Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Miracle Innovations in Travel

Milestones in Modern Travel

In our daily lives we are surrounded by spectacular technological marvels. So much so that we simply yawn and take them for granted. I put hybrid automobiles, IMAX 3-D movies and central air-conditioning  solidly into the category of "almost magic!"

Travel related marvels include the development of steamships, transcontinental railroads, and modern jets.

But there are those "other" achievements that are so deserving of recognition.

Herewith are the travel related Innovations I feel deserve hall of fame status:

1. Roll-a-board Luggage
Yep this is it. IMHO wheeled luggage constitutes the seminal innovation in travel during my lifetime.

After a decade spent lugging a fold-over Samsonite Silhouette II garment bag all over the planet, I know that wheeled luggage is the bomb.

Now, having said that, I am a purist and hate the new spinner models. They are kind of like my pound pups, cute, but sorta goofy.

2. Woolite
Yep. Woolite.
For years I resisted the urge to take those little packets on long trips. Then, on a trip to London, I found myself paying a couple hundred bucks to launder about 6 items.

Now, to be fair, the Marriott County Hall did fold everything with exceptional care, slipping little tissues between every fold. And they delivered it in a lovely wicker basket. Despite that the feeling that “I have been soooo ripped off “ did not diminish.

Nowadays, I bring a handful of woolite packets and wash everything in the bathroom sink of my hotel room. On a two-week trip the money I save using Woolite easily covers a couple of very nice Parisian dinners (with wine.)

3. The Euro
I love the Euro.

I remember my first trip to Europe and all the little skirmishes I had with my mom trying to figure out what things really cost in crowns, schillings, francs, guilders and lire. What a nightmare.

At every border you had to visit a little bulletproof kiosk to convert money from one currency to another, losing epic amounts of value in every transaction.

Heck, on that first trip to Italy, I remember the whole nation was simply “out” of change. To a kid from America, this was completely inconceivable. How could a nation simply not have the resources to make coins?

The situation was so dire that Italian phone companies issued their own coinage. They simply had no choice since government issued coins were virtually extinct and the ones you did come in contact with were aluminum and far too light to trigger the mechanisms in an Italian payphone.

As a result telephone tokens became Italy’s defacto national currency. When a shopkeeper ran out of telephone tokens they would offer a piece of fresh fruit, or even zots (cute little hard candies).

The coin thing provided me with my first “a-ha” moment as I lifted the veil and peered into the confusing soul of 1970's Italy.

Now, when we travel throughout the EU (except Britain) there is the Euro. For that I offer my profound gratitude.

4. The Lay-Flat Business Class Seat / Bed
Oh how I love Business Class. I remember my first trip in the upstairs business class bubble of a British Airways 747 that featured lay-flat beds.

Over the course of our 11-hour flight from Seattle to Heathrow I reveled in comfort. The situation was reinforced when I ventured down to visit my children seated in steerage. They had seats just inches from the doors to a couple of busy restrooms scented with that fragrant “magic blue water”. Making matters worse, my daughter had lost a contact and was squinting at her malfunctioning little TV screen. My son shot me a “daggers-to-the-heart” look that conveyed without a single word his evaluation of the state of transcontinental air travel.

Shaken, I slinked back upstairs to "the bubble" advising my spouse that “you don’t want to go down there”.

These days, I jealously guard frequent flier miles until I have enough to go Business Class. If I can’t go BC, I don’t go.

5. Grey Hair
On most domestic flights these days many flight attendants are eligible for AARP. That suits me just fine. If something goes wrong, I like knowing that this ain’t their first rodeo.

When other passengers (usually fat troll businessmen) moan about not having a twenty something trophy babe to ogle, I shoot them my best "Eat Feces and Die" look (I took notes from my son.)

6. Noise Cancelling Headphones
Oh yeah. They may be pricey, but noise-cancelling headsets are so worth it.

From my first flight using a pair of Bose headphones there was no turning back. I have lost two sets of the Bose units and now when I lose a pair I google "refurbished noise canceling headphones" to see what comes up. That is how I found my current Sennheiser’s at Amazon. Personal note, I actually prefer the Sennheiser's to my former pair of Bose.

Now, when that baby behind me starts sucking in the air needed to drive out an ear splitting shriek, I just flip the “Go Away” switch on my headphones and all is well with the world.

