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Travel Booking Advice From a Savvy Frequent Flier

September 17th, 2013
Hi! I do still exist, and so does this site. I also still travel all the time and sometimes write about it. Just…not here. But I was in the middle of sharing some wisdom with a friend and realized it’s pretty relevant content for this site, and if I write it up and post it, I can just direct anyone here when they ask me the questions I’m always getting asked. (“How can you travel so much?” “How do you find good deals?” “What are the tricks?”)

Look, there are a LOT of tricks, and I don’t know them all. I can’t always find the very best deal or recommend the very best places to go and things to do. But I do know how to look for that stuff, and save money and energy and make it possible to do a whole lot more of everything you want to do. So here is the basic advice I’d give to anyone looking to do any traveling.

Certain circumstances definitely help. Not having kids. Having a flexible work schedule. Having infinity dollars. But even if your schedule, funds, and availability are tightly limited, you can still travel and find deals.

Ticket price does not necessarily indicate the cheapest flight

If you fly very infrequently (twice a year or less), then it will usually make sense to just book the cheapest flight you can find. All airlines charge similar baggage fees, except for Southwest, which has no fees for your first two checked bags, and Spirit, which will charge you for every little thing you do and then some.

If you fly at least semi-regularly, though, it pays to keep your business with one airline, or at least within the same airline alliance. You can’t do much with the frequent flier miles you earn from sporadic flights, but when you build up your miles in one account, the benefits add up. You’ll eventually earn enough miles to redeem some free flights. You may reach premier status and get perks like free checked luggage, extra leg room, faster check-in, bonus miles for every trip, and free upgrades to first class. The airline will be more eager to work with you and help you out of a bind if your flight gets borked somehow and you need to rebook a part of your trip.

So how do you pick the airline you want to go steady with? All the major airlines have their pros and cons. Everyone has something awful to say about all of them. None of them are really awesome. And none of them go everywhere. Your best bet is to pick the airline that has the most service to and from the airport you use the most. They’ll usually have competitive fares, and it’s easiest to stick with an airline if they go everywhere you do.

If you fly a decent amount, but not really enough to make premier status (a minimum of 25,000 flight miles per year in most programs), then Southwest is your best bet — if they fly to your home airport. If you you earn premier status on a major carrier, though, the benefits will surpass what you can get with Southwest, though.

Get the airline credit card. It’s absolutely worth it.

The way they market these things, you have to be suspicious. So many benefits! All this free stuff! There must be a catch… Yeah, there is. You pay an annual fee. On most cards, it’s $99. That turns off a lot of potential users. Shall we do some math?

I can’t speak for every card, but the good ones will come with the free checked bags benefit. Even if it’s only one free bag per flight, that’s $20-30 off each way, each time you check a bag. So it typically will take no more than two round trips for the card to pay for itself just in bag fee discounts. And what of those other perks?

A good airline credit card will grant you miles for every dollar you spend, and double or triple miles on certain purchases, usually on travel things like flights, hotels, rental cars, gas, and dining out. Lots of credit cards have rewards attached, but I’ve yet to find one that even comes close to competing with the value of the dollars to miles rewards. Just by charging your regular expenses, you’ll earn enough miles for free flights every few months. Maybe longer if you don’t charge much, but still a better value than other reward cards.

Credit card members don’t get the first class upgrades that premier members can get, but having the airline credit card can get you closer to obtaining that premier status. Ask about bonus miles when you apply — sometimes they give you premier-qualifying miles when you sign up. Other miles that you earn on the card will go into your frequent flier account that you can use toward free flights, but they don’t count as miles flown — those are the miles you need to accumulate to rise in the status ranks.

Search wisely.

When you search online for flights, clear your cookies. A lot of sites will show you the best deal the first time you look, but if you don’t buy immediately, you won’t see that price the next time you search. Clear the cookies from your computer, and voila! The site thinks you’re looking for the first time and those lower prices show up again.

Once you’ve found a price you can live with, try to book directly from the airline website or telephone reservations. The prices are almost always the same, and you’ll have a lot more luck managing your reservation if you have not gone through a third party. The various travel sites are great for comparing prices and seeing what’s available more or less across the board, but once you’ve found the flight you want, you can usually get that same price from the airline directly.

