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Saturday, January 28, 2017

Planning a Romantic Valentine's Staycation

Some of us either don’t have the money to take a romantic getaway or want to spend that extra cash that you could use for a larger vacation later. That doesn’t mean we don’t want to enjoy a Valentine’s Day that will impress and create lifetime memories. Believe it or not, some of the best things in life really are free or at least cheap. Show your significant other that you care by doing something a little out of the box and unexpected that won’t empty out your pockets.

Have a Picnic

If you happen to live in an area of the country where winter has decided to give up, it’s pretty easy to find a nice little spot to take a meal to, or even throw a blanket down in your backyard. If, like us in the Northwest, you have cold and usually rainy weather, you have to be a little more creative. Push the living room furniture out of the way, light a fire or put on a yule log video (this is streaming year-round on Netflix) and toss a blanket and some throw pillows on the floor.

Some fun ideas for picnic foods:
  • Salad in a glass, so you have individual portions and can personalize each salad easily.
  • Caprese salad on a stick. These are delicious, simple and fun to eat.
  • Lasagna is delicious, but messy. Make lasagna cupcakes. Bonus that you can feed them to each other!
  • A great baguette or loaf of garlic bread. If you both eat it, it won’t be so unromantic to breathe on each other.
  • Cheese, cracker, fruit and meat platter. It can be sexy to eat with your hands.
  • Fruit! Grapes, apple slices and even chocolate covered strawberries.
  • Pressed sandwiches that you can cut into bite-size slices.
  • A nice (inexpensive) bottle of wine, sparkling juice or fruit water you can make yourself by infusing your favorite fruit in a pretty bottle or carafe of water. Here's a fun and fruity drink to whip up for the two of you as well.
  • Hand pies or empanadas. Put whatever you want in them, from curry chicken to cheese and veggies. You can make them easier by using biscuits or croissants in a tube.
  • Have a tea party with a selection of tiny bites: sandwiches, scones, sweets and all your other favorite things.
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Make Your Own Drive-In

We love movies. For one of my husband’s birthdays, I purchased a Roku projector and outdoor screen so we could watch movies in our yard. You don’t have to spend hundreds of dollars on such a thing. In fact, you can turn your smartphone into a projector with a few items you probably have around your house. Use it inside with a sheet or do the same outside if it’s warm or you can snuggle up in the car and pretend you’re at a drive-in.

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Get It to Go

I am a big advocate for going out to dinner, but Valentine’s Day meals can be expensive and a lot of pressure. Get the experience you want by ordering a fancy dinner and bringing it home. You don’t have to dress up, you don’t have to see all those other couples and, if you get drunk, you don’t need to call a cab or an Uber. This is also nice, because you can skip paying for drinks and a big tip. (You'll want to dish everything out on real plates.) And if you want to make it extra special, here are 10 ways to set your table.

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Take a Drive

Sometimes it’s just nice to get out of the house. Pack a lunch and your camera, then jump in the car and drive around your city or to a nearby city or attraction (like a waterfall or historic district) and just take it all in. A nice little stroll along a romantic street or a riverbank can be relaxing and fun. Take photos of the two of you and your surroundings.

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Make S’mores

Got a firepit in your backyard (or not too afraid of flaming marshmallows in your fireplace)? Why not grab some sticks or fondue forks and spend a little time making an old favorite. Everyone likes a s’more, but you can also mix it up by using peanut butter, bananas or cookies. Feed each other your creations!

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Be a Kid Again

Valentine’s Day doesn’t have to be all about romance, as long as you enjoy yourself. Head to your local video arcade or laser tag arena and team up to beat the bad guys or rule a group of strangers at virtual war.

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Host Your Own Wine or Beer Tasting

You can do this as a couple or as a group. It’s quite a bit cheaper to purchase a selection of wine or beers and then try them out at home. You can break out your nice glasses and talk about the flavors and smells you detect. Not sure what to look for, there’s still time to order a book to help you through. Here’s one for beer and one for wine. Make sure you have some food to pair with it, because alcohol on an empty stomach is not a great idea. If you’d rather have an expert on-hand, lots of tasting rooms are open on Saturdays.

