Life on the Road…Avoiding Horrible Airline Coffee

I travel a lot, almost 100,000 miles a year, for work, I also require coffee to function in the morning, and these two requirements are definitely in conflict these days.  Years ago most airlines served Starbucks or other high quality coffee.  Some airlines even will make cappuccinos on board, but in the US the number of airlines serving bad coffee has skyrocketed.  American Airlines and United Airlines both used to serve Starbucks but have gone to cheaper alternatives.  American doesn’t even have Splenda!

As a result I’ve created a survival kit of sorts to at least get coffee that doesn’t taste weak and gives me all the options I need for a serviceable cup of coffee.  Sadly I can’t bring barista quality equipment on board, but the survival kit easily fits into any backpack.


The survival kit contains Starbucks VIA which can be dissolved into hot water, Splenda packets, though you can replace with your own sweetener, Coffee-mate To Go which is a great solution for non refrigerated creamer, coffee stirs, a thermos travel mug and finally gilding the lily is biscotti because once in a while you want to be fancy.

I also carry Tazo Refresh tea bags in case I am sick which is how the whole survival kit got started.  I needed to guzzle tea to get my voice back to speak at a conference back in 2009 and traveled with my favorite tea to help.  Ever since I’ve expanded the kit.

First Class Battle. Alaska Airlines vs Virgin America vs United Airlines Who’s Better?

I spent way to much time on the road in June flying back and forth from the west coast 3 times in 4 weeks.  Thanks to a combination of short notice trips, flight credits and great fares I ended up in first class on all 6 flights on 3 different carriers.  I’ll detail each experience, include photos and deliver a verdict. NOTE: For 7 years I was a United 1K flying ~200K miles a year, the majority of it in domestic first class and international business class.

Alaska Airlines
Washington Reagan National Airport (DCA) to LAX to DCA

Hard to ever turn down a flight from DCA to the west coast. Avoiding Dulles at any cost should be all travelers’ goals. It was my first time on Alaska Airlines and I was looking forward to flying them after hearing friends’ reviews who live in Seattle.

The seat was not super comfortable. It was hard and the recline was limited.

WiFi was great. It was faster than I had experienced on Virgin America and the cost was less than VA. The inflight entertainment was on a digi handheld player. The content was decent, the device cumbersome but was better than watching an overhead monitor on a United 757. The biggest downfall is that there are no outlets at the seat making it impossible to charge your device. It is strange that you can offer WiFi but no outlets. My laptop barely made it powered on the outbound flight.

Alaska still hands out menus on the flight. The outbound breakfast was a nice change from typical the egg hockey puck on United and was plated very nicely. The coq au vin was a hearty lunch.

Crew on both flights were happy to be there, professional and worked the entire time. They addressed each passenger by last name and thanked us all for our business.

United Airlines
Washington Dulles (IAD) to SEA to IAD

Back in a familiar setting with my family as we traveled out to Seattle to see friends. The outbound flight was on a 757 and the return was on a former Continental 737-800. The contrast was quite stark in the experiences on each flight. And that sums up one of my bigger gripes with United is the inconsistencies.

The 757 seat was leather and still was super comfortable for me. Perhaps my body has adapted to the seat after all the miles I have previous flown on United. The 737-800 seat was nearly identical to the Alaska Airlines seat and by the time I got off the plane by back hurt.

United has come in last place on technology for years and nothing changed on this trip. The 757 had overhead screens and no power adapters. The 737-800 at least had power at the seat and DirectTV making the flight bearable, but no WiFi on any United flights kills any productivity.

Breakfast on the outbound was the predictable hockey puck, highlighted with horrible coffee. Why did United get rid of Starbucks? I am not a coffee junkie nor a Starbucks addict but what they are serving on United is awful.

On the return flight we had a pasta dish that I remember having in coach in 2005. It amazes me this is what United is giving to paying customers (I was not one of them on this flight) in first class.

