Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Train vs. Plane: 10 Reasons To Ride The Rails

Based on what I've seen in movies, air travel used to be a much more romantic than it has ever been since I've started traveling. Hot meals were routine, comfort (in addition to safety) was a priority and air travel was still enough of a rarity flying through the skies was a special occasion for many.

Almost all of my romantic vision of the golden age of air travel comes from the movie "Three Guys Named Mike" starring the ever so dreamy Van Johnson and the slightly less dreamy Jane Wyman.

Sadly, this aeronautical utopia only lives on as a cinematic fantasy and in the memories of those lucky enough to have lived through it. It seems that the quest for efficiency and safety (or the perception of safety) has killed most of the romantic aspects of air travel. There's no more running to catch planes at the last minute. It's more of a run and hope that you are early enough to get your ticket and then hope that you make it through security in time.

Times have changed the airlines in drastic ways. Fortunately time has been less cruel to travel by rail. When I think of movies that act as my gauge for train travel I think of "Some Like it Hot" starring Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon. You can go ahead and add that to your NetFlix queue now, and you can thank me later.

While "Some Like it Hot" has relatively few scenes aboard a train, the ones that did occur on a train are priceless. Running to catch a train to join a band, a late night cocktail party with a hot water bottle cocktail shaker and even band practice. While you might not see all of these things while riding the rails, it still seems within the realm of reason.

Not all of the fun has been drained of the rail industry, so it still retains a lot of the romanticism that it always has.

Recently, I traveled from Boston, MA to Manhattan, NY twice in one week by train. Spending quite a bit of quality time on a train lately has got me thinking of some of the benefits to taking the train over flying, below are my top 10 in no particular order.

Bigger Lavatories
The lavatories aboard a train appear luxuriously large if you are used to flying. Some of the lavatories are even wheelchair accessible, and they seem big enough to throw a party in.

Café Car
What’s not to love about a whole car where you can buy snacks, beer, liquor and wine? You can even just hang out in the café car if don’t happen to get along with your seatmate. I saw more than a few people putting away splits of wine (half bottles) on the three hour, forty-five minute journey.

More Legroom
Not only is there more legroom but also the ceiling is a good 7 feet above the floor so you don’t have to worry about smashing your head so much.

Electrical Outlets in Coach
There are electrical outlets in coach so your laptop/iPod/iPhone can remain fully charged on your journey. As an added bonus, you can use your cell phone freely provided that you aren't in a dead zone, you don't annoy your seatmates or you are in the quiet car where cell phone usage is forbidden.

More Room for Carry-on Bags
That 7-foot ceiling affords much larger overhead bins. You might not have under-the-seat-in-front-of-you storage, but you can keep bags next to your feet and they won’t make you stow it. While officially there is a 2 carry-on limit, I didn’t see anyone enforcing this limit when I brought 3 carry-on bags plus another of checked luggage size.

Bigger Windows
The windows are so large that you can even see interesting things out the other side without having to maneuver over other passengers for a view.

More Varied Scenery
Clouds are great, but they are only so interesting for hours on end. With a train you really get to see part of the country. Sure it’s the part that’s next to the railroad tracks and you’ll see a lot of graffiti, but that’s a heck of a lot more culture than flying over it looking at clouds.

Walking Between Cars
Walking between cars on a moving train is fun, everything is shifting and bouncing around, plus there are places to go such as the café car, the quiet car or a vacant lavatory. On a plane, you might get to walk down the narrow aisle during some turbulence, but then you’ll have to sit down and buckle your seat belt because some guy up front doesn't want you to get hurt. There’s much less coddling on a train, there aren't even any seat belts; if you get hurt on a train then you probably deserved it.

No Security Checks
This not only means that you don’t have to show up one to two hours early but you also don’t have to be without a pocket knife if you are inclined to carrying one. Of course, this means other people also have knives and possibly other weapons as well. Like I said earlier, there's much less coddling on a train.

The train can be much cheaper than traveling by air, especially to smaller cities that might not have a large airport. While trains are slower, if you figure in the time that you have to arrive before a flight and how long it takes to reclaim your bags, riding the rails can actually work to your advantage for shorter trips.

With Amtrak, fares are straightforward. If the fare says $79 then it will cost you $79. I had to switch my tickets from one date to another and there were no itinerary change fees associated and it took just a few minutes of talking face to face with a real live person, his name was Phillip.

There you have it. For short trips, the convenience and comfort of the train wins hands down. What are the reasons why you enjoy riding the rails?

