Category Archives: Explore Florida

everything you need and want to know about visiting florida meshed with some stuff you had no idea you should know about

Celebrating 238 Years With A Bang

It’s the perfect way to celebrate another year of glorious independence, fought for and protected by our brave men and women of the U.S. Military. We get our family and friends together, most of whom are in a food coma from whatever delicious concoctions we cooked up on the grill, and make our way to our favorite spots. And then – we watch things blow up. In the prettiest, most artful way possible. It’s a tradition we all love and look forward to every year. But with all the different shows going on during the week leading up to the actual 4th of July, how’s a person supposed to choose? We’ve got you covered – Here are some of the best fireworks displays from around Florida, sure to be can’t-miss events:

Northwest Florida:

  • Pensacola – 25th Annual Sertoma’s 4th of July Fireworks

Starting in downtown Pensacola in Seville Square, the festivities kick off at 11 am on Friday, July 4th. With everything from a kid’s area with pony rides, to a hotdog eating contest, to live band performances – you and your family are sure to be entertained all day long. The largest fireworks show on the Gulf Coast begins at 9 pm over Pensacola Bay!

  • Destin – 4th of July Extravaganza on the Harbor

With events from Thursday, July 3rd – Saturday, July 5th, this event is so much more than just (awesome) fireworks. Happening at Harborwalk Village, get in the spirit on Thursday with the Red, White and Blue celebration. Continue the fun on Friday with the glamorous WWII throwback Victory Belles – and a patriotic fireworks show at 9 pm! Finish off the weekend with a FREE concert Saturday night!

  • Panama City Beach – Pier Park 4th of July Fireworks

One of many fireworks shows happening this week in the Panama City area, this one is sure to offer everything you are looking for! Events start at noon with a military flyover, and bands will be rocking all day until the fireworks show at 9 pm! With a location right on the water, where could you go wrong?

Central Florida:

  • Tampa – Hogan’s 4th of July Waterside Fireworks & BBQ

A bit different than the other events, this one, hosted by Hulk Hogan and Jimmy Hart, will be held on Hogan’s Beach in the Tampa Bay area. From 2 pm – 11 pm, live bands and Djs will be rocking, and some of the best BBQ in the area will be served up buffet-style! Stick around for the beautiful fireworks show, set to kick off at 9 pm. Adults are $15 presale, $30 at the door. Kids are free!

  • Kissimmee – Monumental July 4th Celebration

From 5 pm – 9:30 pm, head to Kissimmee Lakefront Park for an evening of patriotic fun and a spectacular fireworks show! This fun-for-the-whole-family event features live music, a beer garden, food trucks and plenty of children’s activities. Admission is free!

  • Port St. Lucie – Baseball & Fireworks

If you want to throw a little competition into your day, then head down to Digital Domain Park for America’s favorite pastime. The St. Lucie Mets will take on the Fort Myers Miracle starting at 6:30 pm. Tickets are $8, and a can’t-miss fireworks show will follow the game!

South Florida:

  • Fort Myers – Freedom Fest Block Party

On Friday, July 4th, head down to the River District in Downtown Fort Myers for a patriotic block party to celebrate Independence Day! Starting at 5 pm, enjoy food, a craft beer tent, a kid zone, and five live music stages – including a performance by Rolling Stones tribute band, U.S. Stones. Fireworks are at 9:30 pm from the city pier.

  • West Palm Beach – 4th on Flagler

You won’t want to miss this FREE 16-minute display of the largest fireworks show in South Florida! Starting at 5 pm on Friday the 4th, join the fun on the waterfront of West Palm Beach for live music performances by The Lost Trailers and Ryan Star, a military salute, kid’s zone, and of course – FIREWORKS!

  • Key Biscayne – Parade & Fireworks

For some all-day fun, head down to 55th annual 4th of July parade on the key. The parade route runs from Harbor Drive to West Enid, and starts at 11 am. Bring whatever you’d like for a picnic in the park, kicking off at noon. Fireworks start at 9 pm!

Know of any different fireworks displays you think tops these? Let us know in the comments below!

