Tips for Traveling: Money and Packing

I hope you were able to learn something from my last post of travel tips! I had a fun time writing them and thinking of things that I wished I knew¬†in the past. Sorry for the delay in posting this part II, but it’s finally ready: This post will go over a couple more things I think are crucial to getting the most out of any trip you plan: Money and packing, which are tied closer together than you may think.

There’s a famous phase that my friend Val reminded me about on facebook: “Bring half of what you think you’ll need, and twice as much money.”¬†This is so true! I used to be a chronic over-packer. I’d pack “outfits” so that each day I’d have a unique look. Now I try to pack [fewer] clothes that all mix and match well with each other. My other epiphany is that most of the time, if you forget something, the place you’re headed to will sell what you need. This takes a lot of pressure off!

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Money and Savings

As far as paying for the trip itself, like I’ve shared in the past I am a chronic planner. For me planning the trip is a huge part of the experience. So much so that I’m constantly looking up fares on Kayak and Airbnb just to see what the going rates for things are.

So to budget for a trip I do it just like any other big purchase: I get the total and work backwards. For a longer international trip let’s use a ballpark figure of $2,000 (for our purposes: something like a $900 flight, $100 per night hotel, plus money for attractions and food). I think of when I’d like to visit that place, count how many months away it is, then divide. If there’s no possible way I could put that much away per month, then the trip gets pushed back so the monthly savings amount is lower. Even if I don’t have something coming up I still try to prioritize putting a certain amount away each month. My “present self” has thanked my “past self” on many occasions.

If this sounds like poor planning because I’m saving for my trip as it approaches: well, you probably have a point, but I also have a strategy. I book things in installments if I’m pretty sure the price of that aspect is going to stay stable. Remember, for an international trip I start booking things a pretty generous six months out. So after a few months of saving, I have enough to book the flight, so I do. Then a couple months later I have enough to lock down my hotel or Airbnb, so I do. Doing this in waves (instead of all at once) gives me more time to daydream about what I want from the trip, research neighborhoods, and learn¬†what good lodging prices are. Then for the remaining months before the trip I put aside¬†money for food, sightseeing and shopping.

Cash

As far as spending money for each day, it really depends on¬†your lifestyle. Something we did on our last trip that worked out well was just dealing in cash. With cash (overseas), you only have to pay the bank ATM fee once (sometimes it’s a percentage of money withdrawn plus a foreign transaction fee) and you end up with what basically works as your budget to go on. Of course if something unexpected happens you’re able to get more out of the ATM, but dealing with cash in hand and avoiding being hit with bank fees twice has a way of being pretty persuasive on where you want your money to go.

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As an example, here is how we dealt in cash on pour last trip. When we arrived in Heathrow, the ATM would only let us take out 300 pounds. So, that was our budget for the three days in London: 100 per day. London is so expensive!! We put a couple pricier items on our credit card (the pricey Arsenal stadium tour, an expensive keepsake from Liberty, for example‚ÄĒand do use credit not debit when swiping; fewer fees) but other than those things, the ¬£300 carried us through with 60 pence to spare. We did the same in Paris and Madrid. 6 days, 600 Euros. Paris was more expensive than Madrid so it was probably more like ‚ā¨125/day in Paris and ‚ā¨75/day in Madrid. (Remember, this was for two people).

I try to avoid cash exchange windows and just deal with the ATM. If the ATM claims to be “fee free,” even better. They often have these in airports just before you get out of Customs. I don’t know if they really are “fee free,” but it is better to at least try avoiding fees of up to $8. Regardless, make sure you are using a reputable ATM at a major bank (not a convenience store). Before you travel, you can look up the terms of your credit or bank card and see if they have any particular¬†foreign partner bank. If not, at least you’ll know what your foreign transaction fees will be and can plan your number of withdrawals accordingly. Also, take a¬†moment to add a travel note on your account so it doesn’t get frozen (when the bank sees international spending they try to protect your money by shutting it down). This is super important!

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Make your money go farther by scoping out if any of your must-see sites have free days or free evenings and plan around that. Alternate between sit-down restaurants and street food (which is usually delicious, more “typical,” and cheap!) Buy or bring snacks to keep on hand and you can probably get by on two meals a day, if you really want to scrimp.

