February 24, 2012

Sitzbook: "Tokio Blues - Norwegian Wood"

The Good and The Not-So-Good, Together At Last In One Convenient, Hand-Held Place:
This is the second Murakami book that I've read, and I must say that the people who really get into him may be onto something. A few years ago Lucy loaned me Kafka on the Shore, a book which was engaging, entertaining, and even --with its magical realism-- mystical. I got this book (apparently just called Norwegian Wood in Japanese and English) in 2010 while in Spain (hence the Spanish spelling of "Tokyo" in the title) and had been meaning to read it ever since. It didn't disappoint, but it did take me longer than I imagined it would.

Perhaps it was because for at least the first half of the book, I read it all while on the exercise bike in our house. Or perhaps it was the weird-flavored Spanish vocabulary used in the book to refer to all kinds of everyday nouns (I still prefer Spanish books published in Latin America for that reason). Or maybe I just turned into a slow reader for this particular book. Who knows. What I did notice, though, was that it was hard to define what the book was about.

And that's fine. It's also a testament to Murakami's writing, even in translation, that I can read hundreds and hundreds of pages that just describe how a college guy longs after his dead friend's ex-girlfriend. In fact, the more I think about it, the focus on emotion and mental processes, coupled with the lack of concrete action on every page --which, again, is not a bad thing-- almost made me fear that something completely awful was going to happen to all of the protagonists. The book does deal with depression and suicide in some places, and maybe that just made me afraid that if I kept reading, Murakami would kill off all the characters he'd spend so many pages getting me to sympathize and empathize with.

I won't tell you how the book ends, obviously, but I can say that I really tend to like books that don't let you know how things are going to turn out until the very end. In this book's case, that's almost literally the very last sentence, and I can't think of any other book that kept me hanging on in suspense for so long except Catch-22. It's therefore no coincidence that I've long recommended that book, nor is it a coincidence that I'll also be recommending this book, especially for people who've never read Murakami.

Should I Read It?
What? Seriously? Didn't you just read that last sentence? Thanks a lot, Invisible Questioner. Way to kill the nice, wrapped-up way in which I'd concluded this review!

Have a good weekend.

365: Picture a Day Project    365 Leftovers    All My Pictures    Sitzbook

February 22, 2012

Sitzbook: "China Survival Guide" and "The Lovely Bones"

My book haul from the Goodwill. About $4.50 total. Don't underestimate the Goodwill.

I don't have a ton to say about either of these books, so I decided to combine their reviews. You can check out my current reading list, as well as other reviews, on my Sitzbook page.

China Survival Guide by Larry and Qin Herzberg

I bought this on the Kindle because we're planning a trip to China later this year. I also picked up a few guides, but this one seemed to focus more on the practicalities of culture and logistics, which are also important. And the book had some good reviews on Amazon. 

The good: The book is an interesting, quick read, and it does have a lot of detailed information which can be quite useful for a traveler to China. It has a lot of useful tips about itineraries, must-see places, hotels, and even toilet paper (hint: BYOTP). It's also written in a casual style, and it almost seems like the kind of thing I might have written.

The not-so-good: The book goes into a lot of details about what things you should check for at hotels to make sure they're not broken (like A/C, television, drains, and faucets), as well as detailing a lot about how Chinese toilets work (or don't work). That's good, but it also made Angela a bit nervous about going, since that was the first part of the book. They do include information about the highlights of China to make the trip less daunting, but that's near the end of the book. Still, with a title like China Survival Guide, you should probably know that they're not going to just be farting rainbows for a few hundred pages.

Should you read it? If you're going to China, probably. If not, probably not.

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

I picked up this book and a half-dozen of its friends at the Goodwill in Fort Collins on a recent trip. The Goodwill is indeed good, and I hadn't realized it had such a selection of books. Many of them were near-new, or if not, you could find a near-new copy of popular books (like this one, or the Ken Follet book Pillars of the Earth, which I also picked up in the same haul). Plus, at about 50 cents for a paperback and a dollar for a hardcover, you can't really argue with the price.

The Good: It's a well-written book for the most part, and I was glad I finally got a chance to read it since I'd heard about it for a while. The story has sad, depressing elements mixed with a bit of suspense. Plus, it's set in the 70s, so that's cool although a bit inexplicable. Does Sebold think she's the Tarantino of bestselling books?

