Why Delta Paid Me $800 To Visit New York

I just returned from a weekend in New York where I helped run an event called SecretCon (by the way, I’m really good at running technology conferences–feel free to reach out if I can help you). My flight to New York on Delta was more or less uneventful. I was informed at check-in that the flight was oversold and offered the opportunity to volunteer my seat. However, my seat wasn’t needed and I arrived at JFK on time.

For the return flight, on Sunday evening, I arrived at Delta’s JFK international terminal (flights to LAX depart from the international rather than the domestic terminal) and found the gate was a total madhouse. On a hunch, I asked whether the flight was oversold. Wow, was it ever. The gate agent was happy to let me volunteer my seat. “I already asked for volunteers and didn’t get any, so I’ll put you in for the maximum bid.” Like many airlines, Delta operates on a bidding system–they start at $200 and go all the way up to $800 if you volunteer your seat.

Delta ended up bumping me, but they also bumped 4 other people off the flight. These were people who were connecting from an international flight and had technically not arrived in time to make the connection, so they weren’t entitled to any more compensation than a hotel overnight (since the late arrival was Delta’s fault). As the only volunteer, I was entitled to the maximum compensation offered in these situations, which was $800 plus an overnight hotel and a meal voucher.

Busy Delta departure area at JFK

Busy Delta departure area at JFK

“So what,” you may be saying, “a restricted and practically worthless airline voucher that expires before you can use it.” Well, that used to be true, but Delta has apparently changed denied boarding compensation in some situations. At least if you volunteer your seat at the gate instead of online, you can receive a gift voucher which is more valuable. I was asked for my email and received a message inviting me to a gift card reward portal operated by Connexions Loyalty, Inc. A Delta gift card was an option, along with gift cards from various department stores, but an American Express gift card was also an available option. Obviously, I chose this option.

Why would Delta do this rather than sending you a check or giving you cash? Well, there’s a chance that you won’t spend all the money on the gift card before it expires, and gift cards can probably be purchased for less than face value (because American Express receives swipe fees from every purchase you make). That’s not the most interesting part of the story, though. The most interesting part is that Delta apparently now internally values transportation on Delta at near cash par value. However, consumers don’t assign the same value to airline vouchers. They do value gift cards at near cash par value, though, so Delta has likely added these options in order to increase the number of bidders in oversell situations, hence lowering the amount they’ll have to pay.What does this mean to you? Volunteer to be bumped on Delta as many times as you can before the news gets out! You might be pleasantly surprised at being given the option of receiving an American Express gift card instead of a semi-worthless voucher.

Blazing Through Belgrade – Part 1

If you book award tickets between North America and Europe, you probably know how big of a challenge it can be to find transatlantic award availability. Getting over the water is the hardest part and you need to have a really high degree of flexibility on which gateway cities you use. Additionally, depending on availability, there might be no actual way to get to your final destination on a single award ticket.

Fortunately, when you’re flying intra-Europe, it’s generally not too expensive to just buy a ticket. Numerous low-cost carriers operate in the region and there’s usually a cheap way to get between European cities. After all, Europe is so small that it’s hard to find a flight longer than 3 hours in any given direction. So, this is how I ended up booking a ticket from Los Angeles to Istanbul via Frankfurt. Not many people want to fly to Istanbul from the US right now, so it’s turning out to be one of the best award gateways to Europe for this summer–if you can accept the SSSS risk. So, for my trip to Zagreb, I found an award flight to Istanbul on Lufthansa (via Frankfurt), and found a return flight from Milan on airBerlin. There wasn’t any actual award availability to anywhere in Croatia, though, so I had to fill the gap.

Croatia, unfortunately, isn’t one of those places where you can fly cheaply. The only low-cost carrier to serve Zagreb, easyJet, pulled out earlier this year. So, forget about catching a $50 hop on a low cost carrier from a European gateway city like you can to most places. Almost every flight I was looking at cost over $400, except for a flight on airSerbia with a 23-hour layover in Belgrade.

serbiabombedYeah, that. Belgrade. The city that was bombed by NATO. Most Americans have long forgotten this, but the scars of the Yugoslav civil war and the NATO bombing campaign are still visible all over the city. Although Serbia doesn’t require a visa for Americans to enter, it’s not a member of the European Union. It doesn’t recognize the borders of Kosovo, either. So, I honestly had to wonder just how warm a reception I could expect as an American in Belgrade. The NATO bombing campaign wasn’t that long ago–I was still in college then. There was also the matter of flying Air Serbia. It’s the former Yugoslav Airlines, marred by bankruptcy after being mired in over a decade of mismanagement.

I held my breath and booked the ticket. I just found it mentally impossible to justify paying $200 more, and the fare rules sealed the deal. Air Serbia has exceptionally flexible fare rules, so I was able to book an open jaw itinerary as a roundtrip rather than two point-to-point one-way itineraries. Air Serbia is also very flexible with changes, which was important because I was flying a hidden cities itinerary and these are super risky. If it turned out I couldn’t depart from Frankfurt as booked and planned, I could change my ticket and depart from Istanbul instead. The price was $218.30 and my itinerary would allow me nearly 23 hours in Belgrade on the outbound, plus a long afternoon in Belgrade on my return.

