Hearing Impaired Fliers – How Can Airlines Help?

What would you do if you couldn’t hear all the announcements during a flight?

On a recent flight, I wound up sitting next to a passenger who was on the quiet side. It only took me a few moments to figure out she was hearing-impaired. I can’t tell to what degree. All I knew: She didn’t respond to announcements – from the “no electronics” announcement to beverage service.

I’m pretty sure the crew had to realize the passenger was hearing impaired. I can’t say they went out of their way to help her or keep her aware of what’s up; they didn’t even say anything to her about keeping her eReader on during the last bit of the descent. Of course, I chalked that up as evidence that consumer electronics have no affect on the airplane’s instrumentation (the FAA is even seeking comment on the topic of consumer electronics). The crew was very nice overall, but they seemed to overcompensate in not treating a hearing-impaired passenger different from anyone else. Her window seat probably made the situation a bit more difficult, too.

The situation made me wonder – how should airline cabin crews deal with hearing-impaired passengers? Do any of you know about their policies? If you’re hearing-impaired, how would you prefer to get information from the cabin crew? I know that I’d be willing to help out a fellow passenger in that situation.

Icelandair Expands Routes – Plus Sky Harbor Versus Gateway

What U.S. cities are trying to lure service from Norwegian Air Shuttle and its coming fleet of 787 Dreamliners? (Image from Boeing)

Icelandair is set to fly to yet another U.S. destination starting May 15, 2013. It’ll start serving Anchorage, Alaska with two flights a week. It’s only seasonal service, so it will only last through mid-September, according to the Alaska Dispatch.

This news made a few things pop into my head.

First, no news outlet has asked Icelandair the interesting question: What’s the purpose of this intercontinental flight? Who’s it going to serve? Tourists? Business travelers? If the latter, what sort of business connections are Alaska and Iceland forging? What’s the bigger, more-interesting story behind this route? How did Anchorage land it? The Denver Post did a decent job when Icelandair announced seasonal service to Denver International Airport … so why is even the Washington Post satisfied to ralph up the Icelandair press release close to verbatim?

Second, I see this as yet another sign that foreign airlines are eager to push into the United States. I recently wrote that Norwegian Air Shuttle will soon have the Boeing 787 Dreamliner in its fleet … and it hasn’t announced all of its destinations. Who are the players, as far as U.S. airports? Who is jockeying to connect to Norway? As for the why – it has a sound economy, and it’s a spectacular destination for travelers. The former is important because it represents a chance for American cities to connect with a solid eonomic power. And let’s not forget that Air New Zealand is also looking to shack up with more U.S. airports.

Air New Zealand could serve Sky Harbor – if airport officials work up the nerve to ask for a dance. (Follash, via Wikimedia Commons)

My final thought brings me back to Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, as so many things do … or rather, to its lack of intercontinental flights. I’ve watched other airports announce new intercontinental flights while Sky Harbor acts like a wallflower at the high-school dance. It makes me wonder if Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport isn’t Arizona’s future for intercontinental travel. It has the runway space, that’s for sure. How long will Phoenix-Mesa Gateway stay content with Allegiant, Frontier and Spirit? A long shot, I know, since so much traffic connects at Sky Harbor. But a few more domestic airlines could position Phoenix-Mesa Gateway to oust Sky Harbor. And it’s really not addressed in its master plan. But who knows? Master plans can change when opportunities arise.

Bucket List & Beyond: 6 Gag-Worthy Travel Writing Clichés

As much as I like travel, I dislike most travel writing. Publishing is easy these days, and that allows a lot of hacks to get their voices heard. You get lots of overwritten descriptions and ludicrous praise, all leaning on the same old clichés.

Many decent writers have compiled lists of travel writing clichés. They’re poked fun at them, skewered them, begged other writers to just please stop. But new ones abound! These are some of the latest I’ve spotted floating in the travel writing toilet.

Staycation – The first time I saw this, it was a clever commentary on an American economy that made it hard for many people to travel. Now it’s just a tool for hospitality-industry marketing stooges to entice people in a given city to take advantage of some sort of deal at their properties. Take Phoenix: It has no leisure travel during the summer, so hotels chirp about discounted "staycations" to put swimsuit-clad butts into their pools. And now the travel writing industry is continues to ride it hard.

