Friday, October 28, 2011

Off to Vancouver!

In June I decided it was time to take a week's vacation and head out to Vancouver. I'd been there 3 times since 2007 and I love it, English Bay, Stanley Park, eagles, crows, Canada geese, there is so much natural beauty right at the edge of the city. I am on a very tight budget and had about 4 months to plan so here's what I did to make the financial dent seem, well, like a dent!

I like staying at the Best Western Plus Sands hotel, not because it's fancy but because of the location and price. I stayed there on my last trip and I loved how close it was to Stanley Park, Vanier Park, Kitsilano and a lot of restaurants. I could get to all these places on foot, which is important because I didn't rent a car.

All I need, besides location and price, is for the room to be clean, have a hair dryer and free wi-fi. The coffee maker and huge umbrellas were an added bonus. Having bus stops right out front was excellent.

This is English Bay. I love the ships and could just sit there and stare out at the water:

Air Miles had a deal on this summer where if you bought gift cards, you'd receive the equivalent number of Air Miles. I bought $400 in gift cards which gave me 400 more Air Miles, enough to cover the flight and I was also able to redeem 1,875 Air Miles for $250 in gift cards which covered my entire stay, and I still have $30 left on one for my next trip! I don't buy things to get Air Miles because the stores that offer them charge a lot, so what I do - and this may not work for everyone - is put everything on my Air Miles credit cards and pay the balance monthly. I don't pay an annual fee for my cards but I tend to get around 100 a month. It all adds up!

The view from my hotel room:

Like I said, we had no car, so my friend J met me at the airport with a book of bus tickets in hand. The Vancouver transit system is fantastic. When I first went to Vancouver in 2007 I took a shuttle bus to my hotel and spent almost $50 for both trips. In 2008, the sky train from the airport to downtown wasn't ready yet, so we took the bus...3 of them, to be exact, in order to get downtown. In 2009 and this year, we took the sky train from the airport to downtown and then took a bus which dropped us off right at the hotel. This came to $2.50 for me, a big savings from the first year and a huge time saver since the train is a lot quicker than 2 buses. Plus, there is a ton of space for luggage. It really helps to be in the city with someone who knows the routes, and I've found that after going on the buses so many times, I could probably do it by myself without getting TOO lost. The buses come by pretty frequently in Vancouver and the nice thing is, the ticket is automatically stamped with an expiry time when you get on. I think you have about 90 minutes to use it, so you could go for lunch or groceries and then jump back on without paying a second fare.

On Sundays, if you ride with someone who has a monthly pass, you don't have to pay. It may only be a few bucks but it all adds up. The monthly pass can also be transferred between people so we used that to our advantage once. In the almost 8 days I was there, I ended up using 9 bus tickets in total and I used the bus a lot.

For the flight, it's usually 3,125 Air Miles for a round-trip flight between Toronto and Vancouver. I had enough but Air Miles has periodic specials where you can get a flight for 25% less Air Miles. One of these came along and I ended up having to spend 2,343 Air Miles, so by saving 782 I was able to redeem $100 in a Best Western Gift card, as mentioned above. I still had to pay for taxes and insurance on the flight, but I saved about $350 on the flight.

I took these while flying over the Rockies. I always get a window seat because I like to check out the other provinces, and the Rockies are spectacular!

And the most important part: food! I knew I wouldn't be cooking because a) my room didn't have a kitchen and b) who wants to cook when they're on holidays? Vancouver has a ton of amazing restaurants and cafes and I knew all my meals would be eaten out. What I did was check the following sites daily: Groupon, Living Social, WagJag, and TastyGo. I had to find places to eat that were either near my friend's apartment, my hotel or somewhere along the transit routes. They also had to have a lot of vegetarian options for me, and the vouchers had to be good during the time I was there.

I ended up with enough to cover almost every meal. All of the vouchers were at least half off, for example we'd pay $10 to get $20 worth of food. We didn't have a bad meal, and it was really hard coming home to pasta, toast and frozen waffles! We always checked online reviews before deciding to buy a voucher and afterwards, I wrote reviews on Trip Advisor and Yelp because it will help other people and will also be good for the restaurants.

This was eaten in a restaurant on Denman Street called Acacia Fillo Bar. We ate there when I was in Vancouver 2 years ago and I was SO hoping they would have a deal. Luckily enough, it happened so we bought 2 vouchers and ate there immediately after I checked in to my hotel. We ate there again a few days later. This was spinach and wild mushrooms wrapped in fillo pastry and it comes with roasted yams and potatoes and a side salad.

We also had enough Scene points to see 2 movies and some extra points for popcorn and candy. We saw 2 movies while I was there.

I'm planning to go back in October, 2012. This time, I have more time to plan and I have to save up a lot of Air Miles. I had saved up Air Miles for 2 years for this trip and this time I'll only have 1 year so I'm keeping my eyes open for sales on items that also give Air Miles. I'm really hoping Best Western has another deal on the gift cards because that really beefed up my account.

When you book a trip, you have to do a lot of legwork beforehand but that's all part of the fun. It comes together slowly and before you know it, it's time to take off!

I'll be posting more pictures as time allows. I have SO many to go through!

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Algonquin's breathtaking scenery

On October 1st I went on my third trip with Authentic Canadian Tours in 2011.  This one was to Algonquin Park.  We left Toronto at 7 am and headed north in the rain and cold!  Among the birds we saw were turkey vultures, a juvenile bald eagle perched in a tree, and once we were almost at Algonquin we saw a couple of ravens in flight.  It was raining off and on as we drove up and then the rain turned to wet snow for a few seconds, yes, snow.  We stopped off at Tim Horton's and it was FREEZING.  Got some snacks, went to the Visitor's Centre and got cold again, and when we left and headed towards the park, what I thought was fog in the distance was snow, white snow, real snow, not wet snow.  On October 1st.  Yup, it was going to be interesting!

As always, double click on any picture to zoom in.

We're not ccccooooold!

And we're off!

An American Woodcock ran across the road a little way up from where we were.  It stopped long enough for us to take pictures:

The best part of the trip was feeding the Grey Jays!  There were two of them that met us at the entrance of a trail and since we had snacks for them, they followed us.  

A yellow-rumped warbler:

And our friend the Grey Jay again:

And our first evidence of moose was found in the middle of the path!

A moose hoofprint! 

We continued our walk among the beautiful leaves:

And look who arrived!