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.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Five reasons to go to South Padre Island right now

Don't you just hate that I'm doing that? Going with the "five reasons" peg and using that "right now" imperative that's so excruciatingly trendy in travel writing right now? Me, too. But here we go with a summary gleaned from the trip to my South Padre Island condo from which I've just returned -- with a healthy sun glow and seriously ratty beach hair:

1. The weather is perfect. OK, I'm talking about right now -- it could change at any minute -- but the temps are in the 80s with a nice breeze. It's Texas, it's summer, and it's not 100. Go quickly, before that's no longer the case.

2. The seaweed invasion has slowed significantly. Although the mounds of already-raked seaweed against the dunes do, sadly, made the beach smaller than usual at high tide, the tide goes back out again, and the amount of seaweed washing ashore right now -- as opposed to what's been going on for about three months -- is the usual, small daily amount. Keep in mind that seaweed is good for the dunes, and try not to be bummed when you see it.

3. There are more ways to enjoy the water than ever. To parasailing, surfing, wind surfing, kiteboarding, kayaking, fishing, dolphin cruising, stand-up paddle boarding and personal watercraft zooming (always my least favorite), add two distinctly South Padre cruises: (1) The Black Dragon Pirate Cruise -- a thrilling pirate-themed cruise on a tricked-out pirate ship that typically also includes a chance to see dophins (book it in nearby Port Isabel next to Pirates Landing) and (2) a sunset dinner cruise (book it behind Laguna Bob's bar) that includes grilled shrimp and fajitas, along with music.

4. Fireworks all summer long: Thursday and Friday nights over the bay (watch from Louie's Backyard or Coconuts) and Saturday night over the beach (Clayton's Beach Bar). Oooh. Aaaah.

5.  Sand Castles. There's a new Sand Castle Trail guiding you to about 30 (they come and go; it's sand) professional castles around the island, and numerous of those pros offer sand-sculpting lessons (The Amazin' Walter, Sandy Feet, Andy Hancock -- google any of them; they're all great fun). It's the new hot activity on the island.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Check Below For Errors

I advise you to check this post for errors, because surely I've made one. More likely, four or five. I draw this conclusion from the fact that I typically have to go back at least several times when I'm trying to book a flight because I've filled something out wrong or neglected one of the many boxes.

"Check below for errors," I am directed in red. Sure enough, I find that I have not de-selected buying trip insurance. So I check the box: No, I will travel without insurance ("you idiot," is implied). Once again: "Check below for errors." Ah. I see when the first error was flagged, the secret (not-so-secret these days, because everybody demands it) three-number code on the back of my card depopulated its space. I fill it in again. "Check below for errors." Ah. Forgot to accept the terms and conditions. "Check below for errors." Dangit, now the trip insurance thing has depopulated and I have to fill it in again.

It all gets pretty confusing, in large part because we have to decline the opportunity to spend more money on numerous occasions. OK, on this particular booking I had to accept an extra fee because when it came time to select my seat, only seats carrying an extra $19 charge were available. One seat cost $19 merely to sit next to a window. The others were $19 for more leg room. So I chose both the leg room and a window seat for $19. But I'd have preferred a middle seat free (or, rather, for the $149 I agreed to pay for the one-way ticket), American Airlines.

Anyway, having filled out all the various blanks, I'm flying my flight. The good news is: Barring any crises, this is the last airplane flight I will book for 2014. My blood pressure's about to go way down.

UPDATE: American said "Check below for errors." Through Twitter, I'm told that I could decline to pick any of the extra-$19 seats on the map and just wait until I got to the airport for a seat assignment. I didn't see that option listed, and every seat besides the extra-pay seats was x-ed out on the map. I'd sort of feel like I was flying standby, waiting to see if business travelers declined all the extra-pay seats so I could have one. But that's the way things are these days. Anyway, having made that correction, I await notifications of more.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Making my peace with little planes

Whine of the Day: I really don't like flying on commuter planes. They're small, which means they flap in the breeze more. Their pilots are typically underpaid. There's often no room for a decent-sized carry-on, which means I have to pay $50 more for a checked bag. They're late more often, and they lose luggage more often.

