Travel with Dogs

My friend G. Bruce Smith is not only a crazy talented playwright with many works presented in Paris, Los Angeles, and beyond… but he’s also a huge fan of travel. So it stands to reason that his new blog Travels With Luca is going to be tons of fun. I can’t wait, and neither should you.

If you are considering taking a road trip with your best canine friend, he’s got some handy links that will take you to pet friendly locations on the road from Southern California to British Columbia, Canada.

Bonvoy, Mergers & Corporate Culture

One thing I’ve experienced in the course of my business travels is the massive impact to customer service when two large corporations merge. It hit me first when Northwest and Delta merged. I was a Delta Platinum at the time, and the mess that resulted prompted me to do a status match over to United… a change I haven’t regretted once. (not that United is perfect, I’ve seen the unbelievable customer disservice stories, but if you have some priority level with them it’s a pretty good airline… not to mention the United lounge in Tokyo is absolutely amazing). The next time it hit was when I was pulling a regular commute from Palm Springs to San Francisco on Alaska. Then Alaska and Virgin America merged and the nightmare began. It took them close to 2 years to merge that most fundamental of databases… their frequent fliers. So even though (in theory) you were flying “Alaska/Virgin” Virgin treated Alaska’s frequent travelers like ordinary travelers, and vice versa… a fact that pissed off a lot of us who have suffered through too many flights and expected to be treated like the vital Bread & Butter customers we are. At that point, even though I was an MVP with Alaska, I started booking United flights on a smaller regional jet (something I try to avoid), just to be sure I’d get decent customer service. Plus Alaska and Virgin had two separate agreements with the SFO airport, so I literally never knew which terminal I was going to land in or fly out of. It was a trying time.

I finally bypassed that bit of annoyance by moving up to Northern California just outside of the Bay Area. It was a 2-4 hour drive into the office, but still better than all the hassles of air travel. Until, of course, I got laid off – which is just one of the really interesting things that has happened to me this year, in addition to 3 weeks in Spain, 10 days in Chile, a broken ankle, a smash & grab at home, and eye surgery during which I woke up (completely).

What we discovered in our trip to Spain, is that the merger between the hotel giants Marriott and Ritz Carlton (and all their many associated brands), is no different than any other large travel company merger. It’s a mess.

Until staying at a Hotel Hospes (a pre-merger Ritz Carlton brand) and an Aloft (another Ritz Carlton brand) in Seville Spain I hadn’t realized how different the internal cultures of Marriott and Ritz actually are.

You see, Marriott’s culture is built around relationships, especially with people who will stay frequently. The design of the lobbies, the Concierge Lounge privileges, the room layouts, and the general amenities are all designed to make business travelers feel comfortable and special while they’re (frequently) away from home. In this culture, the frequent travelers represent revenue they can rely on regardless of the season and economic conditions. A frequent traveler who is used to being given special treatment when away on business, will also choose the same hotel when traveling for leisure. Why not? They get extra perks and considerations that often translate into savings and fun experiences on their personal trips.

Ritz Carlton’s and its suite of brands were designed to make the occasional pleasure trip feel luxurious. Where Marriott focuses on business amenities and soothing the weary road warrior when they stumble across the threshold, Ritz’s customer base wants to walk in and be wowed. They want every meal eaten at a Ritz property to feel fabulous, and they spend a lot of their time away from the hotel.

While a business traveler wants to be able to get a quick bite to eat from early morning (before heading out to a local meeting or company location) through noon (because… time zones), the leisure traveler wants to sleep in, then go out to explore and find some wonderful brunch place with photo-worthy quiche and lattes with small landscapes done in foam.

While a business traveler wants immediate onsite access to a reasonably priced drink and a decent bite to eat after a long day of planes, trains, Ubers, etc… the leisure traveler wants a quick nap and directions to the best sight seeing destinations, or to head out for some chill time with friends or family in exotic locations. An introvert on a business trip will sit in their room and read a book or work on the latest report. An introvert on a leisure trip will go out for a stroll. This matters when it comes to room sizes and amenities like arm chairs and desks.

These are not just different types of customers, catering to them is inherently a different business model and corporate culture. And this is why Marriott and Ritz are stumbling as they figure out the essential steps of their joint adventure.

Accustomed to squeezing every customer for the maximum dollars per square foot of hotel room, and to handing out maps to local attractions and recommending the most expensive restaurant around, Ritz culture is just not prepared to provide a stiff drink to someone checking in at 2pm or a basic breakfast at 6am. Alcohol is served during what the local staff considers to be “reasonable” hours, as is breakfast and dinner. Lunch isn’t even really a consideration because every tourist is going to want to go out and have new culinary experiences at that hour, or be saving money for a big dinner splurge.

And this is the big takeaway, for now at least. When a Marriott Platinum or Titanium member walks into a Ritz culture, they’re going to be disappointed.

