September 2009

I’m a city girl by nature. Most of the trips I’ve taken in the last three years have been to major metro areas like Atlanta, Boston, New Orleans and Philadelphia. But until now I had not been to the mother of all metro areas- New York City. Last week, I finally rectified that problem by spending 5 days and 4 nights exploring as many blocks as I could of Manhattan.

The trip started on a whim. In August, Expedia was offering $200 off three nights hotel and flights. I looked at several different cities I hadn’t been to yet, including Chicago, Portland and Miami, to see if I could find a good deal. When I looked at NYC, I hit paydirt. I could get 3-nights hotel and flights for about $130. At the time, the flights alone would have cost about $200. After finding the deal, I tweeted about it. I quickly got a note from my mom. She knows how much I enjoy travelling and wanted to come along on this trip. A mother-daughter adventure was soon born.

For the trip, we flew MCO-EWR on Continental. I chose CO mostly because it was a non-stop flight that fit our schedule and budget well. Plus, they were offering double elite-qualification miles which was a nice bonus. The flight to New York was around 90% full, but surprisingly free of crying children and babies that often fill flights coming to and from Orlando. This probably had to do a lot with the fact that school is now in session and we’re in the low season for tourism.

Once we landed in EWR, plenty of signs guided us to the Airtrain that goes to NYC’s Penn Station. Unfortunately, the section of track that connects the airport with the New Jersey train station was under construction, so only one side of the tracks could be used. This meant that folks riding the Airtrain from the airport had to get off at the last airport stop and wait 10 minutes for a train coming from the station, rather then ride the train the whole way. This caused a lot of confusion and delay among passengers as everyone was forced to get off the train unexpectedly. New Jersey Transit, who runs the EWR Airtrain, did have a lot of redcoats were around to help direct people around. Still, it didn’t help one gentleman who exclaimed “There goes my train!” as our train pulled into the station- and his Amtrak train pulled out.

Sidewalk cafe where we had dinner in Little Italy.

The train ride from Newark to New York was fun in that the train goes under the Hudson river to get to the city. It’s the first time I’ve gone underwater in a train. Entering Penn Station was a bit overwhelming at first. So many people rushing around to get to where they needed to go. The signage was a bit confusing at first, with signs pointing every which way, but with the aid of a giant subway map and a friendly cop, my mom and I figured out where we needed to go.

After accidentally getting off at the wrong subway stop, we finally made it to the Cosmopolitan Hotel. The hotel is an independent hotel located in the heart of the Tribeca area. The hotel doesn’t have a lot of frills, but it was well-maintained and the room was large for a NYC hotel. After dropping our stuff off, we headed out to find some dinner.

The Little Italy district was about 15-minute walk from our hotel. It was easy to spot the district- it was marked by lots of red, green and white bunting; sidewalk cafes and a large Ferris wheel. The 10-day celebration of the Feast of St. Gennaro was in full swing. We picked one of the many sidewalk cafes along the street and enjoyed a nice pasta dinner while doing some people-watching. It was fun listening to Italian accent of the cafe owner and watching pedestrians enjoy treats like cannoli and gelato.

Afterwards, we walked through more of the Little Italy and Chinatown areas before heading over to visit Grand Central Station.

Times Square

Seeing Grand Central during rush hour was a delight. People were rushing everywhere across the grand marble annex while conversations created a pleasant echo in the lobby. It was fun to watch the destination boards light up and to imagine that I could go hop on the next train to  New Haven or Boston like so many New Yorkers were doing. After seeing the hustle and bustle of the station, we walked to another area known for its frenetic activity- Times Square.

Seeing Times Square left me speechless. All the lights- all the people- all the activity- and to be in the middle of it all! It was wonderful to finally be standing in the spot that I’ve seen countless times in movies, TV shows and pictures. After taking some pictures, my mom and I stopped into the Toys ‘R Us store to gawk at the ferris wheel inside and to see the lego sculptures of New York landmarks.

