Wednesday, October 24, 2007

It’s the Great Pumpkin (Race)

How would a small town in Nova Scotia, known as the birthplace of giant pumpkin growing, make the most of its unique history? What else, put on an annual “pumpkin boat” race across a lake. The town of Windsor (population 3,700) attracted 10,000 fascinated spectators to the event this year, having grown from 5 entries from the event’s inception to 54 at present.

Competitive pumpkin paddling has become surprisingly common across the U.S. and Canada. As the events grow in status, the more serious racers are looking to bred better-crafted boats. The Atlantic Giant pumpkin is not well shaped for sailing, but when cross-bred with a pink banana squash, a sleeker version can be carved.

“It’s a cranky one this year” believed 72-year old Leo Swinimer, multiple-time race winner, who he prevailed once again this year. Keeping his 600-pound pumpkin on course was a little too tricky, thus talk of his retirement is at hand. “Every year he says it’s the last one,” said his son-in-law, “but as soon as March or April comes up, he’ll be out growing them again.”

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Credit Card Frequent Flyer Miles vs Points

For several years, the “conventional wisdom” was that it was best to accrue miles in a single airline program (by flights and credit-card purchases), as well as to collect airline miles themselves rather than convertible “points” that could be used for a ticket. The thinking was that the Capital One, American Express, Merrill, or other points programs redeemed at lower comparative levels than the assumed 2 cents per mile for airline credit-card expenditures and subsequent redemptions.

Now, at least for us, we’re rethinking that model. For more than 20 years, we have lived near small airports (where the dominant carrier didn't always have the best options) and have often driven to other larger airports for various long-haul flights. Thus, we have miles with United, USAir, Alaska, American, and Continental (plus a few on Northwest, Delta, BA, and KLM). We’re not hoarders – we try to use the miles regularly. But redemptions are getting harder to come by, and some commentators have suggested that the "value" of frequent flyer miles has shrunk to barely 1 cent per mile.

We’ve also played the credit card games, switching cards depending on the offers available. Over the years we’ve build up “points” for flights with Capital One, Merrill, and Amex, and used them when we wanted to fly cheap but couldn’t get a carrier’s frequent flyer seat.

Right now, we’ve decided to concentrate on building points using the Hilton HHonors Amex and American Express FreedomPass credit card programs. Hilton’s Amex card offers us 3-5 points per dollar spent, and at their redemption levels, that gets us anywhere from $450-600 worth of Hilton-chain hotel room stays for the same $25,000 in charges that would get us a hard-to-acquire domestic ticket using a United Visa, for example. The American Express FreedomPass program offers essentially 1-1/4 cents per mile, and the points can be used for air tickets on any airline (it’s a “refund” type point arrangement) as well as for other travel services. (Capital One has had a similar long-time program which offers 1 cent per mile, but redemption levels are less friendly.)

So we now use a regular cash rebate credit card for the categories (gas, groceries, etc.) where we can get 3% cash back (better than the “old” 2-cents-per-mile anyway), and use either the Hilton HHonors Amex or the FreedomPass Amex for all our other charges. We still keep our (no-annual-fee) airline credit cards, and use them once or twice a year to keep the clock ticking on each airline’s frequent flyer account in case we don’t fly that carrier.

Friday, October 19, 2007

The Gatwick “Yotel”

Nothing is more troublesome for travelers arriving after a long, uncomfortable overnight flight to Europe than a long layover or the prospect of having to kill the morning wandering around an unfamiliar large city such as London while waiting for their hotel or early evening connecting flight. Now, in London, there is an alternative: a compact cocoon for jet-lagged travelers modeled in part on the Japanese capsule hotel and first-class airplane cabins, the Yotel. Gatwick airport offers a low-budget refuge for those needing a nap, a shower, or a just a little privacy during a long layover (the minimum stay is four hours). The Yotel at Gatwick opened in July, with two other airport Yotels to follow: one at Heathrow airport in early November, a third at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam in early 2008.

