Sunday, December 24, 2006

Blood, Bosoms & Bouquets

Zhang Yimou is a Chinese director with over a dozen film credits to his name, including films most viewers have raved about such as Hero, House of Flying Daggers and Raise the Red Lantern. Zhang usually does an excellent job of having his actors play out various forms of tension in the movie plots – sexual tension, competitive tension, parent-child tension and tension between warring states. Not to forget, his trademark fetish for colors and fabrics is hard to miss.

The Curse of the Golden Flower,” is Zhang’s latest work. The plot revolves around a Tang dynasty emperor, played by Chow Yung Fat, his empress consort, played by Gong Li, and their three sons.

Sibling rivalries, political intrigue, assassination plots and incestuous relationships intertwine in this undeveloped King Lear/Macbeth-like screenplay. The Emperor and Empress conspire against each another, and use the princes as pawns. But the sons have their own agendas. Who will triumph? Who will fail? Watch the movie, if you dare, and find out what happens in this rainbow-sherbet-hued palace intrigue.

Blood – There are several battle scenes where blood is spilled and splattered, everywhere. You never know which way the battles will swing and who will end up victorious. Incidentally, I’m pretty certain there were several anachronistic instruments of war in this film. Indeed, if the emperors really had such efficient and resilient human fighting machines at their disposal, the course of Chinese history would not be the same.

Bosoms – Director Zhang decided to use extremely revealing Tang dynasty tube tops for the Empress, her ladies in waiting and the legions of the Emperor’s concubines. Every scene involving female actors includes gratuitous cleavage shots. Think almond gelatin. It nearly made the Janet Jackson “wardrobe malfunction” seem rather tame in comparison.

Bouquets – As the title suggests, golden flower chrysanthemums play a key part in the movie. Chrysanthemum blossoms are ubiquitous. Seeing all those flowers made me thirst for chrysanthemum tea. I’m sure this wasn’t the affect the director intended.

All things considered, the movie was entertaining. One warning for those who intend to see it: the ending was disappointing. When the credits were rolling, I could swear that audience members were looking at one another with arched eyebrows. When a movie leaves you thinking of bouncing bosoms and mando-pop, is it really worthwhile? I’ll let you decide on your own. Paraphrasing the immortal British character Arthur Dent, “Do you have any chrysanthemum tea?” A cuppa this would have provided a more satisfying ending.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Martha, Josie and the Chinese Elvis - Review

The Woolly Mammoth Theater is 265 seat venue in the Penn Quarter area of Washington, DC. The theater is so small that virtually every seat is a good seat.

I took the Mrs. to go see Martha, Josie and the Chinese Elvis at the Woolly Mammoth Theater. We attended the Sunday matinee show. About half the seats were sold. The show was competing with a Redskins game, beautiful, spring-like weather in November, and Thanksgiving weekend shoppers and vacationers.

Set in Bolton, England, a working-class town north of London, the play is about Josie, a dominatrix who reluctantly celebrating her 40-th birthday, and reconsidering her career options. The cast contains a series of whacky characters, including Martha, the obsessive compulsive house cleaner, Lionel, a regular customer, Brenda Marie, Josie’s mentally challenged daughter, Shelley Louise, Brenda Marie’s twin sister that has returned for the birthday celebrations and Timothy Wang, the Chinese Elvis impersonator.

The play is a dramady - part drama, part comedy. There are a number of serious moments, broken up by comedic activities.

Why did I want to go see the play? I figured any play featuring an Asian-American Elvis impersonator had to be funny. And I really wanted a good laugh. But wait, there is more! Tony Nam, a Korean American immigrant, plays Timothy Wang, a Vietnamese boat refugee living in Bolton, England and impersonating a Chinese Elvis. Did you follow all that? And where else but in America will you find a Korean American immigrant portraying a Vietnamese boat refugee turned Elvis impersonator with a fake, working class British accent?

The show is an incredible emotional ride. You laugh, you cry (or at least the Mrs. did), you experience highs and lows, and you are never quite sure how things will end.

The only thing I would change about the play is moving the location from Bolton, England to Washington, DC or the local city of the production. American actors trying to use fake working-class British accents didn’t work. I think it would have worked much better if the play was set locally and the actors used local accents. More people would be able to better comprehend and relate to the story and characters.

If you are looking for some good laughs mixed with some intense drama, go see the show.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Christmas Shopping and a Movie

Black Friday
Today is Black Friday - the day after Thanksgiving that kicks off the Christmas shopping season. The Mrs. and I headed to Montgomery Mall. She braved the hoards of crazy shoe-hunting women and got quite a bit of shopping in. I spent the morning doing something my tire replaced because of a shard of glass that was wedged in. How long it was piercing my tire, I'll never know. But thank goodness the Mrs. didn't insist on driving to Leesburg Premium Outlets! After shopping, we had a quick lunch at home and headed over to the Bethesda Landmark Cinema to see The Fountain.

The Fountain
Every once in awhile, I see a movie that makes me stop and think about life. Some of those movies include The Hunger and The Sixth Sense. The Fountain, while not as good as The Hunger and The Sixth Sense, was nonetheless thought provoking.

The movie stars Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz, the fiancee of the director - Darren Aronofsky. The plot alternates between three time periods - 1) the 1600s and Weisz as Queen Isabella and Jackman as a conquistador, 2) modern day with Jackman as a cancer researcher-monkey surgeon (no, Jackman didn't play a monkey) and Weisz as his wife, who is terminally ill with brain cancer, and 3) Jackman as a bald 26th century astronaut-yoga afficionado.

A number of themes are presented for consideration in the movie. Life, death and rebirth. Contrasted with death, rebirth and life. The end of one life leading the beginning of another. Eternal life. Enlightenment. Journeying to the heavens and the afterlife. While someone quipped that 96 minutes felt like eternal life, the Mrs. and I were pretty satisfied with the solid performances and didn't feel the time drag by.

The themes are all thought-provoking. What is the meaning of life? Is there life after death? Whatever happened to the tree of life, as mentioned in the Bible, Genesis 3:22? Was it hidden when Eve and Adam ate from the tree of knowledge? The tree of life plays a prominent role in the movie.

The film conveys simple and honest themes. Live life to its fullest. Do not fear death. Seek out personal enlightenment and spirituality. Focus on the important things in life. Don't get so caught up in your work or your quest and lose sight of the present and what really matters.

The movie mixed elements of love stories, history and science fiction together. The writer(s) of the screenplay targeted a wide audience. One might even venture to say that the love stories appealed to the women and the history and science fiction aspects appealed to the men. But the Mrs. disagrees with my stereotypes, so I'll just wrap this up by saying that Weisz and Jackman have a pleasing chemistry that makes it highly plausible that it lasted for a millenium, at least.

Overall, the movie was entertaining, and left me pondering those unanswered questions. The movie has a few loose ends, such as how Jackman’s character went from modern-day scientist to 26th century astronaut and it's not really clear whether he changes the past in one scene or dreams it up. Nevertheless, it was still worth watching. At least at a matinee showing or when it comes out on DVD.

Good luck shopping this weekend - and going to the theater!

Friday, November 10, 2006

Phoenix, AZ to Washington, DC-Dulles 9:00 PM MST

Mountain v. Pacific Time
Arizona is one of two states that does not follow Daylight Savings Time. Hawaii is the other one. Parts of Indiana follow different Daylight Savings Times. So, during Daylight Savings time, Arizona is on Pacific time, but during Standard Time, it is on Mountain time.

Flying Home
I’m sitting in the Phoenix Sky Harbor airport, waiting for my Ted flight to Chicago. From there, I’ll catch a connecting flight back to IAD. It’s a two segment redeye.

I wanted to catch an earlier flight to LA or San Francisco, and then catch the redeye back to IAD. That would have allowed me to sleep during the entire transcontinental flight. Unfortunately, the flights to LA and SF were overbooked, and the transcons from there to IAD were also overbooked.

So, I am waiting at the airport for my 11:59 PM flight to Chicago. Only 3 hours to go!

My brain is fried. Why you ask? Let me tell you why!

My body is still on East Coast time. So, I woke up every morning here in Phoenix at 5 AM. Plus I got to bed around 1 AM because of work. Getting 4 hours of sleep for the last few nights has tuckered me out.

3-Day Weekend - For Some
Phoenix is a nice city. It is apparently the 4th or 5th largest city in the U.S. now. I looked into flying the Mrs. out for the weekend to do some sightseeing. But I checked for flights from DC to Phoenix, San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego this weekend and everything was overpriced. And the return flights were all redeyes.

One of my colleagues looked into flying out to Las Vegas for the weekend. Finding a flight was easy. But finding a hotel was a major problem. The least expensive decent hotels were close to $300 a night. That’s a lot for a Vegas hotel.

