Show Posts

This section allows you to view all posts made by this member.


Topics - @Yehuda

Pages: [1] 2 3 4 5
1
Just Shmooze / YU in NCAA Div III Tournament
« on: March 02, 2018, 01:34:31 PM »
First time winning the Skyline Championship in YU history, securing a spot in the Div 3 tournament.

First round live now https://portal.stretchinternet.com/ycp/portal.htm?eventId=432350&streamType=video

Secondary link, not working as well http://jbstv.org/watch-live/

2
At 7 weeks old, it was time for us to take our first trip with DD (dear daughter)! We thought it would be easier to do a driving trip than a flying trip (not sure we were right), plus my wife had never been to Niagara, so it was decided. I briefly considered flying to BUF, but between the lack of miles availability and the cost of renting a car/taxiing from BUF to Niagara and back nixed that plan pretty quickly; a road trip it would be! An extended July 4th weekend was a great amount of time to experience Niagara, but between the US holiday weekend and being the 150th Canada Day, it meant we were in for a boatload of traffic.

Day 1 – Friday, 6/30
We left Friday morning, and with a ~6 hour trip ahead of us, I planned stops every 2 hours to break up the trip with DD. What I failed to do was properly lay out the stops with her eating schedule, so we ended up stopping a few more times than expected. But that was okay because traveling long distances on Erev Shabbos is always a good idea, right!? *foreshadow*

2 hours from home we stopped at Krispy Kreme in Scranton. With so many delicious-looking doughnuts, it was hard to choose. I liked how they package them up in the little box and have the touristy hats to put on. After we ate, it was time to feed DD, which worked out well, before getting back on the road.





About 2 hours later, we arrived at the Corning Glass Museum ($20 admission). It was definitely more interesting than a classic art museum, but we didn't think it was as exciting as others made it out to be. We had been fortunate to see glass blowing in Murano, so the demonstrations here didn’t interest us, despite being a much better production that the 5 minute show we got in Italy. The museum is huge, but we went through it relatively quickly (still spent 2 hours there), including another meal time for DD. Being allowed to bring a stroller in was very helpful.




My sciencey wife loved this section






Up-close this looked like a mess of glass cups, but from afar, the trees came into sight

We were now 2 hours away from Niagara, with no more stops planned, when we hit holiday traffic. Google Maps changed our route (off the DDF-recommended scenic route, although still with nice farm views), but we were now scheduled for a 3 hour drive, which meant we had to pull over to feed DD again. When we finally got to the Rainbow Bridge (I know it's not the recommended bridge to take, but we trusted Gmaps), traffic was absolutely crawling and DD was screaming. As the clock ticked towards Shabbos, I realized we had no shot of getting there with breathing room. 15 more minutes and having only moved 50 feet, and there would be no time for showering. 10 more minutes and just a drop closer meant candle lighting was in danger. We got our first view of the falls from the bridge, but couldn’t appreciate it due to the stress of the clock. As we got to the customs window, I nervously pulled out our driver’s licenses and a copy of DD’s birth certificate. I had been told you need the original birth certificate, but had applied for DD’s passport just days before the trip, not realizing they keep the original birth certificate during the process. Luckily, I had made a copy of it beforehand and was told it would be up to the customs agent to let us through or not. I was ready to beg if there was a problem, but fortunately, he had no issue with it. Unfortunately, there was another problem. “These are your licenses… where are your passports?” OUR PASSPORTS!? I recall for some reason telling myself while packing that you only need a license to cross the border. “Sir, you know you’re going into another country, right? You need a passport to do that…”

I don’t think I need to describe my wife’s face at this time. I apologized profusely to the agent for leaving our passports behind, and thank G-d he let us through. I gunned it out of there for the 10 minute drive to our hotel, the Four Points by Sheraton Niagara Falls Fallsview, which is on the Canadian side (not to be confused by the hotel with the same name without the word "Fallsview" which is on the US side) booked for 3K SPG/night for 2 nights. The DDF tip of parking at the casino across the street for cheap didn't work out because we didn't have time to walk from there to the hotel, plus the sign outside didn’t say $5 this time (I think it was $35), as makes sense on a holiday weekend. We pulled up to the hotel with just a precious few of the 18 minutes left, gave the car to valet ($33 a day, gulp!) and ran inside. We checked into our room and were upgraded to a jacuzzi room on a low floor as requested in advance. Being on a low floor meant no view of the falls, but the choice was an easy sacrifice when carrying a stroller, and we would have a nice room view later on in the trip. We had 5 minutes and then ran downstairs to light candles just in time. Not the way you want to start a trip or a Shabbos, but we made it! I didn't take pictures, but here is the room from the hotel's site.



Chabad offers wonderful Shabbos meals for $120 a person in the basement ballroom of this hotel, which is incredibly convenient for a hotel that only costs 3K and is across the street (within a small Eruv) from the Chabad Shul. We sat with random people at our table, and of course it turned out that one guy was our friend’s uncle. There was a generous amount of food and a friendly Chabad Rabbi running the show who made everyone introduce themselves, and surprisingly very few people fought hard enough to abstain from participating. A large Israeli tour group took up 5 tables and kept us entertained (for lack of a better word) with Sefardi Zemiros/t :P during the meal. Thankfully, DD slept in her Doona at dinner.

Day 2 - Shabbos, 7/1





Shacharis across the street was fully packed, even on the women’s side. Throughout Shabbos, the Rabbi gave several pitches about the work he does for the community, and he must really know what he’s doing because people were donating 100 x Chai easily at almost every Aliyah. Lunch was equally as nice as dinner. In the afternoon, while others went for a walk to see the falls, we were confined to the Eruv, so we walked the 5 minute total area of the Eruv a few times and hung out in the relatively small lobby playing games we brought with us until Mincha/Shalosh Seudos/Maariv.

We didn't do much on Motzai Shabbos, although Chabad has incredibly worked out with the hotel to get separate swimming hours for men/women on Motzai Shabbos. The hotel is attached to an arcade and shopping center and has a Starbucks inside that they gave us free drink vouchers for.

Day 3 - Sunday, 7/2
We started the day by going on a walk to try and see the falls. I don’t know where people saw them from on Shabbos, but walking around the plazas nearby led us to views entirely blocked by trees and landscaping. Plus, the closest street we found was still a few stories above the ground level of where the falls are. We actually passed the Falls Incline Railway which gives people a nice view of the falls and takes you down to falls/ground level, but between the long line, planning on getting a nice view later on in the trip and not actually wanting to go all the way down now, we turned back to the hotel.

This is where we learned a mistake re: traveling with a baby. Packing up to switch hotels on just a 4 night trip was rough and ended up killing half the day. While this hotel was really convenient for Shabbos and is right next to the 2 Kosher restaurants that are in the Chabad building, it's further from basically all the activities we wanted to do, so we spent the next two nights in the more "fun" (touristy) area, Clifton Hill. Before leaving this side of town, we got lunch at Top Nosh. The place was very heimish from the slow ordering process, to no one clearing tables, to the long wait for food to the salad being just a dumped out bag of Dole lettuce, but having hot Kosher food in Niagara that actually tasted good was really appreciated. $40 was a bit steep for what we got, but makes sense being far from home.





We stayed at the Sheraton on the Falls (not to be confused with Sheraton at the Falls on the US side - seriously, Sheraton, you gotta fix these names!) for 10K SPG/night for 2 nights. While it should have only been 5 minutes away, with the holiday traffic the drive (and each return trip to the restaurants) took 15-20 minutes.



On the way over, we passed by the Skylon Tower, which I planned to skip before the trip because why pay to go up and get a view if you can get a hotel room on a high floor with the same view? At the hotel, we did valet again as it was just easier with the baby. Resort and valet fees were $55 after some of it was comp'd due to the long wait times for our car we had a few times. For cell service, we took the advice of turning our phones to network only which avoided roaming and was supposed to pick up the US signal. It didn’t work at all at the first hotel (but wifi did the job), but at this one and at the different activities we went to, we were able to pick up service. We were very happy with our upgraded room with a view of both the American and Canadian/Horseshoe falls. You’ve been patient enough until now, so you can finally have a picture of the falls.


View from the room, both falls


View from the room, American Falls


View from the room, Candian Falls. Yes, there’s always a huge mist blocking the view

It was after 3PM by the time we headed out for the day – as I said before, switching hotels with the baby really impacted the day. There are activities packages you could buy but before the trip I had seen that none of them offered all the activities we wanted to do and were not good deals once you factor in that you’re also paying for all the activities you aren’t interested in, so we paid for each activity on its own Chabad supposedly offers individual activity deals besides for their J-Pass package, but they were not very organized with this, and I never had a good chance to meet with them to buy tickets. We headed down for the 10 minute walk to the Rainbow Bridge with a plan to walk across to America to Goat Island and Cave of the Winds. Halfway there, I realized I forgot DD’s birth certificate copy, so we returned to the hotel. On round 2, as we approached the exit to leave Canada, we were greeted by signs warning us to bring our passports with us or else be refused entry back in. I totally forgot about this consequence of not having our passports, despite having written in my trip planning notes for this activity – “need passports” >:(. My wife said no way were we taking the chance again, so we returned back to the hotel again, frustrated but determined to make something work today. We’ll just save COTW for next time!

