British Airways Tests Electronic Luggage Tags

British Airways electronic luggage tag
Courtesy Designworks

It’s 2013: we can carry hundreds of books on a pocket-sized device, video chat anywhere in the world and order nearly anything to be delivered to our door. So why do we still use paper luggage tags and rely on outmoded technology to track our missing bags? British Airways has teamed up with Designworks to test an electronic luggage tag this month that could eliminate disposable paper tags and allow smartphone users to track their bags. The reusable bag tag would automatically update after check-in with your flight information, saving time to print and attach new tags with every flight. Now if only they could prevent bags from being lost at London’s infamous black hole Heathrow Airport.

The Day I Jumped In Regent’s Canal And Tried To Save My Wet iPhone With Uncooked Rice

regent canalThere are plenty of ways for Americans to make a good impression in London. Scurrying into stores dripping wet, asking for large sacks of rice and zip lock bags isn’t one of them. I was enjoying a relaxing walk along Regent’s Canal after a visit to the Camden Lock Market in North London when, daydreaming, I tripped over a mooring post. I fell to the ground and my backpack, containing my Nikon D7000 DSLR camera and my iPhone, tumbled right into the canal.

It only took me an instant to realize that I needed to jump in the water to retrieve the bag and in my urgency, I didn’t think to ditch my wallet or take my shirt, pants or shoes off before taking the plunge. Recovering my bag was easy, but hoisting myself back out of the canal took some doing. And as I pulled myself out of the murky, smelly water, a small crowd had gathered to watch the spectacle, perfect theater for a Sunday afternoon.”You oh-roight, mate?” one man asked as I stood on the narrow walkway, dripping wet and feeling ridiculous.

“Nice day fer a swim, innit?” quipped another. Indeed it was a lovely day for a swim; 61 degrees with London’s characteristically ominous, fast-moving clouds.

A passing boat pulled over and a couple rushed over to me with a bath towel and a clean T-shirt. The man said the shirt was mine to keep and the woman helped me dry my camera and iPhone.

“You’ve got to find a sack of rice and fast,” the man said. “The sooner you get your electronics sealed inside a bag with rice, the better your chances.”

I walked back to the Camden Lock, my pants feeling oppressively wet and heavy, with water sloshing around in my shoes. I consoled myself with a roti at a Pakistani sandwich stall and the owner confirmed that I needed to find some uncooked rice and fast.

A South Asian clerk in the nearest supermarket I could find, eyed me warily as I asked for a big bag of rice and zip lock bags.

“Why are you all wet?” he asked.

I explained and suddenly he became interested in my quest.

“I have a wet iPhone too,” he said. “Let me know if the rice works, will you?”

He didn’t know what zip lock bags were, but we found the British equivalent along with a few small bags of rice. After I paid for the items, I crouched down in the corner of the store and put my camera and phone inside the bags, then began poring the rice over them. An over-officious middle management type in a short-sleeve shirt and clip-on tie came over to me, and in the sort of vaguely hostile way a store security guard might approach a homeless person, he asked, “What uh you doing there, sir?”

But thankfully my new friend rushed over to explain. “It’s OK,” he said. “He just took a swim in Regent’s Canal and is trying to save his gear.”

I returned to my apartment in Earl’s Court, still wet and smelling like something unpleasant dredged from the bottom of the canal. I rather liked my new T-shirt, but felt sick thinking that I may have just pissed away $2,000 worth of electronic equipment into an old canal. I heard different stories about how long I needed to keep my gear turned off and inside the bags of rice. Some said you needed just 24 hours, but others said 3-4 days. I was in town to cover Wimbledon but played it safe, resisting the temptation to snap photos of the All England Club for four full days. On my last morning in town, I nervously took my items out of the rice, like a teenager opening a slim-looking admissions letter envelope from their dream college.

The camera worked, but the iPhone was displaying gibberish. I took it to a cellphone shop on Earl’s Court Road and a Pakistani man named Akbar, who sat on a stool surrounded by phones and phone gadgetry, read my iPhone its last rites.

“This phone is dead,” he said, grim faced and stoic. “Very dead. I’m afraid there’s nothing that can be done.”

I felt a bit like a dog owner facing up to a grim diagnosis from a veterinarian. As I boarded a train for the brilliantly named tube stop “Cockfosters” I took stock of my trip. I was leaving town without a working phone but I had an unforgettable story to tell. And a new T-shirt.

