Airlines

Things You Should KnowU.S. Travel

NEVER WASTE AN OPPORTUNITY: A VISIT TO THE CAROLINA’S

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When a great fare was “scored” via American Airlines for an arguably optimistic June trip to Anguilla only to have the island remained closed, a quick decision was made to go anyway.  Obviously not to the island, but rather keeping the round trip flights to and from Charlotte.  I have found the upside to these travel disruptions is a seemingly greater flexibility and willingness on the part of the airlines (at least AA) to make changes.  The original fare included “free” system-wide upgrade awards (meaning flying up front without using miles); that somewhat played a role in the decision.

My curiosity about flying during COVID has been satisfied.  Here’s my report:   The TSA folks have managed to create a “no touch” procedure.  Rather than handing over your ID, they ask you hold it next to your face for comparison, and they remain behind plexiglass.  There are distancing signs as well as cleaning crews everywhere.  Masks, are of course, required in the terminal.  Few food stores were open, but it was a very early flight.

On board the flight, masks are required at all times except if a passenger is eating or drinking.  Even though this was a cross-country flight of more than four hours, there was no beverage service although we were able to request drinks after take-off.   Snack bags were provided at boarding:  a small water bottle, a bag of corn nuts and a wipe.  Upon landing, deplaning is like leaving a funeral — stay in your seat until the row in front of you has exited.  The directions were somewhat adhered to.  All in all, the whole experience was uneventful.

Worth the wait!

The year 2020 for us has been about visiting new states as opposed to new countries.  With this trip, my count is 46 out of 50 (still missing: Maine, Michigan, Mississippi and Alabama), of which I am very proud.  Neither the hubby nor I had been to the Carolina’s.  Again, it didn’t take long to map out the 11-night itinerary.  There’s so much to see, the trip could easily be longer.  It is a relief to have “short” drives to the various stops, as opposed to 400-500 miles on average covered daily in the recent road trip.

NASCAR HQ

As for Charlotte, it is immediately apparent why this has become one of America’s best cities in which to reside.  The hubby and I seriously considered leaving CA maybe 10 years ago.  We took a survey that asks what your priorities are for a city and then tells you what location best suits your criteria.  Charlotte was at the top of the list for both of us.  When our kids settled in LA for their careers after college, we decided to stay put.

Downtown Charlotte

The city is a sprawling metropolis but at the same time is easy to navigate with some beautiful residential areas. Gracious homes on generous lots is very different from what we So Cal dwellers are accustomed to — not to mention how much less the cost is for much more house.  Of course there were some delicious food finds; one is depicted in the photos below from Flour Shop.  Bank of America headquarters anchors downtown Charlotte along with their beloved Panthers’ stadium, Hornets’ arena and a beautiful new stadium for the AAA baseball affiliate of the Chicago White Sox.  My personal favorite — Lowe’s — is likewise based in Charlotte, together with more than a dozen Fortune 1000 companies.  Big city opportunities, southern charm and four distinct seasons.  All that’s needed is an MLB franchise.

Next stop:  Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill — aka The Triangle.

Jerry Richardson brought the Panthers to Charlotte.

 

Help!  Where can I see a game?
Snippets from the Road

ITALY, PARTY OF FOUR — UPDATED

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(This March 3 post is updated at the end … )

With the big post-tax season trip just six weeks away, I’ve been repeatedly asked these questions:  “Are you cancelling your trip?”  “Are you concerned?”  “What are your thoughts about …”

My answer has not changed.  No, we are not changing unless we are forced to.   In other words, if all flights to Italy are cancelled, then I guess we’ll change our itinerary — flying into Rome and departing from Milan, with additional stays in Florence and Venice.  American Airlines currently has a deadline for flight changes without penalty until March 16.  All of the hotels and cars may be cancelled without fees.  So not much at stake while we see what happens.

We’re a generally healthy family who in all probability would tolerate a flu without much fanfare. While I’m not looking for adverse conditions, the fact is we could stay home and get sick.  So what the heck .. onward.

My Snippet from the Road:  Carry on unless you’re forced not to.  Wash your hands.  And if change must happen — the South of France is just an hour flight from Rome.  A win/win.

