Wednesday, July 9, 2014

People Try to Bring the Craziest Stuff on Flights



Airport security confiscates a lot of contraband from passengers.

Most of it's pretty mundane and tame. Bottled water, hand lotion, and the like.

But sometimes the security guys catch stuff being sneaked aboard that makes you wonder what the people doing the sneaking were thinking?

Jetcost – a France-based travel price-comparison website for flights, hotels and car rentals – found a number of examples of extreme crazy stuff people have recently tried to carry onto planes.

Here are five of my favorites.

1. “Snakes on a Plane.” That was the title of a 2006 thriller starring Samuel L. Jackson as an FBI agent who tries to prevent venomous snakes hidden aboard a jetliner from killing the witness he's assigned to protect before the start of a mob boss's trial. As for the real-life incident that made the Jetcost list, the company doesn’t say whether the in-flight liquidation of a stoolie was involved. But what happened was a guy in Miami tried to get on a Brazil-bound plane with seven snakes tucked inside his pants. I can just imagine the TSA screener going to the passenger, “Hi. Is that a snake in your pants, or are you just glad to see me?”

2. She kissed a frog but no prince showed up. Jetcost says a woman from South Korea was busted by Chinese airport security screeners as she attempted to transport tadpoles concealed in her mouth. She claimed her boyfriend gave her the baby frogs as a love gift during her visit to China. Not wanting to leave them behind, she loaded the little pollywogs – dozens of them – into her mouth and tried to pass through the security line. Nice try. But the screeners noticed her cheeks bulging and ordered her to spit.

3. Not coming to a Burger King near you. A guy with a serious fondness for turtles tried smuggling one aboard his flight by nesting it between two sesame-seed buns and generous helpings of lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions, and secret sauce. This happened at the airport in Beijing, according to Jetcost. Sharp-eyed screeners thought they’d seen some whoppers in their time, but this one was off-the-charts suspicious.

4. “Weekend at Bernie’s” Euro Edition. In the original 1989 comedy flick of that name, a pair of dorktastic bookkeepers invited to the Florida beachfront party estate of their high-living boss discover he's been murdered by mobsters and, so, to avoid having suspicion for the killing fall on them, the lads perpetrate an elaborate ruse designed to fool all of the boss's playmates into believing he remains alive and well. Basically, this boils down to putting sunglasses on him, sticking a cigarette in the corner of his mouth, and creatively posing him in ways that suggest he's still partying hardy. Two German women not long ago headed home from Liverpool tried practically this same thing when, according to Jetcost, they showed up at the check-in counter with the sunglasses-adorned body of a deceased friend propped up in a wheelchair. The ticketing agents thought they’d seen this movie before, and that caused the curtain to come down real fast on the two ladies.

5. May the Farce Be With You. Fans of the “Star Wars” movie franchise know that light-sabers don’t exist in real life (at least not yet, anyway), except in the form of toys and movie props. They also know that the actor who portrays the character Chewbacca in many of the films is Peter Mayhew. Well, Jetcost informs us, it seems that Mayhew was trying to catch a plane in Denver when TSA collared him (appropriate, given that Mayhew on camera plays a very tall dog) for attempting to bring a movie-prop light-saber onboard. It took some doing, but Mayhew and helpful employees of the airline managed to convince TSA that the prop was not a weapon – and was in fact being used as a cane to help the slightly disabled Mayhew walk.

Me, personally, I try to be very careful about what I bring aboard planes when I fly out to visit Weitz & Luxenberg’s clients – U.S. military veterans stricken by mesothelioma. Those guys are counting on me, and I don’t want to do anything that would prevent me from getting where I need to be at the time I promised I'd be there.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

8 New Hotels You Might Want to Try



My visits with U.S. Navy veterans stricken by mesothelioma give me the chance to sample a great many American hotels and motels – some great, some mediocre, some just plain lousy.

