How Prague has (and hasn't) changed in the last 12 years

I first visited the Czech Republic for a semester in the spring of 2006, and I've returned frequently ever since then, completing my English-language teaching certificate, enrolling in three summers of Czech language study, and vacationing there whenever possible. This does not, I think, give me any insight into the Czech soul, but it has given me a little perspective on how the country has changed in the last 12 years.

Now that I'm back from this summer's adventure, I thought I'd share a few reflections.

Central Prague is an amusement park

This has been true as long as I've been visiting, but the amusement park has been increasingly professionalized over the years. To give a very simple, very absurd example, there's a traditional Czech (or possibly Slovak) dish called a "trdelník," which is a grilled bread tube rolled in a crushed nut mix. When I first started visited Prague, trdelník was sold in the Christmas markets for a month or two every year. Today, trdelník is sold on every street corner, year-round, and is adapted in all sorts of ways for the tourist market, rolled in sugar, and stuffed with ice cream.

We had one very bad trdelník and one very good trdelník during the trip, so I'm not claiming the quality of trdelník has dramatically declined, only that the market for it has changed over the years as it has become more of an amusement park treat, so the mass-market trdelník today resembles a kind of Czech-inspired churro more than anything else.

The neighborhoods are still distinctive

The amusement park basically extends west from the main train station across Charles Bridge to Prague Castle, and I think the amusement park is well worth visiting. But stepping even a little bit outside of the amusement park gives you immediate access to a completely different vision of the city.

Minutes outside the city center we stumbled onto Štvanice island and walked around and relaxed by the river totally undisturbed by the city surrounding us on all sides, enjoying the 2018 Landscape Festival exhibits that had been installed there.

It's just a short hike up from the city to Letná, where you can sit all day at a sturdy beer garden overlooking the city.

Another hike up to the National Monument in Vitkov is a way to explore Czech history with barely another soul in sight.

Vyšehrad is the site of the Slavín, where prominent Czech artists and cultural figures are interred, and the cemetery surrounding it is well worth exploring, along with the grounds and statuary.

None of this is to disparage the amusement park at all, since I love it there, but rather to suggest that Prague is the kind of city where stepping just a few feet off the beaten track can be incredibly rewarding.

The National Museum is still closed

This is more of an inside joke for me, since as long as I have been visiting Prague the majestic main building of the National Museum has been closed for renovations. I take it they're finishing up soon.

However, the new building of the National Museum is open, and typically offers several exhibits, at least one of which draws on the collections of the National Museum. We enjoyed the current exhibit on the Celts, who apparently settled Bohemia long before they made their way to Britain.

Prague has always been hip, but it's getting hipper

Taking advantage of the fifth-night-free benefit of booking an award stay with Hilton, we stayed at the Hilton Prague Old Town for our last five nights in the Czech Republic. Out for a walk our first evening in town, we discovered just a few blocks away something called "Manifesto."

Literally a pop-up beer and food truck space built out of repurposed shipping containers, Manifesto wouldn't raise an eyebrow in Brooklyn, Austin, Seattle, or Portland. But here it was in the Czech Republic, constructed in the shadow of a freeway overpass.

Prague has featured hip institutions like Radost FX, the vegetarian restaurant and music club, almost since independence, and the city has attracted like-minded entrepreneurs and customers ever since. But it seems to me the pace has somewhat accelerated, with more farmers markets, local crafts, and microbreweries than existed even a few years ago.

Visit Prague, and give it some time

My main recommendation for any visit to the Czech Republic is to give yourself enough time to both enjoy the main tourist attractions and to explore further afield, either by foot, streetcar, or subway. You can pack a lot into a day or two, but I think Prague is a place that uniquely rewards stepping away from the tourist groups and letting yourself breathe in the myriad nooks and crannies of the city.

Reflections on Karlovy Vary and my first film festival

Having concluded the first part of this trip, and safely ensconced in the Executive Lounge at the Hilton Prague Old Town, I thought I'd share some reflections on the Karlovy Vary and the 53rd Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.

Getting to Karlovy Vary

This was the easy part. We booked bus tickets with Student Agency ahead of time, and they took us directly from the airport to the main Karlovy Vary train station in about 2 hours. If you are leaving from Prague, you can also take the train, which takes 3 hours 15 minutes, and according to wikitravel has excellent views.

The original plan was to take that train back from Karlovy Vary to Prague, but the Czech railway website was showing a strange error message about requiring a bus connection so out of an overabundance of caution we decided to take the bus back to Prague as well, which ends at the main bus station Florenc.

Staying in Karlovy Vary

An important thing to know about Karlovy Vary is that it is built into a fairly narrow valley or canyon, and the city climbs out of the valley up the adjacent hillsides. I bring this up because if you don't inspect a topographical map, you might find yourself staying at the very top of one of those hills, like we did.

This didn't matter once we had settled into our hotel (except that we got a lot of exercise walking up and down the hill multiple times every day), but if I had known in advance that we'd have to walk our suitcases up multiple flights of stairs and steeply inclined streets, I might have ordered a taxi or booked a hotel on the floor of the valley instead. If you have mobility issues, you'll want to stick to the area immediately surrounding the Teplá river, ideally between the Hotel Thermal and Grandhotel Pupp. Even a block away could represent several hundred feet in elevation change or dozens of stairs.

