Paying For Points

I belong to many different airline and hotel rewards programs (which I am sure the rewards program pros would say is not a good approach, by the way). Lately, it seems like I am increasingly being offered a chance to buy points or miles in those programs. That happens whenever I check in for a flight on one of my rewards program carriers. Similarly, one of the hotel programs recently sent an email announcing that I can get “free” miles by buying points and then having the hotel chain match the points I’ve purchased.

The notion of buying points or miles seems incredibly weird to me–like using real money to buy Monopoly money. Sure, points can be used to buy certain things, but there always are conditions, limitations, and strings attached. Why would you want to take money that can be used unconditionally, to purchase whatever you want, and convert it into something that can be used only to buy one thing, with restrictions? My inherent cheapskate tendencies rebel against that notion. At least some people who profess to be proficient in rewards programs agree that, except in very limited circumstances, paying for points or miles doesn’t make sense. And the exceptions kind of prove my point. You need to spend a lot of time with rewards program provisions to figure out whether your circumstances justifying buying the points or miles–and who has the time to study rewards program fine print?

There’s one other thing about the buying points or miles that bugs me: the program sponsors are being paid for doing nothing. It’s no wonder that prospect of purchasing points or miles is raised so frequently. And it also seems to distract from the businesses’ attention to their core activities, too. Rather than figuring out whether they can entice me to spend money on points or miles, I’d rather that the hotel chains focus exclusively on providing clean, decent rooms in good locations, and the airlines focus on offering safe, on-time, uncancelled flights.

The Pilot Shortage

America is facing a lot of shortages right now. One of them is a shortage of airline pilots, which is helping to make air travel a bit of a crap shoot.

This past weekend was a challenging one for the air travel industry, with many flights being delayed or cancelled. One of our flights was abruptly cancelled for no stated reason, requiring us to do some on-the-fly rebooking. According to the linked article, 370 flights were cancelled over the weekend. Some of the flight cancellations, and other flight delays, were attributed to severe weather in different parts of the country, but “staff shortages” also played a role.

The pilot unions at the major airlines say that the airlines haven’t been quick enough to replace pilots who have retired or left the job during the COVID pandemic, when the demand for air travel plummeted and some pilots objected to vaccination requirements. Now the demand for air travel has increased substantially, and there just aren’t enough pilots to meet the demand for flights.

The pilot shortage is affecting airline decisions in other ways, too. American Airlines has decided to stop flying to three airports–in Toledo, Ohio and Ithaca and Islip, New York–due to the pilot shortage. The pilot shortage has hit the small regional carriers, like the American Eagle brand, the hardest, as experienced pilots are lured from those brands to work at the mainline carriers, which can offer better pay, benefits, and work schedules. That’s tough news for cities like Toledo, where American’s departure means the airport will not be serviced by any major airline.

The other thing about a pilot shortage is that it won’t be solved overnight. It takes time and lots of training to become an airline pilot, and we passengers wouldn’t want the airlines to cut corners in finding pilots. That suggests that travelers should brace themselves for more staffing-related cancellations in the months ahead.

My First Visit To Buc-ee’s

Buc-ee’s is a kind of legendary business in these parts. I had my first experience with the legend during our brief visit to Austin, when we stopped at a Buc-ee’s off I-35 between Austin and New Braunfels. It is a gas station, to be sure, but calling Buc-ee’s a gas station would be like calling the Taj Mahal a building. You first get a sense of that reality when you pull in and see two seemingly endless rows of gas pumps. There is no waiting at Buc-ee’s!

It’s not just the dozens of gas pumps, either —everything at Buc-ee’s is outsized. The soft drink station offered pretty much every kind of soda you could imagine, and there was an entire wall of jerky that included seemingly exotic flavors like “Bohemian Garlic.” And even though the place was jammed, everything was spotlessly clean.

