Friday, August 31, 2012

How Affordable is the Galapagos Islands?

  In January of this year, my husband and I visited Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands.  Most people that visit the Galapagos Islands take a boat cruise but we decided to do the land route.  We based ourselves out of Santa Cruz Island and visited a couple of other islands by speedboat.  We also spent 3 nights in Guayaquil, Ecuador and 1 night in Panama City.  Our night in Panama City is a choice we made while booking our flight.  With Copa Airlines, we had a stopover in Panama City and we had the choice of deciding how long we wanted our stopover to be.  We ended up deciding to do an overnight stopover since it was our first time in Panama City and we wanted to do a little sight-seeing.
  In future posts I will delve more into our Ecuador trip but in this post I wanted to focus on financial information.  I also want to share how we came up with our trip and how we were able to financially make it happen.  For the longest time it had been my dream to visit the Galapagos Islands but I really never thought it would become a reality.  For some reason I had it in my head that the Galapagos were extremely expensive to visit.  I believed that airfare would be thousands of dollars and that the only way to see the Islands was by boat which would also be thousands of dollars.  The latter is is expensive to see the Islands by boat. 
  Now originally my husband and I had our sights set on visiting Buenos Aires in January 2012.  I saw that flights out of Chicago wavered around $1,500-2,000 for January.  Spending $3,000 alone on transportation was not in our budget so I began researching other options in South America.  Brazil and and Chile both had similar price ranges as Buenos Aires.  Then one day I stumbled upon Guayaquil, Ecuador.  We booked our roundtrip flights from Chicago to Guayaquil (with an overnight stop in Panama City) for $597 a person. Then we booked our roundtrip flights from Guayaquil to Isla Baltra, Galapagos for $302 a person.  We were getting two flights each for $1,000 a person compared to Buenos Aires flights that were over $1,500 a person.
  I have seen many Galapagos packages that travel companies have put together.  I have nothing against these packages but sometimes I wonder how they calculate the costs per person.  One recent package I saw was $2,500 per person for airfare out of Miami, 3 nights in Quito, and 3 nights on a boat in the Galapagos.  I'm sure this is a perfectly nice package but it would have been too expensive for my husband and I.  Plus, our trip was 9 nights instead of 6 nights.  Moving forward with our partial trip breakdown....there are 2 additional fees that foreign visitors have to pay when they go to the Galapagos.  The first fee is a $10 visitor fee and the second fee is a $100 park entrance fee.  All of our hotels had hot, running water, air conditioning and private bathrooms.  Our 9 nights of hotels totaled about $580.  Granted it does cost more to stay on a boat in the Galapagos.
  The total that we paid per person for 2 airfares, hotel costs (divided by two), and entrance fees was about $1,300.  This does not include food, drinks, and activities.
  Hopefully this post has put a little perspective on the costs to visit the Galapagos.  Does it seem a little more affordable for interested visitors?  Are you interested in visiting the Galapagos?

     A view from the shore of Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Presentation on Mongolia

  This past Wednesday evening, my husband and I enjoyed a presentation on Mongolia by Cynthia Clampitt at the Schaumburg (IL) library.  Cynthia is a world traveler, writer, and author.  She wrote "Waltzing Australia" and also writes for National Geographic.  Her presentation explored Mongolia's geography, culture, food and people along with her personal travel experiences there.  Here's a list of a couple of the many interesting facts that I learned about Mongolia during her presentation:

  • Mongolia has both extremely cold and extremely hot temperatures
  • During winter, there are only a couple hours of light each day
  • Mongols in the rural areas live mainly on meat, milk and cheese
  • Mongols in the rural areas do not usually eat fish and rarely eat fruits and vegetables 
  • The capital of Mongolia is Ulaanbaatar and it has more modern amenities compared with the rest of the country
  • In 1990 Mongolia gained its freedom from the Soviet Union but Russian influences can still be seen
  • The major religion in Mongolia is Tibetan Buddhism
  • Genghis Khan united the tribes of Mongolia and the Mongol Empire had the most conquered land in history
  • The desert in Mongolia is called The Gobi
  • A traditional Mongolian dish is called Huushuur and its a fried meat-filled pastry

These are just a few things I learned at this wonderful presentation.  I haven't visited Asia yet but it makes me want to plan a trip even more now.
For more information about Cynthia's book on Australia, please visit her website Waltzing Australia.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Hockey Stadiums

  In my previous post I had mentioned that on my still to do Bucket List, I want to see hockey games in at least half the NHL stadiums in the U.S. and Canada.  So far we've got four stadiums under our belt and plans for more.