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Plan a Vacation

Not for Valentine’s Day, but for another time during the year. If you are planning to take a trip and you haven’t worked out the details yet, like we haven’t, this is a great time to sit down and find all the fun things you want to do, places you want to eat and visit and imagine all the fun you’ll have. If you don’t have a vacation planned, how about making a travel bucket list for the two of you (or your family). Post it somewhere you can see it every day so you have goals for your travel future. 

And if you need something to strive for, here are 6 ridiculously cheap cruises and tips on how to save when you think you don't have any money. Travel + Leisure even has 17 reasons to travel more and America's most romantic winter destinations.

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Critique Free Art

There are lots of places that have art and other kinds of museums that offer free admission. Maybe you have a park full of sculptures that you’ve never gone to before. Take your SO to view an art exhibit and talk about the art and your interpretations.

Do it for Less

I’m always going to tell you to use daily deal sites. GrouponLiving Social and others can save you at least 50% off dining out, experiences and spa services. Many times these won’t be valid on a holiday, but that just means you can use it before or after Valentine’s Day and use one of these other ideas. Look into spending the night elsewhere in your city, just for a change of scenery. Airbnb is a good resource and FlipKey has specials for as little as $48/night.

Want a little gift that means a lot? Check out these personalized bracelets from Soko. They're under $50 and 20% of each sale goes toward women's programming for artisans in Kenya.

You don’t have to spend a lot to have a great day with your loved one. Here are the 10 most budget cities in the U.S. Need more ideas? Check out my staycation Pinterest board.

What are some of your favorite free/cheap romantic activities?

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Review: Flint Retractable Lint Roller

I don't know about you, but as a dog owner, I often have hair on just about everything I own, even if I can't see it on lighter clothing. This means even if I pack straight out of the dryer, I somehow still find dog hair on things in my travel bag. 

lint roller

Last year, I started taking a lint roller with me, but the problem is they are sticky and you either have to pull off that first layer of tape before you can use it or pack it with lint and hair all over it and put it in a bag. Think Product Lab feels your pain and has created the perfect lint roller for travelers (and pretty much everyone else who keeps theirs in their junk drawer until they need it again). 

Flint is the fancy little lint roller that is self-contained until you need it, then you twist the bottom to open it, use it whatever you need, peel off the used sticky sheet, then retract it for when you need to use it again. I've used it a few times and I love it. I've already packed it for my next trip, where I'm not bringing too much, but made room for Flint.

It seems like the sticky sheets that come with Flint do a better job than other lint rollers I've used, but they don't peel off onto your clothing or furniture while you're trying to use it. Each roll comes with 30 sheets and, even though they're smaller than a traditional lint roll sheet, they pick up more and are easier to use. Usually, I have to roll back and forth 3 or 4 times to notice a difference, but Flint cut that in half, and only needed two swipes because I missed some hair on my first go. 

I have a rug in my guest bathroom that picks up hair like crazy. I can shake it out, but it still holds on to a lot. It's too thin to vacuum, so I use a lint roller to tidy it up. I've used 3-4 sheets to do an adequate job on it with a traditional roller, but Flint did half of it with just one. 

Bonus tip: Use your shoes as packing space. Flint fits right in there!

Keep it in your briefcase, your desk, your purse, your travel bag, you car. Anywhere you find you're in need of de-linting or de-hairing. The small size makes it perfect for everywhere you need it, plus it comes refills (and you can order more), so when you've used it up, you can just pop the empty cartridge off and pop a new one on. I don't even know if that's possible with your traditional roller. I usually just toss it in the recycling and buy a new one. Flint is going to save me a lot of money and I'll have a lot less waste. 

Check out one of my favorite cardigans. With a white dog, literally everything I own that's black is covered in hair in about two seconds, which is fine at home, but not great when I leave the house. I like people to know I have a dog, but not because they can see for themselves just by looking at me. So, this cardigan has enough hair to make a whole other dog on it. A few swipes and you can tell where I rolled and where I didn't. 

