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Zip Lining in Vermont

Zip Lining in Vermont

After my sister showed me pictures of a recent stay she had in Stowe, we knew we had to stay there on our New England trip. When you think of New England, Stowe is what you picture in your mind’s eye – rolling hills covered with colorful trees and the quintessential steeple standing proud just daring tourists to eff with it. While we were excited to relax and take in all the beauty, we wanted adventure as well. Being there in the shoulder season made that a bit of a challenge, but one we were able to overcome.

While I’m sure Stowe Ski Resort has excellent zip lines, we were extremely disappointed when we found out they closed the weekend prior to our arrival. That disappointment quickly turned to excitement when we found out about a company called Arbortrek that operates zip line adventures just over the hill from Stowe at Smuggler’s Notch.

Speaking of notch, this company is top-notch (see what I did there?). They operate canopy adventures year round; rain, snow, or shine. The only things they close down for are wind and lightning. If you’re there in winter time, you can combine your zip line adventure with skiing, while summer visitors can enjoy hiking, canoeing, biking, disc golfing, and segway tours. In addition to zip line tours, Arbortrek also has a treetop obstacle course and a climbing adventure course. We chose to just do the zip line; and I’m glad we did, because although it was not yet winter, I was freezing my balls off.

There are three different zip line packages: Arbor’s Wild Ride ($99.95), Arbor’s Wild Winter Ride ($87.50), and Arbor’s Express ($65.00). Arbor’s Wild Ride is the main attraction and includes 8 zip lines ranging from 150 to 1,000 feet in length, 2 sky bridges, 2 rappels, and lasts 2.5 to 3 hours depending upon how many people are on the tour. The latter two are only available November to April and offer shorter variations of Arbor’s Wild Ride for those that don’t want to brave the cold for that long. We opted for the full Arobor’s Wild Ride and loved every bit of it, despite the cold.

Arbor’s Wild Ride

For those afraid of heights, let me put you at ease. I hate heights. However, Arbortrek’s staff does a good job of instilling confidence. The first thing you do is go over safety and have a class on how to properly zip line. They have the equivalent of a bunny hill near their office where they allow you to practice before they take you up to the actual course. Being one of the least coordinated people I know, I can tell you with ease that if I can do it, you can do it as well.

Arbortrek provides all the equipment needed for this adventure. And they have two guides accompanying you the whole time. The guides explain and demonstrate the safety procedures throughout the whole tour. My favorite being that with two points of contact, you are never not attached to a cable.

While we’re on the topic of guides, these guys hire some great people. The tour guides were knowledgeable not only about zip lining, but about the vegetation in the local area. That may not be the most exciting subject to all, but it was interesting to learn about the kind of trees used for zip lining and why. Also, since Kendra took a liking to the Sugar Maple (and is now on a quest to find some in Utah to put in our new yard) she was able to get a lot of her questions answered about them. Turns out they can grow in Utah’s climate as well. So I’m sure I’ll be planting some next spring.

This was my first time zip lining, and though it’s not quite as breath taking as paragliding or canyoning, I can say that this was one of my favorite parts of the trip. It is pretty exhilarating once you get going, especially on the longer lines. But rather than bore you with a bunch of adjectives, I’m just going to leave you with some pictures. And if you’re interested in booking your own zip line adventure, please click here. Please let us know how your adventure goes in the comments.

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P.S. The drive from Stowe up to Smuggler’s Notch is breathtaking, despite being colder than a witch’s titty. We were lucky enough to catch a couple pics of the mountain tops contrasted with the fall colors with some pretty ominous storm clouds moving over. We heard there are some pretty cool hikes that start up here. Unfortunately we hadn’t packed for temperatures quite so low, but we’d love to go back and explore more. Hopefully you’ll be more prepared than we were.

Despite looking like a walkway, this is actually the road. It get’s a little sketchy… make sure you have a fully functioning horn.

 

How To Get The Southwest Companion Pass – The Holy Grail of Travel Rewards

How To Get The Southwest Companion Pass – The Holy Grail of Travel Rewards

 

The Southwest Companion Pass is up there as one of the most coveted travel perks. And there’s no question why; it allows you to book travel on any Southwest flight, and take a companion for free regardless of how you pay for your own flight. If you time it right, you can end up with nearly two years of free travel for you and your favorite travel companion, essentially doubling the value of your Southwest Rapid Reward Points, or cash (if you’re one of those people).

Southwest Companion Pass

There are some really cool things you can do with the pass. If it’s just you and your spouse traveling together, it would make sense for only one of you to get it, and live high on the hog until it expires. Then you could get a second one in the other spouse’s name, and do it all over again. If you have kids, you could both go for it at the same time, and then be able to take the whole family (assuming that a whole family is four people). Or if you have another couple whose company you enjoy enough to travel together, you could both get it at the same time and take some couples retreats together. Either way you go about it, it’s going to be an awesome deal for you.

How to Get the Southwest Companion Pass

So, how to get the Southwest Companion Pass? That’s an excellent question… well ya, it was mine. It’s really quite simple: you just need to acquire 110,000 Rapid Reward points in a calendar year. Just so we’re being precise, that means that you must earn 110,000 points at any point between January 1 and December 31 of a given year. You will not qualify if you rack up the required amount between say, February 1 and January 31 of the following year. It’s very important to keep that in mind, because nothing would suck worse than earning so many points throughout the year, only to have such a huge disappointment when you don’t get your pass in February.

I’ve heard of some people being under the misconception that the Companion Pass costs 110,000 points, as in once you have 110,000 points you redeem them for the Companion Pass and then have no points left. The good news is that is NOT the case. You qualify for the Companion Pass once you have acquired 110,000 in a calendar year, and those points are yours to keep. And now they’re really 220,000 points since you’ve just doubled their value.

Well that seems like a lot of points to earn in a year, and it is. There are some fancy ways of going about it, though, that I promise will not break the bank. In good old Triumphant Adventures fashion, the answer is credit card sign-up bonus points. Southwest counts not only the regular points you earn by using their co-branded credit cards for every day purchases, but the sign-up points that Chase offers as well. This means that if you sign up for the cards and spend the minimum amount to get the bonus, then you’ll only need to spend the difference to make it to 110,000 points.

Chase/Southwest Co-Branded Credit Cards

Chase Southwest Cards

The good news is that Chase has three co-branded cards that you can choose from listed in the chart below.  Currently, both personal Southwest cards have an elevated bonus of 60,000 points, which means it’s an excellent time to sign up. However, keep in mind that we are coming up on year end. If you acquire the 110,000 by the end of 2017, it will only be valid until December 31, 2018, which would only give you a little over a year to use it. Whereas if you wait until January, you could probably acquire it in the first quarter of 2018 and then have it until December 31, 2019, which would give you almost two years to use it. The downside is that the higher bonus might not last until January, so it’s a tradeoff.

Credit CardTypical Sign Up BonusElevated Sign Up BonusAnnual FeeForeign Transaction Fees
Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus
40,000 Rapid Rewards Points after spending $1,000 in 3 months60,000 Rapid Rewards Points after spending $2,000 in 3 months$69Yes
Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier
40,000 Rapid Rewards Points after spending $3,000 in 3 months60,000 Rapid Rewards Points after spending $2,000 in 3 months$99No
Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Business
60,000 Rapid Rewards Points after spending $3,000 in 3 monthsNo Elevated Sign Up Bonus. See Typical Sign Up Bonus column to the left.$99No

You may be wondering if you can apply for, and get all three cards within a calendar year. Absolutely you can. Now, I can’t tell you if Chase will approve or deny your credit card applications, but I can tell you that I did it, and hundreds of people have as well. Some have applied for both personal cards at the same time, while others have applied for a personal and a business card at the same time. Still others have spread their applications out over a few months.

 

Francisco
Take a weekend getaway to San Francisco, and see the beautiful Golden Gate Bridge.

If you get them a few months apart, you should apply for the Southwest Plus first; here’s why. If a bank offers two different versions of a co-branded card, there’s usually one that’s a higher status than the other. It will generally have a higher annual fee and additional perks. Often Chase will not automatically approve you online, and that may result in having to speak with an actual human being on the phone about why you want both versions of the card. It’s much easier to explain why you want a card that is considered an upgrade form the card you currently have. So, if you apply for the Southwest Premier when you already have the Southwest Plus, you can tell them that you will be overseas and want to have a card with no foreign transaction fees. You can even add that you like the increased 6,000-point anniversary bonus instead of the Plus’s 3,000. You may run in to similar questions when you apply for the business card; but that’s easy, you want to separate your business and personal expenses. We’ll be writing a post about how to qualify for business cards in the future, and we’ll be sure to share a link here once it’s done.

Chase 5/24 Rule

Another thing to remember is the ever-despised Chase 5/24 rule. If you have been approved for five or more cards in the last twenty-four months from any bank, then your chance of getting approved for any Chase card plummets dramatically. So if you’ve been acquiring credit card points heavily for the last few years, that would definitely put a dent in things. This is one of the reasons we tell everyone to do the Chase cards before they do anything else. If you’ve been doing this for a while, there will be a point where you run out of cards to apply for, and you’ll have to back off for a couple years to let the 5/24 rule reset. But don’t worry, if you do it right, you’ll still have a stock pile of points to use for vacations during this time. In fact, that’s the stage we’re in right now. We’ve got about another 5 months before we can apply for Chase cards again, and we have a ton of American Airlines, Delta, and Ultimate Rewards points left to take our New England trip next month. Anyway… 5/24 Rule. Just remember it, and plan accordingly.

The Numbers

Now, let’s talk math. If you sign up for the elevated 60,000 sign-up bonus offers, you’ll earn 120,000 points. Easy peasy. However, the elevated bonuses come and go. I’ve seen the bonuses be 40,000, 50,000, and 60,000, with the spending requirements being either $1,000, $2,000, or $3,000. So, let’s assume that both personal cards are 40,000 points after spending $2,000 and the business card is 60,000 points after spending $3,000. So you sign up for and are approved for one personal and one business card. You spend $5,000 ($2,000 + $3,000) to qualify for the sign-up bonuses. You’ll now have 105,000 points (40,000 bonus points + 60,000 bonus points + 5,000 spending points). Now you’ll just need to continue spending with the card until you’ve spent an additional $5,000 which will put you at 110,000 total points. This is totally doable in a calendar year. Like I said, the amount of the sign-up bonuses and spending requirements changes often, but you can plug in the math for whatever offer is current when you decide to go for it.

New York
Finally take that trip to New York that you’ve always dreamed of.

Points That Do Not Qualify Towards the Companion Pass

While spending and bonus points count toward your 110,000 qualifying points, it’s important to remember that there are some other ways to get points. And these other ways DO NOT qualify for your 110,000 points.

  • Points transferred from Ultimate Reward Points
  • Points purchased from Southwest
  • Points earned through Southwest partners
  • Points earned from the Southwest shopping portal
  • Points earned from the Southwest dining club

The only other source of points that does qualify for the 110,000 points are those that you earn by flying, and actually paying for it with cash… something I don’t do much of, but still worth mentioning.

Designate Your Companion and Start Flying

So you got both cards, earned a shit load of points, and are now the proud owner of the Southwest Companion Pass. Now what?

Log in to Southwest.com and click on My Account. Then you can enter all the necessary details for your travel companion. A few days later, you’ll receive the pass in the mail. Generally speaking, you don’t actually need the physical pass. It’s stored in your account, so any time you book a flight online, you can go back in and add your companion to that flight for free. Keep in mind, your companion can only fly if you are flying. I have read a couple stories of people who have been asked to present their physical pass, and then were not allowed on the flight when they didn’t have it, so Dustin and I always make sure we have it with us. As of now, no one has ever asked to see it.

