The Most Worthless Business Travel Article I’ve Read in a While

Here are a few phrases you won’t hear in our home:

  • Honey, next time we’re in Capri visiting our manufacturing plant can we get stay at that hotel where the bathrooms overlook the Faraglioni rocks?
  • Those circular soaking tubs at the Amanfayun Spa in Hangzhou, China were awesome, and I’m glad the client took us there.
  • Thank goodness they had clay tennis courts at my hotel in Marrakech, because cement courts would have been way too hot when Bob and I played between meetings.

This snarky intro is reflective of my reaction to an article in the latest issue of Bloomberg Businessweek.  The article, The Hotel Amenities Arms Race, describes amenities at various hotels across the globe with the kicker:  “Properties old and new are getting creative to lure business travelers.”

The Pool at the Qaryat Al Beri Hotel in Abu Dhabi

At first blush, it sounds interesting.  I have an international job, and I like to travel.  We love reading the articles, for example, in American Express’ Departures, even though we might never be able to go to some of those places.  But the article completely misses the mark by providing incredibly useless information about locations that don’t really attract their share of “business travelers.”

The article cites amenities in places which global travelers frequent, such as London, New York, Hong Kong, Sydney and Paris.  Sounds good.  But it also includes hotels in Hangzhou, Marrakech, Majorca, Capri, and Kathmandu.  These are certainly very interesting places, but are not prime business locations.

The article cites amenities such as the best points program (Starwood), business center (Park Hyatt Sydney), room service (Chambers Hotel, Manhattan), and gym (La Mamounia in Marrech) — things in which a business traveler is interested.  But, the “amenities” designed to “lure” the business traveler also include a spa, bathroom, wine list, sporting venue, and golf trip.  Just how is the Meydan Hotel in Dubai “luring” me there because it has a rooftop pool that allows me to swim and watch horse racing at the same time?

It’s possible people like Larry Ellison or Richard Branson would be “lured” to these places, but even they probably focus on business when they travel and certainly choose locations based on business, not based on amenities.

The Punta Tragara on Capri: Will Your Company Cover $2,300 per Night For This View?

The article, of course, doesn’t list prices.  No worries.  I looked a few of them up for you.  If you are like me, they exceed your company’s hotel expense policy maximums by quite a bit:

  • $2,300 per night at the Punta Tragara in Capri to get the same view shown at right.
  • $714 per night including breakfast at La Residencia on Majorca, where, according to the article, you can ride a donkey through a forest to have a picnic of homemade foods.
  • $580 per night for a basic room at the Amanfayun Resort in Hangzhou, where, apparently, the spa is to-die-for.
  • $510 per night for a basic room at the La Mamoudia in Marrakech.
  • $231 per night for a basic room at the Qaryat Al Beri in Abu Dabi, where you get a temperature-controlled, saltwater infinity pool (that’s the photo towards the top of this post).

So, in summary, thanks to Bloomberg Businessweek, I know about some intriguing amenities (that few have time for on business trips) at hotels (that my company won’t and shouldn’t pay for) in specific cities (many of which almost no one travels to for business).

Please don’t say “you’re welcome.”

The Hotel Amenities Arms Race

Hey! Steven Slater! Your 15 Minutes Are Up. Go Away!

By now most of you probably have read about Steven Slater, the Jet Blue flight attendant who this past Monday, upon deciding he was fed up with his job, opened the door to the airplane he was on, pulled the emergency chute, slid down and drove away.  Oh – and he was arrested hours later at his home.  Oh – and he stopped on his way out of the plane to grab a beer.

Now, two days later, if you Google “Steven Slater,” you find an article on People.com and on TMZ.com.  The article at People.com is “in his own words” and says Slater has developed a “cult following.”  I guess this guy has made the big time, because TMZ has multiple articles and has a “separated at birth” comparison to the actor who played Gunther on Friends.  There is even a “Ballad of Steven Slater.” In one Twitter post I saw “Steven Slater” used as a verb, as in “I have to go all Steven Slater now.”  You’ve made it when your name becomes a verb, haven’t you?

Go Away! Please, Just Go Away!

Bobby – love the podcast since the very first one, love the blog, big supporter of flight attendants, but this post is just wrong.  Mr. Slater is really your hero?  We need to talk, and this is not a short conversation.

I have not celebrated this guy at all, and I wish he would just go away.  Each time I hear his name, a small amount of vomit appears in my mouth.

Here’s the thing.  Steven Slater is getting publicity for quitting his job, leaving his colleagues to pick up the pieces and, oh, – BREAKING THE LAW.  He is charged with criminal mischief, reckless endangerment and trespassing.  And we are praising this guy and looking up to this guy?

There are probably very few people on the planet that can claim they’ve like their job every single day and have never considered just quitting on the spot and telling their boss off.  My guess is that many people do follow through, and many people did on Monday, just like Slater.  But, most people don’t, and most people that do don’t BREAK THE LAW, leave people stranded, and gleefully flee the scene.  As I see it, there’s no difference between this and a police officer or fireman or member of the military deserting their posts.  Would we celebrate any of them?  I think not.

I will offer a little sympathy to Slater, for I travel a lot and have seen absurdly rude passengers.  But, I’m not about to excuse him for what he did.  He chose his job.  He could have quit at any time and not endangered passengers and not BROKEN THE LAW.

So – now is the time for Steven Slater to slink back into his New Jersey home and just go away.  I don’t care, and I hope the American public quickly realizes that they shouldn’t care either.  (A New York Daily News poll suggests they recognize him for what he is.)

If Steven Slater is lucky, really lucky, he may become the answer to a trivia question some day.  In my eyes, that may be all he’s worth.

