New York and the Near-Death Experience: A Review of the Affinia Shelburne Hotel

The first day in New York was ridiculously hectic.  I had recommended the Affinia Shelburne Hotel to my travel buddies, after my fabulous stay there in 2010. “It’s really clean and they give you free nail polish remover towelettes!” I said.

(Photo is from the Affinia website, but other than that tray of fruit, it’s pretty true to life)

It was unfortunate, however, that their first impression was of this gooey thing in the shower which looked like it was either alive, or would come to life while we were sleeping:

But they give you free nail polish remover towelettes!” I was thinking.

Potential unwanted roommates aside though, we actually had a very busy schedule for that afternoon so we quickly asked reception for a new room and then split like a banana.

While my travel buddies went to the Rockefeller Center to pick up our New York Explorer Pass (which I totally recommend if you’re planning to check out a lot of the tourist attractions), I headed to the Banana Republic store in SoHo, where the lovely international man from Boston had arranged for my collarless red coat to be put on hold for me:

After regrouping (a.k.a. a bit of pre-Woodbury scouting/research), we all returned to the hotel where the receptionist was very apologetic about the bathroom goo, and said that they would need to shut that room down for cleaning but could offer us an upgrade, which was very exciting.

But wait, what was that machine in our new room which looked like it could be an explosive? Bombs don’t usually plug into the wall, right??  Was it really safe to take a photo, and was there some type of bomb waves causing this blurry photo?  I don’t know.

Travel buddy 1:  Wait, let’s all stay calm, it’s ok as long as there isn’t a timer on it.

Travel buddy 2: ….but there’s a timer on it!!! And it’s on!!!

Me: (as we are in the lift) Should we have moved our bags? I don’t want that thing to blow up and damage our stuff.

Random lady in lift: (concerned, after eavesdropping) Er, what’s in your room?  And you’re on which level?

Receptionist: Oh, that’s just a machine we use to dry the carpet after cleaning. We’ll send someone to remove it right away.

…And so that concluded the brief drama we had at the Affinia Shelburne, which for the record I still say is an amazing boutique hotel that is value for money.

Quick review:  4 stars.

As well as being modern/clean/safe (these are my prerequisites), there were a couple of things I really appreciated from my 2 stays there:

  • Friendly service and quick to solve problems (see long winded story above)
  • Great value for money in comparison to other similar hotels, plus they have extended stay discounts
  • Fantastic views from the rooftop bar
  • You could get online shopping delivered to your room!
  • Staff don’t bat an eyelid if you return after every day (or after every breakfast, lunch, dinner and midnight snack) with gigantic shopping bags
  • Great Thanksgiving dinner in the Rare Bar & Grill downstairs
  • Choose your pillow from the Dream Pillow Menu
  • Coin laundry located in the basement

I only wish they were closer to the subway — it’s about a 5-10 minute walk from Grand Central, which is nothing until you factor in the many many trips to drop off shopping bags. But given the amount of food we ate, this was probably a blessing in disguise…

And yes, they did still give free nail polish remover towelettes.

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Manhattanhenge?

I read this post about 3 times but I still don’t get the science behind it (something about the sun setting, east/west alignment, and equinoxes?).  Honestly, I just like this photo of Manhattan (by John Makely of msnbc.com):

Also, it brought back some very good memories of the Joe Fresh store which is just down the street on the corner of 5th Avenue and 42nd Street.  Joe Fresh is a Canadian brand, where I bought this silk shirt for the amazing price of $39!  The price was so amazing I bought the shirt in 3 different colors, and am now wishing I just got one in every color!

Unfortunately, there’s no online store so there’s no quick fix… I guess the only logical thing to do now is to plan another trip overseas!!

A suitcase full of heaven

I’ve been trying to find the right words to describe my first full day in NYC, but this little family portrait of goodies from Woodbury Commons pretty much sums it up:

Best finds of the day were definitely the $300 red Miu Miu cross-body bag and the $75 Sam Edelman suede/leather ankle boots from Saks Off 5th.