What’s going on? This weekend is Veterans Day. And a lot of people appear to be taking extended weekend trips.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Washington, DC-Dulles to Phoenix, AZ

Wednesday, November 8, 2006 7:00 PM EST

I am on United Flight 953. Seat 9C – Economy Plus seating! Having the extra leg room in Economy Plus does make a difference. It’s a much more civilized way to travel.

I arrived at Dulles around 3 PM. The check in lines were long for everyone, General Members as well as Elites. The wait time for General Members to check-in their bags and get their boarding passes was 45 minutes. But only to about 10 minutes for me to get my boarding pass in the Elite line.

I expected the security lines to be long as well. Surprisingly, they were relatively short. Granted, it didn’t matter as I used the Premier security line and got right through. Traveling with status makes a big difference.

I am heading to Phoenix for another conference. I will be participating on a panel discussion. The conference is being held at the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass. Trip Advisor reviews rate the hotel at 4.5 stars, which is nearly perfect. All the reviews have been very positive. The photos make the resort look beautiful. Alas, I won’t be staying there. The hotel is undergoing renovations due to mold problems and not enough rooms are available.

So I will be staying at the Buttes, a Marriott Resort in Tempe, AZ. The Buttes also received high reviews, although not as high as the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass.

The Day After
Yesterday, November 7, 2006, was Election Day. All 435 seats in the House of Representatives and 33 seats in the Senate were up for grabs. In early October, the polls began to indicate the Democrats would take the majority in the House and had an outside shot at taking the majority in the Senate as well.

The polls proved accurate last night. The Democrats captured the majority in the House, retaining every incumbent seat, and picking up a number of hotly contested seats and open seats. That’s quite an impressive feat.

Political analysts expected the Democrats to win three Senate seats from Republican incumbents – needing a total of six seats to win an outright majority. As of this writing, the Democrats have picked up five seats, and appear to be on the verge of picking up a sixth seat and capturing the majority. Senator George Allen of Virginia is trailing his opponent, James Webb, by roughly 8,000 votes out of over 2 million cast.

The last time the majority changed hands in both the House and the Senate, 4,000 Hill staffers found themselves out of jobs. We will have to wait and see what happens this time around.

I hope the Democrats and Republicans will work together and move the country forward. It’s time to put the blame aside and do what is in the best interests of the country.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Steamed Crabs and Chocolate-Covered Cheesecake

I took the Mrs. out to the Maryland Eastern Shore today. Our goals were to have lunch at the Harris Crab House and check out the Queenstown Prime Outlets.

The drive out to the Eastern Shore consists of a routine that starts off hurried and ends up relaxed.

  1. Hop on the Beltway.
  2. Take Route 50 East.
  3. Drive by the Bowie Airport and then Bowie.
  4. Notice the traffic changing from hurried commuters to people heading for more leisurely pursuits.
  5. Pay the $2.50 toll at the Bay Bridge and cross over to the Eastern Shore.
  6. Start letting all the stress from work go.
  7. Enjoy the nice foliage and scenery.
  8. Totally forget about your life in DC.
  9. Enjoy the rest of your time on the Eastern Shore.

Most people head out to the Eastern Shore to go to Ocean City, MD, or one of the Delaware beaches – Rehoboth, Dewey, Bethany. I looked into getting a room at one of the beaches, but most were booked solid. The reason – The Annual Punkin Chunkin Contest. The event is held the first weekend after Halloween every year. The goal is to design a catapult or air cannon that will shoot a pumpkin the farthest. Another description is an excuse to play with food and go drinking out in the Delaware farm country.

The Harris Crab House
We arrived at the Harris Crab House a little after 12 Noon, and got seated in the non-smoking area upstairs. The downstairs was relatively full, but the upstairs was relatively empty when we got there.

After reviewing the menu, we decided to start with a half dozen steamed crabs and fried oysters. The crabs had that sweet taste combined with the spicy bay seasonings. We worked through the first six crabs in due course and order another half dozen. We thought about getting an entrée, but decided the dozen crabs and fried oysters were enough for the moment.

By the time we left, the upstairs was nearly full. Patrons could be seen happily cracking crabs and savoring the flavors. Definitely a fun time.

Queenstown Prime Outlets
After lunch, we drove a few miles down the road to the Queenstown Prime Outlets. The Mrs. did pretty well, finding some nice business outfits at Brooks Brothers. I had fun exploring the Rocky Mountain Chocolate store and the Pepperidge Farm store.

I wanted dessert after lunch, and decided to try the frozen cheesecake dipped in chocolate at the Rocky Mountain Chocolate store. It was quite the treat. A nice, dark chocolate enveloped a creamy cheesecake. I enjoyed the treat, but the Mrs. didn’t like the combination of flavors. That meant more for me to eat!

The Pepperidge Farm store was a lot of fun too. I picked up specialty cookies, Godiva Chocolates, bread and other goodies. It is the perfect store to encourage my chocoholism.

My name is Max, and I am a proud chocoholic.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

McCormick & Schmick – Happy Hour Review

McCormick & Schmick is an upscale seafood restaurant chain. There are about a half dozen locations in the Washington, DC-area. The restaurant is known for its Happy Hour.

I took the Mrs. out for Happy Hour at McCormick & Schmick. What makes Happy Hour unique at the restaurant is the food menu. There are five items on the menu ranging from a ½ pound cheeseburger with fries to chicken satay and oyster shooters for $1.95. And there are another half dozen items on the menu ranging from buffalo wings to mussels for $3.95. You can eat a lot of food for a reasonable price.

The burger was very tasty. Slightly crispy on the outside, tender and juicy on the inside. The fries were cut thin and also crispy on the outside and tender on the inside. We also ordered mussels and buffalo wings. The mussels were steamed in a broth and served with drawn butter. They were mouthwateringly delicious. The only disappointment was the buffalo wings. The presentation was nice. But the flavor just wasn’t there. They weren’t tasty at all. Most unfortunate.

Here are a few things to look out for:

  • Happy Hour runs from 3:30 to 6:30 PM. For those of you who don’t get off work until later in the evening, it’s hard to make it to the bar on time.
  • There is a two drink minimum, but it isn’t always enforced.
  • The price of the food is reduced, but the beers are full priced – around $6.00 each. We actually ended up paying more for the two beers than all the food we ordered.
  • The mussels were tasty. But many had broken shells. Most cook books recommend throwing away mussels with broken shells. Further, you need to be careful when biting into the mussels – because you may end up biting into a shell and chipping or cracking a tooth.

I will go back occasionally. But there are plenty of other restaurants in Bethesda the Mrs. and I want to try.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

LAX-LAS-IAD - The 12 Hour Journey Home

I headed out from the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza at 5:00 PM on Wednesday, October 25, 2006 for LAX, and then IAD via Las Vegas. I knew it would take me awhile to get home. But I didn't think it would take 12 hours door-to-door. Here's the recap:

October 25, 2006, 7:30 PM
Tonight’s itinerary is LAX-LAS-IAD. I’m at LAX, waiting to board the flight to Las Vegas. The last time I was here, I was in the midst of a Mileage Run, sitting in the same exact terminal. Dinner tonight was at Wolfgang Puck’s – a warm foccia chicken sandwich and a small side Caesar Salad. Quite tasty, but overpriced.

I enjoyed Los Angeles. The weather was warm and sunny, the conference was fun and I got to meet a lot of interesting people. The last few days have been fun. But I’m exhausted. Primarily because of the time change. My body is still on East Coast time. And I automatically wake up at 7 AM East Coast time, regardless of where I am in the world. That meant waking up at 4 AM for the first two nights in Los Angeles. I actually slept until 5 AM this morning.

The lack of sleep, coupled with the excitement of the conference and all the travel have tuckered me out. I’m sure I’ll be sleeping for most of the flight back to IAD.

The plane to Las Vegas has arrived. Time to go enjoy the Group 1 Boarding I received for being a Premier member!

October 26, 2006, 8:30 AM
The flight from LAX-LAS got off to a slow start. First, the pilot was delayed, flying another plane into LAX before switching planes and flying back out. Second, a "check engine" light appeared on the dashboard. Mechanics spent time trying to figure out what the problem was. They finally rebooted the system and the warning light went away. Someone quipped, "the warning software must have been written by Microsoft!"

The flight to Las Vegas was short. Less than an hour. It's always fun to fly into Las Vegas at night. You get to see the entire city all ablaze in light and color. Unfortunately, I was only on the ground for a plane change. I didn't get to venture out into the city night.

