New York, New York

It almost seems cliche to wax eloquent about New York. After all, it is the most iconic city in. the. world. I am absolutely giddy thinking about our planned return trip this summer. So as a fun refresher on the past, and an exciting foreshadow of what’s to come, I thought I’d recap some of the highlights of our New York Trip in 2011.

Broadway (~$70/person).

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Self explanatory. Everything I had hoped and more. We bought tickets the morning-of at the South Street Seaport (better selection, shorter lineups, and opens earlier than the Times Square location). We ended up choosing Mary Poppins – the music and venue were spectacular, and our seats were incredible.

The HighLine Park (free)

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Weaving through the lower streets of Manhattan as an “aerial greenway,” this outdoor park is lesser-known, but one of our favourite memories of the city. Recommended by my brother, it’s a green oasis in the midst of the chaos. The infrastructure they’ve developed is fantastic; little splash-pads for the kids, lots of seating for, ahem, us older folks. We also managed to score a great piece of artwork at the kiosks dotting the last portion of the walk.

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Central Park (free)

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Sensing a theme? Free and green is our forte. The scale and calm of the park was such a start contrast to the rest of the city. It really made Manhattan feel not unlike the Maritime s – that is until you looked up and saw skyscrapers and yellow taxis dotting the landscape.

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The Rockefeller Center (~$30/person)

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Going to the top of some tall building is basically a requisite of visiting New York. I’d never considered any option other than the Empire State, but based on the advice of others (and since John had already gone up the Empire State) we went to the “Top of the Rock.” It was break-taking at night.

Inside was pretty cool too. We tossed around the idea of waiting in line to snag (free) tickets to some late-night comedy show, but ended up opting to just tour the city instead…

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The New York Public Library (free)

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The architecture is gorgeous and the free exhibits are spectacular. We wandered in after strolling through Bryant Park (another great little green space that has a small-town-feel), and only had a few minutes to look at the special exhibit.

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Times Square (free)

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The hub of the city, we passed through Times Square multiple times every day. It’s exhilarating and overwhelming. And just plain cool. We ate at the Olive Garden right in Times Square which we plan to make a tradition when visiting the Big Apple.

Grand Central Station (free)

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Nothing screams NYC like GCS. Can a non-New Yorker get away with calling Grand Central Terminal, GCS? I mean this place even shows up in Madagascar. Stunning architecture; love the classic remnants in such a modern city. Remember to look up; the ceilings steal the show!

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Wall Street (free)

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It was really interesting to stroll through the downtown section of Manhattan – walking past Trump towers and Tiffany Co. (yes, I did salivate over their window offerings). It’s incredible how condensed everything is, and how underwhelming the New York Stock Exchange is…

Staten Island Ferry (free)

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The ferry was nothing to write home about, but it gives a nice (and free) perspective of the Statue of Liberty. Perhaps if I was an American I’d be more inclined to actually get up-close-and-personal with Lady Liberty, but the free views from the ferry were a nice alternative. Also gives a nice view of the lower portion of Manhattan and the Brooklyn Bridge.

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While we plan to repeat most of these venues on this summer’s trip (maybe even two theater shows; one on-Broadway and one off?), we have a few other spots we’re hankering to visit, including the MET, Cloisters, and Botanical Gardens. We also plan to take a water taxi tour and visit the Intrepid Sea/Air/Space Museum. We’ll likely also stop by “Ground-Zero” – they were still constructing the Freedom Tower when we visited last. If we have the time we’d also like to see the exterior of “Tom’s Restaurant” from Seinfeld (and maybe the exteriors of the Huxtable’s residence from the Cosby Show and Monica’s apartment from Friend’s). So much to do…so little time.

A few other touristy notes:

We stayed in New Jersey; most hotels have shuttle services to Times Square or are within walking distance to a subway station, making them a more affordable, yet relatively convenient, location to stay.

Buy umbrella’s early. I was stubborn (despite not having a jacket) and waited until we were fully soaked (literally, soaked) to buy an umbrella. The first one was $5, and the next was $8. They know how to inflate prices at the most inconvenient of times.

Wear good shoes. Oyyy – the walking we did was incredible (definitely the best way to see the city AND save money) and even wearing good sneakers (with orthotics) I was exhausted.

Denmark Adventures: The Last Days…

Wow. Nearly five months later, I’m finally wrapping this up.

Our last day in Copenhagen was unassuming. John and I took a quick detour back to the Glyptotek to settle some unfinished business – our first visit we’d arrived too early, and had dealt with some accessibility issues while toting a stroller. Armed with the Ergo, and a sense of determination, we arrived (on time) for a second free tour.

Honestly, we didn’t fare much better. Abby was beside herself in the backpack, and it’s pretty distracting to have a child (unhappily) drumming on your back while reading painting placards. We saw a few things, and called it a wrap.

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We biked around the city (I got us lost at one point) until lunch time, and had to snap of a pic of this electric car on the way home.

