How to plan a kick-ass girlfriends getaway.

The best way to see the Grand Canyon? Helicopter, of course. Our first annual birthday getaway, 2010.

The best way to see the Grand Canyon? Helicopter, of course. Our first annual birthday getaway, 2010.

It’s January, which means Wendy and I are about to embark on our annual birthday getaway.

A little background: Wendy and I are practically birthday twins, born a week apart. In high school, we even had a Doublemint-themed joint birthday party at our friend Ebbie’s house.

At some  point, Wendy pitched the idea of us going to Las Vegas for our 35th birthdays. The idea became a reality and marked our first birthday trip together. We had such an amazing time that we were like, “We should do this EVERY year!” So, now we do.

Subsequent birthday getaways included:

  • Road trip to Savannah, GA and Charleston, SC
  • Long weekend in NYC
  • Epic Texas adventure in San Antonio and Austin

This year’s destination is Washington, D.C. A place we’ve both been to many times, both separately and together. But this time is different.

This time, it’s our birthdays, yo.

There ain’t no party like a Wendy-n-Lara party because a Wendy-n-Lara party don’t stop.

Anyway.

I thought it might be fun to share how we actually plan these little getaways. Keep in mind that we’re the weirdos who make a full-on spreadsheet for Cookiepalooza each year. There are definite methods to our madness.

STEP 1: Choose the Destination

Wendy and me at the famed Pineapple Fountain in Charleston, SC, 2012.

Wendy and me at the famed Pineapple Fountain in Charleston, SC, 2012.

The conversation about next year’s destination starts during the current year’s trip. We knew, for instance, that we wanted to do a Savannah/Charleston trip while we were on the plane home from Vegas. In Savannah, we spent a tipsy night making a long list of future birthday destinations. NYC was an easy choice; we had agreed we wouldn’t get on a plane two years in a row to try to cut down on costs.

This year’s destination took a little while to nail down. For about three weeks over the summer, we were certain that we were headed for a cruise somewhere. I’d even found a crazy good deal through U.S. Airways, but missed the deadline for the rock-bottom prize. When it shot up $300, it didn’t seem so appealing anymore. We’d also talked about heading to the Poconos or doing a spa weekend in Hershey – some place really local – but in the end, we decided to head back to D.C.

STEP 2: Take it to Pinterest

Once the destination has been selected, we create a joint Pinterest board to start marking things we want to do, places we want to see, food we want to eat. We didn’t actually start this until our NYC trip; I think I was on Pinterest when we did our road trip to the South but hadn’t really started using it until I was planning my wedding. We also have a board for Future Getaways.

We aim for a mix of quintessential experiences (like horseback riding after a barbecue lunch at the Salt Lick in Driftwood, Texas) and things that just really appeal to us (like spending an afternoon wandering around the foodie haven that is Chelsea Market). The cool thing about going back to a city we’ve been to before is that we’ve done a lot of the quintessential things already. This allows us to focus on a couple of the Smithsonians instead of feeling like we have to do all of them in a long weekend.

Horseback riding in Driftwood, Texas, 2014.

Horseback riding in Driftwood, Texas, 2014.

STEP 3: Make Your Travel Arrangements

If we’re flying somewhere, I book the flight first. And yes, I said “I” – I tend to make a lot of the arrangements for these trips. One, because I’m a bit of a control freak and two, because Wendy is the same way and gets stuck in this role for all of her family vacations, so she enjoys relinquishing the duties to me once a year. We live by a big U.S. Airways hub and I have a U.S. Airways travel rewards credit card, so we typically fly U.S. Airways.

Next comes the hotel (or hotels, if we’re doing multiple destinations). I use Hotwire almost exclusively for travel. In 14 years of using the service, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve had bad experiences. We usually stay in 3-5 star hotels for wicked cheap. These are places we likely wouldn’t foot the bill for at full price. Or we’ll opt to save even more money though Hotwire, and get a place like a La Quinta for like $47/night.

