Monthly Archives: September 2016

Don’t be afraid to be spontaneous


Two things in life I like as much as I love traveling: hair metal and spontaneity.

And those three things came together in a perfect storm of awesomeness.

Many months prior to this trip, I saw the lineup for Rock the Arena. I saw that it was in Toledo, not far from the Columbus suburb I grew up in and where my brother is raising his awesome family. So I bought the concert ticket, and told myself I’d figure out the rest later. Here was my Facebook post after the trip:


That’s right. That brief moment of spontaneity – and not letting myself worry about the details – ended up producing a trip that was WAYYYYYYY better than simply a killer rock show.

Here’s how it happened, and why you should always stay creative and flexible when traveling – so you don’t miss something awesome:

When I got around to planning the trip, the trouble started early. I had planned to fly into Columbus, where my family lives, and visit with them and then just drive up to Toledo for the show and spend a night. But the Gods of Airfare & Rental Cars were not kind to me.

First, I made the Cardinal Mistake of Travel Planning: I booked a flight before researching rental car rates. This doesn’t seem to be that big of an issue, but it really can be. Why? Rental car rates vary wildly from city to city because of the local taxes assessed on them. So even if the rental car company charges $20 a day for a car in, say, Columbus and Cleveland, local taxes in each of those cities can make for a significant difference in what you end up paying for that $20 rental. It’s for this reason, that I always research rental  care rates before booking airfare. On a number of occasions, I’ve found that the total trip is cheaper if I fly into a more expensive airport with a much cheaper rental car.

And that’s exactly what happened here. The Columbus rental car rates were sky high. Fortunately, I booked on Southwest Airlines and one of the tips in my Fly section is that Southwest doesn’t charge change fees. If your plans change, you can’t get a refund, but you can change your flight and only pay the difference in fare, or cancel it and store what you paid as travel funds that you can use for a future flight. After I finished my researched, I settled on booking a different airline and flying into Detroit, where my rental car would save me literally hundreds of dollars. It was inconvenient, but I decided my time was worth less than my dollars.

Once I got all that worked out, two surprises made it all worth it.

First, Lita Ford, my all-time favorite rocker who was on the Rock the Arena bill, announced a show the night before in Cleveland, just a couple of hours from Columbus AND Toledo. Score! Ticket bought.

And just days before I left on the trip, a  good friend who had bought a six-person tasting menu at a great Cleveland restaurant and was struggling to find a sixth guest, on a lark sent me a message to see whether I’d be in Cleveland on March 17. I hadn’t planned to be there until Lita’s show on the 18th, but when travel opportunity knocks, I open the door.

Doing so meant booking two nights in Cleveland, which wasn’t cheap, being the holiday and all. It meant changing my hotel reservation in Toledo. It had been dirt cheap, but when changing it, it allowed the hotel to charge me the now-jacked-up rate based on new demand, so the detour easily cost me a couple hundred of dollars. But it was worth it. Read on ….



I grew up in Gahanna, one of the northeast suburbs of Ohio’s capital cities. Columbus has changed mightily since I left for college in 1990, and now it would be one of my favorite cities to visit even if it wasn’t my hometown. One thing I had never gotten to do there was see a Columbus Crew soccer match in its new soccer-specific MAPFRE Stadium. It’s a great place to catch a soccer match, and you can even get noodles at the concession stand. The following day, I did something else in my hometown that I hadn’t done before: Visited the Columbus Museum of Art which, like many museums, often offers a free admission day. Worth a visit.



From there, it was on to Cleveland. All the years I lived in Ohio, I had no idea how seriously the folks in Cleveland take St. Patrick’s Day. There’s a massive parade that shuts down much of the city, and plenty of drinking to be had (and an occasional fight, so be careful.)


That night, I met my friend and his posse at Michael Symon’s Lola Bistro, one of the city’s hot dining spots, for that private six-person tasting menu.It was an experience worth every penny of the extra hotels. We had a private table overlooking the kitchen, so we got to see everything prepared and talk with the chefs. I took a look at the menu, and was a little worried that not much on it was in my wheelhouse. And some of it (can you hear my, cauliflower?!?!) is on my choose-death-over-consumption list. But, when in Rome (or Cleveland), I opened my mind – and my taste buds – to all of it. And I loved every single bite. Another reminded to myself to always be open to trying new things.


The following night was my Lita Ford concert, and the surprises kept coming. The venue announced a surprise meet-and-greet opportunity. In all the Lita concerts I’ve gone to, I had never been able to meet here. That would change today. And it happened because I remained flexible with my travel. Had my friend not invited me to dinner, I would have driven up just in time for the show, and missed this incredible opportunity. (By the way, the venue – The Odeon – isn’t going to win any awards, but if you’re looking an intimate venue where you can get close to the stage and not be robbed by the beer vendor, check it out).

