Sunday, June 21, 2015

My New Car!


It has been long overdue for me, but when it comes to buying a new car, the timing has to be right, and this weekend was the right time. I am now the proud owner of a 2015 Toyota Corolla Eco. This class of the Corolla is a bit more fuel efficient than the regular L/LE/S versions of Corolla. It's not a hybrid, but it gets a tad bit better miles per gallon. I have been thinking about getting a Toyota for almost a year now, and I knew I wanted to get the Blizzard Pearl color. It's a shimmering eggshell white that actually costs $395 extra to have that color. After driving two blue cars (Ford 2002-2012 and Mitsubishi 2012-2015) for fourteen straight years, I wanted a brighter color - silver or white.


I went a little bit over my budget because I decided to get the Toyota Extra Care Platinum service agreement, which will cover any and all maintenance for my car for 8 years or 100,000 miles. Especially moving to a new state, I need the peace of mind that my vehicle will be protected.


My Corolla Eco was the only one in stock and they had it on the showroom floor next to my salesperson. These are the before and after photos when they moved my car off the sales floor. One of the sales managers even came out to shake my hand to tell me that it's really special when a customer buys a car straight off the showroom floor.

This is the fifth time in my adult life I bought a new car (3 financed/2 leased) - the previous four were Ford cars. I was extremely impressed with how well the Toyota sales and finance team treated me on Saturday. I went there to simply test drive, but I knew in the back of my mind that I should be prepared to buy because the car that I researched and had a preference for, the Eco, it was the ONLY one at the Victory Toyota Canton dealership. It was the color I wanted, the class style, and the interior was much more impressive than the Internet pictures. There was a cafe in the dealership where they make you fresh and delicious sandwiches, coffee/tea/bottled water, cookies and fruit - free to the customer while they waited for car service. My experience in the past at Ford dealerships was not at this level at all! Once you've been treated this well at a Toyota dealership, it's hard to justify going to a different car manufacturer dealership.


I test drove a Yaris, a Prius, and a pimped out Corolla with a moon roof. I loved all these vehicles, but my decision to buy the Eco sedan came down to budget, size, style, and long term love for the vehicle. I love a moon roof, but not for $2500 more. And I loved the Yaris, but it was a tad too small and very basic. I plan to drive to California from Michigan, and the Corolla will certainly fit my needs.

Earlier this month I received an alert from Credit Karma that some funky crap was on my credit report. I disputed it on the two bureaus that had it on my report (it was removed), and by time I purchased my car, my credit was in stronger condition to qualify for a great financing plan. So now that I have a nice new car, I know all kinds of opportunities will come my way because I have a newer car to get me to them.

Thanks to Victory Toyota Canton for helping me buy the exact car that I dreamed about and treating me wonderfully throughout the entire process!

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

My European Holiday: Ireland and England May 2015

A walkway to Killarney National Park.

[This is a long read, grab a cup of coffee or tea
So many months of planning and budgeting went into my fantastic trip to Ireland and England (May 22-May 31) and it’s all over now. I was emotionally exhausted and drained leading up to my vacation, and as I had hoped, the trip across the pond had more potent restorative powers than I had hoped. In the past, I sometimes came back home pre-depressed about having to go back to the same old same old, but alas, this trip was different and it forced me to accept the fact that things are going to change in my life, and for the better! Some of you follow me on twitter and my Instagram  accounts, and you were able to see my daily activities. But for the rest of you, I’ll give you the cliff notes of my trip. You can go to my Flickr photo album to see 200 photos I posted there. In this blog article, I’m sharing images here that I didn’t add on Flickr.

Firstly, I must say that there was a medium sized hiccup on my trip, but it was fixed quickly. To start, my plane that left Detroit on Thursday evening of May 21st was running late. This was met by audible groans from passengers and some running up to the check in counter to find out how this delay would affect their connections. Immediately they informed us that the 25 min delay would still make the plane arrive only 2 minutes late – this is why airlines buffer in 30 minutes in case delays like this happen. The plane arrives and all was well. However, this is the part where I explain the benefits of me paying almost $300 for my new carry-on bag. It was designed to hold a lot of stuff, but I am able to slide it under the seat. The flight was heavily booked, as usual, and US Airways staff was telling us that the overhead bins would be too full to accommodate everyone. And sure enough, some people couldn’t put their crap in the bins and had to check it. Not me, I sat in my window seat and wasn’t bothered by others.

