Archive for the 'Flying' Category

Finding a Cheap Last-Minute Room

31 December, 2011

I needed a cheap room in Chicago. At the very last moment I discovered I only needed 2102 miles to reach the 150K milestone with United Airlines, which brings a trove of free upgrades and other goodies. My faulty tracking had shown I’d be more than 10K miles short of this level so I obviously missed some bonuses or something. Anyway, on 28 December I planned a quick mileage run round-trip Portland to Chicago which would net me 3484 miles, more than enough for the 150K bonanza.

Credits from United which got me a good fare and I was upgraded to first class on my cheapo last-minute ticket. Although as you can see below, the food is hardly first class, more like Satanic Arby’s (faux turkey product, yuck) – it’s really just the extra large seat that matters.

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Flights arranged, I needed a last-minute cheapo room in Chicago. I compared newcomer Hotel Tonight against old standby Hotwire. Booking the day of my trip (at Portland’s airport), time and monetary savings were essential.

First up, Hotel Tonight. Their hype is that hotels dump unsold rooms at the very last minute, letting you enjoy huge savings. In fact you don’t have access to any rooms that night until noon local time. I was intrigued and installed the app on my iPhone. (Although Hotel Tonight has a website, you have to use the iPhone or Android apps to book.)

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Registration was easy, more importantly, the web is awash in Hotel Tonight promo codes, so I had a $25 credit before I’d done a thing.

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Hotel Tonight sussed out my location – Portland – during the login (and their promo copy suggests that they’re your best friend for a boozy one-night stand). But I needed Chicago; at 12:05 pm Chicago time they had a mere three choices for me that night (despite my prefs stating NOT O’Hare I was given a shot at an airport hotel). On a night with no conventions in town, getting only three choices was pitiful, even if the prices (eg $119 for the Hard Rock) were not bad.

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I switched to old friend Hotwire, which I have been using for cheap last-minute hotel stays for years. The caveat with Hotwire is that you don’t know the name of the hotel you are buying until after you’ve bought it. Vague neighborhood details and even cloudier hotel details mean that there’s a lot of random factors involved. Still if you can live within these constraints, you can save huge. (Read all my tips on booking a hotel room here.)

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Hotwire uses a mobile web interface instead of an app, but functionality is fine: put in your basic details and see what you get. Chicago-area hotels had plenty of rooms given I got back dozens and dozens of results.

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I gave up hitting “Show 12 more results…” after five clicks.

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Obviously I needed to narrow down the results given the limited charms of suburbs like Oak Lawn and Lisle. One huge annoyance of Hotwire’s mobile web interface is that there’s no “uncheck all” button which means individually saying adieu to Itasca, Burr Ridge and other distant hotspots. Oh “O’Hare Intl Airport ORD South,” the memories we’ll never have.

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My choices narrowed to a broad swath of the city from the Loop north, Hotwire still had scads of choices. Of course one of the compromises is not knowing the exact location where you’ll stay, as you can see from the vast blob that comprises “North Michigan Avenue – Water Tower – Gold Coast.” (Note that in some Hotwire cities, the geographic designations are so vast that about all you can count is being in the same region.)

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Even narrowing down my choices, I still get a huge range of places to choose from. A three-star place for $56, another for $72 plus a two-star for $78. Despite any real definition, more stars are usually better, even if you don’t really know what they mean. I’m trying to go cheap, so there’s no reason to go past the first three screens. I’m actually not too excited by staying in the Loop (dullsville at night and I’ll just have that much further to travel to see friends) or in a “Magnificent Mile Area – Streeterville area hotel” as you can either end up almost in the Loop or out in the desert of high-rise condos and apartments by the lake. And based on past experience, the two-star place in Lake View – Lincoln Park – Wrigleyville is usually the City Suites Hotel on Belmont where the cheap Hotwire rooms butt up against the all-night cacophony of the El.

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Given all the variables, I’m thinking the four-star hotel for $71 is calling out to me; I’ll bite.