My flight was supposed to take off at 10:50, but got pushed back to 11:20. I'm not sure what the delay was. But it gave me an opportunity to grab a Starbucks Green Tea Frappicino and try my hand at the slots. Let's just say the frappicino was more rewarding than the slot machines were.

The flight to IAD was smooth. The biggest surprise was the flight was completely full. I'm not sure why so many people were interested in taking the red eye to Washington, DC on a Wednesday night. I really expected to see the flight half empty.

But I had my Economy Plus seat with the extra leg room, and enjoyed that space the whole way. I spent most of the time sleeping. But it's always hard to get a good night's rest in an airplane.

We landed at Dulles at 6:30 AM. I retrieved my bag at 7:00 AM, and took a shuttle back home that got me to Bethesda at 8:00 AM. 12 hours, door-to-door travel time.

I head out to Los Angeles frequently. I don't recall it taking that long to get there or back. Normally, it's 30 minutes to IAD, an hour waiting for the plane, 5 hours of flying time, and then another 30 minutes to get to my sister's house in LA - about 7 hours. The 12 hour commutes really drag on. Obviously, the key is flying non-stop. But I'm trying to earn enough Equivalent Qualifying Miles to hit Premier Executive before the end of the year. I should be pretty close.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

IAD-LAX On a Very Busy Travel Sunday

I am flying from Dulles – IAD to Los Angeles – LAX today. The day started off well. I got up at 6 AM, showered, finished packing, and was out the door a little after 7 AM. The Mrs. drove me to Dulles – IAD and decided to park and see me in.

A FlyerTalk discussion board provided advanced warning that Dulles would be a zoo. All United IAD-LAX flights from 9 AM on were booked solid. I was looking forward to two things: 1) Taking advantage of United Premier status for the first time; and 2) Offering to give up my seat and catch a later flight in exchange for a flight credit.

Premier Status
Having Premier status paid off immediately. The lines to check in and clear security were long and deep. Doing both was taking close to two hours for passengers. But, with Premier status, I was able to use specially designated lines, where the wait was only 10 minutes.

The Mrs. was originally skeptical of my Las Vegas Mileage Run. She thought it was a waste of time. But after seeing how long the general member check in and security lines were, she was sold. She immediately saw the benefits to Premier status and apologized for ever doubting me.

United Flight 233
Things didn’t work out as well for Flight 233, which was canceled due to mechanical difficulties. That sent over 100 passengers scrambling to make alternative travel plans.

I used the Customer Service courtesy phone to call and arrange for another flight. After a long hold, I finally got in touch with Shannon, a United representative that was very patient and helpful. She tried to get me on several flights that were scheduled to take off in the morning, but was unable to. She finally got me on American Airlines Flight 75, leaving at 6 PM. Part of the reason Shannon gave me the extra effort was of my Premier status.

American Airlines
Unlike United, American Airlines has no Customer Service Desk in the terminals. That meant I had to take the shuttle back over to the Main Terminal to obtain my boarding pass. United originally told me they would arrange to have my checked bag transferred over to American. But the American Ticket Agent recommended I go retrieve my bag personally and recheck it in with American. That entailed going back to the United Ticket Counter, and then going to the United Baggage claim, getting my bag, going back to the American Ticket Counter and rechecking my bag. In other words, it was a lot of walking and walking and walking.

I am currently booked on a Y-Class ticket which I believe means better seating and bonus miles. The bad part is I have a middle seat.

In Limbo
After getting back to Terminal D, I decided to sit down to a decent lunch at Moe’s Bar and Grill. I ordered a grilled chicken sandwich and an Iced Tea. There was a big part of me that wanted a beer after my morning ordeal. But I needed to get some work done, and didn’t want to get too distracted.

After lunch, I updated my presentation and called a few friends to catch up. And now I’m in limbo until the flight, which is about 3 hours away. I’m ready for a break!

Celebrity Citing
During my airport wanderings, I saw Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia. He was being escorted by three body guards, one taking lead and two following. Interestingly, he was pulling his own carry-on, wheeled suitcase. At first, I was surprised nobody was helping Justice Scalia with his bag. Then I realized that the security detail’s responsibility is to protect the Justice, not lug bags around.

American Flight 75, IAD-LAX
As expected, the flight was full. I got to sit in Business Class, which was nice. But not as nice as United's Economy Plus - which seems to offer more leg room. The bad part was having to sit in the dredded middle seat. I always prefer an aisle seat, so I can get in and get out faster.

As it turned out, the guy to the left of me was heading to the same conference. He was interesting to talk to. The guy next to me reeked of garlic - which was not a pleasant experience. I kept on thinking about the positives - like if I got attacked by a vampire, the garlic aroma would protect me. Those thoughts didn't help.

This turned out to me my 2nd flight on American in three weeks. Both United and American have pros and cons. But I still prefer United over American.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Olazzo - Restaurant Review

The Taste of Bethesda was held on a rainy Saturday a week ago. Dozens of restaurants set up booths and offered tasting of their specialties. The Mrs. and I checked out the event. It was very well attended, and the aroma of food ranging from barbecue to Indian spices wafted through the air. Alas, we had a late breakfast and weren't hungry. One particular booth stood out. Olazzo, an Italian restaurant, offered tasty looking canollis. Judging by the long line of people waiting to buy the canollis and the very pleased expressions from tasters, you could tell the dessert was worth trying.

I took the Mrs. out to Olazzo's for dinner on Friday. We were concerned that we might end up with the same experience we got at the Red Tomato - overpriced and unfulfilling dishes. Fortunately, the restaurant proved to be reasonably priced and worthwhile.

The bread is served fresh and warm. (Unlike Red Tomato, where the bread was stale and crusty.) Light olive oil and balsamic vinegar were poured. We ordered the calimari appetizer to start with, which came out in a gigantic Martini glass. The calimari was lightly breaded, fried and still warm, served with marinara sauce.

Next came house salads. This was the only minor disappointment of the night. The salad was drenched in dressing and cheese. The restaurant should offer the dressing on the side instead.

Finally, the entrees were served. The Mrs. got the Chicken Parmesan. I ordered the Lasagne Bolognese. We were each served with hefty portions on big plates. The food was hot and tangy, and hit the spot. There was nothing fancy about the food. No fusion dishes or unique twists on old recipes. The entrees were all just plain, simple, good Italian-style eating. And worth every penny.

Neither of us could finish our entrees. So we had them wrapped up to go, and ordered a canolli to go as well. All of the food made the perfect late-night snack.

I highly recommend Olazzo to anyone interested in a good, homestyle Italian meal!

Monday, October 16, 2006

JFK to DCA - The Long Road Home

Air and highway traffic were backed up all around NYC. A plane carrying New York Yankee pitcher Cory Liddle crashed into an upscale condo in Manhattan on the Upper East side. Not knowing whether it was an accident or a terrorist attack, North American air defense launched air patrols around major U.S. cities. Two eastern Manhattan bridges were temporarily shut down to traffic, along with a part of the Upper East Side. Many residents went home early, praying for the best, but preparing for the worst.

Further, a heavy, steady rain fell on NYC for most of the afternoon and into the evening. Those two events caused backups everywhere. Fortunately, things did not worsen.

I called American Airlines to double check whether my flight was still scheduled to depart ontime. It was, but I heard that a number of other flights had been delayed or canceled. I hopped in a cab at Times Square, dropped a co-worker off at Grand Central, and then headed for JFK. It was 9 PM and traffic was still backed up.

The cabbie was patient, and knew the streets. He got me to the airport with plenty of time to spare. I checked in, grabbed my boarding pass, cleared security quickly and headed for my gate. The terminal was surprisingly empty. I walked quite a distance before seeing signs of life.

I expected the boarding and flight to be quick and simple. Unfortunately, the earlier flight delays and cancellations were continuing to cause problems. Flights coming into JFK were delayed, which caused them to delay departure. An earlier flight to DCA was canceled, causing dozens of passengers who had been waiting for 4 hours to express their frustrations. The gate attendants were nearing the end of a very long shift, and were not in the mood to be friendly with angry passengers.

I was on the last flight out to DCA for the evening. I wasn't sure whether I'd be involuntarily bumped. But, somehow I wasn't. Boarding was delayed by an hour. And takeoff was delayed by another hour due to a backup of planes taking off. It was odd seeing a nearly empty terminal, but a runway with dozens of planes lined up for departure.

The plane ahead of us was a wide body Airbus, Virgin Atlantic. Bigger planes with stronger engines tend to create more turbulence and a bigger wake. Therefore, a longer waiting time for takeoff is required for planes that follow. We were on the ground a few more minutes waiting for takeoff, after the Virgin flight departed.

