Markus' Travel and International Living Blog

Markus is an enthusiastic traveler, who lives in Houston, TX (USA) most of the time, but also spends some time in Saalfelden, near Salzburg (Austria). He is fascinated by travel and also by his experiences gathered by living in two different countries and continents.

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Thursday, July 28, 2005
When in Seattle, you MUST visit Wild Ginger!

I concluded my trip this week with a two-day stay in Seattle. I like to go to Seattle, because it is a cool and energetic city. I wouldn't want to live there (boy, what crappy weather), but for a visit, it is awesome! And besides, the weather was perfect this time! Not a single cloud in the sky both days and nice mid-summer temperature. Summers may be short here, but the few days they last, they are very nice!

Whenever I go to Seattle, I try to make time to visit one of my favorite restaurants: Wild Ginger. If you even remotely like asian food, you must go there. No "ifs" and "buts". You must! I am telling you!

Oh, and when you leave Seattle, make sure you have enough time to get to the airport. Yesterday afternoon, the relatively short drive from Redmond to the airport took me an hour and a half. I almost missed my plane. Thank god for Continental's Elite Access and for online checkin!

Posted @ 11:39 PM by Egger, Markus ( -
Comments (28)

Tuesday, July 26, 2005
Eugene, Oregon is actually kinda cool...

After getting stuck in Salt Lake City Sunday night, I finally managed to get to my original destination (Eugene) Monday around noon.

To be honest, I was not sure what to expect. A relatively small town out in the middle of nowhere? How great could that be? But as it turns out, Eugene is actually pretty cool. The weather was awesome. Temperature just perfect, and not a cloud in sight. And the area around Eugene is actually very nice. A little hilly, volcanoes (Mt. Hood and such) not too far away, lots of green, foresty area. And the people that are in Eugene all seem to be the "outdoorsy type". Lots of people that come for the summer to enjoy the scenery and the great outdoors. In a way, this almost reminds me a bit of Austria.

I only had a day in Eugene, and didn't get a chance to do much there. But I am def. looking forward to coming back. This is much better than I had thought...

Posted @ 9:27 PM by Egger, Markus ( -
Comments (29)

Monday, July 25, 2005
A Night in Salt Lake City

I am spending the night in Salt Lake City.

"Why?", you ask? Well, that is a good question!

It all started out with a broken lavatory. Apparently flights can not take off with one of the lavatories not working. Between that and the zone-boarding, we left Houston more than an hour late, "but", they said "connecting flights are not going to be a problem, because they can make up enough time during the flight to get to Salt Lake City practically on time".

As we fly into the Salt Lake City area, I look out the window and I like what I see. Flying into Salt Lake always is interesting, coming in between the mountains and all. There are very few destinations where you get a real good feel for the mountains. Even flying into Salzburg airport does not give you a good view of the alps (unless you are flying in on a small plane from the west, which I usually don't). "Pretty cool", I think to myself, "but I would really not want to spend much time here...".

A few minutes later I find myself at the gate waiting for my gate-checked bag. This is getting close. I need my bag, and I need to find my connecting gate. Sure enough: The gate is at the complete opposite side of the airport. I better run. I get to where I am supposed to be at 8:22. My connecting flight (the only outbound flight that is on time) leaves at 8:20. Argh! Well, it's not the first connection I ever missed. I'll just fly out a bit later. But, as it turns out, "a bit later" is at noon the next day. I have to go to Eugene, Oregon, and apparently there are frequent flights, but only between noon and 8:20pm.

I brace myself for an argument with the customer service center. The first guy who advised me where to go already practically told me that it was my own fault, since I chose such a short connection. Gee, thanks, smartie-pants! I booked a trip from Houston to Eugene, and I picked one of the offered options. I didn't realize that the burden of figuring out whether a connection works out is on my shoulders. After all, it would seem that the people at Salt Lake City airport know what's possible a lot better than I do. But no: It certainly could not be the airline's fault.

Things take a turn for the better from there on though. The person who ultimately handles my case actually cares and is very helpful. I still can't get a different flight that night, but at least she sets me up with a hotel that Delta actually volunteers to pay for. She doesn't personally know the hotel, but she even calls the up to see if they have high-speed Internet. It still doesn't make my situation any better, but at least I didn't have to get into an argument. I guess it is pretty sad that someone not being nasty stands out in the airline industry, but I was very positively surprised.