UPDATE:  In case you’re interested in where we stand now (March 13), we are looking to postpone just a few weeks from our original 4/17 departure.  Typically we’re home around May 10 looking forward to attending Dodger games.  Since that is also postponed, our timing is flexible throughout May.   It would be a pleasure to be among the first to help resurrect Italy’s economy in some small way.

The plan is to see how things look at the end of March/beginning of April before changing flights and hotels.  Until then, we’ll talk to each other, catch up on reading and perhaps binge watch cooking shows on Netflix …

International TravelThings You Should Know

WHY PANAMA?

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When one needs to reuse airfare, the most important aspect is calendaring the expiration date!  It’s likely fair to say that many a cancelled fare has been forgotten and never used.  I know I have done that.  Put the expiration date in your calendar, or keep the original reservation sheet in your travel folder, or wherever is your best place to keep track of it.

Most of the Panama City skyline did not exist 10 years ago ..

In this case, 2019 Boston travel plans changed resulting in unused fare on American.  We had until April 2020 or the credit would go bye-bye.  Early January is the best (and only) time the hubby is free to travel during tax season — plus it happens to coincide with my birthday.  So, where to go???

Nowhere with snow or I’d be traveling solo.  It’s high season in the Caribbean with crazy rates.  The South Pacific is on the to-do list, but will need to wait.  I started looking at Central American countries.  Panama unanimously gets positive feedback from other travelers who have been.  We wanted to see the canal without going on a cruise.  A moderate downside is American routes through Miami (at least from LA), with a plane change then another 2.5 hours to Panama.   If you have a choice, either Copa or United fly nonstop from LA.  Still, Panama got the nod.

Long Miami layover allowed for lunch at Joe’s Stone Crabs with the hubby’s family — Uncle Mike & Shelley of Boynton.

I was thrilled to see how affordable the hotel rates are!  Your dollar goes far with accommodations, meals and most everything else.  The experience is easy — Panama is on both the USD and the same electrical current — and most folks are English speaking.

1. Accommodations

After initially booking the Santa Maria Hotel & Golf Resort, I followed a frequent visitor’s suggestion to stay right in the city so I changed us to the JW Marriott.  That turned out to be a mistake as there were significant renovations impacting the pool experience among other issues there.

Poolside at the Santa Maria with the golf course in the background.

Here’s where one of my favorite topics — Brand Loyalty — played a huge role.  Both properties are under the Marriott umbrella.  Upon explaining our situation, the JWM general manager without hesitation facilitated our move to our original choice, providing a car and driver for the transfer.  The same rate was honored.  We were welcomed at the Santa Maria literally with open arms.  But it gets better.  Gorgeous flowers arrived two days later on my birthday from the JWM manager with lovely wishes.  That’s what I call customer service 101.  Brilliant.

Feeling the birthday love, all courtesy of the hotels.

2. Visiting the Canal

A trip to Panama is not complete without some tour of the Canal, whether via cruise ship or our choice of going to the Miraflores Visitor Center.  An excellent documentary narrated by Morgan Freeman at the adjacent Imax theater provided the history of the canal from which I learned a great deal.  And then we waited on a viewing deck for an enormous ship to pass through (one of forty in a 24-hour cycle).  Patience is key as it is very slow going, about one hour to transcend a particular lock.  In the end, it’s fascinating to see the canal in “action.”

Jockeying for position to capture a photo of the vessel heading down the Miraflores Lock.
From our guide’s phone — apps that show all Canal traffic and descriptions of the vessels.
Near side full and far side empty. Remarkable engineering.
With Robert Valencia, our excellent guide.
Two trains on each side attached by cables pull this enormous vessel through the lock. A captain up top guides a ship from the beginning to end.

3.  Fit for Foodies

A birthday dinner at Maito (#17 on the San Pelligrino Top 50 in Latin America) was a great experience.  It’s hard to pinpoint a specific “Panamanian” cuisine.  We had everything during our visit from fresh fish to terrific and authentic pizza to a French bistro preparing steak tartare tableside.   With the very large and observant Jewish population, Kosher restaurants are abundant and we’re told excellent.