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After a nap and some packing, we took one last bike tour. This time we left the city and headed up the coast, ending up at the town where we’d hopped on a train after our adventure at the Deer Park. It was nice to say we’d biked the whole stretch, and it was a gorgeous, albeit cool, evening.

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Our wake-up call was early. So early, in fact, Abby hadn’t yet woken for her nightly serenade. 4:00 I think to be exact. I choked down some toast and poor Abby was completely disoriented (but quite content) with it all. We boarded a bus around 6 AM and Tim made sure we made our connection to the airport safely.

Then we were on our own. Before long we were off to Iceland. To save $200 (we are frugal you know), we had elected for a LONG layover in Iceland. Almost 10 hours to be exact. That $200 went right toward one last adventure. We’d vascillated between the Blue Lagoon (a tourist trap day-spa) and visiting Rejkavik. Honestly, we hadn’t quite made up our mind until we touched down.

We’re from Canada. We know cold. It was cold. About 4 degrees. Abby was in capri pants. Everyone else was wearing winter parkas and balaclava’s. The thought of walking around Reykjavik all day was less than appealing…

A 20-minute bus ride later and we arrived at the Blue Lagoon. The landscape is hard to describe. Like some foreign planet, the likes of which you’d expect to see on an episode of Star Wars. Large rocks and craters dotting the landscape. Desolate. Cold. Yet undeniably gorgeous.

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It was cold. Bitterly cold. And a bit embarrassing to admit we were from Canada and should have known better.

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After spending several tearful minutes trying to figure out the locker systems (seriously…so hard when trying to juggle a toddler), ripping absorbent liners out of a diaper (since in my Mommy oversight I packed neither a swim diaper OR a bathing suit for the little one), we made it into the water.

It was kinda miserable at first. The wind was cold, and poor Abby’s teeth were chattering nonstop.

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But then we found this delightful little nook, where the water was soooo warm. Isolated from the wind, it was a little oasis (although the lifeguards walking around in down jackets were an ever present reminder of the outside temperature).

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What a trooper dear Abby was – staying in the water for several hours, and loving it! Getting out was brutal, but a nice hot shower later, and we were good to go.

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Once we were dressed, the temperatures (and extreme winds) really came as a shock.

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The poor thing, who barely slept on the way to Iceland, dozed for a few minutes on the way back to the airport, but of course woke up once we arrived. We had three or four hours to kill, so she spent most of that time running around an abandoned part of the airport like she owned the place.

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Her energy was waning by departure time, though. So we snuggled a bit, and were oh-so-ready for the last leg.

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And yes, we were in the exact same outfits as our departure – not at all planned. Comfort beats fashion any day.

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The return flight was definitely the most challenging. We were all exhausted. Abby had been awake for nearly 15 hours…she tossed and turned and cried…and I almost cried. And then we arrived home…and were one of the last to get into the Custom’s line. And because it was so late at night, there were only a handful of customs agents. And Abby was squirming and crying and it was just miserable. But how wonderful it was to emerge and see friends there to greet us (and chauffeur us home). Abby slept most of the way, and when I slipped her into her bed, she look so incredibly happy to be home and immediately fell asleep.

I, on the other hand, gorged on delicious chocolate cupcakes and milk (the food left in our fridge by friends)..

What an adventure. Easy with a toddler in tow…no. But we made some incredible memories and would do it again in a heartbeat. Although I know she’ll never remember details from the trip in years to come, she still does ask, on occasion, to go fly “airpwane” and see Uncle Tim!

Day 1&2, Day 3, Day 4, Day 5, Day 6, Day 7, Day 8, Day 9, Day 10, Day 11, Day 12, Day 13, Day 14, Day 15&16

A Penny Saved – Travel Edition

Frugal is en vogue these days. With ‘economic downturn’ and ‘bail-out’ and ‘foreclosure’ part of everyday vernacular, it’s no wonder the national pocketbook is a bit pinched. While far from experts, our little family has developed, implemented, and maintained some concrete money-saving habits.

Since we’re in the throes of dreaming about our upcoming vacation to New York City, I thought I’d start by outlining some of the ways we save money while traveling.

A few side-notes. I think, in general, all people have areas where it is natural and easy to be frugal. Take vacationing for instance – while we choose to save money on entertainment (we’re a no cable/satellite and one-movie-theatre-experience-a-year-on-cheap-night kind of family), we “splurge” on travel.

Secondly, none of these are earth-shattering in their complexity. If you happen to think they’re mind-numbingly obvious, you would be correct. We’re not rocket scientists here…

Airfare

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Flying ain’t cheap, especially when you add in the arm-long list of airport fees.

