Editing One Image at a Time… Marseille, France


A combination of edit ideas used from: this video, this video, coffee shop filters (once upon a time, my favorite!), and a little bit of color painting.

In my opinion, the resulting image kind of looks like a castle from a storybook. Unfortunately (or fortunately, whichever) it is, in fact, a church rather than a castle. The view from the Notre Dame de la Garde is absolutely stunning! I highly recommend a stop in Marseille, France should you ever find yourself in the area. :) Check out this video to learn more about the city.

Hope everyone is having a great week so far!

Hotel Marlowe – Cambridge, MA

Boston is a city that was built to be seen from the water, or so I've been told.

Destination: Boston, MA
Date: August 2015
Hotel: Hotel Marlowe
Brand: Kimpton
Elite Status: none
# of travelers: 5
nights: 1

Hotel: Making the Decision

So, the last time Justin and I went to Boston was 2013. We picked an AirBnb home in Watertown with three bedrooms – one for Justin and myself, one for his parents, and one for his uncle. The house itself was absolutely gorgeous and so nice to stay at, but there was one small problem: no air conditioning. As it turns out, we were traveling during a heat wave, so while we thought we were getting away from Georgia's hot weather by moving northward, instead we found ourselves in the city in the heat.

One thing I recommend: never stay somewhere without air conditioning during a 100 degree heatwave. It is hot.

Given our last experience in Boston, we were determined to stay at a place with AC. So, I took out my handy-dandy phone and contacted the lovely pana travel concierge people. If anyone knew the area, they would, right?

Out of the 3 hotels they chose for me, none of which were chains I had status with, we decided to go with the Kimpton. Kimpton branded hotels are actually now owned by IHG, but they work together as a small boutique hotel chain with their own reward points and so forth. This basically meant that my spire status meant absolutely nothing to them. I had heard fantastic things on travel blogs and Flyertalk forum about the chain though, so Justin and I decided to give it a try. What was there to lose?

After deciding on the hotel, I went online to book it. They have a no refunds policy, but, after a search on Kayak revealed no cheaper pricing, I went to book the cheapest room. Usually I leave this part of the story out of my hotel stay reviews, but I felt the need to mention it because, just after booking, I discovered a cheaper, better option on Groupon. For less money, I could have a room with a view and free breakfast. Immediately I jumped into the chatroom on their website to ask if they could reverse my booking since I had just reserved the room within the past hour. The lady I talked with, Amanda, was so nice that she agreed to do so for me just this once. Honestly, I was so happy that I jumped on twitter to remark to Hotel Kimpton how pleased I was with their service. Obviously they were still getting my business but being unable to price match it (because hotel price matching is weird), it made me feel so good that they valued me as a customer over my financial gain (their net loss, to a small extent) and lesser room. If only that fantastic service had lasted when we got to the hotel…

One option…

Getting There

Well, obviously, Justin and I took the Amtrak to Boston from New York, but once we got there we were able to jump aboard what Bostonians refer to as the "T" and take the subway to our hotel in Cambridge, just outside of Boston. It was a bit of a walk from the subway station, and, while not long in my opinion, others in the party didn't find it particularly pleasant despite the clean sidewalks and easy path to the hotel. (Sidenote: As southern suburban Americans, we don't walk anywhere. We drive. This was the main complaint.) Other options include flying in, renting a car, or taking a taxi. Taxis, as we discovered, are only about $12 from downtown Boston and can quite possibly be the cheapest option if you are trying to relocate multiple people from one end of town to the next; however, your mileage (in all instances) will vary. :) Parking at the hotel, if you choose to bring or rent a car, will cost $25 a night not to mention any parking prices you may pay in downtown Boston should you choose to go there via your vehicle.

The Lobby & Having Our Luggage Held

The entrance to the hotel is actually in a circle where you can choose to have the valet park your car. Once walking in, bathrooms are to your left, flavored water and a posh seating area are straight ahead, and the check-in desk, elevators, and restaurant/bar are to your right. We first went for a cup of water, because we were thirsty. Anyway, afterward, we talked to the front desk about our room which wasn't ready yet. They offered to hold our luggage for us until we returned to check in sometime after 4pm. The ladies at the front desk suggested a couple of local eateries and then we headed out for downtown Boston!

Checking In

We didn't actually check in to the hotel until after 9PM that night after a busy day and dinner. There were a few complications to the process – for example, the hotel didn't offer us the free breakfast that was part of our groupon deal. We had to ask and the front desk clerks got a little angry, we think, at the request. I had to show them a print out to prove we had paid for it. They also gave us a hard time about providing a room with a view, which we had also paid for. *sigh* I don't know what their problem was…

Large, spacious rooms

Room & View

Finally, around 10pm, we were settled in. The view was lovely – of a pond across the street. Perhaps a higher floor than 3 would have been ideal, but our view certainly wasn't worthy of complaining.

The room was pretty big and provided plenty of room for us to spread out. There was a work desk, a large chair and plenty of floor space. Even the bathroom was big. Amenities included a fridge, blow dryer, soaps and shampoos, free internet, and they are also pet friendly! (Sidenote: they don't smell or look like they are pet friendly. Big plus!)

Location, Amenities, & Price

The location of this hotel was fantastic! While not actually inside the middle of Boston, you also aren't paying "middle of Boston" prices. Even-so, you are still close enough to easily get in and out of the area without a problem. You can walk across the bridge, take the T, or taxi downtown relatively cheaply and easily. Or, if downtown isn't your thing, you could stay and explore Cambridge. The hotel is located right next to a mall or you can go across the street to Harvard or make a visit to MIT. We didn't actually venture onto the college campuses, but, from what I understand, they are stunning! :)

Aside from the great location, the hotel also allows you to rent kayaks or bikes, run the streets of Boston with the owner (I believe that is every Thursday…), work out in the fitness center, take in a happy hour of cheese and wine (for free!) or even experience an evening star gazing (also for free) at the observatory across the street.

