Itinerary: 3 Days in Washington D.C.

If you’re looking for a place to travel with kids and want to choose a place where multiple attractions are close in proximity, D.C. is that place. The best part about D.C. is most of those sites are free, something that large families will truly appreciate. My wife and I traveled here with our 7-month-old and we found places that suited all of us. If you’re staying in the downtown area or anywhere near the U.S. Capitol, you will be able to walk to the various tourist sites.  If you’re staying outside the city and are driving in, I recommend using an app such as Park Whiz or Spot Hero and parking at a nearby garage for the duration of the day. There is also metered parking available but they have two or three-hour limits.

                   Day 1- National Mall Area

Our first stop was the Washington Monument. It’s the tallest building in D.C. and it’s a great starting point or meetup point because you can’t miss it.  The immediate area surrounding the monument was fenced off since it was getting some type of facelift. Nonetheless, it’s an iconic structure and the field surrounding the monument is perfect for a picnic or flying kites.

WashingtonMonument

Washington Monument

Continuing on our path, the second stop was the World War II Memorial which was a short walk to the west. The Memorial itself was awesome but the highlight of our time here was the presence of WWII veterans.

WWIImemorial

World War II Memorial Fountain with The Washington Monument in the background

WWIIVets

World War II Veterans

Prior to coming here, I had only seen 2 or 3 WWII vets in my life. It was really cool to see an entire group of men and women who served our country decades ago. Thank you again for your service! After spending about 25 minutes here, we continued on to the Lincoln Memorial.

LincolnMemorialFront

Front of the Lincoln Memorial

The Lincoln Memorial is the most popular among all the memorials and you will find people here even past midnight when the Lincoln statue is illuminated. As you enter, the first floor will have information on the Civil War and its impact on the country. The second floor is where the statue of Lincoln is situated. They do have elevators if you are unable to climb the stairs or have a stroller.LincolnStatue

When you climb the stairs and look towards the east (the path we came from), you get an amazing view of the National Mall and the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool.

NationalMallDaytime

After spending a solid 40-45 minutes here, we walked over to the Korean War Veterans Memorial and then the Martin Luther King Memorial.

MLKmemorial

The MLK Memorial. The side of the statue reads “Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.”

The MLK memorial is right next to the Tidal Basin and you have to walk south off of Independence Ave. The next stops were the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial and the Thomas Jefferson Memorial.

JeffersonMemorial

JeffersonMemorial2

Front entrance to the Jefferson Memorial

JeffersonStatue

The Jefferson Memorial is a beautiful building that was influenced by the Pantheon of Rome. If you’re in D.C. during early April when the cherry blossoms are in full bloom, this is the place to be.  If you want to get a visual of our walk from Washington Monument to Jefferson Memorial, the map below shows our path as we went from place to place.  I’d budget around 3 hours if you really want to experience all the monuments and take pictures.

MemorialRoute

By the time we were done seeing all the memorials, it was time to get my restless 7-month-old son to the hotel so he could take his usual nap. After dinner, we walked to the South Lawn of the White House at night to take a few pictures.

WhiteHouse

No matter who is in office, the White House is just a beautiful building. I prefer the night view as there is a certain elegance in the dark backdrop. Once we were finished taking pictures here, our first day was in the books.

Day 2 – Smithsonian Museum of Natural History and Lincoln Memorial at Night

Mother nature did not want to cooperate with us on our second day in D.C. and we had to deal with rain and thunderstorms so that took most of the outdoor attractions out of the picture. Fortunately, D.C. has a lot of excellent indoor attractions as well so we took advantage of this and visited the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. There are some fascinating exhibits at this museum and it’s also an interactive museum with hands-on activities that kids will enjoy.

Smithsonian1

Smithsonian2

Smithsonian4

The aquarium at the coral reef exhibit was a favorite among many infants and kids, my son included.

Smithsonian5

The famous Hope Diamond

Smithsonian6

SmithsonianRotunda

You should budget at least 1.5 hours for the Smithsonian if you want to comfortably see everything. After dinner, the rain had mostly stopped and many people had recommended walking up to the Lincoln Memorial at night. The Washington Monument reflects off the pool and it makes for an amazing picture.

NationalMallNight

LincolnNight

The statue at night looks really cool

Day 3: Capitol Hill and Smithsonian Zoo

During the early afternoon, we walked to the Capitol Building

CapitolHillCapitolHill2

NationalMallcapitolview

View of the National Mall from the Capitol

Unlike all the other sites we had visited in D.C., the Smithsonian Zoo was a 12-15 minute drive from our hotel in downtown. Like all the sites we had visited thus far, this one was also free of charge. And for a free zoo, it really had a lot to offer.

LionSmithsonianZooTigerSmithZoo

We saw lions, tigers, cheetahs, gorillas, giraffes, elephants, and various other animals. This is another place that is perfect for kids and offers something for people of all ages.

Other Places of Interests to Consider

Since we were here for 3 days with a 7-month-old, it was going to be impossible to see everything we wanted in that short window. If you are going to D.C., also consider visiting the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, The Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, and the Sackler Gallery. The National Museum of Archives is home to the Declaration of Independence, The Bill of Rights, and The Emancipation Proclamation.  All these attractions are free and if you are so inclined, you can leave a small donation when you enter or exit.  D.C. is a wonderful city with no shortage of things to do and places to see. It’s a very walkable city and a great place for budget travelers who get to experience world-class attractions at no cost.

Review: Conrad Washington DC

 

ConradEntrance

One of the newest hotels in Washington DC at just a couple of months old, my wife and I got to experience this beautiful property courtesy of our AMEX free weekend night certificates.  Unfortunately, the American Express Hilton Honors Ascend Card no longer has this benefit on the cardmember anniversary. Now you have to spend $15,000 in a given year to get the free night and I don’t think it’s worth forgoing points with Chase or AMEX Platinum/Gold to pursue a free night with Hilton in most instances. Since my wife and I both have the AMEX Hilton Honors Ascend Card, we were able to combine our free nights into a weekend stay. The nightly rate for our room was $450 so we got $900 worth of value plus $50 credit towards dining for the cost of the annual fee that we paid for both cards ($95 per card).

