Archive for the 'travel' Category
I’ve been keeping an eye on the new generation of Netbook computers for a while. A friend bought one of the OLPCs a while back and another bought an Asus EEE. I almost bought one of the early EEEs, but I wanted to hold out for a slightly larger screen. I’m glad I did.
I finally bought an Acer Aspire One recently. After about a month of using it, including two weeks of traveling, I’m loving it. It’s super light, has a surprisingly decent keyboard, and even the battery life isn’t too bad.
In terms of technical specs, the Aspire One has a full-width (1024×600, 8.9″) screen, 1 GB of memory, and a 120 GB hard drive. The 1.6 GHz Atom processor isn’t a speed demon, but it’s not nearly as sluggish as I expected, considering the price. Speaking of price, they can be found for under $400.
My old Dell Vostro 15.4″ laptop was just too heavy and bulky to lug around much. I’ve finally started really taking advantage of the free Wi-Fi that’s available practically everywhere now. A lot of people ask me about it, when I use it in public. Several of the flight attendants talked to me about it while I was using it on the plane. There’s probably a huge market for this size laptop with airline employees alone. For anyone who lives out of a suitcase, especially a carry-on, it’s ideal.
There are only a few downsides I’ve run across, so far. The trackpad buttons are on the sides of the trackpad, rather than below it. Out of the box, that would probably be my single biggest complaint, except that I’ve been using a portable wireless mouse instead.
I got used to the keyboard pretty quickly, except for the Home and End keys, which require that you also hold down the function key. As a result, I’m not as quick at navigating through big documents as I am at a normal keyboard.
Finally, some applications aren’t designed to work on such a short screen. The width isn’t a problem, but height can be. Photoshop gave me a warning when I installed it, but it did still install; and I’ve been able to do what little I needed to do with it. The Windows version of the board game Ingenious installed, but the board doesn’t fit on the screen, so it’s basically unplayable. I suspect there may be other problem programs in the future, but those are the only two I’ve run into, so far.
Apparently netbooks are selling quite well. Now that I have one, I can understand why. The convenience far outweighs the downsides.
Amanda and I visited the Blanchard Springs Caverns in Arkansas a few weeks ago, just before Christmas. If you can believe the tour guides, it’s the top rated show cave in the United States, as determined by the National Caves Association. Regardless of the hype, it is definitely an impressive cave, with some very large formations. If you’re ever in the area — a couple hours north of Little Rock — I recommend checking it out.
Unfortunately, I forgot to load a blank memory card in the camera before the tour, but I did manage to get a few photos before running out of space. Click on the photo to see some of the highlights on Flickr.
In planning a trip for later this year, the European budget airlines options were a bit confusing. Both Ryanair and SkyEurope fly the route we wanted to take, but I have had no experience with either airline. Luckily, I stumbled across a site called Skytrax, where users post reviews of airlines. After reading lots of reviews, it sounds like SkyEurope is the best of the budget choices.
Skytrax site also has reviews and ratings of airports and airline lounges. A quick glance at various ratings confirms what I’ve heard elsewhere, that Sinapore Airlines and the Singapore airport set the standard for quality.
On a trip to Hong Kong a couple of years ago, Amanda and I wished we’d had some kind of Rosetta Stone to take with us to the dim sum restaurants we visited. We knew dishes we liked, but we didn’t know the Chinese names or characters for them. Most of the places we tried didn’t have the typical dim sum carts to order from, so pointing wasn’t an option either.
In getting ready for our recent trip to Beijing, I decided to put together my own dim sum cheat sheet. I used Wikipedia to find a list of dim sum dishes along with the Chinese characters for them. I then searched Flickr for photos tagged “dim sum” that were under a Creative Commons license. I put the two together to create a Dim Sum Beginner’s Guide. This guide is released under a Creative Commons license, so please feel free to add to or build-on the idea.
The printout did come in handy on our trip to Beijing. Dim sum wasn’t as prevalent there as it was in Hong Kong, but we did come across a few places. The ones we ate at didn’t have English menus or picture menus, so the cheat sheet was a big help.
Admittedly, I’m still a dim sum beginner myself, so this is not a comprehensive guide. There are lots more dishes I could add, but I stuck to the ones I know well—things that we hoped to eat on our trip and would recommend to anyone who hadn’t tried dim sum before. For more options, check out the book “Dim Sum: A Pocket Guide.”
Amanda and I got back from Beijing about a week ago. It was a whirlwind trip, since we only had six days to spend there.
The highlight of the trip was visiting the Great Wall. On our second day in the city, we woke up in the middle of the night. Since we couldn’t sleep, we decided to get started towards the Badaling section of the wall. Rather than take the $80+ tour or hire a private car for $100, we opted to take the subway, then the local #919 bus. For two of us, the subway fare totalled about $1.50 round trip and $6 for the bus. We got to Badaling around 7am and it was still pretty quiet. The tour groups were just rolling in around the time we left.
The most impressive food was at the two restaurants inside the Grand Hyatt. I had read multiple recommendations on Chowhound.com for the Made in China restaurant, but it was booked up the first night we went. Instead, we tried the restaurant downstairs called Noble Court. The food and service were excellent. We went back for the “Beijing Duck” at Made in China a few nights later and were even more impressed.
The Beijing Zoo was mostly depressing. The pandas had a decent enclosure, but with $2 admission, it’s not all that surprising that the cages for many of the other animals were dilapidated. The newly built aquarium—located inside the zoo but with a separate $12.50 admission fee—was impressive at first. However, you soon realize that the exhibit area is rather small and most of the building houses the dolphin show. Unfortunately, we were pressed for time and weren’t able to stick around for the show.
