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.


WOW air Versus Icelandair

A few days ago, I saw a friend get really excited on Facebook about WOW air offering cheap flights to Iceland. Apparently, WOW air had advertised $99 fares to Keflavik, the nearest international airport to Reykjavik.

Immediately, I knew there had to be a catch of some sort. So I wanted to crunch the numbers and on a WOW air Versus Icelandair showdown.

I whipped up itineraries to get me from Phoenix to Keflavík International Airport during the summer months when I could go do cool things like hike, camp and experience the Inside the Volcano tour. I made sure the itineraries on both airlines matched. Here’s what I found comparing WOW air to Icelandair.

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

WOW air

WOW air’s site didn’t allow me to book directly from Phoenix, my home city. So I have to break this out separately, starting with the WOW air fare from Boston.

Roundtrip: $461.39 with tax. This includes one carry-on item. I can purchase extra weight allowances, but I can still take only one carry-on item and can’t exceed 26 pounds – and even that weight gets you a nominal penalty; I usually check my backpack and carry a small day pack and a camera bag aboard. There are also fees for sports equipment, picking seats and cancellation protection.

Fees Lurk Everywhere

What other fees and charges might lurk? I checked the Fees & Charges page on the WOW air website, and found it -- blank. Same with the FAQ page. If you’re checking luggage, you’ll pay an extra $48 per bag, per leg – if you check in online (it goes up if you check bags at check-in and even more if you check at the gate – $67 or $95). That brings the price to $557.39. But hang on a second – I always have to carry-on bags and my one checked bag. That means I have to check a second bag -- so now my round-trip online price is $196 added to the original fare. For those counting at home, we’re at $657.39.

English: A pair of Douglas DC-8 of Icelandair ...
Icelandair has been at this air travel thing for awhile. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By the way, WOW air flies the Airbus A320 series of aircraft. The airline configures them with 30-31 inches between each seat (airplane nerds call this "pitch"). What about onboard entertainment? Here’s what WOW air says: "There is no organized entertainment on board, except for the thrill of sitting high up in the sky enjoying the flight with us." I’m not sure if WOW air provides blankets and pillows.

Bottom Line for a “Cheap Flight”

Before I can take advantage of this cheap flight to Iceland, though, I need to get to Boston; I’m looking at about $335 on US Airways. I’ll need to add $50 to check your first bag for a round trip. Call it $385. I’m now at $1042.39.

Wow air versus Iceland Air

The Icelandair Difference

Icelandair scores big for allowing me to book from Phoenix. My cheapest option is $1260.43 with connecting flights on JetBlue. I could also pick different options to fly Alaska Airlines.

Better Planes by a long shot

Icelandair flies some pretty shiny Boeing 757s with on-demand entertainment at each seat. Meals aren’t free, but the non-alcoholic beverages are. Pillows and blankets are available, but I’d have to ask for them on non-trans-Atlantic flights.There are 32 inches separating the seats.

Flights to and from North America also get two free checked bags weighing up to 49 pounds. By the way, every time I’ve booked an international flight on a foreign airline that included connections on domestic airlines, I have not been charged for baggage on the domestic airlines. So that’s further good news for the big guy in the WOW air Versus Icelandair comparison.

Wrapping up WOW air versus Icelandair

Who wins the WOW air Versus Icelandair showdown for cheap flights to Iceland? WOW air is still $200 cheaper. But I can’t speak to its service, and the SKYTRAX website has customer reviews ranging from one star up to nine.

Wow Air versus Icelandair
IcelandAir’s “Surtsey” pulls into Gate 2 at JFK’s Terminal 7, ready to take another load to Iceland.

The same is true for Icelandair – but I can tell you that anyone who rates Icelandair below 7 stars is likely to be a whiny, high-maintenance, impossible-to-please complainer; this is a classy airline with some of the most-immaculate aircraft I’ve flown in. Here’s a review of my flights with Icelandair.

And honestly, if a leg of your flight gets delayed, would you rather deal with the airline that booked you for all flights, or multiple airlines? It’s easier to set things right if you book every leg with one airline.

What can a low-cost airline offer?

I’d still be very interested in trying WOW air just out of sheer curiosity. And sometimes, ultra-low-cost carriers rise above that label – just look at Norwegian Air Shuttle, which blows many legacy airlines out of the water.

Still, I can see where the extra $200 goes on Icelandair. Take the WOW air deal if you’re really desperate to get to Iceland and don’t have a lot in the piggy bank, I guess. Or take Icelandair and just drink fewer overpriced beers and liquors while you’re there.


Flights from Phoenix to London – Beyond British Airways

Flights from Phoenix to London
The daily British Airways flights from Phoenix to London seem an obvious choice. But are they really the best option?

At Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, my home airport, the lone intercontinental flight is the British Airway 747 to London Heathrow. So that’s my obvious choice to London, right?

Well, not exactly.

Few people love British Airways. And it always seems this flight is priced higher than other routes to London. It’s a nonstop flight, which means a lower chance of delays or lost luggage.

Still, I’d rather pick one of two other flights from Phoenix to London, even if they involve a stop at Los Angeles International Airport.

Norwegian Air Shuttle is planning to add two weekly flights from LAX to London Gatwick (an alternative to Heathrow). Part of the attraction here is being very curious about what it’s like to fly Norwegian Air Shuttle on a long-haul flight. I really liked Norwegian when Sarah and I hopped among Sweden, Norway and Finland. And since Norwegian Air Shuttle will fly the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, I’m extra-curious. Reviews of its long-haul flights are mixed. That said, I think a good chunk of the traveling public looks for excuses to complain. My short flights were uniformly on-time, and the crews and ground staff members were all courteous and accommodating. I think this would be a good alternative to British Airways for flights from Phoenix to London, stop or not. It would likely be my first choice just for the curiosity factor.

And then there’s Air New Zealand. A short hop to LAX turns this into a great option for flights from Phoenix to London. I prefer the shiny new Boeing 777 Air New Zealand flies to the British Airways 747. The 777 just has a modern feel that you won’t see on many 747s. I’ve only flown two short legs on Air New Zealand, but those who have flown it on intercontinental flights have good things to say. Blogger Ben has high praise particularly for the LAX to London flight. Let’s see if you can find anyone to crow that much about the British Airways flights from Phoenix to London.

So if you’re OK with an extra stop, you might save some money and get far better flights to London. And there are plenty of other options on good airlines. Just spend some time looking around. Still, these two would be my top choices.

I also have plenty of other airline reviews and thoughts. See some of them here.

  • Norwegian Air to offer U.S. to London flights for $240
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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.

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.

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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