#FrugalCongressFood Profile: Fruit/Vegetable Squeeze Pouches

[Disclosure: At the time of this writing, I am not directly affiliated with or employed by any other company whose services I mention in this article.  Everything you read is my objective advice.  There may be affiliate links in a later update to this post, I will say so if this is the case.  Even so, I only talk about and link to products I personally use and believe in on this blog. No statements regarding the health and effectiveness of food or supplements have been evaluated by the FDA. 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. Consult your doctor before starting any dietary or exercise regimen or changing your current dietary or exercise regimen.]

I know what some of you are thinking. “You’re telling me to eat baby food out of a fricking squeeze pouch?” Indeed, when I looked up fruit and vegetable squeeze pouches on Google as part of my initial research for this article (how did you think I did research for this blog?), the very first hit was this article. “Adults, please stop eating baby food out of squeeze pouches,” scolds Emily Johnson of Epicurious.com, “you have teeth for a reason.”

I kind of see your point, Emily Johnson, but here is the thing: my readers and I are very busy people who travel a lot and live very active, on-the-go lifestyles. This is a blog for dance travelers, after all.

We all know eating a certain daily allotment of fruits and vegetables is essential to a healthy, balanced diet, and in previous discussions of how to eat at dance congresses, I have stressed the importance of eating healthy. There’s a lot of activity involved in dance congresses and many of you are letting sleep fall by the wayside (all the #TeamNoSleep hashtags and jokes about how the bed is quicksand have much truth behind them), so eating well is doubly important.

Solid fruits and vegetables are not always ideal on-the-go foods though. They’re perishable. They’re messy. Some of them have to be refrigerated. There is preparation necessary with some of them, and they take a relatively long time to actually eat. This is all well and good when you’re at home in your kitchen but in a hotel or dance studio far from home, in some cases without the solid base of a hotel room, or even on a plane, bus, or train, it becomes more of a problem. The squeeze pouch is a very handy and convenient solution here.

Squeeze pouches are exactly as the name would suggest they are. They are shelf-stable small pouches with a small spout and a twist-off cap and once the cap is off you squeeze the food inside into your mouth through the spout. The food itself is usually a sweet and palatable fruit and vegetable puree that provides all the nutrients and minerals of the respective solid fruits and vegetables with no added sugar (sweetened exclusively by the sugar in the fruits) and both natural and added fiber (to offset the loss of natural fiber from the pureeing process).

Squeeze pouches aren’t limited to delivery of fruit and vegetable puree, of course. They can also be delivery systems for almonds, protein, sunflower and chia seeds, espresso, oatmeal, and even meat products. For the sake of keeping this article at a reasonable length, and because I personally usually use squeeze pouches as an on-the-go fruit-and-vegetable delivery system, that is the capacity in which I will be examining them.

I’m going to examine a few of the more visible and well-known brands of adult fruit and vegetable squeeze pouches in the next few paragraphs. I’m mostly limiting my reviews to squeeze pouches marketed specifically to adults, to remove the stigma of “eating baby food” as much as possible.

One very prevalent, fast-rising brand in this market is Fruigees, whose name is a portmanteau of “fruits” and “veggies”. Fruigees was first conceived by two cousins in Los Angeles, CA and their flagship squeeze pouches are now widely available online and in grocery stores all over the US. Fruigees is currently available in three flavors: “24 Carrot Orange” (orange and carrot), “Kaleifornia Grape” (grapes and kale), and “Nothing Beets Cherry” (beets and cherry). Each flavor is very pleasing to the taste buds, and amazingly you can not taste the kale in the “Kalefornia Grape” flavor at all. Fruigees squeeze pouches are all organic as well as GMO and BPA free, and are essentially a mix of fruit and vegetable juice concentrates with tapioca starch and carob bean gum giving them their pleasing pudding-like consistency. Fruigees pouches are available on Jet and Amazon in 26-count boxes for about $27 or about $1.03 per pouch, and offline in stores such as Safeway, Whole Foods, and CVS at a slightly higher markup.

