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Monday, August 31, 2009

Presidential Properties: The Jefferson Opens in Washington

Well, by George, after a two-and-a-half-year overhaul, a classic hotel reopens in the nation’s capital today. The hotel has been redesigned to make guests feel like native Washingtonians, even though the property is actually named after Thomas Jefferson. The Jefferson Hotel, in honoring our third president (and our first secretary of state), sports Jeffersonian touches throughout. Suites are themed according to the wide-ranging interests of America‘s first Renaissance man (oenology, agronomy, cynology, lepidopterology); 18th century maps on the walls of the bar trace Jefferson’s wine travels through Europe; and original documents exhibiting Jefferson’s John Hancock dot the facade of the lobby.

But even non-historians will enjoy the Jefferson treatment. During my pre-opening stay, I experienced several unique features which, IMHO, are big selling points. To wit, there’s free Wi-Fi everywhere. That, my friends, is a rarity in the luxury hotel realm. There is no iron in the room. Why? Because the hotel will press a suit or a dress for free. Need a quiet place to catch up on reading or to host a clandestine meeting? The main floor is filled with charming nooks and crannies where guests can enjoy quiet privacy without being confined to their rooms. The hotel also has a spa which offers a number of specialized vinotherapy treatments reflecting Jefferson's passion for the grape.

Now, room rates are in the $500 neighborhood, so the property is not for the pecuniarily pinched. However, for the guest who might otherwise stay at The Mandarin Oriental or The Ritz-Carlton, The Jefferson offers a convenient and relaxed downtown option for visitors to Washington.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Maid Too Much Order

Today, I would like to discuss one of my pet peeves--that being the anal retentive housekeeper who takes it upon herself to rearrange a guest's goods for no apparent reason other than her own aesthetic pleasure. Said circumstance most recently occurred to me during a stay at the newly-renovated Jefferson Hotel in Washington, DC (highly recommended--see tomorrow's post). However, by no means is this lovely property the sole offender. Indeed, the practice seems to occur in many luxury hotels. This pattern leads me to believe one of two things--luxury hotels hire housekeepers with OCD, or the powers that be actually train the housekeepers to move every toiletry left on the bathroom counter onto a washcloth. Regardless, I, the guest, don’t want the housekeeper touching my personals, especially when you consider where her hands have previously been.

In the most recent circumstance, I had, on the bathroom counter, carefully placed my toothbrush and accompanying paste in a glass cup. My make-up, floss, lotions, and potions were either in or adjacent to an open cosmetics bag. There was also a pair of (clean) underwear taking part in the countertop action. Parenthetically, I will note that I do not usually leave clean underwear on the bathroom counter, but with limited items to unpack, I didn’t bother with drawers.

At any rate, none of said items were in the middle of the counter, nor in the way of a proper cleaning of the area. Yet, when I returned from dinner, there were my toiletries and my underwear (the latter neatly folded), sitting like a sanitary little family lounging on a pristine white washcloth.

Lest you say, come on, Laura, give the maid a break…she was just trying to keep everything clean, I will ask you, why did the fastidious factotum (look it up) also choose to move some loose change, a bottle of vitamins, and my cell phone from the coffee table in the living room to the valet stand in the bedroom? Such a move could easily have resulted in leaving said property behind.

In fact, I have had friends report losing items after a hotel housekeeper unilaterally decided to rearrange a room. In the most extreme case, one well-traveled colleague reports the housekeeper actually unpacked her suitcase and put items in closets and drawers. Lost in the shuffle--a pair of glasses and a favorite sweater.

So, to the overzealous housekeeper, I say do keep it clean, but please do not disturb.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Airlines Board the Twitter Express

To celebrate my long-awaited arrival on Twitter (http://twitter.com/dailysuitcase), a post about how airlines are using the service to chirp out to customers.

Just as the early bird gets the worm, the Twitterer gets the early word when it comes to amazing airfare deals.

To wit (or to twit?), JetBlue posted its first cheep last month. The deal: $9 one way from JFK to Nantucket. Since then, JetBlue has been notifying its Twitter followers about deals for upcoming weekends on Mondays. There is a little-noted catch, however. Most cheep dates are one way. Sure, they'll get you to Nantucket for nine dollars, but if you want to get back to NYC, you'll probably end up paying a full fare on the return flight. That's the problem with tweets--no space for the fine print.

