Denali Northern Expenditure

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M/V Tustumena

Taking the Alaska Ferry Through the Aleutians

This year, we decided to take our family on the Alaska Marine Highway from Dutch Harbor to Kodiak – a 2.5-day journey and often referred to as the “ferry to the end of the world.” The trip was worth it and wonderful and here’s what you need to know:

One of the many, many bald eagles in Dutch Harbor, Alaska

Why We Did it:

I’ve been wanting to take this ferry since moving to Alaska. We live in a weird and wonderful state and I want to explore as much of it as I can. The push to actually book the trip this year was the Governor threatening to cut all Alaska ferries. These ferries are vital to connecting Alaskan communities and were never built to be a money maker. That is why they called them the “Alaska Marine Highway System” because roads also don’t make money. They make communities. All of the communities on the Aleutian ferry can only be accessed by ferry or plane. Many are too small for a landing strip.

Aleutian village

The Route:

We flew to Dutch Harbor and rode the ferry up the chain to Kodiak. We were told by ferry staff that we rode the “locals route.” The tourist route is the opposite one: Homer or Kodiak to Dutch Harbor/Unalaska (The harbor is called Dutch Harbor, but the town is called Unalaska, so you fly into Dutch Harbor, but the town and the island it is on is Unalaska). Ferry staff told us that during the “tourist route” the tiny towns come out in full force at each stop with stopover tours, local donuts, and tiny souvenir stands. Though we’re sad we missed the tours and donuts, we’re glad we got to see the ferry exactly as it is used by fellow Alaskans.

Dutch Harbor – and some of the famous Deadliest Catch boats in the harbor

As a tourist, I would probably recommend you take the other way. Homer is a 4-hour drive from Anchorage, but one-way rentals are hard to find which is why we chose to end in Kodiak. We flew into Dutch Harbor from Anchorage and flew back to Anchorage from Kodiak. Flights to these areas (especially Dutch Harbor/Unalaska) can be very expensive, costing hundreds of dollars for a one-way flight. This can be a good use of Alaska Airlines miles. Instate flights are cheap using Alaska Airlines miles – Dutch harbor can be as low as 7,500 one way and Kodiak 5,000. Keep in mind that inclement weather cancels flights in Dutch Harbor very frequently, so add a few days of a buffer in your trip if you get stuck in Dutch Harbor at the end of the journey so you don’t miss your Anchorage flight home. We left Dutch Harbor at 4pm on Saturday afternoon and arrived in Kodiak on Tuesday morning at 2:15am. The ferry journey was $361 for each adult, $181 for kids 6-11, and free for kids 0-5. Our 4-person cabin with bathroom was $635, so we paid a total of $1,719 for this ferry journey (and used miles to pay for flights each way).

Fossil Beach, Kodiak Alaska

On-Board Logistics

The Solarium on the Tustumena

While it is legal to duct tape a tent to the top deck of the ferry, this route isn’t the best to do that. We watched a family try, but nearly lose their poles to the wind. Eventually, they gave up and headed inside. One man did set up just a cot in the solarium at the top deck (it’s both covered and heated but very, very loud). We got a 4-person cabin and one of the kids slept on the floor between the 2 bunk beds. Our cabin had a small bathroom in it, but many don’t. There are, however public bathrooms and showers on board. You’re also able to sleep in the lounge chairs or the few booth tables in the lounge, but booth benches fill up FAST by locals that ride the ferry frequently. I recommend a cabin. It was worth sleeping in a bed in darkness (reminder: Alaska doesn’t get dark all night during the summer).

Our fancy cabin on the ferry

Food on board is available in the full-service restaurant on the M/V Tustumena. The restaurant is only open 1-1.5 hours for each meal and has a limited menu with prices $10-12 per entree (and no tipping servers because they are all public servants and can’t accept tips). Also, they are limited to ingredients on board. After the second morning, they ran out of syrup for breakfast. There are also 2 public microwaves and a Keurig that offers free hot water. We ate two meals in the restaurant, but ate the rest using the microwave and hot water options. We brought oatmeal and hot cocoa packets for breakfast, lots of snacks for lunch, and just-add-water pho bowls and microwavable indian food and rice packets for dinner. We brought our own microwavable bowls (cups were available for coffee) and never had to compete for the microwave.