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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Value of Coins as Souvenirs

Photographs by Nicole Holt

When traveling abroad, it is only natural to use the local currency. This usually involves tracking down an ATM to make a withdrawal at your destination airport or visiting one of the money changers that are all too eager to make their commission. With local currency in hand, you have a few minutes to admire your larger bills until they are quickly spent and broken down into smaller bills and coins.

I always enjoy exploring the coins of a new country. I'm not sure why, but it might be because of the relative permanence of the coin. Paper money is only around for a short period of time before it becomes worn and must be retired. Coins are much more durable; they stay in service for many years.

Somehow, I never quite seem to spend all of my coins before returning home. Some of the coins go to a coworker who collects foreign coins and the rest go into a mug that acts as a memory depository. I'd like to share with you a couple of my more memorable coin stories.

In Russia I was warned that it was unlawful to remove any of the local currency from the country and that I should get rid of all of my rubles before heading through security. I had remembered reading a story about a women who was caught bringing home some rubles and was charged with "Removing the Treasures of Russia." Being charged with a crime in Russia wasn't something that I was interested in experiencing so I planned on getting rid of all my rubles prior to proceeding through customs.

After exchanging all of my folding money for Euros, I put my coins into a large plexi-glass box which I'm pretty sure was for the maintenance of some sort of church as the box had a big picture of a church on it. I felt bad about letting go of my coins because I had never seen Russian coins before this trip. However, I really didn't want to be detained for something so frivolous as taking home a few rubles.

After making my way through security and not finding a drinking fountain, I went to buy a bottle of water. I paid in Euros and while they nearly had enough change for me they had to make up the small rubles. This didn't entirely surprise me as laws seemed to be randomly enforced throughout my stay to Russia, but it still felt wrong. By that point I was past the customs check so I felt that it was OK to take the coin home.

In Australia, one of the people with whom I was visiting pointed out to me that the back of their 50 cent piece features the seal of Australia. The seal bears the images of an emu and a kangaroo. I was asked why I thought this was the case, and I thought to myself that they must both taste good. Before I could utter my reply, I was informed that neither of these animals were biologically capable of taking a backwards step, and that similarly Australia must always move forward.

I was also informed that both the emu and the kangaroo both taste good.

My rubles and the Austrailian 50 cent piece mingle in my memory depository mug with coins from Taiwan, Norway, Sweden, Chile and other countries. However, I always pause slightly when I come across either of these two coins and the memories come right back to me. It's funny how something as common and small as a coin can bring back such vivid memories, but they do.

Even though they might not be the lightest souvenirs that one can find while traveling, I still like bringing home coins. Do you have a similar stash of coins that mostly collects dust but occasionally sparks your memory?

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Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Some Notes on Taxis

When you step out your front door, there is an inherent level of trust and power that you give to those around you. Away from the safety of home, anything can, and does, happen. Not only are you dependent on your own skills for survival, but you are also at the mercy of the skills and sobriety of others.

On a normal day, we might get in our car and trust that the other drivers have equivalent or better skills than ourselves so that they might stay on their side of the line and keep us all safe. An acquaintance of mine once told me that driving was nothing more than getting into a ball of metal which hurtles, at speed, toward other balls of metal coming, more or less, straight toward you and that the only thing between you and death was a thin strip of yellow paint.

While the above description is certainly vivid and frighening, it doesn’t keep me from driving. Random accidents do happen, but there is too much wonderful stuff to experience out there in the world for me to stay home. Missing out what the world has to offer would be a real shame. We all have to go sometime, be it in our beds or on a road trip.

When we travel, there are many people who you are required to trust in order to get through the day: people to get us from place to place, feed us and clean our rooms.

When thinking of high levels of trust granted to individuals, flight attendants and pilots come immediately to mind. Our lives are in their hands, yet we rarely think about it. The ground crew is responsible for making sure the equipment is functioning and safe. If people are working in the airline industry, they are generally highly trained professionals who take their jobs, and safety, seriously.

Unfortunately, not all parts of the travel industry have as good a reputation for keeping safety as the highest priority. Taxis are a good example of this. There are several reasons why taxis scare me.

Taxis that are owned and operated by an individual seem to be in the best shape as the cars are the livelihood of that particular driver. If the owner lets the car go into disrepair, his business could be at risk. However, cars that are owned and maintained by a taxi company tend have a greater likelihood of needing work.

