A Tale of Two Starbucks

A Tale of Two Starbucks

Starbucks is both part of peoples’ routines as well as peoples’ lifestyles.  From the welcoming couches, large tables, free WiFi, etc, Starbucks beckons customers to sit, relax, and enjoy their choice of caffeinated beverage.  Some Starbucks carry this relaxed approach to service to their lines however.  My time waiting in line is not meant to be something savored or enjoyed; it’s something that should be minimized and expedited in anyway possible.

There are some Starbucks in NYC that are so damn fast that their lines feel like a moving sidewalk.  From the moment you walk into the store, your order is taken, and by the time you get to the register, your drink is ready at the service bar.  You can experience this kind of speed at any Penn Station Starbucks, as well as my favorite Starbucks on 23rd St between 5th and 6th Ave.  Amazing…even with a 20 person line, you will be in and out of that store in under 5 minutes.  This is also the Starbucks where on Veterans’ Day 15 Marines were blocked from the register so that none could pay for his/her own drinks.  Good service attracts good customers who in turn do good deeds.

Then there are Starbucks in NYC, like the one at 4 W 5th Ave, that seems to employ self-important coffee dicks who would rather stand around and enjoy the ambiance than take your order or prepare your drink.  They couldn’t care less about speeding up the ordering process, and God forbid you don’t speak loudly enough to the Barista…just be prepared to get yelled at.  Even if there are 5 people in line, you may be in the store for 10 minutes because there is no urgency behind the coffee bar at all.  In fact, you will usually see a live display of texting and gossiping instead of working.  If Starbucks wants to compete with Dunkin Donuts in NYC long term, or even more so, compete with the 5000 delis and bodegas that serve coffee so fast that you don’t even have to stop walking to pick up your order, then they will need to address these differences among their stores.

Hey NYC Starbucks!  If I wanted to waste 10 minutes standing in line to order a chai latte, I’d go visit the stores in Doylestown, PA where time feels like it stands still.  For now, speed up the damn lines…

Electronics on Planes…it’s about damn time!

Portable Electronics to be Allowed Below 10,000 Feet

FINALLY! The FAA relents on electronic devises.  Delta and JetBlue are the first US airlines to allow this new access on their flights, and United, US Air, and American will follow as soon as their fleet is certified to be safe from electronic interference.

For years the FAA has contended that it is probably unsafe to use electronics below 10,000 feet because of possible interference with communications and navigation equipment.  I think most people believed this contention to be total bullshit, and given how many times I simply forgot to turn off my phone or iPad, I am sure the interference was negligible or non existent.

There are other possible theories for the rule’s having stuck around so long.  Some believe it was for safety reasons.  If you’re engrossed in a game of Candy Crush, or if you’re listening to loud music on your iPod or phone, then you may miss important safety instructions or even more important emergency procedures.  Given that most airline IFE’s are now usable while on the ground, I doubt this claim.

Another theory has been that modern electronics emit signals that may be doing irreparable damage to sensitive navigation equipment, damage that wouldn’t be detectable until it’s too late.  Given the shear number of passengers who simply forgot to turn their devices off, and the growing number of people who just chose to ignore the direction, probability would dictate that at this point we would have seen some sort of catastrophic navigation problem on an aircraft whose systems were disabled by those evil, powerful iPads.

Regardless, this is great news for passengers who are more frequently forced to endure long tarmac delays and arrival delays.  Now instead of reading the in-seat magazine for the 3rd time, you can comfortably finish your book, listen to another song, or play your 109th game of solitaire.

Article from CNN:  http://www.cnn.com/2013/10/31/travel/faa-portable-electronic-devices/index.html?hpt=hp_t1

Funny things along the way…

So apparently Google Translate is a very popular means by which to translate from English.  As you travel around the world, you encounter some funny (interesting?) translations into English.  Sometimes there are just crazy signs hanging around a town that make you question what is actually going on…

Here are a few:

Starting in Lucerne, Switzerland

lucerne, switzerland, shower, travel, europe

Hmm…I’ve never thought about this before. Ladies?

Another beauty in Lucerne

travel, europe, lucerne, luzern, switzerland, blueballs

Blue Balls Festival?? No thank you…

And in Copenhagen at the mall…

slut, slutsport, copenhagen, denmark, europe, travel

A spurt of sluts…now that sounds like a plan!