I tolerate the hair, because look at this face!

Once you try Flint, you're going to want several and extra refills for back-up. Not only that, but it's cute, so you won't even feel weird carrying it around. Choose from a variety of colors. I love this bright orange, because there's no way I can lose it in my bag, but there are more classic colors, other brights, and even a whole metallic collection. Your Flint can be a stylish addition to wherever you choose to keep it, making it a little more fun to do some extra clothing maintenance. 

More details:
Where can I buy it? At MeetFlint online
How much is it? $7.99 (classic) | $9.99 (metallic) | $3.00 per 2-pack refills
What colors does it come in? Pink | Light Blue | Green | Navy | Yellow (shown) | Black | Silver | Slate Gray | Copper | Cool Mint | Gold | Rose Gold
Other specs: Paper is sourced from Japan, each refill comes with 30 sheets, refill cores are totally recyclable, to extend, just twist like lip balm!

Think Flint is awesome? Follow along with Think Product Lab on social media: 

Are you ready to stop carrying your pets along with you on your clothing?

Disclaimer: I was provided with a Flint roller and refill for the purposes of this review, but all opinions are 100% my own.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Let's Go Outside

Okay, so with winter seemingly never ending here in Portland. We're on snow day #6 off work and school, due to a foot of snow that won't leave and roads covered in 2-3 inches of ice. Today we're getting freezing rain and maybe even more snow, so we're all getting a little stir crazy and are trying to find out if there's something like a sun dance we can do to summon some rays. Even I'm starting to think that hiking when the weather is nicer sounds like a good plan, and I'm not really that outdoorsy.

Glacier National Park

The upside is that we're staying warm, I can watch the birds picking through the snow and the seeds and other goodies I put out to help them while the ground is frozen, I'm getting more work done at home than normal, and we're working our way through our DVR and Netflix lists at a more rapid pace than usual. 

So, in preparation for the warmer temps, or for those of you who don't care how cold it is or how much snow is on the ground, let's talk about how you can get out and explore your national parks this year for absolutely free. Each year, the U.S. National Park Services open their gates to everyone and waive the daily entry fee to make getting outside cheaper and more fun.

Glacier National Park

If you're an avid outdoors lover, then you may already have an annual pass, because you want to explore all the things. If you're like me, you only go to the parks when you're on a road trip, so you can't see the value of spending almost $10 (for the record, it's just $80) for the year when you only spend maybe 3 days at a National Park. For you, save some money and plan your trips around these free days. The parks maybe be more crowded, but that can be part of the fun. Unfortunately, more people may mean fewer glimpses of wildlife, but it really depends on the park. 

Pack your cooler with some delicious foods, a blanket, and throw some clothes in an overnight bag if you plan to make a getaway of it (because, sometimes you aren't that close to a National Park), because getting outside just got easier:

Glacier National Park

Monday, January 16 (Martin Luther King Jr. Day) - I know you missed it this year, but you can plan for next year now!

Monday, February 20 (Presidents Day)
Saturday and Sunday, April 15-16 and 22-23 (Weekends of National Park Week)
Friday, August 25 (National Park Service Birthday)
Saturday, September 30 (National Public Lands Day)
Saturday and Sunday, November 11-12 (Veterans Day Weekend)

Glacier National Park

Save some money on your pass

Did you know that seniors (age 62 and over) can buy a lifetime pass to the parks for just $10? Now that's a fantastic deal! Want to get a cheaper pass? Well, you might be able to. U.S. Military and permanently disabled citizens can get an annual pass for free. If you have a child in the fourth grade, with the Every Kid in a Park initiative, your whole family is eligible for a free pass. 

