by Alex on September 24, 2014
I’ve been back in the UK for almost seven years now. It’s home. But there are certain creature comforts from the US that I still can’t live without. Just those little, inconsequential things that make me happy and that I haven’t been able to find a suitable substitute for here in Blighty.
In the past, I would wait until work or personal travel took me back to the US and I would return with entire suitcases full of Americana to try and appease my wretched withdrawal symptoms. But slowly, over the years, I’ve been able to find black market (ok not really) sources for my stateside dependencies. So now I present to you the things from America that I can’t live without.
This stuff, this stuff right here. If you think you’ve experienced peanut butter, you’re wrong. The perfect blend of sweet and salty, ultra-thick, and loaded with peanuts. Which reminds me, be sure to get the SuperChunk version and not the smooth or anything else unless you’re some sort of infant. You’re not an infant, are you? You can get this on Amazon and I’ve seen it in Tesco too.
Ask any American expat what they stock up on when back in the US, they will all, without hesitation, say ZipLoc bags. Despite a storied heritage of engineering excellence, the British cannot manufacture a plastic bag any more useful than a wet paper bag. Thank God then for SC Johnson (a family company) and their wonderful, reliable, irreplaceable ZipLoc bag. It’s getting to the point now where I have an entire suitcase dedicated to boxes of these bad boys. No kitchen should be without them. The only place I’ve seen these for sale is Amazon.
“But Alex,” I hear you cry “we have this in the UK, it’s called Dr Pepper Zero!” No. No, what YOU have is the “Evan Almighty” of diet sodas, a D-list impostor that tries way too hard to be like the original but just ends up making you so angry you could punch a kitten. Dr Pepper Zero…how dare you. No, what I’m introducing you to today is the only soda that comes close to Diet Coke. Not too sweet like its pre-diabetic cousin Dr Pepper Zero, and with enough distance from the original Dr Pepper flavour to actually add something to the conversation, Diet Dr Pepper is so damn good that I’ve had the gall to ask friends visiting the US to pick me up a bottle in the airport departure lounge. Yes, it’s that good. You can get this on Amazon or any American food shop.
Glad Bags…Glad Rags! Ha! I just figured that out as I was typing the title. *sigh* Solid gold. Anyway, few things make me vomit with rage quite like an over-filled bin-liner catastrophically evacuating its contents all over my beslippered feet at 6:15 on a Sunday morning. And I think my rage is justified. I mean seriously, how hard is it to make a bin liner with a shred of structural integrity? Pretty hard, I guess. And so began my quest to find the best and most robust bin-liner ever created by man. Shortcut, I went to TheSweetHome and found out that it’s the Glad Tall Kitchen drawstring bag and I bought 500 of them at Target over the summer. Why are they so good? Doesn’t matter….they’re bin liners, who cares. But this reviewer sums it up best “I could probably fend off a home invasion by deflecting the blows of the enemy’s weapon with the incredible strength these vessels possess.” These are pretty hard to find over here but there are a few version on Amazon.
I have my friend Greg to thank for this one. I’ve never been a huge fan of iced tea in the past but during my recent “healthy” phase I’d been looking for alternatives to soda. Greg suggested Arizona Iced Tea, in particular the Green Tea version. He had no idea the monster he would end up creating with that suggestion. For this is the sweetest of nectars. It has a tiny bit of sugar in it but the real sweetness comes from honey which balances the slightly bitter green tea absolutely perfectly. The stuff is so, so good. Now I’ve had this in just about every form it takes; 500ml glass bottles (as pictured above), regular soda size cans, giant 23oz cans (that’s over a pint), even powdered. Definitely go with the glass bottles; they’re just the right size (the 23oz ones are impossible to finish), they don’t have any of the artificial sweeteners that some of the US sizes do, and everyone knows beverages taste best when stored in glass. You can get this on Amazon but I’ve also seen it at delis and cafes in London.