From there, it was on to Toledo, for an amazing day of rock, followed by some quick sight-seeing in Detroit before heading home, all the time reveling in the good fortune that came from spontaneity.



Categories: Airlines, Eating, Entertainment, Rental cars, Rock & Roll, Sporting events, Uncategorized | Tags: , | Leave a comment

Toll Roads: Highways to Hell

Here’s a Tampa Bay Times article that gets at the rage those of us who rent cars have at toll roads.

This is what I wrote on my personal Facebook page: “Toll-Roads-In-A-Rental-Car is the worst government-sponsored scam in existence. And the lawmakers in this article don’t get it – it’s not just the rental car companies that are to blame; it’s the states that operate toll roads as well. And just wait til these folks make the mistake of renting a car in Illinois, where there is a 73-cents-exact-change-only-no-pennies-accepted toll booth every four blocks. I could have bought my rental car for the amount of tolls, fees and fines I’ve paid driving through the Land of Lincoln.”

In short, plenty of rage to go around here. Look, I understand toll roads are a necessity in some places. Maybe not as necessary as governments in the Northeast might think they are, but they serve a place. No one likes paying to drive on a road, so we’re all going to be upset when we have to. But this  rage goes well beyond that.

As I mentioned on my Drive page, consumers should be careful when renting  a car in an area where they may encounter a toll road. Rental companies love to rent you a transponder. But at 4 bucks a day for every day of your rental, whether you use it or not, you’re playing a premium for that convenience …. assuming you don’t get confused by the confusing ways states collect toll road money. And that’s the problem here.

No one carries coins anymore, so the old “stop and throw two quarters in a bin” toll collection is on the way out. Paying toll workers to man booths is also expensive, so it makes sense that states are looking for new ways to collect tolls. And let’s face it, with all the technology available to us, toll collection SHOULD be modernized. And that’s all well and good if you are a resident who travels those roads often. But when you’re a visitor, it’s impossible to know whether you’ll encounter a toll road, whether you’ll be able to avoid it if you want to, and how to pay for it if the old-school methods are no longer in use.

For example, Florida uses “Toll By Plate.” It’s a beautiful system. No booths, so no traffic slowdowns. You maintain your speed, and if you have a transponder, your account is automatically charged. If not, a camera snaps a photo of your plate and sends you a bill.

But here’s the problem when renting a car – that bill goes to the rental car company, not you. And it’s reasonable that the company is going to charge you a service charge for having to deal with thousands and thousands of these 75-cent bills every day. We can, and should, debate what a reasonable charge for handling this is, but the real problem is that, in this scenario, a driver has no option. I can’t swing to the right lane and throw some quarters in a machine or hand a dollar bill to a human. I have to drive through and incur a service charge. Sometimes hundreds of times more expensive than the actual toll. My only other alternative is to rent a transponder from the rental car company (see above for why that isn’t always cost-effective) or buy a transponder and carry it around with me. And that would be an option if every toll road in America shared one transponder. But there are dozens.

What’s the solution? Well, there really isn’t one. The best consumers can do is add copious amounts of research before renting a car. Map out the routes you plan to take and see whether toll roads are part of them. If so, figure out how many tolls you’ll incur, and how you can pay for them. Crunch all that information and figure out whether it’s better for you to get ripped off by your rental company for a transponder rental, or whether it’s better for you to get ripped off by your rental company for passing along a toll bill.

Either way, until states and rental car companies can come to some sort of consumer-friendly agreement, you WILL get ripped off.

Categories: News links, Rental cars, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Trip Report: New Mexico, California, Mexico, Colorado

Follow my travels long enough and you won’t even blink at a headline like that. I like to maximize my travel dollars, so when I have a trip I have to make for business, especially one that takes me to the other coast of America, I’ll take some time seeing if I can extend it a few days to have a little fun or do a little business.

So this trip was for our Ante Up Poker Cruise from Los Angeles to the Mexican Riviera. But I added a day on the front end to meet with our Ante Up Poker Tour partner in Albuquerque, a couple days after that for fun and sight-seeing in Los Angeles and a couple of days on the back end to thank a great supporter of Ante Up in Colorado.



I’ve been to this New Mexico city before, and I always like coming back. I once spent an entire day doing my own “Breaking Bad” self-ie tour, taking photos in front of all of the houses and scenes featured in that great show. (There are organized tours that are easier, but they don’t go to all of the places you want to go. Do a little web research, and you can put together your own tour like I did.