While the hotel does not run cheap (think mid-range prices), the amenities are fantastic and you can truly get what you pay for in experiences from this hotel!

Seeing Boston on a "Super Duck Tour!"

Overall Review

★★★★ (above average)

While not the cream of the crop, Hotel Marlowe was definitely a fantastic, cute little hotel to stay at. There were definitely things that could have improved – like their front desk customer service – but overall our stay was very nice. We enjoyed our room, we wished we could have taken more advantage of the many amenities they had to offer, and the location felt incredibly central to areas I would have liked to have explored more-so than we did. I would recommend this hotel if 1) you are wanting to stay closer to the colleges or outskirt of Boston 2) if you have a car you need to park (decent price) or pets you are bringing with you and 3) if you intend on taking advantage of the many perks this hotel has to offer. I haven't stayed in downtown Boston yet, so I have no idea how that compares… I would stay here again though, and I think that says something about the hotel.

Your Turn

Have you ever spent the night in the Boston area? Is there any place near there (in Cambridge or otherwise) that you would recommend? Would you consider this hotel for the future?

Staying Busy

Dear Friends,

Justin and I just got back from a crazy weekend. Lots of friend and socialization time and just the tiniest bit of work.

Then yesterday, Sunday afternoon, I got a text. A job for this morning.

I love you all, but money is money. (And it is "money Monday!")

Therefore, I shall see you all on Tuesday.

xoxo,

Mandy

P.S. Go enter my giveaway before it's too late!

Throwback Thursday – Italy


Cinque Terre, Italy – May 2014

Followed this tutorial today to edit an image. Actually 3. Then I ran out of time. :)

While I didn't necessarily appreciate the beauty of Cinque Terre (Italy) while I was there, it's nice to finally get an image close to how I remember it. Perhaps further trials following the method described in the youtube tutorial above will continue to have me growing in skill and producing better and better images. That's the goal anyway. :)

Hope you all are having a fantastic week so far!

Amtrak 101

Amtrak trains are the best!

During our time traveling from New York to Boston this past August, we decided to redeem some of our Sapphire Ultimate Reward points for a train ride between the two cities. When I really began looking at how to redeem the points, I was shocked that the same 24,000 points for a $300 hotel in New York could be spent on (approximately) $428 worth of train tickets! Obviously, I was interested in getting the most value out of my points, so we went with train tickets.

Here's my story:

Back in June (Father's Day to be exact), Justin's parents informed us that they were taking a quick trip up to NYC to see Justin's aunt and then to Boston to see Justin's great uncle sometime in August. Not wanting to be left behind, I jumped onboard (with Justin's permission, of course) with the planning! There was no way I was going to miss out on traveling to one of my favorite cities in the world!

We began by finding flights and using Hopper, an app that compares and uses data from previous years to tell you when the best time to purchase flights is. Almost immediately Hopper informed us that flights would increase in price if we didn't book before July 4th. So we did. I used Google Flights to compare prices and even Airfarewatchdog to see if prices would decrease in the last few days before July 4th. When they didn't, we got permission from Justin's parents and booked both sets of flights (theirs and ours). I chose an early departure time from ATL so that we would arrive in NYC early that Thursday, in preparation for a long weekend, and a late departure time from NYC on Sunday night so that we would have as much time as possible to enjoy all that New York had to offer before heading home.

Next up came hotel planning. I downloaded Pana, a concierge travel app with two months of free usage, to help me pick hotels. Being unfamiliar with both cities, I knew I wanted hotels near attractions, within our price range, and in a safe neighborhood. Plus, how was I going to review Pana if I didn't actually use it? (Review to come soon. I promise!)

After picking one of the three hotels suggested to me by Pana for each city, I began looking into making reservations. This is when I discovered the point difference. Justin's parents weren't too keen about taking the train to Boston, but I was thrilled with the prospect, so we offered to cover their portion of the train just so that I could have the experience (and Justin could have beer during the ride up!).

I love the Chase Sapphire rewards credit card!

Transferring & Redeeming Ultimate Reward Points

While the train ride itself was enjoyable, relaxing, quiet, and comfortable, I have to say that I did get frustrated when attempting to book the travel. Amtrak has 2 different sign in options – amtrak.com and amtrak rewards. Honestly, even after a google search, I have no idea what is what, but I did see you could link the two accounts which may solve the problem I ran into. Anyway, I researched how many awards I would need when traveling between New York City and Boston and discovered it was about 4,000 per person since we were booking normal economy train tickets (as opposed to acela express) within the northeast. (See here for map and here for current redemption values). We then easily transferred the points from our Sapphire account and I attempted booking.

Lesson 1: When booking, check and double check that you are signed in. As for me, I checked and double checked that I had the correct train and times. Then, somehow, I ended up signed into either Amtrak or Amtrak Rewards but not both. I clicked book and reloaded my non-responsive page. All of a sudden, my points were gone AND I didn't have a train ticket!

Lesson 2: After transferring points, just call and book with an Amtrak agent. I had to wait an hour for my points to show back up in my account and there was nothing any of the Amtrak agents could do to speed along the process.  The Amtrak agent I spoke with told me that once my points showed up in my account I could either try again online or I could call and have her book my route for free. Guess you know what I did? ;)

At about this point, I thought we were in the free and clear. All we had to do was show up and ride Amtrak. Only I forgot to print the tickets before we left for New York City. So Friday morning Justin went running down to the business center at The Roosevelt to try and print the tickets. Except they didn't have any ink or paper or something… So we decided to wing it and visit the ticket counter to see if they could help us. They told us that our e-mailed tickets would work just fine, so we relaxed with a bagel while waiting for our train information to show up on the board at Penn Station.

Waiting for a sign that your train has arrived…

Tips for Boarding the Train

• Make friendly with Amtrak agents that are positioned around the waiting area. They will find out first which track your train will be on and can give you a heads up.