While you can take the WeGo bus system to basically any activity, we decided to drive <10 minutes to the Whirlpool Aero Car ($12). We parked in the free lot, having finally arrived at our first activity of the day after 4PM. The line was about 10 minutes, and we enjoyed the views while riding the 100-year old cable car across the gorge and back with DD in a baby carrier.






The whirlpool below us

Up next, we drove 2 minutes back towards the hotel zone along the Niagara River to the White Water Walk ($10). The lot is across the street infront of some Asian temple-looking building, and you can get a validated ticket to put in your windshield. The line was decent as you have to wait for an elevator down through the cliffside into a tunnel that lets you out really right on the edge of the water. Strolling along the boardwalk watching and listening to the rapids was a great activity to do with a stroller.







Back at the hotel, I dropped off my wife and daughter for bedtime, while I went through traffic to Chabad for Shul. Chabad does not have a lot, but there is street parking with a muni-meter that costs $3 for an hour or two. Afterwards, I picked up food from the fleishig restaurant, Taste, which is literally separated from Top Nosh by a curtain. $40 got us wings, chicken fingers, fries and drinks, which again was slightly on the more expensive side, but understandable. Back at the hotel, we sat by the floor-to-ceiling window with the fireplace turned on enjoying really good food while watching the falls light and fireworks show. Sorry, iPhones don’t do so well at night, through glass and with bright lights outside.











Day 4 - Monday, 7/3
Included in the resort fee is a free photo at the Hershey store down the block, so we headed there in the morning. First, we passed by a Coca Cola store and stopped in.





From there we continued down the block to the Hershey store where we got our picture taken in front of a large Hershey Kiss with a fake Niagara background. The kind of thing I’d never pay for at one of these places, until… later today.

Up next we walked for 5 minutes to Hornblower Cruises ($22), where we encountered extremely long lines. However, there were signs everywhere to buy tickets online from your phone and skip the wait. There were a few people doing this so we joined them and 5 minutes later, had tickets that allowed us to literally skip over an hour’s wait. I don’t understand why everyone wasn’t doing it. There was still a 20 minute or so line but a lot of it was covered from the sun and before we knew it, we were handed our red ponchos and boarding the boat. We brought along the Doona raincover, which kept DD dry, although there is also a closed off area on the lower deck that is protected from the water. The ride is not that long but really shows you the enormity and power of both falls, particularly the Canadian Horseshoe that has such a thick mist rising you can’t see once the boat gets close. We didn’t really get that wet, although we weren’t standing in the biggest splash zone on the boat.


A boat setting off towards the falls


American Falls


Yellow ponchos at Cave of the Winds on the American Side. The small section of falls on the right side is called the Bridal Veil Falls


Approaching the Canadian Falls and their great mist




Having a great time sleeping while up close and personal with the falls

Back on solid ground, we walked over to Clifton Hill, which is a super touristy street full of arcades, haunted houses, mini golf, wax museums, Ripley’s, Guinness and the Sky Wheel. This is a really fun area that I’m sure kids just a bit older than DD would have a blast at. Best part was that they had a Dippin’ Dots! We decided not to do any of the activities mostly due to having a stroller with us, so we just walked around.




 


We made a quick stop back at the hotel to feed DD and eat something ourselves and then we continued our activity-filled day by driving to the Botanical Gardens (free, $5 parking). The gardens were not the grandest we’ve ever seen, but it was a calm place to stroll around with DD and there were several nice spots for photos. Within the gardens, we went to the Butterfly Conservatory ($12). Pushing the stroller within the enclosure was a little difficult due to the large crowds but it was our first time at one of these butterfly places, and we really enjoyed.












Advertisement?

Heading back towards the hotel, we stopped at Bird Kingdom ($15), a combination museum/random artifacts the founder collected and bird sanctuary. Some birds were very playful and followed us around, and some were quite exotic. The highlight was being able to hold parrots, and because we weren’t allowed to take a picture with our phones, we agreed to buy the official picture, going against my policy mentioned earlier. :P I recommend stopping in (you can skip quickly through most of the museum part).







From there we went to Shul and this time sat down for dinner at Taste.Again, we chose simpler foods like chicken fingers instead of the $70 steak or $40 chicken. We also got our favorite, hot chocolate cake with ice cream, spending $65 in total. Back at the hotel we caught another fireworks show. Really recommend getting a hotel room with a view as the night shows are pleasant to watch before going to bed. I’m not really a food picture guy, but here’s what I got after I realized halfway through the meal I didn’t take any food pics for you guys.


Those fries were really good


Mmm…


Patriotic tonight

Day 5 – Tuesday, July 4th
Today was heading back day on a beautiful Fourth of July.



Getting over the border was quick, and we said our goodbyes to the falls from the Rainbow Bridge and Canada – until next time… when we bring our passports!

Knowing that we had a 6 hour journey ahead of us, I once again planned several stops. And as with last time, the first few stops worked out well with DD’s feeding schedule, but after that, things didn’t go as smoothly. Our first stop was 1.5 hours away at the Strong Museum of Play ($15) in Rochester, although it wasn’t exactly 1.5 hours on the way home as it was not on the most direct route. The place was ginormous. An incredibly well done museum of all the toys and games you can think of. From babies/kids toys to superheroes, video games (free!), arcade games, a room full of pinball machines, board games, antiques and computerized versions of games (like Rush Hour and Connect 4) – it was room after room of just endless games. It’s really a shame that it’s so far from NY because it would be a great full Sunday activity with kids. It was stroller friendly and obviously DD didn’t know what was going on, but we had a really great time.




Funhouse-style room




Play supermarket








Settlers!

Before we knew it, we had spent 2 and half hours here and could have easily spent more, but we were still so far from home. For our next stop, I spent time researching where we could find a nice play to eat lunch by the Finger Lakes. I found that highway 14 runs down along Seneca Lake and 1 hour after leaving the museum (this time definitely in the direction home), we pulled over at a grassy area with benches overlooking the beautiful lake.



It was now 2:30 and we still had 4.5 hours to drive. The last stop I had planned was only 15 minutes from the lake, which meant just a quick car ride now, but… an extremely long stretch afterwards. We arrived at Watkins Glen State Park to hike the waterfall-filled path. The main entrance is under construction, so Google Maps had no idea where to send us, so we got lost for 20 minutes. Finally, we found the parking lot. Entrance is free, but parking costs $8. We strapped DD into the baby carrier and followed the larger than expected crowd (although to be fair it was a holiday) along the path. With 20/20 hindsight, we should have spent 20 minutes checking out the first few falls and then turned back. Those were the most impressive falls on the whole hike which should more accurately be called a step climb (that only went up). Once we realized what was going on, we were too far to return so we trekked on, sweating and exhausted (although, walking through the “canyon” provided shade most of the way). The whole climb took around 1-1.5 hours till we emerged at the other end. I knew that an unofficial shuttle drives back to the parking lot for $5 cash per person, so I brought money with me. By the time the beat up school bus showed up and the driver took care of his business, waited for more passengers and drove 5 mph, we didn’t pull out of the park until 6pm. The park was pretty, but again, I recommend going in just for the first 2-3 falls then turning around (and try to avoid going on a packed holiday). What we should have done was skipped such an active activity like this and just made our last stop back at Krispy Kreme again… mmm…










 






It was now 6pm and we still had over 4 hours to go with no more stops planned – not that we wanted any, we were ready to go home. But DD was not having it and she screamed and cried on-and-off while we drove. It was not a fun ride to say the least, but we made it home after a long day’s drive. Niagara was a blast, and we had a great time once we settled in learning how to deal with a baby on vacation. To the next trip!

3
Deals/Deal Requests / 99 cents Philips LED bulbs (60w equivalent)
« on: December 12, 2017, 12:51:46 PM »
Free shipping on the 20-pack. Tax was $1.55 to NYC.

https://marketplace.coned.com/99-cents/

10-pack costs $5 shipping even if combining in cart with a 20-pack.

4
Just Shmooze / Model Airplanes
« on: May 03, 2017, 02:26:15 PM »
Looking for tips on starting a collection. I understand you want to have them all the same scale, but for the several I have looked at, I can't find them at the same scale. Some only come in 1:400, some only 1:200 and one I can only find in 1:130... Any ideas? Suggestions where to buy? etc.

5
Goods For Sale/Trade / Hamilton Tickets for Sale
« on: March 07, 2017, 09:47:56 PM »
Selling 2 Hamilton NY tickets in the rear mezzanine for $310 each.

6
Trip Reports / @Yehuda's Icelandic A+venture!
« on: September 29, 2016, 05:00:30 PM »
WOW! That’s the only word I can think of to start off this --- STOP! --- Before reading any further, go book a flight to Iceland right now! Then come back to read. You won’t regret it.

