Banning Airbnb in Lawrence, Kansas???

Tomorrow evening, the City Commission of Lawrence, Kansas will discuss short term rentals in the city.  I have some very strong feelings about the subject and made sure I completed the survey the city sent out several months ago.  My perspective is not one of someone who owns a short term rental or who has any plans to have one in the future, but instead, is that of someone who has a great deal of experience using services such as Airbnb when traveling both throughout the United States, and internationally.


My husband and I have been customers of Airbnb since 2013 when our first experience with the service was renting an apartment with my parents in Barcelona, Spain.  The apartment was located one block from Sagrada Familia and, from the balcony of the apartment, we had a spectacular view of the cathedral from an angle few tourists would ever have the opportunity to experience.  None of us spoke Spanish, but we were able to communicate with our host (who spoke no English) easily through the Airbnb platform.  The apartment was across the street from a grocery store and in the same block as many local restaurants.  Because we were able to get such a great deal on the apartment through Airbnb, we spent significantly more just being “tourists” in a city we fell in love with.

Since our trip to Barcelona, back in 2013, we have been completely sold on the sharing economy idea of Airbnb.  We do not travel anywhere for pleasure without looking for an Airbnb property to stay in.  In fact, since 2013, the only time I have stayed in a hotel was when I was traveling for work, and we have even started to shift business travel lodging to Airbnb when possible, because it allows for collaboration between colleagues in an environment that isn’t full of the hustle and bustle of a hotel lobby.  We can sit around a dining room table and debrief all the things we learned at a conference, or we can work on presentations while sitting comfortably on a couch in the living room.  It’s really a fantastic way to travel with colleagues.

Vancouver, BC
London, UK
Washington, DCBoston, MAAustin, TX

My husband and I have stayed in Airbnb properties all across the US (Seattle, Downtown Kansas City (twice), Austin (twice), Denver, Washington, DC, the North Shore of Oahu, and Boston) and internationally in London (twice), Vancouver (in the same apartment on three separate trips), and Barcelona.  We feel like utilizing available short term rentals allows us to experience cities like locals do.  We eat at more neighborhood restaurants, shop at more locally-owned stores, spend more money, and really get to know each city we visit.  Because we’re able to experience the true nature of each city, we find ourselves much more connected to each place and much more likely to return for another trip.  Additionally, booking through services such as Airbnb has allowed us to stay in areas that are much closer to city centers and in much more popular areas for far less than we would have had to pay to stay in a hotel.  I can say, without a doubt, that we have been able to travel more and visit more destinations because we are booking with Airbnb rather than with a hotel.  Hotels in many of the destinations we have visited would have made the trip cost-prohibitive.

Lawrence is a city that’s primed to make people fall in love with it.  I’ve lived here my whole life and my love for this city is contagious.  Whenever I have friends coming into town, or even old high school friends coming home to visit for a holiday, I feel compelled to tell them about all of my favorite places in Lawrence and about all the new places that I’ve recently had the opportunity to love.  In my experience, Airbnb hosts are some of the very best ambassadors of the cities in which they have property.  They want the experience of their guests to be as positive as possible.  They want those guests to come back.  They want people to love place they call home as much as they do.

I understand the purpose of regulating short term rentals, but I’ve encouraged our City Commission to do it in a way that will not suffocate their existence in Lawrence.  By keeping them around, we’re encouraging people who love the sharing economy to add Lawrence to their list of desired destinations.  I’m certain people staying in these properties are spending more money in town than those who are staying at a hotel.  My husband and I are those people in other communities and we wouldn’t want it any other way.

 

 

 

 

Managing a Multi-State Project with a Cadre of Technology Tools

When working intensely on a complex project with a group of people scattered across the country, completing even the smallest of tasks seems nearly impossible. Who hasn’t seen the infamous “A Conference Call In Real Life” parody video and seen all their own conference call experiences flash before their eyes? The ability to communicate effectively across the entire remote team is paramount to the success of many of the projects we have here at CPPR.

I have a personal love of technology and thrive on the process of finding and testing tools that might make the remote communication process smoother. The current project I coordinate has partners in four different states, spread across seven organizations, providing a great opportunity to do some of this testing. Over the last several months, my project team has utilized a cadre of tools (which some team members had never had the opportunity to use before) that are helping our remote team of partners build momentum and move us toward our end goal. An added benefit is that most of the tools we have settled on can be used for FREE**. Below, I will introduce you to the tools that we have had the most success with.

Using Google Docs for Grant Writing

Version control is a phrase that I hear like nails on a chalkboard. When you’re writing as a team, trying to keep track of who is making edits in a document at any point in time, making sure they’re editing the correct version, then making sure the correct version is passed along to the next editor. . . is all one big, complicated, and tedious job. With Google Docs, multiple writers from each of the partner organizations can have the document open at the same time, all contributing to the same final product at once. Without a doubt, this process saves our team many hours of time on edits and additions. Here’s a great video on how to use Google Docs to collaborate with your own teams.

Using Zoom Video Conferencing for Regular Calls

Another hiccup that can come up with remote teams is live communication. “When should we talk?” “How should we run our calls?” “Who should be on the calls?” These are all questions we asked ourselves when we started work on this project. Ultimately, we decided that we would need to have in-person meetings a few times per year. Our first meeting was held over three days, on the campus of James Madison University and, in July, the partners visited our team here at the University of Kansas for our second meeting.

For our biweekly meetings, we decided to try video conferencing, as we get our best work done when we can see one another. Video calls were going to be our best option since we’re spread so widely across the country and can’t justify the cost of in-person meetings more than a few times a year. While we tried several different video conferencing services, it wasn’t until the University of Kansas offered access to all staff earlier this year that we settled on Zoom as the tool we would use going forward. Zoom offers the ability to have device-based video and audio from all participants, a calling feature for times when someone can’t log in using a computer, and the ability to share screens — all very important features that make this tool work well for our needs.

To prepare for these regular calls, we use Google Docs to share an agenda ahead of time so that no one is surprised by what we’re talking about on any given week. Included in these agendas are links to relevant files so that people can review them prior to the call and access them easily while the call is happening. This also allows us to know when we need to move a topic to another week if the correct stakeholder will not be able to join us on that week’s call.

Additional Communication Tools

Slack. In addition to calls, we started using Slack to communicate between scheduled Zoom meetings. Slack is a relatively new communication tool for teams where you can have threaded conversations about any topic. Separate channels can be set up for discussion by subject, and people can subscribe to just the channels that are relevant to their work. Private channels can be set up for topics that don’t need full-team discussion. In addition to the channel feature, Slack includes a function allowing private, direct messages to be sent between team members, providing a quick option to reach someone for an immediate need or request, or just to share news. Slack also includes the ability to add files and images to your teams’ channels, which are easily searchable through the search feature. A lesser-known feature available is one-to-one video calling. While this option only exists in a one-to-one scenario in the free version of the tool, calls between up to 15 people are available in the paid version.

TrelloFor project management and tracking, we’re using Trello. Trello takes the Japanese Kanban technique of project management and puts it into an easy to use web-based tool. Teams use boards to create lists (for example, “To Do”, “In Progress”, and “Completed”). Within those lists, team members can create cards for each task that needs to be completed. Each card (task) can be assigned a due date, and be tasked to an individual or multiple individuals on the team. Checklists, files, photos, notes, and updates can also be attached to each card. When a card is complete, it can be archived, deleted, or moved to the “Completed” list for archival purposes. This process helps keep the team on task and informed about where everyone is on each of their assigned tasks within the project.

Conclusion

Moving into my job here at the Center for Public Partnerships and Research two years ago was a real leap of faith for me. Having spent nearly a decade in the corporate worlds of finance and insurance, I had no experience writing grants or even being involved in the grant-writing process. Using these tools has made the transition much smoother.

The work we do here at CPPR is life-changing, not just for the people whose programs we work with, but for our staff, as well.

We’re working every day to make a difference in the lives of families across the country, and hopefully, soon, across the globe. With a limited amount of funding available, it’s always important to be mindful of opportunities to make a project more cost-effective. Using free or relatively low-cost technology tools for collaboration and communication can take a large cost burden out of the management of projects. The tools I’ve mentioned here today are not only playing a large part in the success of my project, but in projects across CPPR.

Incorporating new technology into daily activities can be painful for some, but the temporary growing pains are worth the reward when working with remote teams. Being intentional about which tools you choose to incorporate is important. Introduce too many new tools at once, or without a solid use-case, and team members may become overwhelmed or reject them completely. However, when your team finds the right balance, tasks are completed with less confusion and delay, team members always know what they are responsible for and what their deadlines are, and the lines of communication stay open.

