Infrequent Flyer 2/14: What’s Important to You?
Oct 31st, 2011 by Mike

Unless you’re crazy like me, most people don’t just get on a plane because they like to fly. They get on a plane because they have a reason to travel. I can’t stress this enough: Before you buy a plane ticket, you absolutely must understand what is putting your butt on that plane.

Airlines have tons of moving parts. Flights get cancelled. Airports get closed. Airports get evacuated. Taxiways back up. Snow falls. Runways freeze over. Planes break down. Computer systems go down. Unions go on strike.

Any one of these things can impact your flight. What is your risk tolerance for any of these things happening? This is a really important question to ask yourself before buying a ticket.

Lets say you’re taking your special someone to Walt Disney World for a long weekend in January, and you’re leaving from Providence’s TF Green Airport. It’s January. In Rhode Island. It’s going to snow. You probably stand the chance of getting hit by a nor’easter and being delayed. In this case, your risk isn’t that great because Disney will probably refund your money if you’re delayed or cancelled due to weather.

Lets change that around, though. What if you’re in your cousin’s wedding in Miami that same January weekend. You’d better believe I wouldn’t attempt to book a Saturday morning flight that arrives the day of the wedding. In the case of snow or some other weather event, you’re pretty much screwed.

To some people, they don’t have time restrictions and just want to get there as inexpensively as possible. To those people, I would ask how much they’re willing to tolerate paying in other fees like checked luggage or choosing a seat in advance. These sound like little things, but they are important.

To me, collecting frequent flyer miles is important, so I don’t mind taking a circuitous route. Yet a good friend of mine will gladly pay more money for a non-stop flight.

Two weeks ago, Iwent to the west coast for a conference. I wasn’t going to spend almost seven hours in a cramped little seat, so flying first class was important to me. I found that leaving a day earlier than I needed would get me a much better deal.

Do you care about price, time, comfort, avoiding the risk of a cancellation, the ability to be reacommodated immediately in case of a disruption, or some other combination of these things. It may sound silly but asking yourself all of these questions in advance can help you make a better decision. And you might not miss your cousin’s wedding.

Infrequent Flyer 1/14: Airlines are Businesses… Trying to Make Money
Oct 28th, 2011 by Mike

What most Americans don’t realize is that next to your power company, airlines are some of the most heavily regulated and taxed companies in the nation. Between the FAA, TSA, NTSB, and God knows how many other federal agencies, airlines deal with mountains of regulations and paperwork every day. And the funny thing is that they sometimes make money. The aviation business is incredibly cyclical. They’ll make money for a few years and then bleed cash for a few years. When they make money, they make it hand over fist. And when they lose money, the face extinction right in the face.

If you’re watching ABC’s Pan Am, they’re trying to take us back to the days when travel was glamorous and less… well… sucky. There used to be a day when Tourist Class seats (what we today call Economy) used to have more legroom than today’s first class seats. And the inflight crew used to cook meals right on the aircraft. Those days are long gone.

The Boeing 747 was designed so that airlines could put a piano and lounge on the upper deck of the aircraft. Despite Boeing’s good intentions, airlines just tried to cram as many seats as possible into the space they have.

When you complain about how shitty air travel is, I have to ask you to get over it. Those days are long gone. Airlines are a business, trying to make money. They make money by moving people from point A to point B. It used to be a great score to get an exit row seat. Guess what. You’re going to pay for that little luxury now. The same thing is true for getting an aisle seat near the front of the plane. And checking your bag? You’re probably going to pay for that, too.

Airlines are trying to make money. It’s what all good businesses do. They’ve had to change their business models over the year, and their customers don’t necessarily like that. If you don’t like it, you have other options, such as walking, driving, or even swimming. In the long run, air travel is still a pretty good deal.

What a lot of people don’t realize is that you pay a great deal of taxes on your airline tickets. My friend Drew would argue that you don’t pay enough taxes. Airlines and their customers are large consumers of government services. Most airports are run and maintained by some local government agency. The FAA maintains the airspace, air traffic control, and such. And the TSA gives us the perception that we’re safer while flying.

Not all airlines survive forever. Pan Am, National Airlines, USAir, and TWA are all chapters in aviation history. They all had great runs but are now history. And for the record, US Airways was days away from bankruptcy when they were bought by America West, who chose to keep the US Airways name.

