Month: April 2015

No Tickets Needed!

Adventure is what you make of it.

I live in the Long Island City neighborhood of New York City, which is considered very “up and coming.” Right now it’s clear that the area has a gritty past that it’s slowly trying to forget.

There are a lot of warehouse spaces housing artist galleries and movie studios, as well as construction fences hiding soon-to-be luxury rentals. Many of the buildings feature long, brick, windowless facades. Others have metal fences and decades-old graffiti. To an outsider it probably looks like I live in the middle of a wasteland.

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Graffiti on a building in Long Island City

But, just like what happened in Williamsburg, Brooklyn ten years ago, new cafes and shops are opening every month in my area. Smart entrepreneurs with their fingers on the pulse are noticing the inevitable LIC population boom over the next five years are starting to open up new stores. We got a Dunkin Donuts last fall, for gosh sake’s! My beloved neighborhood is getting ‘noticed.”

So after a long, cold winter of staying inside, I felt it was important to lace up my sneakers and hit the pavement this weekend. After many months of staying indoors, I knew there would be a lot of new nooks to discover. I decided to be a tourist in my own neighborhood.

And guess what? My only out of pocket expense was the price of pancakes.

Here’s what I did:

  • Started the day with blueberry pancakes at Court Square Diner – yum!
    http://www.tripadvisor.com/LocationPhotoDirectLink-g48080-d2241250-i100850698-Court_Square_Diner-Long_Island_City_Queens_New_York.html#84157071

    Busy day at Court Square Diner (image source: Tripadvisor.com)

    http://www.tripadvisor.com/LocationPhotoDirectLink-g48080-d2241250-i70763181-Court_Square_Diner-Long_Island_City_Queens_New_York.html#41253443

    Delicious blueberry pancakes at Court Square Diner in LIC (image source: Tripadvisor.com)

  • Walked past many warehouse-looking buildings to find a hidden Panini cafe

    http://www.yelp.com/user_details?userid=rj1AsrpYO71fe9FenE8_1Q

    Barista Panini House in LIC (image source: Yelp.com)

  • Strolled down a long alleyway towards the water, only to find that there are two waterfront restaurants at the end! Then noted that I’d have to go back and try them both some evening – Water’s Edege Restaurant and Catering and Anable Basin Sailing Bar & Grill

    http://www.yelp.com/biz_photos/anable-basin-sailing-bar-and-grill-long-island-city#dOsYUg5PrIud9NsDsm25tg

    Tables at Anable Basin with view of Water’s Edge Restaurant in the far back (image source: Yelp.com)

  • Meandered through the quirky knickknacks and tasty food stalls at LIC Flea Market
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    Rows of stalls at LIC Flea Market

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    Paintings and prints at LIC Flea Market

  • Stumbled upon a Fine Arts School in a beat-up old building and contemplated signing up for painting classes later this summer when it fits in my budget

    Bridgeview Fine Arts studio

    Bridgeview Fine Arts studio

  • Scoped out the young families and active soccer leagues enjoying the day at the local park (John F. Murray Playground)

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    Swingset at John F. Murray Playground

  • Glided down the beautiful, tree lined block of historic NYC brownstones on 45th Avenue

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    Me walking under a flowering tree on 45th Ave.

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    Beautiful brownstone-lined block on 45th Ave.

    FOUND A LIBRARY ONLY TWO BLOCKS FROM OUR APARTMENT! (what!?!? How did I not know that existed before!?)

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    Court Square branch of Queens Library system

  • Walked through a small Sycamore grove outside of the Long Island City Courthouse and Citibank building at One Court Square
    Long Island City Courthouse

    Long Island City Courthouse

    Beautiful clock and tree grove at One Court Square

The fact that I was able to explore so many picturesque areas and discover new establishments while walking around my neighborhood for two hours gave me the idea that you can be a tourist anywhere. If you live in a small town, just go to the next town down the road and walk around! If you live near nature, go find a trailhead! If you live in a big city, explore your own neighborhood – or another that you’ve been dying to see! You don’t have to book a trip to Mumbai just to escape the mundane and experience meaningful travel.

First and foremost, if you’re on a budget and have a hankering for a new experience, try walking around your ‘hood. Sometimes all you need are your walking shoes and a little sunshine to find what you’re looking for.