Noka is another solid brand of these pouches. They are available in blueberry/beet and sweet potato/goji flavors, both of which amazingly manage to retain the sweet fruity flavors of their respective fruits, at Whole Foods for around $2.85 per pouch. Each flavor also contains vegan protein and flax seeds.

Mamma Chia, the makers of their flagship eponymous chia-seed-infused beverages, also have recently expanded into their own squeeze pouch offering called Chia Squeeze Vitality Snacks, a mix of fruit juice concentrates and chia seeds.

Target sells Go Gourmet’s Organic Slammers brand of pureed superfood snacks filled with bananas, apples, blueberries, strawberries, beets, acai, and amaranth (a nutrient-rich grain that is also high in protein) for $3.79 for a 4-pack or about 94 cents per pouch.

7-Eleven also makes their own fruit squeeze pouches under their 7-Select brand, but these are not available at every 7-Eleven.

If packaging and marketing aimed at children doesn’t bother you, GoGo SqueeZ pouches are available at Wal-Mart for about $6 for a three-pack and at Harris Teeter for a slightly higher price.

Once the stigma of “eating baby food” is gone, squeeze pouches can be a very easy and palatable way to get some fruits and vegetables into your congress diet easily. Granted, they will always cost more than regular solid fruits and vegetables and juices; that is a given. The key aspects of squeeze pouches that make them attractive to active on-the-go people such as dance congress attendees are shelf-stability, portability, and non-perishability, and those three traits always come at some kind of premium.

That’s all I got for this profile. As always, hit the comments if you have any suggestions or additions and I hope this helps someone!

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#FrugalCongressLife Survival Guide: Sensual Day

[Disclosure statement: As of the time of this writing, I have no direct affiliation with Sensual Day other than being a loyal attendee and Sami being a personal friend of mine. I have not been hired to promote Sensual Day in any way, and everything you read is my objective advice. As of the time of this writing, I am not affiliated with nor have been hired by any other companies or organizations whose services I mention in this article – everything you read from me regarding these companies is my objective advice. All content in this article is provided as is with no liability to #FrugalCongressLife or the author.]

[NOTE: As of April 2019, Sensual Day is on indefinite hold until further notice. We will publish updates here when we hear news regarding the next Sensual Day event.]

The newest addition to the Washington, DC area’s massive abundance of dance events is Sensual Day, a tri-annual one-day bachata/kizomba/zouk mini-festival conceived by DC Zouk Festival organizer and DC-based DJ Sami “Selo” Ahmed as a celebration of sensual dance.

This intimate, personal, and high-quality new dance event has separate winter, spring, and fall editions that take place on one Saturday in January, April, and September every year, and is located for the foreseeable future at the Dance Institute of Washington (3400 14th Street NW), hereafter referred to in this article as DIW.  DIW is a unique, aesthetically pleasing second-floor dance loft boasting three studio rooms with vinyl dance floors and ballet poles, an expansive lobby and hallway, a kitchen in the back, and two water fountains.  DIW is located right in the heart of DC’s Columbia Heights neighborhood right next to the neighborhood’s Metro stop, several restaurants (detailed in the food section), a new shopping mall, and a few different bars.

Afternoon workshops featuring a variety of national and international instructors begin at 3pm and go until 7pm.  Bachata, zouk, and kizomba workshops happen concurrently in their respective rooms.  After a two hour break, additional bachata and zouk workshops both take place at 9pm (again, both workshops happen concurrently in their respective rooms), followed by social dancing from 10pm until 3am in separate bachata, zouk, and kizomba rooms.

