16 04 2006

I’ve said my piece on hotel room pricing (1 and 2)and car rentals, but there’s two other things that get me about pricing in the US:

  1. Exclusive pricing
  2. Wine pricing

By “exclusive pricing” I mean the way that almost all US establishments charge you MORE than the ticketed price, which means you pay way more than you expect to. This includes supermarkets, restaurants, and of course hotel rooms and car rentals.

Everything includes a ‘little extra’ for taxes and other charges of various sorts and values. In Australia, we have to ticket the ‘inclusive’ price. So if an item has taxes applied to it, those taxes are included in the price to the consumer and so ‘what you see is what you pay’. The tax component is a separate line item on the bill, but it is part of the ticketed price. If you go to a restaurant in Australia and the menu item is $14.95, then $14.95 is what you’ll pay.

Wine pricing is in another realm altogether, and our current and previous experiences in the US would indicate that we get absolutely ripped off at home. Let me explain… There’s an Australian wine that we like (Penfolds Bin 389), but which we rarely buy except for special occasions because it’s not a cheap wine by any stretch of the imagination. Over the years the price has climbed steadily and last I looked it was hovering around the $40 mark in a discount bottle shop.

Now, in previous years we have purchased this same bottle of wine, same vintage etc. in discount stores (like Costco) in the US – for less than we pay in Australia!

Yesterday we went for a drive from Manistee, Michigan to the Mackinac Bridge in the far north of the ‘mitten’. We drove through some gorgeous little towns and villages, and were about as far away from Australia as you can get. One of the dots on the map we drove through was a village called Alanson, and as we went through I saw a sign on the outside of the liquor store that advertised Penfolds Thomas Hyland Chardonnay at $8.98 (US). The Thomas Hyland range is not bad and that was a good price, so we decided to stop there on the way back and see if they had any Shiraz or Cabernet in that range.

They didn’t have any Thomas Hyland reds, but they DID have a couple of Bin 389s and some Bin 407s and some other Penfolds reds. So obviously we looked at the price of the Bin 389 and found that it was ticketed at $21.52 US, which roughly translated to around $30 Australian! We bought two bottles TO TAKE HOME TO AUSTRALIA with us because there is no way we can buy it that cheap there.

I talked to the store owner and he said he marked up his buying price by 25%, which means he bought it for about $15 US, which means that it probably landed in the US for between $5 and $10 a bottle after you take into account all the middlemen. And this wasn’t a mistake for a couple of bottles lurking in the back room – this was the current (2001) vintage and he’d only priced it recently.

I decided to check one of the Australian discount liquor stores online this morning – Vintage Cellars have the Bin 389 2001 vintage out for $49.99 AU a bottle!!! That’s $36.42 US according to And they have the Thomas Hyland Chardonnay out for $22.99 AU a bottle – $16.75 US. Meantime, this guy is selling Thomas Hyland for less than $9 US a bottle, and Bin 389 for less than $22 US a bottle.

This is not an isolated instance – we’ve encountered it before. What I want to know is WHY an Australian living in Australia has to pay much more for Australian wine, than someone living in Alanson, Michigan, or Monterey, California, or wherever… It’s nothing but a blatant rip-off by our wine companies and over-taxing government.

Easter in Michigan

14 04 2006

We arrived in Chicago last night to balmy 70+ degree weather; despite the prediction of overnight thunderstorms it's expected to be over 80 here today. This morning it is fine, clear, and very sunny. Today we're driving from Chicago to Manistee, south of Traverse City, Michigan and with the weather as it is, we're really looking forward to the drive. We'll spend a couple of days with my cousin and her family in Manistee, then go to her parents' place in central Michigan (just north of Lansing). So Easter will be spent with family in Michigan.

More about hotel value

14 04 2006

Last night we stayed in an ExtendedStay America room near O'Hare Airport in Chicago, so it was always going to be more expensive than hotels further out.

Normal price – less than $80 US for the room (bit less with a discount). So it was half the price of the Wyndham Resort in Palm Springs. Did we get half the value? No way! In fact, we got WAY more than expected.

