Friday, October 28, 2016

Flyover Friday: When a Picture is Worth 1000 Miles


With a very few exceptions, all the travel photos I use for this blog are ones I've personally taken.  I don't travel with a fancy camera, or use many filters.  The world as I am lucky enough to see it simply doesn't need enhancement.  I think it's about time for some gratuitous travel photos, because Friday.  Also because I'm trying to convince myself it's still a good idea to get up at 3am and head to LAX for another same day turn to ORD in the morning.

Let's see if we can go 'around the world' in ten pictures or so.

While we're on the topic of Chicago, just reminding myself that Oak Park in the Fall isn't a bad choice.  It also gets about 3,400 qualifying miles from LAX.

Up next, taking it South, to the lakes of Panama, surrounded by thick jungle and mangrove. 
Meanwhile in Europe, meet one of my favorite travel photos of all time- A bike ride through Deer Park just outside of Copenhagen.  I'll explain in more detail in another post, but I'm hoping to go back to this region next Summer, since Finnair has released some impressive partner business class award tickets for next year.

And a stop in Tuscany between vineyards.  On our first full day in Italy, we got lost in the hills outside of Florence on bikes.  It was gorgeous, but our legs were very tired once we finally found our way back to the villa.  For the record- just because you didn't get lost biking in Berlin or Copenhagen....does not mean you won't get lost further South. 

From old to new - Doha's harbor, now dominated by ultra sleek and modern architecture, while fishing boats still dock beside.

Then go East.....Far East.  One of the most beautiful sunrise approaches I've seen, going Jakarta to Kuala Lumpur (top) and the staircase to the Batu limestone caves, Kuala Lumpur. (bottom)
On the home stretch, go a bit north, for a look at Shanghai from the Bund....
.......And the beautiful ceiling of Tokyo Station, before crossing the last ocean for home.


 To finish out, a reminder that sometimes you don't have to go far at all for beautiful sights, and good memories.  Back on the West Coast, Mrs. CruisingAltitude & BabyFlyer enjoy a Summer day in Langley, Washington taking in the Cascades in the distance.
In other news, as I said in a recent entry, I'm excited to now offer travel help, advice, and consulting through Altitude Consulting!  Altitude provides personalized assistance planning your next trip, finding the best redemptions for your air miles and hotel points, as well as consulting on any topic you've been wondering about the world of loyalty programs.  This is a new endeavor, so I'm still building out the site, but please check it out & get in touch.  I'd love to help you Travel Well!
This post is part of Budget Traveler's Sandbox' Travel Photo Thursday, and Life In Wanderlust's #FlyAwayFriday.  Go check out both these great collections of posts for some amazing travel info and ideas!

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Touring Panama City by Helicopter, and Other Mileage Run Adventures

Heading out- using my one day in Panama well.  
I've written a lot on this blog, and talked to many people in person, trying to explain the nuts and bolts of how and why I fly as much as I do.  There's the usual cost benefit analysis- that of cents per mile, and valuation of elite status.  But really, especially with the changing world of devalued mileage programs, this alone can't be the only reason.  You clearly have to enjoy the process, the concept, the adventure.  These weekend trips across the world have to be an end unto themselves.  And why can't they be?  Brief trips demand encapsulation of experiences.  It's a narrow window into a place, but it can provide vivid memories.  If an airport is a city's handshake, then a mileage run is a first date.  At the end, you'll know if you want to go back for a second. 
This year, I've had the opportunity to experience some new destinations, as well as visit an old favorite or two.  First up was a quick weekend turn around in Panama City in February.  The great thing about this destination, as well as being an interesting place to see, is that it consistently has great flight deals from Los Angeles in business and first class.  This means that you earn double elite qualifying miles for the trip by default.  In short, it takes the qualifying miles of a trip to Europe, and condenses it into a 'quick' 7,000 miles that can comfortably be done in a weekend, with no upgrade waitlist suspense, and time left over to actually visit the destination. 
Newly updated 767-300 1st cabin from LAX-MIA
My flightpath was a no-nonsense LAX-MIA-PTY and back.  Even better, the LAX-MIA legs were on widebody aircraft with very comfortable lie-flat seats!
The view from my room at the Sheraton in downtown PTY.  No complaints about the hotel.  Nice staff, well located, and a great club lounge.
I'm not sure I knew exactly what to expect from Panama City.  With all the excitement at home this year, I didn't have time to do much to research for this trip.  My first impressions were surprise at the scale of the downtown area.  It has a decidedly 'Miami Beach' feel, with a little bit of over the top Gulf-style architecture thrown in.  It's not the overwhelming size and sprawl of a place like Sao Paulo or Tokyo, but it's an impressive city nonetheless. 
A large percentage, almost a fourth, of the population of the country live within Panama City itself, and the revenue generated by the canal is apparent.  You get the sense of a condensation of wealth, as well as people.  In opposition to this glass and steel high rise city, there is also a historic 'old town' section called Casco Viejo.  It's a district laid out with small streets and squares, full of Spanish colonial architecture.  It's been undergoing a revival, with many renovation projects, and has a vibrant restaurant and nightlife scene.  I had a busy day, so I didn't get there until later at night, but even a quick visit was worth it.  Something to keep in mind when visiting this part of town is that it gets very congested at night, especially on weekends.  I'd suggest having your taxi drop you a few blocks outside of the center of the district and walking. 
Casco Viejo at night.
The main event of my stay though, was a helicopter flight over the Canal.  This is a unique experience, especially given both the history and scale of the Panama Canal, and the recent expansion, as well as being able to get a sense of the geography of the country.  It's obvious from just looking at a map of the isthmus that the country is extremely narrow, but it really hammers the point home when you realize you can fly the entire width of it from the Atlantic to the Pacific coast, and back again, in an hour and still have time left over to circle the Panama City before you land. 
For the tour, I flew in an R44 helicopter, which is the reliable and economical choice of many tour operators all over the world.   It's a good choice to see something like the Canal, as it's quick and nimble, but not so fast that you don't have plenty of time to see what's going on below, and get some great pictures.
All the way to another ocean in 30 mins or less!
Helicopters can fly at just about any allowed altitude, which gives you the unique experience of being able to descend to get a closer look at the land, skim 50 feet over the water, or say... dive at an alligator if you so wish.  Plus, there is excellent visibility from every seat.
The contrasting old locks (front) and the new (behind).
As was narrated by my pilot, this year for the first time they've filled the new locks with water.  From the air you can get a sense of the scale of the expansion.  The old set of locks are still in place in the background and at the time I was there, were still in use.  As you can see well from the sky, the new locks are not only individually larger to accommodate the bigger ships being built, there are also more of them. 
The canal itself is actually constructed using three natural lakes, which are connected by the locks to make up the full distance of the waterway.  Between the locks, these lakes sprawl out with jungle alongside, and create a beautiful pattern as you fly over.  Our flight was in the afternoon, so many of the ships for the day had already passed the locks, and the lakes were mostly empty. 

