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Marketing to Americans [travel]

Conrad Hilton was a visionary.

Not only did he build one of the world’s most famous hotel chains, but he also understood that the best way to make Paris and other European cities more appealing was, well, to make his hotels there more like America. This meant installing two things: air conditioning and steakhouses.

After all, just because you’re traveling in France doesn’t mean you have to sweat (and smell) like the French!

[Photo credit: lobstar28 via Slate]

A Christmas crash landing [retrospective]

Northwest 767 on final approach to Logan
Two years ago I spent Christmas in a burning airplane 36,000 feet above the Northern Pacific Ocean. The upside of the situation was that I got to miss the typical Christmas drama. The downside was I nearly died.

Here is a recap of the whole experience I wrote a few weeks later for my college paper, The Michigan Daily.

At 7:15 a.m. on Christmas morning, I was sure I was going to die.

Fifteen minutes earlier, I had been sleeping soundly, strapped into seat 39-H of Northwest’s flight 26 from Tokyo to Detroit, when it felt like a freight train tore through the airplane.

My friend gestured me over to take a look at the engine directly outside his window. While the engine outside my window seemed to be producing mostly noise, the engine outside his was spewing an alarming quantity of fire and sparks.

I didn’t say anything. I sat back down. I thought about what it would be like to go to my death with the 160 other people who had opted for the discounted Christmas day flight.

I glanced at the flight staff to try to determine whether or not panicking was in order. It didn’t seem like it. Most of the other passengers were still asleep. The screens playing “Monster House” kept playing.

A number of stewardesses were peering out of the windows at the massive flames spewing from the engine. Then the co-pilot ventured back into the cabin to ascertain for himself whether or not the plane was on fire.

It was.

Apparently the pilot did not believe his deputy’s story. So a few moments later, he came to the back of the cabin to investigate the source of the bright red light illuminating the northern night sky. My guess is that he too determined that the mysterious glow was likely caused by the billowing flames and sparks consuming the left wing of the airplane. I can’t be sure about this, though.

That’s when I decided that there were definite pros and cons to my life ending then and there – in a fiery place crash into the Pacific Ocean.

The clear upside to the situation, as far as I could tell, was that I was going to be spared from recounting my Chinese travels to the masses that were at my parents’ house for Christmas dinner. Plus, I knew a plane full of American’s dying in a plane crash as they were flying home from Communist China for Christmas would make a killer human interest story. It would have been quite the dramatic exit.

The serious downside to the situation was that I had spent my last hours in China purchasing presents for people I wouldn’t ever see again. If I had only known my return flight was going to catch fire, I would have spent those last few hours sightseeing or at the bar, not buying scarves at a silk factory.

By this point in the ordeal I had come to terms with my situation.

While I found my arguments in favor of a dramatic Christmas day death very persuasive, I nevertheless decided I was not quite ready to die. After all, just that morning I had heard that Bill Clinton was slated to be my commencement speaker.

So I decided to act.

I set out to spearhead the praying effort, since neither my emergency landing nor my airplane repair skills were quite up to snuff. So with a renewed sense of piety, I began praying the rosary. Because I left my physical rosary at home, I had to improvise with the materials I had available to me in seat 39-H. I made a mark on the index page of the Northwest Airlines Sky Mall catalogue after I completed each recitation of the Hail Mary so that I did not lose my place. Ten Hail Marys, recite the second mystery of faith, an Our Father and then more Hail Marys.

Sometime around the third batch of Hail Marys, the pilot somehow extinguished the fire. But he was not able to get the engine functioning again.

A little while later, as I was fumbling through the Apostles Creed for my second time, the cabin lights came on and the pilot read two announcements, both of which he delivered in the same tone.

The first announcement was that we would not be landing in Detroit after all. Because we had “lost use of engine one,” which I imagine is pilot speak for “engine one exploded for no apparent reason,” we were going to have to land in Anchorage, Alaska.

The second announcement had to do with our meal service. As the pilot explained, Anchorage was quite a bit closer to our current location than Detroit, so to make sure we received all the meals we paid for, they were going to have to serve breakfast several hours ahead of schedule.

Northwest was sorry for any minor inconvenience this might have caused us.

The good news, from my perspective, was that the pilot had some reason to believe the plane would be landing after all. The bad news was that we were still well over an hour from dry land – and judging by the precarious angle that we were flying at, I was not altogether convinced that we were going to make it to a paved runway before touching down.

