Saturday, February 15, 2014

Trip Gone Wrong

Unfortunately if you travel in the 21st century, you will also have to deal with trips that turn out differently than you had planned. This just happened to me this Valentine’s Day weekend...which made me feel a bit like this:
I found my car completely snowed in earlier yesterday morning, which made me scramble to find an alternative option to get to my home airport, Newark Liberty International. A few clicks on the internet provided me with a great solution: A special GoBus from my town to the airport terminals for only $2.35 one way. Now that’s a great deal in this area! I got to the airport with plenty of time to spare, so I used my last United Airlines Lounge pass (2 of those are complimentary each year if you have the Chase United Airlines Mastercard) to go wait away from the usual hustle and bustle at the gate (and of course get free wine and snacks).
Soon enough, I am watching the Olympics and am chatting with fellow travelers who all had horror stories of this week’s cancelled flights. And then it started happening to me: I got a marathon session of flight delay notifications on my phone from United. The United Airlines app is definitely working…ugh, every 20 minutes I would get more and more delayed. After delay notification number 6, I got up and made my way to Customer Service and waited for 45 minutes in line to speak to someone. I was going to get a credit if I no longer wanted to get on a flight that was now delayed 3,5 hours and with no guarantee that it would actually get to Chicago. It made no sense anymore to get to Chicago and I left the airport with the same bus to get back home.
My checked bag however did eventually make it to Chicago and is now en route to come back. I can check the status on, which I must admit is a handy website. It even sends you email notifications and shows a photo of the driver your bag is assigned to for delivery and of his/her car. 

I was also able to cancel my hotel reservation at no charge last minute, a perk for having Gold status with a hotel chain. You see: customer loyalty does pay!
These are the apps/websites I used to get myself through this experience:
FlightAware - to check the live flight status of my inbound flight
United Airlines app – to receive push notifications on my UA flight
SPG app - to cancel my hotel reservation – to get updates on the status of my luggage

And after a 45 min wait on the phone with United Airlines, they told me I would either get a full refund or a credit to use for a later ticket…sounds great to me. However, I first have to get my baggage in order, THEN I have to call back and get the refund/credit processed…they couldn’t process that the first time, of course not :)
Next weekend I am flying to Puerto Rico, fingers crossed for smooth sailing this time around!

Saturday, January 18, 2014

TravelPony - Review

Check out the new hotel booking site TravelPony for savings on hotel rates all over the US, Canada, Puerto Rico, Europe. More markets are being added all the time.
It is a website which will require you to sign in with either your Facebook ID or with an email address in order to see the hotel rates. I signed up with an email address as I didn’t feel comfortable sharing my Facebook ID.
The hotel rates are generally lower than on the hotel websites because TravelPony’s focus is on word-of-mouth marketing and the power of social media instead of having a marketing budget.

I did a few searches and compared the TravelPony rates to the rates on the actual hotel websites. Here is what I found:
Sheraton San Juan Puerto Rico: One night 22-23 Feb 2014: $669/night on TravelPony vs. $275/night on the SPG website (what the heck happened there??).
Westin O’Hare Chicago: Two nights 14-16 Feb 2014: $79/night on TravelPony vs. $108/night on the SPG website.
New York Marriott Downtown, NYC: Two nights 14-16 Feb 2014: $139$ on TravelPony vs. $169 on Marriott website.
Aloft New York Brooklyn, NY: Two nights 14-16 Feb 2014:$113 on TravelPony vs. $179 on the SPG website (a good deal cheaper).
Westin Riverwalk, San Antonio, TX: One night 29-30 Jun 2014: $155 on TravelPony vs. $249 on the SPG website (ka-jing!).

So a few things to keep in mind: you can only book 6 months in advance, and you won’t get reward points from the hotel if you belong to any of the hotel rewards programs. I looked to book a hotel in Chicago on TravelPony and found out the rate on the SPG website was only $10 more per night for the same hotel, but I would receive SPG points. I opted to book through SPG as the difference in price was minimal, but the rewards points add up nicely on my way to Platinum status. :)

Overall, a great site to look into when you need to book a hotel. Maybe even for a one-night getaway to forget about the daily grind!