Photo courtesy Public Domain Photos
So, when the glossy magazine Conde Nast Traveler recently revealed the winners of its 2014 survey of the best new hotels here and abroad, my first thought was, hey, maybe I can convince my bosses at Weitz & Luxenberg to let me stay in one of these happening lodges.

Conde Nast Traveler came up with its “Hot List” by examining 510 debuting hotels in 400 cities around the world.

Of these, it named 33 as winners in four categories.

Winners were chosen on the basis of how well a hotel celebrates where it is in the world, how well the hotel makes guests feel at home, and whether the decor seems like it was hand-selected by a gifted style maven as opposed to picked by a committee of fuddy-duddies who think fashion peaked with the invention of the polyester leisure-suit.

Eight of the 33 winners are in the United States. Let me tell you about them.

In the category of Best New Family Friendly Hotel, the winner is Palihouse in Santa Monica, California.

Palihouse has walls so well built that you have to strain to hear little kids rampaging in the room next to yours. Palihouse began life in 1927 as an apartment courtyard complex – as such, its 37 guest suites are either one- or two-bedroom sizes that feature fully equipped kitchens. If you’re into architecture, you’ll love this place because it’s considered a prime example of Moorish-influenced Mediterranean Revival style. Conde Naste Traveler reports that Palihouse features oriental rugs on the bathroom floors and that the lobby looks like a huge living room, complete with oil paintings and wall-mounted taxidermy. A night’s stay runs $310 and up for a double.

In the category of Best New Food Hotel, a tie between The Thompson in Chicago and Zero George in Charleston, South Carolina.

Food hotels are those anchored by a five-star restaurant (or a five-star wannabe). At The Thompson, the swank eatery is Nico Osteria, put together by noted Chicago chef Paul Kahan. The restaurant layout is said to feature a massively long counter, perfect for the lone businessman or businesswoman who doesn’t want to take up an entire table for two. Traveler reports that the dinner menu includes delicacies such as crudo and house-made pasta, as well as squid-ink bucatini with pine nuts, chili, mint, and sardines in carpione. Me, I’ll stick with the menu at Wendy’s or Burger King. As for the hotel itself, it’s got 247 rooms offering jewel-toned furniture, enormous windows, and especially huge showers. Doubles start at $289 a night.

It costs about $70 more for 24 hours in a double at Zero George. The super-nice restaurant there presents an ever-changing menu with dishes like organic chicken tacos and tempura green beans. And it offers one thing more: an opportunity for guests to attend the onsite cooking school, where chef Randy Williams teaches how to make lavender honey- and Chambord cream-topped cornbread plus countless other Charleston favorites, Traveler indicates. The hotel consists of 18 guestrooms within five elegant townhouses arrayed around an oyster-shell and stone-paver courtyard. Traveler says the rooms are bright and the beds plush.

In the category of Best New Bargain Hotels, top honors are shared by three – count ‘em, three – hotels. They are: The Marlton in New York City; The Dean Hotel in Providence, Rhode Island; and The Line Hotel in Los Angeles.

The Marlton turns out to be just a couple of blocks from the Greenwich Village offices of Weitz & Luxenberg – I might stay there the next time I visit the firm, especially since The Marlton charges only $250 a night for a double (sleeping on any park bench in Manhattan costs easily twice that much). Traveler says the newly renovated 114-year-old Marlton was where 1950s poet Jack Kerouac frequently hoisted drinks with his beat-generation pals. The renovation left intact the original crown moldings in each of the 107 guestrooms and added some updated retro features, like brass light fixtures, travertine marble–clad bathrooms, and herringbone wood floors. Downstairs in the lobby are leather club-chairs, wood paneling, and a crackling fireplace.

