How to Maximize Your Vacation With a Well-Planned Itinerary

It’s probably not a secret to any of you who actually know me in real life, but…I’m definitely  a planner. Like, intensely so. If someone tells me their grand vision for anything, I immediately start trying to work out the logistics in my mind.

And the same goes for vacations. I’m not a “hop-a-last-minute-flight-to-wherever-and-then-see-where-fate-takes-me” type of vacationer. When I go somewhere, I will have researched the hell out of it before my feet ever touch the ground in my vacation destination.

Now, that doesn’t mean that I can’t be spontaneous. For our upcoming trip to Cancun, for example, I’ve booked our flights, resort, and airport transfer — but that’s all. Because I know that is a trip focused more on relaxing and unwinding instead of sight-seeing, I’m happy to leave our day-to-day plan until we get there. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t extensively researched each and every bar and restaurant on the resort property, explored the tours you can purchase for nearby attractions, and read reviews of pretty much everything I can find on the area.

Because to me, being prepared allows you to be spontaneous without feeling like you might be missing something. 

Generally speaking, though, I do build a more detailed trip itinerary for most trips, regardless of whether they’re 3-day weekends or 14-day international epics. Here’s an example from last year’s Las Vegas trip:

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Some things you may notice here: 1) I build these in Google Drive. That allows me to have access to it from my phone, and I always make sure to make my itineraries available offline, so I can access them even if I don’t have data or wifi. 2) I include confirmation numbers everywhere I can, and reminders for myself on where to find any needed paperwork. A lot of times you’re booking months in advance, you may not remember where things are located.

I also find that putting it on paper lets me see how everything fits together. For example, if I see I have an action-packed, early-rising morning one day, I can make sure to plan a quieter, low-key night the evening before. This helps make it feel like I’ve planned a cohesive trip, instead of just a series of activities that we “have to get to”.

So how do I compile these? Here’s the order I go in:

  1. First, book your flights

As soon as I book my flights for a trip, I create my itinerary document. The flights bookend the travel, so it helps create a frame for everything else that will be added later. I also like to include flight numbers, confirmation numbers, and any loyalty program numbers that I think I might need along the way.

  1. Next, hotels and any ground transportation

Once I know the dates I’ll be arriving and departing, it’s time to figure out where to stay. Generally speaking, I let my points guide where I search: if I have a lot of Hyatt points, I’ll search Hyatt first; if I have a lot of Starwood points, I’ll search Starwood points. Once I find a couple options that look promising, I read through at least the 10 most recent reviews for the property on both the hotel’s website (if offered) and a third-party review site like TripAdvisor or Yelp.

The other big question at this step is any ground transportation. Are you visiting more than one location/hotel during your stay? How will you get between them? How will you get from the airport to your hotel? Do you need to reserve a rental car, or buy any train passes? And of course, how can you maximize these bookings to give you the most points in return?

  1. Book “big activities”

After you’ve nailed down your flights and hotel situation, it’s time to figure out what you want to do. If you’re familiar with your destination, you may have some activities already in mind, otherwise I like to look at TripAdvisor, Lonely Planet, Thrillist, and TimeOut for the “can’t miss” items. Once I’ve found the majority of touristy options on those commercial sites, I check out what my favorite vloggers, bloggers, and ‘grammers have highlighted about the destination as well.

Then, once I’ve figured out some of the activities you want to participate in, I lump them into two categories: “big” meaning they either take more than three hours to complete and/or will require considerable physical effort or expense and “little” meaning they’re lower-key activities that I may be able to squeeze in whenever. I book “big” activities now, and save “little” activities for later in the itinerary planning process.

  1. Pick your restaurants

Next on my list is to research restaurants. My go-to sources here include Eater, Time Out (particularly in Europe), and Food & Wine magazine. I like to mix it up with “fancy” restaurants and hole-in-the-wall type places. And if a particular location is really associated with a specific dish (i.e. Nashville with Hot Chicken) I try to make sure we get to try it from at least two different locations.

For fancier places, I go ahead and make a reservation in advance, if they offer one.

  1. Fill in open spaces with “small activities”

By now, your itinerary should be really starting to fill in. I take a look and see where it looks like we still might have room to add in another activity or two, keeping in mind where we’re likely to be tired and just want to relax. When possible, I look for smaller activities that you don’t have to book in advance, so you can blow them off if you feel like it.

