Sunday, June 30, 2013

Flower Files: Classic White Bouquet

Monday, June 24, 2013

Chicago Pt 1: What We Did

Sometimes when we are sitting around with my family, stories start being told about the lengths to which my sister, mother and I will go to get free stuff.  Now, none of the stories involve stealing, lying or being rude to customer service, likely because we all have husbands who make sure we don't cheat the system.  But, most of the stories do involve persistence, kindness and maybe acting a little bit crazy.  For example, when a sales person says the defective jeans are no longer available at the sale price and he really wishes there was another discount he could give you, you can kindly remind him, "What about your employee discount?"  Or, if your car is making funny noises, you explain how you are afraid for your life so it really is something that needs to be fixed right away.

After one of our plane debacles in Africa that ended in us paying a hefty bill due to an airline error, I wrote to the airline, explained the situation and in what I hope was a polite way, asked for our expenses to be reimbursed.  When I finally got a response back, the bad news was that they wouldn't reimburse our expenses with cash, but the good news was that they gave us airline vouchers for a good bit more than our expenses actually were.

So, with tickets to anywhere and a three day weekend looming, we figured we should use them while we had the chance.  We talked ourselves in circles trying to decide on where to go, but since we had a short amount of time, and a dollar limit for the vouchers, we decided on Chicago.  Both of us had been there before, but only for a less than a day, and it seemed just close enough and manageable enough for a long weekend.

We found the L, the name for Chicago's public metro rail, to be pretty easy and convenient.  Most of what we did was in the downtown area and we were pleasantly surprised to find that it is an extremely walkable city.  Most everything but the baseball stadium, Oak Park and a few of the theaters were within a mile of where we stayed, in the middle of downtown, aka "the loop."  Another thing we liked about this city, is that a lot of the places we went had good discounts (ex: military, student, federal government), so count that as a friendly reminder to ask!

Here is what we did:

Day 1:
-Walked around Millennium Park: I'm a big Frank Gehry fan, and there are some beautiful gardens on the south side of the park.

Millennium Stage

-Andy's Jazz Club (with discounted coupons from the hotel concierge): It felt somewhat old-school, totally laid back and nice way to spend some time.  I think the waitress also jokingly called us the "slow-couple" since we took so long to decide on drinks.

Day 2:
-Architecture River Tour: I saw a lot of recommendations for this, and it was definitely fun, but I don't think I'd label it "must-do." I'm not a huge architecture buff, but it was definitely interesting to learn about the different styles and history of the city, especially since the architecture in the city is really amazing.  I can't remember which company it was, but they all kind of seemed similar, so we just went with the one our hotel could book for us.

-Field Museum: I really don't know why, but one of my all time favorite movies is "The Ghost and the Darkness" about the man-eating lions in Tsavo.  The stuffed lions are in the Field Museum and as he says in the end of the movie, "Even now, if you dare lock eyes with them, you will be afraid."  We didn't give ourselves much time.. maybe an hour so we jut kid of dashed in, saw the lions, saw what I think might be the biggest T-rex skeleton in the world, and dashed out. (After deciding on what kind of dinosaur we would be if we had to pick.  I know, I am blessed to have a husband who humors me so.)

-Magnificent mile: this was another common recommendation that we found a bit overrated.  It's the main shopping street and not a lot else.  Although if you don't live near any of the big chain stores or tend to shop at the designer stores, this would be a good place to blow a lot of time and money

-John Hancock Observatory: We went at dusk and the views were pretty awesome.  There is also a bar on the floor below the observatory if you'd rather spend money on a drink instead of an admission ticket.  When we went, the line for the bar was pretty long whereas we could get in right away for the observatory.  Plus, I think we are prepared for the future since we both already have the mentality of old people in that we would rather just avoid the crowds jostling for drinks or a view.  We are "the slow couple" who doesn't like crowds, so yeah.. we'll join AARP soon enough.

Day 3:

-Took obligatory pictures by "the bean": somehow we missed it while taking our initial tour of Millennium park.

-"Smoky Joe's Cafe" at the Royal George Theater: this was a musical play, that had a little bit of a story line, and lots of talented singer.  It's a bit of a medley of Lieber and Stroller's hits from the 50's.  Musicals aren't quite up our alley, but it was pretty fun and I think we got discounted tickets at the Hot Tix store by our hotel.  The theater was also right next to where we had dinner the next night, Balena, so too bad I didn't plan that one better. 

