Author Archives: She Is Going Places

About She Is Going Places

Encouraging travelers of all ages, budgets, and backgrounds to get out and go exploring.

Star Alliance Worldwide Mileage Competition

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Here’s another travel-related contest for you. It involves Star Alliance, one of the world’s largest global alliances, and a million frequent flyer miles.

Star Alliance is celebrating its 20th anniversary with a worldwide mileage competition where travelers share their favorite cultural experiences for a chance to win one million frequent flyer miles (1,000,000 miles). Twenty-one winners will be rewarded with 1,000,000 frequent flier miles to be used on any of its 28 member airlines.

The competition is now underway and ends on July 31, 2017.

If you’re stumped on how you might use this prize, Star Alliance also offered some suggestions:

  • 2 first class tickets around the world. From New York to Paris to Dubai to Hong Kong, stop along the way and see the world in style
  • Fly an entire wedding party and guests to Hawaii
  • Reunite eight family members in Paris to enjoy all the city has to offer
  • Treat extended family to a Spanish beach vacation in Andalucía. Book luxury hotel accommodations with the miles and have some to spare for a rental car.

However, you have to enter first. To enter, visit this link. Note: you have to be a member of a Star Alliance FFP to participate. If you’re not but still want to enter this contest, you have to sign up and receive a membership number online in order to participate.

 

Then users select the Star Alliance FFP in which they wish to win the million miles and enter your FFP number. Next, contestants will upload a profile picture and an image of a favorite cultural where they will also describe their favorite cultural experience.

Judging will be carried out independently, by among others, Star Alliance’s 20th Anniversary partner, National Geographic. The winners wll be announced on September 28, 2017.

Seeing Suzhou, China

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In May, I got to visit Suzhou, China. It’s considered to be the “Venice of the East.” Here’s why.

Based in the eastern part of China, and 60 miles south from Shanghai, Suzhou feels unchanged by time. In different parts of the city, you feel like you’re stepping back into another era. There are public gardens once belonging to prominent families or government officials; waterways still used for getting from one point to another; stone bridges that can walked over; and streets dating back centuries lined up with markets and teahouses. Here’s what I saw in Suzhou.

The Humble Administator’s Garden

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Built during the Ming Dynasty, the Humble Administrator’s Garden once belonged to a Chinese government worker, who saw this place as a way to retire to a more simpler life.

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Divided into three segments, one third of the Humble Administrator’s Garden is covered in water. You can walk along pathways that take you past pavilions, bridges, connecting pools, and halls. One of the garden’s buildings is called Distant Fragrance Hall, named after an aromatic lotus pond nearby.

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Tiger Hill

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A Song Dynasty poet named Su Shi once said, “It’s a lifelong pity if having visited Suzhou you did not visit Tiger Hill.” Its name involves two legends. One says that the hill physically looking like a crouching tiger. The other is a tale about a white tiger appearing on the hill after a funeral for a warrior king; the tiger is there to guard the tomb.

Legends aside, Tiger Hill’s main feature is not a tiger, but a pagoda. The Yunyan Pagoda stands seven stories tall and has developed a slight slant over the years, giving it the nickname “The Leaning Tower of China.”

Tiger Hill Pagoda

Other features at Tiger Hill extend to a section of tea plants; a garden of bonsai trees, with some dating as far back as 400 years; and a sword testing stone and sword pool, where it’s believed that the king’s sword collection may be buried underneath.

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Shantang Street
and Pingjiang Road

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Suzhou has historic roads that have been in use for centuries. Shown above, Shantang Street is graced with red-colored lanterns, restaurants and eateries such as Song He Lou, and various shops for getting local candies and snacks and a variety of souvenirs such as paper-cutting art and embroideries. Another one is the Pingjiang Road, with eateries and stores on its main road suited to every budget and taste. Besides shopping and dining, go to Fuxi Teahouse, to watch a Kunqu Opera performance.

Lingering Garden

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Another renowned garden in Suzhou, The Lingering Garden has changed hands over the centuries, but has touches reflecting its various owners. One of these owners collected shaped rocks known as “scholar stones” and created a section known as the stone forest.

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The garden is divided into four sections, with special features include halls of various shapes and sizes, a bonzai garden, and a pond and grotto area. Its major structure in Celestial Hall of Five Peaks, a structure noted for architectural asthetics such as girders with lattice patterns.

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Part two of this post will feature more about Suzhou’s crafts legacy along with my excursion to Tongli, a nearby water town. Stay tuned.

