Judy Baar Topinka, Illinois Comptroller, dies of a stroke in 70’s age

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Si vous utilisez plut??t ????for example???? (????par exemple ????), ce n’est plus le cas.

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Hyatt Zilara Montego Bay Review; Plus Some Other Nonsense

One of the ways to keep your marriage going strong is to take a few days, leave the kids behind, and fly somewhere warm. I’ve never really thought much about Jamaica, what with the Bob Marley and the ganja and the reggae and the no problem and the mon it seemed like perhaps something I wouldn’t be so into.

But what I AM into is not paying anything for a trip, so when I realized I was going to be stuck with 3 expiring nights at a Hyatt I found that they were opening a new resort in Jamaica with free nights available. Jamaica was now something I would be so into.

We dropped the kids off with friends on Friday morning of MLK weekend and went to grab a taxi. As the cab pulled up another woman came over and said she was hailing the cab and it was, in fact hers. But before I could even start an argument she saw me looking at my phone.

“Is this an Uber,” she asked?

No, it’s a cab.

“Yes it is – I ordered it,” said me.

“Oh, I’m sorry about that…”

And like that, one tiny tiny lie out of the way, we headed to JFK.

I haven’t flown JetBlue in years. And years. Free TV and extra legroom are most definitely in my wheelhouse, but I’m a slave to the United miles, making JetBlue an airline pariah for me. In my mind, though, JetBlue is still all about new planes, great free TV, and free snacks.

And the reality is that there is TV and there are snacks, but incredibly, just 15 or so years after they launched, their original A320s are showing a wee bit of wear and/or tear. Their seatback TVs on these older planes are notably smaller than the United 737 seatback TVs (which do cost $5.99 or $7.99, neither of which is free), and their leather seats are a little dinged up. The snacks are still great, and crew was perfectly lovely. But it really is amazing how quickly the once-cutting-edge free TVs now seem, if not exactly a relic, a 19” Sony Trinitron to the United 4K Samsungs (or whatever – you know what I’m saying). I guess my point is that I see why JetBlue has stagnated a bit over the past few years – sure, their Mint service is an innovation, but their 15 year old product is a bit long in the tooth vis a vis their competition.

As with so many arrivals in the developing world, passport control at Montego Bay was a free-for-all (international arrivals at JFK are terrible, but an orderly terrible; Montego Bay is a disorderly terrible). There are nearly 20 gates at the airport, making it much larger a) than I was expecting; and b) than the arrivals hall can handle. People are coming from every direction, converging on 2 uniformed women who were checking our immigration forms.

“What color pen did you use here?”

“Excuse me?” responded my wife.

“What color pen did you use? You can only use blue or black. This looks like purple.”

“It’s blue,” answered the Mrs., confidently.

“It looks purple to me.”

“It’s not.”

“OK, you can go ahead.”

Free and clear, we continue walking to the actual arrivals hall where we are once again scrutinized by another uniformed woman who will not listen to us about the color of the pen, and tells us we have to fill out the form again because “they won’t accept that with the purple ink.”

“It’s blue.”

We fill out the form again, except when we show it to get by the troll she tells us we didn’t fill out all of it, and tells me that I need to write down what countries I’ve been to in the past 60 days.

“I haven’t been to any.” (That’s not technically true, but after I saw people in front of me sent to a medical line after they said they had been to Argentina, I thought it best to be circumspect regarding my recent travels.”)

“You need to write that down.”

“Write what down? I wrote a line through the space indicating I have been to no countries.”

“You need to write the countries.”

“There are no countries.”

“Then you need to write that.”

“Write what?”

“No countries.”

When my daughter Scarlett was 2 ½ she would ask my wife for gum, and when she responded she had no gum, Scarlett would say, “let me see it, no gum.” And we would get into an argument about how you show that something isn’t there.

I wrote “no countries,” and continued.

Passport control all done, we get into the customs hall and there are roughly 317,000 people in the “nothing to declare” line while there are literally zero people in the “something to declare” line. With nothing to declare, I declare to my wife that we will go to the “something to declare line.”

“What do you have to declare?”

“Nothing.”

“This is the line for people who have something to declare – like alcohol or cash.”

