Friday, December 19, 2008

Fridays before holidays

I like working the weeks between the Thanksgiving and New Year breaks. I do not like going to the mall, especially locally. The family that I spend holidays with is all local and we see each other all the time so I am not doing an special entertaining or extra travel. I do not have kids concerts, recitals, or exam study sessions to attend. Other instructors like to take time off so work is usually available and it is a good time to pad the bank account for the slower months at the beginning of each year. If I am traveling, I can go check out the decorations of some other city - one year I was even lucky enough to be sent to NYC where I made sure to go see the show at Radio City Music Hall and the windows at Macy's.

That said, for the past few years I have been on the road not just near the holidays, but specifically the week before Christmas and trying to get home on one of the busiest Friday's of the year. I have even flown home on Christmas Eve morning to avoid the worst of a Friday night. This year I was working locally which involves a bit of a commute. It was damp, drizzly, and foggy all week making for horrible traffic and lots of accidents. It was just plain ugly. I was driving home - no sitting in traffic on the Interstate - one evening thinking that I would rather be traveling. If I was traveling I would be staying at a hotel much closer to the office. I also wouldn't know if the traffic was normal or a holiday special. And I probably wouldn't be as interested in getting back to the hotel or to dinner alone at any specific time. I was just thinking I should try harder to be traveling the week before the holiday next year...

Then I saw the weather report - snow in the mid west and north east. Flights canceled in the New York City area and Chicago. I am very glad to be at home.

Merry Christmas.


Thursday, November 27, 2008

This doesn't look like November in North Carolina.

I choose to live in a place with 4 seasons. I like winter in small batches and for short periods of time. But not before Thanksgiving! Yet during possibly "the coldest November on record" and "8 years since the airport had measurable snow before Thanksgiving" and possibly the first time ever that the airport had measurable snow TWICE before Thanksgiving, I woke to snow on my car. We even made the national news both Saturday morning (for Friday's snow) and Sunday morning (for record breaking lows on Saturday).

Most of my friends from the northern tundras teased about my complaining about the cold. Sure it is (and was) colder up there but they should expect cold and possibly even snow in November. Sure, some would not even call it snow. A dusting at best since it was not on the roads and most of melted shortly after the sun came up.

I have had offers to move North again but I prefer to let the snow melt if I am at home or let the hotel staff clear the drive if I am traveling. With all the traveling I do, I was beginning to wonder what state I was in that day. I prefer my snow to have little impact on the roads and to be pretty, short lived, on a weekend, and in January - like this picture from last winter:

Tuesday, October 28, 2008


Thoughts from this morning.

* It is just wrong to go from 73 degrees to 37 degrees in such a short time.
* Especially when it is damp and windy.

* If the time change had occurred last weekend then I would not have been scraping frost from the car in the dark then driving east into the sunrise to get to work this week. It would already be light out by the time I started my commute.


Friday, October 17, 2008

re: travel stories and travel blogs

Yes. I am still training.
No. I am not traveling as much. But who knows what next week will bring...

But there have been a number of small stories running around in my head that I have been meaning to post.

When I was in Las Vegas I spent a few hours in a bookstore just browsing and I found a book title The Traveling Curmudgeon by Jon Winokur.

It is mostly quotes about traveling from around the world and from many time periods. There is an introduction that describes - much better than I can - how most interesting travel stories are rarely happy stories and most were no where near funny at the time they were happening. They are mostly about lost luggage, canceled flights, sick children, and other such adventures.

It struck me as very true and as a reason I wouldn't expect anyone but a few close friends to ever find anything interesting in my travel stories. I was also thinking about this book and what could be boring travel stories as I was following the Olympics in August. I have always found the stories about the local culture or what it took to get there the most interesting. Since I had the privilege of traveling to Beijing in 2000, it was also fun to see if I could tell from photos and video what had changed. What I most enjoyed though were the blogs of the athletes that shared the behind the scenes view of traveling to the Olympics.

My favorites were of the months running up to the Equestrian portions in Hong Kong.
Here is a list of some of the ones I was reading - some were just for the Olympics, others have continued since and you have to look at the July and Aug posts to get the Olympic travel stories:

2008 Olympic Blogs (a list of blogs including some below)
Inside the O'Connor Cavalry
Beezie Madden
Notes from Debbie McDonald
Rachel Dawson (Tar Heel Field Hockey)

Happy reading!


