My Favorite Things

It’s that time of year again, when lists of traveler-friendly gifts start making their way around the internet. Some of these lists are helpful in finding the perfect present for your road-warrior friends and family. But I find that others are just impractical (e.g. heavy travel guidebooks and large travel pillows), and not worth the price of the gift wrap. But in the spirit of the season, here are the things that I have valued the most this year on the road, some of which can be wrapped and purchased and others which are ones which can’t be gifted but can be earned (frequent flier points – amen!):

  1. iPhone – it’s an amazing camera (really, especially the new 7 series), invaluable for apps that substitute for maps and airport/flight information (Priority Pass, FlightView tracking, etc.), and a good way to jot down notes or snap a shot of that favorite bottle of wine at a restaurant so you don’t forget it.
  1. Cashmere wrap – forget your pricey silk scarves and bulky jackets. I’ve been traveling with the same black cashmere wrap for 10 years now, and it’s invaluable.  No matter where you are headed, plane and airport temperatures vary; plus you want something that you can drape around your shoulders to look a bit more professional and polished before or after the overnight flights where we all look a little bedraggled. And for guys, I recommend a nice cashmere scarf which adds a similar look for you and camouflages that five o-clock shadow nicely when you need it.
  1. United Global Services – I’ve admitted before in this blog that I’m one of Those People who is completely smitten with GS. United may not have the best planes in the business but if you need to go somewhere and your flight cancels or you miss a connection you cannot beat GS service. This summer, Chris and the kids and I were traveling to London on a connection with United through Houston. When our outbound flight to IAH was delayed so that we would miss the flight departing for LHR, GS promptly rebooked us on a Delta flight (in business class and with seats together) at no charge so we didn’t miss a day of our vacation. And GS did that in about 10 minutes without any dispute or debate – that is the kind of service that is rare these days in the travel industry, and beyond invaluable.
  1. Tumi suitcases – I’ve tried a lot of suitcases, but have been most pleased with Tumi. My go-to-carry-on size has been all over the world with me, with no problems with loose wheels, chipped corners, or other malfunctions. These bags don’t quit – and if they do, Tumi fixes them, no questions asked.
  1. See Concept eyeglasses – Yeah, I’m at that point in life where I need eyeglasses for close reading, and I tend to lose them occasionally. I keep multiple pairs at home, but also consider these my go-to staple for traveling. A Parisian company makes these stylish spectacles – which are durable due to their plastic frames and lenses.  They are about $30 USD in France at the current exchange rate but if you can’t make it to Paris you can also buy these on line at the MoMA website and a few other places. Bonus: See Concepts now makes sunglasses as well – while they may not substitute for your favorite Ray-Bans, they are a lot less costly if you (ahem) misplace them in a hotel or on a plane.
  1. Good converters and adapters – I confess, I’ve learned the hard way; cheap models do not work. Yes, it’s a pain that Apple only sells its converters in a full world set (so you can’t buy UK or EU-compatible plugs just by themselves), but they really are the best; they don’t fall out of the wall or collapse as you are trying to get the prongs to align.  Find a good brand that you like and stick with it.
  1. Small and even smaller travel size versions of my favorite products – Websites that tout small travel size items are okay, I guess, but if you really like your shampoo then just finding another one in a travel size doesn’t cut it. I like my brands, and especially when travel is hard on your skin it means a lot to be able to fly with your favorites. In 2016 I was happy to find a number of my stand-bys in travel size – more companies seem to understand that they can make an easy sale by selling these rather than depending on consumers to transfer the goop into travel-size TSA approved containers (yeah, I’ll do it but it’s a pain – I hate those things; they always leak and I forget what is in what bottle).
  1. Travel-size umbrella – My mini Totes brolly saved me more than once this year; it isn’t glamorous but it takes up very little space in my bag and it can be a lifesaver when you land in a new location where it’s raining and you need a quick assist while dashing for a cab or the metro.
  1. iPad – It’s another Apple product, yes, but it’s worth it. Leave the books behind; forget dragging a big laptop if you opt for the iPad Pro; abandon your foldable (or bunchable) city maps; and ditch the Sudoku books.  It’s lightweight and dependable – and even better now you can download airline apps to it and use it as your personal entertainment device in flight for movies.
  1. L’Occitane Hand Cream – I have dry skin and it doesn’t react well to many brands (I ignore the amenity kits on the airlines) but the unscented L’Occitane Shea Butter Cream never fails to deliver. Take some with you – you see it offered in some duty-free shops but it may not be travel size and it may not be scent-free. Enough dehydrating flights, trains and buses and you will be glad you did.

