North Carolina!

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Ah sweet Carolina. Some people may not realize this, but North Carolina is almost a second home to me since my Dad lived there from when I was about 10 until after I graduated from college. I would go there about 3-4 times a year. My brother also attended 3 universities there and eventually graduated from UNC Chapel Hill. Although I don’t currently have any family there, it has been about 15 years since I visited NC and I was longing to go back. If you’ve ever been to North Carolina you’ll understand why.

Unfortunately getting there from Syracuse was near impossible. It’s a 10+ hour drive, and there were no direct flights. Plus flying between two small airports often equates with exorbitant prices. So when Syracuse airport started offering direct flights to Raleigh-Durham on Frontier airlines last summer, I knew I had to catch one!

The planning

I looked ahead to when the kids had a three-day weekend from school, and found $80 round trip tickets on Frontier for Veterans Day weekend. I booked these and then looked at lodging. While I really like the Raleigh Durham area, I absolutely love the Blue Ridge Mountains, especially the town of Boone, where Appalachian State University is located. I decided we could drive straight out there when we landed that afternoon and have a few days in that area before heading back to Raleigh.

There was another reason we wanted to go this area, however. When my son was in kindergarten he was obsessed with a type of lemur called the “Aye-Aye.” Back then he told me about the Duke Lemur Center (I have no idea how he learned about it), and asked if we could go. Well it took 6 years but we could finally plan a visit.

I booked a La Quinta Inn in Boone for two nights for 17,319 Chase Ultimate Rewards points total. For our last night I decided to stay in Durham and found a Homewood Suites offering a 2 bedroom suite for the same price as all of their other rooms, $109 a night!

The trip

I picked the kids up from school early to make our 12:35pm flight to RDU. Luckily we got to the airport with enough time to make use of our Priority Pass lounge benefit at our airport’s only “lounge,” Johnny Rockets. We get a $28 credit per person which was enough to cover our food (minus the $5 tip). The flight took off on time and was great. Since Frontier is a discount airline you do have to pay for your bags, both checked and carry-on. This wasn’t my first time at this rodeo, so I paid for one carry-on bag, and paid for it using my American Express gold card, after setting my preferred airline to Frontier. I get a $100 credit per calendar year for airline incidental fees such as bag charges and seat assignments, and since I had just received the card I hadn’t used this year’s credit yet. For both ways the one bag cost $74 which was reimbursed through this card. I’ve written another post about how to fly these discount airlines without getting soaked in fees. If you really want to make sure you get a good deal you have to learn how to pack lightly and efficiently, including maybe taking one carry-on bag, plus “personal items,” for 3-4 people. Sometimes we even try to fit everything in our free personal items (which can be a small backpack). I also talked to a rep on the phone ahead of time about whether they had a policy about seating parents and children together and he assured me it would not be a problem. Sure enough, when I checked in, we were all seated together.

After landing at RDU we headed over to the rental car company. After I checked in and went to the aisle to pick up the car we got a nice surprise. The worker asked how many bags we had and I told him, just the one small suitcase and our small backpacks. There were two Mustang convertibles nearby, and he said, “you want a Mustang?” Well the kids started jumping for joy right there in the spot. I think this was because it was a holiday weekend and they were running low on cars, and there’s not as much of a demand for convertibles on a “chilly” weekend in Raleigh, so I’m sure he wanted to give that to us and save a sedan for someone else. But we were so excited to cruise around in it! It was yet another time when packing light pays off!

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Woo hoo!!!!

We drove about 3 hours out to Boone and checked into our hotel. On recommendation from the hotel clerk we went to dinner at a restaurant called the Pedalin’ Pig for some authentic Carolina BBQ. My older son and I shared a platter with pulled pork, ribs, and smoked brisket and several southern sides and it was absolutely delicious.

The next morning, after our complimentary breakfast, we bought some discount tickets for nearby Grandfather Mountain from the front desk (saving about $10) and headed over to the park. It was good we got there early because the lines into the park later in the day after we were leaving were super long.

Grandfather mountain has a nice nature center with a small little zoo housing local animals such as bears, elk, otters, and eagles. After seeing these exhibits we took a short hike up to the top with the swinging bridge for some amazing 360 degree views.

It had been a chilly morning but when the sun came out it warmed up. We were so excited to put the top down and cruise along the Blue Ridge Parkway, stopping at some of the viewpoints. We drove up to Blowing Rock, a quaint little tourist town with shops and restaurants, already decorated for the holidays. We ate a delicious British-inspired lunch at Six-Pence Pub,and then headed back to Boone, cruising the parkway a little more on the way back.

After a swim in the pool we headed out to downtown Boone to walk around and get dinner. It was great to revisit the town, and we had fun exploring all the vintage toys, candy, and other unique items at Mast General Store. We found an inexpensive Pho restaurant for dinner and then headed home.

The next morning we decided to check out the North Carolina Zoo, as it was on the way back to the Raleigh Durham area. Because we have membership at our local zoo that is a member of the reciprocity program with the AZA, we were able to pay only 50% admission for $33 total. The North Carolina zoo is huge! It bills itself as being the largest natural habitat zoo in the world. The animals are kept in very large spaces which makes walking between them quite a trek! Fortunately once you get from one side to the other they have a tram to take you back.

We left the zoo around 2 and got to our hotel in Durham around 3:30. The suite we booked was enormous! It had a kitchen, living room, bedroom with two full beds and bedroom with a king bed, plus two bathrooms.

After enjoying the space to spread out for a while, we eventually headed out for dinner. We went to a small Mexican, “hole in the wall” taco stand called “Tacos Nacos” which had received great reviews online. It certainly lived up to the hype! We had some of the best tacos we’ve had outside of Mexico. Plus it was super inexpensive at $2-3 per taco.

For dessert, we drove to Raleigh to visit one of my favorite all time ice cream shops (well, really it’s frozen custard), Goodberry’s. My dad used to take us there when he was lived in NC and I was happy that it hasn’t changed it’s delicious custard recipe and excited to share it with the kids. They offer chocolate, vanilla, and a flavor of the day, was well as shakes, sundaes, and “Carolina Concretes” where they mix in various toppings. It was just as good as I remembered. Next we drove a couple miles over to my friends’ house so I could visit with her while the kids played video games with their son.

