Review: Porter Airlines and Toronto City Airport

Heavens knows the pandemic has curtailed a lot of travel plans across the globe. For me, one of the most acute negatives was not being able to see my cousins in Canada. But, since travel to our neighbors to the north was reopened in August I was finally able to meet the new four-month-old in the family. I knew I was going to travel by air and pondered taking my usual LaGuardia Airport –> Toronto Pearson route but I had heard of Porter Airlines before and decided this was my chance to experiment. They exclusively fly the Dash 8-400 propeller plane, which I don’t always like, but for around $150 less round-trip, it became the best option very quickly.

I started my journey by getting to Newark Airport, the only location Porter flies into/out of in the NYC area. They leave from a far gate in Terminal B but luckily there is plenty of space. I had to approach the gate agent and show my proof of negative covid test before they would let me onto the plane. A few minutes after that I was allowed to board and saw how small the plane was, how little space there was to store onboard luggage, and what the chairs felt like. The one thing that struck me was so many people were gate-checking their bags but I asked to keep mine and was allowed. I recommend this as it makes it faster to exit and not worry about your bags. My bag just barely fit into the overhead storage area.

Once we landed in Toronto we exited the plane directly onto the tarmac and had short walk to the very small terminal. Customs was relatively quick with digital kiosks taking most of the time and then a quick conversation with a customs agent to verify information. I was through it about 10 minutes.

It was quite cute. There were definitely enough clean bathrooms and a small shop to buy snacks. I tried to buy a SIM card there for use but since it was after customer service hours I could not use my US address to activate the SIM. The gentleman behind the counter kindly refunded my money. The key thing to note is that the airport is not on the mainland so you have to either take a few-minute walk in a tunnel or a ferry across. Since I was renting a car whose offices were on the island I had to wait for the ferry to get across (but not before being confused by instructions and walking along the tunnel twice).

When I flew back to the US I reversed the trip during daylight hours and got a few better photos of the airport. Since it is so small you don’t do customs preclearance, instead waiting until arrival into the US. That was not the biggest deal so it is not a deterrent to flying into/out of this airport. I strongly recommend it, especially if the price and timing work for you.

Largest Currency Exchange Ever

I have accumulated so much foreign currency over the years. I always say that “I’ll use it when I go back,” which is sometimes true. But, more often than not the bills and coins just sit in my desk drawer for years. So, instead of leaving the money there I decided to finally convert it to US dollars.

I chose a branch of Currency Exchange International instead of going all the way to an airport or finding a tourist location. I don’t know if this was much better than those but at the very least they guaranteed 90 currencies for transactions.

Overall, it worked out very well. While they only took coins from the UK, Euro, Canadian, and Mexican currencies, almost all the rest of the bills were taken from the countries I brought (14 in all, including places like Singapore, South Africa, Cambodia, and Honduras). I was pleased to take away over $350 in US currency that I will no longer let sit around.

I also think I am going to change my general methodology with currency and try to get rid of as many coins and bills as possible before I fly away. I think it will work out well.

LabQ COVID testing

Since I returned from a road trip across the country I thought it would be a good idea to make sure I wasn’t super exposed to anything during my time in states where vaccination rates are much lower. Well, good news: I am NEGATIVE (focus on the negative…. – I’ve been listening to the cast recording of The Waitress recently). And since my go-to NYC Health + Hospitals location no longer exists (I used to go to this senior center on Albany Ave) I found a new method: LabQ Mobile Testing. It was pretty easy and way faster than average.

Basically, these are a bunch of mobile testing trucks that drive around the NYC area. From my understanding, some have regular spots and others go to different places daily. All you have to do is register with your information in advance on their website, then walk up, show your ID, get your nose swabbed, and be on your merry way.

Since I chose a place I was already close to (i.e. the Bowling Green Customs House) the location I went to was a bit more busy. Wall Street is pretty crowded in general so I had to wait for about 35 minutes before getting swabbed. That being said, I walked by another spot today near Union Square and there was literally no line. So, it’s possible you could just get it done in five minutes or less. I should add that the swabb-er did spend 10-15 seconds scrubbing each of my nostrils so I feel like it’s a pretty accurate result.

