TRAVEL GUIDE

TRAVEL GUIDE: SAN FRANCISCO IN 48 HOURS

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Imagine being in a deep sleep, and then receiving a phone call in the middle of the night asking if you want to come to San Francisco when you woke up. If you know me, you know the answer was not only, “Yes,” but “Hell yes.” So, I set my alarm for an early morning wake up call to at least make sure I woke up in enough time to pack a bag and pick up any last minute essentials before heading to the airport.

As much as I have travelled, this was my first trip to the Bay Area, and over an 8 hour span, I decided to tackle all of the major touristy attractions to make my trip well worth it. I mean, my original weekend plans involved laundry and a feather duster, so a weekend trip to San Francisco trumps that any day.

Click here to get your San Francisco city pass for discounts and/or entry to some of the most popular attractions.

Here are my five things to see and/or do for all of my San Francisco newbies:

Take a picture on the 16th Avenue Tiled Steps.

Disclaimer: Both the GPS systems of my Uber driver and myself seemed to be on a circular, scenic tour of San Francisco, and we had a hard time getting to this location. We finally found a nice neighborhood security officer to lead us to our destination.

However, in the process, I found a little known set of tiled steps called the Hidden Garden, and they were just as spectacular as their more Instagrammed counterpart.

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Relive your childhood at the Painted Ladies.

If you were alive in the era of Full House, then these houses should look really familiar to you? And while you’re there, there’s a nice park across the street to sit and enjoy the weather.

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Stroll down the Wharf and enjoy some hot steamy clam or crab chowder.

There are many great spots to get the perfect chowder all around San Francisco, and on this trip, I was able to enjoy a steamy bowl at Pier Market Seafood. Let’s just say yum!

Walk down the most crooked street in the world.

With my self-diagnosed vertigo, I was nervous to even walk down Lombard street, but I made the trek and watched the cars ease their way on down this infamous street.

Visit Alcatraz, the notorious prison and former home to some of the country’s most dangerous criminals.

This tour has one of the best self-guided audio guides that I’ve ever had the chance to experience. From listening to prisoners recount their days to being led into the hole, home to the worst and mostly deadly offenders, I’m convinced this is something that will make it back on my list to revisit in the future.

You can click here for a tour that combines Alcatraz and a San Fran city tour.

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Have you been to San Francisco? What are your favorite things to do and places to eat?

Click here to get your San Francisco city pass for discounts and/or entry to some of the most popular attractions.

P.S.  If you would like assistance booking your next trip, click here.

Disclaimer: Some of the links in this blog are affiliate links, meaning at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.

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TRAVEL GUIDE: CRUISING FOR NEWBIES

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For the past five years, we have taken group trips to celebrate my younger brother’s birthday. Last year, our trip was almost marred in tragedy, after a snow mobile accident resulted in him being life flighted to Denver with bleeding on the brain and his girlfriend at the time with a broken elbow and hip. We learned a lot that trip about taking unnecessary risks, but instead of ending the birthday trip annual vacations, we just took heed of the lessons learned last December for all future travels.

This year, the plan was to travel to Puerto Rico. But when Hurricane Irma followed by Hurricane Maria hit the island in September, leaving many areas devastated and without power, we knew that our travel plans would have to be changed. For a while we waited with hopefulness that the state of emergency declared would clear, that the government would rally for the speedy restoration of Puerto Rico like the Southern states had rallied for Houston, and that Puerto Rico would be back operational before our trip, however, three months later, Puerto Rico is still trying to recover from the devastation caused to an infrastructure that was already fragile before the wind and rain ravished the island.

So, what do you do in Houston when you need a quick and affordable trip to a tropical paradise?!? You call up your favorite travel agent and book a cruise from the Port of Galveston, which is only about 45 minute away. And being that my grandmother celebrated her 82nd birthday a few days after my brother, we knew that a cruise was the perfect way to include her on this vacation, as well.

It’s been almost 4 years or maybe even longer since my last cruise, so of course, I had to consult my traveler’s bible aka Pinterest for tips to make the most of this trip. However, while perusing Pinterest for shopping lists and travel tips, I noticed that comprehensive travel guides for cruises were in short supply.

