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.