Every Single Big Ol’ Jet Aero Liner

By Robert Bestor

I love the internet and try not to take it for granted. As we all know, it has everything. And though it has everything, for me, websites can almost all be placed into two categories: 1) those with vital and valuable information and data that allows me to educate myself and make quality decisions, and 2) those that offer little more than mildly amusing, time sucking, and mindless “entertainment” that distracts me from doing whatever it is I really should be doing. 

While that may be a slight over-simplification, I do find it to be true. I also find that, wonderfully, there are some sites that fit simultaneously into both categories. FlightAware.com is an excellent example. It is both highly informative and can be a fabulously fascinating waste of time. On top of that, to me, it’s a mind-blowing example of modern technology.

Simply click this link. On this FlightAware.com page, in real time, you’ll see every single commercial flight currently operating over the United States. Hit the zoom out button a couple of times and you’ll see every single commercial flight currently operating everywhere in the world!

Then click on any one of the plane icons and you’ll get information like departure city, arrival city, elapsed time, time remaining, aircraft type, air speed, altitude and more. How’s that for starters? FlightAware offers much more. I’ve done a decent amount of browsing and am still drilling down and finding new and fascinating data.

It does have practical purposes too. I used it recently to check the on-time history of a winter flight we had scheduled. FlightAware’s data informed us that at the time, the flight had recent history of both significant delays and cancellations. We had a tight connection to make, and due to weather, the odds of us making it were not in our favor. So for a minimal change fee (story in our March e-News) we switched to an earlier flight and removed all doubt. 

FlightAware integrates real-time data from thousands of sources worldwide. And I do not have the brain power to imagine how they tie all together so neatly and seamlessly. But I sure do find it handy, entertaining, and amazing to get the latest data on any flight anywhere on the planet.

Oops. Looks like Tap Portugal flight #22 from Lisbon to Salvador, Brazil is running 22 minutes late. It’s scheduled to land at 9:00 pm local time. I wonder if they’ll be able to make that up? I see that it’s an Airbus A330-200 twin jet currently traveling 526 mph at 38,000 feet. Looks like it’s been late a few times recently……etc., etc., etc,.

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Just Be Right There When the Whistle Blows

While Bob and I love to walk when we are traveling, we also enjoy taking public transportation. It feels like we are locals when we take the bus or train with regular folk who are commuting to work, school or the market. And coming from a country where public transit leaves a little something to be desired, it’s really delightful to get on a train in downtown Berlin for example, and five hours later, after watching the countryside slide by, arrive in downtown Prague. Heck if you stop at the market for some yummy treats and tasty beverages, it’s the perfect spot for lunch with a great view. 

On our recent winter trip to Europe, we took advantage of all the public transit we could, from trams in Amsterdam to trains in Berlin and buses in Prague. All were easy to navigate, even when hauling our carry on sized suitcases. I’m not knocking taxis or Uber/Lyft (well, maybe I’d knock Las Vegas taxis), but if I have the choice, I’m almost always going to take public transportation.

I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. When I was about seven, the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system opened, and I remember very clearly that it was the future. BART trains even went underground, through the San Francisco Bay, into the city. I spent a lot of time on BART in my day. In high school, I took BART home every day from school in Oakland to San Leandro. And once I started my career, I commuted by bus and/or BART to San Francisco from the East Bay on a daily basis. BART has improved a bit since then, but it still doesn’t come close to the public transit options in most European cities. Here are some of the reasons I believe European public transit is better. 

Public transit in Europe is extremely convenient, and serves all cities. We can’t get on a train in Ashland, Oregon without driving at least an hour and a half to Klamath Falls for the Amtrak. Everywhere we’ve been in Europe, we have been able to take a bus or train to a major station and transfer to a train heading to another country. Easy as pie.

When a European bus, tram, or train schedule tells you it is leaving at a certain time, it really leaves at that time. And arrivals happen on schedule as well. We were one minute late getting to an Amsterdam tram stop one morning (I totally blame Bob, but bygones), and sure enough, the tram was disappearing around the corner just a short way past our stop. By comparison, Amtrak trains, specifically long-distance ones, have a remarkably poor on-time performance record.

The purchase of tickets is usually on the honor system and I enjoy not hassling with ticket slots and narrow turnstiles. You buy a ticket, validate it at a station, then get on the train, tram or bus. I’m sure the fines for not having a ticket are steep, and everyone I noticed seemed to have a pass or ticket that they validated. It just seems so much more civilized. And yet at the same time, I don’t think for a minute that this would work in the States. We are, of course, a civilized nation, but I think too many people would not follow the rules. 

