The Search For The Perfect Winter Traveling Boot

In the months after I booked my flight from New York to Paris, I started thinking in terms of shoes. Being from the south, my closet is full of flip flops, ballet flats (Anybody heard of Repetto? I want some so badly!), sandals, high-heeled and knee length boots. Walking shoes of any sort were removed from my vocabulary the minute I finished high school P.E. for the last time ever. (Seriously. I handed over my thrice warn Sketchers to my mom and said "good riddance!" to the ugly shoes. I've been hiking through the woods in high heeled boots ever since. They just look prettier!)

Anyway, I learned the hard way in 2014 that when my European friends say they want to go hiking, they are serious. They don't mean walking through the woods on a snowy day and taking the path less traveled. (If they did, it would make all of the difference!) I knew I needed serious shoes. But not so serious, I convinced myself. It was only snow we were talking about. And we were going to be in cities. I didn't want to spend hundreds of dollars on shoes I'd wear once and never again; that's what you call wasting money. My poor husband – we spent every weekend for close to a month shopping for shoes. It was almost as painful as wedding dress shopping, although not quite.

The following are the shoes I decided on. Just thought you might like a little help if you need some new shoes. :)



I first bought a brown pair of these from DSW; then returned them and bought both brown and black on sale at Shoebuy for the same price as the one pair from DSW. They worked; they were comfortable enough. Steve Madden is a great brand and they make a fantastic shoe. As it turns out, lace up boots (even with zippers) aren't my favorite look. Especially without heels. I much prefer the Frye Parker Lace-Up boot (with heel) that goes all the way up to your knees if you are looking for a lace-up boot. Definitely check them out. I get compliments every single time I wear them. But if you are looking for a non-heeled lace-up boot, this one is pretty cute. And like I said – Steve Madden. It's like James Bond … only shoes. ;)




Remember how I said I get compliments on my Frye boots every time I wear them? When I spotted these at Saks Off Fifth, I knew it was meant to be. I was looking for a boot that could be worn with a dress and these were just them. I tried them on and took them home despite the over $100 price. If you think Steve Madden offers fantastic products, then you may not have met Frye yet. Frye boots are some of the best of the market. The leather holds up to everything and the shoes are oh-so-comfortable! 

Well, anyway … that's what I expected.

Because Saks Off Fifth sells products for cheaper than retail, there was no size listed in the shoe. I was assuming it was the right size, but it may not have been… Anyway, the very next day I put the shoes on to go for a short walk in the city. At first the only abnormal thing is that my socks kept sliding down – annoying, but whatever. Then, by the end of the walk I am in so much pain from a blister that has sprung up on my heal. That very moment was the moment I knew these wouldn't work for Europe.

But oh how I wanted them too!

My dad and Justin worked with me to try and figure out what was wrong. I used bandaids to try and break the boots in, moleskin … even added fur to the back of the shoe so that it would fit me better. None of it mattered though. I had 4 weeks to break these beauties in before I'd be walking my feet to death. Four weeks was just not long enough. I didn't wear them once while overseas. *sigh*

I know in time I will break them in. The only shoes I've ever owned from Frye that were comfortable upon first wear were my lace up boots. Even my flats killed my heals at first. I just have to give them time. 

And so, with that being said, I still highly recommend these shoes. They are gorgeous to a fault and since they were made by the amazing Frye brand, I know they will last forever. Now … time for some breaking in!



The last shoe I bought in my desperate search ended up being the one I wore most often during my travels.

Justin and I were meandering through Academy Sports just glancing through shoes since Justin was still trying to find me a pair of shoes with tread. I was being difficult, as always, and hating almost every pair he showed me. Then, jokingly (I think?), he pointed out these … which I also hated at first. "Seriously? People wear shoes with fur? There is no way I am ever going to wear Uggs or anything like that! They are uggggggly." And then, just for kicks, I tried these shoes on.

O.

M.

G.

It was like putting on a pair of slippers. They were so, so, so soft. And the button? I decided it was cute. And maybe the fur would look nice with leggings and a dress… So we bought them. And I wore them out. All $30 worth.

After spending hundreds of dollars (well… $200) on shoes, I found myself liking the cheap $30 ones the best. Go figure. It was exactly the opposite of what I originally intended on doing.

Did I learn my lesson?

No.

I still fully believe that shopping for shoes with my friends while on vacation would have been frustrating. I am just too picky. The only lesson I may have learned is to go to Academy first and try on the shoes Justin jokingly points out … just for kicks. Because you absolutely never know what you will end up liking the best.

What are your thoughts on shoes? Do you love shoe shopping or hate it? Have you ever bought shoes that you wanted so desperately to wear but they didn't work out? What about shoes you hated at first sight? Share! I'd love to hear your stories and know that I am not alone!

Thursday Coffee Break + Giveaway

Dear Friends,

Last Friday a guy I grew up with, an annoying terror that just happened to be friends with my younger brother, was admitted to the hospital after being hit by a car. He had been walking somewhere. Now, almost 5 days later, the doctors have determined that he has suffered from severe brain damage. He is in a coma and they are giving him 7 days before they determine what needs to happen next. Unfortunately, his sister and father live in Georgia and not Florida where the accident occurred, so they had to return home to resume work.

On the one hand, I'm not extremely close to this guy. I knew him as a child, but that's about it.

On the other hand, this incident reminds me even more why it is so important to spend time with the people you love. It breaks my heart that a young man, such as this one, can be hit by a car and, in an instant, potentially have his life taken. Of course his family right now is relying on God's healing power. I'd like to think, having known this guy, that he is just waiting until everyone has just about given up to bounce back. As a child, he was annoying like that. But there's no telling. Will he survive another 24 hours? Will he wake up?

The thing is, this story has reminded me, yet again, just how fragile life is. No one is promised tomorrow. For that matter, no one is promised an hour from now. Freak accidents happen. People go undiagnosed with diseases; they go to sleep at night and never wake up. Then there are criminals who shoot their guns with the full intention of killing. They drive a plane through a building or set a bomb off at the finish line of a race.

Not too long ago I read an article about how many days you have left … for everything. The numbers were pretty depressing. Assuming you are 30 and will die at age 90, you only have 60 Christmases left. If you only go on vacation once every 2 years, you have 30 vacations left in your lifetime … which basically means, out of the hundreds of places you can go, only 30 will be visited. Then there were the statistics about family… If your mom is 50 (with the assumption that you are 30 and she will die at 90) and you see her 5 times a year, you only have 120 days left to spend with her…

:(

Hopefully this all drives home my point: spend time with those you love now. Choose how you live your life now. Realize what those extra hours at work will cost you … or give you. Does it provide extra money to visit with loved ones? Or does it prevent you from having one of those last few days with someone that means the world to you?

-------------------------


Anyway, now that I have saddened everyone, let's have a giveaway!

Today's giveaway is all about self-care.

First up – we have Garnier SkinActive Brightening and Smoothing Moisturizer and Micellar Cleansing Water. The moisturizer is great for brightening your mood (and face) during the long, cold days of winter, and the Micellar Cleansing Water will clear off your makeup quickly so that after a long day you can get much needed rest without spending too much time worrying about makeup removal.

Next – a sample of Neutrogena Hydro Boost. This is the perfect product for helping hide those undereye circles and another great moisturizer to use alongside the Garnier brand.

Then – a packet each of Ranch salad dressing and dip to encourage you to eat more veggies. :)

Finally – a jump rope to encourage you to remain active even during the winter.

There will be 6 winners. Just be sure to enter the Rafflecopter giveaway before February 11 at midnight!

Good luck!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

* All opinions are 100% my own. No compensation was received.

