Mental Post-Its

Thoughts, Notes and General Mental Mayhem


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8 Of My Favorite Ways to Save Money Online

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Love a good deal? Me, too!

And I know many of us are always looking to save a buck. So, if that’s you, listen up! I’ve got some great tips on how to do that with just a few keystrokes.

Frankly, I’m not much of a coupon clipper. And like a lot of us these days, I do most of my shopping online…which means I need to do my savings online as well.

Let’s face it, I also want it to be easy. I’m willing to put out some effort, but like you, I’m busy. Meaning, I want to find ways to effortlessly and automatically save some of my hard-earned cash.

The good news is that I have indeed found handful that I regularly rely on, and thought you might be interested in learning about them as well.

So, here are a few of my favorite ways to save money online:

1. Trim 

I don’t know how I stumbled on to Trim, but it’s a real gem. My two favorite services include negotiating lower rates on bills and finding credits for cable bills.

For rate negotiation, Trim recently saved me and my friends $320 on our AT&T family plan for the next year. And for Comcast, they saved me over $50 last year in refunds from when there were power outages nearby (some of which I wasn’t even aware of!). They take 25% off of their savings to you, but it’s such a passive way to save money, it’s totally worth it.

By the way, you can also use Gabi, a partner of Trim’s, to compare your auto insurance with others in about two minutes. My rates were already the lowest, but I was impressed with this service regardless.

2. TrustedHousesitters.com 

Hotel bills can easily run up your vacation budget. Enter: Trusted Housesitters. With this service, you can stay in people’s homes around the world for free in exchange for watching their pets. I’ve done this a few times, and definitely plan to do it again this year.

And for those of you with pets yourselves, it’s worth signing up so that you don’t have to board your furbabies, which can also be quite expensive. I’ve even seen housesitting jobs with no pets, but where people didn’t want to leave their houses unattended while away.

FYI, these gigs can range from overnight to many months!

(Save 20% using my link.)

3. Brandless 

As you likely already know, buying “private label” brands at the grocery store is cheaper. Think Kroger brand, Trader Joe’s brand, Publix brand, IKEA, or even Amazon’s own brands.

Brandless only sells their stuff, and they keep it pretty cheap. There are definitely some great deals to be had, but pay close attention to the size of the product, which is where the deal is really found. I’ve purchased peanut butter, flax and chia seeds, salad dressing, cleaning products, and more.

Plus, for every order, they donate a free meal! And on the third of the month, they triple that! So, save a little, give a little. I can definitely get behind that.

(Save $6 using my link.)

4. Rakuten (formerly Ebates) 

You may have seen their commercials recently where they try and get people to correctly pronounce their new name. Man, I wish I lived near one of those machines that was giving out cash!

Regardless, I’ve been with Ebates since 2011, and have saved over $500 in that time. Yep, I shop mostly online. And they make it so easy with a simple browser extension. Simply click the extension when you land on a site (or shop directly from their URL), and they’ll find eligible savings for you to apply, plus give you cash back.

(Spend $25 with my link, and you’ll get $10 back.)

5. Honey 

Honey is a great alternative to Rakuten. You can’t use both of them at the same time, but between the two, you can find some terrific deals. And having both of them means you’re more likely to find savings since they sometimes work on different websites.

Each time you use their deals, you also earn Honey points which can be redeemed for gifts cards.

(Get additional Honey points with my link.)

6. Fullscript

If you take supplements, I suggest checking out Fullscript. I take quite a few every day for my chronic health issues.

Many of them I get from my naturopath, and sometimes on Amazon, but Fullscript has some quality brands and offers as well. Yes, you have to spend $50 to get free shipping, but in my case, that’s not hard to do. There are a handful of my regular supplements that I’ve found much cheaper on here than I can get from my naturopath or on Amazon.

7. Goldstar 

Live entertainment is another cost that can add up quickly, which is why I like Goldstar. You can often find cheaper tickets here than directly on the event website. Plus, if you’re attending an event with a friend, you can pay separately or add tickets later and still get seats together, which is a terrific benefit.

Oh, and for smaller, community events, they sometimes also give away freebies! So, a fun night out? Covered.

8. Amazon Prime

I couldn’t create this post without mentioning Prime. Many of us have it these days, but if you don’t, I’d tell you to consider it. I’m a huge fan.

And if you’ve been living under a rock, with Prime you get fast and free delivery, exclusive deals, and free access to Prime Video, Prime Music, Prime Wardrobe, and Prime Photo. (And more!)

Most of us thought two-day shipping was quite a treat, but they’ve recently expanded their one-day shipping and even two-hour shipping, so your impatience has been rewarded!

I also shop at Whole Foods from time-to-time, and get a discount on select items there since WF folded under their umbrella.

So, yeah, lots of stuff…

In fact, it’s hard to remember when Amazon just sold books!

(PSST—are you an EBT card holder? You can get Discounted Prime for only $5.99/mo.)

Already have Prime or want something a little different? Consider:

(Get 30 days free with my link.)

 

Whew—ok, that was quite a list! But before I go, do you want some other ideas for saving money in your life? These posts might help:

 

Any of your favorite sites that I missed? What deals have you found?

