Life Hack: The Work-cation

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Today's post comes from Kosmo. It doesn't look like it, but I'm working on a lot of things behind the scenes. (Most of them releated to digging through the mountain of email.) I've got about a half dozen articles partially written, but 70% cooked pork is as useful as 0% cooked pork. (I just made that up, sorry if it's terrible. I have pig on my mind for reasons I'll get into next week.)

Before I hand you over to Kosmo's article, I wanted to pass one rare deal along: Amazon Prime is $20 off today. It's almost never at a discount and I expect Amazon to raise rates within the next year.

I am an employee for a large financial services company.  Although my role is based out of corporate headquarters, I have the good fortune to work from my home.  Because of this, I typically travel a few times a year to headquarters, mostly for "face time" with management.

The trips are typically very predictable.  I lived in that city for about five years, so I still do have many friends there.  After work, I typically meet with a different group of friends every day.  Naturally, I always find time to eat at my favorite pizza place in the world (shout out to Monical's Pizza!)  Then I'd jump into my trusty Hyundai Elantra and go back to my family.

This time was different.  The company was creating a large presence in a few areas.  My group was placing some people in Phoenix and hiring other to supplement the team.  At the same time, I was moving into a new role that required a broader focus.  I would be taking a trip to meeting the team and learn from them.  But this trip was not going to be all work - it was Phoenix in November, and I was going to take advantage of that.

The result was some low-cost entertainment in the midst of a busy workweek.  Twenty meetings in four days, with an insane amount to learn - but a fair amount of free time after work.

Sunday - Flew out of Cedar Rapids and into Mesa.  It hard to beat these two airports for efficiency.  Although I'm a cautious traveler and always heed the "two hours before departure" advice, I was at my gate with 90+ minutes to spare.  I breezed through security in two minutes.  The guy next to me switches seats so that he can get an aisle seat, so I have both seats to myself for the three hour flight.  I grab my tablet and watch Ex Machina and half of Jaws.  It was a relaxing flight.

[Editor's Note: Hit me up on how Ex Machina was. It has been on my "to watch" list for some time.]

Thirty minutes after landing in Mesa, I was out of the airport.  Mesa is a smaller airport; Phoenix Sky Harbor is the main airport in the metro area.  Yes, in thirty minutes I had deplaned, grabbed my luggage, picked up my rental car, and walked the few hundred feet to the car.  I had a plan and was immediately headed toward South Mountain Park - the hotel could wait.  After some time in the mountains, I headed back to the hotel.  After checking in, I headed out in search of our office building, so that I'd be able to find it on Monday.  With my recon complete, I capped off the day with a trip to Waffle House - the first time I had ever been to one.  Small restaurant, with maybe ten tables.  The employees were having a good time, which helped keep me in a good mood.


Leisure: Trip to the mountains.  Cost: free.

Monday - Monday started bright and early.  There were a couple of reasons for this.  One reason was to keep my body on a somewhat regular schedule.  I had actually gained two hours on Sunday - one hour turning back the clocks and one hour flying west.  I gave back one of the hours on Monday by starting the day at 6:15 instead of 7:30.  The second reason was that I could leave earlier than usually.  Shortly after 3:00, I was on the road.

I planned visit the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, but it was closed.  I had some time to kill, so I wandered around Scottsdale for a while.  I popped into a coin shop and bought a couple of non-descript New Zealand coins (it's a long story, but I'm a fan of New Zealand cricket, despite being born in rural America).

Then it was time to head to the game.  Arizona is home to the Arizona Fall League.  This has been described as a "finishing school" for top prospects.  These are guys who are very close to making it to the major and just need to refine their tools a bit.  Also, this year, there was a raw prospect who didn't really belong at this stage of his career - Tim Tebow.


I was one of the few people in line who didn't have a backpack full of stuff to be autographed.  With so many elite prospects, the AFL is a draw for autograph hounds.  I don't mind an occasional autograph, but I was here for the experience.  I planned to meet an acquaintance at the game, but he had to cancel - but the show must go on.

I grabbed a brat, popcorn, and a bottled water from the concession stand.  This would all be reimbursed by my employer, since it was a meal during a business trip.  This was a stadium built for Spring Training, with a capacity of 10,000+.  The AFL is a much smaller draw - due to Tebow's presence, attendance would crack 1000.  I settled into my seat in the third row, dead center behind home plate.  My absolute favorite spot to catch a game.  I was the only person in the entire section who wasn't packing a gun.  Uh, a radar gun - they were all scouts.

The guy next to me was a former GM (who will remain nameless for the sake of his privacy).  He spent most of the game reciting Tebow's football bio to those around him.  He seemed like a nice guy, though - he was very accommodating to someone who requested an autograph.

I shots lots of photos during the game.  Naturally, Tim Tebow - who had looked downright dreadful all night - nicked a game winning single off the third base bag to win the game in the bottom of the ninth.

Leisure: Baseball game: $8.  Two New Zealand coins: $6.

Tuesday: Another early start to the day and a mind-numbing seven meetings during the day.  It was election day, so I spent most of the night in the hotel room, glued to the coverage.  I had the TV, a laptop, and tablet, and two iPhones - so I was following along as much as humanly possible, while also plotting various "what if" scenarios.  After my wife had gone to sleep (she was an hour ahead) - but with the election still in doubt - I ducked out to Denny's for dinner.  I had the appetizer combo of mozzarella sticks, chicken tenders, and chips and queso.  It was probably the highlight of the day.

Wednesday: Never satisfied to stand pat, I topped Tuesday's count with a total of eight meetings on Wednesday.  At the end of the day, my brain was begging for a break.  Where to go?  To the mountains again.

