Category Archives: Accommodations

Hostelling International: Is It Worth the Membership?

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This non-HI hostel was probably one of the worst values I’ve gotten from a hostel. But can a Hostelling International membership really make travel better?

This morning I decided to crunch some numbers and find out how many different hostels I’ve stayed at in my lifetime.

The answer?

Twenty two. And then I made a booking for my twenty-third hostel this morning.

Because I hear a lot about the benefits of a Hostelling International membership, I wondered how much money I could have saved in my past twenty-two hostel visits if I had the membership.

That answer?

Way less than twenty two.

Out of the twenty two hostels I have stayed at, only two of them were HI (Hostelling International) hostels. The hostel I booked today also happens to be HI. Hostelling International memberships cost $18, but can result in discounts on stays.  There are plenty of reasons I have chosen independent hostels over HI hostels most of the time:

-There are way more independent hostels than HI hostels. Hostels are rare in the United States and any rural area. HI tends to have hostels in most big cities, but even then they’ve let lots of cities slip through the cracks. My first hostel trip was to Nashville, and it seems like Hostelling International doesn’t even know that the entire South exists!

-Other hostels have been better located. Last year I was making a hostel reservation during my trip to Europe and thought I found a pretty good HI hostel in Florence. However, when I looked up more information on it, I realized the hostel was outside of the city! Since my goal was to explore the city on foot, this was not an option.

-Other hostels have been cheaper. Most HI hostels accept non-HI members, but add on an extra fee. Even without this added cost, I’ve found independent hostels in the same area that are a comparable price or possibly less expensive.

-HI hostels are not necessarily a quality guarantee. There are a few requirements for HI hostels to be part of this network. However, these are requirements that most travelers have come to expect from a hostel, so most hostels will offer the same features anyway. And if there’s any questions, the hostel website and review sites can give more than enough insight.

So why did I ever stay in HI hostels? Well, I shouldn’t be too hard on them. I enjoyed the time I stayed in both of them:

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HI Chicago Reception

HI Chicago

The main reason I stayed one night at HI Chicago was because it was the closest hostel to the bus station that had availability during the busy Labor Day weekend! Since I was moving at the time, I had a lot of luggage to drag with me, so walking to my hostel was not an option, and I didn’t want to spend too much on cab fare. This is actually a very centrally located place to stay, and the jumbo-size hostel had some nice amenities. Since I only stayed one night, the extra charge didn’t set me back too much, and definitely not enough to justify buying a membership.

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Exterior of HI Sacramento

HI Sacramento

The main reason I stayed one night at HI Sacramento is because it really is the only hostel in California’s capital! I reserved a private room since I was using this as an opportunity to introduce my mom to hostelling. Our room was probably around the same price as a cheap motel in the same city, but we did have some features here that we may of not otherwise been able to enjoy- such as free breakfast or staying in a historic mansion! The parking fee plus the non-member fee did add to the cost, but again, staying only one night was not enough the justify the cost of being a member.

Why I’m Staying in an HI Hostel on my Upcoming Trip

I reserved a HI hostel because it was the only hostel in the city that provided parking, which is incredibly important for a road trip! It was also in a good part of town, unlike others that may have been cheaper (or not). And because it’s located on a National Park Site, they state that they aren’t allowed to charge an extra fee to non-members. So even though I’m staying more than one night, an HI membership wouldn’t even save me a penny!

I’m not against Hostelling International, and it’s possible that I may even get a membership one day if it ends up being worthwhile. But for now, I’ll enjoy being an independent traveler staying at hostels independently!

Is It Worth It-

Do you think an HI membership would be worth the cost? Have you ever been an HI member?

Essential Things to Consider Before Buying an RV

Since I’ve been considering RV living for quite some time, (it’s even on my bucket list!), I think this information will help both people like me and those interested in using a recreational vehicle for… well, recreation!

Traveling in an RV has to be one of the best ways to see the US, as well as the rest of the world. It appeals to a lot of people who want the freedom of camping but with a bit more comfort. An RV gives you transportation and accommodation all in one, so you don’t have to worry about booking hotels or even finding restaurants. You can plan your trip by choosing the places you want to stop, never having to see the same place twice. However, it’s not for everyone, and you shouldn’t jump straight into buying an RV. Before you make a decision, consider these important factors.

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Will You Enjoy the Drive?

Before you go ahead and buy an RV, you have to decide if it’s right for you. Some people enjoy the journey while they’re traveling, but others want to get from A to B as soon as possible. If you don’t like taking your time to move from place to place, you probably won’t like traveling in an RV. And if you don’t enjoy driving, it’s probably not a good idea to get behind the wheel of one. If you’re not sure whether you would like it or not, there’s one simple solution. You should start by hiring an RV so you can test it out. You can try the lifestyle of living on the road and stopping at various locations. You might discover that you love it, or it could leave you feeling disappointed. You won’t know until you try.

Who Is Coming Along for the Ride?

It’s essential to consider who is going to travel with you in your RV. Some people travel alone with a small trailer and enjoy their own company. Others go as a couple, particularly retired couples who love having adventures together. You can also travel as a family, with the kids, dog, and maybe even the cat in the back. It’s important to think about who’s coming with you because you’re going to be stuck with them. Although you can go and do your own things when you stop, it’s difficult to get away from each other when you’re driving. You need to think about how much space you need, as well as what facilities matter to you.

Are You Interested in Long or Short Trips?

An RV can take you almost anywhere, from the next town over to all the way across the country. If you rent an RV, you can drive one anywhere in the world. You should think about whether you’re interested in going on long or short trips in an RV. Of course, if you’re planning on long ones, you might enjoy shorter trips in between your epic journeys. It’s important to think about this because it could influence the type of RV you buy or rent. A smaller one with fewer features might not be suitable for people who want to go on longer trips.

Size and Budget

It probably won’t surprise you that the size of an RV affects its price. The bigger you’re looking at, the more expensive it’s going to cost. You have to consider how much you’re willing to spend, how much space you need, and how long your RV will last. There are several types of motor home you can look at. At the top of the scale, you’ll find huge Class A motor homes, which many people will only dream of owning. They can cost as much as a house, and with good reason. They can have several slide-out sections to maximize spaces and lots of amenities. Some even have space for a car inside them.