Let's look at what we didn't get – no pretty boxed shampoos and conditioners (though soap is provided), no hairdryer, no extra pillow and blanket… and that's about it. What we did get at ExtendedStay that we didn't get at the Wyndham included:

  • tapware and drainage in the bath/shower than worked properly
  • a mini-kitchen with sink, fullsize fridge, microwave, 2-burner stove top, crockery and cutlery for two people, basic cooking utensils, toaster
  • two desks
  • a TV with better reception and choice of channels
  • an airconditioner whose temperature we could control (unlike the Wyndham where there was no control over the temperature if you wanted it less than 69 degrees)

More evidence of the rip-off nature of the larger hotels. Oh, and did I mention that the Wyndham applied FOUR taxes to each night's stay? These taxes (including a spurious and questioned "resort fee" of $8 a night) added another $30 plus to the bill – for each night. That's nearly the total amount we paid for that Motel 6 room back at Paso Robles! 

Am I p***ed off? You bet!

MP3 books

14 04 2006

I purchased an 30GB MP3/data storage device while I was in California (MUCH cheaper than Australian prices, even with exchange rate differences) and spent a blissful 3+ hours flying from LA to Chicago listening to the dulcet tones of Bill Bryson reading from his own books. I'm not really that into music, but the thought of talking books for such situations is pretty attractive. I don't have to have the light on in a darkened plane to read, yet get the benefit of the book anyway. Now I have to find out how I can stop chuckling in the funny parts without disturbing the person sitting next to me! That 15 hour flight back to Australia is not looking quite as daunting as before.

Aussie Aussie Aussie! Oi! Oi! Oi!

12 04 2006

The cry rang out and the pseudo and real Aussies (four of us out of nearly 50) gathered by the pool at the Wyndham and availed ourselves of the free drinks from MadCap Software… which is what any good Aussie does! Aussie animal stickers and tattoos were attached to various parts of people's anatomy and clothing, and Vegemite was refused by those who'd tasted it before and eagerly snatched up by those who hadn't – boy! are they in for a surprise or what?

After cleaning out the bar of the freebies (as all good Aussies do), we headed in to the balmy Palm Springs night and found ourselves in the Los Casitas (sp?) Mexican restaurant just up the road. Pitchers of margaritas were swiftly brought to the tables to quench our thirst (it was a long walk… NOT!), along with corn chips and salsa. Not long after, some quesadillas found their way on to the tables too, and later some prawn (real Aussies don't call them "shrimp"), chicken and beef fajitas. And all along the other people in the restaurant (poor souls!) found themselves subjected to the rousing chorus of "Aussie Aussie Aussie! Oi Oi Oi!"… often!

After sorting out the bill (whatever it was + 17% gratuity divided by 45 people), we stalked into the night and crossed the road to the "Lost Highway" karaoke bar. More drinks were consumed, more rousing shouts went up… And some of us who really do want to attend the Wednesday sessions, slipped quietly in to the night and to bed.

Others – perhaps not so dedicated… or perhaps just drunk – kicked on. At least one person didn't return until 2:15am, just a little the worse for wear (you know who you are!). We'll see today who is hoarse and who's not there!

WritersUA Conference

12 04 2006

Today is the last day of this great conference! I did my presentation on Monday and the verbal feedback was very positive. Two big news items out of the conference: Adobe have announced they’ll release a new version of Robohelp early in 2007, so RoboHelp has had some life breathed back into it; and my good friend Char has been elected Secretary of STC for the next 2 years.

Conference sessions have – for the most part – been interesting and enervating. And the social activities have been terrific as they usually are when you get terrific people together!

Soon it will all be over for another year and I’ll have to say goodbye to some wonderful friends and colleagues. Thank goodness for email and IM’ing!


Conquering fears

10 04 2006

Well, yesterday (Sunday) was a BIG day for me. For years I have not been able to get on such things as ski chairlifts, let alone cable cars. But yesterday I actually got on the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway and took it to the top without collapsing in a screaming heap! Of course, having good friends and my partner with me helped a lot, and there were times when it was a little scary and I closed my eyes (like each time we went through one of the pylon stations and the car got a bit of a sway up).

But I did it! And enjoyed it – probably because the views were absolutely fantastic and the weather was brilliant and there was no wind. It was a great ride and I highly recommend it. Not bad from someone who's usually pretty phobic about these sorts of things!