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Just like the airlines, added fees and taxes turn that $71 into almost $88, not bad and it’s only taken five minutes. After a couple of screens confirming payment details, I await my mystery hotel to be revealed…

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And the results! The Whitehall, a long-running modest but nice hotel off Rush St on the Gold Coast. (A side historic note, when Rupert Murdoch bought – and nearly destroyed – the Chicago Sun-Times in 1984, he forever branded his new hack publisher as a toady by ordering him in front of the staff to “take my bags to the Whitehall.”)

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Less than two hours after landing at O’Hare, I was in room 1010, watching Notre Dame once again snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in their bowl game against Florida St. With my bargain rate I couldn’t hope for a view beyond my non-view, which would be ideal for reticent exhibitionists. But no complaints, the price was good for my 20 hours in town and I had a delightful night out on the Gold Coast.

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9/11 Resonated for me on 9/14

13 September, 2011

I was in Melbourne, Australia when the planes hit the World Trade Center. I was working in-house at Lonely Planet as a publisher then and was on one of my frequent visits to the home office. I was due to fly back to my home in San Francisco and my desk in the LP Oakland office on Sept 12. I slept through the attacks, which happened in the middle of the night Melbourne time.

The first I knew of the events was when I stopped into the Greek news agent’s store for my  morning paper. Instead of the usual smile, he gave me a stricken look and handed me the paper, which had an enormous picture of the United plane striking the South Tower. The tram ride into work and much of the rest of the day are a blur. I was streaming US network TV on my laptop while friends and colleagues wandered in and out of my office. People were sympathetic, we talked about what the attacks meant and I shared hugs and tears with the few other Americans in the office.

I also found myself stranded at the wrong end of the world. Something inside me said “go home” but that was not an option. Nothing was flying to the US and it was too soon to look for a freighter. I moved hotels – to one with CNN – and literally lost myself in work. We had dozens of authors researching books worldwide and I wanted to find out where each one was, confirm they were safe and find out if they needed anything. No one knew if 9/11 was the start of something larger and yet more horrible. I could only imagine being on the road and alone, far from home.

 The Return Home

Flights to the US were set to resume on 14 Sept and I got a seat on the first United flight out. The prospect of flying didn’t bother me and I was constantly cognizant of being in the wrong hemisphere, a world away from life-changing events. At the airport, nothing seemed different at first; Australia was still digesting the events in the US and while the attacks were talked about, they hadn’t overwhelmed all other discourse and Australian airplanes had never stopped flying.

But once aboard the United 747 on 14 Sept I began to enter the new reality of life in the US. For the first time since 9/11 I was surrounded by Americans. Faces were taut and there was a palpable tension. Everyone seemed to have a copy of a special issue of Time or Newsweek and the images on the pages conveyed a stark horror we’d been insulated from. I was in my usual seat on the upper deck, right at the emergency exit on the right side. As I sat sorting my thoughts, the purser appeared and knelt down in front of me. He beckoned me closer and as I leaned forward he said in a whisper: “Would you be willing to help the crew?” I knew immediately from the quaver in his voice that this wasn’t going to be the usual special instruction about opening the door in an emergency.

“In case there’s trouble on the flight,” he continued, “we’ll need all the help we can get.” Feeling my eyes starting to bug slightly, I murmured a quizzical and tentative “okay…”

Taking my arm, the purser pulled me from my seat and over to the flight attendant station directly across. “Here,” he said pointing at a big cylinder mounted on the right side, “this is the fire extinguisher. If something bad happens, please take it and hit whoever is causing trouble.”

I stared at the celery-green cylinder mounted on the side and managed another “okay…”

“Here’s how you remove it,” the purser continued as he showed how the latch worked. “You try.”

"My" fire extinguisher is tucked away on the side.

I unsnapped the strap and hoisted the extinguisher, which was surprisingly heavy, maybe about 15 pounds. It felt like cast iron and had a slightly pebbled texture to the cold metal case, sort of like the skin of an orange. “Just swing it, hit them over the head,” the purser said encouragingly. “Okay…” I managed as he replaced the device and I sat back in my seat.

