Thursday, December 29, 2011

Resolve to Travel

The New Year is almost here and the inevitable question has mostly likely graced your ears over the last week: What's your New Year's resolution?

I dread this question because I always have way too many things I want to do--or stop doing. I mean, there are the go-to options: work out more, eat healthier, join a book/cooking/art club, turn off the television more often, learn to sew, save more money, cook more often, etc. I usually try to have two resolutions--mostly because I'm a bit of an overachiever--but also because there is one resolution that is pretty much a constant in my life. I resolve to travel somewhere I have never been every year.

I have managed to accomplish that goal the last two years--South Africa in 2010; Edmonton and Myrtle Beach in 2011. So where will I go this year? I have a lot of destinations on my list, so the first task is narrowing it down to options that are plausible for me this year. Obviously, I have to take a lot into consideration: money, time, prior engagements. There are certain weekends that are blocked out for special events or friend visits or whatever else might be going on. And then I always have to think about how much flights will cost, if I have to pay for a hotel or if I can stay with a friend or relative. As much as I would love to go somewhere abroad, this year might be too packed with weddings and bachelorette parties and other such events that I would not be able to afford it. So something within the U.S. may have to suffice. Off the top of my head, I'm thinking Maine or Seattle. I know people who live in both places, so accommodations would be taken care of, and flights might not be too pricey, depending on when I go.

This will certainly take some more thought as it is not something I should decide on a whim. As for the other resolution, I haven't figured that one out just yet. I have mulled over the idea of cutting back on chocolate, but we all know that won't happen. I will report back on my final goals for 2012, but until then, feel free to share your resolutions. If you could pick one place to travel in 2012, where would you go?

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Flying Solo for Christmas

The holiday season is in full swing! We are less than a week away from Christmas, and everyone is hustling to finish off all their last minute shopping, trying to find that perfect gift for everyone on their list. I picked up the final gift for my mom today during my lunch break, and I am proud to say that I have officially finished all my shopping. Others are not so lucky. I have a lot of friends still scrambling to get it all together before Sunday, and many are coming to me asking for ideas or suggestions for parents, syblings and significant others. I cannot give much insight anymore on the last one, so I usually suggest jewelry or a watch, or maybe a picture frame with a sentimental photo.

It can be difficult to be alone during the holidays, especially when everyone else seems to be settled comfortably in serious relationships. But instead of getting down about it, I've decided to look at the brighter side of flying solo this Christmas.

One big positive is that I can use the money I would have spent on a gift for him to buy more things for my family and friends. Or better yet, a gift for myself. Thisyear, I used the extra cash to buy a couple small items for my parents in addition to their larger gifts, and two housewarming gifts for my friends. As for me, there might be a couple new pairs of errings in my jewelry box, as well as a couple cute holiday tops for special occassions. And why not? I deserve a treat, too! If you think about it, I'm just following along with the majority of Americans this year who have decided to go the route of self-gifting.

Also, there is no need to feel pressure about getting his family something for Christmas. I would say that's definitely something most single people can agree on.

Being single around the holidays means I can pick and choose the various activities I want to partake in--holiday parties, shopping adventures with girlfriends, zoo lights, Christmas festivals and craft shows--without worrying about catering to what he wants to do. It gives me the chance to branch out and meet new people, experience different things and discover more about myself.

I already have my plans for Christmas in order, but if I didn't, I would most likely take a trip to some exotic location. And since I don't have to worry about what anyone else wants, it can be to a place that I really want to go. While many of you might think it is depressing to travel alone at Christmas, there is also something very empowering and liberating about it. Solo travel--as I have talked about before in this blog--is definitely something that everyone should do at least once in their lives. It gives you the ability to handle a trip all on your own (courage and independence, anyone?) and the freedom to explore all the places and do all the things that you want to do. The experience around the holidays is even more rewarding, because you are going against the grain. And even though you may be choosing to spend time alone, who is to say that your will actually end up by yourself. You never know who you'll meet! And travel tends to bring people together in mysterious ways.

Another positive thing to note about the holidays is that you're never actually alone. Christmas is a time when people get to spend time with their families, the people they care about the most in the world. I am one of those lucky people that get to go home and see my family and friends. I will be surrounded by the people I love and who love me, so there is no way I could possibly feel sad!

P.S. Who knows who will be waiting for your under the mistletoe this year!

First Experience Flying Southwest

"Bags fly free!" "No change fee!" "No blackout dates, no red tape!"

credit: Businessweek
If you watch television on a regular basis--or travel a lot--you know that these are the common catchphrases of Southwest Airlines, probably America's most popular budget carrier. Many of you have flown Southwest and have your own opinions about them. So now it is finally my turn to weigh in.

I recently returned from my Christmas vacation back in Denver, and I had the opportunity to experience Southwest for myself for the first time. Obviously, I had all the flashy advertisements running in my head, as well as the many comments from my friends and coworkers who have flown with them, but I had to push that all to the back of my mind and go into the whole trip with as clear and unbiased an opinion as possible.

On the day that I flew out of Chicago, I went online to check-in for my flight. I am accustomed to having a reserved seat, so the whole process was a little different for me. At first I was confused as I glanced at the boarding pass. Seating A, position 19. What does that mean? Also, after I printed my boarding pass, there was no button or link to say that I had completed the check-in process. I was sure that if I hit the link that said "return to previous page" that the whole thing would void out and I would have to try again. Yet there was no indication on the previous page that anything was wrong, so I assumed I had done it correctly, though I wish it had been clearer. When I checked the status of my flight--which was scheduled to leave at 6:00 p.m.--the website said there was a 40 minute delay. This was at 8:30 a.m. At first I was irritated that they could predict so early that the flight would be late, so I investigated earlier flight options, but they were all booked. Luckily, I checked back a few hours later and it had changed to a 10 minute delay...much better.

As far as checking bags, that could not have been easier. (It also helped that there were no lines at Midway Airport.) I just went up to the kioks, scanned the barcode on my boarding pass, selected the number of bags I was checking, and the attendant placed the sticker on my suitcase and I was on my way. Less than five minutes, I can handle that.

The boarding process was certainly different. I have flown on airlines that do not have seat assignments, but those were all in Europe--Ryan Air, EasyJet--and the system was pretty unorganized. With Southwest, it was slightly more coordinated, but still a bit of a jumble. I had opted to pay a little extra to make sure I was in the first seating group--which I highly recommend. When they called for seating A, I headed up to the numbered poles that were lined up near the gate. Since there isn't anyone around to make sure people are in the proper order, you have to trust the people around you, and I was pleasantly surprised that no one tried to hop in front of anyone else or claim they had a higher number so they could go ahead. We stood in line for a few minutes, which I didn't mind, but many of my fellow travelers were growing impatient. At this point, we were still scheduled to leave 10 minutes late, but if we boarded fast enough, it could have been sooner. The Southwest employee working at the gate announced that positions 1-30 would be boarding, so we all began filing through the door. A young man ahead of me was a little confused by the process, and was unsure if he was in the right place. The employee was very pushy, urging him along and not answering his questions. I understood he was trying to speed up boarding, but he was definitely a little rude to passengers.

