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Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Airports Can Be Entertaining

I see you all rolling your eyes. You probably hate how much I adore airports. I downloaded GateGuru and print out the map and highlight the places to check out when I have a layover, whether it's an hour or four. Two hours is ideal in my eyes. Does it bug you that I look forward to hours at the airport? It doesn't have to be a place of misery. Maybe my excitement can rub off on you...

airport travel tips

Why do I enjoy the airport so much? It could be that I live where the best airport is (Travel + Leisure has awarded it three years running), but I like most other city's airports, too. I'll tell you why: I view being at the airport as part of my trip. It's like a mall that also has a portal to another destination! (Yeah, I actually hate the mall, but it's the best comparison.) Once you start thinking this way, you might feel differently in the future too, not be one of those annoyed harried people who look at the route monitors with a permanent scowl. Listen, you'll eventually get to where you want to be, so chill out and enjoy yourself. Get  a snack or a beer, buy a new magazine and go check out what the airport has to offer.

Art collection

All airports now have some sort of art collection. Some even have their own galleries for those travelers who have quite a bit of time to kill. I always like to see the different things on display at different airports. Take some time to wander your terminal to check out the exhibits available. One of my favorites is the History of Flight "museum" in McCarran Airport in Las Vegas. They have a main exhibit and smaller exhibits throughout. 

Play area
Travel with kids can be trying and, after having to sit for hours without getting to flail or even stand up, jumping around and annoying people near the baggage carousel is not a fantastic way to burn off energy (or make friends). Head to the nearest play area, which almost all airports have, and let them climb and run and yell and whatever else so they can be ready to fly or for the next leg of your journey. Bonus is that they are usually airplane themed and lots of kids love pretending to be a pilot. 

Workout rooms
These may be few and far between, but if you're lucky enough to go through an airport with some, pack some shorts and a tee in your carry-on to do some running or strength training. Getting some exercise is a great way to stay alert and get moving after a long flight of being folded into a tiny space. If you normally get a workout in during the day, then you're not missing out by sitting on the plane.

You're probably bringing your laptop, so why not toss a couple DVDs in your bag to watch if you have 90+ minutes to spare on your layover. If you're lucky, you might be in one of those fancy schmancy airports that have an actual theater for travelers and you can see a new movie on a big screen.

Treat yourself to a massage, pedicure of something else a little luxurious. I've been lucky enough to get a manicure at the Butter London location in Seattle, but we've also hit up the Xpress Spas on trips as well. They do their best to make your treatments short and sweet, so if you have a tighter connection, you can still catch your flight.

Specialty souvenir shops
Bring home gifts to commemorate your trip for yourself or others. If you're just passing through, this is also a great way to sample some of the local flavor, whether it's candy or beer or whatever else. Fair warning, when you go through Portland (PDX) and think Oregon Rain sounds like a fantastic water choice, just don't.

Go sightseeing
If you have a fairly long layover, don't think you can't get out and enjoy your stopover city a bit. We had 8 hours in Vancouver, BC (YVR), rented a car and made a fun day out of it. Recently, we flew through Salt Lake (SLC) and they had a brochure about taking a two-hour tour into their historical center. They have an airport shuttle to drop you off and bring you back and they get tourists into town and a little extra money in their economy. That was pretty genius to me. 

Buy something you forgot 
Or entertainment. My favorite new shops are the 24-hour kiosks in airports. You can buy everything from travel-sized makeup to fancy noise-canceling headphones to an ebook reader. You pay full price, but if you forget that sunscreen you love from Supergoop! or the best ever Benefit foundation, you can get them at whatever time you're stuck at the airport.

What do you like to do to pass the time at airports?

