Friday, August 10, 2012

An interesting approach to thinking about fare error prices

In the last few days, there has been some discussion in the travel/point blogosphere about a fare pricing error on El Al that allowed you to get a round-trip from New York to Israel for about $300.  Apparently the discount blog was primarily responsible for spreading the news.

Interestingly, Dan posted a link in which a rabbi offers a halachic analysis of whether it is permissible to exploit a fare pricing error.  (Halacha, in laypersons' terms, is the study of Jewish law based upon the Torah and its descendant legal documents such as the Talmud.)  Here is the discussion:

I noticed a not-particularly-surprising quantity of self-justification in the comments.  

Thursday, August 2, 2012

A New Feature

It turns out that blogs don't just write themselves, I've come to learn.  One of these days I'll return from my hiatus, or as it's known in the industry, month of procrastination.

In the meantime, I've started a new page on this web site, the Finagle Hall of Fame, which will include some of the best finagles I've ever heard of and/or had the pleasure to participate in.  See link at the top. Some of these are mine, some are from my friends, some I've read about in the news or on other web sites.  I always try to cite sources, unless the source doesn't want to be cited.  If you have any suggestions, please let me know.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Seared and Smoking in Las Vegas: 2012 Trip Report Part 8 (Friday)

Part 1: The Plan
Part 2: Baker
Part 3: The Buffet
Part 4: Monday (arrival)
Part 5: Tuesday
Part 6: Wednesday
Part 7: Thursday
Part 8: Friday (departure)

Packed up the car and left Tuscany.

We stopped for some perfectly edible bagels and coffee at the Del Mar Deli @ South Point, and then headed back to California on Interstate 15.

It should have been 8 hours home, but as usual it took us closer to 10 1/2 due to lunch, bathroom breaks, and fatigue.

That said, our luck wasn't all that bad on this Friday the Thirteenth.  All in all, a relaxing vacation that didn't break the bank, and that's all we can really ask for these days.

The End

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Seared and Smoking in Las Vegas: 2012 Trip Report Part 7 (Thursday)

Part 1: The Plan
Part 2: Baker
Part 3: The Buffet
Part 4: Monday (arrival)
Part 5: Tuesday
Part 6: Wednesday
Part 7: Thursday
Part 8: Friday (departure)

I opened my eyes, and realized I was in a room at the Flamingo hotel, neck deep in liquid.  The hairs on the back of my neck froze.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Seared and Smoking in Las Vegas: 2012 Trip Report Part 6 (Wednesday)

Part 1: The Plan
Part 2: Baker
Part 3: The Buffet
Part 4: Monday (arrival)
Part 5: Tuesday
Part 6: Wednesday
Part 7: Thursday
Part 8: Friday (departure)

Wednesday morning, we had cereal for breakfast in the room.

The Mrs. had her massage appointment at "La Riva Spa," which is a small massage studio that sublets some massage rooms from the Tuscany in the fitness center building.  There is no other spa facility to speak of.  Meanwhile I hung out with the kids at the pool in the hotel.  I purchased an iced coffee poolside from the waitress for the surprisingly affordable price of $2.25.

Nancy said she enjoyed the massage, although apparently her therapist had some negative things to say about the guy running La Riva.  Hearing this second hand, it sounds like they haven't been paid for their work, and particularly for any of their groupon / Living Social deals, of which Nancy's massage was one, and she said they are threatening to walk out if they are not paid within the week.  Also, she said (and this was also posted by someone on Yelp) that the owner is extremely hard to work with.  In particular, if someone calls to change appointment times, the guy makes a federal case of it.  Again, this is hearsay, albeit from multiple sources.  The upshot is that La Riva Spa may not be long for the world.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Seared and Smoking in Las Vegas: 2012 Trip Report Part 5 (Tuesday)

Part 1: The Plan
Part 2: Baker
Part 3: The Buffet
Part 4: Monday (arrival)
Part 5: Tuesday
Part 6: Wednesday
Part 7: Thursday
Part 8: Friday (departure)

Ok, back to the Vegas trip report.
Since the Tuscany has a refrigerator, we had shopped Monday evening for breakfast items, and just had cereal in the room.

You know it's going to be hot when you go outside at 7:30 a.m. and it's already 95 degrees.

We had called a few babysitters that we had found through, after shelling out the $35 fee for a month of subscription, but they didn't call us back.  We found one on Craigslist who sounded promising, and she invited us to meet her at her house.  After talking with her, we were going to hire her, but afterwards we both felt less than 100% comfortable, mainly because she was so far away, and also because she spent most of the time talking to us and spent very little time with the kids.  So we called to cancel.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Seared and Smoking in Las Vegas: 2012 Trip Report Part 4 (arrival and hotel review)

Part 1: The Plan
Part 2: Baker
Part 3: The Buffet
Part 4: Monday (arrival)
Part 5: Tuesday
Part 6: Wednesday
Part 7: Thursday
Part 8: Friday (departure)

Las Vegas greeted us with 111-degree heat on Monday afternoon.  Thanks, Las Vegas.  Nice to see you too.  We pulled into the Tuscany and I went to check in.  


The wait for check-in was about 5 minutes.  The Tuscany never seemed to have more than two people working the front desk as long as we were there.  Although, more than 3 would make it crowded.

According to the confirmation email I received, "Resort fee includes:  2 for 1 entree at your choice of 2 restaurants: Cantina or Marilyn's Cafe, $20 food credit with $40 purchase at Tuscany Gardens, Match play on table games, Valet Parking, use of Fitness Center, In-room safes, Local Phone calls, In-room coffee, Internet throughout the reception building and convention public area; extra fee for internet use in suite."  It is ambiguous with regard to the number of coupons you get if you stay multiple days or with multiple people.  It turned out that you get the promo coupon book once no matter how long your stay is.  So if you plan to use the coupons multiple times, make separate reservations for each day you stay.  I didn't, but the check-in clerk seemed sympathetic and gave me a second coupon sheet.  Incidentally, each coupon sheet includes two $5 match play coupons, one of which can be used per day.

After checking in, we shlepped our own bags to the room, relaxed for a bit, and went down to Marilyn's for dinner.  We took it easy the rest of the night, swimming in the pool while I had some laundry going in the laundry room.  I didn't realize the laundry room was locked at 10pm; I still had clothes going in the dryer.  I was able to get someone to open it for me.

The following are reviews of the Tuscany Suites Hotel and dinner at Marilyn's Cafe.

The Buffet: 2012 Trip Report Part 3

Part 1: The Plan
Part 2: Baker
Part 3: The Buffet
Part 4: Monday (arrival)
Part 5: Tuesday
Part 6: Wednesday
Part 7: Thursday
Part 8: Friday (departure)

By buffet, I mean a veritable smorgasbord of cheap lodging options, some of which in fact come with a free actual buffet.  Arriving in Las Vegas on a Monday in mid-July and staying until Friday means hotels are practically begging you to fill their rooms that would otherwise be free of human occupancy, and free of income production.

