CategoriesFitnessTravel

Bicycling in Southern California – A Quick Guide

Bicycling in Southern California is a real treat, especially if you’re from the desert like I am. Even in June, you can count on mild temperatures, decent cycling infrastructure and some hilly routes to help burn more calories.

If you’re into bicycling, Encinitas is a nice place to get a taste of bicycling in Southern California. It’s a bit removed from the craziness of San Diego, but close enough that you can still get there in about 20 minutes or so.

Here’s some advice for riding in and around Encinitas.

Bring Your Bike or Rent?

If you’re traveling, I recommend renting a bike. It’s one less thing you’ll have hanging off of your car or pack up for the airplane.

It’s also fun to try a different bike. You’ll appreciate your personal bike a little better, while also getting an idea of what other bikes do well.

I rented from RIDE Cyclery. It was $80 for 24 hours with a carbon-fiber Cannondale road bike with Shimano 105 on it.

bicycling in southern california

The staff was friendly and very accommodating. I actually forgot to bring my personal pedals from home, but they found a matching pair among all their spare parts. They also took time to nail my saddle height, plus they included a small seatbag with a few essentials for fixing flat tires.

I added my own computer bracket to track my ride. And some of the locals hanging around recommended some routes for me. RIDE Cyclery couldn’t have been better at helping me get the most out of bicycling in Southern California.

What’s Bicycling in Southern California Like?

If you’re visiting Encinitas, Carlsbad or any of these beach communities and plan to ride your bike, hit Strava. Look for people holding “King/Queen of the Mountains” records and check their routes.

Chances are, you’ll find some nice options for rides of all lengths. These can be the building block for planning your route. If you’re using a fancy GPS-based computer, you’ll also be able to create turn-by-turn instructions to navigate.

bicycling in southern california
Hanging out on the beach after a ride.

One of my routes took me down the Coast Highway to the north end of La Jolla. The route had some nice fast parts, along with a terrific climb as I headed south.

The Coast Highway can be a bit maddening when you start hitting four-way stops and stoplights. When you’re on the beach, you’ll also deal with a lot of people walking in the bike lanes, especially in the wrong direction.

El Camino Real is also a great street to ride on. I got stopped at traffic lights while riding early on a Sunday morning. But traffic was light and most of the lanes were in decent shape. Also, nice views and plenty of rolling terrain and curves. Good fun!

There’s an interactive bike lane map for the area. It’s a valuable resource for planning a ride in the San Diego area.

California Bike Culture

In Arizona, when you pass riders in the opposite direction, you give a nod or a wave. Not so much in California.

That could be because there’s so damn many riders. If you acknowledged them all, that’s pretty much what you’d be doing the entire ride. It’s actually nice to see that many people riding.

There’s also widely varied opinions about how to handle stop signs, especially when there are no cars around.

Most of the drivers were also relatively civilized, so that was pretty good.

On the down side, more than a few streets had “sharrows,” those infernal arrows that indicate that bikes can use the same lanes as cars. Every cyclist or cycling advocate I know find these sketchy. Give me a good, dedicated bike lane any day.

What About After the Ride?

To me, beer and biking just go together.

The closest spot to get a beer is at the Modern Times tasting room. They have a huge selection of fine Modern Times beers, including many I couldn’t ever access back in Arizona. They also had their social distancing game dialed in. The food seemed to be all vegetarian (but still good).

bicycling in southern california

If you want to go further afield, I recommend Arcana Brewing. They had a delicious single-hop ale called Mosaic Monster that was perfect; moasic hops are among my favorite (along with amarillo, galaxy, simcoe, and cascade). Another standout was a fruited braggot. It’s one of those places that changes its lineup often, so you won’t always find the same selection. It appears they are BYO for food, too.

So that’s what you need to know about bicycling in Southern California. I recommend Encinitas rather than Carlsbad as your base, just for proximity to Modern Times and the great people at RIDE Cyclery.

CategoriesTravelAccommodationsTastes

Visiting Seattle with a Kid

Back in September, I took my first trip to Seattle with a kid. Well, not just any random kid – my own, of course.

I’d last been to Seattle in around 2005-ish with my now-wife. We walked all over the place, found all the tasty food and searched for good beer. As walkable as Seattle is, it would still present some different challenges with a 4-year-old along for the ride (and walk!).

If you’re thinking about visiting Seattle with a kid or three, let me share a few recommendations.

travel to seattle
Getting there is part of the fun for us.

Where to Stay

Hotel prices in Seattle are kind of obnoxious. We also try hard to avoid huge hotel chains. We wanted to be somewhat near the Space Needle since many cool things radiate out from that area.

My wife found a reasonably-price-for-Seattle place called Hotel 5, which is almost as cool as one of my other favorite hotels. It couldn’t have been friendlier or more comfortable. The lobby had all sorts of games, ranging from chess to (free) old-school arcade games. They also have a decent free breakfast — nothing fancy, just oatmeal, hardboiled eggs, pastries and the like. They also have a small cafe there that sells various fancier breakfast items, coffee and bar food (later in the day).

It’s a good location that’s pretty close to public transit stops and the Pike Place Market. I can’t say enough about the comfortable rooms and the overall friendliness of the staff. It’s a perfect place to stay in Seattle with a kid.

How to Have Fun in Seattle with a Kid

I realize your mileage will vary on this point. But my 4-year-old is a seafood fiend. She even helps me cook it at home by sprinkling the seasoning. When she walks into Nelson’s Seafood at home, the people there know her by sight and say “are you here to see the fish with eyes?” (She’s partial to whole fish.)

So you can imagine her delight at the seafood markets at Pike Place Market. At one point, she was looking at a pretty gross-looking fish on ice, and then it moved! Turns out the pranksters there planted a fake fish and have it rigged up so they can make it move whenever someone comes in for a closer look.

seattle with a kid
One of the any awesome playgrounds in Seattle.

But there’s plenty of other cool kid stuff aside from looking at fish. There are some epic playgrounds — some that compare favorably with even those in New Zealand — scattered all across the city. The playground at Seattle Center is a grand scale of challenges that will keep kids of all ages occupied. Mine also made several friends during her visits. There’s also the Cascade Playground, which is a lot smaller. But it will definitely keep a preschooler happy, especially since it’s a hotspot for dog walkers.

We had mixed results at the Pop Culture Museum. My little person loved the interactive area where she could play guitars, keyboards and electronic drums. She was also completely nuts over the sci-fi movie exhibit, where she was able to name every cool display from Star Wars. And the other costumes and displays also blew her away. She wasn’t so into looking at old guitars.

seattle with a kid
I’ve had so much trouble finding the right drummer that I’m trying to grow one at home.

The Seattle Aquarium was a hit that kept the little person occupied for several hours. From jellyfish to seahorses to octopi to sea otters, she enjoyed herself. My advice would be to get there early like we did. It gets crowded, so having 30 minutes or so where it’s nearly empty makes it a better experience.

We also took a little side jaunt on the ferry out to Bainbridge Island, which I found to be a very posh Sedona-on-the-water sort of place. We put in plenty of miles walking, which included foraging around for wild blackberries. It looked like we missed most of the prime season, so I was left rooting around for what the birds lefts behind. But it was still fun.

Where to Eat

I’m going to be honest here: If Seattle food is as good as Portland food, we weren’t able to find it quite as easily. That said, we had some wonderful meals there.

La Teranga, another find of my wife’s, served Senegalese food. It was my first time having it. Literally everything I tasted blew me away. There are three tables in the place, but it’s worth the wait. We had Thibou Djeun (a fish dish) and lamb mafe, along with a drink made out of baobab tree fruit called bouye juice. It was much thicker than a juice, and also one of the more unique flavors I’ve experienced. I’m not even sure what comparison to draw.

food in seattle
Delicious Senegalese food!

We all also loved the Skal Beer Hall in the Ballard neighborhood. We’re all big fans of charcuterie, and the little person particularly loves havarti. Everyone went away happy. There’s also the cool atmosphere as a bonus.

Oh, yeah. The little person also enjoys donuts. I made it a point to find her a few local donuts to try. We, of course, tried the local Hot Pot chain. Their plain glazed scored highly with the little person. But Tempesta, a tiny coffeehouse, makes a far better donut. Their coffee is also tasty, but the skew more toward fun coffee creations with a bit of sweetness.

A Little Bit of Fun for the Parents

Two of the things we always like about cities in the Pacific Northwest are beer and coffee.

Let’s start with coffee. This is clearly the city that built Starbucks, but you’re missing out if you don’t hit the local places. I could write a whole post just about coffee and beer, so I’m going to name some top spots for you to put on your list. To give you an idea of what it takes to get on the list, here’s my test: I order a real espresso drink, usually a cortado or a cappuccino. No whipped creme, no sprinkles, no pumpkin spice.

seattle with a kid
Having a donut with Lufthansa Lu.

That said, I recommend you check out Ghost Note, Monorail Espresso and Street Bean. Each has something that’s a standout about it. Ghost Note has a relaxing atmosphere and a barista who takes coffee very seriously while also being friendly about it. Monorail is tiny enough to walk past, but they use the space they have to also be very friendly while making serious espresso drinks. Street Bean stands out to me for its mission to help “street involved” young people in Seattle. All of these will serve a top-quality espresso. I also like Ghost Alley, even though I opted for a seasonal cold brew recipe there.

There be Beer Here

Then there’s beer. A quick note on visiting Seattle with a kid – or anywhere in Washington: Apparently, an archaic law on the books results in some places not allowing minors into the premises. Still others install some sort of a weird wooden bar as a barrier, and minors aren’t allowed beyond it. It’s truly strange. But just know where a brewery stands on this before making a long journey out to it before being turned away.

We are primarily about stouts and IPAs (preference to West Coast and hazy styles). We eschew blondes, most lagers, reds and other more mellow stuff. There is really one big winner from all the breweries we tried, and that’s Stoup. They had literally everything right: great beer, a food truck, a friendly atmosphere, and even stuff for the kids to do. We happened to drop in during fresh hop season, so they had a variety of seasonal IPAs that were mind-boggling. Their selection rotates often, so you won’t often see the same beer. I advise getting a flight.

We agreed that Stoup was our favorite beer place in Seattle.

I also enjoyed Flying Lion quite a bit. I would’ve spent a lot more time there had it not been for a little person completely crashed out asleep at that point. Not many places do cask-conditioned ales, so that was a nice treat. I also loved the old warehouse vibe, and the entire place smelled like cedar. It was so comfortable and easygoing that I wanted to take it home with me. My standout aside from the cask IPA was a blood orange IPA.