Palm Springs Aerial Tramway


Comparing hotels

10 04 2006

On Saturday night, we stayed at the Marquis Villas in Palm Springs. HUGE! Full size kitchen with all amenities, 1 bedroom with 2 double beds, a large living/dining room with a double sofa bed, 2 bathrooms (one was massive), walk-in robes and lots of storage space, a wide balcony, and a great view of the mountains. Definitely a great choice for 5 people and all their stuff – good one, Sue!

On Sunday we moved into the conference hotel – the Wyndham Resort, Palm Springs. Well, how do you compare these two places? On price, the Marquis Villas was more expensive ($225 for the one night… but we split that between 5 people so that was very affordable), but the Wyndham at $159 a night (conference rate) is very pricey for what you get… or, more to the point, don’t get. No fridge (you have to collect ice from way down the hallway) or mini bar (not that I ever get anything from the mini bar); two double beds that are really slightly oversized singles and couldn’t fit two normal sized people; high-speed internet access (but only if you have wireless; dial-up is still dial-up and slow); car parking out in the open at $5 per day (the Villas had free underground secure parking); a bathroom that looks tired and has a shower faucet that takes some fiddling to get right, with a showerhead that spits water at you and a drain that doesn’t drain properly, and a vanity area that fits two toilet bags at a pinch with no room for anything else. The Marquis Villas beats it hands down. And to be honest, for the level of facilities, I think that the Motel 6 in Paso Robles was better value for money at $42 a night. The facilities in the room at the Wyndham offer very little more than we got at that Motel 6… for more than three times the price. And remember, we’re getting the conference rate, not the standard rate.

California country

10 04 2006

The drive from Paso Robles to Palm Springs takes in two of my favourite areas of California. The rolling green hills (at least at this time of the year!) of the country in and around Paso, and the Mojave Desert. Yes, California has some wonderful countryside and scenery (Yosemite, Big Sur, gold country), but these are perhaps two areas that aren’t on the tourist trail. The hills of Paso reminded me a lot of the Bridgetown area in south west Western Australia. Similar climate and landscape, but Bridgetown doesn’t have earthquakes!

It took about 6 hours to drive to Palm Springs from Paso. We took a minor detour off Highway 58 into Mojave itself to have lunch at a place we’ve stopped at quite a few times now. Primo Burgers (near the aeroplane ‘graveyard’) make a fine burger… and it’s cheap too!

Past few days…

10 04 2006

[written Saturday morning; not posted until Monday]

Well, we’ve been in California a week now. The first few days we stayed with my uncle (well, cousin x times removed, but as Bill’s 82, I call him my uncle out of respect) in Corona Del Mar near Newport Beach. The weather was pretty miserable – rained most days, cool and cloudy the rest. So much for “It never rains in Southern California”! I was able to get a 30GB MP3 player (Creative Zen) and have loaded up some talking books by Bill Bryson onto it. So far I’ve listened to a few chapters of “I’m a stranger here myself” – his experience with the car rental agency almost mirrored ours… hilarious!

The last two nights we’ve been in Paso Robles, California (wine country north of LA; just north of where the movie “Sideways” was filmed and located). Our friends there – John and Suzie – have moved into a new house from their 23 acre property outside town. The new place is much closer to town, and on an acre. We had a superb dinner with them both nights – Suzie’s a GREAT cook – and there’s always good wine and lots of laughs. And last night we were joined by the new owners of their old place – Lewis (sp?) and Kate from Boston. Lovely couple. John opened one of his very special wines – a 1981 Smith & Hook. It was brilliant! Yesterday we went with Suzie and looked at a new house in Paso Robles up for raffle – neat cellar! Then called in on Jon and Mary who have a vineyard in the hills near Paso. It was good to see them again; poor Jon was having to deal with some plumbing issues under the house!

Today we drive to Palm Springs from Paso Robles and will have an interesting evening sharing a room with three others! Getting a one night bed in Palm Springs on a weekend is almost impossible so Sue (from San Diego) has organised a 2x Queen bed villa unit for us, with a rollaway. So there’ll be five of us – two from the San Diego area (Sue and Dave), one from Boston (Char) and us two from Perth. Lucky we’ll all know each other pretty well! On Sunday we move to our respective rooms at the conference venue – the Wyndham Resort – so we’ll be able to spread out a little more.