Sunday, April 26, 2009

Lonely Planet Blow-Out Sale!

Everyone knows of Australia's Lonely Planet brand, which was purchased by the U.K.'s British Broadcasting Corporation (more commonly known by its abbreviation, BBC) in early 2006. Lonely Planet produces unique and detailed guidebooks on virtually any place in the world, from common destinations such as the USA and China to the most obscure of places, such as Belize and Bhutan... And, of course, language guides, DVDs, and other cool stuff, too!

So today I scored this crazy deal that is a combination of FOUR coupons, despite the fact that LP's website says special offers and other discounts cannot be combined.

If you're interested, here's how to get it!

1. I found a 30% off online coupon code via Google. The code is LPCONTACT30. It gives you 30% off of Lonely Planet guides (but not guide travel packs, which usually have three books and are already discounted). I tried to use it to purchase the guide packs (sneaky me, right?!), but it doesn't work.

2. If you buy any three books, the cheapest one is reduced to "free." That creates a tricky game, however, since if you're buying two books for $6.99 each and get one for $4.99, then that last one (i.e. the $4.99 book) is free, but if you're getting a travel package, of, say $39 and a book for $29 and another for $5.99, you still get only $5.99 off... Then look what happens when you buy a thick guidebook (such as one on the USA, Europe, or China) for about $30 (i.e. before the 30% discount), a book for $20 and another book for $22: then your $20 book is free. In short, the more expensive items you buy, the more a chance you have of a more expensive book being free.

3. Shipping is FREE for orders of $40 or more. However, this is applied to the discounted rates (after the 30% off coupon). So you're encouraged to buy $40 worth of books, since shipping normally is about $8.99.

4. Lonely Planet's Best in Travel 2009 guide comes with a free HOT DESTINATION BLUELIST 2008 book! The latter title normally retails for $17.99, but for $22.99 you get BOTH of these cool books!

5. This is a freebie, but it doesn’t decrease the cost of a purchase further, if that’s at all possible. Here’s the deal: if ordering from Lonely Planet, included on the e-mail confirmation receipt to the purchaser is a free voucher for Lonely Planet’s magazine (for a subscription, I assume, but maybe just for a single issue). Unfortunately, this magazine is only distributed in the U.K. for now, so it's obviously only for U.K. mailing addresses, but if you decide to buy something from the LP Shop and have a friend in the U.K., then they can receive this magazine for free--courtesy of you!

Using the above, I just bought five brand new books for $50.37 (with free shipping) that retail in U.S. stores for $115 (and this doesn't include tax, since it's purchased tax-free online!). And this $115 retail price doesn't include shipping either, since it’s normally about $10 but free for orders of $40 or more. Thus, if considering these two things that we normally would pay for, these books would have cost me about $134!!!

If you’re enticed by the aforementioned, the website is .

Monday, April 20, 2009

Amtrak's Moment of Truth

Amtrak should thank President Barack Obama, who recently harangued about the esteemed rail systems of other countries, namely France, Spain, and Japan. He felt that America could--and should--have a rail system that is just as good as Japan's shinkansen (bullet train).
Which is true.

Except that rail travel is not embedded in the American psyche.
Luckily, the stimulus package has allocated $8 billion for rail development. This is still a drop in the bucket, yet it is a huge increase compared to previous years, when barely anything was allocated to Amtrak.

Hopefully, in the future, America's fastest line will be significantly faster than its current one: the 80-mile per hour link between New York and Washington (and Boston, too).

The new lines currently proposed are as follows:

1. A California line that will include trains covering the distance between Los Angeles and San Francisco in two-and-a-half hours (currently six hours);

2. A link between Texas and Oklahoma;

3. New York state will see an Empire Line running between Buffalo and New York City, which may include several other branches;

4. A northern New England line, likely to connect Boston to cities in Maine;

5. A line linking central and southern Florida, which should reduce travel time between cities such as Orlando and Tampa to Fort Lauderdale and Miami;

6. An upgrade of numerous lines heading to and from Chicago, presumably decreasing travel times between the Windy City and St. Louis and the Twin Cities (Minneapolis/St. Paul).

7. A long line linking Washington D.C. to Florida and the Gulf Coast;

8. Another extension of the Gulf Coast line, this time between Texas and Western Alabama;

9. A Keystone line criss-crossing Pennsylvania, possibly linking to other lines from the Midwest to those of New York;

10. A line between the Pacific Northwest, possibly linking cities such as San Francisco to Seattle and, later, Vancouver.

These are all good ideas on paper. Now comes the hard part: seeing how efficient our federal government is actually implementing these plans.
Unfortunately, this last part is the part I am most concerned--and sceptical--about.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Equation Between Avarice, Human Nature, and Rationality

I was taken aback by the greediness of people, yet it was quite a sight to see.

The “it” mentioned above was the last day of the EXPO Design Center store closing just a few miles north of my home. The high-class home design chain owned by Home Depot has ceased to exist, in what was an outcome made several months ago by the head honchos over at Home Depot Corporate, not least due to the housing bust in the United States.

I got to see firsthand how avaricious people are when prices for everything were 90% off, although, admittedly, there wasn’t too much left. Nonetheless, several people were literally pushing others aside to get their hands on the last granite-something set available. Even things as banal as flowers were purchased with greed and haste.

What struck me most, however, was the fact that much of human nature is contrary to rational thought and sound economic sense, even at prices that are 90% off. This was most obvious when I looked around the check-out line and saw people buying items that most of them would probably never even use. True, several might re-sell them for a slight (or, perhaps, large) profit, but I assume maybe only one-third would do that, at the most.

