My Favorite Apps/Websites for Traveling

I am attached to my phone. I’m one of those people with my face buried in my phone when I’m on a bus, in an airport, or even when I’m waiting for the light to change. Since I can’t get away from my phone, I try to make it work for me as much as possible. Below are some of my favorite apps and websites to use when I’m on the road, or planning for my next getaway.

Google Flights

By far, Google Flights is my favorite travel app. It’s not technically an “app” since it’s available through your Google account, but it’s by far one of the most useful tools I have at my disposal. I like to look at flight prices months in advance, because I feel like I get a better idea of what the price fluctuations will be when I finally buy my ticket.

Expedia

I love Expedia, mostly for the discounts I get on hotels. I discovered I also like the “Reserve Now, Pay Later” option on some of the hotels offer on their listings. It’s convenient, and it makes things easier for those times when you’re departure date is not set in stone. The points program is nice too, especially for those weekend getaways or for any impromptu trips.

Yelp

I use Yelp mostly to find food. I’ve known others who use it to find yoga classes or gyms on vacation, but I find it more useful for finding nearby restaurants or cafes (Viator is more useful for me when it comes to sightseeing or activities). When I travel, I don’t like to drive, so I need everything to be either within walking distance, or easy to get to by bus.

Viator

I started using Viator to plan my vacation activities when I went to San Francisco a few years ago, and I’ve been a faithful customer ever since. Viator makes looking for tours and activities, from bar crawls to cooking classes, much easier than a simple Google search. The prices are reasonable compared to other tourism companies, and sometimes you can find a better deal with Viator than you can on your own.

Google Trips

I’m a big fan of all Google apps. They’re convenient, easy-to-use, and compatible across multiple devices. One of the newest Google apps I’ve discovered is Google Trips. Whether you’re going on a long trip, or you’re planning a last-minute vacation, the app can help you organize your travel plans in one place. Besides arranging your reservations and itinerary, Google Trips can also offer suggestions for activities and sight-seeing.

Hotel Tonight

Hotel Tonight can be a life saver if you find yourself in need of a last-minute hotel. My friend and I had to utilize the service once in Los Angeles during a holiday weekend. We ended up in a Motel 6, but we got a better rate for using the app than we would have if we booked on our own. Whether it’s for an impromptu weekend getaway, or a family emergency, Hotel Tonight can be a lifesaver.

Google Navigation/Maps

Again, I know it’s technically not an “app” but…you can’t go wrong with Google navigation. Whether you’re on foot, in a car, or taking a bus, Google Maps can tell you how to get to your destination, and estimated travel time. Even in my home town, it’s a life saver when I’m not sure where I’m going. I dislike driving within city limits, so it’s a huge help when I’m on a road trip and navigating an unfamiliar city. When I don’t have to drive, I still use it to guide me, saving myself a lot of time and a lot of headaches.

 

 

 

Tips on Choosing an Airline

I’m picky about who I fly with. Long before the recent horror stories of United and Delta, I agonized over the airline I chose the way some people agonize over which restaurant to eat at. After all, I figure if I have to spend a number of hours cramped in an aircraft with strangers, I might as well make sure I’m as comfortable as possible. Below are some of my criteria when I’m booking a flight:

  1. Price: Price is without a doubt my number one deal-breaker or deal-maker. I scour all of the typical websites: Kayak, Expedia, Priceline, Orbit, etc. to get an idea of what fares go for to my destination. Once I get a rough estimate, I then use Google Flights to track those flights.
  2. Additional Fees: Many airlines will allow you one carry on, and one checked bag without additional costs (I’m looking at you Spirit Airlines). But luggage isn’t the only place you can get hit with a hidden fee. If you book via telephone, want a pillow or have to travel with a pet, you can incur additional charges.
  3. Perks: Another thing to consider is an airline’s frequent flier program. Southwest Airlines has a history and reputation of being one of the cheapest domestic airlines around, and also having a one of the best rewards programs around. If you fly a lot, this will matter more to you than it would for only the occasional flyer.
  4. Duration of flight: I want to be on an airplane for the bare minimum amount of time. More important, I want to be in airports for the least amount of time possible. So I always go for direct flights when they are available. Sometimes connections are unavoidable, so this is of less importance to me than the price of the flight.
  5. Seat of Choice: I don’t like middle seats. Middle seats give me the cold sweats. I will stand watch on my phone when it’s time to check in just so I can get a decent boarding position and avoid the dreaded middle seat. The price and the convenience that Southwest offers is hard to beat, but I very much dislike the cattle call method of boarding an airplane. I prefer to choose my seat well in advance, and not have to worry about fighting someone for it later.
  6. Word of Mouth: If I still have a hard time choosing a flight after going through my top five criteria, I’ll ask others what airline they prefer flying. Everyone has different experiences when it comes to customer service, but if you hear about similar experiences over and over (good or bad) it can become an easy tie-breaker.

