Chicago for the Marathon

Chicago Marathon

The race leaders and pace car at mile 1.

About a month ago, I went to Chicago to go see my sister run the Chicago Marathon (yeah, she’s pretty amazing). I had only been to Chicago once before in high school, and I was really excited to return again and experience more of the city.

Chicago is a great city to visit, and transportation to and from the airport is very convinient. When you fly into O’Hare, you can jump on the blue line El (subway/train) for $2.25 and go downtown. This is ten times easier and cheaper than having to take a cab and great when you’re traveling on a budget.

My first night I stayed with one of my good friends from Mizzou in Lincoln Park. While I love being the ultimate tourist when I travel, I also find it incredibly refreshing to see the city from the perspective of the people who live there. Lincoln Park was definitely one of my new favorite areas of the city. It’s a little north of downtown, and I would describe it as a Midwestern West Village. Storefronts are full of local and well-known boutiques like Francesca’s and Lululemon and restaurants and diners.

The next day I met up with my family downtown. We stayed at Hilton Suites Chicago Magnificent Mile. LOVED IT! The accommodations were amazing. For me, the “make it or break it” factor is always the bed, and the beds at the Hilton were some of the plushest and most comfortable ever. The room was spacious and clean. The hotel restaurant is not very good though. We ate at Club Med for dinner one night, and I was not impressed at all. You’re better off leaving the hotel for meals.

This hotel is definitely all about location, and if this is your first time in the city or you are an avid shopper I highly recommend the Hilton Suites Chicago Magnificent Mile. The hotel is in the heart of downtown steps away from the Museum of Contemporary Art, the John Hancock Center, and shopping shopping shopping (aka Michigan Avenue). Michigan Avenue is the heart of Chicago shopping, and the stores range  from high-end like Escada and Bloomingdale’s (one of the best I’ve been to) to affordable gems like H&M and Forever 21.

If you’ve never been to Chicago, marathon weekend is actually a great time to visit even if you are just a spectator. Not only is it amazing to watch 45,000 people run 26.2 miles, but the race course goes through the best parts of the city. It starts and finishes in Grant Park, which is a spacious green oasis right on the lake with artwork and great views of the city.

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View of the city from Grant Park by the "Agora" statues.

Then it takes you through the heart of downtown.

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Chicago

We also watched the race in Chinatown. One of the most fun and liveliest spots to watch the marathon.

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Chinatown in Chicago

And, finishes in Grant part again.

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Post-race in Grant Park

Another great thing about Chicago is the food and I’m not talking just about hot dogs and deep dish. Try:

1. Bandera (American): Take it from a southern girl and try the Cornbread & Foccacia. Also, the salads are amazing here specially the Macho Salad. The Mac & Cheese is also very good and quite comforting.

2.Quartino (Italian): I absolutely loved this place! Unlike many Italian restaurants that tend to be family-style eating, this Italian restaurant serves all its entrees as small plates tapas-style. I loved this concept because it lets you sample so much of the menu. I recommend the Zola Noci and Pere Pizza ( Gorgonzola, Walnuts and Pears), Veal Meatballs Napoli, Eggplant Parmigiana (one of the best I’ve had), and the Tortellini with Alfredo Sauce, Peas and Prociutto. And, for dessert I recommend the Profiteroles (with ice cream not custard…a childhood favorite of mine) or the Coppa al Banana …YUM. Don’t waste your time with the Nutella Panino. Its too hard and you’re better off making it at home anyways. It’s pretty much just toast with Nutella.

3. Scoozi (Italian): From the geniuses of Lettuce Entertain You, try the Butternut Squash Ravioli, the Tomato & Goat Cheese Pizza, the Mushroom Risotto, or the Penne Arrabiata with Sausage. Basically, everything is delicious.

4. Nookies Too (American, Diner-Style): Went to Nookies in Lincoln Park for brunch. Loved the Dixie Benedict (a southern play on eggs benedict with biscuits and gravy) and the pancakes.

5. Signature Room or Signature Lounge at the John Hancock Center: Amazing views of the city. You’re better off making a reservation.

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View from the Signature Lounge in the John Hancock Center

As if I didn’t have an amazing weekend in Chicago with my family and friends, Continental also made me smile at the end of Columbus Day weekend. After showing up at the airport at 6 am for my return flight to Boston (via Newark), I found out that my flight to Newark was delayed, and it would make me miss my connection to Boston. Sleepy and already defeated I walked up to the counter expecting the typical airline run-around. But, when I walked up to the counter and gave them my name, they informed me that I had already been re-routed on a direct flight to Boston (on an American Airlines flight). I didn’t have to do anything. It was already done. Nice. So, THANKS CONTINENTAL! I knew there’s a reason why you’re my favorite airline.

