Scandinavian Airlines Review: O’hare to Arlanda

 Scandinavian Airlines review
Our ride to Stockholm.

My flight to Stockholm marked two firsts for me: my first flight on an Airbus A330, and my first flight on Scandinavian Airlines (SAS). And I was eager to write a Scandinavian Airlines review.

I boarded the SAS flight at Chicago O’Hare International Airport. I found a very friendly cabin crew -- and a sweltering-hot cabin. That’s coming from a longtime Phoenix resident, so take that seriously. We were airborne for a good 30 minutes before the cabin cooled down. I didn’t see any of the air nozzles that are common in most aircraft. This may be a quirk of the A330: I found other flyers who said the same thing about the Airbus A330 (this one, for example).

The economy class seating seemed more cramped than I recall on other airlines’ long-haul flights – Asiana, IcelandAir and Qantas all seemed to have more room. Most of the cabin was arranged in a two-four-two configuration. But our economy-class seats were where the fuselage narrows, so there were just three seats in the middle row.

 Scandinavian Airlines review
The cheap seats of the SAS Airbus A330.

I’d hoped that Scandinavian Airlines would have something really cool on its A330 that Qantas and Asiana have on their 747s and 777s: a water fountain. Several times during those even-longer flights, I refilled my water bottle and kept dehydration at bay. The Scandinavian Airlines flight attendants looked puzzled when I asked, but they did have a "do-it-yourself" water station aft. Once I figured out that it was there, I drank my fill (it would be nice to know about amenities like that -- maybe mention it in the in-flight magazines?).

The A330 did have something cool of its own, though – cameras facing forward and downward. You could select them from the on-demand entertainment system. The resolution was a little low, but it was nice for a look outside.

Now, about Scandinavian Airlines itself – its social media team is very responsive, and the cabin crew seemed to take a great deal of pride in the airline. I overheard one flight attendant answering a passenger’s question about the chicken-and-rice meal they were serving: "It’s excellent -- it’s SAS!" There was a certain charm in that answer. And it was a fairly tasty meal.

This was only my third flight on an airline with a Scandinavian flavor. IcelandAir did a better job at showcasing its roots – the most visible manifestations were the Icelandic language program in the on-demand entertainment system, the Icelandic phrases with translations on the headrests and the Icelandic-branded bottled water waiting on each seat. It would’ve been fun to learn a bit of a Scandinavian language en-route; maybe I just didn’t find it.

 Scandinavian Airlines review
Down the jetway.

Speaking of water, SAS had a bottle at each seat along with a pillow and blanket. They skipped the amenity kit you’ll find on Asiana and Qantas flights.

Boarding was quick and efficient – typical of twin-aisle jets.

SkyTrax rates SAS as a three-star airline. That’s a fair assessment, and one I can echo in my  Scandinavian Airlines review. Other than a hot (at first) cabin, I have no complaints. SAS just lacks a certain flair and sense of place that I see in other national flag carriers.


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Civilian “Young Turk” Mountain Bike – My Thoughts

A look at the Young Turk. (photo courtesy of Civilian)

Big bicycle brands love flash. Bright colors. Huge graphics. The hollow rattle of a carbon frame. And many riders share the love.

But not all of them. Some prefer understatement.

For them, there’s Idaho-based Civilian. It makes the bicycle equivalent of Cold War-era Soviet MiG fighters – hardy, utilitarian, affordable.

Civilian encompasses the entire bike spectrum, from road bike to mountain bike … all built from steel – not the lightest material, but hard to beat for ride quality, longevity and value. Civilian is creating a dealer network, says designer Tyson Hart. So far, Civilian is only available online at Competitive Cyclist. Hart hopes to find shops "with some soul" that fit the Civilian ethos.

The Civilian frames are made in China, then painted and assembled in Taiwan, Hart says.

"The factory is Taiwanese owned and I spent much time researching manufacturers that I wanted to partner with and I chose the factory based on working conditions, quality of output and overall professionalism," he says. "The factory I use to build Civilian excelled at all three criteria and is used by other US- and Europe-based bike companies."