Then there’s Optimism, a no-tipping establishment that is sprawling and fun. It has plenty for kids to do, but they could probably take the decibels down a notch. They’re also a Bring Your Own Food sort of place, and they provide utensils. To be honest, Optimism is a bit undistinguished from a beer point of view (their IPAs tasted way too similar to each other), but as a concept, I can’t help loving it.

Point A to Point B

Seattle is awesome at public transit. The bus system, monorail and subway are easy to navigate. It’s a pedestrian-friendly environment. And there are ferries for little desert kids like mine who aren’t used to waterways that are navigable!

seattle with a kid
Taking a ferry to Bainbridge Island

We used Uber for getting to the hotel from the airport and back, and on only one other occasion (the trek for Sengalese food — well worth it).

Seattle with a Kid — Do It

How much did our little person like Seattle? She already wants to go again. We didn’t have to really go too far out of our way to entertain here. She found adventure in every street and on every bus ride. It’s hard to go wrong.

CategoriesTravel

It’s Time to Fix How We Renew a Passport in the US

The process to renew a passport in America is needlessly slow and archaic. I went through that 20th Century, postage-stamp song and dance a few years ago before going to Brazil. I never spared a second thought about what it’s like in other countries.

A friend’s tweet changed that made me think of this, especially when another Twitter user from UK chimed into the conversation later:

renew a passportCost and Time to Renew a Passport

Of course, I wanted to confirm what she said, so I headed to the relevant US government website to double check. As is typical for so many government services, there’s a lengthy word soup to say what my friend was able to say in one single tweet. 

And I found that a passport book costs $110 while a passport card is $30 (get both for the bargain price of $140!). You send your info in along with a check or money order — it’s not clear if you’re required to chisel this out of stone — and wait -- and wait -- and wait -- 6-8 weeks. Want it faster? That’s another $60, which brings the time down to 2-3 weeks.

Now, contrast this to Merry Ol’ England.

The price is slightly less in England: £75.50 ($95.43 as of right now) to renew online. Tack on another 10 pounds, or quid, or whatever you call them to do it old-school via mail. That’s right: They charge you more to use snail mail. As it should be. England also has services that can reduce the renewal time to -- 4 hours. There’s also a less-expensive one-week option. Point is, passport renewal in England is far more efficient than it is in the US.

A British traveler will receive their new passport in about three weeks.

Why is it So Hard to Renew a Passport in America?

Before we even get to why it’s so hard to renew a passport in the US, keep in mind that only 40 percent of Americans even have a passport to renew. If you think that sounds impressively high, think again. In Canada, 66 percent of people have passports. In the UK, that goes up to 76 percent. This is all according to Forbes. I’m actually unable to find passport rankings by country, which is very interesting. I’d like to know where the US ranks among other countries, and I have not been able to find it.

I don’t think the US government deliberately set out to make it difficult for people to travel internationally. But I do think it has taken advantage of the situation and has little incentive to improve the process.

Consider, also, that generous vacation time from employers is rare in the United States.

Those are just two anti-travel practices in the US. The net effect is that fewer people from the US see other countries.

So Fewer Americans Visit Other Countries. What’s the Problem?

Americans have an inflated sense of their quality of life. There is a general belief, that’s unsubstantiated by any first-hand evidence, that their standards of living are higher. When most indexes to measure quality of life don’t even rank the US in the top 10, you have to be concerned.

And people who never visit other countries will never have that belief challenged. That’s not good at all for long-term quality of life in this country. Travel is a great antidote for being stuck in our ways. If you think you’re the best, you have little incentive to find ways to improve.

Ultimately, the US government knows that. And its elected officials are actually pretty OK with the way things are, from my perspective. People who don’t travel don’t ask uncomfortable questions about why our public transit isn’t better. Why we can’t renew passports online. Why we can’t walk into a clinic in a rural area and get government-funded, fast, efficient healthcare.

Travel scares the status quo by creating a more informed electorate.

I know this is kind of a downer, but it’s worth considering.

CategoriesTravel

The 737 MAX: One Refreshed Version Too Far

Here’s the big problem with the Boeing 737 MAX: Both Boeing and the airlines are forcing a past-its-prime design to be a flying Swiss Army Knife. They want it to have unparalleled fuel efficiency on short hops from Chicago to Louisville. And they want it to fly from Phoenix to Hawaii, too.
The two fatal 737 MAX crashes seem like a solid indicator that Boeing rushed what Patrick Smith calls a Frankenplane into service. Boeing saw this as the most cost-effective way to counter the Airbus A320 NEO.

United Airlines Versus American Airlines
Inside an American Airlines 737-800.

Here are a few thoughts about the pickle presented by the Boeing 737 MAX family.

Stubby Landing Gear: Huge Problem for 737 MAX

Engine fan diameters have grown over time in the quest for more fuel efficiency. The 737 is low to the ground because airports were different when it was designed in the 1960s: Passengers might have to use a stair car, built-in metal stairs or other means to board.

For the MAX, Boeing wanted a bigger, more-efficient engine. But the company didn’t want all the expense and effort of redesigning the wing to accommodate a taller landing gear (which is necessary for a bigger engine).

Boeing 737 MAX 8
I couldn’t resist an Arrested Development stair car reference.

Boeing engineers "solved" this problem by moving the engines "forward and up to accomodate[sic] the larger fan diameter. Any handling differences as a result of this have been tuned out by Boeing in the flight control system to make the types feel the same to crew. This was necessary for certification under the same type certificate." (That’s the MCAS we’re hearing so much about.)

The more modern Airbus A320 represents a different design area. It has more ground clearance for bigger-diameter high-bypass engines. It was never meant to operate with a built-in staircase. It’s a product of the jetway era.

callsigns
A US Airways 757

737 MAX Can’t Replace 757

Airliners are trying hard to make the 737 and A320 fill a number of roles, including some that suit the Boeing 757. The 757 is a middle ground airliner dating to the early 80s. It’s kind of over-powered, which gives it a huge performance edge at high-altitude airports and in hot weather with a heavy load. This sorry situation that happened to me on an Airbus A320? Never gonna happen on a 757. Its power and capacity make it able to handle scenarios where the smaller twinjets fall short.

But the 757 is nearing the end of its life. Airbus says its A320 family can replace it, which pilots and many airline wonks don’t believe for a second.

Hawaiian Airlines 787
The 797 might replace the 767, too.

Boeing seems to agree: Its 797 program — which isn’t a sure thing — is a 757/767 replacement: A small, high-performance widebody. Airlines initially squawked about costs.

But what about the costs of forcing a Frankenplane into roles it shouldn’t occupy with kludged fixes? That’s a question Boeing and airlines need to consider.


Airlines Fixated on Small, Dense Planes

Over the years, small airliners like the 737 and A320 have swiped routes that widebody airliners used to serve. Southwest Airlines was flying the 737 MAX to Hawaii before the grounding.

No airline previously used anything smaller than a 757 for that route (and no thanks to flying that far on an airline with no in-flight meals — I don’t care how quirky the flight attendants are with their safety demos).

United Airlines Versus American Airlines
Heading to Newark on a United Airlines A320.

Here’s some info from one of my earlier posts about why airlines are doing this.

In the US, airlines have to essentially pay by the pound for their landing fees. Smaller airliners are also a smaller capital outlay, require smaller crews and use less fuel.

That’s another incentive to go small. And the cheapest way to go small, at least in the way that pleases shareholders hungry for a quarterly return, is to refresh current designs.

Paying a little more in landing fees seems like a good bet in retrospect, doesn’t it?

What’s Ahead for the Boeing, the MAX and the 797?

So that Boeing 797 I mentioned earlier. The specter of the 737 MAX looms over the Boeing decision makers. It seems like a great way to keep the company from cutting corners.

But what happens if Boeing produces a great plane? How does Airbus react? Do they cling to the idea of competing with the 797 with a kludged A320? Or do they go for a clean-sheet design?

737 MAX
The split-scimitar wing and scalloped engine nacelles of a Boeing 737 MAX.

I wonder what will happen with the 737 MAX, too. A lot fewer people are saying "If it’s not Boeing, I’m not going." It’s hard for me to trust the MAX family right now, and I wonder how Boeing will fix this damage.
At the smaller end of the scale, the Airbus A220 (formerly Bombardier C series) could fill this vacuum nicely. And the MAX situation invites a stretched A220.

As a co-worker of mine used to say, "I look forward to seeing how this plays out."

CategoriesTastesTravel

Costa Rican Craft Beer in 2018

Costa Rican craft beer just wasn’t a thing during my first visit nearly 15 years ago. That’s changed, with a wide variety of breweries stretching beyond the ubiquitous Imperial lager. But how good is Costa Rican craft beer?

Well, most of it is good enough to finish. But none of it is good enough to make Costa Rica a beer destination. For now, Curitiba, Brazil, retains its rank as my Latin American beer capitol. Of course, I was in a generous and festive mood during my visit. So I probably added ¾ of a star to every Untappd review. And I found that stouts were the best of the Costa Rican craft beer I tried. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Let’s take a step back to talk about the different brews and places where we enjoyed them.

costa rican craft beer
A nice and varied Costa Rican craft beer menu at Stiefel Pub.

Stiefel Pub

I was particularly excited about Stiefel. It was close to our hotel, too. It’s more of a locals’ sort of place. Laid back with decent food (casados) and a good selection of Costa Rican beers. The beer list rotates. The staff is patient with those of us who are kind of crappy at speaking Spanish.

I was shocked to see that they had a mead on tap – not a hard-hitting Game of Thrones sort of offering, but a nice sparkling beverage that tasted more like a radler or shandy.

costa rican craft beer
I really wanted to love the Costa Rica Beer Factory, but the beer and service didn’t quite match the atmosphere.

Costa Rica Beer Factory

We had this one pegged as the pioneering local trying hard to be the Big Thing. First the good stuff: It’s such a cool building – a great place to hang out. The extensive craft beer menu set my expectations high.

But when they’re out of most of the selections that interested me the most, that’s kind of a letdown. The server didn’t seemed to know his stuff beer-wise (he didn’t realize that half pints were on the menu, tried to get me to order fruit beers after the IPAs I wanted were out).