As I was saying, Iceland is simply “Wow.” From the countless – literally countless – waterfalls to the gorgeous hikes and breathtaking views, from living in a camper to getting up close and personal with icebergs, and to even playing with a puffin, Iceland is truly an awesome adventure trip. So, if you’re okay with keeping busy all day on vacation and not relaxing at a beach, then this is the trip for you. It absolutely should be the next trip on your list.

This planning section might be the longest I’ve ever put together. It will show how in love I am with this country and will hopefully aide those who are planning a trip. For many, I hope this section is helpful and interesting, but for those who find trip planning and award flight booking to be a bit boring, hang tight – I hope to get to the actual trip soon, I posted a "Cost Summary" at the end of this intro post, and here's a just a little teaser for later. ;)



Planning

Iceland has become quite the popular destination recently, but it hadn't crossed our minds until our friends went last summer. Their pictures and stories got us extremely interested in the country despite making us ask the same question that everyone seems to ask us after hearing we went – “Really…? Iceland?” But the answer is, “Yes, Iceland. Really.” Once our interest was piqued, I headed over to DDF to research. I’ll take a moment right now to thank SomethingFishy for his immense help in putting this trip together, answering so many of my questions, helping plan out the itinerary and even responding on the spot while we were stuck on the trip. Most of the background information I will share here came from my conversations with him. I also want to thank PBaruch who answered many of my questions and whose own trip report came in handy while planning. Finally, a shout out to ushdadude, lfas25 and Moishebatchy for their help as well in giving tips and answering questions.

Everyone’s first thought about Iceland is the Northern Lights/Aurora, but those are only visible (with rare exception) in the winter. A trip to Iceland in the winter is extremely different than in the summer, and while wanting to be adventurous, Fishy’s winter TR made it clear to me that a summer trip would be adventurous enough for our first trip. So, a summer trip it was, and no Northern Lights for us. While I’m sure they are amazing to see, there is so much more to Iceland as well. 

I’m an early planner, which meant that planning for this August trip began back in March. My first order of business was looking into how long you need for a visit. I learned that there are several classic trips that people do. Iceland has one main city, Reykjavik, with other, much smaller towns spread throughout the country. The country is encircled by a “highway” (read, 2 lane road), known as the Ring Road, and the middle of the country contains the mountainous/volcanic region called the Highlands, which are made up of difficult-to-traverse roads, known as F-Roads.



To cover the entire Ring Road with its many stops, you need to plan for at least a 2-week trip. I imagine even more time if you plan to also head inwards and explore the Highlands (which requires renting a car that can handle the F-Roads). No one I know has taken this long/intense of a trip yet, and I knew there was no way we’d have 2 weeks for the trip, so I opted for the second classic option. There’s no name for this trip, but you basically start in REK and follow the southern strip of the Ring Road until about halfway to the east coast, at which point you turn around and head back. While it may seem like you’re barely covering a quarter of the full Ring Road, this section is jam-packed with activities. This trip can be done in 4-5 days.



When you add in flight time, you basically need a week to do this trip comfortably. As there is no Chabad in Iceland (other than one that gets together for the Seder on Pesach), I didn’t want to be there over Shabbos. With that in mind, I went to my wife’s school schedule to see if I could find a full calendar week that she would be off. Because it was so early, her summer schedule was not yet released, so I had to research prior year schedules to try and determine when she would be off this year in between her spring and summer semesters as well as her summer and fall semesters. It was much harder than I thought as there were different lengths of summer sessions and each year didn’t seem to follow a pattern for how long the breaks would be, but I had a general idea and took a guesstimate that our best bet would be the end of August, after she finished her summer classes, but before the fall semester began. I told my wife of the plan, and she was excited, but warned me that if I was wrong with my dates, and she did in fact have class during that time, she would not miss class, and we would have to cancel the trip. I gulped, but agreed. Boy, would that come back to cause me some stress…

As the calendar flipped from July to August, my wife's school released the class schedule, and with less than a month to our trip, I realized our last day in Iceland would be her first day of classes. :-[ I couldn't believe it. I started looking into the idea of changing our dates to start in the middle of the previous week, then flying to London for Shabbos and back for a few more days in Iceland so that we could still get in 4-5 days on the ground while still getting back in time for classes. However, it was clear that the idea was bonkers. Then I remembered that her previous classes hadn't always started on the official first day of the semesters, so I decided to take matters into my own hands and contacted her teachers directly. That was more difficult than expected. There were 2 teachers I needed to reach, and after many emails and calls, I finally got through to the first one, who told me classes would not be starting on that first day, but rather the following week - hurrah! However, the second teacher was planning to start on that day, but also told me that my wife was only responsible to come to one of the first two classes and could technically miss one... So, I broke the news to my wife and after thinking about it, she decided that we could go on the trip and she would miss the one class! Thank you, Mrs. @Yehuda! :-*

Flights

Once I knew we needed a full week, I used Google Flights to determine what flights could get us to and from New York without keeping us in Iceland over Shabbos. I learned that the flight is just 5 hours long, that Delta has 2 Motzai Shabbos flights from New York (at least in the summer) and that both Delta and IcelandAir have Friday morning flights returning back to New York that, with the help of the time difference, land around noon on Friday. With Shabbos in August not starting until after 7PM, a noon landing would leave us plenty of time to get home in time for Shabbos.

So, I had the specific week I wanted to travel, and the 2 specific flights I wanted for the return. Talk about having flexibility when booking award travel. ::)

The next step was researching the best way to book the flights with miles. For the return with IcelandAir, only Alaska miles can be used, and although they don't require too many miles, they tack on a good few hundred dollars of fuel surcharges (YQ), which makes it silly to use miles for the flight. Delta on the other hand, doesn't charge YQ, but still had about $50 in Icelandic taxes and fees in addition to 30,000 miles each way. I also realized that on Delta’s later Motzai Shabbos flight, they were flying a 757 with lie-flat business class. With the plan of landing first thing Sunday morning and hitting the road running, I thought it would be wise to ensure we were in the best position to have as good of a night’s sleep as possible on a 5 hour overnight flight. Business costs 62,500 miles each way, but I figured it would be worth it to start our trip fresh and ready. I didn’t have close to enough Delta miles, so I knew I would have to transfer AMEX MR points to Delta to book the flights. That adds in another cost as AMEX charges a tax to transfer miles to a domestic airline, which would have been about another $50 per person. I did some research and found that Delta’s partner, Air France, could book the Delta flights for the same amount of miles and around the same $50 of Icelandic taxes, but without the transfer tax (since AF is a foreign airline). None of that research mattered though, since I couldn’t find the availability to use miles at the 62,500 price anyway. We were 5 months ahead of time, and I was checking several times a day. (Definitely a negative of planning early is driving yourself nuts constantly checking for availability. Plan later on, and there will simply just be less days that you can keep checking. :P )
   
With that option seemingly impossible, I began to look for other ideas. The cash price for one way in business and one way in coach was around $1250, while even flying roundtrip in coach was still $7-800. Neither of those seemed exciting to me. It’s quite well known around these parts that I am a big fan of using Barclays Arrival Plus points (A+) to redeem for travel costs that other miles can’t cover, and I expected to need a lot of them for the activities on this trip, but I was not ready to also use them for the flights that could otherwise be booked with regular miles. I then got in touch with someone who offered to book the flights for me for $400 roundtrip in coach, and I calculated that I could manage spending my A+ miles on the flights (and still having enough to do some activities), but he informed me that I would not be able to use my credit card nor my A+ points to cover the flights. Not interested in paying $800 cash for our flight expenses, I was left to ponder if there was still anything else to do.

I don’t remember where the idea came from, but at some point, I remembered about an often overlooked way to book travel – the Chase Ultimate Rewards and AMEX MR sites. Booking through these sites gives you a set value for your miles, so you pay based on the dollar cost of the flight, and therefore usually doesn’t give you a value close to what you could get by transferring your miles to airlines and hotels and booking directly through them. However, I found out that the AMEX Business Platinum card has a perk that if you book a flight through the MR site, they give you back 30% of the points! So, I got to work. Searching on the MR site for the flight didn’t help me because the site couldn’t piece together an itinerary with one leg in business and one leg in coach, so I had to call up to book. The agent pieced together the flights for me and quoted me close to the $1250 price I had seen in my prior research. That would require about 125,000 miles per person minus the 30% discount. He explained that they deduct the full amount of miles from your account at first, and then the discount would returned to me shortly afterwards. The rep also had no problem waiving the phone booking fee after I explained to him that this itinerary couldn’t be booked online. So, the total cost was 89,950 miles per person. Had I transferred MR to Delta miles, I would have paid 62,500 + 30,000 for a total of 92,500, and I would have had to pay the $100 in taxes and fees. Even if I would have sold the 90,000 miles, I would have only made about $1200 and still would have been slightly short to pay cash for the flights. So, I believe I found the cheapest way to book the exact flights I wanted. Our flights were booked several months in advance, with no more availability-searching necessary, and it was quite comforting to know that. Iceland was on!

