Saturday, November 13, 2010

Outward Bound

After hydrating and packing my bags, I caught BART to San Francisco Airport to take my overnight flight to Sydney, Australia. Since coach food can be pretty depressing, I stopped at Ebisu sushi bar for a light but tasty meal of my favorite fishy bits. I wasn't the only person with that idea: at least five other people who would be on my flight were also there.

After exchanging $100 US into Australian dollars so that I'd be sure to have some cash until I could find the appropriate Australian ATM, I met up with my mileage running companion in the United Red Carpet lounge. We downed a couple of free drinks (made from el cheapo booze) and then boarded. My friend has a lot of experience in the flying-for-fun-and-profit game, and he wisely had reserved a seat in an exit row. Despite my initial inclination to book into Economy Plus, I had chosen the "middle" seat next to him in the back of the bus. Once on board I was really glad I had done this, because I realized I could get up at any time and not have to climb over the person sitting on the other side of me.

The plane was broiling hot when we boarded, but got quite cool after take-off, making me very happy that I'd both worn a lightweight sweater and had brought an extra pashmina-style wrap.

My husband had booked my ticket for me, and suggested I order a vegetarian meal. In his experience, the special-ordered meals are superior to what everyone else is served. United has a new policy of offering a vegetarian option to everyone on international flights, and I was interested to see how the meals would compare.

When my meal arrived I was extremely glad I had enjoyed a nice sushi snack prior to boarding. The main dish was nearly unidentifiable. There was stewed fruit served in the same container-tray as something that may have been couscous, with about a tablespoon of chopped mixed veggies in one corner. In the dim cabin light it looked like a fruit crisp gone very very wrong. This was accompanied by a hard individually-wrapped dinner roll, a mini-tub of margarine, a small salad, and a bag of sugar-free pecan cookies.

Meanwhile, the general public was offered baked ziti. They got real butter, and a pre-packaged fudge brownie for dessert. The ziti tasted like an over-microwaved tv dinner, but at least it looked and smelled like a real food item. I have a feeling I got a "vegan" (no animal products) meal, and it was just sad. The lesson learned here is that if you're a lacto-ovum vegetarian (you eat dairy and eggs), then don't bother with the special meal on an international flight with United. Except then they screw you on breakfast, because both of the regular breakfast offerings had sausage right in the dish touching everything else. I guess the real lesson is don't count on United being able to feed you decently, special meal order or not.

The bad food was the most interesting thing about the whole 13 1/2 hour flight. We each took a time-released Ambien and snoozed our way through about six or seven hour's worth of flying time.

Interesting Info:

BART has cheap service from downtown San Francisco to San Francisco International Airport. It costs $8.05 each way, which is 1/4th the rate of a cab. Figure 45 minutes for the trip, once you actually get on a train.

Ebisu sushi, a branch of the well-loved San Francisco Inner Sunset establishment, is located in the International Terminal's food court, right past the end of the United check-in counters. Eat a good meal here and you won't care so much about the slop served in flight.

Different US-based banks have agreements with overseas banks that eliminate ATM fees. Check your bsnk's web site for details. I use Bank of America at home, and so can use WestPac for free in Australia. My friend is a Citibank client, which has a similar arrangement with St. George's Bank.

The United Red Carpet Club lounge is members-only. If you're really dying to get in, you can usually purchase a day pass at the door. It's probably not worth it--the people who join are usually very frequent fliers who like to use it to avoid the rest of the usual airport chaos. If you really just want a drink, there are better bars in the gate areas.

Economy Plus is the front section of United's coach cabin. Depending on plane, it gives 3" to 5" of extra leg room over regular Economy. If you are a Premiere-level or higher member of United's Mileage Plus program, you can reserve a seat there for free. Otherwise, you can "opt up" for a fee after purchasing your ticket. The fee depends on the flight, and is higher for long-haul flights than for shorter hops.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Return to Oz

My crazy fun mileage-earning trip to Sydney begins this Friday. Check back here for the travelogue, including hotel and restaurant reviews, and for some of my favorite trip photos. My main focus will be on the Blue Mountains, a World Heritage Site about two hours west of Sydney by train.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

TIP: Dealing with Jet Lag

Inexperience with jet lag put a damper on my first overseas trip. I was 18, and my mother took me to London as a graduation present. I felt groggy and unable to make decisions, and was generally crabby for the first half of the trip. Since then I've made several dozens of trips across many combinations of time zones, and have learned a few things that really help me to feel as good as possible despite jet lag.