Split the pass with a friend and add $40 to your pass cost. Each pass can have two people as owner on it (and they don't need to be related), so if you have a a friend or family member who also wants to go to the parks, but doesn't necessarily want to spend full price, add both  your names to the annual pass and split the cost. You'll each pay just $60 that way and will only have to work out who gets it when (or go together). This is great for families, because the NPS has a lot of offer for kids, not least of which is the Junior Ranger program, where kids engage in different educational activities at each park and receive a stamp in their parks passports and often a badge for completing each one. 

Bryce Canyon

When to skip a pass

If you only plan on visiting during the above times or you plan to visit the smaller parks that don't charge a fee. For the record, there's almost 300 of them. Here is the list of 120 parks that charge admission that you can get into free on fee free days.

Visit Canada

Canada has National Parks of its own, and they were established before the U.S. NPS. With tons of open spaces, it's a great place to head to get outdoors, plus they also have fee-free days at all 46 parks across the country. This year, this has been extended to every day of the year to celebrate 150 years of independence. Go online to get your free pass now for 2017.

Now that you have some options, all you need to do is plan your trips, find some awesome hiking boots/shoes, charge your camera and get out there. 

What's your favorite national park and why do you love it?

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

5 Ways to Stay Healthy While Traveling

Travel can really take a lot out of you. Between the dry airplane air, the change in climates, different foods and much more exposure to foreign germs, it's almost a miracle if you don't get sick, or at least run down. When I travel, I try hard to offset many of these things with healthier habits than I have at home (which I really should be doing then too).

healthy travel tips

Here are 5 ways I try to stay in shape, stay healthy, and get the most out of my travel experiences:

I don't walk too much at home, but that's because I have places to be and have a car. I also know where things are and have explored a lot of them. On vacation, even when I have a car, I want to see things, so I walk as much as possible. The best way to see a city is by getting out and taking it slow and viewing the place like a local. Get off the main streets and find the hidden gem.

Walking also helps burn those extra calories you've been eating when you go out for practically every meal. At home, most of your meals are probably made at home.

Take the stairs
For added fat-burning and exercise, I take the stairs whenever possible. Of course, there are a lot more when traveling to, sat, Europe. There are stairs in the Metro. There are stairs in all the museums. There are stairs to get to the best viewpoints. It helps that you rarely have options besides to climb them or miss out entirely (unless you are handicapped in a way that means an elevator is a necessity).

Make sure you find some great walking shoes and break them in before leaving home or you could face the saddest or angriest feet ever. Hobbling does not make for fun sightseeing, I assure you.

Skip dessert
I'm the first person who wants to try everything on a menu when I'm out to eat, but even I restrain myself. Between sharing a plate with Eric, or someone else I might be tracing with, and saying no to dessert for a lot of meals, my pants don't get too tight by the time I go back home.

Dessert, while delicious, packs a lot of extra fat, sugar and calories that you don't need. I try to remember that I hardly ever eaten dessert at home, so I shouldn't go hog wild when I'm on vacation. I try to save my sweet tooth for menus that have something very unusual or incredibly hard to pass up. As you know, I often plan days around food options and look for places that other travelers say I shouldn't miss.

Eat veggies
You can't always eat right on vacation, and you'll probably find a lot of fried foods wherever you go, so you'll need to make a concerted effort to get fruits and vegetables in as often as possible.

One way I do this is by purchasing bananas and other fruits to eat in the mornings before I head out. Another way I do it is by ordering a vegetarian or vegan options every once in a while when I'm out. You might want to indulge in a salad or order double veggies instead of a starch. Just make sure you get those good foods in where you can.

The extra antioxidants can keep your immune system in working order and you can avoid getting sick.

Go swim
Eric almost always has a pair of swim trunks in the suitcase. If the weather is warm enough for swimming, he indulged in pool time whenever possible. I'm not much for swimming, but if you are, then this can be a great workout for you. If, like me, you aren't, then maybe a trip to the hotel gym is more in order.

