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.

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…

 

 

Flying on September 11

NEW ORLEANS–I marked Sept. 11 this year by getting on a plane. That wasn’t my first such observance.

Sept. 11 landing at EWRThis year’s flight brought me here for the Online News Association’s conference. In prior years, I’ve flown on 9/11 for TechCrunch Disrupt and CTIA’s conferences… looking through my calendar, I thought I’d done this more often. Some of those years, it turns out, I flew on the 10th or the 12th of September.

Is it weird that I wish I’d flown more often on Sept. 11?

I have paid my respects at all the 9/11 sites: the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and Shanskville, Penn. Those were intensely meaningful visits, and every American who is able should see least one of those memorials.

But another way you can honor this day is to spend time above the clouds.

Today was a good day to do that. I was glad to connect through Newark, so I could see Manhattan’s reborn skyline from the air, then take a moment to appreciate the memorial United employees set up near gate C120 for the crews of UA 93 and UA 175.

A friend has called flying on this day her act of defiance. I’m not sure I’d give myself that much credit. But going to an airport, boarding a plane, and showing a little solidarity with the people of commercial aviation does seem like a decent thing to do.

Berlin Brandenburg Airport is still not open

BERLIN–My introduction to this city seven years ago was supposed to feature a new, world-class airport. I continue to wait on that.

When I booked my flights for the IFA trade show in 2012, Berlin Brandenburg Airport was set to open in early June as a unified airport for the unified city, replacing both Tegel in the western half and Schönefeld in the east.

But fire-safety concerns forced a postponement of Berlin Brandenburg’s opening to the next spring. And by “fire-safety concerns,” I mean the belated realization that expecting to vent smoke by having fans blow it down from ceilings to vents in the basement would be very much not up to code. So I flew into Tegel instead and have since gotten to know that airport rather well.

Brandenburg empty gatesTXL is no prize, with a weird layout that puts passport and security at each gate. It’s also one of the few major attractions in Berlin that’s not walking distance from a U-Bahn or S-Bahn stop, instead requiring a bus connection. But Tegel does have the advantage of being open and operational.

BER, meanwhile, has seen its opening pushed back year after year while it’s sunk from being a subject of local civic concern to the internationally recognized spot where German efficiency went to die. As a BBC feature from late June recaps,  the saga involves epic levels of engineering, financial and political malfeasance. It will probably be taught as a cautionary tale in project-management classes for the next hundred years.

But although I have yet to step on or off a plane at Brandenburg, I have been inside the place. During my 2015 IFA (then, as now, the show’s organizers covered most of my travel costs), I took an afternoon off to take the BER airport tour.

Seeing this zombie airport from up close was a remarkable and spooky experience, even if I could only catch the occasional word or phrase in the German tour narration. In any language, it’s bizarre to stand on an airport ramp and not smell any jet fuel.

I took a bunch of photos and told myself I’d sell a story about that visit somewhere. And then I spent months failing to close the deal anywhere before eventually giving up. One might say that this drawn-out inability to execute was my Berlin Brandenburg Airport of freelance pitching.

Those airport tours are still available–and are something I will have to do anew before trying to revive this story idea–but now they require booking a reservation online three months in advance. So like BER itself, returning to this story will have to wait until next year. When, per the latest estimates, Berlin Brandenburg will finally open–not that you should bet too many euros on that happening by the new deadline of October 2020.

In the meantime, you might as well enjoy some of the pictures I took four years ago; if you’d rather not click through to my Flickr page (speaking of things from an earlier time), there’s a slideshow after the jump.

(Edited 9/6/2019 to explain the initial delay better and move one link.)

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Three years in thrall to Duolingo

Hace tres años, comencé a aprender español con la aplicación Duolingo. Pero todavía no soy bilingüe. Lo siento!

The fact that I had to double-check the prior sentences with Google Translate should say something about my efforts since July 2016 to learn Spanish in five-minute sessions with the free Duolingo app on my phone and iPad.

And yet getting anywhere in a new language in my late 40s feels pretty good, since the last time I seriously tried to learn another language was in high school.

It may not be much that I can keep up with the Spanish of such U.S. politicians as Tim Kaine and Beto O’Rourke, have a quick conversation with a vendor at a farmers’ market, or get the gist of news reports in Spanish, but at least it’s progress I can measure.

(It helps that Spanish, unlike the French I reached fluency in during college, is easy to hear on the radio/TV/online as well as around the D.C. area, not to mention during Mobile World Congress trips to Spain.)

