Saturday, March 31, 2012

A Rainy Trans-Border Weekend

We'll be on our way up to B.C. in awhile to visit a couple of grand kids and their parents in Chilliwack.

Other than that, it appears to an "inside day."

Friday, March 30, 2012

Why You Can't Buy A Big Mac at SEA

The members of the Seattle Port Commission voted to "table" the proposal, meaning that you won't have the opportunity to put a Big Mac on your own little table in SEA for the indefinite future.

Read all about it in the Seattle Times...

Food fight at Sea-Tac 'a bunch of bologna'?

Updated: And a proof-reading daughter writes that the word in that headline should have read "Baloney." Indeed.

A Shoe In The Room Safe?

A shoe in the room safe? What's that all about?

It's probably the single most creative idea in Scott McCartney's most recent Middle Seat column in the Wall Street Journal. We've used variations of it. The trick is to think of an object that you'll never forget before checking out of your room, yet small enough to fit in the safe.

25 Ways to Make Travel Easier, Starting With a Single Shoe

Airport Security - Bruce Schneier's View

Bruce Schneier is a security expert best known for being strongly opposed to most, if not all, of the current state of airport security, as implemented by the Transportation Security Administration, or TSA.

He recently debated former TSA Administrator Kip Hawley on the website of the Economist. His closing statement is well worth reading.

...Kip Hawley doesn’t argue with the specifics of my criticisms, but instead provides anecdotes and asks us to trust that airport security—and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) in particular—knows what it’s doing.

He wants us to trust that a 400-ml bottle of liquid is dangerous, but transferring it to four 100-ml bottles magically makes it safe. He wants us to trust that the butter knives given to first-class passengers are nevertheless too dangerous to be taken through a security checkpoint. He wants us to trust the no-fly list: 21,000 people so dangerous they’re not allowed to fly, yet so innocent they can’t be arrested. He wants us to trust that the deployment of expensive full-body scanners has nothing to do with the fact that the former secretary of homeland security, Michael Chertoff, lobbies for one of the companies that makes them. He wants us to trust that there’s a reason to confiscate a cupcake (Las Vegas), a 3-inch plastic toy gun (London Gatwick), a purse with an embroidered gun on it (Norfolk, VA), a T-shirt with a picture of a gun on it (London Heathrow) and a plastic lightsaber that’s really a flashlight with a long cone on top (Dallas/Fort Worth)...

...The humiliation, the dehumanisation and the privacy violations are also harms. That Mr Hawley dismisses these as mere “costs in convenience” demonstrates how out-of-touch the TSA is from the people it claims to be protecting. Additionally, there’s actual physical harm: the radiation from full-body scanners still not publicly tested for safety; and the mental harm suffered by both abuse survivors and children: the things screeners tell them as they touch their bodies are uncomfortably similar to what child molesters say...

In 2004, the average extra waiting time due to TSA procedures was 19.5 minutes per person. That’s a total economic loss—in –America—of $10 billion per year, more than the TSA’s entire budget. The increased automobile deaths due to people deciding to drive instead of fly is 500 per year. Both of these numbers are for America only, and by themselves demonstrate that post-9/11 airport security has done more harm than good.

The current TSA measures create an even greater harm: loss of liberty. Airports are effectively rights-free zones. Security officers have enormous power over you as a passenger. You have limited rights to refuse a search. Your possessions can be confiscated. You cannot make jokes, or wear clothing, that airport security does not approve of. You cannot travel anonymously. (Remember when we would mock Soviet-style “show me your papers” societies? That we’ve become inured to the very practice is a harm.) And if you’re on a certain secret list, you cannot fly, and you enter a Kafkaesque world where you cannot face your accuser, protest your innocence, clear your name, or even get confirmation from the government that someone, somewhere, has judged you guilty. These police powers would be illegal anywhere but in an airport, and we are all harmed—individually and collectively—by their existence...
You can read it all here.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

The New Airline Era: Cash Trumps "Loyalty"

Does that title sound cynical? Color us cynical, then, after watching what our carrier of choice over the past decade, United Airlines, is doing.