We saw the Chicago Blackhawks in Fall 2010, a few months after they won the Stanley Cup.  I remember the stadium was packed with people going crazy over the Windy City's new champions.  The Blackhawks play in the United Center.  I like this stadium and feel that there's a decent view from almost every seat.  Outside the stadium, there isn't much to do but it's a short drive to other parts of the city for post-game partying.

In March 2011 we saw the New York Rangers play at Madison Square Garden.  Unfortunately we weren't very fond of "The Garden".  Some seats had blocked views which I didn't think was fair considering tickets were pretty expensive.  Also, I didn't like the setup where the bathrooms were in the arena with the seats so there were lines of people waiting to use the bathrooms right next to the seats.  Madison Square Garden is a historic stadium and I do recommend a visit.

In March 2012 my husband, my friend and I went to see the Ducks in Anaheim.  The area around the stadium is nice and nearby is the Angels' baseball stadium.  I liked the setup of the stadium and each seat seemed to have good views of the rink.  On our way to the stadium from Los Angeles we stopped by a couple of hockey stores and the popular In and Out Burger.  My friend suggested the "Animal Style" burgers which were as good as it gets.

 Our Tampa Bay Lightening game in January 2009 rounded out a nice Tampa Bay/Carnival Cruise trip.  My husband proposed to me at the beginning of this vacation.  Then we boarded a Carnival Cruise ship and headed to Cozumel and Grand Cayman.  When we arrived back in Tampa Bay we ended the trip with a fun Tampa Bay Lightening game.  Before the game, there was a pre-party around the stadium with food, drinks, a band, and games.  The weather was so mild compared to Chicago winter weather and we were secretly wishing that the Blackhawks could have these kind of pre-parties outside the United Center.  We both liked St. Pete Times Forum and had no complaints about the rink views from our seats. 

We're hoping the NHL players and owners are able to work out their differences in the next month so we can have a hockey season this year.  If so, our plan is to hopefully see the New Jersey Devils and NY Islanders this year and the L.A. Kings next year. 

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The NHL Has The Blues....

....and no, I don't mean the St. Louis Blues.  As of today, we still do not know if there will be a 2012-2013 NHL season.  The NHL team owners and the players are in disagreement over a couple of issues including player reduction in salary and player contract terms.  Due to the increase in "big" contracts being handed out to players, for example Zach Parise's contract of $98 million over 13 years, the owners want to limit the number of years in a contract to a maximum of 5 years.  Yesterday key NHL stars flew into Toronto to have another meeting with the NHL team owners.  If these issues do not get worked out by September 15, there will be a NHL "lockout".
  This would not only be a huge bummer to avid hockey fans everywhere, it would also affect some of our plans for our NYC trip.  Last year we saw the NY Rangers in Madison Square Garden.  This year we were planning on seeing both the New Jersey Devils and the NY Islanders while we are in the Big Apple.  One of the items on our "Bucket List" is to see at least half of all NHL teams play a game in their home stadiums.  In my next post I will blog about the NHL home games we've seen so far in our quest to check off another item from our "Bucket List".

