Thursday, April 16, 2015

Dodging strikes while traveling in Europe

Last time my husband and I visited London, the tubes were on strike most of the time we were there. Luckily, we were already staying in the theater district, because we were there specifically to see plays. We did almost everything on foot. Getting into town from the airport, though -- that was a big problem. We took the Heathrow Express to Paddington Station, then waited two hours to get a cab.

Two weeks ago, we were to have visited Portugal, but we had to cancel because we were sick. Had we gone, we could have visited Lisbon, but noplace else, because the trains were on strike. Our next trip is in the fall to Paris -- assuming the air traffic controllers don't go on one of their frequent strikes.

Strikes in Europe and the UK are an eternal problem. There's no way to ensure that your trip won't be affected by them, so planning for dealing with them if and when they do occur is important. Here are some tips:

1. Avoid traveling on holidays or those UK random days called "bank holidays." Transportation folks often pick these for strikes. Cynics say it's so they'll get time off with their families. Whatever.  Holidays are prone to strikes.

2. Avoid traveling on weekends. After holidays, your best chance of getting a strike is on a weekend. That's not to say you can't have a strike on weekdays. TAP airline is facing a possible 10-day strike in May. No way to defend against that, so....

3. Get information fast on strikes. On Twitter, follow @strikeinformer, where you're likely to get the news of a strike or its cancellation the fastest. Also, follow your airline and whatever trains are in your destination on Twitter.

4. Have with you the phone numbers and emails of your accommodations overseas, so that you can contact them if you'll be arriving a day or several days late before the strike. You don't want them to cancel you altogether.

5. Don't schedule any trip across the sea tightly against something else important.  You could get stuck wherever you are. Give yourself at least a day or so on the far end of the trip with nothing important scheduled so that you can be chill if something happens to delay you (and strikes aren't the only thing that can do this).

6. Have the phone numbers of car services in addition to cabs with you so that, if need, you can call one. It'll be expensive, but you might deem the expense worth the hours you'll save waiting for a cab.

Finally, understand that strikes are something Europeans cope with constantly without getting ruffled. Try not to ruffle. Load up your Kindle or other device with good books, and be of good cheer. Happy travels, and good luck from the Texas lottery.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Meet Arlington: Oregon and Ohio State fans, here's where you're really going

Stop it right now. The NCAA football championship game will not be played in Dallas. The Cotton Bowl wasn't even played there. Dallas is over as a football venue. Oregon Ducks and Buckeyes of THE Ohio State University, you'll be deciding who's best on Jan. 12 in Arlington, Texas, because that's where AT&T Stadium, better known as Jerry's World, is.
And where is Arlington? Think of Dallas and Fort Worth as the eye pieces of glasses. Arlington is the nose --- a really big nose. (Note: I used this analogy back in 2010 in the Austin American-Statesman, so here's an acknowledgement that the newspaper is my source material for the facial resemblance.) Arlington is smack between Dallas and Fort Worth, due south of Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. Arlington is 100 square miles of what I'd normally call suburbia, because that's what it feels like, but Arlington isn't really a suburb. It's been its own nose for a long time, and back in the 30s and 40s was a prime gambling destination. A place called Top O' the Hill, now part of a very Bible-intensive college. These are not the '30s and '40s, though, and this ain't Pasadena.
A few things to know:
1. It takes 30 minutes from either Dallas or Fort Worth to get to Arlington if there's no traffic. But there will be traffic.
2. You might consider actually staying in Arlington. There's a full-fledged Holiday Inn, along with a good Hyatt Place. Some of these hotels have a trolley that will run you over to the stadium. If you're staying in Dallas, the highest end would be the Mansion on Turtle Creek or the Crescent Court. The Joule, downtown on Main Street, is a good stay with a first-rate ESPA-brand spa. Less expensive and one of my personal faves is the Adolphus, also downtown. And Hyatt Regency, the hotel next to Reunion Tower, is always good, as is the nearby Omni, which you literally cannot miss because of its Vegas-like LED display. In Fort Worth: The Omni, the Worthington Renaissance or a lovely boutique called the Ashton. 
3. Arlington food: Olenjack's Grill on Road to Six Flags near the stadium is solid. Love the Dim Sum at Kowloon at Center Street and Pioneer Parkway. My favorite off-the-beaten-path spot is Russian: Taste of Europe, 1901 W. Pioneer Parkway -- cabbage rolls, crepes with red caviar and really borscht if you're a beet person (which does not imply anything about your team). After, you can buy some of those stackable dolls.
4. Arlington has no public transpo to speak of. You need a car. What is does have is the International Bowling Museum. It's on Six Flags Drive not far from AT&T Stadium. In case you get bored.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

The ups and downs of staying on San Francisco's Nob Hill

San Francisco's Nob Hill, that former bastion of railroad magnates, is typically too pricey a place for the likes of my husband and me. But by following an important credo of hotel searching -- always check the website of the hotel itself -- we managed to find a special rate for four days of our recent visit to the city. We embedded ourselves at the Stanford Court Hotel, paying $178 on a Saturday night, $131 Sunday, $139 Monday and $148 Tuesday (plus $30 a day in various taxes and fees, alas). These are amazing hotel rates for San Francisco, even for something much smaller and more downscale at the bottom of the hill.

