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Unique Family Vacations

Tired of the same old family vacation plans? I may get some flack from my friends for this statement but my feelings on going to Florida for every vacation is that it is “home with sand.” I still have to go grocery shopping and endure the proverbial “Where do you want to go for dinner? I don’t care, where do you want to go?” only to go out and wait over an hour for mediocre food that cost a fortune. I still have to worry about my teens, waiting up for their curfew and wondering how to entertain them and keep them safe all at the same time. You see what I mean now – home with sand!


Then there’s the problem that the older kids want to be with their friends, which I understand. We have had our fair share of memorable Florida vacations, but I also feel a strong responsibility to educate myself and family on the beauty of our country as well as the rest of the world. Every time I have made the vacation decision because “I am the one paying for it” my kids said it was their best trip ever. Even when we go to Florida it is their “best trip ever” so I am lucky that my family loves to travel and appreciates seeing new cities, sites and cultures.  So what are some of my suggestions for alternatives?


All-Inclusive Resort Destinations

An all-inclusive resort can provide the ultimate stress-free vacation. The relaxation begins with budgeting since a resort’s up-front price can include airfare, ground transportation, accommodations, all meals, snacks, gratuities, sports and other activities, nightly entertainment, soft drinks and “adult beverages.” An all-inclusive resort also removes logistical headaches – those “where to go, what to do, how to get there” discussions – that can be so exhausting. Once you arrive there’s no need to leave since everything is right there on property, including the teens! However, if you want to explore you can visit the ruins in Tulum, Mexico, the great waterfalls in Ocho Rios or see the amazing cliff divers on the West Coast of Mexico.
 
All-inclusive resorts can be found around the world. Many  are anchored by a tropical beach with the more popular family resorts in Cancun/Rivera Maya area, Punta Cana and Jamaica. To simplify life even more there are a few suppliers that offer direct charter flights to a few Caribbean and Mexican locations out of Nashville and Cincinnati, allowing you to get to your destination within two hours and thus making this type of travel even more appealing.


Family Land Tours in the US and Europe

There are several tour companies that focus on family travel, mixing in authentic travel experiences that intrigue the younger ones while still making it a fascinating trip for the whole family. Every element is created for multi-generational families. Of course there’s family hotels and child-friendly dining, all designed to take away the hassle so you can enjoy your time together. But there are also a unique collection of exclusive family vacation experiences created to suit everyone from children to grandparents. Insider moments like joining gladiator school and making pizzas together in Rome, meeting Costa Rica’s sea turtle experts in Tortuguero National Park, and learning how to hula and make flower leis in Hawaii are what bring families together and create lifelong memories.


Mixing entertainment and education, we have family experience vacations in Europe, USA, Canada, Central America, South America and South Africa. Tours can be divided into two broad categories: escorted tours and independent fly-and-drive tours with a few hybrids that combine a little bit of structure and free time.


There are many different itineraries available. For example, an eight-day whirlwind can take in Amsterdam, Germany’s Rhineland, the Swiss Alps, Paris and London; or, a leisurely 24-day tour of Great Britain can show you cities and countryside from London to the Scottish Highlands to the west of Ireland, and on to Wales and Cornwall. Or you can stay close to home and visit the national parks, take a train trip across the Canadian Rockies, drive along the California coast or head up to Alaska and visit one of our largest national state parks, Denali, to ride on a dogsled and pan for gold.


London is a Fun, Historical Experience

Graced with historical treasures, modern attractions and incredibly diverse landscapes, languages and cultures, Europe is a fabulous destination to explore via land tour. A wide variety of itineraries are available to match your interests and your preferred style of touring. One of my suggestions for first timers taking their kids across the pond is a trip to London. The capital city of England is a great place to introduce children and teenagers to a European family getaway because they do not have to struggle with a foreign language, yet still get immersed in a very cultural, historical and fun experience.


Since London is frequently featured in children’s literature and movies, you may want to get your youngsters familiar with the city’s major landmarks before your trip by showing them classic Disney movies such as Mary Poppins, Peter Pan or more recently, Harry Potter.