• Take the stairs down to your track rather than waiting on the escalator to be turned around. (It's going the opposite way until your train begins boarding.) As soon as the train information is up on the board and the escalator is turned around, everyone will rush to go down. There are no real lines and people are pushy. Keep your hand on anybody you are traveling with. Amtrak employees standing at the top of the escalator will verify your ticket and not let anyone go down without the rest of their group.

• Before making your way down to the train platform, if you did not print your tickets, do a printscreen on your phone so that you have your tickets even without internet. This will be important after the train leaves the station since Amtrak employees will check for your tickets yet again.

After getting through the mad chaos that is riding the escalator down and finding a seat aboard the train, you can more or less relax.

Noah's ark seating! 2x2x2x2… :)

Tips for riding the train:

• If you are riding from New York to Boston, choose the left side (when facing forward to the train's front) for views of the city and the right side for views of the ocean.

• The food car is very simple. You are paying a lot of money for very cheap snacks. Think Sabra hummus and pretzels, Welch's fruit snacks, Swiss Miss hot chocolate, Little Debbie cakes, etc… You will not find a hot homemade meal here.

• Use headphones and keep noise to a minimum. Unlike restaurants, train cars tend to be very quiet even if you aren't in the designated "quiet car".

• If you change seats, be certain to move your tag (that the ticket checker puts over your seat) to your new seat. It can cause confusion if you don't.

• Please, please, please do not recline your seat unless there is no one sitting in the seat behind you. There is very little legroom and even the tiniest of reclining takes up a lot of that space. At the very least, un-recline when you get up to go somewhere (to the bathroom, walk around, get food, etc…).

My Experience



Overall, my first experience riding the Amtrak from New York City to Boston was a positive one. I loved that the phone agents were willing to help me with what I needed without charging me extra. I liked that I could present my e-mailed tickets rather than printing them. The seats weren't uncomfortable and the view (even on the left side of the train) wasn't bad. I was even able to get some sleep (when I wasn't looking out the window feeling giddy with excitement at seeing the east coast pass me by)! I would definitely take Amtrak again especially for some of the more interesting routes like the fall foliage New England route or taking the train down the California coast. Clearly Amtrak offers some awesome exploration activities for a fairly cheap price that are worthy of taking advantage of in the future.

What do you think about Amtrak travel? Do you love it? Or hate it? Have you done any ultimate rewards points transfers to take advantage of this unique way of traveling?

Joining The Points Game

If you can afford it, that is.

Over the next few weeks (until Christmas, that is) I intend on sharing my attempt at joining the points game. Justin and I have a trip planned to NYC, Paris, and Germany and we're going to see how much we can pay in points and how little we can pay overall.

Here's where we are at:

• 66,000 Ultimate Reward (Sapphire) points
• 91,000 IHG points (spire status)
• 59,000 Delta points
• 43,00 Hilton points (gold status)

and just for arguments sake:

• 5,000 Marriott points
• 7,000 Club Carlson points (gold status)

Here's what I've accomplished so far:

• Booked flight for 2 at a price of $1,100 (for both tickets total) flying from NYC to Paris RT for Dec. 27 – Jan. 10.

What we are looking at doing:
• Fly to NYC from ATL on Dec.25
• Fly from NYC to Paris Dec. 27
• Train from Paris to Strasbourg (to see a Christmas Market) Dec. 30 (maybe?)
• Continue the rest of the way to Germany Dec. 31 (early morning)
• Who knows? (Spend time with friends.) Dec 31 – Jan. 9
• Train back to Paris Jan. 9.
• Fly from Paris to NYC Jan. 10
• Fly home Jan. 11 (night)

My research thus far:

• I can get a RT flight from ATL to NYC for the dates I want at a cost of 50,000 Delta points and $20 or I can pay $300+.
• Taking Amtrak to NYC is only 30,000 UR points but it requires 17 hours of train time. :(
• I spent 10 hours researching hotels in NYC for Dec. 25-27. I really like the idea of staying at the Waldorf Astoria to see all of the Christmas lights, but I've heard the hotel is kind of run down and not too impressive (19,000 HHonors points or $243). Other options I've looked at are the Intercontinental Times Square (40,000 IHG points + $70 or $306), Hyatt Andaz Fifth Avenue (25,000 UR points or $545) and Hilton Times Square (24,000 UR/Hilton points or $299.24). Pana Travel Concierge App has also recommended a few hotels to me that I will have to check out.
• I can book flights to Germany from Paris for 30,000 UR points + and are more expensive; I'd rather pay the fare and travel by train.
• Train tickets to Germany are looking to be about $100 straight from Paris or $150 if I include a stopover in Strasbourg. (information via Pana)
• Strasbourg has (supposedly) one of the best Christmas markets in Europe (that is still open at that time of year) and is not too far out of the way for where we are going to in Germany. Still trying to decide if that's worth giving up a day in Paris though.

My expectations:

• free flight to NYC?
• $1100 spent on flights from NYC to Paris
• $250-ish RT train tickets per person between Germany and Paris
• 2-3 free hotel nights can be booked with UR points
• 2-3 free hotel nights with IHG points
• 1-2 free hotel nights with Hilton points

* Justin and I will have one more Hilton stay before our trip which is probably the equivalent of between 6,000 and 10,000 more points. (Yay mystery shopping! Possible extra night free.)
* We are talking about staying at 2 more IHG hotels to take advantage of the accelerate promotion and obtain an additional 40,000 IHG points (the equivalent of one free night at a hotel!).
* We could potentially use our Discover Card discount to get money off of a car rental.

Finally, what I need to do:

• Book the Hilton and IHG stays (from expectations).
• Talk to boss about time off. (Because duh.)
• Figure out trip insurance.
• Find warm clothes. (We live in Georgia where it is warm 75% of the year.)
• Book free flight to NYC.
• Decide on NYC hotel & book.
• Research things to do in NYC.
• Find out if friend is joining us in Paris.
• Research and book Paris hotel/Airbnb.
• Figure out what we want to do in Paris.
• Book train tickets to Strasbourg (or straight to Germany, whichever).
• If we are staying one night in Strasbourg, research and book hotel.
• Car rental for Germany.
• Research and book hotel/airbnb.
• Talk to friends about plans. (Because seriously.)
• Enjoy!

