Hotel Review: NYC The Westin Grand Central

Westin Grand Central New York City

The Westin Grand Central is about two blocks from the station

For my trip to New York for the NY Times Travel Show, I had a reservation elsewhere but when the Starwood email landed in my inbox with the upcoming deals in New York City, I was tempted. The Westin Grand Central was $50 cheaper, offered more space and my stay would qualify for the current bonus point promotion so I quickly booked my two night stay and canceled the other reservation. The average rate for the two night stay (Thursday and Friday) was $162.64 + tax, which, this being New York City, was a pretty good. With both my Starwood AMEX and Gold Status, I would earn 4x points + the promotion bonus.

Location

The hotel is located on 42nd Street, near 2nd Avenue about two blocks from Grand Central Station.  This confused me at first walking from Penn Station (31st and 8th) as I arrived at Grand Central and there is another hotel there.  Thankfully, I found someone to point me further down toward the hotel.  Since I love to walk, I rarely use a cab in NYC so from Penn Station it was about 25 minute walk (but I walk fast).  The numbered streets are a piece of cake, it’s the avenues that I always forget about.  If you don’t like to walk, catch a cab, it’s about $11 with tip (no traffic).

Walking along 42nd Street, you will pass my favorite cupcakes at Baked by Melissa,  Grand Central Station (there is a good food court in the lower level with a Shake Shack and Magnolia Bakery), the Library, Bryant Park, the edges of Times Square pedestrian zone (lots of costumed characters) and if you are daring (like I was in the winter 30F weather) you can walk to 11th Avenue and turn to the Javits Center (the front desk agent looked at me as if I was crazy to attempt the 1.5 mile walk).

Baked by Melissa cupcakes NYC

My favorite mini cupcakes in NYC – I ship these to friends/family/clients

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Highlights from the New York Times Travel Show 2015

This past weekend, I attended the New York Times Travel Show 2015 at the Javits Center in New York City.  I’ve now attended the show in all three categories – consumer, travel industry and this year I was provided a press pass.  Both the industry day (Friday) and consumer days (Saturday/Sunday) feature educational sessions and trade show time with vendors, entertainment and food demonstrations. Having attended business travel conferences/trade shows in the past, I’m always interested to see how the consumer/leisure side is handled. I tend to agree/ disagree with some presenters but that’s what makes it so interesting. So here are my highlights from the Friday Industry day and the Saturday Consumer day.  If you attended the show, let me know what you liked/didn’t like in the comments below.

 Memorable Quotes

Scott Clifton of Celebrity Cruises “You won’t remember one thing, you’ll remember it all on Celebrity”

Peter Greenberg in talking about the airlines “We’re not happy until you’re not happy” – we laughed because sadly it’s true.

New York Times Travel Show 2015 Industry Agenda

The Agenda of sessions on Trade Day at the New York Times Travel Show 2015

No One Is Looking at Your Bottom and Other Tips

When I approached the seminar room, I could hear the dance music “I’m Every Woman” as a bag and book of tips was handed to me.  This was the Global Travel Tips for Women session with a panel of experts sponsored by Gutsy Women Travels, a travel tour group for women. Gutsy Women cited a stat that 55% of women over 40 are single, divorced, widowed, etc. and many are traveling (or wanting to). Travel Agent Sue Shapiro opened her tips with “No One is Looking at Your Bottom, so bring two pair of black pants and six tops”.  The room laughed at this and I agreed it was a good tip.  Many of the other tips offered by the group were great for first time travelers and good reminders for seasoned travelers (we had some men in the audience and the tips were pretty much applicable to all).  Just Go!  Be adaptable, open-minded and immerse yourself in the culture, a few others:

  • Make a color copy of your passport (I do this)
  • Take the Hotel Business Card especially in places that don’t speak English so you can show the taxi driver (I do this)
  • Give a detailed copy of your itinerary to someone at home (I do this)
  • Her “bring paper underwear to use/throw away” story was hilarious when the Asian housekeeper ran out to see who forgot their underwear – she didn’t raise her hand on that one.  (I don’t do this)
Global Travel Tips for Women Panel

Global Travel TIps for Women Panel at the New York Travel Show 2015

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Philly Desserts – Gifting Happiness this Valentine’s Day

With all of my talk about how fantastic the Philly food (and dessert) scene is, I’d be remiss not to tell you how you can have a little bit of Philly love this Valentine’s Day (or any day) delivered to your doorstep whether you have a Valentine or not.  For me, Valentine’s Day is my Solo Traveler Anniversary (read my sad, funny story) so I celebrate every year with some great Philly desserts.

