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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United Global Services

In the world of frequent flier programs, the most coveted may surely be United’s mysterious and elite “Global Services” status. For those of you unacquainted with this magical creature, it really is the only way to travel. Far beyond mere 1K status (100,000 miles annually on United flights), it is something that frequent fliers speak of reverently when they talk about even the most grueling business travel.

How do you obtain entry to this prestigious program? The truth is that no one really knows. United Airlines does not disclose how it selects members, and there are no published criteria for how you get or retain this status. A while ago, the Wall Street Journal published an article that came about as close as any I’ve ever seen to describing some of the keys to the castle: “Inside United’s Secret Club for Top Fliers.” The WSJ suggested that flying at least 100,000 miles a year is a minimum, but that heavy spend with United – perhaps more than $50,000 – and on premium flights and in premium classes of service (Business First and Global First) are what count the most.

Whatever the allure, I can tell you unabashedly that I’m part of the cult. I track my miles and spend with United, I treasure them, I obsess about them, and I work to do whatever it is that meets the magic formula of Global Services. As 2015 draws to a close, I have a spate of international travel coming up and much of it happens to be on United (sorry UAL, but you’re not always the most convenient or price conscious choice for me or my business). And there may be a few personal trips in there as well to round out the year. It’s worth it – every bit. Delayed flight? United puts you on a new connection without your even calling them. Cancelled plane? You’ll be immediately re-booked on any airline they can find to get you where you need to go. Making a tight connection? No worries, you’ll be picked up and escorted to your gate where planes are even held from departure for you.

My own experience with Global Services demonstrates why the program resonates so much with so many loyalists. In January 2013, returning from a wonderful trip to New Zealand, we arrived in Australia for our connecting flight to the US, only to learn that it was cancelled due to mechanical issues. If you’ve ever looked at the size of a 747, you’ll appreciate that re-booking that many people isn’t easy. Many of the passengers on the flight who were in first class were being told the best that could be done was a re-booking in two days. If you were in economy, well, you might as well have just renounced citizenship and decided to move to Oz (no complaints there – Australia and New Zealand are great places for relocation). But with my Global Services status, I went to the counter and asked the United personnel what they could do. The result?  A re-booking on a flight leaving for the US within 2 hours of our originally scheduled United departure from Sydney. Who else on the flight got this treatment? No one except me and one other Global Services member. For that, I am eternally grateful.  Sydney’s a great place but not when you have to get home from a 16 day vacation.

No matter what I do, however, I suspect I’ll never top one of my colleagues, who recently spoke at a dinner honoring him for his years of commitment to human rights, justice and religious liberty on a world stage. He centered his remarks on 10 things he is grateful for – unsurprisingly; they included his family, his friends and colleagues, his good health, and his excellent golf game. But high on the list – not first but nowhere near last – he said it: “United Global Services” – and the crowd gasped, not with shock but with admiration. Some true believers out there, that’s for sure.

So the other day, when I said to Chris that I needed to make sure I got Global Services status for 2016, he looked at me with horror and concern about how I had let there be the slightest doubt of this. I promised I would do my best to stay in the club-without-membership-applications. To which Chris replied that failure was not an option. So United, if you’re out there, I’m traveling and I’m with you.  Just keep me in the club – I can’t go back now that I’ve seen the Promised Land . . .

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