Packing

Packing, especially when planning a trip with a significant other or a relative, can get heated. One person always wants to bring something the other person thinks is totally unnecessary. You’ll want to check with your airline(s) in regards to what kind of bags incur charges and which are free, and plan accordingly. I’m making great strides in being more minimal. When laying out clothes to bring, make sure everything mixes and matches together. It all depends on where you’re headed,¬†but consider wearing things twice, or doing light layers. You can pack with dryer sheets in your suitcase if you are worried about – ahem – scents, but my bet is that nobody will notice if you re-wear an outfit. If you still want to cram more in, roll your clothes to create more room. I don’t know how this voodoo works, but it does.

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Here’s something important, though: If you are checking a bag, make sure that your carry on bag contains what you’d like to have if you are stranded without your luggage, say, overnight. Put some comfy clothes and a toothbrush, at the bare minimum, alongside your device chargers and light airplane reading. My friend Laura recommended, “as someone who has been stuck in an airport more than once overnight without access to luggage… I would suggest always having on you when flying: 1 change of clothes (with undies), an extra pair of socks and sweater (airports and planes are cold), a toothbrush and toothpaste, a few snacks, and cash (one time I was stuck in an airport because there was a power outage and the only way to buy things was with cash).” Remember! If your flight is grounded you could be spending unexpected hours in the airport.

As for that other random thing you are on the fence about bringing along? You probably don’t need it or won’t have time to use it. If it doesn’t jump to your mind as essential, it probably isn’t.

Thanks for reading! If you have tips or something you swear by, please put it in the comments below! I’m always looking for helpful ideas.

Tips for Traveling: Flights and Lodging

I thought I’d wrap up my recent¬†string of traveling posts with some tips I’ve learned along the way to help out someone (you?) who is thinking of planning a “bigger” trip. I realize that a big trip to one person¬†could mean going more than a couple states over,¬†or a big trip to another¬†could be a three-month backpacking trek across South Asia. For my purposes, something I consider a “big” trip is: more than¬†a week, or¬†out of the country, or some combination of the two.

Note: I was planning on writing one big post, but when I got on a roll it was turning out to be very long, so I’m breaking it up into two posts. The second one will be published Thursday!¬†

I’ve gone abroad 4 times since 2005.¬†Some things have changed and some things have stayed the same. Hopefully, even if all of these tips don’t apply to you, you can find something of value here. I opened the question to some of my friends on facebook and got good talking points and tips from them as well.

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Booking

I like to book whenever I’ve made my mind up that I’m serious about the trip and have the finances in order.¬†Then again, I am a big-time planner. So, for our last Europe trip, I did my research all throughout January and booked the tickets at the end of the month. For the trip we are going on this winter, I watched¬†prices for a couple of months, and went ahead and locked my tickets down a couple weeks ago. If you are able to plan six months ahead, you can get a good price for going abroad.¬†For domestic trips, about three months ahead has been a pretty good time to make plans. Of course, sometimes airlines have flash sales, so¬†if you aren’t as much of a planner, but more of a money hoarder, you can look for sales or Groupon Getaways and get some good deals.

Always plan ahead. I use Kayak.com fanatically. Their predictive tool¬†shows you the way prices have fluctuated and recommends you to “buy” or “wait.” Kayak doesn’t show you all¬†carriers, so go straight to the source for budget airlines like Southwest or Spirit. The rule of thumb is “always book on a Tuesday.” This is when airline websites announce sales, and the rest of the market reacts to this. If you are wanting to save every dollar you can, you can follow this advice‚ÄĒor you can refer to the paragraph above and just book as soon as you’re ready.

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If you plan to travel at least a couple times per year, it is worth it to sign up for a loyalty plan. OneWorld, SkyTeam, and Star Alliance are the “big three” that span the globe. Before you sign up with one, you can think back to which airlines you happen to have flown the most regularly and consider if that trend will continue. Personally I’ve signed up with¬†Alaska Airlines because they have lots of flights out of San Diego and their points can be used on a broad variety of carriers. I also collect OneWorld points too‚ÄĒall of my overseas flights have been on American Airlines. They key to accumulating airline points is to make sure you don’t let them expire.¬†Look into alternative ways of earning points to keep them “fresh.” With Alaska Air, I can shop through their website and take online surveys to make sure that the minimum number of points are added per year.¬†I’m a member of a handy website called Award Wallet¬†that tracks amount of points and expiration,¬†but a spreadsheet or Google Doc could work too.

