My Life as a Will & Grace Fan (+ Review of Live Taping + a 24-Hr Trip from NYC to LA)

Growing up in Turkey in 90s, we didn’t have too many local or international shows on TV that portrayed gay characters. Those characters that existed were usually butt of the joke. When I randomly discovered Will & Grace in late 90s, after watching an episode of Friends, it was instant love. I suddenly had a huge crush on Will. Besides being an eye-candy, he was also a true idol for me at the time. Living a life, surrounded by good friends that got him into crazy shenanigans, in arguably the best city on earth. I was still not out as a gay boy, so watching a “normal” character as the lead and learning the queer culture in my dream city was a magical thing. I was so sad when the show came to an end in 2006, I was literally ready to slap someone just like Karen, who slapped Jack when she found out Friends and Fraser were ending.

PHOTO: PinkNews

(I can’t even get through writing a blog post without referencing a scene from the show, try talking to me in real life, my boyfriend knows…)

When I won the Green Card Lottery in 2008, moving to NYC was a no-brainer. Although I briefly knew one person in all of the city, I knew I was meant to be there, after all I had learned so much (!) all these years, from watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Friends, Sex and the City, but most importantly Will & Grace!

During the first week in my new city, in the true fanboy fashion, one of the first things I did was to visit 155 Riverside Drive (Will & Grace’s apartment building) and The Puck Building (Grace’s office building). Like instead of doing NYC things.

Over the years, I never stopped watching W&G. For a very long time though, especially during the golden age of iTunes downloads, it made me FURIOUS that it was not available in the US on any digital platform (am I right, fellow fans?) , and we had to resort to annoying DVD box sets, which made it impossible to binge the show seamlessly. I remember searching for “Will & Grace” a couple times a month in the iTunes store and being disappointed each time.

During one of my trips to Boston in 2012, my friend who was also an Emerson College graduate, took me to the library building where the set of Will’s Apartment was on display, thanks to Max Mutchnik, another alumnus, who graciously donated it to his alma mater. Standing in front of the set, made me realize, it was sorta official, there would never be a comeback. The set was on display as a piece of TV history, and that was that.

Luckily, our fabulous four, Eric McCormack, Debra Messing, Megan Mullally and Sean Hayes did continued being part of so many other brilliant shows after Will and Grace ended. I even caught Sean Hayes (twice) on Broadway, at his brilliant An Act of God, and ran into Debra shooting a scene in Chinatown for Mysteries of Laura.

Then came that day in 2016, came when the glorious “Vote, Honey” hit YouTube. I could not believe there was NEW material to see. To savor it without being interrupted, I remember running to the bathroom at work and watching it there. WOW. That was quite a hit, and everyone around me was talking about how the cast literally stayed the same after the finale. But of course, I didn’t raise my hopes about a comeback, since this was a very special and timely mini-episode, which probably came from a place of activism.

But I was wrong. HAPPILY.

The show indeed was confirmed to come back. The fans went wild with the news. As the premiere approached, I moved to Hell’s Kitchen (Midtown West), just a couple blocks from the huge Will & Grace billboard in Times Square. I literally passed by it every day even when I had no reason to. It felt incredible haha!

The return of the show meant so much more than just a reboot to me, it was almost like someone gave me back some of my happiest times from my past.

We watched the first episode of the reboot with a huge crowd at Industry Bar. People from different age groups, mostly between 25-50, were absolutely thrilled to watch a brand new episode. I mean, writing this post right now, it’s almost the end of 2019, on a Thursday evening, I ran to my apartment in Chelsea, just a couple minutes before 930pm, in time for a BRAND NEW EPISODE OF WILL AND GRACE, after from a busy day and an intense workout and some grocery shopping. Silly, I know, but makes me immensely grateful. From a young, closeted boy to almost living Will’s life (sans Grace, Jack & Karen).

Several months later, something else that’s HUGE happened. My talented friend Fatih Melek, also a huge W&G fan back in Turkey, was assigned to have a phone call with the cast for an exclusive interview regarding the show making a comeback on the Turkish network as well. You can actually read the Google-translated version here. FULL CIRCLE, I’m telling you!

Sorry you had to read my life story until now but here comes the most exciting part: In June 2019, for my 35th birthday, my boyfriend gave me the ultimate gift: Front row seats to a taping of the final season of Will & Grace. Normally, websites like 1iota.com offer free tickets for shows, but the front row wasn’t easy to get. Plus, since he works at JetBlue we’d fly there on the fabulous Mint class (aka First Class) in style and fully flat seats! Considering our return was a red-eye, this was incredible. The taping takes place on Wednesdays so it’s really tough to manage taking days off unless you are as crazy as us and can manage a 24-hr trip.