We were coming in from Napa in a rent car, so while hubby turned that in, I checked us in and -- without any tip or request or anything -- was given an upgrade from our standard king room to a big king room with a view. The hotel had no idea I was a travel writer, so this wonderful and weird. Here's the view:

As you can see, we could spy the Transamerica Tower, the spire of the Ferry Building (it's the wee stick in the back to the left of the tall, uninteresting building) and lots of bay -- far more than my phone's camera could accommodate in one shot. We also got to look down onto Nob Hill's penthouses. I love looking down on penthouses.

The Stanford is far from a new hotel, but the bed was great, with top-flight linens, and the room offered plenty of space to walk around ub, a big bathroom, room coffee, a fridge, a safe, a desk and good service all around (and a fitness center without a resort fee or similar, thank you). So: We were extremely happy with the room and its view. Checking today, we find rates for this hotel all over the place, with a standard king going for as little as $118 some days and $400 on others. This sort of San Francisco pricing, which has everything to do with whether there's a big convention in town, had led us to, in recent years, change our strategy for booking trips. We book the hotel before we find the airfare. It's no good to get a cheap airplane, then get clobbered by high hotel rates.

But, back to Nob Hill: The hotel notwithstanding, there were two negatives, and they both have to do with the pedestrian experience. One is that, obviously, it's at the top of a hill. A very steep climb is necessary to get home after you've been out. For that matter, the descent isn't always easy, as I found when I minced downhill at about a 40 degree angle in heels. The good news is that you'll have calves of steel after ascending the hill for a few days. More good news: Cabs in San Francisco, unlike those pretty much anywhere else in the country, are willing to run you up a hill without giving you grief or overcharging you. We're talking about $6 to go from Powell and Market up to Powell and California. Taking the cable car would've cost $6 each, so the cab was the way to go.

The second pedestrian negative held true for all four days we were there. Not sure it's a constant. The traffic lights were nothing but blinking reds at all of the top-of-the-hill intersections. This is a flat pedestrian waiting to happen. Every time a car let us cross, it got angry honks from vehicles behind it, and once an angry motorist peeled out with a screech that told us he'd far rather have mashed us. I am hoping this situation was temporary -- although four days is way too long -- and won't often be repeated. Traffic engineers, please stay on top of this.

Let's close with one more positive-negative: food and beverage. There aren't a lot of restaurants at the top of Nob Hill. The ones that are there are mostly affiliated with hotels and very expensive. (At the moment, the Stanford Court doesn't have a restaurant, although it offers morning coffee and breakfast items for sale in the lobby, and they're both very good.) That's a minus. For those who enjoy the odd upscale cocktail, though, you'll never do better than Nob Hill. The Big Four, with its piano music, is one of our favorites (new piano guy is good, although we miss Michael). The Fairmont's Tonga Room is hilarious. All the bars are good, though none is cheap. (I'll do a later blog on cheap SF cocktails, I promise.)

Final analysis: We'll probably climb back up Nob Hill. But only when one of those specials is under way.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The trouble with airlines: They want to go steady without a real commitment

Airfarewatchdog and I were talking today about the old days, when we used to love Frontier Airlines. Here was this great, new airline that seemed to care about its customers. There was decent legroom. There was free seatback entertainment. There were no fees, but, then, in those days nobody had fees.

I won't even fly Frontier today. It's too much like Spirit and Allegiant -- a subclass airline that packs on fees for absolutely everything and provides a minimal flying experience. I've learned over the years not to get too attached to an airline.

Every now and then, though, I fall in love. Regular readers know how deeply I fell for JetBlue and how disappointed I was with a recent customer service experience. Now, we learn -- and this is no surprise, given stockholder pressure -- that JetBlue is about to give us less legroom and start charging for checked bags if you buy the cheapest ticket. And for those of us who pay for our own tickets, the cheapest tickets are what we buy.

Like most failed relationships, mine with JetBlue carries baggage. I still have a ton of JetBlue miles. I'll try to book trips before the bag fee kicks in early next year and the more cramped seats (although JetBlue swears they'll still offer more room than "the other guys," which wouldn't be hard) arrive in 2016, but I might not be able to use the miles up that fast.

Like many of you, I've been throwing out disgruntled posts about the changes on social media. Will our posts change JetBlue's mind? They will not. Because JetBlue, like every other airline, wants to go steady -- wants us to be loyal, join their club, get their credit card, accrue miles, then buy more tickets to accrue more miles  -- but has absolutely no intention of every getting married. As far as airlines are concerned, we passengers are fun to take along on the occasional trip, but, hey: They never said they'd take us home to meet Mom. Their commitment is to increasing income. This, too, is no surprise. Airlines are businesses. Businesses don't exist to love and honor; they exist to make money.

