Tuesday, May 27, 2014

6 Ways To Have a Terrible Gulf Coast Summer Vacation

In the past, I have posted numerous ways to have a great vacation to the Gulf Coast, but some travelers seem to find a way to spoil their vacations some way or another. Avoid any of these below to insure you have a great vacation.

1) Don't wear sunscreen (or not enough) - People underestimate the power of the Florida sun and the reflectiveness of the white sandy beaches. If you have light skin, YOU WILL get burnt and it could ruin your vacation before it even starts.

2) Eat at chain restaurants - If you come to visit and spend your evenings at TGI Fridays or Chilis, you might as well have stayed home. The Gulf Coast has all sorts of local restaurants with reasonable pricing. Visit TripAdvisor.com for some reviews and recommendations or maybe ask the front desk for their favorite.

3) Book a hotel far away from the city - The traffic on the Gulf Coast in the Summer is bumper to bumper and some of you will find that a little extra $$$ for the hotel room could have improved the efficiency of driving to and from the beaches and attractions. It's true that the further you are away from the city center, the lodging prices are typically much less, but is it worth the additional 5-6 hours of driving you will do?

4) Book your tours and excursions last minute - Making arrangements ahead of time will not only save you money, but it will insure you have a seat for the time that works best for your schedule. The Summer season means sell outs happen OFTEN. Before you arrive, make sure you book the tours that are top on your list. Start booking your attraction now on TripShock. 

5) Packing the wrong attire - Keep in mind that you are traveling to the SOUTH. Bring light clothes and maybe a sweater just in case it gets chilly at night. Jeans and heavy shirts are just not going to cut it and you'll be miserable within minutes of walking outside. The humidity can be brutal and usually underestimated. It's always good to check the weather forecast before arrival.

6) Bring Electronics To The Beach - If you're wanting to bring a music player or smart phone to the beach, I'd think twice. All it takes is one drop in the water or sand and you'll be wishing you kept it in the car. I've also had situations where the sand gets up and under the cell phone case and erodes the plastic exterior.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

A Walking Tour is The First Thing You Should Do When You Get To Your Vacation Destination

When I first visited New Orleans last year, I remembered checking into the hotel and opening up my laptop to browse the numerous attractions, restaurants and things to do in the city. I found myself spending 2 hours going through various reviews when I realized that I didn't want to waste another minute of my vacation on the computer. So my first thought was to find a local to ask about the city, so I went to the front desk as it would be the most economical thing to do. Although the front desk was willing to help, I felt like I was being referred to certain businesses that gave kick-backs in return for my participation - This wasn't going to cut it! All I wanted was some non-bias feedback of New Orleans from someone that wasn't trying to profit off of my visit. 

So I decided to book a French Quarter walking tour of New Orleans because it would be my chance to not only ask the tour guide questions, but an opportunity to meet with tour participants and ask them for their opinions. It seemed like a good idea at first, but it turned out to be an even better idea when the tour was finished. For the $40 I spent on the tour, I not only learned a lot of great things about the French Quarter, but it was very informative and gave us ideas for the next 3 days of our stay. The tour participants also were helpful and gave us some restaurant and nightlife ideas. One participant was also nice enough to give us some safety tips, that saved us when we were approached by a scammer on Bourbon Street later in our vacation.

That $40 investment was the best thing we could have done for our vacation. I highly recommend a walking tour for any city vacation is the first thing anyone should do before they get started. 

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Why Parasailing Is One of the Safest Activities Your Family Will Do

Parasailing has taken a lot of flack as of late because of the serious incident of two teens in Panama City Beach in 2013. Before I continue, I just want anyone to know that I'm extremely saddened by this event and this is by no means a blog about protecting the parasailing companies. Florida's government has recently made moves to regulate the industry to make sure things like this don't happen again, and it's about time they did! Most parasailing companies welcome the regulation because they want the outfits that are not following the rules to stop before others get hurt and insurance premiums sky rocket. With that said, some tourists still believe parasailing is a very dangerous sport and it's far from it.

I have sold various tours and excursions along the Gulf Coast for several years and I have witnessed it all. From people nearly drowning on snorkel trips (in shallow water) and jet ski's losing control and nearly colliding with concrete bridges. These type of stories are on the news almost every week in the Summer and garner almost little reaction from concerned parents. However, any miscue with a parasailing trip that results in even a minor injury can get regional or national attention very quick. I have worked very closely with parasailing operators and I do know they are very caring individuals and safety fanatics. They make sure everything is just perfect to avoid injury or issues at all costs. They know the world is watching them because with one injury, the negative PR can put them out of business and hurt them financially.

When I talk to a customer wanting to parasailing, I first tell them it's a very safe sport and it's among the safest you can do next to a boat tour. I would start by searching online and finding companies with great reviews before going for best price. One you find the company you want to fly with, here are some questions I would considering asking before flying just to insure the company you are flying is reputable.

1) Are you insured?
2) Is the equipment new? If not, when was it last inspected?
3) Is the captain & crew experienced?
4) Do you fly near buildings or condos? If so, can we go someone more open? 