When to book and when to fly

The internet is full of advice on precisely what time to shop, and which days are the best to fly. These tips are based on trends, but nothing is set in stone. It’s obviously difficult to find a cheap flight on a holiday. If you can fly on a weekday, it’s usually cheaper than a weekend. Airlines tinker with their prices all the time, and there’s no guaranteed way to catch the lowest fare. Just keep searching until you find something you can live with, and once you’ve made your reservation, do yourself a favor by not checking to see if the price has gone down, because you can’t do anything about that now.

Frequent flier tips and tricks

If you are not a member of the airline’s frequent flier program, no matter how frequently or infrequently you fly with them, you are being foolish and shame on you. The programs vary from airline to airline, and they all keep changing the benefits and reward systems, but the fact is they’re free to join and you might as well take advantage of the few free perks remaining in air travel. Maybe you’ll never earn enough miles to amount to any rewards, or they expire before you can use them — in some programs, though, the miles don’t expire, so even if you’re only adding a few thousand here and there, you’ll eventually earn enough for a free flight. Or you can transfer them to a friend who needs just a few more miles. They have value.

I fly enough and put enough on my credit card that I always have plenty of miles in my account. But I never redeem them to take a free flight for myself. I’m always pushing for the next level of status, so credit for miles flown is important to me. You don’t get mileage credit when you’re flying on an award ticket. You’re also not eligible for premier upgrades, and I hate to deny myself the possibility of a first class flight. So how are these miles valuable to me? I use them on my friends and family. I bring people out to visit me. I help people get flights when they can’t afford to pay for them. It’s against mileage program policies to sell your miles, but I trade mine for other things. My hair stylist gave me a great color treatment in exchange for some miles. She’s back from Hawaii now, but my purple highlights will last for months. If the only thing keeping a good friend from visiting is the cost of the ticket, I put it on miles. I want to give someone a big gift for some reason? Here’s a plane ticket. I still get a lot out of those free flights, even when I’m not taking them myself.

Take a mileage run.

Sometimes, one big trip can pay for itself in mileage awards. One long-haul round trip is often worth enough miles to get you to the first or next level of premier status in a frequent flier program. Premier status has pretty nice perks, and the higher your status, the more you get out of it, including more and more miles. In most programs, premier members get a percentage bonus for every mile flown, so an international trip that’s already worth a base of 15,000 miles can earn you twice that after bonuses. After you’ve reached premier status, every flight you take will be worth more miles. They continue to add up faster and faster the more you fly.

I always keep a close watch on my premier status, and if I see that I’m close to the next level, I look for ways to crest that hump as soon as possible. Usually this means taking some sort of mileage run flight. A mileage run is any flight you take just for the purpose of earning the miles. Sometimes that means adding another connection or two (or five, if you’re my husband) to an existing reservation. This often has little or no effect on the price of the ticket, and you still get to where you intended to go all along, it just takes a bit longer. Other times that means just keeping an eye out for flight deals and jumping on an opportunity. I’m going to Hong Kong in a couple of days because the flight was insanely cheap and it will earn me a lot of miles. I’m only staying in Hong Kong for three days, so it won’t be a real vacation, but I’ll see and do some things I wouldn’t otherwise, and when it’s all said and done, I’ll have another level of status and at least two more flights in award miles. The flight deals aren’t always as intriguing as Hong Kong, but it’s worth it to take a cheap flight to Boise sometimes, too. You can fly there and turn right around and come home and bank your miles, or you can give yourself a few days of touring wherever the airline dictates is cheap for you to go. Mileage runs are always a good idea when you’re close to the next status level, especially at the end of the year right before the calendar resets on your miles earned.
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Open Letter to All Future College Students

May 1st, 2012

This began as a letter to my niece and nephew, but I soon realized that it’s really a letter to all children everywhere, with just a few specific details directed specifically at these particular kids.  The relevant information is that they live in Baltimore, their parents work for Johns Hopkins University, and they have traveled more than most adults.  Without further ado, here is the exact text (hyperlinks and pictures added) of my letter to them:

Dear I. & P.,

McKenzie and I are at the tail end of our road trip through Montana, and I am compelled to share some powerful thoughts from this experience with the young people in my life.  So compelled that I couldn’t wait to get my hands on proper stationery, and I am writing on the only blank paper in my car — the back of my system notes with my bridge partner :) Look how gorgeous Montana is!

