February 22, 2006

Culture Shock; Delta Sucks

Filed under: Travels, Travel Tips — Alex Ravenel @ 11:20 pm

I never thought it possible to be culture shocked returning your home country, but indeed, it is. I got to the Atlanta airport yesterday, and sitting in the food court waiting for my flight, I got to listen to people talking about American Idol, Nascar, and celebrity gossip. And see lots of fat people. And listen to mothers tell their kids to “git” back over here.

Yes, I’m back in America, and southern America at that.

The flight was uneventful, but still, reminded me of why I hate flying. In Stuttgart, I was subjected to two bag searches of my fragilely packed bags. And worst of all, I had to go through security twice, in the most assinine display of paranoia I’ve ever seen. I went through security, got my bag rifled through, wanded, felt up, etc, and then, thinking I was done, walked to my gate. Where there was another security line, where they did the same thing again.

Um, excuse me? I just did this 30 seconds ago. I’m behind security, so there’s no way anyone is here who hasn’t already been through. What, pray tell, is the reason for doing it again? I asked the officers running their hands over my crotch and pulling my bag apart again for the second time in less than a minute why this was, and they just said it was Delta Airlines’ policy. Right. So apparently, the identical security gate behind me wasn’t good enough, so they have to do it again.

You could write a book on why that is patently absurd, and why I now don’t think I’ll ever fly Delta airlines again. Another example of why the paranoia of the US has done nothing more but inconvenience a whole lot of people without actually increasing security at all.

By the way, it was my lucky day–I got searched again at Atlanta, and had to have the customs guy pull my bags apart too. At least he was nice about it.

I hate flying.

January 15, 2006

Germany: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Part II

Filed under: Random, Travel Tips, Germany — Alex Ravenel @ 11:44 am

This post is part of a series. See the first entry here and the third entry here.

The Good

  • The Trains. Germany’s rail system has the reputation of being the most punctual in Europe. I must say, this seems to be true. The trains are almost always on time, and it’s typically quite easy to get anywhere in Germany on the excellent rail system. Seven minute connection? No problem, your train will pull into the station just on time and give you enough time to get to your other train.
  • Sales Tax. The sales tax in Germany is included in the price. If something says it costs €3, it costs €3. No funny change at the end because of some 6.5% sales tax or whatever. Of course, the sales tax here is much higher, but at least it’s already in the price…
  • The Wine. And not just German wine–of which there are plenty of good ones, mostly white. But in general, I’ve found good wine to be much more accessible and cheaper than in the States. I don’t know what it is about the wine industry in the US that makes it extremely difficult to find even a decent table wine for less than $8, but here, decent wines can be had for €5. You can even find several places that will let you fill up a liter from the barrel for €3 or €4. The availability of affordable, drinkable wine here is astounding. Great wines are still expensive, but good, drinkable wines are cheap and readily available.

The Bad

  • Washing Machines. German engineering at it’s finest. The washing machines, at least the ones in all the dorms, suck. First, they are tiny. You can fit about two pairs of pants and a couple of shirts in them before they are full. Which means that it takes several machines to do a load of laundry. Second, they are slow. It takes two to two and a half hours to run a load. Third, they don’t do a very good job, and oftentimes your clothes still have a bit of soap in them. And then they don’t really do the whole dryer thing here, so you have to air dry everything. Laundry is an all-day affair here.
  • Credit Cards. No one takes them. Most hotels do, but that’s really about it. Everywhere else, everywhere, you basically have to pay in cash. Germany is the single reason there is a 500 euro bill. You go to the Saturn, the German version of Best Buy, and buy a 3000 dollar television, and have to pay in cash. I guess they don’t get too many impulse buys…
  • The Trains. Yes, also a good thing. But good lord they are expensive. I have a BahnCard 50, which gives me 50% off all German rail travel, and it’s still expensive. With it, it cost me 42 euro round trip to Nuremberg, a mere three hours away. Without it, it would have cost me 84 euro. To go three hours away. Ouch.
  • Beer Selection in Bars/Restaurants. This isn’t to say that the beer is bad, but rather that it’s hard to find anything different. I haven’t confirmed this, but I’m pretty confident that the bars and restaurants here must sign a contract with a beer distributor allowing them only to sell that brand of beer–I have never, ever seen a place that sold more than one brand of beer. Meaning that every place has a pilsner, a hefeweizen, maybe a kellerbier, and this time of the year, possibly a bock. That’s it. No selection. None of the places where you can stroll in and pick from 15 different beers. And because of the reliance on regional brewers, normally a good thing, sometimes it can be hard to find a beer from a company that you haven’t already had, a hundred times over. Sometimes you just want something different.
  • Water. Not the stuff out of the tap in your apartment, the stuff in restaurants. They don’t do the whole tap water thing here. If you want water, you’ve gotta pay €4 for the stuff in a bottle, frequently carbonated. Some places will grudgingly give you tap water if you ask for it, but they don’t like it, and some won’t give you refills. Other places flat out tell you they don’t allow customers to order tap water. I’ve been known to take a water bottle with me to eat because I don’t want to pay exorbitant prices for something I can get for almost free from the tap.