Speaking of spotlessly clean, Buc-ee’s also is famous for its sparkling and enormous restrooms. Strict adherence to the rigid standards of propriety that are a hallmark of this blog prevents the publication of any pictures, but I did confirm that the bathroom facilities were both immaculate and immense, with urinals on every wall. As I mentioned, there is no waiting at Buc-ee’s.

It’s pretty clear that the Texas natives love Buc-ees. They take selfies with the bronze Buc-ee’s ballcap-wearing beaver mascot at the entrance to the store and buy Buc-ee’s branded merchandise, like the cooler bags shown above. It’s not hard to see why they love the place. It’s huge, well-maintained, slightly overwhelming, and offers everything a traveler could possibly want. The whole Buc-ee’s experience screams “Texas.”

Which reminds me: did I mention that Buc-ee’s also has its own in-store barbecue station, which serves up a very credible version of the dish the Lone Star State loves?

The New Airline Announcement

In my recent travels, I’ve noticed that pilots and flight attendants have modified their pre-flight announcements. We no longer hear about how it is mandatory to wear a face mask that covers your nose and chin and how “neck gaiters” don’t cut it. Instead, the new announcement goes something like this:

“Due to a recent FAA announcement, face coverings are no longer mandatory on domestic flights. Whether passengers decide to wear a mask is a matter of personal choice. We ask that you respect the choices made by other passengers.”

In short, it’s pretty clear that the airlines think the skies aren’t that friendly anymore, and that they need to lecture us on how to behave lest arguments and fisticuffs break out between masked and non-masked passengers.

The fact that the airlines see a need to make that kind of personal behavior statement is weird and sad, but you can’t blame them: there have been multiple incidents of violent behavior by airline passengers in recent months. For what it’s worth, though, I’m not seeing any inclination by fellow passengers to mix it up over masks. Instead, there seems to be a kind of COVID exhaustion at work. Everyone on both sides seems to want to move on, rather than engaging on mask issues.

Let’s hope that this traditional American “live and let live” ‘tude continues to prevail and even spreads to encompass non-COVID issues, too. That would be a refreshing change.

Bier At New Braunfels

We’re in Austin for a quick weekend visit. Yesterday we drove to New Braunfels, Texas, a town located off I-35 between Austin and San Antonio. New Braunfels was settled by German immigrants and remains loud and proud about its German heritage. And when you think German, you think . . . beer. So it made sense that we stopped at Krause’s, a legendary Biergarten and restaurant just off the main drag.

Krause’s was, in a word, fantastic. If you’ve ever been to the original Hofbrau Haus in Munich, Krause’s will look very familiar to you. You can sit inside or outside, at long picnic tables, as shown in the photos above and below. Live zydeco music was playing from a stage at one end of the outdoor seating area, and the place was hopping. Because it was about 100 degrees outside (no exaggeration!) we sat inside, but right next to the door so we could enjoy the great music. It was a festive, colorful atmosphere that made for a fun lunch setting.

The Krause’s menu features a lot of German fare, which is right up my alley. I ordered chicken schnitzel, which came with a helping of beer cheese and fries. (It also came with colossal pieces of broccoli that were promptly deposited on Kish’s plate so as not to ruin the photo below.) The schnitzel was lightly breaded and fried just right, so that the chicken was juicy and quite tasty. The beer cheese was also good, and I did the scarpetta routine with my fries to enjoy every bite.

Oh, and I should mention the beer, shouldn’t I? Krauses’s offers an overwhelming beer menu, as reflected in the photo of the taps at the top of this post. I opted for a weissbier and was glad to see that it was served in a large, cool stein that wouldn’t have been out of place at the Hofbrau Haus. It had lots of flavor and went down easy in the scorching heat. so I decided to have another. As I lingered over a second cold beer, enjoying the company and the bouncy live music, and scarpettaing up the remnants of the bier cheese, I decided I liked New Braunfels just fine.

Outdoor Laps

I’ve been at meetings at the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, Colorado over the past few days. It’s a very fine facility, with great amenities and beautiful grounds. It has one particular feature that I’ve enjoyed during my brief visit: an outdoor walkway that runs in a continuous loop around the pond and the swimming pool on the grounds. In short, you can do laps if you want. Every day I’ve joined other guests in doing laps around the grounds.

