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.