Dipping your toe in the ocean of organizational, communication, and project management tools available right now can be scary, and overdoing it is definitely a risk, but don’t let yourself be frightened of trying something new. Here at CPPR, we know that we can only be navigators of social change by taking risks, exploring innovative ideas, and encouraging our partners and colleagues to embrace the opportunity to find the right technology tool for the job.

Intro Videos for the tools mentioned here:
Google Docs
Zoom
Slack
Trello

**Zoom, Slack, and Trello have premium versions that are not free. Those versions have additional features that haven’t been necessary to use with my project, but may provide an added benefit to others. Each tool’s website clearly discloses their pricing structure for their premium product.

How to Experience New Orleans Like a Local

One of the favorite parts of traveling for Josh and I is trying to experience every place we visit as if we were a local.  Because Josh lived about an hour outside the city prior to Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans was one of the first cities I was able to ease into this travel style.

My definition of traveling like a local means avoiding the typical tourist traps (with a few exceptions – who isn’t going to stop at Cafe DuMonde when in the French Quarter???), eating at restaurants that are off the beaten path, enjoying the amenities cities provide for their citizens (parks, museums, etc.), and taking time to just explore.

After our first trip to New Orleans together, Josh and I compiled a list of recommendations for a friend who was planning her own trip.  I’ve saved that list and every time another friend is planning a trip, I make sure to offer it up, as my contribution to their trip planning.  We have friends who have come home and raved about our recommendations and one who lets me know every time she goes back to one of the restaurants we originally recommended when she visits the city.  

Below is our list of recommendations.  I hope they are as beneficial to you as they have been to some of our other friends.

(Photo Credit: Bacchanal Wine)

Bacchanal

600 Poland Avenue

Bacchanal is in the ‘super cool’ Bywater neighborhood.  It’s a wine store, but out back, they have a pop-up restaurant where you can enjoy live music while relaxing on patio furniture sipping your favorite cocktail or a local Abita beer.  When the weather is nice, it’s an experience that can’t be beat!  Bacchanal has been featured on Top Chef several times, as well as on the HBO show Treme.

(Source: Follow Me Foodie)

Cochon Restaurant

930 Tchoupitoulas Street

Cochon is a restaurant and butcher.  The butcher shop is next door to the restaurant, and provides all of the meat for the restaurant.  It was one of the best meals we’ve ever had in New Orleans.  It’s run by famous New Orleans Chef, Donald Link, who was one of the first chefs back in the city after Hurricane Katrina.  He’s been on Top Chef multiple times and his food is exceptional!

(Source: Mid-City Lanes Rock N Bowl via Facebook)

Rock N’ Bowl

3000 South Carrollton Avenue

If you like bowling and live music (or just live music), Rock N’ Bowl is a spot you shouldn’t miss.  It’s a really cool live music venue that happens to be housed in a bowling alley.  Many fantastic musicians have played at Rock N’ Bowl and it’s a favorite spot for locals to catch their favorite New Orleans bands.  

 

(Source: Willie Mae’s Scotch House)

Willie Mae’s Scotch House

2401 Saint Anne St

Willie Mae’s Scotch House serves the very BEST fried chicken in the country.  But plan accordingly. . . They’re open for lunch and serve until they run out.  You’ll want to get there early because they do sell out.  On one of our trips, we actually ate at Willie Mae’s twice because we thought it was so good.  The restaurant was wiped out by Katrina and the community came together to rebuild it.  

(Source: Napolean House)

Napolean House

500 Chartres Street

Have a Pimm’s Cup here if you get a chance.  It was invented here and Josh loves it.  Their muffaletta is also pretty phenomenal.  🙂  It’s in the French Quarter.

Your Favorites?

What are your favorite New Orleans spots?  Comment with your recommendations and I’ll be sure to add them to my list to check out the next time we’re there!

 

 

 

 

 

The impact of a hurricane: One person’s experience with Hurricane Katrina

Author’s Note: This is an article I wrote for an assignment in my Master’s program.  It ended up being three times as long as it needed to be, so I’m posting it here in order to be able to share the entire story, rather than just a part of it.  If the writing seems different than my normal style, it’s because that’s what the assignment required.

Hurricane Katrina is one of those events that people talk about and everyone remembers what they were doing when they first heard the storm made landfall.  In that aspect, it is similar to the death of Princess Diana or the assassination of John F. Kennedy.  But Hurricane Katrina was very different because it impacted millions of people all along the Gulf coast and far into the rest of the United States.

When most people think of Hurricane Katrina, they think of the devastation they saw on the news in New Orleans and the flooding that happened after the levees were breached.  Josh Davis has a unique perspective of the hurricane, as he lived a half-block from the beach in Long Beach, Mississippi.  This interview explores a lesser known, but still very real, experience of someone who escaped Hurricane Katrina’s wrath from the beach in Mississippi, but still lost everything.

Making the Decision to Leave

Davis didn’t watch a lot of news around the time of the hurricane, but his friends had started talking about it.  Hurricane Ivan had been the previous fall and he had evacuated during that storm, so he knew the drill.  Only when he saw people boarding up the windows of the local K-Mart, did it really hit him that something significant was likely going to occur.

Conversations for about half a week prior to the storm making landfall were dominated with talk of preparations and evacuation.  “People were talking about whether or not they had family inland and where they were going to go,” Davis said. “Since I lived a half-block from the beach, many of my neighbors were talking about what to do with their 2nd car and their animals.”

Based on the forecast, there wasn’t ever really any question about whether or not he would be evacuating. It was more a matter of when.  Davis lived in a complex of rental townhomes and spoke with his landlord about the plans for boarding up the properties.  They came to board things up on Friday and Davis left town very early Sunday morning to beat the anticipated high volume of evacuation traffic.  Davis knew the manager of the poker room at the Grand casino in Tunica, Mississippi, who was able to get him a room at the casino hotel, where he stayed for five days.

What to Take

Since he had been through an evacuation before, he already knew which items he would be taking with him and what he would leave behind.  Davis worked from a home office, so he knew that he needed to take equipment to be able to continue working.  He packed 2 computers, four computer monitors, a large monitor stand, power strips and modems, as well as a week’s worth of clothes into his small Chevy Blazer.  He also packed important documents, like his passport, and a folder of personal mementos.  “I didn’t take a lot,” he said.

He remembers specifically, one piece of clothing he took with him.  “I took my B.U.M. brand sweatshirt I bought in Wichita when I was in high school,” he said.

Although he didn’t take much with him, he did put a lot of thought into how he wanted to leave his house.  Davis spent several days moving items from the first floor of his townhouse to the second floor, to try to avoid the flooding that was sure to happen.  “I hauled over 2,000 CDs, my whole glass art collection, basically anything that wasn’t nailed down or too big to move, upstairs.  I figured if I got everything to the 2nd floor, it would still be salvageable,” Davis remembered.

Davis had just purchased a brand new bedroom set, so he put everything he could on top of the bed before he left town.  The only items that remained on the first floor were the television, couches, dining room table, brand new washer and dryer and items in the kitchen cabinets.

Recalling the items he left behind, if he had it to do over again, Davis would have taken pieces of his glass art and CD collections.  “With my limited space, if I had known how bad it was going to be, I would have taken my CDs and I would have taken the time to pack up three or four pieces of my glass art collection.”

Staying Behind

Davis didn’t personally know anyone in his neighborhood who stayed behind.  “Quite a few people went inland a mile, ten miles, or an hour.  Anyone who stayed in my neighborhood would have died.  Everything was gone.  I was a half-block from the beach and there were no structures remaining, just concrete foundations.”  About a mile inland from the beach, there was an elevated railroad track that helped keep much of the storm surge from impacting the rest of Long Beach, but anything that was between the beach and the railroad track was destroyed by the storm surge.  “Even today, very little of what was there before has been rebuilt,” Davis said.

Emotions Run High

Watching the news coverage of the damage was particularly difficult for Davis.  He spent a lot of time in the casino hotel fitness center, watching the news.  He remembers crying several times throughout the five days he was in the hotel and going back to his hotel room to email or call friends and family members.  “Everyone was just saying it was really bad,” he remembered.  “I cried thinking that I would probably not see some people again, not knowing if they made it or not, and realizing that this was devastating enough that we wouldn’t likely all be back together geographically again any time soon.”

Davis didn’t know he had lot everything until he was able to talk to his friend, Jessica.  She told him that although no one had been able to get to his neighborhood, there were planes flying overhead, taking aerial shots and they could tell that everything was gone.

