Weekend in New York City: Introduction

Two weeks ago, Ken and I spent a long weekend in New York City. I had been hoarding a lot of points recently, and decided it was time to redeem some of them. Plus, I had really been itching for a vacation. We went on an amazing Southwest USA road trip for two weeks in Fall 2012. Shortly after our return from that road trip, I redeemed some American Airlines miles for an off-peak award to Belize scheduled for April 2013.

Unfortunately, in between those two trips, tragedy struck our family. My parents were in a serious car accident. My mother died on the scene, and my dad was airlifted to a trauma center where he thankfully survived. Needless to say, both Ken and I took a lot of time off work. So, we decided to cancel the April trip to Belize, and I had our AAdvantage miles refunded.

In the subsequent months, I had tried to plan other long weekend trips, researching places like the Bahamas Out Islands and Key West, but I had one family emergency after another that prevented me from being able to go somewhere and relax. Although we typically take a long vacation in the fall, we decided to skip a big fall vacation for 2013, since we already had our Russia trip planned for February 2014.

By July, I was getting anxious to plan some sort of vacation, and we decided that New York City would be a fun weekend getaway. Although we had both been there before (albeit separately), we were both broke college students during our previous visits. So, it would be nice to actually afford to go to museums like the MoMA! (Spoiler alert: We never actually made it to the MoMA.) New York was also close enough that I could return home in case of some other family emergency. We picked out a weekend in the Fall, when the weather would be crisp and the foliage beautiful, and started making reservations!

I immediately knew I wanted to stay at the Andaz Fifth Avenue. This hotel is currently all the rage among the many points bloggers that I follow. I was also swimming in Chase Ultimate Rewards points. Since the Andaz is a Hyatt property and since Chase Ultimate Rewards Points are 1:1 transfer partners with Hyatt, I checked award night availability for the Andaz Fifth Avenue on Hyatt’s website. There was availability for our desired October weekend, so I transferred 66,000 Ultimate Rewards points to my Hyatt account and immediately made the reservation.

Next up were transportation options. The easiest transportation between DC and New York City is Amtrak. Trains to New York were very reasonably priced for our desired Thursday evening travel, so it didn’t make any sense to use points. We just paid the $49 per person and booked our tickets. The Sunday night return, however, was much more expensive, approaching nearly $200 per person for just the Amtrak Northeast Regional Train.

Since part of the fun of points is redeeming them for new and fun experiences, I decided to book our return train in Amtrak Acela First Class. I’ve never taken an Acela train before, let alone Acela First Class. And since Amtrak Acela First Class tickets were about $350 per person, so I thought it would be a fun indulgence. I tempered my expectations though, as many people complain that the Acela trains, which are touted as high speed, really aren’t that much faster than the regular Amtrak trains. I’ve taken high speed rail in both Japan and Europe, so I knew that Acela would be no Shinkansen. But, I still wanted to give it a whirl.

Amtrak is also a 1:1 transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards. I knew that there are a handful of weekends that Amtrak excludes points redemptions, so I double checked that our desired travel date wasn’t one of the blackout dates. I made sure to do this because Ultimate Rewards transfers are not reversible once they are made. For instance, if I had transferred my Ultimate Rewards points to my Amtrak account and then was unable to redeem them for my travel date, I would not be able to “return” the points to my Ultimate Rewards account. They would have to stay in my Amtrak account, which would be unfortunate because I don’t travel Amtrak much. After confirming that our dates were not on the blackout list, I took the next step. One way Acela First Class tickets are 12,000 points per person, so I transferred 24,000 Ultimate Rewards Points to my Amtrak Guest Rewards account. Then I immediately made our reservation.

Free hotel, free return trip, and a very inexpensive train ride up to New York City. Score!

Over the next few months, we tinkered with a draft itinerary for New York City. We kept waffling on some things, like whether to see a Broadway show or whether to go to the Statue of Liberty. Both of us had been to the Statue of Liberty before, but I had never been inside the Statue of Liberty pedestal or crown. But when we realized that we couldn’t get crown tickets because they book several months in advance, we decided to skip the Statue of Liberty for this trip. We also decided to skip a Broadway show and see one on a future trip. By the day we left for our trip, our draft itinerary looked like this.