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We left JFK at around 7pm on Tuesday November 5th and arrived to LA at around 10pm, and took an Uber directly to our hotel. Our hotel, BLVD Hotel & Spa was a great find. As a Hilton Honors Gold member, I tend to choose their properties, but the prices at the Universal City Hilton were kind of insane ($300+) so we took our chances with Orbitz. Our room resembled a mini-suite and the night rate was almost half of what we’d pay at Hilton. Definitely recommend it to anyone who’s looking for an affordable but chic and comfortable base in the Universal Studios area.

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The day of the taping, we arrived to the designated spot and got in the line with the other fans. Sadly soon after, we were made to check our phones in so there are absolutely no photos from inside the set (which was strictly forbidden anyway).

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The taping started around 3pm and continued until around 9pm. We were front and center, which allowed us to exchange hellos with many cast and crew, who were super friendly to fans, even though their main focus was shooting the scenes. Molly Shannon and Demi Lovato, which was a special treat for the entire audience. “Crazy Val” is such an awesome addition to the show, can’t get enough.

During the shooting, what blew our mind was the professionalism and the attention to detail. There were many times Max ordered retakes of scenes since they felt they were not good enough and there was a minor detail that just wasn’t right. The other fascinating thing was the writers literally writing new jokes, or swapping them, and having the cast memorize them on the stop for additional takes. We were treated to multiple versions of several lines and this made the experience even more special.

The craziest part of this whole story?

There was an emcee/host during the entire taping who entertained the crowd of 250 fans and kept them engages between takes. At some point, Set Designer Peter Gurski, came out with a yellow bowl… He said it was a part of the set, and it was signed just then by the four cast members plus the guests on the episode.

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Peter and the host said one lucky fan would bring this original piece of the set home if they guessed the number they had correctly. The number was between 0 – 500 and I kid you not. When the mic was going back and forth in the audience, suddenly someone handed it to me and I randomly said 455. And they were like “THAT’S IT, YOU WIN!”. I mean, literally 0.2% probability. WHAT IS GOING ON?

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The next thing I know is that I was called to give a speech and I mumbled something along the lines of W&G being my favorite show. But IT IS MORE THAN A TV SHOW for me and many people like me. W&G was/is/has been/will be our voice, our reason to cheer up and live our lives out and proud, for many more years to come.

The Finale (Will & Grace) Watch Will amp Grace Season 8 Episode 24 Online SideReel

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OK, can we now talk about the Jack & Karen spin-off? Or Jack 2020 – Election Special? Please?!

 

Battle of the Cards: Capital One Savor vs Chase Sapphire Preferred

In the market for a new credit card with not super high annual fees and a lucrative welcome bonus? Capital One Savor and Chase Sapphire Preferred are two of the most popular cards today that fit the description so I went ahead and created this blog post for those who are having hard time deciding.

Back Story: A friend of a friend recently reached out to ask this very question and this is what I wrote back to them:

What you said gives me an idea about your consumption habits and expectations from your rewards. I think Savor is a phenomenal card if you value cash back over travel rewards. The fantastic part of CSP is though, you get 3x points for dining and transportation, and when redeemed via Chase’s travel portal (powered by Expedia) they are worth 1.25x more. Therefore your welcome bonus of 60k points would be worth $750 in travel. So for travel your cashback rate is 3.75% effectively, instead of 3%. And don’t forget about the additional bonus points that will come from the transportation category. CSR is best when coupled with Chase Freedom which has 5% cashback categories every quarter, and when you have both cards, you can transfer your points from Freedom to CSR and those would be 1.25x more valuable. So effectively, 6.25% cashback on those rotating categories.

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Savor has a $500 welcome bonus and CSP has $600 (or $750 in travel) and they both waive the annual fee of $95 the first year, so based on that CSP is a better deal. Also pay attention to the min spend requirements between the two cards, which could be different.

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I am actually using the Chase Sapphire Reserve, which is Chase’s top tier card, whereas CSR is more mid-tier. CSR has a $450 annual fee but you get $300 back on travel expenses per year (Anything from Uber to plane tickets) so it’s actually $150. And your points are multiplied by 1.5x, instead of 1.25x, when redeemed for travel. So when you transfer from Freedom, they come in at 7.50%. I’d def give this one some thought as well. And the best part is, Chase has a ton of travel partners so you can transfer your points to airlines like United (check the list of partners to get a better idea). You can also combine points, or transfer to/from friends and family to pool them.

