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.