Weekend In: Philly pt1

The Memorial Day, I took advantage of free family housing (read: visited family) and went to Philadelphia, PA. I drove from Michigan. I brought a friend. I’d been to Philly previously for work, but this would be my first trip to see the sites and be a citizen.

Here are 5 things I didn’t realize about Philly:

1. Traveling on on the Ohio and PA turnpike is expensive.

Traveling on the turnpike is a great a idea for a number of reasons. It’s also horrible. Ohio has it figured out, with nearly exactly $20 in tolls from outside Toledo east through the state. Pennsylvania, however, is having issues. I-76, the PA turnpike, is under construction. And clearly paying for all of that with the tolls of one year. Crossing PA cost nearly $60, for one car. There’s a lot of construction. We did not take it west/home, and did not, really, take any more time. Six complete stops on the way there(Thursday, Friday); zero on the way home (Monday).

2. Probably, parking will be a nightmare.

I get city living, in theory. No, you don’t need a car. Great. Then why is it so hard for me to park mine?! Now, keep in mind there is an entire television show about the Philadelphia parking authority. I’ve seen it. It’s a shit show. And now I know why. Over night parking at “a cheap lot” cost $33 for 24 hours. Thankfully we found street parking seven blocks away for the remainder of the trip.

3. “City hot” is a whole other thing.

This weekend was hot. HOT. Summer hot. Nearly 90 degrees in Philly. But humid and stagnant and “city hot”. City hot is different because there is no escape. There was an occasional breeze — and they were lovely! — but generally the hot just descends on the city and doesn’t go anywhere. For three days. And you’re walking. Hot.

4. New Jersey is, like, right there.

I grew up literally across a narrow river from Wisconsin. I understand that states touch. I just did not realize all of that was happening so close to the city of Philadelphia. This was immediately obvious due to the traffic from everyone leaving the city for “down the shore.”

5. Chinatown is a must.

IMG_2574The Chinatown in Philly is absolutely fantastic. Nearby Franklin Park is currently hosting a Chinese lantern festival (through 12 June). Admission is $17 per person at night, to experience them in their full glory, but if you can only take a quick stop during the day, you won’t be disappointed. And it’s free! This picture and the one above was taken there. A surprise lion dance popped up down one street while the red pagoda entrance beckoned us into Chinatown proper. Stop for lunch at Dim Sum Garden. The three of us spent $28 on 5 items (total) and left food on the table. The soup dumplings were fun (be careful — they’re hot!), and the pork fried dumplings were the best I’d ever had. It’s no wonder they were voted Zagat’s Best Asian Restaurant in the city.

1 Week Out

It’s t-minus one week to Memorial Day weekend. Are you ready?!

In true American form, I’ll be adventuring out on the road. A four day trip; nine hours of driving way. With this being the last weekend before the trip, there is plenty to get done. Here’s what I’m up to, and my “one week out checklist.”

Ready the Ride

There is no way around it: a safe and functioning car. A quick run of the vacuum and some Armor All will make sure the car is comfortable. The important part is the mechanics. Oil change time! We’ll fill up the wiper fluid. Check the tire pressure. All important.

Planning the Packing

When you drive somewhere, there are far fewer restrictions on what you can pack. There’s no weight limit, or size requirements (per say) for baggage. But just because you can bring everything you own, doesn’t mean you should.

Four days, in decently hot weather, with walking planned, I’ll be packing two outfits for each day. Day and evening. As few shoes as possible. Some laundry soap for delicates. Not a blow dryer — because I called to make sure I don’t have to. (Really, if you have a question, just call.) Should be able to manage a carry on sized bag and be good. But planning what I’m going to wear is well under way. What should I pack, and what will I wear this week for work? Why is this important? Laundry.

The Supplies

We’re bringing a map. A real paper (ok, its laminated) map. Of course we have GPS –I’m a waze enthusiast. But when I’m unsure where I’m going, or (shock, no shock) my phone dies, the trip continues. I also like the idea of a map, so it’s coming. A cooler for drinks and good snacks. If you don’t bring the foods and drinks you want, you’ll be forced to eat and drink what you can find. And while that’s fun, that’s also risky when your trapped in the car with someone.

