Friday, October 28, 2011

Culture Shock

Yesterday, my Turkish holiday cohort and I were discussing the quake in Eastern Turkey and how through this devastating event and our upcoming holiday we're becoming more and more conscious of this far away land that we hadn't really devoted much thought to in the past. She said something that I think is becoming more and more profound to me, as I think about it more:
"[Turkey has] such a distinct and rich history that it's making us travel in such a diff[erent] way."

It's so true. The type of research I've been doing for this trip is way different from what's usual for me. Of course I still looked up what the weather would be like and how to get from the airport to the city center but I've also been looking up what fashion is appropriate, proper behavior in mosques, and how to react to the call to prayer (which happens six times a day). And I've been reading up on the history of the city. All I knew about Istanbul when all of this started was that it was the bridge between the continents of Asia and Europe and it used to be called Constantinople. The (free) Triposo Istanbul Guide app that I got has been quite the educational read.
A few key points I've learned so far:
  • dressing too sexy in Istanbul will give people the impression that you are a prostitute (apparently men are so ballsy - and horny, I guess - that they'll just approach you and grab you)
  • avoid visiting mosques at prayer time (give or take half an hour after the ezan a.k.a. call to prayer)
  • no shoes in mosques or homes
  • don't drink tap water
Americans seem to have a notorious reputation for being inconsiderate and I think that comes from a combination of apathy, ignorance, and lack of manners. When visiting somewhere foreign to you, it's so important to observe the local customs because it's rude not to. It's a cliche example, but imagine someone coming to your home and behaving like an ape.

And on a more fun note: take a look at a few common hand signals that mean something completely different in other countries.

Cheers.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Free Money, Free Miles

I developed a weird case of A.D.D. while I was in college. I constantly need to be overstimulated, which is probably a condition that plagues most of my generation. My theory is that it started innocently with me playing some music while snacking on saltines and studying but then the number of tasks I'd be doing in one given time started to grow. I'd constantly get the urge to procrastinate so I'd check my email and sign into AIM to chat with friends and do a little online window shopping. A year into college, facebook came out with its photos feature and that became another distraction. Pretty soon, it became a habit to have seventeen tabs open in my browser, a media player (with either music or tv show) playing in the background, and scattered AIM message boxes across the screen while I was doing my homework and eating dinner. Where was I going with this?

Oh yeah. Now I have an office job (except when I'm getting muddy on a construction site) and sitting in front of a computer all day gives me that same need to be overstimulated because I get so bored otherwise. However, I don't watch movies and peruse facebook at work, as that is not professional, and getting caught would be quite embarrassing. But I still need the random distractions so once in a while, I'll answer surveys with e-rewards and e-miles for free money and free miles.

E-rewards is more flexible - you can pick how to redeem the money you earn, but I'm saving them up to redeem for miles and/or hotel points with Flying Club (Virgin America & Virgin Atlantic) and/or HHonors (Hilton Hotels). I have accounts with both VA and HH and they asked me if I wanted to join e-rewards.

E-miles is exclusively associated with Continental/United Airlines (they've joined forces) and like with e-rewards, Continental asked me if I wanted to sign up.

So far, over the course of about a year, I've earned $278.72 with e-rewards and 1800 miles with e-miles. Since I don't fly with the same airline v. often, it's hard for me to earn enough miles to get a free flight somewhere and this is a great way to supplement the points.

I'm not signed up with any other programs (though I'm sure there are more associated with other airlines/hotels) but if you have a few points earned with an airline, it might be worth it to check. For example, I found out that Delta has a page where you can earn miles with partners.

Cheers.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Too Excited!

Countdown to Maui
APP: Big Day Lite
Countdown to Istanbul
APP: Countdown
Yay! I'm using two different countdown apps because each one is a free version and only allows you to countdown one event at a time. Yes, I'm cheap, but why pay when you can have these apps for free? Maybe if I eventually have so many events to countdown that I become overwhelmed, I'll splurge and buy Big Day.

Cheers.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Just a little sad

I'm disappointed I didn't go to leave the country at all this year, and have no plans to do so before the year is over. I made a slightly unrealistic goal back in my college days that I'd try and visit every country in Europe at least once before I turned 25 (which is in a month). But the fact that I kept visiting the same cities over and over sort of threw that dream out the window.

In Spring of 2008 I went to London.
In Winter of 2009, I went to London, Paris, Rome, and Dublin,
  and then in the Summer of 2009, I went to London, Glasgow, Paris, and Barcelona.
In Winter of 2010, I went to Madrid,
  and then in the Autumn of 2010, I went to Dublin, London, Paris, and Amsterdam.
In 2011, I didn't step foot in Europe at all; commence pouting.