The other thing I’ve realized about making this app a daily habit–to use a Yahoo-ism that hit buzzword-bingo status during Marissa Mayer’s tenure as CEO–is that with my schedule as it often gets, I appreciate having this little constant each day. Yes, even with Duolingo’s passive-aggressive notifications, the upsells for Duolingo Plus, and the emotional button-pushing from this app’s judgmental green-owl mascot. Cómo se dice “I’ve internalized my own oppression”? 

My continued struggles with quarterly accounting

Four times a year, I partake in a ritual that reminds me of my limited cash-flow competence–and of how a certain large personal-finance firm just doesn’t care.

Adding up my income and expenses after each quarter instead of at the end of the year is Accounting 101, but because I stumbled into a freelance existence it took a few years of struggling through tardy bookkeeping to get myself in the habit.

Several years of this practice have now streamlined this to a manageable level of drudgery, but the first step remains as irritating as ever: downloading records from Intuit’s Mint.com personal-finance app.

I know, I know; Intuit runs this free Web app so poorly that it still seems to require Adobe Flash to display investment charts. (I can’t confirm that at the moment because Mint’s investment page won’t load.) But for my limited expense-tracking needs, it functions well enough most of the time.

And then there’s the other four times a year, when I need to edit a Mint Web address to work around its bizarre inability to search transactions by date. Yes, to see only transactions for the second quarter of 2019, I need to edit this page URL:

https://mint.intuit.com/transaction.event

This address will cause Mint to show just Q2 transactions:

https://wwws.mint.com/transaction.event?startDate=04/01/2019&endDate=06/30/2019

Then I can search for those tagged as “Freelance journalism,” download the results as a .csv file, and import that into the Google spreadsheet I use to track my expenses.

There, I still need to piece apart payments, reimbursements and different categories of expenses. But in general I’m only looking at half an hour of copying and pasting to know how I made my money and where I spent it–assuming I didn’t forget to tag a transaction in Mint, which has happened more than once.

Whether the results make me happy is another thing entirely. In this case, my problem is a June that fell between too many clients’ payment timetables and also suffered from a snakebit May for story pitches… well, let’s just say the resulting paltry income might suggest that I got a lot more done around the house than I actually did.

Fortunately, I had two large checks arrive in the mail July 1, so Q3 is off to a fine start. At least, that’s what I’m telling myself now.

A small consumer victory: exercising a Chase credit card’s trip-delay coverage

I got a giant financial firm to treat me to a nice dinner and a reasonably comfortable hotel room, and I only had to ask once.

But that is what Chase promised with the trip-delay coverage on the credit card I use for business (and also offered on the Sapphire Reserve card carried by almost every avgeek I know). I’d just never cashed in this feature before, and I’d thought they’d make the process a little more difficult.

Should you find yourself in a similar situation, here’s how it worked.

Step one: Miss a flight. In my case, a line of afternoon thunderstorms shut down the airport in San Antonio as I was heading home from covering the Geoint Symposium conference there. That ensured I’d miss my evening flight from Houston back to National Airport and would instead have to fly home the next morning (my thanks to the helpful SAT United Club agents for getting me a spot on the first flight to DCA when only first-class seats were left).

Step two: Pay for what you need. First I got dinner–I treated myself a little at Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen in terminal E–and then I booked myself a hotel. Knowing I could get that covered, I didn’t stress over my choices and chose the closest decent option Marriott’s app listed, a SpringHill Suites just outside the airport with free shuttle service to and from IAH. Having all these on the same card as my flight simplified things, but that’s also basic business accounting.

Step three: Get documentation. Keeping receipts for dinner and lodging was obvious, but trip-delay coverage also demands verification that you got those bonus hours away from home. At United, this involved sending an e-mail to delayletter@united.com requesting confirmation of my missed connection; two days later, an airline rep e-mailed a PDF outlining what weather did to my itinerary.

Step four: File your claim. After I got home and read One Mile At A Time blogger Ben Schlappig’s recap of exercising his own trip-delay coverage, I opened a claim at the Eclaims site that Chase employs. There, I plugged in the basic details of my travel–original flights, replacement flight, total resulting expenses–and uploaded PDFs of my dinner receipts (I scanned in both the itemized check and signed total), original flight booking receipt, hotel bill and United delay letter.

Step five: Wait for compensation. Nine business days after I submitted the claim, I got an e-mail reporting approval of it. The money should be in my bank account in three to five business days, which means I’ll have it before I need to pay off the credit-card balance.

That made me a satisfied customer… and one wishing I could jump into a time machine to tell myself to exercise this protection right after 2015’s weather-induced IAH overnight instead of waiting until after Chase’s 60-day window to claim my coverage had closed.