Anyway, Montana is AWESOME.  You are two of the most well-traveled kids I know, and I’ve seen a lot of the world myself.  There are a lot of places I’ve loved and would love to visit over and over, but the unique thought that strikes me here in Montana is “This is where I should have spent my college years.”  University of Montana in Missoula doesn’t have the reputation of an Ivy League institution or JHU or Stanford or whatever, but those are all fine places to go for a graduate degree, and I know, I know, you’re only 11 and 8, why am I yammering on about college?  I’m just trying to plant the seed of an idea, and both of you are so gifted and intelligent that it won’t be long until college recruiters are beating down your doors anyhow.

Consider this:  college is really the only time in your life that you will have such a wide open choice of where to live.  After that, your choices are limited to where your careers take you, and I’m confident that you both will have ample choices and opportunities, but it’s still unlikely that Montana would have much to offer you beyond your 20′s.  I’m not trying to say that U of M should definitely be your top choice — I don’t know enough about it to really make a strong recommendation, but I am saying that it’s worth strong consideration.  If I could have my college years back, I would spend them here.

Seriously, look how gorgeous Montana is!

I love Portland and am settled into my life there, so I won’t be relocating to MT, but I am very lucky to have lots of opportunities to spend time in the gorgeous Treasure State.  Maybe I’m totally off-base and you would hate it here, but I really doubt that.  Maybe there’s a cool summer camp you could try to get a taste of MT.  Or you could nag your parents to take a vacation here sometime.

McKenzie points out that for all my gushing, I’ve thus far failed to mention any specifics of why I love it so much.  Here goes…

Things that Make Montana Wonderful

  • Scarce population means so much of the area’s natural beauty is undisturbed and thriving
  • cities like Bozeman, Billings, and Missoula are populated enough that there’s plenty to see and do, and yet small enough that you can walk or bike everywhere, and everyone is friendly and it’s very safe
  • FANTASTIC outdoor activities.  This morning, we hiked up to the M on the mountainside overlooking Missoula.  A river runs through town, and canoeing, kayaking, rafting, and even river surfing (!!!) are popular.  Tons of bike paths and trails, and lots of skiing nearby.Missoula M Mount Sentinel
  • amazing beer and wine (for when you turn 21:) )
  • MT may be a red state, but the college towns are very progressive and blue
  • proximity to two of my favorite parks — Yellowstone and Bannack State Park (and Glacier, which Z says will be my favorite once I’ve been)
  • the geography is stunning.  Mountains, rivers, plateaus, valleys, lakes…

If you check it out and decide Montana’s not for you, that’s cool and I understand.  But I tell you all this because I sure wish someone had told me about Montana when I was younger.  I hope you get the chance to check it out soon.

Love,

Meg XOX

So that’s what I wrote.  I should mention that I love Bozeman and the feel at MSU just as much as I do Missoula, and I guess I’m glad I don’t have to choose between them.  I focused on Missoula in this letter because that’s where I was when I wrote it.  Feel free to add to my list of things that make Montana wonderful — I’ll share your tips with I. & P. :)

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The Book Every Frequent Flyer Should Read: Cruising Attitude by Heather Poole

March 24th, 2012

I’ve been following flight attendant and author Heather Poole on the internet since 2008, and I’ve been looking forward to the release of her book ever since I learned she was working on it way back then.  Even after four years of anticipation and buildup, Cruising Attitude was interesting, fresh, and exciting in every page.

Heather Poole has been a flight attendant for a major US carrier for 15 years, and her book explores every aspect of that exotic lifestyle that most people can never really imagine.  World travel, celebrities, family life, dating, all those rules, and of course, problem passengers.