However, I also made a (more reasonable) goal to visit at least one new city every year, and I have definitely accomplished that goal in 2011. I was sent to Kentucky/Indiana (playfully referred to as Kentuckiana by the locals) for work, this year - two states I'd never been to, or even considered visiting. It wasn't a glamorous trip, to say the least, but still new. I went to San Juan, Puerto Rico, which was amazing. That trip converted me into a beach holiday-loving chick. Plus, I've been "living" in Baltimore, which is a city I hadn't been to until work brought me here (and a part of the reason my travel has been so limited).

But, no more slacking. I'm going to make it my new goal to take as many opportunities to travel, as time and my wallet will allow. I already have Maui and Istanbul planned for 2012 and I might try to squeeze one more trip in. Currently, I'm dreaming of Peru; I'd love to climb Machu Picchu.

Cheers.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Istanbul: Flights are Booked!

Over the weekend, my Istanbul buddy and I booked our flights. After a week of monitoring flights, we observed the prices all go up by $20 and decided we should just hurry up and do it. We'll be going for one week at the beginning of March for $550.10 per person, round trip. I think that's pretty amazing, especially considering it's a 5000 mile trip.

If you're curious or looking for some flight searching tips, here's my technique (which I use when I have no particular destination in mind).

First step: kayak buzz
Do a little search to see what destinations are plausible.
I inputted my city of choice (airport is usable as well), chose the region I was interested in (Europe, obviously), and then the time frame. I used March 2012 because that's when my travel cohort is on spring break.

Once I hit search, I was given a list of destinations and dates that had the cheapest fares.
As you can see, Istanbul is still second on the list (I say still because this is a screenshot of a more recent search; we decided on Istanbul a few weeks ago and all flights were slightly cheaper back then). I've been to Dublin multiple times already so I wasn't really interested and though I eventually want to go to Denmark some day, we thought Istanbul was more "exotic" and totally outside of our comfort zone.

Second step: refine the search.
I went to do a normal search in kayak to personalize my search.











I put in the general time period we were looking at and then used the flexible dates option to get the best price. The little calendar to the right is actually a great guideline for what dates to use, if you have that flexibility. You get a nice snapshot of what it costs to fly on what days, which can help you choose accordingly.
As you can see, there are a few options to choose from and I clicked the +/- 3 days button. Kayak actually gives you a few more options to refine your search even further, as you can see from the drop down menu below the date input. I kept it at 3 days to maximize the ability to find the cheapest trip.


Final step: choose your flight.
Once you hit 'search,' you'll be taken to a screen with this lovely chart. The column along the left shows the possible departure dates and the row across the top shows the possible return dates. I boxed the dates I used (3/3 and 3/10) and you can see the +3 days and -3 days for each. For a while we were looking to depart 3/6 and return 3/10 for $576 but decided that we wanted to be out of the country for longer and chose a $551 flight.






Now it's time to look into the lodging and sightseeing.

Cheers and happy searching.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Stay Clean

I'm loving these Go Clean Pack Bags from Flight 001! They're all made of a durable materials that support its function. For example, the wet suit bag has a resin coating to make it waterproof. But all of the bags are composed of a durable nylon which contains and keeps out smells.

These bags are a bit pricey. I think the only one I might invest in is the wet suit one, since it's sort of special. However, for the rest of your stuff, you can sort of just piggyback off of the idea. As I've said time and time again, ziploc bags are a great travel accessory.

I use small pouches and sacks that I've collected over the years (like the gift satchels you get from Sephora or canvas pouches from BCBG) for various items. It's much prettier and organized to pack with style instead of stuffing things into various plastic shopping bags.

Stay organized!

Cheers.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Hawaiian Punch!

74 days until I'll be sitting on a plane headed to Maui! I really want to look good when I get there so I've been trying to eat well and exercise 5 days a week (trying to drop some lbs), and avoiding alcohol (better for bags under the eyes) and making a few other adjustments in my daily routine to prepare.

One of the things I'm looking most forward to is going to the beach everyday and letting the salt water give my hair that crunchy wavy texture. That being said, I think it'll be really important to prepare my hair for 7 days of sun and salt. I'm prepping the tips of my hair (to prevent split ends) using Herbal Essences' Long Term Relationship Leave-In Conditioner. I really have noticed a difference. I have a lot of hair but each individual hair is pretty thin and prone to breakage but lately, my hair feels stronger and more resilient.