The list below is only a small group of my favorites (there are so many more in Philly) most of which do have online ordering and shipping, a few don’t so you need to visit Philly to buy in person.

The Philadelphia Cookies

If you have a cookie monster in your life, they will be very happy munching on cookies from Hope’s Cookies.  I’ve been sending cookie love in over 20 flavors for more than 20 years now. In fact, their bake at home Triple Chocolate cookie dough is in my freezer now for when I can’t get to the store and want my house to smell like chocolate happiness. Cookie options start at $19.45 (box) or $23.45 (tin) for one dozen cookies – shipping costs are extra.

Wedding Cookie Table

The Wedding Cookie Table with a mix of Hope’s Cookies and homemade treats

 

If you have a cookie snob in your life, they will surely be impressed by the flavors and texture combination in one cookie, The Sour Cherry Sea Salted Chocolate Chip Cookie from Metropolitan Bakery.  A dozen cookies is $19.95 (before shipping).  Metropolitan Bakery also sells bread online, granola, popcorn and for the special dog in your life, homemade dog treats.

Metropolitan Bakery Reading Terminal

So many great baked goods at Metropolitan – I love the sour cherry sea salted chocolate chip cookie

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Global Entry vs. TSA PreCheck – A Security Fast Pass for a Price

When my international flight lands back in the U.S., I have fun trying to beat my times from plane to curb (need to find a bit of fun at the airport).  Flying back from Lima, I met Noah who played along with me at JFK as we landed and made our way to the specially marked kiosks.  He won our Global Entry game and was at baggage claim first, the irony was that as business class priority passengers our luggage came off last!

Global Entry is part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Securities Trusted Traveler Program.  While there are four program types (domestic US travel, international, Canada and Mexico), I’m focusing on the two more popular options – Global Entry vs. TSA PreCheck (Pre √).

Sunset in Philadelphia from a plane view

Sunset in Philly – splendor in the sky

Global Entry

As I travel to London once a year for work, I decided to enroll in Global Entry which is the expedited entry into the U.S.. at airports (think fast pass for travel).  Rather than wait in line for an agent to ask you questions, scan and stamp your passport upon your return to the U.S., you get to go to the kiosk to process your entry (available at U.S. International Airports and Canadian airports with U.S. Customs).  The cost of Global Entry is $100 for 5 years – $20 a year to not wait in line is so worth it for me! In Philly, the lines are only bad when all of the Caribbean U.S. Airways flights arrive at the same time.  Global Entry is a superstar at JFK and Newark in my experience.

You must hold a U.S. Passport to apply for Global Entry (if you don’t have a passport, why not? everyone should have a passport!).  You fill out a Global Entry online application and, if approved, schedule an in person interview at your local office.  The interviews, depending on location, can often be months away so check other airports you may be flying to/through if you need to have an earlier schedule .  My Global Entry interview at PHL lasted about 15 minutes as I was asked questions on where I’ve traveled to (having been to over 40 countries, I only mentioned the most recent ones I could remember) and then my fingerprints were scanned.

NYC yellow cabs at night

Classic NYC yellow cabs

When you arrive in the U.S. and go to the Global Entry Kiosk these are the easy steps:

Step 1 – Scan passport

Step 2 – Press fingerprints on the screen to verify identity and look up at the camera (this makes my DMV photo look like a glamour shot)

Step 3 – Answer questions – the same ones on the blue form handed out on the airplane

Step 4 – Retrieve ticket to give to the Immigration agents as you exit the International Hall (note there is often a special Global Entry lane to bypass the wait to give your ticket to the agent)

Global Entry allows use of the kiosk or the flexibility to use the regular lanes for when I travel with others such as my niece.

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Kicking It Up at Radio City Music Hall with the Rockettes

Radio City Music Hall Christmas

The Iconic Radio City Music Hall in NYC at the Christmas holidays

I wanted to go to a Broadway show, my friend wanted to see the Rockette’s Holiday Spectacular at Radio City Music Hall.  The Rockettes are for tourists that arrive by the swarm on the busses for the day, I thought.  In over twenty years of visits to the city, even staying at the hotel across the street from Radio City, I never had a yen to see them, ever….but here I was standing in the rain on Saturday afternoon waiting in the ticket line while my friend is texting me the location of his bus and his ETA to the city.