It’s a riveting memoir full of hilarious and outrageous stories, but it’s also an enlightening read for anyone who travels by air.  A big part of a flight attendant’s job is smiling all the time, so most passengers probably assume they’re happy and never think twice about the fact that these are people with regular emotions.  They’ve heard all the flirting and sweet talk before, and that’s not going to score you a free drink.  You know what might work?  Eye contact.  Please and thank you.  Regular human decency.  Chocolate helps, too.  Maybe it should be common sense, but from Poole’s experiences, it’s clear that many people are clueless when it comes to how to behave on a plane, and the stories that result are hilarious.

This book is not just an entertaining read — it will make you a better passenger.  And it’s the perfect way to pass the time on your next cross-country flight.

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Hotel Rants: No Wi-Fi? No Love.

July 15th, 2011

I have more road trip goodness to share, and I’m really looking forward to doing so, but for now I’m just stopping in to share a gripe about hotels.  First of all, unless the hotel is specifically billed as a rustic escape, there should be an internet connection in the room.  Not in the lobby — well, yes, in the lobby, too — but in my room.  If I can’t surf the web in my birthday suit, the experience loses all its magic.  (Given that tidbit, feel free to use your imagination as to how this website is produced.)

An internet connection in the room is really a no-brainer.  But one thing pisses me off even more than no connection (or an expensive one): the wired connection.  It poses as convenient, when really it’s just as inconvenient as having to go to the lobby or the Starbucks across the street.  Only one computer can hook up at a time.  I’m usually traveling with at least one other person who needs to be online for a good chunk of the night.  You’re stuck to the desk, because the wire is always anchored, allowing you a whole six inches of wire.  The one I’m plugged into right now is so short that it can barely reach the port on the side of my computer.  I actually have my computer angled to the side, because if I try to square it on the desk, the stupid wire can’t reach the port.  This chafes like a picture that won’t stay straight on the wall no matter how many times you adjust it.

It’s bad enough that I can’t surf the web from bed, or even one of the comfy chairs (they’re too big to pull up to the desk and still be able to reach the keyboard), but the icing on the poo-flavored cake that is wired internet is that the desk is always right next to the room’s A/C unit.  So you have to choose between letting the room and everyone in it cook, or trying to work in a constant gust of chilly wind.

I don’t care how nice every other amenity in the hotel may be — if the internet connection is wired, your hotel sucks.

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Road Trips USA: A Week in Montana

July 7th, 2011

Road Trips USA Montana Road Map“Long time, no see — where ya been?”
“I was on a road trip.”
“Cool! Where?”
“Montana and Wyoming.”
“Oh. I’m sorry.”

I get why I get that reaction. To be honest, my main goal in visiting Montana was to cross off one of the few states on my yet-to-be-visited list. Like many others, I figured not many people live there, there must not be much to it. Hooboy, was I wrong.

My week in Montana was a lot like falling in love with a soul mate. I was wide-eyed and giddy, and also shocked that this thing of beauty was available to me and not already taken by an earlier suitor…or, you know, millions of other tourists. I have no logical explanation for why the place isn’t swarming with tourists. I guess too many people just write it off because it seems like the middle of nowhere — but that vast openness, the Big Sky, is part of Montana’s appeal. And the only way to see it is on a road trip, because if you confine your vacation to a small radius of one of the few airports or cities, you’re going to miss a lot. I’m already scanning the calendar for the right time to go back and check out a lot of the things I didn’t see this time around, like Glacier National Park. But let me tell you about what I did see and do, because it was one of the best trips of my life.

My route was a little wacky, because my trip was broken up by a weekend bridge tournament in Idaho, so you may not want to follow my exact path, but I definitely wouldn’t want to miss any of the stops I made.

Day One: Red Lodge, Montana

A road trip is what brings most travelers to Red Lodge, home to the Beartooth Highway, “the most beautiful drive in America.”  This scenic road to Yellowstone celebrates its 75th anniversary this summer, and quiet Red Lodge will be rocking throughout the summer.  Because the pass is snowed under most of the year, Red Lodge really only sees tourists in the summertime, but most of the local hotels, restaurants, and shops stay open all year, so don’t feel like you have to go when the crowds go.  Red Lodge is the kind of place you’d want to come and turn off your cell phone, laptop, and anything else that pulls you away from the moment and just be in the town.

