Saturday, April 30, 2016

JetBlue takes delivery of Airbus' first-ever US-built A321

There's lots of sports team-like rah-rah boosterism around products. It's always seemed a little unrealistic to me in the 21st century that you could actually "buy American" when so many things come from all over the globe. But yes, like BMW and Toyota, Airbus now manufactures planes in the USA. JetBlue is taking delivery of the first A321 off the assembly line. Details are over here.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

AT&T adds Wi-Fi calling for newest-gen of iPhones

We're on our big Japan trip right now and got some good news yesterday: AT&T is adding Wi-Fi calling for customers with newer iPhones running the latest version of iOS. While we don't talk on the phone much even when we're in USA, this will definitely help keep the costs down when we do. While there have long been alternatives (Skype, FaceTime), I still have to receive work calls on a normal US mobile number and that means per-minute charges. This new feature will let me do that for free while I'm on Wi-Fi.

To enable Wi-Fi calling, go to Settings > Phone > Wi-Fi Calling and turn it on. More information here and here.

My personal tips for reducing international roaming charges are here.

Your carrier info changes when Wi-Fi calling is enabled

Enable Wi-Fi calling in your Preferences

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Denver Airport gets a rail link to downtown

Denver International Airport is joining the club of western airports with rail access. Vancouver, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Oakland, Phoenix all have them, LA is building one (albeit with a hilariously New York schedule), and San Diego, well, I guess they're gonna just sit this crazy trend out.

It's a 23 mile trip that takes 37 minutes and costs $9. The $9 basically gets you an unlimited day pass for Denver's RTD transit system. This seems like a unique approach to a problem that often happens with these kinds of links: "how to we charge tourists a lot more money than airport workers for the same ride?"

The cars look a lot like the SEPTA cars in Pennslyvania...

The trains are Silverliner V EMU by Hyundai-Rotem. Each car holds 232 passengers, 91 of them seated, with two wheelchair spaces. The trains run 22 hours a day, every half hour off-peak, and every 15 minutes during peak hours (5am - 6:30pm). 

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Some good news about my new JetBlue credit card

Using an American credit card in European ticket machine can be hell, just ask anyone who's been to Paris and I'm sure you'll get an earful. The big problem is that almost no American chip cards support the Chip + PIN standard. Barclays has a few cards that support Chip + PIN Backup, which enables the card to use a PIN in situations where a signature isn't possible, like automated ticket machines. 
New JetBlue card...
Right before we began our Tokyo sabbatical, my new JetBlue Barclay card showed up in the mail (I had the JetBlue Amex and they switched providers). I'm happy to report that my JetBlue PIN worked great in the Japan Railway's Shinkansen ticket machine, where my other American chip cards failed (Sapphire, Amex, Skypass). Not all JR machines require a PIN, but as you'll see from the pictures, a bunch of them do.  I learned this when I was in Nagoya for the day without my JetBlue card, and I couldn't find a single machine that didn't require a PIN. And the line for the staffed JR counter was very, very long. 

JetBlue card works in Tokyo Bullet Train ticket machines!
PIN required notice
I just wanted to mention this real world example because we all get told so many conflicting things about Chip cards to the point where my first reaction is always, "well call me when you've tested it in the Paris Metro and then we'll talk..." I've personally tested my Barclays Arrival card (same issuer as JetBlue, also has Chip + PIN Backup) with:
  •  London Oyster card machine (pin)
  •  London Emirates Sky tram ticket machine (pin)
  •  Transport for London staffed window (sig)
  •  Spanish Renfe long distance train ticket machine (pin)
  •  onboard cafe on Spanish AVE train (sig)
  •  Madrid metro ticket machine (pin)

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Navigating from Narita Express Shibuya Station to Hachiko Statue

Here's another quick post for my friend doing his first big international trip: a guide to finding Hachiko from the Shibuya Narita Express (N'Ex) platform.

First off, look at the Shibuya Station map (click to enlarge). Narita Express arrives on track 3 or 4, down a long hallway from the rest of the station. If you look at the map, there are actually several ways to get to Hachiko, but they aren't labeled very well. If you look closely at this last frame of this first video, you'll see you're directed to go downstairs.
Shibuya Station map

After that, you head downstairs, where you actually have to walk the entire length of another train platform to get to the desired exit. If you're using a Japan Rail pass, you have to go through the staffed exit and show your pass to the employee.

