Elfreth Alley in Philadelphia - old world charm

Philadelphia, Firefly Festival, and Travel Lessons Learned – June 2015

We booked a four day weekend in/out of Philadelphia since it’s an easy direct flight on the east coast tourist trail, we’ve been wanting to visit for awhile, and because we were able to time it to coincide with the Firefly music festival held at Dover downs in Dover, DE (approximately 1.5 hr from Philly).  Our plan was fly in and out of PHL airport and rent a car.  We would stay in between the two destinations, visiting Philly in the morning and early afternoons, and then driving to Dover for the best bands in the festival in the evenings.  We knew we would be driving a lot but it turns out we significantly underestimated how long it would take to get between point A and B each day…

It started off bad with our direct flight from Nashville to Philly that was scheduled to depart at 9pm on Thursday getting cancelled.  We ended up on a 5 am flight to Baltimore instead.  Unfortunately, we still had our return ticket out of Philly and had already paid for a rental car through Priceline at the Philly airport.  So now we had to get from Baltimore to Philly.. Amtrak came to the rescue and we purchased a pair of tickets for about $150 from BWI to downtown PHL at the 30th street station (there was no stop at PHL airport, which stunk).  This was probably way too much for those train tickets but it was last minute and it was the best option for us.  We spent the afternoon in downtown Philly which was great.  Our first stop was the Reading Terminal Market where we had some peking duck, yummy Indian samosas, Beiler’s donuts, and numerous samples.  Elisa found this olive bar which got her pretty excited (I thought that they had placed the sign there just for her visit):

Reading Market - Don't be tempted by those olive Elisa!

We also made a pit-stop at the Macy’s store downtown.  This is pretty uncharacteristic of me, but it turned out to be good fun.  Before Macy’s, the store was called Wannamaker’s, and is a true relic of the by-gone age when department stores were in their heyday.  The ceilings are soaring and almost as impressive as the 30th street station building.  Inside, there is a large, bronze eagle statue in the main hall with over 6,500 individually wrought (chisel, file, hammer) feathers.  Even more impressive is the organ which lines the hall, has 28,500 pipes, and is in fact the largest organ in the world.  There are daily concerts but we weren’t able to attend unfortunately.  The Christmas display looks pretty epic too.

Wannamaker's Organ in Macys downtown Philadelphia

After our visit, we had to hike back to the 30th street station, where we grabbed the luggage that we had stored for $8, and then waited 40 min for the next train to the airport.  Since we had only gotten about 3-4 hours of sleep that night before we were getting pretty tired.  After a 30 min ride, we found ourselves waiting another 20 min on the rental car shuttle.  When we arrived at the rental car office I was dismayed to find that I had forgotten to my Hertz Gold status on the reservation with Priceline.  The clerk refused to recognize it and give me the gold “fast-pass” treatment, so I had to go across the lot to the normal rental desk which was jam packed.  After another 20 min wait I got on a video conference with a rude Hertz rep and spent another 10 minutes dodging shady techniques to up-sell me on the rental car that I had already paid for!   For instance, she changed my reservation to the next size up without asking me and then included an additional $120 on the bill at the end, hoping to sneak it in without me noticing..  We finally got the car we had paid for without extras but needless to say I was more than a little bit tired and frustrated, and we still had 1.5 drive to the festival grounds in Dover that evening.  We actually stopped on the way and I got a Monster energy drink, which I think is only the second “energy” drink that I have ever had.  I will say it worked though (and it tasted like yellow Jolly Ranchers!! Yum J)

This is where we realized the next mistakes which really sucked – 1) commuting upwards of 2 hrs/day, especially while on vacation, and 2) having to pay tolls each way.  I am okay with some tolls but man, they are a lot between Philly and Dover!  I think we hit 3 each way at an average of $3 each, or $20 per day.    A third revelation on the day which was a real bummer in the the day parking at the festival was about a one mile walk (including a crazy snaking line of barriers before the security checkpoint which had to have been 1/3 mile long!) from the festival entrance.  This really ate up a lot of time and I figure it took 4 hours to get from the 30th street station to the festival.

Other than the crazy hike from parking and normal festival going nuisances ($8 crap beers, expensive food, nasty port-a-potties, excessive flesh displays, and heat) the festival was pretty well organized and there were a number of great bands.  We saw Paul McCartney the first night which was wonderful and epic with lasers, fireworks, and 90k fans.  He has so many classic hits and his stage presence has not waned a bit.  The midnight performance by house artist ZEDD was fantastic as well, with an awesome display of glowsticks in the crowd that was unlike any other spectacle I have seen.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t capture much of the concerts on camera since the experience doesn’t photograph well and it was a bit too dark; however, I did get a shot of the fireworks during the Wings song “Live and Let Die”.

