Podcast #161 — New Crisis, Old Question; Driving Down to Key West

You have reached your destination

Things started out well, skipping out on Chicago winter for a drive down to Key West. But then last week, coronavirus hit the US and everything unraveled. All this and more at the direct link to the podcast file or listening to it right here by clicking on the arrow below.

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Podcast #160 — Disappearing Seatback Screens; Shrinking Difference Between Ride-Share and Taxis

Is this the IMAX seatback screen?

Trying to watch the Super Bowl while flying from Durango, CO to Chicago via Denver got me thinking about the fading away of seatback entertainment. We also talk about the continuing evolution of ride sharing. Uber and Lyft are looking more and more like the taxi companies they fought to replace. All this and more at the direct link to the podcast file or listening to it right here by clicking on the arrow below.

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My food and beer hangouts in Downtown Phoenix (#DTPHX)

I just wrapped up two months in downtown Phoenix and want to pass along my favorite hangouts for food and beer. When I started traveling to Phoenix in the mid-’90’s, there wasn’t much to downtown Phoenix other than the Hyatt Regency hotel. Today, stadiums for the Phoenix Suns and the Arizona Diamondbacks, and a downtown campus for Arizona State University support a solid selection of restaurants, coffee shops, and bars. Below are the places that I found myself going back to again and again during my 2-month stay.

Mariscos Playa Hermosa While not technically within the DTPHX boundary, this place has the best Mexican seafood I’ve ever had — and that includes my dinners in San Jose del Cabo over last Christmas Break. The Pulpo y Callo Parrillada (grilled octopus leg and scallops) and Camarones Fantasia (shrimp stuffed into mild chile and then wrapped in bacon) are my favorites, but it’s all good. Worth the short Uber/Lyft ride. (1605 E Garfield St)

Harumi Sushi Sushi in the desert doesn’t immediately jump to the top of my list of food must-do’s, but Harumi hits all my sushi hot buttons — nice pieces of sashimi served with fresh wasabi and an interesting selection of rolls. It’s a small place that gets crowded, so check out the wait time on Yelp before you walk over. (114 W Adams St though the door is north of Adams on 1st St)

Pizzeria Bianco Always on the lists of the top pizza places in the US. While I’m not sure if deserves all those accolades, it’s very good thin crust pizza. And Bar Bianco next door is a very cool space for pre- or post-dinner cocktails. (623 E Adams St in Heritage Square near the AZ Science Center)

Arrogant Butcher The place I’d go when I wanted to eat at the bar and watch a ball game. I like the Butcher’s Meatballs for a smaller meal and the Beef Short Rib Stew when a bit hungrier. It’s kitty-corner from Talking Stick Arena, so it can get crowded before a Suns game. (2 E Jefferson St at S 1st St)

The Whining Pig A block north of Talking Stick Arena, The Whining Pig is a classic low-key/no-attitude craft beer bar — a great draft selection, a huge can/bottle menu, knowledgable bartenders, and a solid selection of bar and card games. My go-to beer bar in DTPHX. (201 E Washington St, though the door is south of Washington on 2nd St)

The Theodore Great craft beer bar at the west end of the hip Roosevelt Row district. Nice draft menu, color coded by style, and a cooler full of interesting cans and bottles for drinking there or back at your hotel. Good-sized place — comfy couches inside and patio seating out front and on the side. (110 E Roosevelt St at N 1st St)

Arizona Wilderness DTPHX A block-and-a-half down from The Theodore is Arizona Wilderness’s downtown beer garden. Sit outside around the fire pit (during the winter months) or inside (during the summer months). They have a wide-ranging beer menu, many of which feature Arizona-sourced ingredients like honey, lemons, prickly pear, carrots, and sweet potato. (201 E Roosevelt St) .

Podcast #159 — Planning the Trip of a Lifetime in Southeast Asia

Just put my dragon’s den on Airbnb

January is a big travel planning month; people thinking about about the places they want to visit, spending days on the Internet researching itineraries, and putting in their week’s vacation requests. But what about a 9-week sabbatical you’ve worked 7 years for? In this episode, we talk about that kind of extreme travel planning. All this and more at the direct link to the podcast file or listening to it right here by clicking on the arrow below.

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Podcast #158 — Travel Potpourri for $400, Alex

Good End to 2019

Skipping the Chicago winter with trips to Phoenix and Sedona, Arizona, and a Christmas morning flight to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. Talk about those trips, my good and bad Hertz experiences, and then gather up odds-‘n’-ends from my travel notebooks to see off 2019 in this New Year’s Eve episode. All this and more at the direct link to the podcast file or listening to it right here by clicking on the arrow below.

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Best Gift Ideas for a New Traveler

Coming into the heart of the Christmas shopping season, when people are getting desperate for gift ideas, I thought I’d offer up 10 suggestions for gifts that a new frequent traveler will actually use. While many gift lists are pushing Away luggage, Huzi infinity pillows, and Aesop travel kits (these companies must’ve splashed a lot of samples around the blog-o-sphere), I built my list based on my own travel kit; the things I use every travel day in the 40-50 trips I take each year.