The Civilian mountain bike line includes the Luddite ($1,049) a singlespeed 29er and The Young Turk ($1,499) 29er, which has a 10-speed drivetrain and a Rock Shox Reba suspension fork.

The Young Turk’s sole nods to advanced mountain bike technology are a Rock Shox suspension and Avid hydraulic disc brakes. The 10-speed drivetrain is a bit newfangled since 10-speed rear derailleurs and cassettes are relative newcomers. It’s still stripped down compared to 27- and 30-speed drivetrains.

Eliminating a front derailleur isn’t a very popular setup for a mountain bike. But it could be a perfect setup for many Phoenix-area rides: Many riders could find some use for a 10-speed setup at McDowell Mountain Regional Park, Papago Park, the Desert Classic at South Mountain and the Fantasy Island North Singlestrack network in the West Valley. The flatter, rolling terrain on these trails makes the extreme gear range less important. And fewer chainrings makes it easier to dial a drivetrain in and makes cleaning it a few steps easier.

The Olympic Games – Why I Won’t Watch

From the good ol’ days of the Olympics, before $42 million opening ceremonies and the “Brand Exclusion Zone”.

The pricetag for the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games in London was $42 million, according to Sports Illustrated. The same article says the opening ceremonies in Beijing cost $100 million.

This is a sign of sport gone wrong. Add that to the odious Brand Exclusion Zone, which is the first reason I will not watch a moment of the Olympic coverage. Now, a lot of people will just say that it’s just a sign of the times. That it’s too late to change. I disagree. We can turn the clock back with just one act:

Don’t watch the Olympic Games.

I hate to say that. The gymnastics and track and field events are awesome to watch. I love soccer. During the winter, I have always looked forward to the boblsed, the skeleton, even the curling.
This is a challenge of my discipline. And it catches athletes in the crossfire. But there’s no other choice. If people don’t watch, the Olympic Games become worth less money. And maybe sponsors will realize the games are not about them: The games are about the athletes … their stories … their accomplishments.

If you want to return the Olympic Games to some semblance of their former selves, don’t tune in. Send a message. Stay strong. The results won’t happen overnight – but change is inevitable if you starve the beast of its money.

Rise Energy Foods, Tested On the Besseggen Trail in Norway

A perfect place and perfect time for testing the Rise energy food bars.

A boxful of Rise energy foods got me through two of my big days in a recent trip to Norway. It was only my second experience with the Rise energy bar – the first was the time I found one of its “Crunchy Carob Chip” bars at a local bike shop. I am a sucker for carob (the pudgy 12-year-old me used to love carob ice cream from Haagen-Dazs).

The interesting thing with Rise energy foods is that they’re formulated for different purposes – breakfast bars, energy bars and protein bars. I tried to stick to the formula during my trip. Though being vegetarian, kosher and gluten-free don’t really enter my testing calculus, some of you might want to know about that. And some bars are dairy-free and vegan. I do, though, like that the Rise energy bar is minimally processed. See the Rise FAQ page for more info.

There was one particular day that really let me put the hammer down on the sampler platter of energy bars that the folks from Rise sent me for review. That was my 8-hour hike in Jotunheimen. The bars would have to fuel me through steep climbs, through snowdrifts and in pelting sleet and heavy winds.


Burning energy on a climb on the Besseggen trail in Jotunheimen, Norway.

and I both sawed through the various flavors. What we found is that the Breakfast and Energy+ were our favorites. They had a nice moistness that made them easy to eat – and you got the feeling of eating real food. There was an unprocessed vitality to them. The Cherry almond, Crunchy perfect pomegranate and Blueberry coconut energy foods topped our list.

Flavor-wise, I had no qualms about the protein bars. A hike in Norway is bound to be cold – and Jotunheimen and its 9-mile Besseggen trail didn’t disappoint. The cold temperatures made the protein bars harden. My solution was to shove them into my gloves for about five minutes before eating. Even then, I’d gnaw off a small chunk, let it warm up in my mouth, chew, swallow and repeat. The protein bars were tasty enough when warm, and actually had a trace of moisture (unlike many protein bars).