The Ugly

  • Smoking. Everyone smokes here. Everyone. Far moreso than in the US. To make it worse, they don’t really do the smoking/non-smoking sections here–they’re just all smoking. And the bars… Most of them are built into old cellars, so there isn’t much ventilation, and when almost everyone in them is smoking, you can’t see the person sitting next to you. They’ll even smoke on the trains here. I’ll never forget my trainride to Munich for Oktoberfest, with over 200 people crammed into a train car meant to sit 100, when the train broke down on the tracks, and everyone started smoking. Nothing like tons of smokers in a traincar to make you unable to breath. Not to mention I’m tired of all of my clothes perpetually smelling like smoke despite my not being a smoker.
  • The Bureaucracy. I know I already said this in the last one, but it has to be said again. The German bureaucracy has to be seen to be believed. It takes forever for anything to happen here, because 47 different bureaucrats have to sign 92 pieces of paper to replace a roadsign, or something else as trivial. And the blind insistance upon following every rule to the letter is maddening. No one will bend a rule, no matter how silly the rule or how light the bending. Want to send that package that is 11 grams over the 500g airmail weight? Sorry bud, not happening. Open it up and pull out the equivalent of a couple paperclips worth of stuffing paper. Since I’m sure that plane is going to crash because I had 11 grams too much in my airmail box.

Thats it for now. I’ve got a few more brewing, so there will probably be another similar post in the future…

September 27, 2005

Flight Search Engines

Filed under: Travel Tips — Alex Ravenel @ 12:30 pm

Given that I have a three week break between my summer class and the official start of the semester, I’ve been doing a lot of travel planning. With that includes many searches for flights and such. I figured that I’d list my suggestions for the best flight search engines.

First, is Kayak. Kayak is an aggregate search engine, meaning that unlike the other major flight searches (Orbitz, Travelocity, etc), it compares flights from over 100 different places. I’ve consistently found cheaper prices here than any other site. Add to that its interface design, which incorporates some excellent work to allow you to seamlessly and dynamically filter the search results, and you’ve got the best flight search engine I’ve ever seen.

Second, and only for those flying within Europe, is SkyScanner. SkyScanner lets you choose flights from many of the budget airlines in Europe, shows you which days are cheapest to fly that route, and shows you, in one glance, the prices after tax, which can more than double the cost of the ticket. A great place for inter-europe travel.

Third, also for those in Europe, is WhichBudget, which tells you what budget airlines fly out of what airports and to where. Again, a huge help for planning trips within Europe.

Thats it for now. I’ll add other worthy sites as I find them, or watch the links to the right.

August 30, 2005

Ziploc Big Bags

Filed under: Travel Tips — Alex Ravenel @ 4:58 pm

These things rock. Huge and strong, I put lots of clothes in them, zip them most of the way up, then suck the air out with a vacuum cleaner, to make my clothes take up half the room they would otherwise. This, along with good folding and creatively packing the sealed bags has let me fit more into my bag than I thought possible.

One trick though: they don’t hold the vacuum forever. I’m guessing they just leak air from the zipper. No big deal; vacuum pack all your stuff and throw it in your bag real fast, closing it all up before they have a chance to expand.

This probably wouldn’t work so well if you’re travelling through hotels and won’t have access to a vacuum cleaner to pack the bags back on leaving, but it’s still a great trick.

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