Airline Fees That Could Make A Difference

In yesterday’s New York Times, Susan Stellin has an excellent article about airline fees.  Among other things, Stellin points out how many of the fees that exist are set at levels that exceed a reasonableness test.  For example, ticket change fees, now as high as $150 for domestic tickets, are much higher in today’s online world, than they were in the days of paper tickets.  The effort to change an electronic ticket would not seem to justify a larger fee.

I don’t have a problem with airlines charging fees to offset costs that they incur due to passenger behavior.  For example, airlines have charged for a third piece of luggage or overweight luggage for as long as I can remember.  These fees always made sense to me, because airlines let you bring on two bags already.  More bags could mean more fuel and an added cost.  Those that wanted the plane to carry the weight of their extra luggage should foot some of the cost.  Now that most airlines charge for any bags, this fee is nearly a thing of the past.

I don’t have a problem with airlines charging fees for “extras,” such as food on very short flights, headphones or even premium meals.  If you want better service or more amenities, sometimes you have to pay.  I would include fees to board early in this bucket.

Where I have a problem is when airlines charge for things that make no sense.  Stellin feels this way about stand-by fees, and I agree.  If I am willing to wait in the hopes of getting a seat that would otherwise be empty, why does an airline have to charge?  The plane is flying anyway, with or without me.  If I get on, you have a seat open on the later flight.  If I don’t, then you have done just enough work to put me on the list, nothing more.

Fees should be used directly to influence behavior to benefit the airlines and other passengers.  If you raise the stand by fee, fewer passengers will fly stand-by.  If you increase fees for checked bags, then fewer people will check bags.  With that in mind, here are airline fees I’d like to see put in place immediately that, if enforced, would end stupidity and rudeness and make things flow faster.  By making things flow faster, planes would leave on time, customers would be happier, and the airlines would be happier and more profitable.

If You Don't Have Your ID Out at the Checkpoint, You Pay a Fee Under My Proposal

  1. $50 if you can’t figure out how to swipe your credit card or passport in the ticketing kiosk. Come on!  Push the credit card in and pull it out.  It’s not that hard.
  2. $25 if you do not have your identification out of your pocket before you hand the TSA agent your ticket. You have just stood in line for 15 minutes watching each person show identification to the TSA agent, but it didn’t occur to you to have your ID ready?
  3. $100 if you have to ask the TSA whether water is allowed through security. I am reminded of the TSA agents who shout, “Ladies and gentlemen, water is a liquid.”
  4. $150 if you hang around the boarding area before your row or group is called such that people can’t tell if you are waiting in line or not. Frequent flyers call these people lice.  Just stay seated.
  5. $25 if you try to board a plane before your group or row is called. Listen to the gate agent.  Ask a fellow passenger if you need to.   You aren’t special.
  6. $50 if you have frequent flyer status and try to cut the line after general boarding starts. You know what?  You missed your chance.  You aren’t special either.  Back of the line.
  7. $75 for using an overhead above someone else’s seat when yours is empty – paid directly to the passenger whose space you took. If only.
  8. $75 for not heeding a flight attendant’s request to put one bag in the overhead and one under your seat and, instead, putting both bags above your seat. Again, you aren’t special.  You are one of many travelers on that flight.
  9. $150 for putting both bags up top, hoping space will stay available and not removing one when the flight attendants say there is no more space and ask again. These people are really quite special, but not in a good way.
  10. $50 for running up the aisle upon landing and not waiting patiently to disembark. I’ve written about this before.  This one boggles my mind.  Where are they going?
  11. $100 for stopping right at the end of the jet-way upon exiting to get your bearings. When you do this, you hold up the line.  Get yourself clear of the gate, and then stop to look around.  You know you are in an airport.  You aren’t lost.

Lastly, I’d add two new baggage fees:

  • $100 per bag (in addition to regular checked baggage fees), for any carry-on bag that makes it on the plane, doesn’t fit in an overhead bin or beneath the seat, and has to be checked.
  • $150 per bag (in addition to regular baggage fees) for any bag checked by a passenger who ignores the flight attendant’s warning that “there is no more overhead space” and continue down the aisle with their bag.

All of this is easily administered, as the airlines have our credit card on file.

Unfortunately, it makes too much sense to implement.

One Traveler’s Ranking of Las Vegas Casinos

During our Las Vegas trip a few weeks back (see this post and this post), I visited 12 different hotel casinos.  There were several that I didn’t visit this time that I have visited in the past and know well.  I do not like all of them, and my like or dislike has nothing to do with whether I won or lost money.  This post includes my thoughts on the ones I know and a final ranking.  If you don’t see a Casino (i.e., Rio, Hard Rock, TI), it’s because I haven’t spent any time there recently.

Full-disclosure – I am a slot player.  As such, here’s what I want in the casinos I go to and what forms the basis of my ranking:

  • Newer slot machines and newer poker machines
  • A floor plan I can navigate
  • Light
  • High ceilings
  • Bathrooms are easy to find
  • Frequent drink offers from waitresses
  • Some level of winning – I don’t have to win big or every time, but don’t eat my money without giving something back.

Newer Slot Machines and Newer Poker Machines

Three Best — Aria, Palazzo, Wynn.

Three Worst — Luxor, Monte Carlo, New York-New York

Casinos need to keep up with the times.  If I can visit a casino after one year and find the same machines in the same spot, I think that’s bad.  Newer machines have larger screens, so I don’t want to see the smaller ones any longer.  Lastly, I’d like to see casinos keep up with trends:  machines with more than one screen, machines with respins, and newer theme machines.  This year’s new themes are Sex and the City, Amazing Race, Lord of the Rings, and the Monkees.