There are no chain hotels in Karlovy Vary, but there are a lot of hotels, lining virtually every street in the city, mostly stately 4-6 story buildings that appear (to my untrained eye) to date back to the height of the Austo-Hungarian empire. Virtually all of them are available through one or more online travel agencies, but be sure to shop around since availability and price can vary enormously from one site to another. I used Booking.com for our reservation instead of Hotels.com because the price difference was much greater than the better rewards the Hotels.com reservation would have offered.

Our hotel was called "Villa Charlotte," which does not even seem to have its own website. The price was right and the breakfast was pretty good, so I don't have any particular complaints, but if you've ever stayed at a boutique European hotel you've stayed there: thin, useless towels, confusing plumbing, two double beds shoved together to make a "queen" bed, etc.

Eating in Karlovy Vary

There are a ton of replacement-level Czech restaurants in town, but I'll point out a few places that stood out:

  • Yeleny Skok is about a third of the way up the Southwestern canyon wall, and has great views of the valley floor and a solid venison goulash. You can hike up there by foot (the trail conveniently started across the street from our hotel), or take a funicular from immediately behind the Grandhotel Pupp.
  • Ristorante Italiano da Franco is a tiny hole in the wall where we had our "nice" meal of the trip (i.e. $15 entrees instead of $4 entrees — the Czech Republic is very cheap). It's a little off the beaten path but had some of the best Italian food I've had in Eastern Europe. It's unclear to me if the owner, who along with his wife seemed to be the only person working, speaks any language other than Italian, but the menu was descriptive enough in several languages.
  • When you want to really get away from the crowds, Kebab House on náměstí Dr. M. Horákové seemed like a popular choice with locals and offered straightforward kebabs with lots of fresh veggies, which are not exactly a staple of Czech cuisine so made for a nice change of pace when you'd like something besides bread, meat, and cheese.

Karlovy Vary International Film Festival

KVIFF is a really big deal in Karlovy Vary, but it seems like it's a pretty big deal in the movie industry as well, serving to both exhibit the world premier of movies that (I assume) weren't accepted into the more famous festivals and as another stop on the festival circuit, with producers continuing to shop their films around for distribution.

The operation of the festival is a bit curious, at least to me (maybe all festivals work this way). Each morning at 8 am, the box offices (located at Hotel Thermal and Grandhotel Pupp) open and you can purchase tickets for showings taking place the next day. If you have a properly configured mobile phone, you can also text your ticket order for the next day's screenings starting at 7 am, which seems to give Czechs and other Europeans an hour's advantage in booking the most in-demand tickets since most (all?) American phones won't have this functionality.

The most popular option seemed to be festival passes, which is what we bought. Passes include 3 tickets per day, and also allow you to stand by for seats 5-10 minutes before screenings begin.

We arrived Monday, and by the time we worked our way to the Hotel Thermal in the evening to buy our passes, there was only a single screening with tickets still available for Tuesday, a French heist movie directed by Romain Gavras called "Le Monde est à toi." We tried to wait in line for another movie Tuesday morning ("Putin's Witnesses"), but they ran out of seats just as we got to the front of the line. Having wasted 90 minutes on that, we didn't try last-minute seating again.

We got a full set of screenings in Wednesday:

Thursday morning before leaving town we also saw the 1967 Russian film "235,000,000."

So, we paid 600 Czech crowns each, about $27, for 5 movie tickets, which seems like a pretty good deal even if we didn't get the maximal film festival experience.

There is one final wrinkle: between 10 am and midnight on June 25 (four days before the start of the festival), KVIFF also released 10% of the tickets to each screening for online reservation. So if you have particular screenings you're particularly interested in and don't want to take your chances competing against everyone else at the festival, you could log in at 10 am (4 am Eastern time?) and frantically book tickets until the extremely limited supply is exhausted. This also might be worth doing for screenings the day of your arrival, since most screenings will have already sold out the day before.

Conclusion

If you're interested in the film festival experience but can't afford to spend a week in Cannes or Venice, then KVIFF is a very affordable chance to see movies that haven't been released theatrically (and may never be released theatrically at all!). Karlovy Vary itself is tucked into a beautiful landscape and offers lots of options to hike and, of course, take the waters that are the original reason for the town's existence.

For fun, check out some of the gag reels that were shown before the screenings we attended, featuring Casey Affleck, Zdenek Sverak, Milos Forman, and John Malkovich.

What to expect when you're expecting your first music festival

There's a storied tradition of bloggers not doing any research ahead of time and then making a series of predictable unforced errors. Bengali Miles Guru filed a classic of the genre about a last-minute jaunt to Cuba (Cuba is not a place you want to go on a last-minute jaunt). My own humble entry about the rotting cruise port of Galveston, Texas, belongs in the same category, and received so much heat from the upright citizens of Galveston that I was finally compelled to close the comments (do go read them though, if you want a laugh).

Most years I try to make it back to my hometown for the Western Montana Fair, and this year due to a stroke of luck the indie rock band The Decemberists inaugurated an annual music festival in town, so we got some tickets to that as well. I'd never been to a music festival before, but with two of my favorite bands on the schedule I was optimistic that it would be a good time.

In true blogger fashion, I didn't do any research ahead of time. While we had a good time, I learned a few lessons that would have been helpful to know 24 hours ahead of time. Here are a few.

1. Read up on the rules

Americans love nothing if not rules, and this festival had a lot of them: no outside beverages (ok, makes sense), no outside food (makes less sense), no umbrellas, no drones, low-profile single chairs allowed, larger chairs forbidden, cell phone recording allowed, professional recording prohibited, and so on.