Check-In

When you walk into the hotel, take the elevator to the third floor. There is no second floor and the third floor is where the check-in desk, lounge, restaurant, and lobby is located. Upon checking in, the receptionist verified our Hilton Gold status, courtesy of the AMEX card and upgraded us to a room on the 9th floor. We were given a choice between 1,000 Hilton points and a $50 dining credit. We took the dining credit (please don’t ever take the points in this scenario). The receptionist was kind enough to give us a mini-tour of the hotel, Estuary restaurant, and some of the amenities this hotel offers.

ConradLobby

The circular lamp changes color each hour

My first impression when walking in was that this hotel did not have many 90 degree angles. The architect made a concerted effort to make the interior as curvy as possible. The lobby was beautiful and since the hotel was only 45 days old when we stayed, it still had that brand new scent.

ConradClock

Looking down from the 10th floor to the lobby below.

Hotel Room

Our room was on the 9th floor which gave us a nice view of New York Street down below. Keeping up with the theme, the room was curvy but spacious and very comfortable.

ConradRoomView

ConradHotelRoom

ConradCoffee

Coffee and snacks

As an avid coffee drinker, I always appreciate when a hotel provides a Keurig type machine with pods. The coffee was complimentary per usual but the snacks were completely overpriced. If you need snacks, there is a CVS across the street where you can get the same offerings for 1/4 of the price.

ConradShower

The bathroom provided two sinks and a separate blurred door to the toilet so two people can use the bathroom simultaneously while still having some semblance of privacy.

ConradToiletries

The toiletries were Shanghai Tang and the scent was very nice. Not too overpowering but not too light either. The room also provided slippers, a safe, laundry bag, iron, and bathrobes.

Estuary and Estuary Bar

Estuary is the restaurant on the premises which is located on the 3rd floor. We went there for breakfast on Saturday morning and ordered a custom made omelet and buttermilk pancakes. Both were delicious, albeit smaller in portion than your typical brunch diner.

ConradPancakes

ConradBreakfast

The Estuary Bar area was spacious and seating was plentiful during the day time. If there is an event going on at the hotel, it’ll likely get packed during the evening going into the late night hours. ConradLounge

ConradBarArea

ConradLoungeArea

3rd Floor Terrace and Rooftop Bar

Since the hotel was only 45 days old during our stay, the Rooftop Bar was not officially open to guests so I could only take pictures from behind the glass door. At this time, it’s likely open and running.  The 3rd-floor terrace was open for use.

ConradBalconyView

View from the Rooftop Bar

ConradTerrace

The Terrace on the 3rd-floor

Fitness Center

The fitness center was one of the better ones I had seen at a hotel. Upon entering, guests are greeted with towels, earphones, and apples.

ConradGym

ConradGym2

There are multiple treadmills, elliptical machines, and stationary bikes

ConradGym3

If you’re into lifting, they have that covered as well.

Miscellaneous

Although I forgot to measure the internet speed, I had no issues with speed or Wi-Fi connectivity. If you are planning to park your car at the Conrad, the price of parking at their garage was $36 a day. I opted to use the Parkwhiz app and found a garage two blocks away which allowed me to park for $14. There is also metered parking on the street but it has a 3-hour time limit during business hours and it’s free overnight. One of the most appealing aspects of staying at Conrad DC is that the National Mall, White House, Capitol building, Smithsonian, and many other points of interest are only 10-15 minutes away by walking. I also want to acknowledge the receptionists on the 3rd floor who always gave us complimentary bottles of water whenever we walked by. The staff made an excellent stay that much better. We look forward to coming back in the future.

 

 

 

 

Travel Itinerary: 6 Days in Portugal

This is a long overdue post of our itinerary to Portugal from our trip over the summer. I had finished more than half of this post but never got around to completing it. Since I have a bit of time and with summer just a couple of months away, this is probably the ideal time to finish it since it people are likely in their planning stages at the moment.

Day 1: Arrival

We departed Chicago O’Hare at 10:48 pm on June 24th and were set to arrive at Frankfurt, Germany at 1:50 pm. Since we booked business class on Lufthansa using United MileagePlus miles, we got to enjoy the Polaris Lounge in Chicago as well as the Lufthansa Business Class Lounge in Frankfurt. You can read about the Polaris Lounge here and the Lufthansa Business Class Lounge here. Our layover in Frankfurt was over 7 hours so having access to the amenities of the Lufthansa Business Class Lounge was extremely helpful. We didn’t arrive in Lisbon until after 11:00 pm. Once we arrived, we walked over to the Hertz counter and my car was ready for pick up in the adjacent parking lot. There wasn’t a line (presumably due to the late arrival) and everything was straight forward. We drove to the Holiday Inn Express where we would spend the night before driving about 3 hours south to the Algarve region early the next morning.

Day 2: Lagos

We arrived in Lagos around 1:00 pm and decided to go straight to our hotel, Cascade Wellness and Lifestyle Resort. This was an amazing property which deserves a review in itself and I’ll get to that. Since they had a room available, they allowed us to check in early and greeted us with complimentary tropical beverages. The property has a gate that leads you to a walking path right along the cliffs. Just for its proximity to the cliffs, this resort was worth it.

IMG_1788

LagosPortugalMFPCopy

If you do walk the trail along the cliffs, please don’t get yourself too close to the edge. There have been people who fell to their deaths when they were taking selfies and lost track of the distance. The water below has jagged rocks and it will do some serious damage. Once we were done with the hike, we took a short drive to the colorful town of the Lagos that was about 10 minutes away.

FaroTiledSidewalk

LagoGreenBuilding

LagosTown

Lagostown3MFP

The town of Lagos was one of my favorite small towns in all of Europe. There’s a nice vibe during the summer and everywhere you look, you’ll see the summer colors and unique paintings and patterns on tiles and on the facades of many buildings. Painted tiles are a huge part of Portugal’s artistic history dating back several hundred years. There are other cities in Europe that incorporate it within their architecture but none do it as effortlessly as Lagos. Even their walking paths are tiled (this can get a bit tricky when it rains though).