A Floor Plan I Can Navigate

Three Best — Palazzo, Wynn, Palms

Three Worst — New York-New York, Planet Hollywood, Caesar’s

Please make your casinos big, square and open, with easy-to-find exits.  I can never find the exit at New York-New York.  I get lost in Caesar’s – really.  PH is just a mess with a big circular area with the down escalators to the buffet in the middle.  Yuk.

Light

Three Best — Aria, Palazzo, Palms

Three Worst — Luxor, Monte Carlo, Caesar’s

Back in the day, casinos had no windows and doors were sealed so no light could get in.  No longer.  I want real light from the outside coming in.  The Palms is a bit like the casinos on Native American reservations I’ve seen in Minnesota and Arizona, with big entry ways that carry light in from the parking lot.  Luxor, Monte Carlo and Caesar’s are old school.  The casinos are deep inside the building with no light at all.

High Ceilings

Three Best — Aria, New York-New York, Palazzo

Three Worst — Flamingo, Monte Carlo, Palms

High ceiling for me equals comfort.  I don’t want to feel claustrophobic.  As much as I dislike New York-New York, the ceilings there can’t get much higher.  On the other hand, the ceilings at Monte Carlo are so low that I think the little black “eyes in the sky” hit people on the head as they walk by.

Bathrooms are Easy to Find

Three Best — Palms, Venetian, Wynn

Three Worst — Aria, Flamingo, Harrah’s

Honestly, I had trouble coming up with three best here.  Let me make a special shout out to the Palms, with very clearly market restrooms with directional signs.  Good for them.  As far as Aria, Flamingo and Harrah’s – I’ve been home 10 days, and I’m still looking for the bathroom at all three places.

Frequent Drink Offers from Waitresses

Three Best — Aria, Palms, Wynn

Three Worst — MGM, New York-New York, Planet Hollywood

Kudos to Aria here.  I was approached at least once every 10 minutes and asked for a drink.  On the other hand, I played over an hour in the same spot at PH and MGM and wasn’t asked once.

Some Level of Winning

Three Best — Flamingo, Harrah’s, MGM

Three Worst — Caesar’s, New York-New York, Palms

I come not to praise Caesar’s, but to curse it.  I could win once, couldn’t I?  Just a few bells or bonus games?  Say what you will about Flamingo and Harrah’s, but I win there.  I won this trip, the trip before that, and the trip before that.

Final Ranking

  1. Wynn
  2. Aria
  3. Palazzo
  4. Harrah’s
  5. Flamingo
  6. Venetian
  7. Mirage
  8. Mandalay Bay
  9. Palms
  10. Bellagio
  11. Encore
  12. MGM
  13. Luxor
  14. Planet Hollywood
  15. Monte Carlo
  16. Caesar’s

One last note – we have been up to Fremont Street and into some of the casinos up there, like the Golden Nugget.  They have an entirely different feel.  They are small, cramped, less glitzy and more smoky.  Some say that you can win up there, but we didn’t notice anything appreciably different.  Because of the large number of casinos on Fremont Street, I excluded them from the rankings.  They would be towards the bottom anyway.

Trip Report – Aria Hotel and Casino at City Center in Las Vegas

Tuesday night, Mrs. Spidey and I returned home from four nights at the Aria Hotel & Casino at City Center in Las Vegas.  We arrived on Friday evening and left on Tuesday afternoon.  I posted already about our discovery of the Buffet of Buffets, so I won’t rehash that here.  In this post, I’ll stay focused on the hotel itself.

Our Room

We stayed in a Corner Suite on the 8th floor.  We were disappointed by the low floor, but that was actually better than their first proposal of the 5th floor.  I think we’ve learned our lesson about arriving at 7pm on a Friday evening in the summer.  Most of the high floors were already taken.

The Corner Suites are local at the far ends of the hallways – literally as far as you can walk, a good three to four minutes from the elevators.  They are 920 square feet and consist of a small entry way, a powder room, a sitting room, a bedroom, and a bathroom.

The sitting room had a small bar area that included both the mini-bar with items to purchase and any empty fridge for your own water.  Be careful, as this is one of those mini-bars where just lifting an item can result in a charge.  Examine your bill carefully, as we were billed for some chocolate almonds we never ate.  We used the mini-fridge to store a 12-pack of Diet Coke we bought at a CVS just out on the Strip.  The sitting room also has a desk, a couch and chair, and what appeared to be about a 50-inch HDTV.  The bedroom had a king-sized bed and a smaller HDTV.  The bathroom had two sinks, separate shower and tub, and a separate commode, which included a “washlet” toilet.  More on that in a later post.  There is also a television in the bathroom.

The Sitting Room in the Aria Corner Suite 8125

One of the room’s signatures is the way the curtains, lights, temperature and television are all controlled by a master handheld at the side of the bed and on the television.  Curtains and lights can also be controlled on the wall in several locations.  We found this interesting, but not the easiest system to use.  The curtain buttons on the walls are not labeled.  As a result, it’s not clear which control controls which curtain until you see what moves when you press a button.  In addition, the controls on the television remote are a bit sticky.  Sometimes you click up or down to go to another item and sometimes you click sideways.

The Room Controls on the Bedroom TV

The other signature is the floor to ceiling windows of the Corner Suite.  Although our view was more limited from the eighth floor, the windows and views didn’t disappoint.  There were great views from bedroom, bathroom, and sitting room.

The Tub in Aria's Corner Suite with a View of the Strip

The View from Corner Suite Bedroom Including the City Center Tram and the Rio

Because we had a suite, we were given newspapers every morning, and the wireless internet was free for up to four devices.  We had two laptops and an iPhone connected.  If you are in a regular room, the WiFi costs $15 per day.  Remember this when you compare rates.