As with most DC dance events, the main Sensual Day event is flanked by an abundance of pre and post parties.  Pre-parties take place at revered Arlington Latin dance haunt The Salsa Room on Wednesday (as part of their famous Passion Bachata Wednesdays event), former Fusion Thursdays location Meze Restaurant in Adams Morgan (about 5-7 minutes from Columbia Heights) on Thursday, and again at The Salsa Room on Friday.  Sensual Day’s post party happens at the world-famous DC Bachata Brunch, a Sunday afternoon DC mainstay that everyone going to DC must experience for themselves at least once. Sadly, Stanton & Greene, Bachata Brunch’s longtime Capitol Hill venue, has filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy and closed its doors, but Bachata Brunch will continue at Tenley Bar and Grill, located about a 10 minute UBER ride from Columbia Heights in the Tenleytown neighborhood. Tenley Bar and Grill was already a DC Latin dance institution locally well-known for District Zouk’s monthly Brazilian Zouk parties, and is a perfect fit as Bachata Brunch’s new location.

For up-to-the minute information on Sensual Day, check out Sensual Day’s Facebook page.

This survival guide will help you navigate this excellent new event #FrugalCongressLife style!

GOOD TO KNOW:

DIW does not allow street shoes in their studios, so a pair of suede-sole dance shoes is a must for this event (and is a good idea for most dance events in general).  A good pair of frugal dance shoes is Sansha’s jazz sneakers (about $30) with a pair of stick-on suede soles from Soles2Dance (about $25), for a combined price of $55.  Both products are available on Amazon as well.

A NOTE ABOUT DC STREETS:

DC often has two or more streets with the same name, each located in the northeast (NE), northwest (NW), southeast (SE), or southwest (SW) quadrants of the city, and distinguishes between the streets by putting NE, NW, SE, or SW at the end of the name to identify which quadrant of DC it’s in.

Pay special attention to the quadrant initials at the end of street names when planning trips or consulting your GPS for directions — if you accidentally type in L Street NE when you meant to go to L Street NW or 7th Street SE when you meant to go to 7th Street NW etc., you could wind up in an entirely different part of the city from your intended destination.

This is something us DC natives take for granted from living here for so long but can really trip up those unfamiliar with the area.

PASS:

The price for a pass is very reasonable, and the earlier you buy the less expensive it is.

TRAVEL:

DIRECTIONS TO DIW FROM THE COLUMBIA HEIGHTS METRO:

DIW is located two blocks north of the Columbia Heights Metro stop.  Exit the station at 14th Street (you’ll see Target, Best Buy etc.) make a right and walk north on 14th Street (if you see CVS, the Sprint Store, or Chipotle you’re going the wrong way) and the Dance Institute will be on your left.

Since the DC Metro system did away with paper farecards a while back, a SmarTrip card will be essential for paying the fares on the Metro system and parking at Metro lots (see below). A SmarTrip card costs $10 for the initial purchase but can be refilled as many times as you want at designated SmarTrip kiosks, but prepare for this initial expense. Try and keep your SmarTrip card if you plan on visiting DC again in the future.

Information on the DC Metro system can be found here: http://www.wmata.com

A map of the DC Metro system can be found here: https://www.wmata.com/schedules/maps/upload/2017-System-Map.pdf

DRIVING:

First thing you have got to realize about Columbia Heights is this: there is no parking.  Street parking is so hard to find it’s practically non-existent and the few garages in the area are very expensive. Columbia Heights and Adams Morgan are both considered two of the most difficult DC neighborhoods to park in by locals.

If driving from out of town I recommend parking at one of the Metro stops where overnight parking is available (preferably Greenbelt or Franconia Springfield) and taking Metro to Columbia Heights.  If  parking at Greenbelt or Franconia Springfield, Columbia Heights is a straight shot down the green line to Branch Avenue or the yellow line to Huntington, and you can follow the walking directions to DIW from there.

TRAIN/BUS:

Take the train or bus to Union Station in DC and follow the below directions to DIW.