Saturday, July 25, 2015

The Best of Free Las Vegas (Part 2)

As you probably know, Las Vegas can be quite expensive. It used to be that you could barely sit at a machine before you were asked if you wanted a (free) drink or you could walk into any hotel and find a place to eat for super cheap. That's not really so anymore, but the food game is strong in Sin City, so I'm always willing to splurge on some good meals (not all, mind you) and find some ways to save elsewhere on my trip. 

free las vegas attractions

The list of free things in Vegas is pretty long, so I've narrowed it down to some of my favorites. View my previous post if you missed it.

I remember when downtown LV was not much to write home (or blog posts) about, but since the revamp of hotels like the Golden Nugget, it's cool again. Stop in here to see the World's Largest (and Second Largest) Gold Nugget on display, which is quite phenomenal, but also take a walk through the hotel, get some fancy ice cream or admire the shark tank out by the pool. If you aren't staying at the hotel to use the pool, or want to pay $30 for a tour, you'll have to look at it from afar, but it's still pretty darn cool. You can see big sharks and little sharks among large fish and maybe you'll even see some brave soul slide through the tube on their way to the pool at the bottom. 

There's still a lot of sketchy people around downtown, but they are pretty harmless and won't bother you (in my experience). In fact, there's plenty of people watching and no place is better for it downtown than Fremont Street. Oddly, of the many times I've been to Vegas, this is the first time I've made it down there and I went twice, once during the day and once at night. There was the happiest drunk down there dancing to the free music and dressed as Santa Claus. He gave me all the joy. The Fremont Street everyone talks about is actually just three blocks of actual Fremont Street, covered in a canopy that lights up at night. There are three stages where live music plays and then they stop throughout the night for you to turn your attention skyward to watch live "concerts" and other light shows on the canopy. We were treated to three songs (with concert footage and YouTube vids) by Bon Jovi. I loved it!

Would you believe that sometimes those in-flight magazines help you with last-minute travel planning? Delta's mag, besides having a totally clean crossword (yay!), told me one of the new things in Vegas was  the Downtown Container Park. I immediately folded down the page to look up when we touched down. Unfortunately, we only saw it in the daytime on the Big Bus and when we went back for late dinner, most of the container stores were closed, but it was still fun to hang out. Wednesday and Sunday nights they run movies in their "park" and it's 21 and over after 9pm (which, coincidentally, is when the movies start). You'll find all sorts of mini shops here, an eclectic range of restaurants and even a playground for the kids during the day. In the front, you'll find a giant metal praying mantis that lights up the night by breathing fire to different rockin' music selections. It's kind of worth it just to see that.

I think everyone thought I was a liar last year when I was like "Flamingos! For free! Let's go see them!" The Flamingo Habitat at the Flamingo Hotel and Casino is open 24 hours a day. Despite the name, it also has other birds, turtles and fish in a cute little courtyard with ponds, fountains, waterfalls and tropical plants. I visited both at night and during the day and it was pretty cool both times. If you really want to view all the animals on display, swing by in the morning or at dusk (it'll be cooler than in the afternoon).

So, have I told you my new favorite hotel is the Cosmopolitan? Not only is it crazy beautiful, but they also have a very unique collection of art on display, especially on the second floor. Apparently, they have an art gallery as well, but I didn't get to that. The food here is amazing, so we spent a little more time here than strictly necessary, but that just means we got tosee more, including Lucky Cat. This is an adult's only activity that is absolutely free. Lucky Cat opens at 4pm every evening and gives out fortunes and, for a select few, freebies. We went twice and both times Eric got a freebie (concert tickets one night and a free coffee another). It was too bad we couldn't actually use either of them

The new Linq Hotel is pretty posh as is the Promenade that is full of shops and restaurants and the cute little Sprinkles Cupcakes store that I had to try. Amidst all the free graffiti art, window shopping and people watching you'll find the Polaroid Museum. Upstairs from the Polaroid Shop (where you can instantly print your fab vacation photos!) is the Polaroid Museum where you can learn all about Edwin Land and the evolution of Polaroid photography. See the different cameras through the years, history-making photos and instant picture artists. It's only one room, but there's quite a bit to see in it, including Andy Warhol art...for free.

