Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Money Is The Root Of All Service Charges

Service charges for ATM withdrawals and credit cards are one way that banks snag the traveling customer literally coming and going. It's the subject of a lot of discussion and analysis among travelers.

A lot of things are simpler since we first started to travel and Travelers Cheques were the way to go. That doesn't mean it's gotten cheaper though.

We've been using ATMs and paying cash while outside the country whenever possible. Our Wells Fargo checking account formerly allowed us to make unlimited withdrawals from foreign ATMs without incurring their nasty $5 fee. They've whittled that number down to two per monthly period. We thereafter pay $5 plus a 3% commission per withdrawal. In other words, it's going to cost you an annoying $20 to withdraw $500.

Since our current credit cards, like most, add 3% or so in charges for foreign transactions (and one can only trust that the actual exchange rate itself is fair), we decided to get ourselves a Capital One credit card, which touts the fact that it doesn't charge foreign transaction fees.

We're looking forward to giving our new Capital One card a test drive, perhaps on our next trip to British Columbia, and checking the rate against our go-to currency exchange site,XE.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

How To Use Trip Advisor

A recent article in USA Today, "How can you tell which TripAdvisor reviews to trust?", offers some of the same specific strategies that we use when checking out hotels and restaurants on "the world's most popular travel site."

We do look for places that are high in the ratings but we don't worry too much about who's in the Number 1 spot. Some of the rankings are hard to fathom but the article claims that they're based at least in part on the number of recent reviews.

A visit to any establishment with fewer than 10-20 reviews is a complete risk that may pay off... or not. We throw out the highest and lowest reviews, and we look for general themes in the contents, whether positive or negative.

One point the article doesn't mention: Maybe it's because we're retired teachers, but any review that's poorly written or full of spelling errors loses credibility with us. For the same reason, when writing the very occasional review ourselves, we proof read to make sure we're not making any obvious misteaks.

Whenever possible, we'll also check out other sites for reviews and comments, but there's no question that "40 million reviews and opinions, most of them directed at 450,000 lodgings worldwide," leads us to peruse TA regularly.

Incidentally, A British outfit is threatening to sue TA for "defamatory comments" on behalf of a number of tourist establishments and it will certainly be interesting to see how that unfolds.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving

November 25 in Issaquah with a bunch of of children and adults, grandson Blane posing next to the 24-pound turkey, and a great meal for everyone...

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Another Inside Day

The sun is shining on the snow and it continues to be well below freezing in our little corner of the world.

Thanks to a link provided by The Travel Insider, we can get some vicarious fresh air in a warmer location by watching an engineer climb a 1700-foot-tall tower,with a view through his helmet-cam video.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

A Snow And Screening Day

We're back from our quick assistant-babysitting gig in Issaquah and enjoying sitting inside viewing a chilly outdoors bathed in a light skiff of snow. The temperature is right around the freezing point.

We're spending a lot of Internet time between making reservations for future trips and following (and contributing to) the ongoing debate on the FlyerTalk Travel Safety/Security Forum about the TSA's new enhanced* screening techniques at airport security check points. The vast majority of frequent fliers oppose the new procedures that may require you to stand in a new X-Ray machine, the safety of which is still not proven, or to submit to an unpleasantly thorough pat-down or "frisk." In some instances, you might go through the back-scatter X-Ray machine and still be required to submit to the frisk. Not exactly the Friendly Skies we'd imagined.

The TSA bureaucrats are sounding a slight note of retreat as of Sunday afternoon. This has been precipitated by a variety of unpleasant videos and personal accounts of experiences at TSA check points.

You can watch a disturbing video of a young boy being checked out here, for example. You can also view it on Drudge Report or in any one of a number of other news and opinion sites. The video itself may be a year old, and there might even be extenuating circumstances. The fact is, however, that perception is reality. We think and hope the politicians will start to retreat on this, leaving their appointees on their own to eventually follow.

We'll just have to await the results. We're happy that we're not scheduled to fly for awhile, and we don't usually feel that way.

*Whenever anybody connected with the travel industry uses the word enhanced, bet on it being something negative.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

"Enhanced" TSA Screening Procedures Explained

Sometimes many a truth is best said in jest...

[warning - not safe for children or grandchildren]

TSA Enhanced Screening Procedures Explained

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


In between cleaning up around the house and yard - Kathy's citrus grove is now sitting in the living room for the winter - we're monitoring the righteous furor in the travel community over the TSA's demand that those wishing to fly submit either to an X-Ray machine, the safety of which is debated by experts, or an invasive body search. The FlyerTalk Travel Safety/Security Forum alone has been buzzing for days.

Time to breathe deeply, forget about politicians and what some of us refer to as Security Theater. Time to get out a few photos. Ahhhh....

The rail-side barbers in the Bangkok train station...

Squeezing into our Sunny for a tour of the ancient Thai capital of Ayuthaya...

Lining up a shot for the blog...

Admiring gilded Buddhas...

And there's always time to admire beautifully displayed food...

That's better...