DIRECTIONS TO DIW FROM UNION STATION:

Get on the Metro red line towards Shady Grove, and transfer at Gallery Place-Chinatown to the green line to Greenbelt, then take that to the Columbia Heights stop and follow the walking directions from the Metro stop from there.

FLYING:

Try to fly into DCA if you can, it will be the closest airport to this event.

DIRECTIONS FROM DCA:

Take the Metro yellow line toward Fort Totten to the Columbia Heights metro station and follow the walking directions to DIW from there.  If the yellow line is only going to Mount Vernon Square/7th Street Convention Center, get off there, transfer to the green line to Greenbelt and take that to Columbia Heights.

DIRECTIONS FROM BWI:

Try to get in early enough so that the MARC train is still running.  If no MARC train is running, see if there’s an Amtrak train that goes from BWI to Union Station, as it will be far less expensive than an UBER (about $16 for Amtrak vs. over $50 for an UBER).  Take MARC or Amtrak to Union Station and follow the directions from Union Station from there.

DIRECTIONS FROM IAD:

Take an UBER to the Wiehle-Reston stop on the silver line, take the silver line to L’Enfant Plaza and transfer to the green or yellow lines toward Greenbelt/Fort Totten to Columbia Heights and follow the walking directions to DIW from there

DC is, of course, supported by Citymapper at the time of writing.

LODGING:

I am local to this event, so lodging has never been an issue for me, but for the benefit of my readers, I did some research into Sensual Day’s lodging options.  I’ll mainly be covering lodging fairly close to DIW for the sake of keeping this article at a readable length, as I expect most of the pre-parties’ attendees will be local.

There are a handful of AirBNBs available near the event averaging at a cost of about $60-90 per night.  This may be your best and most frugal overall option for this particular event, but book quickly and in advance because they are going fast, at least for the January 2019 event.

BEWARE: The “DC Trekker” hostel is reportedly a scam and does not exist in real life.

The closest hotel is the Asante Sana Inn (1207 Kenyon Street NW), a bare-bones B&B type place averaging about $128 a night that has wildly mixed reviews with some reviews complaning about having difficulty checking in, which is inexcusable for a $128 per night hotel.  AirB&B honestly seems like a better bet than this place, as at least an AirB&B has clear check-in procedures usually (depending on your individual host of course).

Adam’s Inn (1746 Lanier Place NW) is the next closest lodging option in the nearby Adam’s Morgan neighborhood, where Meze is located. It is a B&B style hotel in a historic building near 18th Street, about a 7 minute UBER ride or 18 minute walk from DIW. It averages $75 per night, is described as “unfussy” and “quaint” and reviews are generally positive.  Caveat: some rooms have communal bathrooms shared with other guests, which will definitely be an issue if other guests want to shower at the same time you want to take your pre-social shower.  Also, this hotel is very close to one of DC’s main nightlife centers, 18th Street in Adam’s Morgan, and the area is a loud and wild circus on Friday and Saturday nights.

The Washington International Student Center, a long-operating hostel, is close by on 18th Street.  Google reviews describe a filthy and shoddily-run hostel and many of the owner’s responses to negative reviews are less than professional (“Perhaps go join a drama class somewhere”, “Nice hatchet job”), but at $53 per night, it is probably the cheapest non-AirBNB place nearby.

The closest semi-affordable chain hotel with good reviews and no cleanliness or safety issues is the Cambria Hotel and Suites (899 O Street NW), located about 9 minutes from DIW by UBER and 19 minutes walking/Metro and averaging about $150 per night.  This hotel was the site of the excellent but now-sadly-cancelled BKS Rooftop Wednesday salsa/bachata/kizouk socials, and although I have never stayed in the rooms because I’ve always lived 20 minutes or less from any event at or near there as of the time of this writing, the hotel overall is clean, modern and beautiful and I have good memories of dancing under the stars on their gorgeous rooftop.  Reviews are generally favorable and most complaints are about parking (which is bound to be an issue in downtown DC). Honestly if you’re gonna stay at a hotel for Sensual Day this is the one I recommend… most clean and well run hotels in a 5 mile radius of DIW are well over $200 per night making the Cambria your best bet.