For our last morning, we ate the free breakfast at the hotel and got ready to check out. Our appointment at the Duke Lemur Center was at 11am and the kids could hardly contain their excitement. We still had a few hours to wait however, so we went over to the beautiful Duke Gardens to walk around and take pictures.

Finally it was time to head over to the Lemur Center. We got there right on time to start our tour. We were all giddy with excitement that we were finally here! The tour was about an hour and twenty minutes and the guide taught us all about lemurs and the great work they do helping and studying the various species of lemurs, several of which are critically endangered in Madagascar. They also have a center there where they work with the locals on helping to save the lemurs’ habitats while also respecting their culture and economic reasons for using the natural resources that impact the ecosystem. We were able to see several species of lemur outside in the cages, including ring-tailed and ruffed lemurs. They were lively and fun to watch. The real highlight however was the end of the tour when we went into the Nocturnal building. We were able to finally see the Aye-Aye!!! Bucket list item, check!

After we the tour we picked up some souvenirs from the lemur center and then had about an hour before we needed to be at the airport to catch our flight. We decided to go back to Tacos Nacos for lunch because it was just that good. We then drove back to the airport and turned in the rental car, forgetting to put gas in the car before we dropped it off so we got over-charged for gas. Doh! No biggie though, because everything else on the trip went about as perfectly as it could have, including a great flight home where we arrived early. We also made sure to buy some snacks on the plane to get the rest of my Amex gold reimbursement credit. In fact, the only hard part of the trip was landing into the snow, ice, and cold in Syracuse, as it had been 68 degrees and sunny in North Carolina. Oh well, at least we got to have some fun in the sun with our top down for a few days!

Overall it was a fantastic trip! We had great luck with the free car upgrade, had sunny weather, had excellent, inexpensive food, and got to see the mountains, the zoo, and lemurs! What could be better??

 

 

 

 

 

 

New Orleans!

The Planning

I have been to 44 of 50 states and the only state I haven’t been to east of the Mississippi is Louisiana. I have wanted to go to New Orleans for so long but the opportunity never presented itself. This year the school district decided to give a full 4 day weekend for Memorial Day sand New Orleans was definitely on the short list for a trip we could do quickly.

For the flights I booked one ticket using some delta gift cards I had bought for my Amex Platinum airline reimbursement, my Delta companion pass benefit (with the delta platinum Amex card), and some Delta sky miles. For the hotel, after searching lots of reviews I chose the Drury Inn because it had a pool, seemed family friendly, had suites, and offered free breakfast and a managers reception (more complimentary food and drinks). I booked this hotel using Chase Ultimate Reward points.

The Trip

Our flights out of Syracuse left at 6pm, so we got the kids out of school right at dismissal on Wednesday and drove straight to the airport to make use of our Priority Pass restaurant credit. Priority Pass contracts with some airport restaurants so that you get a certain amount of $ credited per person to your bill (usually $28). This is particularly useful when you are at an airport with no lounges (like our home airport), or if you are in a terminal with no lounge nearby. They add restaurants frequently so always make sure to check your PP app to see what lounges and restaurants are available where you are.

Unfortunately, the only place with the credit at our little home airport is Johnny Rockets. Fortunately they recently added a bar. So we were able to order $112 worth of food and drinks for free (before you think this is a ridiculous amount for Johnny Rockets, remember this is an airport restaurant so the prices are incredibly marked up). We came pretty close to the $112 mark but didn’t quite reach it.

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After we felt thoroughly disgusting from all that grease, we went to our gate and boarded our flight to Atlanta. At ATL we had a two and a half hour layover so we headed over to the PP lounge, The Club. With it being a holiday weekend, the place was pretty busy but we were able to get in. We were still pretty full from Johnny Rockets but the kids ate some snacks and my husband and I ordered some drinks.

We didn’t leave ATL for New Orleans until 11pm, so when we landed we were exhausted. We took a Lyft straight to our hotel and checked into our suite. It was pretty nice with a sofa bed for the kids and a separate bedroom with a king size bed.

The next morning we slept in a little and then headed downstairs for the free hot breakfast. This was one of the reasons I booked this hotel. They had a huge hot buffet with sausage, biscuits, and gravy, eggs, and waffles, as well as pastries and fruit. After eating we walked over to the French Quarter. It was about 10:30am and already so hot. We found our free walking tour guide and then did an hour and a half walking tour through the French Quarter and St. Louis cemetery. I’m a big fan of the film Easy Rider, so as I walked around the cemetery the song, “Kyrie Eliason” kept going through my head as I remembered that iconic scene with Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda having an bad trip with two prostitutes (to be honest that song was in my head throughout the trip!) I also learned from the tour guide that you have not been allowed to film in that cemetery since that film was released, specifically because of that scene, which they filmed without permission from the church.

 

 

After our tour we headed over to a great little restaurant, Napoleon House, which is known for their Pimm’s cup cocktails and Muffaletta sandwiches (said to be the best in the city).

 

 

We were so hot and tired by this point that we headed back to the hotel to take a dip in the pool and rest in the a/c. At around 5:30 we headed back to the breakfast area as they offer a nightly happy hour where you each get 3 (weak) cocktails and can eat from the buffet. They had hot dogs, baked potatoes, chicken fingers, nachos, soup, chili and other snacks. It wasn’t anything to write home about but definitely great for the kids to fill up while the grownups enjoyed their cocktails.

A friend of mine happened to be in NO for work that night, so she met us at the hotel and we walked down Bourbon street with the kids. It was still pretty early but my oldest said it was too loud and “everyone’s drunk,” so my husband took the kids back to the hotel to go to bed and my friend and I went over to Frenchmen Street for dinner. We went to this great jazz club/restaurant called Snug Harbor and had a delicious meal. The band that night was actually a teenage ensemble and they were amazing! We listened to them for a bit and then walked around some of the artisan markets on Frenchmen before heading home.

