John Muir was right about Yosemite

Back in grad school, I was teaching assistant for a course called History of the American Environmental Movement. Each semester, I would grade perhaps 70 to 80 essays, including a section on John Muir, an advocate of preserving nature for nature’s sake, and Gifford Pinchot, who advocated responsible conservation of resources for human use.

While Pinchot was the rational business-minded one, I considered John Muir the passionate activist, one who had the writing skills to make the “tough sell” of protecting faraway lands from development.

John Muir said this about Yosemite, which was the first land in the US set aside specifically for preservation:

“It is by far the grandest of all the special temples of Nature I was ever permitted to enter.”

I always figured Muir was just a spiritual writer who connected in a different way with nature. This line about nature being a temple, I took that as hyperbole and as a metaphor. I was wrong. Muir was right.

After one visit to the Valley, Yosemite speaks for itself.

There is a temple in Yosemite, and it’s formed by the cliffs themselves. In the Valley, the interplay of light and shadow off three thousand-foot cliffs creates the sensation of being in a giant hall of worship.

The sun filters through a slight haze, making everything in the far distance look like a backdrop from a movie. As you wind down the mountainside into the Valley, breathtaking views in the far distance materialize in more-than-life-size miles as you realize you’ll be standing in the middle of that movie.

We are often awestruck by the magic of the “golden hour” before sunset. In Yosemite, this awe-inspiring moment lasts all day. Light shifts and transforms on the Valley walls from sunrise to sunset, as you’re surrounded on three sides by sheer granite faces too close to let sun stream through in full.

While Yosemite’s landscape is unique, the sensation of sun streaming through clouds, reflecting off the natural landscape is not. It’s what we felt in Storm King, in the Hudson Valley, which explains why the painters of the Hudson River School made their way West to capture Yosemite’s natural beauty on canvas. Their paintings, in part, encouraged thousands to move West.

Though as much as John Muir can rhapsodize in verse or as large as the Hudson River School painters may paint their larger-than-life portraits, it has to be seen in person to be fully appreciated.

Our first and hopefully not final Frontier flight

The price was shocking: $285 for two round-trip tickets from Long Island to Orlando, Florida for Christmas. At this late date, every other airline was nearly $400 or more for one ticket! The last straw was when I realized that United, the cheapest “normal” option, was now charging for carry-on bags in Economy.

There’s always a catch – and there was a catch or two, including a new airport even further away than usual – but why not? Every other airline is charging a-la-carte these days. I figured for half the price it was worth a shot.

Costs

Here’s the cost breakdown for the full round-trip:

Airfare: $285 ($142.50 x 2)
Carry-on: $70 ($35 x 2)
LIRR to Ronkonkoma: $55 ($13.75 x 4 one-way off-peak fares)
Taxi to/from airport: $20 ($5 x 4)
Total: $430

Frontier Airlines?

Originally founded as a regional airline out of Denver, Frontier is an ultra-low cost airline that flies to over 50 destinations across the US and several other neighboring countries. The airline runs flights back-to-back without any spare airplanes, pilots, or time, which we found out the hard way.

It’s part of the new wave of charge-for-everything airlines and on top of its low base fee it charges for carry-ons (in addition to checked bags). Its seats, from our experience, resemble picnic chairs and are non-reclinable and without any seat-back entertainment.

It was cheap and safe, though read on for the details.

The trip

The biggest difference between the usual JFK departure is the time spent on LIRR and cost of tickets, though with hourly service to Ronkonkoma and additional service during rush-hour, it wasn’t an inconvenience.

Departing on the 3:55pm off-peak train from Penn Station, we arrived to Ronkonkoma, which is adjacent to MacArthur / Islip Airport by 5:30. Taxi-shuttles wait at the station exit to ferry passengers to the airport terminal for $5 a head. A seamless transfer really, even better than the JFK AirTrain.

By this point we were an hour past JFK, but given that we usually budget an hour to get there and $10-15 for a peak ticket on LIRR and AirTrain, this trip wasn’t much longer or more expensive.

We were at the significantly less congested security checkpoint by 5:45pm. By now you’ll notice that most of our travel “success” stories, this one included, involve skipping security or customs at JFK.

