About robpegoraro

Freelance journalist who covers (and is often vexed by) computers, gadgets and other things that beep.

Notes from getting to Tokyo the hard way

When I woke up before 5 a.m. a week ago, I hoped that the main problem with my itinerary to Japan would be a long wait in San Francisco for my already-delayed Tokyo flight. At least I could watch the Nats game at SFO, I naively thought.

But more than halfway through my IAD-SFO leg, United succumbed to the meteorological reality of Typhoon Hagibis and cancelled my SFO-NRT flight, just as it had already scrubbed every other departure to Tokyo’s Narita and Haneda airports that day.

That was not the end of my trip, and I made it to Tokyo for the CEATEC trade show only a day after my scheduled arrival. (In case you missed this disclosure the first time: CEATEC paid my airfare.) But I did need to resort to some moderately advanced travel hacking. Should you find your own international itinerary going sideways, the following advice may help.

Research alternate connecting points. After getting that flight-cancellation notice and seeing the United app list no open flights to Tokyo, the next resource I checked was the route map in the inflight mag. I wanted to see where on the other side of the Pacific UA could get me from SFO–the idea being that once I was within a thousand or so miles of Japan, my travel options would expand. The closest such places: Seoul, Shanghai and Taipei.

At SFO, an exceptionally resourceful United Club agent–airline lounge agents are among your best options during irregular operations–quickly determined that the Seoul flights had no seats open Saturday or Sunday. Taipei could have worked, but then the only routing she saw would have had me fly to Bangkok to chance a one-hour connection to Narita; no thanks. An itinerary from San Francisco to Honolulu to Guam was open, but that showed no seats available from Guam to Tokyo until Tuesday morning.

Be flexible. This agent did, however, see that UA 857 to Shanghai, departing in an hour and change, had a seat free in Economy Plus. From there, she had me booked on an ANA red-eye to Haneda Tuesday morning–“morning” as in a 1:45 a.m. departure–with a chance that I could standby on the Monday-a.m. PVG-HND flight.

This did mean I’d lose the premium-economy seat I’d had on the original SFO-NRT leg. And my odds of an upgrade clearing on a route that sees Apple buy up most of the forward cabin would be exceedingly low, in reality zero. Oh well… the only way I could have held on to my original PE seat was to hope it would reappear on Sunday’s SFO-NRT flight, which did not seem like a winning move then.

Note that all of this rebooking was made immensely easier by the fact that I didn’t check a bag. Always carry on your luggage when traveling internationally.

Keep checking. Over the next 12 hours I spent in seat 23B, I thought to check a few other options for a Monday departure from Shanghai. (Remember, you should be able to use your airline’s app and site for free even if you don’t pay for its inflight WiFi). I was pleasantly surprised that United’s app listed a few one-stop itineraries from Shanghai to Haneda; it didn’t let me change to them, but at least I could ask United to rebook me on one.

I also remembered to see if any flights were available on miles. Another pleasant surprise: The app listed multiple connecting flights at just 15,000 miles, a miles-to-dollars rate I never see on domestic booking and worth breaking my rule about not burning miles on work travel. Lesson re-learned: partner redemptions can be much cheaper than anything an airline offers on its own metal.

I couldn’t get the most direct ones to complete booking, but I did secure a reservation that would have me fly from Shanghai to Sapporo Monday morning, then spend six hours in Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido before flying to Haneda that night. Not great, but better than a 1:45 a.m. departure.

On arrival at Shanghai–meaning after the lengthy wait to clear immigration and customs–I discovered that the ANA desk didn’t open for another two hours and change. I decided to bag the idea of trying to standby on a 1:45 a.m. red-eye after 20 hours of travel and instead got in touch with United. The easiest way to do that in my bandwidth-choked environment (a hotspot with a terrible connection made still slower by the virtual-private-network tunneling mandatory in China) was via Twitter direct messages.