I’ve got a cousin and a few friends who play the credit card game‚ÄĒopening up cards and reaching “minimum spend” to get mileage plan credits then cancelling (or setting aside) the card. This is attractive because sign-up bonuses are usually enough for at least one round-trip ticket. However, airlines are increasing minimum spend or reducing miles,¬†making “the game” harder to play since there are some devoted people on the web teaching others how to work the system¬†at the airlines’ expense.

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I never purchased “travel insurance,” but back in June when our Air France flight got cancelled, I wished I had. We ended up getting our money back a month later, but¬†with post-Brexit exchange rates we lost about $10 on each ticket. For our upcoming trip to Mexico the travel insurance was only about $3 per ticket so I added it on. From my friend Wayne: “Check if the credit card you used to buy the flight includes travel insurance. Might include compensation for flight delays or cancellations. For cancellations, don’t automatically accept hotel/food vouchers from the airline if it requires an overnight stay. The credit card company usually will give you more than the airline.”

Hotels

Hotels, I have found, are one of the biggest question marks when traveling. From my aunt Joyce: “Some of the hotels look wonderful but when you get there… Not everything is as glossy as the brochure.”¬†This is so true! Sometimes a place looks good online, but when you arrive it’s the size of a shoebox and is dingy (this happened to us in Paris, 2012).

There are a couple different directions you could go with hotels: book something really cheap and take what you get (you will free up more spending money this way) or, if creature comforts are important to you, diligently read reviews: and not just one or two of them. Some fussy people leave a bad review for minor infractions (sub-par breakfast maybe), and some people give a high-star review but couch a few gripes in their written portion. I don’t spend too much time on the Tripadvisor forums, but I do check their reviews on hotels since the site¬†is just so widely used.¬†This site, trivago, is a search aggregator and has parameters you can use to narrow down lodgings. When I was searching for places in Europe, the trivago engine brought up the greatest number of places at a wide variety of price points (even including hostels).

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Of course I’ve been singing the praises of airbnb for a while now, and it’s what we used on several of our latest trips. When I search airbnb, I always set the parameters for “superhosts.” This way you will be matched with highly reviewed hosts‚ÄĒby using this to narrow down my rentals for safety and accuracy,¬†I have yet to be disappointed. To me, searching airbnb and trivago are interchangeable to help me find the right¬†room, in the right part of town, for the right price, so I don’t lean one way or the other. We are definitely going to book an airbnb for¬†the group trip we’re doing in December, so I guess if I was traveling with a group regularly (like, a family) I’d go with airbnbs because¬†you’ll get more space to spread out and not be in each other’s hair– for less than booking two or more rooms at a hotel.

In my next post I’m going to do my best to tackle money and packing. Anything you’ve always wanted my opinion on? Any tips you want to give me? I might add an “oh yeah, and…” post Friday for anything I forgot to include!

Eurotrip 2016: Part 3 (Madrid)

See Part 1 here and Part 2 here. 

The final leg of our trip was Madrid, Spain. Doug and I¬†were both eager to experience Madrid since neither of us had been there before‚ÄĒand we were going to see our friend from college, Jonathan! Actually, having a friend in Madrid was one of the main reasons we booked a trip to Europe in the first place. We want to travel,¬†well, everywhere, but were drawn to the prospect of seeing an old friend in a new place. We were glad to finally see the sun!

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The first day in Madrid didn’t quite go according to plan. Originally, we were supposed to arrive around 2:30 p.m. and check into our airbnb right away. However, as you¬†may have read in my last post, our flight from Paris was cancelled and we rebooked the next, cheapest flight available. It happened to leave Paris around 6 a.m. which meant we woke up between 3:30 and 4 a.m. since we were worried about getting to the airport, checking baggage, and everything. (Paris’s airport is kind of far outside the city and it’s worth adding in extra time to get there). Anyway, our flight put us in Madrid around 10 a.m. We couldn’t check into our airbnb, so we had 4 hours to kill in a new city with all our luggage in tow.

We ate at a nearby restaurant called El Madro√Īo. The staff were a bit confused about Americans eating a full-fledged lunch at 11 a.m. because most of the restaurants don’t even open until around that time, and the lunch rush at most places is closer to 2. (note: I discovered that I loved running on Madrid Time). Anyway we really tried to drag¬†out the meal because we didn’t have anywhere to go with all of our stuff.