The not-so-good: The way Sebold wraps up the story wasn't terribly satisfying, in my opinion. Also, it's kind of creepy to think that dead people can follow us, watch our every move, and read our thoughts. That seems to have been a more interesting direction for this book, but it never quite went there.

Should you read it? I don't know --what am I, some kind of book guru? If you want to read a story about a murdered girl who hangs out for a while to spy on her family and killer, then have at it. Otherwise, I think you can probably find something a bit better.

That's it for now. Thanks for reading, and have a great Wednesday! 

365: Picture a Day Project    365 Leftovers    All My Pictures    Sitzbook

February 16, 2012

"Travel Hacking": Using Credit Cards to Get More Frequent Flyer Miles

Here's the second part of my two-part series about using frequent flyer miles for free travel. In our first post we looked at some general tips for "travel hacking." Today we'll look at a few ways that you can use credit cards to help you quickly get a lot more miles, allowing you to travel much sooner.

But first, as I mentioned in the last post, there's a big "catch" or at least a caveat with credit cards: You have to use your credit and your credit cards wisely. If you don't pay them off in full at the end of each month, most benefits of having the card will be cancelled out by interest charges and late payment fees. I have a few credit cards, but in my mind I try to think of them as debit cards, that is, I don't spend money on them if I don't actually have the money to pay them off when the statement comes at the end of each month. Just keep that in mind before applying for any credit cards. 

Now, let's look at some questions:

How do I get frequent flyer miles with credit cards?

It depends on the credit card company and the specific card, but if you're approved for a card, you'll generally have to spend a specific amount of money with the card in a specific period of time, before you get the sign-up bonus points. For example, a Chase Sapphire card I recently got required me to spend $3,000 on the card within three months to get 50,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points. I normally wouldn't have spent so much on a card like that, but it was around the holidays and I had some big purchases. Plus, I added my mom to the account, and she was able to put some of her spending on it, and later reimburse me when the bill came. A good point to make here is that you shouldn't find things to spend money on just to meet the minimum requirement, but if you are going to be buying things anyway in your day-to-day life, you may as well get some frequent flyer miles for it.

Taken from the United Lounge in Houston. One credit card I got came with two free lounge passes.
It's not a huge thing, but small bonuses like this can make traveling more pleasant.

What are other "catches" to credit cards?

You should also take a card's annual fee into account. Some cards don't have annual fees, and those are good, although they often have much lower bonus miles, especially for the sign-up bonus. In many cases, a card's annual fee is waived in the first year but once you start your second year, you'll be charged for the card. This fee can be anywhere from $45-95 dollars, usually (although there are cards that have annual fees in the hundreds of dollars, but they usually include things like free access to all airport lounges). In some cases, you can avoid the annual fee starting in the second year simply by calling the customer service line and asking for them to waive the fee or to downgrade the card to a no-fee card. Or, if you're not using it, you can also just cancel the card. You may think this could negatively affect your credit score but that seems to not be the case, generally (check out Chris Guillebeau's explanation and expansion of this topic here).

What if I don't live in the U.S.?

That makes the situation much more difficult, unfortunately. I still have an address in the U.S. and I'm an American citizen, so I can get many of these deals with no problem. But the general consensus among most travelers is that it's much harder if you live outside the U.S., simply because the biggest frequent flyer and mileage communities are based there, and the best credit card offers are usually limited to there. You can still join frequent flyer programs and accumulate miles by flying, of course, but some of these other "tricks of the trade" may be difficult to pull off. It's also the reason that almost all our miles are in my name, and not Angela's. But if we were both living in the U.S., we could theoretically get twice as many miles from credit card sign-ups and the like.

Our hotel room in Buenos Aires. Remember that these programs aren't just for flights; many are connected to hotels.

Does this actually work?

Yes, definitely. As I mentioned in the previous post, we took our trips to South America and Germany using frequent flyer miles, and we'll also be taking a trip to China later this year. The China trip was from British Airways miles, all of which I got from a British Airways credit card; I've never even been on a British Airways flight (but I heard they're a pretty nice airline, relatively speaking).

How can I keep track of my credit cards?

Like I mentioned before, Award Wallet can be useful for at least some points and credit card programs (I know they have Chase on there), but I've also heard good things about Mint.com. I've used that to monitor my checking and savings account, but I've not taken the time to link credit cards to it. Still, it comes recommended by some of the travel and savings blogs I follow, so you may want to check it out.

How do I know which credit cards are the best?

