Saturday, October 31, 2015

2015 Skate America

Ever since I was a little girl, I've been a huge fan of figure skating. I remember being captivated, like much of the nation, by Nancy Kerrigan during the 1994 Olympics in Lillehammer. I even had a poster of her on my wall. Then in the late '90s, I loved every second of the epic rivalry between Michelle Kwan and Tara Lipinski. The 1998 Olympics are still a sore subject for me. That's why I was so excited when it was announced that Skate America would take place this year in Milwaukee. Just 90 minutes north of Chicago, Milwaukee has recently become my favorite weekend getaway because of the great brewery scene, delicious food, and friendly people. I recruited some friends to join us for the weekend, excited to hopefully make some new fans of the sport.

And we all made the podium!

Skate America is an international competition and one of the seven events that make up the Grand Prix of Figure Skating. There are six preliminary competitions (Skate America is one of those) where skaters earn points to qualify for the Grand Prix Final. Many of the skaters who competed are familiar names from the 2014 Sochi Olympics, like Gracie Gold, Jason Brown, and Julia Lipnitskaya.

We bought tickets to both sessions on Saturday, which means we saw the free skates for all four disciplines: pairs, ladies, ice dance, and mens.

My personal favorite is the ladies' event, so I was thrilled to see Gracie Gold turn in a fantastic free skate. This program to Firebird is just perfect for her. High-energy but elegant, it hits all her strengths. She finished with the silver medal (mostly thanks to a less-than-stellar short program and some stiff competition from a young Russian), but this was a solid start to her season.

My favorite moment of Gracie's long program

The highlight of the whole day, though, was seeing Max Aaron bring home the gold in the men's event. He was national champion in 2013 and has struggled with inconsistency since then. A brilliant jumper, he's always struggled with the artistic side of the sport. One of my friends loves him, and I always tease her for it because I just didn't understand his appeal. But recently, he's spent a lot of time focusing on his skating skills and interpretation of the music, and it is much-improved. It was wonderful seeing him put together two clean performances to take the gold medal.

Go Max!

There are lots of skating events, and I rarely get to attend in person, so I rely on the internet to keep me up-to-date. The Skating Lesson is a podcast/blog run by Jennifer Kirk and Dave Lease, and I watch their videos every week. I adore their snarky take on the sport, and was so excited when I spotted them in the audience during the ice dance final! It was great to chat with them for a few minutes.

Not holding an edge, but definitely looking sexy

It was a great event, and I'm so glad I could attend. There's nothing quite like live figure skating. The World Championships are being held in Boston this year, and I'm already planning my trip out there. Until then, I'll be glue to Ice Network and cheering on Team USA!

Any other figure skating fans out there?

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

#2: Do a Triathlon

 When I signed up for my first triathlon back in June, I didn't know what I was getting myself into. I had no idea how to train for a tri, and after looking up several different training schedules, I decided to just wing it. I tried to take at least one spin class a week, run at least once a week, and swim whenever I could.

The thing that made me most nervous about doing a tri was all the equipment. Triathlon is a very expensive sport, and I was determined to not spend any money. I already had running shoes, goggles, and a bike helmet, but I borrowed a bike from a friend, and another friend loaned me her tri suit to wear. I figured I wouldn't need a wetsuit because the race was at the end of August and the water temperature would probably be warm enough. I checked the water temperature periodically over the summer, and 2 weeks before race day, it was about 72 degrees. Chilly, but perfectly fine for wetsuit-less swimming. Then the cold snap hit. The water dropped 12 degrees overnight. I naively thought it would go back up. About 3 days before the race, I realized I was wrong. Panicked, I searched around for a wetsuit. I refused to pay $150+ on a new wetsuit that I would wear for a total of about 15 minutes, but all the local stores were sold out of their rentals for the weekend. Fortunately, someone in my marathon training group came through, and I set out the morning before the race to pick her wetsuit up. I got it home and tried it on. It didn't fit. Shit. I was less than 24 hours away from jumping into 55-degree water, and I didn't have a wetsuit. But someone else from my marathon training group had also offered her wetsuit, so I hopped in my car and drove to the 'burbs to get it. This one fit. Crisis averted!