Meantime, United is offering twares. The Twitter-only fares are randomly timed and randomly located. Whether by tware or by cheep, customers have to act quickly if they want to snap up these so-called bargains. And, to take full advantage of these deals, you have to be spontaneous, flexible, and somewhat of a Crackberry.

Of course, many airlines still offer last-minute fares by e-mail (how retro). While the discounts are not as steep, e-fares tend to have a longer booking time (a few days versus a few hours) and a wider range of destination options.

Announcing cheap seats is just one way airlines are employing Twitter. The smart ones are shifting the focus of their Twitter accounts to relationship building, using the service for real-time customer service. Airlines are using Twitter for frequent flyer outreach, to notify customers about flight delays, and to provide a head's up about Wi-Fi availability on selected planes (Alaska, Southwest).

Meantime, part of the beauty of Twitter is that it is not a one-way street. Customers can have their say. Bags lost at the airport? Tweet Southwest. Encounter a smarmy customer service agent? Tweet JetBlue. Stuck on a tarmac? Tweet Continental. On second thought, given the events of this week, good luck with the latter.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Suddenly Seeking Silence: A Philippic for Plane Passengers

Here's the thing I like about Southwest. You can strategically pick your seat. If you are in the A or B boarding zones, you can usually avoid sitting next to screaming babies, malodorous adults, and other beings offensive to one's senses (while at the same time keeping an eye out for hunky men with washboards abs). And so, upon boarding my 5 and a half hour flight to LAX, I, as B5, was somewhat free to choose a relatively delightful seat. I spied an aisle seat at 14 C. The window seat was taken by a woman whom I assumed was traveling alone (but you know what they say about assuming), as the middle seat was empty. I made a comment to her about our strategic seat selection, and she concurred, happy that no loud babies were nearby. As I settled in, I noticed her wave. Apparently, she wasn't traveling alone, but her companion had been in the C section. I experienced a pregnant pause, pondering the possibility of moving back to Seat 15 D (an aisle next to a mother and her teen-age son, seemingly umbilically attached to an iPod). But, I decided to carry my initial decision to term. Oh, baby.

I soon learned that while both woman were quite the Chatty Cathies, Window Seat had the added bonus of a foul mouth. It was F**King this, and S**TTY that. Apparently, I was cursed.
The conversation never ceased. In retrospect, seeing that the reading material of Window Seat consisted of the Clinton wedding issue of People, and that of Middle Seat was some awful piece of chick lit, I should have realized that they were unlikely to stop talking to, say, read for a spell.

But I tried to, I also attempted other tried and true techniques for hinting to neighbors that I was looking to acquire a piece of momentary peace and quiet. I started typing madly on my Netbook. I feigned sleep. I endeavored to focus on my reading material. Bupkes.

Next, I attempted the deep sigh; the muttering under my breath; and the turn of the head, followed by the evil eye. Finally, I went for the finger. No, not that F**King finger. Rather, I leaned forward on my tray table and put my index finger in my right ear, demonstrating an attempt to create a noise dike between the two woman and me.

The only time I would notice the slightest break in the gabfest was when I started putting pen to paper (my computer having run out of battery hours ago) to vent my thoughts (replicated here) about the sad situation in which I found myself. Maybe, in some way, my written thoughts were seeping through (it certainly couldn't have been a glance at said writing, entitled in large letters NON-STOP CHATTER, largely because my penmanship is illegible to nearly all). Anyway, I did notice this phenomenon several times. I would write; they would shut up. Ah, the power of the written word.

But alas, it was not to be. Minutes after putting down my pen, they were yakking it up...again. After four hours, the conversation started repeating itself. And toward the end of the flight, when a baby five rows away did start screaming, they felt the need to babble on about the noise. Oh, how I wanted to turn to them, my middle finger now in my ear, and say, "Really? What I just went through the last five hours was far worse than any crying baby." But I figured said comment would merely provoke Window Seat to tell me to "F**K off."

My next thought was to tell them I was working on, in the wake of the infamous JetBlue not-so-straight chuter, a piece for the New York Times about obnoxious passengers. Instead, as soon as the signal dinged that we were free to stand and roam about the cabin, I jumped out of my seat and ran as many aisles away from the clamor as possible.

Dear reader, if you would like to contribute a moral to this story, please chime in. But quietly...