It was an uneventful flight on Lufthansa to Frankfurt. The service was efficient and entirely unremarkable–typically German. After arriving in Frankfurt, I found the Air Serbia check-in counter. It opens 3 hours before departure and I had a 6 hour layover, so I ended up dropping my bags at the luggage storage facility next door. It’s conveniently located, albeit expensive (the cost was about 15 euro to drop my bags for the day). I then hopped on the U-Bahn (fortunately I had a European chip and PIN card that worked on the ticket vending machine) and headed to central Frankfurt.

Frankfurter in Frankfurt

What’s a layover in Frankfurt without a frankfurter? It hit the spot!

A lazy afternoon at the river Main

A lazy afternoon at the river Main

Trees budding in the springtime sun

Trees budding in the springtime sun

It is a long flight from LA to Frankfurt and I was pretty tired from being on the road. I stretched out and napped on a park bench, soaking up the sun and enjoying the afternoon. Since a lot of not-obviously-homeless people were doing the same thing, I figured it was socially acceptable. It was bliss; sometimes the best things in life are free. Eventually, the time came to make my way back to the airport. I stopped at Starbucks for coffee, at a Chinese shop next door for some snacks, and hopped on the subway.

An uneventful trip back to the airport, and I retrieved my bag. I’d gotten back sooner than planned, and was about 2 hours early for my departure. By now, the Air Serbia counter was staffed. After meticulously weighing all of my bags and requiring me to shift items from one bag into another one (this was done for no good reason, it only served the purpose of hassling me), I was issued a boarding pass and my carry-on items were tagged. Almost no line at immigration, and I was thoroughly and efficiently stamped out of Germany (the immigration agent briefly quizzing me on why I was arriving and leaving on the same day, since I had booked two separate tickets on the itinerary). Once through, I proceeded to the gate area.

The gate used by Air Serbia in Frankfurt is all the way at the end of the international departures area, and you don’t actually clear security until the gate is open. Who opens the gate? The same people who run the check-in desk. And there is nowhere to sit until the gate area is opened. A lot of sour-faced people from the Balkans were standing around looking less than entirely amused, and there were a lot of screaming kids. So, since I had about an hour before boarding, I headed upstairs to a completely deserted transit lounge. Ever wonder what airport employees do in between flights when the terminal isn’t busy? A lot of napping and a lot of texting with their friends on the phone. Most of the employees seemed surprised that a passenger was there, but I didn’t bother them and they didn’t bother me.

Eventually, I made my way down to the gate. The outside area was even more crowded now, with people even more sour-faced and children crying. Eventually a security guard showed up, then another few trickled in, and they began preparing the gate. German security is Very Serious, with the supervisor first clearing all of the security guards through security. Still no Air Serbia employees yet, though. Those came about 5 minutes later, arriving on bicycles, the same people who had been operating the check-in counter! They actually had to be cleared through security as well, along with the flight crew who showed up exactly when the gate was opening, clearly being more aware than passengers of the actual boarding time.

The boarding process was a little chaotic, definitely not organized like the US or Singapore but more organized than Russia or China. I could see that it wasn’t a full flight, so even though I had a large carry-on bag, I didn’t worry too much about the mad boarding scramble. I slipped into the line in front of an inexperienced traveler, with about the closest that you’ll ever get to a nod and wink from the German gate staff, and boarded the plane. Next stop, Belgrade!

How Free Travel Might Have Landed Me On A TSA Watch List

As a frequent traveler and a member of the Global Entry program, I had gotten used to being able to get through borders and checkpoints quickly. When you’re a trusted traveler, long lines and intrusive questioning more or less go away. And this makes sense. In order to get a Global Entry pass, you have to give up a great deal of personal information to the government and pass an extensive background check. Just a lack of criminal history isn’t enough. While the Global Entry program selection criteria are secret, it’s widely believed that applicants are checked against a variety of law enforcement and terrorism databases. This information is combined with information about your known associates, employment, residence, travel patterns, and income in order to determine your level of risk.

Somehow, I was approved. I mean, there’s no reason why I shouldn’t be approved, but I do travel to some pretty unusual places. French Guyana (home of the European Space Agency’s launch site, one of the most incredible places I’ve ever visited). Suriname (reached by crossing a pirahna-infested river in a leaky dugout canoe). Even Palau. Combined with this, I’m pretty politically outspoken, and have even run for public office as an independent candidate. But none of this came up in the Global Entry interview. They just made sure my birth date was correct, verified my (lack of) criminal history, and took my fingerprints.

Fast forward a couple of years. The TSA implemented PreCheck, which–when combined with my Global Entry number–consistently got me expedited screening. I was able to get through airports quickly with a minimum of hassles until one day, I couldn’t anymore. I had been flagged, and was apparently added to a watch list. My days of easily crossing borders had come to an end. My crime? The government won’t say, but given the timing of the action, a dodgy-looking itinerary to Turkey is the likely culprit.

lax-ewr-lhr-lgw-saw map

This may have been the itinerary that got me in trouble with the TSA

So, as red flags go, I think this itinerary would probably throw up about as many as possible. First of all, it was a one-way ticket. Second of all, it was actually two separate ticket numbers and multiple PNRs. I mean, this looks shady as hell. Why would someone take a flight that looks like an ordinary flight to London Heathrow, then book a flight a few hours later from London Gatwick to a secondary airport in Istanbul (which has connecting flights onward to all sorts of not-so-nice places in the Middle East), unless he was up to something?

