Sunday, September 23, 2012

TSA Pre and CBP Global Entry

A Little Bit of Sanity and Dignity Returns

About a year ago I got a note from my favorite airline telling me they had nominated me for acceptance in TSA's new Pre program. I had no real idea what that was. So I googled it.

I found out that TSA was introducing a trusted traveler program. Since, I once belonged to the short lived "Clear" program in the US and have observed the efficient trusted traveler programs in other countries (like the fully automated walk-through one at Narita Airport), it was welcome news.

Well Pre has arrived at Sky Harbor!

Here is my new screening process:
1. No sir, leave your shoes on. Awesome!
2. No sir, leave your laptop in the bag. Huh?
3. Rapiscan? No sir, no Rapiscan for you. Just walk through the old fashioned metal detecter. Yes!
4. Have a great flight! I will!

Let me count the ways I love Pre: 1, 2, 3, 4.

I especially like the avoidance of the backscatter since I'm one of those dweebs who "opts out."

Yep, I'd prefer to have someone touch my junk than be x-rayed by a Rapiscan backscatter device.

Here's why..... 

Next time you go to your favorite airport notice that airline and airport staff (who pass through security checkpoints frequently) are ALWAYS waived around the backscatters by TSA. Similarly, notice that children and their moms are ALWAYS waived around the backscatters by TSA.

If these devices are so safe why don't pilots, fight attendants, baggage handlers, kids and moms go through them too?

To make the situation worse, it sure seems like recent air related problems have frequently been the product of disgruntled employees.....

Who were waived past the Rapiscans. 

And while we are at it, another factoid. Rapiscan type backscatters could not win approval for use in the European Union.

An finally (the best part!) the decision to use Rapsican products was made largely by the emphatic endorsement of former Homeland Safety Director Michael Chertoff.

Since Mr. Chertoff "retired" as Director of Homeland Safety he became the Rapiscan Corporation's highest paid DC lobbyist!

So, I opt out.

Where is Pre?
Pre is only available in certain airports and at certain checkpoints. And, properly, Pre members may still be randomly selected for full screening (I'm totally cool with that).

Frankly, I'd prefer to see those increasingly cranky flight crews get sent more often to full screening.

Either way, a little measure of Roadboy's self esteem and dignity have been returned.

CBP Global Entry
Well, I was so impressed with Pre I decided to apply for the similar program offered by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) called Global Entry. Once approved for Global Entry, you by-pass customs lines instead going to a kiosk that verifies your status and allows for expedited re-entry.

But, after going through the inane application process I concluded that unless you travel internationally a lot Global Entry may not worth the effort.

Here's why....

The on-line application process is a minor nightmare. First, you set up an account with CBP. Then you proceed to answer a very detailed (and unnecessarily confusing) questionnaire (make sure you have your passport handy when you complete the questionnaire.)

The CBP website is annoyingly cluttered and very confusing. Actually, it is beyond confusing, it is downright cryptic. Whoever created it should be sent to Singapore for caning.

Here's the best part. Only after you successfully complete the tedious questionnaire, are you informed of the $100 "application fee" and requirement to schedule an in-person interview with CBP.

Anyway, I'm trying to decide if it is worth it for the four or five times a year I re-enter the US. I understand it is good for 5 years.  Hmmmm. Do I get the pass or keep my $100 and wait in line?

Roadboy's Travels © 2012

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Cristan's and Las Palapas - San Antonio

Surprisingly Good

Made a last minute trip to San Antonio. It is a city I happen to love. 

But, I had absolutely no time to do anything fun. 


Arrived at the airport almost midnight, picked up my rental car. Off to sleep.

Up early. Drive to the local architects office. I am 2 hours early. I offer my thanks to the MS Outlook feature which auto sets for different time zones.

So now I troll the immediate neighborhood for some breakfast. I try a total dive called Cristan's Tacos on San Pedro. Zero decor. Totally blue collar. I love it.