Do you have either of these cards? Which one do you prefer? Leave a comment or connect with me on Social Media to let me know your thoughts 🙂

 

48 Hours in Cappadocia, Turkey: An American Gay Couple’s Experience

My boyfriend Doug and I spent 2 incredible days in Cappadocia in May 2018. We squeezed it into our 9-day trip that included 2 days of Istanbul (so that I could show him around and introduce him to my family) and 5 days of Lisbon for the Eurovision Song Contest.

A little background on us: I am 34 and my boyfriend Doug is 39. I’ve moved to NYC (and the US) about ten years ago but I was actually born and raised in Turkey.

My first time in Cappadocia was with my family when I was a teen, about 20 years ago and I’ve always wanted to go back.

Cappadocia this time absolutely took our breaths away and as an openly gay couple, we were extremely pleased by the tourism industry professionals in the region, as well as the locals who were very respectful and friendly.

How Gay-friendly is Cappadocia?

Turkey is a huge country, and its home to 80 million people. Although predominantly Muslim, Turkey is a secular country, religious law has zero say. Most people are open minded and they reflect a good blend of Europe, Mediterranean and the Middle East, depending on which region you are in. Also let’s not forget that Turkey is a major tourism hub, 2 of the most visited 10 international cities are the Turkish cities of Istanbul and Antalya, while Turkey itself is always within the Most Visited 10 Countries list. As a result, Cappadocia is one of the most visited areas in the country and people are very welcoming to international tourists. But honestly, before we visited as a gay couple, I didn’t know that the attitudes towards LGBT folks (based on our own experience) was this respectful and relaxed.

Of course I’m biased because I love my home country, but in all honesty, common sense and practicing caution will ensure you have a safe, enjoyable holiday, anywhere in this magnificent country.

About Cappadocia:

A lot people actually are familiar with the region through the Instagram photos of many travel influencers. Cappadocia has long been off the beaten path for the average traveler, but we can safely say that its fame has peaked among the experienced travelers and the adventurers.

Some incredible facts about Cappadocia (Full List – Source)

  • Cappadocia’s landscape was formed by volcanic erosion, creating the iconic fairy chimneys we see today.
  • The name Cappadocia derives from a Persian word which means ‘the land of beautiful horses’ for in ancient times the region was known for its equine offering.
  • There are a number of underground cities in Cappadocia, some connected by a network of tunnels and many are open to visitors.
  • There are as many as 600 churches carved from the soft Cappadocian rock and still display beautiful painted frescoes.
  • The Göreme Open-Air Museum alongside the other rock sites of Cappadocia, it was enlisted as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985.
  • Music concerts are often held in the surrounding cave buildings of Cappadocia, including the week-long Cappadocia Music Festival.
  • The region of Cappadocia is a large grape producer and wine-making has a long history here.

Bedrock Cave Hotel
I discovered this place on Orbitz and paid with my Orbitz points. Having an adults-only, authentic cave structure, location and beautiful comments it attracted my attention. They were very helpful with airport transfers and tour planning during the process of booking and after. My correspondence with them was in Turkish and from the beginning I let them know we were a same-sex couple. They did their best to make our journey beautiful and they were awesome helping book the Hot Balloon Tour, City Tour and the Couple’s Massage & Spa Treatment that I will mention a little later. By the way breakfast is included and they offer many vegan options and they have a nice rooftop with views.

Kapadokya Balloons
I would definitely recommend this attraction as the #1 thing to do in the area. We chose “Kapadokya Balloons” among the several options offered by our hotel. These tours, which were normally carried out during the dawn each morning, started late due to the normalization of weather and wind conditions later in the morning. Despite this, we had a great 60 mins in the air. So many photo and video opportunities. At the beginning of the tour there was a free breakfast with a fireplace and a toast with sparkling wine afterwards. Our pilot was very professional and maybe he was extra friendly because I was the only Turkish speaker within the 20 people in the basket. After learning that I was with my boyfriend, he continued being his friendly self. This company has already come to the forefront with being the oldest company in the region, but it has become a favorite after this experience.

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Firin Express:

Firin means “oven” in Turkish and this charming and centrally located place in Goreme, Cappadocia is definitely ones of the more budget-friendly options. The most popular dish in the region, “Testi Kebab” aka Pottery Kebab is also available in vegan version, which was a huge plus since I’m vegan. As part of the tradition, you are asked to break off the lid of the pottery the food is cooked in, using an old fashioned dagger, which was a lot of fun. Our server was a handsome young man from the Kurdish community in the Southeast of the country, and was super-friendly with us, and continued chatting with us throughout the dinner ensuring we were happy with the service.