On the other hand, the food was solid: bacon-wrapped, chorizo-stuffed dates for the wife and me, chicken fingers and fries for the little person. So go for the food and the atmosphere … and hope they sort their beer problems out before your visit.

costa rican craft beer
Wilk Craft Beer nails it all – food, atmosphere, service, beer. It sets the standard for Costa Rican craft beer. Don’t miss it when you’re in San Jose!

Wilk Craft Beer

This place killed ‘em all like a Metallica album -- by far my favorite Costa Rican craft beer bar that we found in San Jose. The tap list is extensive and weighted heavily toward regional craft labels. It also encompasses a wide variety of styles from stout to mead. The tacos are also delicious, and they play a decent variety of music at a low enough volume to allow you to chat with your drinking companions.

And hey, there’s a place to grab ice cream next door. A perfect place for craft beer! They also have some foreign selections.

We also visited a place called Lupulus Beer Shop. We didn’t have anything special there. It has dark, relaxed environment that might go better with patrons that don’t have a squirmy 3-year-old with them.

OK, now onto a few of the specific beers. I’m not going to list them all – just the standouts. If you want to know more, you can also visit my Untappd profile.

A Sampling of Costa Rican Craft Beer

Puerto Viejo Stout (Costa Rica Beer Factory)

More on the bitter dark chocolate side, which I prefer. Heavy body to it for its percentage.

Talingo Stout (Casa Bruja Brewing Company)

Best Costa Rican stout I’ve had. Sweet and viscous.

Barba Peluda (Primate)

A solid stout with plenty of chocolate.

costa rican craft beer
Here’s the beer list at Wilk.

None of these will make me book a ticket back to San Jose for more Costa Rican craft beer. But it’s nice to know that it’s not all lightweight lagers now. Maybe next time, I’ll be able to get a hold of a nice hazy IPA. And maybe some of those awesome spices that grow in Costa Rica will find their way into the beers – I’m particularly thinking that cinnamon could be used to good effect.

CategoriesTravel

Traveling with Kids? Go See the Museo de los Niños in Costa Rica

My wife did a pretty awesome job selecting our hotels for the Costa Rica trip. Our final base in San Jose had its quirks – namely, allowing smokers to stink up the air in the courtyard of a nonsmoking hotel. But it had an awesome location that was close to the Museo de los Niños. Anneka loves museums, so we knew this would be a great way to while away the hours. Of course, we hit up a coffee establishment to fortify ourselves beforehand.

Rather than tell you EVERY exhaustive detail about the Museo de los Niños in San Jose, I’ll let these photos do most of the talking. I will say that the museum’s content was refreshingly frank – even delving into addiction and AIDS while also allowing anatomically correct mannequins. It was also super-cheap, as in less than $10 per person. Some of the exhibits were either well-worn or undergoing renovation, but it was still a great place to spend the morning and some of the afternoon. Oh, and it’s apparently built in an old prison that’s been remodeled. Super cool!

Just a word to the wise: The next post will be a roundup of the Costa Rican craft beer scene!

Museo de los Niños
I told Anneka that the pilot goofed up, and they just left his plane at the Museo de los Niños. This is arguably why I am barely qualified to be a parent.
Museo de los Niños
A cool view from the second floor. The dinosaurs are a great way to tie the museum together.
Museo de los Niños
The second I saw this, I was like “Who did the art in this museum, the dudes from The Family Guy?” #Giggity
Museo de los Niños
A cool old helicopter. Some of its maintenance doors are still operable, so I got right in there!
Museo de los Niños
Anneka wanted no part of this T-Rex at first. But she was proud of herself for getting brave and going up to it.
Museo de los Niños
“Who’s this little donkey and why is he photobombing me?” That look on her face is AMAZING.
Museo de los Niños
Another look at the dinosaurs.
Museo de los Niños
Another nifty little vintage flying machine at the Museo de los Niños. There’s also an old electric train and a double-decker bus.
CategoriesTravel

Flying to Costa Rica Kind of Stinks

I love a good long flight. Put me in an economy class seat on a decent airline for 14 hours, and I’m perfectly happy to pass the hours watching movies and devouring books on my Kindle.

Notice the key phrase: a decent airline.

Decent airlines are scarce in the U.S., with an avalanche of nickel-and-diming paired with increasingly cramped airplanes. Then put that on a route that just long enough to be international, but not quite long enough for U.S. based airlines to consider bringing their A Game.

Our recent trip to Costa Rica really brings that into focus: We flew there on two of the three big U.S. legacy carriers – American Airlines and United Airlines. Both flights arrived safely and relatively on-time. At this point, that seems to be the only aim, with on-time more than negotiable.

So what exactly is the problem?

takeoff sky harbor
Takeoff from Sky Harbor

First of all, we live in Phoenix. That means that direct flights to Costa Rica are seasonal, and our flight wasn’t scheduled for the right season. We connected in Dallas via American Airlines. Connections always make things a bit tricky. Fortunately, nothing ran late.

But let’s talk a bit about the seats: The first flight was an Airbus A320, with the second let being a Boeing 737. Both had slimline seats that were absolutely jammed into the seat in front. I’d guess a 30-inch seat pitch. Fortunately, my wife and I had a 3-year-old passenger between us, so we were able to steal her legroom. The seats on the United planes – a 737 from San Jose and an A320 from Houston – were slightly better.

Then there’s the baggage fees. I’ve never flown on an international flight that charged for checked baggage. These "short international" flights seem to get treated like domestic flights, which is really odd to me.

Then there’s the cabin service. American Airlines came out way ahead of United by providing a cold sandwich on the flight from Dallas to San Jose. United had buy on board options on their menu. But apparently they’d sold out on the previous flight. We shrugged it off at the time: Houston has some great food options in the concourse, and we allowed just enough time to pick something up. But, no: An aircraft that was late to push back from our scheduled gate cost us at least 15 minutes. That piled on top of having to go through Immigration and re-check out baggage. We arrived at our gate seven minutes before pushback. And even though there was a grab-and-go restaurant right next to the gate, the gate agents waved us onto the plane as if we were the last ones who would board (we were actually far from it). Fortunately, a brewery near our house was still serving pizza once we got out of the airport (Thank you, McFate, for always being awesome!). Oh, and did I mention that United managed to leave my wife’s backpack in Houston?

Second leg on American Airlines – the night flight to San Jose, Costa Rica.

As for the flight attendants, they varied from flight to flight. The first United crew seemed entirely disinterested in their self-loading cargo. The second was far better, with one flight attendant getting some water to our thirsty 3-year-old before the beverage service (we didn’t have a chance to fill bottles on the mad sprint through the terminal).

What’s to be done about this? My hope is that carriers like JetBlue or even foreign carriers start putting the screws to airlines like American and United. I’m perfectly happy to pay slightly more for airlines that don’t charge for checked luggage on international flights, that have good schedules and that offer decent, consistent service in the cabin (that last one is possible – I’ve seen it in airlines abroad).

It would be nice to see a U.S. airline say "air travel can be awesome, and we’re going to make it so."

It’s a long shot, which is why I always try to book international flights on foreign carriers (Asiana is amazing, with Qantas, SAS and Lufthansa also being pretty solid). Foreign flag carriers seem to realize that they’re often a visitor’s first impression of our country, or a resident’s welcome home. It would be awesome to see an US-based airline make it their mission to act accordingly. Flying can be fun, but our country’s legacy carriers seem determined to make it a drag.

CategoriesTravel

International Service at Sky Harbor: What’s Next?

I’ve said for years that there’s not enough international service at Sky Harbor in Phoenix. The city’s only intercontinental route in recent years was a British Airways flight to London. Then we had a nice sign of progress when Condor Airlines re-connected Phoenix to Germany.

Condor Airlines international service at Sky Harbor, D-ABUA, Boeing 767-330 ER (20164426748)
Condor Airlines re-made the link from Phoenix to Frankfurt last year – and it seems to be a great success.

And British Airways added three more flights to London each week. Then American Airlines announced it would start seasonal service to London in 2019. Oh, and Condor increased its seasonal service! This is all good news, and less gloomy than I anticipated when US Airways merged with American Airlines; the proximity of the Los Angeles hub caused worries that Phoenix would be de-hubbed. Really, that’s a legitimate concern.

Still, international service at Sky Harbor is heading in the right direction. The increase in service brings up a few questions:

    • Fuel-efficient aircraft like the Boeing 787 were supposed to break the hub-and-spoke model. The Dreamliner can connect cities on "long, thin routes." That situation seems to fit Phoenix, but we don’t have any scheduled service from the 787 or its Airbus counterpart, the A350. Are we then stuck with the hub-and-spoke model?
    • Airline wonks insist that Phoenix needs more big businesses headquartered here to make links with major cities abroad worthwhile. That’s true; tourism just can’t make a route succeed on its own. How will that drive intercontinental service at Sky Harbor?
Vietnam Airlines, international service at Sky Harbor Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner, VN-A861
The Boeing 787 Dreamliner was supposed to break the hub-and-spoke system. (In Ron Howard’s voice) It hasn’t. But could it connect Phoenix to Asia nonstop for the first time with Vietnam Airlines?
  • Is Phoenix Sky Harbor on the radar of upstarts like Norwegian Air Shuttle? I know they’ve ditched some of their routes to the U.S. lately, but those were 737 routes from Europe to the Northeastern U.S. And there might be more new airlines out there looking for a place to stick their foot in the door.  
  • What about Asia? Clearly, Europe works for Phoenix Sky Harbor. I haven’t seen any breakdown about what drives that success: leisure or business. If it’s leisure, are Germany and England just in our leisure travelers’ comfort zone? Is there data that suggest Asia wouldn’t work? Some might say we’re too close to Los Angeles and San Francisco -- and maybe even San Diego and San Jose. But think of this: Weather delays in Arizona are rare, and many travelers would love to avoid LAX and SFO if they could. Those could be major selling points for international service at Sky Harbor. Just as a crazy idea, I’d lobby Vietnam Airlines hard. They’ll soon begin flights to the U.S., and I haven’t seen any final decisions on destinations in the U.S. What could we offer? 
  • There’s a good amount of renovation happening at Sky Harbor. How much of it involves preparing the airport for future intercontinental flights? What’s the airport’s current capacity to connect with destinations abroad?

British Airways added three 747’s worth of flights to London. Then there’s American Airlines jumping into the route with a 777. Condor added flights. Something is working. I’d love to know what’s behind their decisions, and how that can result in more international service at Sky Harbor.