I order my eggs. The waitress calls me sweetie. The eggs come with the bacon scrambled in. They are accompanied by perfect refried beans and two gloriously steaming flour tortillas. Add a mug of diner coffee and I am in breakfast heaven.

I leave a plate that is totally clean. Head to the local architects office. Great creative firm. Office full of marvelous art. We spend all day planning for that evenings interview.

We make the presentation. Nice community. I decide I would really like to win the project. Interview felt like it went pretty well.

Now I am really tired and really just want to sleep. Good thing the interview location was near the hotel.....

Garmin NUVI goes berserko. 

Drives me miles and miles (and miles) past my hotel to someplace where the freeway is under reconstruction and most of the off ramps are closed. So, even when I decide to get off, I can't.

Texas freeways are a different breed of cat. First, they build 'em big. Duh! Then they build huge frontage roads on either side. So you first have to get off the freeway, then you have to get off the frontage road. Frequently, there will be another road running next to the frontage road. Then they make these huge freakin overpasses with turnaround thingies that avoid the stop lights. This is engineering found nowhere else on planet earth. 

But I digress.

After some creative reprogramming I finally find my hotel. I sleep. Up next morning. Choke down an amazingly wretched Springhill Suites breakfast. Little monochromatic egglike circles and sausage patty's the exact shape and size as the little egglike circles.

Two conference calls.

Ha! The glamor of travel.

Shuttle to the airport. 

I am now ready for lunch, yet, I know that being in an airport, decent food may be elusive.

I try the "sit down" restaurant called Las Palapas. I ask my Eastern European server what a "puffy taco" is. She describes what in AZ we would call a Navajo taco.

Throwing my cholesterol count to the wind I order the puffy taco combo. One chicken, one beef, plus rice and beans.

The combo comes and I try the rice first. I have always believed that if the rice in a Mexican restaurant is good, the rest of the meal will probably be good.

The rice was good.

I mean really good. Perfect consistency with peas in it.

Then I taste the refritos. Also excellent, maybe just a tad over salted. On to puffy number one. Tortilla is fried and clearly fresh. Indeed it is puffy. Chicken was hot. Lettuce was cold. Salsa was just right. Taco number two. This time beef. Also perfect. 

Pretty bad when the highlight of a trip was a diner breakfast and lunch in an airport restaurant. I notice the Yelp reviews are kind of sketchy for Las Palapas. I guess they have off days.

All I know is, my lunch was just what I needed. No way was it haute cuisine. But it was hot, fresh, and delicious.

Going Home. I'm in the "B" boarding group. A middle seat for me. I see two fat boys have staked out the exit row. Sorry dudes. You'll just have to move all that stuff you carefully left in the middle seat to make me walk by. 

At least they weren't two short people. When stubbies sit in an exit row I spend the flight throwing bad karma at them.

Roadboy's Travels © 2012

Monday, September 3, 2012

Barcelona's Street Art, El Ingenio and The Magic Fountain

Last Day in BCN

After 2 solid weeks of warm sunny days, it was startling to open the shutters to a sky filled with rain bearing grey clouds. What it really meant was that our last day in Barcelona would be delightfully cool and refreshing.

So we revised the agenda of our last day deciding against an exploration of Montjuc. Instead, we  decided to skip breakfast, pack our suitcases, and research TripAdvisor for a restaurant to eat lunch. We selected a highly rated small cafe in the L'eixample called Romero.

I had the plat de dia. It started with a wonderful tomato watermelon gazpacho. That was followed by my entree - baked brined sea bass over rice noodles. It was accompanied by a local beer. Desert was soft cheese drizzled with honey. Simple, lovely, and a true bargain at 11E.

Sated, we set out to tour the Museum of Catalunya and meander a bit more in the Bari Gotic. We needed to find gifts for friends and I wanted to photograph some Barcelona street art. 

Ahh, street art. In Barcelona and Lisbon there was an abundance of it. Some was even pretty good. Much of the street art in Barcelona is paper paste-ups (where they make templates on paper backers.) In most places fines are less for paste-up paper than vandalism fines for spray paint. 

