Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Insider Tips: Take With A Grain Of Salt

Travel writers often offer useful and interesting information. Some of them are on shakier ground when they offer supposedly expert tips in regard to frequent flyer programs.

We just ran across an example of this, a USA Today column enticingly titled Frequent flier tips that only the pros know.

Here are three examples of seven tips offered, along with a couple of comments:

"Getting into business class lounges even if you're in economy class"

The columnist points out that if you're a member of one airline's lounge program, you have access to an affiliate airline lounge when traveling abroad. What doesn't he point out? You have to be about to travel on the ongoing flight of an airline that is a member of the same global alliance, e.g. Star Alliance.

"Getting elite status"

"But did you know that most airlines award elite status for life upon reaching the one million miles flown mark?"

Well, yes we did know that, and we've just accomplished it. Still, it strikes us that long before we'd flown that million miles we were well aware of that. Thanks though, for telling something we only learned 700,000 miles ago.

"Getting elite status faster"

"There are easier ways to achieve alliance-wide status if you are willing to collect miles in foreign programs. Aegean Airlines, for example, awards Star Alliance Gold elite status at a much lower threshold than many of its alliance partners..."

Yes, there are such possibilities. For example, we've known for years that we could have earned Star Gold status annually on Air Canada by flying only 35,000 miles rather than the 50,000 required by United, and assigning our Star Alliance miles to Air Canada.

On the other hand, if we'd done that we wouldn't have earned Million Mile status on United.

To be fair, there's useful information in this column. As usual, it's usually worth checking a couple of sources before flying that million miles or storming foreign airline lounges.

By the way, the funniest "tip" we've recently spotted was in the August 2009 issue of Consumer Reports. In a sidebar article, "When bargaining pays off," their "nationally representative survey" reports that 23% of respondents tried to negotiate cheaper airline fares. Of those, 78% claimed to be successful.

Oh yeah! Maybe we can get our own little bidding war going between United and Lufthansa.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Weekend Reading

After attending a terrific retirement party for four former teaching colleagues in Hope, B.C., we drove all the way back to Birch Bay last night and are catching up on a little travel reading this morning.

Want to find out about some nifty travel apps for your iPod that you can use offline? Read this.

A chef / restaurant owner discovers first class air travel and offers Confessions of a travel snob.

To test your own Schadenfreude meter, you can read about the Southwest pilot who went on a "trash talking" and "slur-filled rant" against flight attendants to his first officer during the flight.

Unfortunately for him, he'd pushed the wrong button and blocked the Air Traffic Control channel for several minutes with his diatribe.

He's been suspended and sent for "sensitivity training." Maybe after that he'll be able to get get dates with flight attendants.

Finally, for a pessimistic read, depending on your point of view, click here for an account of how "TSA conducts 8,000 unannounced security screenings every year," which may lead to your undergoing that invasive search at a bus terminal, a train station, or at a subway. Surprise!

In his most recent weekend column, The Travel Insider laments this development and draws a comparison.

"As I've observed before, the US is becoming more like the former USSR while Russia is becoming more like the former US. What's wrong with this picture?"

Friday, June 24, 2011

Sometimes Swedish People Drive Big Cars

For example, when they're visiting America and the car rental company provides an upgrade. Below is a GMC Yukon XL, one of the larger cars on the planet. As you see, it has British Columbia license plates.

Hanna and her family arranged to pick a car up in Bellingham, near us, and drop it off at the Vancouver Airport when they fly home. Avis is apparently so happy to have this SUV returned that they provided this free upgrade.

We hope they can keep smiling like this when it's time to fill the gas tank.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Building A Vertiginous Chinese Footpath

A few years ago we spent an amazing two days hiking with a guide around the Yellow Mountains, one of the most important sites in China.

The paths, steps, and walkways were at times downright scary, and sometimes we admit to wondering how many tourists they lost annually. Even more interesting, how do the Chinese build them? Well, among other factors they don't worry too much about those pesky safety regulations that we have.

For a better view, scan through the photo essay in the U.K. Telegraph that shows the building of a footpath around the vertiginous ("causing vertigo") slopes of Shifou Mountain.

Plant both feet firmly on the floor, take a deep breath, and click here.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

How Many Countries?

We just ran across this website, which allows us to click on a list of countries to come up with a html code that enables us to reproduce a map of the world, the red areas indicating the 72 countries it states we've visited.

visited 72 states (32%)
Create your own visited map of The World

If we use as our reference an atlas that only lists countries by political divisions, we've visited "only" 65*. If we rely on the Century Club's more extensive list, we've visited 82.

Of course, as we always say, who's counting?

