Monthly Archives: November 2013

Mistakes

Every once in a while, airlines or third-party booking companies will mispost flight prices creating what the travel community calls a “mistake fare”. In September, United accidentally posted all its fares for free, charging customers just $10 in taxes. On Saturday, Norwegian travel-booking site, wideroe.no, posted trans-atlantic flights without the fuel surcharges , resulting in fares from $150 to $300 for most cities in Europe between January and March.

Normally, these are the fares that you hit hard to book as many as you can. But with four weddings in January and February and a Round the World trip taking up all of March, I was able to book only on weekend to Milan in February for $150 roundtrip.

Needless to say wideroe.no was being hit ridiculously hard. I received my confirmation almost immediately after booking around 4:30pm, but when I went to bed around 2am, the flight still hadn’t been ticketed. I was hoping to wake up to a ticketed flight, instead I woke up to a cancellation. For foreign credit cards, wideroe.no needed to confirm the charges. They tried to confirm at 3:08am; at 5:20am, they cancelled the flights.

I was (and still am) pissed, not because I felt like I was wronged (I wasn’t), but because what went wrong was totally in my control to prevent. I obviously had to sleep and there’s no way I could have known they would cancel the flights so quickly, but knowing that if I’d simply responded to an email I’d be going to Milan for $150 is a pretty terrible feeling. The fact that I’d also booked it for three friends added up to a full on Sunday morning pity party.

With the knowledge I had before going to bed on Saturday, I’m not sure how I could have prevented this from happening, but one step I will take next time is calling my credit card company before purchasing something like this from a foreign site. I would probably have still received the fraud email and I would have probably still had the flight cancelled, but at least I know I could have done everything in my power to prevent it from happening.

Round the World: Who, Where, When…and Why?

I’m going around the world in March (and parts of February and April) and I’m trying to detail the whole ordeal. Here’s what I’ve got thus far:

Who, Where, When…and Why?
How?
Eye of the Storm
Choosing what to do (Part 1)
Immunizations
Dry Run to Rome

For those of you who don’t know, my friend, Mike Turner, and I are heading around the world February 28 through April 3. Here’s our full schedule:

New Zealand and Australia: February 28 – March 9
Seoul, South Korea: March 9–10
Kathmandu, Nepal and Bhutan: March 10–14
Tehran, Iran: March 16–19
Madagascar: March 20–25
Paris: March 25–27
Buenos Aires, Argentina: March 28 – April 2

I really want to take the time to detail the ins and outs of this trip; not only the actual traveling, but also the planning. I’m doing this mainly because I really enjoy writing about this kind of stuff, but secondarily I hope it helps people think with more specificity about these things. I’ve scoured blogs and Twitter feeds for broad information to help me specifically plan my trip. Similarly, I hope that you can take these broad strokes and plan your trip. It doesn’t have to be around the world, it doesn’t even have to be outside the country, but do something somewhere that you’re not used to.

So why this trip, why this itinerary and why right now? To be honest, why we chose this itinerary is intrinsically linked to the how, so I’ll get into that in later posts. Right now I want to focus on the other two.

Choosing to do the trip right now is more circumstance than actual planning. The original plan was to do it during November 2013 (so I’d be on it right now), but with work/life schedules, the amount of time it takes to earn points, and getting award availability for flights to each stop , March 2014 made more sense. I know “circumstances said so” is rarely a good answer, but for traveling, I found sometimes it’s the only answer.

When planning a trip, there’s always reasons as to when you’re planning it. Trips in college/high school were planned during summer months because that’s when you were free. Honeymoons are planned after weddings; Spring Break trips are planned during Spring Break; long weekend trips are planned on long weekends. Because of the way society works and the way the vast majority of us have structured our lives, we’ll always be planning trips, not when we want to, but because circumstances say so. I don’t mean that as depressing; it’s the tradeoff we make to have other things in our lives. I mean, what’s the alternative? Never get married because your wedding may be the same weekend as a good flight to the Maldives?

I want to wrap up with why we’re doing a Round-the-World trip. I’ve explained my ideology for travel and this kind of trip fits in perfectly with those ideas. Why this trip? Cost. Cost in money, cost in points, cost in time. It’s less costly to spend four days in Bhutan via an eight-hour flight from Seoul than two days there and two days back from the U.S.  It’s not possible to book a flight from the United States to Iran, but when you’re coming from Russia, it’s just another stopover. Why spend thousands of dollars (or hundreds of thousands of points) to fly to Madagascar from DC when you can go direct from Paris? Cost isn’t the most profound answer, but profundity doesn’t get you into first class.