Monday, November 15, 2010

Ranking America's Airports From First To Worst

We notice in this ranking that SEA, our "home" airport, is No. 2.

We also notice that we've flown out of all but 5 of the 28 airports in the survey. Those 5 are:

#3 Cincinnati (CVG)

#8 Charlotte/Douglas (CLT)

#12 Detroit (DTW)

#20 Chicago Midway (MDW)

#22 Philadelphia (PHL)

You can find a gallery here.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

National Opt-Out Day

Our interests here are travel, not politics, yet the decisions of politicians and civil servants have led to a multitude of stories in the news media about the reaction to the "whole-body imaging scanners" coming into use at TSA checkpoints.

While one currently has the right to "opt out" of the radiation scanner, one then has to submit to a rather invasive personal frisk.

We've written about this issue here and here.

While we don't expect to be in an airport Wednesday, November 24, we'll be watching with interest as National Opt-Out Day occurs.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Home Again

We finally took off from SFO around 7:30 p.m. We'd found a good rate at the Renton Hilton Garden Inn where we'd left our car, and we're now leaving for home after a surprisingly restful night's sleep there.

Maybe that four days on Hawaiian time straightened out our biological clocks, or maybe the the one-day-per-time-zone has finally cured our jet lag.

Either way it's nice to feel fully rested and full of energy again.

Friday, November 12, 2010

TSA Profiling And Affirmative Action

Our loyal readers know that we're no fans of the excessive TSA security procedures that, among other results, make boarding a plane in the USA a less pleasant than in any country we've visited.

We're hoping that a tipping-point has been reached, and that the public-at-large will revolt against the most recently implemented Hobbson's choice, that of submitting one's self to an X-Ray scanner, the safety of which some scientists question, or submitting to a search similar to what a visitor to a prison might undergo.

Without going all political, you can read a recent irony here
in a press release issued by the Council for American-Islamic Relations:

Special recommendations for Muslim women who wear hijab:

* If you are selected for secondary screening after you go through the metal detector and it does not go off, and "sss" is not written on your boarding pass, ask the TSA officer if the reason you are being selected is because of your head scarf.
* In this situation, you may be asked to submit to a pat-down or to go through a full body scanner. If you are selected for the scanner, you may ask to go through a pat-down instead.
* Before you are patted down, you should remind the TSA officer that they are only supposed to pat down the area in question, in this scenario, your head and neck. They SHOULD NOT subject you to a full-body or partial-body pat-down.
* You may ask to be taken to a private room for the pat-down procedure.
* Instead of the pat-down, you can always request to pat down your own scarf, including head and neck area, and have the officers perform a chemical swipe of your hands.
* If you encounter any issues, ask to speak to a supervisor immediately. They are there to assist you.

In other words, if you're "wearing hijab" you're supposedly excused from the groping-type search. Gee, isn't that a kind of profiling?

Ironies abound.

Extra Time To Relax In The SFO RCC

The title reflects the glass-is-half-full philosophy.

After a 4:30 a.m. pickup at the hotel this morning we arrived at the door of the HNL RCC at 5:20 a.m., far earlier than we needed to.

Our HNL-SFO flight in F was quite pleasant, and we both snoozed for a bit.

UA's Easy Update let us know that our flight to SEA is delayed by about an hour and won't be departing until 6:40 p.m. That could make for a late drive home, but we'll see how we hold up.

In the meantime, it's a good day to be a member of the Red Carpet Club.

Update: Not surprisingly, a subsequent message informs us the flight will now depart at 6:55 p.m. These staggered messages are fairly common and, believe it or not, airlines have some reasons for them other than to annoy passengers who are hanging around a gate. Still, we're comfy here and are about to sample our first glass of "free" RCC house wine under the new policy.

Update: Oops, make that 7:05 p.m. now. it's always problematical when it's due to incoming aircraft.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Sheraton Princess Kaiulani: Suite Dreams

We wandered around Waikiki with Bill and Sue this morning. We've also spent some time sitting out on our balcony and enjoying the sights and sounds. Our room is on the corner of the top floor so we have a lot to see.

Kathy of course has to spend a little time indoors keeping up with travel planning on our netbook.

The view from our large balcony is tempting though.

Bill and Sue are in the identical location one floor below us, with the same view, but it's enjoyable to share it.

This evening we decided to try out Me's Bar-B-Que, a little Korean joint less than two blocks away that gets glowing reviews from Trip Advisor. T.A. was right as it is more often than not. Me's is almost literally a hole-in-the-wall, serving up large quantities of food in styrofoam boxes. We found a table outside and ate until we could no more. Cheap and tasty and a nice way to close out a leisurely day.

The Sheraton Princess Kaiulani: Creation - A Polynesian Journey

Since our friends Bill and Sue are visiting Hawaii for the first time, the question of dinner shows and luaus arises. We've attended one or two and can't get terribly excited about them but we'd read good things about Creation here at the Sheraton Princess Kaiulani.

When we found out that guests receive 25% off the dinner show we decided to give it a try and we're glad we did.

