Saturday, May 24, 2014

The Monterey County Courthouse

Robert Stanton's Fragile 1937 Masterwork

One of my favorite styles of the 20th century is Streamlined Moderne. This week, while working in Salinas California, I came across an exceptional example of the period. It was Robert Stanton's 1937 Monterey County Courts Building. The building was commissioned as part of the Works Project Administration to replace the 69 year old Victorian Courts building that occupied the same site.

Inner Courtyard

The Courts building features an innovative plan with courts and offices surrounding a central courtyard. In reality, the courtyard was a necessity. It was precisely the location of Monterey's earlier courts. That was the building where Ernst Steinbeck (John Steinbeck's father) served as County Treasurer until 1935.

Once the stunning new courts building was complete, the old courts building was demolished and replaced by the courtyard we see today.

Courts Collonade

Streamlined Moderne emerged on the American scene in the middle 1930's. It featured clean spare lines and has became associated with Hollywood's golden age. In fact throughout the thirties "Streamlining" was everywhere. 

Streamline design manifest itself in all facets of day-to-day life. In Detroit cars like Chrysler's Airflow reflected streamline design. At sea the dining room of the SS Normandie was so cherished that much of its was removed and placed in museums. In Cincinnatti, Crosley created those much coveted streamlined bakeolite radios. Streamlining was associated in slippery designs that would encourage smooth air flow such as the Burlington Northern's glistening stainless steel Zephyr trains. In fashion, it was exemplified in Jean Harlow's dresses. Dresses so tight she couldn't sit between movie takes and had to lean on specially built slant boards. Even industrial designer Raymond Loewy created the iconic curvy coke bottle and Greyhound's Super Scenicruiser buses in the streamline style. 

The Leowy Designed Streamlined Hound

When Streamlining was interpreted into architectural design it became known as Streamlined Moderne or Art Moderne. It frequently featured curves and softened corners. Windows became linear and wrapped corners. And, unlike today's architecture, where artwork is simply an object added to a lobby or plaza at the completion of design, in streamlined moderne designs, highly stylized art motifs were integrated harmoniously into the architecture itself. It was art embedded or embossed into columns, terrazzo and light fixtures. This is expressed perfectly in examples such as Rockefeller Center.

In the Monterey Courts Building Stanton worked closely with California artist Jo Mora to create a series of sculpted busts, murals, bronze door medallions and stone column capitals. Of the 60 plus busts that grace the building we find John C Fremont, Juan Cabrillo and Padre Junipero Sera. Some of the bass-relief panels portray the succession of early inhabitants described in Steinbeck's East of Eden.

Busts of Monterey Pioneers

Samples of Jo Mora Busts

A Bas-Relief

Bronze Medallions

Joseph Jacinto "Jo" Mora was an Uruguayan-born artist. His mother was a French intellectual. His father was a Catalonian sculptor. The Mora family migrated to the US in 1880. At the age of 23 Mora arrived in Solvang California in part to live with Native American's. He also spent that summer on horseback visiting California's Missions. His works have come to grace the King City High School, the Bohemian Club and the Smithsonian.  Mora completed his work on the Courthouse at the age of 61. After the Courthouse project he devoted his time illustrating children's books about the west. He passed away in Monterey in 1947 at the age of 71.

Art Moderne was a perfect design for the budget strained depression. It exploited the simplicity of the Bauhaus creating a new style that sculpted simple materials such as poured-in-place concrete.

This building is a treasure. And, three quarters of a century later, it is irreplaceable. Sadly, it is in serious need of major refurbishment and restoration.  

Salinas is still the largest city in California between San Jose and Los Angeles, and up to the depression had the highest per capita income of any city in the United States. Its wealth during the early part of the 20th century resulted in it  becoming the home to many examples of exceptional historic Art Deco and Streamlined Moderne architecture.

Today, Salinas still feels authentic. It is not a sugar-coated tourist confection like its neighbors Carmel and Monterey. Roadboy recommends it to anyone seeking excellent examples of California Deco / Moderne architecture!

