Taste of travel part 2: Cheers to brewery tours

When traveling, I try to taste as many local delicacies (I use that word loosely) as possible to get a real taste for a place and its culture.

Last week, I blogged here about trying iconic Scottish soft drink Irn‪ in its original form. It wasn’t for me, but I had to taste it to find out.

The frothy craft beer and distillery movements across the country and globally make it easier to find local products — made with locally grown hops, berries, flowers, and more. It’s all about supply and demand. For every $100, Americans spend $1 on alcoholic beverages, according to government data.

Travel mixed with beverage tours — whether it’s beer, wine or liquor — have become popular across the country and worldwide. Many breweries — big or small, mainstream or craft — offer free tours and samples. 

day-1-kitsch-at-lakefront-brewery
You only get to see this at Lakefront Brewery in Milwaukee, Wis., if you visit. (Photo by Sheryl Jean)

Here’s a flight of breweries to consider:

Old and new: Milwaukee is a city rich in beer history (Blatz, Miller, Pabst and Schmitz), but it’s also big in craft beer. (See photo above and at top.) Read my article about some of Milwaukee’s craft breweries that was published in The Dallas Morning News.

Boulevard Brewing Co
The guided tour at Boulevard Brewing Co. in Kansas City, Mo., lasts an hour. (Photo by Sheryl Jean)

Fun learning: Boulevard Brewing Co. in Kansas City, Mo., is a bit unusual in that it starts its free 1-hour tour with a small sample of its original pale ale. It also does an excellent education job: exhibits tell you about the history of beer in Mesopotamia as well as its owns product, which dates to 1989. My tour guide, Kelsi Pile, noted that 75 percent of Boulevard beer is sold locally. She also mentioned that Boulevard made 19 beers before it was bought by Belgian-owned Duvel Moortgat Brewery in 2013; now it brews 41 varieties. Boulevard also has a large beer hall, gift shop and hosts events, such as trivia and bingo nights.

Boulevard beer hall
The beer hall at Boulevard Brewing is reminiscent of the ones in Munich, Germany. (Photo by Sheryl Jean)


Brewery Goliath: Coors beer has been around since 1873. I’ve been on a tour of the Coors Brewery in Golden, Colo., which claims to be the world’s largest single-site brewery. On its 30-minute tour, you’ll learn how Coors beer is brewed and packaged and then try free beer samples in its “Hospitality Lounge.”

Go overseas: For a taste of something different, head to Cantillon Brewery in Brussels, Belgium. This small, family owned brewery has made Lambic, Gueuze, Faro and Kriek beer using the same tools and brewing process since 1900. If you like the sour beer trend, then you’ll love Cantillon. Lambic beer is fermented using wild yeasts and bacteria native to the Zenne valley. Gueuze, a blend of lambics produced during different years, has a slightly acidic, fruity taste. Kriek is a blend of lambics and sour cherries. Cantillon also blends lambics with grapes, raspberries, apricots, hops, elderberry flowers and rhubarb. Tours are not free, but include a tasting.

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Taste of travel: Irn-Bru reduces sugar and loses some local cred

What would fictional Scottish copper John Rebus think of the reformulated Scottish soda Irn-Bru — known as the “other national drink” of Scotland — with less sugar? Och!

The British government just slapped a new tax on sugar to help fight rising obesity rates. The United Kingdom — just like the United States — has a big obesity problem.

In Scotland, not everyone is happy with the change to its sugar-laden national treasure.

On a visit last fall to Scotland, I tried Irn-Bru (pronounced ‘Iron Brew’) under the original recipe. It tasted just like bubble gum, but it also was too sweet for me. My traveling companion, however, loved it.

The taste of travel

Trying local foods and drinks of other cities and countries is a one of the great joys of travel. It’s part of the experience of learning about different cultures and how people live. Many people plan trips around wine tasting, beer tours or top French restaurants.