It’s funny, but the who, where, when, and why may be the least interesting aspects of this whole thing. Taking the trip will obviously be the best part, but I’m really excited to share about the hows and the preparation. Stay tuned. There’s quite a bit more to come.

R.I.P. Things

Michael Lopp discussing his switch from Things:

How can I trust that I’m using the state of the art in productivity systems when I’m using an application that took over two years to land sync I could easily use? What other innovations are they struggling to land in the application? Why hasn’t the artwork changed in forever? What is that smell? That smell is stagnation.

His general take is spot on, but honestly I’m surprised by the timing. Cultured Code has promised a refresh later this year. I have enough dedicated to the ecosystem to give them that long.

This Is Not an iPad Review

As I’ve mentioned on Twitter, I’ve been trying to make a decision between Apple’s new iPads. In the past, this hasn’t been an issue: the first three years, there was only one in existence; last year, much to my surprise, the weight difference between the mini and the fourth-generation iPad made the call an easy one. But this year, with both products coming much closer together in features and weight, I’ve had to make a decision on which way to go.

I’m not entirely sure the value of iPad reviews, so I’m going to steer away from telling people what they should buy. From my experience, people use them in so many different ways that codifying what is valuable is probably impossible. You can compare between similarly functioning devices, but stating that “this is the iPad that everyone should buy”, kind of misses the point. What I can do is tell you what I value in an iPad and how I picked which one to use.

With no (or very little) choice in actual iPads previously, the only real decisions were in storage size and whether to go WiFi/Cellular or WiFi-only. Even these decisions are colored by the way you use it. I don’t store music, videos or photos on the actual device (instead, I rely on cloud storage solutions like iTunes Match, Netflix/Air Video/StreamNation and Flickr), so I always bought the lowest storage capacity. Similarly, I can tether the Internet connection from my phone to my iPad, so there was very little need to pay the extra money for a cellular-capable iPad.

These preferences changed this year. As most of you know (if you don’t, you soon will), I’m taking five weeks to travel around the world in March. When I travel, the only devices I bring are my iPhone and iPad; this means, that this iPad will be my main computer during that time. While I’m devising ways to swap out movies and offload trip photos, I’d rather err on the side of having too much storage. So, this year I’m going with a 32GB model.

As for cellular capability, there’s several reasons why it makes sense for me to go that way this time. First and foremost, some of you may have heard that T-Mobile is offering 200 MB of free data every month. The only catch is that you have to purchase the device outright as opposed to financing the device through T-Mobile (something I wouldn’t have done anyway). Second, for the first time, all iPads run on all carriers, so if I wanted to run it on my current AT&T plan, it’s as easy as swapping out the SIM card. Finally, since iPads are unlocked, when I travel abroad, I can buy a SIM card from a local carrier and gain Internet access abroad. Are these worth the $130 premium? For most people, probably not. But in tandem, they solve several problems that I may face this year.

So, having decided to go with a 32GB, cellular-capable model, the only remaining decision is whether to go with the mini or the Air.1 My gut reaction was to stay with the mini, especially since the only complaint I had with the device– the lack of a retina display– was rectified in this release. But, with weight being the reason I chose the mini over the fourth-generation iPad and the Air only weighing in at about a third of a pound heavier than mini, I thought it would be worth my time to seriously consider both devices.

Luckily, Apple has a fairly generous return policy: a full refund if the device is returned within 14 days. Also, with the Air debuting on November 1– before the new retina mini– I could sell my old mini and give myself a full two weeks to use the Air without being tempted to go back to the smaller device.

Today (November 15) marks the end of the two weeks with an Air. While I’ve realized that I do miss many things about a larger-screened iPad, with Tuesday’s surprise launch of the retina mini, I didn’t even hesitate; I returned the Air and jumped right back to the iPad mini.

My personal usage of the iPad tends towards reading: Instapaper, books, Twitter, RSS feeds, web browsing. But with this round-the-world trip, I realize that I will probably be doing quite a bit of movie watching, trip-report writing, and photo editing on long flights. In all honesty, that’s the only thing that made this decision truly difficult. For my money, the absolute best device for watching videos and looking at photos is a full-sized iPad. As far as touchscreen devices go, the full-size iPad is also the best for typing and photo editing. But, the two things I do the most on the iPad are best served by the mini.

Not to be cheeky, but the single thing I and everyone else does the most with the iPad is carry it. Whether I’m transporting it from room to room or country to country or simply holding it to look at the screen, the size and weight of an iPad is the single biggest factor in my decision. It fits in my back pocket for when I need to put it away for a second, it slips into the tiny pocket at the top of my travel backpack, it disappears into my bag with my work laptop; these and a thousand other instances are why weight was the deciding factor last year, but size is the deciding factor this year.