Here is a fine link to click describing some of Salinas' architectural inventory:  Salinas Art Deco / Streamlined Moderne

Roady's Travels © 2014

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Distressed Passenger Benefits Evaporate

"We Don't Do That Any More"

I flew to Nashville from Phoenix last week. Sadly, in both directions my aircraft experienced mechanical issues resulting in significant delays and connection issues. The mechanical delay on my return flight resulted in rebooking on another airline (Delta) and stranding me overnight.

In the past, when passengers were stranded due to weather, you were on your own. The airlines did not pay for hotels and/or food.

But when a passenger was stranded due to a bump (no seat available) or equipment failure, most airline's provided the distressed passenger an economy hotel room and meal vouchers.

This week Nashville's USAirways counter staff informed me that if I flew on my first leg to Charlotte US Airways was already "out of hotel rooms for the passengers we are stranding". However, if I overnighted in Nashville I might still get put up for the night by the airline. When I went to claim a room they told me that nowadays they set aside just a few rooms for distressed passengers and "when they're gone, they are gone".

As for meals, the agent said "we don't buy meals anymore".

So make a note of it.

My strong recommendation is to select flights with longer layovers to allow for (seemingly more and more common) mechanical delays. Especially wen connecting through increasingly bad hubs like Charlotte, Dallas, Atlanta and Philadelphia. The fact is the airlines are flying 100% full planes. There is no margin for error.

I don;t care what the statistics say, my experience says that delays are becoming more common and I contend a 30 minute layover in Charlotte is not reasonable.

Also, it is not a bad idea to ask the counter staff as you are checking in what your airline will provide if a failure in their system or its equipment strands you somewhere. Until they start getting asked they will continue to shirk their ethical responsibility to take care of the travelers they strand.

Roadboy's Travel © 2014

Sunday, May 18, 2014

USAirways MasterCard Disintegrates

Bye Bye Benefits
Observations from a Two Million Miler
Updated 6-2014
Updated 10-2014
Updated 1-2015
Updated 4-2015

Item #1: 2015 Changes to the USAirways MasterCard
For years about 30-45 minutes before landing US Airways passengers have endured a long sales pitch for credit cards with the following benefits:
1. First bag free
2. Boarding in Zone 2
3. Check in using First Class lines 
4. Bonus miles for signing up  
5. One annual visit to the US Airways Club
6. Two annual $99 companion tickets
7. Additional points when used for certain purchases
8. 10,000 preferred qualified (renewal) bonus miles with annual spending of $25,000.
9. Waived $25 in award redemption fees and reduced points needed for awards by 5,000 miles. 
10. First year no fee, with an annual fee of $75 afterwards (now $89).

In fact a visit (this evening) to US Airway's website still pretty much touts the same benefits and, as a multi-million miler, I have always loved these cards carrying two for years; one for business and one for personal expenses.

In 2014 I recieved a glossy mailer saying my "World Just Got Bigger". I opened it only to realize it was actually a notification putting a happy spin on the fact that the US Airways MasterCard would soon have severely curtailed benefits starting in 2015. Translation: in 2015 these cards would align with the old Citi AAdvantage cards (i.e. kinda crappy).

Despite the website still pitching all of the above benefits, the mailer said the 2015 card benefits would  be reduced to the following:
1. Free bag benefit (extended to 3 guests traveling with you).
2. Boarding with Zone 2.
3. Points for usage.
4. 10% of your redeemed miles will be rebated (up to 10,000 miles per calendar year)  
5. $100 off a future flight if you spend $30,000 in a year ($100 back for spending the equivalent of 40% a new Tesla?)

1. The club pass 
2. The $99 companion pass
3. Preferred qualified spending bonus after spending $30,000
4. The 5000 discount on reward redemptions
5. First class check in

Roadboy's take.....
Now is a good time to examine alternative cards.

Some good choices to consider:
1. The Marriott Rewards visa card ($85 Annual Fee). A perfect card for international travel as it is chip and swipe enabled and has no foreign transaction fees. It also gives one free hotel night a year.
2. United's Explorer card also offers many of the same benefits including 2 club passes annually and has no foreign transaction fees.
3. Wells Fargo American Express Propel 365 Traveler with no foreign transaction fees and a host of other benefits.

What should you look for in a new card?