Accommodations

I would say there are 3 ways to do the southern portion of the Ring Road. I guess there’s a 4th option where you visit the city of REK, spend all your time chilling in the city, seeing the landmark church and concert hall, going out to eat and maybe taking 1 tour outside the city to do something like the nearby Golden Circle. But, c’mon, that’s not a real trip to Iceland.


The Golden Circle, a day-trip from Reykjavik

The first real way people visit is to stay in REK and hire tour companies to drive you to the different activities. While that offers the comfort of having the tour company deal with driving and planning out the day while you simply just meet them in the morning, it limits you in having to follow their schedule, how far along the south road you can actually go, how many of the off-the-beaten-path activities you can get to and, most of all, adds a lot of unnecessary travel to your trip as, at the end of each day, you need to return back to REK. I was advised in the Iceland Master Thread not to go this route. (There are 1 or 2 main activities near REK, and I don't think it's a crazy idea to base yourself in REK on the days you do those activities.)

The next option is to rent a car, drive along the road on your own schedule and either sleep in hotels along the way or bring tents and camp at the plentiful campsites. Renting a regular car and bringing tents would probably be the cheapest way to travel in Iceland. The issue with hotels is that you won’t find name brand chains along the road (except for 1 expensive Starwood property that’s outside of REK but not in a convenient place along the Ring Road), but rather small mom-and-pop shops. Many are guesthouses/hostels where you might not get your own bathroom or have to pay more for a private room, but they can often be had for under $100/night.

- Camper Rental

The final option – the one we chose – is to rent a camper/RV, drive along at your own pace and park at campsites overnight. Technically, you can park at gas stations or even on the side of the road, but we decided to stay at official campsites with facilities, especially since our camper wasn’t going to have a bathroom or shower. It also felt safer to park at an official campground as opposed to the street and definitely something I was going to do on a trip with my wife versus if I was just with a bunch of guys. Researching campers was another long process I had to do. Renting a camper is a popular way to travel in Iceland, and therefore, there are many companies that offer rentals. I learned that an automatic camper was going to be much more expensive than a manual one (as expected in Europe), but I don’t know how to drive stick and wasn’t going to learn before the trip. I also learned that all the companies have a minimum 3 day rental requirement and, with the prices they charged, decided to rent the camper just for the 3 minimum days and then spend the last 2 days in a hotel in REK, doing the activities that I explained above are near the city. My final lesson was that the camper places sell out quickly, so book in as much advance as possible – more on that to come, unfortunately. I put together a spreadsheet to compare camper types among some of the main companies that I found on Google.



KuKu Campers came out to be the cheapest, but after Fishy posted about their public negative opinions towards Israel/Jews, I decided (as he did) not to use them. The next cheapest option – which happened to have the nicest looking camper and was very friendly in email exchanges – was Cozy Campers, so I booked with them and was all set for the adventure! Or so I thought…

Several weeks before the trip, I got an email from Cozy Campers telling me that their system was broken and allowed me to book despite having already been sold out! They apologized and recommended another company – campervanrental.is which didn’t even come up in my initial research. I was quite disappointed because Cozy was the best/cheapest option. It was now just a few weeks before our trip, and I was somehow expected to find a new company that still had campers available!? I asked them if they could help in any way – perhaps speak with one of the other companies to help me get a discount or, at the very least, cover the difference in price between a new rental and their own rate – but the until-that-point cordial conversation took a sour turn, and they eventually stopped responding to me. My frustration reached an even greater point when I tried leaving a negative review on Trip Advisor, but was rejected under the terms of “not being able to leave a review for a rental that didn’t end up taking place.” >:(

During my original research, I had contacted CampEasy and asked if they could offer a discount to match some of the cheaper companies out there. Incredibly, they agreed to offer a 15% discount, which brought them in line with the price of CozyCampers (as you can see in the Excel screenshot). I had chosen Cozy simply because their pictures looked better. So, at this point, I reached out to CampEasy again and asked if they still had availability and if they could still offer that discount, and they said… yes! Thankfully, my camper was booked once again. It turned out that CampEasy hadn’t updated their pictures in a while because the camper we got was much nicer than the one pictured. :) The final price was 96,900 ISK (Icelandic Krona – but for the most part moving forward, I’ll only list USD prices) which at the time of booking was worth just under $800. They charged 15% (~$150) at the time of booking as a deposit and charged the rest later, at which time the currency conversion had gone up, so the total cost came out to about $830 for the 3 days, or $275/day. I had planned to cover that cost by paying with A+ miles but, I first had to consider which credit card would give me the best insurance for the rental. After a lot of research, I found that almost all credit cards specifically exclude RVs/campers, but thanks to whYME, I learned that Citi cards would in fact cover primary insurance on campers when rented internationally. Their exact terms are, “Any vehicle with more than two wheels that is meant to be driven on public roads.” I tried to get a Citi rep to send me written confirmation that campers would be covered, but the best I could get was a note put on my account. (I called back to see if a different rep could see that note, and they could. :) ) The problem was that the only Citi cards I had were an American Airlines Bronze card and the lower-level Hilton card. Both of those cards have foreign transaction fees, and knowing I would be charged in ISK, I accepted that I would essentially be paying 3% fees to get the insurance. I first noticed this when I paid the deposit and was hit with a 3% fee, but I was able to get Citi to waive it as a one-time courtesy (was only $4 or so). So, my plan was to keep the credit card hold during the rental on my AA Bronze card and then, after the rental (if there were no damages), ask them to just switch the card to my A+ and charge that one. However, that’s when I learned that they charged the full price upon pickup of the camper and not after returning it, which meant that they weren’t just putting a hold on my card, but actually charging it then. That meant I would have to convince them to refund me after the rental and then re-charge me on my A+ card. Aside from that, their CC machine gave the option to charge me in ISK or in USD, and the cashier chose FOR me by picking USD thinking she’d help me save money on the foreign exchange fee. Of course that’s too good to be true, and after some quick math, I realized their CC processor was obviously taking even more than 3% to “conveniently” let me pay in USD. I ended up being charged about $860 for the rental, so they charged me around $30, which is about 3.5% in fees. As you’ll see soon enough, unfortunately I didn’t even have to deal with trying to switch the CC after the rental and whatever currency fees I paid were welllll worth having insurance… :-[ Once I needed the insurance and couldn’t use A+, I covered the cost by paying for it with money I had earned from the Wells Fargo cash back card. So, my advice is to make sure you have a higher-level Citi card so you don't have foreign exchange fees and ensure they charge you in ISK and not USD - then you should be set for camper insurance internationally.

People say a camper can often be cheaper than the alternative of a car rental + hotel each night, but when there are cheap guesthouses you could technically stay at and when you need to pay the premium for an automatic camper, I don’t believe that to be the case. Nonetheless, the camper turned out to be much more than a means of transportation and sleep, it became an awesome part of our Iceland experience.

- Hotel

I couldn’t decide whether to do the 3 camper days first and then the 2 hotel days or vice versa, but my final thought process was that after 3 days of living in a camper, it would be nice to end the trip in a roomier hotel room with our own bathroom/shower. (Good decision.) For the 2 nights that we would be staying REK, I looked into the points hotel options. There are only 4 in REK – the Hilton Reykjavik Nordica (standard hotel), a Canopy by Hilton (brand new and extremely expensive) and two Radisson Blus (both pretty standard). Not having any Radisson points (both hotels required lots of them) or free nights from the Club Carlson credit card, I chose the Hilton at 40,000 points a night. Per reviews, it’s nothing special, but with rates over $250/a night, I decided to use the points. About a month before the trip, I was randomly thinking of future trips and realized how I might want to use Hilton points for a more exciting redemption one day – think Conrad Koh Samui in Thailand, Conrad Maldives, Waldorf Astoria Jerusalem – and started thinking twice about dropping 80,000 points for Iceland, when we definitely weren’t planning on spending much time at the hotel, and it wasn’t even supposed to be that exciting of a property. (Wow, look at me thinking of the opportunity cost of my miles! :P) I tried to think of other options, including AirBNB, Priceline Name Your Own Price, and simply Hotels.com, Expedia, etc., but nothing seemed too exciting and, a month before travel, all would likely have been $200+/night. Finally, I realized that I could get Club Carlson nights here on the forums. Not sure why I didn't think of that sooner, but I learned that these nights go for a lot less than Hyatt, Hilton, etc., and I was able to get 2 nights for just $100/night! I cancelled my Hilton reservation and grabbed the Radisson Blu Saga hotel (the other Radisson didn’t have availability, so it wasn’t an option to consider). Trip Advisor warned that the Radisson wasn’t anything special and was undergoing room renovations so “try to get into a renovated room or else you might see a lot of wear and tear and have bad air conditioning.” Those reviews left me quite confused after we saw the well-kept lobby, our modern room and the front desk agent told us there's no air conditioning in any of the rooms... But we’ll get to that much later.

