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Avec Amour : December 2016

Friday, December 16, 2016

The Best Free or Cheap Things to do in NYC

New York can be an expensive city -- but it's also jam packed with free or very cheap activities! There are a lot of obvious "sight seeing" opportunities, like Rockefeller Center, Central Park, and Times Square, but there are a lot of things you can actually DO! Here are some of my favorites.

Visit the Cloisters
The Cloisters are run by the MET and therefore are by donation only. Our friend who lives in NYC says the MET has enough money, so we paid $5 per couple :) There are beautiful gardens, free tours every half hour, and lots of gorgeous art! Almost the entire thing has been pieced together by the Rockefeller family from monasteries or castles in Europe. It has such interesting history and is a great reprieve from the city if you feel like you need to "escape". More info here.

Be Part of a Live Studio Audience
There are SO many opportunities to be a part of a studio audience in NYC -- we were able to be on the Daily Show with Trevor Noah which was so fun! Many of these are based on a raffle, so you don't have a ton of choice in your date, but it could be a fun thing to plan your New York trip around.

Check Out the Local Events
The NYC Parks website has SO much great information on free/cheap events going on in the city. I'd check it out. I found so many different things to do when we were in New York in July, although it would be quite different in the winter. I did Broadway in the Park, attended workout classes, movies on rooftops, and live music all over the city! The city does a great job of hosting these events, you just have to see what's happening. 

Roosevelt Island Tram
The Roosevelt Island Tram is so fun! Roosevelt Island is in between Manhattan & Queens that just has some housing and parks. It's really cute and feels removed from the city somehow. You can take a subway train there (only one line stops there) OR you could take this fun tram! It's like a gondola you'd take up to go snowboarding. It gives you a great view of the river and 3 boros. You pay with your MTA ticket, so it costs no more than a subway ride (or is free if you have a week/month pass).

Find Some Elevation
There are so many gorgeous rooftop bars. We loved finding rooftop spots at sunset to catch views like this one! Find a list of rooftop bars here. The photo below was taken at Roof at Park South in Kip's Bay/Gramercy Park. 

Pizza by the Slice
As if you needed an excuse? Pick up some pizza by the slice for a cheap dinner on the go. It was something we liked to do if we wanted to eat in the park or on the water. Joe's Pizza is one of the best and is easily located in the East Village at 14th St E & 3rd Avenue, or Greenwich Village on Carmine St. & 6th Avenue. PS - I absolutely love the East Village AND Greenwich/West Village. Two of my favorite areas in Manhattan!

Governor's Island
If you want to visit Governor's Island I hope you've been saving up.... it's $2 round trip and you have to pay up front :) The ferry ride is short and leave every 30 minutes. It provides great views of the city and is a great place to spend the day outside! You can take long walks, enjoy the fun slides and hammocks, or rent bikes. There's also some fun art and cute food trucks. We brought a picnic and some wine and made an afternoon of it. I loved it and would highly suggest it if you're visiting with good weather.

Coney Island
Talk about cheap thrills - Coney Island is #1 on this list! You can take the subway out there, and then you don't have to spend any money if you don't want to. Matt wanted to try a Nathan's Hot Dog (this is where they do the hot dog eating contest every year) so we spent a few bucks. :) It's got an old carnival feel but is a lot of fun.

Rush Tickets
There are several ways to see broadway shows on the cheap or even for free. You can sign up each day to win a number of raffles (almost every show does it, but each show has different rules, so check with them directly) and I've had a lot of friends win these free tickets! The thing is they are for that day only, so make sure you're free. Or you can often find severely discounted tickets day of but in limited quantity. Another great way to get tickets around $25-50 is downloading the TODAY TIX app. We saw Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime AND Les Miserables for $29pp. Yes, we sat in the back row but it was awesome and saved us a TON! Sign up using my link and take $10 off your first show!

Brooklyn Brewery Tour
They only offer tours on the weekends as far as I know, but it's a lot of fun and it's free. I'd suggest going early as they fill up quickly! They also have a tasting room with pretty cheap beers and some of these brews are harder to find so it can be a bit of a treat! 