Basically, it appears obvious that United is deliberately moving to a model in which what you're paying for today's flight is more important than the amount of business you've given the airline over the past X years. A lot of discussion has been going on about this for some time among frequent fliers.

Whether it's post-merger problems or a deliberate effort (we suspect the latter) quite some number of FlyerTalk members have even claimed that customers with no status on United are being offered the opportunity to "buy up" to First Class, and that sometimes customers with elite status aren't offered the same opportunity.

Even the person who flies only once a year may notice the same "everything's-for-sale" effect.

Here's one example: After checking out Seat Guru, you decide that you'd like to pick out a better seat than that back-row middle across from the lavatory.

A recent column in USA Today asks the question: Are airlines withholding seats so you'll pay a premium?

We think we already know the answer, but read the article and decide for yourself.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Legal Beagles At The Airport

Waiting at the baggage carousel for our - ugh - checked bags in the international area at Washington-Dulles (IAD) last week, we watched a cute little beagle and his ICE handler, like the one profiled in this article in USA Today, wander around sniffing suitcases.

He had one positive "hit" just in the few minutes we were standing there, and his female handler took the traveler's Customs Declaration Form and scribbled something on it.

We've seen them before but it was fun to run across the article and learn a little bit more about it.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Trains On The Brain

We're in the midst of converting our large bedroom / laundry room into two rooms, a bedroom and a laundry room.

To keep us motivated, we're already thinking about the second week of April, when six of us climb aboard the first of three Amtrak trains for a ride across much of the U.S., stretching from Seattle to Sacramento to Chicago to New Orleans.

We're taking the Coast Starlight from Seattle to Sacramento, including an overnight in our own bedroom.

We then hop on the California Zephyr and ride all the way to Chicago, including two nights in a bedroom.

After that we're ridin' on the City of New Orleans, just like Arlo Guthrie. Supposedly the dining is better, but we're taking this trip for the adventure, a common theme among Trip Advisor reviewers.

This is the deal we wrote about awhile ago. We're riding several thousand miles, have six nights in a bedroom with all meals included, all for 30,000 airline miles per couple.

Woo Woo!

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Enjoying Hilton's New Upgrade Policy

Let's face it: Nobody staying in a hotel really needs a suite, or even a fancy room. Having said that, we really enjoyed hitting the jackpot on our recent European trip when all but one of the hotels we stayed in upgraded us.

Hilton recently changed its policy to become more competitive with Starwood (Sheraton) and now states:

Diamond HHonors guests will receive upgrades to preferred rooms, based on availability for the entire stay at the time of check-in. Upgrades for Diamond HHonors guests may include the next-best available room from the room type booked. Upgrades may also be rooms with desirable views, corner rooms, rooms on high floors, rooms with special amenities, rooms on Executive Floors**, or suites, as identified by each property. Some exclusions based on rate and room type may apply.

As a consequence, we enjoyed being thoroughly spoiled with significantly enhanced lodgings at the Hilton Vienna Plaza, Hilton Budapest WestEnd, Hilton Budapest, Bratislava Doubletree, and the Zurich Airport Hilton.

Starwood also looked after us. We were also treated magnificently both times at the Sheraton Bratislava, the second stay with an amazing top-floor suite.

Our only slightly disappointing experience was at the Hilton Vienna (Stadtpark), where we not only were given a basic small room, but, of far greater concern, one that was far too warm.

Vienna was enjoying unseasonably warm and sunny weather in mid-March that we enjoyed during the day but suffered through the first night since the hotel's air conditioning hadn't been turned on.

A helpful young Executive Lounge manager toured us around several rooms the second afternoon (she empathized because the lounge itself - one floor up and facing the same afternoon sun as our room - was also far too warm), and we bypassed two suites to choose a room on the other side of the hotel that was at least passably less warm.

That room, although not a suite, was a significant upgrade from our first basic room, and we raise our eyebrows at the thought that an "upgraded" room hadn't been available the previous night. Still, it's possible but we're left with the impression that every other hotel was trying harder to comply with Hilton's new policy.

Finally, in the great scheme of things, if that was the "worst" hotel night of our entire trip, we don't have much to complain about at all.