And let me also be honest and say that I didn’t start preparing for my trip until the week of departure. Between celebrating my own birthday along with the Thanksgiving holiday, studying for my upcoming Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) Exam, and balancing end of the year work stressors, I was still running around the day of my trip trying to get last minute things done like a pedicure and restocking travel toiletries.

Our 4 day cruise to Cozumel ended up being the perfect reprieve from real life and just the right balance of fun, sleep, and sun sprinkled with a mild case of gluttony.

Here is my comprehensive guide to help those new to cruising get the most of out your trip:

BEFORE THE CRUISE:

As I previously stated, I had minimal time to prepare for this trip, and there are a handful of things that I’m glad I knew or wished I would have known before showing up at the port on departure day.

Contact your cruise line and inquire about special themed nights.

Unless you usually come on vacations already prepared with afro wigs and bell-bottoms for a night of partying in Boogie Wonderland or ugly Christmas sweaters for a festive fete, it might be a good idea to call your cruise line and inquire about any themed events.  While even short cruises usually have a Captain’s Ball, where you can party with the captain and crew in your black tie attire, there are usually a couple of additional themed nights to enjoy with your travel companion(s).

When applicable, pack for dual seasons.

So, I’m going to blame my lack of sleep for being genuinely perplexed when my brother asked me whether I was bringing a jacket and warm clothes aboard the ship.  As I looked down in my half-packed bag, at 1:30am the morning/night before my cruise, I realized that I had not taken into consideration that the weather would not be warm until we reached the Caribbean waters.  Luckily, that question was asked in enough time for me to throw a jacket in my bag, because the wind gusts on the upper decks of the ships on our first and last nights reminded me that it was Winter.

BYOB (Bring your own booze).

One of the most expensive items on your cruise are the overpriced drinks available at one of the many bars or dining rooms.  But don’t fret, most cruise lines allow guests to bring a limited supply of wine on board.  For Royal Caribbean, the limit is 2 (750ml) bottles per stateroom.

Tip:  Signature daily drinks usually come in fancy souvenir cups which raise the price.  You can ask for the same cocktail in a regular glass and save a few $$$.  I mean, how often will you use that fancy souvenir glass when you get back home anyway?!?

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Plan to arrive for check-in early or late(ish).

The check-in process for cruises can be extremely long, especially when the bulk of the two-thousand plus men, women, and children, are gathered by the masses to begin their tropical vacation.  The best times for the shortest lines are either first thing in the morning when boarding begins or in the last couple of hours before boarding ends. When you checkin for your cruise, pay attention to boarding times and plan accordingly.

Tip:  Your stateroom may not be ready until a couple of hours after departure.  Be sure and pack any outfits you would like to change into within your first hours of being onboard like swimwear and any other important items like prescriptions, etc.

Be weather conscious.

The Monday before my cruise departed that Thursday, I remember checking the weather and seeing that it would most likely rain on our day in Cozumel.  But somehow between Monday and my Thursday departure day, I forgot.  Needless to say, our travel group ended up braving torrential downpours (until we found some cheap ponchos) to make the most of our limited time docked in Cozumel.

DURING THE CRUISE

Plan your day at the beginning of the day.

Each day while on your cruise, your attentive cabin attendants will distribute a daily schedule.  Let me first say, there has to be a million things going on each day, whether it’s trivia, bingo, dance classes, liquor tasting, games, etc.  The easiest way to make the most of your time is to plan out your day at the beginning of your morning (or afternoon if you like to sleep like me).  Almost every activity on our cruise started on time, so don’t spread yourself so thin that you spend more time running all over the ship than actually enjoying your trip.

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Eat, eat, and eat some more.

For most people, the best part of cruise vacations is that the food is usually good and plentiful.  Whether its the main dining hall, the buffet, or one of the specialty dining restaurants on board, there is always a large variety of delicious food to eat.  There is something about vacations that make people a little more adventurous, and even though I’m one of the pickiest food consumers alive, the garlic butter escargot served in the main dining room became a family favorite.

