My Thanksgiving in Paris, the Year Mom Boycotted Our Turkey Dinner

Growing up in my small family, Thanksgiving dinner meant that we pulled out the dining room table to add a leaf to seat six.  The china cabinet was opened and the dishes on display most of the year were carefully removed and set for dinner.  Pulling out the silver drawer as a child allowed me to feel the fuzzy, velvet lining as my sister and I counted out six forks, knives, spoons and serving utensils.  We repeated this at Christmas and Easter.  Once dinner was over and my birthday cake devoured (my birthday is in November and always celebrated later at Thanksgiving), my father and I returned to the basement rec room to watch football.  This was our tradition and while my dad was alive, I missed this tradition twice – once on my first visit to London in college and again on my visit to Perth and New Zealand.  While others wondered how I could miss my family on this important day of turkey and football, I reminded them that coming from a small family that saw each other regularly, it was ok to miss a dinner if I had the opportunity to travel (with my parents pre-approval of course).

Eiffel Tower Paris

Eiffel Tower Paris

Last year, the year my dad passed, my mom boycotted Thanksgiving – there would be no turkey, no football, no family gathering for dinner as our family was one man down and we all were trying to cope.  Mom was pretty steadfast to veto all turkey day options.  At the time I was planning my Australia RTW trip, Thanksgiving was a consideration until Mom boycotted it so I ended up in Paris for Thanksgiving staying with a friend. While you can try to run away from grief, it is never that far behind no matter how magical a place may be.

Place de la Concorde and Roue de Paris at night

Place de la Concorde and Roue de Paris at night

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The Holiday Gift Card Bonus Bonanza – Great Returns and a Free Lunch!

Paris La Defense Christmas display

La Defense Christmas display

This holiday season you may be making your list and checking it twice and chances are you are buying a gift card or two or ten for friends and family.  Me?  I’m planning on buying lots of restaurant gifts cards for ME!  The holiday season is a great time to take advantage of all of the holiday gift card bonuses available at restaurants (mostly larger chains but sometimes small businesses too!) and it is my secret points/miles game strategy – a bonanza of free money and free food.

A few years ago, Panera Bread was offering a deal a $5 gift card for every $25 gift card purchased, a 20% return. No bank is offering you a return like that!  At first, I thought I have no one to give the gift cards too but then sensed an opportunity.  Calculating the number of visits per year and money spent, I realized I’m visiting Panera a bit too much (some might say I’m addicted).  So I bought $100 in gift cards and received the bonus $20 (make sure to use a credit card that has bonus points on restaurants).  Those were quickly used up in a few months.  I then started to calculate the dinners out with my mom (she likes steakhouses), lunch with friends (Cheesecake Factory and Chili’s) and work lunches (Panera or Corner Bakery) throughout the year and realized this was a great deal for me.

If you are already going to spend money dining at the restaurant or store, why not pre-pay and get a bonus! It’s a great return on money you are going to spend anyway and in some cases it’s enough for a free lunch (or dinner!). You must buy the gift card direct from the vendor – you won’t get the bonus if you buy at the supermarket, CVS or other store.

This isn’t for everyone – you need to be able to prepay for your dining (or shopping) expenses in November/December when the gift card bonus is offered and pay your credit card off in full (always pay your credit card in full).  Most vendors have strict conditions on the bonus card usage (i.e. – must be used between January 1 and a February) so you need to make sure you can use the bonus otherwise it is worthless.

Reading Terminal Market train display

A big draw at the holidays – the train display at Reading Terminal Market

A few examples of gift card bonus offers this 2014 Holiday Season (check each vendor for fine print)

  • Cheesecake Factory – Holiday Bonus Gift Card offer not available yet
  • Panera Bread – $5 Bonus Gift Card with every $30 in gift cards purchased (16% return, less than the 20% they used to offer)
  • Outback Steakhouse – $20 Bonus Gift Card (must use between January 1 – February 10) with every $100 gift card purchased (20% return)
  • Chili’s – $10 e-bonus card (must use between January 1 – February 10) with every $50 in gift cards purchased (20% return)
  • P.F. Chang’s – $20 bonus card (must use between January 1 – March 31, airports locations not applicable) with every $100 in gift cards purchased (20% return)
  • Fogo de Chao – $25 bonus card for every $150 in gift card purchases (16% return)
  • Fleming’s Steakhouse – $20 bonus card for every $100 in gift card purchases (20%)
  • Starr Restaurants (Philly, NYC, DC. Atlantic City, Florida) – $50 bonus card for the first $500 in gift cards (10% return) then $50 for each additional $250 in purchases (20%)
  • and so, so, many more holiday bonus cards out there……

Just in case you think this is restaurants only, Barnes & Noble has an offer too!  $10 bonus card for every $75 in gift cards (13% return).

