Category Archives: Travel

Niagara Falls by Andrea Baptista

Weekend Trips from NYC: Toronto and Niagara Falls

How about a trip to Canada?

Ryan and I just took a quick trip up to Niagara Falls and Toronto.  He had never been to Canada so I tried to throw together a few things I loved about my road trips as a kid.

We took a straight shot drive up to Niagara Falls for about 6.5 hours from New York City on a Friday night.  We just missed the falls lit up, so definitely check the schedule and plan accordingly.

The Sheraton on the Falls Hotel is a great deal–we paid ~$90 for the most basic room and were upgraded to a high floor with a great view of the falls with Starwood Gold status.

In the morning this is what we woke to:

Niagara Falls

After a quick drive and walk along the falls to see them from different vantage points on the Canadian side (arguably the better view), we drove up to Toronto.

Our first stop is a New York Times favorite–Lai Wah Heen.  First picked up by FloFab in 1997 and reappearing many-a-times, the restaurant claims many dim sum hearts as people’s favorite Cantonese stop in Toronto.  Everything was spot on and came out piping hot (often an issue with dim sum in North America and the popular cart style service).  Make sure to order these cute pig shaped glutinous rice meat fritters with garlic ears:

Glutinous Rice Fritters from Lai Wah Heen by Andrea Baptista
After dim sum and driving around Downtown to see the CN Tower, we struggled with what to do.  As a kid all I did in Toronto was visit family, see Blue Jays vs. Yankees games, go Chinese goods shopping and eat Chinese food.  Not to discount how awesome the Chinese shopping and food is, but I could understand the lack of appeal for someone in Toronto for the first time, and January isn’t exactly baseball season.   Luckily, Ryan had a great idea: hockey.

With the Toronto Maple Leafs out of town, we were left with a minor league Toronto Marlies game. It was actually a lot of fun and I definitely recommend it!

Same day online tickets are limited–by the time we decided to go, they were no longer for sale. Luckily Ryan wasn’t dissuaded and we walked up the ticket counter at Ricoh Coliseum with a bunch of well-garbed fans (and an unpleasant scalper who tried to sell us tickets for 20 CAD).  Turns out there aren’t many levels at the stadium–just the 100s and the ~5 row lower level by the ice so all the seats are great. Our tickets in Row G of section 101 face value was 37.50 CAD, but a lovely woman approached on the ticket line to give them to us for free (so nice!).  The stadium capacity was 7.8k and our crowd was at 7.5k so even for a rivals game, I’m sure there were plenty of last minute seats left.

The local crowd was great and really into the game–this furry guy, Duke, teasing a fan from the opposing team helped too:
Duke at a Toronto Marlies Game

That night we ate some awesome Cantonese style casual food and checked into the Sheraton Parkway Hotel.  A no frills decent Sheraton with a really low rate at ~$90, the hotel is right in the center of really great Cantonese food!  We woke up and went to eat amazing rice noodles and congee at Sam’s then started our trek back.
Sam's Congee Delight by Andrea Baptista

On the way back to New York we stopped at Anchor Bar in Buffalo, home of the original Buffalo wings.

All in all, a great quick trip!  If we had flip flopped and did Toronto first then Niagara we would have made it back in time for the last tour at 1:30 of the Frank Lloyd Wright Darwin D. Martin House and seen the falls at night, but there’s always next time!


Sheraton on the Falls
SPG Category 4
Niagara Falls, Ontario

Sheraton Parkway Toronto North Hotel & Suites
SPG Category 3
Richmond Hill, Ontario

Lai Wah Heen (takes reservations and pre-orders)
Metropolitan Hotel Toronto
108 Chestnut St
Toronto, ON M5G 1R3
+1 416-977-9899

Sam’s Congee Delight (no reservations)
4390 Steeles Ave E
Markham, ON L3R 9V7

See my explanation for staying in Starwood from my last post.


2015: Starwood Platinum and Reward Travel

Photo of one of my favorite hotels, the Starwood Hotel Alfonso XIII in Seville, Spain.