The lack of food pictures is because to offset my spending, I ate McDonalds for breakfast (before arriving) and dinner (after shops closed).  I could not afford that third meal in the middle of the day.  Cheapest (food) day ever.

The Shopparama approach

If you are in New York, you must go to Woodbury.  No excuses.  Go early.  Set aside an entire day and bring an empty suitcase, unless you plan to buy one at Samsonite (shop no. 642).

(Yes, your inexperienced fellow passengers on the bus may laugh at you when they first see your suitcase, but you will laugh last by the end of the night when your suitcase is overflowing and those poor novices have been limited by what they can carry in their two bare hands… mwahahah!)

Bring water.  I don’t want to advocate starving yourself, but perhaps some barley sugar is not a bad idea.  And maybe bandaids.  Wear comfortable but still fashionable shoes that are easy to put on and take off (e.g. flats).  Use the same principle for what you wear.  Download the center directory and memorize your plan of attack, because there is no time to look up shop locations while you’re on the move!

Or, you could just have a nice stroll around the outdoorsy outlet village, but you may suffer non-shopping remorse.  As a survivor, I am here to tell you that this is a serious condition.  It’s best not to risk it.

Some practical information

There’s some information on the Woodbury Commons website about how to get there, but it’s basically a one-hour bus ride from Manhattan.  You will even see some highway scenery along the way — talk about multi-tasking!

I used the New York Explorer pass to get to Woodbury (the bus is the best included “attraction”, in my opinion), but the return trip is usually $42.  Either way, this includes a voucher for a booklet of discount vouchers which usually gives you an extra 10% off most stores excluding designer brands, to be picked up at the Information Desk in the tower building near the bus stop.

You can buy the bus tickets inside Madame Tussard in Times Square (fun fact: this is very close to the Forever 21 which opens til 2am), but there are probably other bus operators and ticket outlets as well.

Even more practical information

And in case you’re worried that Woodbury will ruin all other shopping experiences because, oh em gee, will everything else be full price??

Never fear.

  • Macy’s and Bloomingdales both have a 10% discount for international visitors.  You’ll need to show your passport or driver’s licence at the Visitor Center to pick up the pass.
  • Lord & Taylor has a 15% discount for international visitors, which is matched by the Bloomingdales on 59th Street if you have the New York Explorer pass.
  • Other department stores might agree to give some type of similar discount if you ask, but I don’t think they officially offer it.  Choose your sales assistant wisely.  I’d say the likelihood of getting this is proportional to how much you bring to the table.  (This is not code for negotiating tactics, I just mean how much you are buying.)
  • It’s also worth knowing that these discounts usually exclude designer brands and cosmetics, but I know for a fact that the Bloomingdales discount works on Ferragamo shoes. 😉

In conclusion: I think it’s time to book another trip!

P.S. In case anyone is wondering, I bought the Mini Elsie bag from Chloe in skylight blue and I just want to pinch its cheeks every time I see it!

You’ve got to spend money to save money

This is the story of how I applied my business savvy in New York City.

The conversation that started it all

On my first day in NYC last year, I had the following exchange with a shop assistant in Sephora*:

SA:  Ma’am, would you like to pay in US dollars or Australian dollars?

Me: (upon seeing that the foreign exchange rate on the credit card machine was 0.9474) Whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa?  But I just checked xe.com this morning, and it was supposed to be near an all-time high of $0.99!  Hang on, my xe.com iphone app says it’s still at $0.99…?

SA: …Ma’am?

Me: I’ll pay in US dollars, please.

* this retelling has possibly, potentially, may have been a tiny bit embellished for dramatic purposes.  Maybe.

I also still can’t believe they kept calling me “ma’am”.

When you spend money, others make money too 

Obviously.  But what I discovered in that Sephora store is that someone else in the complicated credit card web — merchant, credit card network/processor, bank, whoever — was trying to get just that little bit extra from me through their foreign exchange shenanigans.  And so were all the other stores I visited, because shop assistant after shop assistant offered me terrible exchange rates (but otherwise excellent service).