Enjoy your travels and happy Christmas to all!

Leaving America(n)

The summer of 2016 is only halfway through and it’s already been a long, hot, miserable one with the airlines. From July 5 to July 19, between us Chris and I were on four American Airlines flights, with miserable results and all of them resulting in cancellations. One of the flights for Chris was cancelled due to “excessive air traffic” – and he was thereafter rescheduled on a non-direct flight to his destination. The first leg of the flight sat on the runway for hours and then got to the first stop late; the last connecting flight the night to the original destination, had left 5 minutes earlier. After not paying for overnight accommodations, American then re-booked Chris on a flight the following day not from Charlotte, NC to Washington DC, but from Charlotte, NC to Charleston, SC and then on to Washington DC. A fair amount of negotiating ensued with American and eventually Chris made it to DC, albeit the day after he should have been there.

I had worse luck with a flight out of Philadelphia, PA and a flight out of Birmingham, AL – both of which were cancelled due to “maintenance problems.” At least the one from Birmingham cancelled after two hours of delay so that more time wasn’t wasted waiting at the airport. The one from Philadelphia was a different story – over 5 hours of delay over claimed maintenance issues before the flight was cancelled at midnight. Not a high water moment for American.

The irony of this is that the pilots, flight attendants and gate personnel are pleasant and try to keep their cool, but it’s clear that they also wonder what is going on with American’s fleet. As one of them said, shrugging his shoulders when asked by the passengers what is happening, “This happens all the time and we don’t get any information either.” The other dichotomy is that the airlines are losing business – Q2 results released in July 2016 show that nearly every airline is short of earnings expectations and worried about losing passengers due to delays, equipment issues, and travel concerns overall about terrorism. Yet if the airlines wanted to make flying more friendly, they couldn’t seem to find a better way to do just the opposite.

So this may be the end of the line for us with American – bad weather is one thing to cause delays. Bad product and lack of care about what you provide in service within your control is another. We’re already loyal United fliers and have far fewer issues there (fingers crossed!); American is our back-up airline for travel to places where there are no other direct-route options and time is valuable. But rather than being re-routed to Charlotte (one of the true nadirs in airports in the US) and suffering there, we may start considering less expensive, albeit non-direct flights on Delta through Atlanta.

Don’t get me wrong – maintenance for safety reasons is important. But don’t be too sure that the announcement that an aircraft is “in maintenance” always means that the issue is a safety-related one. Did you ever notice you don’t often get an explanation beyond “maintenance”?  According to www.thepointsguy.com it could just be a coffeemaker issue, and American is the leading culprit on that front. The Points Guy: The Ridiculous Thing That’s Delaying Flights – If it’s come to that, we may as well give up and start staying home.

-Laura Flippin, Travel Blogger

Would You Do It?

One of my favorite travel blogs, The Points Guy, recently ran an article about the – surprising widespread – occurrence of one family member (usually the dad/husband) traveling in first class while the others (mom/wife and kids) travel in coach. You can find the article at http://thepointsguy.com/2016/07/first-class-with-spouse-and-kids-in-coach/

The article is surprisingly retro, making the point that most of these trips involve the husband, as the bread-winner in the family, being the one with enough status or a company willing to pay for business travel – and the family merely getting the dregs because they are lucky enough to have dad purchase a coach ticket for them. From where I sit in the front of the aircraft, this is both false and disturbing. First, I know plenty of women whose travel either includes business/first class travel paid for by their employers and/or earns more enough frequent flier miles than their husbands. I also know very few people – of either gender – who would stick their spouse and kids in economy while they traveled in first class on the same plane.

