Delta – What Most Travel Bloggers Get Wrong

If you spend some time looking at travel blogs around the web, you’ll find a common theme – Delta sucks.  Many of these bloggers are great experts on award travel, the points game, using credit cards to get miles, and how to find some of the best award seats and I have learned lots from many of them.  But, many of them seem to hate Delta.

But, what they really hate is Delta’s frequent flyer program.  They’ll tout the much greater availability of award flights on United or the upgrade certificates that American offers on trans-continental flights and they’ll tell you all the bad things about Delta SkyMiles – how the program keeps getting devalued, the lack of availability of low level award seats, the inability to book one way awards, and the broken Delta website search engine.  Many of these are valid points.  As a regular Delta flyer, there are some things that I think could be improved.

What they rarely talk about, however, is the quality of the flying experience.  At the end of the day, if you are a butt-in-seat traveler – and many of them are not – a frequent flyer program is only as good as the product you get to experience in the end.

For example, I recently used award miles to fly some long haul flights on United.  United is often touted as one of the best frequent flyer programs on the market, largely due to award availability and their Star Alliance membership.  My first flights occurred during the “polar vortex” and United simply froze up.  Seriously.  You could not even get in the queue on the telephone, their Twitter service offered to rebook me, for only part of my journey, five days hence, and my email to them got a response over a week later basically saying, “We hope it worked out for you.”  Yes, there was some bad weather, but United’s systems imploded.  If not for some local counter agents who were great to work with – and don’t actually work for United – I might have never gotten on with my trip.

Then, on my return flight to Chicago from Frankfurt, Germany, I experienced their 777 business class product that has the most cramped business class I could have imagined with eight seats across vs. the four that Delta puts on that same piece of equipment.  Four seats in the middle in business class…wow.  And, then there is the constant moan I hear from frequent flyers on United who, since the merger with Continental, have only experienced pain and suffering and a devaluing of their benefits.

So, while United miles may be great as to award availability, the actual experience may not be that great.  US Air, which recently merged with American, is also a Star Alliance member.  But, fly a few times on their airline and you will soon be cured of any desire to do in the future, especially if you have to go through one of their biggest hubs in Philadelphia.

Delta offers the best in-flight product and customer service of any of the “legacy” carriers in the U.S.  Perhaps my view is a bit skewed as a Diamond Medallion member, but it seems like Delta keeps winning the rankings of major domestic carriers as was recently reported in the Wall Street Journal.

Airline Rankings 2013

Airline Rankings 2013

Look at the chart and tell me how much you would want to fly on United week in and week out?

Delta recently introduced upgrade certificates on international flights to be more competitive with American’s offering.  They already have a better policy for redepositing award tickets as long as it is done more than 72 hours prior to travel.  They recently introduced a change to their Sky Club access that was almost universally panned by the blogger community but applauded by people like myself.  Again, there seems to be a vast gulf between the perceptions of those who travel primarily for award travel accrued by credit card spend and those of us who are on planes pretty much every week.

That’s what they get wrong.

Vietnam/Cambodia – Final Thoughts on Trip

Now that I’m home, but awake in the middle of the night, I’ll share some final thoughts and cover a couple of miscellaneous points that never got into the previous posts.

Over the course of the past two weeks, I’ve covered 22,775 miles by air – the circumference of earth is 25,000 – and another couple of hundred by foot, bicycle, and tuk-tuk.  My time worked out about right.  I might have enjoyed the other day I was supposed to have in Hanoi, but everything else felt about right.

I might have over-packed a little bit.  I could have gone with one less undershirt, one less shirt, one less pair of socks, and without my Canon Elph, which I rarely used.  And, I didn’t need all the toiletries I took.  Maybe a few more protein bars might have been nice.

This trip allowed me to see what a third world country looks like but without the fear that would normally go along with that experience.  That was one of the things that impressed me about Cambodia.  Here is a country that is dirt poor and yet they were friendly, polite, and without seeming resentment.

Vietnam

Vietnam is already on the rise.  Vietnam won the war against the U.S. and unified the country in 1975 but remained isolated for years.  In 1986 they introduced a number of reforms – both poltical and economical – that started them on the path towards reintegration into the global economy.  The U.S. didn’t lift their embargo on Vietnam, a result of the war, until 1994.  By 2000, they had established diplomatic relations with most countries.

