Posted in: Exploring Illiniois, Exploring Ohio, Food, Hiking, Hotel, Museums & Tours, Sightseeing

Exploring Chicago

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I have always wanted to try traveling by train. Something about it sets your imagination wild. Nick and I decided to take a trip to Chicago on Amtrak this summer. We had been to Indianapolis multiple time, but Nick had never been to Chicago and it was the next closest stop. The Saturday train was scheduled to depart at 1:41 AM. Sarah and Will dropped us off and we got to Union Terminal in Cincinnati, Ohio at 12:30AM. We checked in and Nick’s state ID came in handy. (An alternative could have been a school ID). The train’s arrival was delayed until 2:01AM, and then again to 2:16AM.

We finally boarded and were underway by 2:30AM. Our conductor assigned us our seats, which were towards the front of the train. It was a relief to be assigned rather than having to scramble and fight for a seat together. They were big seats (2x the size of an airplane) with many comfort adjustments (foot rest, leg extension and reclining). There seemed to be plenty of overhead room for carry-on items. The restrooms were in the back of each car.

Expert tip: Remember to bring your phone charger and longer cords. Each pair of seats has two 110V outlets. This is super convenient and way better than coach seats on planes.

Indianapolis was the only stop longer than 1 minute during our trip. We didn’t get off, but some smokers did to get their fix and stretch their legs.

The train started much slower than I expected (9-10 mph through city area) and gently rocked like a boat. As we got further out from the train station, the speed picked up to around 30 mph. The snoring of other sleeping passengers lingered in the air. If you really want to sleep well, ear plugs, eye masks and a pillow are mandatory equipment. It was fun to try to identify the various chemical plants as we passed by them in the city. I never realized how many existed in the Cincinnati area along the train line.

By 3:30 am Nick had calmed down and fallen asleep. He didn’t look comfortable, but even uncomfortable sleep was probably good for him.

We crossed a river near Hamilton, Ohio. It was fun to see the river from a different perspective. I can see why writers wrote on trains. It is a ‘romantic’ way to travel and the perspective change gives different insights. Something about going a little slower, the changing scenery and interacting with so many different people creates a spark of creativity.

Nick and I both managed to sleep a couple hours before it got light again around Indianapolis. The seat was rough on my knee somehow and left me feeling stiff, but rested well enough.

The track seemed bumpier after passing through Indianapolis. We moved at a quicker speed (up to 60 mph), so that likely played into it.

At 6:30AM we rope-dropped the Cafe car for breakfast. It was a reheated, unremarkable, bordering on gross breakfast sandwich that I ate completely. Despite the food, the cafe car was a different and nicer venue than our seats and we got to sit in a booth. The coffee was fine. Nick liked his bagel and hot chocolate. It was $13+$1 tip. I also grabbed a can of Diet Coke for an exorbitant $2.50. Expert tip: Bring your own food.

The bathrooms on Amtrak are kind of gross. They meet the minimum, but would get old over days of traveling. They use a vacuum assist flush and Nick said they seemed like RV toilets. I think he means that they are smaller seats. We were reminded by the conductor to make sure that we locked the door when we used it because he said, “there is always one that doesn’t on every trip.”

I am glad we chose a short trip to test things out on Amtrak. The price was certainly right since we got a Valentine’s Day BOGO, making the whole thing $84 for both of us. The fare was by far the cheapest part of the trip. With gas prices over $5/gallon, other than biking or walking, it seemed the cheapest way to go. Maybe the Megabus is competitive? I will have to check it out.

The train was 75%+ full in the coach sections. It was quite the eclectic mix of people with a large mix of all races, ages, ethnicities, and wealth.

The sleeper car people are at the back of the train and are really separated from the masses. They get the VIP treatment starting with the boarding processes, where they are taken out a separate way to the train. I would like to see what a sleeper room or roomette would feel like. Maybe next time.

It takes about 5 hours to drive from Cincinnati, OH to Chicago, IL. Flying is just 1.5 hours (+1 hour of airport security and chaos). We took from 12:30 AM to 10:00 AM terminal to terminal (9.5 hours) via train. All that to say, train travel via Amtrak is not fast. For Cincinnati users, the departure time is very inconvenient at 1:41AM.