Throwback Wednesday: A Day In Paris


My first day in Paris I had one goal in mind: shopping. Not shopping to spend money, mind you. No, I wanted to go window shopping. And tree looking! If you are going to travel to Paris (or anywhere really) during the holiday season, your first instinct should be to see the seasonal things. You can see everything else during another visit … during a different season. This is not so for Christmas lights and trees. To see those you have to travel during the holidays.

So, our plane landed that first day in France at around 9AM. Plenty of time to see and do everything, right?

Or not. Two hours were spent going through security. Two hours wherein Justin said "No, you can wait to use the restroom until we get our luggage." lol. Remember how I said I had no regrets while traveling (on Monday's finance post)? Well … I did have one regret. Following Justin's lead right then. Although had I stopped for even a moment to use the restroom, our line may have taken three hours to get through instead of two. Oh well. It's neither here nor there at this point.

So we go check in to our hotel the Intercontinental Le Grand, which was every good adjective I could ever possibly come up with. And we get free drinks and free food … and the stay has been paid for with points … And there's an upgrade … and a balcony … and OMG! I literally was on top of the world feeling like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. It was that good. #highlyrecommended


Anyway, we couldn't spend all day in our hotel (even though I contemplated it), so we headed out to Printemps and Galeries Lafayette. I didn't see the window displays at first because I was so hungry! So we went into Printemps and got a quick lunch (snack) at Fauchon (bread and cheese). We tried a macaron (meh) and got an eclair covered in gold to go. Because why not? We marveled at the beautiful floral covered trees and cute characters in Printemps before moving on to Galeries Lafayette.

And then I saw it.

The tree.

The gorgeous, magnificent, 68-foot tall tree decorated with over 120 ornaments.

*swoon* :)


But there was no stopping. We were on a mission to find New Years cards to send to family and friends. We went up to the top floor and had just begun sifting through the Eiffel Tower lego sets, French architecture books, and beautiful Paris mementos when my phone buzzed.

It was a friendly text (from a European friend, of course) saying "Welcome to Europe!"

And just at that moment I looked up and out the window of the store we were in and saw IT!

The Eiffel Tower.


Squee!

(Yes, I was having the best day ever at that point.)

Anyway, shortly thereafter we discovered that if you go up one more level of Galeries Lafayette you get a rooftop view of Paris.

And then we had chocolate-filled beignets at the bakery on floor 9 … looking out at the Eiffel Tower. *sigh* :)

Finally, we ended the day by watching the sunset over the Eiffel Tower and then having a delicious dinner at a small Parisian restaurant.

It was definitely a great day. Dare I say perfect?

Paris never ceases to amaze me.

Coronado Springs – WDW Orlando, Florida

from website

Destination: Orlando, FL (Disney World)
Date: November 2015
Hotel: Coronado Springs
Brand: n/a
Elite Status: n/a
# of travelers: 2
nights: 1

Hotel: Making the Decision & Total Cost

In August of 2015, I had just returned from a family reunion in Boston and my car was giving me trouble – making me unreliable for work. I had pushed my Sebring as far as it would go (for me) and we ended up buying me a Mazda after I was late to work for the third time in a month. Needless to say, my original plans for spending a long weekend in Florida for the wedding of a friend weren't looking too appealing. Going to Disney World is always appealing, but asking for the time off? That's another story… So I decided to change things up. I decided to fly down Thursday night and then stay in Florida through Monday morning that way I would only miss one day of work. This would work with the Port Orleans hotel stay I had booked in January and keep me looking reliable for the family I was babysitting for. I considered just adding a day on at the Port Orleans, but my hesitant side kept waiting to book thinking maybe I could find a better price and cancel the Port Orleans reservation… But no, that never happened. I was worried something in the system would get screwed up and then I would end up having to pay for the nights at Port Orleans plus whatever other hotel I booked at. I guess that's the downside of going through a third party site (Expedia) rather than booking with the hotel directly? Anyway, Port Orleans was full for Sunday night by the time that I went to book it, so I had to find another hotel… Coronado Springs.

Honestly, I was so busy trying to plan a European vacation and get over my fears that I can't remember researching Coronado Springs. All I remember is that I didn't want to stay at anything too "kiddie". All-Star Resort was out and so was Art of Animation. A number of Disney hotel rooms were upwards of $300 a night, a number I wasn't exactly thrilled to be paying. Then I found Coronado Springs. At around $200 a night, I agreed to get the Disney Visa to save an additional $100 on the hotel stay after spending $500 on the card. Easy peasy when the cost of the room is almost half of the total spend needed! (Of course they fail to mention the card costs $50, so really you are only $50 toward the hotel cost, but still… Fifty is fifty that I will happily take. Plus, I got a credit card with the Disney castle on it!)

image from TripAdvisor

Getting There, Checking In, Having Luggage Held

After booking Coronado Springs, I was basically in constant contact with Disney all the way up until our trip. I had to make sure we had rides to and from the airport with both hotels and figure out how to connect both hotels to my account, etc… It was kind of crazy. Basically, if you book a Disney hotel through a third party website, as soon as you get an account set up on the Disney site (which you should do!), call Disney to get your hotel reservation added to your account. They should be able to look you up with your name and reservation number. (The reservation number for Disney may be different than what you are seeing. Be sure to write down the number while you have them on the phone so that if you run into trouble adding the stay to your account, you have easy access to it without calling them again.)

Anyway, my talks with Disney representatives indicated that if we left our luggage packed and ready to go in our hotel room at Port Orleans Riverside, it would be moved, while we were enjoying our time at Disney World, to our hotel room at Coronado Springs.

Because Justin and I had rented a car and decided to visit with Justin's sister (who was living near Orlando at the time), Justin and I opted to move our luggage ourselves to Coronado Springs. We packed up and checked out from Port Orleans Riverside shortly before 7AM, ate breakfast with my delightful sister-in-law, then took our luggage to Coronado Springs for check-in at around 9AM. Of course, our room wasn't ready, so they held our luggage while we went to party it up at Disney World. Unfortunately, though, everything at Coronado Springs took forever – checking in and then the line to have our luggage held. Since I had wanted to arrive at Magic Kingdom at 9AM, every time we had to wait in line (and even when breakfast took longer than expected!) was killing me. I was feeling very antsy and ready to get going since I knew we had very little time to get 2 parks in for the day!

Finally, everything was handled at Coronado Springs. Justin and I hopped into our rental car and made our way to the parks. I assumed this was going to be a short day… (It wasn't.)

image from TripAdvisor

The Lobby, Checking In (a second time), and Maintenance

When we checked in earlier in the day, we were told that our luggage would be taken from storage to our room while we played at the parks all day. We would get a notification on our phone as to which room to go to and we'd be able to use our magic band to enter and go straight to bed! Nice, right? Only that didn't happen…

As the day went by, Justin and I hopped from park to park spending time at Magic Kingdom, EPCOT, and Hollywood Studios. Hollywood Studios was staying open late that night which meant I got to ride, for my first time ever(!!!) on the Aerosmith Roller Coaster (Best ride ever!) and Justin got to do Tower of Terror (worst ride ever imho). It was fun despite the impending rain … until we returned to our hotel at midnight.

Let me first begin by saying that the lobby for this hotel is lovely. Ever seen the 1944 cartoon The Three Caballeros?


Think that.

Spanish but in a very cartoon beyond reality kind of way. Y'know … typical Disney style. (Do you know? Take my word for it, if you don't. Disney is very extravagant and takes things pretty far in an attempt to get you to believe in the impossible.) There is a fountain in the front entrance, everyone is dressed in old style Spanish costumes, and the set up is just … fun (but easy to clean). It's not at all like a comforting Hilton with plush couches and beautiful chandeliers.

So, Justin and I were seeing the tile and bright colors in the lobby when we went to the front desk to figure out what room we were in and why we hadn't been notified. After being on your feet all day, at midnight with a 9AM flight, all you really want to do is go to sleep. The staff at the front desk apologized for not having sent us a message, then gave us a room. She said we could grab our luggage from the storage facility and take it ourselves or we could have it delivered. I opted to have it delivered.