Also, the ferry is in the open ocean for much of the journey in a very windy/rainy part of the world. We lucked out with 5-8-foot swells but the crew said 20-30-foot swells aren’t uncommon. I was definitely on Dramamine for the ride.

The ferry has a “movie room” where the purser will load movies during the slower times on board – the days with fewer stops. She played a few kid movies and a couple Alaskan documentaries. We also brought lots of games to play as a family. My kids also had Kindles and workbooks for when we needed them to calm down on the boat.

Tufted Puffins

Bring a good camera and binoculars and be ready to just watch the waters. We saw cute otters, some fin whales, a pod of orcas, some porpoises, tufted puffins, horned puffins, and many, many other kinds of birds. Bring lots of coats and hats and gloves because sitting outside the boat in the wind and rain can be very cold.

Cute Little Otter

The Stops

Since we were on the “locals’ route,” we didn’t have offered tours and most of the towns weren’t close enough to walk all the way into “town” (they’re all really small) during our small stop, but we made sure we got off at each one and walked around the dock and took pictures. We also got good views of each town as we pulled up and drove away on the ferry. Akutan is the one town that is right at the dock. The whole town is car-less and has boardwalks between all the houses for 4-wheelers. In 20 minutes we were able to walk all the way from one of town to the other. Each town has its own cute little Russian Orthodox Church and most have fish processing plants.

Akutan, Alaska

Who Rides the Ferry?

There were 5-6 other Alaskans that took the governor’s threat seriously and bought a ticket like we did and there was one explorer from California, but the rest of the people on board were using the ferry for real life. We were there at the end of the school year, so there were 4 teachers from several of the islands that were moving to other villages to teach the next year. There were sports teams riding to compete with other villages. One family was moving from Dutch Harbor to Colorado. Two of the towns are on the same island but have no road between them. One town has the airport and the other has the harbor. Many residents of one town got on the ferry to get to their fishing boats in the other.

Us watching the car elevator on the Trusty Tusty

We spent a lot of time at each stop down on the car deck watching them load and unload all sorts of things onto and off of the ferry with the ferry’s unique car elevator system. The dock at each stop is at a different height, so the car elevator allows vehicles to be loaded and unloaded at each stop despite the height differences. Every stop was a complete logic puzzle. They loaded garbage trucks, semis, several boats, many 4-wheelers with trailers attached, and a whole carnival of rides!

Loading a boat onto the car elevator

Was It Worth It?

I absolutely loved the trip. It was beautiful and crazy and fun. It was so fun to talk to locals about how they use the ferry, talk to the staff about how they ended up there (many, many crazy stories), and see the landscape of the Aleutians. We were also able to learn a lot more about the history of WWII in Alaska in Unalaska and Kodiak which are important stories all Americans should discover (you should at least know about the Battle of Attu and the Aleut Relocation Camps). We were able to explore old bunkers and lookout points at both Unalaska and Kodiak.

Hiking up Bunker Hill in Dutch Harbor

The boat ride through the tree-less cliffs of the Aleutians was unreal. It was a scene from a movie and I am so glad I went!

Treeless cliffs of the Aleutians
Fin whales
4 Week Europe Trip Costs + Merch Challenge Q2 2018 Update

4 Week Europe Trip Costs + Merch Challenge Q2 2018 Update

As a reminder, we’re trying to pay off our mortgage and take our family on a 27-day Europe trip with just t-shirt sales in what we call the Great Banks Merch Challenge.

I’ll be providing quarterly updates. This one is 2018 Q2 update:

The Current Merch Challenge Numbers

Final Trip Costs: Reminder that this was a 4-week, 27-night trip through NYC (2 nights), England and Wales (16 nights), Norway (5 nights) and Iceland (4 nights) for 5 humans! It was absolutely spectacular and the best use of money ever.