Fortunately and unfortunately for my friends and family I’ve set a few fun travel goals for the year: attain Starwood Platinum and book leisure travel strictly on points/vouchers whenever possible.  With the exception of important occasions and mandatory trips, 2015 will be the year of cheap flights, points education, and lots of fun weekend trips!

Hopefully my family, friends and boyfriend don’t get sick of the “but can I go on points…and is there a Starwood there?  Maybe we can wait until 2016–”.

Why the points game:
I’ve accumulated a lot of points from credit card spend and bonuses and the good old fashioned way: flying.  It’s free money for what you already spend.  Religiously avoiding cash and always going for miles and points has paid off  (I do not condone spending specifically for points unless you are experienced and you’ve done your research!).  I’ve never consistently spend them because I’m also a bit of a freak when it comes to getting good value out of them–I prefer 3-5¢/point or more; booking those prime time $800 flights to Vegas with 25k points always felt really good!  1¢ cash back is just not enough, so when a flight wasn’t a good deal on points I ended up paying in cash.

My target value per point won’t change, but my approach towards travel booking will. Instead of picking destinations then figuring out how to get there, I’m going to challenge myself to think harder about how to use up my points and be the most cost/point effective.  There are so so many places left to explore that I don’t really need to do the former.

Why Starwood:
I love Starwood, right down to my Westin Heavenly Bed in my apartment.  My Dad has always been a Starwood guy, so naturally I have an affinity to the hotels I grew up running around in.  It’s also helpful that I have Starwood Gold this year and realized that if I was more consistent with my hotel choices, I may actually reach Starwood Platinum.

A lot of accumulated points.

Leisure travel on the weekends or vacation time!  My consultant/former consultant friends snark at me that if I just got a consultant job I’d get it so quickly.  Well, haha, no.

Southwest Companion Pass from the guidance of some travel and points blogs on how to attain one.  Some smart spending will allow me to translate my accumulated points to unlimited travel for a designated bud (the lucky boyfriend, Ryan) whenever I’m flying Southwest.

In the coming year, I’ll be posting some fun weekend getaways out of New York City.  Stay tuned!

Andy’s Travel 101

So many left to go!

30 Countries and Counting — So many left to go!


Flights – Compare prices and make sure you are covering all your airlines!  American Airlines and tiny regional airlines don’t necessarily get aggregated into Kayak.  Look at edreams against individual airline websites and book whatever is the lowest price after fees (edreams is sneaky!).  If you are a heavy packer, you may want to add the additional bags when you first buy your tickets with budget airlines like Ryanair or Easyjet because if you buy the bag in person it’ll often cost you triple what it would have cost if you pre-purchased.

Hotels – Unless you are a seasoned traveller, know someone on the other side, or are referred by a trusted advisor to an apartment, do NOT use airbnb!  Stick to major hotel chains or hotels with good reviews if you don’t want to be surprised and to (mostly) guarantee you’ll have a good English-speaking resource.   If you are price-sensitive and don’t have special affinity towards a specific hotel chain, I use (which charges extra fees) for the stay 10 nights, get 1 free.

Credit and ATM Cards - call your card providers in advance to figure out what the international fees are and to let them know you are traveling!  If you have no-fee cards, you don’t have to fuss with taking large cash withdrawals!  You may have heard something about needing a chip in your credit card to work in Europe–that’s mostly false.  The only place I’ve had trouble without a chip is in Turkey, but if you ask them to use a Garanti scan machine instead of a Denizbank you shouldn’t have trouble.

Here are my personal favs:

  • ATM: Charles Schwab’s High Yield Checking Account which offers ATM rebates (free but annoyingly takes some time to open the account and deposit checks, which I found out the hard way before my Germany trip last year!)
  • Credit Card: Chase Sapphire Preferred Credit Card for no international fees ($95 annual fee), and of course if you already have the American Express Platinum though it isn’t as widely accepted.