This race permitted athletes to drop their bikes off the day before. They also had a special late check-in time for people doing the sprint triathlon. This was great because it meant I could sleep in a little! My wave didn't start until about 9:45am, so I was glad that I didn't need to show up at 6am to drop my stuff off.

The morning of the race, I woke up around 6:45, ate breakfast, grabbed my bag, and headed downtown. I wanted to get there no later than 8:00 so I'd have plenty of time to get my transition area all set up and head down to the swim start. After getting checked in, I had about 20 minutes to kill before I needed to be in the corral. It gave me time to watch the swim leg before me, which helped calm my nerves a lot. It wasn't as crowded as I thought it was going to be and I realized that I'm a much stronger swimmer than most of the other competitors there. With the swim, I was most nervous about being caught in the fray, but watching the swim made me realize there was plenty of space for everyone.

Soon enough, it was time for me to get my wetsuit and swim cap on and head to the start!

My original plan was to start near the back, but after watching the waves ahead of me, I decided to start front and center. This race had an in-water start, which means that instead of running into the water once the horn sounds, everyone gets in and treads water for a bit first. The water was something like 62 degrees, so it was a little shocking to jump into that. Before long, the horn sounded and we were off. I sprinted out of the gate in an effort to not get run over, but between the cardio effort, tight wetsuit, and cold water, I had a hard time breathing. I was a little freaked out, especially because I was only about 50 meters into a 750 meter swim. After doing a little breaststroke to get my heart rate down, the water inside my wetsuit started to warm up, and I felt OK. I stuck my face back in the water and freestyled my way down the harbor.


It was my first time swimming in open water, and it wasn't as bad as I thought it would be. The weirdest part was seeing all the plants and stuff beneath the surface. I also didn't get run over as much as I thought I would. As you can see in the video, there's plenty of room for people to spread out. At most, a swimmer coming up from behind would touch your feet or calves before passing.

Before too long, I was climbing out of the water and on my way to the bike!

Swim time: 15:08

I had to run about 400 meters from the swim finish to the start of the transition area, and then all the way through transition to where my bike was located. Once I got there, I ripped off my wetsuit, dried off my legs and feet, threw on my tank top, helmet, socks, and running shoes, and got on my way.

The bike course was an out-and-back on Lake Shore Drive. They closed the innermost lanes to traffic, but there were still cars in the outside 2 lanes. I was nervous about this because I hate riding with cars, but there ended up being plenty of space for us. I quickly got into a rhythm, but unlike in the water, I was getting passed by just about everyone.

I fell out of my rhythm about 4 miles in. I was heading up a little hill and changed gears, but the shifter didn't quite click, so when I stood up to get more power and it locked into place, I lost my balance and fell off the bike. I quickly got up and checked my body and my bike, and other than a skinned knee, elbow, and hand, I was OK. I squirted some water from my water bottle into my bloody wounds to rinse out any dirt or gravel, and hopped back on my bike.

From that point on, I was determined. I'd been so down on the bike section, and I guess the bike bit me back, so there was nothing left to lose. I started counting the people I passed, hoping to maybe pass a few. It became a big motivator for me to pick up my speed, and in the end, I passed over 20 people.

Bike time: 1:04:33

I racked my bike, took off my helmet, and hit the road. This was it! Unfortunately, I was pretty zapped from the previous hour-and-a-half of exercise. I'd hoped to run the whole thing, but that didn't happen. I tried to run more than I walked, but I definitely walked a lot in the first mile.

