Winter Beach Break on a Budget: Road Trip to a Caribbean Cruise.
I don’t think I need to explain to my readers from either side of the Atlantic why we all absolutely NEED middle of winter beach breaks. What I would like to share with you is that it is possible to do it on a budget, at least for those of us who happen to live within a day’s drive to Florida. Which gets us to the first important subject of:
With a high-schooler in our family of four, we can only travel during “high season” school vacation time. Our answer to extortionate air fares? A ROAD TRIP! We have taken a road trip from Boston to Florida some 12+times, and while it is NOT for the weak of heart (or for those with especially “unruly” offspring), it CAN be done. We started doing it before the kids, continued with our firstborn Den, and, with the exception of one winter when Vi was a baby, have been carrying the tradition with now two kids. So here are our tried and true bits of “road trip” wisdom:
1. Going Straight. Having tried to break the trip into different length driving segments, we decided that it’s easier for us to take a 20+hour drive in one shot (with a couple of small stops), rather than to spend the night or two in a road side motel. There are of course several historical and culturally rich areas for an interesting overnight stop (Washington, DC, Charleston, Savannah, to name some) – which we have enjoyed, but they all require somewhat of a de-tour. For the middle of the winter beach break- we are more of the DESTINATION people than TRIP people. It takes us about 20 hours start to finish to drive to Orlando and about 24 hours to Miami. Stopping in Orlando first for a day “in the parks” and then driving for another 3-4 hours further to Miami has also worked well.
2. The 7 day Rule. To make it all worthwhile the little challenges of the road, we try to spend at least 7 nights in the warmer climates. If we start on a Friday afternoon and come back the following Sunday, it is possible.
3. Night Driving. We drive at night so kids can sleep through a substantial portion of the trip (making sure, of course, that the main driver, Vit, has slept for a couple of hours prior to taking the wheel). Driving at night usually also means no traffic delays.
4. Play with Food. We pack a LOT of food. Sure, it’s convenient so we don’t have to stop for hungry kids in the middle of nowhere or eat highway junk, but it also becomes a source of entertainment for big and small travelers alike. We pack individual lunch boxes with sandwiches and veggies and lots of other snacks and fruits to munch on.
5. Just Play. It goes without saying that we pack variety of entertainment options: books, toys, movies, and allow a certain amount of e-games time. This year we even splurged for an i-pad data plan so Mom could watch the Olympics. One special activity that Vi and I enjoy doing is arranging the pictures into photo albums- it could occupy us both for at least 3-4 hours of the trip. (In fact, Vi didn’t even get her first photo album until after our first road trip with her).
6. Did I mention that we drive an 8-passenger minivan (for the 4 of us)?
This year we drove from our Boston suburb straight to Boca Raton and stayed in a luxurious Boca Beach Club for 2 nights (courtesy of our Hilton Honors credit card points program). We then took a 5-day Carnival Victory Cruise out of Miami. For the 4 of us sharing an ocean view cabin (we probably could have gotten two cabins for same price) – we paid around $1,500. For those new to cruising, the price covers pretty much all the food and non-alcoholic drinks (there are some non-substantial exceptions), as well as cruise entertainment. If cruises are arguably the most affordable family vacation, Carnival’s are definitely in the hot spot for the honor of being named the cheapest of them all. And yes it could get crowded and you may encounter people from all walks of life (after all, you are not the only one wanting to get to the beach on the budget!), but we did manage to have a relaxing winter beach vacation on the budget and that was the goal.
