An Offer We Couldn’t Refuse

An Offer We Couldn’t Refuse

Travel is an adventure. Cheap travel is a natural high.

Last year, Linda and I hatched a vague plan to celebrate her birthday in Italy. And then we forgot – until I received this email:

Subject: LAX or SFO to Rome: $200-$300 Round Trip

I forwarded the email to Linda. Five minutes later, she called.

“Is this for real?” she asked.

I’d been receiving the Scott’s Cheap Flights daily newsletter for over a year, – but never had the guts to actually book one of their deals.

“I think we have to do this,” she said.

To Book or Not to Book?

I had to admit: A round trip flight from the West Coast to anywhere in Europe for under $1000 is really hard to find. Scott’s regularly features flights in the $500-$600 range. $300 sounded unreal.

“Is there a catch?” Linda asked.

There was no catch.

“Is it a legitimate airline?” The deal was offered on Lufthansa – but the actual flight would be on their partner airline, Swiss Air, which Conde Nast readers named one of their favorite airlines last year. So yeah – it seemed legit.

We looked at the fine print: Other than a short layover in Zurich, everything seemed kosher. And there was no nonsense about paying more to bring some luggage: both a checked bag and carry-on were included.

And did I mention that the price was under $300?

The deals on Scott’s sometimes disappear within hours, so we had to decide quickly.

We booked our tickets that night. Mine came in at $287 from LAX, and Linda’s was $289 from SFO. A friend of hers also jumped on it.

The one thing I did not think when I woke up that morning was, “I think I’ll buy a ticket to Italy.” Sometimes, life surprises you.

It Was All a Mistake – And That’s a Good Thing

The folks at Scott’s told me that what we got was a mistake fare: “when an airline or online travel agency (OTA) sells a ticket for significantly less than they intended.” If you book one, they recommend you give it a week before you spend any additional money on your trip – just in case the airline doesn’t honor it.

But Lufthansa was good as gold. Our tickets were issued right away. And that’s when we discovered that most of the cost went to taxes. The actual round trip flight from LAX to Rome was just $36.

So tonight, I’m taking off and meeting my sister tomorrow in Zurich. Then, we’re off to Rome.


I’ll Take Manhattan(s): Drinking in Grand Central Station

I’ll Take Manhattan(s): Drinking in Grand Central Station

Manhattan’s Grand Central Station is a city within a city, where busy commuters can take care of all their needs without ever leaving the building: Shops featuring gourmet groceries, wine & spirits, cards & gifts, clothing, accessories — even a tennis club and an Apple Store.

And of course, lots of places to grab a bite to eat – or relax with a drink before heading home.

My sister and I were not heading home for another day, but we had an afternoon to kill. So we decided to kill a few brain cells while we were at it with cocktails in a Grand Central Station bars.

And what better cocktail to imbibe in Manhattan than a Manhattan? Then one drink led to another and before you knew it, we had embarked on the kind of epic endeavor that only seems like a good idea when you’ve got a buzz on: To sample a Manhattan in every bar in the building.

Yes, it was our own personal Manhattan project.

The Classic Manhattan

For those of you who have never tried this most American of cocktails, you should know that the recipe has been around since the Gilded Age, and has remained pretty much the same:

2 parts whisky, 1 part sweet vermouth, and 2 dashes of bitters. It can be served straight (in a cocktail glass) or on the rocks (in a rocks glass). Garnish can be a twist of lemon or a maraschino cherry.

It sounds simple, but we learned over the course of the afternoon that there are lots of variations within the framework of those three ingredients, thanks to different kinds of whisky, vermouth, and bitters.

The Bar at Cipriani Dolci

Cipriani's Perfect Manhattan
Cipriani Dolci is located on the West Balcony and is part of a chain of upscale Italian restaurants that that originated with Giuseppe Cipriani’s legendary Harry’s Bar, opened in 1931 in Venice. This bar feels like it’s that old, too – even though it dates only to the station’s last renovation in 2002.

The bartender there asked if we wanted our drink order dry,  sweet, or “perfect.” This referred to the vermouth, with “perfect” made up with equal parts dry and sweet. Since perfection isn’t something you find every day, we opted for that.

And having tasted it, I’ve decided that I will ask for my Manhattans made perfect from now on. The drink’s balance of flavors was indeed, perfect – right down to its Luxardo cherry garnish. This became the benchmark against all the other Manhattans we sipped.

2. Michael Jordan’s Steak House

Manhattan at Michael Jordan's Steakhouse
Right next door to Cipriani on the East Balcony is Michael Jordan’s Steak House. The kitchen was closed for renovations on the day we visited, but the bar was open for business. Alas, their Manhattan was not all we expected.

Linda thought it was because I ordered it on the rocks and waited a few minutes, so it was watered down. But the one at Cipriani was also iced and it was delicious down to the last drop.

Perhaps it was the whisky? We asked for Bulleit in each of the two establishments but didn’t specify bourbon or rye. Perhaps Michael Jordan’s barkeeps were making Manhattans with the former when we were expecting the latter.

I was also disappointed that there was no cherry garnish, which seems a silly thing to be upset about at my age. I guess I really do like to have my cherry on top.