 

 

The next morning after breakfast we walked down to Cafe du Monde to try their famous beignets and chickory coffee that I have been hearing about for years. There was of course a line but it actually moved really fast and before you knew it we were popping those hot delicious sugar pillows into our mouths. So incredibly good!

 

 

After that we walked over to 1850 House and took a tour of one of the apartments in the historic Pontalba building that is set up to look as it would in the mid-19th century. Following this we walked around a bit more and visited the antique weapons store and then the Historic Preservation Museum. This museum is free, stretched over two buildings, and really well done! I highly recommend a visit if you are in NOLA. The first building took your through the history of the city. The staff was so nice and helpful and got some scavenger hunt type worksheets for the kids, which my 8 year old loved. In the 2nd building across the street they had an exhibit on the French quarter, an educational exhibit with things to touch and smell for the kids, and a modern art exhibit.

 

 

After this we were getting hungry so we decided to head over to the Treme neighborhood to check out the famous, Willie Maes Scotch House for fried chicken. Our one mistake was actually walking there from the French Quarter. It’s only a 1.5 mile walk but in that heat and humidity it was brutal. Plus when we got there we had to wait in line for about an hour (they do have some shade and free water bottles in coolers while you wait). We didn’t eat until about 3pm, but it was so worth the wait. It was definitely the best fried chicken I’ve ever had, plus lots of great southern sides such as Mac and cheese and fried okra.

 

When we were done we took a Lyft back to the hotel and the driver had an adorable puppy with him that we got to snuggle with in the backseat as the driver gave us more suggestions for things to do in the city.

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When we got back to the hotel we rested and then had our cocktails and snacks again. After that we decided to take the street car through the garden district over to an ice cream place that our Lyft driver recommended. It was fun to see the old southern mansions from the open windows of the old-time trolley.

 

The ice cream place, Creole Creamery, did not disappoint. They had a ton of great flavors such as “A chocwork orange,” lavender honey, and Thai basil coconut. After our ice cream “dinner” we walked over to Magazine Street which has some shops and restaurants but my youngest started whining so we took a Lyft back and put the kids to bed.

Later my husband and I went out to walk around the French Quarter and get some drinks. It was fun except Bourbon street was honestly pretty loud and gross (we literally had to step over puke, and that was only at 9:30pm!). We decided to finish the night with a sazerac from the famous bar of the same name in the Roosevelt hotel. It was sublime.

 

The next day we headed over to the aquarium after breakfast. It was very nice with some great exhibits but it was rather small so we finished the whole thing in about an hour. Afterwards we took the riverfront cable car down near the French Market. We tried to have lunch at the famous jambalaya place, Coops, but the kids weren’t allowed in (over 21 only). So we walked through the French Quarter to the oyster place, Felix’s. My older son tried his first raw oysters, and he was not a fan!

 

We had bought the Audobon Experience pass which gets you into the aquarium, the insectarium, and the zoo, with one imax movie pass as well. So after lunch we walked over to the insectarium and spent about an hour there.

 

Following this we headed over to the Steamboat Natchez, the tourist-y steamboat that will take you up the Mississippi a little bit. I had bought tickets ahead of time using Chase ultimate rewards points. Another perk of using these points is you can us them to book activities such as this, and even museum tickets. I’m glad we didn’t pay anything for the tickets because to be honest, the boat was pretty hot and crowded. It was cool to see the engine room and the paddle wheel, and to get up river for a bit.

 

We were so hot when the trip was over, luckily we docked right next to the aquarium and so we were able to duck into the imax theater to use our movie passes to see a film called “Hurricane on the Bayou,” about Katrina and how the destruction of the wetlands and the construction of levees actually contributed to the level of devastation.

That night after the kids went to bed my husband and I walked around the warehouse district which was near our hotel. We checked out the popular restaurant Cochon, but we couldn’t get in (and reservations were full for the rest of our trip). Luckily they have a sister bar next store called Cochon Butcher, which had some delicious small plates and cocktails.

 

On the morning of our last day we took a Lyft to the zoo. I was worried it was going to be too hot to walk around but they did a really nice job designing it so that most of the paths were in the shade and they had several indoor (air conditioned) spaces throughout. We walked around for about 2.5 hours and then were pooped and took a Lyft back to the hotel.

 

Next we walked down towards the National World War II museum which was about a 15 minute walk from our hotel. We hadn’t eaten lunch yet so we stopped at this great place called Auction House Market which was like a high end food court. It had a bar in the center and then various food stations around the perimeter serving various things such as empanadas, dosa, Thai street food, etc. It was a great choice for us because everyone could get what they want and we could eat quickly.

 

The WWII museum was pretty epic. It was fairly crowded since it was Memorial Day weekend, so that was the only downside, but despite the crowds it was still an incredible place. They did such an amazing job walking you through the details of the various battles such as D-day and Midway island. They interspersed text with film and artifacts, as well as recorded oral histories from veterans. We also got to see a little write-up of my grandfather’s unit in Burma, “Merrill’s Marauders.”

 

I cannot recommend this museum enough. If you do get to go, you should allot plenty of time to see it all, at least half a day and if you spent a full day there you would still probably be fine.

Following this we had the kids eat dinner at the hotel’s happy hour and when we got them settled in bed my husband and I went out to dinner at Muriel’s in Jackson Square for our anniversary. The meal was ok but then afterwards we got to meet up with friends from my travel hacking group for a drink in the French Quarter. We had a great time chatting travel and points with them and then headed home to bed.

 

For our last morning we walked back down to the French Quarter. We had wanted to check out the pharmacy museum but it was closed so we went to the voodoo museum instead. We walked around a bit more so my older son could pick out a souvenir, which he found at the flea market.

It was getting so hot that we decided to just head to the airport a little early and hang out in the air conditioned lounge. Since my husband and I both have the Amex Platinum and we were flying on Delta, we were able to go into the Delta sky club. We technically had to pay $29 for each kid, but the clerk only charged us for one! They had a great spread, including muffaletta sliders, pasta salad, chicken salad, jambalaya, hummus, cheese, crudité, and treats, so it was worth it to us to pay the $29 to have free food and drink and a nice air conditioned place to rest before our flight.