Things we liked – separate sinks, a desk outside the bedroom, three televisions, the windows (for the view and for the light), the available mini-fridge, the ease of connecting to WiFi, the 2:30pm checkout time upon request, the quality of the housekeeping, and the washlet toilet.

Things we didn’t like — the pillows (too smushy and not enough), the slippery floor of the shower, the complexity of the electronic controls, and the slow draining sinks..

The Casino

Mrs. Spidey and I play machines, not tables.  From what we saw there was plenty of variety among the tables, and I clearly saw $10 blackjack tables mid-day.  The video poker machines were relatively basic and standard.  We saw few of the newer machines that allow multiple bets and multiple hands.  The slot machines did seem to be among the newer machines, including Amazing Race machines, Monopoly machines, and Sex and the City machines.  Compared to other hotels we visited, the Aria Casino definitely has a newer feel to it and, in that way, is like the Bellagio, Wynn and Palazzo.  Places like Monte Carlo, Harrah’s and the Flamingo have a much cheaper, outdated feel.  Mrs. Spidey turned $100 into $300 on dollar video poker.  I won periodically on the slots, but Mrs. Spidey was the winner in the family.

While you are in the casino, don’t forget to sign up and use an MGM Mirage Players Club card (now called M Life), even if you only play machines.  We played for four days and ended up getting a combined $23 in free play and $50 off our bill.  Get the card, play, and then visit the desk to ask for the comps.  They won’t come automatically.

The Pool and Spa

The Aria pool is nothing fancy.  There are two pools there, plus the Liquid Pool, which explodes on the weekend with a young crowd.  I have not seen so many people in such a small wading pool.  There appeared to be enough lounge chairs and plenty of umbrellas at the main pools.  It was not difficult to find a waitress, and there were cups and a jug of ice water for anyone to have.

We visited the spa/gym twice.  Each visit was $30, but there is a 3 days for $80 deal as well.  The $30 gives you access to the gym and the locker room areas.   The gym had plenty of weights and cardio equipment.  The treadmill on which I ran had an adapter for my iPhone.  Once I plugged in my iPhone, I was able to listen to music or play videos from my iPhone on the television screen.  The machine was also compatible with the Nike+ iPod app and automatically recorded my workout.

The spa was very comfortable and well-appointed, second in my opinion only to the Wynn.  The spa has a sauna, a steam room, three hot whirlpools and one cold plunge pool.  There are ample towels and the robes are comfortable.  There are plenty of grooming supplies from Q-tips to disposable razors to shaving cream to hand lotion.  Both times I worked out, I spent more time up in the locker area than in the gym, relaxing on a lounge chair near the whirlpool.  In fact, I wrote the Sunday post about George Steinbrenner on my iPhone sitting there.

There are two other pluses to the gym.  First, with access you get unlimited drinks – they have waters, juices, and sodas – plus fruit, tea and coffee.  Second, there is a co-ed porch overlooking the main pool.  On this porch is a small pool and a few chairs.  In theory, you could pay your $30 every day to have access to this porch.

All-in-all, I was very impressed with the gym.  It is very relaxing and a great way to stay out of the casino or, in my case, out of the heat.

I should also mention that I visited the salon for a shave.  I had never been shaved with a straight razor before.  The shave cost $75 including tip, but included facial treatments beyond the shave.  Vinnie, the barber, was very friendly and conversational, although I worried about answering him when the straight razor was moving down my neck.

The Location

City Center is located between Bellagio and the Monte Carlo, just across the street from Planet Hollywood.  You can walk inside through to the Monte Carlo and take a tram over to the backside of the Bellagio.  Aria is set back a bit, however, even in comparison to some of the other hotels.  It was about a ten minute walk from the lobby out to Las Vegas Boulevard.  We walked through the Crystals mall out to an overpass between the still under construction Cosmopolitan and Planet Hollywood.  Initially, we had some trouble finding the exit, as Crystals is still being built out, and store construction creates a few dead ends.  Once we figured it out, we were fine.  Whether we took the tram to the Bellagio or walked out to the road, it was a bit of a trek from hotel to street.  That much said, it’s right in the middle of the strip and, even in the heat, we had an easy walk back from the Palazzo one night after seeing Jersey Boys and eating dinner at Dos Caminos.

Bottom Line

The Aria is probably our second favorite hotel now behind the Wynn, although, for comparison, we’d like to stay at Bellagio one more time when the pool is open.  We feel like the Wynn’s basic room (often going for $99 in the summer mid-week) is sufficiently large with floor to ceiling windows, that we don’t need to pay for a suite to be comfortable.

Despite our challenges with the electronics, the room was indeed comfortable.  The pool was easily accessible, and we had no trouble finding machines we liked to gamble.  We only ate at the buffet and Todd English’s Public Urban Bar, but they were very good.  If we had to do it again, we’d get there a bit earlier to get a higher floor.

Please Don’t Do This on My Plane Ride

For this week’s travel post, I thought I might run down a few things that I highly recommend you don’t do on an airplane.  I’ve traveled for every job I’ve ever had.  For some, I’ve traveled every week.  I’ve been packed in the center seat between New York and London on a 747 and in first class on a 777 from Berlin to DC.  I’m not afraid, like some, to fly Southwest and remember to get my A boarding pass 24-hours early.

Don’t Show Me Your Bare Feet

I have no issue with people wearing sandals, flip-flops or other shoes without socks.  I wear flip-flops almost exclusively from May through September, except when I’m at work.  I don’t mind if you slip them off on the plane.  I just don’t want to know.  Don’t cross your legs and put your foot up at armrest level, almost touching me.  And please, please don’t put your bare foot on the armrest when you sit behind me, so that your toes brush against my elbow.  Yuk!  I borrowed the photo at right from my friends at upgrd.com, who experienced something very similar last fall.