They propelled us to the end at Memurubu, keeping the calories coming without weighing us down. That just made more room in our bellies for a post-hike pile of ham, mashed turnips and potatoes.

A few days earlier, the Rise energy bar also powered me through a 10K run in Tromsø , a city in Norway above the Arctic Circle. I ate a bar about an hour before the start. I had a nice, sustained supply of energy and no growling stomach.

We all know there’s no shortage of energy foods in the world. And I know why we have our old stand-bys. If those flavors are getting a little stale, though, be sure to check the Rise energy bar a shot.

The minor towers next to the citizen.

Sky Harbor – 5 Reasons to Step up for Air New Zealand

An Air New Zealand 777 in Shanghai, where the air looks like Phoenix during a summer haboob. (Follash, via Wikimedia Commons)

Air New Zealand wants more flights to the U.S. Denver and Houston appear to have inside track, according to Aviation Week.

Keep in mind, United Airlines pulled the plug on flights from Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport. And Denver has done a nice job of snagging intercontinental travel.

What we have here is an opportunity. Air New Zealand – the flag carrier of a country that loves leisure travel – is telling airlines “come and get us … we’re ready, even before we get our new 787s.” And let’s remember: Phoenix Sky Harbor doesn’t need to fill an Air New Zealand 777 with Phoenicians to succeed – it needs to draw enough people from the region … an entirely feasible goal.

This is another opportunity for an airport like Phoenix Sky Harbor International to step up. Air New Zealand is confident that flights from cities from other than Los Angeles and San Francisco are viable. Sky Harbor should step into the void – especially since Denver told Aviation Week “We haven’t talked to Air New Zealand.”

You see, Sky Harbor has a few benefits that Denver and Houston don’t. Let’s take a look, shall we?

1. Better Weather

Phoenix Sky Harbor has better flying weather than either. The only time Phoenix has much potential for weather-related delays is in the very narrow scope of the summer monsoon season. So you have a better chance of on-time flights. These benevolent weather conditions are also good for flights that would connect flyers from the region to flights bound for New Zealand.

And let’s remember: Winter here is summer in New Zealand. So Americans will take the chance to escape winter weather and bask in the super-mild New Zealand summer. An airport like Denver means de-icing, which means increased costs and flight delays. Ever seen an aircraft de-ice in Phoenix?

Queenstown would be just two flights away if Air New Zealand and Phoenix could team up.

2. Convenience

Sky Harbor’s footprint is relatively small, and it will only shrink when the new Sky Train opens in early 2013. So no matter what airline brings New Zealand-bound travelers, they will be able to get to their Air New Zealand flight easily.

3. Lower Operating Costs

If you’ve been to Los Angeles International Airport, you’ve probably noticed the fancy-fication of the Tom Bradley International Terminal. Somebody has to pay for that – often, that means airlines as part of a charge to use the facility. Brett Snyder, aka Cranky Flier, writes that “costs per enplanement at the airport will rise from $12 today to ‘only’ $17 somewhere around 2016.” Sky Harbor’s own website boasts that its enplanement costs rank in the bottom 20 percent of the nation’s airports: “Airline costs will increase an average of 5 percent per year over 10 years resulting in the cost per enplaned passenger increasing from almost $5 now to between $7 and $8 by 2016.” These figures are per passenger.

Air New Zealand Pacific Economy 777-300ER cabin
The nice-looking interior of an Air New Zealand Triple 7.
For the record, Denver is more than $12 per enplaned passenger.

4. Shorter Lines

Again, travelers used to LAX will smile and nod here: Customs at LAX is a miserable snaking line of humanity. It’s an unwelcome “welcome home”. And imagine being a visiting Kiwi who encounters this after a flight from laid-back New Zealand; you’ll be ready to get back on the Air New Zealand flight that brought you. The far-more-homey Sky Harbor can do better. It already does.

5. Teaming up for Visiting Tourists

A flight from Sky Harbor to New Zealand is a chance to bring Kiwis to Phoenix, too. And they are avid travelers. It’s a great opportunity to create some itineraries and deals to get Kiwis to see the best of the Southwest.

