Info ~ travel musings for the masses

The alarm buzzed, I rolled over, shutting off the annoying chime I set it to like I do every morning. I sat up, started to move my feet from the bed to the floor and all of the sudden it felt like I was floating. “I must still be really tired” I told myself as I put my feet on the floor and stood up. Then I was reaching for the wall balancing myself. Straight to the restroom and then back to bed, the whole time feeling like I was falling over. I send an e-mail to my boss: “Not feeling well, will work from home today.”

That’s how my Friday started. It is now Tuesday, four days after I first experienced the worst vertigo in my life, and that vertigo is still around, rearing it’s ugly head any time I try to do something quickly. Turn my head; Falling. Bend over to grab something; Falling. Rollover in bed; Falling. Normalcy seems to have come to a screeching halt on Friday. The doctor’s office was booked full when all of this hit so my wife took me to a non-emergency clinic, neither of us put vertigo into the “critical” column, ruling out the emergency room. I’ll just say the drive there involved a lot of nausea (and its results).

The staff were prompt in looking at me and quickly ruled out a neurological issue. They settled on something I had never heard of, vestibular neuritis. Essentially it is an inflammation of the inner ear, usually caused by a viral infection. There are not a lot treatment options, basically control the vertigo, nausea, vomiting, etc. as much as possible. The staff at the clinic said it could be a week or a month until it dissipates. The vertigo medication has done little to relieve my symptoms but my body seems to have adjusted to the nausea, at least somewhat.

After a short discussion, my wife and I decide a second opinion is in order and I made a follow-up appointment with my family practice for Monday night. We went and the doctor again confirms no neurological worries as well as the vestibular neuritis diagnosis. My vertigo is not dependent enough of direction to be BPPV, which has a few different treatment options. There is also a slight chance that what I have is something called Meniere’s Disease, but the doctor wants to hold off testing to see if my symptoms dissipate.

Today, Tuesday, has been a little worse than the last two days. There is ringing in both of my ears and I don’t seem as “sharp” as I did yesterday. Doing little things like taking a shower have become tedious adventures that require my full attention. I think the only way to describe it is to imagine being on a Merry-go-Round and spinning as fast as you can, then stepping off and trying to do your taxes. Now apply that to everything you do. Even this post is hard to write. Focusing is not easy when you are putting a lot of brain power into making sure you don’t fall over. I am otherwise healthy though, so when we walked down to the car to go to the office, I’m sure I just looked drunk.

I am otherwise healthy. I have to remember that. This puts on hold a lot of things that I had planned and it triples the amount of work my wife is doing on day to day basis but she has taken it in stride. We can hope and pray this dissipates quickly but if it doesn’t, we keep moving together. Well, I’ll probably be a few steps behind her holding her hand, balancing myself.

Craig Karamin and Ezequiel Minaya for the Wall Street Journal:

Marriott International Inc. said Monday that it has agreed to acquire Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc. in a deal worth $12.2 billion that will create the world’s largest hotel company with more than a million rooms globally.

Under the terms, Marriott will forward 0.92 share along with $2 in cash for each Starwood share, for a total of $11.9 billion in stock and $340 million in cash. The transaction has a value of $72.08 a Starwood share.

I can’t say that I am thrilled by this news. I used to stay at Marriott properties almost exclusively and was never all that impressed. There were a few standout locations that I enjoyed staying at but a number of them were poorly maintained or just poorly built (lots of noise through the walls). My Marriott status was Platinum for quite a while but I never saw much benefit from that status and I actually had to deal with Marriott’s rather quick expiry of points more than once.

At the end of the day, these buyouts and mergers are not about you and I the customers but about the shareholders and the health of the business. We will have to wait and see what this means for the different aspects of the rewards and loyalty programs of both hotel chains.

The NY Times piece on what is happening to the Nazi sites in the historic city of Nuremberg is a look into the conundrum of up-keeping history while not honoring it.

In this city, the rallying point for Hitler, is the largest piece of real estate bequeathed by the Nazis, and a burden only increasing with time.

First comes the sheer physical size: a parade ground bigger than 12 football fields. A semicircular Congress Hall that dwarfs any structure at Lincoln Center. Great Street, more than one-and-a-half miles long, with no structures on either side — a modern Appian Way where the storm troopers strutted between the old Nuremberg of Albrecht Dürer and the rallies idolizing the Führer.

Then there are its troubled history and the far stickier question of what to do with it. “These are not simple memorials,” said Mathias Pfeil, chief curator of historic sites in Bavaria, “because they symbolize a time we can only wish had never happened.”