In addition to Irn-Bru, I’ve drank fresh coconut milk from a coconut in Hawaii, tea made from plants grown on a nearby hillside in Taiwan and a hot ginger-lemon concoction that cured my ills in New Zealand.

Visitors to the United States may want to try a Slurpee, Dr Pepper soda or eggnog. They also may find that chili in Cincinnati is very different than in Texas.

In March, the maker of Irn-Bru cut sugar in the drink by more than half (to 4.7 grams per 100 milliliters) to avoid the new tax and a price hike. The reduction of sugar and the addition of the sweetener Aspartame lowered the calories in each can of soda — to about 65 from just below 140.

The UK’s obesity rates have soared so that it’s now the most overweight nation in Western Europe, according to a report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). About 27 percent of UK adults are obese.

The legend of Irn-Bru

Americans may not be too familiar with Irn-Bru, which dates to at least 1901, even though it’s exported to the United States.

Barr's Irn Bru on Falkirk Town Heritage Trail
The Town Heritage Trail in Falkirk, Scotland, features this plaque. Falkirk is the birthplace of A.G. Barr, the maker of Irn-Bru. (Mark Begbie, Wikimedia Commons)
In Scotland, Irn-Bru is so popular that it’s called the “other national drink,” after Scotch, and it frequently pops up in popular Scottish writer Ian Rankin’s crime series featuring Detective Inspector John Rebus. In the books, Rebus swears Irn-Bru is the best cure for a hangover and drinks copious amounts of it.

In addition to its unique taste and high sugar content, Irn-Bru stands out for its bright orange color, its vibrant orange-and-blue labels and oft-controversial advertisements. (See my photo at top.)

Scottish Irn-Bru fans reportedly are scouring shops for the full-sugar version and stockpiling it. Some fans have made their outrage public: Ryan Allen of Ayr, Scotland, started the Hands Off Our Irn-Bru campaign, a petition to save the traditional recipe and Stephen McLeod of Glasgow started the Save Real Irn-Bru campaign to protect the nation’s iconic drink.

Will people warm to the new recipe? Perhaps.

For me, I probably should make another trip to Scotland for a taste comparison — for reporting purposes.

Are travel sites ripe for personalization?

Most people plan and book their travel online these days.

Last year, consumers booked nearly half of all U.S. travel online, and the online travel market is growing faster than the offline market, according to industry researcher Phocuswright.

Research firm eMarketer predicts that global digital travel sales will increase from $548 billion in 2016 to $855 billion by 2021.

Phocuswright's Mark Blutstein headshot
Mark Blutstein (Courtesy of Phocuswright)

It’s not all smooth sailing though. A new report from Phocuswright notes that consumers often complain that online travel shopping takes too long and they have to search too many different websites.

Phocuswright analyst Mark Blutstein notes that other websites — from e-tailers to Netflix —  have personalized and streamlined the process. These sites offer customers suggestions, such as movies or clothing they might like, based on current site activity, what’s in their cart and past searches or purchases. Why can’t travel sites?

Half of U.S. online travelers say they’d rather see fewer choices based on their interests than spend hours searching for the perfect option, according to Phocuswright.

The flip side of personalization, Blutstein reminds us, is that you have to share your personal data.

Many consumers are on high alert about data privacy these days. Social network Facebook recently garnered a lot of attention about the way it collects and stores users’ information following news that Cambridge Analytica, a company with links to President Donald Trump’s campaign, accessed the personal data of tens of millions of Facebook users to target them for political campaigns.

Travelers may be different — at least when it comes to some general information. Roughly half of travelers say they’re comfortable sharing their past or current travel brands and destinations with online travel sites if it helps provide a more personalized experience, according to Phocuswright.

 

The Point Bonita Lighthouse is worth the trek and the wait

California Journal

Being at the Point Bonita Lighthouse just north of San Francisco is like being at the end of the earth.

In a way, you are. It’s the western edge of the United States.