Saturday, August 11, 2012

My Short List for New York City

  I've been to New York City twice before and did a lot of touristy stuff.  I saw the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, The Met, The Guggenheim, the Museum of Natural History, Little Italy, and Chinatown.  I love touristy stuff but I think this time around I'm going to focus on trying to "blend in with the locals".  As you read in my previous post, I just booked airfare to NYC for $177, nonstop, round-trip for this winter.  On a whim, I decided to check out a book from my local library called "Pauline Frommer's New York City:  Spend Less, See More".  I actually really enjoyed this book.  It gave me plenty of great ideas to try new, creative things in New York City.  Some ideas are still touristy which I don't mind but then I have some fun "local" ideas as well.
  Here's a short list of ideas that I've jotted down so far from Pauline Frommer's book:

1.  Eat Dim Sum in Chinatown.  Dim Sum is small portions of Chinese cuisine traditionally served in steamer baskets.  The food is pushed around the restaurant on carts and customers can choose what items they would like.  I first saw Dim Sum in New York City in the movie "Made of Honor".  Two of the Chinese Dim Sum restaurants that Pauline Frommer listed in her book were Jing Fong and Golden Unicorn.

2.  Try a restaurant that uses peanut butter in a majority of its recipes.  Peanut Butter & Co. on Sullivan Street was recommended by Frommer.  They have all kinds of sandwiches and desserts made from peanut butter.

3.  Walk across the Brooklyn Bridge.  o.k. this is touristy but I've never done it before and Frommer said that there are great views of the city from the Bridge.  Plus, I've never been to Brooklyn before.

4.  Do a Steinway & Sons Piano Factory Tour in Astoria, Queens.  See how the famous Steinway pianos are made.  I play the piano so this is right up my alley.

5.  Go to a Japanese Tea Ceremony at Cha-an in the East Village.  According to Ch-an's website they have Japanese tea ceremonies the first and third Sundays of the month between noon and 4pm.  Reservations are needed.  I've read the food and teas are great even if you can't make the tea ceremony. 

I plan on discovering many more great ideas for my trip to NYC which I will share in future posts.  I would love to hear more fun tips and ideas from anyone else that has visited NYC.

Below is a photo from our March 2011 trip to NYC.  A fun touristy NYC activity is ice skating at Rockefeller Plaza.  It's a little on the expensive side.  For $35 you can get a combo ticket for a skate plus a visit to the Top of the Rock Observation Deck.  This could be a very memorable and fun experience.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Flight Frenzy

So I just booked a flight to visit my sisters in New York City.  I never really thought about it before but I have a quirky way of booking flights.  I consider it strategic but outsiders may view it as being nit-picky or controlling.  Whenever I book a flight no matter where it is, I consider a wide variety of factors.  Depending on where I'm going depends on how many choices I get to make and believe me, I love choices.

  One of the first factors I consider is timing.  For trips outside the U.S., I'm limited on departure and arrival times.  Planes from Chicago to certain cities in Europe only leave at certain times of the day.  However, planes from Chicago to New York City leave almost every hour.  If possible, I prefer to be one of the first planes out to whatever destination I'm going to.  For example, my flight to New York City is leaving O'Hare Airport at 6:30am.  I have my own scientific reasoning behind this but the main reason is that most early morning flights depart on-time.  It's not a guarantee but I can't think of the last early morning flight that I had that was delayed.  If the flight does get delayed then I should still be first in the line-up of flights for the day to depart.  Another simple reason why I like to leave in the early morning is because when I arrive in whatever city I'm going to, I still have almost a full day of sight-seeing ahead of me.  Another part of timing that I consider is who is taking me to the airport and who is picking me up.  When flying in and out of O'Hare Airport, my dad is always my ride.  I'm ever grateful to him for this, therefore I basically never pick flight times that coincide with rush hour traffic.  Believe me, rush hour traffic is bad in Chicago.  I wouldn't say it is the worst in the nation but it is up there. According to different online flight forums, many people also seem to recommend flying out in the early morning as the best time to fly.  As far as best days of the week to fly out, the consensus was Tuesday.  I also saw many people recommending Wednesday as being the cheapest day of the week to fly out.

