Friday, December 24, 2010

Holiday Celebrations Around the World

We all have our personal family traditions to uphold during the holidays, and then we have the traditions that are customary in our country--such as elaborate lighting decorations, immaculate present wrapping, leaving cookies for Santa, etc. What truly fascinates me is the variations of these traditions that are common in other countries. I was reading a column from Rick Steves--one of my favorite travel experts--in the Chicago Tribune, and he was talking about how Christmas is celebrated in other parts of the world. I recall being in Italy as November slowly transitioned into December, and the holiday spirit began to emanate throughout Rome. While I grew just as excited for the season as I normally do, it was odd--and pleasant--to be surrounded by different cultural beliefs and customs.

In Italy, Christmas is three weeks long and begins at Novena, eight days before Christmas. All around the country, Zampognari and Pifferai--bagpipers and flute players dressed in traditional shepherding outfits--travel from home to home playing Christmas songs. Many families have a Ceppo, also called a tree of light, which is a wooden, pyramid-shaped frame with shelving. It holds the nativity scene at the bottom, with fruit, candy and treats above. On Christmas Eve, most Italians will fast in observance of the holiday. Then they celebrate with a small feast of chocolate and Panetoni, a light Milanese cake. Traditional Italian Christmas cookies are baked every year, and I have had the privilege of enjoying these when my grandma used to make them. I must admit, as a child I did not care the Anise flavor--similar to licorice--but now I thoroughly love these tasty morsels. The Urn of Fate is an old Italian tradition where each member of the family takes turns pulling a gift out of a large decorated pot. Some presents have gifts inside, while others are empty boxes. Italian children do not receive their gifts until Epiphany on January 6, when La Befana--the kindly witch--flies around to distribute gifts to the kids. According to tradition, the three Wise Men stopped at the witches hut to ask for directions to Bethlehem. When asked to go with them, the witch refused, but later regretted her decision when she saw the light from the star shining in the sky. She gathered as many toys and gifts as she could and flew off to find the men and the baby Jesus, but to no avail. Now she flies around every year looking for the Christ Child, leaving gifts for all children in the hopes they might be him.

In Germany, the holiday season starts December 1, with people baking spiced cakes and gingerbread. On December 6, Nikolaustag, or St. Nicholas Day, is acknowledged, and children place their shoes and boots outside the door in the hopes that they will find a present inside the next morning. Christmas markets pop up in every city in Germany during this time of year, and vendors sell everything from hand-carved nutcrackers and glass ornaments to roasted nuts and mulled wine--Gluhwein. Everyone enjoys the oldest German Christmas treat, Stollen, a sweet bread. Most German families decorate the Tannenbaum--the Christmas tree--on Christmas Eve, making it a fun holiday activity for the children.

The French vary in their Christmas traditions depending on the region they live in. However, there are some customs that everyone upholds, no matter what. All homes are adorned with a nativity scene or creche, which holds tiny clay figures called santons or little saints. For centuries, the yule log was burned in hearths as part of the holiday celebrations. While that custom has become less and less common, the French still bake log-shaped cakes during this time called Buche de Noel. The main Christmas feast is known as Le Reveillon, a late supper served after midnight mass on Christmas Eve. The menu for the meal varies with each region, some enjoy goose and turkey while others dine on oysters and pat de foie gras.

Polish tradition marks this time of year as not only a celebration of Christ's birth, but also as a sign of what's to come in the next year. Anything that happens during the Christmas season is seen as an omen, so the Polish observe everything carefully. With that sense of karmic energy and hospitable nature, the Polish always keep an extra chair around the table for the unexpected guest, because no one should be alone on Christmas, and there should always be a place for everyone. A widely held Polish tradition is the breaking of the Oplatek--Christmas wafer. On Christmas Eve, after the appearance of the first star, the whole family gathers around the table, and the father or eldest member breaks the wafer and hands it to the next person until everyone has broken a piece off. Then they all wish each other love, prosperity and good health in the new year.

The countries in South America have their traditions deeply rooted in religion. Families in almost every country display an elaborate manger or presepio scene, which can sometimes be so large that they take up entire rooms. There are a series of novenas, public gatherings, of worship in the form of prayers, songs and poetry, and most of these take place in a nine-day span. South Americans flock to church services on Christmas Eve, and follow the service with grand feasts and family visits on Christmas Day. Gift giving is prolonged all the way until Epiphany.

Christmas celebrations in Asia vary between religions. Christians in China decorate trees with colorful paper ornaments, lanterns and chains. They hang muslin stockings for Christmas Old Man to leave tiny presents in. Non-Christians celebrate this time as the Spring Festival, where they honor their ancestors and traditions with feasts, gift-giving and firework displays. Only 1% of the Japanese population is Christian, but the country still decorates its cities with evergreens and engage in gift exchanges. Hoteiosha, a priest, acts as Santa Claus and goes around distributing gifts. It is said he has eyes in the back of his head, so children try to be good when he is around. In India, Christians decorate banana and mango trees for the holidays. However, it isn't just limited to Christians. Christmas has become a secular overtone, and all religions take part in the joyous celebrations.

Of course there are many more holiday traditions around the world that I didn't get to mention, but I'm not sure I have the time or room to talk about them all. Along with country customs, each family practices their own traditions that make their holiday unique and special to them. It's true, however, that no matter what part of the world you're in during the holidays, one thing is always the same: The delightful comfort of love and care towards our fellow man. And while every nation may celebrate in a different way, we all are filled with the spirit of giving, the warmth of family and the joy of life. Happy Holidays! Wherever you are!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Christmas in the Sun

2009_1122Halloween0111I guess you can call me a traditionalist when it comes to Christmas. Cold weather, snow on the ground, pine trees, presents under the tree, roaring fireplace, mugs of hot chocolate, a roasted ham and dinner with family. However, this is not the ideal scenario for everyone during the holidays. Two of my friends just left for a trip to Hawaii to celebrate Christmas. Warm temperatures, beaches, palm trees and dinner at a hotel restaurant. I know many people who take trips to warmer climates during the Christmas season, opting for a few days of sun instead of snow, catered dinners rather than home-cooked meals.

For some, going on a vacation at Christmas is the norm. Whether its heading to a tropical paradise or visiting family in another country, a holiday trip serves the purpose of getting people away from the hectic atmosphere Mahaulepu2that can erupt during this time. Cooking, entertaining, decorating and cleaning can all take a toll, making the holiday season feel more like a chore than a break. A getaway to a warm destination is an opportunity for people to relax, order room service and have everything provided for them. Not only that, but they can enjoy the outdoors without worrying about getting frostbite. It is certainly understandable why many families decide to travel for the holidays.