- Car Rental

For the 2 days we’d be in REK, we needed a way to move around. After WAY too much itinerary planning, I decided that one day would be a tour day to go to Inside the Volcano where we would be picked up and dropped off, so we wouldn’t need a car. This was recommended by the tour company as they said it’s hard to find the activity location, but with 20/20 hindsight, I can tell you it’s not hard to find it, but we’ll get to that later on. The other day, we were going to do the Golden Circle, so we rented a car for it. Again, an automatic was going to be more expensive, and I couldn’t find anything relatively affordable. I’m not a pro with car rental codes and couldn’t find anyone who had any ideas for me. Eventually, someone suggested looking into SIXT since their top status (Platinum) gives you a discount on booking, and it’s easy to match to that status if you have other hotel/airline statuses. I matched from Hilton Diamond and noticed the rates go down by about 15%. I wanted to pickup and return in the local REK location, but going from there back to the airport would have meant a taxi and bus that would have cost around $45. Instead, for a $53 fee, I was able to make the rental a one-way and return the car at the airport location. For a couple dollars more, we were able to have a much more comfortable return journey to the airport. In total, the 1 day rental cost me about $115 or 11K A+.

Food

Kosher food in Iceland is basically non-existent. We found random snacks with Hechsherim, including those mentioned by other travelers – Nature Valley bars, Popcorners and, of course, Coke products – but we also found some that we hadn’t known about before – some cereals like Cheerios and Honey Nut Cheerios, Baby Ruth bars and jelly beans from The Jelly Bean Factory (had an OU, but never heard of them before). Other than those snacks, everything is produced in Iceland or imported from Europe and therefore don’t have Hechsherim. Despite checking the packaging every time we saw Twix, Mars and Kit Kats, a Hechsher never appeared. :P

Knowing we were going to have to bring food with us, strategic planning went into action. For the 3 days we would be in the camper, we would have access to the included burner, which meant we could bring a pot and boil water for oatmeal for breakfast and tradition soups and pasta for lunch. For dinner on those nights, we took advantage of the included “fridge” (ended up keeping things about as cold as a cooler) to store hamburger patties, Jack’s sausages and chicken cutlets. After deciding not to rent a grill from CampEasy for $50 (and the fact that the grill rack wouldn’t be Kosher), I reached out to random Icelandic Twitter accounts and confirmed that we should be able to buy those prepackaged disposable grills (basically a foil pan filled with charcoal and covered with an metal rack) for a couple of dollars and decided we would pick those up locally instead of schlepping grilling stuff with us. For the last 2 days, we'd be without the camper and, therefore, would actually be in a worse situation since we wouldn't have a burner or grill, so we brought a loaf of bread and peanut butter for lunches and tuna, mayo, deli, wraps and, yes, even avocados for some nice wraps for dinner. Google taught me that keeping avocados in the fridge can extend their life a few days, so after buying the most unripe ones I could find and keeping them in the fridge until we left, they actually became edible at the perfect time when we were ready for our wraps. We also brought a bunch of Chewy and Special K bars and other snacks to keep us going throughout the day. All the food worked out well except for running out of snacks, which turned out to be fine as snacks were the only Kosher food we found locally anyway.

Cell Phone

After discussing with the guys who have gone before, I learned that our best bet would be to buy a Siminn SIM card. In the airport shop, they sell them in a package of 100 minutes, 100 texts and 1GB of data for $25. I figured we only really needed Google Maps and perhaps a few calls to our tour companies, so I though this would be perfect. BOY OH BOY, does man plan and G-d laugh…

Activities

Iceland is full of activities and while most of them are natural, many do cost money and need to be booked through a tour company. While the activities usually cost the same as activities you’d find in any other place, the fact that there are so many activities to do (and some that are just exorbitant), you need to budget a nice chunk of change for activities. With that in mind, I think eating Kosher is a blessing in disguise, as otherwise, we would have spent even more by going out to restaurants all the time. There are several tour agencies, but my friends told me about Arctic Adventures, which offers a 10% discount if you book 3 or more tours with them that are operated by them (I mention operated by them since they also act as a travel agency for tours operated by other companies). Having researched a few activities among different agencies, their prices were the cheapest after that discount. They were also super helpful via email and, most importantly for me, allowed me to charge my A+ card $1 to see how it posted on my statement, and it came up as a “Travel” charge and would therefore be eligible to redeem my A+ miles for. ;D I’ll go into detail about the activities as we get up to them, but in total, I spent $1450 or 140,000 A+ on our 4 main activities. Yeah, wow. I also pre-booked a glacier boat ride direct for $100 that I covered with 9,500 A+. I figured we didn’t need to book in advance any of our other activities and that was correct.

With the flights, camper, hotel, car rental, food, cell phone and most of the activities all figured out (and my itinerary planned out in great detail throughout this process), everything was set – on to the trip!


Cost Summary
Flights: JFK-KEF in J and KEF-JFK in Y for 89,950 MR per person
Camper Rental: $830 for 3 days covered with WF $
Hotel: 2 Club Carlson certs ($100 each) for 2 nights
Car Rental: $115 for 1 day covered with 11K A+
Activities: $1550 of pre-booked activities covered with 150K A+

7
On The Road / Hotel Award Chart Discrepancies
« on: August 30, 2016, 03:13:22 PM »
Thought a thread similar to the flight one would be a cool idea. Unfortunately, I don't have any examples to start us off, but I'm thinking of things like the old price of the Conrad Koh Samui which was ~36K when it's now 80-95K. Anyone else have examples of hotels that are currently in a category that is well below their actual value?

8
These normally sell for something like $120, but seem to be on sale at 6pm ($75), DSW ($80) and Amazon (can be less than $75 depending on size).
https://www.amazon.com/dp/B002J9GDSI/?tag=cl03f-20

9
Introduction/Trip Planning

Knowing my wife and I would both be off for July 4th, we were hoping to go away on a short trip. We hadn't been to DEN in a while, so it would have been nice to go there for Shabbos, but with my wife having school on Friday, making it for Shabbos was just not possible. Instead, we figured we'd go somewhere after Shabbos for 2 days. We were in the mood for a swimming getaway, but weren't in the mood to deal with flights for the short trip. Having recently put together a list of Hyatt properties in the continental US with nice pools, we picked the one that didn't require a flight from NY and got ready for our trip to the Hyatt Regency Chesapeake Bay in Cambridge, MD! I booked it at 20K Hyatt/night for 2 nights. Strangely, I had a harder time getting in touch with a manager at this Hyatt than at any other Hyatt I've tried before. The front desk would only offer early checkin and an upgraded room upon availability, and I couldn't get an email for any manager to actually confirm something in advance. I also didn't expect them to get Kosher Diamond breakfast for us since we were an hour away from Baltimore, the closest Jewish community, so without any "special requests" confirmed in advance, our trip planning was done.

On the Road
We left Sunday morning, and the drive took about 4 hours including a stop for gas. We ended up using about 1.25 tanks for the roundtrip, but with the low gas prices these days, that only meant about $25 of gas. I particularly enjoyed how the trip only had one "long" segment on the GPS as opposed to other drives I've done - like CLE, PIT - where you'll see stretches of 150+ miles before the next "turn". We considered stopping somewhere like Cherry Hill, NJ or Philly for lunch at a restaurant, but anything I found would require a 30 minute detour, and it was still well before lunch time when we passed by those areas, so sandwiches in the car it was.

Checking In
We pulled up to the hotel before 2PM, unloaded the car and then drove to the free self-parking out back instead of doing valet. Boy, is this property HUGE! From a private/gated entrance to the long twisting road and wooden bridges you cross before pulling up, you really get a feel for just how vast the resort is.



The hotel and grounds are beautiful, giving off a warm, lodge feel.


Lobby, courtesy of Google images

We were upgraded to a water view room and checking in early was not a problem at all. The room, as well as the entire hotel, is kept up very well with no wear and tear showing. The staff was also very friendly, always greeting us with a hello, similar to the extremely-friendly staff at the Grand Hyatt Kauai. The room had a nice feel to it with a pretty view.










I guess you'd call this a porch


Despite being cloudy, the view of the marina and golf course (on the left) from the room was great

Exploring the Resort
We then walked around to check out the hotel and grounds. We first visited the Regency Club on the 6th/top floor (were on the 4th), which had plenty of sodas, seltzers and juices whenever we wanted (except when we showed up around 10PM one night), along with afternoon snacks, none of which were packaged/Kosher.




Regency Club porch with views of the marina and golf course

We passed by the pool tables and restaurant/bar, which is kinda out in the open and very nice, and then headed out back. As you can see from this view of the back of the hotel, the hotel looked almost like a house and just had so much more personality than the hotels we've seen in places like Miami or Eilat.



The hotel is very kid- and family-friendly, with lifeguards at the pools (first time seeing that at a hotel), tons of pool toys to buy at the shack, and a chalkboard listing the hourly kids' activities that changed every day. While we were outside, there was a kids' hot dog eating contest going on.



Right next to the contest is a life-sized chess set with a fire pit that's set up at night for roasting marshmallows.



We then made our way to the first pool, which is the infinity pool where toys and games are off limits.



Just a few steps away is the do-whatever-you-want pool that has fountains shooting water and a waterslide. It was very clear that this was the kid/family pool as there were tons of kids in it and plenty of blow-up floating rafts and toys around.