After savoring every last bite of my SkyChefs’s French toast breakfast, I began preparing myself for a crash landing in the Pacific.

I diligently reviewed the emergency landing card to figure out the precise procedure for surviving a water-based landing and checked to make sure that there was, in fact, a life preservation device under my seat cushion.

There was.

It then occurred to me that the north Pacific might be rather cold in late December. I reasoned that the stewardesses were probably distracted by frightened guests and preparing for a likely crash landing, and I could probably get away with disregarding the normal rules. So I decided to violate the “Fasten Seatbelt” sign and retrieve my coat and scarf from the overhead compartment. I did not want to catch a chill while waiting for the rescuers to come. I also took this opportunity to move to a seat in an exit row. A careful reading of the crash-landing-procedure card had revealed that it was likely to be quite crowded on the inflatable rafts, and I reasoned it would be a wise move to make sure I was first in line for a seat. I did not want to be too uncomfortable waiting for the rescuers to come. It was Christmas day, after all.

But the rescuers never had to come. Somehow the pilot managed to get the plane to Ted Stevens International Airport, where we were greeted by a fleet of fire trucks and ambulances.

I think Northwest press-ganged every available bus driver in Anchorage into service that morning to shuttle me and 150 other Northwest airlines refugees to the hotel. We spent Christmas day at the anchorage Hilton waiting for a new plane – one with engines that did not explode into flame – to come and take us the rest of the way to Detroit.

The other passengers seemed less than amused that they had to spend Christmas in Alaska. Because I was nearly prepared to go down in flames to escape holiday misery, avoiding Christmas without having to die in the north pacific was perhaps the greatest gift I received this holiday season. Thank you, Northwest Airlines.

Should New York try running negative ads?

London UndergroundThe AP reports that New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and London Mayor Boris Johnson have agreed to swap ad space on each city’s public transportation system in order to boost mutual tourism. London will be able to place a few dozen ads in MTA buses while New York will get poster locations in the Underground.

Of course, what matters here is not mutual cross-border cooperation, but who wins. Specifically, which city pulls in more tourists.

With that in mind, I have a suggestion for New York’s tourism officials: Go negative and tout air-conditioning.

The London Underground has no A/C and temperatures there routinely approach boiling. It is the perfect environment in which to tout some good old fashioned American comforts–like chilled air. Might I suggest also mentioning that the NY Subway has been air-conditioned for over four decades.

Previous topics mentioned in this post:

Being an American means you don’t have to sweat (as much)

€4. Inadequate air conditioning

Why Europe Sucks €. 7: Horrible mattresses

Hostel Life

The beds are no more comfortable than they look.

For the last month I’ve been sleeping on one of those foam IKEA mattresses. You know, the spring-free pads that look so alluring when placed on the sleek, low-profile bed frames in the showroom.   I’ll let you in on a little secret, though: after about five minutes, IKEA mattresses suck. Their hard, unyielding foam and lumpy texture thwart even the most exhausted, medication-aided attempt at sleep. I think it is because they are made from the same recycled material as IKEA’s $20 coffee tables.

But of course, crappy mattresses are not an IKEA phenomenon—they are a European institution.

Don’t believe me? Try traveling around Europe for a few weeks. You’ll spend sleepless nights sprawled across several different types of mattresses. The one thing they will all have in common is that none of them are remotely comfortable.

Here is a quick guide to the different types of mattresses found in Europe:

The IKEA-style mattress: When you see these mattresses in the store they look interesting. The coil-free design is reminiscent of those memory foam pillows they advertize on late-night TV.  But after you spend a night on one of these mattresses, you’ll immediately realize that the inspiration behind their design is not futuristic space foam but rather the hay-stuffed mats that peasants slept on.

The thin spring mattress: These mattresses really have nothing to recommend them. Their narrow and thin design does not even look comfortable for a second. What’s more, the padding on the top is so thin that you can see the outline of every metal coil. I’m not sure who manufactured these horrible mattresses (perhaps they were Soviet surplus), but whoever it was managed to get them into every budget hotel and hostel in Europe. Be careful not to move to fast at night else you get a nasty scrape from one of the barley-covered springs.

The deceptively normal mattress: If you check into a more middle-of-the-road hotel or a Bed and Breakfast you might find yourself welcomed by a deceptively normal looking bed. Normal, that is, until you lay down on it and find that the springs are so shot that you’re actually resting on the bed frame. These mattresses were normal once, but their owners haven’t bothered to replace them since the Second World War. Apparently Europeans think of mattresses as some kind of family heirloom, to be handed down from generation to generation.

