Travel

Flying Class First

Flying on a budget has never been easier than it is today. More affordable with more options, the choice to find a cheap seat is as easy as it is economical. Budget airlines are a significant part of air travel and many larger, more established airlines are altering their practices to adopt many “non-inclusive” fees enabling passengers to pay for the absolute minimum.

You can fly from Sydney to Los Angeles for just over a grand, Brisbane to Tokyo for under $500 and from Perth to Bali for less than the cost of a cab ride in Melbourne. We cram into smaller seats, forgo in-flight entertainment and fly through China to save a few hundred bucks.

This is no way to live.

Friends of mine flew to North America and Europe via China recently to save $500 over a direct flight. The layovers added almost an entire day to their trip and cost them substantial headaches. They dealt with having to re-check in before re-boarding the connecting flight, were confused by Chinese airports, and dealt with unhelpful staff on the ground. All of these are ingredients to a painful holiday; something that defeats the purpose of a holiday to begin with. I understand that there are circumstances that crop up during your travels that can lead to frustration, but these are self-inflicted issues that can be avoided if you take into consideration that your holiday doesn’t start when you land at your destination.

Your holiday starts when you leave your house. Everything that happens after is part of your holiday. So plan and spend accordingly.

ailined

FLIGHTS OF FANCY

The biggest costs of your holidays are often your flights (or at least, they should be). If you’re flying across oceans to continents afar, a good majority of your time will be spent in the air, so why start out with stopovers and subpar airlines?

If you’ve got the money to travel business class or first class, then most of this is superfluous information. You’re probably going to be comfortable no matter where you go. However, for most of us traveling economy, there are a few ways to avoid early onset holiday stress that I believe are part of every good travel plan.

1. Fly direct if possible

It may cost you a few hundred dollars more to fly from Melbourne straight to L.A., but I can guarantee you that you will wish you did when you’re waiting in frustration at one of China’s many substandard aviation hubs. It’s not worth it.

If you have to stopover, find well known airports and cities that provide you comfort, ease and a mostly stress free environment.

For those traveling through Asia, the two best hubs are Changi Airport in Singapore and Hong Kong International. If you’ve got to stopover in Asia somewhere, make it either one of these and you’ll find that your stopover can be luxurious, comfortable and easy to navigate as you wait to pass the time. Both airports have excellent facilities for those either looking for food, recuperation (plenty of free massage chairs) or shopping.

2. Avoid flying budget airlines

Thinking about flying budget airlines on a trip longer than a few hours? Don’t do it. They are budget airlines for a reason and while the price is right, you’ll be wondering why you’re suddenly paying for check-in luggage. Sure, there are plenty of carriers that tackle long haul flights on the cheap; Australia’s Jetstar has many Asian cities on its destinations list while AirAsia does the same. Singapore Airlines recently launched their own budget carrier Scoot that will fly from Melbourne to Singapore for just $229. It’s ridiculously inviting, but what are you paying for? They’ve got a host of economy class options that include a “ScootSilence” seat that in reality means you’re just paying for a different colour seat. They’re “unabashedly no-frills” and “managed to significantly undercut the market by modifying its planes to have less space between seats, so more passengers can be packed on board.” I understand the majority of airlines are packing in more seats to compete in this market, but an airline that’s proud of it? No thanks.

I’ve never felt more nervous about flying in my life than the few times I flew budget for trips that lasted a mere hour.

My solution is to stick to the bigger airlines that have a great track record and who take extra care in doing what they can for their passengers. In an age where airlines of all kinds are cutting costs and optioning even the most basic of comforts, it is important to think above and beyond. The airlines I tend to stick to for international routes are Qantas, Singapore Airlines, Garuda Indonesia and Virgin. All of them offer fantastically competitive rates when you’re flying across the globe and the comforts and service they offer in Economy Class far surpass the rest.

3. Spend the money on bulkhead seats or buy premium economy

Most airlines have the option for premium economy seats (economy seats with a little more room) and in most cases, the ability for you to choose bulkhead seats (the seats directly behind the physical partition that divides a plane into different classes or sections—or the seats with lots of leg room). If this is the case, then spend the extra money on these seats for long haul flights.

On our recent trip to Canada, we spent $180 each to upgrade our Qantas economy seats to bulkhead seats. I can’t begin to tell you how much better it is to have that extra leg room while never having to worry about stepping over anyone to go to the toilets. You have room to stretch out anytime and some additional breathing space. It’s all part of making that 16-hour haul as enjoyable as possible. Our flight was just part of a 30+ hour day that included 3 flights and a significant drive, so reducing as much stress as we could was a priority.

