New York Roots (and Travel Tips)

2 10 2010

A long, long time ago (at least it seems that way), when I first took the big leap and moved to the frightening and exhilarating city that is New York, I was lucky enough to find an internship at a friendly little travel website called EuroCheapo. With brothers Tom and Pete Meyers at the helm, EuroCheapo aims to make European (and New York, since that’s where they’re based) travel affordable by reviewing budget hotels that are actually comfortable.

I so loved going to the sunny office in Soho, and writing about travel, and laughing and joking and listening to great music with small but mighty EC crew, that I just kept going, and finally I was upgraded from intern to assistant editor. It was a sad day when I had to leave EuroCheapo, but now I’m making a triumphant return, not to the office, but to the blog!

I’ve just become the New York blogger for EuroCheapo, and I’ll be writing every other week about unique and affordable activities in New York City. It’s a fun turn of events that my first year of getting to know New York found me at EuroCheapo, and now I’m such a New York veteran that I can provide regular advice on what to see and do (and no Empire State Building here, folks!). Follow my New York tips and adventures here!





The Travel Tools That Make You Crazy (and How to Prevent It)

22 11 2009

I’m coming to realize more and more how terrible it is to be a procrastinator. And yet I continue on that path. Mostly, I think, it’s a fear of committing—something else may be just around the corner that is better, cheaper, or what-not.

This is how I got into the mess of not buying my Christmas ticket until far later than I should have. I, who pressured my sister two months ago to let me know for certain if she was indeed going to be in the Bay Area for the holiday so that I could get to purchasing a ticket if I needed (I’m terrible, I know).

But things happened: work and not knowing how much time I’d have off, and then there is this little thing called Bing, and its blasted flight predictor. I warn you now: use at your own risk. It looks innocuous enough, charming even, with its little colored arrows pointing every which way, notices telling you “Buy Now, prices are going up!” or, worse, “Wait! They’re going down!”

This is how I fell. I waited, trusting Bing. And then I began the game of obsessively checking every flight search engine Bing had to offer, plus several more from BookingBuddy, which links from Bing but is a beast unto itself. I could count the number of flight search engines that BookingBuddy links to, but I’ve already lost countless hours checking over half of them for flights to California, so I really don’t want to sacrifice any more of my time to such silliness.

And so, since I went slightly insane before finally settling on a ticket (after, of course, thoroughly evaluating the timing, price and mileage earning possibilities of I’d say thousands of flights over the course of several days), I feel my readers should benefit from my new-found wisdom. So here it is:

1) Trust Bing, to an extent. They tell you right on the site to way your risk tolerance (mine, it appears, is rather high). I find that for the most part, in the past at least, it’s been pretty accurate, though over the much-fluctuating holidays it kept telling me to wait when prices were steadily creeping up. There comes a time when you go with your gut, but Bing is a good place to start.

2) Compare a few search engines, but not to many. Pick five good ones (max!) and stop there. I’ve found I have the best luck with Expedia and Cheap Tickets. But Orbitz, my old faithful friend, remains my favorite, for the crucial aspects of flexible date searches and the ability to include nearby airports. (With the others I found my “must know all options” side trying every possible combination of airports in New York and San Francisco. I’m not a mathematician but I know I don’t like that probability.)

3) Stay away from Priceline. I tried multiple times to book the different versions of a given flight, always to get the answer that it was no longer available no matter how many times the screen refreshed to show my desired flights still there. All the while I lost valuable time that I could have been trolling other search engines.

4) Make a decision! At the end of the day, whether it’s because you took too long in evaluating your options or waited too long for something better to come along, you’ve ultimately wasted time, and likely lost the original best case scenario flight in the process. (Some day I will learn to take this piece of brilliant advice myself.)





Cool, Unique Travel Site

18 08 2009

Atlas Obscura bills itself as a Compendium of the World’s Wonders, Curiosities and Esoterica. Even the phrase has you wanting more. The site itself is nothing short of spectacular full of some of the best and most amazing randomness the world has to offer, from Húsavík’s Phallological Museum in Iceland(yes, there does exist such a thing as a phallological museum) to the holy rats that inhabit Karni Mata Temple in India.