Bucket list – A movie starring Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson inflicted this morbid phrase on us. Now it’s ubiquitous as "My Big Fat Greek (Whatever)”. Not only is it a sign of a creatively bankrupt writer, but it’s also a great excuse to procrastinate. Instead of a bucket list, make yourself a "next trip" list. It’s far more motivating. And you won’t sound like another woolly voice bleating about your bucket list.

Explore – I shudder everytime a travel article exhorts me to “explore” a destination. Look, I don’t care how remote or off the beaten path you travel: If it has signs posted or a travel article about it, someone else discovered, explored, mapped and catalogued it. Not you. “Explore” is a slab of self-aggrandizement marinated in ego. You’re not Admiral Byrd or Sir Edmund Hillary. Get over it.

Top/Best/Most Lists – I’m guilty of making lists. And I’ll own up to using Top/Best/Most/Whatever. But then I realized something: There is no legit way to quantify the best of anything. You might be able to get away with most popular, best attended … or something like that if you have the data. Otherwise, just tell me about 10 great glacier hikes or your 5 favorite themed hotel or 7 overnight hikes I shouldn’t miss.

Savvy traveler – Google this term. You’ll get 217,000 results. “Savvy” means you’re in your comfort zone. Put me anywhere in Asia, and I am not savvy. I’ll get by. But I’ll stumble and bumble and gain some humility. You can’t earn that perspective when you’re in a place that allows you to be “savvy.” And another thing: No travel article can make you savvy – only going somewhere, getting lost, digging your way out and connecting with the place will make you have a clue.

Guilty pleasures – I hate the idea that anyone should conceal what makes them happy for fear of being judged. That defines a guilty pleasure: “If my hipster fans find out I’d rather listen to old Warrant ballads than The Antlers, they won’t think I’m smart and cool.” Bollocks to them, then. If you love going to Las Vegas or going on cruises … well, you and I probably won’t be travel buddies. But that’s OK – there are all sorts of destinations and activities for all kinds of people. Go have fun and don’t worry about what I or anyone else thinks about it. Well, unless you’re making your bucket list and checking it twice …

Norway and Finland – Getting There, Around and Back

All aboard for the next train out of Flam, Norway!

Getting around is part of the fun of a visit to Norway and Finland. Our trip gave us a chance to check out just about every mode of transportation and many brands, from United Airlines to the Gjene ferry. Here’s the wrap-up:

  • 1 leg on US Airways (Phoenix to Chicago)
  • 1 leg on Scandinavian Airlines (Chicago to Stockholm Arlanda)
  • 7 legs on Norwegian Air Shuttle (Arlanda, Oslo, Tromso, Bergen, Helsinki – see my review)
  • 2 legs on United Airlines (Stockholm to Newark, Newark to Phoenix)
  • Round trip on the VR train (Helsinki to Turku)
  • 1 leg on a boat from Memurubu to Gjende (Jotunheimen, Norway)
  • Round trip on ferry to Suomenlinna (Helsinki)
  • A few hundred miles of driving in Norway
The VR train is a nice way to get around Finland. And it’s not even the country’s fastest.

Norwegian Air Shuttle is the surprise of the bunch; nice planes, good service, good on-time performance and a very nice bit of regional flair.

The VR train was less of a surprise since European rail service has a good reputation. The VR exceeded our expectations, though. Watch for a full review here.

United Airlines wasn’t much of a revelation overall. But somehow, I got us seats in Economy Plus for the flight from Newark to Phoenix. That extra few inches of legroom was a nice surprise. If you have a few extra bucks or enough air miles for the upgrade, I’d highly recommend United Airlines Economy Plus. I was more than a bit surprised by the satellite TV in every seat. Had I not been hip-deep in a re-read of A Song of Ice and Fire, I would’ve thrown out $7 for the 4+-hour flight … especially since Goal TV is one of the stations. United Airlines seems to be in the middle of some real improvements for domestic flights.

T-Mobile “World” Smartphone Disappoints

A smart phone could be handy for checking out foreign cities like Helsinki. Too bad T-Mobile dropped the ball on my latest trip.

People act like a smartphone can change their world. I had a less-lofty hope – I just wanted a smartphone that would be handy for traveling.