Chris and I are traveling to London for holiday in a few weeks with the kids, and finding a flight with seats together in business class was not easy. At one point, the airline agent I was working with at United suggested that the kids could be seated in coach and Chris and I could fly business/first class, as that was a configuration she could easily find on various flights. My surprise must have been obvious, as she responded: “I guess you’re not a family that does that?” I explained that part of the fun for us is the trip (yes, even with 14 year-old boys) – getting to talk about whatever awful movie we are watching, what we see when we fly over different places, and even debating what in the world possessed the airline to determine that “”bouillabaisse” was a good idea for an entrée with your meal. If we sit separately, we miss that. It also makes the boys feel like they are second-class (literally). Well, that and one of the boys is 6’2” already at his age – so coach would further be cruel and inhumane for him and his legs.

I am NOT suggesting that if you do not have the money or the miles to spend that flying coach is unacceptable; I have flown and continue to fly plenty of long-haul flights in coach. But if you have the miles or the funds, it seems ridiculous to put some of the family in coach and some in first/business. This summer, after much wrangling and several calls with the airlines, we’re cashing miles to fly everyone in business – albeit with a little more indirect route from Houston to London rather than Chicago to London. On the upside, that means we are flying the 787 Dreamliner, and everyone (me included) is pretty excited about that.  And, yes we are flying on my miles –I earn a lot during the year for business travel, and I’m happy to use them for vacations. 

For more thoughts – and even rage! – on this topic, check out the comments section of the TPS article.

Union Station – Washington DC

Traveling up and down the Northeast Corridor on Amtrak, those of who live in Washington DC get to know Union Station quite well.  Although the station dates back to nearly the turn of the 20th century, it lost a lot of its luster after World War II, and was a pretty grimy locale by the late 1970s. In the 1980s, recognizing the significant structural problems that were beginning to plague the station, and the opportunity to refurbish what remained a busy transit point, the US Department of Transportation provided funding for a full redevelopment. Union Station reopened in 1988, with its beautiful designs, opulent ceilings, and spacious great areas revitalized again.  The renovation also included the addition of a movie theater, indoor shopping mall and food court.

Unfortunately, the offerings of the shopping mall were always pretty bad, the food court catered to transient passengers (largely groups of excitable teenagers during spring break school trips), and the few sit-down restaurants that were available never lasted long, turning over to the next hopeful chef or food group – none of whom ever manager to find a niche that enticed a devoted foodie clientele.  The movie station ceased operations only after a few years – as one local DC newspaper headline put it: “Union Station Movie Theater Closes: No One Notices?”

Over the last few years, another renovation has begun – this time to gradually bring the station even closer to the glory it once enjoyed over one hundred years ago. The first glimpses of this transformation are already visible – most notably, the central interior hall once again shows off the classical elements of that beautiful room. Mercifully, a long-suffering, sadly ugly double-tiered restaurant that blotched that grand open public space has been removed. Now the marble, gold-leaf and granite ceilings – newly polished and refreshed – are fully visible and do justice to the room. The centurions proudly stand guard again over a worthy prize.

So the next time you rush through Union Station, on your way to a warm Pepsi and a herky jerky train ride with Amtrak, be comforted at least by your entry or exit path through this grand structure – pretend you’re in Europe; soak it in and enjoy.

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DNA Testing for World Travelers?!?!

This news from Kuwait on the potential collection of DNA of anyone traveling into the country is really amazing. The following is from The Points Guy‘s website:

“If traveling to Kuwait has been on your radar, now’s the time to go — before the country implements its mandatory DNA testing for everyone in the country, including tourists. Starting sometime this year, Kuwait will be the first (and hopefully only) country to implement a law that will require everyone to submit a DNA sample in an effort to increase security.

