Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Gundy and me.

Today is my 40th birthday, notable only in the sense that I can finally unleash this rant on someone at work:




Thank you Mike.  Thank you very much.


And Happy Halloween y'all.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Future United: IAH (Premier Upgrade edition)

Back in August I opined on the future of United Airlines at IAH and what changes were coming from a capacity standpoint.  As more and more flights formerly serviced by former Continental's relatively new(ish) 737 fleet get moved away to Denver and Chicago the A319's that are going to be a mainstay at IAH are starting to show up on an increasing number of routes.

Besides diminished capacity, what exactly does this mean?

For one, the hard product is going to be much less than it was in the 738's and 739's.  The A319 is not the same plane from a comfort standpoint (in my opinion) as Boeing's workhorse.

From a MileagePlus Premier standpoint it's going to mean significantly reduced upgrade capacity.

Here are a few screenshots from SeatGuru.com to illustrate:

Previous service:
737-800


737-900 v.1


737-900 v.2
 Future State:

A319
As you can see, in many cases domestic flights out of IAH will be losing 2-3 rows of BusinessFirst seating, making complimentary upgrades for mid to lower tier (silver, gold, and in many cases Platinum) Premier passengers a thing of the past.  What will increase is the opportunity for economy plus upgrades, but that's a severe step down in the value of Premier status.

The decline is even more pronounced when you realize that, in many cases, the "current" 737 service is already a downsize, on some routes, from 757 service:
752

753
Taking into account this scenario most United Premier passengers, flying a domestic leg out of IAH, are facing a 66% reduction in the possibility that a complimentary BusinessFirst upgrade is going greet them at the gate.  This is a HUGE reduction in value for mid-to-low level United Mileage Plus customers flying out of IAH. 

Now, before the conspiracy theorists out there start running with this, I do NOT think this is a situation where United is trying to "get" Houston.  While Houston travellers (especially those still loyal to United) are going to see a reduction in their value, I really believe this is more of the continuing repositioning of the airline toward Chicago and Denver, and away from a suddenly not-very-profitable IAH.  And yes, some (not all) of this has to do with the projected inclusion of Southwest into the Latin American market from HOU.  A large piece is also due to the money-saving deal between DIA and United Airlines with a promise from UA to increase capacity there.  Not to mention the fact that Chicago is also looking for an increased share of the pie, and both cities have indicated a willingness to work with United in order to receive this.

Houston, meanwhile, has thrown it's hat squarely into SWA's ring and is hoping that the increased capacity at HOU will more than offset the coming decreases at IAH.  After getting a tongue lashing from City Council on the decision to keep United's corporate HQ in Chicago (where, again, the city had agreed to tax abatements to keep them there) and a laundry list of customer complaints (on slights real and imagined) United has obviously decided to de-emphasize it's Houston presence for the long term.

As I stated before, over time it's my expectation that IAH continues to be a key hub in the United system, but they're slowly crawling toward the moment in time where they're no longer the biggest, or most important hub.  Unfortunately the first people to feel the pinch are going to be the United Premier flyers out of IAH.


That's too bad.

You knew this was coming...

Because of US Airway's irregular operations in Rome my MileagePlus account has not upgraded to reflect the second half of my trip.
Still Silver
Fortunately United offers a fairly easy to fill out form online which allows you credit for those miles.  Technically you're supposed to wait 15 days to see if the miles post, but my experience has been that if they don't post within 5, they're not posting.

The first half of the trip was up and posted in 4 days for reference.  It's not a big deal, but it's a reminder to ALWAYS keep your receipts and your boarding passes.

Friday, October 26, 2012

United News and 787 discussion

Given United's recent poor earnings announcement (and the accompanying spin) you'd think that they don't want to have these rumors swirling around

Courtesy of Seth, the Wandering Aramean:

The generally reliable @airlineroute account on twitter is reporting now that the one-time flights from Houston to Cleveland and Washington-Dulles will be scrapped. Additionally, the scheduled service to Newark, Los Angeles and San Francisco will see some substitutions.
Deployment of the Nightmare Dreamliner has been a cornerstone of CEO Jeff Smisek's plan for righting the ever listing Good Ship United.  Recently they've shown signs of returning to operational competence.  United is betting heavily on the 787 to place UA above their competitors in terms of in-flight experience. Having to drastically under deliver (in the beginning) on this service could potentially be crippling, especially when you consider (in many cases) 787 service can be significantly more expensive than service on Boeing metal flights.