But I'm coming to terms with the fact that I'm going to be on regional jets more than ever. A recent flight to JFK on JetBlue was on a big jet when I booked it and selected seats, but by the time we traveled, it had become a regional jet. There we were in the back of the plane, flapping in the breeze. Still, at least JetBlue includes its in-flight entertainment system in its smaller jets. It was a fine flight, and we managed to get our bags onboard (also, JetBlue allows a free checked bag -- so far; we're hearing that policy won't last).

I fly frequently from Austin or Dallas to Louisville, Kentucky, because my father and brother's family live there. There's only one way to get to SDF nonstop from DFW, and that's on American Airlines. Up to now, I've been able to get big jets in both directions. But when I tried to book a September flight, I saw that only if I'm willing to fly at 6 a.m. can I avoid American Eagle (which uses Mesa Airlines for most of its flights). Because I can't drive in the dark, I can't take that flight. Mesa Airlines it is. And I'm not a fan. My husband and I plan to drive up in September, but we can't do that for every visit.

Meanwhile, Southwest Airlines is offering all sorts of interesting routes from Dallas Love Field to Louisville -- through Baltimore and Fort Lauderdale. From Austin, I can still fly to SDF through Chicago Midway. And will. So far, Southwest isn't flying anything smaller than a 737.

While I'm at it, let me whine again about JetBlue dropping its SFO-AUS route. For 1.5 months, Virgin America added a second, daytime flight, but that stops in September, meaning that if I want to arrive in San Francisco before 7 p.m., I'm forced onto United . . . on a regional jet.

What's going on, of course, is airline consolidation. Gates are being freed up at the big New York and D.C. airports, and airlines are repositioning their larger jets, leaving the dinky ones for smaller airports that they choose not to abandon altogether. I should feel fortunate, I suppose, that I still have the smaller jets to climb aboard.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Why it's hard to choose which airline to be mad(dest) at

I've been mad at airlines for a long time. It all started when they took the food away, even though I hated the food. This, I admit, was silly on my part. They was so much rampant madness to come.

Maybe ten years ago, I started getting mad at specific airlines. Delta came up first. In retrospect, its offense was fairly minor, but it galled me at the time: It rebooked a flight I'd booked through Atlanta, giving me a 20-minute connection time that, in Atlanta, is quite impossible. So, I knew I needed to rebook. In order to do that I had to sit on hold for three hours. I considered that unacceptable and swore: No more Delta. (The flight I ultimately took nearly landed on its wing at JFK, but given the high winds, I found that easy to forgive.)

After that -- I guess this might be five years ago -- American Airlines infuriated me for the way it handled massive cancellations of MD-80 flights for reinspections. Let's set aside the fact that it should have seen the FAA's directive for inspections coming and not be mad about that. Let's say AA couldn't help grounding its entire MD-80 fleet for reinspection. It was the way it was handled that made me exceedingly mad. I was in LA, having arrived on a nonstop from Austin: MD-80, the sole craft the airline flew out of/into Austin. Instead of announcing at the start of the day that no MD-80s would be flying that day, AA canceled them one my one, moment to moment, rebooking my flight five times within six hours and still leaving me stranded at LAX, at which point I paid $350 and flew home on Southwest. I considered the entire day needlessly deceptive and swore off AA.

My options at that point were narrowed to United, Southwest and newcomer JetBlue, which I quickly fell in love with, but we all know how love at first sight goes. Back to that later. My next enemy became United. Pretty much everyone fell out of love with United and Continental when they merged, but I didn't fly them that much anyway, so United didn't encounter my wrath until last summer, when I flew it through San Francisco to SEA-TAC. Now, I knew very well that planes would be late that day because SFO was a runway down because of a crash. But United chose not to acknowledge that.

