Sunday, January 31, 2016

It's been awhile since I last shared some of my favorites when it comes to travel these days.  I've got a few new tricks that I really like, and since I'm trying to build up my mile balance for some (hopefully) upgraded long haul flights in the next year, it shouldn't surprise you that most suggestions are miles related.  To accompany my hints, I've gathered together some aerial photos I took on my iPhone from my airplane seat recently, edited into some nice, contrasty black and whites.  Try to guess the state in the photo, if you can!

1. Global Entry

Five Stars for Convenience!

The U.S. Global Entry program is perfect for the low-risk, U.S. traveler who likes to fly internationally at least once a year.  Not only do you get TSA Prestatus on every domestic flight, which is pure traveling bliss, you also get to speed through U.S. customs checkpoints using kiosks.  Granted, you may still end up waiting for your baggage along with the rest of the non-Global Entry passengers, depending on the speed of the airport to get them off the plane and to the terminal, but you have a separate line on exit that may still help you win the race.

Why Global Entry and not just TSA Pre?  While it may cost a little more, with a $100 application fee instead of $85, but I think it's worth it for the 5 years it covers.  Of course there are some annoyances associated with the application process.  With its popularity, it may be hard to get an appointment within a reasonable amount of time.  Speaking of appointments, it's a time commitment to go to the Global Entry office, wait, then do the required background interview and fingerprinting. One additional annoyance relevant to my situation is that I am going to have to return to the Global Entry office once I renew my passport - which is bound to happen soon for space issues. Back to the positives: no paperwork (blue customs forms) means no digging around for that pen at the bottom of your bag on the plane, you can try to make crazy faces for the kiosk camera that will print out on your slip to hand to the Border Patrol agent on exit (I know I'm weird), and there's even expedited entry into some other countries. G'day mate!

I encourage reading all of the eligibility requirements in detail before applying for Global Entry because if there is any reason you may be disqualified, your application fee is not returned when denied.

2. Google Map Directions without Wifi

If you are driving internationally, nothing is better than having the convenience of Google Maps.  I'm not a fan of paying tons of money for data plans while I'm abroad, though, so when without a car navigation system, this is a perfect alternative.  

Before leaving the hotel wifi, download your desired map.  Start by opening the Google Maps app.  Find your destination using the search bar.  After it has loaded, go back to the search bar and blank it out, then scroll to the bottom of the menu.  Select the "Download a new offline area" option.  You can find all of your offline maps in your profile menu (the three bars on the search line).  Note, each map has an expiration date one month from download.

3. RocketMiles

Talk about a fast and easy way to earn airline mileage points!  The rates I've been able to get on Rocketmiles are comparable to other hotel aggregator websites, and I still earn thousands of miles. Last year, when I went to the UK, I think I earned enough miles for a one-way saver ticket on my favorite airline!  Sign up is easy and then just link to your favorite airline frequent flyer program.

4. International Charging Needs

Now that a lot of my trips also include my camera kit, I find myself needing more power sources than usual to charge my electronics - phone, tablet, computer, camera batteries, etc.  This is especially true when I travel to cold weather countries, where I may be running through several camera batteries in a day and have to simultaneously charge them fast just in case the Northern Lights decides to pop out in the middle of the night. Enter the Monster Power Strip connected to the Monster Global Adapter with USB.  Lightweight and efficient, this is a easy and safe solution to my electricity needs in foreign countries, especially in rooms with limited outlets.  

5. Winter Ski Travel 

There are still a few more months of ski season, so I have to give you my "go to" website!

There is no better resource for snow forecasts than the gang of forecasters at  I check their predictions frequently whenever I am traveling with my skis to Colorado, Utah, and the Pacific NW.  Snow conditions are always going to have an element of unpredictability, but these guys are detailed and have a good understanding of how storms move and how that impacts total dump amounts and road conditions.  After driving through some treacherous conditions over the Vail Pass in Colorado a few winters ago, I am always looking up snowfall expectations and preparing to make my drive as safe as possible.  Which leads me to my next suggestion....

6. Silvercar

I feel like whenever I make a car rental reservation for winter travel destinations, I'm always playing a game of chance.  Should I select a car/sedan which may be the cheaper option, or spend the extra money on an SUV? Will that SUV selection actually guarantee a 4WD or AWD car?  Who knows. What I do know is that the Audi Quattro traction system is one of the best, and the idea of a rental car company that exclusively deals in Audi A4s is a huge relief for my winter travel planning.  