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If your budget is more modest, you’re more likely to look at travel trailers and fifth wheels. These hitch onto trucks and SUVs to make transporting your RV easy. You could even get a pop-up trailer, which is lighter and more compact. Another option to consider is sport utility RVs, which are sometimes called toy haulers. They have space in the rear where you can fit a motorcycle, canoe, or even a small boat. If you’re on a tight budget, you might even consider a truck camper. It goes in the bed of your truck to give you features such as a kitchen, shower, and bedroom. However, it’s much cheaper than a motorhome.

Maintaining an RV

It’s essential to remember that owning a motorhome isn’t just a one-time investment. They need to be cared for, which also costs money. If you think that keeping your car maintained is expensive, you could be in for a shock if something is wrong with your RV. Luckily, just like with your car, you can learn to take care of your RV on your own. You don’t necessarily need a mechanic to help you out. Using sites like http://www.stlrv.net/st-louis-rv-parts-for-sale, you can buy any parts you need. You can save a lot of money by doing the work yourself. Finding someone to fix your RV can be difficult because they need to have space for it. If you do want a professional to repair it, look for somewhere that specializes in motorhomes.

Other Running Costs

Maintenance of your RV isn’t the only expense you need to be concerned about. You need to consider other costs too. Go to http://www.kiplinger.com/article/retirement/ to see some of the extra costs involved. For example, there’s the price of fuel. How many miles per gallon are you going to get from your motorhome? You also need to think about where to park your RV when you’re not driving it. There are lots of homeowner’s associations and the like which do not allow you to park a motorhome. You can find a specialist place to keep it, but you will have to pay a monthly fee. Then there’s insurance, which will cost you more if you have a larger RV. Plus, you might want to stay connected while you’re on the road. You could be paying for things like satellite or wireless internet so you can make phone calls and watch TV.

There’s a lot to think about before you start traveling in an RV. It’s not all about the travel itself, and it’s important to keep finances in mind.

Traveling Can Be Green, Too!

Happy Earth Day! Most of what I write here is creative ways to travel that will save you green. But in honor of today’s holiday, I’m going to shift gears a bit and talk about another way to save the green.

Many environmentalists frown upon travel as it causes greenhouse gases and a bigger carbon footprint. True, carbon costs associated with travel can be astronomical, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be cleaned up and greened up. Since Earth Day is celebrated each year on April 22nd, here are 22 ways you can make your travel more green!

(Bonus: In addition to saving the green for the environment, many of these will save the green in your wallet, too!)

Green Accommodation

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Share your campsite to make an even lower impact!
  1. Stay in Hostels Staying in a hostel dorm with others requires less square footage and encourages community. Hostels also often tend to buy in bulk and cut out worthless amenities, so you won’t create excess waste with miniature shampoos.
  2. Go Camping Get in touch with nature, and then be encouraged to preserve it! Any kind of camping is probably helpful for the environment, but you can take it a step futher with primitive camping, where you won’t have electricity hookups, WiFi, or possibly even flushing toilets!
  3. Stay with Friends Instead of creating a demand for a temporary place to sleep, go somewhere that’s already being lived in. Your friends will probably equip you with the same shower, dishes, and bedding they always use instead of providing disposible or temporary supplies like a hotel does.
  4. Don’t Request Sheet Changes Unless Absolutely Needed In your own home, you probably realize that washing sheets from just one bed is enough to load an entire washer and dryer. Save the water, soap, gas, and electricity by skipping sheet changes. You don’t replace your sheets at home every day, do you?

Green Packing

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Unless you need a Delorean because you’re going on a time-travel vacation, don’t pack enough to fill a truck.
  1. Bring Your Own Toiletries in Reusable Containers I’ve shared some of my favorite travel toiletry containers here before. Whether you use my recommendations or not, siphoning toiletries from bulk containers into smaller, reusable containers is much better than purchasing one-time bottles from the travel section of superstores.
  2. Lighten the Load with Carry-On Only No matter which mode you travel with, you’ll always save fuel if you take a lighter load. I backpacked the Mediterranean for 92 days with just a carry-on! I think going on a weeklong vacation with only a carry-on is a piece of cake.
  3. Borrow or Buy Used Travel Gear There are some items that may be necessary while traveling, but useless in everyday life. If you absolutely cannot go without it, ask your friends, family, and social media followers if you can borrow their tent, or ice chest, or lawn chair, or… you get the picture.
  4. Do Laundry Effectively If you need to do laundry on your trip at all, first see if there is anything you can wear more than once between washes. Bring your own eco-friendly soap instead of the single-serve packets found at the laundromat, and try to line-dry your laundry, even if you have to do so indoors.

Green Transportation

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You could travel by boat for a really fuel-efficient getaway. But if going by raft, you may get wet!
  1. Carpool If someone else is available to travel with you, going in one car instead of two will cut your emissions in half. Better yet, if you’re both licensed drivers, split the driving time to help keep alert and avoid accidents.
  2. Take the Bus or Train I love both of these options! You get to see so much more of the country, and reap the benefits of extremely low passenger miles per gallon! Trains are often a vacation in themselves, and long-distance buses make travel available to all income levels!
  3. Walk or Bike Everywhere at Your Destination Make a point to do this everywhere you go, even if it means staying closer to the city center. I can’t imagine all that I would have missed out on if I took cars or city transportation everywhere I’ve been.
  4. Don’t Fly First Class I’ve flown first class one time, and it was WAY overrated. Flying in coach means that the seating allows for more passengers to fly (and thus cuts down on emissions per person), plus lowers the waste of beverage cups and snack wrappers.

Green Eating

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My take-away container was already full when I bought these in Paris. But I could recycle the cardboard and bag!
  1. Pick Restaurants that Serve Local Food You’ll get a better sense of the local cuisine and prevent excess trucking and shipping of food.
  2. Become a Vacation Vegetarian I’m not saying you have to give up meat. (Not everyone can!) But try to select veg options in your travels. Besides the environmental advantages, vegetarian options often cost less, and you will be less exposed to those icky stomach bugs that travelers fear.
  3. Bring Washable Dishes or Stay Somewhere that Offers Them It’s not that time-consuming to wash your dishes after eating instead of throwing them away.
  4. BYOB (Bring Your Own Bottle!) Vacations tend to make me thirsty! Instead of buying drinks everyday, I’m saving my wallet, my waistline, and the Earth with a reusable bottle.