The hotel turns out to be a dump (the "Airport Inn"). Old rooms, old furniture, old TV (with fewer than 10 channels), noisy AC. But the worst are the bed-sheets: Sandpaper-brand of the worst kind, like I have not seen it in years. I might actually sleep with my jeans and t-shirt on tonight (I am not kidding). I also have a "dinner coupon" from Delta, so I visit the restaurant that is attached to the hotel. The menu is pretty disappointing, but I go for a spinach-dip appetizer, a surf-and-turf steak and shrimp dinner, and a diet-Pepsi (no Coke here... Pepsi is taking over the world!).

The waitress is on her own, and even though the restaurant is mostly empty, she can not handle it all by herself. She is friendly, and I feel sorry for her, but it really does not make my day any better. She forgets my Pepsi. She forgets my spinach dip. I do get my surf-and-turf, but the steak is overcooked and tough, and the shrimp are 4 cold shrimp like you normally get them on a shrimp cocktail. The mashed potatoes are pretty nasty too. In fact, I accidentially eat some cauliflower thinking it is mashed potatoes, and initially fail to realize it. Oh well, I shouldn't eat too much anyway. I pay my 15 bucks after the $7 dinner Delta coupon is taken off the bill and retire to my chamber. (I am pretty sure I won't be taking advantage of my $7 breakfast coupon tomorrow...) What a nasty experience this place is.

So here I am! Sitting on my bed with my shoes still on, because I am somewhat afraid to take them off. I enjoy the free complimentary high-speed Internet connection, because it allows me to go online and tell the world what a dump this is. A lot of people screwed up at my expense today. At least they were all friendly...

Posted @ 12:17 AM by Egger, Markus ( -
Comments (28)

Monday, July 11, 2005
Get a Seat You Like (or Dislike Less)

Good seats in planes are almost unheard of. Sure, there are some first class seats on the really long flights that are pretty nice (BA has a seat that practically turns into a bed for instance... and for the price of a small house, you can rent it for a few hours...). In general however, airplane seats are crappy. Some of them more than others. But which ones do you want to go for?

Let's say you check in online or at the eTicket kiosk, and you are picking your seat. How do you know which one to go for? Exit row is usually a hot tip, but is it one of those exit rows that block all your leg room with the silly life raft thing? Does the seat decline? Often, the best seats are not in the exit row at all. Sometimes seats in the back of the plane are great on trans-atlantic flights, but then again, there might be two very similar seats, yet one of them has plenty of leg room, while the other has the plane's video equipment under the seat if front.

Here's a cool site: They have information about individual airlines and how they spec their planes. Let's say you are flying to from Houston to Amsterdam on a KLM-owned Boing 747-400, and you have seat 12E. How good is that? says it is pretty good, but be aware that "Seats 12-16 D,E are some of the only two-somes on this aircraft and are excellent when traveling with a partner. There is extra space between the E seats and the wall which provides extra storage, though if you like to lean against the wall to sleep, you may be uncomfortable. Many enjoy the private feel of this smaller cabin.". You can get a similar level of detail on every single seat in the plane, simply by hovering the mouse over a seat on the detailed graphic of the plane's layout.

With this information available, never reserve or choose a seat without going to first. Just make sure you actually know what plane you are flying on, because the same flight from Houston to Amsterdam could be operated by Northwest, which has a completely different layout. In fact, the Northwest flight (same Boing 747-400) does not even have a seat 12E. In fact, it is quite amazing how different the layout is...

Posted @ 12:03 PM by Egger, Markus ( -
Comments (23)

Sunday, July 10, 2005
A Texan Road Adventure

Last week I went on a road trip in Texas. I had to go to a small town about 4 hours north of Houston (no, not Dallas... we are really talking about a pretty small town here...20,000 people or so). The town I went to was pretty much like any other small town in the US. Nothing too remarkable here. However, the trip from here to there... well... it was "different".

People often give me a hard time about living in Texas. "You moved half way around the world to settle where?!?" they often say. But to be perfectly honest, I like Houston. Is it the greatest city in the world? Is it the place with the most fun stuff to do? The most culture? The most excitement? No, it is not. But it is a pretty good place to live. Relatively nice weather all year around (if you don't mind the heat in the summer), inexpensive (where else can you buy a 4-bedroom house for less than $200,000 these days?), no state income tax. Houston is also a great location if you travel a lot. With Continental having their main hub here, I can fly anywhere in the US in 3 or so hours (always direct). I can go to almost anywhere in Europe and South America direct (well, not Salzburg, but you get the idea <s>). And Houston really is just like any other large modern city in the US (I think we rank number 3 or 4 in size or so). So when people ask me about belt buckles and cowboy heats, I usually can only reply with a blank stare. I simply never see those.

