It’s a tired cliché to talk about contrasts in the context of travel writing.
But in the case of restrooms in Japan there is a huge contrast between the so-called “Western toilet” versus the “Japanese toilet.”
On the one hand you will find the super high tech Toto washlet toilet seat.
This toilet has a motion sensor that lifts the lid when you approach and a heated seat for comfort. It has a washer for your bottom and and a dryer to boot. You can flush the toilet by waving your hand over a sensor. The toilet seat may even play a recorded flushing sound for modesty purposes.
Restrooms equipped with these toilets are deemed “Western.”
On the other hand, there is the glorified squat toilet.
This is basically a hole in the ground dressed up with a ceramic basin. These toilets are labeled “Japanese toilets.” You can find a good picture of a “Japanese toilet” on the RocketNews 24 website.
The Most Important Advice You’ll Ever Hear About Travel to Japan
Japan is replete with public restrooms. You’ll find clean restrooms in parks, restaurants, museums, department stores, train stations, and on trains.
If you want to avoid “Japanese toilets” here’s what to do:
“Skip the ladies room or the mens room and head for the unisex handicapped restroom.
The handicapped restroom is very likely equipped with a “Western toilet.”
That’s it. This bit of information offered by my sister-in-law was the most valuable piece of advice we received about travel in Japan!
I ignored the guidebook advice, but you don’t have to!
We are just back from a three-week trip to Japan, where we stayed in a variety of hotels ranging from 2.5 star to 5 star properties.
Each of the hotels generously provided a number of travel essentials free of charge.
I can confirm that more likely than not, you don’t need to pack these ten items for a trip to Japan.
How to Lighten Your Load on a Trip to Japan
We stayed in nine different hotels over the course of our three-week trip to Japan. They all provided a standard set of amenities.
Do yourself a favor and leave these items at home:
Pajamas and Bathrobe: Hotels routinely provide fresh pajamas and/or yukatas (cotton kimono-like robes). In hotels with spas, it is de rigueur to walk to the public bath in the yukata and slippers.
Slippers: The Japanese custom is to remove your shoes upon entering a home. The same is true when entering a hotel room. Every hotel on our itinerary provided disposable slippers.
Toothbrush and toothpaste: American hotels don’t generally supply toothbrushes and toothpaste, but we found these items were available in Japanese hotels.
Disposable razor: Not having to pack a razor will shave a few ounces off your load.
Hairbrush and comb: You don’t need to bring a hairbrush or comb, as these are routinely supplied in Japan.
Standard toiletries: As you would expect, hotels provide soap, shampoo, conditioner, lotion, and often body wash.
Sundries: Q-tips, cotton pads, nail files were offered everywhere.
Sewing kit: I came home with at least half a dozen sewing kits. I love these kits because the needles are pre-threaded.
Umbrella: Several hotels offered umbrellas to borrow. Don’t bother packing an umbrella because if it rains, you can buy one at a subway station for about $5.00 and they may be even cheaper at a convenience store. With amazing Japanese efficiency, the coin operated umbrella dispensers in the subway stations are replenished frequently on rainy days.
Flashlight: All hotels provide a flashlight in case of emergencies such as an earthquake.
Other hotel room amenities that we enjoyed included water bottles, a refrigerator, coffee maker, and hot water heater for making tea.
Do you tend to overpack? Even if you forget a few critical items like sunscreen — or run short — most everything you might need is is readily available in Japan.
I loved the hotel. Would I have loved it as much if if it were a paid stay, as opposed to practically free? Probably not. As a certified cheapskate, I get some bizarre pleasure about getting something for nothing. I would not have paid 340 Euro a night to stay there.
But after agonizing about the various Radisson Blu hotels in Paris, I am very glad we selected Le Metropolitan.
Here are a few reasons why:
The Radisson Blu Le Metropolitan Has a Direct View of the Eiffel Tower
There is nothing more romantic than a room with a view. Our trip to Paris was timed to coincide with Bastille Day. It was a real thrill to witness the fireworks display over the Eiffel Tower from the Place de Mexico, directly in front of our hotel.
