Central America – Cancun to Havana,Cuba

Central America – Cancun to Havana,Cuba

Cancun – After a quick breakfast at the hotel, we went for a wander to look at the markets and the Plaza del Toro where the bullring was. Although it was getting on for 10 am the market stalls were only just starting to open, so we had a quick browse but didn’t find anything appealing at this stage. The walk down to the bullring crossed a few very busy roads with traffic all seemingly fairly orderly although quite busy. The bullring looked vaguely familiar as we approached it as Jeff and I had actually gone to see a bullfight back in 2000 when we were last here. We didn’t remember it being a closed roof ring back then, but these days it seems they use it for a lot of events and performances – perhaps the bullfights are not held too often now. We climbed to the second level to see if we could get a glimpse inside and were very lucky to find one of the doors open as workmen were carrying out some repairs. They didn’t seem to mind that we stepped inside to get a quick photo.

From here it was back to the hotel making a circuit around the block, stopping for a quesadilla along the way ready for our 12 pm shuttle pick up. The shuttle was 20 minutes late when we asked reception to call them for us. There was a problem apparently because we booked less than 24 hours in advance (their people did not mention this at the airport when they took our money). The call centre guy said that we could take a taxi and then get a full refund for the shuttle at the airport, or he could send a shuttle but it would be another 20 minutes. We didn’t want to be any later getting to the airport so we opted to take a taxi and try and get a refund.

Once at the airport, we wanted to get checked in for our flight to Havana as we had to organise our Visas and there were crowds of people at all counters so we wanted to join the line as quickly as we could. As it turned out, there was no need to go to the Cubana Air office for the Visa, there was a man in the check-in queue who was writing the Visas as we waited in line. We wondered how this was all going to work before leaving Australia, but it was so laid back and casual, we needn’t have had any concerns. Once the Visas were completed, we just paid him the US$25 or 250 Pesos and proceeded in the check-in queue. We had realised that morning, that we didn’t have a print out of the Cubana Air tickets so we hoped we could check in without our itinerary – and we could, all that was needed was our passports making this whole process so straightforward.

Then we decided to try and get our refund for the shuttle, and after a bit of asking around as to where the company were located at this terminal, this proved pretty straightforward as well. So, with refund complete we went through to departures, expecting quite a delayed process but were pleasantly surprised as it was just a passport and boarding pass check and we were on our way.

The Cuban flight all went smoothly and coming in to land there were views across the island of very green farmland woven like a patchwork with different crops and vegetation. The airport was a lot more modern looking than we would have expected both outside and in the terminal, and so much busier than we had anticipated. There were a number of flights that had just landed around the same time as ours from London. Paris, Moscow and Canada as well as ours from Cancun. This made for an extremely busy immigration area and a very long wait for us all to get through. We spent over two hours in the immigration line, with the officers processing people one at a time, no family groups or couples together. The officer we had spent a long time looking at our passport stamps, then asked if we had been to Africa (we had last year) and wanted to know if we had been to any of the Ebola-affected countries (we had not) and did we only have one passport (so we weren’t lying about the African countries visited).

Once we were through immigration the baggage collection and exiting was relatively painless, although we had a bit of a wait for our three suitcases to make it onto the carousel – surprising they weren’t already there as we had been off the plane for more than two hours! It was then on to getting money changed and a taxi to our reserved Casa in Havana. The arrivals area was teaming with people, with both ends having entry doors which had large crowds eagerly awaiting the passenger arrivals.

There were no clear signs as to where a money change place was located, so Jeff went scouring the terminal, eventually locating an office outside. Whilst he change our English Pounds and Euros into Cuban CUC’s, the kids and I waited with the bags and asked at the information and tour desk about getting a taxi and the approximate cost. The lady at the tour desk said she could call and book a taxi for us whilst the lady at the information desk said we could get one out the front of the terminal. Both advised the cost should be 25 CUC, which was handy to know as when we walked out the front, the taxi driver quoted 30 CUC and we could barter down to 25 CUC as that is what they quoted inside. He accepted that and then we gave him the 5 CUC extra as a tip at the end of the journey.

