Jul 252015
 

San Francisco is an expensive city to stay, so a place at $80 a night that includes breakfast and dinner is bargain that can’t be ignored.

The Kenmore Residence Club  is a slightly run down Victorian building in the Pacific Heights neighbourhood, just over a mile from San Francisco’s Union Square.

Given the price and location, it would be unfair to judge the place on its looks. Its 65 rooms vary from doubles with ensuites for $140 a night to singles with shared bathrooms for $80.

The singles with shared baths are surprisingly large rooms with a double sized bed and a walk in wardrobe. Also included in the room are a fridge, wash basin and flat screen TV. Sheets are changed twice a week along with the included hand and bath towels.

WiFi included

As almost always with cheaper hotels and hostels, Wi-Fi is included in the room rate and is surprisingly good throughout the building. In the room I stayed in, 308, the internet access was sufficient to work with and stream radio although Skype required sitting in one of the hallway sofas.

In other rooms patchy Wi-Fi may also be a problem as many of the other guests – which seemed to be mainly Japanese and German backpackers – were working on laptops in the hallway sofas.

Working in the room was fine with a basic desk, a not uncomfortable chair and plenty of power points. The view of the opposite peeling paint on the opposite wall meant there was little to distract an attention deficient worker.

Shared Facilities

Those German and Japanese tourists mean the two shared bathrooms on each floor are quite clean – apart from one unfortunate morning where someone had been sick. This wasn’t such a problem as it was always possible to find a vacant room. Soap dispensers are in the bathrooms but for showers it’s probably best to buy your own.

On the ground floor the dining room seats around forty people for breakfast between 7am and 9am and dinner, Monday to Saturday, between 5.30 and 7. If you’re in San Francisco for sightseeing or business, it’s hard to get back in time for dinner so don’t budget on eating too many evening meals there.

The meals themselves are adequate with a self service salad or breakfast bar and a cooked option. The dinners were fairly stodgy while the eggs or pancakes are fine at breakfast but the bacon and sausages are forgettable. I found myself eating just fried and scrambled eggs with toast and loading up with salad and fruit.

If you don’t eat in the hotel, it’s only two blocks away from Japantown where there’s no shortage of good and cheap ramen, sushi and other Japanese restaurants. There’s also a Whole Foods and Walgreens within three blocks if you want to make your own meal.

Getting there

Should you want to get down to the touristy parts of San Francisco, the 38 Muni bus down Geary Street is the quickest and most reliable way to Union Square and the Ferry Building. Two blocks away on Van Ness, the 18 will take you to Fisherman’s Wharf and on weekends the 76X goes to the Golden Gate Bridge and Marin Headlands.

Coming back from Union Square, the number 2 and 3 buses stop almost outside the hotel but are far less frequent or reliable than the Geary services. If you need a Clipper Card or Muni Passport the Walgreens a block away on the corner of Post and Gough street is the place to visit.

The neighbourhood itself is quite safe although south of the Cathedral and into the Hayes Valley things get somewhat less salubrious and walking around that part of SF at night is not recommended by the locals. A stroll back from Union Square or the Embarcadero though isn’t unpleasant.

Doing your laundry

Another benefit with the Kempton is the coin operated laundry in the basement. If you’ve been travelling for a while – I’d spent the previous week in San Jose – being able to wash your clothes is a godsend, laundry powder and change is available at reception and you’ll need lots of quarters for the driers.

Staff at the hotel seem to be mainly made up of long term residents who are working to defray their rent, this means they are a quirky mixed bag of characters. Some are a bit gruff while others are delightfully helpful, again it’s not the Marriott Marquis and the rates reflect that.

There are some downsides to the Kempton, the rooms aren’t particularly quiet – this is something to be expected at cheaper hotels and there are no strong boxes or other security beyond the door locks in the room. While the place seemed safe, nervous travellers may want to consider their storage of passports and valuables.

On balance, The Kenmore is a bargain in one of America’s most expensive cities. If you’re prepared to deal with the quirks and stay a little bit out of the San Francisco tourist spots then the price is unbeatable.

Mar 222015
 
hotel_in_the_wild_west

Last week this site looked at the idea from Colonial First State Funds Management economists James White and Stephen Halmarick that brands are doomed in a world of perfect information.

Forecasting the end of brands is a big call despite the massive changes the internet is bringing to industries. One of the things I suggested is that the concept of the brand – which was largely born out of Twentieth Century mass communications – is evolving with the social media and online world.

This view is born out by Tom Vanderbilt in an article in Outsideonline where he describes how TripAdvisor is changing the way people travel.

In Ireland Vanderbilt claims the hotel industry found TripAdvisor to be a harsh wakeup call that saw local hospitality businesses lift their game as they realised customers were now far better informed.

