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 Although not quite as badly as United’s jumbos that were withdrawn late last year.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.

Aug 172014
 
First Boeing 747

The 747 Jumbo jet defined an era of international travel and now it’s coming to an end.

Whether the 747 was the first true jumbo jet – the 747-400 certainty wasn’t – is a question for debate; for my money the DC-10 was the original ‘heavy’. But really it doesn’t matter as the Boeing aircraft defined the late Twentieth Century model of global tourism.

The era of the heavy wide bodied jet planes chained international travel and spawned the modern tourist industry.

With the retirement of the last 747’s an important chapter of the Twentieth Century closes. What follows will define the shape of today’s tourist and business travel industry.

Jun 162014
 
located near the Moscone Centre is the Marriott Marquis hotel

The San Francisco Chronicle has a great feature mapping apartment rental service AirBnB’s effects on the city’s economy.

By trawling through the AirBnB database, The Chronicle found 4,800 properties for rent in the city to glean a great deal of information that the company is not keen to share.

A key point from the survey is that over 80% – 3200 – of the properties are householders renting out spare rooms or their places while they are away, which is exactly what AirBnB claim their service is designed for.

The other, professional hosts are what’s attracted the wrath of regulators in cities like New York, where it appears unofficial hotels are skating around taxation and safety regulations.

A new breed of middleman

Catering for these professional hosts has seen another group of middlemen service pop up and The Chronicle features Airenvy, a service that helps landlords manage their properties.

Airenvy is now the biggest San Francisco host, managing 59 properties on behalf of its clients and charging 12 percent commission for dealing with the daily hassle of looking after guests. Since launching in January it employs twelve staff.

Unlike many of the internet middlemen, Airenvy does seem to add value to the renting process above being a simple listing service. For absentee hosts, the fees would seem to be worthwhile in reducing risks and problems.

Filling the gaps

A unique thing about San Francisco is the concentration of hotels around Union Square with 20,000 of the city’s hotel rooms within a ten minute walk of the Moscone Centre.

For non-convention visitors, particularly those visiting family or friends, AirBnB is an opportunity to get a place out of downtown.

The price ranges reflect the service’s diversity as well; from $18 a night for a couch through to $6,000 for a mansion. The average though is close to a typical hotel rate of $226 a day.

The effects of AirBnB

What the survey shows is AirBnB has diversified San Francisco’s accommodation options without the problems being encountered in New York.

That isn’t to say there aren’t problems – the Silicon Valley model of pushing responsibility and consequences onto users leaves a lot of risk for the both the service and its customers – however AirBnB is another example of how industries are evolving as information becomes easier to find.

Another thing this survey shows is the new breed of data journalism and how analysing the numbers can be the foundation of building great stories.

The AirBnB and the changing global travel industry is a great story in itself as the San Francisco Chronicle has shown.

 

May 182014
 
ferry-sign-palm-beach-to-ettalong

Newcastle, a 160km north of Sydney is a drive easily done in less than two hours but for masochists and commuters there’s the three hour train trip affectionately known as the shitkansen by the locals.

The train trip itself has parts that are genuinely spectacular as it winds through the hills and rivers of the New South Wales’ Central Coast, albeit at speeds that are slower than in the 1933 timetables.

One of the reasons for the slow and spectacular trip is the Hawkesbury River and Broken Bay and that presents a natural barrier between Sydney, the Central Coast and Newcastle.

That natural barrier also presents an opportunity for a third, prettier route between the two cities using the private ferry service that runs between Central and Sydney’s northernmost suburb of Palm Beach.

Catching the slow train

slow-train-newcastle-sydney-shitkansen

Starting from the original Newcastle Railway Station, the trains run twice an hour during the day with one ‘fast’ service taking two-and-a-half hours and slow trips taking three.

interior-of-newcastle-sydney-slow-train

Inside the trains things are relatively comfortable although quite grubby. The purple colour scheme are the refurbished older carriages, the original 1970s ones being in a fairly awful green. The news trains feature a modern vandal proof colour scheme although the seats are more uncomfortable for a three hour journey.

Another weakness with the train service is the spartan facilities, apart from graffiti covered toilets there are absolutely no passenger amenities so bringing your own food and drink is essential along with fully charged electronics as there are no power outlets available.

closing-newcastle-sydney-railway-line

Amazingly, rather than improving the railway service to the state’s second biggest city the government plans to abandon the last five kilometers and replace the trains with buses. If there was one example of the 1960s thinking that dominates Australian politics, this venal and ill-thought out proposal is a wonderful example.