CategoriesTravel

Is Swoop Airlines Your Ticket to the Northern Lights?

One challenge of being a traveling family is deciding what the littlest person in your family is ready to experience. With a nearly 4-year-old, we’re trying to figure out a few things: Is she ready for the huge crowds of Tokyo? Is she ready to deal with motor scooters zooming every which way – even on sidewalks and staircases – in South Korea? Is she old enough to be completely mesmerized by the aurora borealis?

That last one is particularly on my mind. I’ve always wanted to see the Northern Lights, and I just haven’t gotten around to it yet. I honestly do think the little person is ready – but a few serious issues remain. First, will she be able to handle a frigid northern latitude night, which is part of seeing the aurora? And then there’s just getting there.

We live in metro Phoenix. Since I love long flights, my preference would be going back to Tromso, Norway (obviously not in summer, this time). But from here, that’s a minimum of two legs aloft, and more likely three. Traveling with a small person adds some complications with that many legs.

swoop airlines 737
A Swoop Airlines 737. (Courtesy of Swoop Airlines)

Swoop Airlines – Is it the Ticket North?

Right now, though, there’s a possibility of making it one leg. Swoop Airlines is flying from Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport to Edmonton. And Edmonton is a solid jumping-off point to some areas with nice, dark skies that are perfect for seeing the aurora.

Swoop Airlines is owned by WestJet, which I flew a few years ago to Toronto. At the time, WestJet advertised itself as a low-cost carrier. While the fares were reasonably priced, the experience onboard was quite a bit nicer than legacy carriers. I’ve been looking for an excuse to give WestJet more business ever since.

Ultra Low Cost — But a Better Version?

Think of Swoop Airlines as the ultra-low-cost type of carrier. You pay for everything you want, and nothing you don’t. That puts it right in the same classification as carriers like Allegiant and Spirit, which I absolutely refuse to fly.

Swoop’s association with WestJet, though, makes me willing to take a shot at them. Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport increases our travel time to the airport from about 10 minutes to 30. On the other hand, it also changes the parking and security situation for the better.

I decided to get an idea of what a quick Northern Lights getaway on Swoop Airlines would take.

swoop airlines
Here’s a look at the Swoop Airlines Route map.

Swoop Airlines Pricing and Schedule

I priced two adults and our little flyer for a flight departing Dec. 22 and returning Dec. 26. Swoop Airlines only has two flights a week from Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport to Edmonton, which limits possibilities. The base price of the tickets is $1,153 USD.

Unfortunately, we can’t go any further from there to get an exact fix on price with seat choice and extras included; the website wants to enter traveler information at that point. I did backtrack a bit to the front page of the site, where the FAQs reveal a few optional fees. The food and snack options are reasonably priced, as are the fees for picking seats.

The same itinerary on American Airlines is $1,800 for economy class seats. These days, you don’t get much on American Airlines. Economy class on American is pretty much an ultra-low-cost carrier dressed as a legacy carrier. American also flies a regional jet as opposed to the Boeing 737-800 that Swoop Airlines flies.

Just in case you’re wondering, Phoenix to Edmonton is about 3-and-a-half hours.

On the Ground

I figured a simple keyword search like "edmonton aurora" or "edmonton northern lights" would get me started. But no. It seems like every sort of business in Edmonton is called Northern Lights Whatever -- Northern Lights Properties, Northern Lights Festival, Northern Lights Cemetery, Northern Lights Racoon Removal (I’m only slightly exaggerating here). Most other results were the sort of tourism and chamber of commerce stuff I disdain.

I really didn’t find any recommendations for hotels our tours that made me say "a-ha!" But maybe I don’t need to: This terrific blog post from Robin on the Cantankerous Mule blog is proof that seeing the Northern Lights in Edmonton is pretty easy to do yourself. This is exactly why I prefer getting my information with bloggers who share their personal experiences rather than commercial websites or anything like tripadvisor or travelpod.

Edmonton Oilers Lisa Gansky Swoop Airlines
I’d love to see an Edmonton Oilers game. (Photo by Lisa Gansky)

Chasing the Aurora

Be ready for weird hours, have your camera gear packed and get moving! Robin even included some nice photography tips that I will keep handy. Apparently, the Aurora Watch website is also a must. Edmonton isn’t a huge city at short of a million, so it should be easy to get to the darker outskirts according to what aurorawatch.ca recommends.

Aside from the aurora, I’d have to schedule around an Edmonton Oilers game. They were one of the teams I grew up watching during the rise of the Gretzky era. I consider Edmonton fans a serious bunch of hockey people, and it would be great to watch a game with that crowd. (And let me know if you have other ideas for what to do while visiting Edmonton in the winter.)

Is Swoop Airlines the Way to Go?

The price is more than competitive. I have high hopes for the onboard experience. The airport is further away for us, but might be a wash with security lines being shorter. It would be nice to have service more than two days a week. I am more than interested in trying Swoop, so we’ll see if I can fit it into the plans when the time comes!

CategoriesAdventuresTravel

The Top 2 Places on my Travel List are Now Gone

Water-clear selenite crystal "floater&quo...
One of the little crystals from the Naica Mine. Size: 18 x 14 x 13 cm., weight 2.6 kg. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This week, I found out that one of the places in the world that I want to visit most is no longer accessible. Back in 2017, operations at the Naica Mine ceased. That allowed water to re-flood the absolutely incredible Cave of the Crystals.

Cave of the Crystals is the second of my to-do list to be lost (though I always knew it was long shot, anyway): The Dr. Seuss-ian landscape of Ol Doinyo Lengai‘s volcanic crater blew itself to dust in 2013. I’d read a National Geographic article about this amazing volcano in Tanzania years ago; the photos were amazing, as were the tales of its inky-black, cool-and-fast-running, natrocarbonatite lava. (UPDATE: Please be sure to read the extra info about this amazing volcano at the end of this post. One of my most-interesting Facebook friends saw this post and had some great big-picture knowledge of this volcano’s possible role in the development of humanity.)

At one point, hikers were able to walk among the hornitos and lava flows in the crater. And then -- boom. It’s still an impressive crater. But with 60-percent grades into it, going into it probably isn’t an option. Notice also how the greenery around the summit is completely gone.
Cave of the Crystals
And here’s Ol Doinyo Lengai today.

Hey, I started this with the Cave of the Crystals and then jabbered about Ol Doinyo Lengai! Sorry about that. I just happen to love the idea of that place. But the Cave of the Crystals ain’t half-bad, either, with its 40-foot-long crystals nearly 1,000 feet underground. And then there’s the 136-degree, 90+ percent humidity to deal with. Ouch!

Cave of the Crystals
A cutaway view of the earth around the two caves. Thanks, Wikipedia!

People entering the cave had to wear special cooling suits. As far as I can tell, it wasn’t possible for just anyone to gain access. It was a working mine – and a thousand feet underground, like I mentioned. That’s a shame. This would be an amazing, one-of-a-kind experience.

I’ve found conflicting info about whether the shallower Cave of Swords, with its 6-foot-long profusion of crystals, is open for visiting non-scientists. This blogger claims to have been in it, though I’m skeptical (the writing is also vague – if I get in there, I promise that I will do a far better job). There also seems to be very little content devoted to the Cave of Swords minus the bigger Cave of the Crystals.

Inside the Volcano
The Inside the Volcano tour takes visitors straight into the world’s only known example of an extinct volcano with an intact magma chamber. Literally one of a kind!

At this point, I’m just hoping like hell that Thrihnukagigur doesn’t suddenly become un-extinct and blow the Inside the Volcano tour off the map. That would just about make me retire from traveling, I swear.

OL DOINYO LENGAI UPDATE (compliments of my Facebook friend, Ellen)

“Ol Doinyo Lengai has been active for millions of years, it will reform – there are other cool,active volcanos you can walk right up to the edge of, see stuff in the Danikal Depression in Ethiopia for one. But in my opinion Ol Doinyo Lengai is THE most important volcano in the world.

Why? I’ll try to keep this short: it is a carbonic volcano, with very very deep ‘roots’ so when it blows, as it has been pretty much constantly for millions of years, it spews lots and lots of carbon into the air. That carbon floats on the prevailing wind right down to the plains betweeen Ngorongoro and the Serengeti. This feeds the grass there into ‘super grass’ very nutritious and this is why millions of zebra and wildebeest return there every spring to have their babies at that sight so they get a head start in life by eating that super grass. Further, the wildebeest migration is a very likely candidate as to why humans evolved the way we did – with big brains and walking upright.

The whole idea that humans were great hunters is a bit off, we were mostly likely excellent scavengers who occasionally had a lucky hunt. Early humans evolved in the rift valley/Serengeti area and started following the migration to pick off the weak and scavenge kills from predators. You can see this in the footprints perfectly preserved at Olduvai gorge, a site that sits just miles from the fields of ‘super grass’. So, basically, without Ol Doinyo Lengai we might not be who we are today.”

A Few Bonus Images of My Gone-Away Destinations
Ol Doinyo Lengai Crater, Tanzania. Taken from ...
Ol Doinyo Lengai Crater, Tanzania. Taken from south-western edge, showing recent lava flow. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
View into the crater of Ol Doinyo Lengai, Tanz...
View into the crater of Ol Doinyo Lengai, Tanzania – Photo by Michael Rückl, Arzberg – November 2006 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: Crater of Ol Doinyo Lengai in January...
English: Crater of Ol Doinyo Lengai in January 2011. Lake Natron in the background. Deutsch: Krater des Ol Doinyo Lengai im Januar 2011. Natronsee im Hintergrund. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
CategoriesTastesTravel

How I Fly with Craft Beer Without Spilling a Drop

Whenever I travel, I’m on the lookout for craft beer that I can’t find at home. Often, I want to take some home with me. That was the case when I visited Curitiba, Brazil. I found a thriving, varied craft beer scene that was a welcome surprise (and seriously, Curitiba is now one of my favorite cities). The question is, how can you fly with craft beer without turning the inside of your luggage into a sticky mess? I have one tried-and-true method, a second iffier method and now a third new system that I look forward to testing.

The Sock and Shoe "Fly with Craft Beer" Method

I found some great bottles at Clube do Malte in Curitiba. My method for getting them home safely was to slip each bottle into a sock, wrap it up in a plastic bag and then stick one bottle each in a shoe. Being a fairly low-maintenance guy who doesn’t bring a lot of clothes when he travels -- well, that limited the number of bottles I could bring.

fly with craft beer
A visit to Club do Malte in Curitiba is a must.

