Getting out of town for the long weekend by going down to Williamsburg, Virginia.  The wife wanted steak for dinner and we saw an Outback restaurant that she wanted to go to.  Walking in to the establishment, I saw this poster.

Anything to do with the military has my attention.  I asked the waitress and she gave me some made-up answer.  However, to her credit, she asked the bartender who corrected her.  She came back to me and said she lied to me.  Sam Adams has created a deal with Outback for a pay-it-forward free beer deal.  Buy a $5.95 Same Adams and they will hand you a beer shaped card to write an inspirational message to the Soldier.  The card is then placed up on the bar and a fellow veteran can come along and cash in the card for a free beer.

Here is the card I bought.  Looks like the others have been cashed in.

So if you are headed to Outback, take advantage and look for a free beer.  Or if you are a leader like me, who appreciates everything military members do every day, pay $5.95 to buy them a well-deserved beer!

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The controversy over President Trump’s decision to reveal the intel on laptop bombs that ISIS was planning on using to down an aircraft reveals that the threat of this is real, not some plot to boost up U.S. airlines at the expense of foreign ones.  This was a Machiavellian thought listed by more than a few bloggers.  Now that the European and U.S. authorities have gotten together and decided not to implement a large electronics ban for flights between Europe and the U.S., do you feel safe enough to fly?

 

Knowing where to draw a line on safety is one of the toughest things for government officials to do.  Believe it or not, there are still libertarians out there who object to the seatbelts-in-cars law as an unnecessary intrusion of the Government into their lives.  If they want to endanger their own lives why should the Government prevent them?  Laws are not passed without debate and society needs to accept change before a law can truly be enforced.  100 years ago local governments passed laws against spitting on sidewalks.  Why?  Because tuberculosis was a terrible, incurable disease that was spread by airborne spittle.  Society thought that those laws made sense and law enforcement acted on that law because they too felt the greater good of preventing infection.  Most of those laws are still on the books, but can you imagine most people’s reactions today if they told their friends they received a ticket for spitting in public? We don’t see TB as a threat, so don’t believe a law like that should be enforced.

So where does this lead us back to airline safety?  Where do we draw the line?  What would be your reaction if the President decided tomorrow to cancel the TSA and let anyone walk on a plane the way we did before 9/11?  Would you still fly?  Probably not, since society widely perceives there is still a significant threat that needs to be guarded against.  Remember that after the Shoe Bomber, we had to start taking off our shoes and put them through the x-ray machine?  Now, only boots where something large-ish could be concealed get that treatment.  There are a significant number of people out there that think there should be no liquids ban as they haven’t seen evidence of that being used.

No one objected to taking their shoes off, because they knew the Shoe Bomber actually tried it.  Some people object to the liquids ban because it is theoretical (bi-nary explosives are formed when two otherwise harmless chemicals are combined to form an explosive mixture), but can you imagine the outrage if the Government did nothing to safeguard against this threat and then it was successfully used by terrorists?

Photo courtesy of dailymail.co.uk

We have already seen one laptop-concealed explosive try to take down a plane flying out of Mogadishu, Somalia (see photo).  That failed mostly because of the ineptitude of the suicide bomber, but certainly could have succeeded with spectacular loss of life.  I think if that exact same incident had occurred in Akron, Ohio, people would be taking it a lot more seriously about banning laptops than they are now.  Public support for a ban needs to be solidified before it is enacted.  People will not simply trust their government to do the right thing.

So, do you still feel OK to fly to Europe knowing that there is a possibility of a laptop bomb being on board?  Personally, I have no problem accepting that risk.  However, I remain vigilant as I can (and I am trained to do), and will act if I see peculiar actions.  Frankly, the odds of me being killed by another driver on the highway are greater than the chance that I will die in a terrorist incident.  I better make sure I wear my seat belt.

 

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Authoritarian regimes don’t get any worse than Kim Jung Un’s North Korean dictatorship ironically named the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.  Concentration camps, people executed at the drop of a hat, mass starvation while maintaining a million man army, they have it all in an otherwise beautiful country.

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The story I saw this morning in the Washington Post was quite a shock to me.  Apparently, there is a hostel in Berlin, named the City Hostel, that is owned by the North Korean Government.  It was given to the North Koreans by the former East German communist government many years ago.  While Koreans do not operate the hostel or accompanying conference center, they get the proceeds of everyone staying there.  Thus people were unwittingly funding one of the world’s worst regimes who developed nuclear weapons.

KimJongUnPhoto courtesy of Fox News.