 

Al Hirschfeld Exhibit at The Algonquin Hotel

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News from the e-mail bag: If you know who caricaturist Al Hirschfeld is, or not, make it a point to visit The Algonquin Hotel in New York City this summer. From now through August 8, this grand hotel is exhibiting Hirschfeld’s black-and-white caricatures of celebrities and Broadway stars within its Lobby Lounge.

 

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“Guys and Dolls, 1950” / © The Al Hirschfeld Foundation

 

Unveiled in late May, in timing with the 2017 Tony Awards, “The Algonquin Hotel Celebrates The Tonys As Seen By Hirschfeld” displays 23 of Hirschfeld’s drawings atop the lounge’s oak paneling.

 

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 “Algonquin Round Table,” 1962 / © The Al Hirschfeld Foundation

 

The late Hirschfeld, who passed away in 2003, has his ties to The Algonquin. He frequently came to the hotel’s legendary Algonquin Round Table, where NYC artists, writers, and critics hung out at lunch as a group known as “The Vicious Circle.” Hirschfeld knew and worked with many of its members. Hirschfeld also sketched the circle’s famous group portrait, including member/writer Dorothy Parker, in 1962.

 

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The Phantom of the Opera, 1988 /  © The Al Hirschfeld Foundation

 

Also, while seeing The Algonquin Hotel, ask about “Mathilda,” its resident cat. The Algonquin Hotel is located on West 44 Street along the Avenue of the Americas (or Sixth Avenue). It’s also near Rockefeller Center and Radio City Music Call, so you can see a lot of places in one day. Better yet, get a drink from the hotel’s Lobby Bar or eat in at the Round Table Restaurant.

First Time Tips for Staying at an AirBnb

 

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Flickr Creative Commons photo / SioW

 

I have to admit that, for a while, I’ve been dragging my feet about using AirBnb. But last month, I decided to give it a try. Or felt I probably needed to in order to make my trip work.

I signed up for a travel conference in Washington, D.C., and my budget at the time was pretty tight. It turned out to be too tight for conference hotel room rates.

I still wanted to go to this event, so I created an account with AirBnb and browsed through their Washington, D.C. area listings. I scrutinized their locations and rental reviews. I figured to take a chance and put in for a reservation at a private apartment. It was a 10-minute walk from the conference’s location, at a price that was about that was about $100 to $200 less than all of the special conference rate hotels I was looking at. And it continuously got a high ranking from previous renters.

 

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Staying in an AirBnB in Washington, D.C. was an interesting experience.

 

My request got approved, and so I went.

Now with my initial AirBnB stay complete, I did some thinking about my experience, which turned out to be fine. I came up with these suggested tips to share if you’re looking to do the same.

Think about what you comfortable with. Along with searching by location, searches for rentals on AirBnb can be broken down into subcategories such as type of setup. Rental types can go from homes and private apartments to rooms in the renter’s home and even untraditional lodging (like a poolhouse). While being in tune with what you can afford can be important, you also want to feel okay about where you’re staying. Although a room rental would have saved me about half of what I paid, I felt more secure about having my own place.

Fully read descriptions. Along with having photos of the property, AirBnb listers provide a description of what their rental looks like and what is being offered with it. Fully read and re-read this section, in order to make sure you know what you’re getting when booking a potential reservation. Make sure the listing has what you probably want or need. Is there Wi-Fi? Will bath towels be provided; do I need to bring toiletries? Does it have a kitchen area; it is stocked with housewares? Is a grocery store or public transportation nearby? Can you park a car there?

 

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Having an AirBnb rental in a location with access to stores is helpful.

 

Learn about access. One query to keep in mind with an AirBnb rental is how you’ll be let inside. Again, that’s where asking questions –and fully going over the listing – comes into play (AirBnb listers can be messaged through AirBnb.com). Confirm how you will access your dwelling. Will you have a key or combination number, and do you have to do anything else? In my experience, my keys were to be left in a lockbox on the outside door. The combination was given in my instruction booklet, and I tested it sans keys to be sure. At first, I dreaded the thought of not having the keys in my possession, but I grew to be fine with the lockbox. It meant I didn’t have to worry about losing this only set while I was out.

Look after the place. When you’re used to a hotel’s creature comforts, an AirBnb can be different. As in, who’ll be keeping your room nice and tidy? It’s best to remember that, during your stay, you probably will be responsible for making your bed and hanging up bathroom towels. Also with your kitchen area, you’ll probably be responsible for buying and making your own meals (or having to go out to eat). Of course, this can leave the dishwashing duties up to you. And guess who might have to take out the garbage.