Green Entertainment

Love Locks Paris
See those love locks at practically every major attraction? Skipping this activity will reduce the waste of the lock and packaging, reduce the pollution caused when the key is tossed into the water, and reduce the repairs needed on the structures that are getting vandalized and weighed down!
  1. Recycle Ticket Stubs (or Use an eTicket) These are usually recyclable, but rarely do people think to recycle them!
  2. Visit Local Parks Fresh air, green plants, and a free place to explore the local culture. What’s not to love?
  3. Borrow Books or DVDs for Downtime Sure, you could buy a paperback for those times you need to relax. But many hostels, and now even some hotels, offer lending libraries or book/movie exchanges. Reduce the demand for new materials, and lighten the weight of that carry-on you brought!
  4. Visit Ethical Attractions What you define as “ethical” is ultimately up for you to decide, but consider how workers are treated, how animals are used, how waste is disposed of, and how guests can contribute to the community.

Green Shopping

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Arnold Schwarzenegger bought this bear statue as a souvenir of his time as governor, but then left it at the California State Capitol! I guess he couldn’t even fit it into his suitcase.
  1. Avoid It Why do you need a tacky souvenir (that’s probably not even made at your destination), when there are more effective, and more eco-friendly, ways to capture your memories? One of my favorite mementos are my travel journals. Photos are another great option, or if you absolutely want to buy something, send yourself a postcard or letter from your destination.

What I’ve Learned in Reviewing European Hostels

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As I’ve been traveling about Europe, I’ve learned so many things! Since I’ve stayed in four different hostels so far, this type of accommodation is one of the things I’ve been educated on! I stay in North American hostels when I can, but since hostels are much more common in Europe, especially in big tourist cities, they compete by having a particular “edge”. For some, their edge is a rock-bottom rate. For others, it’s being in a great location. Still others boast a social environment, high standards of cleanliness, or comfort. While the hostels often master several of these traits, I don’t think it’s possible to master them all. There have to be trade offs. Having a party atmosphere sacrifices offering a quiet place to relax. Being up-to-date means losing the building’s historical value. When traveling in Europe, it’s important to know what aspects you’re looking for in a hostel and what offers don’t really matter. For me, I find it necessary to be a good price, walking distance to most attractions, WiFi connected, and female-only dorm options. Room security, regular cleaning, and breakfast are somewhat important, but I can make due if they’re not up to snuff. Social atmosphere and handicap accessibility are not taken into consideration at all when I select a

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Of course, your priorities are probably different than mine. If you are a man in a wheelchair, you probably don’t care about female-only dorms, but handicap accessibility is a must! Because we all differ in what matters most, my goal in reviewing European hostels is to pinpoint what each hostel is best at, while also bringing to light the things that aren’t exactly their “edge”. My first review about BVJ Champs-Elysees Monceau in Paris has been published. You’ll see that they rock when it comes to breakfast and location, but you’ll also notice some sacrifices they had to make.
Click here to read my review of my Parisian hostel on Hostelz.

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com!

No Spanish Allowed at Pueblo Inglés

There is a place in Spain that offers a nice break from large cities like Madrid and whisks you away to forest-covered hills and mountain views. Here you can enjoy three-course meals, pool facilities, and a retreat to a villa. Best of all, you can get this for free.
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The catch? At this Spanish location, no Spanish is allowed!

This shouldn’t be much of a problem for native English speakers, but each of these people, referred to as an “Anglo”, will have to spend all day talking with native Spanish speakers who want to improve their English. The English-only rule is a bit more difficult for the Spaniards!
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In order to expose the Spaniards enrolled in the program to different accents and expressions, the program, called Pueblo Inglés, recruits Anglo volunteers from places like England, Wales, Ireland, Australia, and Canada. I was one of the volunteers representing the United States in a recent program. Volunteering does require putting in long hours of sometimes difficult conversation. Most of my day consisted of talking one-to one, having group discussions and partipating in activities that somehow helped practice English. But in return, I received transportation from Madrid to a scenic resort, three-course meals and a stay in a villa all for free!
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Of course the Spaniards do have to pay for this language learning experience, but it is an incredibly effective program as it is an intensive eight days of speaking nothing but English. I saw many people who started the program having difficulty understanding me even when I was speaking slowly, but towards the end of the week we were chatting like I would with someone from home.

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Over the course of the week, Anglos and Spaniards do everything together. At meals, each four-person table had two Spaniards and two Anglos. Group activities included discussions, icebreakers, parties, and even a tour of the nearby town La Alberca. Now THAT is an experience I must tell you about!
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Most of us chose to walk from our hotel to the town through a backroad. On the way, our master of ceremonies told us about the La Alberca black pig. This area is famous for their ham, and one way they promote it is by having the community raise a pig each year that roams around town. We were warned that the pig isn’t always in an easy-to-find area, but at that point I was praying for a special experience of finding the pig! And boy, was that prayer answered!