  Price is a big factor for many people when choosing flights.  I play the "price is right" game.  I already have a set price in my head that I feel is the right price for a flight for a city during that time of year.  For example, I wouldn't pay more then around $200 to fly from Chicago to New York City or Chicago to Los Angeles.  Many people would think that as the years go by, airfares would increase with inflation.  I paid $180 in December 2004 for a flight to California and I paid $180 per person, round-trip nonstop this past March for a flight to California.  My New York City flight that I just booked was $177 per person, round-trip nonstop.  Granted, there are times when I might need to be in a city for a wedding or graduation, thus airfares are not as flexible.  However, one cheap flight tip I would give out is to have a reasonable price in mind that you would pay for a flight and keep checking and checking and checking for that price.  If possible try to be flexible on your travel time frame as well.  My favorite airfare search engine is  Many times I do go to the airline's actual site to check prices there too.  For my New York City flight, Kayak told me that the cheapest flight was $192 with Spirit.  I went to both Delta's and American Air's websites and found my round-trip airfare for $177 a person.  I chose Delta because it flies into the Marine Terminal at LaGuardia and this terminal is always quiet.  Some of my friends choose to get email updates once a fare is around a certain price which may be favorable for people who don't like to constantly check flight prices.

  As I mentioned above, I booked Delta to fly into LaGuardia because it uses the Marine Terminal which is a separate terminal from the rest of LaGuardia airport.  This terminal is almost always quiet and getting through security is super fast.  Over the years I've found some "studs" and "duds" for airlines.  This is just my personal opinion based on my experiences.  One of my favorite airlines is Air France when I flew into Berlin during my Eastern Europe trip.  Each seat had its own personal TV that was in the back of the chair in front of it.  We each also got eye masks among other little amenities.  I flew Air India into Frankfurt during our Germany trip.  I loved our flight attendant.  When he realized that we were having trouble eating the spicy Indian plane food that he gave us, he tried to bring us other non-spicy things to eat and also gave us a bunch of mini bottles of beer and wine.  I think he was trying to make up for the fact that we were struggling to eat the food.  Air India even gave out mini bags of what looked like Indian-style flaming hot cheetos.  There is nothing wrong with Indian food, I just have trouble eating spicy food.  The airline that I didn't care for the most was Iberia Airline.  The flight attendants were extremely rude.  They really turned me off to the airline and made me wonder if they hated their jobs. We took Iberia to Madrid on our honeymoon.  When we checked in for our flight home, Iberia told us that they didn't know if we had a place on the plane because they had overbooked our flight.  My husband and I went running through the airport to get to the gate to demand to get on the flight.  We did board that flight but were given seats in separate areas of the plane.  So during the 8 hour flight home from my honeymoon, I did not get to sit anywhere near my new husband.

Now here is my favorite airport.  The photo is a little blurry but can you guess where it is?


My favorite airport is in the Galapagos Islands.  We walked from the plane right into the airport.  There was no conveyor belt for our luggage, it was all dragged from the plane and set in a group.  There were no walls to the airport, just an overhang.  Oh, and we didn't have to take off our shoes or give up our liquid items that we wanted to carry on the plane.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Sweet Home Chicago

  Yes, I live in a suburb of Chicago so I am a little biased about the City of Broad Shoulders.  Chicago has been the backdrop for many historical events.  Just like New York City, Chicago had its own group of gangsters.  The "Chicago Outfit" was at one time led by the infamous Al Capone.  Race Riots and the 1968 Democratic Convention sparked other kinds of violence in Chicago.  However just like any other large urban city, through the dark marks in Chicago's history shine many wonderful aspects.
  Chicago is bursting with culture.  One can visit Greektown, Little Italy, Chinatown and Ukrainian Village without leaving the city.  There are also other ethnic enclaves that include Polish, Puerto Rican, and German heritages.  I would highly recommend visiting an ethnic area during a visit to Chicago.  The most popular tourist attractions include Navy Pier, The Field Museum, The Art Institute, and The Museum of Science and Industry.  Plus, Chicago boasts Championship sports teams along with biking, boating, and ice skating.
  One of my favorite times in Chicago is when the "Magnificent Mile", also known as the Michigan Avenue area, is having its tulips days in the spring.  There are so many beautiful colors and I see photographers on a daily basis snapping away.
  Here are a few of my own Chicago tulip photos.