Road Trips USA: Beartooth Highway

The main street is lined with old-timey saloons that really welcome you to the West.  It’s easy to get a feel for how the miners and prospectors of the 19th century lived — the spirit of the old west is thick throughout.

I stayed at The Pollard, a beautiful historic hotel in the heart of the town.  I loved this boutique hotel, and I’ll be reviewing it in depth for About.com, so be sure to check out About Hotels to learn more about some of the historic hotels along your Montana road trip route.

Day Two: Red Lodge to Bozeman, Montana

Along the way to Bozeman is a small town called Absarokee, and a can’t-miss Montana road trip stop: Paintbrush Adventures.  This can be a two-hour stop on your road trip for a quick horseback riding experience, or you can make a whole vacation of your visit.  Paintbrush Adventures offers ranch vacations where you live, work, and play on the ranch, custom mountain pack trips including horseback riding, fishing, and camping, and drop camps, where they’ll drop you off with your supplies and pick you up when it’s time to go.  I only had time for the two-hour trail ride, and having never ridden a horse before, that was about all I could take for my first time.  Our guide was one of the ranch owners, and in addition to making sure we were comfortable on our horses, he told us all about the history of the area as we trekked along the Stillwater River and up a mountain for spectacular views of Montana’s highest peaks.

Here I am with my husband with the snowcaps behind us.  Can you tell neither one of us has been on a horse before?

Road Trips USA Paintbrush Adventures Trail Ride

The views are absolutely worth the sore legs.  You wouldn’t expect to get sore from basically just sitting, but it’s not as easy as the cowboys make it look.  Even though I had no idea how to handle a horse, my pony knew how to handle me, and it was a great, relaxing ride.

In Bozeman, we had time for two main stops: The Museum of the Rockies was first.  The rich history of this region starts long before cowboys and Indians — dinosaurs once roamed this territory, and you’ll find a great dino exhibit here.  They also have a planetarium and exhibits on Yellowstone, Native Americans, early American history, and my favorite, the frog exhibit.  Definitely a kid-friendly museum with lots to interest the grownups, too.

The second stop on our brief tour of Bozeman was Montana Ale Works, a hip brewpub where McKenzie had his first bison burger — he recommends it!  From here, we walked around downtown and I wished I could go back in time and apply to college at MSU.  It was one of the larger towns on our road trip, and I loved everything about it — large enough for an airport, all the major shopping and dining choices you’d expect in a city, and still small enough to feel cozy and friendly.

Day Three: West Yellowstone and Virginia City, Montana

Road Trips USA Ousel FallsOn the way to West Yellowstone, there’s a short hike in Big Sky to Ousel Falls.  There’s no shortage of fantastic hikes in Montana, but this one is perfect for breaking up your time in the car.  It’s just under a mile to the falls, with only a small elevation gain on your walk, so this scenic hike should take no more than an hour, but you may want to stop and bask for a while at the falls.

In West Yellowstone, check out the Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center.  A trip to the Rockies wouldn’t be complete without a bear sighting, and this is a safe place to see them up close.

From there, the road took us to Virginia City.  ”City” is a little misleading — it’s more like a one-horse town, definitely worth a visit.  The historic main street is set up like a museum of the town that was much busier a hundred years ago.  Peek in the windows of the old shops and businesses, preserved as they were a century back.  You won’t find many options for food here, but Cousin’s Candy Shop is a great place to stock up on sweets for the road.  I stayed at another historic hotel here, the Fairweather Inn, which, as the name suggests, is open mid-May through mid-September.

 

Day Four: Bannack State Park to Butte, Montana

Bannack State Park was probably my favorite stop on the road trip.  This is a must see, and you’re not allowed to come to my website anymore if you skip this attraction.  A gold rush town, Bannack was the first Territorial Capital of Montana.  The town thrived in the late 1800′s, but by the 1950′s, it was all but deserted.  The state then turned the ghost town into a park, and today, over 60 buildings from the gold rush days still stand, most of which are open for exploration.  Here’s a view of the town from the hillside cemetery:

Road Trips USA Bannack State Park

From Bannack, there’s a great roadside stop on the way to Butte called Crystal Park.  For a small fee, you can dig for quartz crystals here, and you’re sure to find plenty.