The first article, courtesy of The Street, offers up a pretty good synopsis of where United stands currently, and opinions as to why they've lost revenue while their competitors have grown.  What remains clear, to me at least, is that United did lose substantial passenger traffic in many regions to their competitors.  Now that they have them, their competitors are NOT going to be willing to just let them go back.

Failure to properly anticipate operational issues stemming from the merger, the inability to solve labor disputes in a timely manner and a poor PR response to several issues (service problems, Houston, among others) has temporarily crippled the UA brand.  All of these are failures in strategy of the executive branch, leaving open to question whether or not Jeff Smisek is a competent enough CEO, and has surrounded himself with competent enough leadership, to run an airline the size and scope of UA?

Right now I'd say the jury is still out on UA's leadership.  If they don't get this mess sorted soon however it could come back negative.

"Ladies and Gentlemen this flight has been cancelled"

When you're flying US Airways, and things go pear-shaped, you are on your own.

I say this not as an indictment of the company, but as a warning that you get what you pay for.  Let me stress this right off the top: 90% of US Airways employees that we dealt with in our return from Rome debacle were friendly, pleasant to deal with, and totally unable to assist us beyond providing rote information.

Back-tracking:

The wife and I were booked on US 721 scheduled to leave Rome(FCO) at 13:10 arriving in Charlotte(CLT) at 17:17 on Tuesday.  We then had a connection onto another flight arriving Houston at 21:45.  I had Wednesday off of work to give me one day to rest, clear my system of jet-lag and be ready for work in the morning.  Unfortunately things did not turn out as planned.

Prior to our flight there were two flights that cancelled flying out of FCO.  One British Airways flight to London(LHR) due to fog, and one Lufstansa flight to Berlin (SXF) due to a mechanical failure. When we got to the baggage claim we were advised that our previously 2/3 full flight was now 3/3 full, and that we would also need to check our roller boards through to IAH.  Fortunately, I didn't have anything but dirty clothes in my luggage, and my wife just had clothes and baubles in hers, so we dutifully checked our bags (after ensuring we wouldn't incur any additional checked-bag fees) and went through the rest of the security process.

Boarding, was smooth.  I had previously purchased preferred access for both the wife and I so we were in boarding zone 1.  I had done this with the expectation that we would then have plenty of room to stow our roller-boards in the overhead bins.  Obviously I had not anticipated the flight cancellations, or the fact that US Airways 30+ year old 767-300's had what are quite possibly the worst overhead storage bins in the world.  To say these planes are old and antiquated is not adequate.  There were ashtrays in the armrests for Chrissakes.  To say that my seat was lightly cushioned is being generous.  Fortunately, I had brought an ergonomic seat cushion to spare me the torture of a 9 hour rear-end acupuncture section.

Cushions firmly in place the wife and I buckled in and waited for push-back.  And we waited, and waited.  About 15 minutes past our scheduled departure time I realized things were starting to bottom out.  I turned to my wife, noted the time and said "Uh-oh".  The wife nodded and I waited for what I suspected was coming.  Almost immediately after that we heard from Captain Ron (not his real name).  The good Captain informed us that there was a fault with the radar system and that mechanics were working on it so we should be on the way fairly soon. Shortly after that he informed us that the problem was fixed, there was just some EU paperwork to complete and we'd be on our way.

All of this sounded good, except that it wasn't fixed and we weren't on our way.  The fault resurfaced, the mechanics opened things back up and (after approximately 1 1/2 hours) decided that the problem was a faulty part that needed to be replaced, for some reason however, the replacement part in question could not be located.  All of this eventually led to the announcement in the title.  Full cancellation.  The Flight Service Manager then came onto the intercom, informed us that we would be deplaning and heading to baggage claim where we would receive instructions about how we were going to get home tomorrow.

One of the curiosities regarding irregular airline operations is how docile the crowd can become. You're typically dealing with one of two scenarios:  Either everyone follows directions and proceeds calmly, or there's one or two people who decide this cannot be tolerated and decide to cause a ruckus.  Fortunately, in this case, everyone did as instructed and we were off the plane and at baggage claim fairly quickly.

According to instructions, the "plan" was for us to retrieve our bags and then receive re-booking information from the helpful US Airways staff that would be ready to assist. Unfortunately the "plan" did not filter down to the staff on the ground.  After retrieving our bags the crowd (around 200 strong from a full 767 FWIW) turned around to an empty US Airways booth.  At this point our shaky group decorum started to crack.  Customers were getting angry and there was nowhere to vent their spleen.  People started muscling past other people, I thought a couple of senior citizens were going to come to blows and the general calm was moving rapidly into the yellow and orange threat levels.