The German government is now shutting this hotel down.  It is hard to believe that they are only taking this step now considering the many years that North Korea has threatened its  neighbors with war and now nuclear missiles.  Apparently, this is only happening since a November UN resolution to shutdown diplomatic real estate as a revenue source.

The amazing part is that you can still book this hostel!  There is no closing date for the hostel which makes me wonder what is taking the German government so long or what the effect of their announcement is.

Have you ever stayed there or known someone who did?

Posted by glenn | 4 Comments

It shouldn’t be news to anyone that United is totally revamping a number of their clubs.  Some of them will be turned into elite Polaris Lounges, available only for those flying Polaris Business/ First, but all the United Clubs are sorely in need of renovation.  At some airports, like Newark, this has been painful as their really is no alternative, but to close the club during construction.  Fortunately, at SFO the beyond security area is large enough that United can create a temporary clubs to entertain the many of us who purchased a membership (through the CC), while construction of the main club is underway.

I used to fly out of SFO all the time, but since moving back east four years ago, not so much anymore.  I looked forward to seeing what they were doing with the major construction there.  Here are a couple of pictures of the Terminal 1 demo going on.SFO United Club 002

 

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The temporary club is now located at the corner of the United Pier and pretty easy to find, unlike the old club.

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To lower your expectations, this club is not large.  It is way smaller than the old main United Club, however, it was not crowded when I was there for my late night flight (~1700 – 2100 hrs.).  IT has a nice main room with the bar all along one wall.

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I did appreciate that there were plenty of power outlets and USB ports near every seat.  No hunting around the club for power like most United Clubs!  The anteroom adjoining the main room was half the size and contain more, probably quieter, seating and the food bar.

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The food offerings weren’t spectacular, but definitely improved even over the improvements made a couple of years ago.  Waaay better than the food available for years in these clubs.  Two different soups and cheese-filled cold cuts.  Made me feel like I was eating breakfast in Germany.  “Fixings” for the soup and stone-ground mustard was a huge plus!

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Not a bad dinner, better than an MRE which has been my choice many times in my life.

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Look forward to visiting the full United Club when it is completed.

 

Posted by glenn | One Comment

Maybe I am naïve, but I expect that most people reading this blog or the others on BoardingArea.com are more savvy than the normal traveler.  That can be either r through your knowledge level to date and understanding that the “game” of frequent flyer miles is constantly changing and you need to stay ahead of it or you have seen or heard of the great benefits if you know the rules of the “game” and are seeking more in order to stay ahead of the average traveler.

Due to the unfortunately handled incident with Dr. Dao, things are going to get harder for you as the airlines adjust the rules of the game.  United has announced and most other airlines, even Southwest, are following suit to your determent.   Most airlines have announced that they will reduce overbooking of their flights, but use economics (i.e. a very high upper limit) to entice people to voluntarily give up their seat.

Someone who does not understand the frequent flyer game might be overjoyed to hear that they will raise the limits of Involuntary Denied Boarding to close to $10,000.  Let me be the first one to throw cold water on that fantasy.  As we have heard, the airlines are all going to cut back on overbooking, even though the Dr. Dao incident had nothing to do with overbooking.  That occurred because of crew priority which is a whole ‘nother thing and United promised to cut back on that.  However, the media grabbed hold of the term overbooking and now that is being cut back.  Overbooking was a great thing if you were savvy to the rules of this game and provided a great “bumpertunnity” to borrow a phrase from my fried Rene.  That is, it gave people who were savvy to this world of frequent flyer rules a great way to grab hundreds of dollars in value for very little sacrifice.  Overbooking opportunities were rare, only 0.62 out of 10,000 passengers were involuntarily bumped last year and now it will presumably be less than that.

Smart people knew to immediately sign up for an opportunity to bump due to overbooking, but then start negotiating for the compensation, which was not limited to a dollar value off of a future flight.  You get privately with the Gate Agent and you could ask for a hotel, food vouchers, First Class on the follow-on flight, etc. in addition to hundreds of dollars off a future flight.  Really astute players of the game could take a bump due to overbooking, wait for that flight, and then volunteer AGAIN for another opportunity to bump and collect even more.  I even knew guys who would purposely book on days like the day before Thanksgiving in order to collect all these Voluntary Denied Boarding (VDB) bumps and pay for a lot of their travel throughout the rest of the year.  434,425 people took VDBs last year, some more than once I am sure.