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After looking at few of the notable La Alberca sights, our group sat on the cathedral steps a block away from the town square while we listened to the beginning of a story of an earthquake in the town. Suddenly, someone sitting in the back began shouting. Among other choice words, he notified us that there was a pig climbing up another set of steps. Of course, the story had to be paused while we all attempted to take a selfie with the famous pig. But after a few minutes of trying to get the pig to smile, out MC convinced us to sit down again as the pig started to wander away from the excitement.
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Little did we know, once we were settled down, the pig wanted to cause some chaos. She wandered up behind us. Then, she decided to root for food right where I was sitting! I never expected to get that personal with a pig! But it only got worse. Since she couldn’t find any food underneath me, she did a taste test of me! She bit the closest part of my body she could find. Since I was trying to stay seated on the step and not interrupt the entire group, there was one particular body part right next to her face. At this point, there was no way that the group wouldn’t be disrupted as everyone was already pointing and laughing and getting out their cameras. The pig continued to make her way through the group, sampling the bags and shoes she came across. Our MC finally hollered, “Forget about the earthquake story; let’s move this way and leave the pig!” The rest of the tour finished the way a normal walking tour typically does. When we had some free time after that, I busied myself exploring the cobblestone back roads, but from a distance I spied the pig, who had found new victims to harass. To continue our time in town, we were treated to a wine, cheese, and meat sampling where we learned the secret way to cut the perfect slice of ham straight from the leg. I dont normally eat pork, but since the pig tried eating me, I sought my revenge by eating a tiny bit of pig.
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I just finished my last day of Pueblo Inglés, and it was surprisingly hard to say goodbye. I had come to teach the Spaniards English, but they taught me even more about the world and life in general. The week had a feeling akin to an adult summer camp, so along with that came the kindling of new friendships that I believe will last a long time. I hope to see many of them again, either by traveling to their home country or by inviting them into my home. And I may have to attend another program in the future!
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Spending a week volunteering (or possibly enrolling in) Pueblo Inglés may be one of the most meaningful and most fun things you can do in Spain. Just make sure to keep a safe distance from that pig’s snout!

How I Spent Ten Days in Paris (and How I Did It On a Budget!)

It´s time to announce my first stop of my Mediterranean Adventure! I don´t know if you can actually count Paris as Mediterranean, but it has been a place that I´ve always wanted to visit! Here are a few things I did, and also how they didn´t cost me an arm and a leg!

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I Stayed in a Hostel I chose to stay at the BVJ Champs-Elysees Monceau because it was the closest hostel to most of the attractions I wanted to visit. Plus, it was one of the few Parisian hostels that offered free breakfast! Sure, this hostel had its downsides. It was once the mansion of famous Parisian painter Henry Gervais, which was super cool, but the downside of that was that since this historic high-ceiling mansion couldn´t undergo too much remodeling, everything echoed at all hours of day and night. But I think the good definitely outweighed the bad as they offered free detailed city maps, free big breakfasts, free WiFi, and plenty of opportunities to meet other travelers!

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I Climbed the Eiffel Tower I saved hours of time with this by choosing to climb- yes, actually climb- the Eiffel Tower instead of taking the elevator up. The two elevator lines stretched across the entire base at all hours of the day, but the lines for the stairs were virtually non-existent. Not only is this a great way to save time, but it saves money, too. A ticket for the stairs is 5 euros, but after convincing the ticket salesman that I was indeed under 25, I got in for just four. You see the same sights anyway, which are incredible! Plus you sound pretty cool for saying you actually walked up all those steps! The stairs ticket allows you to the first and second levels, but you have to take an elevator to the top level. I chose not to do this. For one, the line to buy this ticket was incredibly long, but also because Paris is so flat, you don´t get to see much more from up there.

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I Smiled at Mona Lisa and Waved at Venus de Milo The Louvre is huge! I spent the first several hours inside the museum simply wandering from room to room and marveling at all I found. But of course, there is one thing that most people come to the Louvre to see. Everyone wants to see Mona Lisa smile! It is totally worth seeing and snapping a selfie with, but beware: it involves waiting in a crowd of hundreds and you really have to push if you ever want to get to the front, where Mona Lisa is several feet away and protected by thick bulletproof glass. By the time the security guard forces you to leave, you are really sweaty, but it´s probably not just your sweat! I am totally glad that I saw her, but I´m okay with never going through that ordeal again!

The other art on my must-see list was the Venus de Milo. There is also a pretty big crowd around this one, but because it is a sculpture, you can see it from all angles. You can also get much closer to her! When I didn´t feel like being in a crowded room, there were plenty of places around the museum where I was the only one around. Eventually, the Louvre outlasted me, and I left much of the museum unseen. So I may go back there someday, but I´ll pass on the Mona Lisa!

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I Saw Vincent Van Gogh and Other Art While the Louvre is great, I preferred the Musee d´Orsay simply because it was less overwhelming. I still got tired at this museum, but this place actually had napping couches! I don´t know if they were intended for napping, but the unique octopus-like couches on the top floor opposite the clock had one-person seats that made you practically lay down, and I was not the only one who took a quick snooze there! But seriously, the art is great. There is a small Statue of Liberty made by the same person as the original, and a self portrait of Vincent Van Gogh!

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I Took a Sewer Tour Yes, it smelled. But this was probably the most unique attraction I visited! Paris has a very old sewer and water system, and it´s amazing that it was created progressive enough to hold up all these years. Plus, I´m really thankful that Paris has this so that the Seine is no longer full of waste!

I should mention how I could afford all these museums and attractions. I actually did not pay an admission fee for anything in the city other than the Eiffel Tower! The rest was covered by my Paris Museum Pass. I picked up a four-day pass for €55 at the airport´s visitor center. They also sell passes for two or six days, but I found four days to be the perfect amount. I got to do everything on my must-see list, plus I had a little time to discover little-known features, such as the sewer! As a bonus, the pass allows you to skip the line at most attractions, especially beneficial for long lines at popular places like the Louvre!

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I Hung Out at the Arc de Triomphe I think the best views of Paris are not found from the Eiffel Tower, but rather from the top of the Arc de Triomphe. The Arc is situated in the center of the largest roundabout you´ve ever seen! But I didn´t have to worry about crossing this nearly lawless route. There is an underground tunnel at the end of the Champs Elysees that goes under all that traffic and ends up at the base of the Arc de Triomphe. It´s free to stroll around the base or admire the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. You can buy a ticket to take the long spiral staircase to the top, or just wave the Museum Pass and get in for no extra cost.

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I Strolled the Champs-Elysees (and learned how to pronounce it!) This could be an expensive endeavor if you don´t do it right. I did spend a little money at two different places. The first shop I bought from was McDonald´s, of all things! But this McDonald´s has a special McCafe where you can get what I think are the best macarons in Paris. I know this because I also bought a raspberry macaron from Laduree and did a comparison.

