Sunday, August 28, 2011

Review: The New England Aquarium, Boston

I have to admit my opinion of the New England Aquarium is probably tainted by the fact that we visited it on a Sunday, when the weather was lousy, and every tourist in Boston with children was also there. It was crowded. It was noisy. But we knew that would happen and expected it.

What I didn't expect was the price of $22.95 per adult or $20.95 for over 60 (me). The adult price is only $2 less than the National Aquarium in Baltimore, an aquarium that is in my opinion far superior.

My daughter and I were disappointed in the signage and layout of the aquarium. There is a huge reef tank in the center and it is possible to look down into it ... only after CLIMBING up stairs to the top level ... there is NO access for the handicapped. Restrooms are located only on the lower level unlike the super Museum of Science (we visited two days later) which had bathrooms on every level and in every wing and was totally accessible with escalators and elevators.

When we entered the aquarium, we were immediately asked if we would like to have our picture taken. No commitment to buy. Sure. But because of the photo taking, and how we were directed around the area, we totally missed the signage to the new huge shark and ray touch tank, an exhibit the aquarium is very proud of and is promoting all over the place. (We left during the afternoon and returned later in the day with free re-entry, to visit when it was a bit quieter ... that's when we finally found the exhibit.)

If visiting a big city aquarium is new to you, then a visit to this aquarium on a sunny day when it is less crowded would probably be a nice experience. But if you have visited aquariums like the National Aquarium in Baltimore, don't bother. I had a better time with my husband and grandkids when we visited the small Atlantic City aquarium priced at $6 for a senior and $5 for the children.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Walking the Freedom Trail, Boston, Massachusetts

The Freedom Trail starts in Boston Commons, near the visitor's center. Except that the visitor's center is currently undergoing renovation so we had to cross back over Tremont St. for the temporary visitor's center. Be careful. Don't be fooled by the business on the corner with the big sign proclaiming it a visitor's center. The official one is in the middle of the block and takes a bit of searching to find.

I was planning on finding a small brochure with some information on the Freedom Trail. The center had lots of pamphlets and books about the Freedom Trail, all of them with a price tag. The least expensive brochure was $3, a tri-fold foldout. Seemed a bit pricey but the fact is we did reference it a lot and it was worth the money.

The Freedom Trail is about 2.5 miles long. We knew we would not do it all in one day but we were determined to walk the whole trail and not miss any of it. The problem is that besides the 2.5 miles of the Freedom Trail, there is so much other interesting things that pull one away, like walking around Quincy Market or seeing the Holocaust Memorial.

I did not realize how much of the Freedom Trail was run by the National Park Service. Turned out I was able to get stamps for my national park passport. The park service offers 90 minute ranger led guided tours that are free. It would be worth checking out the park service site for information on tours, demonstrations and talks. As for my daughter and myself, we listened in on a few of the talks as we walked along but, even though we had 5 days, we had so much on our agenda we felt our time was limited and decided not to dedicate 90 minutes to any one tour.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Using the Boston 'T'

My daughter and I used the Boston T to travel all around the city. We bought a 7 day Charlie card, for $15, which allowed us unlimited usage on the T, buses and harbor ferries. With single trips costing $1.70 each, it was a worthwhile investment for our 5 day visit.

The subway cars were generally clean and air conditioned. Except for one trip during rush hour, we usually managed to get a seat. But waiting for the train (actually more like a trolley) was another experience. We were on the green 'E' line and when we were heading back to the hotel, it was not unusual for a couple of 'B', 'C' and 'D' green line trains to come through the station before finally getting an 'E'. When heading into the city, on a line that only ran the E, the wait could be 10 minutes or more.

A couple of stations were in need of a good cleaning. The wheels on the trolleys didn't always perfectly match the curves they needed to make and the screeching of the wheels against the rails was ear-splitting at times. Truthfully, I found the 'T' a necessary evil. It was definitely easy to use and generally convenient, with easy to read maps everywhere. But there were times I would rather have taken a bus ... if only I could have found a map of the bus routes.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Review: Hilton Back Bay, Boston, Massachusetts

We stayed for four nights at the Hilton Back Bay during our recent long weekend in Boston. While I prefer the Hilton chain of hotels when we travel, I didn't choose this one. I got our hotel room using Priceline.