  1. Black 20-inch carry-on suitcase Black not only makes you look thinner, it makes your bag look thinner to gate agents hunting for bag-sizer bait. Black also doesn’t show stains. A 20-incher should get your traveler on-board for 90% of airlines without a hassle. I go for the 2-wheeler with the biggest wheels I can find to make it an easier, smoother pull. But that’s my personal preference; a lot of travelers (including my wife) swear by their 4-wheel spinners. I bought the TravelPro Maxlite 5 a few months ago and highly recommend it.
  2. TSA Global Entry or Pre-Check Gift your new traveler with 5 years of time and hassle reduction. $100 for both; $85 for just Pre-Check. If you have a high-end card like an Amex Platinum, you might be able to put your card on their application and get the $100 fee back in a statement credit.
  3. Noise Canceling Headphones I mentioned in the last podcast episode how my trusty Bose QC-15s saved me from the propeller drone on my flights around the Baltics. The drone of jet or propeller engines disappear with the flick of a switch. But it’s the drop in stress level and blood pressure that accompanies that flick of the switch — you don’t realize how much that drone affects you. Everything in my briefcase has to earn its space. I’ve been carrying Bose headphones for, I dunno, 10, 15 years. They’re nowhere near compact, but I’ve never thought of leaving them behind. The models you want to look for — either the Bose QC-35 II or the Sony WH-1000XM3. Your generous gift will be lovingly appreciated by your new traveler.
  4. VPN Subscription Frequent travelers spend much of their time on public WiFi networks — airports, hotels, bars, coffee shops, …. Help them surf safe with a VPN subscription. I’ve used NordVPN and PIA. They both protect laptops, and iOS and Android phones and tablets. VPN providers always have some promotion going on. A one-year subscription is usually in the $35-85 range.
  5. Portable Power Bank Whatever the size or form factor — slimline, lipstick, high-capacity brick — having that second or third charge readily available is critical to get last-minute gate change notifications and when you’re using electronic boarding passes. It saves you from stalking cleaning crews to find a live power outlet on your layover, or negotiating with your seat mate for possession of outlet between you. It’s cheap peace of mind. The Anker PowerCore+ Mini is light enough (under 3 oz) to carry any time. I’ve also started carrying a Zendure Power Bank Supermini for faster iPhone 11 charging.
  6. Badger Hair Shaving Brush I switched from an electric razor to blade to make it easier to pass through London-Heathrow during one of their security crack-downs and never went back. To do it right, though, you need to have a badger hair shaving brush. I use a not-too-expensive Edwin Jagger brush that makes my morning shave into a bit of a meditation. If you want to go all in, get your traveler the Alluvian Shave Soap 5-Piece Travel Size Sampler. They smell great and are the perfect travel size.
  7. Merino Wool Scarf  A man’s scarf is an incredibly undervalued piece of intermediate winter wear. In an airplane cabin or hotel room where a coat is too much (especially in a middle seat), but there’s a draft that chills you, a scarf around the neck is just enough without being too much. You may have to teach your new traveler how to wear it, but you can have fun with colors. I’m a big fan of merino wool scarves — they’re warm, soft, and dry out if you spill water on them.
  8. Compression Socks Yes, I know that compression socks won’t generate the most ooh’s and aah’s when their wrapping is torn off. But not having to stuff swollen feet back into shoes after an international or transcontinental flight has made me appreciate them. I wear SB SOX Compression Socks, but any moderate compression sock should be fine.
  9. Short HDMI Cable and Dongle It’s a rare hotel room I walk into that doesn’t have a big flat-screen TV mounted to the wall. Many of these will let you log into your Netflix or HBO Go account so you can watch your content on the big screen. But why go through all that (and trust their data and network security set-up) when you can just plug your laptop into one of their spare HDMI ports? I use a basic 3-foot HDMI cable. Most of the common business laptops from Dell and Lenovo have HDMI ports but, because I have a MacBook Air, I also carry an Apple USB-C-to-HDMI adapter.
  10. Travel Notebook And finally, a stocking stuffer idea — a travel notebook, something to jot down thoughts, ideas, observations, to do lists while waiting for the flight to board, the train to come, or the room to be made up. Nothing extravagant — no leather embossed cover — but it should be small enough to fit in a pocket, but substantial, something that can survive being knocked around in the bottom of a briefcase, and with paper quality that will hold onto those thoughts for a while. I used to use a Moleskine pocket notebook but have switched over a similar-sized Clairefontaine A6 notebook. The soft cover fits better in a jeans back pocket, and the paper is more fountain-pen friendly. Or go a bit more whimsical and get a pack of Field Notes.

Note: I purchased these items with my own money. This is not a paid endorsement. This post contains links to Amazon where I can earn a small commission from qualifying purchases.