On the Broadmoor walking loop, you can easily distinguish the casual strollers from the ardent exercisers. The strollers are taking their time, smiling, and enjoying the scenery; the exercisers–some of whom wear headbands, by the way–have a much more serious expression on their faces and are moving at a faster clip, often weaving around other walkers and checking their watches with a dissatisfied huffiness, as if the mere fact that they have to take slight detours around other pedestrians could ruin their workouts. I’d like to think I fall somewhere in between those groups on the lap-walking spectrum.

I’ve become a dedicated treadmiller when I’m at home, but I’ve enjoyed doing some outdoor walking during my visit here. Treadmills offer certain advantages, like keeping you at a steady pace and allowing you to keep track of calories burned and miles covered, but walking outside, taking deep gulps of fresh air and enjoying beautiful scenery, obviously offers its own special advantages.

The Garden Of The Gods

Yesterday we took a break from meetings in Colorado Springs to hike around the Garden of the Gods, an amazing array of rock formations. You drive through suburban neighborhoods, basketball courts, and soccer fields, then suddenly you notice jagged and colorful rock formations off in the distance, with Pike’s Peak and the Rockies in the background, One of the formations is bleached white, as shown in the photo above, but most of them are a vibrant and deep red. That’s when you know you’ve reached the Garden of the Gods.

The colossal rock formations in the Garden are sandstone, and they trace their history back hundreds of millions of years, to the period after the “ancestral Rockies”–the mountain range that existed here before the current Rockies were formed–had been eroded down to low hills and sediment. The climate then dried out and the landscape was covered with huge sand dunes, which eventually were covered by new layers of sediment that caused the sand to become compacted, forming horizontal sheets of sandstone. When tectonic plate shifts created the Rockies millions of years later, the sandstone formations were tilted and thrust upward, creating the Garden. In short, the story of the Garden is the story of geology and the inexorable forces of planetary change and pressure that have changed the landscape. When you think about it, the story of the Garden is also a humbling reminder that the human lifetime is a drop in the bucket compared to the millennia that shaped the formations that we mortals now enjoy.

The Garden is an easy hike, with most of the walking on paved paths. It’s also a relatively short hike, because the formations are confined to a limited area. We walked from the overflow lot to the site, spent about an hour and a half walking around and seeing the different formations from different vantage points, and enjoying the red crags against the blue skies, the little windows between the rocks in some of the formations, and the rocky balancing acts like the one seen in the photo below.

It was a brilliantly sunny day, with only a few clouds drifting across a bright blue sky, making for perfect conditions for taking photos of the formations. One thing to keep in mind if you visit the Garden of the Gods is that it is a dry climate and you will be changing elevation as you walk up and down–which means you’re going to want to bring a water bottle. We remembered to bring ours and were glad we did, because by the time our visit was ended we had drained our water supply.

One of the trails leads upward, via a series of steps, to a point where there is very little vegetation and visitors can scramble out onto the rock. Taking that trail allows you a close-up view of the sandstone and see some of the sedimentary layering, and allows you to get a better sense of how the area was formed. Except for a lone bush, you might as well be on the surface of Mars.

Some of the sheer rock faces are available for experienced and well-equipped rock climbers. During our visit we saw some hardy climbers on the top of one of the tallest formations. You can see the climbers below, as a tiny dot just to the left of the pinnacle of the formation on the right side of the photo. They must have had an amazing view of the Garden and the Rockies beyond.

From the upper trail you also get an interesting view of some of the formations, jutting dramatically above the surrounding trees, giving the observer a breathtaking vista that is a study in reds, blue, and greens. Whether you are an amateur geologist, or just interested in taking a walk through some beautiful scenery, the Garden of the Gods is worth a visit.