The best attraction in Butte is the Dumas Brothel.  Active as a house of prostitution in Butte’s once-bustling red light district from 1890 to 1982, the Dumas Brothel is America’s longest-running whorehouse.  And now it’s a museum!  An allegedly haunted one!

Day Five: Philipsburg to Missoula, Montana

Philipsburg is where you’ll find the best souvenirs of your Montana road trip, so you don’t want to skip this stop.  First, visit the Sapphire Gallery, where you can purchase a bag of Montana mine rocks for $25 and pan for sapphires.  Don’t worry — they’ll show you how to find them, and if you come up empty, they’ll give you another bag.  I collected over eight carats of cuttable sapphires in my bag.  For an extra fee, they’ll heat treat  your gems (to bring out the color) and cut them for you so they sparkle and you can have them put in jewelry.  Mine just came in the mail yesterday and I can’t wait to make a ring out of the half-carat blue sapphire I had cut.

Next door to the Sapphire Gallery is the Sweet Palace.  Get your fill of every kind of candy imaginable here before you hit the road again.

On the way to Missoula, you can take a drive through the National Bison Range to check out the wildlife.  Get a good night’s sleep, because Missoula is a place for adventure.

Day Six: Missoula, Montana

Before you leave on your trip, secure a reservation with 10,000 Waves for a whitewater rafting trip in Missoula.  I had one…but the floods had other plans for me, and it wasn’t safe to go out on the river while I was there.  So I spent the day with the guys who would’ve guided me on the raft — instead, they gave me a tour of the town.  Again, I found myself wishing I could go back in time to apply to college at the University of Montana.  What a cool place. Kienan and Ben, our guides, took us to Out to Lunch, Downtown Missoula’s weekly performing arts festival, where we saw a local legend of sorts.  I can’t find anything online about them, but apparently the Particle Movers are local celebrities.  They believe it’s their duty to, well, move particles…something about the balance of nature or something…they apparently believe that music can wreak havoc with the particles, and so they go to wherever music is happening and help rearrange the particles…or something like that.  Ask a local — they can probably tell the story better than I can.  But sure enough, they were there, hard at work moving some invisible somethings while a live band played and local vendors sold food at the park by the river.

In the evening, take a hike up to the M overlooking the university for a breathtaking sunset.  ”Hiking the M” is one of the main tourist (and local) activities in the town.

Road Trips USA Missoula M Sunset

Between river running, mountain biking, hiking, and checking out the local breweries, you’re going to need to spend a couple of days in Missoula at least.  It’s on the top of my list of places to revisit as soon as I can.

Next up, a week in Wyoming!

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Road Trips USA: The Wild West

June 21st, 2011

It’s the first day of summer, so it’s the perfect time to start thinking about road trips.  Whether you have a weekend for exploring, or a whole month to see the sights, all great road trips have the same key components:

  • Great music — the road trip is one of the great themes in American music.  It’s easy to create your own vacation soundtrack.
  • Great company — road trips solidify relationships.  You’ll be creating memories that will warm your heart for a lifetime.
  • Funky roadside stops — it’s not a successful road trip until you’ve seen the World’s Largest Something.
  • Beautiful scenery — go someplace you’ve never been before.  See the parts of the country that few people have seen.  Explore the unfamiliar.

My most recent road trip took me on a journey through America’s wild west.  I started in Montana, then went down into Wyoming through Yellowstone National Park.  Road trips are the only way to see this part of the country, because it’s so vast, and you’re doing yourself a major disservice if you just fly to Yellowstone, spend a week in the park, and head home without seeing what the surrounding areas have to offer — ghost towns, college towns, rodeo, old west saloons, breweries, haunted hotels, dinosaurs, white water adventures, and views you have to see to believe.

I’m not going to try to cram two weeks of adventure into one blog post.  I will do my best to virtually recreate my wild west road trip over my next few installments.  For now, I will share a song that should be on every road trip playlist:

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Crystal Anniversary Celebration at the Ritz-Carlton, St. Thomas

May 17th, 2011

When people learn that I’m a travel writer, they always ask me the same question:  Where’s your favorite place to travel?  I really can’t ever answer that with just one destination, but one that I always mention is the Ritz-Carlton, St. Thomas.  Gorgeous beaches, gorgeous weather, luxury accommodations, exciting recreation, and some of the best desserts I’ve ever tasted — there’s nothing I don’t love about this resort.