Fortunately, I had a working cell phone, so I dialed up US Airways customer service who gave me a number to call for just such an occasion. Within 20 minutes (and after trying to explore every option) I had two seats booked for me and my wife leaving the next day at 12:30 arriving finally in Houston at 21:45.  Unfortunately all of my efforts to get us out that day were thwarted due to us being the 3rd flight cancelled at FCO that day.  Every option was full.*

As I finished my ticketing the first US Airways worker had the misfortune of walking through the 721 posse.  It was now 20 minutes after we were told someone would be there to assist us and the natives were restless.  Unfortunately, this young lady was NOT someone who had information.  She told everyone that someone would be around in about 5 minutes with information as to what to do.

It's probably important to mention, at this time, that in Italy time is more of a suggestion than an absolute.  5 minutes can mean anything from 5 minutes, to an hour.  Around an hour later (15:30) three ladies came up with sheets of paper pointing out that we've had a service disruption (uh, yeah!) and that US Airways apologized for the inconvenience and if you would please contact the 1-800 number provided they would assist you with re-ticketing.

So now the issue had become one of phone service.  In fact, approximately 2/3 of the passengers did not have cell phones that worked in Europe.  There was a lot of resulting scrambling, some mild (and not so mild) cursing and a general feeling of helplessness that hung in the air.  Mini groups started forming around the cell phones that did work, and I'm guessing that some people eventually got seats, but most went out to the check-in area and tried to deal directly with the agents there.

At this point I'm going to have to leave those people to the annals of history.  I'm hoping they all eventually got flights, and I tried to help some make phone calls on my phone.  But the financial realities of International roaming charges meant that I couldn't help everyone.  If any of you are reading this, I hope you eventually made it out.

At this point the wife and I decided we might be better off breaking away from the herd and charting our own course.  We now had a flight booked, but no place to stay the night and no US Airways personnel that seemed to understand our eventual need for sustenance and shelter.  Eventually however, we ran across one of the ladies with the folders full of instruction sheets.  We decided they might be more informed than most so I went up and asked them what we were supposed to do for lodging.  We were instructed to follow the signs to the Airport Hilton and they had all of the details and would handle our room and meal vouchers.  Progress!

Everything from that point was fairly routine.  We got directions to the Hilton ("It's just up the stairs and a 5 minute walk") proceeded to walk for 20 minutes before arriving in the lobby, received our room keys and meal vouchers and proceeded to go up to our room and relax for a few.


At this time it was around 17:00.  We weren't yet ready for dinner so we went to the hotel bar and ordered most of it.


One final Day One note:  The meal vouchers were not good in the restaurant, they had set up a buffet in one of the ballrooms offering pasta, pasta and pasta.  Since the wife has Celiac disease and cannot eat pasta, we did not use the vouchers and paid for our meal in the hotel restaurant.  Judging from the feed back from those who ate the buffet we made the correct choice in skipping over-cooked pasta and cold fish in tomato sauce.

After we ate it was up to the room for some much needed sleep before flying out on day 2.

Day Two was less eventful.  We arrived via shuttle at the airport early, checked in, got our boarding passes only to find out that the Preferred Access I paid for didn't transfer over to the first leg of our flight.  Instead of boarding zone 1, we were in boarding zone 6.  When I approached the gate agent to inform her of this she told me that "Preferred Access does not exist in Rome".  She continued this lie even after I showed her yesterday's cancelled flight boarding passes that confirmed it did.  I explained to her that I paid good money for this and expected to receive what I pay for.  I was then informed that if I did not like it, I could not fly or contact US Airways when I got home. Obviously, I just opted for the latter and the wife and I were among the last to board.  Unfortunately, our bags had to be stowed 1/2 a plane away from us so we were also the last to deplane as well.

The flight from FCO to CLT was fine.  As the plane took off everyone on board started clapping.  As we landed in CLT they clapped again.  As we arrived at the gate everyone stood up and waited to deplane.  And we waited, and waited.  After about 15 minutes of waiting we were told there was a problem with the JetWay (Not US Airways fault, but CLT's) and that we were going to be towed to another gate for deplaning.  Amazingly, no one tried to claw their way out of a window or through the floor into a cargo bay.

Like a Christmas miracle, right as the towing vehicle arrived, the JetWay healed itself and we reverted to plan A and made our way through customs.

Here's where the power of Global Entry and Pre-check security is demonstrated.  Despite being the last off the plane, the wife and I were among the first through customs and security.  We were in the front of the line to re-check our bags and went through CLT security with no line.  We had plenty of time for dinner, a couple of adult beverages and to freshen up before leaving to IAH.