Silvercar is a new entry to the car rental industry.  And while the daily cost sometimes may be more than an equivalent vehicle type at a more well known rental agency, you're getting the comfort of a luxury car as well as the convenience of knowing it's getting you from the airport to your winter destination as safe as possible (the variable being your ability to drive comfortably in snow).  Reservations are managed online or on a phone app, there is no paperwork, and you are greeted by a concierge via text when you arrive at the airport, in person when the shuttle drops you off, and by text again the day of your return.  Alas, the Silvercar experience is only available at a select number of U.S. airports, but I am hoping that their success continues and inspires expansion to new destinations.  Check out their Facebook page for some first time rental promotional codes.

7. Southwest Companion Pass

For my last tip, I picked a doozie!  Imaging bringing someone (me!) along with you on all your Southwest flights for FREE. Enter the Southwest Companion Pass.

The rules are simple, the journey to earning the pass is challenging...or is it?  

After qualifying for the Companion Pass,  a companion is designated for the pass and Southwest mails the pass to you.  When booking tickets online, there is an option to choose the companion pass to assist with the booking process.  The passholder's fare comes up and the companion is zero.  This companion benefit is good for the year in which you earn it AND the next calendar year.  So, the sooner you get it, the bigger the return!

And now, how to get it.  There are two ways:

1. Fly 100 qualifying one-way flights with Southwest in one calendar year
2. Earn 110,000 Southwest points in one calendar year

Number 1 is tough!  That's flying every 3.65 days!  Number 2, however......well, how is your credit rating? If you don't already have the Southwest Chase credit card, they have 50,000 mile signup offers.  Oh, and by the way, you could qualify for the personal AND business card.  If that's the case, boom, you're at 100,000 points already.  You'll have to spend some money on those cards to earn the initial 50k bonus, likely $2000 minimum, so there's 4,000 more miles.  For the remaining 6,000 miles, check out other Southwest travel and shopping partners (like Rocketmiles!) or simply use the card to shop all your favorite places and fly a little bit (hit the slopes?).  You'll get it no sweat.  Again, the earlier in the calendar year, the better because after this first companion pass is earned, the second will not come as easily since the credit card bonuses are for first time applicants only.  Still, what an offer if you can swing it!  Also, remember you get two checked bags free (a.k.a. ski bag and large duffel for that winter vacation) on Southwest and the option to pay a nominal amount to get hassle-free, early bird check-on.  Oh, and they still give you snacks for free!  Could they cement their status any more firmly as one of the best U.S. domestic airlines??

Happy trails!

Posted on Sunday, January 31, 2016 by Julie


Thursday, January 28, 2016

And now, another peek into how I've been keeping myself occupied these past few months creatively. When I found the coffee shop instructions that inspired my Starbricks and Used Book Store building, I also saw a cute Asian Restaurant/Surf Shop commercial building instruction set.  Of course, I didn't want to be boring and build it exactly to plan, so I modified the interior of the shop somewhat to add some paddleboards and snow sports equipment plus a big beach mural I found on Bricklink, and I removed the skateboards top floor office completely.  For the most part, I kept the Japanese Restaurant the same, maybe taking out and adding in few details in the office.

Here's the original build on Brick City Depot:

And here is my modified version....once again, apologies for the iPhone photo quality issues.

The walls have a rack of skis, snowboards, poles, and goggles on one side, paddles and surfboards on the other.  Then up high are the longer paddleboards.

As I explained earlier, I kept the Asian Restaurant pretty much the same, including the stereotypical in-restaurant fish tank.

I loved the water cooler and shelving upstairs.  In the original, this desk style was in the surf shop office. Also to clean up the space, I put all of the shelves against the wall.  And, of course, the scene would not be complete without a cup of Starbricks coffee!

I'm still working on one more building and one massive project.  I just need to make the time to figure out what parts I am missing, then order them.  Hoping to have the final building done soon because all it needs is a roof!  