Both those bottles in the shoes survived the flights from Curitiba to Sao Paolo to Houston to Phoenix.

The "T-Shirt and Pray" Way to Fly with Craft Beer

I had two more bottles to bring home from Curitiba. Those, I wrapped in t-shirts and plastic bags. I used rubber bands to secure all the goods and hoped for the best. I was worried the whole time about these two bottles, but they also made it.

I’ve used this scheme more than a few times, and it’s always worked. But it’s not exactly good for piece of mind. And you only need a bottle to get crushed once to make your day suck. I’m convinced that I’m running on borrowed time using the t-shirt method. My wife has a perfect record for flying with craft beer, and I suspect this – or something like it – is the way she does it. Still, it’s the dicey way to fly with craft beer.

fly with craft beer flexi-growler, beerpouch
The Craft Beer Depot in Nelson, NZ. Definitely a place that should have Flexi-Growlers!
A "Capri Sun" Pouch to Fly with Craft Beer

Some clever characters formed a company called BeerPouch, and then begat a work of art called the Flexi-Growler. And just like I said a sentence ago, it’s a Capri Sun package for beer. But stronger, thicker and bigger so that you may fly with craft beer without a second thought. This is perfect in the age of taprooms that are willing to fill growlers.

And that stack a lot flatter than glass bottles, and can’t get squashed like a can or a crowler.

I’m ordinarily not this effusive about a product I haven’t yet tried, but this just makes sense. It also appeals to my interest in sustainability – according to the BeerPouch website:

Pouches of this nature are well known to require a fraction of the carbon footprint than found in a comparable sized bottle or can. The BeerPouch uses far less energy to manufacture, fill, ship, and store beverages than virtually any comparable package.

fly with craft beer, crowler, beerpouch, flexi-growler
The Aegir brewery in Flam, Norway. If you find craft beer in a place that remote, chances are you’ll want to fill up some growlers.

Speaking of the BeerPouch website, let’s not judge the product by the website. Because that website is terrible in literally every way that’s possible for a website to be terrible. May they soon sell so many Flexi-Pouches that they can afford a web designer who knows SEO, UX, design and all that other good stuff.

The best news for me is that they’re working on smaller versions: Sixty-four ounces is a bit much for my wife and me. But taking home a few different 32-ouncers from a vacation is exactly the ticket for us.

So, what’s your solution when you have to fly with craft beer?

CategoriesTravel

Hawaiian Airlines 787: What It Could Mean for Travelers

It’s been nearly a month since Hawaiian Airlines announced its switch from the Airbus A330-900 to the Boeing 787-9. This was great news, but I was also too caught up in writing about gravel bikes to put much effort into a post here. The Hawaiian Airlines 787 will now get its due. Airline geeks will debate the merits of these two aircraft ad nauseum in some of the most opaque language. Fine. That’s what they do.

From a passenger experience side, this is good news. As a Phoenix resident, I think of Hawaiian Airlines as my secret airline. If I want to go anywhere on the Pacific Rim, they’re a strong choice that allows me to avoid Los Angeles, San Francisco, etc. I flew Hawaiian Airlines to and from New Zealand with my wife and then-2-year-old daughter.

Hawaiian Airlines 787
Will the Hawaiian Airlines 787 take over service from Phoenix Sky Harbor from the 767?

I wrote about that. If you don’t feel like clicking the link, here’s the long and short of it:

  • Great service and decent food
  • Huge variation between aircraft
    • The 767s flying between Phoenix and Honolulu range from fairly updated inside to, well, let’s just call it long in the tooth.
    • The A330s flying between Auckland and Honolulu absolutely suck for tall people. I had to remove everything from the seat pockets to prevent my knees from touching the seat in front of me.
Hawaiian Airlines 767 Iwa
My little person gives two thumbs up to Hawaiian Airlines. She was a trooper on four legs from Phoenix to Auckland and back.

I’ve flown in 787s from San Jose, Calif., to Tokyo and from Shanghai to LAX in a variety of configurations. Even the United Airlines 787 was comfortable. Some travelers squawk about that one because United Airlines configured it with 9 seats – three rows of three seats each. Even being 6’2 and 200 pounds, I was comfortable. The cabin was also quiet, and the seats had all the latest amenities (hello, USB ports!).

I know Hawaiian Airlines intended to replace the 767s serving Phoenix with the A330; I hope that means Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport will get its first 787 service from Hawaiian. Most airlines will tell you that fleet commonality is a good thing, so it’s possible older A330s in the fleet get phased out in favor of the 787. I haven’t found any confirmation that Sky Harbor will be served by the Hawaiian Airlines 787, but it fits the situation well. They didn’t respond to a tweet asking about it.

Hawaiian Airlines A330 Nahiku
I’d much rather fly a Hawaiian Airlines 787 rather than the A330 pictured.

This is could be great news for people who want to travel to the Pacific Rim while avoiding LAX, SFO and other busy, crowded airports. If it plays out the way I expect, Hawaiian Airlines and Sky Harbor should talk this up. I’m not sure what’s behind the hesitation. Phoenix Sky Harbor lags in intercontinental service for a city its size; that’s a combination of proximity to other intercontinental hubs and an economy that isn’t exactly firing on all cylinders. But weather rarely cancels flights here. Savvy travelers could easily latch onto the Hawaiian Airlines 787 flights as a way to travel the Pacific without a stop at busier, more chaotic airports. I hope that Hawaiian Airlines doesn’t do something silly and replace the 767 with a single-aisle A321, which it has done for certain routes. I guess we’ll find out.

CategoriesTravel

The Population is Growing – Why So Many Smaller Airliners?

The last time I saw both my grandparents alive and together, I was 12 years old. I took an American Airlines 767 from Phoenix to Chicago. Today, the 767 is rare at Phoenix Sky Harbor. Typically, it’s a Boeing 737 or Airbus A320 that handles runs from here to Chicago.

This is weirdly counterintuitive. The Phoenix population has only grown. Airline tickets are cheap. Booking flights is ridiculously easy (sorry, travel agents, but that’s the truth). This all adds up to more people in the air.

smaller airliners
Hawaiian Airlines flies one of the few widebody aircraft serving Phoenix Sky Harbor.

Yet there’s a never-ending downsizing of aircraft. And I’m not just talking about the retirement of the 747 (most of which are 20-year-old 400 series planes) or the flameout of the even-bigger-than-jumbo Airbus A380. I mean at the workaday domestic flight role, shuttling between large domestic cities. What once was a job for an airliner that could hold close to 300 people is now the purview of smaller airliners that hold closer to 175 (this completely depends on how the airline configures its aircraft, of course). By far the latest and coolest airliner is Bombardier’s C Series, a high-tech, efficient little plane – 150 passengers or less, depending on the model – that is getting rave reviews from operators, pilots and passengers alike.

I’ve always seen the bigger airliners as a smart solution for the entire system. Passengers can get on and off of twin-aisle planes far more quickly. And fewer planes with more people means far fewer planes sitting on a taxiway waiting for their turn to take off. So what gives?

smaller airliners
Bombardier’s slick little C-Series jets are getting rave reviews from all corners – but are smaller airliners what we need as more people fly? (Wikimedia Commons)

Economics plays into it, for sure. In the US, airlines have to essentially pay by the pound for their landing fees. Smaller airliners are also a smaller capital outlay, require smaller crew and use less fuel. I am sure the airlines puzzled this all out and somehow found that more-but-smaller airliners are better than fewer-but-bigger planes. These guys crunch numbers like crazy to eke more profit out of their actions – like how much fuel they can save by removing a pair of olives from first-class meals.

Despite that, airlines are notorious for filing bankruptcy. Another consolidation always seems imminent. So I’m not 100-percent confident saying that airline bean counters have everything figured out – and that includes the downgauging into smaller airliners. I also admit that I’m completely atypical from most airline passengers. When I book, aircraft type is a huge factor for me. I avoid planes I don’t like and will pay extra for the ones I prefer (the 737, Airbus A330 and MD-80 rank at the bottom of my ladder).

smaller airliners
Qantas uses smaller airliners like the 717, but they’re thinking about upgauging for certain routes. (Photo by planegeezer)

And then comes this Inc. story about Qantas considering bigger planes on shorter routes. This is a solution I’d like to see US airlines ask. 

The question here doesn’t really seem to be whether airlines can sell enough seats to make this work. Nearly every flight I’ve been on in the last decade has started with the announcement "We have a completely full flight today," followed by a request to gate-check your bags.

This made me think of an excerpt from something I wrote for the now-defunct Yahoo Voices awhile back. It’s more-relevant than ever.

Affordable airfare spiked the demand. But rather than larger planes to meet it, the industry went toward a glut of smaller aircraft.

"You’re tempted to think -- Instead of flying a 200-seat 767 from New York to Los Angeles, make it a 747 instead, with 450 seats," wrote Patrick Smith, commercial pilot and author of Ask the Pilot. "But that’s not how it happened."

Southwest Airlines is one example of the "many small planes" phenomenon. It has nearly 560 aircraft, all narrow-body. It has six daily flights from Phoenix to Los Angeles – some with as little as 40 minutes between them.

smaller airliners
Every US carrier has moved on to smaller airliners by retiring their 747 fleets.

Southwest bases its business model on the 737. The airline aims for one aircraft family to standardize maintenance and training requirements – all of which saves money.

"Also, carriers have switched many flights to smaller regional jets, which don’t fly as fast as bigger planes and can also force planes behind them to slow down," Scott McCartney wrote in The Wall Street Journal.

Regional jets are even smaller than Southwest’s 737s or the A320-series planes low-cost carrier Jet Blue prefers.

McCartney’s sources said planes not only spend longer in the air, but an average of 10 minutes more on the ground than they did in 1977. The conclusion? The taxiways are more crowded.

smaller airliners
Welcome to Sky Harbor – smaller airliners everywhere you look despite being a big city.

The crowded skies are also an added burden for air traffic controllers. Smith and many other writers say the nation’s air traffic-control system are already antiquated and insufficient for current needs.

Economics lecturer Lynne Kiesling points out that airlines have no incentive to choose bigger planes – airports charge for landing slots by weight. Instead, the fees should be based on time slot: higher-demand time slot, higher landing fee. That would create incentives to land as many people as possible in that slot.