Well, I was up to something. I was using frequent flier miles, and this is the sort of itinerary you end up with if you actually want to use your miles to go somewhere in Europe. You end up finding availability to secondary airports on inconvenient itineraries. My real destination was Zagreb, where my company has an office, but there wasn’t any availability to there. So I flew to the cheapest place from which I could get to Zagreb. I booked my onward itinerary to Zagreb as a round-trip ticket from Istanbul and threw away the return portion (because a round-trip ticket was cheaper than a one-way ticket). And then my return ticket from Zagreb was also booked on points–via London with an overnight, on an itinerary that I changed less than 2 weeks in advance due to an airline schedule change.

IST-ZAG-LHR-LAX map

Istanbul-Zagreb, roundtrip ticket, throwaway return portion. Continuing on AAdvantage itinerary with overnight in London.

OK. Got all that? I’m really not surprised that the government didn’t either. Now, it wouldn’t have actually been hard for them to contact me to find out what’s up. After all, as part of my Global Entry enrollment, they have my home address, mailing address, employment address, email address, phone number, and fingerprints. Honestly, I’m not hard to find. And I have to wonder how many openly gay CEOs of online dating companies ought to be considered a more likely ISIS recruit than a likely target of an ISIS kidnapping and beheading! I was certainly paying close attention to my personal security in Istanbul, and didn’t take risks I normally would. Nevertheless, the Department of Homeland Security didn’t bother calling me to make sure I was safe in Istanbul, or offer me any assistance (as the Japanese embassy did to all Japanese citizens in the Middle East after Japanese journalist Kenji Goto was kidnapped). Instead, I was flagged as an imminent security risk to commercial aviation and apparently (although they won’t confirm or deny this) ended up on a watch list.

The TSA has two lists, neither of which are good to be on. The first and most carefully vetted list, with the smallest number of people, is the “no fly list.” Being on this list means you’re not allowed on board any flight to, from or through the United States (including flights that pass through US airspace). And if you’re on this list, you probably belong on it. According to documents leaked to the press and the ACLU in 2013, the criteria for being on this list are criteria I can fully get behind. The government needs to not only be pretty sure that you’re a suspected terrorist, but also that you’re what they consider “operationally capable” of committing a violent act of terrorism. So, it’s not enough just to be a suspected terrorist. You have to be in the actual process of doing bad terrorist stuff, having taken tangible steps toward committing an act of violent terrorism. And for this purpose, “terrorism” isn’t the all-expansive, politically motivated definition of essentially any opposition to the Obama Administration and its wrong-headed policies, but the real deal: actual violent stuff, really and truly bad guys. There are a couple of other categories of people who end up on the no-fly list, including former Guantanamo Bay detainees and known insurgents fighting US troops abroad. Basically, the No Fly List is full of really bad people. Nevertheless, if you’re a US citizen and you end up on the no fly list, the TSA can still issue a waiver on a case-by-case basis and allow you to fly (this seems to be intended to allow US citizens placed on the list to return home from abroad). In short, people on the No Fly List aren’t people I would want to be on the same plane with, and it’s not easy to end up on this list.

ssss boarding pass

Selectee boarding pass

And then there is the list I apparently ended up on. This list is called the “selectee list.” These are people (like me) who are still allowed to fly, but are subject to additional security screening. You can also run into trouble at the border, and extra questioning and searches. Or, as is more often the case, you’re someone who is misidentified with a person on the list. You can end up on this list for a very large number of reasons, and the ACLU has sued the government repeatedly in an effort to reduce the number of innocent people ensnared and provide citizens with more effective redress procedures. One of the ways that you can reportedly end up on this list (there are an expansively large number of ways this can happen) is by making travel movements to known terrorist hotbeds for which no legitimate explanation for the travel exists. On the surface, this probably makes sense. And objectively, my travel to Turkey probably looked pretty shady absent any context. However, it’s an open question what efforts the government makes to obtain any actual explanations for suspicious activity. In my case, one phone call to me–or even an email to the UK Border Force, who asked me about my unusual itinerary in detail at Heathrow–would likely have cleared everything up.

bag tag with SSSS

Selectees’ bags receive a special tag marked SSSS

What happens when you are on the selectee list? Even if you have Global Entry, you can no longer check in online. You have to check in at the airport counter, which really sucks if you’re flying an airline (such as Southwest) that doesn’t allow reserving seats in advance. I am usually stuck in Seat 31B anyway, but I’m virtually guaranteed this now. Your boarding passes are flagged with SSSS, and you need to obtain a stamp from the TSA after you are screened and prior to being allowed to board (TSA agents will also often meet you at the gate and retrieve your boarding pass). The TSA doesn’t always remember this, so you might miss your flight if you discover that your boarding pass hasn’t been stamped. Your bags are also tagged with SSSS and receive extra scrutiny, so if you check bags, be sure to allow extra time in advance. Otherwise they might not make the flight you’re on.