Buying airline tickets can feel like a mini lottery. You might get a cheap ticket, but end up paying for it in terms of comfort and quality of service, or the opposite. The important thing is that you decide what works for you, your vacation and your budget.

Cafe Du Monde: Places To Go in New Orleans

Café Du Monde was one of my first stops in my trip to New Orleans. I knew various Orleans dishes by name: beignets, po’boy, etouffee, jambalaya, and I had notes on which restaurant to try each dish at. Café Du Monde was the place to go for beignets and chicory coffee, another New Orleans staple.

Beignets and cafe au lait
© Lauryn Wilder

As I walked from my hotel toward the French Quarter, I tried to imagine what the café would look like. While it did not match the brightly-lit, open space that I had in mind, I was surprised to find how close it was to the river. They offered indoor seating, as well as covered patio seating. I considered sitting outside to enjoy the sun and the river, but the unique aroma of the French Quarter prompted me to sit inside.

© Lauryn Wilder

The service was prompt and pleasant. I thought I would have to wait for service, since they allow patrons to seat themselves. Yet within minutes of finding a clean, available table, one of the waitresses came to greet me. Café Du Monde has a very limited menu (when you serve classics like beignets and chicory, you don’t need a wide number of selections), so you won’t need a lot of time to decide what you want. The big decision for me was black coffee or café au lait; I chose the latter. The decision unnerved me, as I am more of your average millennial Starbucks monger than hard-core coffee connoisseur, but I loved it. I thought the milk and the sugar of the beignets wouldn’t be enough to cover the bitterness of the chicory, but I was pleasantly surprised.

© Lauryn Wilder

When you visit Café Du Monde, keep in mind…

 

If you decide to visit the Café yourself, remember to bring cash. They don’t accept cards, and the closest ATM is located about a block away and right on the sidewalk. They stay busy throughout the day, so I would also recommend getting there as early as possible. I arrived around 8 am and I had to search for a place to sit.

 

Include explanation of café au lait with photo

Chicago Travel: The Chicago Institute of Art


If you find yourself in Chicago, you have to stop in at the Chicago Institute of Art. It’s part of the Chicago City Pass, so it’s a deal that can’t be beat. It consistently ranks as one of the top Chicago tourist destinations with its display of modern American art, as well as collections dating back to the Byzantine period. It’s within walking distance of Millenium Park, which is another must-see for every Chicago tourist. It’s also within walking distance of the Chicago Architecture Foundation, so it’s convenient if you plan to spend a day doing museum tours. The café located inside the Institute is very nice compared to the Field Museum or the Shedd Aquarium; they have a limited selection of wine and desserts, as well as typical lunch fare.

The oxidized bronze lions and the classical Roman architecture make the museum stand out from blocks away. I walked to the Institute after my walking tour of the Art Deco skyscrapers, and it was incredibly easy for me to find. Consumed with the thought I might get turned away for being so casually dressed (I wore jean shorts), but I was happy to find that there was no dress code policy at the Institute. I used my Chicago City Pass to get through the line, which easily saved me an hour’s wait since I went on both a Saturday and during lunch hours. I recommend arriving as early as possible if you don’t get the City Pass; if you don’t want to get stuck waiting for tickets – and don’t forget to bring cash.

There are three floors in the museum, all filled with thousands of pieces of pottery, paintings, and sculptures that come from all over the world. After you purchase tickets you can immediately go into the gift shop, or you can delve into the museum’s collections. The first collection I came upon was the Asian/Hindu sculptures and carvings. I recognized so many of the faces, but seeing the real deal moved me in a way little else has. I could imagine the artist at work, sweating and bleeding in the pursuit of reverence.