My luggage at the airport bus stop to Limerick/Killarney.

Landing in Philadelphia on schedule was fine, but I still had to walk half a mile to the gate where my connection to Shannon was located. Sure enough, I get there just in time to sit down when they started to announce boarding. That was too close for comfort! But, I made it. I had a window seat in a three person row, and it was a comfortable overnight flight. I think I dozed off for a little while. In just over six hours, we landed in Shannon at 8am sharp. Typical misty Irish weather greeted me. I was glad we made it, but my trip wasn’t over yet. Once I landed, going through customs to enter Ireland is a breeze – almost like driving through the tunnel to Canada. Let’s face it, the people who travel to Ireland either live there or are there on vacation to hike or play golf. Once I collected my one piece of checked in luggage, I went outside to wait for the bus to take me to Limerick, where I would then transfer to the Killarney bus. Perfect timing struck again when the bus came just 5 minutes later. The next bus would be over an hour wait! The ride to Limerick was about 25 minutes. Once there, I waited just over an hour for the Killarney bus. It was chilly outside, but I was happy to be in Ireland. I got on Bus 51 to Killarney for a two-hour ride. My hotel reservation was at Killarney Court Hotel, which is on the road where the bus from Limerick stops at. So I was able to get off the bus in front of the hotel. Again, perfect timing – I arrived at the hotel at 12:50pm. I paid cash, got my key, and you know what, I got the same room as I had in 2012! No complaints, I just thought it was funny. However, I’m wondering if the fact that in my reservations, I told them that I stayed at that hotel before and loved my accommodations very much, that maybe they pulled up my guest information from then and just assigned me to Room 241 again. Very cool in any event, it’s a great room. I don’t have much of a view, but that’s ok. I unpacked, changed clothes, and I was off to grab lunch and start walking around town!


It was as if I never left, I just walked the same route on Tralee Road to get to the center of town – only 10 minutes, and just felt so happy and lucky to be in Killarney again. This small Irish town of 13,000 swells up on the weekends to 40,000! That’s how popular this town is! My first meal of my vacation was fish and chips and mushy peas, and a coke. I devoured the food and then made my way to confirm my Dingle Peninsula day trip for Saturday. I booked it online, but I had to pay in cash at the tour office. I went into the building and I told her I’m here to pay for my Dingle tour tomorrow, and she said, ‘You must be Simone’. See, this is how friendly and personable the Irish are. So I paid for my tour, and I went on with my walk to Killarney Nat’l Park – the main lure for visitors who are up for long walks in this grand park. I stopped by the tea room to get a cup of peppermint tea – because my throat was raw and scratchy. Just sitting there drinking tea and being amazed that just 24 hours ago, I was at home thinking about being in Ireland. Afterwards I was on my way to walk to Ross Castle. It’s just 1.5 miles up on the walk path, and for my first day, I didn’t want over do it since I had just arrived. I knew this day was half gone by the traveling to get there, and the other half would be to enjoy being in Killarney and immerse myself into it at a slow and steady pace. Ross Castle was built in the 1400s and is a pretty cool place to check out, especially at a time when the Game of Thrones is so popular (BTW, GoT is filmed in Ireland). To kill a little time, I joined the 4:15pm tour of the former fortress. It’s really a marvel how they renovated it to look like it did hundreds of years ago.

After the tour, I walked back through the park and on my way back to the hotel; I stopped by O’Connor’s pub to book my Gap of Dunloe tour for Monday. I stopped by a few gift shops and made note of some cool things to buy, and then I stopped by Penny’s (which is Primark in Ireland), and bought a pillow that I just had to HAVE. I left enough free space in my suitcase to accommodate gifts. So I made it back to my hotel close to 6pm and relaxed for the evening with a cup of soup.
Ray, the tour driver and other passengers fogged in.
Saturday was Dingle Peninsula day and I walked down Main Street to where the bus would pick us up. I purchased a priority seat so that I could sit up front. For those of you who saw that video I posted, you can see the benefits of priority seating. This tour was fantastic, and it was made better by having such a fun driver, Ray of Deros Tours. It was wonderful to see parts of County Kerry that is ideally seen by a professional tour driver. Seeing the Atlantic Ocean at Inch Beach from the European side and at this higher latitude was excellent. As we drove further up the peninsula, the foggy misty weather prevented us from seeing the true beauty of the view of the Atlantic Ocean. In the group image above, normally, blue sea and skies would be the scenery, not fog.  We were told that we could see miles and miles out into the ocean, but the fog was straight up right in our faces – couldn’t see nothin’. But, it was all good. I’ll catch the view next time, and there will be a next time.