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After we’d overstayed our welcome at the restaurant we headed up to Plaza Mayor, which is probably the most famous sight in Madrid and wasn’t very far from our airbnb. [Cut to us dragging rollerbags up a cobblestone hill.] Plaza Mayor is¬†a nice, open square with a statue in the center. There are lots of restaurants and gift shops around the perimeter. We made a couple laps and stopped in the tourist center to get pamphlets and use their wi-fi. We walked a little farther to just outside an old monastery where we found a concrete bench. Doug read a book while I napped (comfy!).

Finally we were able to check into our flat. The wait was worth it! Out of the three airbnbs we stayed in this was… well, tied for the most picturesque, with Paris, but it only had four flights of stairs instead of six!

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After another nap and a shower, we were ready to explore some more, meeting our friend when he got out of work at 6pm. He showed us around a few more parts of town including Catedral de Almudena, which we went into; it is an old cathedral filled with interesting art, and the Palacio Real, or royal palace (we just looked at the outside).

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We continued to trek¬†around the city‚ÄĒincluding to his apartment in the south part of the city to drop some stuff off, then we checked out Mercado San Miguel (below), had tapas for dinner, did more exploring out to the east, then back to our flat to stay¬†up really late catching up and talking about old times‚ÄĒthe best kind of conversations in my opinion. My fitbit clocked over 26,000 steps that day!

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The next morning we were exhausted and a bit under the weather, due to the rain in London and rain+stress in Paris. So, I slept in while Doug went out to explore the city. He didn’t find much because nothing really opens before 10. So, we had a lazy morning. Then we went to Retiro Park¬†which is a beautiful huge park that has a variety of things to see, including Palacio de Cristal, and a large lake where one can rent a rowboat and paddle around. I bought a comic book (in Spanish) from one of the bookseller booths and we sat on the grass trying to decipher the plot using intuition, Doug’s beginner Spanish skills, and adapting my French knowledge to fit.

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During the evening was more bumming around with our friend. We had a fancy dinner at a culinary art school (so it was fancy but inexpensive) and checked out more of the Centro neighborhood. Lots of walking, but not as much as the day before.

On our final day in Madrid we went to Reina Sofia, the modern art museum. There is also one of the world’s top art museums, Museo Nacional del Prado, but we’d seen a lot of¬†classic-style art in the Louvre and overall, we prefer modern art. (Also, Reina Sofia¬†was a bit cheaper and we were nearly¬†out of Euros by this point).

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That evening, we were able to see Jonathan in a variety show! It turns out there is a thriving expat performing arts community in Madrid. I was really excited to be able to attend‚ÄĒhe does stand-up too, usually on the weekends. This show was on a Wednesday,¬†fortunately for us!

The next morning we made it to the airport with plenty of time, and didn’t have to get up at 4 a.m. to do it. Ah, it’s so nice when things go according to plan.

The beat of life in Madrid was much more slow and leisurely, which was a great change of pace after busy, bustling London and cosmopolitan Paris. By this point in the trip Doug and I both had full-fledged colds so it was nice (and necessary!) to slow down.

Busy-busy-busy trips have their pros, and so do relaxing trips. What pace of life do you look for on a vacation? 

Eurotrip 2016: Part 2 (Paris)

See Part 1 here. 

Early on the fourth day of our trip, which was a Saturday, Doug and I¬†got up and jumped on the train¬†from London to Paris‚ÄĒwe¬†went through the Chunnel! From the train we got to see some nice countryside;¬†the Chunnel was only 30-45 minutes of the whole three-hour train ride. I was reading The Secret Life of Bees¬†so I didn’t have a chance to feel claustrophobic.

Our airbnb was in Le Marais (neighborhood), at the Arts et M√©tiers metro stop. The listing did not exaggerate, our place was right above the metro. This is a huge plus, especially considering our luggage. The minus was that the building’s elevator was broken and we had to climb six narrow flights of stairs to the seventh floor. This kind of cramped my style‚ÄĒI’m the kind of person who likes to pop back in to “home base” a couple of times throughout the day to regroup. Still… the view of the rooftops of my favorite city was certainly worth all those stairs.

