Trip Report: 48 Hours in Minneapolis, Minnesota

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As I mentioned yesterday, I spent this past weekend in Minneapolis, tagging along for a couple days of sightseeing before my husband attended a work conference.  We got in late Friday night, and my return flight left Monday morning, which means we had just two full days to explore everything the city had to offer.

We started off Monday morning with a walk through Loring Park, a well-manicured park in the center of the city.  A 20-minute stroll through the gardens and over the pedestrian skybridge deposited us at the Walker Art Museum & Sculpture Garden, home to the famous Spoonbridge and Cherry installation (seen above).

We enjoyed the many sculptures the grounds had to offer before heading over to the conservatory area to check out the artist-designed mini golf event.  For $19/person, you can actually play through the works of art, all of which have different unique themes.

ImageThe mini-golf exhibition runs through September 7th, and your ticket also gets you same-day admission to the Walker Art Gallery, where they currently have a travelling exhibit called “International Pop” which features works by Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol, among others.  That exhibition runs through August 29th.

Our artistic sensibilities fulfilled, we headed back to the city center and over to Brit’s Pub, a British-themed bar and grill on Nicollet Mall with a secret attraction on their rooftop: lawn bowling!

IMG_2487The grass pitch is divided into four “rinks” which are first-come, first-served on the weekends, for a rate of $5 per hour, per bowler. Rules are posted for newbies, and the staff is helpful with questions.  And if lawn bowling isn’t your thing, there are also plenty of other bars up and down Nicollet Mall, happy to wet your whistle.

Later that evening, we headed to what would become my absolute favorite place in all of the Twin Cities: Psycho Suzi’s Motor Lounge.  Don’t let it fool you, though, the place isn’t a hotel – it’s a tiki bar!

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While the downstairs opens out onto a lovely riverfront deck and has more of a beach-bar vibe, the upstairs is classic 1960s kitsch, and we absolutely loved it.  We had several drinks here, including (at the suggestion of the hubby) one that was on fire…pro-tip: if you like your eyebrows, blow it out before consuming.  And while the drinks were good, the food was also a surprise winner – the fried cheese curds were a delicious local treat.

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When dinner time rolled around, we decided to hit up another classic Minneapolis treasure: Nye’s Polonaise Room.  Again with a nod to the 1960s, Nye’s features a formal dining room decked out with over-stuffed banquets and serving prime rib, as well as the original dive-bar on the side where “The World’s Most Dangerous Polka Band” plays on weekends.  While we found the much-hyped traditional Polish food somewhat lacking (pierogies aren’t supposed to be deep-fried…) the martinis and the music made it worth our visit all the same, and we ended our first evening shortly after.

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The hubby in front of the 4-story Lego transformer

The next day, we ventured over to the only real must-visit attraction in the Twin Cities: the illustrious Mall of America. Even if, like us, you’re not a “mall person” there’s still a lot to see here.  We hit up the aquarium, the theme park, and the gigantic Lego sculptures that tower into the food court.

By mid-day, though, our dedication to the “Temple of American Consumerism” was starting to fade, so we hopped on the light rail and headed back to downtown Minneapolis for a quick nap at the hotel.

For our final meal of the weekend, we had made reservations at Piccolo Restaurant, helmed by James Beard Award semifinalist Doug Flicker.  There, we enjoyed several great small plates including this lovely chicken confit:

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With bellies full of great food and great wine, we headed back to the hotel, our 48 hours in Minneapolis coming to a close.  All in all, it was a great weekend, and a nice way to break up the summer tedium.

Tell us about your summer getaways in the comments!

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The Cash + Points Booking Trick You Need To Know About

The lobby of the Hyatt Regency Minneapolis. (Photo courtesy Hyatt.com)

The hubby is away this week at a work conference in Minneapolis, a city that neither of us had previously ever been to. And while his work was picking up the tab for his hotel room starting this past Saturday, I suggested we tack on a night to the front end of his trip so that we could explore the city together beforehand, and then I could fly home once the conference started.

I used my Southwest companion pass to fly up to Minneapolis with the hubby for free, then booked my return ticket using my own Southwest points, making my flights gratis.  Then, we added a free night using Hyatt points (actually Chase Ultimate points that we had transferred over to Hyatt) in the same hotel that the hubby’s conference was in, the Hyatt Regency Minneapolis.

