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: net neutrality, Web browsers compared, Last Gadget Standing, China’s autonomous-vehicle ambitions, Sprint and Verizon “unlimited” data

My most-distant business trip of the year is in the books, and I don’t even feel that tired after getting home Friday evening. Falling asleep in my own bed remains the single best cure for jet lag that I know. I’m traveling again this year coming week, but I’m only going about 3 percent as far–I’m in New York from Tuesday night through Friday afternoon for the CE Week show.

6/11/2018: Why the death of net-neutrality rules will be a big campaign issue, Yahoo Finance

I started writing this from Newark International Airport, then finished it and filed it from the plane–worrying I’d lose the satellite link as the plane got farther and farther north. My thanks to United for not leaving me in the lurch… and for opening some upgrade space just in time for my longest flight this year.

6/12/2018: Stuck on Chrome? Always use Safari? It may be time to break up with your default web browser, USA Today

Apple’s WWDC news about online privacy got my editor interested in a post comparing the virtues of the Apple’s Safari, Google’s Chrome, Microsoft’s Edge, and Mozilla Firefox. If you still run Microsoft Internet Explorer, my advice in this column remains unchanged from prior years: stop.

6/13/2018: Last Gadget Standing, CES Asia

I helped emcee this competition along with my former Yahoo colleague Dan Tynan and Last Gadget’s impresario-in-chief Robin Raskin. I introduced and briefly quizzed the people behind three finalists: iGlass ARAction One, and the Wahe nuclear living room machine V. Alas, my joke about the name of that last device–a streaming-media player with gaming aspirations–becoming “nucular living room machine” in the American South was never going to make it through translation.

6/16/2018: How self-driving cars will take to China’s roads, Yahoo Finance

I wrote most of this from my hotel, then filed it from my flight home–except that when edits came back, we were still too far north to have a reliable signal. And since I had stupidly neglected to e-mail photos before taking off, I also had to deal with the horribly slow uploads of satellite Internet.

For more from CES Asia, have a look at my Flickr album from the trip.

6/17/2018: Sprint and Verizon’s latest deals offer still more definitions of “Unlimited“, USA Today

Verizon decided that having two different flavors of unlimited wasn’t enough, so it added three–while Sprint elected to mix up its own offerings with a quickly-expiring offer that amounted to a Basic Economy level of unlimited data.

Bandwidth battles in China

SHANGHAI–Crowded gadget trade shows like CES and Mobile World Congress usually entail connectivity complaints. But when you put the gadget show in China, you level up the complexity, thanks to the need to run a Virtual Private Network app to preserve access to U.S. sites blocked by China’s Internet filters.

In theory–and in every PR pitch from a VPN service advertising itself as the surefire way to stop your ISP from tracking your online activity–that should add no difficulty to getting online. You connect, the VPN app automatically sets up an encrypted link to the VPN firm’s servers, and then you browse as usual.

PIA VPN exit-server menu

The reality that I’ve seen at CES Asia this week while using the Private Internet Access Windows and Android apps has been a good deal less elegant.

  • Often, the PIA app will connect automatically to the best available server (don’t be like me by wasting selecting a particular U.S. server when the app usually gets this right) to provide a usable link to the outside world. But it’s never clear how long that link will stay up; you don’t want to start a long VoIP call or Skype conference in this situation.
  • On other occasions, the app has gotten stuck negotiating the VPN connection–and occasionally then falls into a loop in which it waits increasingly longer to retry the setup. Telling it to restart that process works sometimes; in others, I’ve had to quit the app. For whatever reason, this has been more of a problem on my laptop than on my phone.
  • The WiFi itself has been exceedingly spotty whether I’ve used my hotel WiFi, the Skyroam Solis international-roaming hotspot I took (a review loaner that I really, really need to send back), the press-room WiFi or, worst of all, the show-floor WiFi. Each time one of those connections drop, the VPN app has to negotiate a new connection.

If you were going to say “you’re using the wrong VPN app”: Maybe I am! I signed up for PIA last year when the excellent digital-policy-news site Techdirt offered a discounted two-year subscription; since then, my client Wirecutter has endorsed a competing service, IVPN (although I can’t reach that site at the moment). Since I don’t have any other trips to China coming up, I will wait to reassess things when my current subscription runs out next April.

