Tips for international travel

As a non-drinker, I won’t be joining Alcoholics Anonymous soon, but as those who know me will attest perhaps, I need Flight Addicts Anonymous.

There’s something about flying to a different country which is appealing, alluring, tempting, compelling, calling … it’s the being there, it’s the seeing things, it’s even the pleasure and thrill of being in a metal cylinder ten kilometres above the Earth’s surface managing the competing tensions of thrust and drag, lift and weight.

I’ve compared different carrier’s international business class offerings, I’ve posted aeroplane takeoffs and even flew around in circles to check out Qantas’ in-flight Wi-Fi.

I think part of the appeal is the ability to sit and think. My regular day is surrounded by screens from the time my eyes open to when they close – large screens, small screens, I have information, and requests for information, coming to me via every possible medium all day every day. Even my watch is in on the act. Even if I’m asleep the phone can call. Thankfully, on-call days are long behind me, but emergencies can still happen. Yet, in the sky I’m offline. It’s the only time in my life I am unreachable.

If you travel internationally, here are my thoughts on things you can do to make your experience more enjoyable.

Register with Smart Traveller

Nothing will go wrong! Except maybe it might. Register your travel with your Government. For Australians, that’s Smart Traveller. If disaster strikes make sure the Government knows you’re overseas, where you expect to be, and how to reach you.

Seating

What’s the most important thing about flying? Ok, it’s landing safely. What’s the second-most important thing? It’s being comfortable. Nothing else matters as much. Yes, flying is wonderful, it’s awesome, and I’m addicted. On the other hand, flying in economy sucks. The seats are too small, they’re uncomfortable and you’re packed in with hundreds of others. Still, the alternative is fewer passengers per flight which leads to more planes in the sky adding to airport congestion, flight delays and environmental impact, and all this leads to higher fares.

So, get a good seat. The best time to do this is before you board, and ideally as soon as possible after making a booking. If you’re already on the plane the best you can hope for is a gap in a nearby row that you can hop to after takeoff.

Find a seat before you leave. If your airline status membership offers uncharged seat selections (Qantas gold and higher, for example) you need to be using this!

Use sites like SeatGuru to see the plane layout and read other people’s opinions though ultimately your choice will vary on many factors. Some people love the window because it is magical looking at the view and seeing curious archipelagos and boats and landscapes. Others love the aisle because nobody is stopping you from using the toilets or stretching your legs. Nobody loves the middle seat. Some planes, due to their curvature, have only two seats on the sides at the rear of the plane vs. three – alleviating the middle seat. This gives a nice area for couples. It’s also a strategy of the sole traveller to take this, hoping and hoping nobody chooses to sit next to you – after all, what weirdo would unless the plane is just full. Yet, the bumpiest part of the plane is the rear (the smoothest is with the wings) and you’re near the toilets too which in turn means a queue of talkative people will form near you.

What is the best seat for you depends on many factors – who you are travelling with, what you like to do, even how strong your bladder is.

Of course, this really only applies to economy, and to an extent premium economy. If you’re in business class, particularly airlines that have two-metre lie-flat beds, no seat is bad.

Now, if your airline does not offer uncharged seat selection or you do not have the status required to use it, appeal to your airline’s customer service line, live chat or social media channels. Ask if they can help you out. Be friendly, polite and grateful. At worst, ask at check-in if there’s anything they can do to help. I’ve always found the customer service teams kind, generous and helpful.

So, get a good seat!

TripIt

Download TripIt for your smartphone. Set it up and forward your itinerary to it. Like magic, TripIt extracts all your flight information giving you a handy reference, but that’s only the start. TripIt will keep you informed which gate to go to, if your plane is delayed, and even which carousel your luggage will be at. You don’t need to look at a monitor again. In fact, TripIt will tell you before it is on the screens most of the time.

TripIt offers a paid Pro annual subscription, but the free version has a tremendous amount of utility.

Decorate your luggage

I’m a fairly conservative, non-flamboyant type of person. I like my things to look tidy and professional. Throw this thinking out when it comes to your check-in luggage. First of all, they’re going to get trashed anyway. Your brand-new pristine bags will come back to you battered, grazed, and even with zippers broken off and lost, so dispel any illusions about aesthetics from the start.

Instead, focus on having an efficient and trouble-free experience retrieving your luggage. Put a sticker, multiple stickers even, on your bag. Use the Apple logo sticker that came with your iPad – what else are you going to do with it? Use some stickers from a conference. Heck, use your local pet shop’s sticker.

No matter what your bags look like, be assured there are thousands of the identical bag travelling each day too. Make it distinctive. You want to know, unambiguously, that the bag you spot coming around the carousel bend is yours. Don’t be the person who picks up someone else’s bag and has to put it back. Don’t be the person who watches luggage coming towards them, racked with doubt, only to decide as it sails past they should have grabbed it.

Incoming cards

During the flight, the cabin crew will hand you an arrival declaration card you need to fill in. You are then expected to fill it in, on that teeny tiny tray, while the plane jostles and bumps to the whim and will of the air, in low light conditions. Assuming you even have a pen with you, that is.

If you have any reason to think you’ll be going to that country again – which includes your own country because (presumably) each time you exit you come back again – get a spare. Then on your next trip, fill the cards in at home before you leave. Get a new one on the plane for next time and repeat ad infinitum.

Status, status, status

What’s a real estate agent’s mantra? It’s location, location, location! What’s a frequent flyer’s mantra? It’s status, status, status.

Travel is awesome! At the same time, it does kind of suck. I’ve said it above, I’ll say it here, I’ll say it and think numerous times as I question the sanity of why I keep doing this.

After safety, comfort is number one. While waiting in the airport you can choose to sit on the floor, lamenting the exorbitant prices of airport food outlets, hoping you can find a solitary unused – and working – powerpoint somewhere to charge your phone, tired and dusty and sweaty.