After that, we wanted to take a night tour of the city. Now, I’m normally not the tourbus type. I prefer to see things on foot. However, my mom had heard of the night tour because it was getting great reviews from vistors and natives alike. Plus, it would serve as a good introduction to the city. So off on the double-decker bus we went.

The tour was interesting because the guide provided all kinds of tidbits about the area, from where to find the best pizza in Brooklyn to which apartment complexes various celebrities live in. And the bus did go into places that I simply wouldn’t have time to get to on this trip like Brooklyn. The only downside of sitting on top of the double-decker bus is that it got a bit chilly up there, especially as we crossed over the bridges to and from Brooklyn.

After the tour, it was getting rather late and it was time to call it a night. We had so much more to explore over the next few days.

Later posts in this trip report will include a visit to the Today Show, riding the Staten Island Ferry, and seeing Wicked on Broadway. Stay tuned!

The Brooklyn Bridge.

“If at first you don’t succeed- skydiving is not for you.”


A couple of weekends ago, the topic of skydiving came up several times with co-workers and friends. One of my craziest adventures to date was when a group of friends wanted to go skydiving and invited me to go along. “Jump out of a perfectly good airplane? Sure!”

So the day before my 23rd birthday, we all schlepped out to Titusville to Skydive Space Center located at Arthur Dunn Airpark. Before coming over we were asked not to wear collared shirts and to remove anything that would come off easily in flight. We also had to let the center know how much each person weighed so they could be paired up with an appropriately-sized diver.

Inside the jump plane

Inside the jump plane

Once we arrived at the skydiving center, the first thing we all needed to do was fill out some paperwork. The paperwork included a number of waivers that basically stated “if you die, we’re not liable”. After all the paperwork was taken care of, we headed outside to the hanger with a jumpmaster who walked us through what would happen during the flight.

Next to the hanger was a mockup of the door on a Beechcraft King Air, which is the type of plane we would be jumping out of. The jumpmaster demonstrated how we needed to exit the plane for the jump. One thing that surprised me is that there’s no actual jumping involved. Instead, all I would need to do is step off and gravity would do the rest. Another part is how the landing would go. Since we were all doing tandem jumps where we would be strapped to a jump master, all we need to do is stick our legs straight out and let the jump master do the work.

As we waited for our turn to go up, I watched the parachute riggers do the work of packing the chutes. It’s a job that has to be done carefully, as a poor packing job can lead to hard openings of the parachute, tangled lines or possibly cause the chute to not open at all. If the main chute doesn’t open correctly for whatever reason, divers can cut away the main chute and use a larger reserve chute instead. And if for some reason a diver doesn’t open his chute, there’s a backup device called the Cypres comes to the rescue. The Cypres is basically a small computer with an altimeter, vertical speed indicator and a razor blade attached. If the device detects that a diver is falling very fall at a certain altitude (usually over 70 mph at 2000 ft. above ground) the device cuts away the main chute and deploys the reserve instead. Even with these safety devices, skydiving is still a risky sport. But the introduction of better chutes and devices like the Cypres has made the sport safer.

As the time to jump drew nearer, we got rigged up with harnesses and met the people we would be paired off with. While we waited, a videographer asked me why I wanted to skydive. I said it was because I always wanted to jump out of a perfectly good airplane. The videographer replied “oh, but you haven’t seen the airplane yet!”

The plane landed and we all hopped aboard. I then understood what the videographer meant about the airplane. The “seats” on the plane were nothing more than two long benches that everyone straddled facing the back of the plane. As one skydiver eloquently put it, we packed “butts to nuts”. Trust me, after sitting in that arrangement, I wanted to get out as quickly as possible! Fortunately, that didn’t take long. Once the group was settled in the plane, we took off and started heading up to 15,000 ft. Getting up to the jump area took around 20-25 minutes.

As we climbed to altitude, the reality of what I was about to do hit me. I was about to jump out of a plane, strapped to a guy that I had just met 10 minutes ago- and he had the parachute. I admit I almost lost my nerve at that moment. But I decided that I would go down, and I was taking that guy down with me.