Please Don't Do This!

Don’t Bring Smelly Food on Board

Seriously.  No one wants to smell your tuna or your Italian sub.  You don’t think we can?  Bring a PB&J, or chips.  It was awful to smell Lynch Parsons’ liverwurst in 2nd grade, and it’s awful to smell your stuff now.  At least in 2nd grade, I could sit on the other side of the cafeteria.  I can’t move when I’m on a plane.

Don’t Eat Food with Disposable Parts

I wasn’t sure how to name this.  I once sat on a plane from St. Louis to Orlando in an aisle seat.  Right across the aisle from me, a guy ate sunflower seeds the entire trip.  He put one in his mouth, bit it, reached into his mouth to grab the shell, and put the shell on a napkin on his tray.  I appreciate his neatness, but after 45 minutes he had a nice large pile of wet sunflower seed remnants.  It was disgusting.  Don’t do this.  Don’t bring peanuts or anything like this.

Don’t Expect Your Child to Entertain Themselves

I am constantly amazed at the people who travel with kids that bring nothing to keep the kids entertained.  No coloring books.  No toys.  No books to read.  No DVD player.  No nothing.  When was the last time a 5-year-old sat still for an hour?  Never.  As a result, they kick the back of my seat or cry a lot.  I’m a parent of two, and my kids have flown since they were in baby carriers.  My wife, bless her, always prepared for every trip with stuff.  Once, we flew from Baltimore to Honolulu for my sister’s wedding via Detroit and San Francisco.  My kids were 4 and 1 1/2.  My wife packed wrapped presents to be open about every 90 minutes.  My kids didn’t bother anyone.

Don’t Hog the Arm Rest or Think You Can Keep It Up the Whole Trip

This is all about sharing.  You take the armrest for a bit, then I’ll take it, and so on.  I can’t stand it when someone plops down, puts their arms on the armrests,  and doesn’t move for two hours.  Meanwhile, my left or right arm is cramping by the time we land.  (By the way, my wife vehemently disagrees with this.  She thinks the person in the middle seat gets both their armrests as “compensation” for taking that seat.) And for those of you slightly larger that don’t want the armrest down – nope.  You have your space, and I have mine, and the armrest separates that space.  If I sit down, and the armrest isn’t down, it goes down immediately.

Don’t Put Your Baggage Over My Seat, When Your Seat is 20 Rows Back

Your baggage goes over your own seat.  That’s why there’s overhead space above your seat.  The overhead space over my seat is mine.  I’ve actually stopped people from using my space, when I see them do it.  I’m sorry you can’t carry the bag all the way back.  Next time, get a seat farther up front.

Don’t Talk the Whole Trip Behind Me or In Front of Me

I can usually control the conversation in my row.  Sometimes I’m in a talking mood, and sometimes I’m not.  I get frustrated however, when the people in rows around me talk incessantly the whole time.  Rows in coach aren’t that far apart.  Voices carry.  Be sensitive.  Two hours of non-stop chatter gets to me.

Don’t Play Your DVD Without Headphones

You can afford a DVD player but not headphones?  Nothing much more for me to write here.

Don’t Rush Up the Aisle When the Plane Lands

This one kills me.  Where the hell are you going?  Three rows make a difference?  I am amazed when this happens on international flights.  People run up the aisle to save four rows, and they have to go through passport control anyway.  You exit a plan row by row, just like on a school bus.  Be considerate.  When I see someone standing above me that I know came from a few rows back, I stare them down and make sure I get out when it’s my turn.  Sometimes, I’ll even block to let row mates out.

This has been a public service announcement from all the frequent flyers to you infrequent flyers.  Thanks for reading.

Royal Caribbean’s Freedom of the Seas: Passenger Tips – Part Two

In last week’s Travel Wednesday post, I detailed five tips for future travelers on Royal Caribbean’s Freedom of the Seas.  My family and I spent a week on the Freedom of the Seas in late May and early June, traveling to Haiti, Grand Cayman, Jamaica and Cozumel.

This week, I conclude my list, with an additional six tips.

1. Get up early if you want lounge chairs near the pool on the days at sea

Despite a “guest conduct policy” that prohibits saving chairs and signs that say attendants will remove personal items left on an unoccupied chair for more than 30 minutes, we never saw any issues with saving chairs.  However, we did see many people disappointed by 9:00am when the only chairs they could find were either in the shade or on deck 12, one level above the pool, where the wind is fierce.  Getting there early is even more critical if you want chairs by the adult pool.  These are premium seats for the quiet and for the chair cushions which aren’t available at other pools.

The Adult Pool on the Freedom of the Seas

Our cruise had two days at sea, and on both days we got up around 8:00 and put out towels, magazines, sun tan lotion and other markers to stake our claim on two lounge chairs near the adult pool.  By the time we finished breakfast and made it up to our seats around 9:30, all the chairs were long gone.  No one had disturbed our stuff, and we settled right in.  We recommend making friends with the people near you, so that you can protect each other’s chairs when you step away for food, a massage, or to gamble.

I’ve seen other reviews that suggest our behavior is revolting and mean-spirited.  Sorry.  I spent a lot of money on this vacation, and I got up early to get the seat I want.  If you want a better chair, get up earlier than me.

2.  Book your own excursions

We booked excursions in Jamaica and in Cozumel on our own, not through RC.  We found both excursions through Trip Advisor and found the reviews to be accurate. In one instance we had a better time and saved money, and in the other we did something that RC doesn’t offer.