Let me clear one thing up before I even start; I can make pretty damn good American-style pancakes from scratch. But at 6:45 on a Sunday morning when the kids have asked me to make them pancakes for 600th time, Bisquick is a godsend. Toss 2 eggs and a cup of milk into a measuring jug along with 2 cups of this stuff, jam the immersion blender in there for a while and intermittently huck dollops of it onto a hot pan, and 2 minutes later you have enough pancakes to silence even the whiniest of toddlers. And they taste pretty good! Good enough for me to ignore the “real pancakes, real good” tagline on the front of the box. Grab some boxes on Amazon as I haven’t seen it anywhere else.
by Alex on September 4, 2014
Last month I posted a link to two of my favourite kitchen items, the Thermapen and the Vinturi. Well those off-the-cuff posts proved so popular that I thought I’d share a few more of the kitchen bits ‘n’ pieces I’d be lost without.
LeCreuset? Pfft, no chance. THIS is the best dutch oven out there. I honestly use this thing 4 or 5 nights a week, it’s that useful. You can do everything with it; slow cook, braise, deep fry, stew, boil, etc. It does everything a Le Creuset can do for a fraction of the price. It weighs a TON but that’s a good thing and it cooks evenly. I absolutely love this thing. It’s super cheap too, compared to a LeCreuset, £77 in the UK and $75 in the US. Definitely worth the investment, it will last forever. Oh and it’s a breeze to clean.
I’m not a coffee connoisseur by any stretch. I have no time or space for a meth-lab level home brewing workshop like many of my friends seem to enjoy, but I like a good cup from time to time. I’m not sure how I heard about the AeroPress but boy am I glad I did. Despite looking like an over-complicated sex toy, the AeroPress is genius and extraordinarily simple to use. Filter goes in place, coffee goes on top, water on top of that, apply pressure, and hey presto great coffee.
Ok but why? Well “The AeroPress uses gentle air pressure with creates a smooth rich flavour with lower acidity and without bitterness. Other coffee makers drip hot water on to a bed of ground coffee which results in over extracting at the centre and under extracting the flavour from the edges, but the AeroPress brewing system results in uniform extraction for the ultimate in full coffee flavour.” Got that? It’s the coffee equivalent of salting a steak. And boy does it work. Best part though? It cleans itself as you’re using it and all your left with is a neat little hockey puck of coffee grounds which you just pop out into the bin. Hilariously, this little device was invented by the dude who invented the Aerobie flying disc!
I have no idea how I existed without a kitchen scale for so long. Actually, it might explain why my cooking was so bad for so long. Hmm. Anyway, you can’t go wrong with a digital kitchen scale and I just happen to like this Salter one in particular. It’s a good price (£14), easily shifts between different units of measurements, and has stood up to the rigours of my kids “helping” me in the kitchen. When you’re looking for a digital kitchen scale, make sure it has a “reset to zero” function so you can place a bowl or container on the scale to hold your ingredients and then reset the scale to zero so the scale doesn’t include the weight of the container in the calculation. Super simple but so useful.
I have wanted, nay, lusted after a cast iron skillet for years. This will quickly be one of the most used items in your kitchen. Start a dish on the stovetop, transfer it to the oven, bake epic pizza, and of course make the best pancakes you’ve ever had. It comes pre-seasoned so you don’t need to worry about that process, it’s extremely well made and will last for generations. And remember, once you own a piece of cast iron cookware, don’t clean it with soap and water ever. K?
I know I’ve mentioned it before but this is the single greatest kitchen tool I’ve ever owned. Every single cooking and recipe site I’ve been on recommends the Thermapen and with good reason; it works flawlessly. In every situation and scenario, the Thermapen performs brilliantly and the literature that accompanies is actually helpful, unlike most instructional materials. It gives target temperatures for every type of meat under the sun and all manners of “doneness”. The Thermapen has no problem dealing with liquid either so if you’re deep frying, making candy, or brewing coffee, the Thermapen will quickly become your best friend. I love, love, love this thing.
by Alex on May 14, 2014
After my last post (“How I booked a £3000+ flight for £1427“) I got a lot of people asking me about upgrades and miles on Virgin Atlantic so I thought I’d post a little How To on using miles for upgrades on Virgin Atlantic.