Next to the plane door was a red light that the pilot would change to green when he reached the drop zone. As we got close to the zone, all the jump masters made one final check of everyone’s straps and rigging. And then, the moment came. The light turned green. Because of where I was sitting, I would be the first out of the plane. The videographer in front of me got up, opened the door and then straddled a rail on the outside of the plane. My jumpmaster and I got up and awkwardly crab walked to the door. Then I stepped up to the threshold and stepped out.

Wooosh! The first thing I noticed was the wind roaring past me. I felt like I was in a wind tunnel. It was now obvious why skydivers communicate through hand signals- I couldn’t hear anything my jump master was saying even though he was strapped to my back. The second thing was that I didn’t feel like I had dropped at all. I had thought I would feel like I had gone down a steep drop on a roller coaster. It turns out that since the plane was already moving at over 100mph (and thus so was I), I wouldn’t feel much additional acceleration from stepping out of the plane. So I never really felt like I was falling beyond seeing the ground get closer.

After getting over the initial shock of feeling the wind, it was time to do some fun tricks like spins and hamming it up for the camera. The videographer that got out ahead of me had caught up with me and it was awesome to do things like grab his hand during freefall.

Coming in for landing

Coming in for landing

But the freefall portion of the dive soon ended. Since we were falling around 110mph, it only took about 60-90 seconds to burn through 12,ooo ft. of altitude. So the jumpmaster pulled the chute around 3,000ft. Whump! We flipped from the horizontal position to a vertical one. I galanced up and saw a large beautiful rectangle of fabric. All was well. The next few minutes were quite relaxing compared to the rush of freefall. It was nice just to glide and enjoy the views of the coast and landmarks like NASA’s Vehicle Assembly Building. During our slow spiral down, I watched as our jump plane landed on the runway below. What an odd sight seeing the plane I was on getting back to the ground before me. The glide down lasted around 5-10 minutes. As we got near the ground, the jumpmaster executed a flawless flare and put us down not far from the small cheering crowd sitting in the stands.

Looking back on the dive, I have absolutely no regrets doing it. It was a thrilling experience and one I haven’t forgotten. It was so fun to get out and do something so few people have done. Would I do it again? Absolutely. Would I recommend others do it? Absolutely, as long as you’re aware of the risks involved. Really, if George Bush can do it at the age of 85, anybody can.

The Cessna 172 that I flew in.

The Cessna 172 that I flew in.

On Labor Day weekend, I had my first visit into the world of general aviation. A friend of mine, Joe from Flying for Smiles, was in town for the weekend and we agreed to meet up for lunch. He had a fantastic idea. He suggested that we meet up at the Orlando Executive airport and fly to Ocala to have lunch at an aviation-theme restaurant. This was quite exciting for me. I’ve driven by that airport for years and had never taken a flight from there, so that was cool. I was also looking forward to seeing how things work from the cockpit.

Fortunately when the day arrived, the infamous Florida afternoon thunderstorms didn’t appear and we were able to go flying. Sitting up front I noticed all sorts of little things, like how little pressure it takes to fly a plane. It’s not like driving a car where turning the wheel 90 or 180 degrees is normal. My friend for the most part used only slight turns to get the plane going where he wanted it to go. Another thing was how little runway the plane needed to get off the ground. In the time that much larger planes take to accelerate, we were off and flying in just a few hundred feet. The same goes for landing. Sure, big jet planes can go farther and faster, but since smaller planes need a lot less runway, there are many more places they can land at.

One of my favorite parts about flying in passenger jets is during takeoff and landing where the plane is close enough to the ground that I can make out a lot of details on the ground. Since we were cruising around 2,000 most of the time, I got to literally enjoy a bird’s eye view (since there were birds flying at our level) of Central Florida the whole way.

One thing that fascinated me was listening to all the radio chatter. I’ve listened to air traffic control feeds before through websites like Live ATC. But actually being part of that traffic and seeing other planes making calls brought the whole system to life for me.