Next to this pool is the outdoor hot tub, which is connected to the indoor hot tub. Surprisingly, these tubs weren't entirely packed.





The indoor hot tub is right next to the large, heated indoor pool. As expected due to its warm water, this pool was jam packed almost the entire time (with kids), except for when they kicked everyone out for maintenance, which is when I snapped a pic.



At night, they have a swim-in kids' movie that they show on a large projector screen while you hang out in the pool. Pretty neat idea.



Inside they also have an activity room with ping pong tables and arcade games, as well as a gym. There is also a spa in the hotel, but we didn't check it out. We then continued on our tour where we found out that they had a free mini golf course!



Right next to the mini golf course is a sand volley ball court.



We headed towards the water and found the boat shack where we checked out the prices for rentals. They have a selection of paddle boats, kayaks and jet skis.



Right next to the shack is the "beach." :P



The water in the marina is not too clean and, as signs all along the path warn, full of jelly fish. It's not a great pic, but you can see one in the middle.



We continued to the end of the marina where we found the BBQ area that we were told was the only approved area for BBQing - our plan for dinners. We then headed back to change and actually do some of these activities!

Swimming and Golfing
I guess we lucked out in that the rain in the forecast never became more than a drizzle, but unfortunately, the weather was still in the low 70s and very cloudy on Sunday and Monday, so the outdoor pools were very cold. We first tried out the infinity pool and "try out" is all we did. After 5 minutes attempting to get used to the water and swimming around, we hopped out. Supposedly this pool is heated and the family pool isn't, so you can imagine that we barely dipped our toes into the freezing second pool. There were plenty of kids playing in that pool, so I guess kids don't really have a concept of cold water when they're having fun. The water temperature reminded us of the pool at the Hyatt Regency Maui, believe it or not. The actually heated indoor pool was crowded, so after a few minutes in the warm water, we got out and headed for the almost-empty hot tubs, which we soooo relaxing. After a bit, we said goodbye to the pools and went for our first round of mini golf. I happen to enjoy mini golf a lot, so I had a lot of fun playing.

BBQ Dinner Take One
After hanging out for a few hours, we headed out to the perfectly-located Walmart directly across the street from the hotel gates to pick up a few things for our bar-b-que. Mainly, we needed to figure out how to grill our food. Before the trip, I was debating whether to buy a portable grill, but I couldn't find a good deal on any, so I figured we'd use the grills at the hotel and just put foil pans on top of them while covering our food with tin foil to keep them warm. With that in mind, we picked up some charcoal, a lighter, and a few other food items (somehow Walmart trips always seem to take forever - this time courtesy of the cash register freezing while we were waiting on a long line) and headed back to the hotel to prep our food and walk the 7 minute or so walk to the BBQ pit hoping it would empty for us. Thankfully one of the grills was available, although there was a rowdy group of people hanging around the area, but I guess I can't say only negative things about them since they offered us some of their crab. ::) Our grilling situation was complicated as we couldn't close the grill cover without double covering our food, which would essentially make our food cooked, not grilled and yeah this is what it looked like:



Let's just say it took a really long time for our food to grill. Eventually, somehow, the chicken got cooked enough and we enjoyed our dinner. There is a firepit here as well that the marina store nearby will light if you request it by 5PM (when they close). It was lit by the time we got there as others were enjoying its warmth, so we enjoyed some roasted marshmallows along with our dinner. As we headed back to the hotel, we decided that we would definitely need a better solution for tomorrow night's dinner.

July 4th - Swimming, Gym and Boating
While some trips require waking up early to hit the road running (at the same time I wake up on a normal work day), it was really nice to wake up at a normal time, get ready slowly and hit the Regency Club for breakfast. In terms of Kosher food, they had plenty of fruit options as well as a few cereals, plus juices and hot chocolate. We then got ready to try out the pools again. Unfortunately, they were still cold, but we lasted a bit longer in the infinity pool this time. It was our first time in one, and it's really cool how it looks like there is no wall at the end of the pool. While in the water, it actually looks like the pool just extends all the way into the water of the marina. When the cold got to us, we headed back to the busy indoor pool and hot tubs. After a while, we went back to the room for lunch where we ate some sandwiches (with some drinks from the Club) while watching Shark Week. After lunch, we hit the gym for a run on the treadmill. The gym had a ton of equipment, the treadmills had TVs in them and there were only a few other people in there. Afterwards, it was time to check out the boats. We rented a paddle boat for 30 minutes for $20 (+$2 tax) and charged it to the room since we didn't have money on us. They have a wall a little ways out that sets the perimeter of the marina and how far you're allowed to go. It started raining while we were out there, but again, it was mostly a drizzle. From here, we could see the entire hotel.



Once back at shore, we saw a Blue Heron, which I've only heard of because of SomethingFishy and are apparently frequent in this area. With the help of iPhone Bursts, I was able to get shots of it taking off, although it seems that Bursts takes lower quality pictures.







BBQ Dinner Take Two
Now it was time to head back to Walmart and rethink our grilling situation. Aside from portable propane or charcoal grills, I had originally hoped to find one of those kits of a foil pan and metal grate cover for $5. I couldn't find one online or in a drugstore or even Walmart. I then thought about a propane one, but Walmart's selection was way more than the $20 I was told to expect to pay for one of them. They did have portable charcoal grills for about $13, but from my research, these types usually don't last very long. So instead, we made our own mini kit. We found disposable (no Toveling) metal sheets that had holes in them (a key ingredient we learned last night to be necessary in grilling as opposed to just putting things in a solid foil pain) as well as a very deep foil pan to hold the charcoal. Armed with our new stash, we were thankfully out of Walmart faster than yesterday and back at the BBQ area. Tonight, it was raining on us, and I smoothly forgot the umbrella in the room. Fortunately, there was only one other person grilling, who was actually vacationing with his family on his boat and made the Hyatt's marina their stop for the night. Sounds like a pretty cool adventure. With our new grill set up on the edge of the fire pit, we were extremely successful in actually grilling our food - and in so much less time than last night.




Success!

With the rain still coming down, we ate in the covered gazebo nearby. The food was delish, especially the flavor-infused Jack's sausages we tried out for the first time. The fire pit was not lit tonight as we forgot to ask them, so we headed back to the hotel and stopped at the fire pit there for some marshmallow roasting. We had bought short sticks at Walmart, but we couldn't reach the fire, as it's set back a bit. Everyone else had these huge sticks, and we found out the hotel store sells smores kits. We went inside and the kind cashier gave us the long sticks for free (since we had our own marshmallows and didn't need to buy the whole smores kit) and back we were outside enjoying our marshmallows. Boy, there's nothing like a lightly-browned gooey marshmallow, eh?

The concierge had informed us of the best spots to drive to for the local fireworks, but with the weather, they were cancelled. So we headed to the pool table and played a few games before calling it a night.

The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow

After another normal-hour wakeup and breakfast at the Regency Club, we packed up most of our stuff, arranged a late checkout of about 1PM and went outside to greet the so-much-nicer-than-yesterday weather! While the pools were by no means warm, we were able to get used to them and finally got to actually enjoy both outdoor pools. We also went to the gym again and then for some more mini golf before packing up and checking out. The drive back took about 4 hours again with a stop. We picked up some Dippin' Dots and snacks at a rest stop and reminisced about how hard it was to find Kosher snacks at a rest stop we found in Italy - ah, the conveniences of America.

A short, non-flying trip, but another great one nonetheless!

10
Deals/Deal Requests / Targeted up to 8% eBay Bucks!
« on: July 20, 2016, 11:53:07 AM »
Check your emails to activate. Ends 7/21 at midnight.

11
Trip Reports / The @Yehuda's First Trip to Miami!
« on: July 08, 2016, 10:32:08 AM »
Introduction/Trip Planning

At the end of May, I realized that my wife's schedule gave her a free weekend at the beginning of June, and I quickly seized the opportunity to plan a trip. We'd be taking our first trip to Miami! For a short Friday-Sunday trip with a pool/beach destination in mind, I would have preferred going to the Caribbean for the first time, but Zika held us back, and so we opted for Miami. While it may not be an exciting destination for many NYers, for 2 people who have never been before, the warm weather and ocean sounded great.

Flights
Based on availability, and having experienced the ease of flying Southwest out of Islip Airport to Orlando before, we once again chose ISP, but this time to FLL. With the SW Companion Pass, the roundtrip came out to about 13,500 miles + $11.20 per person, even cheaper than it would have cost if Avios had availability.