I met someone who had been to another event at the same venue the previous week, and for that event umbrellas were allowed. Basically, each festival has different rules, and your strategy should depend on the specific rules of the festival you're attending.

2. Bring water vessels

While outside beverages were prohibited, bringing in empty water containers was allowed. Seeing this, I packed my little 16 ounce water bottle, figuring a big outdoor venue would have water fountains sprinkled throughout.

Big mistake. While water was available, there were just two small drinking fountains (an additional filling station was added later), and thousands of people waiting to fill up their containers. Unless you want to spend the whole festival waiting in line, bring lots of big bottles and fill them all up at once.

3. Strategize meals

Festivals that prohibit outside food are trying to get you to buy from the food vendors on-site. If there are multiple good vendors, that's not necessarily a problem. But if you have any kind of allergies or food restrictions, you may be limited to just one or two vendors. If that's the case, you might be best off having a big meal before getting to the festival and planning a late supper after leaving, for instance.

You can also strategize the timing of your meals. If there's a big act everyone is waiting to see, lines at food vendors may be shorter. Likewise immediately after a big act, everyone who was waiting to eat might decide to rush the food vendors all at once.

4. Bring something else to do

If you're going to spend all day trapped in a park with strangers, you may start to feel overwhelmed. Bring a book, newspaper, or knitting for when you need to sneak away and reset.

5. Bring seating

This was probably the biggest bone-headed move I made this weekend. The festival explicitly allowed chairs to be brought into the venue, but I figured, "I'll just sit on the grass."

It turns out sitting on the grass for long periods of time is insanely uncomfortable. You can sit cross-legged and ruin your posture, or lean on one arm or the other and torture your wrists or elbows. A $10 folding chair is the best investment you can make in a 9 hour day of music.

6. Be open-minded, tough, and fair

This goes for everything in life, not just music festivals, but I was still surprised by how much I was surprised at the music and performers. I had seen The Decemberists live once before and knew more or less what to expect from them, but one of my favorite bands, Belle & Sebastian, were also playing at the festival and I was shocked that their live performance sounded nothing at all like their studio albums.

Now, that may have been unfamiliar equipment, or the absence of post-production techniques, or they might have just been having a bad day. But the lesson is: don't pin too much hope on a single performer fulfilling your every dream, and give unfamiliar performers the chance to impress you, too!

Conclusion

Those are a few of the things I wish I'd known before going to Travelers' Rest (and could have learned with 5 minutes of light googling before going). I'm sure my more experienced readers have pro tips of their own for surviving and thriving at music festivals.

My Jamaica all-inclusive wasn't annoying for any of the reasons I expected

I got back from Jamaica on Monday night, and had an absolutely marvelous time. On Friday I wrote about some questions I had about the experience, since I've never visited an all-inclusive resort (or Jamaica) before.

Now I have the answers to those questions and more! This is a pretty detailed [i.e. boring — ed.] post so go ahead and skip it unless you're curious.

Getting to the resort is totally seamless

All the Zilara website says is "After passing through customs, simply visit the Hyatt Lounge, where airport agents will arrange travel to our hotel."

I had no idea what this meant, but it turns out be to uncannily accurate. Immediately after customs in Montego Bay, you enter a large arrival hall with "lounges" for most or all of the resorts on the island. There, I confirmed the credit card I had on file, filled out some paperwork, and after 5 or 10 minutes a driver arrived to take us to the resort.

I'm not entirely clear on the economics of these airport vans, since none of the vans I saw had any kind of resort branding, so I assume they're private contractors who take turns driving guests to and from all the resorts as they arrive and leave.

Everything about the physical property is terrific

Reader Ben commented on Friday's post that the Hyatt all-inclusive properties are relatively new, and as far as I can tell the Hyatt Zilara Rose Hall opened in late 2014. If anything, I'd say the property felt even newer than that. The little things that are usually the first to go worked flawlessly: the sinks, showers, light switches, air conditioning, phones, etc. never gave us any trouble at all, which is something at a property where people are constantly tracking around sand and seawater!

My Diamond status maybe got me an upgrade or two

When we checked in at the airport I saw that our room type was "Jr. Suite King," which is at least an upgrade from the room I'd reserved, and which I assume was based on my Diamond status (it certainly wasn't based on the rate I paid). We arrived at the property around noon, and were told that we wouldn't be able to check in until 3 pm, the guaranteed check-in time.

When 3 pm came and went, our room still wasn't available, so we parked in the lobby to wait. After half an hour more, the front desk clerk came over, apologized even more, and upgraded us again to an "Ocean View Jr. Suite King."

It was great! Here's the view from our balcony, in case you missed it on Twitter:

We ate several meals out on the balcony, as well as resting and reading out there.

The employees are incredibly friendly

I always have a lot of followup questions when I'm in a new and unfamiliar environment, and all the employees were friendly and accommodating.

One interesting thing I observed and finally asked someone about is that the hierarchy of employees felt very "flat." There were always a lot of staff around but I never observed anyone "managing" anyone else, giving instructions or criticism. It turns out the only way to identify the supervisors is that their shirts, which are otherwise identical, have a slight slit at the bottom that I never would have noticed if I hadn't asked. After that it was funny to keep an eye out for who was in charge at each restaurant, bar, and activity.

I discovered two and a half rules governing guests

As the curious sort, one of my biggest questions was just how many rules we'd accidentally bump against. I figured as a bumbling American people would always be telling me to do this and not do that.