Though I did get an ice cream sundae for dessert.

United’s biggest inconsistencies start with their crews. The outbound flight crew was impatient, did the bare minimum and disappeared as soon as the trays were picked up only to reappear right before landing. The return crew was terrific. They went out of their way to help when my daughter wanted a snack, since she could not eat the airline food due to allergies.

Virgin America
Washington Dulles (IAD) to SFO to IAD

I want to like Virgin America. All the hipsters love them but I can’t help but feel they try so hard to be cool that they forget some basics.

The seat on both flights was easily the most comfortable. Built in lumbar massage, foot rest, not bad.

Virgin America was the only airline that hit all three checkboxes on my must haves. WiFi, power outlets, and live tv. The price of WiFi was more expensive on Virgin than Alaska by $3.00.

This is always where Virgin loses me. They tend to try to hard to cater the flight with fancy, hip food which you can’t pull off on an airplane. If they only could keep it simple like Alaska did with their breakfast. This flight I settled for the simple fruit plate with granola which was really good.

Both crews were average. Every Virgin America crew I have had does their job, keeps everyone well fed and happy but they are not the most personal. I don’t need small talk, or to be addressed formally, but the crews I had this trip were like automatrons.

And the winner is…
For people who care about miles and status, it is a no brainer, Alaska wins hands down. Virgin America has a weak loyalty program called Elevate, but Alaska allows you to earn miles on Delta, American and has their own program.

If you don’t care about miles, then Virgin wins in a squeaker. Better seats and better technology put it ahead of Alaska. United is not even on my radar at this point. I am done flying them. Personally, I dislike flying from Dulles, so when Virgin adds a flight from National Airport later this summer to SFO it puts them over the top. Power at the seat and live TV with the added convenience of National make going to SFO a breeze for me.

[Photos] San Francisco

Late in June I was in San Francisco for Google I/O.  I had a few spare minutes to capture some of my favorite iconic images of the city.  My trip started with an early morning visit to Washington Dulles International Airport.


Google I/O was packed with people. Especially when everyone queued up for all the free giveaways.

No trip to the SoMa district in San Fran would be complete without a trip to Blue Bottle Coffee.

Cable cars lining up at the Market St Turntable.

The Intercontinental Hotel in San Francisco is one of the most green buildings in the world. Their energy consumption is shared with all hotel guests in the lobby.

[Photos] Los Angeles Trip Report

I jetted off to Southern California for a few days of work this week, but I had a few moments of free time to watch sunset in Venice Beach, President Obama’s arrival in LA, a quick stop at In-n-Out and some surfers at El Porto.


Grand Canyon


Marina Del Rey

Full Slideshow

Arrival into Los Angeles

Layover at LAX? In-n-Out is only a shuttle bus away.

I have been saddled with 2 hour layovers in Los Angeles too many times to count over the last few years.  It is always nice as we make our final approach into LAX to see the palm trees, Hollywood Park and the beach.  Of course one of the things that is hard to miss on approach is as we cross Sepulveda Boulevard is the red and yellow In-n-Out sign.  It is so close to the airport, I know there is a way to leave the airport on my layover and pick up a burger.

In-n-Out on Final Approach into LAX

I once tried walking it during a 2.5 hour layover and I nearly missed my connecting flight.  The next time I tried a cab and it was easy but expensive as we waiting in the drive thru lane with the meter running.  While in the drive thru line I discovered the missing piece to this puzzle.  Right next to In-n-Out is a parking garage called “The Parking Spot.”  They have a shuttle that runs between LAX and the garage.  Bingo, so now when I land in LAX, I walk outside the terminal, grab “The Parking Spot” shuttle for the Sepulveda garage get my lunch and take the shuttle back.  I have managed to make this run with a 1 hour 45 minute layover with time to spare.

The Parking Spot Sepulveda Shuttle

Pro tip: Make sure you tell the shuttle driver you are self parked so they don’t get suspicious you are using their shuttle for animal style burgers and fries instead of picking up your car.