All I had in mind – a smartphone that could connect to 4G for GPS and a little bit of social network fun (mostly to give a real-time glimpse at some of my destinations).

That’s how I wound up with a Samsung Galaxy S Blaze. The T-Mobile sales person hooked me up with an upgrade to this phone, which is part of a class of smartphone known as “world phones.” Well, neither T-Mobile nor the S Blaze did much to help me travel abroad – so “world phone” is a misnomer.

Keep in mind, I bought this phone and took the subsequent trip to Scandinavia before I knew about TravelSIM.com.au, a clever company based in Australia. It offers pre-paid SIM cards online and in stores.
The T-Mobile store staff told me what I needed to do: Call T-Mobile, get my phone unlocked, buy a SIM card once I reached my destination (in this case, Scandinavia).

You can imagine how easy this would’ve been with TravelSIM – I could’ve carefully reviewed my options at home rather than making an ill-advised decision on the fly in an airport cell phone store.
T-Mobile’s customer service failed me at Step 2: I called three times to get my unlock code, which they were supposed to text and e-mail to me. I still haven’t gotten my unlock code.

My wife had better luck with her unlock code. So onto Step 3: Get a SIM card. We did this at the airport in Oslo, Norway. A few things worked against us: The sales person at the mobile phone store didn’t have much inclination to explain our SIM card options (he was not Scandinavian, and thus lacked the inherent friendliness of most of the people in the region). Talking to him was frustrating enough that we didn’t ask many questions. But we at least had a phone for any emergency that might arise.

I was able to connect to WiFi networks, but that wasn’t much help in the more remote areas.

So a word to my T-Mobile friends: Either have a “world phone” or not, none of this half-assed in-between nonsense. I really couldn’t used some GPS help in more than a few places. It’s ridiculous that you can call something a “world phone” if you fail to get me an unlock code, and then give me no concrete idea of what to look for in a SIM card. Better yet, sell a SIM card for different regions for travelers.

My final word: This is something I’ll remember as my contract expiration grows nearer. And I’ll see what other companies do better than T-Mobile for getting 4G service to its customers, no matter where they travel.

IcelandAir – Random Travel Photo

Now boarding in Bergen – the daily flight to Keflavik, Iceland.

IcelandAir has a cool practice: It names its aircraft after Icelandic volcanoes. I took two flights on Hekla, to and from JFK airport in New York. While I was waiting for a Norwegian Air Shuttle flight in Bergen, Norway, guess who showed up?

Well, it was the IcelandAir 757 Grimsvötn. I always thought the 757 is a particularly good-looking airplane. Something about the IcelandAir colors – and naming them after volcanoes – makes them even more sleek and slick. So I snapped a photo … and got jealous that I wasn’t going to Reykjavik anytime soon. Still, I guess a flight to Helsinki isn’t such a bad thing.

You can check out a complete list of the names of IcelandAir planes. Just be sure to scroll down to Fleet List.

Social Media for Travel Geeks – About Trippy.com

A few days ago, I started playing around with a social media travel site called Trippy.com. In a nutshell, it lets you organize places you’ve been and places you want to go with a photo to represent each of them. Trippy.com lets you organize them in boards. Let’s say you want a board of cool hotels and the best places to get dessert around the world. Name the boards accordingly, and then search for the place in the Trippy.com database. You can pick a photo that’s offered, or upload your own.

It’s addicting fun, and a nice way for bloggers to get an extra link to their blog, generate buzz, swap travel ideas. It integrates into Facebook.com, and it’s easy to share your boards with other social media sites. I’ve built a few based on cool hotels, stuff to do and flavors of the world.

There’s just one thing that annoys me about Trippy.com: When you sign up, it automatically makes you follow a little clatch of flavor-of-the-moment celebrities. And that shows up on social media sites connected to your profile.

I turned purple with rage at the idea of anyone who knows me seeing "Justin followed Jason Mraz on Trippy.com" on any of my social media pages. I un-followed the pre-loaded celebrities with extreme prejudice – but not before it wound up on my Facebook.com profile.

A "nice to have" would be some way to post updates – just some sort of random, pithy, travel-related thoughts. It might exist, and I just haven’t found it yet; if so, feel free to correct me. The login process is also pretty slow – I’d blame that on all the needlessly cute animation – which add nothing to the experience.