To their credit, the promise of getting results back within 24 hours was good! I was tested at around 11am and by 3am the next morning I had received my results. So good!

I recommend using their service if you want/need to.

My Global Entry “Interview”

A few months back I realized that my Global Entry and TSA Precheck status was expiring. Since I wasn’t planning any big travel I was a bit lax in renewing it but finally got around to organizing it. Since I am in New York I have the luxury of not being required to go to an airport to do it on the way back from somewhere – I could go the US Customs House in Bowling Green! There are some folks doing these interviews via Zoom but I decided this was easier for me to organize (and I think at the time the zoom sessions weren’t available until September and I wanted this sooner rather than later).

Just like last time it wasn’t so much of an interview – just more of a formality. The major difference was that it was so much quicker than four years ago and I believe that took about 15 minutes!

This time I walked into the building, went through the metal detector, and an official approached me asking my name. He took my passport and escorted another gentleman and me upstairs to the office. We were asked to wait in a small waiting room and we both took out magazines. Not two minutes later his name was called and 30 seconds after that mine was, too. I stood in front of a customs agent who asked me to press my fingers on a plate in various patterns. He asked me to remove my mask temporarily for a picture and then said I was good to go. He returned my passport to me and the other gentleman and I were told to take the elevator down together.

I’d say the best advice I could give if you end up renewing at this location: bring some cash for the baked goods at the farmer’s market. Not only was it extensive in general but also there was a HUGE table filled with gluten-free foods.

Road Trip Post #12 (the last one)

Well, I am officially back in Brooklyn. I got back two days ago and have just had a lot of stuff to do between then and now. But, I wanted to share of my last hurrahs along the route back so you can learn just what it’s like to come down from a great trip (get it?).

After St. Louis I only had a few more stops before coming home: Oberlin Collge, Erie, PA to visit some friends, a surprise trip to Chautauqua, Pittsburgh, and some random historical spots in northern Maryland. They were all fund and all happened in pretty rapid succession.

I’ve never been to Oberlin before but a friend suggested it would look really pretty so I decided to check it out. It turns out it did not disappoint. Beautiful architecture and tasty food will now be what I remember from being there. The Feve, a wonderful restaurant on their strip, was suggested by a friend and was super tasty. I also walked around the campus a bit to check out the buildings. Not much was going on, of course, so I didn’t spend a lot of time there.

It was then nice to be in Erie, PA, with some friends for a night, instead of a hotel. We ate some good food, chatted for many hours, and even had some time by a fire pit! Then, they convinced me to surprise a third friend at the Chautauqua Institution, a haven for lectures, music, and a great lake to boat on. I’d never been there before but I definitely plan on going back. It was a wonderful community and they had a cool placed called Palestine Park, so named because it was created in the early 20th century (before Israel existed) as an homage to the Jews. Since the site was founded by folks with a more Christian religious background, this made sense to me.

After Chautauqua was the City of Bridges: Pittsburgh. I also was visiting a few other friends and they took me on a small driving tour of the downtown as well as Point State Park, a spot with a beautiful view of a lot of different parts of the city. We got to see an awesome funicular from the park and I commented on how similar it may be to other ones I’ve seen. It was very cool.

The next day I checked out Fallingwater for a bit (not more than an hour) because it really is just a house and pretty grounds. It was very nice to walk around and see everything. I was surprised that the south-facing windows on the house had no shades or curtains. The owners seem to think that it’s okay because no one is really around.

I also drove by the Flight 93 Memorial. It had a great and in depth exhibit of what happened in that region on 9/11/01 as well as the other planes that crashed into the World Trade Center and Pentagon. It was very well done in my opinion, with lots of different ways to spend your time there. I didn’t spend a lot of time but I still felt connected.

Finally, I briefly stopped off at Fort Frederick and Antietam to get a dose of Civil War history before finishing up my trip. The battleground at Antietam is large and extensive and currently runs various farms on it, but is a very historical site with lots of information to see and learn. I had a great time reading the various plaques and things.

This road trip has been amazing. Rejuvenating; relaxing, resetting – everything I wanted it to be. I hope to get back to the places I’ve visitedfor more time in the future. It was super fun!