I should state that tags and street art is vandalism and it is wrong. Personally, I'd rather live in a world where walls are clean and art is appreciated in museums. In Phoenix I devote one Saturday a month to removing tags. 

But (similar to most large European cities) in Lisbon and Barcelona street art is everywhere. Sadly, it has gone way beyond the point where anyone can control it. And, whether I like it or not, I have to admit some street art is pretty interesting and demonstrates real (albeit misdirected) talent.

Hands Down My Favorite Paste-up

More Paste Ups

Hallucinogens Had to Be Involved

This One Was Direct paint and Huge 
(Part of a Pair of Garage Doors) 

The Other Half

I'm Always Intrigued By Stencils

Sometimes They Come Across A Bit Creepy

Another Favorite
Assumed to be a Commissioned Piece

Here are a couple of the examples we saw in Lisbon. In Lisbon much of the art had political overtones tangibly reflecting the tension of a nation currently suffering from unemployment rates over 20% (and youth unemployment rates closer to 50%.)

Near Belem

At Lisbon's Funicular 

Along the way today we came across El Ingenio, this is the store in Barcelona where for decades they have made and sold elaborate masks and a full range of circus supplies. It was fascinating to see all of the unicycles and specialized supplies available to professional circus performers, jugglers and clowns.  

El Ingenio
(A Barcelona Institution - Reportedly a Haunt of Salvador Dali)

We finished our the day with a trip to Plaza Espanya for the nightly presentation at the Magic Fountain. A souvenir of Barcelona's 1929 World's Exposition, this fountain is actually a series of fountains that extend nearly a quarter mile from Montjuc to Plaza Espanya. Year round it is illuminated and choreographed to music on select evenings. 

It was wonderful but go early - even on a rainy summer night it drew thousands.

The Fountains Start One By One 

Then The Main Fountain Begins

Accompanied By Music

A magic fountain seemed like a perfect way to say goodbye to a magic city. 

A bit of my heart will always remain in beautiful Barcelona.

Roadboy's Travels © 2012

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Understanding the Metro - Madrid, Barcelona and Lisbon

A LIttle Planning Saves Time and Money

Unless you have no pulse at all you will have a wonderful time in Madrid, Barcelona or Lisbon. And, if you do a little research before you arrive, you can save a lot of stress (and money)  getting to your hotel and seeing the cities themselves. Their Metro systems all have wonderful English language websites with downloadable route maps. 

Links to English Language Metro Sites: 

Madrid: Madrid Metro
Barcelona: Barcelona Metro
Lisbon: Lisbon Metro

I typically select hotels close to mass transit to avoid the bother and expense of renting cars. Why fight traffic, piss off locals while meandering aimlessly waiting for your GPS to kick in, and then pay exorbitant parking charges?

Instead, I lace up comfortable shoes and use public transportation. Traveling among the locals opens windows into the soul of a city.

Having said that, mass transit can also be where pickpockets thrive, and Americans with suitcases in tow make for prime targets. So observe a few precautions and make someone else their target. Read my post “Pickpockets in Spain” (February 2010) to avoid being victimized by pickpockets.

Also a strong word of caution: Many Metro stations are not handicapped accessible and have lots, and lots, and lots, of stairs. Entering and exiting stations (or transferring from one line to another) can prove to be pure torture for someone with bad knees.

The prices I relay here are simply what they were in August / September 2012. I'm sure the Euro crisis will result in price increases in Spain and Portugal.

And lastly, don't fear cabs in Spain or Portugal. I have always found them to be honest. Just make sure the cab you pick is metered. Cabbies in Spain and Portugal give accurate change. In Spain they don't expect a big American tip (just round up the fare to the next whole euro.) In Portugal tip cab drivers the fare plus 10%.

OK so here are the particulars for each city….

I feel that Madrid is underrated as a tourist destination. It has the fourth busiest airport in Europe, a wonderful design sense, superb architecture, great parks, fabulous restaurants, a regal palace, and world-class museums.