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What Every Business Owner Needs to Know About Marketing

I get it. In the world of business ownership, much like the world of home ownership, it seems like the expenses never stop coming. You need to pay your employees, pay the rent, utilities, licensing fees, insurance, get products in the store, etc, etc, etc. So when you’re balancing the budget and trying to keep your checkbook from catching on fire, you look for things to cut. Typically, marketing is one of those things – seen as a luxury which would be nice to have, but isn’t realistic. And all those advertising salespeople ringing your phone off the hook just make you want to put your guard up and say “No, we’re not interested, we can’t afford it right now”.

What I want to say to you is why can’t you afford it right now? And before your guard goes up, I’m not a salesperson. So just think about why. Is it because sales aren’t going quite the way you thought they would? Or because you’ve spent money on everything else so you want to wait until some people start rolling through the door to bankroll an ad campaign? Don’t get defensive, these make sense. BUT, you need to adjust your way of thinking. Let me give you an example.

When you go to the store and buy a bunch of groceries, you know that money is never going to magically reappear in your checking account. Groceries are certainly a necessity, and are a lot more economical than eating out all the time, but the $100 you spent isn’t ever coming back. Now, think about when you buy a stock. You’re not buying it to eat or serve some other purpose, you’re buying it in the hopes that you’ve done enough research to be reasonably confident that the $100 you forked over will multiply and become $150 or $200 or more. So while you might subtract it from your bank account for the moment, the chance of that money coming back exists.

THIS is where most business owners go wrong when they think about marketing. Marketing is not like groceries – it’s like stocks. It is an investment made in your business that, if done well and through the right channels for your particular industry, should bring you a positive ROI. When business slows, marketing absolutely should under no circumstances be the thing that gets cut. After all, if it is designed to improve business and increase brand awareness, why would you get rid of it at a time of year when you need these things most? I get that you only have a defined amount of cash, but if you treat marketing like the necessity it is, then you can typically find other areas to trim to make the budget work.

Now, I’m not saying that you should suddenly buy into every single advertising opportunity that comes your way. You’d go broke real fast if you did that, considering how many different media channels exist and the fact that not every type of advertising is right for every business. But if you change the way you think about marketing, do your research, and work with someone who understands your company and who your target market is, then paying to promote your company won’t be a minus sign in your books for long.

Need specific advice? Have any particularly good or bad experiences with marketing you’d like to share? Let us know in the comments below!

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Go Fish

Fishing has got to be the greatest and most misunderstood sport of all time. It is fiercely loved those who have done it (and done it right), and completely judged by those who have not. Critics say that it is boring, consisting only of sitting around and staring blankly at the water, waiting for it to (maybe) ripple. But as we fishing enthusiasts know, this simply is not the case. As is the case with everything, it may not be for everyone. But more often than not, these critics have merely been done a disservice – taken out onto the water by someone who either did not know what they were doing or were too busy being awesome at it to share the wealth.

I’m going to assume most (if not all) of you reading this are already keen on fishing. However, if you’re not, or if you’re looking to get a friend, family member or reluctant significant other to give fishing a shot (or a second chance), here are some tried and true tips to take to heart to make your outing a success. Because as we all know, there need to be more “Gone Fishin’” signs hanging up in the world. It’d be a happier place.

  • Imagine You’re Stranded on a Desert Island

    We all know the old “what if” question – If you were stranded on a desert island, who or what would you bring? Not that going out fishing is quite so dramatic, but you’re going to be out in a generally serene environment with the person(s) you’re going with. So if you don’t think you’ll have a good time in their company, regardless of how many fish you do or don’t catch, you should probably go with somebody else. Find a good fishing buddy, and you’ve got a good foundation.

  • Do a Little Research

    So you’ve found the perfect friend. Now focus on the best part of fishing: catching a fish. Figure out where you’re going to go, and then find out what kind of fish are actually there. Is it well-populated? Do people generally have good luck? Is it saltwater or fresh water? Are you trying to hook bass or marlin? If you try to go out with the wrong bait, lures, pole, line, etc, you’re not going to catch anything, and you’ll probably have a lousy time.

  • Bring the Right Stuff

    Aside from the equipment we just mentioned, make sure you have everything else you need. If you’re planning to catch and release, great. If not, make sure you have coolers, knives, buckets, ice, etc. If you catch something great, you’ll want to keep it that way. And don’t forget to plan for yourself, too. Think you’ll want some chips, sandwiches, beer or sodas? Bring them! No one likes a road trip without the radio.