Credit card reconsideration can work!

As my road trip is nearing completing I am looking ahead at what things I want to do upon return. One of them, of course, is get more points and miles for use in the future. I saw the largest deal ever for the Chase IHG credit card (150,000 points after spending $3,000 in 3 months) and just had to have it. Since I hadn’t applied for cards during the pandemic, I am below the 5/24 limitation on Chase cards and thought I’d be a shoo-in. Unfortunately, I was mistaken.

I’m not sure what they mean by ‘too many requests for credit’ – I don’t really have that many. So I thought it might have something to do with the cards I have access to already. Many of them have credit limits of $10,000 or higher. So, I called their ‘reconsideration line’ and asked the representative to look at my account. After three minutes he asked if I would be willing to lower my credit limit on another card to get this one approved. Of course I said “YES!” enthusiastically and was approved minutes later.

I’m psyched to get this card partly because of the points but also because it has a deal where if you get four consecutive nights using points the fourth night is free! This works in various different ways but is always available. It could be very lucrative if used at particular properties. I hope to get to one of them!

Road Trip Post #11

Well, I’ve had my second crazy car thing happen during this road trip – good thing it’s almost over. I don’t want to have a totally beat up automobile to return to Brooklyn….

But let’s go back for a minute. I left Denver with the intention of visiting the World’s Largest Collect of the World’s Small Versions of the World’s Largest Objects. I read on their website that they were open by appointment only right now so I emailed and texted, only to receive the response that they won’t be open until August at the earliest! Shame! I was so looking forward to that but I guess the artist had to leave to make a living during the pandemic. So, I thought I’d still make my way through Kansas by trying to see unanticipated things, and I was pleasantly surprised.

The first place I stopped was Goodland, Kansas, for a giant reproduction of the Van Gogh painting, “3 Sunflowers in a vase.” It really was huge. I didn’t spend more than 10 minutes there to admire (it was super hot outside) but it was quite a feat for someone to create that on such a scale. You can check out the website for more info – there are apparently more things like this in the world.

After that I stopped off at Wilson, Kansas, a town founded by immigrants from the Czech Republic (when it was Czechoslovakia) decades ago. They are so enthused by their heritage that they paid to create a giant Czech Egg – the biggest in the world! It was really cool. I also got lunch at a local diner that had some awesome Czach foods (Bieroch, anyone?). Finally, I bought a regularly-sized Czech egg for myself – or rather, the owner of the store gave it to me because she couldn’t remember how to use the cash register!

Finally, I stopped off in Lucas, Kansas, the location of the museum I had intended to visit, because it is apparently an art-type town with many different exhibits strewn about. I stopped off at Bowl Plaza to use the restroom (so many amazing tiles in that toilet!) and the Garden of Eden, just to see it as I left. If I had more time I probably would have explored more but I wanted to make it to Kansas City the next day.

Speaking of which, on my way there I started hearing some weird rubbing sounds from the front of my car. About half way to KC I realized that part of my bumper protector (a piece of plastic/cloth that stops dirt from getting into the engine) was rubbing on the ground while I was driving. Obviously, this was not good, so I made an appointment the next morning to get it fixed at a local body shop (so local I could walk back to my hotel from there – how lucky!). It all got fixed while I visited the Arabia Steamboat Museum, a place dedicated to a recovered sunken steamboat from the Missouri River. Apparently there are about 300-400 of them underneath the water (or land, since the rivers route has been changed over the decades). It was a super cool museum and one of the folks who found the steamboat and the son of another were there to talk about their experience. Thew knew about and had met with the Vasa Museum folks (a Swedish ship that sunk to the bottom of the water in the 17th century and was recovered in the late 20th). There were SO many items they recovered from the boat – cutlery, clothing, shoes, dishes, even old pickles! Amazing.

And today I spend a few hours in St. Louis, checking out the awesome catenary (the mathematical term for the shape of the Gateway Arch). It is SO cool. Super tall. Super geometric. And there is a tram to get on top that is combination ferris wheel, cable car, and elevator. The pods are really small but luckily the doors have windows so you don’t get too claustrophobic (Or at least I didn’t). Even though they say you are supposed to buy tickets in advance they still had space when I arrived.