Onto China…

china, beijing, travel, asia, great wall

Good luck with this translation. Sign above the Great Wall of China before you ride the bobsled down.

great wall, beijing, china, asia, travel

I demand that all my flames have clothes!

What I’ve Learned

What I’ve learned from teaching people how to travel…

Well first off, most people are completely irrational and totally skeptical. The world is full of “hacks,” or tricks, that allow you to live a better life with little or no cost involved. Some of these hacks are extremely simple, and some require some planning and some creativity to make work.  The bottom line is that we can all live more enriched, fulfilled lives if we were more open minded to what is possible.  When I tell people that I traveled for 3 weeks across Asia and Europe for an out of pocket cost of $160+ (not including food), most people think I am lying.  When I tell people that I have 200,000+ Chase points (good enough for two round trips, first class, to anywhere in Europe), without ever spending any real money on a credit card, they tell me, “You better watch out that the IRS doesn’t hear that.”  I am amazed at how closed minded and linear people can be.

People tend to assume that first class travel is out of their reach and that they will never achieve such a lofty goal.  What a shame…people always assume there “has to be a catch.”  Why are people so caught up in positive outcomes needing to be brought back to reality with strings attached?

delta, travel, business class, 747, tokyo, narita, airplane, airline

Mini Business Class cabin on the upper deck of Delta’s 747-400. Yes, there are worse ways to fly…

I understand that most good things in life come at a cost, but when you find something that is awesome, and it comes at almost no cost, jump on it!  In the past two months I have taught 10+ people how to build massive mileage and hotel point balances under their name, and two have taken 2 week+ trips, first/business class all the way, using these strategies.

To quote Morpheus from The Matrix:  Free your mind!!  Stop being lame…

Helsingør, Hamlet

Introduction/Overview/Planning

Delta T4 NEW Sky Club Review

Delta JFK-CPH Flight Review

Copenhagen Review

Wakeup Copenhagen Hotel Review

Restaurant BROR Review

Helsingør, Hamlet

Summary

_________________________________________________________________________

As a day trip option, I decided to head north up the Zealand peninsula to visit Helsingør, the small waterfront city that was the fictitious home to Shakespeare’s Hamlet.  As one of my favorite plays, I figured I owed it to myself to check out the town and the famous castle, Kronborg.  My other day trip option was to take the train from Copenhagen to Malmö, Sweden.  Malmö is only about 30 minutes by train from the center of Copenhagen, and it would have given me an opportunity to cross the amazing Oresund Bridge.  Given the cloudy, rainy weather, I opted for Helsingør instead of Malmö because the majority of my time would be spent inside a castle as opposed to wandering around a town.

For about $14US each way, you can take the train from Copenhagen north to Helsingør, which only about a 40 minute ride.  The ride isn’t very scenic although at times there are some cool shots of the North Sea and some wealthy Copenhagen suburbs along the coast.

Kronborg, castle, helsingor, denmark, copenhagen, europe, travel

Kronborg Castle on the waterfront of Helsingor

Although Helsingør is smaller than Copenhagen, it’s a vibrant small city that has a great mix of old cafes, modern restaurants, and an energetic bar scene consistent with Denmark’s claim of having the highest per capita beer consumption in the world.  Although the weather had turned dramatically cooler and wetter compared to the previous amazing day, no one seemed to mind or even acknowledge that it was raining.  I presume that when you live on the North Sea coast, rain is as normal as breathing, so why bother to pull out an umbrella unless it’s torrential.

kronborg, castle, helsingor, copenhagen, denmark, europe, travel

Different view of the castle

The interior of the castle is a mix of medieval architecture and semi-modern necessity as the castle was an active military installation up until World War II.  The temperature inside was very cool, and I can only imagine how cold it gets when the cold, windy North Sea winter sets in.

kronborg, castle, helsingor, copenhagen, denmark, europe, travel

View of the cupola from inside the steeple courtyard.

royal dining room, kronborg, castle, helsingor, denmark, europe, travel

Royal dining room.

toilet, royal, king, throne, castle, kronborg, denmark, europe, travel

Royal toilet. Basically you sit, and your sh*t flows down a tunnel, and some servants are tasked with shoveling it out and burning it. New take of “sitting on the throne.”

ballroom, kenneth branagh, hamlet, castle, helsingor, denmark, europe, travel

Famous ballroom from the opening scene of Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet.