In fact, it was all fantastic.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Home Sweet Sehome

It's a sunny day in Birch Bay so we have no excuse not to some work. We opened the mail held at the post office - a suspiciously small pile this time - and we have catching up to do. We slept quite well the past two nights, despite hitting the pillow in our Seattle hotel the night before last at midnight, or 8:00 a.m. European time.

Without going into all of the details, it's clear that the new merged United Airlines is experiencing a lot of problems as they formally merge operations with Continental. It basically appears to us (and many others) that the smaller airline, CO, has taken over the larger, UA, and they're floundering.

One consequence for us that the miles for most of our flights haven't been posting since late January. According to FlyerTalk, that's a very common problem.

No news may be good news for UA, but for the moment a lot of customers are being inconvenienced in a variety of ways, and some very dedicated employees are very stressed as they quickly try to learn the CO computer system, one that many of them is significantly inferior to the one they used for years at UA.

We're happy not to be in the airline business, other than as customers.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

It's Raining - This Must Be Seattle

Three good flights, a decent night of sleep, and up for breakfast before driving back to Birch Bay. As always, it'll be nice to be back home.

Even if there's mixed rain and snow predicted for tomorrow, we see lots of blue sky out our hotel window this morning.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

One More Flight To Go

A fine flight ZRH-IAD with good service and time to sleep for a couple of hours.

We boarded IAD-ORD and then sat for some time as weather was channeling flights restrictively. Despite the delay, we've landed in Chicago in good time and have a few minutes to relax before boarding our final flight of the day ORD-SEA.

We'll be arriving quite late, and waiting at the baggage carousel for our checked bags - that broken roll-aboard handle made checking a logical move - and it'll be nice to fall into bed at the Doubletree at close to Midnight local time.

Common Sense At Zurich Airport

We're now in the SwissAir Lounge waiting to board our flight in about half an hour.

United e-mailed us boarding passes, even though we hadn't requested them, yet another of many glitches in their system.

At the counter this morning it took the diligent SwissAir agent, working with a reference manual, colleagues, and a supervisor, simply to seat us together on the second flight, for which the plane had been downgraded from a 767 to a smaller 757. This is, of course, a United station so we weren't asking for anything out of the ordinary.

It's obvious how frustrated the front-line employees are. One other little vignette...

Just after we passed through the very civilized check point with our shoes on, we noticed, while putting our items away, that a security employee was holding a Swiss Army pen knife that she'd removed from the carry-on bag of an elderly couple. She spoke to them quietly for a few moments and then returned the knife to their bag.

We're guessing she was warning them that it could have been confiscated. No, we won't be worried if this couple and their pen knife are on our flight. It's sad we have to travel abroad to see common sense employed at airport security check points.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Zurich Airport Hilton

A decent flight on Swiss Airlines, complete with a snack and beverage service for 60 minutes in the air.

We checked our bags (we'll just concentrate on getting the roll-aboard with the broken handle home before discarding it) and we had quite a wait at the baggage carousel, along with about five other flights. We don't know if they're trying to save energy on running the carousels or what.

We caught the free shuttle to the Hilton without any problem. They've upgraded us to a junior suite and there was a lovely fruit and chocolate plate awaiting us in our room.

It's a rainy and dreary day around the airport. Looking out our window reinforced our plan just to stick around.

We spent some time in the lounge eating enough tasty appetizers (including soup) to call it dinner. Now it's time to go to bed, as we face about 19 hours of flying starting tomorrow morning: ZRH-IAD-ORD-SEA.

The airline merger is creating some problems - not all that surprising - and we'll consider ourselves fortunate if we don't end up in the kind of ugly situation described by a member of FlyerTalk here.

VIE Austrian Senator Lounge

We checked out of our hotel, caught the Schnellbahn across the lane to the Vienna Airport (at a cost of 1.80 Euros each because it was an "add-on" to our unexpired 48-hour pass - on the way in cost us 3.60 Euros each) and arrived at the airport in 30 minutes.

Our total ground transportation costs for this trip wouldn't be much more than $80. That would include one 10-Euro taxi ride in Bratislava from the railway station to the hotel (still a rip-off but less than the 18 Euros quoted by another driver), and three multi-day rapid transit passes in Budapest, Bratislava, and Vienna, along with the odd single ticket.