Fascinating Map Of London By Stephen Walter


Stephen Walter has a way of creating complex and obsessive art — specifically, maps. His maps of various areas in England are often enlightening, but he has himself beat with one of his latest creations: a fascinating map of London and its underground. The map was commissioned by the London Transport Museum and while doing his research for the project, Walter uncovered legions of undiscovered facts about London and began incorporating the eerie history beneath the surface of London into the map itself. The map isn’t all historical facts, though. Interjecting his own imagination with fabled stories and general lore alongside the facts, Walter created a map like no other — it transports you into a magical, parallel universe of London, where hearsay is marked and remembered.

[Thanks, Intelligent Life]

London Waterways Development for London 2012

Is Priceline Lowering Its Standards For 3-Star Hotels?

crappy hotelI’ve been a devoted user of Priceline’s “Name Your Own Price” bidding tool for years. In the past year, I’ve written columns here on how to game their bidding system, how to overcome their new bidding hurdles, and another piece about trying to decode their star system. I still love the bidding concept but after several negative experiences of late, I have a few words of cautionary advice on how to bid for hotel rooms.

Two years ago, Hotel Deals Revealed did an analysis comparing Hotwire to Priceline on how generous they are in assigning star levels to hotels and concluded that Priceline was more cautious in assigning stars (i.e., they weren’t overrating hotels). But based on several recent experiences bidding on three-star hotels in Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio and London, I think Priceline has lowered its standards for how they classify three-star quality hotels.While bidding on three-star hotels in the U.S. in the last three months, I’ve gotten Holiday Inn hotels on four consecutive occasions. Each hotel was adequate, sort of, but none was as clean or nice as what I’ve been accustomed to getting – Marriott, Hilton, Hyatt, Sheraton, etc. – for three-star bids on Priceline over the years.

Charlottesville, Virginia, is a good example of how Priceline’s ratings have changed over the years. I’ve gone to Charlottesville several times over the years and have used Priceline on multiple occasions. There are a number of good three-star hotels in town – Hampton Inn, Doubletree, two Courtyards, a Residence Inn and others. But Priceline now considers two Holiday Inn locations in town as three-star properties as well.

I’ve stayed in both and they simply aren’t as clean or nice as the hotels mentioned above. The furniture at the University location, for example, is dated and ill fitting – the office chairs in the room don’t level up with the desk, for example, and on a recent stay there were a host of dead bugs in the sliding glass door, which also had a broken handle.

But as mediocre as the Holiday Inn Charlottesville University is, it’s the Taj Mahal compared to the Avni Kensington, a supposedly three-star property I got from a recent bid on Priceline in London. (Priceline refers to this hotel by its old name, the Kensington Edwardian.) My first impression was of their bathroom in the common area. There were no hand towels next to the sinks – just rolls of toilet paper to dry your hands.

My room had three droopy old single beds plus a broken television and non-functioning Wi-Fi. (The Wi-Fi was later fixed; the TV was not.) Trip Advisor categorizes the hotel as a two-star property, which is about right. I made a complaint about the property to Priceline but they stated that the hotel was “unwilling” to issue a refund so I was out of luck. A Priceline spokesperson told me several weeks ago that the company uses a number of criteria in categorizing hotels, including some factors that travelers might not care much about – like if the place has a full-service restaurant, a pool and others.

But what I found most interesting about the experience is the fact that I was unable to review my hotel experience in London on the Priceline site. I asked the customer service rep how I could leave a review of this hotel on the site because they use the customer reviews as a basis for how they categorize the hotels, but she said I had to wait to see if I received an email inviting me to take the survey. I looked through my inbox and noted that I had received survey requests for all of my previous hotel stays (none of which had I issued complaints over) but I didn’t get one from this stay in London.

Priceline gives bidders guarantees that they’ll receive a hotel with positive feedback (it varies based upon the star level you are bidding on); so I can’t help but think that they flag customers who complain about a property not to receive the survey email.

What can you take away from my bidding experiences? The most import thing is to do your homework before you bid. Use Priceline’s normal search function and look at what they are offering at each star level. Then check the reviews of those hotels online and assume you’ll get the place that has the lowest reviews. If you can’t live with that, you need to bump up the star level you’re bidding on.

