Monday, February 08, 2010

Megabus vs. National Express: Portsmouth to Oxford

I am now also going to continue the topic of surprisingly pleasant and delightfully cheap bus travel, this time from a UK perspective. I experienced my first Megabus journey on Friday afternoon, whilst travelling up to visit friends in Oxford from my home town, Portsmouth. On previous occasions, I have always used National Express funfare tickets, which only cost £6 from Portsmouth to Oxford. These 'funfares' are only available for a certain time coach journey each day, and on this occasion I couldn't make the 07 35 funfare journey time. The regular National Express fare is closer to £20, and so I sought an alternative, more economical option. My Megabus ticket, at £7 plus a 50p booking fee, seemed, for a brief moment of madness, to be unacceptably over-priced compared with my usual £6 National Express deal, but I soon came to my senses and bought a ticket for the 15 10 bus. I am glad I did.

I arrived at The Hard, Portsmouth at 15 00, and was greeted by the unmistakable, albeit mildly garish, bright yellow and blue Megabus. I presented the driver with the grubby and crumpled piece of paper I had quickly scribbled my reservation number on, and irrationally panicked for a second that I should have printed off the whole reservation summary email they had sent me, instead of merely taking note of the number, despite the fact that they informed me in the email that that would be sufficient. The driver didn't bat an eyelid, however, at my messy piece of note paper, and merely scanned his list of reservation numbers, ticked me off, and allowed me on. The interior was perfectly modern and acceptable and seemed no worse than that of National Express coaches.

The greatest disadvantage of taking Megabus rather than National Express to Oxford was probably being dropped off at Water Eaton Park and Ride as opposed to the central Gloucester Green bus station. I didn't have to wait long (10 minutes) or pay much (£1.70) for a local bus into the centre of Oxford though, so it was only a minor inconvenience.

On my return journey on Sunday, I took the £6 National Express funfare from Oxford bus station at 17 55. Once back on my old faithful National Express, I took appreciative note of a few familiar, and minor but pleasing, details- they had tucked a plastic bag for rubbish into the basket on the back of the seat in front of me, the toilet was much cleaner (Megabus' had been pretty much unusable), and the journey time was half an hour less.

All in all, National Express' small but clear benefits mean that I will definitely continue to use their funfares over Megabus when I can make the specific times. When the times aren't possible, I will most certainly use Megabus rather than pay the full National Express fare though- I am quite happy to cope with the small inconveniences for a saving of £13 per single. 

There are other Megabus trip reports on the new site:

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Megabus -- Baltimore to New York


I never thought I would be talking about buses on this blog, but life has changed!

I have lived in the Baltimore/Washington area for almost thirty years, and a delightful treat has always been going to New York.  So what are the options?  Amtrak!  Amtrak can be very expensive.  By international standards, the trains are slow, terribly expensive, and customer service is hardly friendly.  Going by car has its problems too.  Tolls cost a lot of money these days.  You have to consider the wear and tear on the car.   Once my car was broken into in New York, and everything and had to drive home with a broken window.  And, if you park at a New York hotel, you can easily pay as much as $50 a night.

A few years ago, we started considering the idea of taking buses to New York.  One trip worked out well, and another was a disaster.  Click here for an account of those trips.

More recently, a company called Megabus has begun to operate services.  They stop in Washington and at White Marsh area, and we have taken them several times.  I really find them to be excellent, and, in the future, this will be how I'll go to New York.

They are extremely cheap.  Fares are never more than about $23 each way, and, if you book in advance, can be as low as $1 -- plus a 50 cent booking fee.  In my experience, they run on time. They are comfortable, safe, and fast without being dangerous.  What more could you want?

Well, you get a little bit more!  They come with power outlets and Wi-Fi.  So, you can use your laptop while traveling.  Cool!

Our trips to New York last weekend were flawless.  We were booked on the bus that leaves at 8:25 in the morning.  (We arrived at White Marsh in very good time, and they let us go on the 7:55 bus.)  We got to New York by about 11:30.  On the way back (Sunday), we left at 4:00 pm and we were at White Marsh at about 7:15.