The verdict

I loved New Orleans, but man was it hot! And this was only late May! I would love to go back when the weather is cooler. I liked our hotel for the free meals for the kids and the location. The French Quarter was fun but crowded. Their free history museum was great. The highlight of the trip was definitely the World War II museum. If we went back without kids I would make sure to do more historical activities, go to some jazz shows, and spend more time at the WWII museum. I’d also skip the steamboat. There is definitely stuff for kids to do there but they also limit what you can do. The food, of course, was amazing. Overall a fun trip in a city that definitely deserves more time to visit.

Florida!

Apparently this has been the longest winter in 40 years in Syracuse. By April 19th, it was still snowing. Thank goodness I booked a trip to south Florida for the kids’ April break!

The planning

I had a feeling we would be wanting to get somewhere warm in April, so I started looking at flights to Ft. Lauderdale so we could visit my uncle. I was able to find 3 round trip tickets on Delta for $360 each. Kind of high but they must have been jacked up because our area had spring break that week. I used my AMEX membership rewards to book using the 50% points back feature (I think this was the last trip I was able to use this before it went to 35% back), so it ended up being 54,000 MR points total for the flights.

For the room, I started looking for hotels in the Deerfield Beach/Boca Raton area on the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel site, and lucked into the Hyatt Place downtown Boca Raton for 9,000 points a night! That’s really cheap and I think it was because it was a new hotel and they were running a sale to get people to book. We got a room with a king size bed and pull out sofa and free hot breakfast for 4 nights for 36,000 total ultimate rewards points.

I then looked at car rentals and was able to find one for only 9,000 ultimate rewards for the four days.

Now here’s where it started to get really interesting. A few months before the trip I received a call from Delta that they had overbooked our Saturday morning flight, and they asked us to change to a flight that was about 40 minutes later and connected in the 7the gate of Hell, AKA LaGuardia airport. I vowed I would never set foot in that airport again, however I called them back and asked if they had any other flights available, including the night before. They were more than happy to switch us to a 5:40pm flight on Friday connecting through Detroit. So we could just head to the airport after the kids got out of school and gain and extra half day in Florida! They also offered us $300 in travel vouchers or 30,000 skymiles each in compensation! I took the skymiles because I knew I could use those for flights that were worth more than $300, especially if I combined them with the “pukemiles” we earned in October and March (see my last post). So we banked 90,000 skymiles total and got more time in Florida. Winning!

The only caveat was I had to book a hotel for Friday night. When I looked at the Hyatt the points price per night had gone up significantly, so I looked at some other options. I ended up settling on a Hampton Inn for 13,000 Ultimate rewards a night.

The trip

The flights were great, and we even got mysteriously upgraded to Delta comfort (more legroom and free adult beverages, yay!) on the first leg. I have no idea how or why but I’m not gonna look a gift horse in the mouth.

We got to the hotel at around midnight and crashed. The next morning we were scheduled to take an airboat ride at 11am, so we hung out at the Hampton Inn to eat their free breakfast and go for a swim. Unfortunately the pool was gross and full of bugs, AND they had no hot water in the whole hotel! I really wanted a shower after all that travel but not enough to take a cold one. I complained to the front desk and Hilton Hhonors online, and was given 35,000 Hilton Hhonors points for my inconvenience.

After that we met up with my uncle and got to take our first airboat ride through the Everglades. It was so much fun and we spotted about 15 alligators!

We spend the rest of the day chillin at my uncle’s pool and we finally checked into the Hyatt, which was very nice and brand new, right in downtown Boca Raton. That night we went to bed early and were woken up out of a dead sleep by the fire alarm: “emergency!! Please evacuate the hotel. Do not use the elevators!” I figured it was a false alarm but still scary, especially since we were on the 9th floor.

The following day we spent some time at the hotel pool and met up with my uncle to visit Green Caye nature reserve in Delray. This was a really cool park with lots of boardwalks over the wetlands to walk and view nature. They also had a nature center with some aquarium tanks but it was closed. We had a fun walk, despite some downpours. The rain cleared up when we left so we decided to visit Sugar Sand Park in Boca. This place was the best park for kids I’ve ever been to! They had a huge playground area with a huge, multi-level play structure, water misters, and a bunch of other unique playground equipment. They also had a carousel and an indoor science center, which was as nice any science center I’ve ever been to (just smaller), all for FREE (they do accept donations)! The kids had a great time playing and after that we went for dinner at a taco place in Deerfield beach called El Jefe Luchador.

The following day we met my uncle at another amazing park (also donation only), called Gumbo Limbo Nature Center in Boca Raton. This place also had nature trails as well as an indoor nature canter, a turtle rescue center, and aquarium tanks. We were able to see a lot of it before they shut down the outside parts due to an impending thunderstorm. Eventually we left and the kids and I went to a fabulous restaurant for lunch, Fran’s Chicken Haven, for some legit, fresh fried chicken. This was one of the best fried chicken I’ve ever had and definitely a must-eat if you are in Boca.

We tried to go to the beach after that but there were warnings for a rip tide, sea lice, and jellyfish, so we decided to stay at the pool. For dinner we met my uncle at The Funky Biscuit in Boca, which has live music almost every night and great food and drinks (try the biscuits)! The music was great but the kids started to get tired so we went home about 45 minutes into the performance.

The Funky Biscuit

On our last day the kids and I enjoyed more pool time in the sun, and then I dropped them off at my uncle’s house while I had lunch with friends in downtown Delray Beach, which was a cute little area with lots of shops and restaurants. For dinner we met my uncle at a restaurant called Junior’s, which has New York deli style food. It was so good. We had matzoh ball soup, latkes, roast beef and brisket sandwiches, and for dessert we tried their famous cheesecake.

The next day we got up at 3am to make our 5:40 flight and headed home! All in all a super fun trip with lots of amazing parks, great food, and sun!!! And even better is we spent very little money, given that all of our outings (except for the airboat ride) were free, we had free breakfast every day and ate at relatively inexpensive restaurants, and finally ended up with 94,000 skymiles and 35,000 Hilton Honors points.