The police had barricaded the adjoining streets, so we were in a safe, traffic-free zone. We were away from the crowds, but still had a direct, spot on view of the Eiffel Tower.
We could even catch a view of the Eiffel Tower from our room on the third floor.
The Radisson Blu Le Metropolitan Doesn’t Feel Like a Chain Hotel
I prefer to stay somewhere that feels local. The Radisson Blu Metropolitan has its own modern Parisian sense of style. It is not a cookie cutter chain hotel. Rather, it is a small property with 38 rooms and 10 suites, designed by French interior designer François Champsaur. The look is elegant, clean and minimalist, with features such as all white bedding, caramel-stained wood and black stone rainfall showers.
The Small Touches at the Radisson Blu Le Metropolitan in Paris
Sometimes it’s the little things that make a big difference. There was a Nespresso machine in the room, and the restaurant sent up a pitcher of freshly steamed milk. There was a tiny refrigerator to keep some yogurt or a few drinks cold. Also there was a free bottle of Evian water, and two free macarons were delivered to our room each afternoon. If you are lucky, you will get a couple of bonbons with the turn down service — sweet, marzipan like confections. Oh, and there is free wifi in all the rooms, and a safe in the closet.
The Entire Hotel is Nonsmoking
There is another Club Carlson hotel about two blocks away, the Radisson Blu Le Dokhan’s Hotel Paris Trocadero. It receives high marks on TripAdvisor, and looks charming. We considered that hotel, but the only rooms that were available on points for our dates were smoking rooms. That was unacceptable. At the Radisson Blu Le Metropolitanhotel, all the rooms are nonsmoking.
There’s a Swimming Pool and a Hamman!
There are more than 2,000 hotels in Paris and probably fewer than a few dozen have swimming pools. Le Metropolitan has a small swimming pool in the basement, along with a steam room. The swimming pool is petite, for sure, but there is nothing more refreshing than a dip in the pool after spending the day walking all over Paris. The pool and spa area is quite relaxing, with vintage jazz music piped in. The steam room, or hamman, is lined with bright green glass tiles. I didn’t try it; maybe next time.
The Neighborhood — the Sixteenth Arrondissement
Paris is a city of small neighborhoods, and I am sure most people will say they liked their hotel because the location was great. The Radisson Blu Le Metropolitan is in a quiet neighborhood of upscale apartments, professional offices, and embassies.
The nearest Metro station, Trocadero, is exactly one block away.
There are a handful of cafes and casual restaurants, but no nightlife to speak of. The nice thing about being in a residential neighborhood is that there are convenient services nearby.
For instance, there is a laundromat next door. Nothing makes me happier when traveling than a suitcase full of clean clothes.
A few doors down from the laundromat, you can find Androuet (17, rue des Belles Feuilles), which is reputed to be among the finest cheese shops in Paris. If you are overwhelmed by the choices the shopkeeper can guide you.
In Paris, there are contests each year for various baked goods, such as the best lemon tart, or the best baguette. In 2013, Boulangerie des Belles Feuilles (22 rue des Belles Feuilles) was among the top ten bakeries for butter croissants. Yup, we were staying down the street from the best croissants in Paris. The Paris Brest, a ring of choux pastry filled with hazelnut praline was to die for!
There is also a chain bakery, Paul (12 Rue De Belle Feuilles), where you can grab a quick breakfast. Chain bakery or not, they bake all their breads right there. It is located in a modern shopping mall just steps from Le Metropolitan. The mall houses a large Casino supermarket.
The Champs Elysee, Arc de Triomphe, Eiffel Tower, and Trocadero Gardens are all within easy walking distance.
What I Didn’t Like About Le Metropolitan
I am sorry if this is sounding like a puff piece. Perhaps the romance of Paris has contributed to my enthusiasm.