We're pleased with that, and as we see tourists lining up buy the very expensive CAT Train tickets that run between the airport and Vienna, we're tempted to run up and show them a cheaper way to get to the city. It pays to do one's research.

This is a good lounge, with free Vienna Airport Internet available. If we hadn't enjoyed a buffet breakfast at the Hilton only a couple of hours ago, we'd be tempted by the tasty dishes available here, but we'll try to maintain some will power in anticipation of a vegetable-soup diet for a few days once we've returned home.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Morning, Noon And Night In Vienna

No, not Franz von Suppe's overture of that name, but our day in Vienna. Unlike the overture, it was low-key, but still terrific.

After a leisurely buffet breakfast at the Hilton, we complained to the powers-that-be about our overheated room and then decided to go out and enjoy the city. We basically wandered around, on foot, by Strassenbahn, and by U-Bahn for several hours.

Most of Vienna had the same idea today. Vienna is one of the great strolling cities in the world.


Some tourist at some point (a stereotypical American, no doubt) must have confused Austria with Australia, since these shirts are available for sale...

We had to take a few photos of the huge equestrian statue of Archduke Charles by Anton Dominik Fernkorn, one of the few in the world in which the horse is balanced on two legs.

Eventually we returned to the Hilton, where our room was still too hot. We spoke to a charming young lounge manager, Julia, who readily admitted that the air conditioning hadn't been turned on in the hotel. There's no question that it's as unseasonably warm here as it is unseasonably cold back home in Birch Bay.

Julia took us on a tour of several different rooms. The first two, including a rather magnificent corner suite, were just as warm as our original room. She finally found us a pleasant room up on the 15th floor, facing the opposite way and away from the afternoon sun, that is definitely cooler than our own.

As an apology, she sent us a lovely little tray of desserts - no hard feelings on our part. We didn't bother eating in any restaurant today - we've been eating too much as is.

Tonight we enjoyed appetizers in the lounge along with some Austrian wine. We also chatted with a young American couple accompanied by their three-month-old daughter. Dad has business in Europe and Mom flew over with the baby to meet him for a week, leaving their five-year-old twin daughters at home with grandparents.

Seeing that cute little baby, and sharing stories about twin sisters, made us look forward to returning home.

As night falls here, we think we'll be able to sleep better tonight. Tomorrow we plan to check out around noon, and take the Schnellbahn to the airport from the U-Bahn station next door to the hotel. From there we fly to Zurich for an overnight stop before flying home the following day.

Morning In Vienna

We're off to wander around Vienna on foot and via public transit. This is our last full day in Europe and the weather is co-operating better here than back home in not-so-sunny Birch Bay.

Before we leave, we'll request an electric fan for our room. Our windows face the afternoon sun, only one window opens (just a crack), the air conditioning is clearly not turned on, and the warmth of the room last night was annoying. We've been fortunate in all of our other hotel rooms this trip to have windows that open and help us to keep the room as cool as we like it for sleeping.

We may revisit the Gulaschmuseum. Since we've just finished a hearty buffet breakfast in the Hilton restaurant, we'll have to do some serious walking to feel we've earned that treat.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Vienna And Grinzing

We arrived in Vienna and checked in at the correct Hilton on our second try, Kathy having switched reservations as prices fluctuated.

Fortunately, we bought a 48-hour transit pass as soon as we exited the Bratislava-Vienna train so we can ride back and forth as much as want until Monday afternoon.

Vienna has more than its share of the most magnificent buildings in the world.

Here's Kathy sitting on the same steps at the University of Vienna as she used to sit on back in 1967-68 while doing some last-minute cramming for exams.

Thoughts of ancient homework aside, before we knew it, we were on our way out to Grinzing, the famous wine district on the outskirts of Vienna.

It must still be a good neighborhood. As poor as their country is, the Namibians are building a new embassy (or embassy residence) here.

We checked out the heurigers that were open. When we saw one swallow up a busload of Asian tourists, we headed in the other direction, eventually finding a place that provided a gemütlich evening.