These were some of my favorite activities and I will repeat a lot of them! This is a great list to keep on hand when you're trying to have a cheap weekend but still enjoy some local color and have a great time.

What are your favorite freebies in NYC?

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Thursday, December 15, 2016

Home Exchange: One Month in Brooklyn

This recap is WAY overdue, but we had the best time doing a one month home exchange in New York City. 

We ate SO much delicious food (I kept track of every restaurant we ate at -- one day it will all be detailed in a looonnnng post) and drank some amazing coffee. Luckily you walk a LOT in New York so it didn't seem as detrimental :) 

We checked a LOT off the NYC Bucket List. Went to a taping of Trevor Noah, went to a Yankees game, saw 4 plays, visited 5 different islands, explored new neighborhoods and saw so many cool places. I had a lot of help from friends Special shout out to Emily, Casey, Rich and everyone else to added to our extended stay!

For those who are wondering how we pulled off a full month in another city: we both work from home on a regular basis, so we just worked from their home. I even went on a 2 day work trip to Wisconsin in the middle of the month (same idea - they would have flown me out from Nashville, so instead they flew me out from NYC). "Do you guys not work or something?" was a question I got asked on the regular, but rest assured there's no independently wealthy people here :) We are very lucky to both have this flexibility, and thought we should use it to our advantage! 

We started our days with a walk to somewhere in the neighborhood to get coffee. We tried a ton of new places and repeated a few of our favorites. Then we would work from 9-5 or 6 (we are on central time so it was keeping with our normal 8-5 CST). Matt used the small desk upstairs (he has a lot more paperwork and needs a printer several times a day), and I worked from the kitchen table. We at breakfast and lunch at home and then went out for dinner most nights. Out of the whole month, I think we stayed in 2 nights. One out of sheer exhaustion and one out of terrible terrible rain, and we didn't feel like venturing out to walk in the rain or fight everyone else for an Uber into Manhattan. 

We also maximized our weekends. We saw Coldplay, the Statue of Liberty, went to the beach on Long Island, picnicked on Governor's Island, saw plays, and walked for MILES. Most weekend days we ended up walking 8-10 miles by the time we got home. 

New York is seriously so much fun. I always wanted to spend extended time there, and now I've been able to! We would totally go back for another month (or two!) because we had such a good time. 

If you have any questions about Home Exchange, feel free to shoot me an email -- avecamourblog (AT) gmail (DOT) com.


PS - 

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Wednesday, December 14, 2016

This Week in Travel: Vol. 41

Is everyone ready for Christmas? After a really warm fall it finally feels winter-y around here. The Christmas decorations definitely help, but the 35* weather adds to the festivity. Although, as soon as I have to take down my pretty tree I'll be ready for the warmth again :)

What are your holiday traditions? I always do a Secret Santa with my girlfriends from college, and Matt and I make a gingerbread house. I'm also a big fan of my favorite Christmas movies on heavy rotation. Love, Actually, Home Alone 1&2, The Santa Clause, Just Friends, the Family Stone, the Holiday. I've realized that I'm not a fan of overly sappy classics like Miracle on 34th St, It's a Wonderful Life, or anything else like that. I like my Christmas movies to be generally comedic :)

We're staying put for the holidays and I'm so excited to be home. Our house feels extra cozy with the tree and a fire going... It's my favorite! Are you going anywhere for the holidays or do the festivities happen at your house?

Hope everyone has an awesome week!


Friday, December 9, 2016

A Beginner's Guide to New York's Subway System

I'm not going to pretend like I'm some sort of expert. But I make it a point of understanding cities when I visit (part of the reason I love to travel), and learning how to use the transportation efficiently is part of the deal.

My favorite transportation system in the entire world is London's system. It's extensive, has so many points where lines cross (lots of transfers!) user friendly, and has lots of information posted everywhere! I think as long as you know the stop you're currently at (signs everywhere) and the stop you need to get to, you can easily connect the dots and follow the colors. End of story.