That's when we left the lobby and walked toward our room, five buildings away. It was only about a ten-minute walk, but it felt like a few miles considering how tired we were. Justin lifted his MagicBand to the door and … nothing. The door wouldn't unlock. Our phone batteries were close to death, but even when I attempted to call the front desk, I was informed that "office hours were closed". We had to walk the 10 minutes back. The front desk then confirmed our MagicBands were working and didn't believe Justin when he said we weren't receiving any feedback at all from the door scanner. I can't remember if we walked back and forth a second time, but I do remember that we finally ended up waiting on the luggage guy to go with us. He drove us to our room on his golf cart and tried to use our MagicBands to get in. Nothing happened. (Again.) Then he tried his key. Nothing. He called maintenance. At this point, we were nearing 1AM. The manager came and tried her key. (If the scanner doesn't work for one key, what makes you think it will work with another?) Then she used her real key. (FINALLY!) We got into the room. We thanked her, told her we didn't need the door fixed tonight, and wished her a good night. It was time for bed…

But… just as Justin got in the shower I heard a knock on the door. Maintenance wanted to fix the door. Arg. It was like … "you really want to fix the door while someone is in the shower? Seriously?" But I let him in; he fixed it quickly and was gone. Then it was seriously time for bed. No ifs, ands, or buts.

image from TripAdvisor

The Room, View, & Amenities

Interior decorations were very simple at the Coronado Springs (very similar to Port Orleans Riverside). The one nice bit was that, rather than a curtain like at Port Orleans Riverside, Coronado Springs had a sliding wood wall between the beds and sink area, once again making it ideal for families with small children to get ready without waking them. Of course, you also have the Mickey-headed shampoo and soaps available to use.

I must say the view we received wasn't that great. There are definitely rooms with beautiful views on the property though. The hotel buildings go around a manmade lake and if you get just the right hotel room it's possible to see the sun rise over the lake in the morning (and worth the view if you can get yourself up in time to see it!). All we really saw from our room was a very minimal garden and other hotel buildings. It didn't matter for us though since we were going to bed late and getting up before the sun rose.

image from TripAdvisor

Restaurant/Transportation

Justin and I didn't get to take advantage of the big restaurant on the resort (A delicious Spanish breakfast for the win? Except not. Maybe next time?), but we did get to enjoy some fantastic food from a small bakery in the lobby. Two croissants, some yogurt, a cup of coffee, and a lot of bad news on the television made our breakfast! (Florida was reporting a lot of shootings that morning. It was seriously the most depressing news I have ever seen. Does anything good ever happen in Florida?) The food was yummy though and for a decent price.

We had to be ready to go three hours before our flight since it takes the Disney bus system an hour to get to the airport. So … at early o'clock in the morning after viewing the sunrise over the lake and getting a delicious breakfast in the lobby, we checked out and boarded our bus. And waited and waited and waited… Transportation on Disney property is seriously slow. Eventually, we got to the airport though… And just like that, my first Disney trip in over 15 years was over! It was sad. :)

image from TripAdvisor

Overall Review
★★★ (average)

If you are going to Disney World, Coronado Springs is not a bad place to stay. Yes, it could be better and my experience there was pretty awful. There were no bugs though and we eventually got into our room to sleep. I didn't see any dirt on anything and while we did have to walk a ways to get to our room, that's going to be true of any Disney resort you stay at (especially during the summer!). The food at this resort was cheaper and better tasting than the food at Port Orleans Riverside. The view was about the same. (There you had a view of the romantic river; here you have a view of a lake.) The only complaint I really have (which knocked my review down to 2 stars) is that the staff did absolutely nothing despite everything that went wrong during this stay for us. An apology is fine, but don't you think they should have come with us when the key wasn't working the first time just to make sure we could get in? Or given us a special number to call in case we continued having problems? What about a discount or a free coffee? Anything really! $5 value or $100 value, I don't care. It would just have been nice if, rather than blaming us for their problem, they had recognized that there was a problem and tried to be more helpful than they were.

Will I go to Coronado Springs again? … That's a hard question. I'd love to review them again and try their food for real. I'd love to get a room with a view of the lake. But the problems we experienced and the way they dealt with those problems? That doesn't have me too excited about returning… Maybe I'll try the Animal Kingdom Lodge first; I hear you can get some awesome views of animals there! Or, like I said in my review of Port Orleans, I could try The Grand Floridian or Disney's Contemporary Resort.

Animal Kingdom Tree of Life

Your Turn

Given what I have shared in my review, would you be willing to try the Coronado Springs resort? Should I hold the problems I experienced against the hotel or give them another chance sometime in the future? What do you think?

First Financial Report of 2016

Image source.

It would seem that the fourth Monday in a month is the best time for me to look at finances. The first Monday Justin hasn't been paid … sometimes money hasn't been sorted by the second, and the third Monday is a book review. So fourth Monday it is! … whether I like it or not.

Let's start with the good:
• We began the year with a bang in Germany before moving on to Czech Republic and France. It was awesome, and I could never regret it. ever.
• We spent time with friends that we've only seen in person twice before. Another situation where there are no regrets.
• We went to shows (The Rockettes, Moulin Rouge, a concert at St. Chapelle) … and I only kind of regret 1 of the 3. But if I had never gone, I would never have known… So no regrets there.
• We went to a good mix of cheap and expensive restaurants in Europe. Then, the mean wife that I am, I let Justin go bar hopping. I got warm drinks on a cold night … so … no regrets?

Are you noticing a theme?

Everything we did on our trip was worth it. I would do it all again.

BUT, that being said, I also learned some valuable lessons. For example: It's hard to plan a trip and get all of your work done beforehand during the Christmas season. Packing light when you don't have time to actually contemplate what you are packing is also difficult. Then, if you don't pack light, you have to pay for taxis or struggle on the metro. I mean, honestly, there were too many lessons to count and not all of them had to do with being too stressed to pack smartly. Most of the lessons did have to do with money though. Perhaps in the future we will be able to save more money while traveling than we did this time. … Or at least that's my goal. And not on restaurants or spending time with friends, I'm talking about not wasting money on silly mistakes and getting hotel rooms with points.

A few other high points not having to do with travel:
• I didn't shop for or buy clothes this month! (Even at 40% off!)
• Our assets are higher now than they were last year at this time! Woot!
• Taxes are done.
• Through strategic planning, we are getting 4% back on car insurance!
• Received a free thermostat! $240 value! :)

Anyway, now let's talk about the bad, because there is a lot of it this month.
• While we were in Europe we received a notification that my husband's Serve account had been closed. No more manufactured spend or 1% credit card transfer fees for us! :(
• We spent more this month than we did in January 2015, but less than we did in December 2015…

Spending Graph
green = this year; yellow = last

• Income is 1k less than last year and 2k less than last month. :(

Income Graph
green = this year; yellow = last

• Net income is on the edge. If we don't spend much this week, we will probably break even.

Net Income Graph
green = positive; red = negative

• Debts. :( They look better in the graph to follow because of how much we paid off with student loans last year, but the graph does not include our car loan. Add 15K to our number. Car loans and student debt aren't pretty my friends. Don't do it unless you have to. Current payoff date is remaining steady at Feb. 2023. 

Debts Graph

• Credit Card Payoff date: December 2016.

Goals for next month?
• Sell something.
• Pay off one credit card. Transfer money from one card to a 0% APR card, if possible.
• Buy less food.
• Do something fun – once with friends, once without. Or both with friends. Whatever.
• Don't shop for clothes! (Experiences are better.)
• Start investing in stocks?

So … how is January going for you? Do you have your finances under control? Or did traveling take a toll on them? Do you have big plans for staying on track come February?