I have visited Nuremberg quite a few times and the Nazi sites always strike me as a strange intersection of history, hatred, and remembrance. Last time I visited I was with my dad and grandfather and there happened to be a heavy metal festival taking place on the site, with Metallica being the headliner. It was strange to hear metal being played as you read about the horrors of the Holocaust. During my second visit to the city, I even wrote in the caption for this photo about the strange dichotomy at the Nazi rally grounds.

Hitler stood here multiple times to give speeches during Nazi rallies. On this particular day it’s being used for a children’s marathon. The German people are torn on how to use these landmarks, they cannot be forgotten, yet they should not be glorified.

Zeppelinfeld Stadium
So where is the line between teaching younger generations about the atrocities committed in the name of the Third Reich and glorifying it? The story touches on the fact that most Nurembergers under the age of 25 have no historical context with which to view the rally grounds. They have always been there during their lifetime and associated with nothing that resembled war or struggle.

If you do visit Nuremberg, the Dokumentationszentrum Reichsparteitagsgelände (Documentation Center at the Nazi Rally Grounds) is a fascinating and sobering look at how the Nazi party took hold in Nuremberg, Munich, and finally Berlin. The center also tells the story of the Holocaust, the eventual loss by Germany, and the Nuremberg trials. It is on the site of the rally grounds and you can walk around them after visiting the exhibit.

A couple of stories popped up in my Twitter and Facebook feeds recently and I think they deserve a little attention. Not because they are amazing stories, but because they are titled as “travel hacking” and I think that term deserves a discussion.

The first article is on Business Insider and is about a blogger named Sam Huang and his “round the world trip in first class for $300”. To be clear, Sam is selling something. I don’t know exactly what it is but I would guess it’s a guide to earning miles with a credit card. He clearly sent out some feelers to see if anyone would be interested in carrying his story to hopefully generate some traffic.

Travel blogger Sam Huang recently cashed in his Alaska Airlines frequent-flyer miles for a $60,000 trip around the world, and luckily he took plenty of pictures documenting what it was like.

Right off the bat I see some interesting claims being made. One, this isn’t really a round-the-world itinerary, it’s a one-way purchased with miles and then a return at a later date, also purchased with miles. A true round-the-world goes in one direction around the globe and ends in the same city (or close to it) that the journey began. Secondly, the price seems quite steep. I cannot find anything on the Emirates website that hints at the price for a trip around the world in first costing $60,000. My guess is that Huang priced out each separate segment in first and is quoting the sum as the price of the trip which may or may not be close to reality.

The second story is this one, on Collectively Conscious, about blogger Scott Keyes. I have to give Mr. Keyes some credit as he looks for cheap fares and seems to be focused on travel rather selling a service or a guide to earn free miles.

This is nothing new for Keyes, who told us that he uses his massive collection of credit cards to gain points, frequent flyer miles, and plenty of other member perks all the time. He then turns around and uses those perks on vacations like his upcoming trip that will take him 20,000 miles on 21 flights — all for free.

The strand that ties these two stories together is the heavy mention and use of credit card miles. Both gentlemen use a frequent flyer credit card and use those earned miles for travel, but what neither article seems to touch on is how exactly they are doing it. More than likely they are signing up for cards and then spending enough on the card to earn the bonus miles probably offered for initial sign-up and then eventually cancelling the card. It is a stretch to call this “travel hacking”. The practice is definitely neat and draws in some pageviews, but relying on a credit card to fuel travel is not an easy undertaking but is being sold to readers as a cheap way to get from point A to point B in style (or on the cheap). For some people, cash back cards may actually be a better proposition, for others, a card that gives them points that they can use for purchases might work better. Just jumping into the airline/travel credit card game without a goal or an understanding of the risks, which range from devaluation to closing of accounts, is dangerous and something I discourage.

A telling paragraph in the Keyes story:

Keyes has a few methods to procure his frequent flyer miles, including opening new credit cards that award miles or points, letting airlines know when there’s a problem with his flight, and not being afraid to get bumped if a flight is full.

Opening new credit cards is at the forefront. Complaining about something broken or a problem on a flight I don’t have a qualm with, but it seems to be a tactic that gets abused. The last point about being bumped if a flight is full is a great way to earn airline vouchers if you have flexible plans. Just know that some of the vouchers come with restrictions and make sure you understand those restrictions.

It is sad to see “travel hacking” basically turned into a credit card ad and having people eating it up as a quick route to travel when it could backfire badly. Using multiple cards to earn the miles that are talked about in these articles takes organization and a firm understanding of the terms and how your personal credit rating works. It would be nice if such details were included in these articles and people were made aware of what was really going on.

United Boeing 787
Texas Monthly’s recent piece, “Up in the Air” by Loren Steffy, has left me scratching my head. The by-line is “The 2010 sale of Continental Airlines has left Houston in a holding pattern” so I was expecting a look into dealings with the city or the airport. I braced myself for an investigative long-read.