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Tip: You can order multiples appetizers and entrees in the main dining room for FREE.  Don’t be afraid to try the many dishes, you paid for it.

Watch a show, laugh at some jokes, and don’t be afraid to show off your latest line dances on the main deck.

Whether he was impersonating the lead singer of the Village People, costume and all, teaching cruise goers the choreographed routine to Thriller for a finale performance, or leading the love train through the center of the ship, our cruise director, Steve, was charismatic, full of energy, and the perfect host of every social event on the Vision of the Seas.  It was obvious that every entertainment detail had been thought out in its entirety, from the hilarious comedy of John Knight to the broadway worthy performances filled with talented dancers and vocalists, the on-board entertainment is probably the next best perk to the food.

Allow your kids to live their best lives.

As a single woman without any kids, I’m always leery of vacations where the ratio to little people versus adult people is significantly inproportiante.  I can’t say it’s ideal to be sipping my cosmo by the pool while a toddler is splashing my novel.  Cruises, however, are perfect for family vacations, and there is a whole deck or area, on most ships, solely dedicated to your bundles of joy.  The Vision of the Seas had an arcade, nursery, and teen center to keep your little ones busy.

Stock up on your favorites liquors.

My favorite liquor, Sheridan, is not available in the States, so of course, I look forward to international duty-free shopping to stock my bar.  Whether it’s your favorite vodka, cognac, or speciality liquor, you can usually find just about everything on board your ship or at a docking port for a value price.  And most cruises offer liquor tasting in their duty free shops to help you find liquors that are worth being added to your repertoire.

Tip: Make sure you are familiar with customs taxes and limits to make sure you get all your booze back to your residence without hefty fees.

Don’t miss the boat.

This sounds like common sense, but most cruise personnel can tell you that it’s not uncommon for there to be at least a couple of stragglers that consume too much tequila and have to fly home at their own expense.  If you cruise ships says that you will be in Cozumel from 8am-5pm, that means you will be in Cozumel until 5:00pm.  On the way off boat, you card is scanned not to wait on you or call your cell phone in case you’re late, but so that cruise officials will know that Tonia and her little friends didn’t make it back from Margaritaville.  One of the easiest ways to make sure that you’re on time is to book a guided excursion, but since most of us had frequented Mexico enough to have done all the touristy stuff, we just all kept an eye on the time.  After about 6 rounds of tequila shots, I’m sure they were very blurry eyes, but hey, we made it.  I watched one man have to get carried back to the boat, by his parents of all people, but hey, he made it.

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Keep track of the expenses on your onboard account.

Between drink purchases by the pool and shopping in the duty free shops, it’s easy to run up a large tab that has to be paid before you depart back to your regular life.  Either keep track of your purchases through keeping your receipts, or you can check your balances at guest services each day.  I don’t think there’s a dishwashing option, so make sure that you only spend within your means.

Tip: Some cruise lines charge a daily fee to your onboard account.  Our fee was $13.50 per day, making my tab already over $50, before I even started adding cocktails and Cokes. Yes, even soft drinks cost on your cruise.

AFTER THE CRUISE

Complete the survey.

At the end of your cruise, you will be emailed a survey on various aspects of your cruise, including but not limited to cleanliness and service.  If you had great cabin attendants or servers at dinner, the survey is your time to acknowledge their hard work and dedication to making your cruise memorable.

Have you been on a cruise?  What tips would you give to newbies, and what are some of your favorite ports?  We look forward to reading your advice and suggestions in the comments below.

P.S.  If you would like assistance booking your next trip, click here.

TRAVEL GUIDE: WHEN ACCIDENTS OCCUR

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We went up the mountain as 11, fearless and full of adrenaline, celebrating another year of life in the Colorado mountains. Throwing off our helmets and goggles, talks of the exhilarating ride filled the air. And then we noticed, there were only 9 of us, our guides were in a huddle, and the whispers of an accident began to permeate the air. The feeling of dread that had begun to manifest in my stomach turned into nausea, and I knew before the dreaded words were spoken that there had been accident and my brother, the birthday boy, was one of those involved.

