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.

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/

The Good Life

Lots of things about business/first-class travel are overrated, including that no matter what cabin you are seated in, you are still sitting in a tin can for hours on hours, with recycled air and cramped surroundings. But business/first class travel can provide a bit more space – and for me, far more interesting is exploring the upper class lounges that the different airlines offer.

During a recent busy travel month, I had a chance to check out the business/first class lounge for (1) British Airways at Terminal 5 at Heathrow, (2) the Al Italia business class lounge in Rome, (3) the United first class lounge in Chicago O’Hare, (4) the United first class lounge in London Heathrow, and (5) the Cathay Pacific business “Bridge” lounge in Hong Kong. Before exploring any of these, I would have guessed that the Cathay Pacific lounge would have come up trumps over the rest, but that United’s first class lounge in Chicago (the airline’s home base) would have been a close second. In truth, however, my experience was completely different than expectations. A few thoughts below, in order of worst to best lounges:

Al Italia business class lounge in Rome – Chris and I enjoyed a long weekend in Rome, and while the city is notorious for being busy and chaotic (a distinction that was well founded, as we noted from our trip), we had hoped that the AI lounge would be a welcome respite before we headed home. Instead, it was a disappointment – cramped, dirty, and in need of some serious renovations, the place was pretty awful. One upside was that the wine flowed freely – nice prosecco, white and red – plus excellent coffee and beer. But a basic diet Coke or even a regular Coke? – nowhere to be found. AI apparently eschews soda – and vacuuming. And decent food – there were a few middling bowls of over-mayonnaised pasta and some pathetic sandwiches, but nothing to write home about. Plus the décor was something out of Austin Powers but with not much pizzazz and a fair amount of wear and tear. Not to mention the garish orange and green color scheme, punctuated by a dreary grey tinge.

British Airways business class lounge at London Heathrow – Terminal 5. I may be biased as someone who has felt that Terminal 5 has been overrated since it opened (see, e.g. Gordon Ramsay’s “Plane Food”), but BA’s upper class lounge is just, well, okay, to me.  It’s vast and huge, and filled with people. But nothing feels personalized and overall the food is British cafeteria-like. If that makes you shudder, you have the right impression. The lounge décor is nice, and there is plenty of space despite the enormous capacity of the venue. But the food is pretty atrocious, and leaves you wishing for a Pret-a-Manger.

United first class lounge in Chicago – I know, you’d expect it to be reflective of United’s flagship status at O’Hare, and it was nice and fine but nothing special.  The upsides are it is small – you don’t feel like you are fighting for a seat and an electrical plug as you do at many lounges – and very clean and new. It’s also hidden away in the C concourse area of Terminal 1; so hidden in fact that you have to hunt it down, but you also get the feeling that some people just give up looking for it, and so chances are you may have the place pretty much to yourself.  Indeed, there is NO sign or any indication of where it is. It’s tucked behind a customer service counter, and you need a map and breadcrumbs to find it. The food is decent; the alcohol and sodas are plentiful, and it’s very quiet too (a rarity in the airline lounge world). But all that just makes for a great business lounge, not a great first class lounge. There is no staff to take your order or offer you an a la carte menu. You’re on your own here, and while that’s fine, it just seems that United could do better (and indeed it does – read on).

Cathay Pacific business class lounge – a/k/a “The Bridge” – in Hong Kong – I confess, I may be a loyal United customer but I do love Cathay Pacific. There isn’t any comparison with US airlines when it comes to the service of those ex-US ones that do it well (Emirates, Etihad, Cathay Pacific, Qantas, etc.). And Cathay Pacific’s upper class lounge in Hong Kong didn’t disappoint in general. It’s a lot like the BA upper class lounge in Terminal 5 at Heathrow – beautiful décor, and well appointed. Plenty of food and drink. But again it’s huge and there is no personalized service or attendance on you. More positively, though, the food – particularly the Asian cuisine – is pretty good – and a nice perk are miniature Haagen-Dazs ice creams at the bar (just ask – you’ll see other people getting them, and yeah, you’ll want one, too).

United first class lounge at London Heathrow-Terminal 2 – And the winner is . . . surprisingly United at LHR.  Maybe it’s because United is going all out since relocating to the newly-opened Queen’s Terminal (a/k/a Terminal 2) last year, and if that’s the case, fine with me!  The arrival lounge where you can get a shower and breakfast after taking the overnight flight from the US is great.  But the first class lounge for departures is pretty much the bomb.  Small, nicely decorated, and with staff that can’t wait to wait on you, plus food that rivals a lot of what you’ll eat even in nice London restaurants (take that Marco Pierre White and Gordon Ramsay), this is a little gem I almost hope not too many people find out about. The real highlight is a small dining area, complete with fully laid tables, white tablecloths, wine glasses, a tower of wine, and a serving staff eager to please you with a wonderful a la carte, made to order menu. The regular food buffet is great, but go for the a la carte dining room.  I had the artichoke pasta ravioli, and it was so good I thought about hanging out for dinner and taking a later flight.  The wine selection is good, and you can enjoy it all with a nice selection of magazines and newspapers – Country Life, anyone? I don’t know what got into United or why this lounge is so great, but I can’t wait to go back . . . Now if United would just start flying the 787 to London too . . . Pictures below to whet your appetite.

Laura Flippin Picture 1Laura Flippin Picture 2

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– Laura Flippin

 

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