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We were in Paris less than 48 hours so we really jumped right into our itinerary. We got something to eat at this hipster restaurant called Holybelly that I found on Instagram. The food and coffee¬†lived up to my expectations! Heading to Paris and then eating at a brunch restaurant where everybody speaks English (so many American expats there) isn’t what I’d necessarily recommend to a first-time visitor, but since this was my 4th time in Paris it gave me a glimpse of what my life might be like if I actually had the opportunity¬†to live there. PS: Know anyone in Paris hiring foreigners? ;)

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After lunch we headed to √éle de la Cit√©, the island in the middle of the Seine river where (uber famous) Notre Dame cathedral is located. We joined the long but fast-moving line to enter. Originally we’d planned on climbing to the top of the towers, but after having climbed to our apartment,¬†my trick knee¬†wasn’t really ready for another giant flight of stairs.¬†Inside was even more beautiful than I remembered from my visit in high school. The stained glass windows are the most famous and beautiful aspect. The cathedral was not very crowded compared to Westminster Abbey from a couple days prior.

After Notre Dame we went to the √éle’s other famous chapel, Sainte-Chapelle. I’ve only in recent years started hearing about this chapel, in part I think to its small size, and also owing to the fact that it was¬†under a huge restoration took¬†up the greater part of a decade. This was really the showstopper of the whole weekend in Paris. Approaching the chapel, it’s quite nondescript and there isn’t much buildup (construction zones, hallways, etc). Then, you enter a beautifully painted (dark) lower chapel, then go up a tight stone spiral staircase to the main event. The stained glass in this chapel was unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. It’s hard to put into words so I highly, highly recommend that if you ever travel to Paris, you must stop in. I’ll let my photos try to convey the beauty:

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After Sainte-Chapelle I explored (legendary) Shakespeare and Company book store, then we had a cr√™pe and bummed around in the Quartier Latin, which I’d always read about in textbooks but had never ventured to. It was so-so. It reminded me of Pacific Beach here in San Diego, meaning bustling but pretty mass-market-y. Not so quaint, authentic, or tucked away. The cr√™pe was cheap and good, though. We ate in a nearby park; it was nice to sit for a while and just soak in the ambiance.

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The next day got a bit derailed when we found out that the Air France pilots were on strike and the flight we’d booked for the following morning was flat-out cancelled. We spent a big chunk of the morning fretting about this, and we even went to the Air France office in the city, but it was Sunday, so naturally everything was closed. We didn’t have cell service or data, which made us feel hopeless. Trying to make the best of it and put the predicament out of our mind (plus, it was pouring), we went to the Louvre because honestly when you’re in there you can’t think of much but art. Like Notre Dame, I hadn’t been to The Louvre since 2005 so I was eager to visit.

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Underneath the Louvre is a small mall-type area. I used wi-fi at the US Embassy Apple Store to send off a few messages to Air France in hope of a resolution. Then we sat at a nearby brasserie (the ubiquitous corner cafes with colorful awnings and outdoor seating) and really stretched out our dinner, grateful to be out of the rain.

We went back to the (wi-fi less) airbnb to pack, determined to get to Madrid one way or another, in the morning. Long story short, we ended up mooching wi-fi off a shady cash-advance type of store at 11:30pm and buying two not-terribly expensive¬†plane tickets from a different carrier (EasyJet) leaving at 6am. I’m still waiting on a refund from Air France for the cancelled flight.¬†Frustrated about the unexpected cost and the second day of sightseeing being mostly derailed, but relieved to have flights booked, we rushed to our flat to try to get some shut-eye before heading out for the airport really, really early the next morning.

You can catch part one here, and my next post will cover Madrid! Have you ever had an unexpected trip-up while traveling? Was it before or after the smartphone age? How did you deal with it? 

Eurotrip 2016: Part 1 (London)

Four years ago, I took a trip with Doug to Europe. Now, finally, things have settled down around here for the time being, so we decided to take a big summer trip instead of multiple long-weekend trips like we did last summer. So, we booked our second trip to Europe!