I headed off the Camelback Mountain.  There are two trails to the top, and I pick the Echo Canyon trail.  About ten minutes into the hike, I realize that this was going to be a bit of a challenge.  I later found out that the trail was rated as "extremely strenuous and difficult", gaining 1200 feet of elevation over the 1.2 miles of the trail.  However, for a 40-something with a desk job, it was just the challenge I needed.  When I finished, I got back into the car, went back into the hotel, and rested my aching body.  Later, I was back at Denny's for mozzarella sticks and chicken tenders (I know, very boring - but the location was very convenient).

Leisure: hiking.  Cost: free.


Thursday: Another early day in the office.  Then a hike up the butte that overlooks Sun Devil stadium.  Then I walked back in the office to do a head count.  It was about 6:00, and whenever I'm visiting an office I generally swing by in the evening once, just to see who is working late.  One of the team members is there.  I mention that I'm going to the game, and he decides to buy a ticket at the last minute.  He's from India, so his native sport is cricket - but he's a fan of football these days and he has been to college football games in the past.

It's going to be a very long night, so I change into a fresh pair of clothes and head to the game.  The stadium is literally across the street from my office's paring garage - very convenient.  My seat is literally five rows from the top of the stadium - more hiking.  My colleague from the office joins me during the first quarter.  Arizona State takes an early lead over nationally ranked Utah, but Utah's *22* tackles for loss in the game (11 sacks) causes ASU's offense to eventually sputter.  I need to leave the game early in the 4th quarter - I have a plane to catch.


(That's one of several fireworks-bedazzled paratroopers at the game.)

I arrive at Sky Harbor Airport around 11:20 PM.  The Hertz drop-off location is dead.  I take the shuttle to the terminal check my bag, and again clear security within a couple of minutes.  It's obvious that the line is much longer during peak hours, but only a crazy person would take a 1:45 AM flight halfway across the country (not to mention a connecting flight after that).

Leisure: NCAA football game.  Cost: $20.

At 10 AM Friday morning, I arrive at home.  I fall into bed and sleep until it's time to pick up the kids.  My wife arrives home from work and we shift back into normal family life.  It's been a long week - but I've worked hard and played hard.

What's the lesson?  Don't get stuck in the same old routine when traveling for business.  If you find yourself in a new place, try to find some time to enjoy it.

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Posted on November 18, 2016.

Dream: Traveling The United States

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I hope everyone is having a good long weekend. Personally, I'm planning on grilling hamburgers and hot dogs and watching baseball. Baseball season is in full swing and my favorite team, the Boston Red Sox, is off to a great start.

Every year around this time, I'm reminded of my dream to take a few weeks off and travel around the United States visiting as many baseball stadiums as possible. I'm not a big on geography, but it seems like from Ohio you can get to a number of stadiums.

I had hoped to do the road trip with a friend in my early 20's, but we could never work it out. Now that we've each gotten married and started families it's much harder. So rather than do it with my friend, I'm thinking about doing it with my family.

It's tempting to say, "Hey, you've had the dream for nearly 20 years, make it happen!", but my boys are aged 2 and 3. They simply don't enjoy baseball, yet. (I'm hoping that "yet" is a appropriate and that it is just a matter of time.) However, maybe when they are 10 and 11 it will make more sense.

One thing I've been thinking about is how would I travel the United States on such a trip?

Here are a few options that have bounced around my head:

  • SUV and Hotels - Last year we drove to Pennsylvania, but stopped in New Jersey and stayed at a hotel there. If we plan the trip well, we could do the same at each stop. I'm not sure how expensive it would be. It would vary greatly on what kind of hotel we'd get. This could work if we planned something that was just a couple of weeks. However, if it went on longer, hotel prices for a month could get pricey.
  • Recreational Vehicle (RVs) - I've had some blogger friends get RVs and travel the United States for a long time. This would be an option if we decided to go for something like the whole summer.
  • Trailer - I'll start off by saying that I'm not the camping type and I'm not sure if this is even feasible. However, maybe we could hitch a trailer to our SUV. We'd put everything we'd need inside and camp out of that. (I learned the other day that in Europe and Australia they are called caravans.)

One Final Opportunity (or Obstacle?)

We live in a resort town where the population in the summer seems to triple with all the tourism. The prices for people willing to rent their houses out are crazy. We'd probably be able to get $5000 a month. If we were to travel for an extended period of time, it might make sense to put everything in storage.

On the other hand, the idea of putting all the stuff in my house in storage is very, very daunting. If not for that problem, it would be a no-brainer way to finance our trip (and probably make extra money).

I guess I have 7 or 8 years to figure it out, right?

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Posted on May 27, 2016.

When a Staycation Fails…

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If you emailed me last week, you would have gotten an away message. The previous week I worked to get a few articles written so that I could have a little staycation with some friends. They were traveling from California and wanted to get a little taste of New England before heading to Europe. (It's a grand vacation that I can't even fathom.)

On Monday, I showed them the sights around my area. One of the great things about New England is that there is history wherever you are. We had a great day and capped off with a dinner that was both very exquisite and very expensive.

On Tuesday, things went in a different direction. When you grow up in Massachusetts, you learn of this place called Martha's Vineyard. It's an island off the coast of Cape Cod where the rich people go to play on summer weekends. (My friends thought it was a vineyard owned by Martha Stewart.) It's Massachusetts' version of The Hamptons. Last year ABC Family had a television "docusoap" called The Vineyard which gave it a little fame nationwide.