Ritz Carlton St Thomas

2011 marks the Ritz-Carlton, St. Thomas’ 15th anniversary, and the resort’s Crystal Anniversary Celebration package is available now through December 15, 2011.  Starting at $2500 per night, the package includes the following:

  • Overnight accommodations in the Presidential Suite or the Ritz-Carlton Suite (this Presidential suite is as presidential as it gets — President Obama and his family have stayed here!)
  • Daily breakfast for two
  • 80-minute Seaside Cabana couples massage
  • Sunset sail on the Lady Lynsey
  • Dinner on the Beach
  • Magic Moments boat trip
  • Crystal Rain therapy treatment
  • Engraved Waterford flutes and a bottle of Cristal champagne

A couple nights or a long escape, this is the perfect romantic getaway.  As part of the US Virgin Islands, St. Thomas does not require a passport for US citizens to visit — though you will feel like you are worlds away from home in this Caribbean paradise.  My favorite activities in St. Thomas were snorkeling, where I got to swim with sea turtles, and wind surfing with Island Sol on the hotel’s beach.  I was terrible at it, but it was a great experience, and my teacher was incredible — a few more lessons and I would’ve been surfing in style.

Remember, you’re on vacation, so ORDER DESSERT.  The Ritz-Carlton, St. Thomas has an award-winning pastry chef who will blow your mind.  Order two desserts, in fact.  With each meal.  Seriously.

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Evergreen Aviation Museum, McMinnville, Oregon

May 13th, 2011
Evergreen Aviation Museum P-40

1938 P-40

Ever since I was a little kid, airplanes have fascinated me.  I still get great joy out of simply watching them take off and land, or comparing them to each other when they’re all parked at an airport.  I love how in small planes, you can really feel the flight, and I love how in jumbo jets, you feel almost nothing.  Airplanes are just rad; that’s the bottom line.

When I visited the Evergreen Aviation Museum in McMinnville, Oregon (not far from Portland), I was like a kid in a candy shop.  Except I didn’t taste any of the planes.  There are four major parts of the aviation museum:  the main building, which houses pre-1955 aircraft, including the Spruce Goose, which dwarfs everything else in the collection; a second building with the modern aircraft including military jets and spacecraft (rumor has it that one of the recently retired space shuttles will soon be on display here); the IMAX theater; and lastly, the aviation-themed water park, where you can slide down from a Boeing 747 that sits on the roof of the building!

A good visit to the Evergreen Aviation Museum will take all day, but there’s so much to see and do that even little ones won’t get bored.  The docents here are some of the best museum guides I’ve ever met.  Each one is bursting with knowledge and stories about the planes and their history, and they’re so enthusiastic to share their passion — it’s contagious.  I met one volunteer at the museum who had flown P-40′s in the Second World War.  Then when he came home, his parents wouldn’t let him drive the family car!

Evergreen Aviation Museum Tin Goose

1925 Ford Tin Goose

The older planes were my favorite part of the experience.  Most of the aircraft in the collection are the original planes that flew as long as a full century ago.  In addition to original aircraft, the museum has reconstructions of historic planes like the Wright brothers’ Wright Flyer.  I really loved the 1925 Ford Tin Goose, one of the earliest commercial airplanes.  Flight attendants were required to spend one month at a four-star resort (tough job!) to learn how to treat their passengers like royalty.  Oh, the good old days.

Spruce Goose

Spruce Goose

I loved how close I could get to so many of the planes in the collection.  Docents offered peeks inside some of the military planes, and visitors are welcome to step inside the Spruce Goose.  This largest plane ever built flew only one time, in 1947, for approximately one minute.  It was kept flight-ready at a great cost for many years after, but eventually retired to its display in the Evergreen Aviation Museum, hulking over the hundreds of other planes in the collection.