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My Word for 2019

My Word for 2019So, we are almost a quarter of the way through 2019, and I’m just getting to tell you about my word of the year! Well, it’s par for the course if you’ve seen my last couple of blog posts. I’ve been playing catchup here on the blog, and this has definitely been on my list to share.

Like many times before, I had my concept figured out before last year finished, but it took a little mulling over. I had an idea, a notion, a feeling—but coming up with the right word took me a little while.

Funny enough, I had to wander all the way back to my very first blog post for my company, Signify, to find the right word. But there it was, just waiting for me to reuse.

The concept was about partnering with others for success. Because, if you read my 2018 recap, you know that last year was a hard business year. It was definitely a series of growing pains.

Here’s one of the reasons why…

This may not surprise you, but I have a tendency to do things on my own. I describe myself as “fiercely independent.” Often, I think this can be a good thing. But, in business, it takes a community to get you to where you need to be, even if you’re a solopreneur like me.

And because my business is so intertwined with my life, the words needed to make sense on both levels. Additionally, if you’ve read my word for the year posts before, I also like my words to be verbs. I like the action-oriented feeling behind it.

The other interesting thing about this year’s word is that it was already a concept I’d been talking a lot about in my business. It was sort of this ongoing conversation I was having with my clients and tribe, and then I looked around, and it worked for me, too.

So, what does this all add up to?

SYNERGY.

It’s a beautiful, little word that illustrates the power of people working together.

In business, it’ll be about partnerships of all kinds, such as working with more people on projects in creative ways or seeking more referrals. I’ll also be doing more guest posts, podcasting interviews, and online interviews like I did last year.

Personally, it’s about building relationships as well as reconnecting with people. I was so busy last year that a lot of the people I love fell by the wayside. Some good friends I only saw once or twice during the entire year. Sad! So, I’m going to work on that.

Welp—there you go! That’s my word!

I’m excited about it, and hopeful for 2019.

What’s your word for the year and why?

 

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Interested in picking your own word for the year, but need some help? Here are some resources that might help:

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My previous words for the year:


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2018 In Review

2018 in Review, by Kristi PorterFriends,

Let me start with an apology. I can’t believe it’s been four months since my last update. Well, actually, yes I can.

I’ve thought about updating you so many times, especially as the end of the year came. But, then it went. And so did the New Year. Work has been crazy, my health has been crazy (per usual), and I frankly didn’t have the energy to be on a keyboard unless it was for my job. Not fun, but there it is.

So many thoughts have been piling up in my head, and today, I finally got a burst of energy where I wanted to sit down and tell you about them. Since last year was a blur, and I was pretty infrequent on updates, I figured I’d just start with a year in review post. So, this should at least get you caught up on what’s been happening here. Hopefully, many more posts to come in 2019!

 

TRAVEL

Okay, let’s start with one of my favorite topics. Last year was an incredible year for travel. That was definitely the thing I had going for me, and very probably, one of the reasons I was so tired. 😉

January: To start the year, I once again kicked things off with a business retreat. I love my quarterly business retreats. They keep me grounded, and allow me to regularly set and review goals with fresh perspective. And I always manage to have some fun as well. For this one, I went to a “resort” (I consider that a loose interpretation) in Northeast Georgia, and stopped by the always entertaining Helen, Georgia, on my way home. (<– Please take a look!)

February/March: Early last year, my friend Raechel and I went to England, Scotland, and Ireland! It was a bucket list trip, and it didn’t disappoint. We obviously covered a lot of ground in two weeks, and I can honestly tell you that I’m ready to go back! Three beautiful countries, wonderful people, and yummy food. We had an absolute blast, and I am so grateful to have had this opportunity with a good friend and excellent travel buddy.

March: About 10 days after returning from that trip, I was off to San Diego! This was for a work conference, but I I found a petsitting gig through TrustedHousesitters.com that allowed me to spend about nine days there, without paying for a hotel. (My link gets you 20% off!) The 90 Day Year Live event was pretty amazing, and I hope to go back again this fall. But, if you’ve been around here for a while, you already know how much I love attending conferences!

May: In May, I went to hang out with some of my best friends in their hometown of Clarkston, Tennessee. Several of our other friends all met there for a women’s retreat at their church, and while the retreat was nice, I cherished this weekend for the quality time I got to spend with people I don’t see near enough.

June: For the first time, I took a friend on one of my retreats. She’s also a solopreneur, so we worked and played. It was a different experience to bring someone along, but also a good change for me. We went to the picturesque Dahlonega, Georgia, and had a great time.

July: I went with my best friend and her family to Charleston for a couple of days. I hadn’t been to Charleston in a number of years, so it was fun to go again, and even more fun to be with close friends. If you’re in that area in the future, be sure to stop by the only tea plantation in the US, which is quite different than the tea plantation I visited in India, but still a unique experience. And free tea tastings!