  • Learn to Adapt

    You may think live bait is disgusting or unsettling. But the fact is it works (in many situations, anyway) a lot better than the fake stuff. Like we said before, catching a fish is the best part of fishing. Increase your odds.

  • Enjoy Your Catch

    Don’t shy away or go to the nearest dockside restaurant that offers to cook your catch for you. Learn how to scale, gut, clean and cook your fish yourself. That might make you cringe, but get over it. That feeling you had when you caught it will be multiplied by 50 when you taste the satisfaction. Besides, plenty of fishermen have pictures of their catch in hand. Why not have that plus one of it on a plate and in your mouth?

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Taking “Long Distance” Off the Bad Rep List

For any of you who have ever planned a wedding, you know it is a LONG process filled with dozens of appointments, more email and phone correspondences than you probably want to count, and decisions on details you never even thought actually mattered (or existed). Now don’t get me wrong, all the planning and time is definitely worth it (if you can keep your sanity), but it is extremely and painfully understandable that the whole idea makes some couples want to just run off to Vegas and never look at another fabric swatch again. But before you go to that extreme, there’s another option: Destination Wedding.

You might think I’m crazy for having just said that, because it honestly makes zero sense that planning a huge, life-changing event like a wedding would be less stressful long distance. But hear me out. You’ve got tons of friends and family at home that want nothing more than to come to your wedding and support you. And while that’s wonderful, that’s also the cause of a lot of stress. The more people in attendance = the more planning you need to do, and on a larger scale. A destination wedding makes it very easy to say that it’s just going to be the two of you and immediate family (and maybe a couple of particularly close friends). And what’s more, when it’s completely impractical for you to go meet with a bunch of vendors and be physically present for every single detail, you can relax. Skype and picture messages suddenly become perfectly acceptable means of communication and approval.

And I haven’t even gotten to the best part yet. Florida business people and wedding planners have actually realized that coming here from all over for a simple, beautiful wedding is not a trend – it’s here to stay. So, it’s quite easy to find full-service wedding planners and coordinators who will take care of darn near everything for you. They find and book the venue, reserve a block of rooms at a reputable and near-by hotel, take care of all the decorations and flowers, find you an officiant or justice of the peace, take care of the music, cake and food… you name it, they do it. You might think just anyone can do this back where you’re from. But that’s unfortunately just not the case. If you’re working with a company and/or an individual who is used to working face-to-face with their clients and taking them around to places, they are going to find it quite trying and difficult to give you the same results when you’re hundreds or thousands of miles away. It’s just the way it is. On the other hand, many of the companies here deal mostly with destination weddings, and have found their niche in how to get you just what you’re looking for without ever physically meeting you (until the big day, at least).

Now, let’s talk budget. Another thing in favor of this Florida destination wedding idea. Like I said before, less people = less stress. But it also means less MONEY. It’s not unusual for a wedding to cost a couple hundred dollars per person in attendance. But aside from that, how fancy you want your venue and decorations to be will determine a lot of the rest. I know I’ve probably said this a hundred times on this blog, but the military is a good thing for you. Given the shear number of bases we have here, most wedding planners have worked with their fair share of military couples. Sometimes, they go the extravagant wedding route with the typical length of engagement (like my parent’s checking account will tell you I did), but more often that not, small and simple is the way they go. And on a limited budget. Which means that these wedding companies are quite experienced in pulling off beautiful events on budgets of literally all sizes. All you have to do is tell them what you have in mind, and how much money you have to do it with. It’s amazing what they’re able to come up with.

You don’t even have to stick to just getting married on the beach (although our beaches here are phenomenal and you really can’t go wrong). You can do a yacht wedding – think about how amazing it would be to actually be on the water; pick a theme park – yep, your chance to take a walk in the shoes of a Disney princess; or pick one of the countless really cool historical sites – the Sundy House in Delray Beach, for example, is crazy charming and has everything you could ever want.

So, de-stress, enjoy your moment, and don’t let the planning overwhelm you. Have input from your own Florida destination wedding? What more ideas of specific beaches or places to go? Need to know how to find a great planner? Comment away or catch us on Facebook (facebook.com/explorefl) or Twitter (twitter.com/explore_fl)!