Above from Maito (clockwise from upper left):  Kale with fresh hearts of palm; tacos; Cline Pinot from Sonoma; Banana Napolean; Coconut Ice Cream in Chocolate Shell; flat iron steak — all excellent!

Authentic French bistro in the old town.

4.  My Takeaway

Scenic.  Safe.  Affordable.   Three key phrases to entice travelers for a visit plus expats and retirees looking to possibly relocate to this terrific destination.

Cheers! We had a great time …
Snippets from the RoadThings You Should Know

WHY LOYALTY MATTERS …

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Repeated robocalls.  Anyone not sick of them? The hubby answers far many more of them at home than I do, and even engages some of them to my ever astonishment.  So when the phone rang and showed American Airlines as the caller he answered — and this one was for real, with the caller asking to speak to me.

“Hi, Mrs. Bialosky, this is so-and-so from the American Airlines Platinum desk calling to congratulate you on recently achieving Lifetime Platinum status!  May I give you our dedicated phone line?  Let me know when you’re ready to write down the number.”

 

Loyalty pays.  Recognition, free bags, early boarding, upgrades, more mileage rewarded, lounge access among other perks.  But just being thanked and acknowledged for loyalty says it all.  And it only took me a little over 32 years to achieve!

International TravelThings You Should KnowWining/Dining

CAMBODIA — SIEM REAP AND PHNOM PENH

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Visiting the ancient temples of Angkor Wat, Angkor Tom and other sites in the northern part of Cambodia is the main reason travelers come to Siem Reap, just a 45-minute flight from Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City (see previous post).   For an area with fewer than 1 million residents, the current number of area hotels (500 and counting) is surprising.   The local Cambodians rely heavily on tourism as far and away their biggest industry.  If not in hospitality, the Cambodians in the north have a difficult time making a living as it is estimated that 50% of the economy is tourism.  Poverty and primitive living conditions are sadly visible in the surrounding areas; we saw this first hand on our drive from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh.  More about that in a bit.

1. SIEM REAP

Above top is the magnificent lotus flower:  it is closed at night so the display upper right required manually opening each flower.  We opted for the best way to get anywhere — via tuk tuk — about $2 for any distance.  Bottom right, delicious Mango Mille Fueille plus two excellent dishes — rice with pineapple and a refreshing salad with pomelo, which I loved.

This is an epidemic everywhere.

We followed the advice of many to capture Angkor Wat at sunrise, a particularly magical hour.  A 4:45 a.m. pick-up obviously meant waking up in Siem Reap at the crack of dawn.  Credit to the beautiful Park Hyatt for suggesting the early departure, then afterward we rest a bit, clean up and have a leisurely breakfast mid-morning.  It really made the timing of the entire plan much more palatable!

Angkor Wat is just 30 minutes from the town, including a brief stop to acquire tickets — $37 each.  By the way, US dollars are the acceptable currency in Cambodia; obviously not having to convert money always makes travel much easier.  Advance reading prior to this trip suggested carrying a decent amount of small bills — $1’s and $5’s — some great advice we happily followed.

One would think it would be much cooler at the early hour.  Hah — wishful thinking.  At least 90 degrees and very humid at our 5:30 am arrival.  There was a significant gathering of tourists, even though it’s “low season” — soon to be desolate with the impending rains.  The following pictures paint a much better story than my words.  Enjoy.

Crowds angling for the perfect sunrise photo
Hot air ballon over the area
Korean tour group, pretty in pink
Shrubs popping out of a spire. Maintenance takes great care in removing all plants, otherwise the spire would eventually be covered.
We’ll pass on this one ..
We observed the request for “modest attire” — no shorts or bare shoulders — adding to the heat.
The extent of this trip’s encounter with animals — a wild monkey perched and hoping to find food
Worth getting up for …

2. PHNOM PENH

For us, this was a one-and-done temple visit.  Others go all in and see many, but we were happy with the experience and chose to bum around the town a bit, rest up and arrange for a car and driver for the 5-hour journey south to Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh.  At a cost of $200 US, the opportunity of going door to door in air conditioning, sans airport, and seeing the countryside en route was an easy decision. Nonetheless, some sights were truly heart-wrenching as there is significant poverty visible.  Then the developed area of Phnom Penh came into view.  Much like Saigon, it is a (mostly) modern metropolis with high-rise buildings developed around the Mekong River.