Unfortunately we had more time than we bargained for, because our flight to Houston was delayed about one hour waiting for the plane to arrive (It had been delayed at it's origin because of a mechanical problem.  If it was the radar I was going to laugh, but I never found out what it was for sure). It was a little surprising to see this because this appeared to be a newer Airbus 321.**

Finally, at around 10:45 PM Houston time we arrived in Houston, gathered our bags, and made it home around 12:30 AM.  We grabbed a few tacos at Taco Cabana, ate, and I ironed my clothes for work and went to bed.  I was up the next morning at 6:00 AM to go to work, stepped out to my car and the battery was dead.

I made it into work around 10 AM.


On my next trip I'm flying United Airlines again.  It will be nice to be home.
















*One note: At FCO they stop flying to the US at around 4PM, there was a Lufstansa flight to Frankfurt and a United flight to Newark, both were at capacity.  It's very limited what you're able to do to get to the States in the afternoon at FCO

**One big Boo to US Airways.  Their new planes have zero IFE.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

"In Rome, there is always a strike"

A few thoughts on my recent trip to the City of Light.....


 - The title is what the shuttle bus driver told us as we were unable to get down the street that led to our hotel.  Some folks with red flags and green smoke (nice touch) were striking because the financially strained government was threatening to cut something they used to get for free.  As such, we had to walk 15 minutes (hauling our luggage) to our hotel entrance instead of being delivered there as we paid for. 

 - It's a VERY crowded, hectic, not-very-much-fun city IF you limit yourself to the tourist zone.  Don't get in a hurry and, unless you want to pay a LOT of extra Euros, be prepared to wait in very long lines.  Also, you will be panhandled and approached by pushy street merchants often.  They do not take no for an answer at first, and will just stand there and stare at you if you try to ignore them.  Have some fun and make a game out of annoying them.  We did.

 - Away from the tourist high-points, Rome is very charming.  Some of the best food can be had at the smallest places, although the old tourist book adage "eat where the locals eat" doesn't always apply to Rome.  Many of the locals eat at the touristy spots out of necessity.  My hint: Look for a place off the beaten path that has tried to write a street menu in English but has misspelled something.  We ate at a great little place that offered "tipical" Roman food. (And which had gluten free bread for my wife as well.)

 - Maps of Rome are about the most useless travel tool ever.  I'm referring to the tourist maps that are at every hotel.  First, because of all the back alleys and small side streets, 1/2 the street names you're looking for won't be on there.  Second, imagine a bowl of spaghetti.  OK, you now have the street layout of Rome.  There are some signs for tourists near the big areas, look for anything else?  You'll get there.  Stop at a cafe and drink a coffee.

 - Time (and traffic laws) are more suggestions than actual dictates.  "Five Minutes" can mean anything from five minutes to half an hour.  It's flexible.  When you cross the street you take your life into your own hands.  In theory, at lighted cross-walks, the cars are supposed to yield right-of-way to pedestrians.  In practice this is a coin flip proposition.  If it's a scooter you're less than 3-1 against.  Tread carefully.

 - As mentioned earlier, dining al fresco is an overrated, panhandle-filled, dirty, loud undertaking.  Unless you just have to feel like you're dining "In the European way" take a seat in door, usually in the A/C and you can enjoy your meal in relative comfort.  At least the waiters will (sometimes) shoo the crap-hawkers out of the restaurant.

 - In Italian food, simpler is better.  I can't stress this enough.  In America we have taken a fairly healthy cuisine and turned it into a gloppy, overwrought mess. (Think: Good writing, then my writing on this blog)  The best dishes that I ate in Rome were 5-6 ingredients, tops.  Also: Pasta Carbonara is probably what is being eaten right now by the Almighty himself.  I am not exaggerating.  You rarely go wrong if you choose this as your pasta course.  I ate it every meal except one, where it wasn't offered on the menu and I went for tagliatelle con fungi.

 - In October, Porcini mushrooms are in season.  You're welcome for that tip.

 - Prices are negotiable, and very negotiable if you're not a Roman.  They also start out ridiculously high.

 - Mussolini did not exist.  Just in case you think he did do not bring this up with the Romans.  Still a very tender subject.

 - Burlusconi did exist, you will find out quickly whether the Roman you're talking to loves or hates him.  There is no middle ground.


And finally....

 - Avoid, at all costs, US Airways 767 flights into/out of Rome.  Take the Airbus 330's.  Trust me on this one.


More on a lot of this later, with pictures. 