Moving Ahead

By this time, it was clear to Davis that he wouldn’t be returning to Long Beach, so he had to decide where he wanted to go.  “I think I decided that since I had all of my stuff in the Blazer still, I would come back to Kansas and stay with my parents,” he remembered.  Davis left Tunica and drove to Marquette, Kansas to stay with his parents for five days, where he decided what he wanted to do next.

Davis considered flying to Portland, Oregon to look for property, but decided instead to drive to Lawrence, Kansas for a couple of days.  He had gone to the University of Kansas for his undergrad and had a cousin who still lived in Lawrence.  During his trip to Lawrence, he picked up a couple of local newspapers to look for housing.  “It was about three o’clock in the afternoon and I was sitting at the bar at The Replay, looking through the papers for a place to rent.  I ended up at a property management office for the lofts at Tenth and New Hampshire, signed the lease and went back to Central Kansas to get my stuff,” Davis recalled.  His cousins and parents helped him move into the new loft the next day.

First Time Back

Davis returned to Long Beach for four days in October 2005.  At the time, he hadn’t ruled out moving back to the area, and before the storm, he had even been casually looking at property to buy in the Bywater neighborhood of New Orleans.  After visiting the area and seeing the damage and resulting housing shortage, he decided to stay in Lawrence.  “There’s still a housing shortage in the Long Beach area today.  Some of my friends were living in FEMA trailers or had stayed in their homes further inland that weren’t damaged.  There was just so much construction going on at the time.  Since I didn’t grow up there, I didn’t have as strong pull to go back,” he remembered.

While back in Long Beach, Davis and some of his friends went back to the site of his townhouse.  There, they found one of the computers he’d left behind completely packed with dirt.  Before he returned to town, one of his friends, Shannon, had been walking in the area and found one of his pieces of glass art, almost fully intact, and saved it for him.  He still has the piece displayed in his home today.

Silver Linings

Over the years, through his work, Davis had become a part of a strong online community.  The manager of the poker room at the Grand, in Tunica, who had secured the hotel room for him to stay in, posted in the online community about Davis’ situation.  The community wanted to help.  A week later, the community had raised over $5,000 to help Davis rebuilt his life.  “It was a true testament to how powerful online communities can be,” Davis said.

Not So Silver Linings

After the storm, Davis was never able to get a hold of his previous landlord.  This meant that he wasn’t able to get his security deposit back.  In 2015, Davis was notified that he had a lien on his credit report for unpaid taxes for 2005, the year of the storm.  He had paid all applicable taxes up until the point he left Mississippi, but because of the damage and loss of all of his records, he had no way to prove it.  The lien was filed in 2009, but he hadn’t received any notice of it because the state was mailing letters to an address that no longer existed.

Moving On

Today, Davis is still living in Lawrence, Kansas, with his wife, Amanda, two dogs and two cats.  They own a home in East Lawrence and are very involved in the community.  When asked if he would ever consider living in an area prone to hurricanes again, he was brief in his answer, “Yes, although unlikely, since I like Lawrence so much.”

The First Five Days of the Next Four Years

This is a letter I am planning to send to my representatives in Congress tomorrow, but I wanted to share it here in case it’s helpful to anyone else in their own generation of letters.

 

Dear Senators Roberts & Moran and Representative Jenkins,

I would like to take a moment to thank you for your service as a member of Congress.  I am a constituent in the 2nd Congressional District of Kansas who has voted in each and every national, state, and local election since I turned 18. I find it incredibly difficult to even begin to express my feelings about all of the actions that have been taken since Donald Trump was inaugurated just 5 days ago. Every new Breaking News alert I receive makes me cringe just a little bit more and makes me want to stop paying attention to the news, all together. But that’s what he seems to want and I’m not going to stop being informed. Because most of this country chose to do that, we ended up electing a President who cares very little about the people he is representing and who only cares to advance his own agenda, make the rich richer, and leave behind all those who were not born with the same opportunities as he happens to have been.

I believe in basic human decency. I believe in genuinely caring about the people around you and that we’re all human beings. We all have people who love us and would be devastated if those people’s’ lives were put in jeopardy. I believe in the values that this country has always stood for. Freedom and Equality for ALL, not just those who were born into the right families or have connections to the right people. I believe in compassion and concern for the well-being of others and just being NICE to one another.

What is happening in Washington, DC right now, goes against everything I believe in. Allow me to explain:

Affordable Care Act Repeal

This country is significantly behind other first world countries across the globe on this issue. What started as a plan to make sure that all Americans could receive the medical care they needed was so bastardized through compromises in Congress that it’s no wonder it has flaws in its current state. Although there are flaws, its existence means that millions of Americans now have the ability to go to the doctor when they are ill and get the care they need before a common cold turns into something much, much worse, and requires significantly more money and resources to treat.

I’m sure that most people in power in Washington have never had to worry about how they would pay to go to the doctor, but many in this country are not as fortunate. People put off going to the doctor for years because they can’t afford treatment, only to find out that they have stage 4 cancer that could have been cured or avoided if they’d gone to the doctor sooner.

None of this accounts for those who had no other choice. Take my own mother, for example. She and my father have been happily married for 35 years. Before I was born, she was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis and multiple sclerosis. These two diseases can be completely debilitating when not treated. When I was 8, my mother quit working to take care of her health and take care of my sister and I. She was fortunate to have that opportunity because my father had a corporate job with good benefits and made enough that we would be able to survive on his salary, alone.

My parents happen to have a 5-year gap in their ages, so when my father was ready to retire from his Executive Vice President position at an aviation consulting firm, my mother still had 5 years before she would have qualified for Medicare. Fortunately, COBRA covered them for a while, until the Affordable Care Act went into place and she was able to purchase acceptable insurance from the Health Insurance Marketplace. Previously, because of these pre-existing conditions, she would not have been able to qualify for health insurance.

Fast forward to today. . . my mother doesn’t turn 65 until August, so she still has 7 and a half months without Medicare. The medication that she has been taking for the last 35 years to keep her MS and UC at bay has caused the devastating side effect of cirrhosis of the liver (in a woman who has had maybe one beer in her life) and her 2016 Marketplace plan didn’t cover the liver specialists at the University of Kansas Medical Center, just 40 minutes from her house, even though they are the only specialists in the area who had the ability to treat her. Luckily, I was able to help my parents navigate the system to find a plan for 2017 that covers the doctors she needs to get treatment, but if Congress repeals the Affordable Care Act with no replacement and with no clause for pre-existing conditions, there’s a chance my mother will not make it to her 65th birthday. I’m not ready to lose my mother, especially to something that can be treated.

I urge you to think about the millions of stories, similar to my mom’s before you vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act. If you’re going to repeal it, have something better to replace it with, and please, please, please, make sure there is some kind of clause that doesn’t make  a pre-existing condition a death sentence.

De-funding of Planned Parenthood

While I realize that many people in this country have never been in a position to need the services that Planned Parenthood provides, myself included, that doesn’t mean those services aren’t needed by our fellow Americans. Some people believe that Planned Parenthood does nothing more than serve as a revolving door for those looking to have an abortion, but that’s not true, nor has it ever been.

Planned Parenthood started as a birth control clinic in 1916 in Brooklyn, New York. In 1921, it became The American Birth Control League and changed its name to Planned Parenthood in 1942. Planned Parenthood is the largest supplier of reproductive health services in the United States. Allow me to elaborate on what “reproductive health services” include:

  • birth control
  • long-acting reversible contraception
  • emergency contraception
  • clinical breast examinations
  • cervical cancer screening
  • pregnancy testing
  • pregnancy options counseling
  • testing and treatment for sexually transmitted infections
  • sex education
  • vasectomies
  • LGBT services
  • abortion

While many proclaim that abortion is the only thing that Planned Parenthood does, they refuse to acknowledge all of the other positive things the organization provides for its clients. By removing options like the Affordable Care Act and Planned Parenthood, we’re just setting people up to fail. Without appropriate reproductive health services available, people do not get treatment that they need, year after year.

99% of abortions provided by Planned Parenthood require that no Federal funds be used to perform them. “Passed by Congress in 1976, the Hyde Amendment excludes abortion from the comprehensive health care services provided to low-income people by the federal government through Medicaid. Congress has made some exceptions to the funding ban, which have varied over the years. At present, the federal Medicaid program mandates abortion funding in cases of rape or incest, as well as when a pregnant woman’s life is endangered by a physical disorder, illness, or injury.” (from the ACLU website)

While lawmakers sit in Washington with Federal health insurance, those who can not afford their own coverage will be left without any options for care if Planned Parenthood is de-funded. The ramifications of this will be many and serious.

I urge you to fully fund Planned Parenthood, so that thousands of women across the country can continue to receive the reproductive health care they deserve.