Somehow or other, holding Platinum status with Starwood (a match with our Hilton status) got us reserved seats in the center, although at the back of the fairly shallow room, and a lei greeting. The buffet was surprisingly good, although the free Mai Tai was as watery as we anticipated (draft beer is another option), and the show itself was absolutely spectacular. The grand finale was a fire dance that was incredible.

The hour-long show flew by quickly and we'd recommend it to anybody wanting to see a fast-paced show with great sound, exciting visual effects, and terrific dancing and singing.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Above The Volcanoes SEA-DEN-HNL

Today was a generally fine day for flying other than a few bumps here and there. As we flew out of SEA we caught a spectacular view of Mt. Rainier peeking through the top of the clouds as we flew partway around it on our way to DEN.

Later today, we glimpsed a volcano crater in one of the Hawaiian Islands, quite a contrast in settings, as we approached HNL.

Finally, we met our friends Bill and Sue at the Sheraton Princess Kaiulani and Bill snapped a quick photo of the two of us out on the balcony not quite blocking out a beautiful sunset over the Pacific.

We wandered around a bit and eventually settled on eating dinner in Duke's Restaurant & Canoe Club. It was a reasonable choice and made for a pleasant evening with Bill and Sue.

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Longest Distance Between Two Points

In other words, why fly from SEA to HNL via DEN, do you ask?


One three-year-old granddaughter's repeated cross-examination on the phone the other day, "Why were you riding those elephants," is harder to answer.

Let's put it this way:

SEA-HNL 2670 Miles (UA doesn't fly that route in any case)

SEA-SFO-HNL 3068 Miles

SEA-LAX-HNL 3504 Miles

SEA-DEN-HNL 4380 Miles

Any more questions?

Flying all the way in F while sipping the Mai Tais UA features on that route adds a lovely fringe benefit.

In fact, it's habit forming.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

SEA-DEN-HNL: The Night Before

The weather was mixed as we drove from Birch Bay to Renton this afternoon, with sunglasses one moment and windshield wipers the next.

We checked in at the Renton Hilton Garden Inn on a good park-and-fly rate,and then drove over to Grazie, our favorite SouthCenter strip mall restaurant. It never ceases to impress how they've managed to use screens to turn a small and narrow room into something pleasant in the European style. We chose green salad, pasta, and a glass of the house red wine.

It would still get a good review from us like these reviews (except for one), but it didn't seem quite up to its usual standard; nonetheless, we enjoyed our dinner.

When we came out it was really raining and we're just as happy not to be out on I-5. We'll try to remind ourselves in the morning that our 5:00 a.m. wakeup call is really 6:00 a.m. but our bodies are still confused about what time it is and it'll be interesting to see how much napping we do on our flights.

United 0386 SEA 07:07 AM arr. DEN 10:55 AM
United 0043 DEN 11:54 AM arr. HNL 04:32 PM

The Old Desynchronosis Blues

We've been home about a week now and still suffering from desynchronosis. Being 14 hours ahead in Thailand for 2 1/2 weeks leaves us with one more week to adjust, using the rule of thumb of one day per hour of time zone difference. Flying west to east doesn't help either, yet now it's nearly time to confuse our bodies some more.

Having "fallen back" to Standard Time this morning, we're packing up for a quick trip to Honolulu. Since Hawaii doesn't observe Daylight Saving Time, we'll be flying east to west to a time zone only two hours behind us.

As a consequence, we'll spend the coming Tuesday through Friday in a time zone 17 hours behind Bangkok before flying back to the future.

Since we'll be spending some time with our Aussie friends Bill and Sue, who will have just arrived from Oz, we may at least be able to synchronize our Circadian rhythms with theirs.

It may just be time for an all-night Spades tournament.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

One Last Cruise Down The River

The Chao Praya River is still high, even though the worst of Thailand's 2010 flooding is over. The river itself is a significant transportation artery, although "only" 231 miles long. Its source is the confluence of the Ping and Nan Rivers and its mouth lies in the Gulf of Thailand.

A previous guest in the Millenium Hilton made and posted this time-lapse video capturing the river's hypnotic spell.

As for us, we're grateful for this final cruise, we're thrilled we returned to Thailand, this time with Tom and Ellyn, and we feel fortunate to have spent time among the wonderful people of this beautiful country.

As we land at the Hilton dock for the last time, we see a fisherman who's just caught a fish. He's proud of his catch, we're happy for him, and the river rolls on.

To Market To Market

Today is our final day in Thailand and we still have a few Baht left over after paying for that expensive dinner last night. Let's blow it with a late-morning cruise through the klongs to the Taling Chan Floating Market , followed by a ride on the MRT to the Chatuchak Weekend Market.

As we cruise toward the floating market in our long-tail boat, it strucks us how high the water is. More than once we see people standing or sitting in pools of water.

Eventually we arrive at the floating market. What a great place to wander through. Anybody for a Mr. Dum Chinose Chive?

From the Floating Market to the Chatuchak Market, where we stop in at the Arm & Rung Shop to buy some mobiles, and wander around this huge complex of stalls, enjoying our final few hours in Bangkok.