Posted on Thursday, January 28, 2016 by Julie


Wednesday, January 20, 2016

I know! I know!  I've been posting less frequently these past few months.  Some of the reason is that I've been traveling.  Some of the reason is that I'm busy working on my new photography website that I hope to finish in February. And the last part of the reason is because I've been focusing a large quantity of my creative energy on playing with Legos.  Yep!  I am an adult Lego addict, that or I'm on the road to becoming one.  Hey, I had a big break between trips this fall, and I was bored....then one design turned into a second, then a third, and then...well we will get to all that eventually because there's still one thing I need to fix on the last, massive Lego design.  For now, I'll start with my first building.

Since the summer when I went to Brickfair in Washington D.C., I've been wanting to build a Lego coffee shop for some reason.  I think I was inspired by the cupcakes and latté cups sold at the Eclipse Bricks booth.  I saw some instructions on Brick City Depot for a coffee house that looks like it was set in a remodeled factory of some sort, and I thought it was perfect.  Only thing is that I didn't like the interior of the coffee house, so I modified it a little bit, then I totally redesigned the top floor to transform it from an internet startup office to a used book store!

Here are the original photos of the interior and exterior:

I also decided to modify the color scheme to coordinate with the deep green of the Starbucks logo. Of course, it isn't a Starbucks's a Starbricks shop!  Now that you've seen the inspiration, here is my redesign... (Apologies for the bad photos.  I had to use my phone because it was the only thing small enough to fit inside the building.)

And if you take the entrance door on the right hand side of the building, with the stairs leading to the second floor, you can shop at the Next Chapter Used Book Store.  Maybe even take your coffee upstairs and read a book on the couch.  That's a water cooler on the right side.

Of course Harry Potter is the only logical minifigure to man the cash register at the used bookstore! All bricks were purchased from various vendors on Bricklink.  So what do you think?

Next post....building #2!

Posted on Wednesday, January 20, 2016 by Julie


Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Today, I was reminded why I made sure I found a way to finally live in historic Alexandria, Virginia. I saw a news report yesterday in the Washington Post about a construction crew discovering the remains of the port side of a ship that dates back to at least the late 18th century. It is still early to know the exact details of the ship's historical purpose, but it's location is telling.

When George Washington did his survey of the City of Alexandria in 1749, at the top of this post, you can see that a concave cove existed where today's waterfront is located, extending from the end of Duke Street to the end of Oronoco Street.   Before a District of Columbia even existed, Alexandria was the area's largest city -- a major international shipping port, in fact, because of the deep water channel in the Potomac River that allowed entry for larger transatlantic vessels. Unfortunately, that depth did not extend into the Alexandria cove. In the late 18th century, between 1775-1798 with most of the work being done post-war in the 1780s, the bluff you can see in the drawing above was graded in order to extend the land into the river, as seen in the 1798 map below, and make wharfs to aid in the international trade activity.

To support this landfill, other debris needed to be added to the dirt. Early speculation is that this ship was scuttled as part of this land expansion project. The wood has remained in its well preserved state because it has been submerged in wet sand, at approximately 3 feet below sea level. It was only when the construction crew piped out the water in the foundational hole they were digging for a new hotel that the ship remains emerged.

Construction crews were not surprised when they uncovered another item from Alexandria's past, but the significance of finding a ship is great for researchers.  Navy archaeologists have indicated that this is an unusual find with the potential to gather important information about how the ship was constructed.  The futtocks are close together, which may indicate the ship was a military or coastal ship able to carry heavy loads. Evidence exists, such as axe markings, to suggest the ship was taken apart to accommodate the banking out of the land. The discovery of the ship remains is the third archeologically significant 18th century finding on the site. The crew has also discovered a pair of privees, the contents of which will be excavated for objects, as well as the foundation, large wood timbers, framing, flooring, and walls from a known warehouse from that time period.  This warehouse was erected in 1755 by the Trustees of Alexandria, under the oversight of John Carlyle, to serve as a public warehouse at the end of Duke Street (Point Lumley).

The developer of the property was required to hire archeology consultants for the duration of the removal of existing buildings and ground area in order to ensure that anything of historical significance found on the site was documented.  In addition to the 18th century findings, they have also unearthed remnants of an old fertilizer factory.  It's not often that parts of Alexandria's historic waterfront get overhauled to this extent, so residents and fellow history nerds are excited.  You can follow the progress of the archeological research and findings here.

Posted on Tuesday, January 05, 2016 by Julie