October: Having been gone so much during the first half of the year, I stayed put for a couple of months. But, boy, did I get out of town with a bang! I took another bucket list trip with my aforementioned best friend—a cross-country Amtrak adventure! Heather and I started our journey in San Francisco, and made stops in Salt Lake City, Denver, Chicago (where she went home), and New York City. It was another trip I’d wanted to do for a long time, and now I am addicted to train travel! I will definitely be getting back on Amtrak in the coming months. (I also did some retreat tasks on the train.)

October: For the second time, I attended Tribe Conference, an event primarily for writers and creative types. My client and friend was there as well, so that made it extra special. I loved my first year, but thought this one was even better. Hope I can make that happen again this fall as well.

December: The end of the year always means my annual trek to Texas. And I was all over the place this year. I connected in Austin, went on to my mom’s house in West Texas, traveled to Lubbock to see my friends from college, drove with mom to my aunt’s house in the Dallas area, and then mom and I took a day trip to Waco to see all things Magnolia. Whew! That all happened in just over a week, and it was extra tiring due to the head cold I picked up on the front end. But it was good to see everyone and celebrate the holidays.

(For more info on how I make a lot of these trips cheap, check out my post on travel hacking.)

 

HEALTH

Let me follow up my favorite section with my least favorite section. As much as I love to travel, and it fills me up in a way almost nothing else does, it’s also very hard on my body. If you’re new to me, I’ve had chronic health issues for almost seven years. It has taken a toll on me in so many ways, and I’m sure others I’m not even aware of.

The super frustrating thing is that I thought 2018 was going to be a real turning point. In late 2017, I started taking this brand new series of supplements that were helping me in a major way. So, 2018 started off awesome from a health perspective. I saw a leap in progress!

Then, after returning from the UK, I was out of these miracle supplements, so I frantically called my naturopath for a refill. Well, turns out that they’d had a terrific effect on people all over the world. Good news, yes, but it kinda caught the manufacturer off-guard, and they ran out. Like, completely ran out of the main supplement!

So, me and these poor other folks not-so-patiently waited for over six months while they had to regrow the herbs and plants that were in this thing. Ugh. So, progress was made, then stalled, and then after the effects of 20+ days of travel in March, I went back to feeling terrible. Like, I had forgotten what it felt like to feel that bad. It was bad. We tried a few other supplements, but nothing worked as well. And it wasn’t until a day or two before I boarded the Amtrak train that I got a refill.

It also takes a couple of cycles (14 days) to work its way into your system. So, basically, I was in holiday mode before I could tell the difference. It was rough, to say the least. And then I huge work project that occupied most of my days and nights at the end of the year, taking up a lot of extra energy. So, all the high hopes I had for 2018’s health report card were dashed.

Prayers said and fingers crossed that 2019 will be a completely different story. That remains to be seen as I picked up that never-ending head cold over the holidays and followed it up with the flu. Sheesh.

Me and Paula Abdul are always two steps forward, two steps back.

 

WORK

Hmmm, where to begin. Last year was a whopper. As Charles Dickens would say, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

We’ll get the bad stuff out of the way first. It was a rough income year. I was past the 18-month mark in my business, but still learning daily. Things I got right, and definitely things I got wrong.

If you recall, MOMENTUM was my word for the year. And it’s always so interesting how things can turn out very differently than you think. I expected (and worked toward) one thing, and ended up with something different.

The biggest issue was that, unlike 2016 and 2017, I didn’t have enough really big contract clients. I love working with my little guys, and they are who I started my business for, but sometimes it takes the big ones to keep things flush. I did a ton of networking last year, which I’m seeing pay off this year, but it can often be a long-term strategy. (Solopreneurs, small business owners, and freelancers, it’s important to nurture those leads on a ongoing basis—even when things are crazy busy. I neglected that aspect for too long, and it came back to bite me.)

Most of my clients are people I know and referrals, but it still takes time for these things to happen. So, lesson learned. (I hope.)

On to the good stuff! I do really love what I do and who I get to do it with. I work with lots of ideal clients on ideal projects, and am so incredibly grateful for that. No dreading weekdays. Plus, it makes those days when I don’t feel like working much easier.

If you need the crash course on my company: Signify provides copywriting and consulting services to cause-focused organizations, like nonprofits and social enterprises. My goal is for them to get noticed and grow through effective marketing and communications. Additionally, I teach solopreneurs and small businesses how to be more generous through easy philanthropy strategies. It’s fun stuff! And work I deeply believe in.

So, a few of the great things that happened with work last year were:

So, as you can see, it was a big year in a lot of ways.

 

PERSONAL

Well, if you’ve read this far, you may be wondering where I had time for anything personal. And, you’d pretty much be right!

Between travel, work, and health, there wasn’t much left. That’s why this is the smallest segment of this update.

I missed events, hanging out with friends, and many other things due to those trade-offs. Honestly, with the health stuff, I spend most evenings and weekends crashed on my couch. It’s just exhausting, and my body has to gear up for another five days of work.

“Dying is easy, young man. Living is harder.” – George Washington, Hamilton 

I’m trying to reach out and be better about maintaining relationships this year. Baby steps.

Isn’t being an entrepreneur glamorous? Sigh. It’s a self-imposed cage at times for sure, but I’m not giving up on a better work-life rhythm. It takes practice.

 

Okay, I think that’s about it! That’s my 2018 in review!