Since that time, they’ve been bringing a lot of outside investment into the county and have had one of the fastest economic growth rates in the world.  Their textiles business is a huge industry and if you check your clothing labels, you might be surprised how often they say “Made in Vietnam.”  You might also be surprised to know that they are the 13th most populous country in the world with about 90 million inhabitants.

Cambodia

Cambodia, on the other hand, is still grappling with poverty, infrastructure, and political issues.  I talked about the terrors of the Khmer Rouge regime that was in power from 1975 to 1979 but didn’t really talk about the fact that armed conflict continued for many more years.  It was not until 1997, only 17 years ago, that armed conflict ended in this country.  In 2013, they ranked 138th out of 187 countries on the Human Development Index.

Political power is tightly controlled and there are some on-going tensions for both political motivations and economic ones.  The protests in Cambodia in the past month have been a bit overshadowed by the more volatile ones in Thailand during the same time frame.  While I was in Phnom Penh, I happened to be walking by the Royal Palace as they arrested one of the union leaders who has been protesting against the government’s handling of recent protests by garment workers.  Luckily, there was no violence in this one like the one a couple of weeks ago where four garment workers were killed by riot police.

What are the government workers protesting about?  They currently make $80 a month.  The government is proposing to give them a raise to $95 a month.  They want $160.  The fact that the government is the one who is setting the wage tells you a bit about the nature of their government.  They are nominally a parliamentary representative democracy but have been described as “vaguely communist free-market state with a relatively authoritarian coalition ruling over a superficial democracy.”

But, there have been signs of new growth in this country.  The Koreans are investing heavily in Cambodia, followed by Japan and China.  Let’s hope the current unrest doesn’t upset this positive direction for the Khmer people.

Motorbikes, Tuk-tuks, and Traffic

While I did talk about this several times in my posts, I was never able quick enough to get pictures of how many people and things can be crammed onto one vehicle.  I routinely saw four people on one motorbike and, twice, saw five people on one.  Two or three year olds were routinely hanging off a leg or standing on the cross bar at the front of the bike.  I can assure that I saw no infants in car seats.

The other talent they have is how much they can transport on one motorbike.  In Phnom Penh, I saw a couple of guys strapping a mid-size refrigerator to the back of one motorbike.  Ladders, 4’x8′ pieces of wood, live animals, you name it.. These pictures are not mine, but are indicative of what I saw..

Six on a motorbike?  No problem.

Six on a motorbike? No problem.

The family that sticks together..

The family that sticks together..

I have one delivery to make than I'll take Grandma home.

I have one delivery to make than I’ll take Grandma home.

Who needs a truck?

Who needs a truck?

It also seems they have some different regulations around seat belts.  While we can’t have kids ride in the back of the station wagon any longer, they don’t seem so concerned..

Everyone, pile in!

Everyone, pile in!

What to say?

What to say?

Yes, I realize that we really don’t have “station wagons” anymore.

It was a great trip and I’m glad to be home.  While much of it was “free,” the reality is that it wasn’t really free.  The cost of it was all the time I’ve spent on the road over the years on planes and in hotels.  I’m not complaining, mind you.  I feel very fortunate to be able to do a trip like this and my family is more than supportive.  The girls liked their exotic t-shirts and know that I’m not anxious to go on another trip like this for a good little while.

I hope you have enjoyed the reports.  Now, it is back to such exciting things as arguing about which is the best airline, whether a hotel was good value, and other earth-shattering insights that only roadies really care about.

United’s 777 Business Class – FRA – ORD – LEX

After the quick overnight in Frankfurt, it was time to finish up the trip with United in their newly configured Boeing 777-200 business class.  Of course, I was happy to be flying business class instead of economy for this nine hour flight but, overall, disappointed with this product offering.  Here are the pros and cons of this business seat.

What I didn’t like about the seat

  • First, they are crammed in with 8 seats per row in a 2-4-2 configuration.  I’ve never seen this kind of density in trans-continental business class.  They are able to offer 40 seats in this class, as a result, but with little privacy and difficult aisle access for windows and middle passengers.
  • Very little privacy and not much room.  There is a shared armrest but no seat back pouch or any other real area to store small items.  Luckily, the section was not very full and I was able to move to an aisle with and empty seat beside me.  If I had not been able to do that, it would have been a much worse experience.
  • The aisle seats feature armrests, on the aisle side, that are designed to move to different heights.  In both seats that I sat in, it was extremely difficult to get them to lock into place.  The first one would not lock at all and the second had to periodically slammed into position.  It sounds like a small thing but having a floating arm rest is not comfortable for nine hours.
  • The length of the seat in lie flat position was good, but very narrow.  It really almost impossible to turn onto your side in the lie flat position without being pretty ramrod straight.

