Why United is the Best Worst Airline

Domestic airlines get a bad rap… mostly for good reasons, but that’s beside the point.  If there’s any reason to justify voluntarily sitting in the livestock transport that is today’s passenger airliners, it’s to amass frequent flier miles like you’re the Sultan of Brunei. I’m (a little) biased as I’ve been flying with them since I was about 4 years old, but let’s take a look at why United is the abusive partner of choice for your frequent flier rite of passage.

Order vs Chaos

Boarding a plane isn’t a complicated process, but judging by some of the scenes I’ve witnessed, some of our less genetically-evolved counterparts have a difficult time with the concept. Completely disregarding the US airlines that have zero order to boarding other than basing your sequence on check-in time…

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looking at you, Southwest…

United’s regimented, OCD-pleasing, 5-boarding-group process with group-dedicated queues keeps the process organized, free of confusion, and efficient. This is in stark contrast to the herd of simpletons that forms over at the anything-goes American Airlines gates, whose sole purpose in life, it seems, is to stand in the way of one another.

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Furthermore, United is the only US airline that employs the “outside-in” or “WilMA” (window, middle, aisle) boarding approach which has been proven to be far more efficient than the “back-to-front” method utilized by nearly every other competitor. I’m often impressed by United’s ability to pack their meat cargo so quickly between scheduled flights.

Status

Acronyms incoming… United premier status starts at 25,000 miles flown in a calendar year (CY) to attain the most basic Silver level. 100,000 miles flown in a CY is recognized with elite 1K status, granting generous complimentary upgrade eligibility, including 6 “Global Premier Upgrades” (GPU) and an another 2 for each additional 50,000 PQM flown within the same CY. Use these GPUs to experience United’s new Polaris premium-cabin product & accompanying lounges including private restrooms and showers without dumping out every one of your children’s piggy banks (& maybe college funds). With Gold, Platinum, 1K, as well as the coveted Global Services, you also get Star Alliance (*A) Gold Status which comes with access to over 1000 United and *A lounges when flying internationally in any class of service. And speaking of alliances…

Travel Options

United is the only US member of the Star Alliance which is, by far, the largest airline alliance on the planet. With United & its Star Alliance partners, you can fly to nearly any country in the world with 190 countries served (even North Korea, if you’re so bold) – 13 more than its closest competition over at SkyTeam. More domestic and international destinations, more flights, and more aircraft than any other domestic carrier to choose from when using and earning your precious miles. Simple, quantitative facts – don’t argue. Moving on.

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Redemption

No, I’m not suggesting United’s mile redemption system is the best – it’s not. They’re virtually the same as every other domestic carrier. Rather, I’m talking about how they redeem themselves when they screw you over or piss you off. Yeah, I’m praising United Airlines customer service. If you haven’t laughed yourself into a stroke at that last sentence and you’re still with me, hear me out.  Yes, they’re a domestic carrier. No, there isn’t a phone number you can call to request a ticket refund. Yes, most of the customer service agents at the airport wouldn’t care if you had to sleep in a dumpster after your late flight misses a window to take off before a massive storm front moves in, resulting in a “weather related” cancellation – because the pilots that were 30 minutes late coming in and then the maintenance issue pushing back departure another 45 minutes had nothing to do with it… All of these transgressions are pardoned because of one little form.  This form, alone, is the whole reason it’s worth putting up with our beloved United’s bullshit.  Had a bad flight? Enter a survey. Missed a connection and had to drive the rest of the way home? Enter a survey. WiFi broken? Enter a survey. In-seat TV won’t power off? Enter a survey. This little-known form is a channel to the only department in the company which contains at least one person in possession of a soul.  What is the result? Sometimes an apology, but in my experience, usually an Electronic Travel Certificate worth anywhere from 20-70% of your ticket value. For someone who travels a lot, that’s as good as cash as far as I’m concerned.

For example, when Erik, Sasha, and I went to Singapore last month, we paid around 600 USD for the round-trip ticket from New York – an amazing deal to begin with. After we returned, I submitted a survey containing a politely worded message regarding an encounter with a gate agent exhibiting a Napoleon complex and faulty WiFi systems on 3 of the 4 segments of the trip. United comes through with a 400 USD Electronic Travel Certificate, recouping 2/3 of the cost of the trip. Although this is only one example of many, I share this with the footnotes – be reasonable, don’t abuse this, and try not to be a jerk. I’m sure United isn’t going to keep handing out certificates to some douchebag that’s cursing them out every week because a flight attendant ignored their unwelcome advances.

