Sunday, May 26, 2013

A review of the Flightfox website and application

Flightfox is a website which supports crowd-sourced research of airfares and flight connections.  The idea is that, let’s say, you are flying from New York to Phoenix, and the airline quotes you a round trip airfare of $1000.  You think that’s a bit much, but you don’t really have time to research it, so you go on Flightfox and ask for help.  For a fee, which the website says starts at $24, some travel experts will research ways to save you money.  You choose the expert you like best, and work with that person to book your trip.

It sounds like it is a good idea.  I was not happy with the result.

We were planning a trip to take a tour (Rick Steves Adriatic tour) that originates in Ljubljana, Slovenia, and ends two weeks later in Dubrovnik, Croatia.  I found that getting to Ljubljana was not terribly hard.  It takes about 14 hours and you have to make multiple connections, but it looks doable.  But the return, from Dubrovnik to Dallas/Ft. Worth, was really, really difficult.  The only way to get back the same day was to take a departure out of Dubrovnik at 6 AM (although it might be 7 by the time we were going).

The fares ranged from pretty expensive to obscenely expensive.  I contacted American Airlines, hoping to cut the expense by using some miles for part of the trip, and ended up with a quote of over $5000 per person for the round trip.  Using, I found fares in the $1200 to $1300 range, but the return trip from Dubrovnik was in nearly all cases going to require an overnight stay in London or another European city (or, worse, at an airport).  The idea was to come home on Saturday, and go to work on Monday.  The idea was not to come home on Sunday and go to work on Monday.  Nor was the idea to extend two weeks of vacation to two weeks and change.

So, I had just heard about Flightfox on the This Week inTravel podcast, and decided to try it.  (Caution, this website is never current with what they have in iTunes.)  They asked for a hell of a lot more than $24, though.  I went ahead, and described our trip for the experts.  I tried to emphasize that my problem was transit time rather than cost.

The ‘contest’ for my fee ran twenty-four hours.  I received only eight bids from only three contestants. Nobody did any better than I had for myself using or other travel engines.  They all focused on beating the price when I was concerned with the duration of the return trip combined with the extremely early departure required to get home in one day.  We ended up cancelling the Rick Steves tour.  A fourteen day tour is just not feasible for people who are working for a living.  We need to keep it to ten or twelve.

My conclusion is that Flightfox might be okay for someone who is not an experienced traveler, but for someone like me (nearly two million miles on American) it is a waste of time and money.  I could be one of their experts, I suppose.  But I still couldn't get you home from Dubrovnik.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Fear and loathing 4

Most of the time I was working in Vermont, I was put up at the company’s guest house, a long ranch style house on the company’s campus.  It was within walking distance, although I didn't walk it, on account of the often life-threatening weather. The guest house was fairly Spartan, with rooms having a nice queen size bed, and a window out the back where you could see the woods, a hell of a lot of snow, and later, some nice green grass.  Also you could see the lady who came from somewhere in North Carolina every week who would be out there smoking.


The first time I was in the guest house was when I interviewed at the company. I had come in the night before and was left there by the company driver.  The room was on the main floor, and was kind of noisy, in that there was a heating/air conditioning unit which kept coming on.  The reason it kept coming on was that it was bitter cold out.  The room itself was quite warm, and the windows could not be opened – in fact there was a storm window in addition to the regular window.  The rooms all had a tiny circular table, and a couple of not very comfortable chairs.  There was a clock radio, a chest of drawers, a phone, a well equipped bathroom with travel-sized toiletries, including the smallest tube of toothpaste imaginable. 

Eventually I learned the trick of how to make the heat not come on.  But not for the first week or so, and you can’t use earplugs when you have to get up in the morning.  And I learned that the heat in the bathroom was enough to warm up the bedroom.

The guest house had a fancy breakfast, with pancakes or French toast, cereal, fruit, Vermont maple syrup, and so forth.   I would usually opt for an English muffin and some scrambled eggs, but eventually I taught one of the ladies how to poach eggs, so I could have those.  The breakfast was consistent, but the interesting part was who was there.  The company is such a difficult place to get to, that they routinely put up visitors overnight, and I ran into some very senior people from different companies.  Some of them were virulent in their comments about Vermont.

Lounge on the first floor. Never saw anyone use it.

When I returned for my first full week of work, I was put in a downstairs room.  There were half a dozen guest rooms off the hallway, and since these rooms were almost underground they temperature was better regulated.  The lower floor had a small kitchen, with a fridge and a microwave. There were cold drinks and ice available, and coffee making facilities.  There was a lounge with a TV – an old low definition television. I never used it.  Some old Naugahyde furniture completed the look.

The cookies in that jar were fabulous

Clubby, don't you think?

The problem I had in the guest house was sleeping.  At first, I had problems with the unusual noises, such as from the room heater.  Then I had problems because the smoke alarm in the hall was running low on its battery, and kept chirping.  I have experience with this!  I got out there, got that thing down, took out the battery, and left it lying on the floor.

The next night it was chirping again.  They had just put it back.  So this time, to make it a little easier for them, I put the battery in the trash.  And then complained at breakfast.  I had smoke alarm problems a couple of times.

Subsequently, I had problems with people who would set the alarm in their guest room for some ungodly hour, and then leave it set after they departed.  Guess who would have to get up and shut it off?