Longer train rides are a delight, and so much more pleasant than flying. You can get up and move around. There’s no need to arrive two hours in advance. There’s significantly more leg room, no turbulence and, as mentioned earlier, there are interesting views out the window. There’s often free wifi too! And, with train stations often located right downtown, it’s usually much more convenient to get to the station as opposed to the airport. There’s also something so much more romantic about train travel. I half expect Hercule Poirot to come walking down the aisle, looking for a murderer. Not sure why I equate romance with murder though (watch out Bob). 

Side Note:

Google Maps might be at its best when offering directions from one location to another via public transportation. It tells you exactly when the correct train/tram/bus is arriving, and what time you need to leave your location to catch said train/tram/bus. It also gives exact walking directions to the stop, and then the number of stops to your final destination once on the train, tram or bus. I’m a big fan.

Staying “Fit” While On the Road

This is not an infomercial. I am not going to suggest you buy ginsu knives, even though they come with a six in one tool that chops, slices and peels. I am not even going to link this article to a place you can buy the product I’m about to tell you about, because frankly, I’m just not that business savvy. I am, however, going to tell you why I never travel without a FitBit. 

Like so many things in my life, I came late to the FitBit game. When I was finally getting my own pet rock, my friends had moved on to mood rings. And when I finally got a mood ring, I couldn’t understand why it was always teal (normal), as I really wanted a more exciting mood, like cool or passionate. But I digress. Back to the FitBit.

I knew that a watch that also counted steps and calories burned existed, but I didn’t know much more about it than that. I also didn’t think it was something I needed in my life. It turns out I was wrong. For Christmas I received a FitBit from my husband. You might be wondering if this was a suggestion that I might want to start counting calories in my everyday life. Believe me, I wondered too.

In reality though, Bob and I walk a great deal when we travel, and we often wonder how much we’ve walked on any given day, so the FitBit is a great resource to have when we’re on the road. We took it for the first time on our trip to Europe and Iceland this past winter, and discovered that we do indeed walk a great deal. On this trip we averaged about 9 miles a day. It gave us quite a sense of accomplishment when we were in for the evening and could pat ourselves on the back for all the calories we burned that day. 

The steps walked and calories counted are not the only thing we appreciated from the FitBit on our trip though. It was also great to know what time it was without having to look at my phone. I know watches are quickly becoming obsolete, but it sure is handy to check the time with a quick movement of the wrist, rather than digging into my bag or pocket for my iPhone.

Another cool feature of my FitBit is that it vibrates to notify me when I get texts. It also shows me who the text is from and even displays the beginning of the text, reader-board style. It’s great when traveling to be able to check my FitBit when I get a text to see who it is from, and what the text is about, again, without having to pull out my phone.

There are many styles, sizes and prices of FitBits, all with different options. I’m sad to report however, that it doesn’t change color and tell me I am anything but normal.

In Heaven There is No Beer, That’s Why We Drink it Here

By Nancy Bestor

Prague is a beautiful, albeit touristy, European city. The architecture is stunning, and incredibly well preserved. There are also, however, an extraordinary number of chintzy souvenir shops and over the top “tourist experiences” in the old town, with tacky trinkets and “my mom went to Prague and all I got was this t-shirt” (I kid you not) items, as well as people in all sorts of character costumes in the main square available to take pictures with tourists—for a fee. But, as Rick Steves says, if you can just look past all this, in this case, by looking up, you’ll be rewarded with amazing views of art nouveau facades and romantic and charming sites.

And then, of course, there’s the beer. The Czech Republic is known for its pilsners and lagers, so in our three day visit, we were determined to experience all Prague had to offer, namely, by drinking beer in as many authentic spots as we could find. In this endeavor, Prague did not disappoint. 

Our airbnb was right in the Old Town, which was a great central location for exploring the city on foot. On our first evening, we walked over the famous Charles Bridge, with its great views of the Prague Castle, to a basement bar serving none other than one of our favorite beers, Pilsner Urquell. We appeared to be the only non locals in the place, and there was no English menu, but it wasn’t hard to communicate that we wanted two beers—and then two more—after which our waiter, in broken English, was able to break down the few food offerings on the chalkboard. The goulash with dumplings and sausage with potato salad were great accompaniments to the star of the evening, the beer, which cost about $2 per pint.