At a Ritz property, status is pretty much irrelevant. If you want to spend more money on a better room, GREAT! A free upgrade? Lips curl in disbelief. They’re thrilled to book you for their in-house “cultural experience”, but the food is mediocre if not outright terrible and the cultural experience can be had for a fraction of the price elsewhere. You can enjoy a $6 demitasse of coffee and the breakfast buffet will be $27. Because they don’t expect to see you again, your small dissatisfactions with the room or the food or the location, are pretty much irrelevant. Although this is changing, leisure travelers have better things to do than fill out surveys and write reviews. And the Ritz brand knows this… it’s a culture based on highlights, so the sexy lobby decor, the luxurious linens and the high end bath products are always going to overshadow the fact that the in-room refrigerator never worked properly.

And if you do provide feedback on what they could have done better, you can count on someone telling you, condescendingly, that you’re wrong and no hotel ever would have done it differently (because in their mind they are the experts in running a profitable hotel, and you’re an amateur). In my experience at a Ritz property, your business is less important than your check out date – you’re just a tourist after all, a head in a bed.

I am hoping that Marriott’s focus on constant quality improvement and customer relationships will catch on, but for now every Bonvoy property isn’t necessarily going to provide the same experience.

In short, mergers are consistently terrible for customer service. Let’s hope this one gets sorted out quickly.

Observations of a City – Seville Spain

I’m trying to capture some of my impressions of Seville, Spain before we move on in our trip. The Wife and I have wandered around here for almost four days, encountering the people and culture in various settings.

If, like us, you prefer to explore a destination by foot… peering into windows and catching glimpses of forbidden private spaces, Seville will prove as frustrating as most European cities. Space in Europe is constantly at a premium, so the local architecture is designed to ensure privacy and support family time. As a result the coy facades of buildings pressing against one another give the impression of life lived in dark, unwelcoming places. What the average passer-by is not privileged to experience, is the fact that most of these imposing and barren facades are simply the garage door and back gate into large multi-generational communities constructed around 2, 3 and even 5 story courtyards. The center of the space is the heart of the home and a way for the architecture to ensure natural light reaches into every level, and every room.

In most European cities, these “back sides’ of buildings are still a source of some care, embellished with tile, ornate iron work, and occasionally face-lifted with a bumped out sun room hovering lightly off the second story.

In Seville, they are often left untended and unkempt – perhaps to discourage the regular influx of tourists from hanging about. In fact, because the heart of Seville is built and rebuilt upon ancient foundations, streets designed to accommodate a horse and rider or a mule drawn cart, and old muddy foot paths (it’s not alone, you will find this in many older cities in Europe) – it can be positively hazardous to walk the streets. Automobiles thread these narrow passageways, and pedestrians are granted scant inches in many places to step out of the way. Your best bet, while visiting, is to scurry through the constrained blocks of residential buildings surrounding whatever tiny hotel you have found that allows you pedestrian access to the heart of town, to reach one of the larger boulevards. Once there however, it is no small challenge to make your way from one destination to the next… Google Maps for pedestrians notwithstanding. There are no straight routes, and wandering around looking for someplace interesting to explore, photograph, or shop – often leads to frustration and blisters. If you plan to use Google Maps and GPS to get around on foot, make sure to download the offline maps you need before you leave, and practice following the directions in a familiar place.

Another challenge for us was to find a reasonable meal for a reasonable price. Our options ranged wildly, from a healthy breakfast at the hotel for the price of a good bicycle, to tiny restaurants where… if we were lucky, we could buy a cup of coffee and a pastry, or the usual bar menu of beef and pork cuts cooked without much interest in sauces, side dishes, or repeat diners – for less than I’ve spent on a single cocktail in most US cities. It frequently took us an hour to find one that was serving food, taking orders, AND willing to serve us at whatever ungodly hour we chose to appear. Breakfast is hard to find before 10am, lunch doesn’t appear until 2pm, and dinner is best from 9pm to midnight. Nap accordingly.

Every now and then we stumbled onto a neighborhood bar or up-and-coming hipster restaurant where the food was actually enjoyable, if not terribly healthy. We started marking these places on our map to ensure we could find them again. Needless to say, these were not places on our printed map from the friendly hotel concierge.

I am not a native of Seville, and as such I have no business passing judgement. I can only convey my various impressions of the city, which is unusually unkempt and inhospitable for Europe, especially Spain. Construction sounds are everywhere, restaurant staff clang dishes around loudly, narrow sidewalks are covered in suspicious substances, pedestrians shoulder one another aside, over-worked bar / food tenders snarl at potential customers about kitchen delays, and roughly boarded up store-fronts and properties for hire are a frequent part of the landscape.

After bustling Barcelona and tidy Lora del Rio, we were particularly surprised by the impression that business was not thriving in Seville. The sidewalks are awash with fast paced pedestrian traffic, but that same energy did not infect places actually providing services or selling products. Empty store-fronts were not neatly contained and ready for the next tenant. They were, in fact, frequently blocked off with shaggy chunks of cracked marble, poorly constructed brick pillars supporting the upper levels, old construction material, and many seasons of weeds.

Store face lifts often involved painting over historical carved marble and the application of pseudo-historical half-brick facing on top of graffiti-laden ceramic tile. It is difficult to know whether this was a deliberate preservation of history, or a lack of ambition on the part of construction workers. Was this irony, or urban post-post modern design? No se. Painters neatly covered filthy surfaces with a fresh coat of paint, obviously more interested in completing the job than ensuring the durability of their work. No one washed sidewalks, constructed window displays to entice buyers, or attempted to ensure the beauty of building facades. Layers of dirt built upon the residue left from previous generations.