I am afraid that a lot of those stories, like many in the frequent flyer world, will now be a thing of the past.  If the airlines cut back on overbooking, that means less VDB opportunities.  It means really, really less IDBs will take place.  For those of you that were salivating at the $10,000 numbers that the media touted, those only apply to IDB , meaning they didn’t get enough VDB takers, and those will be almost unheard of if overbooking is reduced.

For you to get a $10,000 offer, everyone else on the plane would have to deny all previous offers.  Now that is not impossible, but it is a little bit like thinking that you can win an auction for $1.  Sure, if no one else bids, it is yours for a dollar, but what are the chances of that happening?  In the Dr. Dao case, United procedures made them stop at offering more than $800.  In other words, their internal policies of saving a few dollars got in the way of them offering a price that the market (the passengers) would bear.  If they kept raining their price to $1000, $1200, etc. eventually someone would have decided it was worth their time to give up their seat.  Great, so for you to collect the $10,000 limit now set by the airline, everyone else on the plane must refuse offers of $5,000, $6,000, etc.  What do you really think the chance of that happening is?  This is essentially an auction and you have to pull the trigger before others do.

To conclude, don’t get your hopes up of a big payout with this new policy.  You have to decide your personal pain point where you would accept an offer, but don’t hold out forever as you are in competition with everyone else on that plane.   Take the $400 or $800 offer and then negotiate for an upgrade on you next flight, better routing, etc.  Waiting until the super-lucrative offer is given means that someone else is very likely to take it instead of you.  The laws of economics are alive and well.

 

Posted by glenn | No Comments

Disclaimer:  The following editorial is my personal opinion and does not represent the official position of the U.S. Government or military.

There has been a lot of blogger hate about the upcoming ban on anything larger than a phone for ten Middle East/ North African cities.  Frankly, people that use their laptops all the time are justly the most upset, however, this doesn’t represent the typical traveler.  At least my observations are that people use their devices 90% for entertainment, not work  (including me).  They can go back to using the seatback IFE and it won’t be the end of the world.  There is such a thing as sacrificing for the greater good.

The bottom line is that people with a lot more information than us have determined that this was a real threat and we need to do all we can to prevent a terrorist incident.  I have seen several bloggers state that the threat is “non-specific” and therefore we should not take these steps.  If the threat was specific, we would have the host country arrest the individual or introduce him or her to an up close and personal demonstration of American technology.  Terrorism is typically a non-specific threat which is the entire reason we have security checkpoint, body scanner, and x-ray machines, including for luggage.

We have seen successful airplane bombings recently with the downing of the Russian airliner over the Sinai and the attempted downing of the Somali airliner that could have succeeded if the bomber knew enough to get a seat next to a structural member instead of the aluminum skin.  In both instances, it was found that the bomber had help from the local ground staff or security.  So we hear that Al Qaeda is working on a manually-detonated electronics-based bomb.  Why would we poo-poo this report and not act?  You really want to wait until hundreds of people die in a bombing and then act?  This is like the neighborhood that complains about a dangerous crosswalk, but the city only takes action and installs a light after someone is killed.

Courtesy of the U.S. Army, I am an explosives expert.  Some bloggers have written that they don’t understand why an iPhone is OK since it is essentially a mini-computer.  Or how they could put three phones together and they would be as powerful as a laptop.  They must be thinking that somehow the computer inside is going to take over the plane in some sci-fi movie-like incident.  The terrorists are looking for volume to hide powerful explosives like C-4 or Semtex.  That is why the focus is on battery compartments.  In the past the security folks could simply ask you to power up a laptop to demonstrate the battery was in place.  This is conjecture, but what if Al Qaeda was found to be working on a way where part of the battery was left in place to power up the laptop for five minutes, but the rest of that space was an explosive?  A pound or two is plenty of power to cut a structural member if placed correctly. And back to the question on three iPhones together?  You can’t put a rubber band around three firecrackers and think it is the same as an M-80.  Just not how explosives and expanding gases work.

Others have said they don’t understand why a laptop in the hold is OK, but not in the cabin.  Well besides saying that the threat was a manually-detonated device, the terrorist would have no idea where their laptop would end up in the hold.  Explosive force diminishes by the square of the distance it is away from the area to be impacted.  Thus if a bomb is 1 foot away from the aircraft surface and exerts a certain explosive force, a bomb 2 feet away would have 1/4 of that force.  You cannot randomly hope for the location of a small explosive.  Remember we are only talking about a pound of explosive, not the whole suitcase-full that brought down Pan AM 103.

