#FrugalCongressLife Resource Spotlight: Fox Outfitters Airlite Sleeping Mattress

[Disclosure: As of the time of this writing, I am not directly affiliated with nor have been sponsored or hired by any of the companies or organizations whose services I mention in this article – everything you read from me regarding these companies is my objective advice. Any advice in this blog does not constitute legal or medical advice and is provided as is with no liability to #FrugalCongressLife or the author.]

We are well into dance congress season in the US at this point with about three months passed and about five more to go, and as we all know and I have pointed out many times, roomsharing is the cheapest, most convenient, and most supportive way to save money on lodging at a dance congress.

One of the many areas where roomsharing can get tricky is when there are more people in a hotel room than there are beds. One solution to this is for two or more people to share beds, but not everyone is comfortable with that and that isn’t always feasible.

Whenever I can, I use the BetterHabitat Sleep Ready Memory Foam adult twin floor mattress as my portable bed for congress hotel roomshares. It is extremely comfortable, with 3 inches of memory foam and a feel much like a real mattress, but it is also very bulky. Even rolled up and in its bag, it has the footprint one would expect from a rolled up twin-size mattress, about as tall as me at 6 feet and about 18 pounds. It works well for driving distance congresses where I can just throw it into the trunk of my car and only have to carry it from the car to my hotel room, but forget about taking it on a bus, train, or plane.

Although I am happy with the BetterHabitat mattress, a situation where I would be roomsharing at a congress not within driving distance will call for a solution that is smaller and more portable. I went on the Googles this past March to look for the best small air mattress that would also deliver the comfort and usability needed to not be #TeamNoSleep at the congress, and my search brought me to the Airlite 100.

Made by stalwart camping gear company Fox Outfitters, the Airlite 100, available from Amazon.com for $49.99 with a $17 off coupon, is a sleeping pad made of Diamond Ripstop fabric specifically designed to resist being torn on rough terrain. Originally designed with outdoor camping, backpacking, and hiking in mind, this durable pad can surely withstand the rigors of an indoor hotel room at a dance congress.

The mattress rolls up to a mere 4” x 13”, a tiny footprint that can fit in the tightest of Spirit bags. A foam footpump is integrated into the mattress itself, allowing you to easily pump up the mattress to full size using no electricity and only your feet or hands in about a minute and a half. A double-brass air valve release system allows the mattress to deflate just as quickly.

Despite the low footprint, a tubular design system allows the mattress to be comfortable enough to provide support to your entire body and allow you get to sleep comfortably and stay asleep through the night.

I gave the Airlite a battle-testing this past April at one of my favorite dance congresses, the Baltimore Salsa Bachata Congress. I was the roomshare admin of a four-person roomshare in a two-double room at the event hotel with myself, one other guy, and two ladies. The two ladies shared one hotel bed, the guy got the other hotel bed to himself, and as a good roomshare president does, I made the sacrifice any responsible leader of a hotel roomshare is bound by duty to make and set up camp in the corner of the room with my newly-purchased Airlite.

This congress was a particularly good testing ground for the Airlite. Due to the spotty availability of parking in downtown Baltimore and the high cost of parking at the hotel, my frugal transport method was to drive to BWI Airport, park in their long-term lot, and take an UBER with other congress attendees from BWI to the hotel. I had no trouble getting the mattress into my backpack, but I realized I would have to do some Tetrising and probably make a few other sacrifices as far as other stuff I could bring to be able to fit it into a Spirit bag, but not many. Deflated and rolled up, the mattress’ total footprint is that of about 2-3 rolled-up t-shirts.

Inflating the mattress is easy and straightforward.  You unroll and unfold the mattress, tighten the two brass valves at the end (righty tighty, lefty loosey), remove the cap on the integrated pump, then make an airtight seal over the hole with your hands and pump as if you were doing CPR on the mattress.  Alternately, you can create the airtight seal with your foot and use your foot to pump up the mattress instead.  The mattress inflated as quickly as advertised every time. I deflated the mattress and left it unrolled on the floor of my room (as recommended by the instructions) every morning before leaving for workshops.

While not quite as comfortable as my Better Habitat mattress, the Airlite was definitely comfortable enough, especially with the fitted sheet and coverlet set I bought with me to the congress (although the coverlet left a hell of a footprint in my bag — in the future I think I’m just going to leave the coverlet at home and ask for extra sheets from the hotel). By the end of a long night of burning up the floor at the Baltimore Congress’ parties, preceded by a long day of workshops, I could probably have slept in the chair if I really wanted to, so the Airlite was more than comfortable enough to drop off to sleep quickly on.

The mattress’ small footprint meant I was easily able to fit into the space between the bed and the wall (which was admittedly relatively expansive at the Hilton Baltimore), but it really is a narrow mattress; it is barely wide enough for most people to lay on their backs on, and if you move around in your sleep you’re likely to find yourself off of the mattress in the morning when you wake up. At 82 inches, the mattress was long enough even for a tall dude like me. For what it’s worth, you get more or less the same sleeping real estate you would get on a shared bed or a couch.

I found the Airlite to be as durably constructed as advertised, and it held onto air like a champ throughout the night – I got 5-6 hours of sleep a night on average at BSBC despite dancing until 5am, having 3 roommates, and sleeping on an air mattress. I haven’t been able to find a maximum weight rating for the Airlite online, but speaking from personal experience, I was about 225 pounds at the time of the test and the mattress was able to support me with no issues. Still, I have to assume individuals heavier than 250 pounds may have issues with this mattress.