Overall, a pretty awesome few days.

Road Trip Post #10

Denver is a great place, everyone. I know I’ve been there before a few times but I think I didn’t walk around enough.

I spent a lot of time hanging out with family and friends during my time there and we did some great things I hadn’t done before and I also had solo time to explore for a day. It has been great.

I stayed with family in a neighborhood about 20 minutes drive to the downtown area and it was wonderful. I had some great conversations with my cousins, played with the <5 year olds a whole bunch, and went out to various meals with them. While driving around on my own has been great I think I am looking forward to being a bit more sedentary again soon. This was a nice reminder that I can live that life just fine, too, while also exploring an area close to where I am.

Speaking of which, I spent a good amount of time in downtown Denver. I walked around the 16th Street Mall, explored the History Colorado Center for 3 hours (such a good museum), and walked along some river fronts near Union Station (where people were swimming in rivers my cousin said is somewhat polluted….). It was really cool to be in and near the station – there is a lot of history there with railroads going through it for decades. While it was a bit more decrepit for a while it has been amazingly redone and is still an active train station. There is also a hotel there that one day I want to go stay at (maybe when I have more money/time).

Food-wise, I went to Sam’s No.3 Downtown. I had some great pancakes and tried something my cousin-in-law suggested: green chili. It was a tasty, quick, diner meal. They didn’t have real maple syrup which aggravated me a bit, but it was still tasty and fluffy. For lunch I had some various bites at Union Station and ended with some amazing ice cream from a place called Milkbox. I thought it was funny that a ‘double’ school meant three actual scoops. A lot of ice cream was eaten 🙂

I also spent a day going on a hike with a friend from grad school and her husband. I’m glad it was a cloudy day because I forgot my sunscreen back at my cousin’s house. Oy. It was great to get out and go for a hike – we had some great conversation and I saw some great views of the Rockies from the plateau we were on. And there were horses on the trail! That was pretty cool (and I was able to not step on their poop piles….).

It was a great time and I’ll be glad to get back on the road for my last week.

Road Trip Post #9

I’ve been having too much fun to write recently. Oy, what a hardship on a road trip, right?

I spent three days in the Bay Area and they were great. Visiting old friends and meeting new ones is always a fun time in my book and fulfills one of my main goals of this summer: seeing people. So a bunch of my time was spent either catching up with folks or spending time with new friends. I am doing a lot better at reaching out to talk to people who I haven’t spoken to in a while and it’s truly invigorating. If you ever have the desire to do that, please listen to that little voice in your head urging you to. The fear of ‘what will they think if I reach out’ is a valid question but the most likely answer is ‘oh, hey, it’s great to hear from you!’

I also went to a few different places while there. I spent a but of time on University Ave near Stanford. I’d never been there before but it was quite nice. And the ice cream selection at Salt and Straw is incredible. I had a vegan mint chip ice cream that was amazing! I also spent 4.5 hours at the Exploratorium on the Embarcadero. But, let’s be honest: that’s unsurprising. And one of my hosts gave me a driving tour of downtown San Francisco. I learned about the four railroad tycoons who had massive houses at the top of Nob Hill. Very impressive. I also took a day to explore a bit of Oakland. There was a very interesting flea market. I went there on a Friday so it didn’t have as much stuff at it as on the weekend, but it was still quite enjoyable. I also checked out a second-growth redwood forest nearby for a bit of tree bathing – it was very nice and calm. And I capped it off by getting a beer at Temescal Brewing, a place a friend has some kind of vested interest in.

After San Francisco, I drove through Davis, CA on my way to the California State Railroad Museum. Davis was home to a friend and colleague of my mom’s who gave me a bit of a tour of the local farmer’s market, which turns out to be quite extensive. So many different options of farmer, some great prepared food stalls, and amazing baked goods. I had a mini chocolate babka – so tasty! I then spent a couple of hours exploring the trains and the history of CA railroads, a-la those four tycoons mentioned earlier. A lot of history and a lot of train cars. Unfortunately, most were closed for entry due to COVID protocols. But there was an amazing toy train exhibit that was so cool. I didn’t realize there were so many different sizes of model trains. I had some growing up that I think were size N but since I wasn’t paying attention then I can’t remember.