The cheapest of these three bargain-priced hotels is The Dean. Seventy-nine bucks a night. I’m confident the room rate is in no way a reflection of the fact that the building – constructed in 1911 – was previously a brothel. Inside, you will find a classic cage elevator to transport you from the lobby up to your floor. Once you enter your oversized room, awaiting you will be a snack bar stocked with locally made chocolates and waffles. Or, you can head back downstairs to the lobby to partake of the hotel’s craft cocktail bar, karaoke lounge, beer garden, or coffee cafe.

Then there’s The Line Hotel, priced about where The Marlton is. This is a 388-room high-rise in the city’s Koreatown section. The rooms come with floor-to-ceiling windows that afford amazing views of L.A. (you can see the famous Hollywood sign on the hill in the distance from many of the rooms). Traveler says expect extremely comfortable beds. If you get hungry, The Line has two restaurants run by chef Roy Choi (the mastermind behind the popular Los Angeles eatery Kogi BBQ). If you get hungry in the middle of the night, there’s also an onsite bakery specializing in Korean-style sweets.

In the category of Best New Beach Hotels, another tie. Top honors went to Andaz Maui at Wailea in Hawaii and to Salt HouseInn in Provincetown, Massachusetts.

Take a swim in the ocean or ride a few of the waves and when you come back to shore you’ll discover that the Andaz Maui staff has already set up a lounge chair just for you, according to Traveler. You come to this place if you want to totally escape and chill out for a while. More than half of the 297 rooms in this Hyatt-owned property boast water views, and all have private lanais that let you gaze out at the star-filled night sky. The hotel also offers snorkeling and surfing les
sons. A double sets you back $450 per night.

Traveler describes Salthouse Inn as the “un-B&B B&B—a hotel both spotless and modern, a hotel where it didn’t feel like an innkeeper was watching my every coming and going.” It’s called Salthouse because long ago its 15 rooms were home to men who mined for salt. The bright, airy rooms since then have been updated with hardwood floors and shiplap wall-panels. There’s also an upstairs sun terrace. The hotel serves breakfast daily, but the menu changes often. On it, you might find fare such as homemade pastries and fresh-squeezed juices. You’ll find the beach a short stroll away. Price: $185 a night for a double.

All of these hotels seem like winners to me. You’ll probably visit them before I do. If so, please drop me a line and let me know if they live up to their billing.

The reason you’ll probably visit these hotels before I do is that I rely on a travel agency to make all the arrangements for me – and they tend to put me up in places like Courtyard, Residence Inn, Fairfield Inn, and Holiday Inn Express.

The travel agency also knows that I like to keep within 10 miles of the airport, so that’s a factor too. Proximity to the airport is a big deal for me because it means I can fully gas up my car the night before then be able to return it the next morning without incurring any delays or penalties.

But even though none of my usual lodgings are likely to make a Conde Nast list, they do have going for them a reputation of doing right by us military veterans. Some of these places discount my room rate by as much as 40% when I mention that I served. Occasionally, they even offer free items from the in-room snack bar. But whatever way they choose to show their appreciation, it’s always welcome and received with gratitude.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

The 7 Best Submarine Movies Ever




"Das Boot" is one of the 7 greatest sub flicks
In the course of penning my post a couple of weeks back about the Civil War-era submarine CSS Hunley, I discovered that Hollywood had filmed an action-adventure movie about the remarkable underwater vessel and its attack on the Union sloop-of-war USS Housatonic.

“The Hunley” was a made-for-TV flick that starred Armand Assante in the role of Lt. George Dixon, skipper of the ill-fated sub. I didn’t see this movie when it aired in 1999, but I noted that “The Hunley” is available on DVD from Amazon.com and other outlets, so maybe I'll purchase it and have it on my phone for the next time I’m traveling to visit mesothelioma patients on behalf of Weitz & Luxenberg and I’m stuck at an airport somewhere due to flight delays.

I also couldn’t help noticing that “The Hunley” is considered one of the Top 20 all-time greatest submarine movies at the website Ranker.com.