Besides sampling the local cuisine, my favorite thing to do on the Champs Elysees was visit the multiple auto showrooms. Even if you aren´t that interested in cars, these places are a sight to see. One showroom had movie cars from Jurassic World. Another had an attraction that gave you the illusion that you were standing on the ledge of a skyscraper! A couple of them offered free photo booths. Other favorite places to window shop at included Sephora, A&F, and The Disney Store. As long as you´re just marveling at the size of the store and not picking up items to buy, the Champs Elysees can be an inexpensive experience!

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I Took Two Guided Tours Using a walking tour company called DiscoveryWalks, I had the opportunity to explore the Notre Dame and Montmarte regions very in-depth. The local tour guides will tell you secrets and show you places you won´t find in any guidebook! They also give you practical tips, like where to fill up your water bottle for free. (The green fountains aren´t just for decoration!) The DiscoveryWalks tours I chose were tip-based. After how wonderful both guides were, I wished I had brought more money in my daypack to tip with! The only thing that these guides (both male) weren´t good at was rocking the company´s pink vest. They both expressed how awful the color was and took it off as soon as the tour begin. Maybe sometime down the road, DiscoveryWalks can adopt a more masculine color!

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I Saw Notre Dame from Top to Bottom Most people want to visit the top of the Notre Dame because they know Quasimodo had great views. Some people go inside the free cathedral. Even fewer explore the depths below that show the remains of an ancient city. I actually didn´t know that crypt existed until I saw it listed on my Paris Museum Pass! I did have to wait in line for about an hour to get inside the stairwell that goes to the bell tower. I think it was worth seeing the bells up close, and getting a completely different view of the city. But I think my favorite part was going inside the actual cathedral. It looks like a long line to get inside, but it moves quickly. Inside you´ll find lots of art and relics, most of which you can photograph! And for those of you who have watched the Disney cartoon, I do have to tell you this: as I was walking off the island that Notre Dame is situated on for the last time, I realized that I had completely missed my opportunity to yell “SANCTUARY!” So if any of you go there, will you do me a favor and shout that for me?

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I Visited Other Historic Cathedrals, Too I probably could have spent my entire time in Paris just cathedral hopping! Actually, I´ll probably visit lots of cathedrals throughout Europe if they´re half as good as the ones in Paris. As wonderful as the inside of Notre Dame was, it wasn´t nearly as exquisite of that of Sacre Couer. I also attended mass twice in Paris, once at Notre Dame, and once at a little historic cathedral on the same hill as Sacre Couer whose name escapes me. I´m not Catholic, and I don´t speak French, so I was pretty lost during both French-speaking Catholic masses, but the people there are very welcoming of everyone. It´s also easy to take a hint from everyone around you if you sit in the middle or the back of the sanctuary and just stand, sit, or kneel when everyone else does. You could try to sing or respond with everyone else if you´re ambitious. Even when I had the words in front of me, I usually ended up just moving my lips.

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I Relaxed Like a Parisian at the Parcs There are so many parcs in Paris! Of course, the most popular ones among travelers are those surrounding the Eiffel Tower. But after getting tired of being asked to sign fake petitions there, I went out and explored the other parcs. In these parcs, you´ll see the locals getting together and lingering over a picnic. At one parc, I sat down to eat a crepe nearby a group of young Parisians. After I finished, I walked around the Sacre Couer, walked down to Moulin Rouge, met up with a DiscoverWalks group, toured with them for nearly two hours, and ended up at the same parc I had eaten lunch at. Guess what? That same group of Parisians was STILL THERE enjoying lunch!

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I Ate a Lot of Crepes Other foods consumed included quiche, baguettes, and croissants, but my favorite was definitely crepes. There are street vendors all over Paris who sell these wonderful creations, and they can be eaten for snack, dessert, or even a meal! My favorite spread on the crepes was Nutella, but the cheese was also delicious. I tried to buy crepes from vendors who would pour out crepe batter and cook the crepe right in front of me. There was just something more authentic to that than eating the mass-produced packaged crepes.

I ate a crepe on most days, but there were also a few times when I went grocery shopping. That was an experience in itself! My favorite store ended up being a chain called Monoprix. They bake their bread and pastries right there in the store. If you buy a food that needs to be heated, you can even use their microwave! I mostly just bought Nutella and produce.

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I Went to Disneyland Paris It´s the most magical place on Earth! Well, it is in Europe at least. After going to all the Disney parks in the United States (save for California Adventure), I wanted to live as a Disney fan in another country. Disneyland Paris consists of two parks: the classic Disneyland, and Walt Disney Studios, which is most like the Hollywood Studios park in Florida.

You may be wondering how Disneyland  could possibly fit into budget Paris. A day at Disneyland Paris is actually cheaper than a day at the original Disneyland. I wanted to get a Disneyland Paris Express ticket. Not only does this include entrance into both parks, but also offers bussing to and from several locations in Paris. If you live in the USA, you can buy one of these tickets online for $135. But when I went on the French version of their website, I noticed that they sold this same ticket for €99. That´s a lot cheaper! In order to get the lower price, I used the French version (translated into English, of course) and entered my hostel information when it asked for an address. You print the ticket from your e-mail anyway, so it doesn´t really matter what you enter for the address. After I bought this, I didn´t buy anything else from Disneyland. I brought my own snacks to sustain me, and I even got a free souvenir by asking at Guest Relations!

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I Took the Plane, Bus, and Subway I didn´t take the subway until my very last day, when I had very few other options to get to the bus station. I was a little nervous since it was my first time riding any subway. I was confused when buying the ticket and had to get some help, but after that, it was almost as if I´d been riding the metro for years! It´s only €1.80 for most of Paris. Places outside of the city limits, like the airport and Disneyland, do cost more. To save money coming into Paris from CDG, I found a bus service called EasyBus, which is the absolute cheapest way to get from the airport into Paris! I also took the Disneyland Paris Express bus to get to and from Disneyland. But other than that, I did everything on foot. Yes, it was exhausting, especially considering Paris´ unexpected heat wave. However, this way I was able to experience so much more of Paris that most tourists miss! It saved a few Euros to boot!