Paul McCartney live at Firefly festival in Dover, DE

Unfortunately we didn’t get to our hotel until about 2:30am.  We only got a little more sleep then the night before we had a free walking tour booked in Philly the next day at 11am.  Our next day was much better though and the tour was very well done.  Unfortunately, we just didn’t have enough time to see much of the city, and could just walk past the outside of the sights.  I would come back on a dedicated visit to Philly to tour the mint, the Barnes museum, and visit the inside of the some of the national historic sites like the liberty bell and building were the continental congress met.  The architecture was great in the old quarter…

Elfreth's alley in Philadelphia - reminds me of Belgium

… and we had a delicious asian fusion lunch of brisket ramen and crispy chicken wings at Cheu Noodle Bar:

Brisket Ramen at Cheu Noodle Bar in Philly

Crispy, tangy chicken wings at Cheu Noodle Bar

It wasn’t the best ramen I have ever had (that would be in Honolulu – see my post here), but it was pretty darn good.  Elisa also had a strawberry beer which we both enjoyed.

Before heading back to the festival we made a stop at the Magic Gardens, which is a house and adjacent lot of land that local artist Isaiah Zagar transformed into a massive, interactive work of mosaic art during the 90’s.  He spent 14 years excavating, sculpting, tiling and grouting every surface of the 3,000 sq ft space.  The vacant lot on South St. that he started work in was not one that he owned.  In 2002, after Zagar had worked on the project for 8 years and it had become a local tourist attraction, the Boston based owner of the once-vacant lot realized the potential of the land for commercial development and made plans to demolish the art structures.  Fortunately, a non-profit initiative was able to acquire the land and has turned it into a museum.  It is no longer free to visit but at least it is still there.  We had a lot of fun admiring all the creativity and wacky details of the site, particularly the bicycle wheels turned into windows and the colorful bathroom (although the statue of the dog sniffing a man’s private parts was kinda odd).

Magic gardens Philly

Colorful bathroom in Philly's magic gardens

In terms of other concerts during the weekend: the Kings of Leon concert got rained out which was a huge bummer, and the band decided to return to Nashville rather than do a makeup show the next day. They moved down a notch in my book.  The Killers were good as well, but not as good as Spoon. Foster the People put on a great show, as usual. My favorite performance was probably Empire of the Sun, which was a true spectacular with meta-narrative, interpretive dancers, costumes, lights, and crazy catchy musical riffs.  There was definitely a David Bowie/Michael Jackson/Flaming Lips vibe to it and it was just straight-up fun.

The festival also had a dedicated Dogfish Head brewery tent, with several tasty beers including the Midas Touch – one of my favorite American strong beers.

We incorporated some travel hacking into our trip, as usual.  As I mentioned, the flight was free with Southwest points that I transferred from my Chase Ultimate Rewards stockpile and the companion pass.  In addition, rather than one stay at a hotel for all three nights of the trip, we had three separate stays – one at a holiday inn on Elisa’s account to make progress towards completing the IHG Share Forever promotion, one at a Country Inn & Suites (Club Carlson property) on Mayne’s account to get the 30k point bonus that Carlson hotels was offering credit card holders in exchange for removing the BOGO benefit on the card, and a third night at the same Country Inn on Elisa’s account to benefit from the same Carlson promotion.  We have a specific redemption planned for the 60k points earned for the Country Inn nights which will yield 4 free nights.  The IHG stay yielded 1/3 of a free night from the points earned for the stay, plus one night closer to the 26 Elisa needs to complete the final hurdle of the Share Forever promotion.  That promotion requires 26 nights by Sept 7 and will yield approximately 150k IHG points, enough for at least 7 free nights.  It sounds like a high hurdle (and actually is, compared to previous promotions), but due to all my work trips booked under Elisa’s award account we are already at 19 nights and I expect to meet the requirement by Sept 7.

While we had fun seeing a few sights in Philly and taking in some of the bands at the festival, I think we came away from the trip feeling more tired than rested, feeling like we spent a lot of money for not a lot of experience, and feeling like we had not really gotten to enjoy ourselves as much as we normally do when traveling.  I think this is a product of just trying to do too much in a short amount of time and not planning / being realistic about how long travel can take.  The weather also got in the way.  I’m not complaining since I realize it’s a blessing to be able to take time to do things we want to do.  Nonetheless, since I am trying to be cognizant of the mistakes I make in order to learn from them in the future, here is a bullet point list of lessons learned:

  • While traveling, don’t plan on long commutes, or going back and forth between two destinations.  It’s better to stick to one, explore it thoroughly and be happy with maybe coming back later for the next one.
  • Avoid festivals in the middle of nowhere.  They are setup for campers, have expensive food, are tough to get to, and are filled with smelly people (just kidding, but only partially..).  Plus driving 1 hour back to the hotel at 1 am while already tired is a bummer.
  • When planning, always take into account the travel time between destinations before booking anything.  Include some buffer time as well.  I am taking action on this one right now with our travel plans for next year….
  • Make sure that the credit card used for purchasing rental cars includes car insurance.  This will be in the form of primary insurance outside of the US and secondary (to your personal auto insurance) inside the US.  I was certain that our Citi Prestige card did but after the exchange with the Hertz lady I started to second guess myself).
  • When traveling in the New England in the US, take into account tolls which can add significantly to the cost of your trip.

The trip ended on a nice note.  As we were cleaning out the rental car before returning it I found $60 in between the seats!!  It might have actually been ours (we are not sure) but I am going to chalk it up as good fortunate and assume it was someone else’s that left it for us to compensate for our challenges this trip!!

Look at the cash we found! (or did we?)