There is a general air of exhaustion about the city. Old town squares and public courtyards are untended, or at best… allocated a desultory smattering of red geraniums and magenta bougainvillea in aging pots – planted hastily and left to survive under the tender mercies of a hot summer sun. During school hours, very young men hauled patched-together wagons full of debris picked from large public trash bins and scrawled desperate tokens of their existence on steel store shutters in the later hours.

You can imagine this city several centuries ago, with a few wealthy families providing protection and employment to many workers who kept vast gardens and large private homes clean and beautiful. That wealth has vanished, the gardens have been turned into open parks, and the city’s tax payers cannot afford to keep the streets and public spaces clean and well-maintained. Although the center of town is filled with commerce and a visual history of grand sculpture and design, most of it is now geared to sustain the tourist trade. While I have no doubt there are artisans, musicians, sculptors, painters and other creative spirits all over Seville, there appears to be little outlet for that artistry in Seville’s day to day life.

We stumbled across a number of places where current inhabitants of this city clearly struggled to reintroduce the idea of public art and civic pride. But the efforts were dying, ignored by a population bent on the struggle to evolve and grow amidst a social emphasis on historical traditions and symbols.

Flamenco, a cultural artifact borrowed from Gypsy tribes, is discovering a resurgence thanks to its arresting visual short-hand and lingering fringe of creative pride. Cynical fashion designers have stuffed the local department store with a section of mass-produced replicas of the Flamenco dance dress – flattering to a small-subset of females of marriageable age, and rather appalling on little girls, mothers, and the occasional grandmother seeking to relive that ‘princess’ moment with silk flower hair decorations, cheap lace shawls and a plethora of ruffles in synthetics so cheap even a proper dry-cleaning cannot give it a patina of sophistication. It’s a bit like Halloween in the US, if the only acceptable “costume” was expected to reflect a once-cool dance style from a hundred and fifty years ago.

Finding a place to stay close to the bulk of the tourist attractions is of particular importance. Although Uber drivers are operating here, you cannot depend on the pricing, and it can be cheaper to take a standard taxi wherever you need to go. Beware the buses – signage and announcements are not reliable and anyone unfamiliar with the city will find it difficult to get around using public transportation. All of the Uber and Taxis we have used were clean and the drivers polite. The advantage of Uber is, of course, the fact that they use GPS to determine their route to your destination, so you can be sure they are taking the best route for the moment. We still aren’t certain that the first taxi driver took us on the shortest route given pricing from other rides, but as strangers to the city, it is impossible to be certain.

Since Spanish wineries are subsidized by the government, there is less motivation to perfect the product than in some countries and locations famous for alcoholic libations. Beware white wines, which are frequently “semi-dulce” (sweet) regardless of their underlying grape varietal. Red wines tend to be dry and high in tannins. That being said, you can get a litre of cheap tinto (red) or blanco (white) to make a Sangria for somewhere around 2 euros, and bottles of slightly better grape for less than 5 euros. Alcohol in general is far cheaper in Spain at the Bar-Restaurants than Americans encounter at our equivalent businesses. The wife enjoyed a double shot of Dewars for 2.5 euros. Of course, the fact that she drinks it neat did impress the bar keep, so that may be part of it. Mine, including half the alcohol because I prefer it with ice, cost the same.

While customer (and tourist)-facing Spaniards in Barcelona often speak more than a smattering of English, you will need to bring a pocket full of Spanish phrases to get around Seville… even in high end hotels and restaurants catering to the tourist trade. The gratitude of staff here when I strung together my rough Spanglish was more than a little surprising. Because I did speak some Spanish (un peqeno), they often mistook us for Germans, Swiss, or tourists from other EU countries. This doesn’t say good things about Americans, so for the love of all that is good about the US of A, buy Level 1 Spanish by Pimsleur and play it in the car while you run errands for a few months. I promise you it will come in handy.

Hable Castilliano? Un poco? Si? Do you love Seville? Why? What is your favorite memory? Drop a line in the comments for the rest of us.

The Food of Seville Spain

Food is an interesting way to explore the culture and people of a particular place. You can learn a great deal about the hospitality ideals of a locale from the way the hotels there serve an international client base.

In places where hospitality is a primary consideration, a hotel breakfast bar will convey the welcome in a way nothing else does. Food intended to please everyone from a Japanese salary-man to a family of American tourists, or a European palate, tells you that local management understands their customers. A breakfast menu designed around local dishes and scheduled for local mealtime preferences, tells you another story. These displays are generally unconscious and innocent of intent: but they have a significant impact on travel experiences.

The Seville area has a sunny Mediterranean climate with extended growing seasons that easily sustain olives, citrus, and a broad variety of fresh vegetables. It is also a brief hour away from the ocean. Despite this ready access to a broad range of possible ingredients, the traditional cuisine of the area is largely shaped by historical and cultural norms.