When you present yourself at the security checkpoint, you are assigned a TSA escort who stays with you until the checkpoint. This can actually be a good thing–if the TSA is short-staffed (like they usually are at LAX) and can’t waste a half-hour waiting in line with you, they’ll just cut the line with you and escort you to the front. You will receive the same type of screening as if you refuse to walk through the body scanner or have forgotten your ID. This means aggressively being frisked all over your body, having your genitals and (if female) breasts groped, and having to undo your pants so the security officer can feel all the way around. All of your electronics have to be powered on, so be sure you have a full charge on everything. Everything you have will be scanned for explosive residue, so hopefully you aren’t an Army ranger, the owner of a fireworks stand, or a pyrotechnician. All of your bags will be gone through manually in addition to being X-rayed. While the TSA might look the other way on liquids or gels for most people, every rule will apply to you to the letter. The whole process takes an extra 10 minutes or so at the checkpoint versus a normal screening, unless the TSA finds anything not to their liking and decides to question you further. This could take even longer. And although you’re allowed to proceed on your own to the gate, you’re often required to board last. So, in addition to being stuck in a middle seat, you’re virtually guaranteed no space in the overhead bin. TSA agents will double-check your boarding pass for their magic stamp before you’re allowed on board. All told, it takes the fully dedicated resources of about 10 people to get you on a plane each time you fly–your tax dollars at work. Thanks, Obama!

There is a redress procedure, which I filed. I provided a detailed explanation about myself and my travel that explains everything that might look unusual without understanding the context. Today, I received a letter which said, in effect, that the TSA will neither confirm nor deny whether I was (or am) on a list, but it provides a redress number I can use the next time I fly to ensure that I am correctly identified. So, we’ll see what happens on my next flight. Hopefully, sanity will prevail. In the meantime, if you end up on a watch list, you can at least know what to expect and plan accordingly. And given this experience, I am only strengthened in my resolve to follow the lead of Tim Cook and Apple at Cuddli when it comes to digital privacy issues.

The Flight Where Someone Died – Part 1

So yeah, someone died on my plane. We landed and dropped off a corpse. Full-on, stone cold, dead. Not breathing, passed away, dead.

Wait. Let’s back up and I’ll start from the beginning. American Airlines had stranded me in London overnight at my expense the evening before, but I had made lemons from lemonade. I stayed in the Generator Hostel on an incredible promo deal [expired] through American Express. Including the subway ride to and from Heathrow, it was less than $30 for a night in London, an incredible bargain. So after checking out the nearby incredible collection of antiquities at the British Library (free entrance), I headed to Pret-A-Manger, my favorite London soup and sandwich shop. $10 later, I had soup and a sandwich (food in London is very expensive) and made my way back to the hostel.

And then came an evening involving a Canadian girl, a Bahraini girl, ciders and beers and conversation, early twentysomethings plotting an actual, honest-to-goodness orgy at the tables behind us, a cloud of ganja smoke and somewhere around 3 in the morning I lost track of what happened. I woke up in the morning in my hostel bunk, passed out stone cold with an alarm piercing in my ear. “7:30 AM,” my phone insistently said. “7:30 AM.” Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck. I wanted to throw it across the room but knew I had a flight at noon, and it was from Heathrow, so I knew it’d be a stream of endless hassle. So I hauled myself out of the top bunk, the room echoing with snoring I hadn’t even noticed, and walked down to the bathroom to take a shower. My pounding head drew into sharp focus the number of beers I’d consumed the previous evening. I realized that I’m way too old for this shit.

Generator Hostel London

Before things got crazy

Hostel life. The more it changes, the more it stays the same. A staple of my early twenties, it became a less frequent experience as my income gradually afforded me more expensive accommodations. Now, as a startup founder, money is again really tight and I’m back to a backpacker budget. The only problem with this is that I’ve done it before. I have become the old guy in a hostel. I mean, not quite. At least I’m self-aware enough to know that I should probably be owning a hostel rather than staying in one, and that my financial condition (a startup founder on a reduced salary) is by choice a temporary one. I am, after all, sitting on top of a budding startup. Nonetheless, yeah. I’m probably too old for this.

The alarm went off way too early in the morning. I dragged myself down the hall and to the shower, realizing too late that there weren’t any towels. Sponging myself off with an old T-shirt, I dressed, packed up as quietly as I could, and made my way onto the Piccadilly Line, carrying my heavy suitcase down the stairs. No escalators here, unlike the newer systems I’m accustomed to in Asian cities. It takes about an hour from central London to Heathrow on the subway, but it’s the cheapest way to go and didn’t actually take any longer than a train would given my starting point. And I arrived at the airport in plenty of time for my flight.