The Trafalgar Family Experiences trip to London includes visits to top Harry Potter attractions in London, such as the magical train platform 9 ¾ and the red telephone booth where Harry and Mr. Weasley descend into the Ministry of Magic. Outside of London, Trafalgar’s Castles and Kilts itinerary takes families to Oxford University’s dining hall, which served as the inspiration for Hogwarts Hall.


As you embark on your next great adventure, I leave you with this quote:
The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.” – St. Augustine

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River cruising: A new way to explore the world!

Last month I touched on one of the hottest and most exciting trends in travel and since it is an emerging marketplace I wanted to share my experience and expertise on river cruising. I was first introduced to river cruising several years ago at a company meeting and found it interesting, but felt it may be more suited for me in the future. You know, when I get into those retirement years. However, luck stepped in as I was awarded a complimentary Rhine river cruise in 2012 and my perception quickly changed.

Before my husband and I set out on our Rhine river cruise, I was already what you might call an “experienced cruiser” with the admitted preconceived notions and expectations about river cruising. It only took a few short days to make me realize my notions were way off base and only seven days to convert my husband and me into river cruise fans filled with a number of unexpected experiences.

There’s No Such Thing as Waiting

River cruising has spoiled all other forms of travel for me. With the exception of sailings aboard luxury cruise ships with low passenger counts, nothing is as easy as embarking and disembarking on a river cruise. There are also no large passenger terminals to queue up in. You simply walk onboard, exchange some information and you’re issued your keycard in a flash.

Scenic Views & Docking

There is nothing like “floating” down the Rhine River on the top deck, sun shining, sipping on a local Riesling wine as you sail through spectacular scenery dotted with fairy tale castles, or cruising past the evening lights of Budapest on the Danube. River cruising has the views that make the “river days” highlights of the trip. However, once you get to the next town on your itinerary, the disembarkation process is hassle free. Just grab a card from the ship hotel desk – which simply shows them you stepped off the ship – and return it upon your arrival. No lines and no swiping cards. It’s simple! Not to mention when you dock you are in the middle of a quaint town with cobblestone streets, incredible history and a story to tell, which leads me to the next unexpected experience. 

You Can Wander

Guided shore excursions are available at each port. I highly recommend going on them for their history and insights. However, there is typically time to spare at each port and there is nothing better than wandering off to explore the ancient buildings and architecture, ducking in and out of shops, and then topping the day off with tastings from a local restaurant or pub. Some river cruise ships have a small fleet of bicycles for guests. We formed a “bike gang” with other cruisers and made it a point to stop along the way to contribute to the local economy.

The Locks of the River

Admittedly, I had no clue about locks, the tide of a river, or how the boats traveled up and down. This was one of my husband’s more anticipated points of the cruise and he was not disappointed. Our first lock we went through was in the wee hours of the morning but since I am a night owl I graciously woke him, as I knew he wanted to experience the locks and didn’t want him to miss our first one. I was amazed at how the boat grazed the side wall of the lock as I could touch the wall from our window. The next locks were during normal hours in which we could see the mechanics of the operation as we maneuvered in and out of the locks.

A Few Itinerary Details

The major destinations for river cruise enthusiasts are Europe, Southeast Asia and China, Russia and Ukraine. The great rivers of Europe, which are the most traveled of all the rivers – the Danube, the Rhine, the Main, the Moselle and the Seine, to name a few – present a multitude of options for river cruises. From Paris to Prague, Amsterdam to Basel or Vienna to Budapest, a cruise of Europe’s interior will feature stunning scenery, marvelous traditions and modern attractions.
Southeast Asia’s Mekong River runs through Vietnam and Cambodia. Stops along the way may include Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital, and My Tho, a busy river port near southern Vietnam’s capital, Ho Chi Minh City. Along the way, you’ll sail past rice fields, jungles, floating markets, remnants of the days of French colonization, and much more.
A cruise of China’s Yangtze River provides insight into many different elements of Chinese culture. Port calls may include Jingdezhen, which has a centuries-old pottery industry; Shibaozhai, home to a 12-story temple on the banks of the river; and Fengdu, a city that dates from the Han Dynasty. Many itineraries include a side trip to Xian, where thousands of life-size terra cotta warriors guard the resting place of Emperor Qin Shi Huang.
Cruises of Russia’s Svir and Volga Rivers can take you from Moscow to St. Petersburg, stopping to explore provincial villages along the way. On a cruise of Ukraine’s Dnieper River, you can discover the palaces, monuments and history of Kiev, Yalta, Sevastopol and Odessa.