Kiesling hints at but doesn’t fully explore aircraft separation. Some aircraft generate more wake turbulence, and they need to be separated from other aircraft. The Boeing 757 is notorious for its wake turbulence, despite being a medium-sized jet. Wide-body jets also generate quite a bit. That means regional jets need to be insulated from them, creating delays as they wait for the larger aircraft to move a safe distance away.

So what’s the solution?

There’s no agreement about that. Too many airlines are too entrenched in using smaller aircraft. Some, like Southwest, depend on it for short-term success. But there has to be a point at which the flying population will grow too large for the system to work. That may be a long time in the future, but it’s something airlines should be considering right now.

I have not flown a widebody aircraft in the US since the trips to Chicago I mentioned earlier. My wife flew in a 747 from Minneapolis to Phoenix, but that was a replacement aircraft for several different flights. On the flip side, I’ve flown international flights in a single-aisle 757.

My gut tells me the landing fees are the sticking point that will keep airlines from adjusting to what the population needs. Airline apologists are quick to say the bean counters have it all figured out and this really is the best way. Then why the bankruptcies, consolidations and mergers? They don’t have it figured out beyond the next few quarters. And then what happens?

Speaking of Patrick Smith, we must’ve been reading each other’s minds: He just published a similar story with more of a focus on the logistics. It’s worth reading, as are most of his posts – yes, even the ones about Husker Du. 

CategoriesTravel

Can Condor Airlines Help Phoenix Become a "Real City?"

Condor Airlines just might help Phoenix become a real city. Here’s what I mean: Whenever Phoenix and Philadelphia play leapfrog in the city size rankings (which invariably makes our local journalists generate reams of predictable content), I always bring up Sky Harbor International Airport and its lack of intercontinental flights.

My view: I don’t care how many people live here – Phoenix won’t be a "real city" as long as its residents must go to Los Angeles or New York or Houston to fly to locations far abroad.

And finally, at long last, Sky Harbor has made a step in the right direction: In June, Sky Harbor announced that new service to Frankfurt, Germany, would begin in 2018 with twice-a-week flights on Condor Airlines. Condor will use a Boeing 767-300 for the flights, which are scheduled to fly May-September.

Condor Airlines
Autumn in Germany

Condor Airlines Reconnects Arizona to Germany

If you’ve lived here long enough, you might remember that Lufthansa used to connect Phoenix and Frankfurt. But that’s been gone for a long while, with only British Airways connecting Arizona to another continent. That, my friends, is not the stuff of a true "big city."

So the Condor flights are definitely a nice addition, even if it belongs in the "It’s About Time" file. And it’s only twice-weekly service. But it’s an airline rated 3 stars by Skytrax (that’s a star better than most domestic airlines, right?). Condor also has partnerships with Hawaiian Airlines and Alaska Airlines, if that matters to the air miles hogs out there.

Hoping for More Condor Airlines Flights from Phoenix

I’d also like to see that window open up a bit more: To me, October is THE time to be in Germany. You want to talk about an amazing autumn? Then you need to see a place like Schwabisch Hall or Rosengarten in October. And that whole Oktoberfest thing, right? Still, I’ll take any service at all at this point. And I really want to motivate Arizonans to just get on this plane already.

Condor Airlines
A Condor Airlines 767 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Look, Arizona -- traveling abroad is a good thing. You need to get out there and see a bit of the world, and Frankfurt is a terrific gateway to the rest of Europe. From there, you’re close to some really nice parts of Germany and also a fast train ride away from France, Belgium – just about anywhere in Europe!

So book some flights on Condor. Show the airlines that we’re not a bunch of insular homebodies who won’t go anywhere. Help Phoenix become a real city. And then maybe Sky Harbor can score daily service instead of twice weekly. From there, who knows? Maybe Asia?

CategoriesTastesTravel

My Favorite Bars for Craft Beer – New Zealand Edition

new zealand craft beer
The tap list at the awesome Craft Beer Depot in Nelson, New Zealand.

If you like traveling and craft beer, I have a destination for you: New Zealand. The Kiwis grow all sorts of great stuff in their country — a sense of adventure, friendliness -- and heaping amounts of craft beer-compliant hops.

During our first trip to New Zealand back in 2010 or so, we discovered epic hikes, incredible scenery, ridiculous activities and very friendly people. Back in December, we returned with a little person about to turn two years old. That meant revisiting the Tongariro Alpine Crossing and looking into the crater of an active volcano was out. This would be more of a family vacation.

craft beer new zealand
One of the hoppier, harder-hitting IPAs I found in New Zealand.

The Kiwi craft beer scene was in its infancy last time, and it’s progressed to at least the tween stage at this point. New Zealand brewers are taking more advantage of their hops. They haven’t yet gotten quite as aggressive as the hop monsters on the US West Coast. And they don’t age everything in barrels fashioned from the nuclear reactors of sunken Russian submarines. That sort of fun will come in time, though.

Here are the stand-out breweries/pubs we visited as we drove from Auckland to Wellington (via Rotorua and a sheep farm in the wop-wops). These concentrate mostly on the venues themselves – I have brief tasting notes in my Untappd profile, though.

Rotorua — BREW Craft Beer Pub

In Rotorua, Croucher Brewing is kind of the big dog. They have a pub, but it’s a bit of a haul from where we were staying -- we wanted to walk. Fortunately, BREW serves most of what Croucher Brewing seems to offer. My personal favorite was the Croucher Grapefruit Warrior; if you love Ballast Point Grapefruit Sculpin, this is a beer you’ll dig.

craft beer new zealand
Dive into this box to sample the flavors of Lakeman Brewing Company. I found this at grocery stores throughout Wellington.

Of course, I had to try a few others. If you want something a little sweeter, you’ll enjoy the Double Trouble Imperial IPA from Tuatara Brewery (just so you know, a tuatara is a penis-less reptile).

They serve food at Brew Craft Beer Pub, too, and they even have paper and crayons for kids to color. Their burgers are super-satisfying, and they have a green-lipped mussel dish that is worth the flight to New Zealand. Avoid the pizza at all costs, though: I showed up starving after a long mountain bike ride, and that pizza did not hit the spot at all.

Wellington — Crafters & Co

If I could, I would clone Crafters & Co and bring it back home with me. It has a very nice vibe to it, with an enthusiastic, knowledgeable staff that is eager to talk about beers, espresso or anything else gastronomic with you. They seem to love working there.

For good reason. They have an ever-rotating selection of taps and bottles. According to my Untappd notes, I was enthusiastic about the Lakeman Brewing Co Hairy Hop IPA, and it puts the locally grown hops to good use. OK, one more nice offering at BREW: The Imperial Nibs from Kereru Brewing Company satisfied my craving for a darker beer. The bartender was sad that I missed out on the barrel-aged version recently on tap, but happy that he got to try it.

craft beer new zealand
Not only does Crafters & Co have a great beer selection, but they have one of my favorite charcuterie boards ever.

And here are two really huge bonuses: Crafters & Co has assembled a charcuterie board for the ages. I cannot entirely, positively identify everything that was on it, but I just don’t care. It was all delicious, and we devoured every last crumb. Also, the owners spotted Anneka and brought out a barrel full of toys to keep her occupied.

Nelson — Craft Beer Depot

You have to work a bit to find Craft Beer Depot. It’s behind a bunch of stores and down a little alley. You can sit outside at some old cable spools or on an old couch. People will bring their dogs, and it’s all good fun.

craft beer new zealand
The Craft Beer Depot in Nelson, NZ, isn’t easy to find.

I only saw one employee at Craft Beer Depot, who was a fellow American. She had some solid opinions about beer, and she’s more than happy to talk to people who really like their beer, too.

I made a few visits here – once to sit down and enjoy beer in good company, and another time to get some bottles to go. Here are the ones that stood out: the Funk Estate Bad Mama Jama imperial IPA and Perris Sky Juice IPA from Moa Brewing Company (odd, since I’m not a huge fan of the Moa beers that make it to the US).

New Zealand has definitely hopped wholeheartedly into craft beer. I can still taste a bit of UK-tinged restraint in many of its recipes, with just a few pushing the envelope into wilder flavors. The pubs and beer bars, though, seem to be pushing the brewers in that direction. And they’ve created a very nice vibe for enjoying beer and food. Great stuff!

 

CategoriesAdventuresTravel

How Does Hawaiian Airlines Measure Up?

best passenger planes
Hawaiian Airlines has solid 767s still flying. But they’re making way for Airbus A330s.

If you ask me whether I like something, I can give you a definite answer. Do I like black licorice? Oh, hell, no. Do I like a nice big bowl of tonkatsu ramen? You betcha. Do I like Hawaiian Airlines?

Hmmm. OK. I’ve just flown four long legs on Hawaiian Airlines, and I honestly don’t know how to answer this question. You’d think it’s a simple question -- but it’s hard to evaluate the sum of the parts versus the individual parts themselves. Let’s break it down into pieces so you can see whether Hawaiian Airlines is right for you.

[textbox rows=”4″]
Where I Flew
Phoenix, Ariz. to Honolulu, Hawaii
Honolulu to Auckland, New Zealand
Return
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Let’s Start with the Schedule and Airports

One of the reasons I chose Hawaiian Airlines was to avoid Los Angeles International Airport, both outbound and inbound. Hawaiian’s flight from Phoenix gave me a great morning flight on Thursday as opposed to a late-night flight.

Hawaiian Airlines Airbus A330
A Hawaiian A330. Courtesy of Hawaiian Airlines.

Hawaiian also connects via Honolulu to all sorts of destinations in Asia, and our future travel plans include South Korea and Japan (both on our list). So if they passed this test, they’d be a perfect airline for future trips.

Oh, and Honolulu International Airport? It’s wonderful for a layover on the way to Auckland Airport. The little garden area and semi-outdoor corridors give it the nicest vibe of any US airport. Unfortunately, its customs, immigration and baggage areas are an absolute morass. I’d take LAX any day, and that’s saying a lot.

How was the Hawaiian Airlines Staff?

Pilots, flight attendants, gate agents -- no matter what their role at Hawaiian Airlines, they were all far nicer than your typical North American Airlines. Here are a few examples.

Hawaiian Airlines 767 Iwa
Heading out to Honolulu on Iwa, a Hawaiian Airlines 767.