Later this summer, expect to see a few more posts about NYC neighborhoods as I become a tourist in my own town. Hope you stay tuned!

Saving Money While Traveling – Budgeting Hacks (pt. 1)

Let’s face it – traveling can be annoyingly expensive. If it wasn’t, everyone would do it all the time. (I mean, I would. You probably would too if you’re reading this blog.)

That said, what constitutes a meaningful vacation will vary by person, and everyone is entitled to have different priorities. Some people would rather splurge on staying at a trendy boutique hotel, while others would be keen to see a live band play at a local pub. No matter what memories and experiences you want to take away from your trip, I’m sure you would agree that “running up the meter in your taxicab” is not one of them.

One of my primary goals for this blog has always been to help my readers optimize every vacation day and dollar to achieve the most meaningful trip possible. In order to continue with this mission, I wanted to share with you a few budget hacks that I’ve picked up over the years:

    1. Pack a small water bottle that fits in your day bag.

      You need to stay hydrated when touring cities on foot, and you should try to avoid the pricey bottled water typically sold near tourist destinations. If you are going to a country where the water is safe to drink, you could save more money than you think by adding a water bottle to your suitcase.

      When my boyfriend and I were in Bruges last July, we were stunned when restaurants did not offer free tap water with our meals. Instead, we had to pay between three and five Euros to split a bottle of tap water at the table! While this practice is not common in other European countries, it will always save money to be prepared. In our circumstance, we were in Bruges during the height of the summer and drank about three bottles of water per day. Had we brought water bottles, we would have saved roughly $9 per day, per person.

      Posing with my water bottle half way up Mount Snowdon in Wales

      Posing with my water bottle half way up Mount Snowdon in Wales

      Carrying my Camelback water bottle up Bear Mountain in New York state

      Carrying my Camelback water bottle up Bear Mountain in New York state

      Carrying a water bottle on the pier at Bal Harbour in Miami, FL

      Carrying a water bottle on the pier at Bal Harbour in Miami, FL

    2. Bring your breakfast!

      I’m American and I eat breakfast. I’ll be first to admit that if I don’t, I will get HANGRY. So, I’ve started the habit of bringing my favorite instant coffee (Nescafe Taster’s Choice 100% Colombian) and instant oatmeal (Nature’s Path Organic Gluten Free Oatmeal – Spiced Apple with Flax) along with me on longer trips to avoid the cost of cafes.

      I’ve always found access to a hot water heater and cups/mugs to make this work (even in hostels!), and I try to pack a small spoon as well for convenience. Needless to say, the coffee/oatmeal combo in the mornings has always gotten me through to lunch. Honestly, the last thing I want to be thinking about when I’m touring a new city is how many minutes until my stomach stops rumbling. I would guess that this habit has saved about $5 to $10 per day on trips – and it takes up very little room in my suitcase. (suggestion: you can even pack the individually-wrapped packets inside of your water bottle from tip #1)

      Bring coffee and oatmeal to make instant breakfast in your hotel room (image source: http://drlill.com/black-coffee-and-unsweetened-oatmeal/)

      Bring coffee and oatmeal to make instant breakfast in your hotel room (image source: http://drlill.com/black-coffee-and-unsweetened-oatmeal/)

    3. Use public transportation, if possible.

      This point probably sounds like a given if you already live in a major metropolitan city. In fact, I currently live in NYC, and I only take a cab if 1) it’s pouring rain and the subway is many blocks away, 2) I’ve had too much to drink, or 3) I’m going to/from Laguardia Airport. That said, I acknowledge that folks accustomed to driving can feel intimidated by subway maps and bus routes.

      However, it can be incredibly cost effective to educate yourself in advance on any safe public transit options at your destination. Trust me. I’m guilty of paying an $80 cab fare during the first time I went to London in order to simply get from Westminster to The City (only a few subway stops from each other!). If I had taken the underground, I would have avoided the traffic and paid less than $5. I mean, just think about how many fish and chips I could have eaten with that savings! Or how many Strongbows I could have drank! So, just think to yourself that if the locals can take the public transit system to/from work every day, it must be easy to use once you figure it out.

      Subway train approaching the platform in Washington D.C.

      Subway train approaching the platform in Washington D.C.