Once on the plane, I grabbed the first aisle seat possible and waited patiently as everyone else boarded. I was impressed with how quickly people got on the plane, tossed their bags up and sat down. I think everyone got on in about 15 minutes, which I had never experienced before. I thought we had a good chance of leaving close to on time, worse case a couple minutes late. However, we ended up sitting at the gate for another 15 minutes. The reason? Our bags. Indeed, boarding was super quick, but it was so efficient that our luggage couldn't keep up, which meant our valiant efforts to leave on time were thwarted.

My flight to Denver had a stop over in Omaha, Nebraska, but I didn't have to switch planes, which was nice. Still, I was worried about how quick the layover would be, since we were already running a little late. Anyone staying in Omaha was quick to depart, which I appreciated, but Southwest needed to switch the flight crew, so that ended up taking a little over half an hour. With a good tale wind and a determined pilot, we landed in Denver exactly when we were supposed to, and once again I was pleasantly surprised. I went from a 40 minute delay to arriving right on time, way to under promise and over deliver.

Waiting for the my luggage was the most annoying part of the whole trip. I must have stood at the carrousel for almost a half hour, and it had taken me at least 15 minutes to walk through the concourse, catch the train and get over to the baggage claim, so in total it took nearly 45 minutes for the bags to even get there.

Even with the layover, the weather and the minor delays, the trip to Denver went pretty smooth, and I was happy to report only a couple setbacks. The return trip to Chicago went even better. There were long lines at DIA for checking bags, but employees at the kiosks were very helpful and they had made sure to staff enough people to keep the line moving. The boarding process, once again, went very quickly, and this time our bags were pretty much on the same schedule. We only sat at the gate for a few minutes before taxiing out. And while the flight was quick and relaxing, what made it most enjoyable was our flight attendant. Our safety demonstration was more than just a tutorial on buckling our seatbelts, but rather a short comedy routine. It definitely lightened the mood a bit, and showed that some Southwest employees really do enjoy their work.
Upon arrival in Chicago, I once again had to wait an exceptionally long time for my bags. It was irritating, but nothing I hadn't experienced with any other airline.

Overall, I would say my journey with Southwest was pretty good. I would give them an average rating of an A-, mostly because the check-in and boarding process can be a bit confusing and hectic, and the long wait for bags was a bit of an issue. Southwest definitely gets points for having an efficient bag check--and no bag fee is certainly a bonus--as well as giving out free snacks on board, a friendly staff and on-time departures and arrivals.

However, I am not a complete convert just yet. Yes, on this particular trip, Southwest had the best fares, but that is not always the case. I have often found other airlines to be cheaper or have better flight times, so I cannot say for sure that I will pick Southwest over another airline in the future based on their benefits. Pricing is always a big factor in my airline decision process. Whoever has the best bid will win my business.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Holiday Cold

It's happened to most of us.

Just as we're closing up shop at the office, packing the last of our essentials in our suitcases, and wrapping those final presents, that dull pain starts creeping into our heads, our thoats feel a little scratchy and our noses just won't stop running. I call it the Holiday Cold. It's what happens when all the stress of the season--final work projects, Christmas shopping, holiday parties--finally sets in just as we are ready to enjoy the holiday.

My flight back home to Denver is tomorrow afternoon, and wouldn't you know it, my head has been pounding all day and my nose is getting more stuffed by the minute. It doesn't help that I will soon be wandering through a crowded airport where I will eventually board a packed plane filled with germy travelers. It's a fact that planes can actually make people sick, so if a cold is lingering before you fly, chances are it will be a full blown illness when you arrive at your destination.

People who travel a lot have higher rates of infection, with one study saying there is an increased risk as high as 20%. There is a common belief that recirculated air is the main cause, but illnesses are more likely to spread when air circulation is shut off. So when people are boarding or exiting the plane is actually when they are most prone to getting sick. Since the air in planes is very dry, it is a prime environment to spread disease, since viruses tend to thrive in low-humidity. High altitude can also make people tired, and fatigue makes them susceptible to colds. With all these factors working against you, it seems inevitable that you will catch some type of cold, whether mild or severe. So how do you avoid the Holiday Cold and actually enjoy your time with the family?

Follow a couple simple precautions, and you should be able to stave off that pesky cough.

First, hydrate, because drinking water and keeping nasal passages open and moist can help reduce the risk of a cold. Second, keep your hands clean. Keep sanitizer nearby and squeeze a bit on your hands after you come in contact with any surface that could be contaminated with germs--tray tables, seat pockets, etc. Third, open your air vent so that the stream of air passes right in front of your face, this will help direct airborne germs away from you. Fourth, if you end up sitting next to someone who is sick, request to change seats. With this holiday season expected to be super busy, and most planes filled to capacity, this might not be possible, but it's worth a shot for your health's sake. Finally, avoid pillows and blankets, since this is a veritable breeding ground for germs.
For me, I always carry a couple packets of Emergen-C in my bag. I down one with a full glass of water before entering the airport, and then take another while in flight. Some people are skeptical about whether it actually helps you fight a cold, and, trust me, I'm wary of that, too. However, I do believe that it can boost your immune system to help fight off the possibility of a cold. I also take a multivitamin and plenty of zinc before traveling. Water and tea are always my beverages of choice, and I try my best to not get too stressed, since that can lower your defenses even more.

The Holiday Cold can be a downer, especially if it hits when you're traveling. Taking the proper steps can keep you healthy and happy this holiday season. And you do happen to catch a little bug, remember that this is the time of year for giving, and your family and friends will certainly come with the rescue with hot chicken soup, warm cocoa and lots of soft blankets. Who wouldn't love that?

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Trimming the Tree

Today is the first day of December, and in celebration of the holiday season, my roommate and I are planning to "deck the halls"--or our apartment--with a bunch of Christmas decorations, including the staple of the season: The Christmas Tree.

Trimming the tree has been a cherished tradition in our culture for hundreds of years, but the history of this act dates back decades before our country even existed. There are numerous accounts of how the Christmas tree tradition came to be, but most historians can agree that it goes back to the early Romans. In the Northern hemisphere, the longest night of the year--also known as the winter solstice--occurs around December 21. Romans celebrated this time with a feast called the Saturnalia, in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture. Since the solstice meant that farms and orchards would be green again soon, the Romans decorated their homes with evergreen boughs. They would exchange gifts, giving coins for prosperity, pastries for happiness, and lamps to light one's journey through life.