The first thing to know is that only certain types of tickets can be upgraded. It’s not as simple as Economy, Premium Economy and Upper. Each cabin has multiple fares and each of those fares have their own uses and restrictions. Currently on Virgin Atlantic there are 13 economy class fares. Yes, 13.
If you’ve already booked your flight….
If you’ve booked your flight already, we need to see if the ticket you have is upgradeable with miles. (If you haven’t booked yet, skip to this part.) The general rule is if you got a super cheap fare, it ain’t gonna be upgradeable. But the first step is figuring out what fare class you’re booked in. The easiest way is to look at the e-ticket that Virgin Atlantic emails you right after you book. In that email, you can find your fare class:
Ok so how can you tell if your fare is upgradeable? The folks over at V-Flyer have a really handy page that details all the Virgin Atlantic fare codes but for the sake of ease, the following fare codes are upgradeable with miles: Y, B, R, L, & M. So that means the following fare codes are NOT upgradeable with miles: U, E, Q, V, X, N, O, & T.
So you’ve found your booking class and it’s upgradeable. Sweet! Now what? Well now we have to check if there are mileage seats available for you to upgrade into. In other words, are there seats in Premium Economy or Upper Class that have been released or allocated for upgrades. Fortunately, you can check this pretty easily on Virgin Atlantic’s website. Just search for a flight as you normally would BUT specify the class you want to upgrade TO, and make sure you select “Spend your miles” in the final section:
When you click “find my flight” you’ll be prompted to login to your Flying Club account so make sure you do that. On the next page one of three things will happen:
- you’ll get a message saying there is no availability anywhere near your requested date. If you get this message, don’t despair. Keep checking back right up until the day before you’re due to leave as they often release seats closer to departure.
– you’ll get a calendar of alternative dates because the specific date you requested is not available for upgrades. Poke around and see what you can find.
– you’ll get all the info you need to book a flight with miles, which means there is availability to upgrade. Score! N.B. Don’t continue the process from here! We’re not booking a flight, just checking the availability.
So if you land on the magical third option you need to act fast. Call Virgin Atlantic’s reservation number (UK 0844 209 7777 / US +1 800 862 8621) armed with your confirmation code. Tell the friendly reservation agent that you want to upgrade and that you’ve already checked for availability. They’ll be able to take you through the process of upgrading. N.B. You will need to pay the difference in taxes between your original fare and your new plush and fancy fare. But don’t worry, it’s never a huge amount and absolutely worth it.
If you haven’t booked your flight yet…
If you haven’t yet booked your flight you’re in a good position because you can search for upgradeable fares before you book. Virgin Atlantic quietly rolled out a feature on their site that allows you to search by specific fare bucket which is EXTREMELY useful. If you go to the Companion Flight page you’ll see a booking widget towards the end of the page:
Using this widget, you can search for specific fare classes and they’ve already done the heavy lifting by only including fares that are eligible for upgrade. So go ahead and search for the flights you want, starting with M class and working your way up until you find a seat. Remember, as you go up from M all the way to Y, it will get more and more expensive.
Once you find a flight you’re happy with in fare class that’s upgradeable, WAIT! Go back and check that there are seats for you to upgrade into using the method I describe earlier in the article. If there are seats available then get on the phone to Virgin quickly and seal that upgrade!
This is the process I’ve gone through to secure a ton of mileage upgrades. Got questions? Let me know either via twitter (@cubedweller) or in the comments below.
by Alex on April 7, 2014
Last week I started planning our annual summer pilgrimage to California. This year we have to factor in school holidays for the first time as my eldest son is now in nursery school. So I started to have a play around with some dates on Virgin Atlantic’s website…and quickly realised, this wasn’t going to be cheap.
We’re a family of four now and because Luke is 3 he has to have his own seat, and while he doesn’t pay the full adult fare, it’s pretty close (about 75% of an adult fare). Playing around with the dates, the cheapest I could find for anywhere in the July/August timeframe was £3024.10
Ouch. I don’t care who you are, that’s a lot of money. And that was with us going for over a month, on the cheapest possible dates, which meant pulling Luke out of school early. If we’d left a day earlier it would have been nearly £3700, that’s how tight everything was looking.