From Rugged To Flat To Rugged

I’ve been exposed to the full spectrum of topography over the past few weeks. After two weeks of enjoying the rugged terrain of Sicily, I was briefly in Columbus, which is about as flat as you can get. Now I’m at meetings in Colorado, where the Rocky Mountains define ruggedness.

Interestingly, Sicily reminded me quite a bit of the American West, and this trip to Colorado just confirms that view. Sicily is mountainous, like the west, has buttes and lots of rocky outcroppings, like the west, and is arid and dusty, like much of the west. The mountains in Colorado are higher than the tallest peaks in Sicily, but the look is very similar. You could film a western in Sicily, and no one would know the difference as long as you kept the ocean out of the frame.

In Praise Of Curated Travel

If you’ve been reading this blog over the past few weeks, you know that our trip to Italy and Sicily was a wonderful experience. It introduced me not only to Sicily, which I had never visited before, but also to the concept of “curated travel”–a phrase used by Life Beyond The Room, a business that offers the chance to experience “sensorial travel.”

Life Beyond The Room planned our trip from beginning to end, selected where to stay in Rome and Sicily and the outings we had the opportunity to experience, and made all of the hotel, travel, and outing arrangements. Everything went off without a hitch, which allowed our little band of travelers to focus on enjoying ourselves, without worrying about details. What really distinguishes LBR, however, is the hands-on, personal element that it offers. Karen Hattaway, one of the founders of LBR, had been to every place we stayed, and she applies exacting standards. In addition, Karen, who is a native Italian speaker, and her husband Jett accompanied us on the trip, and for part of the journey we also were joined by the gregarious Jonathan Urbani, a photographer who also speaks Italian as his native language. They handled all of the on-the-ground details as we moved around the island, fit in seamlessly with our group of seven travelers, and added enormously to the general atmosphere of fun, laughs, and relaxation that prevailed during the entire trip. If not for them, I would have missed learning about briscola (which I never quite got the hang of, but enjoyed anyway) and would never have seen some hilarious, ad hoc karaoke.

The concept of curated travel also came through in how LBR responded to various issues that cropped up before and during our trip. As we approached the departure date, the COVID-related requirements seemed to change on a daily basis, but Karen doggedly followed every development and explained all of them and what it meant for us; she also registered all of us for the COVID test that was required to return to the U.S.

And having a native Italian speaker on the trip proved to be invaluable in dealing with the issues that can crop up during travel. For example, one member of our group was stung by a bee and had an allergic reaction that made his index finger swell up like a discolored sausage; Karen personally drove him to the pharmacist and then a local doctor and secured the medication that allowed his finger to be back to normal by the time of our departure. Even though many Sicilians speak some English, and three people in our group are studying Italian, could we have described what happened and obtained the same happy result without Karen along to interpret and provide guidance on how things worked? Similarly, when another member of the group needed eye drops, Karen accompanied her to the pharmacy to assist in reading the labels and finding the right product. And I doubt that we would have successfully located the grave of a grandfather if Karen had not been there to explain what we were looking for to the cemetery attendant in Mazara del Vallo, who spoke no English at all.

These are the kind of personal touches that can tip the balance and move a trip into the “exceptional” category. And I should add that LBR provided some great swag, some of which is shown in the photo above, including passport holders, a fine map of Sicily, an excellent (and frequently used) water bottle, beach towels, and a nifty straw purse with a bell on it that allowed me to keep track of Kish as she shopped.

Thank you, Karen, Jett, Jonathan, and LBR, for a great vacation!

Nine Hours In An Airplane Seat

Yesterday, we flew from the Rome International Airport to Boston Logan on our return from our Italian and Sicilian trip. The flight itself took just under nine hours. When you factor in the time spent as other passengers boarded, we spent at least nine consecutive hours sitting in an airplane seat. That’s more than an average workday.