      Waiting for the bus in London

      Waiting for the bus outside Westminster Abbey in London

    4. Buy train tickets between major cities in advance.

      Purchasing your train tickets in advance will almost always save money if you’re traveling between major cities. Some destinations abroad offer both standard and flexible rail passes that can give you a discounted rate if you travel by train more than once during your vacation. The type of rail pass that is best for you will vary by your age and travel itinerary.

      If you’re on a strict schedule, you would be best off to book all of your tickets and passes in advance to get the lowest rates. Further, if your travel schedule is flexible or subject to change, some rail companies allow you to book passes that let you travel a fixed number of days during a specified time frame (i.e. three day in a two week time period).

      If you’re American and would like to buy or research European rail passes, my go-to resource has always the rail pass section of RickSteves.com. Also, if you want to travel by rail within the US, you can access Amtrak.com for train ticket prices.

      View of the summer sunset from my window seat on the Eurostar train (Brussles to London)

      View of the summer sunset from my window seat on the Eurostar train (Brussles to London)

    5. Use the bathroom preventatively wherever it’s free.

      Many public restrooms in Europe charge money to use the loo, so just go when you have free access – even if you “don’t have to” at the time. The same idea also applies to the US, where many restaurants and cafes require you to buy something at their establishment if you want to use their facilities. Just go after every meal and at any indoor attraction you visit. You’ll thank me later.

      Oh – and if you’re not in an English-speaking country, do your best to learn the word for restroom. If the pronunciation is daunting, another option is to carry a flashcard with either an icon of a toilet or the local word written out. If that fails, use cross-cultural words such as “toilet?” before asking for “bathroom” or “restroom” in order to have the best chance of effectively communicating what you’re seeking.

      Don't be these people. (image source: en.rocketnews24.com)

      Don’t be these people. (image source: en.rocketnews24.com)

    6. Take out cash before your trip (and later in bulk if you are in a foreign country).

      It may make you very uncomfortable to carry large amounts of cash in your wallet. I don’t know about you, but I’m a stereotypical American living in a big city, so I rarely carry cash. I don’t need to – almost every establishment in New York accepts credit cards.But, once you arrive at your destination you may not always be greeted by the same prevalence of credit card machines. For that reason it’s always good to have at least one day’s worth of cash (in your destination’s currency if possible!) when you arrive.

      For starters, it would be foolish to take chances that you’ll be covered in case of a special circumstance. This is a very extreme example: one time I got food poisoning on a flight from London to Seville while I was studying abroad. Since I was a poor college student, I had planned to take the bus to my hotel when I arrived in order to save money. However, taking a cab to the hotel became ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY. To no real shock of my own, the cab driver did not accept credit cards (hello, Spanish recession!). I am eternally grateful that I brought enough Euros to cover that unexpected cost, because I would have needed to call a Spanish limo service had that not been the case.

      As a note of caution, most credit cards charge a foreign exchange and foreign transaction fee with all purchases made abroad. In order to reduce those fees, you can pay in cash for most things. ATM’s will usually charge a fee(s) as well, but in my experience they are typically lower than those from credit card purchases. With that said, try to avoid ATM’s that charge a usage fee. The ATM will warn you about before you proceed with the transaction if you will be charged a fee. When I studied abroad in London, Barclay’s ATM’s were my go-to for cash withdrawals because I knew they did not tack on an extra charge for using their ATM’s, which can save a few dollars per transaction.

      It's always good to have cash on hand in case of emergencies (image source: http://articlesofinterest-kelley.blogspot.com)

      It’s always good to have cash on hand in case of emergencies (image source: http://articlesofinterest-kelley.blogspot.com)

Of course, the above is not a comprehensive list of the only ways to save money while you travel. You can also research flight deals, hotel rewards, free museum days, and more that would allow you to maximize both the spiritual and monetary value of your trip. I always recommend researching as much as possible in order to find the best deals and avoid any unexpected cash emergencies.

I will be following up to this post in the coming months with more clever budgeting tips on the go, but if you have any other tips you wish to share, feel free to add them in the comments!

Washington D.C. – A Budget Traveler’s Dream Weekend Vacation

As the old saying goes, “sometimes the best things in life are free.”