The Baltimore stop is in White Marsh (near Ikea).  There is ample parking, but you should print out a parking pass that comes with your ticket.  All tickets are electronic.  All you need is the code sent to you by Megabus when you book.

Click here for help on accessing the parking pass.

This is a strongly enthusiastic recommendation.  I paid my own way and do not have any connections, sponsorship, or freebies from Megabus.

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Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Relais de Venise (L'Entrecote) New York

Le Relais De Venise

590 Lexington Avenue
New York, NY 10154-3301
(212) 758-3989
Get directions
About two years ago, a friend of mine took me to the Paris branch of this restaurant, and I loved it.  Many businesses seem to create a good business by standardizing, simplifying, and perfecting.  This seems to have worked for Southwest airlines, which flies only domestically in the United States using Boeing 737s, and for McDonald's.

Relais de Venise seems to have the same idea.  There is no menu for an appetizer or a main course.  The appetizer is a salad in a very nice dressing with walnuts.  The main course is a steak that is sliced, served in their "secret" sauce (cream, tarragon, and Dijon mustard).  So the choice is bleu, rare, medium or well-done.  (Ask for medium-rare, and they will repeat the options: bleu, rare, medium or well-done).

I chose bleu, and my wife chose medium.  Both were cooked exactly as ordered.  They arrived promptly with a generous portion of frites (french fries).  As we were finishing the dish, the server offered us more.  (The set menu of the salad and the steak frites costs $24.)  Certainly not inferior meat, but don't let me raise expectations too high.  This was a French steak frites.

For dessert, there was a selection.  We chose to share a cheese, which came with a glass of port for about $9.50.  A nice variety of cheese, including Brie, Camembert, a blue cheese, and a Comte.

We had a house wine -- a Merlot-dominated Bordeaux.  $11.50 for the half bottle.  Nothing exceptional but perfectly acceptable.

I thought it was a very nice lunch, and I'll certainly return to this restaurant.  But I did wonder how much it would suit an American clientele.  We started our meal at about noon, and the place was practically empty.  I also noticed that many of the customers were Europeans.  But within about half an hour the place filled up.  So perhaps it will appeal to New Yorkers after all.

This restaurant does not take reservations.

This is an enthusiastic recommendation.  I paid my own way and do not have any connections, sponsorship, or freebies from Le Relais de Venise.

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Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Waldorf Astoria Hotel, January 29th to January 31, 2010

We had a wonderful room with plenty of space to sit, read, relax and talk!

The bed was simply superb!

A first rate hotel with rough spots! (Room 2727)

 The Waldorf=Astoria
301 Park Avenue
New York, New York U.S.A.10022
212-872-7272 fax 

There is something very special about staying at Waldorf=Astoria Hotel in New York. This hotel has so much history behind it, and the list of famous guests is amazing. The present hotel is now managed by the Hilton and is considered the flagship of its luxury brand, the Waldorf=Astoria collection.

The building is lovely and well kept although there were a few signs of shabbiness in the room suggesting a renovation may be needed.

My verdict on the hotel is that it has many of the attributes of a first-rate luxury hotel, but some of the staff seem to have missed the training.  Sometimes they will give you the idea that no request is too much trouble, that they are willing to stretch to accommodate you if your plans are a little different from normal, and that your stay should be remembered as a special occasion. Others seem not to care at all. With this uneven service, I would rather stay at a Ritz Carlton instead where the service is unfailing.

Our reservation was handled quite nicely, and we were welcomed very courteously although we were told that check-in time was 3:00, and we had arrived at about noon. I still find it curious that a hotel of this size cannot stretch a point for a Gold member in the Hilton HHonors plan!

It also is a little disappointing that although we had a "standby" certificate for a Towers room, which gives you access to an Executive Lounge and a separate exclusive entrance. They said that there were rooms available in the Towers, but we would have to pay an extra $100 a night. What do these certificates mean? What time do you have to arrive on a freezing cold weekend to make sure you get the standby? Anyway, we were given an outstanding room as you can see in the pictures but not the one on the eStandby certificate.