We were told that few American tourists visit Phnom Penh; rather, it is mainly business clientele and largely from other Asian countries.  The Chinese are investing heavily in real estate, building new housing, hotels and casinos.  I would suggest the infrastructure could use a lot of work — mainly trash pick up.  But there’s great wifi everywhere, lots of shopping opportunities and some excellent restaurants.  And we were spoiled rotten at the gorgeous new Rosewood Hotel with exceptional treatment!  If you’re not familiar with the brand, look for it.  They have nearly as many properties opening in the next few years as they have open now; i.e, ambitious expansion.

Rosewood temptations: their tuk-tuk; bar snack (amazing); french pastry shop

We had a fabulous dinner at Palais la Poste, which building was formerly the Indochina Bank.  From upper left, a lovely French red; scallops with squid-ink risotto; escargot; profiteroles; grilled salmon.  The French influence is very evident in much of the cuisine in Cambodia (as well as Vietnam).

Our visit to the notorious “Killing Fields” and Prison Museum recalling the unspeakable atrocities at the hands of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge was very difficult.  Our wonderful young guide, Nicky, shared with us that her grandparents were killed but the subject cannot be broached with her parents.  It is still just too hard.  She chooses to look instead to the promise of Cambodia’s future.  Wise thinking.  Next up .. our final stop for this trip:  Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia.

One of only four children to survive the prison (depicted in the photo), this gentleman has written his story of how he survived the inhumane treatment of Cambodians.
With our wonderful young guide Nicky and driver Mr. Thao.

 

International TravelThings You Should Know

SOUTHEAST ASIA FOR THE WIN

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When one is fortunate to take an annual three-week vacation, where to go is obviously the biggest decision.  Many people return over and over again to their favorite spots.  They know what to expect and/or they’ve created relationships with a particular hotel or resort.  To each his own, but the hubby and I are not those folks.  Every year we try to go where we’ve not yet been for at least the majority of the trip, with possibly a repeat stay somewhere to how the trip is routed.

This year as the title suggests is to SE Asia to four new countries:  Taiwan, Vietnam, Cambodia and Malaysia.  On other trips in the region, we’ve been to Japan, China, Thailand, Singapore and several times to Hong Kong.  At some point we’ll go back to those spots, but not now.

Planning this trip was challenging as there’s a lot of geography to cover and no cruise ships involved.  And, unlike previous trips to Europe, there’s no train travel nor driving involved.  So it’s all about flights and more flights — mostly short ones.  For the long flights,  I do feel “victorious” having once again secured them via my AA miles:  LAX-Hong Kong on American (biz class for 70K per person).  The even better one (and it does feel like a victory!) is Kuala Lumpur to Hong Kong (with a 10-hour stop providing ample time to visit the tailor) and then continuing on to LAX — this time on Cathay in biz class likewise for a total of 70k each.  Long-range planning and perseverance, my friends, is what this is all about.  Our spend becomes on the ground instead of in the air, which is why I commit so much time “achieving” these tickets.  By the way, the hotels where we’re traveling are so much less than the same brands charge in other destinations.  So if I’m sounding deliriously happy, there’s a good reason for it!

The first flight was a flawless one — on time, smooth, slumber achieved.  The hubby’s seat was dysfunctional requiring a total system reset, but I was asleep.  His new bestie attendant was very kind — even awarding us each 10K miles for the “inconvenience.”  That’s what I call service and a great way to reward loyalty.

I hadn’t thought about checking the bags all the way through to Taipei as we changed airlines in Hong Kong from American to EVA.  That change was flawless as well — the transfer desk simply took our documents, handled finding and re-ticketing our luggage, then gave us new bag tags, boarding passes and lounge access all in about 40 minutes.

So stay tuned — next post after our couple of days in Taipei and enjoying baseball in a fifth country!

Excellent local cuisine at Fujin Tree and then sleep!