I would buy mezzanine seats for the 10 p.m. show which allowed my friend and I to have time for dinner first. There were a good handful of seats available and with taxes and fees, the tickets were $99 each.  The usher told me that they open the doors an hour ahead to already formed lined on either side of the theatre so I should get here early.  I thought the opposite really, given that we had seats on the aisle, I figured if we arrived 15-20 minutes ahead of curtain the lines would have subsided and it would be an easy entrance (as it was).

Your bag is searched and I was told to discard my water in the trash bin over there.  I won’t lie to you, I pretended to comply as I didn’t want to toss a good, unopened bottle of water only to pay an exorbitant fee for another bottle of water (this is where the Catholic guilt works in my favorite as it’s a sin to throw away food).

Inside Radio City Music Hall

The theatre is impressive as we ascended to the mezzanine level. The standard theatre red rugs were accented by art pieces in display cases as we could overlook the lobby and marvel at the chandelier.  This level had a long, long, very long Ladies Room line when we arrived (I would learn why when I left in the middle of the show – there were only four stalls!). I will never understand why theatres don’t upgrade the bathrooms when they have the space and the ability to do so. The beauty of the theatre is offset by the ugliness of the “ladies lounge”.

Radio City Music Hall lobby

The interior lobby of Radio City Music Hall

Radio City Music Hall

Radio City Music Hall stage just like on tv for the Tony Awards

The Holiday Spectacular

The mezzanine seats were large and comfortable with a great view of the stage.  My friend was here for the Tony awards last year and I was a bit jealous of her when I saw how great the seats were in person (note to self – buy tickets to The Tony Awards someday).

Radio City Music Hall Santa

Nothing like Santa to open the show and get the kids *young and old) excited for the holidays

Santa opened the show and we donned our 3D glasses for a short ride to the city.  It was here that the Rockettes emerged onto the stage and I was instantly mesmerized by them.  I kept trying to find one girl out of step or crooked or with her head at the wrong angle but I could find no fault, it was amazing.  All of my preconceived notions were blown away as the ladies entertained in one number after another, each more impressive than the last.

Christmas Spectacular cast

The Christmas Spectacular company on stage for the finale

Just as I was settling into the show, it was over!

The Tree Sleeps at Night

We exited the theatre and walked up the street 1/2 block in the rain to see the Christmas Tree at Rockefeller Center (along with hundred of others), it was 11:30 p.m. and just as we positioned the camera to take a photo, the lights shut off!  WHAT?!!!  This is the city that never sleeps and yet they turned the lights off at 11:30!  I was dumbfounded by this – thousands of tourists are leaving the Holiday Show meer steps away and the lights are off on the tree but not the decor surrounding the Center.

Rockefeller Center angels

The tree may be dark but the angels glowed in Rockefeller Center

 

So I didn’t get a photo of the tree this year which made me sad but luckily, we had the Lord & Taylor windows all to ourselves near midnight as we walked back to the Hyatt Place.

Lord & Taylor NYC Holiday Windows

The Lord & Taylor Holiday windows are aglow at night in New York City

See You In The Spring

My friend and I continued to discuss the show on the walk back to the hotel as we were both so surprised by how much we enjoyed it.  I think much of the conversation was him saying “see I was right – told you so” trying to get me to admit I was wrong. Realizing I wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction, he said “We should come back for the Spring show” and I happily agreed (I think this is called compromising?).

Pink flower London

Pretty in Pink flower – a sure sign of spring

 

 

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Reykjavik Walking Tour with Iceland Blogger Audur

I don’t always do things in the right order and Reykjavik would be no different.  While many would choose to orient themselves with a city tour either by bus or walking when they first arrive, I would do the walking tour of Reykjavik on my last day in the city with I ♥ Reykjavik.  I didn’t have a choice really, the only space I could find was on the Monday as the tours are popular and fill quickly.  So while I have posted a few Iceland photos and stories, the ultimate Reykjavik/Iceland blog resource is I Heart Reykjavik . Auður is a local blogger and once I found her blog, I quickly consumed her posts to prepare for my last-minute Iceland weekend.  When I saw that she led a daily walking tour, I immediately signed up for the open slot on the Monday, my last day in the city.