There is a slight downside to the prepay method (for me at least), when I know I have a gift card to use at the restaurant, I feel like it gives me license to spend a bit more, try a new menu item or add a glass of wine without regard to a budget since I’ve got the card and it’s flush with funds.

Frosty the Snowman lights at the Light Show

The Frosty the Snowman lights

Do a quick tally of your dining charges throughout the year (you’ll be surprised and often horrified by the spend amount). Do you have an opportunity for a great return this holiday season? If so, will you play the holiday gift card bonus game with me?


Categories: Loyalty Points, Musings, Restaurants | Tags: , | Leave a comment

Going Round and Round in Paris, London and Seattle #FriFotos

This week’s #FriFotos theme is “Circles” …..I thought round and round…..then my mind wandered to the Dead or Alive song “You Spin Me Round (like a Record)” before landing on the Ferris Wheel (don’t ask how my mind associates things).  Many cities have added Ferris Wheels to attract tourists and provide incredible city views (who doesn’t love a great photo from above?), no longer is the Ferris Wheel limited to the boardwalk or amusement park.  These are a few of the memorable Ferris Wheels in Paris, London and Seattle that I’ve encountered this year.

Roue de Paris (Paris Ferris Wheel)

Located at Place de la Concorde at the end of the Champs Elysees it was installed for the 2000 Millennium.  Surprisingly, this Ferris Wheel can be transported and relocated and over the years, it traveled a bit before landing back in Paris. I don’t remember a time when it wasn’t there and would find it odd if it were missing.  At night, all aglow, it fits right into the Parisian landscape.

Place de la Concorde and Roue de Paris at night

Place de la Concorde and Roue de Paris at night


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The Westin Sydney, a luxury stay using Starwood Points

On my first visit to The Westin Sydney many years ago, I got stuck in the elevator.  No, there wasn’t an electrical or mechanical problem, it was a dumb “only Sue” reason – I couldn’t get my keycard to work in the slot to press my floor.  I tried a few times as the door shut and then someone pressed the button opening the doors expecting me to get out at the lobby but I had to laugh and say “keycard issues, I was stuck” – the businessman looked at me with that “you’re an idiot” look and asked me “what floor”. When I returned to The Westin Sydney, I made sure to work the keycard and elevator to avoid feeling stupid like last time.

The Westin Sydney at Martin's Place

Welcome to The Westin Sydney at Martin’s Place

The Westin Sydney is an impressive luxury hotel converting and restoring the old General Post Office building into a 400 room hotel with 31 floors. Memories of my first visit quickly flooded back on my most recent visit.  The first visit I was loaded with lots of luggage having completed a month’s holiday in Perth and New Zealand with Sydney being the last stop as I made my way home.  This time, Sydney was sandwiched between my Australia segments of Melbourne and Tasmania on my RTW as I wanted to spend my birthday in the city (little did I know it would be Raining on my Birthday Parade)

Rainy Day Sydney views

Rainy Day Sydney view of the Harbour Bridge and Opera House


Martin’s Place is quite central in Sydney’s business and fashion district with Darling Harbour or Circular Quay (Opera House, Sydney Harbour Bridge and ferries) about a 15 min. walk.  A train station is mere minutes around the corner, buses stop nearby and shopping arcades are just steps away.  For a first time visitor to the city, I think this is a great location to explore from. On the weekends though many cafes and restaurants in the area are closed as they service the central business district during the week. No worries, this is Sydney and there are fantastic options just down the road or a quick cab away.

Sydney Opera House clear blue skies Australia

The iconic Sydney Opera House – 15 min walk from The Westin Sydney

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Looking Back – Mickey Mouse Memories

Having debuted in the cartoon, “Steamboat Willie” in 1928, Mickey Mouse will turn 86 tomorrow (November 18th).  How that one cartoon character has affected each of our lives is fascinating testament to the iconic, visionary, Walt Disney.  If you ever ask who I’d like to meet dead or alive, Walt Disney is pretty high on my list.  Walt Disney World in Orlando was one massive dream that he sadly didn’t see completed. Long before a Little Mermaid, a Lion King and a myriad of Princesses with the most recent being Frozen, Disney World was about a mouse – Mortimer Mouse, now known as Mickey Mouse.  The kingdom was built for him and he continues to entertain while ceding the spotlight to a whole new group of characters for the new generations.