Costa Rica
Southwest also serves many international destinations in Central America and the Caribbean, including Costa Rica.

Let’s say you don’t have a committed travel buddy and you just want to be able to take whomever willy-nilly. Southwest does allow you to change your companion. You have to call in to their customer service to do so. Plus, you can only do it three times in a calendar year. To be honest, I’m not sure if that means you can change it three times (and thus have four total distinct companions per year) or if it means you’re allowed to have three different companions. Luckily my husband has always been my companion, so that’s an issue I haven’t had to experience.

So, long story short. The Southwest Companion Pass kicks a considerate amount of travel ass. It will allow you to fly with a companion for free for up to two years if you are able to acquire 110,000 points in a calendar year. You can do so with the help of the three Chase/Southwest credit cards and their associated sign-up bonuses. If you have any questions I didn’t answer, please leave me a comment. Until then, go out there and get the Companion Pass.

Top Five Restaurants of New Orleans

Top Five Restaurants of New Orleans

New Orleans Eat

Food. It’s really one of my favorite things in life. And a vacation in New Orleans is the perfect place to indulge in it.

New Orleans is known for its cuisine; and after this trip, I can completely understand why. New Orleans is heavily influenced by Cajun and Creole cuisine. Being right on the Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico, seafood also plays a prominent part. I’m usually pretty picky when it comes to sea food, so I was a little bit nervous; but after having eaten it for a weekend, I can say that I would probably be twenty pounds heavier if I were from this area. In a city that doesn’t have a last call, even during hurricanes,  you’re bound to find something to whet your appetite. As you’ll see in the reviews of all the restaurants we tried, I really had no complaints (and probably a little too much praise).

We have come nowhere near close to being acquainted with all the restaurants in New Orleans. But with the experience we do have, here is my list of the top five restaurants of New Orleans. Keep in mind, these are not ranked in any particular order. They’re just the five that we liked the most.

1 – Ruby Slipper

Ruby Slipper MenuMost of the places we ate at were recommendations from a self-proclaimed New Orleans connoisseur, my boss’s brother. However, this one was just a lucky google search. I hopped online to find us somewhere to get our grub on while Kendra was finishing up getting ready for the day, and the pictures of the food at this place just looked amazing. It’s located right in the middle of the walk between our hotel and the French Quarter, so we decided to give it a try. It was around 9:30 or 10:00 on a Saturday morning, so we did have a little bit of a wait; about a half hour or so. So…. Effing…. Worth It.

They sat us outside next to the specials sign that read, “White Chocolate Bread Pudding Pancakes.” Normally I prefer French toast or waffles. But add white chocolate and bread pudding to damn near anything and I’m sold. Kendra decided to go with the Bam Bam Biscuit, which is a biscuit with scrambled egg, pepper jack cheese, maple bacon, and a fried green tomato. As always, we shared our plates so that we could both experience trying more of the local cuisine. Suffice it to say that this was not a breakfast fit for a type 1 diabetic such as myself, but sometimes my attitude is that my blood sugar can just rot in hell while I enjoy myself for a weekend. I’m sure that’ll come back to haunt me, but that was the last thing on my mind as I enjoyed the decadent bread pudding pancakes.

We loved this place so much that we decided to visit once again the last day of our trip shortly before we flew out. Kendra got the Bam Bam Biscuit again, and I opted for the French Toast Batons, which were brioche French toast sticks tossed in cinnamon sugar, served with applewood-smoked bacon. Again, the Ruby Slipper did not disappoint. This is probably one of the best breakfast restaurants I’ve ever been to.

Ruby Slipper Breakfast

2 – Dickey Brennan’s Bourbon House

Bourbon House

This was one of the recommendations from my boss’s brother, and he was even nice enough to tell us exactly what to order. The Signature BBQ Shrimp Po’ Boy. So this is the only Po’ Boy I’ve ever had, so I’m not going to pretend to be an expert on what exactly differentiates a Po’ Boy from any other sandwich. However, I will take plenty of time explaining why this one is much better. The bun is a loaf of French bread sliced in half. The sandwich wasn’t cut open as typical sandwich. Rather, it was cut into from the middle of it, but not cut on the outsides, forming a pocket. What was in that pocket was nothing short of the highest degree of heaven, pure mouth bliss, an orgasm in your mouth, however you want to describe it. It was grilled shrimp in a bourbon sauce. Not being a bourbon drinker, I have no idea if most of the flavor came from bourbon or not, because it definitely had a unique taste with which I wasn’t familiar. I did leave that restaurant, though, thinking that I need to start drinking bourbon.

Signature BBQ PoBoy

3 – Cornet

We really just stumbled upon this place because it was where one of our tours ended. I’m assuming the tour group has some sort of an agreement with the restaurant because it was a little weird that they would end a voodoo tour at a restaurant. As we walked through, I saw and smelled some delicious Cajun food and decided to stay and have dinner after.

I’m not a huge fish guy, but I decided to try the Cajun Platter, which included fried catfish, red beans and rice, jambalaya, and green onion smoked sausage. As expected, it was all amazing, even the catfish, and especially the sausage… ha sausage. Kendra got the Tour of New Orleans appetizer which includes jambalaya, gumbo and craw fish mac and cheese, as well as a side of hush puppies.

Not only was the food great, but so was the ambiance. We sat out on the balcony overlooking Bourbon street, which provided for some entertaining people watching.

Cornet Dinner

4 – Cafe Du Monde

Restaurant is a strong word to describe this place. But since it is such an iconic part of New Orleans, it has to be mentioned.

Cafe Du Monde has been around for a while. The original cafe was established in 1862; and they’re still around, so they must be doing something right. Their menu is small and simple; beignets, coffee, milk, and chocolate milk. Where was this place when I was nine? Aw, who am I kidding? I still have the pallet of a nine-year-old, so I really enjoyed this place. A beignet is a French style donut, square in shape, and covered in powdered sugar. They come in orders of three, so I was figuring we’d each have one and a half. That was until I remembered that Kendra doesn’t like donuts. She tried one, but didn’t care for them enough to split the other one with me. I’m still not sure how I manage to trust a woman that doesn’t like donuts, but she’s got me wrapped around her finger somehow.

Cafe du Monde

5 – Dickey Brennan’s Steak House

Turns out that half the restaurants we went to are part of the Dickey Brennan group of restaurants. I had never heard of Dickey Brennan before. I did a quick google search and learned that he was quite the restaurateur of New Orleans. If he were still alive, I’d try to have him move in with me and Kendra and be our personal chef, because everything we ate at his restaurants was pure gold.

Dicky Brennan's Steakhouse

While a steak house isn’t exactly local cuisine, we decided to give this place a try as it was another recommendation from my boss’s brother. He hadn’t steered us wrong yet. And still hasn’t. I got the rib eye steak and au-gratin potatoes. The only other time I’ve had a steak as yummy as this one was when Kendra and I splurged one year for our anniversary and went to Ruth’s Chris. Kendra got the filet, which she was also impressed with. And although a steakhouse may not be what brings people to New Orleans, we were still able to try some food local to the area. Kendra ordered the turtle soup, which was uniquely flavorful without that strong seafood taste you’d expect.

Turtle Soup

I really wish there would have been something that didn’t taste so great so that my review wouldn’t sound so biased, but this place continued to impress as we headed in to dessert. We ordered the bread pudding and pecan pie. I didn’t realize that either were part of Louisiana cuisine as we have both back home, but apparently they’re both desserts that New Orleans touts as part of their cuisine. They were both delicious.

Bread Pudding & Pecan Pie

Please leave any great New Orleans restaurants where you’ve eaten in the comments. We’d love to give them a try next time we’re in the Big Easy. And hey, if you want some things to do in between meals, here’s some ideas.

Top New Orleans Attractions – An Adventurous Weekend in The Big Easy

Top New Orleans Attractions – An Adventurous Weekend in The Big Easy

We had a shit load of expenses last year. It sucked for my wallet, but it did wonders for my credit card point balances. One amazing thing that came from it was the ability to get enough Southwest Rapid Rewards points to qualify for the companion pass. The companion pass allows you to book a flight on Southwest airlines (with cash or Rapid Rewards points) and you get to take a travel companion for free. We’ll be able to take advantage of it until it expires at the end of 2017. So, 2017 has turned in to the year of domestic travel for Kendra and me. While not as exotic as international travel (you just don’t feel as cool saying that you just got home from L.A. as you do saying you just got back from Europe), domestic travel has the benefit of, well, being domestic. In addition to one long two-week vacation, we’ve been able to have a couple really nice weekend getaways.

New Orleans Weekend

Kendra has had an itch to see New Orleans for quite a while, and I’ve always thought it seemed like a cool city. I honestly didn’t know much about the city other than Cajun food, jazz, and hurricane Katrina. So when she suggested we take a trip there for Labor Day weekend, I was all about it. Didn’t stop to think about the fact that it would be smack dab in the middle of hurricane season. And somehow the fact that there weren’t increased fares to travel there over the holiday weekend still didn’t make me consider it. It wasn’t until Hurricane Harvey was bearing down on Houston that I stopped to think, “Hey, isn’t it hurricane season down there?”

Despite the tragic events of Houston, New Orleans has luckily had a mild hurricane season. For the week and a half prior to our trip, I was checking the weather everyday ready to cancel our trip. Though the forecast promised heavy rains the whole time, we decided to be adventurous and head down anyway. I’m so glad we did. Somehow every meteorologist on the planet had it wrong. The weather was beautiful. It was a little overcast for parts of Saturday afternoon. But all that did was provide a bit of respite from the hot dankiness characteristic to the area.

Airfare, Accommodations, & Transportation

We stayed at Holiday Inn New Orleans – Downtown Superdome. We used our two free nights that we get every year for keeping our Chase IHG card active. It’s completely worth the $49 fee. The really cool thing about this benefit is that it can be used at any IHG hotel. So you could even stay at a place as nice as the Intercontinental in Bora Bora. It seems a little silly to use a benefit like that at your run of the mill Holiday Inn. But the nights were about to expire and we’ll have two new free nights loaded to our account soon that we can use somewhere nicer, so we opted to use them here. It was also nice that we used them in a little bit more of a working man’s hotel anyway since we stayed for a third night and could afford to pay the actual nightly dollar rate.

We opted to forego the rental car for this trip. Our hotel was central to everywhere we wanted to go, and we figured if we got tired of walking, there’s always Uber. Uber turned out to be a great resource for the trip. As expected, our feet took quite a beating, so it was nice to hop into a car every now and then. Uber is a fantastic way of doing a quick getaway in a single city. I think we used Uber about a dozen times, and we still spent less that we would have with a rental. Plus, we didn’t have to worry about paying the nightly $30 fee at the Holiday in for parking. It’s slick the way it works too. Just open the app, type in where you want to go, and the driver is usually there within three to five minutes. If you can’t tell, this trip totally sold me on Uber.

So anyway, now that we’ve got all the business out of the way, let’s talk about all the fun shit we did in the Big Easy. I often hear people talk about their favorite city. Both my sister and my boss love San Francisco. I have a friend that loves Boston. As for me, I’ve never really had a favorite city. After visiting New Orleans, I think I might be willing to say it’s my favorite. It’s so different from every other US city. The culture, architecture, art, and food really set it apart, and it doesn’t surprise me that it often tops the list of unique US cities.