From there, I wanted to see the Ancient and Byzantine sculptures and American art first, since I had limited time before I needed to get to the airport. I couldn’t stop staring into the many faces of Antinous, Hercules and Sophocles; I tried to imagine the broken sculptures as a whole, being chiseled by the ancient artisans of the day. The detail in the broken faces and limbs are still pristine, after centuries of travel and exposure to the elements. Their preservation is a testament to both the timeless beauty in the work and the Institute’s conservation practices.

I was pleasantly surprised finding multiple works of Diego Rivera on display, Georgia O’Keefe and the infamous Nighthawks painting. I spent the most time in this part of the museum, fascinated by the brush strokes of the masters. The Art Institute gave me a deeper appreciation for art as a benchmark of history and means of expression.

The next time you’re in Chicago, make time to stop in at the Art Institute. Even if art isn’t your thing, the sheer talent and mastery behind the works will captivate and inspire you.

 

Las Vegas Restaurant Review: Spiegel’s 1941

Spiegel’s 1941 is located inside the El Cortez in the heart of downtown Las Vegas. The restaurant takes its name from the gangster Bugsy Siegel, the famous mobster and man behind the Flamingo Hotel. His picture graces the walls of the restaurant, giving the restaurant an old-school feel. The restaurant is open daily and twenty-four hours a day.  I found this restaurant by accident one night wandering around Fremont Street, and decided to give it a spin. While I find it to be an affordable “high-end” steakhouse, I think you can find a better bang for your buck in the area.

Menu

Spiegel’s menu is simple. Most of the dishes are American in origin, but there are a few exceptions such as challah, poutine, fajitas and chow mien. The dinner menu features a number of steak and potato dishes, as well as deli items.

Parking

Parking is available at the El Cortez and the surrounding hotels. If you’re unable to find parking at the hotel, I would recommend the Fremont Street Garage. It’s easily accessible and cheap compared to the surrounding parking lots.

Service

The service was decent, but not extraordinary. I didn’t have to wait long for a table or my food, which is unusual on a weekend. The hostess and wait staff are pleasant, but not the sort of friendly I think you would find in more expensive, upscale restaurants.

Drinks

The drinks were a little too strong for me. The prices are reasonable based on downtown Las Vegas standards, but I prefer cocktails to have a flavor other than alcohol. I think you can find better drinks at Commonwealth, La Comida and the Downtown Cocktail Room.

 

I would give Spiegel’s a chance if you find yourself staying at the El Cortez, or if you want to try a steakhouse without completely emptying your wallet. Spiegel’s is also a good choice if you’re short on time and want to get a quick drink or meal. It’s not the best place I’ve eaten at in Las Vegas, but it’s decent.

 

 

What’s in My Carry-On: Make-Up Edition

Since I went on vacation a couple weeks ago, I decided I wanted to do a series of posts on “what’s in my carry on”. I try to travel as light as possible, and if I can get away with just a carry-on and a personal item I consider it a success. I’m going to break up these posts in sections: makeup, clothes, and entertainment. I’m hoping it will help me streamline the packing process (I am a habitual last-minute packer, with no signs of rehabilitation in the future.

Make Up Bag:

Urban Decay Vice Lipstick (Stark Naked in the daytime, Mrs. Mia Wallace at Night): I love Urban Decay, and I think both of these shades cover the variety of day and night time events I have signed myself up for.

Lip balm: I prefer EOS balms, but Burt’s Bees is a great alternative.

ABH Stick Foundations (Natural, Warm Natural): I’m taking these primarily because of the humid weather. Not only that, stick foundations are much easier (in my opinion) to travel with.

ELF liquid eyeliner: ELF is a long-time favorite of mine. They’re cruelty-free and so affordable it’s almost criminal.

ELF eyebrow kit: See above.

Urban Decay Smoky palette: I went through all my eyeshadow palettes, and decided since I use this one the least in my normal life, I would make good use of it on vacation.

Tarte blush in Sensual: Long-time favorite.

Deodorant: I keep a travel-sized one with me at most times, because I live in Las Vegas and I get hot. So of course, I do the same when I travel.