We were two hours late out of Austin. Fine. Understandable. But once we got to SFO, the delays were acknowledged in only hourly increments and only on the boards, with various explanations posted: weather, inbound aircraft, etc. There was not one agent in all of Terminal 3 willing to give us any information on when, exactly, we might get to depart that terminal (and I know Terminal 3 is all lovely after a renovation, but I seriously never wanted to see it again). Again: It was not the delays that infuriated me. It was the total lack of communication and disregard for passengers. Finally, we did board, arriving in Seattle at 4 a.m. Ever try to rent a car at an airport at 4 a.m.? United went on my no-fly list.

So, wonderful JetBlue: Wonderful until airline consolidation again bit me in the posterior. JetBlue didn't merge, but AA and US Airways did, freeing up Reagan-Washington gates for JetBlue, which dumped AUS-SFO in order to add Reagan flights. OK. Understandable. But, once again, it's the way it was handled: I got a "flight time change" customary email about an already-booked JetBlue flight. I put off reading it, assuming it was the usual two-minute change. A day later, I did read it and learned that my August flight to SFO would be through Long Beach. Odd. I called and was informed that JetBlue was dropping the route. I'd have to go through Long Beach. Well, OK. But the email didn't mention the flight home. What's up with that? What's up with that, I learned, was that there was no flight home. Not even through Long Beach. And JetBlue wasn't going to tell me that until I bothered to call. Not cool. Not even with a full refund plus $50 of scrip I'll never use because I've amassed zillions of JetBlue miles figuring to use them for SFO, my favorite place. Guess I'll be flying to Boston a lot.

But I can't stay mad at JetBlue. I can't, because I'm running out of options. I can't fly Southwest to everywhere, especially because its tickets have become pretty much as expensive as everybody else's, with worse connections and no seat assignments (something that bothers my husband more than it does me). If it weren't for the free bag, I'm not sure I'd like Southwest as much as I do. I wish it would stop calling itself a low-cost carrier when it is not. I'm getting a little mad.

Meanwhile, an especially nice coach flight across the pond on a B777 made me sort of fall back in love with American, whose flight attendants were wonderful, even in the face of a fairly dreadful bunch of demanding passengers (yes, you, guy in front of me who ordered water nonstop and left your feet in the aisle to trip them). This, in spite of the fact that AA tried to reroute my JFK-LHR trip across the pond through, um, Raleigh. A phone call fixed that without any time on hold, thank you.

Anyway: It's hard to stay mad at any one airline when they're all so maddening. I've decided to just wipe the slate clean and book whoever will carry me for the least amount of money, except for Allegiant, Spirit and Frontier, which are just too hideously maddening to mention.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

United's carry-on policy: Must your personal item be backpack-shaped?

As you've probably heard, United is using new bag-sizer templates to make sure what you take onto the plane is the size they'd like it to be. And my only objection has to do with the personal item size. We'll get to that in a moment.

I have absolutely no objection to the airline trying to put an end to people trying to cram massive suitcases into the overhead bins. The size that United allows -- the same size that American Airlines and Delta Air Lines list as acceptable on their web pages -- is 22 by 14 by 9. This is a small suitcase, but it absolutely is sufficient for a week in Europe, I'm here to tell you. (Of course, it's a bit tougher on men, who have much bigger shoes. But my husband can do it.) I haven't seen this size limit for overhead bins enforced at all in recent years, and the result is people having to push and push to get their behemoths into the bins. The push, of course, is partly the result of people trying avoid bag fees, and I don't blame them for that. But I do blame them for packing badly.

The under-the-seat thing is quite another matter. United now says that your personal item is only acceptable if it is 9 by 10 by 17. That's the size of a small backpack. OK. Fine. But it's also the SHAPE of a small backpack. Some of us -- say, over the age of 30 -- carry cloth bags or satchels rather than backpacks. They are not rectangular. They will not fit into the sizer.

Here's a more acceptable policy for grownups: American Airlines says the dimensions of your personal item can't be more than 36 inches. That allows a 15 by 15 by 5 square canvas bag to be placed under the seat in front of me.  I have taken such a bag on every U.S.-based airline. It fits quite easily, without cramming, under every commercial airline's seat. (I'm not talking about commuter planes here. I don't fly on those, and they can have a lot less space both in overhead bins and under seats.)