“I don’t have anything like that.”

“Then you can’t be in this line. You can just go over to that line over there.” (points to the 317,000 people.)

“Oh, I can’t go in that line. There are too many people.”

“But that’s your line.”

“I’m going to stick with this line.”

With that, the customs agent asks me all of the questions on the back of the form regarding declarations (“I have no livestock to my knowledge, no ma’am….”) she ushers me through, and we head off to the hotel.

We stayed at the Hyatt Zilara Rose Hall, which some of you may remember as the Ritz-Carlton Rose Hall. The resort had been closed for 2 years for a massive renovation, where they added 2 additional buildings on to the original structure. It reopened a few weeks back. I shall now tell you a few things about the property:

The resort is divided into 2 sections. The Zilara is adults-only, with a beautiful quiet pool, lovely cabanas (that are free, though it’s first-come-first-serve), and a couple of restaurants, one of which was so empty the entire time we were there that we became obsessed with figuring out why no one was there. The appearance of Goat on the dinner menu may have had something to do with it. I have other theories about the constant emptyness of Flavorez, but I will not share them with you here.

The other section is called Ziva, and is basically the same thing, only families are allowed. There are constant activities at the pool, a show in the evening, and a generally pleasant vibe which made life enjoyable both for the adults and the children who happened to be staying in that section of the resort.

Both are all-inclusive, which includes all your drinks and meals at a wide range of restaurants. We found the food ranging from perfectly acceptable to quite good (breakfast buffet) to excellent (pizzas at the Italian restaurant). And it was on the honor system, meaning there were no bracelets, beads, cards, or whatever — you just ate, drank and left.

If you read the reviews on Tripadvisor you will note that the hotel opened on Christimas week and was an epic disaster. You should just skip those reviews. You will also note a series of complaints about the “original building” vs the “new building.” The rooms in the original building have been renovated absolutely beautifully. 400+ square feet with large bathrooms, balconies, and a light airy feel. Neither the elevators nor hallways have been renovated yet so the original carpeting is still in place, a fact that bothered some reviewers on Tripadvisor. Those people are nuts.

We spent one evening in a room in that building with a partial ocean view on the 5th (top) floor. We were moved to a junior suite (600+ square feet) in the new building on the 2nd night, and it, too, was beautiful. Brand new, with a huge tub, an amazing shower, incredible bedding, and a balcony. It was only on the second floor and we decided that we actually preferred the smaller room a bit higher up. To each his own.

Here is the portion where I note how much it costs to stay at the Hyatt Zilara Rose Hall.

Low level rooms during the season are nearly $1,000 for 2 people per night. The junior suite was more than $1,200. You read that correctly. Yes, it’s all-inclusive, but it’s a Hyatt (it’s not even a Park Hyatt). We had the rooms for free because we each had the Hyatt credit card, making it quite possibly the best use of those rooms anywhere (the rooms are more expensive than those at the Park Hyatt Vendome in Paris and the Park Hyatt Tokyo, which every blogger blathers on about, though breakfast at those places is an additional $75 or so, but really you don’t deserve to go to Paris if you eat breakfast at the hotel instead of going to grab a croissant and baguette from a local place, but that’s for another day).

We spent a chunk of our time on the vacation discussing who is spending $1000+ for a room at a Hyatt resort. Mind you – this is an absolutely beautiful, beautiful property. The staff could not have been more wonderful; the pools are incredible; the grounds, when they are finished –they are not yet fully landscaped – will be gorgeous. The beach is OK – if you are a beach person, you will not love the beach.

That aside – it is probably the nicest chain hotel in the Caribbean (Four Seasons aside, since you can’t use points there), and I would argue the best use of Hyatt points anywhere (sure – the Maldives proprerty blah blah blah, but I’m not going to fly for 60 hours for a 3-day weekend). 25,000 Hyatt points gets you a night for 2 people at the hotel, all-inclusive. Additional people are another 12,500 points each. You can use the free credit card nights at the hotel, but you only get 2 people for that.

