Best of Travel 2015

westjet
Headed to Toronto on WestJet.

Despite 2015 being my first year as a parent, this has been a good year for travel. We got the Little Person on her first international trip, in addition to numerous runs around the country; she may have even outflown me with a total of 18 legs to her credit.

In spite of my expectations, I have some really interesting thoughts about my travel highlights. So here’s my Best of Travel, 2015 travel edition.

Best Airline

Considering that I flew two trans-Atlantic flights on a Lufthansa 747-8i, you’d expect Lufthansa to win this handily. All the Lufthansa employees I encountered were as polished as they were personable. They were excellent with our Little Person (let’s not forget the onboard bassinets and stuffed animals), and the economy class seats were the best I’ve flown in.

By WPPilot (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Orange County John Wayne is a better airport than you probably realize. By WPPilot (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
But not so fast, says WestJet. This Canadian carrier was the surprise of my travels in 2015 – a likeable, eager-to-please, reasonably priced revelation that makes me wish it had a few US hubs. It’s Boeing 737 fleet is honestly nothing special, especially next to the marvel that is the 747-8i or even a newer iteration of 737. But WestJet one me over by having modestly priced upgrades to its premium cabin, which also gets you free food and snacks.

I am bummed that I can’t fly WestJet more. But you can bet that I will go out of my way to get on a WestJet intercontinental flight; they just added some 767s to the fleet. I’m eager to see what WestJet can do on a widebody aircraft on a long flight.

I expected Lufthansa to be great. And they were. I wasn’t sure about WestJet – but they delivered a wonderful air travel surprise.

Best Airport

This is hands-down Orange County John Wayne Airport. It has barely any lines or queues to speak of. It has an open, airy design that makes the best use of natural light. It’s easy to get around.

Lufthansa 747-8i
Lufthansa was great – but WestJet wins the upset for my favorite airline of 2015.

And in VinoVolo, it has terrific food. Skip all the the restaurants and hit VinoVolo. If you have time to sit and dine, they have an excellent charcuterie platter; though they pride themselves on wine, they also serve a small stash of bottled craft beer.

If you’re in a hurry, go for the to-go picnic boxes. I got a Mendocino Picnic box before my last flight out of John Wayne, which they modified with some pieces of prosciutto for me. I made everyone on the plane jealous with a fine selection of cheese (including an amazing brie), fruit, nuts, crackers and dark chocolate.

My only quibbles were the terrible WiFi and scarcity of power outlets.

In contrast, Chicago O’Hare International Airport is nothing short of the worst of the worst, from taxi times to TSA. Avoid connecting at O’Hare if you can. It truly stinks. I’ve had a lot of things happen at O’Hare, and none of it is good.

Best Brewery

Best of Travel 2015
Good times at Iron Fist Brewing.

When my family travels, we are on the lookout for great breweries. And by far my favorite is Iron Fist Brewing Company. It had everything I like – a warehouse/industrial vibe, a decent food truck and a stellar and varied selection of beers.

If you’re visiting, a flight is the way to go. But do yourself and a few good friends a favor and grab a few bottles of the outrageous Pillow Mint stout.

I also have a lot of great things to say about Noble Ale Works. It’s the best thing happening near the House of the Mouse in Orange County.

Best of travel 2015
An absolutely perfect autumn day in Schwabisch Hall.

Best Destination

If you crack open a travel guide for Germany, you won’t find any mention of Schwäbisch Hall. I wouldn’t have known about it if I didn’t have family in the area. So all those "follow the guidebook" people are missing out on a picturesque, storybook example of a German village (pronounced "willage" by my relatives, father included).

You can spend some time shopping in the town center. Or you can head out to the Einkorn ro hike – if you’re there in fall, pick some apples! If you’re a diehard fan of American football, you can also check out the – and I’m not making this up – Schwäbisch Hall Unicorns, which is one of the stronger gridiron teams in Germany. Be on the lookout for the very amusing sausage-dispensing vending machine.

Oh, and if you’re near the village of Rosengarten and you notice some cool art hanging up in a public area, the odds are good that you’re seeing my Uncle Johann’s work.

Best Laugh

Best of travel 2015
This mannequin is definitely yelling “ja!”

So my family rolled into Stuttgart Airport on the German equivalent of a harvest holiday. Everything in the airport before security was closed with three exceptions: A convenience store, an electronics store and a sex shop. I don’t know many people who hit the airport for a ballgag or a flogger – but if you’re one of them, Stuttgart has you covered.

I figure the outfit pictured would make security searches a breeze, but I would want to accessorize with a nice gas mask -- which might cause difficulties at the security checkpoint. So I refrained. (Equality points to Germany for having a male mannequin in the window.)

Best Hotel

We absolutely fell for the Hôtel BELVUE. But after the events in Belgium following the Paris terrorist attack, I wonder how this wonderful place is getting along. It’s right on the edge of the neighborhood that was a focus for the subsequent investigations.

If you can get past that, you’ll enjoy great architecture, a reasonable price and far more space than the European norm. A few other things add to the Belvue’s cool factor: It’s designed to be energy efficient, and is also used to train people for hospitality careers. I could go on about this, but the Hotel Belvue website says it best.

Best Travel Gear.

I have this Grey Ghost backpack that the company calls the “Lightweight Assault Pack.” So yeah, it’s largely aimed at the military crowd. But me? The only thing I assault is the mundane, the ho-hum, the boring. The Lightweight Assault Pack helps me in that endeavour ably.