Point Bonita Lighthouse tunnel
Visitors must walk through this hand-hewn tunnel to reach the Point Bonita Lighthouse. (Sheryl Jean)

The 1885 lighthouse is still used today, so it’s open for only three hours a day three days a week: from 12:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. on Mondays, Saturdays and Sundays. Visiting it is like being let in on a secret.

The U.S. Coast Guard maintains the lighthouse, which is on on the Marin Headlands and part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The National Park Service provides access to visitors.

IMG_5175
After walking through a tunnel, and a narrow cliff-top path, visitors walk over this suspension bridge to reach the lighthouse. (Sheryl Jean)

Be prepared to walk a half mile to the site, through a rough rock tunnel (open only during visiting hours) and over a suspension bridge to the lighthouse, which sits on a small patch of land jutting into the Pacific Ocean. My National Park guide said it took 3.5 months to dig the tunnel by hand.

You’ll be rewarded with spectacular coastal views and seeing nature at its wildest and windiest best.

View from Point Bonita
This is the view looking North from the lighthouse. (Sheryl Jean)

How it works

The 1885 lighthouse was the third one built on the West Coast to help lead ships through dangerous water and thick fog. The original lighthouse was 300 feet above sea level, but fog often obscured the light. It moved to Point Bonita in 1877.

The Point Bonita Lighthouse can shine its beam 18 miles across the ocean in clear conditions using a Fresnel lens, which is based on ground glass prisms arranged in rings around a light source.

In dense fog, sound is used. First, there was a cannon, then a fog bell and a steam siren. Today, an electric fog horn emits two blasts every 30 seconds.

To reach the Point Bonita, visitors must to drive up and down a narrow, steep, twisting road through the Marin Headlands. Parking is limited. A free Marin Headlands Shuttle operates on weekends through September along Bunker Road, Field Road and Fort Baker, stopping at the lighthouse.

Point Bonita
Point Bonita (Google Maps)

Mount Umunhum in Silicon Valley offers stunning vistas

If you don’t equate California’s Silicon Valley with nature, then you’ll be in for quite a surprise at Mount Umunhum, one of the San Francisco Bay Area’s newest open spaces.

The 3,486-foot summit provides stunning panoramic views (see my photo above) of San Jose, Santa Clara Valley and the Bay Area’s three other highest peaks — Mount Diablo and Mount Tamalpais to the North and Mount Hamilton (the tallest) in the South Bay. It was a clear day, so I also could see San Pablo Bay to the North and the Pacific Ocean to the West.

Map of Mount Umunhum in San Jose
Mount Umunhum is in Santa Clara County, just south of San Jose. (Google Maps)

The Mount Umunhum (the ‘h’ is silent) summit and trails just opened to the public six months ago, but they’re already popular with Sunday drivers, hikers and bicyclists. Mountain bikers are allowed on most of the trails and you’ll see road bikers on the steep and winding, 12-mile paved road to the summit.

I didn’t know anything about Mount Umunhum, but learned that it’s steeped in history.

Originally, the Ohlone Indian tribe inhabited the area.  The name “umunhum” comes from the Ohlone word for hummingbird. At the summit, a Ceremonial Circle honors the site’s American Indian heritage.

Mount Umunhum also was part of California’s first legal mining claim — the nearby New Almaden Quicksilver mine.

From 1957 to 1980, the summit was home to the Almaden Air Force Station. The early warning radar station was one of 23 in California and hundreds across the nation during the Cold War era. The radar tower still stands at the summit, but it’s closed.

Mount Umunhum radar tower
The old Almaden Air Force Station radar tower at the summit is closed. (Sheryl Jean)

You can download an audio tour app to your smartphone to learn about the site’s history.

The Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District bought the 36-acre site in 1986 and received $3.2 million in federal funds to help clean it up. The Bay Area Ridge Trail Council and the California Coastal Conservancy also provided funds, and helped develop and restore trails.