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Who Cares About a Wedding?

First of all, I’d like to apologize for not posting anything for the last couple of weeks. As it turns out, almost single-handedly planning a parade with over 4,500 trinkets and beads to attach stickers to is WAY more time consuming than I could have imagined. Go figure. But, I am happy to say it was a TON of fun and there was a phenomenal turnout. Thanks to everyone who came on Saturday; we hope you had fun!

 

Now, on to the next thing!

 

So, it’s now March. And before any of you ask, I have NO idea how that happened. I’m still trying to process the fact that it’s 2014. Just like I’m pretty positive I only started complaining about it getting dark early like two weeks ago… only to have my calendar tell me that THIS coming Sunday is time to “spring ahead” already. Seriously? I mean, I’m excited, but I feel like the calendar in my head is about six months behind where it should be.

Anyway, what March means is that we are now dangerously close to wedding season. And especially here in Florida – where the scenery is beautiful, the weather is generally gorgeous, and there is seemingly no end to the miles of insane coastline – our destination wedding traffic is way higher than average. Now I understand a lot of you are probably not planning on getting married and are wondering why this is relevant to you. Don’t worry, I’m getting there.

Whether you’re the bride, groom, family member, friend, or completely unrelated in any way to anyone getting married right now, wedding season affects you. Maybe you’re a photographer, florist, decorator, dress or suit shop owner/employee, etc. Maybe you like the beach. Or maybe you just live here and go places and/or work somewhere. Any way you look at it, the people involved in these weddings will either be visiting your business for something related or unrelated, dining at the same restaurants you work or eat at, taking over the beaches and hotels you enjoy, and increasing traffic. Basically, at the very least, they’re bringing their dollars into your local economy and their presence into your world.

Now let me clarify: it’s hard to convey tone in a blog, so please know I did not mean any of that negatively. The end of the “winter” slump and the beckoning in of lively towns is a great thing, even if you don’t like the added traffic. And weddings are great! They bring lots of (generally) happy people into one place – something we have an unfortunate shortage of more times than we’d like to admit.

So why am I telling you all of this? Well.. this might sound bad, but I’m prepping you. I’m using this blog post to tell you about tomorrow’s blog post. And before I start writing that, I want you all to weigh in. How do you feel about wedding season? Have you ever been to or planned a destination wedding? Did you get married in Florida, or have you been to a wedding here? And finally… if you have experience with any of the former, who was your all-time favorite, saved the day, couldn’t have done it without them, vendor? Because if they’re that awesome, we want to to tell people about them.

So put on your dancing shoes (or flip flops), folks. Explore Florida is walking down the aisle (or beach sand made into a make-shift aisle), and we’d love to see you all at the end of it.

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X Marks Anything You Want

We’re not pretending to be doing anything crazy revolutionary or ground breaking here. I’d love to say that we are, but I promised not to lie to you guys. It’s not going to be the best thing since sliced bread – hopefully that title will be able to be saved for a healthcare system that actually works. But what it is going to be is a new spin on an old trick. Here’s why:

Every state has a tourism council that puts together a magazine/booklet/website that tells you why their state is the greatest thing to ever happen to America and why you should use your vacation time to visit them over anyone else. And I have nothing against these – heck, I’ve used these plenty of times. It’s always pretty interesting to find out the quirks and attractions about a state you may never have given a second thought. However, all these guides are generally pretty generic in who their audience is, and they all boast that they have been contributed to by born-and-raised locals. Now before I put my foot in my mouth, I have nothing against born-and-raised locals. The one place that I can claim that for myself, I will probably be more arrogant about my know-all than anybody. It comes with the territory of being familiar with a place to the point of having a list of 147 different back roads to take to avoid traffic or construction. That being said, there’s a certain advantage you get to having the insights of a transplant.