That's probably the most important question here. If you follow some of the blogs I mentioned in the previous post, a lot of them talk about credit cards, since they really are one of the fastest ways to get a lot of miles. Credit card offers change, but these bloggers stay very much on top of what's current. Chris Guillebeau even set up a site called Cards For Travel that gives a lot of tips and even lists the best current credit card offers (click here for his current list of the best cards). 

The general consensus right now seems to be that Chase's Sapphire Preferred card is the best option for many people now (Lucky also talked about it here). It gives you 50,000 Ultimate Rewards points after spending $3,000 on the card in three months. Ultimate Rewards are good because they aren't linked to any specific points or miles program, and can be transferred to most programs at a 1:1 ratio. That means you're not stuck with having miles in only one program. It also doesn't charge the foreign transaction fees that most credit cards these days charge. This particular offer is going to end soon (I think at the end of February or March?), so if you were thinking of getting this card, now is a good time. I got it when I was in Colorado in December, and it's a good card for me because it doesn't charge foreign transaction fees, which is obviously a big issue for me since I spend most of the year in Costa Rica. Plus it's a surprisingly thick, heavy, and metallic card, and people always think I'm some kind of high roller when I use it, especially here in Costa Rica.  

Also, Mommy Points recently blogged about how she applies for credit cards, and includes information on credit scores and the other things she takes into account when considering a credit card.

Yech! If this was "The Golden Age of Travel," maybe we're better off now!

Any other questions?

Again, the reason I'm writing these posts is because I've been very fortunate to have benefited from these mileage programs and credit card bonuses, and I wanted my friends, family, and readers to be able to benefit from them as well. Travel hacking isn't for everyone, though. If you've not got a lot of time, or if you've simply got a ton of money burning a hole in your pocket, you may be just as well off buying your tickets directly. But if you approach the whole thing as a hobby, even spending a small amount of time on travel hacking can reap big rewards. 

If you have any other questions or comments about any of this, I'm certainly not an authority on these matters, but I can try to help you as much as I can, or at least try to point you in the right direction. 

Thanks for reading! Have a good day, and happy travels!

365: Picture a Day Project    365 Leftovers    All My Pictures    Sitzbook

Link For Award Wallet Upgrade

The other day I posted some tips related to frequent flyer miles, and I mentioned the service Award Wallet. There are two versions of the program: free and paid. I've been using the free version and it's been very useful for me. I can keep track of frequent flyer miles in 8 programs (although they have many more programs you can add to your "wallet"), as well as in some hotel and other rewards programs (even Best Buy Rewards Zone, for example). The service is great because it tells you in a very clear format how many miles and points you have in different programs, and it even tells you if they're going to expire soon. To get the paid version, you can pay what you want (at least that's how it was about a year ago; they may have set a specific price by now), and although the paid version is nice with more stats, the free version is also very useful. 

If you want to sign up, you can click on this referral link. It seems that if you do that, you'll get the upgraded version for free for 6 months, and eventually I think I may get an upgraded version as well for referring people. If you don't see that you've gotten the upgraded version, send me a note and I can give you a code that should work to do that. Still, no pressure; like I said, the free version is fine for me, and it's definitely a convenient way to keep your miles and points tallies together.

In a little bit I'll put up the post about using credit cards to maximize your miles and points. Thanks for reading!

365: Picture a Day Project    365 Leftovers    All My Pictures    Sitzbook

February 13, 2012

Meat Loaf Monday: "Come Back To Sorrento"

Welcome again to Meat Loaf Monday! I have some good and bad news, so I'll start with the bad news. I realized that I probably can't do Meat Loaf Monday every single Monday because if I did, I'd run out of videos and songs eventually. He's obviously got a limited number of songs, and many of his greatest songs were made before music videos got popular, so there are only live concert videos of them. That's OK, but after a while many of them start looking familiar (largish man in a white pirate shirt, waving a red scarf and singing the crap out of a song). So while I may not be able to do Meat Loaf Monday every week, I will be doing it on occasional Mondays, as a kind of treat. That's the bad news.

The good news: Today's Meat Loaf Monday!

I chose this video because it's pretty weird, even for Meat Loaf. It's more focused on Luciano Pavarotti, since it's taken from the concert video of Pavarotti and Friends. Apparently it was to benefit Bosnian children. Well, it will also benefit you, too:

I imagine that before they sang this song, the two singers appeared at a press conference with their respective managers for a weigh-in and a measurement of cumulative hair mass (CHM).