Try to move yourself, even a little bit, toward your destination time zone.
In the week before your departure, try pushing your bedtime and meal tines forward or backwards as needed. I have had good luck with shifting by half-hour increments each night, and can generally push myself about three hours toward my destination without wrecking my daily life at home.
Advanced Tip: Take melatonin and tryptophan about an hour before going to sleep. If you are a caffeine drinker, do it at times compatible with your destination.

Get and stay hydrated.
Unless you already have a good hydration habit, work on it in the week before your departure. It's such a simple thing, but having enough water in your system really does seem to head off a host of travel discomforts.
Advanced Tip: Counteract the diuretic effects of caffeine and alcohol with extra water.

Sleep on the plane as appropriate for your destination time zone.

For an overnight flight, try to sleep as much as possible, using a sleep aid for flights longer than eight hours. For a day flight, take a short nap or two but try to stay awake so you can really sleep the first night at your destination.
Advanced Tip: If you really want to sleep on the plane, bring an eye mask and stick a note on it that says "Do not wake me for meal service."

Get active on arrival.
Do not just head to your hotel and collapse. Chances are your room won't be ready for hours anyway. Do something that keeps you moving but isn't mentally taxing. A leisurely breakfast followed by a walk in a park and window shopping usually works for me. Once I check into my hotel, I take a shower and decide what to do next. Another sight-seeing walk is a great idea, but sometimes I just lounge around and watch TV until about 8pm, when I'll let myself go to sleep. Listen to your body: if you feel up to a museum or a boat ride, do it, but if you're feeling quiet and overwhelmed then don't push yourself.
Advanced Tip: Apply caffeine only before noon at your destination.

Get up at a reasonable hour in your new time zone.
If you're heading west-to-east, you'll be tempted to sleep late. Don't, even if it requires setting a "just-in-case" alarm for 10am. If you're going the other way, you'll be waking up really early. If you can convince yourself to cat nap until six or seven AM that will help a lot.
Advanced Tip: If you absolutely can't sleep when it's night time at your destination, let yourself be awake. No sense stressing about it. A few years ago I went to Cambodia with a friend. We both ended up waking in the middle of the night due to jet lag. We made the best of it by having a tea party our first few nights: we'd wake up, have cookies and something to drink, and would read and chat until we fell asleep again. Our tea parties generally went from about 4-6am, and we'd get up for real around 8 or 9.

Eat during the local meal times. 
If you aren't hungry for a real meal, then have a snack.
Advanced Tip: Make breakfast or lunch your biggest meal of the day.

Be kind to yourself.
You might have a big agenda of sight-seeing and shopping planned, but if you start feeling crappy then you start feeling crappy. Do enough to make you feel satisfied without pushing yourself to the point where you aren't really taking things in or enjoying your experience. 
Advanced Tip: If you need a nap in the middle of the day, take one. Make sure you set your alarm for 20-30 minutes so it doesn't turn into full-fledged sleep and really knock you off schedule.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

TIP: Long-Haul Comfort in Economy Class

Get hydrated before your trip.
Unless you've already got the personal hydration habit, focus on drinking at least six 8-ounce glasses of water per day leading up to your flight. Yes, at first you'll have to pee a lot, but you also will adjust somewhat. Good hydration greatly reduces the headaches and fogginess associated with long-haul jet travel. Make sure you also drink water during the flight,
Advanced Tip: Add one glass per each alcoholic or caffeinated drink you consume during that day, to mitigate those substances's diuretic effects.