Cell Phones - If you don’t travel often and you aren’t going for more than two weeks, it’s probably not worth it to figure out how to get a local cell or SIM card.  However, you should definitely turn on an international data plan even if it’s just contingency for that one time you accidentally turn on your phone and you get blasted with  iMessages.  Verizon is $25/100MB and AT&T is similar.  As for text messages and voice, for Verizon (and probably AT&T), the monthly $5 plan is prorated, so you can always turn it on/off for your two week vacation.

Safety and Emergencies

  • Buy a cheap bag that seals really well, or only put your wallet into tight pockets where you’d feel hands.
  • Leave your passport in the hotel safe and carry a copy unless you are in a place that requires a passport for international travelers for age verification (like in Hong Kong, though I’ve personally never been carded).
  • Try not to carry a lot of cash, but make sure you have some for emergencies!  I also like to leave some money in the hotel safe just in case.
  • If you lose your credit cards, call right away (of course), but if it is a Visa, you can demand the Visa Emergency Card be overnighted to your hotel.
  • It may be best to leave your family heirlooms home :)
41 grados

41 Grados – Meal of a Lifetime

As someone who travels for food and books reservations before flights, whenever I tell my friends about my time at 41 Grados they pause a bit before asking more.  REALLY?  THAT GOOD?  I’VE NEVER HEARD OF IT! 41 Grados was started by the Adria brothers.  Ferran Adria started El Bulli and many of the techniques used in El Bulli serve as the foundation of 41 Grados. If you missed out on the infamous El Bulli olive, you can get it at 41 Grados and Tickets, the tapas bar that the Adrias opened (and in DC with Jose Andres).

Getting Reservations Both Tickets and 41 Grados are relatively difficult reservations so you’ll have to book a month in advance.  In both of my early Winter trips, 41 Grados would book up 2-3 weeks prior, but Tickets would book up instantly on the day reservations are released online.  Of course, you should always check back for cancellations, but you’re less likely to see that at 41 Grados because there is a 50 Euro deposit.

The Experience Incredible.  Albert and Ferran created an “experience” for lucky diners–inclusive of moving projected images and music as the Albert takes you around the world with food.  Depending how die hard you are–you’ll probably want the first seating’s courses;  If you sit through the the later seating, your dishes won’t line up with the music though I doubt anyone would have really noticed unless they asked! Likely you’ll sit there asking what items on the plate you can eat or not eat because all the food is presented in such a bizarre or fun way.  This probably goes without saying, but not only does every dish have a perfect presentation, it all was delicious!  I nearly forgot to note the cocktails that come with the tasting–frankly, I wonder why all cocktails aren’t as beautiful or wild as the ones at 41 Grados! Whether it is edible “leaves” and “pearls” or the perfectly branded ice cubes, you will probably leave impressed and excited about eating in a way you’ve never felt before. Go now! Nom.


Budapest – Should You Go?

Whenever Budapest comes up in conversation it seems the only thing people talk about is how beautiful it is.  SURPRISE!  Yes, the city has incredible architecture, but there are incredible buildings all over Europe that are so much closer.


1. It is REALLY expensive to fly there.  A one-way to Budapest can be an off-peak round trip to Paris.
2. For those who’ve barely made it to France or England, why would you go to Budapest first (and all those countries in between!)?
3. If you are a bottle service hunting young’n, you won’t really find that here–nouveau riche doesn’t exist in Budapest the way it does in New York.  You’ll mostly find “eurotrash” sorts of clubs or ruin pubs (which are so cool)


1. Just about all major hotel chains are well represented for those of you who only use points to travel. <<unlike Bucharest!>>
2. The food is dirt cheap!! …even to eat really well – try Bock Biztro (received a Bib Gourmand from Michelin).
3. You can rent a really comfortable apartment cheaply (I stayed in the centrally located Senator Apartments)
4. Drinking is pretty cheap and bizarrely fun in ruin pubs
. Okay, yes, the city is beautiful.  If you want a highlight tour, take the hop on hop off bus/boat tour!
6. It is full of geo-thermal springs and really great and affordable spas (try Magnolia Day Spa)
7. If you’ve exhausted all of Western Europe, this is a natural next stop that is different enough to still feel like an adventure.

Some photos from my trip!