69 entries categorized "Travel"

Day one in Taiwan

After departing on Saturday night after midnight, I arrived here in Taiwan around 2pm. A long trip, made worse by being seated next to Sir Snore-a-lot. But it's almost 11pm here now so if I go to bed now I should avoid jetlag despite having stayed up for 42 hours straight.

I'm doing a guest appearance on a Taiwanese TV Magic show. It airs 9pm on Saturday nights and is, apparently, one of the top rating TV shows in the country and has been for several years!

I had a little wander around the city today (Mos Burger in Taiwan doesn't taste as good as Mos Burger in Japan) and, unfortunately, I didn't bring my camera because I did spot a few examples of Engrish:

One coffee shop with, of course, a very 'Starbuckian' logo is called 'IS COFFEE ALWAYS FRESH'.

And another shop has a huge sign with the rather unfortunate name 'LADY JUICE'. I have no idea what they were selling, but the shop seems empty and locked up, so maybe the store name sounds just as bad in Mandarin.


Heading to Beijing for FISM? Good luck!

As you know, I've been organising a tour group to Beijing FISM for Aussies who plan to attend the World Championships of Magic.

As I've run National Festivals and International Magic Conventions before, I felt this wouldn't be too difficult.

1 - I contacted an expert tour organiser who explained that everyone really needed to leave from the same city and stay in the same hotel to make this work. Problem - people were not only departing from different cities, but at different times too. Plus, some couldn't afford to stay at the "official" FISM hotel.

2 - I studied air timetables and came up with a way that people willing to leave at the same time, could all end up on the same flight with Qantas. I contacted Qantas Group Services and (once we were within twelve months of our departure date) they gave me a quote of over $2,000 per person. At the time, that was several hundred dollars more than booking the same flight through a travel agent.

3 - FISM promised all group organisers we would get advanced notice when the hotel bookings were about to open and we could get special group discounts buying rooms in bulk. Didn't happen. Suddenly the rooms were bookable online on the FISM website... at only marginally cheaper rates than if you booked direct with the hotels themselves.

4 - Alan Watson put me in touch with Graham Bennett of Singapore Airlines in New Zealand who came up with a great group price of $1750 per person. It was a fair price, but the airline is much nicer than Qantas. We came up with a great schedule where everyone could leave from their home city and meet up in Singapore, where we would all fly together in Beijing. Problem: You could book individually with Singapore and get a slightly cheaper airfare than if you travelled with the group. Plus, "due to the current economic situation", many in our group had decided they couldn't afford to go to Beijing, while a dozen others decided to fly in earlier to sightsee, or to continue on to 'Magic Live' in the USA... so our flight plan no longer worked for them. We now had too few people to qualify as a group.

5 - I searched Webjet to find alternative flights for our group and came up with flights on Qantas from Melbourne and Sydney which were $1384 and $1473 - which we posted on our Tour Group page. Last week we booked our flight. We decided to go via Sydney so we could escort a first time FISM traveller and booked QF105 - Friday July 24 departing Sydney at 10.10am and arriving in Beijing at 8.10pm. If we left from Melbourne we'd have to stop off in Hong Kong, so it was nice to get a direct flight. (Plus, coming back Beijing direct to Melbourne is a nightmare - remember this???) In true Qantas form, two days later QF105 ceased to exist. Instead we are on a flight via Hong Kong...

There are well over 30 Aussies in our group heading to Beijing, a new record for FISM, and we all hope to have a great time over there. However, with airlines facing hard times "due to the current economic climate", we can expect a few more flight changes and cancellations between now and July.

Our Tour Group still exists... and many are joining us on our escorted tour to the Great Wall of China on the day after FISM, and though we won't be flying together or staying in the same hotels...(?!) they are all getting email updates filled with travel tips, advice, and handy hints about travelling in China.

As for handy hints about travelling TO China... well, good luck!