Choose your seat wisely.
If you sleep like a log, get a window seat. If you're a super hydrator, or just like to get up and stretch a lot, go for the aisle. Sitting by the bulkhead or in an exit row can reduce that closed-in feeling, although it does eliminate your under-seat storage area.
Advanced Tip: Check in advance for potential unexpected circumstances at your particular seat such as no window, limited recline, or reduced seat width.

Get to the flight in a relaxed manner.
The less stress you have before getting on the plane, the easier it will be to relax and have a comfortable trip. Leave for the airport early, be organized and prepared for the security procedures, and cultivate a peaceful attitude toward whatever happens between leaving your house and take-off.
Advanced Tip: Eat a tasty yet light meal or snack, if possible at the airport, before getting on the plane. 

Dress for comfort in a variety of temperatures.
Wear soft layers that do not chafe or bind. Bring a wrap to throw over your chest, shoulders, or even face when you sleep, as it is often difficult to get an extra blanket (and blankets are being eliminated on many domestic US flights).
Advanced Tip: Airplane bathrooms are small and can get yukky, so avoid wearing anything complex to adjust or that could drag on the floor.

Prepare for sleep.
Bring an eye mask that you are already used to sleeping in, and ear plugs. If those horseshoe-shaped pillows help you, bring an inflatable one. Make sure if you take your shoes off during flight that you have socks to keep your feet warm and clean.
Advanced Tip: For a flight of longer than eight hours, try a time-released Ambien after the bustle of the first meal service is over.

Stretch your body.
If you're awake, stand up for a minute or two every hour or two. Walk to the bathroom, shake your legs, move your arms, anything to break up the pattern you've been sitting in.
Advanced Tip: The galley area gets really quiet outside of meal service times. Try a couple of deep knee bends and toe touches neat there -- just don't hang around long enough to get in the flight attendants' way.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

TIP: The Fine Art of Packing

It all starts with the suitcase. If you're dropping in to a country for a few days, you'll want to go carry-on only. This doesn't mean you should use the largest carry-on your airline allows, though! There are two reasons for this: first, you have to carry it. Bringing as little as practical in a small lightweight maneuverable bag will make your passes through security and trips on public transportation easier. Second, not all airplane overhead bins are created equal. For instance, United flies four different types of planes overseas. The maximum allowable sized carry-on  fits just fine "wheels first" in a 777's overhead bin, but must be turned sideways in the shallower bins on a 767. I've seen this lead to chaos during boarding, as bins fill up faster while confused passengers struggle to stow their belongings--many which had fit just fine on their last trip on different equipment. A smaller bag will fit "wheels first" in the space leftover from someone else's sideways-stowed bag. 

I am a huge fan of the smallest-size hard-sided four-wheeled "spinner" bag available at Brookstone. It's easy to push ahead of me through public transport turnstiles, and it makes a good footrest when sitting around a waiting room.  I've even slid it under the seat in front of me on a train (or airplane after take off) to use as a footrest.

Now that you've got a bag to hold your stuff, you need to work out how little you can pack. The best piece of advice I ever heard on this subject came from a stranger on the parking lot shuttle at Newark Airport. She revealed that she never takes more than two pairs of shoes on a trip: the pair she has on her feet, and a second pair, if needed, in her suitcase. I've found this to be very helpful in putting together a tightly mix-and-match trip wardrobe. This approach can be extended to other clothing articles: wear one pair of pants, pack a second, wear one outer layer, such as a sweater, and pack a second (like a lightweight water-repellant jacket).

I'm not suggesting that you go gnarly and underpack to the point of discomfort. Everyone has their limits. I am not a fan of washing out my socks and underwear in the sink, so I always pack  enough of each for the trip. I avoid anything that will wrinkle, generally sticking to colored t-shirts layered under knitwear. For a short trip I'll bring a clean shirt for each day. For a longer trip I will pack half the shirts required and air them out and re-wear them once. 

If I'm traveling to a place where I know I'm going to do some serious clothes shopping, like London, I will pack less than I actually need. That way I can pick up an outfit or two while there, wear it, and have room in my tiny suitcase to get it back home. 