The flight ended with a aerial tour of Panama City.  The coastal skyline is even more impressive from the air.  If you take a helicopter tour in Panama City, chances are you won't have to head all the way back to PTY airport.  I flew with Helipan, which is located at the Marcos A. Gelabert Airport, closer to town. 
My day ended with dinner at Playa Veracruz at sunset.  It's a little ways out of town, but if you're looking for a resort style stay, rather than nights in the city, the Westin Playa Bonita is nearby. 
The next morning I headed back to the airport.  Conveniently, Uber serves Panama City, and the fare to or from the airport is about US $25.  Without traffic, the drive takes about 30 minutes.  Check in was fairly easy, but there was secondary screening at the gate, so get there a few minutes early.  There is a nice lounge accessible with Priority Pass.  Clean and simple, with drinks and light snacks. 
The trip ended well, with my upgrade clearing in Miami for the final flight back to LAX.  Since I had purchased a business class ticket, this moved me up into First Class on American's 777-300, which is arguably their best product in the fleet.  Business class on this plane is also lie-flat, and very comfortable, but I had a Systemwide Upgrade expiring in a matter of weeks, so I was excited to get to use it to experience the first class cabin. 
The first class seats are larger than business class, with armrests, and a massage function.
The suites are spacious, and very comfortable.  The food is enhanced over the business class offerings, and the service level is higher, especially since this plane has 52 business class seats, and only 8 in first.  Plus, you get three windows to yourself to take in the view!
Overall, this trip was a good first look at Panama City.  Since this business class mileage run continues to be a good deal for the qualifying miles, I'm keeping it in mind for the future.
Fly Well,
This entry was written for this week's Fly Away Friday, hosted by Time Travel Blonde.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

See One Thing : Victoria Peak

It's no secret that for me, there's great value in even a brief stop in far flung destinations.  Whether on a long layover, or a short turn-around, a day, or even less is time that can be well spent sampling a new city.  Of course a short trip can't be expected to result in a thorough exploration, but it's plenty of time to 'see one thing.'  Many people ask me why I would fly across an ocean to be there for only one or two days.  The answer, that for the most part satisfies is, "isn't one day better than no days?" 

A prime example of a place that can be enjoyed in short order, is Hong Kong.  When I find myself there, I have a tradition of going early the morning after I arrive to Victoria Peak.  If you happen to get there soon enough, before the city wakes, you'll find yourself in the midst of decadent jungle trees and vines, with only the birds and the occasional local out for an early run for company.  No lines, no crowds.  There's something surreal about being in the heart one of the most densely populated places on earth, and feeling like you're the only one there. 

Victoria Peak is easily accessible via the (very steep) cable car that climbs up from a station adjacent to Hong Kong park.  You can get there fairly easily from either the Hong Kong or Kowloon side hotels on the light rail or on foot, depending on how far you're going.

Once you arrive, an easy walk around the "Morning Trail" takes you on a loop encircling the peak, allowing views of the city below from all angles.  There are longer trails and hikes in the park as well, and a visitors' center with food, souvenirs, and an observation deck.  Arriving early is the perfect use for your jetlag.

