My WestJet Flight Review

I flew aboard a WestJet flight to Toronto seated behind a Pomeranian whose balls are different sizes.

westjet flight review
“You brought a Pomeranian on a WestJet flight?” “I didn’t get it a Plus seat. I’m not buying it a fucking beer. It’s not eating your fucking chicken wrap, Dude.”

OK, before we go further – yes, this is an airline review. But it’s not one of those airline reviews were someone tells you the plane’s registration number, lists which taxiways the pilot used and snivels that the canapes served in business class didn’t meet his standards. That’s a smooth jazz airline review. No, this airline review is heavy metal. You won’t get the jargon and the standard avgeek formula. But I will give you a perfect idea of what to expect from flying on WestJet, a Canada-based airline that gets passengers from Hawaii to Glasgow, mainly through hubs in Toronto and Vancouver.

Alright, we have to address the Pomeranian in the cabin. First off, I did not verify the owner’s claims. See, this Pomeranian was a show dog with world-champion parents. But it didn’t reach Ma and Pop’s lofty heights because of the mismatched marbles. So the owner told me. I actually didn’t know the Pomeranian was present until the flight attendants started cooing over the creature. I grew up with a Pomeranian – the same color as this one – so I had to jump into the conversation. As you can tell, the owners were the oversharing sort.

OK, let’s take a step back to before Flight 1187 took off

Plus seats WestJet
Here’s what you’re looking at for legroom in a Plus seat on WestJet.

This was a work trip, so someone at my organization booked the flights. But I decided to create an account with Westjet, and I noticed that an upgrade into the Plus seats would cost only $35. That got me extra legroom, some free food and a few other perks.

I started off at a self check-in kiosk at Phoenix Sky Harbor (Somewhat) International Airport. It wasn’t working, so a friendly nearby WestJet employee directed me to the desk. There, an employee checked me in and said “there won’t be a ‘1’ in front of the temperature.” No doubt, my friend!

I was in the security line with what I assume to be the WestJet crew. The captain and copilot both vaguely resembled Tony Hale (They’re both going to read this and be like “I knew we should’ve kicked that jerk off the plane.” But guys, c’mon – when does Buster Bluth not steal every single scene in Arrested Development?). They were also bantering with nearby passengers and just seemed unusually outgoing.

Bearing a resemblance to Tony Hale honestly isn’t a bad thing, am I right?

Onboard the WestJet Flight

I had an entire row to myself. We pushed back 10 minutes ahead of time and I enjoyed a funny safety briefing that included the phrase “if you get bored of me, there are six exits throughout the aircraft.” All the jocularity reminded me of flying Qantas.

OBLIGATORY AVGEEK STUFF: This flight was on a 737-700. For the non-avgeeks, this means it’s on the smallish side, but not quite the Short Bus model. It’s a flying Honda Civic – nothing special. We took off from some runway at Sky Harbor … the one next to the Air National Guard and its fleet of KC-135s. I know perfectly well which runway it is, and how to find it. But honestly, who cares? And I’m definitely not giving you the registration number of the aircraft, because that’s even less interesting than the runway number.

By the time we arrived in New Mexico, I had a cold turkey and provolone sandwich and the flight attendant was trying to talk me into a cookie. The crew passed through regularly and always seemed chipper – far more so than their counterparts on the big US-based airlines, on the average (I’ve had some wonderful crews on every airline, but most of been perfunctory to slightly grumpy and haggard). I remember one of the flight attendants being extra-patient as she grabbed a passenger’s cane from the overhead bin to help her to the lavatory.

What About the Pomeranian

You’ve probably forgotten about the Pomeranian by now. Well, so had I. It was stuffed in its carrier, which was then stuff under a seat – a perfect place for a Pomeranian (Editor’s Note: Kidding! Remember, I had a Pomeranian! And why am I saying “editor’s note”? The writer is the editor is the publisher is the IT guy.). Regardless, nary a yap did it utter. Apparently, the dog likes people, but isn’t keen on being touched by anyone but its owners. It’s a showdog … it’s [expletive delete] hair falls out.

This was my Pomeranian, Cujo. She’d steal the show on a WestJet flight – none of these “I’m a showdog and I don’t like being handled” diva histrionics!

Toronto Pearson International Airport is a real-deal international airport. You’ll see Cathay Pacific, China Southern Airlines, Lufthansa, Air Transat, Icelandair and many other airlines headed to places all around the globe.

Soon, I was on my way to downtown Toronto to find the Holiday Inn Toronto Downtown Center. From there, I set off on-foot to get some first impressions of Toronto.

The Return Trip: WestJet Flight 1186

Headed to Toronto on WestJet.