But over the course of our 3-night stay I only ever observed 2 (and a half) rules being enforced.

First, children are absolutely forbidden on the adults-only Zilara side of the resort. This was somewhat funny because the Zilara side, especially at the beach, literally runs into the family-friendly Ziva side; it has to since the two properties share the same water sports booth. But if any kids stepped over onto the Zilara side security suddenly materialized and ushered them quickly away. The parents did not, usually, find this as funny as I did.

Second, you had to wear a shirt in the food service areas, which is not an unreasonable rule and one I only discovered because I tried to grab a sandwich from one of the to-go areas on my way back to my room.

The half-rule I also discovered is that the bars don't serve beer before 10 am. I don't have a good sense of why this rule exists, since the minibars in each room are restocked with beer every day.

You may ask, what rules did I expect to encounter? Lots! For example, the swimming pool is right next to the beach, and there's a long list of rules, including the obvious "guests must shower before using the pool." I am the only person I observed, in 3 days, showering before using the pool. So, the pool had some sand in it, but no one seemed to mind, including the employees.

I didn't observe anyone trying to sunbathe in the nude so I don't know whether they'd allow that or not. It seems like an obvious benefit of an adults-only resort, but perhaps they get too many American tourists for anyone to be interested. I didn't see any rules posted against it, though.

Order room service all the time

If I go back to this property I'll order room service for breakfast every day (I recommend the Yardie omelette, side of toast, side of bacon), and then just grab a sandwich, burger, or pizza for lunch. I tried a couple of the restaurants that open for breakfast and lunch every day and they made no impression whatsoever. One served a "barbecue chicken" that didn't taste like anything even after I doused it in hot sauce, and I got some eggs and toast at the other which tasted about the same. Just a waste of time waiting to be seated, waiting for a waiter, and waiting for your food.

Plan around dinner

I knew this going in, but didn't put enough emphasis on it while actually planning our days. The dinner restaurants open at 6 pm each day, and if you don't get there at 6 pm, you're going to have trouble eating there. Our first night we managed to be seated immediately at the French restaurant, our second night we gave up and ate at the buffet (big mistake), and our third night we couldn't get seated at the Italian restaurant but ended up having an amazing meal at the Caribbean restaurant.

It seemed like the consensus was that the Italian restaurant was the best on the property, so it's a bit disappointing we didn't get to eat there, although we could have done a lot worse. I'd recommend picking a restaurant in advance every day and simply planning to be there at 5:55 pm, since I don't know of another way to be sure you get your first choice.

People were tipping a lot

I don't know what the point of going to an all-inclusive is if you're going to walk around with a wallet, but people were tipping everywhere. People sitting, in swim trunks, at the swim-up bar would pull soggy dollar bills out of their underwater pockets to hand to the bartenders! I'm glad the US dollar is so durable, and I'm sure the staff were appreciative, but it seemed like overkill to me.

The entertainment surprised and delighted

In the evenings there were a lot of very strange events going on. One night on our way back to the room we accidentally stumbled upon a fashion show, firebreathing performance, and synchronized swimming show (in that order, not all at once). There was nothing about any of them in the daily program so it felt oddly serendipitous, although I'm sure I could have asked someone what the evening entertainment was in advance, if I'd known there would be evening entertainment.

Likewise someone told me Saturday morning that they'd just been going for a walk on the beach the night before and discovered the resort had set up a rum bar and dance party.

Basically, save some energy for the evening and walk around after dinner and you'll likely run into something totally unexpected.

Conclusion

Overall, I'd say my expectations were exceeded in almost every way: the resort was great, the beach was great, the pool was great, and the staff were terrific.

The only area where I'd say my expectations were met, but not exceeded, was at the themed restaurants, which it turned out work just like the cruise ship dining experience I feared: either plan ahead or plan to wait if you want to eat at the in-demand restaurants.

I'm going to Jamaica and I couldn't be more excited

This weekend I'm heading to the Hyatt Zilara Rose Hall for my first international trip of 2017 (and first since being approved for Global Entry). I'm not bringing my computer so there shouldn't be any activity here on the blog until next week, although if you find yourself in FQF-withdrawal you can check out my new personal finance blog on the Saverocity network. I hope you like it.

This is my first time visiting Jamaica and my first stay at an all-inclusive resort (although a couple Spanish girls did let me use their wristband at an all-inclusive in Cuba once), and I am both excited and extremely curious.

What will the facilities be like?

This is obviously an issue visiting any hotel for the first time, but it seems like a slightly bigger deal this time, since I don't plan on going anywhere else all weekend. If the swimming pools are cold, the rooms are dated, and the showers don't work it's not like I can go walk around Paris to distract myself.

What will the beach/ocean be like?

The quality of the sand and water, and the temperature of the ocean, can vary incredibly from beach to beach and from season to season. I've dived in crystal clear warm water off the coast of Cuba and trudged around in murky silt in Atlantic City. If the beaches are great and the ocean's clean, even if not warm, then I don't expect I'll have much to complain about.

What will the food be like?

I tried to reach out to the Hyatt but never got a response, so my current expectation is that none of the restaurants on the Zilara and connected Ziva properties require reservations, and I plan to try as many of them as possible (we'll only be there 3 nights). I'm not a food blogger or a very good photographer but I'll try to get some pictures to share when I get back.

Will my status get me anything?

As a newly-requalified Hyatt Diamond and soon-to-be Globalist I'm curious whether I'll get any kind of special treatment, like an upgraded room or slippers or something. I don't think of Hyatt Gold Passport as offering "soft" benefits, versus concrete benefits like confirmed suite upgrades and breakfast, but maybe they'll surprise me.