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Nostalji Restaurant:

This was such a gem! We arrived pretty late, about 30 mins before the closing time, and they went above and beyond to accommodate us. The restaurant apparently has great views during day, but besides that, we loved that it was just a understated, yet elevated Turkish dining experience, without any gimmicks. A ton of vegan mezes Our waitress was wonderful and very attentive.

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Aydinli Cave Hotel & Spa:
Through our hotel, we have arranged a Turkish Bath and Full Body Massage at another hotel’s spa in the area. While organizing this, I stated that we wanted to be a “Couple’s Massage”. These two masseuses spoke in Russian among themselves and were really good at their work, but they seemed a bit confused probably because they were servicing a gay couple for the first time. First, they bathed us with soap in the classic Turkish hamam experiece. After the algae mask in the private room for an hour, side by side, we got a pretty good Full Body Massage. The overall experience was great.

Cappadocia Green Tour:
The hotel offered two tour programs and we chose the Green Tour, since we thought it covered more ground and we only had one full day in town. After the balloon tour, we returned to the hotel after a little rest we were picked up 930am by our tour guide. The 8-hour Green Tour included the following sights: Goreme General Sights, Derinkuyu Underground City (7 levels below the ground), 2-mile walk in the Ihlara Valley, Selime Monastery and the Pigeon Valley. Also included lunches, admission tickets, the guides and transportation. We had about 16 people in our group which included four people from the United States, whereas the rest of Turkey, were from Brazil and several Asian countries. Our tour guide was born and raised in the area, a local lady with a lovely headscarf, also married with two kids. She was very friendly with me and Doug which was a huge plus since we spent 8 hours together!

For those with more time in the area, we’d recommend checking out the other tour option: Red tour: Goreme Open Air Museum, Cavusin, Avanos Pottery production, Pasha Vineyard, Devrent Valley, Urgup Wine Tasting and Urgup Guzeller.

 

Sunrise:
The last day we got up early and walked up a hill to watching the sun rise. In Cappadocia, this is really an experience not to miss. With us, there was a newly married couple in their wedding dress & tux.

This was an incredible way to wrap this 48-hour experience in my home country and it cost $0, so definitely recommend it.

 

On the way back, we flew to Lisbon via Nevşehir. We traveled in the Business class using our miles, and we sat hand in hand during the trip and were very well received by the Turkish Airlines employees. Then I wrote a message to THY Facebook page, we were a gay couple and we were very pleased with the kind service. I got a nice return from their Social Media team.

Finally, in terms of giving ideas, the prices we paid are:

  • Couple’s Massage Package: EUR 50 per person
  • Balloon Tour: EUR 150 per person
  • Hotel: USD 35 per night (Breakfast included)
  • Cappadocia Tour: USD 25 per person
  • Dinner: USD 10 – 20 per person including drinks
  • Airport Transfer: USD 5 – 8 per person
  • Turkish Airlines: From Istanbul to the region, the one hour flight per person, one way was around USD 20.

We spent 48 incredible hours in Cappadocia. Of course, one of us knowing the Turkish language helped us feel secure and confident but we were pleasantly surprised by the friendly experience and the strolls we did around town, hand in hand. Having experience homophobic slurs or verbal attacks in NYC and other US cities, this was definitely refreshing.

 

Cappadocia has great potential, and I believe it’s going to become the next hot destination for LGBT travelers and everyone else!

 

 

One Simple Trick to Cut Your JFK AirTrain Cost By 50%

Like most New Yorkers who travel frequently out of JFK, I dread paying the $5 fee every time I use the AirTrain. (For those who are not familiar, AirTrain is the looping train that connects the NYC Subway to each JFK Terminal and it’s the only option to reach to the airport besides using a car, a shuttle bus or a taxi/Uber.)

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In 2017 alone, I flew out of JFK about 20 times, which meant 20 x 2 (each way) times I paid the $5 fee, which brought my total cost to $200. However a not-so-well-known trick I learned from a flight attendant friend completely blew my mind. Apparently, there’s a 10-Trip AirTrain card option carefully hidden in the ticket machine menu which only costs $26 ($1 fee included for the new card).

Your Step by Step Guide to the 50% Discounted AirTrain Rides:

1 – Go to the vending machines at the entrance to the AirTrain. Instead of selecting that you want to buy one AirTrain ride, select “MetroCard”. This is confusing to most people because they are made to think that the single-ride is the only option for the AirTrain.

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2: Once again, the machine is making you think that it’s going to sell you a regular MetroCard like any other MTA vending machine in the network. It’s tricking you into thinking that AirTrain rides are now off the table. Don’t be fooled. Select that you want to buy a new MetroCard. Don’t let that $1 fee scare you.