Today, 3.7 miles of trails from the Bald mountain parking lot to the summit traverse stately, moss-covered Coast Live Oak trees (see photo below), Foothill Pine, Mountain Mahogany, Manzanita and Madrone. On a recent walk there, I could smell the spicy sent of California Bay trees.

Watch out for poison oak.

Moss-covered Coast Live Oak tree
Moss-covered Coast Live Oak trees dotting the 3.7 miles of trails at Mount Umunhum provide welcome color. (Sheryl Jean)

Spring brings more snow to the delight of skiers and snowboarders

It may be the first day of spring today, but there’s still plenty of that white, fluffy stuff around to make skiers and snowboarders giddy with excitement.

Snow from late winter storms has piled up in California’s Sierra Nevada mountain range, making for some excellent spring shredding.

After last week’s storms, many Sierra ski resorts have accumulated hundreds of inches of snow. Last week, Tahoe’s Sugar Bowl resort and Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows  received over 7 feet of snow at high altitude.

And there’s more snow coming to the mountains this week (rain at lower elevations).

Now is your chance to ski in the spring — and perhaps even into the summer. (See end.)

After a slow start to winter, this month’s unusually heavy snowfall in the Sierra mountains has spawned the label “March Miracle.” Tahoe Basin has received about half of its normal snowpack, up from 3 percent in January.

The National Weather Service expects another storm system to dump up to 4 feet of snow in the Sierra Nevada, possibly starting today through the weekend.

Playing hooky

If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, take off a mid-week day to hit the slopes. If you’re visiting from out of town, grab a rare chance to ski or snowboard in spring or summer.

The OntheSnow website lists the amount of snow at dozens of ski resorts in California. Many ski resorts also put their webcams online so you can see the weather, the snow pack and trail conditions in real time.

You can buy discounted lift tickets online to several Sierra ski resorts at Liftopia and REI. And many ski resorts offer specials to attract customers, especially on weekdays. For example, Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows is offering two free lift tickets for each midweek night you stay in its lodging.

If you don’t want the hassle of a long drive or dealing with tire chains and closed roads, consider taking a ski bus. The price of transportation on the Bay Area Ski Bus or the Sports Basement ski bus includes breakfast as well as snacks and après-ski drinks on the way home. Both buses leave early in the morning to account for the four-hour drive.

Sports Basement’s ski bus has schedule trips to Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows through March 31 for pick up at its San Francisco Bryant Street and Sunnyvale athletic stores. It costs $75. Discounted lift tickets and rental gear packages are available.

The Bay Area Ski Bus, operated by Recreation Connection Inc., will pick you up at one of six Bay area locations and take you to one of six Tahoe ski resorts through April 8. A ride costs $69 or $159 with lift tickets. Equipment rentals and lessons are available.

Skiing in June

So far, five Sierra ski resorts in California have extended this year’s season because of the mountains of snow, according to Liftopia. Here they are:

  • Mammoth Mountain in the southern Sierras will stay open at least through July 4.
  • Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows plans to remain open until June and reopen on July 4 for the first time since 2011.
  • Heavenly Resort, Northstar California and Sierra-at-Tahoe will stay open through April 23. Heavenly also will open for the weekend of April 28-30. Sierra-At-Tahoe will throw a customer appreciation day April 24, with the proceeds from $35 lift tickets going toward local youth recreation and education.

Credit for the featured photo at top: Skiiers at Heavenly Resort get a view of Lake Tahoe about half way down from the 10,000-foot summit. (Hilton via Wikimedia Commons)

How to make college tours fun

I recently found myself back at college, ferrying my niece around five California universities in five days.

UC Berkeley carillon
A former UC Berkeley student plays the carillon bells at the top of Sather Tower. (Photo by Sheryl Jean)

Yes, it’s that time of year — when parents and others take kids to visit schools they might want to attend.