Tweeting Twavel

While I am not a cheep (sic) date, I am a real tweet. And more people need to take note of that. So, while I tend to travel to the beat of my own dwummer, I too am now chirping away on Twitter. Please follow me at http:/twitter.com/dailysuitcase.

If you want a look at the bird you are following, please go to http://abcnews.go.com/abcnewsnow/ and then type Laura Powell in ABC's search box. Click on July 4th Getaways and let the fireworks begin!

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Blog Round-Up/Ode to Airport Commodes

For those of you new to this blog, note that it contains a mix of current travel news and deals (under the headings In the News, News Updates, Airlines, Destinations, or Hotels), travel tips (under Travel Tips), clips of my television appearances and articles for print (In the Media), and various humor columns (Humor). Among the latter are postings by my alter-ego, Jane Air. Jane has been writing columns for the Women on Their Way website for the past two years. Below you will find one of Jane's favorite pieces.

Sadly, however, Jane has been a victim of corporate cost-cutting. Although her copious archive will remain on the above-mentioned website, newer and snarkier columns will appear from time to time right here. To wit, read about Jane's visit with Prince Philip at Buckingham Palace (June 18 post).

If there are topics about which you would like Jane to comment, please offer up your suggestions. Meantime, Jane and I hope the following leaves you flush with delight.

Jane's Ode to the Airport Commode

A recent round of traveling through some of the country's busiest airports has left Jane pondering. Why oh why, asks Jane, is it so difficult to build a better mousetrap when it comes to bathroom stalls? For in many an airport loo, one truly does feel caught in a mousetrap, squeezed between one's carry-on bags, the toilet, and the door. It's frequently difficult to exit the stall without backing up and nearly falling back into the porcelain throne. Charmin'.

Yet, as several airports demonstrate, the perfect bathroom stall is not an impossible dream. To wit, there's Baltimore-Washington International Airport, where the stalls are big enough to fit two carry-on bags and two adults (not that Jane is suggesting entering a stall with another adult...particularly if you are a senator). Spacious stalls can also be found at Houston's Hobby Airport. Meanwhile, at Kansas City International, the most logical design aspect Jane has observed (leave it to Midwesterners to come up with practical and easy solutions): A door that swings out, not in. Think about it--no matter how small the stall, squeezing in is much simpler when an incoming door is not hitting you in the knee.

Then there's the issue of the toilet seat proper. Is anyone else out there driven nuts by the rotating Saran Wrap seats at O'Hare? Jane wonders whether it's just one piece of plastic wrap that keeps going round and round. After all, has anyone really seen the inner workings of the rotating Saran Wrap gizmo? Jane is curious as to how the little elves sitting inside the pipes manage to unwrap the old stuff and throw on new wrap in a matter of seconds. It's obviously a more challenging position than baking cookies for Keebler.

But Jane digresses. Hooks, my friends, hooks. Why is it so difficult to install more than one hook in a stall? How about three? That's one for the purse, one for the computer case, and one for the coat. Even two would suffice. And remember design engineers, it's called a hook, not a peg. Imagine if Captain Hook had a hook for a leg and a peg, not for his leg, but for his hand. It just wouldn't work. Nor do those little stumps on the back of the door that pose for hooks at Hartsfield-Jackson Airport in Atlanta. However, said pegs are perfect if you want your bag to fall, kerplunk, from door to floor.

Jane welcomes your thoughts on how to improve airport bathroom stalls. But in the meantime, let Jane close with an on-board toilette tip. If you are flying an airline with only one class of service, like Southwest, go to the front of the plane. Jane has observed that the lavatory near the cockpit tends to be the least used. Jane believes the reasons are threefold. People who travel coach are conditioned to go to the back of the plane; people are not allowed to line up in the front of the plane for security reasons; and many are not aware of the front-of-the-plane W.C. Upon inspection, Jane has noticed that the forward lav tends to be cleaner than its back-of-the-cabin cousins. Part of this is due to lesser use, but Jane also believes that the flight attendants actually work to keep the facility clean for the use of the pilot and co-pilot. Of course, Jane isn't privy to any inside information....but the proof is in the plumbing.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Laura on TV Talking About the State of the Airline Industry

By clicking here, you can see my most recent appearance on WUSA-TV in Washington, DC. The topic is air travel.