Forgot your camera or want a unique memory of your visit to Las Vegas. There are now uPostcard stands all over the place. Take a pic with something fun in the background and instantly share it with your Facebook friends, Twitter feed or email it to yourself and everyone else you know. It's easy and you get a five-second delay to perfect your pose after you push the camera button. Above is the one we took at Bodies, because you aren't allowed to take pictures inside, so you get a souvenir of some sort to take away.

Maybe you're walking past Caesar's like I was the first time I stopped here, or maybe you're waiting for a table for brunch at Serendipity 3 like the second time I stopped here, but the Prayer Shrine in front of Caesar's is number one adorable, but also relaxing and a nice place to stop and reflect and maybe send up a prayer or two to Krishna (or whoever you pray to) to win a few bucks more than you started with. There are prayer benches built into the shrine and they also provide you with incense and matches to let the smoke take it where it needs to go (is that how it works? No? Okay.). There's a discreet donation box where I suggest giving a buck or two for upkeep, because this thing is gorgeous and I think helped me win $80! P.S. It did not make me smart enough to not put some of that $80 back into the slots.

So, there you have it. My list of some of the cool free things to do in Vegas which are not totally lame and are worth walking for (or in the case of downtown stuff, driving or taking the bus). I'm surprised by how much floral and landscaped stuff exists in the middle of the desert, which is probably why I like it so much more. Add some of these freebies in with your paid for activities and your money will go further, while your trip will still seem full. You don't have to spend money to have fun, but you do have to spend money to eat, so later I'll give you the tips on the best splurgiest (it could be a real word) places to have a meal that'll make your trip a little more spectacular. {And if you need ideas on things that cost money, but not all the money, check out this post.}

What are your favorite freebies in Vegas?

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Best of Free Las Vegas (Part 1)

I've been to Las Vegas a lot. We've been making it a yearly event the last three years, as my husband is a huge NBA fan and loyal-to-the-end Trailblazer follower, and greatly enjoys seeing the newly-drafted play at Summer League. I don't adore basketball, but the games are fun and he has a friend meet us who is as into it as he is, so I can go or drop them off and then go do my own thing. This year, I went to only one day of games of the four I could have gone to and did a lot of stuff on my own. Gotta bring you some cool stuff, right? 

free las vegas attractions

I am always a fan of the freebies Vegas has to offer, because a lot of people think it's just too expensive. While food can be over the top, I'd much rather splurge on a delicious lunch/brunch and dinner (which I'll bring you in another post) and see some of the things you can do in Sin City without going broke. Believe it or not, there are a lot of cool activities you can do that cost you only a bus ticket or gas. Parking just about anywhere is free and valet will only run you the tip ($2-3).  Here are some freebies you can take the whole family to:

The classic Bellagio Fountains is probably on everyone's list. They start during the day if you're visiting on a weekend, but they're a fun way to see a free show and take a break when walking down the strip.

One of my favorite places in Vegas is the Bellagio Conservatory. It is changed every season, so it's likely to be different each time you visit. This time we were there it was a shipwreck. They create a ton of stuff out of fresh flowers and it always smells lovely. This is coming from someone who's pretty much allergic to everything. The air is always fresh and there's no sneezing or eye watering. The Conservatory is open 24/7, so you can always fit it into your visit. {You can also go around the corner and see the world's largest chocolate fountain in front of Jean Phillipe's.}

photo credit
A lot of visitors love M&M World. I haven't been there in quite a while, but they have some fun artwork and a short movie. Plus, if you love M&M's, you can get every color of the rainbow there. 

I looked up free things to do in Las Vegas and the Palazzo Atrium and Lobby was on quite a few lists, so I figured I'd head over and see what all the fuss was about. Like the Bellagio, there are flowers everywhere, including masquerade women. The atrium is just the tip of the iceberg. Make your way into the Canal Shoppes to see the magnificent waterfall and other landscapes. There's a spectacular bridge on display with fountain. 