I've always wanted to go and see what it is like. Our friends thought it sounded interesting and very different from California, so we put our cars on the ferry and went to Martha's Vineyard. As you may have gathered by now, it wasn't nearly as interesting as I thought it would be. Our friends from California thought it was great and appreciated the different New England architecture and feel. My wife and I were thinking, this really isn't any different than many places on Cape Cod, Rhode Island or Maine. The beaches and lighthouses look the same.

We had lunch at the famous Black Dog restaurant, which was a little like a Hard Rock Cafe, without the memorabilia. Their clothing line is more famous than their food. And I think the clothing line is famous because of the status of Martha's Vineyard. The food wasn't anything special.

On Wednesday, we went to the aforementioned Hamptons. Over the years, I had tried to go to the Hamptons a few times. The operative word is "tried." I had failed every time. Like Martha's Vineyard, the Hamptons is known for being popular on the weekends. This popularity makes it a mess of traffic. It can hours to go just a few miles.

I had never tried to go there from Massachusetts, we had always went from visiting a friend in New York. For some reason, I didn't realize it was a lot farther from Massachusetts. We let our friends from California plan the trip figuring that they could choose the most interesting places for them, because they might never be back.

Turns out that we needed to take three ferries to get to destination. After the four hour trip we arrived at lunch. The only problem is that every restaurant shuts down on the Hamptons on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Their busy days are the weekends including those who extend their weekend to Monday.

Except for the restaurant closures, the Hamptons was really no different than Martha's Vineyard or the other places in Rhode Island, Maine, and Cape Cod.

I should have done more research on how far the destination was. I can now say from experience, you do not want to two kids under 22 months spending 80% of a 14 hour day in a car seat unable to see out of the car.

I think the Hamptons and Martha's Vineyard may be better if we knew people who lived there. Maybe next time we should crash a Christie Brinkley or a James Taylor party?

At the end of the week, I've come to realize that I have a greater appreciation for my friends that were visiting. I also came away with an appreciation of the attractions near my home. Sometimes vacation spots are just over-hyped. I learned a valuable lesson to be more involved in the planning of a vacation and not just presume that it will work itself out. Fortunately, even with the pricey ferries, the vacation wasn't that expensive.

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Posted on June 16, 2014.

Marriott Vacation Club: Scam or Not?

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On Friday of last week, I went into detail about the decision that brought a timeshare into our lives.

I had noted that in 2000 when I first looked into a Marriott Aruba timeshare it was around $14,000. In late 2004, it was $19,000.

This lead me to conclude, these things only go up and up. My future wife bought in at the $19,000 price.

So when my wife and I were on our Maui vacation, we decided to take in a timeshare presentation to see what they had to show now. For this we were compensated with $95 in gift certificates that we could use at the hotel. I'll get into more of the pitch later, but they told us something interesting...

... our timeshare's value was $33,640

Considering that until about 6 months ago the performance of the stock market from 2004 was flat, this is a pretty fantastic gain, right? Of course!

So the value of these timeshares always go up. Measured from the my $14,000 estimate it cost in 2000, it has gone up 11.7%. Measured from 2004, it was 11%.

Did I find an investment that goes up 11% long term (okay 12 years), even despite recessions?

Perhaps not so much. Let's dig deeper...

Marriott's Destination Club Points

A couple of years ago, Marriott got a fantastic idea to make timeshare ownership more confusing. They put all the properties in a trust and create a point system. Every location and type of room would have a point value associated with it. Our 1-week, 2-bedroom timeshare at the Aruba Surf Club was valued as being worth 3075 points. Those that join this point system (and own the property that we do) can use those 3075 points in various ways. It might buy 4-weeks in Kansas (if Marriott had a timeshare there) as the points at the mythical place would likely be cheap. Those points could be traded for a 3-day stay in Maui as the resort we stayed at cost 7000 points a week. (No offense Marriott in Maui, but your accomidations should be valued at 20% less than Aruba, not over a 100% more.)

If you've followed me thus far, let's go a little further. If you owned somewhere else and wanted to trade for the same timeshare that we own through this point system, you'd have to give up 3,500 points. The difference between the 3,075 points that Marriott is awarding us and the 3,500 that they'll charge other people seems to be called the "skim" in timeshare lingo. In my view that 425 points per 3075 points (a 13.8% margin) is a rather large "skim." However, I've read about others which seem to be as high as 25%. You can review the prices of what Marriott charges here (PDF) (i.e. the 3,500) number. Getting the value of what you previously owned is a little more difficult. Fortunately, this person has compiled a pretty good list. This gives you the 3,075 number for existing owners that Marriott doesn't publicize too much.

With the Destination Club Points system, Marriott has decided to do away with selling weeks at a timeshare. You can only points. You want to stay at the 2-bedroom timeshare at the Aruba Surf Club for a week like we can? That's going to cost you 3,500 points (see above), so you have to buy 3,500 points.

How much does a point cost? It has changed over time. Marriott doesn't seem to post the point history, but in looking through various forums, I think I've comprised some decent data:

  • 8/26/2010 - the price per point was $9.20 (Source)
  • 3/19/2011 - the price per point was $10.22 (Source)
  • 2/15/2012 - the price per point was $10.94 (I'm reporting this first-hand from my own presenation.)

When we went into the timeshare presentation there was a handy graph showing these price changes, specifically pointing out that prices have gone up 19% since they've switched over to the point system (which is roughly 18 months ago).

The implied message was clear. If you want in, you better buy now, because with the way prices are going up you'll just pay more later. The salesman was even more direct saying (paraphrased) "If you are ever thinking of expanding your Marriott ownership, the time is now."