So what do you think? Will I be able to pull off the points game with this trip? Are you interested in following my progress as I plan? Do you have any suggestions regarding my itinerary or points planning? Or questions? Share! I'd love to hear about your own points planning adventures or struggles! I'm sure I'm not the only one with the goal of free or cheap travel in mind…

Life with Coke + Giveaway


As an Atlanta native, Coke products have always been a part of my life. We see the Candler family name everywhere in downtown Atlanta from the Callanwolde House to the World of Coke Museum and even among lawyers, doctors, governors and elites. While I definitely remember drinking coke as a child (this was before we knew too much soda was bad for you), I also remember the year that I first tried diet coke…

My brother was in kindergarten and his teacher had planned a night time Christmas lights and junk food extravaganza. (Honestly, she planned tons of exciting things. I only wish I had had her as a kindergarten teacher…) My mom was going on the field trip to mix and mingle with the adults as well chaperone the twenty something 5-year-olds that would be taking part in the field trip; I was going as a "peer leader" or someone who was actively involved with taking care of younger children without actually being responsible for their behavior.

At the first house we stopped at our options included treats (brownies, Christmas cakes, the like), hot chocolate (this is 5 year olds we're talking about) and diet coke. Given that Georgia isn't exactly known for their cold winters, I opted for diet coke – which I immediately handed over to my mom. One sip and I knew that the sugary goodness of it's predecessor (regular coke) would not be found in this disgusting imitation. Ever since that time, so many years ago, I have refused to drink anything that even dares to use the words "diet" or "sugar free". Of course, studies suggesting that diet coke can be worse for you than regular coke only add to my dislike of the drink.

Anyway, with all of that in mind, a few weeks ago, I got the opportunity to try the brand new Coke Life. It came to me in a glass bottle. I must say, without any extra information, I assumed Coke Life would have less sugar than the regular brand and more "real sugar" as opposed to high fructose corn syrup. I assumed, much like the green product packaging implies, that Coke Life would somehow be healthier than regular coke.

After putting it off for a week waiting for a special dinner, I finally gave up and poured myself and my mom a glass to have with a dinner of lasagna. Frankly, I only really drink coke products when I go out to eat, so drinking a soda at home just seemed out of the ordinary and strange to me. Nevertheless, my husband, mom, and dad all sampled the new soda to give me more information for what to say in my review.

My mom was the first to try the new product. She claimed it wasn't very sweet – "Where's the sugar?" My dad thought it tasted fine. Justin was thrown off by the stevia mention on the label. And me? Well, at first I thought it tasted fine, but then there was an aftertaste … caused by, what I presume to be, the stevia.

Further investigation showed that while the drink was lower in calories than traditional coke, the product still contains a lot of sugar! According to this article: 3 Dunkin' Donuts worth of sugar! It is, however, less sugar than the original coke products contain, so there's that.

Point being: If you have to drink coke, Coke Life is healthier than regular Coca-Cola, but don't be seduced by the green labels and suggestions of health. No matter how you look at it, drinking soda is neither as healthful nor green (beneficial to the earth) as Coca-Cola seems to suggest.


Want a coupon to try the product for yourself? Enter my giveaway below! You have until 10/2 to enter and five winners will be chosen. Good luck!


a Rafflecopter giveaway

*I received this product (and giveaway coupons) for free in exchange for a review. All opinions are my own.

Rooted In Design Book Review


Having never been a plant person but always intrigued by the beauty and zen created by a plant-filled space, I decided to take on and review Tara Heibel and Tassy de Give's book Rooted in Design. I felt that if I could recreate one of their plant ideas in my own home, then obviously they had done a good job.

With that being said, I held onto the book for three months and barely touched it. Despite my interest in creating a more wholesome and calming environment through the use of plants, I simply could not find time to do any of these simple and easy ideas. Even with step-by-step instructions, Justin and I found ourselves too busy travelling and creating in other ways. Food, for example, is a particularly easy method for beautifying and creating in one's life: you simply have to eat at some point. Plants, and specifically plant design, on the other hand, are not quite as critical to one's well being. (To be fair: in our last house, it took us nearly 6 months to hang up picture frames. We simply aren't into decorating…)

Nevertheless, even without having tried any of the ideas in the book, I had agreed to review it, so here I am…

Let me first say that the book is absolutely gorgeous. There are too many words for it to be a coffee table book, but the images are beautifully laid out and make the book enticing. Even without doing any of the projects, I would often find myself just flipping through the book taking in the pictures and wishing I had time (or enough desire) to create such beauty in my own home.

Then, when I finally took the time to read the instructions (today) I was shocked at how easy and cheap(!) many of the projects were! I'm pretty sure, if they wanted to, Heibel and de Give could make growing bonsai trees seem easy! I was especially obsessed with the Kokedama (plant ball) and macramé plant holder projects. How beautiful and cheap these designs would be for decorating a wedding, party, or even (as the book suggests) your home!

While I haven't had the chance or made the time to complete any of the projects in Rooted in Design, I know that when I do the results will be fantastic and beautiful. This is one plant book I'm glad I got my hands on.

Who this book is for:
• creatives
• plant people

Who this book is not for:
• people without time

Have you had a chance to check out Rooted in Design? Will you?

* I received a copy of Rooted In Design in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.

Mid-Year Look Back

Charleston July 2015

Usually around the middle of the month I do a mid-month look back, but I've decided for month 9 (3/4 of the way through the year!) to do a mid-year look back instead to discern how 2015 is going…

1. Reading: I've done pretty good so far at my goal of reading two books a month. I have to admit I started strong and now I find myself struggling to keep up. I think my favorite books so far this year were Water For ElephantsSweetapolita, and All the Light We Cannot See.

