As the title of this post implies, I’ve been thinking a good bit about the time before Covid-19 impacted all of our lives here in North America. We could freely roam, go to restaurants, concerts, visit with friends, and travel. This post is mostly going to be a recap of recent travel, even though these trips happened in the past 10 weeks, they feel like half a lifetime ago!
February – SkiFinCon (plus a few other stops along the way)
As you may know, I live in Southwest Florida. Pretty much as far south as you can go on the Gulf side of the Florida Peninsula. It takes me 5+ hours of driving just to reach the Florida/Georgia state line. SkiFinCon, in its second year as the unofficial FinCon ski trip, was in South Lake Tahoe, California. There’s no direct/easy way to get from Southwest Florida to Lake Tahoe, and the stay dates at the large mountain home were a Monday-Thursday, so I planned an itinerary of flights and hotels to let me make some touristy stops along the way there. Same goes for the return trip to Florida; I wanted to at least visit somewhere new to me as I flew across the country.Starting out Saturday morning at 4AM, I headed to the local international airport and caught a flight with American Airlines miles to Chicago. Wait, didn’t I say I was in Florida and trying to get to California? Chicago became a necessary stop to get a great deal on First Class seats for my 7+ hours of flying to Las Vegas, the first official stop on my tour. 25,000 AAdvantage miles made for a cheap trip out west, and I was able to be pretty comfortable for that half-day of flying.I arrived in Las Vegas around 1PM, and knowing that I had less than 24 hours to spend in Sin City, I took a quick Uber to the Park MGM hotel to drop off my bag (singular, I traveled for a week with just my ebags Weekender backpack) and hit The Strip to go check out some of the sights. I first took the tram through Aria/Vdara over to Bellagio to check out the famous fountains. A show was just about to start as I walked along Las Vegas Boulevard. Then I went over to Caesar’s Palace to try and get my Platinum status matched from IHG to Wyndham to Caesar’s, but apparently I had applied too late to get the $100 food and beverage credit and free ticket to a show. Oh well!
After that, I walked back through Bellagio, but not without sitting down at a video roulette machine, turning $20 into a quick $37 (yes, small stakes. I’m a frugal blogger, after all) and walked back to the Park MGM to see if my room was ready. After getting into the room (which was free* thanks to my World of Hyatt credit card annual free night certificate), I dropped off my things and relaxed for a few minutes.
Later, I grabbed a Lyft to go to the Gold & Silver Pawn Shop, made famous by the TV show Pawn Stars. I brought along some silver coins from my grandpa and a couple silver bullion rounds I had, to sell to the Pawn Stars and get some spending money for my trip (along with get a bill of sale as a souvenir from Gold & Silver). From there, I was a few short blocks away from the Fremont Street Experience, where I watched all sorts of street performers, and checked out a couple of the old school casinos.
A little while later, I tried to get a Lyft, but the drivers kept canceling and/or driving in the opposite direction, so a taxi driver stopped and asked me if I needed a ride back to The Strip. A whopping $42 later (for a 10 minute ride? No thanks), I was back at the Bellagio and realized I hadn’t eaten all day. I took the tram back through Vdara/Aria to the Park MGM, then walked through and crossed the street to go to New York New York. When you’re in New York, you have to grab a slice of pizza, right? 😊 After getting some food, I stopped back through the casino and got to participate in an hour-long lesson on Craps, for free. I even got a $10 free play certificate, which I promptly lost at a Blackjack table.I went back to my hotel and took the longest cold shower of my life. I didn’t realize I had been up for almost 20 hours at that point, had traveled over 2,600 miles, and had walked a further 11+ miles, mostly on an empty stomach. After I was comfortable and relaxed, I fell asleep in my free* hotel bed and slept for a whopping 5 hours. In my head, it was time to wake up (on the East coast it was 6:15), but it was 3:15 in Las Vegas. I keep saying free* because I wasn’t aware I’d be charged a steep resort fee of $42, when I was there in February, the pools weren’t even open, and I’m not sure what else I got to enjoy for my having stayed at a “resort”.
I wasn’t sure what there would be going on, but I knew that if there was somewhere activity happened 24 hours a day, it was Las Vegas. I went back downstairs to the casino to watch drunk people play Blackjack, roulette, and Craps. It was interesting to be a rested, sober observer at 3-4 in the morning.Around 5:30AM, I decided it would be a good time to start walking towards the famous Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign. I was about 1.75 miles away from the sign, and the sun wasn’t even close to coming up yet, so it was a cool and relaxed walk heading south towards the tourist attraction. I took some detours through New York New York and Excalibur, past Luxor and Mandalay Bay, then I saw it.