Dishes are meat-heavy, with a brief nod to vegetables in the form of potatoes and olives. Tomato and sweet peppers make their appearance as well, but more as ways to add flavor than as main ingredients. If you love meat and potatoes, Andalusian cuisine will appeal to you.

Breakfast, or desayuno, is generally coffee with hot milk added to your taste (cafe con leche), and various types of heavily toasted bread with meat toppings featuring Iberican smoked meat. Small hard-crusted loaves are split, heated on a hot plate, then softened with olive oil and tomato water. (Imagine dicing up a tomato very finely (think puree), removing the bulk of the tomato solids, and using the remaining liquid to render the hard bread soggy.) The temperatures of the food are also significant with hot bread combining with cold cuts, room temperature olive oil, and refrigerated tomato water… the end result being a lukewarm dish with a consistency suitable to all possible dental arrangements.

While some herbs make their appearance in Andalusian style dishes, they are lightly applied… often to the broth used to cook seafood or the common dish Caracoles (tiny little snails in a salty, herbed broth). If you prefer mild, unseasoned foods, this will appeal to you.

Thus far my favorite dishes have been a salad of fresh tomato chunks, chopped sweet green peppers, large pieces of chewy cooked squid, lemon juice, salt and pepper, and the inevitable Caracoles with a broth chaser.

Despite fish being a widely varied fresh ingredient, the locals feel the bounty of the sea should be allowed to shine through without assistance. They will serve a tray of five kinds of seafood, all breaded and cooked the same way with the conviction that this is the best way for the diner to enjoy the beauty of local cuisine. Sadly, my palate lacks the sophistication to appreciate this approach. Some of the fish seemed saltier than others, and the consistency of each allowed me to distinguish between various golden brown chunks, but over all – it was fish. Fresh, nicely cooked, but prepared for local tastes. I wanted to ask for tartar sauce or malt vinegar… but there were ample lemon wedges provided, so it seemed like I might risk insulting the cook. Insulting the cook, especially if you’re going to be around for a few days, is never a smart move. So I ate as much fish as my stomach needed and left the rest. The way things go here in Seville, I may just lose weight.

Are you a fan of Spanish, particularly Andalusian cooking? What should I look for on the menu? I’ve already discovered Secreto Iberico (a juicy cut of beef). What kind of vegetable dishes should I watch for that don’t showcase the humble potato?

The Great Baggage Fee Scam

Sometimes that airplane ticket price IS too good to be true. Depending on which airline you choose, the type of ticket you purchase (economy, economy plus, business class, etc…), and your destination – you can end up paying another $100+ to bring an ordinary 21″ roller bag along with you on your trip.

I believe the theory is that you should be able to live for a week out of a small backpack. To this I say, well… something rude. I’m all for discouraging people from packing a jumbo suitcase for a week. No one needs that much clothing unless they’re samples for your new line of product, or some such thing. But for a trip to visit family on the other coast, or sight see around Hollywood? Nope.

But I’m not talking about a big suitcase. I’m talking about a small suitcase with clothing that has been carefully curated to coordinate and layer. In addition I have a backpack for my camera, Chromebook, and eReader plus sundry charging solutions. A chunk of space is allocated to meds, which anyone over 50 will find consumes more and more space and attention.

But my Vueling ticket (economy) from Barcelona to Spain, does not permit me to carry on my roller bag. Same deal with my flight from the US to Europe on Lufthansa. I had to check my bag since I couldn’t afford to pay about FIVE THOUSAND dollars more for our two tickets. So I check my bag. $60 for the flight to Europe. eu50 (about $54) for the flight from Barcelona to Seville. And then of course, there is the fee for the trip back. So all told, I’m paying another $228… just to bring some clothing along on my 3 week vacation to the European Union. Multiply that by two for a couple. That’s a lot of sight-seeing tickets or massages… or a couple of deluxe meals. All to bring along your undies, some small electronics, basic toiletries, medications and enough clothing to be comfortable in various weather.

Raise your hand if this sounds reasonable to you. Please raise your hand if it sounds reasonable, and you own stock in one or more airlines. Now please raise your hand if it sounds reasonable, and you work for an airline.

Is anyone’s hand still not raised? I seriously doubt it. But this is today’s travel experience. Keep this in mind when you book airlines. Fortunately, Cheap Air tries to keep track of all these fees and baggage limitations across the airline industry. I prefer to be an educated consumer. Mind you, some of these so-called “free” first bags only apply to Business and First Class tickets. You have to go onto each airline’s particular baggage policy for the most current details.

You should also take advantage of any frequent traveler accounts and status you may have. You can save yourself a nice chunk of change just having (as in my case, a Silver status with United’s (Star Alliance) courtesy of my lifetime Titanium status with Marriott’s Bonvoy club. This means that we only had to pay the $60 fee to check my wife’s (small) suitcase. I caught this just in time and the Lufthansa service person had to check with her Supervisor to confirm. I’d like to believe that you could get a refund if you realize after the fact that your bag should have been checked for free. Somehow I doubt it, but it doesn’t hurt to call your Frequent Flier customer service line and ask.