Or you could go to the airline lounge. Even the worst airline’s worst lounge is still so much better than sitting on the floor in the general concourse. There is food, drink, chairs, power, and mostly peace and quiet.

Sometimes it’s busy but the lounge is an oasis, a haven and a sanctuary. Have a shower. Get a toothbrush and toothpaste (because dental hygiene never takes a holiday, even if you do.)

Easier said than done … the airlines don’t just let anyone in. You need status, and it’s even more important than points. Points can give you flights and upgrades, but status will get you in the lounge. It’s not easy – particularly with the low rates eked out to economy passengers, and also harder when your regional airport is primarily serviced by budget carriers.

Yet, if you can get there, the lounge is awesome and it’s your privilege, nay, your duty to take advantage of it once you’ve earned it. Leech that electricity and food and beverages like your life depends upon it!

Mood

Look after yourself. Did I say travel sucks? It’s awesome, but you know what sucks? Travel sucks. You’re going to cross time zones, your body is going to get confused what day it is, you’re going to sit for a long period of time in a pressurised container at high-altitudes.

Airline crew will tell you to watch out for deep vein thrombosis, and your doctor will tell you to vaccinate yourself. Everyone will tell you to be wary about drinking water in certain destination countries.

Yet, few people will tell you to look after your mental wellbeing.

Be mindful of your own thinking and moods, particularly if you are prone to certain types of thinking. Be aware of the symptoms of anything that is not your normal happy self and recognise it for what it is – a temporary affliction caused by the physical turmoil of thrusting yourself almost one thousand kilometres through space per hour.

Take care of yourself.

In fact, on a long flight, one of the best things you can do is sleep, depending on what time you arrive. If you are going to land at night maybe don’t sleep. On the other hand, if you’re going from Sydney to Los Angeles you leave Sydney at 10am and arrive at Los Angeles at 6am the same day – before you even left Australia! Your body doesn’t like this, your mind doesn’t like this. Sleep on the plane. Ask your doctor for recommended options if you need help (which will be pretty much anyone in economy!)

Do stuff

Hopefully, you slept on the plane and are ready for action!

If not, well, if it’s daytime don’t sleep once you’ve landed. You’ll take longer to acclimatise, you won’t sleep at night, and you’ll be wrecked the next day too.

Check into your hotel and do something. Make yourself. Explore the neighbourhood. Ask the concierge about afternoon and night-time tours. Find the hop-on/hop-off bus.

Land, get to your hotel, shower and change, then do something. Have fun, and sleep well that night. You’ll feel awesome in the morning, and you’ll also feel accomplished. It’d be so sad to spend so much money to go on a holiday only to be miserable and feel your time was wasted.

Global roaming

Find out what the price of global roaming is for your mobile phone carrier and plan. Some carriers will give day pass options where, say, $10 gives you unlimited calls and text and 200Mb of data. Or some will give you more data or less data, but find out what it is and know before you leave.

If you don’t know the price, or it’s not a price which is acceptable to you, don’t turn on global roaming. You can still use your smartphone in Wi-Fi areas.

Another option is to buy a local SIM card with several gigabytes of data after you land. The airport stores will be overpriced, but a local phone retailer in a local shopping centre to your hotel will have more reasonably-priced options.

Don’t let yourself get bill shock. Be prepared before you leave.

Understand, also, ways you can minimise battery usage and roaming data usage. If you’re going to nap on a bus trip, for example, put your phone into battery saver mode. It won’t be pulling for new messages and will save you money and data while preserving the battery. Turn off notifications for apps that you don’t really want to hear from. Disable mobile data for apps that don’t need it at all – mostly games that don’t have an online component but use it for advertising. They can stick to Wi-Fi; don’t let them erode your global data allowance to bring you a 30-second video.

Currency

Don’t use any of the airport currency exchange options. Seriously! Well, unless you like high fees and low currency exchange rates. Or, more realistically, unless you have left it to the last minute and have no other option.

My recommendation is to get a transaction-free international debit card and then withdraw money from an ATM, if you need cash, and use the debit card for all other purchases.

I use CitiBank. Their exchange rates are terrific. Their website and app less so, but recently I visited Taipei, Taiwan. Travelex at Sydney airport offered me 6,000 New Taiwanese Dollars for $400. Instead, I got 8,000 NTD for $350 from the ATM in the corner at Taipei airport. That’s 33% more local currency for $50 less!

Friends

If you aren’t travelling with friends, make new friends at your destination. If you’re a business traveller remember the people you meet and see, particularly at conferences and events. You may see these people again.

One awesome thing about travelling is catching up with friends who you may only see twice a year, in different parts of the world each time. I have a great couple of pals who I have seen in San Jose, Las Vegas and San Francisco. We have a blast and it is always a delight when I see they’re at a conference I’m going to. Other friends, I’ve caught up with in the United States and India. I am not sure we’ve actually crossed paths in Australia ever.

Laptop

That 17″ gaming behemoth laptop is wonderful, but keep it at home. Take the lightest and smallest – but yet still fit-for-purpose – laptop you can. I have a 13″ MacBook for travel. I don’t even need the Pro version; just a web browser, the Microsoft Office suite, an RDP client, KeePassX, OmniFocus, and some other apps and tools are all I need for the few days I will be away.

By all means, if this can be your daily laptop too then that’s great, but I have a more powerful and larger-screen option for regular use. For travel though, keep the weight down, and remember you will try to use it on a teeny-tiny table. If you’re in economy add to this the fact the person in front of you will, inevitably, slam their chair backwards at some point.

Chargers

Forget those big, complicated-looking sets of plugs that you’re supposed to plug into a power socket, and then plug your regular power cable into it. These are bulky, and often cheap and just rubbish. They also won’t fit into tight spots, and they won’t easily balance if you’re plugging into a wall as opposed to a board.

Instead, work out how to plug into the power directly. For your smartphone and tablet, find a local USB power plug. For your laptop, find a local power plug that swaps in and out.