I don’t only use Hotwire for the birthday getaways. I used it for Joe’s and my trip to Chicago this summer. I’ve used it to book Girl Scout trips with my old troop. Seriously, if I’m staying in a hotel that’s not related to work travel, odds are I’ve booked it through Hotwire.

Finally, I go after any necessary rental cars. This usually involves me Googling to find coupon codes and/or ongoing sales. Rentals are easy; I’m very short and prefer a compact. These tend to be on the cheaper side.

STEP 4: Find All of the Deals

I love using Groupon when I’m planning vacations, because you can usually find deep discounts on touristy things you’d balk at paying full price for. In San Antonio, we found a crazy good deal on tickets to the Tower of Americas. And for our upcoming trip, Wendy and I are doing a half day at a posh salon for a ridiculously low price (also courtesy of Groupon).

We also stalk deals on Living Social and Goldstar. When we went to NYC, we got half price tickets to see Avenue Q Off-Broadway. This year, we got an excellent price on a nighttime tour of the Washington monuments and half-price entry to the Newseum.

Here’s my favorite tip that won’t help most of you: a lot of cities have Restaurant Weeks in January, to encourage people to eat out. Charleston and New York were two cities that we just happened to visit during such weeks. You can get amazing menus at fancy restaurants for a low prix fixe rate. Like, would I have had a gourmet dinner at Nougatine at Jean-Georges without the Restaurant Week deal? (The answer is no, I probably wouldn’t have.)

Wendy, me, and fellow January birthday girl Jenna at Nougatine, 2013. We were making fun of people who do this pose to hide their waddle or double chin. We are dumb like that.

Wendy, me, and fellow January birthday girl Jenna at Nougatine. We were poking fun of women who do this pose to hide their double chin or age-related wattles. We are silly like that.

Sadly, I found out too late that Washington D.C.’s Restaurant Week starts the day after we head home.

STEP 5: Build Your Itinerary

This is where my control-freak nerdiness comes out. Each year, I build an exhaustive itinerary for our birthday trips. It includes information about our flight and rental car (if applicable), all hotels, and a day-by-day breakdown of what we have planned. For each destination I include addresses, phone numbers, web and email addresses, hours of operation, and any estimated costs. At the end, there is a list of additional places that we might want to see, things we might want to do, and food we might want to eat. This allows for flexibility if one of the choices doesn’t work out or we change our minds.

Just to clarify, I don’t go all Clark Griswold on Wendy. It’s not like I say, “OH MY GOD, it’s 8:45 and we should be at X destination!” It’s more like, “On Thursday, we’re going to the spa for three hours. Here’s where we would like to eat dinner. This is what we’ll do after dinner.” Believe it or not, it can actually be way MORE relaxing to know where you’re getting your next meal than to have limitless options.

This year, Wendy has been more hands-on with the planning part. Today she came over and we sat at my dining room table, laptop to laptop, trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together. Index cards were involved, breaking desired destinations up into neighborhoods to consolidate travel time. Three hours later, we had an almost-full itinerary.

STEP 6: Make Your Reservations

I’m not going to lie: we do a lot of good eating on our birthday trips. It’s a mix of classic locales and Chowhound favorites. In NYC, we hit up Gray’s Papaya and Katz’s Deli in addition to places like Pastis and Big Gay Ice Cream. None of THOSE places required reservations, but a lot of stops on our list do. Today, for instance, we made reservations for Oyamel Cocina Mexicana (dinner on Friday), Dukem (dinner on Saturday), and Farmers Fishers Bakers (Sunday brunch).

If there’s a restaurant that requires reservations way ahead of time, it’s best to make the reservation and then build that day’s activities around it. Confession: at least one of our D.C. days was literally planned around breakfast, lunch, and dinner. (I told you, we eat GOOD on these trips!)

STEP 7: Map Out Your Routes

On cities where we don’t plan to drive, like NYC and our upcoming D.C. trip, we’ll also take some time to plan out our public transportation. Like, “We’ll take the red line to this stop and then walk three blocks to our destination.” This doesn’t always work out for us, so we’ll both have backup aps on our phones.