Made in Japan

One of the places we visited in Japan was a "Food Theme Park" in Osaka called Dotonbori Gokuraku Shoten-gai (Dotonbori Paradise Shopping Area)

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We enjoyed the most delicious Japanese pancakes you could possibly imagine, cooked at the table in a setting designed to be authentic "old Osaka".

When you go inside you are given a charge card and you can stop at any number of the food stalls or restaurants (or gift shops, novelty stands, fortune tellers... there's even a 'Magic Bar' called BarTRICK) and charge it. It's only when you leave that you have to pay up.

To give you an idea of the elaborate interior of this multi-storey complex, here's a clip I found on YouTube:


Another place we dropped into that was unexpectedly delicious, and not too unhealthy, was the Japanese hamburger chain Mos Burger.

MOS_Burger

With prices comparable to McDonald's but food that was made freshly after you order it and tasted absolutely delicious.

Mos-burger-menu1

Of course, not all the food we enjoyed in Japan was nutritious... one of my favourites is the lolly 'Milky' (or "mirrakee" as it's pronounced over there).

17467-fujiya-milky-candy

Well, it was my favourite until Saki translated the motto on the front of the pack: "Just as good as your mother's milk".

A more healthy alternative is the popular snack of soy beans. Japanese love to pop the peas straight out of the bean, so much so that they invented this top-selling toy (Endamame) to simulate the sensation of popping the bean. Of course, you can't eat it, but apparently just the action of popping the pea is more than enough of a reward.

Img10063530125   


But that was last year's top-selling key chain accessory... this year's Puchi-Puchi is Peri Peri, a key chain that simulates the action on unzipping a carboard box.

Bandai-mugen-peri-peri 

The most impressively pointless use of technology I saw though, was the 'Tuttuki Bako Virtual Finger Game'. You just have to take a look at this and wonder not how, but why?

What did I buy as a souvenir?

Something low tech and emminently practical. Lotte Jenga!

LONG LIVE LOTTE!


Thanks Jetstar!

We are FINALLY home!

Now I know a lot of performers have horror travel stories... perhaps none more than Paul Romhany as he flies from cruise ship to cruise ship every week... but our trip was a simple flight from Osaka to Melbourne via the Gold Coast.

Only problem was - it was on Jetstar.


DEPARTURE TIME

When I originally booked the flight, online at Jetstar.com, it was a 7pm departure from Osaka. Jetstar sent me several email notifications letting me know the flight times had changed to 8pm, then eventually to 8.55pm.

So we arrived at the stunning Kansai International Airport

Kansai_International_Airport_Departures

ready to check in at 6pm... and we noticed that people were leaving the check in counter with their luggage.

After about 20 minutes we reached a point in the line where there was a sign telling us that the departure time was delayed until 8.10am... the next morning.


REASON FOR DELAY

According to the sign, "Crew rotation". Apparently, the crew were not rested enough to fly until the next morning. 

Most modern airlines use a technique called "planning" which involves things called "schedules". Hopefully Jetstar will introduce this innovative idea sometime in the near future... either that or maybe remote-control planes that don't need crews to fly them.


COMPENSATION

Thankfully the Japanese staff working for Jetstar were very apologetic and worked efficiently and politely to calm customers and put plan B into action.

In order to soothe us they offered:

Free meal service on the flight from Osaka to the Gold Coast.

  • Excess baggage was waived.

  • Overnight accommodation in a nearby hotel.

  • 2000 yen voucher for dinner.

  • 1000 yen voucher for breakfast.

2000 yen is worth about $AUS33, and as the many restaurants at the Kansai International Airport charge regular prices (as opposed to "airport prices") we were able to enjoy a delicious dinner. Of course, as we had to catch a bus to the hotel we were a little rushed, but we enjoyed it as best we could.