There will be some last minute scrambling. Because always.

Weekend In: Cleveland

Despite its relative proximity to the southeast Michigan, I’ve never been to Cleveland before. Or, I don’t remember being there if I have ever been. Which I generally think is worse than not having been.

When the opportunity came to head down for the day, I was happy to ride along. I brought along the audio version of Andy Cohen’s “Most Talkative,” and after a leisurely breakfast, we were off. Metro-Detroit to Cleveland is a manageable three hours. On the way there, we took the lake-side route, avoiding tolls.

During this quick trip, there was only one clear goal. We were meeting up with a good friend of Lauren’s at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame “around” lunch. It was a bright, sunny…. windy, freezing day along the lake shore. Which is precisely where the RRHOF is.

Parking couldn’t have been easier, with a structure at the adjacent Great Lakes Science Center. With a bit of time to burn, we harnessed our inner child and did some exploring.

More of a ‘hand-on-museum’, the Science Center offered kids the opportunity to interact with every exhibit. Admittedly, two grown ladies are not the audience for this place. This became extremely clear as the combined noise of “all the crap on the 3rd floor” had us rushing for the exit after one quick turn.

Lunch and more adult scenery beckoned and we made our way to the RRHOF. The restaurant offered few, but quality choices, and was not ridiculously priced. Which is always nice to see in museums. Perhaps because there is an entrance fee , there’s no need to rake you over at concession too. Thoughtful of them. We ate and waited, and soon friends arrived and our tour of the building began.

The layout of the RRHOF was not entirely easy to navigate. Several “half floors” and back-tracking stairs made it a bit confusing. The 5th and 6th floor special exhibit area featured a photo expo on Herb Ritts, which was outstanding. To my mind, more space could have been dedicated to this.

To me, the best parts of the museum were the engraved walls with each inductee’s signature, and the lowest level which contains wardrobe from notable acts. The meat dress is here, as are the tour costumes of many contemporary artists.

The final stop on the tour, and one which should not go without comment, was the store. A huge selection of vinyl records, tshirts, magnets and more take up nearly half of the first floor.

In total, we spent about six hours in Cleveland. This seems like just the right amount of time to do both museums. If you have kids, you’ll undoubtedly spend more time at the GLSC, but presumably less time at the HOF.

Weekend In: Washington DC, Part 3

Previously, I posted on making travel arrangements and finding accommodations and staying on budget by taking advantage of the huge list of free attractions in DC. Now let’s talk about staying on budget AND spending money. This post is about the bells and the whistles.

The most important part to staying on budget is actually knowing your budget. This may seem condescending or elementary, but this important detail is easily over-looked. This is particularly important if you are not traveling alone, as unplanned expenses wrack up exponentially.

When you consider your budget, there are two common ways to organize your information: by day or by trip. (You can also sub-categorize by expense type, food, transportation, etc, but for simplification I will not go that far.) There are pros and cons to each method, and you should use the one that works best for you. How are you comfortable thinking about money? Whatever your answer, that’s the way you should use. Because you have to be comfortable with your budget, and know how to work it.

I have used both methods and, generally, use both for each trip. What is my trip budget, and what does that mean for each day. I try to alternate which kind of activity takes the majority of my budget each day. One day may be dinner at the restaurant of a Top Chef finalist; the next a private tour at the Newseum. A river-tour brunch or a segway tour. (Disclosure: I’ve not done the segway tour, but I’d love to!)

On this trip, I toured the Newseum. Itself one of only a handful of museums which charge admission, the private tour was an additional charge. And it was amazing. But I’m a newsy person. I’d been to the museum before, each time taking advantage of the “free second day” with paid admission. I was pleased to have the insights into some of the exhibits I’d seen before. I still cried at the 9/11 monument. The wall of newspapers was still overwhelming.

We took a river cruise for lunch to celebrate my friend’s birthday. We had the best hamburger I’ve ever had. Shout to to Plan B, across from the DoJ on Pennsylvania. (We actually ate there twice!) We walked a lot. We laughed a lot. We got lost. But only once.