Thursday October 24

  • Arrive New York Penn Station at 9:30PM
  • Check in to Andaz 5th Avenue
  • If not too tired, head to Brooklyn Bridge for night time photographs

Friday October 25

  • Empire State Building
  • Intrepid Museum
  • Walk along the High Line
  • World Trade Center Memorial. Last entry is 5PM
  • Do an evening walk of Brooklyn Bridge if we didn’t do it on Thursday
  • Visit Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Museum closes at 8PM.
  • Visit Lego exhibit. Exhibit closes at 9PM

Saturday October 26

  • Cloisters
  • Walk around Central Park
  • Met or Guggenheim museum if desired / if time. Met is open until 9PM. Guggenheim until 7:45PM. Guggenheim is “pay what you want” from 5:45 to 7:45PM on Saturdays
  • Evening visit to Top of the Rock

Sunday October 27

  • The Meadows for Giant Globe
  • Daytime walk on Brooklyn Bridge
  • Greenflea Flea Market ( 77th St. & Columbus Ave)
  • Amtrak train to Washington departs at 6:00PM and arrives at 8:45PM

Of course, like any draft itinerary, things changed as our trip progressed, and there were a few things we had to skip, but overall it was very successful!

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My Experience Applying for Global Entry and TSA Pre-Check

Last week, I flew to my hometown of Pittsburgh, PA for a few days because my dad was having knee replacement surgery.

Most of the time when I return from a trip visiting family, and friends and coworkers ask how my trip was, I usually respond with some sort of “Proud Aunt” story concerning my niece and nephew.

This time though, while there were plenty of cute baby niece and smart second grader nephew stories, my response immediately went something like this, “Oh-em-gee, TSA Pre Check is a life-alteringly amazing program that has made air travel enjoyable again.”

I am not overselling this.  I transited security WITHOUT ANY BINS.  Do you know how many bins I usually need for the conveyer belt?  At least two.  Sometimes three if I packed both my work and personal laptops.

This time?  Zero bins.  Shoes stayed on my feet.  Liquids stayed packed in my carry on.  Laptop remained in my bag.  And I wore my coat.  I would’ve timed how long it took for me to transit security, but I didn’t think to do that in advance.  But I literally think I transited security in less than 20 seconds.

tsa-pre-check-shoes-stay-on

Shoes stay on the feet transiting TSA airport security line!  

The best part is, TSA Pre-Check is just a perk of the actual program I wanted, which was Global Entry.

So let’s back up a second.  Global Entry, in a nutshell, is a program that you apply for that serves as an expedited method of allowing low-risk U.S. Citizens to transit U.S. immigration lines more quickly.  If you have ever returned to the United States from a trip abroad, you know then that the immigration lines at U.S. airports can be awful.  And after a long flight from Europe or Asia, standing in an hour-long line is the last thing you want to do.  But alas, it is an unfortunate, but necessary part of travel.  The last time I went through a U.S. immigration line, it took over an hour.

I had heard the term “Global Entry” floating around on several frequent flyer blogs, but never really paid attention.  But now with planning our upcoming trip to Russia for the Winter Olympics in Sochi, I started to do a bit more research.

Applying for Global Entry is $100 per person and it lasts for five years.  I have an American Express Platinum card, which reimburses the fee for Global Entry.  When you get to the payment screen for Global Entry, just use your Amex Platinum card to pay the $100 fee.  Within three days, the $100 had been credited back to my Amex account.

Ken does not have an Amex Platinum, so he was not reimbursed for the $100 Global Entry fee.

The application for Global Entry did take a decent amount of time to complete, especially since I had changed jobs and moved several times in the past five years.

We both applied on the same day and received our conditional approval within a week.  The conditional approval allows you to set up an interview.  We both selected interview time slots, and attended the interview — a required step for Global Entry.  The CBP officers that interviewed me were very professional and courteous.  Ken said the same for his interviewer.  We received full approvals shortly after the interviews were completed.

Ken and I both have clean records and probably no other red flags. So I’m sure if you have some issue in your personal history, it could take a little longer.

When you are approved for Global Entry, you are also, by default, approved for TSA Pre-Check.  I had not realized this was a benefit until fairly late in my research.  But once I did learn that it was a benefit, I think I became more excited for Pre-Check than Global Entry, because I will utilize Pre-Check more often than Global Entry, since I fly domestically much more than I do internationally.  But, I must say, I am even more excited now for Pre-Check than I am Global Entry!  My experience with Pre-Check last week was great.

Camping at Westmoreland State Park, Part 2

Part 1

After we had rested from our hike, we were trying to figure out what to do for the afternoon.  There were more a few more trails, but it was just so hot (90+ degrees in October), and we were still whooped.  We considered going to see a movie, but decided against it since it was already about 4:00 in the afternoon.  So, we just decided to take a drive into the local town of Montross.  I thought maybe there would be some local shops to check out.