So I activated “travel nerd mode” and started to poke around. Was LAX cheaper? Nope almost exactly the same, even with 2 flights a day. Even if Deanne and Jack went early and Luke and I came when he finished school, we were still only saving about £100. After a few hours of checking alternate cities, alternate dates, and other city combinations, I was beginning to think we might have to postpone our trip.
But not one to admit defeat, I started to explore alternatives.
Now I’ve never been a big believer in using miles for flights – they’re usually much more effective for upgrades. But I figured this might be the rare case where I can use them to pay for a flight. After a few minutes, that idea was torpedoed too. There wasn’t a mileage seat to San Francisco until October! LA was no better. Dammit.
The remaining ace I had up my sleeve was my companion ticket. For re-qualifying at Virgin Atlantic’s Gold level status, you get a free companion ticket. It ain’t as grand as it sounds, the restrictions on fare class and availability make it pretty hard to use. I figured at this point I should give the (usually excellent) Virgin Atlantic customer service card a call. I explained my predicament and I could immediately tell the lady on the other end was up for a challenge – we dove straight in…
As I thought, there was no availability for companion seats to SFO or LAX so that was a bust. But, she said, what about Las Vegas? The Bay Area is a piece of cake to get to from Vegas and it would be a fun place to decompress and get over jetlag for a few days. A quick look at the cash fare revealed the same depressing fare though, around three grand for the four of us.
But then we started look at companion tickets. Ah ha! Availability! I’d need to buy a slightly more expensive ticket (an M class ticket for those keeping score) but that might be ok if the taxes and fees on the companion ticket weren’t too awful. Here’s how it was shaping up:
– £1162 for my M Class fare
– £213 in taxes and fees for the companion ticket (Deanne)
– £150 for Jack’s infant ticket
– £863 for Luke’s child ticket
Ok, progress! Over £600 off the total airfare cost. But, as my learned friend on the other end of the phone pointed out, I had a stash of miles in my account. Should she run the numbers on a miles seat for Luke instead of cash? Sure, why not! So now we get to:
– £1162 for my M Class fare
– £213 in taxes and fees for the companion ticket (Deanne)
– £213 in taxes and fees for Luke’s miles seat
– £150 for Jack’s infant seat
Boom. Now we’re down over £1300 off the cash price. Just as I was about to hand over my credit card details, the voice on the end of the phone (after we’d been talking for over an hour) said “Hmmm…hold on….let me try something….what if the two adults are on mileage seats? You have enough miles if you transfer them over from your wife’s account.” By God, she’d done it:
– £213 in taxes and fees for my mileage seat
– £213 in taxes and fees for Deanne’s mileage seat
– £863 for Luke’s child ticket
– £138 for Jack’s infant seat
£1427. Down from a cash price of £3024. A saving of £1597. Same flight, same airplane, same service. And the best part is I still have a companion ticket left to use later in the year. Now because I used miles, I won’t earn miles for this flight, or tier points towards re-upping my Gold card. But given the savings and the circumstances, I think it was well worth it.
The lady at Virgin had to jump through all kinds of technical hoops to get the reservation system to allow this ticket to be issued because of the child/infant dependencies, the miles coming from multiple accounts, etc. It was quite an extraordinary display of dedication and exemplified why I continue to fly Virgin Atlantic.
A few things are worth pointing out:
- redeeming miles on popular routes during quiet times is hard enough, and during peak season it’s nearly impossible. So…
– look around for alternate cities, alternate routes (into your intended destination, out of an alternate city or vice versa), alternate dates.
– redeeming miles when the fare is already pretty reasonable is stupid. Pay the cash, earn the miles and tier points. Don’t piss your miles away unless there are substantial cash savings.
– further to that, in many cases it’s worth paying a little MORE for your economy ticket so you’re in an upgradeable fare class (that ultra-cheap fare you found won’t be upgradeable.) I’ll write a post about how to do that soon.
– it pays to call the reservation line sometimes as they can see mileage and companion/reward seat availability better than you can.
by Alex on December 18, 2013
I do a lot of public speaking and a topic I frequently speak about is loyalty. One of the most effective ways to create enduring loyalty is bridge the gap between online and offline. I want to share with you the best example of this principle that I’ve ever experienced.