As in life, vacation spending is all about balance. Have fun. Wear comfortable shoes. Only eat what you won’t/can’t make at home. Don’t rush through it. Spend your money on moments, not things. Take – and print – your pictures.

Weekend In: Washington DC, Part 2

In my previous post, I talked a bit about determining travel and accommodations when planning a trip. For nearly every trip, travel and accommodations will be the most expensive part of your location.

There are certainly ways this could be untrue, however. Going to the Super Bowl? Having an exotic surgery? Score Hamilton tickets? As with cruising, how you spend your waking hours has the opportunity to significantly impact the budget.

For “cheap to free” activities, there’s hardly a city with as much to offer as Washington, DC. With a few notable exceptions, much of the cities attractions, supported by tax dollars, have no admission charge. There are NINETEEN Smithsonian Institute museums and attractions, including the National Zoo, in DC. Each is free and open every day (save Christmas). (source) Most of the 19 are located on Constitution and Jefferson Dr, between the Washington Monument and the U.S. Capital.

Keep in mind, though you could easily walk between each of these dozen or so places in one day, you won’t. And you shouldn’t! I’ve been to several of these places multiple times and still have yet to see everything. The National Portrait Gallery, a few-blocks walk, never seems to stop providing things I’ve never seen before.

In addition to these “inside activities,” there are innumerable things to keep you busy outside. Washington DC is an incredibly walk-able city, though a bit hilly heading north of the mall. There are multiple stations to rent bikes for the day; valid credit card with a bit of room required. Some rentals require a large deposit (I think $300 the first time I used one); some do not, including Capital Bikeshare.

Whether you’re walking, running, or biking, some of the best and easiest paths in DC are the well traveled loop around the Tidal Basin around the monuments. Depending on how you go, and whether or not you loop up to see the White House or the Capital, the travel distance could range from just about 4 miles to nearly 13. Generally, it’s a well marked path with many opportunities to rest… or hail a cab or catch an Uber.

One word of caution. The Monument path is not especially well lit, nor busy in late fall evenings. During this recent trip, I managed to skip a major portion of the sites, turning right when I should have turned left, and had to circle back around to see it all. Which was lovely. But tiring. So watch your signs. The Monuments at night are something to see, however, and I encourage you to try to get that in.

Weekend In: Washington DC, Part 1

Washington DC is one of my favorite places to visit. Despite having been quite a few times, there is always so much to see and do. There’s never enough time. Or leg energy.

The sights. The food. The people. The mobs of clueless tourists. Oh, wait…

In the next several posts I’m going to address each of those things, based on my previous experiences. I recently spent four days in the capital,  fortunate to accompany a friend for a long weekend to celebrate her birthday. And she had never been.

In this post I’m going to cover the first two aspects of trips: airports and hotels.

While Reagan is right in town (alert – it feels like you’re going to land on the river), you can sometimes save a bit of money flying into Baltimore. If your schedule is more flexible than your budget, this may be a good option. You can take the train (I believe for as little as $9) into DC from BWI.

I’ve flown into both, and they have their advantages. Detroit (my home airport) is a Delta hub. Say what you will, but I’ve always had great experiences on Delta. Delta flies to both DCA and BWI. I’ve gotten deals into both, and really chose the airport each time based on where I was going and what was the most convenient. Both have mass transit directly in the terminal.

Choosing your hotel will, most likely, be the most expensive part of your stay. Great news – a lot of stuff is cheap-to-free in DC. Bad news – the hotels seem to know this.

The most important factors in determining where to stay are location and budget. But together, not separately. If you get a great deal on a hotel which requires a $30 cab ride…. Your deal is decidedly less great. And forking out $60 a day to get to and from where you actually want to be will be more painful than just spending $60 extra per night on a hotel. DC has horrible traffic. All the time. Every day. Horrible. If you are comfortable jumping onto the train or a bus, and the hotel is seriously close to a stop, consider it.