For me, at least, nine hours is an airplane seat is a physical and a mental challenge. Physically, it is difficult to get and stay comfortable, even for an average-sized guy like yours truly. The coach seats on the big international flight jets have more seat and leg room than the coach seats in standard domestic jets, but you are still confined to a limited cube of space with boundaries rigidly defined by the seat in front, the seat you are sitting in, the overhead compartment, the aisle, and the seat next door. There simply are not the stretching and position-changing options that you have if you are, say, sitting at your office desk. Even if you find a comfortable position, it is only so long before your legs and keister start to complain about the need for positional variety.

Experienced travelers recommend that you get up, stretch your legs, and go to the bathroom regularly, just to keep the blood flowing and the leg cramps at bay. Of course, a short jaunt to the bathroom only provides so much exercise, and you can’t really do laps around the aisles, like you can on cruise ships. One woman near me on yesterday’s flight tried to deal with the issue by performing somewhat theatrical yoga-like stretching in the aisle. Her efforts were arguably commendable but annoying, because her stretches caused her to briefly invade my cube of allocated airspace, and I was acutely aware of the integrity of my designated space. So, for me, the physical exertion was limited to a few bathroom visits, whether necessary or not, thereby running the risk that the passengers around me might think I was an old guy with bladder-control issues. Fortunately, one woman in our section set the international flight bathroom-visit record, so my three trips probably weren’t that noticeable.

The mental element of the trip all relates to the passage of time. Nine hours is a long time to spend in a confined space, and the time seems to pass with glacial speed. You take a refreshing nap, do some reading, eat your airplane meal, watch one of the in-flight movies or a few episodes of a TV show, then hopefully check the monitor–only to learn that the flight is still five hours from departure. Five hours? Seriously? International airline flights are a tangible demonstration that the passage of time is all relative, and hours four, five, and six are the draggiest. By then, you’re desperate for something new to watch or read, and you hope that one of the flight attendants stops by just to break the monotony.

I recognize that regular international travelers will scoff at the notion that a nine-hour flight is a challenge. After all, it is less than half the duration of the longest current non-stop flight, from New York City to Singapore, which clocks in at a mind-numbing 18 hours and 50 minutes. I can’t imagine being on that flight. I enjoy travel and hope to do more of it, but getting to the places on the other side of the world are going to require some careful planning that allows for a few shorter hops with breaks in between and sets about a 10-hour limit on non-stop flights.

The Piano Baseline

Many of the Italian airports we traveled through, including Rome and Palermo, had pianos in the gate areas. it’s a nice feature, I guess, but pianos can be intrusive, too. Some of the people who sat down to play weren’t exactly proficient, and listening to bad piano playing is much worse than silence. In fact, a crappy rendition of a favorite song is more annoying than the whine of a dentist’s drill. And some of the people who played also sang, which has its own issues.

Here’s a takeaway—don’t sit down to play the piano in a public area unless you’re really good at it, and don’t sing unless you’re in a bar.

Scopello

The last week of our Sicilian Sojourn was spent in a villa a mile or so from Scopello, a small town built into the mountains rising from the sea on the northwest corner of the beautiful island we have been exploring. In Scopello, around every corner you will find pretty views of the ocean, the mountains, and towers (and tower ruins) improbably built on rocky peaks, like the lookout towers situated below the town, as shown in the photo above, and the structure far above the sunny town square, seen in the photo below.

We visited Scopello several times during our stay. We engaged in general exploration and shopping, had lunch in one of the restaurants that are found when you pass through the arch shown in the photo below, had before dinner drinks at a table in the town square, and enjoyed an excellent meal in a restaurant was a magnificent view of the mountains and ocean beyond. In every setting, Scopello was a charming place.

It’s also a colorful place, with lots of brilliant flowers climbing up the white-washed walls of buildings and growing along the stone walkways. You’ll see unattended cats and dogs roaming free on the town square and the narrow streets, or dozing in a shaded doorway. The locals and shopkeepers don’t mind, and we didn’t, either, as one feline-loving member of our party seized the opportunity to feed a local cat the remains of her lunch..