New York's subway system is not so straight forward in my opinion. While I've been to New York dozens of times at this point and ridden the subway tons, I still always feel the need to triple check where I'm going before I go underground. I've finally figured out a few things that make this system work, and give me peace of mind while using the MTA.

1. Before You Go Underground - Uptown or Downtown?
There are three types of subway entrances, even if it's for the same exact line. No matter what, there will be a large black sign with the name of the station (i.e., 14th St - Union Square) and the trains it serves (L, N, Q, R, 4, 5, 6) -- but there may be more information .

A - Uptown. The uptown train will usually say something like "Uptown and the Bronx" or "Uptown and Queens". Sometimes it will say something confusing like "to Jamaica Ave" - if you don't know if that's uptown or downtown, make sure you ask someone before you swipe your card! 

B - Downtown. The downtown train will usually say something like "Downtown and Brooklyn" - the A/C sometimes says "To Elucid Ave" which is in Brooklyn - but how would you know that? Once again, just check with someone.

C - Two for One. The all inclusive will just say "14th Street Station" and list all of the train lines you can access. If there's no specific information, you're safe to enter (usually :)

The reason this is important is if you go underground, swipe your card, and then realize you are on the Uptown platform trying to go downtown, you'll have to leave, re-swipe (there's usually a 20 min wait time if you're unlimited or you'll have to pay another fee if you just have money on the card) and then catch your train. 

2. Colors/Numbers/Letters
NYC, unlike London or Chicago, has blocks of colored lines that are the same but also different. 
We'll use the A/C/E lines for example. They are all BLUE. They all are considered "8th Avenue trains" because they primarily run down 8th avenue in midtown Manhattan - but they start at different places and end at different places, and don't all stop at the same places... even along the same line. For example, my subway stop includes the A & C but not the E, because the E doesn't run to Brooklyn - it ends near the World Trade Center. 

How can you be sure which stops use which trains? 

There are tiny tiny letters beneath each stop on the maps inside each subway station and in most of the subway cars (underlined in LIME GREEN). These letters let you know that you can't take the A train if you'd like to get off at 23rd St or 50th St.

3. Local vs. Express
If we are sticking to A/C/E, the A runs EXPRESS and the C/E both run LOCAL. Local means they stop at every stop from the beginning to the end of its line (in theory - still always best to check). The A skips stops, as seen above. The A will get you there faster -- but only works in your favor if it goes to the stop you're looking for. 

What's important to remember is SOMETIMES the A runs local - such as "late nights" (which is quite ambiguous in itself). And it's also worth noting that many times, a Local & Express train might pick up on the same platform! Try to look for any small signage, and listen to any announcements.... even though most of the time you just hear "alsejf oiniubn fdvnwoef.... please stand clear of the doors".... which is super helpful ;) 

4. White Dot vs. Black Dot
A black dot means it's a stop. A white dot means you can change trains. This means if you're on the C/E, there might be a white dot meaning you can switch to the A. But it can also mean you're switching to an entirely different line. 

5. Follow Their Lead
If a bunch of people waiting at one track suddenly walk to another track, ask one of them why - sometimes there is an announcement "The A train is running on the Local track until 34th St/Penn Station, then will resume on the Express track". Things are constantly changing and often make no sense. 

Just Go With The Flow
The MTA is not a perfect system - when in doubt, just ask someone. Or two someones. Things change all the time, often don't make sense, or just aren't running the way they are supposed to be. Don't sweat it. If you end up somewhere different, see it as an opportunity to explore New York ;)

Enjoy your trip! NYC is the best :)

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Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Flying International on Southwest

Up until a year or two ago, Southwest was exclusively a domestic airline. That's no longer the case. After their buy out of Airtran, Southwest picked up all of Airtran's international routes to central america and the Caribbean. 