On Jamaica, we booked a day-long tour that included climbing Dunn’s River Falls, a tubing trip down the river, and a stop for lunch.  Our guide, Phil Lafayette, kept us entertained with his stories and his narration of the surroundings.  When rain washed out the tubing trip, he took us to nearby areas for more sightseeing, and he reduced the cost.  The cost should have been $55 per adult and $45 per child under 11.  We found similar trips offered by RC that were double the price.  Finding Phil at the dock was easy, and we were one of seven or eight families that did the same thing.  (By the way, if you haven’t climbed Dunn’s River Falls and you are physically able to do so, I highly recommend it.)

On Cozumel, we participated in the Amazing Cozumel Race.  This is offered by Carnival, but not yet by RC, so we booked it ourselves.  We walked, swam, and ran 3.5 miles through and around downtown Cozumel in 90 minutes, moving from clue to clue as in the television show Amazing Race.  We finished third, behind a group of four 20-somethings and behind another family with older kids.  It was nearly 100 degrees, but, except for a bit of family bickering at the clues, we really enjoyed ourselves.  The race was inventive and challenging.  The cost for the four of us was $268.

3. Get private lessons on the Flowrider

The Flowrider lives up to expectations.  Located on deck 12 at the rear of the ship, the Flowrider is a “ride” in which water pulsating very fast up an incline provides resistance to allow “riders” to surf or boogie board.  As you might imagine, the lines get very long, especially during the days at sea.  At about five minutes per surfer or boogie boarder, it takes a while to get through the line.

For $60 per person, you can take private lessons on the Flowrider.  We signed our son up for surfing and our daughter up for boogie boarding.  At 9:00pm on the second night, they had one-on-one instruction in a group.  For example, my son was one of four surfers for the hour, but each time he was up, he worked directly with an instructor.  During the lessons, the surfers and boogie boarders can use the whole Flowrider each time, whereas during the day, the Flowrider is divided in half to allow more people to use it.  After the lessons, both kids qualified to attend “expert sessions” early in the morning when lines are shorter.  We can’t recommend these lessons enough.  Below is video from our kids lessons.

4. Get a “cabana chair” in Haiti

Unfortunately, we found information lacking about RC’s private beach at Labadee, Haiti.  We checked for maps at guest services and asked around, but could learn almost nothing.  The head of the excursions desk on deck 5 knew zero!  I want to pass one thing on to you.

When you get off this ship, go straight and take the path almost as far as you can take it.  By walking straight and far, you come to a less rocky area, from which you can swim.  However, you will also find “cabana” chairs.  These are two normal chairs pushed under a half-moon, umbrella like cover that provides shade and a bit of privacy.  They are first-come, first-serve.  If you don’t care about swimming, then find some shade under a tree.  But, if you want to swim and want shade to relax, go directly for a cabana chair.

5. Return to the ship earlier than normal in Grand Cayman

Grand Cayman is a tender port.  This means that you go from ship to tender (a boat) to the shore.  At all other ports, you can just walk off the ship.  These tenders become natural bottleneck as they fill up with passengers and leave the dock.  The line quickly gets long and winds through the port area.  When the sun is hot and the line moves slowly, it’s no fun.  If we had to do it over again, we’d head back to the boat on the earlier side to avoid the lines and take advantage of quiet on board ship.

6. Depart on your own terms.

After going through departure, I have two tips.

First, don’t forget to fill out your departure times on a slip in the room.  We forgot and ended up in group 20, which was scheduled to leave at 8:30am.  We were in no rush, but 8:30 was just too late.  There is commotion all over the ship.  As a result, it’s nearly impossible to sleep late.  I recommend something around 7:30 or 7:45.  Remember to fill out your forms and leave on the earlier side.

Second, if you are antsy, you don’t have to wait for your number to be called to leave.  The departure group numbers are the order in which luggage is delivered to the baggage area.  It is not a limiting factor on when you can leave the ship.  If you are in group 20 and want to leave with group 1, you can.  However, you are stuck in the baggage area until your bags come out.  Although we were group 20, we departed when they called group 15, and only  had to wait a short time for our bags.  Not one person asked us what our group number was except the person directing us to the right luggage carousel.

I hope this week’s and last week’s tips are helpful.  If you have other questions, post a comment and I’ll answer as best I can.

Royal Caribbean’s Freedom of the Seas: Passenger Tips – Part One

In late May/early June, our family went on a one-week cruise on Royal Caribbean’s Freedom of the Seas.  The cruise left Port Canaveral in Florida and went to RC’s private beach in Labadee, Haiti, to Jamaica, to Grand Cayman, and to Cozumel.  There were also two days at sea.  We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves and recommended the cruise to families and couples.

Spidey on Labadee, Royal Caribbean's Private Beach on Haiti

The Freedom of the Seas is one of the Freedom Class of ships from Royal Caribbean and was the largest cruise ship in operations from its launch in 2006 until the Oasis of the Seas was launched in 2009.  The Freedom of the Seas has a capacity of 3,634 passengers and 1,300 crew.  It cost $800 million to build.

Rather that do a straight review (there are 412 such reviews at Cruise Critic), I thought I would share with you, over two posts, some tips for after you decide to take a cruise on this ship.  Let’s start with food, since that is often (always?) the central point of cruises:

1. Buy Bottles of Wine Not Individual Glasses

My colleague Mike told me about this before we left, and he was right.  Glasses of wine in the dining room can be expensive – in the $15 range.  However, if you know that you want wine every night and don’t mind the same wine for two nights or more in a row, buy a bottle.  At the end of the meal, your waiter marks the cork with your table number, takes it away, and then brings it back the next night for you to finish.  Since we had only two drinkers (my wife and I), this worked better than the RC Wine Plan, where the fewest number of bottles you can buy is five.  The per bottle cost of the Wine Plan is less than we paid, but we couldn’t have possibly drunk five bottles in a week.