I like to be as fresh as possible on the return plane trip, so I plan to keep one shirt unworn until that day. I've even packed that "last day" shirt (and a pair of undies and socks) in a ziplock bag to keep it away from my dirty laundry.

In general it really helps me to lay out all the clothes I'm packing on my bed before putting them in to my carry-on. That way I can see goes with what, and can eliminate any outliers. When it's all out there I then work through the days in my head, making sure I have enough of some items while not inadvertently packing anything extra. 

One last tip on underpacking clothes: I've found that having ALL my laundry done before starting makes a huge difference in putting together a tightly-packable travel wardrobe. It saves me time in looking for items, and provides me with the greatest freedom of choice because nothing is ruled out because it's in the laundry bin.

Minimizing toiletries is essential for light packing. If you're feeling brave, you can do without everything and pick up what you need in a local store after arriving. You can either toss your new finds before heading home, or bring them back as souvenirs. I've gotten my liquid/gel toiletries down to travel-sized bottles of my shampoo and conditioner, a tube of mascara, a small tube of toothpaste, and a tiny tube of suntan lotion that doubles as my moisturizer for both hands and face.  For everything else I use solids or powders that the TSA doesn't fret about--solid deodorant, and mineral-powder makeup. I sometimes don't even bother with the makeup.

Don't forget the charging devices for any electronics you'll be bringing, including your phone, camera, and/or laptop! If you can get a plug adaptor in advance bring that too. Organize these small things into ziplock bags to reduce the chances of them falling out when you open your carry-on.

Remember to pack your purse (or if you're a guy, your messenger bag) too. Dump everything out, see what you really need for the trip, and re-pack accordingly. Check your wallet for overload, too. You won't need to be hauling around crumpled up ATM statements, fourteen pens, or that book you keep forgetting to return.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

TIP: Hotel Hokey Pokey -- My Strategy for Finding a Place to Stay

Now that I've figured out when I'm going to be in Australia and where I'd Iike to be, it's time to book hotels. I'm not the sort who will wing it on such a short trip. I'd rather know exactly where I'll sleep and how much it will cost than spend any time at local accommodation booking offices. I usually start by taking a look at Expedia and, and by making bids on Priceline. Although I adore boutique hotels and fancy resorts, it's also pretty ridiculous to blow the budget on a luxe room during what amounts to a mileage run.

I'm too old and too prissy to stay in backpacker dorms or youth hostels. I prefer en suite facilities, but really have no objection to sharing a bathroom or even going down the hall for the shower and toilet. In general, I start by seeing what I can get for the equivalent of $100 US per night. At this writing, the US and Australian dollars are nearly on par. 

The last time I went to Sydney, just after New Year's 2008/2009, I was able to score a room at the Hilton for $112/night. I found this rate on, it did not appear on third-party booking sites. My room was fantastic, with a postcard-perfect view of the Sydney Tower framed in one of my floor-to-ceiling windows. I didn't expect to get this lucky again.

I decided to spend my first and last nights in Sydney, with two nights in the Blue Mountains in-between. I began by bidding on Priceline, trying a combination of star levels and prices ranging from $100-$175 per night for 3-5 star hotels in Sydney. Bid after bid got rejected. Priceline sent me an email, supposedly to help me make a more effective bid by showing me what had been successful during the past 24 hours for the night I needed. I saw that people had been able to book 3-star hotels for as little as $105/night, but I had had no success for the same night for as much as $160/night. Frustrated, I gave up on Priceline. I've had amazing results with Priceline in the past (a $500 room in Singapore in fall 2009 for about $125), but it was just not happening for this trip.

After searching Expedia and for a room within walking distance of the Central Train Station, I settled on the Travelodge Sydney, which at this point seemed a good value at $140/night including taxes. Before committing, I briefly checked with TripAdvisor to make sure the hotel wasn't a disaster waiting to happen.