Chicago Tip: If traveling there in the fall, take warm clothes or a jacket no matter what. I was fooled by the predicted temperatures of 45-50 degrees which I interpreted as “nice fall weather.” It ended up being significantly colder than that, and I had to go out and buy a scarf and fleece. So, go prepared.

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Bing: My New One-Stop Travel Search Engine

To be honest, when Bing first came out earlier this summer, I despised it. I didn’t have a valid reason or bad experience with it, but I was just so loyal to Google that I was angered by Microsoft’s latest attempt to dethrone Google. Then, I learned about Bing’s specialized travel search for booking flights. After I tried it, I was hooked.

Usually, when I was trying to find airfares and deals, I visited other sites like: Orbitz, SideStep, Expedia, Priceline or StudentUniverse. After I had researched all their deals, I would check the prices on different airlines’ sites. And, finally if I wasn’t successful whatsoever, I would give up and call my dad, the ultimate flight finder, for help.

Now I have Bing though, and it has made my life so much easier when booking flights. My favorite thing about Bing is that it aggregates all the fares from different travel websites and airlines all into one place for you. When you are ready to book, you just click on the flight that you want, and it will direct you to that site to start your transaction.

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I also love all the extra features that Bing adds like:

  • Direct links to other travel sites.
  • The number of tickets left at that price.
  • The ability to apply filters to your search.
  • “Price Predictors” (my favorite feature) helps see whether you should buy tickets now or wait for the price to drop in the next week.
  • “Flexible Search” gives you the ability to track fares over a period of time and identify best travel destinations, travel dates and lengths of travel.
  • “ Airfare Deals” can find real deals for you and it will actually tell you why it’s a deal. It will track airfares and determine for you when a fare is “record low-act fast”, “$X less than average on record” or “ save $X off average low found today.”

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Bing travel also has a function for hotels, but I haven’t used it. If its anything like their flights function then I’m sure its great. Using Bing can be a little overwhelming at first so I recommend reading  this quick “How It Works” section.

You can also check out the Bing Travel Blog and get great content about travel. So, next time you are booking  a trip, try Bing and let me know how it goes.

Extra Tip:

The Today Show had a great report called “What Your Travel Agent Isn’t Telling You.” During this segment, they talked about how sometimes when you are booking tickets online cookies from that travel sites might mark you as a repeat customer and hike the price. So, to avoid this use different computers or clear the cookies on your browser. For other great tips watch this clip.

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Packing for a Weekend Getaway

If anybody knows how hard it is to pack for a weekend getaway (or just any trip), it’s me. I seem to have acquired a knack for over packing through the years and then struggling to lug my bags around airports, bus terminals, or train stations. So, for the past year I have been trying to learn how to transport my life in a small carry-on for weekend getaways. I don’t have it down to a science, but I have developed a little list to use that always makes it a little easier to choose what to pack and to make sure I don’t forget necessities. So here it is:

1. Toiletries: If you are traveling with friends try to plan to share certain things like shampoo, conditioner, lotions, toothpaste, and/or  blowdriers/straighteners. Also, if you are staying at a friend’s place, ask to see if there are things that they have that you can use. Moreover, unless you stock up on hotel soaps, shampoos, and conditioners like my mom does, it’s a smart idea to invest in reusable travel size toiletry containers like these from The Container Store.

2. Pajamas and Underwear: I know this seems silly, but trust me forgetting your pajamas or underwear will make you feel like a small failure (been there, done that).

3. Two Pairs of Bottoms: One of these could be worn as part of your travel outfit. Of course, jeans are a must for any trip, and I recommend having a pair of dark-washed jeans that could also double as a nighttime outfit. Make sure whatever you to take (jeans, leggings, khakis, etc.)  is versatile and can be worn more than once.

4. Three tops: I usually pack comfortable cotton tees or some shirts I can easily layer if it gets cold

5. One or Two Going Out Outfits: Depending on any plans you may have it is best to have about one or two outfits ready for nighttime. Bring some dressier tops for your dark jeans or perhaps your go-to little black dress.

6. One Jacket/Sweater/Fleece: Weather is unpredictable so make sure you have something to keep you warm just in case anything happens.

7. Two Pairs of Shoes: For a girl with one too many shoes like me, this is at times the hardest part. However, for short weekend trips it’s best to take a comfortable pair of walking shoes like some Chuck Taylors plus a nice pair of shoes for your going out outfits.

8. Umbrella: Look at number 6.

9. Camera: Remember to charge the battery.

10. MP3 player: Remember to charge the battery.

Remember, versatility for weekend travel outfits is key so try to make sure all the pieces that you pack can be worn interchangeably with each other. Attempting to stick to this formula will also make sure that you don’t overpack and weigh yourself down to much.

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