Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Exchanging Money

Most banks offer reasonable exchange rates. And using your ATM card overseas is normally reasonable as well. I was able to use my Washington, DC-area bank ATM card in a Citibank ATM in Hong Kong and only got charged a $2.00 fee. Plus the exchange rate was comparable to what the market was charging. Contrast that to the Telex kiosk I used to get some pocket change - which charged me a $6 exchange fee and only gave me 90 cents on the dollar. Telex offered a lousy deal.

Capital One credit cards do not charge an exchange rate. Most other major credit card companies (Chase, Citi, Bank of America,...) charge around 3% on top of your purchase to cover the exchange rate. One thing to keep in mind about Capital One is their credit limits are normally low. So if you do use the Capital One credit card, make sure you don't exceed the credit limit. Otherwise you will get charged an overage fee.

The recommendation is to have enough pocket change to pay for a cab ride to your hotel. Then use your ATM card to get additional cash. And have a few U.S. dollars on hand if the ATMs are down.

A few dollars here and there for the exchange rate doesn't seem like a lot. But I'd rather use that extra money for food and other purchases than give it to the money changers. Some people would rather use their credit cards to collect points for future rewards. Using the options that best suit your needs is always the best way to go. Just remember to spend a little time figuring out what the best options are.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

MTR - Hong Kong

The MTR or Mass Transit Railway is Hong Kong's subway, bus and light rail service provider. The subway system is clean, efficient and reasonably priced. The biggest question that kept running through my mind was, "Why can't the Washington, DC Metrorail service be just as nice?"

After touching down at Hong Kong's Chek Lap Kok International Airport, retrieving our luggage and clearing immigration, we headed for the MTR outlet. We purchased two Airport Express smart card passes, which included three days of unlimited subway use. The Airport Express line was quite impressive. Designed for travelers, it has spacious seating, luggage storage areas and video displays in each car that provide transfer information in multiple languages. In less than 30 minutes, we traveled from the airport to Hong Kong's Central district.

Another very nice MTR feature is the shops and eateries located at each stop. Stores ranging from 7-11 to Giordano (the Chinese equivalent of The Gap stores in the U.S.) are available at the stations. My favorite is a bakery called Maxim. The Mrs. and I enjoyed countless pastries, rolls, mini-cakes and other desserts from Maxim's. And, the other benefit was I didn't gain an ounce. We walked around 2-3 hours a day and that actually helped me lose weight.

On our third day, we went to recharge our 3-day MTR tourist smart cards, and learned a few things. First, the smart cards are valid for 72 hours from initial use. Second, you cannot use the automated machines to recharge the tourist smart cards. They have to be recharged in person with a station attendant. Third, while you can use a credit card to purchase the 3-day smart card, you can only use cash to recharge the cards. And fourth, when you return to the airport, you can return the 3-day smart card to the MTR station manager for a full refund of any unused fare, plus the HK$50.00 deposit. The Mrs. and I ended up getting back about HK$180 (about $30 U.S.) which we managed to spend on more pastries, lunch and trinkets at the airport.

Two things about the MTR I would change is 1) color-code the station signs to help people transferring from one line to another figure out which way to go - the multiple subway lines are already color-coded, putting the color-coding on the station signage is logical; and 2) the subway cars can get packed during rush hour - but then again - if you can't deal with crowds, you shouldn't be visiting big cities.

I'd still love to go back and visit soon!

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Hong Kong!

The Mrs. and I headed out to Hong Kong for Thanksgiving. It was a fantastic trip. We had a great time! I will post a series of entries highlighting our trip. For this entry, I'll talk about the long journey there.

We decided to leave on Thanksgiving Day because it is easy to get flights, especially international flights on Thanksgiving Day. Most Americans spend the day with family, eating turkey and watching football. Few travel internationally that day. And that makes it a good day to travel abroad.

For the trip, I cashed in 120,000 United Mileage Plus miles for two round-trip tickets. Since I am a Premier Executive member, I get Economy Plus seating which includes 5 extra inches of space. I can also reserve the exit rows - which provide even more space. Having that extra leg room in the exit rows makes a big difference when you fly - especially long distances. Being able to stretch your legs on flights without having to arch your body around people and obstacles is incredibly nice.

