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

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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?

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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:

restricted-ticket

  • 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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So are you one of those people that always read about great offers, but the caveat is that they are targeted and you didn’t get the Golden Ticket email?  Me too.  Until today.

AA Status

AA Status 2

I just got an offer from AA for a no sweat-off-my-brow upgrade to Platinum status AND 20 500 mile upgrade certificates.  No fly x number of miles by a certain date or spend x dollars, just “here you go”.  There are a lot of other offers out there that are the more typical earn status for a reduced number of miles/ dollars.  See Miles-to-Memories or The Unaccompanied Flyer.  Note that in these offers, I would need to spend $2000 and fly 12,500 EQM to earn Platinum.

Although I do fly AA, I always try to credit my flights to Alaska since the status there is so much better.  I did earn about 7,000 EQM last year only because I got stuck on an Iberian Air flight coming back from Morocco and AA or BA was all I could credit it to.  Got plenty of hard to use BA miles, but can always use AA miles for flying my daughter around.

So I immediately signed up just in case they made an error on this gift from heaven.  Sure enough, Platinum already and those upgrade certificates are supposed to post within 20 days.  Kind of bizarre how they decided it was good for 3 1/2 months.  I guess the incentive is supposed to be to switch your flying to AA and get hooked on it so you want to keep flying the rest of the year and keep your status?

AA Status 3They’ll have to offer me more than this to make me switch from Alaska.  But I’ll fly and enjoy those upgrades and status while I can.

Better to be lucky than good I always say!

Anyone else out there get this fantastic offer?

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The International Market was an institution of Waikiki for many, many years.  Originally developed by Donn Beach who created the Don the Beachcomber chain of restaurants, in the 1940s.  With its iconic Banyan Tree around which the second story restaurant was built, it contained cheap hula shows and trinkets for the visitors to Waikiki and became a “must stop” to thousands of visitors.  By the 2000’s, the restaurant had closed and it was mostly the place to acquire cheap Asian-made trinkets, fast food, and clothing.  It was still interesting to poke around and we really liked going to Hula Dog whenever we were down there, but it REALLY needed a makeover.  That happened with the purchase of the property which saw all the tenants kicked out in 2013 and the whole property gutted and rebuilt.  It took a while but the wait looks to be worthwhile.

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They smartly included an “anchor store” in the form of Sax Fifth Avenue which is all the way in the back along Kuhio which means you need to go through the whole mall to reach it and see everything along the way – smart!

The first thing that you will notice when entering is the iconic banyan tree.  You will immediately notice the homage they have made to Don the Beachcomber by constructing a little room amongst the tree branches.  Inside your will find the history of the International Market and Donn Beach.  Really interesting.

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The area around the circle surrounding the tree contains interesting photos and narratives about the history of the International Market.  They have a photo booth thing set up to record oral histories of anyone who wants to contribute their stories of the International Market over the last 70 years.

The International Market is essential a three story outdoor mall.  The first two floors are upscale shops and the entire third floor is all restaurants.

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They’ve done a great job of integrating the trees and nature into the structures.  The rocking chairs look over a large open green in the back part of the mall.  This is where you used to be able to catch a cheap hula or magic show.  They have incorporated the stage, although there was nothing going on when we were there.  Lot’s of kids playing in the fountain and open green space.  A good place to park the husband and kids while you get some shopping done ladies.

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The shops are all very nice and places to keep your wife out of, especially Sax Fifth in the back.

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The third floor is full of very nice, but fairly affordable restaurants.

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So this really is the latest and greatest attraction in Waikiki.  Check it out next time you are there and report back if you see something great.

 

 

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My wife and I lived in Honolulu from 2010-13 and like to go back about once a year.  It has been fun to see the developments that have taken place over time.  On this recent trip, I noted a number of improvements around Waikiki that you might want to check out for yourself on an upcoming trip.

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The biggest news in my view is completion of the International Market which had been undergoing a complete renovation for the last three years.  I’ll write a whole post on this tomorrow, but you should definitely make a visit to shop or dine here on your next visit.

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The Ritz-Carlson’s Residences finally opened the first tower with more to come.  Looks pretty classy from the outside, but still  lot of work to do to finish the whole project.

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You can see in the last photo that they are working on the second tower.  Expect some construction noise if you stay here.  I thought of staying here to check it out since I have those three free nights from the Ritz-Carlton credit card.  Looking at the Marriot website, you can see it is a pretty expensive property and would be a great value for those free nights.