Last weekend I was flicking through Twitter and I came across this sponsored tweet in my feed.
— Pact (@pactcoffee) December 13, 2013
Now we use Pact at Rushmore and their service and their coffee are both very good. Subscription coffee delivered to your door. But I bristle at that word “proper”. It’s an awful word. A lazy word. An elitist word that implies you’re better than everyone. I immediately fired off a reply:
.@pactcoffee -1 for using the word “proper”. You’re better than that. Love, a loyal subscriber.
— Alex Hunter (@cubedweller) December 14, 2013
At the very least, my own “get off my lawn” itch was scratched and I put my phone away. But moments later, it dinged and there was a reply. From a company. On a Saturday. Within minutes of the initial contact.
@cubedweller Sorry! We didn’t mean to sound snobbish. Looking for a word that conveys good taste. Maybe just ‘tasty’?! Love, Pact.
— Pact (@pactcoffee) December 14, 2013
I get what they mean about trying to find the right word but I think companies have every right to be confident and assertive in their product descriptions IF they genuinely feel their products live up to the labels. Confidence in a brand, just like confidence in a person, is attractive.
@pactcoffee I think you could even legitimately refer to yourselves as “great!” – love the product, keep smashing it.
— Alex Hunter (@cubedweller) December 14, 2013
They graciously and promptly replied almost immediately.
@cubedweller Thank you very much. Really appreciate it.
— Pact (@pactcoffee) December 14, 2013
I could end this story here and it would be a great example of a online customer service. But what happened next took it to a whole new level.
Today, as we were all sitting in the office, a delivery arrived. I opened up the recycled Amazon box and found 3 big bags of Pact’s fantastic coffee. No way. No freakin’ way. Did they…they couldn’t have…could they?
*slow clap* They did. They took the time to figure out who I was, where I worked, what our address was, package up the coffee and write out a note. Not only that, the message in the card was so perfect in its tone and context that I immediately got in touch with the company to express my appreciation and admiration.
Learn from Pact. It doesn’t get much better than this.
by Alex on December 8, 2013
A few days ago I had the opportunity to witness a revolution. Despite assuring my wife that I wouldn’t be anywhere near the protests in Kiev, on Wednesday night I found myself in the heart of Independence square, the epicentre of the Ukraine’s latest political struggle.
I was in the city to speak at an excellent conference and admittedly a little apprehensive about my first visit to a country gripped by political unrest. The latest news reports spoke of hundreds of thousands gathered in the square, police brutality against protesters and reporters, and the real possibility of national strikes. But we were assured by the organisers that the city was perfectly safe and the conference would carry on as planned. So I jumped on my flight early on Wednesday morning.
I was picked up at the airport by a member of the team that was putting on the event. During our drive to the hotel and then on to the conference venue, he gave us a thorough and fascinating recap of the events to date and his own personal take on what he thought the future held for the Ukraine. While western media was reporting around a hundred thousand people gathered in the square, local media was reporting closer to a million, and our companion, comparing his experiences from the Orange Revolution, was confident it was near a million.
As we drove through the city, life was going on as normal. Traffic was heavy, people were going to work and school, and commerce was happening freely. If you hadn’t picked up a newspaper recently, you wouldn’t have a sense that anything was out of the ordinary.
Later that night, during a private event at a lavish cocktail lounge overlooking Kiev, I heard rumblings of a possible trip to Independence Square. A few furtive glances between co-conspirators and we were out the door into the very cold Ukrainian night. With us was one of the conference organisers, who gave us a quick briefing to make sure we stayed out of harm’s way.
At first glance nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Christmas lights were up, people were crowding the bars and restaurants, and the transportation system was humming. But as we got closer to Independence Square, we could hear the dull, unsettling roar of a very large crowd.
We continued towards Independence Square only to discover the entire thing blocked off by a huge barricade made of every household item you could imagine. Doors, tables, lamp posts, shipping pallets, crowd control fences, artificial Christmas, trees, and stepladders were just a few of the construction items of choice.