Ken walked to the restrooms, and I told him that I would meet him there with the car since I was gathering some sticks for the evening campfire.  When I went to start the car, it was dead!  The car was making a strange noise, and I wasn’t happy!  My 1999 Ford Explorer had just had nearly $200 in repairs two months earlier.  Ken must have realized I was taking too long, so he started to walk back to our campsite.  I was fairly certain it was the battery, but Ken wasn’t sure.  I thought it was the battery because we had been keeping the car doors open so much (and hence the lights on in the car), and charging our cell phones while the ignition was off.

I called the main number for Westmoreland State Park from my cell.  I explained the situation, gave our campsite information, and the lady told me that a Park Ranger would come and give me a jump.  The Park Ranger arrived within 10 minutes.  He had a portable battery jump pack, and as soon as he hooked it up, I was able to start my car.

It had been about five years since I last had my car battery replaced, so I figured I was due for a new one anyway.  I left my Explorer running, and Ken and I looked up some local car repair places on our phones, found one called Kenny’s, and decided that sounded good to us!  Luckily they would be open for another hour, and they would be able to replace the battery right away!  Score!

But, on our drive into the town of Montross, we got stuck in some random local parade!  What should have been a short ten minute drive, ended up taking us nearly 40 minutes!  I was afraid we weren’t going to make it to the car repair shop in time.

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Firetrucks, and spectators along the road.

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Then, of course, after we were finally done with parade traffic, our GPS wanted to take us 3 miles out of the way for some random U-turn.  Luckily we decided to ignore the GPS directions and not drive 3 extra miles down the road.  We found the car repair place without much difficulty, and he got started on my battery right away.

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The garage was cluttered in the most beautiful way.  It was one of those places that had an old, beautiful tool or trinket everywhere you looked.  Ken used that time to check in with his Mom, and I took some pictures of the shop.

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They're installing my new battery

I asked the repair guy what the deal was with the parade.  He said it was their annual fall festival.  I also saw some signs for Homecoming, so I think that was related as well.

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About 20 minutes, a new car battery, and $120 later, we were on our way back to the Campground.  The parade route had cleared, and we made it back much more quickly!  On our way,we stopped for gas and picked up some bottled sodas and beers at a convenience store.  I hadn’t packed any beer or other alcohol for camping.  Forgive me if this is too much information, but for me, beer = many trips to the bathroom.  Since I wasn’t sure how far we’d be from a bathroom, I didn’t pack any beer.  But, now that we were set up at our campsite and we were a very short walk to the restrooms, I feared beer potty breaks no longer!

We got back to the campground while there was still daylight.  We made a quick stop at the Visitor’s Center, since we had not yet saw the inside.  We also took some photos of the lovely view behind the Visitor’s Center.

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We picked up more firewood, and got another good fire going.  I put some potatoes on the fire to make some loaded baked potatoes (with butter, sour cream, pre-cooked bacon, and ham).  Since baked potatoes take so long to cook, we just sat around and enjoyed the campfire in the meantime.  Once the potatoes had been cooking for 45 minutes or so, I started with other elements of the meal, including foil packets of cream cheese and salsa, as well as pie iron pizzas.

Getting baked potatoes started

 

After we ate, we cleaned up and then we drove the car to a big open field near the Visitor’s Center.  We had packed our telescope and wanted to take advantage of the minimal light pollution and clear skies to do some stargazing.

Telescope Photo (from iPhone)

 When we returned to our campsite, we started getting ready for bed!  I was thoroughly exhausted and fell asleep quickly and slept hard.

Around 4AM, I was awakened by a neighboring camper.  There was a family of four at that site, and I heard the dad yell, “RAAARRR!  Get out of here!  RAAAARRR!”  My heart jumped into my throat.  That’s what you’re supposed to do when bears are around, right?  Make yourself sound scary and look larger?  Of course, I had no way of knowing whether it was a bear, or what was going on, but it was enough to get my brain spinning.  Ken had woken up too, but he was not freaked out.  I just could not calm myself down, and I was debating whether to sleep in the car.

At some point, I finally fell back asleep, thank goodness.

The next morning, I asked the neighboring campers what happened.  Apparently a raccoon had visited their campsite THREE TIMES in the middle of the night.  The raccoons managed to open their cooler, and also started to drag away some dog food the campers kept in a plastic ice cream tub for their dog.  They seemed like experienced campers, so I didn’t chastise them for leaving their coolers out and not putting them in their car, but they did say that typically they have no trouble since the coolers are sealed.  I wanted to call them idiots.  But I didn’t.