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I Saw the Last Leg of Le Tour de France! When I found out when Le Tour ended, I decided to stretch my time in Paris just so I could catch it.I was curious what the best place to watch it from was. I even asked on traveler forums, and most people responded with snotty things like “just watch it on TV” or “the best place to see it from is inside your hotel room”. NO! It was absolutely amazing to see it from nearby the Arc de Triomphe. It was amazing just in itself to see that roundabout free from traffic! But seeing a bunch of guys bike around the Arc several times is not all that there is to do. Before the final stretch begins, there is a women´s version of Le Tour de France, which is just as exciting to watch. Between races, there is a sponsor parade with some pretty crazy vehicles! And during Le Tour, when you can´t see the cyclists in person, there are several screens situated around that stream the race live. However, I think my favorite part was going through the street fair. Companies were giving away delicious samples like crepes, oysters, fruit, breads, and Paris Cola. I shouldn´t have even bothered to pack a lunch!

Just so you know, I was not sponsored or comped for anything I did in Paris. I had to fund all my time in Paris completely on my own. If I can conquer Paris on a budget, I know that you can, too!

My Review of Hostelling International Sacramento

Remember last month when my mom and I road tripped through California? On our first night of the journey we stayed at a hostel in Sacramento.

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I am happy to announce that Hostelz.com has published my article about HI-Sacramento. Click here to read my insider information! A unique feature about this website is that it takes information from all over the web. That means you’ll be able to read more reviews from travelers, and you’ll also compare prices from different websites, making sure that you get the best deal. I have been a staff writer for Hostelz for a few years now, and I am especially looking forward to writing for them as I encounter even more hostels in Europe!

Question for Travelers: What websites do you like to use to book hostels and other lodging?

Question for Accommodation Owners: What makes your lodging stand out? Would you like me to come to YOUR place of business?

Note: Hostelz.com does not pay for advertising on this site. However, if you use the links above to book your next hostel stay, I will receive a portion of the reservation fee at no extra cost to you. Thank you for your support!

The Tri-State Journey

Here it is: the last part of my recent road trip! It started by going through Northern California, then to Twentynine Palms, and then small attractions around Southern California. (Click on the links to catch up.) To really capture the road trip style, we chose not to take the I-5 back home and instead explored some cities I had never been to before.

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For our first night, we stayed at Mammoth Lakes. Mammoth Lakes is a ski and summer resort type of town, and we just so happened to hit it between seasons. So while we were too late to be snowed in (and I was very thankful that the only snow seen was just a little bit high in the mountains), the summer activities weren’t in full swing yet. But we still found plenty of things to do- drive through the National Forests, see a few of the lakes, and of course, eating. Our no-frills Travelodge surprised us with cookies in the afternoon and round-the-clock free beverages in addition to the included breakfast. That was great, but we still needed dinner. We chose to share a plate of nachos at Gomez’s in Village Plaza. The Village Plaza looked like it would be a happening place to hang out at in season, but even then, there were lawn games such as ladder golf and cornhole, as well as a fire pit in the center of the square!

Mammoth Lakes offers year-round bus service- for FREE! This even includes a free trolley. Most people take it to get from place to place, but we decided to turn the trolley ride into a round-trip sightseeing tour. For most of the trip, we were the only passengers, so the driver was telling us about all sorts of places to visit. One of those was Obsidian Dome, which we visited the next day.

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It was really cold and windy there, so we didn’t spend as much time as we would have otherwise, but it was neat to see all these rocks made of beautiful shiny obsidian!

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While continuing on our road trip, we stopped by Mono Lake. Unfortunately, we were there on a Tuesday, when the visitor center happened to be closed, but we still enjoyed seeing the unique tufas (salt towers). IMG_20150429_095518_023

Then we took a detour to Bodie. I’m not sure why anyone would want to live in Bodie, but that probably explains why no one lives there anymore! It is a ghost town several miles off the road, and was once a bustling, godless mining city. I’ve only been to a three-building ghost town before, so it was incredible to see all the old buildings, and most of the town had been burned down! We even went to the cemetery and saw the gravestone of the town’s founder W.S. Bodey. (Yes, his name is spelled differently than the town itself- the town was named after a typo!)

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After more driving, it was time to cross the border into Nevada! Have you ever tried to take picture of a state sign from a speeding car? It’s so hard to get it to look good!

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We ended up in a little city… or was it a big city? Oh, that’s right, it was the biggest little city in the world!

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We stayed at Harrah’s. I had never stayed at a casino before, so it was really interesting to see everything there.

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But while many people go to Reno thinking “Ooh, I’m gonna win big at the slots”, my mom and I were thinking “Ooh, I’m gonna eat a lot at the buffet!” And that’s exactly what we did. The best part of the buffet was the crepes that you watched being made right in front of you, and you pick out all the fillings and toppings!167

After dinner we decided to walk off our buffet babies. Our intention was to go through the different casinos and attractions like that, but we found some other interesting things too. For instance, we happened to come across a part of the sidewalk where blue jeans were invented.

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Just a little bit further down the block, we found a Blarney Stone stuck to the wall!

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Circus Circus was a blast. It is connected to several casinos, so it was a change of pace to suddenly walk into a room that was offering toys for prizes instead of big bucks!

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Besides looking at (but not actually playing) the games, we took a train ride in a connecting casino and then went back to Circus Circus to watch a free show called “Best Friends”. We thought it might be a clown show or singing or something like that, so we were thrilled to find that it was actually funny and incredible dog tricks!

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When we got back to our 14th floor hotel room, we decided to sleep with the window shades open so we could enjoy all the lights and sights of Reno.

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The next day we visited some small towns. One such town had the Alpine Drive-In, a locally-owned burger joint where we ate lunch.

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And our final stop of the day was… a landscape supply yard? Okay, it wasn’t planned like that. But after we crossed the border into Oregon (after we crossed from Nevada back into California), my mom dropped me off at Harry and David to get my allotted former employee free food while she picked up a few things for dinner. It took her awhile to come back to pick me up, and I was almost worried that something might have happened. Something did happen, but it wasn’t that severe of an emergency. My dad had called her explaining that he was picking up some gravel (they’re redoing their patio), when the van’s fuel pump stopped working. So we had to come rescue the dog from the heat and make sure that his coworker could pull the gravel home while making sure the van could stay there until the tow truck arrived. It was an unexpected way to end a tri-state road trip (hey, we were even in all three states that very day!), but one lesson from the school of travel is to expect the unexpected!