LagosNightMFP

IMG_2026

Several of the restaurants in Lagos offers outdoor seating and the summer months are perfect for it. And speaking of restaurants in Lagos, there is one thing you should know when eating out. When the waiter or waitress puts bread and butter on your table, this is not a complimentary appetizer. It’s common practice within the U.S. that if you are brought bread/butter, tortilla chips with dip, or anything else that you didn’t order to your table prior to having your meal served, it’s a complimentary item that you don’t pay for. In Lagos, if you consume the bread and butter, it will be added to your check. If you don’t eat it, it’s omitted. They probably make a killing with thousands of tourists not knowing any better until they get their check. And if you finish the serving of bread, they will bring more, you might eat more, and that’s another easy 5 euros for them. Don’t be gotten.

Day 3: Lagos

Our third day in Lagos was one which I was really looking forward to since I had booked a kayaking tour that would allow me to kayak around the rock formations and cliffs that the Algarve region of Portugal is known for. Since my wife was well into her pregnancy at this time, she wasn’t able to go so I booked the morning tour which would also allow her to sleep in. This tour only had kayaks for two people and both spots in the kayak had to be filled. Since I was solo, they partnered me with another person who was also solo (if you’re reading this, thanks for being a great partner Stephanie. And sorry for hitting your head with the paddle.)  If you find yourself in the Algarve region, I highly recommend doing the kayaking tour. If you’re worried about bringing your phone on the kayak, get a waterproof pouch or bring a GoPro and a GoPro mount. The picture opportunities you will get here are postcard-worthy.

DCIM100GOPROGOPR0340.

KayakingTour2

KayakingTour3

 

 

 

The entire tour takes about 2 hours with a stop on a remote beach in between. You kayak with the tour guide going one-way and there’s a boat that tugs everyone’s kayak back for the return. Wear plenty of sunscreen as you will likely have non-stop sun exposure during the tour.

Later on in the day, we decided to visit the beaches in the area. The one that really stood out was Camilo Beach. Crisp clean water, beautiful scenery, and plenty of space to lay your towel on the sand and just relax. The water was a lot cooler than I had expected but that was not going to deter me from getting in. There is a parking lot available if you want to get to Camilo Beach but the spots get taken pretty fast. Once you park, you have to walk down several flights of wooden stairs but the views from atop are spectacular.

CamiloBeachOverlook

View of Camilo Beach near the parking lot

CameloBeach

DCIM100GOPROGOPR0359.

View of Camilo Beach from the water about 30 yards out

Once we wrapped up our day at the beach, we stopped by the town of Lagos for dinner and it was back to the hotel to prepare for the following day.

Day 4: Lagos and Lisbon

Our rental car was due back at the Hertz at Lisbon Airport by 10 pm. This gave us the morning and early afternoon to check out the rock formations of Ponta da Piedade in Lagos. There is a parking lot that can fit many cars (though it likely will fill up fast during peak season) and you can take several flights of stairs down near the water.

 

I decided to take a hike up one of the “mini peaks”. There is only room for 3-4 people but it’s so worth it for the views.

SailboatLagos

LagosHeart

Nature carving out a heart

PontaDaPiedade3

 

Ponta da Piedade was our final stop in the Algarve region of Portugal. Now it was time to drive up north to Lisbon and see what that beautiful city had to offer.

Lisbon

When we arrived in Lisbon later that afternoon, there were overcast skies and a few ominous looking clouds. We thought it would be pretty blah type of day. Fortunately, the clouds moved on and there was sunshine just a couple of hours after we checked into our hotel.

IntercontinentalView

View of the terracotta rooftops from our room at the Intercontinental, Lisbon

This gave us the opportunity to explore outside our hotel and walk around the city. There is no better way to get a flavor for a city than doing it on your feet. We walked on Av. da Liberdade and just kept going and going.  The further we went towards the shopping district, the more it felt like the Las Ramblas area of Barcelona, Spain. Since the World Cup was ongoing and Portugal was still alive (this would change in a few days), there was a vibrant and festive atmosphere no matter where you turned in Lisbon.

CentralLisbon

Monument to the Restorers in Restauradores Square

 

lisbonstreetphoto1

While we were walking through Av. da Liberdade, we ended up taking a few turns that led us to a trendy shopping area called Baixa. This neighborhood had excellent shopping, dining, and chic hotels and lounges.

BaixaShopping

The trendy Baixa neighborhood of Lisbon

BaixaShopping3

Cobblestone streets of the Baixa neighborhood of Lisbon.

We found a hotel called Hotel do Chiado and on the 8th floor, they had a rooftop lounge called Entrentato. No reservations were needed and there was plenty of seating available. The views of the city and red terracotta roofs were awesome. LisbonRoofs

LisbonRooftops2

If you find yourself in this area check out Entretanto. Baixa also has a historic elevator called Santa Justa Lift that you can experience for 5.30 euros. It takes you to the top and gives you panoramic views of the city from a slightly different perspective. We did not do this since the wait time was over an hour and the rooftop lounge took care of the views we were looking for.

SantaJustaLift

Santa Justa Lift

Day 5: Lisbon

The first thing on the agenda for today was going to a place called Pasteis de Belem and have their famous custard pastries. You will find imitators throughout Lisbon but this place is the original. They’ve been churning out their famous custard pastries since 1837. If you come to Lisbon, you cannot leave without visiting this place. You just can’t.

CustardPastry

Why I don’t see these things in American bakeries, I have no idea. We’re missing out.

IMG_2156

IMG_2165

You will likely encounter a line outside the entrance to get in but it moves fast.

Once we were done eating, we took a walk around the area to see some interesting points of interest. First among them was Jeronimos Monastery. Construction on this building started in 1501 and was not finished until about 100 years later. If you’re into Gothic architecture, this building is a classic example of Portuguese Gothic architecture which can be found all over Lisbon. Jeronimos Monastery is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Jeronimos2

After walking around Belem, we took a 15 minute Uber ride to the neighborhood of Bairro Alto upon the recommendation of locals. Bairro Alto is known for its sloping and cobblestone streets, tiled buildings, and colorful facades. LisbonBridge

LisbonStreetPhotography

LisbonTram2

This quarter of the city was one of my favorites and really what I envisioned what Lisbon would be. It had a unique charm and it felt like it wasn’t trafficked by as many tourists as Baixa and Belem. There were plenty of cafes, restaurants, and local shops.  Walking was easy going downhill but uphill was occasionally a struggle. Your best bet is to walk downhill and take the trolley going back up.