Pigeon art in London

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Small Ski Areas; Great Ski Areas – Western North America

There was snow on the high peaks the last couple of weeks, and our minds are already ready for skiing.

We’ve skied many places around Western North America (unfortunately, we haven’t yet skied the East), and have some definite opinions about the ski experience. Before getting into our specific comments, we should tell you our criteria: we prefer great snow, highly varied terrain, and few crowds. Although, sometimes, we do enjoy the mega resorts. So, a few of our choices.

Moonlight Basin, Montana
An incredible area, right next to Big Sky, but with better (though lesser in extent) terrain, better snow, better grooming, and far fewer skiers. It’s still in its “formative” growth stages (a good thing) – where else have you ever seen a parking lot attendant carry a guest’s skis to the base area? Big Sky touts the “best groomed blue run in North America,” but Moonlight’s Meriwether run tops Big Sky’s Elk Park Ridge by far.

Moonlight Basin -- The easy way down is to the left.

Wolf Creek, Colorado
No grooming to speak of, relatively small vertical, but great snow. We’ve honestly found fresh powder tracks five days after a storm. And actually “home-cooked” food (not factory cardboard) in the restaurant. Bring those all-mountain/powder boards, and cash (the restaurant doesn’t take credit cards).

Solitude & Brighton, Utah
These two resorts are one canyon (Big Cottonwood) over from famous Alta and Snowbird (in Little Cottonwood Canyon). The crowds are dramatically less, the snow just as good (or better, since it doesn’t get tracked out by 10 a.m.), and the terrain variety is great. No “town,” little resort lodging or nightlife, but simply great skiing.

Snowmass & Breckenridge, Colorado
Yea, these two are biggies, but still enjoyable. Breck’s terrain is underrated (much like Steamboat’s is overrated), and Snowmass has the best long runs we’ve ever encountered in the U.S. We do love skiing Ajax and Highlands, but feel that Snowmass is the best of the Aspen resorts. The town of Breckenridge has also done a decent job of managing the inevitable Colorado mountain town growth (of which Durango, for instance, is the opposite example).

Lake Louise, Alberta, Canada
Another big resort, but it doesn’t ski all that crowded. The parking lot may look and feel full, but the mountain spreads the ski traffic out pretty well. Plenty of varied terrain, although snow quality can be iffy and it can get COLD. Banff is the closest cool town, but it’s a 45-minute drive to Louise.

Miscellaneous Notes & Opinions:
We really love the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California – in our opinion the most spectacular mountain range on earth – but we’ve never found great snow, or uncrowded days, at any area in the state.
The “trendy” new ski area of Silverton Mountain in southwest Colorado is overpriced and overrated. You ski there to say you’ve skied there.
The biggest and the baddest (from a marketing standpoint, not with ski terrain) of Colorado – Vail – is a vast mountain. But it’s so overrun that even on a weekday powder morning you’ll be hard-pressed to find good snow after 11 a.m. And Breck grooms better.
We’re planning to explore the Pacific Northwest ski areas of Washington and British Columbia, Canada, this winter. We’ll also be returning to Utah this season to ski the Park City area – Park City, Deer Valley, and the Canyons. We’ll post reports later.

Team Atomic and one badass interloper.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Traveling Light And Shopping

Anyone who’s flown in the last couple of years knows the increasing hassles of weight and size limits for both carry-ons and checked luggage. Not to mention dragging all your stuff through multiple airports; nor the chance that your luggage will be “mishandled” (lost, delayed, damaged, or in Nairobi).