Once you pass the gate head outside and look for the crowd!

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

JetBlue is expanding Mint again!

UPDATE (Nov 2016): Delta announced that they'll also be adding lie-flat seats to their NYC – San Diego, and Boston – San Francisco routes! Hooray for competition! 

As I've said before, I'm a huge fan of JetBlue's "Mint" First Class product (trip reports here, here, and here) It's hands-down the best domestic seat, food, and service in First Class. I'd even go so far to say that Mint, except for its lack of lounge access, is actually superior to the Big 3's (United, Delta, American) international Business Class offerings.

After the big excitement last week where JetBlue and Alaska were bidding for Virgin America, I wasn't sure what to expect from them once it became clear Alaska was willing to pay any price (and did) to win.

Well, they announced some big news today – Mint is expanding to a bunch of new markets! I've mentioned before that they expanded beyond the traditional premium domestic market of LAX/SFO/JRK and added Boston, Aruba to the list of cities they serve. But now we can add:

  • BOS/NY – San Diego/Seattle
  • Las Vegas – New York 
  • Fort Lauderdale – SFO/LAX 
  • Grenada – JFK 

This is fantastic news. Just a few years ago, the only lie-flat domestic First Class was from the big 3 and only on the JFK-SFO/LAX route. JetBlue entered this market with an even better seat (hello suites with closing doors!) and gourmet food and forced the Big 3 to slash their prices by $1000.

Now they're going to bring this same product to a bunch of runs where the competition is crappy 38" recliners, so they'll be several notches above the competition for quality and experience. But I'm genuinely curious how many people will actually pay to fly First Class in these markets. So often it seems like domestic First exists mostly for the benefit frequent travelers who fly so much they're getting some type of complimentary upgrade. A couple thoughts on that:

  • JetBlue isn't shy about offering steep discounts on Mint to get people to try it. (And once you try it, you're hooked!)
  • JetBlue's folksy attitude somehow manages to make First Class feel accessible and fun, not a club for "grumpy 40-something guys in embroidered work Polo shirts" 
  • Because they don't do complimentary upgrades, JetBlue has to "earn" each passenger's satisfaction every time.
  • While I normally hate paying money for crappy domestic First because it's such a crummy product, I'm fine with giving JetBlue some extra money for a lie-flat bed, great food, and flight attendants who care about service. Finally something worth the extra money!

(more of my JetBlue posts)

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Navigation from Narita International Arrivals to the JR Narita Express platform

A friend is making his first big international trip and I made a couple of quick videos of the arrivals process at Tokyo's Narita Airport so he could get the lay of the land before his flight. I figured I'd post this publicly in case it's useful to others out there as well. 

Here's the English-language timetable for the Narita Express (N'Ex for short). Note the letter codes for trains that don't run every day. Narita has free Wi-Fi , as do most of the stations on the Yamanote line (including Shibuya and Shinjuku). Just remember that you might have to open Safari and attempt to visit a web page in order to prompt the Wi-Fi confirmation screen to appear (i.e., iPhone Apps can't usually display a Wi-Fi login screen). A list of JR Station maps is here.

First video shows international passengers arriving and navigating to the JR office where you can buy Narita Express tickets or exchange your voucher for a JR pass. When you redeem your pass, ask the agent to also reserve you a seat on the next Narita Express (also called N'Ex). 

If the line is ridiculously long and you decide to pick up your rail pass in the city later on, you can purchase a Narita Express ticket from the agent at the counter further down. If you aren't familiar with Japanese trains, I highly recommend against using the ticket machines – they're incredibly difficult to use, it's very easy to make a mistake, there's always a line of grumpy people stressing you out, most don't take credit cards, and the few that do usually require Chip + Pin cards which no one in the USA has. (Aside from Barclay and PenFed, all American Chip cards are Chip + Signature).

Then, find out what track you're on and head over to the fare gates. If you're using a JR Pass, you always have to go through the staffed gate (i.e., you don't use the automated fare gates). Make sure you note which train car your seat is in! On the platform you'll see signs showing you where to stand for each car. This is critical since the Narita Express actually splits in half midway through the journey and each half goes to a different destination! Inside the train, the announcements are in English, Chinese, and Japanese and there are digital displays showing your destination and progress.
Platform signs show where each car will be, make sure you're in the right place before the train arrives!