LisbonHillView

Streets that slope downward and give you unobstructed views of the Tagus River are found in Bairro Alto

As we kept walking, we recognized some of the places we had been to the day before and didn’t realize initially Baixa was adjacent to Bairro Alto.

BaixaMFP

Many Portuguese restaurants in Lisbon serve ceviche which is raw fish cured with citrus juices and spiced with peppers and other seasonings. Since this was my first ever trip to Portugal, I didn’t want to take a chance on ruining my stomach so I avoided ceviche but it is a local favorite.

Day 6: Sintra and Lisbon

Sintra is a small town about that’s about a 45 minute Uber ride from Lisbon and is home to the Palace of Pena. If you’re in Lisbon, I highly recommend taking the trip to this part of Portugal and experiencing the Palace of Pena for yourself. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was completed in 1854. It served as the home for Portuguese royalty until the late 19th century and was converted into a museum in 1910. The Palace of Pena has a facade that’s composed of vivid colors and architecture that incorporates Romanticism, Neo-Gothic, and Neo-Renaissance. If you are going to visit, I highly recommend not driving to Sintra!  The roads are very narrow to go up the hill and parking is almost non-existent. Uber or Taxi will drop you off near the ticketing office. If you haven’t purchased your tickets online, you can do so from the ticket windows. Tickets to get into the Palace of Pena cost 14 euros for adults, and 12.50 euros for children and seniors.  From there you can take the arduous 1 km hike up to the castle or you can pay 3 euros to take the shuttle. We took the shuttle and I don’t regret that decision one bit. Everyone we saw walking up the hill looked winded and tired. CastlePena

CastlePena2

CastlePenaGargoyles

PenaCastle

PenaCastle3

PenaCastleInside

They also have a cafe on the premises as well as a souvenir shop. You should budget at least 2 hours here and possibly more if you’re a really detail-oriented person.  When you’re outside on the Arches Yard, you get a beautiful panoramic view of Sintra and other points of interest such as the Moorish Castle.

MoorishCastle

Moorish Castle as seen from Arches Yard at the Palace of Pena.

When you’re exiting the Palace of Pena, you take the same shuttle that bought you there and it will drop you off near the ticketing area. The shuttle runs once every 15-20 minutes. Cars are not allowed to pick up passengers in this area. To get down to the town of Sintra below, we paid 10 euros for a ride on a tuk-tuk. Sintra itself is a small quaint town with nice restaurants, cafes, shops, and really nice vibes.

SintraView

SintraTown

SintraTown2

Once we were done walking around Sintra, we took an Uber back to Lisbon. Portugal’s soccer match vs Uruguay was going to start shortly and we did not want to miss the various viewing parties that were occurring throughout Lisbon.

Lisbon

At this point, Portugal was down 2-1 to Uruguay and you can see the look of consternation on the faces of many Portugal fans as the clock keeps ticking away. I wanted Portugal to win badly so I could witness the euphoria of fans who genuinely live and die with soccer every year. It just wasn’t meant to be and the atmosphere around Lisbon went from festive to somber as the final seconds ticked off the clock. The build-up leading up to this game was incredible and witnessing fans slam tables, curse at the TV, and explain to their friends why Portugal sucked, I knew exactly what they were going through. In a sense, it was comforting to know that the same type of behavior I exhibit when the Bears, Bulls, Blackhawks, or Cubs are playing terribly is universally practiced. Once the game ended, my wife and I got dinner and called it a night. Our flight back to the U.S. was early next morning so getting sleep was definitely on our minds. This concluded our memorable trip to Portugal.

Recap

We tried to fit as much as we could into a 6-day itinerary to Portugal.  Although we didn’t get to visit it this time, we hope to visit the city of Porto the next time we visit Portugal. For us, it came down to Lisbon plus either Algarve or Porto. Since there would have been some overlap with Porto and Lisbon, both being proper cities, we decided to skip Porto this time and visit a region that was completely different from either. Lisbon and Algarve have not been overrun by tourists the way London, Barcelona, Amsterdam, and Rome have. If you are planning to go, do it before Europe’s best-kept secret is no longer a secret. As always, thanks for reading.

Review: Renting a Car With Turo

During my recent trip to The Big Island of Hawaii, I decided to give Turo a shot since car rental prices for a 5-day trip were ridiculously expensive. When I entered my travel dates on Kayak, the cheapest rate I found was $568 for a Ford Fiesta. Having a car in The Big Island is almost a necessity if you don’t plan on spending your entire time on a resort because the island is bigger than all the other Hawaiian islands combined. If you’re staying near one of their two major towns, Kona or Hilo which are on the opposite sides of the island, the driving time to get from one to another is about 2 hours. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is closer to Hilo and a 2-hour drive from Kona without making any stops. The time will increase significantly if you stop at viewpoints and other points of interest along the way (you really should). You can also take the mass-transit bus but it’s more than 3 hours each way and you’ll regret not being able to stop at places along the way. But man, $568 for a Ford Fiesta. I was looking for a compact car that would get great gas mileage but also comfortably fit an infant car seat such as a Honda Civic or Toyota Corolla. Those types of cars were going for $615 for 5 days and since my goal was not to offset the savings I had on my flight (I redeemed AA miles) by splurging on a car rental, I turned to Turo and see what they offered.

 Booking Process

Turo markets themselves as the Airbnb for cars. Regular people make their cars available to rent and you can often get luxury cars or convertibles for the price of a standard car at a rental company like Hertz. I found a compact car (Dodge Dart) going for $280 for 5 days on Turo and the car owner had a near perfect rating with over 30 reviews.  I booked the Dodge Dart which also included 500 miles (extra 45 cents/mile if I went over) and bought their standard insurance coverage for $10 a day. Even after adding that to the cost of the rental, it was still significantly cheaper than what the standard car rental agencies were offering.   It is important to note that credit card companies will not cover damage on car rentals from Turo. If you decide not to purchase any of the three tiers of collision coverage that Turo offers, you will be liable for any damages.