Betsy DeVos

President Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education has no experience with public education or with managing a student loan. She has a degree in business administration and political science from a Liberal Arts college in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She has no graduate degree and no experience with any kind of public schooling in her entire life. She believes that there are instances where guns belong in schools, even after seeing how devastating school shootings can be to a community. Mrs. DeVos is not qualified to be nominated or confirmed for this position.

I urge you to reject the confirmation of Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education.

Censorship of Researchers and Government Agencies

The United States of America was founded on the principles of religious freedom and freedom of speech. Censoring government agencies and researchers goes against everything that this country stands for. Transparency is key to building solid relationships in any aspect of business or life. Restricting communications by government employees in positions such as National Parks and the USDA makes absolutely no sense and is just confirming the notion that President Trump wants to push the United States into a dictatorship.

I urge you to insist that all gag orders and censorship be removed from non-national security related government agencies and researchers.

Voter Fraud

The claims that President Trump has made about voter fraud are unfounded and blatantly untrue. The only examples he can give are hearsay from people who shouldn’t have even been voting in the first place (German citizens) and who claim to have never shared the story that the President is feeding to his staff, Congress, and the American people. This should not be tolerated, as it undermines the entire voting system that runs our country. If there was voter fraud, who is to say that it didn’t benefit him, when the only truly reported cases that have been disclosed involved his supporters and not any other candidates?

I urge you to put an end to voter fraud investigations and spend that money in a place that will do some good for humanity.

Building the Wall

The US Border with Mexico is 1,954 miles long. Building a wall along that border will cost hundreds of millions of dollars to taxpayers, pushing the US deficit higher and higher. This is an unacceptable use of taxpayer money. Building a wall along the US/Mexico border will not stop anyone from entering the country illegally. We have borders along the Pacific Ocean (7,623 miles), Atlantic Ocean (2,069 miles), Gulf of Mexico (1,631 miles), Alaska (1,060 miles)  and between the US and Canada (4,000 miles). Building a wall along the US/Mexico border will just waste taxpayer money, as people who want to get into the country illegally have over 16,000 miles of other opportunity that won’t have a wall.

I urge you to block the building of a wall along the US/Mexico border to preserve precious taxpayer dollars.

Immigration

The United States is a nation largely populated by immigrants. How many of us can say that someone in our family did not immigrate here?  Personally, my great grandfather and his brothers immigrated here from Ireland in the early 1900s. They built lives and families in Northeast Kansas and, for the most part, our extended family still remains within 100 miles of the original homestead. Millions of Americans share similar stories. Some arrived earlier than others, and some were already here when new people started arriving.

The United States is supposed to be a melting pot of cultures. We boast some of the greatest museums in the world, filled with pieces that display the diversity that makes this country so great. Restricting immigration means that people of the current generation won’t have the same opportunity to come to America and build their own American dream, as our ancestors did. If the Native Americans had turned away our ancestors, none of us would be here today, engaging in the political process.

I urge you to reject the restriction of immigration to the United States.

Torture

Torture is a strict violation of the Geneva Convention and should never be brought up as an option in the discussion of how to handle criminals, no matter the crime. The brave men and women of our Armed Forces have fought to keep America free from torture. Your colleague, Senator John McCain, says it best:

“I don’t give a damn what the president of the United States wants to do. We will not waterboard. We will not torture people … It doesn’t work.”

I urge you to immediately stand against President Trump’s calls for torture of prisoners, no matter their crime.

Dakota Access Pipeline

It seems as though there is a new report about a pipeline leak every day. Allowing for the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline near the Missouri River stands to contaminate the water supply for millions of Americans in the heart of the country. If the water supply is compromised, that puts all of the best agricultural land in the country in jeopardy.

This doesn’t even take into account the blatant disregard for the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, who is being forced to give up the land that they were forced onto by generations that came before us. We’ve done enough damage to Native culture in this country. Taking even more land to continue a pipeline, rather than investing in clean, renewable energy is irresponsible and disrespectful to the generations that will come after us.

I urge you to take action to prevent the Dakota Access Pipeline from continuing construction on the currently laid-out path.

Blatantly Lying to the American People

Probably the most unsettling aspect of the 5 days since the inauguration of President Trump has been the complete disregard for the intelligence of the American people. From lying about voter fraud to lying about the size of the crowd at his inauguration, President Trump has made it clear that he will spread rumors faster than a middle school girl and has no intention of ever fact-checking a single piece of information he shares publicly. This can not continue. The American people have to be smarter than this. Congress has to be smarter than this.

The United States Constitution allows for a three-branch system to perform checks and balances so that things do not fall apart. At what point do executive orders stop being a “normal” part of everyday life and start to raise some concerns?  Taking advantage of an uneducated population who has become complacent with believing anything they hear from President Trump and his staff is unacceptable.

I urge you to stand up and say something about the lies that are being told to the American people. Saying nothing makes many of us believe that we are beginning to know what the Germans felt like as Hitler rose to power in the 1930s. Some may say this is hyperbole, but if President Trump’s first 5 days are any indication of what the next 4 years will hold, it’s not out of the realm of possibility.

Respectfully,

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kansas 2nd Congressional District

 

The Last Day with President Obama

On this day, the last day of the Presidency of Barack Obama, I want to reflect on what the last eight years have meant to someone who lives in a bright blue dot in the middle of a sea of red in the State of Kansas.  I love where I live and I love the people I choose to surround myself with, but I know that I would feel very differently if I were living in a more conservative part of Kansas.  I got lucky because my parents, who are not from Lawrence, chose to raise their family here.  They recognized that, not only did Lawrence make sense for a mother and father who were working in different cities, one in Topeka and one in Kansas City, but that Lawrence was a great place to make memories and to raise children who would grow up to care about those around them and have empathy for people and situations that some may not otherwise.

In 2008, I was an avid supporter of everything Barack Obama stood for.  Seven years prior, I was a sophomore in college when the attacks of September 11th happened and I was tired of seeing friends and former schoolmates come home from a war that never should have happened, broken and battered, and even a few in flag-draped coffins.  This wasn’t what I wanted for my future and wasn’t how I’d envisioned things turning out for my peers.  I was ready for a change and to have hope again and Barack Obama was the answer to those needs.

(Via Business Insider)

(Via Business Insider)

(Via Business Insider)

Affordable Care Act

Several years ago, my dad retired from his career of 40+ years.  Upon his retirement, he was old enough to qualify for Medicare, but my mom, who had been a stay-at-home mom since I was 8, when she took a buy-out from Santa Fe Railroad, won’t be 65 until this August.  Once the COBRA insurance from his company ran out, my mom was able to get a plan through the Health Insurance Marketplace.  After all of the compromises and blockades, it still wasn’t the best plan, but it was something.

About a year ago, after months and months of my mom’s health continually deteriorating and of her abdomen growing for no known reason, we convinced her that she needed to say something to her doctor.  Her primary doctor brushed it off as nothing, but when she was able to see her gastroenterologist, she was immediately sent to the hospital.  Something was clearly wrong and we assumed it was some kind of cancer.  It was actually cirrhosis of the liver, which was a side effect of over 30 years of medication for her Multiple Sclerosis and Ulcerative Colitis.  This medication was the only thing that has made her day-to-day activities tolerable, but the consequence of that was that a woman who I have seen drink only one sip of beer her entire life, now faces an eventual liver transplant, but her liver counts aren’t “bad enough” to be put on that list yet.

Since that diagnosis, my parents have had to jump through hoop after hoop to get my mom the medical care she needed.  The specialists at KU Medical Center were not covered by her original Marketplace plan, so she has been bounced back and forth with phone call after phone call trying to get an exception to be seen by the doctors who could actually help her condition.  I was able to navigate the Marketplace and get her signed up for an insurance plan for 2017 that will actually cover the doctors she needs, but that doesn’t come without a price tag.  Her monthly premium and annual deductible are astronomical, but at least she has the ability to see her specialist when she needs to now.

We are lucky in one sense. . . she only has to be covered through August.  They couldn’t possibly kill the Affordable Care Act before then, right?  But, as I’ve listened to what Congress is trying to do to the existing system by taking away guarantees for pre-existing conditions, it makes my stomach turn.

Like millions of other Americans, I have pre-existing conditions that would prevent me from being able to obtain my own health insurance if I didn’t work for a company that provided the benefit to their employees  in the future.  Josh is a contractor and receives no health insurance benefits through his company.  I’m not the only one in this boat if the proposed changes are made to the Affordable Care Act.

If the Affordable Care Act is removed, thousands of Americans, just like my mother, could die because they have no other insurance options.  Medical insurance companies have always been in the game to make money, not to actually help make people better.  If people get the treatment they need, long term, the companies could go out of business.  What reason do they actually have to help people?

