Sunday, January 25, 2009

Book Price Comparison

I recently (re-)discovered, a book price comparison tool. Although it doesn't have a great search feature (it's best if you know the ISBN) and it doesn't account for such things as Amazon/Barnes and Noble/Powell's "free shipping" offers on many items, it is still a great resource.

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Saturday, January 05, 2008

Virgin America: W Hotel in the Air...But First Class Isn't

Swartz Brothers in First ClassMy brother, father and I flew to Vegas on Virgin America, the newly minted discount carrier loosely affiliated with Richard Branson's British Virgin Group.

Virgin's planes look very "hip" on the inside, not unlike a W Hotel, with "mood lighting" and a state-of-the-art "Red" entertainment system (which, alas, crashed once during our flight, but was still a neat way to watch movies or listen to music on demand). Much like JetBlue, they are catering to the Target crowd: cheap luxury.

Flying first class up in the sky...'Glamorous' on the Red Entertainment System
Our experience was all the more luxurious because we got (relatively) cheap first class tickets. I had never flown first class before, but my brother has some experience with other airlines, and pointed out the following shortcomings of Virgin's service:
  • Check in: Because there was only one customer service agent assigned to first class and a couple people were ahead of us in line, we ended up waiting longer than the folks in the coach line.
  • Welcome: My brother is accustomed to being greeted by name and immediately served drinks. Neither happened.
  • Amenities: There was nowhere to hang our jackets; the flight attendant did offer to take them, but just folded them up in the overhead compartment. Because of the oddly designed seats, there is nowhere to put one's smaller bag (e.g. a computer bag) during the flight. Finally, while the entertainment system screens are nice, they must be folded away during takeoff and landing--thus making them less useful for short flights than the ones in coach.
  • Baggage: Our bags were not given "priority" handling, and thus were near the end of the bags coming off of the conveyor.
Am I complaining? No, not really: it was still a neat experience being in first class for just a little more money. I'm the sort of cheapskate that always buys the least expensive ticket, after all! However, I would not recommend flying Virgin America first class unless the difference between it and a normal ticket is $50 or simply doesn't compare to "real" first class service on other airlines. Virgin America first class is merely coach with more room and free drinks.

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Sunday, November 04, 2007

Cheapskate Flying

What's the best way to find cheap airline tickets? There are a few options:

  • Multiple-Carrier Searches

    You've heard of most of these: Expedia, Orbitz, Travelocity. Many of them return the exact same information; this is because they all use one of four Computer Reservation Systems (CRS). For example, Expedia, Orbitz, Hotwire, and Priceline all use Worldspan.

  • Multiple-Carrier Uncertain Searches

    A few of these websites offer you discounts if you're willing to sacrifice some amount of certainty (e.g. what carrier, what specific price). Witness Priceline's famous "name your own price" and Hotwire's last-minute deals and "Limited Rates". Lately I've been traveling home for just a weekend, so this isn't worth it (I don't want to fly in late Saturday and out early Sunday!).

  • Carrier Websites

    Once you have an idea which carriers offer what cheap flights when, it's often actually less expensive to get those flights directly from the carrier. For example, after doing an Orbitz search to figure out what carriers to try, I went on Alaska Airlines' website and found the same flights but without the extra Orbitz charges.

  • Budget Carrier Websites

    A few budget carriers, such as JetBlue, Southwest, and Virgin America, do not participate in any CRS and thus you have to search them individually.

  • Special Deals

    Airlines often give special discounts for flying at certain times, etc. Normally you'd have to sign up for their email notification service to get these deals...or you can go to sites like CheapAir, which shows you all the deals if you click "My dates are flexible." Of course, there are lots of blackout dates (e.g. my flight home for Thanksgiving was nearly $400 but if I didn't fly on 11/21 (the day before Thanksgiving) or 11/24-11/26 (the weekend after) then it would be $178 round-trip, even less ($158) flying into Oakland, as long as I booked 14 days in advance.

  • Kayak

    I recently learned about Kayak, which does a meta-search of various airlines (including the budget ones) and travel reservation sites. While it's probably still worthwhile to check out special deals elsewhere, it could just become my "one stop shop" for airline tickets...

THE BOTTOM LINE: If you're flexible, check out the CheapAir discounts and hotwire last-minute deals. If not, do a Kayak or Orbitz (or whatever other engine you like) search followed up by carrier searches (the ones that came up on Orbitz and the discount airlines).

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Friday, March 10, 2006

The New Best Cookbook

While it lacks the encyclopedic breadth of Joy of Cooking, the idiosyncratic personality of celebrity chef cookbooks (Emeril's kick-it-up-a-notch joviality, Rachael Ray's Minnesota soccer mom practicality, etc.), and the luscious photos of "food porn" cookbooks (like the Williams-Sonoma series), The New Best Recipe by the editors of Cook's Illustrated Magazine is by far the most useful cookbook I've seen.

These guys--who also produce the nerdy PBS show America's Test Kitchen--try hundreds of variations of each recipe, and tell you what works the best. Better yet, they tell you why it works the best, so you can make informed decisions about how closely to follow their recipes. They don't get super-technical, like Alton Brown's Bill-Nye-the-science-guy wackiness, but they explain each of the experiments they tried and how they arrived on what they think is the "best" recipe. Furthermore, they explain how to cut out time and effort without cutting out taste. Also, like the cooking show and magazine, they include product reviews and taste tests, which will help you make informed supermarket decisions. Yes, there are plenty of other good cookbooks out there, but until proven otherwise, I'm convinced this one is the best.

(The one downside: as Kathy Grace mentions in her otherwise glowing Amazon review, it has a deplorably bad Table of Contents. The Index isn't much better.)

Update: a website that includes reviews, recipes, and kitchen tests with a similar spirit is Cooking for Engineers--a great resource. You don't need an engineering degree to understand it, but those who think like an engineer will like it.

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Friday, December 17, 2004

Good sources for consumer reviews

Where can one find good, unbiased reviews of consumer products? It depends on what you're looking for.
  • Consumer Reports is of course a reputable organization, so committed to independence that it never takes advertisements, but unfortunately most of their content requires a paid subscription. Also, they are usually behind the times when it comes to computer technology.

  • Epinions and Amazon offer good anecdotal reports on specific products--as long as you take individual reviewers' opinions with a grain of salt.

  • CNET offers good reviews of most electronics or computer products.

  • Consumer Search is one of my favorites. Yes, they now have advertising, which is a little annoying. However, they do great "meta-reviews"...that is, reviewing and summarizing what all the other review sites and publications (including Consumer Reports) say.

  • Google's Consumer Information Directory has other useful consumer sites.


Sunday, September 26, 2004

Why a Consumer Reviews Blog?

Since the past year was my first year living away from home and out of college dormatories, I've found myself buying a lot of stuff. Stereotypically, guys don't like shopping, and I certainly fall into that stereotype. However, we shopping-phobic men seem to fall into two camps: First, those who get the first thing they see. Second, those who research the @#$@ out of their purchase before getting it. Although most of the time I'm in the first camp, when it comes to big, "long-term" purchases that I plan on hanging on to a while, I'm definitely in the second camp.

So, when buying the sorts of things one needs for a new apartment--kitchen stuff, a bed, furniture--I took a good amount of time researching my options both on- and off-line. Partly to document my findings so I can remember the next time I need to make such a purchse, and also to share my findings with other people, I've decided to set up this blog. (I also didn't want to clog up my normal blog with consumer advice.)