It’s also important to keep in mind where activities are located in this step. For smaller activities (for example, a museum that will only take you an hour or so to tour), you want to try to visit it when you’ll already be in that area of the location. Going really far out of your way for smaller activities doesn’t always make sense, especially if you can re-shuffle other activities to keep nearby activities together in the same day.

  1. Add confirmation numbers, addresses, and tips for yourself. 

Finally, once you have a fully-filled out itinerary, it’s time to make it easier for yourself when you’re onsite. I add confirmation numbers for everything that has one. For international destinations where I’m unlikely to have cell signal, I also add addresses for each location. And if I’ve learned anything during my research that may be useful (e.g. this establishment has an upstairs bar that’s often less crowded; the crab cake is legendary; you have a printed voucher for this event you need to take with you, etc.), I make sure to note that on my itinerary document as well.

  1. For longer trips, include some backup options

So now you’re done, right? Well, hold on. One final recommendation is that for longer trips — anything more than 3 days — keep a shortlist of back up options as well, particularly for small indoor activities and casual restaurants. That way, if you just aren’t feeling something you’d planned, and/or something stressful pops up (like a bad storm on the day you planned to visit the Botanical Gardens, or an hour-long wait at the hole-in-the-wall oyster bar you had planned to visit) you can sub in an alternative.

With these tips, I think you’ll find not only do you have a flaw-free vacation, but it also helps you to get more excited about your trip. All the planning and researching makes you anticipate the great time you’ll have on your trip, and further extends the joy you get from going. So enjoy!

15 Things You Can do Post-Inauguration to Keep Resisting a Trump Presidency

January 20, 2017, 12:02pm: “I felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced. I fear something terrible has happened.”

Well, he’s the President now.

But that doesn’t mean our fight is over. It means our fight is only just beginning. What you do EVERY SINGLE DAY of the next four years is important. The next two years, leading up to midterm elections, potentially even more important. So how do you fight back? Here are some suggestions.

  1.  Sign up for the Daily Actions text updates or Facebook page, and look out for the daily recommendation for what to do. The actions are usually things like calling your members of congress on a specific issue, and generally take less than 5 minutes to complete. But multiplied tens of thousands of times across all the members in the group, it makes a difference.
  1. Continue to vote with your wallet. The #GrabYourWallet boycott highlights retailers that still have Trump family products on their shelves. Boycott these stores, share on Twitter when you shop elsewhere, and write to your retailers to tell them how you feel.
  1. Fight fake news on Facebook.  When you see fake news, go to the divot icon in the top right corner of the post, and click “report post” then choose “it’s a fake news story.” Facebook will then review the content.
  1. Fight the profitability of fake news sites like Breitbart, by asking their advertisers to drop the site. Here’s news on this effort, and the primary group behind the effort, plus instructions on how to participate. (Note: their focus is on Breitbart, but you can do this with any hateful fake news site that runs ads, which is most of them.)
  1. adchoicesFight the profitability of fake news sites, by asking Google to drop the site from their ad network. To do this, go to any site, and look for the icons shown here to the left in the upper right corner of the ads. Hover over the triangle icon until the words “adchoices” show up, then click on them. Then scroll to the bottom of the page, click “the issues were with the website” and then choose “The site promotes racial intolerance, or advocacy against an individual, group, or organization.” You can do this daily.
  1. March. Join the Women’s March on Washington, Women’s March on Austin, or any of the hundreds of sister marches taking place across the entire world tomorrow, January 20th, 2017. While you’re there, interact with community groups and give them your contact info so they can alert you to other upcoming events as well. Remember: the March is just the start. You have to keep the momentum going.
  1. If you can’t make it to a march because of your own personal situation or a conflict, consider sponsoring a marcher through NARAL.
  1. If you can’t make it to a march because you (or a loved one who you are the caretaker for) have a disability, join the Online Disability March.
  1. Preserve the ACA. Call your congressional representatives and tell them why the ACA matters to you, and demand no repeal without replacement.  Remember that personal stories matter more than reading a script.
  1. Continue to donate to good organizations that have promised to fight, like Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and many others. Bonus points if you set up a recurring donation.
  1. If you haven’t already, consider joining one of the many (often unlisted) local action groups on Facebook that sprung up out of the decline of the Pantsuit Nation Facebook group.  To join, reach out to whomever your most politically active liberal friend is, and see if they’re a member. Chances are they are, and can add you.
  1. Sign up for the email newsletter list  of your representatives at the local, state, and national level. (Yes, even if they’re Republicans. Especially if they’re Republicans.) Keep your eyes out for emails about Town Hall events. Attend, ask them questions, and force them to answer for what they’re doing. You can use this site to find who represents you, then navigate to their website to find the email sign up.
  1. Figure out what non-partisan news sources or websites are reporting on your local politics. These can often be overshadowed by the national news, or sensationalist issues only. In Austin, for example, the Austin Monitor reports on the happenings around City Council, and Community Impact News often does deep dives on things like local bond measures. At the state level, the Texas Tribune reports on what’s happening in the State Leg, and also features frequent events where you can confront your legislators in person as well. Add these local sites to your daily reading list, and support them monetarily if possible.
  1. Try to find balance. It can be overwhelming to feel like you alone are responsible for taking on the establishment. So look for support and action groups that share your views. Take time out to celebrate all the little non-political things: birthdays, promotions, days with nice weather, great meals, firsts, etc. And don’t beat yourself up if you miss a day (or even a few days) of being active. Just recommit yourself to the process of fighting back and start again. The worst thing you can do, as Obama has often reminded us, is to grow cynical and stop trying.
  1. Send a message of thanks to Barack and Michelle Obama for all they did, via their new website. We all know they deserve it.