That’s what made the Affordable Care Act so great.  It’s not perfect. . . I don’t proclaim that, at all.  But, it’s better than nothing and it’s certainly better than removing the pre-existing condition clause that allowed many Americans to get health insurance for the first time in their lives.

Without President Obama pushing for this change to the American landscape, this would not have happened, and I am forever grateful that he was able to champion this cause.

Gay Marriage

I would also like to take a moment to reflect on the changes that have happened in the LGBTQIA community over the last 8 years.  I have several very close friends who identify with this community and have always supported equality and equity for every human being.  Without the leadership of President Obama, it is very unlikely (especially if we had elected John McCain or Mitt Romney) that any advancement would have been made for Gay Rights over the last 8 years.

One of my favorite moments of the past 4 years was seeing photos of the White House lit up with rainbow colors on the day the Supreme Court declared same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states and all U.S. territories.  On that day, I joined friends in sharing happy tears for something that was far too long in the making.

Moving Forward

I’m certain there are other defining factors that people will take away from Barack Obama’s Presidency.  There are far too many positives to get into in a single writing.  But today, I implore others to take a moment to reflect on how the country has changed in the last 8 years and encourage everyone not to allow positive forward movement to stop with the inauguration of a new President.

The things we have accomplished in the last 8 years do not have to stop here.  Millions of Americans voted for a candidate who would have made it a priority to continue moving forward.  Millions of other Americans did not.  Today is the last day we have to be comfortable.  Tomorrow, if you’re not already fighting for what’s right, I encourage you to pick up the baton and continue fighting for what you believe in to make the world around you a kinder, and gentler place.

But for today, remember how amazing this man has been and be grateful for the time we had this “once in a lifetime” President.  Thank you, Mr. President!

 

 

 

 

P.S. The Daily Beast did a great job of putting together a selection of Pete Souza’s photos from the last 8 years.

 

 

Getting Started as a Guest with Airbnb

My First Airbnb Experience

For someone from the Midwest, my experience with Airbnb started out pretty spectacularly. My parents, husband, and an extended family member were traveling to Barcelona to board a Mediterranean cruise and we needed a place to stay for a couple of days. We wanted someplace that was pretty close to the Hop-On-Hop-Off bus route so that we could do that one of the days we were there and close to the top tourist attraction in all of Spain, the Sagrada Familia Basilica.

I’d never used Airbnb or VRBO before, but was really intrigued by the concept of renting an apartment that all 5 of us could share and split the expense of, rather than three separate hotel rooms where we would each have to spend about $200 per night. I decided to take a look at the options that were available on Airbnb and see what we might be able to get. I centered the map on the Sagrada Familia and started my search.

The first property I fell in love with was located about a block from Sagrada Familia and it looked like I may have hit the jackpot right out of the gate. I plugged in the dates we were looking for and discovered that the apartment was available when we were going to be there. Horray!

I put in my request for the dates and waited for the host to respond. I was a little bit intimidated by the language barrier (in hindsight, taking Latin in high school probably wasn’t the most logical choice), but Airbnb includes a super easy translation option, so when the host responded, her message had already been translated from Spanish to English. The apartment was available and we were approved to go ahead with the booking.

I was thrilled to be able to try out Airbnb for the first time with such an amazing location and apartment. This was the view from the balcony off the living room of the apartment:



We ended up spending $404 for three nights in a three-bedroom apartment a block from Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. If we’d booked a hotel, it would have been closer to $1,800.

Now, don’t get me wrong. . . if you want to drop some serious money on a spectacular place, you can definitely do that on Airbnb, but that’s not typically the direction we go. When I’m searching for places on Airbnb, I’m typically looking for something that’s relatively inexpensive, but in a convenient location, and the amenities we can’t live without (AC if it’s going to be warm, an elevator if it’s higher than the 3rd floor – luggage for 14-day trips can be heavy, and the appropriate number of bedrooms/beds if we’re traveling with more than just the two of us).

Beginning a Search

So, where do you begin a search? I highly recommend doing an internet search for the best neighborhoods for tourists in whichever city you might be traveling to. The search is likely to give you some good ideas, so you can start narrowing down your options. In larger cities, this can be a pretty daunting task. I, myself, got pretty overwhelmed trying to figure out where to begin looking for a place to stay in Los Angeles after an upcoming cruise and gave up, booking a return flight the same day we get off the ship.

Once you’ve found a general area you want to search in, you can center your map and get started. Make sure you pay attention to the prices listed, as those are a nightly rate, and additional fees may be included once you get to the booking page. Just be vigilant about paying attention to the total cost and you’ll be fine.

If you’re going to a city with a great public transportation system, I recommend trying to find a place that’s close to a bus stop or a subway station. Being close to transportation opens the entire city up to you, and with apps like Citymapper, you’re just a few clicks away from being a public transportation pro and not looking like a lost tourist.

Referral Program

Airbnb has a great referral program for members. If you refer a friend, they get a $35 Airbnb credit, and if they make a booking, you get $35 in Airbnb credit. If they decide to become an Airbnb Host, you get a $75 Airbnb credit when they book their first guests. If you don’t have an Airbnb account yet and would like to sign up, get a $35 credit yourself, and do some exploring, I’d be honored if you’d use my referral link: www.airbnb.com/c/adavis350. We try to use Airbnb exclusively when we travel, so the credit will certainly be put to good use on a future trip.

Business Travelers

In the last year or so, Airbnb has set up a program for business travelers.  If you are traveling for business, the site will now indicate whether or not the property you’re looking at has standard business amenities (WiFi, laptop-friendly workspace, smoke & CO detector, essentials, iron, hangers, hairdryer, and shampoo).

In March 2016, I used Airbnb for business travel for the first time.  Three of my colleagues and myself were traveling to Austin, Texas to attend SXSWedu (the education conference associated with South by Southwest’s larger festival, later in the month).  The experience allowed for significantly more face time with my colleagues, as we could gather around a dining room table each night to talk about the sessions we’d attended rather than around a tiny table in a loud hotel lobby. We were able to cook with each other, collaborate on work projects, talk about the sessions we were interested in attending the following day, and really get to know each other. It made for a fantastic travel experience and 3 brand new close friendships.

Extra Income

Airbnb isn’t just for travelers looking for a place to stay. It can also be a great way to make some additional income if you have extra space in your home, or if you travel a lot and your home is in a home in a high-demand location. I’m not super-familiar with the ins and outs of hosting on Airbnb, but it’s certainly an option for someone looking to make some additional money.

Entire Place or Private Room?

One thing I never thought I would want to do with Airbnb is to select the “Private Room” option when searching for a property.  I had always been pretty adamant that it would be weird to share a home with a stranger.  That was until I discovered the most fabulous place we’ve ever stayed and the first Airbnb property that we have plans to stay in for a second time. . .

In 2014, Josh and I took a Pacific Northwest vacation which included an Alaska cruise.  Prior to heading to Vancouver, BC to get on the cruise ship, we stayed in an Airbnb in Seattle, took a day trip to Orcas Island, in the San Juan Islands, to visit a friend of mine from childhood, and spent a few days staying with one of Josh’s childhood best friends, in Victoria, BC.  From Victoria, we flew into Vancouver to stay for a few days prior to the cruise.

Vancouver isn’t an inexpensive city, so many of the properties were out of our price range or weren’t close enough to the center of the city for our liking, so, on a whim, I selected the “Private Room” option rather than “Entire Place”.  I’m so glad I did, because we discovered a room in the 27th floor Penthouse apartment of a building in the center of Downtown Vancouver, within walking distance to everything we could ever want to see.  The views (below) from this apartment were like nothing I’d ever experienced before.  The amount of outdoor living space was almost as much as indoor, with an outdoor living room, dining room, and balconies off of each bedroom.  It was a truly incredible place and the hosts and their dog were fantastic. It was such a wonderful experience that, when we knew we would be sailing from Vancouver on our October Pacific Coast Wine Country cruise this year, I reached out to the hosts to see if their room would be available for us to stay in again.  I can’t wait to be back on those balconies and in the heart of Vancouver.  It quickly became one of our favorite cities in the world.




What’s Wrong With a Hotel?

Short Answer: Nothing. . . It’s what’s right about an Airbnb property that makes all the difference.  Josh and I truly enjoy experiencing the places we travel to.  We want to get to know the city and feel like a local.  A big part of making that happen comes with staying in a neighborhood, with people who actually live in the city.  While you might not get to meet the neighbors, you still have the opportunity to interact with your hosts both before and during your stay.  The connection with the host can be one of the best parts of the trip.  Hosts are familiar with the area, can give dining tips, can help you get a SIM card for your phone if you’re traveling in a country that’s not your own, and a multitude of other benefits.  Having someone in the city who you can connect with for questions can be invaluable.