  1. Shop around : check different airlines and pay attention to (and if possible avoid) peak traffic times (holidays/weekends)
  2. Be flexible: try a variety of departure dates, and consider less-than-ideal departure/arrival times. Taking a red-eye can result in some pretty major savings, if you’re willing to suffer the trade-off of exhaustion.
  3. Use points: most major credit cards come with reward incentives that involve airfare. Aeroplan would be familiar to most, but lots of other options exist.
  4. Drive: for local vacations, consider driving. Remember, though, that it’s not always the cheapest option if you factor in parking fees (which can be high in larger cities), gas, and the wear-and-tear on your car.

Accommodations

1. Do your research:

  • Read the reviews: we always read the reviews; don’t dismiss a hotel with a lower-than-you’d-hoped-for overall rating. Maybe one reviewer doesn’t like the shower pressure, or is upset the TV doesn’t get more channels. Lots of superfluous (to us at least) things can bring overall ratings down, but are relatively inconsequential. Reviews also reveal red flags like cases of food poisoning, excessive noise, bedbugs etc.,). TravelAdvisor.com/.ca is a great resource.
  • Factor in the “extra‘s”: if a cheaper hotel room means you’ll end up doubling transportation costs to and from the beach/city center etc., it may not be your best alternative.

2. Get a Continental Breakfast: self explanatory. Eliminates the cost of breakfast and is an added convenience (families can split up breakfast/showering/morning preparation). We usually eat a large breakfast, and then eat a late lunch/ early supper, only paying for one meal the whole day.

3. Use reward points: also self explanatory. Again, most credit cards offer points that can be redeemed at large hotel chains. If you travel often, consider collecting loyalty points for a particular chain. CAA/AAA often have preferred locations where discounts are available.

4. Shop online: we’ve booked using Expedia with good success, and there are a variety of websites that offer discounted rates. In some cases you can bid on room prices and walk away with large discounts (this is generally a last minute scenario).

5. Consider Bed and Breakfasts: while this is a personal choice, if possible, we prefer staying in bed and breakfasts. By shopping around, we usually find rates to be lower and service to be much better than traditional hotel options. Also, it’s hard to beat homemade food in the morning.

6. Stay with family and friends: we often schedule vacations around visiting family/friends. This can free up extra funds to take in local attractions and often saves precious resources on food costs too, since cooking at home becomes an option.

Food

1. Continental Breakfast: already noted above; while the quality can vary, a continental breakfast is a good way to keep food costs low. We eat a large breakfast, and generally have a small snack mid-afternoon, reducing costs to one meal per day. Can you tell we really think CB’s are a good deal?!

2. Plan your splurges: We choose to eat relatively inexpensive meals for the majority of our trip (think Subway or healthy snacks), and then plan a few special outings (in New York we wanted to eat at the Olive Garden in the middle of Times Square, and budgeted accordingly).

3. Cook at home: many hotels have mini-fridges that can hold some rudimentary sandwich ingredients, yogurt, and granola bars. If you are based out of a home/condo, consider cooking at home for most meals, and again, planning occasional splurges.

4. Eat novelty food: buy street vendor fare in New York City, eat traditional Danish pastries in Denmark, have Key Lime Pie in Florida…it’s a great way to combine food AND entertainment since food traditions are part of local culture.

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Fresh churros in Denmark.

Entertainment

1. Free is best: well, best for the pocketbook at least. Many museums have “pay-what-you-can” options, or flat out free days. We found this repeatedly in Denmark where most museums were free to the public at least one day per week. Free concerts/outdoor plays are common in summer months; libraries often host free events.

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The Ringling Museum in Florida – free on Mondays.

2. Pick one of the two…or three: when we visited New York City, two of the main attractions are the Empire State Building and the Rockefeller Centre. We chose one option (the “Top of the Rock” tour) knowing the two experiences would be so similar.

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3. Plan splurges in advance. We KNEW going to New York City we would spend well over $100 to go visit Broadway. So, it came as no surprise when we spent nearly $150 accomplishing this goal. In Florida we wanted to visit the Kennedy Space Centre. Again, research your options, and the price points of each. Set a budget and chose entertainment selections accordingly.

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Lucky enough to see one of the last shuttles out on the launch pad.

4. Walk, walk, walk. I’ll touch on this below, but one of the best ways to fill time, see a location, and save money is to walk.

Transportation

1. Walk/Bike: Cabs and subway passes can add up. As much as possible, try to walk or take a bike. It’s the best way to see a city, and healthier for you and the environment.

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The HighLine – one of our highlights from New York City. Free, and a good excuse to get some exercise!

2. Carpool: when cars are necessary, when possible, try to carpool or consider public transit (usually the best option in larger cities where driving and parking are a nightmare)

Souvenirs:

1. Start a tradition: it’s easy to get caught up in the world of souvenirs and not know when to stop (like the advertisement we saw the other day of someone trying to sell a giant stuffed M&M doll – originally $300).

  • We mail ourselves a postcard from every spot we visit. It’s cheap, so fun to arrive home and have a postcard…from yourself…and very inexpensive
  • We try to buy a small piece of blue stained glass (random, I know)