Let's get to the song itself. Pavarotti can certainly belt out aural awesomeness, I'll give him that, but Meat Loaf's definitely giving the bearded guy's lungs a run for their money. I like this because it's not a typical Meat Loaf video or song but still, would it have killed the Loaf to at least wear a frilly shirt with his tux? I suppose he's representing with the skeezy pony-tail, but I've come to expect a bit more flair from Meat Loaf, even if he's singing at a benefit concert. Also, it's hard to understand what Pavarotti's singing on about (the words being in Italian and all), but I have a feeling it's not got to do with Rock and Roll. Also somewhat unfortunately, Meat Loaf doesn't ever really go nuts on this song, increasing the tempo and blasting his vocals like the proverbial bat out of hell.

So why did I choose this song? I'll answer that with a Zen Koan to start your week off right:

The Meat Loaf that can be defined is not the Meat Loaf. 

Thanks for reading, and have a great week!

365: Picture a Day Project    365 Leftovers    All My Pictures    Sitzbook

February 11, 2012

"Travel Hacking": General Introduction to Earning and Using Frequent Flyer Miles

Yes, be that guy.

A few days ago in my South America trip's "Logistics" post I mentioned that I'd talk more about frequent flyer miles. This post is just an introduction to that whole world, since it is sort of a mini-world. I'll include a few practices that I've picked up, and I'll also include some links to good resources if you want to get more into this. I'll do it in a Question and Answer format, to make it easier to navigate.

What's "Travel Hacking"?

"Travel Hacking" is a semi-serious term for any techniques, practices, or skills that you can use to optimize your travel experiences. These days, some people associate the word "hacking" with people who break into web pages or do things of dubious legality online, but that's not what it means here. Here it just means to alter or fix things so that they work better.  

How do YOU travel hack, Ryan?

When you use it as a verb like that, it sounds kind of dirty, actually. But anyhow, it's not! When I say I've gotten into travel hacking, I just mean that I've been following websites and blogs that are dedicated to improving people's traveling experiences. Many of them also talk about frequent flyer miles and how to use them to your advantage, in order to get free flights, hotel rooms, and other rewards.

But does it work? Or do you spend so much time trying to figure out how to build up frequent flyer miles for a free flight, that it's not worth it? Time is money, man!

Good point, Titan of Industry! I think it's definitely worth it, since I enjoy traveling, blogging, and looking at stuff on a computer screen all (almost) equally! For me and other travel hackers, it's all a fun hobby. It definitely can save you money and time, but it's not like you'll get a free ticket just by reading a blog for a few minutes. Unfortunately, it's not that easy, but once you get into it, travel hacking can be rewarding. For example, we took our trip to South America last year, as well as our trip to Germany in 2010, using only frequent flyer miles (well, we had to pay a $30 per ticket booking fee, but for tickets that are normally around $1,000 per person, that's a huge difference). We'll also be taking a trip to China later this year using 100,000 frequent flyer miles I got from British Airways, and I've never even been on a British Airways flight --but I do have a British Airways credit card from Chase that came with a ridiculously high 100,000 bonus miles offer! So an investment of time and curiosity can pay handsome rewards down the line.

Wait, man! There's a better way to get free flights!

What other kinds of things are travel hackers interested in?

If you start to follow some travel hacking blogs, you'll notice that the majority of them talk about:
-Trip reports (ie, where they've traveled lately, and the logistics of how they got there)
-General travel tips
-Frequent flyer programs and other loyalty programs, like for hotel chains
-General airline services like flight routes, airport lounges, and airline policies
-Using credit cards to maximize miles and points (I'll go into this a bit more in a separate post)
-How to actually redeem all the miles and points that you've been accumulating

Why or how did you get into travel hacking?

I believe it started when my friend Brad referred me to Chris Guillebeau's site, The Art of Non-Conformity. Chris is a guy in his early 30s that's trying to go to every country in the world before he's 35 (he's very close to accomplishing it, with something like 10 or 15 countries remaining out of 193 total). He's a very interesting writer, person, and traveler, and his site is more focused on how to generally improve one's life. Since much of his life is based on traveling at the moment, and since much of his travel is with free reward tickets from frequent flyer programs, he also gets into that subject at times. He even has a few pages dedicated to this topic (herehere and here, for example). 

What other travel writers do you follow?