THE HOTEL

As Jetstar had to billet 400 or so passengers we were sent off to different hotels. Sue-Anne and I stayed at the 51 story ANA Gateway. Very nice hotel. Room prices listed at around $AUS300 and, though in need of a freshen up, they were big by Japanese standards.

Unfortunately, ours was next to the elevators and the sound of a lift rushing up 50 floors is like a rocket going off... over and over again.

Later in the night, when use of the lift had stopped, I heard a weird squeaking... I think it was just because the hotel was so tall, but it sounded like the room was haunted by some demonic telegraph operator sending morse code all night.

I think I did manage to get an hour or two of sleep before waking at 4am to catch the bus back to the airport.


CHECKING IN AGAIN

The signs in the airport told us to check in at counters C18-22 - and there was already one family lined up there - so that's where we all went. We were really pleased to be second in line.

Unfortunately, when the staff arrived they decided to use different counters and the line ran, tail-end first, to the new check-in area.


BREAKFAST

We were checked in by 6.20am and ready to spend out 1000 yen each on breakfast... unfortunately, all but one of the airport restaurants were still closed and didn't open until 7.30pm (which is when we needed to board) and that restaurant was McDonald's. A fellow traveller told us he had a feast for 980 yen, but we opted for the healthier option of not eating.


FLIGHT

The flight was uneventful as we were all very tired, and the crew was almost invisible as they had nothing to sell to the passengers. They made one pass just after we took off giving us all a croissant and a small yoghurt, then another pass just before we landed with a hot lunch for everyone (which was actually not too bad). It was at that point the announcer said "This is your last opportunity to request any food"... the passengers let out a sigh as one as we realised we could have been asking for our "free food" at any time during the flight... in true Jetstar fashion, they'd offered it (not when they served us the croissant, but in the letter we got the night before) we just had to ask.


ARRIVAL

The pilot announced, quite proudly, that he'd made up time and we'd arrive early at the Gold Coast International Airport, which we did. We had just over an hour to clear customs and check in to our Melbourne flight.

We all rushed down the stairs and onto the tarmac, we read the handwritten sign stuck on a witches hat and took the path along the barbed wire fence before entering the tunnel made of cargo containers and emerging in passport control.

Our bags finally arrived on the conveyor belt, we had nothing to declare and were directed down the left line where our bags were thoroughly searched.

We'd been first off the plane and now we watched, helplessly, as everyone rushed through to meet their connections while Customs officials went through every piece of our luggage. They flicked through our books several times, examined every credit card in my wallet, and stood there reading entries in Sue-Anne's diaries.

I told them that, because our flight was delayed by 12 hours, we'd been told that we had to find a Jetstar person to help us make our connection in time. They said "Good luck" and laughed. They said that Jetstar was always late.


OUR FINAL LEG

Sure enough, they were right. When we joined the end of the line at the Jetstar domestic check-in, I noticed that the 7.20pm to Melbourne was now leaving at 10.20pm. (Due to late arrival of the aircraft... which is weird, because if it was that late it means the plane hadn't even left Melbourne or Sydney yet).

There was an 8.20pm flight to Melbourne, and when I asked if we could be moved onto that, the check-in lady told us it was already overbooked by ten people. (Note, they filled that plane with people, like me, who were earlier in the line. How do they overbook it? Surely they could get a machine that tells them "Sorry, you've already sold that seat to someone else." Maybe one day they will.)

I told the lady at the counter how we'd already been delayed 12 hours and now we had to wait another three and she got her back up and told me not to "pay out" on her as she'd only just arrived at work. At least she was getting paid to be there, a lot of the other passengers were unable to arrive at work thanks to Jetstar's hopelessness.

I took another tack and asked her what she was going to give us as compensation and she quickly wrote out meal vouchers, worth $8, for both of us.

She was very combative and not once offered an apology for the delay. As we were told later by an airport staff member "That's how they're trained to be."


ANOTHER DINNER

When we went through security where the three food outlets where we met with another passenger who wasn't offered a voucher. He went back out to check-in and had to argue with a supervisor before he was finally given one.