For example, if you are bidding in the north suburban area of Chicago, and you see that Priceline has a hotel they consider a three-star property but that it has horrible reviews, assume that if you bid three stars, you will get that hotel. If you can’t live with that, you need to bid 3.5, or find another way to book your room.

July 8, 2013 Update: A spokesperson for Priceline tells me that the company sent me a survey email on 6/22 inviting me to review the hotel I stayed at in London. I have double checked both of my email addresses and I never received it. Either way, there should be a way for customers to review the hotel they stay in, whether one gets their email inviting them to do so or not. And, after bidding on yet another 3 star hotel in Portsmouth, NH this week, and, once again, getting another Holiday Inn with so-so reviews, I stand by what is written above. 3 stars with Priceline used to mean Hyatt, Hilton, Marriott, Sheraton and so on. These days, it seems to be Holiday Inn and other brands in that tier.

24 Hours On The Dark Streets Of London

london streetsWalking near London’s 16th-century St. John’s Gate in the city’s East End, I was looking for an old pub called the Jerusalem Tavern early on a misty Saturday night when a young woman in a skin-tight miniskirt approached me with a question. I was about to apologize and say, “I’m not from around here,” when she pointed to her friend, who was wearing a dress with deep slits practically up to her waist on both sides, and said in a distinctive Cockney accent, “What do you suppose she’d be good for?”

She extended her right thumb and said, “I think a snog,” released the index finger while saying, “a wife,” and then flipped down the third, suggesting a possibility that rhymes with truck. I had just arrived in town after a sleepless night spent on a plane, followed by a layover in Germany and another flight west to London necessitated by the vicissitudes of using miles for reward travel, and I could barely process their accents or what was being asked. As I gave them a confused look, she repeated the question as her friend turned and looked away, horrified.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe all three?”

Samuel Johnson delivered the famous line “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford,” when America was but a year old. He’s still right. I’ve been visiting London intermittently for 25 years and there are always serendipitous encounters and new discoveries to be made. The city is always changing, always evolving and you need to keep going back to see what you’ve missed. On a recent six-day trip to London to cover Wimbledon, I had 24 hours to kick around town before the tournament started. I’d seen many of London’s most famous sights before so I set out to break new ground in one of my favorite cities.

Saturday

6 p.m. Bosphorus Kebabs in South Kensington

I’m always on the lookout for cheap eats in London and this place is a find. There are just a few tables, and you might have to wait, but the intimate setting gives you a chance to listen to the regulars bantering with the cooks.

“C’ah mon mate, don’t be stingy wit tha doh-nah, oh-roight now, that’s wot I’m talkin’ bowt,” said one obnoxious bloke, who’d clearly started drinking early on a Saturday.

I had the spicy Adana kebab, which was outstanding and came with rice, salad and bread for £6, a bargain by any measure in this pricey megacity.

7:30 p.m. Jerusalem Tavern

There are at least 7,000 pubs in London so to recommend just one is almost perverse. But a surprising number of London pubs offer just mass-produced beer and no craft beers, so even though there are pubs on nearly every block, it’s not always as easy to find good beer as you might expect. The Jerusalem Tavern is operated by London’s St. Peter’s Brewery, so it has great beer, plus atmosphere in spades.

It’s a tiny little place, with just three rooms and a row of wooden casks behind the bar. The tavern has occupied different sites in the neighborhood since the 14th century and the present building dates to 1720, though it’s only been a pub since the 1990s. I had a tasty pint of St. Peter’s Brewery Pale Ale and enjoyed something you never find in an American bar: quiet. No music, no TV, just the hum of quiet conversation.

9 p.m. A Stroll Through Shoreditch in London’s East End

London’s East End, once home to Jack-the-Ripper, has historically been the city’s gritty, working class underbelly. But in recent years, Shoreditch and other East End hoods have been transformed into the creative hub of the British capital. On the second longest day of the year it was still light out after 9 p.m. and swarms of fashionably dressed young people were lined up outside Cargo, a bar/restaurant with thumping dance music, while over at a bar called Kick on Shoreditch High Street, guys in French Maid costumes sang drinking songs and toasted each other on the veranda.

Shoreditch is filled with bars, restaurants, music venues and galleries, but it’s also a neighborhood that rewards aimless wandering, particularly on buzzing streets like Curtain road, near Rivington street, Bash street and Hoxton Square.