Let’s use my trip as an example. We stayed at the Washington Hilton. The hotel was great. Clean, comfortable, quiet. It was also about $14 each way in a cab to the White House or, say, the Washington Monument. We got a smoking deal on the room, so that $30, give or take, was worth it. And even with cabbing around part of each day, I walked no less than 10 miles each day. Had the hotel been closer, would I have been forced to walk there too? Shudder….

With 660 hotels in the DC area (source), you will certainly be able to find a hotel in the right area, within your budget.

Day-cation

Earlier this summer, around the 4th of Juky holiday, I spent some time at my childhood home. I grew up in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. (Michigan has two parts, connected by a 5-mile bridge. The Upper Peninsula and the Lower Peninsula.  They call the Upper  — the U.P. They call the Lower — Michigan.)

Most of my large, extended family still lives in the area, or within a reasonable drive.  My drive is an unreasonable 8.5 hours.

The U.P. is a beautiful, remote place. At my dad’s house I literally have no cell phone reception. In 2015. But truly, so beautiful. Within its 16,377 square miles, there are:

  • Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
  • Coasts on three Great Lakes
  • Keweenaw National Historic Park
  • Ottawa National Forest
  • Hiawatha National Forest
  • Many National Wild and Scenic Rivers
  • Technically, Mackinaw Island is part of the U.P.
  • All but ONE of Michigan’s more than 300 waterfalls

During one day of my vacation home, a few of us took a few hours to explore. We set out into Wisconsin (it’s literally across the river; this is not far). We went to a small Mennonite grocery.  We had ice cream. Went went to Dave’s Falls.

view from the footbridge to the upper falls

 

Dave’s Falls is named in honor of a brave, industrious lumberjack who died at the falls trying to clear a log jam. It’s was gorgeous. And , clearly, the place mosquitos are born. Sweet. Jesus. But the rushing, copper-tinted water was breathtaking. Access to the falls and the small park are quintessentially U.P.: cheap, and on the honor system. Simply take an envelope out, rip off the validation tab for your windshield, insert your $3 and deposit the fee in the box.

The facilities are also U.P.-esque: gender specific outhouses and an old hand pump for water.  Someone had obviously been more successful than I was with it. The ground was wet, but I got nothing with my six or seven pumps.

The route to the falls was a bit difficult. As it was an unplanned stop, my flip flops proved less than desirable on the foot-worn, root-heavy path and smooth, uneven granite ledge.

In all, we spent about an hour laughing, exploring, listening, and slapping bugs.  It was a great stop, and I’m happy to check this U.P.-adjacent waterfall off my list!

Rapids at the bottom of the falls

 

Free* (with purchase)

asterisk

Much like only paying once (see previous), one of the easiest and best ways to save on travel is by understanding the perks or benefits of the things you already have.

I have AAA. Because I don’t want to ever have to change a flat tire or pay for a locksmith or walk along the side of the highway when I’ve run out of gas. But AAA also offers tons of free travel information, cheap (or free, depending on your AAA membership type) passport photos, advice, travel agents and more free… with the purchase of a AAA membership.

But what about the discounts I can get from other companies? My AAA membership gets me discounts with car rentals, hotels, florists… the list goes on.

That Costco membership you got to save on toilet paper and cereal? That card will get you discounts on cruises, airfare, rental cars, amusement parks, travel insurance and more.

What else do you subscribe to/belong to/own which could mean spending less on vacations?

Before you start looking to buy something new, start by taking a better look at what you’re already entitled to. You might not realize what discounts you’re already paying for!

Hotels, Part 2

When traveling, the options for where you will sleep are pretty varied. Where you stay opens, or closes, you to different options. There is nothing wrong with any; this is your vacation. Do what you want, and what works for you.

The main question you’ll have to answer is: what are you looking for this ‘place’ to do for you? Will you only be sleeping here? Will you use it as a base camp, where people will rotate in and out during the day? Will you eat there? Will you prepare meals there? What, really, are you looking for?