Years later, Germans and Scandinavians put evergreen trees in their homes or just outside their doors to represent their hope for the upcoming spring. This tradition helped us evolve our current practices with trees indoors and wreaths hung in entryways. Germany is largely credited with launching the Christmas tree tradition as we know it. It is widely believed that Martin Luther was the first to actually decorate a tree with lighted candles to recapture the scene he witnessed of stars twinkling through the branches of the evergreens.

In the United States, the tree most likely came from Hessian troops during the American Revolution, or with German immigrants in Pennsylvania. One of the first accounts of a tree in the U.S. was in the 1830s, when settlers in Pennsylvania displayed them in their hopes. However, many Americans saw the trees as pagan symbols and they were not accepted at first. It was only after an image was printed of Queen Victoria and her prince, Albert, standing with their children around a Christmas tree that it suddenly became fashionable.

 Christmas ornaments began arriving in America in the 1890s, when tree decorating was growing rapidly in popularity. True to form, Americans took to putting up massive trees that reached from floor to ceiling, while the Europeans continued to use small trees about four feet high. (But we always like things bigger here.) Many people made their own homemade ornaments using wood and cloth, while others used apples, nuts and marzipan cookies. Popcorn came into use after being dyed bright colors and interlaced with berries.

Today, our ornaments and decorations are much more elaborate, which is to be expected. And we have all taken on our own Christmas decorating traditions. And just as every family is different, so is every country. It is interesting to hear about what other cultures do to celebrate Christmas, and how they trim their trees.

Christmas trees around the world. Credit:
In the Phillipines, much of the population is too poor to afford Christmas trees, so they must rely on their own creativity to make a tree. They will often use bamboo, branches or other materials to build an artistic rendition of the typical evergreen. They will then decorate them with star lanterns and other handmade ornaments. In Liberia, the Christmas tree is an oil palm tree that they decoate with bells. In the northern part of Brazil, where pine trees are rare, most will buy artificial trees in a variety of colors. In the south, where there are millions of trees, people will decorate them with puffs of cotton to imitate snow. The Japanese do not really celebrate Christmas, but those who do decorate their trees with small toys, dolls, paper ornaments, gold fans, lanterns and tiny candles. Since Christmas falls during the summer in South Africa, many do not have trees, but they will decorate their windows with sparkling cotton, wool and tinsel. The same is true in Australia, and many will celebrate on the beach or with a backyard barbecue. Mnay Aussies will decorate Christmas bushes, native plants with red-flowered leaves.

While my family has adopted many Italian traditions, we have yet to embrace the ceppo, a triangular shelf that is set up in the room. On the lower shelf sits the nativity, the upper shelves are decorated with small gifts, fruits, and candies. Candles can be affixed to the sides and a star is placed on top. This is called the "tree of lights." Maybe I can convince my parents to do it this year, though after 25 years of doing the exact same thing, I think we all might be reluctant to introduce something new.

But I am excited to trim my tree tonight, and perhaps start some of my own traditions.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

No Vacation Day Left Behind

In yet another display of our country's admirable--yet incessant--work ethic, a recent survey found that the average American worker leaves 6.2 paid vacation days unused at the end of the year....that's just crazy! You have the time, why not take it?

Another survey showed that 57% of workers do not use all their vacation days each year, with the average number of days left was can this be? That's a two week vacation right there! You could take a nice long trip abroad in that time, or take a few long weekends for quick trips somewhere close by. The possibilities are endless, and yet people are reluctant to take the time. You work hard, you earn those vacation days, so use them! Most of the time, companies will only let a certain number of days roll over to the next year, and those usually have an expiration date on them.

My company, for example, only rolls over five vacation days at the end of the year, and those need to be used by March, otherwise you lose them. And that's paid, scheduled time off. Our sick days don't roll over at all, so I lose those come December 31, no matter what. I like my job, I work hard, I rarely call in sick or take advantage of our work-from-home policy. But you better believe that I will take every day off that I possibly can, because I'm not one to let things go to waste.

The respondents to the surveys cited the recession and high unemployment as reasons for not taking time off, and I can understand that logic. No one wants to be seen as a slacker or lazy by taking an extra day or two for a vacation, especially when so many people are being laid off and companies are making cuts to budgets. However, businesses give these days to their employees because they are required to do it, and as long as people do not abuse that privilege, there is nothing wrong with taking the time one has allotted.

Vacation days are sacred gifts, especially around the holidays. I plan on spending as much time as I can with my family, and that means taking a couple extra days off around Christmas. But I will not hesitate in requesting that time; it's important to take a break every once and a while for yourself. In my opinion, having a vacation--even if it's just one day or a long weekend--can make you a more efficient and happy employee.

So go ahead, pencil in a vacation day or two, especially if you have a few stacked up. Because that average is way to high for my liking.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Home for the Holidays

In a little over 48 hours from now, I will be sitting in an airport terminal waiting to board a plane home to Denver. This will be my first Thanksgiving with my family in three years, and, needless to say, I am ecstatic!!

Don't get me wrong, I have enjoyed my last few Thanksgivings here in Chicago, but there is just something about being home for the holidays. It was difficult the first year that I decided not to go back to Denver, but I accepted that I would probably have holidays away from my family in the future, so it was a good way to prepare. I knew I would encounter different traditions, mannerisms, activities and even food, since everyone has their own versions of Thanksgiving dishes. Some of the food I liked more than others (not a fan of the jello molds, but the raisin-filled stuffing and pumpkin pie cheesecake certainly were tasty) and I have never been one to take part in Black Friday shopping until I met my old boyfriend's family. It was all an eye opening experience, but that has come to an end. Now, it is time to venture back, because there really is no place like home. (I know, but Dorothy totally knew what she was talking about.)

I cannot wait to do all the things I love to do with my family on Thanksgiving--bake fresh bread from scratch, watch/play football all day, help prepare all the food (though I usally focus on the cranberries and potatoes), chat for hours at the table after dinner and then sleep off our food comas late into Friday morning (no Black Friday shopping for us). Just the thought of getting to spend this time with my family is making me feel incredibly nostalgic and slightly emotional--though I must keep it together, seeing as I am at work.

This year, I will be changing things up slightly by doing a four-mile Turkey Trot on Thanksgiving morning with my friends. Though I have never done it before, I believe it will be a good tradition to adopt, since it means I can eat even more at dinner. Another event I am looking forward to is my best friend's 25th birthday, which is Friday. It's also her golden birthday, so we're getting decked out in our finest glittery, gold outfits and hitting the town.