I was at the airport waaaaaaaaay early for this flight. I made the mistake of going through security way too soon and being cooped up behind the “Going to America” section. So I didn’t get to roam the airport the way I like to do. This whole thing of pre-checking American travelers through US Customs before the flight is kind of nice – but the unwary can get stuck in a small slice of airport. So keep that in mind. The immigration, customs, WestJet and security officials were all exceptionally articulate and friendly. Smiles and some humor were not in short supply.

Anyway, I wound up hungry and penned into the Going to the US Only section. I had a decent burger at some place whose names I forgot (it was overcooked a tiny bit for my taste) and a decent-but-forgettable IPA to go along with it.

Flight 1186 was about 10 minutes late to show up, and it took the crew a bit longer to turn the plane around. Still, we arrive only about 20 minutes late.

Another WestJet Upgrade

I ponied up 50 extra bones or clams or whatever you call them for Plus seating again; I didn’t get a whole row to myself, but we had a wonderfully empty middle seat. The flight crew was again friendly, with the two flight attendants both named Ashley making jokes about their shared name.

OBLIGATORY AVGEEK SECTION: Once again, don’t even think for a second that you’re getting a tail number or runway info. We’re keeping it top level – once again, a 737-700.

This time around, I got a chicken wrap (watch out for pieces of chicken slipping from the bottom of the wrap, those wily buggers) that was also decent. I really liked the cheese platter of brie, sliced salami and some sort of whole-wheat crackers. I had filled my infamous 32-ounce Nalgene bottle before boarding, so I was set for drinks. I noticed this place had the fuselage blister that usually means “Internet.” But I didn’t see it mentioned anywhere in the seat pocket information – so maybe it was just for the in-seat entertainment. I watched a few movies and an episode of The Simpsons during the four-hour flight.

We landed. I got off the plane as quickly as people do in the third row. I thanked the crew for another nice flight.

So will I fly WestJet again?

Oh, you betcha. I’m going somewhere served by WestJet, I’m picking them. They’re pretty punctual, the crews are friendly, the entertainment is decent, the food is slightly very good for a glorified domestic flight.

Alright, I’ve made fun of you avgeek characters a lot in this post. Let me make it up to you with a cool shot of a KC-135 at Sky Harbor.

Here’s the thing: It seems like there’s some sort of partnership with American Airlines. I have to figure out the details of that to see if I can make future WestJet flights work well for me from an air miles standpoint. I horde miles like Smaug hordes gold. I never miss a chance to collect more.

From a pure customer experience standpoint, WestJet is a winner across the board – an easy-to-use website, great employees on the ground and in the air, shiny-clean aircraft and competitive prices.

Disclaimer: IHG provided my accommodations in Toronto.

First Impressions of Toronto

A few moments from landing in Toronto.

On paper, I’m nothing you’d expect from an Arizonan. I have an instinctive grasp of hockey. I’m a member of the local curling club. Really, I should be from Canada.

But I haven’t even been to Canada in more than five years. That changed with my first trip away from the Southwest since this spring. I’m here to attend Mindcamp, a conference for creative professionals.

I got here the day before the conference starts just to allow cushion for things to go wrong. So far, the trip has been a mixed bag on that end. My first flight on WestJet (which will get a blog post of its own) was a great success. Unfortunately, my allegedly unlocked phone and international calling plan are hardly living up to the name – yet another time when T-Mobile has disappointed me. I also goofed up my check-in for the Holiday Inn Toronto Downtown Center; that was my fault, though I was able to change my reservation in less than 10 minutes.

My room at the Holiday Inn.

I spent my first evening roaming Toronto. Being a craft beer fan, I had my radar pinging for a likely hangout. I wound up walking down Church Street, which lives up to its name with a series of elegant mini-cathedrals. They are just the tip of what makes Toronto’s architecture interesting; there’s a lot of classic gothic-inspired architecture right alongside some swoopy, modern lines that would be right at home from Sydney to Tokyo. Speaking of which, I can see the CN Tower from my room on the 22nd floor.

toronto c'est what
Testing craft beer at C’est What

Here’s a quick summary of my more interesting finds:

  • C’est What – A terrific beer bar that offers a mix of its own recipes, along with craft brews from around the region. I saw lots of interesting adjuncts from hemp to cacao nibs to ginger. And one of their guest taps, the Dereliction, was rated at more than 200 IBUs! (It was delicious.) They also take their food seriously, and aim for locally sourced ingredients. My poutine was pretty terrific, and the service was very personable and knowledgeable.
  • Loblaw’s – This appears to be a grocery chain, and it’s probably something locals take for granted. But I could’ve disappeared in the seafood section alone. It’s where I’m planning to have my first breakfast, for sure.
  • Toronto Railway Museum – I wish this had been open when I found it. But it was way too late, I guess. It’s built into an old wheelhouse which it shares with Steamwhistle Brewing and some retail stores. There’s also a tiny mini-railway out front along with some locomotives. Beautiful use of existing structures.
  • Daily Sushi Japanese Restaurant– It’s a few doors down from my hotel. I had a nice sampler plate of that chef’s recommendations. The waiter was also kind enough to bring me some tempura squash on the house.
An old locomotive silhouetted against the Toronto skyline