Despite being an air mattress, the Airlite makes almost no noise when you move around on it. I was very impressed at how quiet it was – quite optimal for not disturbing your roommates with typical air mattress noise.

Deflating and rolling up the mattress is fairly straightforward as well.  Open the valves and the pump and roll your arm along the mattress until all the air is out.  Once it’s all out, fold the mattress back up and roll it toward the valves.  Make sure you roll it towards the valves because if you roll it toward the pump, a pocket of air forms near the pump and the mattress can’t roll up all the way.

My ultimate verdict is that while the Airlite is definitely a compromise between ultimate comfort and a low footprint, it is an acceptable and usable sleep solution when space is tight both in your bag and in your hotel room. I would definitely use it at a congress again when the situation calls for it. I hope this article and this mattress helps you find comfort and better sleep in your hotel roomshares!

Advertisements

#FrugalCongressLife Resource Spotlight: FlexIt App

[DISCLOSURE: At the time of writing I am not affiliated with not have been hired to promote the FlexIt company or any of the other companies or services mentioned in this article.

Any exercise program or regimen carries with it an inherent risk of injury. Consult a doctor before beginning any physical exercise program or regimen.

Read and follow any and all safety instructions on any exercise product that you purchase for your use.

All advice presented in this article is presented as is with no liability to #FrugalCongressLife or the author.]

Welcome back. This is the final part of our special three-part series for National Physical Fitness and Sports Month on fitness resources for the traveling dancer.

So you need to work out for an hour at the congress, the resistance bands and the bodyweight workouts aren’t cutting it, you need to work out in a gym, but the hotel gym sucks. What do you do? You can get on the phone with the local gyms, see who offers day passes, and pay $20-40 for a day pass to work out and shower for 1.5 hours — or you can fire up the FlexIt app for an easier and less expensive way.

Think of FlexIt as kind of an UBER for gyms: you download the app, sign up, enter your payment info, then you can use the app to locate a participating gym near your location that you want to use. Once you’ve chosen your location, the app brings up a QR code for that gym location that is scanned at the door of the location via a QR code reader, and your workout time begins, giving you full access to the gym’s facilities including the workout equipment, locker rooms, showers, and other facilities. FlexIt charges by the minute, with most of its participating gyms averaging around 15-30 cents per minute, or around $10-20 per hour. Once you leave, scan the QR code again to check out and your time stops.

For the extreme frugal commuters driving 30 minutes or more back and forth between home and the congress, FlexIt does double duty, helping dance congress commuters possibly find a relatively inexpensive place to shower and save them from having to double back home to shower in between workshops and party. This use of FlexIt will be particularly powerful for dancers attending one day of any dance event in NYC using my go-to strategy of coming up Saturday morning and leaving on the 6am MegaBus Sunday morning, as many fitness facilities in Manhattan a short subway ride away from the majority of dance events there are FlexIt participants.

Note: shower shoes are highly recommended for showering at commercial gyms.

Major gyms participating in the FlexIt app at press time include, but are not limited to: Balance Gym, Retro Fitness, Green Fitness Studio, Tribeca Health and Fitness, Compass Fitness, Youfit Health Clubs, Charter Fitness, Mountainside Fitness, BeFitNYC, Absolute Power Fitness, and Body Elite Health & Fitness Center. A full list of participating gyms can be found at https://flexit.fit/network.

At press time, the above page claims that the FlexIt company is bringing in as future partners Crossfit Rittenhouse, Goose Island Crossfit, and most notably, Gold’s Gym. The addition of the legendary Gold’s Gym chain (including the storied Venice Beach location where Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno trained in the 1970s) is potentially a huge, game-changing turning point for the FlexIt app and its general business model.

With that said, the main drawback to FlexIt currently is the limited number of participating gyms. For example, the closest FlexIt partner to the upcoming DC Zouk Festival’s Dulles hotel is the Retro Fitness in Manassas, VA, a 22 minute drive away. How usable the app is for you as a traveler really depends on how close a participating gym is to wherever you are. Additionally, being as FlexIt’s business model is potentially disruptive to the commercial gym industry, I expect many gym chains will resist coming on board for some time yet. However, there are many upsides to commercial gyms becoming FlexIt partners, such as increased revenue from travelers and casual gym users using the gym on an as-needed basis, having been given a convenient, streamlined way to do so via the FlexIt app.

CONCLUSION

Not much else needs to be said. This game-changing, potentially industry-altering app offers an excellent resource for the traveling dancer looking for inexpensive, as-needed access to local gyms in town.

We hope this three-part series on fitness resources for dancers on the go helps someone look and feel their best in their dance travels! Happy National Fitness and Sports Month!

#FrugalCongressLife Resource Spotlight: Resistance Bands – The Portable Gym

[DISCLOSURE: At the time of writing I am not affiliated with Bodylastics or Blake Kassel nor have I been hired to promote any of their products. At the time of writing I am not affiliated with not have been hired to promote any of the other companies or services mentioned in this article.

Any exercise program or regimen carries with it an inherent risk of injury. Consult a doctor before beginning any physical exercise program or regimen.