Note: I wrote the majority of this post last week, and then as I was editing the copy… the Brexit results came in. It seems strange to publish¬†a happy-go-lucky vacation post while the country is in crisis, but… We had a good trip, and I really did enjoy myself. For more information on the Brexit, the BBC seems pretty comprehensive.¬†Oh, and on a related note… it’s relatively¬†cheap to visit Britain now,¬†after all this!¬†

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Our first city was London. Doug is a big Anglophile and he is really into British Premier League soccer. Also, London Heathrow is a fairly inexpensive airport to fly into, as far as transatlantic trips go. So, we started out–¬†my first time to Jolly Old England!¬†Parts of the city were jolly, but much of our three days in London were rainy! We saw the sun a few times, saw Big Ben a number of times, and had lots of good food.

The first day we arrived, we took the metro to King’s Cross Station (the Harry Potter nerd in me geeked out) and walked up to our airbnb. After we settled our bags¬†and changed out of our airplane clothes, it was time to hit the city. I booked us on one of those cheesy hop-on, hop-off tour buses because I didn’t know much about London and wanted a guide to tell me stuff.

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I would give the hop-on, hop-off bus a 5/10. Traffic in London is pretty bad so for a lot of the ride you are moving very slowly and listening to the guide’s rudimentary stand-up comedy routine (maybe it depends on the guide). We got a pretty overview of the city but it started to rain, nay, pour and the bus ended up getting, well flooded out. (We’d looked at the forecast and we came prepared¬†with raincoats). It got really bad, though, so we hopped out with the intention of seeing Westminster Abbey, but that was experiencing a bit of flooding as well, so we got a coffee and sheltered until the rain let up a bit.

Since we were already wet, and it kept sprinkling, we decided to take the Thames river tour that was included in our tour bus ticket. For me, this was the highlight of day one. Old European cities are almost always built along a river for practical reasons, so seeing it from this vantage provides a good view of new and old buildings and some good history.

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After the boat, we headed to Covent Garden which is like a fancy mall and dining area. Judging from the design, I’m thinking it probably used to be a train station? Correct me if you know. We ate pot pies at Battersea Pie Station, which I’d scoped out online before we left (I didn’t want to eat just fish and chips for three days). The pies were really good, and the crust was amazing.

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The next morning, we had a full English breakfast at Cafe Oz a pretty short walk from our flat. I had bubble and squeak, which is like a potato pancake with veggies¬†in it. From there we saw Buckingham Palace, which was beginning to get decked out for the Queen’s 90th birthday festivities, and then back to Westminster Abbey, which was open after the previous day’s rain. The Abbey was unlike any of the cathedrals I’d previously seen in France and Belgium. It was hundreds of years old and instead of preserving it in an ancient state, the royal family kept adding on to it– tombs and memorials, and paintings, and more! The entry fee included an audioguide which was extremely helpful. I would have been overwhelmed without it and wouldn’t have appreciated my visit as much.

The weather was really good and rain was predicted for the following day, so we went to the Emirates Stadium, where the soccer team Arsenal plays. This pilgrimage was one of Doug’s bucket list items, and listening to the audioguide certainly told me more than I ever knew there was to know about the storied history of the team.

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For dinner, we went to another restaurant I’d looked up before our departure, BAO. This Soho shop is on foodie lists of “new, must-try” places to eat in London, and we had to wait in line to get in. I wanted to bail (my feet were so tired from a day of walking) but we persevered and were rewarded with yummy pork buns and a sesame-kale salad. After BAO we walked around Soho a while longer before heading in for the night.

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On our final day in London, we went back to Soho to visit Carnaby street! I’d put Liberty of London on my itinerary but it was much more than I even imagined and I was blown away by the size of the store, the medieval tudor style building, and the beautiful items inside! We went to Kingly Court and ate at Le Bab where we had a surprisingly high bill and realized we were almost out of pounds.

We went to Monocle, a coffee shop, where we each had a coffee and discovered we had juuuust enough money for dinner. The rest of the day was an exercise in not spending money! We went to the Tate Modern, which was free, and walked around Shakespeare’s Globe and the Anchor, London’s oldest pub.

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We grabbed dinner from a supermarket and headed back to our flat to watch soccer. It was the first day of a month-long European competition. Our train (through the chunnel!) was leaving at 6 the next morning so we hit the hay early.

My next Eurotrip post will cover Paris¬†and my third will cover Madrid! Have you ever been to London? What was your favorite part, or what do you wish you could visit? I think I skipped some touristy stuff in favor of some hipstery stuff… but #noregrets!¬†

Downtown LA in a Day

For my birthday (which was ages ago), instead of a normal present, I¬†asked for a getaway to Los Angeles to visit LACMA, the LA County Museum of Art. I didn’t know what to expect but I was blown away by the breadth of their collection! It truly is a world-class museum.