But here, I used a trick of the trade that will often help you to upgrade a longer stay for cheap: I booked the points portion of the stay in a higher category room than the hubby was booked in for the conference.  In this case, I paid 17,000 Hyatt points to get us a room on the Club level – which includes free breakfast, evening hors d’oeuvres, free bottled water and sodas, and an upgraded room itself – instead of the 12,000 points it would have cost me to just book a standard room.

And here’s why: most hotels, if they have the space available, will attempt to let guests on back-to-back bookings stay in the same room for their entire stay. 

My breakfast from the Club lounge.  Offerings included a wide variety of cereals, yogurts, and pastries, fruit, hard boiled eggs, smoked salmon, bagels, and fresh juices.
My breakfast from the Club lounge. Offerings included a wide variety of cereals, yogurts, and pastries, fruit, hard boiled eggs, smoked salmon, bagels, and fresh juices.

So even though only the one night points-portion of my hubby’s hotel stay was “supposed” to be on the Club level, the hotel was able to give him a Club-level room he could keep even through the cash-portion of his stay (which should have been a standard room at the “conference rate” that his work paid.)

As such, if you give a conservative estimate that the perks of the Club level are worth about $30 a day (in savings from not having to buy breakfast, bottled water, snacks, etc.), then the extra 5,000 points that we paid to get on the Club level for the extra night ended up being worth $210 over the course of his entire weeklong stay. In redemption terms, that comes out to roughly 4.2 cents per point value – which is nearly 2.5 times the current estimated value of Hyatt points, or double the estimated value of Chase Ultimate points.

Now let me be clear – the hotel was in no way required to do this. They could have just as easily made us switch rooms after our points stay to a standard room, and they would have been totally in the right to do so. And if they had made us change rooms, the redemption value on those extra 5,000 points would only be 0.6 cents per points for one day’s worth of Club access- pretty measly.

Still, I’ve found this trick works well over 1/2 the time – making it a gamble I was willing to take.  It’s also good to remember that you could do this the other way around just as easily, with an upgraded cash portion of your stay at the front of the trip, followed by standard-room level points redemption at the back end.  Whichever way you book it, just make sure the higher-level room is at the beginning of your stay, and don’t be upset with the check-in agent if it doesn’t work out.

Tomorrow, I’ll detail where we went and what we saw in the great city of Minneapolis, so stay tuned!

The Lazy Way to “Extreme” Coupon

photo 2 (12)As some of you all might remember, around a year ago, I tried my hand at the “Extreme Couponing” game.  I went as hard as I could for a couple months there, but found that (due to a lack of stores that double coupons in my area and my general preference for eating fresh, organic, unprocessed foods) I could only ever manage to reduce my grocery bill by about 20 – 25% at the most.

So I took a look at how long it was actually taking me to collect coupons and decided I needed to do some cost – benefit analysis.  The result is that I now do “bare minimum effort” couponing these days, and still manage to save about 10% off my weekly grocery bill, and often up to 20% off most online purchases.

If you’re like me, and want to save money but maybe not enough to actually be “extreme” about it, here’s how you can do it too.

1.  Stock up on staples during Catalina deals.

A “Catalina” is the machine that prints coupons at the register.  What a lot of people don’t know is that most of the major conglomerate consumer packaged good companies (P&G, Nestle, General Mills, Unilverer, etc.) offer targeted deals via these magical machines several times a year.

These deals are generally structured as “Spend X amount on our brands, and get a coupon for Y off your total grocery bill on your next visit.”

So, for example, a recent one I did was spend $30 on P&G products and get a $10 coupon.  So, I bought a mega-pack of Charmin toilet paper, a large bottle of Downy fabric softener, a few boxes of Puffs tissues, and a Covergirl foundation.  I would have bought all these items – toilet paper, laundry products, cosmetics – at some point anyways.  But by stocking up during the Catalina deal, I get it at effectively 33% off, not to mention that the stores will routinely do additional sales on top of the Catalina.