  I do have these photos posted on my other blog, Chicago Daily.  I started that blog a couple years ago and have slowed down on it as I've started this new blog.
  As far as vacationing in Chicago, really any time of year is great to visit.  For first time visitors, Chicago in early summer or early fall are my favorite times of year.  Mid-summer is wonderful for the beach but as we've seen this summer, can sometimes get uncomfortably hot.  Winters in Chicago are full of beautiful Christmas decorations and Thanksgiving parades but can be extremely cold.
  For accommodations, some hotels run seasonal specials.  I have also seen some good Chicago hotel deals on sites like Groupon and Living Social.  Areas like Michigan Avenue tend to have higher prices across the board as far as food, accommodations, and activities.  Navy Pier is free to walk around but Imax Theater ticket prices run around $18 a ticket and Ferris Wheel ticket prices are $6 per person.  Other fun free activities include walking around Millennium Park, checking out The Bean, and visiting the Lincoln Park Zoo. has a "Deals" section that is worth checking out.
  All in all, this "Second City" is a wonderful place to visit no matter what time of year you come.  Carpe your trip to Chicago!

Saturday, August 4, 2012

New York City and Mob Week

  This past week was "Mob Week" on AMC.  The list of showings included movies like "Scarface", "The Godfather", "Goodfellas", "Bugsy", and "Donnie Brasco".  I haven't seen all of the "Mob" movies and I can't say that I ever will but I do have to admit that the history of the "Mob" or "Mafia" interests me.  Although many people have images of the Italian Mafia when they think about the "Mob", Jewish, Irish, and Russian backgrounds were also involved.  I'm not interested in the violence but what sparks my curiosity is how the "Mafia" had its beginnings and how it evolved over the years.  How did it affect the lives of people?  How did it shape the culture?  How would things be if the "Mafia" never existed?  New York City seemed to be the lifeblood of the "Mob".  People from various backgrounds came together and formed organized crime.  There were the Italian "Five Families", the "Irish Street Gangs", and Russian "Bratva".  Each has used New York City as an urban backdrop to gain money and power.

  My sisters currently live in New York City and I've visited them a couple of times.  Both in 2009 and in 2011 while visiting, I made my way to "Little Italy" in Manhattan.  "Little Italy" is full of Italian restaurants and delis as you can see from my 2009 photo.  I would recommend visiting the delis for great, fresh Italian specialties.  One thing that amazes me about New York City is that it is the only city in the world where you can find such a vast array of different cultural foods.  People came to "make it" here however they could...through restaurants, small businesses, and even organized crime.
   Earlier this week I also saw a documentary on "The Godfather" trilogy.  As many know, the Italian Mafia have over a hundred year history in New York City.  One scene that "The Godfather" documentary showed over and over was the scene from the second Godfather movie where Don Vito is a boy and he's on an immigrant boat that is pulling into New York City harbor.  The Statue of Liberty appears before him and he stares.  The documentary stated multiple times that "The Godfather" portrayed the classic sense of the new immigrant arriving in America.  Part of the scene shows Don Vito with a group of immigrants, adults and children, and they're all looking up at the Statue of Liberty in awe.  It is their first impression of this new world, their new lives.  I feel that Francis Ford Coppola created a strong sense of emotion with this scene.  As much as we may not identify with a violent Mafia Godfather, some of us may be able to identify with a quest for life and family.
  Now especially after the 9/11 attacks, I feel that the Statue of Liberty gives us that same strong sense of what being an American is.  Whether we're an immigrant from another country or our families have been here for a few generations, we can look up at Lady Liberty and look forward to our futures.


 The above photos were taken during our July 2009 NYC trip.  We took a boat tour to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island....highly recommended.  Now I'm imagining being an immigrant in the early twentieth century and this is the first image I see as I pull into the New York harbor.