Many hotels are situated in areas surrounded by other hotels and not really within a part of the city that would allow you to really feel what it would be like to live there.  Being able to go to a grocery store, bring home local food, and to cook for yourself, in a kitchen filled with local staples is something you could never do in a hotel.

There’s also a benefit to being able to have space to be separated from your travel companions.  For Josh and I, staying in an Airbnb property can be essential.  Josh has a bit of an odd sleeping schedule.  He typically goes to bed around 8pm and wakes up between 3 and 4am (he says he gets his best work done before anyone else wakes up).  I tend to go to sleep sometime around 11pm and I get up around 7am for work, or between 8 and 9am on weekends.  This schedule doesn’t work very well in a hotel room.  An Airbnb property, on the other hand, could have a living room and separate bedroom, which makes our trip much more enjoyable, as we can keep our sleep schedules without disrupting one another.

Now, I have nothing against hotels.  When we’re visiting a city for only one day, we tend to book a hotel because it may just be easier to stay close to the airport if we have an early flight.  But, when we’re staying for more than one night, we prefer the diversity and immersion that an Airbnb property allows, compared to a very cookie-cutter hotel option.

 

Past Trips

We’ve stayed in Airbnb properties in Barcelona, Seattle, Vancouver, Kansas City (twice), Austin, London (twice), Denver, and Washington, DC.  We’ve had fantastic experiences with each and every property and I know that our experience was significantly elevated because we were staying in an Airbnb property rather than in a traditional hotel.

 

Upcoming Reservations

In the next year, we have reservations booked at Airbnb properties on the North Shore of Oahu, back at the 27th floor penthouse apartment in Vancouver, and I’ll be heading back to Austin with colleagues for SXSWedu and SXSW for two weeks in March.  We’ve still got a couple of locations we haven’t booked yet, but we’ll be booking properties in Hong Kong, Tokyo, and back in Vancouver very soon.

 

Wrap-Up

Whether you’re a world traveler or not, Airbnb can be a good way to get out there and explore the world around you.  Immersing yourself in local culture and activities is one of the best ways to really experience a location and Airbnb is a fantastic way to make that happen.  Once you start using Airbnb, it’s unlikely that you’ll want to go back to a traditional hotel for your travels.  We certainly don’t plan to!
Some photos from some of our Airbnb stays:

 

So, you’re interested in booking your first cruise. . .

So, you're interested in booking your first cruise
I get asked quite frequently about my recommendations for first-time cruisers.  Having taken my first cruise in 2004 and having been an avid cruiser ever since, I like to think of myself as a good resource for people looking to plan their own cruising adventures.  I was able to convert my husband (who was staunchly opposed to cruising as a form of travel because he didn’t like the idea of being “stuck on a boat with nothing to do” for any length of time) into someone who sings the praises of cruising to everyone who asks.

Booking your first cruise can be incredibly overwhelming.  There are SO many options.  You have to choose a cruise line, a destination, a cabin, a dining time. . . the list keeps going.  There is so much to know and so many decisions to be made.  Below, I’ll try to help with some recommendations, from my 13 years of cruising experience.

Q: Which cruise line/ship should I choose?

This answer will depend on a few factors:

  • Do you want lots of activities to do on-board while the ship is at sea?

Most modern cruise lines have great activities on-board to keep guests entertained while they’re at sea, but some have more numerous options than others.  For example, some of Royal Caribbean’s largest ships have a carousel and aqua-theater on their ships.  Some of the larger Norwegian ships have Broadway musicals and Cirque du Soleil-style dinner theater entertainment on-board.  Disney’s ships are designed with Disney’s entertainment principles in mind.  You can see Disney elements in every aspect of the Disney cruise experience, from the design of the ship to the menus in the dining rooms.

  • Do you want lots of options for different dining venues?

Norwegian is known for their vast selection of options when it comes to dining on their ships.  Some of the larger ships have up to 23 or 24 dining venues on the ship.  These include the main dining rooms, but also venues like a Teppanyaki style restaurant, Brazilian steakhouse, sushi bar, tapas bar, Italian restaurant, and several others.  The Norwegian Escape even has a restaurant where you order everything from an iPad at your table.

Some more traditional ships have only a few options outside the main dining rooms, usually including an Italian restaurant and an American steakhouse.

Typically, specialty restaurants on a cruise ship charge a small fee, which will be added to your shipboard account, so keep that in mind when you’re budgeting for your cruise.

  • Are pools and water features important to you?

Some ships have better pools and water features than others.  The Norwegian Epic has a pretty fantastic water slide setup, with three slides, including the Epic Plunge.  Sister ships, Norwegian Getaway, Norwegian Breakaway, and Norwegian Escape have free-fall slides and the Escape touts an Aqua Racer slide so guests can race their friends and family members to the bottom.

If you’re looking for adults-only pool areas, many ships have restricted pool areas where all guests must be at least 16 or 18 to enter. These areas can be a respite, especially on cruises that happen over the summer or over school breaks.

  • Are you looking for a great spa experience?

All the major cruise lines have spa services.  If there’s something in particular that you want to make sure you have access to while you’re on vacation, be sure to research ahead of time to see which ships offer those services.

  • Are you traveling with children who will want to spend time with other kids?

All major cruise lines also have programs for kids and teens.  The availability and hours of the program will likely depend on the number of children on the ship.  Josh and I went on a Canada/New England cruise in October, out of Baltimore and found ourselves on a ship with 1,996 adult passengers and 4 children.  We’re not certain we ever saw three of the children, but the one we did see couldn’t have been over 1.

If you’ll be traveling with your children and want them to participate in a program with other kids, be sure to travel during a time when other kids are likely to be on-board (summer vacation, holiday breaks, spring break, etc.).

  • Are you traveling with small children, but you know you’re going to want an evening to yourself?

As with my recommendation about kids programming, if you’re expecting to have an evening child-free on your cruise, you’ll either want to be sure you travel during a school break or be ready to pay a few dollars for someone from the kids program staff to babysit your child for a few hours.  Most lines offer a childcare service after their normal children’s program hours, especially on formal nights.

Overall, our favorite line is Norwegian.  We appreciate all of the different options for dining and the laid back feel of their ships.  They also have the best guest loyalty program for us (double points when you book at least 9 months in advance).  We’ve also cruised on Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Princess, and Holland America.  We probably wouldn’t sail on Carnival again and prefer Princess and Holland America to Royal Caribbean.  That being said, we just came back from a Canada/New England cruise in October on Royal Caribbean and will be sailing Hawaii to Vancouver on Royal Caribbean in May.  We tend to book based on itinerary rather than ship or cruise line.

Q: Where should I cruise?

This question is also up for debate.

  • Do you have a destination in mind?

If you have one destination in mind, that’s a good place to start building your options.  Many cruise lines, and even travel tools like Expedia, have search tools on their websites that allow you to choose ports you want to visit and then they build your options backwards from that.

  • What time of year do you want to travel?

Obviously, you won’t be cruising to Alaska in December, so if your only vacation option is around the holidays, you can probably cross an Alaskan cruise off your list.  Many ships that are typically in the Caribbean over the winter make the trans-Atlantic trek to the Mediterranean for the summer months, so Caribbean itineraries can be more difficult to find.

Remember that Hurricane season in the Caribbean runs from June 1st through November 30th and you’ll find lots of inexpensive cruises during this time.  This can be a fantastic opportunity to get a great deal.

Also keep in mind that summer vacation, spring break, and any other school holidays mean that the ships are going to be filled with families with small children.  It can be a little chaotic during those times, especially on 5-day sailings to the Caribbean.  We only sail to the Caribbean in winter, if we can swing it.

  • Do you know which city you want to depart from?

Similarly to knowing a port you want to visit, if you know where you’d like to sail from, this can help you narrow down your options for itineraries.  Most of the cruise line websites should allow you to choose a departure port.

  • How long do you want to cruise?

If you’re looking at 5 days, your options are going to be fairly limited (mostly Caribbean, out of Florida, but Galveston has options too).  If you have to choose between Eastern & Western Caribbean, my favorite is Eastern or the Bahamas, but I don’t really like the ports on the East coast of Mexico.  They’re beautiful, but there’s a lot of pressure from locals to buy things and I haven’t had great experiences there or in Jamaica.  If you do end up in Cozumel, Playa Del Carmen, Costa Maya or any of the ports in Jamaica, I recommend booking a shore excursion through the cruise line and sticking with the group.  If you really like to shop, any of those ports would be good though.  I’m not a huge souvenir buyer or drinker, so the Mexican ports just aren’t my cup of tea.