And it would be a great experience for the Arizona Office of Tourism. As a country, New Zealand does a magnificent job of making travel easy for visitors. Its network of “iSites” are a great resource for visitors – for first-hand local advice and booking in equal amounts. An exchange of ideas could benefit Arizona with an influx of concepts that could make our state more welcoming for foreign visitors.

This adds up to opportunity. If Phoenix has the foresight and fortitude, it could be on the shortlist for flights from Air New Zealand. And it can start acting like the big city that it is.

Special thanks to my man Chris in Denver for the heads-up on this news. He was lookin’ out for me while I was in Scandinavia.

Norway – Hike in the Land of the Giants

Jotunheimen isn’t a place I’d ever thought about until seeing the movie Thor.

There. I admitted it. Sometimes I need a little mindless entertainment. And Thor’s reference to Jotunheim, the home of the Frost Giants, made me wonder about its place in Norse mythology.

And that’s what led me to Norway and to Jotunheimen (or Land of the Giants) – to clinging to a steep ridge between two icy-cold lakes fed by snowmelt. Earlier today, sleet and rain pelted me. Powerful winds buffeted me. I sawed through all my Rise energy bars.

Sarah leads the way through the beginning of the snow.

Jotunheimen is not the dark, bleak land of Thor’s foes. It is, though, as spectacular a landscape as I’ve ever seen and every bit worthy of a mention in Norse mythology. Our hike started just around 1 p.m. on the far east side of Gjende, the largest of the glacial lakes in sight. We parked our rented hybrid Toyota at Gjendesheim Turisthytte and loaded up. In our packs – rain gear, energy bars, water, sleeping bags, tent (just in case).

Our plan is to hike the Bessegen route. This will take us to a maximum elevation of about 5,725 feet. We’ll pass by Bessvatnet, a smaller lake 1,200 feet higher than Gjende. Our goal is to reach Memurubu, a tourist hut about 9 miles away. In this case, “tourist hut” is a misnomer. It’s a rather nice back-country hotel. The next day, we’ll take a boat down Gjende back to Gjendesheim.

This GPS track will give you an idea of what to expect if you hike the Besseggen.

We have the route virtually to ourselves for the first 2 hours or so. Then we start running into people who started their day at Memurubu; many take the boat in the evening and hike back the next day.

The views of Jotenheimen are spectacular. And it spoils the rest of Norway for us. A few days later in Flam, we’ll be at a magnificent fjord. And we’ll shrug and say “Meh. It’s no Jotunheimen.” That’s how cool it is.

The hike itself starts with a rigorous climb. And there’s one ridge that tests my fear of heights. The exposure is sharp on either side – and we descend about 1,000 feet in about a half-mile. I’m hyper-aware of my backpack’s effect on my balance, and the way my gloves compromise my handholds. And shoving my huge Lowa boots into the available space? Also a chore. But I get down after using every part of me – buttcheeks included – to clutch the rocks.

This is me getting my third wind.

It takes a third and fourth wind to get me to the descent into Memurubu. As we drop lower, a rainbow appears – ending right at the hut. And probably right to the table where I’ll find a plate of ham, mashed turnips, carrots, baked potatoes and gravy waiting to refuel me from the hike. The Middle America-ness of the meal reminds me that many northern Midwest settlers came from places like Norway. It’s an interesting thought that sticks with me through dessert – and into an uninterrupted slumber in a roomful of backpackers.

Watch my Facebook page for more photos of Jotunheimen and other places from my trip to Norway and Finland. And here’s a short video clip!

Memurubu, the end of the rainbow and a big plate of ham.
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Norwegian Air Shuttle – Review and More

Norwegian Air Shuttle
Greta Garbo graces the tail of this Norwegian Air Shuttle 737-800.

Norwegian Air Shuttle and I became very good friends during my trip to Sweden, Norway and Finland.

Norwegian Air Shuttle specializes in budget air travel – like a Scandinavian Southwest Airlines with assigned seating. My wife handled the bookings. Knowing that I like sampling different airlines, she looked into Finnair for some flights. But she found Norwegian Air was the way to go for cheap air travel. Its fares were sometimes half the price of its competitors. She booked us on flights from Stockholm to Oslo to Tromsø to Bergen to Helsinki.