Most folks in this situation would make a beeline for one of the big strip resorts, which can be had way cheaper than investors in the hotels built since 2000 had ever intended - but that is not how we roll.

The strip had rooms this week that were perfectly affordable, even for a tightwad such as myself.  However, we are traveling with kids, so our priorities are different.  A view of the fountains isn't nearly as important as easy access between the parking lot and the hotel room.  It's also nice to have a kitchen, or something approximating a kitchen, at least with a refrigerator and a table with chairs.  As I've said before, we want to be in a place where we and our kids are welcomed and appreciated.  We would like to be able to leave the premises without a long adventure in the parking lot or long wait at the valet station.  Finally, one other reason I don't seek out the higher-end Strip resorts is that I really feel like I can appreciate the trappings of luxury only when I've gotten them for free, or nearly so.  Otherwise, five stars doesn't do much for me that three stars can't.

An Open Letter to the Mayor and citizens of Baker, California

Part 1: The Plan
Part 2: Baker
Part 3: The Buffet
Part 4: Monday (arrival)
Part 5: Tuesday
Part 6: Wednesday
Part 7: Thursday
Part 8: Friday (departure)

Dear Mayor and citizens:

Stopping in Baker for gas and coffee at the Arco AM-PM station, it was hot.  That, we were prepared for.  However, we were completely blindsided by the fact that the World's Tallest Thermometer has fallen into disrepair, and no longer displays the temperature.

The World's Tallest Thermometer has always been a milepost and beacon of hope to weary California travelers that says two things:

  1. Congratulations.  You are only 88 miles from Las Vegas.
  2. Congratulations.  You can take the heat, which today is ?? degrees.

However, the World's Tallest Thermometer is broken, and thus fails in its second function.  Please fix it.  I can't brag or blog how hot I was able to stand if I don't know how hot it was.


A hot and sweaty traveler

P.S. the restrooms at the Arco station are in a condition similar to that of the World's Tallest Thermometer.


Seared and Smoking in Las Vegas: 2012 Trip Report Part 1

Part 1: The Plan
Part 2: Baker
Part 3: The Buffet
Part 4: Monday (arrival)
Part 5: Tuesday
Part 6: Wednesday
Part 7: Thursday
Part 8: Friday (departure)

Going through my Vegas notebook in anticpation of this trip, I found the following recipe:

2 bags of grass
75 pellets of mescaline
five sheets of high-powered blotter acid
a saltshaker half-full of cocaine
1 quart tequila
1 quart rum
1 case Budweiser
1 pint raw ether
2 dozen amyls

Load up in red convertible, aka "The Great Shark"
Drive to Vegas

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Time for a Shvitz

Need to kill half a day in Vegas by yourself but are down to your last $25?

That pretty much rules out gambling, with the possible exception of five cent video poker.  If you really want a taste of the high life, why not spend a few hours at a spa.

Granted, this may not be for everyone.  However, my trip to Vegas is never complete without a visit.  A spa in Las Vegas is an easy way to experience a level of luxury and decadence which anywhere else would require that you stay in a hotel that may cost five or ten times what you spent on yours.  By that measure, it may just be one of the best values that Vegas has to offer.  This might also be a good option for people who don't otherwise seem to care for Las Vegas, or those who just need some peace and quiet.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Tips on Planning a Group Trip to Vegas

Getting the gang back together in Vegas?  Good call.  But here are some suggestions to think about before you go through with it.

Who is going, and why?

Lots of people love visiting Vegas, but different people may like it for different reasons.  Here are some reasons people might want to go to vegas:

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

A Contrarian View on Resort Fees

In some hotel markets, particularly in hypercompetitive resort areas such as Las Vegas, hotels impose mandatory "resort fees" on customers.  I used to use terms like "diabolical" and other pejoratives to describe resort fees and the hotels that imposed them.  However, I recently have turned the corner on this issue and boldly go where no blogger has been before - to say that they can actually lower the price you will pay for your hotel.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Taking the Kids to Vegas? Really? Part 6: Slot Clubs and Positive-Expectation Promotions

This is the sixth in the series "Taking the Kids to Vegas?  Really?"

Part 1:  Intro and Helpful Hints
Part 2:  What to Do
Part 3:  Where to Stay
Part 4:  Where to Eat
Part 5:  Deals and Finagles
Part 6:  This Page

First of all, let me get upfront about what you probably already realized:  This page covers topics you CAN'T do with your kids.  The title is very misleading and whichever blogger cavalierly posted that should be ashamed of him or herself.  Nonetheless, anyone over 21 can do the following, and any bottom-feeder worth her silt who is going to Las Vegas should know about slot clubs and positive-expectation promotions. So let your sweetie spend a few hours at the pool with the kids, and do a coupon run.  Or, since you will need a membership anyway to get the lower price on the buffet, why not just sign up while the rest of the family is waiting in the buffet line.

If you haven't already read about Don Johnson (no, not that Don Johnson), occasionally referred to as "The Beast of Blackjack," I recommend doing so.  What is important about this story, and what is relevant to the casual gambling public such as you and me, is not what you might think is important.  I don't suggest you learn to play perfect blackjack or expect to be treated like someone who bets $100,000 per hand.  First-timers can read about him in the Atlantic, and you can read a little more detail about the numbers here.

What Don Johnson got out of the Atlantic City casinos, which is relevant to the rest of us 99%, is an edge.  In his case, he was able to negotiate with desperate and naive casino managers to refund a percentage of his losses.  Blackjack has a slight edge in favor of casinos of about 1% if played perfectly without counting cards, and it may even tip in the gambler's favor depending on the rules.  (Card counters have a distinct advantage over the casino, until they are persona non grata.) If you play perfectly and you can negotiate a refund on 20% of your losses, you clearly have an edge which, over the course of a few days of playing, can and did cost several casinos millions of dollars.

With respect to comps that the rest of us would think to envy, Don put it best:  "What can they give you – a suite? Big deal. You’re not even spending any time up in the room... If they give me the right game and the right discount, they could give me an umbrella on the beach."

Saturday, May 5, 2012

The Big Finagle Part 3: Getting Just Beyond the Limits

This is the third in a multi-part series on getting the most of your frequent flier points for those just looking to get there in coach, and not particularly concerned about flying business or first class.

Part 1:  Award chart sweet spots
Part 2:  Using the Stopover to Bundle Trips
Part 3:  This Page

Today's topic is mixing airlines to get places that cost way too much on the airline on which you have most of your points.  If you recently found yourself with more frequent flier points than you had ever expected to accumulate, thanks to the two-browser AA trick, you can go a lot of different places with your miles.   As I pointed out in Part 1 of this series, you can get pretty far on not many miles, as long as you use them judiciously.  However, in addition to sweet spots, the award chart also has a few sour spots.  Not that there is anything sour about those places - I'm sure many of them are wonderful - but it costs an awful lot of miles to get to some of them that aren't much farther than another place which requires many fewer miles.