A view from Killarney Lake Hotel public grounds.
My Sunday in Killarney was more walking around and enjoying the sights of the park. I saw a lot of people out and about and there were more people renting bikes to get around the park. This time I wanted to walk because I was taking a lot of pictures. Next time I’ll rent a bike. As I walked back to Killarney, I stopped by the bus station to confirm the departure of the morning bus to take me to Shannon on Tuesday morning. Thank God I did that because I totally screwed up my pre-planning. For Tuesday’s flight on Aer Lingus to London, the plane was scheduled to leave at 1:15pm. I made the mistake in THINKING that the bus from Killarney was leaving at 9am (like in 2012), giving me enough time to get to Shannon. Nope, the schedule changed! I asked the guys at the bus station what time the first bus leaves in the morning. They said at 10am. When I told them that I had to be at the airport by 12:30, they said that I would not make it. Shit, shit, shit! So I go back to the hotel, review my boarding pass to double confirm the flight time and it was at 13:15. Shit, shit, shit! What do I do? I can’t miss my flight; I don’t have 350 Euros to pay for a flight change. I even called a taxi service in Limerick to make arrangements for them to be at the bus station to pick me up at 12 sharp. The man said it would be terribly tight, but they will be there. This didn’t sit well with me. 

So a brilliant thought popped into my mind: I have to check out of the Killarney hotel a day earlier and book a hotel room in Shannon for Monday night. That way I would be closer to the airport and not stress out about it. I went online to booking.com to find a hotel in Shannon on the cheap. That’s when I found Shannon Court Hotel for 59 Euros. So I went down to the front desk and explained my situation. The manager approved my request to check out earlier but they would keep 20% of my one night refund. Better yet, the Shannon hotel was their sister hotel so they called and held the room for me. I got 80 Euros back from the Killarney hotel, and I was able to use that for the Shannon hotel and saved money! Whew! I was very lucky to realize this at the perfect time. When I got back to my room, the Shannon hotel called me to obtain my reservation information and I was all set for one night there. I would check out of the Killarney hotel in the morning, they would hold my luggage for me while I went on my Monday day tour, and as long as I made it back to the hotel for the 6pm bus to Shannon, I was all set. Needless to say, I slept like a baby that night.

A sunny day at the Gap of Dunloe hiking trail.
Monday was Gap of Dunloe day. Just prior to the start of the trip, I let the tour operator know that I needed to be back at my hotel by 5:15pm the latest, and he told me the tour will be done by 3:30. That was even better because I could catch the 4pm bus out of town instead of the 6pm. This tour was the highlight of my visit, I did this 7.5 mile walk on my first trip and it is the one excursion that I day dream about often.  It’s a very meditative walk, but there are times when the heart gets to pumping and the thighs and butt muscles start to ache. This walk is just over two hours and it’s not for the faint hearted. Again, there was more foot traffic this time, which is making me believe that Ireland is becoming more and more popular to travelers as I heard a lot of German and American speakers. After the walk, there is an hour long boat ride on the Lakes of Killarney. It was cold but the scenery is gorgeous. I was paying attention to the time and it was just after 3pm as we were approaching Ross Castle on the lake. The bus/boat driver, Frank, was a sweetheart. He offered me a ride in his personal car to get to the hotel in time to catch the 4pm bus. I was at the hotel at 3:45; I collected my stuff, and stood at the bus stop by 3:52. The bus came at 4:06. Perfect!