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Step 3: On the next screen, the secret is revealed. Select the AirTrain 10-Trip option that doesn’t exist on regular MetroCard machines. And voila, the total cost is $26, not $50!

PRO TIP: Your new 10-Trip can be used for 365 days after first use, and it can be used up to 4 times at one go. After 4 swipes, it will require a 18 minute wait time before it can be used again.

By using this method, you’ll be spending $2.60 instead of $5.00 per ride. Enjoy your 10-Trip AirTrain card just for $26!

 

Mirador at Torre Latinoamericana – Mexico City Travel Tips

ABOUT: Torre Latinoamericana is a skyscraper with a distinctive design, located in Downtown Mexico City. At almost an impressive 600-feet tall and, the tower has 44 stories.

TL is globally famous as an architectural achievement since it was the world’s first major skyscraper successfully built on highly-active seismic land. It withstood a 7.9 earthquake in 1957 and a 8.1 magnitude earthquake in 1884 without any damage.

The Torre Latinoamericana was Mexico City’s tallest building between 1956-1984.

In 2006, the building celebrated its 50th anniversary. Mirador, the observation deck between the 37th – 44th also opened its doors to visitors on this occasion. Mirador offers unparalleled, panoramic views of Mexico City, and although it sounds touristy, it’s an absolute must-visit for any first-time visitor.

The view of Palais Bellas Artes from the Mirador
The view of Palais Bellas Artes from the Mirador

ADMISSION: $150 MXN per person. Tickets can be purchased at the building lobby. The tower is within easy reach from the famous Palais Bellas Artes.

PRO TIP: Make sure to arrive an hour before the local sunset time so you can experience the daytime and the gorgeous evening views.

The Miniature World in the Heart of Times Square, NYC: Gulliver’s Gate

Grab That Passport is home in NYC this time, instead of hopping on a plane, we are going on a trip around the world… without leaving NYC.

Gulliver’s Gate takes up 50,000 square feet (a full city block wide!) and is a technologically advanced, interactive and immersive world of miniatures that will ignite your imagination and challenge your perspective.

“Explore 25+ cities from 5 continents and use your complimentary key to bring scenes to life! Gulliver’s Gate is the most technologically advanced & interactive museum of miniatures on the planet. From our functioning airport and naval locks, to the hundreds of hidden scenes and interactive elements scattered throughout our world, we’ve poured our hearts and souls into Gulliver’s Gate. Come explore the work of over 200 master craftsmen & artists from around the world!”

Check out our YouTube video below:

This Service Will Save you Thousands of Dollars on Flights

Thrifty Traveler Premium Review by Saf Dogan / Grab That Passport

*****

Have you recently heard someone brag about how they scored an “incredibly cheap flight to Europe”? Do you get frustrated for not being able to figure out how to spot these deals? We might just have what you’re looking for!

Most of us are too busy to constantly monitor travel deals. Sometimes, unusually low prices and mistake fares pop up for a couple of hours and they’re usually gone in a flash. You need EXPERTS who are willing to share those deals with you as soon as they’re available. The service I’m about to talk about does exactly that!

Thrifty Traveler Premium is an email alert service that shares ridiculously good flight deals & mistake fares, to almost anywhere in the world, from over 50 U.S. airports! The service is like having a best friend who hunts down the best deals in the world and shoots them straight to your inbox.

If you are burning with wanderlust but unable to spend hours searching for good deals and browsing countless websites for tips, you should really check out Thrifty Traveler Premium. For only a small price of $30/year (which equates to one cup of coffee a month), it will give you access to exclusive daily emails with hard-to-resist destinations and prices, and detailed info about how to book them.

The best part is, the service tailors your international flight deals to your designated departure region so you’ll be the first to know when they find the hottest flight deals from your area.

Some of the top deals sent to my inbox recently:

  • New York to Zurich for $362
  • Minneapolis to Honolulu for $323
  • San Francisco to London for $308
  • Los Angeles to Kuala Lumpur for $380
  • Houston to Cancun for $160
  • Washington DC to Paris for $297
  • New York City to Iceland for $285
  • Los Angeles to Bangkok for $389

 

BOTTOM LINE:

After a month of use, I can happily say that Thrifty Traveler Premium does deliver its promise and it’s a must-have for any savvy traveler. The emails not only include cheap flight deals, but they also come with tips on how to save money once you get to your destination. Needless to mention, most deals save you $250 or more off your next flight. Next time when your friends talk about which deals they’ve scored, you’ll have an even better story to tell!