Sunday

8 a.m. Hyde Park

I like to start the morning with a long walk in a pretty green space and in London, Hyde Park is a serene and scenic place to start the day with a little exercise. Henry VIII appropriated this chunk of land in 1536 from the monks of Westminster Abbey to hunt deer and the place has been open to the public since the early 1600s.

I visited London for the first time as a 16-year-old and one of the few things I remember about the trip was a Sunday morning visit to Speaker’s Corner, where Londoners of all stripes can stand up on top of a milk crate and speak their minds. I was thrilled to learn the term “wanker” and various other bits of slang, much to my parent’s chagrin, so I was eager to experience the spectacle again after all these years. But alas, the speakers don’t get fired up until later in the morning, so if you want to take in speaker’s corner, stop by on Sunday afternoon.

11 a.m. Sung Eucharist at St. Paul’s Cathedral

Cross London’s Millennium Footbridge at 11 a.m. on a Sunday morning and you’ll be beckoned into St. Paul’s by the glorious chiming bells. The smell of roasting nuts fills the air as you cross the bridge, and even an atheist could enjoy the splendor of this magnificent cathedral, designed by St. Christopher Wren in 1675 on the site where a cathedral was first opened in 604. Stick around for the 11:15 a.m. Sung Eucharist to get the full experience of this magisterial place, which was the tallest building in London until the 1960s.

12:00 p.m. Tate Modern

Even if you don’t like modern art, walk back across the Milennium Footbridge after your visit to St. Paul’s and check out the sixth-floor café of this museum for spectacular views of the cathedral and the city. You can visit the permanent exhibits for free and the gift shop is also a great place to stock up on souvenirs. The highlight of my visit was an exhibit featuring the works of Mexican photographer Graciela Iturbide, but I found many of the other exhibits best left for the Sprockets crowd.

1:30 p.m. Bánh mì Time

Take the tube to Goodge street and then walk west on Goodge between Charlotte and Cleveland streets to find this outdoor stand selling freshly grilled mouth-watering bánh mì sandwiches (beef, pork and chicken) £5.

2 p.m. Dickensian London

Walk up Cleveland Street, north of Goodge, to check out Charles Dickens’s first London home, now an apartment with six buzzers sandwiched in between Indian and Greek restaurants. (Look for the blue plaque.) And just one block north, check out the workhouse that gave him the inspiration for “Oliver Twist” across from the King and Queen Pub.

Then head east to the fascinating Charles Dickens Museum at 48 Doughty Street, where Dickens lived from 1837-9, writing “Oliver Twist” and “Nicholas Nickelby” in his mid-20s. Seek out American novelist Jennifer Emerson, an American writer who volunteers at the museum. She can tell you all about Dickens’s troubled childhood, complicated love life and nomadic tendencies. (Look for more on the Dickens Museum on Gadling soon.)

4 p.m. Camden Lock Market

Camden is a shopper’s paradise but the Camden Lock Market is also a great place for budget ethnic dining. The problem is choosing what to eat. I was temped by Portuguese cakes, fish and chips, Dutch pancakes, Polish kielbasa, Peruvian ceviche and Argentine burgers before I decided on a Pakistani chicken curry roti, which was outstanding. Don’t miss having a cup of the organic Ethiopian coffee; Ethiopian sisters Eden and Mercy roast the beans in a tiny little pan over a burner and they’ll tell you all about their coffee.

“People think coffee comes from Italy!” said Eden. “No! It comes from Ethiopia!”

Grab your cup of coffee and wind up with the day with a long ramble through the labyrinth of market stalls and then take a nice walk along Regent’s canal to burn off the calories.

WHERE TO STAY

On each of my previous visits to London, I stayed in hotels, but this time, I rented an apartment on Nevern Square, a stone’s throw from the Earl’s Court Tube stop via Trip Advisor’s Flipkey website. Hotel rooms tend to be small and expensive in London, and apartments aren’t cheap either, but at least you can stretch out a bit. For about the price of a mid-range hotel, I had a beautiful one-bedroom apartment that was fully equipped with a kitchen and a washing machine. Even better, the management company included use of a local iPhone, with free data, local calls and texting. It’s a beautiful neighborhood of handsome brick row houses, gardens and squares, handy and central for seeing all the sights, not to mention Wimbledon.