I was the only person there, at first light, so I snapped a couple pictures, a couple selfies, then hopped back over to the side of Las Vegas Boulevard to catch the double-decker bus that runs up and down The Strip. For $2, I could avoid the hour-long walk back north to the Venetian, the next stop on my 24-hour crazy quick tour of Vegas.I wandered around the quiet, empty canals of Venetian, then got lost in the convention area of the hotel. I was sober and relatively rested, I can’t imagine trying to navigate these massive casino hotels while drunk/drugged/tired. I grabbed a quick breakfast of Krispy Kreme donuts and an apple juice, then walked the rest of the way back south towards my hotel.
I was ready for another shower, a short nap, and get ready to check out of the hotel. I had a plane to catch (via a cheap Allegiant ticket) to Reno.Upon arriving in Reno, I grabbed my bag and walked through the parking garage, across the street to the Hyatt Place hotel, this time paid with 8,000 Ultimate Rewards points, transferred from Chase to World of Hyatt. Several of the other FinConners wound up staying there, and a group of us were meeting in downtown Reno that evening to go axe-throwing.
Lacey Langford, The Military Money Expert® arranged the axe-throwing event, and many other longtime bloggers like JD Roth, Todd Tresidder, Michelle Black, Tom Drake, and others I was less familiar with including Dustin Heiner, Dustin Mathews, Kate Horrell, and Emma Leigh Geiser.That evening also coincided with my Twitter friend On Plan Rox’s last night in Lake Tahoe for a ski trip she’d been on with her husband. They were staying in a hotel nearby, and met up with me just before the axe-throwing event began. It was nice to finally meet her, since we narrowly missed each other down here over Christmas break when she visited some family. They ordered a beer and stuck around to watch us act like axe-throwing fools, but had to call it a night because of an early flight out in the morning.My next morning was a slow one. I spent a few hours in the hotel lobby, trying to see any FinCon peeps who had arrived late the prior night. After breakfast, I checked out and went back to the airport to catch a charter bus down to South Lake Tahoe. It was about a 50-minute bus ride, very comfortable since there were only about 10 of us on a 60+ passenger bus. The bus driver pointed out a few remaining mustangs (wild horses) and then led us through the winding mountain road to head west to Lake Tahoe. The scenery was stunning – so much more beautiful than I’d ever imagined. Snow-capped mountains, crystal blue water, just enough sunshine to make everything sparkle, and dark green trees.
I got dropped off around noon on the Nevada side of the community, which is where the large casino/hotels are located. After walking across the state line into California, I grabbed lunch at a local BBQ spot called Ace High Saloon and proceeded to wander around the Heavenly Village/resort area for the next few hours.
We weren’t supposed to be able to get into the large mountain home until 5PM, so I tried to waste just enough time that I could walk there comfortably and be one of the first to arrive. I spent a couple hours milling about, snapping JobSpotter hiring signs wherever I found them. It was my 3rd consecutive day of walking 10+ miles, and I arrived to the house excited and exhausted.
House is probably not the right word for the massive 13-bedroom, 16-bathroom lodge that we rented. In all, 34 people stayed with us those 3 nights. Evening meals were catered, continental breakfasts were included, and we were on our own for lunches. I tended to walk into town or catch the local bus (in the wrong direction!) to go find food and explore more of the gorgeous small city. One evening we loaded up into everyone’s rental cars and went up the ski hill at Heavenly to enjoy a happy hour together.
On my last full day, I hopped into the suburban with Jessica, Libby, Jamie, and Robin from the FinCon staff to go sight-seeing on the southwestern and western sides of the lake. We stopped and took pictures at Emerald Bay State Park, which has a picturesque island in the middle of the bay, with a backdrop of the Heavenly ski slopes off in the distance. We kept heading north and found an empty dock, with perfectly still and perfectly clear water that allowed us to see all the way to the bottom, where 10+ feet looked like it was only 2-ish feet deep.I hopped on an early shuttle bus back to the Reno airport, and since my housemates Libby, Michelle and Robin also had arrived a bit too early for their flights, we grabbed a meal together at the airport diner. After proceeding through security, Michelle and I wound up at the airport lounge, where we bumped into our SkiFinCon housemates Miranda Marquit and Ben Luthi.We all chatted, typed away at our laptops, and slowly said our goodbyes as it neared time to go board our planes. I had the most time to kill in the airport, and I bumped into Lacey Langford again. We sat and had a really nice conversation for nearly an hour at the airport McDonald’s, before it became time for us to both catch the same flight to Dallas. She was connecting through, as so many of us were, but DFW was next stop on the trip. I stayed at the airport Hyatt Place for another 8,000 Ultimate Rewards points, transferred to World of Hyatt. My flight was covered by 17,000 AAdvantage miles (not a great redemption, but it got me to another place where I could find a way to continue towards Florida after a brief visit).It was the