Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Hotel Room Coffee

We've all experienced the disappointment of hotel room coffee. I don't mean instant coffee, the sort that they have in hotel rooms in most countries other than America. I'm talking about coffee that you brew yourself in the in-room percolator.

I'm not a coffee aficionado. I don't grind my own coffee beans freshly before brewing, don't own a French press, and don't see why anyone pays $5 for a latte. So when I say that hotel room coffee often doesn't measure up to my standards, understand that my standards are quite reasonable.

Yet hotel room coffee often does fail to meet those standards. Why?

Now, thanks to WikiHow, I've learned the answer--and what can be done to make hotel coffee taste better!

Here's the "scoop:" coffee will taste lousy if it is either brewed too long (six minutes is the ideal) or if it isn't brewed hot enough. How can you cope? Try these ideas:
  • Run water through the pot first to heat it, then pour the hot water back in to brew the coffee.
  • Add a few grains of salt to the ground coffee before brewing to decrease bitterness.
  • Let the coffee brew for just six minutes, then use what's done and toss the rest.
  • Use a ceramic or hard plastic mug, not styrofoam; ideally, bring your own.

For those staying in low-budget hotels, WikiHow also offers this less-than-encouraging tip: "If the coffee pot has a dark, reddish-orange stain, it might've been used to brew ethamphetamine, and the resulting coffee could be hazardous to your health. If there's a chemical smell in the room, that's another red flag."

Yikes. Let's hope that doesn't apply to your particular trip. But happy brewing.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Best Travel Gifts of 2008

As we approach Thanksgiving and the semi-official kickoff of the Christmas shopping season, two things are pretty clear:
  1. Retailers are desperate for sales, as evidenced by them trying to start Christmas shopping season right after Halloween; and

  2. Consumers are basically tired of buying everything put in front of them, so retailers are just going to have to accept their losses this year.
There are some things worth having this year, though, especially if you are (or are shopping for) someone who travels a lot. Since I'm an avid traveler myself, here are my picks for the best travel gifts of 2008 (along with handy links to find them on Amazon):
  • 1000 Places to See Before You Die - A Traveler's Life List, as well as its counterpart covering destinations across the U.S.A. and Canada, both by Patricia Schultz ($13.57 for the original, $13.57 for the sequel);
  • An ultra-slim umbrella, because it rains all over the world but lugging a big umbrella around with you is only popular in a few places ($20.00);
  • Kensington's 33117 all-in-one international plug adapter, so you can plug things into the wall in any country you visit ($22.36);
  • The Kensington K33197 120W compact travel laptop power adapter, which comes with connectors for just about every laptop on the market and supports car, wall, and airplane Empower-style power outlets so you can charge your laptop anywhere ($125.99);
  • ViaTek's Mini Dynamo LED crank flashlight, which generates a light bright enough to read or walk by after just a few seconds of winding and lasts indefinitely ($12.99); and

  • A SteriPEN Adventurer ultraviolet water purifier, which uses standard AA batteries to kill 99.9% of all microbes, bacteria, and even viruses in water, so you can purify and drink water anywhere in the world ($79.95).
Happy shopping, and happy travels!

Maglev: The future of rail?

Conde Nast Portfolio has a great interactive feature on magnetic levitation (maglev) train technology. China's Shanghai line delivers speeds of 270 miles per hour, nearly twice that of France's TGV and more than three times the speed of Amtrak's Acela.

On such a train, the trip from Washington, D.C. to Boston, which currently takes about eight hours, would be done in around two and a half.

Is this the way of the future for rail in America?

Zagat names the best airlines: Continental, Southwest, Virgin America

The results of the Zagat 2008 Airline Survey are in!

Among large domestic carriers, Continental is the hands-down winner. The Houston-based airline took first place for domestic premium seating among large airlines and best value for the money on international flights.

What really made Continental stand out, though, is that it placed in the top five for every category where it was eligible to compete (i.e. everything except mid-sized or international airlines).

For low-cost carriers, Southwest Airlines continued to impress in terms of value, Web site design, and its frequent flyer program. Southwest also took first place for on-time arrivals--Continental came in second--and led the way on luggage, an easy win since Southwest has not adopted the now-widespread industry practice of charging fees for checked baggage.

Making a splash its first time around, newcomer Virgin America won accolades for best premium seating for a mid-sized airline as well as coming in second place to Milwaukee-based Midwest Airlines for best economy class.

Going international and want to fly with a foreign airline? You can't go wrong with Singapore Airlines, which took first place among international carriers for premium and economy seating and came in second to Virgin Atlantic for best in-flight entertainment.

As for airlines to avoid, everyone has his or her own preference, but consider this: alone among large domestic airlines, U.S. Airways did not place in the top five in any category measured. There are a lot of reasons for that, but charging $2 for soda probably didn't do much to help.

Say hello to St. Louis' new Gateway Transportation Center

It's taken about twenty years, but St. Louis has finally celebrated the opening of its Gateway Transportation Center. In addition to Amtrak service (on the Texas Eagle route), the Center--located at 430 S. 15th St.--offers connecting MetroLink rail and Metro Bus service and as well as Greyhound bus service.