Now if someone can devise a way to eliminate seat kickers they will join my list…

7. In Room Coffee, Refrigerators, Safes, Irons and Microwaves
When I was a kid all I cared about was whether the hotel / motel dad picked had a swimming pool. If it had a pool it was cool. If not, it sucked.

As an adult, I look back and chuckle remembering all of those motel rooms with lumpy beds, wall hung lavatories, and tiny little bars of soap with names like “Lisa” or "Sweatheart" or "Cashmere Bouquet".

Lets agree that the hospitality industry has come a long way in a single generation.

8. Decent Airport Food
I realize this isn’t universal, but putting local food into airports is an emerging (and most welcome) trend. Now I actually plan trips through certain terminals just to grab some regional fare.

If I need to change planes in Cincinnati? No problem-O, a bowl of 5-way chili waits for me. In Oakland there is Fenton’s ice cream (and they dish up very generous scoops.) In Phoenix, Carmen Tafoya’s tamales await you at El Bravo in Terminal 4.

9. Frequent Flier Points
OK I admit it, I am a point hound.

I squeeze points out of every credit card. I know the deadlines for Marriott’s annual “Mega Bonus”. I keep track of my stays to make sure I retain my Diamond and Platinum hotel status each year.

You see, when I travel for fun, I love being able to take my friends, colleagues and family to the Concierge Lounge for breakfast, drinks and evening snacks.

Concierge breakfasts are usually pretty awesome. Some, like the Hilton Molino Stuckey in Venice or the Cavalieri in Rome, are downright sublime. But more importantly, they save the family bank account in places like Rome where restaurant waiters (with a straight face) present you with a $40 per head tariff after delivering a couple of eggs, toast, and juice.

I believe that certain prices (see laundry above) are so absurd that any traveler not related to the Saudi royal family, is obligated to “just say no”. 

10. Free Airport WiFi
Oh to the airports with it I say “You Go!”

To those that pimp overpriced Boingo hotspots (like O’Hare), I say shame on you.

There are many many other modern innovations I am thankful for: web enabled travel planning, intermodal mass transit connections, the list goes on.

And, of course, there are slip-on shoes......

Roadboy’s Travel’s © 2011

Friday, March 11, 2011


Terra Firma
Latin for "Solid Ground"

There are things we count on no matter what. The sun will rise in the morning. Tides will come and go. Seasons will change.

Unfortunately, we err when we rely on the stability of the earth beneath our feet. We simply expect it to stay put. We assume it will provide a solid place to build our buildings and carry out our lives. Sometimes, however, the earth shirks its responsibility to stay put, with horrifying consequences.

This week Japan was violently reminded that the ground we live on is nothing more than a series of eggshells floating around the surface of our planet.

For me, earthquakes have always been just a part of life. One of my very earliest memories is jiggling in a high chair during an earthquake. My mom reaching out to hold on to its tray with a smile.

Numerous times during my childhood she would whisper in my ear "its OK, its just a little earthquake".

After high school I started moving around the country a lot. And until my final move here to Phoenix, I have always lived in earthquake country.

The house my dad built was just a few feet from the Hayward fault.

When I lived in Anchorage we had earthquakes all the time. Two of them were actually pretty good jolts (7.0 and 7.1 respectively.) The difference was that Alaska, after the huge Good Friday quake, rebuilt itself to modern structural and geotechnical standards. Those quakes would have caused total mayhem in less prepared parts of the world. But in Anchorage we shrugged, checked to make sure the power was not flickering, then headed home like any other day.

In 1987, while living in the picturesque Town of Los Gatos, the Loma Prieta quake struck. While it was not California's dreaded "Big One", it was certainly a "Pretty Big One". It rolled out of the Santa Cruz mountains collapsing freeways, a section of the Bay Bridge, and jolting the World Series to a halt.

I guess we are just cockeyed optimists. Every few years without fail some Southern California mansions along the PCH will be washed away in a big Pacific storm. Similarly, along the Outer Banks every other season homes are destroyed by Atlantic hurricanes. But, as soon as the lots are cleared, a for sale sign goes up, and soon someone else starts drawing up plans for their next disposable bazillion dollar dream home. Even in Anchorage pricey homes pop up every day all over the Turnagain bluffs. This land will simply collapse into a mud pile in the next big Alaskan quake.