I took my pad and paper with me and headed back to check-in (hey, I had nothing else to do and three hours to kill) and I asked the supervisor what the Jetstar policy was with meal vouchers. He asked me if I wanted one, and I explained that I had one because I'd asked, but other passengers didn't get them. He told me they would have been offered them... "they weren't a secret", I explained that they weren't offered them and perhaps he'd make an announcement on the PA for those who missed out.

He agreed.

A short time later the announcement was made. Unfortunately, most passengers had already bought food and those who were going to go back through security and get their coupons were told the kitchen's were closing in 5 minutes...

So what could you get for $8?

  • Nachos? No - $13.50

  • Burger, Fries & Drink - small? No - $10.95

  • Chicken Roll? No - $8.95

You could get a croissant... $7.65.

Sue-Anne got a fruit drink for $7.60. I paid the extra $2.95 for the burger combo.


FINALLY...

As we waited and watch the departure area slowly empty of people we chatted to some of the airport staff. Apparently Monday at Coolangatta Airport is always like this. Jetstar are constantly running late. (Not just Jetstar. As we waited we heard a Virgin 7pm flight to Canberra get delayed, and delayed until it was finally cancelled at 9.30pm)

This explains the lack of clocks in the departure area. We had to keep time by watching a departure monitor... until a security guard came around and switch it over so he could watch the tennis instead.

Finally we got on the plane and were told that, because one of the Jetstar fleet "became unserviceable" (ie: broke) it threw their whole national schedule out of whack and a "domino effect" took over making flights later and later... The attendant who told us this was very well trained as her announcement was gruff, to the point, and her apology insincere.

By this time, I just conked out and slept the entire way to Melbourne.

Touching down at Melbourne Airport at 1.45am we made our way to the baggage carousel and picked up our cases. As we headed out I noticed that the airport authorities have gone all out to stop "unlicensed taxi drivers" from soliciting rides by putting up 5ft tall signs at each exit. Standing right next to the sign was a man holding a crumpled sign reading SMITH who approached me and said "Do you need a taxi?"

We were home.


Was this a "nightmare flight"? No. As I've discovered with a quick google of JETSTAR, it's quite typical.


On behalf of Australian travellers everywhere, we'd like to award you

JETSTAR - AMATEUR AUSTRALIAN AIRLINE OF THE YEAR

Jetstar

So bad, they even make Qantas look good! (Well, most Jetstar flights are code-share with Qantas anyway).







News from Japan

Sue-Anne and I are currently in Kobe, Japan, and it`s been quite an amazing 24 hours!

The city itself is pretty much free of grafitti (or "scribbles" as they more accurately describe it) and when I asked why the answer was simple. "Why would we write on other people`s property? It doesn`t belong to us."

Petty theft is almost unheard of. We`ve left things behind (and so have our friends) in foyers, on the street, and in restaurants and every time they`ve been waiting, untouched, on our return.

Everyone is very friendly, helpful, and ridiculously hospitable, and we feel totally humbled by the attention that`s been given to us.

We took a train to visit Hameji Castle this morning, and the beautiful, impeccable carriage (with heated seats... it`s averaging 4 degrees at the moment) was patrolled by a train guard who was more interested in keeping his train spotless and ensuring his passengers were enjoying the ride rather than checking tickets (which he also did very discretely). It`s more like a Disneyland attraction than public transport!

And the food... people who know me know that eating is one of my least favourite activities... but here I`ve been really looking forward to mealtimes. We had fantastic gourmet rolls from a bakery for breakfast (with apple cider!), buckwheat noodles and fried pork (with buckwheat tea) in a private dining room for lunch, and a shoba shoba feast for dinner. I`m looking at all the cafes and eateries (epicurean hamburgers, belgian waffles, ice-cream of every imaginable flavour) more than I`m looking at the gadget shops! (Though I am looking forward to a few hours in Tokyu Hands tomorrow.)