Podcast #157 — Notes from the Baltics: Riga, Latvia and Tallinn, Estonia

Selfies with Friends in Tallinn

Wrapping up my time in Charlottesville, VA with some “bleisure” travel, as well as some pure leisure travel with a quick trip in the Baltics. And a listener talks about the reason for his out-and-back day trip from Washington, DC to Hong Kong. All this and more at the direct link to the podcast file or listening to it right here by clicking on the arrow below.

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How To Choose The Best Carry-On Luggage

Rejected and Retired Suitcases

I spend a lot of time with my luggage. I average 40-50 trips and 100,000 miles a year. I hate shopping for luggage, though. I’d putting off buying a new bag for a long time, as in years, until I was left with no working luggage when the handle died on my vintage Swiss Army black roller. Before that, the airlines forcibly grounded my Bluesmart smart bag for an unremovable lithium battery, and I had to retire my grey Samsonite bag after the wheels got wonky — the rubber wore off and the wheels splayed out after 2½ years of trundling it across New Orleans sidewalks.

With my next trip looming, I was finally forced to shop for a new suitcase. But what to buy? I started with a survey of fellow travelers. Actually, it was more like stalking; I eyeballed every piece of luggage that passed by me for two weeks. Then I wandered through the basement luggage departments of a couple of Macy’s, opening bags and waving off clerks. After all that, I gave into my OCD and built this prioritized carry-on luggage shopping evaluation criteria:

  1. It has to fit into my carrier’s carry-on sizer. Now that may seem a bit of a “duh”, but there is some ambiguity; the approved height of a carry-on bag varies by airline between 19 and 22-inches. If I want to play it safe, I’d go for a 20-inch bag, but then I also want to maximize my carry-on space. Most US carriers accept a 22-inch bag and that’s mostly what I fly. So for my main bag, I go for maximum packing volume and choose a 22-inch bag.
  2. And my carrier’s weight limit (if they have one). Many European carriers have a size and a weight limit. Back in episode #121, I talked about the baggage strip tease I had to do at the Wow Air desk in Reykjavik to make their 7 kg/15 lbs carry-on weight limit. My 22-inch bag is 7 lbs, taking up almost half of the weight allowance. So last month, after booking some flights in and out of Riga, Latvia on AirBaltic, I bought a much lighter 20-inch bag
  3. It needs to be black. As I said in my Ruthless Packing Tips post, black not only makes you look thinner, it makes your bag look thinner to gate agents scanning for bag-sizer bait. Black also doesn’t show stains. My grey Samsonite bag, after 3-4 months of my travel schedule, started to look a lot less non-black. Smudges from grease on overhead bin hinges, muck from taxi trunks, muddy water from New Orleans gutters, spilled coffee…. It’s why I can’t have nice luggage.
  4. Two wheels, not four. This is more of a personal preference. My Bluesmart was a 4-wheel spinner and my wife swears by hers, but because the 4 wheels have to extend from the bottom of the bag, spinners sacrifice packing space for agility. Also, I find 4-wheelers have a tendency to wander off — rolling away down ramps or on uneven floors. I go for the 2-wheeler, and with the biggest wheels I can find to make it an easier, smoother pull. I was surprised how much this limited my selection. Spinners definitely rule.
  5. The inside of the suitcase has to be plain and empty. No clever collection of zipped compartments, or built-in suit hangers, or ratcheting clothes dividers; just a wide open box that I’m free to structure how I want for each trip. I was surprised how this also limited my selection. Indeed, in the end, I couldn’t find just a plain box, and settled for a bag where I could detach the suit hanger and clothes divider and stash them in the back of a closet somewhere, never to be seen again.
  6. Buy on-line. A recent study of 32,672 luggage price showed that you can save an average of $110/39% buying on-line. Walmart and Target’s on-line stores had the highest discounts. And while Amazon was in 10th place for average discount (in the 40% range), it was tops with the greatest variety — over 12,000 luggage items.

So what did I buy? For my main bag, I bought a black Victorinox Werks Traveler 5.0 22-inch 2-wheeler. Victorinox is what used to be Swiss Army; I figured if my last bag survived 10 years of hard mileage, that said something for durability. However, Victorinox has moved to a new model year, to Werks 6.0, which doesn’t appear to have a 22-inch or a 2-wheel option. If you’re OK with spinners, the Werks 5.0 22-inch spinner is still available on Amazon. My 2-wheeler is a solid bag; highly recommended.

For my European budget travel, and for 2-day trips where I don’t need all the space of the Victorinox, I landed on the the TravelPro Maxlite 5. It fit the AirBaltic dimensions, it’s one of the lighter bags I saw at 5.4 lbs, and my daughter has had a good run with her TravelPro bag. Mine has worked well on two trips — hopscotching through the Baltics and then a quick trip down to Charlottesville, VA. Another solid bag that’s highly recommended.

Note: I purchased these items with my own money. This is not a paid endorsement. This post contains links to Amazon where I can earn a small commission from qualifying purchases.