Websites like Tripshock.com make sure the companies are reputable and insured so it's one less step you have to take when finding the right company.

Even some of the most experienced companies will have isolated incidents where the rope breaks or a rogue storm blows in with some strong wind gusts, but the flyer should fall to the water with no harm. Thing will happen, but having a professional team will make sure there is a plan B. 

I hope this post is more of an informative one that can help you enjoy this exciting activity without the worry. How about we end this blog with a cool parasailing video! If you're visiting the Gulf Coast, check out TripShock for finding the best parasailing companies. 

Monday, May 5, 2014

Add This To Your Bucket List When Visiting Gulf Shores, AL - Hot Air Balloon Rides

I know what you're thinking... "I would never ride in one of those" or "Is this really safe?". Although it may appear to dangerous, it is actually a very safe activity and a one-of-a-kind thing. This is why I recommend putting hot air ballooning on your bucket list because it's not something you don't typically get to experience when visiting Gulf Shores. So what are some things you need to know about taking a hot air balloon ride?

Hot Air Balloon Rides may seem like a simple activity, but they can be more complex since many factors need to be right for flight. In fact, the weather plays such a huge role in the planning that a lot of trips tend to get delayed due to the weather conditions. The wind, humidity, cloud cover and temperature all play a major role in the lift off. This is why a balloon captain might as well be a meteorologist since they need to know these patterns and conditions so well.

Your Captain
The hot air balloon industry is regulated by the government just like helicopter and airplanes. Those who fly a hot air balloon are considered captains and must be licensed and insured. Hot air balloon captains are not your typical captains and they must be weather experts due to the prime conditions required to fly.

How Does The Balloon Move?
The balloon will move with the wind currents. At certain heights, the winds will move in different directions therefore steering the balloons.

Is It Fun For Kids?
Kids will love it, but I would not bring young kids under 7 on a balloon ride. You are in close quarters and there isn't much room to move. Parents will know their children best and can ultimately make the call whether or not they are mentally and physically fit to go.

When Is The Best Time To Go?
On the Gulf Coast, The Fall  months are prime time for ballooning due to the ease of weather conditions. However, rides are available all year round based on current weather conditions.  On most days, the balloon will take off morning or sunset because the extreme temperatures and wind conditions during the day are not fit for take off.

Are you ready for a ride? Click here to book your balloon ride on your trip to Gulf Shores.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

The Best Time To Take a Dolphin Cruise in Panama City Beach

One of the most frequent questions I get asked is when the best time to watch dolphins is. I may not be an expert on dolphins, but I have been on several dolphin tours in Panama City Beach. Fortunately enough, I have never been on a tour that has not yielded a dolphin or two. These tours are a must do and they are great for families looking for some inexpensive entertainment in Panama City Beach. If you're trying to figure out what time is best for the best dolphin interaction, maybe I can help bring a little insight for you.

First off, I learned on one of my most recent tours that dolphins do not sleep like most animals do. They have the ability to shut down parts of their brain, while other parts are still active (to protect from predators and such). This means that dolphins really don't have a concrete schedule, but they are generally most active during the day as the sunlight is necessary for hunting and other social activities. 

When it comes down to it, I always recommend to tourists to go when the boats are less crowded and the water is the most calm - Morning or Noon. When the afternoon rolls around, the temperature rises and the wind kicks up. Having calm water allows for better visibility. Some tour boats also don't have A/C so it can be uncomfortable on a 2 hour cruise in very hot and humid conditions. Going for a late afternoon sunset cruise sounds like a great idea since the humidity and temperature has cooled down, but this is prime time. Expect higher ticket prices and maxed out capacity (In the peak season anyway). It's never fun being on a crowded boat when you want the perfect dolphin photo.

During the Fall and Winter, most tour companies will shut down or cut back their schedules due to the limited demand for tours. This by no means has any impact on the dolphin sightings as they can be seen all year round.  You'll not only find great rates on tours, but smaller trips gives you plenty of room to move about the boat. 

There are many dolphin cruise companies in Panama City Beach to choose from. They all offer different variations of tours that combine activities such as snorkeling and shelling. I would highly suggest booking online for the best dolphin cruise discounts and coupons. 

Check out this video from the Sea Screamer taken on one of the day trips. These are really amazing creatures and people can't get enough of them!

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Best Snorkeling Spots in Destin, FL

Not many people would think Destin could be a great snorkeling destination, but it really is. It may not have the coral reefs with several species of bright tropical fish, but the crystal clear waters of the Gulf of Mexico has some surprises in store. Popular marine wildlife such as crabs, fish, urchins and even dolphins make friendly visits during a snorkel excursion. So you're probably thinking where to go when snorkeling in Destin so let's run down a few hot spots.

Destin East Jetty
The East Jetty is without a doubt the best location for snorkeling. The large rocks make a hot bed for marine wildlife. You can access this location by boat or through the Osteen Public Beach Access. Most tourists go with a snorkel tour company because they provide the gear and the fish food. There is also someone available as a life guard in case something goes wrong during the trip. 