CLASS IS NEVER CHEAP

Growing up, flying was a privilege. Safety, quality, and class are things I hold in high regard when it comes to flying and I’d like to enjoy as much of it as I can. Like renting a car on your holiday, you should find ways to make the most out of it from the get-go.

I don’t know where the airline market is heading to and whether or not things will turn around in the near future, but I’d like to see airlines move away from all these “pay for what you want” options and return to more expensive, more inclusive seating plans. When we realize that flying an airline that gives you the option of paying less to sit on a plastic deck chair at the back of the plane is a truly terrible idea, we’ll be heading in the right direction. When it comes to living mostly, flying is something you should never go cheap on.

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Travel

Rental Car Roulette

The open road, whether paved or untouched, is an intrinsic part of almost all human experience. Enshrined in books and movies, it is etched into the collective psyche of our culture. Perhaps because of this, one of the highlights of our recent trip to Canada was the view from behind the wheel driving up to the Okanagan. Known for its mix of beautifully arid landscapes and vast mountainous vistas, the region’s wine country is nestled in between some truly breathtaking scenery.

You can get to the Okanagan in one of two ways, both of which have spectacular views. But no matter which you take, it’s a 400+km drive. We knew we’d be spending hours in the car and on the road, and we wanted to make sure that there was a certain level of comfort and class to the journey. Car choice is often an overlooked aspect of planning a great road trip, but we decided not to play rental car roulette. Instead, we put some work into making sure we had the right car for our road trip.

What is rental car roulette? It’s when you don’t put time and effort into selecting the right rental car and instead roll the dice and see what you get. There are those who shop around for the lowest price, but I’m going to tell you that you should only consider price to a certain extent. Make your rental car as much of a priority as your accommodation. Make it count.

Make your rental car as much of a priority as your accommodation. Make it count.

To answer the “cheapest rental” question, you’ve got to look for the balance between affordable and comfortable indulgence. You can still get good deals and prices without compromising the ride- I know, because it’s what we did.

You can rest on some tried and true money saving methods; off-peak times for rentals being the most common. However, they’re generally off-peak because you’re not holiday. So what you can do, no matter the time, is to sign up for the reward programs many car rental companies offer. Hertz, Avis, Thrifty, Enterprise… I signed up for ALL of them. Sure, it takes a little time, but the discounts are worth it and memberships are free. You also tend to get priority service with some and over time, the more you rent with the respective companies, the more benefits you reap.

I also spent some time scouting for discount codes that float around the internet; these can easily give you extra discounts on top of what you’re receiving as a member. Yes, these may be unorthodox, but they get you results.

We found that Avis and Thrifty ended up being the best when it came luxury vs. price. For our Vancouver leg of the journey (and our trek to the Okanagan region), we went with Avis and picked a luxury sedan. With our discounts in tow, we paid a damn good price (less than $800) for a 14-day hire of a 2014 Ford Fusion bursting with features (Ford’s SYNC technology, reverse camera and after week into the trip, I realised there was a sunroof) that provided not only some muscle for those long stretches of highway, but space and comfort to make those long drives a breeze. We could have picked a small hatch for much less, but it really is quite hard to drive the open road with panache in something only slightly bigger and better than a toaster.

The Fusion is a dream to drive and choosing Avis was the right decision. When we returned the car we ran into some trouble with time (a closed bridge, an accident AND a sinkhole all in one day??) but they simply extended our time over the phone and proved easy to deal with. Sure, they’re a little more expensive than some other companies but sometimes bigger is better, more expensive more rewarding, and going for broke leaves you feeling richer.

fusion

Our mistake of course, was not going with Avis again on our Ottawa leg of our trip. We chose a cheaper rental and decided on an SUV. If my earlier advice on choosing a luxury sedan leaves you with any doubt, let it all dissipate by saying how clunky and uncomfortable driving an SUV is in any circumstance. Our inept rental car agent not only greeted us with the line “we don’t have what you reserved” but included the caveat that we had to pick up the car at another lot that’s currently closed, but that it was ‘ok’ because it’s just “parked outside the lot”. Overcharged and underperforming, the Volkswagen Tiguan has all the trademark qualities of a river barge. Clunky and uncomfortable, it made us miss the days of flying through the Cascade Mountains in a sleek, finely-tuned performance machine.