How annoyed will I be?

I like to say that the worst possible price for anything is "free," the proof of which is the line around the block every time Ben & Jerry's offers a free small ice cream cone. People waiting for hours to save $1.09 is both a moral and economic catastrophe.

Price is the greatest rationing mechanism mankind has devised so far, which means an all-inclusive resort is guaranteed to use some other mechanism. Will the restaurants have inconvenient hours? Limited capacity? How much time will I spend waiting in line versus drinking rum out of a coconut on the beach?

Conclusion

I don't want to come across as pessimistic; like I say, I'm absolutely thrilled about the trip and can't wait to get there. But I truly have no idea what to expect, which means the trip has the potential to give me a huge pleasant surprise or end in, well, disappointment.

I expect I'll have internet access at least some of the time I'm there so be sure to follow me on Twitter if you want to find out all the details in more-or-less real time, although God willing I won't be spending much time on my phone while I'm there!

Quick hits: Turkish Airlines, IST, Budapest

Hello from the Radisson Blu Carlton Hotel in Bratislava!

It's been a hectic few days, so I'm taking it slow today and thought I'd check in with some thoughts on the first leg of our trip.

Turkish Airlines is very nice

Thursday night, I flew from Chicago to Istanbul on TK6 in the economy cabin. The seats were pretty comfortable but there was not quite enough legroom for me to ever get comfortable enough to sleep for more than a few minutes. Next time: business class (famous last words).

Fortunately, there was a wide selection of movies available on the large seat-back screens, so I got caught up on some movies I'd missed this year. I particularly enjoyed this bizarre Indian television show "Great World Hotels," which follows sultry hostess Elisha Kriis as she coos over fresh fruit and in-room swimming pools at Amansara.

I also enjoyed watching our tiny Turkish flight attendants free-pour cocktails from novelty over-sized bottles of liquor.

Istanbul is a pretty easy place to connect internationally

It's become fashionable in certain circles to lament that US airports are collapsing into rubble around us while international airports are sleek hyper-modern affairs. Not Istanbul!

Istanbul Ataturk Airport still features the teeming mass of humanity and rundown facilities that makes you proud to be an American. I don't think I've ever seen an airport with more toilet facilities, or an airport where such a high percentage of the facilities were closed for "cleaning." It's also been a long time since I've seen someone casually smoking a cigarette in a public restroom!

Travel is fatal to prejudice, as people are fond of remarking in their social media profiles.

Anyway, connecting in Istanbul to our Budapest flight was a cinch, although a mobility-impaired person might struggle with the long walk between gates, and our bags were checked all the way through to Budapest without issue.

Budapest is lovely, and cheap

I had a three-night reservation at the Radisson Blu Hotel Beke, which is a fairly basic business hotel, and like all Club Carlson properties featured a range of confusing amenities:

  • Treadmills and other workout equipment were placed poolside in the basement athletic center;
  • The health center prominently advertised massages, but when I inquired about a massage with the attendant, he explained that his colleague used to provide the massages, but he doesn't work there anymore;
  • Our room featured a real king-size bed, but with two twin comforters;
  • When our room was made up, the housekeeper didn't replace the coffee — but did artfully rearrange the empty plastic packets we'd already used.

We spent a few days exploring Budapest, and visited the Széchenyi bathing complex, which was a very interesting experience. I've never seen so many pools with such slight differences in temperature before. Pro tip: either bring your own towel, or bring cash to rent one. You'll pay 3,000 Hungarian forints and receive a towel, then get 2,000 forints back once you return it.

Speaking of forints, Hungary still hasn't adopted the Euro, and at this rate it seems unlikely to ever do so, making visiting Budapest ludicrously cheap. Over 3 days in the city, I spent $308 total, including our pre-arranged (i.e., overpriced) cab to the hotel, train tickets to Bratislava, and some pretty thorough minibar-raiding at the hotel, and I don't think I could have spent any more money if I were trying to.

That's it for now; I'm off to see what I can see in Bratislava!

The Grand Hyatt New York is a weird hotel

Last weekend my partner and I went to New York City to see Hamilton, the hit new Broadway musical. As a newly minted Diamond member of Hyatt Gold Passport, I decided to book us at the Grand Hyatt New York and see what all the Hyatt fuss is about.

Before arrival

Since my Diamond tier match was only confirmed in mid-December, I wasn't surprised that no suites were available for a confirmed Diamond suite upgrade (there was also a conference taking place in the hotel during our stay).

On December 24, 2015, the Grand Hyatt sent me the following e-mail:

"Dear Valued Grand Club Guest,
 
Thank you for choosing Grand Hyatt New York! It is a pleasure to have you as our guest and we hope to make your stay a memorable one!
Please note that due to seasonal maintenance, the Grand Club Lounge on the 16th floor will be closed from January 4th until January 10th  2016. During this period, we will be offering the following:

  1. 500 Gold Passport Bonus points for your stay per room.

  2. Complimentary breakfast in New York Central from 630AM – 1030AM.

  3. Half off appetizers, cocktails and house wines in New York Central from 5PM-8PM.

  4. “Plymouth” Business Room located on the conference level of our Hotel for your tranquility and business needs. “Plymouth” will be open from 6AM – 10PM daily. 

We sincerely apologize for this inconvenience and thank you for your patience during this necessary maintenance."