The Central Coast

While the parts of the ride between Sydney and Newcastle are spectacular, the stretch south to the Central Coast are the boring parts featuring little more than housing estates and low grade scrub until arriving at Gosford where the train runs alongside Brisbane Water until Woy Woy.

woy-woy-shopping-centre

On alighting the train at Woy Woy, the immediate impression is a town that won’t win any heritage awards with its neglected main street and an anonymous shopping mall. All of which is a pity as its location between the hills and waterways is sensational.

Sadly there’s little reason to hang around so getting a bus to Ettalong is the best thing to do.

bus-woy-woy-to-ettalong

From Woy’s Woy’s dismal transport interchange – a fate that waits Newcastle’s truncated railway service – buses leave every few minutes for the 15 minute journey to Ettalong. If you have a Sydney transport travelpass then your ticket is valid on the private bus service.

Ettalong

If you’re stopping for lunch or a break during the journey, Ettalong isn’t a bad choice with a lot more coffee bars, restaurants and bakeries than the rather depressing choices at Woy Woy.

Since this writer’s last visit to the town three years ago when its centre was struggling with many empty shops; its fortunes have improved dramatically and it’s gone back to being a good destination for a day trip in itself.

Catching the ferry

ettalong-palm-beach-ferry

The ferry itself is a twenty minute trip including a brief stop at the village of Wagstaffe. Its route winds through the sandbanks of Brisbane Water before getting to the open water of Broken Bay.

lion-island-hawkesbury-ettalong-to-palm-beach-ferry

Midway across the bay, the ferry passes Lion Island and the mouth of the Hawkesbury River before entering Pittwater and the Northern Suburbs of Sydney.

Palm Beach

arrival-at-palm-beach-ferry-wharf

The wharf at Palm Beach is a classic wooden structure in a lovely location. Across the carpark and road is a general store, the Barranjoey House restaurant and a fish and chip shop.

For a takeaway meal, the fish and chip shop is nicer than the general store but you can enjoy either at the park alongside the ferry wharf.

For a sit down meal, Barrenjoey House has an expensive restaurant along with a bar with an outdoor seating area if you’re looking for a cold drink while waiting for a bus to Sydney.

The bus to Sydney

l90-bus-from-sydney-to-palm-beach

The bus back to Sydney takes about 90 minutes. It isn’t the most comfortable journey however the views of the city’s gorgeous Northern Beaches are worthwhile if you’re sittiing on the left side when heading south.

Once past Long Reef, the journey is mainly suburbia except when crossing the Spit and Harbour Bridges. A more interesting option that will add another hour to the journey is to switch buses at Warringah Mall and travel to the city via the Manly Ferry.

Taking the Slowkansen from Newcastle to Sydney isn’t the trip for anyone in a hurry with it adding up to two hours to an already slow three train hour journey but it’s a lot more interesting than the regular way to travel between the two cities.

Nov 032013
 
paris-gare-du-nord-departure-board

During last week I spent the last two days travelling by train between conferences in Spain and the UK while trying to work, write and blog. The lesson is you need to leave the tech at home if you want an enjoyable holiday.

Some of us however are travelling for business so the option of leaving the technology at home isn’t an option. Here are some tips on how to work effectively while on the road.

Charge, charge, charge

If you want to be connected you have to charge your devices at every opportunity, you never know when the next opportunity will arise.

Three pin European power socket

Three pin European power socket

One trap for players is the earthed adaptor plug as the third pin basically renders your equipment useless on most trains and bathrooms. So beg borrow or steal one that lacks the pin which will almost certainly leave you with dead batteries on a night train.

Get Connected

Don’t rely on WiFi, in many places it’s patchy and in France requires convoluted sign up plans. When you can get it, consider it a bonus.

If staying more than three days in a city buying a local pre-paid SIM saves money, but when travelling a lot in Europe it’s best to buy a European wide SIM which will cost more but won’t die at the border.

The dying on the border shouldn’t be understated. On the night train from Barcelona to Paris the service – which the salesman assured would work in France – stopped working the moment the train exited the tunnel from Spain at Cerbere.

Avoid night travel

Should you be intending to work while on the road, avoid night travel. You’ll get more work done in a hotel room or hostel than on a stuffy night train and be more productive than after an overnight flight.