And, to UA’s immense credit, that worked. I passed on the flight numbers for my shortest connection–Shanghai to Fukuoka, on Japan’s southern island of Kyushu, then Fukuoka to Haneda–and, after an anxiety-inducing wait, got a response that ended: “currently working on the ticket change.” Fifty-one minutes later, a DM confirmed my rebooking. I undid the mileage reservation within the 24-hour free-cancel window and booked a hotel. That was shockingly cheap: $70 and change for an upscale, well-placed property.

Try to appreciate the adventure. Going to Japan via China was not ideal in many ways–literally any other connection would have given me a normal level of bandwidth–but it did have its moments. I got to take the Shanghai Maglev from the airport and back, something I’d last experienced in 2007. I was able to cross another two airports off my list (because I am sometimes 12 years old, I appreciated how one carries the IATA code of “FUK”). And on arrival at HND, I was able to incorporate yet another mode of travel into my itinerary, the Tokyo Monorail. That and two other trains got me to my hotel in time for dinner, which was more than I’d thought likely at SFO two days before.

Plus, this little travel saga reminded me that I could bounce around the Pacific Rim with zero advance planning and not get lost. That’s worth something in itself.

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Weekly output: 5G hype vs. reality, customer-experience optimization, East Coast startups, customer support, digital marketing

TOKYO–It’s been an interesting 36 hours of travel. Saturday morning, I was supposed to fly to Tokyo for the CEATEC tech trade show*, but Typhoon Hagibis led United to cancel every Tokyo-bound flight from the U.S.–the last one being a San Francisco departure that went off the board after I’d flown halfway across the U.S. An exceptionally resourceful United Club agent at SFO grabbed the last Economy Plus seat on the next flight to Shanghai, and further rebooking turned a Tuesday-morning redeye from there to Tokyo into connecting flights Monday afternoon that got me here in time for dinner, more or less.

* CEATEC’s organizers are covering travel costs for me and a handful of other U.S. tech journalists, a first-time effort to get more international attention for that event. I will note that in anything I write about this trip.

10/7/2019: 5G is mostly hype so far, Yahoo Finance

I wrote up my mostly-unimpressive experiences with a Sprint 5G hotspot and phone (something Patreon subscribers got an early look at last month), then observed that the 5G rollouts at AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon are far more vaporous so far.

10/8/2019: Building an Optimization Strategy with Personalization and Experimentation, Ascent

In the first of four panels I did at this New York startup conference, I interviewed Optimizely chief marketing officer Carl Tsukahara about how companies try and sometimes fail to tweak their customer experiences to keep customers around for the long term.

10/8/2019: How to Leverage the East Coast Startup Ecosystem, Ascent

I led a panel with Google Cloud startup lead Tejpaul Bhatia and Hubspot corporate-development manager Brandon Greer about what makes the Right Coast different from the Bay Area. One thing that came up often: We’re more likely to run into each other on sidewalks and subways.

10/8/2019: Walking the Tightrope of Rising Customer Expectations, Ascent

I expected an interview at a startup conference with a guy who works for a customer-support company–Zendesk CMO Jeff Titterton–would lead to a lot of support questions from Zendesk customers in the audience. Instead, we only got one.

10/8/2019: Customer Experience in Digital Marketing, Ascent

My last panel featured iFolio president and CEO Jean Marie Richardson, Chargify marketing v.p. Gary Amaral, and Babbel U.S. CEO Julie Hansen. We got a little loopy, which seems only fair for the penultimate panel before the reception that closes the conference.

The Nats aren’t done playing baseball this year

A postseason series involving the Washington Nationals ended last night, and I did not wake up this morning feeling like I got hit by a truck.

That’s a novel experience. Every prior postseason appearance by the Nats–2012, 2014, 2016 and 2017, which followed seven years of playoff-deprived baseball, which themselves followed 33 0-0 seasons in D.C.–left me not just staggering-around tired but emotionally crushed.

It wasn’t enough for us to lose the division series. Each time, we had to lose after giving ourselves a serious chance to win–in 2012, getting an out away from the National League Championship Series.