One of these days, I’ll go on my rant about TWA being barely able to make their payroll when they decided to buy a new aircraft every ten days in order to drive down their maintenance costs.

Still, it’s a business. And it’s a really screwed up business model. What other industry charges their best customers more money than their occasional customers? If you have an answer, please let me know because I can’t figure that one out.

Tips for the Infrequent Flyer
Sep 27th, 2011 by Mike

I’ve flown hundreds of thousands of miles over the course of my career. This spans flights all over the US and Canada to several European destinations to Australia. And in all of my flying, I’ve learned a few things. If you don’t fly very much, I hope these tips will be helpful to you.

This really stemmed from a picture I saw on my cousin’s Facebook page recently. I saw that he, his wife and daughter were in the very last row of the aircraft, and I just cringed. That’s when it hit me that these folks fly very infrequently and didn’t know that the last row of seats rarely recline.

In the next few blog posts, I plan on taking you through some very important lessons I’ve learned through the years and miles.

  • Airlines are Businesses… Trying to Make Money
  • What’s Important to You?
  • Do Your Homework
  • When to Call a Professional
  • Know Your Aircraft
  • Choosing a Seat
  • Connections, The Good, Bad, and the Ugly
  • The Airport Matters
  • Airport Productivity Time (Surviving Long Layovers)
  • Monogamy Isn’t Just for Sex
  • The Dirty Secret to Frequent Flyer Programs
  • Dealing With Irregularities
  • Why I HATE US Airways
Potato Salad with Blue Cheese and Bacon
Jul 3rd, 2011 by Mike

Potato salad is one of my favorite American classics when made properly. I recently started making it better by adding blue cheese and bacon. My friends on Facebook have been giving me grief for not posting the recipe. I’m ashamed to admit that it’s staggeringly easy.

First, I cook a pound of thick-sliced bacon on a baking rack over a sheet pan in the oven. It’s usually about 35 minutes at 425 degrees. At least half of the bacon goes to snacking.

I usually start with homemade mayonnaise, specifically Anne Burrell’s recipe. I only vary that by adding the zest of one lemon. You can totally use a good store bought mayo if that works better for you.

I cook anywhere from three to five pounds of potatoes, cut into 1/2″ chunks. My preference is Yukon Gold, but use what works for you. Cook them by boiling in salty water until fork-tender and then shock them in an ice bath to stop the cooking.

In my biggest bowl, I use about two cups of mayo, a cup of shredded carrots, a cup of diced celery, and the green parts of about three scallions. Sometimes i will add the juice of the lemon to thin out the dressing. Then I add about a cup of crumbled blue cheese. I mix this all together before adding the bacon, which has had time to cool and be crumbled.

Finally, I add the potatoes and use a rubber spatula/scraper to toss everything. This needs to sit in the refrigerator for a few hours just to let the flavors mingle and marry.

This isn’t so much a recipe as it is a guide. Everything varies here, and I never make it the same way twice. Some times I use more blue cheese, and sometimes I use more bacon. Recently, a foodie friend told me that I should use closer to the entire pound of bacon.

Why Twitter Matters @alaskaair
May 24th, 2011 by Mike

I’m a Twitter user. Most of it is for communicating with other SQL professionals and a handful of close friends. But it’s also a great place to get the attention of companies with whom I do business. Comcast is legendary for their Twitter team, as is JetBlue.

I’m leaving on a trip to Seattle tomorrow, and I’m flying Alaska Airlines, one of my favorite airlines on the planet. They serve Boston from both Portland, OR and Seattle with an amazing west coast network. And they once saved my tail trying to get to Phoenix during a New England Nor’easter.

Anyway, I’m flying first class tomorrow, so I posed the following on Twitter:

@AlaskaAir Any idea what meal I’ll get in first class tomorrow on flt 15 BOS-SEA?

And they responded!

@mikehillwig Hi Mike, Sbjct to chg: chicken w/red pepper sauce,lentils,carrots or pork w/ mustard sauce,mashed potatoes,green beans. ^DS

Now, this is a little thing. I didn’t need to know this right away. In fact, I could have waited until I got on the plane. But it tells me whether or not I should bring my own snack on the plane. It is more than six hours in the air.

Still, someone at Alaska Airlines took the time to look up what I’ll be eating for dinner on my way to Seattle, and I really appreciate it. It’s one of those little things that will keep customers coming back.