Driving more than 1,200 miles, we didn’t have a lot of free time, but we managed to squeeze in a few unplanned diversions. Those activities helped balance the stress of a packed schedule, information overload and endless alphabet soup (GPAs, SATs, ACTs, FAFSA) with some fun and exercise. Here are some highlights with tips at the end on how to make your college visits fun for everyone:

University of California, Berkeley

We were an hour early for our scheduled tour, so we walked through campus. We stumbled upon Sather Tower (see featured photo at top) — also known as the Campanile for its resemblance to the Campanile di San Marco in Venice, Italy. Opened in 1914, the 307-foot tower is one of Cal’s most well-known symbols and can be seen from miles away. We were lucky it was noon, when one of the students plays the carillon, a set of bells at the top of the tower, using complicated-looking mechanism. The panoramic views from the top of the San Francisco Bay Area are a nice reward after climbing 38 steps from where the elevator drops you off.

Four Ice Cream Cones
The Manetti Shrem Museum on the University of California, Davis, campus is free. “Four Ice Cream Cones” is from the current exhibit of Wayne Thiebaud’s work. (Photo by Sheryl Jean)

University of California at Davis

After 90 minutes of walking around UC Davis, we stopped by the new Manetti Shrem Museum on the edge of campus adjacent to the university welcome center. The small gem, which opened in late 2016, is free. Its wonderful Wayne Thiebaud 1958-68 exhibit, which runs through May 13, focuses on the California artist’s colorful paintings of common objects, such as pies, delis and cans of paint. He teaches at UC Davis as professor emeritus.

We also took an easy stroll along the Putah Creek trail into the city of Davis for lunch, passing through a lovely Redwood tree grove. Most parts of the 267-acre Putah Creek Riparian Reserve through campus are open to the public.

Putah Creek trail
Walkers meander along Putah Creek trail near UC Davis. (Photo by Sheryl Jean)

California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo

After more than four hours of tours, we took a short hike up to the famous Poly “P,” one of the oldest hillside initials in the West, for impressive views of the entire campus, the city of San Luis Obispo, Bishop Peak and other hills. The dirt trail starts behind Parking Lot K. The 50-by-35-foot concrete P that overlooks campus today was built by the Delta Sigma Phi fraternity in 1957. The original, rock-and-lime letter was slightly smaller.

Cal Poly
You can hike up to the Cal Poly “P” that sits above campus. (Photo by Sheryl Jean)

The first mention of the P was in the Cal Poly student newspaper in 1919. The story goes that the letter emerged from an intense rivalry between the original California Polytechnic School and San Luis Obispo High School. The high school students arranged large stones in H letters on the nearby foothills; Cal Poly students changed the Hs to Ps; and so on. Students and school rally groups have lit the P before football games — first by bonfire and later by dragging a generator up the hill. They’ve replaced the P with a V for football victories and used the P to spell marriage proposals and other messages, such as GOP in 1964, POT in the 1970s and SPRINGSTEEN in the 1980s.

View of San Luis Obispo from Poly P
This is the view from the Poly “P,” looking toward Bishop Peak. (Photo by Sheryl Jean)

The next morning in San Luis Obispo, we rose before dawn to watch a SpaceX rocket streak into the sky with a flaming tail and expanding aura of gas on its way into orbit from the nearby Vandenberg Air Force base. The Falcon 9 rocket carried with Spain’s PAZ radar satellite and a pair of SpaceX prototype broadband satellites.

4 tips to make college tours fun

  • Eat on campus — either at one of the dining halls or a private eatery.
  • Stroll through the city or town closest to campus. Check out the shops. Stop for an ice cream or catch a movie.
  • If your child or family has a special interest, such as amusement parks, look ahead to see if there’s one along your route or not too far out of the way.
  • Stay overnight near the college at someone’s house through a home-booking website like Airbnb or HomeAway. You can see a neighborhood and your hosts may be a fountain of information about the school and region.
  • Sometimes it’s the small things that make a difference. While on the road, I initiated my niece to the joys of In-N-Out Burger, a giant California burrito and a Slurpee.