Inside the cockpit

Inside the cockpit

Once we got to Ocala, it turned out the restaurant we wanted to go to was closing just as we walked into the door. That turned out to be the theme of the day as it seemed that every place between Orlando and Ocala had closed for the holiday weekend. But half the fun of travelling is the journey itself, so it wasn’t a big deal that places were closed (we ended up eating lunch not far from Orlando Exec instead).  The whole experience was quite enjoyable and sitting up in the front has given me a new perspective into how aviation works. It was also fun way to spend time with a new friend and to get to know him better.

It’s one of my goals to fly a plane at some point, and I’ve started doing a lot of reading and research into the topic. The biggest challenge at this point is the cost of training (somewhere in the ballpark of $8,000-11,000 to get a private pilot license), which is a problem for many potential pilots. But it’s certainly not an insurmountable obstacle. I’m already brainstorming ideas around it. I hope the day will come soon where I can stop staring at the sky all the time and be a part of it instead.

Hotel room at the Baronne Plaza Hotel, New Orleans

Hotel room at the Baronne Plaza Hotel, New Orleans

In the last month I’ve had to book a couple of hotels for various trips like my New Orleans trip and my trip to New York City later this month. This is a departure from what I usually do. Whenever I travel, I usually end up either staying with friends or family or crash in a hostel. If I do stay in a hotel, it’s usually because I’m travelling with an organization and they booked the hotel.

So when I started looking at hotels, I had literally hundreds of places I could choose from to stay in. I needed a way to narrow down the list of places. So I’ve developed a checklist of things I like to look for when picking a hotel.

1. Recommendations from friends or family– This more then any other factor puts a potential hotel high on my “book it” list. If someone I know had a positive experience at the hotel, then odds are good I will like it there too.

2. Location– What makes a good location varies by destination, but I’m usually looking for someplace close to where I want to go and that it’s close to public transit (if available). I also want to avoid sketchy areas of town.

3. Price– Obviously, a hotel doesn’t do me much good if I can’t afford to stay there to begin with. What makes a hotel affordable depends on the city. In New York, for example, finding a decent Manhattan hotel for less then $200 a night is a good price to me. But in New Orleans, paying $200 a night for a hotel would have been quite excessive for a weekend when no major events were going on.

4. Wi-fi– Ever since I got an iPod touch and discovered how incredibly useful it can be while travelling, I’m constantly on the hunt for wi-fi hotspots. So a hotel that offers wi-fi, especially if it’s already included in the room rate, is a must for me.

5. Continental Breakfast– If I’m in a culinary hotspot like New Orleans where there’s great food everywhere, having a hotel breakfast isn’t a big deal. But otherwise, being able to start the day with a bagel or a bowl of cereal before heading out the door is a big plus for me. It saves me the trouble of having to stop at a coffee shop along the way.

Things that don’t matter as much to me

1. Airport Shuttle– It’s a nice perk, but there’s usually other ways that I can get back to the airport/train station/major transportation hub.

2. Reviews on websites– The reviews on the various hotel consolidators’ websites are useful for getting an overall impression of a place, but the reviews alone generally don’t cause me to pull or add a hotel to my list.

3. Hotel Pool– I live in Florida. The beaches are just down the highway.

4. Mini-bar/Cable service/Room service- I don’t spend much time in a hotel except to sleep and shower. So a hotel that offers a lot of in-room entertainment and services just doesn’t interest me much.

Things that turn me off

1. Mandatory “resort fees”– If a hotel feels the need to charge a resort fee for the use of the pool, exercise room or other amenities but give guests no option to opt out of it, then the fee needs to be included as part of the room rate. Period.

I suspect the reason that many hotels have this seperate fee is so that they can have a lower room rate which gets them higher rankings on websites that sort rooms by price. It’s a deceptive practice and I refuse to stay at any hotel that engages in this kind of behavior.

2. Not having a well-maintained website– This is more of an issue with non-chain hotels. I like to check hotel websites for more information, so if their website isn’t well-designed or is outdated, it really annoys me.

Of course, everyone’s list of what’s important to them is different. What’s important to you?