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly: The Desert

Do dinosaurs still roam the Earth? Is there beauty in the desert? And what happened in the desert that would cause me to write my first angry review? You’ll find all that out in today’s post, but first, you may want to read what happened first on this road trip. 

After our night in Sacramento, my mom and I ate breakfast at the hostel and were back on the road by 7:45. There really isn’t much of anything on the I-5 between Sacramento and the Greater LA region. Besides rest stops, our only break was at a Ghiradelli outlet in Lathrop, where I enjoyed a free sample as well as an expensive-but-worth-it chocolate chip cookie. We arrived at my grandmother’s house in the afternoon and spent the night there. The next day, all three generations of us set off on a unique part of our journey.

Twentynine Palms Desert in California

I grew up hearing stories about my mom’s childhood memories of “the desert”. Despite hearing about these experiences, I never went to the desert myself, and never even thought to ask where exactly it was! But my mom thought it would be a great idea to take my grandma out to Twentynine Palms where they used to vacation in order to relive old memories, and introduce me to what they’ve been talking about my entire life!

Desert View from Holiday Inn Express in Twentynine Palms

Before we got to our hotel in Twentynine Palms, we made a couple detours along the way. The first one was at the store for Hadley Fruit Orchards in Cabazon. It’s a pretty similar concept to Harry & David in that it’s a mail order gourmet company selling mostly local foods. But there was one thing that really made Hadley stand out, and I’m not even talking about the wide selection of free samples. They are known for their specialty date shakes. As I was ordering my shake, I realized that I didn’t even know where dates came from. (I then learned they came from palm trees. Who knew?)

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The next stop was also in Cabazon, just down the street. My mom excitedly asked me to take a picture of a giant sign that said “EAT”. So I did. She had told me about dinosaurs and was looking forward to seeing them again.

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I didn’t realize this until after the trip, but the t-rex looked pretty familiar to me. It has become pretty famous on Pinterest as an iconic roadside attraction. In fact, he’s pretty famous since he was in other media, too.

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But the first dinosaur here was the even larger apatosaurus. My mom remembered that for years it did not have its “skin” on and was just a metal skeleton! There was a picnic table in the shade under the apatosaurus’ belly that would have been nice for a picnic, and apparently there was a museum entrance in his tail that probably would have been interesting, but it was a full day of plans with places to go and things to see, so we said good-bye to the Cabazon Dinosaurs and journeyed on.

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There was a long stretch of road that was very windy, so at least they were making full use of it by setting up thousands of windmills. Is it just me that enjoys driving by a bunch of windmills?

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After driving through a few small desert towns and seeing a Joshua tree for the first time, we checked in at the hotel and then set out to find lunch. My mom chose a burger and ice cream shop that she was sometimes treated to as a kid.117

Oh, but the stories of her childhood did not end there! As we drove around town, she pointed out that the military base looked a whole lot bigger than it used to, and showed me the pumpkin carriage that used to be her favorite playground toy, and all kinds of little things like that!

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But the biggest walk down memory lane happened on Goodie Lane. The people in that area always referred to it as Goodie Lane long before it officially got a street name, because two brothers with the last name of Goodie each had houses across the street from each other. (My mom’s family referred to them as Goodie One and Goodie Two!) But this is also the street where my great-grandparents had their desert house, where my mom, grandma, grandpa, and three uncles would stay on their desert trips.I took pictures of that house, as well as both of the Goodie houses, but since we have no idea who owns them now, wouldn’t it be strange to post pictures of their houses online? It was weird enough that we we got out of the car to take pictures on this underpopulated dirt road!

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After plenty of sightseeing, we went back to spend the night at the Holiday Inn Express of Twentynine Palms. Now, I know I’ve said on here before that I hate hotels, but this particular Holiday Inn Express was not a normal hotel. First of all, it had a wonderful, friendly staff. At check in, they told us that they would be popping popcorn in a few hours if we were interested in any! When I turned on my room’s television, none of the channels worked, so they sent up not one, but two staff to get it fixed! While they were working on it (which in this situation turned out to be a not-so-easy task), they kept a smile on their face as they recommended restaurants and places to go. But besides the staff, the hotel had little “extras” to make it especially memorable. In the evening, they had a guest reception where they provided so many snacks, we didn’t even have to go out for dinner! And at the continental breakfast, there was this cool contraption that I have dubbed “the pancake printer”!

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Our experience with the Holiday Inn Express staff and resources was wonderful, but unfortunately, the next place we visited did not have such great values. Yes, I am about to complain. I don’t like to do it, but I believe in this case that it is necessary, and even I am surprised that I have to complain about a National Park.

I haven’t mentioned this, but my grandmother has been handicapped for as long as I can remember, and since I last saw her four years ago, she has switched from crutches to a wheelchair. When my mom was planning the desert leg of this trip, she made sure that everything would be accessible for her. She got grandma a handicap-accessible hotel room, and the Holiday Inn Express not only did a great job in furnishing that room, but making sure all three of us were doing well. When researching Joshua Tree National Park, she found out that the Oasis Visitor Center had a fully-paved, handicap-accessible nature trail. We were excited to go. But when we got there, we found this:

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Now, construction can be annoying, but it’s understandable that everything needs improvement at some point or another. But it is NOT okay to blockade the one and only wheelchair ramp leading from the parking lot to the sidewalk! And that wasn’t even the worst of it. Despite the Joshua Tree National Park’s website touting that the path was accessible (and it didn’t note any changes relevant to that in their construction announcement), the temporary path entrance was made of sand. FYI, wheelchairs cannot be pushed through sand without getting very, very stuck! But the part that really got to me was how rudely we were treated by the park staff regarding this (especially since we were so polite in light of the situation at hand)! Joshua Tree National Park, your staff needs an improvement just as much as your Visitor Center trail does!