*Antigua and Barbuda
Cape Verde
Costa Rica
Czech Republic
Dominican Republic
Korea, North
Korea, South
New Zealand
Russian Federation
Saint Kitts and Nevis
Saint Lucia
South Africa
Trinidad and Tobago
United Kingdom
United States
Vatican City

Saturday, June 18, 2011

It's Official: We're United Airlines Million Mile Flyers

We've earned our 1 Million Miles Rewards on UA. The envelope arrived in today's mail from UA. It's essentially a new 1K package and contains some drink certs, a replacement 1K card that adds Million Mile Flyer just below 1K, and a certificate of congratulations.

"It is our privilege to recognize you as one of the distinct few to reach 1 MILLION LIFETIME FLIGHT MILES. Thank you for your years of loyalty. We are honored that you have chosen to travel on United."

Very nice! Loyalty should run both ways so let's hope our upgrades on future flights continue to clear.

The Virtual Vacation

Scott Adams, the cartoonist who created Dilbert, comes up with the idea of a virtual vacation in the Wall Street Journal after spending some time underwater in a Costa Rican kayak.

If you applied some serious science to the field of vacations, could you design an experience with most of the benefits but at a lower cost and with fewer hassles?

An ethnic restaurant with "authentic" decor is a "virtual" experience, as is Chinatown in Vancouver or San Francisco. Maybe he's on to something.

You can read it all here.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Red Coats Are Coming - At Least in LAS

When he's not helping penguins march through a TSA metal detector, chasing a man in stilettos through baggage claim or gathering Christmas presents for stranded kids, Sam Torrence is doing something just as rare: helping confused and troubled travelers at the airport.

Mr. Torrence is one of 33 full-time "red coat" customer-service specialists employed by McCarran International Airport here, which sees about 40 million passengers come through every year.

Click here to read Scott McCartney's WSJ Middle Seat column, Lost in Vegas Airport? It's Your Lucky Day.

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Black Bears Of Whistler

On our way down the hill from Whistler's Olympic Park, we're fortunate to spot a couple of the 50-or-so black bears that hang out in the area, grazing on the hills in a strangely cow-like fashion, seemingly oblivious to the staring tourists.

Tourists spend money in the winter touring in vehicles equipped like this one.

But we're lucky enough to spot this fellow just around the first bend after leaving the ski jump area.

Down the road we stop to tell another tourist staring at the "bear warning" sign that he can see a bear up the road. He replies excitedly in a heavy German accent that he's just seen a "grizzly" down the road. Off we go. No, it's another black bear, a truly handsome fellow (black bears range in color from brown to black), and we stop to admire him.

We've seen them before, smaller ones even in our back yard when we lived in Hope, but it's still fun to observe them in this setting. It's also pleasing to think of the boost to Canadian tourism that will result when the German tells his friends back home about the Grizzlybären he saw on his trip to Canada.

The Whistler Ski Jumps

A view of the Whistler Olympic Park, and specifically the ski jumps, is well worth a 15-minute drive each way off the Sea-to-Sky Highway. They look ugly yet impressive - and definitely steep - stretched across the bare hill.

If you want to see a video of them in use during the 2009 World Cup, simply click here.

Whistler Village Wandering

Mountain bikers...


The Olympic Plaza...

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Seattle And Vancouver: Provenance And "Street Eats" In The News

To eat in and around Seattle "is to experience something that even many larger, more gastronomically celebrated cities and regions can’t offer, not to this degree: a profound and exhilarating sense of place."

So says a New York Times Op-Ed columnist and former restaurant critic in this piece.

Meanwhile, Vancouver is rapidly becoming well known for a new culinary trend: street cards offering a wide variety of cuisines. Being Vancouver, the carts had to be chosen first by lottery and subsequently by a government-appointed committee, but the results are that the city "estimates that by the time all of the new vendors are up and running, there will be nearly 100 food carts on Vancouver's streets."

You can read about it here.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Hotel Hopping At Whistler

Before driving down to Squamish, we check out of the Westin and move next door to the Hilton Whistler. A pleasant surprise: Our room is already ready and it turns out to be a double-upgrade. No, it's not a suite but it's a lovely room up on the seventh floor.

We enjoy good views from the balcony, including a nearly full moon on an unexpectedly clear evening closing in on the longest day of the year.

We decide to splurge and go out for dinner tonight. There are a lot of choices as we wander through Whistler Village, including some that we know are ridiculously expensive. Somebody recommends the 21 Steps, so we decide to give it a try.

Their menu features quite a range of dishes and two ongoing special offers. One can choose three "small plates" from the left side of the menu for a prix fixe of $25. An alternative choice is one "small plate" from the left side of the menu, one "large plate" from the right side, and one dessert from the dessert menu for $35. We go all out. Kathy chooses steamed mussels in a Thai sauce while Brian goes for scallops with masala. We both choose the baby back ribs as our "large plate." Then the dessert menu - oh my... Kathy goes for a blueberry crumble and Brian settles on a large Brownie, both topped with ice cream. Kathy can hardly eat more than a bite before pronouncing herself full. Brian manfully struggles on before surrendering. Even dessert is left to still feed two people.