Singapore: Sashas’ Account

 

After spending Labor Day weekend in London with the family, I walk back into work around 8:30 AM. Say hi to a few coworkers, get settled, answer some questions about the trip, all the normal stuff. Then I see Erik. The first words out of his mouth were “Want to go to Singapore next weekend?” and my automatic response was “Sure!” I was serious, but what I didn’t know was that he was serious as well. So we head up to the room that Alex is sitting in, and then they start talking about these tickets they found and how Alex needs the mileage to make Platinum status on United. By 11 AM, we had booked $600 tickets and would be traveling for 3.5 days total, all to spend 2 days in Singapore. And we could not have been more excited. It was going to take a cab, a train, another train, and two planes to get us there – the timing was so tight that we decided it was going to be a “backpacks only” trip. We were so far back in economy that there was no chance of getting carry-ons in the overhead storage anyway.

We researched and planned out an extensive vitamin regimen to help us combat the jet lag and keep us going during our time there – the last thing we wanted was to be falling asleep in the middle of the day. We found a ridiculously cheap hostel that would give us a private room for all of us and was located within walking distance of plenty of restaurants and bars, and the F1 Grand Prix was happening that weekend! It was all falling into place so easily. And all with only 8 days of prep time. I had little experience with Asia, my only other foray into the Orient being an all too brief stint in China in 2015, and the boys had never left the east coast. It was like the blind and their one-eyed king. (Ok, that’s a lie, they’ve both left the country. But never to Asia.)

 

Thursday, Sept 15th

Hopped the train to Newark, almost had to leave without Alex. Casual start to the trip. But then we get to the airport five hours before our flight leaves, and what do we do? We don’t work, of course. We start drinking. Pitchers of bloody marys, beers, terrible and severely overpriced food. Needless to say we had a fun few hours in the airport. And that was before we started in on the mini bottles we brought for the plane. Of course, after takeoff, I proceeded to sneak up into the economy plus section (where Erik and Alex were already seated) and we promptly got sauced and passed out for the remainder of the flight. Good times all around. Another hop, skip, and a jump through Hong Kong and we were in Singapore!

8 airline shooters in…

We caught a cab to the hostel and started looking around (it’s a gorgeous city state and I highly recommend going if you ever have the chance, even if it’s just for 56 hours). Our cabbie was very knowledgeable and gave us some good tips and places to check out, most of which we probably missed because, you know, we were only there for two days. So we get to the hostel and go to check in, only to find out that ERIK booked to come in the next day! Despite the fact that it was 2 AM and no one else was going to be checking in, the guy at the desk insisted on charging us exorbitant rates for the night, equaling almost the exact same amount we were paying for the other two nights combined. Which of course we (Erik) paid. Fuckin’ Erik. So we dropped our stuff and went out to explore! Because, of course, we were jetlagged and it was 3 in the afternoon, our time. We found a great 24 hr restaurant and discovered our new favorite beer: Tiger Beer.

 

Saturday, Sept 17th

The next day, we hit the streets and explored a lot. Temples, shops, bars, and of course, Singapore slings. The real fun started that night, though, when we found our way to Attica. See, it was the F1 Grand Prix that weekend, and Attica was doing a F1 themed promotion. They had a racing simulator set up, and the fastest lap time won a bottle of Dom Perignon and VIP service. So Erik, being the race car driver that he is, decides to take a crack at it. His method was to use a pit stop as a shortcut, which the event coordinator laughed at him for doing, but in the end, guess who was laughing? Us, as we enjoyed our free bottle of Dom and VIP lounge. Sadly, it was just us up there and we quickly polished off the Dom and abandoned the lounge for the crowded dance floor. There we met guys from the Singapore Army, they liked to throw champagne glasses into the crowd. Keepin’ the people safe. But then the club closed, and our luck ran out. We caught an overly expensive pedi-cab home, but Alex had the guy drop us off two miles away from our hostel by accident. So we get out and start walking. And then the monsoon hit. And we. Got. SOAKED. To the bone. I don’t think we could have been any more drenched had we jumped in a pool. Anyway, then we got some food, went home, took some Xanax, and fell asleep outside on the beanbags. See Exhibit X.

 

Sunday, Sept 18th

So the next day, we slept in (aka we slept for like 6 hours between 6 AM and 12 PM) and hit up the Marina Bay Sands, and the Gardens by the Bay, which were both seriously unreal. I can’t even describe the views, so I won’t. See below.

Gardens by the Bay
Gardens by the Bay

We then made our way down to the race, and if you’ve never heard the sound of an F1 whooshing past, I seriously recommend going to a race. It was nuts. We tried to take some videos, but they turned out terribly. Also, the cheap seats don’t give you views of much other than the straightaways. Which aren’t terribly fun to watch. But it was still totally worth it, and the Imagine Dragons concert afterwards was amazing. All in all, a fantastic way to spend our last few hours in Singapore.

We stayed up all night that night, walking around, packing, and hitting up the airport way too early for our flight. We were afraid if we slept, we wouldn’t wake up and we’d be in Singapore forever. Which wouldn’t be that bad, but we had to get back to work. And what do you know, we rolled in on Tuesday morning at 8 AM looking fresh to death. Mission accomplished.