Denmark, and all Scandinavian countries, are not known for their affordable living, but thankfully prices in Helsingør were slightly cheaper than in Copenhagen, and I ate a delicious smørbrød meal at a cafe for about $10, including a 14oz beer and shot of something (I still don’t know what it was).

smorbrod, lunch, helsingor, cafe, food, europe, denmark, travel

Smorbrod lunch at a Helsingor cafe just off the waterfront:  roast beef, fresh caught shrimp, fried cod.

After eating lunch, I just walked around the tight knit city center and looked for anything cool to bring home.  I’m long past the novelty of collecting souvenirs when I visit new countries (although I broke that pattern in Iceland because some of the local goods were so damn cool), but I would have raided a cheese shop if I was going home and not leaving for Zurich the next day.  Along the streets I stumbled across another confounding sign advertising for the upcoming Bastard Festival.

Bastard Festival, Copenhagen, Denmark, Helsingor

Bastard Festival?  Signs like this seemed very common in Denmark.  I wonder if this is a popular event. (Apparently it’s some kind of music festival)

I’m glad I took the time to see a different part of Denmark, and I’m happy I visited Kronborg castle.  Visiting Sweden was definitely tempting, especially since it was so close, but I think I saw enough in my quick Helsingor day trip to have made it worth it.  When I get to Sweden, it will be a more thorough trip.

Global Entry, Customs, TSA PreCheck, and Other Ways to Avoid Airport Lines

Global Entry, Customs, TSA PreCheck — Worth It?

Global Entry

I’m not a fan of waiting in lines (or as my fellow Long Island natives would say, “on lines”).  I’ve never been known for my patience and my ability to sit still.  Airports test my limits on all of these levels and often for no logical reason.  Thankfully, there are now programs out there that help frequent travelers avoid the hassles and nuisances typical of US airports.  Enter Global Entry and TSA PreCheck.

Global Entry is a relatively new government program where, in short, fliers returning to the US can bypass the long passport control and customs lines.  By agreeing to a background check and by filling out a disclosure form, as well as sitting for a brief interview with a CBP agent, the passenger entitles himself to a fast access lane through customs when arriving into the US from a foreign airport.  If you have ever waited on a 1 hour-plus line after an 8 hour flight home from Europe, you understand the inconveniences and frustrations.  Being able to scan my fingerprints and not fill out that stupid blue form on the plane means I can be off the plane and through customs in less than 5 minutes.  This is all well and good when the airport has Global Entry because not every airport in the US has it although more are adding the GE kiosks.  Sometimes the kiosks don’t work properly, and you still will need to see an actual CBP agent to stamp your passport, but at that point you have bypassed all the lines anyway.  Once you’ve scanned your fingerprints and answered some simple questions on the kiosk, you get your picture taken and receive an exit receipt.  Take that receipt with your luggage to the customs line, and you also get to bypass the lines of people there waiting to leave the airport.  Sold yet?

Why wouldn’t everyone join Global Entry?  Well it costs $100.  When you account for the time wasted in US customs halls and waiting to have your passport stamped, I think this is $100 VERY well spent.  The other good aspect?  Your Global Entry membership lasts 5 years, so in essence you are paying $20/year.  Now if you never travel internationally, or if you value your time at <$0.01/hour, then this isn’t a smart expense for you.  Another reason that some people will avoid Global Entry is that they refuse to subject themselves to a background check, or they may even be rejected based on the background check.  In short, I think this is an amazing program, and it’s also a great way of saving taxpayer money by limiting staffing needs at airports.

Customs Preclearance

Some international airports, specifically those with high numbers of US travelers (Caribbean, Canada), offer the opportunity to clear customs in the foreign airport, thus allowing passengers to land at a domestic US terminal.  This means all you need to do is collect your bags and walk out of the airport, just as if you landed in Chicago from JFK.  This program sounds awesome.  It is awesome…unless you have Global Entry and have paid for the privilege of NOT having to go through customs.