The flight back was uneventful. It was still cloudy, which was disappointing. I wanted to see the city lights as we departed NYC and headed down the East Coast. Instead, every once in a while, you would see the clouds breaking up slightly, and a beam of lights popping out. It almost looked like the cities were in the sky when that happened - quite an interesting effect.

After landing, I grabbed a cab and headed home. I got to bed at 2 AM, two hours longer than originally planned.

In hindsight, I should have taken AMTRAK back to DC. It would have taken about the same amount of time. Had I known about the delays at the airport, I would have taken AMTRAK. But that's life.

It was also the first time I have flown on American Eagle, American's regional jet carrier. I wasn't impressed. And I will try to avoid flying American Eagle, as well as other regional jets in the future. Most regional carriers don't offer the same comfort and features the big planes with the big airlines do. If I'm paying the same amount, I'd rather fly a big jet than a regional. Lessons learned on the road.

Next up on the travel schedule:

  • Los Angeles
  • Phoenix
  • Los Angeles
  • Chicago
  • Las Vegas
  • Los Angeles
  • Toronto
My schedule has changed a bit from my original posting. But the amount of travel has not.

My next flight will be as a Premier United Airlines passenger. I look forward to the extras I'll receive!

Saturday, October 14, 2006

My First Trip on AMTRAK

Rust. It’s the first thing you notice when leaving Union Station on AMTRAK for New York. The reddish-brown color engulfs the area. The Metal I-beams, platforms, fences and rails are all covered in rust. Even the brick buildings in the rail yard have the same reddish-brown color. It is neither appealing nor attractive. But it is symbolic of the city in many ways.

On the one hand, the shops and restaurants at Union Station are clean and bright, inviting and relatively safe. On the other hand, just a few steps away, the rusty rail yard sits – calling out for renovation and renewal. When will that happen? That’s anyone’s guess.

I rode AMTRAK for the first time ever on a business trip to NYC. I have taken trains in Europe and Asia. And I have taken commuter trains in the U.S. But I have never ridden on AMTRAK until the other day.

Overall, I was pleasantly surprised. Boarding only took a few minutes. You were allowed to take any seat, even though the ticket indicated “Reserved Seating.” And I had a row all to myself for most of the trip. The seats were clean and comfortable. The train departed on time and arrived in NYC on time. And the stops along the way were relatively short.

I understand trains tend to be more crowded on Mondays, Fridays, weekends and holidays. I rode up on a Wednesday, and didn’t have any problems with crowds.

It takes about 3 hours to travel by train from DC to NYC. Some people feel that takes too long. The alternative is to drive or fly. Driving takes 4-5 hours. Flying only takes a little over an hour. But there is additional travel time getting to the airport, clearing security, waiting for boarding, then arriving at the airport and catching ground transportation into the city. All that takes about 3 hours as well.

I enjoy flying. And don’t mind short flights whatsoever. But the last two times I have flown out of NYC, I have gotten caught up in flight delays. I hear that is more the norm than the exception. Many seasoned travelers try to avoid connecting flights in big cities such as NYC and Chicago to avoid the crowds and frequent flight delays.

AMTRAK is definitely worth considering for future trips to NYC.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

NYC and back in a Day

I went up to New York City for the day on business. A number of blog-worthy events occurred on the trip. Rather than squeezing every comment into one entry, I will post them as a series of comments.

My final itinerary for the trip was:

  • 7:00 AM Metro to Union Station, Washington, DC.
  • 8:05 AM AMTRAK Vermonter to New York Penn Station
  • 11:15 AM Cab ride to Grand Central Terminal, NYC
  • 5:00 PM NY Subway to Times Square
  • 6:00 PM Reception at Marriott Marquis Times Square
  • 8:00 PM Cab ride to Grand Central Terminal and then JFK Airport
  • 9:40 PM Arrive at JFK
  • 11:00 PM Board American Eagle Regional Jet for Washington, DC, DCA
  • 12:10 AM Finally takeoff from JFK after waiting for 14 other planes to takeoff.
  • 1:15 AM Arrive at DCA
  • 2:00 AM Arrive back home

I was scheduled to return home before midnight. But due to bad weather, a plane crashing into a high-rise condo in Manhattan, and highway and airport delays, I didn’t make it home until much later. Suffice to say, it was a very long day.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Red Tomato - Restaurant Review

The Red Tomato Restaurant is in Betheda, MD.

I ordered the Spagetti Frutti de Mare - pasta with shrimp, mussels and clams. Other restaurants that offer the same dish tend to provide equal portions of shrimp, mussels and clams, with a healthy portion of pasta. Red Tomato provided a ton of mussels, a few clams and two over-cooked, rubbery shrimp on a small bed of pasta. The dish was tasty, but unfulfilling.

The Mrs. ordered proschiutto pizza. The crust was burnt and the portions were small.

We were seated next to the kitchen, and had to deal with the steady flow of wait staff coming and going. The patrons at the table next to us were rude and annoying.

The portions were small. The dishes were overpriced. The food was tasty. But overall, I was disappointed. I don't plan on going back.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Hotel Review: Hilton Palacio Del Rio, San Antonio, TX

I stayed at the Hilton, Room 618 for a conference.

The Good:
• Comfortable room
• Couch included
• Two bottles of water provide each day
• Soft, body-length bath towels provided
• Two bath robes provided
• Relatively quiet. I only heard people through the door, as they walked by.
• Nice meeting room facilities.
• Hotel staff were very responsive to conference planning and attendee needs.
• Great location - On the River Walk, across the street from the convention center, one block away from the Alamo and the River Center mall.

The Bad:
• The hotel room floor sloped downwards, away from the door. At first, I felt like my equilibrium was playing tricks on me, as I was readjusting to being on the ground after flying all day. But the floor actually slopes. One explanation I heard is the hotel was disassembled in one location and reassembled in its current location.
• I felt my room was a bit small. My colleagues had the same-size rooms, though.

4 out of 5 stars. I am a Hilton Honors Silver member, and believe I received an upgraded room. One colleague got a room without a couch, and did not get two bottles of water each day. I would stay at this hotel again, and would recommend it to others.

Hotel Review: The Wyndham St. Anthony, San Antonio, TX

I stayed at the Wyndham for one night in room 1074.

The Good:
Impressive lobby
Classic-looking hotel
Comfortable 4 Post bed
Two blocks from River Walk

The Bad:
Old-style bathroom fixtures.
No bathroom counter space
Bathroom tiles were grimy
Shower water pressure was very weak.
Water temperature moderated from warm to luke-warm
Thin walls
I could hear the television through the walls from neighbors on either side of me. One guy was watching football highlights. The other guy was watching a horror show.
When one neighbor opened and closed his bathroom door, it sounded like he was in my room.
A door bell box is mounted around the hotel room door peep-hole. In order to use the peep hole, you have to remove the door bell assembly cover.
There were a few shady characters and people asking for money in the vicinity of the hotel.

Overall, I give the hotel 3 out of 5 stars. I would not choose to stay at this hotel again. There are a number of other hotels in downtown San Antonio, and given the choice, I would have picked another option.

I got the hotel through Priceline with a winning bid of $80, or $102 including taxes and fees. Checking the account information via the hotel television, I noticed Wyndham charged $92 for the room. I feel I got my money’s worth. Hotel rooms were in short supply in the city due to the Texas A&M v. Army football game and the jazz festival.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

The Road Home from San Antonio

I am on United Express (by GoJet) Flight 5677, traveling from San Antonio, TX to Chicago, O’Hare. The commuter jet is about 80% full. I have my own row, which is always nice.

I woke up at 4:00 AM this morning, packed up and checked out, and caught the shuttle to the airport. The airport was a lot busier than I expected for 6:00 AM on a Saturday. I was able to get my flight changed the first flight of the day out to Chicago. I’m scheduled to catch a connecting flight to BWI, and should be back on the ground around 2:00 PM EDT. I am looking forward to sleeping in my own bed this evening!

Friday, September 15, 2006

Post Conference - San Antonio

Friday, September 15, 2006
The conference is over. By all accounts, it was a success! What a relief!

San Antonio has been fun. The people are friendly. The weather has been warm. And the River Walk section was great to see up close and in person.

The first impression I got of San Antonio was “it’s HUGE.” Flying into town on Tuesday night, I could see the city lights stretching from horizon to horizon. I never realized how spread out the city is. The breadth of the city reminded me of Los Angeles, although not as hilly.

My flight home is schedule for 5:30 PM on Saturday. But I’m going to head over to the airport to see if I can catch an earlier flight. I want to avoid getting stuck at Chicago O’Hare airport again.

Getting delayed at the airport was the biggest complaint conference attendees had. Many got stuck at O’Hare.