I though this was a pretty good deal. In addition to 500 bonus Gold Passport points, I'd also get a full breakfast in the hotel restaurant, rather than whatever the Grand Club decided to put out.

On arrival

Since our flight was arriving at 9:30 am, I proactively reached out to the Hyatt and told them we'd be arriving early. They responded that they'd try to have a room ready for us, but if it wasn't, they'd store our bags for us.

When we arrived, they were able to check us in immediately, and gave me an updated version of the Grand Club closure letter:

The letter's identical to the e-mail I received with the exception of the first point: instead of 500 Gold Passport points, now they were offering 2,500 bonus points!

Except the clerk who handed me the letter had obviously not looked at it, so she initially said she was giving me 500 bonus points. When I pointed out the discrepancy, she said she was adding another 1,500 bonus Gold Passport points to my account.

Well, I'm sure you can see where this is going. When the stay posted to my account, not only did I not get 2,500 points, I didn't even get 500 bonus points:

I'll get the points sorted out eventually, but I hate having to do multiple laps with a property to get what they've promised.

The room

We were given a standard King Grand Club room, which I think was "large for a New York hotel room." The room featured some odd design choices. The shower had this curious ledge sticking out at shin-height:

At first I assumed it was a seat that slid out, as some kind of gesture at ADA compliance. But it doesn't actually move, which makes me think either they cut the tile to the wrong length or it's a "shaving ledge" to rest your foot on while you shave your legs. Not a bad idea.

The bathroom also featured this bizarre motion-activated nightlight:

Maintenance issues

After our early morning flight, we decided to take a nap before exploring the city (yeah yeah, I'm old and boring).

My partner immediately noticed that one of the lamps in the room was rapidly flashing, even though it was turned off.

After napping, we went downstairs and told the front desk about the malfunctioning lamp, then went out to explore. A few minutes after we got back in the evening, we heard a knock at the door, and this small man came into the room with a stepladder and proceeded to install lightbulbs in the overhead fixtures (we hadn't noticed the missing bulbs):

When he was done he said, "Alright, you should be all set now." In other words, the actual problem we had complained about to the front desk had not made it to the handyman. All he knew was "there's something wrong with the lights." Once we explained the situation to him — again — he finally replaced the bulb in the lamp and left us alone.

Besides the problem with the lamp, one of the room's power outlets was coming out of the wall. I'm not sure if it's technically a safety hazard, but it's certainly not ideal:

Restaurant breakfast

Saturday and Sunday morning we had breakfast in New York Central, the restaurant in the lobby of the Grand Hyatt. Since we hadn't been given any cap on our complimentary breakfast, we did our best to get our money's worth. This is what $106 in hotel breakfast looks like:

Joe Cheung tweeted me that around the corner at the Andaz 5th Avenue he was given a cap of $75 on his restaurant breakfast, so I was pleased to see that they took the entire charge off our bill at checkout.

Conclusion

Since I'm new to Hyatt's variety of brands, I didn't know what to expect from a Grand Hyatt. If the Grand Hyatt New York is typical, then it's a no-frills, full-service brand with spotty customer service training.

If that sounds harsh, keep in mind that the Grand Hyatt New York is typically one of the cheapest Hyatt properties in Manhattan, which is why we stayed there in the first place. I'm sure the room and the service would have been better at the Andaz 5th Avenue, but I would have paid over twice as much for the pleasure.

Galveston, TX, is a weird place to take a vacation

Last weekend my partner and I took a 3-night vacation to Galveston, Texas, to visit some friends of hers who decided, for reasons I cannot begin to fathom, to spend a week in Galveston.

We had fun, but I'll readily confess it was in spite of Galveston, rather than because of it. Here are some of the highlights.

Transportation to and from Galveston is an expensive disaster

Let me start by saying that if the Galveston Express shuttle has service that's convenient for you, it's an absolute no-brainer to take it in either or both directions. It costs $20 per person for transportation to or from Galveston and Houston's Hobby airport ($35 roundtrip) and $25 per person to or from George Bush Intercontinental ($45 roundtrip).

Unfortunately, the Galveston Express is designed to serve the cruise industry which operates a massive port in Galveston, so it only runs on days the ships are loading and unloading passengers. If you're not, in fact, arriving or departing Galveston on a cruise ship, it's just luck of the draw whether the shuttle will be operating. Check in advance using their straightforward online booking engine.

With that said, if you're traveling with several people, Uber is a fantastic choice for getting to Galveston. We paid $36.48 to get from George Bush Intercontinental to downtown Houston to meet up with my partner's friends, then $66.05 to get all the way to Galveston, with a stop for gas along the way. In other words, if we'd all arrived in Houston at the same time we could have ridden all the way to Galveston for well under $25 per person (and you can buy Uber credit in redeemable chunks).

Getting back from Galveston isn't so simple. Uber isn't allowed to depart from Galveston, and taxi rides to the Houston airports will cost multiple hundreds of dollars. If you can't take the Galveston Express shuttle, the next best option is Amtrak thruway bus cabotage, using Henry's trick in the comments to pay as little as $25 per person. But that only works if you're departing on a day the Amtrak thruway bus operates.

Finally, all the Galveston beach hotels offer airport shuttle services, at a range of prices. The Country Inn & Suites shuttle was the cheapest we found, at $135 for two people. Since we were staying there anyway, that's the route we ultimately took.