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Urban Light and one of LACMA’s buildings in the rear

But first, let’s back up. We can play this like you are spending your whole day in LA. Traffic is a giant bummer, so¬†we’ll¬†pretend like you woke up there. Could be that you stayed at¬†The Ace, where we stayed for my birthday, or in an Airbnb in the downtown area. Or crashed with a friend. I’m sure you know someone who knows someone who lives near… right?

For breakfast you can go a couple of ways. You can eat at¬†Bottega Louie, which is basically what it would be like¬†if Marie Antoinette designed a brunch restaurant–an amazing bright white emporium of small but impeccably crafted sweets, and big entrees. Or, you could poke around for a smaller place like Poppy & Rose, which is aptly named since it sits right in the midst of the Downtown LA Flower District. It’s hard to mess up brunch, but¬†a meal that makes a lasting impression is worth writing about‚ÄĒso I include both places which were each¬†very good. Also near the Flower Market is the Fashion District, where ¬†you can find almost every kind of fabric and sewing notion known to man.

Disney Concert Hall
Walt Disney Concert Hall by architect Frank Gehry

After brunch it’s worth driving around Downtown LA to check out some impressive sights like the famous Walt Disney Concert Hall and the new Broad [modern art] Museum across the street.¬†The MOCA is right there, as well, so pay the parking meter and poke around these three famous sites. If you wanted to make your day an Art Triple Feature, you could check out the Broad and MOCA before lunch, and the LACMA after lunch. That is, if you have the Museum Stamina.

The Broad
The Broad

I just mentioned lunch — depending on how early you ate breakfast you may be in the mood to grab a bite. Go to the Grand Central Market— you won’t be disappointed. I heard that the line at Eggslut can get really long, so if it’s short (like it was when I was there), get on it. If it’s too long, just pick any type of cuisine¬†and I’m sure you will find¬†another vendor that fits the bill. I highly recommend Berlin Currywurst. The Market has been open for almost 100 years but is experiencing a kind of renaissance (or, you could call it gentrification or hipsterification). It’s really helping along the revival of rundown (scary) DTLA move from sketchy to nice, and by the way, the food is delicious.

Egglsut
Eggslut burger and¬†“slut” (coddled egg with mashed potato)

Now head west a few miles to (in my opinion) the main event. Let me pause for a moment and tell you to drive through the super fancy neighborhoods near¬†LACMA. WOW! You may even recognize some of the exteriors from movie locations. (I’m horrible at that kind of thing so I wouldn’t recognize any). You can park underground at LACMA so your car stays cool.¬†The exterior of LACMA has a lot of interesting things to view¬†without paying admission. The buildings themselves, from different eras and different architects don’t “match” but they “go,” kind of like a good outfit. You can see Levitated Mass, a giant boulder installation that caused quite a stir when it made its way to LACMA, and Urban Light (photo at top), the installation that launched a million selfies. You can even see an Alexander Calder mobile and fountain around back.

With admission, though, you can see art from every region in the world and almost every time period. It really is an extensive collection. Back in September we were there just about all day but didn’t even get the chance to see it all. I even went back a month ago and still haven’t seen everything there is to offer. The limited time exhibits are so, so good. The first time I saw a fascinating collection of works by Noah Purifoy, who I’d never heard of and now know so much about, and the second time Angela and I got to experience the famous Rain Room.

LACMA Calder
Alexander Calder – Three Quintains (Hello Girls)

Don’t forget that LACMA is directly adjacent to the fascinating¬†La Brea Tar Pits, which are actual, active tar pits that have been excavated over the years and contain preserved animals. Like, real preserved prehistoric animals. You can see a lot of the tar pits by just walking¬†around the outside, but if you pay for a ticket you can go inside the main building and get a tour and learn¬†a lot more information and context about what you’re looking at. Oh yeah, and since they’re adjacent to the art museum you only have to pay for parking once, which is a huge win.

