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Before we get traveling this week I have some good news: made this month's (Dec/Jan) issue of Arthur Formmer's Budget Travel Magazine (page 49)!  In case you didn't know, we also made the Nov/Dec issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine (page 36).  How cool is that?  Please support these two magazines. You can buy them (they’re in stores now), but it's cheaper to buy a yearly subscription.
Now to the good stuff.  Last week Amber Airplane and I left you in beautiful Palm Springs.  I mentioned last week that I thought taking two different cars to Palm Springs was a mistake, but it ended up to be plus. The reason is because my cousins AJ and Jamie had to rush back to L.A. for a party. That would have meant Amber Airplane not getting her shopping fix, and me breaking my promise of not stopping by one of the best outlet shops in America.  Thankfully, we did go to the shops; otherwise I would’ve been in big trouble.  The shops are about a dozen miles from Palm Springs. What a pain it would've been to go back to shop, like Amber Airplane would have made me.  

We showed up at the outlet at 6 p.m.  Most stores close at 8, so two hours seemed plenty of time.  Wrong!  Amber Airplane didn't think it was enough.  That girl can shop!  She was like a kid in a candy store. Make that 100 stores, from Gucci to KB Toys.  But it turned out the only store Amber Airplane really wanted to go to was the only one that closes two hours earlier than all the others:  Crate and Barrel. She was bummed (that’s putting it mildly), but I pointed out she had 99 other stores to make her happy -- and they did.  But that’s all I’m going to say.  I’m not going into detail about the shops for two reasons:  One, it's not my cup of tea, and two, Amber Airplane will write about it in her own newsletter that should be out in a couple of weeks.  (Make sure you sign up for Amber's free newsletter-- you don't want to miss her tips and stories.)  

A few days after returning from Palm Springs we hopped back in the car and drove exactly the same distance: 120 miles in two hours. The difference was, this time we  drove south, not east.  We went down to San Diego for an interview on WorldTalkRadio.  It's always nice to do an in-studio interview because you can "read" the DJ a lot easier (you know when to elaborate or, more likely, shut up).  Another special thing was this marked the first time Amber Airplane and I did an in-studio interview together. 
We were on a travel show called The Travel Hub, which can be found on World Talk Radio and/or SignOnSanDiego on Thursdays from 6-8 p.m (Pacific Standard Time).  The hosts are Jeff and Rochelle, whom I had only talked to over the phone.  I call in to the show every three weeks, for a segment called "Webstop.” I give some cool and/or helpful travel websites, and describe where I have been traveling.  It turned out that their studio was very comfortable, and Jeff and Rochelle were so cool and laid back that they put any nerves of Amber's to ease.  I knew Amber Airplane was going to be great, but I didn't know she was going to be fantastic.  Of course I am biased, but you can judge for yourself by tuning in to their archive. Listen to our show by clicking this link.  In fact, Amber Airplane was so good that they all praised her and offered her her own monthly segment on traveling tips for women.  How exciting is that? 

After the show Jeff took Rochelle, Amber and me to dinner.  He said we were going to the Studio Diner, so I figured he meant a restaurant in their studio. Wrong!  I was pleasantly surprised that it was a cool ‘ 50s diner a mile down the road.  Although it looked like a retro diner from the outside, the inside was decked out in brand spanking new furnishings and technology (a big screen plasma TV).  We sat at a corner table, and ate all kinds of good food.  The best was Rochelle's black cow milkshake; the worst was my Monte Cristo. It actually wasn't that bad; it was just deep fried and way too rich for me, especially after drinking half of Rochelle's Black Cow.  However, I did bring the Monte Cristo home, and Amber Airplane and I ate it for breakfast the next morning. It was good!  Studio Diner, 4701 Ruffin Rd., San Diego, CA; tel.: 858-715-6400.

We did not spend the night in San Diego. Instead we drove home and worked.  Then, after a week at home catching up, it was time to pack the bags again. 

This week we flew 1,220 miles away. Any idea? If you guessed Puerto Vallarta, Mexico (airport code PVR), you’re right! The locals call Puerto Vallarta just Vallarta. It’s located on the coast, smack in the middle of Mexico, and is the start of the “Mexican Riviera.”  I must admit, I didn't know jack about Mexico until this trip. The only places I had been before were Cabo San Lucas, Ensenada, Rosarita and Tijuana.  As you can see from the map they are all located in Baja California, so I don't really consider them Mexico (neither did the Mexican guy I sat next to on the plane).   
We were invited to Vallarta on a press trip by Aeromexico and the Presidente InterContinental, so that’s the airline and hotel we used. I went down a day earlier than Amber Airplane, because she had to attend the VH1 Big Awards at Universal City (airdate: November 30). 

I had never flown Aeromexico, so I was excited. I’m always excited to fly a new carrier, unless it's some notoriously bad airline and/or has props, not jets. My flight was at 10:35 a.m., and I was pleasantly surprised that the check-in was very smooth.  I arrived at 9, and there was no one in front of me.  It was a full flight, too.  I have no idea how they accomplished this, but I was later told by one of their executives that their goal is to take the stress out of flying.  Therefore, you rarely see more than three people in line, and flights almost always on time.  I also learned they have the best on-time performance rate in the world (97 percent) for the past 10 years (based on Mexican Civil Aviation Authorities records).

Interestingly, my flight was late - but Aeromexico deserves a bit of credit for that too. They were nice enough to hold the plane for some connecting passengers arriving from Salt Lake City on a late Delta flight. So instead of taking off on time and ruining those people's vacations (the next flight to Puerto Vallarta was for 14 hours later), they waited 20 minutes and put a dent into their on-time performance.