French Quarter

We planned to leave most of our first day in New Orleans open to just be able to walk around and check out the city, and be open to doing whatever we wanted to spontaneously. The only appointment we had was a 7:30 voodoo tour of the French Quarter. So after our delicious breakfast at the Ruby Slipper, we decided to take our own stroll down Bourbon Street. Unfortunately at the time of our visit, New Orleans was in the process of replacing its dated sewer system, so the first few blocks of Bourbon Street funneled all the tourists to fenced off sidewalks. Luckily it only lasted for the first four or five blocks and then opened up. The streets seemed to be a little dirty and smelly. I’m not sure if that’s because of the way they had everything torn up, or if that’s normal. From everything I’ve heard about New Orleans, I expect it’s typically that way. Dirty or not, you can’t help but fall in love with the place. The architecture is so different than anywhere else in the US. In fact, as we walked through, it reminded me a lot of downtown Panama City. All the two and three-story buildings, with their tall doors and windows, shutters, and plants hanging from their balconies create a charming atmosphere.

New Orleans Architecture

As we meandered through the streets we started realizing just how entertaining the people watching was going to be. There were a couple things at play that made this truly an interesting weekend to be in New Orleans. First, there was an LSU/BYU football game that was scheduled to be in Houston, but was transferred to the Superdome due to the flooding with Hurricane Harvey. Second, the Decadence Festival. I had never heard of the Decadence Festival, but apparently it occurs every Labor Day weekend in New Orleans. Our Uber driver told us about it the night before, when I asked what it was, the best way he could describe it was “Gay Mardi Gras.” Perfect… Not really my scene, but watching the dynamic play out between LSU scene, the BYU scene and the gay pride provided for some free entertainment all weekend. Blue BYU shirts, the yellow LSU shirts, and what looked like an explosion of pixie dust from the festival provided for some colorful views. It was funny to see quickly the blue shirts began disappearing once the gay festivities were in full swing. I don’t think the BYU fans had too great of a weekend as their team lost 0 – 27 that night.

We meandered our way toward Jackson Square, which is an area about the size of a city block on the outskirts of the French quarter near the Mississippi river. It was here that in 1803 the Louisiana Purchase took place, making Louisiana a US territory.  In the middle of the square sits a statue of Andrew Jackson on a horse, commemorating his significant role defending the city in the war of 1812. St. Louis Cathedral towers over the square to the north, while the streets to the east and west are adorned with typical New Orleans facade buildings. Be sure to stop here for some good pictures as the statue, cathedral, and green space make for some great scenery. All but the street to the south of the square are closed to vehicular traffic. So it has become a pretty hip place to walk around and see street performers as well as a place to purchase paintings and other cool knick-knacks from street vendors.

Jackson Square

With my wife being a fan of the macabre, I thought it would be fun to check out the Museum of Death. It’s located just one block north of Bourbon street. This place was quite a bit more morbid than I expected, guess that’s why it’s called the museum of death. Right where you purchase your tickets, there is a picture on display of a guy who wrecked his motorcycle and his whole body has been dragged on the street and mangled. Apparently it’s the litmus test before you enter; Kendra and I passed.

Museum of Death

Inside they have displays of all sorts of things death. There’s a video on a loop that shows how brains are surgically removed from skulls. There’s a display of most of the notorious serial killers as well as some artifacts and letters that belonged to them or their victims. Pretty much every major and minor conflict in modern history that involved death (9-11, World War II, Oklahoma City Bombings, US shooting rampages) had a display. It was quite disturbing, but still kind of cool because there were artifacts that aren’t available anywhere else to see. It makes me curious how they got a hold of them. As we finished our tour they asked us if we had any questions. I asked if they could tell me where we go when we die. Unfortunately, they were no help there. Also unfortunate that we were not allowed to take pictures… though maybe it’s probably for the best. I don’t want to gross you guys out.

We had a little bit of time to kill, so we took a few more strolls down Bourbon Street to enjoy some people watching. By now it was getting into the late afternoon, and the Decadence Festival was in full swing. Watching dudes that I never would have guessed if I just saw them in a normal setting were frolicking around, hand-in-hand, dressed in nothing more than tight briefs and suspenders. Some even had butt flaps that opened up into their nether regions.  Most of it was just entertaining. The only time I felt really uncomfortable was when I had to push through a crowd of half-naked men standing around making out with each other to cross the street. It was the kind of crowd that you can’t avoid physical contact in, like a night club. Only in a night club, I don’t mind so much if I get bumped into. But my options were limited. I couldn’t go over. I couldn’t go under. The only way was through a solid wall of dong. I made it through okay, but I really prefer to just watch them from the comfort of a balcony while stuffing delicious Cajun food in my face (secretly being jealous of their perfectly sculpted bodies). Now I know how women feel at the beach.

Decadence Festival

Voodoo Tour

7:30 arrived, and we made our way to the meeting point for our voodoo tour. I’ve decided that Voodoo is probably one of the world’s most misunderstood religions. Hollywood has done a decent job of mysticising it. Even still, it’s weird as shit. No disrespect, I think my own religion is weird as shit as well. We walked from one Voodoo shop to another as well as to homes of some of the most famous Voodoo practitioners including Marie Laveau. Apparently she was like the Don Corleone of New Orleans for most of the 1800’s. Not too shabby for a woman of color in the south in the Antebellum era.

Voodoo Shrine
Voodoo Shrine

While learning all about the Voodoo Queen was mildly entertaining, what I enjoyed most about the tour was just walking around the French Quarter at night. I’d been walking around it all day, but it has a different appeal at night. I love the way the homes are lit with flickering lanterns and depending on the street, smooth jazz floats in the air. By the end of the tour, the spectacularly costumed people parading the street waited with their arms stretched toward the balconies for the chance to be adorned with Mardi Gras beads.  Kendra asked our tour guide where the tradition of Mardi Gras beads stemmed from, apparently people used to throw flour and bricks in celebration until that was outlawed. Beads took over as a more practical option.

New Orleans at Night
Photo Credit – backroadsandbarstools.blogspot.com

Snug Harbor

As a self-proclaimed metal head, Jazz has never really been my thing, but how could you come to New Orleans without checking out the music scene? One of our Uber drivers recommended a couple different clubs on Frenchman street just a few blocks east of the French Quarter. Apparently, Frenchman street is the less touristy version of Bourbon street. It was nice to arrive there and not be surrounded by half naked men.

Snug Harbor

The club was classy, in fact I was probably a little under-dressed in my flip flops, but they still let me in. While the music was enjoyable, I couldn’t believe how into the music some of the people around me were. I mean they were really getting in to it. I guess my style just isn’t refined enough, I got a little bored after about an hour. But what I did enjoy, were these street performers that we heard outside while were waiting for our Uber to arrive.

Garden District

Somewhere in between all the French Quarter stuff we did on Saturday, we were able to catch an Uber over to the Garden district of New Orleans. This is a neighborhood that was developed throughout the 1800’s and has many large mansions with really cool facades. All we really wanted to do here was walk down the streets and catch a few glimpses of cool houses, and visit Lafayette Cemetery #1, the oldest in the city. After all, what trip to New Orleans would be complete without visiting one of New Orleans’ most iconic features?

New Orleans Weekend

Like the rest of New Orleans, its cemeteries are unique; unique enough to be featured in several films and be an attraction to many tourists. Because New Orleans sits below sea level they hit the water table at about 3 feet, making burial at 6 feet impossible. Their solution? Above ground tombs.  Most of these tombs have two shelves inside, the top shelf is for the recently departed. The body is placed inside and the heat and humidity decomposes the body. Once decomposed (generally after one year) the body is moved below to the second shelf. This method allows for multiple generations of the same family to be buried in the same plot. This peculiar way of burying the dead offers a stunningly eerie view, and it’s easy to see why it has been featured in so many films. Weather you opt to take a guided tour or wander the grounds yourself, it’s worth checking out.

Swamp Tour

If you’ve ever seen a movie filmed in the swamps of southern Louisiana, you can imagine the excitement of booking a swamp tour in this area. There’s always such a sense of eeriness with the unknown of what’s under the water’s surface, the trees adorned with Spanish moss, and all the run-down shacks full of toothless seance practicing creepers.

Well we were there in the middle of the day, so it wasn’t so scary. Also, any mysticism of the area was completely raped and murdered by our tour guide. I felt like the goal of this man was to make us think that there was absolutely nothing interesting about the area. He took us out in what I would best describe as a pontoon boat with an awning. He wasn’t quite this direct, but basically what I heard him say was “Nobody rides the fan boats down here, we make a lot more money down here than the rest of the country thinks, there’s nothing exotic about hunting crocodiles, and none of the cool stuff you see in the movies ever happens here.

New Orleans Swamp Tour

Despite the boring tour guide, the scenery was breathtaking. It’s an environment that is resistant to humans coming in and screwing it up, so all the forestation was beautiful and pristine. We even caught a glimpse of a bald eagle. Unfortunately, the water levels were unseasonably high because of Hurricane Harvey. This covered up all the logs where crocodiles like to hang out. We did see a baby crocodile right at the beginning and there was one spot in the tour where we just saw the tip of one’s head; but other than that, we didn’t have too much luck spotting any.

Plantation Tours

The plantation tours were probably what I was most excited for on this trip. I love seeing and walking through big, old houses; especially those that have humongous grounds with sprawling oak trees. I’m not too much of a historian; but it was my wife’s major and I always appreciate learning about the events that shaped the areas I visit. The area’s rich Civil War and slavery history makes a plantation tour a must do when in the area. We were lucky enough to do two.

Oak Alley Plantation

Oak Alley Plantation

Oak Alley was the more traditional out of the plantations we toured. If you close your eyes and imagine a pre-Civil War southern plantation, chances are you’ll see many features of Oak Alley. Located on the west bank of the Mississippi River, it’s named for its distinguishing visual feature, two 800-foot rows of oak trees that were planted in the 1700’s before the present house was built. Running rows of oak trees from the front of the property to the house was a customary practice back then as it created a funnel to suck gusts of the cooler air above the river towards the house to cool it off in the hot and humid summer days. The one at Oak Alley stands out because of its sheer size. The trees are quite a site to take in. Many branches are so old and grown that they have almost grown back in to the ground.

Oak Alley

Old Oak Trees

The plantation was built and run by Jacques and Celina Roman. Jacques died of tuberculosis in 1848 leaving his wife and children to run it. Being a big spender, Celina racked up a bunch of debt. Combine that with the abolition of slavery after the Civil War and the plantation was no longer viable. The property passed through the hands of various owners until Andrew and Josephine Stewart acquired it in 1925 to run as a cattle ranch. Josephine was the last person to live in Oak Alley, leaving the grounds to the Oak Alley Foundation when she died in 1972. It was then opened to the public for all to enjoy.

All in all, this was a cool place to see. The tour wasn’t as interesting as the grounds themselves. They also provide a lunch of typical Cajun cuisine. While I wasn’t impressed enough with the meal to add it to my list of food recommendations, it was an enjoyable meal. Though it didn’t make my top-five list, I would still strongly recommend this place for their buttermilk pie, which was rich, decadent, and delicious.

Laura Plantation Tour

With my feet still aching from the previous day of walking all over the French Quarter, and now having a swamp and plantation tour under my belt, I really would have rather headed back to town for dinner and rest, but we wanted to make the most of the time we had. So we were off to another plantation tour; this time, the Laura plantation. If Oak Alley is the epitome of a southern plantation, Laura is anything but. Aside from some the colorful exterior paint, the exterior of the main house made it look like an ordinary home. What the Laura plantation lacked in flare was made up for with a really interesting story, and a much more entertaining tour guide.