typical Hyatt Place hotel, nice enough room, plenty of space to relax, but there was nothing nearby except a Starbucks and a gas station with a Whataburger. I’d never been to a Whataburger before, so I grabbed a quick bite to eat, a cake pop at Starbucks on the way back to my room, and crashed after a short call to my mom to let her know I’d arrived at my next stop.Friday morning, I grabbed another Lyft into downtown Dallas. I really don’t know a whole lot about Dallas besides the Cowboys (who play in Arlington), the Mavs/Stars who play near downtown, and it was the site of the JFK Assassination. It was also the site of the 2017 FinCon, where so many of my friends met up and had a wonderful time, that I vowed to join them in 2018 no matter where it was held; when it was announced Orlando was the location, I jumped and bought tickets ASAP. A picture that I remember so many of my friends taking was a selfie with the Giant Eyeball, and since I could see it from my hotel room, I went downstairs to snap one myself:I also have an anonymous blogger friend who lives there, and I was able to meet up with her for lunch, and it made my whole trip to get to spend quality time with a true friend!After lunch, I did some more JobSpotter searching, and I made my way towards the Sixth Floor Museum, which played a critical role in the JFK Assassination. I was born in 1982, so I “knew” about the events that day, but I didn’t know much about the events leading up to the shooting, the events of that day and weekend, and all of the amazing legacy that President John Fitzgerald Kennedy left behind. I openly wept as I made my way through the exhibits, videos, and pictures. For an hour or so, it felt like he was My President and I lost him for the first time, even though he had died long before I was born.
I needed some comfort after that experience, so I found Sonny Bryan’s Smokehouse, a longstanding iconic Dallas barbecue joint. I was still kind of full from lunch, but that was a delicious sandwich and some mac and cheese, with a Dr. Pepper. I called it an early night at the Hilton Garden Inn Downtown Dallas (booked with 50,000 Hilton Honors points, which was a very good redemption, since the cash price was nearly $400 for Valentine’s Day night).
My final flight was pretty early in the morning, via Southwest at Dallas Love Field. I’d made connecting flights here during my January trip to Little Rock and Nashville, but hadn’t fully explored this smaller, older, near-downtown airport. My Southwest ticket was booked for ~12,000 Rapid Rewards points, and it was a direct flight to Southwest Florida that got me back to Fort Myers around lunchtime.
Leap Day – Fort Lauderdale, FL
On February 29th, I woke up without a plan. I knew the ChooseFI South Florida group was meeting in Oakland Park, on the East Coast, for a book review and chat about “Quit Like a Millionaire” by the authors behind Millennial-Revolution.com, Bryce Leung and Kristy Shen. I had not yet been to a ChooseFI South Florida meetup, and with nothing on my plate, I decided to make it a road-trip, with 5.5+ hours of driving and about 3 hours of meetup.
We had a fairly good turnout of 7 people at the Funky Buddha Brewery, and talked a bit about the book and mostly about everyone’s FI journeys. The group makeup was pretty typical, mostly 30-somethings, a dentist, an accountant, two IT guys, a pilot, someone working in law & contracts, and then me (the local government person).
My final trip – Cincinnati for EconoMe Conference
It was a trip I’d been looking forward to since September 2019, when I first heard about the new EconoMe Conference on the What’s Up Next podcast. I’d met Diania Merriam, the founder, at FinCon that same week, and was excited to see how her creation would turn out. I knew most of the speakers, either from past FinCons or on Twitter, so I was excited just to see my friends, if nothing else.As time passed, the event grew larger. While she’d hoped for around 700 attendees, over 250 showed up, from all over the country, although most of the contingent was from the Midwest.I stayed in the Hyatt Regency downtown Cincinnati, for 8,000 Ultimate Rewards points per night, transferred to World of Hyatt. My flights were a basic cash purchase from Allegiant, since I needed to fly out right after work on Friday afternoon, and back on Sunday to go to work Monday morning. I woke up early, excited about the event. After getting up and getting ready, I decided to set out on foot, and walk towards the campus. I searched for available Uber or Lyft rides, but they were all 25-28 minutes away, and I figured I would keep walking closer to campus and check again later. By the time I found myself halfway(?) up Bellevue Hill, I was almost out of breath, sweating profusely, and by the way, it was only 35° outside. I’m definitely a flat-lander.
As seen on my walk to campus
This way to EconoMe
The event was all day on Saturday March 7th, at the University of Cincinnati campus. We had a morning reception/coffee break to get to know other Economeists, buy FI-related books from the campus bookstore, and get settled in for a fun day of FI talks and breakout sessions.After a rousing welcome from Diania, the first speaker was Julien Saunders, from rich & Regular, and then Natalie Torres-Haddad from Financial Savvy Latina. Travis Hornsby from Student Loan Planner gave an awesome talk about the different strategies to achieve FI, even while carrying student loan debt. Rose Lounsbury is a minimalism coach and talked us through finding our own “enough”.