Want more things you can do? You can re-read my earlier posts on 44 Things You Should Do If You’re Disappointed in the Election and 22 MORE Things You Should Do If You’re Disappointed in the Election.

Warning: Be Careful Before You Buy Furniture From West Elm

Today, I had a really unfortunate interaction with West Elm, and thought my readers should be alerted to some rather dishonest policies they’re hiding from customers.

This story all started a couple weeks ago. We decided that it was finally time to replace our old couch, and after looking at literally hundreds of different L-shaped sectionals, we finally landed on the Paidge 2-Piece Chaise Sectional, pictured above. The pricetag was hefty, but we really liked the look of it, we wanted a quality piece, and we liked that West Elm promised this piece was made & assembled in America.

So we pushed “order,” and looked forward to our couch arriving in a few weeks.

Things started out as expected, then something weird happened. The charge for the couch started out as pending on our credit card, but after a few days, disappeared completely. Going to my order status page just revealed somewhat cryptically this message:

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So I called customer service. When should I expect the charge to hit my credit card, I asked?

And they couldn’t tell me.

As the reps explained, the problem lies in the fact that my piece was being custom-built by a third party vendor. (Um…what?) This was news to me, but looking into the fine print, there is, in fact, a link to this video, which explains this product is actually made by “Mississippi Made Upholstery” under the West Elm name. Other than this video, this company doesn’t come up on Google at all, and is not referenced on WestElm.com.

And this rando vendor, they told me, will bill me whenever they deliver the product to West Elm’s warehouse. Which could be anywhere between now and April 12th. I don’t even know if the charge will come from West Elm or Mississippi Made Upholstery.

So, to recap, my credit card will suddenly get hit with a $2k+ charge sometime between now and APRIL, and I’ll have no warning or clue when this is likely to happen.

I don’t know about you guys but I find that completely unacceptable. When you click “order” on an e-commerce website, you expect that you’ll be charged immediately, not at some unknown point in time in the next three months. How could anyone plan their budget if they never know when a charge is expected to appear?

Also, as I wrote about recently, I’m currently in the middle of a round of minimum spending to earn the bonuses for my two new Southwest credit cards. We specifically timed the couch purchase to help us earn our Companion Pass status for 2017-2018. Now that the charge is delayed, who knows when we’ll reach our status for this year.

I asked if they could go ahead and charge me immediately, and they refused. I pointed out that this bizarre billing policy is not disclosed ANYWHERE on their website, and they apologized, but nothing more. And of course, since this is considered a “custom order,” there’s no way to cancel and receive a refund.

For me, this is a deal breaker. This will be the first and last order I ever plan to make at West Elm. Just thought you guys might like to know.

 

Trip Review: Our Weekend at the San Antonio Cocktail Conference

If the slight pounding in my head is any indication, then I’d say we had a very successful weekend visiting the San Antonio Cocktail Conference. This was our 3rd time attending the festival, and it always makes for a great little getaway with lots of fun festivities.