An example of where preclearance is a waste of time…my recent trip home from Aruba.  After going through Aruban passport control (where they don’t even put an exit stamp on your passport), you get rewarded with pre-clearance into the US.  When I first experienced this in Ireland, I was very excited.  I wasn’t a Global Entry member at the time, and the prospect of waiting on a huge Customs line at JFK was not getting me fired up.  The Dublin facility was well-staffed and efficient, and the process seemed to be quicker than what I would expect at JFK.  Now with pre-clearance at many Caribbean airports, the US has essentially just moved the long lines from the US airports to their Caribbean counterparts.  There is no time savings, and in fact, the facilities are often hot, humid, and overcrowded.  What really annoyed me about this though was that these facilities don’t have Global Entry.  Not only was this customs line ridiculously long and arduously slow moving, but I had no way around it.  If the US is going to move more clearance facilities into international airports, then it should also move Global Entry there as well.  Spending over an hour waiting in a line that I spent $100 to avoid really pissed me off.  CBP claims that Global Entry is available at preclearance airports (http://cbp.gov/archived/xp/cgov/newsroom/news_releases/archives/2011_news_archive/07262011.xml.html), but there was no Global Entry available in Aruba.  I’ve also been told that there are no GE kiosks at the Vancouver airport in Canada either.  Homeland Security needs to figure this out because spending 1-2 hours waiting in line in a hot Caribbean airport isn’t my idea of convenience.

There is the mental aspect of being able to land at your home airport and actually just go home instead of waiting in a Customs facility, but it still has its quirks and needs to be modified to fit all airports.

TSA PreCheck

Again, I’ve made it clear that I believe most airport security to be bogus and solely there to provide the illusion of security to placate anxious passengers (and also to give politicians the chance to show they are doing something about national security).  JFK is my home airport, and it’s never been an airport famous for its aesthetics or luxuries.  The architecture is mostly awful (save for the new T4, T5, and parts of T8), and airport staff aren’t known for their customer service.  Security checkpoints tend to bottleneck, and TSA agents do their best impression of angry, rude, obnoxious teenagers while yelling at passengers to abide by their capricious regulations.  As mentioned in my previous post, TSA agents are inconsistent in their enforcement of the rules and overbearing in their treatment of clear non threat passengers.  Having a way of not dealing with these subhuman components of our Homeland Security department is music to a traveler’s ears.  This is why I LOVE TSA PreCheck.

What is PreCheck?  In short, it’s an expedited security line that allows passengers through security with minimal disruption and dehumanization:  no need to take laptops out of bags, no need to take off your belt/shoes, leave your watch on, etc.  Bags still go through the X-ray machine, and passengers still go through the magnetometers, but you can avoid the nude-o-scopes and the annoyance of getting dressed/undressed just to clear security.  The TSA agent scans your boarding pass, and as long as they hear 3 beeps, then you get access to the PreCheck line.  To maintain randomness and the integrity of security, PreCheck eligible passengers don’t always get the 3 beeps, and then you have to go through a standard security line albeit a quicker line because you’ve bypassed the masses.  Although random, my experience has been TSA PreCheck success about 90% of the time, and recently they enabled passengers traveling on international tickets to also use PreCheck.  Looking back at the security lines full of hundreds of annoyed, frustrated passengers really makes you appreciate this program.

How to gain access to PreCheck?  Membership in Global Entry, NEXUS, and SENTRI automatically gain you a Known Traveler # that you can input on your reservation.  Like these programs, TSA PreCheck eligibility is good for 5 years, and after that one needs to reapply.  If you are an elite member of an airline’s frequent flier program, you may also join TSA PreCheck ($85 fee), but keep in mind that some airlines do not yet participate (JetBlue, Southwest, AirTran, Spirit…yes, more reasons to avoid these airlines).  I’m not sure why someone would pay $85 to get PreCheck when you can pay $100 to get Global Entry AND PreCheck access, but then again half of the US doesn’t even have a passport, so some people may find Global Entry unnecessary.