If you're using a rail pass, this won't matter, but if you're using a ticket, it will: watch the video and notice how the fare gate spits your ticket out way down at the end. Keep your ticket because you'll need it to exit! Also note that in Japan, the gates are usually wide open unless you do something wrong and they they'll close, blocking your exit. Luckily, in Japan a man with white gloves usually appears who just fixes everything for you and gets you back on your way.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Tips for minimizing cellular roaming charges on iPhone

updated 23 Jan 2017

International roaming (using your home mobile phone on a foreign carrier's network while you're traveling) used to be insanely expensive. It's gotten a lot cheaper the past few years, but it takes a bit of planning to make sure that you can stay connected abroad without running up a big bill. Here's a few very American iPhone-centric tips.


  • Know generally how much you use before you go. At home, I'm a fairly heave user but I have Wi-Fi access most of the day and I usually use around 1.5GB a month (i.e., 1500 MB ÷ 30 = 50MB a day). Your cellular bill detail should show how much you use. Think about how you're going to be using your phone differently abroad and then:
  • Get on a good plan. Don't go without getting on SOME kind of plan. Roaming is generally quite expensive without one. Plus, being on a plan usually means that any further usage beyond the plan is discounted well below the rate you'd pay without one. So if you have to make an unexpected rash of voice calls or roaming (work/emergencies happen...), it won't kill your bill. 
  • AT&T lets you roam to Canada and Mexico for free with certain plans. They also just announced their new International Day Pass, but at $10 per day, per device just to access the data pool on your US plan, I'd avoid it. For now, their original Passport plans are still active. The $30/month for 120MB + unlimited text + steeply-discounted voice is a great deal if you're mostly going to use Wi-Fi but still want the security of having mobile data in a pinch. 
  • T-mobile offers "free, unlimited, 2G-speed roaming" in lots of the world. I've tried it out in the UK, Taiwan, Korea, Germany, Poland, and the Philippines and it worked like a charm. Information about Verizon is here. Given Verizon's network differences, it's a good idea to call them ahead of time to see if your smart phone can connect to your destination's network at all. 
  • Do a bit of research about free Wi-Fi in the areas you're going to. In Tokyo, for example, most of the urban JR and subway stations have it, as do nearly all of the convenience and department stores, so connectivity is rarely more than 5 minutes' walk away. 
  • Once you've looked that over, decide if it's worth it to rent a Mi-Fi. If you're a heavy data user and can't curb your usage while abroad, this is certainly a good deal. Likewise if you're a couple or group who'll spend most of the trip together, it's also great deal since all of you can split the $5-ish a day cost. Do note that most of these drop to 2G speed after you hit a daily usage cap, so some of the tips below might still be relevant. 
  • In some countries you can rent SIM cards, but most require an unlocked phone and most Americans don't have those... If you do, that might be an option if you don't need your regular number to work while abroad.  

General Usage Tips

  • Viewing or uploading pictures or video uses data very quickly, do that only on Wi-Fi. Same thing with streaming music (e.g., Spotify), FaceTime and Skype.
  • Large file transfers (like email attachments, App updates, iOS updates, Dropbox and iCloud file uploads) can also use a ton of data. 
  • Laptops have almost no controls for limiting data usage, so be very careful if you decide to enable Tethering (called "Personal Hotspot" on iOS).
  • The front-facing (i.e., "selfie") camera makes much smaller photos than the rear-facing camera, so you can halve the size of your iMessage pictures by using it instead.
    Use the selfie camera to take smaller pictures


  • First and foremost, use the Settings > Cellular > Cellular Data Options to completely disable roaming except when you're actively using it. If you don't care about incoming SMS messages or calls, you can put your phone into Airplane mode instead. Remember, closing all your apps and locking your phone's screen does NOT stop your phone from accessing the internet – lots of background tasks will eat through your roaming data while your phone sits in your pocket. Completely disable Roaming when not in active use!
    Turn off all roaming when not in use

  • Also, do NOT leave Roaming on when you're back at your hotel Wi-Fi. If your phone becomes disconnected from the Wi-Fi, it will fall back to Roaming and could eat up data while you sleep.
  • Enable Wi-Fi calling. Settings > Phone > Wi-Fi Calling (requires an iPhone 6 or newer and iOS 9.3). If you're on a Wi-Fi network, you can make or receive normal phone calls for free. You can also use FaceTime to do free voice or video calls when you're on Wi-Fi. More information is here.