Laura Plantation

A Frenchman by the name of Guillaume and Duparc built the house in 1805. He and his wife Nanette acquired several adjacent parcels of land and ended up with a 12,000-acre sugar plantation. The Duparcs owned 186 slaves and housed them in 69 cabins. Each cabin was occupied by two families. The slave cabins were used even until well after the civil war. While the workers were obviously compensated for their work, it wasn’t much. And living and working conditions weren’t great either. It wasn’t until that part of the tour that it impressed upon my mind how open the wounds still are. I couldn’t believe that people in the Unites States would live in such conditions so close to my life time. I now get why race is still an issue.

Duparc Family Tree

While the operations of the plantation passed down to the children upon Guillaume’s death, Nanette kept a tight rein on things, even when it passed down to the next generation. She had a mother-in-law “cabin” built so she could stick around and keep an eye on everyone. She was known to be quite brutal, especially in keeping the slaves in line. Though her personal servants had gained her favor over the years, they were still slaves. What adds to the intrigue is that, due to some indiscretions of her son, she shared grandchildren with her servants. Unfortunately, this did nothing to change the way she treated them.

As you can see, the subject matter of this tour is quite heavy, but it made for a really interesting afternoon, and gave me a lot to think about. My conclusion: slavery is stupid.

Even though my feet were tired, I’m extremely glad we toured the Laura plantation, and if I had to pick a favorite out of the two, this would easily win.

So there you have it; everything we were able to pack in to a quick weekend getaway. We wish we would have had more time. Have you ever been to New Orleans? What would you recommend if we were able to go back for more time? Please feel free to elaborate in the comments.

 

 

 

How to Travel Big with Chase Travel Partners

How to Travel Big with Chase Travel Partners

In our How to Redeem Chase Points for Maximum Value post I discussed the difference between redeeming points directly through the Chase portal, and transferring points to Chase travel partners. I won’t go into the depth of the difference in this post; suffice it to say that if you want to get more bang for your buck… or point… then you should make an effort to transfer points to partners rather than redeem directly through the portal. In this post, I’d like to introduce you to the individual Chase travel partners. As always, I’m covering Chase first because it’s my preferred program. I’ll cover Citi and American Express travel partners later.

Chase Travel Partners

The current lineup of Chase partners includes 7 airlines and 4 hotels as seen in the chart below.

Airline/HotelProgramTransfer Ratio
AirlineBritish Airways Executive Club1:1
AirlineFlying Blue Air France KLM1:1
AirlineKorean Air Skypass1:1
AirlineSingapore Airlines KrisFlyer1:1
AirlineSouthwest Rapid Rewards1:1
AirlineUnited MileagePlus1:1
AirlineVirgin Atlantic Flying Club1:1
HotelIHG Rewards1:1
HotelMarriott Rewards1:1
HotelThe Ritz-Carlton Rewards1:1
HotelWorld of Hyatt1:1

Notice that the travel ratio on all programs is 1:1. Well, what the hell does that mean? It means that for each Chase Ultimate Rewards Point you transfer to a particular partner, you will receive one point in the program to which you are transferring. This may seem like a no-brainer if you are new to travel points. However, there are other programs that ding you for transferring. For example, you can transfer Citi ThankYou Points into JetBlue’s rewards program at a 2:1 ratio. So you would basically lose half your points. There are other examples where you get more points than you originally had. Let’s use Citi ThankYou Points for another example. You can transfer ThankYou Points into Hilton’s rewards program at a 2:3 ratio, meaning that if you transfer 1,000 Citi ThankYou Points to Hilton, you would end up with 1,500 Hilton HHonors Points.

Chase Travel Partners

Anyway, back to Chase. I have personally only used five travel partners: Southwest, United, Marriott, IHG, and Hyatt. This doesn’t mean that I don’t see value in the other six, because I certainly do. My wife and I have yet to travel to Asia. But make no mistake, we have our eyes set on a couple locations in the near future… Thailand, China, Japan, Cambodia… we just haven’t decided which one yet. But once we do, I’m sure Korean Air or Singapore Airlines will come in quite handy. But enough about my travel aspirations, let’s dive in to a couple scenarios and see how these partners can be utilized.

Chase Cards

Chase currently has 5 cards that allow you to collect Chase Ultimate Rewards Points. I’m going to ignore the Chase Freedom Cards and just focus on the two Sapphire cards as well as the Chase Ink. The chart below shows the points you could earn given their current bonus offers.

Credit CardSign Up BonusAuthorized User BonusRegular Points Earned While Getting BonusTotal PointsTotal Points If You Double Up With a Travel Buddy
Chase Sapphire Preferred50,0005,0004,00059,000118,000
Chase Sapphire Reserve50,0004,00054,000108,000
Chase Ink Business Preferred80,0005,00085,000170,000
Total180,0005,00013,000198,000396,000

You may be thinking, Ya right that’s the best-case scenario. And your right, but it’s also pretty achievable. My wife and I did it when we first started out. Granted the cards were branded a bit differently then, but we were still able to amass that amount of points fairly quickly. The only one that might be a challenge is for both of you to get a business card. You each would need a separate business.

One other thing to be careful about is the authorized user bonus. Most cards allow you to add an authorized user such as a spouse when you sign up for the card. Both of you will receive cards with your own names in the mail, but both are tied to the primary user’s account. Basically just two cards for the same account, like debit cards on a joint checking account. Banks figure that you’ll spend more on the account if there are two of you using it; solid logic. So often times there will be a bonus if you add an authorized user, and that user makes only one purchase of any dollar amount. The bonus is usually 5,000 points which seems like a no-brainer; easy points. This has worked out well for us, but I have heard rumblings of people not being qualified to receive the sign-up bonus on their own card if they were an authorized user on someone else’s account. Ever since I heard that, I’ve been a little weary of adding my wife as an authorized user if she hasn’t got the sign-up bonus for that card yet. For example, if neither of us had ever signed up for a Chase Sapphire card and we both want to get the sign-up bonus, I would sign up for it first without her being an authorized user. Then after I get my sign-up bonus, she could sign up for the card and add me as an authorized user (since I’ve my bonus is no longer at risk; I’ve already received it). I know some people still get away with it with no problem, but for me it’s not worth sacrificing the chance to get a 50,000 bonus for 5,000 extra points.

Regardless, between the two of you, you can still amass a large amount of points in a pretty short time.  Let’s assume both of you are able to get your own individual personal cards, and only one gets the Chase Ink Business Preferred. Let’s say you’re careful and decide to only go for the authorized user bonus on the second person to get the card. Once you’ve hit all your spending requirements, you will have earned 306,000 points. Oh, the fun you could have. Let’s see what you could do.

Hawaii

Hawaii

United Airlines charges 22,500 points per person for a one-way saver (which means your dates need to be a little flexible) flight between the mainland US and Hawaii. So two round-trip tickets would cost 90,000 points (22,500 points x 2 people x 2 flights). You’ll also have to pay a negligible amount for taxes. If I remember right it was about $10 per ticket when I went to Hawaii in 2014.

This leaves you with 216,000 points for hotels. And this is where you can get a bit more creative, and it’s really based upon what you value. Do you want to live in the lap of luxury for a couple of nights, or would you rather stay longer in more of a working man’s hotel? It’s really up to you, here’s some of your options if you were to stay in Maui.

HotelPoints Per NightNights Possible with 216,000 Points
Hyatt Regency Maui Resort and Spa20,00010
Hyatt Andaz Maui at Wailea Resort25,0008
Hyatt Residence Club Maui, Kāʻanapali Beach30,0007
Marriott Courtyard Maui Kahului Airport35,0006
Marriott's Maui Ocean Club - Molokai, Maui & Lanai Towers40,0005
Marriott's Maui Ocean Club - Lahaina & Napili Towers
40,0005
The Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua60,0003
Ritz-Carlton - Kapalua
Ritz-Carlton – Kapalua

If you only had 3 nights for a quick getaway, you could spend your whole trip at the swanky Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua. However, if you were planning on a longer trip, you could spend 10 nights at the Hyatt Regency Maui Resort and Spa, or anywhere on that spectrum. You’re more likely to spend around 5 days in Maui which would allow you a lot of different options. If you wanted to spend a couple nights at the Ritz you could, and then spend the remaining three nights at a less swanky hotel.

When we were in Hawaii, we spent our time in Maui at the Hyatt Andaz, and as you can see from the pics in this post, it’s nothing to complain about.

Florida

Miami Beach

United Airlines charges 12,500 points per person for a one-way saver flight between cities in the mainland US. So, again, two round-trip tickets would cost 50,000 points (22,500 points x 2 people x 2 flights). So in this example, you’d have 256,000 points left to spend on hotels. Here’s some of your options in Miami Beach.

HotelPoints Per NightNights Possible with 256,000 Points
Hyatt Regency - Coral Gables12,00021
Hyatt Centric South Beach Miami15,00017
Courtyard Cadillac Miami Beach/Oceanfront35,0007
Holiday Inn Port Of Miami - Downtown40,0006
Winter Haven, Autograph Collection40,0006
Ritz-Carlton The Miami Beach Edition70,0003
Courtyard Cadillac - Miami Beach
Courtyard Cadillac – Miami Beach

You’re probably getting the idea here, but I’ll do one more example and look at an international destination.

Australia

Sydney

United Airlines charges 40,000 points per person for a one-way saver flight between cities in the mainland US and Australia. Two round-trip tickets would cost 160,000 points (40,000 points x 2 people x 2 flights). So in this example, you’d have 146,000 points left to spend on hotels. Your options are more limited for hotels since the airfare is a bit more expensive. I’ll discuss ways to deal with that below. But first, let’s assume there’s nothing you can do about it and all you’ve got are 146,00 points for hotels. Here’s some options if your visiting Sydney.

HotelPoints Per NightNights Possible with 146,000 Points
Hyatt Regency Sydney20,0007
Park Hyatt Sydney30,0004
Holiday Inn Old Syndey40,0003
InterContinental 60,0002
Intercontinental - Sydney
Intercontinental – Sydney

As you can see, you can still have a decent vacation even when more points are used for airfare. However, there are ways to get more points to make up for it if you’d like to spend more time (which honestly, if you’re going to fly all the way to Australia, you should spend at least two weeks there). Luckily, all four of the Chase hotel partners have their own co-branded credit cards that offer either more points, or free nights as a sign-up bonus. You can sign up for them and get the bonus just as you would the Ultimate Rewards cards. The only difference is that the points you get from these cards are not flexible. You can’t transfer them from program to program. If you get a Chase Hyatt card, the points you get will only be redeemable at Hyatt hotels. This isn’t so much of a drawback as you can use the points to supplement what you can’t get with Chase points (or the other way around, depending upon how you want to look at it). I just want to make sure that the beginners understand the difference between what can be done with flexible bank points like Chase Ultimate Rewards points versus program specific points such as Hyatt points.

Here are the co-branded cards you can get to extend your stay longer. And remember, both you and your travel partner can each get a card so you can double up on the bonus points.

Credit CardSign Up BonusSpending RequirementTime FrameAnnual FeeAnnual Fee Waived First YearApplication Link
Hyatt Credit Card40,000 Hyatt Points $2,0003 Months$75NoApply Here
IHG Rewards Club Select80,000 IHG Rewards Points$1,0003 Months$49YesApply Here
Marriott Rewards Premier80,000 Marriott Points$3,0003 Months$85NoApply Here
Marriott Rewards Premier Business80,000 Marriott Points$3,0003 Months$99NoApply Here
Ritz-Carlton Rewards2 Free Nights in a Category 1 - 4$4,0003 Months$450NoApply Here

So there are just three examples of trips you could take by utilizing Chase travel reward partners. There are probably a few destinations where Chase partner hotels aren’t available; but for the most part, you’ll be able to visit pretty much any city you’d like. Some have tons of hotels, while others are more limited. Just do a quick Google search for any city you want to visit, and combine Hyatt, Marriott, IHG, and Ritz to see what’s available.