Disclaimer: Grab That Passport has received a free TT Premium membership to provide this review.

3 Days in Havana: 5 Cool Things to Do & Tips For First Timers

Until very recently, Cuba was off-limits for Americans, despite being less than 100 miles away from the Florida Coast. Thanks to the Obama Administration’s efforts, American citizens gained a relatively limited freedom to travel to this beautiful island.

Cuba has multiple destinations like Viñales, Trinidad and Cienfuegos, but its global and cultural gateway, La Habana (aka Havana) is a phenomenon on its own. I got the opportunity to visit Cuba with after a last minute decision, mostly because of having my trip to Puerto Rico cancelled due to the catastrophic Hurricane Maria.

Thanks to our local friend Eduardo, who teaches Sustainable Design at the University of Havana, we got to experience and discover many cool spots in such a short time. Here are my top favorites:

1 – Discover the Local Art Scene at “Fabrica de Arte Cubano” aka FAC

The first word that comes to mind to describe FAC is “impressive”.

This former factory is successfully converted into an art museum that is also home to a restaurant, multiple exhibition spaces and bars. Getting there early, ideally before 8 pm is recommended to avoid the long lines. At FAC you can enjoy your local cocktails while walking around and viewing the artwork. At this complex, on the same night, you can catch a variety of events from fashion shows to DJ performances or movie screenings. When you enter, you pay 2 CUCs as cover and you get a card that is stamped every time you order something from the different bars. Great place to mingle with local art aficionados and travelers alike.

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Photo Credit: Alejandro Reyes

Photo Credit: Alejandro Reyes

Fun fact: Michelle Obama visited FAC and met with local students during her trip to Cuba in 2016.

2 – Authentic Cuban Cuisine at La Guarida

La Guarida is a “paladar”, which is a term used to described privately owned (vs government-run) Cuban restaurants. They opened in 1996 inside a tastefully run-down but reasonably-preserved building from early 20th Century, which still serves as a multifamily residence, where in an exclusive atmosphere diners can find the mixture of the daily resident’s life routine and the proper tasks of a high profile restaurant.

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These are the steps that take you up to the restaurant. This gorgeous staircase is shared with the residential tenants of the same building.
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Madonna was among the famous patrons. Photo credit: Madonnarama
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The rooftop bar. Photo credit: TripAdvisor

Fun fact: Also, Cuba’s only Oscar-nominated movie “Fresa y Chocolate” takes place in this very building.

It’s best to make a reservation since this is one of the most popular restaurants in all of Havana. La Guarida is surprisingly reasonably-priced. We paid around 60 CUCs for a 2-person dinner that included three drinks, two mains and two appetizers, and the 10% service charge. It’s vegan-friendly.

3 – Have a Piña Colada at Hotel Nacional’s Outdoor Bar

Even though Piña Colada wasn’t invented in Cuba, it’s definitely perfected at Hotel Nacional’s bar, overlooking the ocean. For 6 CUCs or less, you can have delicious cocktails or local coffees at the patio overlooking the ocean. Great place to go with a special someone.

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In this photo I’m actually having a Cuba Libre but the Piña Colada was the real star of the night.

4 – Take an Inside Look at Cuba’s Recent History at Museo de la Revolucion

It’s super interesting for an American (or for any non-Cuban really) to witness the Cuban history from their point of view.

The admission fee is 8 CUCs and most of the exhibits have English translations. The highlights of the museum include the Granma yacht, Che Guevara’s beret, and other rare artifacts from the Cuban Revolution. Sometimes it’s easy to miss the other side of the story, so this museum is an interesting experience to find out what happened from a different perspective.

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Photo: Javier Galeano

5 – Ride Through the Havana Breeze in the Back of a Convertible at El Malecon

This might seem like a tourist trap at first, but it’s so worth it. These 50-60 year old American cars will transform you to the heydays of the city. They are beautiful to look at as well!

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Photo credit: Kritys.com

Pro tip: You don’t have to do the full hour tour, and you can hire a car for a short destination for as little as 10 CUCs, just for the experience. However if you’re a small group, you can hire a car for an hour or more, and ride between the important landmarks and turn it into an affordable sightseeing tour.