We took the 7:00 am flight out of Dulles. It was a 767, which means it included in-seat personal entertainment systems. A series of movies, music channels and GPS tracking/flight information is available. While not as sophisticated as European competitors, the entertainment system is still nice to have. If you have the choice between a 767/777 v. 737/757/321/320 when you fly, pick the 767/777. The wide body plane handles turbulence better and offers more amenities than the smaller planes.

As we approached San Francisco, to transfer to the flight to Hong Kong, we could see how nice the Bay Area looked. It was very sunny, with hardly any clouds. And the temperature was just about right - warm enough to get by with a light jacket and just a bit of crispness in the Fall air. There was a strong pull to spend the weekend in San Francisco before heading to Hong Kong. But Asia beckoned louder and a couple of hours later we hopped aboard a 747 bound for the Orient.

The flight to Hong Kong was relatively uneventful. My biggest surprise was the route, which took us north towards Alaska, then followed the Aleutian Islands across the International Date Line, then southwest towards Japan. I would have guessed a more direct route, across Hawaii and the Philippines would have been faster.

14 hours later, we landed in Hong Kong, cleared customs and headed for our hotel. More in the next installment.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Movie Review: Elizabeth - The Golden Age

The Mrs. and I were out at Arundel Mills Mall and decided to see Elizabeth - The Golden Age at the Muvico Egyptian Theater. The theater has over 20 stadium sized screens. Unfortunately, this movie was relegated to a smaller theater.

The movie itself was quite impressive. An all-star cast including Cate Blanchett as the Queen, Geoffrey Rush as Sir Francis Wallsingham and Clive Owen as Sir Walter Raleigh delivered fantastic performances. The dialog was quick and witty, the plot was engaging. The sets were impressive. And the costumes were very detailed.

Unfortunately, what started off as a colorful period piece turned into a gigantic video game. The director used computer generated images of the Spanish Armada setting forth to conquer England. He then morphed Queen Elizabeth into Joan of Arc, complete with long, flowing locks of hair, full battle armor and a poor attempt at a pre-battle rally speech before the impending doom to be delivered by the Spanish Armada.

The director also rewrites history. He moves the final battle to English Channel and neglects to mention much of the Armada survives the initial engagements, then sails around the British Isles but ends up losing significant ships to a hurricane off the western coast of Ireland. Very disappointing. I won't spoil the ending, but the fact you are reading this in English and not Spanish is a good indication of how things did turn out.

If you are a history buff and/or enjoy watching Blanchett, Rush or Owen act on the big screen you will enjoy the movie. But the battle scenes are not very impressive and are only worth the price of a DVD rental.

Monday, September 17, 2007

La Tasca - Restaurant Review

La Tasca is a Spanish tapas restaurant with a half dozen locations in the Washington, D.C. area. A friend of the Mrs. was in town attending a medical conference. We met up with the friend after the first day of the conference and headed out to Jaleo originally. But the wait was close to a half hour for a table. So we headed over to La Tasca.

Spanish tapas is similar to Cantonese dim sum. You order a series of small plates and share. We ordered nine dishes in all. Most were good or very good. I liked the calamares a la Andaluza (lightly fried calamari), costillas de cerdo (pork spare ribs) and the paella de verduras (vegetable rice).

My biggest disappointment was not with the food itself, but the small portions. For example, the asparagus dish came with four shoots - which worked out to $1.24 per shoot. That's ridiculous. When La Tasca first opened, the portions where much larger and the prices were lower. Granted, expenses have gone up. But throwing in a few more shrimp or asparagus shoots into a dish won't break the restaurant revenue stream.

The DC location is situated a couple of blocks south of the Convention Center. It appears the DC location has become a tourist trap - charging high prices and offering small portions. I just hope the other locations offer better portions for the prices charged.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Restaurant Review - Qdoba Grill

Not being sure what to expect, I tried Qdoba Grill the other night. The restaurant turned out to be a poor imitation of Chipotle's.

Chipotle uses an assembly line to make your burrito (or salad) fresh. First, they use a hot steam press to heat your flour tortilla. Then you have the option of adding rice, pork, beef, chicken and a host of other toppings and salsas. At the end of the production, you have one very big burrito.