Hotel
Part of the excitement behind the trip was also the fact that Hyatt had recently taken over it's first beachfront property in Miami as part of the new Hyatt Unbound collection, The Confidante (previously known as Thompson Miami Beach). I booked it for 2 nights at 25,000 Hyatt points per night. The hotel is located on Collins Avenue between 41st and 40th Streets, which as I quickly learned, was the heart of everything we'd need. I reached out to a manager there who offered to order us Kosher food daily as part of the complimentary Diamond breakfast, giving us choices from 2 restaurants (even providing their Hechsherim and Cholov Yisrael/Pas Yisrael status) with a $25 allowance per person. She even agreed to swap out breakfast on Shabbos morning for a brunch that would be waiting for us when we checked in on Friday. Additionally, on her own, she asked if we needed a low floor and let us know that the staff would be more than willing to press elevator buttons for us or change the lights in the room, as well as include an extra refrigerator in the room. We found out that the lobby doors and door to the pool/beach were manual, so that would be great for Shabbos. The room doors, however, were electronic, so we would just have to do the little tape-your-keycard-over-the-door-jamb trick (thanks Dan!). It turns out she herself is Jewish, which helps explain her knowledge of all the Jewish matters. Upon checkin, we were upgraded to a Partial Ocean View room (which really has no view at all). The manager wasn't in, and I couldn't get the agent to upgrade us to anything better. I found out afterwards that the manager specifically told them to keep us on the 2nd floor (which didn't have any suites available), and the front desk agent didn't want to put us on a higher floor (even in a better room). I didn't make my preferences clear enough, but the manager promised to give us a better room on our next trip. All in all, she provided incredible service, as did the rest of the staff, to make our stay as comfortable as possible.

Transportation
As we didn't plan on doing any activities or travelling to distant restaurants, we didn't rent a car and instead just ate at places that were within walking distance. Ubers to/from the airport would be our only transportation expenses.

Shabbos Meals
I hope I'm not forgetting anyone here, but major thanks to yakrot, JJ and jaywhy for their Miami advice in general, but specifically to yakrot for suggesting I look into Chabad for meals. It turns out they only have lunch (served in a Kiddush style), so we brought food from home for Friday night dinner.

Off We Go!

At pre-6AM, there really isn't any traffic on the roads, so we made it to the Clarion next to ISP for parking in less than an hour. Amazingly better than our last experience driving to ISP, for those that recall. We prepaid online for 3 days of parking for $27.46, including a few dollar discount that I found via Google. 10 minutes later, we were at the gate - ISP rocks. Davening Shacharis in an airport is never comfortable, but it is what it is. The flight left on time, and before we knew it, we were touching down. We got our bags and called an Uber. However, the driver did not speak English well and finding each other was very difficult. We told him where we were, the app showed where we were, and of course, we saw him fly right past us. He ended up pulling over at the end of the terminal and told us to walk to him. With that small hassle out of the way, we were on the road for the 45 minute trip to Miami Beach, which came out to $15.33 after a referral discount. I know that people prefer to fly to MIA, but from my understanding, it's only 15 minutes closer than FLL, so I would go with whichever airport has the cheaper flight/points availability.

Settling into the Hotel

OH, THE HUMIDITY!



We pulled up to The Confidante and were greeted by friendly doormen who opened the doors for us and said hello/welcome back/see ya later literally every time we entered or left the hotel. The hotel has a very art-deco style that gives off the impression of old fashioned and yet sleek at the same time. It was definitely unique compared to other hotels we've been to and especially did not fit with Hyatt's normal branding - but that's the point of the Unbound Collection.



After checkin, we went up to our room, and a few minutes later our brunch from Tasty Beach Cafe arrived. The buttermilk pancakes were HUGE and the egg harvest wrap (thanks CS91) had an interesting, but good taste.







Pools and Beach

After eating, it was time to head down to the pool! The grounds were very nice, but not too large, which I assume is the case for most Miami hotels.





The pool area has two, almost identical pools - one for adults only, and the other for families. The staff outside were also incredibly nice, not just giving us lounge chairs, but even laying towels down/tucking them in and preparing the area for us. There was ice water by the pools as well as magazines to read.


Family pool


Adult pool

I figured I'd compare the pools/beach to other ones I've been to, so I'll compare them to NJ beaches, Eilat and Hawaii. Quite the contrast indeed, although you'll be in for a bit of a surprise. For most of our stay, the pool area was kinda crowded. The pools themselves only had a few people in them, but there were lots of people hanging around. I'd compare it to the busyness of the pool in the Hyatt Regency Maui and contrast it with the nearly-empty (aside from a few families) pools at the Grand Hyatt Kauai. Many of the people were there for bachelor/bachelorette parties, as opposed to Hawaii where we mostly saw families and kids. The pools were somewhat heated which made entering them not terribly difficult. I don't really understand it, but the water was a good 20 degrees warmer than the freezing cold pool in Maui.

After a while, we headed out past the pools across the boardwalk to the beach. For those, like myself, who have never been to Miami Beach before, it's basically a strip of hotel after hotel all up against the beach with a boardwalk running seemingly the entire way. Every hotel has their own section of the beach where they've set up chairs, yet the beach also has plenty of public entrances where I imagine you can enter for free and set up your own towels or perhaps rent from one of the hotels out there.


Crossing over from the boardwalk to the beach



The beach area was also crowded, although having all the beach chairs and umbrellas pre-set up definitely adds to the feel of it being full. Here again, the Hyatt reps set up chairs with towels for us. I can confidently say the sand and ocean is a 100% cleaner, warmer and nicer than the Jersey shore. :D Additionally, there were also planes constantly flying overhead with ads hanging off the back, which was VERY reminiscent of Jersey.



Of course, the beach was way better than Eilat's "beach", which is mostly just pebbles. However, the heat and humidity here made it feel like the 100+ degree weather we experienced in Eilat. :)

Compared to Hawaii, the sand was surprisingly similar in color and the ocean was incredibly clear, just like in Hawaii. However, the bottom of the ocean floor was SO sandy that it blew any of the beaches we went to in Hawaii out of the water in that regard. It was so nice not having to watch out for our feet hitting rocks or getting cut up. Interestingly, the ocean is also very shallow. We must have gone 100 feet out into the ocean, and it was still barely 4 feet deep. I don't know if that was just this area of Miami or the whole strip. The water also had a sand bar (if that's the right word) about 20 feet out that was really cool because it broke the waves coming in and also allowed for relaxing on sand with only a light amount of water splashing on you. (You can see people sitting on it on the left side of the above picture.) Regarding the waves, Miami really loses to Hawaii. On the calmer beaches in Hawaii, you could swim and snorkel with the water barely moving, but here, there were waves every 10 seconds that knocked you over and made swimming difficult. Of course, the number one difference is that Miami had no coral and almost no fish (we saw just a few), while snorkeling in Hawaii was a most incredible experience. Of course, you'd say you can't compare Miami to Hawaii (and I agree), but I did it here to discuss specific differences.

I'll also say that the hotels were all kinda similar on the outside - tall, plain, white buildings with not much personality - which was very reminiscent of many Eilat hotels.


The back of the Confidante, on the right

Pre-Shabbos

As the long summer afternoon moved along slowly (thankfully!), we left the beach, went for another quick swim in the pool (much better swimming than the ocean) and ran across the street to a market to pick up some snacks for Shabbos. We then went for a run on the boardwalk, but it started raining, so we headed back pretty quickly. On the run, we saw the backs of many of the hotels/pools and thought that the grounds/pools by our hotel were definitely among the tops in our area. All along the boardwalk, we noticed poles with a string atop them and, upon further inspection of the signs hanging on each pole, realized it was the Eruv! Pretty cool.



We got ready for Shabbos - including preparing the door lock (see above) and setting the lights and timers for the things we wanted on/off. We couldn't figure out how how to turn off the light in the fridge, but we only needed it for our drinks for dinner since we were eating lunch at Chabad, so we filled up a bag inside the garbage can with ice to act as a fridge for the night. We then headed back down to the beach to get some pre-Shabbos pictures. Boy, the water and sky was beautiful.





Shabbos

Once I found out Chabad was 10 minutes away on 41st Street, we decided to just Daven all Tefillos there. It turns out that the Minyan was originally established to be a sort of "Children's Minyan", so there is lots of singing for the kids, and the Rabbi gives out raffle tickets to the kids the whole time. Davening was therefore a bit slow at times and a bit quick at times when they were saying things the kids wouldn't be saying. There was a women's section for my wife, someone asked if we had somewhere to eat dinner, and after Davening, we headed back to the hotel for our little, quiet, super-relaxing meal. Like our hotel Shabbos meals in London, this one will stick in the memory for a long time.



In the morning, we went back to Chabad for 10AM Shacharis (WOW!) followed by the Kiddush/lunch. It was very communal style, so we found seats at a table and met a nice Chassidish couple from Monsey who just finished a trip to Key West, another couple visiting Miami and a local guy. Food was served to the group (i.e. not individual plates) except for very good cholent which was handed out in individual bowls. The rest of the food included salad, egg salad, gefilte fish and chicken. Everything we had tasted good, and I think this is a doable option for someone visiting Miami for Shabbos. After the trip, I sent them a donation online, including something for the Aliyah I was given. I would have liked if there was something more formal to the meal other than Kiddush made after Shacharis - perhaps a Rabbi going around introducing himself, but maybe that isn't so doable with such a large meal likely every week. The truth is that we only met the Chabad Rabbi in Venice because we went over to him, so maybe formalities/introductions don't usually happen at these meals. The Chassidish couple we ate with told us they ate in a restaurant in the Days Inn (I think...?) Friday night and loved it, so perhaps we'd look into that for another trip.