Who knows what the rest of the weekend will hold, but I am sure I'll love every second of it.

I totally enourage people to see the world and experience other cultures, especially their holiday traditions, but there is something about going home. It will be a truly special time for my family, mostly because it will be the first time in three years that we are all together. And that means a lot, particularly for my grandpa, who has been struggling with his health this year. In all honesty, I think I am most excited to see him. Because if this past year has taught me anything, it's that family is the most important thing in your life. They are there for you no matter what, your constant support system. And since I'm so far away from mine, these are the moments I really cherish.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Thanksgiving Fares...Don't Wait to Buy!

If you're thinking that if you wait until the last minute to get flights home for Thanksgiving, fares will be cheaper, think again.

Industry experts are expecting air travel around the holidays to be much more expensive than last year, with airfare said to be around $375 for Thanksgiving. Not only will prices be higher, but seats will be limited. Airlines have cut capacity 11% this year, which means fewer flights to a certain destination or smaller planes used on routes. So the chances of snagging that preferred aisle seat for a reasonable price are pretty slim this year.

And Christmas isn't looking much better for travelers. Those fares could be anywhere from 6% to 12% higher than last year, so no matter what, you're going to be paying more, even if you buy them now or later. I recommend getting them sooner, because at least that way you will have more seating options to choose from.

I was lucky this year, snagging Thanksgiving flights for around $300 round-trip, and Christmas for about $250 round-trip. But I have a tendency to start looking at flights far in advance of a trip, especially one that will be taking place over  a holiday. When I ventured to Boston earlier in the year for Fourth of July, I booked those tickets in February. You better believe I got a much better price than those girls who booked last minute. Then again, many airlines will roll out airfare promotions and limited-time offers, so in those cases, I say don't hesitate and jump on them!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Culinary Excursions

A large part of travel is, of course, food. And it makes sense, because most of the time, the places we visit have cuisine that is completely different from our home town, especially if you venture to a different country. Personally, I don't feel I have truly experienced a place until I've eaten one of its local specialities. If you can find a trip that not only offers unique delicacies, but also an opportunity to learn about the culinary process of making it, then you've really got something special.
I have had the privilege of partaking in some of these activities, and I highly recommend them. If you happen to go to Sienna, Italy, I suggest signing up for a personal cooking class. I, along with my family and friends, got the chance to cook with a Tuscan-style chef right in the comfort of her own kitchen. We chopped, sliced, seasoned, sipped and tasted our way through the afternoon, enjoying classic dishes like bruschetta, chickpea soup a four herb pasta. We ate each dish as it was prepared, heading back into the kitchen after each one to dive into the next, all the while drinking glass after glass of Italian wine.

Being from Colorado, I know a number of quality brewery tours that give you a first-hand glance at the beer-makign process...but these can usually be found in any city nowadays, especially with the popularity of craft beers in our culture. However, I recently stumbled upon a new business in Chicago's West Loop neighborhood called Brew & Grow, where home brewers can buy all the supplies they need to make beer on their own. Not only that, but it offers beer making classes, where you can make your own stout or ale, learn about flavors and consistency, as well as what food is best to pair with it. It's a great way to learn about a local activity while experiencing a city that is becoming a big player in the craft brew arena.

I read an article in the Wall Street Journal that covers a couple more food getaways for the upcoming harvest season. One in particular that caught my interest--and this should be no surprise to my readers--was the Grape Education at Blackberry Farm in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. In mid-November, the farm hosts its Wine Geek 101 event, where guests learn all about wine tasting, selection and pairing. You can also partake in cooking demonstrations and tours of the farm. It's relatively pricey ($1,200 per person) but if you have the time and funds, I think it would be a magical trip.
Of the other suggestions, I think the next one I would pick is the bread making in Bath, England. Not exactly the easiest location to get to, but for fresh Italian and French bread, I think it's worth it. The five day course costs $300 a day, with one- and three-day courses available, too. An award-winning chef leads the class, where you learn how to make a vast array of different breads, and at the end, I'm pretty sure you get to eat some, too.

For the autumn season, when cooking and comfort food reign supreme (how many days until Thanksgiving?), it seems appropriate to indulge in a culinary excursions. The best part about them is that they can usually be squeezed into a quick weekend trip, making it super easy to enjoy another location on short notice.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Chocoholic Adventures

As I stepped off the train this morning, my nose caught a whiff of that ever familiar scent that drifts through the area of River North around Merchandise Mart: Chocolate. Fresh chocolate. The Blommer Chocolate Company, the largest cocoa bean and chocolate manufacturer in North America, is just a few blocks west of my office, and when they start cooking up their confectionary masterpieces, the whole neighborhood can smell the decadent treats.

It's common knowledge among those who know me that chocolate is a weakness of mine, a vice, if you will. I have cravings--at least three or four a day--for chocolate, and I never get sick of it. I could have chocolate every day for the rest of my life, and I would die happy. You can deem me a true chocoholic.

So, in honor of Blommer's latest batch of goodies, and the fact that this is Chocolate Week (no I didn't make that up) in Europe, I found a list of explorations specifically geared toward travelers who love chocolate. October for Europeans is all about chocolate, but luckily you don't have to go on these trips during this month only, because this sweet should be celebrated all year round.

While a couple of the trips are more about enjoying the spa-benefits of cocoa (the two-hour Symphony in Chocolate in Austria, and the Mayan chocolate massage in Mexico) most of them are all about eating! Which is something I am all for. Of the tasting adventures, participating in the chocolate making process in St. Lucia sounds like the most exciting, simply because it's a hands-on experience that takes you through every step of chocolate making--from picking the beans from the plantation to taking that first satisfactory bite. Another one that caught my eye was the all-you-can-eat chocolate bar in Boston. Not only is it close enough that I could make a quick weekend trip of it, but it's also in one of my favorite cities in the country--plus my best friend lives there! And, let's be honest, how could anyone turn down something that combines chocolate and all-you-can-eat? Probably my third favorite trip is the chocolate and wine pairing at the Hahndorf Hill Winery in Australia, which is known for its pairings. The ChocoVino Experience is my ideal activity, because it brings together chocolate and my other vice, wine. Totally meant for me.

While these three are at the top of my list, all the others sound interesting and delicious. I mean, who wouldn't enjoy a chocolate tour through Bruges, Belgium, one of the most famous places for world-class cocoa. Or what about a cooking class in France to learn how to make your own delectable chocolate dishes? It all sounds so incredible, and perhaps one day I will get to experience each of these chocoholic adventures.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Win a Free Flight to Japan

Japan's tourism has been struggling the last six months after an earthquake and tsunami struck the country in March, causing millions of dollars in damage and lingering concerns over exposure to nuclear radiation. As a result, many people have opted out of visiting Japan, and the tourism industry is desperate to attract travelers.