I slept through the initial snack/meal service on my flight out of Auckland. I went back into the galley and asked if they had anything left. I got a nice little sandwich, some fruit and a cookie. And no disgruntled attitude about why I missed the flight attendant’s pass through the cabin.

On my flight from Phoenix to Honolulu, I drained my 24-ounce collapsible water bottle and was feeling the thirst. I took the empty bottle back to the galley and asked if I could get a bit of water. Well, the flight attendant kindly filled it all the way up.

Small stuff, right? But it adds up.

Speaking of Food ….

The meal services on the flights were fairly nondescript sandwiches and chicken/rice dishes. They were still considerably better than most meal options I’ve had on long-haul flights with US legacy airlines, though considerably short of the fare on Asiana or All Nippon Airlines (with Asiana being downright tasty).

On the flight into Honolulu from Phoenix, they also served some fun flavors of the islands: sweet onion potato chips and some sort of rum punch that was plenty tasty.

Hawaiian Airlines A330 Nahiku
This Hawaiian Airlines A330 was delayed for three hours.

Da Planes, Da Planes!
[textbox rows=”4″]
Tail Numbers and Aircraft Names
PHX-HNL: Boeing 767 with Sky Interior (N588HA, Iwa)
HNL to AKL and Back: Airbus A330 (N388HA, Nahiku; N389HA, Keali’iokonaikalewa)
HNL to PHX: Boeing 767, old interior (N581HA, Manu o Ku)
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This is where Hawaiian Airlines has some problems. I really liked our first 767, even though it didn’t have AVOD (on-demand entertainment) at each seat, which is pretty much the standard for long-haul flights on other airlines. It’s the old-school drop-down screens. But I didn’t really care since the Hawaiian Airlines flights were about $1,000 cheaper for my party collectively than competing airlines. Plus, I had a Kindle loaded with some great books. I also like the 2-3-2 seating configuration on the 767, which also gave me ample legroom (6’2 with a 32-inch inseam).

The 767 from HNL to Phoenix was older, and had the earlier, dingier interior. Still, the legroom was perfect.

Hawaiian Airlines Keali'iokonaikalewa
We’re both happier than we look – I just have a horrible fake camera smile, so I just go neutral (and this was before the delay).

Now let’s talk about those A330s. They’re the future for Hawaiian Airlines as the 767 gets phased out. The A330 in and of itself isn’t a problem: How Hawaiian Airlines chooses to configure them, though, is a big-time pain for tall travelers. I slid into my seat, and my knees immediately contacted the seat in front of me. So I did what all smart travelers do: I pitched all the reading material in the seat pocket onto the floor in front of me. It opened up some space, but not enough to separate me from the seat. It’s odd that seatguru.com lists the pitch at 31 inches; I’ve flown on plenty of planes with 31 inches of pitch that gave me a little room between seats. The seat cushions were pretty bad, with my left buttock aching about an hour after takeoff.

Also, the Airbus cabins were Yukon cold on both flights. They did have AVOD, but most content would cost. Again, not a big deal for the price break. But factoring in the tight spacing, this becomes more of an issue.

I will definitely avoid any Hawaiian Airlines A330 in the future until they decide to provide some extra space, regardless of price or convenience. There’s just too much competition out there.

Hawaiian Airlines Keali'iokonaikalewa A330
That’s Hawaiian Airlines Keali’iokonaikalewa in the background … and before we loaded aboard, got settled, then deplaned for the mechanical problem.

Another Little Hitch

Our flight to Auckland was delayed a full three hours by a mechanical problem. That put us at the gate in Auckland just short of 2 a.m., which is pretty rough. Our scheduled 22:25 arrival was already late for travelers craving rest in a real bed.

But things happen, and I get that. Still, Hawaiian Airlines could’ve scored some points by setting passengers up somehow for the delay. Maybe by providing meal vouchers for the delay, or waiving the in-flight entertainment charge. Unfortunately, they missed that chance to make a better situation of a long delay.

What’s the Bottom Line?

I really wanted to love Hawaiian Airlines. I still want to, but I just can’t bring myself to do it. That’s a bummer, because the actual on-the-line employees got it right. The corporate suits, unfortunately, have handed them either aging or cramped aircraft that are well short of the standards being set by other airlines. They’re addressing the aging planes, but they’re replacing them with cramped sardine cans. This is a huge disservice to their pilots, cabin staff and ground staff who do so well.

Fortunately, it’s also reversible. The suits could make some adjustments to the aircraft coming into the fleet, and heed my very good advice when it comes time to refresh the cabins of the A330s currently on hand.

Here’s the good news: If you’re of a shorter stature, the seat pitch won’t matter as much to you. My wife, who is 5’7, had no problem catching Zs on the 767 and A330. Obviously, my 2-year-old wasn’t bothered by the seat pitch!

But since we come as a package and I’m the guy who gets to book the flights, I don’t see Hawaiian Airlines being my go-to airline for future flights unless they’re on a 767 or the A330s get a bit more room for us tall guys.

CategoriesTravel

Could the Boeing 757 Mean Fewer Delayed Flights?

I expected to get on my American Airlines flight at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and land in Phoenix. That happened eventually, but nowhere near as planned. We arrived about two hours late because we had to stop for fuel in Kansas City, Mo.

Let me get something out of the way: Don’t roll your eyes and criticize American Airlines. It could’ve been any airline flying an Airbus A320-type or Boeing 737-family aircraft (we were on an A321). On top of that, the flight attendants remained very friendly and courteous through it all, despite grumpy passengers (and jerks like the guy next to me, who pushed the flight attendant call button while we were landed in Kansas City to order gin and tonic. Dude.). The pilots also did their best to keep us informed.

757
La Compagnie’s 757s are all business class.

Where the 737 and A320 Fall Short

Okay, back to that refueling stop — Reagan has a short runway. Our Airbus A320 was full of passengers, as was my flight from Phoenix to Reagan. Combine a heavy plane with a short runway, and your pilots wind up with some obstacles. Put enough fuel into the plane to get to Phoenix under the wrong conditions, and the plane’s too heavy to take off. I suspect some weather conditions might’ve also contributed to the situation.

Performance isn’t the priority for jets like the A320 and 737. They’re efficient flying Honda Civics. Airbus and Boeing bet heavily that airlines wanted, and the A320 and 737 do the job 95 percent of the time.

757
Way too many 757s have wound up like this before their time.

This was one of that 5 percent (I’m making that number up based on a few things I’ve read — but I think it’s close to accurate).

A Job for the 757

Now, there is a plane that could handle this job with aplomb: the Boeing 757, a powerhouse single-aisle aircraft that can take off heavily loaded from even high-altitude airports and get you pretty darn far. It can do so much that the newer generation of smaller twinjets can’t – and pilots love ‘em for that and more. The problem is, Boeing stopped making them. There is no replacement for the aging models still flying today. It’s so versatile that airlines can even use it for intercontinental flights, such as one I took from Stockholm-Arlanda in Sweden to Newark.

And here’s the big question – why have the airlines and aircraft manufacturers ignored such a capable plane?

A U.S. Airways 757 lands at Phoenix Sky Harbor. Umm, would a visit or two from a 777 be too much to ask?
A U.S. Airways 757 lands at Phoenix Sky Harbor.

Can the NMA/MOM/797 Solve This Problem?

Boeing is only starting, after a lot of prodding from pilots, passengers and a few airlines, starting to consider a replacement that they call the New Mid-Market Aircraft (NMA). The NMA might do more than replace the 757 – it might take the place of its even-larger sibling, the wide-body 767.

Let’s just hope Boeing keeps the performance needs in mind, because that’s what the 757 does so well. It would’ve screamed right off of Reagan’s short runway and gotten me back to Phoenix without adding hours to my already long trip with a stop in Kansas City.

757
A chilly morning at Keflavik International Airport in Iceland – no problem for this 757!

It seems like that should be a priority for airlines. Consider the 180-some people on my A321. How many of them missed connecting flights in Phoenix because of the delay? Quite a few, judging by the grumbling and kvetching near me. One passenger who claimed to fly the route often said the Kansas City fuel stop happens often. How much compensation did American Airlines have to shell out because of that? How does it tarnish their reputation with passengers? In short, how much do delays like this hurt their bottom line -- all because of aircraft that are ill-suited for the job?

Unfortunately, as cool as the NMA sounds and how much effective technology it might borrow from the delayed-but-successful 787 Dreamliner, it’s unlikely you’ll see it on a runway in less than 10 years.

CategoriesTravel

What Visitors From Abroad Need to Know About Los Angeles

Los Angeles
One of my favorite LAX landmarks. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Whenever I connect with travelers visiting the U.S. from abroad, there’s one destination that’s invariably on their itineraries: Los Angeles.

I like Los Angeles – probably more than most Americans. But it has some highly visible warts. And my foreign friends are so eager to see it that I cringe at the disappointment that can follow. I’d like to prepare them for the reality of Los Angeles with this list of observations gleaned from way too many visits to the area.

Hollywood – All the Grunge, Little of the Glamor

Los Angeles
Definitely an icon.

If you have dreams of Hollywood glitz, lower your expectations. It’s shabby and run-down with its best years decades in the past. I actually like the Sunset Strip quite a bit, but not for the usual reasons – the place is packed full of guitar shops selling some serious pro-grade gear. And you can walk from one to the other (perfect for a guy like me who spent way too much time playing in local bands), unlike my city where I could spend a day driving around and never find anything interesting. By and large, dining is pretty much focused on chains. I suppose things could get interesting if you’re interested in seeing where celebrities live or once lived – they have all sorts of tours for that sort of thing.

Los Angeles
Tanning beds not required at Muscle Beach (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Beaches are Meh, But People Watching is Amazing

I know, I know – it’s sunny SoCal! The water should be warm and inviting, right? Nope. This is, year-round, some chilly water. Navy SEAL operators train just 120 miles away because the water is cold enough to test their endurance and fortitude. If you want warm, clear, sparkly water, you will not find it on a Los Angeles beach. You will, however, find absolutely epic people watching. Venice Beach, Muscle Beach, all the spots in Santa Monica -- I’ll just say to bring your camera. The fun part of Muscle Beach is watching people try their hands at some of the activities; my wife once saw an amazing wipeout on a slackline, and we both wished she’d been rolling some video of it.