The wife and I are planning a future trip that will take us through one of these cities and I was debating if we should still take it,  but really I can do without my laptop for one trip.  I would much rather feel secure that we are trying to defeat a terrorist attempt.  The terrorist threat will be the likely cause of reduced air traffic on these carriers, not the fact that they can’t use their laptop.  Frankly, I would be much more concerned with my electronics being stolen or damaged in luggage than worry that I will only have IFE.

Just one man’s opinion, but I felt I needed to make a counter-argument that I did not see anyone else making except in main stream media.

Glenn

Posted by glenn | 18 Comments

Finally getting around to a cool story from one of our readers, Bob.  He found a great way to re-purpose one of the new Polaris amenities cases.  Let me share his note to us.

I recently flew United’s new Polaris Business Class product and took home my amenity kit. While most airlines collaborate with an established partner to “brand” their kits (i.e., Tumi with Delta, Cole Haan with AA., etc.) it appears United decided to go it alone. And while most cases can be repurposed after the flight to hold charging cables or toiletries, United’s zip-open clam-shell case is rigid with inside pockets that are misshapen for almost anything besides what is already in there… Unless you are a service member. I found that the case is perfect for safekeeping medals. It folds open so my large medals (3 rows) are on the right and mini-medals on the left if the case used upside down. I stick a piece of felt between each side when I close and zip. The medals are held in firmly and securely. The photos attached explains this better.

UA Polaris Medals Holder (1) UA Polaris Medals Holder (2) UA Polaris Medals Holder (3)

Thanks, Bob!  What a cool idea for the military traveler.  Anyone else out there have a good tip for military travelers?

Posted by glenn | 2 Comments

I saw on DTS, that they are going to make changes to the Joint Travel Regulation (JTR) which is the bible by which all our travel and payments are based.  It was recently highlighted in this newsletter from the Defense Travel Office.  Nothing in the JTR changes significantly, according to them, but the volumes (one for military and the other for Govt civilians) are streamlined and better organized.  Both will be effective 1 April 17.  To keep up with the latest Travel Reg changes and see if they affect you, check out this site.

Here are some of the key changes in my view:

  • Encourage more use of restricted airfares.  These are the that normal people buy for vacation and involve a change fee if your plans get altered.  More importantly, if you get this type of ticket, it requires ticketing within 24 hours, unlike the typical GSA fares.  Saves the Govt a lot of money to use these, but beware of the restrictions if you go this route.  Here are their suggested tips for using restricted airfare:

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  • Update and simplify the myriad of allowances that are now part of travel.  Personally, I hope that means not having over a dozen different Per Diem for most states.  Foreign locations can be even worse in trying to determine which Per Diem applies to your location.
  • Gets rid of the term Commercial Travel Office (CTO) in favor of Travel Management Company (TMC).  Not understanding the benefit here, but get used to the change.

In addition to the above, the Integrated Lodging Program Pilot (ILPP) has expanded again and covers some new large areas such as San Antonio and Quantico.  I am not sure why this is still a “pilot” program as it is covering about half my travel these days.  I have found that most of the time it still directs me to use commercial lodging rather than the IHG-run military hotel on post/base.  But that can change with even a one day shift in orders as I found on my upcoming trip to Ft. Hood.  Just go with the flow here, but as with GSA fares, change the hotel they mandate if you have good reason to.  Earning points is NOT a good reason…

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Catching up after being TDY for 3 of the last 4 weeks.  This hotel review is part of the Sonoma Valley Wine Tasting I wrote about previously.  This Napa Valley Doubletree is on the main highway connecting both Napa and Sonoma Valleys to the North Bay area of San Francisco.  The location serves well for trips to either location for wine tasting being about 20 minutes to Napa and 40 minutes to the heart of Sonoma.  We chose the location because you can save quite a bit of money by not staying right in the middle of either valley.  Luxury or Resort Hotels tend to dominate if you are right next to the key towns for wine tasting.  Our stay’s base rate was just over $100/ night.  We saved about $100/night by choosing to drive a little bit.

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As you can see the Doubletree is very nice both inside and out.  Helps to be a Diamond that I got from matching my Marriott Platinum status.  We were upgrading to a “Patio Room” which puzzled me at first, but you’ll see later what that means.

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I find Doubletrees reliably nice all around and this was no exception.

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So a Patio Room turned out to be one with a patio right on this artificial pond in the middle of the complex.  Probably would be more alluring if it wasn’t winter, but it was a nice view nonetheless.

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Breakfast turned out to be the big hit of this hotel.  It was served in a full scale restaurant with a waitress taking your drink order and then turning you loose on the buffet and made-to-order eggs and omelets.  The ever-full jar of Doubletrees chocolate chip cookies was always calling my name.