It also has a Metro system that is one of the best in the world. It is clean, efficient, and comprehensive. It flawlessly links everything you will need. There are stations convenient to all major attractions, the Attoche train station, and Madrid’s Barajas Airport.

The Airport:
All terminals are served by Metro. There is a premium (presently 3E) charged for the extra distance to / from the airport. When you arrive just follow the signs.

The Train Station:
Metro connects directly with Madrid’s bustling Attoche rail station. The actual train station is new, but is attached to the old historic station (which is now an indoor garden.) Watch for pickpockets!

The Gardens in Old Attoche

Buying Tickets:
When you enter a Metro station buy a ticket from either an automated machine or at a staffed ticket booth. When you use the ticket machine first push the British Union Jack flag icon and everything will be presented in English. Save your ticket as you need it both to enter and to exit. Bring euros, American issued credit cards are useless. 

You can opt for a 10 trip pass (similar to the carnet in Paris) which offers real savings or you can purchase the tourist pass allowing unlimited use of the Metro and buses. The tourist pass is available for 1-7 days and gets cheaper for each day purchased (i.e. 8E total for one day, 13.4 E total for two days etc.) 

You can also buy a "Madrid Card" providing unlimited trips and free (or discounted) access to major museums and attractions. Personally, I find the city cards terribly overpriced for the value extracted and stick with paying ala carte. 

On this trip our hotel (Madrid Airport Hilton) offered a free shuttle to the airport and from the hotel to Retiro Park in central Madrid. From Retiro it is a lovely (and very easy) walk to Madrid's two spectacular art museums - The Prado and Thyssen. We used the free hotel shuttle each day to go downtown then simply bought one-way tickets from point-to-point. Then we used the Metro again to return to the hotel from wherever we ended our day. After the concierge mapped out how to navigate the walk from the closest Metro back to the hotel, it was great.

Barcelona is a truly lovely and marvelous city. Some of the city (The Gotic) is medieval and confusing. Other parts are beautifully organized (L'Eixample.) Like Barcelona itself, the Barcelona Metro, varies from modern to gothic. Once you get into the heart of the city and do a little homework it is pretty wonderful. The various Metro and tram lines are all run by TMB and meander around the city (some seemingly with no particular order). And wherever you want to go you will eventually have to transfer at the horrible Passaeig da Gracia station.

Update Summer 2013
This year we took the day trip from Barcelona to Montserrat via the TMB rail lines. It is an absolutely wonderful adventure and very easy (and the train package offered makes it  very economical). See my August 2013 blog post "A Day Trip to Montserrat" for full details.    

The Airport:
Unlike Lisbon and Madrid, the Barcelona Metro currently has no link with its beautiful El Prat airport.

Visitors to Barcelona rely on three options from the airport:

1. Aerobus - These buses cost 6E and offer clean, comfortable, transport with lots of room for your luggage. Airbuses depart about every 5 minutes. Just follow signs to Aerobus and buy your tickets on the bus (bring Euro’s as the credit card reader laughs at American issued credit cards.) Roundtrip tickets are discounted (but only available if your stay is less than 9 days.) You can disembark at either Plaza España or Plaza Catalunya (so research whichever is closest to your hotel.) Then either transfer to Metro or catch a taxi (which will now likely be pretty inexpensive.) 

2. Bus 46. This city bus costs 2E and connects both terminals and then makes a run eventually delivering you to Plaza España. From there you can easily connect to Metro or a taxi (again much cheaper). If you are connecting to a hotel for transfer to a cruise ship check you hotel. Many cruise lines book hotels (like the new Renaissance Fira) that are located right on Route 46! 

3. Taxi – Very convenient, but, they are (in my opinion) kind of expensive from El Prat. That said, if you have bad knees or lots of folks in your party, a cab might be more than worth it.

The Trains:
Metro serves the Main Renfe station (Sants). Simply follow the signs. Renfe (the Spanish national railway) technically serves the airport but airport service is a nightmare. The airport station is old and ticketing is baffling to a first time visitor. Conversely, city-to-city Renfe service is wonderful. The trains are clean, run on time, and economical. However, advance ticketing and deciphering intercity train schedules can be baffling.