What I did like about the seat

  • I’ve read other reviews that say that the seat is too short but I do not concur.  I’m 6′ 2″ and the seat was plenty long when in lie flat position.
  • The seat comfort was pretty good in most upright positions.
  • The AVOD system was very good.  The screen was beautiful and, I’d guess, about 17″ in size.  A good selection of options and a remote that was very responsive.

The food service on the flight was fine.  I didn’t particularly care for the main course options, but others may have loved them.  I also thought the flight attendants that I interacted with were great.  I’ve read many reviews in the past year about “surly” flight crews, but my experience on this flight was just the opposite.

Overall, it was disappointing compared to my usual experience with Delta who, by contrast, have only four seats across on their transcontinental 777 business class configuration.

After a 3 hours stop in Chicago, I finished my trip with a short one and a half hop down to LEX, arriving right on time despite another round of snow and freezing temps in both Chicago and Lexington.

Headed Home on Thai Air – PEN – BKK – FRA

I’ve never flown Thai Air before but had a short 2 hour flight this morning from Phnom Penh to Bangkok where I picked up my 12 hour flight to Frankfurt, Germany for overnight stay.  My seats were booked in their “Royal Silk” business class so was looking forward to their offering.

What I Liked about Thai

  • Service was very attentive and professional
  • The menu and wine list impressive if one is into high cuisine.  There was some stuff I tried that I didn’t particularly care for but it was all presented nicely.  For instance, the various appetizers and sides included foie de gras, salmon, shrimp, and various items that I do not recognize and did not particularly care for, to be honest.
  • I’m not a wine connoisseur but was impressed they were serving a 2004 Bordeaux as an option.
  • In Bangkok, they have a spa where they provide a complimentary massage pre-fight.  You can choose a neck and shoulders or foot massage.  I opted for the neck and shoulders which lasted about 20 minutes and was very good.
  • While I didn’t really partake of it, their food selection in their business lounge was pretty varied and had enough heft that one could make a meal of it.

What I Didn’t Like about Thai

  • Really only one thing, their business class seat.  I was on the Airbus 340-600 with an angled lie-flat seat.  It just wasn’t very comfortable in any position.  And, it was very noisy when changing positions as the person across the aisle seemed to do for most of the flight.

Hilton Garden Inn – Frankfurt, Germany

Upon arrival, I was very happy with my selection of the Hilton Garden Inn at the airport.  Since I’m only staying overnight for an 8:00 a.m. flight in the morning, I wanted something easy and reliable.  I did not even have to step outside as the hotel, and the adjacent Hilton, are connected to the terminals by walkways and are just by the rail link station.

Tomorrow morning, I finish the trip.

What I’ve Learned Walking Around in SE Asia

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve logged a lot of walking and wandering around the various towns I’ve had the chance to visit. And, in the process, I think I have learned a few things.  I’m sure you can’t wait to hear about them..

Learn to walk in the street

Even with the chaotic traffic and potential peril, you have to get used to walking in the street.  If you get outside of city center, you will have no choice as you will not have a sidewalk.  But, even in major city centers like Phnom Penh, Saigon, and Hanoi, the sidewalks are really not for walking.  They are for food stalls, small shops, Bia Hoi’s, and motorbike parking.  Even if you can find space on the sidewalk, they are slanted and uneven and you never know when there will be an open hole to step in.

Get used to being dirty and dusty

There are good reasons why you see so many people wearing face masks as the ride around on their motorbikes or in tuk-tuks.  One, pollution levels are sky high – not nearly as bad as Beijing, but worse than you will find in most places.  Hanoi and Saigon were the worst, but also the most developed metropolitan areas.

But, besides the pollution, there is just dirt and dust everywhere.  Walk around for a couple of hours and you have it in on your clothes, in your nasal passages, and in your hair.

You might have to learn to litter

You have two choices once you’ve finished your soda/bottle of water/snack/whatever – 1) You can carry it with you the rest of the day; or 2) You can throw it on the ground.  Garbage tends to be all over the place, with no rubbish bins and no type of regular garbage pickup, you don’t have lots of choices.  Yes, at the temples and most touristy sites, you might find a public trash can but not once you get a little further afield.