2. Try the Buffet for Dinner

The food in the dining room is generally very good, and the service has a nice pace to it.  However, I urge you to try the buffet for dinner at least once.  After a long day in Cozumel, we decided to hit the buffet for dinner and were pleasantly surprised.  Before even considering the food, there are four clear pluses of the buffet:  1) you can wear whatever you want (no need for long pants), 2) you can eat as fast or as slow as you want, 3) you can try a lot more things, and 4) you get a great view up on the 11th floor, compared to the 3rd, 4th, or 5th floor views from the dining rooms.  We found the food to be of great variety and very tasty.  They had everything from sushi to Indian to pasta to burgers and pizza.  I had an ice cream sundae for desert.  It was a great way to start a relaxing evening.

3. Get the Early Dining Seating for Dinner

Yes, this tip may just reflect our preference, but 8:30pm is just too late for dinner for us.  If you get the 6:00pm seating, you can go as late as 6:30 and have no problems.  Since it takes at least 15 minutes to get your food, you are really eating at 6:45.  As far as the “My Time Dining,” which gives you flexibility:  we found that there was a lot of scrambling by those families to pick a time every day.  6:00pm dining also means you see the shows after dinner, which fit our schedule.

4. Get the Fountain Soda Package

This worked for us, but we are pretty big Diet Coke/Diet Pepsi drinkers.  The cost is $6 per day for adults and $4 per day for kids.  If you don’t buy the package, each soda is $1.50 plus 15% gratuity.  On the first day of the cruise, they offered the soda package at a discount, so I would wait to buy on board.  Unfortunately, there’s no self-serve soda, although I hear that’s coming.  Instead, you have to go to one of the bars and show your room key with a sticker that identifies you as having purchased the soda package.  We bought two – one for my wife and me and one for our two kids.  You could always flash someone else’s card with the sticker to get a soda, so sharing is definitely possible.  $6 per day = 4 sodas per day or 2 sodas per person, which is well below our normal drinking rate.  We certainly exceeded that and got our money’s worth.

That’s it for food tips.

Let me add one other tip and then save the rest for next Wednesday:

5. Prepare to be Disconnected

Royal Caribbean claims to have mobile phone service for those whose phones support GPRS.  However, I found the data service on my iPhone to be very spotty and completely unavailable for the last day or so.  I could make calls, in theory, but any data service from email to  texting to Twitter just didn’t work most of the time.  In my case, work paid for the international service, but I would check your rates to see if it is even worth it.  As far as Internet, you can get access, but it is very expensive — $0.65 per minute or packages such as $150 for 500 minutes.  Those minutes go fast if you have two kids like mine that live on Facebook.  There are no newspapers on board, so the best you can do is CNN Headline News, which gets boring after a while.

Next week – tips on activities and excursions.

Pining for the Airbus 380

I’ve been very fortunate in my life to travel quite a bit internationally, and I have to admit that I’ve become a bit of a snob when it comes to class of travel on international flights.  I can no longer sit in coach.  I have to sit in business class, which my company allows me to do when I fly overseas.

My six overseas trips in the past year have been on the Boeing 777 aircraft.  Here’s some quick data about Continental Airlines’ 777 seats (considered average when compared to other airlines)  to explain why I’ve become a snob over business class:

  • Coach class — seats are 18.3″ wide, recline back 5″ and the distance between seats is 31″
  • Business class — seats are 22″ wide, recline to fully flat and the distance between seats is 60″

Add to this data the improved food and the lack of a middle seat, and I think it is clear why once you’ve had business class on a 777 you don’t go back to coach.

As nice as the 777 is, I would really like to fly on the new Airbus 380, which seems far more luxurious than 777 cabins, especially in first class.  As I write, only five airlines operate A380’s:  Air France, Emirates, Lufthansa, Singapore and Qantas.  There are a total of 31 flying now, but another 200 or so have been ordered.  These are full double-decker planes holding about 555 passengers in a three-class configuration, which is 33% more than a 747.  The A380 can hold as many as 840 passengers in an all-coach configuration.

Even with the increased space of an A380, the airlines still cram folks in coach with a 3-4-3 across seat configuration.  Business class is still 2-2-2.  I ask you, where do you want to sit?

The Double Bed in First Class on a Singapore A380

For me, however, the real attraction to the A380 is the luxury in first class, which most of us will never get to experience.  On many planes, first class now includes private cabins, with the ability to push two “cabins” together to create a full-size bed in air.  Some airlines have showers on board, bars, and certainly extravagant video systems and food.

The LA Times travel section recently posted a photo gallery comparing the various airlines’ seats and luxuries of their Airbus 380.  I find it fascinating – even the improved seats and services in coach.

So – you and the significant other want to take advantage of the A380’s double bed as you fly, say, from Singapore to London this summer?

Singapore Airlines will only charge you $29, 245 per person round trip.

To answer the question I’m sure you are asking – yes, they take American Express, Visa or Cash.

Disney Tips from An Old Pro

As our friends and relatives know, the Spidey family spends a lot of time at Disney parks.  In fact, we were just at Disney World in Orlando two weeks ago.  My guess is that we have visited at least one Disney location (multiple parks) each year for the past 15 years.  This includes the parks in Florida, California, France and Japan.  Hong Kong is the only global Disney park which we have not visited, a fact which just kills our 12-year old daughter because she wants to complete the cycle.