Our first very pleasant surprise when we arrived at the hotel at 9:30 a.m. on Friday was finding out that our room was ready and we could check in. I had requested a room with two beds and we had just that ... two double beds. The closet and bathroom were small but the room was comfortable and the price was right.

The hotel is located about a five minute walk from the Prudential station on the E green line. The Prudential shopping center is huge and has restaurants such as The Cheesecake Factory, P.F. Chang and California Pizza Kitchen. For us the selection of restaurants was disappointing as we wanted to eat in 'Boston' restaurants, not national chains.

The hotel has two dining rooms but we did not eat any meals there. Instead, for breakfast, we came home with pastry and had that with the in-room coffee for breakfast while lunch and dinner was eaten while we were out touring.

While not the most conveniently located hotel for Boston activities, it served us just fine, through the last day when we checked our luggage for the day so we could continue touring before heading off to the airport.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Spending a Long Weekend in Boston

Returned on Tuesday from spending a long weekend in Boston with my daughter. Since she has limited vacation time, we decided to fly and arrived early Friday morning, returning late Tuesday night.

We had a great weekend and did lots of 'Boston' things. We walked the entire Freedom Trail. We visited the aquarium and the science center. We shopped at Filene's Basement and toured the Samuel Adams brewery.

We ate at Legal Seafood, saw two shows and road the 'T'. We took a Segway tour of Charlestown and the MIT campus. We filled five days and came home exhausted but elated after a great weekend together.

(I'll be putting up some 'review' posts over the next couple of days. Just click on 'Boston' in the label to read them. Or you can subscribe to my blog and have all of the posts delivered directly to your email.)

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Learning How to Use Priceline

With all of the traveling we have done, I have only used Priceline once and that was for a one day rental from Ft. Myers airport to the Ft. Lauderdale airport.

My daughter and I just returned from a long weekend in Boston. With hotels in downtown Boston averaging over $200 per night (plus 14% tax) I decided to give Priceline a try. I started bidding about two weeks out, looking for a 4 or 3 1/2 star hotel in either the Quincy Market area or just west of downtown in the Back Bay/theater district. My starting bid was $100.

I proceeded at follows:

I selected the Quincy Market area and a 4 star hotel.

When my bid wasn't accepted I added the Theater District

When my bid still wasn't accepted I eliminated the theater district selection and went to a 3 1/2 star hotel.

My bid still didn't get accepted so I added back in the theater district for a 3 1/2 star hotel.

During the entire time, from 8 to 14 days out, I had no luck. Then, literally one week out, I got a 3 1/2 star hotel in the theater district for my $100 bid ... Hilton Back Bay (which I'll review later). For curiosity's sake I went to the Hilton website and if I had booked online, the same hotel would have cost about $190 per night with an AAA discount. So I did good.

But then I got to thinking. In retrospect what I should have done was continue to look for a 4 star in the Quincy Market area, at $100, until about 3 days out. I might have gotten lucky. If I didn't get lucky, I could have always added in the theater district and/or gone to 3 1/2 star at that point.

I am not a patient person and I have to admit waiting like this to book a hotel was difficult. I'm wondering if I should have been a bit more patient and given my first choice (Quincy Market/4 star) another day or two to come through. Either way, it was great having saved over $400 for our Boston stay, money that more than paid for the extras ... food, sightseeing, theater, etc.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Review: Frommer's Arizona and New Mexico Books

Frommer's is probably the first guide book I grab when I am traveling international. I have to admit it never dawned on me to use a Frommer's guide book for travel within the U.S. When we did our northwest car trip a couple of years ago I depended upon AAA tour books, information I had gotten from each state plus tips I printed off of the Internet.

For this trip I had picked up used Frommer's Frommer's Arizona and the Grand Canyon and Frommer's New Mexico guide books at a local book sale. And I can't believe what a help they were. Using them in conjunction with the AAA tour books made it easier to select hotels, restaurants, places we wanted to see and things we wanted to do.

Whether you buy them new or buy them used (at most 2 to 3 years old), I highly recommend adding a Frommer's guide book to your collection if you will be touring any part of the U.S.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Should You Buy Travel Insurance?

In my opinion, the answer is absolutely Yes!