Winter Break 07-08 (14)I have only spent one Christmas away from home in a warm climate. I was fourteen, and my family took a trip to Australia to see my dad’s sisters and parents. It being their summer, it was in the high 70s and 80s the whole time. I spent Christmas day swimming in the pool, getting a tan and barbequing fresh seafood. It was certainly a change from the norm, and for one year it was enjoyable. And while doing a trip like that again could be fun, I know deep down it’s not for me. So for now, I’ll stick with my traditional ways, trimming the tree and opening gifts in front of the fire with my family. This is Christmas for me, and it’s how I like to celebrate it.

 

Friday, December 17, 2010

New Travel Sites I Love

As I was browsing through my Twitter feed this morning, I came across a tweet from Budget Travel talking about some of their favorite new travel websites of 2010. Among the sites featured, I came across two that really interested me.

The first one is called TripAlertz, a groupon-style website for travel deals. Everyday they feature a great hotel deal listed at an amazing price. The more people that purchase it, the lower the price gets. By the time the deal closes, the cost of the hotel can be half of the normal price. The great part is that membership is free. And after joining, you can earn trip cash--which can be applied to any deal you purchase--by inviting your friends and family to join. TripAlertz also offers the chance to win a trip by creating your own itinerary for a dream vacation. The more "likes" your trip gets, the better your chances of winning. I just submitted a trip today, so if you happen to be a member or plan on joining, go ahead and vote for me!

The other website I love is Wanderfly. A site that helps you find affordable trips that match your specific criteria and personality. You can search many different ways. A simple method is just entering your budget, home airport and date when you want to go, and Wanderfly instantly provides recommendations to match, with flight and hotel options, as well as the final budget posted in bold. For instance, I entered:
  • Home airport: Chicago
  • Budget: $1000/person
  • Date: Mid March
  • Length of Stay: 5 days
  • Place to Explore: Anywhere
I was recommended:
Santa Maria is a city in Santa Barbara County, on the Central Coast of California. While it contains all the amenities of an urban community with its hotels, theaters, museums and more, it still retains the charms of rurality with its sand dune beaches and famous wineries. Visitors are also always free to indulge in horse-riding, surfing, sunbathing, or simply driving off the beaten path and exploring numerous country roads dotted with farms, wineries and little towns.

It then gave me a reasonable round-trip flight and a hotel for a total of $824 for the whole trip. That's an extremely affordable trip, and it's one I would pick for myself. (Because anything with Northern California and wineries is a winner in my book.) It's also a place that I would have never considered before, and anything that opens me up to new experiences and destinations is certainly worth looking into.

You can also narrow down your search by choosing a theme or interest (i.e. casino, romance, eco, spa, party, etc.). You can select one or many, and results that match your criteria will appear. If you don't like the first selection, simply click the arrow next to "change trip" and the next destination will come up. After putting in "food" and "entertainment" in my search, I was given Saint Charles, Missouri. Since this is not really my scene, I saw what was next and it suggested San Sebastian, Spain. That's more like it.

I will definitely be frequenting these websites in the new year, and hopefully I've opened your eyes to the wonderful benefits they provide. Enjoy!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Exploring Bulgaria's Cultural Richness

Bulgaria has been a member of the European Union since 2007, but it wasn't until this week that Eurail added it to its network of travel destinations. The 2011 Global Eurail Pass will allow travelers to access the Eastern European country through the Bulgarian State Railways. Representatives of the Eurail Group are eager to expand their reach and tap into the tourism sector that has been consistently growing over the last decade. Visitors can now explore the ever increasing allure of Eastern Europe through Bulgaria's train system, taking in the vast culture and sprawling landscape of the "Country of Roses."

With a history that dates back all the way to the first antiquity--that's the 1st millenium BC, to put it in perspective--the Bulgarians have had a major role in cultural development, philosophy, agriculture, language and social structure. After spending years under foreign rule, including Alexander the Great and the Romans, Bulgaria established its first empire. It grew significantly as a military power, introduced the first code of law, created the Cyrillic Alphabet and grew into a strong Christian country. The empire slowed due to numerous wars, eventually falling and being conquered by the Byzantine Empire in 1018. It was not until 1185 that Bulgaria had an uprising and succeeded in reestablishing their empire. The Ottomans would eventually seize power over the Bulgarians, and the population suffered from oppression and misgovernment under the Turks. As a result, their culture became separated from the rest of Europe. Throughout five centuries of Ottoman rule, the Bulgarians attempted many revolts, and were finally successful with the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78. Bulgaria was proclaimed an independent state in 1908. After that, Bulgaria began to takes steps to reconnect with Western Europe. Communism was still the main form of government up until the late nineties, early two-thousands, but now Bulgaria is seen as "free."

With the fall of communism and an increased desire to promote tourism, Bulgaria has slowly become a must-see destination in Eastern Europe. And with just one glance at the country's landscape, it's understandable why. The geographic diversity of Bulgaria allows tourists to see snow-capped peaks, beautiful beaches and sprawling plains all in one country. Not only is the natural environment appealing, but the ancient buildings, intricate architecture and traditional sites have drawn millions to Bulgaria's borders. The Thracian, Slavic and Bulgar influences can be seen through collected artifacts, and some of the most iconic pieces include the Thracian treasures, intricately crafted objects that were buried both to hide them during controversial times and for ceremonial purposes. The more famous excavations of these ornate gold and silver items are the Panagyurishte gold treasure (on display at the National Museum of History in Sofia),the Rogozan treasure (known as the find of the century with over 165 pieces discovered) and the Valchitran gold treasure (shown at the National Archeological Museum in Sofia).

Visitors to Bulgaria are fascinated by the county's ancient ancestors, so it's understandable that the many immaculate tombs on display are some of the most popular attractions. Kazanluk, referred to as the valley of the roses, became extremely popular when new tombs were discovered there in the nineties. The Sveshtari Tomb, arguably one of the finest tombs discovered in Bulgaria, dates back to the 3rd century BC and appears to be the resting place of a Thracian ruler. Thracian Tomb tours are available through BG Travel, and consist of a 5-day package of all the best tombs in the country.

Bulgaria ranks third--behind Greece and Italy--in number of archeological and historical monuments. Apart from the tombs, Bulgaria is full of crumbling fortress walls and forums, temples, amphitheaters, stadiums and monuments. Among these locations is Tsarevets, a medieval stronghold in northern Bulgaria that served as the primary fortress during the second empire. Another noteworthy site is Ledenika, a cave in the Balkan Mountains. The cave contains 10 separate halls, the largest being the concert hall accessible only through the Passage of Sinners, designated only for those whose heart is pure. If you dip your hand into the ice-cold water of the small pool in the cave, known as the Lake of Wishes, and make a wish, that wish is sure to come true. In an effort to promote tourism to these sites and many others, the country created a booklet called "100 Tourist Sites of Bulgaria." It can be purchased at any tourist union center and costs 1 lev (or 0.67 cents).