No surprise - we ordered Weiner Schnitzel with a side of kraut.

A violinist and an accordionist circulated among a few locations. Twice while we were there, Viennese diners contributed their own singing. Here's a small example...

Yes, Grinzing is touristy and there are other places to go (Nussdorf is one promising alternative), but we still enjoyed a great evening here.

The Hilton Vienna: So-So

We'll admit we've been spoiled by being upgraded to suites up until now at every Hilton location up to now on our current European trip - Vienna Plaza, Budapest WestEnd, Budapest Plaza, Doubletree Bratislava.

We checked in at the Hilton Vienna and we got... a room.

It'll do.

Updated: Actually, it didn't. Unseasonably warm and sunny weather, coupled with the air conditioning not being turned on in mid-March, made the room unbearable the first night. The hotel was kind enough to help us find a tolerable room for our second night.

Vienna Bound On A Sunny Saturday

We're packing up and planning to take the bus to the train station in a few minutes.

We've enjoyed Bratislava thoroughly and now we're looking forward to a day and a half in Vienna before flying to Zurich.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Bratislava: Our Final Night In the Sheraton Lounge

We greatly enjoyed tonight's double-bill of operas, Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci at the Slovak National Theatre.

During the intermission between the operas, we had time to walk back across the square to the Sheraton, take the elevator up one floor, and enjoy a quick glass of wine in the Club Lounge. Talk about efficiency...

After the opera, we returned to the lounge for a glass of wine and some "snacks," actually a tasty pasta dish and some Asian-style tidbits with chili sauce. We also chatted with Renata, yet another of the lovely young employees. What a great team this hotel has.

We're going to miss the Bratislava Sheraton. It's now on very "very favorite" list. Among other things, it has to be the very best hotel in the world for opera fans. We hope to return.

Bratislava Lunches

What with the opera starting at 7:00 p.m., we decided to eat at unfashionable times. Yesterday there was an attractive two-course special in the Sheraton Restaurant but it had sold out by the time we arrived.

We ventured across the square to try Al Faro, and enjoyed an early dinner that was tasty and reasonably priced.

We decided on a late lunch rather than an early dinner today, after hiking around Devin Castle. This time the Sheraton Restaurant special of the day was still available: minnestrone soup and grilled salmon on risotto.

It was excellent and a bargain at 8.50 Euros each, including a generous bread basket with four varieties of tapenade, and a bottle of still water.

It's almost time to get dressed for the opera. Tonight it's "Cav" and "Pag", the deathly operas of passion, jealousy, and murder that are often performed as a twin bill.

We took a quick photo of the theatre from our balcony last night just before walking over there. What a venue it is.

We're almost melancholy to realize that this is our final opera in Bratislava on this trip. We'd love to return here. Judging by the folks sitting behind us last night who spoke Viennese-dialect German (and shouting "Bravo" throughout the curtain calls), we're not the only ones to have discovered this bargain.

Bratislava: Devin Castle By Bus

It's another glorious day here and we took advantage of it by taking the #78 bus to Devin Castle (hrad Devín or Devínsky hrad).

We'd spotted it and taken a photo in September 2010 as we traveled down the Danube by hydrofoil, and this was a perfect day to get a closer look.

The castle itself is a national symbol. Saints Cyril and Methodius landed here in 863 AD as they began their missionary work. The castle was a major seat of the Greater Moravian Empire, the last time Slovakia was a major regional power. Its history stretches through the centuries all the way up to 1809, when Napoleon ordered it destroyed as part of military neutralization of the region.

This is all hard to imagine as we hop off the bus, probably one or two stops early, but finding it a lovely day to walk through a residential neighborhood in this village up the hill to the castle.

Lying below is the confluence of the Danube and Morava Rivers...

There's quite a bit of real estate on top and we enjoy wandering around.

The article we linked to above warns visitors that in the afternoon "By now the crowds inside the castle and grounds are at their peak, so it’s a good time to be elsewhere."

The castle and grounds were virtually deserted, another reminder of why we love to travel in off-season.

Archeological excavations are visible around the property, although renovation work on the south part of the castle has ceased due to lack of funds, according to a sign.