For companies that have a presence on Twitter and don’t respond to your customers, shame on you. I’m looking at you, US Airways. Twitter should be interactive and not a one-way medium.

Still, I love my Alaska Airlines and I fly them as much as I can. Their customer service keeps me coming back. Okay, the smoked Alaskan salmon served as an appetizer in the first class cabin never hurts.

I must be crazy…
Apr 8th, 2011 by Mike

If you follow me on Facebook or Flickr, you know that I’ve been having my bathroom renovated the past three weeks. It’s been hell, but it’ll be glorious when it’s done. My new bathroom has all new everything. The old one looked like everything came from a clearance sale at Home Depot. Everything worked, but it was pretty blah. My tub has been replaced with a stand-up shower made from gorgeous slate, and the bench is made out of a beautiful black marble. The vanity top is made of the same marble and has a glass vessel sink sitting on top of it. I’ll post pictures when it’s completely done.

A few weeks ago, I decided to have a little gathering of friends for the occasion. That’s tomorrow. The bathroom ran a few days longer than we had expected, so we’re coming down right to the wire. The next 24-30 hours are going to be nuts.

Fri 4:00 PM – Bathroom should be completely done except for letting the sealant dry
Fri PM – I desperately need a haircut and I have about a billion errands to run
Fri 9:45 PM – My friend Will arrives from DC
Sat 8:00 AM – I finally get to use said new shower
Sat 9:30 AM – The cleaners arrive, and the house desperately needs it
Sat Noon – My new living room sofas arrive
Sat 2:00 PM – My sister and brother-in-law arrive from Pittsburgh
Sat 4:00 PM – Kickass Cupcakes will be delivering
Sat 5:00 PM – Spinellis East Boston will be delivering
Sat 6:00 PM – Several friends are coming over for drinks

Do you smell the recipe for disaster here? If the cleaners fail to show or if the furniture gets delayed, it could get messy.

Travel Instincts
Jan 15th, 2011 by Mike

Every once in a while, something happens to me that’s just unbelievable. Today, I was on my way to Chicago for a weekend of foodie fun and visiting some friends. I swear, the universe was trying to tell me to stay in Boston.

As I was walking out the door of the office, one of our systems was acting up. My coworker knew I was on a tight schedule and told me to go–she would take care of it. Thank you, Jess. Of course, my commute home should have been smooth but traffic was backed up in the O’Neil tunnel. I poked around the house a little too long, and then when I called a cab to take me to the airport, they were late. My OCD for being on time started hitting me. Just to fray my nerves a little more, the blue line had broken down and traffic around East Boston was brutal. My frustration level hit the roof.

I made it to the airport in plenty of time. As I was at the Southwest security checkpoint at Terminal E, I started going through the ritual of removing my belt and putting things in my bag that would slow down the screening process. Along the walkway and windows, there are sills that have the heating units. I set down my jacket, boarding pass, and driver’s license as I was shoving things into my bag. How it happened, I still don’t know, but my driver’s license fell down into the vent of the heating unit. So much for getting on the plane, right?

This is where my instinct as a business traveler saved my ass on this trip. As I was running around the house, I had grabbed my passport. For some reason, I almost always carry two forms of ID when I travel. And this time, it served me well.

In the meantime, I need to contact Massport to see if they can find my driver’s license. It probably makes sense to contact the RMV and order a replacement. It sucks, but that’s how it works.

Without my passport, I wouldn’t have gotten on that plane.

Our True Colors
Dec 1st, 2010 by Mike

I’m in my third season singing with the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus. It’s a lot of work, and it’s also incredibly rewarding.

Next weekend, we begin our December concert series, Joy. It’s going to be an incredible concert, certainly not one to miss. Reuben has pulled out all the stops for this one, including a brass quintet. Chad has written an incredible arrangement that includes my favorite piece in the entire concert. And we’re the first to perform the TTBB arangement of Gwyneth Walker’s “Rejoice!” Go get your tickets now while good tickets can still be gotten.

As excited as I am about the December concert series, I’m jumping out of my skin over what we have in store for March.

A few weeks ago, Reuben dropped a bombshell on us. The concert he had planned for March is being put on the shelf for a while. Something more important has come up. There has been an epidemic of suicides by gay teens in the past several months, and we needed to respond. It’s our own way of saying It Gets Better. We’ll be filling Jordan Hall with Defying Gravity from Wicked, Christina Aguilera’s Beautiful, and of course, Cyndi Lauper’s classic True Colors. Both Joy and Our True Colors will be concerts you won’t want to miss.