I cannot reiterate how important it is to spend your time choosing the best rental car for your trip. A high-end luxury sedan provides the best of both performance and convenience fitting of a good holiday. Feeling even more extravagant? Why not choose a high-performance sports vehicle? Most rental car companies offer high-end sports cars like Ford Mustangs and convertibles, which surely puts the indulgence into your vacation. Consider these options if your holiday includes long scenic drives down coastlines and/or through mountains. Don’t play rental car roulette because living mostly isn’t about efficiency or driving a Prius. Let your rental car be be the fuel behind the wind in your hair.

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Travel

Long Way Up

Vancouver, Canada. September 2014.

ME: So what’s this thing we’re doing before we go zip lining?

HER: Oh don’t worry about it; it’s nothing, a small hike.

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What appeared to be a rather innocuous pre-zip lining activity turned out to be anything but, yet it resulted in one of the most rewarding and challenging experiences a traveler could undertake.

That “small hike” was Vancouver’s Grouse Grind; the spectacular 1.8 mile hike up the steep, winding trail of Grouse Mountain. Standing at 2800 feet from its entry point to the final step, the trail boasts varying difficulties of steepness that fluctuate from 17 degrees to a calf-busting 30. For those not so hike-inclined, all those numbers mean that it’s a damn steep mountain; one that proudly claims the nickname “Mother Nature’s Stairmaster”.

The climb has become regular exercise for extreme fitness nuts, easily spotted as those running (yes, running) up as you huff and puff to stop every 10 minutes. The fastest recorded times clock in at less than 30 minutes, which, when you start climbing the grind, you realize is borderline insanity.

We had hiked a fairly decent trail around one of Tofino’s islands just days prior but what preparation is big enough to stand in the shadow of a mountain?

The gravity of the hike dawns on you at the foot of the trail, emblazoned with substantial warning signs and disclaimers warning those with poor health and rickety hearts to stay away. But with every quad-breaking step amongst the endless trees and rock, you begin to take in the enormity of the task at hand. And with every step, the opportunity to hit reset and trek back down the walk grows smaller and smaller. It’s a challenge that is only rewarding if you push through, fight the urge to quit and soldier on to the top.

After an hour into the hike, we really did feel like dying, and as what seemed like the last embers of strength faded in our search for respite, a marker finally twinkled at a distant, just barely out of our reach. The ¾ marker? The halfway point? Our anticipatory glimmer of hope was crushed as the ¼ marker made its much belated appearance. At this point, we really did just have to sit for a moment to pull ourselves together. Some water, a pep talk and new found determination later, we decided there was no room for quit.

Ten minutes at a time.

Through our ascent we noticed the wide range of people who took the climb. From the elite athletes who run the trail multiple times (we met someone who did the Grind 4 times in one day), to those like us, looking to challenge themselves, it really is a wide slice of society that finds themselves mountainside. Yes, there were those who were hopelessly unprepared for the trek too- lost tourists in jeans, young female socialites who couldn’t part with their heels(!), and for some odd reason, those toting their laptops up with them.

Yet while we huffed and puffed our way to the top, we would have been remiss not to stop as often as we did. Partially to catch our breath, but also to enjoy and to take it what a glorious setting it really was. We sat there, where the trees opened up to the view, and revelled at exactly where we were: the hard yards of a beautiful journey to the peak of accomplishment. While our feet grew weary, our hearts and minds grew stronger, more inspired in every sense as we neared the peak. You often see those tacky inspirational quotes shared across social media, one-liners and phrases meant to lift you. But there are few things more uplifting for both the body and mind than an accomplishment like climbing a mountain.

It’s why the Grouse Grind should be on your list of life’s accomplishments. It’s a fantastic way to test your body and mind while taking in some terrific scenery. It’s free, and if you’re so inclined, there’s plenty of paid activities once you get the top. Clocking in at about 2 hours, the completion of the trek was exhilarating, and endlessly rewarding. Yes, you’re tired, but with a renewed sense of adventure, we powered through two hours of zip-lining across the mountains which in itself, is a breathtaking way to fly through the clouds.

You’ve seen and heard how motivating the outdoors can be; living active, living strong. It’s an old mantra that continues to be one of life’s most simplest, yet most giving ways to get the most out of everything. If Vancouver is a stop on your next holiday and you’ve got plenty of nightlife and shopping on the list but need something with a bit of gruff, consider the Grouse Grind as a perfect antidote to the sometimes draining nature of modern living. There’s nothing out there but you and the mountain. Sometimes, that’s the only way to live. And let me tell you, that first beer I had when we made it to the top of the mountain was the best beer I ever had in my life.