Travel sized face wash/moisturizer: I love travel-sized products, and I try to stock up before each trip. I don’t have a particularly favorite brand, but I end up buying Neutrogena more often than not.

Makeup remover towelettes: Any brand will do, but I prefer Burt’s Bees.

Tarte Mascara in Gifted: This is the only mascara I own, so it goes everywhere with me.

VS rollerball perfume: It’s small, compact and smells terrific.

Eyelash Curler

Make up brushes: I don’t have a particular brand that I like; I’m not even sure where I got the current ones I have. But they must go with me every trip.

 

Harley Quinn Hairbrush: Just because. 

 

Las Vegas Eats: Dona Maria’s Tamales Restaurant

 
Dona Maria’s Tamales Restaurant is one of my favorite restaurants in Las Vegas. It’s been around since I was a kid, and has been a staple in my family’s history. My grandfather and great-uncle still visit the place when they’re in town; they always say their visits aren’t the same if they don’t. I’m hesitant to say it’s the best tamale I’ve ever had (nothing beats home-made) but it is pretty close.
 
There are two locations in Las Vegas, but the most accessible to tourists is the one in downtown Las Vegas. Located off of Charleston and Las Vegas Boulevard, the original Dona Maria’s is right in the heart of the downtown area. It’s accessible on foot if you’ve started your night elsewhere, but parking can be tricky if you miss the turn into the lot. If you are on foot I would recommend, if you’re in the area at night, to walk in a group. The area is generally pretty busy on the weekends, but it can get a little hairy if you’re not careful.
 
Obviously the best thing to get at Dona Maria’s is the tamales. My favorite is the red tamale (comes with beef), but you can also get green tamales (with chicken) and cheese tamales. They even serve dessert tamales with pineapple and raisin filling. They sell the tamales individually or in bulk, if you’ve got a big party to feed. They also serve American dishes, such as patty melts, hamburgers, and pancakes if you’re not feeling adventurous. Some other dishes I would recommend are the chile relleno, fideo soup and the carne asada tacos.
 
As far as dessert is concerned, you can’t go wrong with deep-fried ice cream. I also enjoy the sopapillas and flan, but the deep-fried ice cream is a must have. If those don’t sound appealing, they also serve plain ice cream and cheesecake.
 
Dona Maria’s is one of the best Mexican restaurants in the city. It may not be on the Las Vegas Strip, but it’s earned its place in the history of Las Vegas. In a city that is always changing, it has managed to maintain. I would even say you owe it to your trip to go to Dona Maria’s. You may come to Las Vegas for the alcohol, the nightclubs and the naked girls but…the tamales are magical.
 
What’s your favorite restaurant in your home town? How long has it been there?

Downtown Vegas Reviews: The Commonwealth

 
Downtown Las Vegas has undergone a major facelift in the last five years. In an effort to bring more business to the area, the Downtown Project has poured close to 350 million dollars into revitalizing the area. Commonwealth is one of many businesses that have the Downtown Project to thank.
 
The Commonwealth is unique, like every bar in the downtown area. Surrounded by neon signs and kitschy neighbors, the Commonwealth stands out with only its name and an art deco fan to draw in its patrons. Inside, the bar looks more like a Victorian-era pub or speakeasy than a modern Las Vegas bar. The bar stools, tables and the black and white photography give the bar a muted, relaxed atmosphere also unique to the Commonwealth.
 
Another plus about the Commonwealth is its space. The two story building offers an inside space on the ground level, and an open deck area on the top of the building. You’ll find more people on the deck where the DJ is set up; during the summer, it offers an unbeatable view of the downtown area. I prefer the downstairs space since there’s usually more available seating (and I am a lazy bar patron ).

Dress Code

There is no strict dress code at the Commonwealth, but I would stick to casual nightlife attire. I’ve been inside in jeans and never had a problem getting in. I would always say no to flip-flops (except in the summer), but you can always call ahead. It’s better to know ahead of time than get down there and get turned away.

 The Laundry Room

If you play your cards right, you can admission to the hidden gem – The Laundry Room. The speakeasy allows 10-12 people inside at a time, and photographs aren’t allowed. If you’re interested, ask one of the bartenders about admission.