Delta just might have the most reasonable personal item policy of all, and it's rare (never?) that I accuse Delta of being reasonable. Delta's policy is that the item must fit under the seat, period. It doesn't have to be backpack-shaped, square or any other particular shape.

My experience with United recently is that it has a whole lot of rules but not a whole lot of customer service. The airlines I fly most are JetBlue, Southwest and American, and because I pack efficiently, I don't foresee a problem on those. I have a good many United miles, though, and I'm going to need to use those. Which mean, I guess, I need to go buy a backpack.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

The top four reasons I hate top five lists

"Five great places to eat duck fat." "Top ten beaches on the Gulf Coast." On and on and on it goes, the top five, top 10 and -- sometimes -- top 50. What if I like 13 beaches on the Gulf Coast? What if there's really only one place that does duck fat right?

Herewith, the top four reasons that I hate top five lists:

1. There are rarely exactly five things -- not four, not six -- that fit the category.

2. They're frequently aggregated lists. Some dude sitting in an office feeds "top five duck fat" into Google and rewrites the results to look original. (Yes, I know. Some of us do really personally research top-five lists. But I have the feeling that more do not.)

3. They're the trendy new way to deal with travel writing so that nobody has to be exposed to the ickiness of narrative. I happen to like narrative. Doing it right takes lots of reporting, of course, and not "we went here and then we went there." I think we have bad travel writing to blame, in part, for the popularity of top 5 and top 10 lists.

4. People actually believe these lists and adhere to them too strictly. Sure, I like to see what my fellow travelersdo so I can try to repeat the experiences. But if you only go to what others consider the top five restaurants in Des Moines, you'll never really know Des Moines.

That's it. No five. Deal with it.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Crisis flying: American's bereavement fares were too high anyway

I clearly remember the time -- about 15 years ago -- when my husband's half-brother died suddenly and he had to immediately fly to Texas from San Francisco. He called our airline of the moment, American. The "bereavement fare," one way, would be $900. That was supposed to be compassionate? Really? He wound up using frequent flyer miles -- something that would be nearly impossible in a last-minute booking situation today.

So, we stand as two people who won't miss American's bereavement fares. They were always too high to qualify as compassionate. I always thought it would make sense to make the bereavement fare equal to the advance-purchase fare. The grieving person gets a decent fare; the airline fills an empty seat. But, apparently not enough revenue would be generated that way. They'd rather fly the seat empty, as they do a lot of exit-row seats these days.

We no longer fly American to San Francisco now that JetBlue's in the picture, but we still plan for the day when we might need to fly somewhere suddenly. The answer: Southwest. The walk-up fares are typically $300 to $400 one way. Not too expensive. We might also try to use Southwest miles, which carry fewer restrictions than those of many other airlines.

Regarding the outrage we're hearing about AA's decision to ax bereavement fares: These are people who never tried to use them. Those of us who did wound up angry at the airline. And that, I think, is why they've decided to dump them.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

In Vegas: Gulf Coast seafood, Tito's and, now, Blue Bell ice cream

It's easy for an Austinite to feel at home in Las Vegas. I kept running into food and drink from the homeland.

At Tom Colicchio's's Heritage Steak at the Mirage, my beautifully tender filet was accompanied by a plump, perfectly fried oyster.

"This is a Gulf oyster, isn't it?" I asked my server, who was from Oregon but, nonetheless, knew that it was.

A day later, the star ingredient in my Shrimp Saganaki at Estiatorio Milos at the Cosmopolitan was Gulf shrimp. They don't come any better.

That night, I attended a grand opening party for the new ESPA at Vdara, the resort where I was staying, and our goodie bag included not only ESPA products (yes!) but also a little bottle of Tito's vodka. Every party is improved by Tito's vodka, which I've seen in bars all over the world now. Guess it would be unusual if I DIDN'T run into Tito's here, but I didn't expect it in a spa goodie bag.

Next up: Blue Bell ice cream is arriving on Vegas shelves the first week of March. Vegas is a great home for Blue Bell. It gets seriously hot in summer (112 last June when I was around), and it needs Blue Bell. Eat up, Vegasites.