We thought that we would be getting in an old style taxi but were surprised to see a lot of modern looking official yellow and black taxis as we left the terminal. There were a few old style vehicles there and quite a few old Russian Lada cars operating as taxis, but definitely, the more modern taxis dominated which we hadn’t expected. Our taxi was one of the official yellow and black vehicles. No metre was used as we had agreed on the price before departing.

Our Casa in the centre of Old Havana was found easily by the taxi driver and there was no haggling over the cost of the journey. Our driver pointed out a few sites as we passed in the dark and with our limited Spanish we managed to pick up a few things he was saying. The roads from the airport to the Old town were all in very good condition, with most being two or three-lane freeway-style and the traffic was very light for the whole journey and drivers were very orderly.

There was a sign in the doorway for the Casa we had booked and when the lady answered there was a little confusion as she didn’t seem to have our reservation, but once she looked at the emails we had with us, she realised we were at their other location, next door! Once she had buzzed the intercom, we were met at the door by Emilio – the lady who we had been emailing. After a very steep climb up a long and narrow marble staircase we entered a very chic open sitting area oozing old world charm with antique furniture, mirrors and very modernist artwork adorning the walls. The high ceilings with ornate plasterwork really added to the sense of grandeur. We were shown to our rooms, one right next to the sitting room with a double bed and the other two rooms away with two single beds. Both had an ensuite, albeit very basic, but they were very clean and comfortable with hints of the sitting room old world charm, such as elaborate chandeliers as the main room light. We were given a quick tour of the casa and shown the kitchen for breakfast the next morning. We had ordered a dinner for our first night as this was an option and we figured we would be arriving a little late – this seemed to have got lost in translation and it was too late for them to prepare something for us. This actually worked in our favour, as we were only two blocks from the main thoroughfare where there were a number of restaurants and the Cuban culture tends to eat out quite late so these were all open at 8:30.

After a quick re-pack of our bags putting all our valuables into the safes provided in our room, we headed out with just enough money for dinner to start our exploration of Havana streets. The side streets all seemed to be under repair as we made our way to the restaurant area. There were enormous holes dug up everywhere with pipes exposed and a strong gas smell in places and you could hear the distinctive beat of the Cuban music pounding out from rooftops, open windows and bars.

On the main street, every restaurant had employees out trying to entice in customers as they passed by. We went to one of the first that offered a set menu, which included lobster, rice and vegetables, dessert, coffee and a cocktail to start – all of this for 10CUC (approx. AU$10). This was such a good deal, so we decided to eat there and two of us had lobster, while the kids had chicken and pizza. Whilst the food was not sensational, you could not fault the great value and the lobster was pretty darn tasty! With full bellies, we returned to the Casa ready to rest up before our day of exploring Havana.

That night, Jeff was sorting out the Cuban money he had changed at the airport and he realised looking at the receipt for the English Pounds that the lady at the airport had shortchanged him by 20 Pounds. She had only written 280, not the 300 he had given her on the receipt. He had thought that it was a little short with the total she had said it would convert to, but thought it may have just been a bad exchange rate at the airport and as she was counting it out really fast, he was focused on the total written on the receipt and checking she counted those notes correctly, rather than checking the finer detail. So, we were short around 30 CUC – we will see if she is working at the change booth when we fly out in a few days and see if we can confront her and get our money back. I don’t like our chances, but it is worth a try and at least we may make her think twice about doing this to someone else in the future (I imagine it is probably a very regular occurrence as everyone is trying to make an extra buck here!).