My favorite way to go is to start around the 'backside' by taking the trail straight out from the terminus of the cable car.   This lets you start in the trees, and end with views of the iconic Hong Kong skyline.  The busy harbor and Kowloon in the background give you a chance to take in the lay of the land.
A visit is the perfect way to start off your visit to the city.  Stretch out after the flight, take a breath, find some peace, before descending back into the city's midst.  The return trip down the mountain is just a matter of minutes.  You'll be back in time for breakfast.

 Travel well,


Monday, October 17, 2016

Travel essentials: Luggage Picks

ORD- Some of the best ramp views in the system.

As I wrote about before, I booked several 'same day turns' to Chicago.  I've got 2 down, with 1 left to go, plus an actual two night stay on a fourth.  So far, so good.  I cleared upgrades on three out of four segments, only had one long tarmac delay, and met several people all crazy (or smart) enough to be doing the same thing.   In any case, 7,000 miles down, 7,000 to go.  Yes, it's a lot of domestic flying in one day (about 8 hours, all in), but it also gives me time to relax a little, do some writing, and make some friends.  It also gives me a chance to write some answers to questions I get a lot about travel. 

It's no secret that I spend a decent amount of time on planes and in airports.  It's also no secret that most travelers have a few tried and true luggage pieces they won't head to check in without.  I've been asked quite a few times for recommendations, so here we go...

Luggage is one of those categories where you can spend as much or as little as you want, and you (mostly) get what you paid for.  For me, the most essential item is the go-everywhere rollaboard carry on.  It goes without saying that when you're boarding a decent amount of flights in a year, especially with short turn around times or complex connections, you try really REALLY hard not to check luggage.  Baggage fees aside, there's just too much risk and hastle to be avoided. 

Thus, the importance of a good sturdy carry-on.  Though I often covet fellow traveler's Tumi or Victorinox rollers, I sadly can't justify upwards of $400 for one bag.  I've been through the mid tier- Samsonite, Delsey, and Travelpro.  My personal favorite of these are the 'Crew' series from Travelpro.  I've had my current 'crew 9' 22" for over 3 years of hard use, and it's holding up admirably.  It's been with me the equivalent of roughly 12 times around the world, and the only noticeable wear is that the metal emblem popped off the front.  I haven't bothered to fix it, because it's purely cosmetic.  Wheels, handle, and zippers are all still well intact and going strong. 

The current model of this bag is the "Crew 10 22in Rollaboard Suiter" I like it over similar bags because it's a decent price point for the quality, and is the largest size that fits into domestic sizers.  I found my Delsey or Ricardo would let me unwittingly overpack, resulting in some obnoxious moments at the gate courtesy of the occasional 'bag dragon' that we all learn to know and fear.

No, it's not a 'spinner' - the 4 wheeled bags, but omitting the exterior wheels gives you an extra inch or two of packing space, which is important to me when I'm trying to pack for an around the world trip without checking anything!  It also goes well from vacation to business travel, as it has a removable suit folder in the top. 

I've also acquired a matching Crew 10 tote bag, that attaches nicely on the handle of the rollaboard.  It fits quite a bit of gear, and in a pinch makes a great footrest or computer stand if you're in a bulkhead row with some footroom.  Completing the set, for my longer business trips, which can be several weeks, I added the "Maxlite Folding Garment Bag."  It's basic, but holds a surprising amount of clothes and other items.  My tip is to pack your clothes in it using wire hangars, and double and triple up garments on them.  The only thing that fills up fast is the space in the clip that holds the hangers in place at the top.

What's more, these three pices actually can all be stacked together and rolled with one hand.  The tote slips over the handle, and the garment bag connects just right to the front of the rollaboard using the luggage hook Travelpro includes.  Yet another bit of proof of the durability of the wheels and handle on the Crew 10 bag. 

So, so...that ALL said, I have to introduce you all to my newest luggage addition....for which I went off-brand (up-brand??) to the Briggs & Riley Transcend Rolling Cabin Bag

I realized after awhile that what I was missing in my setup was a smaller tote that could either be a rolling bag on its own, or stacked on my regular carryon.  There are times I travel where I'm either now checking (the horror) my regular luggage since we now travel with Babyflyer and it can't be helped, or when I'm not going on a trip at all, but need a nice looking rolling bag for work.  It's also been the perfect size to pack for the same day turns to Chicago, where I just need my laptop, chargers, and a change of clothes in case of long delays or forced overnights (which almost did happen on my first run this year). 

The Briggs &Riley, attached to the Travelpro Crew Rollaboard (plus a hitchhiker bag on the front).  Good to go!
So far, I'm very happy with it.  It rolls well, looks great, and has a 'universal' attachment on the back that lets it fit securely to the handle of just about any rollaboard brand.  The overall profile is a little wider than the regular Travelpro tote above, but with the wheels it can't be helped.  I haven't had it long enough to test the durability, but Briggs and Riley have a good reputation for making tough luggage pieces. 

In other news, I've been working on some exciting, and hopefully useful and informative, travel-related projects and content that I hope to formally announce soon!  Thanks for reading & travel (and pack) well!

Earth, space, and everything in between.  This is why I fly.

*This post does include affiliate links, but is not sponsored, and I do personally own and use the products mentioned.