Last minute flights may be cheaper than the bus

Searching for travel deals feels like playing a game show where how to get a winning number is unclear. It’s like hunting in a jungle where the frequent hunter has the edge. Timing remains the wild card.

Being flexible and not assuming the outcomes makes the difference between snagging a deal or paying more than you feel happy paying. The one that makes you whine.

Case in point: A friend of mine bought a round-trip ticket to New York City from Columbus for $240 two weeks ago for a trip next week. He smacked his forehead when I told him I bought a ticket last Saturday for $138 total. My trip is tomorrow.

The price surprised me as well. Before buying a bus ticket, expecting Greyhound would be much cheaper since it usually is, I searched plane fares last Friday “just in case.” Surprise, surprise.

But, I also learned–again– the importance of not hesitating. I waited until Saturday to buy the ticket while ironing out life’s logistics, thus missed out on the flight I wanted. Delta’s prices had almost doubled.

Another search found the $138 price on American. The hesitation, though, means flying out at 5:40 in the morning. Blech! Still, the less than two hour plane ride is $30 cheaper than the 14 hour bus ride. Factor in the cost of the bus from LaGuardia into Grand Central Station and I’m still $8 ahead.

While hunting for your own deal, keep the following points in mind.

  • Don’t assume you know prices before you check. You may be surprised.
  • The more often you check prices, the more you’ll know what is a price you’re willing to pay. (This is my 6th trip to NYC since June. This is the 2nd time I’ve flown. The bus has been the best option three times and two weeks ago we drove.)
  • When you see a price you want, don’t waffle. Your life can adjust to the decision you’ve made. (The beauty of bus travel is that it’s more flexible than flying.)
  • Don’t pay too much attention to headlines that talk about the price of travel. In the travel business, so much depends upon timing. What’s true in the morning could have shifted by the afternoon. Keep looking. Hunt out every corner of options and stay flexible.
  • If you’re flying to New York City, the airport you fly into can make a difference into the cost of a flight. Pick the option that checks the price of all NYC airports. Once you know which airline has the cheapest price, book your ticket through that airline.

Good luck hunting out the best travel deal for you. It could be the bus.

First snow: Eight winter activities for budget friendly fun

With the first snow comes thoughts of winter’s smorgasbord of budget friendly travel options. Fall festivals and foliage tours are long gone. What was missed has been moved to next year’s got to go agenda.

The first snow is a reminder that winter, like other seasons, has a timetable that waits for no one. To make the most of winter, create a checklist of what you’d like to do. Plan for those winter outings before it’s too late. Don’t be left behind wondering where the winter went.

Here are 8 winter activities to put on your list of things to do before the spring thaw comes and crocus appear.

1. Go tubing: For anyone who wants the thrill of speeding down a snow packed hill, but is not fond of the idea of falling (count me in on this one) tubing is an excellent option. If you have the physical skills to sit on the ground and get back up again with or without help, you can tube. The beauty of tubing is that people of various athletic abilities and ages can enjoy the same experience at the same time.

Many ski resorts have added tubing hills to their repertoire. From the Poconos in Pennsylvania to Copper Mountain Ski Resort in Colorado, the cost for tubing is quite a bit less than the cost of a ski lift pass. Plus, there’s no equipment to rent and you can enjoy the warmth of the ski resort’s lodge like any skier who forked out more money than you did.

2. Take a winter hike: Although hiking might seem more suited for warmer weather, winter hiking offers another look at outdoor beauty. Plus, there’s a level of solitude for reflection, part of what winter months invite. Sections of the Appalachian Trail are one possibility. For options that offer the opportunity to find out more about nature and natural history of an area, check your state’s park system. Many have an organized winter hike like Hocking Hills State Park in Ohio does. This park’s winter hike is January 16.

3. Go cross-country skiing or snow shoeing: Where there is snow, you can cross-country ski or snowshoe. City and town parks, logging roads or trails that have been specifically for either sport are waiting for you. The Enchanted Forest in northern New Mexico is one such place. To see if either sport is a good fit, head to a trail on Winter Trails Day. This winter, January 9th is the day to bundle up and strap on skis or snowshoes. Rentals are available.

4. Build a snowman in an unusual place: Where there’s snow perfect for packing, you can build a snowman. By building a snowman in a place that’s more public than your yard, you add to other people’s winter fun. A favorite memory of mine is watching people build a snowman on the Great Wall of China.

For people who live where it never snows, don’t pass up a chance to indulge in a snippet of childhood if you happen to have traveled to a place where it does–London, England, for example.