This practice of charging additional fees for things that really should be included in the purchase price is an increasingly common snake-in-the-grass for travelers. It’s that 2.10 for a small bottle of water or eu30 for a seat closer to the front door of the airplane, or $125 for extra legroom. For a while Ryan Airlines charged a pound to use the bathroom during the flight, a practice initiated in 2010 that gained them a bad reputation with customers which sticks to this day.

What all this boils down to is that sometimes the low cost ticket you are considering, isn’t really as cheap as it looks on Expedia or Travelocity or some other online booking site. Take a moment to check each airline’s baggage and fees policies before making that purchase.

What about you? Encounter any egregious travel fees lately? What really got your ire? Share the experience in the Comments section below!

Skipping the Line – Facts & Fallacies

It is true that you can skip the line to purchase a ticket to a sight seeing destination. For example, the Basilica Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. This does not actually mean you will not spend time standing in line. Purchasing a ticket to a guided tour is a trickier proposition than one might think. It is however, sometimes, the only way for you to get inside. We discovered this when we tried to purchase a ticket directly from the ticket office at La Sagrada Familia… where a nice security officer advised us there were no tickets to be had. Directly. Hence, the internet and “skipping the line” options.

First, you are not purchasing a ticket directly from the organization that operates La Sagrada Familia. You are working with a third party who has an agreement with La Sagrada Familia operating crew. Now that you have your ticket, you need to know who that third party is, and where their offices are in relationship to La Sagrada Familia.

You will need to appear at that third party location a short while before the tour begins. There will be a line involved to check in with the tour operator, be assigned a tour guide, and head over to your destination of choice with your group.

The group will then stand in line… in our case almost an hour from the appointed time of the tickets. High demand locations like Casa Batllo or La Sagrada Familia tend to a bit of airline fever. They oversell tickets in order to meet the demand with the hope that no one will be too fussy if they don’t get in to see the venue at the specific time allotted, so long as they eventually get in.

This works just fine for your average tourist. Where the solution breaks down is for anyone with a physical disability that makes standing around for long periods of time painful. Think bad knees, feet, backs, hips, and the like. A broken tibia, a recent bunion surgery, a hip replacement, pregnancy, sprained ankles, or just a few too many days walking around for six hours can lead to the kind of silent agony that overshadows even the most spectacular location. While you can gimp around through an hour tour, the additional hour and a half of waiting in various lines can really be a deal breaker.

But you’re there. And you really really want to see this place. You know you will regret not seeing it, possibly for the rest of your life. So you grin (or grit your teeth) and bear it.

I have a few suggestions to make the inevitable waits easier. Some of them I have employed myself, some I discovered just standing around observing more savvy travelers than myself. Bring water and anti-inflammatories (aspirin, ibuprophen, aceteminophen, etc…) Take as directed, and of course, as needed.

Spain is one of the enlightened places where cannabis and alcohol are equally respected for their ability to make life better (in the right dosages). You might want to stock up on vape pens and CBD rubs at the local Hemp Shop.

You should also bring things with which to distract yourself. If you’re an extrovert, make sure you have a bit of extra phone data to use Google Translate and strike up conversations with the other people in line. While standing for 40 minutes (in the wrong line – the Sagrada ticket line, instead of the Julia Tours line), we discovered an Italian family in front, and a crew of young Japanese women to our rear. That was good for about 20 minutes before the language barrier made it all too exhausting to proceed. (of course, we are introverts… true extroverts would never allow something as minor as the inability to understand someone else’s language to stand in the way of a good conversation)

If you are alone, and an introvert, bring your eReader.

There are also some handy little physical supports that double as canes and small travel stools. If you’re willing to give up a hand to that kind of device, you’re good on the sitting front… although I suspect they get pretty uncomfortable over the duration. Popular venues are stingy about seating. The intention is for you to see it, buy your souvenirs, and move out to make room for the next tourist. Sitting around just enjoying the view is not on the agenda. That is what a camera is for.

Speaking of cameras, familiarize yourself with its low light settings. The use of the flash is highly discouraged, if not outright banned. Don’t risk a bunch of blurry photos of all the cool stuff you are about to see. If your camera doesn’t have such a setting, invest in a better one (or borrow one). Seriously.

I will never forget La Sagrada Familia with the evening sun flushed through the reds and golds of the Passion facade. There is simply no substitute for actually being there. I could have easily sat there for an hour just basking in its beauty… except of course for the paucity of seats, and the fact that we’d already stood around for two hours before gaining access, and my feet and back were killing me. Being a tourist is not for the faint of heart, or the under-prepared.

What about you? Have you found a real way to “skip the line”? What do you include in your travel arsenal to survive those blistering days on your feet? Share your wisdom (and experiences). Drop a line in the comments!

Jet Lag in Barcelona

I’m a big fan of stepping right into the new time zone. Wasting time during a business trip, or worse, a vacation – calculating what time your body “should” think it is, is an utter waste of time. I keep the curtains/blinds raised so the sun can tell my body when to get up, drink a lot of water (amidst whatever else I might be consuming, depending on the occasion), and try to power through those draggy parts of the first couple of days.

This usually works. What doesn’t work, is to nap. Napping makes the insomnia / exhaustion cycle even worse.