Our New Found Love of River Cruising

The combination of the items above – the food and wine from the local region, exploring quaint towns with rich history, local entertainment that comes onboard at each port – coupled with a small passenger count that allows the staff to get to know you by name are just a few of the reasons that we fell in love with river cruising. There are so many defining features of river cruising, including the vast number of river cruise companies and boats that I highly recommend you seek an experienced travel professional to ensure smooth sailing!

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2014 Top Cruise Destinations

Tired of the typical vacation? Why not try a cruise?  January through March is known as “Wave Season” for the cruise industry, which historically is the timeframe that most people book their travel plans for the year.  Cruise Lines compete for these bookings by offering their best extra values and/or discounts. 

With so many deals out there how do you know you are getting the best value for your vacation? It may not come as a surprise when I say: call your local travel agent. Allow me to explain.  If you contact any cruise line their goal is to put you on one of their ships. Period.  If you contact a professional travel agent, we take time to ask you questions, which allows us to then match the best cruise line that fits your wishes.  Not only will the travel agent be looking to match you with a specific cruise line, ship and itinerary they often times have special discounts and/or bonus offerings that are not offered to the public, all the while researching the best deals. For example, our agency has a unique program called Distinctive Voyages, which includes more than 300 voyages with offerings not available to the public.  In most cases, there are no additional charges to use a travel agent, so there is nothing to lose (except all those hours spent doing your own research)!

                   “HOT” Destinations for 2014: Book Early for Best Deals and Availability


The top three destinations have not changed for several years with the Caribbean remaining as the undisputed leader for travelers. There are three basic Caribbean itineraries: Western, Eastern and Southern Caribbean. 


Next on the list? Europe. I have had the pleasure of cruising around almost every continent and Europe is at the top of my list! From the history, to the architecture, amazing scenery and of course the incredible food along the way are just a few of the reasons a European Cruise should top your bucket list! Europe offers a terrific range of cruise possibilities from sunny ports along the Mediterranean coast, like the Italian and French Riviera, to the scenic islands of Greece. They’re all rich with abundant natural beauty, intriguing historical sites and fabulous beaches.

 
Rome is at the top of the long list of historical gems in Europe with ruins and history on almost every corner. It is hard to convey the feeling as I entered the Sistine Chapel – Michelangelo’s greatest accomplishment – or the chill as I stood in the middle of The Coliseum, finding myself immersed in thoughts of Julius or Augustus wandering these very corners; of course they all looked like Russell Crowe from the movie Gladiator in my mind’s eye. Alas, you cannot go to Rome without throwing a coin into Trevi Fountain assuring your return back to this historical wonder .  Venice, Barcelona, Monte Carlo, Athens, Istanbul, along with others can all be seen on one Mediterranean cruise depending on the itinerary. 


Northern Europe cruises are also gaining in popularity, especially to cities such as Oslo, Copenhagen, Stockholm, and Helsinki, along with St. Petersburg, Russia, which is often grouped into these voyages. However, some Northern European cruises focus on sailing the spectacular fjords of Norway’s North Sea coast. Others begin or end in the British Isles, where you could visit Inverness, Edinburgh or London.  The Northern Europe itineraries are only available in the summer, so if this is on your bucket list book early or you may be disappointed with many sailings selling out months in advance. 

 
River Cruising has taken own a life of its own and is another reason for the gain in popularity of European travel.  There are many advantages to a river cruise besides allowing you to visit the interior cities, but one of my favorites was the ease of getting on and off the ship. I loved that I could take the organized tour which is included in the price, come back to the boat, grab a complimentary bicycle and go back into the town to explore the narrow streets, shops and restaurants. 
With the rise and interest in River Cruising, there have also been a lot of changes in the river boats.  Gone are the days of simple boats that are all basically the same. Today’s River boats have become very distinctive with each cruise line and ship having its own personality, advantages and disadvantages .

