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!

Alaska Cruise 2015 – Trip Report Introduction

This entry is part 1 of 12 in the series Alaska Cruise 2015

 

I’m starting a new trip report today all about our June 2015 Alaskan cruise.  Our trip also included a day in Vancouver and two days in Seattle, which I’ll cover in the trip report as well.  Our out-of-pocket costs on this trip were limited to paying for the cruise.  Our hotels in Seattle and Vancouver, our flights, and a train ride were all covered by points.  Man I love this hobby!

Booking the Cruise

This part didn’t require much work on my part.  We’d be cruising with my sister and her family (her husband, her 9-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter), as well as my dad.  My sister, a VERY avid cruiser with probably 25+ cruises under her belt, had identified a cruise line and itinerary that offered a fairly decent deal.  The cruise would depart in early June, meaning that prices were a less expensive than what they would have been in mid-summer.  The cruise was scheduled to depart just two days after her son’s last day of school, so it really worked out!

We booked a 7-day roundtrip Alaskan cruise on the Ruby Princess.  The cruise would include stops in Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway, and Victoria, British Columbia.  On the day we would arrive in Juneau, the cruise would transit the Tracy Arm Fjord area, which, although not a “stop,” is definitely worthy of viewing from the ship!

alaska cruise itinerary

 

We opted for a mini-suite with balcony onboard the Princess Ruby.  Our Caribbean cruise in 2007 had a balcony, which we loved, but on our Mediterranean cruise in 2010, we opted for no balcony in order to save some money on the cruise.  We regretted our decision to not have a balcony on that cruise, so we definitely wanted our own balcony for this Alaskan cruise.  My sister booked the same type of cabin.  She and I booked cabins on the same deck, but on different sides of the ship.  That way if we were passing beautiful scenery on one side of the ship only, we could all pile onto one balcony inside one of our cabins!  For our dad, we booked a handicapped-accessible room on the same deck.  It didn’t have a balcony, but it was an “obstructed view outside cabin.”  I’ll be doing reviews of both the mini-suite with balcony, as well as my dad’s accessible room, in future posts.

We booked the cruise in November 2014, about 7 months prior to the sailing, but then it became a little worrisome about whether my dad would be able to go.  Luckily we had all added cancellation insurance to our cruise, but obviously the point was that we all wanted to go on vacation!  My dad broke his hip in February, but doctors were optimistic that he’d be healed enough by June to go on the cruise.  Then, just a few weeks after getting out of rehab from his broken hip, he ended up hospitalized for a month in April with pneumonia.  He was put on a ventilator because he was unable to breathe on his own.  (After my dad was better, doctors told us just how close to death my dad really was.)  He had to go back into rehab at the end of April after his hospital stay, and it was really uncertain whether he’d be better in six weeks to depart on a cruise.  All that previous physical therapy on his repaired hip had been undone by a month-long stay in a hospital bed.  So, he not only had to recover from the pneumonia, he had to work that hip all over again.  And luckily he recovered beautifully just in time!  In fact, staff at the rehab facility said that the cruise was probably a good thing, because it gave my dad a goal to work toward.  “I have to be healthier and stronger by June to go on that cruise with my family!’

 

Getting to the West Coast

Our cruise was departing Seattle, so first I needed to figure out the best way to get us from Washington, DC to the Seattle area.  Flights from here to Seattle are nearly as long as getting to some European destinations (about six hours), but the flight options aren’t nearly as fancy.  I explored both coach and first class options.  Alaska Airlines offered nonstops from DC to Seattle, but holy crap the flights were expensive.  I can’t recall exactly, but I think they were in the ballpark of $600 roundtrip for one coach seat!  Ouch.  There were some frequent flyer options available for both coach and first class, but they included some annoying and ill-timed connections.  (A six hour layover at DFW anybody?  No thanks!)

And then it dawned on me!  JFK to Vancouver!  The famed Cathay Pacific flight that continues onto Hong Kong after its stop in Vancouver.  Beautiful business and first class options.  I searched on British Airways for availability, and there were plenty of business class seats!  No first class, but that was just fine.  I had read previously that seats on Cathay First tended to become available as the flight date approached, so I’d just keep checking back.  (Spoiler alert … read the full review post later on to see if First Class seats ever became available!)  I booked two seats in Cathay Business Class for me and Ken using British Airways Avios points.  We redeemed 50,000 Avios (25,000 points each) plus $55.40 total.  Now that sounds like a great way to get to the west coast.  Cheap and comfortable!

british airways flight

british airways redemption

 

To get to New York for our Cathay Pacific flight, I used more British Airways Avios points to book a short-hop flight from DC to New York.  Unfortunately the Avios options were all for Laguardia Airport, and the Cathay Pacific flight was departing New York JFK airport.  However, a $40 taxi ride from LGA to JFK would be far cheaper than paying out-of-pocket for two tickets from DC to JFK.  9000 Avios and $11.20 for two coach seats from DCA to LGA.  Can’t beat that!

dc to lga redemption avios dc to lga avios redemption

For our return flight, we redeemed American Airlines AAdvantage miles for two first class seats from Seattle to DCA (Certainly not the best use of miles, value wise, but it was worth it to us, especially since we didn’t have any other near term plans for AAdvantage miles).  It included a connection in Dallas, which was definitely not ideal, but it was the best we could do without being out-of-pocket a ridiculous amount of money.