So, in an effort to lure more visitors, Japan's board is hoping to get a plan approved to give away up to 10,000 free flights to Japan. It could cost the country over $10 million to do, but the hope is that it will encourage people to plan more vacations there and help boost the economy.

So, what's the catch?

Well, in exchange for free airfare, Japan is asking travelers to share their (positive) experiences via blog posts and social media outlets. It doesn't seem like too much to ask, in my opinion, since I love to write about my travels already. Also, visitors still have to pay for their own lodging, food and other necessities once they get there, but more often than not, airfare tends to be the most expensive part of a trip. It's probably not that difficult to find a decently priced hotel in Japan, and with some savvy budgeting tricks, paying for food and transport should not be that bad.

If the Japanese government approves the plan, the tourism board could start accepting applications as early as April 2012. And if that happens, I fully intend on submitting one.

Who knows, I could end up winning a free flight, giving me the chance to see a countrry I've been dying to see for years.

Pan Am: A Glimpse of Travel History

Pan Am is a new fall show that premiered on ABC a couple weeks ago and follows the lives of stewardesses and pilots working for the largest international airline during the 1960s. The women live a privileged life, jetting off to exotic locales each week, like London, Paris and Berlin, experiencing some of our country's most significant historical events.

While the storyline is clearly embellished for dramatic effect--and to please viewers--there is some truth in the series. The uniforms, daily attire and plane design are extremely accurate, proving that the shows' producers did their homework. Another aspect of the industry's history that the show touches on is the high standards that stewardesses had to meet, especially when it came to their appearance. They had to be a certain size--and that wasn't because the planes had a weight requirement--and were weighed every week to make sure the numbers on the scale did not inch up. Stewardesses were more than crew members who brought travelers meals and assisted them in boarding, they were objects to be looked at, especially from the successful business men sitting in first class. They had to be classy, sophisticated and always prepared, beacuse at every moment they were in uniform, they were representing Pan Am.

Apart from the period-appropriate outfits, settings and behaviors, the show also gives viewers today a glimpse into a completely different time for our country, when planes were considered a luxurious way to travel rather than just another commute to get through; when the Cold War and Communism were the main terrorist threats to America; when there was no such thing as a cell phone and people still wrote letters and postcards to stay in touch.

Perhaps my infatuation with the show is that each week they get to go somewhere else, somewhere new and exciting. It makes me envious of the stewardess lifestyle, because they get to see all these places I may never visit. Obviously, the life of flight attendants today may not be as glamorous as it was back then, but that's what I love about it, I can escape to another world for an hour each Sunday night, exploring the world with these women as they deal with their own personal dilemmas. I will admit, it has become my new guilty pleasure.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Observations in the Travel World

I have been chained to my desk as of late and, as a result, travel excursions have been limited. However, the number of travel stories I have read has been quite abundant, and my thoughts have been reeling all day--let's face it, the last few days--about everything that has been going on. So, in an effort to get my thoughts out there--and to finally post something after a long absence--I've decided to discuss some of my observations.

American Airlines

As many of you may or may not know, American Airlines is not doing so hot. In fact, its stock prices fell to their lowest point since 2009 last week, and there have been rumors that it will file for bankruptcy. American is the leader in declines among major airlines, and investors said they think the airline will run out of cash reserves. What's worse? Other airlines saw a drop in their stocks after news of American's poor performance, causing many of them to cut capacity and, possibly, raise fares--two things that are never good for travelers. So what does this mean? Well, it could lead to the downfall of one of the largest airlines in the U.S., a company that felt it was too big to fail back in 2008 when the recession started and was the only big name that did not file for bankruptcy protection at that time. It certainly is not a promising sign for the airline industry, especially since analysts expect air travel demand to slump at the end of this year, even with the busy holiday season ahead. I, personally, have only flown American a couple times in my life, and I've never been all that impressed with it. I usually opt for UnitedContinental or a budget airline like Frontier. In all honesty, this kind of failure may be exactly what American Airlines needs to turn things around. But bankruptcy is, for now, only a rumor, and there is no telling if it will actually happen.

New Planes, New Seating

After a three year delay, Boeing finally delivered its first 787 Dreamliner to All Nippon Airways a couple weeks ago, and UnitedContinental said it will fly the jet in 2012. The new jet uses technology like lightweight composites and advanced propulsion that are said to increase fuel economy and environmental sensitivity. While I may not get the chance to fly on one of these jets in the near future, it is still exciting to see something so innovative come on the scene. I can only imagine the passenger experience these new planes will provide. Since UnitedContinental plans to use them on only two international routes--Houston to Auckland, New Zealand; and Houston to Lagos, Nigeria--I guess I will need to save up as much money and vacation days as possible in order to book a ticket.

In other plane news, Lufthansa reconfigured the seats in its jets, allowing it to add more rows while still providing passengers with plenty of legroom. I know what you're thinking, it doesn't seem to add up. How can you squish seats together, adding at least two to three more rows, and still give people more room? Well, you install thinner seats. The airline replaced thick foam padding with strong mesh and placed the magazine pocket at the top of the seatback to give passengers more room for their knees. I think this is a trend we will be seeing more often, since many airlines are being forced to cut flights due to financial woes and are trying to find more ways to bring in revenue. Adding extra seating will help make up for money lost from other cuts. Plus, the seats still take into account passenger comfort and satisfaction, meaning everyone wins!

The Airbus A380 is a double-decker jet that seats about 500 passengers, but Korean Air has rolled out its own layout with 407 seats. It has three sections: first class, prestige or business class, and economy class. The entire top deck is for prestige class and the first class suites have 24-inch HD screens. Also, it will have a duty-free shop at the back of the plane, as well as three bars: a self-serve bar on each deck and a "Celestial Bar" in the back of the top deck. Um...I think the description says it all.

Cheap Tickets/Giveaways

LAN Airlines, a Chilean carrier, selected a Latin American-themed restaurant in New York City where it gave out free vouchers for round-trip tickets to South America. Yeah, that's right. If you were at Nuela last Thursday night, you were one of the lucky diners who recieved a free flight. It doesn't seem fair that those people should get that kind of prize just for being in the right place at the right time, but it's all part of a larger marketing campaign for the airline. And let's be honest, I wouldn't complain at all if my dinner was interupted by a woman handing me a free flight to a foreign country. In fact, that would make my meal even more enjoyable.