In short, stocking up on your staples during a Catalina deal generally means you’ll get your staples at about 40-50% of their usual costs.  So how do you find out about these fantastic deals? They’re usually advertised in the weekly circular for the store, and often the store will have in-store signage in the relevant areas as well.  In other words, you just need to be a little bit observant, and you should be able to cash in on the savings.

Total effort: 2-3 minutes per week, $100-$150 a year

2. Download these apps, then use them.

There’s a plethora of apps these days that will pay you money to upload a picture of your receipt from your grocery trip.  Ibotta, SavingStar, Snap by Groupon, Checkout 51, Shopmium, BerryCart…just to name a few. (Links are to my personal referral code, btw.)

These aren’t “get rich quick” apps…if you’re like me, it’ll take you a year or so to build up about $60 across the apps.  But they’re dead simple.  You just scroll through AFTER you’ve done your shopping, see if any of their offers matches what you bought, and voila, you’ve earned anywhere from $0.10 to $2.00.

I like these after-the-fact apps, because they don’t encourage me to buy more than I usually would, which is a phenomenon I noticed when I used paper coupons. And unlike most paper coupons, which usually subsidize bad-for-you processed foods, the apps usually have fresh and generic offers to get you to use the app at all, so you can make money on produce, pantry staples, etc.

Total effort: 5 minutes per shopping trip, total savings around $60 – $100 a year.

3. Never buy non-grocery items at full price.

If you’re buying something online, you have the option to double-awesome your purchase. First of all, go to whatever website you need to buy something for through a travel shopping portal, like Rapid Rewards Shopping or MileagePlus Shopping.  These portals will give you extra miles/points for whatever you buy often at a tune of 3-5 points per dollar, which, when combined with a points credit card, can help you rack up travel points FAST.

Then, check RetailMeNot and Google for promotional codes.  No matter what the website, you’re likely to at least find a code that gives you free shipping, but sometimes you can get 30-40% off as well. Always, I repeat, ALWAYS look for a coupon when online shopping.

But not all of our lives can be lived online.  Sometimes you need something right away.  But IRL stores are not immune from our coupon craze.  I use the Coupon Sherpa app to find in-store coupons that I can serve up on my phone.  Just a few days ago I took my mother to Old Navy and got 20% off her purchase, then picked up some craft supplies at Michaels where I got 40% off a single item.

Total Effort: 1-2 minutes each time you shop.  Total savings: $300-??? a year depending on how much you shop.

All in all, I now spend maybe 10 minutes a week total “couponing” and still get about 50% of the benefits that I got when I was spending several hours a week couponing.  That’s a win for me.

What “lazy” couponing tips do you have?  Share in the comments.

33 Presents for a 33rd Birthday

33 PresentsYesterday, my lovely husband turned 33, marking 1/3 of a century of him making the world a better place.  I always like to plan something BIG for his birthdays, especially since he comes from a large family where birthdays were primarily quiet family affairs.

In the past, I’ve done surprise & themed parties, vacations, meals at super fancy restaurants, etc. But for this year, I decided to give him one present for every year he’d been keepin’ it real, 33 in total, and have him open them one by one across his birthday weekend.

I wrapped all the gifts in the same brown craft paper, tied them with string, and wrote the # of each present on its face.  Then, feigning that I “needed a glass of water” I went back downstairs after we had gone to bed Friday night and set up all the presents on our kitchen island so that they would be the first thing he saw when he got up on Saturday.  The look on his face was priceless, and I think he was truly surprised at being so overwhelmed with presents.

Most of the gifts were small items I’d ordered off Amazon (to help keep it a secret in case he checked our credit card statement or saw the package return address) but for others, I got him gift certificates and event tickets.  Then, I invited his friends to join us at those places, further heightening the surprise.  And since most of the gifts were actually fairly inexpensive, I was able to buy all 33 gifts and still spend about the same (or maybe even less) than what I normally would spend on a large party at our house or on one big present.

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All in all, here was his haul, broken up into the times he got to open each set of presents:

Saturday Morning:

  1. A card, explaining the 33 gifts rationale.  It played the Hampster Dance song on endless loop.
  2. A birthday crown for him to wear all weekend
  3. 1 pound of Valhalla coffee, a fair trade organic blend of the most caffeinated coffee in the world
  4. A new coffee mug, for him to drink said coffee with
  5. A new shirt – I got him a Cuban style shirt, as he likes these for the hot summer days, and his old one was not looking great.