5. Sip hot chocolate, mulled wine or another hot beverage made extra warm by alcohol by a fire crackling in a stone fireplace. This is where you enjoy a winter wonderland by looking out a window. Where does one find such an experience? Ski lodges and hotel lounges and lobbies are perfect places for indulging in an afternoon or evening of relaxation in a comfy chair. Going solo? Bring a book. You don’t have to be an overnight guest to enjoy such pleasure.

6. Visit an historic village to learn about winter life in the olden days. At an historic village, costumed interpreters demonstrate how life was lived in yesteryear. Old Sturbridge Village in Sturbridge, Massachusetts is one of the more extensive historic villages. The sticker price is not exactly budget friendly. For the cheapest option, head to the Slate Run Living Historical Farm in Ohio. It’s free. I repeat. Free.

7. Bird watch at a local park, a nature center, a refuge or another area known for bird watching. Check out Critter Watch, for best winter birding spots in Colorado. In Ohio, the newest bird watching place is the Grange Insurance Audubon Center, one mile from the heart of downtown Columbus. It’s located on an important migration stop next to the Scioto River.

8. Ice-skate at a city’s outdoor rink or a frozen pond. Many cities open skating rinks in their downtown’s to attract people. One of the most famous is the skating rink at Rockefeller Center. There are other less touristy skating options in New York City, however.

If you’re planning to head to any other city, see if there is an outdoor skating rink there. Skating on a city’s downtown rink is an active way to enjoy the city’s architecture while becoming part of the city’s scene. Skate rentals are available.

Some city parks and zoos like Buhr Park in Ann Arbor, Michigan and the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium in Columbus Ohio, also offer ice-skating with skate rentals available.

Greyhound bus driver heads wrong way: Where’s a GPS when you need one?

Greyhound bus drivers generally don’t make national news. Pilots who overshoot airports, however, end up having their story told over and over again on about every entertainment vehicle there is. How many places did you hear or read about the Northwest Airlines pilots who missed Minneapolis and didn’t figure out their mistake for 150 miles?

Now, how many of you heard about the Greyhound bus driver who headed the wrong way for more than an hour last week? Yep, last Saturday morning at about 7:14 a.m on October 31st, that’s exactly what happened–a bus driver went the wrong way for more than 70 miles.

Here’s an exclusive Gadling report that has yet to show up anywhere. Gadling knows because Gadling was there.

What started out to be a slam dunk from Cleveland’s bus station to Port Authority in Manhattan turned into a Twilight zone episode. For the band of riders who were heading to New York for a variety of reasons–like the R&B singer who was moving from Michigan to Manhattan to try to make a living, and the young man moving back to Hartford, Connecticut from Cincinnati, the bus was the cheapest travel option.

For this mother and her daughter, it was certainly the cheapest way for a last minute trip to NYC for a Halloween weekend that doubled as a 17th birthday present.

Each of us were initially thrilled to be on the spillover bus out of Cleveland. When there are too many passengers for one bus, another driver is called for a second bus. Riding on the second bus generally means more room.

When the second bus pulled out of the Cleveland terminal at 2:30 a.m. or so, the passengers, mostly with two seats to themselves, settled in for slumber. The bus’ interior lights were off creating an aura of cozy humanity as the bus headed to I-80 east for the trip straight to Manhattan. With the stop in Newark dropped because no one on the bus was going to Newark, this meant arriving ahead of the 11:15 a.m. schedule. Sweet!

At 6:55 a.m., the bus pulled into a truck stop near Milesburg, Pennsylvania. Most everyone got off in search of coffee and a toilet that didn’t move from side to side. Some huddled together for a quick smoke.

By 7:15 everyone was back on the bus, settling in for more shut eye as the sun began to rise. At 8:30 the dream come true ride ended.

The driver’s “Oh, my god! Oh, my god! I don’t believe this. We were almost there,” paired with her frustrated laughter–the kind of laughter one uses when there’s no other possible response because crying would be just too awful, woke up this Gadling rider. From the vantage point of three rows back from the driver on the right side of the bus, it was clear the driver was talking to herself.

Peering out the window looking to see what was up, the first thought was traffic caused by an accident. Nope. That wasn’t it. The highway was clear.

When the bus pulled off the highway, making a jog along a side road, the thought was another rest stop already?

Nope. That wasn’t it either. The driver swung the bus back onto the highway.

When an I-80 east sign appeared, so did a sinking feeling–and an urge to start moaning, “No, no, no!”

When the “Bellfonte 65 miles” (or so) sign appeared, it was clear what had happened. At Milesburg, the driver headed off on I-80 west instead of going east, thus driving back towards Cleveland. We had driven miles in the wrong direction past the State College turn off in the center of Pennsylvania where we had been before.

Unfortunately, it took the driver over an hour to figure out that she was heading away the wrong way.