Of course, since San Antonio is just an hour and half or so from Austin, we didn’t need flights for this weekend trip, but we did need a hotel. Since my Hyatt Diamond elite status won’t expire until February (when Hyatt resets their status levels), I opted to take advantage of all the added perks, and booked a stay using points at the Grand Hyatt on the San Antonio Riverwalk.

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King Club-Level Room at the Grand Hyatt.

The Grand Hyatt is the newest Hyatt property in San Antonio, and, at least in my opinion, was a big upgrade from the Hyatt Regency, where we stayed on our anniversary trip last year. Our 2-night stay cost us 24,000 Hyatt points (of which, 2/3 came from work travel the hubby and I had completed this year, and the final 1/3 we transferred from the points horde we earned through the Chase Sapphire Reserve card). Given that this hotel averages about $300/night, that means we got an effective redemption rate of 2.5 cents per point — a good value — and saved ourselves $600.

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Bathroom in the Grand Hyatt. Pretty standard.

In addition, thanks to my Diamond status, we were upgraded from a standard room to one on the Club level, and got to enjoy the Grand Club throughout the stay. We enjoyed complimentary coffee and breakfast there each morning, as well as grabbing free bottles of water and pastries throughout our stay.

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Breakfast offerings from the Grand Club

The room itself was fairly standard, with a great bed; I often find Hyatt beds a little too soft for my liking, but these were very firm and we slept like babies each night. (Though, all the cocktails we were consuming probably helped too.)

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Fun cutouts at the Jim Beam “Kentucky Cantina” happy hour

After checking in, we went to pick up our Cocktail Conference wristbands, then headed over to a free event sponsored by Jim Beam at one of our favorite riverwalk restaurants, Rita’s on the River. There we had a few different cocktails made by the bartender of Austin cocktail bar Half Step, which is one of our favorite Austin bars.

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Appetziers at Rebelle

Once happy hour was finished, we headed over to Rebelle at the Hotel St. Anthony for dinner. Rebelle pretty much tops all the fine dining lists for San Antonio at the moment, and it was great, though we didn’t think it quite topped the great meal we had at Southerleigh during our last visit.

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The goat at Rebelle

 

To start, we shared appetizers of an Heirloom Tomato Salad and Grilled Texas Quail, followed by entrees of Roasted Muscovy Duck Breast and a Rosemary and Red Pepper Spiced Goat Shank. While all were tasty, the goat was by far the winner — it was rich, unctuous, and just fell apart in your mouth. Probably the best goat I’ve ever had, and I’m not one to shy away from cabrito!

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The duck at Rebelle

Knowing that the next day was going to be a start-to-finish booze fest, we opted to stay pretty low-key on Friday, and just took a leisurely stroll back to our hotel past the Alamo. (Photo at the top!) Along the way, we picked up a bottle of champagne and some chocolate truffles, and spent the rest of the night enjoying our hotel room. 🙂

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The next day, we headed over to another San Antonio restaurant I’d heard a lot of good buzz about, for lunch at the Cookhouse. I love me some Cajun food, so I was excited to try their po-boy laden lunch menu. Unfortunately, it was more hype than content. While the boudin balls we started with were promising, both the hubby’s muffaletta and my oyster-and-bacon po-boy left quite a bit to be desired. We wouldn’t really recommend it.

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Cajun lunch at the Cookhouse.

After that, it was time to get our drink on. The Tasting Suites, one of the signature events of every Cocktail Conference ran from noon – 4. The event consisted of hundreds of spirit purveyors distributing samples of their products across multiple hotel ballrooms and hotel suites at the Hotel Valencia.

We found a couple new varieties that we really enjoyed (above), and I also got to (strangely) take a picture with some monkeys. By the end of the event, despite only sampling a small sip of each variety, we were both very pleasantly sauced. We headed back to our hotel to re-hydrate and squeeze in a small nap before round two.

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One of them bit me. 

That night, the featured event was the Stroll on Houston Street, and took place at a variety of venues all up and down the downtown street. Unlike the Tasting Suites earlier, where we were primarily tasting the liquors themselves, neat, this event was all about cocktails. Throughout the venues, there were probably more than a hundred different cocktails on offer, and you could try as many different types as you wanted (or just find your favorite and keep coming back.)