If you don't have these choices or it's too cold, here are 5 exercises you can do in your hotel room:
  1. Step-ups - All you need is a chair or your hard-shell carry-on for these. Do 20-30 step-ups per foot. These help your quads, calves and butt muscles. They also can help your thighs. The higher the step, the more you'll get out of it.
  2. Chair push ups - Again, a chair is all you need for these. Stan in front of or behind a chair and use the back or arms to put your hands on and do push-ups. You can also stand facing away from the chair and put your hands on the seat to lower yourself as far as you can go and then push up to work your shoulders and upper arms.
  3. Jump rope - A jump rope is an easy thing to pack, even if you bring a weighted on like I use. If you have a patio or balcony or are on the ground floor, this works a lot better and won't annoy your neighbors.
  4. Resistance bands - Another easy-to-pack item, you can do core strength exercises and also work your arms and legs in a smallish space.
  5. Lunges - Simple to everywhere, lunges take a minimum of space and can even be done in the hotel hallway if need be.
No matter where you go or what equipment you have or don't have, you can stay healthy, in shape and feel good about yourself when you get home.

Don't forget to drink plenty of water to stay hydrated. I recommend carrying a reusable bottle with you so you can save money and never have an excuse to be without liquids.

What's your favorite way to stay healthy while you travel?

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Christmastime at Disney (Part 2)

In my last post, I told you all about The Festival of Holidays at Disney's California Adventure. We spent quite a bit more time there than we did at Disneyland this trip and wasn't sorry a bit. I think the additions to the park have really made it more of a Disney experience. I remember when it first opened and after half a day, you'd already done everything...twice. Well, Disneyland doesn't skimp on the holiday magic either. You'll find decorations everywhere and fun twists on classic rides.

Christmas at Disneyland

Disney knows how to do Christmastime. They just do. Everything is decked out and the fancy parade is amazing. I even didn't want to kill myself over the short, repetitive Christmas Fantasy song that played for 45 minutes straight. Look at those adorable snowmen! More on that in a bit.

No trip to Disney is complete without a few treats. Even if we don't get any, I still love to press my nose up against the glass cases in the shops to admire things like these candy apples. They're all wintery and beautiful. Now, I find it incredibly difficult to eat one of those at the best of times, so I passed and we went with more traditional picks of a chocolate covered strawberry and a chocolate-dipped pineapple wedge. I mean, yum! Of course, there was also the obligatory Mickey ice cream bar and churro in there during the week too. 

I know people have mixed feelings about It's a Small World, but not me. I love it. I love the song. I love the little dancing people. I love the cheese factor. I love the boats. At Christmas, they make it even more amazing. You get a new song and incredible Christmas decorations in every room.  

The end where they turn everything one color to signify that we are all one people is claims Peace on Earth and Happy New Year. It's fantastic. Even if you aren't a fan, you should really waste 15 minutes of your day on the journey inside during the holidays.

Obviously, the castle is the main focal point of the park. It's the hub where everything offshoots from and it's dripping in white lights and garlands. Don't forget to take a trip inside either. The story of Sleeping Beauty if wonderfully done, if not a bit dark in the middle. 

A little girl got scared and hid behind me and I felt a little bad for her, because you've got to be pretty scared to grab a stranger for protection. It's possible that she mistook me for her mom, as we had a similar coat on and were the same height. Either way, if you have littles that are easily scared, maybe save that for when they are older.

There's plenty of other great things to see outside the castle. New Orleans Square has balconies overflowing with garlands and ornaments and beads. There are some great performers as well. 

We ate lunch there and were able to indulge in a plate of special Mickey beignets dusted in peppermint powdered sugar after our meal. They were a lot, but definitely yummy.

Even Critter Country gets in on the holiday feel. There was a Santa meet and greet in Pooh Corner that we decided was something we must do. We actually did this Santa photo op before the one at California Adventure, and actually waited much longer, but the wait was worth it, because check out this rustic tree decorated by Pooh and all his friends. The star on top is made of carrots!  

Pooh and Piglet even made their own snowmen (snowbear? snowpig?). So cute, right? The critters all left presents for Santa and the garlands and swags all had the cutest ornaments covered in honey. Ah, the details.

This Santa was adorable and even stood up to get us a better pic. 