The first accounts of the heroics of the passengers and crew on United flight 93 had been published that day. I’d read them, but now they took on a sudden relevance that left me deeply unsettled. I was blithely going to fly home, I was an outsider to everything that happened in the US. Now I was lost wondering what I’d do if trouble erupted. It was easy to assume some Rambo-like role of heroics but who was I kidding? If the unthinkable happened, would I fly into action with my fire extinguisher or would I freeze? Could I drop my role as the bemused observer and actually do something?

Hearing “we appreciate your volunteering” I looked up to see one of the pilots, a guy right out of pilot central casting, giving me warm smile. “I’m sure there won’t be a problem but its good to be ready just in case,” he said, “we don’t want anyone reaching the cockpit.”

“Okay…”

Once in the air, I found it hard to focus on anything but my thoughts about 9/11 and that celery-green fire extinguisher a few feet away. The Producers was showing and normally a gin and tonic enjoyed while Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel realize their improbable path to wealth through theatrical failure would have been the ideal escape. But I couldn’t focus on it. I drank a soda water. The flight attendants were my new best friends. They came by constantly asking me if I wanted anything, they gave me conspiratorial winks. But they also showed plenty of strain.  Several hours into the 13-hour flight I chatted with a few for a while. They knew crew on the flights that crashed, they worried that this was just the start of much greater horrors and they worried – with good reason as it turned out – what would happen to air travel.

Ten years later I have no recollection of who sat next to me, or if anyone did. I didn’t sleep but passed the hours glancing at the flight attendant station, trying to sense sudden movements from the back of the cabin, wondering if I could be of any use and starting to think about 9/11 on a level deeper than just an almost unfathomable spectacle of horror. We landed in San Francisco and I was soon focused on catching up with a society that was profoundly changed from the one I’d left a few weeks before.

 Ten Years Later

Just last week, I was flying back to the US from Sydney on a United 747. As I have during my many flights on these planes over the last 10 years, I looked at the now-familiar and still oddly celery-green fire extinguisher at the flight attendants station. If anything, it now brings back thoughts of “what if” and self-absorbed ponderings of self-doubt. It also reminds me of how we are all cast into roles. Being white, large and then nearly middle-aged, I must have fit the ideal of someone the crew could assume wasn’t a terrorist and would be useful back-up if trouble happened. Nothing about my appearance I guess suggested that I’ve never hit anyone in my life or that I was always picked dead last at baseball, thanks to my inability to swing a bat in any useful way.

But mostly I just fly. I hang onto my droopy-drawer beltless pants as I shuffle shoeless through security I find a much-larger than allowed bottle of liquid forgotten in an obscure pocket of my bag that has gone undiscovered through at least 40 security screenings, and I read accounts like this (Woman flyer strip searched and locked up) which show us just how much we’ve lost and how we’ve collectively allowed these changes which diminish us all. Where’s my fire extinguisher now and why aren’t I using it?

Banda Quest 2: Flight to the Bandas?

20 July, 2011

The biggest challenge of reaching the Banda Islands – the original Spice Islands of Indonesia – is simply getting there. Irregular ferries (more on these rustbuckets in post #5) shuttle between various islands in Maluku and can take more than 9 days from Ambon, the closest major city. There’s an airline called NBA which has one or two flights a week, but they prefer sunny weather so when conditions aren’t ideal, you have to wait days for another shot.

No Problem!

“No problem” is the perpetual refrain of Michael Erenst, the ebullient force of nature at Ambon airport whose job is securing me a ticket on NBA (they don’t have a phone or a website). When I arrive – still burping the previous night’s meal – Michael sends me off to my Ambon hotel with a breezy “no problem” when asked about the odds of my Banda flight actually leaving the next morning.

