Chicago, My Kind of Town

I returned from a four-day trip to Chicago yesterday, and despite the somewhat frigid weather, I thoroughly enjoyed myself.  Chicago is a wonderful city and has much to offer its visitors.

Thursday night we had a late lunch at Noodles and Company, a chain-restaurant that serves up tasty stir-fried noodle dishes, salads, and homemade soups, before walking to Millennium Park.  Millennium Park is a compact, grass-covered area downtown with video sculptures, an amphitheater, and a view of the lake.  Later that night, we headed to NV Lounge, a chic, top-floor lounge with a nice bar and secluded balcony.

Friday we went to the Shedd Aquarium, a large indoor-aquarium, and the Field Museum, a history/science museum, located downtown.  There was a school field trip which made the museum and aquarium quite busy.  This may be an indication that Friday is not the ideal day to visit.  The aquarium had a great 4-D IMAX movie about sea creatures and an enormous selection of fish, sharks, and stingrays.  Over at the Field Museum we saw Egyptian tombs and an underground exhibit on subterranean insects.  At night, we headed to Navy Pier, where we explored the unfortunately, mostly dead area of shops, and then mistakenly dined at Billy Goat Tavern.  We ate paper-thin, chalky burgers which needed gallons of soda just to be swallowed.  Hey, not every meal can be perfect.

Saturday we visited the Museum of Contemporary Art which had some exquisite abstract pieces including video installations, photography, and furniture.  Next, my sister and I decided to leave the downtown area and metroed over to Division Street.  Division Street is a main thoroughfare lined with funky shops and restaurants.  There we found an authentic Mexican restaurant (sorry, I can’t remember the name but it’s across from a WaMu near the Division metro stop), where we dined on burritos with barbacoa and chicken-filled tacos.  Later that night, we had drinks at Kerryman Irish Bar, a cozy bar with wood floors, good beer, and a quite atmosphere.  For dinner, we ate at Rockit, a trendy restaurant with a nice variety of menu options.  The tuna burger was pretty good but needed wasabi and soy sauce.  But the sweet potato fries were superb.

Finally, Sunday we found our way to the Art Institute of Chicago.  The Art Institute houses impressionist masterpieces from the likes of Monet and Seurat, as well as Japanese prints, ancient artifacts, and sculptures.  On exhibition was the photography of Yousuf Karsh.  He essentially used innovative techniques to photograph nearly every  influential person of the 20th century including artists, celebrities, politicians, and philosophers.  The best part of this day, however, was hot dogs at The Weiner’s Circle.  Located in Lincoln Park, Weiner’s Circle offers up juicy, chargrilled hot dogs and sausages and delectable french fries.  If you have a chance, I recommend checking it out.

Overall, Chicago is a great city, and despite the harsh weather (at least on Thursday), it was definitely worth the visit.

Future Spring Cruise?

I’m guilty. I’m always planning the next vacation right after I’ve returned from previous one. But my girlfriend and I haven’t traveled together in a while, so we’re thinking of taking a March/April cruise. Cruises are an inexpensive way to travel because you don’t have to pay for airfare if you live in a port city such as Miami/Ft. Lauderdale, and they are all inclusive for the most part (minus alcohol and off-ship excursions).

But where to go? We may take a four-day cruise to the Western Caribbean which is basically the Key West and Mexico and sails Thursday through Sunday. The best part: prices start at $259 on Carnival!

I will have to think it over a little longer.

Free Trip to Israel, Anyone?

I believe it was the summer of 2004 when I went to Israel for free. How you ask? Two words: Birthright Israel.

Birthright offers free trips for Jewish men and women ages 18 – 26. The airfare, hotel, and most meals are included. And the trip is very cool. I went on Taglit, which goes to the Wailing Wall, Negev Desert, Jerusalem, the Dead Sea, and many more exotic locations.