Once you are checked in to your hotel and ready to explore the city, the Metro is great. In Barcelona as long as you stay in zone 1 (and 90% of the tourists visiting Barcelona will) you just pay a flat rate to enter each station and exit for free. We always buy the discounted 10 trip card. You can use it on Metro, the trams, or any bus (just remember to punch it in the little reader upon entry of the tram or bus as the penalty is 100E!) Be wary, you insert your card on the right in the modern glass turnstiles and on the left on the old fashioned rotary turnstiles.

Many tourists traveling together buy one 10 trip ticket. Then they put it in the turnstile and leave it for the next person in their party to pull out and reinsert it.

Lisbon’s transport system is comprehensive and pretty wonderful. There are, however, some oddities to it which you will need to understand. First off Lisbon's Metro itself is limited. You have to combine Metro with Trams for some key trips (particularly Belem.)

Riding Lisbon's Tram 28

The Airport:
In July 2012 a beautiful new Metro station opened at the airport. So, if your hotel is close to a Metro station, use Metro! 

If your hotel is not visible from a Metro stop, or resides up a big hill, remember that cabs from the airport are typically pretty cheap. So, if there are two or more in your party, a cab from the airport might still make sense. We stayed at the Marriott and the walk from the closest Metro (Jardin Zooligic) was all uphill and very confusing for a first time visitor. Once we knew where we were and didn't have to horse the suitcases it was fine. 

The Trains:
Metro has a perfect Metro connection to Lisbon’s beautiful Oriente train station. 

Likewise the Restauradores Metro station serves Rossio train station for your trip to Sintra - which you MUST do! (See my August 27, 2012 Sintra blog post). The same Metro line that goes to Oriente goes on to the airport, so rail-to-air connections are perfect.

Ticketing on Lisbon’s Metro system is actually very simple once you understand it. Push the Union Jack to read instructions in English. The first time you ride Metro you get a reusable VIVA Viagem card. The card looks like it is disposable - it isn’t. Keep and reload it and save .5E on every subsequent trip. In Lisbon the trams, buses, funiculars, elevator and Metro are all run by the same company Carris (with a cool museum.) Even the yellow hop on / hop off buses are run by Carris (more about that later.)

If you will be making lots of trips in a single day load the VIVA for unlimited use for only 5E. Then simply scan it every time you use the subway, tram, funicular etc. 

Don't forget to scan your VIVA as you enter a bus or tram. Tram ticket inspectors do randomly board and check ticket validity. 

Subway stations were clean but only the newest line (the one to the airport) is completely handicapped accessible.

A Disco? 
No the Entrance to the 
Baixa-Chiado Metro Station

Carris served us well till the last day of our trip then left us high and dry on Tram 15 from Belem. We later figured out that a bicycle race interfered with the tram track. But all we knew was the trams all stopped and everyone was forced to exit kind of in the middle of nowhere. 

Where All Those Cute Little Trams Go at Night in Lisbon

Lisbon's famous Tram 28 is a lot of fun. They make you get off at each end so budget three tickets for the trip. Watch for pickpockets! On Tram 28 the thieves work in teams of two or three. The first one lifts your wallet and simultaneously passes it to accomplice number one. If you accuse the one who stole your wallet, they will be clean. You will probably find your empty wallet on the floor of the tram by the door.

If you plan to ride a hop-on hop-off bus there are two lines. The Red Line is private and operated by Grey Line. The yellow line is run by Carris. Yellow is a bit cheaper and you can use your hop on ticket the same day for unlimited trips on all of Carris trams, elevators, buses and funiculars. You can't use it for Metro. 

However, the yellow hop on buses are older, jammed full, and ran much less often.

From the Top of the Yellow Hop On

Also the yellow narration was unintelligible and the background fado music was annoying as hell. 

Next time I’ll splurge on the red line hop-on and buy an all day VIVA pass for everything else.

Now get out and go explore!

Roadboy’s Travels © 2012