I've also been moisturizing my skin (face and body) everyday because extreme heat and salt water will dry you out rather quickly and I want my skin to be prepared. Plus, now that it's becoming dry skin season here in the northeast, I've started to supplement my St. Ives Collagen-Elastin Lotion with Pond's Dry Skin Cream, all over my arms and legs. (And I use the salt scrub I wrote about in my spa day post).

And lastly, so that I won't be the palest person on the beach, I've been using Nivea's Sun-Kissed Beautiful Legs to give myself a little bit of color. It's really subtle and it's moisturizing and makes it so you don't have to shave your legs as often.

Looking forward to a trip is half the fun for me, if you couldn't tell.

Cheers.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Travel Guides

There's a Lonely Planet Travel Guide sale on Hautelook and it's got me thinking about the necessity of the travel guide. In the past, I've bought (Lonely Planet) travel guides for Barcelona, Madrid, and Amsterdam, the biggest driving factor of the purchases being that they were on sale. Barcelona and Amsterdam turned out to be rather helpful, as each was a destination on multiple-city holidays and I didn't feel overwhelmed having to do lots of research beforehand. Madrid was a short holiday (3.5 days) so I got the guide to supplement my internet research to make sure we'd accomplish as much as possible.

I think travel guides are great for last minute preparation, since not everyone has the time or patience to scour for information. And if you're going to purchase one, I highly recommend the travel-sized Lonely Planet series (even though they lost a little credibility with me after they mistakenly labeled London's Tower Bridge as London Bridge, major faux-pas). Guides also great because they're lend-able/borrow-able and you can read them on the plane ride or during layovers to keep yourself occupied. But the downside is that the information can become outdated and it's likely to contain much more information than you need, making it bulky and cumbersome to carry around.

In general though, because I have OCD, I prefer to make my own travel guide. I have a Moleskine journal (much less gaudy than a commercialized guide book) that I use to create the perfect guide specific to my trip . I'll put in maps of my lodging location, weather typical for the time of year, recommended dishes and restaurants, the best sights, etc. I think it's great to try and make some draft itineraries and preemptive restaurant choices based on the location of the hotel. Sometimes if I find out a restaurant is really popular, I'll reserve it in advance, before I even get on the airplane. I'll also paste in copies of all confirmations for all bookings I make, whether it's flights, hotel, ground transportation, tickets for a show, that way, if I'm unable to access my email, I have hard copies. It's a great way to familiarize yourself with your holiday destination and get pumped for the trip. I always pick up a free map once I arrive, most of the time at the airport and if there isn't one available there, the hotel always has something.

Cheers.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Istanbul - Ground Transportation & Currency

I'm realizing I didn't know much about Turkey until I started researching this trip. Their currency is the Turkish Lira which has a rather rich history. The internet says that the currency has changed a few times so we must be vigilant and refuse certain bills (ones with 6+ zeroes), as they are no longer valid. I've also learned that the Post Office is a great place to exchange money (for minimal commission) and if you use an ATM, make sure you go to a national bank. I have my new Chase Sapphire credit card so I hope I get to use it! I make it a point to "learn the currency" before I head somewhere completely foreign to me so that I don't get ripped off.

The airport (IST) is on the metro line so we can take it straight into the city. And getting around by metro, tram,  and funicular is cheap and easy (2 TL per token, which is about $1 USD, at least for today). And straight from wikitravel: we can buy a reload-able smart ticket (AKBIL) for a slight discount. Apparently nowadays, there are no humans to help you out when you buy tokens so you're at the mercy of the machines. We'll have to remember that "onay" means "approval."

I'm positive that we'll do a lot of walking so I estimate that we won't spend too much on ground transportation anyway.

Fun fact: The Netherlands are so known for tulips but did you know they were introduced to the bulbs by Turkey?

I've also downloaded an app on my iPad - Istanbul Travel Guide by Triposo - to get myself more familiar with the city.

Even though nothing has been set in stone (yet) I'm so eager and excited! I'm already looking up the must-have food and shopping. Yeep! I'm definitely going to buy myself some Turkish delights! (Flashback to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, anyone?)

Cheers!

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Istanbul!

My friend and I are thinking about taking a trip in the spring. We were tossing out some ideas for more "exotic" places like India and Russia and then we sort of settled on Istanbul. We're not even 100% certain we're going to do a trip but I can't help but start researching costs. I mean, we might as well figure out how much this is going to hurt our wallets and then make a responsible decision. Plus, planning the vacation is half the fun.

Look at how pretty!
Blue Mosque
I'm using Kayak to research flights and I found one for $556 but I want to try to do better. I'm tracking the flights on Yapta and praying that the costs go down.