Like Southwest, Norwegian Air Shuttle runs a fleet of 737s, most of which are the new 800 model (including a few with the cool new Sky interior based on the 787). The airline has a neat shtick to put a regional stamp on its fleet: Most of its aircraft have the image and name of a Scandinavian who, in some way, made a mark on the world. Think Greta Garbo, Anders Celsius, Edvard Munch and Edvard Grieg, to name just a few that you should recognize. Nice way to add some history to the air travel experience.

Norwegian Air Shuttle
The Boeing Sky interior – more headroom and a sleek look for this Norwegian Air 737.

Its niche is cheap air travel, so be ready to pay for every extra on a Norwegian Air Shuttle flight: checked baggage, meals, even water. But here’s what else you can count on based on my flights:

  • You’ll get where you’re going on-time. I can’t remember a single late flight in the bunch.
  • You’ll board and disembark more quickly than you’d believe. Norwegian Air boards from the main door and from the rear.
  • The cabin crews are pleasant. Not a scowl or ill temper on any of my flights.
  • The flights all have free wi-fi. But you’ll need a European SIM card in your phone to get anything out of it. I wasn’t able to make it work with my U.S. SIM card.

The word is that intercontinental flights are on the horizon for Norwegian Air using several of the 787s the airline has on order. Where will they fly? Well, New York and Bangkok, for sure. But I’d bet that Denver International Airport would push to land Norwegian Air. Denver’s population is pretty outdoorsy, and it’s a United Airlines hub. So it could draw from other regions to get people headed to Oslo to dive into the many outdoor adventures that await in Norway. Meanwhile, I’d bet all my US Airways Dividend Miles that the staff of Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (my hometown airport) hasn’t even considered a bid to lure a few weekly visits from Norwegian Air Shuttle’s Dreamliners.

Norwegian’s CEO is quoted in the in-flight magazine as aiming to make the intercontinental air travel affordable through the Dreamliner’s low operating costs and fuel efficiency. That could open Norway as a tourist destination for a U.S. airport smart enough to make itself attractive. And with the right price and level of service, Norwegian Air Shuttle could compete with Scandinavian Airlines as a major player in getting travelers to Norway – and to Sweden, Denmark and Finland, too.


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Norway – First Few Travel Days

Norway from the air.

Traveling to Scandinavia starts with a 9 a.m. flight from Phoenix to Chicago a few Thursdays ago. There, we catch a 4 o’clock-ish flight to Stockholm on SAS. The flight lands at 8 a.m. on Friday.

What do we do with eight free hours in Stockholm? Grab the Arlanda Express train for the 20-minute ride to the city. There, we wander the city. Take photos. Have a few snacks. And notice that Stockholm is not a city of early risers.

Still, Stockholm comes alive. We go to the City Hall building and the palace. We fall asleep in a library, rouse ourselves and head to the airport for an evening flight to Tromsø, Norway. That gets in around 7 p.m. after stopping in Oslo. We grab a bus, which includes a long stretch underground in the tunnels under the city. Cool!

Hanging out in Stockholm
Hanging out in Stockholm

A little more bumbling, walking and cab-riding and we’re at our campsite. We pitch the tent … and for some reason can’t fall asleep until around 3 a.m. It’s that midnight sun messing with us: We’re far above the Arctic Circle.

The upshot? We wake up the next morning. Or afternoon, rather. It’s 3 p.m. I’ve never slept like that. Ever. Good thing we still have time to eat and get ready for the race. I have a 10K, and Sarah a half marathon. I start at 8 p.m., and she’s off at 10. Should be good times!


Our ride to Stockholm.


The library in Tromso – cool architecture!

Norway – A Quick Update

Norway is a good place to be in the summer. But I still wonder how that ‘good’ would turn really challenging in the winter. I’m still getting my head around the experience – I’ll have more to say when I return. Count on some epic photos … and maybe another quick update or two about where I am at the moment.

And I’ll have a lot to say about how worthless smart phones are for international travel. I love how the industry calls my Samsung Galaxy Blaze a ‘world phone.’ Not so much, as you’ll learn in a future episode.