Have  you ever been to the Aria before? If not, it's definitely worth it to see the Water Wall and Lobby. The lobby is beautiful and has some fun art including floral clouds. Out front is a wall that creates a waterfall when water is pumped over it in different ways. There is also a fun multi-colored fountain and these amazing pigeon chairs to wait for your valet (or just enjoy being next to the water wall.

Throughout the evening, you'll see the crush of people waiting with their cameras and phones to watch the show at the Mirage Volcano. I don't blame them. It's really exciting with drums and fire and sprays of water. It's very tiki chic and I kind of love it. You've got to see it at least once. 

While you're already at the Mirage, then why not duck inside and check out their Rainforest? It's not large, but it's really pretty. It's better in the daylight, but it has an interesting feel at night as well. There are ponds and waterfalls and tropical plants and a little bridge. You can get some really good photo ops inside.

The last few years I've read about the Pinball Hall of Fame, but haven't had the chance to go to it. As we were driving to the bank, I happened to see it down the street this time, so one day I dropped the guys off at the games and went back to check it out. Needless to say, they should be jealous that they didn't get to go. Admission is free, but the games are not, so you can grab a handful of quarters and play as little or as much as you want. I spent just $5 and it lasted me over an hour. Each game has a card on it to tell you about the manufacturer and when it was put into play. There are a lot of Gottlieb machines and a few non-pinball vintage games. You can see in the back where other games are being repaired for play.

Have you ever been to any of these attractions? Which was your favorite? Stay tuned for Part 2.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Review: Las Vegas Explorer Pass from Smart Destinations

Don't you want to do more when you travel? Would you do more if it meant you wouldn't spend more? In fact, what if you could spend less? Smart Destinations wants you to get more out of your trips by giving you discounts on attractions. They just released their Las Vegas Explorer Pass, which gives you the choice of 3 or 5 attractions which can save you up to 55% off regular ticket prices. This isn't the first time I've used Go Cards to make my trip more affordable, and it won't be my last. You may remember when I used them in Los Angeles and I'll be using them again later this year when I head to Orlando.

Las Vegas Explorer Pass

When choosing whether or not to use a Go Card at my destination, I look at what's included and compare it to the things I planned to do on my trip and those I was hoping to do. Las Vegas is full of awesome things to do on and off the Strip that aren't typical of a traditional Sin City getaway, which means it's always fun to get to do those things. We had three days of sightseeing we could do before our friends showed up and our trip was all about NBA Summer League, so we were definitely into making those days count and doing things we hadn't done before.

Here are the 11 things you can choose from when using the Explorer Pass:
  • Madame Tussaud's
  • Big Bus Las Vegas Hop-On Hop-Off Day Tour (2 different routes)
  • V Theater (6 shows to choose from)
  • Meal at Planet Hollywood at the Forum Shops
  • High Roller at the Linq
  • CSI: The Experience
  • Stratosphere Observation Desk
  • The Mob Museum
  • Outdoor Gondola Ride at the Venetian
  • Rockstar VIP Club Tour
  • Rockstar Pool Tour
Those items in bold are those we did on our trip. Though we have been to Las Vegas a bunch of times, there are a lot of things we don't know about the city. Because of this, I love to jump on the Big Bus at destinations and learn about history and see other parts of the city that I probably wouldn't see otherwise. Las Vegas' Big Bus has two different routes. You can see stuff on The Strip or you can check out Downtown. Besides going to the Mob Museum two years ago and the Neon Museum last year, we've not actually been Downtown, so it was all pretty new to us. 