Sweeter Off the Vine Cookbook Review


Let's talk fruit.

Specifically Yossy Arefi's delicious fruit pastries and desserts found in the new cookbook Sweeter Off the Vine coming out in March 2016.

Over the weekend Justin and I had the pleasure of sampling one of her amazing recipes, and I have to say – it wasn't bad. I mean what else could you expect from the Apt. 2B Baking Co. blog writer and food photographer? A Brooklyn, NY native (where they have some of the best food in the world, imho!), Arefi has been featured in Bon Appétit, Saveur, Good Housekeeping, Modern Farmer, T Magazine, and more. The beautifully crafted Sweeter Off the Vine is merely visual proof of her success in her chosen field. And the recipes? To die for.

The book is broken up into sections – one for each season. Even further, she breaks each season up into specific ingredients that dominant recipes from that section. Herbs, rhubarb, strawberries, and cherries make up the spring recipes while cranberries, citrus, and dates are prevalent among the winter recipes, for example. 

While I managed to bookmark a good many recipes in my kindle version of the book, only two possibilities stood out as true candidates when it came time to decide exactly which one we would bake to determine if Arefi's food actually tasted as good as her pictures looked. We were torn between the Apricot and Berry Gelatte with Saffron Sugar (What the heck is a gelatte?) and Tangerine Cream Pie. Inevitably, with cold 30 degree temperatures in the forecast, the gelatte won us over with the possibility of filling our bellies and warming our souls at the same time.

Thus came the search for apricots.

If you know anything about apricots, which apparently I do not, you would know that apricots grow in the summer rather than the winter. (No, I did not pay any mind to the table of contents where Arefi clearly has her apricot recipes listed under the summer months. Oops.) Anyway, you should have seen my husband and I going to every store looking for apricots and finding none! Justin, however, is quite skilled in the kitchen. Without apricots, my version of the recipe would have failed since I have to follow directions exactly. My husband has enough science knowledge that he is able to seamlessly substitute ingredients and, most of the time, have everything come out perfect – like that's how it was originally intended to be. (Some people have all of the luck.) Rather than get anxious and pull up google in a desperate search for an apricot replacement, like I did, he decided to use mangos in our Apricot and Berry Gelatte instead of the required apricots.

This was the result:


A delicious treat which we ate by the fire with ice cream and whipped cream on top. Sooo good. :)

Now. For the recipe. (As changed by my husband.)
1. Make your favorite pie dough and refrigerate. We used Arefi's All-Butter Pie Crust recipe, but you could just as easily buy a crust from your local supermarket.
2. Combine vanilla seeds from 1 vanilla bean, 3 tablespoons granulated sugar and a pinch of saffron threads into a mortar and grind with pestle until finely ground. Stir in 2 teaspoons of all purpose flour and a pinch of salt.
3. Cut two mangos in half and remove the outer shell discarding the pits. Toss the cut mangos (225g), 1/2 cup blueberries (80g), and 1/2 cup blackberries (80g) with sugar mixture to combine.
4. Remove the pie dough from the fridge and cover with a thin layer of apricot jam (approximately 60g) leaving a 1.5 inch border around the edges. Place the fruit mixture in the center of the dough and fold the edges of the dough over the fruit. Press gently to seal. Refrigerate for 15 minutes.
5. Preheat the oven to 400ºF (200ºC).
6. Before placing in the oven, brush the dough with egg wash (from 1 large egg) and sprinkle with 1 tablespoon turbinado sugar. Bake for 30-40 minutes until the fruit juice bubbles and the crust browns.
7. Cool slightly. The tart is best served warm on the day that it's made.

So there you have it! Go forth and eat delicious things on what they are expecting to be a snowy, cold weekend here on the east coast of the US. And then, when you are done, pre-purchase Arefi's Sweeter Off the Vine so that you can try even more of her yummy recipes when the book comes out this March! Or just go follow her at Apt. B2 Baking Co.! You know you want to. :)

* I received this book in exchange for writing a review. All opinions are my own.

XANADU 24K Gold Makeup Primer Review



At this point you've heard almost everything about my adventures abroad. Are you sick of hearing about it?

Well, pretend not to be. You don't want to miss this review. :)

As you may or may not know, Germany, where we spent the majority of time over the winter break, is a tad bit north of where I currently am. Here, in Georgia where I'm from, our winters are chilly but not like freezing. The air stays pretty humid and, I mean, if you travel from the north to Georgia for your winter break, you get a decent break from the cold. Sure we may get 30s and 40s from time to time, but we rarely see snow and by February the temperatures start heating up again.

All of this being said, my skin still gets dried out from time to time. Going in and out of the heat, your skin can still take a beating.

Now: let's talk about Europe.

For the first time in months, my hair was getting all staticy from the dry air. My skin, which had broken out from the stress of trip prep, simply wasn't healing. Basically, I felt like I looked like the worst version of myself while traveling. Don't get me wrong: that didn't stop me from having fun. It did, however, make me anxious about trying a new product. Would the new serum dry up my skin rather than moisturize it? Was Xanadu's product more about looks than actual healing?

Shortly before the trip I received my new product in a gorgeously designed exotic looking box. I felt like Jasmine pulling the serum out of it's container! And then, once removed, I could only admire the beautiful gold flakes that made this product stand out from any other serum I have ever tried. I certainly hoped that this product would be leaps and bounds above all of those other serums.

My first time using it, I didn't follow the directions listed on Amazon. I merely pumped the product onto my finger and gently rubbed it into my skin noting the glitter that seemed to remain on my skin, the lovely product smell, and how moisture-rich the primer seemed to be. My second experience using the product, I gently pumped it onto my cheeks and rubbed it in with circular motions following Amazon's directions. Following those directions made my skin feel amazing, especially after a bad night wherein I got restless sleep. That is the method in which I recommend you use the product if you buy it.

Only a few weeks later after my first trial with this product, I must admit I'm in love. I put it on twice a day and my skin feels incredibly moisturized and healthy for having done it. It dramatically helped my skin while I was traveling and has only benefited my skin even more since my return home (where I've been able to use it more consistently).

Now a bit more about the product:

ISA does not test on animals and is FDA approved! Woot! This particular product contains Vitamin C for smoothing your skin and Vitamin E to help keep your skin moisturized. Plus, there is the benefit of having real gold flakes that brighten your skin and make you feel a bit like royalty.

If you are looking for a fantastic moisturizing serum, I highly recommend the Xanadu 24K Gold serum. Even with a high price tag, the product lasts so long and makes such a huge difference in your skin tone that I think it is worth it.

Do you have a favorite skin moisturizer? Would you consider one with real gold in it?

Buy Xanadu's 24K Gold Makeup Primer here.

* I received this product for free in exchange for a review. All opinions are my own.