Sue-Anne and I do have an important performance of Saturday though, so we`ll no doubt find some time to prepare over the next two days, and we return Monday but we`re already eager to return and explore some more of this amazing country.


Travelling to the USA? The rules have changed...

US shifts Visa Waiver Program authorization to Internet

The Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) has been applicable since August 2008, but will become compulsory from January 12 for applicable European countries, Japan, South Korea, Brunei, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand.

These countries are currently exempt from visa requirements to enter the United States for short visits under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP). The new program will keep travel to the United States "visa free" for travelers from VWP countries, the DHS said.

Instead of travelers filling out paper I-94 visa waiver cards en route to the United States, the new measure requires online registration.

It is a "free service, the approval comes back very quickly ... it is almost immediate," said DHS spokeswoman Kathleen Kraninger.

Once approved, the waiver is valid for years, she added.

Travelers who fail to fill out the online form "might be delayed at the border," Kraninger said.

The new measure is among the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, which sought to promote laws tightening border security in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

The DHS recommends that applications be submitted as soon as an applicant begins making travel plans. Upon authorization, travelers can enter the United States for 90 days for business or pleasure.

Instructions on how to obtain travel authorization are available on the website in 22 languages, including English, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Icelandic, Italian, Japanese, Norwegian, Portuguese, Slovene, Spanish and Swedish.


FOR MORE INFORMATION AND THE ONLINE FORM CLICK HERE


And now for the good news...

I know I go on a lot about lousy service when travelling with Airlines (it's the Aspy in me) but I'd like to balance it today by saying that we just returned from Sydney with Qantas and, overall, it was hassle-free.

We checked in at Melbourne quickly and easily, no messing around with our luggage, hopped on the plane and flew in to Sydney. (Ok, one small problem, as usual the "computer" that allocates the seats had totally ignored our Frequent Flyer seating preferences and seated us in the middle row. It's just one thing Qantas will never get right. However, with the check-in computers we can fix that ourselves from now on).

We took a taxi in to Darling Harbour and checked-in at the Four Points Sheraton. To be honest, the friendly welcome we received from all of the staff (and the "We have a room waiting for you Mr Ellis" email I got a day earlier) really made us feel at home. To sweeten the deal, our room wasn't ready for us, so we were upgraded!

We had an our to kill before sound-check so we headed up the street to take a look at the 'Hey Presto Magic Studio' in it's new location. The store looks amazing, and it was great to catch up with Gary Cohen and a big surprise to see Alan Sullivan too.

After a quick catch up with the Sydney magic scene we whizzed back to Darling Harbour to set up our show and discovered that our audience was comprised of a lot of past clients, some of who were very eager to chat with us and catch up.

Jean Kitson was the MC and, after the awards were handed out to various guests, Sue-Anne and I took to the stage and performed our'Classic Show'. This was immediately followed by me doing close up magic at all the tables. Normally I prefer to do close up as the guests arrive, as an ice-breaker, as it really gets them mingling, but on this occasion doing it after the show worked even better. Those who own 'Ellis in Wonderland' on DVD or as Lecture Notes will appreciate that I did 'Name Deckstress' at every table - with a different name - and eventually I had 20 people following me from table to table waiting to see "that card trick" again. The fact that whatever card anyone chose was the only one with a prediction written on it's back was puzzling enough, but the fact that that card had the chooser's name written on it as well was driving them crazy! The client came up to me and said "I've got to see that card trick I keep hearing about. It must be a set up. Do it on me." I did, and Michael was very impressed!  ;)

Eventually we made it back to the hotel just before midnight and took a noon flight back to Melbourne. We got our preferred seats by using the computer check-in, but the flight was delayed 20 minutes (it's just one thing Qantas will never get right...)