I picked up a selection of MOLLE pouches to add to the outside of the pack for different purposes. That makes it really quick and easy to configure it for a pretty serious hike (complete with knife and fire-making materials) or as a perfect carry-on items (definitely minus the knife and fire stuff). It fits beautifully under an airline seat, it wears comfortably and it has plenty of space even before adding external pouches. Great stuff!

Best News Overall

My daughter made her first trip abroad at the age of nine months. She was just about perfect – excellent on the airplanes, willing to eat anything, constantly ready to go for a ride in her Ironman stroller. Here’s a little story about what we did and how it all worked out.

 

Random Cool Travel Tidbits – April 2015

Greta Garbo graces the tail of this Norwegian Air Shuttle 737-800.
Norwegian Air Shuttle has a lot of personality – and its latest effort to show it gets them a space in the April Random Cool Travel Tidbits post.

It’s time for another Random Cool Travel Tidbits post. That’s where I share some not-so-deep (but still interesting) thoughts about the sort of things this site is all about -- travel, adventure, gear, advice.

First up, let talk about a piece of luggage that’s designed for travel in our times. How’s that, you ask? Can it make your airplane seat widen by four inches, or get you automatic business-class upgrades? Sorry, not quite. But the Barracuda CAN give you a handy tray for eating or pounding away at your laptop while waiting in a crowded boarding lounge. It CAN collapse small enough to slide under a bed when you’re not traveling. It CAN power up your cell phone’s dying battery with an onboard charger. The ergonomic handle is pretty nifty; an optional GPS/proximity tracker are also pretty cool, and may well be worth an extra 50 clams.

The Barracuda has already exceeded its Kickstarter goal. You can still grab a good deal – these will start at about $480, but Kickstarter contributors can score one for less than half that.

Next up, I have some airline fun. I think way too many travelers dehumanize and denigrate airline employees. I sometimes get annoyed with them myself, but I always try to remember that they’re real people.

Norwegian Air Shuttle seems to be trying to remind people that human beings are behind every flight. I’ve noticed quite a few recent posts on its Facebook page that give the names of its pictured crew members. So far, it’s been captains and first officers – it would also be great to see flight attendants, gate agents, mechanics -- the whole gamut. It seems to fit very well with my impressions of Norwegian Air Shuttle. All my flights on them have been very personable.

grey ghost lightweight assault pack mod 1
This is the perfect day pack that you can push beyond just being a day pack.

Let’s swing back toward gear for the next few tidbits. I’ll start with day packs. I’ve had some decent daypacks like the REI Flash 22. The Flash 22 is pretty good, but I keep wondering -- what if it was a bit more flexible? What if it had some sort of modularity like military gear, which features these handy things called MOLLE loops. They allow you to add external pouches to existing packs. You can mix and match the pouches to the activity. This version has straps and goes for about $90. There’s also a version without straps that military dudes will attach to a ranger vest, chest rig or some similar setup.

Problem is, the military stuff is stiff, heavy and -- military looking. I don’t like the whole OD/camouflage look. Well, I ran into the Grey Ghost Lightweight Assault Pack Mod 1 when I wandered into Edgeworks while I was visiting Frederick recently. It was light, flexible, sturdy and equipped with MOLLE loops. You can also find them for a reasonable price. Add a few MOLLE pouches, and you could probably be out for a few days if you travel light. Absolutely super. (By the way, the Edgeworks crew is very friendly, and they have a great selection. It annoys me more than a little that a tiny town in Maryland has a knife shop better than any in my metro area of like 5 million people.)

REI Kingdom 4
The new tent for the new member of my family.

Speaking of light packers -- I hate, hate, hate giving space to anything that doesn’t earn its keep. That’s why I don’t use travel pillows. I haven’t ever found them comfortable, and they can only do one thing. But I like to be able to rest my head in uncomfortable confines. My solution? A stuff sack filled with whatever makes sense – t-shirts, socks, a jacket. All will work fine. There! Now you have yourself a pillow that earns its keep in other ways!

Alright, one more gear update combined with a little announcement: There’s a new little person in my family. She’s not quite 4 months old yet, but her mom and I already talking about her first camping trip. Obviously, our much-loved The North Face Rock 22 can’t accommodate us and Little Traveler. So we used our REI dividend and a 20 percent of coupon to snag an REI Kingdom 4 tent. The footprint isn’t huge, but the thing is tall enough for me to stand inside. And it has a room divider so neither of the big people will roll over onto Little Traveler; she’ll have her own room and a nice little nest in the Kingdom 4. Also, on our first try, we assembled the Kingdom 4 in less than five minutes.

Watch for a future full review of the REI Kingdom 4.

Now, I’ll bring this to a close with your chance to do something good. If you’re reading this, I’ll bet you have a pile of airline miles. I know these are precious – they’re great for upgrades and other perks. I get it.

Still, I hope you’ll think about using some of your air miles to help seriously ill kids. Make-A-Wish needs air miles to help grant wishes – travel is one of the biggest expenses in helping grant wishes, and nearly 75 percent of wish experiences require travel. All April long, Make-A-Wish is making a special request for air miles as part of its Give Wishes Wings campaign. Visit the Give Wishes Wings site and find out how your air miles can help.