Friday, May 2, 2008

The Strip

The Suncoast offers a free shuttle to the strip. After work one evening, and after a good meal at Whole Foods, I asked how it worked. I was given a card with the times on it and found that a shuttle was leaving in 2 minutes then not again for over an hour. The return times that were reasonable to go with this adventure were 9 and 11 and since I have stayed somewhat on east coast time and been waking up early, I didn't think I would last until 11. That still left about 2 hours to see what I could see. Walking quickly and getting a good workout in the process here's my tour:

1. The starting point. The shuttle drop off and pick up point is outside of Bill's Gamblin' Hall and Saloon. An amusing place to start since I like country music. I saved going inside for the end of my tour and proceeded across the street past Bally's to look at the Eiffel Tower at Paris Las Vegas. Having been up the one in Paris, I did not go up the tower here or even into either of these casinos. I was more interested in what was across the street.

2. The Bellagio. The lobby's hand-blown glass flowers are beautiful and the Conservatory and Botanical Garden is amazing and fun. The current show was titled "Spring Celebration Show” The water fountains were from over sized watering cans but the real fun was the large critters. There was a frog and a ladybug and butterflies. They were basically flower sculptures. It reminded me of Rose Bowl Parade floats where everything is made from living items. That was not the case here as some of the metal framing was obviously part of the sculptures but it still has some similarities. I skipped the Fine Art Gallery. I was looking for a quick tour and free events. Besides, while I like some American Modernism, the exhibit is organized by the Boston MFA so I have probably seen many of the items. I missed the fountains - something for a later trip I guess.

There were also a few obvious reminders that the Bellagio is the ritzy casino in town. First as I walked up there were the limos. Not just standard limos from an airport and really, even more impressive than those advertised for prom night. Fancy limos with finely dressed drivers. The bellhops and lobby are also fancy but that happens in other not so nice hotels as well. Then there were the casino tables. After searching, I did find a few with minimum bets that I might consider if I knew anything about playing the game, but as I first walked through the all I saw were minimum bets of $100. That is without even getting close the the high stakes areas. Finally, as I headed out at the other end of the casino I walked through the shopping areas with very upscale items. The less obvious ritz factor was the noise - or lack of noise. Sure, the shopping area had high ceilings and hard floors and lots of echoes, but the casino was much quieter than the others I visited. There were just as many slots but they didn't seem so loud and there were just as many people. There was more carpeting to dull the sounds. It also was quiet as bright.

3. Next stop - a walk through Caesars Palace. The buildings with all the greek columns and statues and such are interesting. I wouldn't mind seeing a show in the Colosseum just because I have never been to Greece. I looked out at one pool, and the names of the bars and nightclubs are humorous.

4. On to the Mirage where the volcano is being renovated but the aquarium and the rain forest are interesting. I should have taken the free tram to Treasure Island even though it is just next door since the walkways wind through parking and valet areas and are not the easiest to navigate. I never went all the way to TI, but rather stopped and crossed on one of the pedestrian bridges to The Venetian. The gondolas outside were mostly covered and looked closed for the night. I did walk inside past a few shops but I did not see indoor canals. There were some very nice replicas of paintings and murals on the ceilings though. I was also too late to visit the Guggenheim Hermitage Museum.

5. I was tempted to go a bit further to the Wynn since one of my students used to work there and had described some behind the scenes features of the mountain. However, I was getting tired and I really did not want to miss that 9pm shuttle back to my hotel. So I started back passing through Harrah's where I found a lot of people and a lot of noise. Outside in the carnival court it was a little more comfortable to people watch. There was one of those carnival booth type places where you dress up and get your picture taken. I know the ones with covered wagons and still photos. This looked more like you get put in a movie - riding a motorcycle. And the couple checking out the place was trying on some black leather riding gear. I would place that in the What happens in Vegas staying in Vegas category. By the way, there was a sign posted at the place - "no cameras please".