This trip, I only had time for one touristy  thing, so I chose the National Museum of Atomic Science & History, and it was, pardon the pun, a blast. In addition to seeing and learning about old bombs, it features a large outdoor area with planes. And, inside, they have a DeLorean for us children of the ’80s.



Famous homes: Life moves pretty fast, and if you don’t stop to take a selfie outside of Ferris Bueller’s house in Long Beach, you might miss it. I’ve been to L.A. tons of times, so I was looking for something new this time. A quick Roadside America search pointed me in the direction of the iconic house in the iconic skipping-high-school movie. Later, I used the same site to guide me to the Brady Bunch house, which sadly doesn’t look much like the Brady Bunch house these days.



Vixen concert: I’ve seen a show at The House of Blues in Anaheim before, and it’s a great venue to see a band … especially if you spend the minimum amount of money in the restaurant of gift shop prior to the show to get a line pass. I ended up about 9 inches from Janet Gardner of Vixen, which closed out a great show started by Femme Fatale.


Hollywood: I’ve always wanted to hike to the top of the Hollywood sign. But it’s getting harder to do. The folks who own houses on the road that gives the quickest path are tired of the traffic (I don’t blame them), so strict parking restrictions mean you have to get there super easy to hike from there. The other paths are longer. And the real bummer is that even if you do make it to the top, fences keep you from getting that photo that will really impress your friends. So I opted for the more efficient drive up the mountain, where there are couple really nice places to park and see the sign about as close as you can get from the front of it. One even has a nice park to relax in. Here’s a link to how to hike to the top.


Being a movie buff (I’ve seen every Oscar-nominated movie for the past few years), a trip to the Dolby Theater where the Oscars are held was a must. The tour is a real bust, but you do get to get inside the theater for a selfie or two. Depending on the day you are there, the theater might be a work in progress for an upcoming event, as it was for me.



There’s only so much L.A. anyone can take, so a couple hours south is the oasis known as San Diego. The weather there is almost always perfect. This trip was to see another of my infatuations – the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team – play a friendly at the aging and needs-to-be-razed Qualcomm Stadium. But before the match, I stopped by Kansas City Barbecue, where the “Great Balls of Fire” scene from Top Gun was filmed. The bar suffered a fire some years back, so none of the original stuff is there, but they’ve built it back with lots of cool stuff. And the food is amazing.



This is the second time Ante Up Poker Cruises has sailed from Los Angeles to the Mexican Riviera stops of Cabo San Lucas, Mazatlan and Puerto Vallarta. Our company prefers to use Royal Caribbean for lots of reasons, but it doesn’t sail out of California, so NCL is our back up. The Jewel was our ship this time, and was nicer than our previous vessel. Still, NCL just doesn’t match up well to Royal for me. I admit part of it is my familiarity with Royal, but I also find NCL to be a notch below in almost everything. The one advantage the cruise line does have is its “freestyle” options that allow you to go to many different restaurants, some of them for free. However, it’s sometimes hard to get in the restaurant you want at the time you want, so it can turn into a negative.


If you’re a drinker, you’ll love Cabo. Beach bar after beach bar. Mazatlan? Eh. Just not much to do there, and the city is still fighting a reputation for crime, so much so that ex-pats from a lot of countries who have relocated to the city volunteer to meet cruise ship passengers at the pier to direct them around the city. Puerto Vallarta is a treat, no matter what your interests. This trip, we took an amazing zip-lining tour from Outdoor Adventures. I love zip-lining, but this tour was the best yet. It started with a donkey ride up the mountain (could have done without that), and then the most extensive series of zip lines I’ve ever been on. They even had one that was a surfboard. Not even lying. It was a board just big enough for two people to stand on, and you zipped standing up to the next platform. Wow. And twice during the lines, you got to take a waterslide to cool off.




Let’s start off by saying there’s a reason I moved to Florida from Ohio – snow. (More accurately, cold, but they all work hand in hand). So going from the warm waters of Baja California to a blinding snowstorm in the Rockies was jarring, to say the least.

But I hadn’t been to the old mining-now-gambling town of Cripple Creek, and I owed a visit to a great client, so up the mountain I went. I somehow survived, and am glad I did. Cripple Creek is more accessible Deadwood, with a main drag with little old-timey casinos, gift shops and other merchants. Perfect place to spend a weekend. I stayed at Midnight Rose Hotel & Casino, and highly recommend it. From there , I made a repeat visit to the state’s other gambling town, Black Hawk. Both are great escapes from Denver for gamblers. Just maybe not in January. If you’re from Florida. 🙂


Categories: Cruises, Drinking, Gambling, Museums, Pop Culture, Rock & Roll, Tourist Locations, Trip Reports | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Are you guilty of BAO: “Being American abroad”?