Things To Do In Vegas: Visit Container Park

Container Park is part of the Downtown Project, an effort to give downtown Las Vegas a much-needed face-lift. The open-air shopping and restaurant plaza offers food, dining and entertainment options appropriate for the entire family throughout the entire year. Container Park is easily accessible on foot if you’re staying in the downtown area but if you’re coming from the Strip (or any other part of the city), but if you’re driving to Container Park, take the 95-South to Las Vegas Boulevard. You’ll find the Park at the corner of Fremont and 7th Street.

Photo from vitalvegas.com

Container Park offers a variety of dining options. If you’ve got a sweet tooth, you can stop in Jinju Chocolates, Sasasweets Chillspot, or Las Vegas Kettle Corn. Pinches Tacos or Cheffini’s are great places if you want something quick after making your rounds at the neighboring bars. If you’re with family, you can dine at Big Ern’s BBQ while your children stay busy at the playground in the Park.

Besides its dining and drink options, Container Park has a number of retail stores on site. Art Box provides local artisans a place to display their works, from jewelry to home furnishings. Kappa Toys and Uptown Children’s Boutique sells children’s clothes and toys, and Trikke Las Vegas offers tours of the city on their “trikkes”, an updated, stand-up version of the classic tricycle.

You can even get married at Container Park.

Parking is an issue when it comes to Container Park. There are a number of parking lots available in the area, with various rates per hour. The availability of these parking lots will depend on what is going on downtown, or the time of day. You can find free spaces to park at surrounding motels, but I would advise against that depending on the time of day due to safety concerns.

Container Park isn’t one of the top ten things to see in Las Vegas, but it’s a fun experience. In Container Park, you get a glimpse of where old school and new Las Vegas intersect. You’ll also support local artists, designers and vendors, which (I think) is great to do any city.

 

 

Southwest Destinations – Visiting Hoover Dam

If you’re visiting the Southwest, Hoover Dam ranks as one of the region’s top tourist destinations. From the observation deck of the engineering marvel, you get a bird’s eyes view from a structure that stands for growth, prosperity and the tenacity of the American spirit.

Located 30 miles outside of Las Vegas, Hoover Dam is a marvel for more reasons than one. At one time, Hoover Dam was the tallest reservoir in the world. Now as no. 2, Hoover Dam stands tall in an arid, dry climate that makes Las Vegas summers seem like rainy days. The Dam has also been the subject of urban legends. During the construction of the Dam, close to 100 workers died on the project. This number stems from work-related accidents, such as drowning and or falling rocks. This lead to the popular belief that the people that died working on the Dam were buried inside the walls of the Dam. This has proven to be false, but like most legends, the story still lingers.

Hoover Dam came about during the Great Depression, as part of an effort to provide water and power to the area. While the plans for the dam began in the early 20th century, the dam itself was not finished until 1935. It offered a surge in employment during a time where work was scarce. As a result, the surrounding area saw a boom in its population. Boulder City became the home of many of the dam’s employees while others trickled into Las Vegas.  Hoover Dam became a target of the Germans during World War II while under construction.  Thanks to extensive security measures enacted by the Army, Hoover Dam was never touched.

Hoover Dam is a great place to visit, especially if you have children. The history of the Dam and its environmental impact are outlined in detail, not only to the Southwest but to the country as a whole. If you’re going to the dam from Las Vegas, it’s an easy drive on the 95 South. At one time, driving through the Dam was a cause for concern especially for small personal vehicles. To make travel throughout the Dam safer and to protect the water supply, The Nevada and Arizona Departments of Transportation decided to construct an overpass. The Mike O’Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge opened in 2010 and has relieved most of the traffic concerns.

Things to do at Hoover Dam

There are two options for tours if you decide to visit Hoover Dam. The first option is the most affordable, is the Power Plant Tour. For eleven dollars (discounts are available), you travel hundreds of feet below ground to see the dam’s generators. You also get  to view the Colorado River and Lake Mead without obstructions. The other option is the Dam Tour. The Dam Tour provides access to everything the Power Plant Tour does, but also includes an intimate tour of the dam itself. It’s more expensive than the Power Plant Tour but it offers a much more in-depth look at how the dam works and the dam’s historical significance.