Hints for Happier Travels / North America

Just Won a Free Trip to a Dream location?

An Impromptu Band at Jackson Square, New Orleans

Here’s How to Avoid Letting Additional Expenses Turn Your Vacation Into a Nightmare.

Congratulations! Your ticket was drawn, and you’re the lucky winner of a  free vacation. Now what? One of the first things you’ll need to consider is whether or not you  can afford to go. You can have the time of your life, if you know a few important facts ahead of time.

Although Simon and I weren’t present at the drawing, we were told the crowd erupted into laughter when Simon’s name was drawn for a free vacation. Yes, the travel photographer and his travel writer wife winning a travel package certainly was cause for mirth. It was also an opportunity for the local not-for-profit organization that held the fundraising raffle to obtain an insider view of the process, and determine if it was worth repeating.

Of the three options available to us, we chose the three-day trip to New Orleans, Louisiana (NOLA). This is our story: the good, the bad, and the unexpected. Please bear in mind that every give-away vacation has its own components, rules and obligations. These vacations can run the gamut from all-expenses paid to nothing beyond complimentary air fair and hotel. The one universal piece of advice I can give you is to always read the fine print. Failure to do so may result in unnecessary disappointment and confusion. Now, let’s head to NOLA.

Getting to NOLA

Although our return plane tickets to NOLA were included in the prize package, we soon learned this didn’t include all the taxes and junk fees. And we were also expected to pay the travel agency handling the arrangements a “booking fee”.  Hence, we were out just over $200 before we even left home.

 The Package (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)
The Package (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)

Having said this, the representative with whom we dealt from the company providing the trip was flexible and pleasant. We requested a two-day extension at our expense, and since it made no difference in the cost of the airfare, we got our wish.

Contents of the Package (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)
Contents of the Package (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)

Also, although we submitted our requested dates over a week later than the required 60-day period stated in our information packet, we got the dates we wanted. These small concessions were an unexpected surprise, and saved us several potential headaches.

Since airport transfers were not included in the prize package, a fact of which we were aware from the start, we ended up supporting Uber in NOLA to the tune of $65 round trip. Our New Bern transfers were courtesy of friends but could have cost an additional $60 plus had we elected to take a cab both ways.

NOLA is a walkable city with busses and streetcars to get you where you’re going. You can bring or rent a car, but be aware, finding parking is a bear around the French Quarter.

Staying in NOLA

Our first three nights in NOLA were included in the prize.  As for our two remaining nights, Simon’s and my credentials as travel journalists landed us a complimentary stay at Degas House, a beautiful historic luxury inn and museum. But I’ll tell you more about our experience at Degas House in a future post.

Degas House in New Orleans (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)
Degas House in New Orleans (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)

Reservations had been made for us at the Hyatt French Quarter, a clean, efficiently run hotel one block off Bourbon Street. Aside from its superb location, this hotel could have been a moderately posh place in which to sleep in any North American city. Despite the hotel’s lack of character, the staff was helpful and friendly,  the wifi reliable, and the bed comfortable.

We were fortunate to be upgraded to a spacious junior suite with a separate sitting area, two TVs and a refrigerator. It was easy for the three of us – of course, Otto was present – to move around without stepping on each other, and there was plenty of room for all our stuff.

Two bottles of water had been set out at a whopping $4 a piece, but we weren’t that thirsty. The coffee, on the other hand, was complimentary, and quite respectable. Since we chose to ignore the water, our stay came with no additional expenses.

The Hyatt French Quarter was a pleasant place to rest and get some work done, but we didn’t spend much time in the room. This was NOLA after all, and there was much to see and do.

Playing in NOLA

Once our dates were confirmed, I contacted the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) who arranged our two nights at Degas House. Since I was able to produce a letter of assignment from one of the editors with whom I work, the CVB included a VIP pass affording us access to complimentary and discounted attractions and meals. They also threw in a purple umbrella. A timely gift, since it rained on and off throughout our entire time in NOLA.

My contact at the CVB, knowing we would be in town for five days, made sure we had our pass the day after our arrival. This enabled us to take advantage of the perks during our entire visit.

One of the first things we did was to purchase Hop-on-Hop-off bus tickets. Our VIP pass entitled us to two for the price of one. The tickets included several discounts and freebees for tours and attractions along the route. The normal price for these tickets would be $44 per person.

A Float from a Small Parade Seen from the Hop-on-Hop-off Bus (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)
A Float from a Small Parade Seen from the Hop-on-Hop-off Bus (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)

The approximately two hour circuit enabled us to get an overview of the city from the informative and entertaining narrative delivered by an onboard guide. This helped us plan what we would do and when.