This is the second time I have had an eStandby upgrade from a hotel in the Hilton group, and it is the second time that it has done nothing for me.  As this link suggests, the eStandby upgrades are intended to increase revenue rather than build customer loyalty.  This will be a discussion in a futrue article.

HHonors members with Gold status also supposed to get breakfast, and we were given coupons to use the Starbucks, which is on the premises. So, in the morning, we went down to Starbucks.  Well, Starbucks is Starbucks, and there was none of the attention or welcome that one would expect in a first class hotel.  The coupon offered us a pastry, a juice, and a drink (coffee, etc.). The surly server announced that he was out of pastries but I could have one of the (inferior) croissants if I wanted. I asked for a porcelain (as opposed to a paper cup), and was told that it would be possible only if I bought one of the cups he had for sale. Hardly the gracious living experience one would expect from staying at a hotel of this caliber!

We had to go back to the desk for a second coupon for our second night. When I talked about how disappointed I was with our Starbucks experience, a delightful person gave us coupons for Oscar's, one of the cafes in the hotel that has a breakfast buffet. She acted in the way you expect in the best hotels.

Another rough edge happened when we came back to the hotel at about six in the evening on the second night. We were planning to see a show and had a couple of hours to rest before leaving the hotel. The room was in exactly the same state as we had left it in the morning. I phoned housekeeping, and there was no apology or anything. Rather, the person handling the call positioned my call as a routine request to have the room serviced. The person responsible for doing this appeared promptly and she serviced the room beautifully but this left us with nowhere to go while she was working except the crowded and bustling main lobby. We asked an employee if we could use the Executive Lounge while we waited for our room to be fixed and he pointed at some chairs and said we could sit there. Then he pulled out a handkerchief and noisily blew his nose!

Breakfast at Oscar's was second rate, and I would have been seriously disappointed if I had paid the regular price of $38 for it. Again, there was nothing wrong with it,but I expect a hotel of this caliber to enhance the breakfast with a few treats that are commonly found in the best hotels (smoked salmon, mozzarella and tomatoes, beautiful displays of fruit, a variety of special cheeses, for example.)  The service was excellent, though.

We had a drink at Sir Harry's.  Sir Harry's is the bar at Waldorf=Astoria. As one might expect, it has a good range of sparkiling wines at Champagnes at high prices. It also offers a "house" sparkling wine, a Cava from Freixenet at $15 a glass. It offers draft Budweiser or Stella Artois at $9 a glass.

We stayed recently another hotel in the Hilton group, the Conrad in Singapore.  Everything about that stay was impeccable, and I'll write about it in another posting. But it made me wonder.  What would an Asian visitor have thought if he/she was used to the kind of service offered by hotels like the Conrad in Singapore?

I would be very interested to hear from readers.  Did your experience at the Waldorf=Astoria meet your expectations?  Or did it have some surprising disappointments?

This is not a recommendation.  I paid my own way using Hilton points and do not have any connections, sponsorship, or freebies from the Hilton Hotels except for those associated with my HHonors account.

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Monday, February 01, 2010

Demel -- New York

New York is a wonderful place to spend a weekend , but last weekend (January 29-31, 2010) was bitterly cold! We found a wonderful place to get out of the freezing temperatures (and away from the crowds) to enjoy a delicious hot chocolate at an authentic Austrian shop.

, a company founded in 1786, has a New York location in the retail complex below the Plaza Hotel.

We had the hot chocolate with whipped cream, and it was quite simply the best hot chocolate I have ever had for about $4.50. It was beautifully presented with a lovely glass of water to go with it. They also seemed to have all sorts of delicious Austrian cakes and pastries as well as an assortment of open sandwiches.

Definitely worth another visit. A lovely setting, great product, friendly service.

Demel New York

The Plaza Retail Collection
One West 58th Street

Fax +1/212/572-0989

Monday - Saturday from 11.00 am - 7.00 pm
Sunday from 12.00 pm - 6.00 pm

This is a strongly enthusiastic recommendation.  I paid my own way and do not have any connections, sponsorship, or freebies from Demel.

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