A visit to the IMAX theater is a great way to rest your feet in the middle of your day at the museum.  I enjoyed the Legends of Flight 3D film, which took me on a ride through aviation history.  It’s a first class ticket to ride lots of historic aircraft, as well as an up-close look at the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner, which has been getting a lot of hype as it nears its first delivery date.  The Dreamliner has already completed several successful test flights, and is expected to enter into commercial service sometime within the next few months.

The brand new water park at the Evergreen Aviation Museum opens in June 2011 — a great way to combine some educational tourism with good summer fun.

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B Ocean is a Fresh Way to See Florida

April 30th, 2011

B Ocean Ft LauderdaleWhen I was a kid, my family used to vacation in Florida all the time.  I loved the warm weather, the beaches, and of course the amusement parks.  But as I got older, Florida lost its magic for me.  Because it’s a hotbed of bridge activity, I spend a lot of time in the Sunshine State, and most places I’ve been lately just feel so uninspired.  Over-manicured and cookie-cutter.  Soulless.

Florida will always be a great place to enjoy warm weather and work on a tan, but there are few resorts in the state that bring anything new to the table.  One of them is in Fort Lauderdale, and it’s called B Ocean.  It’s the first in a brand new chain called B Hotels and Resorts, and this company looks like a game-changer — in Florida and around the globe.

Why “B?” Because these hotels are about the whole vacation experience.  Not just where or what, but how. How do you want your vacation to be?  Nearly every aspect of your stay at B Ocean is customizable.  You tell them how you want your trip to be, they make it happen.  The best example of this approach is the B Indulged Spa Suite.  You can rent the suite as an individual, a couple, or a group, and everything about your spa experience is customized for you.  You determine exactly how you want to spend your time, combining treatments and services in any way you desire.

B Ocean Spa Suite

B Ocean Spa Suite

I visited B Ocean for its grand opening last month, and it was one of the best Florida vacations I’ve had since I was a little kid at Disney World.  My favorite parts of my visit were:

  • B Ocean ViewThe Location – Every room at B Ocean has a spectacular ocean view.  Step outside and you’re on the Ft. Lauderdale Beach boardwalk, perfect for an early morning jog or stroll down the beach.  Just don’t make the same mistake I did and remember to take your sunglasses.  At night from October through March, go down to the beach to witness sea turtles nesting, and watch the hatchlings dash to the sea for the first time.
  • B Sensitive & B Humane Programs – B Ocean is a green hotel, with proactive environmental policies in place.  When you arrive in your room, you’ll be greeted by a plush sea turtle, the unofficial mascot of this hotel.  If you choose to adopt the turtle, a portion of your purchase goes to the Sea Turtle Foundation.
  • B Ocean Cheese PlateThe Cheese Plate at B’stro on the Beach – Who goes to Florida for cheese?  This girl.  You cannot go wrong with any of the featured cheeses at B’stro.  Artfully paired with delicious fresh fruits and nuts, you could make a meal out of these cheeses alone.  But save some room, because everything on the menu is outstanding.  My other favorite nosh was Chef Holli’s Hand-Made Sweet Potato Gnocchi.

From the design to the approach, B Ocean really is a different kind of Florida vacation experience.  There’s nothing cookie-cutter about this hotel.  When you’re there, you call all the shots — how can you not love it?

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The Best Waffles in the World

May 26th, 2010

They’re not in Belgium.  They’re in Denver, Colorado, at a little joint called Waffle Brothers.  I don’t even care that the two waffles I just ate are going to cost me about 30 miles on the treadmill.  They were worth it.  Just look at these:

I had one with marshmallow cream cheese and another with Nutella.  And now I’m ruined for all food.

Waffle engineers John and Rod spent over a year developing their perfect waffle recipe — using a special imported Belgian sugar that melts into each waffle as it cooks, while some caramelizes on the outside, giving each waffle a kick of sweetness and just the right texture.  You can get your waffle dressed up with fruits or sauces, either in preselected combinations on the menu, or you may build your own from a long list of yummy extras.

These waffles are seriously my new favorite thing.  If you’re not lucky enough to check out Waffle Brothers in Denver, you can order Waffle Brothers waffles online.  Need a Father’s Day gift idea?  Send a bag of waffles.  Seriously, it’s way better than golf clubs.

Bon appetit.

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