So we have a radical suggestion for certain types of trips: Buy your clothing, cosmetics, personal items and the like at your destination. Just carry one small bag onto the plane, into which you have:

  • In-the-air comfort items – book, headphones, ipod, etc.
  • A few truly essential medications and cosmetics – ibuprofen, hand soap, toothbrush, etc.
  • Your best walking shoes (if you don’t wear them), a spare shirt, a change of socks and underwear.
  • Sunglasses, hat, gloves, guidebooks, maps, camera, other small incidentals.
  • And then wear several layers of extra clothing onto the plane, say both a fleece sweater or vest and a jacket.
What else do we really need for the first day or two of almost any trip? Or for the whole of the trip, for that matter? You can buy an umbrella at the airport when you land. You can pick up shampoo, toothpaste, and laundry soap at a store on the way to your hotel. Beyond that, what do you immediately need? Not much. Then, after you’ve arrived and settled in, go shopping. You’ll probably be flying into a city – anywhere in the world – where you can buy an extra pair of pants or a couple of blouses. Maybe a few more pairs of undies and socks. You can also buy a small extra bag to carry those items in while on your trip, or bring a small, light (very light) folding duffel in your carry-on.

Other benefits include not having to wait for your luggage. Getting to the car-rental counter before everyone else. Being able to check-in online for almost every leg of your trip. Going direct to the gate when you have your online boarding pass. And going shopping for clothes that are made for your destination and which your friends will envy when you get home.

One of our favorite pairs of shoes are clogs from Prague – purchased because we had horrible blisters on our heels and couldn’t wear the shoes we’d brought. We also have purchased scarves perfect for the March weather in Paris, and a swimsuit in Canada (for the hot tub). Every second shop in every town on the planet sells T-shirts. Of course, this costs. But it will be far cheaper than being hit with an over-weight luggage fee. And possibly much “cheaper” than the emotional cost of a piece of lost luggage. By shopping sensibly, you should be able to pick up all the essential “extras” (except for maybe shoes) almost anywhere in the world for under $100. This seems to us a small price to pay. Of course, you can always spend a lot more, too.

What to do with all these extra clothes and bottles on your return flight? Trash or give away the shampoo and such. Ship a box of clothes home slow and cheap. Go to a local post office, purchase a sturdy box, and strap it up with that roll of strapping tape you brought. We shipped a surprisingly large and weighty package from Slovenia to Colorado for about $50. Everything arrived just fine. And if the package doesn’t show up, well, it was just some spare clothing anyway. Or, you could always donate the clothing to a charity before you return home.

Obviously, this idea won’t work if you’re a business traveler who needs more than one suit or several dress shirts. Nor if you’re on a ski trip with boots, skis, poles, etc. Nor if you’re a professional photographer with massive amounts of gear. But how often do most of us travel that way? The other time this strategy won’t work so well is if you’re flying multiple legs to multiple destinations. But then, you’ll be traveling light on those trips anyway (we hope).

Other than ski trips, we could have traveled this way on more than 75 percent of our air trips the last few years. And reduced the stress on both our backs and our nerves.

You may think that there’s some “thing” that will prevent you from traveling this way. Our fly-in-the-ointment is how to carry our Leatherman-type knife/multitool. We’ve only partially solved that one (we take nail clippers and bandage scissors on the plane, and buy a small kitchen knife on arrival) – your individual challenge will probably be different. But you’ll figure it out if you get as fed up with airports as we have.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

International Thanksgiving Travel

Fall is the start of low season in Europe, so it's a great time to head abroad for some noteworthy savings and less crowded environments. Traveling around Thanksgiving in the United States can be quite stressful, so why not take the family overseas for the holidays. Europe in the fall is alive with infinite possibilities of a new season . . . theaters and opera houses unveil their newest productions, museums mount their latest blockbuster exhibitions.

Where to go? Visit Berlin’s art galleries, take a stroll through Madrid’s parks and gardens, feast your eyes on the burnt-orange vistas and rust-colored hills of Tuscany as you enjoy fine cuisine or avant-garde music festivals. Operas fill the Czech capital of Prague, or simply enjoy the gorgeous countryside of Champagne with a little bubbly, just minutes by train from Paris.

Of course, there is the small matter of the turkey, but considering all the hustle & bustle exhaustion of the holidays, the family might be willing to entertain the idea of blending American traditions with European travel. Take a chance with the “when in Rome” approach and celebrate your own special family European Thanksgiving, turkey optional.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

International Cell Phones

Over the past couple of years, we’ve experimented (and “experiment” is often the operative word) with a variety of international cell phone options. We’ve used country-specific chips as well as “international roaming” chips.