Explore Florida is a brand new (just launched on Friday 2/7) virtual publication about (drum roll)… Florida. Yep. Shocker. What makes it unique is that it is put out by my wonderful company, Military Media. Most of my co-workers have lived here a lot longer than I have, but only one of us are from here originally. Otherwise, we hail from Rhode Island, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Colorado, New Jersey, California, Texas, Honduras… the list goes on. Why is that a good thing? Because we have our local girl keeping us in check, but we get to take our extremely varied life experiences and form opinions about places some locals may have never thought of. And what’s more is that, as our name hopefully gives away, our roots are in the military. We are contracted by bases all over the country, and everything we do is in the interest of pro-military. So while Explore Florida is definitely useful and user-friendly regardless of your military status, it was designed with the mindset of fun things to do on a day-long or weeks-long leave.

Now that I have talked your ear off – here’s what we did. Explore Florida is basically a virtual magazine – the pages are designed for you to “flip” through. The home page showcases our five main sections – fun, food, lodging, shopping, and transportation – as well as Florida-related articles by yours truly, links to our social networking sites, and links to some of Florida’s great businesses. Pay special attention to the social networking links. We want to be different, and your input will help. Explore Florida is going to be a constant work-in-progress. We’ll be adding more businesses, pages, topics, and articles all the time. Using the social network links to share with your friends or give us your feedback will help make this thing as much catered to you as possible. And wouldn’t it make you feel important to have all these people here creating content just because you said so?

Now, if you click on one of the five section links, you’ll find a magazine-like intro page. Click on one of the links to check a place out, or click on one of the three colorful logos on the bottom left to explore an entire region at a glance. These logos will be your guide throughout. Here’s your key:

  • Blue Dolphin: North Florida
  • Green Palm Tree: Central Florida
  • Pink Flamingo: South Florida

We know we’re not exactly the smallest of states, so we wanted to help you out. If you’re as Florida-illiterate as I was about a year ago, you’ll thank us for this.

So click away, check it out, and give us your input! Like I’ve said before, we’re a small enough company that we can make things happen pretty quickly – so speak up! Ideas, thoughts, comments, concerns, questions… we love ’em all. Happy exploring!

http://www.xploreflorida.com/

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Beachin’ Ain’t Easy

Ready to have your mind blown? Are you sitting down? Ok, here it goes…

Florida has great beaches.

Actually, that’s an undersell. They’re some of the most beautiful in the world. And yes, I know you’ve heard that. But no matter how common knowledge it is that people come here to lounge on the sand and play in the water, you’d be lying if you said you didn’t want to know more about it. As someone who has spent most of my life on one coast or another, I know just being in a town surrounded by great beaches doesn’t mean you’re going to find that great beach. My all time favorite beach back up where I’m from in Narragansett, RI is one which is off the radar unless someone tells you about it. I promise, you won’t find it on Google.

While I may not be willing to give up that secret, I’ve been compelled to give you the inside scoop on each region’s must-visit beach here in sunny Florida. Some might be hidden gems, some might not be hidden at all. But I promise, take my advice and you won’t leave disappointed that you didn’t find what you’ve spent months imagining in your head. Grab your sunscreen, folks.

North Florida:

James Lee Park

Destin

This beach is about as good as it gets. While you really can’t go wrong with a Destin beach, this one is my favorite. It’s a little ways of a drive from the bridge and down Scenic 98, but it’s well worth it. Trademark of this area, you are almost certain to find crystal clear, blue-green water and powdery, white sand beaches. The beach is kept up very well and seeing trash on the ground is few and far between. There is ample parking, convenient pavilions and picnic tables, and several dune walkovers that allow for a great view. The beach will get busy in the summer months, but I have never seen it to the point that there isn’t hardly any room to move. The water is perfect for surfing, paddle boarding, skim boarding, body surfing, snorkeling, etc. And when you get hungry or could go for a good libation, there is a local seafood restaurant right on the beach with a tiki bar and open-air deck. It is quite literally the perfect beach to lose track of the time on.