But then there are road trips.

On this particular trip, I pretty much saw it all, and I have to say, most of it I did not like. Oh, I did see some nice stuff too: The hill country (Houston does not have hills, you know) was nice, and I even saw one place that looked like a small but fancy resort, with horses, jet skis, and a lot more. Cool.

But then on the other hand, most of what I saw, frankly, was disgusting. Not that I have not seen houses with old rusty trucks in the front yard before, but this was extraordinary. I even saw one house that had 20+ old and rusty school busses basically dumped on the porch. I also understand that there is a wide income-range in this country (unlike Europe where practically everyone is middle-class), but there is one thing I do not understand: Even if you are poor, why the hell can you not clean up around your place and keep things in reasonably good order? I would imagine that if I lived out there somewhere and I finally managed to get my own place to live, I would value it greatly and take care of it.

Some of the places I saw were plain mind-boggling. Houses so small one wonders how a bed can fit. Houses with broken windows looking as if they had been abandoned for years, yet people are sitting outside having a BBQ and act like people who are home. (We are talking 110 degree heat here...that would be 43 degrees celsius...). Lots of people live in trailers. I guess that's fine (although very strange to me), but if you live in a trailer, and there was a burnt out trailer right next to yours, wouldn't you clean up the ashes and such? Not here! I noticed the same exact burnt out trailer on a trip 2 or 3 years ago.

I guess I should not have been surprised, because I know how things are (and this is not truly specific to Texas either... I have seen similar things from Florida to Washington, and from California to Louisiana...), but it simply floors me every time. If one travels to a third world country, this sort of thing is to be expected. And granted, if you look at some of the slums around the larger third world countries, then things are a lot worse. But still! It is hard to believe that people would live like that in a first-world country, especially in the country that considers itself the number 1 country in the world. On this trip, I have seen barns that were nicer than some of the "houses" people live in (and that's not because the barns were unusually nice...). Sure, these people probably have the Internet and Cable TV, and the poor people in the third world do not, but give me a break! We gotta be able to do better than that. This sort of thing is simply unthinkable in other first world countries I have been to. Even in former eastern-Europe countries, or poorer EU countries (Britain comes to mind, although I do not have stats...), one just does not see this sort of thing. It is scary to think that some of the crappiest and poorest places I have been to are just an hour from home.

But I guess in a country where people have a lot of opportunities, one is also free to not take advantage of any of them and live like the pigs. Yet then again, I wonder if that really is the problem. Does a child that's growing up in the middle of nowhere in Texas have lots of opportunities? The public education system in the US is nothing to be proud of and ranks very low among western countries (for detail, check out the recent PISA study). I would be surprised if the schools of East Texas are amongst those that raise the average ;-). Private schools are probably out of the question. Sure, there are great universities in the US, but what are the chances for these kids to end up in one? (And since we are talking about it: Education for the rich? What is this? 16th century Europe? Barbaric!!!) Sometimes I wonder whether I should put some of my philanthropic efforts into the US rather than other countries.

Even though the trip made for a long day, I was glad to drive home the same night, rather than staying at a local motel. Before I left, I filled up on gas. This trip took me to the sort of places where if you do not have a heavy Texan accent, you think twice about getting out of the car, even if it is just to pee or to fill up the tank...

Posted @ 11:09 PM by Egger, Markus ( -
Comments (23)

Monday, July 04, 2005
4th Of July Celebrations

It's the 4th of July! I probably do not have to point out to you that this is one of the world's most famous non-religious holidays: The American Independence Day (and also the Independence Day of Rwanda, although I'd be surprised if that contributed to the fame...). So, what does one do on Independence Day? I am not sure. Light fireworks in the evening, I guess, if you are in an area where that's allowed. But what does one do to really celebrate the entire day?

Personally, I am not US-born (I am originally from Austria, as you probably know if you read this blog regularly), so on the 4th of July, I make an effort to become a bit more American. I am not entirely sure how to do that, but a proverb says (loosely translated) "you are what you eat", so that's what I am trying to do: I try to eat very American on the 4th of July. But then again, what is that exactly? Some people tell me pork roast is very American, but then that would also be very Austrian, plus we already have a traditional pork roast on Thanksgiving (don't ask). Steak is another option, but in Texas, it is hard enough to get into a steak place on any weekend, let alone the 4th of July. Plus, the US has good steak, no doubt, but that is true for many South American countries as well as other places as well. No, to me, there is one dish that is more American than any other: Burgers!