Bulgarian cuisine is extremely diverse thanks to the warm climate and rich soil. Every meal is served with a salad, which, more often than not, is made with a Bulgarian White Brine Cheese called Sirene. Most dishes are oven baked, steamed or stewed--fried is not an option--and any kind of meat is grilled. Pork dominates Bulgarian food, but many other meat varieties can be found in popular dishes, like Gyuvetch (a beef and vegetable stew). The Bulgarians are known to create quality dairy products, including yogurt, which is said to have originated in Bulgaria. Tourists should not miss out on a traditional pastry called Banitsa, made by layering whisked eggs, sirene cheese and filo pastry and then baking it. As far as drinks go, natives usually turn to Bulgarian Wine to accompany their meals--such as Mavrud, Muscat and Gamza--but Rakia, a fruity liquor, and Mastika are popular options, too.

With all that Bulgaria has to offer, it's difficult to know where to start. I recommend beginning your journey with a few days spent in the capital city of Sofia. Located in western Bulgaria, at the foot of Vitosha Mountain, Sofia sits quaintly in a large valley, surrounded by mountains. Among the city's attractions are the National Historic Museum, The Museum of Earth and Men, the Sofia City Art Gallery, the Sofia Zoological Garden, Boyana Church, and much more. You can relax in one of the public mineral baths or catch a soccer game at Vasil Levski National Stadium. There is plenty to keep you occupied during the day, and even more to do at night. Sofia has an exciting nightlife with plenty pf clubs, pubs, restaurants and mehani--traditional Bulgarian taverns. With Sofia's well-developed bus, tram and trolleycar transportation system, it's easy to get from place to place. The underground still needs work, so it's best to rely on walking or other means of transport. After experiencing Bulgaria's capitol, feel free to venture wherever you want. No matter if you head up into the mountains to ski or out to the beaches to lay in the sun, Bulgaria provides you with a truly great getaway.

So when you're planning your next big trip abroad, and Europe seems like a top contender on your destination list, think about taking advantage of Eurail's passes and taking a relaxing train ride to Bulgaria. You certainly won't be disappointed with this cultural gem.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The People You Meet at Airports

I stood in the security line at O’Hare Airport today, which was much longer than it usually is—at least when I’ve traveled through there. Normally, I keep to myself, shuffling along with the rest of the crowd. But today, a woman behind me in line made a relatively casual comment about the wait and a conversation was sparked. For the next fifteen minutes we chatted about where we were headed, where we were from, where we had traveled before, and for a moment I created a bond, a brief friendship that would disappear the second we went our separate ways. What astonishes me most about these quick encounters is how much they can impact us. Even though we will probably never see each other again, this woman and I shared parts of our lives with each other, which—in my opinion—is one of the amazing things about travel. Something about being in an airport with people who are experiencing the same things you are, dealing with the same lines, the same delays, makes you want to reach out and make a connection.

Though I didn’t catch her name, I know she lives in Wisconsin and is headed to Australia for a 30-day trek through the outback and then down into the mountains of New Zealand. Finally, a woman after my own heart. This is a trip I would die to take, and here was someone actually doing it; taking life by the reigns and going on an adventure. Not only that, but she was alone. (Well, she’s going with a tour group, but she didn’t have a spouse or friend with her.) To take a journey like that and have no close acquaintances can be scary and overwhelming, but excitement was all I could read on her face. If anything, it inspired me, gave me hope that someday I could do something like that.

After we scooted through security, we put our shoes back on and said our goodbyes. And while I know everyone says those generic things, like “take care,” “travel safe,” “good meeting you;” in this case it felt truly genuine and sincere. I had enjoyed meeting this incredible woman, and I walked off to my gate feeling a little happier that she had come into my life, if only for a moment.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Take A Ski Trip

It's winter, and that means hitting the slopes--at least for some people. I happen to be one of those looking to get some serious time in on the mountain. With limited time off, it can be difficult to fit in a ski trip. Luckily, I was able to swing a little extra vacation time, and now I plan to carve through some powder with my friends in Colorado. Where we'll go, I'm not quite sure yet, but there are plenty of options for us to choose from. Personally, I love Keystone. It's where I learned to ski and snowboard, and my family owned a condo there for years. It's comfortable, and I know the terrain better than any other resort. However, I am open to going other places, and I'm sure Breckenridge, Vail and Beaver Creek will be thrown out on the table. For me and my friends, it's an easy drive to the mountains, but for many it isn't as easy. If you have the time, and the money, I strongly suggest looking into a ski trip with family or friends. Even if you don't ski or snowboard, there's always the apres-ski to enjoy.


So where should you go? Town & Country Magazine has a helpful questionnaire in this month's issue that determines the right ski scene for you. They feature resorts all over the country and the world that provide various perks that suit every individual's needs. If you're more of a ski bunny looking for a nice dinner or cocktail, Aspen is an impressive town full of world-class restaurants and four-star hotels. Not only is the nightlife exciting, but the mountain offers its own thrills with 300 inches a year of fresh powder. Courchevel, France is full of Michelin-star restaurants, five-star hotels and countless spas. And after skiing any of its 93 slopes, you'll certainly want to relax with a nice martini or full-body massage.

For those more avid skiers and snowboarders, Park City, Utah is a local Western gem that has the country's only heated chairlift, as well as 4,000 acres of terrain. It's also nearby other resorts, so you can change things up. Jackson Hole, Wyoming is known for its beautiful scenery and exotic wildlife, but its also known for its adventurous backcountry. Visitors can blaze a trail on their own or hire a professional guide from the ski school, which ever they prefer. Abroad, head to Verbier, Switzerland, where the La Tzoumaz resort offers fast lifts, crazy back-runs and toboggan rides. Are, Sweden's Areskutan is a party day and night. Ski any of the 103 exciting runs during the day, and then socialize with other guests as you warm up in the hot tub accompanied by delicious schnapps.

If you can't find the time or cash to get away this year, and are looking for places close to home, there are a number of smaller ski hills around the East Coast and Midwest. For all you Chicagoans, check out Chestnut Mountain in Galena, Illinois, or Crystal Mountain in Thompsonville, Michigan. Both of these locations have reasonable lift ticket prices and feature a decent number of slopes, plenty to keep you busy for a day. 

Whether you can spare a week or just a weekend, take the time this season to grab your skis or snowboard and head out on the snowy trails.  

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Windsor: A Big Player During Prohibition

On January 16, 1920, the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was put into effect, banning the selling, manufacturing and transporting of alcohol. So began the time of prohibition. After 13 controversial years of underground smuggling, heightened criminal activity and social unrest, the 21st Amendment was passed, repealing prohibition on December 5, 1933. In honor of that day, Chicago bars and pubs all over the city have been putting on repeal parties reminiscent of the jazzy speakeasies of the twenties and thirties. I had the pleasure of attending one of these parties on Friday night at a neighborhood joint called Faith & Whiskey. I never realized that the name had such a strong link to the prohibition era, and I received a very interesting history lesson that night.