In particular, the Middle East is grouped with India and Central Asia at 45,000 miles each way.  This seems ridiculous - 90,000 miles round trip to get to some places that are really no farther than some places in Europe.  Similarly, North Africa requires a 75,000 mile round trip.

This is when it helps to have frequent flier miles on more than one airline.  With that and a little creativity, and a whole lot of patience (both booking and traveling), you can reduce the number of miles you need substantially.  Alternatively, you can look for low-fare airlines to get you over the last hump, as explained below.

In particular, the British Airways Executive Club program awards miles based on distance, rather than general continent-to-continent awards as American Airlines does.  You can get a BA credit card with 50,000 bonus points.  These can be advantageous when traveling between two continents that are geographically close.  Also, you can avoid the BA transatlantic fuel surcharges by using your AA miles for that part, and/or use BA miles (or "avios" as they call them - whatever) to fly One World partner airlines.

The caveat, of course, is that you have to do a lot of finagling.  You may also be subject to various departure taxes, etc.

There is an easy-to-use tool to figure out where your BA miles can fly you on these nonstop short routes, and it is here.


The no-longer-secret about BA Avio miles is that they can be used for a nonstop between California and Hawaii for 12,500 miles, about 5,000 less than a domestic airline.  You can also use BA miles to fly Alaska Airlines which has many nonstops between California and Hawaii.  

Some more examples of the use of BA miles to Hawaii and other places are discussed in the links at the bottom of this post.

Israel and Jordan

When my kids are a little older, we may take a family trip to Israel around the time of their Bat and Bar Mitzvah ceremonies.  I hope to be able to use frequent flier miles, but I'm pretty sure there is no way I'll be able to accumulate 360,000 miles.  

Granted, this is six years away, and the programs could change completely between now and then, so the exercise is largely academic in my case, but the information may be relevant for others planning to do this sooner. 

U.S. to Israel on 30,000 miles one way (off-peak) or 40,000 miles (peak)

If we can travel offpeak (for Europe- Oct 15 through May 15), we could get to Israel on a total of 30,000 miles per person one way.  This isn't that much less than 45,000 one-way using AA miles, but if going with a family, as many people might travel to Israel, you could save 120,000 miles for a family of four, which could make a big difference.  U.S. home airport (San Francisco) to Dusseldorf on Air Berlin, for 20,000 American Advantage miles, plus 10,000 British Airways Avios miles from Dusseldorf to Tel Aviv, also on Air Berlin.  Alternatively you can take an AA flight to London or Madrid, and then an Iberia or BA flight to Dusseldorf or Berlin, to catch the Air Berlin flight to Tel Aviv while avoiding the BA/Iberia transatlantic fuel surcharges.  

Jordan to U.S. on 24,500 miles one way (off-peak) or 34,500 miles (peak)

One place I'd like to visit on that trip is Petra, Jordan.  If you can fly home from Amman, Jordan - and honestly, that may not be so practical, I haven't really researched this trip in much detail - but supposing you are traveling solo and don't mind hoofing it a bit, you can fly back from Amman on Royal Jordanian which is a One World partner airline, as are BA, Iberia, Air Berlin, and AA.  If you didn't mind making an extra stop, you theoretically could fly from Amman to Lanarca, Cyprus for 4,500 BA Avios miles and then get from Cyprus to the U.S. on a 20,000 mile ticket, using a combination of AA, BA, Air Berlin, and Iberia.

U.S. to Istanbul on 20,000 miles one way (off-peak) or 30,000 miles (peak), plus taxes, plus Pegasus Airlines from Istanbul to Tel Aviv for about US$75

Pegasus Airlines is a discount carrier that, as of this writing, is offering a promotion for their new Istanbul-Tel Aviv routing for $70 round trip plus a $5 check-in fee.  Your experience may vary.  In any case, you can use to book your flight using BA and AA all the way to Istanbul, which itself is a destination that you can enjoy for a few days, and then hightail it to Tel Aviv in time for Shabbat dinner.  Note that this is a budget airline that seems to charge extra for everything, in the vein of Allegiant, Spirit, Ryan, etc, including seat assignments.  However they do seem to allow one item of luggage at no additional charge, up to 20 kg (44 lb).  Also, like many low-cost carriers, they use an alternative airport, Istanbul’s Sabiha Gökçen Airport (SAW), so you will need to figure out how to transfer from IST.  And they only allow booking five months in advance, so if you are planning a big trip a year out on AA and partners, this segment will have to wait.

Other interesting routes 

To make the most of BA Avio miles, you need to think about the various partners and all of the places that are within a short distance of their hubs.  If the last flight is 2,000 miles or less in actual distance, it will cost 10,000 avio points or fewer.   If it is under 1,150 flight miles, it will cost 7,500 avio points, and if it is under 650 flight miles, it will cost only 4,500 avio points.  In particular, since you can get to the farthest reaches of Europe with relatively few points (particularly off-peak), the Middle East is a good target for relatively few additional miles.  North African cities relatively close to Spain, such as Morocco, are also good candidates, since you can get from Madrid to Casablanca for 4,500 Avio miles.  You are constrained by the flights of OneWorld partners, and these low-mileage flights need to be nonstops.  

Alternatively, you could get as far as you can and try to get a cheap flight on a discount carrier, as suggested above from Istanbul to Tel Aviv.  This could also be a good way to get to places like Egypt, Tunisia, etc.

I was trying to find a route into China for less than the boilerplate 35,000 miles but so far I haven't found one.  It's too far from Japan for a low-mile routing on JAL, and there are no nonstops on any OneWorld partner airlines between China and Korea that I am aware of.

Can I do this in conjunction with a Stopover to get two trips in one?

Sure, why not?  As long as you can manage all of the rules, of which there are many.  See Parts 1 and 2 for details.  Brag about your success and/or commisserate about your failures in the comments below.

Monday, April 30, 2012

The Big Finagle Part 2: Using the Stopover to Bundle Trips

This is the second in a multi-part series on getting the most of your AA frequent flier points for those just looking to get there in coach, and not particularly concerned about flying business or first class.

Part 1:  Award chart sweet spots
Part 2:  This page

When Daraius interviewed me recently, he asked me what I now know that I wish I had known when I started collecting points and miles.  My response was:
I also only fully understood the power of an AA international stopover only a few weeks before we left for Paris.  Had I realized this when we booked our reservation, we could have looped in one-way tickets to Hawaii on the return end to use later this year.  Doh!  By the time I understood this, the change fees would have made it not worth it.  I was really kicking myself for letting that one slip by.
I've gotten multiple questions to explain what I was talking about.  Here is the post some of you seem to be waiting for.  In this post we will attempt to book a one-way flight using a stopover, which is a way to effectively get two separate one-way flights on a single international travel award.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Big Finagle Part 1: Award Chart Sweet Spots

This is the first in a multi-part series on getting the most of your AA frequent flier points for those just looking to get there in coach, and not particularly concerned about flying business or first class.