6. I finished up at Bills with a $0.99 margarita, $5 into the slots, and a 15 minute wait for my ride back to SunCoast.

One last comment: I only had 2 Elvis sightings - both were on singing on the open air top level of tour buses.


Welcome to Sin City

I have been working in Las Vegas this week. My first time to sin city.

As expected, the city (and metro area) is pretty flat - it is actually a valley - and the mountains pop up fast at the edges. People drive too fast - and the rental car has too many blind spots - so I've been surprised a couple of times already, but no scratches (yet).

It has been a long time since I have been anywhere that smoking is allowed almost everywhere and I am reminded how much I don't like the smell of stale smoke. Also, smokers have no taste buds, so the "they have great food" recommendations have been a bit off in my opinion, and I was holding my breath walking by at least one of the cafes in the hotel. So, as usual, I have been eating at Whole Foods Markets.

For hotel choices, I decided to experience the city. The training center is about 10 miles north of the strip. This north and northwest part of Las Vegas is the Summerlin neighborhood - rapidly growing with both business and housing and loaded with money. The recommended hotels included a few regulars that I know and like but also one of the local casino and resorts. I figured I would go for the vegas experience. Now that I have been there, done that, I think I'll go back to the Res Inn if I ever come back.

I stayed at the SunCoast. I had a non-smoking room (and yes, it really was a non-smoking - no old smoke smells were noticeable), with a fridge and a view of the golf course. It was fine. A room. Nothing special but it had what I needed - a fridge and a clean bed and bath. They do use scented cleaners so I have been stuffy each morning but that is also in part from the dry air, pollen, and dust outside (and smoke in the casinos and lobby and elevator areas and parking decks and...). It wasn't until Wed that I noticed the lack of a morning newspaper. I do not get home delivery since I am on the road so much, but i do at least skim the paper when on the road and I usually save the puzzles for the plane ride home. Just another sign that I am not in a business hotel this trip.

It was recommended - strongly recommended - to drink lots of water while here. They weren't kidding. I generally drink a pretty healthy amount of water when I am teaching since bottled or filtered water is provided for all of our classes (usually by the training facility but I'll buy a case as part of my meal allowance if it isn't). I also remembered a jacket since the day and night temps can vary in the desert but I have not needed that this trip. Not even for the one colder than average day we had mid week. The wind can be brutal though. And even with sunblock and lots of water, it was dry enough for me to get a chapped lip and some nose bleeds.


Thursday, April 17, 2008

Driving Green

I like National Car Rental. I may be one of the few.
Why? Well I have been driving a hybrid Prius all week.

At any car rental counter it is possible to discuss options and sometimes choose what type of car. I have gotten free (or $10 per WEEK) upgrades because the keys to the convertible were in reach but I couldn't be given a car in my class until they finished cleaning one. Most of the car rental companies have a frequent rental program or a gold or exec membership program (most fee based, some free). Those programs often allow a renter to bypass the counter but that in turn eliminates the choice of vehicle. You can specify a preferred class of car but not a preferred make let alone model. And you get "upgrades" to what some mysterious "them" believes to be the best car.

With National Emerald Club, I get to pick (from my reserved class) any car I want without stopping at the counter. Make, model, color, everything. I have even selected cars based on what state the plates are from. It also makes it easier to swap keys if the first choice is not as clean [my biggest problems so far with National] or smoke free as I would like. They check a license and payment method as you leave but most of the paperwork is "on file".

So this week I picked the Prius.
I thought it would be fun and different.
I had to get help starting it.

Ok, I figured out the key thing. There is a traditional key and key fob with lock/unlock. The key was in the door lock when I got there and the key fob is larger than many others. It took me a minute but I did figure out that the key fob is really the key. There is not a traditional insert key and turn starter. You put the key fob thingy in is "port" then press the "power" button (the button is what clued me into looking for a non-traditional key scenario).

Here is where it got tricky. I guess I didn't actually have my foot on the brake when I pressed the power button - despite all good training and personal experiences driving a stick most of my life. The car started but a light said "brake". There was a parking brake - it was off - and I even tried putting it on and taking it off again. No luck. And as long as it said "brake" I couldn't put the car in gear. When the nice staff member parked another one on the aisle I asked for help. He had me turn off the car and start it with my foot on the brake. Turns out (yes, I did this again later) that all I really needed to do was put my foot on the brake and press the power button again.