  • Flights: $2,035.48 – This amount includes :
    • Flight from Anchorage to NYC for a day before flying to England (we used Alaska miles for this leg + $28 in fees)
    • Flight from NYC to London (we used AA miles for this leg + $28 in fees)
    • Flight from England to Norway (paid Cash, SAS airlines – $355.63 for all 5 tickets)
    • Flight from Norway to Iceland (free layover for 4 days) to Alaska (paid cash – $2,123.85 for all 5 tickets)
    • – $500 – from our sign-up bonus on the Barclay Arrival+ card. Yay for a $500 discount!
  • Lodging: $2,859.50 – All lodging:
    • 3 nights in London, England – $677.01
    • 1 night just outside Reykjavik, Iceland – $250.49
    • 3 nights on the Golden Circle in Iceland – $681.03
    • $1000 worth of discounted AirBNB gift cards we’ve used to purchase lodging in England and Norway – $910
    • 2 nights in Bergen, Norway – $340.97
  • Transportation: $1,712.29
    • Norway Car Rental: $294.26
    • UK Car Rental: $364.71
    • Iceland Car Rental: $307.35
    • Airport Shuttle from Newark – $48
    • Airport Shuttle to Bergen – $26.35
    • Bergen Funicular – $36.39
    • Public Transportation Costs – $229.18
    • All petrol – $359.72
    • All parking – $46.33
  • Stuff: $1,487.17 – The gear (which we won’t have to purchase again for the next big trip!) plus the souvenirs:
    • Passport fees for the 3 kids – $315
    • Global Entry for all of us – Free (thanks Amex Platinum card!)
    • Travelable booster seats for all 3 kids (their normal ones are way too bulky to travel with but we wanted to be safe/legal) – $103.97
    • Travel Backpacks for the girls (Lui will use his small school backpack) – $204.30
    • GPS with all Europe maps (which we will use for all future Europe trips) – $149.90
    • Souvenirs (including an Icelandic sweater for me, a sweater for Mr. T and a jacket for me from the Dale of Norway factory store, a few Christmas gifts, a retro Iceland winter hat for Mr. T, a few new outfits for me and the kids from England, and the kids’ souvenirs) – $714
  • Experiences: $1,468.95
    • Empire State Building – $70
    • Tickets to see Matilda the musical in London – $348.15
    • Tickets to the Harry Potter Film Studio outside London – $183.73
    • Westminster Abbey Tickets – $62.63
    • UK Family National Trust 14-day Touring Pass – $104.79
    • London Eye – $160.72
    • Tower of London – $99.95
    • Wales Castle Explorer Family Pass – $60.07
    • York Minster – $29.64
    • Borgund Stave Church, Norway – $34.99
    • Oslo Passes – $260.18
    • Kerið Crater Entrance – $7.30
    • Geothermal Rye Bread Experience – $41.28
    • Public Toilets in Iceland – $5.52
  • Food: $849.47 – We bought mostly groceries, but did eat out occasionally. We were also spoiled by my parents for a week when we stayed with them (thanks mum and dad!).
    • New York: $171.25
    • UK: $390.98
    • Norway: $96.58
    • Iceland: $152.65
    • IcelandAir Airplane food: $38.01

TOTAL SPENT: $10,412.86

Thoughts: We went to 3 of the most expensive countries in Europe and stayed there a month! We weren’t attempting to be super frugal about this trip, but we cut costs where we could and really enjoyed it. I felt like I was living my best life traveling and teaching my kids during this past month. It was absolutely amazing.

Mortgage Costs: 

For Merch to cover the rest of our mortgage, we’re including any payments we make above our minimum monthly payments. So, these costs are the extra payments we made starting with the November mortgage payment:

  • $2,100 (November)
  • $1,700 (December)
  • $1,500 (January)
  • $0 (February)
  • $100 (March) – hopefully sales will pick up again soon so we can start shoveling money toward the mortgage!
  • $0 (April)
  • $0 (May)
  • $0 (June)


Current Merch Earnings (earnings are 2 months behind as that’s when we get and report the money):

  • June: $7.07
  • July: $218.24
  • August: $810.78
  • September: $1,065.67
  • October: $3,352.58
  • November: $1,837.50
  • December: $2,627.96
  • January: $1,076.85
  • February: $695.83
  • March: $783.40
  • April: $852.67
  • May: $854.17
  • TOTAL: $14,182.72

minus our total mortgage payments and total trip costs of $15,812.86

Merch Challenge Totals: -$1,630.14

Verdict so far: Still Positive

I’m actually pretty thrilled that the entire trip has been covered with just t-shirt sales! How exciting is that?!