We would not be arriving in New York City before 11:15. That’s when we’d be hitting the Poconos just in time for Saturday afternoon traffic.

The R&B singer’s friends who were at Port Authority to meet the bus called her wondering where she was after the first bus showed up on time. They told her that they had to go to work and would not be able to help her with her luggage after all.

By the time the bus pulled into Port Authority at 1:30, more than two hours behind schedule, five people felt steamed up enough to head to Greyhound customer service to complain. That meant filling out paperwork describing the event and leaving contact information.

For Gadling, the mistake meant two less hours in Manhattan. For others, it meant missed connections that ended up costing money and a travel headache they hadn’t counted on. The R&B singer had Greyhound comp her the price to store her luggage until she figured out how to get it to her new digs. When we left the customer service counter, the young guy was still trying to figure out how to get to Hartford and contact the people who were to meet him there. He was hoping Greyhound would put him on the train.

Greyhound customer service is going to let us know if they’ll be any ticket compensation once the incident is investigated. A voucher for future travel on Greyhound would be nice. You never know what kind of adventure you’re going to have when a bus pulls out of a station. I’m thinking about taking my son to Manhattan the middle of December to take in the holiday lights.

As for the ride back, the bus pulled into the Columbus, Ohio bus station right on time–7 a.m. on Monday morning.



Labor Day picnics: Make yours memorable. Tips and where to go suggestions

Katie’s post on how to turn a Labor Day barbecue into a multi-cultural affair is a mouth-watering read that gave me the feeling that the sweet Italian sausages I bought for a cook-out could use some jazzing up. Put Katie’s read together with tips I picked up this summer during a chat with one of Hip Hostess’s event planners, Amber Cleary, and Labor Day could easily be turned into an event to remember fondly when you’re back at work on Tuesday. (Hopefully, that good mood will take you all the way to the next weekend.) If you look past your backyard for a picnic location, even better..

I tried a couple of Amber’s ideas out on my last picnic when I headed to the Columbus Symphony’s outdoor Picnic with the Pops concert with Christopher Cross.

Amber’s mantra about making an event special and personal, gave me more umph when I thought of putting together the fixin’s, something that Katie touched upon when she suggested dressing up Labor Day fare with a cultural twist.

Here are the ideas, plus suggestions for simple places to take your picnic for the last holiday of summer. (This photo was taken last Labor Day as Yourdon strolled around Central Park in Manhattan.)

Amber’s Tip #1 (plus my interpretation): Depending upon the number of people in the group, pack salads and side dishes in Chinese food carry-out boxes–the small size. Each person gets his or her own box (or boxes) depending upon what you put in them. This makes food transportable, and once the food is eaten, you can throw the box away. An advantage is that there won’t be a bowl to take home, and you won’t need to bring plates or serving spoons.

For my Picnic with the Pops outing, I made Amber’s Shrimp and Orzo Salad and Fruit Salad with Lime Dressing. Here’s a fruit salad recipe from the Food Network that has a tropical twist and another version served up in a martini glass here. For a version of a shrimp and orzo salad from Cooking Light, click here.

More food container suggestions:

Tip # 2. Here’s a tip that I found on Amber’s blog. Desserts like pudding can be served in a jar. She’s done this with chocolate mousse. Each person get his or her own jar. Jars can be recycled or taken back home for the next picnic.

Tip # 3. Put dry type eats in origami containers. I was at a party once where a snack mix was served in a handmade paper bowl. Very cool, and a Japanese tradition that adds a cultural flair. Amber has served individual packages of cookies in handmade boxes. If the bowl interests you, here’s a link to a how to make one.

Tip #4. How about flat bottomed ice-cream cones? Then you can eat the container. Trail mix would be great, I think. Each could be wrapped in Saran wrap or paper to keep the goods from falling out.

Tip # 5. For beverages, consider individual water bottles. When I met Amber, she handed me a Camelback water bottle filled with a Sauza Peach Margarita, a lovely concoction of DeKuyper Luscious Peachtree Schnapps Liqueur, DeKuyper Signature Triple Sec, Sauza Tequila, sour mix and lime. It was absolutely yummy.

Think of any cold beverage and water bottle pairing. This would save on cups. Water bottles could be labeled with people’s names. Better yet, tell people to bring their water bottles to the picnic and you’ll fill it with something special. It doesn’t need to be an alcoholic version of something special, but. if you’re looking for spiked drink suggestions, check out the DeKuyper’s Web site Mix Master page.

With drinks and food in hand, don’t forget the details that can make your Labor Day picnic more personal and special.

