Category Archives: Recent Stories

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.

The Boarding Door Is Now Closed…

I woke up a few weeks ago and I had a slight feeling of dread about writing something for OTR that day. This site, as I’ve written before, is a labor of love. I’ve been writing it for 10 years, and I love the little community it’s created and the interaction with the readers. But when I woke up a few weeks ago, writing felt like a job.

This happened a few years back when the whole credit card thing exploded, and the site started to generate a little revenue and I felt like I constantly had to feed the beast. I enjoyed the revenue, but I hated the feeling that this thing was work. I pulled back from the credit card stuff, and I started writing less frequently as a way to start enjoying this again.

As my girls have grown older I’ve been trying to spend more time with them in the mornings. And they stay up later so I spend time with them in the evenings. And after they go to bed I actually like to talk to my wife for a bit. And at my job I have my job stuff to do. Which is all to say – the time I used to spend thinking about the site and actually writing has now been filled with family time. And I’m incredibly happy about that.

Which is all to say that it’s time to turn out the lights at the OTR. I have the email addresses of those of you who have signed up for the newsletter, so if I decide to write from time-to-time I’ll let you know (and please – sign up for the newsletter…I may write on occasion and I’d like to have someone to send it to). But for now, we’ll be closing up shop.

You can always email me at jared (at) onlinetravelreview.com. And I’ll Tweet once in a while. Or maybe more than that. Follow me on Twitter! (Link is to the right).

I’m on Instagram at jblankoh.

Don’t delete the feed – if I decide twice a year that I have something to say, you’ll get it.

I’ve left a list of my favorite pieces of in the right-hand column so if you ever want to revisit the subway trip report or whatever, it’s there.

And I’ll leave with these last few thoughts:

- Don’t be an idiot about credit card churning. Stay within your limits.
- Don’t be afraid to fly coach and save your miles so you can take more trips.
- That business class seat is just a shitty version of your couch.
- Go and travel. And take your kids with you. I know this whole thing sometimes feels like it’s about the points. It’s not. It’s about traveling.

Thanks for reading.

United Is Upgrading Premium Cabin Food on Domestic Flights

Did you want the salad with chicken or shrimp?

Anyone who flies United in domestic business class frequently will no longer have to answer that question (no complaints, mind you – on the occasion when I’m upgraded I take my shrimp and shut the hell up).

United is upgrading salad options in the front cabin on domestic flights, as they note in this press release:

Among the changes:
-New, premium salads beginning this month for customers flying United First and United Business within North America;
-New, premium sandwiches and wraps, beginning Sept. 1, for United First and United Business customers within North America;
-Addition of Prosecco sparkling wine in premium cabins beginning this fall;
-Introduction of premium-cabin meals to flights of shorter duration, beginning in 2015; and
-Fresh meal options for premium-cabin customers on United Express flights, beginning in 2015.

Beginning in the middle of next year, flights longer than 2 hours and 20 minutes or 800 miles will get upgraded meals in premium cabins. United Express flights will see the snack boxes replaced with actual food. In addition, they’ll upgrade international economy meal service.

Now let the whining about everything United does commence!

This 3 Sentence Conversation Kinda Sums Up What It’s Like to Be a Husband

My wife is on the way to LaGuardia for a flight. She’s in a cab, and calls me at home.

Wife: What terminal am I going to?
Me: Hm. What airline are you flying?
Wife: I don’t know. *

(and…scene).

* to be fair, she was flying different airlines out and back and couldn’t remember which was which…and neither could I.

Apparently You Can Churn the Chase Fairmont Visa Card

Just a quick one:

A friend (and reader) just let me know that he and his wife both received a second bonus on the Chase Fairmont Visa Signature credit card (2 nights stay with breakfast). He and his wife had each gotten the card a bit over a year ago. They earned the free nights after $3,000 spend in 3 months. They closed the account after 11 months, then opened another card a month or two later. They received the free nights again after they hit the bonus.

Anyone else have this same experience?

Monday Roundup: Hawaiian Airlines to SFO; Delta Shuttle; Alaska Airlines Bathrooms

- Hawaiian Airlines will launch 4x weekly service between Maui and San Francisco on November 20th, moving to daily service on December 17th. Remember about 5-6 years ago when Aloha closed down and ATA closed down, it ended a bunch of West Coast service to Hawaii and the feeling was that it would never return. I guess we were wrong about that.

- Delta is moving its LaGuardia to Boston shuttle operations from the Marine Air Terminal to Terminal C on November 2nd. As part of the move they’ll upgauge the plane from an Embraer 175 to a Boeing 717. Washington DC shuttle operations stay at the Marine terminal and will continue to be serviced by the Embraer.

- A couple is suing Alaska Airlines because they were not allowed to use the First Class bathroom when they were flying in coach.

- Want to read a short interview with the founder of the new PeoplExpress?

Here’s How You Avoid Checking a Bag

I just fully Jedi-Mind-Tricked the check-in people at TAM Airlines in Sao Paulo.

Person at TAM Counter: You’ll need to check that bag.
Me: It’s hand luggage.
Person at TAM Counter: I’m sorry it’s too big you’ll need to check it.
Me: It’s hand luggage.
Person at TAM Counter: Hand luggage is under 5 kilos. That is bigger than that.
Me: It’s hand luggage.
Person at TAM Counter: That is a roller bag, it is not hand luggage.
Me: It’s hand luggage.
Person at TAM Counter: OK, go ahead.