I hadn’t been able to check in online, but this wasn’t particularly unusual on international flights. Foreign airports usually want to verify your documentation before you fly into the US, and US airports usually want to verify your visa before you fly out. So it was a bit of a surprise to me when I was handed a boarding pass with SSSS on it. This was the first occasion of what has now become routine. I was intercepted at the gate and corralled into a separate area where I was tightly frisked and everything I had was searched with a fine-toothed comb. I had officially been added to The List. The only benefit was that I was afforded pre-boarding, and allowed to board the plane before all the other passengers. If you’re deemed a security threat you’re brought to the front of the line, in order to prevent you from mingling with other people in the airport terminal.

The American Airlines 777 had 10-across seating. I barely fit in the 17″ seat. An ample woman plopped down next to me, her mass spilling out over the armrests and occupying about 1/3 of my seat. Yeah. It was going to be one of those flights.

Seat 31B Is Being SSSSed!

On the last two flights I have taken, operated by two different airlines, I have been selected for additional security screening with the dreaded SSSS on my boarding pass:

You really don't want a boarding pass with this designation

You really don’t want a boarding pass with this designation

What does this mean? Possibly nothing. Sometimes people are randomly selected for additional screening. Lightning could have struck twice. On the other hand, it’s possible that my frequent and unusual travel patterns (at least, unusual for anyone who isn’t a travel blogger) have aroused the suspicion of the TSA. Or maybe it’s the destinations I’m visiting. After all, my last two trips have been to Turkey and Dubai. I did enter my Global Entry number both times, but was still selected for additional screening.

What is involved in additional screening? More time and hassle. You don’t get access to PreCheck or any expedited screening. What’s more, the TSA takes you aside after your regular screening, goes through your bag manually, and takes several test strips to run through a machine. You’re also required to undergo a thorough manual pat-down (the same one that they give you if you refuse to be screened by the machine). Eventually, they will stamp your boarding pass and you’re allowed along your way.

In case you slip through, your airline double-checks for the TSA stamp on your boarding pass to ensure that you have gotten the additional screening. And if you’re traveling *into* the United States, it’s even more hassle. You’re separated from the rest of the passengers at the gate, everything you have is manually searched, you’re manually patted down (and your shoes double-checked), and you’re finally let on the plane. At least you get early boarding as a bonus, though; this is done to ensure you don’t mix with anyone else in the terminal.

The TSA has a redress program. Shortly after 9/11, I was constantly getting flagged with SSSS. I have a very common name, and apparently one of the thousands of people who share my name is on some sort of watch list. I participated in the redress program before, and the problems magically stopped. So, I’m not sure whether this is a recurrence of the previous issue, or something else. I have submitted an inquiry with the TSA, and hopefully the issue will be resolved soon.

Update: I’m definitely “on the list.” I suspect this happened because I traveled to Turkey via a circuitous route–the sort of route that would only be taken by either a shady character or someone trying to use frequent flier miles. It’s not unusual for me to be questioned by border agents about my unusual travel patterns (which are either a result of crazy routes I have to take in order to fly on points, or routes I’m flying because of mistake fares), but it’s definitely the first time I’ve apparently been put on a watch list as a result of this!

An Armenia Retrospective – And An Inspiration

A little over a year ago, I took a trip that was pivotal in my own life experience. It was to Armenia and Georgia. When I got back, I had to share the experience–it was that incredible. It’s also one of the most detailed trip reports I have ever written, and ultimately, this experience led me to start Seat 31B.

Since the trip report was originally posted to FlyerTalk, I’m leaving it there. However, I cordially invite readers to view the whole trip report here: Armenian AAdventure – DUS-DME-EVN

Soviet-era communications gear

To the glory of Socialism!

A 2014 Retrospective

I’m writing to you from Seattle, where I’m celebrating the holidays with my family. I won’t be taking any more flights in 2014. Here is ultimately where I traveled in 2014:

Map of my travel in 2014

What a year!

So, in the spirit of New Years’ retrospectives, here are my top memories of 2014.

Most amazing bargain: Definitely the Alitalia round-the-world fare widely assumed to be a mistake fare. I traveled all the way around the world for (effectively) under $219.

Most unexpected development: I ended up with Delta Gold Medallion status because I booked so many bargain fares with them. Normally riff-raff like me are filtered out, but because I lived outside of the US during the period in which Medallion Qualifying Dollars are calculated, I was exempt from the usual spending requirement. So, while flying around on sale fares, I got to enjoy some fancy airport lounges that are most definitely not a normal part of the Seat 31B experience.

Most surprising destination: Ecuador. An amazing, beautiful, friendly and ridiculously under-visited country in South America. I was able to visit on an incredible Aeromexico introductory fare of under $400.

Scariest travel moment: Getting really sick in Yunnan, China, near the Tibetan border. The only hospital within 100 miles that supposedly treated foreigners had no English-speaking doctors. I ended up booking the next flight out to Bangkok, the nearest city with international-standard hospitals, and heading to Bumrungrad Hospital. Fortunately, after an extensive series of tests, the doctors informed me that I had a bad case of heartburn. The total hospital bill? Under $300, fully paid by my travel insurance.

Most interesting city: It’s a toss-up between Beijing, my always exciting and vibrant home of 3 years, and Mexico City. However, Mexico City wins. I was amazed how surprisingly modern it is, how fashionably people dress, and how much there is to do. Honestly, if you didn’t know better, you’d think you were in Paris or Madrid.