Once we got past the Shedd Aquarium, I felt OK. I ran a lot more, and I told myself I could stop and walk for a bit once I hit mile 2. Before I knew it, I was coming up on the marker for mile 3! Well-played, course designer. The part just before the final stretch is uphill (not well-played, course designer), and then I was on the flat road with the finish line in front of me. I gave it everything I had, and sprinted across that line. I did it! I was a triathlete!

Run time: 33:27

Triathlon is a very different beast than distance running, but I'm glad I gave it a try (ha!). I liked the variety during the race. It made it a lot easier mentally to be able to switch up your focus to different events instead of just running. I wasn't exactly bitten by the bug (so much gear and schlepping of the gear!), but I wouldn't count out doing it again in the future.

Final time: 2:05:49

Tuesday, September 29, 2015


Today is our third wedding anniversary.

Three years seems anti-climactic. We've figured things out. Not everything, but the big things. We are fully integrated into one another's families, and have gone through hard times together. We understand each other's quirks and what buttons not to push. I know to keep the kitchen table tidy, but he knows to ignore the little pile of clothes in front of my closet.

The other day, I gave my friend a bit of old-married-lady advice about how to know if your significant other is the one: figure out if the little character flaws and personality traits are things you're willing to put up with on a regular basis for the rest of your life, and make sure that when the going gets tough, the pressure binds you together instead of tearing you apart.

I'm so very thankful to be Adam's wife. Here's to three wonderful years and many, many more.

Monday, September 14, 2015

36 Hours in San Francisco

Last month, when Adam had to go to San Francisco for business on a Monday, I decided to join him for the weekend. However, I couldn't take off any days from work, so I had to make it work with just about 36 hours to spend in the city. Since I adore the New York Times's popular 36 Hours series (For my birthday this year, Adam bought me the book for the US and Canada!), I've decided to blog my own personal 36 hour guide to San Francisco.

Fly in. Let's be honest: if you can't take off work on Friday, you're not doing anything in the city except go to sleep upon arrival.

9:00am: Breakfast at Blue Bottle
We stayed at the new InterContinental Hotel in SoMa, a gentrifying neighborhood that surged during the dot-com boom. It only seemed fitting then to have breakfast in a trendy, native-to-the-Bay Area shop. While I'm not a coffee drinker, Blue Bottle is a local favorite, and the food is great, too.

10:00am: Ferry Building Farmer's Market
SoMa is an acronym for "South of Market Street," one of the main thoroughfares of the city. Take a walk down this street until you hit the Ferry Building. While you can actually take ferries from this terminal, most people come here for the marketplace inside. On Saturday mornings, they have a farmer's market. Take in gorgeous views of the Bay Bridge while you shop for fresh produce. Adam recommends taking a break to enjoy a couple of Sweetwater oysters from Hog Island Oyster Co.
Raised on Hog Island's own oyster farm in California, he said they were the best oysters he's ever had. If you're not there on a Saturday, you can still enjoy the oysters at Hog Island's permanent location in the Ferry Building.

11:30am: Muni Metro to the Castro
Hop on the train a few blocks from the Ferry Building and take it down to the Castro, the city's gay neighborhood. Take a stroll along Castro Street and check out the Rainbow Honor Walk, the LGBT version of the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Stop into the Human Rights Campaign's shop, located in the storefront where Harvey Milk lived, worked, and organized his political campaigns.

12:30pm: Taco Crawl in the Mission
Now it's lunch time! What better way to get a taste for the city than hitting up some of the dozens of taquerias that dot the Mission? After careful research, we went to Taqueria Cancun, La Taqueria, and El Farolito. Our favorite was El Farolito (particularly their al pastor taco), but the carne asada at Taqueria Cancun was also very good. The burritos at La Taqueria were recently named the best in America by Nate Silver, but the tacos didn't do it for me. We followed up our tacos with dessert at Humphry Slocombe.

2:00pm: Downtime in Dolores Park
You might feel like it's nap time after all those tacos. Fortunately, there's Dolores Park, a recently remodeled park with gorgeous city views. Lay down a blanket and take a quick cat-nap in the sun. Or burn off those calories with a frisbee or some tennis.