If there’s a city you want to visit, and you’re having a hard time figuring out award travel, leave me a comment and I’d love to look into it with you. As always, thanks for taking the time to read.

Top Sixteen Attractions in Paris, France

Top Sixteen Attractions in Paris, France

Paris is big. I mean big… really big. While many cities have a larger population not many surpass its global dominance in art, fashion, gastronomy, and culture. My most recent European trip to Paris allowed me to spend five days frolicking around this delightful city, yet I still didn’t feel I had enough time to enjoy it all. Having two trips to Paris now under my belt, I can confidently say these are the top sixteen attractions in Paris, France. And yes, I said sixteen. Not many cities will get a top (whatever) list that big either. Enjoy.

1 – Eiffel Tower

Eiffel Tower

One of the most iconic landmarks, the Iron Lady is worth the wait. Even if the wait is past thousands of street venders, through winding lines, and crammed into elevators like herded cattle. Before Dustin was completely converted to European travels he would say, “why go to Europe, to see the Eiffel Tower I can see the same thing in Vegas.” Of course I would counter with, “it’s not the same thing!”, and it isn’t. He came around to my thinking, which you can read more about here.

2 – Notre-Dame Cathedral*

Notre Dame

Standing in the square in front of Notre-Dame you can find point zero, the center of France and the point by which all distances in France are measured. Like many churches constructed in 1163 Notre-Dame, translated as Our Lady, is dedicated to Mary the mother of Jesus. However, the dedication mass wouldn’t occur for nearly two centuries when Our Lady was completed in 1345. The faith of the people mustering the money and energy to continue working on the cathedral, often without pay, is as astonishing as the structure itself.  Especially considering the medieval tools they had to work with.

Taller and filled with light from stained glass windows, the Gothic style encompassed in Notre-Dame is a major improvement over the Romanesque style. The height and windows are possible because of two things. First by crisscrossing pointed arches along the interior, which supports the weight of the roof by pushing it outward. Second, the famous flying buttresses on the outside of the cathedral also support the roof by pushing in against the arches pushing out. Although both of these features are for structural integrity, they are stunning. After walking through the cathedral, head up the 200 feet (60 m) tall bell tower that inspired Victor Hugo’s story of a deformed bell-ringer. The hideous yet functional gargoyles sticking out from pillars and buttresses represent the souls caught between heaven and earth while also serving as rain spouts. Entrance to the cathedral is free; however, climbing the bell tower to enjoy the spectacular views and gargoyles costs 8.50 euros. Nevertheless, if you have the Paris Museum Pass it is included.

Notre Dame Gargoyle

3- Sainte-Chapelle*

Although Notre-Dame is famous for its stained glass rose windows, the small Sainte-Chapelle is the place to see immaculate stained glass. A gem of Gothic style, the chapel was built in 7 years. An impressive feat, considering Notre-Dame took 200 years to complete. The stunning stained glass covers 15 windows all nearly 50ft (15m) tall. Each pane depicts different scenes from the Old and New Testaments. Visitors to the chapel are required to pass through security as the chapel is located in the center of the Palais de Justice, a government building.

Saint Chapel Windows – Photo Credit Christophe Benoist

4 – Seine River

By day or by night, enjoy time along the Seine River. Whether you choose a leisurely stroll along the banks or a romantic dinner cruise I recommend spending some on the Seine. My first evening cruise was magical and I couldn’t wait to take Dustin back to experience it with him.

The Seine River

5 – Pont Neuf

Pont Neuf or “new bridge” is the oldest standing bridge across the river Seine in Paris today. It connects the heart of the city Ile de la Cite to the rest of Paris. It was given the name to distinguish it from older bridges lined on both sides with houses. However, this bridge has remained after the others were replaced. All through the 18th century, Pont Neuf was the center of Paris. Alive with crime and commerce, the bridge attracted street performers, hustlers, pick-pockets, tooth pullers, sellers of flesh, and gangs hiding in and around it. Flocking to see the sights, laugh, chat, make love and enjoy life the bridge crowded with people. The central role of this bridge declined as its atmosphere subdued. Today you can stroll across a piece of history on this lovely bridge as you make your way to the heart of Paris.

Pont Neuf

 

6 – Paris Catacombs

I was ecstatic to go to the dark underworld of Paris’ catacombs. As a girl who is obsessed with Halloween and a touch of the macabre, this is right up my alley.

Before the remains of over six million dead were stacked below the streets of Paris, the catacombs began as a limestone quarry. The caves and winding tunnels of the quarry stretch over 186 miles (300 km) beneath Paris, but only a portion is open to the public.

By the end of the 18th century, Paris had a major problem. Cemeteries like Le Innocents were beyond full, and yet people still had the audacity to die. To make more room, Le Innocent exhumed the long-dead and packed their bones into mass graves. However, the dead continued to demand more places to lie which led to shoddy burials, unearthed corpses, and open graves. Naturally, people began complaining of the putrid stench of decomposing flesh. King Louis XV tried to solve the issue with a series of ineffectual decrees limiting burials within the city.

Paris CatacombsIn May of 1780 the situation came to a literal breaking point. A basement wall adjoining Le Innocent collapsed due to the mass grave behind it. Spilling rotting corpses into the neighboring property and forcing Parisian authorities to take action. The idea of moving the dead to the subterranean passageways of the recently renovated quarry gained ground and eventually became law in 1785. A nightly procession of the dead, hauled by wagon through the streets, continued for two years before the overpopulated cemeteries emptied.

Finally offering a place for all of the dead, the Paris catacomb walls are filled with bones. Nevertheless, not all of the tunnels of the old quarry are lined with stacked bones. In 2004 police discovered a fully equipped movie theater, a stocked bar, and restaurant in one of the caverns. In 2015 Airbnb paid 350,000 euros to offer customers the eerie chance to stay overnight in the Catacombs.

Whether you’re ready to spend a night with the dead or not I recommend making this a stop on your Paris trip. Just note that some can find this site disturbing. I do not recommend it for those that are highly claustrophobic as some of the passages are quite narrow. Nevertheless, exploring the dark underworld of Paris is fascinating, slightly creepy, and thoroughly enjoyable.

7 – Orsay Museum*

Orsay

Housed in an old train station built for the 1900 World’s Fair, the Orsay is a museum devoted to arts between 1848-1914. It holds the largest collection of impressionist and post-impressionist works in the world. The idea to house painting, sculptures, furniture, and photography from this era was to bridge the gap from the Louvre and the National Museum of Modern Art.  It’s rumored that most of the pieces were held in the basement of the Louvre until they found their home in the Orsay.

Given the choice between the Louvre and the Orsay I prefer the Orsay.  The fascinating works of Monet, Van Gogh, and Renoir are captivating and the size of the museum is more manageable than the vast Louvre. I suggest going to the Louvre and the Orsay on different days in order to appreciate each museum for what it has to offer.

8 – The Louvre *

The Louvre

Home to Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, the Louvre is considered the world’s largest art museum. It houses collections from western middle ages, ancient orient, Egyptian, Greek, Etruscan, Roman, and Islamic civilizations. In total there are 35,000 works to be discovered, and that’s just currently on display.

The museum’s 800-year-old history began in the late 12th century when Phillip II built a medieval fortress to protect the city from Viking attacks. Due to the ever-expanding city, the fortress lost its defensive function and was converted to the main residence of French nobility in 1546. During the French Revolution, it was decreed that the Louvre should be used as a museum to display France’s masterpieces.

With all the collections on display in the Louvre, I admit that the Mona Lisa is not my favorite. It’s a lot smaller than I realized and you’ll have to throw a few elbows to make your way past the hording crowds to get a good view. It lies behind bulletproof glass to shield the piece from attackers. Including acid and a rock which were thrown at the painting in 1956 before the glass was installed.

Some would argue that the Mona Lisa didn’t acquire her fame until a disgruntled employee stole her from the Louvre. After hiding in a broom closet until close, the thief walked out with it under his coat. The thief Vincenzo Peruggia believed the painting should be returned to an Italian museum to be displayed. Once caught, he served six months in prison for the theft. Shortly after the theft, the painting began being hailed as a masterpiece of the Renaissance. However you feel about the Mona Lisa, you should check out this piece.

I go to the Louvre for the sculptures. My favorite piece is Winged Victory of Samothrace. The statue is a winged female figure which stood on the prow of a ship. I love trying to figure out how the artist was able to carve wet clothing out of stone. Other sculptures of note are Venus de Milo and Cupid’s Kiss.

One thing for sure is that my feet tired long before I explored every inch of the Louvre. Plan on spending at least 2-4 hours at the Louvre. Trust me you won’t run out of things to look at. If you want to avoid crowds, go early in the morning or in the evening.

Winged Victory

9 – Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel

Located between the Louvre Museum and the Tuileries Garden. Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel was built to celebrate the victories of Napoleon and modeled after the famous Roman arches. This arch is richly decorated in rose marble and topped with a group of men on horses with names of battles and treaties of Napoleon. Take a moment to examine the three arches that comprise this monument before entering the Tuileries.

Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel

10 – Tuileries Garden

A public garden separating the Louvre Museum from the Palace de la Concorde gets its name from the tile factories that previously stood here. Originally created by Queen Catherine de Medici as the garden of the Tuileries Palace, for her escape. However, Louis XIV re-landscaped the garden which gives it the current French formal style. The gardens’ two ponds are great for relaxation and soaking up some sunshine, but you’ll have to fight for a coveted sun chair. We stopped here to rest our feet after a morning strolling through the Louvre.

Tuileries Garden

11 – Champs-Elysees

Just over a mile long, the Champs-Elysees is probably the most famous avenue in the world. Running a straight line from the Louvre, through the Tuileries Gardens past the Egyptian Obelisk of Luxor and the Palace Concord it has massive sidewalks lined with leafy trees. Once the meeting place for politicians, it is now a hub for luxury shopping. It’s worth taking a stroll along, regardless if you want to shop.

Egyptian Obelisk of Luxor

12 – Arc de Triomphe*

The Arc de Triomphe stands at the western end of Champs-Elysees in the center of the Palace Charles de Gaulle. Towering 162 feet above Paris, it is one of the most famous monuments. Built in honor for those who fought for France during the Napoleonic Wars, the arch has become a revered patriotic site. Names of generals and their battles are engraved on the inside and at the top of the arch, but I love it for the relief sculptures and beautiful views of the city from the top. However, while I was enjoying the panoramic views, Dustin was trying to figure out the rules of a 20+ lane roundabout as we had to drive through one the next day. He concluded there aren’t any.

Arc de Triomphe

13 – Moulin Rouge

The Moulin Rouge is unmistakably the most famous cabaret show. Glamorous women and athletic men showcase their talents as professional cabaret dancers in bright colorful costumes. Expect that some of the women will be topless, however you will not experience any full nudity. Tickets can range between 110-500 euros. Dustin and I didn’t have the opportunity to attend a show, but we stopped by the theater to snap a few photos of the famous building. In the day, Moulin Rouge souvenirs can be purchased from the store around the corner on Rue Lepic, regardless of show attendance.

Moulin Rouge

14 – Montmartre

Montmartre is a neighborhood in northern Paris. The original inhabitants were forced out of Paris’ prime real estate by Napoleon III so they moved to the outskirts. Establishing their own “town” without the strict rules of the city, the area became popular for less reputable entertainment and drinking.