Apple MacBook owners should check out Apple’s international adapter travel kit. Other laptop manufacturers may offer similar options.

Farewell message

Let’s not be morbid, but let’s be pragmatic. Not all planes land as planned. Millions, billions, of people travel without incident annually – air travel is safe, even the worst airline by whatever metric you use has experienced and trained staff in control of equipment that adheres to unbending principles of physics. The excellent, must-read book Cockpit Confidential goes to great efforts to explain why air travel is not inherently risky.

Yet, you know, sometimes it doesn’t go to plan.

Before you leave take a moment to send a kind message to your loved ones, friends, family, even your pet. You don’t want their last memory to be how you shouted at them the night before for keeping you up when you were tired and had to pack.

I’m not superstitious by all means, but I’ve made this my little habit, and pre-flight ritual.

Disregarding that motivation, do it anyway. It’s the right thing to do. Why not make the world a better place one conversation at a time?

Which international business class for you? Qantas vs. United

Let’s get this out of the way: yes, comparing two major airline’s international business class offering is a pretty privileged and luxurious position to be in. Some decisions in life are on par with hoping for the best restaurant in the hospital; this is not one of them and if you are flying business class on any airline you can certainly be assured of comfort. However, if you do have the advantage of choice, here’s my take.

The flights I’m comparing are Qantas QF15 and QF16 on a Boeing 747-400 between Brisbane (BNE) and Los Angeles (LAX), and United UA840 and UA863 on a Boeing 787-9 between Sydney (SYD) and Los Angeles (LAX).

The Boeing 747-400 model of aircraft has been in commercial use since 1989, revising the successful and popular Boeing 747 model in general, introduced to the world in 1969. As such, it’s a style of aircraft that has enjoyed longevity, is well-known to frequent travellers and was once dubbed “Queen of the Skies.” Due to their age, 747-series aircraft are being progressively phased out by airlines. The reasons for this are understandable – age, efficiency, technology – but unfortunately also with some detriment to passenger convenience, notably in economy class, with modern aircraft fitting more passengers into smaller areas.

The Boeing 787-9 is a variant of the Dreamliner and was first flown commercially in 2014. Compared to the 747-400 it’s a technological marvel: enhanced Android-powered in-flight entertainment system, USB charging, bigger windows, lower cabin pressure.

I’ve certainly sat in the Boeing 747-400 many, many times, in every section from the first row through the very last, to the US, to Europe, and to Asia. I’ve taken the Dreamliner far fewer times.

So, my comparisons are somewhat unequal – two international routes between Australia and the USA in different aircraft – but ultimately, I found what separates the experiences are not aircraft factors but service factors.

The airport

It all starts at the airport and both airlines want you to feel special, like a real VIP.

It starts straight away. You can check in at the exclusive business class counter, with more personable service and by far a shorter queue. From here, it’s through security and customs, but you will be given a card to skip most of this queue.

ExpressPath

Once you are through, all you need do now is wait for your flight. You could buy an expensive snack in the airport outlets, and look for an empty chair along with the noisy hordes. Or … you could head to the lounge.

Flying business class grants you access to your airline’s corresponding lounge irrespective of your status in their loyalty program. In my view, lounge access is one of the biggest perks of gold (and higher) memberships with the airlines, making your time at an airport so much more pleasant with chairs, electrical outlets, newspapers, food, drinks, and also showers and toothbrushes. You can use the lounge if you’re flying business class no matter your status in the airline’s program.

After a while, it’s your time to leave. Head to the gate, and go through, again, the shorter queue for passengers travelling business class or with an elite loyalty membership.

It’s time to see where you’ll be sitting for the next 14 hours or thereabouts.

Greeting

Board the plane and turn left, not right. You’re not heading towards the tail of the craft but the nose. There’s no doubting you’re in a special part of the plane; immediately it’s a different world to any experience you’ve had in economy class.

So far, the experiences I’ve described are largely a function of the airport. Now on the plane, you will see how the airlines differentiate themselves.

Qantas continues the VIP touch. Drinks and pyjamas are ready for collection. The staff greet you by name. The chef introduces himself and says he will be in the galley looking after your meals. A bottle of water is already waiting in a compartment in your seat.

QF_Entry

It’s the same when departing – the staff wish you well and remind you their name and say maybe you will travel together again sometime. The staff will hold back the throngs of economy class passengers as you deplane – “Excuse me, please allow Mr Williams to exit,” they say. It’s almost embarrassing, though decadently indulgently seductively pleasant.

It wasn’t the same level of fanfare and importance with United. Make no mistake, the United crew are friendly, absolutely. However, you make your way to your seat while the crew busily count stock. They offer a drink before departing, and while the glasses are nicer, it’s not terribly dissimilar to being offered a pre-departure plastic cup of water as the rest of the plane receives. If you want pyjamas you have to ask for them – nobody will offer.

Ultimately, the United business boarding experience is “just” a much nicer version of the economy experience. You walk on the plane, take your seat and stow your bag. Now, granted, the legroom is massive, the seat is huge, the storage plentiful, but there isn’t the same height of, well, “specialness” that Qantas bestows upon its business class guests.

Seating

Seriously, if you’re flying business class you can’t go wrong. Any seat is good. This compares favourably with economy where every seat is a trade-off. Don’t want to have someone climb over you? Go the window. Don’t want to have to climb over others? Go the aisle. Want to recline as far as you like without bothering anyone and have only one neighbour? Go the very back row on the side of the plane, not the middle – but then you’re also near the queue for the toilet. The best you can hope for in economy is tolerable and it’s so exciting when the seat next to you is empty. Yet, there’s no such thing as a bad seat in business class.

When you sit at, quite literally, the pointy end of the plane you will find your chair outranks the pride-of-place in some loungerooms.

In fact, you will spend some of your pre-departure time just learning about all the options available. You have legroom-a-plenty, storage space, chargers for your various devices, even massage options. Want to lie down totally flat? That’s no problem either.