3:30pm: Shop Til You Drop
Union Square is San Francisco's version of Michigan Avenue. If you want it, you can find it there. San Francisco's notoriously unpredictable weather can often force visitors into some unanticipated shopping. We were unprepared for the 80-degree weather, so we picked up shorts and t-shirts at Old Navy. Did you know that's a local brand?

5:30pm: Beer Me
You and your weary legs deserve a drink. Head to Mikkeller Bar and choose one of the 42 beers they have on tap. I enjoyed the Kalifornia Kolsch, brewed just across town at Magnolia Brewery. If you like sour beers like I do, Mikkeller has an entire sour room down in the basement with an extensive menu.

7:30pm: Tongue Thai-ed
On the recommendations of several friends, we made dinner reservations at Kin Khao, a Thai place located inside the Parc 55 Hotel. If your idea of Thai food is laden with peanut sauce, this is not the Thai place for you. We enjoyed the nam tok beans, pad kee mao, and Massaman beef cheeks with sticky rice. Make sure you get a cocktail, too. I had the Artist's Revenge because I'm a sucker for anything spicy.

9:00pm: On Ice
Now that you've spent all day eating and drinking, you should probably burn some calories. Head over to the Yerba Buena Center for a very middle school date night. We opted for ice skating (with a live DJ!), but they also have a bowling alley if that's more your speed.

10:00am: Petit Dejeuner
Head up to the northwest edge of the city for brunch at Baker Street Bistro, an intimate French neighborhood spot. I recommend the house specialty, Oeufs Baker Street Bistro, which comes with poached eggs on an English muffin served with ratatouille and a spicy tomato sauce. Next time, we'll have to come back for dinner. I hear the mussels are to die for.

11:00am: The Presidio
After brunch, walk just down the street to The Presidio, a former military base which is now a beautiful park. Don't miss the Palace of the Fine Arts, the only remaining pavilion from the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition, or the gorgeous views of the Golden Gate Bridge. End your exploration up on Pacific Avenue and enjoy window-shopping for real estate on San Francisco's "Billionaire's Row."

12:30pm: Hunting for the "It" Thing
Make your way down the hill to Union Street and walk east for some of the city's best shopping. Pop in and out of trendy boutiques (I like Bella Boutique, Jest Jewels, and Ambiance) and grab a bite to eat. For dessert, find a convenience store and check the freezer case for an It's-It, San Francisco's original ice cream sandwich. Still locally owned, it's ice cream sandwiched between two oatmeal cookies and covered in chocolate. I liked the original vanilla the best, but the mint is delicious, too.

And that's it! We had a fantastic weekend and really lucked out with incredible weather. San Francisco is one of my favorite cities, and I can't wait to go back again soon.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Book Report: Without You, There is No Us

If you have incurable wanderlust like I do, there are probably few places in the world that aren't on your "to visit" list. Only one place, though, is on there because it's completely inaccessible to outsiders. That place is North Korea. But it wasn't inaccessible to the author of Without You, There is No Us.

Suki Kim, the author, is a Korean-American who traveled to North Korea in 2011 and posed as a Christian missionary in order to teach English at an all-boys college in Pyongyang. This book recounts her experiences over those six months.

I was most struck by the author's descriptions of the ignorance she faced. Her students are there to study technology and science, but they have no knowledge of the internet. They are supposed to be the best and the brightest in the country, but they struggle to write a basic essay. They struggle with the concept of a thesis statement because they've never had to support their thoughts with evidence. Their ignorance is not their fault, though; it is the natural result of a lifetime of censorship by the Great Leader they revere as a God and as a father figure.