Ritz Reservation

But get this caveat:

Ritz Caveats

So no-go on certs, points or any way other than cash to get a room here.  Plus you won’t earn anything!

Another new hotel option may be this one that is under construction on the backside of the International Market.  The little sign at the corner lends me to believe that this will be an expansion of the Holiday Inn Resort that is currently on the main drag, Kalakaua.  Could be a good option when it is done in about three months or so.

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Another new item is the opening of an upscale market called Coco Café on Kalakaua near the Holiday Inn.  This is definitely a step above the ubiquitous ABC stores.  My tip to lower your cost of staying in Waikiki is to get some of your meals at this store since they have quality sushi, sandwiches, and other fresh food items.  There are other stores like this in Honolulu, but none as convenient a location of this store.

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Of course, we still endorse going to Food Pantry on Kuhio for a great steak meal for only $12.99.

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So here are a few new things for you to look for and hopefully make your stay a little better next time you are in Waikiki.

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In 2015 we stayed at the Hyatt Regency in Waikiki using the two free nights from the Hyatt Credit Card.  Keeping the credit card is a no brainer since the annual fee is offset by a free night, but only up to Tier 4.  That meant that the Hyatt Regency was just out of reach, but the Hyatt Place was only Tier 3 and eligible so we thought we would try it for our three nights there.

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For those of you familiar with Waikiki, Hyatt Place is located at the far end of the strip.  It is on the east side of the back half of the Marriott.  Access is easier along Kuhio than Kalakaua.  The desk clerk was nice and greeted me as a Hyatt Platinum and informed me of the free breakfast that was on the third floor every morning.

The room was pretty small even by Waikiki standards, but is had almost everything in it.  I say almost because it was missing one critical thing as far as I was concerned – a desk.  I had to balance my laptop on the bureau and sit on the bed to do any computer work.  Here are some photos.

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The view was alright.  A good shot between the Marriott towers at the Catholic church and a spot of the water that happened to be exactly where most of the surfers were.  It let me reminisce about surfing as a teenager in L.A. – those were the days!

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Breakfast was on the pool deck on the third floor.  It was continental, but did have Asian fare such as steamed rice and kimchi which my wife really liked.  The bagels, granola, yogurt, etc. was the typical hotel fare, but the pineapple was outstanding.  Well, what else would you expect in Hawaii?

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I’ll be the first to admit that I much prefer to fly in First Class, but when that upgrade doesn’t come through I want my ride in economy to be the best it can be.  Usually, we get seats in the Exit Row and then hope for the upgrade.  However, Alaska has a new scheme to make the first 3-5 rows in economy a new class of service known as Premium Economy.  Alaska’s version (several airlines have started a similar class of service) comes with four more inches of legroom, a snack box and a free drink.  How did Alaska get all that extra legroom?  By eliminating the fourth row of First Class.  They also used this space to add four more inches to each First Class seat which I am not convinced they needed.

On our recent mileage run, my wife was upgraded on all seven legs and I almost did as well (six legs), but just missed the cut on our first leg, DCA-LAX, and got to try this new class of service.  I was very curious how it would turn out so wasn’t that disappointed on not getting upgraded – at least for one flight.  Here are photos showing the difference in leg room.  Keep in mind that I am six feet tall so extra legroom is always a good thing.

From these shots, I think how you can see the first  few rows are further apart.  The other shot shows the Premium Economy row across from me.  I think you can really see the extra legroom there.

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Here is a comparison of legroom showing regular economy first, then Premium Economy and finally First Class.

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And if you think the legroom in First Class is huge you are absolutely right.  Frankly, more space than anyone needs.

Here is a shot of my wife in the first row.  She used to be able to reach the bulkhead with her feet, but not any more.

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What about that snack box and drink?  Well, as an MVPGold I have always had a benefit of a free drink, but I was looking forward to the snack box.  I was pretty surprised to receive what I am sure is the world’ smallest snack box.  I opened it up to show it had almonds, Craisins, and a square of dark chocolate.  OK, better than a poke in the eye, but really disappointing that this is all the snack box amounts to.

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I was next on the list for an upgrade, so if Alaska still had four rows of First, I would have been sitting in a comfy seat with a decent meal instead of what you see above.  However, it looks like a good deal if you are the lowest tier elite and rarely make the cut off list for an upgrade.  This was you get some extra legroom and other benefits.  Let me know if you get a chance to experience this and what you think of airlines inventing this new class of service.

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