Part 1:  This Page
Part 2:  Using the International Stopover to Bundle Trips

If you have ever flown on Southwest or Jet Blue and are reading this, you know what coach feels like and you somehow managed to survive it. Congratulations, you can handle the rough and tumble of life without the constant coddling that those delicate, high-maintenance flowers up front require.  If you are like me, you will use your hardiness to your advantage and save your miles.  (There is one exception to this rule.)

If you are looking to get the most bang for your points buck, the first thing you want to do is look at the award chart and find the "sweet spots".  Since most of us have earned our points through American Airlines AAdvantage program credit card promotions, I will use that as an example, but you could apply the same methodology to any program.

Monday, April 23, 2012 upgraded

As of this weekend, you can now apparently book Hawaiian and British Airways flights using your aa miles on

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Coming Soon: A post on AA International Stopovers

Since I got my 15 seconds of fame on Daraius' interview this past Friday, I've received many questions about the international stopover.  I'm currently preparing a post on this, but it will take a fair amount of research, since I'm learning about it now.  There are a lot of ins and outs of the rules, and I want to take the time to understand it and include as much correct information as possible.  I should be able to post it in a few weeks, so stay tuned!

In the meantime, I'll be finishing up the series on traveling to vegas with kids.

Taking the Kids to Vegas? Really? Part 5: Deals and Finagles

This is the fifth in the series "Taking the Kids to Vegas?  Really?"

Part 1:  Intro and Helpful Hints
Part 2:  What to Do
Part 3:  Where to Stay
Part 4:  Where to Eat
Part 5:  This Page
Part 6:  Slot Clubs and Positive-Expectation Promotions

How to be a Savvy Consumer in Las Vegas

There are a number of things you can do to save money during your Vegas vacation. Perhaps more than my other posts, you can use these approaches whether or not you are coming with kids.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Welcome Fellow Point Mavens

A warm welcome, hello and thank you to all of you who are also privy to Daraius' Million Mile Secrets.  I've learned plenty of tips and tricks from Daraius and the rest of my fellow active participants in the community.

Thanks also to the Points Guy for first introducing me to the notion of amassing significant volumes of airline points through credit cards, to MileValue for answering my toughest questions on the minutiae of AAadvantage rules, to my good friend Nancy for her constructive criticism, and especially, to my dear wife Nancy (no relation) and my kids for their tolerance of this hobby/chore/obsession.

Thanks to all of you, my wife and I were able to take a trip last month that I hadn't expected to be able to afford for at least ten years.  Now our only constraint is my time off from work.

You may have seen my comments on other blogs under my now-blown cover "zzd".  If you didn't like those, you probably won't like this blog.  This is a bit different in that I try to cover ways to save money on traveling in various ways, including but not limited to using points.

If I felt like I got any kind of a good deal - or could have, had I played my cards right - I include a section at the bottom of the post under the heading The Finagle in which I try my best to explain how to get the deal.

You may be interested in the series of posts that cover our recent trip to Paris, or perhaps the series (still in progress) about traveling to Las Vegas with your children - something most Las Vegas web sites, and many people, seem to ignore or harrumph.

Here are links to the series.  If you know anyone who might benefit from this information, feel free to share.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Taking the Kids to Vegas? Really? Part 4: Where to Eat

This is the fourth in the series "Taking the Kids to Vegas?  Really?"
Part 1:  Intro and Helpful Hints
Part 2:  What to Do
Part 3:  Where to Stay
Part 4:  This page
Part 5:  Deals and finagles 
Part 6:  Slot clubs and positive-expectation promos 

Vegas No Longer Equals Cheap Eats

The $8.99 lobster dinner and $1 chuck wagon buffet are things of the past.    The Strip is no longer the domain of cheap eats intended to lure gamblers into the casino.  Nowadays, restaurants are bona fide profit centers, in some places generating more income than the casino.  

It is easy to spend a fortune on food in Las Vegas, although you don't have to.  Generally speaking, the more time you spend eating in restaurants on the strip, the more money you will spend on food.  

In addition to steering your business away from the Strip, another very fruitful tactic for saving money on food is through the use of coupons.  I will cover this in Part 5 of the series.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Reno Intermezzo

Any bottom-feeder should recognize the smell of blood, and attack accordingly.   Wait, that's not quite right.  Bottom feeders scavenge for things that nobody else wants.  That is where we step in.

Both our kids have today off from school, for some reason.  (Easter Monday?  The oft-disrespected third day of Passover?)  Since I can telecommute today, we took a spontaneous trip up to Reno, Nevada.  Actually Sparks, just east of Reno.  We come here a couple times a year with our kids.  It's very easy to get to from Sacramento, 2 hours' drive up Interstate 80.  There isn't a whole lot to see here, but it's fun to get out of town and stay in a hotel, and hotels here are about the cheapest anywhere, especially Sunday through Thurday nights.  We have some friends up here who we will be meeting for lunch later.

I also like staying in casino hotels because I am something of an insomniac, and at a casino I know I can always come downstairs and read, blog about nothing, etc. while the family sleeps.  When I get really desperate I can play nickel video poker.  5 dollars lasts more than long enough for me to want to get back to sleep.

If we have time, we'll stop and play in the snow for a bit on the drive home late this afternoon.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Taking the Kids to Vegas? Really? Part 3: Where to Stay

This is the third in the series "Taking the Kids to Vegas?  Really?"
Part 1:  Intro and Helpful Hints
Part 2:  What to Do
Part 3:  this page
Part 4:  Where to eat 
Part 5:  Deals and finagles 
Part 6:  Slot clubs and positive-expectation promos 

Where Not to Stay

  • Anywhere on the Las Vegas Strip.  
  • Downtown.
  • Circus Circus or Excalibur.  
This may fly in the face of any instinct you ever had about going to Vegas.

Where to Stay

Your best options are:

  • Off-Strip Hotels
  • Timeshare Resorts
Which one to choose depends on how long you will be there and what your priorities are.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Taking the Kids to Vegas? Really? Part 2: What to Do

This is the second in the series "Taking the Kids to Vegas?  Really?"

Part 1:  Intro and Helpful Hints
Part 2:  This page
Part 3:  Where to stay
Part 4:  Where to eat
Part 5:  Deals and Finagles 

Part 6:  Slot Clubs and positive-expectation promos 

This is primarily directed to families with children 10 and under, although many of the activities can be enjoyed by people of all ages simply looking for a break from the casinos.

What to Do with your Kids in Las Vegas

Let's start with the most important lesson of all:

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Taking the Kids to Vegas? Really? Part 1: Tips, Tricks, and Transportation

This is the first in the series "Taking the Kids to Vegas?  Really?"

Part 1:  This Page
Part 2:  What to Do
Part 3:  Where to Stay
Part 4:  Where to Eat
Part 5:  Deals and finagles

Part 6:  Slot clubs and positive-value promos 

Taking the Kids to Vegas?  Really?


If you are anything like me, going to Vegas is not something you want to do.  It's something you need to do, like eating or using the restroom, only the urge comes about once every six months.

Now that you have kids (in my case, young kids, aged 4 and 7) if you say you want to take the family to Vegas, are you finding that everyone is telling you to go to Disneyland instead?