The author describes the omnipresence of censorship and monitoring. Her government-assigned monitor reads her emails, accompanies her on the rare trips off-campus, and even eavesdrops on what she says in her apartment. All lesson plans must be pre-approved by an anonymous group of administrators, and they can't contain any references to religion, democracy, or any Western ideas. The censorship is suffocating and breeds an intense paranoia and culture of fear, she says. Yet her students are cautiously curious about the outside world. They quietly confess to listening to rock n' roll, ask the author about her world travels, and watch a somehow-approved Harry Potter movie with awe.

The author often reflected on a dead-end relationship with a man back in New York, and I found that part of her story distracting. I also thought her anti-Christian views were a bit heavy-handed at times. I wanted to learn about North Korea and its people, and these other things just got in the way of that.

I would recommend this book if you are curious to get an authentic peek of daily life in North Korea. You won't be able to put it down. B+

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

How to Travel for Free: Part 3

In Part 1, I explained how to get started with travel miles, and in Part 2, I detailed how to most efficiently earn points. Now that you have a lot of points, I'm going to teach you how to spend them most wisely.

Everyone has different travel goals. Earning miles is relatively the same for everyone, but there are many strategies for redeeming your points most effectively because the definition of "most effectively" varies.. For example, I prefer to fly on economy tickets because I would rather take more trips for free than one awesome business class flight. I'm going to try to focus on general tips in this post, but understand that your strategy may differ depending on your goals.

Understand How Points Add Up
One of the most common mistakes people make is thinking that all points have the same value, but not all miles are really one mile. Let's say, for example, that you have accumulated 60,000 Ulimate Rewards points through Chase. Ultimate Reward points are worth one mile apiece and you earn a 20% bonus for purchasing through the Ultimate Rewards portal. So, if you have 60,000 Chase Ultimate Reward points, that will get you one free flight worth $720 through the Ultimate Rewards portal. Not bad, right? Not really. Instead of purchasing a flight through the Ultimate Rewards portal, you could transfer those points to United Airlines and get one free round-trip saver flight to Europe. I searched for a random flight from Chicago to Amsterdam in January, and here's what I came up with:

That's a round-trip, non-stop flight for 60,000 points and $52.70 in fees worth $1,181.60. That's a heck of a lot better than the $720 value you would've gotten through the Ultimate Rewards portal.

Take Advantage of Stopovers and Open-Jaws
Let's say you don't want to just go to Amsterdam on your Europe trip. Most airlines allow people to take multiple flights for the same amount of points through stopovers and open jaws. A stopover allows you to have a layover in one place that's longer than 24 hours but less than the full duration of your trip. If you want to spend 4 days in Amsterdam before continuing on to Barcelona, that would be a stopover. An open jaw means that your return departure point is not the same as your arrival point. If you fly from Chicago into Amsterdam, and then your return flight is Barcelona to Chicago, you have an open jaw. It's named that because it looks like an open mouth.

Every airline has a different policy. United permits 1 stopover and 2 open jaws per trip. So for 60,000 points, you could fly from Chicago to Amsterdam, spend a few days in the Netherlands, and then get back on a plane to Barcelona. But you want to see more of Spain, so from Barcelona, you hop on a train to Madrid. At the end of your trip, maybe you want to stop by and visit your family in the Detroit area before returning home to Chicago. Your final itinerary looks like this:

It still costs 60,000 miles, but this time, you're getting over $1,700 worth of airfare.

In this itinerary, you use your one stopover in Amsterdam, and your final destination is Barcelona. Then, on your way home, you leave from Madrid instead of Barcelona (open jaw #1) to arrive back in Detroit instead of Chicago (open jaw #2). You'll have to spend money on the train from Barcelona to Madrid and on your transportation back to Chicago from Detroit, but you get a lot more trip for your money.

Each airline has different policies regarding open jaws and stopovers. Some require them to be in the same region, some don't; some allow them on one-way flights, some don't. This post gives a pretty good summary of the rules on several major airlines.