I am staying at the Wyndham St. Anthony hotel this evening. Trip Advisor reviewers gave the hotel a low rating. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but have been pleasantly surprised. This is an older hotel. But I received a room on the top floor. The room is comfortable overall. The walls are a bit thin. I can hear the guy in the adjacent room watching football, through the connecting door. And the bathroom is really dated. It looks like a throwback to the 1950s.

San Antonio is hopping this weekend. Texas A&M and Army are playing football on Saturday. Fans from both schools have come in to watch the game. Plus, the San Antonio Jazz Festival starts on Saturday.

I’m ready for bed. I was up late last night putting the finishing touches on my privacy presentation this morning. The presentation went better than I expected. And I am very satisfied with the results.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

San Antonio, Texas

Tuesday, September 12, 2006 12:00 Noon EDT

I’m off to San Antonio today, via Chicago. It’s been one of those “hurry up and wait” days.

I was up until 2 AM working. Then woke up around 6:30 AM. I took care of some more work, and then packed up and headed to BWI.

The first challenge was the traffic jam on the beltway. A tractor-trailer overturned shortly after the Connecticut Avenue exit. That backed traffic all the way up 270 to Montgomery Avenue. I gambled, hoping I would be able to hop on the beltway at Connecticut, and the bypass the accident shortly thereafter. It worked. I spent about 10 minutes in heavy traffic, and then the rest of the ride to BWI was smooth sailing.

At the airport, I checked in and found out the first leg of my flight to Chicago was canceled. Instead of flying out at 1 PM, I have to wait for the next flight which is due to depart close to 3 PM. That means I’ll get to San Antonio about 3 hours later than expected.

One minor benefit is I received an upgrade to Economy Plus for the Chicago-San Antonio leg of the trip.

The airport is surprisingly quiet today. The handful of people waiting in the terminal are either traveling for work or retirees traveling for fun. I’d like to retire and travel for fun starting today, but it looks like I’ll have to wait awhile before that happens. There are no children at all in the terminal. This is quite a contrast from the last time I was here in August. Back then, it took nearly an hour to get through security, and there were people everywhere.

Time to take care of some more business.

Chicago, IL – 4:30PM CDT
I’m sitting at O’Hare Airport, Gate F14, waiting for the connecting flight to San Antonio. The Flyer Talk members were right about O’Hare. It’s a zoo. There are masses of people everywhere. The weather has been overcast here in Chicago for most of the day today. That has caused flight delays and the domino effect has caused passengers to miss connections.

I remember a day when I would only fly non-stop. I hated connecting flights for this very reason. You miss one connection and your whole day is thrown off. I’m going to go back to flying non-stops.

I had to hike from Terminal B to Terminal F. This airport is huge. It took a good 15 minutes to hike from one terminal to the other.

After this flight and the delays, I may skip the next mileage run I have scheduled for September 23. I really don’t need the EQMs. I’ll qualify for Premiere without those miles. And I could use the time at home to take care of matters. I’m keeping my options open.

I need a candy bar to tide me over until dinner.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Mileage Run Recap

Sunday, September 10, 2006
The return portion of the Mileage Run was busy and relatively uneventful.

The Las Vegas Airport is very nice. Clean, spacious, well laid out, and plenty of slot machines. I made my $10 contribution to the one-armed bandits. I was ahead by $1.50 at one point, but gave it all back. Such is life.

I was surprised to find out Las Vegas’s Airport offers free Internet access. And it’s quiet fast! I really enjoyed being able to sit and wait for the next flight, and check e-mail and surf the web.

One message I received was from Launy, a long time friend. I met Launy in Manila in the late 70s. We were both part of the ex-pat crowd. Now she’s living somewhere in Africa. And I was sitting in Las Vegas reading an e-mail message from her. I remember sending mail via Air Post Office service in the 70s, and having to wait 3 weeks for delivery. Now messages can be sent and received instantaneously from practically anywhere to anywhere else in the world. Technology can make the world seem smaller and closer together.

The flight from LAS to SFO was relatively empty. I had a whole row to myself. There were a couple of Russian women sitting in the row across the aisle. They gabbed the entire flight. One time on the Metro, a Russian couple boarded. The woman talked the entire 30 minute trip, while the man said nothing the entire time. He only nodded occasionally.

The SFO airport was nice as well. The last time I flew through SFO was in January 1992. A number of nice restaurants and stores have been added since then. I picked up some See’s Candies for my mom. She was very appreciative. I also liked the flat panel display screens used at the gates to announce arrival and departure information

The flight from SFO to IAD was packed. United had to change planes, and apparently squeezed everyone into a smaller plan. I was slated to have my own row. But I ended up having to share. I slept for most of the flight. It was a redeye, and relatively uneventful.

We landed at Dulles on time. It was odd being back on the ground again after 16 hours of traveling.

5,707 miles posted to my account on Monday. That puts me at approximately 19,000 miles for the year. Another 6,000 miles and I will attain Premiere status. I’ll end up hitting that status in less than 2 weeks.

The amount of time put into flying makes you wonder if it is worth it. I’ll let you know after I get to enjoy my first upgrade.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Mileage Run

Saturday, September 9, 2006 11:40 AM EDT

I’m sitting in Terminal C at Dulles Airport. I am making my first-ever mileage run. By the end of this month, I will have enough EQMs to qualify for Premiere status with United. That entitles me to free upgrades, bonus miles, advanced boarding and a host of other benefits. I can’t wait!

Today’s itinerary is IAD-LAX-LAS-SFO-IAD. That’s about 5,600 miles in one day.

Dulles is surprisingly quiet. The last few times I’ve been here, it’s been very busy. Thousands of people coming and going. I’d say it’s down to hundreds of people coming and

This is the so called “shoulder season.” Travel tends to peak in the summer months, and tends to drop off dramatically after Labor Day. In large part because of families taking trips before kids head back to school. Many of the people waiting at the gate are retirees, without school-aged kids. Not many families with kids are flying today.

The good parts about traveling during shoulder season are smaller crowds, lower travel prices, less ground traffic and more parking.

Time to board the plane.

2:00 PM, EDT, Somewhere Over the U.S.

Two hours into the flight and things are moving smoothly. The movie is Poseidon. The movie is an entertaining adventure/thriller. But there are a few major problems. First, animation is overused for many scenes such as the ship and the ballroom. Second, several of the actors were miscast. Andre Braugher plays the ship’s captain. He’s an excellent actor. But he isn’t meant to be a ship’s captain. Kevin Dillon plays an obnoxious gambler. He is well cast in that role. Several of the lesser-known actors are weak.

The movie is a remake of the 1970s version. This version came out this summer. It didn’t do very well in the theater. An unfortunate flop for Warner Brothers. I think it will do much better on DVD.

One way to describe this movie is a “Body Count” movie genre. Any movie where hundreds of people get theatrically killed off falls into this category. That includes all of the “Living Dead” movies and related spin offs. When you know the movie you are watching is really bad, counting all the dead bodies can be a way to pass the time until the movie ends.

Sitting in coach is cramped. I’m having a hard time working on my laptop. The good news is after this month, I’ll get upper class seating for the next 15 months.

Time to do some work.

3:00 PM Pacific Daylight Time

We landed at LAX on time. The weather out here is beautiful. Sunny, relaxing and enjoyable. I really enjoy sunny weather. When the sun is out, my mood and disposition are a million times better. I feel more active, more relaxed and more energetic. When it’s cloudy and rainy out, I feel like curling up and sleeping. I notice I sleep less in summer when the days are long and more in winter when the days are short.

I’m sitting next to a power port, recharging my laptop battery and watching passengers go by. You see a huge cross section of people and cultures at airports. There is an Aussie sitting across from me eating a Big Mac. On the plane, I sat next to a blue collar worker who looked like he came off the set of My Name is Earl. The guy had a moustache, unkempt, long hair, mirrored sunglasses and a camouflage cap. There are cutsie J-Pop Japanese tourists wearing mini, mini skirts. A college coed is sitting next to me recharging her laptop and playing solitaire. An Indian baby is exercising her lungs and letting the whole world know she’s alive and unhappy about something. Airports are fantastic places to people watch.

I had dinner at Wolfgang Puck Express. A Caesar Salad and a big Iced Tea. The salad was delicious. It goes back to the sunny California weather. The sunny weather helps produce fresh and tasty fruits and vegetables. When those veggies are packed and shipped out to the East Coast, they lose a lot of their freshness and flavor. You tend to get a lot of wilted, uninspiring veggies on the East Coast during winter months. I like Wolfgang Puck’s food, but the menu items are overpriced – unfortunately typical for LAX.