I recently got into a taxi in which the rubber molding on the car was coming off, and it prevented the car door from closing properly. While normally I wouldn’t mind so much (the door did close after a little finessing), the driver informed me that the taxi company wasn’t in the habit of fixing problems that weren’t directly related to safety. Aside from the rubber molding, I didn’t notice any glaring problems with the car.

For some unknown reason a few days later, I got into another taxi from the same company. When we took off, it sounded like there was a monkey underneath the car, banging on the undercarriage with a hammer. This concerned me slightly, but we appeared to be moving so I didn’t inquire as to what kind of monkey it was or what kind of hammer it was wielding.

I’ve been in taxis where the trunk doesn’t function correctly, and I’ve been in taxis that left much to be desired in the areas of odor and cleanliness. Fortunately, I’ve never experienced any delays due to equipment problems in taxis. More fortunate than that, I’ve never been in an accident while riding a taxi.

Not being in an accident is impressive considering that I’ve seen some pretty wild driving while in taxis. Most common is the driver talking on a cell phone while operating their vehicle. I do occasionally talk on the phone while driving; I’m not proud of it, but I always keep it short. Some drivers with whom I’ve ridden carry on long personal conversations while driving.

While in Toronto, Ontario I observed one driver negotiating rush hour traffic while carrying on a 15 minute conversation with his wife about what they were going to have for dinner that night. The conversation was in Spanish, so I guess he figured that I wouldn’t know that he wasn’t having a discussion with his dispatcher. My Spanish isn’t that good, but I know when someone is talking about dinner rather than about something work related.

Aggressive driving is also common with most taxi drivers who I have encountered, but the problem is compounded when I’m not familiar with the local traffic rules. I’ve seen seemingly common behavior abroad that would surely win you a day in court in the United States. Oddly enough, I have never driven outside of North America, and based on these experiences, I don’t intend to seek out the opportunity any time soon.

The aggressive behavior of taxi drivers can erupt in a cursing match if drivers from two rival taxi companies are vying for the same spot on the asphalt. While this may seem as novel as two competing pizza delivery cars racing down the road, it’s a lot less fun when you are the passenger in one of the taxis.

I have a coworker that was rushed to an airport in Brazil by a driver who was quite motivated to get him out of the car for some reason. The driver did not seem to take traffic into account as part of the itinerary, and he used the shoulder of the main road to his advantage. When the shoulder became unavailable, he left the road and used the grass-covered embankment. I’m really glad I wasn’t riding with my coworker that day.

Beyond the anxiety/terror induced by their driving skills, I’ve had some pretty interesting drivers. Most cab drivers are pleasant and enjoyable to speak with, but there are some that haven’t figured out the delicate balance between being personable and being inappropriate. I had one taxi driver go on at length about his sexual exploits and how many girlfriends he currently had (3). While this may be appropriate talk for hanging out with your buddies at a strip club, there is no need for it in a cab.

I prefer to take public transportation when I can because it is more environmentally friendly, but I still find myself using taxis from time to time. I keep thinking that one of these days I’ll be in an accident in a taxi, but I haven’t seen a mangled taxi by the side of the road in years. The last one that I can vividly recall was in Laughlin, Nevada some 15 years ago. The name on the side of the car read ”Lucky Cab”, and we would later discover that the company had a reputation for getting into frequent accidents.

If you have any great taxi stories, I’d love to see them in the comments below.

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Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Food Poisoning While Traveling

I wasn't planning on writing about food poisoning today, but considering that I'm currently suffering from this condition, it seemed appropriate.

Let me start off by saying that food poisoning isn't fun regardless of where you are, and I wouldn't wish it upon anyone. There's a lot of running to the bathroom, you feel terrible for what seems like forever and you just want to go to sleep.

So far, I've had two really bad cases of food poisoning. The first one wasn't while I was traveling so I won't get into any of the details aside from one interesting tid bit: the most likely culprit in my worst case of food poisoning was bleu cheese. People are always amazed that a moldy cheese can go bad; I don't know the details, but I do know that it can go bad.

My other very memorable food poisoning experience occurred during a business trip in Connecticut. After having some very unsatisfying lunch of food court pizza, I got back to work. At about 4:30 I began to feel a little warmer than usual so I took a break. The people who I was visiting said that I didn't look well; I didn't feel well.

Shortly thereafter I ran to the restroom and made it just in time. People use the phrase "just in time" a little too much for my tastes, but having avoided making a huge mess with projectile vomit I feel perfectly justified in using it.

That night and the following morning were quite rough; I couldn't keep anything down. I spoke to the customer over the phone, and they were very understanding about the situation.