Central Florida:

Maximo Park

St. Petersburg

St. Pete is a treat in and of itself, but this beach is really something to talk about. Aside from the beautiful, soft white sand beach characteristic of the Gulf Coast, crystal clear, warm water and litany of water-related activities, this place has it all. First of all, it has seven boat ramps – things which are for some reason shockingly tough to find. Second of all, it has beachside, covered playgrounds for the kids, picnic areas and restrooms. But what makes Maximo Park really unique are all the extras that give you an unexpectedly fun break from basking on the shoreline. Bring a bike along and take advantage of the trails, or talk a walk along the nature trail and enjoy some of life’s simple beauty. For you history buffs, there’s a 70-acre archeological site to take advantage of. I won’t spoil the story for you, but Maximo Park has an intriguing backstory that most won’t find themselves yawning through. And then there’s my personal favorite non-water attraction – the 18-hole disc golf course. For those of you that haven’t played, it’s not necessarily easy, but it’s fun regardless of how terrible you may or may not be. And to finish it all off, take a hike to the top of the 50-foot observation tower that will help you soak in all the beauty and excitement you just experienced.

South Florida

Sombrero Beach

Marathon

This hidden gem on the Florida Keys island of Marathon may not have all the bells and whistles of the other beaches we’ve covered, but it is worth a day of your time. This is one of the most pristine, unspoiled beaches you will find anywhere in the world. Not your usual white sand beach, picking up a handful will reveal to you what makes it unique. You’ll find interestingly shaped grains, shells and characteristics of the special environment that exists in the area’s warm waters. Speaking of the water, it is calm, warm and almost unbelievably relaxing. Lay down on a raft for a bit, and watch in amazement of what is around you. You’ll see dolphins playing, unusual fish swimming the world below and people with a level of enjoyment on their faces you just don’t see anywhere else. There is a playground for the kids and an expansive stretch of land that won’t leave you feeling claustrophobic. Sombrero Beach is not filled with vendors, however, so bring a cooler and plan accordingly. Even if you always need action and to be on-the-go, take a chance on this beach. I promise you won’t regret it.

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Ever Get Directed to the Hardware Store When You Wanted an Ice Cream Parlor?

Assuming you’ve moved to a new region or gone on vacation, you’ve probably experienced what I like to call “the head tilt” (you probably just tilted your head there, didn’t you?). This is when you ask a question that seems perfectly simple, but the person you are asking tilts their head and looks confused, as if you’ve just randomly decided to start speaking Russian.

Far more sly than accents that are obvious and well-known, you are a victim of your lingo. If you’ve bounced around a lot, you’re used to this. But if not, there are a few things you should know that are giving you away as an “outsider” and confusing the new people you’re talking to.

You may choose to do what you wish with this information. I, for one, might be a little obnoxious and stuck in my ways, and continue to use my messed up New England vocabulary no matter where I live. What can I say, it’s built in and I love it. But, I know as soon as I say something that I might have to explain it. Or, you can choose to rule it out altogether to be nice and allow people to better understand you. It’s your call. But it might be fun to bring a little culture to wherever you go.

Kicking off this series is your New England translation guide. The first word is what a New Englander would say, the second is what the rest of the English-speaking world would understand. We’ll do a different region next time. Between my lovely co-workers and myself, we’ve lived in just about every part of the country – so I promise, it’ll be accurate (even though the call to mess with you guys is kind of tempting).

Note: For those of you using this to find out what other people have been saying, if any word below ends in “er”, replace the sound with “ah” to pronounce it correctly.

  • Bubbler → Drinking Fountain

I’ll never forget the horror on my eighth grade, Texas teacher’s face when I asked where the bubbler was.

  • Wicked → Very

Pretty commonly known, but this wouldn’t be complete without it.

  • Bureau → Dresser

Try shopping for furniture when you move… it’s an experience

  • Cabinet → Milkshake

Seriously, the housewares shopping thing. Nightmare

  • Downcellar → Basement

More of a directional than a place. If you left something in the cellar (sella), you left it “downsella” (spelling is accounting for the accent). But, you wouldn’t say “My house has a downsella”. That’s just wrong.

  • Grinder → Sandwich/Sub

Also more commonly known, but necessary.

  • I’m all set” → I’m good / I’m fine

This is accepted in some regions, but will get you a lot of weird looks in others.

  • Jimmies → Sprinkles

You gotta get the rainbow jimmies on your ice cream cone.

  • No suh!” → No Way

I really thought this would be self-explanatory when I first started moving around… but it wasn’t

  • Packy → Liquor Store

Another one that is used in a couple of places, but will get confused looks in most others.