The bad

The first message arrived to us while on the train to the airport: our 7:15 flight was now delayed until 8:35. Not the best, but ok. By the time we got to the gate, they were expecting a 9:30 departure. Once we boarded the plane, we sat for another hour before takeoff as they fixed the lavatory and filled out paperwork.

Total flight time: 2 hours 20 minutes. Total delay: 3 hours 15 minutes.

Upon arrival in Orlando, possibly due to the unplanned 1am arrival, our plane was at some obscure and far-away gate that took a bus and a shuttle train to reach the main terminal.

The return

Returning from Orlando to Islip, we arrived to the airport, hustled through a daunting security line in 30 minutes, and arrived to our gate for an on-time departure.

That is, for Frontier, on-time is an hour late. We waited in the plane for an hour while a faulty overhead bin lock was secured with packing tape and the requisite paperwork was filled out.

Arriving to Islip, we caught a taxi and made the 9:11pm train back to Penn Station with time to spare. Ronkonkoma has hourly train service, even on nights and weekends, which beats pretty much everything except the A train, plus it’s nicer than the subway.

Conclusion

Frontier got us to our destination cheaply and safely, though not at the same level of comfort or predictability as really any other carrier we’ve flown, low-cost carriers included. It was fine for the short hop to Florida, and made sense for the savings alone.

In the end, Frontier even apologized to us for the 3-hour delay by sending us each a $50 travel voucher. The catch is, we have to use it on Frontier!

We’ll give it another chance, but we won’t use the airline for any cases in which we have to be comfortable for a long time, catch a connection, or be on time for anything, e.g. our “extreme getaway” flight to Barbados that we did on JetBlue.

Transcending time in a New York cab

It’s 4:20 in the morning and I can see the stars. This is a bit glamorous, I think as I flag down a taxi on a nearly deserted Third Avenue below our apartment.

I have had plenty of early morning flights, but this will be my first pre-dawn departure since moving to Manhattan over three years ago. I imagine the Chrysler Building winking down on me from further uptown, sprinkling me with moonlight New Yorkiness for being hip enough to be up at this hour.

The night before, I imagined in my mind’s eye recapturing a few minutes of lost sleep as the taxi took me to the airport at the speed of Robert Moses’s dreams, 1960s-era highway speed. That was a dream.

Back in reality, something is wrong: we are headed downtown. LaGuardia Airport is uptown or over, being that it’s in Queens. We are heading south, though the driver seems totally certain of it.

After second-guessing myself several times, I finally ask, “Why are we headed downtown?” The driver responds, “This is super secret shortcut, we take the Williamsburg Bridge. This saves twenty minutes.” Trusty Google Maps said the entire trip would be 23 minutes.

My thoughts are the only other vehicles on the road. Indignation: This guy has no idea where he’s going. Doubt: Don’t second-guess a cab driver. He’s a professional. Self-doubt: Am I too nice? Is this how Canadians feel? Resignation: I’m stuck here, just relax. You planned for spare time.

At this point we have crossed the East Village, turned left onto Houston Street and are now ascending the Williamsburg Bridge. The driver assures me this is a shortcut once again as he accelerates. As if to prove himself right, he keeps his foot on the gas well past the 45-mph speed limit: 50, 55, 60, 65, 70, 72.

Our presence expands to two bridge lanes as we challenge the laws of thermodynamics. New York drivers “take the lane”. This is normal, right?

Wrong. Suddenly, honking as we’re passed in our right-hand lane. My brain turns on and activates its next emotion: Fear.

We are a pinball sent ricocheting up the expressway. The concrete retaining walls guide our path. I hope he’s better at pinball than I am.

I am sure the driver will activate the Flux Capacitor and my wristwatch will start running in reverse.

Moments later I check my phone: He’s done it, he has transcended time. The last hour has actually only been 15 minutes.

We continue to exist in two lanes, for stability, I assume, as I gird myself for takeoff. Hours or minutes pass. Not soon enough we angle off towards the airport and promptly pull up at the wrong gate.

Screech.