Aeromexico's gates are located in terminal 5 in LAX (that's Delta's terminal, with some SkyTeam partners such as Aeromexico).  I was sitting by Gate 53, just staring up at their informative  screens, when I heard my name paged.  I thought it could be good news (“Here’s an upgrade!”) or bad (“We need to bump you”).  Luckily, the agent was smiling, so I knew it was good.  I went from 24D to 1C in the matter of minutes.  Hello!  

The flight down was smooth and  scenic.  We flew along the Baja California peninsula, then crossed the Gulf of California to mainland Mexico.   I sat next to a really cool Mexican man named Gustavo, who is the sales manager of Melia hotels.  We had a lot of laughs, and Gustavo told me all about Vallarta.  

The food in first class was good, as was the food in coach.  How do I know? Well, they served me this  tray that had a crisp salad with a very tasty lemon vinaigrette, tiramisu, a mint chocolate, the best bread and a salmon sandwich.  But I don't eat salmon, so the flight attendant was kind enough to bring me the coach ham and cheese croissant. (I wonder who got my first class meal instead.)

The only thing weird about the flight was when the pilot came out and went to the bathroom without a flight attendant blocking the cockpit door with a food cart.  On U.S. carriers that would never happen.  I later found out this is common: Mexican captains are confident nothing will happen to them, because they are a neutral country.  It was kind of nice feeling like I was flying in pre-9/11 days, but after I thought about it I realized it was kind of crazy. You never know what psychos are out there.  The good thing is that I was sitting in the first row, and had my seat belt unbuckled just in case someone tried to do something stupid.

Landing in PV (Puerto Vallarta) reminded me of landing in Maui, Hawaii.  We were surrounded by tall, lush mountains and an emerald green-blue ocean. When we got lower we saw farmland and palm trees. It was beautiful. When we got off the plane walked down through the terminal to customs, we were separated from the gate area by only a three-foot fence. Customs was quick, and my bag was out within two minutes.  Gotta love that!  To clear customs you have to press a button connected to a street light looking sign.  However, there were only two colors: red and green.  If red comes up (it’s completely random), your bags will be inspected. Luckily, I got the green light. Yeah baby!

Transportation had been arranged for me, so my driver (and everyone else's) stood just outside of baggage claim, yelling and holding signs.  Taxis are cheap in Vallarta -- except from the airport.  The government has some kind of racket on taxis leaving the airport.  If you want one of those taxis just go to the taxi window and prepay for your taxi.  Prices are all by zone, not meter (so when you hail a taxi from the street always ask how much before you get in -- and ask if that's in pesos or dollars).  After getting your receipt for a taxi at the airport, just go outside and a dispatcher will tell you which taxi to take. The trip to my hotel from the airport was 250 pesos ($25), but going back the airport from the same hotel was only 90 pesos ($9).

Here's a great tip to beat the government-run airport taxis (which unfortunately I didn't learn until it was too late). If you don't have a lot of bags, walk straight out of baggage claim and exit the building. Take a left, go up the stairs and walk across the  overpass to the other side of the street. There you will find yellow taxis lined up for one-third of the price.

You don't have to tip taxi drivers, but you should tip service people (bellmen $1 a bag, waiters 10-20 percent).  You can use pesos or American dollars in Vallarta, but you get only pesos as change. One U.S. dollar equals  11 pesos, but all the stores give only 10 pesos for every dollar.  The bad news is you lose a little, but the good news is it's much easier to calculate. If you want the best exchange rate, use an ATM (they’re common throughout Vallarta).  Check with your bank before leaving the U.S. to see what kind of service charge they bill you.

Now it's time to help Amber Airplane cook the turkey, so I’ll say “adios, amigos.” If you are traveling this week (which I’m sure you are – everyone else is), I hope you have a safe and happy Thanksgiving!

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  • I just got home from work, read your Palm Springs story and feel tons better now.  I wish there was a camera on my face while I read about your trips Johnny.  You always put a smile on my face and make me feel that I am right there with you guys!  It's as if you're talking to me.  Keep up the good work!  L - Los Angeles
  • Just wanted to thank the two of your for coming on the show.  By far the most enjoyable show to date.  You two are fantastic and we would love to have you on the show again.  Thanks again.   Cheers, Rochelle
  • Terrific Site! I heard about you in BudgetTravel Magazine Dec/Jan 2004 Issue in "2004 Address Book"  Lou Jordan
  • Hello Johnny, Great newsletter. I'm with you on the complexity of the BART payment system. They need to take some lessons from Boston and Chicago. Mark - Geneva, Illinois
  • We've started to receive a number of requests for a sample copy of TravelSmart Newsletter -- with people saying they learned about us from your site. You must have many loyal followers. Nancy  - New York
  • Nice visit with those guys [in Palm Springs].  Very impressive people.. well done Johnnyboy!  Frank - Connecticut
  • I love reading your newsletter. Congratulations on your engagement to Amber Airplane.  Regarding your Palm Springs article, you mentioned that you and your hosts were playing Scategories, and you couldn't think of "Things that Bounce that Start With an A." Well, neither can I. I have asked hundreds of people (okay, maybe it was 10 people) if they can think of anything, but we can't. I don't see where "apple" was a bad answer. Please tell me what the others answered to that question, if they were so smart. It's killing me!!!  Dale from Long Island, NY.  REPLY:  What's funny is that I couldn't remember what they said either when I was writing the newsletter.  It was killing me too.  All I could think of was "Apple".  I just asked Amber Airplane and smarty pants said "I don't remember either".  I'll email the others now.

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Enjoyed a wonderful dinner with my parents and brother in SF last night at Gary Danko. It's their favorite place in SF - the service makes you feel like royalty and the food is exquisite: ahi tuna starters, roast duck entrees, ceasar-style salads and fabulous wine. A night to remember. Michael - San Francisco

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