What endears me so much about Washington D.C. is that many of the city’s main attractions cost zero dollars. In two days my boyfriend and I were able to walk to every monument as well as go to the National Gallery without dropping a penny!

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My boyfriend Derek and I in the Summerhouse outside the Capitol Building

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The second floor at the National Gallery of Art

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Derek at the White House

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Me on the steps of the D.C. War Memorial

And that’s not even all we could have done for free! If we had a few more days to spend in the Capital, we could have gone to many more museums without shelling out cash. How positively London-esque…

Back home in New York it’s very difficult for tourists to save money. Most of the landmarks have an admission fee, and museums either have a high entrance fees or strongly encourage donation upon arrival. You may literally get the stink eye from the docents if you ask for a museum ticket without offering some form of donation.

For budgeting reasons, I can see why Washington D.C. is a very popular trip for families and travelers alike. My boyfriend and I had an easy time finding an affordable hotel room near the White House at the last minute since most government offices and businesses are closed on weekends. Additionally, the subway system was easy to navigate (and clean!), which made getting from point A to point B quick and affordable. And for meals? There are many affordable chain restaurants allowing you to eat inexpensively.

Me eating a crepe

Eating a delicious and filling savory crepe at Point Chaud Café & Crepes

If we had been on a very tight budget, I assume we could have kept our food costs pretty low. However, for a few meals and drinks we decided to pull the yuppie card and mix a little budget consciousness with a little fun splurging.

Friday dinner/drinks:  Blackfinn, Downtown
Saturday brunch: Point Chaud Café & Crepes, Downtown
Saturday dinner: Joe’s Seafood, Prime Steak, & Stone Crab, Downtown
Saturday bar: McClellan’s Retreat, Dupont Circle
Saturday post-bar carbo-loading: The Diner, Adams Morgan
Sunday breakfast: Cosi/Starbucks, Downtown
Sunday lunch: Potbelly, Chinatown

Derek ordering

Derek ordering at a cafe

Crepe

Half-eaten delicious crepe. 🙂

In order to get from NYC to D.C. we chose to take the slowest and cheapest form of transportation – the Eastern bus. It took about five and a half hours each way, but only cost us $60/person for the round-trip (we bought the tickets the day before we left, so I believe you can save money by purchasing in advance). If we had rented a car, purchased Amtrak tickets, or flown, the cost would have been in the hundreds of dollars per person – a few extra travel hours saved us a lot of mooooo-lah!

Since the city is well lit up and boasts wide roads and sidewalks, once we arrived in Chinatown we decided to walk a mile with our roller duffles to our hotel – the Capital Hilton. Honestly, the weather was really temperate that evening, so it was a fairly pleasant trek. Saving that cab fare was a simple choice.

Once we checked in to our hotel for the weekend, we met two friends out for drinks at a nearby downtown bar. While the drink prices were comparable to NYC, I was shocked at how empty the bar was! We were in the touristy area and we could easily get a booth! My takeaway that night was that if you want to go out in D.C. and really experience the nightlife, you should think about exploring the neighborhoods. And we did JUST THAT the following night.

The next day began our first true foray into the tourist scene – and oh boy were there a lot of us tourists there! My boyfriend and I chose to follow a free TripAdvisor walking tour that we had dug up online, which started at the White House, wrapped us around to the Washington Monument, and then kept us meandering through all of the memorials. We saw the WWII memorial, Vietnam memorial, Lincoln memorial, Korean War memorial, FDR memorial, Jefferson Memorial, and more within a matter of hours. I found it remarkable that you could see all of those iconic landmarks so quickly! D.C. was definitely well-planned out for sightseeing.

Derek and I at the Washington Monument

Derek and I at the Washington Monument

Me at the WWII Memorial

Me at the WWII Memorial

Me and Derek at the Lincoln Memorial

Me and Derek at the Lincoln Memorial

Korean War Memorial

Korean War Memorial

MLK Memorial

MLK Memorial

FDR Memorial

FDR Memorial

If you know anything about D.C. this time of year, you might be itching to know if we saw the cherry blossom trees in bloom. Ever since the Mayor of Tokyo gifted D.C. with dozens of cherry blossom trees in 1912 as a token of our nations’ developing friendship, the cherry blossom trees bloom for a couple weeks every April at the Tidal Basin’s waterfront. The sight is breathtaking, and both locals and tourists flock in droves to see the blooms and attend the National Cherry Blossom Festival. The day before our trip we refreshed the cherry blossom blogs like banshees in hopes the blooms would start to open. Alas, when we walked around the Tidal Basin on Saturday, it was clear that we had come a few days too early.