BTW, please forgive the wayward bangs. It's summer in Washington and the ladies know what that means....out-of-control hair.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Frequent Flyer Folio: Part II

For those of you who watched me on WUSA-TV this week, here is the follow-up information I promised you. And for those of you who didn't watch, tsk, tsk. The good news, however, is that the appearance will be posted in a few days....and in the meantime, you are welcome to the information below as well.

Earlier this week, I blogged about frequent flyer deals on American, United and Delta. Here are some more.

American Airlines AAdvantage members who live in the New York City area can get double miles through the end of the year. Pre-registration is required at www.aa.com/nydbl.

Being a New Yorker, or someone who travels frequently to the Big Apple, is also paying off for Southwest passengers. Rapid Rewards members can get double credits on all flights in and out of New York City through the end of October. Registration at the Southwest website prior to travel is required.

JetBlue is offering its True Blue members one-way flight awards for as little as 5,000 points. They’ve also made it easier to redeem points, with all flights eligible and no blackout dates. Members also get additional points for booking flights directly on the JetBlue website, and by paying with a JetBlue American Express card.

Speaking of credit cards, airline frequent flyer program affinity cards are a great way to rack up points fast.

The US Airways Premier World MasterCard with Dividend Select is offered by Barclaycard. For $79, cardholders get 25,000 bonus miles once they make a purchase; day passes to US Airways Clubs; and fee waivers on award processing. There‘s also one of those MasterCard priceless benefits--cardholders get to board right after the folks in first class, no matter how cheap their seat. That means no battles for space in the overhead compartment. Priceless, indeed.

Chase continues its partnership with United’s frequent flyer program by offering three new Mileage Plus Visa Cards. Two are quite pricey, with annual fees of $375 and $275. However, the third card--the United Mileage Plus Select Visa--costs just $130 annually. Cardholders receive triple miles on all United purchases; double miles on Star Alliance, gas, home improvement, grocery and dining purchases; and 5,000 bonus anniversary miles every year.

Now, remember, I’m a travel expert and not an economist. Even so, my notes about these cards come with some financial caveats. The annual fees for affinity cards are often higher than the norm. But if you can take advantage of the travel benefits, the extra cost may end up being a good investment. However, for those of you who carry monthly balances, beware. Many affinity cards carry with them high interest rates. On the other hand, if you are a pay-it-in-full-every-month gal or guy like I am, these credit cards can be a great asset.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Frequent Flyer Folio: Part I

It may seem somewhat counterintuitive, but as airlines try to increase revenue per seat by adding fees and dropping flights, frequent flyer rules are becoming more consumer-friendly. The new rules should, theoretically, make free seats "freer" and easier to obtain.

This summer, I’ve been inundated with e-mails from airline frequent flyer programs talking about their upgrades. For example, the new One-Way Flex feature gives American AAdvantage members the option of getting a one-way ticket for half the points of a round-trip ticket. Makes sense, but previously on American, and still on most other airlines, a one-way ticket = frequent flyer points for a round trip. American is also allowing AAdvantage members to mix and match on round-trip flights--you can book economy one-way and business the other, or combine a restricted award (one that requires fewer miles for the trade) with an unrestricted award. The latter addresses the problem of trying to plan a trip when a restricted seat isn't available on one leg.

Meanwhile, United’s Mileage Plus has gotten rid of its fee for booking frequent flyer travel within 21 days of departure. United is the first airline to make this change. Previously, you had to pay up to $100 per ticket for the privilege of exchanging points at the relative last minute.

Next, we come to those wacky newlyweds (or perhaps we should say nearly-weds)--Delta and Northwest. Through December 31, members of the merged airline's frequent flyer program--Delta SkyMiles--can get double miles for all Delta and Northwest flights in all classes of service. But here’s the catch. First, you have to have an American Express-issued Delta Skymiles credit card. The good news is that if you currently leave home without it, you can apply for the American Express SkyMiles card right now...and the fee for the first year is waived. With card in hand, you next have to pre-register for the program at www.delta.com/double by the end of September to qualify.

Delta’s also offering rollover miles for its elite SkyMiles members. That means if you have Silver or Diamond status, any miles earned in excess of the minimum qualifying threshold will now carry over to the following year. Usually, you have to start at square one at the beginning of each year. Now, with the rollover plan, Silver and Diamond SkyMiles types can get those perks like complimentary airport lounge membership, a 125-percent mileage bonus, and exemption from many baggage and ticketing fees starting January 1.