Friday, October 19, 2012

Food Fridays: Paris edition


Croque Madame
 Recipe

It's basically a ham and cheese sandwich with cheese browned on the outside topped with a sunny side up egg. And yes, it is as delicious as it sounds.  I was eating these almost daily in Paris for lunch.  Not breakfast however, in France, breakfast is bread & coffee.  Almost every Bistro we visited had a "breakfast special" of a baguette, a croissant, espresso and orange juice.  Bread, bread (butter) and coffee.  Can't beat that to start the day.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

It sure sounds fun

But it's really not.

One thing I've learned in travelling to different places is that names can often be deceiving.

Case in point:

The Red Monkey - Old San Juan
The Red Monkey is not a BAD bar, it's just not a special bar in any way.  they have a clever name and the logo on the building is cute, but there are dozens of little watering holes throughout Old San Juan with freer pours.

SeƱor Frog's - For some reason, this place is popular with tourists.  In reality it's a dive bar with corporate (read, weak) drinks and sub-par food.  Too much noise as well.  (although the DJ was good)

Casino de Madrid
Possibly the most boring place I visited in Madrid.  Now, granted, having some knowledge of the history of the place I knew going in that it wasn't an actual "casino", more of a social club for old, rich Spanish Gentlemen to gripe that the Empire ain't what it used to be but still.

Texas Embassy - Bad Tex-Mex, watered down Margaritas and a staff that's too damn London cool to care.  If you're visiting London and you're from Texas you might stop by and take a picture or two, but pass on eating there.  It's better not to.


I think the key, in most cases, is to stay away from places with names that are too cute, too obvious.  There's too much to see out in the world that doesn't involve a monkey in a martini glass, make sure you don't miss it.

Monday, October 15, 2012

US Airways: Dine Fresh!

For an upcoming trip to Rome in US Airways coach (oh boy) I received the following invitation to up my dining experience:
Dine Fresh e-mail.
Click on the image above to enlarge.

That's right, for just $19.99 I can make my selection from the following menu options:

Forgive my lack of enthusiasm but, as you can see from above.  I'm really only given two options, both are chilled, and neither sounds very appetizing to me in a cold state.  Cold chicken? Cold tortellini?

After security in PHL I have the following options all of which sound better (and cheaper) than that.

Chik-fil-a
Famous Pizza (OK, I'm not planning on eating airport Italian before I get to Rome)
Philly cheese-steaks

I've got plenty of time on my layover to purchase a meal and save myself the gastronomical adventure that is US Airways coach meal service.

I'm buying a cheese-steak sandwich, and some Chik-fil-a for breakfast.  I'm going to have a couple of hours to kill in PHL so I think I'll pass.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Back and forth on bashing the airline industry.

To a point, it's gotten sad.  Every day brings another horror story of some hours-long delay where travellers are stuck at an airport with seemingly no way to procure sustenance or entertainment.  We're to the point now that being stuck in an airport is the modern-day travel equivalent of spending time in solitary confinement, in a Vietnamese prison.

Gary Shteyngart got the ball rolling with his fatwa against American Airlines trans-Atlantic service. Not only was his experience unacceptable, but it was proof of case (in his mind) tha American should roll up the sidewalks and stop providing service across the pond.  This was then followed by a reader letter to the NY Times seriously expressing disbelief that a hastily cobbled together government bill (the so-called Passenger Bill of Rights) hasn't done anything to alleviate the laundry list of water torture like inconveniences travellers are forced to endure. Amusingly, the light on real world experience, progressive writer Matt Yglesias decided to put in his two cents blaming, of course, American's failure to capitulate to the unions during bankruptcy.

This is just a small sampling of the public gripes that I pulled from a (half-hearted) defense of the airlines by Patrick Smith writing in the Daily Beast.  A review of any ChronBlog article on the aviation industry brings out a hoard of "United should close down" nabobs spewing anger, bile and not a few hilarious misstatements of fact.  Even the travel message boards, purportedly populated by "savvy" fliers regularly devolve into flame fests when one member's 27 leg, 2 open jaw, fuel-dumped, intentionally booked to be as convoluted as possible flight plan goes even slightly pear shaped.  Don't ever let first class run out of Krug, or have the good folks at Lufstansa first class run out of rubber duckies or put more than two people in the Porches that ferry First Class travellers from the first class terminal to the planes.

In the aspirational travel world of hand-made cards by flight attendants and anger that the complimentary noise-cancelling headphones aren't made by Bose, complaints of scratchy pajamas are legion.  Reading gripes about the service issue du jour has moved from slightly-amusing hobby to increasing annoyance to constant screed.  Missing from any of this discussion is what you can do to avoid these traps, instead we get a river of flame describing these issues, in excruciating detail.