The first two paragraphs focus on how terrible it was to lose Continental to the merger and then United to Chicago; How cultures are a problem.

As a management consultant, Heiland knew that the biggest hurdle for the two companies wouldn’t be integrating systems, processes, or technology but reconciling their cultures. “When it was announced that the headquarters would be in Chicago, I felt the war was lost.”

Then all of the sudden the article becomes a brief history of Continental. Details about former CEOs and what they did or didn’t do for the airline. All of it reads like a Wikipedia job. Then near the end there is some more meat.

And so, in 2010, Smisek struck a deal. Though he called it a merger, he basically sold Continental to United; the name “Continental” disappeared and the Houston headquarters was essentially vacated. Continental’s management team was supposed to be in charge, but it never took root in the cold climes of Chicago. “The Continental culture was a terrible thing to risk,” Bakes says. “United’s history is one of bureaucracy and arrogance, and it ended up culturally being more dominant.”

I get it, there are definite service issues with United. I’m not convinced it had anything to do with “culture” at either airline but more to do with the management not fostering a relationship with the front line staff and building trust. It has lead to distrust and unhappiness for the people who travelers see first and deal with most in their travels: flight attendants, agents, and other ground staff. Morale has been in the mud and it shows. The new CEO, Oscar Munoz, who is on medical leave due to a recent heart attack, mentioned the morale problems and customer service issues immediately after taking the job.

On another note, the part about the Houston offices being vacated is at best an oversight or at worst, poor research. There are a large number of employees who still work in downtown Houston. Just fly a Chicago-Houston morning flight or an evening Houston-Chicago flight, there are a lot of United employees commuting to or from the Houston office.

The whole article reads like a whine and never addresses the by-line. How is Houston in a holding pattern? If anything, United has helped the city before the merger and after. United has committed to paying for at least part of the renovations taking place at Terminal B and C at IAH. The airline also plays a crucial role in attracting other carriers to the city. Their membership in the Star Alliance means that other airlines can codeshare with them, drawing those carriers to offer service to airports where United is located to connect to surrounding cities. EVA, ANA, Singapore Airlines, Air China, Lufthansa and Avianca all offer service to IAH, building on the connections that United offers. And soon there will be a Houston-Auckland flight on Air New Zealand, another Star Alliance partner.

If United had truly left Houston in a holding pattern, it would have happened in a similar fashion to what they did to Cleveland or what Delta did to Cincinnati. Nostalgia is always fun to discuss and reminisce about, but the Texas Monthly article was far from that. I would have been much more of a fan had Texas Monthly found and licensed a bunch of old IAH and Continental photos and just told the history of the airline and the airport. Instead it was a let down.

Brandenburg Gate
Last week a number of airlines had a sale on business class tickets from the U.S. to Europe. Prices were about the same as coach and the destinations varied by airline alliance but most of the overlap seemed to be Dublin, Vienna, Prague, Amsterdam, London, and Paris. The key was, the tickets had to be purchased by Friday, October 16. We had been looking for options for the spring break holiday and considered some of these destinations as well as a reward I had on hold for Japan for the cherry blossom season. Unfortunately, the timing of the flights to Japan meant we would only have four days in the country and to me, that was not long enough to really enjoy the trip. In addition, the hotels in Japan during cherry blossom season are insanely priced and that made it even less attractive. Since the fare sale did not include any German cities, we decided to fly into Prague and take the train to Berlin for a week.

I ended up purchasing Portland-Washington Dulles-Vienna-Prague for the outbound and Prague-Frankfurt-Denver-Portland for the return. We’ll get to try Austrian Airlines on the longhaul Dulles-Vienna segment, which I am a little excited about, but a little worried about the short duration of the flight. I prefer longer flights so I can rest and try to adjust to the destination’s timezone. There were not many options available by the time I booked, so I went with the new carrier.

All of this came together rather quickly, I saw the fares on Thursday and purchased Friday afternoon. A number of the available destinations have less than stellar weather in March (Dublin) so we were looking at options with better weather (it will be cold in Berlin, but not too bad) and since we know Berlin, it will be pretty easy for us to get around. The other things I was having to take into consideration were airlines. The fare was available on Delta and they have a non-stop Portland-Amsterdam flight. Unfortunately, the outbound was not available but the return was. I strongly considered Delta though, as I would really like to fly them on a longhaul flight.

Overall, I think it will be a great trip. The flight from Dulles to Vienna might be short, but I can sleep on the train. It will be our first long vacation since moving to Portland and we are really looking forward to it. Making quick decisions is tough, but when a good fare comes up, you have to be quick.

Any new places in Berlin we should know about?