Ignore the haters.  You still can go to Vegas.  But it really helps to know a few things that can make the difference between a really crappy trip that made you wish you had held your nose and gone to Disneyland, and a great trip that makes you want to come back next year.

Here's a secret: kids love vegas.  Just like I did when I was a kid.  After all, it's a city full of video games.  The only catch is that they aren't allowed to play them.

Ok, maybe not all kids love Vegas, but ours definitely do, because they have a great time, and we do too.

The thing to remember is, going to Vegas with kids can be a fun experience, but it's not the same experience that you had when you were going with the guys or the girls.  However, you can still capture a little of that "magic" as long as you are also willing to set aside a good amount of time for the magic of child-rearing.

I'll start in this post about some useful tips about traveling to Vegas, and what to do with your kids when in Las Vegas.  Over several more posts, I'll continue the series, posting suggestions on where to stay, family-friendly restaurants, and ways to save money, honed over at least five trips with kids in tow.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Caveat Emptor: Some Deals are Too Good to be True

Update 4/5/12:  It appears that Exotic Escapes has cancelled this deal and issued refunds to all buyers.

Several of the Vegas blogs and discussion groups have been discussing this deal  that was offered in the last few weeks on Living Social:

For $149 Sunday-Thursday or $289 Friday-Saturday, you get:

  • Room for 2 at the Plaza Hotel in downtown Las Vegas
  • Four live show tickets
  • $300 in slot play
  • One in-room massage
  • Daily $25 breakfast credit at Island Sushi and Grill 

Blog Pivot: To America

This blog started with an anomalous event in our lives.  We very much enjoyed our trip to Paris, but it was not at all typical of the trips we take, except that it wasn't very expensive.

Going forward, the blog will focus on the type of travel we usually do.  Namely, travel within the lower 48 states, and possibly occasional very short visits to British Columbia or Mexico.  The key topics we will be covering generally include traveling for cheap.  As before, I'll try to point out the finagles and deals we used and hope that my descriptions are clear enough for you to replicate the experience if they really sound all that interesting.

I have a full-time job that does not require much travel, so I don't have the time to travel anywhere near as much as some bloggers.  When I do travel, it is usually with my family, during my daughter's school vacation periods: one week each in March, October, and November; two weeks in December; and two months off in the summer.

A fair amount of the cheap travel we do is to Las Vegas. Some people blow a fortune there, but we usually don't.

We also are usually traveling with our children, so the posts will cover those topics also.

To answer your next question:  Yes.  We usually take our kids with us to Las Vegas.  This will be covered.

I hope you find this helpful.  Please offer constructive suggestions in the comments.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Paris: Epilogue

Observations and Reflections

We had a very nice time in Paris.  By the time we got home, we were tired.  I had to work my evening shift for the next week and it was very difficult.  I had pretty severe jet lag and wanted to go to bed every night around 7 pm.

The Food

One of the reasons we went to France was to experience French food.  Here in Sacramento, we can get all kinds of different food from all over the world, but one type that is very difficult to come across is French food.  After having a few French meals and finding them not as "French" as I would have guessed, I now realize that some of what I thought of as American food - things like steaks, lamb chops, etc. - are in fact French, or perhaps universal.  The only things that we ate that I felt were uniquely French were the liver pate, goat cheese, breads, and croissants.  Also, sparkling water, among my favorite beverages and one that I could pretty much drink all the time, is available everywhere, and is cheap everywhere, except in the Louvre museum, where it is an unbelievable ripoff.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Saturday 3/17/12: "GOATS"

American Airlines 41: Paris CDG - Chicago O'Hare
Depart 11:20 am, arrive 2:45 pm (local times)
American Airlines 637: Chicago - Los Angeles
Depart 5:10 pm, arrive 7:40 pm (local times)
United Express 6462: Los Angeles - Sacramento
Depart 10:52 pm, arrive 12:15 am

A morning of minor missteps

Took the shuttle from the Hyatt to CDG Terminal 3 and caught the CDG-VAL tram to terminal 2, then walked to Hall 2A (American).  We waited in a LONG line.  About halfway through, we were interviewed by an AA security employee, who said we could have waited in the short line to the right since we had already printed our boarding passes.  Misstep 1!

The area was crowded.  At the same time the Chicago flight was boarding, a flight to Dallas was also boarding, and it was oversold.  They were taking volunteers and offering $800 to switch flights - for people with reservations on the Dallas flight, but not the Chicago flight.  Misstep 2 - should have booked through Dallas!  (couldn't have known 8 months ago though.)

Security confiscated a bottle of kosher wine, some pear jam, and halvah with Arabic writing on the package which we had tried to carry onboard with us.  They said that we could check it, but it wasn't worth the cost of another checked item so we didn't bother.  In retrospect, we should have thought it through.  The 3.5 ounce limit for liquids was not news to us.  Misstep 3!

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Non-Travel-Related: Cash vs. Financed Real Estate Transactions

And now for something completely different.  Literally:

My wife Nancy is a real estate agent in Sacramento.  I submitted a guest post about cash vs. financed real estate buyers in Sacramento.  For anyone interested in reading it, here is the link.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Last Tango in Paris: Hyatt Regency at CDG Airport

Last Chance for Shopping

After Versailles, we pretty much decided were were done sightseeing and if we were going to do anything today, it would be shopping.  We stopped at a nearby shopping area we had passed when we were lost 2 days before.  It is called Parly 2.  Once we got there, we realized it was a mall very similar to one you would see in the U.S., although not quite as big.  We rarely shop at malls at home, and weren't about to pay Euro premiums on top of retail, but we did stop at Toys-R-Us to pick up some gifts for the kids.  We looked for the food court.  We found a McDonalds and kept looking.  We did find an area with restaurants but they all looked pretty expensive and were actual restaurants with service, whereas we wanted something quick and informal.  So we left.

The mall also had a grocery store so we bought some things for lunch there.  We bought a lot of things that we had purchased the day before, although this time I upgraded to bona fide pate au foie gras du canard: duck liver pate, a splurge at 12 euros/kg.  I asked for 50 grams but she said she could not cut a slice that thin.  (That appeared to be what she said.) She gave me about 140 grams (about 1/3 lb.) which cost about 1.75 euros.


Drove over to the Chateau de Versailles.  We parked on a side street, almost across the street from the pay lot in front of the palace.  Nancy waited in line while I bought tickets.  I had to walk through a labyrinth made of chairs and couches, which seemed oddly improvised given that it is one of the most visited places on Earth.  I used a machine to buy tickets; this is one of the only machines I was able to buy anything from in France with my American credit card with a stripe.

It is absolutely impressive and is another place that is not done justice by photos, at least not ones I can take.

I think I read somewhere that it took 1/2 of France's annual GDP at that time to build.  On the other hand, that money might have been wasted some other way.  For what it is worth, it has been open to the public for about half of its existence.