There are some things I didn’t like about the Radisson Blu le Metropolitan. First of all the rooms were small. You expect that in Paris. On both our stays, we were kindly upgraded from “Classic” to “Deluxe” rooms. Nevertheless, the rooms were still very small, with hardly enough room to sit and enjoy a drink or a bite to eat. In the second room where we stayed, the toilet was in a separate room from the sink and the shower — an inconvenient layout. Secondly, the service was adequate but not exceptional. Small requests, such as for a second chair, had to be repeated several times.
This hotel is not for everybody. If you want to be in the center of town, or in an area with more nightlife, this hotel is not for you.
There is a full service bar and restaurant at the Radisson Blu le Metropolitan which we did not try. The restaurant was on the pricy side, but discounts are available.
Finally, the cost of a room here in Club Carlson points has effectively doubled (for holders of the Club Carlson credit card), from 70,000 points for two nights, to 70,000 points for one night.
By the way, this hotel has its own app, with tourist information. You can find it on iTunes.
P.S. Per the request in the comments, here is a picture from the cheese shop.
Of course the main point of a Spring Break trip to Florida is the beach, and we planned to spend time on both the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.
For my part, I was hoping for some relaxation on the beach: sand, surf, and shells.
The girls were looking for more active adventures!
Melbourne Beach on the Atlantic Ocean
Florida did not disappoint! Barely ten minutes out of Sanford the girls spotted dozens of alligators sunning themselves in a pond.
We caught our first sighting of a mermaid upon arrival at the Radisson Suites Oceanfront in Melbourne Beach.
From our top floor balcony, we could see dolphins — at least I hope they were dolphins — swimming along the shore.
The sun was pretty intense in late March. We found that the best beach times were in the mornings and late afternoons.
The girls wanted to see more wildlife so we headed out to the Brevard Zoo.
The big attraction here was not the zoo itself, but the zipline over the gigantic alligators. This turned out to be a treetop course of obstacles and ziplines that takes over an hour to complete. It was quite strenuous. Drink plenty of water beforehand — I saw a couple of people pulled out due to heat exhaustion.
The girls really enjoyed the Treetop Zipline adventure. The Brevard Zoo itself was small. The best part, I think, was the extensive display of meercats.
There, you can rent a fully furnished one-bedroom apartment, just steps from the beach.
The Colony Inn is a bit of the old Florida on what has become an overcrowded and quite ritzy Sanibel Island. I recommend it if you are looking for reasonably priced place to stay near the beach.
The girls loved hunting for shells along the beach at Sanibel Island. The sand here was finer than on the beach in Melbourne, and the water was fairly calm. There were plenty of shells for the picking.
The highlight of the trip, however, was the kayaking we did in Cape Coral.
The girls spotted dolphins and manatees close to shore! It was quite a thrill to see a manatee at such a close distance.
If you have Club Carlson points to burn and you need to burn them fast — consider the Radisson Suite Hotel Oceanfront in Melbourne Beach, Florida.
Melbourne Beach — where’s that?
That’s the question I was asked repeatedly whenever I mentioned our Spring Break trip to Florida.
Melbourne Beach is on a barrier island about half an hour south of Cape Canaveral. This area along the eastern seaboard in Florida is known as the “Space Coast.” Melbourne Beach is a low key beach town. There’s no boardwalk or amusements — just a broad sandy beach, the wind, the waves, and the Atlantic Ocean.
Melbourne Beach is a quiet residential area with four high rise hotels, some condos and and garden apartments, and single family homes. The beach is very clean and not crowded at all. Day visitors will find free beach parking at a municipal park next door to the Radisson.
Burn Your Club Carlson Points at the Radisson Suite Oceanfront in Melbourne, Florida
The Radisson Suite Hotel Oceanfront is a gem of a property, and is especially well suited to families traveling with kids. It was built in 1984 as condos, but was immediately purchased by Radisson for use as a hotel.