 
Alaska comes in as the third “hottest” destination for 2014.  I have to admit the first time I took a group to Alaska I was not overly thrilled.  I figured it would be cold, raining and heck once you seen one glacier you have seen them all…right? Wrong! Watching and listening to the Hubbard Glacier (which is a 300 foot high wall of ice) as its pieces break off or “calve” is truly awe inspiring. Couple that with seeing humpback whales, the best salmon you will ever put in your mouth, train rides, the thrill of seeing wildlife such as eagles, beers, caribou, sea lions and a wide variety of birds, I quickly came to realize why Alaska always ranks high among travelers.  The towns are diverse, each with its own history and character. One of my favorite excursions on any cruise was in Juneau.  Juneau lies beneath a glacier, we took a helicopter to the top of the glacier,  we interacted with mushers and then had the unique opportunity of “driving” a dog sled. I highly recommend adding a land package to your Alaska cruise to visit places like Denali National Park, which encompasses more than six million acres and the highest mountain in North America, Mt. McKinley. With Alaska’s short season, this is another cruise that you must  book in advance.

                                                                                Catch the Wave!


Whether your bucket list includes the top 3 or not, now is the time to book to get the special Wave promotions. Remember, a travel agent will be your advocate for the value and quality you want for your travel.

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#rivercruising
#amawaterways

When we arrived in Budapest yesterday everyone commented about how impressive the city is. We explored all day and then the ship did an evening cruise to view the city at night - the bridges and buildings were beautiful all lit up! Great job AMA Waterways!

#rivercruising
#amawaterways

When we arrived in Budapest yesterday everyone commented about how impressive the city is. We explored all day and then the ship did an evening cruise to view the city at night - the bridges and buildings were beautiful all lit up! Great job AMA Waterways!

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#rivercruise
@amawaterways

Toured Budapest today, the Danube divides the city - Buda on one side and Pest on the other. I have now had Hungarian goulash in Hungary.

#rivercruise
@amawaterways

Toured Budapest today, the Danube divides the city - Buda on one side and Pest on the other. I have now had Hungarian goulash in Hungary.

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#rivercruise
@amawaterways

Toured Vienna today, city of 1.7 million people. City Hall building at night was very impressive. Toured Schoonbrun Palace, 1441 room royal palace of Franz Joseph - a lot of windows to clean! Headed to Budapest, Hungary tomorrow.

#rivercruise
@amawaterways

Toured Vienna today, city of 1.7 million people. City Hall building at night was very impressive. Toured Schoonbrun Palace, 1441 room royal palace of Franz Joseph - a lot of windows to clean! Headed to Budapest, Hungary tomorrow.

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#rivercruise
@amawaterways

Cruising the Danube headed to Vienna after leaving Melk. Enjoying the spectacular scenery along the way. Going to a Mozart / Strauss concert as Vienna is the city of music.

#rivercruise
@amawaterways

Cruising the Danube headed to Vienna after leaving Melk. Enjoying the spectacular scenery along the way. Going to a Mozart / Strauss concert as Vienna is the city of music.

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#rivercruising
@amawaterways

Day 4 of our Danube river cruise brought us to Melk, Austria where we visited the Melk Abbey, one of world’s most famous monastic sites.

#rivercruising
@amawaterways

Day 4 of our Danube river cruise brought us to Melk, Austria where we visited the Melk Abbey, one of world’s most famous monastic sites.

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#rivercruising
#amawaterways

Toured Salzburg Austria today on the 3rd day of our Danube river cruise. Birthplace of Mozart and site of the wedding of Georg and Maria von Trapp, whose story was the inspiration for The Sound of Music

#rivercruising
#amawaterways

Toured Salzburg Austria today on the 3rd day of our Danube river cruise. Birthplace of Mozart and site of the wedding of Georg and Maria von Trapp, whose story was the inspiration for The Sound of Music

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#rivercruising
#amawaterways

Toured medieval Regensburg, Germany today on the 2nd day of our cruise. Stonework on this building dates back to 79AD  built by the Romans. City center is a 10 minute walk from the ship with something for everyone - historic architecture, shopping and of course sausages & beer!

#rivercruising
#amawaterways

Toured medieval Regensburg, Germany today on the 2nd day of our cruise. Stonework on this building dates back to 79AD built by the Romans. City center is a 10 minute walk from the ship with something for everyone - historic architecture, shopping and of course sausages & beer!