STEP 8: Make Your Packing List

This is more me than Wendy, but I’m someone who needs packing lists to make sure I remember everything I need to bring. This includes things that are easily overlooked, like my mini hair straightener, the adapter I need to charge my camera, and my allergy eye drops. My anxiety over forgetting stuff is far more heightened when I’m getting on a plane, though I’m not entirely sure why. But you better believe I’ll be printing out two copies of my packing list this weekend (because I need one for the return trip home, duh).

And that’s pretty much all there is to it.

I’m thinking I might try to blog our trip while we’re actually on it. This will depend on how tired I am when we get back to the hotel each night. This year’s itinerary isn’t nearly as cracked out as the ones from previous years’, because as I mentioned, we purposely tried to plan something a little more low-key. Next year is the big 4-0; I suppose we’re saving up our money and our strength for the big birthday blow out. We’re thinking Europe. Wendy says she doesn’t care where we go, as long as she gets to use a passport.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a packing list to finish up.

Advertisements

2014: My Year in Review

It’s New Year’s Eve, and like many people, I’ve been in a reflective mood today. So, I thought I would take a few minutes to revisit 2014. Here’s what happened in my world:

Remember the Alamo

January: Fly to Austin, TX for Wendy’s and my annual best friend birthday trip. Drive to San Antonio and spend a few days there before heading back to Austin. Chase the quintessential Texas experience. Hit nearly every area except for Texas Two Stepping and the mechanical bull. Highlights: I don’t even know where to begin! Best girlfriend getaway EVAR.

Lara Loves Alton BrownFebruary: The shortest month is also my most boring month. BUT, we did get to have an early Valentine’s Day with Joe at the Grand Opera House, where we got to see THE Alton Brown and his Edible Inevitable Tour. Slip one of the stage hands a copy of The Sweet Life of Stella Madison for Alton’s daughter. (Yes, I’m that cheesy. Sue me.) Oh, and this was the first time I cooked with the Delicious Dishes.

March: Celebrate 2nd anniversary with Joe at Supper. Launch this blog! And then promptly become World’s Worst Blogger. Drive to Bensalem for a special fan screening of The Veronica Mars movie. Take Joe to see Man of La Mancha at the DuPont and end up in the Best Seats Ever (that no one else would ever want – it’s got a partially obstructed view BUT gives Joe tons of leg room AND there’s no seat directly behind his 6’4″ self so he doesn’t have to scrunch down). Decide to get season tickets for those seats next year – goal achieved!

Funny Seder

These are my cousins, Zach and Josh. They make me laugh so hard my stomach hurts. Here they are riffing on the 10 plagues. No, I’m not kidding.

April: Another Passover seder with the Rosens (my favorite of the Jewish holidays). Then Easter dinner with the Kinna clan. Have the most amazing idea for a novel and start outlining it. A few months later, discover that I have inadvertently come up with almost the exact same plot as the new Jodi Picoult novel, only minus the elephants. It’s okay; around this time I have my first talks with Fab Editor about my next YA novel. Oh, and I get a big promotion at IRA.

May: Off to New Orleans for IRA’s Annual Conference! Get to see some of my favorite people that I don’t cross physical paths with all that often, like Julie D. Ramsay, Jen Scoggin (aka Mrs. Mimi), and my Crazy Reading Ladies, Mary Cotillo and Erin O’Leary. Discover the deliciousness that is chargrilled oysters from Drago’s. Survive my first Mother’s Day without my momma. Trip to NYC to see Heathers: The Musical with Wendy and Jenna. Corn Nuts!

June: Hire a whole new staff at work. Fly to Chicago for Confab Nonprofit and stay for the honeymoon Joe and I never got to take. Eat (and walk) our way across the city. Highlights: Buddy Guy showing up at Buddy Guy’s Legends and doing an impromptu set; spending the better part of a day at the Chicago Institute of Art; dinner at Girl and the Goal (with a Carl Reiner sighting to boot!); getting to hang out with Jaime and John our last night in town.