Next time you’re traveling in Europe, splurge for the premium American-owned chain hotel. It is the best shot you’ll have at a decent night’s sleep. Otherwise just ask for a second or third blanket at check-in. You’ll need them for extra padding. Oh, and don’t forget to pack extra Aspirin to deal with the back pain.

(Hat tip: Robin R)

Programing note

Today I have a guest post up at the blog New New Yorkers. In it, I give my take on five cultural oddities about New York that make live here unique: like the fact that brunch here is not just for old ladies.

You don’t have to be old to do brunch. In the rest of America, brunch is something old ladies do after church. In New York, brunch is served Saturday and Sunday by scads of NYC restaurants. With some offering bottomless mimosas and breakfast for under $20, it’s not just a mid-day meal — it’s the new Thursday night.

Check out the post for the whole list.

Michigan to Manhattan: A cross-country scorecard of what makes America great (Part 2).

stay in laneThis is the second of a two-part series recapping my move to New York. If you missed part 1, you can read it here.

Eastern Pennsylvania

After refueling at the Flying J, things in Pennsylvania went pretty smoothly. That is, they went smoothly until about hour seven of my journey, when I decided to turn off my audio book (Niall Ferguson’s The Ascent of Money) in the hopes to catching All Things Considered on the local NPR affiliate.

After about 10 minutes of searching, I finally found the local NPR station, WVIA. Turns out that not all NPR stations are created equal. After years of counting on finding reliably excellent programming on Michigan Radio (WUOM) at any hour of the day or night, I was horrified to find that Pennsylvania stations broadcast marginal music programs during prime drive-time hours.

I struggled to find an acceptable NPR station all the way through Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Observations/Score card: Eastern Pennsylvania

Things that make America Great: none.

Things that DON’T make America Great: Marginal NPR affiliates that give public broadcasting a bad name (you know who you are WVIA and WXPN).

The Garden State

By all accounts, New Jersey dramatically exceeded expectations.

I had never been to New Jersey before (save for Newark Airport), and kind of expected it to be a mix between drab 70s sprawl and an early industrial wasteland that never quite got cleaned up. Oh, and I expected there to be lots of train tracks and oil storage tanks.

But in reality, my trip down the Garden State’s parkways was remarkably scenic and enjoyable. The lush hills and sometimes dramatic vistas reminded me of Northern Michigan, but with wider (and better) roads, nicer cars and charming infrastructure projects dating from the New Deal.

All and all, driving through New Jersey was a pleasant experience. If only they had a decent NPR station…

Observations/Score card: New Jersey

Things that make America Great: beautiful highways and byways.

Things that DON’T make America Great: Unacceptable lack of decent NPR stations. Isn’t New Jersey home to some of the East Coast Liberal Elite? Where do they get their marching orders if not from Robert Siegel and Michele Norris?

New York City

First of all, they charge $8 to get into New York City. You know a place is going to be pricy when they have a cover charge just to take the tunnel into town.

Beyond that, navigating the streets of New York to my new apartment was much less stressful than I had imagined. However, New York’s draconian anti-cell phone laws required me to repeatedly drop my phone whenever the police came near.

Fortunately, the police seemed more concerned with driving around the city at high speeds with their sirens blaring than with pulling me over for using a cell phone, and I was able to make it to my new apartment accident and ticket free (though more than a few cabbies tried to crash into me).

Observations/Score card: New York City

Things that make America Great: Free-for-all streets where lanes are merely suggestions, 24-hour subways.

Things that DON’T make America Great: Cover charges, oppressive European-style anti cell phone laws.

Michigan to Manhattan: A cross-country scorecard of what makes America great (part 1)

This is the first in a two part series recapping my move to New York.

mcdonalds cardboard big breakfast The Departure

Moving day was quite the odyssey.

When I arrived at the car rental place on Tuesday at 7 AM to pick up my rental, I was informed that they did not have a car for me. No apology, nothing. The disgruntled sales clerk simply suggested I “call around” to other Hertz locations. He did not provide a list of numbers.

Fortunately Google picked up the slack and was able to provide me a comprehensive list of Hertz locations in the metro-Detroit area.

Two hours, and ten phone calls later, I had a car from another Hertz location – although not the car the sales person had promised me on the phone 20 minutes prior. But at this point, I wasn’t complaining. Not even Hertz’s European approach to customer service could stop me from moving to New York. I eagerly hoped in my Hyundai, drove thru the nearest McDonald’s for a breakfast value meal and ventured forth.