Also, it’s not just me; my friend and former Yahoo Tech colleague Dan Tynan has been running into the same wonkiness.

To compound the weirdness, I’ve also found that some connectivity here seems to route around the Great Firewall without VPN help. That was true of the press-room WiFi Thursday, for instance, and I’ve also had other journalists attending CES Asia report that having a U.S. phone roam here–free on Sprint and T-Mobile, a surcharge on AT&T or Verizon–yielded an unfettered connection.

At the same time, using a VPN connection occasionally left the CES Asia site unreachable. I have no idea why that is so.

What I do know is that I’ll very much appreciate being able to break out my laptop somewhere over the Pacific in a few hours and pay for an unblocked connection–then land in a country where that’s the default condition.

Weekly output: Last Gadget Standing, macOS High Sierra, pro tablets, LTE speeds worldwide, Trump-administration IT modernization, CES Asia

Each of the last few years has featured a month with an insane travel schedule. I’m in the middle of one right now: Last week saw me depart for Shanghai Monday morning and return home Friday night, and tomorrow evening I fly to Paris. I have my reasons–covering CES Asia (here’s my Flickr album) and helping emcee a gadget competition there last week, then moderating three panels at Viva Technology Paris this week–but I am feeling a little woozy already.

6/7/2017: Last Gadget Standing, Living in Digital Times

I helped judge and emcee this gadget competition, put on by the same people who did the Mobile Apps Showdown competition at CES. The winning entry was a compact, lightweight augmented-reality visor.

6/7/2017: The big issues we want Apple to address in macOS High Sierra, Yahoo Finance

I started writing this reaction to Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference on the long flight from San Francisco to Shanghai (you can imagine my delight at having my upgrade clear), then finished it in my hotel room.

6/7/2017: Can an iPad Pro or Surface Pro 4 Tablet Replace Your Laptop?, The Wirecutter

I updated this guide to pro tablets with a review of Samsung’s Android-based Galaxy Tab S3.

6/8/2017: America has slower LTE wireless than Canada or Mexico, Yahoo Finance

I should have also written this on the same schedule as the WWDC post, but I severely underestimated how the 12-hour time-zone gap would bog down the usual editorial back-and-forth.

6/8/2017: IT Modernization Under Trump: Clear Goals, but Funding Worries Linger, FedTech Magazine

I departed from my usual consumer focus to write this post about how federal IT managers are approaching the Trump administration’s ambitions to modernize government computing.

6/11/2017: CES Asia shows where consumer tech is heading in one of its dominant markets, Yahoo Finance

This post has some light moments, but the overall point is not: China’s customers won’t wait for foreign companies to show up to meet their needs. That’s already leading to some interesting dynamics in markets like smart homes in which the usual U.S. tech giants mostly stand offstage.

Updated 6/17 to remove a mention of a Washingtonian story that only featured a photo of me. Who was I kidding to link to something that doesn’t feature any actual input from me? Updated again 6/27 to add the Wirecutter update that I completely missed. I’m blaming all this catchup work on jet lag. 

Weekly output: selling online video, online privacy

I’m going to spend most of Monday on airplanes as I make my way from D.C. to Shanghai for CES Asia. I’m helping to emcee the Last Gadget Standing app competition, after which I hope to learn a thing or two about the state of consumer electronics on the other side of the Pacific.

5/30/2017: How To Sell OTT To Cable, Satellite And ‘Cord Never’ Subscribers, FierceCable

The highlight of reporting this feature about how online video services try to pitch themselves to potential viewers: having to lean into my laptop to hear an interview subject when I realized I didn’t have a hands-free kit with me. (I’d already answering the call on my laptop instead of my phone, for reasons lost in the mist now.)

6/1/2017: How Washington is throwing away its shot at protecting your privacy, Yahoo Finance

Sometimes, what people don’t say matters more than what they do say. This piece offers some recent evidence for that, in the form of a new bill from Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R.-Tex.) that’s surprisingly favorable towards consumers and has been ignored by some of her usual allies.