Another downer was our hotel. Luckily, we got a good deal via Priceline. The lobby of the hotel smelled very strongly of stale smoke. Overall it had little worth recommending, except for the huge grocery store in the basement of the attached mall. I was amazed to find that I could get Dr. Pepper (in the imported foods section) for about $1 per can. My favorite find was the bottled green tea they stocked, at less than $1 for about 1.5 liters. I probably drank about 8-10 liters while we were there. Now that I’m home, I’m hoping I can find some comparable bottled green tea at one of the local Asian grocery stores.
I enjoyed the trip and I’m glad we went, but Beijing is not high on my list of destinations to recommend to others. I know that they’re trying to make the city more tourist friendly in preparation for the Summer Olympic games in 2008, but I wouldn’t consider it particularly tourist friendly yet. In hindsight, I would have planned and researched more, to try to avoid some of the less impressive attractions.
I’ve posted my favorite photos from the trip. I’d love to hear feedback about the photos or from others who’ve been to Beijing.
Amanda and I flew back into town last night from Beijing. On the flight from Houston to Austin, I finished my book, so I was looking out the window when I noticed some HUGE writing on the ground. The writing spelled out “LUECKE” using trees.
When I got home, I looked up the word and Google pointed me to a post on the Google Sightseeing blog about the giant letters. It turns out that Luecke is the name of a rancher who decided to leave his mark on the world in a big way.
One of the commentors mentioned an article that had been writen in the Austin American Statesman about Mr. Luecke. I tracked down the article, from March 6, 2000, which included the following:
Before you even think of invading Earth, check the trademark just north of Smithville and go see Jimmy Luecke. You see, it’s Luecke’s world — some of us just fly over it.
We know you’ve seen the name. Commercial airline passengers into and out of Austin-Bergstrom International Airport have seen it carved out of the woods on the Luecke ranch. Jet pilots who don’t know who Luecke is have long guessed he cut the name 3 1/2 miles long and 3,100 feet high to make absolutely sure you knew who owns this planet. Hell, John Glenn, our oldest astronaut, helped take pictures of it on a shuttle mission two years ago.
My article, “How to book a five star hotel on a budget” was recently posted to Lifehacker. The article explains how to use BiddingForTravel.com to research hotel prices before bidding on Priceline. It’s my first article for Lifehacker and I look forward to writing more.
Amanda and I are having a great time visiting my mom on St. John. We went to the beach our first two days here, first to Cinnamon Bay and then to Francis Bay. Today was a bit rainy, so we relaxed at the house for most of the day.
I took this photo from the deck of my mom’s house a couple of nights ago. Right now, it’s after 11pm, but I’m sitting out on the deck and I can still make out the silhouettes of the islands because the moon is so bright.
Today I ran across a website that will help you create a passport photograph from a digital photo you upload. The site is called ePassportPhoto and, for the time being at least, it appears to be free.
If you’d rather do the work yourself, a site called OnTheGoSoft offers a $10 shareware program called called Passport Photo. Or there’s an online tutorial for making your own passport photos using Photoshop.
I haven’t had to get a new passport in a while, but I do sometimes need I.D. photos when traveling, especially for things like rail and subway passes. Between the tools above and all the online photo printing options, I’ll be making some I.D. photos to take on my next overseas trip.
I see the IVR Cheat Sheet coming in handy in the future. The table, created by the founder of the travel site Kayak.com, is a list of shortcuts to bypass various corporate phone systems and get to a human being.
travel phone steps to find a human American Airlines 800-433-7300 ”00, then say “”agent”“” Amtrak 800-872-7245 ”0 or say “”agent”“” Delta 800-221-1212 ”say “”agent”” four times – every time it asks for a response from you” jetBlue 800 JET-BLUE 1 flight status; 2 reservations; 3 vacation packages Kayak.com 203 899-3120 0 Northwest 800-225-2525 Star, 0,0 after initial greeting Southwest 800-435-9792 Calls answered by operator; during busy times you might have to hold United 800-864-8331 Do nothing, wait for human. US Airways 800-428-4322 4, wait, 1 Walt Disney World 407-824-4521 Direct line to Magic Kingdom Guest Relations
The full sheet includes shortcuts for a variety of industries, including finance, government, insurance, and retail.
Amanda and I toured the Cave Without a Name today with some friends. The cave is west of New Braunfels, about two hours from Austin. Formations include cave grapes (photo, right), a 40 scoop ice cream cone, a rooster claw helictite, giant cave bacon, a uvula formation, and soda straws. One of my favorite formation names was the “Leaning Tower of Boerne,” which is named after the nearby town of Boerne, TX.
I ran across this funny story by a lady who found Chris Rock’s cell phone:
CALLER: Is Chris there?
LAURA: [Puzzled, with curiosity piqued] Uh, Chris… who?
CALLER: Chris Rock.
LAURA: [Incredulously] Chris Rock!? As in, the Chris Rock?
Coincidentally, it reminded me of the time I saw Chris Rock. . . in Prague. I had only been in the city for a day or two. I was walking around in the touristy area, not far from the clock tower. I passed by a guy walking in the opposite direction who looked exactly like Chris Rock. I did a double-take, but it still took a few seconds for the possibility to register that it actually could be the Chris Rock. It was hard to believe, since the guy was walking around by himself, with no entourage.
I found out later that Chris Rock was in fact in Prague filming a movie with Anthony Hopkins. I even saw some of the exterior shots being filmed. Bad Company has been out on DVD for a while, but I still haven’t gotten around to watching it.
My latest article has just been posted to the Playlist website. The article covers travel resources—audio tours, travel-related podcasts, and text tours—for iPods:
Playlist: Have iPod, will travel
With the right resources on-board, that iPod may just take the place of a hired tour guide, a pocket full of driving directions, or even a printed guidebook.