Then we had a lunch break, so we all scurried away to get some food and refuel for the afternoon activities. I got to go to lunch with my Twitter/Instagram friends Kelly Gagnon and Brenda Olmos, plus Emilie Cleaver (from the rebranded WiseMindMoney, now EmilieCleaver.com) and 4-5 other attendees. When we got back to campus, it was time for break-out sessions, with many of my friends going to see Playing with FIRE documentary (which I’ve seen 10 times), so I opted to go to the Travel Hacking session, which some people mistakenly believed I was leading 😊The travel hacking session went really well, even though most of us were at different levels of experience with the hobby. Most of my experience was with Chase cards, although I had a few mistake cards in my history from opening up a Delta Gold card with a really low sign-up bonus, and the former SPG card from Amex being devalued down to not worthy of being used. Kelly had recently opened several cards, for both personal and business use, which allowed her to earn the Southwest Companion Pass (even at the increased 125,000 point requirement) that she is now waiting to use due to Covid. BJ Beard is a long-time service member who has taken advantage of the ability to get high-end premium credit cards with all annual fees waived for active-duty service members. He knew a lot about Amex Platinum and other premium cards, including some fabulous redemptions that have taken him and his wife around the world.After the breakout sessions, Jillian Johnsrud gave a talk, followed by Michael Robinson from Uncommon Dream. I got to hang out with Jillian and Michael when they both presented at CampFI SE in 2019, so it was great to see them both on stage again. After Michael was Lynn Frair, who talked about the 7 or 8 different types of capital. Jackie Cummings Koski is a recent early retiree, quitting forever in December 2019, and she walked us through her numbers and her journey to get there. And the one and only Doc G from What’s Up Next/Earn and Invest podcast wrapped up the show with 3 vignettes, including a final Rap performance. I told you, he rapped up the conference. 😊Afterwards, we had some time to hang out and talk with the speakers, but then we all shuffled off to dinner. I was able to go out with my friends Jillian, Peter Gallant and AJ Wolfe, who I became friends with at Jillian’s Adventures to FI retreat. We almost met up with Cheryl Anne Woehr and Lucy (a Brit working in DC) and we had pizza at a non-profit shop that helps developmentally disabled adults learn job skills. It took quite a while to get our food, but it tasted pretty good and we were all happy to support the cause. After dinner, we rushed back to the Woodward Theater, a refurbished theater from the 1920s(?) for the EconoMe after-party.I realized quickly that I’ve become an old man, because I was exhausted from carrying my backpack all day (it had my laptop and podcast mic, in case either became useful at the conference), along with a change of clothes, and from standing on my feet for hours. I grabbed an Uber back to the hotel, where I crashed and couldn’t get out of bed for nearly 12 hours. Fortunately, I was aware this was the night of ‘Spring Forward’ on our clocks, and I had a 4:30PM flight, so I requested a late checkout when I’d arrived Friday night.After checking out around noon on Sunday, I explored the Cincinnati waterfront on foot. I walked past the Bengals and Reds stadiums, then grabbed a quick appetizer at the Yard House nearby. After that, I walked across the John Roebling Suspension Bridge across the Ohio River into Covington, Kentucky. I wandered around for a while, grabbed a late lunch at LaRosa’s Pizza (which I’d enjoyed as a kid at King’s Island), then grabbed another Lyft back to the CVG airport.
After some mild harassment from TSA, I made my way to the Club at CVG, where I eventually ran into 3 names previously mentioned: Cheryl Anne, Lucy and Travis. My flight was on time, but Cheryl Anne and Lucy had a several hour delay getting back to DC. In fact, I landed in Florida before they even began boarding their delayed flight.I had another great time, but it came at the expense of some worry. Covid-19 was really beginning to spread throughout the US, and my flights were at least ¼-1/3 empty in both directions. I was super thankful that we were able to have such an awesome gathering of FI folks, where I finally met amazing friends like Brenda, Jackie, Rose, and others. But it is sad to look back and think that only 7.5 weeks ago, we were still able to meet and hang out with friends from around the country, and who knows when it will be safe to do that again.Do you have any future travel plans at this point? I’ve had conferences canceled, one turned into a virtual conference that we held on 3 consecutive days via GoToWebinar, and I’m losing hope that our national conference in Fort Worth won’t be canceled for the 2nd week in June. I was scheduled to give a presentation again at the national conference, like I’d done previously in 2018 in Phoenix. I’m hesitant to book any future flights, even to go “home” to Indiana to visit family, since I don’t know if/when travel advisories will be lifted. For someone who’s already taken 13 flights so far in the first 9 weeks of the year, this has been a major change for me. I don’t have to fly somewhere every week or month, but it sure is fun to have something to plan towards, and I can’t do that right now.