Map of colleges

Report: Don’t ignore baby boomers in favor of millennials when it comes to travel

Focusing on millennials means baby boomers become an oft overlooked, large slice of the U.S. travel pie, according to Phocuswright research analyst Mark Blutstein.

Although the 75.4 million millennials (people age 20-37) outnumber boomers, there are still 74.9 million boomers (age 54-72). Each year more boomers will retire, providing many of them with the time and money to travel.

Boomers also make up a larger share of the traveler population: about 30 percent of U.S. leisure travelers were boomers in 2016, up from 24 percent in 2015, according to Blutstein. That compares with overall U.S. leisure travel declining somewhat in the same period.

While millennial travelers are adventurous and seek authentic experiences, they’re price-sensitive and brand-agnostic, Blutstein says.

Boomers may take fewer leisure trips each year, but they take longer trips – often seven nights or more – and spend more money than millennials, Blutstein said. Boomers are the only age group that increased travel spending from 2015 to 2016.

Average travel spending (Phocuswritght)

Boomers expect to take four or five leisure trips this year, spending about $6,400 ― the same or more than in 2017, according to a national survey conducted by AARP.

About half of those survey respondents expect to travel within the United States, with Florida and California being the most popular destinations. The other half plan to travel domestically and internationally. Top choices for those going abroad are the Caribbean/Latin America and Europe.

In 2016, 30 million Americans traveled internationally for leisure, according to the International Trade Administration. Here are some characteristics about U.S. leisure travelers who visited another country that year:

  • The average age was 45.
  • 54 percent were women
  • 58 percent traveled alone
  • 91 percent were adults
  • 63 percent were on vacation and 32 percent visited family or friends
  • The top three international destinations were: Europe (36 percent); the Caribbean (25 percent); and Asia (18 percent).
  • The average trip cost $2,398 per person.
  • The average household income of travelers was $119,779.

6 travel trends to look for this year

Who doesn’t love to travel?

Each year, many of us add more destinations to our bucket list and new experiences we want as part of those trips. That’s partly why travel is up and expected to grow even faster this year, according to the US Travel Association. Another reason is the strong economy and high unemployment giving people the means to travel.

Here are six trends that may reshape the way we travel this year and beyond:

1. Unplug

More travelers want to refresh themselves and escape their busy lives. They’re prioritizing mental health over fun and thrills, according to the ATTA-Outside study.

This trend, however, varies by age, according to AARP. Nearly half of boomers say they travel to relax and rejuvenate or as a getaway from everyday life. But nearly three-quarters of millennials expect to bring work along on a trip.

I wrote an article about spa travel for the Chicago Tribune in late 2016. Spa spending has grown steadily over the last decade.

Japanese garden at Osmosis Day Spa Sanctuary
The Japanese garden at Osmosis Day Spa Sanctuary in Freestone, Calif., offers another way to relax and meditate. (Photo by Sheryl Jean)

2. Higher prices

That relaxation may come at a higher cost this year — a reflection of the stronger U.S. economy and growing travel demand, according to a report by Carlson Wagonlit Travel and the GBTA Foundation. They expect global airfares to rise 3.5 percent, hotel prices to increase 3.7 percent and ground transportation, such as taxis, trains and buses, to remain more or less flat.

“If 2017 was the rise of the airline carriers’ “basic economy/no frills” concept, 2018 will be the hotel industry’s big year for ancillary charges,” according to a report by American Express. More lodgings are charging higher rates for a refundable room and fees for services that used to be free, such as Wi-Fi service, holding luggage, parking, early departures or a room safe, it said.

This may affect older travelers more because Baby Boomers (people age 54-72) prefer to stay in hotels or motels for amenities such as the concierge and room service, according to AARP. Millennials (age 13-36) are more open to staying in private home rentals, citing better prices, more space and amenities like a kitchen or washer/dryer.