Stay in contact. An AirBnb property lister should provide a phone number to reach him/her – or his/her representative – that should lead to a reasonable response time. Naturally, if you have an issue upon arrival or while there, you want to text and/or call the owner right away. Save it to your phone before arriving; confirm if they take texts. Texts can serve as a communication log for any problems, asking on-site questions, and also clarifying any issues. Initially, my rental had a plumbing issue, so I texted the property owner’s assistant ASAP. I later used my saved texts to remind my lister about what we agreed to (a price break for the inconvenience).

Be an ideal house guest. Regardless of your setup, do remember that you’re a guest in someone else’s home. Follow the golden housekeeping rule: treat this place as though you’d like yours to be treated. Tidy up loose ends before leaving. Put away items you’ve taken out. Even neatly folding and placing your used bed sheets on top of the bed is a kind gesture. Also, AirBnb gives about 14 days to list a rental review, so remember to leave your comments (as they will leave feedback about you in turn).

 

Have you used AirBnb before? What would you suggest?

G Adventures Unfiltered Contest Giveaway

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In November 2015, I took a G Adventures escorted tour of Japan and enjoyed my experience (I booked and paid for my spot). So, when I received a notice about their latest contest giveaway, I wanted to share it with you. It’s also has a fun way to enter – by showing a side of traveling that might not be so picture perfect.

G Adventures is asking you to share your best #AdventureUnfiltered photo or video for your chance to win a G Adventures tour of your choice (valued at $12,000 USD) for you and a friend. As their employees have put it:

Here is more of a description:

“We’ve all seen those typical, beautiful travel photos all over social media. But now we’re looking for something different. We want to see the photos that are anything but perfect – the messy, ugly, honest moments you hardly see online.”

There are two ways to enter. Click on this link to learn more and directly submit. Also, be sure to follow contest rules; in particular, their do’s and dont’s. Entries must be received no later than 11:59PM EST (time) EST on July 26, 2017.

 

 

 

 

 

Applying for a Travel Visa

 

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Credit: Jon Rawlinson / Flickr Creative Commons

 

2017 marks a travel first for me: getting a visa. Up until now, I haven’t traveled to a country that requires one. My work trip to China is changing that. In order for me to attend an excursion to Suzhou, I had to apply for a visa. I had to fill out and mail in paperwork for review and then wait on getting an approval (which I succeeded).

Overall, a visa is a government document that temporarily gives you the permission to be in the country you’re visiting. It grants you entry for a certain period of time.

Depending on what country you’re a citizen of, and where you’re planning to visit, visa requirements can vary. For example, as of this writing, U.S. citizens have to obtain a visa in order to enter and exit destinations like India, China, Russia, Turkey, Australia, Brazil, Cuba, some Asian countries like Bhutan, and most African nations. Some visas can be acquired on arrival in the destination, others might be done ahead of time through an online processing system, and others require sending in documents like your passport to embassies. Yet they all can involve paying fees.

Don’t let the process scare you. With the right approach and application materials, a visa application can be completed easily and effectively. Here are five general tips to keep in mind when applying for a visa.

Check on your destination’s visitor status. Visa needed or not, always research and confirm what your country of interest requires for visitors. Oftentimes, if a visa is required, you’re the one required to obtain it. And you have to make sure it’s done right. Check what categories your visit falls under and what your length of stay will be permitted. In some cases, based on politics or other reasoning, there are additional requirements such as written proof of a hotel stay or vaccination records. Also, your visa application might ask for specifics like a certain category your visit falls under – tourist, business, etc. – so see what your type falls under.

Read and re-read your requirements. Little mistakes in your paperwork can cost you in many ways, so thoroughly go through documents and their directions. Along with obtaining the right form(s), scan them with your eyes very carefully, so that you understand everything from what size your headshot should be, to what additional documents you need to submit (most likely your passport). Print out more than one copy, so if you can “practice” filling out a test form and then have the other one as the final version. Or if it’s done online, carefully fill out forms or get a copy or get screenshots to refer to as a guide beforehand.

Give yourself extra time. Procrastinators, be forwarned. Usually, visas can take about a week or so for processing, but waiting until the last minute to submit an application could cause you some agita over getting approved in time. Plus, in the case your paperwork has errors or other problems come up like slow service, you want some buffer time to have these issues solved. And if you need your passport for something else in the meantime – like a pre-trip trip – then you’d definitely be hustling. Also, submitting your paperwork is often done by mail, so you don’t want to have to rush to extra expedite your envelope. Or, if possible, see about going to a consulate.

Invest in a quality headshot. While major drugstore chains offer passport/visa photo services, perhaps think about spending a little extra on getting your headshot. Headshots for China visas have a unique set of measurements, so I chose to go to a photography studio to get it right. And make sure you also understand the guidelines for your pic so you can explain them to your picture-taker, if needed. My first photographer decided to touch up my tired-looking face (A BIG NO NO!) so much that I went somewhere else for a retake (which was accepted despite my weary appearance).