Washington DC and Richmond, VA

At last count, in our school district, the kids only attend school for 16 days in November (they have 5 full and 2 half days off). We decided to take advantage and visit my Dad, aka, “Grampy,” in Richmond for a few days. Unfortunately, flights from Syracuse to Richmond are expensive and non-direct. Flights to DCA (Reagan National), however, are cheap, direct, and only 2 hours away from my Dad. So I booked flights for a Friday through Tues, where we could get on the plane at 1:20 on Friday because they had a half day, and fly back on Tues when they had a day off, so overall for a 5 day trip they only missed one day of school.

I had booked a Hampton Inn for that first night in DC. I really like staying at Hampton Inns when it’s a quick overnight stay. Yes, they are the Applebee’s of hotels, but at least you know what you are getting. They had a shuttle from the airport and to the metro (saving $ on ubers or cabs), they have a full hot breakfast, the rooms are usually clean and comfortable, and they have a pool. When the kids and I landed we called for the shuttle and got to our room around 4pm. The kids wanted to go swimming immediately but since it was a weekday the pool didn’t open until 6pm. We were bummed, but we decided to instead walk the 2 blocks to the metro and take it over to the Washington Monument and the National Mall. Even though I have been to DC over 30 times, I had never been to the Lincoln Memorial and I really wanted to go there and see it lit up at night. We had a little snafu with the metro (I was a little tired from traveling and thinking you could use it the same way as the NYC subway – where you can use the same card with multiple people. Doesn’t work that way on the metro, but the workers were super nice about it and found me amusing), but then we ended up on the Mall near the African American History Museum (definitely on my list of museums I want to go to but you need to buy tickets in advance and go earlier in the day). The kids loved running around the Monument and laying up against it with their feet up.

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By this point we were all starving, having forgotten to eat lunch (oops!). I knew there wasn’t much in the way of restaurants near the mall, but my iphone informed me a Shake Shack was nearby, so we headed there. After fueling up with burgers, cheese fries, purple cows, and wine. we headed back toward the mall. The kids liked just sitting and playing on the grass, and we lucked out that it was an unusually warm evening for November. We walked down the mall to the WWII memorial, and the kids had fun reading all the states names. We finally made it to the Lincoln Memorial, and there was a unity gathering in front. It seemed likevarious local clergy who were speaking on peace and unity, and we enjoyed listening to them. The Lincoln Memorial was truly breathtaking to see up close and lit up, as was the spot commemorating MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech. My oldest definitely grasped the significance. After that we were very tired from walking so we caught an Uber back to the hotel in Crystal City, just over the river (free with my Amex platinum $15 a month Uber allowance), and the kids got to take a dip in the pool finally before we snuggled in to watch a movie and pass out.

The next morning, after we ate our free hot breakfast, we headed back on the metro (this time with the right number of metro cards). The kids really wanted to see the White House, so we headed over there to take their picture in front of it. To get a tour you need to book it months in advance, which I did not do, but they do have a really nice visitor’s center run by the NPS a few blocks away, which we enjoyed. It was s gorgeous sunny fall day, so we walked through the mall in the other direction this time to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, where we were going to meet up with my Dad who was driving up from Richmond to get us. I hadn’t been to this museum since I was a kid, and it was awesome to go back. They have great exhibits, and of course, being part of the Smithsonian, it’s free! I especially liked the exhibit about passenger airlines throughout the 20th century, and seeing how the cabins and even the uniforms have changed over time.


We stayed for a few hours and then made our way back to Richmond. The next day we went to the Science Museum of Virginia, which seems to be undergoing some updates but had lots of fun, hands on activities for the kids. They especially liked the part that had a little track where they could “race” an alligator, an olympic swimmer, a rat, and others. They also loved playing air hockey against a robot arm. Back at my Dad’s house they tried their luck at some fishing. The following day we visited the Richmond zoo, which had a huge amount of animals and some you could feed, including giraffes. In the late afternoon, we took a pontoon boat ride on the lake and then some more fishing.

The next day we headed back. My Dad booked us Amtrak tickets from Richmond to Alexandria since it would take the same as driving and he wouldn’t have to fight the DC traffic. The train was on time and empty, which was great because we could all stretch out. We stopped in Alexandria at about 1:30pm but our flight wasn’t until 6. If it had been sunny I would have tried to rent a locker or something to store our luggage at the train station so we could walk around Old Town Alexandria, but it was cold and pouring rain, so that didn’t seem very fun. Instead we took and Uber over to the airport. Washington National (DCA) is a small airport, and as such, it doesn’t have many options for lounges. There are no Priority Pass Lounges, just Delta sky club and the American Airlines Admirals Club. I saw online that I could buy a day pass for the Admiral’s Club for $59 and the kids would get in free, and I was sold. So we spent several hours there. Looking back , this was absolutely the right call, especially since our flight ended up getting delayed by an hour so we were there for 5 hours! The lounge allowed us to have comfy chairs, wifi, power outlets, and drinks and snacks that we noshed on all day. If we had had to have sat in the regular airport that long, I probably would have spent more than that on food alone and we would have been miserable. They had chili, hummus and chips, veggies, cookies, brownies, trail mix, and fruit.  Plus complimentary sodas, wine, and beer, and then in the afternoon, made-to-order quacamole and chips.

IMG_9067

Thank goodness for lounges!

Around 7 we went next door to the dreaded Gate 35x (it’s where all the small commuter jets leave from and can be a bit of a cluster-you-know-what), waited another 30 mins past the scheduled delay, and finally boarded the hour flight to Syracuse. Overall another fun, successful trip!

 

 

 

 

 

Disney part III: Making the most of your time and philosophical musings

In this last post on Disney I am going to share my tips for time management/fun maximization and also, because I am a psychologist and former philosophy major, some thoughts I have about why Disney is so popular.