Wait, this guy doesn’t know directions? He knows the super secret shortcut. He has the flux capacitor. Reality begins to creep in, though it’s still black as night outside the window.

We make the rounds of the entire airport to circle back around to the proper gate at a reasonable pace. It’s 4:50am. The light of day has still not shown on any of this adventure.

Visiting Casa Herradura, Birthplace of Tequila

This past Christmas break we went to Guadalajara and during our time there couldn’t miss out on a trip to the area around the town of Tequila to learn more about Mexico’s national drink. That’s how we found ourselves at Casa Herradura in the town of Amatitán, a functioning hacienda that claims to be the birthplace of the distilled agave liquor known as tequila.

The best part was seeing how the history of this hacienda is still being lived with a mix of tradition and modern methods. At Casa Herradura, history, agriculture, and chemistry come together in the bottle and it makes for a fascinating story.

History

In Spanish America, an hacienda was a rural estate, and by law had to produce a product and contain housing for workers and a church. This system was carried over after Mexican independence and continues at the Hacienda de San José del Refugio, which was known colloquially as Hacienda del Padre, as it was originally owned by a priest. Today, two thousand workers as well as the current owners live at the hacienda. Some families have worked there for six generations!

At this hacienda, tequila was produced, first illegally, from 1820-1870, then legally since 1870, explained our guide, José Manuel. Tunnels across the property date to this era and were used to hide both tequila and priests during the era of the Cristero Rebellion.

At one point during this conflict, government officials came searching for priests and the owners flooded the basement cistern to provide a hiding place. The priests survived by breathing the air left in pockets against the ceiling while the distillery owners insisted to officials that there was “only water in down there”.

This wasn’t the only memory of the past. Our next stop was the old distillery, where the stone basins now museum-ready were used as fermentation vats were used until as recently as 1963. We saw as well the remnants of boilers from this era which were shipped from London to Veracruz and delivered overland by mule.

At the time of its founding, distilling was a dangerous industry. Our guide told us that 80% of tasters died. These tasters were the ones that sampled the tequila to test whether it was ready for consumption and I imagine consumed the “head” and “tails” as well as the “heart” of the distillation before modern chemistry intervened to save lives.

My thoughts at this point turned to the value of a commodity over that of human life at that point in history, though perhaps this was common across all industries at the time. It’s not like coal mining was ever portrayed as good for your health, for example.

Luckily, these historical production methods have both stayed true, yet improved, safety-wise. Tequila’s rarefied historical and regional status is protected by law, much like French Champagne. While there are 126 types of agave, there is only one variety that produces tequila, tequiliana weber, and only five states can produce this beverage officially, mainly Jalisco.

Growing

Growing the tequila plant, agave azul, is no easy feat. An agave plant takes 25 years from seed to be ready for harvest. After 3 years the agave becomes a mother and gives children which are replanted and ready in 7-9 years, which I imagine is like having a giant spider plant. Each agave is then tested and must pass 26% sugar content to be ready for harvest.

The field hand in charge of preparing the heart of this spiky plant is called the jimador. He shaves off the spines of the agave until the heart is exposed, leaving the spines behind to compost. This heart varies in size from 80-200 pounds(!) (see photos below) and roughly 12 pounds of agave is needed for a single liter of tequila, hence each heart produces 6 or more bottles of tequila! The jimador can shave as many as 120 “pineapples” or hearts per day.

Such a reliance on a single region and a single plant with a multi-year gestation period produces anxiety among producers. There is a reserve of millions of liters of tequila to smooth out dips in supply due to any unforeseen circumstances, such as an infestation, which happened several years prior.

Fermentation and Distillation

As a homebrewer, I recognize parts of the tequila preparation process, with a few key differences. First, the hearts are split and baked in an oven for 26 hours to release the honey, which smells like malted barley or sweet potato. These ovens take quite a lot of punishment and have to be repaired or rebuilt after a year and a half, a process that was underway when we visited. This honey or syrup is then held in a giant stainless open-topped tank.

What amazed me from the start is how much of this process takes place essentially outdoors. The ovens, the fermentation, even the distillation all take place with only a roof overhead, no doors and nearly no walls.