                                     Picking Up The Car

Prior to departing DFW for our flight to Kona, I gave the car owner our flight info and he responded back immediately with directions on how to get the car. Once we landed, he sent me a video which showed me where the car was parked in the airport parking lot and how to walk over to the parking lot. It was right across the street from the baggage claim with the keys in the glove compartment. No lines, no waiting, no hassle. Since he took a ticket to get the car into the parking lot, he told me to pay whatever the total amount was upon exiting and to keep the receipt. That fee would be reimbursed. He also gave me his cellphone number and told me to give him a call in case any issues would arise.

The Dodge Dart I rented was big enough to fit two suitcases in the trunk and had plenty of space to install the base of the car seat as well as the car seat itself. Gas was $3.62/gallon for regular so having a fuel-efficient car was optimal since I knew I’d be driving at least 450 miles in the 5 days we were there. I ended up driving 494 miles, most of that being the round-trip from Waikoloa to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Everything worked as it should and the AC was very cool and needed for the mid-80’s temperatures.

Returning The Car

We were set to return our car to the airport parking lot by 8 pm but our flight was closer to midnight. Our car owner (Anthony) said it wouldn’t be a problem at all if we returned the car at 10:15 pm so we would not have to spend close to 4 hours at the airport. I got to the airport parking lot, pulled out a ticket, and parked the car near the same area where I picked it up. I took a picture of the car and texted it to show him where it was parked. This was basically the “checkout” process. The picking up and dropping off process may differ with every car owner. I was very happy with my experience renting from Turo as it saved me both time and money. Anthony was an awesome dude and he asked me to spread the word about his cars. He has multiple cars available for rent in Kona on The Big Island, Kauai, and Honolulu. His rating is close to perfect so I highly recommend renting from him. In addition, if you use my link right here, you will save $25 off your first rental from Turo.

Review: The Updated Centurion Lounge Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport (DFW)

The Centurion Lounge at DFW moved to a larger 12,000 square feet space in September of 2018, expanding their footprint by an additional 3,000 feet. Their old lounge was excellent but it certainly felt crowded at times so the additional space should help alleviate that. Rather than going up the escalator to enter the lounge as it was previously, you will find the entrance to the lounge on the ground floor. This will lead to an elevator which you take to the second floor to enter the lounge. To enter the lounge, you need to be a holder of the AMEX Platinum Card, AMEX Business Platinum Card, or the AMEX Centurion Card. Other AMEX cards won’t get you in.

centurionentrance

Food (Breakfast)

My wife, son, and I were here during breakfast hours and I remember how great the spread was the last time I was here back in 2017. The items may have changed but the breakfast was still awesome.

Breads

The sweet corn muffins were excellent. My wife loved the oatmeal with granola.

Granola

fruits

Centurion Lounge always delivers with their fresh fruit offerings.

salsachips

Salsa and tortilla chips for breakfast? Why not?

EggFritata

Goat cheese egg frittata.  This was the best part of having breakfast here. Delicious and you’re probably going to get up for a second serving.

In addition to the items pictured above, there was also pancakes and fresh juice. Since there were multiple people behind me, I refrained from taking a picture at that particular time.

espressomachine2

The espresso machine can make a variety of beverages. I got their latte and it was delicious.

Seating Area

As you would expect with the lounge that has expanded by more than 3,000 square feet, seating was plentiful and not once did I feel like the lounge was overcrowded. Certain sections of the lounge were more trafficked than others but in general, there was plenty of seats for everyone.

diningareacorridor3

corridor2

They had different types of lighting to suit everyone’s needs.

commonareaCorridor

bar

Bar area

longtable

Conference table

Business

macs.jpg

conferenceroom

For those that need a conference room, Centurion DFW has one.

Kids Room

This is one of my favorite aspects of this lounge. They had a dedicated children’s playroom and it was perfect for my 5-month-old son as he was able to enjoy his first ever visit to an airport lounge.

 

 

Miscellaneous

restroom

The restrooms were clean and there was also a dedicated shower area that you could utilize upon request at the front desk.

This lounge also has a spa where they give you a complimentary massage. I forgot to measure the Wi-Fi speed but I can assure you it was fast. I have not visited a Centurion Lounge where connectivity was slow. The old Centurion Lounge was among my favorites and AMEX has delivered and improved the experience at their newly renovated Centurion Lounge at DFW. Just keep in mind, AMEX no longer allows passengers who have landed at their final destination city to use a Centurion Lounge in that particular city. Prior to the rule change, if Dallas was your final destination, you could still visit by showing your boarding pass.  I think this is a fair rule change to alleviate crowding concerns. AMEX also won’t allow you in if your departure time is more than 3 hours away. I believe this is also a change for the better. As far as this lounge, it scores a perfect 5/5 and continues to be my favorite Centurion Lounge I have visited thus far. There are a few others under construction and I’m looking forward to visiting the one in JFK once it opens later this year. That lounge will be the largest Centurion Lounge at 15,000 square feet.

Travel Itinerary: 5 Days in Big Island Hawaii

Big Island was the fourth Hawaiian Island my wife and I visited. This trip was also our first long distance trip with our 5-month-old son so there was a bit of uncertainty on how he would handle being in a plane for 8+ hours. Fortunately, he was very well behaved and this gave us a ton of confidence in doing future trips with him. During this trip to Hawaii, we did encounter a day of heavy rain and another day where the eastern half of the island had rain so we could not see certain points of interest. This forced us to cancel a couple of sights we had planned to see. However, there was a positive trade-off of being “stuck” on the resort and you will see why as you keep reading.

Day 1: Arrival

We arrived at Kona International Airport on the Big Island at around 3pm. Since we rented a car from Turo (you can read my review on Turo and our experience here), it was a matter of collecting our luggage and walking to the airport parking lot where our car was already waiting for us with the keys inside. The distance to Hilton Waikoloa Village from the airport was about 20 miles and a 30-minute drive. On the way to the resort, we stopped at a lookout point to take in the scenery. If you see a lookout point anywhere, just stop your car and enjoy the views.