The Scoop:

Prepare to have a social media cleanse in Cuba because it’s not easy to go online here. Internet is unfortunately still a luxury commodity. If you opt in for using your mobile data, prepare to pay $2/MB on T-Mobile US. For that very reason, I stayed completely offline during three days. You have the option to purchase cards from the local telecom authority Etecsa and connect at their wi-fi hotspots, mostly located at parks. If you see a group of people looking at their phones and waiting around, that’s what they’re exactly doing 🙂

If you’re coming from the USA, bring enough USD in cash to cover your stay. Your bank cards won’t be valid (this is not always the case for cards from other countries, so double check with your bank). The USD can be exchanged for CUCs at the airport, and at banks and hotels. At the banks you’ll be required to show your passport, but you can walk up to any large hotel’s reception and ask them to exchange, without revealing you’re not staying there. At least we succeeded 🙂

Cuba has two currencies: Cuban Convertible Pesos Expect to get about 88 CUCs back for $100 USD, after the 10% government tax on USD exchanges and the commission. If you have another currency like EUR or CAD, you won’t have to pay this tax. Keep in mind that the Cuban government requires travelers to declare cash amounts over $5,000 USD.

At local stores, you might get your change in Cuban Pesos (not the CUC) so make sure you have which currency you have at hand 🙂 One CUC is around 27 Cuban Pesos.

If you’re staying at an Airbnb like we did, make sure to ask your host what you can bring to make the life a little easier for the locals. They advised us to bring multivitamins for adults which is much cheaper in the US so we brought a whole bunch. Plus they’re lightweight and easy to carry.

Havana is very safe. People will greet you and some will ask you if you need a taxi or cigars, but they’re not pushy.

Cuban visa is purchased via the airlines, so at the time of check in (which can’t be done online for Cuban flights) you’ll be able to purchase your one-time entry visa (for tourism strictly) by paying $50, in cash or by credit card.

Cuba seemed pretty LGBT-friendly to me, however PDA (public displays of affection) are not really common, even between straight couples. KingBar is a really fun, mixed bar you can dance to global and Latin hits with the local cool kids.

When taking a taxi, negotiate the price beforehand. You might have a bit of leeway for a discount, especially if you’re travelling alone. To give you an idea, we (two travelers) paid 30 CUCs between our place in Old Havana and the airport, both times.

Thanks to JetBlue for their prompt, friendly service and the free wi-fi on board. It was great catching up with all my emails, messages and notifications during the flight and getting that done before landing in NYC.

Bottomline:

Havana is just a tiny piece of a surprisingly big island, that’s intriguing inside and out and you probably shouldn’t wait any longer to visit it, especially given that the future of the travel freedom for Americans is not clear.

About the Author: 

Saf Dogan is a New York-based travel hacker, blogger & YouTuber who’s been featured on ABC News for visiting 25 countries in one year on a budget, while keeping a full time digital marketing job back in NYC.

How I Scored $1000+ in Rewards from a Single Bank in Two Years

Am I just too lucky or is Bank of America’s CRM pretty generous? I’m saying this because during the last two years alone, I’ve earned over $1,000 in free cash and travel credit from Bank of America, without committing to anything extraordinary. Let me explain:

I’ve moved to the US in 2009 and during my first three years I’ve only used my debit card (WHAT AN IDIOT!) while missing out on thousands of miles/credit card rewards points. In 2012 I got my first credit card and currently I own over 20 credit card accounts. Of course I’m not actively using all of them at once, and by carefully managing my spending, I’m retaining an excellent credit score which allows me to get approved for any credit card, from low-tier ones to AmEx Platinum. All of this allowed me to travel extensively around the world, often times for a fraction of the market value, thanks to sign-up bonuses and rewards from each card.

But one bank among others has treated me with so much generosity. Bank of America has showered me with the following gifts and rewards to this day:

  • 2009: Opened a no-fee Bank of America Student Checking account and closed in 2012 after opening an account at Chase.
  • 2015: I earned $150 cash for opening a BankAmericard Cash Rewards account and spending $500 within the next 90 days. Later on I kind of stopped using this card.
  • 2016: Received a call from the bank and was offered another $150 cash bonus for re-starting to use my BankAmericard Cash Rewards Card and spending $500 within the next 90 days.
  • 2017: Just when I was looking for a new bank for a Checking account I received a targeted email offer for $300 cash bonus for opening a new BoA checking account and setting up a direct deposit totaling $4000 or more within the next 90 days. I closed my accounts at Chase to punish them because they rejected my application for Chase Sapphire Reserve card twice. My first and only rejection by a bank, kinda hurts!
  • 2017: Earned BankAmericard Travel Rewards $200 travel credit that can be redeemed towards travel purchases.
  • 2015-2017: Cash Rewards earned as result of spend; $200+

TOTAL: 1,000+

All of this was made possible by signing up for two credit cards with no annual fee and great welcome offers like 0% APR for the next 12 months.

