Jun 092013

Posted from Newport, England, United Kingdom.

A small island 16km south of Southampton or a short hovercraft ride away from Portsmouth offers the potential of being a nice bank holiday destination for those living in London and seeking a bit of time to relax away from the crowds and enjoying a bit of countryside. We have spent our late May bank holiday doing exactly that Simply put, if my opening statement is exactly what you’re after, go for it!

The nature of the island is remarkably beautiful. One gets to see the beautiful white cliffs like those in Dover. There is plenty of green everywhere and there is surprisingly also small fauna in the tall grass, e.g. you get to see rabbits jumping along the road, which can be hardly found elsewhere nowadays in England.

The life on the island is set in its own pace and the pace is quite slow. Sports cars can’t make much sense there as one can hardly drive faster than 30mph. The roads are narrow and the towns are small. With 140K inhabitants and 384 km sq. of land, it’s easy to get away from people if you wish to do so.

The concept of a nice stylish British pub is prevalent. In fact, we haven’t found any alternatives. Should you have any food intolerances or allergies, then you’re in a definite disadvantage. Asking for a soya milk, gluten free bread, or anything else non-standard is sort of speak “pushing it” a step too far.

It doesn’t necessarily demand high observation skills to notice that the service quality is on average quite low. To give an example, asking at a reception of a 4* hotel about the sightseeing highlights on the island returns effectively no answer. There might be effectively no more than five different attractions really, so even for those who simply don’t care, it shouldn’t be brain damaging to give it a quick read and be hence a bit useful.

The place is great for those who have kids. There are plenty of attractions to see. For instance the island’s landmark – “The Needles” – doesn’t purely offer the natural beauty alone, but an amusement park, hot dogs, ice creams, double-decker that addresses the danger of having to hike 1km up the hill, etc.

I don’t think we’ll be coming back anytime soon, but we truly did enjoy our three days on the island. The highlights were clearly the beautiful walks along the white cliffs with great visibility in every direction.

 Posted by at 8:23 pm
Mar 232013

Posted from Foz Sousa, Porto District, Portugal.

The Roman occupation of the Iberian peninsula in the 4th century gave foundations, as we discovered over an extended weekend at the end of February, to an extremely beautiful, cultural and charismatic place – the city of Porto (called “Oporto” by the English speaking world).

Our experience was helped by the fact that the weather was absolutely great through-out our visit and allowed pretty much for our entire time to be spent outside and in the sun! That being quite a contrast to London of course.

To set the context a bit, the city was listed as a Unesco World heritage site in 1996. You quickly get the sense of why it happened when you reach the Ribeira area in the Historical centre of the Old town. The location couldn’t be more stunning as the city spreads along the Douro river estuary in Northern Portugal with beautifully green hills (also in February, yes!), those tiny little narrow and colourful houses … beautiful.

We spent three days in Porto and were busy discovering. The time seemed to be just right to see the place, but one could easily spend a week, relax, enjoy and breath in the atmosphere. There is lots to do there from visiting churches and cathedrals, to walking along the seaside, eating tasty Portuguese food … and you wouldn’t have guessed it … tasting the Port wines!

We have done a few wine tastings. The most memorable was Ferreira, which is the last Portuguese owned winery. Otherwise we have done a tour of Calem and visited Sandeman and Ramos Pinto. If you plan to do the same, take into account that the opening times are tailored unfortunately more around the stores preferences than around the customers, so you need to pencil down when you plan to visit each. Encountering closed doors is no exception.

Outside of the historical centre, do not miss the hyper modern Casa da Musica. You can tell Portuguese architects are clearly top class when walking around Porto, but this building has been designed by the Dutch. It’s really stunning. Not too far from there awaits Serralves, which is a good example of Portuguese architecture where simplicity and white colours predominate. Once done with the buildings, the Foz is a great place for a nice long walk along the seaside and you can grab some nice food along the way. The restaurants here are way above Porto’s very affordable average, but then you know you’re in a premium location.