Even though I didn't get a flight for free, I was able to take advantage of a limited-time holiday sale from Southwest Airlines. I had been scouring the travel websites the last couple weeks trying to find a reasonable price for a flight home for Christmas. However, I was not having much luck finding anything for under $300, so I figured I would hold off the search for another week, and lo and behold a deal came along. I was able to snag one-way tickets on Chicago-Denver routes for $99! And over Christmas...a definite steal in my opinion. So now I've booked my holiday trip home and I am so excited that I get to spend the money I saved on more gifts for my family! (Or on a new pair of shoes for myself, but I'm not that selfish.)

In Closing...

Those are the travel stories and experiences that have been on my mind lately. I apologize for not having anything more exciting, but I do hope to follow up with some destinations pieces in the coming days. So feel free to chime in on these topics and leave comments and opinions. I love reading them!

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Perfect Birthday Gift

Yes, it is that magical time of year, when everyone celebrates me! A time when everyone takes time out of their busy day to wish me well, ask me what my plans are, inquire about any gifts I've received, and ask the inevitable question, "so, how old are you?" (None of your business, by the way.) Mostly, it's the day that I get to soak up all the attention, get showed with gifts and compliments and indulge in all the goodies I want.(Modesty is usually my strong suit, but this is my special day, so deal with it.)

But even with all the love and attention I get on my birthday, I still struggle when it comes to telling people what I want. By now I've gotten past the age of birthday parties and wrapping presents and moved into the stage when a friend buying you a drink or lunch is a perfectly acceptable gift. So when my dad asked me what I wanted, I could not give him a straight answer--in all honesty, I had spent so much time planning my birthday party, I had not even though about what I actually wanted. I usually end up saying a gift card or money, but those don't really have much significance. (Though I am more than happy to accept them.) So I certainly appreciated my dad giving me a beautiful sapphire necklace and matching earrings...very thoughtful and something I would never buy for myself.

Yet as my magical day continues to tick by, I keep wondering what my perfect birthday gift would be. And then it hit me as I was collecting travel news for work...

A trip!

My perfect birthday gift would be a vacation...and not a vacation to just ITALY!

I want to spend my birthday in Tuscany, on a vineyard, surrounded by bottles of wine and plates of delicious food. I want to spend the day walking through the cobbled streets of the various Italian cities, window shopping at all the boutique and designer stores I cannot afford. I want to enjoy a loaded cone of Straciatella gelato, topped with another scoop of baccio--yum. I want to wander through fields of sunflowers, maybe grab a few to make my own personal birthday bouquet. I want to pick fresh grapes from the vine, and then learn how to crush them to make sweet wine. I want to sit around a festive table full of friends and family, all enjoying a fresh, home-cooked meal.

Obviously, I would not be able to jet over to Italy for one day only, it would require a much longer vacation, but you all get the idea. I couldn't do it this year, but maybe for my 30th--that's another big birthday that deserves a special celebration.

So for now, if you really want to get me a gift, a bottle of Italian wine or dinner or chocolate. Or perhaps giving me some miles so I can start saving them up for my perfect birthday in Italy!

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Fall Foliage in Maine

The East Coast, especially the New England states, provide some of the best places to see the colors change, and Maine is no exception. Leisure travel to this far north state increases significantly after Labor Day, and it's easy to see why. The lush environment is ideal to see the fall foliage and the coastal regions boast some of the most picturesque scenery in the country. Maine also has a number of fall activities to complete any trip.

Before you go, check the fall foliage website, the official tracker of conditions in Maine and where the colors are really starting to show. As of right now, most of Maine is still pretty green, but it's only a matter of time before the index ticks up and it will be in peak foliage season.

Acadia National Park. Credit:
Once you decide when you want to go, the next step is figuring out what to do. As I said before, there is no end to the possibilities in Maine. Obviously, seeing the leaves change will be at the top of your list--at least it should be--but, in all honesty, how can you miss it. Maine has over 17 million acres of forest, so catching the reds, golds and oranges will be no trouble at all. Whether you want to see a lot or a little is up to you. If you are eager to take in as much of the fall season as possible, I suggest taking a hike, bike ride or drive through the numerous trails that wind through the state. Acadia National Park has 57 miles of paved and less-traveled trails where bikers can travel along the coastline or venture on an old logging trail.

There are dozens of festivals in Maine during the months of September and October, including pumpkin carving events, haunted tours and craft shows, and there is no end to the wide array of foods one will taste while attending the festivities. Here is just a quick list of events you could hit throughout the state:

  • Harvest Fest & Chowder Cook-off in Bethel
  • ChiliFest in Wells
  • Salmon Festival in Eastport
  • Country Roads Artists & Artisans Tour
  • WoodenBoat Sail-In in Brooklin
  • Ogunquit's Antique Show & Sale
  • Cumberland Fair
  • Common Ground Country Fair in Unity
  • Apple Festival in Rangeley Lakes
  • Acadia's Oktoberfest on Mount Desert Island
  • Caribou Fall Arts & Crafts Festival
  • North American Wife Carrying Championship at Sunday River
  • Candlelight Ghost Tour in Bangor
  • Annual Pumpkin Carving Contest in Hiram
Obviously, that's a lot to choose from, but at least you know you have options.

As far as food, well, you certainly will not go hungry in Maine. The state is known for its seafood, especially its lobster, and visitors will devour its fresh, farm raised clams, oysters, mussels, scallops, salmon and trout, too. There are many great places to enjoy a traditional lobster "shore dinner," so check out this list to find one you like. Maine is also credited with having some of the best artisanal cheeses in the country from popular cheesemakers like Hahn's End, Appleton Creamery, Liberty Fields Farms and Oak Leaf Creamery, among others.
Portland Head Maine.

Another symbol of Maine is the lighthouse. In our age of digital technology, satellites and GPS, lighthouses no longer serve the same important purpose of guiding boats home that they once did, but they are still very distinctive features of Maine's coast, where more than 60 lighthouses can be found. So no matter what coastal city you choose to visit, chances are there will be a lighthouse somewhere along the beach.

If the outdoors are not your thing, Maine provides plenty of indoor attractions and activities, including world-renowned museums and art galleries, critically acclaimed theaters and performing arts centers, traditional antique and craft shops, and relaxing spa and salon getaways. Trust me, you can still enjoy those fall colors from the comfort of a lodge, boutique shop or museum gallery.

So why not schedule a trip to see the seasons change in one of the most magical places in the United States?

Sunday, September 11, 2011

10 Years After September 11

If you are old enough, you may remember a time when checking bags on a flight was free, when security lines were a breeze to get through--just toss your bag on the conveyor belt and walk through the scanner--when you could greet your friends and family at the gate rather than a designated welcome area with hundreds of other people. Yep, those were the days, the days before all the increased security, before the hike in various airline fees, the days before September 11, 2001, when two planes were hijacked by terrorists and deliberately flown into the twin towers in New York City, forever changing American's lives forever.