My other favorite travel sites/blogs include:

-One Mile At A Time by Ben aka "Lucky" - He's a young guy who talks a lot about the "fancier" side of travel (he works as a travel consultant and is frequently able to fly first class and stay in nice hotels).

-View From The Wing by Gary - He talks about similar topics to the first blog, but with different perspectives. He also has a service that helps people book reward tickets, so he knows a lot about how the systems work.

-Frugal Travel Guy and The Points Guy - Two more general travel blogs, but with slightly different topics.

-Mommy Points - I'm not a mommy, but the woman who runs this blog is. She does a really good job of making some of the weird ins and outs of miles and points less complicated, and her blog is very clear and practical.

-If you notice, some of these blogs are connected to "Boarding Area," a forum for frequent travelers. There are many more blogs there to check out, but it may be a bit full-on for people just getting into this. Flyer Talk and Milepoint are other similar forums but to be honest, besides the blogs mentioned above, I don't use any of the forums, since it's simply too much information for a casual hobbyist like me to take in.

That still sounds like a lot of sites to keep track of.

That's not technically a question, but I'll allow it. You're right. If you've not tried Google Reader, I'd highly recommend it. It's a way to keep track of all kinds of blogs and websites that you like (I currently follow over 100 sites, including my own blogs!), while only having to go to one place to read them. Here's what it looks like:

Google Reader, a blog junkie's best friend. This is my "Travel" folder.
If you have an iPhone or an iPod Touch (like I do), I'd recommend "FeedlerRSS," an app that displays your Google Reader subscriptions in a very convenient and readable format. There are other sites,  programs, and apps to help you organize blogs and sites you visit, but Google is one of the most well-known.

I'd also recommend Award Wallet. It's a site that keeps track of your frequent flyer miles and points in all your programs. It's got a free version, or you can also pay a few dollars to upgrade to get more information (like reminders if your points are going to expire, and more detailed historical tracking). If you're interested, tell me; I think I can send you an email to get a free 6-month premium trial, and it'll also give me a few months for free if you sign up. Here's what the site looks like, more or less:

I covered the account details, but you get the point.
Oh, and the 500 miles on Alaska? Free bonus just for signing up.

There's a lot of jargon and weird terms I don't understand on these blogs. What if I'm confused about some of this stuff?

It can be complicated, but these bloggers are very passionate and dedicated to traveling and travel hacking; in some cases, it's literally their job. Most seem genuinely friendly, to boot. I've exchanged a few emails with both Chris and Lucky, and in addition to being very quick about responding, they were also very friendly and helpful with questions I had. Most of the other people on these sites will also be like that, assuming you put in a little effort on your side, too. If you have problems, though, there's usually someone able and willing to help. There are also general information pages like Chris'.

What are other ways to earn miles? I don't fly that much.

Most of my miles aren't from actual flying, and that's the case with most travel hackers. There are some good ways to use credit cards to your advantage (I'll talk about that in a separate post), and there are weird, random promotions. That's why it's good to follow these blogs: they'll tell you when you can get 250 Starwood Preferred Guest points just by "liking" some hotel in Charlotte on Facebook, or how you can get 100 American Airlines miles for watching a 3 minute video about Bose headphones. They'll also usually mention fare sales, promotions, and other special offers, so it's a good way to keep your bases covered.

Also, if you're in the market for buying almost anything, especially online, then you can also check on the site evreward first. You can put in the name of the website or store (like bestbuy.com or Barnes and Noble), and it'll tell you of any offers related to that site and any rewards program. If you're going to be buying anything, even a $10 book, it's a quick way to know if you could get extra miles--and sometimes some airlines offer up to 10 points per dollar if you start off on their shopping sites. The sites lead you to the same online store (like bestbuy.com, for example), but you get extra miles just by starting at the airline's shopping portal. Pretty nice. 

OK, I'd like to do this. So what do I do?

You should start by setting a goal. If you do that, it'll help you focus your efforts in the right direction. For example, your goal could be to take a trip to Japan, with free flights and hotels. Or maybe you want to go on a round-the-world ticket. Or you may just want to take the whole family to visit granny in Hawaii. This obviously depends entirely on who you are and what you want to do, but when you know what you want, it can motivate you to reach it, and it's also easier for others to help you along the way. My personal goal is to go to one new country for each year of my life. I'm 31 and I've been to 32 countries, so I'm OK so far, but I may have to "load up" on extra countries while I'm still relatively young, so I won't have to work out the logistics of getting to Cambodia when I'm 80. It's your goal, so you might as well make it amazing and ambitious!