Day 4:

-Oak Park and Frank Lloyd Wright's Studio: This neighborhood took a bit of a time to get out to, but was a perfect way to enjoy the nice weather.  We didn't take any guided tours (mostly because we didn't reserve tickets ahead of time or plan on waiting, so would have had to wait 2 hours to take the tour of Frank Lloyd Wright's studio.  They did offer walking tours of the neighborhood (many of the houses designed by FLW), but I think we were too hungry/cheap/rushed to want to bother with that.  If we had to do it again, a tour might have been nice, or maybe if we had taken more time to explore Ernest Hemingway's house, which was also in the 'hood.

One of the FLW-designed homes in Oak Park

Wright's home and studio (or is it Lloyd Wright?)
-White Sox Game: Another fun way to spend time outside since the Cubs weren't playing.  The polish sausages with caramelized onions were so good we got seconds.  (And they were a shockingly low price for ball park food.)

-If I hadn't already been, the Art Institute of Chicago has one of the best art collections in the country, so I'd rank that pretty high on the "things to do list."

Our itinerary wasn't all that packed, since part of "vacation" to us means just hanging out and reading or napping.  Another reason our itinerary looks a little sparse is that a big part of our travelling is eating, which I'll have to save for another post.  All in all, it was a really fun trip.  Definitely worth the time it took to call and write in about my airline experience.  And yeah, I'd be a triceratops.... you know, since it has my name in it (tri-sarah-tops).

Friday, June 14, 2013

Deal Alert: Southwest Companion Pass

As you know, I love free stuff and I also love airline point programs, so travelling for free is really the best of both worlds.  I'm no expert on this, and usually rely on The Points Guy or Million Mile Secrets for my tips, but I here's one I wanted to pass on.

It's not for everyone, but if you are:

-planning on spending at least $200 on domestic flights with someone next year
-operate something that qualifies as a business (daycare, investment property, etc.)
-already will be spending $4000 on a credit card in the next 3 months

then keep reading.  Everyone else can probably stop reading now...

Southwest has what they call their "Companion Pass," which you earn if you get 110,000 miles points in your Rapid Rewards account (their frequent flyer program).  With the companion pass, any flight you book, you get an extra ticket for free.  You get this pass for the remainder of the year you hit the 110,000 miles, plus the entire following year.  You can only change who your companion is 3 or maybe 4 times while you have the pass, but if you do a lot of travel on Southwest with one primary companion, this could be a good deal.

"How do I get 110,000 reward points?" you ask. There is a limited time offer from Chase to sign up for their Southwest personal and business cards each with a 50,000 point bonus when you spend $2000 in the first 3 months.  So if you get both cards and meet the spending minimum, you'd get 104,000 points and only need to get 6000 more points (either by spending $6k or a few other ways outlined really well here and here before the end of the year).

There are 4 cards total Personal Premier, Personal Plus, Business Premier and Business Plus.  The Premier has higher annual fees ($99 vs $69 which are not waived for the first year), but you also get more points at your annual "bonus".  The best move would be to apply for one personal and one business card if you have something that could qualify as a business.  You could try to get both personal ones, but you might want to call Chase to find out since I'm just not sure if that'd work.

Update: I've just hear of people who get approved for both personal cards, the premier and plus, so sounds like you don't even need a business or business card to cash in on this deal, which is really exciting.

Apply for both on the same day so only one inquiry shows up on your credit report.  You'll probably have to call the reconsideration line for the second application.  (Speaking of credit scores, you could always close these cards next year before the next annual fee is due.  As long as you have another card you're keeping open that you've had a few years, it won't affect your credit score much.)

Here's is a good write up with all the details explained:

The posts I linked to were written when this deal was offered earlier this year, but here are links to the current offers:

So with 110,000 Rapid Reward points, that's over $1800 to use for Southwest flights for you, all of which you get to bring someone for free during the year your companion pass is valid, which makes it potentially up to $3600 worth of flights - really $3400 once you subtract the annual fee.  Not bad!

