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!