Stream in Siem Reap

Stream in Siem Reap

One time, I gave my empty water bottle to an old woman at a market stall thinking she could put it in her trash can.  She threw it on the floor.  Oh well.

The further you get away from tourist sites, the less you are hassled

No doubt about it, there are times where you want to scream, “I don’t want a massage, I don’t need a tuk-tuk, and I’m not buying a frickin’ scarf!!”  But, these are pretty poor countries and tourism is a major source of revenue.  A Westerner is pretty easy to spot and assumed to be rich.

But, the further I walked away from Pub Street in Siem Reap or the Old Quarter in Hanoi or any major tourist sites, the less I was assaulted by the touting.  But, again, it was not aggressive and a simple “no” tends to be accepted without protest.

The world is a pretty safe place

Or, at least, Vietnam and Cambodia seem to be safe.  Granted, I’m sure there are dodgy spots but walking all over, I never felt in danger.  I did freak myself a little bit on my first night in Phnom Penh when I wandered down a small alley that couldn’t have been more than five feet wide and was what we would probably call a slum.  After three or four turns into the dark, I decided I didn’t want to go that way.  There were no threats so it would not be fair to say it was unsafe, but caution can be the better part of reason especially when there was no reason for me to be there.

Alley in Phnom Penh

Alley in Phnom Penh

What is quaint and captivating to the tourist probably sucks for the resident

I remember staying at a family run place in Split, Croatia a few years ago and thinking it was so awesome.  The room was right in the old town area and looking out the windows there were washed clothes hanging and people on their balconies and sounds of laughter and argument and the smell of food cooking and this really charming sense that you don’t get in your big house or apartment in the U.S.  Charming?  Yes, for two nights.  But, I bet living there would suck.  No privacy, no space, no reliable hot water, no wireless internet.

Walking around Phnom Penh or riding through the dirt poor villages of northern Cambodia is fascinating and interesting to see how happy people are who have nothing.  Probably a good lesson for Americans.  But, not an existence you would want for anyone you care about.

Lower end home = thatched hut

Lower end home = thatched hut

Here’s a great post on why you shouldn’t move to Cambodia – http://tinyurl.com/n895dqs

Sex tourism is real

I have never been to Bangkok with its sleazy reputation, but it is hard to imagine it being sleazier than Phnom Penh.  Just a couple of weeks ago, CNN did a news series on sex trafficking in Cambodia and it is pretty in your face in both Vietnam and Cambodia.

Walk by any bar along the river or in the area around street 51 and you’ll see dozens of older white guys sitting with young Khmer women (I also saw some of this in Saigon).  Sometimes, they are hostess bars, but, often times, they are just regular bars.  I’ve overheard some of the conversations and there is really no pretense.  I guess the extreme poverty is a big motivator for a young woman to try and find her American or British dream guy who can spend more on her in a night than she could earn in months.

Except in the most touristy areas – like around street 51, home of the famous “Heart of Darkness” bar – it is not aggressive but it is evident.  And, pathetic.

The Killing Fields of Cambodia

Imagine that you wake up one morning and find out that a new leader has taken over and soldiers arrive at your door telling you to get your rice bowl and hit the road.  You get forced to march into the forests where you will now farm rice.  But wait, not everyone has to go.  If you own a business, are college educated, a professional, a teacher, a government worker from the old regime, if you speak a foreign language, or if you wear glasses, you will be killed instead.

This is what happened to Phnom Penh in 1975 when Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge took the city.  For four years, this nut job’s idea of a perfect society was one in which there is no owned property, no currency exists, and everyone lives in the countryside.  They literally emptied out the cities.

Over the course of that period of time, 2 to 3 million, about 25% of the population died by execution or starvation.  I was picked up today by Sum Vun who was a 17 year old boy during this time.  His family – father, mother, and siblings – all died of starvation.  He lived with his uncle until he died and then Sum was on his own.  I never quite understood how he survived but he now has his own family and says that things are getting better.

Our first visit was to The Choeung EK Genocidal Center, home to one of the largest killing fields from the time.

Remains in the Memorial Stupa

Remains in the Memorial Stupa

It is a somber place where an audio tour walks you through the area where bone fragments and clothing still stick out of the ground.  The Memorial Stupa at the center of the site was built in remembrance of the genocide and houses remains from many of the victims that died in the surrounding fields.

After that, it was off toe Tuol Sleng or “S-21” which was a high school converted to a prison and torture center under the Khmer Rouge.  This was the first stop for many of those who ended up in mass graves at the killing fields.  When Phnom Penh was liberated in 1979, fourteen victims were discovered in gruesome condition – the last victims of Tuol Sleng.