Now, having taken 8+ Caribbean cruises over the years, here is my advice on how to have a fabulous time while on a budget cruise:
1. Choose Wise. Since our goal is to maximize the beach time, we tend to choose shorter cruises that get us to the beach every day. With a longer, 7-8 day Caribbean cruises you will typically get a newer-bigger ship that will get you to further out Caribbean destinations (i.e. St. Martin or Aruba) but you may have to spend half of your cruise time at sea – getting there. This year we took a 5 night cruise with 1 day at sea and 3 marvelous beach days at Turks and Caicos and Bahamas. Another consideration when choosing a cruise is your preferred activities once at the destination port, which gets us to the next point:
2. Research your Ports. Not all Caribbean ports are created equal: some will give you the best snorkeling opportunities in the world while others will offer plenty of easily accessible beach choices (the two do not always combine). Do your research ahead so you know which beach you will go to, how much you would have to pay for taxi fare, or, if that is your preference, which excursion offered by your cruise or another travel company (like Expedia) you will take. And if all-day swimming and relaxing at the beach is what you are after, the best Caribbean beach day by far has been on the Half Moon Cay in the Bahamas (it’s owned by Holland America but Carnival cruises stop there as well). There, you swim and relax (or take a nature walk) without having to think about (or pay for ) the taxis, food or beach chairs. And there are always footprint-free beach areas further away from the docks.
3. Take advantage of the onboard kid CAMP – we ALWAYS do and never feel guilty about it. Cruise companies typically offer a high quality age-appropriate programs of activities for kids 2-17 yrs old which allows you to spend alone time with your spouse almost any time of the day while you are still on your family vacation. On our recent cruise, we shared breakfast and beach time together as a family , while for dinner kids gathered at the Camp with their friends. The programs run until 3am every night. Our 4-yr old Vi was getting too tired by 10pm, but teenager Den was going strong until 1 in the morning. While it is not especially difficult to engage 4 yr olds with dances, games and crafts activities, i am very impressed how they manage to keep the teens happy and wanting more.
4. Get to Know your Ship: better yet, do it prior to boarding time – so you could select a cruise with bigger cabin size for your buck. You do not spend a lot of time in the cabin, but there is still a minimally acceptable size needed for the four of you to get going in the morning. As we discovered, Carnival happens to offer one of the largest cabins at the sea (220 sq. foot for our ocean window cabin) while Norwegian’s are probably the smallest. It also pays to learn that your ship may offer adults-only sun deck relaxation areas (aka “Serenity”, offered at all Carnival cruises we took). My other favorite spot was on the upper open deck away from the pool-centered crowds, looking out onto the sea (and occasionally- into a book).
5. Plan your day. While it is tempting to take a break from planning on a cruise, I do enjoy looking at the daily schedule of activities every evening and try to plan our “all-together”, “us”, and “me” time. A quiet time on the open deck with your book (while not on the beach) is always an option, but Broadway style shows, dance classes, disco theme nights, game shows, standup comedy and yoga classes – are well worth at least a peek.
6. Eat in Style. I suggest that if you are a picky “atmosphere” drawn eater like myself, you should plan to take most of your meals in the main dining rooms and avoid the buffets. Kids may find the buffet lines quicker and child-friendlier (so take them there before your nice meal), but eating in the main dining room offers just so much more- for breakfast, lunch or dinner (think 5-course meals of snails, lobster tails and soufflés, all covered in your cruise fare).
7. Do Account for hidden expenses. There are tips, of course, (about $10 per person per day charged to your account at the end of the cruise); you may also need cash for taxis to the beach or excursions. There may also be a beach access fee. While it is possible to find and enjoy a free public beach at almost all Caribbean destinations, we splurged a little for $25 per person day passes at one of the hotels on the islands. Also note that while food is free in main dining rooms and buffets, there could be some specialty restaurants or espresso shops for a small fee, and alcohol is also extra. (Carnival does allow you to bring a couple of bottles of wine on board (they charge a nominal corkage fee to serve it to you in the dining room). We also brought water bottles to take to the beach.
8. Take your friends. The cruise is a great vacation to take your easy going friends with- those that you would enjoy having long dinners with every day and yet feel easy enough to part with to do your own thing or excursion during the day.
I am not sure about you, but I can hardly wait for next fall to start booking my mid-winter beach break! (Don’t take me wrong- I am really looking forward to the summer, but… you know what I mean).