So the tradition we have started several years ago is to undertake a culinary expedition to the best known fast food joints and buy a burger (super-sized only if asked... which surprisingly never happened so far). This year, we (or "I" since Ellen never participates since she is "vaguely vegetarian" and only gets ice cream) went to McDonalds, Burger King, and (new entry this year) Sonic. This gotta do to make me feel a little more like a native. We did drop Wendy's and Jack in the Box off the list this year, since I really didn't feel so good after last year's feast. (The fact that I practically never eat fast food burgers probably doesn't make my stomach more agreeable with this event...).

I wonder whether I should take this concept a bit further and celebrate other country's national holidays the same way. I am not sure I could honor all countries this way, after all, there are about 190 countries total (exact number depending on whom you ask...). This would not even give me a day after each one to recover. But maybe I can start out with a limited list:

  • Australia Day on the 26th of January: Crocodile, ostriches, and kangaroo tails, I guess. Not my favorite, but you gotta make sacrifices for international friendship...
  • Greece's Independence Day is on March 25th: Souvlaki (the small kind) and Ouzo while dancing sirtaki all night.
  • Italy's Republic Day is on June 2nd: A special treat. We will start out with a beef carpaccio appetizer. Then, we will have some pasta and pizza as the main dish. Gelatti as the dessert of course, and finally, a grappa just for good health.
  • Denmark has their Constitution Day on June 5th: Lapskaus? Is that even Danish? Not sure how much I could eat of that...
  • I am not certain about Sweden. Although they have a "National Cinnamon Bun Day" and a "Waffle Day". If push comes to shove, I will adopt one of these. I think we'd take their Flag Day on June 6th and eat Reindeer (which is better than you might think it is...shiny nose and all). I hope I feel OK after the Lapskaus the previous day...
  • The Brits celebrate the Queen's Birthday on the second saturday in June (which is odd for a birthday... especially since here real birthday is April the 21st): This one is scary. Pots of Irish Stew and a Spotted Dick for dessert? Maybe I'll settle for watching Monty Python all day instead...
  • Canada Day on July 1st: Hmmm... are polar bears eatable? If not, we'll have to drink a keg of Labatte Blue.
  • France's Bastille Day on July 14th: 18 course meal that ends with a fantastic cheese plate. This may possibly take us into May9th...
  • Belgium's National Day on July 21st: Pancakes?
  • Switzerland's National Day is August 1st: Cheese Fondue of course. Be careful not to drop your bread in the pot. I hear the penalty for that is to be thrown into lake Geneva with a lead weight tied around your neck. And I always thought the Swiss were reasonable people...
  • India's Independence Day on August 15th: Naan and vindaloo chicken like no tomorrow
  • Indonesia's National Day on August 17th: We will consume a Reistaafel for 18 people (even though the menu will claim it is for 2)
  • Hungary's Constitution Day on August 20th: Gulasch
  • Brazil's Independence Day on September the 7th: Fogo de Chao for 8 hours straight! (My personal favorite)
  • Mexico's Independence Day is on the 16th of September: Fajita's and Tequila!
  • China's National Day on the 2nd of October (or is it the 1st of October? If we are off, we'll just claim its because we are across the international date-line): I'll volunteer to eat 3 or 4 Peking Ducks.
  • Germany's Unity Day on October 3rd: Not sure what to do here. Eisbein (boiled pork leg)? I don't think so. Weisswuerste perhaps. Or maybe we will take some Austrian dish - like pork roast or Schnitzel - and call it German. After all, that's what all the German restaurants in the US do. Or maybe I'll just take it easy, since I will still be recovering from the Peking Ducks...
  • Croatia's Independence Day is on October 8th and their Statehood Day is on June 25th: Scampi by the kilo on both occasions!
  • I am not sure about Spain, but I want to eat paella. I think Hispanic Day on the 12th of October is what Spain considers their "national holiday".
  • Austria's National Day on the 26th of October: Eat all the Schnitzel (basically breaded veal or pork cutlets) and drink all the beer you want.
  • December 10th is Thailand's Constitution Day: We'll have Panang Chicken out of a 5-liter pot of course!
  • Japan's Birthday of the Emperor Akihito on December 23rd: Sushi by the boatload!

Of course, the list is still short. I can always add more next year. Right now, I really don't feel like thinking about food to be honest. Maybe I need to get a few tums. Too bad this wasn't the Austrian National Day. I could have a Schnapps instead...