Again, apologies for my delay in updating you. I hope it won’t happen again, but if it does, I just ask for some grace. I’ll be sure to extend it to you as well. 🙂


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My Amtrak Adventure: Details and Tips

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one of my favorite pics from the trip

I don’t know about you, but train travel across Europe has always been on my bucket list. It was probably inspired at a young age by Murder on the Orient Express. Just me?

Well, unfortunately, that trip remains untaken for now, but the next best (and more affordable) thing was riding Amtrak cross-country from San Francisco to New York. Originally inspired by this blog post, I fell in love with the idea and began planning this journey a couple of years ago.

The goal was to build enough credit card points to pay for the trip rather than paying cash, especially because I wanted the experience of staying in a sleeper car, and I knew that could get pricey. I also wanted to stop off and see friends and cities along the way. So, this trek was getting more complicated (and expensive) quickly.

The other hitch was the timing. I really wanted to ride the rails in the fall, to see the changing leaves, but missed my window last year due to an error I made in building points as an amateur travel hacker. I decided to hold out for an entire year to stick to my desired timeline.

It actually ended up being a great mistake because my best friend from college retired from teaching after 18 years this past May and could now make the trip with me! However, Heather was also on a tight budget, so I knew I’d need enough points for both of us. This required some more careful planning.

All the effort paid off, though, and we had a fantastic trip! Heather was gone for a week, flying home from Chicago, and I was gone for nine days by going all the way to NYC. It was incredible to see an entire cross-section of the country in such a short time, and definitely worth all the details it took to set this trip in motion. (<– pun intended!)

I had to do a lot of research to put this trip together, so I’ll try to give you as much info as I can to save you some time should you want to have your own Amtrak adventure in the future.

I highly recommend it, and look forward to my next train trip! I’m hooked!

(To view the photos and videos from the entire trip, visit my Flickr album.)

 

Day 1: Arrived in San Francisco

I flew in from Georgia and Heather flew in from Texas, so we met up at the airport mid-afternoon. Unfortunately, this left us little time for San Fran site-seeing since we left town again the following morning, but we made the most of it.

First, we checked into our hotel so we could drop our bags off. We stayed at the Hampton Inn San Francisco Downtown/Convention Center, which I also paid for with points (60K Hilton Honors points). This location wasn’t my preference, but ended up being very nice with a super helpful and courteous staff. They even upgraded our room to the floor just below the penthouse because of my points status, so we had great views of the city. (I would’ve rather stayed closer to one of the areas we were going to visit or leave from, but they were unavailable.)

Now we were in full tourist mode. Heather had never been to SFO before, so Fishermans Wharf was on her To Do List. From there, she could also see the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz from a distance. We lucked out with beautiful weather and small crowds.

After walking around for a while, we got hungry and were ready for dinner. I really wanted to take her to the Ferry Building to eat, but it closed at 8:00 p.m. and it was already after 7, so we decided to stay down at the Wharf.

On my first trip to the Bay Area in 2010, I found this restaurant called Tarantino’s (unsure of any relation to Quinten), where my friend and I would end up for dinner, watching the Fourth of July fireworks over a foggy Golden Gate Bridge. The following year, I came back to a conference with friends, and we ate there again. So, it just seemed right that I visit a third time on my third trip!

Just as good as I remember, and the staff is wonderful! So, we had a great time there watching the sun set over the water. I love this place, and definitely recommend it.

From there, it was just a short walk over to Ghirardelli Square. This area has definitely improved since my previous visits, and Salted Caramel Hot Chocolate for dessert was an absolute treat!

We walked around there for a little bit and then headed back to the hotel for a good night’s rest.

 

Day 2: Emeryville to Salt Lake City

Emeryville is where the train actually leaves from, and it’s just across the Bay Bridge from San Francisco. It was a very quick and cheap Lyft ride from our hotel. And it was very exciting to see the train pull into the station for the first time!

This entire day was going to be spent on the train, so we wore comfy clothes and settled in for a long ride. This was, of course, after we toured our compartment, took copious amounts of photos, and giggled like schoolgirls.

The California Zephyr line runs from Emeryville to Chicago, so we were some of the first people to board. After we stowed our stuff, we headed to the Observation Car for the best views from the biggest windows.

We were in there for a while, then headed had lunch, and afterward went back to our compartment to work for a couple of hours before dinner. Not the most exciting afternoon activity, but because I am an entrepreneur and so is Heather, it was necessary.

After that it was dinner and bedtime…because we were about to have a very early wakeup call.

 

Day 3: Salt Lake City

So, here’s the downside of stopping Salt Lake City—you arrive and depart around 3:00 a.m! That’s just when the train rolls into town. But the sleeping car attendant knocks on your door about 20 minutes before arrival because they certainly don’t want you to miss your stop.

The downside of this downside meant that I had to get two nights in the hotel—for only two half-nights of sleep. Luckily, I had points for this, too. We stayed the Hampton Inn Salt Lake City Downtown, which was only half a mile from the station. (30K Hilton Honors points per night) It was also nice, as were the staff. And we discovered that our bathroom in this hotel was 1.5 times the size of our entire roommette, ha!