Most stressful travel experience: Traveling through Italy and The Netherlands with my parents, who consider a trip to Vancouver, Canada (3 hours’ drive from their house) to be an exotic foreign vacation. Why was it stressful? Not because of them–they were surprisingly adaptable and really good sports–but because I cared so much about ensuring they had a memorable experience. It was a surprisingly smooth trip overall, my careful advance planning paying off, and it helped that my parents had really done their homework. These countries turned out to be almost perfect for first-time visitors to Europe.

Most unusual airline flown: It’s a toss-up between NOK Air in Thailand (a low cost carrier who paints their planes like cartoon birds) and Aeroflot Russian Airlines. No issues in either case, both got me safely to my destination!

Worst flight delay: 3 hours and 30 minutes, Cathay Pacific, between Vancouver and New York.

City visited for the shortest time: A tie between Hong Kong and Vancouver. I visited Hong Kong twice for 5 hours when flying Cathay Pacific between Beijing and Hong Kong. This is enough time to go into the city and have a very nice Cantonese dinner. I visited Vancouver on a layover between Los Angeles and New York (I flew via Vancouver to use the Cathay Pacific flight from there to New York).

Most scenic drive: Zagreb to Dubrovnik via Neum, Bosnia. If you love great drives, the Adriatic coast will not disappont.

Most luxurious travel experience: Business class, British Airways, Seattle to London. Normally I wouldn’t book this, but I didn’t have any flexibility on dates, times, or the type of points I was redeeming. And I was traveling to my graduation (I completed an MBA in 2014), so I didn’t mind splurging a little.

Least luxurious travel experience: Careening down an Ecuadorian highway locally known as “Carretera de Muerte” (Highway of Death) in a van full of singing Germans with dodgy brakes and no working seatbelts. I didn’t really fear for my life–the driver knew the road–but I was really glad when the 3 hours of bone-jarring gravel and potholes were over.

Most friendly people: Thailand, without question. The warm hospitality of this country is almost unmatched in the world.

Least friendly people: Sheremetyevo Airport, Moscow, Russia.

Most unusual lodging: A 19th century mansion amid some of Denmark’s most beautiful gardens, converted to student housing. I slept on a couch in the public area, rented to me on airbnb by the friendly and enterprising student occupants.

Most inexpensive lodging: Backpacker Hostel, Koh Samui. It was around $8 per night, an incredible bargain for a bunk in an air conditioned room.

Most expensive lodging: $78 per night in London at the DoubleTree Heathrow. There just wasn’t anything cheaper since most hotels were full.

Best airport: Copenhagen International Airport, Denmark. Clean, modern, and easily accessible. It’s a pity that more flights don’t connect here.

Worst airport: Surat Thani Airport, Thailand.

Best airline: Bangok Airways. They let all passengers use their airport lounge and it’s actually pretty nice. Comfortable seats and good service.

Worst airline: Transavia. Surly staff and the inflight entertainment was a bizarre video of the flight kitchen in which sandwiches are made. Definitely unappetizing!

And there you have it, my retrospective of 2014. It has been an incredible year, and I can’t wait for 2015!

My Top Five Reverse Culture Shocks

I spent 4 years living, working and studying outside of the United States. Sure, expats keep up with the news in the US, but you end up seeing your home country mainly in snapshots and viewing it through the lens of the media. The country you grew up in thus becomes an exaggerated caricature, even more so than its larger-than-life culture already is. If you’re a thoughtful person, and most expats are, you know that this is going on and you adjust your expectations accordingly. So I was prepared for the general incivility of public discourse (which stands in sharp contrast to the expat community, which almost universally demonstrates the very best of American culture), and the outright stupidity of politicians (whose constituents deserve far better). I was even prepared for the police brutality here, which resembles the feared and loathsome force of “urban management” officials in China known as Chengguan.

But nothing could have prepared me for the sheer number of extremely obese people. I see them everywhere. Or Seattle traffic, which would probably lose a race to molasses. Or … well, read on. Here are my Top 5 reverse culture shocks:

MH900082919[1]1. Everything tastes too sweet. Bakery goods contain much more sugar than in most places abroad (particularly Asia), but it’s not just these. Juices are flavored with high fructose corn syrup. Ice cream is more sweet. The amount of sugar in a cupcake will knock you off of your chair. Even the sauce in pizza has almost as much sugar as a jelly doughnut. No wonder everyone is getting diabetes, people are just consuming way too much sugar.

Don't walk sign2. You can’t easily walk anywhere. With the exception of a few US cities such as New York and San Francisco, it’s really hard to walk anywhere. I miss the convenience of just popping next door for fresh vegetables any time I wanted them, or easily stumbling home after an evening in the pub with friends.

terrible traffic3. I live in my car. Public transportation in the US is generally pretty bad, and this is especially true in Los Angeles and Seattle (the places where I spend the most time). Because I can’t actually walk anywhere to get things done, I end up having to drive all over the place. So, I end up paying a lot more for transportation than I did living abroad.

household budget image4. Shopping is less expensive, but you have to buy more stuff. Because there isn’t a national sales tax in the US, most things are cheaper in stores. However, this doesn’t mean that I’m actually any better off, because the things these taxes pay for (e.g. health care and public transportation) don’t exist. So, living in the US overall costs more.

fat statue5. People are just unbelievably fat.  I mean, folks like you see in People of Wal-Mart just don’t seem to exist in other countries (with the possible exception of Mexico and the UK), but you see this all over the place here. Is it because of all of the stuff above? Probably. I personally get way less exercise here in the US and have been gaining weight since I returned.

