This Teacher’s Passion for Travel—at Home and Abroad—is Contagious

NEA member Taleen Jackson will teach you how to travel locally and stretch your budget to cover more far-flung vacations.

Two cruise ships moored at a harbor

by NEA Member Benefits

Last spring after a long day at work, Taleen Wisniewski Jackson came home to a surprise from her husband, Marshall: tickets for their next adventure, a 5-night Eastern Caribbean cruise.

Whether it’s to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, a driving vacation to Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky or a family cruise, Jackson relishes the opportunity to see the world with her family and makes traveling a priority during holiday and summer breaks.

And they do it all economically. We asked Jackson, a teacher in Michigan for 22 years, to share some of her best money-saving strategies for traveling on a teacher’s salary.

Look for mom-and-pop lodging

Throughout all their journeys, the Jacksons have developed a philosophy that they’ve taught their daughter, Stephanie, and all the friends and family members that end up tagging along with them. They call it “Living the Width.” The idea is that whenever they travel somewhere, they don’t want to have a superficial experience, but instead immerse themselves in the destination. It’s especially important to get to know the locals.

“I think all of us are really drawn to ‘the story,’” says Jackson, NEA member and science teacher at Odyssey Middle/High School in Shepherd, Michigan. “No matter where we go, we’ll stay at a mom-and-pop kind of place, we’ll get to know the owners. The reason why we travel is to meet people, build relationships, get stories and feel what it’s like to live in that area.”

The Jacksons used to stay in chain hotels, but they quickly grew tired of the sameness of that experience. Once they started booking smaller, budget-friendly accommodations, they never looked back.

On a recent trip to Michigan’s Leelanau Peninsula, Jackson remembers fondly meeting the owners of the cottage where they stayed: a young couple and their 2-year-old daughter, Clementine. “Clementine was weeding the little gardens and picking me dandelions, the bonfire was down at the beach and Cody [the boyfriend of Jackson’s daughter] was playing his guitar,” she says. “I wouldn’t get that if I were staying at the Holiday Inn.”

Be ready to snag cruise bargains

The Jacksons are currently set to take their 19th cruise. On average, they’ve gone on one voyage every year. They do it because it allows them to see the world in a budget-friendly way, says Jackson, who has found deals for as little as $10 per day through their cruise planner.

“The reason why the Jacksons cruise is the value,” she says. “It’s so reasonable, and everything is pretty much included.”

Her secret strategies are being brand loyal, booking through a trusted travel agent and driving to the ship’s embarkation port rather than flying.

The Jacksons prefer cruising on Carnival Cruise Line, and their frequent cruiser status over the years has earned them reduced cruise rates as well as onboard perks, such as complimentary drinks and special gifts delivered to their stateroom. Their cruise planner sends them alerts for upcoming deals, which they sometimes are required to book the same day. “Sometimes you can’t sit and wait,” says Jackson.

Travel together

Photo of Taleen Jackson

Photo courtesy of Taleen Wisniewski Jackson

Because they sometimes travel with up to seven people, including friends and extended family members, the Jacksons usually drive their big van to their cruise ports and other destinations, saving thousands of dollars on plane fare. They pack food for the road, including inexpensive grocery store sub sandwiches, chips and drinks. It helps them save money and minimize their stops along the way.

“Marshall always packs a portable grill, and we always have a cooler,” says Jackson. “Everybody knows this is what it’s like being on the road. We don’t really stop—$18 can feed six people.”

Learn to stretch a dollar

Jackson also stretches her dollar by utilizing discounts on gift cards and cashing in rewards points. Her local grocery store occasionally runs sales for 10% off gift cards. She’ll buy several Carnival gift cards for upcoming cruises. (Don’t forget that you can use this strategy to purchase discounted certificates, which you often can find through NEA Discount Marketplace.) She also utilizes rewards points for gas stations and often pockets $50 in rewards “just for using their brand of gas or buying their fountain drinks,” she says.

When she travels, Jackson says she always brings big bags of different pamphlets and books back for her students, who are at-risk youth—the majority of whom have never traveled outside of Michigan. She wants to show them that travel is possible, even on limited means.

“Education is your way out, and education is the way to do some of these things,” she tells her students. “I need the kids to see the world through my eyes.” Anything is possible.

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