Currently I'm reading The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah. I bought it because of Amazon's "If you like this book, you'll like that book" in reference to All the Light We Cannot See. Plus, the WW2 dramatization and plot taking place in France also got my attention. However, when a family member saw the book and recognized the author, I was thinking "Oh crud! What have I gotten myself into?" Anyway, we'll see how it goes. Maybe it will be better than I expect…

Here's a look back at the books I have read so far in 2015:

January
• the After series by Anna Todd
• A Lion In Paris by Beatrice Alemagna
• I Sold My Soul to the Devil For Vinyls … Pitiful, I Know on Wattpad
• Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
• Refinery 29 by Piere Gelardi and Christene Barberich
• Frites by Anne de la Forest

February
• Summer Rain on Wattpad
• Jeni's Splendid Ice Cream at Home by Jeni Britton Bauer
• How to Travel the World on $50 A Day by Matt Kepnes
• Food: A Love Story by Jim Gaffigan

March
• No Capes on Wattpad
• The Bro Code on Wattpad
• He Wanted the Moon by Mimi Baird

April
• Cookie Love by Mindy Segal
• Sweetapolita by Rosie Alyeah

May
• Everything You Ever Wanted by Jillian Lauren
• Salsas & Moles by Deborah Schneider
• Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M. by Sam Wasson
• Seven Spoons by Tara O'Brady

June
• All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

July
• Fatal Vision by Joseph McGinnis
• Color Mixing Recipes for Watercolor by William F. Powell

August
• Everybody Rise by Stephanie Clifford

September
Captive by Ashley Smith
90 Minutes in Heaven by Don Piper

2. Pictures: …

For someone who owns a canon 60D and a few expensive lenses, you would think I'd be on top of it. I'm not though. Recently I've been enjoying shooting with my Nexus 5. Google Photos automatically puts panorama images together for me, so that's really cool. And I love the contrast and color consistency so much more than the images taken with my iphone 4s. Plus, it's light. And at some point "the best camera is the one you have with you". True.

Here are some of my favorites from this year:
• Paris - 1, 2
• Chattanooga
• Asheville
• wedding
• flight – These aren't the best BUT they were the most fun!

Hopefully I can improve before we return to Europe. I think some of my canon lenses need to be serviced. :(

3. Money: We started off the year well. We were spending less than we were making and we put all of our tax dollars into a savings account. We even opened several credit card and bank accounts to bring in extra money!

We lowered the interest we were paying by moving our debt to a credit card with a 0% interest rate until February 2016 to help us schedule and pay off our debt slowly over time. And then we refinanced Justin's student loan debt down from 10% to 3%. We even paid off one of my student loans in full! Seriously. We were doing well.

Then, my car died. Not the engine mind you … but everything else. I was told my job was on the line, despite how easy and cheap the repairs would be. whatever. So, we bought a new (used) car…

That's where it all went wrong. Despite the fact that I had said we might purchase a car this year, I was only planning on doing so after we had paid down all of our credit card debt and had saved up enough (beyond emergency savings) to pay for it in full. Unfortunately, even in August, we simply weren't ready for a big purchase like this. *sigh*

Anyway, due to the car purchase, I suspect there will be a number of changes in the way my husband and I handle our finances come October. And I also believe this car purchase has set us back on our goals by about a year. :(

Anyone else get super frustrated with finances?

4. Travel: Now, this – THIS – I feel good about.

Nashville, Asheville, Scottsboro (Alabama), Chattanooga, Savannah, Charleston, Boston, NYC, and soon to come Orlando, Paris, Strasbourg (maybe?), Stuttgart, and generic South Germany … It's not quite the New Orleans, Washington (state), Chicago, San Francisco year I'd originally planned for back in January, but it's certainly exciting anyway! Perhaps more so since I'm getting big things like NYC and Paris at Christmas time checked off of my bucket list. How many people do you know that have done that?

5. Health: I kind of did the opposite – gained weight, walked about the same, and still struggle to drink water. At least I'm trying? I'm not a member of a gym or anything like that (trying to pay off debt, remember?), but I'm also not sitting around eating junk food and watching tv. I think it's just the constant busy-ness that keeps me from eating as healthy as I'd like or exercising as often as I should.

How is your 2015 going? Are you meeting your goals? Or are you struggling like me? Will you be doing anything different for the last few months of the year?

The Roosevelt Hotel – Manhattan, NY

(source)

Destination: NYC (Manhattan)
Date: August 2015
Hotel: The Roosevelt
Brand: independent?
Elite Status: none
# of travelers: 4
nights: 1

Hotel: Making the Decision

At the beginning of August I signed up for 2 free months of the Pana app.  Basically (I'll go into more detail in another blog post), Pana is a personal travel concierge that helps you with any and all of your travel needs. Need a hotel? Done. Want a good restaurant for dinner? Done. Whatever you need, whenever you need it.

So, being almost completely unfamiliar with NYC, I decided to take my Pana concierge's suggestion for which hotel to stay at. NYC is huge and, aside from going and spending a lot of time there, I had no idea what area of town was the safest or even really where we would be going or spending time. For someone who struggles at making decisions, constantly doubting and questioning, Pana worked out great. We needed a decision within 24 hours and we got one. Pana suggested 3 hotels – 2 within my budget and 1 outside. Given that the only other hotel within my budget was a Best Western, I decided to go with the non-chain. I mean – why not?

Yay public transportation!

Getting There

Justin and I (for only the second time ever!) decided against car renting! Once we got off the plane we took a bus to downtown Manhattan and walked the rest of the way. Other options include taking the subway, taking a taxi, or renting a car. HOWEVER, if you do rent a car, be aware of the high parking costs for a garage in Manhattan.