Posted @ 8:40 PM by Egger, Markus ( -
Comments (30)

Monday, July 04, 2005
Finding Inexpensive Airfare Online

So you are using Expedia, Orbitz, and other online travel sites and still can not find the rates, routes, or times that are convenient for you? The same thing happens to me all the time. Booking airfare (online or offline) has to be one of the most frustrating experiences for the modern traveller. How can this be so hard? Yet every time we go on a trip, we come to the conclusion that "there really isn't anything remotely close to what we want". And if we ever do come up with an option we are happy with, then it's time to click quickly! Sometimes the option is not available anymore by the time we click "submit". Argh!

A lot of this has to do with the way airlines price their flights. You want to leave on a Friday or Saturday? Ca-ching! You want to leave in the morning or the evening? Ca-ching! You don't want an 8-hour layover? Ca-ching! You want to use your miles to pay for the ticket? Preposterous! They'll charge you twice the miles than they told you when you signed up for the program, and there probably is a leg in there somewhere that you have to pay for anyway. Ca-ching! You need flexibility, especially on the date of the return flight? Ca-ching, ca-ching!

And not only will you have trouble finding the flight you want, you also almost certainly end up with something you didn't want. Try flying from Houston to Salzburg for instance. At the very least, you will have one stop-over (Amsterdam or Paris most likely), possibly two (add Detroit in the mix). So now you have 6 individual flights, one of which is almost certainly of a fare-class that throws you for a loop, either in your attempts to collect or use miles, or when you have to change your return flight. ("I am sorry Sir, you could change your flights from Amsterdam to Detroit and Houston, but not the one from Salzburg to Amsterdam...").

There is no silver bullet that takes care of this problem (at least not that I am aware of). However, it never hurts to know all your options, and none of the typical travel sites will give you a good overview, since they all focus on their individual offerings. However,, a site originally created by MIT students specializing on artificial intelligence, is pretty good at just that. It seems they are digging through an enormous amount of data. (The site certainly seems to take a bit more time coming up with the data you are looking for). What you get in the end is a great overview over your options, including warnings about facts you might be interested in (such as long layovers that might be hidden in the schedule somewhere). The site is not what I would call beautiful, but it is very functional, allowing you to see your options in different ways, including a fancy graphical view.

The only thing the site does not provide is a quick view of fare details. This is one of my pet peeves with air travel in general: Almost everything is driven by fare class. Every time you need to change your flight in some way, you are almost certainly in a fare class that restricts what you want to do. It would be cool if ITA were to warn you about that as well. The fare class is also important when it comes to getting reward miles. Continental for instance gives travelers only half the miles for certain fare classes, and for some reason - what a strange phenomenon, really ;-) - tickets booked online are almost always in those classes. And to add insult to injury, the airlines keep ridiculing you for having booked those crappy tickets. As if one goes online and searches for a ticket in a crappy fare-class. In fact, I am not aware of a single site that allows the traveler to exclude certain fare-classes from searches. Not even Continental's own site has such a feature. It seems to me that some regulatory effort should be made to get this farce under control. Isn't anyone doing anything to protect the consumer in this industry?!?

Posted @ 3:05 PM by Egger, Markus ( -
Comments (23)

Friday, July 01, 2005
Want your own Tropical Island? Build one!

So you want your own tropical island? You are not alone. And since some many people want to buy one yet the supply is somewhat limited, Dubai simply decided to build a "few" more. First, they created their Palm Islands project, which was already rather impressive. But they decided that was not enough! Now, the are building the whole world our of 250-300 islands. Check this out:

Each of the islands is 25,000-90,000 square meters in size (that is 250,000 to 900,000 square feet). Islands come in 4 different categories, from "private home" to "luxory resort". Some of them are still available, and you can call one of them your own starting at $11 million, and if you want to go all out, you can have one as high as $37 million. (Personally, I will hold off a little to see how things develop... although I would be interested to know whether the Austria-island is still available...<s>). The project is called "The World Islands".

And then people say that nothing exciting happens anymore. Sure, the next hotel going up in Vegas isn't all that cool, and asides from that, nothing truly earth-shaking is happening in North America or Europe, but in Dubai, things are really happening! From the world's best hotel (7 stars!), to man-made islands. Dubai def. is one of the top places of my "must go to soon" list. It is rapidly advancing to the world's most fashionable place to be...

Posted @ 10:21 PM by Egger, Markus ( -
Comments (36)








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