More info on Global Entry can be found at www.GlobalEntry.gov (this link often crashes…what a surprise since it’s run by our federal government) or at https://goes-app.cbp.dhs.gov/main/goes

How to Apply for Global Entry:  http://globalentry.gov/howtoapply.html

For more info on TSA PreCheck, check out http://www.tsa.gov/tsa-precheck

Airport Security: I think we’ve had enough…

Airport Security:  I think we’ve had enough…

“I’m tired of this shit!  There’s too much security at the airports!” — George Carlin

Just returned from a great trip to Aruba, and after 4 days in the sun and fun of the Happy Island, it was time to return to reality.  Unfortunately leaving the island seems to be a lot harder than entering it.  Normally when an airport says to arrive 2+ hours in advance of an international flight, most seasoned travelers balk at the extreme caution and barely make the check in minimums.  Words of advice:  when leaving from Aruba, arrive MORE THAN 2 hours early!

Why would you need to spend so much time in the airport?  Understaffed check in lines, lack of check-in kiosks, enormous security lines, passport control, US customs pre-clearance, and yet another security screening.  I love Aruba, and I don’t think these are Aruban mandates.  Most of these unnecessary and time consuming security procedures are mandated by the US and by the FAA.  My flight time was posted at 4 hours, 9 minutes, and the prospect of spending 2-3 hours in an airport just doesn’t seem logical or efficient.  Proportionally, just imagine if you had to endure a 6 hour commute before an 8 hour work day, and then had to deal with 1+ hour after work.  People would never work…in parallel, at some point people will stop flying as much unless something is done to curtail these wastes of time. (Thank you TSA PreCheck! — more on this in a different post)

Because of Delta Sky Priority and because I was traveling in business class, I bypassed most of the check in lines, but I felt bad for the people who seemed to be waiting for a while.  Once through the check in line, you proceed to the security checkpoint.  Let me be clear:  I think most airport security is irrational and unnecessary.  I don’t think people should bring guns on board, and I don’t think large knives should be allowed, but the whole ban on liquids and gels is absurd.  As George Carlin said, “You can beat someone to death with a Sunday New York Times!”  Isn’t the restriction on liquids, gels, and 1″ pocket knives a little ridiculous?  No one is going to take down an aircraft, with an armor-plated cockpit door, with a 1″ pen knife used to open envelopes. I also don’t think my sunscreen and gel deodorant pose major threats to the integrity of the aircraft.

In many US airports, there are still the backscatter machines (the ones where you stand with your hands over your head) that slow down security lines and back up checkpoints like crazy.  These are also known as the so-called nude-o-scopes because of the detailed body image generated on a monitor somewhere off site.  Do we really need this level of security to fly on a plane?  Is it really necessary to make the old lady in a wheelchair stand up and struggle into the machine?  Do you really need to frisk the 4 year old child holding a stuffed animal?  Let’s not even talk about the primitive intellect of most TSA agents and the complete lack of respect they show for fliers (visit JFK if you want an experience of someone yelling at you “No watah, no sharp ojekts, take out yo laptop…”).

The reality:  It’s IMPOSSIBLE to make any form of transportation 100% safe, and the security regulations imposed on airline travelers have become onerous and illogical.  Just think about how many bottles of water, pocket knives, and who knows what else, train, subway, and bus travelers carry everyday.  When someone has to spend as much (or more) time in the airport than in the air, there will be an economic backlash.  In the Northeast, Amtrak has seen a steady increase in ridership because of the convenience involved with train travel versus airline travel, and this despite the steady increase in Amtrak Acela/Regional prices between Washington, DC, NYC, and Boston.  Granted, Amtrak’s on-time record is horrific (http://www.amtrak.com/ccurl/527/443/Amtrak%20Northeast%20Corridor%2010.pdf), and the disorganized boarding process reminds me of Southwest airlines, but it’s awesome being able to walk through a train station and hop on a train within 2 minutes.  Keep in mind that there is virtually no security boarding an Amtrak train.  I’m not sure I agree with that either, but at what point do people say enough is enough?  I’m OK with risk, and I’m OK with flying on a plane with a .00001% that some terrorist has a bomb concealed in his water bottle.

The result has been that people are forced to check additional baggage (and accept the airline baggage fees), and if you want a bottle of water, you have to buy it from the airport at some exorbitant price. After September 11th, people were willing to accept these sacrifices to make air travel safer.  I’m well aware that there has not been a terrorist incident against a US aircraft since 2001, and I’m aware that air travel in/out of the US is safer now than ever, but at what cost?

George Carlin on airport security — http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uQdC-e82gmk

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