3. Travel restrictions

Cheap regional airfares, home rentals and social media hype has contributed to overtourism in many popular places worldwide. Italy’s Cinque Terre is trying to control large tour groups that visit the five small, hillside towns linked by a trail along the Ligurian coast. Peru’s Machu Picchu restricts the number of visitors and how and when they access its ruins. Norway has introduced safety digital marketing to help deal with increased tourism and rescue calls.

The ATTA expects more places to restrict visitor access as governments and local residents protest the impact of overtourism on historical sites, pollution, traffic and the cost of living.

4. Customized travel

More people traveling to more places means there are fewer hidden gems and untrammeled areas. Research by Deloitte and the ATTA show that more travelers want personalized itineraries in their quest to experience something truly different.

5. Go local

Travelers also want more authentic interactions with local residents and communities, according to a study by the ATTA, East Carolina University and Outside magazine. This may include immersive experiences, such as staying overnight in a villager’s home or visiting a farm to learn about their sustainability efforts.

AARP found similar trends among international travelers: 49 percent want to “tour with a local” vs. 40 percent in 2017.

Bike and donkey in New Zeland
Personalized travel, such as a multi-day bicycle tour in New Zealand, lets you get closer to local people and animals. (Photo by Sheryl Jean)

6. Virtual travel

Simulated travel experiences based on virtual and augmented reality technology provide access for people who can’t travel, enhance travel with behind-the-scene looks at damaged or hard-to-reach sites and create new marketing opportunities, according to the ATTA. Discovery Communications’ Discovery TRVLR project takes people to the seven continents using VR headsets. Go Under the Canopy takes people into the Amazon rainforest in an educational VR tour by Conservation International and Jaunt. You can take an interactive kayak tour of the Grand Canyon with Immersive Entertainment.

Virtual travel still can’t replace the real thing.

More Alaska Airlines changes are on the horizon

Alaska Airlines today will end its year-old daily flight between Los Angeles and Cuba due to low demand and changes in the Trump administration’s policy toward Cuba.

It’s just one of many changes occurring since Alaska merged with Virgin America in December 2016 and have been gradually integrating their operations, staff and policies. Earlier this month, Alaska received a single operating certificate from the Federal Aviation Administration for it and Virgin America to fly as one airline, which will enable some of the biggest changes.

Here are some examples of what Alaska has in store this year and beyond:

  • Paint the first Airbus plane in Alaska’s colors this month.
  • Add high-speed, satellite Wi-Fi to its entire fleet of Boeing and Airbus aircraft starting in March.
  • Upgrade its in-flight menus by adding fresh meal options in the First Class and Main cabins, and West Coast-inspired beer and wine choices.
  • Install blue mood lighting on more Boeing planes. Virgin America is famous for its cabin “mood lighting,” which changes color and brightness throughout a flight depending on the time of day and conditions outside the plane. The largely pink and purple hues were supposed to create a calm environment.
Alaska Airlines' blue mood lighting
Alaska Airlines said it plans to add blue lighting to more planes vs. the primarily pink and purple mood lighting that was popular on Virgin American planes. (Courtesy of Alaska Airlines)
  • Install new modern interiors in all Airbus planes, such as new seats, carpeting and lighting.  Alaska will increase the number of First Class seats and introduce Premium Class seats.
  • Locate an Airbus operations control center with one for Boeing aircraft at its Seattle-based flight operations center in March.
  • Offer travelers one mobile app, website and airport check-in counter when Alaska moves to a single reservations system in late April. For now, customers will continue to use separate Alaska and Virgin America platforms.
  • Update and expand airport lounges, including a new New York JFK lounge in April and a flagship lounge at Seattle next year.
  • See new uniforms designed by Seattle designer Luly Yang in 2019. Flight and ground crews will start testing new uniforms soon.
Since late 2016, travelers already have seen Alaska make the following changes: merge Virgin America’s loyalty program with the Alaska Mileage Plan; end Virgin America’s credit card program to focus on Alaska’s credit card; and update its no-show policy.

The featured photo at top is by Artur Bergman via Flickr under Creative Commons license.