Los Angeles
Have a mammoth time at La Brea Tar Pits. (Wikimedia Commons)

Natural History in the Concrete

My favorite place in LA is going to surprise you: the La Brea Tar Pits. Here’s the deal -- Los Angeles is a huge mass of concrete. Here, the earth looks completely static. But the La Brea Tar Pits are a reminder that the earth is alive, that it is moving and living right under our feet – even in a city that appears locked into its current form. You can watch scientists at work there, dredging up clues from the earth’s long history. It’s absolutely hypnotic, especially jammed into the backdrop of concrete, crowds and traffic.

Speaking of Sprawling

Travelers from abroad are often used to public transit. If you’re from Tokyo, London, Frankfurt or Seoul, there’s literally nowhere you can’t reach thanks to their world-class public transit and inherent walkability. You will not find that here. Just leaving Los Angeles International Airport is difficult. There is no Tube or Metro to zip you to the most-interesting parts of the city (compare that to Stockholm, where a sweet rail system can help you make the most of a 7-hour layover). There is allegedly some sort of rail system under construction. For now, you’re best-off making prior arrangements. You have taxis, but they can be hit-and-miss from a quality standpoint. I never thought about this before being a parent, but booking something in advance can make sure that you’ll have a car seat, adequate space, a knowledgeable driver -- all very important to get a trip started off well. I’d lean toward booking a car service from LAX.

Los Angeles
Hollywood celebrities and dignitaries at Roosevelt Birthday Ball activities in Washington, (left to… – NARA – 199317 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Tons of Theme Parks

If you have kids that watch too much TV, chances are they’re clamoring for a visit to a certain rodent-fronted theme park. It’s here, it’s sprawling and it’s absolutely astounding in its ability to absolutely dominate everything about Anaheim. If you’re traveling without little people, you’ll find better rides at Magic Mountain Parkway or Knotts Berry Farm. But there are other theme parks and attractions, from paintball fields to racecar-themed parks. Los Angeles is pretty astounding that way – if there’s an obscure hobby, you can find people practicing it here.

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CategoriesTravelGear

The Great List of Non-Obvious Travel Tips

non-obvious travel tips
Oddly enough, not mentioned in Dante’s Inferno.

Every time I see a list of travel tips, I brace myself to expect the obvious – from the practical "remember your ID" to the goofily gooey "be open to new experiences," I’ve seen every element of a travel tip listicle before.

I’ve set out to create the ultimate list of non-obvious travel tips that goes beyond all the same tired stuff you’ve heard before. These tips will either improve your travel experience, or turn you into a superhero for your fellow travelers. If I’ve missed something, pitch it into the comments.

Parking at the Airport Can Kill Your Car Battery

I recently returned from a weekend getaway to find my car battery dead. Fortunately, Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport has a service that will give you a free jump-start. I was remarking to the person jumping the car that it’s a new battery, and that I couldn’t figure out why it died. He clued me into a little-known fact: Jet noise often sets off car alarms, and a bunch of false alarms can wear a battery out. He told me that it’s a rare day when he doesn’t jump-start a car with a previously healthy battery. So, if you can park further from the rumble of the jets (or get a ride to the airport), you may reduce your chances of a dead battery.

non-obvious travel tips
This plane has lots of middle-seat passengers – be nice to ’em, eh?

Traveling Abroad? Learn Your Metric

I can’t believe how many American travelers have a hard time with kilometers and meters. Look, metric just isn’t that difficult. And being able to convert it will help you communicate when you need directions.

Traveling Abroad, Take 2: Driving a Stickshift

If you’re headed abroad, don’t expect every rental car to have an automatic transmission. Many if not most of the rental cars will have a stickshift. Being able to handle a manual transmission is great for many reasons – not least of all, being able to drive no matter where in the world you go. And do you honestly want to learn this skills on the fly, especially in a country where you’re driving on the opposite side of the road?

Never Board a Plane Without Visiting a Loo

By the way, "loo" is metric for "bathroom." I promise that this simple step will save you from squirming in your seat through a takeoff and climb to 10,000 feet. Not only will you fly more comfortably, but that’s one less time you’ll needlessly climb over other seated passengers.

non-obvious travel tips
Bungee cords can do almost anything.

Bungee Cords and Carabiners

You won’t believe what you can do with bungee cords and carabiners. From carrying a water bottle to securing a folding baby stroller, these magical devices can solve a wide array of problems. And keep in mind – when you need either of them, you need them badly -- and that’s when it’s almost impossible to find anyplace selling them.

Turn Off the Water Works

Before you leave your house for a trip, turn off your toilet valves. Toilet hoses have a way of failing in spectacular fashion. They’ll start to leak or spray, and the toilet will diligently keep the water flowing to try filling the toilet. But since it’s leaking, it never fills. That’s when you return home after two weeks to find your house flooded. That’s a crap way to end an adventure. So shut the valves off. (And seriously, can nobody honestly figure out a way to bring toilets into the 21st century?)

Get Away from the Baggage Return

There’s a special circle of hell for people that park themselves directly in front of the baggage claim. If you step back just 10 measly feet, you’ll make it possible for A) other passengers to see their returning bags and B) get to their bag without bumping you out of the way. You gain nothing by standing too close, aside from the contempt of smarter, more-considerate travelers.

Be Nice to the Person in the Middle Seat

Nobody appreciates a bit of courtesy like someone in a middle seat. Gracefully letting them out for a bathroom visit or letting them have the armrest are really cheap, easy ways to make life better for that more middle-seat flier. That little bit of consideration rarely goes unnoticed.

CategoriesTravel

United Airlines Versus American Airlines – A Round Trip to Newark

United Airlines Versus American Airlines
Heading to Newark on a United Airlines A320.

My recent travel unexpectedly turned into a little United Airlines versus American Airlines test. I didn’t book the flights, and my wife wound up booking a different airline for each leg of the trip. We flew to Newark from Phoenix Sky Harbor on United Airlines, and returned on American Airlines. Here’s how it all shook out.

United Airlines – Sky Harbor to Newark

One of the reasons I like flying United Airlines from Sky Harbor is because it’s at Terminal 2, the smallest of Sky Harbor’s terminals. Plus, there’s a long-term parking lot a short walk from the terminal. That’s pretty huge. For some reason, we were selected for pre-check to move us through the line faster.

We flew on a pretty shiny Airbus A320 that didn’t look anywhere near its 18 years of age. It still smelled good, and had those nice new slimline seats that move the seat pocket high to free up extra legroom.

English: Stroopwafels Esperanto: Siropvaflo Fr...
The United Airlines take on a stroopwafel – which this is not – is extremely tasty. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This was an early, long flight. No time for breakfast, so we had to make do with what was on-board. United Airlines has gotten a lot of recent praise for its stroopwafel, and it definitely deserves that praise. It’s one of the tastiest free airline snacks I’ve ever had. They also had two impressive for-sale breakfast items that Sarah and I tried (and shared with Anneka): a chilaquiles mexican skillet and a ricotta-and-berry French toast. We were both surprised by the quality. I’d skip standing in line before a flight and opt for these any day.

After breakfast, I tried to get a little sleep. The slimline seat was nice in every way but the headrest. I raised it up to my height, but it never gave me any support for the head. I just kept tilting back into a very uncomfortable position – I also tried stuffing my jacket in the space between my neck and the seat, but not even that worked. This likely wouldn’t be a problem on a later flight because I’d have my nose shoved into my Kindle (I’m reading a spectacular book called Angelmaker from Nick Harkaway). As it was, I got enough sleep to get by, and it felt pretty fast for a more than four-hour flight.

United Airlines Versus American Airlines
Some passengers bring their own in-flight food.

This was my first flight to Newark, and the terminal was more modern than I expected. Baggage claim was pretty quick, so I had no complaints about how things turned out on the ground.

I’d definitely consider this flight a win for United Airlines.

Round Two – United Airlines Versus American Airlines

On the way back to Arizona, we left from Newark’s Terminal A. That terminal and its TSA setup are a study in inefficiency, bureaucracy and rank stupidity. The TSA agents there are in such of a state of stupefied terror that they insisted that we send a stuffed owl attached to Anneka’s stroller through that X-ray for examination – how effective can those millimeter-wave porno-scanners be if they can’t handle a stuffed owl? American Airlines is in no way responsible for this, but I would pay extra for an airline that doesn’t fly out of Newark Terminal A.

United Airlines Versus American Airlines
Inside our American Airlines 737-800.

Sarah and I were scheduled to fly an American Airlines Boeing 737-800. I heard more than a few passengers ask "How old is this plane, anyway?" While boarding. It’s probably the bulky old-style seats that prompted the question – and this 737 did not have the very slick, sleek Dreamliner-inspired Boeing Sky interior (which beats the pants off any other interior, even the recently released Airbus Airspace cabin). More than a few people had trouble getting their carry-on luggage into the bins, mostly because some lip of metal seemed to be hanging lower than it should. It’s honestly not that old of a plane, about 15 years old according to my info (though a lot has changed in the last 15 years, as far as the passenger experience).

United Airlines Versus American Airlines
Compare the United Airlines A320 or the American Airlines 737 to this Norwegian Air 737 with the Boeing Sky interior. Both fall short.

The seat wasn’t too terrible, but I knew I wouldn’t get any sleep on this 5-hour-plus flight, mostly because the headrest doesn’t extend. Sarah was also sitting across the aisle, which would make it a bit tough to handle Anneka – she’s a long baby, so it’s a challenge to keep her from invading other people’s space. That’s OK if you’re seated next to the other parent, but a bit harsh for anyone else.

American Airlines is also handing out free snacks, but its mix of grainy things definitely comes in a good distance behind the United Airlines stroopwafel. On the other hand, American Airlines offers some nice paid menu items. The fruit and cheese platter was more than satisfying.

Overall, a not-unpleasant yet not-impressive flight.

Summing It Up: United Airlines Versus American Airlines

So, is there a winner or loser here? The flight attendants on both flights were nice enough. Perfunctory nice, not Lufthansa or Asiana Airlines or ANA nice. Nothing stood out in either direction.

As far as terminals, United is the winner here. Food? A slight edge to United.

As for aircraft, I have to deduct points from both. United Airlines has plenty of domestic aircraft equipped with AVOD, and I’d call that a must for a transcontinental flight. Then there’s the seat headrest problem with both. United eases ahead with a much nicer if not much newer aircraft.

Overall, United wins in this particular United Airlines versus American Airlines contest.

Want to read about another recent experience on United Airlines? Here’s how they stranded me in Chicago after a flight from Germany, and what they did to make the situation better.