Colorful houses of Reykjavik Iceland

Colorful Houses of Reykjavik

The tour would start at 10 a.m. (in all weather) and last about 2 hours, the cost was approximately $40 given the fx rate at the time. The meeting point was “the big church”, Hallgrimskirkja at the top of the hill across from one of the shopping streets.  There would be 12 of us (her max group size) from different parts of the world.  Given the early start, many had just come from the airport and were doing the tour to keep awake adjusting to the local time before their hotel check-in.

Hallgrimskirkja Reykjavik Big Church

The “Big Church” Hallgrimskirkja in Reykjavik at 10 a.m. (before sunrise)

Hallgrimskirkja Reykjavik bells

Upside to being in the dark, the lights in the bell tower of Hallgrimskirkja

I was happy that just after 10 a.m., it looked like the sun might finally make an appearance after a weekend plagued with rain and clouds. This is what the sunrise over Hallgrimskirkja looked like – just lovely.  I would return later to go to the top observation area for photos of the city from above.

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The Hyatt Place New York City – Warm Welcomes and a View

Exiting Penn Station, I pushed through the New York City crowds and tried not to get my eyes poked out from the plethora of umbrellas on the street as I walked a few blocks to the Hyatt Place New York Midtown-South.  The rain was unending and unavoidable, it started in the early morning and continued into the late night.  I was prepared to walk in the rain but that doesn’t mean I liked it – it was cold out (December), the streets were packed with holiday shoppers (and their various umbrellas from small to picnic table sized) and I was in search of the Hyatt Place because I won a free overnight stay at any location during a Twitter chat in January.  I was determined to use the voucher before it expired at the end of the month and see the holiday lights in the city.

NYC Christmas Lights

The bright lights of the city

 

The Plans – A, B and C

The initial plan was to take my nieces (plan A) to New York City during the holiday season to see a Broadway show and enjoy all of the holiday lights and festivities in the city.  Best laid plans they say…..my nieces schedule with their father changed so he had them on my NYC weekend so I plotted out a new solo roadmap for my Saturday night (Plan B).  I would go to a nice dinner then enjoy a Broadway show and on Sunday surprise my friend at Film Club.  Plan C was the final winner when my gay boyfriend said “I’m going to have a nervous breakdown if I don’t get away so can I join you?!”  Really, how can one say no to that without the guilt (a leftover from Catholic School)?  Of course you can join me….are you ok with a Broadway show?  Ok, sure, the Rockettes Holiday Show does sound fabulous……which is how I ended up walking in the rain to stand in the rain for Rockette tickets at Radio City Music Hall while my friend took the bus from Philly.

Radio City Music Hall Christmas

Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular

The Location

Located in Midtown South at 36th Street, the Hyatt Place was in the perfect location for me to walk from.  Bryant Park was three blocks away with a Christmas village and an ice skating rink.  The holiday windows at Lord & Taylor also a few blocks away.  Radio City was a good 15-20 minute walk depending on your speed and ability to dodge people and umbrellas (I was on boardwalk mode dodging and weaving the whole way, it was a fine dance that I do).

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My Top 5 Travel Rituals – I might be a bit Travel Quirky

You learn so much from other people on Twitter chats and often times sharing your “crazy” you find a kindred soul (or ten).  The topic on the Sunday Brunch Travel Chat (#sbtc) this week was “Travel Rituals” which made for a lively conversation and the realization that we are all just a bit crazy in our own way – in life and travel.

Sunset sundowner stop in Sabi Sands safari

Stopping for our sundowner on safari in Sabi Sands – nice view to toast the end of the day

I hadn’t really given my rituals much thought as they are just a part of who I am and how I travel.   A few of my endearing (to me only apparently) rituals (or quirks) have been pointed out more than once which leads me to believe that i might be a bit neurotic about them (just a bit though, not full on Sheldon like). So here are a few that I will admit to:

A sense of luggage humor in Santiago airport

A sense of luggage humor in Santiago airport

1. Pre-Packing (triple check everything) – I used to pack the night before my trip – it made the trip real.  Work was done, my desk as clean as it was going to get and I was in vacation mode.  All of this was good, until the “incident” (actually two incidents) and I now strategically pre-pack with a backup plan at least a week before a trip.

The first incident was near midnight the night before my flight as I was zipping the suitcase and organizing my documents (before smartphones, emails, online check-in, etc. – you know paper)  only to realize that my passport had expired two weeks prior.  With little sleep thinking I would miss the trip to Dublin, I was at the local Philly passport office at 7 a.m. (5th in line!) for an emergency renewal. Luckily, Irish eyes were smiling…I renewed my passport in time to meet the group bus to Newark.