Free trip? Israel? There must be a catch such as you come back as a triple amputee! No! The reason it’s free is that the Israeli government uses tax dollars (or Shekels, as it were) to pay for it. And Israel believes that all Jewish people have a birthright to travel to the Holy Land. Although, I think there is also that hope that you will a) return (the economy is tourism-based in part) and/or b) possibly move there one day.

The trip admins definitely spend some time convincing you of the excellence and wonder of the Middle East, in particular Israel. But after visiting it’s clear that the Country is a beautiful, wonderful place albeit troubled by violence and an ongoing crisis.

But what about safety you ask? The trip is 100% safe, and probably the safest way to see Israel, and without spending a Shekel. You ride on a secure tour bus, with an armed guard, the locations of your visit are not disclosed online or even to you, and you avoid the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, the current exchange rate is four Shekels to the Dollar, so you can actually save a little money as prices are already low.

I have included some photos of my journey, but for complete info go to the “Trip” section of Birthright Israel’s website.

The trip will change your life!

International Travel Guide

So you’re ready to travel outside the U.S. and just pretend that the exchange rate (at least in Europe) is not poisonous. Here are some tips:

1) Use a travel site such as Expedia or Travelocity to book your flight/hotel (there’s usually a discount for combined bookings).

2) Look up the exchange rate in advance. You’ll want to have a ballpark idea of what goods/services will cost in dollars.

3) Buy a calling card. Not the an AT&T or other phone company calling card, but the sort you will find at a gas station or convenience store. You won’t want to bring your cellphone as the per minute rate will likely be quite high. You may also want to look into renting a cellphone (I did this in Israel).

4) Obviously bring some cash, but the rest of your funds should come from ATM withdrawls (the exchange rate and fees are in your favor) and from credit card purchases (Visa/Mastercard preferred). Again, the exchange rate/fees will be lower if you use your card/ATM than if you head to a local currency exchange kiosk.

5) Make sure you bring a travel guide (pocket guide is best) if you aren’t familiar with attractions, customs, dining options, etc of the city. They often have helpful hints such as how to order food at a cafe, metro maps, and tips.

6) When selecting a hotel, your best value will probably be a hostel. Hostels are sort of like dorm room hotels in that they are stripped down and have communal dining, living, and bathing areas (not necessarily a row of stalls and showers, but possibly single-occupancy). They aren’t fancy, but they are generally clean and may include free internet (key as e-cafes can add up) and free breakfast.

7) Keep your passport and flight info in your hotel room in a safe place. Also, make sure family/friends know where you will be in case of an emergency.

8) Finally, and I can’t stress this enough, book in advance! At least 60 days if possible. This will guarantee the best price even if you plan to travel during the peak season.

In these harsh economic times, South America, the Caribbean, and Mexico will probably have some bargains as they have good exchange rates, and/or are generally inexpensive. But if you want to head to Europe, the Euro is about 30% more than the dollar, so you may have to bite the bullet and try to budget.

Top Places to Go in 2009

So it’s 2009 and you’re trying to save up for your next vacation. But even if you conserve funds and eventually can book that trip there’s a burning, unanswered question: Where should we go?

Relax. Here at Storybook Vacations we have you covered. I won’t go into full details, but if you visit this site, you can find the top 29 places to go in 2009. Hopefully, at least one of them will meet your needs.

If you just can’t wait, here’s a recap of the top five destinations you may want to visit:

1) Atlanta

2) Austin

3) Bucks County, PA

4) The Catskills and the Hudson Valley

5) Great Smoky Mountains National Park

One last thought, it’s probably useful to examine at least one destination on this list of the top places to go in 2009 and to review why you should travel there. Let’s look at the top choice, Atlanta. Here’s what MSN.com says make this a unique place:

-Art/Music scene (High Museum of Art: King Tut and Terracotta Army)
-Historical monuments (Civil Rights, Civil War)
-World’s largest aquarium (over 8 million gallons of water!)
-The World of Coca-Cola (Soda from all over the world. Need I say more)
-CNN Studios (This is CNN, studios)
-Great hotels (W Hotel has a property here)

I’ve actually been to Atlanta, and despite the fact I didn’t do all the things mentioned above, I had a great time. So visit Atlanta, or anywhere on this list, if you have the means. It’s definitely one of the top places to go in 2009.