The Epic Transatlantic Armrest Battle

I just flew 13,588 miles from Los Angeles to Paris to Copenhagen to Amsterdam and back. The whole trip was flown in economy class and I only narrowly avoided Seat 31B. It truly was the worst seat in the plane on two separate legs of the journey, even though the aircraft types were different (Boeing 737 and Airbus A380). In fact, it’s so bad that KLM reserves the whole row 31 for crew use only. Instead, I was seated one row forward in Seat 30C for two legs of the journey. Somehow, I even scored an aisle seat.

Picture of Seat 31B

Seat 31B is the one in the middle. It doesn’t recline.

Exceptionally pleased with my good luck, I stored my carry-on luggage with an almost smug attitude on the final leg of my journey. It was a monster long leg, a nearly 12-hour flight from Paris to Los Angeles on the A380. Now, I was flying on an “attack fare,” and expected that something awful would likely happen. After all, apart from taxes, the seat was nearly free. I paid only $555 for a roundtrip flight from Los Angeles to Copenhagen on Air France, tacking on a cheap intra-Europe flight to Amsterdam with KLM so I could fly on a single itinerary (and avoid bag fees). It was the final leg of the journey, and I really couldn’t believe my good luck. A direct flight to the West Coast on an A380, and I didn’t even have to sit in the middle!

Seat 30C on the Air France A380

Seat 30C on the Air France A380

I took my seat, but a few minutes later I knew there would be a problem. A diminutive woman leaned over to me. “Would you like to sit by the window?” she said, a statement more than a question. “No, actually. I prefer the aisle, thanks,” I said. The woman started to crawl over me to her seat–clearly a novice flyer. “Please wait, I will get out, you can take your seat,” I said. “It’s OK, I can climb over,” she said, but I nimbly got out of the way and she was able to take her seat (she never really got the idea; it became a race the entire flight to get out of my seat before she tried to crawl over me). Just as I started to sit down, I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was her son. He was nearly 7 feet tall, a pile of gangly limbs with a tall pile of dreadlocks atop his head.

Now, the ceiling in the A380 is tall, but between this guy’s height and his crazy hair, the reading light was actually blocked! The other issue was the fact that he didn’t fit in his seat. At all. His diminutive mother sat in her window seat unmolested while this guy tried to wedge himself into his seat. Finally, he lifted the armrest. “Let’s leave this up for the flight,” he said, literally half of his body occupying my seat. “Let’s not,” I said. “It doesn’t work very well to do this when I lean back to sleep, and by the way, not to be annoying, but there isn’t actually room for me to sit in my seat.”

He adjusted himself, contorting his body into perhaps the most painful stress position I’ve ever seen–rivaling those the CIA perfected at Guantanamo–and managed to clear most of my seat. Unfortunately, his body still protruded into my seat, right elbow and knee and shoulder, everything hard and sharp periodically bumping into me as he tried to remain squeezed in his seat, limbs occasionally popping out of their stress positions to jam into me. Young people being independent, he didn’t want to try to share his mother’s seat, so everything moved gradually in my direction.

lax-cdg-cph-ams

It was a *long* roundtrip in economy class

I lived for 3 years in Beijing. I am used to close quarters, and if you don’t learn to be tolerant of uncomfortable situations and inexplicable delays, you’ll just go crazy there. I learned to be more patient, and I’m still pretty patient–I haven’t been living in Western society long enough to lose patience, empathy and good humor. Still, this was an armrest battle on steroids. The battle in this case wasn’t over who had the armrest–trying to share it would have entirely been a lost cause–but whether the armrest stayed down and my seat-mate remained in only his seat. Every time I left my seat, I’d return to find the armrest up and half of my seat occupied. I mean, I didn’t blame the guy. I really sympathized. It isn’t his fault that airplane seats are designed to be a tight squeeze for Chinese people, let alone people who are nearly 7 feet tall. Still, leaving the armrest up just wasn’t going to work for me. I couldn’t exactly stand up for the whole flight.

In the end, I got almost no sleep. This was one of the longest and least comfortable flights I’ve ever taken. I honestly can’t even imagine what it was like for the guy next to me–a cruel, sadistic 12 hours of torture (gate to gate) no doubt. I think there really needs to be a better solution than this. The sizes of seats and people keep moving in opposite directions.

Do you have to fight for your whole airplane seat? Comment below!