Disney time management

Being a tad OCD, I excel at maximizing time efficiency. It’s not always the best trait, as I sometimes (ok frequently) have trouble relaxing, but on a vacation at Disney this quality pays off if you want to make the most of your trip (i.e., do the most number of rides with the least amount of wait time). That said, here are my top tips for maximizing fun at Disney. Most of these I learned through my research from various Disney blogs and books, some are tips from friends.

Make a plan! It pays to research ahead of time when it comes to Disney. Because it is so darn predictable (my comments about that in the next section), there are people out there that can “forecast” your trip, in terms of crowds and events, much like a weather forecast except they can do so years in advance. So before you go, consult a crowd calendar online and plan which days have the lowest crowds for which parks. I don’t know the algorithms they use but I know some factors that go into it, including which parks have extra magic hours (EMH) that day. EMHs are when a certain park opens earlier or closes later but only for Disney resort guests. You probably want to avoid the park that has EMH that day because it will draw more people that want to take advantage of them. Disney also has events year-round that affect crowd levels. So for example the past two times we went were during the Disney marathon. On marathon day the race begins and ends at Epcot (they have a party for the runners there), so we made sure to avoid the parks that day).

You also want to know what rides you want to do ahead of time, and if you’ve never been to Disney, do your research on the rides! Otherwise you might get stuck in something like Tiki birds or Hall of Presidents when you could be doing Haunted Mansion!

Download some apps! You know how we always say, “how did we live without smart phones?” Well I don’t know how we did Disney without apps. There are several, including the official WDW app that will give you real time wait times for all the rides. That means you could be in line at Jungle Cruise and check your phone to see how long the line is at Space Mountain across the park, to see if you should run over there after your ride is over or look for something else. The “Lines” app by Touringplans.com even gives you “actual” wait times (vs what WDW posts), and tells you whether you should ride now or wait, bases on their predictions of whether the line time will go up or down. 

The lines app by touringplans.com is not well designed in my opinion, but it will also give you a detailed itinerary for your day at the park to maximize efficiency. You simply input which park you want to go to on which day, the times you will be there, which rides and restaurants you want to go to, any fast pass times you already know, and any breaks you want to take, and the app will spit out a minute-by-minute plan for you to follow. Since we go on low crowd days I sort of loosely follow the plans, but I think it can be very useful on crowded days, as it tells you when you should be at which ride for the least amount of line waiting.

Use fast pass! If you are staying on WDW property you can start booking your FP selections 60 days in advance (30 days if off property). Set an alarm and make sure you book these on your WDW app exactly when your window opens (it will open at 9am, no need to wait up till midnight). This is essential for really popular rides such as Frozen, Mine Train, Test Track, etc. Also a good rule of thumb is to book the Fast Pass selections during mid-day, not when the park opens or closes, because you can usually get on the popular rides without long lines within the first 30-60 mins of park opening and likewise the last 30-60 mins of the park closing. Also book your fast passes more towards the early part of the day because once you use all 3 you can book another one that day, and keep booking them as you use them. So for example, if you have used all your fast passes by 1pm, you can now go on your app and book another one for later that day. Usually the most popular rides won’t have availability, but you should be able to find fast passes for the “second tier” rides like Haunted Mansion and save more time on lines (so don’t expect to be able to do this for the really popular rides, always lock those in ahead of time). I usually start looking in the app as soon as they have scanned my last fast pass.

Get to the park as soon as it opens and stay until it closes (but take a break in between). You can take advantage of short lines during these times. As soon as the park opens book it over to the rides that have the longest lines (like Peter Pan in Magic Kingdom), especially if you don’t have a fast pass for those later in the day, this maximizing your time on the “best” rides. We also usually do a mad dash around the best rides 60 miniures before the park closes, especially when everyone is watching the shows.

 Take breaks in the middle of the day. All of the WDW blogs and books will tell you this and it’s great advice. In the middle of the day when everyone is tired, it gets hotter, and the crowds are bigger, head back to your hotel for a rest and then go back to the parks for the afternoon/evening. You’ll feel more refreshed and able to finish out the rest of the day.

Finally, my thoughts on why people LOVE Disney. When you go to WDW you will find people who go every year and have been hundreds of times. Think about that. If you are 35 years old, to go one hundred times you would have had to go an average of 3x a year since you were born. It seems crazy but there are people who do it (lots of them). Why? I think one reason is the nostalgia aspect. Although WDW does change and improve their rides and the park itself, a lot of it remains the same and in good condition. That means there are parts of the park that look and operate the same now as they did back in 1982. In that way it’s kind of frozen in time. There aren’t many places that can offer this and it feels really good to people. Did you ever travel back to a place you had been to as a kid, only to see that it had changed dramatically from your memory? Do you remember how sad and disappointed you felt? Disney helps to guard against this by changing things slowly and keeping their most popular attractions very much that same over time. Since it is so tightly controlled and systematized, you know that your walk through frontierland is going to look roughly the same today as it did in 2002, 1992, and 1982. This just naturally feels good, like you are going “home” again. I think Disney is well aware that this nostalgia factor is part of what keeps folks coming back over and over again, so they make sure to keep many things exactly the same while improving others (because in addition to liking things to stay the same we also want to see some new things).

I also think people love Disney because of what I discussed in an earlier blog post. It takes the anxiety out of traveling for most people. At WDW, especially if you’ve been there before, you don’t have to wonder “what’s it going to be like when I get there?” You know that everything is in the same spot, and occurs at the same time as it has for 40+ years. You also know with absolute surety that the people who work their will be nice to you and go out of their way for you no matter what. This is not likely to be the case anywhere else you may go, and so again, Disney takes away that anxiety that so many of us feel when traveling. Is it completely fabricated and therefore unrealistic? Of course! But that’s what Disney does best. So while I do believe it is important to challenge oneself through travel, and to use travel as a way to learn how to better manage your anxiety, it’s always nice to take a little break and visit Fantasyland for little while.

Key West

This post will be brief since we were actually traveling without kids, but we just got back from a 4 day, 3 night trip to Key West, also paid for with points and miles. This was to celebrate our 10 year anniversary so my mom and step-Dad graciously watched the kids for us.