Prison cells, torture devices, skulls, and pictures of the victims are all on display. When prisoners were brought here, they were photographed, catalogued, and measured.  I thought this photo was particularly haunting..

Victim of Tuol Sleng Prison

Victim of Tuol Sleng Prison

What could have this young girl possibly have done?  She was most likely brought here with the rest of her family for some alleged offense against the government.

The most astonishing thing about all of this is that Pol Pot was supported in exile by the Western nations and was recognized as the rightful leader of Cambodia by the U.N. after fleeing Cambodia.  This was due largely due to the Cold War with communism and the fact that Vietnam played the key role in liberating Cambodia from Pol Pot.  He lived another 23 years after being ousted in 1979.

The legacy of Pot’s attempt to radically change society if felt today.  When a society loses all of its educated citizens, schools and hospitals are destroyed, and its entire economy stopped, it creates a hard road back to prosperity.

My final stop of the day was Wat Phnom temple in the center of the city.  Like many Asian cultures, worship and remembrance of ancestors is an important part of belief and tradition.  A steady stream of locals came to burn incense, offer up sacrifices, and release birds with a wish for the future.  Perhaps the genocide that was not that long ago, brings special significance to this worship.

Rural Life in Cambodia

One of the real benefits of traveling several hours by tuk-tuk in rural Cambodia was the chance to glimpse life in the many rural villages we passed through, especially from Banteay Srei to Bang Melea.

Women sweeping the dirt floor of their living area with brooms made of bundled sticks; children bathing by the well that supplies their water; entire families dipping water cans into the stream and using them to water a field of crops; and children waving and smiling as you pass by.

But, lest anyone get nostalgic or unrealistic, you must remember that Cambodia is a poor country.  The average household income in rural areas is about $750 USD.  That is annual income.  Yes, $750.

Driving through the villages, there was some consistency in the homes of the villagers.  Most home consist of a small shack built on stilts that I assume serves as the bedroom and private living area.  The most basic of these structures are wooden platforms with blankets serving as walls.  There are also a number of these homes that are thatch both on the roof and for the walls.

A rather "upscale" home in rural Cambodia

A rather “upscale” home in rural Cambodia

A nicer home seems to be wooden platform with wood siding and a tin roof.  The few masonry structures one see are typically public buildings like schools, government offices, and police stations but many villages don’t have any of these.

Underneath the shack, there is likely to be some hammocks or motorbikes or a work area.  Many homes have an additional “living space” closer to the road with an open area hut, on shorter stilts.  Many times, the family’s well – either hand pumped or bucket drawn – is in this front area.  If any business is run by the family – selling fruits or vegetables, for instance – it is located in this hut closer to the road.

The children are adorable as you ride by and likely to wave and give a heart warming smile.  The few Cambodians that I interacted with also seem quick to smile despite the conditions they live in.  Infant mortality is high and disease, lack of good drinking water, and poor education create a landscape of limited opportunities for these young children.

Average life expectancy is right around 60 years and infant mortality hovers around 90 deaths per 1,000.  This is from the Peace Corps website on the rewards and frustrations of working as a volunteer in Cambodia:

Cambodia is a study in contradictions. It is an ancient culture that has existed for more than 1,000 years that, at times, is frustrated from a pace of development that is lagging behind that of its neighbors. From another perspective, Cambodia has only recently emerged from decades of terror and turmoil. In spite of this tremendous setback, Cambodia has made remarkable progress in a short time and is continuing to develop rapidly. The development needs in Cambodia are huge. The education and health systems are still emerging from a state of complete collapse, the agricultural systems that support most of the population are still quite primitive, and infrastructure gaps can still make completing simple bureaucratic tasks difficult. Corruption is endemic in all government systems, including education and health care. Legal systems are also fragile, and many laws relating to basic human rights are not enforced.

At the same time, the potential for impact as a development worker in Cambodia is enormous. Cambodian people are kind and friendly, eager to learn so as to improve their conditions. Everyone is aware of the problems and most are willing to discuss solutions openly. The countryside is beautiful, the food is delicious and nutritious, and Cambodians are proud of their ancient history.

Cambodians, especially those over 30, can tell you stories of horror and loss. Everyone has lost family members and friends under the Khmer Rouge regime. Yet, as a largely Buddhist society, people get along peacefully and without visible rancor or competition.