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This hotel is a good choice for those looking to try wine tasting in Northern California and is also reasonably close to everything in the Bay Area if you decide to venture there as well.  Give it a try.

 

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Continuing on from yesterday’s post.

Sapphire Hill Winery in Healdsburg was a great value.  It was $30 for a wine tasting for two, but there was a food pairing for each of the five wines and we got an extra three samples of wine and an extra sample of food so this really turned into a good lunch for the two of us.  Nice location in town alongside several other tasting rooms.

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Fogline was a rural winery right outside one of the vineyards they harvest from in Fulton.  This is a 9 year old start up that is just really getting going.  The facility is very industrial, but the wine, not the surroundings, is the important part.  This was the Groupon that was only $12 for a wine tasting for two AND a $10 credit for a bottle of wine.  Can’t beat that kind of deal!

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Deerfield Ranch Winery was a little hard to find in the Kenwood area since it is a little ways off the Sonoma Highway, but totally worth visiting.  It is a winery in a cave!

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Talking to the staff, the owner decided to build an extensive cave network in the hills in order to save on refrigeration costs which normally are part of any wine storage in California.  It also was a pretty cool atmosphere to relax and taste wine in.

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Next was the Ty Caton Winery, also in Kenwood although in a much easier to find location along with several other wine tasting rooms.  Lot’s of good reds!

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Lastly, we visited the Karah Winery which was in the Petaluma Gap (hills between Petaluma and Santa Rosa).  The location was a little hard to get to, but had a great view once you located it.  The entire tasting room was literally surrounded by the vineyard and a tasting room with beautiful views of the whole county.  Got a free bottle of wine as part of the wine tasting.

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Regardless of the weather this year, this was a fun time for us and I suggest you give it a try too.  You can go next door to the more famous Napa Valley, but I found that pretty much all the deals were in the Sonoma Valley.  Give it a shot and let us know what you think.

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The wife and I had a great time a couple of years ago wine tasting by flying into Sonoma, CA (STS) via Alaska Airlines.  It was great getting out of the D.C. cold and into 72 degrees and sunny California weather.  So we decided to try it again this year.  Unfortunately, as most of you know, Mother Nature has decided to end the drought in California and then some!  Oh, well, we could still enjoy wine even if it was cloudy.  This flight was actually on Alaska Air’s subsidiary Horizon Air.  One great deal for this airline is a beer or wine in economy – so you can start the tasting early!

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STS is a really small airport, but served by Alaska from both LAX and SEA.  Bonus is that you get to count a case of wine as free luggage flying out!

Last time we did this, I used the VISA Signature benefit of free wine tastings at a bunch of wineries to save money.  Previously, the deal varied at each winery, so some were real bargains, others not so much.  Now they have standardized the benefit as a Buy-One-Get-One offer so basically 50% off.  Note that this now extends to VISA Infinite which did not exist two years ago.

So I knew we could take that option, but I tried something new by looking at what I could find on Groupon.  I found way better deals such as a wine tasting for $12 for two with a  $10 credit towards purchasing a bottle.  Another difference was that the VISA benefit was generally the larger wineries, while the Groupon was for smaller or out of the way locations.  This turned out to be much better and almost every place we visited, we would not have found on our own.  Not to mention we got great value from most of the places.  Most of the tastings were supposed to be for a sample of five wines, but almost all the locations gave us more than that – one place we actually got eight!

Here are quick reviews on the ones we visited.  Didn’t have a bad experience at any of them, so give them a shot if you are out in Northern California.

Mutt Lynch – In Windsor, a modern town only ten minutes north of the airport.  The interesting thing about this place was that it was a wine and chocolate pairing.  Five wines and five chocolate samples added an interesting dimension to the normal tasting routine.  They don’t make the chocolate, but it is from Healdsburg about 30 minutes north of there.  As you may guess from the name, dogs are very welcome here.

Family Wineries – In the Dry Creek area of Healdsburg.  This location is one of those where they have consolidated about five different tasting rooms together if you just want to do a lot of tasting and not a lot of driving.  $7 for a tasting was pretty cheap.

Simi Winery – This location will fool you as it is right in the city, but it is not just a tasting room but the whole winery right in town.  You can get a tour here, but only at 11 and 2 each day.  Tastings were good and they uniquely have a Late Harvest Chardonnay which I have never seen anywhere else.  Beautiful location.

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That’s the winery behind all these redwoods.

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I’ll finish the other reviews tomorrow, so stay tuned.

 

 

 

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