  • Regular Coffee → With normal amounts of cream and sugar

If you were hoping this would get you coffee with the perfect amounts of cream and sugar, you’re out of luck. You actually have to say “coffee with cream and sugar”. Black coffee is regular coffee. And if you want your coffee “extra extra”, you actually have to say “with extra cream and extra sugar”. I know… it’s the worst. I’m still trying to train my local Florida coffee shops on the right (New England) ways of ordering.

  • Side by each” → Side by side

Yep, we just like being different

  • Stuffie → A Stuffed Clam

Instead of a beyond delicious appetizer, you will be given a stuffed animal in other parts of the country. Or more likely, you will be given a look telling you you’re crazy if you ask for this in a restaurant, like I imagine you would be.

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There Is No Hotel Deal Fairy

It has to be one of the most Googled phrases in recent travel history: how to book the best room for the best rate. And while I wish I could say I hadn’t wasted my time doing this… a lot… I have. And the outcome is almost always one of two things. Either the information is completely useless and makes searching “cheap hotel rooms” seem like a revolutionary, Nobel prize worthy idea; or the results are achieved by nothing short of calling out sick from work for two weeks straight, developing a masterful spreadsheet, and probably getting put on some sort of government watch list. But don’t worry, you’ll get the room five dollars cheaper per night (maybe).

So, in response, I’m going to try to give you my version of it. Part of me thinks this is futile, but the other part of me tells me this: I’m better with technology than your average person, but I’ve also had to teach people how to use it. I work full time and I work on a Master’s degree part time. And I will fight you if you think I’m going to waste time doing anything else when I could be watching football. Why should you care? Because that means I’m not going to suggest something so painfully obvious your great grandmother would know to try it, or something so complicated you need a doctorate in engineering to do it. I’m also not going to suggest things that “ain’t nobody got time for”. I welcome your criticism (or loving praise) after you read this.

  1. It’s already time for the tough love.

No matter how good you are at this, how far in advance or last minute you’re looking, or if it’s a Tuesday and the weather is bad – you are not going to get a stellar deal every time. Sometimes, all your tricks and research just lead you to the sad realization that the cost is what it is. But hey, at least you know you’re not getting ripped off by whatever hotel or site you book through.

  1. Analyze your circumstances.

Ask yourself a few key questions before you start looking. Is your trip soon or in the distance? Do you need a specific neighborhood or will anything in the general area do? Do you have the funds to pay up front, or do you need to be able to pay when you check out? Is your trip flexible enough that you’re comfortable booking something the same day you want to check in? These are all important questions, and I will address them in the “Tips” section at the bottom.

  1. Use more than one website. But don’t go crazy.

I know, there’s websites like Kayak and Priceline, as awesome as they may be, that insist you only need to search their site to find the best price. But only trying the deal sites just tells their marketing departments that they’re as brilliant as they think they are. I generally pick one deal website, and then Google something like “hotel specials February 7-9 in Fort Walton Beach”. Sometimes, a coupon or something will pop up. More often, though, I get a big old list of hotels across the top of the page. And now, I compare. Go through your deal site and try to find a price you like. If you don’t see one, find a hotel you like that might be more money than you’d like to spend, but isn’t so far gone you can’t find a better deal.

  1. Compare Simply.

Baby steps here. Let’s assume you’ve now picked a hotel or two (or three or four) from the deal site. Next, go to the hotel’s website itself and run a search. Sometimes, the deal site is better. Sometimes, it’s the same. But other times, you might find that if you select a AAA rate or military rate (from the search box when you’re typing in your dates and number of people…typically in a drop down menu or under “advanced search”), the price ends up being lower than the deal site. Think about it: the deal site can’t assume everyone booking qualifies for a discount. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Refer to point #1.

  1. Compare Creatively.

Don’t get stuck in a rut. I know you’re probably thinking I’m breaking my time rule here, but the above two steps shouldn’t take you more than five minutes (ten if you’re researching a lot – but you should save that for the end). Quickly skim through and cross reference the deal site’s list with your Google list. Just like Southwest Airlines tickets can only be purchased from their own website, not all hotels allow deal sites to work with them. When you see some on Google that you didn’t on the deal site, do a new search for that hotel. Here’s the best part: quite often, since the hotel is not participating in a deal site, they’ll have some pretty great deals. Especially for multi-night stays.