I can remember the feeling of my heart in the pit of my stomach, my tears freezing to my face, and the bits and pieces of the hushed conversation between the guides.

Ambulance. 30 feet fall. Concussion. Pretty bad.

This was our 4th year jetsetting across the country to celebrate our birthdays together. Trips filled of countless excursions, waterfall plunges, jumping in the ocean, partying into the morning…. I had been in Colorado for less than 24 hours, and instead of the surprise party that we had planned at the Breckenbridge Distillery, my brother was being prepared for a flight for life ride to a more equipped hospital in Denver due to a bleed on the brain, while his girlfriend lay nearby in agony suffering from a broken elbow and fractured tailbone and pelvis.

This was not our first trip or first excursion by a long shot. We’ve travelled the world, but here we were, thousands of miles away from family praying for the best and learning to deal with the rest. Everyone has heard the stories about tragedies happening while on vacation, but until that moment, I had never fathomed having to call my mother and tell her that she needed to be on the next flight to Denver because the doctors said that my brother’s prognosis was grim.

When getting ready for a vacation, we think about the clothes that we need to pack, our accommodations, transportation, and excursions, but we rarely plan for tragedy. By the grace of God, my brother and his girlfriend both made full recoveries, but this incident reminded me to not take life for granted and that tomorrow isn’t promised. While I am and always will be an advocate for travel, based on my experience, I’ve listed some tips for all travelers just in case an accident occurs:

  1. Always carry your insurance card on vacation and be aware of your international coverage. While some countries have universal health care, unless you are a citizen you might not qualify for coverage, however, some policies have provisions in place that will cover portions of your medical care internationally.

  2. Like your mama probably told you a long time ago, always carry extra underwear. I might have been competing in the same clothes challenge the extra days I spent in Denver, but my underclothes were clean and plentiful.

  3. Before signing any waivers on excursions, read them thoroughly and inquire about accidental clauses and coverage. Most waivers state that you are solely responsible for any accidents and that the company will not be held liable.

  4. Be mindful of weather inclinations and go with your gut. If the weather is adverse to your excursion, remember that your safety comes first. In our case, almost every snow mobile rental company was closed due to a lack of snow, with the exception of the company where we purchased our tours. That should have been a red flag, but there is something about vacation that replaces logical thinking.   And due to the waivers that we have signed, the company was not held liable for the accident or responsible for the $200,000 in accumulated medical bills.

  5. If an accident occurs, if possible, ask to report immediately to the accident scene and take pictures. Since my brother and his girlfriend have limited memory about the accident, we had to attempt to answer questions about the cause of the accident, aftermath, etc, but none of us witnessed or reviewed the scene of the crash.   This may not always be feasible, but there were enough of us to divide and conquer, and you never know when you may need that information for legal purposes.

  6. Reschedule flights IMMEDIATELY. Most airline companies require that flights be cancelled before scheduled departure to avoid fees and penalties, even in the instance of an accident.

  7. Always travel with extra $$$. A weekend trip turned into a week long trip, and without extra emergency cash, I wouldn’t have been able to pay for necessities such as a hotel stay, rental car extension, food, etc.

Have you ever had an accident occur on vacation?  And if so, what tips can you share for travelers?

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P.S. If you would like help planning your next vacation, click here.

TRAVEL GUIDE: A WEEKEND IN ATLANTA, GA

Atlanta, a city with as many historical sites as posh clubs filled with A-List entertainers.  I’m sure that I would need both hands to count the number of times that I have been to Atlanta, but I recently realized that I’ve never been to Atlanta as a tourist.  So, while I was in Atlanta this weekend for the African American on the Move Book Club Awards, I decided to use my limited free time to visit some of Atlanta’s most popular tourist spots.