That is, fermentation is open to the air and takes 4 days, using a mixture of 51% agave juice and 49% honey, the latter of which is the thick syrupy product of the baking process mentioned above. This is an improvement over the 19th-century process, which we saw indoors in those stone vats, used to take 20 days. Fermentation at that time happened spontaneously as the vats were exposed at night to a a patio outside their window that was lined with fruit trees. Fruit trees, in fact, are still scattered around the property.

Distillation is where my knowledge gets a bit fuzzy. This is the process that concentrates the alcohol from fermentation into liquor. Here’s what I caught: the ordinario is the first 25% of the distillation, which is sent back. It’s used as fuel or for washing and sanitizing bottles before the bottling process. The end product, the “heart” is 55% tequila, which is then diluted with distilled water.

We were taught by José Manuel to rub it on our hands and smell (smells like tequila), and to shake a bottle of the liquid to see if it’s clear. If it’s milky or turbid, it’s not safe. I imagine sampling these bad parts is what drastically shortened the lives of those 19th-century tasters I mentioned earlier.

Aging and Bottling

After distillation is the aging process, which to my surprise is the only difference between the different grades of product from light to dark. Certain special labels may select the best of the agave hearts, but within the normal product range, it is aging alone that accounts for the difference in flavor.

Plata or silver is aged for 45 days, reposado for 11 months, and añejo for 1-3 years. The newly coined extra añejo is aged for 3-5 years. Up to 50% is lost in the aging process through evaporation or absorption into the oak casks.

Bottling is the only part of the process that resembles a modern food production facility. We were only able to see the bottling line from outside, looking through thick double-pane UV-tinted glass. I was fine with not getting closer; after all the initial steps feeling so close to the land, the bottling line looks like any other production line elsewhere in the world.

Tasting

If there wasn’t a chance to taste the product, nobody would come on these tours. So with a bit more of a sunburn than when we started, we sat down to try some tequila. I can’t say that I remember much other than how the tasting is performed:

  1. breathe out;
  2. swish the sample around in your mouth and consume.

The purpose of this exercise is to limit intake of alcohol vapors, which in my personal opinion seems to be the element that makes most straight liquor go down with a shudder. This process was reminiscent of using mouthwash, made my gums tingle, and did seem to cut down on the “yuck” factor, making the tasting more enjoyable.

Generally, the tequila gets smoother and smokier as it ages. The plata always seems a bit harsh to me, though now I know it’s the same as the añejo, only younger. In fact, aficionados can buy a one- or two-liter mini-cask at Herradura and age their own product from plata up to the point of their choosing. That’s about as DIY as you can get without breaking the law.

Hopping cheaply across Europe by air and rail

Here’s some good news about your dream trip across Europe. With a little advanced planning, and carry-on luggage, you can get there and get around fairly affordably. After months of planning and procrastination, our full Europe itinerary is now booked. Here are the details of our grand tour with some super secret discount tips at the end.

Conveyance

With the recent boom in discount airlines, flights in Europe are often as cheap or cheaper than a train or bus. These companies make their money by charging extra for everything from seat assignments, to checked baggage, to food, so check the fine print before you book. Norwegian follows the same principles but covers to and from the US.

While they may give you flexibility, Eurail passes were prohibitively expensive for our itinerary, so instead we’ve booked two one-way flights and a bunch of intra-Europe travel. We got the cheapest non-flexible tickets, booking everything outright, so we better not miss any connections!

Trains are great, but this was really about getting the most reliable, efficient, and inexpensive trip from A to B, regardless of mode. For the cheapest tickets, find the carrier’s direct website for the ticket in question (e.g. DeutscheBahn, Eurostar, Thalys, etc.), and book early. Most bookings open 3 months in advance, though the Eurostar can be booked 180 days early.

Itinerary

I’d say we did a great job at choosing our stops. The only ticket that I wished we had bought much earlier was the Thalys, which started around $50 per person and went up to $90 by the time we bought it. Oops.