Now, we’ve got 6 months left of t-shirt sales to cover about $23,600 of the mortgage (about $22,000 left on it plus another $1,630.14 that we’ve already paid toward the mortgage listed above). We may or may not be able to earn $23,600 in 6 months with t-shirts alone (last year, we earned about $9,900 in the same 6 months).

However, we are getting a little help from the state of Alaska. Our PFD amount has been decided for 2019 and we’ll each be getting $1,600 (a total of $8,000). Now, we tithe our PFDs as we do with all our income, so after tithing, we’ll conservatively say we can put $7,000 of the PFD toward our mortgage. $23,600-$7,000=$16,600.

AND keep in mind that our regular mortgage payments alone will bring our mortgage balance down to about $18,000 by the end of the year. $18,000+$1,630-$7,000=$12,630! TOTALLY DOABLE (maybe. i start second guessing every time i declare something like that!) Do you think we can do it?

June 2018 Plan Update

June 2018 Plan Update

Since I don’t want to inundate you with pictures or info about our trip, I’ll just give a quick run-down here in the June 2018 Plan Update (since our June was almost entirely overseas!).

We started the trip with an amazing two days in NYC. I was able to see Hamilton with a friend of mine. She paid for the tickets and wouldn’t tell me how much they cost. Mr.T, in his infinite wisdom, told me that I should respond in-kind instead of attempting to pay her back monetarily, so I’m coming up with an equally-stunning excursion for the two of us, my treat (perhaps a weekend to Seattle to see Dear Evan Hansen?).

On the flight to London, I left my phone on the airplane. Oh well. It did mean we had to drive to the airport after staying in London for a few days to pick up the phone. Could have been much worse. In London, we took the kids to see Matilda and they loved it. We also got to enjoy the amazing kid activities at the Tower of London, go on the London eye, have ice cream cones with Flakes, see the amazing museums, explore the Harry Potter Studios, and watch my kids become expert London tube travelers.

Lui on the London Eye

This is how Lui enjoyed the London Eye

Tower Bridge Rainy Selfie

An attempted family selfie in the rain at Tower Bridge

We then drove to Stonehenge and Avebury and then explored a whole bunch of castles all through Wales for 3 days (our favorites were Raglan, Caerphilly and Caernarfon, for the record). Each castle had an amazing “Castle Quest” for kids. Wales and castles = my favorite! Then we spent a night with some friends in Chorley, England and then drove to stay with my parents for a week in Leeds. They treated us to my kids’ first afternoon tea at Betty’s, Harry Potter broom flying lessons where they filmed it at Alnwick, and exploring in the Yorkshire Dales. Brimham Rocks is still a favorite and my kids agree! I also managed to find some clothes I like while out shopping with my mum! Yay!

Tintern Abbey

Tintern Abbey, a ruined monastery in South Wales

Brimham Rocks

Brimham Rocks is an unexpected find in Yorkshire and turns out to be one of our favorite places in England

From there, we flew to Bergen, Norway where we took the funicular up the mountain and played on one of the greatest playgrounds of all time in the troll forest.

Troll Forest Playground

We loved this playground in the Troll Forest on Mt. Fløyen

We were also able to meet up with some relatives of Mr. T who cooked us a delicious Norwegian feast and let us go paddle-boating out in the Norwegian fjords by their home. (The header for this post is the view from our hotel room in Bergen.) We drove from Bergen to Oslo, stopping to see the Borgund Stave Church, fjords, waterfalls, and then driving through the longest road tunnel in the world. In Oslo, we saw all the boat museums, the Nobel Peace Center, and ate the most delicious waffles (a Scandinavian heart-shaped waffle iron will probably show up as one of our expenses in the next few months!).

Borgund Stave Church

The Borgund Stave Church is a remarkable feat of wooden architecture from the 12th century.

From Oslo, we flew to Iceland where we were part of an Icelandic National Day parade, saw a million amazing waterfalls, ate amazing rye bread that was cooked in the ground geothermally, and stayed in an amazing cabin with a geothermal hot tub.

Iceland's National Day

We unexpectedly became part of a parade for Iceland’s National Day

Iceland Waterfall

Between the weather and the waterfalls we got plenty of use out of our raincoats in Iceland!