Next post: Havanna Sightseeing Days – For any details on travel to Central America contact us now – julie@juliewarnertravelplans.com

Cook Islands – Escape to Paradise

Cook Islands – Escape to Paradise

The Cook Islands is a collection of 15 islands in the heart of Polynesia mid way between Tahiti and Tonga. Cook Islands travel is centred mostly around Rarotonga, the main population centre with the international airport. Rarotonga has high

Rarotongan Resort

Rarotongan Resort

volcanic mountain peaks covered in tropical rain forest and lots of small beach resorts. Aitutaki is a small island 45-minutes flight to the north with attractive beaches and a beautiful lagoon and is the only other frequently visited island by tourists. Of the other islands, Atiu is good for eco tourism and has a few guesthouses. The Cook Islands is a self-governing dependency of New Zealand with its own parliament but uses the New Zealand currency.

Rarotonga is the largest Cook Island being 67 sq. km in size – its population of 11,500 live around the coastal road. Here there are plenty of small beach resorts ideal for families and couples, and lots of self catering bungalows and vacation homes for more independent travellers. The tourist infrastructure is well developed with some excellent day tours, good independent restaurants and a reliable transport network. Rarotonga’s main attractions are its lovely beaches, tropical mountain trails and laid back Polynesian lifestyle. Snorkelling is good along the south coast and there are several scuba diving companies with reefs being ideal for beginners and holiday divers.

IMG_4382 Aratunga Harbour, Aitutaki Aitutaki is the only other tourist centre, a 45 minute flight from Rarotonga. It is a lot less commercial and ideal for honeymoons – stay here a couple of days and you’ll feel       totally submerged in island style life. The villages are charming and although it lacks tropical mountains, the beaches are lovely. The main attraction, however, is one of the finest lagoons in the entire Pacific with good snorkelling and day cruises to the tiny uninhabited atolls where the beaches are exquisite.

Traditional dance performances is one of the icons of Polynesian life. Erotic hip swaying movements and upbeat drumming has come to resemble the archetypal Polynesian person – aesthetic and extremely seductive. Cook Island dancing is performed regularly at the resorts and there are several colourful competitions each year that are well worth experiencing.

 

Country Facts
Total islands: 15
Total land mass: 236 km²
Capital: Avarua
Main Island: Rarotonga
Int’l Airport: Rarotonga
Population: 18,000

Language: English, Maoris
Tourists: 80,000 per year
Accommodations: 60
Money: NZ$

Travel Highlights
1) Muri Beach, Rarotonga
2) Aitutaki Lagoon Cruise
3) Traditional Dances
4) Beach Bungalows
5) Fine Handicrafts
6) Cross Island Hike, Raro
7) Saturday Market, Avarua
8) Black Pearls
9) Sunday Church Service

10) Limestone Caves, Atiu

Happy Travels

Julie

For all your travel requirements to the Cook Islands – Call us: 02 8850 4908 or E: julie@juliewarnertravelplans.com

Central America Trip – Sydney to Cancun

Central America Trip – Sydney to Cancun

First time for us flying on the Qantas A380 for our first leg Sydney direct to Dallas, Texas where we had a few hours layover heading to Cancun, Mexico. The 15 hour flight

Travel Money

Travel Money

went fairly quickly for all of us as we caught up on much needed sleep after the last few hectic weeks with holiday preparations, work and social commitments leading up to the festive season. Having time to catch up on some movies from the past year was also enjoyable as we never seem to make it to the cinema to see any of the latest releases.

At Dallas airport we were able to get into the American Airlines lounge where we passed away the hour or so we had after eventually getting to the correct terminal via the sky train (Dallas is one huge airport!). The American Airlines Dallas to Cancun flight was just under two hours long and all went smoothly with the arrival into Cancun airport going without a hitch as well as no problem changing money as well as organising transport to our hotel.

We ended up booking a private shuttle which was a little more than a taxi but the same cost as a shared shuttle for the four of us and they gave us a 50% discount for the return journey the next day. We paid in full for this return journey and were taken direct to a van for the 20 minute drive to the hotel in downtown Cancun. As we were only staying for the one night, arriving after 8pm and departing at lunchtime the following day, we didn’t feel it was worth paying considerably more to stay at a beach resort as we would have no time to enjoy the water activities anyway.