Back when prohibition went into effect, the mafia began bootlegging, or rum-running, and started a profitable black market with illegal alcohol sales. Gangs would smuggle alcohol from Cuba, Mexico, France and Canada, creating high port and border traffic in a number

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of cities. Windsor, Canada was one of those cities. Home of the Windsor Distillery and Canadian Club Whiskey, Windsor had product that was in high demand from the thirsty Americans. One notorious gangster took full advantage of Windsor’s proximity to Detroit and the bootlegger-friendly environment of the Detroit River. Al Capone, owner and operator of all 10,000 speakeasies in Chicago, took control of the Windsor-Detroit Tunnel and a large majority of the alcohol transportation through it. Through masterful strategies, Al Capone and Windsor’s Purple Gang successfully smuggled beer and whiskey across the border. One of their methods was using Bedford United Church, known then as Sandwich Methodist Church, as a way to signal across the River. If the lights in the bell tower were lit, it was clear sailing and they could go ahead with the transfer either through the tunnel or in boats. If the lights were out, it was not safe, and they would have to wait until a later night. Faith and whiskey.

Today, visitors to Windsor can visit this church as well as other prohibition related attractions around the city. They can take a tour of the Canadian Club Brand Centre to learn about the production of whiskey and get a tasting. Windsor is a truly special city, and apart from the rum-running history, it has a plethora of fun and exciting attractions. Visit the official tourism site to learn more about it.

In honor of the repeal of prohibition, let us raise a glass….

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Holiday Happenings Around Chicago

After three, below-freezing days and the city's first snowfall--sort of--it seems winter has finally arrived, which is fitting since it is now officially December. Along with the drop in temperatures and the chance for flurries, December brings on the holiday spirit. (Although many people were probably in full holiday mode once the costumes were stowed away, the pumpkins were tossed and the candy was polished off.) For the rest of us who wait in anticipation for Thanksgiving to be over before decorating the Christmas Tree, December is the time when holiday cheer truly thrives and there are festivities and celebrations galore. Every city features weekly events like concerts, holiday markets, lighting events, parades, gift exchanges and parties, all accompanied by delicious food, warm drinks and fine spirits. So what's happening in the city of Chicago this holiday season? Read on to find out...
Vendor at Christkindlmarket

Christkindlmarket
This annual German-themed market has been going strong since 1996. Set up downtown in Daley Plaza, Kristkindlmarket features traditional German vendors selling everything from handcrafted nutcrackers and blown-glass ornaments to knitted scarves and carved cuckoo clocks. That smell weaving its way through the market, tickling our nostrils and making us salivate is that of the fresh roasted almonds. The popular treat is coated in a variety of flavors like chocolate, cinnamon, vanilla, caramel and honey. Apart from these addicting morsels, the market also serves a wide variety of German fare, like sauerkraut, bratwurst, potato pancakes, goulash and strudel. Head over to the beer hall and warm up with a boot-shaped mug of Glühwein, traditional spiced wine, or grab a stein of beer. Kids can enjoy rich hot chocolate from Dinkel's Bakery while they munch on the vendor's famous Stollen, German holiday cake. Christkindlmarket draws thousands of Chicagoans every year, providing a truly unique and memorable experience for them to share with friends and family.
Boots of Glühwein

Ice Skating in the Park
For a fun and physical holiday activity, visit any Chicago public park and skate around on their free ice rinks. (note: There is a fee for skate rentals.) Every year, the Chicago Park District opens outdoor skating rinks for locals to enjoy. The rink in front of Wrigley Field just opened yesterday, Dec. 1, and the McCormick Tribune Ice Rink at Millennium Park has been open to the public late November. Bring the kids and skate around under the twinkling lights while holiday tunes blare over the loud speaker.

Caroling and Concerts
Festive music fills the air this time of year, and most of that comes from joyous carolers. To get a glimpse of these talented folks, head over to Cloud Gate (aka, the Bean) in Millennium Park every Friday evening in December to watch a different group perform some of your favorite holiday classics. Caroling at Cloud Gate invites everyone out to enjoy the musical talents of choral groups like the Apollo Chorus of Chicago, the Chicago Children's Choir, Wicker Park Choral Singers and Old Town School of Folk Music.

Carolers in Daley Plaza
There are a number of other concerts and shows that celebrate the holiday season. Check out the Joffrey Ballet's Nutcracker performances at Auditorium theater, going on between Dec. 10 and Dec. 26. The Goodman Theater features Dickens' classic A Christmas Carol, while Miracle on 34th Street plays over at Porchlight Music Theater. For a mid-day treat, head over to City Hall at noon for the daily concert series held in the LaSalle side lobby.

Holiday Exhibits
All over the city, museums, galleries and attractions are setting up displays and exhibits in honor of the holiday season. The Museum of Science and Industry is showcasing their "Christmas Around the World" and ""Holidays of Lights" exhibits again this year. Over 50 trees decorated to represent different global cultures are spread out around the main level. Visit the Chicago Botanic Gardens to view nearly 750,000 lights twinkle throughout the makeshift winter wonderland. Visit Santa's House under the Picasso sculpture in the loop and tell Santa exactly what you want this year.

Tree in Daley Plaza
Everywhere you look this season, you'll be sure to find flamboyant holiday happenings. There are too many events, shows and activities for me to mention in this post, so be sure to check out neighborhood association or chamber of commerce websites. You can also visit the official site for the Chicago Office of Tourism to find out more about exciting ways to celebrate the holidays.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Watching Your Waistline During Holiday Travel

It's bad enough that the high sugar and carb holiday treats can reek havoc on our diets, but throw in the stress of traveling this time of year with nearly zero healthy food options in airports and on flights, and we might as well give up now. (That's what New Year's resolutions are for, right?) There is some good news for those eager to stay on track with their weight this year. An Airline Food Survey from DietDetective.com rated 8 of the top airlines on their food and snack selections. This year, United came out on top with a rating of four stars for their healthy snack options, including the Tapas snack box which offers almonds, olives, hummus and bruschetta. JetBlue came in second with their inflight options of nuts, animal crackers and a meal box appropriately called Shape Up. Delta and U.S. Airways did not perform particularly well, and Continental fell from its first place position to third.

Even with these airlines offering some decent food options, it is important for travelers to still be conscious of what they're consuming. Also, just because it's food and it's healthy does not mean that you have to eat it. In fact, the biggest problem that JetBlue has is that their snacks are unlimited, so passengers can easily over do it on the nuts.