To be completely honest, I usually skedaddle before traffic gets bad so my tips for LA are more concentrated on the morning and midday‚ÄĒtruncated around 4PM. My evening tips are lacking. LACMA is closer to Koreatown though, so do yourself a favor and get some authentic Korean BBQ nearby.¬†Then,¬†if you don’t have to be rolled outside by your friends (many KBBQ places are all you can eat) you can head back downtown to Spring Street to find some trouble to get into. Or instead, you can grab a quick In-N-Out burger and go catch an up-and-coming band or a¬†newly released movie. You are in LA after all.

Portland, Oregon: 2015

Crazily enough, Doug and I found ourselves in Portland, Oregon just¬†52 weeks after our 2014 visit. Again, for the¬†wedding of a close friend from college days in Kansas. Life is funny sometimes, isn’t it?

keep portland weird small

We had the privilege of being invited to three weddings in May and June, and vacation days were quickly¬†being eaten away. For this reason, we made a trip to Portland and back, Saturday/Sunday, in about 36 hours!¬†Alaska Airlines, the company I have my rewards credit card through, offers an annual free/discounted “Companion Fare” to members so we only had to buy one flight (plus fees). Not bad! There were like five different events in Portland that weekend and hotel prices were skyrocketing so instead of staying at the Portland Ace like last time, we ended up at¬†an AirBnB which we loved. (It will get its own post.)

The first thing we did after getting off the plane (other than getting our rental car; we haven’t braved Portland public transit yet) was to get food. Our flight left San Diego around 6 and landed in Portland around 8 or 8:30… and we were hungry!¬†Luckily our AirBnB hosts had already e-mailed us a fun list of places to eat in their neighborhood so we chose one and were not disappointed. We ate at Helser’s on Alberta. If you watch Portlandia, you’ll remember an episode where the line for brunch stretches on for several miles. We were lucky enough to beat the 9am rush; but a line did form as we had our meal.

Helsers 2 small

helsers 1 small

June was the month I decided to go 30 days gluten-free, and I thought that Portland would be¬†a gluten-free utopia. Not so! Most restaurants had a few things¬†marked with an asterisk on the menu, but not as many as I’d assumed. I was still able to enjoy¬†delicious meals, though. Above, a yummy chorizo-potato hash with Tillamook cheddar cheese.

We stayed a little bit north of the up-and-coming Alberta Arts District. Last year, we stumbled across this area and so this time we were happy to explore it (as opposed to The Pearl District where we stayed/explored last time).

Alberta Arts District

Alberta Arts District

Alberta Arts District

The wedding itself was in the nearby town of Woodburn. I changed into my “wedding clothes” and put my makeup on at the Woodburn outlet mall. #improvising! The wedding venue was at a really pretty historic house, The Settlemier House. It was awesome! It reminded me of something from Gilmore Girls, which my friend (who got married) and I bonded over in college. So, all in all it was very appropriate. ;)

Settlemier House

The following morning we had breakfast at a gluten-free bakery called Tula, and drove all over the city window-shopping. I like how Portland seems big and small at the same time. Each neighborhood is totally walk-able, but to get from one side of town to the other in a car is also a breeze! (This conflicts with some reports I recently saw about Portland having terrible traffic. We must have missed rush hours!)

Tula Bakery

I have a number of friends up in the area and considering how our trip was so short, I just made a facebook event and suggested that we all meet at lunch at the same place at the same time. Some friends weren’t able to make it, but some were, and we had a great lunch together. I think it went really well considering the fact that Doug and I just dragged a bunch of strangers together to share a meal. I enjoyed it so much I just might pull the stunt again sometime!

Near Kennedy School

McMenamins Kennedy School

We all had lunch at McMenamins’ Kennedy School, which is an actual¬†elementary school turned hotel, restaurant, bar, and art cinema. What a great idea–turning a decommissioned building into something so creative! It was a good place for a somewhat large group.¬†The food was super reasonably priced and the large location was so fascinating to explore while waiting for others to arrive. The bathrooms are simply the old school bathrooms! It was like being in a time warp…

Portland Sign

This summer certainly was the year of quick weekend trips. I feel so fortunate to have had the chance to see so many of our loved ones, but it did leave me feeling pretty exhausted! I think that next year I am definitely going to take a week-long trip (take all my vacation days at once) instead of taking a Friday here, a Monday there. I think it will help recharge my batteries better. However, ¬†I sure did love feeling like a jet-setter all summer! ¬†Now I’m ready for fall!