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

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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New York, New York

Chris and I have strategized and planned, schemed and leveraged, and we’ve finally done it – managed to collect points and miles so that he and the kids and I can go to New York for fun for the week after Christmas and before the New Year.

We know, of course, a lot of things that we want to see – and teenagers are interested in seeing a lot of things that adults are as well, which makes it easier to plan in some respects. On our list: the 9/11 memorial; MOMA; some great restaurants to tempt our foodie palates; definitely a play or a musical or both; and some shopping at the Strand and a few other favorites.

A question for dear readers, however, as one issue has stymied us – what should we do for New Year’s Eve? We are staying in Midtown but are firmly against going to Times Square or any other crazy, crowded places that night. We’ve talked about ice skating but I’m not keen on that, and not sure that Rockefeller Center won’t be a nightmare of people queued up for skating too. Going to dinner early, or even ordering Chinese food into the hotel (see my 2014 blog post for more details on why that is one of my favorite NY experiences) and watching movies in the room is something we have talked about. But are we missing something?

Keep in mind anything outdoors is likely to be cold – if not snowy and slushy – at this time of year. And that all four of us like history, great music, and cool art – if any of that inspires you with ideas. Wait, maybe the King Cole Bar at the St. Regis is calling us . . . .

– Laura Flippin

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.

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– Laura Flippin

 

Coming Home

I’ve been on the road traveling pretty much constantly since mid-2014 and I am just now able to breathe. Hence, the hiatus in posting on this blog. One weekend recently, I was with my family at our weekend place; my brother-in-law traveled separately from the rest of us, taking the train. In the little town where we are, the train stops not too far from the house, and there is always a busy if small gathering of people waiting to meet the travelers who are arriving. The station is one of those where you can park right next to the tracks and the platform, so you can even sit in the car and see the train coming in and the passengers alight. Sometimes the train is late, as it was that evening, but there is always a tableau. Some families with balloons for college kids returning home. A few kids waiting for their dad or mom. And just people in transit, moving through the old-fashioned station with its covered portico and flickering lights.

A little Norman Rockwell, I’ll admit but there is indeed something moving about it. Many singers and musicians have written about trains and what they mean to us as a sense of place and travel in time – think of Merle Haggard and Train Whistle Blues (“Every time I see that lonesome railroad train, It makes we wish I was going home again”) or Peter, Paul and Mary and 500 Miles (“If you miss the train I’m on you will know that I am gone”). Or one of my favorites, from Marc Cohn, Ghost Train:

Some trains they leave in the morning

Some leave in the afternoon

Some trains they leave here

Right on time

And some they just leave too soon

A few years back, the UK Telegraph even had an article about great train-related songs – you can find it at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/journeysbyrail/6406122/Music-on-the-train-Great-rail-related-songs.html

In a world where plane travel is the fastest way to go, and where the automobile is still viewed as the easiest freedom on the road, there is something special about the train, even when it’s just passing through the station in your town, on the way to another place.

– Laura Flippin

Playing Tourist in My Hometown

I’m a native of the Washington DC area, and over the years have seen most of the famous landmarks and locations multiple times. But more often during the daily commute, I mostly see monuments and museums as they pass by in the rush-hour traffic. It’s been a long time since I spent a weekend or more touring in my own hometown.

During the Independence Day holiday, with some friends and family in town, however, I did the marathon of tourism. With two thirteen-year old boys in tow, neither of whom had been to DC before except briefly when they were too small to remember the trip, we had a lot of ground to cover. We began on Friday (7/3) with lunch at Matchbox in Chinatown – great food but service was slow , followed by the Newseum on Pennsylvania Avenue and then a late dinner at Minh’s Vietnamese restaurant in Arlington, Virginia. The Newseum is perfect for pre-teen and early teenage kids. First, there are a lot of visual displays like sections of the Berlin Wall and a damaged antenna from the World Trade Center 9/11 wreckage. Second, there isn’t a lot of reading of long descriptions and narratives – many of the exhibits are largely done around objects themselves or speak for themselves, like Pulitzer Prize winning photographs. And finally, the place is huge and has a plethora of gift shops with cool kid-oriented stuff – our purchase was a massive Uncle Sam-style plush hat that one of the boys wore all weekend; very patriotic!

On the Fourth of July itself, we wisely avoided the downtown area and instead spent the day at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum annex near Dulles Airport, the Udvar-Hazy facility. With IMAX films, an observation tower where you can see the big planes taking off from the airport, and plenty of real planes and space vehicles to view, it was the perfect place to spend the day. Highlights of this “museum” – which is really the size of multiple airplane hangars – included seeing the Concorde (ah, how I wish I had been able to fly on it when it was in service!), the F-22 Blackbird, the space shuttle Discovery, and the Enola Gay. The only real downside of Udvar-Hazy is that the only option for lunch there is a McDonald’s restaurant on site. And given that Udvar-Hazy is located pretty far from anywhere else, you can’t walk to another site. We settled for a late lunch at a local Mexican restaurant in nearby Chantilly as the thought of a Happy Meal was not well received by the foodie members of our touring group.

More to follow in Part 2 . . .

– Laura Flippin

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