Funnily enough, sitting a few seats in front of us were Phil Cass and Philippa! They were heading to Melbourne to do a show while we were coming back from Sydney having done one. We caught up with them again at the baggage carousel while they were waiting for a missing duck, and it sounds like the busy season for magicians is well and truly upon us!


Why I'll never fly Virgin again... again

The last time I flew Virgin was Melbourne to Sydney and back, and my flight back was cancelled and as a result the delay I had to wait in Sydney for 5 hours and I said then I'd never fly Virgin again.

After all, if I have to fly in to a city to do a corporate show, but I miss it because a plane is cancelled, it costs me a lot of money in lost income and the client could be left with no entertainment.

However, that was a few years ago and the client for my Canberra show last night booked me on Virgin to keep costs down.

I got to Canberra pretty much on time yesterday, but this morning my 10am flight home was cancelled.

Apparently it had made a "semi-emergency landing" according to other passengers, and was slightly damaged.

These things happen, but the way Virgin handled the situation was pretty bad.

First they announced that all passengers need to return to check-in. So the race was on and it put the elderly passengers and those with small children at an obvious disadvantage.

Once everyone was lined up we were told we had to go to the baggage carousel and collect our luggage, then rejoin the line to re-check it. Now passengers with no luggage were at the front of the line.

The intention of Virgin was to reschedule passengers from the 10am flight to Melbourne, to the next available flight, which was 12.45pm. Unfortunately, that flight only had 6 empty seats, so I was put on the 5pm flight, others behind me were put on the 8pm flight. I have no idea where they put all the other passengers as that was the last direct flight of the day, but I did hear some were returning via Sydney.

When I approached the check-in I asked the lady behind the desk if Virgin were doing anything to compensate the passengers for the delay. They broke out some certificates and gave me one. It was a food voucher to the value of $6.

I had of wait in the terminal for 7 hours... and they gave me $6. The cheapest sandwich was $6.50. Even Qantas, when dealing with similar situations, gives vouchers of greater value, and usually without passengers having to ask for them. They did say they'd refund the $75 value of my flight, but seeing as the client booked it they'll see the benefit of that.

I asked what I should do for the next 7 hours and they suggested I go to The Lounge. So, I headed upstairs to Virgin's 'The Lounge'... and they wouldn't let me in. Apparently when the lady said 'The Lounge' she meant the lounge, not 'The Lounge'. Again, when faced with similar delays Qantas gives it's customers access to the Qantas Lounge so they can endure the delay in a slightly better mood. Not Virgin.

The check-in lady explained that they only give passengers access to 'The Lounge' if their flight is cancelled. I said that my flight was cancelled. She said it wasn't, I was just delayed. I asked her what her definition of cancelled was, and she told me that if I wasn't able to fly out until tomorrow then that would mean my flight was cancelled. Then why, I asked, would I want access to 'The Lounge' as opposed to leaving the airport to find a hotel???

She had no idea and made it very clear she didn't care. She offered to give me the Virgin Customer Service number to call and maybe I could ask them to give me access to 'The Lounge'. I said "They're probably not open today are they?" She said no they weren't, I could call them on Monday.

So after phoning the people I was supposed to be meeting today and tendering my apologies, I sat in the lounge and read not one but two excellent 'Tony Valentine' novels by James Swain ('Deadman's Poker' and 'Deadman's Bluff')

When the plane finally boarded another passenger told me it cost her $75 in taxi fares to go into Canberra and back rather than wait at the airport. She wasn't exactly impressed with the way Virgin treated their customers either.

Virgin prides itself as being Australia's "on time airline", and compared to Qantas that's not really very hard. But it's what you do when things don't run smoothly that really counts. Perhaps Qantas is just more experienced in appeasing angry customers because they run late so frequently...?

When things happen like a 9 hour flight from Hong Kong taking 36 hours, and a constant stream of problems due to Qantas outsourcing it's mechanical servicing, you have to offer your customers more than a $6 food voucher to keep them coming back...