Qdoba attempts to mimic the process. Unfortunately the restaurant fails in two areas. First, the ingredients have no flavor. It seems like the cooks have never heard of salt or pepper or any other spices. And second, the servers offer tiny portions of each ingredient. I felt like I was in the orphanage in the novel Oliver Twist, being served measly portions and humbly asking for more.

Bottom line: Head to Chipotle's if you want a decent burrito. Qdoba isn't worth your time or money.

Restaurant Review - Vapiano's

Vapiano's is new to the U.S. Originally from Germany, the Italian-style eatery offers several unique spins. First, you are given smart cards to use. Next, you order at various stations - pizza, pasta, salad, beverages, dessert. Each order is added to the smart card with a quick swipe. At the end of your meal, you go to the cashier, hand over the smart card and pay your tab.

The pizzas are hand tossed, thin crust and made to order. They are slightly larger than California Pizza Kitchen pizzas. The thin crust and fresh toppings really help to bring out all the great flavors. I ordered the capriccioca - ham, mushrooms, artichokes, olives and tomato sauce. It was good to the last bite!

Friends who have tried the other items generally agree the pizzas are the best items, while the the pastas (in-store, handmade) are hit or miss. Happy Hour runs from 5-8 PM daily, featuring $3.00 beers and a few discounted food items. The restaurant attracts a large lunch and Happy Hour crowd.

Try Vapiano's out and let me know what you think.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Beard Papa and Pinkberry

The Mrs. and I were out in Los Angeles for the weekend, attending my sister's MBA graduation. The weather was perfect - sunny with a comfortable ocean breeze to keep you cool.

My sister suggested we try a couple of new quick service restaurants. Beard Papa is a pastry shop that specializes in cream puffs. And Pinkberry is a frozen yogurt chain.

I really enjoyed Beard Papa. The cream puffs were delicious. Light, tasty and just the right size. The shop also offers a host of other desserts, but I wasn't hungry enough to try anything else.

I wasn't as excited about Pinkberry. The unique feature of the frozen yogurt is the slightly sour taste - much like plain yogurt you purchase at the grocery store. Two flavors are served - original and green tea. Then you have the option of adding a range of fresh fruit toppings, chocolate bits and sprinkles. It's quite colorful. But there were two things I didn't like. First, I prefer frozen yogurt to be sweet-tasting. And second, I prefer that feeling you get when you consume a thick milkshake. The milk fat makes a frozen dairy product a real treat for me. On the other hand, the Mrs. really enjoyed Pinkberry, and can't wait to go back.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Restaurant Review: Wingstop

The Mrs. and I had a craving for chicken wings. So we decided to try Wingstop - a fast food chicken wings restaurant.

OVERALL RATING: Good and tasty food, but plenty of room for improvement.

The chicken wings themselves, along with the various sauce-flavor options were quite tasty. The wings and the french fries were cooked to order, and were served hot and fresh. And the potato salad was reasonably good. That's where the goodness ends though.

  • The order itself took 20 minutes to fill. That takes the "fast" out of fast food. We have been served quicker at full-service restaurants.
  • The chicken wings were on the small and lean side. It seemed like the chickens were put on the Atkin's diet to shed unwanted fat and protein.
  • The store offers all-you-can drink soda, but only provided two thimble-sized cups of ketchup for the fries.
  • In lieu of napkins, the store has a big roll of recycled paper towels put out in a communal area.
  • No forks or knives were available - only plastic spoons.
  • The potato salad had gigantic chunks of raw onion. I like cooked onions, but am not a big fan of raw onions. Also, the potato salad needed more salt and pepper for flavor. Salt and pepper came in the form of penny-sized packets. No shakers are available or placed at tables.

If the wings were meatier, the service faster and the amenities were not so skimpy, the place would be perfect. My prediction is either the service and amenities improve or the chain goes out of business.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Restaurant Review: The Panda Cafe

In an effort to find a restaurant that can serve a decent kung pao chicken, I have been trying a series of different Chinese cuisine establishments. Tonight's sampling was from the Panda Cafe on Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, near The George Washington University Hospital.

Here is my two word bottom line: Totally forgettable!

The kung pao chicken was awful. A small portion of fatty, limp chicken with hefty portions of tasteless carrots, peanuts and celery in some sort of hot sauce is the best description I can provide. And the side of fried rice was greasy and equally lacking in flavor and taste.