As I mentioned before, the biggest use of an iPad for me is reading. While size/weight may be my most important factor, it’s meaningless without the device performing well in other areas.2 All things being equal, reading on a mini is exactly the same as an Air; the quality of the screen and the distance I hold it from my face provide the exact same experience on both devices. When it comes down to it, the way I hold a mini while reading is much more comfortable for longer periods of time than the way I hold an Air.3

Final Thoughts

As the title states, this isn’t an iPad review; I’m not trying to convince you to buy one or the other or trying to compare all the features of these iPads and other tablets. I’m giving you a very specific set of things that I do and try to explain why the iPad mini makes more sense for me. It may seem like this was an easy decision, but for most, it certainly will not be. Don’t kid yourself here: these are the two best tablets on the market and you will be very happy no matter which one you buy.

  1. Apple’s recent naming conventions drive me crazy. Why is the A in Air capitalized, but the m in mini is not? Don’t even get me started on the s not being capitalized in the iPhone 5s
  2. If size/weight is the only factor, why not buy a piece of paper instead of a laptop?
  3. I recognize that some may say that what I’ve listed as two reasons is actually one (smaller size=smaller weight=better able to hold it to read). But for the same reason I don’t believe you can tout the larger screen size of the iPad as a feature, I think “smaller size/weight” and “easier to hold because it’s lighter” are distinct features. There’s nothing inherently better about a larger-sized iPad; there’s no instance where you’d rather be carrying an iPad Air in your bag than an iPad mini. In that state, both are simply taking up space and weight, so of course you’d choose the smaller/lighter version. The iPad Air’s larger screen has benefits when it’s on and being used, but when you’re transporting it from place to place, it doesn’t.

Trip Report: Los Angeles/Las Vegas

The Friday I left for the Bourbon Trail, my buddy, Jason, called me up to see if I could come to Vegas the next weekend; he was going for a conference and had a room at LVH (the old Las Vegas Hilton).

As opposed to some of my fellow travel friends, I’m much more of a planner; I like to book things well in advance. Not because I don’t like traveling on the spur of the moment (I do!), but because I despise overpaying for flights and hotels. If I’m going to spend a lot to get somewhere, I want plenty of value from it. I looked at my options for Vegas; most round trip flights were going for over $1000 at terrible times with terrible layovers. I was about to call Jason and let him know I couldn’t make it, when I realized the Cardinals were playing the Dodgers in the National League Championship Series the week before.

I quickly scanned my options and realized I could pay far less than $1000 if I went IAD (Washington Dulles) to LAX to LAS to DCA (Washington National). I’m not much of a first class person, but if I can get good value, I’ll fly it. United was running super saver direct flights from IAD to LAX, first class for 25,000 miles and I booked it immediately. The short jump from LAX to LAS could be had on Southwest for under $100 (or 4000 Southwest miles). But the problem child, as usual, was the flight from Vegas back to DC; nothing under $500 was available.

I’ll fully admit it: part of the reason I like to travel is because I enjoy the process of cheaply collecting miles and spending them frugally. Since sometimes the destination isn’t as important as how good of a deal I’m getting, I frequently make it this far in travel planning, only to scrap the whole trip. If I can’t get a deal on every aspect of travel, I’ll often just go somewhere I can. It’s at these decision points, you really learn what’s important you. Most of the time for me, it’s traveling cheaply. This time, it was spending some time with three friends, two of which I don’t get to see that often. I bit the bullet and booked the flight. (Don’t feel too bad for me, I’ve got a pool of Citi ThankYou Points that I reserve for just this situation; I only paid $10 out of pocket.)

I arrived back to DCA on Monday evening from the Bourbon Trail and quickly hurried home to see the Cardinals lose terribly and to pack for an early Tuesday morning flight to Los Angeles. This was my first time in LA and between working in the morning and the games at night, I wouldn’t have much time to see the city. My buddy Mike, who was also coming to Vegas, caught wind of my trip and flew out to LA to meet me.

While I’m not quite the scalper my uncle Bruce is (he never buys a ticket before going to the venue), I’ve gotten pretty good at playing chicken with Stubhub. If you’ve ever sold tickets on the erstwhile site, you’ll know that there’s an option to gradually decrease the price of the ticket as it gets closer to the start time. If you’re willing to wait until the last possible second (sometimes less than an hour before the game), you can get great tickets at pretty good prices. We ended up getting tickets to games four and five of the NLCS for about $80 per ticket, only a couple of rows behind home plate.