It’s the ultimate travel guide for the off-the-beaten-pathers, and, what’s more, it’s a collaborative project, meaning anyone can contribute an interesting (read: bizarre) place), the sorts of things like miniature cities and handwoven bridges (fear!) that are left out of the usual guidebooks.

As it describes itself, “Atlas Obscura is about celebrating a different way of traveling, and a different lens through which to view the world.” In other words, it’s a way of opening up travel, and of uniting people and their stories. Score on many counts.





Oh Schmap!

6 07 2009

I recently discovered that two photos I posted on Flickr were selected to represent Woodlawn Cemetery and the New York Botanic Garden on Schmap, this new, nifty interactive map guide. This was exciting because: a) someone likes my pictures! and b) I discovered Schmap, this cool new digital travel guide, where users can publish schmaps (with photos, reviews and trip itineraries)  and access maps and guides from anywhere. Yet another reason I need to invest in a smarter phone than the jenky one I currently have.





And Then Again…

17 04 2009

I’m still thinking on this eco-tourism dilemma. Antarctica, yes, it’s a different story, and I agree that regulations should be put in place to protect it. Regulations should be put in place for any area that might be endangered by excessive tourism, for that matter.

On the other hand, such activities as listed by the Berkeley study (hiking, etc.), while they may endanger the areas visited, they also serve to promote awareness. What is nature, that is, if not to be enjoyed. And the more we enjoy it, the more we want to save it, right? So in this way, it seems to me, eco-tourism can actually be a good thing.

The Nature Conservancy, a conservation organization that works to protect ecologically important lands and waters worldwide, seems to believe that we should enjoy the nature we help to save. To that end, the Conservancy has a a feature on its website, Visit a Preserve, an interactive map of the preserves the conservancy helps to protect, which means wherever you are you can visit a preserve. Perhaps said visits will inspire folks to do even more to help. And so, eco-tourism is in fact a good thing, in moderation. (At least that’s my thought for the day.)





71 Miles to Almost Anything

4 03 2009
From the roof of my former SF apartment

From the roof of my former SF apartment

I feel as though I’ve been touting the virtues of California a lot recently. In the past few weeks I’ve found myself in several conversations, both with fellow Californians who know what I’m talking about and with New Yorkers (or other East Coasters) who wonder if I’ll ever go back. It’s amusing really: the Californians pretty much always say they’ll return, especially this time of year.

The East Coasters will often ask why I left, but generally conclude that they could not live in California, mostly given the earthquakes. This is an amusing fear to me: I’d much prefer the threat of an earthquake (the last major quake in the San Francisco Bay Area was 1989) than the actuality of hurricanes, tornadoes or whatever other national disasters occur just about annually in other parts of the country.

But that is not the point. Whenever Easterners ask me what’s so great about California, my answer is simple: everything. We have great weather (most of the time) and in most places in the state you’re not far from whatever it is you might seek: mountains, ocean, desert, sea elephants, wine… California, and San Francisco in specific, pretty much has it all.

Which is why it was so thrilling to find this e-zine the other day: 71Miles is a website covering weekend destinations within a four-hour radius of San Francisco. Within those guides is something for everyone. Head out to the coast, up to the mountains, into the wine country, or simply stay put. From San Francisco, four hours gets you (almost) to Santa Barbara, also known as paradise, to Yosemite, one of the natural treasures of the United States, and just about anywhere else you might want to go.

It’s basically a blog, but it’s amusing, well-written, and there is a lot of good content on it. Best part? The writer/editor, John A. Vlahides happens to be a New York transplant to San Francisco. Go figure.





Where Will You Be?

15 01 2009

The day we’ve all been waiting for has finally arrived.

Bush gives his farewell address tonight! And a quick thumbs up to Gail Collins for her piece in the Times is titled He’s Leaving. Really. Perhaps the best Op-Ed title. Ever.