Here’s a fun a little list from the folks a called “10 Ways To Spot An American Aboard.”

I plead guilty to No. 9. And I’m not even ashamed of enjoying beer wherever I go. The Wife accuses me of No. 3, but I’m not trying to be rude by attempting to speak your language, even if it means I adopt a weird accent. I’m trying to be respectful. Oh well. 🙂

As for the others:

McDonald’s: Yes, please stop. One of the great joys of traveling is enjoying new cuisines. Expand your horizons. All of them.

Applauding: Always a head-scratcher. Yes, I’m happy, too, that the pilot landed the lane safely. But that’s her job.

Fanny packs: You won’t see me strutting down the catwalks of New York City, but you also won’t see me sporing a fanny pack. Lots of other ways to carry your essentials, folks.

Not knowing the customs: This one gives me the red ass. Part of traveling is getting out of your comfort zone. It’s impossible to know all customs where you are going, but you should be open to understanding, and accepting of, that the country you are going to isn’t America. Learn what you can, try to be respectful, and open your mind. You might find that America isn’t the best in everything.


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Trip Report: Key West for New Year’s Eve


New Year’s Eve is my favorite holiday. Always has been. It might be because my parents always through a party at our house for their friends, and while I was quarantined in my bedroom for all of them, I could still tell it was a rockin’ good time downstairs.

So Laura and I make a point of traveling somewhere for New Year’s Eve every year. We’ve now spent NYE in all four Lower 48 time zones, and did the countdown in Vegas, Seattle, Phoenix, Chicago, Pensacola and many, many other places. I’ve even done the Times Square madness. Once. And only once.

This year, we chose Key West. It’s our kind of town, so it has to be our kind of NYE town, right? Yes, yes it was.



As the crow flies, Key West isn’t all that far from our house in Safety Harbor, Florida. But the crow doesn’t fly there, and the airlines that do charge a heart-stopping amount to get you there during NYE. Driving is out of the question, because it’s a seven-hour drive. SEVEN. So we finally took a trip on the Key West Express, and pretty much loved it.

The Express is a high-speed ferry from Fort Myers Beach to Key West, sailing back and forth daily. It’s a quite large vessel, and well appointed. It’s all open seating, you have your choice of airline-like seats or, if you board early enough, couches with tables perfect for groups. On the way down, they showed a movie, and on the way back, they showed Monday Night Football, so there’s some free entertainment on board. There’s also a bar with a small snack bar, so the couple-hour trip can go by quickly.

The only problem for us is that it leaves very early in the morning from Fort Myers Beach, so we decided to book a hotel there the night before to avoid the early-morning drive. On the way back, we could have done the same thing, but opted to drive home after it arrived back in Fort Myers Beach late in the evening.



Somewhat surprising, considering that we didn’t decide on Key West until October, we were able to find a pretty cool hotel that didn’t break the bank. The Ibis Bay Beach Resort is an old motel that has been redecorated into a funky place to stay. We had a first-place room overlooking the bay, with a hammock and some chairs to watch the resident birds and tortoises from. It has a great pool area that includes a movie screen, with a nice restaurant and bar.

It’s a bit out of the entertainment district, but it uses old school buses to take guests to multiple stops in town and then back to Ibis.



Drag Queen

The highlight is, of course, the multiple NYE celebrations and traditions, pretty much a different one for whatever type of person you are. We chose the Drag Queen Shoe Drop at Bourbon Street Pub, because it seemed the most fun. And it was. The streets were crowded, but hey, it’s NYE. If you’re not excited about crowds, choose a different favorite holiday. But quite surprising to us, we were able to find a lot of not-as-crowded bars in town all night, so it doesn’t have to be all shoulder-to-shoulder contact if you don’t want it to be.


There are lots of great museums in the city, so I could tell you about Harry Truman’s Little White HouseErnest Hemingway’s house or the Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory, but if you’re going to Key West for NYE, you’re going there to drink. And drink we did! In fact, we held an impromptu contest for our Facebook friends to guess how many different bars we’d visit over the weekend. Did you guess 32? If so, you would have won a T-shirt! And don’t forget to visit Dante’s. It’s a great bar/restaurant right by the dock to the Key West Express. It has a full pool with waterfall, so it’s a great place to cool off while enjoying some drinks.


Categories: Drinking, Entertainment, Hotels, Museums, Pop Culture, Tourist Locations, Trip Reports | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

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