Here’s the Qantas chair:

And United’s chair:

To be fair, the seats are more linked to the aircraft than the carrier. Here, I found the 747-400 more private with a larger screen between my neighbour and I. You could almost forget someone is in the seat next to you. However, the 787-9 Dreamliner had a nice shelf where I could plug my phone in (turned to flight mode and then off, of course) and charge it while sleeping.

The 747-400 entertainment unit lifted out of the seat because the seat in front was so far away you’d need binoculars and a great big stick if it was affixed to the chair ahead.

You’re still a long way from the person before you in the Dreamliner (or, the galley, if you’re in row 1) but you have an additional storage unit with shelves and a table taking some of that space away. The entertainment screen is built into it and you manage it with a controller from your seat. When sleeping you still get to lie down completely flat, but your feet go into the top shelf in the storage section.

I have to emphasise the legroom because words cannot describe just how much space there is in this part of the plane. Next time you fly economy and the person in front has reclined and you’re feeling trapped remember how good it is for those up front.

Trying as hard as I might, I couldn’t even touch the seat in front of me in the 747-400 (with Qantas pyjamas):

QF_PJs

and here I’m stretched out very comfortably in the 787-9 (yet to ask for my United pyjamas) with my feet in the shelving:

UA_Legroom

How many windows do you normally get in economy? One, or maybe half? Well, I had no less than four windows in my nice business class seat here:

QF_Windows

QF_LegRoom

Note the size of the privacy screen between my neighbour and myself also, here on the 747-400?

On my return flight, I scored an upper-deck exit row and I think I surely had the most legroom of any other person on the entire plane, even the crew:

QF_LegRoom3

Even when my neighbour in the aisle was sleeping, lying totally flat, I could easily walk around him. The space between my chair and the row in front was astounding.

Dining

Fancy dining in a fine restaurant in the air?

The menus did not photograph well, being in low-light conditions by that time in the flight, so allow me to list them here.

Firstly, Qantas –

Australian wine, aperitif, spirits, cognac and liqueurs, and a Neil Perry-designed menu consisting of:

Small plates

  • Spring pea and spinach soup with croutons
  • Antipasto of marjoram baked ricotta with tomato sugo, Kalamata olives, roasted red capsicum and butter bean salsa
  • Tataki style tuna with cucumber salad, yuzu and sesame dressing
  • Venison pot pie

Main plates

  • Warm farro with roast fennel and tomato, peas, parmesan and herb vinaigrette
  • Roast chicken roll with rocket, walnut, celery and herb mayonnaise
  • Seared ling with salsa verde, eggplant caponata and fried polenta
  • Katsu pork ramen with udon noodles, bok choy and edamame beans
  • Red mole and hazelnut braised beef with soft tortillas, tomato and jalapeno salsa
  • Green leaf salad with Rockpool vinaigrette

Dessert

  • Selection of cheese served with accompaniments
  • Chocolate glazed cheesecake with creme fraiche
  • Pat and Stick’s ice cream sandwich
  • Seasonal fruit

Plus chocolates and snacks.

Returning from the USA to Australia, the main plates were

  • Selection of cheese served with accompaniments
  • Roasted carrot soup with sour cream
  • Pumpkin, chickpea and coconut curry with roasted cauliflower and fragrant rice
  • Pork and fennel seed sandwich with kimchi, harissa mayonnaise and romaine lettuce
  • Jlangai style white sea bass with wheat noodles, pickled mustard greens, chilli and gai lan
  • Grilled chicken with sweet potato puree, broccolini and hazelnut burnt butter
  • Black Angus beef fillet with roasted potatoes, snow peas and red wine mustard butter
  • Green leaf salad with Rockpool vinaigrette

It doesn’t even end there; I had a breakfast menu much like a good hotel with full and continental breakfast options along with a wide range of hot beverages to choose from.

QF_Menu3

You can even hang the breakfast menu on your coat hanger so your order is taken while you sleep, much like you’d hang it on the hotel room doorknob.

Menus are one thing. What did the food look like?

It was a wonderful plate-after-plate of excellent dining. The steak was cooked perfectly and was sumptuous. I really enjoyed my meals on these Qantas flights and they contributed to a fantastic experience.

Next, United –

Starters

  • Chilled appetizer – Lamb shank terrine, tomato jelly, beet-horopito relish
  • Salad – Arugula, frisee, grilled vegetables served with dressing and assorted breads

Entree

  • Roasted rack of lamb – Cabernet au jus, beetroot risotto, asparagus, beans, edamame, peas, pumpkin
  • Thai-style chicken curry – Red curry sauce, jasmine rice, stir-fried vegetables
  • Steamed clams, mussels, monkfish and prawn – Bouillabaisse, edamame, fingerling potatoes
  • Parmesan and chive gnocchi – Mushroom cream sauce, bell pepper, peas

Desserts

  • International cheese assortment served with grapes, crackers and port
  • Signature sundae served with a choice of toppings
  • Various other cakes and sweet treats

Breakfast

  • Scrambled eggs
  • Fresh seasonal fruit

On the return from the USA to Australia, the entrees were

  • Seared beef short rib – Five-spice sauce, wasabi grits, bok choy
  • Spicy chicken – Thai-style coconut-ginger broth, udon noodles
  • Poached shrimp – Coconut red curry sauce, basmati rice, Japanese eggplant, mixed vegetables
  • Lentil chilli – Roasted garlic polenta, sauteed spinach

Words are one thing, let’s see it:

Special mention must be given to United’s sundae cart. This is truly a sight to behold.

UA_Food3

The hostess wheeled a cart laden with delightful treats like you might imagine from the trolley lady in Harry Potter‘s Hogwarts Express. The choice was too much for me, and she was only too happy to encourage me to indulge in a sundae with cream, and chocolate topping, and caramel, and the works. It was great.

Yet, there is a negative here, for United.

The Qantas crew asked how I wanted my steak cooked, and it was delivered superbly. I really enjoyed it.