During the mid to late 1800s the area became home to many artisans including Edgar Degas, Henri Matisse, Toulouse-Lautrec, Renoir and Picasso. A throwback to the artisan hey-day is Place du Tertre. A square just a few blocks from the Sacre-Coeur Basilica, Place du Tertre will tempt those passing by as today’s artist set up their easels and display their artwork. Wandering around the square, chances are you’ll be asked if you’d like your portrait painted, which can be a fun souvenir.  There are also many cafes and shops around the square offering artwork for reasonable prices. It’s easy to see why this area was, and continues to be, an inspiration to artists.

Monmarte
Photo Credit – Son of Groucho from Scotland

15 – Sacre-Coeur Basilica*

The white dome of this Roman Catholic basilica sits at the highest point in the city in Montmartre. Sacre-Coeur is built of travertine stone quarried in France. Inside you’ll find beautiful stained-glass windows and a mosaic in the apse that is among the largest in the world. Unfortunately, photographs are not permitted inside the basilica. Luckily tourists are permitted to climb the tower to the dome. After a winding climb up 300 steps, the top of the dome offers open air and spectacular panoramic views of Paris.

Sacre Cour

16 – Versailles

A day trip from Paris will take you to this magnificent palace and gardens. Originally a hunting pavilion for Louis XIII, the palace was expanded by Louis XIV and his ever-changing opulent style. For more about how to get there, tickets, and attractions of the palace and gardens click here. If you decide to go, make sure you wear comfortable shoes as you’ll want to investigate the gigantic gardens.

Orangery

 

*Entry ticket or tower access included with the Paris Museum Pass

Versailles Palace and Gardens Day Trip by Train

Versailles Palace and Gardens Day Trip by Train

Waking up in Paris next to Dustin was ethereal. It had been 10 years since I was in the city of lights, and I honestly wasn’t sure if I’d ever make it back there. Luckily, we learned how to achieve extraordinary travel on an ordinary budget using credit card bonus points.  This morning brought the electrified prospect of a Versailles and gardens day trip by train, a stop I had missed on my last trip to Paris.

Day trip to Versailles and Gardens

Getting to Versailles

Versailles is located 15 miles (25km) southeast of Paris, but instead of risking a traffic headache we opted to use public transportation. Since Versailles is an enormously popular tourist destination, trains run regularly from the city. Getting to the Versailles train is easily achieved by metro.

Unless you’re staying in Paris for weeks, I recommend purchasing a book of 10 tickets from the metro kiosk. It’s the most economical way to travel within the city, and if you use up your first book you can always purchase another. The only hiccup will be traveling from Versailles back into Paris, as it requires a separate ticket which can be purchased at the train station before your return for a few euros.

Having read about the crowds and the hellish lines we could be waiting in, we opted to start out early. After a short stop at the wrong metro platform, we made our way onto the correct train heading for Versailles. Exiting the platform, we were immediately bombarded by companies offering the “lowest” entry tickets. Trust me on this, if you haven’t purchased your tickets online, pass by all of these and head to tourist information center and purchase a Paris Museum Pass.

Paris Museum Pass

Paris Museum PassThe Paris Museum Pass grants access to almost all the big tourist sites in Paris. Best of all, this access allows you to enter the museums and monuments without waiting in eternal lines. It also grants access to the same site multiple times, if you choose. It is a HUGE time saver, and you may end up visiting some of the smaller museums that aren’t on your must do list. There are three options to choose from a 2, 4 or 6-day pass.

We chose the 4-day pass since it worked best for our itinerary. Before we purchased the Paris Museum Pass, I researched all the different places we wanted to see and how much each one cost so I could ensure we were getting the best deal. In order to be economical, we’d need to go to most of the major sites and even then, the savings were relatively small, but once I factored in the time it also saves it was easy to choose.

Ordering the pass online beforehand, will save you even more time. Just remember to allow enough time for it to ship. However, if you can’t purchase before your trip, you can obtain the pass from any participating museum location or tourist information center. For more information on the Paris Museum Pass, including pricing and participating locations, click here.

Chateau de Versailles

The palace is open every day except Monday, so plan your schedule accordingly. I recommend planning your visit to Versailles on a Saturday or Sunday, as the Musical Fountains and Garden shows run on those days, and should not be missed.

The palace began as King Louis XIII’s hunting pavilion, but was transformed and extended by Louis XIV when he moved his court and government there in 1682. It’s difficult to describe the opulence of the palace without learning a little about its most influential contributor, Louis XIV.

Louis XIV

LouisXIV
Sculpture by Gian Lorenzo Bernini – Photo by Louis le Grand

Louis XIV inherited the crown at the tender age of 4 years old. When he turned 18, he assumed full reign from his regent mother Queen Anne. In the age of divine kings, he viewed himself as the direct representative of God. However, he accomplished the personification of that belief in a way unlike his counterparts in Austria, Spain, and England.  Adopting the sun and the Greek God Apollo as his emblems, Louis XIV is still referred to as, “The Sun King”.

Having a history resplendent with rebelling nobles, he controlled them by luring them to this countryside estate and hooking them on an extravagant lifestyle. The nobles were so encompassed with trying to keep up with the King’s fashion and good favor that the pesky act of ruling was left to the King, a meticulous ruler who oversaw his programs to the last detail. Keeping favor included the privilege of attending the King’s getting up and going to bed ceremonies, or in later years watching him dine. Louis XIV must have figured out a couple of things about governing, in his 72-year reign.

Palace Rooms

The palace contains 2,300 rooms, many named after planets linking to sun mythology or after Greek gods and goddesses. Every room is dressed to the nines. When the crown needed funding, they simply melted down part of the décor to boost their funds. With each passing room, I begin to understand the outrage of the lower classes leading to the French Revolution whilst also marveling at the extravagance.

Hall of Mirrors

The most famous room is actually a hall. The Hall of Mirrors, named for the large mirrors that lie opposite the arched windows, was built to replace a large terrace between the King and Queen’s apartments. Like the rest of Versailles, the hall pays tribute to the political, economic, and artistic prowess of France. Foreign dignitaries were often led through the hall to witness the splendor of France and it’s King. Even after the fall of the monarchy, the hall was a place of significance. The Treaty of Versailles, that ended World War I, was signed in the Hall of Mirrors. Being a history nerd, I was geeking out just being in this immaculate room.

Many kings added to the splendor of Versailles until the French Revolution in 1789, which forced royalty to forsake the estate as a residence and flee before the guillotine and the people claimed their heads.

The Gardens

Enceladus GroveWork on the gardens began at the same time as the palace and lasted 40 years. Considering the gardens just as important as the palace, Louis XIV reviewed each project wanting to see every detail. Thousands of men took part in creating this immense project. To maintain the design, the garden needs to be replanted once every 100 years.

Describing the gardens as large, does them an injustice. Our feet failed us long before we reached a quarter of the park and gardens. Dustin and I decided if we return to Versailles we will spend a little extra for the golf cart to save our feet and see everything from the Orangery to the Queen’s Garden behind the Estate of Trianon. Nevertheless, we attempted to do just that.

The Orangery

OrangeryThe Orangery sits just below the palace.  Spreading across the Orangery are two-hundred-year-old orange trees from Portugal, Spain, and Italy as well as lemon, palm, and pomegranate trees. Louis XIV gathered all the orange trees from the royal houses and some new from nearby countries. If that wasn’t enough, courtiers desperately seeking the King’s favor offered him their own orange trees. Soon the Orangery had the largest collection in Europe. Moving the trees inside the building during winter, offers protection from inclement weather.

Groves and Fountains

To truly experience the gardens, pay the extra fee on Saturday or Sunday for the Musical Fountains and Garden shows. Each fountain and grove comes alive as water sprouts from the decadent sculptures accompanied by music. The show is timed so you can walk between each section of the garden. I found myself imagining what it must have been like as a courtier wandering through these gardens for hours.  221 sculptures adorn the paths leading in and out of the groves. Making it the biggest open-air sculpture museum in the world. I think Louis XIV accomplished his goal of making the gardens a dramatic statement of his power.

 

The Estate of Trianon

With all the King’s public displays of godliness, it’s not surprising that he’d want to escape the tedium of court and the many on-lookers. Louis XIV began construction on the Grand Trianon Palace at the far north end of the Grand Canal.

Marie-Antoinette, Louis XVI’s wife, is the most famous occupant of Trianon. Designed as a respite for the royal family, it is more secluded and intimate. Less gaudy in decor than the Versailles palace, it still exudes luxury. Marie-Antoinette took a particular liking to this estate spending much of her time here. She oversaw work on the gardens, now known as the Queen’s gardens.

Estate of TrianonPreparing for our trip, we asked a good friend who had lived in France what to see and do at Versailles. She told us her favorite part was the Queen’s gardens. Unfortunately, we missed it as our feet were throbbing after taking a few wrong turns on the grounds of Trianon. Dustin and I barely had enough left in us to make it back through the gardens to Versailles to catch the train back to Paris.

It was an exhausting, but very rewarding day. If you’ve ever been to Versailles, or if your planning on going there I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

 

 

Road Trip From Annecy to Paris, Beaune, and the Eiffel Tower

Road Trip From Annecy to Paris, Beaune, and the Eiffel Tower

As much as we loved the small town of Annecy, Paris was awaiting our arrival. It’s a five-hour drive, so we packed up early, said farewell to our gracious Airbnb host, and hit the road.

Beaune

About a third of the way to Paris sits the wine capital of Burgundy, the city of Beaune, pronounced bone. Ya, I had a lot of fun with that telling my wife that we’re going to Beaune. Being the wine capital of Burgundy, Beaune is surrounded by wine villages, and producers house their facilities within the city. We’re not alcohol drinkers so that’s not what lured us in. Rather, it was the venue for the annual charity wine auction that drew us there, the Hospices de Beaune.Beaune

Back in the 1400’s, when Burgundy was ruled by Phillip the Good, numerous massacres that occurred at the close of the Hundred Years’ War left many families in the countryside near Beaune destitute and susceptible to a recent outbreak of the plague. One of the Duke’s chancellors, Nicholas Rolin, and his wife built a refuge for the poor and inflicted in response. It served as a hospital for the underprivileged and church until the 1970s.

It was constructed rather flamboyantly, small, but still flamboyant. The building is made up of two wings surrounding a paver courtyard. The facades have ornate painting patterns as do the roof tops along with dormer windows. Inside is a room called the Room of the Poor. It is a long hall lined with beds on both sides with tables and benches in between for meals. The room opens into a chapel, allowing the sick to attend mass from the comfort of their beds.Beaune Hospital Beds

Entrance costs 7.50 Euros and the audio tour does a great job of explaining the rich history of this location. Each room was fascinating, from seeing meals preparation in the giant kitchen, to the display of old medical tools. This stop probably added about two hours on to our drive from Annecy to Paris, but well worth the time and money. Plus, it was nice to get a break from the car.

Arriving in Paris

The five-hour drive through the French countryside was surprisingly like a road trip in the United States. There were a lot of scenic areas interspersed with long, flat drives with nothing to look at. The last couple hours of the drive were rather rough as I had to keep slapping myself in the face to stay awake. However as soon as we hit the outer limits of the city, the anticipation of driving into the heart of one of the largest cities in the world did the trick to get me wide eyed and bushy tailed.