Mike and I hit a couple of other tourist spots in LA, including seeing The Nightmare Before Christmas at El Capitan, but with work and the games, Friday and Vegas quickly came upon us.

I’ve been to Vegas four times and now that I’ve left as a winner and a loser, the feeling is always the same: never again until next time. I enjoy blackjack and craps and that’s what I do. Jason wanted to see shows and that’s what he did. Mike and Bluwin wanted to roam the strip all night and that’s what they did. It’s a city that is what you make it.

After your first mistake of staying for five days, you’ll never do it again; there’s only so much artifice and sin that one can stand. I stayed for just at 36 hours and it seemed like the perfect amount of time; everyone stays up the first night and crashes the second, so why not schedule that crash during a flight home?

Final Thoughts

I’ll be back to Vegas, likely sooner rather than later. Someone is always planning a trip and I’m always game to go. LA is a different story. I’m glad I went and I’m glad I saw Dodger Stadium, but the combination of traffic and tourist traps aren’t really my speed. I’m sure I’ll be back at some point, but I can’t imagine it would be for anything other than a specifically planned event.

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Trip Report: The Kentucky Bourbon Trail

Most of you know I’m from Kentucky, but outside of Oaks/Derby (which I’ve also never been to) the Bourbon Trail may be the Commonwealth’s most famous tourist attraction. The trail consists of seven distilleries, all within thirty or so minutes of each other. While there are some notable exceptions, all the big ones are there: Woodford Reserve, Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, Heaven Hill, Wild Turkey, Four Roses and Town Branch.

I’d previously mentioned British Airway’s insanely great redemption offers of 9000 Avios roundtrip from Reagan National (DCA) to Nashville (BNA). I was able to fly Julie, her sister, her sister’s boyfriend and myself roundtrip to Nashville for 36,000 Avios. In comparison, most award flights cost around 25,000 miles roundtrip.

We knew from the beginning that our goal was to make it through the entire trail. You can complete it in any order, but visiting all seven distilleries netted you a pretty nice Bourbon Trail t-shirt. In order to prove your meddle, you’re given a Bourbon Trail Passport, in which you’re required to get a stamp from every distillery. While we had three days to do the trip over Columbus Day weekend, the goal was to compress the seven distilleries into Saturday and Sunday, so that we could spend Sunday evening and Monday in Nashville.

Because of the shortened weekend schedules of some of the distilleries, we knew it’d be impossible to do a tour at every location. The plan was to tour Four Roses and Wild Turkey on Saturday morning and then Woodford Reserve in the afternoon. We would then drive to Town Branch to see if we could do a tasting and get the stamp (but not the tour). The first tour on Sunday was of Jim Beam, followed by a quick stop at the gift shop at Heaven Hill (and, of course, a passport stamp) and then onto Maker’s Mark for the last tour.

If you’re trying to do the trail in two days, I can tell you that this schedule is completely doable and it doesn’t feel like you’re rushing from place to place, but you also must resign to the fact that you can’t see and do everything. The goal of this trip was to visit all seven distilleries, but also have some time to spend in Louisville and Nashville (where we spent Saturday and Sunday nights, respectively). This schedule allowed for that, but didn’t allow us to do the tours at Town Branch and Heaven Hill.

Perhaps most amazingly, each distillery felt uniquely different; the method for creating the bourbons were all similar, but the processes for doing so varied greatly. Four Roses had the feel of a small-scale operation. Woodford Reserve was on an amazingly beautiful campus where the bourbon was made, aged, bottled and shipped all from the same location. Jim Beam had the look and feel of one of the largest whiskey producers in the world. Maker’s Mark had an amazing history and let you participate in the process of dipping a bottle in its iconic red wax.

Final Thoughts

Even for the non-bourbon drinker, I’m happy to report that the Kentucky Bourbon Trail is well worth your time. The biggest worry before the trip was that as the trail wore on, the distilleries would start feeling repetitive. I’m happy to say that’s not the case as that each had its own character and backstory. Perhaps my favorite part of the trip was lunch on Saturday at Woodford Reserve: a classic southern meal on the porch in rocking chairs, filled with lots of bourbon-themed menu items.

If you’re looking for an out-of-the-way trip to one of the most beautiful areas of the country, I can’t recommend the Bourbon Trail enough.

Favorite Bourbon: Russel’s Reserve Small Batch Single Barrel
Favorite Distillery: Woodford Reserve
Favorite Tour: Jim Beam American Stillhouse

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