I sent the park a message via Facebook several days ago including even more details about our poor experience, and so far I have not received any sort of response. If you are interested in finding out if and when they respond to this, you can check out the message by clicking here. (If it leads to a broken link, then it means they must have deleted my comment instead of using decent PR to respond!)

My grandma insisted that she stay behind while the two of us took the trail, and while we were both still incredibly frustrated at the experience so far, we decided to go ahead and take a look at some of the scenery anyway.

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It had changed a lot since my mom was little, and is now just several yards off a road and contained lots of dead plants. But we did come across a lot of cottontails, which were fun to find.

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And being the desert, of course there was cacti. In the following picture, I asked my mom to pretend that she had just sat on the cactus!

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We then made our way out of the desert and back to grandma’s house, to rest up for more adventures that lay ahead!

I hope you enjoyed hearing my perspective on the good, the bad, and the ugly of the desert! But going to the desert was not the end of our road trip. I have a couple more posts planned for the next few stops. If you’d like to get a preview of what’s to come, I posted some pictures on my Instagram account!

The Beginning of a Road Trip: Exploring Northern California

Just last Thursday, I returned home from a nine-day road trip with my mom. Some days didn’t have too much going on, so I won’t bore you with details of the mundane. But some days were jam-packed with activity, warranting multiple posts to describe all that happened on the trip. The very first day was probably the most eventful day, so this post only covers Day One.

Oh, and one more thing before we begin: last month I finally got Instagram! Feel free to follow me (I’m @JessicaLippe, of course!), and to see all the pictures specific to this trip, check out the hashtag #roadtrippingwithmom.

We decided to leave early on Tuesday, April 21st in order to pack a full afternoon of fun at that night’s destination. And even though I think 6 am was a little too early, we’d often leave at 3 or 4 am when I was younger. Most of our relatives live in Southern California, so our family would usually make a straight shot of the 11-hour drive to get there. But I had a little treat for my mom this time around, so in exchange she agreed to take me to the Sundial Bridge, an attraction I always saw from the freeway but we never had time to stop at.

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The Sundial Bridge is a piece of art spanning a river in Redding, California. It is literally a giant sundial and has markings for telling time at certain times of day. The bridge itself has a walkway made of green glass. Even though it isn’t exactly see-through, our first few steps out on it gave us that shaky feeling!

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When taking these pictures, we both noticed that the cable was pulsing (possibly from the birds landing on it further up?). But somehow this inspired us to have me hang from one of the cables.

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The Sundial Bridge was not the only thing around. It was actually part of a very large park with several other attractions. We did walk around a little bit, but I would love to go back there someday, perhaps with a bicycle.

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The next stop was a place we used to always use when going on trips to California: the city of Corning. You may not have heard of Corning before, but there’s a good chance you’ve eaten olives from there. And our go-to place is the Olive Pit. It’s been about four years since I last went this way, so some of the things have been changed a bit, but I was comforted to know that they still have a wide variety of oils, vinegars, and jams to sample on. 055

One thing from Olive Pit that I had never tried before was their shakes. They have some typical shakes, but they also have specialty shakes made out of flavored balsamic vinegar. I chose the Dark Raspberry Balsamic Vinegar shake. Yes, it sounds weird, but it is so good. You’ll just have to try it for yourself to see what I mean!

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The next driving break we took was for lunch. It’s not right to go to California without stopping at an In-N-Out. There are two things I really like about In-N-Out: 1. There is a Bible verse printed on every cup and food wrapper, and 2. Instead of ordering frozen french fries like most fast food places, they get shipments of fresh potatoes and make the fries right there. (I also like their milkshakes, but since I just had a balsamic vinegar one, I decided to skip it this time.) I tried to convince my mom to dress up in their paper hats, but she refused, so the only picture I have is of a cup and food wrapper:

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Not too long after lunch, we arrived at the place where we’d stay the night. In order to make the most of this trip, I offered to introduce my mother to hostelling. She agreed to it, but since she can sometimes be particular about things, I wanted to ease her into staying in hostels instead of scaring her away. I found a hostel along our route in Sacramento that was originally a Victorian mansion, and I knew that would be just the sort of thing she’d love.

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Probably the best part of being in Sacramento was just looking around the hostel at all the Victorian-style things they had!

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And because there wasn’t much of a price difference between two dorm beds and a two-person private room, I sprang for the private room. I’ve been upgraded to private rooms at hostels before, but I’ve never actually paid for one, so I guess that was a first for me too!

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The one attraction we didn’t want to miss out on was touring the California State Capitol Building. We went in the travel clothing we had been in all day, but once we got past security, we realized that everyone else was wearing business suits and dresses. We stuck out like sore thumbs! We tried to make excuses, such as it was just because we weren’t from the state, but my mom was actually born in California, so that didn’t really work.

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We learned a lot of things on the tour. For example, for many years the building was not earthquake-safe (not a good thing for the building that represents California!), so everyone that entered the building during that time had to sign a waiver. Eventually they closed down the building for several years and a did a complete remodel. My mom then realized that when she had toured the capitol with her dad as a teenager, it must have been just a matter of months before it was shut down!

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We also learned that the dome seen on the outside isn’t the same dome that is seen on the inside. The outer dome is too tall for artwork to be seen from the inside, so a shorter inner dome stacked inside creates the illusion that they’re the same. However, there’s quite a bit of space between the two!

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And although there was no chance we could get inside, we did have to stop by the outside of the governor’s office. When Arnold Schwarzenegger was in office, he got a bear statue and let it stay at the Capitol. Our tourguide told us they had secretly named it “Bacteria Bear” because so many tourists rub it!

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The Capitol was our only planned attraction, but we decided to walk around and see the other sights too. We went to some of the shops in Old Sacramento and also looked over the Sacramento River.

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Before retreating back to the hostel, mom and I stopped at a Pho restaurant. We’ve enjoyed the soup made at home, and I was interested to see what it was like when authentically made. The spring roll was delicious, too.

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And although we got some sleep at the HI-Sacramento Hostel, we once again had to get up early the next morning (though not as early as the day before) and make it the rest of the way down California. But I’ll save that for tomorrow!