The Lobby & Checking In

Using Pana, my travel concierge, I knew that we could take our luggage straight from the airport to the hotel and regardless of whether or not our room was ready, they would hold our luggage. We arrived very early in the day (probably around 11AM?), and our first impression was how gorgeous the lobby was. Chandeliers and people milling about… This definitely seemed like a hotel lobby from a movie.

Then we approached the front desk where the staff were rude and cold. We were early; could they help us? No. We had paid for early check in; did that matter? No.

Being from the south where manners rule, I wasn't exactly used to the odd behavior. Weren't they happy we were checking in to their hotel and paying them money? Didn't they want our service? This is the behavior I expected but never saw in Paris; why was I seeing it in the states?

Luckily, the hotel concierge wasn't quite as rude. He made suggestions for where we should eat for lunch while the bellhop took our luggage to storage for the rest of the morning. We did not return to check in until 4PM. Even at our designated time, the front desk staff was still incredibly rude and unpleasant to work with it. It made me glad we were only staying for one night.

Not quite the room we received…

Room & View

As much as I wanted to like the room (despite the unpleasant staff), I found it to be small and confined. Our view was of a brick wall and windows – an office building, perhaps? The others in my party were unhappy with this view, but I reminded them that I paid for a cheap(er) room without a view and how many hotels would actually have a view in downtown NYC anyway?

The room didn't have a mini fridge and there wasn't really any room to store anything. Furthermore, with four of us staying in one room, we struggled to find enough places to plug in all of our electronics…

Hotel Property, Amenities, Location & Price

After getting to the airport for takeoff at 4am and spending the rest of the day roaming NYC, Justin and I found ourselves far too tired to take advantage of many of the amenities including a rooftop bar. From what we saw though, everything was gorgeous at this hotel. And the positioning of the hotel in downtown NYC was perfect for visiting tourist attractions…

According to the website, the hotel also has:

• Internet you pay for
• fitness center with gym
• business center (pay by the minute)
• meeting rooms/banquet rooms
• Starbucks in the lobby
• Laundry facilities

We also noticed a gift shop located right off of the main lobby in case you forget something…

For the money, you are getting a fantastic location and a beautiful property with history but not much else. Don't expect to be treated like royalty even if you feel you are paying royally high prices…

This hotel screams "Welcome to NY!"

Overall Review
★★★ (average)

Nothing stood out at this hotel as a reason for a return, especially with staff being so rude and unorganized (by which I mean they didn't give me early check in like I requested and "lied" to me when I asked about it). I would love, at some point, to see the beautiful rooftop view. Given the location and what I imagine to be typical downtown Manhattan prices, the room we received and price we paid weren't that bad. What it comes down to is that I'm used to receiving a lot more for my money. By comparison though, aside from the front staff, this hotel was very comparable to the IHG hotel in Paris near the Notre Dame. Decent enough and not an altogether bad choice, but perhaps not one of the best either.

Your Turn

With over 120 thousand likes on Facebook, is The Roosevelt on your bucket list? Are you a fan of staying at independently owned hotels? Or do you prefer chains like Hyatt, Hilton, or IHG? Where would you stay if you were visiting NYC?

30 Things We Do To Save Money

For "Money Monday" I decided to share a few things my husband and I do to save money… It can be hard to come up with new ways to save, but maybe some of my suggestions will be beneficial to you and help you save more.

Decorate with what you have on hand!

1. Display items you occasionally use (or regularly, as the case may be – like plates and mugs, jewelry, scarves, etc…) as decorative pieces in your home. Saves money and space.
2. Use the internet to find out more about travel destinations over buying a book. Save valuable advice to pinterest rather than printing.
3. Buy meat and frozen entrees in bulk. You don't need a freezer full, but enough to get you through a month or two at a cheaper price is always better than having to go out and buy things last minute.
4. DO NOT buy fruits and veggies in bulk unless you have a plan. If you can't eat that much and it's cheaper in smaller quantities, buy that instead.
5. Alternatively, if you have left over fruit, you can always make homemade jam! Yum! :)
6. Use the plastic grocery bags you get from the grocery store as garbage bags for your bathroom, bedroom, or office. (Or take your own bags when you go to the grocery store to cut down on waste.)
7. Plan your meals ahead. If you know what you have in your kitchen and what you need for the week, you can avoid buying things that you don't need and save money.
8. Use rechargeable batteries.

Don't wait until the last minute to buy gifts!

9. Shop early for birthday and Christmas gifts. – Come up with ideas and buy things when they are on sale as opposed to waiting until the last minute.
10. Use the dishwasher rather than washing dishes by hand or using paper plates. You will save money in the long run, I promise. :)
11. Consider cloth napkins to use at dinner and wash rags for cleaning up kitchen messes rather than paper towels and paper napkins. (Personally, I don't even really like sponges either…) The cloth napkins and rags can be washed and reused; paper products can not.
12. Buy a soda siphon if you drink a lot of sparkling water. At a low cost of 50¢ per charger (less if you buy in bulk), it doesn't cost much to make and you don't have to worry about recycling glass bottles or purchasing plastic ones.
13. Print what you need to print when you need to print it at the local library, school, or work. Often 25¢ or 50¢ a page once every two or three months is cheaper than having a printer. Less convenient though, I might add.
14. Use your phone as your alarm clock.
15. And cut your home phone bill from your life. Do you really need to pay for a cell phone and a home phone?
16. Take up mystery shopping. Do the things you do and then get paid back for reviewing the service. Companies want to know what you think, and you want free dinner/movies/hotel stays/alcohol, so why not?
17. Use candles at night. It will help you wind down from a hectic day and save on energy. Just don't try to read using those same candles or the money you save could wind up paying for reading glasses instead. (Carrot, anybody?)
18. Instead of paying for cable, watch movies and tv shows online. If you have an amazon prime membership and agree to receive your items within a week instead of 2 days, you receive $1 off any online movie rental or song purchase. Over time that adds up.  Amazon Prime also offers a bunch of tv shows that come free with a subscription. Over time $50 a month (for regular cable) will cost you a lot while $100 a year (for Amazon Prime) can save you a lot.