I keep an open mind with all new restaurants I try. If it turns out well, I get to enjoy discovering a new restaurant. If it doesn't, then at least I tried. In this situation, I'm sorry I tried and I'm sorry I was open minded.

Save your time and money and try another Chinese restaurant. And please pardon me - I need to go wash this nasty flavor out of my mouth with a gallon of tea.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Luna Grill & Diner

I ordered the Tuesday special from the Luna Grill - Half a Roasted Chicken with Mashed Potatoes. I got the mashed potatoes, but ended up with two country fried chicken breasts. The breasts were tenderized with a big mallet to make them look bigger. Unfortunately, the mallet failed to make the breasts tender.

The overall flavors of the chicken and the mashed potatoes are quite nice. I am extremely disappointed the restaurant substituted fried chicken breasts in lieu of roasted chicken. If I wanted something fried, I would have ordered something fried.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Julia's Empanadas

It's been awhile since my last posting. Instead of offering excuses, I'll just dive into another restaurant review.

Julia's Empanadas is located a couple of blocks south of Dupont Circle on Connecitucut Avenue. Empanadas are similar to English/Cornish Pastys - baked pastries with meat or fruit fillings.

The location is a small walkin-walkout storefront. A glass pasteries case showing the various empanadas takes up the biggest portion of the store. The maximum number of people who could fit in the store at any one time is roughly 10.

Julia's offers a half dozen different types of meat and veggie empanadas, and another half dozen fruit empanadas. I ordered the Jamacian Beef and Strawberry empanadas. Both were good-sized portions. The empanadas themselves were good, but not great. The empanadas were warm and flavorful, but lacked the zing I expected from Jamacian spices. The strawberry empanadas were full of syrupy jam, but no actual strawberries. And the pastry casings were firm, but lacked any savory or sweet flavor.

I have had better and worse empanadas. I would be willing to go back to Julia's again - but there are plenty of other restaurants to try.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Who Let the Dawgs Out?

The Mrs. and I flew out to California for the long weekend. We took Southwest Airlines for the first time in nearly a year. I would have flown United, had it not been for a series of problems I had to deal with in December. Out of three round trips/six segments on United in December, two flights were severely delayed, and two were completely canceled. One of the canceled flights was at the start of the Christmas weekend. United was unable to put us on another flight that day or most of the next day - causing us to miss out on our Christmas vacation. I'll post more on dealing with United in another entry.

For now, I want to talk about the most recent trip. Southwest Airlines plays the role of a scrappy underdog in the competitive passenger airline market. The things I like about Southwest are the great customer service, scheduled flights that takeoff and arrive on-time and the reasonable prices.

In the flights I have taken on Southwest, the pilots and flight crews have always been friendly and helpful. And the flights are almost always on-time, if not early. Plus, if you book far enough in advance, you can lock in rates as low as $99 each way, coast-to-coast. Contrast that with most major air carriers that appear to have management-labor issues, planes with mechanical problems and often charge twice as much for the same trans-con flights.

There are downsides to Southwest. For example, the ticket agents tend to be a bit hurried and never seem to smile. Plus, I have often had to wait an hour to claim my bag at BWI. But overall, the airline is efficient and professional.

One other issue that can be annoying is the type of passengers that fly on Southwest. You get a range of passengers, but most tend to be leisure passengers. That was the case on our flight out to Los Angeles last weekend. Included on the plane were 20 Baltimore Ravens fans, sporting jerseys and hooting and hollering at the gate and on the plane. Baltimore hosted Indianapolis on Saturday in an AFC Semi-Final playoff match. Baltimore was heavily favored because it had the best record in the Conference.

Oddly enough, the Ravens fans were leaving town when their team was playing in town. Why, many people asked. It was because the lot of them got tickets to attend The Price is Right game show and hoped to be contestants.

I don't mind football fans that show their pride. But these people made the flight feel like five hours in a bawdy house. I'm just glad smoking was prohibited and the amount of hard liquor was limited on the flight.

The lesson I learned from this flight is to bring a good book and a set of ear plugs to tune out the rowdy passengers.

And, if you are curious, the Ravens lost to the Colts in the playoff match. Perhaps if the Ravens fans had stayed in Baltimore to cheer on the team, the outcome would have been different. Whose idea was it to "let the dawgs out" anyway?