But I still wonder – who is spending that kind of money at a Hyatt-branded resort? Again, no disrespect. And once we were there, we were, on every level, blown away. It had none of the stuffiness that I find at the Four Seasons, but didn’t suffer from the slow service you find in so many other places in the region. For us the most impressive aspect was that they made what is actually quite a large resort feel like a boutique. Bravo.

If you’re considering going – I’m happy to answer any questions.

Good to see everyone again ☺

It’s Times Like This When I’m Glad I Still Have The Blog

Hi again. Good to see you. What’ve you been up to? Really? That’s good to hear. Oh, you’re reading OTHER sites now? Oh. No, I’m really happy for you. I’m definitely happy you’ve moved on to other sites. Yeah, I’ve also been reading other sites. But it’s really good to see you – you look great…

So, it’s times like now when I missed writing. Here’s a conversation I just had with the front desk of the hotel in which I’m staying in Belgrade:

Me: Hi – I’m looking for somewhere to go for dinner.
Front Desk: OK. (I may be translating roughly here). (She takes out a map and starts outlining a route.) Go out of the hotel and take a left on Zyrbicicicicbrgic Avenue. Go and take a right on Sblciczybigcic Trgzskszcicgldm. When you get to Vrhzchizizchszcy Square, you’ll see the pedestrian street. That is Hrkrtvnglnosckujeunska. Follow that down and you can’t miss it. There are 3 great restaurants there. The first is Gdaskddnostniciskrije, the next is Sljvtnbedzbjeznezne, then you’ll come to Vstlihstoljaljaljarvicjajavic.
Me: OK, I think I’ll just take the map with me.
Front Desk: I’m very sorry, but you can’t.
Me: I can’t take the map?
Front Desk: No, I’m sorry we have only one map.
Me: There are no other maps?
Front Desk: We have ordered more maps, but they have not yet arrived. This is our only map.
Me: Can I borrow the map and return it?
Front Desk: No, I am sorry, this is our only map.
Me: Can you photocopy (phtokopskicszkicic?) the map?
Front Desk: Let me ask. (Turns and goes to back room; much fumbling noise; returns with map and no photocopy). My manager says you can borrow map, but asks if you can return it when you are finished.
Me: Thank you.

I ended up ordering a pizza to the hotel (I couldn’t find Vstlihstoljaljaljarvicjajavic.) I primarily mention this because it is how I learned that ATMs in Serbia will dispense as little as US$1. I took out $5 and paid for my pizza.

In any case…

I’ve learned a few things now that I’ve stepped away from the day-to-day writing of this thing, and I thought I’d share those things with you, the reader (the reader who somehow found out that I wrote something.)

— Writing a blog takes up so much more time that I realized. When I thought about writing OTR, I thought about the actual time spent in front of the computer. But writing isn’t just about the time it takes to type stuff out, it’s about the time you take to think of ideas to write about (like, “Top 7 Credit Cards for Indonesians” – that doesn’t just pop into your head, y’know?). That part takes up way, way, way more time than anyone realizes.

For the first few weeks after I stopped writing regularly, I felt like I had a phantom limb – I’d wake up in the morning with that sinking feeling that I didn’t have anything to write about. Or I’d be sitting there on a Sunday morning reading the paper, and I’d get this sick feeling in my stomach that I’d have to come up with something for tomorrow. But I didn’t. That was an enormous weight lifted from my typing fingers.

With that feeling gone, it meant I could actually pay attention to my children in a way that I realized I couldn’t do before. Sure, I played with my kids, and took them out and did stuff. But the compulsion to write stuff was planted in the back of my brain, a constant low-level throb that never went away. Having that gone (and it’s still there from time-to-time), has made me relax and enjoy my day-to-day existence much more than I realized was possible. I know that sounds goofy, but unless you’ve written something nearly daily for a long period of time, you can’t understand the constant self-driven need to come up with stuff to write. It’s been a blessing.

— There is a tremendous amount of vitriol in the blogging community about credit cards. Of course I had read some of that before, but getting a higher-level view has made it obvious that there is an undercurrent of negativity in ye olde blogosphere. There’s a group that writes about credit card stuff, and there’s a group of people who resent people writing about credit card stuff. Or more specifically, who resent bloggers who write about credit card stuff without having anything new to say.