In Case You Were Wondering How Bad the Traffic Is In Sao Paulo…

On the 4-lane highway to the airport there were people standing in the highway – not NEXT to the highway, IN the highway – selling crap. On a highway. In the middle of the highway. Because the “highway” moves at 5 mph. So people can stand IN the highway. I’ve never seen that anywhere.

Asuncion Junction, What’s Your Function? (Or, Here’s a Quick Trip Report)

The thing about being stuck in coach is that, perhaps unlike being stuck in business class, I don’t want to remember every part of the experience. I’d like the trip to be over with as quickly as possible, so while others can write 5,000 words about their flying experience, I prefer to keep mine to 2: I slept.

I feared my TAM 767-300 would be ancient with no onboard entertainment, but I was pleasantly surprised to see they had (at some point in the recent past, as Seatguru shows this plane as having no seatback entertainment) installed a back o’ the seat video that offered a wide array of choices, including the entire first season of Veep, which occupied me for the first 4 hours of the flight until the Ambien kicked in.

Two areas of note:

1) They divide the boarding into 3 groups – business class, the first 30 or so rows of coach, then the last rows of coach. God bless the Brazilians and all, but they are not a people that embrace the idea of a queue. So there was a boarding scrum as new arrivals to the boarding area would go to the front of the line, which is exactly the opposite of how a line works in, say, every other country on earth.

2) I don’t know why they needed to turn the cabin lights on at 11:15pm for dinner service. It would seem, even on a 9 ½ hour flight, that at that hour people would like to sleep. People may like to sleep at that point, but TAM was having none of it, instead keeping the lights on for another hour as they handed our beef or pasta.

The GOL flight to Asuncion was perfectly fine, noteworthy for these 2 things:

1) While everyone complains about airlines in the US, our flight was 30 minutes late in boarding. For reasons I’m not sure of, they tell passengers to go to the gate 1 hour in advance of take off. Then we stood there. And stood. And the boarding time came and went without comment, something that in the US would have caused a) a riot; and b) a barrage of angry Twitter posts. Nobody said anything.

2) There is a women-only bathroom on the Gol 737. I’m not sure why women get their own
bathroom other than, and forgive me, men’s bodily waste must be so pungent that Brazilian women refuse to subject themselves to that odor. I do not blame them.

Asuncion is a dusty capital city that smells of burning garbage due, I’m guessing, to the piles of burning garbage I passed on the way to my hotel, the Paraguayo Yacht and Golf Club. I will now list the pros and cons of this establishment:

PROs
- It is beautifully situated on a river separating Paraguay from Argentina. It’s quite relaxing to just sit and watch the river flow by. See here:

river

- My room, which was large and newly renovated, was $85.
- There’s a very nice health club, a ton of tennis courts, and a golf course that offers spectacular views of the river.
- Nearly* entirely devoid of prostitutes.
*I only saw one hotel guest escorting a prostitute back to his room.

CONs
- The hotel was basically the real-life version of the hotel in the Shining. Or an episode of Scooby Doo. Huge, decrepit ballroom? Check. Large grounds with only myself as a guest? Check. Dimly lit hallways that led to locked doors? Check. Scatman Crothers bartending? Check.

That's a spooky ballroom, don't let the light fool you

That’s a spooky ballroom, don’t let the light fool you

Nice pool.  I'm sure it will be lovely when it's not a pile of wood.

Nice pool. I’m sure it will be lovely when it’s not a pile of wood.

That's the empty poorly lit hallway that leads to my certain death.

That’s the empty poorly lit hallway that leads to my certain death.

- I asked the front desk (well, I think I asked this as I had to speak Spanish, and my Spanish is limited) about options for where I could eat. He mentioned 2 restaurants in the hotel. I told him there were no people in those restaurants. He said there would be later. I ate at 8:30pm, and there was not a soul in the place. Spooky.
- Although situated on a river with beautiful views, there is actually nowhere currently open to sit and enjoy said views.
- If you were looking for prostitutes, you would have been disappointed, as noted above, that I only saw 1. That said, I only saw 4 sets of guests at the hotel. 1 was a couple. 1 was me. 1 was a single guy. And 1 was an older Japanese woman and, I’ll guess, friend. So that leaves 2 options for who could get a prostitute (single guy and me), and I did not get one. So there is a 50% chance that guests who could get prostitutes would get them.

Paraguay is a poor country – according to whatever I could pull up on my work-issued 47 year old Blackberry, it’s probably the 8th poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, hovering in poverty right around Honduras. If I were dropped on earth and told that Paraguay was a developing nation and that they are still at the point where citizens are opening businesses that only cater to the most base needs of the country, I would assume that the country only needed auto repair shops and cell phones, as every store I passed for half an hour featured one or the other.

It’s winter now, so temperatures were pleasant in the morning and in the mid-70s during the day. It was still smelly and dusty despite the climate, which made me think about what was going on here during the summer months when it hits 110. That’s not an exaggeration. It regularly hits 110 degrees, which mixed with the burning garbage and dust must make turn this into, certainly, worse than the 8th worst place in the Western Hemisphere.

To sum up: I would have gotten away with it if it weren’t for those meddling kids.

The One Statistic That Sums Up Pittsburgh Airport

From the NY Times article today about how the airport will generate more than 20% of its operating budget by allowing fracking on its land:

The terminal was built for 30 million passengers a year. The peak was just under 21 million, in 1997. Last year, there were eight million.

Ouch.