Cinderella's Castle Disney World

Cinderella’s Castle in Disney World

For me, looking back at my Mickey Mouse memories includes Sunday nights with my family watching “The Wonderful World of Disney”, afternoons watching reruns of the original Mickey Mouse club and new episodes of the New Mickey Mouse Club as well as the year 1983.  It wasn’t the memories of my Care Bear or Cabbage Patch Doll (both highly sought after toys I’ll have you know) in 1983, it wasn’t trying to figure out how to “moonwalk” like Michael Jackson (which I still can’t do) or that the landscape of fast food was forever changed with the introduction of the Chicken McNugget.  It wasn’t my first concert (Rick Springfield at Valley Forge Music Fair) without my parents (they dropped us off and went to dinner back when you could do things like that with kids).  All of these were pretty good memories.  But, the highlight in 1983 was the family trip to Disney World in Orlando.  We were off to see Mickey Mouse and experience all the Disney fun.  It meant that I would be flying for the first time.

USAirways view from the wing

Up in the clouds – the view from the wing of USAirways

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The New Zealand Quandary – Milford Sound vs Doubtful Sound

We all want the best and when it comes to travel there are so many confusing “best of” options.  This week’s #FriFotos theme is “Best” and I keep thinking how many times I went in search of the best and found something better.  Yesterday’s post, I went in search of the best restaurant in Melbourne and ended up at The Meatball & Wine Bar. For me “the Best” is so subjective but it sure is fun trying it all and finding something more, unexpected along the way.

Doubtful Sound

Doubtful Sound

One of the more confusing “What is the best?” was on my trip to New Zealand’s South Island.  While I read that Milford Sound was the most popular, I also read that Doubtful Sound was larger, less visited and more serene.  So what was the best Milford Sound vs Doubtful Sound?  What must I see and experience?  Posing this question to various travel agents, friends from New Zealand and researching online didn’t get me closer to an answer.  I would do what made the most sense to me at the time – visit both with Real Journeys and decide on my own.

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Melbourne Meatball Memories on Flinders Lane

Having just completed my four day journey from Philadelphia to Melbourne with an overnight flight from Singapore, I was hungry.  With an early check-in to the Sofitel Melbourne on Collins,  I was eager to forage for food after reading so many fantastic articles about the Melbourne restaurant/food scene. But I had a problem.  I was hungry, the kind of hungry that you shouldn’t be when you go grocery shopping.   The Sofitel was attached to an office complex with a small food court – while everything looked nice, I was interested in a uniquely Melbourne experience.

Melbourne South Bank waterfront

Melbourne South Bank waterfront of shops, restaurants, arts, casino, etc.

Walked toward the historic Flinders Lane, which houses many “Soho” type of boutiques, cafes and restaurants, I was in search of the award winning Cumulus, Inc. which was recommended for their Modern Australian cooking. Along the way, I passed a few interesting restaurants and smiled when I passed The Meatball & Wine Bar.  It looked interesting from the outside and who doesn’t like meatballs and wine?  But I was on a mission now to find a cloud.

Meatball & Wine Bar Melbourne

More than meat in Melbourne – meatballs in fish and vegetables too

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First Visit: The Alaska Airlines Lounge in Seattle

Washington State view from above

The wildfire smoke in Washington State mixed with the clouds on my first Alaska Airlines flight

Flying home from Seattle over the year, my only option was the direct USAirways flight, however, this visit, my travel agent suggested Alaska Airlines.  Alaska Airlines started flying direct between Seattle and Philly two years ago, in June 2012, and brought some welcome competition to the segment.  Despite that, I hadn’t had an opportunity to fly them until their first class flight one way was slightly more than the coach USAirways ticket.  It was a no-brainer.  I usually buy a coach seat and then hope to pay for the upgrade which runs about $250 so learning that the Alaska flight was cheaper and would provide access to the lounge was even nicer.  This is a great example of why travel agents are so beneficial.

With the flight scheduled to depart at 8:35 am, I arrived at the airport by 6:30 am and was happy that the lounge opened at 5 a.m.  I easily found the Alaska Airlines lounge near gate D1 after security on my way to have breakfast.  When I returned to the lounge and entered, I noticed the long check-in desk, nice decor and saw the elevator and stairs ahead as this is a two level lounge.  The agents warmly greeted me and I told them it was my first visit. They scanned my boarding pass and explained my options for food/drink/work in the lounge.  Of note, they do not make announcements so you need to keep track of your time.

Board Room Seattle Alaska Airlines

Alaska Airlines lounge in Seattle called the Board Room

Alaska Airlines Board Room Seattle

Nicely decorated lounge in Seattle

I did a quick drive by of the first level noting all of my options – the food options alone, one could easily survive with the choices available (unlike other lounges I’ve visited).

Alaska Airlines boardroom seattle coffee

Its Seattle – of course, its Starbucks coffee!

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