It occurred to me that the price per point is whatever Marriott wants to make it. They set it at whatever they want and it seems like it is calculated to increase around 11% per year. What's really interesting to me though, is how Marriott is able to continue to raise prices consistently and still make sales. Perhaps people are buying in with the belief that it an appreciating investment.

It seems to be an appreciating investment only in the minds of Marriott. If you do an search for Marriott Timeshares in Aruba on Ebay, there are a number of places listed for around $8,000 to $10,000. That's quite a gap from the $33,640 that our place is supposedly worth. It seems to be a gap that is only wider and wider.

I know I'm liberal with my use of the word "scam" especially with the MLMs that I occasionally write about. However, this does seem to be a scam by definition, right?

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Posted on February 29, 2012.

Financial Thoughts on a Maui Vacation

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This past week my wife and took a vacation for the first time in over a year. Most years we'll use our timeshare in Aruba. However, we decided to take advantage of living on the left coast and opted for Maui instead. When we move back to the East Coast, it is unlikely we'll opt for the ten hour flight with our beloved Aruba so close.

General Maui impressions

We are very spoiled by Aruba, which made for stiff competition for Maui. To start with, we thought that our hotel, the Marriott Ocean Club in Kaapanili-Lahaina was in the city of Lahaina and didn't require a car. Turns out, it was 4 miles from Lahaina, so we were a little isolated on a resort row. We tried to rent a car, but every place was sold out due to a cruise ship. Chalk it up to poor planning.

The lack of a car meant that we couldn't execute one of our best tactics of saving money - picking up groceries for the week. This is especially handy for those big drinkers as cocktails will run you $7 a pop, but everyone just makes their own paso-guava rum drinks in pitcher to bring by the pool. We didn't drink much, so this didn't really become a factor. I'm sure others saved hundreds from making their own drinks.

The most noticeable thing about Maui is that it is expensive. It might even be more expensive than New York City living. If you think about it nearly everything on the island has to be imported thousands of miles. To give you and idea the gas prices were $4.50 and up. This surely had a domino effect on the prices of other things on the island. McDonalds "Dollar Menu" didn't exist and instead the cheapest items were a couple of dollars. Subway's $5 footlongs were replaced with $6 Basics. Any tourist trips like snorkeling were $100. In fact, the woman at guest services said that everything revolved around that $100 number.

The Land of Bait and Switch

When everything is expensive it is natural to look for discounts. There were no shortage of what appeared to be "deals." We thought that we had found a reasonable bargain at a place named Boss Frog's. They were offering a $50 snorkel cruise. When we went to sign up they said we'd just have to sit through a 90-minute timeshare presentation. Funny, they omitted that from their price list.

We decided to plod on with what brought us into Boss Frog's in the first place - the two large signs offering $1.50 snorkel set rentals. The salesman explained that we might feel it is a bait and switch, but the sign was 40 years old. Rest assured though, they had a $1.50 snorkel set to rent... it was just from the 1970s. If you had wanted one with technology such as silicone you'd have to pay for the $5 ones. He tried to upsell us on a $8 one, but we really didn't need the advanced snorkel technology.

Saving Money in Maui

We did find a few bargains in Maui.

One of our favorites was Nikki's Pizza. You could get a lot of food for around $5-7 dollars. They had everything from local cuisine to cheesesteaks to Greek dishes and of course pizza. It is in a food court, so don't expect too much - just great food. It's a small business that has been around for 20 years and earns my admiration as well as my business.

Another big bargain was Aloha Mixed Plate. For $10 you got a plate with chicken, steak, and fish with some white rice and macaroni salad. This was a traditional lunch meal for plantation workers because it was fast (and cheaper). Of course the downside was the lack of fruits and vegetables. You could substitute a salad for $1.50.. The catch is that you had to be okay with eating on a paper plate. It was a small sacrifice for water-front dining - especially during sunset.

We found that like Aloha Mixed Plate, CJ's Diner, is a good place for dinner at around $12 a plate. The menu was quite extensive. I couldn't really decide so I got the mixed BBQ plate, a combination of ribs, chicken, and fish with a couple of sides. At the risk of offending some vegetarians out there, I have to admit that I liked the three meats one one plate.

For breakfast we were able to turn one breakfast at our resort into a meal for the two of us. The Marriotts' Beachwalk take-out cafe had an "All-American" which was three eggs, potatoes, sausage, toast, and a little pineapple. For around $11 we had a good start to our day. (We also bought some bagels which was an economic breakfast for much of the vacation).

And that the end of the bargains of what we found in Maui. We didn't do too much exploring. That wasn't what we were really looking for in a vacation.

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Hawaii, Vacation

Posted on February 22, 2012.

How to Waste $55 in Washington D.C. (Hint: Take a Bus Tour)

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I had never been to Washington D.C. Recently my wife had the opportunity to go for work and I figured this was a good opportunity for me to see the sights. She was able to get a couple of days off of work and on her first day she suggested we go on a bus tour. We decided to go with GrayLine DC - and their DC in a Day Tour - at $55 per person. As you can tell from the title it was a big mistake. (Note: In the title, I'm assuming that the person reading this is one person and thus isn't spending the $110 we did.)