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Travel

The Ballad of Racer Ten

Like jotting words and phrases down on some diner napkin we hope to turn into some lyrical opus; some things just take a little time. It often isn’t clear until we step back and try to see the complete picture. We can be left with an image of the entire puzzle but lack the pieces, while other times we’re left with a lot of pieces that just don’t fit. I’m a big purveyor of this sort of ideology; that sometimes life can take a little time to work itself out. The issue of “fate” is a dicey topic – some believe that we follow a predetermined course in which you merely ‘go through the motions’, while others feel that if fate truly exists, all we have to do is lie in bed and wait for life to come to us.

I’m not talking about the big picture at the moment; I’m not looking at the complete puzzle. I’m merely taking a peak into one of the many pieces that make that picture, a small fragment of an existence that is far from complete. While some say that nostalgia is overrated, I tend to savor those moments – the “melodies and memories”.

1997, Hong Kong
Hong Kong isn’t a bad place at all. Like Singapore, it is predominantly a consumer driven economy – if you’ve got the money to spend, they’ll have things you’ll want to buy. My budget was extremely limited, leaving me with the choice of nice warm meals or as many CDs I could possibly procure in one overseas trip. Needless to say, I wound up with a personal record of 25 CDs in about a week worth of trips to Tower and HMV. Hong Kong isn’t exactly a Mecca for independent music so I couldn’t get punk rock records from mom and pop stores. Unless I wanted the latest Canto-pop single, I’d have to pay the ridiculous prices that such worldwide chains charge – besides, I was getting used to all those cold chicken dumplings anyway.

Amidst all the foolish, reflex purchases (anyone want a copy of Home Grown’s Act Your Age?), I found a real gem. I’m not a big fan of compilations but the one compilation that remains a favorite of mine is One Foot Records’ Check This Out! Vol. 1. Among the raw punk, rock goodness (great bands like Pep Rally, Funbox, Lick 57’s, and The Tie That Binds) was an exceptional track titled “Breathe”. Like the first time you see your favorite artist take the stage, the feeling and excitement was unparalleled. At the time, it was unexplainable, I did not know why the song was so great or why Racer Ten had quickly become an artist I was dying to find out more about. So like any eager beaver I set out and went through every available resource (in Asia) I could go through to find their debut full length. And like most previous ventures in the Asian continent, my quest was most humbly brought to an end without satisfactory results.

Listen to: Racer Ten – “Breathe”

[aesop_audio src=”http://www.threezeroonethree.com/sound/racerten-breathe.mp3″ loop=”off” viewstart=”off” viewend=”on” hidden=”off”]

In effect, they wrote all the songs I wanted to write.

They provided some meaning, some understanding to why some things were the way they were. Why maybe all I really need to do in life is put my best foot forward and that it isn’t always about being first in line (and why a certain Lori G. would rather date some chunky, overweight kid than me).

Strangely enough, a few weeks after I found the CD at a record store I received an intriguing package in the mail. It was in fact, the same Racer Ten CD. How about that? I just remembered that awhile back I had slipped money into an envelope and sent it off to Alberta, Canada. Due to my lack of patience and confidence in the postal system, I didn’t think twice about picking up a copy in a record store knowing one was on the way already. (Current copy count: 2)

At the time it was honestly quite strange – a life I had only seen behind television screens became a reality for me. American high school was in fact, what is seen on TV shows and teen movies. There were bullies, cliques, extremely good looking girls, lazy students, pep rallies, awful football teams and Friday night parties with no alcohol. And that last one really bothered me, the transition from living in a country where there is (in reality) no real enforced drinking age to one where you can buy a gun and drive a car before getting drunk was something new. I was an impressionable, naïve, open eyed, optimistic teen who endured the days and wrote them down at night.

Summer 1999, Jakarta
The summer before college, a time for reflection, a time where young men prep themselves for the most important educational phase of their lives … yeah, right. The only thing on the mind of a heterosexual, semi educationally inclined B+ student going to college is girls, girls and whatever girls are left. Buoyed by lascivious tales and Penthouse forums, plans for an all out assault on hapless freshmen girls were in the works. A buddy of mine had the inside scoop; his older brother had been entrenched in the front lines for several years now and shared with us intelligence and info on the enemy. We were set; he was going to take his chances out East in Rochester while I decided to try my hand in California.

Somewhere in between discussing college girl etiquette and realizing that my buddy already had a girlfriend, I saw that I had two copies of Racer Ten’s Melodies and Memories. Like a Good Samaritan, I felt like sharing this treasure and decided to pass along a copy to my Rochester bound friend. A move I would live to regret?