Book Early
The surest way to land these great deals, though, is to book early. I prefer to fly on saver tickets because I can take more free flights. There are only so many saver tickets, though, and they go quickly. If you know you want to go to Europe next spring, you should start looking now. At first, Adam thought it was crazy when I wanted to book flights 9 months ahead of time, but once I showed him that flights were already starting to book up, he was thankful I was on top of things.

I hope the last 3 posts have given you a good idea of how to get on your way to traveling for free. Travel is my favorite hobby, and it's great knowing that it doesn't have to be an expensive one. Please let me know in the comments if you have any questions. Happy earning!

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

How to Travel for Free: Part 2

Part 1 covered the basics of choosing a credit card. Once you have that credit card, you can start earning points! Easy, right? Yes, but these are some of my tried-and-true tips for getting the most bang for your travel-focused buck.

Understand Bonus Categories
Most regular credit cards give its users a standard 1 point per dollar spent, but most travel-focused credit cards offer higher return rates when you spend in certain categories. For example, we earn 2 points per dollar spent on travel and dining with our Chase Sapphire Preferred card, and 5 points per dollar spent on office supplies and phone, internet, and cable with our Chase Ink Plus Business card. Make sure you know what bonus categories your card(s) offers and use the right card for the right situation. I pay our Comcast and Verizon bills with my Chase Ink card and always using my Chase Sapphire Preferred card when we go out to eat or when I take a cab. I even buy gift cards at office supply stores with my Ink card that I then use for things like groceries, gas, and Amazon that won't earn me extra rewards.

Buy Everything Through a Portal
Bonus categories are great, but not every purchase qualifies for bonus points. However, that doesn't mean you're stuck earning 1 point per dollar on every purchase you make. Certain retailers partner with financial institutions, hotels, and/or airlines to give you extra points when you shop through their portals. Chase has its Ultimate Rewards portal, United has MileagePlus Shopping and MileagePlus Dining, etc. If you go to those websites, you can get extra points for online shopping. Need to buy a wedding gift for your cousin? Chase offers 3 points per dollar spent at Macy's. Mom's birthday coming up? You can get 20 points per dollar spent with FTD. If you sign up with Rewards Network, you can earn points toward your airline of choice by eating out at certain restaurants.

The best is when you can double up portal shopping with your award categories. I get 5x the points at office supply stores with my Chase Ink card, and I can also get 2 points per dollar at Staples and Office Max through the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal for a total of 7 points per dollar spent. Or put your Rewards Network meal on your Chase Sapphire Preferred card for another 2 points per dollar.

Aside from sign-up bonuses, utilizing bonus categories and portal shopping are the most important components of travel hacking. My husband teases me when I inevitably remind him to use this credit card or to click through the portal, but this is where we get most of our points on a monthly basis. Last month alone, we earned 78% more points with bonus category and portal purchases than we would have if we just earned the standard 1 point per dollar.

Always Pay Your Balance in Full Every Month
At best, you're going to earn about 5% back in travel points through credit cards. If you don't pay your balance in full each month, you have to pay interest of 15-20%, which quickly cancels out any benefit you derived from points and then some. Credit card points are only worth it if you pay your balance off in full every month.

Join Airline and Hotel Loyalty Programs
Just because you're earning points through a credit card doesn't mean you have to sacrifice points from airlines and hotels. One of my favorite things about a non-brand-specific credit card like the Chase Sapphire Preferred is that it allows you to double-dip. For example, if I purchase a United flight on my Sapphire card, I get 2x points on travel for that purchase (3x if I book the flight through the Chase portal) plus United MileagePlus points for the ticket. You don't need to sign up for every rewards program out there right now, but as you stay in a hotel chain or fly various airlines, sign up for those programs.

Also, be aware of the possibility of crediting points across alliances. I mostly fly United, but for an upcoming trip to Asia, I have been trying to gather points for Singapore Airlines. Because both airlines are Star Alliance partners, I can have the points by flying United credited to my Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer account.

Stay tuned for Part 3, where you'll learn how to most effectively redeem all these points you've worked so hard to earn!