Now, you can fly to a number of exotic locations with your favorite airline (I mean most of us LOVE Southwest, right? And many have the coveted Companion Pass? That's what I thought). Here's where you can jet off to:

  • Cabo San Lucas, MX
  • Puerta Vallarta, MX
  • Mexico City, MX
  • Cancun, MX
  • Belize City, BZ
  • Liberia, CR
  • San Jose, CR
  • Nassau, Bahamas
  • Montego Bay, Jamaica
  • Punta Cana, DR
  • San Juan, PR
  • Havana, Cuba

This is great news for anyone looking for a little tropical getaway.  We recently did this for the first time on our trip to Costa Rica and it was great, but a little different than other international flights and different than your typical Southwest Flight. Here's everything you need to know about flying internationally on Southwest.

1. Check In As Usual (Sort Of)
Anyone who has flown on Southwest sets their alarm for 24hours and 1 minute before the flight leaves, so you can get that coveted "A" boarding group. The same applies for international flights, but the actual process is a bit different. Because your passport needs to be checked at the airport, when you check in online or on your phone, you'll only get your boarding group number but no actual ticket. Your spot is secure, but you still need to go to the ticket counter when you get to the airport to have your passport checked .

2. Bring Some Food With You
If you're used to flying international to Europe or Asia, you're use to being fed and pumped full of wine every 45 minutes. The Southwest flights aren't like that. All juice, soda, coffee is still free, and they are quite generous with the upgraded snacks (our flight had bags of pretzels, peanuts, Oreos, Fritos and Cheese Crackers), but if you're like me and don't want to eat that kind of stuff, I'd advise you to bring your own meal. There's also no food for purchase. Our longest flight segment was 6 hours when we flew to Costa Rica, which I knew I'd definitely get hungry. I'd suggest a sandwich, salad, or bento box. I'd also bring some snack-y things like granola bars, nuts, or dried fruit incase you get munchy (PS - my favorite in flight snacks).

3. There's Still Free Live TV 
Like a lot of international flights, you will have some time to kill. They still offer the free live TV and movies are available for purchase just like normal Southwest flights. There was also WIFI for purchase. Bring your own laptop, smart phone or tablet in order to stream (there aren't any personal tv's on the plane).

4. Bring Your Blanket and Pillow
Unlike other international flights, there were no blankets, pillows or sleep masks waiting for us on board. These flights also weren't overnight, so that wasn't a huge deal. However, our flights were early and it's nice to be able to take a nap. I have an inflatable neck pillow that I'd highly suggest, since you can deflate it once you land so you don't have to lug it around when it's not in use. And as always, bring a scarf to cover up if you're cold!  

5. It's Pretty Cheap!
I was shocked at how affordable these flights were. We used our Southwest points, and each round trip ticket was 21,000 points. That is not a typo. That's about 10.5k each way. It costs more to go to California!!!! Now, I can't guarantee these rates, but I checked a lot of locations and a lot of date combos, and I was pleasantly surprised at the price. Many flights are under $500 pp round trip. And don't forget, you can always get your points back/flight $ credit if the price goes down (we originally booked at 36k points pp.... that's 15k points down!)

6. Be Flexible With Your Dates
The flights from Costa Rica went down 1-3x a day. The return flights was only available a few days a week. Check this before you plan your trip (use their "Flexible Fare Calendar" feature to see!)

7. Check Those Bags
Yup, 2 checked bags. For free. As always! We carried on, but checked our bags on the way back since we picked up some souvenirs that we couldn't carry on. 

What are you waiting for? Book your tropical vaca now. You can thank me when you're watching the sunset.


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Monday, December 5, 2016

This Week in Travel: Vol. 40

After quite the hiatus - I'm back. We just got back from Costa Rica (incredible, by the way), and I realized there were so many things I tried to find information on before our trip, but couldn't. 

It inspired me to dust off this old blog and give the internet this information myself. So here we are. Hope you've been doing interesting things and going interesting places. We've got a lot to catch up on. Look forward to:

- NYC guides
- Toronto posts
- Costa Rica tips & tricks
- maybe a few other bonus tidbits!

Speaking of hiatuses, I'm trying my hardest not to leave the state until March (give or take an Ikea trip). It's been an awesome year of traveling, but I miss being home. Between the Companion Pass and Home Exchanging, we've been keeping ourselves busy on the cheap! So it's been tempting to go everywhere/do everything.  

There you have it. Be on the look out for more updates and posts soon!