Overall, for a month-long trip, it was near perfection! All of our preparation with the kids really paid off as they were completely engaged in everything we were doing and seeing and never complained at all (minus poor Lui, who after about two weeks, just wanted to have a day where he didn’t have to walk anywhere!). I can’t wait for the next trip!

Reynisfjara Beach

Despite the crowd, we loved climbing the basalt columns, also known as trap rocks, at Reynisfjara Beach

The Numbers:

Want to know how easy it is for us to write these every month? I literally just log into my Personal Capital and revel in all the numbers being in one place. Do you like checking numbers? Do you like graphics? Do you like playing with calculators like retirement calculators and how much your fees are costing you? Then, you should obviously use my affiliate link to Sign up here to help yours truly speed toward financial independence! (Also feel free to read my more in-depth review of Personal Capital.)

Our mortgage is now at $22,000. No extra paid this month, but next month, I really hope to start killing this thing with extra payments!

Investments are now at $206,200. Have I mentioned that since moving from a contractor to an actual employee, I now I have my OWN 401k? It’s very exciting, I know! I’m up to a whole $220! Interestingly, they only allow percentage amounts to be put in a 401k and those max out at 50%. Since I only make around $20,000/year, I can’t actually ever max mine out. But, next year, after the mortgage is paid off, you bet I’m bumping right up to 50%! I also won’t start seeing employee matches until next May since I wasn’t officially an employee before and new employees have to wait a year to have the company match anything. Boo. Oh well.

2018 Financial Goals Update:

  • KILL THE MORTGAGE – $22,000! Now that the trip is behind us, this is HAPPENING!
  • Merch Challenge Update (paying for our 27-night Europe trip and our extra mortgage payments with t-shirt sales) –  -$1,630.14 – Earned: $14,182.72, Spent: $15,812.86 (with “earned” meaning the money we’ve made from selling shirts on Amazon and “spent” meaning all of the costs for the trip as well as any extra payments toward our mortgage) – Details on most of these numbers can be found in our Great Merch Challenge Q1 update with another one coming Friday! – So many details coming!
  • Max out Mr. T’s 401k – Automatic – however, limits rose to $18,500/year which makes it messy if you get 24 paychecks a year. We’ll probably make a contribution toward the end of the year to top it off.
  • Stretch Goal: Put $5500 into My Roth IRA – Not yet.
  • Market-Based Goal: $250,000 in investments by the end of 2018 – Not yet.
The Great Banks Merch Challenge

The Great Banks Merch Challenge

On Monday, we shared an introduction to Merch by Amazon and tips for beginners. Today’s post is our personal Merch by Amazon experience.

Our Merch by Amazon Timeline

At the end of February, I heard about Merch and signed up. It sounded like the perfect platform for us (especially Mr. T – our local graphic designer that needs a creative outlet). It’s all about designing and researching (sound like a pair of people you know?!) and you don’t have to do any selling or customer service! At the beginning of June, Mr. T and I sat down to do our periodic financial date night. We talked about how our financial priorities for the next year were to get our kids to Europe and pay off our mortgage. The combined total of those was $40,000. We brainstormed how we could earn more money to make sure those things happened. Shortly after this discussion, we were accepted to Merch and threw ourselves into it. We uploaded our first shirt design on June 22 and sold our first shirt on June 27. We made a total of $7.07 in June (which showed up in our August plan update because of Amazon’s payment timeline).

The Our Next Life Challenge: Take 2

The Our Next Life Challenge: Take 2

Long, long ago, Steve over at Think Save Retire started a series called: our next life – then our friends over at Our Next Life, the blog, continued the series. We first participated in September of 2015 and ended that post by saying: “I should probably re-write this post once a year for the next seven years!” because plans change and ours are so fluid. So, here I am again 2 years later revisiting our plans.

Our Next Life Timeline

2018 – Take the kids to England, Wales, Norway, and Iceland – this will be a 27-day trip! This is one of the big changes from when we wrote this post the first time. This was supposed to be an England-only trip the summer after we paid off the mortgage. Now we’re doing a sweeping 4-country trip (so still fairly slow travel compared to hitting many countries) and we’re doing it before the mortgage is paid off so we can visit my parents in England while they’re living there.