3. The Bar in the Northwest Hall

The Bar at Great Northern Hall

The Bar at Great Northern Hall is the type of place that employs “mixologists” instead of “bartenders.”

Our mixologist let us know that he trained with Jonathan Waxman at Barbuto. He also informed us that Bulleit wasn’t an option, because The Bar only stocks “artisanal spirits from small batch producers.”

So for our very artisanal Manhattan, we settled on Rittenhouse Pikesville rye, from Kentucky – on the assumption that since Bulleit is made in the same state, it might have a similar flavor.

This Manhattan featured its own mix of bitters: 2 angostura, 2 orange, and 2 peychoud. These were all (of course) handcrafted and sourced locally from Hudson Standard. We got into quite a conversation about bitters with our mixologist, who boasted that he keeps over 100 different kinds of bitters in his apartment.

I may add that our drink also had a house-made maraschino cherry speared by an absolutely gorgeous cocktail pick. And with all that artistry and care, how was it? Delicious.

4. The Oyster Bar

The Oyster Bar

This is the oldest watering hole in Grand Central. The tiled ceiling is gorgeous, but the rest of the decor looks like it was plucked out of the 1970s. We were expecting something that looked old and elegant, so this was a disappointment.

We cannot vouch for the quality of the seafood, but they do make a good, generic-tasting Manhattan with a pedestrian maraschino cherry.

The Oyster Bar was our last stop on our tour of Manhattans in Manhattan. We had a dinner reservation to catch in the Bowery, were definitely feeling all that bourbon and vermouth… and were under the impression that we’d actually hit every bar in the terminal. Alas, when we got back home and began the research to finish this post, we learned that there are at least two more bars we never got to see during our visit.

So now we have a reason to return…

Travel Isn’t Fun

Travel Isn’t Fun

A funny thing happened to me on Tuesday afternoon, when I tried to check in for my 8:00 Wednesday flight home from Chicago: The United Airlines app I was using returned an error message informing me that I was unable to complete the transaction because I was too early.

That’s when I looked more carefully at my travel itinerary and discovered that my flight was scheduled for 8:00 PM, not AM.

“Did you mess up?” my husband asked.

No. Now I remembered how difficult it was to find a round trip from LAX to O’Hare that was convenient AND affordable, and I concluded I couldn’t have both. Choosing an earlier flight out of the city would cost me a couple of hundred dollars per ticket. I booked it such a long time ago that I forgot that inconvenient little detail.

By the time I booked my airport shuttle for our return trip, the flight had been re-scheduled to 8:42 PM. This guaranteed that we would not walk in through our front door until after midnight (Pacific time).

And so last night, as my daughter and I stood outside our hotel awaiting the shuttle, I realized:

I don’t want to do this any more.

Don’t get me wrong: I still get a kick out of exploring a new city and revisiting the places I’ve enjoyed in the past. But actual travel — the act of booking a flight and hotel room and packing a bag and figuring out the logistics of getting from A to B, and keeping my cool through the airport and security checks and trying to stay comfortable in cramped economy seating, and trying to do it all without spending a fortune…

… The thrill is gone.

Especially this year, which included an epic road trip from Washington, DC to upstate New York to Boston — and back again — so we could scope out the colleges that had accepted my daughter… followed with another whirlwind trip to Chicago and back for the same purpose. It took me DAYS to put each of those itineraries together: comparing flights and hotels, balancing cost with location and convenience, and scheduling tour dates.

At least, I already had the date for this trip – but I still had to find a flight and hotel that made sense, and it wasn’t without some difficulty: As I was gathering all the confirmations the week before we embarked, I discovered that I never received one from Expedia, which charged me $350 for two nights in a hotel.

I’m just grateful that our destination was a city with over 100,000 hotel rooms – we found one at the four-star Rafaello boutique hotel for a little less than what we were paying through Expedia. And when we arrived, we were greeted with the sweetest words a traveler can hear: “You’ve been upgraded to a suite.”

We had a comfortable stay, but now it was over. And I realized I have to start the process all over again for my daughter’s August move-in (just as soon as my husband figures out the dates he can take off from work). And I found myself wondering if there wasn’t an easier way.

And I realized that there is: It’s called hiring a travel agent. It’s how I used to plan my trips in prehistoric times before the Internet made it possible to see flights and hotel deals on my own. Doing it myself worked for me for a long time, but changes in the travel industry have made it a really grueling task. These include carrier consolidation, hotel mergers and so many different websites to check that it’s no wonder I think of booking a trip as a job.

And since it’s a job, maybe it’s time I allowed a professional to do it.

Apparently, I’m not the only one who has come to that conclusion. While corporations continued to employ travel agencies and specialists, the agency bookings for the leisure market are starting to trend up. And you know something? I find that comforting. I am not the only one who started taking travel booking into my own hands when the Internet gave us the tools to make that possible, and so the travel agency business was hit hard. That’s sad, because that’s one of the professions that traditionally accepted women who needed part time hours so they could raise families. Wouldn’t it be ironic if it once again becomes a popular choice again? (It just won’t include ME.)