However, my beef short rib with United less so. I noticed, travelling back to Australia, all the main meal options (or ‘entrees’ as our American friends call them) were all spicy options which, in itself, seems strange coordination. I asked just how spicy the five-spice sauce was on the beef. The hostess kindly said it was not too spicy but she’d have it put to the side so I could try it but have the meal without it if I preferred. Yet, she soon reappeared to say they’d all just been prepared with the sauce put on them – there was no customisation or personalisation of any meals, it seemed. I resigned myself to that fate, though she again reappeared to let me know she’d intercepted one in the other business class galley before the sauce was applied, so she had that one sent to me.

I tried the sauce, it wasn’t quite to my liking, but that’s my personal choice and shouldn’t reflect on United. Yet, without it, the beef was really bland. As in quite flavourless. While my Qantas steak was so good, this beef short rib was a big disappointment. I didn’t finish it.

United’s sundae station was truly awesome, but apart from this, there is no real comparison between Qantas’ meal options and those provided by United, both in terms of quantity and quality. Qantas really delivered an experience of being in a good restaurant with personal meals, while United delivered an upmarket mess hall with dishes churned out and any variation being a disruption to their process.

Bedtime

I’ve spoken already about the pyjamas. Qantas gives you pyjamas when you board, while United will only give them to you if you already know they exist and ask for them. However, they’re worth getting – despite Qantas’ greater largesse, I prefer the look of United’s black and deep blue colouring to Qantas’ grey. Still, I kept them all and wear them around the house 🙂

You saw my legs in the Qantas grey above; here’s the United colours:

UA_PJs2

As the plane goes into night mode – “night time” being somewhat of an abstract concept when you are crossing the international date line – the Qantas team will slip a thicker, fitted mattress onto your seat, fitting it in as passengers stretch their legs or use the bathroom. This, along with two sheets – one thick, one regular – makes for a warm rest as you lie your chair all the way down, converting it into a two-metre bed. After breakfast the Qantas team discretely collect them again, folding them and putting them away, shuffling around passengers using the bathroom and getting dressed again.

(Note: the 13″ MacBook Pro with Touch Bar was kindly loaned to me for six months by Apple Australia, and was light and ultraportable, as well as powerful.)

QF_Blanket2

United don’t do this. Whether it’s needed or not I don’t really know, but it was interesting to observe the difference of approach. It again speaks to the greater degree of attention and service Qantas consistently demonstrated throughout.

Verdict

What can I say? Business class on any airline is awesome, it’s special, it’s comfortable and wonderful. If the only challenge you face in life is choosing which business class to fly with you are doing pretty well.

It’s not out of reach. Frequent flyers know the best use of loyalty points is flight upgrades on a value-per-point basis, and this is attainable after only a few international flights in the rear of the plane.

Even so, flying business class spoils economy for you. When you only travel economy you are blissfully ignorant of the whole other world in the front of the plane. Your neighbour is annoying, your seat is tiny, the person in front of you reclines too often and too much, your headphones are functional, and your single plate meal is acceptable. You look out at your single, or even half, window at the view and remark that air travel is almost magical. You drift above the clouds in a metal tube, some 10km above the earth.

Yet, at the front of the craft – far removed from the hoi polloi – there are other human beings lying flat on two-metre beds, undisturbed by anyone around them, selecting their multi-course meal and beverage selections, warmer, snugger, and ultimately arriving fresh and ready to go.

So, whichever you choose, you’re a winner. However, for me, Qantas is in the lead. I do enjoy United’s sundae cart and blue pyjamas, but for all else, I really felt Qantas delivered a higher quality experience.

Some things are more important than others. I don’t require Qantas to halt other passengers so I can disembark, and as much as I’ve talked about (and like) the pyjamas I can live without them. In fact, I can do without a lot of things. Ultimately I want to land safely, and beyond that, I want to be comfortable, to be rested, and to enjoy a good meal. Qantas hit all these, and in my view, delivered a higher standard than United.

If I were to sum it all up, with United I was a passenger – a very comfortable passenger, of course, but with Qantas I truly was made to feel like a guest.

I couldn’t find Caramilk so I made some, yes me.

Have you heard of Cadbury Caramilk? It was a delicious caramel white chocolate craze within Australia 20 years ago before being discontinued. The popular foodstuff made news when it had a limited revival in New Zealand, with savvy Kiwi shoppers selling it at a sizeable profit to desperate Australians.

Caramilk hit Australian shelves officially in February, albeit for a special, limited run. Availability was already scarce but was made worse by an immediate recall after pieces of industrial plastic from the manufacturing equipment were found within some of the cult-like chocolate.

No Caramilk was to be found! I scoured supermarket shelves – ok, let’s not kid ourselves, I don’t spend a lot of time shopping, so I didn’t look too hard but thought about it now and then. Nevertheless, all I saw were either an empty “Caramilk” display, along with a recall notice or simply no mention or gap whatsoever.

I emailed Mondelez International, the parent company of Cadbury, to ask if another, ideally plastic-free, batch would be released. They replied no, they were not making any more, and all they did make had been distributed. They gave me national numbers for Coles and Woolworths and suggested phoning them.

Dear David
 
Thank you for contacting us about Cadbury Caramilk!

Cadbury Caramilk is still available for purchase in Australia from Coles, Woolworths and Independent supermarkets until sold out.  

For more specific information about where to purchase Caramilk from in your local area we would recommend phoning the supermarket advisory lines for further details: Coles 1800 061 562 or Woolworths 1300 767 969. 

Please note that all Caramilk stock has been distributed to stores across Australia.  As Caramilk was released as a Limited Edition line we do not have plans currently to recommence production of this product.