Everything else we purchased recently, 4-6 weeks prior to travel. Here is our itinerary:

  1. New York (JFK) to Copenhagen on Norwegian 4098 NOK ($249 per person)*
  2. Copenhagen to Berlin on EasyJet 25 EUR
  3. Berlin to Hameln by DeutscheBahn 24 EUR
  4. Driving to Leer, Germany
  5. Driving to Groningen, Netherlands
  6. Groningen to Amsterdam by train 25.50 EUR
  7. Amsterdam to Paris by Thalys 80 EUR
  8. Paris to London on the Eurostar 41.50 GBP*
  9. London to New York on Norwegian 4828 NOK ($294)*

TOTAL: $769

That’s $543 pp for US-Europe flights, $226 per person for intra-Europe travel

* These tickets can be purchased in the native currency for a significant discount over the dollar-denominated amount on their site.

Super Secret Discount Tips

In the case of Norwegian, on their norwegian.no site we saved almost $100 per ticket, if memory serves. The layout is the same as the US page, but everything is in Norwegian, so you have to use Google Translate or keep a page open in both languages simultaneously to know where to click. For an extra 30 minutes of annoyance, we saved $200.

For the above flight and for any train tickets, get yourself a credit card like Chase Sapphire that doesn’t charge foreign currency fees, which can be as high as 3%. It really adds up when you’re buying tickets and booking hotels or hostels.

The Eurostar tickets were $65 if purchased in dollars or 41.50 GBP ($54) if purchased from eurostar.co.uk. If you sign up for an account and give a US address, you won’t be able to get this discount. They also charge extra for using a credit card, so use a foreign fee-free debit card like the one from Charles Schwab.

I’ll have more updates in the coming weeks as we try to complete this itinerary with no hiccups. Safe travels!

Featured image: View from Basilica of the Sacred Heart, Paris, by Ed Webster [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

Bucket List: Jazz Train from New York to Montreal

Featured image by Bublegun (Own work) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

New York, en wagon piano bar!

Imagine some of the nicest scenery in the East flashing by the window as you’re serenaded by live music and wined and dined. I first heard about this unique year-round service from a post on And North.The Jazz Train piggybacks on Amtrak’s Adirondack from New York-Montreal, an 11-hour trip from Penn Station through the Hudson Valley and the Adirondacks, ending in the capital of Quebec. Unlike Amtrak’s Western routes, this voyage is daytime-only and much slower than the drive, so it’s best for those with the time to enjoy. As far as I’m concerned, it’s well worth the time for this classy, photogenic, and stress-free travel.

If only they could fulfill their stated intention to run a similar service as an overnight (sleeper car) excursion, I imagine it would be wildly popular.

Service

As expected by the name, the train voyage includes a three-part jazz performance. Given the all-day length of the trip, it includes breakfast/brunch, lunch, and dinner, as well as drinks, both coffee in the morning and cocktails during the day. The menu is mouth-watering — starting the day with quiche du jour and French croissants is traveling in style.

The food includes, among other delicacies, two staples that Montreal and New York have in common: bagels (with maple smoked salmon), and smoked meat, a Montreal specialty similar to New York’s pastrami. Desserts are plentiful and heavy on the maple syrup ingredients.

For more on the itinerary and menu, visit the Jazz Train site here.

Route

The Jazz Train travels on Amtrak’s Adirondack route, which begins at New York Penn Station, passes along the Hudson, through Albany and Lake George, and alongside New York’s Adirondack State Park, alongside Lake Champlain.

Schedule / Cost / How to Book

Generally, the train departs departs New York on Thursdays and Sundays and returns on Fridays and Mondays. This means you’ll have a Thursday night to Monday morning stay in Montreal coming from New York, or a Friday night to Sunday morning stay in New York if beginning in Montreal. Labor Day has a special Tuesday morning return to NYC.

Pricing is $200 US one-way and $330 US round-trip, though you may also choose to take the plain vanilla Amtrak Adirondack,starting at $69 one-way. The Adirondack is a once-daily departure from New York at 8:15am, arriving in Montreal at 7:11pm. Return trips from Montreal depart daily at 10:20am and arrive at 8:50pm.

See more on schedule and pricing here.