Among the amenities of the $26 million Center, passengers will find free wireless Internet access and a food court with deli sandwiches. There's also a Metropolitan Lounge for Amtrak First Class (sleeper car) passengers(1).

There is no overnight parking at the Center as of yet, but St. Louis Comptroller Darlene Green claims that, "It's being worked on as we speak."

Hopefully, St. Louis residents will see that oversight corrected sometime before 2028. In the meantime, hats off to this project finally getting done.
--
(1) On account of the Continental-Amtrak partnership, Continental Presidents Club members (but not American Express Platinum cardholders or members of partner airline clubs) have complimentary access to Amtrak Metropolitan Lounge and ClubAcela facilities systemwide in any class of travel.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Delta buying Alaska Airlines? Unlikely.

The news that "the new Delta" will announce a new marketing alliance with Alaska Airlines on Monday has generated some buzz and speculation that Alaska will eventually be acquired by Delta. That's unlikely, for several reasons.

First and foremost, regulators would not allow such an acquisition. Delta is already now the world's largest airline, and it's not going to get any bigger.

Secondly, it wouldn't make sense for Delta. It will be years before the company's namesake and Northwest-branded components actually integrate their operations, systems, and programs to the point that another acquisition would be anything but a disaster.

Finally, it wouldn't make sense for Alaska Airlines. America's smallest legacy carrier is first and foremost focused on Seattle-based trips to and from the state whose name it bears, and it has consistently chosen bilateral partnerships with other airlines to ensure that it maintains this dominance. (That is why, even though Alaska is not a member of any of the three major air alliances, it has mileage-earning reciprocity with four of its six legacy counterparts; only United and U.S. Airways do not offer reciprocal earning with Alaska.)

So, don't make too much of the new marketing alliance. Marketing is marketing, operations are operations, and there's a pretty broad gulf between the two.

Friday, November 14, 2008

SkyTeam now offering cross-airline mileage upgrades

When you come down to it, miles are only good for two things: free tickets and upgrades. Free tickets have their place. When you're a frequent flyer, though, you may value a larger seat and a tasty meal higher than yet another trip on a plane. Some would cite being confirmed for a Business Class upgrade when you're anticipating a full-day flight to Australia as one of the great joys of travel.

That's why the recent announcement by SkyTeam that it will now offer mileage upgrades across member airlines is such a big deal. Up until now, a Continental OnePass member (for example) could get premier check-in and baggage privileges checking in with Air France, but he or she couldn't use OnePass miles to upgrade on that Air France flight. Now, that same passenger can request an upgrade. Here's how it works:
  1. Purchase a regular full-fare Coach ticket on any of the ten primary SkyTeam airlines.
  2. Three days before traveling, call to verify that Business Class seats are available and provide mileage account information.
  3. The host airline will verify and deduct mileage and confirm the upgrade.
As exciting as this is, Star Alliance has had upgrade awards across member airlines for more than a year now. SkyTeam is playing catch-up rather than breaking new ground.

Limiting eligibility to full-fare (Class Y) economy tickets is also a bit of a gimmick, since these generally cost at least as much as the deepest-discounted Business Class fares. Many business travelers--and especially government travelers--are forbidden to book premium-class tickets even when they're apparently cheaper, and those are the people whom this will benefit. It's rare for leisure travelers to book full-fare tickets, especially internationally.

Even so, this latest change opens up new possibilities for SkyTeam passengers, and in that regard, it's a rare expansion of benefits at a time that most things are contracting. For that reason alone, it's worth a nod of appreciation.

What's in store for Amtrak?

During most of his time in the U.S. Senate, Vice President-elect Joe Biden commuted daily by train between his Delaware home and the national capital. He's been talking for much of that time about the need for expanded investment in the national passenger rail system.

While we're still waiting to see what priorities will manifest in the upcoming Obama administration, many people see one of the winners in any scenario to be Amtrak. Former Amtrak board member Michael Dukakis is quoted in a Bloomberg article as saying that the Obama administration may be the most "train-friendly administration in history."

What might this mean for Amtrak? Here are two things that you can expect:
  • Better maintenance. The Railroad Safety Improvement Act of 2008 includes Amtrak's first five-year reauthorization in nearly a decade, allowing the company to better plan for and schedule both preventative and restorative maintenance. Everything from the tracks to the stations as well as the train cars themselves are in need of maintenance too-long "deferred." That will probably come to an end next year.
  • New services. In addition to maintenance, the Railroad Safety Improvement Act also calls for studying the development of true high-speed rail along the Northeast Corridor--trains that could reach speeds comparable to the 300+mph of France's AGV and tracks that can handle those speeds. (Amtrak's Acela, by comparison, barely manages 85mph for most of its D.C.-Boston route because the tracks are unsuited to even its top speed of 150mph.)