Across the Atlantic on Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula Vanderbilt describes how hotel owners in the town of Tulum had to realign their listings and marketing when TripAdvisor changed how they were grouped in the region. It shows how users are searching and finding accommodation.

Importantly for guests, hotel managers are using online reviews to measure how their premises are measuring up to expectations through social tools and using the results to justify capital expenses on upgrades.

This could justify White and Halmarick’s view that the major global brands such as the Marriots, Hiltons and Sheratons are in decline however it more likely shows those chains are having to raise their game to maintain their worldwide position.

What Vanderbilt, White and Halmarick indicate though is social channels are changing the way the hospitality industry works. This is an opportunity for smaller operators to build strong brands in their own niche or region.

Jan 122015
 
tesla-motors-japan-nttdocomo

Chinese tourism and Mao’s influence on the US Marines are today’s links along with Tesla’s slow start in Australia.

Tesla rolls out in Australia

As part of Tesla’s Australian launch of its electric vehicles, the company has announced a chain of charging stations along the country’s East Coast, unfortunately not everyone is pleased to see them.

Chinese tourists look to Japan and the US

Japan and the US are the most sought after destinations for Chinese tourists reports the Wall Street Journal. Both countries have relaxed travel restrictions for China nationals in the last year and now they are reaping the benefits, particularly Japan which is only a few hours flight from Shanghai and Beijing.

Interestingly, New Zealand and Australia are also big improvers on the list with them coming in third and fourth on the list.

The US Marines’ Maoist connection

A curious article on Medium describes the origin of the term ‘gung-ho’ and how it was introduced to the US Marines through a Mao sympathising American General. “He may be red, but he’s not yellow” is how his contemporaries described Brigadier General Evans Carlson.

Oct 112014
 
Welcome to Air New Zealand Premium economy

Comfort is not the word that comes to mind when travelling economy across the Pacific so when a chance to upgrade a fourteen hour flight between Auckland and Los Angeles to Premium Economy comes along it’s worth grabbing.

Among Air New Zealands plethora of flight classes the airline offers a premium economy Spaceseat service on its long haul Boeing 777-300 services.

With extra space and legroom along with an improved food menu, the service is a step up from basic economy but is it a suitable substitute for the more expensive business class?

At first view, the premium economy seats are certainly more spacious than United’s business class with the cabin being six abreast in a 777-300 as opposed to eight on the US carrier’s service.

Air New Zealand Premium Economy bench arrangement

The seats themselves have a strange positive feedback system where it’s necessary to push the seat into the position you want. The recline on the seat also isn’t as far as expected being not a great deal more than standard economy.

Air New Zealand Premium economy cabin

Although the recline isn’t great, the leg room and space for working is excellent with no problems such as the passenger in front of you reclining into your face or mangling your laptop.

Air New Zealand Premium Economy seat with setup

One major advantage Air New Zealand’s premium economy has over United’s business is the ample elbow room; the wide cushion beside your seat gives plenty of space for placing drinks, books and other inflight paraphernalia, something really useful on a 14 hour flight.

Air New Zealand Premium Economy leg room and bean bag

Stretching out however isn’t so easy, the seats are nowhere near lie flat with additional leg room provided in small well in the back of the seat in front. Within that well a small bean bag is provided to give extra leg elevation.

Air New Zealand premium economy storage and water bottle

Alongside the seat is some more storage space where at the start of the flight the airline provides a bottle of water. Be careful putting anything valuable on this ledge as it can fall down behind the seat, in my case I lost a set of eyeshares although the basic amenities kit provided another pair.

Air New Zealand Premium Economy dinner

The food provided is a big step up from standard economy with the serves being more generous with wider choices. The smaller cabin also means faster service and Air New Zealand have avoided United’s mistake by providing sufficient toilets for the Premium Economy section.

Once the food is packed away the real test of the flight is how well one can sleep, particularly on a 14 hour flight that crosses the International Date Line (your arrival time in Los Angeles is earlier than the time you departed).

Air New Zealand premium economy legroom

Unfortunately the rest isn’t that great, the poor recline still makes it hard to sleep and the bean bag isn’t enough to give your feet much elevation. While it’s better than normal economy, you aren’t going to get a great night’s sleep.

The night’s sleep is where business class wins out; the ability to lie flat gives you the opportunity for a decent slumber while Premium Economy will still leave you sore and tired.

On balance, Air New Zealand’s Premium Economy is a good upgrade if want to pay extra for a bit more comfort or, like this writer, have points to squander.

If you’re travelling for work and the need for a good sleep before arrival is important, then premium economy won’t replace the benefits of a lie flat seat in business.