Here's the rub.  If airline travel has gotten this bad, so bad that even aspirational travel bloggers and writers (those folks who travel almost exclusively first class, on points) have decided that it's worthy of hundreds of lines of moaning and complaining, then all hope may truly be lost.  Except that I don't really believe that it is.

We're coming out of a period where two of the four major US carriers are in major states of flux.  United was going through the pains of merging with Continental and American was experiencing the challenges faced due to bankruptcy.  In almost all cases passengers did get where they need to go, eventually.  Plus, and this is the part where I defend the airlines, in many cases the flying public expects airline operations to be powered by unicorn farts and fairy dust.  When things go wrong the general inclination is to throw up one's hands, let your hair catch on fire and run to the Internet to vent.  Rarely have I found this to be good practice.  In most cases how your issue gets resolved is your problem.  I've solved many problems by being proactive and discussing potential problems over the phone with the airlines before I fly.  I resolved an unwanted long-layover w/United due to their schedule change by just giving them a call and checking my options.  On an upcoming trip (to Rome, in US Airways coach *yikes*) I called up and confirmed the wife's gluten free meal and I'm bringing along ergonomic seat cushions so that I don't end up with numb-butt after a 9 hour flight sitting in US's notoriously rear-end unfriendly seats.

I agree, when things do go terribly pear-shaped the airlines could, in many cases, do a better job of information dissemination.  It's frustrating sitting at the gate while the gate agent types merrily away on the mystery screen of death with no departure updates or anything of the type.  You can alleviate this however by downloading a mobile app and monitoring updates from the comfort of the nearest bar.  I did this in Seattle while we were on our way to Alaska and awaiting our crew to arrive from another flight.  While the rest of the passengers sat at the gate stewing themselves into a hot anger, the wife and I were enjoying cocktails and appetizers until around 30 minutes before our departure.  The point is, irregular operations are often what you make of them and do not necessarily have to result in an online explosion of bile and fury.

Unless Lufstansa first class is out of rubber ducks.  Then complain away.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

San Juan Fortifications

On my recent trip to San Juan the wife and I spent half a day touring the San Juan National Historic Site which is one of the "must-do's" on any trip to the island. Not only is the site of historical significance, but it also offers some of the best opportunities for picture taking.  See below:


WWII Observation deck and Old Spanish Observation deck

Signs and historical information

Spanish Obervation house

Close-up of Spanish Observation house

Courtyard View

View from inside WWII observation deck
One unique feature of the fortifications is the side-by-side existence of the old Spanish observation houses and the added on, by Americans, WWII observation decks which provides a unique compare and contrast of naval military defenses in differernt eras.

The thing that struck both my wife and I was how narrow some of the walkways were leading up to the old Spanish observation points.  In most of them I could not walk through them without turning my shoulders sideways.  We tried to imagine a fully armored Spanish soldier walking through some of those openings and decided that they would need to be of really slim build.  I admit that I'm a hefty guy, but my wife is certainly not and some of the walkways felt tight even to her.

There are two main parts to the park, the Castillo San Felipe de Morro, which guards the entrance to the bay, and the Castillo san Cristobal which guards the land-side of Old San Juan.  Included in both are mock-ups of crew quarters (spartan) and some interesting history on the city of Old San Juan, including the constant early battle between the needs of the citizens for living space and the needs of the military for defense. 

Each Castillo is located on opposite ends of Old San Juan. My suggestion is to start at San Cristobal, which has a walk through a long underground tunnel by the dungeons. Before you enter the tunnel signs will alert you to interesting wall-art you should try and find.  You can purchase a ticket for $3 per person to each individual fortification, but I recomment saving $1 and opting for the $2 add-on which allows you to see both fortifications over a period of seven days.  Just keep your receipt.

The walk between the fortifications is along the ocean and passes by the slum of La Perla.
La Perla
Normally, during the day, I would have gone down and taken a closer look at La Perla but, to be honest, there really didn't seem to be anything down there worth getting a closer look at.  While we were passing by however, there was a very attractive Puerto Rican woman and a small boy, surrounded by television cameras filming some sort of documentary.  Our guess was that she came from the area and had 'made it out' of the slum and was doing something tracing her roots back.  They seemed to spend a lot of time filming her showing the boy Carmelo Anthony Basketball court, I don't know if she was related to him or not.
Carmelo Anthony Court
After about a 15 minute walk (wear sun screen) you arrive at the lawn in front of Castillo San Felipe de Morro where, on a nice day, you'll see a lot of people flying kites.
Kite flying at the Castillo
The Castillo San Felipe de Morro is smaller, but very interesting.  It does involve a lot of walking up and down stairs to get to the bottom level so be prepared for that.  If you do make it to the bottom however look for the piece of shrapnel still lodged in the wall from Spanish Colonial days. Pretty interesting.  You also get to walk through the oldest of the fortifications here, and you get the closest to the sea.