The Hilton Garden Inn Washington DC (815 14th Street NW), the Holiday Inn Washington DC-Central/White House (1501 Rhode Island Avenue NW), are both good well-rated budget options at around $116 per night, but are much further away from DIW (15 minutes via UBER or 20 minutes via Metrobus).

BALLER OPTIONS:

For all you history buffs, the Washington Hilton (1919 Connecticut Avenue NW, $308 per night), also known as the Hinckley Hilton, is the site of John Hinckley Jr.’s 1981 assassination attempt on then-President Ronald Reagan, as well as 100+ presidential visits. I was there for a work gig in 2010 and I remember it being very large and expansive, but a fairly normal Hilton hotel. It would make a pretty good congress hotel if there weren’t already five million congresses in DC (maybe if Sensual Day grows enough it could be there one day?). The hotel’s history is not emphasized in its decoration or design, to the point that I didn’t even remember it was the Hinckley Hilton until the guy who got me the gig called it by that name.

If you’re feeling nostalgic for DCBX or Tropical New Year’s Eve, the Renaissance DC is about 15 minutes away from DIW by UBER or 20 minutes by Metro. This legendary congress hotel speaks for itself, but without the subsidy of DCBX’s room block, a room there goes for about $289 per night normally.

Finally, The Jefferson (1200 16th Street NW, $355/night) is an upscale 1920s-style hotel with 24 hour butler service and a spa.

FOOD:

Lodging and parking may be sparse around the immediate area, but food options around DIW are insanely abundant.

Your best bet for grocery shopping staples is the Target (3100 14th Street NW) in the shopping mall next to the Columbia Heights metro two blocks south of DIW. There is a Wal-Mart about 15 minutes away on Georgia Avenue, but in the case of this event, whatever you save buying at Wal-Mart over Target, you will spend getting there. This Target’s grocery section sells all the #FCL staples and anything else you need at comparable prices. If you prefer, there is also a Giant (1345 Park Road NW) right across the street from DIW next to the UPS Store.

Your coffee fix, if you are getting it near the venue, will likely be provided by Coffy Cafe (3310 14th Street NW), a 60s-themed cafe that also serves smoothies, crepes, and baked goods, located about 2 blocks south of DIW. That’s not a misspelling by the way, their name is actually spelled like that.

If the familiar comfort of Starbucks appeals to you more, there is one a block south at 3107 14th Street NW.

The options for your one meal out are also staggeringly abundant.

Directly across the street from DIW is Gloria’s (3411 14th Street NW) a simple no-nonsense eatery that serves traditional Mexican and Salvadorean dishes.  Be advised that Gloria’s is cash-only.

Lourdes Bakery (3419 14th Street NW) is right next door to Gloria’s.

If you desire a burger, fries, and a shake, Z-Burger is located a mere block south of DIW at 3301 14th Street NW.  If pollo is more your bag, Pollo Campero is located across the street at 3229 14th Street NW near the Civic Plaza.  Vegan and vegetarian dancers will be drawn to Sticky Fingers Sweets & Eats (1370 Park Road NW), an all-vegan bakery and cafe serving salads, sandwiches, pastries, and cupcakes.

Those in the mood for Tex-Mex have El Tio Tex-Mex Grill (3345 14th Street NW), and those after some Dominican food have Los Hermanos (1428 Park Road NW), a small Dominican eatery featuring traditional dishes.  Alternately, get some pho next door from Los Hermanos at Pho 14 (1436 Park Road NW). Similarly if you want Cuban food you can go to Mi Cuba Cafe (1424 Park Road NW) or those craving some injera and doro wat can hit up Letena Ethiopian (3100 14th Street NW #121).  Vietnamese food can be found at Vietnamese Chelsea Restaurant (1413 Park Road NW).