Travel light

Keep things to a minimum, if you’re working that might mean laptops and big cameras but for leisure keep it simple. The less tech you carry, the fewer the power, security and other hassles you’ll encounter.

Forget a schedule

Work where you can and when you can. If you’re diligent then flight and train delays can be your friend in getting stuff done.

Get a room

Working in hostels is almost impossible and you risk having things stolen, staying with friends and relatives is great but their hospitality makes it hard get things done. Get a cheap room so you can work in peace.

An important thing about travel is that you are away from home to learn about and experience other places, spending your time stressing about finding a power socket or Wi-Fi access point is not why you’re on the road.

Overall, tech is a hassle when you’re travelling. If you’re on the road for pleasure keep most of it at home, if you’re working then keep it all to a minimum.

Nov 022013
 
the-golden-fish-hotel-arts-barcelona

Sitting next to Frank Gehry’s giant goldfish on the city’s waterfront and marina, Barcelona’s Arts Hotel was part of  the city’s redevelopment after the 1992 Olympics.

Like the giant fish, the hotel is a quirky building with a strange layout including an entrance that requires guests to catch a lift to the lobby on first floor.

Once you find the lobby, the staff are an incredibly friendly bunch hailing from around the Eurozone, including Dutch, French and Icelandic workers among the Spanish staff.

If you happen to be in the hotel between five and six, the management puts on free cava and nibbles in the lobby.

Free Wi-Fi is available is available in the lobby which adds to it being a comfortable place to sit if you have time to kill after checking out.

The standard suites, known as Deluxe Rooms, are comfortable with all the features expected in a five star hotel.

standard-room-hotel-arts-barcelona

Double beds are comfortable with a high tech bedside control panel with several pre-set lighting configurations, a built in alarm clock and electric blinds that do a very good job of keeping the sun out if you want to lie in.

standard-room-bed-hotel-arts-barcelona

The bathroom has a spacious bath with a separate shower, bidet and toilet along with a generous range of toiletries, toothbrush and razor. The bathrobes are particularly comfortable.

bathroom-standard-room-hotel-arts-barcelona

The writing desk is good but suffers from a lack of power sockets with only a double, standard European three pin plug slot that’s already used by the desklamp and cordless phone. You’ll have to at least unplug the phone to get some work done.

 writing-desk-in-standard-room-hotel-arts-bacelona

Both ethernet and wireless access are available with a 25 Euro a day charge for access. It is possible to leech off the free hotel access as it appears to allow consecutive logins after each twenty-four period expires.

in-room-coffee-machine-hotel-arts-barcelona

The inroom coffee machine is a Nespresso unit — the innovation that has change hotel coffe. One drawback with these devices is that management restricts guests to two free cartridges a day with additional ones charged at an extortionate four euro each. If you’re a coffee addict, it’s worthwhile buying a box of cartridges from the supermarket two blocks away.

min-bar-fridge-hotel-arts-barcelona

While you’re at the supermarket it’s worth buying some drinks and snacks to get around the standard extortionate five star minibar prices, be warned though that the term ‘mini-bar’ was coined for the tiny fridges in the hotel so if you bring your own supplies don’t expect to fit in anything larger than a 600ml bottle.

A similar problem affects the room safe which is big enough to fit passports, wallets and phones but not a 10″ iPad.

Bull-in-the-cafe-hotel-arts-barcelona

One of the features with the Arts Hotel are the delightful roof top gardens with quiet nooks and crannies featuring various sculptures and architectural features.

rooftop-garden-hotel-arts-barcelona

The hotel’s swimming pool is 25m but is fiendishly cold, it’s good to wake up to but the idea of doing 40 laps quickly evaporates as any more than ten minutes in the pool isn’t comfortable.

swimming-pool-hotel-arts-barcelona

Warming up after a swim isn’t so bad with some hammocks to relax in, these are popular with conference delegates killing time after checking out from the hotel, so grab one early.

cosy-hammocks-hotel-arts-barcelona

Overall, the hotel is a good choice if you’re not travelling on a budget. While the location is a little way from Barcelona’s major tourist attractions it’s a 15 minute walk from the El Born district of Barcelona and two of the city’s tourist bus routes.

Bull-in-the-cafe-hotel-arts-barcelona

The most notable thing about the Hotel Arts is the friendliness of its staff – even if you can’t afford to stay there it’s worthwhile dropping around the lobby at 5pm for a glass of cava.