Map from In-n-Out to LAX

United Airlines, So Long and Thanks for All the Fish

After flying between 150,000 and 200,000 miles every year since 2006, this year I barely flew 10% of that.  So it is with great sadness that I say farewell to United, my 1K status, free upgrades, free checked bags and fast lines at the airport.  I am now a free agent in the airline world, willing to fly whomever will get me from point A to point B the fastest, most conveniently and cheapest.

I miss flying around the world even when it meant delayed flights, missed connections and lost luggage.  This week there were two cool videos that were posted to satisfy my flying needs.  The first video is a behind the scenes look at what happens to your luggage from the time you check your bag to the time it is delivered to you.

The second video is a cool behind the scenes look at an average day at Denver International Airport, an airport I flew through way to often in my 5+ years flying United.

[TRIP REPORT] Taking a break in Turks and Caicos

For years I have wanted to go to the Turks and Caicos.  Located 650 miles southeast of Miami, Florida,  and part of the British Overseas Territories the Turks and Caicos Islands (TCIs) the TCIs have the most amazing color of water and the most pristine beaches I have ever seen.

As of December 2011, there are no non-stop flights from Washington, DC to TCI, so we hopped a prop plane up to Newark, NJ to catch our flight down to paradise.  I caught a great sunrise picture departing National Airport:

After a 3 hour flight from Newark, we arrived in Provo which is the largest city in the TCIs.  One of the most popular places to stay on Provo is an area called Grace Bay and is considered one of the top 10 beaches in the world.

The beaches were completely empty and the color of the water definitely lived up to its reputation.

The downside of the TCIs and Provo is that the cost of food and other goods on the island is in some cases 50% higher than in the US.  In one store I saw a container of Breyer’s Ice Cream selling for $12.50!

The cost of food aside, the privacy, solitude and beauty of the TCIs definitely make the trip worth it.  To see it from above is even more beautiful, here is a video of our departure:


Racing from NYC to DC…Planes, trains and automobiles

Recently inspired by an old Top Gear episode where the hosts, Clarkson, Hammond, May, and The Stig race across London in various modes of transportation, I faced a similar opportunity going to and from NYC.  For the past 4 years I have had to travel regularly to NYC from DC for work and I go back and forth on how to travel between the two cities.

Last week I decided the time had come, it was time to see which mode of transportation was fastest home from NYC to DC.  While we were not as scientific as the Top Gear crew, we definitely discovered whether flying is faster than the train.

We left midtown at 445PM, I was headed to LaGuardia for a Delta Shuttle flight at 630PM, my competitor left for Penn State trying to make the 5PM Acela train, but knew he would most likely take the 6PM Acela train.

It took me 45 minutes to get to the airport, just missing the 530PM shuttle, but enough time to grab a drink at the bar.  It turned out that my racing companion made the 5PM train which meant that he would be south of Philly before I even left the ground.  I was doubting my choice.

Finally it was time to board, and get under way.  We took off on time and the pilot announced a flight time of 33 minutes.  When we flew over downtown Baltimore 20 minutes later at 650PM, I knew I had taken a lead.  We touched down and were at the gate by 710PM, the train well that was still 40 minutes from DC.

While I had to go through security at LaGuardia, had no Wi-Fi and had to sit in an airport for 45 minutes, I still got to DC 40 minutes faster than the train.  Now the train has benefits, it was slightly cheaper than my plane ticket, I can get work done (a pro tip, sit close to the food car because that is where the wi-fi connection is strongest).

The uncontrollable factors in the race include the cab ride between the city and the airport and weather. I find that the cab ride out to the airport is always easier than into the city, so it may be the case where the train is faster when going to NYC.  When the weather is bad (thunderstorms in the summer, snow in the winter) the train is a better bet than the plane.  In this race, I had little traffic and perfect weather.