Paul travelled to Los Angeles as a guest of Salesforce, the upgrade was part of a points redemption.

Air New Zealand Boeing 777-300

Oct 022014
 
SFO+signage-medium-san-francisco-united

Transpacific business class on United Airlines is a curious service with the crowded cabins being a step down from the carrier’s own domestic service.

United Airlines surprised me by bouncing me onto a Qantas flight on my previous attempt to fly business class with them across the Pacific however on the return flight on UA863 between San Francisco and Sydney there were no such surprises.

On boarding the 777 the difference between the airline’s domestic business class and its trans Pacific routes is immediately apparent in the crowded eight abreast cabin which compares poorly to the four abreast on United’s domestic 757 services and is a world away from the six abreast on the Qantas A380 services.

It is however a lot better than the ten abreast at the back of the plane in economy and while the seats are cramped they are lie flat with all the standard fittings expected in a business class seat.

united-airlines-business-class-transpacific

Once settled in the seat and underway the cabin crew are spectacularly friendly and helpful despite being overworked in the crowded cabin. The gin and tonics are particularly strong and its worthwhile being cautious of having too many of them.

united-airlines-business-class-gin-and-tonic

Aside from lethally strong drinks, the business class food on the flight is good with a decently cooked steak as part of a four course meal including an appetizer, cheese plate and ice cream sundae. For an inflight meal, the mashed potato and baby carrots were surprisingly good.

united-airlines-business-class-dinner

For the regulars on the flight the most important part of the trip is their ice cream sundaes. Apparently these mean a lot to United’s loyal customers and are a nice touch with the flight attendants clearly enjoying the ceremony. If you’re nice to the cabin crew, you can expect extra nuts.

united-airlines-business-class-dessert

After the meals, one of the downsides of United’s crowded business class becomes apparent — the lack of restrooms which results in lines just as long as those in economy on other airlines.

Once you do make it into the toilets, the United Airlines’ amenity bag has a good range of accessories to make the flight more comfortable including travel socks, earplugs and skin moisturizer. It’s probably good United don’t offer a set of business class pyjamas like Qantas as nobody would ever get into the restrooms.

united-airlines-business-class-amenities-bag

Despite being cramped the lie flat beds are fine for a sleep during the 17 hour flight. During the period the lights are dimmed, the cabin crew do tend to vanish so staying hydrated involves making a trip to the galley where along with drinks a parked serving trolley offers self service fruit and snacks.

A few hours out of an on time arrival in Sydney sees standard American breakfasts being offered. These aren’t bad but aren’t good for anyone’s diet and no-one will be accusing the United States of producing the world’s best croissants any time soon.

united-airlines-business-class-breakfastOverall, United’s transpacific business class service is a curious beast. While the crew are friendly and the food adequate, it’s clear the product lags behind its own domestic service and other airline’s international offerings.

United’s lagging behind the competition is shown in their ticket prices with their business class fare from Sydney to New York being a third of Virgin’s and half of Qantas on the same routing. The market is voting with its wallet despite United having a monopoly on the Australia to San Francisco routes.

For those paying for fares out of their own pockets, it may well be worth considering other airline’s premium economy offerings although for connecting flights to other parts of North America, United offers more options than competing carriers.

Should you be one of the few where your employer still pays for long haul business class fares, then United is probably the least comfortable option although your office financial controller will be happier with the prices.

Paul flew United Business Class between Sydney and New York courtesy of Blackberry

Aug 262014
 
NZ8-air-new-zealand-economy-cabin-747

Air New Zealand, like most airlines, is about to end the era of the 747 with the airline’s last jumbo plying the transpacific route between Auckland and San Francisco until early next month.

With three weeks to go before decommissioning and being replaced by a 777-200ER, The City of Christchurch is showing its age. Although not quite as badly as United’s jumbos that were withdrawn late last year.

Catching the old bird in its final days was a touching note of nostalgia for the end of the jumbo jet age but also showed why its time for these older jets to be retired.

The first problem was a delay for ‘operational reasons’ – we never learned what those operational reasons were for the two and a half hour delay although we learned from the crew later that the flight came “within a whisker” of being cancelled – and NZ8 left shortly after 10pm.

On boarding, the age of the plane becomes quickly apparent with the interior fittings looking very much their age.

NZ8-air-new-zealand-747-leg-room

The economy seats themselves though are substantially wider, more comfortable with greater leg room than the connecting Dreamliner service from Sydney. This is good thing on a fourteen hour flight.

NZ8-air-new-zealand-IFE-crash-reboot

While the seats were travelling well with age, the IFE system wasn’t. For the first hour there was no sound until the cabin crew rebooted the system, even then both the video and music channels were often distorted and choppy.