Chicago: Zip up, It’s cold!

I’ve begun to ponder over whether Chicago will be as cold as expected, or if we will get lucky and the temps will shoot up to the high 30s.

Chicago is known for being cold the same way Idaho is for their spuds. But I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

Have you been to Chicago? Share your experience with me!

Until next time, stay warm!

Farewell, Spring Cruise?

It seems unlikely that I will take that spring cruise I mentioned earlier this month. That’s because I am going to Chicago with my girlfriend and will proceed to freeze to death! But perhaps, if I have a good month, I will consider taking a cruise as my second anniversary is coming up, and it could be romantic.

I will of course, keep you posted on these breaking developments.

Travel Cheap, Cheap Airfare

Cheap Travel

If you’re like me, and feeling the effects of the economy, you probably would like to travel, but need cheap travel.

Good news! According to WTOP.com, Southwest Airlines has begun offering DC and other flights as low as $49 and $99 each way. That’s a significant discount from the normal about $100 – $200 that flight would normally cost.

Southwest also has specials for flights purchased 21 days in advance for $59 or less, definitely a way to secure cheap travel. It does require travel Monday through Friday, but again, there’s always an opportunity cost.

There are some restrictions however: purchasing tickets in advance and mid-week flights, for example. But assuming you can finesse missed work days and are due for a vacation, I would say there’s not much stopping you from booking a flight.

Southwest isn’t the only airline on the bandwagon. JetBlue, Delta, and United are also offering specials. This is just another effect of the consumer-based economy’s struggles.

How does Southwest pay for this cheap travel? According to the Star-Telegram, Southwest is reducing is passenger capacity: “Southwest is just now moving to downsize its operations, with plans to cut its passenger capacity by about 4 percent”. These cuts come on the heels of a $56 million loss for the fourth quarter.

It’s difficult for airlines to survive these days do to unpredictable fuel costs and decreases in disposable-income-spending.

Just feel fortunate that should you choose to travel, check Southwest, and other major airlines, for discounts.

Things to Do in Chicago, Chicago IL

I’m leaving for Chicago tomorrow. It will certainly be quite chilly (current temp there is 26F) but that’s a small concession to make for adventure.

I’ve begun researching more attractions to visit. Here are some suggestions from Chicago Traveler:

Magnificent Mile (Michigan Ave to Oak St; shops, restaurants, museums)

Navy Pier (IMAX, arcade, shops, restaurants, concert venue, fairgrounds)

Shedd Aquarium (one of the world’s largest indoor aquariums)

Field Museum (next to Soldier Field, home of the Chicago Bears; natural history museum)

The Magnificent Mile is a staple Chicago landmark without question. It is literally riddled with high-end shops including, Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent, and Hugo Boss, and department store’s such as Bloomie’s and Saks. It’s also home to luxury hotels Ritz-Carlton and Four Seasons. In addition, you can whet your palate with mainstay dining establishments such as The Signature Room at The 95th, Spiaggia, Tru, and The Pump Room.

Navy Pier is another Chicago landmark. Built in 1916, the pier is a 3,300 ft long structure on Lake Michigan which was originally created to serve as a cargo facility for freighter ships. Today, Navy Pier is used as a tourist attraction and has restaurants, shops, and other entertainment. According to Wikipedia, a major renovation was recently announced which will included the construction of a floating hotel, spokeless ferris wheel, and monorail.

The Shedd Aquarium, which is located on the shared property of the Field Museum and Soldier field, is one of the world’s largest indoor aquariums. First opened in 1930, it houses over 25,000 fish, over 2,100 species of fish, and over 5,000,000 gallons of water. The building was designed in a classic Greek architectural style and is quite impressive.

As can be seen, there certainly are many great Chicago attractions, but because my trip is short (arrive Thursday afternoon leave Sunday evening), I will have to budget my time.