The cherry blossom trees along the Tidal Basin on April 4, 2015

The cherry blossom trees along the Tidal Basin on April 4, 2015

One of the first blooming cherry blossom trees in D.C. in 2015 - 4/4/15

One of the first blooming cherry blossom trees in D.C. in 2015 – 4/4/15

The “blossom blogs” (as I would like to call them) have explained that this year’s delay was a result of the cold weather that the East Coast experienced this winter. However, the lack of blossoms didn’t stop the D.C.-er’s from beginning the celebration! Near the paddle-boat docks at the Tidal Basin we found the Cherry Blossom Festival in full swing – complete with drummers and funnel cake! It was a true cultural experience, and we sat for a while to watch the families and tourists enjoying the day.

After a long day of touring, we took a short nap/shower break back at our hotel before heading out for the evening. I had managed to nab a reservation through a family friend at one of the newest downtown hotspots (Joe’s), where we enjoyed an incredibly delicious meal with some friends. The vibe was trendy and posh – exactly what you would expect eating walking distance to the White House. After the meal we made our way to Dupont Circle, were we explored the bar scene and ended up at a new place called McClellan’s Retreat next to the Russia House. I giggled when our friends told us that the place has been the embassy of a small African nation only a few months before – that’s so D.C.

Enjoying the company of friends at Joe's Seafood!

Enjoying the company of friends at Joe’s Seafood!

After a couple hours and a couple glasses of wine, we decided to make our way to Adam’s Morgan where we went to a place called “The Diner.” Once there, I ordered a slice of pie and a hard cider. I’d say it was a combination that I never would have dreamed up myself, but I was NOT upset about it. My friends ordered similarly and we all chatted happily over sweet drinks and sweet desserts. Finally around 1:30am we called it a night.

Friends enjoying drinks at dessert at The Diner!

Friends enjoying drinks at dessert at The Diner!

Waking up the next morning was tough – but I was motivated. Our bus left at 2 and I REALLY wanted to see the collection at the National Gallery before we left. We hid our Starbucks in our camera bag as we got on the metro (apparently you’re not allowed to eat on the metro in D.C. – must be how it stays so clean!) and made our way to the museum. I’m an art lover, and it did NOT disappoint. Their collection of European classics was extensive, and I’d venture to say I enjoyed the collection more than the Rijksmuseum’s in Amsterdam! (And…as I mentioned before…it was free to get in.)

Browsing the paintings in the National Gallery of Art

Browsing the paintings in the National Gallery of Art

While the collection is vast, the painting that was the most special for me was Claude Monet’s Houses of Parliament, Sunset – pictured below. My grandmother introduced me to Monet as a child, and he has been my favorite painter ever since. When I studied abroad in London I discovered that Monet had painted a series along the Thames in 1903 and 1904. The series captivated me – my favorite artist had painted my favorite city! The National Gallery contains several pieces from that series, but my heart belongs to the sunset’s reflection in the work below.

Me at Houses of Parliament, Sunset by Claude Monet

Me at Houses of Parliament, Sunset by Claude Monet

Due to tight timing we were only able to be at the National Gallery for a little under two hours before we had to leave to catch our bus home. We grabbed our bags from the hotel (and some sandwiches at Potbelly’s) before making our way to the queue.

While waiting in line for the bus, I want to quickly note that we met another young couple standing behind us. They were from Minsk and were visiting the U.S. for an international law competition in Virginia. The competition had just ended, so they were planning to spend the following few days in NYC before heading back to their law school in Moscow. I mean, that’s so D.C. Where else will you strike up a conversation with law students from Belarus?

But, to be honest, I find the international flair of D.C. to be part of its charm. The city itself is much smaller than New York (D.C. metro area has about 5.8M people). Yet, it still feels large enough to get lost exploring, and also lovable enough to regret when you leave. There is so much left for me to see in D.C., and I’m looking forward to my eventual return.