Yours sincerely
MONDELĒZ INTERNATIONAL 

I approached Coles first, using the tried-and-tested alphabetical order method of decision-making. A friendly lady told me one store in my region showed three bars in stock! However, she added, that figure may be out-of-date because, apparently, a mega-corporation doesn’t have real-time inventory tracking. She called the store but nobody bothered answering so it rang out and could not confirm if this quantity was current. Nevertheless, I tried my luck and as you might expect the shelf was empty. I would wager any three in stock were long gone weeks prior.

Meanwhile, Coles Online showed (and still shows) bars available for $5.50 each, limited to 12 per customer, tantalisingly saying “Add to cart.” Trying to actually add the chocolatey goodness to your cart prompts you to sign up, which I did, confirming my email address, setting a password, and then being told “This is out of stock” – would it have killed you, Coles, to put that on the product page like Woolworths does?

There seemed no point phoning Woolworths; it’s a given Caramilk is not for sale in any retail outlet in Australia. What does one do now? Desperate times call for desperate measures so I searched ScumtreeGumtree, the free online classifieds site where I can only assume buyers are either deluded or think any technology for sale is stolen based on the oh-too-many emails I get when I list my second-hand phone offering “I’ll give you $20 cash !!!” (what else would they pay with?) and even believing their delusional offer to be so awesome that I will even throw in free delivery to snap up this wonderous and princely sum.

It’s quite possible Obi-Wan had Gumtree in mind when he said, “you’ll never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.”

Still, Gumtree it was – and I found “Emily” selling Caramilk bars for $10 in my nearby area. She was happy to keep asking if I’d like more and more bars, but somewhat shy on confirming it was not the plastic-infested recalled chocolate, or indeed, that it was actually Caramilk at all.

01 - Scumtree1  02 - Scumtree2

Emily stopped replying, so I guess her ethics prevented her from lying about selling contaminated food.

So, back to square one. With no Caramilk available, I searched for importers of Nestle Caramac, a British confectionery, which apparently tastes just the same, but found that a dead-end.

It now got serious: I turned to the option I never thought would happen. I realised if I was going to have – and share – Caramilk, I needed to make it myself.

A Paris-based American chef, with many accolades for his desserts, named David Lebovitz describes how to make “caramelized white chocolate”, and his recipe appeared simple enough for a person who has no business in a kitchen like me.

Lebovitz says to use white chocolate with more than 30% cocoa content for the best result. This was a little tricky because many of the white chocolate bars on supermarket shelves don’t divulge this detail. I selected Lindt Excellence Extra Silky 100g which says it has a minimum of 30% cocoa solids. The recipe also calls for a “pinch” of flaky sea salt so I picked up some too.

05 - Chocolate and salt ready

Cooking time approaching, I needed inspiration and turned to my bevvy of smart home assistants to inspire me with a rousing montage of cooking music.

I don’t think there’s a winner here.

First task: preheat the oven to 120 degrees Celsius. What do these symbols even mean?

06 - Oven wtf

The first option seemed to do the trick.

07 - figured it out

Yep … so far so good! I even took out the grill and baking trays so I wouldn’t get a grill smell on the chocolate. Who said you can’t learn kitchen tips from this technology blog?

08 - we're cooking

The recipe called for 340g of white chocolate and I had 400g. Fortunately, the bars were divided into 10 squares so that made measuring it out a no-brainer. Mind you, while unwrapping the chocolate and enjoying its scent and appearance I was mildly tempted to just eat the white chocolate and be done with it all, but I persevered.

09 - getting ready

The recipe says to chop the chocolate into “coarse” pieces and distribute evenly. Well, distribute I can do in my sleep. Chop into “coarse” pieces? Doesn’t that mean rough? I figured it meant not finely chopped up and simply broke it into all the squares.

Oops! Somehow one of my six spare pieces got eaten!

10 - coarse and distributed

Into the oven for the first 10 minutes – “Alexa, set a timer for 10 minutes” I barked, like Captain Kirk, controlling my own starship of an oven and smart home assistant. She obliged. The eventual alarm was a puny beeping, but it worked.

I could see the chocolate had softened up.

11 - After 10 minutes

I was supposed to “spread it” so I gave it a quick once-over with the spatula.

12 - Spread

Well, it looks less like blocks, but maybe I should have left it alone. You can see where I wiped the spatula a few times.

10 minutes later, I removed the mix again. It was still very blocky. I considered my earlier idea of “coarse” was clearly too coarse, and the recipe perhaps meant something much more broken up. So, I made a big effort to turn all the chunks into a smooth chocolatey spread, and used a knife to redistribute my earlier scrapings. Then back into the oven for 10 minutes …

13 - In oven

10 minutes later I had an interesting coloured mix.

14 - Another 10 minutes

Playing with the spatula revealed a darker colour under the surface. Maybe I really can do this cooking thing after all !! Is this caramelised chocolate on its way ??

15 - darker

Back in the oven for 10 minutes.

Woah what the heck? This time its turned into rocks.

How can I leave a bar of chocolate in my pants or car and it melts, but if I leave it in the oven it turns into rocks ?

16 - 10 more minutes

Why did I even think this was a good idea and in the realm of my capabilities? Here’s the moment I began re-considering my every life choice that led to this moment of time.

Let’s see if salt helps. That’s meant to be added, and the recipe does say the chocolate may be lumpy, and that’s ok – simply keep stirring. Now, the recipe also says uses a “pinch” of flakey sea salt, and specifically a “good pinch”. Which is it? A pinch implies not much, a good pinch implies a generous amount of “pinch”. Why can’t people just say two grams or whatever it may be? So, I added some salt. What do you think? Is this a good pinch?

17 - Salt time

I stirred it all in and put it back in the oven for a final 10 minutes.

Under the light of the oven, it looks like a delicious piece of lasagne.

18 - and rocks back in oven

Here is the final result. You know, it’s not a liquid as I assumed it would be, but it really does look like it may actually be chocolate! Somehow a few pieces accidentally fell into my mouth and despite appearances, it tasted pretty good. Success!

19 - chocolate maybe

The recipe says “if lumpy, scrape it into a bowl and smooth it out with an immersion blender, or in a food processor” and fortunately there was a Thermomix right at hand.