The only other disappointment I have is the lack of free wireless Internet access. Several airports offer free access. LAX is not one of them. I known SFO offers free access. I’m not sure about Las Vegas though. I’m guessing Las Vegas does not. The hotels want visitors to spend time at the casinos, not in the airport surfing the web.

Almost time to board the next flight.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Saybrook Fish House

The Saybrook Fish House is a seafood restaurant in Rocky Hill, CT, which is south of Hartford. The web site is goofy, but the food is good. I'm going to skip over the entrees and talk about the unique things the restaurant offers.

First, a large salad is brought out for diners, and two house-special salad dressings are offered. The key, according to the people I went to dinner with, is to mix both salad dressings. I was skeptical at first. But after trying it, I realized mixing the dressings really brought out wonderful flavors.

Second, a fruit basket is served at the end of the meal, consisting of slices of watermelon, cantalopue, honeydew, grapes and whole nuts in the shell is provided at the end of the meal. Again, quite tasty.

Finally, hot, moist towels scented with vanilla extract are provided after the fruit basket. I've had a moist, hot towel before, but never scented with vanilla extract. It's a memorable experience.

If you are interested in seafood and want to try something new, give the Saybrook Fish House a try.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

BWI & Pittsburgh

Wednesday, August 22, 2006 – 12:45 PM, EDT

I’m sitting in the terminal at Gate D-45 at BWI. It took close to an hour to get through security. The new security procedures in the aftermath of the foiled terrorist plot to detonate explosives on airplanes flying from Britain to the U.S. have slowed screening down. The bigger problem was the lack of open screening gates. Approximately 300 people were waiting to get through two screening gates and one air-puffer screening gate.

I don’t mind waiting a reasonable amount of time, so long as the line is moving and enough screening agents are working. But there were clearly not enough agents on hand today.

I’m flying BWI to Pittsburgh, then transferring planes and heading off to Hartford, CT. Both legs are flown by small regional jets. The weather is clear, with a bit of haze from pollution. Relatively good flying weather.

One of the biggest surprises was seeing a Roy Rogers fast food restaurant in the terminal. Roy Rogers was the dominant fast food chain in the DC-area for over 20 years. Then Hardees came along and bought the chain out, attempting to convert many of the stores from Roys to Hardees. That effort failed miserably. Hardees eventually sold many of the former Roys restaurants to McDonald’s. And now Mickey D’s is the dominant chain in DC. A group of independent Roys owners got together and bought out the remaining restaurants and have been working towards keeping the chain active. Last I heard, there are about 100 locations in PA, MD and VA.

Speaking of which, it’s time for lunch. I think I’ll give the Roy Rogers Roast Beef sandwich a try!

Pittsburgh Airport 2:30 PM

The flight from BWI to Pittsburgh was quick – about 35 minutes. I driven to Pittsburgh a number of times, but have never flown in. I was surprised to see a Pennsylvania National Guard base with a half dozen cargo planes sitting on the tarmac. And I was pleasantly surprised with the airport terminal.

Most airport terminals are very functional. A lot of gates and chairs, a few small shops and a few fast food restaurants. The Pittsburgh airport looks more like a shopping mall. There are a number of shops, restaurants ranging from fast food to mid-quality dining and a lot of space to move about. It was quite nice.

Hartford Airport 6:30 PM

The flight from Pittsburgh to Hartford was smooth. Flight time was a little over an hour. I’m waiting for my co-worker, who got delayed on another flight. We are supposed to catch up with some other co-workers for dinner tonight.

Monday, August 21, 2006

DC Restaurant Week

Twice a year, DC-area restaurants get together and sponsor a “Restaurant Week.” Most offer pre-fixed menus for about $20 for lunch and $30 for dinner. The concept is great. You get to try some nice restaurants for a fixed price. But the delivery can be disappointing. In order to accommodate the large number of patrons who come out for restaurant week, the pre-fixed menus are often quite limited. And the food comes across as being made via a conveyor belt production process.

I actually prefer going to restaurants during non-restaurant week. That way, you get to choose from the entire menu. And you aren’t herded in and out. The Mrs. and me went to Kinkead’s last weekend with some other friends. I have been to Kinkead’s several times. It’s one of the best upscale seafood restaurants in DC. And the dishes I ordered were very tasty. But I was disappointed with the portions.

We each received two appetizer-sized portions and dessert for $30. I’d much rather spend a few extra dollars and get a proper entrée and dessert, than a skimpy meal. So, I post this as a word of caution to those of you thinking about trying DC Restaurant Week in the future.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Ferrying Across the Potomac

A few months ago, the Mrs. and I were driving around and at the spur of the moment, decided to take a trip to Leesburg, VA. From where we live in Maryland, the fastest route is to take the American Legion Bridge across the Potomac and then the highways to Leesburg. That's about a 40 mile trip.

Instead, we decided to drive up to Poolesville and take White's Ferry across the Potomac. The drive to the ferry and the ride across the Potomac was a memorable experience.

That part of Montgomery County, MD and Loudon County, VA is very peaceful. It's like taking a Sunday afternoon drive in the country. While we were waiting for the ferry, we saw over a dozen different migratory bird species, a fish hawk with a fish in its talons, and a wild turkey - a full grown Tom with a long beard and full plumage. It was quite the site.

Not being the outdoors types, my wife and I did what most other Leesburg tourists do. We hit the outlet mall. And we grabbed a hot dog at the Leesburg Costco. We both agreed their hot dogs were the best we ever had. It was something about the freshness of the bun - like it was straight out of the oven. Definitely a memorable experience!

If you are ever out in Leesburg or Poolesville, consider taking a ferry ride across the Potomac. Just remember to bring enough cash with you for a round trip - $6.00 the last time I checked.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Skype-ing Around the World

Skype is a software program that lets you use your computer and broadband connection to call friends around the world. Why would you want to use Skype when you can use a regular land line to make calls? Because it is completely free when you place or receive calls to other Skype users.

I use Skype to keep in touch with friends overseas. Eleni, a friend from college, is living in Paris. I chat with her via Skype occassionally. I was able to catch up with Eleni in Paris when my wife and I were there for our honeymoon.

Skype (pronounced SKY-pe) does charge for computer to telephone calls. Rates are reasonable - around 3 cents a minute, depending on where in the world you call. But sound quality is best when you call another Skype user on his computer. The last few calls I made from Skype to landlines and cell phones all experienced lousy sound quality. I just installed an updated version that may fix those quality issues.

Most people travel with their cell phones these days, and use their cell phones in lieu of hotel phones. If, for some reason, you travel with your computer laptop and don't have a cell phone, you can use Skype to make phone calls. Or, if you are overseas, you can either use your computer, or log onto a computer at an Internet cafe and call home.

Ebay, the online auction marketplace, bought Skype for $2.6 billion in 2005. This deal sounds like the Investment Bankers were able to somehow convince Ebay that it was better to spend billions of dollars acquiring a company with limited revenues that doesn't comfortably fit into the business model of auctions. Ebay could have spent a few million dollars writing their own software and rolling out their own online telephone service - giving it away free to its 60 million customers worldwide. I get the impression the Ebay buyout will work out as well as the AOL and Time-Warner merger. More recent rumors have Microsoft buying Ebay out. We'll have to see where that goes!

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Places to See in DC - The Kennedy Center

I went to the Kennedy Center last night with my buddy Ben. We caught the Reduced Shakespeare Company (RSC) show, "The History of America (abridged)." The show was absolutely hilarious. The RSC is a comedy troupe consisting of 3 men. The troupe takes a comedic look at various people and time periods. Everyone and everything is fair game for lampooning. For example, they joked about the "Ozark Mountain Dyslexic Devil Worshipers that kept on sending fan mail to Santa!"

The RSC will be in town through the end of this weekend. And then they hit the road again. They were last in DC in 2003. I hope they come back before another 3 years pass. Check with the ticket office to make sure shows aren't sold out. All of last weekend's shows were sold out.

If you are visiting DC, you should visit the Kennedy Center. There are fun things to do there even if you don't go to see a show.

  • The Potomac Waterfront location is beautiful. Go up to the Terrace level and walk outside. Turn your head to the right and you can see Georgetown. Look forward and you'll see Rossyn, VA. And turn left and you'll see Crystal City, VA. You can also see planes using the Potomac River as the flight path to land at Reagan Washington National Airport.
  • The Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage offers free shows most nights at 6 PM. Performances range from music to dance to radio broadcast and theater.
  • The high-ceiling Halls and Foyers give a feeling of space and open air.
  • The cafe and restaurant offer tasty treats.
  • Go see Shear Madness, the longest running play in the history of DC. The show is a comedy/murder/mystery set in Georgetown. Current events are folded in. And - the best part is - the audience gets to vote on who the murder is!