Our hotel was in La Defense, the business district of Paris about five miles northwest of the city center. As responsible travelers, we did extensive Google mapping of the area prior to arriving. As we looked at the streets, we noticed the lines not only make spaghetti patterns like most big cities, but were talking multiple levels of spaghetti. You couldn’t see half the roads when you clicked on satellite view because there are so many vertical layers of roads. Luckily the anticipation was worse than reality. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to pick up driving in Paris as my new pastime. But we were able to make it in to the parking lot of our hotel without major incident.

Thumbs up for Paris
Thumbs up for Paris

We planned to spend the last five nights of our trip in Paris. We didn’t have enough points or free nights in any one program to spend the whole time in one hotel. We were able to get our first three nights in the Hilton Paris La Defense located in the CNIT shopping mall. Since we arrived on Saturday, we were able to use our two free weekend nights we got from the Citi Hilton card (an offer that’s no longer available) as well as a third night using 72,621 of our Hilton HHonors rewards points that we got from the various American Express Hilton co-branded credit cards (luckily these offers are still available).

This area isn’t what you would imagine when you think of the typical Paris atmosphere. As I said, it’s in the business district and a good walk from any of the main Paris attractions. I enjoyed staying here. It’s close to metro access which gets you to all the Paris sites within minutes. So, if you’re looking to stay in the typical romantic Paris atmosphere, skip on this area. But if you’re okay with being in a more modern area outside of the city center, it’s a delightful place with comfortable rooms.

The Eiffel Tower

By the time we got checked into our room, showered, and refreshed from our long drive it was about 5 or 6 in the evening. We were a little hungry and wanted to go see the town. As I had never been to Paris, I wanted to head straight to Paris’ most iconic landmark, the Eiffel Tower. Since this was my first time using the metro we took a few minutes to figure out how the whole ticketing process worked. It was surprisingly simple. We made our way to the Bir-Hakeim exit and walked a couple blocks to arrive at the Eiffel Tower.

Honestly, I wasn’t prepared for how impressed I’d be with the Eiffel Tower. I mean, it’s a cool looking tower and I was excited to see it, but there’s just something about standing there looking at it. It really is an architectural marvel. Constructed for the 1889 World’s Fair, Gustave Eiffel won the contest to build the fair’s centerpiece with his plans for the Iron Lady. Given that his competitors were lobbying for a giant guillotine, it makes since that Eiffel won. Despite the tower’s 7,300 tons of iron and 60 tons of paint she is still a dainty lady as she weighs no more per square inch at her base than 245 lbs. (111 kg).

The tower is open 365 days each year and you can purchase tickets online prior to arrival, if you reserve a time months beforehand. If not, you’ll be waiting in lines for up to two hours, just for your ticket. Ticket prices vary depending on how far you want to climb the tower. There are three levels of the Eiffel tower. The top level is only accessible to the public by elevator and costs 17 euros. You can access the first and second levels by elevator or by climbing the 360 steps for each level. Elevator tickets for the second floor are 11 euros, and tickets to climb the stairs are 7 euros. If you can’t get your tickets prior to your arrival, don’t worry you’ll still be able to go you’ll just have to trudge through the lines like we did.

As the lines (both security and elevator) were rather lengthy we knew it would be hard to go out to dinner as well as go up the tower. Luckily, they do sell concessions at the base of the tower. So, I grabbed us a couple waters and a sandwich to share as we waited in line.

Buying tickets to the top, was the obvious choice for us. We could always climb the stairs on our way back down. It takes two elevators to reach the summit, and we wanted to experience the tower from top to bottom. We took the elevator up to the second level only to get into another line to wait for the elevator to go up to the top level. The wait however was quite enjoyable. By the time we were at this point, the sun had set and the lights began illuminating the city, which made for great scenery while we waited. My wife was kind enough to orient me pointing out the Notre Dame, the Louvre, and the Sacre Cour, all destinations we will write about in other posts.Streets of Paris

We finally made it to the top and the views from way up there are simply spectacular. It’s fun to look down at the large city and see all the patterns. There are tons of roundabouts with roads spreading out to connect to others like spokes on a wheel. During our time at the top, I was lucky enough to learn a little English jargon. An English mother who had obviously been lost in the winding city streets was pointing out to her child that from up here, you can actually tell that there is order to the city. From up here you can see that the streets aren’t so “higglty picklety.” I chuckled a little inside.

On our way to the bottom, we stopped at the first floor. I quickly walked out to the center to look down on the base of the tower. Behind me, I heard a guy say, “No thanks that’s not for me” and he stood back and looked from about 10 feet behind me. I wasn’t quite sure why he was so worried. I mean I don’t like heights, but if I feel safe and secure, it’s fun to look out from a nice vantage point. Plus, it’s not nearly as high as the level we just came from.Kendra on the Eiffel Tower

My wife looked at me with a little smirk on her face and asked, “Are you okay dude?” At this point, I realized I must be missing something. I looked around but couldn’t see anything out of the ordinary… until I looked down. There I was standing on clear glass staring 187 feet (57 m) down to certain death.  I then carefully tiptoed back to where Mr. “No Thanks” was standing on nice safe ground. Normally I notice that kind of stuff, but the way the light was hitting it in the night must have made it hard to see. Walking out on the glass is only for the brave, or idiots not paying attention to their surroundings.

Trocadero GardensTrocadero Gardens

When you go to Paris, expect to be bombarded by solicitors and scammers. As we arrived at the base, we decided to cross the Seine river and head over to the Trocadero gardens to get some pictures from Palais De Chaillott. On our way, we had to push through crowds of scammers trying to force their products on us. After several attempts, one man put a rose in my wife’s hand and then turned to me for five euros. When I told him I didn’t have it, he said he’d accept whatever I had. So, I grabbed the rose he put in my wife’s hand and gave it back to him.

He looked at me as if I had just murdered his firstborn. You know what, if I want to buy a rose for my wife, I’ll come to you and ask. This isn’t the way a business transaction works. The thing that bothers me about this, is that he knows that most couples wouldn’t be able to do this as it would cause an argument. Well he dicked with the wrong couple! Kendra and I see eye to eye on spending money on souvenirs. Anyway, off my soapbox.

We meandered through the gardens for a few minutes until we found a nice spot to sit and wait for the lights that glisten the tower at the top of every hour. As we sat, we had about 12 thousand people try to sell us beer, wine, or champagne.  In fact, until this day whenever I hear any one of those words, I think about my time at the Eiffel Tower. We grew very tired of saying no. Seriously every 15 seconds someone is approaching you.

We figured since we were in the city of romance, we would just start making out the next time someone offered. So we did. It was a bit awkward, but hilarious. There was one guy that I swear watched us kiss for a whole minute. Kendra started feeling awkward and started to pull back, but I was in this. I held on to her head and wouldn’t let go until he left. The guy did eventually give up so we were able to decouple. We were pleased with ourselves.

It was getting late and we had planned a long day of walking at Versailles the next day. So, we headed back to Bir-Hakeim to hop on the Metro and go back to our hotel for a good night’s sleep.

Top 3 Ways to Keep Miles From Expiring

Top 3 Ways to Keep Miles From Expiring

Once you’ve accumulated a few points in various rewards programs, it becomes easy to see them as you do money. This makes sense as they truly are a currency that provides immense value upon redemption. As such, it’s natural to be tempted to treat them as you would money. This makes sense in a lot of areas except one; saving. Don’t get me wrong, it’s good to save up points for a specific vacation goal and then use them. But you definitely don’t want to have a long-term points saving plan. This isn’t a 401(k) where the idea is to put your savings on auto pilot, stock them away, and then don’t look at them until your 65. Points don’t earn interest like money in the bank. Add that to the constantly changing rules, and the longer you keep your points, generally the lower value they will provide.

That being said, there are times when you may have a point balance, whether it be bank points or specific travel reward program points, that carry over from year to year. You may sign up for several large bonuses with a certain trip in mind, and then change plans and realize you don’t need the points for the particular trip you are going on. No problem; save them for your vacation next year. Once you get to this point though, you need to familiarize yourself with expiration policies. There’s nothing worse than logging into your American Airlines account after a prolonged period of time thinking that you’ve got 100,000 points to book some round-trip tickets to Hawaii, only to see a zero-point balance.

If you’re reading this post, you have nothing to fear. I’m going to explain the top 3 ways to keep miles from expiring. But first, let’s make sure we know the expiration timelines for all the different rewards programs.

miles expiration

Expiration Timelines

Airline Programs

AirlineExpiration Term
Alaskan Air24 Months
British Airways36 Months
DeltaNever
Flying Blue: Air France/KLM20 Months
Frontier6 Months
JetblueNever
Southwest24 Months
UnitedLast day of the 18th month with no activity
Virgin America18 Months

Hotel Programs

HotelExpiration Term
Club Carlson24 Months
Hilton12 Months
Hyatt24 Months
IHGNever
Marriott24 Months
Starwood12 Months

Bank Programs

Bank ProgramExpiration Term
American Express Membership RewardsNever
Barclay PointsNever
Chase Ultimate RewardsNever
Citi Thank You Points36 Months from the date you earned them

How to Keep Points from Expiring

1. Spend on a Co-Branded Credit Card

Co-branded card

This is by far the easiest and most effective way to keep your points from expiring. Every time you swipe your card it will earn points in your rewards program. This creates activity on the account and resets the expiration clock, even if it’s just for a $1.50 candy bar at the gas station. For example, let’s say I keep my Citi AAdvantage Platinum card in my wallet and use it often. American AAdvantage points have an expiration time frame of 18 months. So, it’s easy to assume that if I earn the points in January of 2017, that my points will expire in July of 2018. However, every time I swipe that Citi card, my timeline resets. So as long as I’m actively using that card, my points are safe for another 18 months.

This is fine and dandy if you’ve only got a couple cards. But once you’ve been doing this for a little while, your butt would really start hurting if you kept all those credit cards in your wallet. Plus, people would look at you funny since you’re always sitting uneven. Any who… shiny squirrel. The point is you’re going to have a stack of credit cards sitting somewhere in a drawer that you don’t keep in your wallet, because you’ve probably gravitated towards your favorite card to do a majority of your spending while you’re not working on a particular sign up bonus. Mine is the Chase Ink Plus; I love Chase Ultimate Rewards.

What I like to do, to make sure that none of my points ever expire, is to just pull that stack out every three to four months and just make sure I make one purchase on each of them. This makes paying bills for that month a bit tedious since I have to remember to login and pay for each card (there are ways to automate this, but I’m a nerd and prefer to consciously know what’s going on with all my accounts). Regardless of how manual or automated the process, doing this every few months ensures that your points will never expire. In addition to that, it also establishes a better relationship with the bank that issued the card. Banks don’t want to see you sign up for a card, spend just to get the bonus, and then never spend on the card again. This will be a benefit when applying for cards with that bank later down the road.

Though the easiest and most efficient, this method does have one drawback; the annual fee. Sometimes it’s worth it to pay the annual fee and keep the card. Especially if it has a rewards program you like, and even better, if it has an anniversary bonus. You can check out a post I wrote on that topic here. Other times it doesn’t make sense to pay the annual fee. Many cards have a no annual fee card to which you can downgrade. The Barclay Arrival Plus for example has a no fee counterpart called the Barclay Arrival. You can call Barclay to request a downgrade once the anniversary rolls around to keep all your points while avoiding the annual fee.

However, when the annual fee comes up and there are no anniversary bonuses or cards available for a downgrade, just part ways with the card. You can then use any of the options below.