Ranker.com and other movie-buff sites are pretty much in agreement on what constitutes the best of the “silent service” genre, but there’s little consensus as to the order in which those movies should be ranked.

As a former Navy submariner and current movie aficionado, I feel eminently qualified to put their choices in a proper order. Secure all hatches, because here we go:

7.  “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” (1954). Walt Disney Studios won a couple of Oscars for this adaptation of the 1870 Jules Verne sci-fi novel. It was shot in vivid Technicolor and was helped by a great cast that included James Mason and Kirk Douglas. The real star, though, was the Nautilus – a cool fantasy sub. Despite the plentiful swashbuckling in this movie, “20,000 Leagues” is wholesome fare perfect for family viewing (although very young children might be scared by the attack of the giant squid). Personally, I wouldn’t have placed this movie in a “best of” list, but that’s only for the reason that this movie didn’t connect with me on a personal level (even though Kirk Douglas is one of my favorite actors). I’m just not all that into make-believe submarine adventure. I like my sub fare real and gritty, taut and chilling.

6.  “K-19: The Widowmaker” (2002). When they call the K-19 a “widowmaker,” it’s not because the sub sends a lot of married enemy combatants to their graves. The deaths are all aboard the K-19, the Soviet Union’s first nuclear-powered sub (it leaks radiation like water through a sieve). This film can be painful to watch. Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson star.

5.  U-571 (2000). This year's Oscar-winning "Best Actor" Matthew McConaughey is in charge of a boarding party from a U.S. sub dressed up to resemble a Nazi U-boat. The plan is to trick one of the actual wolfpackers to come alongside so they can capture it. The German boat that takes the bait is the U-571. McConaughey and team don’t so much want the U-571 as they do what she's carrying – an Enigma machine, the highly classified device used by the Germans to encode and decode transmitted messages they wanted kept secret. Footnote: there really was a U-571 during World War II, but this movie is not based on historical events surrounding that boat.

4.  “Hunt for Red October” (1990). Tom Clancy was in a league of his own when it came to writing international espionage novels, and “Hunt for Red October” was among his finest. Here, you’ve got Sean Connery playing the renegade captain of a stealth Soviet sub, Red October. His commanders back in the Kremlin soon realize he’s a madman and order the Soviet navy to seek and destroy his ship. They can’t catch Red October by themselves, so they ask us to help. We go, “Sure, no problem.” But we don’t actually want Red October sunk. We’re only playing along with the Soviets because what we really want is to get our hands on Red October so we can have an up-close look at its no-signature caterpillar drive technology. I like this film even though it contains some distracting technical flaws – for example, the idea of an inadvertent launch isn’t plausible, submarines don't bank when they execute a turn, and they certainly can't maneuver through underwater mountain ranges.

3. “Down Periscope” (1996). Inexplicably, this Kelsey Grammer comedy never made it to Ranker.com’s list (so I’m correcting the error for them by adding it to mine). Grammer plays a much passed-over executive officer forever longing for his first submarine command. His wish comes unhappily true when the Navy gives him a rusting, barely functioning World War II-era diesel-powered boat and designates him the mock enemy in a war game against a state-of-the-art U.S. nuclear-powered sub. To ensure Grammer loses, the brass saddles him with a crew of hopeless misfits. However, Grammer is himself a misfit who thinks like a pirate and uses his outside-the-box seamanship skills to great advantage. I like this film because Grammer’s character – although an exaggeration – depicts a type of submarine commander I idolized during my Navy career: someone cagey, inventive, and known for devil-may-care derring-do exploits.