Next, you should sign up for some frequent flyer programs, if you haven't already. Big ones to probably consider are American, United/Continental, U.S. Airways, and possibly Delta, although the consensus on the forums seems to be that Delta's miles aren't as useful or valuable. It also depends on what your home airport would be, since you'd eventually be using miles for tickets, presumably. If you get thousands of miles on Hawaiian Airlines and live in Podunk, Nebraska, which is only served by AirTran, then you've not been doing things right. That's why I also have Frontier miles, since they offer the only direct flight from Denver to Costa Rica, a trajectory that's obviously very convenient for us. 

There may be promotions for signing up for some programs (Frontier and American seem to have these bonuses once in a while), so just Google the program's name + "sign up" first. You can also consider some hotel programs like Starwood Preferred Guest (they have a good American Express card), Hilton Honors, Priority Club (which includes hotels like Holiday Inn or Inter Continental), or Best Western. Again, it also depends on your own personal location and needs.

Finally, you'll want to start finding ways to earn miles. Follow some of the blogs above, fly, shop using an airline's shopping portal, or apply for credit cards that have large sign-up bonuses in the form of frequent flyer miles.

Yeah, about that: what's with all the talk about credit cards on these mile and points sites?

Good question. Many of the blogs talk a lot about credit cards because using credit cards is simply one of the fastest and most effective ways of earning lots of miles. You must be careful, though! If you have bad credit, you may not get approved for credit cards anyhow, and if you do get any cards, you should be sure to pay them off in full each month. Otherwise the points benefits will very quickly be cancelled out by late charges or interest fees.

Having said that, though, if you can sign up for a few credit cards to get miles or points, then they can be a great tool. 

That's a whole other topic, so I'll address credit cards specifically in the next post.

With that, I'll end this post. I'll be posting the credit card section in a day or two (maybe Tuesday, since Monday is Meat Loaf Monday). The post is almost done, but including it here would have made this post gigantic!

Thanks for reading, and please comment if you have any questions or if you want to share a thought or a story. Have a great weekend!

365: Picture a Day Project    365 Leftovers    All My Pictures    Sitzbook

February 10, 2012

Fresh Air

I'm sure there must have been hundreds of websites and blogs with titles like "Fresh Air," but it's hard to know what else to say when there's a new Air album. But who cares? Check out the video! 

I just got the album on iTunes today, and it's pretty sweet. The album is a "score" to "A Voyage to the Moon," the 109-year-old movie by George Melies, with some additional songs included (the movie itself, which is included with the download, is only about 15 minutes). The movie is pretty funny, although I guess a century ago they must have had to include a lot of rising action in their movies, since the first scene, depicting a bunch of scientists dressed like Dumbledore, goes on for a few minutes, despite the fact that they mainly seem to be standing around and waiting to go to the moon. After that, we see the shipyard where the lunar rocket is being built by a team of workers that look like Huck Finn clones. Finally, they launch and land on the moon, only to... go to sleep? Really? Yep.

Fortunately, the group of wizards eventually finds some aliens, and they promptly proceed to kill the creatures by smashing them with their umbrellas. It's a good reminder to be appreciative of how far film-making technology and storytelling practices have advanced in the last 110 years.

But the music's great! Air is always great whether in the background or foreground, and the general Frenchiness of the band and the movie really complement each other. Check it out if you've not already. 

And speaking of Melies, don't forget this Smashing Pumpkin video for "Tonight, Tonight," which was a tribute to the filmmaker:

Thanks for reading, and have a great weekend!

365: Picture a Day Project    365 Leftovers    All My Pictures    Sitzbook

February 7, 2012

January 2012 Pictures of the Day

I'm a bit behind on my picture uploading, but I've gotten the Pictures of the Day from January up:

You can check out more details by clicking on "Show Info" (in full screen view), or by looking at the pictures on Flickr. Here are the leftovers, if you're interested. 

Thanks for reading/looking, and have a great day! 

365: Picture a Day Project    365 Leftovers    All My Pictures    Sitzbook

February 6, 2012

Meat Loaf Monday: "Dead Ringer For Love"

Hello, and welcome once again to the highlight of everyone's week, Meat Loaf Monday! Let's get right into today's song, "Dead Ringer For Love," featuring Cher:

I normally don't really like Cher at all (just something about that hair coupled with that voice), but I'll definitely make an exception for this song. The video's not half bad, either. Then again, it's not half good, either, but it's still a pretty decent way to start off the week.