Saturday, July 22, 2006

$3.19 a Gallon

In the late 1990s, crude oil prices collapsed and gasoline fell to $1.00 a gallon. At the time, I was thinking about driving cross-country from Washington, DC to Los Angeles. The round trip gas bill would have been about $200. Flying round trip would have been about $400. So for about the same price, you could see America from the ground and cover lodging and meals.

Yesterday, I paid $3.19 a gallon to fill my gas tank up. A cross country road trip today would cost over $600. Interestingly enough, a round trip flight still costs around $400.

A combination of factors have kept airfares relatively low. Competition, lower labor costs and more efficient jet engines play a large part in cost savings.

Coast-to-coast airfares have been stable, but shorter flights have become more expensive. A round trip ticket from DC to New York City costs about $250, where it used to range from $100 - $200. Flights from DC to Florida are in the $200 - $300 range, where they used to be under $200.

What's the moral of the story? Take your vacations when you can and enjoy your free time fullest extent possible. Life is too short to put things off. And give me a call if you want to do a cross-country road trip!

Friday, July 21, 2006

TripAdvisor - Hotel Reviews & More

TripAdvisor is a great web site for hotel reviews. When I travel for business, I check TripAdvisor to find out about the hotel I will be staying at. TripAdvisor members post reviews of past hotel stays. And the reviews tend to be very honest. The process is similar to Amazon's product reviews. People who have stayed at the hotel will post their comments, both positive and negative. I will be attending a conference at the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort & Spa in a few months. Take a look at the TripAdvisor reviews and try to get jealous!

Another nice feature TripAdvisor recently added is the ability to post your own photos of the hotel. Most hotels post glossy photos of the nicest rooms and facilities on their web sites. Quite often, the photos are much better than the actual rooms assigned. Guests posting actual photos of the rooms they stayed in offer a much more realistic view of what to expect at a hotel.

I gave an example of a hotel with really good reviews above. Here's an example of a hotel on the other end of the spectrum. WARNING: The reviewer photos may give you nightmares!

A few suggestions on using TripAdvisor:

  • Throw out the high and the low score reviews and look at what the majority of hotel guests had to say. In most instances, the extremely good and extremely bad reviews tend to be rare occurances.
  • Some people will only post bad reviews, because it is the only outlet they have after a bad experience at a hotel. An occasional bad review is expected for most hotels. A string of bad reviews is a gigantic warning sign.
  • If all the reviews are good, the hotel is something to look forward to. If all the reviews are bad, avoid the hotel at all costs.
  • The more recent reviews tend to be more accurate than older reviews. Hotel management tends to change once every few years. New managers are often brought in to improve a hotel with a bad reputation. Renovations can transform a dumpy hotel into a nice hotel.
  • Hotels with less than 5 reviews may not provide a complete picture of what to expect.
  • Look for tips and suggestions that reviewers provide. For instance, one side of the hotel may be quieter than the other side. Or one section may be renovated and offer nicer rooms than another section. Knowing what to ask for will make your hotel stay more pleasant.
  • Look at the photos the guests posted. Those photos are usually much more realistic than the photos on the hotel's web site and brochure.

There are several other features TripAdvisor offers, which I will review in a future posting.

Happy Friday!

Monday, July 17, 2006

FlyerTalk - Frequent Flyer Discussion Boards

My favorite travel web site these days is FlyerTalk. The site has a wealth of information for airline travelers. I have learned so much just by reading discussion threads and asking occasional questions.

I am traveling a lot for my new job. I will be heading to Hartford, San Antonio, Los Angeles and Phoenix before the end of 2006. And there will likely be a couple of other trips squeezed in.

Most of my flights are through Dulles and on United Airlines. Dulles is a United hub airport. I heard some statistic indicating somewhere around 43% of Dulles flights are by United or one of its partners.

My goal is to make Premiere status by the end of 2006. That means 25,000 "elite qualifying miles" (EQMs) flown or 30 "elite qualifying segments" (EQSs) flown on United or one of its partners. Thus far, I've got about 12,000 miles and 11 flight segments. Hitting the 25k mark is an attainable goal.

I learned about "Mileage Runs" on FlyerTalk. The basis of mileage runs is taking a flight for the sole purpose of earning enough EQMs to qualify for Premiere, Premiere Executive or 1k status. Premiere Executive requires 50,000 EQMs and 1k requires 100,000 EQMs. There are discussions with people talking about taking trips as far as Singapore just to rack up the EQMs.

If I come up short, I have found flights out to San Francisco for under $260 round trip that would allow me to earn 5,000 EQMs. Not bad. But there are several other ways to earn EQMs that I learned about through FlyerTalk. Certain credit cards offer EQMs. For the last couple of years United has offered customers the option of buying EQMs. And EQMs can occassionally be transferred from one United Mileage Plus member to another.

What's the benefit of getting Premiere status you ask? Better treatment. Upgrades to better seats. Customer Service agents who treat you as a more valued customer. Telephone service agents that are in the U.S. and are knowledgeable about the various cities around the country.

Basically, when you achieve Elite status, United treats you as a very good customer and takes extra measures in taking care of your needs. There are complaints from Elite status customers about poor service on FlyerTalk. But by-and-large, most frequent flyers try to attain Elite status to reap all the rewards associated.

In a better world, everyone would be treated wonderfully. In a realistic world, companies try to take care of their best customers first. How different is the treatment? I'll provide a few examples in future posts. Until then, check out FlyerTalk!

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Virgin Atlantic Helps to Make My Honeymoon Even More Memorable

I got married earlier this year, March 2006. We flew from Los Angeles to London, England on Virgin Atlantic for our honeymoon. Izzie couldn't convince anyone in the bridal party to take her bouquet, so she decided to take them on the trip.

Shortly after being seated, Senior Flight Attendant Rowena, a lovely lady with a memorable name, walked passed and noticed the bouquet. She stopped and said how lovely they were and asked where they were from. We told her we just got married and were on our way to London for the honeymoon. I thought she was going to confiscate the flowers due to import restrictions.

She took the flowers and put them in a bucket of water for the 8-hour trip. Then she moved us to an exit row at the front of the section so we could have complete leg room. There were no other seats in front of us, just a big space for the exit door to the side. It was nice having all that extra legroom.

Rowena then she brought two glasses of champagne out for us. Practically all the flight attendants came by and told my wife how lovely the bouquet was and how they all hoped to have something just as nice at their weddings someday. They were apparently in the back pretending to be brides and walking down an imaginary aisle with the bouquet in hand. They all took great care of us.

On the flight back, things got better. Rowena arranged for us to be upgraded to Premium Economy – which was another fantastic treat. The service and amenities were fantastic! Better food, wine and spirits, more leg room, . . .

We never asked for upgrades or special treatment. But it was wonderfully nice for Rowena to take care of us. I wrote a nice thank you message to Virgin Atlantic, mentioning all of Rowena’s efforts.

Izzie keeps joking that she’ll bring another bouquet next time we travel abroad.

We might have missed out on collecting United EQMs for the flight to London. But the extra special treatment by Virgin Atlantic made up for all that and more.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Southwest Announces Washington, DC-Dulles Schedule

Southwest Airlines is beginning service to Washington-Dulles Airport on October 5, 2006. Of the 12 daily flights, most will go to Chicago-Midway while the others go to Las Vegas, Orlando and Tampa Bay.

Dulles (IAD) is a major hub for United Airlines. When Independence Air started up, the small airline gave United a run for the money. United was forced to reduce fares to remain competitive. JetBlue also did the same to United when service first begain at IAD.

Unfortunately, Independence was unable to withstand competitive pressures and folded on January 5, 2006. JetBlue has not folded, but has seen revenues drop dramatically. And JetBlue's ticket prices have increased.

This has allowed United to raise rates again.

With Southwest's move to IAD, United may once again have to lower rates to become competitive.

I have been a United customer for decades. I only started flying Southwest a couple of years ago. Both airlines have their strengths and weaknesses. I'd like to see the efficiency and competitiveness of Southwest combined with the benefits United offers. That may never happen. But I do look forward to seeing more competitive rates flying out of IAD.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Hartford, CT - The Morning After

The July 12, 2006 United Flight 745 was scheduled to take off at 7:20 PM and land at 8:40 PM. After a series of weather delays, the plane finally arrived around 10 PM. About 30 passengers stuck around for the plane. Some rescheduled flights for the next day. Others wanted to get to Dulles, spend the night and then catch a connecting flight elsewhere.

The plane took off around 10:45 PM. We were probably the last plane to depart that evening. The nice part was there was no wait to depart. Once the pilot got to the runway, we took off immediately. Not like busy NYC airports where getting to the runway can take up to an hour.