Aadvantage redemption

 

Getting from Vancouver to Seattle

So, we were ending up in Vancouver, and our flight was leaving from Seattle.  A small inconvenience for experiencing Cathay Pacific!  My original plan was to just stay at an inexpensive hotel near Vancouver Airport, and then drive the following morning to Seattle (our flight wasn’t arriving in Vancouver until like 12:45AM, so I didn’t want to start driving so late at night.  But there was one issue.  Rental cars were INSANELY EXPENSIVE.  A ONE DAY rental from Vancouver to Seattle was going to be $199 CAD (About $150 USD.)  I swallowed my pride and made a reservation, but I couldn’t help but think that there had to be a better, and cheaper, way.

And lo and behold, there was!  I came across the Amtrak Cascades option!  I had read that it was a very picturesque way to get from Vancouver to Seattle, and much more relaxing than a drive.  Even though we have Global Entry these days, the line at the Canadian-US border crossing can get very long, so the train seemed like a good option to minimize the delay as well!

For just 4000 Amtrak Guest Rewards points (which I transferred from Chase Ultimate Rewards), we were able to get two business class seats on the Amtrak Cascades line.  (I should point out that Amtrak Guest Rewards has since altered their redemption chart, so the points needed for the Amtrak Cascades line has likely changed).

amtrak redemption

I am SO thankful that the rental cars were expensive, otherwise I probably would’ve never done additional research to find out about this option.  I can’t wait to give the full review, but it was so gorgeous!

t t t

Of course, I’ll have more pictures (LOTS more pictures) in the full review post.

 

Hotel in Vancouver and Hotel in Seattle

The hotels were the most straightforward part of our booking!  I booked the Westin Grand Vancouver on a cash rate.  (I’d later redeem Barclays Arrival Plus points as a “rebate” for the expense).  Since our train wouldn’t be leaving until the evening, we’d have some time to spend in Vancouver, so I wanted to stay in the city instead of our original plan of staying near the Vancouver Airport.

For our Seattle hotel, I chose a Hyatt property. I had two free nights from my sign-up bonus for the Chase Hyatt Credit Card the previous year.  Since those would be expiring within a few months, we went ahead and used them for our two nights at the Grand Hyatt Seattle.

 

Whew!  It was a lot of fun booking this trip.  Stay tuned for all the individual posts!

Planning a trip to Disney Orlando Next Year

I grew up going to Disney fairly regularly.  My parents bought a trailer in Orlando when I was just 3 years old, and that, coupled with the fact we flew for free (because my dad worked for an airline), we went to Orlando quite a bit.  They were able to get Florida resident discounts on Disney tickets thanks to the trailer, and I was very lucky to be able to go to all the Florida Disney parks a lot.

We’d always just show up at Disney, get into the park, and well, ride the rides.  But now it seems like it’s getting a lot more complicated!  Apparently you can’t just “go” to Disney anymore.  It takes a lot of preparation and planning!

The last time I went to Disney World was in 2009.  My nephew was turning 3, and my sister wanted to take him to Magic Kingdom for a “Character Breakfast.”  

disney

Before that 2009 trip, I probably hadn’t been to any Florida Disney Parks since 1997-ish.  (I had gone for a very short trip to Disneyland in California in 2007 when my sister wanted to take her son there)  

But, I’ve been tempted to go to Disney again recently.  In particular, I’m interested in the Epcot Food and Wine Festival.  Not necessarily for this year, but maybe in 2016.  I had also seen on other random sites and blogs talking about things like “Disney Dining” and how important it is to make dining reservations six months before your trip.  

Wait a sec.  Dining reservations at DISNEY??  What happened to just walking into their cafeteria style establishments, or grabbing a Monte Cristo sandwich at that one restaurant?  (Seriously, that was my mom’s favorite sandwich ever.  The Monte Cristo from Disney World).  And fast passes?  What are those?  And what do you mean those things have to be reserved well in advance of the Disney visit too?

Or, have these things always been around and I just never paid attention to them?  

I started to do some digging.  And, by “digging,” I mean Google searches. And digging is a stretch, because it really wasn’t hard to find.  At all.  Because this is BIG business and apparently everyone on earth knows about it but me.  

Alas.  