We were able to see the new Downtown Container Park, complete with giant fire-breathing praying mantis in front (that happens after dark), the Gold and Silver Pawn Shop from the show Pawn Stars, the chapel where Britney Spears got married, learned about the graffiti art program and also stopped off at the Golden Nugget. We walked through the Golden Nugget (which is beautiful after it's refurbishment) to Fremont Street. It's a lot different in the daytime than at nighttime, but it's fun to see it in the day and not have to force your way through the crazy crowds. 
This building is CRAZY

In order to get your Big Bus pass, you need to present your Explorer Passes to the Elite Tours office, which is across the street from Circus Circus (the map makes it look like it's in front of the Stratosphere, but it's a good mile or so away). Once you have your tickets, head across the street to get on a double-decker bus. If you want to take pictures, you'll want to be on the upper deck. The 4th, 5th and 6th rows from the front are the best, as you don't have the windshield in the way and the canopy doesn't get in your way either. You can get out at any of the bus's stops and also get back on there. 

Next up was the High Roller. We had toyed with the idea of doing this before, but the price seemed kind of high. With the Explorer Pass, there was no question that it would be on our list. The High Roller is the largest observation wheel in the world and is located behind The Linq hotel and casino. I was afraid that would make the view less awesome. I was wrong. Your ride takes 30 minutes and halfway through you reach 550 feet in the air. Though you have to do this during the day, I think you actually get a better view that way, because you can see the view behind you, too, which is not part of the Strip. 

The sky cabins are very large and offer you a 360-degree view. Throughout your trip, you get some great music, fun trivia and it's narrated by the hilarious Lucas Dick (son of comedian Andy Dick). It's like a party in the sky. We took pictures, watched the monitors, danced a little bit and laughed a lot. I'll tell you now, I was wrong. It's totally worth the admission fee (at least once) and the artwork in the building is phenomenal. I bought a great print and look forward to when they have more the choose from.

Do you love CSI? I do. I've been watching since it first started. I love to see how they catch the bad guys and figure out who they are. CSI: the experience is located at the MGM Grand, one of my favorite hotels in Vegas. Needless to say, I was excited to see if I could be a crime scene investigator. You aren't allowed to take any photos inside the experience (boo!) and you have to rely on your observational gifts to solve the crime. 

I have two criticisms of the experience: 1.) It's quite dark in the area where the initial crime scene is laid out, so it's a little difficult to see all the clues. 2.) After that, they mostly give you the answers, so you can't not solve the puzzle, making it not worth the full ticket price. Aside from that, it's pretty fun to work together or on your own to see if you are as smart as you think you are. You also learn a lot about how CSIs work and how much you need to really know to be one. There are three different crime scenes, so you can try more than one if you liked the first one.

Vegas is all about the shows and we've never gone without seeing at least one. I love that your Explorer Pass can get you into one of the most popular mid-range shows. Of the six available, we chose Zombie Burlesque. It's quite risque and not meant for children. It's an over 21 show, as there is nudity, swearing, sensuality and jello shots in the middle (I'm not even kidding). The show is playful and funny, while also being sexy and a little disturbing. After all, you're watching zombies undress and do a striptease. The theater is smallish, so all seats are great seats. V Theater is located in the Miracle Mile Shops of Planet Hollywood and has a plush seating area to hang out before the show starts. You can also grab a drink (alcoholic or not) from the bar. This show was really fun and I'd recommend it to anyone looking for a unique show that doesn't cost a ton.

By now, you probably know that I have a love-hate relationship with Madame Tussaud's. I'm fascinated by the amount of work and detail that go into making the wax statues to make them look so lifelike. On the other hand, I'm terrified of the actual statues that look so lifelike. I'm convinced they are going to move, even if it's just their eyes. Yes, I've seen too many horror movies, but as you can see, that hasn't stopped me from going to satisfy my morbid curiousity. So far, no statues have moved, much to my relief, and I have been able to get my picture taken with a bunch of "celebrities". Madame Tussaud's is located at The Venetian and gives you a chance to see some other hotels on the Strip. You'll be thrilled by the statues of some of your favorite Vegas icons, like Elvis, the Rat Pack, Lady Gaga and those dudes from The Hangover movies.

Want to get your own Explorer Pass (or create your own Go Card) for your next trip to Vegas. Click here for more information. If you want to get a Go Card for any of the other destinations (Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Oahu, Orlando, San Diego, San Francisco, Washington DC) click here to buy and for more info.