The view from my balcony at the Radisson Suites Hotel Oceanfront
We used 44,000 Club Carlson points to stay for two nights at this magnificent property where every room is a suite and has a balcony overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. Through the end of May 2015, holders of the Club Carlson credit card can get a second night free when redeeming award nights.
As a Club Carlson Gold member (due to having the credit card), I landed a top floor suite. The welcome gift was a bowl full of fruit and pastries.
The “rooms” are actually more like one bedroom apartments. Both the bedroom and large living room have floor to ceiling windows overlooking the ocean, and all the rooms have an oceanfront balcony. The decor is modern. Each room has a king sized sleep number bed in the bedroom, and a queen-sized sofa bed in the living room. I especially loved that the floors were travertine tile, which is so much cleaner than carpet.
I didn’t take any pictures of our suite because the panoramic photos on the hotel website are so drop dead gorgeous. But I can tell you this: every single room in this hotel is has a full oceanfront view. Every room is a large suite — modern, clean, and comfortable.
There is a pool, hot tub, sundeck, and poolside bar. Two beach chairs and an umbrella rent for $20 a day, but beach toys are free to borrow. My only concern: no lifeguard on the beach.
If you make your reservations before the end of May 2015, you can have a two-night stay in a gorgeous oceanfront all-suites hotel for just 44,000 points. Award room availability is wide open through December 2016.
There is a shopping center with a Walmart and a supermarket across the street from the hotel. The Walmart features a large selection of beach items at the front of the store. There’s also a pizza place, a Thai restaurant, and a Friendly’s.
Did I mention that there are laundry machines at the Radisson? That is a necessity for our family when traveling with kids.
If you love seafood you can’t do better than Shells of Melbourne, which features about a dozen different kinds of fresh fish and seafood daily. Shells of Melbourne is a family style restaurant located inland, near the Melbourne Mall.
Another place we tried was Squid Lips, located just over the bridge on the mainland. It’s a rambling bayside bar and restaurant, with a view of the fishing pier. The virgin coladas are highly recommended!
The best thing about the Amtrak Guest Rewards program is that the points redemptions have a fixed cost. That is, the cost of a trip paid with points does not vary in accordance with demand.
There are blackout dates on popular travel days when you cannot redeem your points for travel. But if you can work around those dates, you can find great value.
We recently returned from a spring break trip to Florida on the Amtrak Auto Train. This was a great adventure and a lot of fun, because we were able to use our points to reserve sleeper compartments.
Travel Free on the Amtrak Auto Train with Miles and Points
The auto train departs from the Lorton, Virginia station south of Washington, DC every day at 4 p.m. It arrives in Sanford, Florida, near Orlando, the next morning by 10 a.m. Your car travels with you. If you pay $50 extra for priority off-loading of your vehicle, you can be on your way within minutes of arrival.
I traveled to Florida in style with my daughter, her friend, and our Honda Civic Hybrid for 45,000 points. The car transport costs 15,000 points one way, and a “roomette” sleeping compartment, which sleeps two, costs 15,000 points. Since there were three of us traveling, we required two compartments.
I was able to instantly transfer 45,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points to Amtrak, to get the trip for free. The points were earned by opening a Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card. The cash value of the points was $450.
Because we were traveling in “high season,” we received three times that value for our points. The cost of the one-way trip paid in cash would have been $1,435. The cost is less at other times of the year — but if you have kids in school — your vacation times are dictated by the school schedule.
I do believe I have discovered the best value in the world of miles and points for budget domestic travel. It’s not exotic or foreign, but it is a whole lot of fun.
What’s It Like Traveling in a Roomette on the Auto Train?
If you are traveling in a sleeping car, you have the services of a porter to make up your bed at night, and to assist you with you bags. You can eat in the dining car, or they will bring your meal to your room, complete with a white tablecloth.