2.  “Gray Lady Down” (1978). Charlton Heston received top billing in this bottom-of-the-sea disaster vehicle that, like “Down Periscope,” never saw the light of Ranker.com’s list (even though movie-review site Rottentomatoes.com stamps it “fresh” with a 60% critic-approval rating). I was new to the sub force when this pic premiered in theaters, so it really made an impression on me. That’s why I’m taking the liberty here of adding it to Ranker.com’s big list and slotting it at No. 2. The plot finds Heston commanding the USS Neptune, which collides with a surface ship, sinks to just above crush-depth and comes to a rest teetering precariously on the rim of a deep undersea abyss. One nail-biting mishap after another further imperils the trapped crew while rescue is attempted. Besides Heston, “Gray Lady” featured a cast of terrific actors well-worth seeing perform together.

1.  “Das Boot” (1981). For realism, you can’t beat this piece of fiction. It’s about Nazi submarine U-96. The story is told entirely from the point of view of the Germans. I first saw “Das Boot” years and years ago at a film festival in San Diego. The dialogue was entirely in German with English subtitles. But the scenes were so true to life that, for me anyway, the translation was unnecessary to understand what was going on. Confession (and spoiler alert): I felt bad when – after evading the relentless Allied hunter ships and somehow managing to limp back to port – the U-96 was destroyed anyway during an air-raid on its sub pen. Yes, the U-96 crew represented the bad guys in the war, so it might not be right to characterize them as heroic. But it is accurate and fair to say they had a lot of guts, which is typical of submariners regardless of nationality.

These are all great movies. I hope you'll enjoy them as much as I do.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

When airline tickets are cheapest



Mark your calendars: the best day to buy your airline ticket for domestic travel at Thanksgiving is June 4.

On June 4, the price of a ticket for the week of Nov. 24 will be at its absolute lowest, according to a survey conducted by travel website Cheaptickets.com.

Cheaptickets.com also found that for non-holiday travel – including business-related flights (like those that Weitz & Luxenberg sends me off on to visit mesothelioma patients around the country) – you will likely save the most money by purchasing your ticket 54 days in advance of departure.

The savings can be potentially significant, says Cheaptickets.com.

For example, the difference in price for a ticket sold 54 days ahead of time and a ticket for the exact same seat on that exact same flight purchased a scant five days before departure could be right around $300.

I suppose if you’re a pint-sized, cane-twirling, white-mustachioed tycoon who wears a long-tailed tuxedo coat and top-hat to the office every day and uses a monocle instead of glasses, then $300 might not mean a lot to you.

Of course, if you’re that sort of tycoon, you probably own four different airlines (plus hotels on Park Place, Boardwalk, and Baltic Avenue) and fly free all the time anyway, so big whoop.

But, if you’re no tycoon, then every penny saved on airfare is important.

In my book, Cheaptickets.com deserves a tip of the top-hat for the yeoman’s work they did by examining fares of more than 4 million domestic and international flights last year to arrive at these useful insights.

For each of those flights, Cheaptickets.com went back and looked at fares from the time tickets became available – commonly about 315 days ahead of departure—and going forward practically right up to the moment the plane started boarding.

In addition to discovering the “T-Minus 54 Days” low-price sweet spot, they also noticed there is a window of about 75 days when fares broadly tend to be at their most attractive.

But the window doesn’t open at T-Minus 315 Days. It opens 104 days before departure.

And it closes 29 days before flight time.

What that means is you pay a higher price if you either buy too early ($33 more on average) or if you miss the window ($73 more on average).

Generally speaking, that is. There are some exceptions.

Thanksgiving is one of them. June 4, the cheapest purchase day, is roughly 165 days ahead of departure – or, said another way, about two months earlier than the low-price window normally opens for non-holiday travel bookings.

Also, the 54-days-in-advance bottom can shift depending on where you’re headed and what time of day you’re going there.

According to the survey, the cheapest day falls closer to departure if you’re flying from and to big cities. That’s because major airports offer flyers more choice of airlines and flights – this localized competition among carriers helps keep prices reduced longer.

So, if you’re looking to save money on your next trip, buy the tickets early. Be mindful, though, that you can buy too early. But, if you’re looking for a good rule of thumb it’s this: better to buy too early than too late.