With a 5-day cruise, you’re likely only going to be able to get to some of the closer islands in the Caribbean, like the Bahamas and the cruise lines private islands (mostly also in the Bahamas), but those are some pretty great islands.  Based on some of the currently available itineraries online, you may also have the opportunity to go to Grand Turk, Grand Cayman,

If you have 7 or more days to spend cruising, your options will open up significantly.   All of the Alaska cruises I’ve seen are at least 7 days and you can get much further into the Caribbean if you have 7-10 days to explore.  If you’re traveling from the US, keep in mind flight time if you’re looking at cruises that don’t leave from the US.  You can’t leave home for a cruise out of Barcelona or somewhere in Asia the same day the ship’s supposed to sail, so you’ll need to plan in buffer time there.

  • Are you interested in a lot of sea days or more port days?

Some itineraries are heavy on sea days (repositioning cruises) and some are heavy on port days.  I’ve been on a cruise that hit 7 different ports in 7 days.  It’s not common to have a cruise like that, because the US departure ports are a quite a ways away from most of the Caribbean ports, but that particular cruise sailed out of San Juan, Puerto Rico, so we started much closer to other Caribbean islands.

Cruise lines are always looking to fill cabins, so they will stop in a couple of obscure places, that may not get cruise ships stopping by very often, in order to fill up their repositioning cruises.  A repositioning cruise just means that a ship is moving from starting round-trip cruises in one location to another departure port for a different season. For example, a ship that typically sails the Caribbean all winter, may reposition to Barcelona to sail the Mediterranean for the summer season.  This repositioning cruise will likely stop in places like Bermuda and the Azores on the way across the Atlantic.

If you are just looking to relax on a floating city for a week, a trans-Atlantic repositioning cruise may be an economical and fulfilling trip!

All that being said, if you have the vacation time to spend, I HIGHLY recommend Alaska.  It’s the first cruise we ever came home from and were ready to immediately book the same sailing again.  I wish we’d had more time there because it’s like nothing you’ve ever experienced or will ever experience in the lower 48.  Being a Kansan, I’ve traveled to Colorado many times for vacation in the mountains.  Colorado is beautiful, but Alaska is spectacular.  Just imagine mountains that don’t start at 5,000 feet above sea level and rise to 14,000 feet, but actually AT sea level and rise to 14,000 feet.  It’s an incredible place to experience and a place I believe should be on everyone’s bucket list.  If you book an Alaska cruise, make sure you book one that sails through Glacier Bay.  The National Parks Service restricts the number of ships that can sail through Glacier Bay each day, so not every Alaska cruise gets the opportunity, but it’s 100% worth any additional cost you encounter.  It’s phenomenal!

We were lucky enough to cruise through Glacier Bay the morning after a pretty strong earthquake rattled the area.  This meant that we cruised through lots of pieces of icebergs that had calved from the glaciers during the earthquake.  The stories people tell about the sound a glacier makes when it calves is not to be underestimated.  It’s truly a sound like nothing else.

Q: Do I need a passport to cruise?

Even if your cruise line doesn’t require a passport (for cruises that originate and terminate from the same US port, the rules are murky), I feel like the safer option would be to go ahead and get a passport, just in case.  For any cruise, you’ll want to be sure your passport doesn’t expire for at least 6 months after you return from the cruise.

Obtaining a passport can take a while, depending on how backed up the US State Department is, so make sure you give yourself plenty of time to get yours back before you sail.

Q: How far in advance should I book my cruise?

We typically book cruises about 18 months in advance (it’s January of 2017 and we have an Asia cruise booked for March of 2018 already).  We feel like we get some of the best deals by doing this, and if prices drop later, you can usually get the lower price.

If you live near a port, you can get really great last-minute cruise deals when cruise lines don’t fill up their sailings.  If you can travel on one to two weeks notice and drive yourself to the port, you can sail for significantly less than those of us who live closer to the middle of the country and have to fly everywhere.  While the cruise fare may get smaller the closer you get to the sailing date, the flight prices definitely do not.

Q: Which cabin category should I book?

We usually book inside cabins and spend the extra money on shore excursions or experiences on the ship instead.  We’ve had balcony cabins on our honeymoon cruise (Southern Caribbean) and our Western Mediterranean cruise.  Both were fantastic, but we find that we don’t spend very much time in the cabin, so it was a bit of a waste of money.  My parents, on the other hand, only book balcony cabins, but they spend a great deal of time in their room, reading on the balcony, even on days when the ship is docked in a port of call.

For first-time cruisers, I recommend an inside, mid-ship cabin.  This is where you feel the least amount of movement for the best price.  Anything too far to the front of back of the ship is likely to move a little bit and, until you know if you’re prone to sea-sickness, I’d stick to the middle, if possible.

We also always choose our cabin rather than booking the less expensive “guarantee” rate.  The guarantee rate gets you a cabin in the category you pay for, but allows for the opportunity for an upgrade, if a better cabin is available closer to the cruise.  We choose our own cabin because we have been upgraded before to a part of the ship that we didn’t really want to be in (right under the disco or next to an elevator, where there’s lots of noise all night long).  When you choose your own cabin, you’re less likely to have an upgrade opportunity, but you also know that you’ll be in the part of the ship you want to be (and if you book far enough in advance, you pretty much have your pick of cabins).

Q: If we put down a deposit, do we lose the deposit if we cancel the trip?

While I always recommend confirming with your cruise line, typically, you can get a full refund of your deposit if you cancel a cruise before the final payment is due.  Final payment is usually due about 90 days before the ship sails.  You could put down a deposit for a sailing in March of 2018 and still be able to get all your money back as late as December of 2017. If you cancel after the final payment is made, you lose a percentage of the deposit, depending on how close to the sailing you are.

Q: Is alcohol included in the price of my cruise?

Most ships are not completely all-inclusive (alcohol isn’t usually included, but many lines have an additional beverage package you can purchase where either beer & wine or all drinks up to a certain price are included).  As of this writing, I believe the Norwegian Sky is the only ship that includes an unlimited beverage package as standard practice.

Things that are included with your cruise fare are food (unless you eat at certain specialty restaurants), juice (with breakfast), lemonade, tea, coffee (not specialty coffee, such as espresso, lattes, etc.), and most entertainment.

Q: Why are gratuities so important on a cruise ship?

Because most cruise ships are not US flagged, they do not have to abide by US labor laws.  This means that crew members are not paid the same rates that you would be accustomed to receiving while working in the US.  This also means that crew typically have to work longer hours than US workers would have to.  To balance this, many guest-facing crew members receive required gratuities from passengers.  Typically, these gratuities are either pre-paid, as part of your cruise fare (if you request it), or they are added to your shipboard account while you are on board.  They usually run less than $15 per day and include tips for your room stewards and your dining room waiters.  There is also typically an 18% gratuity added to all drinks ordered from the bar (including soda, whether you purchase it by the glass or in an unlimited soda package at the beginning of the cruise).  If you encounter exceptional service from a crew member, you’re always able to tip an additional amount at any time.

We always make sure to have a few extra $20 bills at the end of the cruise if our dining room waiters and room stewards were truly outstanding.  We find that this is the case more often than not, actually.  These folks work really hard every single week to make sure your vacation is outstanding and they absolutely deserve any additional gratuities you feel like leaving for them.

Q: Can I fly in the day the cruise leaves?

I don’t recommend it.  I always feel more comfortable flying into the departure city at least one day before the cruise departs.  This allows you the opportunity to have a missed or delayed flight and still make it on time.  If you’re not on the ship when it’s scheduled to sail, it’s not going to wait for you, so if you’re in town the day before you’re set to sail away, you’ll have nothing to worry about.

Q: Can I book a flight home for the morning the ship returns?

Again, not something I recommend.  This doesn’t mean that you have to stay an extra day after the cruise is over, though.  If you book a flight after 1pm (depending on how close the airport is to your port), you should be safe.  Sometimes customs will not clear the ship until later than expected and if that happens, you may not get off the ship until far later than the arrival time that’s noted on the ship’s itinerary.  There’s also a risk of being held up in the individual customs line at the port, after you get off the ship.  This has happened to my husband and I before and it was a really tense experience.  We were traveling with a group and had booked a flight after 1pm, but we were very close to missing our flight by the time we got to the airport.

That being said, 9 times out of 10, you can be to the airport by 9am, if you’re lucky.  I’d rather take my time getting off the ship for a later flight than be rushed and in a panic if things happen to not work out the way you’d planned this one time.

Q: Should I buy travel insurance?