Read and follow any and all safety instructions on any exercise product that you purchase for your use especially weights or resistance bands.

All advice presented in this article is presented as is with no liability to #FrugalCongressLife or the author.]

Happy National Physical Fitness and Sports Month! As many dancers know, physical fitness is very important for both leads and follows, not only for looking one’s best, but also for avoiding injury, successfully executing the more athletic and dynamic moves present in certain dances, and increasing one’s overall longevity as a dancer. For the month of May, which has been recognized as National Physical Fitness and Sports Month since 1983, #FrugalCongressLife will be doing a special three-part Resource Spotlight series on resources to help dancers work out and maintain physical fitness on the road.

As anyone who travels and is into fitness is well aware, hotel gyms vary wildly in terms of equipment and quality. I’ve seen hotel gyms that are as good as or better than any commercial gym, and hotel gyms that are literally just one treadmill and a handful of small dumbbells going up to 20 pounds. Of course, many hotels, particularly the budget hotels, do not even have gyms to begin with. The latter two scenarios present a challenge to the fitness-minded traveling dancer who couldn’t get all their workouts in during the week or whose specific workout regimen demands working out 6+ days a week and now needs to carve out an hour to work out at the congress.

I will be discussing a few different solutions in this series, the first of which are resistance bands. Resistance bands are bands made of durable latex that provide resistance similar to, but not exactly the same as, that of a free weight for muscle-building resistance exercises.

A variety of different free-weight resistance training exercises such as curls, chest presses, and lateral raises can be duplicated using resistance bands. Additionally, the durable anchors that come with many of the higher end brands of resistance bands allow them to be anchored to doors or other objects, allowing many cable-machine exercises such as cable rows, crossovers, and tricep pushdowns to be replicated with resistance bands as well. Generally different colored bands in a given set have different thickness and therefore different levels of resistance, measured in pounds. Pulling or pushing a band rated at 20 pounds of resistance, for example is about the same as lifting a 17 pound free weight.

Resistance bands are very compact, have a very low footprint, and are effectively a portable gym that can be packed in even the tightest of Spirit Airlines bags effortlessly, depending of course on how many you bring with you and what attachments.

The gold standard for resistance bands that I have used before and personally recommend is Bodylastics, a dedicated manufacturer of resistance bands started by bodybuilder Blake Kassel in 1994. Bodylastics bands are stackable, meaning they have carabiner clips attached to the end of each band that attach to durable handles included in most resistance band packages, meaning different bands at a variety of different resistance levels can be combined to create even more resistance.

A full list of Bodylastics’ different resistance band packages can be found here and several different programs of resistance band exercises can be found here.  The 404-pound “Super Human Strength” package may be overkill for those just starting out, but one of the four smaller sets, priced from $28.95 to $68.95 and ranging from 96 to 202 pounds of total stackable resistance, should be more than enough for most people and should pack right into your luggage easily.  

Each package comes with two different anchors for anchoring your bands to solid objects for cable-style exercises.  The door anchor threads through a door to stay in place once its closed allowing you to loop the band through the anchor.  Be warned that some of the more fragile doors out there can be broken by attaching heavy resistance bands to it by an anchor and pulling.  If you are in a hotel room by yourself, your hotel door should be durable enough to withstand this, but note that it completely ties up the door allowing no one in or out, so probably not the best choice if you have roommates.  Your best choice in this case is to use the Anywhere Anchor, tie it to a light pole or other SOLID grounded object that can withstand a lot of heavy pulling outside, and attach your bands. 

Resistance bands are best used in conjunction with bodyweight exercises in a workout program.  Band-resisted pushups are very good chest exercises in this capacity.  A set of flat resistance bands such as those offered by The X Bands is recommended for band-resisted pushups, as they stay in place more easily than the Bodylastics bands in this exercise. 

I have used resistance bands as a form of resistance training while traveling, to rehabilitate injuries, and also while recovering from injury as a way of easing back into free-weight training. My personal verdict is that they do not replace free weights, but are an acceptable substitute in a pinch, and working out with them is better than not working out at all.

It seems like I am shilling for Bodylastics, but I am not – I find them to be objectively the highest-quality and most versatile resistance band system on the market today.

Of course, some of the most important exercises for any dancer can be done without weights or bands. The next part of this series will discuss various smartphone apps for stretching and core exercises – be on the lookout!

#FCL Resource Spotlight: The Power Bank

[Disclosure: As of the time of this writing, I am not directly affiliated with nor have been sponsored or hired by any of the companies or organizations whose services I mention in this article – everything you read from me regarding these companies is my objective advice. Any advice in this blog does not constitute legal or medical advice and is provided as is with no liability to #FrugalCongressLife or the author.]

Most people who have been alive in the last 11 years know how dependent on smartphones the vast majority of us have become today.

Many of our lifelines to the world are tied up in them, particularly text messaging and social media.

Our financial information and means of purchasing is often tied into them these days. Our means of getting around smoothly and navigating the vast majority of transportation options (other than our own cars of course) are tied into them as well — particularly car-sharing services such as UBER and Lyft that are called up and tracked using our phones. Your phone is more often than not the device you use to record the recaps and demonstrations at the end of congress workshops on video so that you can practice and retain the material.