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Entertainment at the various venues, tarting in the top right, going clockwise: a brass-funk band, projections and a swing band, fountains and fairy lights, and traditional Irish music.

Local restaurants also participated, serving everything from lobster bisque to street tacos at sampling stations along the way. And of course, there was plenty of entertainment too.  Great bands, flamenco dancers, traditional Irish music, and even a giant projection of Casablanca helped to define each venue along the way and make each space feel unique.

The best part of this event? The ticket was only $85. Can you believe that?!? The only somewhat comparable event in Austin is the now-defunct Le Dolce Vita, and tickets for that usually ran around $300/person. This San Antonio event was even bigger and better, and for less than 1/3 of the price. You can see why we like this conference so much! And even better still, proceeds from the event benefit San Antonio children’s charities. It’s a winner all around.

After many cocktails and some dancing, we stumbled back to our hotel at the end of night two. We attended one final event, a low-key brunch at the former Spanish Governor’s Mansion on Sunday morning before departing to come home. But all in all it was an absolutely wonderful little getaway, and a great way to kick-off our 2017 travels for the year.

Love what you read here about free travel? Now you can have it too!

Important announcement time!

As of this week, I’ve officially launched my own consulting business, Magnuson Consulting Group, LLC. Primarily, I’ll offer consulting in the areas of travel planning and a mile- and points- booking service, as well as some other areas. I even have packages developed for first time campers!

Why, you may ask? Well, because you all asked me to! As this blog has grown, I’ve begun getting more and more questions about miles and points booking, no longer just from friends and family, but oftentimes from complete strangers. And I love it!

I want to share the gift of travel, as well as my other talents, with as many people as possible. But that doesn’t mean I’ll stop sharing news and tips about travel hacking right here on Unintended Domesticity; it just means if you want assistance planning your own adventures, I’m at your service.

Take a look at my consulting website, and feel free to reach out via the contact page either here or there if you’d like to discuss a consulting project.

Happy Travels!

My Top 10 Pantry & Freezer Basics

A friend reached out to me recently with a blog request. She told me that she felt like she was “failing the pantry and freezer game.” She wants to cook more, but is quite busy. She thought perhaps if she had more things on hand in her pantry and freezer that she could just throw together in a pinch, she might be able to cut down on the amount of take-out and restaurant meals in her family’s schedule.

For me, this is exactly the reason to make a meal plan each week or month, like my recent 4-week low-carb meal plan. But even with the best planning, sometimes things fall through. In that situation, here are the items I keep on hand just in case I need a last-minute meal.

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Photo by Flickr user cookbookman17.
  1. Dry Pasta

At any given time in my house, I probably have lasagna noodles, spaghetti, penne, and elbow macaroni all on hand. Because I pretty much consider pasta the ultimate comfort food. And it’s so easy; boil it up and you have dinner in 10 minutes. Pair it with a jar of pasta sauce (or a frozen sauce you’ve previously made); pair it with olive oil, spices, and grated cheese; pair it with a nice creamy cheese sauce. Having pasta on hand means dinner is always nearly ready.

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Photo by Flickr user Thomas Ricker.
  1. Olive Oil

About 90% of the recipes I make start with olive oil. You can use it to saute proteins or veggies, you can combine it with vinegar or citrus to make a salad dressing or marinade, you can even bake with it. On the rare occasions when we’ve run out of olive oil, it’s essentially a full-grade emergency; a good quality EVOO is essential to any kitchen.

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Photo by Flickr user thebittenword.com.
  1. Canned or Frozen Tomatoes

Tomatoes have always been one of my favorite foods, again, because of the versatility. Since we grow tomatoes, when the fresh harvest gets too big for us to consume, I just throw the extras in the food processor for a quick dice, and then into the freezer they go. But even if you don’t garden, keeping a few cans of diced tomatoes, whole tomatoes, and/or Rotel on hand will never go amiss. You can add them to your dry pasta for a quick marinara, you can throw them in soups and chilis, they work in enchiladas and even Indian food.

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Photo by Flickr user Leibolmai.
  1. Frozen Peas

Peas are my go-t0 vegetable side dish, and one of the few veggies that the hubby will consistently eat without complaint. Even better is that I find frozen peas taste GREAT. Just as good as fresh, and even better than canned. Just yesterday, the hubby brought home steaks for dinner; I threw some frozen peas, salt, pepper, and butter in a pot and in under 3 minutes, I had a tasty side dish. You can also toss them in salads or pasta dishes.