Stay hydrated!

19. Drink water rather than soda. Out at restaurants and at home.
20. Kick the coffee habit. First off, I advocate hot tea over coffee any and every day! But second off, ordering a $2 coffee every morning can get expensive – $14/7 days or $56/month. You could keep your cable at that price!
21. Use credit cards. They are a necessary evil that can get you a minimum of 2% back and a maximum of … who knows? Point is – 2% back is much better than no % back UNLESS you can't pay your bills on time. Then, by all means, please do not get a credit card.
22. Consider buying things like glasses and contact lenses from Wal Mart or Sam's Club rather than your optometrist.
23. Cook in bulk and freeze leftovers for a quick dinner on nights you don't have time to cook.
24. Take your lunch. $5 or $10 a day adds up fast. $50 spent over the course of a week could add up to a very nice date night dinner if it hadn't been spent on lunch instead…
25. Work around your typical budget when traveling. If you usually spend $200 a week on food, try not to go over that.
26. If you rent a home, apartment, or condo through AirBnb or VRBO (or one of the many, many others!) you can always go grocery shopping and cook as if you were at home. Keep in mind though that you are trading time for money. You may not get to go to as many museums if you are cooking fancy meals at home. BUT then again, you will have the chance to cook with local ingredients which may make it worth it…
27. I recommend reading books on your ipad or kindle to save paper. (Plus they are cheaper.) However, if you do buy books, consider buying them used and then reselling them or donating them. They just take up space in your home if you aren't actually actively using them. You can use the donation as a tax write off or the money you earn toward buying a replacement book.
28. Drive the car that gets the best gas mileage. Or take public transportation.
29. Buy nice things and then take care of them. If you have to constantly replace items, you aren't saving money by buying cheaply. :-/

Stay home! – Pull up a chair and relax. You don't need more!

30. Don't go shopping when you don't need to. And when you do go shopping, try to get all of your errands done in one trip without driving back and forth from location to location. If possible, create a route before you leave the house to save gas and time.

These thirty things are just the tip of the iceberg! What do you do to save money?

Remembering…

Strings are for winners!

When I was in middle school and high school, I was part of the orchestra. I played the cello – you know the big instrument with the deep sound?

My middle school teacher, Mrs. R. was pretty easy going and one of the strong quiet types that kept her emotions to herself. I'm sure that every year for 3 years my class drove her crazy! And yet… she still tried to reach out to us our 8th grade year by letting us play The Pink Panther for our final concert. It was the best!

By the time we got to high school though, our class size grew and we were forced into a class of 30+ students of many different ages (4 years worth of differences) all under the control of one man … in the art classroom. (Yes. My high school refused to acknowledge that the arts were worthy of teaching.) Mr. H's goal, a very good one I might add, was to unite this very large group of students. He said when we played our instruments we should sound like one carefully crafted unit – working more like a clock's gears than, say, 30+ students doing their own thing.

Mr. H had a unique way of teaching. I can't remember all of the odd methods he used but I do remember one in particular – he had us share instruments with our stand partner and while one person was working the bow, the other person had to do the string fingering for a song. The idea was that we would learn how to work together…

One of the key lessons for working together as a team was the importance of silence. There is a saying that sometimes "silence speaks louder than words" and I truly believe that. In music, if everyone in the group is playing a song together (and they sound good!), but during one pause someone keeps playing, what happens? First off, someone is terribly embarrassed! (I would know.) Secondly, the song has been completely altered. There is no recovery. That silence was crafted and positioned just so for a reason.. Maybe the audience is supposed to be shocked by the sudden silence … or maybe it is meant to give everyone a chance to breathe …

Then, at the end of every song, Mr. H. would have us hold our position (not move our bow or change our fingering from the last note) until 5-10 seconds had passed and the audience had had time to realize the song was over. That silence gave our audience time to ponder our music and it gave us the opportunity to gain confidence in what we had accomplished.

Today when I woke up this morning I wasn't sure how or if I would blog about or recognize the events from 9/11. Obviously, as a blogger it's easy to get caught up in a rut. I don't want to spend every 9/11 anniversary telling you where I was and what I was doing … or that we are survivors. I've done that. You know. But today's blog post, I hope will remind you that even in silence we are unified. And that silence is important. For reflection, for remembering, and for the future.

May peace be with you today.

In memory

Throwback: Baby Shower

Remember way back in July when Justin and I spent hours and hours and hours learning how to use watercolor and screen print baby shower invitations? About a month ago we hosted the actual baby shower for my little nephew and his parents. Today I've got a few pictures that I'm sharing from the event.






We went to Sam's Club to get all of the food for less than $100. We bought cupcakes (for free, they came with our membership), chips and salsa, a veggie tray, a meat and cheese tray, extra Italian meats, croissants, fruit, brie, and petit fours. Not shown in these pictures, but Justin also made guacamole.


My mom made a blue punch for the shower that consisted of 7-up, blue Hawaiian punch, and lime sherbert. Everyone loved seeing the little ducks floating around in it!



The baby's mama was going with an elephant theme for my nephew's room, so we went with a zoo theme for the shower. We positioned little animals everywhere!


My mom pulled out two generations of toys from the basement to decorate. These toys were toys she and my uncle played with as children and that my brother and I played with years later…


We had all of the guests place finger and thumb prints on this memento for the baby's room – a fingerprint guest book. 


After everyone had left, I put the fingerprint guestbook into a frame for the baby's room. It looked really adorable. :)


This was the end result of how the parent's incorporated the fingerprint guestbook into the baby's room. I think it looks awesome!