We stayed at the Hyatt Centric which has a great location right in Old Town on the water between Mallory Square and the main docks. The hotel was awesome and had a pool, a tiny little beach that was great for snorkeling, and little turtle ponds! We told them it was our 10 year anniversary and they hooked us up with a bottle of champagne and chocolate covered strawberries. 

Here’s how we got this trip for free:

2 round trip tickets from Syracuse to Key West on Delta = 70k skymiles (35 k each). I transferred American Express membership rewards to Delta (1:1 ratio). 35k a ticket is a little high for domestic travel but we needed specific dates and were flying small airport to small airport. We definitely could have gotten the tix for probably 25k each if we flew into Miami and drove (which would have been cool), but we really didn’t have a lot of time for this trip.

3 nights at the Hyatt Centric:  My husband took out the Chase Hyatt credit card (I still haven’t been able to get this one because of Chase’s 5/24 rule). You get 2 free nights at any Hyatt after you spend 3,000. So we used those two nights and then added a 3rd night which I paid for with Chase Ultimate Rewards. Looking back at my receipt it seems I paid 40k UR, which seems like too much. You can also transfer UR to your Hyatt account and pay with Hyatt points (our room would have been 25,000 points), but I can’t remember why I didn’t do this. It may have been that they didn’t have award rooms available when I booked or it could have been a rookie mistake. But you should always compare transferring points to a travel partner (hotel or airline program) vs using points (e.g. Chase’s ultimate rewards or Amex’s Membership Rewards) via their travel portal to see which is the better deal.

Overall we had a great time in KW. I think you could take kids there but it wouldn’t be my first choice with kids. There aren’t a lot of things to do other than eating, drinking, and boating (which could be great for a older kids, minus the drinking of course). I think it would be a good trip for families as a tour of the keys. There also aren’t nice beaches like there are in other parts of the keys, although the state park had one and there’s another one closer to the airport (Dog beach).

Some things we did include, riding bikes around the Island and stopping at the Eco-Discovery center (free!) near Fort Zachary Taylor state park (2.50 each on bikes). The Eco-discovery center gives you some nice info about the ecology and conservation efforts of the Keys. The Hemingway house, of course, which I loved since EH was one of the only authors I liked reading in high school, despite his rampant mysogyny. Duval street is good for people watching, especially as the night goes on and people get drunker (although we saw a fair amount of daytime drunks too), and Mallory square has a cute little “sunset celebration” with street performers and a couple food trucks.

We also took the ferry out to Dry Tortugas national park, which is a full day excursion (8am – 5:30pm). It is a 2.5 hour boat ride there and back and they give you a simple breakfast and lunch. If it’s a rough day at sea you may feel it, so come prepared with Dramamine. I am usually ok on boats as long as I can stay on deck but at one point it was too rough so the captain made us go inside and that’s when I started to feel awful. The crew walks around with barf bags (which I didn’t need thankfully) and they will bring you ginger ale and water and ice. My husband was also pretty green but luckily he was able to hang tough. The national park itself is amazing. It’s the ruins of a fort which at one point was also a prison. There’s birding, fishing, And snorkeling around the fort. There is an awesome reef around the mote and you can snorkel along it. I saw a ton of great fish including huge parrot fish. I would highly recommend this trip if you can stomach the boat ride.


Otherwise we did lots of eating and drinking! Conch fritters and key lime pie are the “have to” treats, but we ate great meals throughout our trip. My favorite restaurants were The Flaming Buoy, Bien (amazing Cuban sandwiches), the Cuban Coffee Queen for coffee, and this great little tequila bar across from Mallory Square made an awesome basil Paloma. 

All in all it was a great little “grown-up” trip and we had a great time. I would love to return one day.

Disney by the numbers, Part II

In my last post I explained how we were able to plan a week-long trip to Disney World using points and miles to pay for much of the trip. With points and miles we were able to get a suite at Homewood Suites for 7 nights for free, 4 plane tickets, a rental car for a week, and four 2-day, park to park tickets for Universal Studios. The only things we paid for were the 6 day WDW park-hopper tickets ($1700) and our food. In the last post I contrasted that with how much we paid two years ago when we did didn’t use points and miles and stayed on Disney property (Wilderness Lodge), with the meal plan.

In this post I am going to discusss this trip versus the last trip and compare and contrast our accommodations and food. Finally in the end I will outline for you how you could potentially take a trip with your family to WDW FOR FREE (even the park tickets).

So, here are the numbers:

Lodging: 7 nights at Homewood Suites: FREE with Hilton HHonors points.

Transportation: 4 plane tickets: FREE with Delta skymiles

Rental Car: Free with Chase Ultimate Rewards

Parking: $80 (3 days at WDW and one day at Universal for $20 each)

Lyft: $10

Park tickets: 5 day park-hopper at WDW: $1700

2 day park to park Universal: FREE with bankamericard travel rewards.

Food and drink for 8 days: $995

Grand total: $2696
(Total for 2015 staying on property at Wilderness Lodge with meal plan: $7000)

So in all, our 7 day trip to WDW and Universal Orlando was 60% less than when we stayed on property 2 years ago. Not bad! On to the comparisons:

The lodging
While nice, it certainly wasn’t Disney. It was a typical mid-level hotel. The pool and hot tub were nice and we used them a few times but the weather wasn’t very warm. The biggest benefit was the free hot breakfast every morning. Was it gourmet, no. But was it on par with the breakfast you would pay for (either in cash or on the meal plan) at a WDW resort? In my experience, yes.

They had eggs plus a meat plus potatoes or grits or something every day, the typical cereals, muffins, fruit etc, and make-your-own Mickey waffles which the kids loved. Then, on Monday – Thursday they had a managers reception with free food, wine, and beer, which we used 3 nights. Again, it wasn’t anywhere near gourmet food but we filled up enough that we never bought dinner at the parks those nights which saved us at least $150 as you can’t eat as a family of 4 in the parks for less than $50.

The room was definitely way bigger and better than the one we had last time on property at Wilderness Lodge. We had a suite with a queen sleeper sofa for the kids, a separate bedroom with a king bed, and a full kitchen with a full size fridge, stove, microwave and dishwasher. I’m not one to cook dinner on vacation, but if you wanted to save even more money you could definitely cook full meals in this room.