20 - Thermomix inside

Let’s put it on speed five for ten seconds. Sounds right?

21 - Whirrrrrr

And here we are! I poured it into a handy Tupperware container I found in the cupboard that looked like it was designed to make chocolate eggs, though I later learned was a FridgeSmart onion keeper. Maybe a chocolate onion should be a thing?

22 - caramilk

The final verdict

I didn’t lack for people willing to taste-test my Caramilk experiment. The feedback is it is deliciously flavoursome, with a salted caramel flavour and not as sickly-sweet as Caramilk could be. It was well-received and now maybe I have a second recipe beyond vegemite toast in my kitchen repertoire.

For now, back to some comfortable, relaxing SQL …

Tech predictions for 2018 – SUSE, Forcepoint, Zerto, Avanade

A new year is here! To find out what it holds for technology, I spoke with thought leaders and executives at four global companies to get their predictions for the big news of 2018 in their fields:

Consulting and general trends: Avanade predicts virtual assistants will rise in popularity, that augmented and virtual reality will become part of regular shopping experiences, and just as “customer experience” has been a big thing, now it’s time for “employee experience” as business casts its mind back to its staff. Read more here.

Security: Forcepoint predicts we will see the likes of Equifax again, with another big data aggregator experiencing a breach and exposure of data from an attack vector which was predictable and avoidable, and that we will see intelligent malware watching out for SSL/TLS inspection and hiding itself, that the Internet of Things will experience the “disruption of things”, and that the privacy debate will be re-ignited. Read more here.

Disaster recovery: Zerto states while the move to the cloud will continue relentlessly, it’s important for business not to neglect disaster recovery and resilience, while predicting tape backup will finally die in 2018. Read more here.

Software: SUSE Linux says open source software will drive innovation and enterprises will need to keep watch and integrate open source, possibly engaging outside experts to help, that containers will become mainstream and a common delivery method for commercial software, and the cloud will be commonplace even for regular non-technology businesses. Read more here.

Have you saved three lives lately?

My blood type is O- so I feel it is my duty to give my blood regularly. O- is the universal donor; this is the blood which can be safely taken by any person, regardless of their blood type. It’s thus essential for emergencies where there is no time to waste.

The Australian Red Cross Blood Service (ARCBS) does a tremendous job, with a great deal of care and professionalism. Every interaction with the Service has been tuned to deliver a wonderful donor experience, from recognising my number when I dial in, to the nice snacks on the way out.

Whole blood products are split into three components, being red blood cells, plasma and platelets so the ARCBS states each whole blood donation “saves three lives.”

Even so, donations of plasma and platelets are also especially valuable, particularly when you consider whole blood can only be safely given every three months or so, while these other components more frequently. Thus, if your blood type is more common these may be more suitable options.

Whatever the case, whatever your blood type, if you are healthy and able to donate, then I’d encourage you to consider it. You can find out more information, including eligibility and your nearest donor centre at the ARCBS’ web site.

DMWBloodBank blooddonation

Testing the Plantronics Voyager 3200 in a busy car park (and being laughed at :)

I’ve been reviewing technology for over 25 years.

My latest review is the Plantronics Voyager 3200 Bluetooth headset. I’ve long been a fan of the Plantronics Voyager line, with its over-the-ear design and long boom microphone. It’s also delivered excellent audio quality and has only improved over time with built-in smarts to automatically answer a call if you put the headset on your ear, a smartphone app to keep firmware updated and more.

I strayed from Plantronics for a while, having a Bang and Olufsen earset 3i and while it was a truly terrific, truly comfortable piece of equipment, it worked only on iOS – not Android or Windows Phone – and, of course, had a fatal blow to its longevity with Apple’s decision to remove the 3.5mm earphone jack on the iPhone 7. I switched back to the Voyager line, picking up the Voyager 5200.

Plantronics sent me their latest Plantronics 3200 to review. At first, I was sceptical, thinking by virtue of its model number it would be a lower quality device – still excellent, make no mistake, but no 5200.

To my pleasant surprise, the 3200 is truly a high-quality Bluetooth headset. It fit firmly in my ear first try, and remained comfortable throughout my use. It comes with a charging case, it’s stylish and professional to look at, and it has three microphones with noise-canceling technology to filter out background sound.

Here’s my review on iTWire.com, and a bonus YouTube video where I gave it a real-world test in a busy local shopping centre car-park, much to the mirth of some passersby.

Tips for a new IT Manager

One of my most popular stories on iTWire in the last few years is Lessons for a new IT Manager where I distil things I’ve had to learn over the years. There are many good people – be it in within technology or any other field at all – who are competent, skilful, trustworthy and reliable.

By virtue of their performance, and the confidence the business has in them, they find themselves elevated to new and lofty roles where they are no longer “on the tools” but directing those who are.

Yet, despite the obvious compliment of how much confidence the business has in them people management and leadership are an entirely different set of skills to, well, doing stuff.

The Peter Principle wryly notes people are promoted to their level of incompetence. The truth behind this is people are promoted based on their performance in the role they currently have and not necessarily the intended role.

It doesn’t have to be this way. With some self-reflection, some gumption and drive, good managers can be made.

I give my tips here, but let me give a spoiler: it boils down to communication. You can’t be a leader who doesn’t talk to your team and your stakeholders.

You only die twice

I’m a licensed private investigator and people are often fascinated by this. It’s not the glamour you see on TV and in movies. In fact, much of what you see in fiction is not even legal. I can’t go to the police and ask them to “run some plates” for me. Any officer who did that would be committing an offence. Nevertheless, quality information, and information security, are two of my gigs, and being licensed by the state to perform certain covert activities can be helpful.

People like to hear stories about investigation. It’s not all cheating spouses and car chases. In fact, one tale that sticks in my mind the most involves someone I never even met.