In the last election, California voters also gave their approval to state funding for high-speed rail on the West Coast. Details haven't been worked out yet, and to what extend the California High-Speed Rail Project would operate as part of Amtrak California (the state's partnership with Amtrak) remains unclear. The intent, however, is to "procure extensively-proven high-speed train technology from Europe or Asia" to link Los Angeles to San Francisco at an initial cost of $45 billion. That's a bold initiative, and one that is long overdue.

Alaska and Delta form a "marketing alliance"

According to the Puget Sound Business Journal, Alaska Airlines and Delta Air Lines will announce a new "marketing alliance" on Monday.

Practically, what does this mean? Relatively little; Alaska already has codeshare agreements with both Delta and Northwest. As the most unique of America's seven legacy airlines, Alaska is also unlikely to be affected competitively by the new and larger post-merger Delta.

If you're planning to fly Alaska Airlines, though, do take advantage of its broad reciprocal agreements. Continental, American, Delta, and Northwest frequent flyers can all earn miles in their home programs on Alaska Airlines flights; check your particular program for details.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

AirTran joins the crowd with a new checked-bag fee

AirTran today became the latest airline to impose a $15 fee on passengers for checking one piece of luggage. The new fee accompanies fees already in place for a second bag ($25) and any additional bags ($50 each). Business-class and A+ Elite passengers are exempt from all such fees.

AirTran's announcement brings the Atlanta-based low-cost carrier into line with a trend that has swept across the industry in recent months as airlines look for ways to bolster revenue in tough economic times. In particular, AirTran's decision comes shortly after rival Delta--also Atlanta-based and poised to become the world's largest airline when it merges with Northwest in early 2009--announced that it would add the first-bag fee.

Sure, it's disappointing, because we know that--like the elimination of meals in 2004--these fees are here to stay. But as Continental CEO Larry Kellner observed in a recent interview, it makes sense for airlines to oppose fees only when their actions get them additional passengers. As long as passengers tolerate fees and continue to fly with airlines that impose them, other airlines will follow suit and add fees.

In other words, we bring this on ourselves.

NeON: Next-gen bus to Buffalo, Syracuse, and Toronto

For several months now, next-generation bus carriers BoltBus and MegaBus have been making a big splash across the Northeast.

With roomy seats, more legroom, and power outlets, these reliable and professionally operated services have sprinted past the Chinatown buses of days past. Throw in their free Wi-Fi and ticket prices reliably at or below $25 for DC-NYC round-trips, and you get a serious challenger even to Amtrak's Acela service.

Now, Greyhound is taking things to the next level. With the introduction of its new NeON, Greyhound(1)--which also operates BoltBus--now offers daily next-gen service between Manhattan, Buffalo, Syracuse, and Toronto.

Sure, the NYC-Toronto trip takes all day. It's a long way. But let's do a comparison!
  • Amtrak's Maple Leaf service (also daily, Penn Station to Toronto) leaves at 7:15 a.m. and arrives in Toronto at 7:47 p.m., and a one-way trip costs around $96.
  • The NeON leaves Penn Station (34th and 8th) at 8:45 a.m. and arrives in Toronto at 6:50 p.m.--two hours earlier than the Maple Leaf--and a one-way trip costs as little as $45 with a three-day advance purchase.

In days past, one would've gladly paid more than double the fare to avoid traveling by bus. factor in the comfy seats, power outlets, onboard video, and Wi-Fi--which again, Amtrak doesn't offer--and you've got a serious alternative.

I'm excited. For millions of Americans with the desire but not the cash to travel, suddenly, Canada is within reach. (Learn more at www.neonbus.com.)

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(1) Strictly speaking, NeON is a joint operation between Greyhound Lines, Inc., Adirondack Transit Lines, Inc., and Passengerbus Corp., Inc.

Friday, November 7, 2008

United is... no wait, is NOT... raising its baggage fee.

United had big plans. The legacy airline was going to double its fee for a second checked bag to a whopping $50. But don't worry: the plan is being shelved.

What happened? Well, I'm sure that someone brought a projection to United's management showing how much revenue could be raised from boosting the fee. Then, a few weeks later, someone else decided to adjust that revenue to account for the people who would just fly with another airline.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

United reinstates minimum mileage, adds upgrade fees

As Continental prepares to leave SkyTeam in favor of joining the Star Alliance, United Airlines--a Star Alliance founding member--is making changes of its own to bring its policies into closer alignment with its anticipated ally.

One of these changes, reinstating the 500-mile mileage minimum for elite members of its frequent flyer program, makes United the latest carrier to reverse a trend that it actually brought to the industry a few months back. (Ironically, it was Continental that first broke this trend, when a majority of its own OnePass elite members expressed anger at the policy.)

United has also decided to change its international upgrades, adopting one of the few policies that Continental has that arguably makes passengers worse rather than better off. When the changes take effect for 2009, every fare code will be eligible for overseas upgrades, and mileage requirements will drop. The catch? Passengers requesting mileage upgrades will have to pay cash upgrade fees in addition to miles, with the amount based on the fare class. For the most deeply discounted fare classes, fees may be as high as $500 one-way.

There's no word yet whether the new upgrade model will affect the workings of United Systemwide upgrades, which are unique to that airline.