The fees aren't waived the first year like other offers, so if you aren't going to be spending more than $200 a person on travel in the next year, it's probably not worth it.  Another thing is Southwest mostly flies domestic.  Because it's already June, it'd probably take a few months for all the points to hit your account, so you could always take a gamble and hold out until next Jan/Feb and seeing if they run the offer then would give you the maximum use.  If you aren't going to be traveling or spending the minimum amounts would be hard or you just don't like keeping track of all the points, then this probably isn't the best deal.  We hemmed and hawed over this deal earlier this year and at the time it didn't seem like the best option for us.  It is a good strategy though, so I thought I'd pass on the basics.  And if anyone is still reading after all these numbers and links, then I think you and I are the only ones.

(Disclaimer: Some of the sites I linked to use affiliate links.  I don't have any relationship with Chase or Southwest though, so I'm just sharing this because it's a good deal, not because I get anything.)

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Local Eats: Blue Duck Tavern

One of my favorite lines in the Ocean's 11 series (the George Clooney ones) is in Ocean's 12 when George Clooney is at a jewelry store and tells the clerk he is looking for something for his "second third anniversary" because they got married a second time after being divorced.  In that vein, a few weeks ago was the second anniversary of our second first date.  Back in the day, we started dating, stopped for a while, so when we started dating the second time, we had a second first date. 

The funny thing is, during the time we were dating, we were totally not sentimental at all.  We didn't celebrate "month-iversarries" or really even dating anniversaries.  I think it's mostly because we forgot.  But now that Jason has entered some of the more special dates into our shared google calendar, we have annual reminders that give us excuses to celebrate.  Sadly the restaurant that we had our second first date at closed within a year of opening, so that wasn't really an option.  For our first wedding anniversary we somewhat randomly chose the Blue Duck Tavern.  We're both suckers for tradition, and the food was good, so we decided to make it our "anniversary restaurant."  (Side note: After we decided to go there, I saw a headline that the Obamas had chosen to go there for their anniversary a few years ago.  So that somehow makes us best friends.. trend setters.. ok, it means nothing.)

I'm not sure if they simply don't take reservations at certain times, but it seems like our only options when we've been were 5 and 9.  Our plan was to make the 9pm reservations and show up early "just in case."  They were able to accommodate us a little earlier than the reservation time, but we still had to wait about an hour which meant we had some extra time to wait in their lovey lounge and snack on some wine and cheese. 

We've never really been into charcuterie, mostly because I just don't think we'd actually had very good cheese and meats or possibly because neither of us knew the proper way to pronounce it.  But we tried some since we were so early and are hooked!  Lisa, who ran the cheese table, was so friendly and able to give us great suggestions.  Our favorites were the Beecher's cheddar and the Midnight Moon goat's Gouda.

Once our table was ready, we moved to the main dining area.  It was considerably louder and the chairs harder, but also had an entertaining view of the kitchen.  I must say, I really impressed with our dinner.  I got the scallops with peas, sea beans and pea puree' and charred baby lettuce with duck crackling and anchovy emulsion.  Both were so flavorful and cooked to perfection.  My mouth is watering just thinking of those nicely seared, melt-in-your mouth scallops.  Jason liked his duck, though the orange flavored sauce wasn't especially unique.  I'm not sure if it's just that we really really like vegetables or the kitchen just isn't as good at meats, but the first time we went we were also more impressed by the Brussels sprouts than the slow roasted pork shoulder.

In my mind, a good waiter is one who isn't noticed.  You're never looking for him in need, but he's also not interrupting conversation like a third wheel the whole time.  The staff at the Blue Duck Tavern fit into that category of good waiters.  We even got a little extra treat for our anniversary.  Jason has since told me I can't tell them it's our anniversary multiple times per year, even though it truly was an anniversary of sorts for us.  Jason and his principles...

Anyways, it's not the most trendy place, but for a classic special occasion, we've enjoyed it.  Plus, you can get points by making reservations through Opentable and Hyatt Gold Passport since it is part of the Park Hyatt Hotel.  Just give them your passport number when it comes time to pay the bill or contact Hyatt customer service about adding it retroactively.

And now I will leave you with a final Ocean's 12 quote:

"Look, it's not in my nature to be mysterious. But I can't talk about it and I can't talk about why."

Restaurant: Blue Duck Tavern
Neighborhood: West End
Highlights: Scallops and vegetables
Average entree price: $20-$30
Rating: 4/5