Among the highlights was the National World War II Museum, Mardi Gras World, where all the parade floats are made, and St. Louis Cemetery, where the notorious voodoo queen, Marie Laveau, is buried.

 A Display at the National World War II Museum (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)
A Display at the National World War II Museum (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)
A Float Figure Being Manufactured at Mardi Gras World (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)
A Float Figure Being Manufactured at Mardi Gras World (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)
A Plaque Commemorating Marie Laveau in St Louis Cemetery (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)
A Plaque Commemorating Marie Laveau in St Louis Cemetery (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)
The Future Resting Place of Nicolas Cage in St Louis Cemetery (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)
The Future Resting Place of Nicolas Cage in St Louis Cemetery (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)

We also took a French Quarter walking tour and a fascinating ghost tour.

A Ghostly Shadow of a Statue Seen in the French Quarter (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)
A Ghostly Shadow of a Statue Seen in the French Quarter (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)

The trip we won included “skip the line” passes to historic Preservation Hall. This allowed us to be among the first to enter when the doors opened, and we were able to snag two of the precious few seats available. Once these seats are full, you stand. After a day of walking in the heat and humidity for which NOLA is well known, those passes made our feet and us very, very happy. Of course, the jazz performance, as always,  was fabulous.

Sign for Preservation Hall (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)
Sign for Preservation Hall (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)
Inside of Preservation Hall, Unchanged in at Least the Last 40 Years (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)
Inside of Preservation Hall, Unchanged in at Least the Last 40 Years (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)

Eating and Drinking in NOLA

Only one meal was included in our prize package, but that one meal was a doozy. We were offered two options: a jazz brunch or three-course dinner and wine pairing at Commander’s Palace. We chose the dinner and wine, and never regretted our choice.

The food and wine were outstanding, as was the service. Tax and gratuity were included, so we walked out with the same amount of money as when we entered. Not that we didn’t try. We ordered cocktails, feeling we should pay for something. But our waiter insisted on including the drinks with our  meal package. Then we checked to make sure the gratuity was adequate. We were assured it was. Classy, but far from stuffy, is how I would describe the evening. You’ll be reading more about our experience at Commander’s Palace in a future post.

As for the jazz brunch we passed up, our VIP pass from the CVB gave us a two for one at Court of Two Sisters. And this, too, was a culinary experience with live smooth jazz providing an additional layer of pleasure to the meal.

Dining al Fresco at the Court of Two Sisters (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)
Dining al Fresco at the Court of Two Sisters (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)
A Small Sampling of the Desserts at Court of Two Sisters (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)
A Small Sampling of the Desserts at Court of Two Sisters (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)

Dining out in New Orleans can be expensive, especially in the French quarter. However, by doing our homework, we managed to enjoy favorites like red beans and rice, muffulettas creole barbecue and beignet without breaking the bank. Whether, like us,  you’re on a partially funded vacation, or paying for your entire trip, there are many ways to save money on food when traveling.

Conclusion

Our visit to NOLA was a genuine treat. Although our prize vacation package didn’t cover everything, we were aware of our responsibilities, and decided we could afford them.

When we looked at the big picture, it was obvious the airfare and hotel were an enormous chunk of the trip we didn’t have to pay. From this perspective, we had a bargain holiday in one of the most historic, most haunted and most fun cities in the world.

If you win a vacation package, keep the following three things in mind.

  1. Read the fine print, and make sure you know what is covered and what isn’t.
  2. Do your research to get the most out of your trip.
  3. If the numbers work for you, and the location makes your heart go pitter-patter, relax and have a wonderful time.

Have you ever won a vacation? What was your experience? Let us know in the comments.

2 Comments

  • avatar image

    Dawn

    Sep 23, 2016

    Reply

    Thank you for this advice Penny. Glad you had a great time despite the "unknown" expenses. Would you suggest reading fine print before entering for the trip or before accepting it?

    • avatar image

      Penny

      Sep 24, 2016

      Reply

      Good question, Dawn. There was no fine print to read during the raffle period. We knew airport transfers were not included, along with a couple of other aspects of the trip. We only saw the fine print after we had won the prize. Of course, we were under no obligation to take the trip, but we were so glad we did. I wouldn't say there was anything unethical about the way the trip was promoted. My purpose in writing this post was simply to make folks aware that 'free' does't usually include everything. People on tight budgets can find themselves paying a lot of unexpected expenses, because most of us seldom ever take the time to read the fine print.

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