Chip and Swipe
Europe uses chip and PIN cards since they offer superior fraud protection.
Although credit card fraud has touched nearly every American our banks and retailers refuse to upgrade to modern cards with Chip and PIN protection. 

For now the best American's can get are chip and swipe cards. These are cards that work in both European "slide-in" PIN card readers and in America's quaint swipe readers.  Before you leave for an international trip be aware that old style American issued swipe only cards (cards without the chip) are now routinely refused elsewhere else in the world. And, ship and swipe cards typically do not work in automated vending machines (like where you buy subway tickets).

Foreign Transaction Fees
When first timer's return from Europe or Asia they are frequently stunned to see massive "foreign transaction" fees on every purchase.

For Roadboy, the savings of these fees alone makes up for higher annual renewal fees.

Awards That Work on Any Airline
Since many airlines (British Airways, Delta, Southwest and United) have trashed their distance based "Loyalty" programs (now awarding elite status based on how much you spend), I first thought I'd start accumulating points on cards such as the ones with their own rewards programs, such as American Express points. 

First I got a costly new Wells Fargo American Express Propel World Traveler card and...

Update 6-2104
During my recent two weeks in Europe (Ireland and the UK) this summer the new AE "Propel"was refused twice because the businesses simply did not accept American Express. 

We also experienced a comedy of errors with AE's customer service. When we applied for the card we were promised two cards: one for me and one for my daughter who was relocating to London for 6 months.

It took three attempts to get the cards sorted out. First they lost the paperwork. Then they mailed the cards to the wrong address. Then we got them - names misspelled. 

Despite the exorbitant fee, I was so hopeful for these cards. 

AE - Get please your S?#t together!  I won't renew the "World" one.

Update 4-2015: Wells Fargo AE Cards
So the time came and I cancelled my Propel World card (well before the expensive annual fee kicked in). While on the phone the rep described the features of the Propel 365 card. It offers rewards points, no foreign transaction fees and has a real chip and PIN (first American one I've found) all with an annual fee of $45. I decided to give the 365 card a try. It also offers 1 free year and offers 20,000 AE Rewards points if you spend $3000 in the first 90 days.

Update 10-2014: US Airways Mastercard
Well I called Barclays to confirm what to expect when my second US Airways card renews in February 2015. Here is what I was told: 

1. Barclays Bank cards will be marketed on US Airways until the merger of the frequent flier program is complete. After that Barclay's will no longer be allowed to issue new cards. So existing Barclay's Master Cards cards will Not become citi cards. Instead Barclays is launching an American Airlines "Aviator" card to select existing US Airways mastercard customers. So, Barclay's cardholders will be renewed with the newly launched "Aviator - Red" card. A visit to the Aviator site disclosed that the new Aviator Red card still costs $89 a year.

2. The agent said there had been "a lot" of pushback from current cardholders as a result of the announced benefit roll back. As a result Barclays is extending some current benefits well into 2015. So if your renewal is in the first quarter of 2015 you'll likely get one more companion certificate and club pass. But that will be it. 

3. The 10,000 regular mile conversion to preferred qualifying miles benefit ended December 31, 2014. 

So Roadboy's most valued card benefit is gone. But, since I know it, I now use my better (i.e. Marriott) card for all large charges.

4. With the new card (unless you fly 100,000 actual miles a year), the impending adoption of American's three level elite status means there is no good reason to continue using the US Airways card (or remaining loyal to US Airways) once you pass 50,000 qualifying miles. For example at the time of my call in October I was at 60,000 miles on US Airway's. Looking out to year end I knew I'd fall well short of earning the 100,000 miles needed to reach US Airways Chairman or Executive Platinum on AA. So anything I'd earn between 50,000 and 100,000 still results (after merger) in me dropping to platinum on AA (as they have nothing between 50,000 and 100,000). From now on if I know I can;t make the 100,000 in a calendar year I'll just go to 50K and use the balance of my year obtaining elite qualifying miles on other carriers. 

Loyalty is a 2-way street.

5. So lets say you want a card with (sort of) the same benefits you used to get today? Barclay's will / is offer(ing) some current customers a new $195 / year "Aviator Silver" card. So, for a bit more than twice the annual fee of the (soon to be Red) card, the new Silver card will restore some of the benefits of the current $89 master card. 