This tour will probably take you most of the morning and will last into the early afternoon, so make sure to eat breakfast and bring along plenty of water.  If you do run out of fluids there are gift shops in both castles that sell Gatorade for $2.50 and bottles of water for $1.  We purchased water at the first castle and used the public water fountains to refill them along the way.

By the end of this you're probably going to be hungry.  As you re-enter San Juan proper look for El Patio de Sam on Calle San Sebastian.  There you can find a good deal on Medalla Light (pretty much the Puerto Rican light beer) or a Sangria and you can get a filling lunch for a fair price.  They have good sandwiches and I ordered a great Milenesa which, in Puerto Rico, is a thin breaded and fried steak with (of all things) a spicy Marinara sauce.

After lunch you're going to want to go back to your hotel, shower, and take a siesta.  Have I mentioned how hot it is in Puerto Rico?

Monday, October 8, 2012

Short Haul Flights (10/08/2012)

So much bad travel journalism out there right now.....


Any airline CEO that replies like this should not be an airline CEO - Not that every little item is incorrect (many of them are correct) but just because you've decided to not like people doesn't mean they should.

And yes, the disconnect between the airlines and their customer base is growing. - This is not, nor has it been for a long time, news.  But expecting the airlines to do a 180 on fees is silly.

The Merger of Two airlines can be like herding cats. - If nothing else, United's service disruptions have reflected that.  That they appear to be moving out of it so quickly is a credit to management.

Cellphones in the sky - I'm not sure if there's a safety reason why this can't be done, but I would offer up another reason entirely:  Peace and quiet.  Think about that for a minute.

Wi-Fi on the other hand...would be a great addition to the in-flight experience. More please.

Ellington Space Port - Hey, it could happen.

How low can you go? Apparently, pretty low.

Texans abroad...

While not a life-long Texan I "got here as soon as I could" so to speak and have spent most of my life within the confines of Texas State lines.  As such, I always find it amusing to see so much attention paid to Texas in other corners of the globe.

There's the Texas Embassy (an underwhelming Tex-Mex joint) in London, there are several restaurants in Paris offering "Texas" style steaks and, to my surprise, this picture on a street corner in Anchorage, Alaska:
We didn't bow.
The obvious point of the sign is Alaska's geographic size advantage over the Lone Star State and that, once Alaska became the 50th State, the fact that Texas was no longer the largest State in the Union. (Most) Texans have learned to live with this, being instead satisfied that our economic indicators are stronger than other States and that our State Fair is the fried food capitol of the world.  All in all they're amusing little regional spats that remind you, as a Texan, that even though you may be travelling outside of the Lone Star State, you're still on everyone's minds to some degree.

I will say this for Alaska, not only are they bigger geographically but they also have a huge advantage in the size of their produce:
Giant Zucchini

Giant Cabbage
We discovered this gigantic produce at the Anchorage farmer's market.  The zucchini pictured was longer than my arm and the cabbage that was on display was bigger than an average person's head.

The farmer's market in Anchorage was great, but it's got nothing on the street markets in Paris:
Note the large leeks

Street cheese in Paris

The Olive Ciabatta was amazing

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

At one time....

.....I was a political blogger and this was a political blog.  Probably not a very good one mind you, but one that had a small, recurring, readership and that actually won an award. (Best Local Blogger - Houston Press 2009).  Of course, that award was for Lose an Eye, It's a Sport, which I actually shuttered about two days before winning said award. (Oops.)

I say all that to say this:  I won't be watching the debates tonight, and I won't be blogging the Presidential, or any other, election this year.  I just don't have any interest in show business for ugly people any longer.  At least, not in blog form.

If, for some odd reason, you still want to see what I think is important (politically, from the media, etc) you can follow my Diigo Feed or you can keep up with me on Twitter (User Name: Blogawful)  Given the quality of content coming from our politicians lately I think a 140 character cap is just about all they deserve.

Because this blog is now of a more personal bent (with a healthy bit of travel information) I still might opine on transit issues from time to time because I do feel those to be of importance, and interesting, something that's been missing from political races for a while now.