I’m not sure there’s really a solution other than to reframe this whole thing: there are bloggers who make a 6-figure living from their blogs, and those blogs need to generate credit card content so they can earn a living. For some reason, this bothers a not insignificant group of people online. It bothers them because for a period of time, bloggers wrote their sites altruistically (or rather, not for income – it wasn’t exactly altruistic, as I’m sure all of us who wrote these sites enjoyed the minor perks that came with it – media exposure, the occasional trip, etc).

With credit card affiliate programs came significant incomes generated from credit card content. And with that came backlash. Blogs moved into slightly different niches, with those focusing on the so-called “newbie” market generating more backlash than others (but really every blog that has created credit card content has received some of the vitriol).

The truth is – blogs take a ton of time, whether the writers are full-time or not. If they choose to generate an income from them, that’s their choice. If the content isn’t valuable, then they’ll lose readers. If they’re deceiving readers with poor content, then start a blog to refute that. But I think the direction of the conversation – that bloggers who include credit card content are inherently horrible – is making it somewhat unpleasant to even be a part of this community.

And it’s almost hard to remember that this is what this is – a community. Flyertalk (for whatever you make of it) is (mostly) still a community. Every single blogger I had reached out to over the past whatever years has been nothing but helpful and selfless when I’ve had questions for them. I miss that.

— The “travel” blogs we read aren’t really travel blogs, they’re loyalty program blogs, which is a subtle difference, but one that is most obvious when I notice that pretty much every hotel review is of some mid-level chain hotel. The number of Hyatt and Hilton and Marriott and Crowne Plaza (?) reviews out there is incredible, especially considering that one primary reason you stay at one of these hotels is precisely BECAUSE the Marriott in Cleveland is the same as the Marriott in Philadelphia.

I get that most bloggers are using points and then writing about those trips, but there are zillions of independent hotels out there that go zero love from the blogger world because you can redeem Hilton points at them. That’s a giant miss. Go rent and apartment or stay at an independent hotel once in a while.

— Now that I’ve stepped away for a bit, I’ve really noticed that the minutia that people complain about is absolutely shocking. Last week I was sitting on a plane headed to Seattle. It was completely fine. Could I find a bunch of things to whine about? Sure – if I were writing the blog I’m sure I’d come up with stuff. But when I step back and look at it, it cost me $350 to go to Seattle, the staff has been good, I was sitting in Economy Plus, and we landed on time. Is there really any more to it than that?

When we flew back from Zurich last month with our girls, we weren’t able to get Economy Plus seats together, so for the first time in a while I sat in a regular coach seat on United. I was dreading the whole thing, I think because I’ve read literally hundreds of posts where people talk about how crappy it is to sit in coach.

The flight was completely uneventful. I sat next to one of my girls, and I lifted up the armrest between us, so I had a ton of room. I could angle my feet into her space (because she’s 4 feet tall), and I could stretch out. We had seatback TV, which Scarlett watched for roughly 7 straight hours. You forget that at that age the whole flying thing is so cool for them. They looked forward to when they food came around, and when the United safety video came up (the one where they’re in different places all around the world) Scarlett yelled to her sister, “this is my favorite part!” She didn’t mean that sarcastically.

I was able to enjoy the flights (even with broken seatback TVs on the way out, for which we were compensated with $25 vouchers), because I wasn’t looking for things to point out as being terrible. It was totally and completely fine. And in Zurich we didn’t even go to the lounge, preferring to just walk around the airport for a while. And I didn’t feel I needed to go to the lounge so I could write something snarky about it. We just enjoyed 30 minutes of strolling.

— My only suggestion for other bloggers would be this: write less. I know that you have to feed the beast. I know that you feel compelled to write 3 times a day. But you have a family (well, some of you have a family), and you should actually enjoy the trips you go on once in a while. Write less. I’m sure that Brett’s decision at Cranky Flier to cut back and only write 3 times a week (and never when he’s on vacation) has made it possible for him to continue to write the best airline (not loyalty program, airline) focused blog out there for so many years. Take a cue from him, and stop writing filler and focus on the good stuff you write.

Now go outside and play. See you in a month or so.