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Photo by Flickr user The Meat Case.
  1. Chicken Broth

Having some broth on hand, either homemade or store-bought, enables you to make just about any slow-cooker recipe. It makes rice delicious, or creates the base of many a soup. Making more broth is actually my New Year’s Resolution; the first step is just throwing all the “leftover bits” of veggies and proteins into a freezer bag…once the bag is full, you throw it all in a pot of water and boil for a few hours. And by making your own stock, you don’t get all the added sugar and artificial colors and preservatives you find in commercial varieties.

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Photo by Flickr user Shari Chankhamma.
  1. Condensed Cream of Mushroom Soup

So gross, yet so comforting. When you open a can of this glop, you know a casserole is not far away. Add green beans, bacon, and fried onions — you’ve got green bean casserole. Chicken, a can of rotel, tortilla chips, and cheese — you’ve got King Ranch casserole. Shredded chicken, cut spaghetti, veggies, and cheese — you’ve got chicken spaghetti casserole. Beef roast and veggies in a slow cooker — you’ve got pot roast. Heck, you could even add water and just make actual soup out of it. Amazing.

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Photo by Flickr user Yamanaka Tamaki.
  1. Rice

Rice is like a blank canvas for whatever you put on top of it. Top it with some protein and a hearty sauce, and you’ve got a great filling meal. And btw – I don’t mean the 60-second microwave instant rice; just get a big ‘ol bag of white or brown rice. Yes, it takes a bit longer to cook, but it’s not particularly hard. You just boil it, then reduce the heat and let it steep in a covered dish until the water is absorbed. And it works in so many cuisines: Asian, Indian, Italian, Mexican, Cajun, etc.

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Photo by Flickr user The Food File
  1. Breadcrumbs

If you want to turn something into a ball-shape, or you want to stuff something, you’re gonna need some breadcrumbs. Case in point: meatloaf, crab cakes, stuffed mushroom, stuffed eggplant, etc. You can use it as breading to jazz up protein, or combine it with some butter and cheese to make fancy-pants gratin over your favorite pasta or vegetable dish. I always have breadcrumbs in my pantry.

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Photo by Flickr user poppet with a camera.
  1. Good mustard

By “good” mustard, I mean the whole-grain, dijon variety, not something that comes out of a bottle neon-yellow. Mustard is one of my favorite marinades, in fact, despite the fact that I don’t even actually like yellow mustard as a condiment. I use it in salad dressings, rub meat with it, finish sauteed veggies with it (works GREAT with brussel sprouts), include it in charcuterie plates, and even jazz up potatoes with it. The higher quality here, the better.

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Photo by Flickr user Serene Vannoy
  1. Frozen sauces

Finally, my freezer is always full of a variety of sauces. I’ve got marinara, bolognese, pesto, chimichurri, salsa verde, etc. Pretty much any sauce that doesn’t involve cream in it can be frozen. So whenever I make a nice sauce, I don’t just make enough for the dish I’m making; I triple or quadruple the recipe and then store the rest in freezer bags, lying them flat. Then, if I need a simple dinner, I just pop the sauce in the microwave to defrost, and combine it with a protein. It “fancies” up your meal quickly and without requiring any additional work for you.

My two newest credit cards: both Southwest Airlines Visas!

If one of your New Year’s Resolutions is to travel more, then it’s time to jump into action and earn yourself one of the best travel-hacking values on the market: the Southwest Companion Pass.

I’ve written a lot about the Southwest Companion Pass in the past, but here’s what you need to know:

  • You earn it by accruing 110,000 Southwest miles in one calendar year
  • Once earned, it’s good for the remaining portion of that year and the entire next calendar year. Meaning, passes earned in early 2017 will be good all the way through December 2018.
  • The pass allows you to to get a FREE “companion ticket” for your designated companion ANY TIME the pass holder has a ticket on Southwest. It doesn’t matter if the main pass holder’s ticket was a paid ticket or free miles ticket. If they have a ticket, the companion gets a ticket, so long as there is still space available on the place REGARDLESS of the current price of those tickets.
  • Points earned from Southwest credit card bonuses DO COUNT towards the points threshold.