Observations/Score card:

McDonald’s breakfast makes America great.

Hertz Rent-A-Car does not.

Flying J

The Heartland

Things went quite smoothly for the first leg of the journey. My Ann Arbor engineered Hyundai was a surprisingly nice car (blasphemy from a Detroiter, I know). The Ohio Turnpike rest stops lived up to expectations, and I was able to get a few shots of espresso from Starbucks for $2, which I paid for with my credit card.

However, things went precipitously downhill once I entered Pennsylvania.  It was a solid 100 miles into Keystone State before I came across anything resembling a standard interstate rest area/fast food assemblage. By this point the gas situation was quite dire and I was forced to refuel at a Flying J Truck Stop.

The gas pumps at the Flying J had a user interface so complicated that it made your typical automated telephone support line seem refreshing and simple by comparison. After navigating through about 6 menus and entering my zip code no less than 3 times, I was finally able to refuel my car.

Inside, the Flying J was your typical full-service interstate truck stop: a gas station expanded to include a restaurant, arcade, pay showers and a full party store. This particular location also had an impressive display of Christian memorabilia, including pamphlets advertizing “Christian Brides,” who would move to the U.S. from some distant godforsaken land (probably Europe) to marry lonely Christian men.

Because Hertz had delayed my departure, I regrettably did not have much time to explore all that the Flying J had to offer.

Observations/Score card:

Buying coffee with a credit card makes America great.

Western Pennsylvania and Flying J truck stops do not.

Check back later this week for Part 2: The Garden State and the Big Apple

Travel Tips #.2 Where to pee in NYC


Years ago, in the dark ages of the early 1970s, New York City had a lot in common with its European counterparts. It was dirty, drug ridden and was suffering under a repressive pay-to-pee regime.  But in the mid 70s a fearless band of patriots successfully fought to banish pay toilets from NYC forever. Today, it is illegal for shopkeepers, restaurateurs and pay-toilet booth operators alike to charge someone to pee.  

But of course, in a city as overrun with workers and tourists as New York is, the disappearance of for-profit restrooms has left a vexing question. Where to go to the bathroom when you’re on the go? (This being America, we certainly wouldn’t expect the government to offer such services)

In most of the USA, the answer to this question would be simple, McDonalds. They’re located every mile or so and always have free restrooms which are generally clean. Plus, the standardized layout means you never need to waste precious time searching for the men’s room.

But one of NYC’s failings is that there simply aren’t enough McDonald’s locations to serve the sanitation needs of the millions of residents and tourists the city holds. Thankfully, the good men and women at the Starbucks Corporation have taken up some of the slack.

New Yorkers love their coffee—especially when it costs $4 and has a goofy name—and the Starbucks Corporation has indulged this love by blanketing Manhattan with hundreds of Starbucks locations. The upshot of this is that not only do you never need to walk far to get your next cappuccino, but there is also a plethora of friendly, clean, and easily identifiable free toilets plastered across the city.

So next time you’re in New York, and you see three Starbucks’ locations at one intersection remember: Starbucks’ pricey coffee and free bathrooms are a cornerstone of America (or at least NYC).  After all, in Europe you’d have to drink Nescafe and pay €2 to use the bathroom afterwards. 

Why we hate airports

JFK Terminal 1

We all hate going to the airport–the lines, the prices, the hassle, the stress and the general discomfort. Over the last decade, airports have become so unpleasant that the term no longer evokes images of modernity and mobility, but rather images of misery and incompetence.

But why do we hate airports so much?

Security, parking, and customer service are a drag for sure. But no one of these common complaints are enough to explain why going to the airport is so utterly miserable. The real reason is bigger than any one shortcoming. The reason we hate airports is because airports incorporate many of the things that suck about Europe into one place.

NO FREE WATER: Ever try to get a free glass of water at an airport? Good luck. Not only do airport vendors sell you bottled water for upwards of $2.50/bottle, but they have also conspired with security to take away any of your own liquid refreshments at the checkpoint.

HORRIBLE CUSTOMER SERVICE: In America, the customer is always right, unless you’re at the airport. Airline customer service has always been gruff, but it has only gotten worse after years of wage cuts. Today, the typical airline customer service representative is so snotty and curt that they are indistinguishable form a waiter at a fine Parisian restaurant.