Tips:

Now that I’ve given you some ideas, back to those questions I asked you to evaluate in point #2. The best way for you to treat the following bullet points is like a matching quiz in school. Figure out what applies to you based on your answers to the questions, and then take my advice accordingly.

  • If you’re in a situation where the deal site and hotel site are the same price, consider this: deal sites require full payment up front and are rarely refundable; direct hotel sites typically do not actually charge you until check out and have pretty lenient cancellation policies
  • Monitoring the price of a hotel you like over a period of time can typically lead to a decreased rate. If you see it drop, grab it.
  • Many hotels have last minute deals. I don’t mean the week before, I mean the same day you want to check in. You can use the hotel site, deal site, or an app like Hotel Tonight
  • Unless you really can’t afford a hotel at the initial price you find it, don’t play the bargain game if it’s going to really put you in a bind to stay anywhere else
  • Pick up the phone after you’ve found a hotel you like. The vast majority of the time, their best deals are online. But some offer secret promotions you’ll never find out about if you don’t call and ask

The bottom line here is establishing your priorities, then doing what you need to do to achieve them. There might be a lot of stuff here, but if you ask those key questions first, you shouldn’t need to spend more than 15-30 minutes finding the best deal possible for you. Any tips or tricks of your own? Post them here and share the wealth!

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Truth or Dare (But It’s Really Just Dare): Airport Edition

The idea of traveling is really exciting. That’s because when we are planning a trip, we tend to think of all the great things we’re going to do once we get there: where we’re going to go, how relaxed we’re going to be, how tan we’re going to get… It’s wonderful. So wonderful that we often forget about the necessary evil required to get to that vacation – the airport.

Unless you almost never fly or are the world’s luckiest person ever, you’ve had the misfortune of dealing with a long layover, a delay and/or a cancellation at least once. Or basically every time you’ve flown, if you’re anything like my sister. I’m willing to bet you’ve tried the usual time-passers: Facebook obsessively, live Tweet about your boredom (some lady just sat down next to me…. great she smells funny… awesome she has terrible taste in music and even worse headphones), watch shows or videos on your phone, listen to music, read a magazine, get a drink at the bar, stare into space, strike up a conversation with a stranger you wish you hadn’t…. blah blah blah. And what makes all this worse is that you feel like you’re stuck with these mind-numbing options because, let’s face it, the airport isn’t exactly the place to do daring, out-of-the-box things. Unless you feel like hanging out in interrogation and spending some time on the “no fly” list, that is.

Well, lucky for you, I have spent more time in an airport than I would like to admit – a misfortune that has allowed me to create a pretty reliable list of things to do when you’re bored at the airport. A list which I have decided to share with you. Just remember, like I said, airport officials aren’t big on having a sense of humor in the workplace… so amuse at your own risk.

  • Greet passengers at a random gate as they disembark the plane.

Stand to the side of the door, and be a little creative. Say things like “I knew you could do it”, offer high-fives, or try to start a slow clap and see if it catches on.

  • Become a character.

Grab a seat at the gate or at the bar and start talking to a stranger. But don’t do this like you normally would. Invent a completely different personality and back story for yourself that seems ridiculous. See if they believe you.

  • Make a baggage claim sign.

Use a generic last name, like Johnson or Clark. Then just stand by baggage claim, holding it up and see if someone approaches you.

  • Work out.

This could be a legitimate way to get some circulation going. Or, you could be fun and get really into it. Stretch out, sprint around the moving sidewalk, do crunches, use water bottles as dumbbells – the more ridiculous the better.

  • Go on a scavenger hunt.

You can do this whether you’re alone or traveling with someone. Make a list of things: the most absurd thing for sale in a gift shop, the least practical novelty shot glass, someone dressed like they forgot they were going into public, a pay phone (good luck), etc. Happy hunting!

  • Walk backwards on the moving sidewalk.

This is one of those “do at your own risk” things. Trust me, it’s fun. But not everyone thinks so.

  • Pick up an accent.

Try out your accent skills while talking to a stranger. See if they call you out on it.

  • Try to figure out who the Air Marshal is at each terminal.

It’s harder than you might think.

  • See if you can talk your way into an airline club lounge.

Challenge accepted.

 

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