Yes, we enjoy Disney, and our kids do as well.  However, our decision 13 years ago to buy 250 points from the Disney Vacation Club is what really allows us to increase our frequency of visits.   If you like Disney and haven’t looked into DVC, you should.  In short, it’s a time share based on points.  Each unit, from efficiencies to three bedroom units, is assigned a point value based on the size of the unit and time of the year.  Big units at Christmas cost more points than smaller units mid-February.  The best thing is that every unit except efficiencies comes with full-kitchen and washer/dryer.  If you are a parent, you know how important that can be.  (As a reference point, those 250 points would cost about $28,000 before any closing costs and a monthly maintenance fee of about $110.)

Spidey in the Magic Kingdom

Over the years with our many visits, we have become, dare I say, experts in visiting Disney World, and our ideas and tips apply to other geographies.  Responding to a tweet request the other day about tips for Disney gave me the idea for this post.  Here are 10 things you should know as you plan your Disney trip.

1. Stay on Property.  I feel strongly about this, even though it can be more expensive.  Staying on property has several advantages, whether you stay at the Grand Floridian or the Pop Resort:

  • You get access to the Disney Transportation System.  This allows you to travel anywhere by bus from close to your room.
  • You can charge food and gifts in the parks to your room, thus keeping things on one bill.
  • You can buy goods in the park and have them delivered to your room.
  • You can use your room key as your park ticket (see #2 below).
  • You get free parking if you rent a car (see #4 below).
  • It is much easier to make Advanced Dining Reservations (see #5).
  • You can take advantage of early arrival days and late stay days (see #6).

2. Get Your Tickets from AAA. If you buy tickets at AAA you get the best price, but you also get a pass to Diamond parking, which is just behind disabled parking at each park.  This can be very helpful if you can’t get to the parks first thing in the morning (see #6).  This does mean, however, that you won’t use your room key as your park card and will have to hold on to two separate cards while in the parks.

3. Rent a Car. Trust me on this one.  Disney will tell you that you don’t need one.  I’m telling you that you will.  Some days, it’s just easier to drive than take the Disney Transportation System.  If you stay on property (#1) and buy tickets at AAA (#2), then parking doesn’t cost and you can park closer to the entrance than normal.  As good as the Disney Transportation System is, many routes are not direct and waiting for a bus, especially at park opening and closing, can be painful with tired children.  We normally stay at The Boardwalk, and the only Disney transportation from Boardwalk to MGM is via boat.  So – we normally drive.  It’s just faster and more convenient.

5. Reserve Meals Early.  Sit-down meals and character dinners fill up quickly.  Yes, you can wait stand-by, but it can take a while.  As best as I know, there is also no penalty for canceling a reservation at the last minute.  Guests staying on Disney property can make reservations both on the phone and online and can make up to 10 reservations per day.  Guests staying off property can only make one reservation per day.  I recommend getting familiar with the possible dining options and setting an alarm to remind yourself to make reservations.

6. Go Early and Stay Late. I highly recommend getting to the park early.  Perhaps this is obvious, but lines are shortest just after the parks open.  Our family gets to the parks early, gets on the rides and attractions we most want, and then bugs out to relax by the pool.  Then, we return in the evenings, after other youngsters and parents have pooped out and left, and ride all the rides again.  We avoid all parks in the middle of the day.

7. Plan Ahead and Stick to the Plan. We really believe in this.  Familiarize yourself with each park and decide the order in which you will visit the rides.  For example, know before Magic Kingdom opens that the family is heading right to Dumbo or Space Mountain or Haunted House.  I recommend getting The Unofficial Guide to Disney World for Florida.  This is the book that convinced us to make a plan.  It also provides readers with sample plans based on who you are:  singles, couples, families with young kids, families with older kids, etc.  Part of this plan must be utilizing Fast Passes to your advantage (see #8).

Spidey in Animal Kingdom

8. Use Fast Passes.  Fast Passes allow riders to use a separate waiting line to get on a ride from those waiting “stand-by.”  Machines are near specific rides to dispense the Fast Passes.  They are real pieces of paper.  The Fast Passes give you a specific hour window when you can return and get on the ride without waiting or with a very short wait.  Individuals can only hold one Fast Pass at a time or for a maximum of two hours.  It is a must to build getting Fast Passes into your plan (see #7).  Here are a few things we’ve learned about Fast Passes:

  • Give all your group’s tickets to one person so that he/she can run off to get Fast Passes for everyone.  This really works if one of your group doesn’t want to go on one ride or is willing to sacrifice for the group.
  • Get as many Fast Passes as you can, taking advantage of the rules that allow more than one Fast Pass when the time is more than two hours in the future.  At one point last trip, we each held two Fast Passes for Space Mountain, a Fast Pass for Splash Mountain, and a Fast Pass for Buzz Lightyear.
  • You don’t have to return exactly when the Fast Pass indicates.  You can return any time after the window opens.  For example, if your Fast Pass says you can ride Splash Mountain from 3:30pm to 4:30pm, you can also ride at 6:00pm.  You just can’t ride at 3:00pm or the next day.

3. Use the Singles Line.  The singles line can be a beautiful thing.  Last trip, we used the singles line for Splash Mountain, for Space Mountain, for Everest Adventure, and for Test Track, and, except for Test Track, still got to sit together.  Remember, Space Mountain is individual seats anyway!  They use the singles line to fill up cars.  At Test Track the wait was 60 minutes, but we got on in 15 through the singles line.

9. Read Up in Advance.   There are so many good web sites with inside information and with discussion boards where people can answer every question imaginable:

10. Muster Up as Much Patience as Possible. Lines will be long.  Kids and spouses will be cranky.  You will go over budget.  A ride will break that you or your kids wanted to experience (while you are in line or while you are on it).  People will be rude.

Remember above all — Disney is the Happiest Place on Earth.