Confused yet? Well here's the rub. The Silver card will offer the 10,000 point conversion only if you spend $40,000 a year - I am not making that up. Companion passes return if you spend $30,000 in a year. The Silver card will also (finally) be chip and swipe enabled and it will not charge foreign transaction fees.

Another Option....

Despite comments to the contrary, I'm sure that once the merger is sorted out the "New American" will jamb the money based point system British Airways, United, Delta and Southwest have all adopted. IMHO AA / US Airways is holding off because it is just too complex for them to implement it during the merger. Once the merger is complete they'll feel more free to alienate their best customers.

Stand by....

Update 1-2015:
Barclay's must be starting to realize they have pissed off their best customers. Today's visit to the Barclay MasterCard site had a pop-up announcement informing me that the card no longer imposes foreign transaction fees! 

But....without a chip, the card will still get rejected as much as it gets accepted. So, I called Customer service and was found out the new AA Aviator cards have a chip. 

Al always Roadboy advises you NOT to rely exclusively on one card outside the US. Pack two cards with chips AND no foreign transaction fees.

And have a great time!  

Roadboy's Travels© 2014/2015

Friday, May 9, 2014

Europe 2014

Two Depart - One Returns

I've always encouraged my son and daughter to use the time between college and starting careers and families to see the world.

Well my daughter graduated a few years back and quickly got her career started. But, in true Millennial fashion, her career (as an illustrator for comic books and graphic novels) allows her to work pretty much wherever she wants, whenever she wants.  All she needs is a fast connection to the world wide web.

So Ms. M has decided to go live for the next 6 months in London. 

She has carefully budgeted and planned for the trip and is pretty much all set. The last detail has to wait till we get there - finding a nice room to rent. 

As for me I cashed in enough frequent flier points to fly us over (via Ireland) in business class. Since it was cheaper to fly in and out of Dublin we'll begin with a week driving around Ireland before we fly on the little hop to London.

Then, after a week in London, We'll hug and I'll fly home. 


Ms. M is an adult and has traveled extensively, so I know she'll be just fine, have a great adventure and return filled with wonderful new memories.   

I am, dare I say it, jealous?

After all, she will miss joining the rest of us for another amazing Arizona summer. 

You know that special time.....where we experience nuclear heat, run indoors during the dust storms, all the while dodging blown retreads on the freeway and the frayed nerves of fellow Phoenicians.

Ms. M will return in November. And, lets face it, there aren't many places on earth more perfect than Phoenix in November.

Our Euro-friendly credit cards are on the way and my Global Entry interview is scheduled. Chris is all set to care for the house and the pups have an appointment at the doggie spa. 

So, stay tuned for Roadboy's Ireland and England posts this June.

Roadboy's Travels © 2014

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

International Traveling with Your Cell Phone

The Case of Merriam Webster vs. T-Mobile

When I touch down in a foreign land I begin taking in all the new scenery, sounds and smells. 

When my fancy GSM "smartphone" touches down in a foreign land it starts scanning for cell coverage. And, unless I've remembered to turn off my data roaming* feature, it may start accruing charges at 99¢ / minute.   

99¢ a minute / 24 hours a day. 

Day in and day out. 

Forgetting to switch off data is a little mistake that (for many travelers) has resulted in thousands of dollars in roaming charges.

Don't get me wrong taking your smartphone still offers some value. When I find myself in a free Wi-Fi hotspot (like a McDonalds) I use it on Wi-Fi to surf a bit and check my e-mails. And, I periodically switch on the cellular feature to scan for text messages.

But aside from that, without the purchase of a costly foreign data roaming plan, my slick American I-phone becomes a shiny flat stone in my pocket.

Yet, when I see folks from Europe or Asia arrive to the US, they use their smart phones as if they were at home.

Here's why. The I-Phone they buy in Asia or the EU is "open" and will work on anyone's network.

The I-phone we American's buy is "locked" to the carrier you bought it from. So, if you bought it from ATT it only works on ATT etc.

Thank you ATT!