So, while I was freaked out by the middle-of-the-night “rarrring” experience, I figured I wouldn’t let it ruin my desire for future camping trips.  But I am glad that it happened on the second night instead of the first!

When we woke up, we ate bagels and cream cheese that we had packed.  We wanted to head home early in the day, so we didn’t want to set up for an elaborate breakfast.  We packed everything back in the car, and disassembled the tent.  We both decided to skip the shower at the campground and just shower when we got back home instead.

Our drive was uneventful.  We made some mental notes of what might make the next camping trip even easier (not arriving at the campground when starving, maybe taking off on a Friday or taking a half day to ensure we arrive for a long weekend camping trip with plenty of daylight left, etc.)  But there wasn’t much.  It overall was a successful first time camping trip!

And we really liked Westmoreland State Park.  And the friendly Park Rangers and help with car battery jump sealed the deal even more.

 

Camping at Westmoreland State Park

I’m happy to report that my first camping trip was a success!  Despite a dead car battery, a 4AM raccoon incident, and 90 degree heat on an early October day, I’m ready to plan another trip!

Ken and I both worked from home on a Friday, with the intention of leaving around 4:00PM to make the 90 minute drive and arrive at the park before dark so that we could set everything up more easily.  Well, 4:00PM became 5:00PM and thanks to some rush hour traffic, we arrived at the park just as the sky went completely dark.

driving across potomac

Still bright and sunny as we crossed the Potomac River from Maryland to Virginia across the Governor Harry W. Nice Memorial Bridge

 

We drove around Campground C  first to look for a spot, and it was REALLY crowded.  Then we drove to Campground B which was still crowded, but it seemed less so than Campground C.  We set up the tent, ate some lunchmeat sandwiches (I pre made a version of this sandwich for myself.  Ken said he wouldn’t like all the toppings, so he just made a plain one for himself.)    My sandwich was good, but I don’t think I had scooped out enough of the bread, so it was a bit bread-y.  Also, I didn’t pre-cut the sandwich at home, so I ended up basically just scooping out the meat, toppings, and bread to eat it, instead of eating it like a normal sandwich.  So definitely take the advice in that post and pre-cut the sandwiches with an electric knife!

Westmoreland State Park Campground B

Campground B entrance, as seen in bright daylight the morning after our arrival

After setting everything up and eating, we walked around, found the restrooms, and then drove our car to the entrance of Campground B to pick up some firewood.  Firewood is for sale at 50 cents a piece, using the honor system.  There are envelopes to deposit payment, and we decided we would make one bulk payment when we left.

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Firewood pickup location

We managed to build a very successful campfire.  Although we were a little disappointed because our site didn’t have a metal fire “ring” like other sites at the campground. Instead, it just had a grill grate, making it harder to safely build a larger fire.  But, no biggie.  We’ll just keep an eye out for that on future camping trips.

We built the fire so well in fact, that we realized we had no idea how to safely extinguish a fire when we were ready to go to bed.  We poured some water on it, and it seemed to extinguish but once we were laying in the tent ready for sleep, the fire had a resurgence.  We figured that since the entire area was gravel, and that we would be nearby all night, there was no harm in letting it burn all night.  It continued to burn well throughout the night.

I actually slept much more soundly than I anticipated.  I was afraid that every little cracking twig was going to startle me awake.  But, it was really quite peaceful listening to the sounds of nature as we drifted off to sleep.  My biggest issue was the heat. We had been anticipating crisp autumn weather for our October camping trip.  But by night, it was still in the upper 70s, and it was way too warm to sleep in my sleeping bag.  As the hours progressed overnight, it got considerably cooler and I covered up a bit.  The air mattress certainly wasn’t the most comfortable thing in the world, but it was certainly better than sleeping directly on the ground.

The next morning, we built another fire and cooked some foil packet breakfasts over the campfire.

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This time though, we googled how to safely extinguish a fire, since we planned on going on some hikes soon thereafter.  You can read the full guidance here, but basically we learned that you must continue to pour water on the wood and fire until you no longer hear any sizzling noises.  We filled up some large bowls with water, and slowly poured water on the fire until it no longer sizzled.