If you want to get your drink on before the parties (SERIOUSLY, DO NOT DRINK ALCOHOL AT DIW) you have a few options.  First and foremost is Zeba Bar, a hookah bar featuring drinks and upscale pub food located half a block up from DIW at 3423 14th Street NW.  Zeba Bar’s second floor is also the site of DC-area Latin event promoters the Bachata Brothers’ eclectic and long-running weekly Latin Wednesdays event.  Lou’s City Bar (1400 Irving Street NW) is a nearby alternative.

CVS (3031 14th Street NW) and 7-Eleven (3012 14th Street NW) are both located on the same block on 14th Street between Irving Street NW and Columbia Road NW just south of the Metro station should you need emergency supplies from there.

Here are some national chain restaurants located in the area, mostly near the Metro station: Subway (next to Coffy Cafe), Chipotle, Chick Fil-A, CAVA, and Panda Express.  Why anyone would go to a national chain restaurant with all of these good local and regional options in the area I do not know, especially if you’re following the standard #FCL “one meal out” guideline, but they are there.  One noteworthy chain nearby is IHOP (3100 14th Street NW), noteworthy because it is the only place open 24/7 in the area, making it your only post-social eating option at 3am besides 7-Eleven.

That’s it for this guide… be sure to hit the comments if you have anything else to add and I’ll see you all at the next Sensual Day event!

Happy Halloween!

Hope you all are having fun at your respective parties/events/Are You Afraid Of The Dark marathons/whatever!  Stay safe, don’t eat too much candy, don’t do anything I would do, and we’ll be back on November 7th with a write-up on DC’s Sensual Day event!  Be on the lookout!

#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!

#FrugalCongressLife Survival Guide: Chicago Salsa Bachata Festival

[Disclosure statement: As of the time of this writing, I have no direct affiliation with Chicago Salsa Bachata Festival other than being an attendee and have not been hired to promote CSBF in any way. As of the time of this writing, I have no direct affiliation with Island Touch Events other than being a fan. I have not been hired by Island Touch Events to promote them in any way. As of the time of this writing, I am not affiliated with nor have been hired by any other companies or organizations whose services I mention in this article – everything you read from me regarding both the festival and the above companies is my objective advice and is presented as is with no liability to #FrugalCongressLife or the author.]

Chicago Salsa Bachata Festival is an excellent salsa and bachata event put on by Island Touch Events and is one of their many regional salsa and bachata dance festivals.  CSBF is one of the Midwest’s top salsa and bachata festivals as well as one of the first festivals of the congress season (generally running from early spring until late fall), alongside Atlanta’s Salsa Bachata Festival at the beginning of March.  CSBF is happening March 22nd-25th in 2019.

The festival takes place in the town of Rosemont, IL, about 30 minutes outside of Chicago proper, at the Hilton Rosemont/Chicago O’Hare, a world-class conference hotel located near Chicago O’Hare International Airport (ORD) and the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center.

CSBF features workshops by local, national, and international instructors, a series of unique bootcamps (priced separately), evening performances, and nighttime social dancing across two different ballrooms.

Today’s entry is your comprehensive #FrugalCongressLife guide to CSBF!

PASS:

Early bird passes are on sale now and are very inexpensive at about $135, snag one quickly if you want to go to this congress for the best possible price!

TRAVEL:

FLYING:

Spirit is where it’s at.  Spirit flies directly into ORD, and the Hilton Rosemont is a brief 1.5 mile ride on the free hotel shuttle away.  If you take a non-Spirit airline, make sure you fly into ORD, as it is the only practical airport option.

DRIVING:

Your most practical and frugal option if driving is to park in O’Hare’s economy parking Lot G ($10 per day) and take the free airport shuttle to the Hilton.

Parking directly at the Hilton is $30 per day for self-parking.