The country has stated that the DNA testing won’t be used for genealogical analysis and it won’t impact personal freedoms or privacy. If you’re traveling to Kuwait, you can expect the following at the Kuwait International Airport (KWI) upon your arrival, according to the Kuwait Times:

‘From Visitors: Collections will be done at a special center at Kuwait International Airport, where in collaboration with the Civil Aviation Department, airlines and embassies, visitors will be advised on their rights and duties towards the DNA law.’ 

Wondering how authorities are going to collect your DNA at the airport? The Kuwait Times reports that the government will collect a saliva sample or a few drops of blood placed on special cards. From there, your blood or saliva will travel to a lab where it will be tested ‘according to international scientific and technical methods using special DNA examination equipment.’ As for how citizens’ DNA will be collected, mobile centers will travel to individuals’ offices to collect samples, or people can stop by citizen services centers to submit their DNA while ‘doing various transactions.’

Last year before the route ended, TPG flew on Kuwait Airways from New York to London. And while he didn’t fly to the country itself, he still had a less-than-pleasant experience while on board the severely outdated aircraft. It appears with the new law that those simply flying on Kuwait Airways (and on to another destination) won’t be required to provide a DNA sample — only those actually entering the country.

Will this new law impact your willingness to travel to Kuwait?”

The devil will be in the details of course, and I sympathize with the desire of countries to ensure robust security in the current global security environment.  However, this does seem a bit ominous – and I say this as someone who has submitted fingerprints and other personal information and data to the US government as part of joining the TSA PreCheck and Global Entry Programs. But DNA seems to take security and clearances to a whole new level.  It will be interesting to see if the US government –  which will no doubt be lobbied by US-based construction, contracting and consulting companies which have a heavy presence in Kuwait – pressures Kuwait to reconsider or amend its policy.  Kuwait and the US have a close relationship and the Kuwaiti people are still very grateful for US assistance in the liberation of the country in the 1990s. When I’ve visited Kuwait, the people could not be more gracious or kind towards Americans. It would be a shame for something like this new policy to impede travel and exchange between the two countries.

Source:

Kuwait Will Soon Require Everyone in the Country to Undergo a DNA Test — Even Tourists. (2016). The Points Guy. Source: http://thepointsguy.com/2016/04/kuwait-to-require-everyone-in-the-country-to-undergo-a-dna-test/

Starwood v. Marriott

It’s been a wild ride since Marriott and Starwood first announced their proposed merger. After a few dalliances and weird engagement/disengagement with Anbang, it looks like the merger is now back on, according to the communication Starwood sent out today to its points program members:

“Nearly five months ago we shared the news that Starwood Hotels & Resorts is joining with Marriott International to create the world’s biggest and best hotel company — with 5,500 hotels and resorts in more than 100 countries. Today we’re pleased to announce that the shareholders of each company have approved the merger.

Since the original announcement, our members have asked many questions about the future of Starwood Preferred Guest® (SPG®). Soon we will begin the long journey to integrate the very best of SPG and Marriott Rewards®. Through this process, your perspective will help guide these discussions as we consider the following:

  • How do we continue to deliver the unique experiences, benefits and rewards you’ve come to expect both in and out of our hotels and resorts?
  • How do we take full advantage of the extraordinary new range of hotels, resorts and destinations that will be the hallmark of a combined Starwood and Marriott to add new recognition and benefits for you?
  • How do we protect the value of your currency and status, whether your Starpoints® balance, lifetime status or membership level?

Getting answers to these complicated, important questions will take time. In fact, we don’t anticipate launching a newly combined program until 2018. This means SPG will continue to run separately until then. In the meantime, we’re actively exploring ways to build bridges between the two programs to further enhance your experience.

In addition, we are not standing still: Among other things, we’re bringing you new access to one-of-a-kind hotels from Tribute Portfolio™ and Design Hotels™, plus exciting new SPG MomentsSM experiences through our unique partnerships with Major League Baseball®, Mercedes AMG Petronas and more.