As soon as I was able to walk more than 10 feet without having to retreat to the toilet, I wandered the halls of the hotel looking for a vending machine that sold Gatorade. After finding the Gatorade and returning to my room I threw up. This is a cycle that is often repeated with food poisoning. Get a drink of water, throw up. Eat a piece of bread, throw up. Go to the bathroom, throw up.

I had called the front desk to let them know that I was in sick and that I didn't wish to be disturbed. This information didn't filter down to the cleaning crew, so my sleep was still interrupted. It's very important to use those safety latches when they are available if you are staying in your room.

The day came and went. I don't remember eating anything, but I probably watched Star Trek since that is what I usually do when I'm sick. By the time my scheduled flight rolled around, I was still in rough shape. Armed with one piece of white bread and a small box of Rice Krispies that I found in the hotel breakfast area, I decided to attempt to make my flight and try to get home if at all possible.

I wasn't sure how the return trip was going to go, but I made it without using any of the barf bags on the airplane (I have used those before though), and I didn't soil myself. I was exhausted, but I made it. I was really glad to be home.

Being sick on the road makes you thankful for all the times that you aren't sick and even thankful for the times that you are fortunate enough to be surrounded by the comforts of home.

Have you ever come down with food poisoning while traveling? I'd love to hear your story in the comments section below.

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Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Graham's Struggle With Travel Fatigue

A road warrior is defined as someone who travels frequently for business.

I'm not fond of this term, but I suppose, by the above definition, I qualify for this designation. To me, road warrior sounds like a term that was coined for a newspaper or magazine article that just stuck around, such as the similarly overused word staycation. What I object to is that it makes business travelers sound like some sort of mercenaries that go from town to town in order fight in private wars or engage in underground activities.

The road warrior should be a tougher breed than I; wearing mismatched but well worn leather clothing and clutching a home made weapon as if stepping out of science fiction dystopian future. A true road warrior would think nothing of killing just to get through the day and eating only to survive.

Today's business travelers have it relatively easy. I've certainly never killed anyone to get by a roadside checkpoint, and my next meal has never really been that far off. Indeed, I don't know of anyone who could fit my vision of a road warrior.

While I am a frequent traveler, I don't always relish the travel, and I'm certainly not tough. I like to think that I can handle quite a bit of hardship while traveling while being a good sport about it, but there is only so much my body can take.

International trips tend to hit me the hardest. I think that it's being so far out of my own time zone that really takes a toll. While mentally I can make the adjustment, my body seems to lag behind. While my body adjusts to the new time, my defenses are lowered, and I tend to catch illnesses more easily. On my past 3 trips where I have changed more than 3 time zones, I've gotten sick every time.

There's nothing quite like jumping through all the hoops to get to a country like Russia and then being too sick to enjoy it. It's no way to travel.

Seeing as there's a pretty strong link between my international travel plans and becoming sick, I've decided that it's time to do something about it. Before my next international trip, I'm going to do what I can to prepare my body for the shock. Not being an expert in this area, I turned to the internet for possible solutions.

I checked in with my Twitter followers and received suggestions ranging from ingesting moldy bread to taking herbal supplements. Seeing that herbal supplements would only work for as long as I'm taking them (and some of them taste really bad), and that I'm not going to eat moldy bread, I decided to do a quick internet search for more options.

My search results were pretty grim, and they indicated that I am generally in poor shape, which I knew. Below are a few of the suggestions that I found, some of which I'm already doing and others in which I'm not inclined to partake:

Eliminate coffee intake
Eliminate refined sugar
Exercise more
Stay hydrated
Get a lot of sleep

On a normal day staying hydrated, drinking minimal coffee and getting sleep are not challenges, but on international travel days these goals become more difficult. It's no wonder that I'm more prone to illness while traveling out of the country.

I've known for a long time that making efforts in the above areas can make one healthier, but it looks like it's time for me to take them to heart. This week I'm starting to exercise more, and I hope that this will help me with my traveler fatigue problems as well as helping me have more energy at home.

As for eliminating coffee, I don't think that I'm going to do that any time soon. Coffee makes travel possible, and without it I'm pretty sure that the whole travel industry would fall apart. I would, however, like to cut back on my coffee consumption, but eliminating it outright isn't something that I'm seriously considering at the moment.

Some day I may be worthy of the title "road warrior", but for now I'll just settle for getting through an international trip without catching a cold. After I tackle that hurdle, I'll think about investing in some stylish dystopian leather.

I'm still formulating my plan for a more robust immune system so if you have any serious suggestions, let's have 'em.

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