So Trippy.com is good social media fun for travel fiends. It has some flaws, but the Trippy.com team seems open to feedback. I’d expect to see some changes in the near future that will improve the site. I’m for once a fairly early adopter (I think --), and very interested in seeing how this site plays out.

Curiosity Mars Rover: Waste of Money?

Congratulations on wasting $100 million landing a remote-controlled buggy on Mars. Not sure how this helps us poor people here on Earth, but great job.

Nope. These aren’t my words. It’s just a turdy bit of meme humor oozing its way around Facebook. I fixed the punctuation because -- well, it drove me crazy the other way.

But not as much as the vapid message. Yeah, I know – it’s a sarcastic eCard. It’s supposed to be funny, biting commentary to bring us back from the heady excitement of the latest Mars rover. But I absolutely loathe it. Because some people agree. And they see validation in the caustic message.

Tell you what. If that’s the way you feel, I’m here to collect all the technology that came from the space program. You know, that stuff you use every single day that doesn’t help "us poor people here on Earth."

First up, gimme your cell phone. In fact, give me everything that uses rechargeable batteries. Yep, that includes your cordless drill. Oops, I see a bunch of Velcro (or hook-and-loop fasteners, if you don’t like the brand name) on your clothes. I’ll take that. And if you ever wind up in need of a new heart? Sorry, but you don’t get an artificial heart while you’re on the transplant list. And no CAT scans for you, either.

Oh, and cough up your bicycle helmet. Guess where that came from? Yep, the “wasteful” space program. Hey, that’s a great show you’re watching on your SATELLITE FREAKIN’ TV DISH! Hand it over.

And there’s plenty more that I don’t have time, room or inclination to mention. Educate yourself instead: Google the term "technology derived from space program". Better yet, read this great post by Jason Torchinsky on Jalopnik.com. And get a clue.

Let’s not forget another side benefit of the space program and projects like the Mars rover: inspiration. I hope your kids watch the exploits of Curiosity and every Mars rover to follow -- and wonder what it would be like to expand humankind’s knowledge of the universe. Maybe they’ll study hard, get a doctorate, become a test pilot and be the first person to leave a human footprint on Mars.

God, I hope so. Kids need that right about now. I drive down the road and see empty storefronts, people making money by twirling signs, a proliferation of cell phone shops. If we can kindle some interest in the sciences, that can change. The Mars rover can help.

One last point – if you think the space program is a waste of resources better devoted to helping people on Earth, answer this: What’s the last thing you did to better the world around you? And how does it measure up against the people who put Curiosity on Mars?

Craft Beer in Maryland – meet Growler’s

The taps at Growler’s of Gaithersburg have something for craft beer fans of every inclination.

When you’re in sleepy suburbia, a craft beer right from the tap can be hard to find. I thought I was out of luck – the clock had ticked past 11 p.m. And that meant Dogfish Head AleHouse was closed. We were already in the car and headed in its direction.

I worked the smart phone and came up with a likely suspect: Growler’s. I had a good feeling from the name, so we headed into downtown Gaithersburg in pursuit of some craft beer.

We found a two-story brick building in the otherwise shut-for-the-night street. Upstairs is where we the actions is.

And the row of taps convinced us we’d have some quality craft beer.

The Roof Razer IPA was first to catch my attention. Then a porter … and then, Quint Eastwood. I asked the bartender what it was. She answered by pouring me a sample. It tasted somewhat Belgian, but heavier in body and malt than a typical tripel. I could taste lots of ripe fruit, along with a hint of oak and leather. I had to have one.

Sarah went for the porter, which improved as it warmed up. I also had a strong cherry amber ale – sour beer fans will love it. But even non-sour fans (like me) will like the in-your-face flavor.

And there were several other selections that we had to leave untried … at least until next time.

One local said Dogfish Head AleHouse staff visit Growler’s regularly. I can see why. The Dogfish Head motto is “Off-Center Ales for Off-Center People.” Well, Growler’s is a match for Dogfish Head. (The friendly local was also raised in Ireland and loved to put on his best brogue when speaking to the bartender …”Give me friend a point, love!”)

Next time you’re north of Washington D.C., remember that Dogfish Head doesn’t have the only craft beer in town. And find time for a visit to Growler’s.

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