Having armed myself with xe.com for up-to-date information and my trusty 28 Degrees credit card for optimal (international shopping) exchange rates, I was miffed.

And what’s more?  This is by no means limited to shopping overseas in person, this happens all the time online!  Sometimes they’re sneaky and know you’re from Australia, so by default you are shown the pricing in Australian dollars. Then they try to sell it to you as “have the extra security of paying in your local currency”!  Pffft.  I’m not buying that.

Take, for example, this Karen Millen dress on asos.com:

You can either buy this for A$239.75 or £140.00.  But at this very moment, £140.00 is only A$207.24 — isn’t that ridiculous?  That means if you pay in Australian dollars, then you’ll be paying up to A$32 more!  Even if you were to pay with an Amex, which generally has higher international conversion fees and transactions fees, that is waaaay too much.  (I’ve chosen this dress because I like it, and because the model kind of looks incredulous.  Or maybe she’s smizing, I don’t know.)

And even worse, for some reason, the Australian brand Mimco has done something weird with their pricing, so that it’s more expensive to buy a bag in Australia than in the UK!!!

Oh dear, this has turned into a bit of a rant.  I guess the moral of this story is, if an overseas store/website offers payment in Australian dollars, do a quick conversion check to see if you could save some money while spending money.

Of course, not all websites do this.  For example, shopbop.com provides the other currencies for reference only, but actually charge your credit card in US dollars.  If this is the case, then choose your credit card or payment method wisely… but that is a story for another day.

Since the dollar has hit another all-time high, I am going to do some browsing and save some money now — wish me luck.

Cheap Broadway tickets

One pitfall of trying to keep up-to-date with all the online offers is that my mailbox has become ridiculously junky — so much so that I’ve had to organise it into folders.

Seriously, this is my personal email:

Plus, sale notifications from US websites generally arrive between midnight – 2am Sydney time, which can be really annoying if your phone chirps every time you get an email.

Anyway, so I started a clean out of my mailbox last night, and along the way I found one of my proud bargains that I wanted to share:  how to get cheap tickets to Broadway shows, and without sitting in one of those seats where you can only see 80% of the stage (even if you’re only paying 65% of the price).

The offer

Before going to New York last year, I’d been told that to get cheap Broadway tickets, you should line up at the TKTS Discounts Booth in Times Square on the day you want to watch a show and try your luck.

Well, that wasn’t happening as soon as I found out that it would be 4 degrees celsius — there had to be another way!  Plus, I might have to wait in line for hours!  That’d definitely cut into precious, uh, sightseeing time.

After some research, I discovered there was something called broadwayoffers.com, which was supposedly part of Telecharge, the official site for Broadway tickets.  I say “supposedly” because the website looked kinda sketchy, and I had to do some research and investigation like comparing the contact numbers and googling “broadwayoffers.com scam”, but it’s in fact very legitimate.  I bought Next to Normal tickets for less than $70 each, and the seats were in Centre Orchestra, Row B (that’s the 5th row).  I could literally see the sweat and tears on some of the actors’ faces.

Next to Normal is amazing, by the way.  There may be tears on your face at the end, too.  I was so moved I actually bought the soundtrack, which is the first CD purchase in a very, very long time.  This is the playbill I have somewhere at home:

How does the website work?

Broadway Offers is kind of like a lastminute.com that requires a code, which you can find on sites like this, or you can google something like “broadwayoffers.com code phantom of the opera”.  Once you have entered the code on Broadway Offers (note that the code is different for each show), it’s like any other online ticketing agency with printable tickets.

I also saw Phantom of the Opera (3rd row, center front mezzanine) and Chicago (2nd row, left front mezzanine) while I was there, all booked through Broadway Offers.  Best part?  I walked past the TKTS Discounts Booth one night — all the shows I was watching were already sold out.

And, it was cold.

Luckily, Forever 21 in Times Square opens until 1am.