My snap judgment on Toronto is that it has an upwardly mobile, confident, prosperous feel. I don’t find it quite as friendly as Vancouver. The Starbucks outnumber the Tim Horton’s, and damn if I can find anything resembling a for-real coffeehouse on par with Stumptown, Intelligentsia or anything of that ilk. If you put me down somewhere random in Toronto and didn’t tell me where I was, it would remind me of a power-washed Chicago -- even though the drivers and cyclists are far more courteous here. It just has that big Midwestern city flavor to it. I do love its cosmopolitan diversity, though. It’s the melting pot that the U.S. claims to be.

Next up, I take the bus to Orillia for Mindcamp!


Book Review: attractive unattractive americans

attractive unattractive americans
If you travel abroad, “attractive unattractive americans” is worth a look.

American travelers trying to pass themselves off as Canadians is an old story. I’ve seen them with Canadian flags sewn onto their backpacks – but I haven’t heard them going so far as to claim to be from Moose Jaw or pepper their speech with an "eh" every few sentences.

That’s because there’s still a perception that the world doesn’t like Americans – that people from other countries think we’re loud, impolite and dumb.

Author René Zografos tries to get a handle on this in his book attractive unattractive americans: how the world sees america.

I should mention a little problem up front: Some people from the Americas might have a problem with the title. As a friend from Brazil likes to say, he’s an American, too. I see his point, so I would’ve called it how the world sees the united states.

attractive unattractive americans
A Canadian, or a faux-Canadian?

Zografos – who has an interesting half-Greek, half-Norwegian background – sets an interesting and nearly impossible task for himself here. He seems like the kind of guy who’s a great conversationalist. You’d want to run into him in a bar or a cafe and hang out with him. He clearly is good at getting people to chat with him, and at preserving the essence of what they say.

People from a long list of countries gave Zografos their thoughts on the United States and its people. Ultimately, I can’t see any clear-cut conclusion. I didn’t really expect him to reach one, though. I just expected to be entertained by the journey.

I also expected a few surprises along the way. Well, the people Zografos interviewed delivered. I was particularly shocked by some of the sweeping generalizations. More than a few people wrote off everything about the United States and rejected the possibility that there’s anything good about it – crude pursuit of wealth, crude language, crude dress (one person painted a picture of the entire United States running around with its pants collectively sagged).

I completely expected the United States to take its lumps in this book. I didn’t expect some of the criticism I saw, but I expected a good bit of it. I really enjoyed how one person skewered how the U.S. is addicted to superlatives – we love everything and think everything is awesome. And yes, we’re definitely way too oblivious to what’s happening in other countries.

There are a few things that caught me off-guard that I just can’t agree with:

  • Scandinavian and Nordic seem to think they’re cold and unfriendly. That’s their perception of themselves. Well, my Scandinavian and Nordic friends, this visitor doesn’t think so at all. From Iceland to Finland, people started conversations with me. They were quick to help with directions. Maybe they’re not as ebullient as Australians -- they’re more chill and relaxed. But they’re still genuinely nice. I have nothing but good to say about Scandinavian and Nordic people.
  • Speaking of friendliness, people from the U.S. have a reputation for friendliness. Some of the people interviewed for attractive unattractive americans accurately perceived that much of it is reflexive but insincere politeness rather than friendliness. I could probably write a book that deconstructs American friendliness for what it really is. That’s not to say we don’t have genuinely friendly people. But they’re the exception.
  • There’s also a perception that the United States is optimistic. I definitely question this. There was a time when each generation was expected to be more prosperous than the previous generation. Those days are over in the United States, and we know it. We lag behind the rest of the world in health care and paid time off (sick leave, vacation time, etc.). More of us work part-time and are mired in student debt. We’re over-caffeinated, overworked, overfed and over-tired. So, what reason do we really have to be optimistic?

Overall, I had fun reading attractive unattractive americans. I think future editions could use some improvement, though. One of my big quibbles is the book’s organization. I’d get into the flow and just be reading and reading -- and I’d lose track of who’s speaking. Between long interviews and short quotes from people he’s met, Zografos interjects with some ideas and opinions of his own. Sometimes, I had to backtrack a few pages because those transitions could be far more effective. That could be a design issue in the book’s layout. But it could also be solved with the author making a better effort to craft a more distinct voice.