All of this and more is tied up in a battery-powered phone that has to be kept charged, and in a lot of ways, you’re stranded if your phone’s battery dies and you don’t have immediate access to a power source to recharge it. This is particularly amplified if you’re away from home, away from your car, or otherwise out and about for most of the day, and access to wall outlets or other external power sources is not guaranteed. Enter the power bank.

The power bank is essentially a portable external lithium ion battery with a micro USB input that you plug into any computer, USB outlet, or USB wall charger that charges the battery, and the battery has a USB output that you plug any standard USB phone cable into. With your phone plugged into the power bank as it would be plugged into a standard USB charger, computer, or wall outlet, the power bank charges your phone until the battery runs out, after which it must be charged again. The vast majority of power banks include 4 light-up LED “dots” that visually show how much battery power the bank has left, with 4 dots indicating a fully charged power bank and one dot indicating an almost fully depleted power bank. Power banks are portable and can charge your phone on the go when you do not have access to a wall outlet or other power source, effectively giving you a second battery for your phone.

Some people like to charge their phones during workshops using one of the ballroom’s wall outlets. I am not a fan of this approach; while thefts from dance workshops are extremely rare, they could still happen, and in that case I would rather lose a relatively inexpensive power bank than my phone, which costs considerably more and has much of my life tied up in it. I would rather charge the power bank during the workshop and then use the power bank to charge my phone. This strategy is particularly handy if you’re staying offsite or are at a non-hotel event and do not have ready access to wall outlets in your room or power outlets in your car.

Some power banks come pre-charged but many do not – do not count on a newly-bought power bank to be pre-charged in an emergency. Buy and charge your power bank in advance.

The amount of charge a power bank has is measured in “mAh”, which stands for milliampere hours, an International System of Units measurement of the electrical capacity of small batteries. Yes, it is capitalized that way, that isn’t a typo. Basically all you need to know about mAh is that the higher the mAh, the more hours of use and full charges to your phone or other device you will get out of your power bank.

WARNING: DO NOT use Amazon’s AmazonBasic power bank models. Amazon has voluntarily recalled several of their power bank models because of overheating, which caused chemical burns. You have been warned. Stay away from Amazon’s models. This one paragraph probably cost me hundreds of potential affiliate marketing dollars but I care about your safety that much. Amazon does a lot of things well but power banks are not one of them from the looks of it.

TRAVEL WARNING: For those of you flying with power banks, the TSA prohibits all lithium ion batteries, including power banks, in checked luggage. All power banks must be carried on your person or in carry-on luggage.

More information about these policies here:

https://www.tsa.gov/travel/security-screening/whatcanibring/items/power-banks

https://www.faa.gov/about/initiatives/hazmat_safety/more_info/?hazmat=7

SOME SAFETY AND CARE TIPS FOR ALL POWER BANKS:

– Carry your power banks in a protective case. This will certainly add bulk, but will protect your power bank and greatly extend its life, especially if you carry it around in your pocket or bag from day to day. Protective cases for the Anker Powercore and other batteries with a similar profile that also include pockets for the cables are available online for about $10.

– Always use the original charging cable that came with your power bank to charge the power bank itself

– Use original or certified cables and wall outlets to connect your phone to the power bank always… going el cheapo on wall outlets and cables may cost you in the long run by destroying or shortening the life of your power bank, this is not an area to be frugal!

My phone at the time of this writing (September 2018) is an Apple iPhone 7 so charge provided to an iPhone 7 is the benchmark by which I’m measuring all of these power banks. Your mileage may vary.

The model of power bank with the best reviews, as well as the one I personally use as my primary power bank and recommend using, is the Anker PowerCore 10000, available online for about $29.99. As the name suggests, it is a 10000 mAh battery that is capable of providing about 3 full charges to an iPhone 7 with some battery power to spare. It is very light and low profile, but has a very durable and solid construction and is good for transporting regularly.

The Powercore 10000 uses Anker’s PowerIQ and VoltageBoost technologies to charge devices as fast as possible up to 2.4 amps and supports Qualcomm Quick Charge 3.0. I was able to charge an iPhone 7 from 10% to 100% in about 2 hours while using the phone normally. The battery itself charges fully in about 6 hours when hooked up to a 2.4 amp charger. The Powercore 10000 also boasts a wide array of safety features such as temperature control, surge protection, and short circuit protection.

Another highly rated alternative that I admittedly have no personal experience using is the Mophie Powerstation Plus XL, a 10,000mAh battery designed mostly for the iPhone and iPad and available online for about $70-100 . It’s standout features are a built-in Lightning cable for charging your iPhone or iPad, a Lightning input connector so you can use your iPhone’s regular charger to charge the power bank, and the ability to use any Qi-compatible wireless charger to charge the power bank. It has a slightly larger physical profile than Anker’s offerings, and I haven’t been able to find anything about safety features online other than triple-testing and stringent quality control.

The high-capacity Cadillac of power banks is the RAVPower 22000mAh, available for about $39.99 online. This battery comes with 3 USB ports and can charge two iPads and an iPhone simultaneously. It is reported to be able to provide an iPhone 7 with 8 full charges and has a multitude of safety features including a fire-resistant shell, temperature control, and short circuit protection. Its only disadvantage is that it is very heavy at about 14 ounces, but that is to be expected of a high capacity battery.