One of the things I've been upset about over the years is that I have never gotten to ride the Jingle Cruise. That's the Jungle Cruise, but holidayed up. This, apparently, was not happening the last time we visited for Christmas, but now it's back and it's so fun.

This is another ride that's a must on my list, whether it's Jingle or Jungle. I love the bad jokes and enjoy the differences each "captain" puts into it. During the holidays, they claim that their Christmas decorations were lost and fell out of the plane before it reached the dock. Turns out, it was scattered all over the jungle, giving the animals a bit of Christmas fun.

The hippos all have pineapple upside down cakes floating in their water. Garlands and bows and more have made it to all the animals, including these snowmen and reindeer. The jokes happen to go along with the decor and are just as bad, but just as hilarious (in our opinion). 

The Haunted Mansion has been taken over by Jack Skellington for quite some time, but if you haven't visited, you definitely need to. It changes over during Halloween and the outside and the inside are extensively changed, so much that I wonder how many people it takes to accomplish it. It's almost like a whole new ride. This year, Sally was added to the Mansion, which was a fun little find. 

Because Jack has takenover as Sandy Claws, there are 0 days until Christmas, even though there were still a few days to go until actual Christmas. The decor on the outside is amazing and I took way too many pictures. My favorite is probably the giant garlands, but the Christmas equation that Jack writes to become Sandy Claws and pull off the holiday is quite a lot of fun. 

Inside, the banquet scene has been changed to include Zero helping to decorate the enormous Christmas tree and gingerbread smells permeate the passage to bring your attention to the lovely gingerbread house on the table. You have to go through several times to catch it all. You meet Boogie Oogie on the way out and Lock, Shock and barrel give everyone a "gift" before you leave. There's even a different song to be sung, which is seriously fun, even if you adore Grim, Grinning Ghosts.

Here are a few more pics from the decor at California Adventure. This is a nautical wreath at Pacific Wharf.  

Here we are with the Little Mermaid tree at Ariel's Grotto before dinner. I'm not sure the fixed price menu for reserved "seating" at World of Color was quite worth it, but it was pretty good, the service was excellent, and it probably would have been better had we asked to be sat inside where it was much warmer than outside on the dock under a heater when the cold wind was blowing. 

Okay, so let's take a look at more of the fun of the Christmas Fantasy Parade. Anything Christmassy you can imagine was in this parade, including at least three giant Christmas tree floats. The people next to us must have really loved the parade, because they had seen it at least once before.

Between floats and dancers and "skiers" and all the Disney classic characteers and royalty, there was not much left to be desired. I did wish they had thought to add Moana to it, but perhaps there wasn't enough time for that. I also missed Aladdin and Jasmine, but what are you gonna do?
Aladdin and Jasmine were also absent from the nighttime parade, Paint the Night. The rest was fantastic and it was very colorful. I was happy to see a lot more of the lesser known princesses though, like Tiana (above) and Pocahontas in another live show. 

There is normally a fabulous fireworks and castle show, but it was too windy the whole time we were there, so we didn't get any the whole week. Bummer, but there were so many other things to engage you, that it was hard to be too disappointed. The only thing that really bothered me this trip was that the lines for Disney seemed to be really disorganized. 

With the addition of FASTPASS lines (both to get your pass and to get on the rides), it was often confusing where you needed to enter if you had one or didn't. There didn't appear to be enough cast members to direct you, especially when the FP line was in a totally different place than the normal line. The system itself was pretty flawless, assuming you could get one before they ran out for the day. This only seemed to be a problem with Radiator Springs Racers, Tower of Terror (because it was in the last days) and Haunted Mansion.

All in all, our holiday visit was much better and more fun than our last visit in 2008. I hope we'll make more of an effort to get back during the holidays in the future. Make sure you hit the parks before the first day of the Christmas break for school kids.

What's your favorite place to visit during the holidays?

Disclaimer: Part of my visit was comped for the purposes of this post, but all opinions are 100% my own and this trip would have happened regardless.
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