The next day we visited the Strahov Monastery & Library, above the Prague Castle, to get a look at its Philosophy Hall and its Theology Hall, with their stunning ceiling frescos and more than 200,000 books on their shelves. You can only peek into the doorways of the halls, but it is well worth the $6ish dollar entrance price.

Across the way from the Library is the Klasterni Pivovar, the Monastery’s brewery. Of course we couldn’t miss the opportunity to sample beer made just like the monks made it back in the day, or that was our excuse anyway. FYI—it was delicious. As was the onion soup, goulash soup and brown bread toast rubbed with raw garlic. Yum.

In the afternoon we took an “off the beaten path” walk through Prague’s suburbs between the Strahov Monastery and the Brevnov Monastery, to try, you guessed it, more monastic beer. Although the walk itself was not super interesting, the Brevnov Monastery was lovely, and the beer once again was delicious and cheap.

On our last night we settled in for more Czech suds at Konvikt bar. When we walked in and sat at a table, a waiter walking by nodded hello. Bob held up two fingers, and before we knew it, there were two pints sitting in front of us. There was no asking “what kind of beer do you want.” We got served the beer that was on offer. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, the beer was outstanding, and about $2 per pint.

Lest you think we did nothing but drink beer while in Prague dear readers, we did also eat sausages. But all joking aside, we thoroughly enjoyed several walks from our Rick Steves Prague guidebook, the Old Town walk, a walk to the Prague Castle, and the Wenceslas Square walk, which gave the history of several fantastic art nouveau buildings, including one—the Hotel Evropa—where a movie was being filmed out front. A highlight was a self guided tour of the Municipal House (with the help of Rick again). This building has a stunning rotunda, lobby, restaurant, and bar, with beautiful mosaic floors, stained glass and art nouveau light fixtures and signage. The Municipal House is Prague’s largest concert hall, but if you can’t see a show here, a visit is still highly recommended.

And the beer, whatever you do while visiting Prague, don’t miss out on the beer. 

 

Time to Get a Second Opinion

by Robert Bestor

It’s always a good idea to get a second opinion. From doctors, contractors, and even the friend who answers “no” when you ask “do these pants make my butt look big?” Well it turns out you should get one from the airlines too. Recently, I phoned Alaska Airlines four separate times, each time getting a different answer to my question. I finally got the answer I was looking for, but it took four phone calls to obtain it.

For our January trip to Europe, we booked separate tickets to get us from Ashland to Seattle to catch our Icelandic Air flight to Amsterdam. With our flight out of Seattle scheduled for 5pm, we chose a late-morning Alaska Air flight that would get us into SeaTac with several hours to spare.9370826_1280x720

However, in the days leading up to our departure, we started to worry. We did not want to miss our Icelandic Air flight. You see, at this time of year, morning fog often keeps flights from landing at Medford Rogue Valley International Airport (that’s a mouthful, isn’t it?). And because they can’t get in, the planes obviously then aren’t there to fly those mid to late morning departures. On the other hand, the first flights of the day are usually okay, as those planes arrived late the previous evening. After discovering that the midmorning Medford – Seattle flight had indeed recently been delayed or canceled several times, we decided it would be prudent to change to the first flight of the day out of Medford.

To add another wrinkle, we’d booked our Alaska tickets on JustFlycom. So a few days before our flight, I called JustFly, only to find that their change fee would be an exorbitant $318 per ticket. To put that into perspective, our Seattle-Amsterdam round trip tickets, with a stopover in Reykjavik, were $460 each. I then decided to call Alaska to see if they could help me.

Alaska’s reservation agents are very friendly, but because we purchased the tickets through JustFly, they told me they couldn’t make the change. So I hung up and figured we’d have to chance it with the late morning flight. But a few minutes later the same Alaska agent called me back and informed me that I would be able to make a “same day” change for $25. This bears repeating. The same Alaska agent called me back. She also said that because we wanted to change to a crack of dawn departure, “same day” would actually mean after 10pm the night before the flight. She also kindly informed me that there were plenty of seats available on the flight we wanted to switch to. Looking good.

Two days later (about 48 hours until departure) I called Alaska again to check availability and confirm the $25 same day change fee. This time I was told I could call back as early 8pm to get it done. If we did get on the earlier flight, we’d have a 4am wake up, so I was happy to hear I’d get to bed two hours earlier.