I always take TripAdvisor reviews with a liberal helping of salt. A place with a few strong negative reviews that I stayed at in Bali in October 2009 ended up being nearly paradise. Another in Belize, with mixed to glowing reviews, pretty much ruined my June 2010 honeymoon. The sheer number and variety of reviews can completely overwhelm. That said, I'll note that the management of the Bali property were active participants on TripAdvisor, and showed exemplary attitude in addressing complaints. I think evidence of a high level of positive engagement with past and potential guests is a sign that a property really does strive to be  the best it can be, and so counterbalances a number of less-than-glowing reviews. When there's not an obvious choice based on price, location, and TripAdvisor reviews, I turn to a more classic travel-guide type web site. Time Out, Frommer's, and Lonely Planet are my usual choices. 

Anyway, TripAdvisor didn't have enough negative comments within the past three months to warn me off the Travelodge, so I booked for my first night. I repeated the process to find a place in the Blue Mountains, and then for my final night in Sydney. I picked the Leisure Inn Spires for $109/night in Leura in the Blue Mountains, and then the Y Hotel Hyde Park at $119. I'd have happily gone back to the Travelodge for that last night, but the price had jumped by about $100!

One last bit of advice on hotel searches: if you belong to AAA (the American Automobile Association), always check your most likely hotel candidates' web sites to see if you can get an even better price that way. If you're booking into a chain hotel--even if it's a non-US chain--it's worth a look. I've had my AAA membership dues repay itself many times over every year by doing this.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

A Mileage Proposal

Booking a TWARE requires snap decision-making. While thinking through when I would leave and how long I'd be gone, I received an email from a friend who is a bigger player in the mileage game than I'll ever aspire to be. Precisely twice as big: while I'm chasing United's Premiere Executive level (50,000 miles flown per year), my friend flies to maintain "1K" status (100,000 miles flown). Like me, he loves to ride on airplanes and drop in on interesting places.  He planned to "go to Sydney for brunch" so he could earn nearly 15k miles without missing a moment of work. By leaving San Francisco on United's Friday 10:30pm flight, he'd get to Sydney around 8:30am Sunday. That would give ample time for brunch and a bit of fun before heading back on the 4:30pm flight to San Francisco. Due to the magic of crossing the International Date Line from west to east, the arrival time in San Francisco is around 10:45am. Lunch, a shower, and a good night's sleep later and he'd be back in the office on Monday. United awards bonus miles for his current 1k status in addition to the qualification miles he earns, so he'll return home with the equivalent of a free ticket to anywhere United (or US Air, or Continental) flies in the continental US.

While I knew that flying with him would be a lot more fun than going alone, I couldn't bear the thought of back-to-back long haul flights in coach. I figured a four night recovery time would more than work out any physical kinks, and would give me an opportunity to further explore Sydney. I'd spent nearly a week there two years ago, so my "must see" list had already been covered. Three non-flying days would let me see and do a new thing or two without spending too much time and money on my mileage run. I decided to split my time between Sydney and the Blue Mountains, which are easily reached by a scenic two-hour train ride from Sydney.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

But Why Fly?

I remember a "Mary Tyler Moore Show" rerun from when I was a child: Mary and her best friend Rhoda dared each other to do something fun and exciting that they would never have done otherwise. One of them (I think it was Rhoda) asked out a cute doctor. The other flew to Paris for the weekend. When I saw that show I thought "heck yeah, I'm going to do what Mary did someday!"

With those pictures in mind, and a United Airlines TWARE ticket in my pocket, I'm planning a short trip to Australia. I'll spend about six hours in airports and 27 hours in the air for four nights and five days in Sydney. Why not stay longer? Why bother to go at all? So much hassle and stress and jet lag for what? For FUN. For manifesting that image of Mary getting off the plane from Paris, laden with shopping bags, smiling that it was wonderful. For the rush of takeoff, for that comforting "floomph" of landing. For the stamp in my brand-new passport. For the pleasure of revisiting a city I've very much enjoyed in the past, and to get to know it a little more. For the frequent flier miles.