After arriving via the Amtrak in Chicago, Nick and I had 3 hours to kill before going to the Skydeck in Willis Tower. We walked by Millennium Park (the Bean), Maggie Daly Park with an amazing “Play Garden,”and rode Centennial wheel at Navy Pier ($40).

After 2 hours of walking we were beat and Ubered back to Willis Tower from Navy Pier to catch our 1:00PM appointment.

Willis Tower (formerly Sears tower) was wonderful. My friend Bill sent us on a wild goose chase for Chicago dogs that he said were in the Willis Tower food court lobby. Not finding them and running out of time before our ticket time, Nick and I settled for a trail-mix that we had brought for emergencies. It had been awhile since breakfast, so we counted it as an emergency.

After our snack, we went to the Skydeck ($80). There was a nice Chicago fact museum and Instagram selfie studio prior to going in, where we grabbed several pictures. I got pictures with Michael Jordan and Oprah. Nick got pictures with the Obamas and Chicago food.

After capturing enough selfies, we ventured up 103 floors to the glass ledge where we “dangled” out past the building. It is a great hook and super fun. Nick, who doesn’t like heights, did great. We grabbed some pictures and some great footsies.

Having conquered the Himalayas of Chicago, we were ravenous and decided to go to Giordano’s. The restaurant was a block away, so we didn’t have far to go. We got the appetizer sampler, a Cobb salad, and a small stuffed deep dish Meat & More Meat pizza (each slice is 1,000 calories). The pizza was amazing!

Naomi was a great server and even helped us get pictures and video of our experience.

We left Giordano’s right at 3PM, which was the  first available time we could check in to the hotel, and headed to the hotel. The Central Loop Hotel was close to all the things we wanted to see and it was reasonably priced for a bedroom with two twin beds. We had no issues checking in and found ourselves exhausted in our room at 3:30 PM. We showered, changed, and promptly fell asleep with an alarm set for 7:30 PM and no specific plans for what we would do when it went off.


Posted in: Exploring Nevada, Hotel, School, Sightseeing, YouTube Video Link

Cabana and Pool Time, Mandalay Bay, Las Vegas

The boys and I still woke up early so that they could attend their “live” classes. We snacked on the donuts that we picked up yesterday from pinkbox. Everyone’s favorite was the DoughCro (a croissant/donut). Ben had taken a vacation day, so he finally got to sleep in.

Pretty good donuts. The pink one is funny, but it really is just a lot of icing piped on top of a regular donut with a glaze/shell over the whole thing.

Today was pool day! We were all excited to go swimming. The pool opened at 9:00 am and was operating at 50% capacity due to COVID restrictions. Once capacity was reached, there was a waiting line to get in. If you leave the pool area and it is at capacity, you would need to wait in the line to get back in. However, if you book a cabana, then you can come and go all day long. Masks were also required in the pool area unless in the pool, eating/drinking, or going directly into/out of the pool. There were staff members at exits with disposable masks for people as well. I did see a few stop people who were just walking around or sitting on chairs and give them masks to wear.

We had reserved a cabana for the day on the Mandalay Bay Beach lazy river. Ben had always wanted to try a cabana and it definitely helped with social distancing. The boys also still had school so it gave them a place to do their school work in the morning. Although we had prepaid, you still had to check into the cabana by 11:00am or give them a call to let them know you were going to be later. We packed up, checked out of the hotel room, and headed down to the pool area a little before 9:00. We brought the boys’ computers and the hotspot so they could continue with their classes.

We chose a cabana on the end to help with even more social distancing. The cabana had a loveseat, a table and two chairs, TV, towels, 2 inner tubes, a mini fridge with included Pepsi/Diet Pepsi/water/bucket of ice, 2 lounge chairs under an umbrella, and a safe. Food and beverage service was available for an extra charge.

Tipping and charges were a little different than what I was expecting. There was the cabana charge and the cabana host tipping option (they were the ones in the blue shirts). We didn’t really interact with them much. One person showed us to our cabana and another replaced the waters in the fridge towards the end of the day. The people in red were the food and beverage servers and were a separate charge and tip. We saw our server multiple times during the day, as she checked in on us quite frequently. She was very friendly. We ordered a frozen drink (Miami Vice 22 oz, souvenir plastic cup, $28) and an order of chips and guacamole ($11, way over priced for the amount we actually got). The drink was very tasty! The guacamole was good, a little spicy, but the chips seemed a little stale.

The main pool area had a walk up food/drink service as well, but it looked like the same menu.