Everyone from the gate attendants to the flight crew to the passengers were professional and cordial. Nobody threw a complete fit. Some passengers were dissapointed they had to change their schedules. But the gate attendants handled the changes and requests professionally. And the flight crew took care of the passengers on the short flight.

We landed at Dulles close to midnight. Many passengers scrambled to find hotel rooms and change flight connections.

I hiked out to my car and drove home. Normally DC beltway traffic at 12 midnight in the middle of the week is very light. But the Dulles Access Road is being repaved at night, and that slowed traffic way down. What normally is a 25 minute drive with no traffic turned into a 1 hour ride home.

I finally made it and got to bed around 2 AM. It's always a nice feeling to sleep in your own bed after time away. Door-to-door, the return leg of the trip took 8 hours. I probably could have driven the distance in less time. But those are the breaks when you travel during the summer storm season.

After 12 flights over the last 9 weeks, I will be taking a little break from traveling. I get a few weeks at home before hitting the road again.

In the interim, I'm going to post comments about travel web sites and related items. Let me know what you think.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Hartford, CT - July 12, 2006 & Stuck at the Airport

It's 6 PM and I'm sitting in the Bradley-Hartford Airport. I arrived at the airport about two hours before scheduled departure time. Upon check-in, I found out that my flight was delayed by an hour. Instead of leaving at 7:20, I'll be leaving at 8:20. An unclear reason blaming aircraft problems was given.

The airport is relatively small. The major airlines that service the airport are US Airways and Southwest. A few years ago, as Southwest expanded into the Northeast, its reaseachers deterimned that travelers going into or out of the Boston-area would be willing to drive to or from Hartford if the airfare was low enough. Southwest then added a number of flights to the Hartford airport.

The airport offers free wireless Internet service. That's a nice plus for those of us lugging laptops around. The signal strength is surprisingly strong. Since the airport is relatively small, there are not throngs of people sitting around and waiting for flights like at LAX or ORD.

The food options are limited. There is "Wicked Good Subs" and "Last Resort" which is a bar. Patrons at the establishments are road-weary travelers, with a look of aimlessness about them.

While in Hartford, I stayed at the Homewood Suites. I was pleasantly surprised with the hotel. The rooms are designed to provide a couch, coffee table and kitchennette with a full-sized refrigerator, dishwasher, kitchen sink, microwave and dining table.

The furniture is mostly presswood. It has an IKEA-feel to it. Functional. Not great, not terrible. Perfectly fine for a basic business hotel.

The hotel also offers a continental breakfast and a Manager's reception each day. The selections were reasonable. I had French Toast Sticks and scrambled eggs the first morning. They looked like they were pre-frozen and reheated at the hotel. You had the option to make-your-own waffles as well.

The Manager's reception offered a basic entree, sodas, juices, Budweiser, modest wines with twist off caps and chilled merlots, and - my favorite, warm cookies.

I stayed at a Homewood Suites about 6 years ago. I was terribly disappointed. The rooms were small, hot and had a plastic smell to them. The bed mattress was foam. And there was a dead bug in the kitchenette. I avoided Homewood Suites after that experience. But my experience with the Hartford Homewood Suites was a marked improvement over my previous experience.

Before heading to Hartford, I was up in NYC again to attend a meeting. The meeting location turned out to be right across the street from Grand Hyatt that I stayed at in June. I would have liked to have spent more time in NYC. But I was only there for a meeting, and headed out of the city immediately afterwards.

I took the MTA from Grand Central Terminal out to New Haven, CT. New Haven is where Yale is located. It has a history of being a college town with a number of transitional neighborhoods. The train ride took 2 hours. I didn't think it would take that long. But New Haven was the last stop on the MTA line.

After arriving at New Haven, my travel partners and I were hungry and sought out Pepe's Pizza, a restaurant with a reputation of having the best pizza in CT. After driving around the city for awhile, we finally found the Wooster Street establishment, only to encounter a line of 40 people waiting to get a seat.

Too hungry to wait, we walked around the Little Italy neighborhood and finally settled Consiglio's. The food was great, the service was prompt and that made up for missing out on Pepe's.

Sitting at the Hartford Airport, with the aroma of cheap airport pizza wafting through the terminal, I reminisce about what might of been at Pepe's.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Los Angeles - 4th of July Weekend, 2006

I spent the 4th of July weekend with Izzie in and around Los Angeles. The ocean breeze blew in and kept things relatively cool along the coast. But when we headed in-land, the you could really feel the desert heat.

We headed out to Ontario, CA one day. The town is about 50 miles east of LAX. There is an airport that Southwest Airlines flies into and out of, a large convention center and a Mills outlet mall. There is also some agricultural activity as well.

Strawberries are in season and all the local restaurants were serving various strawberry pies and desserts. They were quite tasty.

We stayed at the Pacific Palms Conference and Resort Center. The independent hotel offers two golf courses and a two-tier driving range. Quite nice for the golfing addicts. Alas, we weren't there to play golf. The other nice feature about the facility is the conference rooms. The layout is quite spacious and comfortable for conferences, banquets and receptions.

The hotel room that we were assigned was small and a bit crampt. The window overlooked the nearby hills, the heliport and the driving range. The room got warm very quickly without the air conditioner running. And the AC did not have an automatic shutoff system. So we spent the night manually turning the AC on and off as the room alternated between being too warm and too cold.

The free Internet access was nice. And the Aveda bath products were also a nice touch. If I wanted to play golf or needed to attend an event, I would definitely stay at the Pacific Palms again. Otherwise, I would choose the Sheraton Fairplex out in Pomona.

6 months of 2006 have passed and here is my traveler tally:
  • 17 different flights
  • 23 nights in various hotels
  • 2 train trips (London - Paris, RT)
Looking at my calendar, I noticed that I have been on a plane 7 out of the last 9 weeks. My travel schedule eases up for the rest of July and August. But it picks up again in September. I may tire of business travel in the future. But I still enjoy it for now!

Sunday, June 25, 2006

NYC Day 2 - Nights Out On The Town

I attended a full day of conference activities on my second day of the trip.

It was the first full day of summer. The weather in the city was hot and humid. After the conference and reception, I headed down to the Meatpacking District and caught up with a buddy for dinner. We at at The Park, a restaurant on 10th Avenue and 18th St.

The Meatpacking District is full of hip night clubs, trendy restaurants and boutique shops. It is a fun place to hang out and people-watch.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Hartford, CT & NYC On a Warm Summer Day

I went up to Hartford for business last week and then to New York City to attend a conference.

This was my first trip to Hartford and Connecticut. I didn't get a chance to see much. But I will be heading back and will have more opportunities to explore in the future.

I caught a ride down to Westport, a quiet town in Southwestern Connecticut, on the Long Island Sound. Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward and Michael Bolton reside there. I only had a few minutes to see the town before getting dropped off at the Metro North Railroad train station. The train pulled into the station just as I was getting out of the car. Talk about perfect timing.

The ride into NYC took over an hour. A lot longer than I expected. An interesting range of passengers hopped on and off the train.

The train finally arrived at Grand Central Terminal (Station). It almost sounds cliche to say that. I found my way to the Grand Hyatt and checked in. Then I caught up with a buddy and we went out for dinner. My friend picked the restaurant, which unbenounced to her, is a DC-based restaurant that I am very familiar with - The Capital Grille.

The Capital Grille got its start in DC, and is one of the restaurants where power lobbyists like to bring Members of Congress and staffers to wine and dine. The restaurant is best known for its dry aged steaks, which my friend had. I had the filet mignon, which was excellent.

After dinner, I went back to the hotel, caught up on some work, and tried to unwind. New York City has so much energy and vibrance that most people who go get hit with huge jolts of adrenaline. It definitely takes a little time to adjust to.

And that brought an end to the first day of my trip.

Monday, June 19, 2006


This blog is a travel log of my adventures on the road. Between work and pleasure, I travel a fair amount. Since January of 2006 I have visited the following cities:

  • Los Angeles, CA - January
  • Los Angeles, CA - February
  • Los Angeles, CA - March
  • London, England - March
  • Paris, France - March
  • Montreal, Canada - May
  • Calgary, Canada - June
  • Washington, DC - June
  • Hartford, CT - June
  • New York City - June
And I have more trips ahead of me:

  • Los Angeles, CA
  • New York City
  • Hartford, CT
  • San Antonio, TX
  • Los Angeles, CA
  • Phoenix, AZ
  • Las Vegas, NV
  • Anaheim, CA
  • Toronto, Canada
  • San Francisco, CA
Stay tuned for my entries!

And thanks for reading my blog!