NZ8-air-new-zealand-dinner

Once the in flight entertainment system was fixed, it was onto the meals. Dinner was a choice of ham pasta, a mumbled chicken dish and a beef curry. Everyone in our row took the beef which was a touch greasy but fine when mixed with the rice. The ice cream was a nice touch but serving it with the hot dish meant you had to each quickly.

In between the meal services, the crew were friendly and efficient and somewhat wistful about the last days of the 747; most of them had spent their careers on these planes.

NZ8-air-new-zealand-breakfast

Breakfast was the choice of a cold cereal or hot omelette, baked beans and chicken sausage both of which were accompanied with fruit salad, roll and yoghurt. The hot breakfast was a standard but not unpleasant economy class airline breakfast.

Eventually the plane arrived in San Francisco two hours late, and then I found a prominent analyst had pinched the car hired by VM Ware to take us to the hotel. But that’s another story.

Many people will be sad to see the last of the 747, but Air New Zealand’s last jumbo shows they have reached the end of their days.

Paul travelled on Air New Zealand as a guest of VM Wear to attend the VM World conference in New Zealand.

Aug 232014
 
Qantas-business-class-seat

My heart sank on checking in for my United Airlines flight to Los Angeles at Sydney Airport. “Sorry sir, there’s a problem with the flight,” said the impeccably polite United Airlines check in clerk.

His next comment made my day. “We’ll be transferring you to the Qantas flight,” and so a few minutes later I had a Qantas boarding pass for QF11 for the 14 hour flight to Los Angeles and access to their Business Class lounge at Sydney International.

Qantas-business-class-sydney-lounge

Time only permitted a short visit to the Business class lounge which is spacious with a generous range of self service drinks but a somewhat limited range of food. What is available is pleasant and adequate and the lounge is a good place to get some last minute work done or relax with the interesting view of the airport.

Aboard the plane

On the plane there’s a big difference between the two airlines’ business classes; Qantas Flight QF11 between Sydney and Los Angeles is an Airbus A380 with six abreast seats in business class while United’s equivalent is a Boeing 777 with eight cramped seats.

Qantas-business-class-seatskybed ready for take off

Reflecting this, Qantas’ Business Class lie flat Skybeds are generously wide with a personal lights, privacy screens and personal video. International power sockets are easily accessible at the front of the arm rests.

The plane is a touch grubby and worn which is surprising for such a modern plane. The service itself is very friendly and polite with Business Class passengers welcomed with a choice of soft drinks or sparkling wine.

Flight amenities include a set of simple cotton pyjamas along with blankets and a basic kit that includes toothpaste, eye shades and travel socks.

Shortly after take off, the cabin crew offer to put a thin mattress on the seats to make them more padded and comfortable, particularly for sleeping.

Qantas-business-class-skybed-lumbar-supportseat controls including the massage functions

The lie flat beds are reasonably comfortable with various lumbar options and a fairly weird massage function that doesn’t seem to do a great deal.

Overall the Qantas Sky Beds allow a good night’s sleep which is the main point of paying for business on a long haul flight.

Inflight service

Cabin service is polite and efficient although the cabin crew have a habit of vanishing. One of the downsides of the vanishing crew is it’s easy to end up dehydrated over the 14 hour journey despite their prompt response to the cabin call button.

Qantas-business-class-late-night-snackearly morning coffee and crackers

When called there were plenty of food and drink options although snacks surprising ran out later in the flight leaving only the option of cheese and biscuits with an early morning coffee.

Qantas-business-class-dinnerdinner service

Dinner was served two hours into the flight and the minced chicken on noodles was a reasonable meal although a touch bland, the cheese tray suffered the perennial airline problem of being stingy with the biscuits.

Qantas-business-class-breakfastBreakfast bruschetta

Breakfast ninety minutes out from Los Angeles had a fairly standard range of airline breakfasts – the mushroom bruschetta was a pleasant, light and tasty option.

Surfing the options

The inflight entertainment system is a fairly standard offering with a good range of current and older movies and TV series. The personalised playlist being a bit of a disappointment given it doesn’t automatically move on at the end of each song while the news and current affairs programs are somewhat parochial although that’s forgiven on the Australian flag carrier.

Arrival in Los Angeles was on time with the only draw back being that Qantas couldn’t check bags through to JFK which required collected bags at Tom Bradley, dragging them across to United’s Terminal Seven and re-checking the bags. For connecting flights this is a bit of a hassle although its made easier when you’ve arrived relaxed and refreshed after a good night’s sleep.

Overall, the Qantas A380 Business Class is comfortable product that meets the needs of a business traveller who needs to work or sleep on a flight. If your budget — or that of your employer — can cover the cost then its a choice worth making.