Scopello also is very much a walking town. You’ll see an occasional car or scooter on the streets, as shown in the photo below, but the vast majority of cars park outside the city limits, making the entire town a kind of pedestrian-only zone. The car-free reality gives Scopello a significantly different vibe than towns like Catania or Palermo, where careful awareness of cars and scooters is a must.

My favorite moment in Scopello came when we ate an excellent meal at one of the restaurants, polished off some fine (and very reasonably priced) Sicilian wine, and then sat chatting as the sun dropped below the horizon to the west. It was a beautiful sunset and an appropriate end to a wonderful night.

Three Pizzas

I’d been eager to try some Sicilian pizza, and when we took a break from our fruitless search for the Mazara del Vallo city hall it presented the perfect opportunity to scratch that itch. We stopped at the La Vela restaurant on the road running along the harbor and ordered three pizzas—the frutti di mare pizza, the porcini mushroom pizza, and the mortadella pizza. We didn’t have a clear sense of how big they were, and when they came to the table they were much larger than we expected. Still, we dug in to the challenge, and ate everything but one piece.

When you order pizza in a new place, you always wonder about the crust, the sauce, and the toppings. Our pizza had a nice, crunchy crust that was on the thinner side of the crust spectrum, a light layer of sauce, and more than ample and absolutely fresh toppings. These were definitely knife and fork pizzas. I also liked that each pizza was served with a fresh ball of mozzarella cheese. All of the pizzas were great, but the mortadella pie, shown below, was my favorite.

Scarpetta

I’ve learned a wonderful word in Italian during our trip. The word is scarpetta, which is literally translated as “little shoe,” but the common usage of the word has nothing to do with footwear. Instead, it refers to the act of breaking bread into small pieces, like a little shoe, and using them to mop up the sumptuous leftover sauce from a dish of pasta.

We’ve eaten a lot of excellent pasta on this trip, and I’m a strong believer in getting every last morsel of flavor from a fine dish—so I’ve heard scarpetta used a lot over the past few days. It’s sounds much more elegant than “mopping up,”don’t you think?

I’ve tried without much success to remember the Italian I’ve heard. Scarpetta is one word I’m pretty sure I’ll remember.

On A Walk To Scopello

As any regular reader of this blog knows, I am a confirmed walker. I enjoy walking not only because I need and like the exercise, but also because walking allows you to notice and appreciate things you might not see if you are driving past in a car traveling at 30 mph.

Our villa is about a mile from Scopello. I hadn’t taken the walk to town before today because it had previously been hot and cloudless, and it didn’t seem smart to trudge a mile uphill on a blazing, hot day. Today was cooler, however, with a nice breeze—ideal conditions for my walk. It began with a stroll up the tree-lined driveway, shown the photo above. At the top of the driveway you turn left and follow a level roadway for several hundred yards.

Almost immediately after turning onto the road I saw something I really hadn’t noticed before, even though I had driven past the area multiple times already. To the left of the road, past some flowers and a fence, there was a Sicilian farm field on the hillside tumbling down to the sea. The crop had been planted in tidy rows, and a charming stone building—a barn, perhaps?—stood framed against the blue waters behind and lit by a stray ray of sunshine. It was a beautiful scene.

At the first intersection you turn right and begin the uphill climb to Scopello, which rests on a mountainside far above the sea. The road winds steadily upward, and there are many pretty flowers along the way. As you near Scopello, your eye is drawn to an old structure that sits on a rocky crag above the town, as shown at the top of the photo above.

By the time you reach the outskirts of Scopello, you have a panoramic view of the coastline and can distinctly see the different colors caused by shallower coastal waters versus the deep sea. Today the ocean waters were a magnificent royal blue, while the shore waters were a bright, almost luminescent green, and white clouds sailed by in the blue skies above it all. The surrounding mountains rise abruptly from the sea, and the whole area was alive with color and wind blown movement. Much of the land near the coast is cultivated and beautifully maintained. Sicilians obviously care about their farms as much as they they care about their food—which means they care a lot.

I really liked this walk to Scopello.