My plane touched down in Atlanta around 3pm on a blazing sunny Friday.  With temperatures near the 100s and only about an hour to spare before having to get dressed for my first event of the weekend, I decided to take a stroll down Peachtree Avenue.  Yes, I took a walk instead of rushing to get dressed, it’s the procrastinator in my blood.  Truth be told, I have somewhat of a obession with walking cities, being that between Houston’s humid weather and spread out locations, walking is usually not a feasible option.  One of the determining factors of choosing a hotel in Buckhead was being walking distance from Lenox Square and Phipps Plaza and only a short commute from Buckhead’s MARTA station.  I used that to my full advantage on my limited schedule to be able to squeeze in my touristy travels in the midst of a weekend filled with award festivities.  And let me not forget to mention that Uber was also my best friend.  Unlike the higher fares that can be found in Houston, with the exception of my ride to Elizabeth Baptist Church, all of my rides around the city were less than $10 and even cheaper when I opted to use the pool option.

After my walk down Buckhead to scope out potential dinner restaurants, I spent a lovely evening at The Secrets movie screening with the movie cast and bestselling and aspiring authors discussing our literary chronicles.

Saturday, in order to make the most of my day, I awoke early to hit some of the most popular tourist spots on my list.  With one of my closest friends as my guide, I was able to tour the Martin Luther King memorial, where both him and Coretta are interned, visit his childhood home, and walk through the Ebenezer Baptist Church where King was associate pastor until his assassination.   Almost immediately around the corner, is the infamous Jackson Street Bridge, where I was able to get an amazing shot of the Atlanta Downtown Skyline.  We ended the day at Lenox Mall and Wet Willies enjoying daiquiris before heading back to my hotel to get me dressed for the AAMBC Awards.

With Sunday being my last full day in Atlanta, I started off the morning at Elizabeth Baptist Church to celebrate the pastoral anniversary of Pastor Craig Oliver.  Even though it crossed my mind to get some extra sleep, God has been too good to me for me to miss church in a city filled with so many phenomenal pastors.  After a quick change back at my hotel room from my dressy church attire to jeans and a t-shirt, I headed over to the World of Coca Cola to be enlightened with a brief history surrounding my favorite beverage accompanied with a sampling of Coca Cola beverages from all over the world.  I’m convinced that they are still putting the Coke in Coca Cola, because I swear I have been addicted for most of my life.  Let me not tell y’all that one of my favorite parts of visiting Mexico were the Mexican Cokes that were restocked in our refrigerator each morning.  Right outside of Coca Cola is the beautiful, scenic Centennial Park through which I strolled on my way to CNN.  Due to my limited schedule, I didn’t get to take the official CNN tour, but I was able to walk through the building before heading to brunch.  Sadly, I happened to be on vacation as another sadistic loser made history by shooting up a club in Orlando, and as I walked through the CNN building, I can’t explain the solemn silence that lingered in the air as people sat in the food court with their eyes glued to the news screens.

For a guided bus tour of Atlanta, click here.

It was bittersweet packing to head back to Houston from Atlanta, and being that I hadn’t seen my high school best friend, Victoria, in over a year, we decided to end my trip with dinner at Scales 925, rapper TI’s (now closed) restaurant.  While the ambiance of the restaurant was sophisticated and elegant, we were so engulfed in our cocktails that we allowed the kitchen to close and ended up eating at Twin Peaks.  I can’t say I was sad about it.  I’m a sports bar girl at heart.  I didn’t get to enjoy the Atlanta club scene this trip, but I still think this was one of best trips to Atlanta, yet.

Restaurant Highlight

Being that I have a sister that graduated from Spelman and a host of friends that live and have lived in Atlanta, I was blessed with a list of restaurants to fit my palates for any given night of the weekend.  After leaving the awards show, I was famished, and being that it was such a great night, I was looking forward to a fancy dinner.  Even though my Uber driver was appalled that I would be dining alone (and even volunteered to join me), I decided to dine at JCT Kitchen and Bar.  Since I was in the mood for some good Southern comfort food, I couldn’t resist trying their Georgia Trout with a side of greens and house hot sauce.  I would like to think I am well-versed in my Southern comfort food, and between the ambiance, good service, and delicious cuisine, JCT has made the must visit list on future trips to Atlanta.