There's a hobbyist-cult of people who actually like riding on planes, and hold jet lag and airport hassles very secondary to the magic of going from home to some awesome place far away. We appreciate that a century after the Wright Brothers, powered flight is still an incredibly cool and sometimes beautiful achievement of human ingenuity and creativity. The best place find this kind of airplane nerd is on This discussion board is so stuffed with information that even in digital form it would incur excess baggage fees. A good way to dive in is to start with the section for your favorite airline's frequent flyer program. If you don't have a favorite, and reading a section at random doesn't start you thinking that you should go and choose one, then you're likely not a commercial passenger flight nerd.

Joining an airline's program, and sticking to flights within that carrier's alliance, will earn miles that get you benefits that make flying a lot easier. I picked United years ago. I accrue miles toward their Mileage Plus program if I fly on any Star Alliance partner, including US Air, Continental, Air Canada, Lufthansa, and Singapore Airlines. If I fly 25,000 miles in a year (the equivalent of five cross country trips), I get free checked baggage, free access to the extra legroom in United's Economy Plus, and a shorter special security line at some airports. Fly more miles, and get more benefits like a dedicated call center with agents who specialize in helping frequent travelers, free upgrades to domestic first class, and the ability to book exit row seating with its acres of leg room. Even more miles, and you get adult beverage vouchers and free international upgrades.

Sometimes, if a flier is a bit short on fulfilling the minimum mileage requirement for their desired benefits level, they'll take a trip primarily to earn miles. This is known as a mileage run, and has a section devoted to it. Finding a low enough fare that earns enough miles to make the trip worthwhile is a science and a game, and is also a significant part of why I jumped on that TWARE ticket in the first place.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

TIP: Tweets for Cheap Seats

Every so often United Airlines tweets a link to a web page containing a special promotion code giving significant discounts to specific destinations. These secret TWitter fAREs, called TWAREs, are only available for a short time window, usually around two hours. So, if you see something good, you have to grab it fast. Last May my friends and I got half price TWARE tickets for a July trip from San
Francisco to Maui. Today, I scored a deeply discounted ticket from San Francisco to Sydney, Australia. You can get in on the TWARE action by joining and then following @UnitedAirlines.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Pat Meier's Lunch@Piero's

Every year during CES, Pat Meier hosts a lunchtime showcase at Piero's restaurant, right across from the Las Vegas Convention Center. Pat brings in twenty innovative companies to talk directly to the media in a relaxed environment away from the random chaos of the CES show floors.

Visiting with the exhibitors at Lunch was probably my favorite part of CES. I don't do well in huge crowds, especially ones where I'm shorter than most everyone else. At Piero's I was able to spend as much time as I wanted with whoever I wanted, saw some great demos, and talked to some interesting people. I'll cover the products I found the most compelling in my next few posts, including Sound Trends' Looptastic Producer 3, Panelfly, PowerGenix's rechargeable nickel-zinc batteries, and Pointy Heads Software's Knocking live video.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Walk the Walk in Vegas, Baby

One Reader Per Blog's One Writer arrived in Las Vegas this morning to check out the legendary CES (Consumer Electronics Show). If some new gear is going to be the hottest gadget in 2010, it will be here.

I'd been warned about how huge the show is, but figured I could start out with a sort of random walk across the show floor to get oriented. Then I woke up to reality. CES is massive. Imagine something about the size of the Death Star full of glittering shops displaying the coolest electronic-related stuff ever. Oh wait, that's Singapore. Scale it down to an area code or two and you've got CES.

This morning's random walk (and the hot fiancé's nose for adventure) led us through the Ed Hardy booth (tons of rhinestoned device skins) to Parrot. Currently known for their Bluetooth devices, they're about to get really famous for the AR.Drone. This is the ultimate robo-helicopter, quad-rotored, iPhone-controlled, and otherwise-hyphenatedly-neat. As you fly it, it transmits live video and flight data to your iPhone. Parrot doesn't know what their super copter will retail for, but they've open-sourced their API and published it on their web site. Over one hundred developers have signed up to create games and other applications for it. This is going to be waaay fun!