DSC00014

Vegetation growth on volcanic rock at a lookout point.  The Big Island is home to multiple volcanoes, some which are still very active.

Since sunset was around 6:15 pm and by the time we got situated it was already close to 5 pm, we spent the rest of the time on the resort to enjoy the sunset views.

ResortSunsetResortSunset2resortsunset3

I’ll have a separate review on the Hilton Waikoloa Village but this was a wonderful property that was very kid-friendly.

 Day 2: Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and Stops Along the Way

On the second day, I drove from Waikoloa to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park while making a few stops in between. I downloaded the Gypsy App specific for Big Island and it guided me on where to make stops in between Waikoloa and Volcanoes National Park. It costs $9.99 and you do not need to have data for it to work. The most appealing aspect of this app is that the narrator gives you historical context with regards to culture and geology at various stopping points and why it might be worth stopping or skipping. The app serves as a very knowledgeable tour guide and I highly recommend using it for Big Island.

 

GypsyRoad

The Gypsy App is available for each Hawaiian Island. I highly recommend it.

Places of Interest En Route To Volcanoes National Park

LavaFieldBigIsland

A lava field lookout point on the way to Volcanoes National Park.

Lookoutpoint2

This viewpoint is right off the side of the road.

PunaluuSign

This is one of the places you should definitely stop by on the way to Volcanoes National Park.

blacksandbeachsouthend

Punalu’u Black Sand Beach

SeaTurtlesPunaluuBeach

Sea turtles basking in the sun at Punalu’u Black Sand Beach.

Punalu’u Black Sand Beach Park was the last place I stopped prior to entering Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. There are a few other points of interest after this one such as South Point (southernmost point out of all the 50 states) and Papakolea Beach which is a green sand beach. Getting to the beach does require over 2 hours of hiking and I did not want to run out of daylight where I’d be hurrying at Volcanoes National Park. I skipped these two but if you find yourself leaving prior to sunrise from Kona or if you’re staying in Hilo, you’d have plenty of time to see both of these places.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

VNPEntrance

VNPSign I’ve been asked if I bought my 5-month-old to this park and the answer is no. Since the steam vents emit sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide gas, I did not want to expose my son to potential lung irritants. If you’re pregnant, have heart problems, asthma, or COPD, it’s probably best to avoid the steam vents at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

SteamVent

One of the many steam vents that are found in the park.

Caldera2

The Kilauea Caldera. You can either park at the visitors center and take a half mile hike to get here or you can just park on the road and walk a few hundred feet. I chose to do the hike so I would get to see most of the steam vents along the path.

There were some parts of the park that were still closed due to the eruptions from 2018. The lava tubes were also not accessible during this time. As you continue your drive through the park, I highly recommend taking Chain of Craters Road all the way down to to the coast. It’s about 20 miles from the caldera and drive is one of the best you will find in any of the 50 states. Pictures really don’t do it justice so I took a short video so you get a better idea.

You will also find plenty of amazing photo opportunities and other points of interest.

VolcanoesNPViews

One of the scenic viewpoints on Chain of Craters Road.

PetroglyphsPath

Pu’u Loa Petroglyphs Field

Closer to the shore, you will find a sign for the Pu’u Loa Petroglyphs Field.  This area is considered sacred to the people of Hawaii and you will find many symbols and images that were carved into the hardened lava. It’s 1.4-mile round-trip hike and I highly recommend it. Further down the road, you will see cliffs that are made from lava. This is the newest land on the Big Island and it’s made when lava hits the water and solidifies into rock.

VolcanoesNPLavaCliffs

RoadViewChainofCraters

Chain of Craters Road on the way back also has stunning views.

Day 3: Pololu Valley and Stops Along the Way

On this day, there was rain in the forecast after 2 pm so I made it a point to get this hike done as early as possible. The mornings also have cooler temperatures so it makes for a much more comfortable hike as it is. Pololu Valley is about a 45-minute drive from Waikoloa and about 1 hour and 15 minutes from Kona. You can just park your car on the road and enjoy the views from the look-out but if you really want to get the splendid views of the valley, you should do the hike. The hike down isn’t difficult but it can be slippery at times due to the frequent rainfall in the area. The hike going back up is moderately challenging and you will certainly need plenty of water and some granola bars.

PoluluLookoutParking

Pololu Lookout. If you decide not to do the hike, you still can’t go wrong with these views.

PololuLookout2

Pololu Valley from the parking area

Blackrockbeach

The Black Sand Beach once you hike your way to the bottom.

PoluluLookOut

This is the view you hike down for.

 

Waimea Valley is nearby and also offers spectacular views. However, hiking there does require that you go on private property and that would be considered trespassing. You can also drive down there but you would definitely need an AWD or 4WD vehicle with some clearance.

Day 4: Whale Watching From Hilton Waikoloa Village (due to rain)

On this day, the plan was to go to Akaka Falls. If you are in Big Island, please make an attempt to visit Akaka Falls because it is beautiful from the many pictures and videos I have seen. Unfortunately, a lot of rain moved in and it basically spanned the entire island. But there was a silver lining.  As I’ve mentioned before, winter is humpback whale season in Hawaii. Mothers and calves are near the coasts of every Hawaiian island and this is the time when mothers teach their young on how to be whales. Since our resort was right on the shore, I took my camera and started filming the minute someone pointed out the whales in the distance. Then they started coming closer and closer.

Out of nowhere, the mother whale breached the water and I was lucky enough to have my camera recording. I do want to apologize for the grainy quality.

TwoWhales

Two humpback whales right off the shore of Hilton Waikoloa Village

Whales were seen 4 out of the 5 days we stayed at Hilton Waikoloa Village and it really made it fun and exciting for the kids who were also whale watching.

Day 5: Snorkeling in the Hilton Waikoloa Village Lagoon and visit to Kona

Day 5 was supposed to be a visit to either Akaka Falls or the green sand beach for the second day during our trip both those of places had rain in the forecast while our side of the island was bright and sunny. I used this time to go snorkeling.

 

 

This property does not have an ocean front beach due to the powerful waves and riptide currents that are common along the Big Island. It does have a lagoon with sand that functions as a beach and the lagoon is excellent for swimming and snorkeling. I saw plenty of colorful fish and several sea turtles, one which I was able to follow for almost two minutes.

