Friday, December 5, 2008

2K short (on United)

This year, I've been sentenced to suffer at the hands of the second largest airline in the world. It's been quite a ride... I've had the privilege of seeing the oxygen mask (not) descend from the ceiling in the event of a loss of cabin pressure. No joke. I've gone back to O'Hare due to an in-air problem when the St. Louis airport was within sight. Again, no joke. I've seen all their US hubs this year. I'm convinced that every one of their employees in Chicago need to be RIF'd.

So, here I am in early December with no work travel planned for the rest of the year. And I'm 2,000 miles short of hitting Executive Platinum for 2009. And I'm actually considering putting down $200 of my own money to take a flight to nowhere for no reason other than to get that little bit of electronic nothingness.

Why on earth would I consider spending 24 hours in Scranton, Tulsa, or Greenville? There are several reasons for my descent into madness.

  • For 2009, United has announced that Premier Execs get to board with first class. I'm not sure how much of a bonus this is, but it's there. As a Premier, I get to load after first class and I get to sit in Economy Plus. There are times when I'm fighting the masses to put my little roller in the overhead. This won't help me when I'm huffing to get from gate 27 to 81 at Denver Int'l with 5 minutes to go, but it will help me when the gate agent lets an entire Chinese soccer team get on the plane before the rest of economy.
  • The multiplier factor. If you know how elite programs work, you know the magical multiplier helps keep you in the front of the bus, even in lean years when your company is calling you in Rome to tell you that your return flight to O'Hare has been downgraded from business class to economy. True story. The multiplier for Premier Executive is 1.5, versus 1.25 for Premier. This means that the 33,000 miles I fly next year will get me back to Premier Executive, versus 40,000 as a Premier. For the record, I've flown 34,500 miles this year with a couple of lucky breaks by paying attention to promotions and the company paying for business class on international flights.
  • Better chances to upgrade. I've got so many upgrade points, that I don't really have time to spend them. On those really good routes, I get bumped by those higher in the pecking order. For the 1 hour flight into my home airport on the regional jet, I don't have first class anyway so it doesn't matter.
  • I've always wanted to see Bob Jones University. Not. But, if I end up in Greenville, I can pick up another state highpoint.

Travel pundits like Chris Elliott hate the notion of the elite business class traveler[1] [2] [3]. As much as I respect Chris, the truth is, nobody knows how to fill an airplane in a quick and orderly manner like us poor battered bastards. If you've never experienced the boarding process on the famous Nerd Bird (Austin to San Jose), that's a dance that more interesting than Olympic synchronized swimming. There's a reason it works--most of us know that cooperating and working together beats the alternative.

Elite travelers know the rules, like don't get shit-faced in the airport bar. You know those guys who cause flights to get diverted because they are drunk and punch the flight attendant? I'll all but guarantee you they aren't flying 50,000 miles a year. I'm not vouching for the character of my fellow Premiers, but I am willing to bet they know how to get on the plane quickly and not annoy everyone around them with rap coming out of their earbuds (it would be Sting or maybe the Barenaked Ladies).

Maybe I'm nuts. I can't see United airlines getting any better next year, but I also didn't think we'd see a black man elected president in my lifetime. I'm certainly looking forward to seeing what Obama can do. Maybe change is in the air. Maybe United won't lead the industry in incompetence. Maybe I'm not nuts.

Monday, December 1, 2008

The Travvy Saveler gift guide

How about a former automotive company jet? Trav would love to fly in style like the heads of the American Big 3, but he would be happy if he could just turn in his Mileage Plus or AAdvantage frequent flyer miles for a family vacation to Hawaii at some time other than February 29, 2012.

Stuff I Recommend

I love my Jansport Cargo Hold 22" roller bag. The big wheels make navigating the airline hub concourses a breeze. I have a couple of carabiners clipped on to hold my computer bag and I can get in a cardio workout from concourse A to F in record time. I've taken this bag on a couple of short international trips plus countless domestic trips in the last 2 years. Only drawback is the big wheels sometimes are difficult to get in the overhead on those dinky Regional Jets.

My Motorola Q9h is company-issue, but it makes a great baseband modem when tethered to my laptop. True story--I sat in O'Hare during a layover and did a voice call, connected to the company VPN over the modem *and* ran NetMeeting. The call didn't drop and the NetMeeting was amazingly responsive. I don't bother looking for hotspots in cities with 3G coverage, I just make sure I always pack my USB tether cable.

I wish I could say that I love my iGo power adapter set, but the truth is, I don't. I love the idea of only taking one power supply on a trip, one that works in the air, in the car and in the hotel. The iGo idea is great, but the execution is flawed--it's heavy, it's expensive, the tips are hard to purchase when you need them (i.e. on the road), and it's unwieldy. But, it's better on an international flight than the Targus empower inverter, which sounds like the 3rd engine on a 777.

The Bose QuietComfort headphones really are *that* good. I've tried some of the other models from Sony, Koss, and Panasonic, but the Bose do a better job of isolating the noise. The drawback is that you must have them turned on to do anything, even if you are just listening to music, but 1 AAA alkaline battery runs them for a long time. The Bose models sit very comfortable on my head, but others may have different results. They cost $300 for a set, but they pay for themselves the first time you have a chatty 5 year old sitting behind you on a 10 hour flight from Sao Paulo to Chicago. Trust me.

I make my living with computers and I have for more than 20 years. But, when I sit down with a customer or someone who isn't technical, I go low-tech. I have a wide variety of notepads, notebooks, portfolios, etc., but the Moleskine notebooks are a notch above. They lie flat for note-taking, which allows me to write into the margins comfortably. Plus, putting a nice pen to a solid notebook gives us technology folks a satisfying link to our analog past.