After a few hours of sleep, we went to the enormous and awesome farmers market across the street. It was fun to just walk around, and I even bought a gift and some jewelry.

From there, we jumped in a Lyft to head over to Council Hall and the State Capital to catch the Hop On, Hop Off bus for a tour of the city. It is truly a beautiful area!

After our tour, we went to Bruge’s Waffles and Frites for dinner. It was delicious and authentic Belgian food. (S’mores waffle!) Heather’s parents lived in Belgium for several years, and we were both able to visit. So, it was fun to eat there and talk to the owner.

There wasn’t really anything else to do that evening, so we went to the theater to catch A Star is Born, which was great. It was then time to get to bed for our 2:30 a.m. wakeup call. Oye.

Notes:

  • Neither of us had been to SLC before, but in my research, I learned that it is mostly focused on the outdoors, architecture, and the Mormon culture. So, pretty much all activities fit into these three categories.
  • We just happened to be there during The Church of Jesus Christ and the Latter Day Saints annual convention, ha! So, a lot of the things we wanted to do, like the genealogy center and free Temple Square tour were unavailable, sadly.
  • In some of my research, people noted that the station was in a “seedy” part of town and even the hotel staff told us that outside of the farmers market, that park is normally where a lot of homeless people hang out. I’ll say this: If you travel extensively or spend time around marginalized people, these things won’t bother you. I thought it was the nicest “seedy” area I’d ever been to, and felt perfectly fine walking from the train station to the hotel at 3:00 a.m. We passed maybe half a dozen people at that time of night. SLC is extremely nice and clean, so just keep that in mind. Should you decide to make other arrangements, I don’t hold that against you, but I wanted you to have the facts.

 

Day 4: Salt Lake City to Denver

We were on the train from 3:00 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., and this is undoubtedly the most gorgeous part of the entire trip! I took about a billion photos and videos, but managed to cut them down by a few.

We had the car attendant bring us breakfast rather than going to the dining car. They’ll bring you “room service” at no extra charge, which is nice.

After a few hours, it was time for lunch. I mean, wow! Heather and I just couldn’t stop looking at the scenery. I even told her she’d have to feed me lunch because I couldn’t put my camera/phone down. 😉

Then we decided to spend the afternoon in the Observation Car. We just couldn’t understand how everyone’s jaw was dragging on the floor, and how they could play cards and chat rather than stare wide-eyed out the window as we were doing. It was so gorgeous it didn’t even look real half the time. (Example 1, Example 2, Example 3)

That evening, we rolled into Denver and met up with friends. Joel, Kamee, and Everette were gracious and fun hosts who fed us dinner and let us stay the night.

 

Day 5: Denver

The weather turned cold and crappy when we arrived in Denver, so there were a lot of things we couldn’t do. But our number one priority was to spend time with friends, and that’s exactly what we did. It was so much fun!

Joel is also an entrepreneur, a t-shirt designer and screen printer, and he ended up needing to take a last-minute meeting, so he dropped me, Heather, and Everette off at the mall to wait for him. Kamee has a real job, so she missed out on the fun when she had to go to work.

Everette is nine, and a complete doll. She showed us around her LEGO store, where she picked up a few new additions to her collection, and then we had lunch. After that, Joel met back up with us. Then, another old friend of mine, Annalisa, joined our crew for about an hour. It was so awesome catching up with all these friends I hadn’t seen in years. It reminded me that I need to get back there more often.

After that, we went to a local store to see Joel’s t-shirts on display, Unlisted. And he even gave us one as a souvenir! It was then time to go back to the house and pack up before heading back to the station.

Time with them definitely went by too fast! And Denver is such a great city if you’ve never been there.

As soon as we got on the train, it was time for dinner. This time we tried the surf and turf. By this point, I’d eaten more red meat in a week than I usually do in two months, but other bloggers said to try the steak, because it was surprisingly good for being cooked on a train. And, of course, we just wanted to get our money’s worth with the most expensive items on the menu, ha!

The beds are typically made while you’re at dinner, but we weren’t ready to go to sleep yet, so we went back to the Observation Car. Too bad it wasn’t a starry night, but we still had a great time chatting till almost 1:00 a.m.

 

Day 6: Chicago Bound

Chicago was the end of the line for Heather, so we tried to thoroughly enjoy our last few hours on the train. Breakfast was once again brought to us as we sleepily rolled through the heartland.

After breakfast, we headed back to the Observation Car to clearly see miles and miles of corn and farmland. But it was a clear, beautiful stretch of tracks. There was even an “America the Beautiful” sing-along initiated by one of the passengers.

That afternoon, we got into Chicago. We checked our luggage at the Metropolitan Lounge and headed out on the town. We met up with one of Heather’s former students for coffee, took some photos at the Bean, and strolled through the rainy streets.

Then it was time to head to the ‘burbs to see my friend, Raechel, with whom we were staying. We took the Metra train out to her and enjoyed some deep dish from Giordano’s, which is my favorite of the Chicago pizza joints. It was super yummy!

I was also able to do some laundry at Raechel’s before turning in for the night.