The most recent disaster will certainly result in travelers taking Japan off of their bucket list of destinations to visit.

It shouldn't.

Japan, like San Francisco or Istanbul, is simply a place where people live with the inevitability of earthquakes.

In Japan we know the industrious residents will put their shoulders to the yoke and come back better for it. They always do. The fact of the matter is, no place in the world is better prepared to address the consequences of earthquakes than Japan.

As for Roadboy. My family has always loved Japan. Among us, we have made many, many visits to experience its amazing people, sparkling cities, wonderful food and rich culture.

So, for now we pray for the people of Japan.

"At your command all things came to be: the vast universe of interstellar space, galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses, and this fragile earth, our island home"

Excerpt of Eucharistic Prayer C
The Episcopal Book of Common Prayer

Roadboy's Travels © 2011

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Another One Bites The Dust

Southwest Bags Its Old Rapid Rewards Program

Southwest Airlines always pioneered ways to make flying simple. That was why we loved them.

For a short flight, you just showed up and got a boarding card. Seating was festival and in the middle and back of the plane there were party seats that faced each other making it easy to strike up conversations. It was all part of the charm of the LUV airline.

Every flight no matter how long or short, and no matter what you paid, awarded you a flight segment. Once you got the requisite segments you got a free round trip anywhere Southwest flew. About the only restriction was that you had a year to collect segments and once an award was earned you had a year to use it. I can't tell you how many awards I have used over the years and how many I lost because I could not use them or (shame on me) forgot about them in the time allowed.

I loved the program because it was so simple. The only other perk was a biggie. If you flew a hundred segments you could designate someone to fly with you absolutely free anytime you flew for a whole year. And I mean free, they even paid the tax. 

Over the past few years Southwest has spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to improve the bottom line. And part of the strategy included a lot of tinkering with those segments. If you paid more they awarded added fractional portions of segments.

Then they started limited award seats. I had one short flight where I wanted to use my rewards to take my family to Las Vegas. I was able to get three reward seats at one award each. But then when I tried to get the last ticket for my son they were out of the reward seats. I was told I'd need to "double up" and use two rewards to get that last free ticket.

I realized the old Southwest was gone.

Today I took the tutorial on their "new" Rapid Rewards program.

Good bye segments, hello "Points". Gee whiz the "points" sure do look a lot like the "Miles" on every other airline's frequent flier program. But, you do get more points for paying a higher fare.

Now the number of points needed for a free flight varies by the fare you choose. Your old segments are being converted to points.

At least for now there are some nice features.

No blackouts.

And, if a cheap fare exists, the points you need for a free flight require fewer points.


The opposite is also now true. Unlike the old system where you could opt to use an award for a last minute flight that otherwise would have been very expensive, now if you need to use points for a last minute flight, you will bleed points through the nose to do it.

Southwest still has a lot going for it. Lots of flights. The nicest staff in the industry from their call centers to their cabin crews. No baggage fees. A wonderfully forgiving flight change policy. New and very clean planes and the best safety record in the sky!

But lately, they have also featured the most expensive fares for many of the routes I priced. So the days of just going to Southwest's site and booking a flight with full confidence that it would be the best fare for any route I needed to fly are long gone.

Southwest's on time status seems to be suffering too. My last Southwest flight (a couple of weeks ago from Seattle to Phoenix) left more than four hours late. It got me home at the hideous hour of 3 AM. When I inquired why all the Southwest flights were so late, all they could tell me was "the equipment is not taking off on time". I kind of had that figured out all by myself.

In the last couple of weeks Southwest has also suffered from endless computer snafu's.

I just worry that, as their route map expands, and their fares go up, they will just slowly morph into another low quality domestic airline.

Kind of reminds me of McDonalds. 

For anyone as old as Roadboy, we all remember when McDonalds were all fastidiously clean, the food was hot, the prices were low, and the service was unfailingly friendly anywhere you went. Every store fresh-cut their fries and they all used fresh meat. No microwave ovens were to be seen.

Now McDonalds are mostly dirty, their restrooms are broken, the food is cold, the prices are high, and the service is slow anywhere you go. All stores use frozen fries from a bag and stacks of frozen meat. Most every product sees the inside of a microwave.

Southwest, please, there is still time. Don't become the McDonalds of the sky.

Love Roadboy.

Roadboy's Travels © 2011