Us and the Bean

It’s hard to take a selfie when your husband is 14 inches taller than you are.

July: New staff arrives, rounding out the most kick-ass communications team a gal could ever hope for! Get back on a plane, this time to Tampa-adjacent Brandon, FL for IRA’s Council Leadership Academy. Talk to a lot of awesome educators about communications and social media. Later that month, splurge on a new Flexsteel couch, since our cheapie one is falling apart. Definitely worth the investment!

Jen JumpsAugust: Start the month off bouncing at Stratosphere Trampoline Park with Sadie and the McLaughlins (on Jen’s 40th birthday, no less!). Smurf up my hands later that weekend making Tardis blue velvet cupcakes for William’s birthday party. Start going on double dates with other couples. (Why didn’t we do this sooner?) Get an official offer on the YA novel I’ve been working on for HarperCollins. Woot!

September: Relaxing, post-Labor Day beach vacay with Joe in Ocean City, MD. Our hotel has an ice rink in the middle of it but Joe’s feet are too big for the rental skates. Doesn’t matter. Spend hours bobbing in the warm ocean, reading on the sand, and checking out new restaurants. Have my first Fractured Prune donut (amazing) and more chargrilled oysters (unremarkable). Make out with my husband all over town. Magical.

Wendy, Wylie, and MeOctober: Head to NYC with Wen to see Lips Together, Teeth Apart (a week before the rest of the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants attend to support their good pal America Ferrara). Dinner = the supremely decadent tasting menu at the soon-to-be-closed WD50. Foodgasms abound! Also: pay off Joe’s student loans (yay!).

November: Hello, NaBloPoMo! Commit to writing one blog post a day for 30 days; miss the goal after accidentally skipping 11/29. Spend a lot of time thinking about/writing about Mom as the Year of Firsts draws to a close. Celebrate Sadie’s birthday by feeding monkeys and a bear at the Pocono Snake and Animal Farm. Spend Thanksgiving with the Royers and Mannons at Brenda and Brett’s. Spend Black Friday with the Rosens playing several heated rounds of Celebrity. Love ALL of my family.

December: Cookiepalooza 2014 = HUGE success. Discovered the gloriousness that is Oreo “coal.” Christmas Eve with the Kinna clan, Christmas dinner with Mark and Charlotte, post-Christmas weekend with the Rosens, Sadiepants, and close friends (Taco Game Night FTW!).

Ending the year in our favorite fashion: at home, in our PJs, watching movies and scarfing up Velveeta bean dip (1 lb. Velveeta cubed, 1 can Hormel Hot Chili No Beans, 1 can kidney beans – zap in microwave until it’s all melted. Sounds gross, tastes delish – trust me on this). We’ll stay up way too late, cuddle down around 3 a.m., and sleep in until noon like we’re people of leisure. It’s glorious, is what it is. (Trust me on this, too.)

Happy New Year, everyone!

Words with friends.

Tomorrow I have an early-morning writing date with my friend Carolee, who I met when I was teaching a creative writing class at the Brandywine Y some 11 (or is it 12?) years ago. We meet up at Panera semi-regularly, do a quick catch-up on our lives, and then dive right in, laptop to laptop.

It’s great because writing is such a solitary activity by nature. And writing dates are like gym dates in that they keep you accountable. Plus, if I’m going to schlepp all of my gear to Panera I’m less likely to pack it in after just 45 minutes. So I’ll often hit my daily writing goal and keep on going. One time this summer I put in something like seven or eight hours in Panera – long enough to eat two meals and drink several cups of coffee.

All good things, right? (Well, maybe not the several cups of coffee part. I switched back to decaf about six weeks ago.)

It’s shaping up to be a busy weekend, but I’m glad that I can carve out a couple of hours to spend with Carolee. Even if we will spend most of that time typing, not talking.