I've been traveling with a handheld GPS since 2001. My favorite for years was the Garmin eTrex Vista Cx. With maps of the US and Europe, I could always find my way around. My maps of the US are 6 years old and my European maps are 5 years old. That's long enough to get you in trouble. So, I've relegated the eTrex to hiking and geocaching and now I carry the Garmin Nuvi 370, which I got for a great price on For $230, the Nuvi 370 has North American and European maps. It also takes a micro SD card for expansion maps and plays MP3s. I didn't think the MP3 feature was that interesting until the first time I got in the plain vanilla Avis rental and realized there was no place to plug in my iPod.


I love my Ex Officio underwear. I know, I know, TMI. But truly, this stuff is great. I took a 17 day trip to Europe in 2006 and I packed 2 pair of underwear. Don't act all squeamish--when you travel 50,000 miles a year, you learn a few tricks and washing your underwear in the sink is high on the list. Plus, it's comfy.

I'm taking the same approach for t-shirts as I do with underwear, only I'm very happy with the Columbia Titanium shirts. I've bought some moisture wicking t-shirts from Russell Athletic and they hold up alright, but the cut isn't good for wearing as an undershirt.

I'm absolutely in love with a pair of casual chinos that I got at Eddie Bauer last year. They are made of linen and boy are they comfy. Then, in the way that corporations inevitably do with good products, they canceled them. I managed to find 2 pairs on the clearance rack this fall, so I will have to ration them. If you wonder why I'm so ecstatic about a pair of pants, you probably haven't had to sit in an economy class seat from Paris to Chicago. They wouldn't do for a funeral, but you could go from the plane to a casual business meeting and not feel bad about your appearance.

Stuff I want

I love to travel and when I can swing it, I take an extra day or weekend on my own to visit a place. I normally take a DSLR with me, but there are a lot of times that it just isn't convenient to pack a big camera. Or safe. I had read a lot of great reviews on the Canon G9 and it looks like the G10 is a worthy replacement. The G10 delivers near-SLR quality of shots with a lot of SLR-like features, including a hot-shoe for flash operation. The street price is getting down to around $425, so I will probably pick one of these up if Santa doesn't leave one for me.

I like my Wenger "Swiss Army" backpack for lugging my laptop, cables, camera, GPS, reading material, etc., but it's getting where my back doesn't enjoy supporting 25 pounds of equipment for extended operations. I've had the Wenger for 2 full years of daily use and it has stood the test of time. The zippers all still work flawlessly and there are few scratches or scrapes on it. I'm looking at the Wenger Patriot rolling case for my 2009 travels.

I'm torn on a laptop for travel. I do a lot of photography work on the side and I would love one of those 17" laptops with the WXGA+ LED screens. But, I just can't imagine hauling that thing on the road, much less getting our IT group to bless it and give me access to corporate infrastructure. By the same token, the Dell Inspiron Mini 9 is all I truly need when I'm on the road. Except when I need to write code or run Photoshop from my hotel room. I'll probably just keep using this POS from the company and hating it every time it takes 8 minutes to boot from all the corporate bloatware....

The things on this list are just things. They don't really make a trip worth taking, but they can make life a little easier on the road. I would rather have a quiet, comfortable, stress-free trip without all these gizmos, but then that would also require me to find honest work out there, and who wants that during these crazy times?

Besides, I'm trying to figure out how I can get my boss to let me expense a massage.

May the holidays bring you peace and comfort, however you choose to celebrate.


Sunday, November 16, 2008

Hello, hello, hello, is there anybody in there?

When I was in grad school my roommate and I rented a house a block off campus. We hadn't even gotten Dave's stereo set up when this guy comes to the door with a drink in his hand and introduces himself as Curt. A short while later, we had a case of beer on the porch and Pink Floyd turned up to 11.

We spent 2 years in that house, with Curt and his buddies 2 doors down. We were always listening to Pink Floyd. My girlfriend would come by with her friends and complain about the music. Couldn't we listen to something ... different?

Tonight, we were driving home from shopping. The kids had their headphones on and were watching a movie. The previously mentioned girlfriend (only 20 years older) was sitting in the passenger side. She had surgery a couple weeks ago, so she was sleeping softly with the help of prescription painkillers. I had the Sirius tuned to channel 15, listening to the music of our high school and college years.

As we got near home, Pink Floyd's Comfortably Numb came on. I had the volume up a bit, but not too high. I pulled into the garage as the song was coming up to David Gilmour's gnarly guitar finale. I left the car running and let the final refrains of the song just roll over me. The kids kept listening to their movie and my wife just kept her eyes closed. The song ended, I killed the engine, woke my wife, and we all went into the house.

A little while later, as we were putting up the groceries, I caught my wife singing Comfortably Numb in a low voice.

"Hey! You hate Pink Floyd." I complained.

"I hated it when you guys always played Pink Floyd. Especially when there were girls around. We didn't want to listen Pink Floyd--we wanted something to dance to. But... I think I figured out why you guys were always listening to that stuff."

"Because it sounded really good coming out of Dave's Infinity speakers."

"No, because it sounds really cool when you are in an altered state of consciousness."

"Well, I was just drinking beer."

"I know, but it sounded really good tonight after I had a Lortab."

"You want me to put Pink Floyd on your iPod?"

"Nah. I'll come out to your office when I want to listen to it. I'm sure it will sound really cool on your Bose speakers."