EVERYTHING IS 2X AS EXPENSIVE: A bottle of water, $2.50, a piece of pizza, $5.00, a pair of clean socks, $15.00. In short, prices in the airport are so exorbitant that you’d think you were being hosed down by  your typical European street merchant. Either that or, you’re paying European-style 17.5%+ VAT that nobody told you about.

UNPREDICTABLE HOURS: Airports are full of stores, restaurants and stands selling (for very high prices) anything you could want. But if you’ve ever been to an airport at sometime that wasn’t 2-8 pm, you’ll know that the store you’re looking for is probably closed. Airport stores seem to operate on what I’ll call the Italian Model. They are open when they want, for how long they want and will charge you whatever outrageous price they want—and no, they don’t post hours of operation either.

BAD TRANSPORTATION OPTIONS : Nothing is more of hassle than getting around an airport, except, perhaps, for getting to and from the airport in the first place. Airports, like Europe, lack sufficient parking. This forces you to take, at minimum, a bus from your car to the airport. This is even true in car-centric cities like Detroit. In cities like NY, if you want to get to the airport, you need to take at minimum 2 different types of public transit (possibly more) and that does not include all the walking you’ll have to do! What makes matters worse is that at each transit transfer, you typically have to wait a while and pay more money too.

GENERAL FILTH: Some American airports are nice—take Detroit’s for instance. However, the vast majority of our airports were built in the 60s and have low ceilings, dirty waiting areas, dated amenities and a lackluster commitment to cleanliness. It rather reminds you of Europe—Italy in particular. Add the general filth of the buildings to the fact that many of the patrons have been caught in the airport system for hours, if not days on end, and have not had a chance to shower. Well, you get the picture.  

NO WIRELESS: Half the bars and coffee shops in America these days have free wireless internet access. It is getting to the point where free wireless access is a birthright. But have you ever tried to log in at an airport? If they have wireless at all, it is likely for some exorbitant hourly fee. And if you don’t want to pay the fee – try using one of those goofy pay internet terminals—the slow connection and pay-by-the-minute pricing will make you feel just like you’re in a dodgy European internet café.  

So next time you’re fuming about how miserable the airport is remember: in Europe everywhere is like the airport. 

Travel Tips #1. So you’re going to Europe for Spring Break

turisti_ROMA 09 (travel guide)So you’re trying to take advantage of the financial crisis for some dirt-cheap trips to Europe. Or maybe you’ve seen all there is to see in America and are looking for something new. Or perhaps you just figured this early in the spring is the time to go to Europe, since it is not too hot and people won’t be that smelly yet.

Whatever your reason, great! You’re going to Europe, it will be fun, and there is nothing like a good trip abroad to drive home the small things you love about America.

Here are five important travel tips you won’t find in the books that will help you overcome some of Europe’s shortcomings and make your stay more enjoyable:

1. BUY A CASE OF BOTTLED WATER FROM THE STORE – There is no free water in Europe, not even at many restaurants. The travel books will tell you to use a refillable bottle, but no one really likes to use those, they make the water taste bad. Besides, do you really trust the Roman-era pipes that you’re getting the tap water from? Your best bet is to buy a case of bottled water and carry a bottle or two around with you every day.

2. FORGET TRAVELER’S CHECKS AND CERTAINLY DON’T BRING CASH No one takes traveler’s checks except for American Express, and you don’t really want to spend 10 minutes signing your traveler’s checks just to buy a coke anyway. And don’t think you should bring cash and change it. Europe is full of pickpockets. If happen to evade the pickpockets, the moneychangers will be more than happy to shake you down. They have ATMs in Europe. Bring your debit card and withdraw cash as necessary. You’ll get the best exchange rate and you shouldn’t be screwed on fees too much. Check with your bank before leaving.

3. BUY IT NOW If you see something you want, buy it now. Things in Europe are not open reasonable hours, and sometimes they are not even open the hours posted in the window. Don’t stop and think about the purchase, buy it now. You’re an American, after all. Impulse purchases should be your specialty.

4. IF YOU SEE A FREE TOILET, USE IT No matter how bad the free toilet is, use it. The next toilet you find is likely to be smellier and cost you two Euros to use.

5. GET USED TO ESPRESSO AND SPLURGE FOR IT EVERY MORNING. The barista won’t like it and she will take 20 minutes to serve you, but it is worth it – as the Nescafe instant coffee they’ll try to push on you if you order coffee is undrinkable.

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