There were a few restrooms around the different areas, but not specifically changing rooms that I could see. There was an outdoor shower area to rinse off the sand from the beach. The entry walkway also had a beach shop, but it had very limited gear. I had not not been paying attention when I packed my swimsuit and accidentally grabbed two bottoms. I stopped in the beach shop to see if they had any bathing suit tops. It only had tiny bikini tops and small one-piece suits, no larger swim tops/shirts. (Seriously, I tried on a top and there was no way I could swim and stay in it. I ended up just using my swim skirt bottoms with my bra and top.) Video: Walking Around The Mandalay Bay Beach pool area.

The lazy river was also operating at 50% capacity. When we got there in the morning, there wasn’t a line to get in, but towards the afternoon it got crowded and you did have to wait in line. There were times it was just a sea of people floating past us, so we took a dip in the Wave Pool to avoid any crowds. NOTE: You can also bring your own inner tubes for the lazy river as long as they are round, no rafts. There is a fill up station near the lazy river entrance. Video: Traveling Along The Mandalay Bay Beach Lazy River.

The lazy river was a decent temperature. It was a little cool when you first got in, but I quickly adjusted so it wasn’t bad at all. The Wave Pool was freezing. It would have been really funny to watch everyone’s faces as they got in the water, but I’m pretty sure I had the same “Holy Cow, this is cold” look on my face.

NOTE: The walkways are very slippery if they are wet or even just walking with wet feet! Go slow. The Wave Pool also goes off every 90 seconds, I believe.

Posted in: Exploring Nevada, Hotel, Sightseeing

Mandalay Bay Hotel, Las Vegas

We have been living in our 400 square foot RV since June. It’s been quite the adjustment from the much larger house we had and learning to live together in a small space has had its challenging days. Sometimes all you need is some space! During our stay in Las Vegas, Ben wanted to treat everyone and stay in a hotel for the night.

Prices for hotel rooms were pretty cheap when we were there. After checking to see what hotels were open and also had pools, we choose the Mandalay Bay because it had a lazy river. What can beat a lazy river?! I looked at the hotel’s website for booking, but found a cheaper rate online. The hotel claimed they matched third party pricing, so I called the hotel directly to book and they did match the other price. Yay!

You could check in online (I believe it was an app), or they had check-in available at the hotel front desk. We chose to check-in at the hotel. There was an EMT taking temperatures at the check-in line and masks were required.

You did need an active hotel keycard to access the guest floors from the elevator. I had gone to check-in while Ben parked the truck, so I waited until the boys came in to go up to the room. When we arrived outside our hotel room, I noticed a seal sticker on the door to show that it had been cleaned and not gone into again. There was also a little cover over the TV remote to show it had been cleaned as well.

Our room was a standard 2 queen room and was 550 square feet. It seemed so spacious! I guess if we didn’t have the kitchen area, the RV would too. 😂 The bathroom though…man…it was definitely one of my favorite parts. There was a walk-in shower and a separate bathtub. Guys, I took a shower without worrying about running out of hot water, someone flushing the toilet and having no water, or the grey tank getting full and backing up into the shower! It was amazing!

Our room overlooked the pool area, had two queen beds, a work desk and chair, and a small table with two chairs. There was a mini-fridge, but it was for pre-stocked items only. There were sensors, so if you moved something to put your own supplies in the fridge, you were charged a fee.

The desk had a complimentary kit that contained 2 reusable masks and a hand sanitizer. The letter with it also said it had a stylus, although ours did not. Ben did say it was the most comfortable mask he’s worn (other than his gaiter). I thought that was a really nice touch. Masks are required in Nevada and most casinos have the disposable masks available near the entries, but these were nice reusable ones.

We relaxed for a little bit in the room and then drove to Henderson to explore and grab some food. There were several food places open in the hotel (the buffet and a few of the nicer sit down places were closed), but we felt like going out. We grabbed some burgers for dinner and donuts for breakfast.

Coming back to the hotel, we had an easy relaxing night of reading and some TV.

The bed was nice, a little softer than I like but Ben loved it. The pillows were soft, although not as bad as feather pillows. It was so nice to have a real queen sized bed where our toes were not in danger of hanging off if we scooted down a little. (A regular queen mattress is 60×80, but the RV Short Queen is 60×75,) It was also really nice to not have the room move every time someone moved around in their bed!

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