But, much awaited and welcome as this evening is, it is not (if for no other reason that it’s yet another George W. speech) the highly anticipated, wracked with joy event of which I speak. America has been a buzz of excitement these past few weeks, looking forward to Tuesday with all out fervor. For two months I’ve passed a familiar face in shop windows all over the city, vendors selling every type of  “Yes We Did” paraphernalia imaginable, and next week it will finally be official.

The festivities begin with an inaugural celebration on Sunday at Lincoln Memorial and will last through the Wednesday prayer service, and four million lambs are expected to flock to D.C. this weekend to be part of the historic and joyful inauguration of lucky number 44.

I, alas, will remain in New York. Though I am close to D.C., it does happen to be a work day (and we are having our own Harlem Children’s Zone inauguration celebration) and I happen to not like crowds all that much. However, for those who are braver than I, there is good news: if you’d like to go to D.C. but aren’t willing to promise your first born child for a much coveted hotel room, try staying with a local. Courtesy of Air Bed & Breakfast, local D.C. ers are offering rooms for rent, costing anywhere from $40-$100 a night. Easy to afford now that there’s a possibility of a tax credit. For more information on parties, getting to D.C., and even a Crash Kit, check out
www.crashtheinauguration.com
.

If you’re like me and can’t travel (or just fear being trampled) look local. Here in New York, where the streets danced on November 4, 2008, there will be no shortage of Obama celebrations, but local organizations around the country promise similar festivities. In California, Keith Carson, Alameda County Supervisor, has put together several days of interfaith/community service related events in honor of the new president and no doubt to get a head start on Obama’s Call to Service. Or if all else fails, plan your own party. Whatever you’re doing on January 20, though, it’s guaranteed to be one of those “I remember when…” moments.





New Year (Vicarious) Trip

5 01 2009

One year ago today I was frantically racing around New York buying important things (like shoes I would wear once and bandaids that would mend my feet from the damage caused by said shoes), saying countless telephone goodbyes and, giant Squirrel on my back, boarding a plane for the long journey to Buenos Aires, full of excitement and nervous jitters.  This year I am parked at a coffee shop near Union Square typing away and dreaming of the Argentine summer. Sigh.

Since I’ve used up money and work days on holiday travel and have no trip in sight of my own, I’ve decided to focus my wanderlust on Tiffany and her trip to California. Yesterday during brunch I frantically scribbled down thoughts of things she must do, and today I have even more to add. So, I hereby dub this week “California Week” and will offer up Tiffany’s trip (or my vision of her trip) as the one I will be dreaming of while I stay here in frigid New York.

Today’s highlight stays true to the New Year Trip theme: Ano Nuevo State Beach. I must say that when Tiff’s boyfriend Mark told me they’d be seeing the elephant seals I turned a little green. I’ve wanted to visit for years and never got around to it (though my mother informed me today that we went when I was small but saw no seals).

This rocky point, named Punta Ano Nuevo because it was first sighted by Spanish explorers on New Year’s Day 1603, is best known as the site of the largest mainland breeding ground (in the world) for the massive and amazing northern elephant seal. Though I have yet to see them for myself, this I know: that elephant seals are enormous (males stretch from 14 to 16 feet long and weigh up to 2 1/2 tons), mean (males fight to determine the alpha male, who will do most of the breeding), and were hunted for their oil and nearly wiped out until protected in 1922. And, of course, that they head to Ano Nuevo, just south of San Francisco, to mate.

Things to know for planning a visit

To protect the seals and minimize disturbance to their routine, visitation is regulated year-round, and regulations vary based on the seasons. During breeding season (December 15-March 31) visits are limited to naturalist guided walks that must be booked in advance. From April to August, visitors may head out on self-guided hikes after obtaining a Visitor’s Permit. For full visiting details, hours, fees, etc, here.