History

The ultimate goal of the Jazz Train is to restart overnight service between the two cities, hence their web address, trainhotel.ca. Amtrak once ran an overnight sleeper car service from New York to Montreal via Vermont. This unique international service, which was formerly known as the Montrealer, was discontinued in the 1990s and rebranded as the Vermonter and now terminates in St. Albans in Northern Vermont.

The daytime Adirondack route runs entirely through New York State. Prior to 1991, all New York State-and Canada-bound trains departed from the ever photogenic Grand Central Terminal.

How I got 21% back towards travel (Really)

I signed up for the Chase Sapphire Preferred (referral link) card this past year to take advantage of the 50,000-point sign-up bonus, plus an additional 5,000 for adding an authorized user ($1155 at 2.1 cents per point !). It’s a good card that I use on a daily basis for most purchases, and it gives you 2x Chase Ultimate Rewards points on dining and travel, plus a host of other benefits, like no foreign transaction fees, rental car damage waiver and extended warranty protection, all of which I’ve used successfully. It has a $95 annual fee which is waived the first year.

Meanwhile, my old Amtrak Guest Rewards MasterCard was discontinued and converted into a Chase Freedom card, which is free. This card offers 5x point bonuses on rotating quarterly categories and 15,000 points ($150) for signing up. Currently (Q1 2016) the bonus category is local travel, including subways and taxis. Last quarter (Q4 2015) it was 10x (double the usual) on Amazon and Zappos, which was perfect for the Christmas season.

chase_bonus.png
Chase Freedom bonus categories for 2016 (Source: chase.com)

These both being Chase cards, they accrue Chase Ultimate Rewards points. Points can be combined between accounts and can even be pooled between you and your spouse. Now here’s the good part:

While the Freedom card only lets you redeem points for cash, the Sapphire card allows redemption at 1.25 cents for travel (cash value through Ultimate Rewards portal), as well as a 1:1 transfer to United Airlines (valued at 1.5 cents), British Airways, Singapore Airlines, and more. Having the Sapphire card lets you in on the benefits for all your Chase Ultimate Rewards cards (Freedom, Ink, Sapphire, etc.)

Thus with the 10x points earned during the Christmas season from Amazon mentioned earlier, each dollar spent gave us 21 cents (21%) back towards redemptions via Chase Sapphire and 15 cents (15%) on United Airlines in particular.

We’ll definitely be planning some flights this year. Happy travels!

Amtrak Guest Rewards, Best Deal in Travel, Gets Better (for Most)

Photo: Amtrak’s California Zephyr (Source: EbgundyOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Time for some train travel talk. Dollar-for-dollar, Amtrak’s Guest Rewards (AGR) program remains one of the best redemption deals in travel rewards.

AGR has undergone some changes recently that have shifted, and in most cases improved its value for those looking to redeem. At 2.9 cents of value per point earned, its eclipses most airline miles, which are worth ~1-2 cents per point, can take you from coast-to-coast, with a few sweet spots,  such as travel in the Northeast, that make it well worth your while.

I’ve been saving up Amtrak Guest Rewards points since I first signed up for the old AGR MasterCard many years ago. Chase Sapphire recently discontinued their relationship with AGR, though the Starwood Preferred Guest AmEx card still offers 1:1 transfers. With low redemption thresholds, you’ll be earning reward travel after as little as one month.

Redeeming Points, Before

Formerly, Amtrak tickets were redeemable on a zone-based system.

amtrak_zones
Amtrak’s old zone-based redemption map (Source: Amtrak.com)

This zone system rewarded buying tickets at the last minute, as the redemption was based on geography and not on price. The best redemption value was within the Northeast Corridor (NEC), roughly from Buffalo to Boston and Montreal through Washington, DC and down to Virginia Beach. It was also a great deal for certain high-priced redemptions, such as coast-to-coast sleeper car travel. However, it had blackout dates around all major holidays and was an exceedingly bad deal for inexpensive trips.

old_redemption

Redeeming Points, Now

As of January 24, 2016, the new redemption system is in effect. Now allowed: redemption of points at any time (no blackouts) and for any route, based on price, with a minimum redemption of 800 points per ticket.