I always pay for travel insurance (and the one the cruise line offers when you check out isn’t always the best deal).  My travel agent recommends Travel Insured and they have a couple different levels.  You can purchase this separately, once you’ve booked your cruise and it will cover your expenses if your trip is cancelled because of a hurricane (and other reasons – just be sure to check the differences in the levels of coverage, because this makes a difference).

Q: Aren’t cruises just for retired people?

Don’t believe what people say when they say this.  They either have never cruised, haven’t been on a cruise in years, or they haven’t been on the right cruise.  Cruising is, by far, one of the easiest ways to see the world.  US cruise lines sail to all corners of the globe and provide a multitude of shore excursion options for people who range in interest from bus tours to mountain climbing.  Many families choose this way to vacation because it’s incredibly simple to get on a ship, unpack once, and wake up in a new country every morning.

And, if you plan things right, you will have done enough research about each destination you’re visiting to know exactly what you want to see and what you want to do.  It’s truly one of the easiest ways to be a world traveler.

Q: Is there a good website resource for all sorts of cruise questions?

Absolutely!  I highly recommend CruiseCritic.com.  I’ve been a member of the online community at Cruise Critic since I started cruising and I’ve learned SO much from other cruisers there.  There’s probably someone in that community who can answer any question you could possibly come up with and there’s also a space for people who are cruising on the same sailings to get to know each other before the cruise.  We’ve met many people who are members of Cruise Critic and we’ve done fun events and meet-ups with them once we’re on the ship.  It’s a great resource and it’s FREE!  Go check it out!

Wrap-Up

Please keep in mind that I’m not a travel agent.  Since 2004, I’ve been to 64 different cities and 30 different countries on a cruise ship.  I’ve been to 26 different ports of call in the Caribbean, and on other cruises that took me to Alaska, the Panama Canal, the Western Mediterranean, New England and Eastern Canada, and the British Isles, and currently have cruises booked that will take me to Hawaii, the US Pacific coast, and to Hong Kong, China, South Korea, and Japan.  I love cruising and I’m happy to share my experiences with anyone who has questions.  I surely don’t have all the answers, but I can certainly try to answer any questions that come up.  Feel free to comment with any questions and I’ll do my best.

 

Blue Apron Believer: A Review

I'm a Blue Apron Believer!
Disclaimer: I received no compensation for this review and after the initial free week, have paid full-price for each subsequent week of meals.

When a colleague offered me one of his free week links from Blue Apron in July, I was ready to hop on the offer immediately. My husband, Josh, on the other hand, is super skeptical of subscription services and wasn’t thrilled about the idea of getting stuck in a subscription that would be difficult to cancel. We received our first box the week of the 4th of July and we have never looked back.  We LOVE it. We’ve only had one or two meals we didn’t care for, but most nights, I get serious compliments from Josh on dinner. It’s not stuff I would have normally chosen to make, whether it be because of ingredients I’m not used to working with (or have never heard of) or because it’s a cuisine that I’m not a fan of, but I love that it takes me out of my comfort zone and makes me try new ingredients and cuisines that I may not have otherwise attempted. According to our year-end report, I cooked meals from 13 different cuisines in 2016. That’s probably 9 more than I would have otherwise.

Blue Apron Year in Review
I love that I only have to have salt, pepper, and olive oil on-hand to make 3 fantastic meals and you get to choose (with some limitation on the combinations) from 6 different options each week. If you don’t like one of the proteins from one of the “default” three meals, you can switch to another meal instead, as long as you change it enough in advance of the shipment. I love that I’ve got our meals planned out for the next 5 weeks right now and I know exactly what we’ll be having from Blue Apron each week.

Also, no more food waste! We use exactly what they send us and we don’t throw out any rotten fruit or veggies or meat we didn’t get to. I used to throw out hundreds of dollars worth of food that went bad in the fridge or that I stuffed in the freezer, thinking I’d use it in a reasonable amount of time, but found it hiding in the back with several years of accumulated freezer burn.

Because it costs more than I would have spent previously (each serving is $9.99), I make cooking those three nights each week a priority and schedule which nights I’m going to cook. If I know that I have meetings each night one week, I’ll skip that week ahead of time so we don’t waste the food. This also means we don’t make excuses to order delivery or go out to eat when I’ve got Blue Apron on the calendar.

As far as how long it takes to cook each meal, plan for a little longer than the recipe cards say, unless you’ve got experience in a professional kitchen. Maybe I’m just too much of a perfectionist, but it takes a decent amount of time to cut and prep the fresh veggies before you even start heating anything up.

Subscribers are occasionally given the opportunity to share free weeks with friends and family and, so far, I’ve had 7 friends cash in their free weeks from my referrals.  I know that a couple of them just tried the free week and decided to pause their subscription until they finish grad school, but others are still subscribers and love it, as well.

Josh and I travel a lot and we were on vacation for 2 and a half weeks in October, then two days after we returned, I left for a work trip to London for a week. We skipped Blue Apron deliveries for the whole month of October and picked right back up when I returned from London in early November. Skipping weeks is incredibly easy, you just have to remember to stay on top of it if you know you need to skip a week.

Blue Apron has changed the way we eat and has given me the opportunity to get out of a cooking rut that included casseroles most nights and very little fresh fruit and vegetables.  I’m cooking with ingredients I’ve never cooked with before and am learning to love things I’ve never tried before.

A few photos of the meals I’ve made over the past 6 months:

If you’re on the fence about trying Blue Apron, I encourage you to seek out a friend who might have a free week to offer and give it a shot.  You’ve got nothing to lose and so much great food and experience to gain!  Bon Appetit!

How Does the East Ninth Project Benefit LFK?


I happened upon a Facebook post today from a longtime family friend. He posted about the East Ninth Project asking “how many homeless families would that money wasted on this project for Hipsters help?” After my expected initial confusion at this question (I definitely don’t consider myself a Hipster), I had time to reflect on some of the really positive outcomes this project will have on the community.

1) The East Ninth Project benefits families with children.
When our nephew was born, my husband and I would take him for walks to Downtown Lawrence in his stroller. When you’re pushing a sleeping one-month-old, you notice every single crack and bump. Some parts of the sidewalk between Delaware and Massachusetts Streets are completely reduced to rubble, and we were forced to walk with him in the street.

2) The East Ninth Project benefits those on bikes. It provides a safe route from Delaware to Downtown Lawrence for adults and children at any skill level to ride their bikes without having to be on the street with cars. This is an important benefit, as it means that a five-year-old who just graduated from training wheels won’t have to bike down the street, shared with delivery trucks and other vehicles. And when that 5-year-old inevitably falls off his or her bike, they’re not going to be met with a face full of gravel from the deteriorated sidewalks.

3) The East Ninth Project benefits people with disabilities. Right now, I don’t believe there are any ADA accessible sidewalks or paths along this stretch of 9th Street until you get all the way Downtown. Neighbors in wheelchairs have no safe way to get Downtown without a car. This project will provide a fully ADA accessible path.

4) The East Ninth Project benefits the environment and health. Reducing the carbon footprint of East Ninth Street by providing safe walking and biking routes improves the air quality in the neighborhood and encourages healthy lifestyles. With each connecting path and riding option in Lawrence, individuals are much more likely to choose to bike, and yes, walk, versus choosing the car default.

These are only a few of the numerous benefits this project has. . . I’d say those benefits impact far more than just “the Hipsters” in the neighborhood.

To speak to the comparison my friend brought up, transitional and affordable housing is important to me. One of our good friends found permanent housing with the support of the homeless shelter and other local organizations. Previous City Commissions approved tax breaks for developers, sacrificing revenue, which could have otherwise been contributed to a budget that would have provided greater resources for affordable housing. Reversing these type of decisions will help. We also need to support efforts as part of the budget process to make sure that careful planning and consideration is given to housing. But that is the thing, we have budgets, we have planning around priorities, and every issue can’t be all or nothing. Thankfully we seem to have a commission who has taken the housing issue seriously while understanding that there has to be a balance and process.

After attending 15 months of meetings revolving around the East Ninth project (which is literally in my front yard), it is my belief that this is the best plan for the area and will provide a benefit to the largest population of people, both inside East Lawrence and outside. When my husband and I moved to our house in East Lawrence nearly 10 years ago, I was disappointed with the minimal maintenance of city infrastructure in our neighborhood. East Lawrence streets have been left with pot holes far after those in other parts of the city have been fixed. New York Street in particular north of 9th is one of the roughest bike and car rides in city.

I have lived in Lawrence my entire life and for the first time in my memory, aside from re-bricking a street that is now also in poor shape, the City is investing a large sum of money in East Lawrence infrastructure improvements. This is long overdue.