Not since the day that John F. Kennedy was shot has there been an event with so much significance that everyone can remember exactly what they were doing and where they were when they heard about it. Now, 10 years later, the effects of that day still ripple through our daily routines. Terror levels are broadcast on all news channels, politicians still reference the events in their speeches, American troops are being sent to fight a war brought on by what happened on that fateful Tuesday. It penetrates everything, from the state of our economy to how we get around the world. In fact, it's impact on the travel industry has probably been the most significant.

Right after 9/11, people were terrified to get back in the air. Airlines suffered huge losses as more people stopped flying and opted for ground transportation instead. Recovery was slow, as more and more people trickled back into airports, but the experience of air travel would never be the same. Suddenly, everyone required a boarding pass in order to get past security and into the terminal. No more goodbye hugs at the gate or welcome home kisses the minute you walk off the plane, those are long gone. And speaking of security, we all know how much that has changed in the last 10 years. Prior to the attacks, security was pretty basic. Now, there are more rules and regulations that passengers have to follow, it can be difficult to remember them all. (I cannot tell you how many times I have forgotten to take off a belt, or remove my sandals, or take my bag of toiletries out of my purse.)

Passenger going through security.
Credit: WSJ/Lucas Jackson
As various events occurred, security added more and more layers to the process. When a man tried to explode a bomb hidden in his shoe in 2001, TSA made all passengers remove shoes for X-ray screening; when a 2006 plot to use explosives in liquids, we were all limited to the quantity of liquids in our carry ons. And now with the new body scanners and intrusive patdowns, passengers have even more to deal with as angry TSA workers eye them with suspicion--or oggle them, which can be just as bad, trust me.

And then there are the smaller things that people might not notice, like the Septemeber 11 security fee that passengers are charged on every ticket they purchase, $2.50 on every flight, up to $10 per round trip. Just last year, we paid $2.1 billion from that fee alone. If you really want to hear a scary number, the International Air Transport Association estimates that airlines spent $7.4 billion on security in 2010. To compare, in 2000, airlines spent $448 million on security. It's a significant difference. No wonder airlines are hemorrhaging money and desperately trying to bring in more revenue by hiking ticket prices, charging extra fees for checking bags and taking away free snacks--I'm still mad about the pretzels, Continental.

Security lines in BC, Canada. Credit: Guardian
But the effects are not only felt here in the U.S., they have hit millions of people around the world in ways we could never imagine. Obviously, security measures were upped at international airports, too, and foreign carriers changed their policies and procedures to adapt to the lower demand for air travel. But the heightened security adopted after 9/11 has discouraged many tourists from coming to America, hurting job growth in the hospitality industry. The government has created unweildy entry procedures for visitors, like lengthened wait times for visas to enter the country. Our country is in desperate need of more foreign visitors to help stimulate spending and feed money into our economy, but the backlog of visa applications has deterred a lot of travelers. In Brazil, for example, waiting periods can exceed four months. That kind of delay could cost our country hundreds of thousands of potential visitors who will choose to spend their money in other countries that do not force them to go through such a difficult and expensive process.

I realize that most of the changes have been made to keep us and our country safe, and overall, I feel we are relatively safe. But I admit that I still get irritated by the flying experience sometimes, as I'm sure we all do. I hate paying extra fees for bags, and then worrying about getting overhead space if I choose not to check. I hate when the security lines are so long that even though you give yourself enough time to make your flight, you still might cut it close.

Remembering 9/11 Credit:
What I truly hate the most is the uneasiness that can still come when getting on a plane, the fear of not knowing whether or not you are truly safe. The acts of September 11 left an impression on all Americans, whether we had a direct connection or not. While watching the special coverage at the memorial site in New York, NBC showed a montage of video clips and images from the attacks, and I couldn't help but cry. There remains an overwhelming sadness associated with that day, because it showed how vulnerable our country can be and how far we still have to go. Our country will never get over what happened, never forget the innocent people who lost their lives, and will continue to fight for our freedom and safety, no matter what kind of small inconveniences that might bring about. It's all worth it in the end.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Welcoming Fall, Going Home

It doesn't quite feel like fall outside--ok, let's be honest, it feels like mid-July with the 90-degree temperatures and high levels of humidity--but that wonderful season is just around the corner. Labor Day weekend marks the end of summer, and I am saying farewell with a much-needed trip back to Denver, back home to the wonderful state of Colorado.

I know I sound like a broken record sometimes, but I just love Denver. I love going back to the rising peaks of the Rocky Mountains, their natural beauty leaving me breathless everytime. It doesn't matter that I grew up there, spent the first 18 years of my life in the mile-high city, it still surprises me, still excites me with everything is has to offer. I'm sure everyone feels that way about their home town, at least at one point or another. That's what is so great about going back, it's still the same, comfortable enviornment you remember, but there is always something new and different to experience. I can't wait to walk around the neighborhoods I used to frequent and see what new shops have popped up, new restaurants. It's like rediscovering a place all over again. Of course, I would be sad if some of my favorite places were no longer around, which tends to happen now and again, but it just opens the door for a change, and that's always a positive thing.

And while I am bummed that summer is coming to a close and the warm weather will be leaving us soon--though today, I would love some relief from the heat--I am thrilled to welcome fall. It is, afterall, my favorite season. It might be the slightly cooler weather that allows me to wear my cute sweaters and boots, or it might be the changing colors of the leaves, or the smell of apple cider and pumkin pie. Whatever the reason, fall is a fantastic time of year, and I am happy to be saying hello from the comfort of home.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Quicker on the Return

It is common knowledge among most travelers that the return leg of a trip always seems shorter than the initial portion. But while we all accept this phenomena, it's not clear exaclty why it happens. In my personal opinion, getting to a place takes longer because of the anticipation. You are eager to get to your destination, excited to get the trip underway, at least that's how I always feel before a trip. In fact, the feeling is not restricted to the actual commute, but rather the entire week--or month, depending--leading up to the vacation. For example, this whole week has just been dragging along, one minute feeling like five. The reason? Because I have a flight home to Denver Friday afternoon, and I cannot wait. As a result, the days seem to be at a standstill. It's that damn anticipation, the desire to get away that forces every moment to feel like an eternity. That is, until you actually get there, and then time can not speed by faster. And then you are back on a plane--or a car or train--making your way to your place of origin, welcoming reality again.