For most trips, especially those booked in advance, it represents a significant savings. For trips within the Northeast Corridor, tickets are from 20-50% less points, on average.
To figure out whether the redemption rate has improved, refer to the following chart I’ve created below. When a ticket is priced on Amtrak.com at less than the price below and greater than the minimum ticket price of $23.20, that trip is now cheaper under the new scheme:

new_redemptionvalue_minimum

Rating the New Points Redemption

To test the value of the new system, I’ve made some ticket price calculations using Amtrak.com which I present below. Note: Saver fares are not valid for reward travel, and Acela (2.5 cents per point) has been left out of these calculations.

Within the NEC, a round-trip for 2 from New York Penn Station (NYP) to Boston (BOS) formerly cost 16,000 points ($464 at 2.9 cents per point) in the zone system. It now costs 10,207 points ($296) at the Value ticket level, for a savings of 36%. A round-trip for 2 from New York to Philadelphia (PHL) now costs $220 or 7,586 points, for a savings of 53%!

Outside the Northeast, Los Angeles (LOS) to San Diego (SAN) has dropped -15%, Miami (MIA) to Savannah (SAV) -50% and Denver (DEN) to Salt Lake City (SLC) -49% in points needed for redemption, all significant improvements.

round_coach.png

For long-distance sleeper travel, the new rates are much more of a mixed bag, with a few declines and many steep increases in points needed for redemption. The more cramped roomette accommodations on the California Zephyr from Chicago (CHI) to San Francisco (SFW) have increased significantly (+30%) for a two-person room, while the nicer bedroom accommodations have increased only slightly (+7%). Roomette trips from Seattle (SEA) to San Francisco have actually decreased in points needed for redemption (-9%).

one_sleeper.png

If you’re in the Northeast or plan to travel often by train, Amtrak Guest Reward points offer great value and flexibility. You can sign up and view their redemption guidelines at http://www.amtrakguestrewards.com.

Note: There have been reports that certain itineraries at high-demand times carry a points redemption penalty. This has not generally been true on the routes referenced above.

Experiments in Extreme Weekend Travel

We just returned from a weekend getaway to Barbados, and I wanted to share impressions on what I’ll term our first experiment in “extreme weekend travel”.

To fit nearly a week of travel time into one weekend, all you need are the following:

  • two vacation days that connect to the weekend or a three-day weekend that you can stretch to four;
  • a direct, red-eye (overnight) flight in both directions;
  • a discount flight (under $300), ideally, to make the short duration worthwhile;
  • an inexpensive destination or somewhere to stay.

We’re both trying to save our vacation days for a larger trip later in the summer, so this was an experiment born of necessity — taking only two vacation days, we managed a full four-day vacation. As noted, this required a red-eye flight in both directions and a return straight to work from the airport.

A direct flight was essential, since changing planes in the middle of the night will ruin your chances at arriving rested to your destination.

barbados_flight.png

Thanks to The Flight Deal and a great deal on JetBlue, we were able to get an overnight flight direct from New York (JFK) to Barbados (BGI) for $192 round-trip. We departed at 9pm on Thursday, arriving at 3am and returned at 4am on Tuesday, returning at 8:30am to New York.

barbados_beach
barbados_boats

We survived, and on the return flight we both slept soundly, thanks to the extra leg room and comfy seats on JetBlue. There was actually enough room in coach to fully extend your legs under the seat in front of you and stretch out. Bring your own pillow and blanket, however, as they carry an extra charge.

IMG_1587
Returning to JFK, New York on Tuesday morning

Destinations

Flying from New York to the Caribbean allows you to get far enough away for a real vacation, visit a foreign country, yet stay in a similar time zone.

JetBlue flies to dozens of destinations in the Caribbean and from my experience, many of these flights are direct and of the overnight variety. Their flight map can be consulted here.

Norwegian flies from JFK to Guadeloupe and Martinique and offers some great deals, though these are daytime departures and would require an extra day of vacation.