Let me take you through the day in a series of bullet points:

  1. Capitol Building - The bus drops us off at the Capitol building at 9:00 and says he'll be back to pick us up at 11:00AM. For obvious security reasons the bus can't park that close to the Capitol. Our group walks around to the building and we find that it closed to the public today for a special ceremony. So we now have 2 hours with no way to contact our bus driver to see something else. (Note to tour guides: If you aren't going to be with the group, leave your cell phone number behind so that people can reach you. Also get everyone in the tours cell phone so if they are late to the meeting spot they can be reminded). Fortunately the Library of Congress and the Supreme Court are behind the Capitol, so we head there. The Library of Congress had an interesting exhibit about Herb Block. It also had a lot of information on the Declaration of Independence and other notable historical documents. It was somewhat interesting and may have been better than Capitol. I couldn't tell you since I didn't see the Capitol. The Supreme Court was pretty boring with not much to see or do.
  2. White House Visitor Center - The next stop was the White House Visitor Center. I thought this was going be the highlight of the tour... after all you don't get too much bigger than the White House in D.C. Unfortunately after the 9/11 attacks they moved the White House Visitor Center so it's away from the actual White House. When I visit a "visitor center", I actually expect to see the place. The White House Visitor Center was mostly pictures and a couple of artifacts. While I thought it would be difficult to be more disappointed, I was wrong. The bus driver mentioned that we could walk from the Visitor Center to the southern part of the White House and see it. The website exclaims "You might even see the President!" We went to the south side, but it was more blocked off than Fort Knox. You could only see specs of whites through some dense trees and part of what may have been a flag poking out. I imagine the specs wouldn't even be visible if it were summer time when the trees had leaves on them.
  3. Smithsonian (American History version) - This was by far the best stop on the trip. The Star-Spangled Banner alone was amazing. However, seeing everything in the Smithsonian in two hours is like trying to do Europe in 5 days. It's destined to fail. We also have to eat lunch in this time. The Smithsonian's cafeteria is overpriced with a roast beef sandwich, a chicken salad wrap and a drink running us over $22.00.
  4. Ford's Theatre - You might know this landmark from such events as The Place that Lincoln was Assassinated. Continuing on the disappointment track, the theater was actually closed as there was a performance. There was a museum portion of it open. We got to go through that and then across the street to see the 700 square foot place where Lincoln actually died (actually called The House Where Lincoln Died). Looking at blood-stained pillows... kind of morbid. We finish here with 25 minutes left on this stop before the tour continues. My wife and I decide we might as well pick up a glass of wine, but the wine bar is closed as it's between lunch and dinner.
  5. WWII Memorial - Outside the famous reflecting pool near the Lincoln Memorial is the WWII Memorial. Unlike other memorials with names on them (I think Vietnam Memorial - haven't been), this is more like a really big fountain. There are 56 pillars for all the US states and territories during WWII (I learned that the Philipines was once part of the United States (my history teachers never covered WWII because they started the year with Columbus). The big disappointment here was that the reflecting pool was drained for cleaning. It resembled a construction zone.

That was the whole tour. I would have liked to visit either the Lincoln Memorial or Washington Monument, but that wasn't on the list. I probably would have preferred the Jefferson Memorial over the Ford Theatre. I also would have liked to see the Smithsonian (Natural History version) and the Hope Diamond.

Despite all the above, perhaps the worst part is that we were staying in a hotel (Harrington Hotel - good for those on a budget) that was within about a mile of all places. When we weren't able to get wine after Ford's Theatre, we decided to walk two blocks back to our hotel just to visit the bathroom. It made the whole bus ride pretty useless (especially with the excellent and cheap Metro system here).

While we were issued tickets for Ford Theatre, I found out that tickets to the museum are free. In fact, each stop on our tour was free. I'll take some responsibility, we could have researched things better and realized that we could have done them on our own. On the other hand, I think the tour company should take some responsibility and not book places that are closed or under renovations when there are a lot more other things to see and do. Let my experience be a warning to anyone else considering a D.C. tour.

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Last updated on March 12, 2010.

Don’t Lose Your Shirt in Las Vegas

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Las Vegas Survival Guide

Las Vegas Survival Guide

If you were wondering why I haven't posted very much this week, it's because I spent the weekend in Las Vegas. It was my first trip there in about ten years. It's a little hard to say which changed more, Vegas or me. It's probably pretty close.

We went for a friends' military promotion ceremony, but it certainly didn't hurt that it was Vegas. As usual, we didn't want to break the bank, so we looked for ways to get by on the cheap. Here are just my early impressions on the short amount of time we were there.

Best Las Vegas Hotel Value

I'm going to give this a tie to two hotels, even though we only stayed at one. I did look at the Trip Advisor reviews of the second and it looks like the place we'd choose next time. I'm giving this award with great attention to "cheap" rather typical "value." The reason for that is because in Las Vegas, most people are typically only looking for a place to crash for a few hours anyway.

  • Super 8 - We stayed at the Super 8 a little off the strip. While that may sound like a bad location, when we get to best value casino it earns a lot of points. It was around $42 a night including taxes. This isn't a place to impress the ladies. While there may have been a drug deal going down and some ladies likely "practicing the oldest profession", my theory is that it just adds to the flavor. Little known fact: At over 300 rooms, it's the largest Super 8 in the world.
  • Bill's Gamblin' Hall & Saloon - We stopped here briefly because we had a little time to kill before dinner one night and this was the only place we found with a craps table open. I was also curious of the food specials posted outside (more on that later). It's got a better location than the Super 8 as it's on the strip across from the Bally's. I'm told you can view the famous Bellagio water show from time to time there. It seems like the pricing is competitive with the Super 8, so it's worth considering.