In the afternoon, we went for a long walk along the boardwalk, but couldn't last for too long as the heat was really strong in our Shabbos clothes. Mincha and Maariv back at Chabad and Havdala in the hotel room, and that was it for Shabbos!

Motzai Shabbos and Sunday

For dinner Motzai Shabbos, we were happy to hear that many options were open that late at night. We chose Beyond by Shemtov's, a well-decorated dairy place, and were thrilled with our decision. Their penne ala vodka, baked potato pizza, french onion soup and milkshake were all amazing! The fries were only decent, though. Prices were a bit on the expensive side, but it's clear that this place is not "just" a pizza store. Feeling stuffed, we walked back to the hotel and took a look out back - the pools were empty! The water was still impressively warm enough to quickly acclimate to, and we enjoyed a midnight swim. There was a security guard/staff of sorts that was hanging out by the pool area, and eventually another 2-3 people showed up but stayed in the other pool, but overall it was great and especially nice to finally swim without a lot of people around.

In the morning, I went to Chabad for Shacharis and then came back just as our breakfast from Tasty arrived. The chocolate chip pancakes were even better than the buttermilk ones (just as large), and the egg white omelet was pretty good. Truly a real treat for Kosher Diamond breakfast. After securing a late checkout of 5PM, we spent the day at the pools and beach again. That was our goal for the trip, and we really enjoyed it. We decided that lunch had to be at Shemtov's again, and this time we ordered a small pizza to split. It was plenty (no need for a full pie), but we had chosen the cheddar broccoli pizza thinking there would be some cheddar sprinkled on top, while in reality, the cheddar was the main cheese of the pizza (no mozzarella), so it was an interesting taste. We also got mozzarella sticks which were out of this world as well as a great strawberry mango smoothie. Would definitely go here again. After lunch, we stopped by Carlos & Gabby's to pick up 2 helpings of buffalo tenders to go for the plane (which we weren't even hungry for and didn't eat till we were home). We then packed up our things and went down to the pools for one last swim. As we finished putting our things together, we saw our flight get delayed, but decided not to chance it and rather checkout and grab an Uber to FLL for $18.49 after a referral discount. Good thing, because the flight got pushed forward again and was only delayed a short while. The evening flight got us back to ISP around 10PM, and we got our car and made it home at a relatively normal hour. What a great short getaway to Miami!

12
Goods For Sale/Trade / Regus Passes/Vouchers
« on: July 01, 2016, 01:28:09 PM »
I have 1 Regus Day Office Voucher and 2 business lounge guest passes to give away for free. They don't have an expiration on them.

13
Been looking for a points getaway in America with a great pool situation, and since I like Hyatt a lot, I decided to go through all their hotels in US48 and check out pictures of their pools. The wiki contains the list I came up with of properties that have impressive-looking water amenities. Yes, clearly I had some time on my hands today. Would be nice to get through other chains one day.

14
Just Shmooze / Mazel Tov, Yehoshua!!!!
« on: March 11, 2016, 12:19:24 PM »
On your new baby girl!

Time to book that extra seat. ;)

15
Trip Reports / @Yehuda's Road to Hana: From the Rockies and Back
« on: February 15, 2016, 09:54:50 AM »
Introduction:
With my firm in its 2nd year of closing the offices during the Christmas and New Year’s weeks, it was time to plan another getaway. My wife's schedule only gave her off for the week between Christmas and New Years, and I figured it would be difficult to find any miles/hotels options during that most busy of weeks. So back in September, I *just* booked a SW trip to Denver to get in some good ol' in-law time. Gotta love the availability, cancellation policy, and how cheap SW can be when booked a few months in advance.

Fast forward a month or two, and I found out that my wife will actually be off for the entire week before Christmas as well! With both of us off for the same 2 week timeframe, my mind started racing for additional travel possibilities. Since I had already promised her we'd visit her family, I wasn't going to remove the Denver part of the trip. With that in mind and with having already planned an itinerary in the past, going back to Hawaii (!) just made the most sense. Having been to Kauai just 4 months prior to this trip (b"h!), I decided it was time to "try out" Maui as those are the 2 most talked about islands on DDF(besides for PBaruch standing up for the Big Island). On our last trip, I wasn’t sure where availability would land us, so I had planned out itineraries for both Kauai and Maui. So now, I had a whole trip already laid out. With the Shabbos issue that I'm known for avoiding, we would have to once again fly on Sunday and leave on Thursday afternoon. Since we were now talking about the less-busy week before the holidays, I was able to find availability at the Hyatt Regency (the Andaz unfortunately never opened up) and a flight out of Maui, but it would be a long time till I would find the flights to start the trip.


Paradise awaits!

While I find award searching stressful yet exciting, I’m going to leave out the details this time. After searching relentlessly for weeks, I eventually gave up on finding the ideal EWR-HNL in J. I then realized that it made the most sense to actually go to Denver for Shabbos, then go to Hawaii for a week and then go back to Denver for the final week! Going to Hawaii from the West Coast would mean we would actually get to our destination island much earlier than had we left from EWR, which was a nice plus, and trust me, despite not detailing every second of my flight searching, I was pretty excited when I found lie-flat J for 1 leg. I was still changing legs until the week before our trip, but the final routing of 6 flights on 6 separate tickets looked like this:

Flights:
Friday, December 19
EWR-DEN on UA (12,500 UA)
Shabbos in Denver
Motzai Shabbos, December 20
DEN-SFO on SW (6,924 SW)
Sunday, December 21
SFO-OGG on UA J (35,000 LH)
4 days in Maui
Thursday, December 24
OGG-LAX on AA (12,500 BA)
Friday, December 25
LAX-DEN on SW (4,299 SW)
9 days in Denver
Sunday, January 3
DEN-EWR on SW (9,574 SW)

Hotels:
As I said, we stayed at the Hyatt Regency Maui. I did some research ahead of time and learned that the hotel has 3 towers and that we would want to be in the Atrium Tower since that's the most centrally-located as it has the lobby, Regency Club and closest walk to the pool.


Courtesy of Google Images and Maui Revealed.

It took a few calls in advance, but we slowly got upgraded from a "parking lot view" :P to a Deluxe Ocean View Room (in the Lahaina Tower) and finally to an Oceanfront room (all rooms of this room type are in the Atrium Tower) actually on the same floor as the Regency Club!

Hyatt Regency SFO (8,000 HGP)
Hyatt Regency Maui (20,000 HGP/night)
Courtyard LAX/EL Segundo (Marriott Category 1-5 Anniversary Certificate)
     Total cost for flights+hotels:
     249,593 miles + $67.20
     I love this game.

I also bought Travel Guard's Gold trip insurance plan for $81 and b"h didn't need it.

Car Rental:
After learning last trip that the Hawaii Bar AWD was the cheapest way to get a convertible in Hawaii, I used it to rent a Mustang from Avis for $248 for 4 days. I used Arrival points to cover the cost at about 22,500. Since then, my notion of the cheapest way to book a convertible here was challenged, so perhaps there are cheaper ways to get it. Going with a convertible in Hawaii is a DansDeals “must,” but we really didn’t think it was such an awesome experience the first time and only got it the second time for the Road the Hana “must-ness.” In my opinion after having done it, if you're not a car fanatic, the convertible can be skipped.

Food:
Classicly, we ordered travel meals from Pomegranate for the flights and dinners. 12 meals plus $25 delivery came out to $225. Some of the meals were great (Penne Vodka, Sesame Chicken), while others that were good the last time we had them (BBQ Chicken Nuggets, Fire Poppers Chicken Nuggets), were only ‘eh’ this time. I’ll admit part of that was due to not being patient and letting them heat up for the 45 minutes to an hour they really need, but a bunch of them were soggier than on our previous trip (especially the side dishes). For lunches and snacks, we brought bread, peanut butter and other foodstuff with us, which saved the trip to Walmart on the island (which we did last time) and allowed us to go straight to our hotel.

One last point about food. The Hyatt Regency is known to have frozen Kosher food from Oahu Kosher (the Chabad on Oahu) that is available for Diamond members. I confirmed that they had food available and they sent me this menu and confirmed, incredibly, that it would all be free.



Once I saw that menu, we almost didn’t buy POM meals. I sent one last follow up email asking who the supervision was under and was told it was Rabbi Sholom, the Chabad Rabbi on Maui. I happened to call him up to ask about Minyanim and as an aside, thanked him for preparing Kosher food at the Hyatt, to which he replied, “What are you talking about?” My jaw dropped, and many back-and-forths later, we ordered our POM meals and found out (only once at the hotel) that the food was prepared by a cook from a local temple and the Hyatt chef "didn’t know" we were asking about Glatt Kosher food (“Oh, why didn’t you say so?”). B”h we looked into it in advance and ordered POM.

Okay, on to the trip!!

Pages: [1] 2 3 4 5