The wet road ahead

Awakening in Ambon at the unthinkable hour of 5am, I look out the window expecting to see the same dry street I’d seen before passing out the previous night. Instead – horrors! – I see water, lots of water and it’s coming down in the proverbial buckets. And my view remains wet on the one-hour dark and stormy drive to the airport.

When Michael finds me in the rain outside the terminal I ask him if he thinks I’ll be going anywhere. After a glance skyward with a quizzical look, he declares “no problem! It will be sunny!” Inside, the NBA check-in process doesn’t begin until I give the pen-less agent my own. He scribbles out a boarding card for “Jenefer Rian” and off I go, retrieving my pen as the odds of bribing my way to an upgrade seem slim. (In fact one of Michael’s main tasks is seeing that his clients aren’t bumped off the NBA Banda flights by those with more clout.)

Security is a breeze as liquids, shoes, gels and presumably machetes and other tools of mayhem are all allowed. When the terminal’s lights go out, those waiting are simply waved through. Michael jumps the queue while the rain batters the windows in the dim light of a soggy dawn and introduces me to a fellow Banda passenger. Danny van den Broeke is a university student from the Rotterdam whose great-grandfather was born in the Bandas. Now on summer break, he’s using his money earned as a musician for a visit to his ancestral homeland.

“No Problem!”

Slightly manic with both excitement and exhaustion from three solid days of flying, Danny explains that his great-grandfather was taken to Japan to work in a factory during WWII and that no one from the family has been back since. Does he know of any relatives still on the Bandas? “No.” Does he have any contacts on the Bandas? “No.” Instead he’s come almost 8000 miles (13,000km) to find out where he’s from. “I have no idea what to expect,” he says, staring across the sodden tarmac.

Like a sparrow, Michael flits past (he’s wrangling several passengers onto flights this morning) and with a wave says, “You guys can board. It’s clearing up, see, no problem!” And there really is a new shine in the sky. However this does little to brighten the sole member of the NBA fleet. Our twin-engine prop job is an old Spanish military transport from the Franco era in the 1960s. Comforts inside are few; with parachutes we could launch an unsuccessful invasion.

More power to the shields

Still, the pilots have a certain spit and polish (they’re retired Indonesian navy guys) and the duct tape that seems to cover every seam looks recent. We trundle into the air and we’re off. Actually, “off” might imply an alacrity that’s foreign to our plane as we are scheduled to cover the 100-mile distance to the Bandas in just under 70 minutes. A strong headwind could make this an all-day affair.

Danny's first shot

There are no lights in the battered cabin and the few windows are minute and look suspiciously like gun portals. But the cottony clouds slowly passing below have a mesmerizing appeal that’s rather poetic and the time passing becomes a blur. Eventually we come out of the clouds and out of our trances to see the Bandas arrayed below. Danny gets his first photo of the islands that have lured him this great distance. Jutting from the deep midnight blue waters, the three main islands cluster together while the others are scattered in a line running east and west across the seemingly limitless Pacific.

Bandas found

I catch a glimpse of the islands and their lagoons and with a bump we’re down. As I soon discover, it would have been worth flying all day to get here.

Next: The most amazing islands ever


Banda Quest 1: Journey Begins

19 July, 2011

Lost beauty, rare spices, a history of pirates and crazy Dutch people, a pint-sized spurting volcano, and miles of untrod beaches; since 1993 I’ve wanted to see Indonesia’s Banda Islands. But I’ve always been stopped by the sheer logistics of getting there: infrequent, uncertain flights, dodgy ferries (in a country known for ferry disasters) and the islands’ very distance and isolation amidst the smattering of islands in remote eastern Indonesia.

Terminal Confusion

To finally get there, I’m allowing two weeks for travel cock-ups and other fiascos just so I can spend at least two days in this Pacific outpost. I start in Bali, where the always zoo-like domestic air terminal is especially chaotic (and under-cooled) because of school holidays.

Fruits or G-Spot?

The reading choices at the newsstand are under-whelming, with a choice of fruits in English or a G-spot guide in Indonesian (so much for local censorship worries).