Peering through the gaps in the barricade, we caught our first glimpse of the protests.
We decided that we’d come this far, we might as well carry on, so we rounded the barricade and walked towards the heart of the crowd.
People were hunkering down for a long, cold night and were building campsites and fires near the barricade.
The protestors had erected a huge stage with a jumbotron behind it. There were rousing speeches, patriotic music, and news updates from protest organisers.
I couldn’t tell you exactly how many people there were gathered in the square but it was easily in the tens of thousands. The atmosphere was not threatening or violent or unruly. It’s been suggested that the three main opposition parties are coordinating the protests and in fact the whole thing felt very well organised with toilet facilities and plenty of food and drink on offer. We never felt in danger or unwelcome during our hour or so trip.
I feel quite privileged to have witnessed this monumental event in person. Sure it was a risk and just about every guide book and travel survival book urges you to stay well away from large crowds or political rallies but we witnessed history in the making. The Ukraine is a country in flux and I hope the Ukrainian people get the change they’re fighting for.
by Alex on September 26, 2013
- There are not enough Dunkin’ Donuts in New England. Wait, I mistyped that. There are more Dunkin’ Donuts than people in New England.
- Almost every single New Englander I met was outgoing, friendly, confident, and chatty. Even the surly ones were hugely entertaining. e.g. When I enquired as to how a supermarket worker’s day was going, she replied “It’s Saturday, I’m stuck inside, it’s busy as hell…so pretty lousy. But the Sox clinched last night so I can’t complain. That’ll be 23 bucks, hun.”
- A lot of people still smoke there. California and London have skewed my sense of “normal” on this one.
- It’s one of the most beautiful parts of America I’ve ever seen. Water everywhere, tree-lined boulevards, quaint towns, pristine beaches.
- Hot sauce is quite hard to come by. My brother’s explanation is that while west coast food has heavy latin american influence, east coast food is mainly influenced by European cuisine and therefore not as hot-sauceable. (It is so a word, shut up.)
- You haven’t had clam chowder until you’ve had it in New England.
- Boston Logan International takes the crown for the worst airport in the developed world. Try parking there, I dare you.
- Tom Brady is 16ft tall and once threw over 400 touchdown passes in a single season.
- Clam bakes are delicious, entertaining, and scaleable. Everything good food should be.
- I could listen to a Boston accent forever.
- “Wicked pisser” means really great. And a “shit buddy” is a great friend. Not a shit friend. Counter-intuitive, I know.
by Alex on September 26, 2013
A few weeks ago I posted on Twitter about the shittiness of the Saturday-night stay rule that airlines use to fleece business travellers. If you’re not familiar with the rule, many airlines require passengers to spend a Saturday night in their destination city to get a half-decent fare. Wikipedia explains it further:
The rule is based on the airlines’ assumption that business travellers are more likely than leisure travellers to spend Saturday night at home. For example, a business traveler may depart on a Sunday or Monday and then return home that Friday or Saturday.
Business travellers’ demand for travel is less elastic and airlines attempt to increase their profits by price discriminating business travellers and leisure travellers. Business travels are also more loyal to a particular airline, and therefore are more likely to accept higher price.
Today, I came across a perfect example:
London to New York, roundtrip.
Leave on Wednesday, fly back at 10:25pm on Saturday night = £1521.45
Leave on Wednesday, fly back at 7:20am on Sunday morning = £480.45
Less than 9 hours difference in departure time but a cost increase of over £1000.
Dick move, right? The rule assumes that all businesses are big businesses and have huge travel budgets. What about the hundreds of thousands of small businesses that DON’T have big travel budgets. Or the leisure traveler who gets caught up in a rule that is purposely designed to screw the consumer?
Oh and here’s the hilarious “WTF?” cherry on this horse poo cake. The base fare on the Sunday flight is only £124. The rest is taxes and fees. And yes, the taxes and fees are exactly the same on the Saturday flight. So the airline jacked up the base fare by 850%. So there you have it, a £1000 “convenience” fee for business travellers to make it home in time to spend the weekend with their families.