It looked like game five in Los Angeles would follow that dismal pattern. Previously unhittable Stephen Strasburg gave up a home run in each of the first two innings to put us in a 3-0 hole against the 106-win Dodgers that we still had not escaped by the start of the eighth inning.

The only consolation it seemed we could claim would be reaching the NLDS at all–via a thrilling come-from-behind win over the Brewers in the wild-card game–after nobody expected the Nats to play anything but golf in October after a wretched 19-31 start.

But then history did not repeat itself. Solo home runs by Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto tied the game and sent it to extra innings, Howie Kendrick’s grand slam sent the Nats bustin’ loose, and bedlam erupted in front of TVs.

And now the Washington Nationals are going to St. Louis to see if they can’t pay back the Cardinals for 2012 and win a pennant for D.C. for the first time since 1933 (the first Nationals) and 1948 (the Homestead Grays).

In the meantime, we know we’ll never again have to hear people carp that the Nats have never won a playoff series–the same way the Capitals blew up their Death Star by finally beating Pittsburgh in a postseason series last summer. The Caps weren’t content to kill off just one sports curse, and I trust the Nats aren’t either.

If only I weren’t going to be out of town for every NLCS home game next week…

Weekly output: Google’s password help, Twitter suspensions in Egypt

NEW YORK–This evening finds me here for the Ascent conference, at which I have four panels to moderate Tuesday and things to learn all Monday. Yes, that means I will miss both NLDS games at Nationals Park. Since the team hasn’t done all that well when I’ve been in the stands for a potential division-series clinch, maybe that’s good?

10/2/2019: This new Google tool protects you against dangerous passwords, Fast Company

Along with a fair amount of other tech journalists, I got an advance on Google’s announcement Monday of changes to warn Chrome users about exposed, reused or easily-guessed passwords. Having seen how a similar feature in the 1Password password manager has helped make me less stupid about site logins, I think this is a good move by Google. But I also expect that many users will freak out when they see Chrome telling them that their password has been compromised in a data breach.

10/3/2019: Twitter suspensions in Egypt, Al Jazeera

I appeared on the Arabic-language news channel to talk about reports of Egyptian dissidents’ Twitter accounts being suspended. My take: Twitter has a serious problem with being fooled by coordinated, bad-faith campaigns to get accounts suspended for alleged-but-not-real violations of Twitter’s rules. The anchor then asked why Twitter hadn’t answered AJ’s questions, and I said that most social-media companies are chronically bad at explaining their own decisions. Many have hangups with just speaking on the record.

I’m (still) sorry about the schlock ads here

Yesterday’s announcement of a merger of Taboola and Outbrain–the dreadful duo responsible for those horrible “around the Web” galleries of clickbait ads tarting up many of your favorite news sites–provided yet another reminder of how fundamentally schlocky programmatic ads can get online.

But so did a look at this blog.

When WordPress.com launched WordAds in 2012, the company touted a more tasteful advertising system that bloggers here could be proud of. The reality in the seven years since has been less impressive.

The WordAds program features some respectable, name-brand advertisers like Airbnb and Audible, to name two firms seen here tonight. But it’s also accepted too much tacky crap–including some of the same medically-unsound trash that litters Taboola and Outbrain “chumboxes”–while struggling to block scams like the “forced-redirect” ad in the screenshot at right.

Over the last year, I’ve also been increasingly bothered by the way these ads rely on tracking your activity across the Web. I know that many of you avoid that surveillance by using browsers like Safari or Firefox with tracking-protection features, but I’d just as soon not be part of the privacy problem. Alas, WordPress has yet to offer bloggers the option of running ads that only target context (as in, the posts they accompany), not perceived user behavior as determined by various programmatic systems.

I do make money off these ads, but slowly. Most months, my advertising income here doesn’t exceed $10, and I can’t withdraw any of the proceeds until they exceed $100. I had thought that I’d see one of those paydays last month–but August’s addition to my ad income left me 28 cents shy of that C-note threshold.