  • A cloth table cloth, either to spread on the ground or put over a table. Mine is from India. It’s colorful, lightweight and easy to carry.
  • A real basket. It doesn’t have to be a picnic basket, but is large enough to hold the tablecloth, utensils and whatever else you want to bring along to set the scene. (At Picnic with the Pops, I’ve seen candles and flowers.)
  • A cooler to hold whatever food you’re bringing along. The older I get, the more a cooler with wheels sounds like a good idea.
  • Something to sit on that offers back support. The older I get, the more I want something to sit on.

For a hiking picnic, divide up food into individual cold pack type lunch bags for each person to carry his or her own, or divide up the food so each person is carrying part of the meal.

Instead of staying in your backyard for Labor Day, consider these options that are possibly close to home. The more portable your picnic, the more travel friendly:

  • A cemetery. No, don’t eat on a grave. Many older cemeteries are equipped with ponds and grassy areas for spreading out a blanket, eating a meal and enjoying solitude. Many, like Green Lawn Cemetery in Columbus, where writer James Thurber is buried, have become bird sanctuaries thanks to the urban sprawl that has taken up swatches of their habitat..
  • A city or a metro park. Many metropolitan areas have parks that serve as an oasis for bike riders, roller bladers and nature hounds. Often the shelter houses and picnic tables are first come, first serve, but even without a shelter find a shade tree, spread out your tablecloth and settle down for an afternoon of leisure.
  • A college campus. Many universities have public spaces edged with massive, leafy trees and grassy lawns.
  • The grounds of an historic site. Many tourist attractions have picnic areas attached. Bring your picnic along while you learn more about the background of the area. Before you go, make sure the site is open. Many sites have had to cut back hours due to budget woes.
  • A lake shore-From The Great Lakes to a small lake that not many people know about, a lake shore picnic offers views of the sky as well as the water.
  • A river bank. Scope out a spot where the foliage is less dense and get comfortable.
  • A beach–These are the days when the water may be too cold for a swim, but perfect for a long walk on the sand after a meal.
  • A field in the middle of nowhere— Drive out of town until you get to the middle of nowhere, most probably on a country road and look for a spot that calls to you.
  • Along a trail. Divide your meal into various spots along the trail to give you motivation to keep going to as far as you want to head and back.

And here’s a Web site dedicated to picnic spots across the United States.

Whatever you do this Labor Day, take a tip from Amber and make it personal and fun.

Beer travel for Memorial Day: 10 options and more

Head to any state and you’ll find a favorite local beer with quite the following. At HalogenLife, Kyle Anderson has come up with a favorite 10 beers in 10 states list to add perfection to a Memorial Day weekend trip. The list doesn’t mean you should drink and drive your way across America. Instead, use it as a guide to the best beers whether you’re beaching it, going on a picnic, or throwing a backyard barbecue.

Read on for Anderson’s suggestions as well as other best beer options.

I’m quite fond of Barley’s Brewing Company in Columbus. You’ll have to go to this microbrewery restaurants to partake, however–unless someone brings you a sealed glass jug of it like a friend of mine once did for her husband. Her main job was figuring out how to keep it cold long enough to make it to Sturbridge, MA. This was back when a glass jug filled with liquid could be a carry-on bag.

My favorite beer and food pairing is Barley’s Pilsner and sauerkraut balls. For a beer lover’s experience, order a sampling of each arranged from the lightest to the darkest. It’s a bit hard to find parking, but here’s a tip. Park at the North Market and head in to buy Jose Madrid salsa and chips. Get your parking ticket stamped, and voila, parking has just become affordable. By the way, this is a family friendly place.

For beer to take on the road, try Great Lakes Brewing Company. Brewed in Cleveland, the beer never disappoints. Burning River is the one we bring home the most. Great Lakes Brewing also has a brew pub in the Ohio City section of Cleveland, but it’s also easy to find at grocery stores and many convenience stores across Ohio.

If you’re driving through Montana, try Bayern Brewing Company, the only German-style microbrewery in the Rockies. The brewery is located in Missoula, but you can find its beer elsewhere. Every summer when we head to Montana, this beer is one thing we look forward to. Not the only thing. One thing. Try Juergen’s Bayern Pilsner.

Karen, the Gadling non-beer drinker vouches for St. Arnold’s Brewing Company in Houston and expressed disappointment it wasn’t on the list. Now it is. St. Arnold’s is touted as Texas’s oldest craft brewery. You don’t have to be at the brewery to partake On Thursday nights from how through the summer, you can quench that beer thirst while listening to a Thursday night concert at Discovery Green. Because this beer is also bottled, you can take it with you when you head out of Texas. Before you go, take in a public brewery tour at 1:00 on Saturday. Tours are $5 and included beer tasting and a souvenir glass.

Here’s Anderson’s list. The article gives a run-down of what makes each beer a standout. Enjoy a beer adventure this Memorial Day. Just don’t drink and drive.