We both showered, and the showers at the park were perfectly fine.  There were only two, but by the time I showered around 10:00, I didn’t have to wait for one.  I even liked that the women’s showers had a private changing stall right outside of the shower.  Ken said the men’s bathroom did not have the changing stall.  The fire was still nice and extinguished, so we got our hiking boots on, gathered our camera gear,  and headed out for some trails.

We started on the Beach Trail, which involves some easy trail, and then many many steps.

beach trail westmoreland state park virginia camping

 

The Beach Trail leads you down to Colonial Beach on the Potomac River.

colonial beach potomac river westmoreland state park

 

On the way back up, we took the Laurel Point Trail, which involved more steps.
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Here, Ken is making sure I’m still alive on the hike back up.

We stopped at Rock Spring Pond on our hike.

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We thought that Rock Spring Pond was going to be a minor detour, but we discovered the nicely paved Rock Spring Pond Trail, which took us right back near the entrance to our Campground.

By the time we got back to our site, we were really hungry.  We took off our hiking boots and put our flip flops back on, and then heated up some hot dogs on a tabletop gas grill.  It was our first time using the grill, a Char Broil, which I had purchased from Target on clearance.  I didn’t realize there would be some assembly required, and unfortunately we had not packed a screwdriver.  But, we made do using a pocket knife.

After the hot dogs, we just hung around the campsite, recovering from our long morning hikes (what can I say, we’re out of shape), and just read our Kindles and hung out.

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We decided to head into town for a bit, which turned into a double adventure!  I’ll talk about that in the next post.

 Part 2

Sochi Olympics Accommodations Update

We have finally secured accommodations in Sochi for the upcoming Winter Olympics.

Since about July, folks on this TripAdvisor forum had been discussing several cruise ship accommodations available for booking in the Sochi and Adler ports.  These cruise ships would be docked throughout the Olympic games, serving as hotels (or “floatels” as someone cleverly named them) for travelers.

I really didn’t want to book cruise ship accommodations for a number of reasons:

  • I preferred to stay at a chain hotel in hopes of being able to redeem travel points for free (or at least mostly free) accommodations during our stay in Sochi, much like our subsequent accommodations in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

  • Although chain hotels were either not available for booking due to the IOC’s hold or because they were still under construction, I was confident that hotels would become available by late summer or early fall.  This obviously has not come to fruition.

  • I am an avid cruiser.  I went on my first cruise with my family when I was just 14, and have been on about a dozen cruises since then.  I know that older ships, like the ones that will be docked in Sochi and Adler, are not always the most, ummm, comfortable accommodations in the world.  Tiny (and I mean tiny!) cabins with barely any room to move around, and showers so small that the curtain is constantly clinging to your arm.  Uh, no thanks.  I prefer newer ships with their (slightly) larger rooms.  I didn’t want to stay for four nights in claustrophobic settings while I could stay at a lovely hotel like the Hyatt Regency or Radisson Blu.

  • The cruise ship accommodations are non-refundable and require the entire payment up front.  So even if chain hotels did open up that were cheaper or free options using hotel points, I would be out of luck.  Plus, the thought of spending that kind of money (around $1500) on accommodations and not earning any value through earned points really kind of bummed me out!

Last week, after lengthy discussions with my husband as well as my sister (who will be going to Sochi with her family too), we decided to book the cruise option.  There were a few key points that made the final decision an easy one:

  • Although we’ll be paying around $1500 for two people for four nights accommodations, that includes all meals!  That will be a huge cost savings during our stay, as I imagine food prices will be inflated everywhere around the Olympic venues.  We can indulge in more traditional Russian cuisine when we go to Moscow and St. Petersburg.

  • The location of the ship in Adler port really cannot be beat.  We’ll be within walking distance of the “Coastal Cluster,” where most of the non-mountain events will take place.  I don’t think that any hotel opening up would have a location that good.

  • I wanted to be able to get our Russian tourist visas as far in advance as possible.  Generally speaking, you need confirmed hotel reservations as support for getting a visa.  Current rules stipulate that you cannot apply for a Russian Visa more than 90 days prior to your intended arrival date.  Therefore, I want to apply for our visas in November as soon as we reach that 90 day mark.  I was afraid if we continued to wait and wait for hotels through December or January, we could potentially run the risk of experiencing visa delays.

  • Frankly, I was just so tired of constantly checking for hotel availability.  I had been doing that AT LEAST twice a day for more than six months.  It was growing old, and there was never any progress.  I’m all done checking for hotel availability now!  But I still check the Sochi TripAdvisor forums.

Has anyone else finally decided to book the cruise ships?  Or are you waiting it out for hotels?