So, your favorite airline might be a really good boyfriend, but it's never going to marry you. What's your best ploy? Refuse to go steady. Shop around to all the airlines for the very best fare that offers the best experience. Get every single credit card of every single airline, and use these strategically.  But don't go making too much of a commitment to any one airline. Be a player. Because they are.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Travel vs. taking out the trash: a tough call

If you're reading this over breakfast, don't. Put down the Cheerios. OK, read on:

Here we go again, taking off on a trip while a half-full can of smelly trash sits, uncollected, at the side of our house. By the time we return, new lives will have taken shape within the can, and the simple act of wheeling it to the curb will require a mask.

It didn't have to be this way. We could have delayed our departure by one day -- OK, a day and a half, to make sure the garbage truck actually came and picked up the garbage -- and we wouldn't be coming back to a maggot farm. But we refuse to craft our lives around the once-a-week Austin garbage pickup schedule, and we have to live with that.

A life of frequent travel is a life of tradeoffs, and garbage pickup is but one of them. Others:

1. The sprinkler system. The city allows us to water but once a week. If we're gone Wednesday, nothing gets watered. OK, then: We xeriscaped the yard. All rock and desert plants. As they say in the movies dubbed for TV: Forget you, watering schedule.

2. The newspaper deliveries. These are easy to stop, but as we all know, stuff happens when you're on the road. You sometimes don't get back when you think you well. Papers pile up. Oh, well. No solution for that one except asking a kind neighbor to grab them.

3. The mail. Same situation as No. 2, except there's a solution that doesn't annoy a neighbor: a locking mailbox. Everything can pile up as much as it wants without risk.

4. Those awful advertising door hangers people put on the door knob. And it's political season, so there are many. Same solution as No. 2.

...which leaves us with the rotten garbage as the only real impediment to heading out the door right this minute. Fine. Off we go.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Why it's so hard to find a newspaper at your hotel

It's always annoying to me when a hotel PR person showing me around a property says with obvious pride, "We don't have any newspapers here because we try to be green."

It apparently doesn't occur to that person that newspapers and magazines are what pay for the food I eat and the roof over my head. Not that it would matter. Although I am always thrilled to find a USA Today -- or any other paper -- outside my hotel room door or in the lobby, that tradition is fading. And it's not just about being green.

Housekeeping staffs just hate newspapers. Fewer people read them these days, so some just sit outside hotel rooms until the staff picks them up. The people who do read them tend to disembowel them and leave them scattered across the room. What should be done with them? Throw them away or put them back together neatly (time-consuming and annoying) and leave them for the guest? Newspapers also trash up lobbies pretty effectively. Finally, there's the expense of getting them. Hotels sometimes try to pass that cost on to guests, but it makes us mad, especially if we aren't told about it in advance.

So: Newspapers are going away. A few hotels substitute a small iPad on which we're told we can not only read the day's news, but also order room service. Meh, I can do without that. I have a phone and a tablet of my own, which I'd rather use than theirs. What I like best, though, is a nice, big, ink-and-paper newspaper to spread out and read while I drink my room coffee, assuming there's room coffee -- but that's a subject to whine about another day.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Charge! The case for never letting your phone go dead in an airport

Frequent travelers, you've doubtless heard that there's a new TSA rule that "from some airports" (undefined; TSA always likes keeping us -- and the bad guys -- on edge), if you're traveling back to the U.S. from another country with an electronic device, you'd better be able to turn it on. Dead battery? Tell your device goodbye. It can't travel, and maybe you can't, either. At the very least, you'll be subjected for more screening.

We understand there's a specific terrorist threat that prompted this action, but, obviously, it does add yet another complication to travel. Your devices -- cell phones, Kindles, iPads, laptops, everything -- MUST be charged up at all times. This requires you to carry many types of chargers, and it's not a bad idea to also bring along a small portable charger in case, as is often the case, you find your phone running low at an airport before your journey is over and all the plugs already are occupied.

When should you make sure your devices are fully charged? All the time. Not just when you're coming back from abroad. Because now we're hearing reports (unconfirmed, I will warn) that some TSA folks are forcing people to turn on electronics on domestic flights. Yes, those within the U.S. And because Austin-Bergstrom International has consistently been one of the most stringent in the U.S. for TSA checks, from my personal experience (this is the only airport that sometimes makes me take off metal-free sandals in the Pre-check line), I wouldn't be the least bit surprised to be asked to turn on my phone here. I don't expect it, but I wouldn't be surprised. I make it a policy never to be surprised by new TSA procedures. Toward that end, I try to travel with as few things as possible that matter deeply to me. I must have my wallet and phone. Beyond that, I consider all my stuff expendable, because who's to say when the bad guys might suddenly start creating bombs in bras, curling irons or cough drops?

Also, of course, you should plan for spending more time in the security line. British papers are already reporting longer lines at some airports, including Heathrow, where phones are being examined. For that matter, I've noticed that the TSA folks who look in the bag-scanning machine have been examining things much more closely -- and for a longer period of time -- at all the airports I've been through this summer.

Finally, I will note that some reports mention that TSA will also be taking a closer look at shoes. They're welcome to inspect mine. They seem to like to do that anyway.