Our hotel reservation was all ready for us, the hotel Xbalamque Spa & Resort looked appealing from the entrance with lots of traditional Mayan painting to make it look like one of the pyramid interiors. Our room was as many of the reviews had commented, fairly old, a bit dated and very simple. It was all clean and the two double beds were more than adequate for the one, short night stay. After a bit of toing and froing, we managed to get the air conditioner remote so we could control the temperature (it seemed to be missing from our room) and an extra two towels, we were all sorted.

The hotel reception recommended a good restaurant just two blocks away and the kids were very keen for some traditional Mexican food. The restaurant did not disappoint, we had a huge selection of Mexican fare covering our table with everyone enjoying them all. There was a lot of atmosphere with the Marriachi band coming around playing tunes, a guy dropping enormous sombreros on our heads for a photo opportunity (returning later for us to purchase the developed photos in a frame or stuck on a bottle of tequila) and just the whole cantina décor really made you feel like you were in Mexico.

With bellies full, it was time to head home for bed so we could get up and explore a little of the city centre before we departed the following day.

 

Top 4 Budget Travel Errors

Avoid these top 4 Budget Travel Errors when you are planning your next trip away and turn them into money saving tips!

  1. Not checking all airport options

Failing to check smaller, nearby airports for your destination could mean you pay significantly more for flights. A second airport could be a further 30 minutes away from your destination, but may save you hundreds of dollars if time isn’t critical for your trip. Many cities are served by more than one airport so make sure you know all your flight options before booking your next flight!

  1. Mismanaging Frequent Flier Points

One of the most common mistakes people make is using points for relatively short trips which often regularly have special priced fares making it much cheaper to purchase these conventionally and save your points for longer, more costly flights. Also, not keeping track of points that may expire, people often loose large blocks of accrued points by not knowing when they expire. Know the length of time your Frequent Flyer program allows you to keep points to maximise the benefit of your hard earned points

  1. Looking Only at Hotels

There are so many more economical accommodation options available these days. Major hotel chains often charge a premium because they can. Hostels have come a long way and many now offer private family room options. Consider apartments or home swaps for longer stays (also saves on meal costs as you can prepare some of your own!). Other options are: B&B style options where families rent out rooms in their houses, cabins in camp grounds around popular tourist towns, universities/colleges often rent dormitories when out of school term times, convents or older historical buildings have sleeping options as well. There are many quirky accommodation options available at reasonable costs so do some research before you book for your next trip and see how much money you can save.

  1. Overpacking and Overpaying for bulky baggage

These days with many airlines charging for luggage, it is very costly if you over pack for your trip from the outset and you pay even more on the return once you have all your souvenirs. Heavy luggage may restrict you taking cheaper ground transport if bags can’t fit or are too bulky to manage on shuttles, busses or trains and will make it exhausting work to carry bulky bags up many flights of stairs which many budget accommodations seem to have. If you take these few points into consideration when planning your next holiday you should see some good savings. These you can put into the next holiday fund or treat yourself with some extra shopping whilst away! Happy Travels Julie

Using Shoulder Seasons to Book the Best-Priced Holiday

Using Shoulder Seasons to Book the Best-Priced Holiday

 

Perfect in shoulder season - less crowds!

Perfect in shoulder season – less crowds!

Like a delectable chocolate treat, shoulder season is so sweet. Sandwiched between the painfully high prices and overwhelming crowds of the high season, and the often miserable weather of low season. Shoulder season is the perfect time to travel. Typically, hotel rooms are cheap, crowds are thin, and the weather is mild. You’ll notice a warmer welcome, too, when you travel off-peak. Locals, who may grow weary of crowds in peak season, have time to relax in shoulder season. For instance, an afternoon in early May is an ideal time to linger at an outdoor café in Rome and people-watch, before the summer tourists descend.