The bottom line is that the holiday season paired with hectic travel schedules is going to cause many to falter, so it is good to know that airlines are making an effort to provide healthy alternatives to the cookies, candies and salty snacks that many of us are used to eating while on in the air. I don't intend on getting any airline snacks this holiday season, mostly because I refuse to pay, but it is good to know I have some healthy options waiting for me if I change my mind. In all honesty though, I like being a little naughty with my food choices this time of year, so...bring on the cookies!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Thanksgiving Celebration Across the Ocean

This year was the third year in a row that I spent Thanksgiving away from home. With work posing scheduling conflicts and my family living so far away that I have to buy an expensive plane ticket, it was too difficult to make the trip. So once again, I ventured to Crystal Lake, Illinois to spend the holiday with my boyfriend's family. I'm not complaining; in fact, it's developing into a nice tradition--that will probably continue as long as things keep progressing with my relationship. But there is still a part of me that aches to be home for Thanksgiving. I miss my mom preparing the turkey, mixing the potatoes and baking pumpkin pie. Sure, I can see that being done anywhere, but it isn't my mom, it isn't my kitchen, it isn't my family. I miss the conversations we have around the dinner table after the plates have been whipped clean of their delicious contents. I miss the way my dog begs for any remaining scraps. I miss how I'm usually the only one--besides my grandpa--who dips into the warm pie, because I always make room for dessert. I've made some incredible memories at home, and I know I'll make many more in the future here in Chicago. And even though I missed home this holiday, my mind kept wandering back to the first Thanksgiving I ever spent away from home back in 2006.

It was during my semester studying abroad in Italy. My friend, Sari, and I decided to fly up to England to visit our friend Emily who was living in London for the semester. We figured since we couldn't be with our families, we might as well surround ourselves with friends. Now, the British do not acknowledge Thanksgiving, so locating all the traditional fixings was a little difficult. We couldn't just walk into a store like in the states and have a Thanksgiving display there with everything we needed. It took a couple trips, some scrounging and some substituting, but we eventually located a turkey, cranberries, potatoes, green beans, stuffing ingredients and, of course, pumpkin pie. The preparations started early, with Emily's roommates clearing the kitchen and making the pre-dinner snacks, our friend Harris taking over turkey duty, and the rest of us selecting various dishes to work on. I peeled the potatoes, while Sari made the stuffing and Emily made the gravy and cranberry sauce. After a long afternoon in the kitchen performing the work our parents usually handle, we pulled the turkey out of the oven, placed all the food in serving plates and laid it all out on the table. Paired with a couple bottles of wine and some fresh bread purchased from the baker down the street, our British Thanksgiving looked pretty impressive. After loading our plates, passing food between all of us, we took a moment to reflect on our hard work and the incredible feast we were about to enjoy. I said a silent prayer, thanking God for giving me the chance to be with friends and have a lovely meal. Then we raised our glasses to our country's holiday and then dug in.

After dinner, as we all unbuttoned our pants just a little, Emily grabbed a candle from her room and lit it. The tradition is, she said, that you pass the candle around the room, and everyone says what they are thankful for this year. Some people's were simple, some humorous, others long-winded, but what everyone said they were thankful for was being in great company. Because that is what Thanksgiving is really all about; being around people you care about and who care about you. So even if you were far away from home this Thanksgiving, I hope you were surrounded by a good group of people.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Hotel on the Market

The hotel and hospitality industry has been suffering in the wake of the economic downfall the past two years. Even with the recessions crippling effects, business and leisure travel has been on an upturn, increasing significantly in recent months. Hotels are eager to fill their rooms and keep them booked consistently throughout the rest of the year and the holiday season. Despite increased hotel occupancies and room rates, the hotel investment market is still slow, making investors hesitant to put money into any property. But Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc. is crossing its fingers for a risk taker. According to Crain's Business, Starwood's loop property, W Chicago on Adams, is up for purchase, and they are hoping to get over $130 million dollars for the hotel.

Experts say it is a lofty goal, especially after the brand new JW Marriott Chicago opened its right across the street earlier this month. The 610-room hotel will certainly have an impact on what happens with the W, and some industry officials still think it's a worthy investment. Remember, Host Hotels & Resorts Inc. did purchase the Westin River North in August for $165 million, so there is still hope for the W. Although, it may not go for the initial asking price. Starwood may have to settle for less money, but it all depends on the group of investors they try to sell to.

It is promising, however, to know that quality properties like the W Chicago are being considered as worthwhile assets. It would be a real shame to see the hotel shut down entirely, another fallen victim in the hospitality industry's epic battle with the economy.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Have A Little Faith

When it comes to hotel brand loyalty, the 2011 forecast does not look good. According to an annual survey by TripAdvisor, there was a severe drop in hotel brand loyalty this last year, the amount of people saying they are loyal to one hotel name dipping from 59 percent to 39 percent. Travel experts and analysts speculate that the economy could be the main reason for the decline, the recession causing more people to question prices even on quality products. Another reason people are changing their tendencies is due to more access to other options. With all the social media and review-based websites out there, people have a wealth of information available to them, which makes it easier to make frugal and savvy decisions.brands-logo

So what is keeping people faithful to their brands? Rewards programs. A huge factor in maintaining client loyalty, hotel reward programs provide quality benefits, upgrades and services that make for a more intimate experience. But no matter what a hotel gives to a client, it all comes down to how the brand interacts with the guest. All the upgrades in the world cannot replace a friendly customer service experience, and guests appreciate personal attention that can make them feel like the only people in the hotel.

One of the biggest mistakes airlines have made is their lack of effort to reach out to travelers and make them loyal customers. Unless someone is a frequent flier on an airline, he or she will probably not receive the kind of treatment that will make them feel appreciated as a client. In fact, the main reason people say they are not loyal to airlines is because the company has not done anything to deserve the loyalty.

I-Prefer-big A hotel brand taking the necessary steps to show its appreciation for its customers is Preferred Hotel Group. Their I Prefer program lets travelers sign up for free and take advantage of special services right away. Where other reward programs require customers to build up points or stay a certain number of nights before cashing in on upgrades, I Prefer gives them automatic benefits at no fee. Who wouldn’t want to get extra amenities or priority check-in or exclusive offers just for becoming a member? The program also offers online booking rewards, like complimentary breakfasts and rounds of golf. There are a number of exclusive hotel deals and partner companies offers that members can take advantage of, all for no cost.

With loyalty rates dropping by 20 percentage points this year, hotel brands need to find ways to make their customers feel special; that their business is greatly appreciated. Every guest is looking for a memorable vacation, and hotels need to go out of their way to provide that. Some people are happy with a few extended amenities, such as 24-hour access to hotel facilities, free coffee in the rooms and the lobby, free wi-fi and complimentary food. Others are looking for better customer service and a welcoming atmosphere. Still others feel that competitive prices and discounts are essential to win their loyalty. When it comes down to it, though, every guest is looking to be amazed with their hotel experience, and even if the smallest gesture can win them over, it’s worth doing.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Another Stress for Holiday Travelers

It's crazy enough traveling during the holidays without dealing with the added stress of new security enforcements. But that's what people will be facing at many major airports around the country. Already a nuisance for frequent fliers who spends weeks in airports, new security regulations will soon hit the not-so-frequent holiday fliers. An article in the RedEye this morning detailed the ins and outs of what Chicago travelers can expect this season. Next week, travelers at O'Hare International Airport will face full-body scanners and "enhanced" pat downs, which many have described as highly intrusive and downright offensive. The Transportation Security Administrations new precautions are not being taken lightly, and many are questioning the  appropriateness and the efficiency of these systems.