For you Texas political junkies I offer up two sources of good political commentary:

Perry Vs. World

On the South Steps

Both of these bloggers (note: Evan is a personal friend of mine, I do not know the anonymous blogger behind South Steps) offer up better, and more coherent analysis of current events in Texas than do anyone currently writing for Texas lock-step political media.  Unfortunately, they have no equivalent on the left side of the political spectrum or I would offer up a link here as well.  This may change if Texas suddenly develops a Democratic Party not populated by the perpetually angry.  One can only hope.

I think that, when it comes to Houston politics we're all anxiously awaiting the re-boot and re-launch of blogHouston.  I know that the folks in charge over there are starting to stir a little, but the time demands of free blogging sometimes tend to make such ventures more trouble than their worth.

One other blogger to whom I want to give a shout out.

Unca Darrell

If there's any more of a political dinosaur in TX. It's this gentleman.  A Big C conservative Democrat in Texas who's also a former newspaper worker.  Most of his time is spent offering (spot on) criticism of Houston's local fish-wrap, our former newspaper of record who's current claim to fame is running increasing slide shows about nude celebrities.

When I shuttered Lose an Eye I was told by an acquaintance that I could probably forget ever winning another award for my blogging from anyone.  As the years have gone by I've realized something that (I think) has made me a better blogger:  I'm good with that.  Hopefully you'll think I'm better because of that.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Good News: United back on time (for the most part)

United says it's an 'on time' airline again. Kiah Collier, Chron.com

United Airlines on Monday touted a return to solid on-time performance.
The Chicago-based carrier has experienced a decline in recent months in such measures of operational performance as the percentage of planes arriving on time. Customer complaints have spiked.
But United, which had not achieved its normal on-time goal of 80 percent since April, on Monday announced that 82 percent of domestic flights in September arrived on schedule.

My real-life experience has noticed things getting better as well.  Our trip to Puerto Rico did have a small delay, but that was due to weather as the flight took off from it's destination (IAH) to the island and couldn't be helped.  From a hard product stand point United did themselves proud on this trip.  I even had good food in domestic BusinessFirst on the flight back (the flight over, not so much).  I don't have it pictured but the cheese ravioli with spicy tomato sauce catered out of San Juan was excellent.  Probably the best United dish I've eaten to date.

Unfortunately the same can't be said for the gummy, undercooked in the middle-overcooked on the edges, chicken pocket that I was subjected to on the way over.  It tasted like bread paste with dry chicken and bland tomato sauce.  The cheese was also very un-cheezy in a plastic tasting kind of way.

The flights themselves were great however, the BusinessFirst seats felt newly padded, the In-Flight Entertainment actually worked, and the Flight Attendants were smiling and helpful.  Overall a great flight.  Nice to see that the crew is being awarded with bonuses.  Well deserved.

Finally, the Puerto Rico trip marked a first in flying for me personally.  This was my first trip down to the Caribbean, so I've never seen a plane with the Liat livery.  I'm sure that, for long time travellers, this is something that's old hat, but whenever I see something for the first time it's still a little exciting.  So, without further ado, the Liat plane:

Old San Juan dining

I present a couple of dishes from Puerto Rico.....


Cabrito "stew"


Chicken Mofongo
Mofongo is the National dish of Puerto Rico, it's typically fried, smashed plantains served with either beef, chicken or pork and a spicy or garlic sauce. The picture above came from Punte de Vista which is not much to look at, but highly recommended by the locals.  They also have 2 for 1 Mojitos during happy hour.  I suggest the coconut flavor.

 The Cabrito stew came from a restaurant in Old San Juan Inaru, which bills itself as the "Soul of Puerto Rican Cooking".  I don't know about any of that but I do know that this stew was the absolute best thing I ate during our time on the Island.  It was suck the goat bones good.  On thing, if you're looking for this get directions to Raices, which is a popular stop for all of the cruise ship traffic.  Don't eat at Raices however.  For one, the place is crowded and the food is touristy average, for two, if you want a seat you'll need to pay the hostess at least $10 to get seated.  The wife and I waited one hour for a seat, and watched several people in line behind us get seated prior to us because they palmed the hostess some cash.  While this is not an illegal practice, I find it to be discourteous and unprofessional, especially when the greeter all but looks at you as if to say "where's my money?"  Nope, go two doors down to the left and eat at Inaru.  The food is better, the service is better, and the atmosphere is better.  It's a win-win.

Finally,  Here's one shot from the fortifications in Old San Juan. More on this later....



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