Consider using a visa processing service. If filling out detailed forms sounds daunting, don’t be shy about getting, and paying for, help. Visa processing/application centers deal with these applications daily and can guide you through the process. For my China visa, I used CIBTvisas, which has offices in major U.S. cities like New York. For a processing fee, with additional options, I was able to speak to their customer service department have reps by phone, mail in my documents for review and submission, and then opt to have my visa picked up in person or mailed back to me.

Have you applied for a travel visa before? Tell me about your experience in the comments section.

Exploring Philadelphia’s Old City District

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Last week, Philadelphia welcomed in a new museum that’s really fitting for its location in Old City district – the Museum of the American Revolution. For work, I got to see a pre-opening preview of the museum and spent some time revisiting locations significant to our nation’s founding.

During our country’s Colonial days, Philadelphia was a big deal. In what’s now the Historic District, which Old City belongs to, there are buildings still standing from that era and plaques marking areas where once located structures once have their respective ties to our legacy. But it’s not all history here in Old City. This neighborhood’s present-day scene is really buzzing with restaurants, nightlife, and galleries.

Here are my suggestions for exploring Old City.

First, check out these museums and attractions.

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Museum of the American Revolution
As a 2.0 American history lesson, this redbrick building goes beyond dates and facts. It’s designed to bring visitors directly into the growing conflicts that would have the 13 British colonies deciding to break away from English rule and develop a new republic. And, of course, there are many sides to the story. In a chronological format, the museum delves into not just the main characters like General George Washington, but also other individuals whose voices often may be overlooked – women, freed and enslaved African peoples, and the Native American Oneida nation. Artifacts are on view too. In particular, see Washington’s headquarters tent that’s enclosed in a glass casing – where he made crucial battlefield decisions.

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The President’s House and Liberty Bell
Maybe you know this already or you don’t. Before the White House was built in and D.C. would become our nation’s capital, our country’s first two Presidents George Washington and John Adams resided in Philadelphia. While their presidential home – known now as The President’s House – is long gone, an outdoor display marks its spot where you learn about the African Americans who served Washington and his family. Adjacent to this area, take the time to view the Liberty Bell. It once was a working bell, before getting its now signature crack, and has become a symbol for civil rights.

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Benjamin Franklin Museum
Most of what we think of this Founding Father is from his later years in life. But he’s got his place in our history, and it’s definitely noted. With fun videos and well-described objects, this museum is based on a lower level of a building and tells overall about his life story. For example, Franklin is actually not originally from Philly, came to live here at a young age and went on to be prosperous and influential. Afterward, head to Christ Church Burial Ground, where he’s buried and find coins placed on top of his tombstone.

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Independence Hall
You need to walk over to the Independence Visitor Center first to get your timed entrance ticket to visit the interior of this landmark and step into the room where the Declaration of Independence was signed. While waiting in line for your turn inside the East Wing, go visit the West Wing to view original copies of documents like um…. the Declaration of Independence.

Now, as for dining, here we go. My picks include:

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– 2nd Story Brewing: This brewery/restaurant/ bar was started by a local farmer (who still owns it) and her beer-brewing son-in-law, with bar grub that’s healthy too (as shown here).

– The Little Lion, located right across from the Museum of the American Revolution, centers on fine, Southern-inspired comfort food with brunch, lunch, and dinner selections within a casual setting.

– Zahav, an Israeli restaurant featuring small plates, tasting menus, hummus and other traditional dishes with a modern twist, and an at-the-bar happy hour specials like half-off on hummus.

– Khyber Pass Pub: This dive-looking, dark wooden interior bar with a side gastropub is touted for its Southern food and beer selection plus has vegetarian-friendly options. Some unique choices include popcorn that can suit vegans or carnivores (the latter version features bacon grease).

– Han Dynasty: The Old City location of this chain does a contemporary yet still authentic take on Sichuan cuisine. One of their best dishes is their Dan Dan Noodles, and you’re given a choice on the spice level by calling out a number.

– Fork: This sophisticated New American restaurant that’s said to have jump-started Old City’s restaurant scene about 15-20 years ago. With an elegant interior and a push for seasonal ingredients, lunch/dinner choices can feature handmade pastas and high-end starters.

– The City Tavern: Yes, it can seem touristy with the wait staff dressed in historic attire, but it provides a fun intro to what the Colonials ate and drank with choices based on authentic period recipes.

– The Franklin Fountain: An ice cream parlor bringing you back to the time of soda jerks with bow-tied waiters and quite the list of flavors.

Have you been to Old City? What do you recommend?

Have you been to Old City? What do you recommend?