WW + A-Z Look Back

Dresden, Germany – January 2016

Once a month I do a lookback post. Usually it's things like songs I'm listening to, books I'm reading, or DIY crafts. Instead, for January I'm going through the alphabet with the many feelings I felt and concepts that have stood out following our recent travels to New York, New Jersey, France, Germany, and Czech Republic. While I'm sure that 26 emotions doesn't quite cover it, I think this list does summarize the emotional roller coaster that was my last vacation for me. Enjoy reading through my list and feel free to share with me if anything strikes a chord with you and reminds you of travels past. I know I'm not the only one to have some of these feelings! :)

A -anxious. About traveling. About making flight and train connections. About all of the hiking I knew I was in for. ;) About carrying such heavy luggage. About finishing everything I needed to finish before Christmas.
B -bored. In the car driving. Seriously, I was way more intrigued by train travel.
C -cheery. I got to see snow!! So much fun! May have made my vacation that much better. :)
D -discouraged. I didn't study any German, French, or Czech before traveling. Last time I went to Europe I had been playing games and reading books. This time I was just so stressed out. Then, a week after we get home, Justin says "you were ordering your food wrong!" *facepalmª And the whole time I was in Germany when I went to order anything I'd be secretly hoping Justin would do it for me because I knew I was doing something wrong but I wasn't sure what! Ahhh! The stress! It made France that much more enjoyable though. ;)
E -excited. We stayed in different hotels every night for 90% of our travel time. It was so much fun being surprised at what kind of view would be in store for us at the next hotel … and the next… and the next.
F -friends. And beer. And more beer. And maybe some wine. :)
G -guilty. I really, really wanted to throw snow at things. And touch it. And draw in it. Sometimes I did; sometimes I didn't. And sometimes I found the snow more exciting than the actual places we were visiting. I guess that's what happens when you see snow maybe once a year. *shrugs*
H -hurt. I slipped and fell on the bathroom tile when I got out of the shower at the Westin Bellevue in Dresden the last morning we were there. There was absolutely nothing to grab onto. I fell onto my wrist and bruised my leg. It hurt and shook me up so much that I had to lay on the bed for a few minutes to recover. (I pass out when I get hurt badly or see blood.) The rest of the day I was a nervous wreck walking on ice and snow afraid that I would fall again and make the situation worse. (The wrist I fell on was the same one I sprained while in high school.)
I -inspired. By Paris, France. Ohmygosh the window displays of Galeries Lafeyette were amazing! So intricately designed and detailed. Absolutely beautiful.
J -judgemental. Apparently that's what I have to be next month when I go in for jury duty for my first time ever. :-/
K -kooky. Germans are weird. I don't mind being the first to tell you. Someone had to. ;)
L -lovely. There were so many pretty views from the majestic Christmas trees to the fog-covered bridges, lovely store and window displays and beautiful fireworks on the the 1st. Truly everything about our trip was magical. :) (We even saw a double rainbow in Georgia as we were headed home!)
M -misunderstood. It sucks when you are looking at a menu in a different language and you keep seeing "fleisch" and thinking "I don't want meat." You indicate to your husband that the only thing on the menu that you want is "eis" (ice cream) to which he assumes you don't understand the menu and promptly picks out a thing with "fleisch" in it for you to eat. *sigh* And then you eat it, because there is nothing but "fleisch" on the menu anyway…
N -naive. This is how I felt in Europe seeing the sick and poor on the city streets using whatever they could find to stay warm. I felt rich riding in cabs from hotel to hotel, blessed in so many more ways than I realize on a day-to-day basis.
O -overstimulation. As our train left it's last destination in Germany, I felt a little sad (ok - a LOT sad) to be leaving friends behind knowing that our vacation had come to an end (with them). Luckily, the vacation wasn't over for myself and my husband, and in the two days following, Justin and I went gallivanting through Paris and NYC. Those last two days were enough of a distraction that when I finally returned home I was too tired to be sad and forlorn. All I was left with were the positive feelings and memories from the crazy days before. If I could end every vacation like this, I think I would! :) Goodbyes suck.
P -Charlie Puth "Marvin Gaye". I heard that song played so much on the radio in Germany. Argh. I love me some Meghan Trainor, but don't Europeans have anything better to listen to? #insertheadphones
Q -quick. You never realize how short your legs are until you are trying to keep up with 6 foot giants.
R -random. That moment when we pass by an art gallery and randomly go in even though it's not on the itinerary…
S -stubborn. The feeling that you are on your own fighting for something and no one seems to understand why you care so much.
T -touched. Honestly, it was the little things. Like when our friends added a restaurant in Prague to the itinerary that they originally had said no to. Was it the beautiful view or the kindness of friends that made me tear up a little?
U -unimpressed. The Grünes Gewölbe (historic Green Vault) in Dresden, Germany left me less than impressed. Yes, the artwork was beautiful, but the explanations were dry and felt more like opinions than facts. In other words, I felt manipulated and sold to. If that's all they are going to offer in an audio guide, I think I'd rather peruse the artwork on my own without one.
V -villainous. That moment when I told my husband he could not visit Spain without me for a guy's trip. Yes, I'm mean, but I have good reasons. 1) I plan all of the vacations. 2) I've never been to Spain! It's not fair to go to a new country without your wife!
W -wasser. (or water.) Seriously! Medium gas? Either go all of the way or none of the way! Plus, it just feels so inherently wrong to ask for water with gas. Carbonated water sounds so much nicer. Or even sparkling. Yknow … as in pretty like a princess? You can't fault me for that, can you?
X -exuberant. I think it must have been the snow that brought out that trait in all of us.
Y -yielding and distrustful. Especially when your tired husband bumps into a guy near Times Square with a bag of broken glass who then asks for $20 to pay for his "broken whiskey" when not a single drop of liquid can be found on the sidewalk. How about you keep your broken glass and I keep my $20? #scams
Z -zen. When at the end of the trip you feel closer to the people you are with than you do at the beginning of the trip. :) (The feeling closer isn't the zen; it's the full circle of choosing something, forgetting why you chose it, and then remembering again. Being calm, relaxed, and at peace with a decision you made.)

Has your January been as emotion-filled as mine? 

Port Orleans Riverside - WDW Orlando, Florida


Destination: Orlando, FL (Disney World)
Date: November 2015
Hotel: Port Orleans Riverside
Brand: n/a
Elite Status: n/a
# of travelers: 2
nights: 3

image from hotel website

Hotel: Making the Decision

Right before Justin and I got married, a long time friend announced his engagement to his girlfriend of 7 years. Then it was just a waiting game to see how long it would be before they announced their wedding date; she wanted to graduate college and he wanted a steady job. It only made sense that they wait. Then, in late 2014, the wedding date was announced. Thinking it would be a good excuse to take my honey to Disney World, I got started thinking about planning. ;) (We had just been to Europe and were paying off a car/paying down student loans, so I didn't jump straight into Disney World planning despite my strong desire too.)

Then, it happened! That beautiful January day in 2015 when everything seemed to fall into place. Expedia was having a sale on hotels and I had a date and a location in mind! It was time to book! :)

At first I was drawn to Disney's Art of Animation hotel – the idea of an artist staying there? Sounded good to me! Then I noticed that Ariel would be watching me sleep if I paid for one of the cheaper rooms, in the $200 range. As (un)appealing as that was, I decided that there must be a better hotel for my husband and I. This led to a minimum of a full day's worth of Google searching. Everyone seems to have an opinion on a Disney hotel. If it's a good hotel for families, it's a bad hotel for adults. If it's a cheap hotel, it's probably more for families… Etc… I think you get the idea. Almost unanimously though, the Port Orleans Riverside kept coming up again and again as a decent place to stay for both groups of people AND there were no fairytale princesses watching you sleep. (A big plus in my book!) So I booked, still mostly undecided, but out of time since the Expedia promotion was only good until midnight. I assumed that saving money would inevitably become more important than what type of room we actually got. (Luckily, as you'll see, we enjoyed our room, so I got the best of both worlds – saving money and a decent room!)

Getting There

Initially the plan was to fly in early Thursday morning and make a long weekend of the trip leaving on Sunday. Instead, as the year progressed, I became antsy about work. My car had been acting up and with a trip to Europe coming up in December/January, I didn't want to ask for any extra days off. Thus, about a month before the wedding, I booked a flight to Orlando Thursday at 9PM at night with a return trip on Monday morning, so that I would only be missing Friday. (Reasonable for going to a wedding, I think.)

Once we arrived to the Orlando airport, we used Disney transportation to get us to our hotel. The whole trip took just over an hour, not exactly an enjoyable hour either since it was so late at night and all we wanted to do was sleep. Finally we arrived with our hotel being one of the last stops that the bus made. With it being so late at night at least the check-in line would be short, right?