For those wanting maximum portability and the smallest profile, Anker also offers a “lipstick-sized” power bank called the Powercore+Mini, available online for about $12.99. It has a capacity of 3,350 mAh, can be fully charged in about 3-4 hours, and can provide one full charge to an iPhone 7 and have some capacity left over afterwards. The PowerCore+Mini also includes all the quick charging and safety features of its larger relatives.

Now that I’ve reviewed a few of the highest quality power bank options, here are a couple budget options for all you maximally frugal power bank buyers:

Walgreens sells its own Infinitive 10000mAh power banks that provide about 2-3 full charges to an iPhone 7 for around $15. Target also sells its own heyday(tm) 4000mAh power banks that provide anywhere from 1-2 full charges to an iPhone 7 for around $10.

The big caveat with Walgreens’ power bank is that it’s a “slim model” which has a slimmer profile than most power banks, but makes it more physically fragile and less durably constructed as a result. After about 3 months of regular use including daily transport in my bag (albeit not in a protective case, which I have learned my lesson on) the parts on my Infinitive 10000mAh came loose in the housing, and while it still works, it doesn’t charge as reliably as it did when I got it. Still, it would make a decent inexpensive backup backup option as long as you treat it with kid gloves, carry it in a protective case, and don’t make it your regular workhorse.

Target’s power bank works reliably, although both the battery and phone charging are fairly slow, but it is much more durable than the Walgreens models and makes a decent regular workhorse and backup option for the price.

I haven’t found anything on the Walgreens and Target models’ safety features and we can assume that they aren’t as extensive as those found in the higher-end models.

In my opinion, I’d rather spend the extra $10-30 on an Anker or similar higher-quality model, ESPECIALLY for the better construction and safety features that aren’t necessarily present in budget power banks, but I recognize some people are on budgets and it’s either the $10 power bank or nothing. Still, I would suggest those on a budget go with the Powercore+Mini and keep it charged as regularly as possible.

In our connected, phone-reliant world, power banks are an essential accessory for any frugal traveler on the go. If you have anything to add, please do not hesitate to hit the comments and I hope this helped!

#FCL Resource Spotlight: Via

[Disclosure: As of the time of this writing, I am not directly affiliated with nor have been sponsored or hired by Via Transportation, Inc. (creators of the Via app and rideshare service) or any other companies or organizations whose services I mention in this article – everything you read from me regarding these companies is my objective advice. Any advice in this blog does not constitute legal or medical advice and is provided as is with no liability to #FrugalCongressLife or the author.]

Rideshare services such as UBER and Lyft have changed the way we get around cities exponentially for the better since UBER was introduced in 2012. Calling a taxi was very costly and took a lot of advance planning back in the dark ages before UBER’s introduction; now in 2018 a ride anywhere is a few taps on a smartphone app away in most cities.

It is evident that the seismic changes in transportation introduced by UBER and Lyft have also changed the way dancers navigate dance festivals, especially when they are flying or taking the train or bus and do not have a car on hand to navigate their city of choice. However, as I have discussed before, UBER and Lyft can be a bit on the expensive side, even with less expensive options such as UBER ExpressPOOL and Shared Lyft, and those costs can add up.

This is where Via comes in. Via is a newer ride-share company positioning themselves as a low-cost up-and-coming alternative to UBER and Lyft, and they will definitely be an asset to those living the #FrugalCongressLife in the few cities in which they are currently available at press time.

At the time of this writing Via is only available in New York City, Chicago, Washington DC, and the Arlington, VA and Alexandria, VA suburbs of DC. If you try to use Via to go from these areas to anywhere outside of these areas or vice versa (for example, to the MD suburbs of DC from anywhere in DC), the app will tell you your desired pickup of dropoff is out of zone and force you to choose a pickup or dropoff that is in their available zone. Via may expand to other cities at a later time.

Via’s pricing is competitive with or slightly less expensive than UBER and Lyft for equivalent service and there are ways to save money with Via that are not possible with UBER or Lyft.

For more information on Via visit http://www.ridewithvia.com

For those who have UBER ExpressPOOL in their city and are familiar with how it works, Via works very much like UBER ExpressPOOL. Instead of being picked up right at your requested pickup point, you are picked up on a designated nearby street corner – called a “virtual bus stop” by Via – to keep the driver on a more direct route and save time and money.

Like UBER ExpressPOOL and UBERPOOL, you will also be carpooling with other riders and may not be put on the most direct route to your destination as a result. Private rides, Via’s equivalent of UberX, can be booked for a higher fee that usually ends up competitive with or slightly less expensive than UberX and will take you and only you door to door from your pickup to your dropoff as UberX does, as long as it is within the bounds of Via’s zones.

If you cancel a ride after booking or do not make it to your pickup point in time, you will be charged a $2 cancellation fee in DC and a $3 cancellation fee in NYC and Chicago.

As far as I can tell, Via does not at the time of writing accept Venmo or Paypal as payment methods as UBER and Lyft do; a credit, debit, or gift card must be used as a payment method.

Via Ride Credits, Via’s proprietary transaction currency which acts as their equivalent of UBER Cash, can also be purchased with your card in $15, $20, or $50 increments. Major holidays, Black Friday, and Cyber Monday are frequently accompanied by Ride Credit deals offering a small percentage off the purchase of Ride Credits, otherwise one dollar gets you one ride credit. Additionally, Via frequently runs new user promotions offering free ride credits to new users – be on the lookout for those.