BUS:

Megabus goes from Cleveland (most people will have to take Greyhound to Cleveland also) to West Polk Street between S Clinton Street and S Canal St in Chicago, which is about a 22 minute UBER ride or about 40 minutes on the Chicago Blue Line.

DIRECTIONS TO THE HILTON ROSEMONT FROM THE POLK AVE MEGABUS STOP:

– Walk to the back of the stop to N Kilpatrick Avenue

– Make a left on N Kilpatrick Avenue

– Follow the road as it hangs left past the Mayfair station

– Make a right on Montrose Avenue and the Chicago Blue Line Montrose stop will be on your left

– Take the Blue Line to O’Hare

– Ride 4 stops to Rosemont

– Exit the station on the N River Road side, make a left and walk south on N River Road and the hotel will be on your right

TRAIN:

Amtrak’s Capitol Limited goes to Chicago Union Station, which is about a 22 minute UBER ride or an hour on the Chicago Blue Line from the hotel.

DIRECTIONS TO THE HILTON ROSEMONT FROM CHICAGO UNION STATION:

– Exit the station at S Clinton Street, make a left and walk south on S Clinton Street 2 blocks to the Chicago Blue Line Clinton stop

– Take the Blue Line to O’Hare

– Ride 20 stops to Rosemont

– Exit the station on the N River Road side, make a left and walk south on N River Road and the hotel will be on your right

Flying or driving/rideshare are probably your best, least complicated, and most economical options for this congress.

Chicago is a city supported by Citymapper at the time of writing.

LODGING:

CSBF’s hotel arrangement is very unique as far as congress hotels go.  In addition to the Hilton Rosemont, the congress hotel where all the action occurs, there are two other Hilton-branded hotels in the same general area, and all three are attached to each other (and the nearby Donald E. Stephens Convention Center) via skywalk.  The other two hotels are the Embassy Suites by Hilton Chicago O’Hare, and the Doubletree by Hilton.

The Hilton Rosemont itself is, comparatively, the baller option, at around $140-150 per night for a room, although there may be a congress room block for this hotel offering a lower price. Either way, the convenience of being able to just take the elevator upstairs to your room after a night of dancing and forego even the brief walk to the other two hotels is worth the price of admission to many dancers.  Amenities include a pool, fitness center, digital keys, floor-to-ceiling bay windows with stunning views in all rooms, and in-room massage services.

The Embassy Suites is the slightly less expensive middle option, at around $120-125 per night.  Amenities include a unique open-tiered layout that has the hallway outside the front door of every single room looking down on the lobby below, a complimentary made-to-order breakfast and evening dinner reception featuring light snack food, a heated indoor pool, and a fitness center.

Finally, we have the budget option, the Doubletree by Hilton, priced at around $100-110 per night.  The Doubletree is no budget motel, however, as it sports clean modern rooms with large luxurious showers, and amenities including a breakfast buffet (warning: not complimentary, expect to spend money for this), specialized fitness rooms featuring a Precor trainer and yoga equipment, a pool, a full fitness center, and a complimentary chocolate-chip cookie upon check-in.

You can’t go wrong with any of these hotels; they are all clean, beautiful, recently renovated, 4-star hotels that offer excellent amenities and a comfortable experience.  I also have no ethical qualms with outlining all three of these options, since they are all Hilton properties that stand to do well off this congress and since the Embassy and the Doubletree become the official overflow hotels when the Hilton Rosemont sells out, as it did last year.

Of course, you can reduce your expenses at each hotel by doubling, tripling, or quadrupling up in a room-share.  Even the two technically-offsite options are close enough so that they are a popular option with congress attendees.

If a room block exists for the main hotel, I would encourage you to support the organizers and use the room block first and foremost.