It only took about an hour to tour the palace.  It's very large but there is a lot of it that is not exposed to the public.  Little things such as the following made us wish we had sprung extra for the navigation devices (or downloaded any of the various podcasts available for free):

Yikes.  There is a pretty detailed description of what this all is on wikipedia, and from what I understand there were also other bizarre facets of royal hygiene that involved assistance from the Court.

Finagle that we didn't use

Interestingly, we noticed as we exited Versailles there was an unmanned open gate that could be a perfectly easy way to sneak in without paying.  I have no idea if this is usually guarded or not.  I don't endorse this kind of behavior but here is a picture of it for reference purposes.

View Larger Map

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Thursday 3/15/12 - Driving Back to Paris

Got back in the car and drove to a Super U supermarket we had passed to buy some items for lunch. Some things in France are expensive but some are really dirt cheap.  The shopping trip resulted in the following:

  • Mimolette cheese, similar to cheddar, about 250g (1/2 lb), 2 euros
  • Pork liver pate, 100g (1/4 lb), fresh cut from the deli counter, 50 cents.  That's right, when in france we eat pork, and it is delicious.
  • 1.5 liter bottle of sparkling water, 40 cents
  • Baguette, 80 cents
By "cents" I mean euro cents, 1/100 euro, worth 1.33 american cents at the current exchange rate.  Those prices are approximate, since I didn't save the receipt, but it should give you an idea. The total came to about 4.80 euros.  

The pate was literally 5 dollars per kilo, and 100 grams (1/10 kilo) was more than both of us could eat in a sandwich since it is so rich.  We threw about half of it away.    But what we did scarf down was delicious nonetheless.  Duck pate is considerably more expensive, about 12 euros/kilo, but still not expensive considering how little one needs in a sandwich.  

We thumbed our nose to the French lifestyle and ate American style, meaning in the car in the supermarket parking lot.

We then drove back north toward Paris, again relying on directional signs in each town and our macro-level map of France.  We stopped in Blois and tried to find a place with internet access so we could find a hotel for that evening.  After trying the park, the library (closed), and not finding McDonalds, we went to the Holiday Inn and paid 5 euros for their wifi service.

We booked an Ibis hotel in Velizy, a southern suburb of Paris, for 59 euros.  This is part of the Accor chain which also owns Motel 6, and was about that level.  We were able to get within 1/4 mile of it with our directions, but the last few blocks took about 45 minutes because we made a wrong turn and ended up in a mall parking lot.

Our Autoroute tolls came to about 17 euros in each direction from Paris to the Loire Valley, plus 4 euros we spent accidentally going into a tunnel in the Versailles area that sent us in the wrong direction.

Finally found it and just ate in the restaurant in the hotel, which was lousy and had a very limited menu, but we were exhausted and didn't really want to go anywhere.  I wouldn't go out of my way to stay here, but it was passable for a one-night stay, and the bed was comfortable.  On the plus side, it was the only hotel we stayed in the entire trip that had free wifi service.

Thursday 3/15/12: Chateau de Chenonceau

We stopped for coffee in St. Aignan and did a little shopping at the supermarket downtown.  I bought some pear jam which I had enjoyed very much that morning, and planned to bring it home, and nancy got her signature chocolate croissant.  We went across the street to a cafe and got 2 cafe cremes at the counter for 4.40 euros.

We didn't have a very good map for the Loire Valley - just a road map of France - but the directional signs in the area are actually very good and we were able to find our way without a problem to the chateau de Chenonceau.  It was about a 40 minute drive.  It's considered one of the more beautiful chateaux in the Loire.  Apparently King Henri IV built it for his mistress Diane de Poitiers.  At that time the portion over the water was only a bridge.  When he died, his widow Catherine de Medici threw her out and later completed the structure over the bridge. (Needless to say, it was presumably the slaves and serfs who did the actual building in each case, not those people.)  During World War I it was used as a hospital.  During World War II the Cher river which passes under it was the southern boundary of the Nazi occupied territory of France, and many people were smuggled through the Chateau to freedom in the South.

It was surprisingly not that big. The area over the river is a single large room and the whole chateau can be toured in about 45 minutes.

One of the most interesting areas is the kitchens.  Here is a rotisserie with a mechanical contraption attached to a weight outside, which pulls on the rope so it is not necessary for a person to constantly rotate the rotisserie.

Gardens are also beautiful and well maintained, and kids would enjoy the maze (with no wrong moves).

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Wed. 3/14/12: Goat farm in the Loire Valley

If you rent a car in France, don't do what we did, which is to say drive around without GPS or map.  I had looked into buying a GPS for France or buying the map set for the one we have for the U.S., and they were both about $100 - at that price you might as well hire a cab, or at least start to think about it.  I meant to ask about it at the rental agency but I just forgot, and in any case I suspect I would have had to rent a larger car, which I didn't really want to do because I wanted something that wouldn't use too much gas, given that we would need to spend about $7/gallon.  I had also tried to skirt international copyright law by scanning a few pages of a France road atlas I had checked out of the library, but when I tried to print it, it was so data-intensive that it backlogged my office printer for an embarrasingly long time so I aborted. In any case the atlas would not have provided us with the detail we needed, and we realized as we were driving that some of the roads (tunnels in particular) were very new and certainly would not have been on that 20-year-old atlas anyway.

We wasted several hours lost in the suburbs around Versailles.  (We weren't actually headed to Versailles.)  We finally found another Holiday Inn and stopped to ask for directions, thinking they would speak English.  One of them did.  We asked him for directions to Mareuil-sur-Cher, the town we were visiting in the Loire, and he said that was an excellent choice.  I asked him if he had been there.  He said no, but they make great wine there.  Anyways, they were very helpful and reprinted us directions, but the biggest help was that they directed us to a gas station where we were able to buy some maps, which were fairly helpful but not as detailed as we could have used - and no index.  What gives?

From there we regrouped and got back on the road.

Once on the Autoroute, everything went relatively smoothly.  Autoroute speed limit outside of cities is 130 kph, about 81 mph, about as fast as I was able to drive that small car.

Arrived at la Lionniere around 5:30 p.m.  This is a farm-inn (ferme-auberge), with 2 rooms that rent by the night including breakfast, and they serve dinners based on foods that they produce at the farm.  Apparently some people come only for meals.  I had booked 2 nights with dinner.

The owners, M. and Mme. Bouland, raise about 85 goats and also have chickens.  They sometimes have ducks but didn't when we were there, except for a single duck that seems to be a pet and is exempt from foie extraction.

Shortly after we arrived, we watched the goat milking.  They make cheese every day and sell it at some of the local markets.  The goats smelled much cleaner than most livestock or even petting zoos I have smelled in the U.S.  They definitely had a distinct odor but it was not offensive.

Everything at dinner was a product of the farm, which meant goat (chevre).   This did not bode well for my wife Nancy who is not a big fan of goat, but she was a good sport.

Goat cheese on bread as an hors d'oeuvre:  Cheese was surprisingly mild and soft, similar to cream cheese.  The bread tasted like it was a day old though.