That last point is the most important one. Because right now, and for a limited time only, both Southwest credit cards, the Premier and the Plus Visas, are currently offering 50,000 mile bonuses for spending $2,000 in the first three months of card ownership. That’s 10,000 – 20,000 points higher EACH than the offers they run at other points in the year.

If you were to get both cards (as we’ve just done) and complete the minimum spending for each bonus, that already puts you at 104,000 miles earned towards the 110,000 needed to get the pass. You can then pretty easily earn those last 6,000 miles either by spending on the credit cards, flying paid flights on Southwest, or taking advantage of items like their shopping portal.

And the best part? If you earn the pass in this way, you still get to keep the 104,000 points you earned along the way. As such, many of those first few flights for the pass holder can be absolutely FREE too, just like their companion’s.

Now, time for my common caveats: if you don’t have good credit, this may not be an option for you, as it’ll be hard for you to get approved for both cards. If you don’t regularly and consistently pay off your full credit balance each billing period, you shouldn’t be messing around with high interest-rate cards like this in the first place. And finally, if you don’t normally spend at least $2,000 in credit cards over three months time, then I generally don’t think it’s a good idea to “manufacture” spending just to earn the credit card bonus.

Finally, in the past year, we’ve seen Chase (the card issuer) institute a new rule about travel bonus-earning credit cards; they’ll only allow you to open 5 maximum in any 24-month period. So if you’ve opened a lot of other cards recently, this may not be an option for you, either.

But, if you’ve got good credit and it’s just a matter of switching your current spending to a new card? Then this is a fantastic deal that lets you essentially travel the country for free for two full years with very minimal effort.

Happy flying!

Make a Plan to Achieve Your New Year’s Resolutions & My 4-Week Meal Plan

It seems like there’s been a lot of haters discussing the topic of New Year’s Resolutions this year. “Just be healthier all year,” they say. “Don’t go on a diet, adopt a lifestyle change forever instead!”

And while they may have good intentions, I tend to think these platitudes overlook the difficulty in creating real and meaningful change in one’s life. The reality is that having a resolution and putting a plan in place to support that resolution is much more effective than just putting some amorphous, non-specific wish about “being healthy” out into the universe.

Why? Science. There’s a fantastic book out there by Pulitzer-winner Charles Duhigg called The Power of Habit. I’d highly recommend it if you are looking for a good read.

But assuming you haven’t read it, the premise is that if you can get something to become a habit in your life, instead of a one-off action, you’re much more likely to continue it long-term. Research generally shows it takes anywhere from 2 to 8 months to effectively establish a habit, depending on the difficultly of the action.

So you know that you’re going to have to continue with your resolution for at least 2 months to get it to stick. How can you ensure your success? The best way is by making a plan for how you’ll do it. Studies have show this is true across a wide variety of situations:

  • Businesses with a business plan are twice as successful as those without. (Source)
  • Having a plan for how and when you’ll vote increases voter turnout. (Source)
  • Forming a plan for when you’ll exercise increases the likelihood you will actually go do it by nearly 3x. (Source)
  • Including plan-making elements in health care reminders makes individuals more likely to get their yearly flu vaccine or colonoscopy. (Source)

If you’re going to stick with your resolution, then, the key isn’t simply changing your thinking to a long-term focus, it’s making a plan for how you’ll succeed.

We’ll be doing this around here; I’ve already got 4 weeks of low-carb meals all planned out for us. By having a plan, it’ll help me avoid the dreaded “Meh, let’s just order a pizza” cop-out, and help with grocery list making as well.  Here’s what we’ll be eating in January!

Day 1/2 1/3 1/4 1/5 1/6 1/7 1/8
Lunch “BLT” Omelettes Leftover Chili Leftover Lettuce Wraps Leftover Chili Charcuterie Lunch – no crackers (recipe) Tacos “in a bowl” (from a taqueria) Sausage and Egg Frittata “Muffins”
Dinner Texas Red Chili (recipe) Thai Peanut Sesame Chicken Lettuce Wraps (recipe) Pork, Spinach & Tomato Stuffed Eggplant Date Night: Greek Food

(I’ll get a big salad)

Steaks with Chimichurri Sauce (recipe) Broiled Fish Filets & Veggies (recipe) Fajita Salads (recipe)

 

Day 1/9 1/10 1/11 1/12 1/13 1/14 1/15
Lunch Leftover Fajita Salads Sausage and Egg Frittata “Muffins” Leftover Fajita Salads Tomato Basil Cream Soup Work Cafe Salad Bar Diner Brunch (Eggs & Meats) Smoked Salmon & Cheese
Dinner Portabella