Kona

For dinner, we were recommended Umekes Fishmarket Bar and Grill in Kona by the owner of the vehicle we rented from Turo. We ordered the Tempura Battered Fish & Chips and Cajun Style Ahi Fish Tacos. Both of the items we ordered were perfect.

FishTacosUmekes

FishAndChips

 

This concluded our trip to the Big Island in Hawaii. A popular question I get asked is among the four islands I have visited, which one is my favorite? I really can’t say I have one. Each island has its own unique charm and offers something different for everyone. The Big Island has a volcanic landscape that’s so vast, it can’t be seen anywhere else in Hawaii. It also has stunning valleys, excellent beaches, and a green sand beach that can’t be found on any other Hawaiian island. Since it is not as heavily trafficked by tourists, you get a better flavor of Hawaiian culture throughout the island. Big Island is also known for its coffee and macadamia nuts. If you have the time, you should visit a coffee or a macadamia nut farm.  But just like the other Hawaiian islands my wife and I have been fortunate to visit, the locals are wonderful. They are some of the nicest and friendliest people in the world. The physical beauty of the islands is certainly attractive and makes for great pictures but it’s the Hawaiian people and their hospitality that keeps us coming back. We look forward to coming back sometime in the near future. As always, thanks for reading.

iPhone and Android Apps for 2019 to Help With Your Travel Goals

Happy New Year Everyone! I hope 2019 allows more of you to travel and experience various places throughout the world. I’m going to share a few apps which I feel almost everyone would benefit from because of their ability to passively earn points/cashback. You don’t have to use the points for anything related to travel but since this is a travel-oriented blog, I’ll show you how you can if that’s what you would prefer.

1. Drop

Drop

As of right now, this is my favorite app to earn points which can be redeemed for gift cards. When you first sign up, you pick 5 retailers from their list for which you would earn points. Pick the 5 you would use the most since you can’t change it once you have made your choices.  Based on my shopping habits, I picked Target, Walgreens, Whole Foods, Starbucks, and Uber. Starbucks earns 12 points per dollar while the others earn 8 points per dollar. They also have a multitude of online retailers if you decide to click through via Drop and earn additional points.

DropPoints

That process is also very simple and straightforward. You log into your bank account or credit card account and it will automatically link every credit card with that particular bank. Once the credit cards are linked, there is nothing else you need to do any further. The points will show up 2-3 days after you make your purchase.

 

DropBanks.jpg

 

Every 1,000 points is equal to $1. Once you get to 5,000 points, you can start redeeming for gift cards.

 

DropRewardsOptions

 

For travel-related purposes, I prefer to redeem for Amazon gift cards. You can use Amazon gift cards to purchase Southwest Airlines gift cards, Airbnb, and Hotels.com gift cards on Amazon.com. This is a really easy way to lessen the cost of travel in a completely passive manner. If you use my referral code (yc826) and link your first credit card, you’ll get 5k points to start out.

2. Dosh

DoshHeader

Dosh is another app that allows you to earn cashback passively. It doesn’t have an extensive list of retailers compared to Drop, but it does offer a lengthy list of restaurants which offer 5% cashback.

Dosh

Among the retailers listed,  Sephora, Sam’s Club, and Forever21 are the standouts.  Occasionally they will also have Exxon-Mobil at 3% cashback. If you want to see the restaurants which offer cashback on Dosh, be sure to have your location access enabled.

DoshBankUnlike Drop, you do have to enter each credit card manually so I would just enter the credit cards that I use most often. Once you reach $20 in cashback, you’re eligible to redeem. I like to redeem at the end of the year and use the cashback on travel related expenses. You can withdraw the cash either into your PayPal account or straight into your bank account. If you use my referral code (SHIRAZU1), you’ll get $5 when you link your first credit card.

3. SPENT Money

SpentMoney

SPENT is another app that many people will find some value in. They only offer a 1% cashback payout but their categories are the type which many people will use extensively. SpentMoney2.jpg

They have multiple gas stations (Shell, Mobil, and Chevron), Netflix, Starbucks, Whole Foods, Uber, etc. There’s also a nice little overlap with Drop since they both offer Uber, Whole Foods, and Starbucks. When you add in the fact that Chase Freedom is offering 5x points this quarter on gasoline purchases, having the Chase Freedom linked to SPENT Money essentially gives you 6x cashback if you happen to fill up at any of the listed gas stations. SpentMoneyBanks

To add your credit cards, simply log into your account and it will automatically add every card associated with that bank.  These apps won’t pay for a vacation by themselves but even they can shave the cost of 2-3 nights off a hotel or Airbnb stay, the few minutes you spent downloading the apps and linking your credit cards would have made them well worth it.

Chase Adds JetBlue as a Transfer Partner, Loses Korean Airlines

Chase added JetBlue as an Ultimate Rewards transfer partner today, a few days after losing Korean Airlines. JetBlue is one of my favorite U.S. airlines and one of the few that isn’t packing their planes with seats at the expense of leg-room. They provide free in-flight Wi-Fi, free cable TV, and serve gourmet snacks on the flight. I have not flown on their transcontinental premium cabin called Mint just yet.  It is a product which many travel enthusiasts have rated as the best business class service for domestic flights in the U.S. JetBlue routinely has flash sales and when the cash price of a ticket is cheap, so is the redemption using their frequent flier miles for that particular flight. If you’re based in the Boston, NYC, Orlando, Fort Lauderdale, and Los Angeles areas where JetBlue has a vast network, you will benefit from this partnership the most. You can transfer UR points into JetBlue if you have the Chase Sapphire Reserve or the Chase Sapphire Preferred. If you have the AMEX Platinum or Gold, you can also transfer AMEX Membership points. Most of the time, the transfer rate is 1000 AMEX points for 800 JetBlue TrueBlue miles (right now its 1:1 as a promotion) so I would advise against using the AMEX option at the non-promotional rate. Chase has it as 1:1 but also remember to use the Chase Portal and see if you can get a better redemption if you have the Chase Sapphire Reserve. You get 1.5 points per mile by booking through their portal and it’s certainly possible that the UR travel portal may be the better redemption option versus transferring to JetBlue.