Along with the food and drink, of course, I ran into plenty of Austinites, because Dell was having a 4,000-person training dealie at the Mandalay Bay. There were other meetings in town that probably drew Texans as well, including a convention of vacuum cleaner dealers. As I was walking to the Mandalay to get my Michael Jackson ONE tickets, I strolled past one guy out on the sidewalk outside New York New York (which is under renovation renovation) whose name tag read BOMB. Not sure which convention he was with, but he was wearing a suit, so, obviously, a convention. He was saying, "I could cover all over South Austin." With what? Blue Bell ice cream would be nice.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Touts for a girlfriends' trip to Vegas

I know: What happens in Vegas is supposed to stay in Vegas. But the girlfriends' trip I just took with my friend Carol begs to be shared, and there were no errant lions involved (although a fellow from Toronto did try to pick me up while I was playing a Zeus machine in the Bellagio. I scampered.)

Here's some stuff you should know:

1. Vdara remains a great place to stay on the Strip, because it's restful and quiet (on the upper floors, anyway) with no clanging of slots to jangle you as you make your way home. The beds and bedding are little cocoons. I like to crank down the AC and really snuggle in. Blackout curtains keep Vegas out. IMPORTANT: The hair dryer is hiding in the little hidden drawer under the sink. The newly rebranded ESPA's treatments rock. My facial gave new meaning to saving face. After two days in Vegas, my inner bulldog was surfacing on my face. ESPA products specifically target lines (they call them fine lines; mine aren't all fine). Also: Bar Vdara is picking up steam as a hang, and the staff's great. Happy hour is 11 to 4, so it's a good lunch spot.

2. Speaking of happy hour, Carol and I made a meal out of three happy hours in Aria. We started at Julian Serrano, proceeded to American Fish and finished at Sirio. All wonderful, but I think the seared scallops at American Fish might have been the night's favorites. Cheap small plates and wine (and sangria at JS) added up to about $50, with tips, for each of us at the end of the evening. Pretty swell.

3. More great eats: Try the amazingly tender octopus and the beef checks (melt-in-your-mouth and served with tongue, so write your own pun) at Sensi...any steak and the pork belly app at Heritage Steak (both of those are at Bellagio, btw)...Shrimp Saganaki at Cosmopolitan's Milos....Fish tacos and first-rate margaritas at Chayo in the new Linq next to the Flamingo.

4. Speaking of the Linq, its Polaroid Museum and more stores open March 1. No word on when the 550-foot High Roller, the big Ferris Wheel, will open, but I'm hearing sometime in March. They could spring it on us, but it's still being tested. Lots of partying around it will take place Memorial Day weekend.

5. The airport needs better signage. Finding baggage claim in the airport always confounds me, and I'm there once a year.

6. Do not try to walk down the steps from Vdara to Harmon to get to Cosmopolitan.  You'll wind up, as we did, finding breaks in traffic in which to scramble down the gutters of Las Vegas Blvd. Very, very bad idea. Instead, walk through Crystals and take the skybridge. Yes, it shouldn't be that hard a route. But, yes, it's that hard.

7. Be aware the Culinary Union doesn't want you in Cosmo (which hates being called that) at all and tends to picket on Fridays.

8. Amazing show to catch: Michael Jackson One, the newest Cirque Show. It's great spectacle. Not as much acrobatic stuff as in, say, O -- but just eye-popping. Zombies dancing through the audience. A holographic Michael. People bouncing off the ceilings. I might have to see it again to catch what I missed, because a lot happens at once. That one's at the Mandalay. And I got from Vdara to Mandalay without a cab by using two trams and feet, but I did get lost in Monte Carlo.

Doesn't everybody?

Saturday, February 1, 2014

The ignominy of traveling while Texan

There we were again, in a bar in San Francisco, facing people who were afraid of us because we're from Texas.

Yes, we explained that we're from Austin. But some people understand better than others that we live in a tiny blue dot within a deep-red state, and that we're probably more alarmed by Ted Cruz than they are.

Long ago, we learned that when people ask where we're from, it's better to say, "Austin," than "Texas." Austin makes people smile. It's a cool place, they say. "So, you've been there?" "No, but I really want to go."

