Real-life vacation strategies, challenges

Interesting things are happening as I wait for spring and contemplate ways to favorably alter reality.

My guy and his buddies went to Mississippi recently, for a little golfing near Biloxi, and I found them reasonable vacation components online. Cost was about $560 per person for air from Milwaukee, four nights of lodging and a mid-sized car rental.

Had they reached consensus a couple of weeks earlier, the cost also would have included a round of golf, lunch/gambling coupons and airfare from Madison (our home city). Prices and vacation combos can change fast online, but that’s not the point today.

The issue is car size and what four average-sized guys need to transport themselves, four modest pieces of luggage and four sets of golf clubs.

What’s a mid-sized car? It was a Toyota Corolla in this case, and that wouldn’t do it. Everybody else – “Consumer Reports” on down – seems to consider the Corolla an economy model, but that argument got only shrugs from the car rental clerk. So the guys kicked in a few more bucks for a full-sized vehicle.

And what did they get? A Buick Century, which is defined as “mid-size” on most other parts of the Earth, but not in this part the Gulfport-Biloxi Regional Airport. I guess you can take nothing for granted.

Their getaway included a night at the Best Western Avalon Hotel, New Orleans, during the height of Mardi Gras. A free hotel shuttle got them to the French Quarter, about 10 miles away; their return was a $25 cab ride. Not bad, considering the option: Staying in the middle of the revelry for two or three times what they paid, plus about $20 to park the car overnight.

They came home with plenty of Mardi Gras beads and say they didn’t have to do anything special to earn them. Hmmmmm.

Jamaica is my guy’s next destination, and I’ll go, too. We opted for a Funjet Vacations package instead of finding the components on our own.

I like the fact that Funjet is a part of the Wisconsin-based Mark Travel Corp. And the price – about $830 per person for transportation and lodging – was about the same as what we could put together, maybe a bit less when considering the $40-$50 cab ride, one way, from airport to hotel. The direct, chartered flight from Milwaukee also was an advantage – no oddball flight pattern or plane changes.

But since we travel frugally, we were dismayed when a travel agent told us about six weeks later that our departure time was bumped up three hours. We’d be leaving around 6 a.m. for this international flight, which meant getting to Milwaukee a day earlier and booking a hotel room.

We did that, through the agent, for $89 at a Sheraton, and the rate includes seven days of parking. Holly Botsford of Funjet says the departure change was made because Funjet added a Milwaukee to Las Vegas route recently, and it departs after the Jamaica charter.

“To accommodate both popular destinations in the same day, we needed to start the plane moving earlier,” she said.

Holly apologized for our inconvenience and offered to buy us dinner while in Milwaukee. We declined. Knowing how we travel, it will be a full day of work, then packing in early evening, before driving off to the hotel.

For better or worse, I have discovered eBay. While stumbling around that massive online marketplace recently, I came across a stash of Wisconsin restaurant gift certificates. They were pretty much being ignored by bidders.

I snagged a couple of $25 coupons to great places – Karl Ratzsch’s in Milwaukee and Smoky’s in Madison – for $6.50 and $8.50, respectively.

Those transactions led me to www.restaurant.com, which apparently placed the gift certificates on eBay. Restaurant.com seems devoted to selling dining coupons for one-half of their value, or less.

There were 20 Wisconsin restaurants on the site when I last checked, from the 151 Express in Ridgeway to the Uptown Club in Tomah.

Like you, I like a good bargain. Sometimes it happens when I’m making travel plans. Other times, I set up a trip because of the money I hope to save at my destination.

That’s my way of alerting you about the annual Swiss Colony Warehouse Sale, in Monroe – one of the state’s wonderful cheese cities. The mail order giant puts on a great show for shoppers. It’s not merely overstocks of cheese and sausage; items from the company’s other catalogs – apparel, home goods, gifts – also are sold at a deep discount.

Merchandise changes daily. The warehouse is on Highway 69, three blocks from the company’s outlet center on Eighth Street. Warehouse sale hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. March 27, noon to 6 p.m. March 29 to April 2 and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. April 3.

For more about the sale, call the outlet center at (608) 328-8572. Yes, I know, I’d save even more money if I stayed home – but that’s no fun.

Last, a quick reminder that convention room rates aren’t always the least expensive available. While in Green Bay for the recent Governor’s Conference on Tourism, for example, I paid $50 to stay at the downtown Days Inn. That was $19 less than the convention rate.

I found the lower room rate online, on the Days Inn website.