Whether they really will work is yet to be seen, but people are wondering if its worth the humiliation they are being put through during security check points. The pat downs that are causing such a stir require TSA officers to rub their hands all over a passengers body, including their chests, backsides and genitals. Passengers claim they feel violated and want to file complaints for the invasion. So is this really better than the alternative? Traditional metal detectors are being replaced by full-body scanners, which require a person to stand between two machines that take an x-ray photo of them to reveal any concealed items. If people choose not to go through the scanners, they will have to be patted down.

Security at airports and on planes has been a huge concern and will continue to cause tension during the holidays. With bombs disguised as ink cartridges being shipped by terrorists on jets and various other security breaches occurring in recent months, people are worried about their safety and seem willing to give up privacy and deal with inconveniences for increased security measures. But it appears those once-reasonable souls have reached their tolerance level, especially with long security lines and carry-on restrictions. Travelers have even created "National Opt Out Day," a day where people boycott flying. Thanksgiving Eve is the designated day for this protest, and we will just have to see the impact is has air travel.

For those who do choose to fly that night, they will have to face at least one of the new security systems. But if they do not want to deal with either, they may want to look into other means of transportation. Either that, or fly out of smaller airports like Midway, which has yet to receive body scanners. And travelers should take advantage of that while they can, since the scanners will show up in the near future.

I for one, am fine with going through the body scanners. I'll let you know how they are when I fly out of O'Hare in a couple weeks.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Holiday Travel....

...Have you booked your flight yet?

Every year when November first hits and the Christmas music comes on the radio, the initial thought in my head is...where am I going to be for Christmas? I'm usually at home for Christmas, back with the family in good 'ol Denver, Colorado. While I never had to travel home for the holidays before, now I live far enough away that I have to plan my trip well in advance in order to get my vacation days approved and my flights booked. Many people have to go through the same process as me, while others can simply drive or take trains home and still others avoid home all together and opt for a holiday vacation.

Holiday travel can be hectic, and this time of year spurs some of the largest airport crowds ever. It can be tough to find decently priced airfare, or even good dates to fly. Blackout dates plague those trying to use mileage and horrible weather can ground planes for hours, making it impossible to get home on time. I'm sure there are plenty of people out there who have spent a Christmas Eve or Day stranded at an airport. For all those who find themselves traveling during the holidays, airlines are providing a little relief from the stress. Many major airlines announced reduced holiday prices this week, dropping some costs down by 35%. So if you still haven't purchased your tickets for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years, check out travelzoo to find out the cheapest days to fly, and get some helpful tips from some travel experts.

As far as those people who do not have to fly, train travel is certainly an untapped resource for many travelers. This year, Amtrak reported it's on track for a record number of passengers for the fiscal year, which makes sense since train fares are significantly cheaper than airline tickets. Prices for train tickets are relatively consistent, with the possibility of slight peaks during high travel periods, but even with that spike, it's a much more economical choice. The only set back to the train is the length of travel time. Planes, obviously, get you to your destination quicker. So if you have a long distance to go, stick with planes. If you are not traveling across the country, but rather somewhere close, like the next state over, a train might be your best option. It's cheap, convenient, with plenty of space for your bags, and you get to enjoy some lovely scenery along the way.

If you choose to drive to your holiday destination, be sure to check road conditions and traffic. While airports can be packed, so can highways, so it might take you longer than expected to get home. Another important thing to keep in mind is gas prices. Now that the Federal Reserve is trying to stimulate the economy by buying bonds, gas prices will inevitably rise. The good news for drivers is that with rising gas prices, airfares will increase. Cars are still the cheaper alternative.

Whether going by train, plane or automobile, the holidays will always be a crazy time to travel. Just remember what is waiting for you when you finally arrive...

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Navy Pier Open to Change

One of Chicago's number one tourist attractions, Navy Pier may be experiencing a makeover over the next couple years. The historic pier has been a long-standing entertainment source in Chicago, providing children and adults with activities and dining options. Now, talks of revamping this lakefront staple are starting up and there are some interesting ideas on the table.

First of all, directors and executives want to continue attracting the same crowd, mostly children, families and young adults. The first change people will see is the departure of the Chicago Children's Museum, and with that a a new form of entertainment for kids. They also hope to build a 4,000-seat concert hall and expand the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. There are talks of adding an indoor skating rink, more green space, a huge Ferris wheel and a boutique hotel. Along with these additions, Navy Pier officials hope to improve and update the retail and fast-food area and possibly add a brand new restaurant to the mix.

Efforts in the past to upgrade Navy Pier were put on hold due to budget issues and administrative problems, but it looks as if there is enough support and money to get some of these projects launched. While some people may oppose the plans, worrying that these alterations will transform Navy Pier into an all-out theme park, officials say there is no need to fret. Their intention is to keep Navy Pier as real and accessible as it is now, maintaining its appeal as a fun and entertaining attraction for all.

As someone who has only lived in Chicago for a couple years and visited Navy Pier a handful of times, I don't really have a strong opinion about the changes. However, I think that anything that can improve the current state of the place could potentially drive more tourists and visitors to check it out, which means more revenue, for both Navy Pier and the city.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Cruise Line Stuck off Coast of Mexico

On Monday, the Carnival Splendor cruise ship stopped in the Pacific Ocean 50 miles west of Punta San Jacinto. The vessel was unable to continue its journey due to an engine room fire that disabled the propulsion system. The luxury liner, which was carrying close to 3,300 passengers and 1,200 crewmembers, received assistance yesterday from a Navy aircraft carrier that brought the stranded vacationers food, water and other provisions. Restaurants, bars and casinos were closed, and many of the inner rooms were pitch black due to a power outage, forcing passengers to prop open their doors to let in air and light. Since the ship was far enough away to be out of cell-phone range, many could not reach their families and friends to let them know what was happening. Unfortunately, the damage to the engine room and power sources was too significant to attempt a repair at sea, so tug boats were dispatched from the Mexican city of Ensenada to tow the ship back to San Diego. It is expected to arrive tomorrow. As far as the guests of the cruise line, Carnival plans on refunding them their money and providing them with vouchers for future cruises.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Travel and Technology

A couple months ago, I was on an anti-technology kick, pushing for people to take relaxing vacations where they left all forms of electronic communication behind. While that is still a great idea, and I encourage at least one trip like that a year, I cannot deny the facts: travel and technology--in this day and age--are practically synonymous. If the numerous travel websites like Expedia, Travelocity, Hotwire and Kayak are not evidence enough, check out all the latest travel apps that are available for smart phones. Technology is making travel easier, less stressful and more accessible, and people are loving every micro-second of it.