Changing gears is a little odd also. This is an automatic with forward and reverse only - no 1st and 2nd. And it is all electronic. The lever does not stay next to the label. You move it to reverse and the screen shows you in reverse and the beeping (inside the car for the driver not outside for others) begins but the lever goes back to its original location. After backing out the space, you move the lever to forward and the screen reflects that, the beeping stops, and off we go. When parking there is a "Park" button to press and the screen reflects that setting. The lever is not on the floor or the steering wheel either - it is on the dash, to the left of the CD player. Different; but it wasn't too hard to get used to it.

As with many newer cars, there is a touch screen panel in the center. This has audio and climate control settings and would probably have the GPS maps if that service was built in. The screen defaults to showing the current used and regenerated and has a mode to show the flow: using battery or engine or both or regenerating from motion or engine or both. This is done with a schematic and arrows and colors. It is pretty neat and I wish I could be a passenger for a while so I could just watch it.

The audio controls have a "type scan" It is an HD radio so it can scan for a type of stations such as rock or news. Country did not seem to be an option but rock found a country station or two for me [probably because most current hits in country are very close to classic rock in style]. There is a also a traffic search. This is a little different. The type search is off the tags of the station. The traffic search seems to be trying to find an actual real time traffic report. I can't tell exactly how since I rarely succeeded in my limited testing.

I might be able to get used to the blind spots. I never seem to do that in just a week of renting the car. There are a lot of windows to prevent blind spots but they are there and I can't quite figure out what I would change to make them go away. Head room is good. I would like a little more elbow room but it is better than most other cars. It is a 4-door but I haven't tried to sit in the back. It is not as small on the inside as it looks - but I think the Ford Focus (at least the version I drove in the UK that was very similar to the first year they had in the US) does an even better job of being roomier than it looks.

So far, according to the fun touch screen consumption information, I have gone a little over 90 miles and averaged about 51 MPG. For a short while I was up at 53mpg average, then I went across town on the interstate and it dropped back down.


PS: Since I recently ranted about airline loyalty, let me also say that there is still some benefits to hotel loyalty - I *used* to get upgrades at the the chain I am at this week - but since I lost elite status, I am in a smaller, first floor room.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Airline Loyalty

I guess I am an airline snob. That, or I am one of the few "loyal" fliers left in the world. Well, I tried a new (for me) airline this week and I still haven't really decided if I like it or not. More on that experience in a later post. For now, I would just like to ramble on about my most and least favorite airline experiences as I wonder why I am loyal to any particular airline and think about how thankful I am that this week I am not flying American. [American Expects more Cancellations Apr 11]

I usually fly American. At one time they had a hub at my home airport which made it the most likely airline to have a direct flight at a reasonable price. If my company booked my travel, that was also the preferred airline for trips originating from my location. So I began to collect points. When American closed the hub they kept many direct flights - now mostly as regional jets up and down the east coast. And Midway arrived as a hub with frequent flyer partnership with American meaning more points (and more chance of elite status). Then Midway went to their own frequent flyer program and then they went bankrupt.

Now my choice of airlines is more of a comfort thing. I think that American still gives me the best chance of getting a direct flight or the least annoying connections. But mostly it is that I am used to American and American Eagle. I know the flight times for the cities I visit most often. I know which terminals (and in some cases gates) they are at for many airports. I know what types of planes and the best seats and when and where to ask for exit row seating. Even though I do not have elite status at the moment, I have maintained my Club membership (and found it to be worth almost every penny). And I like the adjustable headrests, reasonable sized seats, and legroom that is better than many other airlines.

Delta has been my second choice but mostly for that same comfort reason. I am not as familiar with Delta's schedules of direct flights. And the Atlanta airport isn't known for its ease of use even though I have been lucky with my flights through there. It is also one of the more comfortable places to get delayed (not stuck since getting out to a hotel and back in can be annoying) - if there is such a thing. There are a few features of their frequent flyer program that I like better than American and Delta was the first to implement some of the nicer boarding procedures but many of those have now been adopted by American and other airlines as well. At my home airport, Delta is in the busy terminal and American is in the less busy terminal that also already has the black diamond screening lines. I have also found the ground crew to be quicker (and friendlier) with American than Delta at home - but just the opposite in Boston (one of my most frequently visited cities).