Come to think of it, with our Beatles concert in June, this might be a good time to buy a season subscription.

I’m really proud to be part of this organization.

One for the Team
Aug 24th, 2010 by Mike

When I talk to people about Multiple Sclerosis, I tell them they need to assemble a good team. My team has three key players, and they’re all incredibly important.

First is my primary care doctor. That’s the person who takes care of my general health. For the past four years, I’ve been seeing a great guy at Fenway Community Health, and he’s been fantastic. Fenway is a community health center that caters to the gay and lesbian community in Boston. What’s incredibly important to me is seeing someone who is another gay man. I have some specific needs that only a gay doctor will understand. I’ve had a gay primary care doctor for the past ten years, and I can’t imagine that changing any time soon. If I can’t be comfortable talking about anything with my primary care doctor, what’s the point of even having one?

Second is my neurologist. This is the person who deals with my MS issues specifically. She knows my brain better than I do. She also looks out for a few general health issues, and she watches my vitamin B12 like a hawk. My neurologist is as Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. What’s great is that Fenway and Beth Israel have a partnership, so my primary care doctor can see my neurologist’s notes. I don’t have to play translator here. My neurologist is not only one of the top MS specialists in the nation, she’s a professor of neurology at this little college you might have heard of. It’s called the Harvard Medical School. I like to think she knows what she’s doing.

Third, and this may surprise some people, is my psychiatrist. Lets face it, I have a disease that’s tearing apart my brain. I see a psychiatrist about four times a year. He’s also the doctor who prescribes the meds for my ADD. That’s just another factor. My psychiatrist is also at Fenway.

I got a letter from Fenway a few weeks ago stating that Dr. Caro, my primary care doctor, was leaving them. This was really difficult for me because I really liked this guy. Tomorrow, I have my first appointment with my new primary care doctor. He’s at Fenway, but he’s at their South End Associates office. Scott and I have a few mutual friends, and I really hope he’s as good as my friends tell me and as good as my last doctor. That bar is pretty high.

For the past few years, I’ve had a great team. Seeing it change is hard. But this change could also be good. Lets hope so.

Leaving it to the Professionals
Jun 29th, 2010 by Mike

I think I’m at the point in my life where I can figure out what I can do myself and where I need to turn to a professional. When it came time to install stainless steel tile in my kitchen, I turned to my friend Tom, who is a licensed contractor. And when it comes to my upcoming vacation, I totally turned to my friend Rick, who is a professional travel agent.

Sure, we’re in the days of Travelocity and Kayak, who can help you find the best published fares. But there is something those sites can’t give you, and that’s experience. If I’m going to San Francisco or DC or even London for a weekend, I can do that myself. But I’m planning a nine-day trip that spans multiple countries. Yeah, this needs a professional.

Could I figure all of this out myself? Absolutely. Could I find a better deal online? Maybe. But can I get those little nuggets of experience about connecting at Heathrow or Milan without intensive Google searches? Absolutely not. My friend Rick has been an absolute wealth of information, and that’s why I trust him. The thought of flying across the Atlantic in coach seemed a little repugnant to me, so I was wondering if it was worth a little more money to fly Virgin Atlantic’s Premium Economy class from Boston to London. Sure, there are tons of reviews online saying how great it is and how much it sucks. But those are just virtual people. I called on someone who has actually flown it and gave me feedback that I trust. That’s where this whole trip started.

In all my travels, both personal and professional, I’ve learned to trust my travel agents.

Several years ago, I was in Germany on vacation. This was before we had cell phones that worked in other countries. I got to Frankfurt without a hotel reservation, only to find there were no hotel rooms available in the city. None. I called Rick, from Germany, in tears. He asked for my credit card number and told me to call him back in 20 minutes. When I called him back, he had me booked in a train to Mains with hotel reservations for that night. That solidified my belief in the value of a travel agent.

So just what is this vacation all about? Well, at this point, I’m flying into Milan and then spending a few days in London at my friend Steve’s house. Those are definite. Everything else is subject to change. At the moment, I’m planning on spending a few days in Conegliano, Italy. That’s where they make Prosecco, which is my favorite wine. After that, a night in Salzburg and then a few days in the Champagne region of France before heading to London.

Am I excited about this? You have no idea.

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