Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Paris for beginners - Part 3


Way back in the day, TH visited London without me.  I gave her a detailed list of places to visit and what to do in order to keep her upright until the evening.  It was an exhaustive paper list and map with a specific routing of what to see along the way and where to eat.  While there might have been Internet in those days -however, computerized maps, nor GPS were not available to every Tom, Dick or Sally.  My itinerary kept her amused and worked as she was exhausted by the time she got to her final destination.

These days, things are both easier and more complicated. Travel planning not only requires more than the Boolean of smoking or no smoking, single or double; but which of the 90880 travel reviews do I trust for a hotel recommendation.  I contend we suffer from travel decision fatigue and that is even before we actually get to the airport to board the first flight.

When it comes down to it, I love planning than the actual trip.  It is the combination of preparation, curation, anticipation of what might the new thing, along with the familiarity of the old and true that excites me.  Some trips are methodically planned, e.g. car trips and others are loosely based on a few hard to procure reservations and gaps filled with whatever we see or can fill in along the way.  The explosion of social sharing of information and sometimes the over sharing makes trip planning even easier these days.  Friends are willing to share out lists, links, hidden gems to their friends because sharing is fun.  Some folks keep detailed itineraries and share them with anyone who might want to copy them cappuccino by cappuccino and are mortally offended if you do not find each and every thing they did as fascinating as they did. Nod politely with each offer of help or advice and go home and sleep on it.  It is ultimately your trip, own it.

Visual curation seems to be the new thing in travel planning - both for aspirational travel or for itinerary planning.  Marrying images with a map and some text or another link to information is priceless for travel planning and for on the ground navigating.  I'm a big fan of a few techniques for doing this.

Suggestion One - Try trip planning using imagery instead of guide books.  Going to Rome? Paris? New York? Louisville?  Seek these places out using discovery apps or web sites.  A few to try include Pinterest, Instagram (or the web equivalent), Flickr and Trover.  Use the key word function  to find a place and start discovering.  This probably can't be done on the plane somewhere, but requires a little time before your trip to find places that intrigue you and if you are lucky are geotagged with a location.  Take notes, or in the case of Trover, start making lists of places you want to visit within the application (nifty feature). 

Putting this on a map - I know everyone is gaga for Pinterest, but Pinterest has not done such a great job of integrating all their pinning with a map interface So, you can love and repin something from one person's board to your own, but no geographic information gets transferred, so it up to you to start creating your own map using Google Maps, this is clunky, but useful and shareable.

Suggestion Two  - Use online guides for trip planning. Lots of guides are now available electronically and some actually work well when you are off line. Many tourist boards now make mapping applications with some background information and useful tourist information.  Some municipalities even create podcasts that you can listen to while walking around.  Use these, love them and remember to remove them when you are done.

Time out guides are also great because they are free and update with current events. They are available on the web and from app stores.  These are handy if you are trying to decide between two museums or to see what is nearby.  Time out also lets you plan out an itinerary by day and works well offline.  Drawback - there are advertisements that pop up, but that is the tradeoff for a free app.

Download specialty apps for trip planning and navigating - food, art, fashion.  Not all of these are free, but they can be useful depending on the quality of the maps used.  Many of them seem repetitive - there may be 940 bakeries in the center of Paris, but most food tourists flock to 15 of them.  Don't be smug or angry that someone else beat you to the last baguette, everyone is getting the same information.  

Suggestion Three - Be flexible.  Have a back up plan.  A 76 degree day in Rome sounds delightful when you are sitting in 45 degree Seattle, until you realize that swollen feet, sticky armpits and cameras that weigh a ton can make the most delightful stop for gelato seem like a death march.  Maybe you should use this time to go sit in a cafe and write that postcard you promised to the cat sitter. 

Friday, May 11, 2012

Paris for beginners - Part 2

1979, a bad year for fashion
The family M, 1979. Trip one of a million to Paris.

Continuing on the Paris theme, let's talk about food and eating in general.  My first trip to Paris was in 1979.  My brother and I were teenagers and suffice it to say, it was not a good scene food wise or hormone wise. As my trips grew more frequently, I ventured away from McDonald's to try couscous, onion soup, pizza and Campari soda. I felt so sophisticated.

After 40 plus trips to Paris, I still get intimidated by eating and ordering when I step into a restaurant.  I do a great job of researching where we'll eat, but then fret that I will order the wrong wine, not enough food (Hello McDonald's!), or just hate the food.  Why is something I love to do at home - eat out, seem so vexing while traveling?

Maybe because I am afraid I'm going to be identified as a tourist and given a menu in ENGLISH (quelle horreur!).