There were many hours of driving and a time zone crossing to get to Moab, Utah, where I have been the past two days. I decided to be here for longer than average in order to truly enjoy the local national parks: Arches and Canyonlands. They do not disappoint. I took the advice of TripAdvisor and the Washington Post and got the Arches at 7am so that I could make sure to get into parking lots and do some hikes before the massive heat of the day (it was already 84 degrees at that time). I spent 4.5 hours weaving around small roads, doing some small hikes around the arches, and taking in all the red rocks. It is amazing how geology unfolds in such a way to make these beautiful structures. I really wanted to go to a place called the Fiery Furnace, where there are shafts of red rocks that you climb through, but it required a permit or a guide and I had neither. Instead, I got to check out various other arches (Window, Delicate, Pine Tree, Landscape, etc. – they are all named). It was great.

I took a break mid-day to eat some food and get some air conditioning back in my hotel, then went to Canyonlands for an afternoon drive. A ranger told me there are fewer trails so I just drove from view point to view point. The park itself is mostly on top of the ridge line that overlooks the canyons so you can get an incredible view for miles around. There were remnants of earlier mining operations (like for uranium – who knew?) and some old roads that you can mountain bike on or take a 4×4 all terrain vehicle. Crazy stuff. I just enjoyed looking over the erosion caused by rivers over the eons. It was beautiful.

My next stop is Denver for a few days which should be full of seeing friends and family.

Road Trip Post #8

San Diego is cool, both in the sense that fun things happen there and that it has a lower temperature than Phoenix, AZ. BY A LOT. As I drove towards the city the temperature slowly dropped from the 115 degree heat of AZ to a nice 75 degrees in CA. I got out of the car and didn’t immediately get hit by a wave of intensity. It was much nicer.

I spent a day and a half in the city enjoying my time with a close friend who was an amazing tour guide. He showed me around a lot and made sure I had good food to eat and good experiences to write about. The day I arrived we caught up and immediately headed to Sunset Cliffs where, surprise surprise, you can watch the sunset from some cliffs. It was quite an amazing vista and so close to where he lives! We got some tasty Mexican food and sat on a bench overlooking the ocean. He lamented the fact that it wasn’t perfectly cloudless, so I wasn’t going to see the real sunset. I thought it was pretty f-ing spectacular anyway.

The next day we headed out to Point Loma, an awesome spot overlooking where Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo landed on his expedition to the western coastline of the New World. Of course, the area was not without inhabitants, but he is credited with the first European ‘discovery’ of the land. His name is everywhere – monuments, parks, schools, storefronts. Geeze. It was pretty cool to see the National Monument (free because of my National Parks pass!) and we hiked up a bit to the lighthouse and around to where there used to be a fort during World War II. Some folks go whale watching from the area there but we couldn’t see any. There was a great view of the naval station there and we saw a Destroyer be slowly moved from one side to the other. It was pretty cool.

After that we went to Balboa Park, an awesome central public space in San Diego filled with museums, walkways, trails, etc. Many things were not open but since we weren’t trying to be there for that long anyway it was fun to check out the cactus garden, rose garden, mini-train, and the cool architecture.

The last thing we did that day was a sunset kayaking trip on the coastline. There are seven caves in La Jolla that people have explored/used over the years and we went on a group tour of them. Mostly the trip involved some intense arm workout in a life jacket with some funny jokes from our tour guide. We did get to go into and out of one of the caves and learned that a second one was used for smuggling of various things during and after prohibition. It was a fun thing to do for someone passing through.

As always, it was a great time to explore and I’m glad I went. I think I’ll probably come back again as it’s a city I haven’t been to very much and it’s near LA, where I want to return to in the future.

One last thing: this morning I drove on the Pacific Coastal Highway on my way to San Francisco (where I am now). There were some wonderful vistas to behold but my favorite part was the Elephant Seal Rookery. There were about 25 of them molting and keeping warm together but also fighting and making the strangest noises. It was great.