Indeed, there are hundreds of people buying items that they are unlikely to use as gifts, since many are model displays, big household products, or simply exotic items. Even at 90% off, what is the point of buying something that one does not like?

Just to get a moral high for scoring such a bargain? Or because almost everyone else is doing that? This is an especially poignant question during an economic recession.

Any thoughts?
P.S. For any of you wondering what I was doing at the check-out line, I was simply buying a plastic surface spray. Nothing quite as cool as the head sculptures or faucets that I saw other people buying.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Best Bag: Chronicles of the Whole Foods Market Better Bag

The Best Bag: Chronicles of the Whole Foods Market Better Bag

Need a reliable, environmentally friendly, and cheap bag for your travel needs?

The Whole Foods Market Better Bag is my personal choice, although in retrospect it’s quite unusual how I’ve come to this conclusion. I’ve worked at Whole Foods Market in the past and seen the bag used on perhaps hundreds of occasions daily, but the idea that it’s truly an ultra-durable product stuck to my head only after I’d traveled the world using the Better Bag as my bag of preference—along with my rucksack and fannie pack, of course.

Indeed, all of you are reading the aforementioned and probably wondering, why would anyone in the world ever use such a, let’s face it, uncommon bag for their travels in the first place?

Let me explain in as few words as I can. It started out with a trip to Europe that I organized for nine friends and myself. As usual, I was short on time. Working quite late into the previous evening and getting home exhausted, I collapsed into bed, only to wake up at 4 a.m. the next morning to get all my travel needs done: e-tickets, hostel reservations, and sundry travel itinerary. Worst of all, I hadn’t even packed yet! I hastily got all my belongings together, but after printing out my whole group’s travel itinerary—9 flights, eight hostel bookings, one bus ride, and emergency contact information for each person (and, again, there were 10 of us), as well as PDF-file travel guides for each city we were to visit—I realized that I had about 400 pages of information to carry on board that would be too risky to check in if it got lost. And that’s only the beginning: what about my travel books, magazines, and newspapers that I know I can’t do without on an eight-hour trans-Atlantic flight? Quite soon, I had a 40-pound carry-on that I didn’t know how to take on board. I looked around my room and saw two Whole Foods Market reusable bags lying around, so I decided to take them without giving it much thought. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Actually, since I always travel like a backpacker, having a backpack around the shoulders is the sine qua non of any trip. But what’s one to do once the shoulders aren’t available any longer? Indeed, one’s most valuable possessions—addresses, medicine, and a camera, perhaps—must be carried either on the waist or in one’s hands. This is where the Better Bag comes in. It folds up, thereby saving space, and it’s also very lightweight. But many bags are like this, so what makes the Better Bag so special? For one, each bag is made from 80 percent post-consumer recycled plastic bottles (according to the Whole Foods Market website, each bag represents approximately four 20-ounce plastic bottles). But, again, not much of this might matter for the average traveler who, let’s face it, at least on his or her vacation may prefer convenience and comfort to environmental altruism.

Therein lies the lynchpin to this whole concept. With the Whole Foods Market Better Bag, one can travel comfortably, lightly, and on the cheap—all the while doing something philanthropic for the environment, too!

Indeed, at a price of 99 cents each, the Better Bag may have originally been created for re-use in lieu of the traditional oil-derived plastic bag, but it is a highly durable travel bag, too. For day trips when one’s belongings are left at the base (i.e. hostel, hotel, or wherever one decides to sojourn), it is an amazingly light, resilient, and long-lasting item—and one that can either be carried with the hands or strapped around the shoulder.

So long-lasting, in fact, that last year I traveled with different Whole Foods bags a total of 52,435 miles on three separate trips abroad. My first trip was the abovementioned ground setter in January with nine friends to eight northern European countries. I took another trip, this time for a week, less than five months later to Iceland, again taking the Better Bag with me, mainly because it had proved so unfaltering (and partly because, again, I had no alternative [not that I wanted one at this point], since I had procrastinated and packed at the last instant). Finally, I traveled on a trip literally around the world—starting via the Pacific and ending via the Atlantic—for 115 days from late-August until mid-December 2008. That was a total distance of 52,435 miles (84,368 km) traveled last year to 27 different countries with the Better Bags.

Suffice to say, none of the penultimate generation Better Bags has ever given out on me (I’m talking about the bags pictured in most of the pictures: the light-green and turquise bags with an etching of an apple drawn on one side). On my trip around the world I traveled with two—just in case—and both came back intact. True, the color may be coming off some of the handles, and small holes have started to appear in random places, but the bags survived their unexpected tests and numerous other ordeals. I’ve never had that penultimate generation Better Bag rip on me before, although I must be honest and say that previous versions of Whole Foods reusable bags have, occasionally, ripped, though never during my travels.

For 99 cents, this environmentally friendly product that just so happens to be super-reliable is my recommendation to any traveler.

I’ll be traveling this summer to Europe again, albeit for two weeks. In any case, I don’t know much about my trip itinerary yet, but one thing is for certain: the Better Bag will surely be one of my travel companions this time around, and every time henceforth. Frankly speaking, I can’t imagine traveling without it since in the end I needed only one bag to last me a whole trip around the world: from arid late-August Chicago to the nightless summer Reykjavik sky of Iceland, and from wet Bangkok in the midst of Thailand’s rainy season to the harsh Siberian winter.
It is, quite simply, the best bag in town!