So what did I do this afternoon, 3 days into our trip to Europe? Nap.

As a result I am wide awake after having spent four hours staring at the ceiling, with my brain on Antoni Gaudi, the visual equivalent of crack cocaine. Obviously, this is another case of do what I suggest, rather than what I do. On the other hand, there’s no point in beating yourself up if you do decide to succumb to the siren song of that oh-so-comfortable mattress. It is what it is, and if you’re on Holiday, you get to set the schedule. Tomorrow we have nothing booked until 4pm which is when my much-better-half and I are scheduled for a tour of The Cathedral of the Sacred Family (aka, La Sagrada Familia) – which is generally booked solid.

PRO TIP – if you’re heading to Barcelona, you will want to see the work of Antoni Gaudi. Book ahead on one of those “skip the line” deals.

I would post some photos but all I have is my Chromebook and a bunch of memory cards for my DSLR. Hopefully I’ll have some killer photos from the trip, but they won’t be posted tonight. If you want a sneak preview, check out the picture at the top of the blog page… that is the Mercat Caterina, which is full of seriously interesting food stuff, and as we discovered today, far less jam-packed than it’s older sister, La Boqueria off Las Ramblas. Just saying.

Jet lag tips of your own? Post them in the comments for the benefit of our fellow travel lovers.

The Lost Art of the Itinerary

Call me nostalgiac, but I remember the days when any travel agency that you paid to make trip arrangements actually provided a coherent document detailing said arrangements.

Apparently this is Old School. Online booking sites these days are taking an entirely new approach.

Instead of confirming all the details of your forthcoming dream trip that you have just spent the last 168 agonizing minutes of your life hunting down and purchasing – they will helpfully introduce two separate ways to review the information they are not actually providing on the first screen of your online booking confirmation, and remind you of your missed opportunity to make associated travel arrangements through their site… in return for which they will provide you substantial, (and completely unverifiable,) savings.

In fact, it isn’t until you scroll down to the third screen, that interesting details like the flight number, when the flight departs and from where … magically appear. I don’t know about you, but I like to be really clear on where I need to be, and when. Call me OCD, but punctuality… particularly when many personal dollars are involved, feels Pretty Darned Important.

Just to make sure I wasn’t missing anything, I clicked the “See your itinerary” button… which led me to the same message we’re seeing in my email (above). Not terribly helpful.

Allow me to introduce Exhibit A – a semi-ideal itinerary:

Notice the subtle intricacies of an actual itinerary. You can see at a glance where you need to be, and when – and just in case you need to print out a boarding pass at the airport, the flight number! You can see the second leg of your trip. You can see things like whether a rental car and hotel have been booked (or not). More importantly, you can see when you’re returning, and from which airport (just in case it happens to be a different place than your departure). All of this allows you to figure out if you (or your support person) accidentally booked yourself to check in at a hotel the day after you arrive at your destination, or set you up to “pick up” a rental car 15 miles away from the airport, or there is a scheduled taxi strike the day you return. It happens.

In truth, you’re not going to get gate confirmations until the day of the trip. But dates, cities, airlines, and times… yeah. That should all be on the ‘page at a glance’ itinerary you get from your (and I’m using this term ironically) online quote travel agency unquote.

So why is this no longer considered the best way to provide customer service? As far as I can tell, the online booking site’s “itinerary” is designed to make the customer consider whether a real live Travel Agent might provide better service for the same fee the site is adding to your tickets and reservations. Imagine… a person… more importantly, a person with expertise on saving you money and making your trip more fabulous.

I recognize that these sites are programmed… to optimize cash flow… and reward shareholders. But that is not why their customers use them. The communication provided after the transaction is just as important as the information provided while the traveler is figuring out how to get from Point A to Point B. My advice, solicited or otherwise is, stop sending poorly constructed confirmation messages designed entirely to get the customer to buy something else. Send a freaking itinerary, okay?

This is why some slick new .com is already working on wiping the current slate of booking sites off the travel arrangement map. People working on setting up a memorable trip want more than digital promises of discounts. They want more than theoretical savings. They want to make sure they have made travel arrangements that ensure a trip full of joy, comfort, and beautiful experiences. They want to know that their great airline ticket deal is not going to result in ten days of jet-lagged regret. Most of all, they want a coherent presentation of the information they need to make sure they go to the right airport on the correct day, well in advance of the time their booked flight leaves. Just saying.

Needless to say, no one is paying me for my opinion here. This is just my advice as a customer, and a person who voluntarily travels a lot. If you’ve booked a trip online recently, what was it like? Did you find a site that provided a reasonably coherent itinerary? Share the love in the comments below.

Ride Service Apps in Barcelona

It’s a curious thing, local culture. When you’re traveling outside your country, or even outside your region, it can turn an otherwise pleasant day into a visit to the Twilight Zone. [queue music] If you don’t know what that is, this blog is probably not for you. Mainly this is a blog about an American trying to figure out how to get around in a strange city in Europe with a bare handful of the local language.