But if, as was the case this time, the bartender tells folks you're from Texas before you're able to mitigate the damage by saying "Austin," you get that oh-no-this-person-might-shoot-me look. It's depressing, really, because there's a lot to like about Texas. A whole lot. Otherwise, we wouldn't live here.

A couple of years ago, we went to a wine dinner in Colorado in a notoriously conservative part of the state. We were resolved not to talk politics with the locals at our table, whom we didn't know but quickly grew to like. We drank wine. And more wine. Finally, one woman at the table had consumed enough to blurt, "I like Texas OK, but I really cannot stand that governor of yours."

We grinned.

"Neither can we!"

Turns out everybody at the table was a Democrat.

This is a travel blog. Please don't think I'm turning it into a political one. But one's point of origin makes its way into just about every discussion when you meet people as you travel, and Texas, these days, tends to make the other person think of two things: (1) politics to the right of Attila the Hun and (2) guns.

After chatting a while, those folks in the San Francisco bar realized my husband and I were harmless. But we had to talk them down, and it's a discussion I'm tired of having.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

San Francisco: Hedging on housing as the beat goes on

Those of you who read my many San Francisco stories in The Austin American-Statesman know it's my favorite American city. I'd live there if I could afford to. I can't, so my husband and I go there as often as we can. And we're guilty of doing a lot of the same things every time we go: Walking up and down hills endlessly; eating at the Tadich Grill, L'Osteria del Forno, Swan Oyster Depot, Original Joe's and Cafe Claude; sharing stories with locals at Tony Nik's (more on that in a minute) and watching a whole lot of limited-release movies that are harder to find in Austin. In other words, we act like we live there. We really need to borrow a dog.

We do mix it up a little each time, though. This trip, we visited the Beat Museum in North Beach on Broadway near Columbus. Super little museum that tells the stories of the various beat writers. You can buy books and posters, too. I guarantee you'll learn something you didn't know. And, yes, Lawrence Ferlinghetti is still alive and still living in North Beach. Folks run into him in the restaurants.

On another day, we took one of the many great CityGuides tours of San Francisco. OK, this isn't something a local would do. But each of these tours -- they're usually about two hours and free, though you really should pony up a donation -- is fascinating. We've taken five. This one involved Pacific Heights mansions, and I now know a ton about stick houses and Queen Annes and why all the wealthy people moved to this part of town in the early 1900s. (It's solid granite, and the earthquake took just a few chimneys.) Across the street from the Spreckles Mansion, we saw the mega-hedge around it that Danielle Steel has installed for privacy. She's lived there for about 25 years. The hedge is a mofo, and the San Francisco Chronicle said so. Steel wrote an op-ed piece in response, saying leave the hedge alone; she deserves her privacy, and besides, she's won a whole lot of awards. I say, if you live in one of the city's major historic homes and make a ton of money writing books, your privacy just might be compromised. In any event, the op-ed just made me want to see the hedge, and now I have. Our guide said she wasn't allowed to take us across the street to stand next to the hedge, and that buses -- even mini-vans -- are called out if they drive past the mansion on Washington Street.

So, what's new in San Francisco? Right now, the locals have a sort of crowded feeling. We talked about this a lot at Tony Nik's. Downtown, Facebook and Twitter employees are buying up all the places to live, and it looks like the Tenderloin might be gobbled up by more condos for them.  Their work buses crowd the streets, and bicyclists are unhappy about that. All over town, rents are astronomical. We were told that the only way to afford to live in North Beach is to have been living there for decades and, hence, rent-controlled. Another factor is that some landlords are kicking people out to convert the properties to high-priced stays on Air BNB, Homeaway and the like. Here's where I feel guilty: We want to rent one of these for a month next year if we can afford it. So we'll be the bad guys, coming in as tourists and displacing locals -- which is what we'd really love to be. Maybe somebody needs to erect a big hedge to keep us out.

Anyway, we left our hearts and will be back in August to get them. Our stays this time: We split between down at Galleria Park Hotel and North Beach at Hotel Boheme. Loved both.