TrueBlueChaseUR

Unfortunately, this comes a few days after the news that Chase has dropped Korean Airlines as one of their transfer partners. For international and long-haul travel, this was a very valuable SkyTeam transfer partner as you were able to get great travel redemption’s on SkyTeam alliance partners such as Delta, KLM, Air France, Alitalia, Aerolineas Argentinas, and non-alliance partners such as Emirates. From the continental U.S., it was possible to fly from the East Coast to Hawaii for 25k miles round-trip, a bargain when you consider the cash price frequently tops $1k. Here is to hoping that Chase adds another transfer partner that has a vast international network such as Korean Airlines.

Review: United Club Chicago O’Hare International Airport B5

On a very recent flight from Chicago to Albany, I had the opportunity to visit the United Club in Terminal 1 near gate B5. Special thanks to my mom for giving me her United Club pass and allowing me access. And speaking of United Club Lounges at ORD, I’ve crossed three of them off the list and have one more to go after completing my stay at this one. This particular lounge is located at Concourse B which means you don’t have to go through the underground tunnel in Terminal 1 to get here. If you saw my last review for the United Club Lounge near B18, the same rules apply to this lounge.

 

Entrance

Entrance

This lounge is located near gate B5 and B6. Once you have cleared security, take a left. The agents at the front desk will scan your one-day pass and boarding pass or just your boarding pass if you’re flying international business class or first class on a United Airlines or Star Alliance partner flight. If you have the United Club credit card, you have complimentary access as part of your card benefits.

Escalator.JPG

The escalator will take you to the main seating area

Food

Food3beanSalad

Three-bean salad and Mediterranean salad

I wasn’t expecting a whole lot in the food department because that’s not what United does well at their Club Lounges. They don’t really offer the hot meals you would find at Centurion Lounge and certainly not the variety you would find at their upscale Polaris Lounge. This lounge had a variety of cheeses, veggies, three bean salad, and a Mediterranean style salad. The cheese was okay at best and the three-bean salad was average. They also had hot broccoli-cheddar soup that was delicious. But let’s be honest, it’s really hard to mess up broccoli-cheddar soup. If they had done that, food should be canceled at their Club Lounges.

FoodCheeseVeggies

Variety of cheeses but no crackers. Come on United.

Food

The brownies were fresh and tasted pretty good

IMG_2967

If you wanted snacks, they had a decent variety of salty and sweet.

Soup

Broccoli-cheddar soup. This was good.

CokeMachine

This touch-screen Coca-Cola machine was one of my favorite things about this lounge.

EspressoMachine

Their espresso machine served a variety of caffeinated or decaf beverages from lattes to cappuccinos.

Seating

MainSeatingArea2

When you go up the escalators, this is the main seating area you will come across.

SeatingAreaAs far as United Club Lounges at ORD go, this may be the largest of all. There is no shortage of seats and they have a variety of seating options. SeatingArea2Almost every seat at the lounge as access to a plug outletSideSeatingAreaThis was my favorite seating area. Not too bright and facing towards the TV (not pictured) in the bar area.

DiningArea2

Seating area near the bar

DiningArea

Open seating area in the middle of the lounge

BarArea

Bar 

It is important to note that I visited the lounge at about 7:30 pm on a Sunday and it was about 40% full. On a weekday during peak business hours, it’s entirely possible that the lounge may be near capacity.

Miscellaneous

Bathroom

The bathrooms were super clean and United does put in an effort to keep it that way.

WiFI

The Wi-Fi speed was awesome. I mean this might be the most appealing aspect of the lounge, particularly for business travelers. Video conferencing would be seamless and if you wanted to stream Netflix or music, you’ll have a really easy time doing it. This lounge is certainly better than the United Club near B18 and very much on par with the United Club in Terminal 2. Just like that lounge, this one has the potential to be very good. It’s spacious, has excellent internet connectivity, clean bathrooms, excellent coffee, and decent snacks. The only thing holding it back is the lack of hot meals and sandwiches. It’s not worth the $59 you’d have to pay for the one-day pass but if you have the pass that comes complimentary with the Chase United Explorer credit card, you’d rather be here than the waiting area near the gate. I’d rate this lounge a 4/5.

How to Passively Earn United Miles Using Your Normal Shopping Habits

The last time I wrote one of these shopping related posts, it was for JetBlue and their relationship with Amazon. About six months ago, both companies mutually terminated their relationship (unless you purchase on Amazon while flying on JetBlue plane) and everyone who shopped at Amazon frequently lost a pretty easy way to rack up TrueBlue miles. This wasn’t entirely a passive way to earn points since you still had to log-in to your JetBlue account and click on your personal Amazon link to get you to Amazon.com. However, United now offers a couple of truly passive ways to earn miles if you just link your credit card to the United Shopping Portal. One of them requires you to link your credit card with BP and fill up your gas there as you normally would. I made a post about this earlier and you can read about that here. The second is to link your credit card(s) with the United MileagePlus shopping portal. Remember, it costs nothing to have a United MileagePlus account so be sure to sign up if you haven’t already. I took screenshots on how add your credit card(s) to your United account and how to link your credit card to United’s shopping portal so just follow along.

How to Add Your Credit Card(s) to your United MileagePlus Account

Step 1

Screenshot1

Step 2

AddingCC1

Step 3

AddingCC2

Scroll down and click on “Manage Profile”

Step 4

AddingCC3

Scroll down and click on “View All Saved Forms of Payments”.  You can then add the credit cards you use most often

Linking Your Account with Participating Retailers on MileagePlus Shopping

Step 1

Screenshot1

Step 2

ScreenShot2

Step 3

Screenshot3

Step 4

Screenshot4

Step 5

ScreenShot5

These are just a few of the retailers that you can purchase from in-store and receive United miles. 

You will get a text message from United as soon as you make a purchase with any of your chosen retailers notifying you that the points will be added to your account in 3-5 days. Shopping alone likely won’t get you enough miles to land a business-class ticket (unless you’re a prodigious shopaholic) but it’s a nice way to bump up the United frequent flier miles balance and perhaps get you closer to an award ticket in economy.