The verdict
Hotel (other than room): B+
Room: A

The food

Ok so here’s the caveat. My husband and I don’t scrimp when it comes to food, especially on vacation. So the $1000 we spent on food and drinks is WAY more than we needed to spend. I would imagine you could do a week at Disney for half that, especially if you cooked dinner at home.

We did eat breakfast for free every day at the hotel and we made use of their “manager’s reception” three times for dinner. What really broke the bank was when we ate meals in the parks, especially WDW (Universal’s food surprisingly seemed to cost a little less). Our most expensive meal was at the French bistro in World Showcase, where we plunked down $170 for a meal that was good, but anywhere outside the park would have been no more than $100. We also spent about $50-$100 for lunch in the park a few times (about 5x). This could have easily been avoided by packing lunch and bringing it to the parks, which you are allowed to do. Otherwise we did eat at outside restaurants like Macaroni Grill and Chevy’s a few times, and their prices were the same as anywhere else, so pretty reasonable.

Overall, I think we did ok with food and we had some decent meals, but nothing to write home about. There was a family owned Cuban restaurant near our hotel that I really wanted to try but we never made it over there. So my only regret is we didn’t take the time to try to find the few local gems among all the chains in the area.

Transportation
We did rent a car for 7 days and I LOVED the freedom convenience of that. We didn’t drive it every day to the parks, so I think we spent a total of $80 on parking (it’s $20 per day but you can go from park to park on the same receipt. We used the hotel shuttle twice, which was ok but only when their timeline matched ours. Then we used Uber and Lyft about 4 times (the place is crawling with drivers), and since we had some discount codes we only paid about $10 for the four rides.

You could definitely use Uber and Lyft the whole time and it might be about the same as a rental car, depending on how long you were there for. But given that our car was free I think we made out.

So, how could you go to Disney FOR FREE??

It definitely can be done, especially if you want to take a shorter trip and if you planned far in advance (1-2 years). There actually already are some blogs on travel hacking to Disney, check out Points to Neverland. They give a lot of great tips for how to do Disney on points and miles.

Here is what I would recommend:

Flights:
Do some research and figure out what airlines usually have the most convenient and cheapest flights from where you live. Go on their website to determine what they usually charge for award miles per flight (which will vary depending on peak vs. off-peak). Then take out a card (your spouse might need to take one out too if you are a family of 4 or 5) for that airline and start racking up bonus points until you get enough to book your flights.

Lodging:
Do some research on all the hotels in the area that take part in points programs. The big ones or Hilton HHonors, SPG, Marriott, and IHG. If you want to stay on property you can use SPG points to book the Swan or Dolphin (but read reviews first, they’re not great), or Hilton Bonnet Creek. Off property there are dozens of options. Look up how many points you will need for the number of nights you want to stay. Then take out a card for that hotel group and start racking up points. Again, you may need your spouse to take out a card to get enough points, or you can also take out a card for a general points program such as Chase Ultimate rewards or American Express Membership Rewards to then transfer the UR or MR to your hotel program (for example Membership Rewards will transfer to Hilton hhonors or SPG and Ultimate Rewards will transfer to Hyatt, Marriott, and IHG) to add more points to get to your goal.

Park Tickets: 
These are expensive so you may have to start a year in advance. If you take out a BankAmericard Travel Rewards card and put the tickets on that and then use the bonus points plus use that card for all of your expenses for a year, you could make it work. You may need your spouse to take out the card too and then you split the tickets (e.g. you each buy 2 for a family of 4). So for example, for 4 day tickets to WDW that would be a total of $1260 (not park hopper) or $630 each. You would need 63,000 travel rewards points to cover that. You would get 20,000 bonus points each for signing up and spending 1000 the first month (so really its 21,500 right there because for every dollar you spend you get 1.5 points). So that leaves you with 41,500 points that you need to acquire. You would each need to spend $27, 666 on the card to get enough points to do that. Which seems like a lot, but a) you have a year to do it and b) if you put every single thing you pay for (usually only mortgage, student loans, and power bills are not payable with a card, but everything else is) for a year, you could probably reach it or get pretty darn close. Even if you only got to cover half of it, you would still be going to Disney for $600 or so.

If you planned far enough in advance, you could actually have 2 years to save up enough points for this. You would take out the card one year before you wanted to buy the tickets and rack up all your points, so let’s say you were able to collect 45k points in that first year with the 20k point bonus. At the start of year 2, you would buy the Disney tickets on the card, then you could pay down the cost of them by putting your 45k points immediately. You would then have a year to rack up the 18,000 extra points to pay for the rest (that translates to spending $12,000 and you can keep paying it down each month with whatever points you earn that month). Once you know how to do the math and if you can predict about how much you would spend using the card for your expenses, you could predict how many days you could potentially cover with the points.

Transportation:
There are many cards that give you points that you can redeem for rental cars and Uber and Lyft rides. So if you think you might use one or a combo of these I recommend looking into getting a card for Chase Ultimate Rewards, Amex Membership Rewards, the Capital One Venture Card, the Barclay Arrival Plus card, or using the Bank Americard travel rewards. The bonuses alone for each of these cards would cover your transportation costs.

Food:
I’ve already discussed how to save money on food. You can also use Disney gift cards throughout the park so I would recommend buying Disney gift cards ahead of time and using them for EVERYTHING you buy in the park. If you wanted to try to use points for those cards, you would look for a card that gives you points to use at a retailer that sells Disney gift cards. For example, if you took out an AMEX card you could use your membership rewards at Best Buy.com and buy Disney gift cards there. Theoretically, with enough points and planning you could get enough cards to eat for free in the parks! You could also purchase them from a store that will give you bonus points and/or a discount however. For example I bought all of ours at Staples so I got 5X their purchase price in points from my Chase Ink Plus card. BJ’s offers them at a discount and sometimes the Chase Freedom has BJ’s and other warehouse clubs as one of their 5x points categories, so that would be a great option to get a discount on them and rack up the points.