Roaming Around Rome

First and foremost, the cliches are all true; the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps, the Coliseum, the Forum, St. Peter’s Basilica, the Sistine Chapel are all breathtakingly beautiful displays of ancient human society—not just society in general, but THE society—as well as monumental feats in architecture. While the city hosts many under-the-radar beauties, the famous ones are nothing to skip. Bite the bullet, be a tourist, bring your cargo shorts and fanny packs, it’s worth it.

My recommendation: brush up on your history before or while visiting all these famous landmarks. Without doing so you can appreciate the architecture and the art, but to stand in the spot under the arch Julius Caesar led his army through to conquer Rome, to picture the hundreds of artists taking Michelangelo’s direction, hanging from the ceiling, to wonder in awe how they staged naval battles in what was the world’s largest structure for centuries, is to truly appreciate Rome.

Don’t be afraid to wander, Rome’s a safe city. However, you will certainly need to watch out for pickpockets.

If you have an evening free and plan to walk around aimlessly, Trastevere is your destination. Probably the most charming residential neighborhood, Trastevere is home to a number of restaurants that meet our expectations of real Italian cuisine. After dinner, there’s plenty of Gelato places to choose from. My recommended flavor: Stratecella (chocolate drizzle in vanilla).

If your night is calling for some more excitement, the nightlife of Rome isn’t as laid back as Italian culture would have you think. For English speaking travelers who don’t mind a bit of rowdiness, Scholars Lounge is a great time. The Irish pub, a few minutes walk away from Il Vittoriano (or Altare della Patria), is a two large room bar that hosts fun events most days out of the week including live music and karaoke. And of course, the nature of an Irish pub is near and dear to most English speakers from Australia to America, so meeting people is a lot easier in Scholar’s than with the language barrier somewhere else.

Campo de’ Fiori is great spot for a good dinner in the late afternoon when the restaurants are in full swing or at night for a lively time when the bars are active. During the day Campo is a colorful farmer’s market surrounded by cafes and shops with great local produce including good cheese, pastas, fruits, vegetables, spices and more.

Il Palio – Sienna’s Superbowl

During my short stay in Italy, I visited Sienna twice. More of a large, populated town than a city, it was quite unique from the rest of the country. While in Rome a common thought for me was “Where did they dig up all this fucking marble?” In Sienna the thought was “How did they carve all these stones?” The streets, houses, shops, piazzas, steps, churches: all square stones about a foot in length. It was quite charming to set foot in a city where some unspoken small stereotypes played out. Older Italian women leaning their head out of their window for fresh air and sun, smiling small business owners beckoning tourists into their shops, children playing soccer, teenagers smoking cigarettes, fashionable hip, and seemingly in love. The food was to die for, expectedly, and the locals were hospitable. This was first trip to the city. My second beckons an entirely new story to tell.

Palio di Siena (known locally as Il Palio) is a horse race with medieval origins, making it one of the oldest in the world, and therefore, one of the most famous. The event marks as a culmination of ancient rivalries between the city’s 17 neighborhoods, each of which has an impassioned sense of pride that is gloriously expressed for the 24 hours leading up the climax. Each neighborhood sports colors and patterns unique from the others. In flamboyantly stylish medieval outfits, they parade through the stone streets, all singing and chanting—hundreds of years worth of neighborhood pride commencing each year in a rigorous, minutes-long race that demands nothing short of perfection.

Walking through the streets during the pre-race festivities with two friends, tourists from around the world crowded around and gaped in awe at the bombastic displays of pride. We were among them. Expert flag twirlers boasted their skills, men and women decked out in costume following behind chanting, singing all in impressive unison, men on horseback following in a quiet, poised strut. I’ve never been more camera-happy in my life. Distant rumbles of rival neighborhoods’ parades echoed in the background, seeming to raise the bravado of the parade in front of you.

That night, the distant echoes never died out.

 

Waking up early, my group of three were amongst those who came without the intention of paying for a ticket. Pizza del Campo is Sienna’s central square where the horses race along the outer most points. We were admitted to stand, shoulder to shoulder, in the middle of the race along with everyone else who either missed their chance for seated tickets or came without the purpose of paying. Standing at 5’9′ I missed the entire thing. For three minutes I tried jumping to catch a view, holding my camera up, arm fully stretched, to where I thought the horses might be, bewildered by the gasps of the crowd that seemed to occur every few seconds, but to no avail.