Checking In

Port Orleans Riverside was actually a very big resort. A river runs through it that makes you think of a scene from Mary Poppins or even the classic children's ride "It's A Small World". Of course, at night it's hard to see too much aside from the vastness of the property and how confusing the signage is. Staff was dressed up in New Orleans river cruise style outfits that looked uncomfortable and cheap. Truly it makes you grateful that it's their job and not yours to wear them. Of course the staff was kind enough. They gave us a map with directions to our room, checked to make sure our MagicBands were working, and told us as much as we needed to know about Disney World park hours, breakfast times for the hotel restaurant, and gave us the Disney public transportation bus schedule. We were all set at 1AM for a 6AM wake up call to get breakfast and head to the parks as early as possible. (And oh how my husband hated me for that!)

image from hotel website

Room, View, Amenities

When we checked in, I asked the lady working at the front desk if we had received a good room to which she enthusiastically exclaimed "yes!" and showed me how it was a corner room on the property. While, yes, corner rooms do typically mean a good view with a few windows, she failed to mention we would be on the bottom floor next to a stairwell. Oops. So we had a view of shrubs on one side of the room and a stairwell on the other. Not necessarily the most grand view I've ever had.

The room itself though was nice. The hotel beds were stiff, but the decorations in the room were quite cute. You almost felt as though you had wandered back in time to an old southern belle mansion, which, I think, is what they were going for. Shampoo, conditioner, and soap lined the tub neatly in a row with tiny little Mickey hats on each of them. And best of all? The room not only had shades but also room darkeners! Woot! Street lights (actually – more like sidewalk lights) would not be keeping this girl up! There was also a blow dryer, iron, and the ability to get your clothes washed or dry cleaned if you so desired. Staying here definitely afforded some perks that cheaper hotels might not have.

Oh - and before I forget to mention it, the room itself is big! We had two double beds in our room and there was easily enough room for a family of 4 to fit. Plus, the room has the luxury of curtaining off the sink area or shutting the door to the toilet/shower area as needed. Easily you could have 2 or 3 people getting ready without waking anyone up or getting in the way of someone else. I imagine this would be particularly great for large families or families with small kids.

image from TripAdvisor

Restaurant/Mingling Areas/Transportation

Like I said, this resort property is absolutely ginormous. The grounds are gorgeous with pathways next to a river, bikes available for rent, and gazebos perfect for sitting and watching the sun go down. Kids will enjoy the pool area where occasionally Disney characters come out to visit. You can also hit up the large cafeteria to pick out Mickey waffles and bad tasting, expensive eggs and bacon if you so desire (or have nothing else available to eat). Then take a bus to the parks or ride the boat to downtown Disney. Be sure to get in line early for transportation, because the line gets long fast! Also, if you are in need of any forgotten items, be sure to check out the gift shop where you can buy souvenirs, bandages, advil, or anything else you might need!

My husband and I ate at the cafeteria on our first day, and immediately regretted it. Rather than dwell on our terrible breakfast, we made sure to enjoy some delicious treats at the EPCOT Food and Wine Festival totally making up for our awful breakfast. I don't recommend the cafeteria at this hotel; eat off property or wait until a snack bar is open at your favorite Disney park. (We even resorted to bringing some delicious croissants back to our hotel from EPCOT to have for breakfast the next day. EPCOT's croissants are that good!)

Location

Honestly I couldn't tell you where we were located within Disney property. Our hotel seemed to have it's own bus system for getting to and from the parks, which was both a blessing (you got immediately to the parks, you got immediately to your hotel from the parks), and a curse (you had to wait forever on a bus). Furthermore, the boat transportation also took forever. If you arrive to Disney World without a vehicle what do you do? Rent one, I suppose. Or wait. You would think during non-peak times of the year, transportation would be better. I can't even imagine what it must be like for summer-goers!


Overall Review
★★★ (average)

While most of my problems with this hotel are problems within the whole of the Disney corporation, as a Disney hotel, I had to take those problems into consideration when rating this hotel. The room itself was lovely and the room darkening shades made our stay there especially enjoyable. The hotel property was also gorgeous with gardens, rivers, and walkways even beyond what my husband and I saw. Transportation and food was a bit lackluster though. Next time I think we may consider a hotel like Disney's Contemporary Resort or the Grand Floridian simply because of their proximity to faster transportation (read: the monorail).

Your Turn

If you've ever stayed at a Disney hotel, what did you like about it? What did you dislike? Did you take advantage of perks – like going into the parks early? Did you explore all that there was to see at your chosen resort? Or did busy park days keep you stationed to your room after nightfall?

If you haven't been to Disney World yet, would you be interested in a more adult hotel like the Port Orleans Riverside?

#BooktagsBlogHop A Tree Grows In Brooklyn by Betty Smith


On the third Monday of every month, I participate in the #BooktagsBlogHop to share the books I'm reading and enjoying.

While I'm not sure if the #BooktagsBlogHop is actually running this month, I decided I would remain consistent with my posting since I have a goal of reading 2 books per month during the year of 2016. I'm actually in the middle of reading maybe 10 (?!) books right now (indecision at it's finest), but I thought I'd share a little about the book that is currently my "main squeeze" – Betty Smith's A Tree Grows In Brooklyn. It's a coming of age story that I've read before, but I didn't remember, aside from knowing that I liked it. Since I did not choose to re-read any books in 2015 (and because we found ourselves traveling at the beginning of 2016), I decided it was time to re-read this classic, hopefully falling as head-over-heels in love with it as I did the last time I read it.

As part of the #BooktagsBlogHop, I'm suppose to:

1. Share the blog hop image and link.
2. Include at least one book image.
3. Include a 500 word (or less) excerpt.
4. Review or explain my excerpt in 300 words or less.
5. Post the linky list or a link to the linky list.
6. Use the following suggested title structure - #BooktagsBlogHop: Book Title by Author.
7. Use suggested hashtags.


"They walked arm-in-arm; he in his patent leather dancing shoes and she in her high laced kid boots. Sometimes when the night was frosty and full of stars, they ran a little, skipped a little and laughed a lot. They felt very important using their private key to get into the school. The school was their world for a night. 
"They liked best to clean the assembly room. Johnny dusted the piano and, while doing so, ran his fingers over the keys. Katie sat in the front row and asked him to sing. He sang to her; sentimental songs of the time. 

"Sometimes Johnny went into one of his dances [...]. He was so graceful and handsome, so loving. so full of the grandness of just living, that Katie, watching him, thought she would die of being happy. 

"At two, they went into the teacher's lunch room where there was a gas plate. They made coffee. [...] Their rye bread and bologna sandwiches tasted good. Sometimes after super they'd go into the teachers' rest room where there was a chintz-covered couch and lie there for a while with their arms about each other. 

"At dawn, they left the school scrubbed, shiny, warm, and ready for the daytime janitor. They walked home watching the stars fade from the sky. They passed the baker's where the smell of freshly baked rolls came up to them from the baking room in the basement. Johnny ran down and bought a nickel's worth of hot buns hot from the oven. Arriving home, they had a breakfast of hot coffee and warm sweet buns. 

"They lived comfortably and it was a good life they had…happy and full of small adventures. 

"And they were so young and loved each other so much. 

"In a few months, to their innocent amazement, Katie found out that she was pregnant. [...] They were still very happy although Johnny was getting more and more worried as time wore on. 

"Towards the end of a frosty December night, her pains started. [...] She moaned and Johnny knew that the baby was on the way. He got her home and put her to bed without undressing her, and covered her warmly. He ran down the block to Mrs. Gindler, the midwife, and begged her to hurry. That good woman drove him crazy by taking her time. 

"They [the neighbor ladies] welcomed the midwife and shooed Johnny out of the place. He sat on the stoop and trembled each time Katie cried out. 

[...] 