Off The Beaten Path In The Netherlands

I spent nearly a year living and studying in The Netherlands, and am often asked for advice on what to see and do there. The Netherlands (often incorrectly called Holland) has a lot to see for such a small country, and it’s easy to navigate. It’s also a terrific gateway to Europe, because there are a large number of flights (including on low-cost carriers) into Schiphol airport. Although Dutch people speak their own language, they’re very linguistically versatile. Nearly everyone speaks excellent English (younger people especially so), and they usually also speak German. So, The Netherlands is a great first country to visit in Europe–or a great first country to visit in general.

Dutch boat and canal

If you visit The Netherlands, you’ll probably end up on a boat at some point.

Unfortunately, none of this is really a secret. The Netherlands is one of the most-visited countries in Europe, and for good reason: it’s home to some of its most famous museums and attractions. During the tourist season, The Netherlands is besieged by visitors, not only from North America and Europe but also from Asia. For a small country with only 14 million residents, the top attractions can become very crowded indeed. And for some reason, even though there is no shortage of places to visit in The Netherlands, everyone seems to flock to the same ones.

As I sit in Weesp, having enjoyed an idyllic and beautiful fall Sunday in a picture postcard Dutch town with nary another visitor to be seen, I am amazed that more people don’t make it off the beaten path in The Netherlands. Haarlem, a very similar city, is besieged by throngs of tourists, the restaurants and shops charging inflated tourist prices. Meanwhile, I enjoyed a Belgian beer in a sunny sidewalk cafe for a mere €4.50 this afternoon, while watching the locals enjoy the day in their boats.

Weesp sidewalk cafe

Sidewalk cafes in Weesp are every bit as nice, but just half the price of Haarlem

It’s not just idyllic country towns that are great to visit when you go off the beaten path. Every weekend, planeloads of visitors descend on Schiphol and head straight for the Red Light district in Amsterdam. If you’re looking for a party, this is one place to go, but not the best place. Despite the marijuana and prostitution, it’s a pretty relaxed, organized and tame place. It’s really crowded though, with the high prices you would expect in a really popular area. Personally, I skip the Red Light District. As a guy with a fairly serious DJ hobby, I’m into electronic music, and the best music and parties are in the young, vibrant city of Utrecht. For half the price of an evening out in Amsterdam, you can see much better DJs and have a lot better time at an Utrecht dance party. It’s also a beautiful city, known as the “city of lights” in The Netherlands and famous for the elaborate light displays along its canals.

Utrecht City Of Lights

The party is at the end of this tunnel.

How about art? Everyone knows about the famous Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. However, did you know that there’s an astonishingly large Van Gogh collection at a museum you have probably never heard of? I think the seldom-visited Kröller-Müller Museum in Gelderland is a lot better than the Van Gogh Museum, even though it’s less well-known. It also has an incredible sculpture garden. It’s best if you rent a car to get there, but if you do, you might just have the place to yourself.

One reason that many people don’t venture far from the beaten path is the perceived complexity of public transportation. However, in reality, Dutch public transportation is one of the easiest systems to use in the world. It’s really only complicated if you’re trying to pay cash or use a non-European bank card. The Netherlands has a unified transportation payment system called the OV-Chipkaart. It works in literally every bus, train, subway and tram in the country. All of them, everywhere. You can buy one at the NS train ticket sales counter at Schiphol, and it will make your life incredibly easier. Public transportation is relatively expensive in The Netherlands, so 50 euro goes fast! Reloading is easy with cash or a credit card at any train station with a ticket counter. You can also reload your OV-Chipkaart at ticket machines, but this only works reliably with a European credit card with chip and PIN.

OV-Chipkaart reader

Scan your OV-Chipkaart on the reader

Using the OV-Chipkaart is remarkably simple. Just scan it before (or as) you get into the bus, train, train or subway. When you leave, scan it again. You’re charged by distance, and the fares add up quickly. Transportation in The Netherlands is expensive! That’s why you see everyone riding a bicycle; you will pay to be lazy. Your account will need a minimum balance of 20 euro to board a NS Railways train (which is why it’s best to start with 50 euro on your card), but you usually don’t need any minimum balance to board a subway, tram or bus.

It actually gets even better than this. You only need one way to plan travel in The Netherlands: either the Web site or smartphone app 9292. You can easily plan a trip between any two locations in the country and all methods of public transportation are covered. You can even find out the cost in advance. Content is all available in both English and Dutch. Yes, it really is this easy. The best way to search is by postal code, if you have it. Note that every single address in The Netherlands has its own unique postal code.

Dutch weather

The weather can change suddenly, even if it’s nice where you just were. Bring an umbrella!

Are there more hidden gems in The Netherlands? Of course! Some of my other favorite cities are Groningen, Maastricht and Den Haag (The Hague). Each has a very different personality. Groningen is famous for squatter dwellings, warehouse parties and graffiti art. Maastricht has winding cobblestone streets where you can find an absolutely perfect cup of fine Dutch Espresso, sipping slowly and watching the world go by. And Den Haag is a rabbit’s warren of serendipitous discoveries, with some of the most interesting and unique shops in the country.

But I have really only scratched the surface. For such a small country, there is a lot to enjoy in The Netherlands. Take the train to a place you’ve never heard of, rent a bicycle (possible for a few euro at most train stations) and go explore! You might be amazed at what you find.