Via offers various levels of ride passes, called ViaPasses, that are a steal for regular users of the service.

Here is a breakdown of the types of ViaPass offered in each city:

NYC:

1-week Manhattan 24/7 ViaPass – $63 + tax – up to 4 free shared rides per day WITHIN MANHATTAN (10% off rides to other boroughs) OR up to 4 10%-off airport rides and private rides per day (can mix and match) 24/7 for one week

4-week Manhattan 24/7 ViaPass – $229 + tax- up to 4 free shared rides per day WITHIN MANHATTAN (10% off rides to other boroughs) OR up to 4 10%-off airport rides and private rides per day (can mix and match) 24/7 for four weeks

4-week Manhattan Commuter ViaPass – $179 + tax – up to 4 free shared rides per day WITHIN MANHATTAN (10% off rides to other boroughs) OR up to 4 10%-off airport rides and private rides per day (can mix and match) Monday through Friday 6am-9pm for four weeks

Unlike DC and Chicago, shared rides of any value are free with a ViaPass, but are limited to the borough of Manhattan. SharedTaxi rides are excluded from ViaPass discounts.

DC/Arlington/Alexandria:

1-week All-Access ViaPass – $69 – up to 4 free shared rides up to an $8 value (you pay for any overages after the $8) per day OR up to 4 10%-off airport rides and private rides per day (can mix and match) 24/7 for one week

[update 12/11/18 – price for a one-week ViaPass has gone up to $69, but ViaPass users prior to 12/11/18 will be grandfathered in at the previous $49 rate]

4-week All-Access ViaPass – $179 – up to 4 free shared rides up to an $8 value (you pay for any overages after the $8) per day OR up to 4 10%-off airport rides and private rides per day (can mix and match) 24/7 for four weeks

4- week Commuter ViaPass – $109 – up to 4 free shared rides up to an $8 value (you pay for any overages after the $8) per day OR up to 4 10%-off airport rides and private rides per day (can mix and match) Monday through Friday 6am-9pm for four weeks

Chicago:

1-week All-Access ViaPass – $55 – up to 4 free shared rides up to a $7 value (you pay for any overages after the $7) per day OR up to 4 10%-off airport rides and private rides per day (can mix and match) 24/7 for one week

4-week Commuter ViaPass – $139 – up to 4 free shared rides up to a $7 value (you pay for any overages after the $7) per day OR up to 4 10%-off airport rides and private rides per day (can mix and match) Monday through Friday 6am-9pm for four weeks

There is a $5 Ground Transportation Tax Charge for rides to/from Navy Pier and McCormick Place.

YOU MUST STILL TIP YOUR DRIVERS ON THE “FREE” RIDES. VIA DRIVERS MAKE A LARGE PERCENTAGE OF THEIR MONEY FROM TIPS. DO NOT STIFF YOUR DRIVERS. (assuming you have received proper service of course)

Also, you will still be charged the full cancellation fee if you cancel a ride or can not make it to the pickup point in time, even with a ViaPass. Additional fees apply for additional passengers with any ViaPass. ViaPasses for any city are only good in that city, for example, your DC ViaPass won’t be valid in NYC or Chicago.

ViaPasses are set to auto-renew by default, but this can be turned off.

Even with all these caveats, the ViaPass represents incredible savings for regular users.

One key disadvantage with Via aside from the restricted area is that, at least from my experience using Via in DC, you can expect longer wait times for pickups due to less people driving for the service at this time. I will touch on this theme again in the future, but usually anytime you do something to save money, you end up paying for those monetary savings in time and effort, and Via is certainly no exception here.

Even so, as I have said, Via is an incredible asset to those living the #FrugalCongressLife who reside in or are visiting any of the three metropolitan areas in which Via is currently available. I hope this article was helpful to somebody and, as always, hit the comments if you have anything to add!

#FrugalCongressLife Resource Spotlight: The Virtual Private Network (VPN)

[Disclosure: As of the time of this writing, I am not directly affiliated with nor have been sponsored or hired by any companies or organizations whose services I mention in this article – everything you read from me regarding these companies is my objective advice. Any advice in this blog does not constitute legal or medical advice and is provided as is with no liability to #FrugalCongressLife or the author.  There may be affiliate links in a later update to this article; I will specify if this is the case.]

I’m going to start this article off by stating the obvious.

Going to dance congresses is travel, or at the very least, some form of travel.

I consider this blog to be a dance travel blog, ultimately. Even when attending a local dance congress, one is often simulating various aspects of travel, albeit close to home, such as staying in hotel rooms and being away from home for extended periods of time.

Most modern travelers want to stay connected to the Internet via their smartphones, tablets, or laptops, and dance travel is no different.

What is the modern dance congress experience for most people without being able to hit up the group chat for details about the preparty, make your friends at home jealous by tweeting about how litty the event is, or go live from the ballroom? This is to say nothing about catching an UBER from the airport to the hotel or using Citymapper to navigate an unfamiliar train system.

Most people with smartphones are on limited monthly data plans as of the time of this writing, with overages being very costly. If you aren’t on WiFi when doing the above activities (particularly going live, which involves uploading large amounts of video), you will burn through your allotted data quickly.