"While he drank and slept the night away, Johnny did not know that the night had turned cold and the school fires which he was supposed to tend had gone out and the water pipes had burst and flooded the school basement and the first floor."

Wow! 500 words is a lot!

This excerpt tells the story of how Francie Nolan came to be. Katie and Johnny, her parents, were both young and naive having only attained a sixth grade education. Set in the early 1900s, Johnny was a wanna-be entertainer while Katie kept the family grounded requesting instead that Johnny work with her at a nearby school after hours maintaining the fires and keeping the school clean. Full of love for Katie, Johnny dutifully gives up entertaining to help his wife. Katie's pregnancy comes as a shock for them both.

All of this sets the scene for the night Francie Nolan is born. Her father, anxious, worried, and scared, seeks comfort however he can find it when he is shooed out of his own home by the neighbors who have come to help Katie with labor. Johnny finds himself out drinking with his brother completely forgetting about his night time job and inevitably getting himself (and his wife) fired. Unable to tell Katie about his reckless behavior, Johnny takes a job as a singing waiter the next night sliding right back into old habits. Meanwhile, Katie receives good advice from her mom regarding her child: read to Francie often from Shakespeare and the Bible, encourage imagination, don't hold back the truth, and, most importantly, save 5¢ a day so that, one day, you can buy a piece of land. If you have a piece of land that you can pass down to your child, she will no longer be a serf constantly working for others her whole life.

While I haven't gotten past chapter 10 (pg 92) yet, I have once again found myself entranced with the beautiful story of the little girl that could. I'm looking forward to the next 400 or so pages! :)

Buy A Tree Grows in Brooklyn here.

Are you starting the year off with a good book? Do you have any reading goals for 2016? Be sure to join in with the blog hop and share some of your favorite books!

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Popworks Popcorn!


Over the holidays, I was selected to receive a PinchMe box. Most of the products contained within were for the household pets – dog and cat food, dentastix, etc… Not extraordinarily blog worthy (since my blog doesn't focus on animals). One thing in the box, however, caught my eye – a bag of delicious, delicious cookies and cream popcorn from Popworks & Company. Now typically if I see an awesome item like this in stores, Justin refuses to buy it for me. Sweet popcorn fits more in the "junk food" section of our lives which he deliberately (and understandably) refuses to encourage. Being the awesome blogger I am though, I still find a way to snatch a treat here and there though. PinchMe boxes are just one of those ways.

So … about the cookies and cream popcorn?

It was gone within a few minutes of checking the mail.

*shrugs*

It was like 7pm and I was hungry! And Justin was making dinner!

Needless to say, Cookies and Cream popcorn is delicious. It's not old tasting like so many bagged popcorns on the market … and it doesn't taste like buttery popcorn with sugar on it. Somehow or another Popworks managed to pull off a sweet popcorn that is delicious without an overwhelming taste that crowds out and confuses the senses.

Don't kid yourself though. Popworks popcorn is just as bad for you as most other bagged popcorn – perhaps worse since it contains added sugar. If you want delicious, healthier popcorn, I recommend buying the kernels and making it yourself so that you can control for things like sugar, oil, butter, and salt.

Nevertheless, when I want a quick chocolatey sugar fix (with added popcorn), I will definitely consider the delicious Popworks & Company Cookies and Cream popcorn. I imagine it would be great to take to a party!

Interested in trying out Popworks & Company Cookies and Cream popcorn? Click here. Don't forget to try Birthday Cake and Salted Caramel & Fudge too! :)

* I received this product for free and was not required to share my opinion. I shared because I wanted to. All opinions are my own.

Throwback Thursday – Europe 2015/2016

view from the Burg Hohenzollern - January 2016

As my husband and I adjust back to ordinary life, I thought I'd share a list of what we learned on our recent trip to Europe – what went right, what went wrong, what we'd change, and what we will never forget. :) For an idea of what our trip was like and what the planning involved was, check out this page. Today I'm just providing an overview, be sure to follow along in the coming months to get more in depth details about the places we stayed, the products we used, the apps that guided our adventures, and more! :)

OVERVIEW

In late August I made a deal with my husband: if I spotted flights to Europe in the $500 range with a large airline carrier like Delta (not Icelandair), I was booking … otherwise we weren't going. I was completely flexible with dates although I had two time periods I was aiming for – Christmas/New Years or July, for my birthday. Lo and behold, not even a week later, $500 tickets became less of a dream and more of a reality. I interrupted Justin from his cooking and, as per the conditions of our deal, booked! Woot! We ended up going along with the earlier Christmas/New Years dates, because I was aware of when our friends were available to meet up with during that time period. Plus, how easy is it to get time off during the holidays?

And thus the planning began. I was in the midst of figuring out an Orlando trip at the same time, but, even so, I worked through the itinerary one step at a time. Slowly the pieces of the puzzle began to come together. We would be exploring NYC, Paris, and Strasbourg by ourselves, meeting up with friends to travel through Prague and Dresden, then concluding with a day each in Paris and NYC before returning home.

Here's what we learned:

DOs

Tickets!

• Before you leave, print every confirmation email and ticket you receive.

In Prague we ran into a problem where the hotel claimed I had booked one room and not two. Without proof, there's not much you can do aside from pay again. Luckily we had proof!

• Book train travel in advance. (At least one week early!)

The prices can skyrocket on the day of the trip. I thought by not booking I was allowing myself some flexibility. Maybe. But if you wait to book, you will pay the price. I recommend using Rome2Rio or Google Flights if you aren't familiar with European train booking. Be aware, though, that more dates and times might be available when booking the train directly on the website (such as through Deutschebahn).

• Sleep on the plane, if possible.

Normally leaving from the US to go to Europe, this wouldn't be a problem for me EXCEPT that we walked ourselves to death in NYC. (Loved every minute of it!) So, naturally, sleeping on the plane was a good idea for me. We left NYC at 7PM Sunday night and arrived in Paris at 9AM Monday morning. Aside from the stupid Delta employees who left the lights on the whole trip and kept serving food and waking me up every hour, it's a great way to get in your 6 hours of sleep before enjoying the day! HOWEVER, once you get there, don't go to sleep until bedtime their time. You may be exhausted, but it is, without a doubt, one of the quickest ways to conquer jetlag!

When we returned from Paris, we had just under an 8 hour flight … with stupid Delta employees waking everyone up constantly again. Don't they know they will have an easier flight if they just let everyone sleep? Anyway, once again, don't go to bed until it's bed time in the new time zone after arrival. We left Paris at 8AM and arrived in NYC at 1PM, which added 6 hours to our day. With an 8 hour nap though, who cares? (Just don't drink coffee before boarding the plane. Justin learned this the hard way.)

Whether at the beach or in the mountains, water is always a good idea!

• Stay hydrated.

Generic flying dehydrates me. Changing time zones makes it even worse. I always make sure to drink as much water as I can after landing.

• Say hello and goodbye in the country's language every time you enter or exit a place of business.

I don't know why. I'm an American who would rather keep my mouth shut when I enter or exit a business. For some odd reason though, Europeans like to be acknowledged. You'd have to ask one of them why. Either way, we tended to get better service just for saying those few simple words.

• Bring a small medical kit.

Every time we go to Europe I end up needing allergy and pain medication. EVERY TIME. This time I also brought bandages for blisters. I never had to worry about knowing the correct word for what I needed or taking the time to find a pharmacy!

• Ask the natives.

First, learn a few words to get by in the country you are visiting. "Hello", "goodbye", "please", "thank you", "bathroom", "yes", "no", "check please!" and "do you speak English?" will all help tremendously. Simple numbers can be useful too. Have your hotel address with you to show Taxi drivers. And finally, talk to the hotel concierge to find the best things to do and get reservations at some of the best restaurants in town. If you have an AirBnb host instead of a hotel concierge, definitely make time to speak with them. They know their town backwards and forwards and can help you far more than Google or any hotel concierge! Just try talking to people – you never know what you will discover!