Speaking of starts, the video starts off well, also. I love how Meat Loaf comes into the bar wearing a Meat Loaf shirt. Few singers could pull that off, with notable exceptions being David Lee Roth and probably Lady Gaga. As usual, Cher's costume looks like something an alien would use as a disguise if it landed on Earth and quickly needed to look like an early-1980s hooker. But nevertheless, with a flick of Meat Loaf's magical hair, that very T-shirt disappears, and it's replaced with his signature swashbuckling shirt and a red scarf in his hand. This, in 2 seconds, is why Meat Loaf is great. 

The rest of the video is full of Meat Loaf's elaborate hand gestures and Cher chewing gum with her mouth open. It's also noteworthy that the bar patrons keep singing for another 30 seconds or so after Cher and Meat Loaf have already left, but that's the power of Meat Loaf. The lyrics are pretty good, but nothing too amazing, considering some of the lyrics Jim Steinman's come up with for other Meat Loaf songs. It's weird this song doesn't get more mention as a classic duet, along the lines of "Almost Paradise" or "Don't Go Breakin' My Heart," but I guess it could have to do with the inherent manishness of Cher's voice?

In any case, that's about all I've got to say about this video. I hope you liked it, and I hope to see you again next week for another slice of Meat Loaf Monday!

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South America Trip Report: "Logistics"

Yes, this guy actually laid down and rode the conveyor belt up into the plane. 
Taken at Jorge Newberry airport in Buenos Aires.

1 - Buenos Aires

This report is a bit behind the other ones, but I suppose that late is better than never. I normally wouldn't do a post like this anyhow, but I thought that since I had gotten the plane tickets and one of the hotel rooms using frequent flyer miles, some of my readers might be able to benefit from a few tips on how to do the same. But then I also realized that it'd take more than one post to do that. So within the next few days I'll put up a post dedicated only to frequent flyer miles and some tips about how to effectively accrue, monitor, and use them. This post will only focus on our South America trip.


Panama City, seen from the plane.
We had an interesting itinerary for our flights on this trip. Our main ticket was obviously the one from Costa Rica to South America and back again. We used United/Continental miles to get the free tickets on Copa Airlines, a member of the Star Alliance. We flew into Buenos Aires, traveled overland, then flew out of Santiago. Our itineraries were:

San José--Panama City--Buenos Aires
Santiago--Panama City--San José

Amazingly, this whole ticket cost us only about $35 each, to pay for the online booking fee and some sort of tax. Of course, we did have to use the frequent flyer miles, which were 40,000 per person. That still seems pretty good to me, though. I believe I priced a similar itinerary online around the same time, and it would have been well over $1,000 per person. 

Copa Airlines also turned out to be pretty decent. Then again, if you're comparing any airline to one in the U.S., most any foreign carrier can make the American companies seem fairly crappy. The service has just steadily declined on American airlines since... well, since I can remember. But even on Copa, which appears to be based out of Panama and Colombia, had much better service in coach than I imagine some American carriers have in business class. We were even served a sandwich and drink on our Panama-Costa Rica flights, which is even more remarkable considering that the flight was only 50 minutes! And on the longer flights to and from South America, the very outgoing and professional crew served a few meals, all of which included free alcoholic drinks. You just don't see that on United or American these days.

The only bad part was the Panama City layover. I'm sure the city itself is nice --you could see the canal and hundreds of shining towers on the coast-- but the airport itself is pretty dumpy. It's sort of like a huge outlet mall with airplanes. Seriously, there was much more commerce than travel going on, but I guess it must be cheaper to buy electronics and plastic crap in Panama than the rest of Latin America. I'm just not sure how you'd take a 42" LCD TV on a plane as a carry-on. Anyhow, the airport part of the airport wasn't that nice, either. The seats at the gate waiting areas were upholstered in stained green fabric, and even though there were open jet-ways, we had to board and deplane outside and get on buses to be transferred into the airport. All in all, kind of chintzy, but at least I was able to get a donut and some coffee on the way home to Costa Rica. 