Fortunately, most congress hotels (as well as many coffee shops and restaurants) offer either free or paid public WiFi.

There’s just one very dangerous problem with that: hotel Wifi is usually unsecured.

Chances are, your home WiFi has some type of encryption, which serves the purpose of both keeping outside users from connecting to your WiFi and hackers from stealing your information.

Public WiFi offers no such protection from the latter. That is pretty scary when you consider how much of ourselves we have tied up in our phones these days. Work, intellectual property, financial information, passwords and active logins, social media (which is a part of our identity in and of itself in 2018 and beyond)…. its all there and can all be easily stolen by enterprising cyber criminals while on unsecured public WiFi.

So what is a savvy dance traveler and mobile internet user to do about this conundrum? This is where the subject of today’s profile comes in: the Virtual Private Network, known commonly by its initials: the VPN.

According to Microsoft TechNet, a VPN is an extension of a private network across shared or public networks. In layman’s terms, you connect to the private network of your choice through the public WiFi and to the Internet through that network. The effect of this is, even though you are using the physical bandwidth or your hotel’s WiFi (or whatever you’re using), since you are actually connecting to the Internet through the private network, you benefit from the private network’s encryption and security to protect your data from opportunistic “man in the middle” attacks and other low-level cyberattacks and possibly connect at a slightly higher speed.

There is a lot more technical info in the above post, but this layman’s description of what a VPN is is the absolute most that casual Internet users need to know.

Actually all you really need to know is “use VPN, protect data from hackers”. It really is a must have if you travel frequently or are otherwise on unsecured public WiFi a lot.

The way you connect to a VPN service is through a low cost subscription plan with one of several VPN providers. Usually you connect to the VPN through your provider’s phone, tablet, or computer app.

On iPhones, which is primarily what I use my VPN with, you’ll know you’re connected to the VPN when the “VPN” icon in the below screenshot appears in the upper left corner of your phone next to all the others.

VPN plans average $3-10 a month and I’d say that paying the cost of a latte or two every month to protect your priceless data from cyber criminals while you travel is absolutely worth it.

Granted, a determined hacker can get around anything including a VPN, but 99% of hackers and identity theives are opportunists who don’t want to put in a large amount of effort. Using a VPN will absolutely deter these crimes of opportunity.

My VPN provider of choice is NordVPN. 3-year plans with them run about $11.99 per month, although there is currently a two year deal for a limited time offering plans for $95 every two years (a value of about $3.99 per month). Jump on this deal before it goes! Setup could not be more intuitive. Once you sign up with them, you download the app and hit the Quick Connect button to connect to the fastest and closest VPN server. Either that, or you have the option to manually choose a server. NordVPN has more than 4,800 servers all over the world and allows for six simultaneous connections per account. Another key feature of NordVPN is the “kill switch” option, which automatically kills your connection to the WiFi network if you lose connection to the VPN server, a very valuable bonus for those dedicated to protecting their privacy and their data at all times.

StrongVPN, available for $10 a month or $69.99 for one year, is another excellent contender, notable for their no-logging policy and their entirely company-owned-and-operated network infrastructure.  StrongVPN gives you access to 689 servers in 70 locations.

IPVanish VPN has a similar no-logging policy, and gives you access to 900 servers across 60 locations for $7.50 per month or $58.49 per year.   They also allow for five simultaneous connections and have a kill switch similar to NordVPN’s.

Also notable is the amusingly named Hide My Ass VPN service, boasting hundreds or servers around the world and a user-friendly interface, but also a comparatively higher price tag at $11.99 per month.

On the opposite side of both the price and name creativity spectrum is Private Internet Access VPN, with plans available for as low as $3.33 per month for a two year commitment and access to 3,274 servers in 28 different countries. The interface is very basic and new VPN users may find it offputting, but it is a very good service for the price.

In this age where big parts of our life and identity are tied up in our online activities and hackers and identity thieves lurk around every corner, a VPN is an essential tool for the savvy connected traveler. I never use public WiFi or any unsecured WiFi without it, and you should not either.

As always, hit the comments with suggestions and I hope this helped someone!

#FCL Resource Spotlight: Citymapper App

[Disclosure: As of the time of this writing, I am not directly affiliated with nor have been sponsored or hired by the creators of the Citymapper app or any other companies or organizations whose services I mention in this article – everything you read from me regarding these companies is my objective advice. Any advice in this blog does not constitute legal or medical advice and is provided as is with no liability to #FrugalCongressLife or the author.]

For this new series on #FrugalCongressLife, I will be profiling resources that are anywhere from handy to potentially game-changing in navigating the particulars of dance congresses both local and out of state in the most frugal manner possible. The first such resource I will be covering is Citymapper, a free app for iPhone and Android designed from the ground up to help users navigate walking, bicycling, and public transportation in the city in which they are currently traveling.

Let’s face it, ladies and gentlemen, you can’t drive everywhere, and that is a reality of travel. Your first handful of dance congresses will be local or in reasonable driving distance, but the more dance congresses you go to and the further into the dance congress lifestyle you get, you will begin to attend more dance congresses in far away locations where driving simply is not a feasible option. Furthermore, not every dance congress has a location in walking distance of an airport or train station with abundant food or supply options nearby.