No significant shoulder seasons fall within January, February, July, and August, but prices drop immediately after the holidays in January.

But shoulder season for Paris doesn’t fall on the same dates as shoulder season for Tokyo. So here’s a shoulder season calendar for some of our favourite destinations for easy reference:

January

Mid: North Africa. The Christmas travel crowds are gone and the weather is warm.

March

Early: Hawaii

The big waves have subsided, along with the winter beachgoers; resorts are also bringing down rates. Through May

Early: Rio de Janeiro

Carnival has come and gone, which means hotel rooms are easier to find and less expensive (by as much as 60 percent).

Mid: Ireland

It’s warming up and wildflowers are beginning to bloom; a perfect time for exploring the countryside. Through April

India: Hotel rooms and airfares are lower if you can locate these between celebrated holidays.

April

Early: North American Rockies and European Alps

Late-season skiing is still excellent in high-altitude destinations like Whistler, British Columbia; Vail, Steamboat, and the Arapahoe Basin, all in Colorado; and Tignes, France.

Early: Australian Outback

With average temperatures now cooling to between 80 and 86 degrees, you can visit Ayers Rock without risking heatstroke. Through May

Mid: European Cities

Western Europe. Rome, Barcelona, Paris, and London will still be cool and you’ll have your chance of rain, for sure, but the crowds are thin and prices go way down. Outdoor café culture is picking up, but the summer crowds won’t arrive until early June. Get here before they do.

Mid: The Caribbean and Mexico’s Riviera Maya

Room prices fall as much as 30 percent after Easter, and hurricane season is still weeks away. Through early June

May

Early: Japan

Peak hotel rates have come down after last month’s cherry blossom celebrations, and the humidity has yet to kick in.

Mid: Mediterranean Cruising

The weather’s warming, but prices remain as much as 20 percent lower than in the summer high season.

Mid: Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Airfares from the States are at their lowest, and in Australia’s north, days are full of sunshine. Through August

June

Early: Thailand

April and May are sweltering, but the rains cool things off in June. The tourist crowds won’t arrive until next month. Through June

Early

Baja California Temperatures have yet to soar, but resorts are offering bargains in anticipation of the hot months to come.

July

Early: Northern Caribbean. (But avoid hurricane areas.)

September

Early: Hawaii

Room rates and airfares drop after Labor Day. Through September

Early: Montana

Days continue to be sunny and dry, and dude ranches are offering discounted fall rates. Through September

Early: South Africa

It’s early spring in South Africa, and prices are low on game drives. You’ll also find foliage is less dense making it easier to spot the “Big Five”.

Prices at safari lodges are lower and the foliage less dense, making it easy to spot the Big Five. Through early October

October

Early: Mediterranean Resorts

Southern Europe. The weather has turned chilly up north, but around the Mediterranean, you’ll usually still find warm temperatures… and good travel deals.

Rates have started to drop, but you’ll still find ample sun on islands such as Crete, Ibiza, and Sicily.

Early: Dubai

Days are cooler, and camel-racing season has begun. Hotels, meanwhile, are enticing travelers with bargains. Early September through October

Mid: Vancouver Island, Canada

Room prices have dropped by nearly half, and it’s still warm enough to enjoy wine-tasting at the island’s many vineyards. Through November

November

Early: Tahiti, Fiji, and the South Pacific

The water is crystal clear before cyclone season, making it a great time for diving and snorkelling. Christmas is high season in these warm destinations. Try to get your beach time in before the rush.

Mid: The Caribbean and Mexico’s Riviera Maya

Before the holiday rush, beaches are empty and it’s easy to find hotel deals. Through mid-December

December

Early: North American Rockies and European Alps

The snow has returned, but the winter season is just beginning. Late November through mid-December

Early: Costa Rica

After months of rain, the clouds are thinning. Through mid-December

Let us know your shoulder season travel tips?

Happy Travels

Julie