Know that we’re listening to your feedback, and we value your input. Our merger is on track to close midyear, and as we have more news to share, we will reach out to you. You can also find the latest updates at spg.com/updates and via Twitter (@spg). Our members are at the core of everything we do, and that will not change. We remain at your service wherever you need us — in our hotels, at spg.com, on the SPG apps or via our Customer Contact Centers.

Thank you for sharing your travels with SPG.”

I’m a member of both programs, although I use Starwood more frequently in part due to its greater presence outside the US. Within the last two weeks I’ve stayed at both companies’ properties; while each have their virtues, overall there are a number of Starwood rewards program aspects that are heads above Marriott. For example:

1. Starwood has a vastly better, more navigable and user-friendly website, as well as phone/iPad app. Marriott’s website is cumbersome and hard to operate, especially if you are trying to use award nights or certificates for discounts. Marriott does not seem to want to make it easy for you, whether you are cashing in points for a free room or paying full freight.

2. And speaking of award nights . . . Marriot makes you pay taxes and fees and booking charges when you redeem points for a room. Starwood doesn’t charge you at all. In addition, Starwood lets you cancel easily if you need to do so online – Marriott . . . well, let’s just say I’ve never been able to effectively get that done with the website or app.

3. High point values for even modest properties – Courtyard by Marriott, for example, — in pretty moderately priced cities – make Marriott very discouraging.  Whereas you can get the St. Regis in New York City for 30,000 points per night quite often with Starwood, a Marriott (not a Ritz Carlton!) property in Richmond, Virginia, or St. Louis, Missouri can regularly cost that much.

4. Deals and special offers are hard to come by with Marriott – Starwood’s “pay full rate for one night and your birth year for the next night” and “buy three nights get one free” run frequently. Marriott is stingier with its deals and discounts, that is, when you can find them. And restrictions apply – as in, the restrictions are so difficult that you can hardly ever take advantage of the deals.

5. Customer service for SPG members is so much better than customer service for Marriott Elite members. The SPG reps I’ve spoken with on the phone truly go out of their way to help, and are so pleasant and nice. Marriott, on the other hand, makes me feel as though they are doing me a favor by even taking my calls.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not a Marriott hater by any means. I love many of their properties and have had wonderful experiences  with staff on site as well. But the points program could use some work, and for those of us who work hard to be SPG Platinum every year because of how that program treats us, we have to wonder if the merger will help or hurt.

Les Bains – New Starwood Property in Paris

On a recent, semi-spur-of-the-moment trip to France, we needed a night in Paris when we first arrived before departing the next day for the Burgandy countryside.  I have a number of hotels that I like in Paris – ranging from the very basic Le Meridien to the very posh George V – but was looking for something different and new to try.

Searching the Starwood site, I found the latest addition to the company’s portfolio there – Les Bains – in the 3rd arrondissement.   Initially it was appealing because of the location (close to the Centre George Pompidou, Saint Chappelle, Notre Dame) and then additionally due to the legendary Haussman architecture that it showcases.  And, sure, it doesn’t hurt that Architectual Digest is also a huge fan.

But when we checked in we learned more about the history of this building and hotel – known now in its marketing and logo by three  distinct milestones in its past: 1885, 1978 and 2015 (more on that below).  To get a feel for why this is a truly unique property (and, by the way, with surprisingly reasonable rates even in the spring in Paris), here is the description from Harper’s Bazaar London in September 2015, noting this as one of “the best places to stay in Paris”:

As the Studio 54 of Paris, in its heyday Les Bains nightclub welcomed everyone from Yves Saint Laurent and Mick Jagger to Kate Moss and Johnny Depp. Since reopening in March, the Marais icon – once a 19th-century private bathhouse [opened in 1885] visited by Marcel Proust – invites you to carry on the party and stay the night in one of its 39 rooms and suites. The grandeur of the Haussmann architecture is enhanced by glorious marble bathrooms, wood panelling and antique furniture belonging to former guests, including a rug once owned by Gainsborough. Public spaces galore – including a bar, lounge, terrace and club – mean you can drink and dance almost anywhere, anytime. Or book into La Salle à Manger restaurant, headed up by Michelin-starred Philippe Labbé, where you’ll find a 15-metre-tall private dining-room in the former water tank of the Bains Guerbois.