First, an overview. Most countries of the world use a type of phone and service called GSM. There are several GSM frequencies, but if you purchase a tri-band or quad-band GSM phone, you’ll be OK almost anywhere in the world. Secondly, these phones use SIM chips – replaceable little memory cards that you purchase from a cell-service provider. Third, the individual cell providers in each country usually offer a “pre-paid” plan (where you buy a chip and phone time, and when the time runs out you buy more) or a typical monthly service plan, as most Americans are familiar with. (Unless you live in or spend long periods in a country, the pre-paid option is the only real choice.) Finally, you can purchase single-country SIM chips (UK, Kenya, etc.) or an “international” chip, which theoretically allows you to roam in many countries.

To summarize our experiences, we’ve tried the 09, Riiing, United, and Mobal “international” chips. In our tests, they work poorly, are very costly, are terribly cumbersome to use (requiring PIN numbers, call-back systems, manually selecting networks, and other awkwardness), or simply don’t work at all. We’ve also tried single-country SIMs (mostly from the UK), and have been pleased with the service. Some roaming costs have been high (sometimes $1-2 per minute), but new EU rules should cut that at least in half.

Currently, our suggestion is to purchase a tri- or quad-band before you leave (we’ve seen many decent phones in the $50-100 range), then go to a local phone shop at your destination and purchase a SIM chip. Make sure when you get the chip that you “enable” or set up international roaming if you plan to use the chip outside its home country. This seems to work well across most of Europe. We even saw several Brits using their UK cell phones with no problems in east Africa. The cell situation in Europe has recently changed, and international roaming costs have been lowered across the EU. This should make this option even more practical. Your new chip will have a “local” number, so you’ll have to call or email your contacts back home with that number. Be sure they know how to dial internationally, and that you understand how to dial out internationally from your phone

If you’re tempted by the international chips: buyer beware. We’ve tossed more useless chips than we care to admit – after paying anywhere from 25-50 Euros each for them. (The Mobal chip has no up-front cost, but their per-minute rates are high, and in our experience their coverage isn’t as widespread as advertised.)

Note also that some U.S. phone services may allow you to set up international roaming. We use Verizon in the U.S., which is a different system from GSM, so not an option for us. T-Mobile and Cingular are GSM operators in the U.S., and they may be able to set you up with international roaming – be sure you know coverage and rates.

The best overview we’ve found for GSM options is the PrePaidGSM website, at

A tri-band flip phone, a quad-band phone, and 4 SIM chips.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

United's Italy Sale: Cheap Fares to Rome, Milan

United Airlines is in the midst of a terrific sale on flights to Rome and Milan. Check out these sample one-way fares based on required roundtrip purchase.

Albuquerque to Milan/$348
Baltimore to Milan/$321
Boston to Rome/$284
Chicago to Rome/$315
Los Angeles to Rome/$354
NYC to Milan/$252
San Francisco to Milan/$354
Seattle to Milan/$361

Book travel by October 10, 2007. Depart between December 1, 2007 and February 29, 2008. Travel is valid Monday-Thursday; a Saturday-night miniumum stay is required, and a 30-day maximum stay is permitted. Fares are subject to availability.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Lonely Planet Goes Corporate

Lonely Planet – the quirky company that brought travel guidebooks to the masses and, in part, created the travel boom we have today – has been sold to the BBC Worldwide, according to Internet Travel News.

We’re not sure how this will affect Lonely Planet’s many fans. It may (as the sale press release notes) “strengthen Lonely Planet’s visibility and growth potential, particularly in the digital arena.” Lonely Planet’s web presence has, in our opinion, left much to be desired, and this may be a good move on their part.

We often have complaints with particulars in Lonely Planet’s guidebooks, yet nonetheless own more of theirs than from any other publisher (partly, because, they publish such a huge variety). In general, we prefer to support the little guy, and are often saddened when they sell out to the big boys, but we can’t see too many negatives for this one.