 

P.S. If you would like help planning your next vacation, click here.

Disclaimer: Some of the links in this blog are affiliate links, meaning at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.

TRAVEL GUIDE: CHICAGO IN THE WINTER

It’s not a secret by now that Chicago is one of my favorite cities, if not my favorite city, in the States. Summertime Chi is enough to make you pack up your bags and relocate to the Windy City. But even though I’ve been to Chicago a handful of times, I had never been in the Winter, until I decided it would be a brilliant idea to bring in my NYE in this city notorious for its harsh winters with negative temperatures.

Let me first give this disclaimer, I’m from Texas. My winters usually involve days where shorts and sandals are appropriate, and even as I boarded my plane to head to temperatures slated to be at or around zero, I was only layered up to be prepared for disembarking from the plane. So, it’s not surprising that my conversation with my friend that’s a Chicago Native went something like this:

Me: Do I need to wear long johns and fleece tights at the same time?

Her: No.

Me: Are you going to help me decide the best way to tie my scarf?

Her: Yes.

Me: Do you think I need to go and get a ski mask?

Her: (I’m pretty sure this is probably where she slammed her hand to her forehead)

I’ve been to New York in the Winter, but that’s honestly where my experience with extreme cold weather temperatures comes to an end. And I can remember being so cold my first night in NY that I refused to leave the warmth of my cousin’s apartment. 110 degree weather, I have experience for days, but sleet and snow are outside of my realm of expertise.

There are a million ways to enjoy Chicago in the summertime. The weather is perfect, the festivals are in full swing, and the rooftop bars become every liquor connoisseurs playground. But what do you do when the temperature creeps into the negative, when it’s no longer fun to be an outdoor tourist, and when you’re in one of your favorite cities in the world?!?

Click here to get your Chicago City Pass for discounts to some of the most popular Chicago attractions.

Here is my list of 9 things to do in Chicago when the temperature tries to prevent you from living your best life:

Be festive. 

Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years are my favorite holidays, making winter and fall my favorite seasons to indulge in holiday activities.  Whether you go to ZooLights at Lincoln Park Zoo, see a Charlie Brown Christmas at the Broadway Playhouse, or visit the Magnificent Mile Light Festival, there is plenty to do for holiday enthusiast like myself.

Eat like you’re trying to gain a layer of flubber.

When it comes to food, Chicago is one of my favorite cities to restaurant hop and live the foodie life. This trip, I had the opportunity to enjoy some of Chicago’s best food outside of the ritzy and touristy areas. From the beef tips that I enjoyed at Wiley’s to the fried hot polish from Maxwells , I know that I put on a extra four or five pounds during my trip. I will just say that I needed the extra weight to battle the freezing temperatures. You can venture out on your own or take a food tour.

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Go ice-skating. 

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See a show on Broadway. 

Warm up with a cup of steamy hot chocolate.

There’s nothing like enjoying a warm, steamy mug of hot cocoa to escape from the frigid temperatures. Get on Trip Advisor and find the nearest highly ranked carrier in your area and forget it’s windy and below zero.

Visit a Museum. 

While many tourists know to visit the Art Institute Museum, Chicago is home to many other museums like the Field Museum or Museum of Contemporary Art.  Get a Chicago Explorer pass and escape the frigid temperatures to stimulate your artistic creativity.

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Go to a sports game. 

Whether it’s the Chicago Bulls, Bears, Cubs, White Sox etc, Chicago is the perfect city for sports fans. And if you like hockey, don’t forget to go and visit the all-new Black Hawks stadium.

Take a self-led tour of filming locations.

There have been many popular movies and TV shows filmed in Chicago. Since I’m a Batman fanatic, this is right up my alley. You can click here to track down some of Chicago’s most popular shot locations.

Shop at the new Jordan store. 

Picture Courtesy of Chicago Tribune

P.S.  If you would like assistance booking your next trip, click here.


Disclaimer: Some of the links in this blog are affiliate links, meaning at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.