July 2016 Plan update

July 2016 Plan Update

July has come and gone so fast. We spent the beginning of the month at the Oregon coast with my whole extended family. Then we came home to Alaska and went dipnetting the next week and filled our freezer full of a year’s worth of salmon. Alaska is seriously so amazing. We’ve also been enjoying bowls full of fresh raspberries from our garden.

This month on the blog, we covered how to save money* in both London and the UK in general. We also came clean about being early retirement frauds and I took Mr. T’s company’s retirement newsletter to task for being terrible. We had THREE people take the Roth IRA Challenge this month in awesome posts. First Ditching the Grind talked about being a U.S. military reservist. Then Amber Tree Leaves discussed property management. And finally, The Money Mine offered a great post about couple finances. Are YOU ready to take the challenge?

We’ve also completely changed our email newsletter. I now email once a week on Saturdays and while the email does include links to the posts on the blog from the week, it also includes information I don’t share on the blog and other interesting links of research and random tidbits of information I read that don’t “fit” in the blog format. If you want to give it a try. SIGN UP over on the sidebar! (I don’t plan to annoy you with sign-up pop-ups.)

First 100,000

Saving The First $100,000. The Hardest?

The First $100,000

In our May update, we mentioned the possibility of breaking $100,000 in June. It seemed surreal, but definitely possible. Cheers to Amber Tree Leaves for this comment:

Would it not be great to reach 100K while enjoying a holiday. I hope you reach that milestone

This comment blew my mind.

Fireworks over the beach

June 2016 Plan Update

June was AMAZING. We just got back from our big adventures last night and I’m excited to catch up on all the comments today! We flew to Seattle on June 2nd, spent five days with Mr. T’s family on the Puget Sound, and then Mr. T and I ditched the kids with them and headed to the United Kingdom. We flew into London where we spent a week, then we drove through Stonehenge, Avebury, Stourhead, Bath, and over to Cardiff for a few days. From there, we zig-zagged up through Wales to the Lake District, drove over through Yorkshire, over to Whitby on the coast, up to Northumberland, and finished up in Edinburgh. From there we flew to Paris for the last 3 days and then back to Portland (my family) where we met up with our children and enjoyed a family reunion on the coast.

There will be more on the trip coming up in a few lessons we learned on the UK and London on a budget, but for those who care, I’ll mention a few things here.

Europe on $10 a day

Europe for $10/Day (in 1977): Part 2

You guys, isn’t my mom the coolest? If you missed Part One of her adventures, check those out. The story continues today right where we left off on Monday:


It can be expensive attending concerts and visiting museums and art galleries, but isn’t that what Europe and England are all about? I had a long list of classical essentials, but our first cultural experience was a foray into The Sound of Music. The first day in the gorgeous city of Salzburg, we walked down to the old part of the city and looked for a tram to take us to the majestic castle on the hill. We kept walking up – up this path and finally figured we were walking up to the castle without paying to ride the tram. The castle gave us a beautiful view of Salzburg
so we walked around the courtyard.

Europe on $10 a day

Europe for $10/Day (in 1977): Part 1

I’m super excited today to introduce my very own mother! As Mr. T and I were planning our travels, my mom found her journal from her backpacking trip through Europe in 1977 and starting telling me crazy stories. I told her she just had to write some up! So today, while Mr. T and I are off doing our own (less crazy) traveling and while my mother is busy chasing my three children around the Oregon Coast, enjoy reading her perspective about what inexpensive travel was like without the variety of travel resources we have today! 

I grew up in a tiny town on the coast – nice enough, but rainy and windy in the winter and drizzly and windy in the summer. For some reason, no one ever seemed to want to leave this place; not in my family anyway. I wanted to go to Europe. That meant two things to me: The Eiffel Tower in Paris of which I owned a poster. It was the first thing I put on the wall in my Freshman dorm room at the state college. The other thing it meant was Dickens and AustenThackeray and Eliot. I was crazy about 19th century English literature and I wanted to be in those bucolic places described in those novels. Of course, in Dickens case, it was squalid more than bucolic, but that meant London and as I became a teenager, I was very keen to be in
London. Who wasn’t in the 1970’s?

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