“Pizzas” (similar recipe; different fillings)

Pan Roasted Chicken Breasts & Brussel Sprouts (inspired by) Date Night: Gastro- pub (I’ll get meat/ veggies) Southwest Ranch Chicken Breasts (recipe) Baked Sweet Potato Bar (similar recipe) Shrimp Boil (recipe) Slow Cooker Beef Stew (recipe)

 

Day 1/16 1/17 1/18 1/19 1/20 1/21 1/22
Lunch Leftover Beef Stew Leftover Chicken Skewers Leftover Beef Stew Leftover Chicken Enchiladas Leftover Lamb Salad Chorizo Egg & Cheese Breakfast Tacos Lunch Out: Kebab Salad
Dinner Harissa Grilled Chicken Skewers & Zucchini Verde Chicken Enchiladas w/ Corn Tortillas (recipe) Greek Salads with Lamb Burgers (inspired by) Date Night: Hawaiian

Poke Bowls

Spiced Pork Chops & Spinach (inspired by…) Chicken Caesar Salads Scallops in Pesto w/ Salad

 

Day 1/23 1/24 1/25 1/26 1/27 1/28 1/29
Lunch Black Bean, Corn, Chicken Salad Leftover Pork Stew Black Bean, Corn, Chicken Salad Leftover Lasagna Charcuterie Lunch Lunch at a Wing Bar Goat Cheese & Spinach Omelette
Dinner Green Chile Pork Stew (recipe) Ground Pork Lettuce Wraps (recipe) Zoodle Lasagna (similar recipe) Date Night: BBQ Spiced Pork Chops & Spinach (recipe) Red Curry Shrimp w/ Brown Rice (recipe) Chicken, Artichoke, and Tomatoes in foil packets (recipe)

Three Tips for Hosting a Standout Brunch at Home

We’ve just finished our 4th annual New Years Day brunch party, a great excuse for us to kick off the year surrounded by family and friends and of course, lots of festive beverages.

Over the years, we’ve perfected our brunch-hosting skills, and have come up with three main tips for hosting a brunch that’ll leave all your friends well-fed, and leave you as the host free to interact with them.

  1. Choose foods that work at room temperature. 

The best brunches last for hours. The one we hosted yesterday went from 10am to 3pm, and we had people here that whole time. Once your friends arrive, you don’t want to have to be spending your time continuously heating and re-heating food in the kitchen (nor worrying about serving dishes that need to kept cool…)

Our menu for the latest brunch did a nice job at this. We served:

  • Cut fruit
  • Three kinds of cheese and crackers
  • Cream cheese & pepper jelly
  • Tomato, shallot, basil salad
  • Smoked salmon with capers
  • Black-eyed peas (in both vegan and bacon varieties)
  • Coffee walnut monkey bread (I timed this to come out right after brunch began, so our early comers got it warm. It still worked once it cooled, though.)
  • Breakfast sausages (this was our only truly warm item. I made them in three batches throughout the brunch.)

As such, I was able to get just about everything ready in an hour or so before the food came out, and yet we had plenty of food for the entire brunch that everyone enjoyed.

  1. Set up a separate beverage station away from your food.

At any party, whether it’s a brunch or some other gathering, people just have a tendency to gather around where the food is. But especially if you’re dealing with a smaller dining space, you want to find ways to redirect the flow of traffic and create mini gathering areas at places away from the food.

At our brunch, we achieved this by placing a “make-your-own mimosa” bar with orange juice, cranberry juice, and St. Germain mixing options along side champagne flutes and an ice bucket of champagne in the living room.

This way, we had a good flow between the dining and living rooms all party, helping to ensure good conversation and mixing throughout the party.

  1. Label everything.

I have friends that are vegetarian. Vegan. Gluten-free. Paleo. Low-fat. Low-carb. Allergic to peanuts. Allergic to chocolate. All kinds of dietary restrictions going on.

To be considerate, and to help from having to answer 8 million food questions throughout your event, I recommend just making it easy on yourself and labeling everything from the get-go. Make a note for things that apply to the most common dietary restrictions like vegetarian and gluten-free.

Your friends will feel more able to enjoy what you’re serving, and you’ll be freed from ingredient interviews all party.