All this to say, I want to plan a trip to Disney.  Probably two days at Epcot for the Food and Wine Festival in Fall 2016, and maybe one day at MGM studios.  

 

How I’m Starting to Plan our Trip

Fall 2016 is a seemingly long time away, but based on what I’ve been reading, I need to get planning ASAP.  

Here are some random stream-of-consciousness discoveries I’ve made in the past few weeks:

  • I know that Disney is expensive, but wow, I really didn’t know the range of hotel options available on Disney property.  Ranging in the low $100/night range, all the way up to like $700 per night.  Of course, the more expensive properties caught my eye because they look really impressive, but there’s no way I’m spending that kind of money on a hotel!  

But then I discovered this thread over at Reddit.  The person indicated that they do “DVC rentals” and save a lot of money on the “deluxe resorts” at Disney.  I commence googling “DVC rentals” and find that people who buy into Disney’s timeshares (called the Disney Vacation Club) can offer “rentals” of their timeshare weeks and properties.  (I realize that I’m vastly overgeneralizing the process, but I’m just trying to convey the idea here: discounted hotels from people that own timeshares.  It seems like a great deal to save money on a high end property at Disney! I did some “dummy” searches on a few sites that specialize in DVC rentals, and discovered that it was about half the cost for the deluxe Disney properties compared to booking directly through Disney (and several of the deluxe properties are only available to DVC members).   

  • Staying on Disney property affords you many benefits, like access to dining reservations earlier than those folks not staying on Disney properties, extra time in the parks, and free transportation from the hotel to the parks.  So, although there are MANY points options for hotels in the Orlando area, I feel like it’s worth a cash expense to stay at a Disney Resort.  (For what it’s worth, there are two hotels on Disney property that you can redeem points for, the Dolphin and Swan, but I wanted to stay at some of the nicer Disney hotels).  
  • I need to do a LOT of additional research on what restaurants at Disney!  Granted, we plan on going during the Epcot Food and Wine Festival, so that will take care of our dining for a good chunk of our visit, but if we go to MGM or another park such as Magic Kingdom, we’ll need some dining reservations there!
  • I want to figure out what hotels would be the best options.  If we’d be spending the majority of the time at the Epcot Food and Wine Festival, it seems like it would make sense to stay at a resort close to Epcot, like Boardwalk Villas or the Beach Club Villas.  But wow, places like the Animal Kingdom Lodge or the Wilderness Lodge certainly look awesome!

 

Park tickets

During our trip in 2009 to Disney, Ken and I actually bought a six-day ticket with no expiration (For what it’s worth, it sounds like Disney doesn’t even offer the no expiration option anymore).  It seemed silly at the time, but the way we saw it, we weren’t going to LOSE money on the deal.  Disney prices only increase, so we essentially locked in at 2009 prices and can use the subsequent days at any point in the future.  We only used one day of our ticket, so we still have five days left on our ticket.  So, we don’t have to worry about spending money on additional park tickets during our visit next year.  However, I am a little worried about how this will work for things like Fast Pass, since you have to link your tickets to your Disney account.  If you were buying tickets for your upcoming trip, that seems like a pretty easy process, but I have no idea what it will be like to link a 7-year-old ticket to our account!  

 

Maximizing discounts and cashback options

Although we won’t have to buy park tickets, we’ll still have other various in-park expenses, such as food and souvenirs.  I’ve read about this technique, where you can buy discounted Target gift cards, then use those gift cards to buy Disney gift cards online at Target, which are subsequently discounted 5% if you have a Redcard (even if you’re paying with the Target gift cards.  And if you open a Disney savings account, they give you a $20 bonus gift card for every $1000 you deposit in the savings account (and the Disney gift cards can be used to load the savings account).  However, I’m not sure if we’d do the Disney savings account part, because I doubt our in-park expenses will be more than $1000, but I’ll have to do some estimates!  

I also want to figure out how reservations made through various DVC rental sites are categorized.  If they’re categorized as travel expenses, then that means I can use a card like my Barclays Arrival Plus or a Capital One Venture Card to basically get a rebate on those expenses after paying up-front.  But if they’re not categorized as a travel expense, then I’m not sure what my other options are.

 

I’ve been getting so excited about learning all these new things and planning our trip that I’ve actually suggested to Ken that we invite his sister and her family.  Our niece would be 7 by next fall, and if she doesn’t get to Disney soon, I’m afraid some of that “magic” might be lost on her!  Because, let’s be honest.  Although Disney has some pretty cool things that cater to adults, it’s nothing compared to what they have for children.  When I ride “It’s a Small World,”  all I see is cheapo styrofoam covered in glitter.  But, riding that same ride next to a niece or nephew and watching their eyes light up!  SO MUCH COOLER.  

 

Have you been to a Disney park recently?  What planning did you do?