If you travel, attractive unattractive americans is worth a look. It might help you realize a few things about yourself and your home country, and I see some learning opportunities that will help you connect with people you meet when you travel. And that is true no matter where you’re from.

Lightning Over Scottsdale

I don’t usually do photo-only posts. But I snapped a nice shot from the nighttime storm that rolled into Phoenix. I’m not sure if this is actually a monsoon storm or not … but hey, call it what you will. It’s something besides hot, dry and sunny. This shot of lightning over Scottsdale is probably my best storm shot so far.

Lightning Scottsdale Arizona (Photo by Justin Schmid. Commercial use without permission is not allowed.)

And look! Here’s some slow-motion video of the lightning over Scottsdale to go along with the still. The photo came from my Pentax K-50. The video is from my GoPro … the original Hero, not any of the fancy new ones!

What the Bicycle Industry Doesn’t Want You to Know

bicycle industry
Sixteen years and going strong. That’s a steel bicycle for ya!

This post is pretty old- if you want to know what’s REALLY up with modern steel road bikes, be sure to check this one, too!

There’s a bike the bicycle industry doesn’t want you to know about. And it’s in my garage.

Its frame is a top-secret alloy that is light, easy to fix, smooth-riding and strong. Cared for well, it can last indefinitely.

Sounds impressive, right? What is this new machine?

It’s a 1999 LeMond Zurich. It’s made out of heat-treated steel. And the thing handles just as great as the day I bought it.

So why is this bike such a threat to the bicycle industry? Because it absolutely flies in the face of everything the cycling industrial complex wants you to believe: that carbon fiber is the material of the future, that you need to buy a new frame every few years, that everything needs to be shiny/new/fancy.

English: Lemond Zurich 2000 repainted by pro p...
English: Lemond Zurich 2000 repainted by pro paint shop.  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Steel: The Bicycle Industry Secret

Right now, there are plenty of cyclists who have never ridden a steel-framed road bike. They grew up on aluminum, with carbon, maybe with aluminum with carbon stays.

Put these cyclists on a quality steel bike, and I promise they’ll rave over the smooth ride. They will not, unless that are at the absolute apex of the sport, notice the weight.

Let’s call an upper-end steel frame four pounds. A carbon frame? You can probably get one to about 2.5 pounds. That’s 1.5 pounds. If you have an extra 1.5 pounds hanging off your torso, don’t look to a lighter frame to make yourself faster.

The bicycle industry has made bikes like my Zurich an endangered species. The closest I can find to it is the very, very slick Kona Roadhouse. That’s about $2,400, where my Zurich was about $1,700 in its heyday. It also has a classic/classy look, refusing the current trend to look like a NASCAR racer or a stealth bomber.

steel road bike
Hey! That’s me on my freshly repainted, re-vamped Lemond Zurich. Amazing what a steel road bike with a new paint job and a fresh Ultegra group can do.

Committing to Steel

Here’s the thing: A steel bike like the Roadhouse will stay with you. You’ll need to replace a few bits here and there, as I did with my Zurich. So far, that’s been a rear shifter (I now need a front shifter), a fork (carbon – it has a limited lifespan), the headset, the stem and the handlebar. The bicycle industry has definitely endangered my Zurich by making 1-inch threadless carbon forks a rarity. The Easton fork I use is no longer made. And then there’s my reliable 9-speed shifter/cog combo.

I’m having one helluva time finding a left shifter that’s anywhere on the same planet – a Sora left shifter would be kind of an odd pairing with a Dura-Ace right. This means I’ll probably wind up needing a new set of shifters, which means a change to 10 or 11-speed, which also means a new rear cogset and possibly a new rear wheel with the compatible freehub body.

How necessary is all this? Not very. An awesome rider will still be awesome with a 9 or 11-speed rear cog. And if you suck, you’ll suck just as bad with a 9 or an 11.

The Bicycle Industry Loves Carbon

I know what I’m saying is a tough pill to swallow, especially if you shell out faithfully to prop up the bicycle industry every few years with a shiny new carbon bike. But try a steel bike sometime. Borrow one from a friend who’s been riding a good long time. Use any means necessary short of stealing one. It’ll surprise you, I promise.

Now, I know exactly what bicycle industry apologists are about to squawk: It’s better for customers to buy more. It helps drive the prices down. And you’re wrong. Do you think Seven Cycles or Independent Fabrications succeed on the notion of disposable bicycles? No. They count on you to love and keep their products – maybe even turn them into heirlooms.

If buying your rough-riding, limited-lifespan bikes makes you happy, do it. It’s OK with me. I know that some people love new shit. But at least take a ride on steel sometime and see what you’re missing.

Want to know more about cycling’s big secret? Read this post about some really cool steel road bikes you can afford.