    Enable Wi-Fi calling to avoid paying per-minute talk charges

    Once Wi-Fi calling is enabled, your carrier banner changes
  • Go in to your iOS Settings > iTunes and App Stores and disable Use Cellular Data. No need to pay Roaming charges to download Music or Apps...
  • In Settings > Cellular, disable Roaming for every app except the ones you're actively using while roaming. Lots of apps will passively use your data even when they aren't launched and you don't want, for example, AirBnB sneaking on to the network when you all you wanted to do was enable Roaming to send a quick iMessage. Yes, you'll have to manually switch on Roaming for apps you want to use, but you'll have better results by starting with everything turned off and selectively enabling apps versus leaving them all on and hunting through the list trying to guess which one is hogging your data.
  • If you're using iCloud photo sync, make sure you also disable cellular for the Photos app, otherwise every photo you take will be uploaded and counted against your roaming!
  • While you're there, find Wi-Fi Assist (it's at the bottom) and turn it off. This function encourages your phone to hop onto the cellular network when the Wi-Fi gets weak and you don't want that.
  • Use Reset Statistics to zero out your counter and track your usage as you go. You can also use the myAT&T app to track their count versus yours (note that their count is usually delayed by a day or two, but it can help you spot a problem before it becomes a huge overage bill) 
Turn off Wi-Fi Assist, disable all apps except the ones you're using; use Reset Statistics when you land to help monitor usage
  • Go to Settings > Notifications and turn most/all of them off. If you're using Line, or Facebook Messenger, or WhatsApp to talk to your traveling companions, then leave those enabled. Most apps can't send you Notifications when Data Roaming is off, but this also prevents apps from luring you away from your trip – you don't need to read or reply to those FB comments right now! Sidenote: I disabled Facebook Notifications years ago and it's the single best thing I've ever done to improve my personal productivity and phone battery life.
    Disable unneeded Notifications
    • Go to Settings > Mail, Contacts, Calendars > Fetch New Data, turn off Push, and set Fetch to Manually. Manually launch Mail when you are on Wi-Fi to get your mail.
    • Turn off Air Drop and Bluetooth (Swipe up to see the controls for both)
    Swipe up to turn off Air Drop and Bluetooth
    • In the Facebook App, click the More button at the bottom, then go to Settings > Account Settings > Videos and Photos, and change Autoplay to "Only Wi-Fi" or "Never". While you're there, you might want to edit the Upload HD preference if you're going to upload while roaming. For the T-Mobile Unlimited 2G users, this might make uploading at 2G speeds a lot faster.
      Turn off Autoplay!

    Other tricks

    • Download map (like this one for Tokyo) and subway apps (like this one) for the area you're visiting. These usually let you find your way without needing the network
    • Use the "Save for Offline Use" feature of Google maps so you can find your way without cellular service. Some areas (like Japan) don't permit that, sadly. 
    • While you're there, turn off Satellite view in Google maps
    • Also, if you haven't done so recently (and you're an AT&T customer), install the AT&T Passport app. YES, I said that. If you've installed it in the past, YES, it was crappy and useless, but the new one is actually quite good. (You may need to fully uninstall the old one off your phone if it's still on there). It installs some iOS-level extensions that let your phone hop on to password-protected Wi-Fi networks of AT&T's partners, not just open public Wi-Fi spots. Our phones were automatically jumping onto Docomo and Wi2 networks without any intervention on our part. 
      AT&T Wi-Fi partners are flagged after installing AT&T Passport
    • Load up directions to your next destination before you leave the Wi-Fi at your home, hotel, or cafe so you can navigate without connectivity.
    • Another good thing to do before leaving comfort and safety of Wi-Fi is to open Safari and close all of the open "tabs" there. Since you'll likely use it when you're roaming, you don't want it to run back and reload or cache any of those other sites while you're looking something up. 
      Close all those browser tabs before you roam!
    • Don't be shy about asking restaurants or cafes for their Wi-Fi password, the worst that can happen is they say no.

    Final Thought...

    Remember that once you account for flights, hotel, missed work, souvenirs, and heaps of dining and drinking, your vacation is probably costing you north of $60 an hour, even while you sleep. Don't waste a $60 hour of it trying to save $2 in data roaming.