Here's my advice, relax and enjoy the food.  As with all experiences, you will have five good to one bad.  You will faint at the prices for some things and feel like you stole out of the cash drawer for others, it all ends up about the same in the end.

Breakfast - If your hotel has it, take advantage of it especially if you need to be fueled in the morning.  Buffets are full of protein as well as the boulangerie goods you think of when you think of Paris.  If you are lucky enough to have a in room breakfast, enjoy freshly selected and not picked over goods.  Skip coffee in the morning, have tea (usually freshly brewed for you) or chocolat chaud. 
If breakfast is not available, suss out a local cafe and if you love keep on going back. Conversely, you can find a patisserie such as Erik Kayser and have a sit down pastry and coffee, but it is usually not very comfortable.

Parisians love brunch. I don't get it, but TH loves one place in particular - Sésame - on Quai Valmy on Canal St. Martin. It is tiny spot, but the food is plentiful.  Des Gars dans la cuisine is also great for brunch and a steal at lunch!  I would rather eat a huge lunch somewhere and walk it off than mix eggs with  an open faced sandwich and a brownie at 10 am.

Lunch - I love lunch. I prefer lunch to dinner. Lunch is less expensive and easier to get reservations at some of the posher places in town.  In some cases, Michelin starred restaurants have great prix fixe menus for lunch.  Many courses for 100 euros per person.  Dinner at these places run three times that and you will be completely over catered to and stuffed and have to taxi home.  Bring comfortable shoes to change into after lunch and walk back to your hotel.  My suggestions include Taillevent, L'astrance and Le Table du Joel Robuchon.  Here is a list of other awesome places that I am going to hit on my next few trips.

I am not going to give you a million lunch suggestions, other than you can't go wrong with omelets, salads with chevre, steak frites and the daily dish.  Have coffee, skip dessert and go find a macaron to munch in a little bit. 

Dinner - One word of advice - if you are peckish or need to eat long before the restaurants open, by all means have a snack. Fake fact - bad decisions and meltdowns between loved ones happen between 5:15-7:15 pm when you are starting to get hungry and nothing is open.  Great time to run back to hotel, take a shower, drop off all your stuff and have a snack in your room or the hotel bar before going out.
I like to stay near the hotel for dinner. This can be challenging if you are in an area that is devoid of decent food (office parks, La Defense, the AIRPORT), but most folks are probably not in the category. If  I'm tired and cranky, I will visit a local cafe and order an omelet and green salad and call it dinner.  If that doesn't work and your hotel room can tolerate the smells of take out, go to a local traiteur (deli serving hot food) and pick up some noshes. I love the hole in the wall places off of Rue St. Honoré.

Smart travelers always bring a plastic picnic pack of utensils and use the towels for a table cloth.  If you want quick and filling, head out for felafel in the Marais or near the Sorbonne. I have no favorites, but others do.

If we are in the mood for fancy food, we try and hit a nice restaurant, preferably one that takes reservations. We like baby brother restaurants of Michelin restaurants or brasseries around the corner. A great concierge can take your requested list of restaurants and make all reservations for you. If you are lucky, the hotel will even have a list you can fill out on line. If there is somewhere you are dying to try, I suggest emailing the restaurant, the hotel concierge or Skyping them and requesting a table.  The more popular restaurants will require a confirmation the morning of your reservation, so make to follow up or you will be eating at McDonald's.

Finally, there is McDonald's. I am not saying it is my favorite place to eat, but they make a decent cup of coffee and have free WiFi.  If you are homesick and want to check in via the Internets or Skype, you can do it here better than nearly everywhere, including outside of the restaurant.

The important thing is to be flexible and have a plan at the same time. While this seems contrarian, it works. Have two options to chose from - somewhere close when you are tired and can't fathom walking or taxiing from your destination to the restaurant and somewhere further afield if you still peppy with energy.

Remember to take lots of discrete pictures, but spend your time loving the food and paying attention to your dining companion.  You can latergram your finds in your hotel room later that night.

Paris eating links I like - John Talbott's Paris
David Lebovitz  - Paris suggestions  
Phyllis Flick - Paris notebook

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Paris for beginners -Part 1

on the way up
This blog post is really for my friends M and A who are going to Paris for a week.  They are quite lovely people - well traveled and have an amazing perspective on the world. I believe the last time they were in Paris, they might have been roughing it a little more.

In any case, here is my best what to see in  Paris advice. Take what you can from it and throw the rest away.

Welcome to a city that is full of amazing stuff - croissants spilling out of shop doors, dogs clad in Chanel, millions of instagrammable shots everywhere you look and tourists, scads of tourists.
Be a tourist for a few days, take in the city by bites, there is no need to see it all in a purposeful way. Make it fun, not a trudge.