Bad banana?

I’m even less tempted by food offerings, including banana-chocolate cookie boxes adorned with a woman who appears to have been slipped a bad banana.

My flight on budget carrier Lion Air finally leaves a couple hours late. I’m only going as far as Makassar today as my goal is Ambon in Muluka (the region with the Bandas) and I don’t want to risk a tight same-day connection as Ambon is where I get the irregular flight to the Bandas.

Don't miss the plane

If I miss this Thursday’s flight on the one-airplane airline with the Banda service monopoly, I get to hang out for another week in Ambon, mostly known of late for its regular Muslim vs Christian riots.

Makassar proves memorable for all the wrong reasons. My room at the (now-considered execrable) Kenari Tower is a disappointment. The window is blocked by a sign outside hawking new cheap rates, the Ikea-branded light (Torgë? Bütfc?) falls apart when I switch it on, stains of the most vivd colors and sizes abound, the internet is off and just as I lose my cool, I realize it might actually be the temperature. Yep, the air-con has failed. To the Kenari’s credit, a complaint gets action and my room fills with young men who raise their hands in front of the feeble trickle of muggish air and fruitlessly poke at the controls. After an hour of debate, it’s finally decided to take the surprising step of moving me to a room with working air-con.

Dinner of Doom

Off to dinner, I opt for the uniquely named Mie Titti, which is highly recommended in, yes, the Guidebook. I have the house special mie kering titti, which is a bowl of freshly fried crispy thin noodles under a sprightly lemon and garlic sauce studded with chicken bits. It’s actually quite tasty. Unfortunately it’s a taste that keeps giving as the first burp arrives during the short walk back to the Kenari and this proves to be merely the forward scout for an entire army of burps, belches and other rumblings.

Makassar's dazzling new airport

By 3am it’s clear I’ve made a gross error in mealtime judgement and I fantasize about the Ayurvedic practice of having your innards hosed out top to bottom. At 10 I return to the dazzling new airport where the check-in, wait and flight all seem interminable but actually are quite efficient and I arrive in Ambon right on time. My spoiled and soiled carcass is met by the effervescent Michael “no problem” Erenst, whose job is to get me on the one flight to the Bandas the next morning. The airline, the otherwise unknown NBA, has no website or phone number, rather, you let fixers like Michael sort things out and you hope that any of many reasons that NBA used for canceling their flight and stranding in you in Ambon don’t come to pass.

Afloat to Ambon

But such details are far from my concerns. I want only a bed and a place of mie kering titti-free refuge. The hour-long ride to the bright lights of Ambon include a ferry across the bay, but it’s all a blur and things look up when I check into the Hotel Mutiara. My room is cool, clean and blissfully silent. I sleep for 12 hours. If there are any riots, I miss them.

Next: Flight to the Bandas?

On a Wing and a Prayer

18 July, 2011

Lion Air, which I’ve flown often around Indonesia is sort of like Southwest in the US or, tellingly, a nicer version of Ryanair. Besides the safety card (Run away!!!), each seat pocket features an “Invocation Card.”

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It covers six main religions for Indonesia and offers lengthy custom-written prayers in several languages that focus on surviving the flight. Each religion gets its own prayer, verbatim excerpts follow.

Note that for my tribe, the Catholics, a good flight includes a peaceful family – no Quiet Man antics allowed, while Budha gets to the heart of the matter.

Islam:

“Embark ye on the Ark. In the name of God.Whether it moves or be at rest.”

Protestant:

To the all air crew, Thou will lead their duty in order for us arrive to destination in time and save.

Catholic:

Bless us with the guidance from your angels, so that crew of this aircraft will lead us to our destination safely. We also hope that our family remain happy and peaceful until wee land safely.

Hindu:

Keep our minds and manners pure and let us attain inner peace and happiness.

Budha:

May all beings be well and happy.

Khonghucu:

Please be your guidance for all the airline crews. So they can perform their job accordingly.