Impressed yet?  No?  Then check out the New York Times’ review from June 2015, noting in part:

There were other clubs in that golden age of Paris night life, but perhaps none of them were as era defining. Opened in 1978 on the site of a 19th-century bathhouse in the Third Arrondissement, Les Bains Douches made stars of its designer (Philippe Starck) and resident D.J. (David Guetta), who were unknown at the time. Joy Division recorded a live album in the basement, where Prince performed impromptu and Depeche Mode played years before selling out stadiums. And then there was the crowd. Jean-Michel Basquiat, Yves Saint Laurent, Mick Jagger, Johnny Depp and Kate Moss were there, indeed. But it was really about the cross section of clubgoers and creatives, highbrow and low, glamorous and underground, big names and nobodies, all mingling by the mosaic tile pool.

Oh, and by the way, the rooms are awesome – including red velvet sofas modeled on the ones in Andy Warhol’s Factory.  A few pictures below – the product of the 2105 renovation and reopening – showing the very modern sleek bathroom, terrace doors, the oh-so-retro telephone (dial 911 if you need anything at all in service, we were advised – no, seriously, 911, really), and the Marshall radio replica which is now your personal stereo system for the stay.

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Masada

When you travel a lot as I do, sometimes you can get pretty jaded about what you see, even complacent – things are fun or interesting but not inspiring or overwhelmingly beautiful. Hence, it was especially nice on a recent, albeit brief, trip to Israel to have the amazing experience of seeing Masada, high above the Dead Sea, on a beautiful, clear January day. The travel time from Tel Aviv is about 90 minutes, but the journey is well worth it, even as you descend downwards in altitude and feel the change as you enter into the West Bank.

Along the way, the settlements, the date trees, and vineyards provide a view that prepares you for the amazing sight of Masada from a distance. Up close, however, it’s even more striking as you consider what it represents for the Jewish people. The story of the choice between freedom and slavery, and the history of the conflicts that have marked this place are powerful.

Not everyone considers Masada to be worth the time it takes – a full day is best, given the travel that is required – but I highly recommend it and would not have missed seeing it for anything.  One of the highlights of my travel life!

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New York

I travel a lot to New York for business but very seldom have the opportunity to enjoy the “tourist” things that others do.  Too often, my trips are quick up-in-the-morning and back-in-the-evening to DC – a one-day turnaround.  Occasionally, I stay overnight but not very often.

This year, during the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, however, Chris, the kids and I went to New York for a week without work.  It was that rare time of the year when the emails are slow and the office is all but closed.  That gave us the chance to really see New York, and enjoy the places we know we love – The Modern, MOMA, Candle 79, and the Strand – as well as some places that the kids were interested in – Dylan’s Candy Bar, Forbidden Planet, the Lego store, dim sum in Chinatown, and the Whitney (yes, the kids were keen to see the Whitney, especially the Frank Stella exhibit).

Chris is a big foodie, as is one of the boys, so food was a major focus – Junoon is a terrific Indian place that we tried on a previous trip and loved, so we returned for another meal.  Dirty French and Serafina were new to us – and those were hits as well.  Of course, there was the absolute must of dining out in New York – hot dogs on the street – followed by the absolutely must of dining in – Chinese food delivery on New Year’s Eve in the hotel to avoid the craziness of Times Square and also to maximize our viewing in front of the TV for the Cotton Bowl.

A few pictures below – courtesy of Chris – that capture a wonderful week.

– Laura Flippin

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Latest Photos from Traveling: New York City

Hello fellow travelers! As you may remember, I recently traveled to New York City for New Year’s eve. Here are a few pictures I snapped (and more to come!):

 

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