To further enhance the experience, stay at the Pigeon Point Lighthouse Hostel. Not only is it a certified green business, its cozy, affordable, and, well, a lighthouse, one of America’s tallest lighthouses at that. Oh, and did I mention the oceanside hot tub that is perfect for pelican and whale watching? Maybe I’ll be finding a way to get another vacay in after all…





Flashback: Summer at the Lake

10 07 2008

It seems somewhat odd to blog about my trip home in terms of “travel” but California is so chock full of beautiful places and fun things to do, how could one not? My trip home started in one of the prettiest places in California (and Nevada). The Russo clan headed up to Lake Tahoe for the 2008 family reunion. Thanks to vrbo.com (Vacation Rentals by Owner), we took over a lovely (and massive) house, complete with hot tub and loft for the kids, and spent three relaxing days playing in the sun.

(Some) Russos in Tahoe

(Some) Russos in Tahoe

Which got me thinking about all the great times I’ve spent in Tahoe in the past. It really is an ideal getaway spot, especially since it’s a mere 4-5 hours from the Bay Area. This trip, we spent all our time at the beach, playing in the lake, kayaking, making sand animals (yes sand animals)…

But beyond the lake there is so much else to do. The former Olympic Village at Squaw Valley has a swimming lagoon (in case there’s not enough water in the lake), a spa, and a roller skating rink, not to mention the cable car that provides some pretty stellar views of the area. They even offer sunset and full moon hikes. Then there’s hiking, biking and horseback riding through the lush wooded areas. Even walking through the houses makes for a pretty workout.

Then there’s Emerald Bay, one of my favorite Tahoe spots. There is little that rivals Emerald Bay when it comes to pristine, intense natural beauty. As a child I joined our family friends at their cabin in Tahoe every summer, and the highlight of those trips was always the day Uncle Mike piled us into the boat and headed over to Emerald Bay, where it’s not just the striking green water that fascinates. Perhaps more fascinating is the craggy Fannette Island (the lake’s only island) atop which sits a mythical-looking miniature castle. Then there is Vikingsholm, the ornate Scandinavian mansion on the shore (which can of course be toured). Hiking around the bay affords some stunning views, but there is something about being on that rich green water and circling the island that excites.

The grown-up side of Tahoe has everything from casinos to great restaurants (my favorite being the classic, right-on-the-lake Sunnyside). But my adult Tahoe highlight centers around girl’s weekend, life vests, and the Truckee River. That would be river rafting, folks, because when it comes to fun in the sun (and fun with water) Tahoe has a little bit of everything.

Other Great things about Tahoe?

What do you get when you put my mom and her grandchildren on the beach? A Christmas card, of course.

What do you get when you put my mom and her grandchildren on the beach? A Christmas card, of course.

Some Tahoe resources:

Keep Tahoe Blue: In California “Keep Tahoe Blue” bumper stickers are about as prevalent as those that read “A village in Texas is missing its idiot.” But the former slogan is far more hopeful: it’s the battle cry of the Tahoe Improvement and Conservation Association, devoted to protecting the lake and its surrounds. Visit the site for history and to learn how to help.

tahoe.com: A trip planning tool with information on lodging, activities, food, and more.

Tahoe World: The latest in Tahoe entertainment, complete with a calendar of happenings.





Sky High Cheapos

7 04 2008

Last week I stopped in to visit my old office on Broadway. Though they weren’t listening to the Spice Girls, I was happy to find the energy very high, and even happier to know the reason.

At long last EuroCheapo has their budget flights section up and running, and might I add that it looks fantastic? I shall. It looks fantastic! Not only does it have great general guides with tips on finding and booking budget flights, environmental concerns, and other helpful information, but there are guides to the budget airlines themselves, and the airports they service. Information fiends, go hog wild!

But the best part is that CheapoSearch flights lets you search for and book cheap flights in Europe, right there on the the site. The second best part is that I was in the office for a good amount of the time that this thing was in the works. It was a a labor of love to say the least, and the gang at EuroCheapo should be very proud of how it turned out.

I’m going to go with the pathetic pun and say their egos should be soaring right about now.