Paris is a bunch of cities in one. Pick a few things that appeal to you - gardens, fashion, art, technology,  revolution, food and focus on them. No need to be greedy. Paris will always be there. Focus on those things and do them well. 

Interested in gardens and adaptive reuse?  Visit Parc Andre Citroen, Parc de la Villette, Viaducts des Arts, Canal St. Martin, Bercy, Bois de Boulogne, Giverny spring to mind and don't forget the Jardins des Plantes.

Interested in Markets - pick three to see - one with a great view is the  Marche Au President Wilson, Posh Organic Market - Boul. Raspail, Ethnic Market - one on the Canal, Covered markets are worth a look as well... The Quai de la Mégisseries and others close by have great plants. From this you get a sense of how Parisians try hard to eek out a little green in the smallest of balconies.

Outdoor Art - Musee Rodin, Pompidou and the sculpture garden located at Quai St. Bernard on the Seine.

Understanding Hausmann - walk the Grands Boulevards, at least for bit - Start at Opera, look down the Avenue, go towards Madeleine, marvel at the square and the poshness that surrounds. If you are strong willed, walk up Boul. Malesherbes to see the grandness of the streets.  You can stop anywhere along the way to rest your feet.  Contrast this with the Marais and its medieval feel.

Find the best box of chocolates - you know my favorites - Foucher, Jean Paul Hevin, La Maison du Chocolat, compare and contrast.  Do the same for macarons - you don't have to order a whole box, it is perfectly okay to order one or two.

The maps that you get from the hotels are remarkably well designed and should be used in conjunction to those you use to navigate on your phone.


Thursday, May 03, 2012

Travel Thursday - Why bother engaging? American Airlines and Status Matching

Magnolia stellata
Magnolia Stellata on Rue des blancs manteaux, Paris, March 2011.

Your words can speak louder than your actions. Think about it before you put anything out there onto
the interwebs. I had to leave a conversation on twitter with @americanair because they were starting to make me cranky and it was not going to be pretty in the end.  To their credit, they do attempt to be proactive and engage with their best customers. In this case, they were just spouting the company line.

I am not currently very pleased with American Airlines, the legacy airline to which I have been chained to for what appears to be an eternity.  I originally stayed with them because they acquired TWA and all their elites.  They treated us well. I traveled a lot, some for work, and much for pleasure. I was lucky, I found  some decent fares, usually got upgraded and rarely was disappointed, until now.

The airlines have been hit by high fuel costs, high salaries and benefit costs, and shrinking networks. The results are downgrades to basic amenities such as clean toilets and nourishment on flights and fewer and more crowded flights.  Flying is really no longer fun, even in premium classes. I approach each trip as if I am going to Alaska to do field work. I pack plenty of snacks and carry an extra book. I make sure I have my phone charger and an extra pair of underwear in my carry on because who knows if I'll end up with an unexpected overnight in Cold Bay.  I am  grateful if my bag makes it to my final destination.

It is sad to see something that used to make me so giddy with excitement now fill me with dread. The new developments make it even more irritating. 

American Airlines is offering status matches to United Airlines/Continental fliers at a tier to tier match up.  I know this sounds like Urdu to some of you, but they are giving the same level of elite recognition to fliers with high elite status on one airline to another, including free domestic upgrades and eight international upgrades.  The fliers can choose to fly or not after being granted these perks.  While the perks are not allowed to be traded or sold, they can be "gifted" to friends and family; so there are now eight more opportunities for you to give your parents the trip of their lifetime. In the past, they have had to challenge (fly a certain number of miles or earn a certain number of points) to prove their mettle and dedication and still only granted the mid tier of status.  Matches have also been granted on a case by case basis, or done very quietly .  Social media and community forums have put an end to that -- everything is fair game and everyone can get in on the deal if they are eligible.

Its all so awesome, right? Bonus! Score! How nice of them! Fraternity! Equality! Liberty!

So what happens to the schmucks that either fly weekly for work, monthly for leisure or try a little harder and pay a little more to fly American?  They wait in the same queue as your newly minted elites and their families or "friends" for those upgrades that may or may not clear because there are now x% more of them than there were a month ago.

There as far as I can tell, no way to distinguish between the minted elites and the earned elites, unless AA's crack IT team can flag the reservations and the gods of revenue and seat management can work their magic and move them up in the priority queue. I don't have an answer. I would ask (nicely) that American Airlines think about how to retain their best customers by engaging them on or off line to figure out a way to keep them happy while courting the unhappy UAL/CO customer base.

It's just good business.