Crab Island
Crab Island could be congested during the season with several boaters lined up to hang out, but on the outskirts of the sandbar are shallow weed beds that make a fun snorkeling experience. You will find popular marine wildlife such as fish, crabs and more in this area. It's best to rent a pontoon boat to access this location or take the popular Crab Island Excursion that departs from the Destin Harbor. 

A Beach Near You
The beach can be a perfect place to snorkel when the water is calm and clear. Typically, the mornings are best for snorkeling and there are typically pockets of shallow areas that are protected by waves. Walk down the beach some to find that perfect place. Look for structures such as large rocks or parts of old docks that are still in the ground. You may be close to a great snorkel spot that you won't have to travel far to enjoy. 

Wherever you decide to snorkel, the beautiful emerald green waters of Destin should never disappoint those looking for the experience! 

Friday, May 2, 2014

Destin vs. Panama City Beach - What Destination is Best For You?

So you're looking to vacation to the Gulf Coast and you have to make this burning decision to stay in Destin or Panama City Beach , FL. Both locations have beautiful emerald green water, sugar white beaches, and a lot of great attractions and things to do - so what's the difference? If you talk to any die hard vacationer that habitually visits either city, they will swear one is better than the other. However, I've decided to go a little further in this debate and break it out piece by piece for a clear picture of the advantages and disadvantages of each. Which one will get your vote?

This topic is first on the list with most tourists so I decided to lead with it. The hands down winner for affordability is Panama City Beach. In almost every facet of the vacation experience, Panama City Beach wins in pricing for hotels, tours, restaurants and retail. By comparing hotel/condo rates on and off the beach, Destin averages about 15% higher in lodging using a model that compared similar star hotels/condos. Tours and attractions on average were also about 15% higher in Destin compared to Panama City Beach. 

Although both destinations are not widely known for their culture, Destin does have an advantage with their long standing history with recreational fishing. The Destin Harbor Boardwalk is very accessible and is home to a fleet of nearly 200 charter boats and watersports. Fishing is in Destin's blood and it's a major contributing factor among the local economy. The restaurants, bars and shops that line the harbor boardwalk make it a nostalgic and fun place to hangout from morning to night. Panama City Beach does have a few landmarks that show a past-time of beach culture such as the clubs that line Thomas Drive, but nothing quite like Destin.

If you've been to Destin or Panama City Beach, you know the traffic is bad during the peak travel season. So which destination gets the honor of worst traffic? Without a doubt, it's Destin. Destin has one main highway that runs through the city and there are a few side roads that help the locals get around. As a tourist, it can be a  nightmare getting from point A to point B during peak travel months. Panama City Beach has 3 different roads that allow tourists to travel back and forth from East to West. 

Crime & Safety
Before I go into detail on this subject, I want to say that both destinations are safe for tourists and pose a very small risk for crime. However, Panama City Beach does have a reputation due to its notorious Spring Break during March and April. In addition, the low quality and inexpensive lodging facilities in Panama City Beach attracts visitors that are more likely to cause issues with law enforcement. Staying at a complex with security is always a plus so there is no unauthorized entry into the resort or the parking lots by non-guests.

Activities & Nightlife
Both destinations offer many attractions and things to do. Neither destination stops short of offering great family entertainment off and on the water. The biggest difference between the two destinations is nightlife. Although Destin has some great clubs and bars lining the Harbor, Panama City Beach has a much wider selection of entertainment that caters to all ages. Advantage goes to Destin with the most accessibility as the Harbor allows people to hop from one club to the other in a matter of minutes.

Panama City Beach has made some strides to revive their shopping centers, but Destin still is the place to go. The Destin Commons and Silver Sands Outlet Mall offer 200+ stores with all the popular brands you would expect. There are also several small strip centers throughout the area that have fun nostalgic beach souvenirs for the frill seeker. Panama City Beach has it's popular Pier Park, that continues to grow and be a staple of Panama City Beach. Maybe Panama City Beach will catch up to Destin, but not anytime soon.

It took some thought, but Destin has my stamp of approval for better dining facilities. The restaurants in Destin have such a variety compared to Panama City Beach. This by no way means that PCB doesn't have some good grub, but the selection and quality is more appealing in Destin. For example, Destin is home to nearly 3 times as many upscale/fine dining restaurants compared to Panama City Beach. There is also more selection in cuisine and service. Destin is even home to the only Dinner Cruise in the area

The accommodations in either destinations vary depending on the type. Destin is home to a beautiful Hilton and also offers a variety of comfortable chain hotels such as Marriott and Holiday Inn. Panama City Beach also offers hotels, but the majority of these brands may appear to be more run-down from their Destin counterparts. The condo rental market in both destinations is virtually the same in regards to quality and abundance. The biggest difference is the luxury home rental market, which Destin takes the cake. If you're looking for a beach home to accommodate the extended family, look no further in Destin.

Whether or not you agree with my assertions, it's clear that a vacation to Destin will cost a little more, but it could be worth it depending on your preferences. No matter what destination you choose, you will still get beautiful white sand beaches and breathtaking sunsets. You can't go wrong visiting these beautiful places.