I’m sharing this because if you have the opportunity to follow a similar usage path as me, you might end up getting these targeted offers as well. Thanks Bank of America!

About the Author: 

Saf Dogan is a New York-based travel hacker, blogger & YouTuber who’s been featured on ABC News for visiting 25 countries in one year on a budget, while keeping a full time digital marketing job back in NYC.

 

CitiBike is the Smartest Investment a New Yorker Can Make. Here’s Why.

New York City was severely late to adopt the bike-share trend which is the norm in most European cities. It was first proposed in 2008. The original launch in 2011 was delayed by Hurricane Sandy and other technical issues. It officially opened in 2013 with 332 stations and 6,000 bikes. Expansions in 2014, 2015, and 2016 have brought the system to Jersey City, New Jersey, and elsewhere. Although, sadly, the bike-share system bluntly ignores the Uptown folks. There are no bikes available above the 110th St, where I spent the most of my NYC life, prior to moving to Midtown Manhattan. In summary, the city was late to catch up with adopting a bike-friendly environment, but it still did a significant job in such a short time.

The year I moved to NYC, in 2009, the 30-day NYC Subway pass (aka MetroCard) was $81. Today it’s $121, which means a 50% increase. The annual subway expense of a NYC resident today is $1,452. An annual CitiBike membership is only $163 and it includes unlimited 45-min rides. Plus, there a ways to get discounts for Citi cardholders and other corporate memberships.

Back in 2012 when I first visited Paris, I had the chance to try their bike-share system. It really blew my mind. Such a simple, automated system which allows people cruise freely in the city without having to worry about their bikes getting stolen. To this day, I always look out for bike-share systems in each city I visit around the world, since I think biking is the best way to discover a place, especially if the timing is tight. I’ve done a lot of biking during my visits to 25 countries in one year, which was featured on ABC News, check it out below:

I have been using CitiBike for a month now and according to the CitiBike app, this is how much impact it has made in my personal life (and in our planet’s too!)

  • Number of trips: 73
  • Total usage time: 13 hours 27 minutes 34 seconds
  • Distance traveled (estimated): 100.4 miles
  • Calories burned: 4,315
  • Gas saved (estimated): 4.2 gallons
  • CO2 reduced (estimated): 81.5 lbs

Manhattan’s traffic is a one big gridlock. Based on my eight years of experience living here, I would say that the fastest way to get around is using a scooter/Vespa or a bike. The less-efficient options are respectively the Subway, public buses (thanks to Bus-Only lanes) and then taxis. Walking is a faster option in many cases.

The annual subway expense of a NYC resident today is $1,452.

Bike ownership (along with other things) is very costly in NYC. You invest in a bike, and then you most likely end up paying to store it in your building. (I had a $200 bike and to store it in my old building, I paid $180 / year for over four years.) And don’t forget the costs associated with wear and tear, and even other possible threats like thieves. CitiBike is the most convenient way of “owning” a bike without any frills.

 

10 Things I’ve Experienced After Becoming a CitiBike User

  1. Most pedestrians are oblivious to bike lanes. It’s extremely frustrating trying not to hurt someone who is blatantly walking in the middle of the bike line with headphones on, instead of staying on the sidewalk.
  2. Cars ignore the bikes most of the time and sometimes they hate-honk you, especially the cab drivers.
  3. Most bikers are males. Ladies, where are you?!
  4. Even if I skip the gym, biking kind of helps reduce the guilt.
  5. Things can get awkward when two people reach for the last bike at the docking station.
  6. I’ve only used the Subway once. And it was to go to Gowanus, Brooklyn, for a late night birthday party and I don’t miss MTA at all! Life above the ground is much better 🙂
  7. There are actually so many bikers in the city, which I didn’t pay a lot of attention before, and it seems the number is increasing almost on a daily basis.
  8. The rush-hour applies to the bike lanes as well.
  9. Most people (including myself) are using their bikes with no helmets on. (I’m thinking of getting one soon!)
  10. The feeling freedom and skipping all cars stuck in traffic: priceless!

The bottom line: NYC still has a long way to go in order to become more bike-friendly like Amsterdam or Copenhagen. But CitiBike has been a catalyst in making that change possible and turning the city into a more habitable environment.

I definitely recommend everyone to do the math and get a membership (and supply it with a pay-as-you-go MetroCard). You can start trying by getting a day pass. Finally, if I’ve convinced you to change your commute, let me know in the comments!

About the Author: 

Saf Dogan is a New York-based travel hacker, blogger & YouTuber who’s been featured on ABC News for visiting 25 countries in one year on a budget, while keeping a full time digital marketing job back in NYC.