 

Day 7: Chicago

Raechel headed out for a work trip, Heather headed home to Texas, and I got back on the Metra to Chicago.

It was a pretty uneventful day because it was raining hard all day and I needed to get some work done. I’ve been to Chicago multiple times anyway, so I didn’t really feel like I was being cheated. So, I just hung out in Union Station all day. Grabbed a hot dog, walked around, bought a gift and postcards, and plugged away on my laptop.

That evening I got back on the train. This time it was the Capital Limited to DC because there is no direct route to NYC.

This train was a little different. I was given a nice toiletries set, Amtrak magazines, and a fresher menu. Meals were also a bit different because there wasn’t any table service. Instead, you were just making reservations to pick up your food, which I didn’t know at first. You could sit in the dining car, of course, but it wasn’t really community style, just open seating. It felt very different to me (and frankly, I was a little nervous), so I just took my food back to my compartment. But it was the best meal I’d had on the train so far—short ribs and polenta!

We had two really good car attendants. The first was SLC to Denver (hi, Jonathan!), and this was the second, Dave. He was okay with making my bed up later, so I was able to hang out in my chair for a while before switching out my bedding, which was lovely.

It was weird to have all this room to myself now, but also nice in that way. I’m more used to traveling solo, but it was strange to change things up toward the end of the trip. I tucked in for one last night on the train.

 

Day 8: Chicago to New York City (via Washington DC)

My last meal on the train was breakfast, once again brought to me in bed. The rest of the morning I just took in the scenery, which was all woodsy and pretty much the same. It was also another good stretch to listen to my audiobook, Ready Player One, which I started at the beginning of the trip, but hadn’t finished yet.

We got into DC about 1:00 p.m. Lunch wasn’t served on the train due to our arrival time. Technically, you could go grab leftovers if you wanted them, but it hadn’t been that long since I had breakfast, ha! I liked sleeping in for a change.

DC’s Union Station was unusual. The great hall and rooms facing the Capital were quite beautiful, which is what you often see in photos, but the other areas are old and run down. The Acela Lounge is also in desperate need of a renovation, and the snacks and drinks were much more subpar than Chicago. Even though I was switching to a coach seat here, I still had lounge privileges since I came in on a sleeper car.

I only had about two hours, so I just peeked out the door to see the lawn and Capital building. The rest of the time I ate lunch and listened to my book in the lounge.

Here I changed trains to the Northeast Regional, bound for NYC. I only had a coach seat on this train because it was only about a three-hour trip and I didn’t want to use a bunch more points for a sleeper on that short route. But these coach seats still beat an airplane by a mile!

The scenery, however, was nothing special. Lots of industrial parks and some cities. I really wanted to go the northern route through Albany from Chicago, but it was more points. I’m sure it would’ve been much prettier, though.

We were delayed a bit on this route, due to congestion on the tracks, but finally made it into Penn Station a little after 7:00 p.m. My friend April and her mom met me for dinner at Pennsy Food Hall, which was right outside the station. It was great to catch up with her as well, since it had been over a year. And I love a good food hall!

It was a little misty, but I decided to walk through Times Square to my hotel. For my last night, I stayed at the Kimpton Muse Hotel, which was a free night through my IHG credit card. This was a $400+ hotel in a primo area, so I’m glad I didn’t have to pay for it! It was also really nice, as you can imagine.

 

Day 9: NYC to ATL

Last day! Luckily, it was a cool and beautiful day in the City. I started it by having coffee with my friend, Jordan.

From there, I went to the New-York Historical Society for the Harry Potter: A History of Magic exhibition. I found out about it through a PBS special a couple of months ago. I realized it was actually at the British Museum when the aforementioned Rachel and I were in England during the spring, but we somehow missed it. So, I was glad to catch it here.

Even spending about an hour and a half there I felt pretty rushed, but that’s all the time I had. I would’ve like to take a little more time, as well as check out some of the other exhibits, but that’s all I could spare.

I caught a Lyft back to the hotel to grab my overly stuffed (and twice repacked) suitcase, and then it was time to head to the airport. The last few times I’ve been to NYC, I always use the NYC Express Bus, and recommend it.

Sadly, we were delayed an hour or so. Because I knew this was the last, little stretch of my trip, I was ready to get home at this point. But I finally made it back to A-town! It was a fantastic trip, but it was really nice to sleep in my bed again!

 

So, those are the details of the trip. Now, I’ll give you all the tips I can so you can plan your own Amtrak adventure!

 

Expenses:

Because I paid for the train trip, hotels, and my return flight with points, the only expenses I had were tips to train attendants (more on that below), meals off the train, activities, gifts, souvenirs, and ride shares. Overall, we got $3,000+ paid for with points, and my out-of-pocket expenses totaled bout $700.

So, depending on your resources and preferences, you could easily spend more or less than I did.