The evening before our trip I figured that if one agent told me I could make a same day change at 10pm and the other told me 8pm, I might as well try for 6pm. Because I’m guessing that in actuality, an airline can pretty much make a reservation change whenever they want. But when I called at 6pm, and explained that “I know there are plenty of seats available and it would be really helpful to make the change now so I could arrange transportation and get a good night’s sleep,” I was told that both previous agents were dead wrong and “same day means same day” and I’d have to call back at midnight. I didn’t put up a fuss because nobody had told me 6pm would work. I was just trying to get it done early if possible.

But at this point I had three different answers to a seemingly simple question that I am certain Alaska reservation agents deal with every single day.

At 8pm I tried again. This time I told the agent that I had called earlier and been told to call back at 8. And this time it was no problem. Within a few minutes, we were rebooked on the early flight for a total of $50, instead of $636 with JustFly.

So, what’s the moral of this story? Well, first off, be leery of winter morning flights out of Medford. Second, double-check any information you get from an airline reservation agent. If you don’t like the answer, try calling back and speaking to another agent. Heck, it might even be a good idea to record these conversations, just in case. Lastly, go to Iceland! We’ll have a story about it our Spring/Summer newsletter.

That Time I Put Vodka in my Eye

by Nancy Bestor

I’d like to think I’m an organized person. I make lists of what I need to do, and then cross items off when they are completed. I file my bills to be paid in a specific location, and bills that have been paid get filed away as well. And all my travel necessities have special storage locations. Carry-on sized toiletries stay in my toiletries bag, while passports and money belts, foreign currency, and the like, sit in a box waiting for my next trip.

So when I ran out of contact lens solution recently, because of my superior organization skills, I knew that I had more in a 3-ounce Nalgene bottle in my toiletry kit, underneath my bathroom sink. I have two different kinds of contact solution. One is for storing of contacts, and cannot be put directly into your eyes. The other solution is the more traditional kind, that you can rinse contacts with. So, being the organized person that I am (or apparently that I think I am), at some point I marked the top of the Nalgene bottle with the storing solution in red nail polish. This was my “WARNING: DO NOT PUT DIRECTLY INTO YOUR EYES” idea.

Thus, when grabbing the extra solution out of my toiletry kit, I chose the bottle that was not marked with red nail polish. So far so good right? I may have even given myself a pat on the back for my amazing organization skills. What I failed to remember, however, was that when returning from a trip to Mexico with my girlfriends, I stored leftover vodka in a TSA approved 3-ounce Nalgene bottle. And when I got home, I forgot all about it, and just left this bottle in my toiletry kit along with the contact solution bottles. And yes, I used that mandarin flavored Absolut vodka to rinse my contact lenses, and then put one lens right on my eyeball.

Needless to say, I do not recommend putting vodka in your eyes. It burned like holy h***. I’m pretty sure I screamed, and then stuck my face under cold running water for a good long minute or two. I couldn’t put my contacts in for two days, and had to go old school with glasses. I know, first world problems, right? 

I’ve learned my lesson. Now, I’ve got 3-ounce Nalgene bottles marked with red nail polish for the storing solution, and 3-ounce Nalgene bottles marked with green nail polish for the contact rinsing solution. So when I travel with my girlfriends again, and bring more Vodka home in plain Nalgene bottles, I’ll know that’s for drinking.

 

Reconnect Without Your Phone

It’s all there, isn’t it? That amazing little device in your pocket has nearly everything on it. From ancient history to current events, a smart phone has pretty much all the information that the human race has compiled over the millennia—accessible instantly with just a few keystrokes.

Our smartphones are powerful and compelling little devils. Walking down the street, at the dinner table, behind the wheel, and even at the beach, no matter the activity, lots of folks find them pretty darn hard to put down. 

Bad habits are hard to break, but fortunately travelers, help is here. At select properties, the Wyndham hotel chain is now offering to take your phone away for your own good. Their Reconnected” program is actually directed at families in an effort to remove electronic distractions from their vacations.

Participating families will get a lockbox for their phones, an instant camera, instructions for building a blanket fort and “Adventure Backpacks” full of books, stuffed animals, s’mores pops, and ideas for fun activities. Yes, this program is geared towards families with young kids, but we could all easily put our phone in a “lockbox” for a vacation, and just disconnect. We might not get s’mores pops (whatever they may be), but we would get the chance to relax and reconnect with the outdoors and each other. It’s definitely an idea worth considering.