2. Shopping Portals

Shopping Portal

Shopping portals allow you to earn points without a credit card by shopping online. Basically, how it works is the shopping portal purchases points from rewards programs to provide an incentive for people to shop on their portal. The retailers that provide the products pay the portal a cut. So as long as the portal owner makes more from the retailer commissions than they pay to the rewards programs, they make a profit. But really the big winner here is the consumer, because it allows them the option to get points without booking a stay/flight, or having to spend money on a co-branded credit card.

An added benefit is that if you do spend with a co-branded credit card, you’ll now double your points. Let’s use the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal for example. As of the date of this post, the Chase shopping portal offers 5 points per dollar spent at GNC. If I make a $100 purchase at GNC through the Chase shopping portal with my Chase Ink card, I would rack up 600 Chase Ultimate Reward points. I would get 1 point per dollar that I get just for using the Chase Ink, plus the 5 points per dollar spent through the online shopping portal. Let’s get creative and say I’m working on both Chase Ultimate Reward Points AND AAdvantage points. I could make the same purchase with my Citi AAdvantage or Barclay Aviator card and get 100 AAdvantage points and 500 Chase Ultimate Reward points. As you can see, there are a lot of different programs you can earn rewards with just because there are multiple portals that offer points for every rewards program, and if you add the benefit of making a purchase with the co-branded card, you get those per dollar points as well. The chart below contains many of the popular rewards programs with links to their associated online shopping portal.

Rewards ProgramPoint TypeLink
American AirlinesAAdvantageAAdvantageEshopping
British AirwaysAviosBA
Miles Estore
ChaseUltimate Rewards PointsUltimate Rewards Shopping
CitiThankYou PointsThank You Shopping
DeltaSkymilesSky Miles Shopping
Hawaiian AirlinesHawaiian MilesHawaiian Airlines eMarket
HiltonHHonors PointsHilton HHonors Shop to Earn Mall
SouthwestRapid RewardsRapid Rewards Shopping
UnitedMileagePlus PointsMileage Plus Shopping

3. Dining Rewards

Dining Rewards

This is an often-overlooked method of gaining bonus points. Like shopping portals, most rewards programs have a dining rewards program. Most of them operate similarly, you sign up and register with a credit card. Then whenever you go out to eat, you see which program your restaurant is in, then you use the card you registered in that program to pay the bill.  Depending upon the program and restaurant, you could get a 2 to 3, and even up to 8 points per dollar spent at participating restaurants. Many of them also have signup bonuses if you spend a certain amount at qualifying restaurants in a certain time frame (much like credit card bonuses). Below are the links to sign up for dining rewards programs.

Dining Rewards ProgramPoint TypePoints Per Dollar
Low | High
Sign Up BonusSpending RequirementTime FrameLink
AmericanAAdvantage1 | 5Up to 3,000 Points$25 at first restaurant
then 3 more restaurant visits
30 DaysAAdvantage Dining
DeltaSkyMiles.5 | 5Up to 3,000 (3,500 for Medallion Members)$30 at each of 3 restaurant visits 30 Days
Completion of an online survey is required within 30 days of each visit
SkyMiles Dining
UnitedMileagePlus.5 | 5Up to 3,000$25 at first restaurant
then 3 more restaurant visits
30 DaysMileagePlus Dining
AlaskaAlaska Air Miles.5 | 51,000$30 at one restaurant, and complete a survey that will be emailed to you30 DaysAlaska Mileage Plan
JetblueTrueBlue Points1 | 2N/AN/AN/ATrue Blue Dining
SouthwestRapid Rewards.5 | 3Up to 1,000$25 at each of 3 restaurant visits 30 Days
Completion of an online survey is required within 30 days of each visit
Southwest Rapid Rewards Dining
HiltonHHonors Points2 | 81,000$25 at any restaurant and complete online review within 30 days of dining30 DaysHilton HHonors Dining
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Conclusion

With the exception of a few rewards programs, most points will expire one day. It’s important that you know the expiration timelines for all rewards in which you participate so you don’t ever lose them unnecessarily. There are several ways to keep your points from expiring. Three of the best ways I like to use are to spend money on a co-branded card, shop through rewards shopping portals, and participate in dining rewards programs.

What are some of the ways you keep your points from expiring. I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

Top 12 Things to Do in Annecy

Top 12 Things to Do in Annecy

Top 12 Things to do in AnnecyIf I could go into the past and plan this trip again, I probably would have shortened up my time in Nice and Paris, and spent more time in Annecy. Looking back, it was my favorite stop of the trip. Annecy is a typical European town: narrow cobblestone streets, old buildings adorned with flowers and flags, and really cool old shit to look at, so naturally we fell in love with it. Between the mountain vistas, the lake, the food, and the charming town I would love to live here. Check out my list of the top 12 things to do in Annecy.

Top 12 Things to do in Annecy

1. Paragliding

Dustin ParaglidingFor a guy whose ass cheeks get clinched just thinking about heights, I would not have expected to enjoy paragliding as much as I did. In fact, if you want a more detailed read of this epic adventure, click here. Soaring above Annecy near the Alps, ranks as one of my all-time favorite experiences. Trust me it’s worth every euro for this unique perspective of Annecy.

2. Old Town, La Vieille Ville

Thiou CanalOld Town, La Vieille Ville, is nicknamed “the little Venice of the Alps” due to the three rivers that cross the area. The best way to explore this area is by foot. Stroll along the streets surrounding the Palais de l’Isle or up Rue Pierriere to Rue Sainte Claire which is full of restaurants. On Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday mornings there is a lively market along Rue Sainte Claire.  Whichever cobblestone street you choose to wander you’ll be delighted by the pastel buildings, the aroma of delicious pastries, and friendly people.

3. Bicycling Around Lake Annecy

BycicleSpend the day biking around the perimeter of the lake, if you get hot or tired you can always stop and cool off in the lake. We were lucky enough to stay in an Airbnb in Veyrier-du-Lac where Franck our host gave us access to his bikes. We spent a delightful evening cycling along the east shore perimeter before watching the sun set across the lake. Didn’t haul your own bike or stay with Franck? Don’t worry you can still rent bicycles, roller blades, or paddle boards in Annecy by clicking here.

4. Lac d’Annecy

AnnecyPerhaps this is a little obvious, but you should spend some time on this stunning lake. Fed by mountain springs, it is known for its crystal clean water. We decided to explore the lake by hiring a paddle boat that we found near Pont des Amours. On the paddle boat, we soaked up the views that can only be seen from the lake, while competing with Kendra to see who could pedal faster. If you’re seeking a bigger rush, several other companies rent equipment for water sports on Lake Annecy.

5. Pont des Amours or Lovers Bridge

Photo By I, Semnoz

Pont des Amours or Lovers Bridge sits at the edge of Lake Annecy at the mouth of Vasse canal. Legend has it, that if two lovers kiss on the bridge they will stay together forever. Although it is also rumored, that the early years of the bridge had a shadier tale; it was the place to meet prostitutes. Whichever legend you prefer, it arguably offers the most amazing view of the lake and surrounding alps.

6. Jardin de l’Europe

Jardins de l'EuropeMinutes from the heart of old town Annecy, the Jardin de l’Europe is a huge lakeside urban park covered with giant trees.  The park was built on a former swamp island in the late nineteenth century. The gardens provide fantastic views, cool shade, and is an ideal place for a picnic or to sit back and relax, without the hustle and bustle of the nearby streets. In addition to the beauty, the park also has free public restrooms.

7. Palais de l’Isle

Palais de l’Isle, or “the thing” as we called it, used to be a medieval castle and prison but is now an art and history museum. This castle is what drew us to Annecy. Squatting in the middle of Thiou canal, surrounded by pastel buildings and bridges adorned with bright-filled flower boxes, it’s easy to fall in love with Palais de l’Isle and Annecy.  Like hundreds of other tourists, you’ll be hard pressed to not stop on one of the many bridges that cross the canal to snap a picture of this alluring castle.

8. Food

Crepes

Swiss DinnerI won’t pretend to know the ins and outs of the Annecy food scene, but I will tell you about the delicious food we had, and where we found it.

  • La Creperie du Thiou – We lucked out in stumbling upon this place right around lunch time. Kendra had always told me how great the crepes and croissants were in France, so I decided to put her word to the test. As always, her word pulled through. We had both a sweet and savory tooth that needed to be satisfied, so we got a chocolate covered crepe, as well as a ham and cheese one. The pic above will do them more justice than any of my words.
  • Le Sarto – Being so close to the border, there is plenty of Swiss influence in this area. Having wet our palettes with Swiss cuisine on our previous trip, we couldn’t resist the Swiss restaurant situated next to the canal overlooking the Palais d l’Isle. We were served a chicken breast covered in a mushroom sauce with melted cheese along with bread to dip in Gruyeres Fondue. Ya… my tongue was hard.

9. Chateau de Annecy

Chateau d'AnnecyRising dramatically above the old town, is this castle built between the 12th and 16th centuries as a residence for the counts of Geneva. After several fires, it was abandoned as a home in the 17th century. With a few repairs, it served as a barracks until 1947. In 1953 the city of Annecy acquired the property and restored the castle to house a museum of modern art.

The steep cobblestone climb from the Thiou canal is beautifully encompassed by moss covered rocks and ivy creeping over ancient buildings. We opted to just explore the outside of this castle, but if you’re inclined to tour the museum, the Queen’s tower and castle walls offer a spectacular panoramic view of Annecy.

10. Beaches

BeachThere are many beaches and accesses to lake Annecy. These three are my top recommendations:

  1.  Plage St Jorioz on the southwest shore of the lake this beach offers a large parking area, lifeguards, and a sandy beach.
  2. Plage de la Brune lies on the northeast shore of Lake Annecy. This beach is situated next to restaurants, so if you forget to pack lunch this is an ideal location. Quite a bit smaller than St Jorioz, it tends to be less crowded; however, parking is small and fills quickly.
  3. Plage D’Albigny sits along the north-central shore, and is connected to the Jardin de l’Europe . It is close to old town which offers plenty of parking, nevertheless if you’re looking for sand skip over to St Jorioz as D’Albigny beach is rocky.

11. Chateau de Menthon

Château de Menthon Saint Bernard
Photo by Florian Pépellin

Chateau de Menthon sits high on the hill in Veyrier-du-Lac just 15 minutes from old town Annecy.  Offering reenacted tours of medieval times by actors it sounds pretty fun, right? The downside is, these tours run seasonally and are only offered in French.  This majestic castle is the castle that inspired Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, so even if you’re not fluent in French it’s worth checking out.

12. Gorges du Fier

Gorges du Fier
Photo by Rémih

 

Gorges du Fier
Photo by Guilhem Vellut

Gorges du Fier is a natural wonder of the Alps region, located just 6 miles (10km) west of Annecy.  It’s a breathtaking river canyon with a suspended footbridge affixed to the rock face 82 ft (25 m) above the river over a narrow gorge. It also has a natural pool for swimming and a small café offering snacks if you get peckish.

The river canyon is open daily between March 15 and October 15 opening at 9:30 with last chance for entry at 17:15. Visiting this enchanting canyon requires a minimal fee of 5.70 euros per adult, 3 euros per children ages 7-15. Children under 7 are free. Luckily, there are two free car parks for public use, so getting here couldn’t be any easier. This easy climb is suitable for pregnant women and elderly; however, it is not wheelchair accessible.

Unfortunately, we did not learn about this attraction until after we got home. Hopefully, after reading this post you won’t miss it like we did. Because it is definitely on my list to see the next time we are in the area. For more information regarding Gorges du Fier, click here.

Alright all you Annecy connoisseurs, have you had the chance to do any of these things? Are there any fun activities that I’ve missed? I’d love to hear about it in the comments. As always, thanks for reading.