At congresses where transporting yourself extensively is required, your most practical and frugal mode of transportation will be walking and mass transit. You can certainly use UBER or Lyft to get around, but UBER and Lyft are relatively expensive and the costs add up quickly. Your most practical #FrugalCongressLife option would be to figure out that city’s mass transit and use it to get around.

Waze or Google Maps will more than do the job of getting you around by car, but are oddly lacking at the task of helping you figure out walking, bicycling, and mass transit and using those options to get around. Enter Citymapper.

Billed as “the ultimate transport app” by its creators, Citymapper is a sleek, colorful, and intuitive smartphone app designed from the ground up to help its users successfully navigate every form of non-solo driving transit imaginable, including walking, bus, bicycle, subway, rail, light rail, Uber/Lyft, other rideshare services, and even ferry and scooter transit.

Only certain cities are available on Citymapper and the way it works is you select the city you want to navigate in the app, and you get instant access to a massive wealth of real-time data for your selected city including not only walking directions and routes for bus/rail/light rail/subway, but also departure times including delays, wait times, bikeshare and scooter availability, real-time charge data for scooters and Car2Go rideshares, and even bicycle routes.

The cities available on Citymapper at the time of this writing at the end of August 2018 are:

DC/Baltimore (combined), New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Toronto, Montreal, Chicago, Mexico DF, Los Angeles, Seattle, Vancouver, San Francisco, Manchester, Lisbon, Birmingham, London, Madrid, Paris, Amsterdam (Randstad), Brussels, Cologne Dusseldorf Ruhr, Hamburg, Lyon, Barcelona, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Berlin, Milan, St. Petersburg, Rome, Sao Paulo, Moscow, Istanbul, Tokyo, Seoul, Hong Kong, Singapore, Sydney, and Melbourne.

A very impressive list already, and I would love to see more cities added. Pittsburgh, Richmond, and San Diego are three missing cities that come to mind readily for me.

Navigation using the app couldn’t be easier, you input your starting point and destination into the app and when you want to leave or arrive and you get options for walking, bicycling, Uber, Lyft, or suggested combinations of walking and public transportation (rail/bus), as well as projected travel time and cost of each option and even calories burned for walking and bicycling.

Pictured: Citymapper options for the trip from Ferocity Dance Company‘s studio in Falls Church, VA, to the Renaissance Hotel in downtown Washington, DC, the site of DCBX and Tropical New Year’s Eve

Select an option and hit the go button and Citymapper takes you through each step of the journey, with separate screens for each leg of the journey involving a different mode of transport.

For example, your first screen will likely be a walk with turn by turn directions. Your next screen after that may be a guide to the subway train you’re getting on showing wait times, alerts, and even the best section of the train to sit in, with a separate screen after that showing what how many stations you will be riding through, what station to get on at and what station to get off at. Your next screen after that may be a similar screen for the bus showing wait times, alerts, fares, and the exact street corner to wait at, as well as a subsequent screen showing exactly how many stops to take and what stop to get off at. Your final screen will invariably be a turn-by-turn detail of the walk from your bus stop or subway stop to your destination.

Pictured: step-by-step Citymapper directions for shortest route on the aforementioned trip from Ferocity to the Renaissance

What you see depends on how complex your trip is and how many different forms of transportation you are using, but it is all very intuitive and easy to use and makes the formerly stressful and involved task of navigating a city’s public transportation system into an almost effortless poetically smooth experience.

Additionally, you can save routes offline in advance and use it without needing to go online if the Internet gets spotty on your actual trip.

I have been using Citymapper extensively lately since moving back to the DC proper to navigate DC’s metro system, particularly the bus system, which I was less familiar with than Metro’s subway system, and Citymapper has been doing an excellent job in that area.

I also used Citymapper to navigate the New York City Subway system, with which I have extensive previous experience, when I was there for the New York Loves Bachata Weekender at the end of July this year.  My routes there were a mix of walking and subway, and my only complaint with Citymapper in NYC was that it did not specify whether the subway trains I was supposed to get on were Uptown or Downtown trains.  Luckily I knew the NYC subway system well enough so that I did not get lost in NY like Kevin McCallister off of that detail, but distinction between uptown and downtown trains is a necessary addition to Citymapper’s NYC package in my opinion.  Otherwise Citymapper did an excellent job in NYC as well.

[UPDATE: Since this section was written, Citymapper has added distinction between uptown and downtown subway trains to their New York City package in a recent software update.]

As an additional bonus, Citymapper is very good with bicycle routes. I do not bicycle anymore, but as a test and out of my own curiosity I switched to the bicycle route features (using the “personal bike” option rather than the “bikeshare” option, an important distinction especially if you are in an area with no bikeshares available) and punched in the start and end addresses from a few of my favorite bicycle rides from my days as a bicycle commuter in College Park, MD.  Each time, the app gave me three possible options, a “quiet” option (bicycle paths and low-speed/low-traffic roads only), a “regular” option (mix of bicycle paths, low-speed/low-traffic roads, and a small amount of high-speed/high-traffic roads), and a “fast” option (as many high-speed/high-traffic roads as possible).  I found each route presented by Citymapper to be very accurate to my own personal experience with these routes.  Citymapper does bicycling very well too!

In conclusion, Citymapper is a very handy and almost essential addition to any frugal traveler’s tool belt, both for dance congresses and life outside of dance congresses. I look forward to more cities being added and to using it to navigate my way around more in the future.