Saturday Afternoon:

  1. A bottle of his favorite hot sauce – this was his clue for where we were going next.
  2. A gift card to Torchy’s Tacos for lunch, where eight of his friends joined us.
  3. 2 tickets to the 2:30pm showing of the movie Inside Out
  4. Movie candy, which I smuggled in my purse

Saturday Evening:

  1. Tickets to that evening’s baseball game for our local triple-A baseball team. Two of his friends joined us for baseball plus post-game fireworks.
  2. A new baseball cap for the Round Rock Express, the team we were going to see
  3. An inflatable stadium seat cushion
  4. A package of batteries, to power the small handheld fans we already owned

Sunday Morning:

  1. A bottle of vodka
  2. A bottle of our favorite bloody mary mix, Zing Zang.
  3. A scratch-off lottery ticket (he didn’t win, bummer.)
  4. A package of two small nerf guns and extra darts.  Once we’d both had a nice bloody mary to wake up, we shot at each other for a good twenty minutes.

Sunday Afternoon:

  1. A gift certificate to our favorite wing bar, where more of his friends met us for lunch
  2. A CD of Mariah Carey’s greatest hits to play in the car on the way there.  (The hubby has a thing for Mariah Carey. Yes, I know that’s weird.)
  3. A $20 bill and coupon (for $5 in free tokens when you spend $20) for a local arcade called Pinballz. More of his friends met us there for some games.
  4. A bottle of Mr. Bubble bubble bath (his favorite).
  5. A set of man-scented candles, for him to light during his bubble bath

Sunday Evening:

  1. A monogram grill brand so that he could brand steaks with his name (I also had steak in the fridge, for us to have for dinner so he could try it out.)
  2. A bottle of rye bourbon
  3. Silver cocktail cup
  4. A crushed ice machine
  5. A muddler (Items 24-27 combine to give him everything he needs to make a proper Mint Julep, something he loves but can usually only get in nice cocktail bars.)
  6. A cigar

Monday Morning:

  1. A new pair of boxers (They have a lion on them, haha.)
  2. A Dunkin Donuts gift card

Monday Evening:

  1. A $25 Visa gift card with instructions that he can choose take-out food from any of our three favorite take-out spots for dinner and I’ll go get it from him.
  2. A large-format beer
  3. A box of his favorite chocolate truffles

So there ya have it.  If you’re looking for a birthday idea with a big “wow” factor (and you have a few hours you can set aside for gift wrapping purposes!) then I’d totally recommend the X gifts for X birthday method – we had a fantastic weekend and Carl felt very spoiled with all his new goodies.

Great-Looking 4th of July Treats in Under an Hour

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If you’re like just about every other living, breathing American this weekend, you’ve probably been invited to a 4th of July barbecue, picnic, or potluck.

Which means, of course, that you’re probably now scrambling to come up with what to bring.  Well, fear not, patriots, and let me introduce you to a super-cute and easy to make 4th of July treat that’ll garner you plenty of compliments.

You’ll need:

  • 2 packages refrigerated cookie dough
  • 1 cannister cream cheese frosting
  • 1 tube of red and blue sprinkles

IMG_2382Now, get ready for the easiest instructions ever:

  1. Make the cookies according to their package instructions.
  2. Let cool for at least 20 minutes, until they’re no longer warm to the touch.
  3. Spread frosting between two cookies, and push down slightly so that it starts to squeeze out the sides.
  4. Roll the edges in sprinkles.

Yep, that’s it, then you’re done. The whole process – from preheating your oven to cleaning up stray sprinkles – will take you less than an hour.

Recipe yields 24 cookie sandwiches, which will promptly be devoured by any nearby children or husbands.  You’re welcome.

Edited to Add: Need another super quick option?  Most people have seen a fruit-flag, by this point, but just a quick tip that you can make it even faster by using a store-bought sheet cake or brownies.  (Otherwise, allow at least 12 hours for your homemade cake to cool before icing it – ours is strawberry sheet cake with cream cheese icing.)

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