An honorary mention goes to simply renting a car. The only "sights" worth seeing in Galveston are quite far from the beach hotels, so if you're not a big walker you may find it convenient to have a vehicle, plus you can stash gear there while you're on the beach, an extremely popular choice among locals and visitors alike.

Drinking in Galveston is fun and legal

Since we were hanging out with Russians, it was imperative to find out when and where they could drink as quickly as possible. Turns out, the answer is Galveston is "virtually everywhere."

The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission hosts a delightful webpage regarding the public consumption of alcohol. I'm not a lawyer (and I'm definitely not your lawyer), but as far as I can tell it's legal to drink everywhere in Galveston, including on the public beaches, with the exception of Galveston Island State Park.

The Galveston boardwalk is a commercial dead zone

Between the Country Inn & Suites where we stayed and the Red Roof Inn where our friends stayed are 2.3 miles of beach, and virtually nothing else.

The one exception is a Kroger store across the street from the Red Roof Inn; we did a lot of shopping there over the course of our trip.

At the Country Inn & Suites front desk there's an adorable cartoon map showing all the businesses along the beachfront. But as I joked, and the front desk employee agreed, in between all the adorable, oversized cartoon bubbles is, in reality, miles of empty, sun-baked sidewalk.

"Downtown Galveston" shows some promise

On our second day, we decided to strike out towards "downtown Galveston." This is an area that's difficult to describe because it's identical in every way to every other part of Galveston we explored. But it showed some signs of life.

Geographically, it's something like the area North of Avenue J and East of 25th Street. We ended up having lunch at a cafe called Board Game Island, which was absolutely delightful. The new owner explained that their pizza was so good Trip Advisor sent them a sticker to put in the window. It was certainly the best meal we had in Galveston.

But downtown Galveston is a long way from the beach.

What Galveston needs is a lot of ambitious Yankees

I don't believe I've ever visited a place with so many obvious commercial opportunities that are, by law or custom, not being taken advantage of. And the reason for that, I presume, is that I haven't spent much time in the South.

There's nothing to eat in Galveston. There's nothing to do in Galveston. The people of Galveston are clearly desperate for opportunities. This is a situation that in a multiplicity of northern cities has resulted in food trucks, bowling alleys, farmer's markets, yoga studios, bike taxis, etc.

But in Galveston, there's nothing. Nothing but poverty and beaches. This is a solvable problem. But it's not being solved by the current residents of Galveston. So if you're an ambitious Yankee with a love of the ocean and a high tolerance for Southern bureaucracy, Galveston is as good a place as any to make your first fortune.

Quick thoughts on 5 American Airlines flights

For my first trip since my Italian caper in January, earlier this week I flew to Reno for a fencing tournament and, per my plan for paid flights in 2015, booked flights on American Airlines, which I could credit to Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan.

I've only very rarely flown on American, not because I actively avoid them (as I do United), but because until this year I was deliberately renewing my Delta Platinum Medallion status and American seldom served my needs for award tickets.

This isn't a sweeping judgment of American Airlines, just my thoughts after spending perhaps 20 hours in their clutches in the last 3 days.

Chicago is a terrible choice for a hub

This criticism isn't unique to American Airlines, but Chicago in general and O'Hare in particular is a bad place to route huge numbers of flights through.

On my outbound leg Sunday evening, my American Eagle flight to Chicago was delayed 90 minutes, which was only mitigated by the fact that my flight from Chicago to Reno was delayed 2 hours.

Detroit, Minneapolis, and Salt Lake City, all northern cities with significant winter weather conditions, don't seem to have the continual problems I experience traveling through Chicago.

On my original return flight from Reno to Chicago, the flight was both delayed because of weather in Chicago and put under "weight restriction."

My gate agent was good at rerouting volunteers

Due to our weight restriction, my original return flight required a huge number of volunteers to take other flights. I think they ended up needing about 12 volunteers. They were offering $500 in voluntary denied boarding compensation, so I decided to see what options were available.

A simple Kayak search on my phone (the ITA app stopped working on my iPhone a while ago) didn't show any flights with space available that would get me home that night on any carrier, but the gate agent was able to force space open for me on a route through Los Angeles and Dallas that got me home 4 or 5 hours later than my original routing.

Alaska Airlines doesn't give bonus mileage for full-fare economy on American Airlines

I was rebooked into the full-fare "Y" fare class for my flights to Los Angeles and from Dallas, and booked into American's "F" fare class for the longer flight between Los Angeles and Dallas. I excitedly checked what kind of class-of-service bonus this would earn me in Alaska's Mileage Plan and was disappointed to discover Alaska doesn't offer any bonus for full-fare economy tickets.

However, neither of the other programs I might consider crediting miles to, American or their oneworld partner British Airways, awards bonus miles for "Y"-class tickets either, so I stuck with my original plan and credited the flights to Alaska (American gives 50% more Elite Qualifying Points, if you're planning to qualify that way)

The American Airlines cookie is fine

Since until this year I only occasionally flew American Airlines, I have only noticed with bemusement the literally thousands of times bloggers have written about the cookie served in American Airlines' first class cabin.

I was served lunch in first class between Los Angeles and Dallas, a distance of 1,235 miles, qualifying me for the second-most-elaborate food service:

"Warmed mixed nuts, followed by a three-course meal including a warm cookie for dessert."

The cookie? It's fine.

ERJ-145 planes are terrible

Both my regional American Eagle flights were on Embraer ERJ-145 airplanes, and those things seem to be just terrible.

The lefthand exit row seat has an odd metal protuberance which, on my first American Eagle flight a few months ago, I assumed was because the seat had been vandalized in some way.