The atmosphere is very Whistler-like, once you literally walk up the 21 steps to enter the restaurant, the service is professional, and, most important, the food was first rate. It's only after we return to our room that we find that both Trip Advisor and the New York Times / Frommers, among others, concur.

Not that our stomachs needed any reassurance. An expensive meal by our standards, but good value, and the end of a good day.

As Good As It Can Be

The weather has improved Saturday. Every so often the sun is close to peeking out from behind the clouds. An occasion today is the reason we've come to Whistler this weekend.

We drive down to a cemetery just north of Squamish to attend a memorial service for a lovely woman we've known for years, the wife of Kathy's former principal and Brian's colleague.

It's a lovely service. The minister who came to know Leslie in the hospice speaks informally but movingly about her. Three of her granddaughters bravely read through the tributes they've prepared. Leslie's son speaks on behalf of the family. There are tears and laughter.

We then go to their daughter's house nearby and enjoy mingling with former colleagues, many of whom we haven't seen in more than ten years. The family provides gracious hospitality, and everybody most certainly must depart as we do with good memories. More than once, somebody says, "It's too bad we have to meet at an occasion like this..." And, as well, "Leslie would have enjoyed it."

It was as good as such an occasion can be.

A Quick Trip To Whistler

Whistler has certainly boomed further since our last visit a few years ago. The rumors are that they held some kind of winter event here last year.

We crossed into Canada at the Peace Arch Friday morning without any wait whatsoever. The woman at the Immigration booth asked us where we were staying in Whistler. When we told her one night at the Westin and one night at the Hilton, she immediately demanded to know why we were doing that.

Knowing us, a detailed explanation followed, involving hotel programs, points, and free stays. She laughed and replied "All I have is a Best Western card," and waved us through.

Our GPS guided us through New Westminster, in Burnaby, and onto Highway 1, which eventually becomes Highway 99 North. The Sea-to-Sky Highway is considerably improved since our last trip - thank you, Canadian taxpayers - and it was quite a pleasant drive all the way, with great views despite the clouds.

It started to rain not too long after we arrived mid-afternoon so we limited ourselves to walking around the village and hanging out in our one-bedroom suite, another pleasing upgrade in return for our bargain rate, at the Westin.

Even on a cloudy day there are good views from our balcony.

Between British Columbia's 12% HST (Harmonized Sales Tax) and the current exchange rate, it was a good night to take advantage of our kitchenette by dining in.

Friday, June 10, 2011

A Cure For Jet Lag: Watching Gymnastics

We're back in the Seattle area, we've had a good sleep in a hotel, and now we have a special treat: watching granddaughter Avery participate in a gymnastics meet.

Most of the time Avery's spinning too fast up there for our little camera to catch her.

Let's take a look at her floor exercise.

Now it's awards time and Avery picks up a bunch of ribbons. Congratulations!

Nama is very proud of her!

En Route: Greenland From 38,000 Feet

Almost before we know it (well, not really), we've flown to London via San Francisco, and spent the night at the Sheraton LHR, traveling between airport and hotel on one of the free buses, rather than spending several pounds on the "Hotel Hoppa."

We're now flying on a lovely Air Canada 777, in the best economy seats we've probably ever experienced, bulkhead first row, with enough legroom that we set up one of our roll-aboards as a footrest for this daytime flight.

Good seats, surprisingly decent meal service, and great views of Greenland as the captain has announced - flying doesn't get much better than this.

Now we fast forward to our YVR-SEA flight. We're flying over the Gulf / San Juan Islands in a Dash-8 at well under 10,000 feet. You can just make out Active Pass and a B.C. Ferry below if you look closely. We're nearly home.

Sydney Four Points: The Harbour Looks Darling From Our Balcony

Oz Fest #8 has finally come to an end. We've flown back to Sydney Monday on another decent Qantas flight, only to discover that the weather has changed from our first visit the previous week.

Australia is heading into winter, and the weather here is a lot like home.

This time we're staying in "Australia's largest hotel," the Four Points by Sheraton Sydney, Darling Harbour. Our Platinum status gets us a nice suite with a Harbour view, where we entertain four of our friends before going to dinner with them at the Kiroran Silk Road Uighur Restaurant.

The view overlooking Darling Harbour is splendid from our balcony, even in cloudy and rainy weather, and it's a fine spot to reflect on another great trip to Australia. This two-night break after our 1960 miles of flying DRW-SYD prepares us to fly another 17607 miles starting tomorrow: SYD-SFO-LHR-YVR-SEA. We're even overnighting at LHR, so what's the big deal about flying 19,567 miles among three continents in six days?