I recently listened to an account given by a business traveler about a cancelled flight on her way to a client engagement. The airline essentially told all of the passengers, “if you want to fly with us, the next flight is tomorrow morning”, sending most of them home for the rest of the day. The business traveler then told me about her company’s business travel policies, she books via a booking portal (Concur, Egencia, etc. are all examples) and that she must book the cheapest flights for the earliest arrival, regardless of airline. Such policies sound harsh, but they are quite normal. For this particular traveler, luck was on her side, as the airline that she was flying that day, was actually the airline she has status with. She called their elite line and was quickly booked on the next available flight to get her to her destination.

This begs the question, should employers encourage employees to have status with an airline? Status perks go beyond bonus miles and upgrades, there are usually dedicated phone lines for customers, most airline customer service agents are encouraged to go above and beyond for elites, and for a number of programs, there is the waving of some fees.

I get why companies want their employees to use a booking portal, they get a small amount of the transaction dollars paid back to them and since they are billing the travel, those small increments can add up. But by telling your employees to book whoever is cheapest, regardless of status, I think they may be doing them, and their clients, a disservice. Sure, there is a minority of travelers who abuse their travel privileges to fly certain carriers but I doubt it is anywhere close to being the norm and I don’t think it should discourage allegiance to an airline.

The bottom line is always money, but it seems companies are looking only at a small portion of the bottom line. What if an employee had been able to get on an earlier flight for free because of their status, getting a few extra billable hours in on-site at the client. Shouldn’t those dollars be accounted for when making travel policy decisions? What about being able to take a later flight to stay on-site a little longer to help a client with something? Now you’ve made some extra cash and you have impressed the client.

What I think happens is that the travel agent companies and their booking portal buddies get together and build a real fancy PowerPoint, wowing their potential clients. Employers see potential profit and some travel agent “benefits” without understanding that what those travel agents are doing is acting on behalf of the employee, when the employee may be sitting at the airport staring at their gate, stranded.

There are three major airlines in the U.S., Delta, United, and American. There is also Southwest, which a lot of corporate booking portals now include in their results, but they open up a whole new can of worms when it comes to irregular operations and not being able to put you on another carrier. Companies could have their employees choose an airline to be loyal to and maybe a back up for when schedules/prices are a little better and the employee then flies that airline when possible. The employee benefits, and in the long run, so does the employer.

Recently, during an import of some photographs off of my camera’s SD card, I ran into an issue where Lightroom 4 seems to hang during the import. What seems to have led to this is the fact that the computer went to sleep during the initial import. About a third of the photographs made it into the catalog but the rest did not. Now, when trying to import, I get the following.

Lightroom 4 Hung Up on Import

As you can see, the import bar is halfway completed but no photos are actually being imported.

One of the things I noticed is that Lightroom creates the temporary folder for the photos on the target disk, but only one photo is copied there. The rest of the import then does nothing. After quitting the import and then attempting to close Lightroom, I have to “Force Quit” in OS X, which then throws an exception.

My suspicion is that the issue is with Lightroom and I am missing a simple fix in all of my searches. I have tried repairing the target disk, repairing permissions on my computer’s hard drive, removing the Lightroom preferences file, and importing from a different disk. All lead to the same above result.

If you have any ideas, I would love to hear them!

From Gerald Lynch’s piece at Gizmodo:

Offline downloads are perhaps the most often requested, “holy grail” feature of TV and movie streaming services, and while Netflix may be the leading provider, it’s Amazon and its Prime Instant Video service that’s become the first to offer it. Netflix however remains firm in its stance that it’s not going to offer offline downloads through its mobile applications, even in the face of competition from its rival. But why?

According to Neil Hunt, Netflix’s Chief Product Officer, Netflix users won’t be able to handle the complexity the added choice will bring.

“I still don’t think it’s a very compelling proposition,” said Hunt, speaking to Gizmodo UK at the IFA tradeshow in Berlin.

As I write this at 34,000 feet over Montana, all I can say is, I don’t buy it.

The biggest use case for downloaded content is air travel. Airlines have been extremely quick at installing WiFi and some of these systems even offer streaming content, but basic WiFi service is still the norm and just about every service out there that I have seen blocks streaming content from Netflix, Amazon, etc. On top of that more airlines are moving to a model where streaming movies and TV hosted on an onboard server are paid content only. The recourse for customers is to download that content before a flight.

About six months ago I made a comment on Twitter about how I wished Amazon would allow downloads of video content on non-Fire devices. There was, and still is, a large amount of video content that I would like to enjoy and now I can, even when flying. Add people who don’t want to eat up their data plan or don’t have access to an LTE network from time to time and the number of those who could benefit from downloads starts to increase dramatically.

The argument that downloads would be too complex seems to me to be a cop-out. An easy way to avoid the discussion. People will take notice and eventually Netflix will have to offer downloads or some variant of them.