And one more photo of the cutie! It's only a matter of time before he starts growing… Justin took this picture at my request (he's taller) and he was scared to death he'd drop the phone and wake the baby! Thank goodness he didn't! :)

Hope you all are having a fantastic Thursday! Only one more day until the weekend…

Swagbucks Ad + Opportunity to Earn More SB


You all know I never do these kinds of posts, but I thought … if someone is interested I should share… So, here it is!

Three for All is back at Swagbucks, but with a twist! That's right, when you refer a friend to join Swagbucks between Tues, 9/8 and Wed, 9/30, and they earn 300 SB, they will get an additional 300 SB bonus AND YOU will also get a 300 SB bonus for referring them. The referred member must earn the 300 SB by Wed, 9/30 to get the bonus. 

PLUS: we're giving away 10,000 SB each to the 10 members with the most referrals, so start spreading the word about getting gift cards and putting cash back in your pocket with Swagbucks! 

Some of you may ask, OK, but how can I earn 300 SB by the end of the month? Well here's one guide to help you earn 300 SB in just 1 week: 
  • Daily Poll: 1 SB per day = 7 SB
  • Daily Crave (US & Canada only): 1SB per day = 7 SB
  • 1 Survey = approx. 50 SB (payout and availabilty varies)
  • SBTV app (US, Canada, UK): up to 36 SB per day = 252 SB
For more details, be sure to check out the Swagbucks Blog Post here.

There are plenty of other ways to earn SB, like watching videos on a desktop/laptop, trying out Special Offers & deals, or even using a search engine and browsing new content online! All these points, called SB, can be redeemed for gift cards from hundreds of major retailers! So tell your friends and family, and make this Three for All the best one yet! Not a member? Grab your 300 SB bonus and sign up now

Using Google Flights

Flights can get expensive if you don't know how to book them.

Recap: Over the past two weeks I: bought a car, became a first time aunt, and booked a flight to Europe.

It's been a little crazy.

But let's talk about that last one a little bit.

Even before I bought my car (or became an aunt), I was already planning a return trip to Europe. First it was to see a close friend get married (and then she became a not-friend) and then it became about traveling and possibly a little bit about keeping up with the Jones' (much like the Kardashians). Why do other people get to travel all over the world to super cool places and I can't because I can't afford it? Why can't I afford it?

So anyway, I informed Justin (not exactly serious in nature) that the next time I saw a good price, I was booking a flight there.

Two days after this declaration, one of the blogs I read religiously posted a flight deal from NYC to Paris. $500 for a Delta/Air France nonstop roundtrip flight from JFK to CDG. Justin was apprehensive at first, but I assured him that I could get us to NYC for free from ATL and, if I signed up for the Delta Gold card, I could potentially use points to get us from CDG to STR for free (or relatively cheap). And so he agreed.

But before I booked, I checked with Google Flights to be sure I was getting a good deal. If you haven't used Google Flights before, I highly recommend including the site as part of your search. Here's how you do it:

1. Where are you traveling from? Where do you want to travel to? What dates? If you have the answer to one of these questions, you can figure out the rest by using Google Flights. For example, I knew I wanted to fly to Europe either for New Year's eve this year or next year for my birthday.

When I plug ATL into the "from" and my dates into Google Flights, these are the suggestions I'm given: 


2. Assuming none of those options are quite what you are interested in, click on the map. Anywhere will do.

Then scroll to your ideal destination. For me, that's Europe. With the zoomed out view, you will only be able to see the prices it would cost to travel to larger cities like, for example, $1245 to Berlin,  $978 to London, $992 to Madrid, and $1075 to Paris.


My intended location was Germany, and I knew I could get there for cheaper flying in from NYC based on information from the blogs I follow, so let's look at that.

 

Honestly, at those prices, I would probably fly into Frankfurt ($814) despite the fact that it is cheaper to fly in elsewhere. I imagine, with a bit of time spent on Rome2Rio, I would be able to figure out the cheapest way to get to where I wanted to go, whether it be by train, bus, plane, rental car, etc… and base my airport decisions and total cost of airport/airline savings on that. Crazy enough though, I knew, last Friday when I booked tickets, that Delta was offering $500 round trip nonstop flights from NYC to CDG. Given that I had enough points to take Amtrak to NYC for free, I decided that perhaps that might be the best and most interesting way to go – saving me over $600, for two of us, in flight tickets. Of course, this is assuming I can use Delta points to get from CDG to STR for free or cheap. Otherwise the savings is negated. 

Anyway, I digress…

3. Once you decide where the cheapest airport is, click on the red button beside the airport. Something will pop up that looks a bit like this:


The graph will show you if there are dates close by that might be cheaper than the ones you've originally chosen. For example, in this case, if you push back the dates, you will save money – up to $25. So I click on it.

Then, it helps me alter my trip dates a little bit better…


4. If I click on that alteration, I find myself looking at the flights that Google Flights has determined are the cheapest. Because this is a roundtrip flight, I first must choose my going from flight followed by my returning flight. 


So let's say I choose the cheapest flight … which includes a layover in Dublin both going and coming… Then I'm at risk for the possibility of my luggage getting lost, I have to account for more travel time, and (in this particular case) I'm flying on a not-so-great airline. Could I do better? Yes… Would I save as much money? No, probably not. 



5. Regardless, the most important thing to understand about Google Flights is that they don't book the flights for you. Instead, they offer recommendations for where to book your flights. At one point, Google Flights suggested I needed to book with a travel planner to get the lowest rates, but, if I did that, I might have to pay extra fees for the travel guide to book. Argh! 

Anyway, while I think Google Flights is extremely useful for finding low fares, you still have to follow travel blogs, check apps (like Hopper) and be extremely vigilant about keeping your options open, checking for great deals, and remaining flexible. As it turns out, in my case, booking directly through Delta ended up being cheaper for me and Google Flights did not show me the cheapest prices. However, as in all things your mileage may vary.

So what are your thoughts? How do you find cheap flights to the places you want to go? Or do you even worry about finding the cheapest flights? Would you consider using Google Flights in the future?

Suitcases and Sandcastles