It’s no surprise to anyone who is familiar with Uber’s history of blunders and bad press, that not everyone thinks they’re the good guys. I for one changed over to Lyft after all the stories of a culture of misogyny and the poor handling of a video of a driver raping a passenger in India came to light. So I’m not an Uber fan girl.

I am however a BIG fan of apps that allow me to use my phone to request a ride. I’m willing to use whichever driving services the city prefers. But I have no desire to roam around trying to flag down a taxi in bad weather or an unfamiliar (and therefore potentially dangerous) neighborhood. I’m a woman, and in all my years of travel I’ve been pretty careful about the kind of risks I take. To any man who may sneer at this, let me educate you. This is wisdom, not cowardice.

As a big planner, I started to do research on how to get around in Barcelona. I do intend to use the Metro and actually booked an AirBnB based on its proximity to a Metro stop. However, I’m older and gimpier than I was the last time I explored that fabulous city and I wanted backup options. After reading an article about Uber departing Barcelona after the city instituted a law that required the driver to wait 15 minutes before accepting the request (which Uber reasonably enough pointed out was kind of the opposite of an ‘on demand’ service) I attempted to learn what ride apps would work.

Based on previous experiences I chose to go to Trip Advisor’s Barcelona forum to ask the experts . In the past I’ve written many reviews, and asked and answered many questions about local sights, getting around, and where to eat in places I’ve lived like Los Angeles.

But it’s been a few years since I was active there and the culture seems to have taken a sharp turn.

When I posted a question asking folks ‘in the know’ what ride service apps worked in Barcelona I got a veritable barrage of shade. Why anyone would want to use a ride service was beyond them. There are buses and the Metro. (which I’ll admit is well lit and easy to navigate, based on my experience in 2008) Uber was evil. I was completely unreasonable. There’s a taxi on every corner. Blah blah blah.

My explanation of the communication and safety benefits of using a ride app was literally ridiculed by several men (based on their pictures) with an attitude and too much time on their hands. I even had one person say that “at least here even criminals had rights” in response to my explanation that background checks on drivers improved the safety for (female) riders. Here being either Europe or Spain or Barcelona? So apparently rapists, murderers, and other violent offenders are a protected class? I don’t know. It was ridiculous and I washed my hands of them with a polite thank you for the information.

It was quite the oddest experience I’ve ever had on Trip Advisor. But it did give me insight into a cultural quirk of Catalonia (I think, or it may just be the trolls lurking in that part of Trip Advisor). Be forewarned… the locals in Barcelona are very very protective… of taxi drivers and the process of physically hailing a taxi. I’m not sure if this is a stand-in for all things technological or all things American, but it did seem to be an excuse to pick a fight… my inexplicable desire as a tourist to have the convenience of an app to get a ride when my companions and I got worn out from walking around.

The funniest part? I don’t care if the ride app calls me a taxi. But I want to use an app. Call me crazy but I want an electronic record of who picked me up just to encourage the driver to take a direct route (and not make me disappear in a shallow grave. Too much Hollywood, I know, I know) I want to hail my ride from the comfort of the chair where I’m enjoying a small coffee, or a glass of wine. I don’t want to roam around in the dark in an unfamiliar neighborhood on cobble stone streets with my knee complaining and my feet hurting, searching for a taxi.

I am looking forward to doing a bit of wine-and-tapas bar hopping in the land of all things delicious. Is that too much to ask? No. It’s not.

Was all that spiky commentary really about ride apps and taxis, or did I just bump into some ableist-ageist bullshit? Maybe all that helpful advice about finding a taxi on a nearby street was simply the unconscious assumption that everyone is fit and fully capable of strolling a few extra blocks regardless of the hour or the terrain? Are my fair suite of trolls simply operating from the belief that if you are a bit mobility challenged, you should just stay home and enjoy the TV and your rocker, or for fucks sake at least stick to places that are close to a bus stop? Maybe. Maybe not.

I suspect that my experience is part of a larger problem that happens to online communities originally intended to be useful (with a fringe of monetizing the traffic that eventually turn into one large advertisement venue) It stops being about people connecting, and turns into a wild-wild-west platform for a certain kind of person to exercise their true selves. I went to Trip Advisor looking for some basic information. I did not get it. Shame on Trip Advisor for investing so little in the Forums where random strangers provide free content (and a large chunk of the value of the site). Shame on the forum admins for allowing the culture of the forums to curdle so badly that bullying is considered an acceptable form of “advice”. It was obvious that these folks hang around and regularly contribute. If you want to keep people coming back, you need to make sure their contributions add value.

All that being said, I don’t intend to allow this experience to dim my excitement over visiting Spain and showing my friends all the wonderful things there are to see there. What about you? Any ‘Twilight Zone’ experiences when looking for travel advice? Do you love Barcelona and/or know what ride apps are presently in use? Do tell… in the comments!

10 Anti-Theft Tips for Travelers

While there is no way to avoid every possible risk while you’re on the road, there are some things you can do to protect your credit cards, cash, and valuables when traveling for business or pleasure.