Extra credit: 
You can earn travel credit by referring friends: Create a TravelPony Account Here
Website: TravelPony

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Wildsam Field Guide To San Francisco

As San Francisco is my 3rd favorite city in the USA (NYC- number 1, Chicago – number 2, not in winter though), I am always up to invest in another “guidebook” on the city by the Bay. I recently came across a write up on a new kind of book: the Wildsam Field Guide Series.
As the book jacket says: a modern travel series with a bygone sense of place.
Travel + Leisure called it: “A decidedly hip spin.” I totally agree, but even though I did enjoy some of the ideas in the book(let), I had such a hard time reading the teeny tiny font in this petite book that my eyes were starting to water after a while.
I loved the 15 short interviews with locals (ranging from a flower stand owner to an entrepreneur), which did really represent the flair of San Francisco. However, I already know the city very well, so I am not sure how this really affects a traveler who has never been there.

The book is cute, creative, and just plain hipster, but don’t buy this if you really need a reference book to guide you through your first visit to San Francisco. I would actually say this is a nice gift for someone who lives in the Bay area, or for a friend who is moving there.

For more information:

Extra credit: one of my all time favorite TV series featuring San Francisco: The Lay Over with Anthony Bourdain. Viewer discretion advised.
The Layover - Anthony Bourdain
Drink Up :)

Sunday, January 05, 2014

New York City Dining in Midtown - Stella 34

I recently checked out the Italian Trattoria Stella 34  inside the Macy’s store. With the exception of nearby Koreatown, this area of Manhattan usually offers a lot of fast food choices (bleh), so I was quite ecstatic to find out about this place. A sixth-floor elevator to be found at the 35th street entrance takes you directly to this modern trattoria, which opened in March 2013.  It boasts a nice bar and for those who are not interested in being seated at a table, there is a take-out area (the tiramisu and homemade biscotti looked delicious).  

Stella 34  has great service (I always appreciate it when the wait staff asks patrons if the chef should consider any food allergies or food restrictions), delicious food (authentic Italian), AND stunning views of the Empire State Building.

I would make a reservation in advance, even though I got seated on a Saturday evening around 6pm in 5 minutes. My expectation was that this would be a museum cafeteria kind of restaurant, but instead I found a contemporary restaurant with a European vibe: a true hidden food gem in Midtown Manhattan.

Extra credit:
Website : Stella 34
Ospitalita Italiana certificate for authentic techniques, ingredients, presentation and training
For warmer seasons: Gelateria Vivoli (originally from Florence) with flavors that change by the season

Friday, January 03, 2014

A new travel year

Hello everyone,

What a perfect winter day to start writing my blog again! It’s so cold in North New Jersey that I expect to see a bunch of penguins outside of my window right about now. Although I did survive a winter in Finland in 1997, I can’t say that I am a fan of this white stuff falling from the sky.
Needless to say I have been plotting an escape for February, which is usually when we get the brunt of the winter weather in New Jersey/New York. There’s a beach in Puerto Rico calling my name! Actually it's this beach right here in San Juan. Photo courtesy of my friend Madeleine.
Stay tuned for that trip… If the airfare gods are with me, it will be booked at a reasonably cheap rate later today!
However, I am not having much luck finding an affordable ticket to Belgium for end of April, so I may have to do some airport hopping before getting to Brussels Airport, just to find a ticket that doesn’t require me to live off just bagels for a month. What has happened to airfare lately? Everything seems to be a lot more expensive than last year. No matter what happens with airfare prices, I will be crossing the pond to visit the mother country some time in spring.
At the start of a new year, it’s fun to start planning all kinds of upcoming trips (local or international). If there are any places I should visit this year, let me know. If it fits in my schedule and budget, who knows where I might end up!
I recently read The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin (def. recommended reading). One of the tips was: “For happiness, you’re better off using your money to have a great experience than to gain a possession.” Now those are words I can live by. Travel does just that: it provides a great experience which will give you a life-time of memories, not designer handbags! Amen to that!

Happy Travels in 2014!

Extra credit:

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Hi everyone, The Traveling Belgian will be back in 2014 with posts!
Have a Happy New Year!

Thursday, July 12, 2012

ING NY Marathon 2012

Hey everyone,
Monday July 16th will mark the 16th week before the ING New York City Marathon. The real official start of my marathon training program.
I am very excited about being part of the biggest party of the city, running through all 5 boroughs!!
Please make a donation if you can for the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation. It's a blood cancer that is still incurable. Let's make a change.
Thank you for your support and please spread the word. I am already at 30% of my fundraising goal of $3,000, but all donations are welcome.
xoxo Ann