I was asked by an insurance company to look into a strange situation. A worker had died, and a lady claimed to be his partner. Co-workers of the deceased didn’t know her, and she had three different addresses, all several hundred kilometres away from the workplace. What was the deal? Additionally, was it a genuine worker’s compensation matter? Was he travelling to work? Was it his regular path to work?

The case was already several years old. I had a report from a previous investigator which identified the deceased worker stayed at a caravan park, yet the owner had sold it and taken all his records and the new owner didn’t know the guy nor had any contact details for the former owner. That’s where he seemingly gave up the chase.

I phoned some of the former co-workers. They didn’t know the lady. Worse, they barely remembered the man. As I spoke to more and more people it made me sad to wonder just what does someone’s life mean when people don’t remember you anymore. Did he ever live at all? They said they didn’t know if he had a partner, they didn’t really hang out with him socially, and didn’t know a lot about him … someone they worked side-by-side with for years. Still, they did have a recollection he lived at the caravan park.

I phoned the caravan park. Sure enough, the owner said someone else had talked to him a couple of years back so he knew the situation but he didn’t know the guy, didn’t know the lady, and had no information at all. He didn’t know where the owner was and he didn’t have any of the old records.

I wasn’t content with this. I hit the phone book and dialled everyone in the state with the same last name as the owner. This worked! I spoke to a few people, got a lot of answering machines, even had some people call back to say they didn’t know the person I was looking for and it wasn’t them. However, I got one number right because the old caravan park owner did call back. He knew the guy. In fact, he knew the lady. And he knew their son.

The worker was from mid-NSW. He lived there with his family. He would stay at the caravan park on weekdays and head home for the weekend.

After hearing again and again, “I really can’t remember him” it was so exciting, so relieving to know the man existed. He lived, he was known, he really stood there and really did these things.

All this time I had also been trying to reach the lady. The mobile number I had for her was no longer connected, and a landline number in the phone book was continually engaged.

I drove to her town, some 400 kilometres away from the workplace and the caravan park. It was a cold, icy night. The outside temperature was one degree Celsius and the road signs said to beware of ice.

I checked out the three addresses I had. The lady didn’t live at any of them. I filled my car at a petrol station and asked the attendant if he knew the family. He said it might be the people at such-and-such a street. I drove around and an older lady answered the door. Inside I could see a young lad. I instantly knew it was the son. I told the lady who I was and why I was there and who I was looking for. She said it was the right home, and called her daughter, who came right away.

The daughter arrived. She was the deceased worker’s partner. She and her mother showed me photographs and told me stories. They shed some tears together as they recollected events.

The man was her partner. They had a family together. He worked in a different town, and would stay there during the week. He came home Fridays and drove back again Sunday nights. They rented at one address, but had put in an application at a second address, planning to move. That was not to be.

One fateful day in May the man drove off the road. Maybe he fell asleep at the wheel. Maybe something else happened. Whatever happened, he left the road, crashed, and passed away. It was a cold, cold early Monday morning.

He normally returned to the caravan park on Sunday evening. Yet this time he left early Monday. It so happened that Monday followed the second Sunday in May. We know it in Australia as Mother’s Day. He stayed that night, opting to get up early and drive 400kms to work that morning. Sadly, that was his last trip ever.

After he passed away, the lady cancelled the new rental they were moving to, and found herself a new, smaller, place. Hence the three addresses. She now lived elsewhere. The landline I called was correct, but she had her dial-up modem connected 24×7, preferring to use her mobile to speak. She’d cancelled her own previous number, opting instead to transfer her partner’s number into her name so she could keep that number forever.

The lady and her mother wept as they spoke. They had photo after photo. There were holidays, there were memories.

The man had lived, and this was his partner, his family and his story.

I reported my findings to the insurance company. I never get told what happens in the end but I’d like to think – even years after his untimely passing – I helped that family get compensation. I feel so appalled by the previous investigator giving up at the first hurdle.

Yet, more than anything, I will never forget the emotional roller coaster within myself. I lamented how somebody could live and die and people around them struggled with memories. Then I met the family, and his memory was so strong and so real in their lives.

There’s a saying that people die twice. The first time is when they physically die. The second time is when their name is mentioned or remembered for the last time.

This is the story of Sam Carroll. I never met him; I never knew him. Yet, he lives on as you read this story. It’s not his time to die twice.

When 2x RAID 5 = RAID 10

An occasion I will never, ever forget is the time I set foot in a small business and the developers and IT Manager alike told me how their database server was in RAID 10. They spoke at length about the research they put in to determine the most performant disk configuration and came to the determination RAID 10 was best for their requirements.

The old adage, “what gets measured gets improved” is equally true in reverse; what doesn’t get measured doesn’t get improved. Noting the database was a key component of the company’s business, and that no reporting or analysis was occurring, I recommended several tools such as the free open-source dbWarden script. I speak more about this and other good, even essential, tools for keeping your database healthy over on iTWire.

The results were not good! In fact, there was significant lag. The database server was spending most of its time waiting to write – adding up to minutes every day, and many queries were taking over 100ms.

I asked the IT Manager to show me the disk setup. He took me into the server room and entered the server’s RAID configuration. Two RAID 5 volumes. We looked at each other, and he immediately said, “This was RAID 10! The systems administrator must have changed it!”

He asked that person if he changed it, he said no, that’s how it has always been. The IT Manager, never short for an answer, then confidently explained the server had been ordered from Dell as a database server so Dell “must” have pre-configured it according to their best practice.

It got worse.

Within Windows, one of the RAID 5 volumes was used exclusively for drive E:, which contained nothing but the Windows pagefile.

The other RAID 5 volume was partitioned within Windows as C: and D:. The operating system, the application, the database and the log files were all on the one RAID 5 volume albeit two Windows partitions.

Oh, and there were also a bunch of file shares, used by the most prolific file-heavy section of the business sitting on D: also.

You can be sure I made a series of recommendations, not only relating to infrastructure configuration but about staffing too.