Another difficulty was, as it got to be spring, there were some wild animals around that made a lot of noise.  I couldn’t tell you what they were.  And the walls in the rooms were absolutely paper thin.  If they had permitted TV’s in there, it would have been a disaster.  I could hear the person in the next room’s phone conversations, and I could sometimes even hear them typing on their computer.

Guest rooms

Another amusement was that they had these tall light poles in the parking lot and all around the property, but not one of those lights worked.  I had a conversation with the manager of the guest house about it, and she just thought I hated Vermont.  I explained that I routinely got in at 10:30 or 11:00 PM on Sunday night and was tired of using my phone as a flashlight.  They eventually fixed all the lights. 

The saving grace about the guest house was that it had good, fast, free wi-fi.  I really appreciated that.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Fear and Loathing on the Way to Montpelier - 3

I started making regular trips to Vermont.  I really wanted to settle into a routine where I would leave mid-afternoon on Sunday and return Thursday, in time to go to bed at a reasonable hour, and work from home on Friday.

This never occurred.

My first trip up I got US Airways flight to Philadelphia, leaving around 2:45 or so.  This flight was on a regional jet, an Embraer 190.  It seems kind of strange to fly halfway across the continent on a “regional jet”, but that’s what we did.  The ER-190 is pretty comfortable, with 4 across seating in coach. It has a small first class section with one seat on one side and two on the other. 

I guess using the smaller airplanes enables the carrier to offer more frequent service.  Business travelers in particular are looking for their preferred departure times, and I guess this helps.  The ER-190 was a mainline US Airways flight, not one of the partner carriers.  The planes seemed a bit tired to me, and the service was not very snappy.  The planes have adequate under-seat storage, but overhead storage is at a premium.  I had no status on US Airways, but quickly learned that by signing up for their credit card option I could guarantee no worse than zone 2 boarding, which would enable me to get my roller bag on board.  I did not want to risk my bag failing to connect.

The roller bag worked out well.  I had a 21” bag from the Rick Steves Travel Store, and it worked well.  It is pretty light when empty.  I’ve had it for years, but the back-and-forth to Vermont stuff aged it quickly.  I would roll my shirts, and squeeze in a second pair of shoes, anticipating the extremely bad Vermont weather.  On the initial trips I took a heavy coat.  Later, I took a raincoat, almost a poncho, which I had picked up years before at L.L. Bean.  It could be squished down to a very small space in my bag.

My flight would usually arrive in Philadelphia at 5:30 or 6, sometimes later, and the outbound flight to Burlington left after 9, so there was no worry about missing the connection.  After a few trips, I found the best place to eat in PHL was at Vino Volo, which offers wine and smaller sized plates with really good food.  I have seen them around other places but not at DFW. 

The flight to Burlington was pretty full, but I was happy to see that it was an ER-175 operated by Republic Airlines, and not the dreadful CRJ out of terminal F.  The ER-175 is smaller than the 190, and at the time there were no first class seats, although they probably have them now. Republic has new planes, flown by pilots who are so young they look like they should be in high school, and some exceptionally attractive young flight attendants.  I won’t be critical, but on my airline of choice, pilots and FA’s tend to be, um, experienced.  The weather in Burlington was somewhat foggy, and we flew threw clouds and bounced around quite a bit.  We got in well after 10, and the airport was pretty deserted.  I have Hertz #1 Club Gold status, but in Burlington it hardly matters. You go to the desk like everyone else, but at least the information is already in the computer.

I didn’t understand the system and it took me a while to find my rental car.  Once I found it, and headed out of the airport, I was relying on memory of one trip where I was sitting in the back seat and it was daylight.  Now it was pitch black, and I had to rely on the extremely crappy poorly lighted Vermont signage to find I-89 to get to Montpelier.  And it was very, very cold.  Through blind dumb luck I managed to find the interstate. 

I-89 is unlike most interstates. It has four lanes, two in each direction, and for the most part the two sides are widely separated.  Most interstates are not that curvy and not that much up and down, but this one was built in the valley cut by the Winooski River, and it is a fast moving and violent river which didn’t flow very straight.  So the highway has a lot of fairly sharp curves for a road with a 65 mile per hour speed limit.  So I drove on this road, virtually the only vehicle on it. I turned on the radio and listened to a Quebec station (everything in French).  My concern was that this was the season when deer and, more importantly, moose were active.  And then later I learned that bears are active as well. With no lights, no one ahead of me, and the road so curved, had a large animal been on the highway I would have hit it.  Well, that happened, but not on this first trip.

I finally got to Montpelier, and then, of all things, I couldn’t find the insurance company.  This is incredibly stupid, but true.  When I was there before, the driver took the back way in because he didn’t like sitting at the light at National Life Drive, so I had not gone in that way.  There was a tiny sign indicating (I thought) the turn was ¾ of a mile away, when it was really saying turn right and it’s ¾ of a mile up the hill.  I didn’t even see the turnoff.  So here I am, driving around this little town, the state capitol, totally lost.  I pulled over and looked at the map on my phone.  Basically, I drove to the guest house navigating with my phone.  I was driving maybe 10 miles an hour, but there isn’t a hell of a lot going on Sunday night in Montpelier, so all I had to worry about was staying on the road.

I finally found the guest house, but it was pitch black out.  I had to use my phone as a flashlight to find the entrance, and again to see the keypad where I had to key in the code for access. Fun stuff.

The guest house itself is subject of the next entry.