Salad with grated hard goat cheese, similar to parmesan.  The cheese was pungent.  The lettuce was some kind of a winter lettuce, and was more rigid than any lettuce I had had before, somewhat like cabbage.  I really liked the salad

Goat cheese fritters:  The cheese was what I think of as goat cheese, semi-soft and with a strong flavor.  The dough that they were fried in I didn't really like; it tasted like all-purpose baking mix.

Goat meat: shoulder (epaule) and leg (gigot).  It was stewed and in a gravy. Texture was somewhat chewy but almost springy, yet tender.  My wife Nancy didn't like it at all; she thought that it tasted like the cheese, meaning that everything had the same smell of goat.  This was served with a side dish of potatoes and carrots.

After the meat, we were served the cheese course (you guessed it!  goat cheese)  and apple beignets.  For those of us who do appreciate goat cheese, this was delicious and everything one would hope for - as fresh as it can be, made in the next room. For the rest of us, not so much.  The beignets were just ok, with the same dough as the cheese beignets served before dinner.

I had consumed several glasses of wine and was getting very full and very tired.  Perhaps because I have a goatee, I thought it was pretty good, the cheese was great, although in total it did not live up to my expectations of the ultimate French country dinner.  Nancy didn't enjoy it at all.  We went upstairs and I fell asleep, although Nancy did not sleep well.  She found the bed very uncomfortable and she was having a difficult time with digestion.

Nancy used one of the other beds in the room (there were four, I believe) but she hadn't felt well all night.  By the next morning we decided to leave.  I had breakfast by myself - it was bread and butter with pear and quince jam (delicious) and coffee, but Nancy wanted out as quickly as possible once she was up.  Since I had reserved the room for 2 nights and they had refused other customers, I agreed to pay for the 2 nights plus the one night's dinner for the 2 of us, plus a small carafe of wine.  Total was 148 euros, cash only.  (room was about 48e per night including breakfast; dinners were about 22e each service compris; wine and coffee about 10e total.)

Wednesday 3/14/12: Renting a Car in France

I had arranged for the car rental using a few months back, and added a new reservation when I saw the price drop.  I had two reservations, one for 85 euros for Wed-Sat and one for 77 euros for the same period.  I thought I canceled the high priced reservation but apparently I later found that I didn't but it didn't matter anyway.   The great thing about car rentals (provided you don't use Hotwire/etc which I never do - there is no way to avoid lots of waiting in very slow lines when using Hotwire) is that  you can make a reservation without a credit card, never show up to pick up the car, and nothing bad happens to you.  I always make an extra just in case the first one has problems, which car rentals often do.

I picked up the car at a rental office in the 10th Arrondissement at 184 Rue du Faubourg Saint Martin because it was one of the cheapest locations to pick up and was within a mile of my hotel. I also had scheduled to return it to an office just a block from our hotel near the CDG airport in Roissy (although we ended up returning it to the Avis at CDG because the branch was closed), which removed the need to figure out a way to get to the airport. Other locations were quite a bit more expensive.  If it is an option for you, picking up away from an airport can often save a lot in extra taxes, which sometimes amount to more than the cost of the car itself.

It turns out the rental office is an Avis office, not Budget, but they seemed to be aware of my reservation.  I had to spend about 1/2 hour figuring out what the extra insurance they were trying to sell me covered, because it would have been an extra 100 euros for 3 days. I'm not an expert at insurance, but I believe the only insurance I needed was liability insurance, because the standard Visa Signature cards include collision insurance and we have our own health insurance. I finally realized their very expensive upsell covered the collision portion, which I didn't need , so I declined it.  They gave me a contract to sign with a copy written in English, and I saw that the liability insurance was included standard.  This jives with what I had read on Rick Steve's web page on rental cars.  The Frenchman sitting next to me was friendly and helpful, but quite surprised that my credit card gave me the collision insurance, which apparently French credit cards don't.

Had the car, which was a nearly new white Peugeot 5-door hatchback (small upgrade from the mini car I ordered).  Likc most cars in Europe, it had a manual transmission, which I enjoy driving.  I drove off and found myself on the open road in Paris.

Some things about Paris had never occurred to me until I started driving.  For one thing, there are no stop signs.  However, if you are turning right onto a street, apparently the drivers on the destination street have to allow your merge and yield to you as you turn in front of them. I only approximately knew how to get to the hotel but finally did, and used the loding zone to get Nancy and the luggage.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Tuesday 3/13/12: dinner deal at le Meltin

Tuesday evening, we had a reservation to use our Groupon for a restaurant about 3 blocks from our hotel called le Meltin, which apparently is the French translation of the Melting Pot (and has nothing to do with the fondue chain).

Once there, I also ordered a beer which was on special for 2.5 euros, and due to miscommunication, Nancy ordered a second glass of wine. 
Our waiter asked if we would like the steak medium, and I said “non, moins, s’il vous plait” and whatever the word he used for rare I tried to say I wanted something between that and Medium.  He seemed to understand.  I should have ordered it medium because when it arrived, it was pretty much raw everywhere except the seared outside.  I’ll eat it that way, but I prefer a nice pink throughout.  Meat was good enough to eat raw though.

The mashed potatoes were also good, and Nancy ordered a salad which she liked.  The additional 2 drinks and salad came to about 10 euros.

In the U.S. I would only order a steak at a steakhouse because everywhere else would buy a lousy piece of meat, or if it was good meat, would ruin it by overcooking.  However this was a good piece of meat and as noted earlier, was not overcooked.  (I once had a very similar experience in Italy also.)  Anyone ordering a steak in Europe should order it 1 step more cooked than how you would order it in the U.S.  If you only eat well-done steak, you may want to opt for the chicken or duck when in France.  (Honestly I don't really understand why you would bother to order an expensive steak at all if you are just going to have them turn it into a piece of beef jerky, but it just goes to show once again that there is no accounting for taste.)

The two people who waited on us were very welcoming, spoke some English, and it was a very nice and reasonably priced restaurant, but it was pretty clear that the restaurant was struggling.  Only two other tables were occupied while we were there, and I had seen them promoted through in addition to  I asked them for a menu and left it with the front desk at our hotel in case the hotel was looking for a place to give anyone else a recommendation.

The Finagle

The deal we bought, which I ordered about 2 months before our trip, we selected because the restaurant was 3 blocks from our hotel.  It included ribeye steak (entrecote) for 2 (total 640 grams, about 22.5 oz.) with a side, plus 2 glasses of wine, for 22 euros.    

Since it's on the internet, anyone can subscribe to, and probably any other groupon site for that matter.  

My U.S. credit card never worked with in multiple tries for different offers.  However, I finally tried the PayPal option which worked fine.

Another web site which is similar to in the US is called in French, or which ostensibly is in English although most of the content is not translated.  This offers a percentage off the a-la-carte items, although drinks and fixed-price menus (in French called "formule" or just "menu") are usually excluded, so it's not always that different from just walking into a restaurant and ordering the formule.  We never did use this, although I wasted a lot of time researching.