What is truly unfortunate is that the initial trip and the return are exactly the same amount of time, but our minds tell us differently. It's all in our heads. Trust me, there is scientific proof. According to an article in USA Today, researchers found that the phenomena made trips home seem 17% to 22% shorter than the initial one. The scientists interviewed people about trips they took, and each time, even though the trips were exactly the same length, most people felt the return trip took less time. Students riding bikes said the initial trip took an average of 44 minutes, but the return took 37, when in reality, both legs took 35. Yeah, they actually have numbers, data to back this up. As far as explanations, well, they claim that the effect, which they dub "the return trip effect," was caused because people expected the initial trip to be faster than it was. It's that optimism that messes with our heads, it skews our sense of what's coming.

So can this phenomena effect other aspects of our lives? Can it really be limited to travel? I'm not really sure, because there are not a lot of incidences where we take one route to get anywhere and choose that same route to get back. Because in life, we're always moving forward, in some respect. People could argue that it seems to take a long time to get anywhere in life, but a second to lose it all. While that is certainly true, you are not then moving back down that path you came down to get back to a certain point. Nope, once you lose it, you are still stuck in that current place, just without what you had before. So while we would all love to have the return trip effect kick in when we need to get somewhere faster--or at least feel like we're getting their quicker--the best we can do is trust that we will get there when we get there, and our minds will help us along the way.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Hurricane Strands Passengers, Brings Unexpected Guests

This past weekend, Hurricane Irene slammed into the East Coast, leaving billions of dollars in damage, millions of people without power and thousands more stranded in airports. And while the impact was not as bad as many had anticipated, it still severerly hurt travel in one of the most frequented air spaces in the country.

Passengers wait in line. Credit: CNN
Airlines canceled over 11,000 flights over the weekend, including nearly 1,000 today. Not sure how many of those trips were fully booked, but no matter what, that meant for a whole lot of people hanging around airports across the nation waiting to get another flight or figure out alternate plans. Some made the best of it--like the guy who ended up at my rooftop party after his flight to New York was canceled on Saturday night--while others stressed and complained for hours until finally making it to their destinations.

Many travelers received refunds or rebookings without any penalties, but there were still hours of frustration for most. Customer service lines were jammed with calls, with people waiting up to an hour and a half before speaking with anyone. Obviously, this is not the first weather-related disruption for travelers, just think about everything we've gone through this year alone--blizzards, tornadoes, earthquakes. The best anyone can do is play the hand they are dealt.

For example, the guy I mentioned earlier, Chris, was making his way back to New York after visiting friends on the West Coast. He landed in Chicago, not sure if his flight would be canceled, hoping it would just be delayed. Despite the storm not being as extreme as expected in New York, he still ended up stranded in O'Hare. Luckily for him, United gave him a free hotel room for the night. But for Chris, a night in a hotel near the airport was no way to spend the night. He called his friend Josh, who just happened to be at my apartment for an end-of-summer soiree on our roof. Voila! Instant night out in Chicago. An unfortunate string of events that led to a fun evening meeting some new people.

I am aware that not everyone can get this lucky. Many people did not have friends in the cities where they were stranded. But the story does make a point that there is a way to make light of every situation. So no matter what kind of misfortune comes your way while traveling, there is always a way to make it better, more enjoyable.

This may seem a little too upbeat and optimistic for all those who faced horrific travel issues this weekend, and for those people, I truly am sorry. I am no stranger to those events. The best you can do is grin and bear it, and hope you get a damn good refund from your airline. If not, a good stiff drink should do the trick.

Friday, August 26, 2011

You’re Staying Where?

I love hotels! It may sound weird, but I really do. I like walking into a new place I’ve never been before, nicely cleaned and set up, just waiting for my arrival. I like seeing what each new room has to offer, from their toiletries, decorations and random other amenities. It’s exciting to be in a different place that isn’t your apartment, even if it’s just for a couple days. While every kind of hotel is thrilling, and I would more than happy to stay at a random Holiday Inn somewhere, in all honesty, it’s the luxury or boutique styles that are the most appealing to me. I mean, they are just so different than your typical chain hotels—which, unfortunately make up the majority of locations in the country. The real tragedy is not just that there are fewer unique hotels, but they are also much more expensive. But to experience something truly out there…I think it would be worth the money.

Sala Silvergruva. Credit: WSJ
So, you can just imagine how excited I got when I read about Sweden’s Sala Silvergruva, a hotel that is so far from ordinary, it borders on creepy. It’s located in a 600-year-old silver mine dug in solid marble. The high-style rooms are situated over 50 stories below ground, and it takes guests a full four minutes in an elevator to get to the outside world. The rooms have silver leather chairs and candelabras all over. And since you are sleeping underground, the hotel uses a partition and electric heaters to bring the temperature up from its usual 36 degrees to a more reasonable 64 degrees—down covers and extra blankets are provided. Talk about stepping out of your comfort zone.

If guests don’t want to sleep in a cave, they can opt for a wooden dormitory, originally built for miners. While it may not be as nice as the mine suite, it is much cheaper and you still get a similar experience. The suite costs around $600 per couple, with a dinner and subterranean tour included in the price. The dormitory costs $60 per person.

A cave is certainly intriguing to me, but I think sleeping in a refurbished plane would be more my style. At Stockholm’s Arlanda Airport, a Boeing 747 that used to fly for Pan Am was gutted and transformed into hotel accommodations. It has 27 rooms equipped with bunk beds and cabinets made from luggage bins. Guests share the bathrooms, but they have been revamped to include shows and porcelain toilets. If you have the money, you can get a suite in the nose and tail of the plane that have double beds and their own bathrooms. Bunk-bed rooms cost $60, while the suites cost around $500.

In the Netherlands, an old harbor crane was made into a one-room inn. The cab sits atop four legs at 56 feet high and features a double bed and bathroom with a toilet and showers. It has large windows that offer panoramic views, but the cab is still designed to rotate, so guests can change their view with the push of a joystick. Day rates range from $570 to $857.

While some of these sound really interesting, and I would like to try them out at least once, there is one concept I think I would gladly skip: A prison. That’s right, you heard me correctly. Some hoteliers have taken to turning closed down prisons into boutique hotels. I cannot imagine two things more opposite. The Malmaison Oxford Hotel was converted from a prison in 2005. Part of the old complex dates back to 1071—which I guess is pretty cool. But I don’t know if I could sleep in an old cell that once housed killers, rapists and thieves. Stockholm’s LĂ„ngholmen Hotel was also once a prison. It was where Sweden’s last execution was held in 1910 and closed in 1975. Decorations include mirrors that mimic guillotines and gray sheets striped like prison uniforms. Rooms are very small and have bunk beds.

So, there are more than a few quirky places out there for me to explore, and hopefully one day I'll get to see these hotels and experience everything they have to offer. Because, let's face it, it's not everyday you can sleep in a silver mine or an oil-rig escape pod, so why not step out of the ordinary, just once.