For the most part I end up on regional jets and Delta Connection and American Eagle use similar planes. They have the same leg room (or lack of), same shoulder width of seats (some airlines actually use narrow seats). I generally like regional jets. I try to travel with all carryon baggage and with the smaller planes the rollerboard is gate checked. With the larger planes I have to get on board early enough to make sure there is room in the overhead - less of a problem since the limitations on liquids force people to check their large bottle of shampoo - but harder when you don't have frequent flyer priority boarding.

United and USAirways seem to give me the most problems with overbooking and delays. And I find the seating on Continental very cramped. A few other smaller carriers, specifically ones that advertise avoiding major airports and hubs, sound promising but I haven't tried most of them - and many filed for bankruptcy last week. I don't mind extra fees for extra bags or no free food and drinks or some other things that some of these newer airlines have tried to do to control costs. However, I am a big fan of reserved seating. It is not always easy for me to print a boarding pass from a hotel or client site and until recently it was also hard to do from home (no dsl available before).

Many friends and colleagues have suggested Southwest and the boarding issues were one of my biggest fears of trying them. More recently they changed their procedures [check out Boarding School] and added a "business" class which guarantees first group boarding. I am trying it this trip. I'll let you know how it goes.


Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Great finds at home

Sometime adventures and surprises can happen at home too.

One of the area Whole Foods now has made to order omelets in the mornings. I discovered this great find the second week of the offering (it has now been a couple of months).

All the more reason for me to get breakfast on the way to work at least once a week - that is, if I can leave a little bit earlier to have time to wait for it to be made.


Friday, January 18, 2008

Boston To Do List

I had a new and unusual experience this week - I found out about two restaurants that use organic ingredients. What is so new and unusual about that? It isn't the what - it is the where! I found out about them in the free magazines you find in a hotel room!

I usually find myself flipping through the Where magazine and whatever else I find in the hotel room at some point during my stay. This week I discovered two places to try - which at this point it will be on a future visit. Henrietta's Table in Harvard Square look fancy but once in a while it is important to max out the expense account. Life Alive - Urban Oasis and Organic Cafe in Lowell looks all veggie so I may not find as many people interested in going with me, but I'm good with tofu once in a while.

There is also a brand new Hampton Inn and Suites near the office that I need to check into for my next trip. If I can get a room with a fridge for a similar price and a much shorter commute, life will be very good.


Thursday, January 17, 2008

The show must go on

There are many advantages to corporate training over academic training but one one the disadvantages is adverse weather policies.

With academics, there are many weeks (if not months) to "catch up" on a missed day or a delay. With academics, it is easy to find out if there is a delay or cancellation through local media. With academics, the students (or the majority) are local and don't have to worry about rescheduling plane flights.

With corporate education - The show must go on. Students travel in from out of town for a class that is jammed packed with information and fills the entire week. There is not time to miss a day and catch up later in the week and no way to alter the curriculum that significantly. A company will often help a student reschedule a class or allow them to audit the missed days in a future class, but they can't help with the costs of rescheduling the travel. And since the class goes on for those students who can attend - the instructor has to be there too - with the help of trains and automobiles when there are no planes and even when there are few if any other employees in the building.

I've have several stories I could tell about how the show must go on. This week I had the adventure of being north of Boston for a January Nor'easter. I had flown in early to visit with friends and family but Monday morning I had to get from the hotel to the office through snow falling at several inches per hour. We only ended up with 10inches total but in the morning it was coming down so fast that it was sticking to the window of the car faster than I could get it cleared off. There was no school for the kids and while businesses were open, many people (thankfully) stayed home that morning. It didn't take me that long to get to the office and I had left plenty of extra time. And most of my students made it to class as well.

In the afternoon it stopped and since it had been an all snow event, the roads were quickly cleared. Once I got the car cleared (again) I had no problems. It all turned out to be one of my more boring "snow meets work" events.