While technology can be a distraction on vacations, it can certainly help people get there and get around. I'm not sure where any of us would be without the trusty aid of GPS--what street are we on again?--or quick access to airline reservations--can we switch our flight to tomorrow? But there are so many more websites and apps launching nowadays that it's difficult to know everything that's out there.

On my long commute to work this morning, I was reading the feature story in the RedEye, which talked about all the ways that smart phones can ease the stress of travel. There are a number of different applications you can download related to the many facets of travel, some I had heard of, and others were completely foreign to me. As an avid traveler and someone who looks for anyway to simplify vacations, I felt a lot of these would be extremely convenient to have on a trip. I already have the app for Yelp.com downloaded on my phone, which is extremely helpful when hunger strikes as you are wandering around an unfamiliar city. All you have to do is open the app, select what you want to find (cheap eats, hot dogs, fancy restaurant) and your current location and results instantly pop up, showing hundreds of options located just a few feet away. Google Goggles is a useful app when traveling in a country you are very unfamiliar with. The program can translate a menu into English or can tell you the history of a monument in a flash, all you have to do is snap a picture of the item and the app does the rest. The Currency app is convenient when you are unsure about conversion rates--how much would this Fendi purse cost me in dollars? The app displays the current currency rates and even updates automatically with fresh information, since currency exchange can switch on a daily and hourly basis. Similar to Yelp, Happy Hour is an app that can show you all the great drink deals in the area you are visiting; so if it's five o'clock and you're out and about, this app can show you where to find a cheap watering hole close by.

As far as websites go, there is something out there for every possible travel need from tracking flights and navigating airports to managing travel itineraries and selecting optimal seating on planes.That's right, there is a website completely dedicated to finding the best seat on an aircraft. SeatGuru.com shows the layout for over 100 airlines and their featured planes, color-coding the best and worst places to sit. Reviewers back up these claims with comments about whether the seat is located near the bathrooms or if there is a cup holder. (Yeah, it's that specific.) You can also use the site to check for in-flight amenities. The only problem is that you cannot actually reserve your desired seat through the website, but at least you will know which one to select when choosing seat assignments online.

Some other interesting websites that caught my attention: TripIt.com, a website that inputs all your travel information into an online itinerary and sends you check-in reminders and even alerts you to flight delays and gate changes (you can also add restaurants and activities to the itinerary, but this needs to be done manually); Zicasso.com, a simple way to get travel ideas from a number of different sources all at once, all it takes is filling out a short questionnaire about the trip you want to take and voila, price quotes and suggested itineraries are at your fingertips within a couple days (and you don't have to commit to any of the travel companies that submitted suggestions); Livemocha.com is a site that helps you learn, or freshen up on, a language through flash cards, videos and live conversations with native speakers (but make sure you have a webcam, headphones and a microphone so you can fully learn any of the 35 languages featured).

Just as there is an unlimited amount of places to see in the world, there seems to be an endless array of technical options to get you there. So take advantage of these conveniences, utilize their benefits and make booking your next trip simple and worry-free. But be sure to toss that phone or computer aside momentarily and take in the wonderful environment that surrounds you.

Jump on JetBlue for Last Minute Travel Deals

If you are looking for a last-minute travel deal this weekend, then head right on over to Jetblue.com for their Cheeps: flights for $10 to and from certain cities. This deal is going on for one day only, or until seats run out, so you have to hurry.

You can choose from a variety of different flights, like Ft. Lauderdale to Nassau, Bahamas, or D.C. to Boston. However, there is a catch. You must depart from the predetermined city on Saturday, November 13 and return on either Monday, November 15 or Tuesday, November 16. You also have to book by 6 p.m. Eastern Time today, November 9. There are only 25 seats available on each flight, and they are going fast.

Obviously, not everyone can take full advantage of this travel deal. JetBlue has hubs in New York, Boston and Lonf Beach, so many of the flights depart from those locations, or other airports nearby. For those who do not live close to these locations, it will be difficult to schedule the trip, since getting another flight is necessary.

For those in the general vicinity of the cities selected for this deal--and who have the flex time to dedicate to a last minute trip--should make a bid for these cheap seats. It's not often that an airline is so generous with their fare prices, especially this close to the holidays. Of all the discount airlines, JetBlue certainly has some great offers, such as the month-long travel pass they sold earlier this year that let people purchase one pass for a set price that allowed them to book any flight on JetBlue. This was the second year that the airline featured the pass, and it was definitely a success. These $10 cheap seats are yet another attempt from JetBlue to get people to see the worth of their service. By offering lower fares, more people will fly their airline and get to see what sets JetBlue apart. It's certainly a smart marketing strategy, and I for one am becoming more and more interested in booking a flight with them.

Unfortunately, the Cheeps are not a convenient deal for me, but I encourage others to check it out and book a flight. Because one of the best things about spontaneous travel is that it can catch you by surprise.

Monday, November 1, 2010

The Appeal of Small Town Travel

I'm a city girl, always have been, and always will be (given job, relationship and financial status). And while I may not want to live in a smaller town, I am not opposed to visiting them. In fact, they can be a nice escape from the whirlwind of city life. As I was reading through GQ Magazine--yes, I'm broadening my horizons--I came across an article in their travel section about what makes small towns so great to visit. They also profiled a few small towns around the US that have some noteworthy characteristics and attractions for tourists to enjoy. After reading through the article, I got to thinking about what makes a small town special, and what it really boils down to is the overall feel.

Small towns have a homey, welcoming quality to them that is difficult to find in big cities. The sheer size makes large cities seem commercial and flashy, while small towns provide a more personal, intimate environment. And while there may be more to see and do in a city, there is plenty to keep a person busy in smaller towns. And sometimes the less there is to do, the better. I mean, the idea behind a vacation is to relax, right?

Some of the towns mentioned in the article included Charleston, South Carolina; Portland, Maine; and Santa Fe, New Mexico. I have never been to any of these locations, but I have written about Charleston for my freelance travel writing job. I know that I was interested in visiting after researching it for that article, but after hearing more about it, I want to go even more now. Apart from the world-class dining and elite accommodations, it is also incredibly easy to get around the city via bicycle or walking. You can see practically everything in one day, but why would you want to? It's a better idea to stretch things out and dedicate one day to a single attraction, simplifying the whole vacation and allowing you to really absorb everything Charleston has to offer.

Portland and Santa Fe also seemed to have many of the same appealing factors: good food, nice hotels, interesting attractions, all wrapped up in a convenient package. There are plenty of other small towns worth mentioning, including Providence, Rhode Island; Cheyenne, Wyoming; and Little Rock, Arkansas. I know there are a lot more that I'm not mentioning, and even more that I don't know anything about. So tell me about some that you know of, or perhaps your own home town. I'd love to hear about places I should visit.