Best Las Vegas Housing Value

It's not a hotel, so I couldn't include it above, but some friends of friends decided to rent a house. We stopped by a couple of times and it was an amazing place. It had to be about 4000 square feet. It had a two pools... one for swimming (with a hot tub) and one better known as billiards. The place was in great condition with exceptional appliances, flooring, counters, etc. It's five bedrooms easily could sleep ten (and you could stretch that if you put people on couches. All this for $269 a night. If you have 4 or 5 couples, you could live in the lap of luxury for around $30 a night per person. You'd even save more on groceries as you have a full kitchen. The downside is that the strip and airport was about a 10 minute car ride away, so some of that savings is going to go to a rental car or cab.

Best Las Vegas Casino Value

The Ellis Island Casino & Brewery wins hands down in this category. While there are other casinos with all the bling, this is my kind of place. This was right next to us at the Super 8 (one of the reasons we stayed at the Super 8.) It has a $5 craps table... I can play twice as long to lose on the increasingly standard $10 minimum craps tables in most casinos. (Yes, I think of it in terms of how much I can play before losing. I think that's fair to set the expectations low when the house has an advantage on you.) That's enough for a good casino, but it's the extra's that make Ellis Island my favorite. Cocktail waitresses come by quite often and when you ask for a beer, they bring 20 ounces from their own brewery. In life you usually get to choose two out of three of the following: free, quality, and quantity. While I'm stretching the "free" here (as I was gambling), you can fork over $1.50 in cash for the same beer if you aren't gambling. Beyond that Ellis Island has Metro Pizza, voted 4 years in a row the best pizza in Vegas (I concur with the decision) and the best food special you'll find (more on that later).

While on the topic of craps, I should mention two things. 1) I'm extremely conservative so the house typically has less than a 3% advantage on me. I left Las Vegas with about $75 in total winnings. Know when to talk walk away, right?

Best Las Vegas Food & Drink Specials

  • Ellis Island Casino & Brewery - The $6.99 steak special is one of the best deals you'll find anywhere. It is a 10 ounce filet cut that would easily sell out at $20 any other restaurant. I've paid more than $30 for a steak that wasn't as good. With potatoes and green beans it is a full meal. It's available 24 hours a day, and it's worth going out of your way for. I've already mentioned the beer special above, so for less than $9 you could really be celebrating in style (if you forget that it is a hole-in-the-wall casino.)
  • Bill's Gamblin' Hall & Saloon - Yep, I'm going back here. They get an honorable mention for a steak (rib-eye) and eggs special for $5.99 available from midnight to 6AM. Sadly due to the timing of that special, we didn't partake. I also noticed that they had $5 pitchers of Miller Lite, which is up there with the Ellis Island beer special.

I think that covers most of the deals that we found in Vegas. As for the rest, it wasn't a deal going to ESPN Zone for the USA-Canada hockey game, but it was fun. It wasn't a deal (and not particularly fun) going to the new hotel Aria for drinks. We were slightly positive at RumJungle in Mandalay Bay (I remember it being a lot better 10 years ago).

I would like to try to spend a week in Vegas spending as little as possible. You could stay at Super 8 for about $300 (weekend is more expensive) and eat for around $150 ($20 a day). Our flight from Northern California was around $100 round trip (Virgin America, which I highly recommend). So two people (sharing a room) could plan a whole week for about $800. If you join all the casino's players clubs and used the free money they give out, you might even break even for the week.

Then again, a week of the Vegas lifestyle may just kill you. The weekend alone was quite a bit for me.

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Last updated on August 1, 2011.

Adventures in Dallas (and how we saved money there)

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This past week, I took my first trip to Texas. I was kind of excited and kind of nervous as I didn't know what to really expect. I have known only a couple of people from Texas. They wore shirts with slogans on them, like "There are two kinds of people... those who are from Texas and those who wish they were." They had other shirts that stated that Texas should just move off and be its own country. I had never been a fan of country music (with the exception of Kenny Rogers' Coward of the County) and have long theorized that the Country Music Television breaks millions of mute buttons on television remotes a year (the guys out there know what I'm talking about).

However, I have to say that I loved my trip to Texas. My fears of being outcast as an outsider were completely unfounded. Spending most of my life in New England, I had forgotten to account for one basic thing: southern hospitality. They say that everything is bigger in Texas. That saying has never been more true than when describing that hospitality. My wife and I just had to drop our jaws at the level of politeness.

For spending just a few days, we got a lot of "touristing" done. We were in the Dallas area for the most part, but drove up to Longview for a wedding. Here are some of the highlights:

  • Thanks to PT Money - I have to thank Phil Taylor for his article on frugal things to do in Dallas. It's a very helpful list. I even sent him some e-mail about specific questions I had and he was happy to answer. The lesson here is that Phil rocks.
  • Fort Worth Stock Yards - This area is very much cut out of any Western that you've seen. What's there to do there and how much does it cost? I'm glad you asked:
    • Cattle Drives - They have two cattle drives a day. We were fortunate to catch the first one at 11:30 as we did want to stay until the 4PM one. It was very cool and you can't beat the price of free.
    • Riscky's BBQ - A lot of people mentioned this as a great place for BBQ. It was decent, but didn't knock my socks off. It certainly was not as good as Everett and Jones. However, $9 all-you-can-eat ribs is a great deal.
    • White Elephant Saloon - It's a very authentic looking saloon, because that's pretty much what it is. While it's biggest claim to fame might be that Wyatt Earp drank there, younger folks might recognize it as the exterior of C.D.'s Bar and Grill from the television show Walker, Texas Ranger. The price of a pint of Bud Light there? A frugal $2.
    • Drink Dublin Dr. Pepper - Dr. Pepper is huge in Texas - because it was invented there. There's an original formula using Imperial Pure Cane Sugar made in small qualities and still distributed locally. You can get an old school bottle of Dublin Dr. Pepper at a few shops around the Stock Yards for $1.50.
    • Much More - There are more things to do there, but we just didn't fit it in. There's a rodeo on Friday night, but we had to move on to Longview for a wedding on Thursday. There was a maze featured on the fifth season of The Amazing Race that you could go through, but I think it was $8 and we just didn't feel up to it. There were some museums that were interesting to stroll through, but nothing that knocked my socks off like...
  • The Sixth Floor Museum - Peter King mentioned this a couple of weeks ago in his very popular football column. I didn't think that I'd be that impressed, but I never wanted to leave. For those who don't know, this is the site of John F. Kennedy's assassination. It's turned into a museum not just of that horrific tragedy, but of Kennedy's life. If you don't openly cry, you have no humanity left in your soul. Interestingly one of most amazing things I saw was pretty well hidden on one of the walls. It was a quote by Kennedy the morning of his death:

    You know, if anyone wanted to kill the President, it wouldn't be so difficult. All one would need was a high-powered rifle, a tall building, and wait for the opportune moment.

    Oddly, I could only find mention of this on this one Facebook page. How is it possible that only me and this one other person are the only people to mention it on the Internet?

    If you do nothing else in Dallas this would be my recommendation. It was well worth the $13.50 (or $11.50 with our military discount).

    In case you are wondering Las Vegas has the odds at about 85% that the Secret Service will be visiting my home in the next 30 minutes. Searching Google for all forms of "high-powered rifle" and "kill the President" will do that.

  • Restaurants to Eat at: - We stopped at quite a few places to eat along the way. I thought I'd write a little about each of the significant ones:
    • Wolfgang Puck's Five Sixty - This is the signature restaurant in the Dallas Reunion Tower. (The Reunion Tower looks like a bigger version of New Year's Ball in Times Square suspended on a smaller version of the Seattle Space Needle.) It rotates so you get a good view of the city while you eat. My wife says it must be 560ft high, because otherwise Mr. Puck failed his geometry class. We can't figure out why else he would name it the 560 instead of the 360. The dinner there is quite expensive... the sushi appetizers were $18 for example. Most entrees were $40+. However, they have a happy hour at the bar from 5-7 where you can several drinks and appetizers for $5.60. We got out there with two drinks and three very small (but extremely good) Kobe beef sliders for around $20. The best part? You can time happy hour with the sunset and it's fantastically romantic enough that you forget that you are being frugal.
    • Sonny Bryan's Smokehouse - A lot of people mentioned that I had to try this place out. I liked it better than Riscky's, but it was still no Everett and Jones. It was about the same price as Riscky's.
    • Whataburger - The aptly named fast-food restaurant is all around Texas. As a commenter mentioned we should try this place as well, we did. I was a little surprised by the pricey $7.14 combo meal for a double burger (the single burger looked small and I was really hungry. I was more surprised when this burger didn't come with cheese. $7.14 for your signature burger and it doesn't come with cheese? For a dollar or two more, I might as well go to Friday's or Outback and sit down. Fortunately, the burger was extremely good. I liked my bite of my wife's chicken sandwich as well. Still fast-food drive through for two people shouldn't be over $15.
    • Gator's Croc & Roc - When we got of the plane this was the first place we went to. Coming from California it was still 9PM for us and a good time for dinner. It was 11PM there and we were grateful to find an open place. I went for their "Ultimate Texas Grande Belt Buster Burger." I love a challenge, I was hungry, and it was less than $10. It was a much better value than Whataburger. It was so big, I just focused on the meat an tossed the bread aside... no-need for filler.

      The most fun of the night though came when an off-duty (fairly attractive) waitress was hitting on a guy at the bar. They had obviously known each other from before the way she greeted him. I noticed her free up both hands by finishing up both of her drinks almost like Popeye would down two cans of spinach. I realized this could get interesting when I noticed the restaurant had grain alcohol on the menu. She went into a game of, "Let me show you my tattoos" with the gentleman. Somewhere along the line my wife heard her mention something about her boyfriend. Wouldn't you know it, the boyfriend shows up not ten minutes later and it's just the 7 of us at the bar (me, my wife, the bar tender, the cook, and the love triangle). Everyone took it outside, except my wife and I stayed there to eat. Somehow no punches were thrown. I figure the boyfriend realized that his girl was the instigator. Anyway, it was good drama at the start of our trip.

  • Hampton Inn Longview - Lastly, if you ever find yourself in Longview, TX (and I don't know why you would), you can do a lot worse than stay at the new Hampton Inn on North Eastman Rd. As we checked in on Thursday, the people at the front desk were kind enough to inform us that celebrate guest appreciation with free beer, wine, and appetizers on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 5:30 to 7:30 in the lobby. The wine was boxed Franzia and the beer was your choice of Bud Light, Miller Lite, and Coor's Light in a can, but it was worth every penny. The appetizers were actually quite good and we ended up skipping dinner that night.
  • Three odd parts of our trip worth mentioning
    • Gator's Croc and Roc - Just making sure you are paying attention...
    • Weird Toll Policy - When picked up our car rental, the place tried to see us a $32 package of pre-paid tolls. We declined saying that we don't know what tolls we'll use, but we'll pay them as we come across them. The rental place pointed out that there are several highways that no longer take cash. You rack up fines if you don't have a transponder with the appropriate money in it... and you rack them up fast as each checkpoint is a $25 fine.

      I can't understand two things. 1) Why not have one cash lane or people from out of town, technophobes, or just people with malfunctioning equipment? 2) Why have a pre-payment for something that you might not use? It wasn't clear if we were going to get refunded this money if we didn't use it. I tried to ask that and the car rental place didn't seem to understand that we didn't want to give them money for a service that we didn't intend to use, but we would pay for services that we actually use. Unfortunately that wasn't presented as an option.