A friend’s couch, or spare room

If you are making your decision completely by budget, you’re probably going to wind up staying with people you know. While you may not have to pay as much actual money, this type of lodging may come with a more personal ‘cost,’ potentially adding stress to relationships and requiring a loss of privacy. I believe this situation only works when you are traveling to a city to visit that person, not traveling to see the city and stay for free with someone you know. Sure, you don’t have to spend 100% of your time with your hosts, but they should be the best thing you see while in town. No one likes a free-loader. No. One.

A stranger’s spare room (or more!)

There are a lot of great resources which allow you to rent a room in someone’s home while you are on vacation. The most popular is Airbnb.com. For a fraction of what a traditional hotel room might cost, you can search tons of options. But it’s not just the random spare bedroom in the basement. Oh no! Airbnb also includes full apartment sublet and results from local bed and breakfasts. Recently scams involving postings for properties which are not actually for rent have been in the news. (People ruin everything. Jerks.)

A condo, timeshare, apartment or house

For me, when you’re staying more than a couple of days or when you’re traveling with a group of people, renting a condo or timeshare is the best way to stay. When Trisha and I went to the Cayman Islands in 2002, we rented a condo and it was perfect. Separate bathrooms were a savior in the morning. We had a kitchen and a grill, and ate most of our meals in. We spent $90 on food for the week, including charcoal. THE WEEK! This saved us over $1,000. The luxury of having snacks on hand, and being able to grab a piece of fruit in the afternoon was great. Each time we ate out, it was over $30. Including the time we ate at the beach bar across the street and only had a hot dog and a bag of chips! Eating cereal for breakfast on the patio did not lessen the magic of our vacation. Again, do some research. There are some great options that offer both U.S. and foreign options, including vrbo.com.

A hostel

When we went to Europe in 1999, there were conversations about staying at hostels and we knew those options were there for us if we needed them. Planning a vacation around a hostel stay does require a lot of flexibility, but if it works out you will be rewarded in the wallet. Contrary to the thinking of many U.S. travelers, hostels are not just for college kids. Do some research; there are hostels for many types of travelers. Keep in mind that you may be required to bring linens or towels, but as you are planning ahead that won’t be a problem.

A traditional hotel

There are a lot of great reasons to stay in a hotel. Maid and room service not being the least of them. There is a fair amount of security in hotels and, for the most part, you can trust that your belongings will be safe while you are out for the day/evening. The concierge at your hotel may be able to help secure excursions or event access which would otherwise be impossible for you to get. And let’s not forget the endless supply of towels. With the variety of hotel amenity levels, you will certainly find one within your budget. Whether it’s also within your comfort zone, I cannot guarantee.

Planes, trains and boats

While not traditional, there is no reason you can’t make the most of your travel situation and sleep too. Clearly, you can’t be driving. But if your vacation will occur in more than one location, why should you pay for a hotel and spend an entire sunny day watching the world zip by your window? This is the premise behind the cruise industry: see many places, unpack once. When Trisha and I were in Europe, we basically stayed at a hotel every-other day. On the alternate days, we were on the train, moving our adventure to a new location. Best sleep I ever had? Definitely not. For most people traveling from the U.S. to Europe, a PM departure has you arriving bright and early the next morning. Your days on vacation are limited; make the most of them.

Fact: The government loses things

Recently, I’ve had several friends lament stories of replacing paperwork submitted to the government, never to be returned.

It’s so bad that one of those friends may not be legally married — for the last 19 years! — as she cannot confirm that her Jamaican marriage certificate was ever recognized by the providence of Ontario. She does know they lost the first copy, and when she sent the second/last one she had…. and never heard back…. they just hoped for the best. A possible return/relocation to the U.S. has shined a big fat light on this problem.(update – resolved! And married! lol)

More common and less dramatic stories include the passport office failing to return a birth certificate. Apparently, it’s easier to prove you were born in the U.S. than it is to prove you were married in Jamaica. Let this be a lesson to you.

Relinquishing important documents is a necessary, and uneasy, part of many processes. Before you ship off the sole, ragged copy of your birth certificate, take the fifteen minutes to what it would take to get a backup or replacement.

An ounce of prevention, and all that…