That night the neighborhood that won celebrated the loudest but the rest of the city celebrated nonetheless. The square remained open to the public

This is Sienna’s Superbowl. The difference being it wasn’t a nationally identifying event. It was their city’s identity being gaped at by tourists from around the world, their neighborhood’s identity; a much more intimate event than the grandness, corporate culmination of American championships. An event about the sport and the expression of pride around your player. There’s a purity in something this famous that isn’t penetrated by corporate interest. Money doesn’t play a factor on a grand and obvious scale like it does in American sporting events. What did play a factor was pride and history. I wondered if the people of Sienna were responsible for keeping money out of it, for keeping it pure, for keeping it about the sport and the people and not letting it be tainted by modern advertising capabilities and marketing technology capable of reaching millions.

There’s a purity in this event and there’s a purity in the core of this city.

Terror Along Italy’s Amalfi Coast

The Amalfi Coast has some of the most sensational sights in Italy, arguably in all of Europe. After spending a month in Rome I trekked south with my mother and cousin in a rinky-dink, decades-old bus along the cliffs of Italy’s west coast.

The views inspired both awe and terror. To your immediate left shot up rock what seemed thousands of feet higher than the road and to your right, a thousand-or-so foot drop to the blue blue blue sea of the Mediterranean.

Having spent a month in Rome prior to this spectacular and horrifying bus trip, I was under the impression that Roman drivers developed their own form of insanity on the road, much like New Yorkers have; an enormous city with a high population where if you dillydally for a second, you’ll be passed, honked at, cussed at, etc. Having worked in the Big Apple for a month, I can attest to the trouble tourists from the suburbs or worse often find themselves in with lifelong city dwellers, and I figured that Rome, the city with the fourth highest population in the continent, would be no different. I learned quickly that Romans are both more daring and insane than New Yorkers in their vehicles. This may be because cars are smaller. This may be because of the large amount of Vespas to compete with. Nonetheless, my first cab ride—from the airport to our apartment—was nothing short of a vomit-inducing roller coaster ride; street lights, stop signs, lanes, crosswalks—all mere suggestions for the driver, so it seemed. Not, you know, THE LAW, like it is in the States.

However, this bus trip taught me that insanity on the road is not merely a Roman trait, confined to a big, overpopulated, busy-as-hell city buzzing with waddling tourists and numerous obstacles to weave around. It’s an Italian trait. How do I know this? Because, despite having less than the average height of a man as room between this bus’s right wheels and certain death, as well as inches (no exaggeration) between its left side and oncoming traffic, our speed rarely, if that, dipped below 70 mph.

In the moment, I’d have done some sick things to be back in that first cab ride.

My mother didn’t seem as affected on a deeply emotional level as I. All of Italy so far has put her into a sort of absent minded state of awe during which she would loudly vocalize every bit of beauty her eyes ran across (keep in mind, we’re tourists in Italy – beauty is everywhere). So, Mom yelling in my ear to look at the views quite impossible to miss wasn’t helping my ever-increasing state of anxiety. I’d share a few photos, but I don’t have any. Letting go of the chair in front of me to reach for my camera hung around my neck seemed like a death sentence at the time.

Nonetheless, we made it to our hotel where my mother and cousin excitedly had a day to roam around Positano, and I stayed in to watch movies and recuperate.

Would I suggest the Amalfi Coast? Absolutely. Would I do the Amalfi Coast again? Absolutely not.

The McLobster – McDonalds Goes Cape Cod

For what it is, taste isn’t everything.

Any harbor town on the East Coast of the United States is going to have a few restaurants that offer up lobster rolls on their menu. More than a few will even go as far as to claim that they are the area’s best and despite the cost of entry, the low ingredient count and simple concept allow almost anyone to have an entry. But what happens when lobster rolls slide down into the fast food bracket? Not as much damage as you would think.

Despite the simplicity, lobster rolls are still a bourgeois treat. It is not uncommon to see them reach $25.00 to $30.00 on a high end menu. So with lobster rolls commanding these price premiums, it’s not surprising that an $8.99 version from McDonald’s drew some attention. The McDonalds lobster roll was available in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont and Albany, New York this past summer. It was available at more locations in 2015 and I believe we can expect its return in the spring of 2017.

So how does it taste? Better than you would expect. In order to really appreciate the McDonald’s lobster roll you have to take it for what it is. Comparing it to a $25.00 roll at a high end seafood restaurant will just leave you disappointed. But for $9.00, it’s not half bad. Yes, the lobster is frozen. Yes, the bun isn’t as soft and buttery as it could be but it is a fraction of the normal price.

The real beauty of the McDonald’s lobster roll is its accessibility. A family of four would have to pay $100.00 for four rolls whereas the Golden Arches will do the same for less than $40.00. For people balling on a budget this is a way to have the lobster roll experience without the lobster roll price since not everyone can justify spending $25.00 on a seafood stuffed hot dog bun.

Long story short, go try it. It won’t kill you and if you end up hating it, at least you can say you gave it a shot. No matter what in the end it will just let you appreciate a traditional lobster roll that much more.