I found a hotel (Raymond Hotel - great reviews on Trip Advisor and recently renovated) for less than $70/night, which is a pretty good rate in general and even better once it's split between the two of us.

I'm doing some research and the weather in Istanbul in the spring is similar in temperature to what I'm used to - between 40 and 50 degrees. It tends to rain a lot in Istanbul so I'll be sure to bring an umbrella.

Apparently taxis are the easiest form of transportation to use to get around. They have visible meters (big sigh of relief from a New Yorker) and are readily available and inexpensive. The metro system is also supposed to be rather easy to navigate and great for tourist sight hopping.

As far as culture, Turkey is modernized and they have a normal dress code (in fact, headscarves are banned in many places - like public offices and universities) but I have a feeling my tendency to wear whatever I want will have to be subdued. Women must have their heads covered when entering a mosque and sleeves are advisable.

Even if this particular trip doesn't pan out, I'm glad to do the research now because I definitely want to visit Istanbul some day. I love the Ottoman architecture and I really want to venture outside of my comfort zone a bit. I'm doing a lot of digging beforehand, especially on the US Dept of State website, for any weird/special conditions, just in case.

I've already started a map with the spots I want to visit!



Cheers.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Spa Day at Home for under $10

Before any big event, like a party or a date, I like to spend the night before (and maybe the whole day if possible) pampering myself. It's also a great way to prepare for a holiday. Knowing I'll be spending a good chunk of time sitting in a car or cramped in an airplane gives me a bit of anxiety so I like to do what I can to get myself good and relaxed beforehand. The following activities are cheap, easy, and fun. So light some candles (I like to use these melon/peach scented tealights from Ikea), put on some good music or your favorite guilty pleasure movie and turn your home into a spa.


1. Start by pampering your skin with a homemade sugar scrub. I say homemade because it's much cheaper to make it yourself. The sugar crystals will act like an abrasive that sloughs away excess skin to get your body nice and smooth and the oils are extremely moisturizing.














Just mix the ingredients together carefully and store in a jar (I like this $3 one from Ikea). I like to use a coarse sugar or even brown sugar but whatever you have around the house will work. You can choose any massage oil in the scent you prefer; I like Stress Relief in eucalyptus spearmint from Bath & Body Works but this ingredient is just for the smell so you can add in what you have (maybe vanilla oil?) or just leave it out altogether. Slather this stuff on your skin while you're in the shower. It's great for rough, dry hands in the winter and getting your crackly feet back to baby soft conditions after summertime flip flop abuse. And my favorite is to use it on my legs to get them shiny and red carpet-worthy.

2. Give yourself a mini facial and get your face fresh and moisturized with a homemade face mask. This is especially essential if you'll be spending time on an airplane because that dry air will turn you into a raisin!












Two ingredients is all it takes. I prefer Greek yogurt because it's thicker and sticks to your face better. And don't use flavored yogurt because the sugar isn't great for the sensitive skin on your face. Just mix the two ingredients together and apply it to your (clean) face. Let it sit for a few minutes and then rinse with warm water. To take the pampering to the next level, finish off your mini facial with a steaming washcloth on your face. Yogurt is really great for the skin. It has antibacterial properties so it kills germs and cleans your pores and the active cultures are great for treating acne and eczema. Egg whites are great at tightening the skin and giving you a more youthful, energized look. Finish off the facial by putting on some moisturizer to preserve the results.

3. Get a manicure and pedicure at home. I prefer mani-pedis at home because it's cheaper, I can watch trashy television while my nails dry, and I don't have to worry about messing up my nails on my drive home. After a shower is the best time to cut your nails because they're soft and are less likely to chip. After your nails are properly trimmed you can use an emery board to smooth the edges. File only in one direction so you don't damage your nails.

Then use a sugar scrub around your cuticles on both your fingers and toes to get rid of any excess dull skin. Give your digits about 5 minutes with the scrub so that the olive oil has time to penetrate and really moisturize your nails. Then rinse with warm water and then wrap your hands and feet up with a warm, damp towel. Now that your skin is soft, you can push back your cuticles and apply a cuticle oil and/or moisturizer.

If your nails are clean prior to application, the polish will stick better and last longer but give yourself 30 minutes to seal in the moisturizing properties of the oil or lotion before washing your hands and feet with soap and water. Use a base coat to prevent your nails from getting stained and to give your nails a nice smooth surface, which will make it easier to apply the polish. Finish off with a quick dry top coat (I like Sally Hansen's quick dry top coat) for some added smudge insurance. If you're headed on a long holiday and have no room to pack polish for touch-ups, just paint your nails with a clear polish.