The roomettes are very well designed. Each compartment has a closet to hang your coat, some storage shelves, curtains for full privacy, clean towels, an electrical outlet, and a night light. The porter makes up the lower bunk with fresh sheets, a futon like mattress pad, two pillows, and a blanket. The bed is quite comfy, and the lower bunk offers a view of the scenery whizzing by. I didn’t try the upper bunk, but it is fairly spacious, and certainly comfortable enough for kids.
There is a drink station in each car for free coffee, tea, and hot chocolate. The sleeping cars are double decker. If you are on the upper deck, you will likely have to go downstairs to use the bathroom, though some sleeping cars have a bathroom on the upper level. There is a small shower with an adjacent dressing room on the lower level, if you are so inclined.
There are several dining cars to accommodate guests, and a lounge car with limited WiFi passwords.
A full dinner is served in the dining car. The dinner service offered bread, salad, ice tea, a choice of five entrees, dessert and coffee. The food was quite decent. There is also a continental breakfast of orange juice, coffee, cold cereal, warm muffins, and bagels.
Both meals are included in your fare.
The auto train features Disney movies in the lounge car in the evenings.
The negatives: no WiFi in the sleeping cars; small bathrooms with tiny sinks, loud announcements in the morning calling you to breakfast.
It was great to arrive in Florida refreshed and ready to start our vacation!
Do you have any questions about the Auto Train? Ask away in the comments!
In the olden days before the internet, you could pick up lots of great tourist information and maps at various international tourism offices in New York.
Walking down Fifth Avenue on our way to JNTO, we passed the main entrance of the New York Public Library and stopped. I had never been inside the library to see the iconic Reading Room. We were there. We had to go in.
It turned out that the Reading Room was closed to the public due to ongoing repairs. I asked the lady at the information desk what other parts of the library we should see, and she encouraged us to sign up for the free building tour. So we did.
Free Building Tours of the New York Public Library
The tour guide was terrific. We got to see the Periodicals Room, the Map Room, and learn about the history of the library and the history of New York City. We never made it to JNTO, but this was a most worthwhile detour.
The New York Public Library offers free one-hour tours at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. on Mondays to Saturdays, and 2 p.m. on Sundays (except during the summer.) Sign up at the reception desk in Astor Hall.
By the way, if you are in New York at Christmastime, the New York Public Library displays an enormous Christmas tree, decorated with beautiful birds. There were lots of people taking family photos in front of the tree.
Free Ice Skating at Bryant Park
While you are in the vicinity, you might want to try out the free ice skating in Bryant Park, which is right behind the library. There is a large skating rink and during the holiday season the park is ringed with vendors like a European Christmas market. If you need to rent skates the cost is $15. Compare that to Rockefeller Center where admission is $12 for adults, $15 for children, and skate rental is $12.
The rink at Bryant Park is open 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day from late October through through March 1, 2015.
Juggling Class and More at Bryant Park
Bryant Park offers lots of other free entertainment: Ping pong; juggling classes; Tai Chi; fitness club; and more.
Take a ride on Le Carrousel, which plays French cabaret music. It costs $3 per ride, or $15 for ten tickets. There is no charge for parents to ride alongside their small children.
On Saturday February 14, 2015 at 1 p.m. there will be a free Mardi Gras celebration at Le Carrousel, featuring a Cajun band and a magician.
* * *
I can’t tell you how many reports I’ve read about the Andaz Fifth Avenue on other miles and points blogs. They all praise the view of the New York Public Library.
Next time you are passing by, I suggest you go in.
I graduated from the University of Michigan, and haven’t been back to Ann Arbor in years. The winters there could be pretty harsh, but the summers were beautiful.
When I heard about the Ann Arbor Art Fair Do, I thought it would be a good opportunity to check out my old stomping grounds, see some good friends, take in the art fair, and hang with miles and points enthusiasts.
What is a Do?
When frequent flyers get together for an informal gathering, they call it a “do.” The Ann Arbor do is a relatively small gathering that features several guest speakers.