Note:

  • Since I booked the trip with points, I’m not exactly sure how Amtrak prices work. All I know is that our trip would have cost about $2,000 (because I asked).
  • For the Amtrak portion, I had the Amtrak Guest Rewards Credit Card, which had a 30K points bonus when I got it over a year ago. I also transferred 30K Starwood Points to pay for this trip. Unfortunately, that isn’t an option anymore. Starwood was bought by Marriott earlier this year, and they discontinued the ability to transfer those points on July 31, 2018. Once the programs are fully combined, they may bring back that option in the future, but I’m not sure. So, right now, all you can do is build Amtrak points.
  • I can also refer you to Amtrak Guest Rewards, their main loyalty program, and we can each get 500 points if you take a trip within 90 days of signing up. I have to do this individually, so just let me know if you’re interested in signing up. This is a free program.
  • If your schedule is flexible and you want to save a few bucks, call and book your reservation over the phone with Amtrak. The people I spoke with were incredibly helpful, and helped me choose dates and options to maximize my points (and keep the costs lower).

 

Train Travel Tips: 

  • Another cool thing about riding trains is that you arrive in the middle of the city, unlike flying. This generally makes getting around fairly easy.
  • As I said, the California Zephyr runs from Emeryville to Chicago, but we were also ticketed to get on and off the route in Salt Lake City and Denver. I/we were in each of the five cities for about 24 hours, but you don’t have to ride that entire way. Or you can stay longer in other cities. It’s entirely customizable. There are many, many stops along the way.
  • If you could only choose one route, it should definitely be the one from Salt Lake City to Denver. This was by far the most stunning part of the journey!
  • Every few stops are “fresh air/smoke” breaks, so you can get off the train anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes to walk around. I’m not entirely sure, but I think it’s where larger groups of people are getting on and off the train. Some stops are very scenic (Glenwood Springs) and some are not (Reno). But it’s nice to stretch you legs. When possible, ask your car attendant that your meal reservations not to conflict with these stops so you can get out for a bit.
  • Meals on the train are included with sleeper cars—woo hoo! And for lunch and dinner, you get a salad, entree, and dessert! Coffee, tea, juice, hot water, and bottled water are included as well, so the only drinks you’d pay for are alcoholic ones.
  • The meals are better than airplane food, but not as good as actual restaurants. But I will say that the desserts are pretty yummy. The salted caramel cheesecake was our fav. (California Zephyr menu and Capital Limited menu)
  • Mealtimes on the California Zephyr are community seating, meaning it’s always four people per table. So, if you are traveling with less than four people, you get sat with others. But it was a cool way to get to know other people and their stories. We enjoyed everyone we sat with. My second train from Chicago to DC was not this way, so I’m not exactly sure what lines it pertains to.
  • Tipping: I read a couple of other blogs and used their guidelines, which were $2 for breakfast, $3 for lunch, $5 for dinner, and $10 each night for your car attendant. These are per person guidelines.
  • Being in the sleeper cars also allows you access into nicer lounges at the big stops like Chicago, Washington DC, and New York. There you’ll find complimentary snacks and beverages, and of course, nicer places to sit. They’ll also hold your luggage while you sightsee, which is awesome. (Note: not as nice as some airport lounges)
  • In sleepers, they give you two hangers in your (tiny) closet, as well as towels and wash cloths.
  • Get to the Observation Car early! It can get crowded because it’s shared by all passengers.
  • If you’re unsure of things to do when you get off, check out these Amtrak city guides.
  • Strangely, even in 2018, there is no Wifi on the long-distance trains. It was available for free on the shorter, commuter trains, like my DC to NYC train, though. I used Heather’s hotspot for my laptop now and again, but it wasn’t always reliable either. And there are long stretches without even phone service.
  • If someone is picking you up or meeting you at a train station, I recommend they download the Amtrak app. All they need is the train number, and the arrival times are extremely accurate. When you don’t have phone service, this is extremely helpful. Trains easily get delayed because both commuter and commercial trains share the tracks. So, sometimes you have to wait for another train to pass.
  • In a few spots, it’s good to be in the Observation Car for the Trails & Rails guides. The National Parks Service people will come give a little bit of the history of the area you’re passing through, which is fun. Wish there were more of these!

 

Packing and essentials:

  • We didn’t want to check our luggage, but you are allowed two carry-ons and two pieces of luggage per person. Note: These will not all fit in most of the tiny sleepers! However, there is a luggage rack in the lower level each car by the toilet/showers where you can stash bags you don’t want to check but keep handy. This operates on a honor system, but I never heard about any issues with theft in my research. We never worried about our stuff. We kept more valuable stuff, like my laptop, in our sleeper car. More about baggage.
  • There is no lock on the outside of the sleeper compartments. So, you could lock yourself in, but not lock it when you leave. This was kind of strange, but again, you get used to it. I left my laptop under things a couple of times when I didn’t want to carry it into the Observation Lounge.
  • We each carried a purse (mine was large to also carry my laptop), an overnight bag, and a carry-on suitcase. My overnight bag was a collapsable backpack from IKEA, so I only used it as needed. The first two items were in our sleeper car, and the third was in the luggage rack. But it was really nice to have the overnight bag for those strange travel days like Salt Lake City where you’re getting on and off in the middle of the night.
  • Wear layers on the train because the air isn’t always easy to control the temperature. Likewise, bring comfy pants and socks for the long days you may spend in your compartment. You’ll quickly see that it isn’t a fashion show aboard the train! 🙂
  • I recommend bringing ear plugs and an eye mask. I use these whenever I travel, but it’s better to be over-prepared for sleep than under. Heather didn’t use the ear plugs because she said she has four kids and this was quiet enough, ha! Sleeping on the train is not bad at all. Kinda like sleeping on a couch.
  • External battery packs for electronics are always good, especially because your phone battery can drain easily from the lack of service or taking video. Sadly, my portable charger isn’t available any longer, but I prefer one like this that can charge different kinds of devices at once.
  • Have an extension cord for your sleeper! In the Observation Lounge, there are plenty of plugs, but for some reason, there is only one in the sleeping compartment. So, we had an extension cord and power block for multiple devices. 
  • A few snacks are good to have on hand. We went a little overboard here since we didn’t know what to expect, ha! We each had a gallon Ziplock of snacks and then picked up fruit and stuff from the hotels. But I’m not really a snacker, so this was extra stuff I didn’t really need to carry around. I think we each only ate one or two things along the way. So, just don’t go crazy unless you’re a big snacker.
  • Flip flops for shower are essential! 
  • Clorox wipes or (Babyganics wipes, my fav) are good for wiping down some of the surfaces, especially if you have a thing about germs. Nothing looked unclean, but just a precaution. This is what another blogger listed.
  • Safety pins and duct tape are tips I picked up from other bloggers. These could come in handy. For example, we used safety pins to hold our curtain in place on one leg where we wanted some more natural light. I saw other bloggers using duct tape to use the washcloths in their rooms to direct the air when the top bunk person got cold. Just interesting items you wouldn’t think about. Totally optional.
  • I travel with electrolyte powders or tablets. This was a tip from a friend who is a travel blogger, and I’ve been doing this for a few years. I never drink enough water when I travel, so this is helpful.
  • I travel with wrinkle release. I love this stuff. I’d just hang up the shirt I was going to wear the next day, and wrinkle release the heck out of it the night before. Heather sells LuLaRoe and wore that the entire time. Interestingly, that stuff never seemed to wrinkle.
  • Bring books, cards, or whatever else will keep you entertained on those long stretches. However, I absolutely loved having an audiobook! I never got tired of staring out the window, and this allowed me to “read” a book at the same time. (Note: many libraries also have the capability for you to listen to audiobooks now)
  • I always travel with doTerra essential oils. Great for blisters, fighting off sickness, sore muscles, headaches, and pretty much anything else.
  • Love my Envirosax! I keep several in my purse at all times, but I also take them when traveling because they always come in handy. I even use the pouch they come in on trips for cords and things.
  • These Tide sink packets are great for short trip emergencies or long trips when you can’t access laundry facilities or don’t want to pay for them.
  • This silicone flat iron pouch is good for when you have limited counter space and need to rest a flat iron or curling iron on the floor or another surface.

 

Reference posts:

Here are some of the places I found helpful info for the trip.

 

To view the photos and videos from the entire trip, visit my Flickr album.

 

Okay, any questions?

 

(Some links are affiliate links.)


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My Birthday Wish

sandrachile-686986-unsplashI don’t just celebrate my birthday, I celebrate my birth month. And this year, I’d like everyone to join in the fun!

Rather than gifts or online fundraisers (which are great, by the way), I’ve decided to celebrate the simple things in life that make it truly worth living: kindness, generosity, decency, love, connection, and all around do-gooding. It just feels like so much of this is missing from society right now, and I’d love for you to help me shine a spotlight on something more hopeful.

You’ve heard of random acts of kindness, but I’m challenging you to intentional acts of kindness.

Seek it out.
Plan on it.
Make it happen.

Your gesture doesn’t have to be big to count. There are a million little decisions you can make differently every day. Or you can create a moment to remember forever.

– Open a door for a stranger.
– Look a homeless person in the eye and smile.
– Buy someone coffee.
– Let someone cut in front of you.
– Donate to a charity.
– Babysit for a single parent.
– Volunteer your time with a nonprofit.

You decide. Just find a way to be kind. (But if you want to go big, I won’t stop you!)

What you do is totally up to you. All I ask is that you record it here for me (and everyone else) to see.

This isn’t about bragging. This is about being reminded that there is more good happening than bad, that one person can make a difference, and that one simple act matters.

Because here’s the thing: I believe generosity is contagious. So, what if you and I started something that spread? Even if it just spread to one other person, wouldn’t that be worth it? I think so.

So, what do you say? Will you join me in spreading some kindness?

If so, here are the rules:
1. No act of kindness is too big or too small.
2. You’ll record your act here for us to see.
3. You can share this event or invite anyone to participate
4. You can do one act or many.
5. You get bonus points if it’s face-to-face with another human.

Let’s (purposefully) do some good.

Would you like to join me in this challenge? If so, participate on Facebook!

PS: Facebook only let me extend the event for 14 days, and it expires on Sunday. But I’m challenging myself to do this every day in September to celebrate my birth month. I’ve even set up a reminder on my phone. Any fellow over-achievers are welcome to do the same! And if you see this after the Facebook event ends, you can post your intentional act of kindness in the comments!