      As it turned out we found two restaurants that we wanted to go to, but couldn't because of Dallas' silly toll system. We tried to plan around back roads, but our GPS and Google Maps just gave us a response of "You can't avoid that leg of your trip."

      The car rental place that Dallas was going in this direction with all it's toll roads. Note to Dallas: You'll be sinking tourists who don't have reasonable access to your transponder system.

    • Visiting NAS Fort Worth Joint Reserve Base - As part of the military, we went to check out the military base in Fort Worth. Sometimes you can some good deals on clothing. I did find a bright purple suit just like the Joker's, but my wife refused to let me buy it. I thought it would be good value for $30, but she pointed out that it wouldn't fit anyway. That wasn't really the freaky part though. We found out about the Fort Hood shootings the next day just two hours from the base we were on.
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    Posted on November 9, 2009.

Going on Vacation… Maybe.

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I'm heading on an extended vacation in Sydney, Australia and Phuket, Thailand for a few weeks... or at least that's the plan. It appears that I need Hurricane Gustav to cooperate a little. My wife, being in the military is on notice that she may be necessary for the relief work. I guess no one is willing to take a chance given the Hurricane Katrina. It'll be interesting because my wife is more of a health educator vs. a dispensing pharmacist at this point - I don't think there will be much of a physical need for her to be there.

If they do call her in though, it's likely a loss of $5000 or $6000 for us. Not that I would travel without her, but since we are using the military flights for part of our travel, I would be ineligible for them without her. We'd have to start canceling everything and I doubt that we'd be able to. Getting refundable connecting flights and hotel rooms were twice as much, so we decided it wasn't worth it. Why pay double when there's just a sliver of a chance that you won't be able to make it. She has never been deployed against her will in the ten years she's been in the military.

Provided we are able to go, I will be doing some writing from road. I'm hoping to write something once or twice a week. In addition to that, I've had authors from some very good sites contribute their writing to help me out.

If you've ever been to Sydney or Phuket, I could use any tips of things to see or do... places to eat... all that jazz. We have a couple of tour books, but I'd definitely love to have a little direction.

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Posted on August 30, 2008.

Military: Save Money With (Almost) Free Vacations

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toy-plane.jpgMy wife is active duty military - and with that comes a number of perks. One of those great military benefits is a significant savings on vacations via flights, hotels, and car rentals. Eighteen months ago we went to Hawaii at a cost of half what others would expect to pay. On Saturday, I found out how it would have been even cheaper if I did a little more planning. Today, I'd like to share some of the ways to save money with nearly free vacations - but remember, you may need to be in the military to take advantage of them.

Cheap Military Hotels

Navy Lodge - This is usually our first choice to stay wherever we travel. In the summertime, Newport, Rhode Island is an extremely popular vacation destination with some hotels starting at $400/night. A room, just as good, in an arguably better location, at the Navy Lodge is $75. The rooms are big enough to do cartwheels in and come with a kitchenette (refrigerator, stove, microwave, etc.)

Special Military Housing

  • When we went to Hawaii, we stayed at the Hale Koa, a military hotel that I would rate with the best I've ever been to. It's about $100/night - which is a bargain compared to the $300/night hotels on the left and right of you. Plus, it's the only place you can go to a luau hosted by Glenn Medeiros - sing after me, "Nothing's gonna change my love for you. You outta know by now..."
  • If you prefer to go to Walt Disney World, you might want to check out Shades of Green. I've never stayed there, but prices look to be around $110/night for a prime location on Walt Disney World Resort.
  • While it's not a hotel, there's a small place on Martha's Vineyard that, with extensive planning and luck, can be had for cheap as well. We hadn't been able to book there before we moved to San Francisco. I wish I had more details, but I couldn't find anything published on the Internet about it.

Camping and RV Parks - There are a lot of military camping sites available and Military Campgrounds does a very good job of detailing them. I've been looking at the Petaluma campsite as a cheap place to stay on a weekend of wine tasting in Sonoma Valley. Reading reviews with comments like this really sealed the value for me, "The food at the dining facility is still great, although now the rates went up five cents! All you can eat for lunch or dinner for $3.55."

Space-A: Fly For Free

The military has a program that allows people to fly to many places in the world for free. It's called the Space Available program, but is commonly referred to as Space-A. If it sounds too good to be true, in many case it is. There are two reasons why we hadn't pursued this option in the past:

  • We didn't know how it worked. No one at my wife's job had ever tried to fly Space-A and couldn't really share how it works. This past weekend I spent a lot of time reading John D's Space-A FAQ. It takes some time to understand the jargon and common acronyms.
  • You can't book a flight You show up at the terminal and "hope" that there a plane available, that it's going where you want, and that there is space for you on the plane. Due to 9/11 restrictions, it's often not published in advance where and when planes are scheduled to go. We found that the Pepperd message boards flight schedule information is very helpful for determining where planes are likely to go. For instance, we found that planes leave Travis, about 45 minutes from us, and go to Hawaii nearly every day. A few times a month, they continue through to Australia. This can be a savings of $3000 for the two of us - or it could be a nightmare or waiting and lost vacation time.

Car Rentals

Civilians can find many deals on car rentals. However, we've found that booking through the military gets us a better deal than any of out other connections. Usually it's around $30 a day from Hertz for the cheapest - but they always bump us up a class for free.

Photo Credit: Yogi

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Last updated on August 1, 2011.

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