So in practice, my major return on WordAds is the opportunity to have my face periodically shoved into the muck of online marketing. That’s worth something, I guess.

Weekly output: transparency reports in trouble

I had a whole week at home for the first time since [checks calendar] August. Some of that spare time let me finish bringing a story to publication at a new client, and some of the rest went into attending a conference hosted by the same client.

9/29/2019: Tech Companies Are Quietly Phasing Out a Major Privacy Safeguard, The Atlantic

This piece on stagnating support among U.S. tech companies for transparency reports had a prolonged and sometimes-painful gestation period. First I had another site interested to run it, then the other site decided it did not want the story. Then I had some anxious moments wondering if anybody anywhere would want to pay me for this (hello, impostor syndrome) before an editor at The Atlantic green-lighted my pitch. This time, the approval stuck, leading to the first story I’ve sold to one of my favorite publications.

In the interest of transparency–as in, to explain the screengrab I took this morning–management chose to swap out the initial headline after the story was posted. That’s not an uncommon occurrence in the news business these days.

How I booked my CES lodging (and did not get ripped off, I hope)

No business-travel lodging decision is trickier than CES. The usual affordability of Las Vegas hotels evaporates as properties on the Strip send their rates into the stratosphere for this massive show, leaving budget-minded CES attendees scrounging for cheap alternatives that won’t be too distant or too sketchy.

Las Vegas Strip from the southHere how I managed that this year. I hope you all don’t need to book CES lodging anytime soon, but applying some of the same shopping practices might make your next non-work trip a little more affordable.

  1. Start at the show site’s list of official hotels. Conference hotels can be a grotesque rip-off, but the enormous scale of CES–175,212 attendees this January–means the endorsed-lodging list has to go beyond a handful of high-end hotels. The best deals left this week are in downtown Las Vegas, which I know from prior trips is an easy Lyft/Uber ride to the Strip and not much slower by bus, which in this case includes the show’s free hotel shuttle service. And by “best deals” I mean $500 to $600 and change for four nights–including resort fees, which the CES site helpfully includes in its nightly-cost estimates. That set an upper bound on what I’d pay.
  2. Check Airbnb. Airbnb is an essential part of my business travel–I don’t think I could do events like MWC or Google I/O without that source of cheap lodging–but in this case it didn’t pan out. Airbnb’s site didn’t show any affordable options near the Strip that either had accumulated enough favorable reviews or were offered by hosts with their own prior crowd-sourced approvals.
  3. Check Kayak. Kayak.com has remained one of my favorite travel-search sites for all the tools it provides to narrow down a search (with Hipmunk a close second) while still showing results from a wide range of booking sites. In this case, Kayak revealed another option in the low $500s near the University of Nevada at Las Vegas–not walking distance from the Strip, but a manageable Lyft/Uber commute. (Vegas taxis are dead to me, thanks to their adding a $3 surcharge for credit-card payments.)
  4.  Check Hotwire. This Expedia Group-owned travel-search site offers mystery deals on hotels that don’t have to be that much of a mystery. The trick is to see what “Hot Rates” look good, then check not just the TripAdvisor rating shown next to each but the number of TripAdvisor reviews. That second data point should allow you to identify the underlying hotel with a high degree of confidence. In this case, Hotwire showed some downtown-Vegas properties at about the same rates as the CES site–but without clarity on whether resort fees were included.
  5. Don’t forget esoteric or expiring discounts. My search ended with an app on my phone, and not one I’ve used to book travel before. The T-Mobile Tuesdays app, which historically hasn’t yielded much more than the occasional free Lyft ride, touted some subscriber-exclusive discounts at Booking.com this week. So I belatedly remembered to take a look Friday, which is how I found a DTLV property with solid TripAdvisor ratings and no resort fees for just over $500.

Will that be my most comfortable CES stay ever? Probably not. Will I care after spending 14 hours a day schlepping around my laptop? Probably not. Now to book my CES flights…