[aesop_image img=”https://soundthesirens.files.wordpress.com/2002/11/rtmm.jpg” align=”left” lightbox=”off” caption=”Racer Ten’s ‘Melodies & Memories’. Released in 1996 on OneFoot Records.” captionposition=”left”]

Fall 1999, Stockton, CA
Ah … college. The time and place where throngs of young adults engorge in a weekly diet of beer and pizza, late night partying and occasional book browsing. Somehow, my roommate ended up being a Norwegian guy, a cool fellow, 6’7 volleyball player who on most occasions went to class everyday forgetting his books. Aside from discovering that 95% of what my buddy’s brother taught us didn’t work, the first year really bent preconceptions and preconceived notions about institutional education. For me, it really was about learning that life does not come to you; in fact, it almost tries to pass you by. You really, really have to go for it.

Unfortunately for my Racer Ten CD, my roommate could no longer tolerate the all night partying and general loudness our hallway was known for. Understandable considering that he had to get up at the crack of dawn for volleyball practice. So with him moving out, I had a lot more space to myself (the room was much, much cleaner too). The day he moved out I spent most of it in class and when I returned, I noticed that there was a gathering of dust in the shape of the stereo where it once stood. I didn’t think it would be a problem, I’d just have to buy a new stereo – until I saw the jewel case to Melodies and Memories lying on the table, open and empty.

I wasn’t in high school anymore; I had grown up a little and moved on. And for some strange, inexplicable reason I said to myself, “It must be in the stereo he took, I’ll get it later”.

That moment ranked up there with other notable terrible ideas like New Kids on the Block releasing a gangsta rap/hip hop album and Glitter. Nevertheless, later become months and when I went over to his apartment to finally retrieve it, he had no idea he had it and no idea where it went. As I staggered through his pile of ear piercing, head ache inducing Euro-pop CDs, I slowly came to the depressing notion that it was lost forever.

Spring 2001, Stockton, CA
You learn a few important lessons when you join a fraternity. Among the things you learn are that alcohol is not always your friend and in the case of you waking up next to someone, well, undesirable, the best course of action is to run. In all seriousness, when you go to a relatively small college your fraternity house becomes a focal point of social events. People are always around and there is either someone acting like a dumbass or someone who is about to. Privacy and serenity becomes a priceless commodity and it is not out of the ordinary to see people up and leave just to get away for awhile. While some were able to go home for the weekend, escape to their significant other’s abode or just disappear into the countryside, I was several oceans away from home.

I sought refuge in music. In the music I went to see, the music I bought to hear and the music I inspired to write. While I came across a host of new musical inspiration from an expanding genre interest, there was still one sentimental longing to find that one release, that one soundtrack of days gone by. By then, Racer Ten had called it quits and gone their separate ways. They released another, almost as formidable full length titled The World of Tomorrow and left an indelible mark on a certain, one time naïve, open eyed kid. To my surprise, their website was still online – replete with merchandise and purchasing info. A few weeks before my return home, I slipped a nice bill into an express package to Canada. I hoped that it would reach me before I left but like Corey Haim’s Dad professing his son was Oscar worthy – it just wasn’t going to happen.

So as I jetted across the globe towards third world destitution, my prized Racer Ten package was taking its leisurely trek to Northern California. To make matters worst, the person who sent the package decided that since I sent him , he’d give me two copies of each release. (Current copy count: Melodies and Memories – 4, The World of Tomorrow – 2) You reach a certain breaking point after this much disappointment.

2002, Jakarta
In retrospect, two years has made a significant difference in my life. I still think that I’m optimistic and open eyed, but I don’t think I’m as naïve as I used to be; but I’m not the only who’s changed. The world in its entirety has and personally, if I were put back into that very first class during senior year in high school with what I know now – I’d have done everything differently.

“I do not regret the things I have done, but those I did not do.” – Empire Records

Looking back there are many instances at which I wish I had done something else. So in reality, that quote is right – I did do something, so I don’t regret not doing anything, it’s just in some cases I did the wrong thing.

The thing is, I did get myself another copy of Racer Ten’s Melodies and Memories – I actually got in touch with Sean of Racer Ten fame and through his kindness, he sent me a copy of each. Funny how these things work out – who knows, maybe I’ll get all the pieces I need to finish this puzzle someday and things just might work out in the end.

Final copy count: Melodies and Memories – 5, The World of Tomorrow – 3.

Listen to: Racer Ten – “Blisters”

[aesop_audio src=”http://www.threezeroonethree.com/sound/racerten-blisters.mp3″ loop=”off” viewstart=”off” viewend=”off” hidden=”off”]

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