Your Go Cards are good for 30 days after you've first activated them (the first time you use them for an attraction) and are valid for one year after purchase. They make fantastic gifts and also save you so much on your trips, while allowing you to do the things you planned to do anyway, plus even more. Each card comes with a guide that includes info on all the activities included, addresses, phone numbers and a map. It's invaluable and fits right in your bag or pocket.

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Have you ever used Go Cards before? Where, or where would you like to go with Go Card?

Disclaimer: I was provided with Explorer Pass Go Cards from SmartDestinations for the purposes of this review, but all opinions are 100% my own.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Review: Travelon’s Compact Hanging Toiletry Kit

By now, you know I’m a bag lady. I love a good bag, including toiletry bags. Different trips call for different bags. You don’t need the same thing for a two-week trip as you do for a weekend getaway, so why have the same toiletry bag for all your trips? My answer is to have several of those as well. Travelon has come up with the perfect size toiletry bag for weekend getaways, which I was also able to pack for my week in Vegas. Luckily, as long as you have sunscreen and a little lip balm, you’re pretty set there.
travelon toiletry bag
The lovely little compact hanging toiletry kit has just enough space for all your basics. Between it and your 3-1-1 bag, you have more than enough room to take everything you need. So, how did I pack mine? Let’s check it out:

This toiletry kit unfolds to reveal three separate compartments and also includes the necessary hook to keep it off the counter and out of the way when you’re limited on space in a hotel room. The top section is a mesh zipper pocket that fits smaller items. Because I was going to Vegas, I used it to hold heartburn meds and vitamin B tablets. There was also room for some other items, so I slipped some bobby pins in, my eyeliners, lip balm, tweezers and mascara.

The middle section has three mesh pockets, which are perfect for your shower stuff if you aren’t taking a plane to your destination. Since I was, I used it for our deodorants and makeup – eye shadow, eye brightener, lid primer, concealer, mini kabuki brush and foundation powder.

The bottom section is the largest and has one big mesh pocket (I love the mesh pockets, because nothing can get stale and gross and it’s easier to clean if you have a spill). I packed two travel toothbrushes, two razors, solid shampoo and solid conditioner, a comb, and pop-out comb, blush and my makeup sponge. As you can see, quite a bit fits in here and you can probably get more in it if you’re only packing for yourself instead of two.

You’ll notice that many of the things I’ve packed are travel size or trial sizes. I hold on to those when I get them from my beauty purchases and save them for my trips. You’ll be surprised by how long some of those little sizes will last. Next time you order something or take a trip to the mall to replenish your beauty box, snag a small size of one of the products you use and you won’t have to make do with a replacement when you go on vacation. Of course, there are sometimes products I prefer on vacation to the ones I use at home, simply because they’re multipurpose or work better for the climate.

As you can see, I also have a Travelon 3-1-1 bag that is reusable and sturdier than a regular zip-top bag - here's a similar one that I also own

As you can see, this little toiletry bag is small on the outside, but big on the inside. It fit perfectly in my carry-on next to my packing cube and took up very little space, allowing me to bring other items I needed. If you don’t travel with much, you like separate toiletry bags for each travel or you go on a lot of short trips, you’ll definitely want to invest in one of these. At just $20, it certainly won’t break the bank, plus the water and stain resistant nylon will ensure spills stay inside your bag and wet counters won’t seep through and soak your stuff.

Other details
Where you can get it: On Travelon’s website or Amazon
Colors it comes in: Black | Berry | Aqua | Lime | Grey (shown)
How much it costs: $20.00
Other specs: 190T ripstop nylon, 8.5 x 5.5 x 2.25”

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Do you have different bags for different kinds of trips? 

Disclaimer: I was sent the Compact Hanging Toiletry Kit by Travelon for the purposes of this review, but all opinions are 100% my own.
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