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.

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.

 

 

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.

 

San Francisco Eats: Four Restaurants to Try in San Francisco

San Francisco is the city of fog, free spirits, and food. Everywhere you turn, you can find sushi, dim sum, burgers, pasta – pretty much anything your heart may desire. It is a city rich in distinct flavors, from fresh seafood, clam chowder and some of the richest chocolate you’ll find in the United States. It can be difficult to narrow down your choices during your vacation with so many places to go; the list below will offer a variety of options, from Asian to Italian to dessert.

Z & Y Restaurant

Z & Y Restaurant is one of the best known Chinese spots in the entire city. With past patrons including our current president, Z & Y is the place to go especially if you like spicy Chinese cuisine. With all the items on the menu coming in under twenty dollars each, it makes for an affordable dining experience as well. They do takeout as well if you can’t do a sit-down meal.

The Stinking Rose

The signature of The Stinking Rose is garlic. Lots and lots of garlic. They put garlic in everything, from the pizza to the ice cream. It seems kind of strange at first glance, but it grows on you. This isn’t a place to go if you don’t like garlic, obviously, but if you do (or if you can just stand it) it’s worth checking out. The place is always busy, so it’s best to call ahead and place a reservation.

stinking-rose

Ryoko’s Japanese Restaurant & Bar

Ryoko’s has absolutely delicious sushi. It’s got an interesting mix of music, and depending on when you go you might catch the live entertainment. The prices are comparable to other sushi places throughout the city, which is another added bonus. The place is small, as is a lot of the sushi spots in the downtown area but the flavor and the sake are the worth the lack of elbow room, time and time again.

Ghirardelli Square

Ghirardelli Square is the place to go in San Francisco for dessert. Locals left and right recommend the hot fudge sundaes above all else, and the line to get them is a testament to their infamous decadence. There’s a multitude of choices for dining options in Ghirardelli Square, from Lori’s Diner to McCormick & Kuleto’s, but to pass up a chance to try original Ghirardelli chocolate is an opportunity sorely missed.

Three Reasons Why You Should Visit the Shedd Aquarium

 

I made my first visit to the Shedd Aquarium this past summer. It is part of the Chicago City Pass bundle (which I highly recommend getting, by the way). I decided to hit the aquarium after seeing the Field Museum. I covered the entire aquarium in about two hours, including the free film that is included as part of the City Pass. If you think aquariums aren’t interesting, or you’re not sure what to do on your next vacation, here are three reasons why you should consider putting the Shedd Aquarium on your list:

The Sheer Size

It’s the largest indoor aquarium in the world. The Shedd Aquarium first opened in 1930, and remains the largest indoor aquarium in the world ever since. Like the Field Museum, the aquarium’s classic architecture makes it stand out in a city with an eclectic skyline. I skimmed my way through each exhibit, but I spent most of my time watching the whales and the penguins, which I’ll get more into later.

It’s close to other points of interest

It’s within walking distance of The Field Museum, the beach, and the Buckingham fountain. I walked from my hostel to Grant Park, the location of both the Field Museum and the Shedd Aquarium. I don’t recommend doing that, but do try to do both on the same day if you can. If you can’t, just take a stroll through Grant Park and get a hotdog from one of the food stands. Grant Park is gorgeous, and it was worth the long walk and the bruised heels I had by day’s end. There’s plenty of great places to eat around Grant Park if you forgo the aquarium’s food options, but I recommend the Potbelly Sandwich Shop.

The animals that call the Shedd Aquarium home

Beluga whales and penguins. If you’re still not sold on the Shedd Aquarium, go for the beluga whales. I have never seen a beluga whale before, and now it ranks high on my list of coolest animals. Their domed heads make them look otherworldly, and they swim so fast sometimes it’s hard to get a good look at them. I wasn’t at the aquarium in time to see any of the live shows, but I did get to see the whales eating. They don’t jump like the dolphins at the Mirage, but watching them cut through the water is captivating. The penguins are equally entertaining; I watched the penguins play and swim for half an hour, amused by their boisterous and animated interactions.

Las Vegas Price Comparison: Hotels on the Las Vegas Strip

Hotels on the Strip can be expensive. Depending on the time of year you visit, or whatever events may be going on that weekend, hotels rates can fluctuate up to 800 percent. Below you’ll find a breakdown of average prices for some of the hotels on the Las Vegas Strip. Note that these are strictly estimates, save for the standard resort fee. The rates will also depend on what kind of room you stay in; the suites and the bungalows are going to cost more no matter the event or time of year. These are also prices for the current fall season; these rates could increase greatly over the summer months.  I will do a “part two” to this table at a later date.

Price Comparison of Hotel Prices on the Strip

 

Hotel Name Weekday Rate (Average) Weekend Rate (Average) Resort Fee
Monte Carlo 45.00 – 70.00 USD 220.00-770.00 USD $33.60 USD
MGM Grand 60.00 – 175.00 USD 480.00 -560.00 USD $35.84 USD
Caesar’s Palace 200.00 – 300.00 USD 400.00 – 500.00 USD $32.00 USD
Harrah’s 70.00 – 120.00 USD 200.00 – 300.00 USD $29.00 USD
Bellagio 170.00 – 440.00 USD 500.00-600.00 USD $35.84 USD
Mandalay Bay 100.00 – 365.00 USD 100.00 – 800.00 USD $35.84 USD
Luxor 40.00 – 50.00 USD 200 – 300.00 USD $29.12 USD
Exacalibur 30.00 – 50.00 USD 200 – 300.00 USD $29.12 USD
New York New York 40.00 – 60.00 USD 220.00 – 365.00 USD $33.60 USD