I had been subscribing to and LivingSocial for the Paris Northeast area for the last several months in anticipation of this trip, but this is the only deal we ordered, because we didn't want to be constrained by knowing we had to go to a bunch of specific restaurants or do certain things.  That is a risk of prepaying for something - you use it or you lose it, and for something like traveling to Paris, it is something one would need to plan around, which might be constraining, or the coupon could be thrown away, in which case it was a waste to buy it in the first place.

There were several good ones for all kinds of different restaurants and a few hammam/spa ones that we considered.  Over several months, I received many offers which I found amusing and some just bizarre, including for example:
  • Riding a Segway at Versailles
  • McDonalds: Lunch for 2 for 16 euros.  (I actually found this quite disturbing because if 8 euros was a discounted lunch at McDonalds, I feared some serious sticker shock.)
  • At least 2 offers a day for all kinds of bizarre weight loss treatments and surgeries, botox, etc.  I had no idea the French were quite so vain and no less desperate than Americans to be thin.  (this was reiterated by the many infomercials we saw on TV for no-exercise, all-you-can-eat weight loss products)
  • Fish Spa pedicure, where apparently you dunk your feet in an aquarium and tiny flesh-eating fish nibble away your callouses.  No thank you.

Tuesday 3/13/12: Trocadero (near Eiffel Tower), Musee d'Orsay

Signed up for Velib bikes again online, but the bike terminal was broken this time, so we never actually used it and the e1.70 per person went to waste.  Instead, we caught the bus to the Trocadero, from where we viewed the Eiffel Tower.  The weather was cold and foggy so we didn't go up in the tower, but the Trocadero affords a pretty spectacular view of the tower.  Photos generally, and these photos in particular, don't do it justice at all.  It's really beautiful and looms much bigger in person than it looks in the picture.

Walked around looking for a place to stop for coffee but the 16th is too rich for these tightwads.  Looked through a book shop - they still have those there - and realized everything was in French so we left.  Then took the metro down to the Musee d’Orsay.  It's only about two miles away, maybe less, but it took 3 different metro lines to get there.

The line to get through security was about 90 minutes.  A new exhibit on Degas nude paintings and sketches opened that day.  They were primarily pencil sketches and some paintings.  Most but not all of them were of women, and most were from a very specific angle, more or less from behind.  

There was one small sketch that was quite explicit – it took a second look to realize what it actually was - and I believe the description said that it was the only such drawing that had survived, and any others were likely destroyed by his family.

Also looked at their permanent collection of impressionism, including the classics such as Van Gogh’s self portrait.

Didn't take any pictures, but you can find probably all of them on their web site.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Monday 3/12/12: Bicycle Ride to the Left Bank, Sacre Coeur

We rented the “Velib” bikes that are all over town.  We needed to do this online and our hotel seemed to give us ½ hour free slow internet access every two days, which was barely enough time to get that done. 
This is a system of rental bicycles primarily for transportation.  You get an account, and then you check a bike out from a station and check it back in at a station near your destination.  Americans need to sign up online because our credit cards with the magnetic stripe cannot be read by the machine.  The fee for visitors is 1.70 euros per day, and bikes are free for the first ½ hour and about 1 euro for every ½ hour after that until they are returned.  

For the most part, the bikes worked well.  However, we found many stations to be out of order, and/or without vacant spaces to return bikes.  We realized that since many people use them to commute, in some areas there are plenty of bikes and no stalls to return, and in others there are no bikes at various times of the day.

Our hotel was ideally situated to rent velib bikes because there is a station across the street, and there are bike paths on either side of the canal.  We rode along the canal de Villette and continued all the way to the Seine.  I had a bike map of Paris but we soon realized that many of the paths on the map were actually bus lanes, and we found ourselves along with many other riders darting in and out of traffic.
We crossed the river to the left bank (5th) and tried to return the bikes to a station, but the station screen had the blue screen of death and was in need of a rebooting.  I later realized I didn't need the screen and probably could have just returned it there, but I didn't realize that at the time, so anyways we kept riding.  We happened to find the bridge of locks, which we had seen on the Late Late Show when they filmed in Paris.

 The next several stations we found were all full of bikes with no spaces to return.  Finally we found a station where some people were checking bikes out, so we could put ours there. 
After returning the bikes we walked around the 5th in the student area, stopped at a crepe stand for lunch and ate our crepes in a churchyard/park nearby.  Then we walked further south to the Jardin de Luxembourg, which was partially under construction.  However, it was the first beautiful and sunny day in Paris since we got there, and probably in quite a while, so there were many people enjoying the sunshine.

We observed that Parisians are big readers.  Almost everyone there was either reading a book or doing some kind of writing in a notebook, in full sunlight.  We saw no gadgets such as Ipads or Kindles.  (Lots of people have iphones and blackberries, but they did not use them for things like reading as far as we could tell.)

At that point we thought we might ride up to the Marais again to walk around some more.  We checked out some bikes and found ourselves riding through the middle of rush hour, and it was very harrowing.  We gave up and walked through the 3rd and 4th areas, past the Pompidou center, and then decided to take the metro up to Sacre Coeur.

We got off the metro down the hill from Sacre Coeur and Nancy finally found a clothing store she could sink her teeth into.

This was about a million miles from les Champs Elysees.  As far as I could tell, it looked like piles of peoples’ laundry with price tags on top.  However she didn’t buy anything.  It even took too long for her to hunt for anything.  I would have taken more pictures but some of these people clearly didn’t want their pictures taken there.

Then we walked up the hill and nancy waited about 40 minutes to use one of the automatic restrooms.  They are great if nobody is ahead of you, but each cycle of using the bathroom, washing, and cleaning takes about 5 minutes.  So with 7 people ahead of her, it took a while.

Took the funicular up the hill.  Sacre Coeur was a nice view but there were a bunch of teenagers there listening to folk music and we didn’t stay long.  We walked north from there along Rue Clignancourt, intending to catch the bus along Rue Ordener back to our hotel.  Clearly this was a part of Paris that doesn’t make the guidebook. 

We were hungry and cold so we stopped in Chez Fille a la Peau de Lune ("The House of a girl with skin of the moon"?), a West African restaurant with about 2 visible tables (more in the back) for dinner.  A woman who seemed to be the owner of the restaurant was from Gabon and sat right at our table while she chatted with her other clients.  We couldn’t communicate well with anyone there, since nobody spoke English and I was limited to my high school level French, but people were perfectly nice to us.  Nancy got chicken wings, which were delicious, and I got pork ribs, which were good but was the kind of food I can’t eat very much of, so I helped nancy with her wings.  We both got plantains on the side, although I later wished I had ordered fufu, which my old roommate Ricardo used to make, and she said they served.

At the restaurant I ordered a beer, which featured this warning label:

At Rue Ordener, we caught the bus back to our hotel.  While on the bus, we saw someone outside chasing another person and yelling at him.  It was pretty apparent that the person being chased had just pickpocketed the person doing the chasing.  Nobody on the bus seemed to care very much.

Got home and were tired.  Hit the sack.