American cell carriers make big political contributions to keep it that way. And now their contributions are unlimited!

Thank you Supreme Court!

And if you go get your I-Phone "Unlocked" in some dark alley, Apple will cancel your warranty.

Thank you Apple!

So Lets Talk Bout T-Mobile......
Recently I read that T-Mobile now offers free and unlimited international talk, text and data in 120 countries.

Roadboy's pilot light lit right up!

So last night I went to a T-Mobile Store. It is officially 2 hours of my life I'll never get back. The sales rep had halitosis and was clueless.

So I came home and scoured T-Mobile's website, and eventually called its "800" number.

Here's the skinny.

The details of the plan seem to be deliberately vague and appear to vary depending upon your total usage of T-Mobile's domestic network. The plan should be called T-Mobile's "free and unlimited for short durations" international plan.

To Roadboy "free and unlimited" means if I go to Barcelona for 6 weeks, my phone should work just like it does at home, for 6 weeks.

To T-Mobile "free and unlimited" means if they feel you are spending too much time off of their domestic network, they will kill your "free and unlimited" feature.

So, if you are planning a few short trips (generally 2 weeks or less) to one or more of T-Mobile's 120 covered countries, their "free and unlimited short term" plan is indeed pretty cool.

If, however, you plan to spend more time abroad than just a short vacation, no soup for you. Just plan on picking up a prepaid phone in the country you visit.

Roadboy's Travels © 2014

* Turning off "Data Roam"
Be sure to check with your carrier and your smartphone mfr. on the specifics of turning off "Data Roam" your specific phone.

On my I-Phone I click "Settings", then "Cellular", then I switch off "Cellular Data". This restricts my phone to Wi-Fi hotspots.

I then select "Roaming (Voice and Data)" and turn off "Voice Roaming" which turns off the cellular phone function and avoids telephonic roaming or SMS charges.  This is the setting I turn back on now and then to see if I've received any texts.  

Thursday, May 1, 2014


What's This? Food in First?

Updated February 2015
Well with the AA merger, warm nuts have returned to first class on US Airways flights. But strangely, the pillows in first have been removed.

File this one in the category of "Miracles in my Lifetime".

On my US Airways RT flight to SEA this week I was kinda shocked when my flight attendant on the return leg asked for my drink order and then went on to ask for my choice of a dinner selection.

My look of incredulity resulted in her laughing and saying "it is for real, we've begun serving meals in first class on this flight". 

Now, after 10 years of flying the PHX - SEA run on US Airways without anything but chips and/or a fig newton I am well trained to procure and wolf down a sandwich before boarding even when upgraded to first class.

This milestone follows my realization last week that the quality of my US Airways meal on a PHX to CLT flight was much improved. I ate the whole meal and so did almost everyone else in first.

Despite improvements lets be clear we have not returned to the days of warm nuts and silver trays filled with chilled jumbo shrimp served before dinner and a custom made Hagen Dazs ice cream sundae afterwards. 

To understand my shock you have to understand US Airways is the very same airline that used to fly me 5+ hours non-stop from Anchorage to Phoenix and even in First Class, despite arriving at 9:00 am, served us only a little bag of nuts. 

So what does this say about the airline industry run by bean counters? What it says is that (as feared by the US Attorney General) consolidation has indeed resulted in reducing competition to the point where we are witnessing steep spikes in airfares.

It also appears to be driving competition among major carriers to woo the industries best customers.

Will I live to see a day when every seat in first offers a dedicated electrical outlet and/or a USB port and (he shudders) free Wi-Fi?

I hear rumors that the discount carrier JetBlue is reconfiguring cabins to offer lay-flat bed seating pods on transcontinental flights in domestic first class. And, American is also offering similar pod seating in first class on select domestic long haul flights.......  

Now, if they'd just offer reasonable amount of frequent flier seats (US Airways ranked almost dead last in a FF redemption seat availability study last week) and quit devaluing their frequent flier miles, they might truly win the undying loyalty of us road warriors.....we are, after all, a cheap date.  ;-)

I'm not gonna hold my breath on the free Wi-Fi.

Anyone else noticing improvements to domestic first class service?

Roadboy's Travel © 2014