If you’re looking to fly domestically, nonstop cross-country flights, i.e. JFK to SFO, OAK, LAX, LGB offer the chance to get some rest, though jet lag can be an issue if you’re returning straight to work. Given the time zone difference, the return (West-East) flight needs to be overnight, though the East-West flight only takes 3 hours and could be done in an evening.

Searching for Flights

Use ITA Matrix to search for arrivals and limit the selection to flights departing at night or early morning.

Inline image 1
Example: Searching for overnight flights to California

For flights in a similar time zone, also select “Early Morning” and be sure that you’re searching for nonstops. Running a search to a series of nearby destinations, as shown below, can be very useful if you’re just looking to get out of town.

Inline image 4
Example: Searching for flights from NYC to all airports within 1000 miles of Barbados

I hope these tips inform and inspire. Good luck in planning your next Extreme Weekend Getaway.

January’s 10 Best Stories in Travel

Photo: January at Labrador Mountain, Truxton, NY

I’m here to share with you my favorite stories of the month from around the web. All have an international flavor, many explore the unseen side of the places we hear about in the news. If you’re wary of traveling there, at least you’ll be able to visit vicariously through these talented authors. I’ve also added in a few travel how-to’s and what-to’s that stood out from the crowd. Enjoy.

Underground in East Ukraine
Illegal coal mining in rebel-held territory in Ukraine has its own risks and rewards and continues on despite periodic skirmishes. Read on for more on the trials of daily life in contested territory.
http://roadsandkingdoms.com/2016/underground-in-east-ukraine/

A Gift From the Sea: On China’s Land Reclamation Free-for-all
Entire new cities are rising from the sea in China as coastal areas are filled and developed at a breakneck pace, appearing to create “something for nothing”. How is it done, and what is the catch? Read on.
http://www.vagabondjourney.com/a-gift-from-the-sea-on-chinas-land-reclamation-free-for-all/

Salvation by the Slice
A veteran of the war in Ukraine opens a pizza shop in Kiev staffed entirely by veterans and finds great success serving those heading to and returning from the front. Italian food in Eastern Europe is an unlikely savior.
http://roadsandkingdoms.com/2016/salvation-by-the-slice/

Time Travel to Anadyr, Russia
Taking the world’s shortest trans-continental flight from Alaska to Russia’s Far East is like stepping back in time and exploring the rarely-seen populated corners of the Arctic. Click here for the story with great photos from Sherry Ott.
http://www.ottsworld.com/blogs/anadyr-russia-travel/

Visiting Ojai, California
Visit Ojai, the cozy and creative town outside of Los Angeles, bed down neo-hippie style in an Airstream trailer, grab a fresh brunch, and browse the outdoor bookstore. Add this place to your next road trip destination.
http://escapebrooklyn.com/ojai-california/

Ultimate List of Travel Movies
From Into the Wild to Crocodile Dundee, this list touches on the great road trip and travel movies, both classics and more recent films. You may know half this list, which will make the other half you haven’t seen even more enticing.
http://www.nomadicmatt.com/travel-blogs/the-ultimate-list-of-travel-movies/

How Shenzhen Became the Global Epicenter of High-Tech Innovation
Electronics designed, sourced and built in a matter of days instead of weeks or months, this is how Shenzhen is shaking up the international marketplace in computer hardware. The next Silicon Valley?
http://www.vagabondjourney.com/how-shenzhen-became-the-global-epicenter-of-high-tech-innovation/

How to Eat Street Food Without Getting Sick
Ever wonder how the locals manage to eat all the best tacos, quesadillas, and fried treats without getting sick? It’s not just the water. Read this for some new tips.
http://www.legalnomads.com/2016/01/street-food.html

A Crazy New Kind of Amazing Race: International Car Rallies
If you know me, you’ll know the Europe-to-Asia Mongol Rally is on my bucket list. Here are several other crazy options that will now be vying for our future plans.
https://www.yahoo.com/travel/a-crazy-new-kind-of-amazing-race-international-117138357567.html

The Big Cow Con
How a young South African cattle trader stole a fortune through sleight-of-hand in California’s dairy country during the booming 1990s and then disappeared with the spoils, and how he was finally caught on the other side of the world.
https://story.californiasunday.com/rocky-pipkin-agricultural-detective