska Cruise

This entry is part 2 of 12 in the series Alaska Cruise 2015

After Ken and I booked our Alaskan cruise, we started researching the cruise excursion options.  As you can probably tell from our Caribbean Cruise in 2007 and our Mediterranean Cruise in 2010, we generally do a mix of independent travel and cruise-organized shore excursions.  We had read before that Alaskan Cruise shore excursions can be VERY pricey, so we wanted to make sure we budgeted appropriately, both for time and expense, and determine if independent options were more cost effective than the options offered by the cruise line.

Selecting Shore Excursions for a Cruise

To keep things organized, we developed a spreadsheet.  (Say Wha? Totally unlike us, right?  End sarcasm).  The goal was to help us identify the shore excursions that sounded appealing to us, and then to compare prices, departure times, and reviews of the shore excursions.  The spreadsheet contained 8 columns:

  1. Tour (shore excursion) Name
  2. Port of Call
  3. Code (this was the code designated by the cruise line.  It helped us differentiate between similar sounding tour options)
  4. Duration
  5. Cost Per Person
  6. Times
  7. Link to description of shore excursion on Princess’s website
  8. Link to online reviews we found of the excursion (mainly from Cruise Critic)

When we had time, we each went through the shore excursions being offered for our cruise, and added ones that sounded interesting to the spreadsheet.  This was great because we could each do it on our own time, and then take a look at each other’s additions, and see if we had any overlap (and sure enough, we did!)

This is what our spreadsheet looked like (well, for the first two ports-of-call anyway):

alaska cruise shore excursion options

 

We also had some general information at the bottom, such as the cruise itinerary and some links to third-party (independent) tour operators.

alaska cruise itinerary times

 

This was great for reference.  For instance, we could see at quick glance that if we did the “Misty Fjords Seaplane Expedition from 7:30-9:30,” then we’d still have time for another cruise excursion after that, such as the “Lighthouse, Totems, and Eagles Excursion” that would leave at 11:30AM.  (We didn’t end up doing that combination, but you get the idea!).  By having the duration and price listed, we could also get a quick idea of an “entertainment price per hour” to try and determine if something was worth the cost.  For instance, does a $99 excursion that lasts 6 hours offer a better value than a $250 excursion that only lasts two hours?  Of course, that’s something we looked into further as we narrowed down our options.

I’ve included a link to our spreadsheet, which you can then save as your own document in Google Docs if you’re looking for a template:

Spreadsheet to Figure out Cruise Shore Excursion Options

Although we didn’t do it in our spreadsheet, I can foresee other options that might be useful for this spreadsheet, such as color coding which entries were entered by which person (probably great for a larger group trying to organize cruise excursions), as well as coming up with a scheme, like maybe an additional column, indicating priority of which excursions sound REALLY REALLY great, and which ones might just be fun to consider if your schedule or budget allows.

Anyway, I’ll discuss which shore excursions we did for each port-of-call as my trip report progresses here on the blog.

 

How do you figure out what to do when you’re in a port-of-call on a cruise?