Recovering business travel boosts local hotels-- Compliments of Crain's Business

With the increase in business travel comes the need for hotel rooms. It looks as if the hospitality industry is holding strong for now, and hopefully it will only get better. Check out the story below.
Recovering business travel boosts local hotels | Trend Of The Week | Crain's Chicago Business

While this is exciting news for area hotels, the downside is that room rates are going to rise. So take advantage of the relatively low prices now, before they start to skyrocket next year.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Halloween is a Craft in Salem

cemetery Back in 1692, strange happenings created paranoia and hysteria in Salem, Massachusetts. Over 150 people were arrested on the basis that they had sold their soul to the devil and were practicing witchcraft throughout the town. During the infamous Salem Witch Trials, 20 people were tried and hanged. Over 300 years later, the people of Salem still embrace their history.

Essex Street is rife with businesses and stores that capitalize on the legacy of the trials. Dungeons and ghost tours are popular ways for people to have a haunting Halloween experience. And if that wasn’t enough, there are stores selling herbs, potions and even brooms; anyone can feel like a true witch even for a day.

witch-brew[1] But if you want to learn more about supernatural wonders, just talk to one of the real, modern witches who live without shame among regular civilians. According to an article in the Chicago Tribune, witches are not seen as evil or threatening, but rather as magical individuals who provide psychic wisdom and mystical guidance. The negative stereotype branded to witches during the 17th century has not deterred contemporary witches from making their home in Salem; in fact, they feel it’s the best place to be to educate others on the beauty of their beliefs.

And tourists and locals alike are falling under the spell. Every October, Salem goes into a Halloween frenzy, decorating the whole city with cobwebs, pumpkins, black cats and, of course, broomsticks. Everyone participates in the festivities, from putting on re-enactments of the witch trials to children learning to make magic wands. The ominous environment of Salem makes it even easier to accomplish a hair-raising effect. Cobblestone streets, colonial buildings and ancient cemeteries hold an eerie presence all their own, without any extra help from the residents of Salem.

Map picture
For more of an educational adventure, head to the Salem Witch Museum or the House of Seven Gables—made famous by Salem-born author Nathaniel Hawthorne. Or just go to enjoy the gorgeous scenery of the Salem coast. No matter when you decide to go, whether it’s during the ghoulish holiday season or the warmer summer months, you can experience the never-ending dedication this city has towards its history and heritage.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Weather Worries

A "ground stop" was declared this morning at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago due to high winds and rain. As most residents know, the city experienced some intense weather conditions early in the day; in fact, many news stations claimed it was going to be the most powerful storm Chicago has seen in seven decades. (That's quite a claim, and I'm still waiting for the confirmation on that. So far, no hard evidence.) Clearly, it was bad enough for O'Hare to ground flights. (Although, it usually doesn't take much for O'Hare to do that sort of thing.) Now, over 300 flights out of the airport have been cancelled, leaving thousands stranded for the day.

I don't mean to be such a skeptic, but I experienced about ten minutes of monsoon-like rain and wind gusts, then it lightened up, the clouds sped by and skies cleared up. I'm looking at a blue sky right now. No disrespect to the weather men and women out there, but I don't see this being as bad as predicted. And I certainly see no reason why O'Hare feels the need to cancel so many flights. Midway is experiencing the same weather, and they seem to be handling the situation pretty well, despite having numerous delays on incoming and outgoing flights. I have had more than one bad experience with O'Hare delaying or cancelling my flights due to weather, and each time it was unnecessary. Every time it happens, I get the feeling that O'Hare plays into the media hype given to these storms, and rather than taking it in stride, they cancel or delay flights in anticipation of bad conditions before actually seeing them play out. It leaves many people running for connecting flights in other cities, standing in customer service lines trying to find other flights, or just stranded for an extra day. It's frustrating, especially for those who travel on a regular basis.

Obviously, I understand that weather conditions affect flights, and if there are legitimate reasons--whiteout conditions, tornadoes--I can accept a cancelled flight. But one of my flights out of O'Hare a few months ago to visit my dad in Canada was cancelled due to dense fog. First of all, the fog cleared up by mid-morning and my flight was at 4:30 pm, and when I stepped out of my office around 1:30, the sun was shining, clear skies and seventy-degree temperatures--perfect flying weather. I called right away and got another flight, irritated that the first one had been cancelled at all when the weather was clearly not an issue.

I know I'm ranting, but when I see these announcements about mass cancellations, I have to wonder if they are really necessary, if the weather really is that bad. If conditions outside worsen, then I will admit to being wrong, but until that happens, I maintain that airports should try to get their flights out, even if they have to be a little late.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Where Would You Rather Be?

I was sitting at my desk today, staring at a long list of cities across the country. All I could think was that I would rather be at any one of those destinations than in that cubicle. It was one of those Mondays where the weather outside begs you to play hooky, blow off the afternoon and enjoy lunch in the park; so it was no surprise that I was feeling antsy for vacation time. I know many feel the same way, so I must pose this question to you…when you’re feeling the need to get away, where would you rather be?

Those who know me well know my answer….Italy, of course. But if I had to choose a closer locale, it would be a tie between Hilton Head, South Carolina or Denver, Colorado. Honestly, either would have been a nice choice today, but on any other day I think it would depend on the time of year. Around the holidays, I want to be around simple comforts, so Denver would be the go-to option. In the spring, when weather in Colorado can be questionable, I would go with the sunny atmosphere of Hilton Head.

So if you could pick anywhere…where would you want to go?

Thursday, October 21, 2010

A Pre-Honeymoon?

This week has been full of wedding bliss--or something slightly less cheesy. Pictures from the wedding I attended last month were posted, as well as their honeymoon photos from Hawaii. I just found out today that two of my good friends got engaged over the weekend (Congrats to them!!), and they'll be tying the knot in the next year or so. Then, Daily Candy sent me a newsletter about a contest from Brides.com that lets couples enter to win the Ultimate Romantic Getaway: an all-expenses-paid, five-night stay at Palace Resort & Spa of your choice.

Now, obviously that could be used for a honeymoon, but what about taking a nice trip together before the wedding, a pre-honeymoon if you will. It's becoming more and more popular for couples to take pre-wedding vacations together, either before the planning actually starts or just a few weeks before the ceremony. It's a way for the bride and groom-to-be to relax and take time away from their daily stresses (tastings, fittings, invitations, seating arrangements, etc). Some might argue that a pre-wedding trip ruins the post-nuptial tradition of a honeymoon, and there is definitely a point to be made there. But just think about all the trips people have taken as couples before they got engaged and got married, weren't all those vacations romantic in some form? I would say so.

Traveling together not only gives you a buddy to go sightseeing with, but it is also a good way to test your compatibility. A couple that can travel together can stay together. And I'm not talking about big group trips where you can steal away with another person if your significant other is getting on your nerves. I mean the one-on-one adventures where it is just the two of you, spending every minute together, sharing everything from food to beds to train seats. Those are the moments when you truly know this is forever.

I strongly suggest every couple take a vacation together, especially if one day you two will be walking down the aisle sometime in the future.