The second incident was a bit more intense – I had checked my passport which was fine but hadn’t quite packed despite leaving for almost a month to Australia/New Zealand.  My flight would leave out of JFK, connect in Hong Kong and arrive in Perth.  Checking in for the JFK flight online, I realized that the connecting flight to Perth had changed times and was leaving before my JFK flight would arrive.  A bit of a problem.  I managed to contact British Airways (I redeemed their points for the partner flights) and was able to change to the earlier JFK flight (I would need to book a private car to get me at 4 a.m. from Philly to JFK).

Arriving home around 8 p.m. to pack or as I call it “throw sh*t in a bag and hope for the best” which involved literally putting what I could in the suitcase (overpacking which got a “heavy” tag). Exhausted and knowing I would get no sleep, I’m not sure why but I packed a duffel with some stuff for NZ as a carry-on bag. As luck (or my luck) would have it, the earlier JFK flight had a mechanical problem, I missed my Hong Kong connection, was rerouted to Perth via Sydney and arrived without my suitcase more than 40 hours from when I left home.  My luggage would arrive three days later.  Thankfully, the airline gave me cash to shop for clothes and I was able to find my size in Australia. I vowed never again! Hence, the pre-packing, triple check I do now.

The view of Queentown, New Zealand - you can glide to the bottom

The view of Queentown, New Zealand

2. My flight food – I generally leave Philly with  the following lunch/dinner for the plane ride – a sandwich from Panera or Corner Bakery, Hope’s Cookies, Sliced Apples, a bag of chips and lots of bottled water.  For longer international trips – power bars, cashews, swedish fish.  Not quite sure when I started this ritual but I don’t buy airport food and the folks on the plane often stare at me (usually at the cookies) but I don’t care – my food is much better than the airline’s food.  The return flights are tricky internationally so I do my best (even if that involves explaining no butter on a ham sandwich in T5 Heathrow at EAT)

Capetown Distance from New York and DC

Capetown – a bit far from the nearest Panera/Corner Bakery

3. The Hotel book -Ii need to read the hotel book/manual/etc. when I arrive in my room.  Not sure if I think I’m looking for a secret password for free wi-fi (which doesn’t exist) or not – the hotel book lists the “rules” and I love understanding the “rules”.   I never realized that I do this until a few friends pointed it out (real friends should overlook/ignore friends quirky OCD stuff right?).

Oddballs' Camp Botswana tent

There was no hotel book to read in my room in Botswana

4. Unpacking – I don’t unpack at the hotel, I keep it all in the suitcase.  When I return home, the minute i’m in the door, I dump it all into the washer to clean.  I put everything away, organize the receipts and sort any souvenirs I’ve bought for my nieces/friends.  I was in the minority on the chat as many seem to delay the unpacking by days or weeks – I don’t own that many clothes to do that.

Keukenhof clogs - too big for my feet and won't fit in the suitcase

Keukenhof clogs – a pair of shoes I can’t buy or fit on my feet!

5. The photos – years ago, it was easy after a trip – drop off rolls of film and come back two days later.  Today, i take so many digital photos, rarely delete and do not edit/photoshop/etc. and it takes a week or two to upload them to my computer and post here, there and everywhere. You no longer have the packet to flip through.

Flowers in Botswana

Flowers in Botswana – online you might overlook, in print you could flip through

One ritual that I miss (but cherish so much) is from when I first started traveling internationally.  My mom would pick me up at the airport and using my leftover currency (that I exchanged at an unfavorable rate of course), we would meet my dad at the local diner.  He loved that I was paying (he always loved that!).  I would crave everything that reminded me of home – mozzarella sticks, cheesesteaks, fries and Pepsi (this was before my food journal and damn calorie counting).  We would go over the details of my trip and they couldn’t wait to flip though the photos in a few days.  The diner is still there but life has changed so much that I sadly can’t recreate this ritual anymore.

Dining Car Philadelphia

Memories at the diner

I’m glad to have my travel rituals and quirks, they mean that I’m traveling to amazing places around the world – traveling to experience the world – that’s pretty awesome!

Table Mountain, Capetown South Africa

Above the clouds, atop Table Mountain in Capetown, South Africa – quirks and all!

Tell me I’m not in the minority and you share a few of my rituals (quirks) or have a few of your own to add?

 

Categories: Musings, Travel | Tags: , , | 6 Comments