The skywalk connecting the hotels is a godsend for those not staying at the Hilton, but it’s worth noting that it is very labyrinthine and includes an outdoor section.  You enter the skywalk through an elevator in the lobby of the Hilton marked “To Skywalk” and follow the signs from there to your respective hotel. For those staying at the DoubleTree, there is a short outdoor section through the convention center’s attached parking garage.

Walking door to door from the entrance of the Hilton to the entrance of the Doubletree outside will save you about a minute of walking over taking the skywalk (yes, I timed it), but there are little if any time savings going door to door from the Hilton to the Embassy over the skywalk.  Regardless, late at night and when the weather is cold the skywalk is the best and most practical option.  One highlight of Friday night/Saturday morning at this past year’s CSBF for me was watching the sun rise from the skywalk with other attendees of the congress on the way back to my room at 6am after closing down the bachata room.

FOOD:

Wal-Mart shoppers are out of luck here, as the closest Wal-Mart is located over an hour away from the Hilton Rosemont.

The closest discount grocery store is ALDI, which is located about an 8 minute (one way) UBER ride south in Schiller Park at 9310 Irving Park Road.  Almost all of ALDI’s stock is off-brand, and do not expect to find Quest Bars or protein powder here.  It is, however, possible to find off-brand versions of such #FrugalCongressFood staples as peanut butter, jerky, and coconut oil (good for Bulletproofing your coffee for the workshops!) at this store.

Butera Market and Produce World on Cumberland Avenue, both located about 8-10 minutes one-way from the hotel on Cumberland Avenue, are also good alternatives.

There’s a Starbucks in the Hilton Rosemont’s lobby where you can get that all-important coffee to keep you awake through it all, as well as an informal sandwich table selling cold sandwiches for a low cost outside.

If you are up early enough or staying up late enough to catch the hotel breakfasts, those are very good too.  Both the Embassy’s breakfast and evening dinner reception are complimentary; those who are frequently up for hotel breakfast may consider the Embassy the most ultimately economical lodging choice for this reason.

The Doubletree’s breakfast is around $17-20 for a full buffet, and the Hilton Rosemont’s Liberty Tavern, their in-hotel dining option, charges $24.75 for a full buffet and $19.75 for a continental buffet.  Both the Doubletree and the Hilton’s buffets are all-you-can eat – eat your fill then go back to sleep for a couple hours!

Your in-hotel eating options for your meal out are the aforementioned Liberty Tavern (Hilton Rosemont) and Gibsons Bar & Steakhouse (Doubletree), but both are a bit on the pricey side.

Located about a 5 minute walk from the hotel on Park Place is Adobe Gilas, Kings Dining & Entertainment, Five Roses Pub, Sugar Factory Chicago-Rosemont, and Park Tavern.

There are three eating options that I could consider making the 30 minute or so (one way) UBER ride from Rosemont into Chicago proper to be worth doing for if doable.  The first is Portillo’s, an excellent casual restaurant serving hot dogs, hamburgers, pizza, and other American staples.  Lou Malnati’s, a storied and legendary deep dish pizza restaurant, is the second option making the trip into Chicago worth it.

If you like a little bit of low-end theater with your meal out, the infamous Weiner Circle is definitely worth the trip on Friday or Saturday night before the parties begin.  A quiet, unassuming hot dog stand for most of the week, the place lights up on Friday and Saturday nights when patrons from the nearby bars flood into the stand and exchange seemingly-hostile-but-good-natured insults and trash talk with the staff, who return it in kind.  This is not an option for the easily offended or those with fragile sensibilities – there are four-letter words in abundance, and you should expect some verbal abuse from the staff when you order – but for those with thick enough skin, it is a spectacle that would be fun to witness in person.  Sadly, I did not get to go there this past year, but I have heard good things about the food also.

That’s all I got for this guide.  Feel free to hit the comments section with your suggestions or to fill in any gaps in my knowledge.  Not sure if I’m making it to CSBF this year at this time (it’s very far away for me) but I’ll see you all there if I do!

#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.