Now that I've flown on a second ERJ-145 with an identical jutting metal bar, I realize that the armrest must have been deliberately sawed off in order to make the emergency exit accessible. Seems to me a slightly crazy way to run an airline, but I'm not an airline mechanic.

American flight attendants are a mixed bag

One of the great things about Delta is their flight attendants who, at least on mainline jets, are relentlessly terrific.

On my mainline American Airlines flight between Los Angeles and Dallas, the flight attendants were bumbling but well-meaning. I had to place orders so many times I started to thing I was having déjà vu. Twenty minutes after placing my lunch order, the same flight attendant walked by and asked, "Will you be joining us for lunch?"

The American Eagle flights that bookended my trip were opposite experiences:

  • The first flight, already running 90 minutes late, was delayed another 20 minutes by the flight attendant repeatedly asking the gentleman behind me, "Are you going to treat me with respect?" I didn't hear what initiated the exchange, but come on: it's a 20 minute flight, and we all just want to get to Chicago.
  • On the last American Eagle flight I took on my way home, the flight attendant exercised my very favorite dereliction of duty: she didn't charge me for booze.

Conclusion

This year I plan on directing my paid travel to Delta first class flights when possible, and American economy flights otherwise, in order to maximize my chances of renewing medium- or high-level Alaska Airlines status. I feel like this trip taught me a lot about what to watch out for when booking American flights, and hopefully my future flights will have more cookies and fewer sawed-off armrests!

I fly Delta because flying United is very stressful

Let me start off by apologizing to any readers who have contacted me in the last few days that I haven’t managed to respond to yet. I will get to everyone eventually, but I have had even less time than usual as my life has been consumed by wrapping up my responsibilities at work and planning my move.

Now that I’m safely ensconced in first on my last leg of the night, I have time to share today’s mini-travel-hacking saga.

My apartment is totally empty

If you’ve been following my adventures on Twitter, you know I had a lot of problems unloading my (very nice!) furniture at laughably low prices. Finally I broke down and sent out a blast e-mail to my company listserv offering it for free, and instantly had a dozen or so people willing to take it off my hands. The couple that ended up emptying my apartment even gave me some cash for the furniture, which I thought was nice of them since I’d offered it for free.

Ground stop in Chicago

On my way out the door to head to TF Green International Airport, I checked the status of my flight to Chicago and saw that it was both delayed 2 hours and cancelled. Quite an achievement, as I’m sure you’ll agree.

Crisis mode

United had already rebooked me on a two-stop itinerary arriving late tomorrow night, which didn’t work for two reasons: I’m going to a concert tomorrow night in my destination, and my apartment is totally empty, so I had nowhere to sleep (see above).

There were no more Delta flights out of Providence tonight, but I checked Boston and there was a 6:47 flight to Detroit which would allow me to connect on to my final destination.

I called United and was told there was a 45-minute wait to speak to an agent. While on hold, I quickly signed into my Alaska Airlines account and – incredibly – found there was low-level award space on the entire ex-Boston itinerary. Unfortunately, Delta still only allows round-trip award reservations – and that applies to reservations made through Alaska – so I booked a return flight in September at the low-level as well.

While still on hold with United, I packed up the last of my suitcases and headed out the door to the train station. When I finally reached an agent, I quickly explained the situation and asked him to book me on the same Delta flight I’d already made my award reservation on. He was happy to do it, but had to call in to Delta's reservations line, which meant another 10-minute hold.

Finally, he came back on and said he’d made my reservation on Delta and gave me a new Delta confirmation number.

On the train

Alaska allows free cancellations within 24 hours of booking on award bookings, so I refunded that ticket immediately just in case Delta cancelled one or both reservations as a double booking. Then I added my Delta Skymiles number to the new, paid reservation and selected my economy comfort seats.

One benefit of being rebooked onto a different carrier on the day of travel is that you’re typically booked into an expensive, last-minute fare bucket, in this case a full-fare economy “Y” fare. That meant that if there were any first class seats available on my Delta flights today, I’d be virtually guaranteed an upgrade as a Platinum Medallion, and also pick up a rack of bonus Skymiles and Medallion Qualifying Miles.

And indeed, my upgrades cleared first at the gate for both my flights today.

Things to follow up on

For reasons I can’t begin to understand, I decided to pay for my checked bag on United online at check-in, instead of at the airport. I never do this, so cannot begin to imagine why I thought it would be a good idea — it never is.

That means United now has $25 of my money that I’m going to have to request refunded, call, e-mail, and tweet about until they give it back, because they are just terrible about refunds.

Additionally, I’ll request original routing credit for my United itinerary, which they’ll hopefully credit to my Aegean Airlines account. While I’m fairly sure they’ll go along with that, this is one I’m not willing to go to the mat over, since while Star Alliance Gold is a fun travel hacking goal, to get the most benefit from it I would then subsequently have to fly United, and ensuring the original routing credit would require more interaction with United than I’m willing to commit to.

Conclusion

Since we're about to take off, here are my take-aways from today's little adventure:

  • Never pay for your checked bags online. Why would you?
  • Keep your eye on developing situations, like the today's radar-tower fire in Chicago.
  • Be proactive: know your options and book refundable backups, if necessary.
  • Ask the ticketing carrier to book you on other airlines, if they can get you where you're going.
  • Don't forget to add your frequent flyer number to the new reservations.
  • And ask for original routing credit from the ticketing carrier.