Relax and enjoy.

Cheers!

Friday, October 07, 2011

Safety First!

If you're traveling abroad, it's always a good idea to leave a copy of your itinerary with a friend or family member and as an added precaution, register with STEP. You have to create an account and then you can enter details about your upcoming trip. Then, the Dept of State will have a simpler time helping you out in an emergency. God forbid anything happen to you while you're on holiday, but it's always good to have your bases covered.

Other precautionary steps: make copies of your passport and any other ID to bring with you just in case you lose your bags or get them stolen. And compile a list of email addresses or phone numbers of the hotels you'll be staying at so you can call them to cancel or change your reservations if your plans are thwarted by an unexpected incident.

And it's also a smart idea to travel with a mini first aid kit. You could buy one but personally, I find it cheaper and easier to make it myself. I just throw a few things into a travel soap dish (you can pick one up at Target for under $2) and it's really convenient because it's small, portable, and keeps things from getting damaged or crushed. You can obviously alter the contents according to your needs and just restock before each trip. Just remember that if you're packing this in your carry on, you have to be wary of putting liquids in your kit.

Cheers and safe travels.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Gadgets for the Worrywart

I have low battery anxiety. It's probably because my iPhone 3gs is two years old and not exactly in tip-top-shape, but I am always worrying about the battery dying. I try my best to use my phone sparingly, just in case I run into an emergency where I really need my phone (like getting lost or needing to phone someone). So lately I've been thinking about getting an external battery pack and I think I've found "the one." This slim, portable external battery pack, by Sinoele, is compatible with multiple devices and runs for around $20. It's going to be awesome for long flights or layovers where outlets are few or unavailable.

Hanging out at the beach with valuable electronics seems like an irresponsible idea unless you have the Pelican Micro Case. Spend between $10 to $20 to get this watertight, uncrushable, and impact absorbing case for your phone or camera or what have you. You can take it in the water with you so you don't have to worry about your things getting stolen. This case would actually be great for any outdoorsy activity, like mountain climbing or horseback riding. Your valuable electronics would be safe inside the case, regardless of it taking a long, long tumble down a mountain or a horse stomping on it. It's available in multiple sizes and colors, so you can accommodate your needs and your style.

If you're traveling in a city, you can always ask a fellow tourist to take a photo of you standing in front of the iconic sights but what if you're too shy/hesitant of thievery to ask or you're exploring a remote area? The Gorilla Pod is nothing new, but it's a great investment if you don't have one already. It's a tripod that can be used normally but it has flexible legs so you can wrap it around a flag pole, hang it upside down from a tree branch, the possibilities are endless. They even sell an assortment of accessories (like an attachment that allows you to clip your iPhone to the pod) to suit your needs.

So let these gadgets help you take some of the stress and worry out of your holiday so you can really enjoy yourself.

Cheers!

Monday, October 03, 2011

Lush Behavior

On our way back from Madrid, I went a little crazy at the airport with the duty-free wine. I was just really excited to see bottle after bottle with Spanish littered all over the labels. I wasn't as interested in the wine as I was in keeping the bottles as a souvenir so I started perusing the cheap/on sale wines with the prettiest and most interesting labels. I ended up picking out three bottles and had to carry around a drawstring plastic bag that clinked and clunked and made me scared I'd shatter the bottles and slice something (or someone) up. I ended up grabbing whatever sweaters and shirts were easiest to pull out of my bag to wrap around the bottles.

After that experience, I started researching a chicer way to transport my duty-free goodies. Enter: WineSkin. A cute little bottle-shaped, bubble wrap-lined plastic bag that seals to prevent leaks from spilling out into your bag. The bags are meant for one time usage (hence the seals) but if you're frugal, like me, then you don't have to necessarily seal the bottle and you can reuse it. I tend to think the purpose of the seal is more for bottles you want to pack in your checked luggage or souvenirs that are being mailed to your relatives and friends. You can buy a pack of two for around $10.

If you're headed somewhere, like California or Italy, where you know you're going to buy some amazing wines or even if you just enjoy getting your booze at duty-free but you are unwilling to pay for a WineSkin, you have some options. If you're creative and want to be more MacGyver-ish, then the next time you get your hands on some bubble wrap, save it and set it aside for your next trip. Lay the pieces flat on the bottom of your bag where it will take up virtually no space. Also bring a gallon-size zip-top bag so you have somewhere to seal up your nicely wrapped bottles. If you don't have any bubble wrap, pack some big, thick socks and slide the bottles into the socks before you pack them into the zip-top.

Salud!
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