Tocumen International Airport in Panama City.
If you think it looks more like a mall than an airport, you're right.
Oh, and that's another "tip," I guess: Panama's official currency is the U.S. Dollar, although they call it the "Balboa." The bills are the same ones as used in the U.S. If you have American coins, they're also legal currency, but the Panamanians also mint their own coins; they're exactly the same size and color as quarters, nickels, dimes, and pennies, but with different, "Panamaniac" designs. And they apparently frequently use a different dollar coin (the lady at Dunkin Donuts had to wait to for some more customers to pay before she could give me change in bills). Basically: 
Panama City International Airport = Bizzaro Miami International Airport!

Buenos Aires (Jorge Newberry)--Ushuaia
Ushuaia--Buenos Aires (Jorge Newberry)

Jorge Newberry airport in Buenos Aires.
This was our flight to and from Ushuaia, obviously. We flew out of Jorge Newberry, the airport in Buenos Aires which is used mainly for domestic flights (the international airport is called Ezeiza). We flew on LAN, which was a new experience. We paid for these tickets, but accrued frequent flyer miles on American Airlines, since both AA and LAN are part of the oneworld alliance.

LAN was pretty nice. We had actually thought of taking buses for this part of the trip, but we're definitely glad we didn't. The flights were about 3.5 hours one-way, but I'd heard that the same trip on a bus can take over three days, if you ride almost non-stop. I paid my sitting-in-a-bus dues when I drove buses at CU, so for me it was definitely better to fly. The flights were nice and rather uneventful, although on the flight down Angela and I had the window and middle seats, respectively; when both of us got up to use the bathroom the weird old guy who had been in the aisle was now sitting in the window seat. He asked if we could "trade." I think both of us were taken aback by his audacity and so we confusedly agreed. Only later did we realize that we should have just told him "No, sit in your own seat, you tool." What a magnificent ol' bastard, but oh well.


I believe I mentioned in my Buenos Aires post that we found the apartment we stayed in through airbnb.com. If you've not tried it, you should at least check it out. Basically, you type in where you're going and when, and then you see a list of people who are renting their places in the area. Some are entire homes, some are apartments, and some are even just single rooms in a house (don't worry, though--it tells you which are which). The apartment we stayed at was in San Telmo, a historic part of Buenos Aires. It was big, quiet, and very comfortable, and it was definitely cheaper than most any other hotel option I can think of (except a youth hostel, but we're getting too old for that). It's just nice to have a "home" to come back to at the end of the day, where you can make your own food, relax, watch TV, shower, etc, just like at your own place. If you're traveling soon, check it out. I've also heard good things about a similar service called homeaway.com, although I've never tried it. 

The view from the pool on the Sheraton's roof.
During our later stay in Buenos Aires, we were at one of the two Sheratons downtown. This was also a pretty good deal. I had some points in Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG), the hotel alliance that Sheraton belongs to. I was able to combine some of those points with $40 per night with their Points and Money option; otherwise you'd have to use a lot more points (or pay a lot more money) for a room. I think this was also a pretty good deal. According to SPG.com, a room at the same time was going for $175, and the rates at the hotel's sign board were over $300 per night (!), so either way, we got a pretty good rate for a really nice room.

Angela at the hotel hot tub and pool.


(You know, if this is getting boring, you can just stop reading; I'll put up more about how to get the frequent flyer miles in a few days. Some of this stuff is actually more just for my own reference, so I don't forget it in the future!)

Angela and I on the bus.
While in the city, we occasionally took taxis, but more than anything, we walked like crazy. We felt safe basically all the time, but later in the evening we did tend to get a "radio" taxi just to be sure. Such taxis are dispatched when you call them, and it's a safer system than just hailing a cab on a random street corner.

We also used the bus a bit when we went from Buenos Aires to Neuquén. Buses in Argentina are something else, I tell you. Ours wasn't even the nicest class, but it included seats that reclined nearly flat, movies, two full meals, a bathroom, and they even served champagne. Not too shabby, but I guess some of the fancier buses have lie-flat seats, personal DVD players, and other even fancier amenities. In any case, our trip was something like 13 hours, and it cost around $100 per person. Also not too bad, all things considered.

An even-fancier bus.
Well, that's all for the moment, I guess. If you have any questions about any of this, whether out of curiosity or for your own trip, I'll be happy to try to help in any way I can.

Thanks for reading, and check back soon for more Sitzblog fun!

365: Picture a Day Project    365 Leftovers    All My Pictures    Sitzbook

February 2, 2012

It's Groundhog Day

And here's our weatherman Bill Murray with the forecast:

365: Picture a Day Project    365 Leftovers    All My Pictures    Sitzbook