The subject of travel insurance is discussed often in a travel periodical that I subscribe to. Some people never buy travel insurance. And others will not travel without it.

We are among those that do not travel without it, buying it from Access America. Even though we have been fortunate enough to never have needed it, we have come close a few times. It was comforting to know that, if needed, we had it.

Like when we needed to make a decision about cutting short a cruise because of illness. The thought of the cost involved had absolutely no effect on our final decision because we knew we were covered for medical care and flight evacuation, if needed. Fortunately, it didn’t some to that but it was nice to know that cost was not one of the items we needed to consider.

My personal feeling is that, at minimum, travelers should have evacuation insurance. Many people think of just the cost of flying home. If you only travel to major cities, getting home might not be a problem. But if you travel to places where the tourist infrastructure is a bit weak, and perhaps you need a helicopter or medical transport to get you home, having insurance is the only way to go.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Costa Rica for Some R & R?

Over the past year we have done a LOT of traveling. We cruised the Mediterranean and the Panama Canal. We took a 7-week car trip to the Southwest. They were all fantastic trips but they kept us on the move and required lots of research on my part. So I was thinking about a vacation where I got a chance to sit on the beach and do absolutely nothing. Browsing around the Internet for options I came across Jaco Costa Rica vacations.

Jaco is the largest beach town on the west coast of Costa Rica. Jaco beach vacation rentals consist of completely furnished beachfront condos in gated communities. The Jaco Condo rentals all offer quiet and privacy. If we wanted we could go bird watching or visit Manual Antonio National Park (which I LOVE – it’s only 50 minutes away). My husband could go sport fishing or, if the time of the year is right, we could visit Playa Hermosa and see the leatherback turtles where they lay their eggs and then make their way back to the sea.

There are plenty of restaurants nearby serving everything from Costa Rican food to American, French, Japanese and Italian. I could go shopping or take advantage of a spa. We could spend an evening at a local casino. Or I could just sit on the beach and do absolutely nothing.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Trying to Contact Continental Airlines by Telephone

I needed to contact Continental Airlines regarding a reservation for a future trip. Our connecting flight time had been changed and we now had only 35 minutes to change planes in Chicago, from a United jet to a puddle jumper operated by one of its associate airlines. Since racing through airports is not one of our favorite pass times, I decided to call Continental and request a change to a later connection. I didn't expect this to be a problem since our tickets were purchased with Continental frequent flyer miles.

I tried to reach Continental several times. The automatic attendant asked if the call was for 'seat assignments, a new reservation, an existing reservation or something else.' I did a bit of the automatic stuff giving my reservation number and confirming the date and departure city. Then I dialed zero and heard "I understand you want to speak with an agent. I can continue to help you or you can say Agent Assistance." I asked for an agent and then heard 'I am having technical difficulties. I am having technical difficulties. I am having technical difficulties. I am having technical difficulties. I am having technical difficulties.......' I hung up. This happened several times using more than one phone number.

Trying later I never even got that far. The automatic response was something like the call volume being so high that my call could not be taken. I hung up again.

Finally tried at 7:30 a.m. when I figured the call volume would not be high. And this time when I was asked if the call was about 'seat assignments, a new reservation, an existing reservation or something else' I finally got smart and said 'something else.' I got transferred to an agent and had to wait on hold about 5 minutes. Finally got a human being who pleasantly handled the change in reservation. Lesson learned: Don't even try to deal with an automatic attendant. Take the first opportunity to get a real live person.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Practicing my Spanish skills studying abroad

Guest post written by Eve Brown

I've been taking Spanish ever since I could remember way back in elementary school. So I've just continued with it in college because I knew enough from high school so that I could have placed into a much higher section where it may have just been a bunch of Spanish-speaking people in there. Anyway, I'm so glad that I'm going to actually be able to interact with Spanish speakers on a daily basis while I'm studying abroad in Spain for the fall!

I think that it's going to be downright amazing and I thought that I could chronicle all of it through a blog. I started looking not that long ago to see if I could find a good blogging platform to use and when I was researching that I came across the site After I looked through it a little bit I decided to use that and just buy a domain name for my blog.

I can't wait to see all of the cultural stuff during my Spain study abroad experience! Oh, am I going to have a ton of pictures to post on the blog!