Last minute hotel booking close to airport.
I’m so glad I had my wits about me to leave Killarney the night before. It was a smooth and easy two-hour ride to Limerick, and I just waited 15 minutes for the Shannon/airport bus. When I got on the bus, I told the driver that I need to get to the Shannon Court Hotel, and he told me that there’s a bus stop right in front of the hotel where I can get off. This is the bus I would take directly to the airport, so it was a 20 minute ride from Limerick to the hotel. The airport is only 10 minutes away from this point. I checked into the hotel, asked the front desk clerk to book a taxi to pick me up at 11, and I took it easy for the rest of the evening.

Tuesday morning, I took my time getting ready for the airport, preparing for Phase II of my vacation: London. The taxi picked me up at 11 and I was at the airport by 11:15. Based on the check in process, this confirmed to me that had I stayed the course with my original plans, I would have missed my flight and would have been in a horrible predicament. I was at the airport well ahead of time, but the check in process and waiting for people ahead of me was a 15 minute process and if you’re rushing, you’re literally SOL. But this wait wasn’t bad considering I was at the airport so early. As boarding time approached, I got on board and enjoyed my quick one hour and five minute flight to London. Arriving into London from Ireland is a breeze. I didn’t have to go through customs again! I just walked through the Red section for ‘NON-EU/Nothing to Declare’.

My hotel near Paddington station - I always stay in this area.
Because London is my most favorite city, this was my 12th visit so I will quickly summarize this visit: My regular hotels were booked, so I checked into a very, very small hotel near Paddington, it was comfortable, but very small. To save money, I walked around a lot more than usual and didn’t take the tube much. To my surprise, because I walked towards Hyde Park, I realized that all the places I regularly visit were literally within an hour walk from my hotel. So, walk I did. On Wednesday, this was shopping day at Selfridges and dinner with my dearest Lucinda. Thursday was shopping day at Harrods and the evening play for The Elephant Man starring Bradley Cooper. I was in the second row and the performance was brilliant and I really enjoyed myself. Friday was a rainy day but I walked to Covent Garden for my 1:30 massage and facial at Caudalie. It was absolutely fabulous and I look forward to going there again. That evening, I saw Mad Max: Fury Road at the Odeon near Marble Arch. On Saturday, before I left to go back to Ireland, I walked up to Notting Hill to check out the Portobello Market. It was a very nice day to see so many visitors out and about. By 1pm, I took Heathrow Express to the airport for my 3pm flight.



The United States and Irish flag at Park Inn hotel.
For the last night of my vacation, I checked into my fourth hotel which was conveniently located right at the airport. Literally, if both my legs and one arm were broken, I could crawl to the hotel unaided. This was a nice and spacious hotel room. There were no other restaurants nearby so I had to eat at the pub located in the hotel. I just ordered a cheese pizza. I slept really well that evening and reflected over all the fun things I accomplished in the past 8 days. And like 90% of the other people who checked out that Sunday morning, I walked over to the airport.

Apparently Sunday is a busy day at Shannon airport because there had to be at least a 1,000 people queued up to check in for the select flights leaving w/in 2-3 hours. The stressed out looking agent I spoke to told me that she hated Sundays. She laughed, but I knew she was serious. And she said Monday mornings are terrible too. Due to the time difference of being 5 hours ahead, Sunday is the best day to fly out because I was on target to be home by 7pm to get a good night’s rest and go to work Monday. The last time I flew out of the country was to Amsterdam in December 2013, so I was surprised to see the heightened security for USA bound flights with US Customs based right there at Shannon. What a brilliant idea. Prevent undesirables from entering the country, BEFORE they enter the country. I wonder if that panty boy bomber from Amsterdam had anything to do with tweaking this security check point. So I went through two security checks, at Shannon, before being allowed to the gate section for the US bound flights. Basically, when I arrived home, I just collected my luggage and left the airport. No customs crap.

My flights back home were fine and uneventful. I’m lucky that on all the flights I had, I sat next to normal, fit, sane, clean, and quiet people. On two flights, I had the seat next to me empty! In all, I had a great relaxing trip, and even though I had a hiccup, my recovery was fantastic and I came home with 40 Euros left over!  As usual, I’ll be visiting London again next year, and I will definitely go back to Ireland in a few years. But before that, I need to visit Japan and/or Australia; I’m really itching to go to these two countries within the next few years.