  1. Don’t carry all your cash with you
  2. Keep your purse zipped
  3. Don’t put your wallet in your back pocket
  4. Use an RFID blocking wallet or purse
  5. Buy a purse that is slash resistant (strap and body)
  6. Consolidate luggage and keep purses/backpacks in front of you
  7. Watch what you do on a computer, pad, or phone connected to a public network
  8. Don’t take unnecessary valuables on the road
  9. Buy travel insurance for holiday trips
  10. Scan all your documents (itinerary, credit cards, ID, driver’s license, passport, etc…) and upload that to a cloud based storage service that you can access from anywhere (Google Drive, Microsoft OneDrive, DropBox, etc…)

Now all of these tips seem pretty obvious, right? The thing is, you get into habits at home (where you feel safe), that can trip you up when you’re in a less familiar environment. So perhaps the best tip I can offer, is to start practicing safe travel habits before you get on the road.

  1. Don’t carry around more cash than you need for the day’s purposes. Even then, split your cash between your purse (or wallet), and a money belt worn under your shirt. If you have access to a safe that you can set a new combination for, you might want to leave some there as well.
  2. Don’t roam around with your purse gaping open. Trust me. I’m as guilty of this as the next person. It’s just more convenient to reach in and pull out whatever you need at the moment. I get it. I’ll make you a deal. If you try to break this bad habit, I will too.
  3. Ditto for the wallet in the back pocket. Yep. It’s so much easier/comfortable. I get that too. If a wallet in the front pocket won’t work, get a small cross-body bag. There are some darned sexy man-bags on the market. Just saying.
  4. RFID stands for ‘radio frequency identification’ – which means that there is personal (and financial) information available to passing strangers carrying a hidden card reader. Many of the chips on credit cards, IDs, passports are RFIDs. Even some hotel room keys are vulnerable. I’ve been using an RFID blocking wallet for years. They come in all kinds of shapes and sizes. If you haven’t already done so, invest in one.
  5. Purses, even sturdy leather ones, are vulnerable to the slash and grab. Pick pockets can brush up against you in a crowd, slash the strap with a razor and head off with your purse. Worse, they can slash the bottom of your purse, grab your wallet when it falls out, and you might not even feel it happening. Travelon is a good brand, but not the only one.
  6. If you don’t have a couple of items of luggage that fit together into a neat rolling package, you might want to invest in that. Taking five or six small bags (rather than one carryon suitcase and a large tote that slides over the suitcase handle) means you have to keep your eye on all those bags. Small bags are easier for a stranger to pick up and walk off with when your head is turned. When you’re walking around, it’s better to have a cross-body purse that hangs in front of you. Backpacks are a bad idea because we tend to wear them on our back most of the time, which puts them out of sight. This makes it easy for an expert thief to unzip compartments and pull things out. If you want to use a backpack, try to hold it in front of you in crowds and on public transportation.
  7. It’s easy to drop your guard when you’re sitting in your hotel or AirBnB room. But surfing on a network that isn’t secured (no public use network is secured) means everything you do on your computer is a risk. That means no online shopping, bill pay, or reservations requiring a credit card. In fact, it’s probably best not to use a computer on an unsecured network at any time. Hackers can connect to your computer on the network and plant a tracker program that will send your personal information back to them indefinitely . This is where a personal VPN makes sense whenever you’re away from home or the office. Find one that has a reasonable reputation in terms of bandwidth, reliability, and availability wherever you are planning to go. (I recently signed up for 3 years of NordVPN after trying their 7 day free trial at a total cost of $107 USD and change. Unfortunately Amazon doesn’t like all that data privacy so I have to turn it off when I shop.)
  8. I know you want to look all cute and polished, but don’t bring a bunch of expensive jewelry with you unless you don’t mind losing it. You might be safe, especially if you wear it all the time. But a bunch of obviously expensive jewelry will make you a high value target to thieves. Better to be a boring non-target. Similarly, don’t bring extra camera lenses unless you’re a pro and absolutely know you’ll use them on the road. Don’t bring your expensive DSLR unless taking pictures is a major source of pleasure for you when you travel. The cameras on smartphones are pretty terrific these days, and they’re a whole lot lighter. As far as entertainment and connectivity is concerned, don’t bring every Kindle, pad, computer, etc… you own. For one, they’re heavy. For two, you’ll be annoyed if they’re all stolen. Travel insurance has limits. Figure out what you need to keep you entertained, and bring one device to do it all. Two max. It’s better to bring a recharger that holds extra juice than two eReaders or similar devices so you’ll have a backup.
  9. Usually business travel for an employer will come with a certain amount of on-the-road support, so this advice is more for pleasure trips. If you’re flying somewhere, get the trip insurance. It’s not that expensive and it will help if you get sick, if you are robbed, or you lose your phone or wallet.
  10. Having quick access to a digital image of your credit cards and identification can make a theft or loss much less awful. Being able to go into an Embassy and download electronic copies of all your vital documents will expedite the creation of new ones. The telephone numbers on the back of credit cards make it easy to put a hold on the old card number and get new cards over-nighted to your hotel.

I hope I haven’t made you paranoid… just a bit cautious. Every trip should be full of happy memories and once-in-a-lifetime experiences. Having your purse or identity stolen should not be one of them. Any war stories of your own to share? Drop them in the comments.