Who is Drew?
The guest speakers at the 2014 Ann Arbor Art Fair Do will be Drew who blogs at Travel is Free and his wife Carrie whose blog is Freakin Flyers. Drew and Carrie have been traveling long-term for practically nothing, and should have a lot of stories to share. Tahsir Ahsan, aka the Bengali Miles Guru, writes for Hack My Trip and will be speaking on rental cars and how to manufacture points and miles.
The “do” is an annual event organized by a guy who calls himself “Bikeguy” on the Flyertalk forum. As a relative newcomer to this hobby, I hope to pick up some tips and tricks from the veterans coming from around the Midwest and elsewhere.
What to Do in Ann Arbor
The big event of the week will be the Ann Arbor Art Fair, which is a street fair of juried artists and craftspeople near the campus of the University of Michigan. The event has grown in recent years to encompass four concurrent art fairs all over town. There will be entertainment as well as fine arts and crafts.
Since this trip is a “reunion” of sorts, I want to visit some of my favorite places on and off campus like the Dana building and the Inter-cooperative Council houses where I lived. I hear Lenny Bruce coop is long gone, but Robert Owen coop is still going strong. I also want to stop by Dominick’sItalian cafe, where I waitressed one summer.
I’ll be on the lookout for urban fairy doors in the downtown area, something that I find very intriguing. I’m looking forward to spending a day with my friends at Pickerel Lake, a small undeveloped lake about 20 miles from Ann Arbor.
Where to Stay in Ann Arbor
This is a miles and points conference and I am using points to get to Michigan. I have reservations on Southwest, where my nonstop flights price out at 6,500 Rapid Rewards points each way. Curiously, the nonstop flights on this route require fewer points than tickets involving plane changes.
I earned these points through a combination of flying Southwest, and making purchases on my Chase Southwest credit card. There is currently a promotion for the card which offers a 50,000 point bonus after spending $2,000 in the first three months, with an annual fee of $69. The Southwest credit card is an outstanding deal for budget domestic travelers, and award seat availability on Southwest is very good.
The Ann Arbor Art Fair draws several hundred thousand visitors so hotel rooms are at a premium. I used Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) points to book a room at the Sheraton Ann Arbor for the points and cash rate of 3,500 points and $55 per night. This hotel is located several miles from campus in hotel row near the Briarwood mall. There is an indoor/outdoor swimming pool, and they offer a shuttle for local transportation.
By using the points, I am saving about $100 per night. I earned these points by opening the Amex SPG credit card and making purchases on the card. Through the end of June, this card has a sign-up bonus of 30,000 points, after spending $5,000 in a six month period. The annual fee of $65 is waived the first year. If a friend refers you for the card, they will earn a 5,000 point bounty. (Let me know if you would like a referral.)
Frank Lloyd Wright House on VRBO
In looking for a place to stay for the weekend, I came across the Palmer House, a beautifully preserved house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, complete with all the original Wright furniture. The house sits on two acres overlooking the University of Michigan Arboretum.
Every town on the Jersey Shore has a distinct personality.
One summer, we landed in Wildwood because of our interest in neon signs and mid-century architecture.
The thing that attracted us to Wildwood were the dozens of mid-century motels still standing, though sadly, many have been razed to build condos.
There are three distinct towns on the barrier island: North Wildwood, Wildwood, and Wildwood Crest — where the greatest concentration of mid-century modern resorts still operate. The motels, are themed, with Vegas-like neon signs, plastic palm trees, and fantastical architecture.
Doo Wop Motels in Wildwood Crest
In Wildwood Crest, which is the family-oriented southern stretch of beach, you’ll find the Jolly Roger, the Astronaut, the Apollo, the Gondolier, the Safari, the Aztec, the Tangiers, the Viking, and many others.
The architectural style is known as Doo Wop, Googie, or Populuxe. These terms describe the kitschy style of Wildwood’s 200 motels built in the 1950s and 1960s.