I already know we’ll be back again in Porto. Next time it will need to be in summer and we will want to travel through out the whole Portugal – that’s the plan!

 Posted by at 12:21 pm
Feb 102013

What do we typically do when choosing a hotel? We look at its location, proximity to a place we want to visit, price and we tend to investigate the value we get for our money, which is typically represented by the equipment provided in the room. Because we do not like to part with our money too easily, we also often check what others say about it on a review site such as Expedia.com or Tripadvisor.com. If others didn’t like it, we rather pay a bit extra and get something better.

At the end of 2012 I flew twice to the US on business. The first trip was with United Airlines and the second one with American Airlines. And that’s when I started drawing comparisons between my expectations from a hotel industry and what I deem “acceptable” in air-travel business …

As unlucky as I was, my first trip saw my outbound United Airlines flight cancelled. Little quarrel at the check in desk got me on a flight with Air New Zealand to Los Angeles. I was naturally annoyed about the change in my already stretched itinerary, but my mood changed quite quickly as I sat down in my economy class seat. The seat was comfortable, clean, new and overall really nice. There was space to stretch my legs. All passengers got headphones and were given very good size touch screens with lots of new movie releases or good music selection or other entertainment. The food was good and staff very kind. Air New Zealand was allegedly scoring high on the airline of the year and I could tell why.

In Los Angeles I had to change back to the United and that’s where my travel comfort ended in 2012. Apart from the fact that the United flight was delayed by 1.5hrs because the staff simply didn’t show up, the plane was old, worn off and I’d nearly say dirty. The same happened on my trip back and it only got worse when I boarded American Airlines on my trip to Chicago one month later.

Just for comparison, few interest points about American Airlines planes. First of all, forget “space” if you’re in economy. Actually, forget it if you’re also in “economy plus” and don’t expect much in business. Imagine a low cost airline kind of leg space, but here you have the pleasure to suffer it for 8 hours instead of maximum 2! The next question is where to put your arms. If you’re wearing a suit, your problem feels a notch bigger. I guess the answer is to pay additional £1,000 and fly business or stay at home until you can pay or your company does that for you. But back to your “reality”. Many passengers tend to start checking their personal in-fight entertainment! Well, nothing for you here, but then your plane was built in 1980′s or if you’re lucky in 1990′s and at that time there wasn’t such thing – so make sure you bring a book. Yes, there will be a small 10″ monitor hanging 3m away from you and if you buy headset for $2, you will have the pleasure to listen to movies you’ve probably already seen on Tv. The good news is, as you will be surely informed by a cheesy movie clip, that American (surprisingly United play their version of the same clip too) are considering a sizeable investment to upgrade their fleet sometime in the future. So imagine and be happy, ok?

So what does this tell you? My impression was that I was being ripped off! The flights with United, American, Air New Zealand or any other airline are very much the same price, or similar. Had I been informed that I was to enjoy comfortable 10hr flight to California with Air New Zealand and a discomfort on the way back, which was only beaten by even worse flight as a curtesy of American Airlines one month later? No! Could I have found out? No!

I think that there is a market opportunity that, for some reason, is not being leveraged by those airlines that could do so. It is a full disclosure of what customers can expect onboard when buying a ticket and parting with lots of their cash. Apart from being given the basics, customers could be told that a 10inch touch screen is given to everyone, headphones included, offer of a great music selection and extra space available. Yes, I would pay extra for all this rather than feeling like a involuntary donor to the failing business of United Airlines and American Airlines. These two companies even feel it’s ok to tell me that I’m paying money today for their inadequate quality of service, in exchange for a promise that one day they might just about catch up what others already offer today! And keep smiling while doing it because, hey, what else do you do, right?

 Posted by at 10:20 pm
Jan 092013

Hi there,

it has taken me quite some time to set this all up, but the blog is nearly up and running. This is my first post, so I’ll keep it short. More to come!