DON'Ts

Working from a hotel is no fun!

• Bring a laptop.

Unless you need it for work, you simply shouldn't bring it. Take an ipad or e-reader instead. They are lighter. Better yet – just use your phone.

• Pack more than 7 days worth of clothing.

Bring things that can be mixed and matched. Underclothing can be washed and worn again. Over clothing gets less dirty if you are wearing underclothing. Just … pack light. That's all I can really say on the matter. You'll thank me when you aren't toting 200 pounds worth of clothing and beer up and down train steps multiple times because, as it turns out, you are in the lower level of a train car with a broken door. (Been there; done that.)

• Stay in a city less than 24 hours.

We were scheduled to arrive in Strasbourg at 1PM and leave the next day at 9AM. Anyway, we ended up changing our train ticket so that we could have more time in Paris. (I didn't like the Paris Christmas market and assumed that the Strasbourg one would be similar.) We arrived at 5PM to Strasbourg and went straight to dinner missing the Christmas market altogether. And then the church was closed. Needless to say, the most we did was walk the Christmas light covered streets in fog. It was a beautiful small city that really didn't require more than a few hours for sightseeing, but those hours it did require were within a time range when we would already be gone. *shrugs* Maybe we'll try a stopover there again sometime in the future. I must admit I wouldn't be heartbroken if we didn't though.

• Take Uber on a holiday.

The prices are inflated and they hurt. :(

Have you had the chance to visit Europe before? Is there anything you would include in this list that I didn't?

Hilton Garden Inn – Savannah, GA Airport

image from Hilton

Destination: Savannah, GA
Date: October 2015
Hotel: Hilton Garden Inn
Brand: Hilton
Elite Status: gold
# of travelers: 4
nights: 1

Hotel: Making the Decision

To be completely honest, I did not make the decision for this hotel. It was chosen for me, but it was a good excuse to go visit my baby nephew. So why not?

Getting There

We drove to Savannah, because flying would be a pain.

Here's why we drove:
• We live an hour from the airport.
• We didn't want to pay for parking.
• We would have to get to the airport 2 hours early.
• The flight would be maybe 30 minutes?
• The drive itself is only 4 hours.
Make sense?

If you did decide to fly in, Hilton Garden Inn is only one mile away from the airport and they provide a shuttle bus. Definitely contact the hotel before arrival to make sure they will be available to pick you up though!

In most cases driving to the hotel is probably the better of the two options, even with the shuttle bus. Hilton Garden Inn does not offer a shuttle to historic Savannah or Tybee Island, both locations are definitely a short drive (20-40 mins depending) away. Plus, the hotel offers free parking.

If you choose this hotel and live close enough where you are trying to decide between driving and flying … drive. Even with gas prices, it will probably still be cheaper. (Flying into Savannah airport can be expensive!!)

Checking In

After the long drive, I was a little impatient. We had traveled once again with my parents to Savannah and the two of them plus my husband immediately bolted to the restroom upon arrival. (Wonder why?!) Rather than wait on any of them, since I had made the reservation, I approached the front desk and laughed with the customer associate about how my family couldn't seem to get their act together enough to check in. He noted my status as a gold and placed us in a room with a view. (Totally acceptable in my book!) We also got extra points (or a drink from the bar), 2 free water bottles, and some candy. Then it was time to start bringing our belongings in.

from Hilton

Room, View, Amenities

When we finally got up to the room, we were impressed with a beautiful view of a sunset over a lake. While this hotel is pretty much located in the middle of nowhere near a million other hotels, restaurants, and shopping areas, don't let that dissuade you from asking for a room with a view. There is at least one room like that: and we got it!

The room was decent sized with a desk, ergonomic chair (to go with the desk), and a comfy living room style chair to just relax in. The bathroom was your typical hotel bathroom – tub with shower, toilet, and sink. Perfect for an overnight adventure.

Our main complaint with the room ended up being that the air conditioning wasn't working. I don't sleep well in 70º temperatures, so, needless to say, I didn't get much sleep. :( The hotel, when we told them the next morning, comped our breakfast. So that was good. :) They also sent an electrician up to fix the AC and offered to move us to another room if we decided to stay a second night. (And give up my view? No thanks! … We didn't stay a second night.)

The hotel offers free wi-fi, a pool, a bar, a restaurant, a gym, a business center, and laundry service. In the rooms you will find a mini fridge, a microwave, a Keurig coffee machine, shampoos, soaps, and lotions. And, just in case you want it, you can get free fruit flavored water in the lobby and, at night, cookies. (They weren't great cookies though, so I wouldn't recommend going out of your way for them.)

Beautiful lobby!

Restaurant & Bar

My family decided to take advantage of the restaurant at the hotel. That night we had dinner just off of the hotel lobby. The waitress seemed uninterested in helping us and the entire staff had fallen behind on cleaning tables. To be honest, I'm not really sure why we stayed. We did though. My husband and I shared a steak with salad and garlic potatoes while my parents each got soup and salad. The steak was pretty good albeit expensive. The salad was typical and the potatoes were so-so. If you get to this hotel and don't have a car, the dinner options aren't terrible.

One thing to note – the restaurant is not entirely separated from the lobby. You will see people coming and going. There isn't a view from the windows … except to the parking lot. Overall the restaurant is just … well, in my opinion, it can barely be called a restaurant. It's not set up like one and just … it's sub-par. There's not much I can say about it that is really good. Even the bar is more like a breakfast bar type area in your kitchen and more about where the servers swipe your credit card than where you drink and enjoy. Not highly recommended. :( They will give you 500 points for telling them your name and room number though, so that's nice. :)

We decided to try the restaurant one more time for breakfast the next morning. They offer a few items for $5 (like oatmeals, bagels, waffles, etc…), but if you want anything hot at the buffet, it costs an additional $10 (on top of the original $5). The hot menu items included sausage, eggs, bacon, omelets, french toast, and potatoes. You had the option of water, orange juice, or coffee to go with your meal. When you end your meal, make sure to pay attention to your receipt! My mom and I both took the $5 option while my husband and dad did the $15 buffet option yet both my mom and I were charged the full $15 price! Yes our breakfast ended up being comped but we wanted to make sure the hotel knew they were comping us for $40 worth of food and drinks rather than $60. (Side note: breakfast isn't worth the cost.  I don't recommend getting it.)

Location

This hotel is kind of out in the middle of nowhere. It's close to the airport, but that's about it. As I've said in other Savannah hotel reviews, I recommend staying in historic downtown rather than any of these suburban areas. Parking can be difficult in downtown Savannah. It is worth mentioning though that the price for this hotel is a bit cheaper than what you will pay for a historic Savannah hotel, so if you want cheaper, this might be the way to go, especially in the heavily visited summer months.

The pool looked lovely after nightfall!

Overall Review
★★★ (average)

Despite all of the problems we encountered, the front desk, electrician and manager seemed to be on top of problem-solving. They wanted to create a fantastic atmosphere to encourage clients to return. This, in my opinion, is exactly what the hotel needs considering their out of the way location. Servers and bartenders, on the other hand, weren't so enthusiastic about client retention … or doing their jobs, for that matter. The restaurant food was expensive and the employees were slow to bring us food and our bill. I did appreciate the gold status recognition, the extra points just for dining with them, the free cookies and water, and, most of all, the view from our room! With a little more focus on clientele, better servers, cheaper food prices, and maybe even a shuttle to downtown Savannah, this could be a great hotel. In the meantime I can only give it an average rating. More than likely, I will not be staying here again.

Your Turn

What do you think about hotels on the outskirts of towns and cities? Are they a bargain or a waste of time? Would you consider staying at an airport hotel even if it takes 20 minutes to get downtown?